Welcome to Swords and Chit! My aim is to focus on discussing and reviewing wargames. There are two primary reasons I wanted to start blogging about my wargaming experience: as a relatively new wargamer coming from a background of euro games, a lot of things in the wargaming hobby are going to be new to me and I hope to provide a fresh voice for those who might be on a similar journey into this area of gaming. Second, I have a very strong preference for games set in the Medieval period or earlier – although that isn’t where I’ll exclusively play, it is what I will focus on more than anything else. So I am glad you discovered this blog, and I hope you stick around for future posts!
I’ve got some catching up to do (still) on these first impression posts after playing my first plays of a wargame, and with the new blog up and running here I am also going to be working toward resharing the old ones as well that I did as Cardboard Clash. But rather than go back to the ones in the past, I thought I would try to get a faster turnaround to the game played as I hit them. So this week I had a chance to play two new games, Julius Caesar and The Toledo War. My friend also has already done an AAR on our play of Julius Caesar, which you can find here (it is really well done!) and it is helpful to see both sides of the conflict and what we each walked away with.
And, as a quick list of games-to-come for my own benefit as much as anything: The Great Heathen Army, Wars of Marcus Aurelius, Undaunted: Normandy, The Toledo War. So look for those to come, hopefully sooner rather than later!
The only other block wargames we had played prior to this were a play of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and Command & Colors: Ancients, so this is still relatively new territory to tread into. The game’s rules seemed straightforward enough, and we dove right in. As my friend mentioned, about a month previous we tried to play via Vassal and, well, it was about three hours of frustration and didn’t even get to finish the first round of the game. We had taken pictures with the intent of picking up where we left off but enough time had elapsed, and we hadn’t gotten very far, so we started out fresh but maintained the same sides.
Insight #1: Control of areas on the map is essential. More than you realize.
This might seem like a no-brainer. Of course you want to control areas on the map, and it is easy to watch those areas worth a VP like a hawk and plan around keeping troops stationed there. And yet I cannot tell you how many times I would have a turn play out where I moved a Navi from the port into the sea, moved a troop via Amphibious Movement, and then realized I no longer had control of that location I just abandoned. Oops. The crazy thing is that it was still happening late in the game, where I would have a great idea of what I needed to do or where I needed to go, only to find that my line of retreat – or my ability to Levy a specific unit – was no longer available due to no having that location be Friendly any longer. And that’s really where it comes into play, with the Levy action, which is why…
Insight #2: Levy with intention, not reaction.
There were times when I needed a reactionary Levy (such as a depleted, isolated Scipio being chased ruthlessly by a pair of Auxiliary units – one of which was a defector), but for the most part I was Levying without a long-game plan in mind. It was more of a “hey, I should put a unit here and then boost it to full” – which really hurt when that unit defected that very same round – than any attempt to boost or regain position across the board. My side controlled almost all of the points at the beginning, and I focused more on trying to sweep to an area I thought was going to be difficult to access for the other side (it wasn’t) than on bolstering my grip on what I held. It is tempting to throw down specific units, such as the only Elephant in the game, because they are “fun”. Or to toss out an A unit that can deploy anywhere. But closer consideration might reveal flaws, such as that elephant can, and will, die quickly and the A unit hits on just 1’s in battle. Looking back, I think I’d rather Levy three Step-1 units than boost a single unit a bunch of times – at least some of the time.
Insight #3: Contest Rome Early
I think my biggest mistake in the game was letting him take, and hold, Rome for the entire game. It all started with his opening move to take the city, and before I could blink I was staring at five blocks in that city and my own force to challenge it didn’t seem very strong (turns out, it wasn’t enough to crack Rome later in the game, even with an extra addition). However, every battle in this game weakens the enemy, and while it isn’t easy to bring more troops out (unless you get some good Levy-heavy cards, which I rarely had) it also isn’t easy to regain power to a depleted force. Had I attacked there early, he might have used earlier Move and/or Levy actions on holding Rome which might have opened windows to capture other areas of the map.
