Obscure Battles – Part I

It’s been a while since my last post. Times are crazy. I hope that with a little bit more time now in June I can get back to a more regular posting schedule.
And I will start with something I have never done before: a wargame review. Well, it started as a review, and then turned into a preview, and possibly back into a review. But see for yourself…

You like tactical-scale wargames? You are interested in cold war era battles? Maybe you would like to play out a hypothetical NATO conflict? Or you are eager to take a closer look at the Indo-Pakistani conflict? Have you ever wondered how a group of Russian marine units would play? What if I told you there’s a wargame system that covers basically any sort of cold war conflict on a tactical scale. The Obscure Battles system, a two-player conflict simulation, lets you do all this and then some.

A few months ago I was asked if I’d be interested to review a game: Obscure Battles. I felt very flattered and agreed right away, only to realize that I actually had never done something like that and regretted my boldness right away. But then I told myself, what the heck, how hard can it be? Well, it turns out, it can be quite hard. Especially in times of COVID19.

I received the files for a PnP version of the game shortly after I agreed to do the review. With a super busy work schedule I had no chance to get to the review until some time later…
It’s now mid March, COVID19 has arrived, classes are canceled, I can work at home. If this is not the right moment to learn a new game, then when is it? Well, the city where I live announces to close down everything. And I don’t really care that much because we can still shop for groceries online and Hair and Nail Salons are not essential for. But then it dawns on me that when the city closes everything, it closes everything. And of course the print shop where I had planned to print the game is closed as well (And before you ask, I have no printer at home because I had brought mine to the office earlier this year and I cant get to the office.).

So how do you review a game that you can’t play? Well, you don’t. All I can do right now is to introduce the game system by commenting on the rules. So in that sense, this article is more of a preview rather than a review.

Fast forward to June. My preview is ready to be posted when the mayor decides to re-open businesses (A decision certainly not based on facts and science.). And my print shop should open as well during the next few weeks. Hm, that’s an unfortunate timing. While I don’t want to delay the article any further, I’m eager to play Obscure Battles before I actually give you my opinion.

OK, here is what I’m going to do: I will split the preview. We will start with a game overview today. I will try to get the game printed in the next days and the second part contains then hopefully some impressions from the actual game play.

Obscure Battles – A (P)review

I have sent a few questions to one of the game designers, Freman Goldbo, and I will sprinkle them into the text wherever I think they fit.

Gringogamer: Tell us about you and your wargaming background?

Freman Goldbo: Well, I am a geek in his late 40s. Player of wargames since I was 7, I can proudly say I was able to distinguish a Panzer Mark IIIH from a J model when I was 10 ! ( it is really easy btw ). I like to watch A Bridge Too Far to when I drink my hot cocoa. That is who I am really.

I met my first board game when I was 9. It was Hunt The Bismarck! I remember sleeping with the manuals. I lived in a rural Seaside town where such games were hard to come by so I had to beg every person going abroad for a game. I got some second hand AH titles from a friend and patched the map and designed the missing counters. It was like that for me in those days. It continued like that from that time on – even with the coming of the computers – wargaming on CARDboard is different.

I kept reading and playing wargames and military history with no pause. In fact, I did a master’s degree in strategy just for the kick of it part-time. I am that dedicated. I don’t understand people getting bored in classes – learning is a wonderful thing and I really like to learn about wargaming and military history.

I keep notes about the books and games that I read or play. I have a scrapbook the size of a Meydan-Larousse … ( footnote Gringogamer: turkish encyclopedia ). I switched to digital a decade ago but it is still around. I open my notes and sometimes add pieces to the game we are trying to build.

One must do things he or she likes in this life. I believe only in that way, he or she can add something to this world. I like doing things lots of people use in daily life in my day job – and the same goes for my hobby. All I want from Obscure Battles is that people play them and enjoy them.

Obscure Battles is not an overly complex but detailed game. The rules clock in at 52 pages, which might sound like a lot but then the lay-out is very generous. An additional 17 pages are reserved for tables. The rules are organized in a very structural way, meaning almost every paragraph gets its own number (see below). That makes in the beginning for are a rather strange reading flow. But you get used to it and the cross-referencing is a breeze.

Excerpt from the Obscure Battles rulebook.

The game is played in turns which are split into phases. Phases are not played alternately: the player order is determined with a die roll.

To give you an impression of what a turn looks like, here are the turn phases in order:

  1. (Card Drawing Phase)
  2. Engineering Actions Phase (with 10 minutes of real time per time per turn I’m not sure how useful their action can be)
  3. Unit Moral Check and Panic/Supression Phase
  4. Air Unit Phase
  5. Indirect Fire Phase
  6. Airstrike and Indirect Fire Reporting Phase
  7. Direct Fire Phase
  8. Movement Phase
  9. (Supply Check Phase)

Phases 1 and 9 are optional.

Gringogamer: What motivated you? Which games inspired you?

Freman Goldbo: Oh, I am motivated by a lot of games. But my top 3 is Third Reich – The John Prados version, War in the Pacific: Struggle against Japan and Pursuit of Glory.
Third Reich is the most complex game that can be finished with more than 3 people and that makes it a rare gem. It is the best mix of grand strategy and diplomacy. War in the Pacific is detail and detail and I like complex games. PuG is pure brilliance, card-driven, and everything fits in nicely. Every game is a real “what could have been”.

So, let’s go through some of the phases and let me share my first thoughts I had when reading the rules.

Card Drawing Phase

Each player draws a card from the shuffled deck. Cards can be played at any time during a following phase for their effect. Effects could be anything like a change of weather, additional movement points for some of your infantry units, or a forced friendly fire incident for your opponent. Effects can be quite strong like a suppression of the opponent’s movement phase; or subtle like a reduced visibility for the rest of the game.

