New Game Weekend: Wilderness War

WWbox

I wound up spending a fair amount of time this past year touring sites related to the French and Indian War period while feeding my gamer’s appetite for the Seven Years War period with A Few Acres of Snow. With a little research and talking with some of the members at Metropolitan Wargamers, I decided I needed to go bigger and dive into a game focused on the French and Indian War. All trails led to GMT’s Wilderness War, and I had a chance to play my first game this past weekend.

Published in 2001, Wilderness War is a game that causes a lot of the gamers I know to glaze over with wide grins. The game is designed by Volko Ruhnke and uses a card-driven mechanic much like his COIN games series also published by GMT. I have a few games of the Runke-designed Cuba Libre and Fire In The Lake under my belt, so I knew that a French and Indian War game from him was certain to be a mix of relatively simple rules wrapped up in a rich historic board game experience.

WWboard

Wilderness War game board

The gorgeous map – hardbound in the latest edition – presents the Northeastern colonial areas of North America in the mid 18th-century. As with the war itself, the game is largely defined by geography. “Cultivated” (ie settled) areas are indicated with boxes, and “wilderness” areas and Indian settlements are printed as circles. Mountainous areas are also depicted with chains spreading through western and central Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley region and portions of central New England. Connecting these areas are roads or trails and the more important waterways which served as the superhighways of the period. Many of the larger cultivated settlements begin with heavy fortresses protecting the space, while the game set up places a series of French and British forts and stockades throughout the map.

wwchips

Sample Wilderness War game counters

Game components consist primarily of 70 cards and 271 cardboard counters. The counters generally depict movement and combat ratings, with reduced values on the flip side once a unit takes damage in battle, during a wintering period or from an event card. Command markers also carry tactics numbers, which help during combat, and a command value. Cards allow activation of units equal to the number printed or by command rating. Special events may also be played for British (red), French (blue) or either side (red/blue), and cards with a brown-red band are events which may be played at any point during either side’s actions.

wwcards

Sample Wilderness War cards

The game plays with year-long turns each containing an early and late season, each approximating about six months of time. In each season, players begin by being dealt eight cards apiece. Later events and actions may modify a player’s hand size, but in general the French and British player then take turns playing cards to move forces, engage in battle, construct defenses or play out events as depicted on the cards. With some pre-planning, each season moves relatively swiftly toward the conclusion of a year of war. At the end of each year, victory points are tallied and units are checked to see if they suffer losses during the winter period between each yearly season of fighting.

Wilderness War comes with a playbook outlining several small to mid-sized games featuring particular periods in the war or a set-up for the entire war from 1755 to 1762. For my first game, we jumped in with both feet and started from the outset of the war  with me playing as the British and my experienced opponent using the French. The French begin the game with a small force stretched across the Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and western Pennsylvania regions. British forces start poised on three fronts along the Hudson River, stretching west toward the eastern tip of Lake Ontario at Oswego and just south of western Pennsylvania. The French are buoyed with their strong alliances with several Indian nations while the British hold enormous access to colonial, regular British troops and numerous commanding officers waiting to be called into service.

Using the swift wilderness movement and  raiding capabilities in the 1755 and 1756 turns, the French sent Indian forces into Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England to raid unprotected British cultivated areas. The British quickly moved to redeploy their meager regulars throughout these areas to build stockades and push back further raids. At the same time, the French massed their forces and captured Fort Oswego. By the end of the second year of play, the French were already sitting on six victory points.

With a string of stockaded defenses set up to the west by the beginning of 1757, the British began to land troops at their coastal port arrivals to offset negative British political effects which stymied the use of more Colonial regulars and militia units. British troops commenced the long march into the Pennsylvania mountains and the nearby target French fort at the Ohio Forks (today’s Pittsburgh). Back to the east, the French began using their new base at Oswego to launch a push to the southeast into the Hudson Valley and the ill-defended areas around Albany, Schenectady and the Oneida region. All the while, the French continued to recruit additional Indian forces to buffer their defenses at the Ohio Forks and continue raids toward the east. The 1757 late season ended with my leaving too many British marooned in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a clear rookie mistake which led to my mass of troops taking heavy losses in the winter season.

