Kong – Congo Battle Report and Game-play Thoughts
Had a second go at Congo last night (my first time as a player).
Ant was playing his Forest Tribes Column again and I decided to give the Zanzibaris a go, (seeing as Jonathan had used the White Men the week before).
In a late change, we decided to play the provided Kong scenario, (because Ant had a giant gorilla and it seemed a shame not to use him) and I hastily based up a few extra minis so I could field the necessary 90 points as Gorilla Hunters against Ant’s Defending 70 points plus the giant gorilla.
I took my maximum of a Baluchi Sharpshooter group, with their unlimited range shooting, as well as the Baluchi swordsmen, with their (hopefully) D10 combat ability (as long as they don’t have any Stress tokens on them).
For characters, I took the Emir, who has a 2D8 Bravery and can take Stress tokens from other groups before making a Rally test, as well as the Sheikh, who can give Stress tokens to other friendly groups.
My main plan was to use my character’s Stress juggling abilities to keep Stress tokens off the Baluchi swordsmen whilst they hopefully scythed through the opposition.
In hindsight, I should have read the damn scenario before we started to play!
The scenario requires both Columns to enter the battled field from opposite corners, which immediately split up my 2 characters so they could not work together; (I’m not sure I ‘had’ to do that as scenario directions are actually a bit lacking in detail, but it seemed right to do so in keeping with the narrative).
My Column also started Exhausted, which meant I had to make a roll as each group deployed or suffer a Stress token, or even a casualty. (Seemed like a slightly ill-thought out wording in the scenario here which states that groups are not deployed, but are moved onto the table – whilst Exhaustion rules state the effect is rolled for after deployment. We decided I’d just make the Exhaustion roll the first time each group was brought on). I got lucky here (about my only luck) in that the only overall effect was one of my groups took a stress token.
Things started ok – I used my Scouts to explore and get other units safely into the cover of Dangerous Terrain. My Baluchi Sharpshooters drew first blood, with their increased range, whilst the Baluchi swordsmen and some Ruga-Ruga with the Sheikh rushed headlong towards the gorilla’s lair.
Here was probably my first major mistake. Due to the card activation system, you are not going to get a chance to use all your groups every turn. I perhaps needed to be a little circumspect and I maybe focused too much on limited groups.
In my defense, the scenario seems tough on the Hunters. The Defenders get an extra Totem card each round the Hunters do not have anyone in the gorilla’s lair – that means at least 2 rounds when they will be drawing 2 Totem cards, which is a hefty advantage. The Hunters also only have 6 rounds in which to try and capture the beast (which means taking its last life point in melee). So I figured I had to get there pronto.
Columns converged on the lair and things immediately went belly up for my Hunter column. The Ruga-Ruga, caught in the open, took a couple of casualties from shooting and my first ever ‘terrible death roll’ comes up ‘1’ and the Emir is slain. Schoolboy error on my part ahs I accidentally put my Bearer in the Sheikh’s group instead of the Emir’s group, when the Emir was undoubtedly the better (ie. 3 star ‘v’ 1 star) character. There goes my ‘cunning plan’ for the Baluchi swordsmen – who did manage to get in and kill the native Hunter group. However, they pushed their luck and tried to take on Kong next – this is where I should have read the scenario as an uninjured Kong is rolling 8D8 for Combat. The Baluchi squeaked a narrow defeat, luckily (I guess) only losing a single man and hastily beating a retreat. But they never recovered from that and got whittled down by constant bowfire from groups of Hunters and Pygmy Archers.
I attempted to regroup and bring up the Sheikh’s detachment, but it was a losing battle all the way. Even the dice seemed to hate me by then – despite several attempts taking Stress tokens to avoid shooting casualties I failed to make Cover saves. I had some fleeting combat successes and managed to bloody the Forest Tribes, but I never troubled Kong again and overall, by the 7th round when the battle ended, it was undoubtedly a resounding victory for the plucky natives and their hairy demi-god who’d given the Zanzibaris a right mullering.
Learning curve I guess. I should have been a bit more circumspect in my activations. I should have tried to have linked my 2 detachments up to work together. I should have softened the damn gorilla up with some shooting before attempting to beard him in his lair. I should have read the bloody scenario properly before playing.
