Saturday 18 November 2017

Lock 'n Load Starter Set

Getting into Lock ‘n Load Tactical

Lock ‘n Load Tactical is a popular boardgame system that has individual vehicles and squads fighting over a hexed mapboard.

This tactical series is mature both in terms of product range and the life of the system. Most of the game modules have been out of print for a few months, but recently a large scale re-printing effort made everything, plus some new stuff, fully available again.

The company (also and somewhat confusingly called Lock ‘n Load) have recently released a low cost starter kit, so that anyone sitting on the fence can dip their toe into this well presented tactical world and see if it is for them.

This post will be looking at that starter kit in a bit of detail, so if you are looking for a system to scratch the tactical itch, then use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

Disclosure, my blog is not a review site, I just write about things that I like playing. With regards to this system, I did write a linked 5 game campaign for the east front module, which I put up freely at BoardGameGeek and on this blog. On the reprinting of Heroes of the Motherland, Lock ‘n Load asked if I would mind if they included the campaign game in the reprint. I was of course delighted and the right to print was given freely. This is my only connection with the company / system and I have bought all the items in my collection.

Scale - we are looking at counters representing single vehicles, single weapon teams, infantry squads and half squads. The ground scale is 50 metres to the hex and a turn represents around 2 - 4 minutes of action. Buildings can be single hex or larger multi-hex structures. This generally allows for scenarios that can be anything in scope from a few squads per side to perhaps as much as a couple of companies with support.

It creates a gaming environment in which squads are jumping over walls and hedges, dashing across roads, fighting their way into buildings, driving tanks through the main street in a village, moving through jungle and bunker busting etc.

To date the system has modules covering WWII 1939 - 45,  Vietnam ‘68, the Falklands (1982) and Europe circa 1985.

So, let’s have a look at Lock ‘n Load’s latest effort to get us playing their system.

The package is sold in a ziplock bag, it feels quite substantial and has grown in scope from the old single scenario download. It gives us two small actions from WWII and two actions from Vietnam, with all the support material needed, including maps.

The intention of the starter rulebook is that elements such as armour and artillery are left out, so that it can focus on infantry action. However, it does this by simply reproducing the first 32 pages of the rulebook, which does in fact contain things that are not required in the demo games, but the reasons for doing this are fully understandable. Oh, and don’t be put of by 32 pages of rules. These are large font, 2 columns, easy read and nicely illustrated rules. They are relatively straight forward, well explained, tight and easy to cope with. It is also worth noting that once you know the infantry rules, elements of them crop up later in the armour and artillery rules etc, so those things become easier to absorb later.

The counter sheet has 130 counters. These have pre-rounded corners and are ready to just push out of their frames. If you do get into the system, these game parts can be absorbed into your other games. Better still, give your starter kit to a new recruit! The writing on the counters is not as clear as it is with the proper gaming modules.

The maps are really nice. You get one with a Vietnam setting;

and one for North West France.

Standard maps that come with game modules are just over 8" x 13" and geomorphic, but the company also produce larger versions of the maps called X-Maps, which can be bought separately for each module. They are 11" x 17" and just give units more room to breathe during play.

The map to the right is the X-Map

Anyway, this starter set includes both map sizes, which are on a satin type card. The smaller maps are great for creating compact play areas, but the larger maps are just a joy to play over as the artwork is no nice.

Charts and tables (for each of the two periods) are normally printed onto card in the modules, but here they are presented towards the rear of the rulebook.

One of the nice things that the system scenarios can do is to present secret events that can be triggered during play. The scenarios do this by putting an Events Counter in a pre-determined hex and then when that counter is either first seen or the hex entered (depending upon how the scenario wants to use the counter), a previously unread paragraph from the scenario is activated. A typical example might be that a squad moves into a building and for the first time gets ‘eyes on’ Event Counter A, which is in another building that up until now has been hidden from view. The player checks the Event A paragraph in the scenario and it will reveal what happens next. This could be quite literally anything that the scenario designer wants to highlight, so perhaps you suddenly find yourself in an ambush, or you discover a functioning machine gun in the building you are in, or you get or trigger off-board artillery fire etc. It is a nice touch and it is represented here in our starter kit.

This is a two player game, but like many two player games, it is fine to be played solitaire. However Lock ‘n Load have just released a dedicated solitaire system that as I understand it, works on any of their modules. It provides an AI opponent and is similar to the solitaire system used by Academy Games in their Conflict of Heroes system. My own take is that I would just prefer to play solitaire the good old fashioned way and just play both sides well, but I know there are many gamers who prefer not to do this, so at least the choice is there.

The game is impulse driven. Whoever gets the initiative goes first. They activate one hex and whatever is in that hex can act (or adjacent hexes if a leader is part of the activation). Anything used is marked as fired or moved and so in effect, it is ‘done’ for the rest of the turn. Play then flips to the other player, who does the same and then play reverts back to the first player and so on until all units have acted or both players pass.

It is important to understand that in this game, units generally only get to do something once in a turn, so once used, they really are done, there isn’t any final fire against moving targets that some systems offer, so a done unit can be vulnerable to units then advancing onto them with potential immunity.  This cause the player to think on terms of fire zones, fire lanes, cross-fires and having units covering the positions of other units and generally having some units kept unused towards the end of a turn, simply to keep to keep some flexibility to respond. It creates a good discipline to stop the player firing just for the sake of it.

Units can only fire on an enemy that has been spotted. Units in the open will be spotted automatically. Those that move or fire will also be spotted and for anything else (i.e something hunkered down in cover that has not activated that turn), the attacker rolls a die, hoping to get a 'Spot' result.

