On the table is Last Blitzkrieg, a Dean Essig game about the WW2 Battle of the Bulge, published by Multi-Man Publishing. The game, the first in the Battalion Combat Series, covers the action from 16-31 December 1944, using hexes representing 1 km, turns representing a day of real time, and units (funnily enough) mostly of battalion size.
The physical components follow the usual Dean Essig style (which is mostly a plus for me) including four standard maps, six countersheets (1/2″ counters), standard rules, game specific rules, system crib notes, Allied and German Order of Appearance charts and tables, and two double sided cards with the main system tables. I found everything to be relatively clear and functional, the only exceptions being nitpicking nuisances. I’ll mention those later.
It all starts with a SNAFU
Each game turn starts with common preliminaries, such as weather, reinforcements, and replacements, as well as determining the first player.
In BCS the first player gets to activate one formation first, not his entire force. After that, players alternate activating formations. However, after completing its first activation, each formation may immediately try (it’s die roll dependent) to activate again.
Each formation activation, unless recovering from fatigue, faces a SNAFU roll: you roll 2d6, apply modifiers, and check the result. You might fail, get a partial activation (halving artillery and movement points) or full activation.
One of the command functions here is to assume a Prepared Defense posture. This gives certain benefits, but also handicaps the formation: it is less effective in its own attacks, and the best SNAFU result is a partial activation. One point of detail worth noting here is that formations need to have artillery available to go into Prepared Defense. I would have thought that digging in (and having the time and tools to do this) would be enough, but the designer makes his case that artillery was essential, and that is what the combat model reflects.
Another of the command functions is the placing of Objectives on enemy units. A partial activation allows one, and a full activation allows two to be placed. Both can go on the same unit. The formation’s combat activities generally must be within two hexes of an Objective, and assaults get a bonus if the target is within range of a double Objective. There is an exception for tank on tank action, called an Engagement, which does not require an Objective. Recon units can, subject to a die roll, generate additional Objectives.
Finally, there is fatigue. Each formation has to adjust its SNAFU roll by its level of fatigue, running from Fresh (+1) down to -4 (not good). Because it is only tracked at the formation level, there is some simplification, but it’s reasonable and more than acceptable to me. Incidentally, the accumulation of fatigue is not automatic, with each formation having to roll, the chance increasing to match increasing combat activity. For example, if you place an Objective, fatigue increases on a die roll of 1. But, if you assault, fatigue increases on a die roll of 1-3. Formations recover from fatigue by resting – essentially doing nothing – and the timing of this is a a key challenge for the players.
I thought these parts of the game mechanics were well done, easily playable, and effective in simulating some of the command issues. There is an optional rule for more command restrictions using March Objectives. I have not tried that, but suspect it slows down play while delivering a slightly more realistic command environment.
After a formation activates, it can get up to mischief. At this point, I want to spend a little time on the unit differentiation that is key to the system mechanics.
Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of combat units: armor, infantry, and dual. There are also support units, headquarters, and combat trains. Oh, and artillery (and for the Allies, air) assets.
All combat units have an Action Rating, probably the most important one in the game system, as well as a number of steps. Combat units do not become less effective when suffering losses (until eliminated, of course); they merely get closer to being wiped out. Combat units may be one of the following movement classes: Tactical (tanks, etc), Truck, and Leg. Movement classes affect how units interact with enemy zones of control, and engagement zones – those projected by armor units out to their range, given a clear line of sight. Most units have two sides with different postures emphasized – movement or combat.
Armor units have an armor value – AV in the game’s terminology. As well as being a numerical rating, this is also further categorized. For example, there are Limited AV units (penalized on attack), Stand Off AV units (able to fire offensively when in support), and Breakthrough AV units (given a bonus for Shock Attacks, of which more later). Most armor units suffer a reduction of one in their AV when deployed for faster movement. Sometimes one of the sides shows the unit when in support.
Infantry units do not have a combat strength as such. Normally they will use their Action Rating in combat. They do have two sides, typically one showing the unit deployed on foot with an all important assault symbol, and the other side showing the unit in trucks (or using faster legs!). Without the assault symbol, a combat unit cannot assault. Many units suffer a reduction of one in their Action Rating when deployed for faster movement.
Dual units are those with an assault symbol and an AV. They are precious and powerful; some are recon units with the ability to generate additional Objectives, and some are mechanized infantry, presumably those with permanently integrated tanks.