To be fair though, I cannot take Ant’s victory from him and blame it all on my poor/unlucky play. He had undoubtedly learnt valuable lessons from his play the previous week and did a solid job. He brought his 2 detachments together in the centre; he constantly harassed me with bow fire, (his Hunter groups are damn mean, with their 50:50 chance of an extra hit for each shooting hit scored, and he even got a ‘double’ poisoned auto kill with his pygmy archers); he used Terror well to keep hitting me with extra Stress and his damn Witchdoctor was used to excellent effect every round, giving him a chance at yet more extra cards and harassing me with additional Stress and shooting hits.
Other thoughts about the game overall:
The card Activation is tricky and your actions are very restricted – not only do you have to balance what you want to do, you have to take into consideration what you think your opponent will do in order to try and manage the Initiative values accordingly. Makes for subtle and interesting tactical interplay.
However, the card Activation is also very limiting – I can’t help but feel that it favours smaller Columns of better quality troops just because it makes it very difficult to get any kind of ‘weight of numbers’ advantage for larger columns of potentially less able troops. Sure, if you have more units you will have the advantage in the war of troop attrition, (although I’m not even sure about that, as poorer units will hit less often than better units anyway), but you cannot act with more units during any round/turn; (The Champion or Talking Drums characters could be useful here as they effectively give you additional Activations).
Since battle scenarios generally seem to be fought over about 6 turns, the attrition factor is perhaps lessened anyway, which again seems to mean that any advantage of numbers will never actually come to mean that much.
The Stress token system is interesting. You can afford to take a token or two on a group and not worry about it, especially if the token in question is for an Action that group is unlikely to perform (ie. Shooting stress on a predominantly melee unit) – which I guess is the underpinning thought behind the boosting of the Cover save by taking Stress.
At first sight, it can seem odd that a unit that takes casualties from shooting might not take any Stress (if the player didn’t take any to up their Cover save). It does kind of mean that a player can decide that any of their units will become berserk fanatics running into a hail of lead or arrows without any seeming concern for compatriots dying around them.
It also seems a bit counter-intuitive that a group that already has a fair few Stress tokens cannot then ‘go to ground’ as effectively, if at all (ie if they already have 4 Stress tokens) – you would have thought that a group already slightly panicked would be more likely to be hitting the dirt and taking cover, instead of standing there to get shot.
Still, having said that, I do kind of like the fact that it is player choice and as a more abstract game mechanic it does kind of work.
The Panic stress token can be a killer though – get this on a group early on in the round and watch your plans go out the window as the group stands there like a rabbit caught in the headlights and you have no Rally action cards to play to remove it – at least until the end of the round when you can remove it anyway.
The Move stress token also seems perhaps a little unbalanced in its effect in comparison to the other tokens – that the group cannot Pick up the Pace with 1 Move Stress token seems reasonable, but that they cannot move at all with 2 or more perhaps seems a little too debilitating. Perhaps limiting how many times they can Move in a round instead might have been better, though I appreciate that would have its own issues to mark and remember.
The fact that all groups, no matter how many figures are left in the group, effectively flee at the same Stress token level also seems slightly odd. I can appreciate that morale is reflected by their Bravery, but because you roll a number of Bravery dice equal to the number of Stress tokens on the group to rally, it effectively means that the group can rally or flee at the same level, and their current relative strength has no bearing on it.
You also get a bit of an odd situation when you only have a single figure left in a group but they only have a single Combat or Shooting stress token. A single token suggests that, although there is only 1 person left, their state of morale is not too bad. But a single Shoot or Combat token effectively prevents them from performing that action at all.
Combat is so-so I guess. To be honest, I am never that keen on comparative result outcomes. I just think it overtly favours the better quality units because there is little attrition – ie. its not like a lot of poor quality units can wear down a better quality one because they will just never win and so never actually do anything to the better quality unit. It makes for more polarized results, which I guess leads to quicker game resolution, but I don’t think adds to overall balance and fun.
In this system this seems compounded by the fact that combat can only ever be a 1-on-1 situation, again favouring the better quality groups as they cannot be ganged up on by greater numbers.
Stress tokens do mix it up a bit, especially when the margin is narrow such that both groups are taking a token and when one group then draws a Combat stress token; but when they are not narrow outcomes it just means the better group will quickly get on top with little chance of the other group recovering.
Overall, it means that Combat largely seems to feel a mere luck of the dice issue – at least Shooting has player choice and input with regard to the taking of Stress tokens to up Cover Saves, but there is no choice here.
