Heights of Courage, designed by Steve Newhouse, is a boxed game in the Multiman Publishing/Gamers’ Standard Combat Series about the Golan Heights front during the 1973 Arab-Israel War. Turns run from half a day to three days, hexes are a mile across, and units vary from platoon to brigade. Typical Syrian units are battalions, and Israeli ones are task forces of half a battalion.
Inside the Box
The components include a single (standard sized) map, 280 back-printed counters, the series rulebook, and the game specific rulebook.
The map is well done, evocative of the actual terrain, and clear. The mapsheet includes the Phase Track (a detailed game turn sequence display, which is a great help in keeping track of where you are while playing) the Turn Record Track (with air power and replacement point availability on show) and Terrain Key.
The counters use NATO symbols, with color coding for exploitation ability, and formation identification. Combat units have an attack strength, defense strength, and movement allowance; most have two steps, with the weaker ratings on the reverse side. Artillery units have a range over which they can favorably shift combat odds by one column. HQ units have a range which limits their ability to keep units in supply. Airpower is represented by a simple counter per point, each one shifting combat odds favorably by one column, like artillery.
Inside the Game Turn
Each turn the Syrian player goes first, followed by the Israeli. The system is “I go, you go – move, then fight” with an exploitation phase for each side occurring after the odds based combat system, and some interesting tweaks.
One major example is that the Israeli side has an Exploitation Phase inside the Syrian turn, just after the Syrian Movement and first Supply Phase. This is a crucial aspect of the game which the Israeli player must master if he is to have any choice of beating the odds. The sequence allows him to send in reserves to stiffen up hexes under attack. In addition, suitably powerful stacks can foil enemy offensives with their own overrun combat (allowed in Exploitation Phases). For his part, the Syrian player can stifle this by putting Israeli units into zones of control, because such units cannot utilize exploitation.
Further, in normal game turns (see Fast and Slow Tempo, below), the Syrian side has two Supply Phases, and the Israelis have one. The effect is that the Syrian player must be constantly aware of his supply lines throughout his turn. However, the Israeli player has more freedom, knowing that he has until the end of the turn to rescue the situation.
From turn 11 onwards, each side can choose a Fast or Slow Tempo for its part of the game turn. A Fast Tempo gives that side all its usual phases, but it forfeits all available replacement points. Slow Tempo takes away a Combat and Exploitation Phase, in exchange for the receipt of four replacement points. Based on my play experience (four complete solitaire plays of the long scenario) each side will need to take at least one Slow Tempo because the losses in the game can be staggering.
As a final example, artillery is flipped to its ‘Fired’ side when it fires, and each side’s turn starts with the recovery of its own artillery units so they can fire again. So, there’s a wee bit of decision making involved in the application of your artillery resources.
Scenarios and Victory
There are four scenarios:
- The Long Historical Version (17 turns). This can turn into a slog.
- The Short Historical Version (10 turns). This is a real challenge for the Israeli player. Recommended.
- Operation Badhr (6 turns) Fun for the Syrian player only.
- Operation Al-Owda (6, 10, or 17 turns with some accelerated Syrian reinforcements) I have not tried this.
The longer versions can end earlier, depending on a die roll to represent a cease fire agreement.
Victory is based on objective hexes. The side which at any time in the game has held the highest number, is the winner. So, the Syrian player needs to grab what he can in the early turns and hope he can hold on. It seems as if one of the key skills for the Syrian player is to recognize when the tide is about to turn. If he does not pull back at the right time, his forces will be cut to shreds. Time it right, and a tough defensive line can be constructed with more chance of a decent and effective delaying action.
Thin Blue Line
In the actual war, the thinly held Israeli defense line was breached by the overwhelmingly superior numbers of Syrians, who stuck to their mission despite horrendous losses, but did not make it all the way to the key Jordan River crossings. From that high point, the Israelis mounted their counterattack, recovered the Syrian gains and penetrated deeply enough into Syria so as to bring Damascus into artillery range.
Throughout the war, the (in general) superior Israeli command, control, leadership, and combat performance allowed them to prevail. Especially in the opening days of the campaign, on the defensive, kill ratios of 5 and even 10 to 1 were reported. With that disparity in performance, the game would struggle to reproduce believable results by just counting bayonets (or tank barrels). So, inevitably, the Israeli combat units are, relatively speaking, more powerful than their opponents.
For example, a typical Syrian tank battalion has an attack strength of 8. A typical Israeli tank task force of half that size has the same attack strength. (There are some variations.)
Similarly, most of the Israeli tank forces on the Golan Heights were Centurion tanks. These were slower than the enemy T-62 and T-55/54 type tanks. However, apart from having more opportunities to move – because of the extra Exploitation Phase – Israeli tank units also have a higher movement allowance: 12, as opposed to the 10 of the Syrian tank units. I don’t mind this approach, in the context of the whole design, but mention it as some will dislike the enhanced abilities given to the Israeli forces.
