This was the fifth time that I attended Consimworld Expo. It's a unique event, an entire week devoted to wargaming. Other cons that I go to are fun, like BottosCon and GMT weekend, but they are just that - long weekends. This is a whole week devoted to wargaming. It lets you become totally immersed in gaming.
It's a long way from Boise to Tempe but I had a good trip coming down. I broke it up by stopping at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was the first time that I had ever been there.
Usually I arrange some games beforehand. Even at a wargame convention it can be hard to find opponents in real time. There are so many wargames, it's hard to find someone who is interested in the same game you are, and more importantly, knows the rules. But this year I really went wild. I booked at least one game for every single day of the convention except the last. Seven days in a row. I had never been quite that aggressive booking games ahead of time at previous cons but there were just so many games that I was anxious to play. By the time the con started, I was a little nervous that I had overbooked.
My first opponent was Larry Davidson. I didn't know Larry before the con but he listed Storm Over Stalingrad as a game that he wanted to play. I like both the game and the whole Storm Over Someplace series. He also listed Circle of Fire, a game that I wanted to try. After trading emails it turned out that we were both East Front fans and soon we had identified enough games to fill up three days. We were going to start the convention with a multiday East Front Fest.
CSWE is officially seven days, from Sunday to the following Saturday. But because so many people play monster games, the day before the convention starts the gaming area is always open for setup. We weren't going to waste any time. Larry and I agreed to meet for our first game when the hall opened at ten am. I got there even earlier, arriving before nine am so I could set up our game. There were already a number of people there. I heard that some guys had even started setting up their games the night before. When Larry showed up at quarter after nine, we jumped right in. I think that we were the first ones actually playing a game rather than just setting up, and that was almost an hour before the con pre-opened. You can't accuse wargamers of procrastinating.
Our first game was Circle of Fire: The Siege of Cholm. It's an area-impulse game published in Against The Odds magazine. It covers the battle during the winter of 1941/42 when the German garrison of Cholm was isolated for 105 days, withstanding repeated attempts by the Russians to take the city. The battle is significant because the Germans success at Cholm and nearby Demyansk convinced them that they could supply encircled pockets by air. This didn't work so well the next winter at Stalingrad
The game only takes a few hours. We played all day and into the evening and finished three games. I played the Germans all three times and managed to win twice. We thought that it was pretty good for a magazine game. I'm not sure about the replay value though. It felt like after our three games we had pretty much explored the options available to both sides. I liked it but at the end of the day I wasn't thinking "I can't wait to get this back on the table".
After Circle of Fire, Larry and I wanted to play a new and as yet unpublished game called Stalingrad: Verdun on the Volga. Yes, it's a dumb name. I think so. Everyone thinks so, except apparently the publisher. It's going to be the first game from Last Stand Games, a new game company associated with ATO magazine and Turning Point Simulations. It was supposedly very close to release just before CSWE (although it's been very close for over a year) so Larry wrote to the publisher to ask if he could order one. Turns out that since it still wasn't ready they sent him a playtest version instead so we could try it out at CSWE. Very cool. The game is intended to be an upgrade of the old Avalon Hill classic, Turning Point Stalingrad, which is one of my favorite games. To be able to make a good comparison between the two, we spent a day playing TPS before trying VotV.
We finished two games of Turning Point Stalingrad. I won as the Germans in the first game. In the second game we switched sides and Larry won. It was not a good day for the defenders of Mother Russia. But we had a lot of fun. Quite a few people came by during the day and commented that they were glad to see an old classic like TPS being played.
The next day we moved on to Verdun on the Volga. Supposedly it was in final form except for the map, what software developers call a release candidate. When we played it, we thought the rules still had some holes and ambiguities. Maybe we just weren't too sharp reading the rules - a theory that seemed to be supported by what happened the next day.
I played the Russians and lost. Badly. Of course I demanded a rematch. The second game I tried a different approach but was losing badly again.
At this point I was wondering about the game's play balance. I didn't know what I could do differently and even asked Larry if he could think of how I could do better as the Russians. He didn't have any ideas either. But then I noticed something in the rules. We had misread something and were playing it wrong. It was only one word (attacker instead of defender) but it made a HUGE difference. We called the game immediatly.
By now our three days of East Front Fest were up but my opponent for the next day, Paul Arena, had called in sick. Actually it was his dog Cyrus who was very sick and Paul had to take him to the vet. I'm a Dog Person so I agreed that it was the right thing to do. Besides, it gave Larry and I a chance to play VotV one more time. This time we even got the rules right. I guess the third time is the charm. This game played very differently and I won as the Russians.
After all that time I didn't form a final conclusion about Verdun on the Volga. That was really our fault - we spent half of our time playing it wrong. I definitely want to get it when it does come out and give it some more plays before I make up my mind. At least we were able to generate some feedback on the rules. The developer, Don Johnson, came by while we were playing and gave us his contact info. We also gave the game some visibility at the con in return for getting the playtest kit. Lots of people came over and asked us about it as we were playing and we dutifully gave them a copy of the brochure that Last Stand Games had give Larry to hand out.
We had a lot of fun playing all our games over the four days - half the con! Larry was a good guy and a fun opponent. Since he lives in California, we said that we would try to play again at a future GMT weekend.