A Summary of Columbia's Block Games
Columbia Games publishes three types of games: a role playing game (Harn); a series of collectable card games (Dixie and Eagles); and "block games", for which they are most famous. I have no experience with the first two (although I have heard lavish praise heaped on both), but here is a brief rundown on the block games.
There are at least three families of block games: Rommel in the Desert, a division level WW2 North Africa game; the Front series (East-, West-, Volga-, Med-, and EuroFront), which is an interlinked series of WW2 in Europe games focusing on corps and armies; and the pre-20th century games (Quebec 18xx, Napoleon, Bobby Lee, and the upcoming Sam Grant). I know the least about this third family, as I have not played any of the games in that group.
All the block games use wooden blocks as counters, approximately 1x1x.5 inches in size. These blocks stand on edge, with the side facing the owning player has a sticker with unit values arranged in a circle; this way, at any one time, one of the numbers is right-side up along the top of the block. This has two effects: first, it limits the opposing players ability to determine the exact composition of forces; and second, it easily provides for four-step units -- as a unit takes hits, step losses are indicated by rotating the unit:
As the unit takes a hit in combat, it is rotated to the next highest number until eliminated. In combat, you roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the current strength - every 6 rolled hits (there are exceptions: in EastFront, for example, Armored units hit on a 5 or 6, and some terrain allows the defender to take two hits before being reduced one step, etc.). ("Oh, ShadowRun," you say. Well, yes, but these games introduced the concept in 1972, before there were any RPGs at all, let alone ShadowRun.)
Thus the wooden blocks create step reduction effortlessly. These two factors - easy fog of war and step reduction - mean that a wooden block game can achieve very sophisticated simulation with a minimum of strain on the gamer. This means the rules can be simple, but the simulation doesn't suffer. Consequently, even the most complicated wooden block game is still on the low side of moderate complexity by wargame standards. But the satisfaction of play and simulation is very high - a good combination!
[From Columbia Wooden Block Games: An Appreciation by Steffan O'Sullivan.]
These comments were echoed recently by one of the members of my EuroFront group, Jerry Taylor, on the Consim-L mailing list:
I've never seen a system deliver the kind of tense uncertainty and elegant command and supply considerations as those gorgeous blocks.
I still vividly recall an EastFront campaign game I played against Arius Kaufmann (he was the Soviets, I the Germans) when, by the summer of '42, both he and I were looking at the board in pure desperation. Chris Weuve was observing and conferring with both of us at the time privately, and we later found out that each of us was certain that our armies were doomed and were each considering throwing in the towel (kind of like Ali and Frazier in the third fight in Manilla). Arius cracked before I, but it was a near thing. After we had a chance to look at each other's true strength, we realized that we were each seeing ghosts where none existed and dramatically overestimating the strength of enemy troops. If memory serves, Arius was probably in more dire straits than I (I had just captured Stalingrad but didn't think I had the troops to go for the jugular and take either Baku or drive further east), but I was too intimidated to take advantage of the win right in front of me. If Arius had hung on, he certainly would have survived '42 and then, who knows? It was a real thriller right to the end, and when Arius resigned, I about fell out of my chair; I was probably no more than 5 minutes from doing the same!
Find me another game like that, and I'll marry it!
Supply is a big feature in all the games, and command control in most of them. Rommel in the Desert (which is at a far smaller scale than the Front series) has a supply system based on cards. In addition to using the "unbroken string of hexes" method for tracing supply, each turn each side draws a certain number of supply cards (some of which may be dummies) which they then spend to accomplish offensive tasks (MB; MMB; MBB, MBMB, where M=Move and B=Battle). If you are out of supply, you die at the end of the month, and if you have no supply cards, you can't move or conduct offensive combat (although you can still fire if attacked). Each turn is of variable length; each side alternates spending supply cards for offensive action or passing, with each side passing in a row ending the month and triggering an End of Month phase (where out of supply units die, reinforcements arrive, units are rebuiilt, etc.). The system works very smoothly, with some months having a lot of action and others having little action.
In the Front series, turns are monthly, and each month has two phases. In each phase headquarters can spend one or two steps of support capability. However, no headquarters has more than 3 steps (Sovs only have 2), and you can only rebuild one step per month. Thus, even if there are gaping holes in the enemy's line, sometimes you just don't have the werewithal to push forward.
I don't mean to make the block games sound like they are all supply and no combat -- they aren't. The supply/command and control systems, however, really force the player to think through his moves. It often simulates how even successful offensives may run out of steam for logistical reasons.
The only drawback to the block games is their cost: EastFront is over $50. The production quality is quite high, however, and when polled Columbia's customers rejected the idea of switching from wooden blocks to cheaper plastic blocks.
So, now that I've convinced you that you need to own one of these games, which one should you buy? My recommendations are as follows:
1) First and foremost, buy something that interests you, with the exception that if you want to start with a Front game, I would strongly recommend EastFront first over either WestFront or MedFront. EastFront was my first block game, and I think it has some advantages as a first game. It has an introductory scenario that does a good job of teaching all the basics, and it doesn't complicate the situation with lots of strategic bombing and sea invasions and other special rules like WestFront. It may be a few more blocks than WestFront, but block games are relatively low density. [EastFront, in fact, has exactly 120 units total, not counting the informational markers.]
On the surface, MedFront may be tempting as a first game, as it is the smallest of the Front series. I would recommend against it -- it has all the complexity of WestFront, plus some extra special rules that only apply in that theater. The North Africa scenario isn't really intended to be played alone, and the Spanish Civil War scenario is so heavily modified as to be useless as an introduction to the system. MedFront is really a piece of the larger puzzle called EuroFront.
2) Rommel in the Desert has the advantages of being a really good game with a short rule book. It's officially out-of-print, so you'll have to hurryto get one before they are all sold out and gone forever. It has the disadvantages of being a standalone game system, and (as near as I can tell) differing the most from the other block game systems.
3) Some people have complained that AH Napoleon and (IIRC) Quebec do not have as much replay value. I have no personal experience with these, so I can't comment. If you truly do not have a preference for one subject over another, try Rommel in the Desert, EastFront or Bobby Lee, as they will have more replay value.