Unconditional Surrender: Exploration and Impressions

I am currently working my way through an Exploration series of videos on Unconditional Surrender from GMT Games and designer Salvatore Vasta. The first episode in embedded below; the second will be out tomorrow. My impressions are below.

Unconditional Surrender is a strategic-level game about World War II in Europe. While both the rulebook and playbook are fairly hefty and there are some fussy rules here and there, it’s really not very complicated for a game of its scope. I was able to get the hang of all the basics by watching a few videos (and there’s a ton of video on it,) and the finer points didn’t cost me too much time looking up on the spot.

There are a couple of things about this game that some folks have been turned off by. Most obviously it uses an unusual map projection which looks funny to hairy old wargamers who have seen a lot of strategic maps of Europe. But the equal-area projection that it uses is actually very smart; it means that hexes toward the north of the play area are much less distorted in size than they would be on a more conventional map. This allows, for example, for all of Scandinavia to fit on the table, while eliminating silliness like Soviet units roaming around in the vast expanses of northern Finland.

The other striking thing that’s obvious at a glance is the counters — they have no strength factors on them. Instead, differences in combat ability are represented by a number of die roll modifiers. One might feel that the game was missing some detail without combat factors, but in practice everything you;d want represented ta this level is worked in, and it all works really well at the table.

One of the game’s features is that all combat — ground, air, naval and strategic warfare — uses the same combat table. The modifiers and interpretations of the results are different, but everything works the same way, removing, right off the top, a substantial amount of rules overhead, while missing none of the detail or flavor that you’d want.

This elegance carries forward throughout the design. Production is handled very cleanly, for example, yet offers more strategic choices than a simple reinforcement schedule. The events of the game effect this is a realistic way. When Germany conquers Poland, for example, it gets the Polish Corridor and a potential new unit in the pool — but it doesn’t just get all of Poland’s factories for its own use. The same type of arrangement holds for the USSR and the Baltic States.

Diplomacy runs on a simple chit-pull-plus-conditions system that gives real choices but produces plausible results. The result is a game that flows along historically plausible lines but doesn’t feel scripted to always produce historical results. It’s not guaranteed that Italy will end up as an Axis country, for example, or the Yugoslavia will join the Allies — but despite wargame tradition and conventional wisdom, those outcomes were not preordained historically, either.

I’m exploring Unconditional Surrender solitaire, but it would work great with two or three players. I judge that it is not a true three-faction game, but that’s okay. And there are guidelines for playing with four, where the Axis gets split into west and east fronts controlled by separate players. A variety of scenarios are presented, including several learning games to ease oneself in.

This isn’t a review — I haven’t played enough of Unconditional Surrender to write a credible one. I don’t know if it will become a ‘classic” — I’m not an expert on the classics, and I’m reluctant to assign that label to a game this young. But Unconditional Surrender seems to me to be very well-designed and produced, and I can see it getting a great deal of play.

The good design also extends to the components; the map by Vasta and stalwart Mark Simonitch looks great, the counters are the usual GMT quality (but on the somewhat lighter white-core stock) and there’s a stack of very well-thought-out play aids. But to me the Rulebook and Playbook are the best part: they are well-organized and crystal clear except in a couple of places, and better yet, there’s an index, and one of the best indices I’ve seen out of GMT at that. They are also stuffed with detailed examples, advice, designer commentary and the like.

Unconditional Surrender is currently out of print and fetching big bucks if you buy it from speculators, but it’s up for reprint on the P500 and should make it back to store shelves early next year. If you’re in the market for a clean-playing (if not necessarily quick) strategic World War II game, check it out. I can already tell you that I would rather play this than World in Flames or any of Third Reich’s various spin-offs and descendants.

Exploring New Channels

I find myself to be more of a YouTuber than a blogger these days. Not by any particular plan, so I do still plan to continue blogging, but alongside a retooling of the YouTube channels. There’s a video update explaining all this, but in brief, I have started an ArdwulfDigital channel to hold the great majority of my video game content, while tabletop game content (primarily wargames) will stay at the existing Ardwulf’s Lair channel.

