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Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' from Tiny Battle Publishing   Before we start ...

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley'

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley'

Claude Whalen about him and his games and his newest offering 'Conquering the Valley' from Tiny Battle Publishing

  Before we start a discussion on "Conquering the Valley", let me give you some of my gaming background.

I got my first wargames over fifty years ago: Tactics II, Gettysburg (1964) edition, Waterloo, Battle of the Bulge, Gettysburg (1977) and more Avalon Hill classics. Santa's workshop must have only made AH products because that is all that I ever got. Since I still have most of those games, I would say that Gettysburg (1977), Waterloo and Battle of the Bulge got the most play.

My main gaming interest leans towards the American Civil War for two reasons; I share January 19th as a birthday with Robert E. Lee (we had a print of Lee in our house) and I went to "Washington & Lee University" for my undergraduate work. Though it may seem like I'm from the South, my mother's family is from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and my father's ancestors are from Illinois. Other than my time at Washington & Lee, I've never lived in the South and none of my ancestors served for the Confederacy.

As for the Napoleonic era, I would have to say that it is a rather distant second era of interest but I still have dabbled in those types of games. Though I have always had an interest in the Second World War, I find less and less time available for studying it so all my old Avalon Hill WWII games have been moved to the back of the game shelves.

I got started in game design/development/testing in late 2016 when I saw a GMT pre-order advertisement for "Longstreet Attacks". I signed up and noted that they mentioned a game called "Stonewall's Sword" that would be a good introduction to Hermann Luttmann's system. I went ahead, ordered the game and started to learn the "Blind Swords" system. I then got "Thunder in the Ozarks" and continued to comment about the games online (BGG & Consimworld). Roger Miller of Revolution Games mentioned that they were always looking for new designers so I asked if I could give it a try. We decided to start with "Kernstown" and that is how I first spoke with Rick Barber. While I was just starting with Kernstown, GMT released Hermann's "Longstreet Attacks" game and it ended up at Revolution Games. I managed to join with Fred Manzo and Steve Poitinger in play testing the game (which had initially caught my eye in the first place).

Longstreet Attacks Counters

Testing "Longstreet Attacks" lasted for eleven months, and it was a great introduction to game design and development. With guidance from Hermann Luttmann and Roger Miller (Revolution Games), we played, tweaked, replayed, tweaked again and then moved on to the next scenario. When we got to the final full battle scenario, we had to tweak a few more things and so we then went back and rechecked the smaller scenarios just to make sure that they still worked. It turned out to be quite an experience and I will always be thankful for being allowed to join the group.

Speaking of the group, I traveled to Gettysburg to meet with a few of the guys and that is how I actually met Rick Barber. Since I live outside of Pittsburgh, PA, I could drive over to the Harrisburg area, pick up Rick (he didn't drive) and take him down to Gettysburg. Wow what an experience that was; Rick was truly an artist and that first trip into his basement to see all of his maps was amazing. First of all, how he could do all of his great mapwork in a dark, cramped basement that looked more like a hermit's cave than an art studio was a mystery to me. Once his mother passed away, he moved everything up to a much larger, light and airy studio but that was probably only for 18 months before he passed away.

More importantly, walking the Gettysburg battlefield with Rick was truly an eye-opening experience. Instead of concentrating on monuments, statutes and cannons, Rick pointed out the lay of the land and some tips on how to read it. Right after the first controlled burn around Little Round Top and Hood's attack route, Rick and I visited the field with a last draft of the "Longstreet Attacks" map. Since the ground had just been burned two weeks before, we were able to walk and observe what Hood's men crossed as they headed for the Union forces. As I walked that ground with Rick's map in hand, I was truly amazed at how many details that Rick got exactly right. If Rick put a tree line on one side of a hex, it was there; if there was a large rock on the map, there was a large rock on the field too.

Once I started to look at the land like a cartographer, it was like I was back at Gettysburg for the first time. I still checked monuments and cannons but now I was looking at the line of sight and lay of the land issues. I changed my focus towards mapping issues and now I try to get to all the battlefields that I may use in a game. I get a much better feel for the fight because books and maps are great but little things lurk on the actual battlefield that are important for game design. Besides making for a better game, looking at a battlefield this way makes visits to familiar battlefields new again.

Using those lessons, I went to Kernstown in January of 2017 and then a number of times during the summer. I got to meet a nice group of people  (Kernstown Battlefield Association) who are working hard on preserving a smaller battlefield and doing a good job at it. I was able to apply Rick's "eye" to my observations and then report back to Rick on how his map matched the actual land. Since the core area to the west of the Valley Turnpike is still saved, Rick got that ground right. The ground to the east of the Valley Turnpike has been graded and developed so that had to be drawn from old maps; overall I like Rick's work on Kernstown.

Kernstown Map

My next game was "Thunder at Dawn" (Wilson's Creek) and that ended up being the last map that Rick Barber worked on. He sent the final copy in to Revolution Games two weeks before he died. While that was going on, I worked with Hexasim on Quatre Bras and their combined game that included Ligny. In addition, I worked on "Fire on the Mountain" with John Poniske and Legion Games. Finally, I continued to work with Hermann Luttmann on "The Devil To Pay" with Tiny Battles and "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" with Flying Pig Games.

