Saturday, December 4, 2010

More BROG#2: The Legend Begins review


                    RENAISSANCE MAN

THE LEGEND BEGINS, by MARK SIMONITCH

from RHINO GAME COMPANY

One 17" x 22", one 11" x 17", and one 10" x 17" map; 400 counters;  8 charts and tables cards; one Rules booklet; zip-lock bagged.  $22

Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG


Used to be, the best "map-men" in the business were Larry Catalano and Ted Koller. Their time has past, though, and we now have some new names (and faces) to whom we look with pleasure:  Dave Fuller, Kevin Boylan and gaming's new Man for All Seasons, Mark Simonitch. (Although FGA's maps are greeted with much enthusiasm, I have not been that impressed. Then again, I have not seen their two latest ventures into The Art of the Shill.)  Simonitch, however, not content to sit at his drawing board, has ventured into the rough waters of game design and publishing.  Obviously, he didn't ask around.

The Legend Begins covers a familiar, and popular, subject:  WWII in No. Africa, this time limited to 1941.  There have been innumerable games on this subject, many of them quite good. They always sell fairly well, not an unimportant consideration when opening one's design doors. It is also well-documented, even if several of the sources do seem to have many differences of opinion. The campaign has lots of movement, lots of tanks, relatively few units, and Rommel . . . a game designer's paradise.  And into this veritable Eden wanders our leafless hero, about to take a bite out of that big apple.

Ignoring the fact that the game comes in a zip-lock bag - a marketing choice obviously drawn from a Cracker Jack box - the game is of excellent graphic quality. The maps, which come in three somewhat unusual shapes to account for the unusual coastline Libya and Egypt provide, sport Simonitch's trademark shades of brown and yellow. (It's hard to bring to mind one of Mark's maps that isn't predominantly tan, or beige, or sand, or something quite similar. He always seems to end up in the desert: viz. Chaco, Rio Grande, Trajan, etc. Funny, he doesn't look Bedouin.) Granted, there's not much one can do with this area in terms of visual appeal. The maps are, therefore, more utilitarian than exciting. They do sport some interesting visual solutions to some old problems, such as the desert areas to the south. MS dispenses with the hexes, replacing them with dots. This is a "six-of-one, half-dozen of-the-other" solution, and "The Wargamer" did it with their von Borries game, Drive on Damascus, some 10 years ago. But it does convey, in a modest way, the trackless and unmapped nature of the terrain. It also conveys the impression that there is a mind at work.

To counter-balance the "blandness" of the map, Rhino gives us some nice counters. The colors are fairly primary (and the Indians are lavender, which is a curious choice), but the print is clear and the information is well organized.  The rules book is excellent, and the various charts and tables provide some needed organizational help. Rhino has followed all of this up with a well-printed errata sheet, in the format of a Q&A, and then, in its house newsletter (which should have been entitled "The Rhino's Charge", "The Rhino Horn o' Plenty", or something in that catchy vein), they even come up with a great, quick-play, one-map scenario on Battleaxe.  In all, considering this is an initial effort, a very nice job indeed, especially in the area of product support.  True, a box would have made it infinitely more enticing to consumers, and would have added, maybe, $4-5 to an already low price.  Rhino has learned this marketing lesson, and all its subsequent games will be in boxes.

Given the number of desert games available - and, never fear, there will be more - together with the wide variety of design theories evolved for them, what has Simonitch done that is different from his predecessors? The answers is that Simonitch appears to be a talent who bears watching, for he uses some unusual approaches to answer a variety of old questions.

One of the major problems in simulating desert warfare is its remarkable fluidity. This virtually precludes the standard play sequence of, say, Afrika Korps. Legend's Play Sequence uses a somewhat unusual "Operations Phase," of which there are two per weekly turn. There are six "chits", three for each player, labelled "Primary", "Secondary" and "Tertiary".  These refer to the different movement possibilities available: in the "Primary", all units may move with their full MA's, and players can undertake Sea, rail and air movement, build fortifications, etc.; in the "Secondary",  MA's are halved, rounded up; and in the "Tertiary" segment they are halved, rounding down.  The beauty of this system is that, at the start of each Op Phase, all six chits are placed in a cup and drawn one at a time to indicate who goes, using which segment. No player can undertake more than two consecutive segments, and only five chits (not all six) are drawn per Phase!  This not only creates a high level of uncertainty, but it also makes solitaire play an enjoyable undertaking. 

