PASS THE GERITOL

 

BLOOD AND IRON I by ROB MARKHAM

 

from 3W Games

 

One 34" x 22" map, backprinted; 400 counters; 1 Rules book; 1 Chart & Table Sheet; die; boxed. $30. From 3W Games, POB 155, Cambria CA 93428

 

Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG

 

Life on the 3W Production Line never ceases to amaze me. Whereas, in days of yore, we could complain voluminously - and legitimately - about the graphic quality of the usual 3W product, that no longer applies. One only wishes that the effort directed at making the product look good was somehow diverted and channeled into making it playable. With Blood and Iron I (the Roman numeral obviously a threat) - two battles in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870: Sedan and that household-word-level engagement, Froeschweiller - we have what has come to represent the quintessential 3W/Markham game: interesting, if somewhat generic, mechanics untouched by development.

 

Aside from the uninspiring box surprising, since 3W's Osprey boxes have been their strongest selling point, a rather nice "trademark" for the line B&I is a rather nice-looking game.The maps are the usual Simonitch crisp and clear, with enough detail to make them interesting; Beth Queman's counters are colorful and readable; the rules book and chart sheet are clean and accessible. Even the 3W ad sheet is nicely done! This is the type of stuff about which you say, "Hmmm, looks pretty good Franco-Prussian battles!! don't have anything on that! I'll plunk down a few francs and see how it rolls." Aside from the fact that a game's visual impact should never be underestimated, before your mind starts down that road, I suggest you read the impressive list of caveats that follows.

 

Blood & Iron is billed as a Low Complexity/High Solitaire game. Well, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion (if anything, we're always "PC" here), but I found the game somewhat more involved on both those fronts than 3W would have us believe.

 

Firstly, this is not your basic, Igo-Hugo, Combat/Movement-rating cardboard pusher, the usual refuge of the uninspired simplicity mongers. Markham, to his credit, has attempted to instill a little creativity into the system. Of course, with Rob you never quite know whether the system he comes up with will have anything to do with the subject at hand. The units - infantry, cavalry and artillery, at about brigade level, I'd think, although nowhere is such scale mentioned, an omission that always causes instant consternation in my mind - do have movement ratings, more of which anon. But their combat strengths are by Morale group: A thru D. The actual strength is determined when the unit first engages in combat. Then the player draws a strength chit, which has numbers corresponding to the letters (e.g., A6, B4, etc.), the numbers varying from chit to chit. We've all seen this before, and while it does provide some level of uncertainty, here it's more of an annoyance then anything else. The problem is, since the player becomes quickly aware that the Prussians will have better strength numbers within a given letter group than the French, whether that strength varies by 1 or 2 points will make little difference in the player's mind especially as the strengths are known (and permanent) after the first battle. The attempt here, I assume, is to reduce the "What Do I Need to Get 3-1" mentality, but, in a game that's supposedly aimed at the Low Complexity crowd, that's shooting at the wrong target.

 

B&I's systems are not devoid of interest, and, within the intended parameters of simplicity, some even offer a nice historical touch or two. The basic sequence is Igo-Hugo, Move-Defensive Fire-Offensive Fire-Melee. This sequence is sandwiched between a Command Phase, in which players roll a die to get anywhere from 0-4 Command Points (evenly divided among the possibilities), which points are then used in the Reserve Action Phase. In the latter, a player may use his Command Points to activate a command (usually a corps, but restricted to In Command units and adjusted by dierolls + leader ratings as to how many units may actually participate) to move or fight, players alternating use of CP's. Although intriguing in a "game" sense, I'm not sure what this is supposed to represent in terms of simulation, a confusion which doesn't make it any less interesting. What is truly interesting is that commands/units are not limited as to how many times they may be so activated in that Reserve Phase. Thus, a player who has managed to garner 4 CP's may conceivably move the same units in the same corps five times - once in the regular phase and four times in the Reserve Phase. And therein lies one of the game's problems: a truly off-the-wall sense of movement rate.

 

A little math will suffice to explain. Although hidden in some language about machine guns and rifle range, the scale appears to be about 300 yards per hex. Infantry has a MA of '6', which, if using roads, allows a unit to move 12 hexes in a phase. If it moves 5 times in a turn, it can conceivably cover 60 hexes, or 18,000 yards. Turns represent a half-hour of real time, which means that unit, for that period of time, has managed a speed of 20+ miles per hour!!! (And you should see what cavalry can accomplish.) Granted, the times a player will move an individual unit five times in a turn are rare, but even 5 mph is a rate far in excess of what a marching brigade can achieve over an length of time and certainly not on a battlefield. The problem appears not in the actual movement allowances, which are fine in creating a sense of movement, but in setting the turn scale at a half-hour. Not only does this render a simple game almost impossibly long - although the 27 turns (about 7-9 hours of playing time) in the Sedan game are far more than the players will either need or even want - but it means that units are going to be scurrying all over the map like roaches in a Juarez restaurant.