"A Most Fearful Sacrifice" was another 11-month monster project and it included Rick Barber's last map on Gettysburg. Though it took forever to complete, Rick hand drew and colored the 60" x 41" map and he really created a masterpiece. As for the process, Mark Walker was extremely generous in allowing us to do pretty much whatever we wanted. If we wanted different hats for the Iron Brigade, "sure". Add dog mascots to the appropriate counters, "why not". Tweak the uniforms for various units, "let's do it". The graphics for the game really deserved their CSR Award.

As for the switch from chits to cards, it was really very simple. We started out with chits but by the time that we realized that there were over 30 chits in the cup for day one alone, it was time to do something different. Hermann wanted to do cards and so we made the switch. As it worked out, it was one of the best changes that we made to the original "Blind Swords" system. After the numerous changes, we decided to change the game system name to something based on "BS". Since Dan Sickles' unusual move was something totally unexpected, we went with "Black Swan" for those utterly irrational events that just seem to crop up throughout history. As we kept testing the scenarios over the 11-month period, we kept raving over how much we liked the game. Though there was more than one comment that we "were preaching to the choir", the CSR Awards were a nice affirmation that we indeed created a great game.

Both Beautiful and Big!

After "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" was finished, Mark Walker asked Hermann if he wanted to do a simpler series of games for Tiny Battles Publishing and Hermann was kind enough to ask me to join in; hence the "Shattered Union" series was born. Trying to use some of the key parts of the "Black Swan" system, these games are supposed to be faster playing battles at a lower price point. Hence, they lack a mounted map board or extravagantly detailed counters but they should be fairly easy to understand if you are familiar with the "Black Swan" system. Hermann's "Champion Hill" was the first game and he also took Fredericksburg. I got "Conquering the Valley" and Gettysburg-July 4th. After some discussion, the Gettysburg-July 4th game became another scenario for the second printing of "A Most Fearful Sacrifice" and I decided to do Brawner Farm (2nd Manassas) on a demi company scale.

Using Rick Barber's cartography lessons from Gettysburg, I surveyed the ground at Brawner's Farm for two days. I spent two days walking the ground at Fredericksburg and bothering Frank O'Reilly with detailed questions about the ground there. He was extremely helpful and I passed my notes onto Hermann. Finally, Rick Barber gave me a name of one of his contacts who lived in Port Republic and so I traveled down there in August of 2017. Rick's associate was both a gamer and a very knowledgeable resident so I got a VERY detailed tour of the grounds. After his day tour, I spent the next day re-walking the ground and taking a few hundred pictures of the lay of the land. Since it took five years to finally get the game published, I am glad that I took those pictures to remind me of certain quirks on both battlefields.

Though Port Republic is the final battle of Jackson's Valley Campaign, Cross Keys is really more than just a prelude to the key battle. If the bridge over the North River is burned, Jackson's force is in serious trouble and even if they win, they probably cannot get to Richmond in time to help Lee during "The Seven Days". Union General Fremont was very aggressive in his pursuit of Jackson but once Jackson turns to fight, Fremont suddenly becomes very cautious. If he had been much more aggressive at Cross Keys and damaged Ewell's forces there (especially the "Louisiana Tigers"), Jackson may not have had enough fresh troops to defeat Tyler at Port Republic. With that being said, Cross Keys is more than an afterthought and is a battle worth fighting.

From my field survey at Cross Keys, there were a few things that stuck out. If you don't have a local guide, you probably would not find Trimble's ambush position for the 8th NY Infantry. It is just rolling farmland like many fields that you see driving through the Shenandoah Valley and if it wasn't for a small set of markers at the fence line Trimble occupied, you would never know that anything of any importance happened there. Another thing that stuck out was that Ewell's position above Mill Creek was VERY, VERY strong. Using Rick's "eye" training, it is very clear that Ewell's left flank is a much easier route to attack. The only problem with this route is that it is the furthest point from the North River bridge and even if you push Ewell back, he will just retreat towards that bridge anyway.

The key to the whole fight was the ridge that Ewell occupied behind Mill Creek. Here actually walking the ground and remembering Rick's guidance really paid off. Ewell's line was perched along a ridge that rose up from Mill Creek. The ridge is VERY steep and you needed to put your hand on the ground in order to balance yourself as you scrambled up the slope. It had to be nearly impossible to load and fire a rifle while making the climb. As it turned out, there was a small logging trail that started at the base of the ridge on Ewell's right front and it then rose up the slope and finally reached the top of the ridge on Ewell's left. Though the Rebel skirmishers could run up the slope in order to get back to the safety of their line, any Union troops couldn't have maintained a line of battle as they went up the slope two by two. They also would have exposed their left flank to any Rebel infantry on top of the slope.

