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« Potion Making: Practice - An Alchemical Review | Main | Greeting, Professor Faulken - My Experiences with Wargames. »
Monday
Oct172011

Strike Force One - A Wargame Review.

Strike Force One Board Game Review - Victory Point Games Edition

 

This is a review from a series of articles I am writing about my foray into wargaming. The introduction to these articles, with a bit of background can be found here.

 

The first game that I played was Strike Force One, Designed by Jim Dunnigan and Redmond A. Simonsen. “Strike Force One” was originally published in 1975, and designed as a very basic introduction to wargames. It was republished, and given a graphical facelift, in 2007 by Victory Point Games, as the first of their BATTLESSON line of games. Victory Point Games' BATTLESSON line is their beginner, teaching line of games that work to teach the basic mechanics found in wargames, and give the player some initial strategy to get them started.

 

Components:

Like all of Victory Point Games' offerings, Strike Force One comes packaged in a plastic baggie, with components printed on a high end desktop publishing setup. This process delivers colorful, clean components that serve their function nicely. The printed components sport a matte finish, so they don't have the glossy look of other games that use an offset printing process; although, in some ways this can be a boon, as overhead lights won't cast a glare across the pieces during play.

Strike Force One comes with a small, thick cardstock map; a set of 12 die-cut cardboard counters; some charts to determine combat results; and various printed booklets describing the basic and advanced rules, as well as a very insightful, illustrated play-through of a typical game. This play-through is accompanied with commentary to explain the rationale behind each move, and better familiarize the player with the strategies and tactics required to play. All of the components are full color, but have a simple and direct art style.

 

The Game:

It is important to remember that Strike Force One, first and foremost, serves as a game to introduce the basic mechanics of wargames to new players. The basic game plays with 10 units, on a 9x8 hex based map. The game takes place during a fictional encounter between the United states and the Soviet Union in West Germany during the mid 1970's. One player assumes the role of the United States, defending the cities pictured on the map, while the other player controls the Soviets, attempting to sieze control of at least two of the cities. The game consists of only 4 rounds, so each game only takes 15 minutes or so, but the Strike Force One Board Game Review - Wargame in playsimplicity of the game allows players to focus on the core mechanics that the game teaches. There are two distinct games in the Strike Force One package, the basic game, and the advanced game, and each one of these games focuses on teaching a distinct toolset.

The basic game focuses on teaching movement, zone of control, basic combat, retreat, and advancement of units. These mechanics interact in ways that may not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated, and when playing the game, manifest in some interesting, chess-like ways.

The first, and probably most important concept taught is "zone of control". The map in Strike Force One is made up of a grid of hexes. Each hex is a space where a player unit can be placed. Every unit on the map exerts "control" over the 6 hexes that surround it. This zone of control not only dictates what spaces the unit can attack, but also effects movement of other units in some very fundamental ways.

In Strike Force One, all units are of equal strength, and have a fixed amount of movement. When units move, they can travel through up to four hex spaces. However, if at any time a unit moves adjacent to an enemy unit (into it's zone of control), it must immediately stop movement. This means that even if a unit has 4 movement points, if his first move brings him into the zone of control of an enemy, he must forfeit the rest of his movement. A unit who starts his turn in an enemies zone of control, cannot move directly into another space that is in an enemy zone of control, either. His first move must always be into a space that is not under enemy control. This has strategic implications. Players can block off sections of the map, and impede their opponent's movement by placing units in a way that manipulates the zone of control to immobilize, or make forward progress impossible for the opponent.

Dotted about the map are a handful of forest spaces. In the basic game, these forest hexes are impassable. This makes for some interesting strategic choices, as the forest terrain on the board creates movement bottlenecks that become very important when interacting with the zone of control rules.

During gameplay, each player moves his units, adhering to the movement rules, and then has the opportunity to attack. Turns follow a strict order where one player makes all moves before attacking, and then the other player makes all of his moves before attacking. Attacking is very simple, with the offensive player counting the number of his units that are adjacent to the unit that he wishes to attack, and then rolling a six sided die. The resulting die roll and attacking units are cross-referenced on a combat table, and the result is carried out.

