Breakthrough: Cambrai

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Breakthrough: Cambrai (“BC“) is a Michael Rinella designed wargame about the 1917 British offensive in the West, featuring the first mass use of tanks in combat. It is published by MMP and comes with a single standard map, one and a half countersheets (each counter is 5/8″), a rule book, a playbook, two identical player aid cards, and setup and reinforcement cards. The graphical and physical quality is good with only minor nits to pick. I like the counters and the map. I thought the rules were well written and organized, and the Playbook was just what I needed to ease me into the game.

The system is area movement with impulses, meaning it is one of the family of games that started with Storm over Arnhem, and developed through Thunder at Cassino and Turning Point: Stalingrad. The other MMP game Storm over Stalingrad is the core system, stripped to the essentials, with added cards. BC is the core system, stripped to the essentials, with added chrome (and a wee straitjacket or two) to deliver period flavor and historicity. The designer has done other area movement impulse games, but he appears to be claiming this as the leading edge of his designs, so far.

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The British are on the attack at the start (November 20th), and have to grab territory before too many of their tanks break down, or too many German reinforcements are at hand. (The game comes with a campaign game and three scenarios, the last of which features the German counterattack.) To achieve their goal, the British have a first turn artillery bombardment, clear weather (meaning they have air support) and twelve nifty artillery counters for direct support (+1 in combat) or rolling barrage (reducing the cost of moving in to enemy areas). They also have some reinforcements whose early first turn release can be triggered if certain areas are captured.

The latter feature is one of those historical straitjackets, as it more or less obliges the British player to target the trigger areas. Of more restraint is that for the first couple of turns (only) British units must keep to operational sectors. Again, it’s historical, but it channels play quite tightly.

The game turn’s central feature is a set of alternating impulses – mini-turns – where each side, in turn, can activate one area. The units in that area can do their stuff and then the next impulse continues and so on. However, after the first turn, the British player rolls two six sided dice. If he rolls less than the impulse number, that impulse is the last. So, the shortest turn could have only three impulses, and the longest thirteen. That’s one of the chaotic features which makes the game fun, but is a bugger when it comes to game balance.

Movement is area to area. Combat can be artillery only – though once available, each side’s Hurricane Barrage resources need to pass a die roll to return – or good old fashioned assault. Essentially, it’s two dice plus the attack value versus two dice plus the defense value, and if either total is higher there are casualties to be doled out. (Attack and defense values are typically one unit plus 1 for each supporting unit or artillery or air support.) Combat can also end in a stalemate with the main unit on each side suffering exhaustion.

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Units have a fresh side and an exhausted side. Casualties can be taken by becoming exhausted, retreating, or being consigned back to the game box. (If the British attack with a tank unit and cause more casualties than the German forces can take, this causes an overrun, allowing the attacking forces to keep on going to the next area. However, certain areas are immune to overrun, presumably due to terrain restrictions.)

In most of these area movement games, units flip over to their exhausted side after being activated, and recover at the end of the turn. Not here. First, not all units become exhausted just on being activated, though unsurprisingly tank units do. Second, while tank units can refit (recover) overnight, only a very small number of infantry units can. Small as in one German. Ahem. After November 25 it becomes two German and one British. (And the Brits can cash in their cavalry units to freshen up exhausted infantry.) So, offensive power burns out, and both sides need to manage dwindling resources.

I have played this several times solitaire and it has been challenging to make real progress with the British. It can be done, but it needs good luck. Outrageous luck will see you through…

Oh, did I mention the Advantage rule? This allows the holder of the Advantage to change the weather, get more artillery ammunition, and so on. Crucially for the British, he has to simulate General Haig’s decision about whether to continue the offensive with a die roll each turn from November 21. If things have gone bad, the British player will need the Advantage to change Haig’s mind! Choices within decisions.

So I have played it and enjoyed it. I have had my money’s worth. However, in terms of replayability, I would rate the game less highly than others. I think the fun part is in mastering the opening turns for the British. (The German player needs to be calm, cool, and a masochist.) So, having extracted all the goodness out of the opening, I would be hard pressed to want to play it again. Perhaps with one exception: the rules are not difficult, and the short first scenario would make a good introduction to the puzzle aspect for a new wargamer. Give the new kid the British and see how well he does. Oh, let me give you one tip: do not forget the special rules for November 20. Yes, it’s more history, but the British player sure does need the bonus for tank attacks.

Closing thoughts: this is easy, accessible, and fun for the British player in the main. If the designer could find a situation that needed less shoehorning, he might have a winner. This is an ok game, but it’s not near the top of my list of favorites. But I am keeping it…