IMG_4433

The British stockade defenses on the western frontier lay the groundwork for a push on the French at the Ohio Forks in my first game of Wilderness War

By 1758, my British luck seemed to change a bit for the better. Drawing and playing the William Pitt event card, I was able to increase my card hand size to nine cards and gain access to more British forces. Rushing more British reinforcements west into Pennsylvania, the French fell during a siege at the fort protecting the Ohio Forks, giving the British a firm foothold on the western frontier and awarding two victory points. Additional British troops rushed up the Hudson River Valley to hold back the French push toward Albany. As the British remained engaged in fights, the French began shifting their forces along Lake Ontario and the northern frontier while also raising a large force from the Iroquois in central New York. With 1758 at an end, my British forces were safely wintering on two fronts but in a severely weakened state and still way behind on victory points.

We called the game at its midpoint, deciding to restart another time now that I had been introduced to the general game. I still hadn’t experienced some major facets of the game such as naval movement and amphibious warfare, but I had quickly come to understand some of the major drivers of how the game plays. As a beginner, here are some lessons learned from my first game of Wilderness War:

  1. Defend the frontier. Especially for the British, but for both players, keeping the frontier defended by building stockades and forts is a must. Regular troops caught in wilderness areas are easy targets for Indians and other non-regulars, so having defenses built is key to defending territory. Having a network of stockades and forts to defend from, retreat to and maintain supply line coherence is a necessity if an army is going to succeed in the wilds of North America.
  2. Don’t get caught out in the cold. Open country and mountains are a strong enemy, particularly to 18th-century European armies. Paying attention to stacking limits as each year ends is important to keeping a force at strength. When conducting operations, players need to keep in mind where their troops will all wind up as a year ends and forces settle in for the winter. Nothing is worse than spending a series of turns marching troops into position only to have a portion of them die from starvation, disease and exposure in the period following each year’s turn.
  3. Play the long game. The full game goes to eight years of warfare, so strategy needs to take a long view. The first half of the game most probably belongs to the French as they and their Indian allies sack the wide open and undefended frontier. The British simply can’t be everywhere in the early years of the war, so spending time building defenses while also waiting to get the right cards to call in reinforcements is important. Massing and moving large forces on both sides to be strong enough to siege and capture forts takes a fair amount of planning but pays off in victory points.

Wilderness War is a fantastic playable document of the French and Indian War. The shifting alliances, opportunistic events, geography of the country itself intertwine to capture the period with a realness that might be familiar to any French or British commander on the 18th-century American frontier.

ww logo

Touring French and Indian War America

FIWeramap

In the spring and summer of this year I vacationed in Missouri, Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania. While visiting family and friends was the main focus of my trips, my journeys intersected with the French and Indian War period repeatedly while driving hundreds of miles of back roads throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The hilly regions of the East were  formative in the first half of my life and the flat plains of the Mississippi River have been a presence in the past twenty years after marrying my wife from Missouri.

FIWsites

National Park Service map with French and Indian War era sites I’ve visited

These regions also played a large role in the origin story of what would become the United States of America. The 18th-century American continent was the New World front in the worldwide competition between the French and English for worldwide colonial control. In the Americas, native peoples were inserted into the European conflict with the various Indian Nations shifting alliances among the European powers.

From 1754-1763, the Seven Years War stretched around the globe and occupied the colonial regions of America with the French and Indian War. From the Great Lakes and mountains of Upstate New York to the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania to the western rivers frontier, French, British, Native American and American colonists fought for the future of the what would become the modern United States and Canada.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit numerous sites from this contested Anglo-French period. Family day trips when I was a kid took me to just about every major fort and battlefield in New York state and nearby Canada, including Fort Niagara, Fort Ontario, Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga and Fort York at present day Toronto. During graduate school in Michigan, I spent a weekend at the northern tip of the state and visited Fort Michilimackinac. After graduate school, my time in Pennsylvania included visits to Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity and the site of Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh. Since meeting my future wife while in Pennsylvania, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Missouri, getting married in the historic French town of St. Charles and visiting other colonial era towns and sites.

With the French and Indian War on my gaming mind this past year with the excellent A Few Acres of Snow, here’s a few of the places I’ve managed to visit (or revisit) this past year.

