Ghost on the table

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So, following this post, I can now report on some playing experience of Ghost Division.

First, a reprise: this is a Joseph Miranda game design from World at War magazine #38 published by Decision Games. It is a solitaire game where you take Rommel’s place as commander of the 7th Panzer Division in the 1940 opening blitzkrieg in the west.

Components

You get one mapsheet, about half of which has the playing area. The rest is mostly charts and tables, though there are also storage areas for units – for example, for aircraft that have flown, aircraft that area ready to fly, reinforcements, HQ holding areas, and so on.

The map is a square grid and some graphical touches all of which results in a sort of military planning look and feel. But there are some production goofs. I’ll come back to these.

The counters – one sheet of slightly oversized (15mm?) double sided die cut counters – are not bad; game ratings are clear and easy to read. But there are some production goofs. I’ll come back to these.

The rules run to 16 pages, are reasonably well laid out, and clear enough to read. But – can you guess what’s coming? – there are some production goofs. I’m coming back to these now.

Ooops. Where did my flag go?

Ooops. Where did my flag go?

Production goofs

I do not know if the following were caused by designer error, editorial error or omission, production error or omission, or act of fate. But I do know they were all avoidable.

Map

There is no compass. There is no indication which part of the map is France and which is Belgium. Amusingly enough, when asked about it on Consimworld, I see that the designer posted this:

Belgium is column 3-4/5 and east. France is column 3-4/4 and west.

A good answer, except without the compass rose you have to make an assumption! Don’t get me wrong; it’s easy enough to work out, but ironic in the circumstances.

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There are also some errors on the tables printed on the map. For example, the Luftwaffe Maintenance Table refers to “Stukas” but there are no counters marked as such in the game. They are “Dive Bombers.” The Recruiting Costs Table has “Medium Bomber” types, but there are none. There are, however, “Level Bombers.” That table also misses out the cost of recruiting a Heavy Weapons unit. Who would ever want one of these?

The rules (see below) include three pieces of errata about the map displays. Amusingly, one of the errata corrections has a typo

Counters

Four of the aircraft were printed with the wrong counter backs. Minor, but annoying.

Rules

Now you are talking. These are blighted.

  • The Unit Types list incorrectly labels the Heavy Weapons unit as Engineers. (Obviously, Heavy Weapons units are cursed in this game!)
  • The list of units qualifying as Armored refers to “Armored car/armored cavalry,” a type which does not appear in the list of Unit Types. (Presumably it means “Armored Recon.”)
  • The list of units qualifying as Armored refers to “Self-propelled gun,” a type which does not appear in the list of Unit Types. (Presumably it means “SP Anti-tank.”)
  • The list of units qualifying as Armored refers to “Self-propelled flak,” a type which does not appear in the list of Unit Types. (Presumably it means the self-propelled version of the Flak unit type, but we are not shown what that looks like. Hey, why make it easy?)
  • The list of Air Units wrongly refers to “Stukas” when it should be “Dive Bombers” – assuming the counters are correct.
  • The graphic for a Sample Allied Formation Marker is neither Allied nor a Formation: it is a German combat unit.
  • The map description says there are 18 Grids (squares). There are 54. Hey, it was close…
  • The setup section includes the Kampfgruppe HQ units, but obscures the fact you have to pay extra for them.
  • The rules refer to “Medium Bomber” instead of “Level Bomber” – assuming the counters are correct.
  • The rules omit the extra cost for recruiting new units after game start.
  • Which units are eligible for Exploitation Movement is unclear.
  • Which units HQ units may command is not mentioned.
  • The application of Hits is hopelessly inadequate. It says this: “For each Hit, reduce a unit’s Firepower by one (to a minimum of zero).” But guess what? Nowhere else do the rules use “Firepower” and each unit can have up to three “classes of weaponry” or “Fire Factor” or “combat values.” What a mess.
  • The application of Fighters to Interdiction resolution is unclear.