The drawback is Simonitch's violation of one of the major Dunnigan Maxims of Wargame Designs:  "Always Have the Illusion of Movement."  (Yes, there is a certain amount of dogmatic catholicism in all of that, but this one happens to be apt.) All Legend foot units have an MA of '3', and none can ever move more than two hexes in any segment.  Even in the Primary phase they don't seem to be going anywhere; in the other phases, it's Turtle Time in old Libya. In half the turns, because of terrain costs and other factors, they cannot move at all! While this is, overall, an accurate portrayal of how inefficient - and useless - non-motorized infantry was in what was essentially a mobile war, it is not a "play-oriented" answer, especially in the Perceived Reality world of gamers. Perhaps the solution would have been to use, instead of the eight phases a month (with weekly turns), a ten-day cycle, and six phases a month . . . or some other, such idea. The result of this anti-Dunniganical thinking is that parts of the game sort of lurch in fits and starts. True, the mech and motorized units have MA's of 7-9, enabling them to fairly race from one place to another, but I'm not sure that, in practice, these units should be capable of moving by road 12+ times farther than their walking brethren. Movement allowances are not just a mathematical representation of how fast you can go from point 'a' to point 'z'; they also express the realities of tactical doctrine, logistics, and a whole host of other impediments to their progress.  However, given the success of the rest of the game, this is a minor contrivance at worst.  If one is going to err, erring on the side of reality is always a healthy sign.

The rest of the game is quite good. It eliminates the air war, which, historically, didn't have much effect until 1942, and keeps the logistics simple (or at least relatively so - after all, this was rge quintessential supply-oriented campaign) but effective.  As for combat, each combat unit has a certain number of steps, ranging from 1 to 4 (which information is printed on the counter so you don't lose track of which step you're working with). The CRT's only result is step losses, with the "loser" being disrupted and having to retreat. I wasn't entirely happy with this system. Aside from the clumsy simplicity of the "determine the victor" rules, the method precludes taking greater losses but staying in place.  While this allows the CRT to remain accessible, it removes results that would - and do - occur at the ends of the "Bell Curve". There are modifiers for armor superiority and artillery, the latter handled through HQ's. Given the relatively uncomplicated level of play, while these may not offer the deepest insight into armored warfare they do work in terms of playability.  There is also a rather nice method - and table - for accounting for the different scales of combat, from skirmish to monster battle.

Even with the desire to produce a simple, playable game there is a lot of detail here. There are shipping rules, Malta rules, some nicely handled tank repair and upgrade mechanics, trucks, fairly extensive fortress and minefield capabilities, etc.  On the negative side, despite an afterthought/option which is unhappy at best, there is no effective rule for unit training and morale. An Italian SP is the same as a British SP, is the same as a South African SP, etc. In the Advanced rules there is an adjustment for Italians in combat, but even this does not take into account the wide variety of capability between units within the Italian army.  Given the elegant ways in which Simonitch found solutions for other design problems, I was surprised he didn't tackle this one cleanly.

As far as the "game" goes, it's pretty tough to design an Africa game that is not fun to play (a barrier which I appear to have surmounted a decade ago with CNA). Legend is no different from the rest, and perhaps more fun than most.  While there are a lot of chrome add-ons and variants to keep your eye on, they don't detract too much from the basic flow of play, which is fast-paced and within acceptable parameters of "accuracy". The Chief Rhino has supplied five scenarios (six, if you count the Battleaxe game provided in "Horn of the Rhino"), ranging from one-map, one turn quickies to a full "campaign" game which runs from Rommel's arrival until the end of December.  Granted, the latter has sort of an "end-of-the-world" mentality. Then again, that will disappear when the 1942 package is published, a purchase I heartily recommend.

The arrival of Legend and its designer, Mr Simonitch, is a welcome sight in what has been a fairly disastrous second half of 1991. As a game - and especially for the price - Legend could easily be the Best Bet of the past year.


CAPSULE COMMENTS:

Physical Quality:  Despite the zip-lock bag, very good. Major points for exceptionally crisp and clear print fonts.

Playability:  High. There is a fair amount of chrome, but the basic mechanics are easily assimilated. Only drawback is low movement rates, which create a somewhat sluggish effect at times.

Historicity:  Despite some personal quibbles with a couple of unit strengths, etc., surprisingly good and evocative of the campaign.

Playing Time:  Short scenarios, such as Tobruk and Battleaxe, can be completed several times in one evening. The Campaign Game is a weekend affair, at best. (And a weekend affair is always best . . . . ta dum.)

Comparisons:  My God, there are umpteen hundred Africa games out there. This one is at about the same complexity/playability level as Desert Fox, and probably just as good (or better). I would say its head and shoulders above such entries as the Quarterdeck/van Borries Rommel's War or the similar effort from OSG, whose title escapes me. If you've been majoring in Afrika Korps or Panzerarmee Afrika, you're probably not ready for the heady aroma of historicity yet. And if you've been playing CNA, well, my sympathies. It's also not as complex as the upcoming Victory Games' Blood & Sand. However, the most recent comparison would be to FGA's Operation Crusader. Legend does with 15 counters what OC can't do with 500 - provide creativity, fun and historical insight.

Overall:  This is a game well worth the few bucks it costs, and one which you will surely play more than once. While not the definitive simulation of the war in Africa, it has enough historicity and chrome to satisfy most gamers. Mr. Simonitch is a designer to watch.






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