Headquarters units are essential for command control, which means keeping units with a certain range, and also for maintaining supply. The latter task is where the Combat Trains come in. They are a kind of supply focus, so that there is a path from map edge to Combat Trains to the HQ, and that path has to be protected. Bad things happen to formations whose HQ or combat trains are overrun. Similarly, formations suffer a temporary SNAFU penalty if their units impinge on the area where another formation is operating, or HQs get too close to units of another formation. There are times when you, as the player, are acting like a traffic manager. This can be frustrating, but it does a great job of showing how much chaos and friction there is in real life combat operations. It also adds another level of decision making, because if you relocate your Combat Trains, there’s a SNAFU penalty. Why might you need to move your Combat Trains? There’s a SNAFU bonus if the supply line (MSR in the game) between the Combat Trains and their HQ is between 5 and 15 hexes. Your HQ has a command range, and you need to keep the formation units within that distance. So, if your formation is advancing, or retreating, at some point you are going to have to move the HQ or the Combat Trains or both.
I mentioned support above, and want to clarify that aspect. Divisions may have assets that they can deploy as combat units, or in support. Some assets may only be deployed in support. These are armor assets that, effectively, are spread out among the individual non-armor units of the formation. For example, the US 75th Infantry Division has two support units, one of which has a Limited AV. The German 2nd SS Division has one Jagdpanzer unit that can operate as a combat unit (AV 4 Limited, AR 4, range 2, move 14 Tactical) on one side, or flip to being a support unit with AV 5, range 3. So, if these units are in support, it means that the supported units project an AV zone of control, and an engagement zone out to their supporting unit’s range, given a clear line of sight. Given the close nature of much of the terrain here, that is not often an issue, but it can be. Regardless, the practical effect is that enemy AV cannot assault such supported units, and while units with an assault arrow can do the business, the defender will be that much stronger because of the support. Instead, the enemy want to get that support dropped, by sending in their own tank units in a form of combat the game calls Engagement. This can cause step losses, or support to be dropped. So, a typical scenario might see the tank unit roll up, engage the support, drop the support, and then… Well then, the tank unit can do a Shock Attack, or it can do an Attack by Fire, or it can keep moving, or it can hang around to support a regular attack. AV units generally get two Fires per activation. So, a tank unit that fails to drop support in its first Engagement (which spends a Fire) can try again. The essential thing is that there is a lot of interaction, and a lot of fluid activity going on here. That makes it fun, while challenging to work out the best approach.
As you will have gathered, there are several different types of combat in the game. As well as Engagement, there is:
- Shock Attack. AV units trying to steamroller enemy units that have no armor in them or in support.
- Attack by Fire. AV units roll to inflict hits on enemy units that have no armor in them or in support.
- Combat. What I have referred to in this post as assault; you may prefer regular combat. A single unit attacks at a time, with a bonus for a friendly unit assisting it. (No killer stacks or attempts to get a magical CRT ratio here. And yes, that is a good thing.) Supporting artillery may suppress (generating a bonus) or shoot to kill (potentially causing casualties). AV units cannot do this regular combat, unless they are Dual units.
- Barrage. Artillery or air assets shooting to kill enemy steps. You need to have a friendly units spotting.
Combat results can be step losses or retreats or a combination. Whether the defender is using Prepared Defense can determine if a unit retreats, or stays put but suffers a loss. Oh, and the retreats are another innovation: all retreats are three hexes, and at a 120 degree angle from the attack, with an adjustment to the angle if that is not towards the unit’s HQ. Units without a clear line of communications can suffer extra losses when retreating. There is an interesting optional rule that allows units that do not use Tactical movement to retreat by being put to one side, and reappearing beside the formation HQ upon the next activation. I tried it once, but wasn’t so taken by the effect to repeat the exercise. I kept forgetting to reintroduce the damned retreated units!
At the end of a formation activation, woe betide units that are cut off from command control or out of supply. In short, they fade away, thus ensuring players will work very hard to avoid such situations to occur for their troops, while simultaneously trying to inflict it on their foes!
You’ll have to play the game to experience the range of tactical niceties on offer. Let me give one small example. Generally, you do not want to stack units because that makes them more vulnerable to Barrage, as there are two likely targets instead of one. However, in Shock Attacks and Regular Combat, each unit’s Action Rating (AR) is what determines the starting point for the Combat Table Modifiers. So, if you have a formation with low AR units, its units are vulnerable. You can stiffen the defense by stacking two units to a hex, and this effectively increases the AR by one. However, it also makes a juicy target for a Barrage…
As an aside, the Allied artillery and air assets are things of beauty for the Allied Player. When the weather is right for air support, and there’s enough available, it makes a formidable obstacle barring German progress.
