1914 Serbien muß sterbien

I am miles behind in blogging about my wargames activity, but finally am getting round to at least posting something. 1914 Serbien muß sterbien is an operational game about the initial World War One campaign on the Balkan front. The designer is Michael Resch, and it is published by GMT Games. Essentially it’s an attempted smash and grab by the Austro-Hungarians that turns out to be more of a poke and twist against the dogged Serbian defenders.

The physical components are excellent: one standard sized map done at 8.8 km per hex, a couple of countersheets, rules booklet, scenario booklet, organization displays, and other play aids. The other scales are turns of 2-4 days, and units ranging from divisions down to regiments and smaller detachments.

The core mechanics are straightforward, but there are plenty of differences to catch you out, so careful reading of the rules is recommended. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the organization of the rulebook, but I did find 99% of what I was looking for, and on the whole the rules are tight, and the designer’s intent is clear.

The system is “I go, you go” but with a neat twist. After you move your units – with 9 movement points (MPs) plus whatever extra you want to force march – your opponent gets to counter move with 5 MPs plus whatever force march extras he risks. You can pin the enemy by declaring a prepared assault, but if you don’t he is free to spoil your plans by moving away, or bringing in reinforcements.

Force marching can degrade a unit’s combat effectiveness. This is something kept track of separately from combat strength, and well models the gradual wearing down of units in combat. It is an extra something you have to pay attention to, and is a little fiddly (only a little) but is well worth the rules cost.

After movement, you attack, then your opponent attacks. In the opponent’s phase, the roles are reversed. I thought it worked quite well. In this theater, the terrain is quite rugged and the armies are slow and ponderous. Supply is key, with an added burden on the Serbian player of having low artillery supply, and having to husband it carefully.

Combat is straight odds comparison, but the results are modifiers to a post combat effectiveness check. This is a 2d6 roll versus the unit’s current combat effectiveness. So, a typical ’10’ rated unit will stand up quite well. However, that check is where the combat result modifier impacts, meaning that if you have a +3 (for example) to your check from the Combat Results Table, it’s no longer so easy. on top of that, each side’s artillery resources can impact the check. Failing the check can degrade the unit’s combat effectiveness, or cause step reduction, or both. There are some detailed nuisances, like having to cross refer the artillery to the size of the opposing force to get the modifier. Also, step losses are not automatically imposed if the other force is small, and instead this is die roll dependent. Both these systems make sense, but they are finicky. Do they work? yes. Are they worth it? Well, that depends on what you are looking for, If you want the level of realism that the designer is trying to portray, you have to think they are worth it. I’m in the pro camp.

Austro Hungarians (blue) just about holding on against the Serbs (khaki)

I have now played the so called training scenario three times to completion, each time a draw. The first time around, the Austro Hungarians swept all before them in the initial offensive, but were sent reeling by the Serbian reinforcements from the east. The second and third tries saw a more cautious offensive which fared much better against the Serbian counter offensive.

The full scenario is too much for me to play solitaire. This is especially so as I repeatedly cocked up by attacking with units whose effectiveness level meant they should not have been able. I eventually solved this by putting the markers under the combat units, and not on the organizational displays. Further, the full scenario brings in the inevitable trenches,and I am unsure how I would enjoy that static element.

What it has given me is a taste for more of the same as part of a team game, maybe at a future Consimworld.

I enjoyed my time with this game. I liked the system, wasn’t too fussed by the finicky bits, and felt it gave a damn fine feel for the campaign. I particularly like the rules that imposed limitations based on the actual strategic plans of the Austro Hungarian forces.

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Dauntless

opdauntless

On the table is Operation Dauntless, Mark Mokszycki‘s game about the June 1944 Normandy battles for Fontenay and Rauray, published by GMT Games. The first game of Mark’s that I played was the excellent Red Winter, and this looks to be even better.

The box is overflowing with gaming goodness: the physical production standards are the usual top notch, though there are one or two minor pieces of errata. Apart from the expected map, counters, rule book, and play aids, there’s a chunky Scenario Book (complete with programmed instruction starter scenarios to teach the system) and a very impressive Reference Book with commentary, supporting notes, and a ton of historical detail. Finally there is a Play Book with many examples of play, material about how to link the scenarios into a campaign game, tips, and other bits and pieces.

The system is somewhat more complicated than Red Winter, the key differences being additional rules to cover defensive fire and anti-tank combat. The latter has a unique action and reaction cycle which took me some time to become comfortable with. However, there is a play aid with a flowchart that handles this subsystem better than the dry body of the rules.

