Blitzkrieg on the Western Front

lbdf1940

This is a review of La Bataille de France, 1940, designed by Juan Carlos Cebrian and Nicolas Eskubi, and produced by Compass Games. It is based on several sessions of solitaire gaming, with repeated play of three of the available scenarios. The review is organized in the following sections:

  • COMPONENTS
  • SYSTEM
  • HOW DOES IT PLAY
  • LIKES
  • DISLIKES
  • COMMENTS
  • CONCLUSION

COMPONENTS

Summary: mostly gorgeous.

This is what you get inside the (beautiful) box:

  • 4 unmounted maps of 40 x 28.5 cm
  • 280 3/4″ and 352 5/8″ double sided counters
  • Full color, 24 page rulebook
  • 6 double sided scenario cards (12 scenarios)
  • 2 sets of charts and tables cards (2 double sided in each set)

The maps are clear, attractive, and do not get in the way of playing the game. They are described as isomorphic, which in effect means there are lots of different ways you can put them together. The counters are gorgeous, and some of my favorites of all time. I love Mr Eskubi’s artwork, and these counters are some of his best.

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Sample selection of German counters

The rulebook presentation is good, but the content is not as good as it could be. Some of this may be because it is translated (presumably from Spanish) and some of it may be because rules are the toughest part of the package to complete. My standards may be higher than most. Anyway, there are no showstoppers, and whatever rough edges there might be are rapidly resolved by the excellent online support given at Consimworld.

The scenario cards are functional, though this is one area where the graphical representation – a circular stain on each card – did not work for me.

Sample selection of British counters

Sample selection of British counters

The charts and tables cards are fine, though some sharper editing would have caught the occasional lapses. “Build-up Area” and “Shots that are fired through of smoke hex” are a couple of examples. Not fatal, but niggling annoyances.

SYSTEM

Summary: alternating activation of formations.

The game turn has a Command Phase, Initiative Phase, Activation Phase, and Marker Removal Phase.

> Command Phase
Both sides check if their units are in command (within range of their formation leader) or not. Out of command units are marked as such.

> Initiative Phase
Both players roll 1d6 (modified for being the scenario attacker, having had the initiative the previous turn, and per scenario specific provisions) with the higher rolling side having the initiative.

> Activation Phase
Starting with the player with the initiative, each side takes it in turn to activate a formation (only if in command) or try to activate a single out of command unit, or to pass.

There is a simple procedure allowing a player to attempt coordination of two formations, meaning (if successful) they get to act together in the one activation. This adds much more to the game in terms of play value than rules weight, and is a neat touch.

Out of command units need to pass a morale check to do anything. If they fail, they are finished for the turn. (So to speak!)

Activation means taking actions, like movement, fire, spot for on or off-board artillery, rally, and so on. However, each unit can only do a single action, with the exception of a leader. A leader can direct up to two artillery missions, or up to two air support missions. However, if he does two of either, no other unit in his formation may do any action.

Of course, this is where the action happens in the game.

Movement is straightforward. Combat and assault – the latter achieved by moving into an enemy occupied hex – are a bit more involved, but by no means complex.

Combat units are rated for different fire strengths (anti-tank, anti-personnel, and artillery) and movement types (foot, wheeled, and tracked).

Generally speaking, you can only fire at spotted units, and this depends on having a line of sight (LOS), the target type, its terrain, and status as either stationary or moving. Note that if a unit fires this has no effect on the ability of the enemy spotting it, a simplification made to make the game more accessible. It certainly avoids the need for a Fired marker which is one benefit not to be sniffed at.

Combat results (from fire) generate a value by comparing a 2d6 roll (modified for circumstances) with the firepower on a table. This value is divided by a terrain specific number to find the number of potential hits.

