At Castalia House there is some excitement over the rumored re-release of TSR’s classic fantasy board game, Divine Right. It seems that Excalibre Games has the rights to produce an update. I decided to check out the company and while looking over their catalogue noticed a couple of interesting titles. Today is a “two for one special” and after a game review of one of the titles I’ve included a short Q&A with Excalibre’s Robert Mosimann.
Unfortunately, any update of Divine Right is over a year away, so to help pass the time I decided to order Total War, the fifth game in Excalibre’s Panzer and Sieges Series. Not to be confused with The Creative Assembly’s great computer game series, Total War is a strategic level simulation of Operation Fall Weiss (Case White), the German blitzkrieg on Poland in September, 1939 with victory conditions tied to the historical timeline of the campaign; the German player must capture or totally isolate Warsaw within 15 turns (each turn representing 2 days) or the Polish player wins.
Each of the Panzer and Sieges games retails for under $20. The other titles cover North Africa, Caen, and Cassino. Crimea, which is in short supply, is not listed on the inventory but Mr. Mosimann stated that it is available for $21.95. Granted, prices advertised from other retailers for Total War range from way lower to a little higher but I didn’t mind going direct to the source.
Bottom Line Up Front: Despite the order process being a little more labor intensive than major online retailers (best way to order is a phone call and payment via Paypal) Total War is great value for anyone interested in the Polish Campaign or looking for a smaller to mid-sized game with basic rules. Don’t let the lack of complexity fool you as the end result is a fun game that can be played in about an hour, 90 minutes or so if the Poles can hold out to the end.
A few years back I attempted to introduce board games to my son and it never really took but asked him to read the rules and play a game as a favor. I can’t think of a better recommendation than the fact that he visibly warmed to the game as the play went on. On a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10 (I want to play another game right now!) he rated it at 6 (don’t mind playing it again in the near future). That may not sound like a solid endorsement but before we started playing I would have guessed he’d rank the experience around 3 or 4 (are you going to pay me for this?). The noticeable change in attitude I put down to the intellectual challenge of trying to formulate an effective Polish defense against great odds.
Using the Ye Olyde School Rating System with 1 (terrible) to 5 (excellent), I rate Total War:
Ease of Learning: 5
Historical Accuracy: 3
Game Community: 1
Ease of Learning – 5: There are two rule booklets, with six pages of rules and two pages listing the order of battle and set up instructions. One booklet is the Basic Rules covering the usual board game elements (zones of control, stacking, movement, terrain effects, etc.) and the other lists Total War specific rules. It took me under 30 minutes to read and digest the rules and the same for my son whose experience with board games is minimal.
Playability – 5: For setting the game up I’d rate it a 3. The unit counters use darker shades and unless one has perfect vision (don’t ask) it is difficult to see the unit designations. This becomes an issue when one uses the order of appearance for the German units. They are listed by “army groups”, which start the game in East Prussia, Germany north of Posen’s latitude or the southern sector to include Morovia and Slovakia. Fortunately, the German infantry divisions have the same combat and movement factors (6-4) so it is easy to disregard the unit designation and pick any infantry division while placing them on the map. There are some smaller infantry Brigades and panzer divisions where you will need to find the right unit as German armor divisions are rated differently. Add at least 30 minutes for set up, even more for the initial game.
Playing the game rates a 5 and once the game is underway one soon forgets about the manual set up so overall rating is 5. The rules may be simple and the map medium sized but the fun begins while deciding how to place the units. The Polish player is constrained by the historical forward defense strategy (done for political and not practical purposes) and must start most units close to the border. The Poles are destined to lose; Britain and France will never intervene to the extent that will relieve the pressure, so they must concentrate on delaying the inevitable.
Instead of establishing defensive areas crafted to slow the German advance while avoiding encirclement my son grouped his units into stacks of three divisions per hex (the Poles are limited to two infantry divisions in a stack, the third unit being cavalry, artillery, or the motorized brigade). I strongly advised against his set up as I could envision quickly surrounding then reducing masses of trapped Poles, a la the early stages of Barbarossa but my son mentioned the isolation rule and figured these surrounded stacks would stall the German advance. When it came time for me to set up I could see he had a point. Not only was it harder to work the German units around the groupings of Poles (an issue exacerbated by the “fog of war” or me stupidly forgetting to move a whole panzer corps in the south before declaring my first attack) but in their strong defensive positions I had to settle for a war of attrition with many battles at one to one (1-1) odds.
Apologies for the poor quality of some of the photos but here is a shot of the original set up.
Polish units are red, German khaki. Warsaw on the right hand side of the picture is heavily garrisoned and there is a strong concentration in the forests south of the Polish Corridor at the top of the map.