I have played through most of the programmed instruction scenarios, and setup and walked through the first couple of turns of the first actual (historic) scenario. The game has lots of rich tactical detail which makes it play a bit slower than Red Winter. Whether this is worthwhile is a matter of taste. I enjoy the immersive experience, so for me it’s a positive feature. It may have taken a while to get to the table, but the timing is fortuitous, given I have a wee bit extra free time to devote to this beauty.

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Meanwhile, on the table

fof-lotr

I have been plugging away at Fields of Fire, having managed to get through the first two missions of the WW2 campaign. Mission 3 is a series of combat patrols where you have to, in turn, get each of your three platoons to complete a patrol into enemy territory. The defenders are veteran troops, and although the troops have the cover of operating at night, there are likely to be causalties. One tricky aspect here is that the company, having improved in quality by virtue of its experience, will really suffer if the losses are too high, as there are never enough veteran replacements kicking around. So in this game, you cannot only go for the win. Here there are ongoing consequences if your losses are too high.

Thankfully the same does not apply to the Lord of the Rings: the Card game. Thanks to some great material at the Hall of Beorn, I was at last successful on a solo run of the second of the three quests in the box. However, it took half a dozen attempts, and required all the stars to be aligned: a good starting draw, and plenty of luck in the way the encounter deck turned out. That having been said, it proves you can win the game. And it’s also fair to say that I picked up some great tips on technique, improving the quality of my play enormously.  The third quest is even tougher, so there will be a further refining of the deck, and some more reading and preparation before trying that one. After that, I have some of the expansions to work through.

Both these games are solitaire (though LOTR can be played with two players against the system) and it seems that this is what I enjoy most at the moment. I have several non solitaire games that I keep meaning to get to the table, but failing to do so. That’s probably a testament to the high quality of the two games above. They are simply excellent – not without their foibles – but overall, wonderful gaming experiences.

 

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Tabletop Happenings

I have taken MBT off the table after reaching the point of being reasonably happy that I had the rules well enough absorbed, and my own house rule experimentation – for command and control and morale – was stuck in a bit of a rut. I much prefer my own systems, but they are not working completely to my satisfaction. So, I will let the challenge simmer away in the background, and if I return to the game again, a fresh perspective may solve the issue.

First replacement on the table was Panzer Battles from MultiMan Publishing. It is one of their Standard Combat Series games, designed by Dean Essig, featuring the 11th Panzer Divisions’s battles near the Chir River in 1942. It’s a classic, well studied campaign of mobile defense and counter attack. The game’s special rules tack on a chit pull activation, but apart from that it is similar to Day of Days and It Never Snows in its scale and slightly tweaked combat processes (artillery in the main).

The game is very playable solitaire, and cracks along at a decent pace. Given the chit pull mechanism, the replayability and tension are both high, though I wonder if the possibility of a blowout – for either side – may be a touch too high. I played through the main scenario once, and it was fun. I seemed to be doing a better job with the Soviets, so probably need to practice a bit more if the contest is to be more even. Good fun.

The next replacement was, and is, Ben Hull‘s Fields of Fire from GMT Games This is a solitaire game where you command an infantry company of the 9th US Infantry (Regiment). There are individual missions in each of three campaigns (WW2, Korea, and Vietnam) where your progression depends on mission success, and building up the experience and expertise of your forces. Part of the challenge is dealing with replacements (who tend to be green troops) and keeping casualties down (and recovering them from the battlefield) so as not to be operating below strength.

The game uses a deck of cards for terrain (one for each campaign), and another deck to resolve all game action. No dice! Units are HQs and squads with individual weapons teams and vehicles.

It is not an easy game to win, but otherwise it would be boring. You have to plan, measure your risks, and rise your luck. Planning, for example, involves deciding what signals will be allocated to the various colored smoke you have at your disposal.

The down side is that the game’s original production was botched, with incomplete rules. There is a second edition which is much improved, but there are still some gaps. A third edition – by all accounts much improved – is due to be released next year with a second edition printing. The fact that it is being reprinted, despite those rules issues, tells you that this game is worth persevering with. It can be frustrating, and the systems are a touch on the clunky side, but it can also be very rewarding. It’s a different experience from the up close and personal action of ASL, but it is nonetheless engrossing and absorbing.

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War in 1987

The box is full...

The box is full…

On the table is Jim Day‘s game MBT, about the Cold War going hot in 1987, published by GMT. It is a tactical game (units are single vehicles or squads, and each hex is 100 meters) using the same core engine as Panzer, Jim’s WW2 tactical game, also from GMT.

