Kasserine

Back to the wargames, this time Kasserine by Vance vonBorries and from GMT.

I got into Kasserine in a roundabout way. It started with OCS, from which I went to Vance’s and GMT’s East Front Series (Barbarossa: Army Group South, North, Center). All great games, but each has difficulties. OCS is big, a little fiddly because it’s so versatile, and designed primarily for very lengthy campaign games, and so is hard to set up time to play. Barbarossa has great smaller scenarios and doesn’t require the time investment, but has an inherent problem in that Summer ’41 requires a certain mindset for the Soviet player, a willingness to take abuse that for some people isn’t fun despite the general excellence of the system (which I really hope can go into 1942 at some point, because the system exceeds OCS in some important ways – but not versatility). Then, along came Kasserine – a game based on the East Front Series that incorporates some ideas from OCS and covers a much more balanced situation: Kasserine, or the Battle of the Bulge, the prequel. Many points have a legitimate claim to being the “turning point” of WWII, but if some of the Nazi’s best units and their most legendary commander couldn’t beat an Allied force while the American army was still fledgeling and untried, well, last one out get the lights.

I’ve played Kasserine now maybe a dozen times, although never the campaign game, and I like it a lot – I think this is a very under-appreciated game. It’s about the most complex game I can tolerate for a non-system game (Barbarossa & Invasion: Sicily, although quite similar games, are different enough to require re-learning), but it is very compelling in a lot of ways. Vance has judged where to give the system depth and where to stay high-level well. You’ve got interesting & clean systems for managing the coordination of ground, artillery, and air units, and the advantages of combined arms and mobility – systems that actually model elements of the situation cleanly rather than simply designing for effect, so produce a challenging game. On the other hand, things that weren’t as important to the battle – like supply and air – are quite abstract. I like the air system, it does what it has to with no messing around with where to base air units, no counting ranges, etc., as in OCS. So you get somthing that has a nice feel for the mobile war, the open battlefield channeled by passes, and somthing that – while definitely complex and taking a bit to get into – plays quite cleanly once learned. By my metric of “how many games does it take to play correctly”, Kasserine scores about a 2, playing the medium-sized scenarios. Pretty good for a fairly meaty wargame, if not as good as Ukraine ’43 or Ardennes ’44 (which were .5 or less). And of course Kasserine is a great situation, being so mobile, and yet not quite mobile enough, that it presents both sides with constant, difficult choices.

The combat system is somewhat maligned as being dice heavy (you have to roll to coordinate ground, air, and artillery each if present, then roll to resolve the combat), but please, a typical case of 3 die rolls and one chart lookup is too many? I see this complaint on the net sometimes and find it odd. All the uncertainty gained by the need to coordinate all the different arms gives the combat resolution a great and realistic feel, and is an antidote to the usual factor-counting to get up to 3:1, since the number of factors present is rather variable. In most classic WWII games combat is far too predictable once you’ve pre-figured the exact odds, and games like OCS and Kasserine which give you huge diversity of results are big winners for me (even if they are low-probability); another reason I like Ardennes ’44 and its firefight table. At this level of simulation, real unpredictability in the CRT is a virtual requirement.

The interesting thing about Kasserine is that I find it an extremely immersive game. The complexity always gives me a little pause before starting a game, but once I’m going, I seem to get sucked into it even more than OCS – itself a very immersive game. This is interesting because it’s not the usual “thematic” immersion I find in really good games – here it’s an immersion in hexes and counters and combat factors, that is to say an immersion in the game itself rather than in the simulation or history. When that German Kampfgruppe slices into the British lines in front of Thala, I really have a hard time visualizing what that means historically despite the high level of detail in the OOB (battalions, armor & support companies). That said, at the operational level the game has a solid and very satisfying feel. It’s got the alternation between the choke-points at the passes, whose static defenses must be taken apart with set-piece attacks, and the much more open desert which favors mobility. While the Germans are on the offensive here, the Allies sometimes enjoy local superiority and can counterattack; and because this is not the congested Ardennes, the defense requires more mobility, attention to the flanks, and careful handling rather than just digging in and taking it on the chin. I think this contrast between set-piece and mobile battles is very interesting, and the details of managing the battle succesfully on both offense and defense engage me all the time without becoming fiddly or feeling like micromanagement.

As I’ve been drawn away from OCS a little bit due to the sheer size and difficulty of getting games set up, I’ve definitely been drawn more to these more modest-sized operational games; I find they have a lot going for them and require a lot less work. Kasserine is a bit more complicated to learn than the others I’ve been playing recently, but once learned is not hard to play, and it has a lot going for it. I’ve heard rumblings of more games to follow Kasserine, and I hope they eventually come out.

Anyway, we played the Thala scenario this time. There are three avenues of advance available to the Germans: to the north, through the Brits to Thala; down the middle, through the Americans to Bou Checkba; and down South, through a mixed Franco-American force (mostly French). The Germans are hard-pressed in this one; they’re at the end of their rope, the Allies have amassed enough decent units and are awash in artillery, and more is on the way. The Germans can transfer a handful of units amongst the three axis of advance, but their resources are quite limited by now. In the event, Charles decided to let each force try to make do with what it had, but made the critical decision to send Rommel up north to try to punch through the British line and take the nearest objective, Thala. The southern pincer broke through the mountains, linking up with a detachment of Italians that had swung south after their own breakthrough, but was undone in the end by their huge dangling left flank, which the Americans and French moved into to interdict the supply line and stall out the Germans advance, although only after the French and a few Americans had been severely mauled. In the center, the DAK ran into a huge US artillery concentration and the fairly good-quality 1st Infantry Division, backed up by CCA from the 1st Armored, and lacking the strength to break through satisfied themselves with being threatening and overrunning isolated units, trying to threaten to turn a flank.

The real action was up north, where Rommel and the 10th Panzer tried to batter their way to Thala. This was a see-saw affair, with the Germans taking hills and the British counterattacking. While the mobility and massive numbers of tanks in the British 1st Armored should have made parrying German threats doable if not easy, such was not the case as the Brits blew reaction roll after reaction roll. They made it back though when they managed to call virtually the entire Allied air force in on a critical counter-attack which relieved pressure at a critical juncture. The biggest reinforcements the Allies get are a big chunk of artillery which arrives early in the battle – after erroneously sending it to the center at first, when they arrived to aid the Brits things stabilized and the last German attack on the last turn was repelled, albeit barely.

This is a tough scenario for the Germans, and next time I play we might need to have some sort of balance, perhaps just using the historical weather (all three times I’ve played, the Germans have had trouble with Rain which causes them problems, and all three times they’ve lost – historically they “got lucky” and had at worst clouds).

Often after playing a game of Kasserine I’ll go and break out my copy of Moments in History’s Tunisia ’43, which is almost the exact same area, scale, etc., as Kasserine. Despite a system which has a lot of properties which I should like better than Kasserine, somehow Tunisia ’43 is just on the wrong side of the line. Part of it is the additional complexity that seems too much (T’43 has 28-ish pages of rules vs. Kasserine’s 18-ish), partly the much higher production values at GMT I’m sure, and partly that what you’ve learned in playing Kasserine is modestly portable to Invasion: Sicily or the fairly popular Barbarossa, while Tunisia ’43 is less so. I keep telling myself to give it a chance, but I haven’t yet.

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