French Settlements on the American Western Colonial Frontier

Over the Easter weekend, I visited my in-laws in St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri. After a bit of time in and around St. Louis, we headed south along the Mississippi River to Ste. Genevieve. Settled in the 1730s, Ste. Genevieve showcases a remarkably intact collection of distinctive French colonial-influenced buildings. We were particularly fortunate in being allowed to walk through the Bequette-Ribault House which I had read about in one of my graduate school classes. The building was under renovation, allowing us to view a rare surviving example of the “poteaux en terre” construction technique of posts sunk vertically into the ground.

From Ste. Genevieve we took a rickety ferry across the Mississippi and drove along the Illinois side to Fort des Chartres. Reconstructed in the 1930s, the fort today depicts a French outpost way out on the western boundaries of claims to French territory in the 18th-century which stretched from Canada to New Orleans. Standing in the middle of hundreds of miles of farmland all around, it’s amazing to imagine a small garrison of French soldiers at the fort watching over the far edges of a European empire over nearly 300 years ago. The well-interpretted partial reconstruction of the fort itself and the small on site museum captures the scope of the French empire’s commitment to taking a territorial stand on this edge of the New World.

Although the French would cede much control of North America to the British after the end of the French and Indian War, evidence of French culture remains in buildings and place names throughout the old colonial areas. Visitors from France and French-speaking Canada still flock to Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding area every year, and walking the streets of the town and the battlements of Fort des Chartres the French legacy still echoes today.

10261977_10202979904952968_8594578130842737852_n

Statue of King Louis IX of France, at the Saint Louis Art Museum

1526266_10202966521378387_8592928619118650316_n[1]

The Bolduc House (c. 1770)  in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

10150539_10202966523138431_7971748547386340404_n

The Bequette-Ribault House (c. 1780) in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

10294434_10202966516098255_2984079262433725022_n[1]

Fort de Chartres (c. 1720) near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois

Mary Jeminson, “The White Indian of the Genesee”

This summer I also took my family back to my hometown in Western New York which sits a quick drive from Letchworth State Park, home to deep river-cut gorges and spectacular waterfalls. The park also celebrates the story of Mary Jeminson, a young girl who was abducted from her family’s Eastern Pennsylvania farm in 1755, traded to Seneca Indians near Fort Duquesne and lived the remainder of her long life as a prominent member of the Iroquois in the area around present day Letchworth.

The legendary story of Jeminson is remarkable, and her life tells the story of the complicated territorial and military alliances between the various Native American and European peoples in the French and Indian War and subsequent American War of Independence. Jeminson is remembered at Letchworth with a monument marking where her remains were relocated in 1872 adjacent to a Seneca Council House which interprets the native people’s governance of the region during the colonial and post-Revolution period.
IMG_3946

The Mary Jeminson Monument at Letchworth State Park

IMG_3951

Seneca Council House relocated to Letchworth State Park in 1872

The National Road and Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Twenty years ago this summer I served as an intern researching and writing National Register of Historic Places nominations for three historic pike towns along the National Road (Route 40) in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t travelled back to the region in two decades, and touring Route 40 again brought back to me how rich the area is in early colonial American history.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield interprets a pivotal series of events that took place in this corner of the Pennsylvania wilderness in 1754 and 1755, arguably leading to the eruption and eventual escalation of the French and Indian War in North America. Commanding a force of Virginia colonial militiamen, British Lt. Col. George Washington encountered a small detachment of French Canadiens led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville in May 1754. After a brief firefight, Jumonville was killed by Anglo-allied Mingo warriors. Two months later, a large force of French, Canadiens and Indians led by Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers met Washington’s small group in a wet, open meadow. Washington hastily built a stockade – a “fort of necessity” – but was overwhelmed by the French force attacking from the woods in a driving rain. One year later, Washington’s mentor General Edward Braddock met his end nearby during his doomed attempt to lad a British force inland to seize the French Fort Duquesne.

In the years since I’ve been to the battlefield, the National Park Service has created a new, modern visitors center telling two important stories from the past. The French and Indian War and its beginnings in the area nearby is depicted through interactive maps, videos and some great exhibits that zero in on the individual nations who fought over the region over two hundred years ago. The construction of the nearby National Road in the decades after the conflict occupies second half of the museum’s narrative, depicting the importance it played in the push West and economic development of the new nation in the early 19th-century. By the time you’ve spent a couple of hours in the visitors center and exploring the hilly region, you can’t help but leave with a real sense of the massive importance this part of Western Pennsylvania played in setting the stage for American progress in the subsequent decades.

