I finally had a chance to play GMT’s recent Ardennes ’44, and I liked it quite a bit. This is, quite frankly, odd – because Ardennes ’44 is a classic, retro wargame, with hexes, ZOCs, CRTs. The sort of unimaginative thing I often rail against. Heck, this game is so retro it doesn’t even have overruns. No reaction phase, no reserves, no exploitation, no motorized movement phase. Not even a 3:2 column on the CRT. Just move, fight, move, fight. So what’s the deal? Why did I like it so much? Perhaps I should add one more piece of information … the designer is Mark “Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage” Simonitch.
Now, Mr. Simonitch may not be the Reiner Knizia of wargame design (most obviously because he simply isn’t that prolific), but he’s probably the closest we’ve got, from my experience. I say this for a few reasons: he clearly carefully considers everything he puts into the game. He obviously has not lost sight of the fact that while simulation is important in these things, the simulation is still a rather distant second in importance to the game. And he clearly understands game design as craft – he appears to have a healthy respect for quality playtesting, and has a sense of balance in his designs.
Take the lack of overruns in Ardennes ’44, for example. Overruns are arguably a bit of a hack, preventing small units from holding back large advances on large timescales. A game with “better” OOB work would probably have produced a large number of small, specialty units of marginal individual combat effectiveness, which would then require an overrun rule to prevent their ahistorical employment (the Field Ambulance unit from Storm Over Arnhem, anyone?). Fortunately, Mark hasn’t cluttered the game up with these units – units here are almost exclusively regiments with no divisional support units – and at this time and place (the middle of a big forest with limited front widths and massive traffic problems) the battle just isn’t that fluid. So, a very limited overrun/exploit ability was just cleanly built in to the CRT and the advance-after-combat rules. Lots of stuff that wasn’t needed is omitted, and life is good.
The other big trap wargame designers seem to fall in to sometimes is to think of their games as simulations. Clearly, they are not; if you want to produce a playable game, a designer has to pick and choose a couple elements of the battle they want to really work with, and not get bogged down in the rest of the details. For Ardennes ’44, these elements are traffic and the generally constricted nature of the battlefield. The traffic rules are wonderfully simple – just a few traffic chits your opponent places each turn – and yet tremendously effective in generating the same massive headaches for the players as they did for the commanders. This is especially true because traffic conditions remain rather unpredictable, and so the decisions the player makes are operational in nature, and not those of a traffic cop. Perfect.
Another interesting element is the dual-layer combat results table. The main CRT is basically one we’re all familiar with (A1, DR2, that sort of thing), but it’s surprisingly benign – a lot of retreats, not so many defender casualties. However, there are a lot of “firefight” entries, in which the attacker can decide to either “press home” the attack, or quit. If he “presses home” the attack, combat moves to a much bloodier CRT in which odds no longer matter and quality (elite vs. green, bigger tanks vs. smaller tanks) is everything – but the attacker puts his best unit at risk (normally losses are at the owner’s discretion). This is really nice, it does a great job of showing the bitter resistance the Americans put up and the difficulties the Germans had and losses they suffered in evicting them. It’s been demonstrated how easy it is to put together a Bulge game out of spare parts from other places (The Gamer’s Ardennes, Bitter Woods); it’s nice to see a game where the designer has clearly really thought about every element that has gone into it.
Lastly, the game perfectly captures the constrained nature of the front lines themselves through the limited stacking rules (usually only two pieces to a hex … which has other not insubstantial playability benefits) and the unit cohesion stacking and attack rules. Units of the same parent organization stack more easily together, and you have have only two divisions attack a given target at once – which makes bringing massive force to bear surprisingly difficult, and once the US gets concentrated and dug in, beating them will be a matter slowly chewing them up at great cost.
Take these fundamentals, throw in some nice flavor like Night rules, Tank qualtiy, and tanks vs. tank destroyers – all of which is pretty clean but important to the game, and almost never descend to the level of simply being chrome – and you get a classic, medium-complexity but highly playable game. I particularly like those night rules, which are elegant and simple yet add a nice piece of depth to the game.
Now, Ardennes ’44 is not perfect. The most serious complaint I have is just the usual one of these games, and that is the downtime. There is a bit of sit around and wait for your opponent to move, and while it’s really not bad at all for a game of this scale (the Gamers’ Ardennes is much worse), after years of playing Great Campaigns of the American Civil War or Breakout: Normandy or ASL, it pays to remember that it just might be a good idea to bring some good light reading along. My only other major complaint is actually a graphic design one. Unusual, since Mr. Simonitch is the best in this department, but it would be nice to see some color stripes or somthing to designate a unit’s parent division, since this matters for attacks and can be a bit hard to see.
One last thing, and I think the real reason why I liked this a lot: it’s a great game, and by that I mean that the game confronts you with interesting choices all the time, choices that feel like you are really playing a game and not struggling against or gaming a system, as is far too often the case in these things. I played the Germans, and I always felt like I had real options. There were several legitimate strategic choices of where to attack to get the required VPs, and then lots of operational choices as you can re-route offensives to get around traffic problems or take advantage of the same in your opponent’s network, allocate your strategic movement capability wisely, budget your critical corps-level artillery, maintain flexibility to take advantage of local opportunities, and decide between blasting right through now before the Americans are reinforced or trying to work around the flank. There then are essentially zero fiddly micro-management type decisions (just as crucially), the sort of things I usually don’t like to do in this scale of game, things like making sure your HQs or AA units are properly positioned, managing the airplanes back at base, or fiddling with divisional assets like artillery or AT guns which realistically were not under operational control.
So all in all, Ardennes ’44 got a thumbs up from me. This is still a big, meaty game which will take a while to play in its “real” format, playing out the whole battle. Plan on a couple of sessions. But it is quite manageable, unlike many big games these days, and you won’t need to play twice just to get the hang of it. The game plays cleanly and comfortably in pretty short order, the complexity is right in the same happy zone as Mr. Simonitch’s other games, there are lots of choices, and the game does an excellent job of reflecting the battle. What’s not to like?