For those new to gaming it is a rough rule of thumb that an attacker should have at least at 3-1 advantage for a reasonable chance of success. The strong Polish defensive positions made this impossible at the opening stages of the game. Instead of waiting until the defender’s defense factors were halved on the fourth turn after being cut off I had to begin a battle of attrition against these concentrated defenses. . At times the best odds I could get were even and in Total War the Combat Results Table for 1-1 odds gives the attacker a 50% chance of a favorable result and a 33% percent chance of taking casualties. My infantry divisions took the brunt of these losses and at the end of the campaign I had to have Goebbels work overtime in emphasizing the victory and hiding the losses from the populace.
The Polish defense north of Warsaw was solid and they even pushed the Germans back across the border. A couple of bad die rolls at 1-1 odds have caused losses on the German infantry divisions (dropped from 6-4 to 4-4) along with a hard to take loss for a Panzer grenadiers division (8-8 to 4-8). The Germans are now on the defensive in this sector and would remain so until the end of the game.
Even though the standard image of the Blitzkrieg is panzers rushing forward while Stukas dive bomb the enemy lines air power simulation is limited. The first three turns, German airpower is busy on strategic missions and air suppression and after Turn 3 the air attack factors available are ineffectual against large concentrations of defenders in good terrain.
Eventually, the German superiority in numbers will take their toll and by Turn 6 progress was being made. My son kept playing until Turn 8 and by then the writing was on the wall. His defense delayed me a little longer than the actual campaign as historically; Warsaw was fully invested by “Turn 9” but I was only just approaching the city.
Another bad photo but here are the positions at the time of the Polish surrender. The Poles could have made better use of the troops that remain in the upper left hand side of the photo. I’d estimate the Poles could have held out for about 5 more turns but besides the units on the East Prussian border the rest of their army was too far way or isolated to take a role in any final defense. With the Soviets preparing to enter from the east on Turn 9 it was time to end this game. This was a good defense by a gaming novice so an experienced Polish player could really cause the German player some heart burn.
I’m looking forward to playing the Poles and I do think I’ll incorporate some facets of my son’s concentrated defensive strategy. My thinking is a fall back strategy which preserves as much of the army as possible for the end game is needed.
Historical Accuracy – 3: A good average score. At the strategic scale a high level of abstraction is the only way to have a playable game. There’s room for a “modder” to strictly define the unit set up to make it as historical as possible and increase the complexity of the victory conditions to force the Poles to try and defend the Polish corridor (a losing proposition) but the game is well worth playing in conjunction with any reading or research of the opening campaign of World War 2.
I’m a little disappointed that the Slovakian units are not included. I forgot to bring this up with Mr. Mossimann during the Q&A but I’m guessing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions represent the three participating Slovakian divisions. If this is the case, I’d make a house rule stating the mountain divisions could not enter more than 3 or 4 hexes into Poland as the Slovakians only attacked border regions where they had territorial claims.
Game Community – 1: Gets a one, literally. Right now I think I’m the only one playing it. If you’re interested in the Polish Campaign and looking for a high level simulation I recommend Total War. I do see some mentions of the game on Boardgamegeek.com but for the price this one is worth picking up to have an easy to learn and play game on hand.
Aesthetics – 3: Nothing spectacular but not bad. Personally, I’d prefer a light green for the Polish units and a light grey for the Germans but the strength of this game is the intellectual challenge for the Poles to survive 15 turns and for the Germans to beat the clock.
A better image of the map.
Based on my experience with Total War I recommend anyone interested in historical board games give the Excalibre catalogue a looking over. You may find something interesting.
Q&A with Mr. Robert Mossimann of Excalibre Games.
I wish I had more time and there was more space for this blog post to do this interview justice. It turned from a Q&A into a good conversation covering multiple topics. Any comments I have will be preceded by: (YOS). Please excuse in advance any foray into off topic rants….
Q: Is there any information, insight or anecdote you would like to pass on concerning Total War?
Total War is part of a series of 5 using the same rules system produced many years ago by Excalibre.
The other titles are Monte Casino, Caen, Sidi Rezegh, and Crimea. Crimea is not listed on the Excalibre inventory form as it is in extremely short supply but it is available to anyone interested that campaign.
I find the stated cause of the Polish campaign fascinating as both England and France decided to make a stand against a resurgent Germany over a small city with a majority German population (Danzig). Once the dust had settled five years later Europe was bankrupt, and the French and British empires were living on borrowed time.
Players will notice that the German armored divisions have the highest combat factors in the game. These factors do not necessarily represent the technological superiority of German armor. Even at this early stage the Pz I’s were used mostly for reconnaissance and as command vehicles and the upcoming campaign would reveal the limitations of the Pz IIs. The high combat factors represent such intangibles as a superior leadership style (e.g. Guderian leading from the front), higher levels of initiative amongst German leaders (to include NCOs) and most German tanks being equipped with a radio set, allowing for better tactical command and control.