IMG_3945

Fort Necessity National Battlefield

As with most of the French and Indian War and Anglo-French colonial era sites I’ve visited, it is remarkable that such wide-reaching ripple effects through centuries of subsequent history took place in these tiny corners of what was then an open territory for Europeans and home to a rich culture of Native peoples. By the end of the French and Indian War, the British had laid claim to much of the Americas. In so doing, the seeds of descent had also been sown among a bitter population of American colonists who would eventually rise up in independence against their British rulers.

All my travel this past year, followed up by a rewatching of the PBS series The War That Made America, has definitely fuelled the French and Indian War bug in me. I’ve put a few books on my reading list, including Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, and Richard Berleth’s Bloody Mohawk. The period has also led me to pick up Wilderness War from GMT Games, the modern go-to board game on the period. With more than two-and-a-half-centuries between today and the fight for empire in the Americas, the French and Indian War is very much alive for me.

Metropolitan Wargamers D-Day Plus 70 Event Report

NYTimesDDay

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, dozens of gamers came together for three days commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Throughout the weekend, we ran multiple WWII-themed games, including Normandy ’44, I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, Flames of War, World In Flames and Memoir ’44. Dice were rolled, strategies were debated, prizes were won and Allied and Axis forces vied for control of France. In all, it was another great weekend full of gaming at our club’s space in the heart of Brooklyn.

Friday Games

IMG_3586The invasion of France begins with Normandy ’44 at Metropolitan Wargamers

Friday kicked off after work with a few players unpacking a fresh copy of the classic Normandy ’44 from GMT Games. This one-map game covers the pre-dawn D-Day Airborne landing areas, five Allied invasion beaches and the charge to the initial inland objectives. The game scale plays with regiments and battalions with each turn representing one day of action. The small, self-contained game provides a great introduction to game mechanics at this scale with a tight, clear rules set. With a quick look at the game, I decided I’m going to have to personally give this one a shot sometime soon.

IMG_3587 US infantry blinds move toward unsuspecting German defenders at a farm outside Vierville

At the back of the club, we ran a game of our new favorite WWII tactical miniatures game, IABSM  from Too Fat Lardies. In our ongoing campaign of the Normandy scenarios in the IABSM Where The Hell Have You Been Boys? book, our game focused on the battle at Vierville-sur-Mer. With the 116th Infantry Division supported by the 5th Ranger Batallion, the Allied mission was to drive inland to capture and defend the church at Vierville.

IMG_3589

German and US units exchange fire in and around the farm at Vierville

As per the scenario, initial Allied blinds approach a farm outside Vierville where a German blind sits unknowingly in the complex of buildings. With Allied infantry closing in over dense bocage hedgerows and orchards, a firefight erupted and drove the German defenders through the buildings and into the orchard beyond.

IMG_3590

German reserves arrive at the flanks of the advancing US infantry outside Vierville

IMG_3633

Germans reinforcements push the Americans from the farm

As the first force of Germans fled the farm, their reinforcing comrades came on to the rear and flank of the US infantry. The Americans made consecutive moves of firing and moving back to defend at a series of stone walls across the road from the farm. The retreating defensive US actions held off the German onslaught until enough Americans could take up position amid Vierville’s houses. At the same time, the US Rangers moved in at the far end of town to hold the objective at the church.

IMG_3632

Americans pull back from the farm to take position in Vierville

The game eventually settled into a bloody house-to-house and hedge-to-hedge fight along the road leading toward the church. Occasional lucky shots from US Ranger light machine guns at the church also harassed the Germans lying low behind their stone wall position at the farm’s orchard. By midnight, much of the initial American force had been destroyed or was retreating to a final stand at the church held by the Rangers. While the Germans had also lost a sizable amount of their force, their heavy machine guns were still in play as they closed in through the town. This time around, we called the action at Vierville a draw.

Saturday Games

IMG_3603The Americans hit the Easy Green sector of Omaha Beach

The next day kicked-off with a running of a FOW beach landing at Easy Green on Omaha Beach. We have been play testing the FOW scenario over the past two months, tweaking our forces and strategies to cope with the clumsy beach landing rules. In our past games, the US invaders only manage to win about a third of the time. Even so, we decided no D-Day weekend was complete without a return to “Bloody Omaha” on one of the club’s award-winning sand tables.

