Wednesday, May 19, 2010

After-Action Brief: In Which I Learn How to Lose a New Game

Since I had to take last Friday off to handle domestic issues, my usual routine of running errands Saturday and playing Saturday night or during the day Sunday turned into running errands Friday and playing during the day Saturday and Sunday. As a result I was able to try out a new (to me, anyway) game: Chain Reaction 3.0.

For those readers unfamiliar with Chain Reaction, it's an interesting departure from the standard systems found in most wargames, namely activate side/unit/model, rinse, repeat. The system follows this same basic process, but adds a nifty twist: any action one of my models/units takes is going to provoke a reaction from my enemy, and vice versa. This process of action/reaction continues until one side is no longer able to act - thus the system's name.

Now, I'm not totally new to the game. In fact, I purchased the Chain Reaction 2.0 rulebook several years ago, thanks to the rave reviews it consistently seemed to receive. Unfortunately, although the system was very intriguing, I found the CR2 rulebook mostly incomprehensible; I found it too densely packed with poorly (IMO) organized and exemplified rules. As a result, I never made a determined effort to learn the system and generally disregarded any subsequent references to the game or the Chain Reaction system in general (which also powers other games, such as All Things Zombie and 5150.)

However, for some now-forgotten reason, I found myself on the Two Hour Wargames Web site last week. I stumbled upon a rules tutorial and a step-by-step battle report that did a good job of walking the newb through the system, now revised into a (again IMO) cleaner, clearer version: Chain Reaction 3.0. (Which is also free - if you're even remotely interested, you should head on over to the Two Hour Wargames site and give the "Tutorials" a read. If you're still interested after that, download the free CR3 and give it a go.)

So, after reading the tutorials and getting jazzed again on the system, I printed out CR3 and gave it a couple of read-throughs. Having a little free time on Saturday, I talked my fiancee into giving the game a try. We each whipped up a 5-person gang and commenced a straight-up shootout between the two forces.

The first thing I have to say is that these rules can be difficult to grasp for gamers like myself. It's not because they're so complex, but because they're so different. This game was such a departure from the linear rules I'm accustomed to that my challenge was not in understanding the rules, but in un-learning over 20 years of wargaming standards. These rules expect a level of flexibility that the rigid systems I've played in the past had almost drummed out of me.

By the end of the first game (an hour or so later) we each had a different opinion of the game. She disliked the system, mainly because of what she perceived to be "too much dice rolling." However, to be fair, we were still new to the system, and the game was plagued with multiple rulebook searches and misunderstandings. As a result, unnecessary die rolls were made and the rules were much consulted. However, the biggest issue was that the system is such a new concept, and I wasn't sure how things I knew to do instinctively in other games should be handled in CR3.

For instance, the "In Sight" test. This proved to be the biggest point of misunderstanding and contention in our first game(s). The idea behind this test is this: when an inactive unit sees an enemy unit it couldn't see before, it must roll to see how it reacts. This makes perfect real-world sense, and the examples in both the rulebook and the tutorials are logical and supportive.

However, these examples all refer to one model seeing another model. But how does that work with unit movement? Does my inactive model/unit only react to the first model it sees? That can't be, because then the game breaks down to my "overwatch" being used up after the first guy pokes his head out - every single time. Does my model/unit react to each model as it emerges from cover (which means one at a time, if we play the way we do in our other games)? That would be fine, but then I'm rolling five In Sight reactions for a five-man squad, and doing an awful lot of firing before the enemy even gets a shot off - so that can't be right, either.

The rules addressed this in a manner that I found vague - and ultimately useless - at the time. I scoured the THW Web site and Yahoo group for info, but couldn't find anything useful. That is, until I re-read some of the battle reports and the rules themselves, then it finally clicked: models don't act in CR3 the way they do in the other games I'm used to. On his turn, a player can move, act, or fight with any or all of the models in the activated unit as he pleases, even to the extent of jumping back and forth between them. (Unlike most games I've played, where one model in a unit must complete its actions before the player can move to the next.) Suddenly, the vague "units with multiple models" reference in the CR3 rulebook made sense to me. (The enemy moves a logical number of models out - all that planned to and could move - up to 2" from where the first model appeared in my line of sight. Then the test is taken against any enemy models that are in line of sight at that moment.) The problem hadn't been a complex rule - it had been me bringing 20 years of wargaming standards into the mix.

Aside from this one sticking point, however, I found that the CR3 rules were generally easy to grasp, and by the end of our second game I no longer had to refer to the reaction tables for most of the reaction tests. Combat was even simpler. After the third or fourth time, I didn't have to look at the combat table for results. That second game was finished in less than 30 minutes.