Insight #4: Don’t Waste the Woman’s Usefulness
I didn’t touch the Cleopatra block until the final round of the game. I moved troops in and out of that part of the map, but never taking her along – I think because I focused too much on Amphibious Movement to get a single unit across the sea and to those inland ports we fought fiercely over. While her statistics aren’t great (C1), she does come in with a power of IV, meaning at full strength she rolls 4 dice. Worst case, she is there to absorb a few hits to preserve your troops. Best case, she can help wear them down sooner. Yes, she can switch sides if eliminated and that can be a little painful to experience, but it seems like her benefit to use is greater than her drawback.
Insight #5: Timing Matters More Than Anything
It felt like I was on the ropes for most of the game, as I typically was getting hands with few Event cards and full of 2-move cards. Which meant that most of the time, my opponent got to move his units first. The biggest disadvantage here comes from Reinforcing, meaning that if he initiates the battle, my troops moving in don’t come into play until the 2nd round of battle. Had I moved first, I could have avoided that penalty. When on the defensive in areas, or expecting to be on the defensive, it becomes essential to go first in the round if you want to defend at full strength against the incoming attack. While there was only one time that the defending army was wiped in that first round, it still was often damaging enough to make the battle go in my opponents’ direction because it felt like I was defending with one arm tied behind my back.
Insight #6: Events are powerful and can change the tide of the game. But…
I know that thought process. You look at a hand with two, or maybe even three, event cards in there. You don’t even need to read what they do, you should keep them at all costs. After all, they let you go first for the round. They give you some way of breaking the rules for the game. They are just POWERFUL, right? Well, yes. I’m not disputing any of that at all. However, I am disputing the auto-keep of an event card. See, there’s one key thing they all lack (at least what I’ve seen) and one other key thing that most lack: Levy and Move. Sometimes the event is absolutely the right card to keep in your hand. But I propose that there are also situations where a hand full of events is as much a disadvantage as a hand full of 1-Move, 1-Levy cards would be. See, every card that doesn’t let you Levy means your forces remain stagnant on your turn, whether in size or in position on the board. Yes, there’s a card that broke my army’s back, causing a defection that haunted me for turns, and it was absolutely great. He could have just as easily grabbed a 1-health Navi though. There’s a strong risk to the Event cards, at least some of the time, and while they can reap great rewards few of them guarantee those rewards.
Insight #7: Use the dice to your advantage
As fun as diceless, deterministic combat would be, it is fun at times to have that layer of risk and chance present in battles. There is a lot of information you do know going into a battle: defending troops attack first, A troops all attack before B troops, you know the value needed to roll (or lower) to hit with each of your units. You may not know exactly how many dice they get to roll when their turn comes (unless you are defending and looking at your A troops), but you can get a decent idea of probability. I used this defensively on more than one occasion, choosing to stand and fight a battle I couldn’t win because the opponent needed to roll 1’s to hit me. And, well, his string of missed attacks led to several key forced attacker retreats that let me hold on just a little longer. Unfortunately, it also took most of my Levy and Move attention, so I couldn’t capitalize. But the tactic worked, and not just on that front. Analyzing, as the defender, if you can hold out for three rounds or not is essential for holding key parts of the map.
There’s more I could say. I had a blast, even if the writing was on the wall for the second half of our playing time. There were absolutely moments of frustration, but moreso because I allowed myself to get put in a bad position than any overwhelming random factor. There are dice, yes. But it never felt like they had control and, in fact, there were times I used them to my own advantage (see Insight #7). I really look forward to more plays of this. I fear the “life” of the game might be limited, as it has a static setup and only one scenario (yes, you can change it but it doesn’t offer multiple maps or setups to explore), but I know it’ll be enjoyed for several more plays and could be a game I could even teach my wife without much issue. And perhaps most important of all, this play has me itching to dive into more block wargames because I genuinely like that fog of war aspect that comes from just seeing the blocks and not know who they are, their speed, or their current power.