Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

HistoriCon 2012: A boardgamer's reflection

HistoriCon came to Virginia this year, and though miniatures gaming takes a distant second to my boardgaming preference, I couldn't let the opportunity pass to spend at least a couple of days in the world of scratch-built terrain and tape measures.  Inexcusably, I forgot to bring a camera both days that I attended, a virtual crime at a miniatures convention.

(c) Skirmish Campaigns
Used by permission
Fireball Forward - Pouppeville
Thursday morning saw me command one of two German rifle platoons in Pouppeville, France, on 6 June 1944.  A company of the American 501st Airborne sought to open a road for an armor column to advance from Utah beach.  Our German rifle company was assigned to hold the town long enough to stall the armor advance.  My platoon occupied buildings in the southeast part of the town, the other rifle platoon the southwest, and the German company commander set up his headquarters in the main building in the center.  The Americans approached from the south, having air-dropped in the German rear the night before.  Utah Beach was to the north, whence the armored column would come if we couldn't hold the town.  The Americans got an early start (the result of a secret die roll at the beginning of the game that gave them an extra turn to complete their objective).  We had a second sniper (the result of our own secret die roll).

The Americans took a couple of the outlying southern buildings pretty quickly and used them as bases for covering fire for their advance.  We were able to slow the advance to the center of town rather well with overlapping fields of fire.  My fellow German platoon commander held off repeated attempts at house-to-house close assaults.  I maintained a substantial cross-fire and managed to stall the American advance through an orchard in the eastern part of town.  American superior firepower made it impossible to hold out indefinitely, and we gradually lost one house after another until the last of my platoon was holed up in a corner building off the central square, near the company HQ.  But overall the Americans were too cautious, and despite their early start, we were able to hold out long enough to forestall the American armored column advance.

Game Master (GM) Curt Daniels had set up a nice table of rectilinear terrain depicting the town in 10mm scale with hedgerows and French country buildings.  We played with a new set of rules called Fireball Forward (designers Mark Fastoso and Jonathan Miller, publisher SkirmishCampaigns).  Rifle combat includes a "range die" that improves hit probability on a much more granular basis as a function of range than the typical "short/medium/long range" banding method of so many other games.  Also appealing is the roll of a small number of dice to resolve an attack (unlike a number of other miniatures games where dice rolling seems to be a ritual of excess).  To win, we needed to hold eight or nine of 16 buildings to secure the town, but only four or five buildings if one of them included the main central building where we set up the company HQ.

(c) Worthington Publishing
Used by permission

In many respects, this game made clear to me once again the major differences in appeal between miniatures and board games.  I'd recently acquired Band of Brothers (designer Jim Krohn, artists Brandon Pennington and Dan Safee, publisher Worthington Games), a boardgame that plays on a very similar scale, setting, and pace to Fireball Forward.  In our miniatures game, my decision space was fairly narrow, with just a leader and three squads under my command.  For the entire scenario, the tactical situation called for me to sit tight in cover, shoot the enemy as they advanced, and not to fall back even if morale waned.  So I never moved, and my only decisions were when to shoot at targets of opportunity and which targets to fire at if presented with more than one.  (I was pretty pleased with the calls I did make, in one case holding opportunity fire on one American squad because I wanted to cover against a likely assault by another squad on our company HQ.)  I think I made a total of twelve real decisions over the whole game, since the early American advance was cautious, and we had no targets for the first turn or two.

The scenario took something like two and a half hours to play (including rules explanation), and that was after Curt had probably spent a good hour setting up the table beforehand.  By contrast, Band of Brothers would take less than an hour to play out the same scenario with the same decision depth.  (Morale and suppression rules are remarkably similar between the two games.)  So in a head-to-head comparison, what boardgames lack in three-dimensional visual appeal, they make up for in convenience and time.  We could easily have played two or three rounds of BoB in the time it took to complete one FF scenario.

In general, I feel as though boardgames provide much greater opportunity for gaming depth.  All the games I played at HistoriCon provided relatively small decision spaces.  I wouldn't call them opportunities for serious gaming.  And that's okay.  At the risk of generalizing, miniatures gaming isn't necessarily about deep game-play.  At its heart, it is essentially a context for displaying and interacting with physical models that depict a battle in progress.  It is certainly satisfying to see lines of troops or ships make progress over a battlefield, or to see them evaporate under withering gunfire, as the game unfolds.  Game quality factors - how balanced the scenario or clever the rules set or agonizing the choices are - play a secondary role to the visual and interactive experience of moving the models and rolling the dice to resolve their fate.

Also played at HistoriCon
"Borg Attack: The Battle of Wolf 359, 2274 AD" (Science fiction starship combat using Ogre rules)
High Noon demo (19th century Western skirmish)
"Battle of Manila Bay" (Spanish-American War naval combat, using When Dreadnaughts Ruled the Seas)

I also heard two lectures:
"A Submariner's Life: Captain Edward Beach Jr.," by Dr. Edward F. Finch
"A Gathering Storm Upon My Left: The Battle of Bennington," by Dr. Michael Gabriel


  1. Paul,
    I think that I see a hole in your comparison. In "Band of Brothers," each player has command of the entire force for a particular side. In your convention game, you only had a single platoon. Your scope of responsibility was diminished not by the nature of the medium--but rather by the number of players. For non-tournament games, most miniature events have multiple players.
    Consider my most recent "Firestorm Armada" game at my house. There is a world of difference between commanding a couple of squadrons with 4-6 spaceships total and being responsible for a full fleet of over 30 ships of multiple types.

  2. Fair point, Grant. The decision space is smaller because the units are divided among multiple players. So that's probably not a legitimate head-to-head comparison.

    On the other hand, I do think that the trade-off between time investment and physical appearance is correct for comparing boardgames to miniatures.

  3. Paul,
    I think you're mixing concepts here. I think you are confusing the rules and mechanics w/ the appearance and presentation. The length of game play has little to do with whether the game is miniatures or board game. For example, DBA is miniatures, and we've played many a half hour game, whereas Third Reich is a board game, and takes several days.
    The strength of miniatures is that the same set of rules, once mastered, and figures, once built, can be used to create hundreds of scenarios. In a board game, you have that one board, and players are limited to only those scenarios that can be played on that board, with the forces provided. If players have to buy extra boards, and extra units to play other scenarios, that's not much different from buying extra miniatures and more terrain....
    It sounds as if in the particular scenario you played you had a minor role -- that is a function of scenario design, not the mechanism of play. That said, for all I know, BoB is vastly superior to FF, I haven't played either.