 

Given all of this, one soon appreciates that the Reserve Action Rule is pure Markham: an interesting idea that not only has no reason for being where it is, but, because no one ever bothered to think twice about it - other than say, "Gee, that sounds neat!" - brings more havoc than help. Having an average of 6-7 combat units (usually about a corps) wandering around with 3-4 separate turns in a half-hour period does not exactly fill one with a sense of reliability in the developmental process.

 

Then again, if you choose to play Sedan - a likely choice, seeing that Froeschweiller sounds more like a dog than a battle - none of this will matter: the game is over after turn two. The historical Sedan scenario is, perhaps, the most lop-sided wargame in over a decade, other than the Granicus scenario in Great Battles of Alexander (which is usually over before the Persians even get to go.) Here, the Prussian XI Corps grabs the two VP hexes to the north (all they need to win) by the end of the first turn (maybe the second, if the French get cantankerous), the VI corps grabs the Meuse crossings, and the rest of the Prussians sit back and let the French bang their heads (uselessly, because of the strength differences and defensive fire coming first) against the Prussian wall.

 

Froeschweiller is just as incredible. Markham goes to some lengths to explain that the French felt that their ridge position was unassailable wrongly, as they found out, and Markham's French deployment reveals why. The scenario deployment, though, also gives the French player absolutely no reason for staying on the defensive. Au contraire, mes amis. As he outnumbers the Prussians by about 5-1 at the beginning, and as the rules give no restrictions otherwise, he can do rather well by immediately attacking the Sons of Otto. The one time I played this scenario, by the end of the second turn the French army had totally cut off 3 of the 4 Prussian reinforcement hexes, restricting them to trying to batter their way through a fairly strong French corps with half a division!! There is a "battle" scenario which starts at 1300 hours, as opposed to 0830, and has all the Prussians in place and ready to advance. That one is not too bad - and plays fairly historically, which means the Prussians still have a 2-1 chance of winning - but one wonders how the basic scenario for Rotweiller, or whatever, ever came to be this two-turn exercise in futility. I can guess. Rob's "playtesters" are his in-house buddies, Mark Seaman, Brian Mulvihill, et al. These guys have been pushing cardboard around with Rob for more than a decade. As a designer there is one thing I've learned (probably the only thing): never let your friends do final-word playtesting. Combine that with the fact that Rob is churning out one of these suckers each month, and that the infamous 3W Glitch Detectors get 10-14 days (and zero bucks) to turn over a game, and you have some idea of how this fiasco became al fresco.

 

All of this wasted effort is a shame, because Blood & Iron contains a rather interesting combat system, one in which the French mitrailleuse (early machine guns) are factored into their artillery, giving the latter a two-hex ZOC range, with concomitant opportunity fire. If you stack a French artillery unit with an infantry you get a very difficult bunch to assault. This is so because the fire tables produce a rather high level of Morale checks, and it doesn't take long before half a corps is routed. A 3-4 turn assault is so debilitating that the players are almost forced to retire and regroup, which gives the game's combat a pretty realistic feel for the level on which it attempts to function.

 

But isn't that just like a 3W/Markham Special. A bunch of good ideas given short shrift in the Second Thought department and fifth shrift (if any) by the publisher. Let's face it, it's tough to think of a battle in the Franco-Prussian War that would make a good game. A good book, yes. A game? We're in the heart of Custer-Rorke Syndrome Land here. Blood & Iron is yet another Markham system allowed to rot in the fields because the hired hands refuse to plow back. (Historically, I might add here, Rob has been rather ill-served by developers in the past. Several of his S&T epics are almost infamous for their unplayability, and I certainly can't point to my own handling of 1862 with anything approaching pride.) On the other hand, Rob often looses sight of what he's trying to simulate, so Blood & Iron only touches tangentially on the factors that made so many Franco-Prussian War battles blowouts.

 

Unless you have a burning desire to see what happened in a Franco-Prussian War battle - for which I strongly suggest reading a book instead - all you've got here is another of Markham's Instant Systems that have wandered off into the ether of the Great Cambrian Developmental Void.

 

CAPSULE COMMENTS:

 

Graphic Presentation: Quite Good!!

 

Playability: An easy game to learn, and an easy system to implement. Strength chits are a pain, but some players like them. Game length is far too long, and probably inaccurate to boot. Solitaire is not bad but does require constant changing of hats and a rather constant, if low-level, schizophrenic buzz.

 

Replayability: Ground zero. See Historicity.

 

Historicity: Ignoring the grossly goofy movement rate possibilities, and the incredible play warp they produce, the game's problem is that, within its frame of low complexity, the game is too accurate. Game balance is laughable; no one would ever want to play this more than once.

 

Creativity: The creative impulse stuck its head out the door, took a breath of air, thought the coast was clear, and then took a bullet in the brain from the 3W Uzi.

 

Comparisons: If I'm not mistaken, the only F-P War battle games available. Some would consider that a plus; I consider it a warning.

 

Overall: Iron Deficiency Anemia. Hand me my Geritol.