IMG_3604German defenders hold their positions behind a burning bunker

The opening turns found a lot of US boats on the beach and a quick push to the seawall. So early combined arms fire managed to destroy the main bunker at the beach, but the battle was far from over. The initial US push followed on to the left of the beach, but multiple turns at clearing the barbed wire stalled the advance as the Americans took heavy fire.

IMG_3606

American armor and artillery follow-up the infantry landings

As US armor arrived, several tanks managed to drive off the beach to the minefield position to lay down fire on the German trenches. One tank wound up spending three turns bobbing in the surf offshore only to arrive and bog for two more turns on the beach. As this most inexperienced tank crew in Normandy struggled, the other Shermans took fire from German rockets and reserve tank platoon which rolled to bulk up the beach defense. American artillery also arrived but proved pretty ineffective to the Germans at the trenches. Wave after wave of US infantry pushed to the trenches, eliminating most of the defenders but never managing to clear the barbed wire lines to seize the German position. At the final turn, the Americans just hadn’t made enough headway to control the beach.

IMG_3627World In Flames continued over D-Day weekend

With action raging on the sand table, a group of club members showed up to continue playing their massive World In Flames game. Australian Design Group’s WIF from 1985 is the standard in grand-scale strategic fighting of the entire WWII period. The game’s rich playable detail, dizzying number of 1400 playing counters and sprawling maps makes it a commitment for only the most experienced gamers over many months of play.

IMG_3630Allied forces push from the beaches inland to Caen in Normandy ’44

The Normandy ’44 game from the evening before concluded with a decisive Allied victory Saturday afternoon. Pushing the Germans back from all but Utah Beach, the Allies captured Bayeux and several smaller towns. With German defenders routed from roads leading inland from the landing beaches, the victors rolled in to control half of Caen by the game’s end.

IMG_3625No one was going hungry at Metropolitan Wargamers over the weekend

Saturday also included a lot of other club members down for the usual variety of board, Euro and card games, making for a packed house. As the crowd rolled in, a longtime club member showed up with an enormous fresh-caught fish which he proceeded to gut with a huge military-style knife. With fish on the grill and food ordered in, there was plenty of food to sustain the crowd of gamers throughout the day.

We all took a mid-afternoon break to dice-off in a game, books, DVD and miniatures raffle to raise funds for the club. I was fortunate to score a copy of A Few Acres of Snow from Treefrog Games, and another lucky person picked up an unused copy of out-of-print the Games Workshop classic Dreadfleet.

IMG_3631

Initial deployment of Allied and Axis blinds in our Saturday evening IABSM scenario

As the main crowd thinned out, we ran an evening IABSM game continuing the assault beyond Easy Green. The scenario found initial US forces deployed around a small French farm with the objective of moving men off the table on the roads beyond. The Germans were tasked with preventing the American advance and seizing the farmhouse stronghold.

IMG_3607

Settling in for a contested fight at the farmhouse above Omaha Beach

Using initial blind deployment, Germans quickly moved to the farm along thick hedgerows as the Americans drove into the building for cover. Turns followed with the Americans jumping from cover to fire on the dwindling German force which returned fire over the hedges to unfortunate US infantry hanging out in the open. A US flamethrower attack from the window of the farmhouse decimated another German squad sitting close behind a nearby hedge. Pressing their luck, a group from the farmhouse made a run for the road exit only to be stalled by a reinforcing German heavy machine gun squad. Returning fire, the German MG42s were eliminated from their position in the open field. However, the damage had been done. Although the Germans had not captured the farm objective, the Americans no longer had a sufficient force to push off the table. The night ended with a German victory beyond Easy Green.

Sunday Games

IMG_3620The war continues on the Memoir ’44 Hedgerow Hell battle map

With the first days of Operation Overlord behind us, Sunday’s game focused on the breakout actions. A couple visiting players showed up for the club’s Memoir ’44 game around noon on Sunday. Using the wide Hedgerow Hell expansion map, the Allies beat the scenario odds to win the game in the Overlord scenario. There was much talk of getting larger games of Memoir ’44 back in rotation at the club soon, so hopefully getting the game back on the table will bring some renewed interest in the coming months.