As for the Poles they could be fanatic in defense and aggressive when the opportunity presented itself as their doctrine, if it can be called that, was a belief in the counter attack when the time was right. They were deeply influenced by the recent Polish – Soviet War won when all seemed lost by a counterattack during the Battle of Warsaw. (YOS – I find Robert’s mention of timely counter attacks interesting as my son would launch counter attacks from surrounded units in an attempt to cause casualties the turn before the units suffered penalties due to lack of supply.) The Poles were in a hopeless situation but they fought harder than they get credit for. Keep in mind they managed to hold out just as long as the French did and the French had a larger, better equipped army (in fact they had the worlds best tanks at that time).
Q: How did you initially get involved with war gaming and are there any aspects of your war gaming history beyond Excalibre you would like to share (e.g., game design, articles, etc.)?
I initially became interested in war gaming as a result of being a history buff. History, especially ancient history was always a love of mine and is a must for any well educated person. Unfortunately, the young are little concerned with history and the focus of modern schooling is on subhuman rote memory for job training rather than true education.
I remember winning a Diplomacy (YOS – a classic board game if there ever was one) event at a convention very early on and receiving an Art of Siege Warfare game as a prize.
I am now active in developing two designs of my own in addition to dealing with other designers.
Q: What was the impetuous in creating Excalibre games?
I purchased Excalibre Games in 1990 and took the company in a slightly different direction where extremely high quality of physical production and artwork occurred and we focused upon historical titles.
We are now shifting our focus again into the more mainstream card, fantasy and euro markets to stay current with the new market realities. There is a noticeable generational gap in game preferences and targeting the new generation will take us away from straight historical titles.
The original Excalibre Games purchase started the ball rolling but other acquisitions such as 3W and an inventory of the meta games were also major additions and as I grew I basically purchased one product line with the associated inventory after another.
We have roughly 200 copyrights including many SPI titles and intend to go to a just in time system of producing small quantities of these historical titles to keep them alive while normal print runs occur of the new card, fantasy and euro titles.
Q: I’m not familiar with euro games could you explain what they are?
Euro game is a general term for quick to learn and quick to play game that only superficially covers a historical topic or period. For example, a subject title may cover Classical Greece and the game design will display Greek motifs but the underlying game system and rules will not have much to do with anything related to historical events or concepts. (YOS – It’s like going to an Outback restaurant in the U.S. before they removed a lot of the Aussie kitsch. Many people feel they are getting an Aussie experience but everything from the food, the lame beer and the NFL on the TV just make it an American chain restaurant with the menu being a running pun of so called Aussie lingo. Can’t they at least get some 4X or Toohey’s beer? ).
Q: Do you think there is still a significant market for board games in the computer age?
The historical board game market is shrinking however; there are several areas where games still have large sales such as the card and euro markets.
Q: What are your thoughts on the advantages of board games over computer or online games?
The advantages include face to face live encounters with friends instead of virtual or no encounters.
Further, computer gaming becomes automatic often to the point where the design or historical reality is not apparent to the gamer but is hidden under the surface. Thus, for historical games it is really a must to play board games rather than computer games to study the history. I’m afraid that the need for thinking and planning has been removed and a playing is just reacting to what is, in effect, lights, bells, and whistles. That being said, the advantage of historical computer games is its ability to include fog of war and command and control problems far more readily than board games.
Q: Ordering games from Excalibre is not as seamless as, for example, ordering from Amazon or other online retailers? Will you be updating your system in the future?
We will be updating not only our website but most of our company operations so please be patient until we get things effectively upgraded though the priority for now is the release of the new titles.
We have just recovered from a split from Decision Games where previously they distributed our products and received our inventory back from them in great disarray along with incurring major expenses in getting set up again. We are accumulating a production reserve of funds and it will take time to build this up cash reserve in order to actually be able to get new product out.
Q: Can you tell us about the upcoming releases?
Excalibre Games has a number of titles planned including:
Seas of Gold
The Heroic Age of Greece
Barbarian Kingdom and Empire
Ancient Conquest 2
Flight of the Goeben
Advanced Puerto Rico
Advanced Puerto Rico will be a euro production game on the early Caribbean economy but unlike the current game will have a military aspect to it. This title is over a year out.
Seas of Gold is another simple euro game that focuses on the Italian City States during the Crusader Era.
I’m afraid you’ll have to wait at least a year on Divine Right. At this time we are concentrating on the art work.
Mythic Wars is the title closest to production. We plan a kick starter in about 3 months and pre-ordering is possible at this time for $24.95.
This title features dueling pantheons of ancient gods with event cards based on actual myths along with cards representing fabled the heroes and artifacts unique to each pantheon. I expect about 6 different pantheons to be represented with the Greek and Egyptian pantheons certain for inclusion. I’m considering making this a board game but haven’t made a final decision yet. (YOS – I had to pre-order this one).