Board Game Review: Lock 'n Load: Heroes of the Gap
New writer Henrik Rothen dissects Lock 'n Load Publishing's tabletop translation of a hypothetical engagement taking place during World War III.
Publisher: Lock 'n Load Publishing
Designers: Pete Abrams and Mark H. Walker.
It’s been a long time since I played a proper board game: a very long time ago indeed. But I did play a lot of Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon Hill’s classical squad level board game) back before PC’s ruled the world. I also did my conscripted obligatory military service in the Swedish army as an NCO back in the 1980s when the “Russian bear” hovered over any neutral nation stuck between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. During this time, a fearsome shadow of nuclear holocaust was also clearly visible in people’s minds. We had trained to fend off one of the opposing armies in this very game. Therefore, I am well aware of the weaponry, tactics and doctrines of these opposing forces. This makes Heroes of the Gap a game which I am very suited to review and it is with great rejoice I will do so.
The game is of high quality, there is no doubt about that. The box is heavy and very well produced. All components are multi-colored, double-sided, and beautifully designed. But while considering this, I wondered why the producers jammed the two accompanying die into the game box so that they make creases in the game cards and rules—beyond my understanding. When you receive your new game, which you paid good money for, you want all components to be in pristine condition. This isn’t a major issue, but it sure lessens that feeling of satisfaction when opening a new game for the first time.
This is a title within the longstanding Lock n’ Load game series. I really haven’t heard of Lock n’ Load Publishing before this, which is good since I am able to give my sincere opinion about this game without any pre-conceived notions. First, let’s look at some of the game components.
The rule booklet is a bit floppy, made out of a “shiny” sort of paper that resists dirt and smudges a bit better than regular paper. It’s all in black, white and grey print (except covers). Considering the standard of other components it would have been pleasant with some color pictures within—this is more about aesthetics than the rules themselves of course.
After skimming through the book, it quickly becomes evident that the rule-set of the game series has drawn a lot of inspiration from the Squad Leader brand. Even though the rules are not very complicated, they are quite complete and include such varied and advanced features as smoke, snipers, leaders and even medics, nurses and chaplains; even though none of the latter seems to make an appearance in the Heroes of the Gap’s scope.
The last section of the rulebook is an easy to follow tutorial. If you have played a lot of other board games this would almost be enough of an introduction to get you going and playing a basic infantry scenario, if you don’t mind referring to the rules when questions pop-up.
There is a large water print (of the game company’s logo) on each and every page of the rules. I found this most annoying and would strongly recommend removing them in the next edition because it interferes with your vision when you are reading the text, making the manual not the best pedagogical tool at all. The back cover of the rule booklet contains a commercial for another product from the company. Something I didn’t care for much either.
The map is the heart of the game, so to speak. In this case it is a huge (as large as 4 ASL boards), foldable, glossy, full color hard board. The hexagons are larger than usual and the quality is really astounding when compared to older, flimsy paper maps from the 1970s and 80s. The map represents a minor town with two bridges, spanning a river. Hills are overlooking the scenery and a paved motorway runs across the map. It is made in a way for the sneaky Warsaw Pact forces to surprise their way over the bridge; or failing this, trying to push their way across with brute force, good-old-fashioned-Soviet-Red-Army style. And of course, the map really is made for this purpose.
I’m sure the map is wonderful to play on at first. But I have a feeling that it will lack some replayabiliy since it can’t be reconfigured in new shapes and forms, like map systems which connect to each other in a module kind of way. That way, you can build an endless variety of combined landscapes. That is something this map can’t do, but it is good looking. It looks really "schmexxy" (if that is a word) if you ask me.
The map has hex coordinate grid numbers which are just barely visible. Irregardless, “saving” or moving an ongoing game shouldn't be much of a hassle, in case you would want to. I suppose considering the moderate time expenditure of each scenario, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Buildings are divided into light and heavy structures, which are definitions I like that are suitable to the time frame and the geography of the title. The terrain table on the reference card mentions many more terrain types than what are used on this map. But of course these are there to be used with other titles in this game series.
The counters are both small and large, and contain a lot of information at a glance. After you get used to them, I prefer it this way because I don’t have to check rules or reference cards for details. But, of course, mileage may vary regarding this. The counters are of the same high quality as the rest of the components of the game. There are three counter sheets “only”, which vouches for making this game rather light in both game time and what you would need to write down in case you’d like to “save” your game for another gaming session.