Picture from Conquering the Valley

One final problem faced the Union at Mill Creek, as they approached the creek, the ground sloped down towards the water which made it even harder for them to fire at troops on the top of the ridge. After actually looking at the lay of the land, you understand why the Union troops only attempted a half-hearted frontal attack. Looking at a map never would have shown these problems to a game designer.

Moving onto the Port Republic battlefield, the first problem that both sides faced was the issues presented by the North River, South River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah. It had been a wet spring so all three rivers were running higher than normal. The North River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah were impassable without proper bridging and looking at the actual rivers, it was clear that they were substantial barriers. The bridge over the North River was the only reliable way to cross and it turned out to be a key to the battle. On the other hand, the South River was a river in name only. When I actually saw it, I thought that Antietam Creek was more of a barrier. Rain swollen at the time of the battle, it was more of a problem so Jackson had a bridge made from wagons and his troops crossed that way. Still, it was a "wagon-bridge" and it became a choke point for the Confederate troops, which caused them to trickle into the battle against Tyler's Union forces.

Though Jackson burned the bridge over the North River around 10:30am and thus prevented Fremont's troops from linking up with Tyler's force, things could have been much different. Turner Ashby was killed a few days before the battle and so the Confederate cavalry was in disarray at the time of the battle. Some Union cavalry were able to ride into Port Republic on a surprise raid, captured some of Jackson's staff and almost snagged Jackson himself. They also had a chance to destroy Jackson's ammunition supply. Though their orders were to NOT burn the bridge, the cavalry captured the North River bridge and positioned their one cannon at the south end of the bridge. All Rebel forces were on the north (Cross Keys) side of the bridge and were cut off from their ammunition. Faced with advancing Rebel infantry, the Union cavalry decided to burn the bridge. The Rebel infantry charged into the covered bridge and somehow the Union gun managed to MISS the Rebels as they came onto the north edge of the bridge. The Rebels chased the Union cavalry off, put out the fire and saved their ammunition train. The "what If" scenario came very close to being the actual Battle of Cross Keys.

The final two points about the Port Republic battlefield would not be noted unless you actually walked the field; maps wouldn't have shown these key points. The first point is that there is a ridge running down the middle of the cornfield. Since the North River makes a hard left-hand turn when it merges to become the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, this ridge was obviously an ancient river bank. When we drove down Lewiston Lane, the road cut through this ridge and it became clear that this ridge was a substantial ground feature (easily 15 to 20 feet deep where the Lane cut through it). Add on any crops growing on it at the time of the battle and it clearly would have blocked Line-of-Sight from one side of the valley to the other. Hence for the infantry on the floor of the valley, they couldn't see the entire field. Once you were up on the Union artillery platform on "The Coaling", the ridge DIDN'T conceal troops or limit the artillery Line of Sight. Though high ground is always important, this Line-of-Sight feature made "The Coaling" the dominant, key position of the battle. Possess it and you could control most of the battlefield.

Close-up from Conquering the Valley

The last point was the actual size of "The Coaling". Though the modern woods may have encroached on the site, it still is a remarkably small ledge. There is room for guns but not much else. Also, the Louisiana Tigers route of attack is tough terrain, heavily wooded and a sloped hillside. The only advantage that they would have had is that once they came out of the woods, they would be able to rapidly close on the Union guns. It is all very interesting ground and if I hadn't actually walked and climbed it, no map would have been able to show me what was actually there.

It is an interesting set of battles and I feel that the game gives you a good idea of what all three armies faced during those two days in June of 1862. Ewell had the easiest job, just hold the Union off. On the other hand, Jackson had to manage getting his troops over the North River Bridge and to safety while also getting enough troops up the valley to win the fight against Tyler's Union force. I found it fun and enjoyable to create this game and hopefully others will find it enjoyable to play. Now on to Brawner Farm!


Tiny Battle Publishing:

Tiny Battle Publishing

Conquering the Valley:

Conquering the Valley | Tiny Battle Publishing


  7 WONDERS  EDIFICE EXPANSION   FROM  REPOS PRODUCTION A brief interlude to introduce the latest expansion for 7 Wonders  which Asmodee ki...


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023






A brief interlude to introduce the latest expansion for 7 Wonders which Asmodee kindly sent me a review copy of.  I doubt that the core game needs any introduction, as it certainly seems to be a staple in every boardgaming club or games cafe that I've visited.  On top of that, the 2 player version 7 Wonders Duel is the game that I most often play in real-time online Euro-gaming. 
Edifice is for me a very satisfying addition, as I'm not greatly fond of those that seem to take over the main game or radically alter it.  
So, lets start with a quick look at the contents.  Familiar features are a few additional coins of value 6 and additional Military Conflict tokens and a score pad that includes rows for scoring when using any of the Leaders, Cities, Armada expansions and, of course, this Edifice expansion.  Pleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary.  There are three copies of the sheet that describes the effects of the two new Wonders that are included.  Both playing boards for these two, Carthage and Ur, are very attractively detailed. 