I have the same issues with MBT as I do Panzer (see here) but was always going to get the game and try it out.

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I have now played the initial two scenarios several times, using the basic rules, the advanced rules, and then my own mix of basic and advanced rules. I have also tried out some house rules (or variants, if you prefer) to try and fix bits and pieces. I have not come up with any magical solutions, but it is great fun trying things out.

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Back to Waterloo

Thus begins the French assault...

Thus begins the French assault…

The game that has been on the table over the last few weeks is Fallen Eagles, a game on the battle of Waterloo designed by Walter Vejdovsky, and published by Hexasim. It uses hexes representing 200 meters, turns of one hour, and strength points equating to 100 infantry or cavalry or a couple of artillery pieces.

The physical production standards are excellent, being two standard sized maps, a color rulebook, color playbook, 400+ nicely done, oversized counters, 16 thin cards for tactical and strategic variations, and various play aids.

Before playing the game, I thoroughly recommend reading David Hughes‘ article on the game published in Battles magazine, issue 11. David’s analysis helped me understand more quickly what was going on in the game. Overall he liked the system but wondered if the combat results were too bloody. I have played all the scenarios other than the full battle all the way through to completion. I only managed to get half way through the full battle (twice) but definitely had fun, and reservations. In the full battle, the French seem to have the tougher task. Perhaps that is as it should be.

On the plus side, I like the design intent to cut out unnecessary detail, so that the rules are easy to assimilate, and the game can be quick to play – unless you let analysis paralysis take over. There is a neat command system which is simple to implement, and adds just the right level of control without too much rules overhead.

On the down side, I wasn’t that taken with the combat system, especially the regular occurrence of units routing before closing with the enemy. That’s not my recollection of the history. I fixed that by applying a house rule so that routs only happened when adjacent to an enemy unit, and tried that out in the second go at the full battle. That seemed to feel better.

Also on the down side, I am not convinced that the paper-scissors-rock interaction of infantry, cavalry, and artillery comes across strongly enough. You will appreciate that on the one hand I compliment the designer for cutting out detail, and now I complain about missing detail! It depends on the detail, of course.

The cards are available to inject some chaos, but are not especially solitaire friendly. I tried them once, didn’t feel it was worth the effort, and put them away. In a face to face encounter, however, they will undoubtedly spice things up, and I would recommend their use.

While I am not convinced this is the perfect Napoleonic game at this scale, it is a damn fine try. There are supposed to be other battles coming along using the same system, and I may well be tempted. For now, there’s going to be one last attempt to see if I can do better for the French…

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The Last Blitzkrieg

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2nd SS trying to break through the US 75th Infantry Division

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. Continue reading

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Back to 1973

Trouble at Suez

Trouble at Suez

This is not so much On the Table, as Been on the Table a While, and now it’s coming off. It is John Prados‘s game on the Sinai front of the Yom Kippur War, published by GMT Games back in 1995. Only recently have I got past reading the rules, finally managing to play to completion a couple of the scenarios (of the five, plus campaign game, provided).

The physical components are not bad, the highlight being the excellent map by Joe Youst, scaled at 2.5 miles per hex. The 700+ counters are half inch, double sided, and color coded for side and formation. Unit sizes vary from company to brigade, with a good spread of unit types and differentiation. The game aids are reasonably clear, and the rulebook and playbook are above average. That’s not to say the rules are trouble free – they are not – but you can get a handle on the way the game is supposed to play, leaving only some annoying little details to figure out. Game turns are two per 24 hours, with no air activity in the night part.

The sequence of play is lengthy, but straightforward. It starts with a Political Step (for the campaign) to take care of aspects such as intervention, and ceasefire. Daylight turns then have a Maintenance Step, mostly having the players deal with their air units – there is an extensive air system – as well as SAM repair and replacement. The Israeli player will cry as he sees some badly needed air units mandated for service on the Golan front.

There then follows the usual movement and combat, with extra phases for air strikes, bombardment, reserve movement, and exploitation.

The historical campaign featured an Egyptian attack that surprised the Israeli defenders, and established a secure foothold on the east bank of the Suez. Israeli attempts to use overrun style tactics from their 1967 success were bloodily repulsed due to the surprising resilience of the Egyptian soldiers, and their anti-tank missiles and other defenses. The Israeli air force found itself up against an effective SAM umbrella. Over time, with new tactics based on the experience of the early encounters, and with the benefit of USA supplies and rearmament – especially TOW anti-tank missiles – the Israelis managed an effective counterattack, pouncing on a break in the line to cross to the western side of the Suez Canal, and ultimately threaten to eliminate an entire Egyptian Army.