Fire is based around opposed die rolls. It might have no effect, or shake a unit or cause casualties. Leaders can attempt to rally shaken units. This part of the system quickly becomes second nature, but it can be a bit disruptive for the solitaire player (due to holding the maths for both firer and target in your head) compared to simply rolling on an attackers combat chart for a result. No big deal, but late at night when you are tired, you can occasionally fall foul of a muddled calculation and have to re-run the numbers - or at least I can!

For its price, I think you get a good deal for your money. It could turn you onto a well supported and exciting new system, but even if you don’t like it, you will have got your monies worth finding that out.

Here are just a few highlights from a game that I played using the scenario 'Assault on Vierville' (France 7th June 1944) which has a few American Paratrooper Squads trying to defend a village centre from a German counter-attack. It has a hidden event, which adds a nice twist when it happens, the details of which I will not disclose here (to prevent a spoiler).

Above - The Americans set up first within 3 hexes of hex H6 (located by the red die). The Germans then roll to see which board edge they will arrive on. To win, by the end of play (6 turns) the side that controls 4 building hexes within 3 hexes of hex H7 (black die) gets to claim the victory.

Turn 1 - (Initiative automatically German) The Germans advance on a broad front and reach the building line on the other side of the village road. They have officers with the two flank stacks and have a heavy machine gun in the centre.

Below - by the end of turn 1, Corporal Medrow's heavy machine gun position (large American stack bottom right) fires at Koch's stack and makes everything go 'shaken'.

Turn 2 - (initiative - Americans). The Germans set up their tripod mounted HMG in the centre and Koch and his men rally. The laser pen shows the line of fire from the German HMG into Medrow's position.

It is something of a cat and mouse moment as neither side wants to risk being used by possibly failing spotting checks or indeed by firing or moving that will leave them automatically spotted so early in the turn.

The American player decides to deploy their sniper, who passes a spotting check against the German HMG (lucky) and then randomly selects the target in the hex, getting the crewed HMG (rather than the medic, lucky again!). The final bit of luck is some devastating shooting (roll of 11), which shakes and causes casualties (reduce to half squad) to the HMG team. So for a bit of bold play, the American player has mitigated the immediate German threat., though his sniper position is now committed and known.

In the last moments of the turn, Koch spots Medrow's hex, fires and everything goes shaken.

Turn 3 - initiative a draw - so the previous player with the initiative (Americans) retain it. This becomes really important for the American player as Medrow fails his rally test, so his men can't attempt recovery. They are really vulnerable in this position, so Medrow leads them (extra movement allowance) out of the building into the cover of another building further back. This leaves the Event Marker unprotected, but his men are safe.

A German half squad moves forward, hugging the wall and crossing over into the woods, getting next to the Event Marker.

Over on the left, Koch's squad low crawls one hex from a building hex to another building hex to get nearer to the sniper.

Turn 4 - The Americans get the initiative again! Medrow recovers but his squad does not, however, his new location already had a fresh half squad there and they take possession of Medrow's HMG to fortify their position.

The German half squad in the woods moves into the stone building that contains the Event Marker. The event is activated and the paragraph in the scenario is now read. It causes an interesting turn of events, but I shall be careful here not to report on it or take photographs that reveal anything, so as not to spoil the scenario for anyone who is actually going to play it.

Turn 5 - The German centre comes under very heavy fire and the results for them are devastating. The centre is now essentially non-existent and the HMG lose their crew.

Turn 6 (last turn) - There were some 'make or break' dice rolls in this turn as German elements had managed to kill the sniper and infiltrate to the American positions at the lower end of the village. After a couple of melee's in which the Germans tried to wrest buildings from American control, the results for both sides were excessive casualties and the area left strewn with abandoned support weapons, but the buildings still in American hands.

Conclusions - This was an American win. The Germans were just unable to take control of enough buildings. The turning moments were probably when the sniper struck at the German HMG as it set-up and the fact that Medrow managed to pull his men out of a very precarious position, giving them a chance to recover and organise a second line of defence.

This was all played out (with notes and pictures taken) in under an hour. When looking at the learning curve, one has to keep in mind that this is a series system, so any investment in learning is well rewarded by the huge number of scenarios available.  

The AAR described above was played solitaire, but I played it twice face to face a couple of nights ago with Mike and despite the low number of units and the small playing area, it really was decisions, decisions, decisions! all the way through and there were a few times when we both said ‘ooh that’s a nice touch’ as we suffered or delighted in moments of game narrative that were nuanced, frustrating (in a chaos way) and rewarding. The system is often described as being ‘movie-like’ rather than realistic, for me, play seems to be somewhere between those two positions, but it certainly brings drama and engages both players equally throughout.

There is quite a bit of common ground between the various popular tactical systems, so principles like Line of Sight, Dead Ground, Morale Checks, Opportunity Fire and Assault Fire are typically able to be transferred to other rules and so even if you decide that this is not the system for you, it will at least give a grounding in those principles, which will be useful in your continued search for your ‘go to’ game.

The nice thing about this package is that the scenarios sit on single small maps, so a gamer learning the system can keep it on something like a small pinboard and just attend to it whenever they have a few moments and really take their time in absorbing the rules. Seasoned players will find it a useful package for vacations, especially as it now covers two different periods for a bit of variety. Finally, at its price (I paid £10 in the UK, though it is available cheaper), it would make a good gift for anyone you know who might just be taken by this sort of thing.  

Resource Section.
My COMMANDERS web page is a sister site that is a bit more snippet based than here. LINK

A blog article that looks at the Japanese Module LINK

A blog article that goes to France 1940 for a detailed look at this system LINK

A blog article that looks at how the system handles armour using some T-34’s advancing towards a lone Tiger I. LINK