Carthage simply adds a new alternative choice of playing board that can be used with the core game and any of the many expansions.  The Ur board, on the other hand, in its concept reminds me very much of the Babel expansion, as it can only be chosen when the Edifice expansion is being incorporated into the game.
Finally, there is a single four-panel folder that contains the changes to set up when playing with this Expansion and, most important of all, the rules of gameplay introduced.  

In the latter respect it has further clear echoes of Babel in that players have the chance to share in constructing three Edifices [ok, buildings to you and me, but Edifice sounds more dignified in keeping with building Wonders!].  

The front of one Edifice [unbuilt] and the back of another [built]

There's a good range of 5 for each Age, from which one is randomly chosen for each Age at the start of the game.  Rules for when and how you can contribute to the building are short and clear and supported with some simple plastic building pawns to mark your participation.

If the building is completed within the specific Age, all those contributing immediately gain a small reward.  Of more significance is what happens if the building is not completed!  Then those contributing simply gain nothing, but those who didn't help at all suffer penalties.
All in all, I like this Expansion.  It's well presented, visually pleasing and easy to incorporate into the core game.  Two things are most important for me.  The first is that the rules have all the pleasing clarity of the original game and mesh perfectly, the second is that the effects are light and neither drastically change the game play nor, even worse, add scoring swings that overwhelm good strategic play.  So, definitely thumbs up for a welcome addition.


  Skies Above Britain by GMT Games  It is 1940 and Britain stands alone in Europe against Germany and Italy. So many books have been written...

Skies Above Britain by GMT Games Skies Above Britain by GMT Games

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023

Skies Above Britain by GMT Games

 Skies Above Britain


GMT Games

 It is 1940 and Britain stands alone in Europe against Germany and Italy. So many books have been written about Churchill's 'Few' that I would be surprised if any grognard hasn't read at least a few of them. To either soften Britain up before Operation Sea Lion or to win the war all on its own, both have been put forward as German plans. The Luftwaffe is ready to take on the Royal Air Force. From Norway to the French coast Heinkel 111's, Dornier 17's, and Messerschmitt 109's are starting their engines to start flying over Britain. It starts with Aldertag (Eagle's Day) which was August 13th, 1940. The Battle of Britain actually started in July. Aldertag was the start of a massive German attempt to bring the RAF to its knees. Luckily for the free world the British won the battle. In actuality the Germans lost so many aircraft that they had to switch to night bombing at the end of the blitz. By the end of October 1940, the Germans had pretty much given up on anything more than nuisance raids. The British Spitfires and Hurricanes had won the day.  

 This is what GMT Games has to say about the game:

 "Skies Above Britain is a solitaire game depicting a Royal Air Force squadron of Hurricanes or Spitfires waging a desperate effort to disrupt and destroy German daylight bombing raids over southeast England in the summer of 1940. The player’s individual aircraft—each represented by a stickered block—must locate the incoming raid, intercept it, and evade or defeat swarms of escorting German fighters that usually outnumber you and whose pilots have superior experience and tactics. The game simulates the dogfighting and fighter-vs.-bomber action at an individual aircraft level using a card-assisted system that simulates key tactical decision-making without losing the feel of fast-paced aerial combat. A player can fly scenarios representing an individual patrol or use the patrol generator to create an endless variety of realistic individual patrols, multi-patrol campaigns, or larger campaigns covering the entire Battle of Britain. Each patrol will take a half hour or more to play, while a campaign can last anywhere between 6 and 28 patrols."

 So, the game follows in the footsteps of 'Skies Above the Reich' and 'Storm Above the Reich'. It is a solitaire game where the player tries to stop the German bombers at all costs. 

  This is what comes with the game:

1 Interception Game Board
1 Squadron Display Game Board
1 Me-110 Circle Display
4 Counter Sheets
1 Rules Booklet
1 Situation Manual
1 Optionals Booklet
3 Player Aid Cards
200 Playing Cards
1 Pad of Roster Sheets
2 Historical Log Sheets
1 Sheet of Stickers
38 Wooden Blocks
10 Wooden Cubes
1 Wooden Cylinder
2 Dice

 So, compared to the last two games in the series you now get to fly for the good guys. You also get to tackle bombers that are much less dangerous to your fighter than B-17s and B-24s were to the German fighters. Of course, your weaponry in 1940 is nowhere near the strength of the weapons on a 1944 German fighter. Your planes are mostly armed with eight .303 caliber machine guns, essentially the size of a rifle round. 

 The games in the series have two things in common. One, you are flying fighters against enemy bombers. Two, the boxes are heavy enough to start a curling routine with. Once opened, a cornucopia of items seem to come spilling out of the box. Looking quickly at the six decks, pilot logs, and all the other components might lead you to think "what have I gotten myself into", or "this is too much of a game for me". Then you get a glimpse of the three different rules/manuals that come with the game, and you are certain you have bitten off more than you can chew. Just relax and sit back and take a few slow breaths. It is nowhere as bad as it seems at first. 

