Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday board gaming

I managed to get a few board games in over the holidays, which is always a treat. I have so many board games and I play too few.

Men of Iron

Today's game was Men of Iron – Volume I: The Rebirth of Infantry from GMT Games. This came out in 2005 and I've had it sitting in my closet unpunched for almost five years. It looked interesting back when I bought it and now I'm eager to play some more. Dave Schueler and I played the Battle of Courtrai scenario. I've had an interest in this battle since I read about it in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror about 30 years ago. The scenario was one of the reasons I bought the game in the first place, so it was a nice treat to play it at last.

The historical battle, fought in 1302, was one of those affairs lost by the side who should have won if only their commanders weren't arrogant, impetuous, and stupid—in other words, French nobles. An insurrection in Flanders brought a French force of mounted men at arms and footsoldiers commanded by Robert, Comte d'Artois to the city of Courtrai (modern Kortrijk in Belgium) to hand out some whup-ass to a force composed mainly of burghers with pikes and a curious little weapon called the godendag. The Flemish burghers, and a small handful of knights fighting on foot, were commanded by William of Jülich.

Flemish burghers with godendags

Up until this time, the mounted knight was the über-weapon of the medieval world. From the time of Charlemagne, heavily armored men on horseback pretty much kicked butt on whatever poor, footslogging oiks they came across. William and his men, who were poor, footslogging oiks, knew this and they prepared the ground in front of their position with ditches filled with water from the Groeninghebeke, a small stream that ran across the front of the Flemish position. The idea was that the mounted knights would be hard-pressed to get any impetus against the Flemish infantry because they would be disordered by the rough, marshy ground.

In a rash act of good sense, Robert sent his footsoldiers in first, supported by Genoese crossbowmen. These troops began to make way against the Flemish line, which created all kinds of panic among the French knights who feared that the glory of winning the battle may fall to their social inferiors. To avert this looming disaster, Robert recalled his footsoldiers and let his mounted knights charge in—right into the ditches where their impetus was checked and Flemish burghers with godendags (the word means "good day") bashed their brains in. The Flemish were under orders not to take prisoners and about 1000 knights were killed in this inglorious episode of the battle. Robert was among the fallen, as were most of the French leaders. The rest of the French army took to their heels and the Flemish chased them for miles.

One interesting note about the battle is that many of the slain knights wore golden spurs they had won in tournaments. The Flemish stripped these from the corpses and nailed them to the altar of the Church of Our Lady in Courtrai. The battle was ever afterwards called "The Battle of the Golden Spurs." The spurs remained on the altar for 80 years until another French army won a battle at Roosebeke (1382), near Courtrai, and in the aftermath of their victory, burned Courtrai and took back their lost spurs.

The game Dave and I played had a different result. I played the French, less stupidly than Robert d'Artois, and managed to break through with my infantry and finally made a ditch-free gap that my mounted knights could exploit. It was touch and go for a while and I seemed to be alternately on the verge of winning and losing. It pretty much came down to the wire until Dave's Flemish reached their break point. The only casualty of note was John of Renesse, a Flemish leader, who perished in an early stage of the game. I lost a lot of infantry, but only two out of 12 men at arms units. In this scenario, Flemish units eliminated or forced to retire by mounted men at arms count double for determining the break point. The rule is supposed to encourage the French player to "do a Robert" and risk his men at arms who face greater risk of loss because of the ditches as well as risk being unhorsed by the nasty godendags.

I think the system works pretty well. Richard Berg, the game designer, made a generic system that can be applied to several historical battles with scenario-specific rules. The activation system offers some interesting choices. A player can keep activating commands and moving as long as he rolls the commander's activation number. Unless he passes, fails an activation, or has an activation seized from him by his opponent, there is no structural reason in the rules why a player can't just keep moving and fighting. Of course, odds being what they are, a player will fail activation at some point. But the trick for the opponent is whether to challenge a new activation or to hope for a failed activation, which will allow you to activate a command yourself. A failed challenge gives your opponent another free activation, but if your opponent is on a roll with good dice, he will be able to keep exploiting any successes, or mitigating any disasters before you can do anything to react. So, you may feel you need to jump in and take the initiative back.

The Volume I bit of the game title makes it sound like more are coming (or might have come in the intervening years since the game was published). Oh, alas. This game covers the battles of Courtrai, Falkirk, Bannockburn, Crecy, Poitiers, and Najera. I hoped that another volume would cover some of the later Hundred Years Wars battles as well as some of the Swiss wars of the period. However, GMT does have a volume covering the Crusades on its P500 list. As with anything on the P500 list, this game could be years in coming...

Conflict of Heroes

Another game played over the holidays was Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk 1943. This game is the second volume of the Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games (Uwe Eickert). This volume introduces a refined activation system that makes for better game flow and also better ability to react to your opponent's actions. As the title indicates, the scenarios are set during the Kursk battles of July, 1943 (Tiger tanks!). Dave and I played the Black Knights of the Steppe scenario today after Men of Iron. He was German and I was Russian. It was a tight game, but in the end I managed to salvage a win. I played the scenario once before as the German and lost. It's a tough win for them.

A few weeks back we played the Wounded Tiger scenario. I was German and Dave Russian. I lost the immobilized Tiger to an aggressive attack that managed to come around to my rear and get an attack at point blank range. (It's like Oddball said in Kelly's Heroes, "A Tiger has only one weak point; that's its ass. You gotta hit it point blank and you gotta hit it from behind.") Unluckily for Dave, he couldn't get the rest of my tanks and the Pz VI and Pz IIIs wreaked havoc on his T-70s and T-34s—much to both our surprise.

This series is excellent and I hope Uwe continues to add more titles. The rumor I hear is that the next volume will move from the steppes of Russia to the jungles of Guadalcanal.

Richard III

The third game that got some play over the holidays was the latest block game from Columbia, Richard III: The Wars of the Roses. I have a longstanding interest in the WotR, so this was a nice title to see coming. I played my beloved Yorkists and Dave played the nasty Lancastrians. The game is played in three "campaigns" that roughly approximate the three main historical phases of the wars. I managed to win the kingship—for Richard of York—in the first campaign and held it through the other two. No paper crown for his severed head this time around. It looked uncertain on several occasions, Dave blasted me in several battles with those newfangled cannon things, but I managed to hang on through every battle, even if I had to run from a few to avoid annihilation. This game is fun and playable and worth more playing time.

1 comment:

  1. Godendag - ha! I bet the guy on the receiving end had another name for it. Man, that's a nasty looking piece - thanks for the video link too. Dean