I do understand the purpose of the cards. It adds some randomness to the game and definitely increases the replay value. At the same time the mechanic feels a little gamey. With 36 cards I wonder if card counting might be an issue. But then I can imagine that different decks of cards for different scenarios could add some additional flavor.

It needs to be seen how the cards actually are being used during a game. I’m curious. But since it’s an optional rule everybody will have the chance to modularize the game to their liking.

Engineering Phase

I was surprised to see engineers playing a role at this scale. I thought, with each turn corresponding to 10 minutes of real time, what is it engineers can do? Certainly not build a bridge. And here it shows once more that I truly am a wargame noob. This is one of the points where the game shines: the level of detail. Engineer units are not just bland engineer units. Depending on the scenario you have access to specialized engineers, like a bridge laying M60 AVLB. Voila, a bridge being set up in about 10 minutes.

M60A1 Armored Vehicle Landing Bridge; Camp Coyote, Kuwait; An M60A1 Armored Vehicle Landing Bridge (AVLB) practices the deployment of its 60 foot bridge span, designed to quickly move heavy military wheeled and tracked vehicles over unstable or hazardous terrain.
M60A1 Armored Vehicle Landing Bridge; Camp Coyote, Kuwait; An M60A1 Armored Vehicle Landing Bridge (AVLB) practices the deployment of its 60 foot bridge span, designed to quickly move heavy military wheeled and tracked vehicles over unstable or hazardous terrain (source).

There are other tasks engineers can do on their turn: removing obstacles or debris (see below) for example. They can build command posts and engineer units get better odds in minefields. The list goes on. I have mentioned it before, I like it when different unit types differ also in their abilities and not only in their counter graphics.

Air Unit Phase

This is the phase where you place your air units. That’s right, air units do not really move at this scale. You place them on the map where you want them to operate this turn.
And now it gets really interesting. In order to conduct an air strike you will have to plan it ahead of time. The scenario rules tell you how many air strikes you have, and at the beginning of the game you write down which air strike happens during which turn. During the air unit phase you will have to stick to those previously planned air strikes. This leads to a more realistic simulation. Your reaction to what happens on the board/map happens now on a finite time. More over by requiring planned air strikes game turns become entangled. They are less-discrete entities which should support the flow of the game.

Indirect Fire Phase

In a similar fashion, indirect fire requires some foresight. Indirect Fire missions are planned one turn ahead of time. I’m really excited to see how this plays out during the game.

Movement Phase

Nothing out of the ordinary here. Maybe I should mention here that game counters come with a ‘detected’ and an ‘undetected’ side. as long as units are on their undetected side, the opponent doesn’t know anything about the unit itself. I think this is a nice feature to represent the fog of war aspect.

Units on their “detected” side in their unused and used (tilted) position in a hex.

Something else that caught my attention are the stacking rules. Units come with stacking points. In the base rules you can never have more than four stacking points accumulated in one hex. This is not really unusual. However, a set of optional rules lets you assign stacking points to debris as well. Engineers can then be sent to remove debris stacking points to make a hex passable. A nice mechanic that I hadn’t seen before (remember: wargame noob). Those optional rules allow also to “overstack” a hex. Up to 25 stacking points can then be accumulated in one hex. This comes then for a price of penalties for the units in that hex.

Supply Check Phase

If you have read any of the posts here on gringogamer you might know that I have a thing for supply rules. Imagine my reaction when I saw that Obscure Battles comes with supply rules. They are optional, so don’t worry if supply mechanics in wargames make you nervous.

So what exactly is meant by “supply check” at this scale? Well, there seems to be some bookkeeping involved, that’s for sure. But it looks like the mechanic is worth the extra effort: Each unit carries a combat load of ammunition, usually enough for a few turns. Before each attack the player needs to decide if the unit is going to spend 1, 2 or 3 turns worth of ammunition. More ammunition means a higher attack strength. You can replenish the ammunition via a supply dump close by or resupply vehicles. Obviously this rule only makes sense for low counter density battles. I really like this rule. I can see myself pondering over the ‘attack strength vs distance to next supply dum’ strategy.

Gringogamer: Since when are you working on the Obscure Battles System?

FREMAN GOLDBO: Obscure Battles was getting ready for the last decade – you know, taking notes and like. Reading about the topics and reading books about the wargaming itself. You can’t imagine how deep a subject this is – wargaming – just amazing. I remember reading and reading Perla’s book and saying Wow each time. But then again, I am Industrial Engineer myself and work in tech, so simulation and modeling is something that I learned and kept using in my job so I think it was always there – I was working on this all the time without thinking about it.

Around 2016, I had a spell of free time – something I don’t really have a lot – and started drawing the design scopes for the games that I wanted to do – what conflicts and how I wanted to “sim” them. Then every year, I filled in the details – the units, scenarios, etc.
It was 2019, I got really close to launching and had another spell of free time and also met my “partner-in-crime” so some titles were finalized.

Lots of options and interactions. You know what works – and what doesn’t. Computer Wargames are very good – no doubt about that but wargaming on the board is a different thing. Each board game is a bit like this special burger joint on the corner that has its own taste … and sometimes its own smell from the printer 🙂

Final Thoughts Part I

I am excited. I really want to play this game as soon as possible. For the last three months this seemed to be impossible, but now I might get the chance.
As mentioned above. If I get this game to the table soon I will modify Part II of the Obscure Battles (P)review accordingly.

Everybody stay safe!
Carsten