 The first thing that you will look at upon opening the box are the above stated three rules/manuals. The Rulebook is sixty pages in length (remember to breathe). Even though it is the same size as most rulebooks it just seems larger to me. It is made with glossy paper, and it comes with wonderful extremely large printing. Everything about the Rulebook is big. On every page is a beautiful full color example of play or illustration to help you learn the rules. Next up, we have the Situation Manual. This has the different scenarios and is also chock full of example of play. It is fifty-one pages in length and is also made of glossy paper and has large print. The Optionals manual is produced the same as the other two and is nineteen pages in length. It comes with the optional rules and a historical pilot roster which can be copied and used. I think this is a very nice touch. Then comes a page and a half of Designer Notes followed by a nice sized bibliography. 

 One difference from the other games is that the German bombers come on large tiles, as counters, instead of them being on the game board. There are two full counter sheets of these large tiles. These represent the Heinkel 111, Junkers JU-88, Dornier Do-17, and Stukas that you will be trying to shoot down. Then come two more counter sheets. These are mostly 5/8" in size with some being as large as one inch. These come with either nicely done pictures of different fighter pilots, or the different control markers needed for the game. They are very artistic in their style and are some of the most pleasing to the eye counters I have seen. Next comes a small sticker sheet which are used on the wooden blocks that come with the game. These are just as artistic as the counters. The thirty-eight wooden blocks are mostly black squares that the stickers will be attached to. A small amount of dexterity is needed for this, unless you have some freeloaders (sorry, I meant children) around to do this for you. There are six decks of cards: Escort Reaction, RAF Advantage, Luftwaffe Advantage, Bomber, Tailed, and Head on & Tailing. These are heavier than usual cards that do not feel flimsy to the touch. The front of the card has one of the names above while the back shows you one or more example of how it is used. Then comes two card stock Pilot Rosters. On one side is a squadron with names and on the back are Squadron Logs. These Pilot Rosters are also historical for the 303 and 54th squadrons. You also get a pad of the same with no names of pilots or a squadron number on them. As I mentioned above, the addition of some historical names really helps with the immersion and is a great addition. There are three large folding Player Aids that are made of card stock. They are for the Interception Sequence, Pilots, Raid Vector Sequence, RTB Sequence, Intercept Bombers, Intercept Escort, Sequence of Play. So, everything is right at hand without having to peruse the Rulebook each turn, at least in the beginning. There is also a 'Circle Display' for the defensive maneuver that BF 110s used. Next is a small, mounted map with the Squadron Display on one side and the Advanced Squadron Display on the other. Last, but not least, is the mounted Game Board which is mostly taken up by the Interception Map. It also has some other charts and tables on it. These are exactly the type of manufactured components that we have come to expect in a GMT game. The heft of the combined components has already been mentioned for those of us who still give some credence to the weight of the box and its worth.

 Apparently, the idea of a Skies Above Britain for a game was not received by some as actually a game that could be designed. Here is a quote from Gina Willis, one of the designers:

"Call me stubborn, but the cold water that Mark and Jerry (Jeremy White and Mark Aasted designers of Skies Above the Reich and Storm Above the Reich) tossed on wishes for a "Skies Above Britain" only made me more curious to see if and how such a game really could be made to work."

 These two quotes from Gina Willis are about the design itself:

"Since German bombers depended more on escorting fighters for protection than their own armament, a Battle of Britain "Skies" would need to move the fighter-vs.-escort aspect of combat more to the foreground than it was in the earlier volumes."

"One new wrinkle was putting the bombers on moveable tiles instead of printing them in a formation on a board. Tiles on a tabletop could be removed or pushed apart to show disruption and attrition effects on bomber formations in a direct, spatial way."

 Some of the Optional Rules are:

Confirmed Kills - Bomber kills are recorded one for one. However, to show how many times claims were not accurate, four fighter kills equal one kill.

Weave - One section will fly above and behind as a lookout. This costs more fuel.

Random Events - Self-explanatory, and too numerous to list.

Cratered - Your aerodrome has been damaged and you must fly from a nearby one. Parts and replacements are not there, and no one can return from hospital.

Graduated replacements - This replaces the one pilot replacement after every patrol. It is done by die roll now.

 Some of these can only be played when using the Advanced Squadron Display. The Advanced Squadron Display adds more rules to the game. It is much like playing with basic and advanced rules.

 As far as my opinion of the game: do I like it? No, I love it. This next information will tell you exactly how the wargaming community in general viewed the game:

2022 Charles S. Roberts Awards Winners Announced
Best Solitaire or Cooperative Wargame:
WINNER: Skies Above Britain, GMT Games, designers Jerry White and Gina Willis

 That pretty much sums up my feelings as well. One of the best parts of the design is the fact that the Rulebook actually tells newbies "You don't have to read the whole Rulebook to start playing." Even with the number of things in the box and the three different rules/manuals, it is still an easy game to learn and to start playing. You can start the dogfighting pretty much right away. The way that the designers have added so much historical flavor to the game is also a wonderful bonus. Let us not forget the RPG part of the game. You actually feel for your small fighter pilot friends. To be able to, hopefully, follow them through a campaign let alone a single sortie is a sign of a great designed game. The tension in the game is palpable. Do you break off with your ammo getting low, or do you choose to go for that one lone bomber? Each of your decisions can be found to be the wrong one by the game's highly, (I cannot say intelligent), evolved matrix of choices the designers have given it. Just like in reality ditching your plane over Britain is usually followed by a safe parachute flight. However, woe to the poor pilot who has to eject over the Channel. This is one of those games where you look at the clock and see four hours have passed but you still sit and play a few more sorties. 