 IMG_3621

The initial armored encounter outside Lingevres leaves British tanks in flames

I finished off my weekend as the British at Lingevres using the same scenario I first ran at the club a few months ago. The mission ahead for the Brits was to move into the heavily defended town and take two of the buildings. Historically, the battle played out as a tank duel between UK Sherman Firefly and German Panther tanks, and our game this past weekend played out in a similar way.

IMG_3624

A Panther meets its end at the hand of the British Royal Artillery as a close assault is attempted on another in the woods nearby

At the outset, my first platoon of tanks got a bit overly aggressive and charged into contact with the full Panther platoon at the farm outside Lingevres. With the first Firefly destroyed in the opening turns, my remaining Shermans pulled back as the Panthers rattled to the middle of the field to hold off UK infantry advancing through the woods and bocage-lined fields beyond. One Panther bogged on a hedgerow and another was destroyed in an initial volley from the Royal Artillery in the fields outside town. Several turns became ensnared in attempted infantry assaults on the third Panther in the woods, but eventually the German tank rolled away to deal with the building reinforcing infantry and tank platoon in the fields on the other side of the table.

IMG_3622British Shermans and infantry break across a field toward Lingevres

With the Panthers moving away, fresh British infantry and the surviving Shermans moved to the farm and fields beyond. British artillery fire winnowed and pinned the German platoon in the church over several turns. Artillery fire also sought to keep the reinforcing German spotter pinned to limit the effectiveness of the reserve Nebelwerfer battery which as delayed reserves to the rear of Lingevres.

IMG_3623

The duel between the Panther and Firefly ends with the British tank in flames as the remaining Shermans destroy a Panzer IV platoon in the distance

In the meantime, a multi-turn tank duel had settled in between a lone Firefly and Panther while a reinforcing Panzer IV platoon arrived at the edge of town. Both tank groups traded fire, and in the end, the Panzers were routed with two or their three destroyed and the Firefly fell to the Panther’s gun. Back at the farm field, Shermans traded fire with Pak 40s and destroyed an anti-aircraft platoon defending the town’s flank. With two Panthers left on either side of the church, Shermans on each side of town and advancing British infantry, we called the game a draw.

 Weekend Debrief

After more than 20 hours of gaming over two nights and days, I was pretty worn out, but the interest in the D-Day event had made the weekend well worth it. WWII still holds enormous interest to this day, as demonstrated not only by our weekend of gaming but by the mainstream media’s coverage of D-Day over the week leading up. In the next week, we’re kicking off an FOW Infantry Aces campaign with fresh forces hitting the tables in rounds of Italy-themed WWII games. This fall we’ll be playing out some Market Garden battles and by the winter we hope to host some Battle of the Bulge engagements. It was a pretty special weekend in Brooklyn, but for regular visitors to Metropolitan Wargamers, there’s always the next game in this very unique New York City community.

New Game Weekend: Cuba Libre

clbox

The GMT COIN series of games have fast become favorites at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. The series focuses on 20th-century insurgencies including Andean Abyss in modern Columbia, A Distant Plain in Afghanistan and the Viet Nam War-themed Fire In The Lake to be released in 2014. Future planned games will focus on conflict in Angola and Iraq. This past weekend I got a chance to play the second in the series, Cuba Libre, set in the Cuban Revolution period of 1957-1958.

The game plays up to four players, each taking on the role of either Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement leftists guerrillas, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s Government troops and police,  anti-Batista/anti-Communist student Directorio forces or the corrupt Syndicate of casino-owners led by American gangster Meyer Lansky. Using traits unique to each faction, the game plays through a fast-shifting series of diplomatic, economic and militaristic actions toward victory conditions unique to each group.

CCNapRussiansCutnerGMT’s Cuba Libre game board

Like other COIN games, Cuba Libre is compromised of a relatively simple map, abstract wooden play pieces, cardboard markers and a stack of 48 event cards. The map features the island of Cuba split into mountain, jungle and grassland areas, cities and three economic centers for the production of sugar cane, tobacco and coal. Each area carries a population point value from a high of 6 in the capital of Havana down to 1 in the smaller cities and rural areas. The factions begin with unique set-up conditions with Government troops and police primarily clustered in the cities, July 26th guerrillas in their hidden mountain camps, Directorio forces hiding in Havana and Syndicate casinos in the vacation destinations at the western end of the island.