There are other areas where in my opinion the rules are less than clear. And I am sure I have missed some. Your experience may vary. As an experienced gamer, I have come across worse rules. But that’s a poor excuse.

Let’s move on.

Game Play

I thought we would never get here…

At its core, this is a simple game. It’s you versus the randomly generated enemy. To win you have to get at least 71 Victory Points (VPs), these coming from eliminating Allied Formations and by the amount of Operations Points (OPs) you have.

The game also uses OPs as a currency. You start with 40. On your part, you not only command the forces, but you get to choose your reinforcements. The twist is you have to pay for them with OPs. The more you spend, the less VPs you have.

Apart from regular ground unit reinforcements, you can get (essential) air units. (This game will show you the potential match winning combination of air and ground units.) It also costs you OPs when you use Exploitation Movement for your Armored forces. You lose Ops for losing battles and losing units. You gain OPs by winning battles and establishing bridgeheads.

The net effect is that you want to win quick to get the OPs. But the faster you try to go, the more losses you may suffer. Tricky. And neat.

Enemy forces are generated randomly. First you have a randomly placed formation marker. When revealed – and the game has a good focus on reconnaissance actions – the formation may be a dummy, or it may generate a random draw of one, two, or three dice worth of enemy combat units. You draw units from Bins (coffee mugs or similar) according to the revealed Formation. For example, you draw units for each of a Belgian, British, French Infantry, and French Mechanized Formation marker from the Belgian, British, French Infantry, and French Mechanized Bins, respectively. (Infantry and Mechanized Bins do have units of the other type.)

Here come the panzers!

Here come the panzers!

Second, once you are in the same Grid and have combat, you determine tactical superiority – a die roll plus HQ value, generally. This means Rommel should normally have no problems, but his supporting HQs might. An Allied Fortification also supplies a die roll modifier.

That tactical superiority determines which side fires first in consecutive resolution of artillery, anti-tank, and close assault combats. A unit has up to three strengths so can fire in more than one type of combat.

Hits can cause a reduction in each type of combat strength, or suppression making units susceptible to being overrun. Or, of course, elimination by accumulating hits. You appreciate here the value of artillery and wish these beasts moved faster! You also get to see how fragile armor units can be if the rolls of the dice are against them.

The system uses buckets and buckets of dice, an approach I do not like. But here it works, and I found my resistance ebbing. Sometimes the combats can drag on, but more often there is an edge and some excitement.

The system includes combat air support and air interdiction, and as previously mentioned, Exploitation Movement to give armored units an extra move and combat. Deadly but fragile.

As well as combat formations, the system includes random events for each side – such as breakdowns, panic, air attacks, and so on. There are also Fog of War markers which may hide a patrol, an installation, a fortification, or a combat formation. See my earlier mention of reconnaissance?  I probably should have made more of it. It is crucial to know what you might be bumping into. With the right knowledge you can use your armored units to swerve around and go deep, leaving your slower artillery backed forces to clear your lines of communication.

HQs can enhance movement and combat, but you need to use these abilities with care.

The game includes optional units and rules. I have not tried them out yet.

Summary

This is a fun game. It gives you some ideas of the challenges faced by Rommel and co at the time, but the historical situation is only broadly being created because of the random nature of the opposing forces. As Rommel you have to decide how hard to press; when to rest and when to charge ahead. It is not an easy game to win – which is the way it should be – and some may be put off by the experience. Personally, a defeat often spurs me to try one more time. I’m still trying.

Quite intriguingly, I can see how the system could be tweaked and used in a different historical setting as a face to face two player game. Hidden units, random events, reconnaissance, leadership, and so on. (Has this already been done?)

If the production had not been so sloppy, I might well have been better disposed to the game. It’s not one of my favorites, but as a system it definitely has potential. With the right developmental and production support, who knows what could be achieved. I hope Decision do a better job next time around.