In the end, my fiancee still didn't care for the game. But I think that she'll like it more when she's had more exposure to it - and when we're playing more interesting forces. (She prefers playing dark elves/vampires/cannibals/scavvies/other nasties to playing what she calls "boring humans.")

I, on the other hand, love it!

The flexibility of this game has not been matched by anything else I've played. Encounters play out in a fluid, realistic manner (as realistic as you can expect from a game, at least), and sound tactics are required and rewarded. The combat system is as deadly as it is quick. When your model's hit, the best you can hope for is it being stunned for a turn. Your best option to stay alive is: just as in real life, don't get shot. I recently read on another fan's Web page how this game had ruined other games for him. I think I can see why.

Unfortunately, despite my fiancee's dislike of the game, she utterly demolished my gang in the first game, and the second I conceded after she knocked out my gang's leader. It's a damn good thing I don't base my like or dislike of a game based on my winning or losing...

On Sunday, the whole gang was here for more BBQ (mmmmmmm, slow-cooked, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce-drenched meat *slobber*) after which we played a game of Spinespur. Four factions came to the board looking for "fresh meat" (new recruits, or - as in Slaughterhouse's case - actual meat). Each side earned victory points for dragging living enemies from the table. I didn't lose, since I managed to drag one of Mr. Jingles' thugs back to the chopping block. Unfortunately, one of the other players managed to get two bodies off the table, which left me tied for second place. Oh well, better than another loss, I suppose.

Speaking of another loss, after the Spinespur game, I introduced one of our other players to Chain Reaction 3.0. The game went even faster and with even less consulting of the rules and tables this time. I was doing well at the start, having taken out his leader with a head shot in the second turn. Unfortunately, he managed to achieve a decent position, placing three-fifths of my squad neatly in one of his fire lanes. Next thing I knew, my leader was dead and my specialist (with the only SAW in the group) was pinned behind a wall. I attempted to apply pressure to his other flank by moving a pair of models in close enough to use grenades, a plan that looked like it might work. Unfortunately, one of the pair got shot (instant kill) trying to get into position, resulting in the other retiring too far away for any hope of being rallied. Then my specialist got shot and taken out of action while trying to break from his position. The one active soldier left decided it was time to give it up, and left her spirit-broken comrade to her fate.

Even though the game was a decisive loss, it wasn't like most decisive losses I've suffered. Thanks to the ebb and flow of the Chain Reaction system, I felt like the game could tip my way at any moment. And even though I had the upper hand for the majority of the game, nothing was written in stone. When it was obvious I was going to lose, the game was just about over. Too often I can see the writing on the wall long before the game ends, which really ruins the fun of playing the remaining turns - be it as winner or loser. This game offers enough tactical options to make it challenging, but at the same time allows for a sense of unpredictability.

I can think of no better endorsement for Chain Reaction 3.0 than this: I lost my first three games, and this is now my new favorite miniatures game system.


A Hard Won Thing Scoreboard:

0 wins / 2 draws / 9 losses

. . . . .


  1. I own the last two versions of the All Things Zombie rules (essentially zombie themed Chain Reaction) and have yet to play it, probably for the same reasons that you had trouble deciphering it.

    Like Crossfire, it strikes me as a system that almost requires that one person has already played it, so that the simple concepts can be shown without players gaming "baggage" screwing it up.

    Im glad to see that you were able to get it to work out in the end.

  2. Heh - "gaming 'baggage'" - that describes it to a tee! I'll have to remember that phrase. :D

    Haven't tried Crossfire, but I suspect you're right about having a tutor. There was certainly some (serious) frustration, particularly over grappling with that "In Sight" dilemma (and more than a little obsessing, to which my fiancee will attest), but the rest of the game made a lot of sense. I attribute this fact to a combination of the free CR3 rules and the tutorial files I mentioned above. If it weren't for these things, I would definitely still be avoiding the game. Now I find myself impatiently waiting for my gaming budget to replenish so I can dive into both ATZ and 5150.

    If you have any interest in attempting to play the game, I'd recommend giving the aforementioned items a read. Doing so really cleared up the system for me, maybe it would do the same for you.

  3. Thanks for the Chain Reaction review. I have ATZ and NUTS! (plus the free PDF of the core rules), but have yet to give any of them a whirl. Soon, soon....

  4. My cute little orphans were the ones that got 2 mean and nasty criminals off the board in Spinespur. Remember you were trying to set a group of the innocents on fire!! Besides,you know I always win. :P With regards to Chain reaction I am looking forward to playing the zombie version. :)