So far as I can tell, based on solitaire plays of a couple of the scenarios, the game system does a good job of portraying these factors (and others) in a playable format. However, some of the rules are clunky, with too many exceptions, and the details can threaten to overwhelm the player. (or at least, this player!) That is why it has taken me so long to actually muster up the courage to play the  game.

I played the Across Suez scenario (the opening attack on 6-7 October) and that ended in a huge Egyptian victory. Then I played The Battle of Chinese Farm (15-17 October) and that ended in a draw.

Overall I had a good time. Here are some likes and dislikes.

Likes

  • Seeing the action on the map gives you a good sense of the situation; for example, at the start of the campaign, the Israeli forces are minuscule. The game shows how thin the margin was between defeat and victory.
  • The system highlights the vulnerability of tanks, and shows the impact of changes in weaponry (TOW) and tactics (combined arms stacks, instead of tank only ones).
  • The crossing of the canal, complete with bridging operations,is detailed enough to be interesting, without being unnecessarily complex.
  • The SAM umbrellas are there in all their glory.
  • There are rules for tank recovery from eliminated tank steps that add something extra, easily.
  • Artillery is important; vulnerable, but important.
  • The scenarios look to give a view across the whole campaign, without having to tackle it all. But if you want to, it’s there.
  • The campaign game starts with the Egyptian player having the initiative, but allows the Israeli player to take the initiative dependent on certain events.
  • The political rules are not overwhelming, but seem fit to deliver a more enthralling experience. For example, players may be faced with tough decisions about breaching a ceasefire to try and secure a bigger win.
  • The notes in the playbook – developer’s, historical commentary, and tactical – are a rich source of material to help you get more out of the game.

Dislikes

  • The Israeli superiority in leadership is reflected by giving them more leaders, rather than better leaders. That seems a bit clunky to me. Maybe it would be a waste to have lots of zero rated Egyptian leaders, though.
  • The rules for hasty attacks are fiddly with too many exceptions.
  • The rules could have been sharper. The errata is essential.
  • There are some counter errors; fairly easily sorted, but annoying.
  • No bibliography.

Neutral

  • Command and control rules work, but have a fair number of exceptions.
  • Ground combat has a SNAFU system that allows things to go wrong. It works, OK, but could have been streamlined.
  • Ground combat is mandatory between adjacent units. I am unsure about this.
  • The air game is detailed, demanding, and tricky. I would have preferred an easier system.

Future

I would have liked to see the same, or a similar system, deal with the Golan front. That will never happen now. But given the paucity of games on the subject, perhaps it might not be too much to dream about an updated version – improved counter graphics, some streamlining of the more clunky rules, perhaps an optional simplified air system, and cleaner rules.

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Back to the Cold War

On the table, BAOR, one of SPI’s Central Front Series.

The dangers of advance after combat

The dangers of advance after combat

I always liked the system used in these games. It essentially combines the friction of combat with the friction of doing anything in wartime, so that units accumulate Friction Points (FP) from both activities. Get too many, and the unit dies. The cool additional feature is that you can activate units multiple times in the same game turn. So, you can push your forces hard, and deciding just how hard is one of the challenges the game gives you.

I recently twice played out the short scenario in this game, which tasks the invading Soviets with the mission of crossing the Weser, or taking Kessel. The defenders are mostly British and West German, with a few Belgian speed bumps for company.

The first time, I screwed up some key rules, and did not give the Soviets the proper benefit of the resources available to them (chemicals, air superiority). Partly this was because I remembered the system as being easier than it actually is. It’s not super complex, but there are some subtle tweaks that can make a big difference. That first effort ended with the Soviet threat being well and truly blunted.

Second time around, the Soviets were significantly more potent, and unsurprisingly more successful.  I’m not sure how easy it would be for the Soviets to win the longer scenario, given the run down in their forces and the growing ranks of the defenders.

It was good to take a trip back to the 1980s with this game. This is from the series that SPI changed horses half way through. It was announced as an ambitious ten game set covering a hypothetical 1980’s Cold War turning hot. The first three games (Hof Gap, Fifth Corps and BAOR) used the same system, even benefiting from a cleaned up second edition rule book. North German Plain and Donau Front belatedly appeared, and were new games almost completely; only the map scale was consistent. The series was never completed with either system. I didn’t take to the latter two games, though much of this may have been driven by my disappointment in the abandonment of the original system. One day, I’ll get them out and give them another try. All I have to do, is find them…

 

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