Old video game content will stay where it is; YouTube doesn’t have a way to transfer content. So only the new stuff is affected.

One current project, just wrapped up is a Exploration series on MMP’s The Mighty Endeavor, so go check out the embedded videos.

How to Wargame, A New Video Series

Now up on the channel are two new videos in a new series called How to Wargame, with a focus on bringing newcomers to wargaming with explanatory walkthroughs and topical treatments. It will be an ongoing series even after I’m finished explaining the first title, Paths of Glory from GMT Games and designer and general WWI master Ted Racier.

In the first video I introduce the game and explain the various components.

In episode 2 we delve into the sequence of play, discuss the victory conditions and explain two of the game’s phases: Mandated Offensives and War Status.

Enjoy! The response so far has been incredibly encouraging. Feel free to share these around.

Stellaris First Impressions

I’ve long wished for a space 4X game done is the Paradox style. For a long time, the Distant Worlds series was the only game in town, high-priced and primitively adapted to the modern GUI as it was. Now we have the long-awaited Stellaris, from Paradox itself, and it is at once very much in the style of their grand strategy games, and at the same time differs from their earlier games in a number of intriguing respects.

As the developers have explained it, Stellaris plays out in a three-act framework. In the first act you play a 4X game, in the second you play a more typical Paradox grand strategy game, and in the third you face some kind of final confrontation generated by the game based on the actions of the players. There’s really a fourth part, a prologue of sorts in which you create your species and would-be interstellar empire, that has huge ramifications on how you will play the rest of the game.

I’m closing in on the end of the first act in my own game, and the demarcation line isn’t a clean one. Perhaps I have just drawn a short straw; perched on the galactic rim, I have a vast expanse of uncolonizable space immediately to antispinward. On the one hand, this has seriously crimped the eXpand element of the 4X formula; but on the other, it’s kept alien enemies largely off my ass, including one “fallen” empire, advanced and powerful but stagnant and decrepit.

From the pre-launch video playthroughs I’ve seen (press copies issued to various YouTube bigshots had their blackouts lifted late last week,) this experience seems like a bit of an outlier… but nobody seems to be having quite the same early-game experience even with relatively similar races and empires. Which suggests a lot of variability to gameplay even in the early stages. This is a good thing.

Just because my colonization has been a bit crimped and I haven’t had that much contact with other empires, though, doesn’t mean the time has been spent sending ships out into empty space; there’s a lot to do even in unoccupied parts of the galaxy. There’s quite a bit of space-based life, some of it placid and some of it hostile. There’s also pirates, typically by dissidents from your own empire and using its cast-off hardware. There are also systems to survey and anomalies to investigate, and deep-space stations and mining and science outposts to build. I felt like my empire was straining against its borders, but maybe the solution is to find natural borders and let the game progress from there, developing your empire internally.

How well Stellaris segues into the second phase of gameplay is something I’ll be finding out in the next few hours of play. Meanwhile, though, my early impressions are very positive. The early exploration and colonization driven gameplay is a lot of fun, the randomized tech progression mixes things up nicely, and the choices you make designing your empire have a huge impact on your experience. So far it’s pretty much what I wanted from a Paradox Space Strategy game.

Not that there’s no room for expansions to richen the experience. Diplomacy in particular has lots of room for elaboration. But following the typical Paradoix model we can expect that Stellaris will get robust DLC support over the next several years, turning it into as deep and engaging — and opaque — a space game as we’ve seen anywhere. It’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

On the flip side, by its very nature Stellaris is Paradox’s most approachable title, because everyone starts with just one planet and can grow and develop, with the player learning the game as she goes, before rubbing shoulders with other empires. In Europa Universalis IV, for example, you really shouldn’t start playing with a small country with hardly anything to manage; you’ll have few options and powerful neighbors that will obliterate you after a single mistake. Stellaris completely avoids that issue.

I’m going to keep playing and I am likely to have more thoughts down the line as my game matures. My first impression is very positive — if you don’t opt to pick it up now at full price, keep an eye on it when it goes on sale. If you enjoy space 4X at all, even if you think it stalls in the mid-game, Stellaris is still going to provide some quality hours.