For example, let’s say a German platoon with 6 firepower (and no other modifiers) fires on an enemy infantry unit. If the die roll (2d6) is 7, the result is 2. If the target unit is in open terrain, the divisor is 2 so that is 1 hit (2 divided by 2). However, if the target unit is in Light Woods terrain, the divisor is 3 which (2 divided by 3) rounds down to no hits. Dispersed buildings have a divisor against this fire of 4, and Built up terrain has a divisor of 5, reflecting greater available protection.

Units have three steps. After one hit they take a step loss marker, on two the combat unit is flipped to its reverse side, and on three the unit is eliminated and removed.

At the same time, there is a morale system requiring checks by units and formations in certain circumstances. For example a unit that is out of command must take a morale check each time it takes a hit. And a formation must take a morale check when one of its component units is eliminated. Morale checks are 2d6 rolls against the formation leader’s morale, with failure (generally) causing individual units or the formation to rout or disintegrate.

There are some points of detail worth noting here:

  • Yes, units (in command) can combine fire strengths.
  • The terrain divisor may vary according to the different type of fire (anti-tank, anti-personnel, and artillery). I did wonder if the divisor for Woods in artillery fire should be lower.
  • For fire against tanks (with the right weapons) the hits only count if the penetration is equal to or greater than the target’s armor. There’s a bit of chart flipping here as you hunt the details down, but it is very minor, and delivers good flavor. For example, the Matilda’s thick armor makes it virtually indestructible to all but the dreaded ’88.
  • Artillery – including mortars – rolls for accuracy when firing at a target it cannot see, with the possibility of going astray. Air missions also depend on a roll for accuracy, with the possibility of friendly troops getting hit.

Assault uses a different set of values and systems – an odds based combat results table – which takes a bit of getting used to. However, once you have run through it a couple of times, that’s enough to be familiar with the key parts. That having been said, I wondered why – in the interests of simplicity – assaults did not use the normal combat routines, adjusting for range zero. My guess is that the designers preferred the outcomes of the special CRT, including the retreats that mean positions can be taken and conceded without wholesale elimination of units.

A word about reaction. In this game each unit can only do one action. So, if it has taken its action it cannot do reaction (defensive) fire. (There is an exception for units being assaulted, allowing this fire at half strength.) And, even if a unit has not taken an action, it does reaction fire at half strength unless it has a Reaction marker. Getting a Reaction marker is one of the actions a unit can do in a turn, and the only one that means it is not finished. A unit can keep its Reaction marker from turn to turn. This is a neat little sub system and gives the players something fresh to think about in utilizing their resources.

This phase ends with subsequent player passes, so it’s possible to pass early on in the phase and still get to do something, so long as your opponent does not scupper your plans by passing!

> Marker Removal Phase
Time to cull the markers. Straightforward, and on we go with the next turn.

BDFmaps

HOW DOES IT PLAY

Summary: reasonably fast, and minor rule and system quibbles aside, you will quickly be playing the situation and not struggling to master the mechanics.

It is similar to Avalanche’s PanzerGrenadier system in terms of scale and the alternating activations, but different enough to stand apart. And materially different in a way I prefer. Here you are activating formations, and you need to manage them under fire, especially when they start taking hits. The morale system is straightforward, but its application here to the formations makes for quite a unique experience.  You will not be able to fight to the last cardboard soldier!

The potential for combining formations in activation is one I admire. Simple and effective.

The impression I got in playing was that the system will kick you down if, as attacker, you simply move up your forces and line them up, and fire. You have to plan your approach so as to avoid defensive fire. You have to seek the best terrain for your leaders to call down artillery fire. You have to work out how to assault enemy positions while minimizing your casualties. In short, this game challenges you.

The game tries to portray differences in fighting capabilities by giving formations different morale ratings and coordination values.  In this particular version, there are also a set of special rules for French armor and artillery that deliver more flavor. For those more keen on the simulation aspect of gaming, it may not be enough. (It was fine for me.) But the game’s strengths are that it is easily tweaked.