I think it would have been nicer to have had something where players got to split their Combat dice, choosing to either Attack or Defend, (where an Attack success inflicted a potential casualty on an opponent and a Defend success cancelled a potential casualty inflicted against them). This in turn could have led into more group specific restrictions/abilities and perhaps a bit more Shooting/Combat group specialization – such as shield armed troops maybe getting free Defend dice or Fanatics being limited to the number of dice they could Defend with, etc.
I felt like Muskets armed groups seemed unbalanced because a group armed with Muskets must have a Shoot action played on them to reload. Because of the card Activation, this effectively ‘burns’ an Action to reload – an Action when potentially someone else could have been shooting (or doing something if you had not taken the Activation to Shoot just so you could reload). In this game more than many other skirmish games I have played, this seems to be a huge drawback and from a first play I can’t seem to see that this severe drawback is reflected in groups points cost.
So for instance, Trained Troops are Rifle armed and have a Shoot of D8, costing 16 points for 4. Zanzibaris also cost 16 points with a shoot of D8, but are Musket armed, though you do get 5 of them (but they only have a Combat of D6, as opposed to the Trained troops Combat of D8 – both groups have a Bravery of D8).
Over the course of a single Round, the Trained troops could shoot 3 times for a total of 12 potential hits, (going to average 6 potential kills, before Cover saves); whilst Zanzibaris would get to shoot twice, for 10 potential hits, (with an average of 5 potential kills).
This compounds, so by the end of the second round, the Trained Troops could shoot 6 times for a total of 24 potential hits, (average 12); whilst Zanzibaris would get to shoot three times , for 15 potential hits, (average of 7.5).
Muskets do give an additional Stress to the target when fired, but honestly I cannot see why these 2 groups cost the same points and, without any other limitations, I’d have to consider that the Trained Troops would always be a better option.
As it stands, It actually seems like you should really consider musket armed groups as being primarily melee troops, with a capability for a ‘first shot’ to soften up a potential charge target, rather than being primary missile troops. Maybe that’s a realistic depiction, but as I said above, I’m not sure its reflected in the points for some groups.
It felt like this ‘Shoot to reload’ was a ‘real -world add-in’ because it might be expected for muskets and that it was a bit out of keeping with the other more abstract game mechanic concepts. Perhaps a mechanic where Musket armed troops automatically reload in any Action step where they perform no other Action would have been sufficient enough drawback – slowing their fire and preventing them from firing in consecutive rounds but without the need to expend valuable resource to do so.
The fact that there is no real distinction between missile weapons also seems a bit of a limitation – in terms of range and penetration, rifles, muskets and even bows are all considered equal.
So compare a group of Hunters with the Trained Troops or Zanzibaris – They are a group of 4, so same as Trained Troops and 1 less than Zanzibaris – but only cost 14 points. They have bows, which actually makes them as effective as rifles and certainly more effective than Muskets, as they can potentially shoot every turn. They have a D8 Shoot ability, (D6 Combat and D8 Bravery, so same stats as Zanzibaris). They also have the very nice ability that they roll another D8 for every Shooting hit they make in order to try and score another hit. This means that when they shoot at full strength, they will get an average of 3 potential kills. So over the course of a round, they could shoot 3 times for an average of 9 potential kills. That’s half as good again as the Trained Troops and almost twice as good as the Zanzibaris. Over 2 Rounds, that would potentially be 18 kills; still 50% better than the Trained troops and now over twice as good as the Zanzibaris.
Perhaps there is some Column meta-balance between different group abilities and points costs, but direct comparison seems to suggest there is a bit of an imbalance there.
Time will tell I guess regarding my current opinions and I admit I need to play it more – and despite some of my above comments, I am still looking forward to doing so.
Forest Tribes Commentary
Outnumbered and outgunned from the start, and no way to reach Kong’s lair before about Turn 3 – this was going to be a tricky scenario!
I first brought on my two Hunter groups and my scouts, who were joined by the Witchdoctor. All three groups moved towards Kong’s lair as quickly as they could, but by the end of Turn 2 I had lost one of the Hunters from the lead group and my scouts and second Hunter group holed up in some tall grass, a-feared of the Zanzibari muskets.
From the opposite end of the battlefield I brought on my two Pygmy Archer groups and my Warriors, who were joined by a Sacred Warrior and the Champion, my column leader. I deliberately concentrated on moving the Pygmies as fast as their little legs would carry them to add more bow firepower to the defense of Kong; the Warriors would do their best to stay out of musket range and close in when they could, perhaps drawing some of the Zanzibari shots away from the bowmen.