Good News & Bad News

It was an eventful week for MMORPG fans. In bad news, EverQuest Next was scuttled by Daybreak and 40% of Wildstar’s staff was given the golden toe by NCSoft in preparation for that game’s looming closure. In better news, Black Desert Online launched with a decent bit of buzz and the live stream of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen surprised a lot of people.

The abortion of EQNext is symptomatic of two things, I think. One is the obvious haplessness of Daybreak, a company displaying no clear signs of knowing what it is doing at any level. The other is the relative decline in what I’m forced to call “Immersive World RPGs.” The perception is that there’s no longer a market for triple-A games of this kind. This may or may not actually be true, but with the cancellation of EQNext I can’t think of any that are in development in the west. Even the extant games are slowly shuttering or evolving away from the immersive world.

Of course, there are a host of such games brewing at the indie level. Two that I have my eye on are Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar and Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, both of which are slowly progressing under small development teams. In both cases some, shall we say, less than triple-A quality stuff has been shown; the early Pantheon footage was scarily primitive-looking.

But both games are coming along. On Friday, Visionary Realms streamed the first-ever gameplay from Pantheon, live and unscripted. It was “pre-Alpha,” whatever that even means anymore, and while we only saw a small part of the world, the game has obviously come a very long way indeed.

For one thing, it looks terrific. The Unity 5 engine has really come through here, and this looks as good as anything I have seen using that platform. The character and spell animations are obviously still placeholders (which the devs mention) and there was some graphical glitching but overall it looks tremendous.

More impressive, though, was the actual gameplay. Six devs just playing, with no cheats, and hashing out strategies on the fly, first for clearing out an Orc camp and then penetrating a cult’s mysterious sanctum. The novel Pantheon mechanics of colored mana and atmospheres were on display, but the coolest thing was that stuff happened that the devs didn’t expect. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; true emergent gameplay isn’t even seen as desirable in MMOs anymore. The Pantheon team appears to get why it’s awesome and why it belongs in an Immersive World RPG.

PanzerGrenadier… Fail

My planned PanzerGrenadier game and accompanying video playthrough… did not go well. I was an hour into playing and filming and what I was doing was simply not fun. I talk about some of the reasons for that in the embedded video.

Fundamentally I think it comes down to a lack of depth, which appears to lie in the system but also in the maps and scenarios. One would expect this comparing it to ASL… but I think that even Combat Commander, a game I’m not exactly wild about, beats the pants off of PG in this regard. I would be curious to look at Lock n’ Load as another point of possible comparison.

I’m a little pissed at myself for having hung onto this for all these years before realizing that it’s simply not for me. For those who like it, enjoy. I have six of the early out of print products (the original PG itself, Heroes of the Soviet Union, Akrika Korps, Desert Rats, Airborne and Battle of the Bulge) now available for trade. Hit me up on BGG if you’re interested.

Roads to Moscow is now on the table.

Normandy Games

I’ve been looking lustily at Dan Holte’s The Battle for Normandy for some time. It is an impressive game: the whole of the Normandy campaign though early August at the Battalion level. Big maps, tons of counters and much detail.

At the same time I have now played a game of Mark Simonitch’s Normandy ’44, also from GMT and covering basically the same thing but on one map and at the Regimental level.

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Bear in mind that I have played the one but merely watched a bunch of video and looked at the rules for the other when I say that Normandy ’44 appears to me to be a much superior game. The Battle for Normandy looks decent, I will grab it if the opportunity arises, and would look with great interest upon an eventual second edition. But given that it is out of print and is unlikely to return to the P500 soon, thereby keeping prices inflated, I’ve moved it from the top of my (short and tight) wantlist to close to the bottom.

I remain interested in another, lower-scale game covering the Normandy campaign, however. The two I am looking are are both from MMP: the Tactical Combat Series entry The Greatest Day appears to be a bit too fine-grained, but despite its ugly (IMO) map their Day of Days is getting a look as well. I suppose I should also drop Atlantic Wall into the mix as well, since it also has the right scale and covers the campaign for the full timeframe that I’m interested in.

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