For example, if you feel that the German forces of this era would perform better when out of command, give them a beneficial modifier to their requisite morale check. Similarly, if you feel the British or French forces would be less likely to do well when out of command, then give them an unfavorable modifier.

The one aspect of play I am not so enthusiastic about is the marker farm that arises. There are markers for Finished units, units in Reaction, units using Double Time, and – of course – step losses! There is no easy way out of it, and it certainly does not stop you playing the game, but I’d hope to see some future efforts directed at cutting down on markers.

Before I address this, ironically, one thing missing from the material in the box is a way of identifying which formations are Veteran, an which are Green. Enter the traditional solution of a side note.

So, here’s a suggestion to cut down the marker proliferation. As I read the rules (but I need to confirm this) if you activate a formation, at the end of the activation every unit in the formation – whether it did anything or not – is either Finished or marked in Reaction. I would like to see the back of the leaders marked “Finished” so that there would be no need to mark individual units; just flip the leader over. Most of the leader backs are blank, and those that are marked – Heavy Weapons formation leaders, for example – could easily have their status marked with a symbol on the front of the counter.

I also plan on trying to do away with Reaction markers next time out, by having such units turned sideways or upside down.

But marker mania apart, I liked how this game played.

Take the bridge!

Take the bridge!

LIKES

  • Formations; it’s much more involving, immersive, and realistic to have 3 companies, each with their own morale and mission, than 9 units that you can play about with as you wish.
  • Era; it makes a pleasant change to do battle with early war kit. I cannot help but feel sales would have been better with the Eastern Front or a Normandy based game. Hopefully, these will surface in due course. (The East Front is definitely planned – see Paths to Hell at Compass Games’ website.)
  • Leader counters; unlike a certain other game system, the leaders are not back-printed with another personality, thankfully. (You do sometimes get a random choice of formation, the difference being in the leader’s ratings.)
  • Scenarios; a good mix in the box. There’s an extra one (at least) available to download. And DYO is made easier with the provided points system and scenario design guidelines.
  • Examples; these are well done, quite extensive, clear, and very helpful. (In part, necessary because of the loose drafting of some rules. See Dislikes, below.)
  • Solitaire playability is good.
  • Overall graphics look and feel.

DISLIKES

  • Counter size; I do not like the different sizes. I know that the game would either have come with less counters or a bigger price tag, but that’s what I would have preferred. I particularly do not like the hit marker being different in size from the vehicle units.
  • Hit marker; the effects vary according to the unit’s starting fire strength. This should also be on the hit marker so I don’t even have to think about remembering it.  For example, there’s space for something like this: [1-6] -1, [7-11] -2, [12-15] -3, [16+] -4
  • Rules; they are not tight enough. Nothing fatal – and the support is outstanding – but these are not my favorite part of the package. (In fairness, the early PanzerGrenadier efforts were awful, and that was supposed to be the mother tongue of the designer!)
The stain, the stain!

The stain, the stain!

COMMENTS

A roundup of loose ends of my thoughts on the game.

It’s worth emphasizing the great support given in Consimworld so far as answering rules questions, queries, and the like. Very commendable.

There’s no bonus for firing at close range – for example, from an adjacent hex – with anti-personnel fire. An infantry unit with a range of 2 fires with the same effect at 2 hexes and 1 hex. When I first thought about this, it bothered me. Then I decided it was quite clever. If you want to kill tanks, you need to get closer to improve the penetration of your fire. So, for that type of combat, up close does make it more effective. But to dig out infantry in tough terrain, you must assault them. And in assault, the morale of the troops becomes an important – if not the most important – factor, given the need for a morale check.

Spotting is only dependent on moving or not. No fire effects. It’s an admitted simplification and probably the one I least like. But, I can understand why the decision was made and it is no deal breaker. Arguably, it makes defending that much more effective, which is probably no bad thing.

CONCLUSION

I’m glad I bought this game. It’s an accessible, playable game of tactical combat at the platoon level, and one I am hoping to see extended to the other theaters and times of WW2.

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