One of four things can happen as a result of an attack:

1. The attacking unit is outright eliminated (This is only possible if the attacker has only one unit in the battle, and is a scenario that will be most likely avoided, due to the inherent risk).

2. The defending unit is eliminated

3. The attacking units retreat (The attacking units must vacate their currently occupied hexes, and move to adjacent hexes that are not occupied, or under enemy control).

4. The defending unit retreats.

If a defending unit is eliminated, or retreats, the attacking player then has the option to move one of his attacking units Strike Force One Board Game Review - Wargame in playPossibly not the best opening, as the russian player has failed to keep a retreat path open.into the now vacated hex. One of the most interesting aspects of the game manifests in the retreat rules. The majority of the dice rolls will force a retreat of either the attacker or defender. It is actually somewhat rare for an all-out elimination of a unit via die roll. But, if a unit is unable to retreat to a valid, friendly, unoccupied space, he is automatically eliminated. This creates added complexity to the decision making process when moving units. Players find themselves manipulating their zone of control to deny their opponent a path to retreat, and what was statistically improbable (the elimination of the enemy unit), becomes the likely outcome. But, this usage of zone of control is a double edged sword, because players must also maintain a retreat path for their units as well. If the attacker is forced to retreat, but has no retreat path, his unit will meet that same fate of elimination.

The advanced game changes the combat rules, adds the ability to stack more than one unit in the same space, and introduces terrain with movement and combat modifiers. While this is a worthy addition, I found that the basic game taught enough of the basics, that a slightly more complicated game would probably be better suited to introduce these new concepts, and would be more compelling for the player in the long run.

 

Conclusion:

Strike Force One is very effective as an introduction to the basic concepts of movement, zone of control, and advance/retreat mechanics in wargames. It plays very much like an abstract game, and in fact, felt very similar to chess in it's play. Fork and pin strategies were prevalent during gameplay, utilizing zone of control to affect the opponent's movement and position. The game's simple mechanics reinforce these positional advantages, and help the player to understand how to maximize each of his combat rolls to have the optimal effect.

Strike Force One is probably not a game that players will find themselves playing once they have graduated to more complicated war games. It's simple board, homogenous units, and lack of meaningful narrative makes it very abstract in nature. While the game does not support the same longevity of others that I played afterwords, I feel that it was a very important stepping stone for me to understand, at a smaller scale, the sort of strategy involved in wargaming. I appreciated the simplicity of play, and the ability to focus on basic strategy without having to keep a mountain of rules in my head. While I probably could have skipped Strike Force One and played one of the more complicated beginner games, and not felt overwhelmed, I think that some of the nuance of positional strategy may have been lost on me as I focused on digesting the more complicated rules.

I mentioned earlier in my series introduction that I had coerced my 15 year old daughter to play Strike Force One with me. At first she was reluctant to play; she wasn't interested in the theme, and was put off a bit by the use of small cardboard chits as pieces. However, after the first play, she immediately asked to play again, and again, and again. We ended up playing the short game 4 times in a row, and my daughter was very surprised at how much she enjoyed the experience. During play she would talk about her strategy, explaining why she had positioned her pieces in certain positions; and those ideas of zone of control and retreat paths were foremost in her commentary. Based on this, it became apparent that the process of play in Strike Force One seemed to inherently reinforce these ideas.

Later the same day, I had laid out a different, slightly more complicated wargame, with a larger map, and four times the number of units. When my daughter walked by, her eyes lit up, as she said "Ooh! I want to play THAT game!". So, although Strike Force One might not be the most compelling game "experience" outside of the learning context, I found that it was very effective as a tutorial and gateway to the slightly more complicated beginner games in the genre, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to play it. It certainly awoke the desire to dive into some more complicated wargames, and I think that says a lot!

 

This series continues with a review of the World War 2 themed game, Battle For Moscow.

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