Cities and territories are controlled when one faction’s pieces outnumber the sum of all others in the space. Each space also exists in one of five states of political stability from the pro-government Active Support to Neutral to the rebellious Active Opposition. The game’s shifting control of space and political conditions plays to specific victory conditions.

clcardsSample cards from Cuba Libre

Much of the game’s action is driven by Cuban Revolution-themed event cards which determine the turn order in each round and possible special outcomes. Each card is neatly illustrated with a period photograph, some short historic flavor text and events which may help or harm one or more factions. Players make choices in activating the event card each round or opting for a combination of Operations or Special Activities, again unique to each faction. For example, July 26th rebels can choose from Operations like March, Attack or Terror and Activities like Infiltrate or Kidnap. Government forces may play Operations like Sweep, Train or Garrison and Activities like Air Strike or Reprisal.

IMG_2863Cuba Libre at Metropolitan Wargamers

There is a ton going on in Cuba Libre, and the game’s flow can quickly turn. In my first game, the Syndicate player quickly moved toward victory conditions by building multiple casinos. My son, playing as the Government, made side deals on different turns with the Directorio and Syndicate players. My July 26th forces managed to throw much of the board into open rebellion but I could never amass enough of my guerillas where I really needed them. Cutting the game a bit short in the end, we scored it as a Government victory.

Learning how to leverage the strengths of a particular faction makes for a lot of replay value in Cuba Libre. The mix of simple components, plenty of space for strategic options and actual history baked in is what makes this and the other COIN Series games from GMT among the best being produced today.

castro¡Viva la Revolución!

New Game Weekend: 1775 Rebellion

1775box

Late this past week, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on game designer and CIA analyst Volke Ruhnke. Ruhnke’s games are popular at Metropolitan Wargamers, including his COIN (Counterinsurgnecy) series from GMT Games, including the two 2013 releases of  Cubra Libre (Cuba) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). The basic mechanics of these games and other historicals like them involve simple map game boards, wooden blocks placed in area control of spaces and detailed cards driving player actions.

While Ruhke’s games from GMT focus on 20th-century insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America, Academy Games has been producing games for a couple years framed in similar mechanics but focused on US history with their Birth of America series. Thus far, the series consists of  1812: The Invasion of Canada, published two years ago  to conicide with the 200th-anniversary of the War of 1812, and 1775: Rebellion, an American Revolution game. Next up for Academy Games is an Underground Railroad-themed game called Freedom which was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year.

1775backbox

Back of the box for 1775: Rebellion showing game contents

This past weekend I had an opportunity to play 1775 for the first time, and if you’ve got a passion for board games and American history like me, you need to give this one a try yourself.

IMG_2754

Game set up for 1775: Rebellion

The board presents a map of ther thirteen original American colonies, plus Quebec and Nova Scotia to the north, at the dawn of the War of Independence. Two to four players begin the game as American Regulars, Colonial Militia, British Redcoat Regulars and English Loyalists deployed throughout the colonies. On the western frontier are unaligned Native Americans, and throughout the game opportunities arise for Hessian and French forces to join the conflict. All forces in the game are indicated through simple color-coded cubes with American Colonists in blue and white, British in red and yellow, Native Americans in green, French in purple and Hessians in orange.

1775movementcards

Sample movement cards from 1775: Rebellion

The action of the game is propelled by movement and event cards. Each player draws three cards to their hand and may play one movement and up to two event cards during their turn. Movement cards indicate one or more allied army’s movement from one to three spaces in a turn. Native American, Hessian and French forces cannot move until another force moves to their space and joins in alliance with them. Moving forces cannot move through enemy-occupied areas, and movement to a space containing enemy forces results in a battle.

1775cards

Sample event cards from 1775: Rebellion

Event cards depict historic personalities such as generals or statesmen and other occurences from the Revolutionary period like Paul Revere’s Ride, signing of the Declaration of Independence or the creation of the American flag by Betsy Ross. Each event card allows for things like additional forces to arrive or extra movement.