 Thank you so much GMT Games for allowing me to take Skies Above Britain out for a spin. I knew the history more from the German point of view rather than the British. This game has made me read some books that deal with the British side of the Battle of Britain. If that is all I got from the game, it is worth playing but there is so much more than that in this box.


GMT Games:

Skies Above Britain:

Link to the Rulebook:

My review of Storm Above the Reich:


They Came Only to Die: The Battle of Nashville, December 15–16 by Sean Michael Chick    I knew of the author long before I saw this book bec...

They Came Only to Die: The Battle of Nashville, December 15–16, 1864 by Sean Michael Chick They Came Only to Die: The Battle of Nashville, December 15–16, 1864 by Sean Michael Chick

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023

They Came Only to Die: The Battle of Nashville, December 15–16, 1864 by Sean Michael Chick

They Came Only to Die: The Battle of Nashville, December 15–16


Sean Michael Chick


 I knew of the author long before I saw this book because he is a prolific wargame designer, and a very good one at that. So, I was very curious to see how his writing compared to his game designing skills. Not that I really had a doubt in my mind. I just wanted to see how much of a crossover there actually was.

 The Battle of Nashville was certainly a battle that did not need to be fought. Lieutenant General John Bell Hood was in charge of the of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Hood had started the Civil War in Virginia commanding a brigade of Texans. As a brigade, and later division, commander he was in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee as one of its finest officers. He was wounded in the left arm at Gettysburg; the arm was left pretty much useless. Then his division was sent west with the rest of Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps to fight under Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg. Hood fought in the Battle of Chickamauga where he was wounded in his right leg, and it had to be amputated. After his recuperation he was first made a corps commander under Lieutenant General Joseph E. Johnston in the Army of Tennessee. He then replaced him and became commander. So, he was a field commander of an army with only one leg and one arm and constantly in pain from his wounds. He fought the Union General William T. Sherman for the city of Atlanta and lost. At this time Hood came up with a plan for his Franklin-Nashville Campaign. In a nutshell, the plan was for Hood's army to go north and in doing so force Sherman to follow him. This did not happen because the size of Hood's army was no more than the Union troops defending Tennessee. This put into motion the terrible battles of Franklin and Nashville.

 The author shows us the background to the Battle of Nashville and also the history that led each of the commanders during it. He says that many times Hood has been excoriated in print and that he does not deserve it. He feels he was a commander who was put into a desperate situation and did the best he could under the circumstances. The situation that the Army of Tennessee was in, lacking almost everything that an army needs, even before their invasion of Tennessee, is shown to the reader. The actual battle and the terrible retreat that the Army of Tennessee faced in the middle of winter is explained in detail.

 The author also gives us little biographies of every commander that is mentioned in the text. The book is full of black and white pictures of the combatants and the different areas of the campaign. The one thing that I love are the maps. These are as clear and full of information as a reader could possibly want. 

 This is an excerpt from the book:

"Total Rebel losses in two days of battle were at
least 6,000 with 4,462 prisoners. Fifty-three cannon
were in Union hands. Federal losses were at least
3,000. With most casualties coming within a few hours
at the end of each day, Nashville had a fairly high loss
rate per hour. In addition, it was the most lopsided
victory achieved by an attacking army in the Civil War,
with the possible exception of Five Forks and Sailor’s
Creek, which involved fewer troops and casualties
than Nashville."

  The book ends with many descriptions and photos of what the intrepid amateur historian will find when going to the many historic sites mentioned in the book. I have read several of the great books that are in the Emerging Civil War Series from Savas Beatie. I am pleased to say that this volume follows in its older brothers' footsteps. This is a perfect introduction to someone who just wants an overview or a reader who plans to dig into the subject more deeply. Thank You Savas Beatie, for allowing me to review this very good volume on a little-known part of the war in the west.


Publisher: Savas Beatie



The Onin War 1467-77 by Stephen Turnbull   The author, Stephen Turnbull, has become synonymous with the history of Japan and especially of t...

The Onin War 1467-77 by Stephen Turnbull The Onin War 1467-77 by Stephen Turnbull

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023

The Onin War 1467-77 by Stephen Turnbull

The Onin War 1467-77


Stephen Turnbull

 The author, Stephen Turnbull, has become synonymous with the history of Japan and especially of the Samurai under the Shogunate. The list of his books is much too long to print here. Having read a good number of his books so far, I had high expectations for this book. I was not to be proven wrong by any means in this regard.