The middle of the game is a blur of frantic strategy and awful dice-rolling. To my surprise, Mark concentrates on his first detachment and fails to bring his second detachment into the game with any speed – this works well for me, though I think it would have been a very different story had he moved them in sooner.
My surviving three Hunters from the lead group drop some lucky arrows into the Emir’s group, and he rolls a “1” – a terrible death, indeed. Whilst I don’t appreciate how much that upsets Mark’s plans, it means that his column leader is down, and my simple native warriors can feel rightly proud.
It lasts about one minute, when the Hunters are wiped out by the Baluchi.
However, a group of Ruga-ruga get into Kong’s lair area, enabling the huge gorilla to engage in melee combat – the resulting carnage is positively Lovecraftian in its quantity of dismemberment, with three men dead in as many seconds and the others running for their lives.
My other group of Hunters and the Witchdoctor had been targeting the Sharpshooters, with monkeys killing at least one of the riflemen and more succumbing to deadly arrows. With that threat finally eliminated, the groups broke cover and headed towards Kong’s lair, as did the Pygmies from the other flank, peppering any of Mark’s groups that they could.
Surprisingly, to me, anyway, the Warriors got a chance to earn their colours; I managed to get the Warriors into combat with a group of Mark’s riflemen and bested them – they retreated, just as he managed to bring up another group of riflemen from his second detachment. Luckily, I had gained the extra move totem card, and next Turn the additional distance enabled the Warriors to charge and contact this new group. The tribesmen lost the melee, but at least they were close enough to threaten, rather than getting shot at from distance. In a mirror-image of Mark’s bad luck, my first terrible death roll landed on 1, and I sacrificed the Sacred Warrior. These two implacable foes traded casualties again before I could position my Pygmy Archers to target Mark’s group – and I rolled double 5, meaning two instant kills with no cover save!
It is worth pointing out that by Turn 7 of the scenario, my Witchdoctor was left using the blood of his now slain scouts to instill terror tests on an otherwise unhurt group of riflemen on the southern edge of the battlefield, the very same that had so heartlessly slain his scouts by bayonet. My remaining Hunters slew Mark’s scouts and, in an unexpected but greatly appreciated happenstance, the last group of riflemen failed a terror test and fled from the mocking curses of the Witchdoctor!
As the sun sank beyond the western mountains, Kong roared his victory-song at the backs of the retreating Zanzibarians – the day belonged to Africa!
Mark could have played that scenario differently, and I believe that a power-gamer could have had much more success with their 90-points, but Mark deployed a more believable, balanced column and I must congratulate him on doing that. Had he fielded more rifles instead of muskets, my casualties may have mounted faster than they did, but I think it produced a more realistic ambience – if anything, I think Mark got carried away with his first detachment, which was the stronger part of his column, but he failed to keep them moving forward together, and that allowed the Forest Tribes to reach Kong’s lair en masse, which ultimately proved decisive.
The Witchdoctor was possibly the man of the match, his magic causing Mark some concern, facing down (running away from) an entire group by himself towards the end of the game, and supplying extra totem cards that proved very useful.
Would I change anything in my Forest tribe column? For this scenario only, I would consider dropping the Warriors for more archers, move the Witchdoctor to a Hunter group and put the Champion and Sacred Warrior with the Scout group. More long-range shooting power is always welcome.
Whilst the structure of the action cards may seem strange – especially when we are used to games where we can move, shoot and fight every turn – I can see that the actions and their initiative scores are designed to even out the benefits across the entire range of columns, ensuring that the rifle-toting forces do not become so all-powerful with shooting as to ruin the enjoyment of the Tribal players. It isn’t historically accurate in that regard, but it isn’t trying to be and, truthfully, it can’t be accurate, otherwise it would not produce the interesting game that it has.
I shall examine Mark’s points in more detail when I eventually play a White Man column. I have heard them, and they do seem to merit attention; I feel that the power-gamers will ignore muskets altogether in favour of the rifle, just to avoid the need for reloading. Shame.
Aquarium plastic plants and palm trees have been purchased with which to make some Congo vegetation terrain and it may be time to make a few huts – yes, the Congo bug has bitten me and this is one infection that may have a long course to run.
Report by Mark Booth and Ant Lane