 

IMG_2755

Turn 1 with the Americans moving on British-occupied Boston

Combat is resolved with dice color-coded to each force. Dice faces show hits, blank sides and flee indicators. Defending forces roll first in a combat. Hits destroy an enemy unit, returning it to the reinforcement pool. A blank result allows the option for a unit to retreat to a neighboring allied-controlled space. A flee roll removes a unit to the flee space to be replaced at the beginning of that player’s next turm. Dice for each force are weighted differently, so British Redcoats don’t hit as often but never flee while Hessians hit more frequently but flee more readily.

1775trucecards

Truce cards from 1775: Rebelllion

The game proceeds in random turn order each round with players deploying reinfocements into occupied cities and retrieving fled units. The object of the game is to control the most colonies before the game ends after turn three with the play of two truce cards on each side. Colonies are only controlled when every space in the colony is controlled by allied forces.

IMG_2757

Turn 3 with the American truce card played and British advancing from the north

In our four-player game this past weekend, my team’s Colonists initially attempted to oust the British from Boston but were repelled. The British advanced from Canada into northern New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Colonists picked up Native American allies in Western Pennsylvania and took control of the colony while a stalemate resulted in New England. With a mass of British-allied reinforcements to the north, the Colonists recieved French reinforcements in turn three and quickly took control of two colonies to the south. Colonists quickly played their second truce card and ended the game with more colonies in our control.

Although our intro game was a quick one, I’m very much looking forward to trying 1775: Rebellion again using different paths to victory. The game’s rules are short and the components simple, but there’s a lot of strategic heft to the game. For adults, or even smart kids, with a thing for early American history, I can’t recommend 1775: Rebellion enough.

New Game Weekend: Pacific Typhoon

It was the second rainy weekend in a row in New York City, but a crowd of guys made it down to the Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn Sunday afternoon. With seven of us standing around the table trying to come up with a big enough game with easy rules that could be played in a couple hours, a few people tossed out the idea of 2008’s Pacific Typhoon by GMT Games.

This WWII Pacific Theater naval battle card game was originally produced as a sequel of sorts to Avalon Hill’s Atlantic Storm  game from the late 1990’s. Created for 3-7 players ages 10 and up, Pacific Typhoon is simple to grasp with a pretty straightforward trick-taking format yet enough opportunity for interaction among players to keep a group of hearty experienced gamers engaged for the afternoon.

Pacific Typhoon comes with 140 force cards and 40 battle cards plus a couple dice and a rulebook, making this a compact and entertaining game for medium to large groups. The cards themselves are simple but have nice black-and-white WWII period photos and contextual factoids which add flavor to the game. Plus, at just $20 direct from GMT Games, Pacific Typhoon carries a lot of fun at a really friendly price.

Each player begins by drawing a hand of six force cards. Cards depict historical Japanese (red, top left) and Allied (blue, middle left) naval forces plus upgrade and event cards. The starting player draws two battle cards (black-edged, bottom left) and chooses one of the two to play. Play goes around with each player choosing in turn to commit a Japanese or Allied force card to the battle. Players contribute the points on their cards to the total strength of each side in the battle, and the side with the most points wins that battle. The player with the highest point value on the winning side then divies up the points among the winning players, and the next round begins.

As described above, the play is really straightforward but there’s a lot of flexible play in each round. Battle cards take place in a specific year (’41, ’42, 43, etc.) and during day or night. The player choosing the battle also calls whether the battle is to be fought with submarines, on the surface or by air. A battle combination such as “night battle, surface, ’44” will determine which force cards the players can choose to play in the battle.

With force cards with varying levels of strength, bonuses, year, time of day and type, each battle plays out differently. Alliances among players are created and broken with each battle, with players choosing which side to support as a gamble toward contributing to whichever side will win. For example, a turn may start with Japanese cards being played to what looks like a certain victory until a group of subsequent players decide to pool their Allied cards and win in an upset. As the game progresses, winning players dole out points rewarding their allies in each round while making certain to hold enough points for themselves ahead of the whole group at the game’s end.

With alliances and double-crosses sailing back and forth over the table in each round, Pacific Typhoon is a game rife with good-natured team-play and trash-talking. Pacific Typhoon ultimately makes for a great mix of individual and collaborative play within a casual trick-taking card game good for beginners and experts alike interested in spending a couple hours re-fighting famed WWII battles of the Pacific high seas.