The vehicles look just fine. The figures on the multi-man counters cold look a lot “cooler”, while the drawn faces of the officers on the single-man counters are not to my taste. They don’t go well together, at all, with the photographs of faces on the skill card counters. The mix is a bad design choice.
Scenarios and Scenario Cards
Each scenario comes with its own glossy high quality scenario card that contains all the forces, victory conditions and scenario special rules. Again, these remind me very much of the ASL concept, but it works well in this title. The high quality of the cards make them very appealing to the eye. In some games there are visual representations of the unit counters involved, so that you can place the real counters on top of the scenario card. It would appear that this wouldn’t fit here, and the designers chose to not use this concept. I also found a minor drawback in the force sizes, which seem to be limited by the number of scenarios (10).
Scenarios vary from minor skirmishes to larger company-sized slugfests with more complicated rules and exotic units: like air support and helicopters. There seems to be a good variety of different sorts of combat available for players to choose from, according to his or her own taste.
Again, the quality of the card is the same as the scenario cards, which is very nice. But there is only one reference card available. I would say that board games are often played with at least two people, and I would have preferred if a second card was included. Would I mind paying more for the game to add more components to it? Of course I would but the customer is always right, right? Joking aside, the reference card is clean in its design, easily overviewed and not cluttered with unnecessary detail. As far as I can tell, it contains all vital information and serves its purpose well.
The game contains a set of playing-card-sized skill cards, that give a single man counter unique abilities under certain circumstances each game. This adds an enjoyable randomness factor to each and every game. The skills chosen represent many leader and heroic traits from other games. I find the text and rules on some of them being a bit long and complicated in scope, almost a full rule section in themselves, considering that it is being read at a random moment in the middle of a game. But since they are quite few in number and rather infrequent, I’m sure you’ll get used to them quickly as you get used to the game itself. It appears to be a neat little feature, the “chrome” of the game, if you will. I don’t mind them, but I’m a bit too conservative when it comes to war games to be overjoyed.
Players take turns in “impulses”. Which means, instead of the classical IGUG system where players play their entire turn, you now get to move a unit or a full set of units in a hex/location to respond to your opponent right after your opponent has done the same. This seems like a very fair and responsive system all in all.
This would be a good game for a few cold ones, some laughs and some interactive gameplay. It’s a good idea to not make your opponent wait half an hour in front of the TV set before their next turn. This system will keep both players on their feet, all the time! As far as it seems, scenarios and unit stats are well balanced. Leaders play a great role in deciding how an outcome of a battlefield will turnout. Wise disposition of these key pieces is necessary.
How important is the luck factor in this game? Well, it depends. Considering you are using two six-sided dice the outcome of any one important roll can vary hugely. I don’t think this game is more prone to letting luck rather than skill decide who will gain the laurels of battle, but of course being friendly with Lady Fortuna is of no disadvantage.
The Soviet forces include T-80, T-72, T-64, and even T-55 tanks. You have air support, helicopters, infantry with RPG’s, machine guns and portable grenade launchers. I can’t think of any weaponry from this period of conflict that is not in here. This makes the game feel very complete in this regard. Tank wrecks and other game markers are there as well, as is to be expected. Did I mention this game has nurses and nuns? It does, but, unfortunately, not in this version.
The game comes at a hefty $65 when ordering from the publisher’s webpage. If you consider that the game “only” contains a single map, 10 scenarios and 3 counter sheets of counters, it seems a lot. If you consider the excellent quality of some of the game components, it comes out as rather reasonable. Of course, this varies with the size of the purse of the customer.
If you are into the 1980s era, Cold-War-gone-hot squad based games, this is a must for you! Memories of Tom Clancy, Red Storm and Hunt for Red October all come rushing back. I remember playing Harpoon on my first Amiga home computer. This is a nice attempt to recreate that nostalgic period of warfare that never came to be. If you don’t mind the rather steep price, not that the product isn’t worth it, you will get excellent mid 80s warfare. If, however, you are looking for tactical games in general, this game has what it takes. But it might not be the very best I’ve ever played. Components and uncommon time perspective are the strong points. Price for the content you get, are its weak points.
Review written by: Henrik Rothén
About Henrik Rothén
Henrik Rothén (Bachelor of History of war, Master of Laws at Lund University, Sweden) is a writer and computer game designer living in Lund, Sweden. He is currently developing educational computer games for children and has also recently released the book Mein Book, a black comedy book about Adolf Hitler’s life. Henrik has a background in old school hexagonal strategy games, role-playing and early computer games. His favorite interests are movies, literature, military history and strategy games.
Forum username: Henrik rothn