The designer has tried to hold the enhanced game ratings of the Israeli forces a little in check. For example, his tweaks to the game turn sequence are a different way of giving the Israeli player the potential for mimicking historical performance.
The key word is ‘potential’, because an Israeli win is by no means certain, and demands a high level of skillful play. Similarly, the Syrian player has powerful forces available, but he must learn to master their limits within the game system.
Playing the Game
So, how does it play? Well, one of the things I like is that the game is mechanically easy to play, but it’s hard to play it well. The game is not complex, there are no detailed rules or systems to master, and you will spend your time playing the game and not the rulebook. (Incidentally, I only came across one minor rule query while playing, and in keeping with the times we live in, it was speedily answered on ConsimWorld! After further playing, I have one more query, but there was nothing of concern and I found no real rule issues.)
The chrome in the game is easily manageable. For example, Syrian airmobile ability allows these units on entry to fly to any hex on the map. Simple, and effective. It allows the Syrians to replicate their seizing of the vital Hermon outpost.
As another example, there’s a Zvika counter which allows the Israelis to inflict a step loss on the Syrians before each combat it is involved in. However, there’s a 2/6 chance the counter will no longer be available. (This represents the heroic activities of Zvi Greengold who eventually burned himself out in the first few days of defending the line.)
The system’s Combat Results Table (CRT) encourages you to cut off enemy units with zones of control so as to impose further losses on retreat. Because zones can fairly easily be penetrated, the only relatively sure defense is a solid line of units. But woe betide you if one of the line is weak enough to be overrun in a Movement or Exploitation Phase… The CRT gives the attacker pause for thought, because even high level attacks can hurt the attacker. What this means, in practice, is that combat units do get worn down, and you see the value of replacements, reinforcements, and a reserve. In short, there are never enough of these to go around.
Some Things I Didn’t Like
Because artillery and air power are handled by shifts for regular combat, the players do not need to worry about massing juicy targets for the enemy, or having vulnerable units away from the front line. Units uninvolved in combat are free from enemy air and artillery. It’s a design for effect decision that is passable, but I would prefer a more detailed approach. I accept this is likely to go beyond what most players of this series of games want, but there you go.
Because overrun is such a key part of the game, each side must form maximum stacks with the most powerful units it can muster. For the Israelis, given their loose and flexible command arrangements, this is unremarkable. But for the Syrians, who largely followed rigid Soviet doctrine, it jars. For example, the maximum Syrian stack is 3 combat units. Let’s take the Syrian 5th Infantry Division. It has one brigade – the 47th – which handily has three 8-6-10 (attack-defense-move) tank battalions that make for a potent stack. But the Syrian player can (and will) make another such stack of three 8-6-10 tank battalions, one from each of the 61st, 112nd, and 61st brigades. That mixing of brigade units is unrealistic and seems unnecessary. The system could reward – or ‘encourage’ – the Syrian player to keep his brigades stacked (instead of just his powerful units from different brigades) by having the multi-brigade stack penalized in combat. It’s one aspect of the game v history challenge that doesn’t work for me.
Because the Israelis are not color coded for higher level formations, it is a pain to locate the proper units when they are due to arrive. For gamers who want to skip the accuracy of the historical designations, it would have been good to have an alternative list of reinforcements by unit strength (for example, 2 x 6-6-12).
Other Things I Did Like
One way of keeping the complexity level down, is that the designer has taken the air battle away from the control of the players. So, all that the players have to deal with is the result of the air battle (and air v SAM battle) and decide how to use their available air resources in ground combat. (I would give this up if the design wanted to offer a way of attacking units beyond the front line, however.)
As you may have gathered by comments above, the two armies are different. So, you need to use each army differently to achieve success. I like the simple and effective use of the HQ units on the Syrian side, to encourage some realistic restrictions on the use of their forces.
The OOB looks good, presumably reflecting a ton of work behind the scenes.
The various design and players’ notes are very welcome (and helpful) as is the reading list. (While I also rate Rabinovich‘s The Yom Kippur War highly, the maps are disappointing, and on one or two occasions I lost track of when his narrative was supposed to be happening, possibly because his editor let him down.) I got a lot out of reading Kahalani‘s book, The Heights of Courage, the first time. Reading it again alongside playing this game, was a very much enhanced experience.
I like the game. I appreciate the effort that has been put in to it to produce a good gaming challenge, and to deliver a reasonable amount of flavor of the historical campaign represented. It’s easy, and accessible with plenty of replay value, and easy for solitaire gamers. I’m glad I bought it, and if work by the same designer is available in the future, I will probably be interested in seeing what he gets up to.