 The Onin War is really the start of the 'Sengoku Jidai' (warring states) period of Japanese history. This is when the power of the Shogun over the country started to wane. The Sengoku Jidai was a time when all of Japan became a battlefield for the various warlords around the nation.

 The Onin War was fought between 1467-77. The author starts the book by going back in time before the Onin War. His story starts with the Emperor G0-Daigo (1288-1339) and his attempts to take back the imperial power from the Shogun. The Shogun was originally a servant of the emperor, mostly as a general. This changed around 300 years earlier and the emperor then became just a cypher with the Shogun holding absolute power. The book continues with the trials and tribulations of Japan as different families, and strangely enough, the poor farmers rose in revolt. This boiling pot was brought to a frenzy by the of the ascension of the 'lottery Shogun' Ashikaga Yoshinori. His brutal reign as Shogun ended with a successful revolt and the loss of his head. 

 The intrigues continued until the new Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was not really in control of the country at all. The various warlords did as they pleased. This ended up with two factions of the warlords attacking each other in the capital city of Kyoto. The Onin War was fought during the years 1467-77 and was fought mostly in the environs of Kyoto. The city became a burning shell of itself during the early part of the war with each warlord commanding fortified mansions in the city. All of this and more is shown to us by the author. He continues with the story of what happened after the actual fighting in Kyoto spread to the rest of the country. The book is filled to the brim with not only Japanese history but also shows exactly why the different revolts broke out. It also gives you a glimpse into the lives of the numerous characters mentioned and their biographies. You even get to see some of the trials and tribulations that the poorer folk of Japan had to go through during this period.

 The book is from Helion & Company and is part of its excellent 'From Retinue to Regiment 1453-1618' series. The book is only 120 pages but is filled with tons of information. It comes with several pages of full color pictures of places, people, and artwork about the events in the book. The rest of the book is rife with black and white pictures of the same.

 Thank you, Casemate Publishers for allowing me to review this great book on a pretty much unknown, outside of Japan, piece of Japanese history.


Publisher: Helion & Company

Distributor: Casemate Publishers


  TRACES OF WAR FROM VUCA SIMULATIONS Traces of War takes us back to the Eastern Front and its physical contents initially made me expect a...


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

August 2023





Traces of War takes us back to the Eastern Front and its physical contents initially made me expect a welcome return to the system used in Crossing the Line and Across the Bug River.  The sheer quality of all its components certainly puts it in the same league.  However, a quick look at the designer's name, Tetsuya Nakamura, and the fact that this is a re-tread of the Japanese magazine issue, Manstein's Last Battle, made me realise that this was a very different and simpler system.  I had encountered his system in the MMP production of A Victory Lost and like many others had both enjoyed its simplicity and playability, but not the disappointing production values.  So it's with many thanks to Vuca Simulations for providing this review copy and opportunity to explore its qualities.

Vuca Simulations have established an excellent reputation for quality and the only feature in Traces of War that has raised some criticism is the two-part map.  There are those who, relishing the company's previous beautifully mounted maps, lamented that these are paper maps.  Others have complained of the slight imperfection in matching up the two maps, though some have qualified that their concern stems from their experience of Vuca Simulations' record for perfection!  What I do like about the maps is the almost linen-like feel to them.

Personally, I've not found the matching up of the two maps anything other than a minor imperfection, especially once the Soviets start advancing into that area of the map, though I would highly recommend plexi-glass sheets that are always useful, especially where you have two-map games.  
Other than that, all other components live up perfectly to the company's customary excellence.   The three sheets of familiar rounded-corner counters are some of the best you'll find.  

Smilarly, the four charts [two identical ones for each player - another highly commendable practice] are the very thick, rigid A4-sized cardstock that also has become an expected feature.  These double-sided cards will rapidly become all you need to play the game.  Player Aid A contains a detailed sequence of play and all the necessary charts, while Player Aid B outlines all the rules and critical information.

Frankly after a turn or two, all you will really need is the single side of charts, because the rules are very easy to remember.  This is partly because they are relatively short, a mere 13 pages, but mainly because of their absolute clarity and the rule book's admirable presentation.  The pages are glossy without being too shiny, with the text set out in double-columns with plentiful illustration and examples that couldn't be easier to read because of their size.

A typical page of the rulebook
Having looked carefully at the English rules translation for the original Japanese magazine edition, I can safely say that these in Traces of War have an organisation, flow and readability very much lacking in the original. 
Sequence of Play
Luftwaffe Reorganisation Phase
This is a simple random chit-pull of German aircraft tokens that give offensive or defensive column shifts in combat.  The increasing number drawn - and there are only a maximum of four - depends on how many crossing-points the Soviet has captured.  Therefore it will be several turns before any are available.
Command Chit Selection
Both players choose which activation chits they will include this turn.  Mainly these are HQs that can activate all units within a given radius, but there is a single supply chit that is always included and the German player potentially has 2 OKH chits from turn 2 onwards and the Soviets receive a single-use airborne chit and airborne unit and may have a Stavka chit available from turn 5 onwards.  I like chit-pull activation mechanics generally and the system in Traces of War is an admirable one that is crucial to creating both the differing abilities of both sides and a substantial amount of the tension this game generates.
Action Phase
As a chit is drawn, the player has the choice for all units within the drawn HQ's command radius of either a move-combat sequence or a combat-move sequence.  I like the flexibility of choice and the variation to pace this offers the players, though as the German I would have loved the option of a move-move choice!
Both Movement & Combat are swift and easy to carry out. It's a rare pleasure to be able to remember all the terrain modifiers and movement costs in my head and the Combat Table too is very user friendly.  Most results are either R or RR - i.e. one hex or two hex retreats.  If this sounds like a very bloodless chart, don't be fooled, because a lot of that retreating will be through an enemy ZOC, each of which causes a step loss.  Imagine what might be going to happen soon to those German units in the pocket forming around Kharkov.

