Knowing when to stop

The next game on the tabletop after Prelude to Disaster, was St Lo. This is another older game (1986), being a Joseph M. Balkoski design, produced by West End Games.

Topic and treatment

This is about the July 1944 push by USA forces to capture the strategically significant town of St Lo in France. It has one standard sized map, a rulebook, 400 counters, a counter tray, and several play aids to store unit information.

Units are battalions and companies, with divisional assets available to beef them up. Each hex is 306 yards across, and each complete turn is a day.

There is one scenario (only), running to eight turns. In my experience, turns can take anywhere between five minutes and two hours, and that is after you know the rules and have tried out a few of the opening moves to get a feel for the synergy between theory and practice.

Components

The rulebook is well written and answered all the queries I had. It’s full of atmospheric quotes from the USA 29th Infantry Divisions’s involved officers. This is material to be read, read, and read again to get a half decent appreciation of what the actual combat situation was like for the participants.

There are some annoying errors with the pull out charts, but the errata is very modest.

The counters are serviceable, though somewhat lacking by today’s standards. However, they are clear, easy to read, and do not create any barriers to play.

The map is basic, functional, and ugly.

The Germans are dug  in and waiting on the ugly map

The Germans are dug in and waiting on the ugly map

The play aid cards – to store battalion morale information, divisional assets, and artillery units and ammunition – are well done, clear, and easy to use.

Part of the artillery display

Part of the artillery displays

System

The game uses an impulse like system with a roll for initiative and the winner getting an activation. Then, after the activation is over, both players roll again for initiative. So, only one player gets to go after each roll.

Initiative can be affected by enemy artillery fire at the beginning of each turn. The game notes recommend the Germans do as much as they can to blunt USA initiative, and that seems excellent advice.

For an activation, you can choose a battalion to activate, or to fire artillery. (Or an airstrike if you are the USA player and have any available. This is dependent on the weather roll.)

Let’s do artillery first, as it is a key part of the game.

Artillery can pin or disrupt its targets. This gives a significant modifier in combat and is desirable if you are the attacker. Of course, if the suffering side gets initiative and recovers, you have to start all over again… Or the pinned or disrupted side can take a chance and wait for the end of turn recovery. There are lots of tough decisions like this in the system.

Artillery effectiveness is tied to the height of the terrain of the observer (FO) versus the terrain of the target. For example, if the FO is four levels above the target, the attack strength of the barrage is multiplied by four. (This is the maximum.) So the game forces the players to think in a completely different way about terrain, to maximize their offense and defense.

In the battle, the Germans start in control of two significant high positions: Hill 122 and Hill 192. The USA should be able to take 192 in the first turn, and so can use it as an excellent FO position to bring down artillery on the targets of his offensive moves within range. Hill 122, however, will be a longer and tougher job.

Incidentally, the game uses a simple card display to track artillery ammunition; you move the counter down the track for each fire mission it uses.

When it comes to battalion activations, the owning player nominates the unit and rolls 1d6. He compares it to the unit’s current morale. (Most start at 7, except the USA 35th Division whose units start at 6.) A roll less than the morale activates the unit with the difference being the number of action points. So a roll of 6 versus morale of 7 gets the unit activated (just) with 1 AP. You can use APs for movement, combat (more APs for more preparation in combat), recovery (dependent on a die roll), reorganization (building up from companies, or breaking down into companies) and entrenching.

Each activation costs the unit a reduction in morale. Typically the first activation in a day costs 1 (2 for the green 35th) and 2 for each thereafter. So, you can push your units for multiple activations each day. But, there are no guarantees for subsequent activations, and the more you push them, the longer it will take them to recover. (Morale is increased by a meager two points if the unit has a day’s rest.)

Tracking morale

Tracking morale

Finally, the day ends when players pass consecutively, or the initiative roll is a natural “2.” There is, however, a minimum number of activations for each of the first two days of combat. But, yes, a day’s turn can end on the first activation…

Combat is relatively straightforward, with each battalion only allowed to attack on its own. (In other words, you cannot have two or three battalions ganging up on a solitary defender.) Any attack can be strengthened by artillery support – as can the defense. Also, both sides can commit divisional assets. These can give the attacker a bonus if he masses enough tanks versus the defender’s anti-tank assets. And engineers give a positive modifier to the attacker. The tank aspect requires a separate die roll and is a little fiddly, but worth it for the feel.

The game has a simple but effective sub system for allocating and reallocating these divisional assets.

Play

If the USA player gets reasonable luck in the activations available, he will clear the board of German units and win. So, do not play this as a FTF game unless the German player is a fan of do or die defense. But it is an intense solitaire puzzle, well worth your time. Yes, it is frustrating when the day’s action ends early. But that is probably more realistic as a representation of the chaos of the battlefield.

The solution to the puzzle of this game involves an efficient combination of flank moves to isolate defenders, artillery attacks to pin them, then up close and personal. But as the USA you will rarely have enough activations to do this the way you want to. If ever a game simulated the frustrations of combat, this is it.

Massed for attack. But one battalion at a time.

Massed for attack. But one battalion at a time.

Things I don’t like

As the system stands, being attacked does not affect your morale. So, a pulverized defender can still benefit from its full morale. I’d like to see something different there.

Closing

I believe the system was the framework upon which Joe’s Omaha Beach game was based, though without the random nature of the activations. Other designers have also been inspired by the system. For me, the system outshines the situation. It would be good to see a modern reworking of this to another less one sided situation – or perhaps a longer campaign with suitable switches in fortune. And perhaps such a reworking would find some elegant solution to the potentially disproportionate effect of luck ending too many game turns too early.

Aside

Joe Balkoski is a noted historian, and the research material in the game is a taster for his excellent series of books on the 29th:

  • Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy.
  • From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest.
  • From Brittany to the Reich: The 29th Infantry Division in Germany.
  • Our Tortured Souls: The 29th Infantry Division in the Rhineland.
  • The Last Roll Call: The 29th Infantry Division Victorious.

I have read the first four and the fifth is on its way. These are highly recommended.

 

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