And that’s about it so far as the main game systems are concerned.
Last Blitzkrieg comes with ten scenarios, of which half are one map affairs. My favorite is Tip of the Spear, covering the action in the north from 24 December to 27 December 1944 (four turns) in what is described as “the last ditch effort for the Germans to reach the Meuse.” I have played this to a completion five times, with a couple of other partial plays while getting to grips with the rules. I also set up and played part of a couple of the other single map scenarios, but did not find them as engrossing as Tip of the Spear.
- The game comes with Pollard markers for step losses (or you can use a downloadable roster). These are markers that have 1-4 on one side, and 5-8 on the other, the relevant number determined by facing. I prefer a single number so as to avoid the confusion caused when I inadvertently bump a stack and lose track of what number was displayed. I know it would have increased the component cost.
- I am never likely to play any of the campaign games. However, if I were, I would want some way of cross-attaching units from one formation to another. It wouldn’t be hard to cobble together a house rule, and I can understand why this was omitted, but would have preferred some rule – or even some guidance – on this point.
- The layout of the Gamers’ style rulebooks is not to my taste. I’m not sure if it’s the quirky numbering protocol – I much prefer 4.5.1 to 4.5a – or the too tightly condensed triple columns per page, or the overuse of indents, or the persistence in using underlining and bold fonts together, or something else.
- I did not like the organization of the rules, nor the naming protocol used for the different types of combat. The combined effect was that it took me longer than I liked to understand the rules well enough to play the game. (A worthwhile effort, but still an effort.)
- It was very frustrating to have a black and white rulebook with diagrams that were rendered useless because they were not in color. It was easily fixed by downloading the online version, but still a nuisance. I understand the cost implications of having a color rulebook, and the risks given the inevitability of errata. (However, kudos for MMP here because there is very little post publication errata.) Perhaps it would be practical to separate out the examples and produce these (only) in color? They would not have to be in a booklet, but could be on one or more double sided sheets. That would have the added advantage of reducing the page count of the rules.
- It’s by no means unique to this system, but the distribution of replacements is entirely at the whim of the player. Thus, players are nearly always going to use infantry replacements for their better quality units, and AV replacements for their better tanks. (The exception is the Tiger tank, for which a separate type of replacement is used, and which tanks suffer a potential loss due to a special breakdown rule.) To be fair, I don’t know any game that gets this right, but I would like to see one that at least tried to prevent gamers ‘gaming’ their replacements.
- I was not that enthused by the choice of a black background for the SS units; not because of any offense to my sensitivities, but because of the potential of a clash with the armor coloring that says a Stand Off AV unit has its AV in black. How do you get a black number on a black background to be easy to distinguish?
- Although there is much that is different here, the core systems are straightforward, logical, and easily memorized once you get over the initial hump of familiarizing yourself with the rules.
- The SNAFU and fatigue system generates a lot of chaos. For example, a formation might fail its roll and do nothing. At the other end of the spectrum, a fatigued formation might get a full activation, take part in one or more combats, not raise its fatigue level, get a second full activation, and do more of the same – again without incurring a fatigue increase. This is a good thing, but you have to be prepared to roll with the punches. It is exceedingly frustrating to be about to deliver a killer blow, and fail a SNAFU roll!
- There’s a high level of replayability.
- There’s a high level of solitaire suitability.
- Because the turns are broken down into individual formation activations, you can digest the game in small chunks of time. You don’t need to have hours available at once, and this makes the game highly accessible.
- There are a lot of new fresh ideas in the game, resulting in a real challenge to master the system and the situations. It’s a ton of fun.
I am not that interested in the Bulge, but bought the game because I was intrigued about the system, and keen to try it out. I also prefer one or two map games, because my gaming space is limited, but was attracted by the decent number of smaller scenarios. (The next game in the series about Kasserine looks to be even more accessible, and I’ll be ordering that for sure.) I’ve been disappointed by similar experiences in the past, where something new and shiny in the wargame market failed to live up to the expectation. Here, it’s the reverse; if anything, the whole package is better than I expected. The supporting design, play, and historical notes are excellent. As usual, it’s triggered a bout of book buying and reading to supplement my knowledge of the campaign, leading to a better understanding and even greater appreciation of what is on offer. This has been my best wargame buy of the year.