In terms of Phases, that's it.  Unlike most games, Supply and Reinforcements are handled not as Phases each turn, but as part of the chit pull system.  In this eight turn game, the Soviet player has six batches of reinforcements.  When he/she chooses to include the Reinforcement chit in a turn, one of those batches in numerical order will be placed on the map.  I love this further element of choice, along with the uncertainty of when in the turn they will arrive.  The ability to position them just where you most want them may perhaps be rather too powerful.  However, it is balanced by the chance that they won't arrive until they are too late to be valuable this turn.
For the German player, the reinforcement element is even more unusual and more restricted.  Just as for the Soviet player, it does depend on the inclusion of a chit in the Activation Pool.  In this case, it is the inclusion of an OKH chit and the German player has two of these chits available to include from the beginning of turn 2.   This is not the powerful tool it sounds, because the OKH chit can fulfil three different functions [1] activate an HQ [2] activate a set number of units anywhere on the board [3] provide a number of Negotiation Points to be used either to buy reinforcements or remove a Supreme Command Order.  All of those choices are going to be vying for the German player's attention every turn.  It's one of the frustrations and delights of playing the German side and for me gives a very convincing feel of what a desperate situation being the supreme commander must have been like with his nightmare of conflicting demands.  
If you're wondering what a Supreme Command Order is, it is this game's way of incorporating a version of what, in other games, are called Hitler Directives.  The six major cities on the map each holds one of these markers representing Hitler's demand that they should be held at all cost.  Should the Soviet player succeed in controlling any one of these cities while the marker is still in place, he/she wins.
As some of these will eventually be captured, the German player must at some point use Negotiation Points to remove those markers from cities where the Soviet player looks likely to seize control.   It is another simple, but hugely successful rule to ratchet up the pressure on the German player and provide a neat series of quandaries.  The German player is constantly forced to think what's the key priority now.
Supply too is governed by a Supply Chit that goes in the draw bag/cup every turn and when it is pulled out both sides check supply.  Again, I like this, though the method of checking supply definitely shows its age.  All that's needed is a line of any length free of enemy ZOCs and a few other restrictions, such as not passing through an enemy city or an unbridged major river.  

[Couldn't resist showing my favourite chit-draw bag "borrowed" from the V-Commandos game]
An additional feature that characterises the carefully thought out double-edged nature of some of my favourite rules in the game is the rule about Crossing Points of which there are six on the map.  All are located on the Dniepr that bisects the centre of the map and along which the Germans will strive to form some sort of coherent defensive line.  Their capture by the Soviets greatly aids their advance, but the corollary is that all the German bonuses [such as Luftwaffe markers, Supreme Command Negotiation Points and the value of the OKH chits] increase depending on how many the Soviets control.  This is both a clever balancing help for the Germans and a dilemma for both sides.
Before I conclude, a word about the very high solitaire value [9] given on the back of the box.

The only solitaire element in the game is the Play Aid below, which reproduces the two player charts that are printed on the opposing map edges.  This is provided so that, when you play the game solitaire by playing both sides, everything is facing you and easy to use.  As those of you know who've read other of my reviews this is my preferred way of soloing a two-player game and so I'm very happy to have such a simple resource.  But for those who want/need solo rules/bots, this is not what this game provides.

My final question is that of play balance which is already being argued about on BoardGameGeek [Ok, what game's play balance doesn't get vehemently argued about on BGG?]  The Soviets are definitely going to be doing a large percentage of the attacking and the Germans the defending.  There are two scenarios in the game: a short play of the first 4 turns and I do think that for the Soviet to accrue the necessary VPs to win is a well-nigh impossible task. However, the full game of 8 turns is the important consideration.  It is a struggle for the German player first to survive losing to an automatic Soviet victory and secondly to prevent the Soviet player gaining enough VPs to win at the end of the full 8 turns.  However, the more I play this game the more that German victory seems achievable and the more rewarding the feeling when you do!

Not one of my best efforts, as Dnipropetrovsk falls early
 to give an automatic Soviet victory

To sum up this is above all a highly playable game with short, very accessible rules.  Its components are a pleasure just to see set out and play is a tense experience, fuelled by plenty of interesting decision making for both sides.  It's a game that I strongly recommend and one that will be staying in my collection.