Ardennes ’44

Having been rather impressed by Mark Simonitch’s Ardennes ’44 last time we played, Charles & I finally got together for a rematch. This time I got the US.

Although I almost always prefer to play the Allies in virtually every WWII game, in Bulge games my preference is for the Germans. My impression of Allied play here is that you are simply trying to slow down the German steamroller, reacting to the crises he produces and generally incapable of your own independent activity until later in the battle, conveniently after most games on the subject end. That is to say, the Germans dictate the pace and tenor of the battle, and you just play along. This is certainly the case in Tigers in the Mist. So, how would Ardennes ’44 hold up to playing the Allies?

The answer is, rather well actually. Sure, the initial two turns are awfully brutal and there is little you can do. Too many units in untenable positions can’t move and will be cut off or destroyed. After that first day, though, things improve pretty quickly. You rapidly get several rather powerful reinforcements, including several combat commands, which allow you to be reasonably proactive. You can easily counterattack on the south flank if you’d like, where there are no Panzer divisions initially committed and victory hexes are vulnerable. As the Germans get over-extended (i.e., after turn one), opportunities for aggressive action will become available as flanks start to dangle. Clearly, the Americans are still on the strategic defensive for much of the game, but at least you are not stretched so thin that it’s a struggle just to maintain the line. While maintaining the line isn’t exactly easy, you have some discretion here. The American position is also less strictly tactical than I thought. I had expected it to be more a matter of using forces at hand to make sure you ZOCs were correctly interlocking, key hexes were occupied, artillery was position to hit all the critical defending hexes, etc. While these tactical details are not insignificant, from the American point of view anyway Ardennes ’44 is much less tactical than, say, Kasserine, and there is more focus on the operational decisions – where to allocate reinforcements, when to strip fronts of units, etc. For me, this is good, and what generally appeals to me.

So I was still quite happy with the game, and it actually exceeded my expectations from the vantage point of playing the Allies. Not that my expectations were terribly high, but still. As I’ve come to expect from Mr. Simonitch, it’s an excellent combination of simulation and game.

My only real complaint is the downtime. Like most of these games, you get to take a break while your opponent works out his moves. In this case, without any sort of reaction phase, there isn’t much to do while you’re waiting – just some choices on retreat routes, the occasional artillery shot, and when to put up a Determined Defense. What can you do? While in general I prefer more interactive games like Breakout: Normandy or Hannibal or Grant Takes Command, there is also clearly an appeal to bigger games like this where you plan out a lot of operational details. Ardennes ’44 is, I think, just at the outer limit in this respect of a game that I can still consider very good. So, two things: firstly, if you’re playing with one of those people who takes forever to play, I think it’s not unreasonable to get a G8 Game Timer and make them budget their time. Time is a limited resource after all, and in the interest of fairness it’s best if you figure out how much time is worth spending on this game and then use the time sensibly (obviously, the Germans will likely require a bit more here). Because like most games, if the playing time gets out of hand, it loses its luster. This has not been a problem in my games, but I mention it. Secondly, have some good but light reading material. RPG sourcebooks are good choices, ironically. I brought my Diamond Throne sourcebook for Arcana Unearthed. The more I read it, the more I am really taken with this setting, especially compared with the truly dreadful stuff for D&D like Greyhawk. It really is thoughtful, interesting, and evocative of the really good and uniquely American fantasy from Ursula K. LeGuinn and Stephen R. Donaldson – not just this endlessly recycled pseudo-medieval-European vaguely Tolkienesque crap that always manages to not include the actual good stuff from Tolkien. My only complaint on the book is that the adventure seeds, which could have really highlighted the interesting ideas in the game, were surprisingly weak. Anyway, I got to read about 15 pages while awaiting my moves, which isn’t too bad, and convinced me that this is the setting I’ve got to play next.

So anyway, Ardennes ’44 survived the second playing (and playing the Americans) with my high opinion intact, so that’s good. As OCS is hard to play for practical reasons of space – large boards have to be left set up for long periods, which my Silicon Valley apartment does not support – Ardennes ’44 fills that niche very nicely and is much more playable to boot. I’ve only played the first three days so far, but someday I look forward to playing out further. Like Ukraine ’43, the game in full is pretty big, and probably requires two all-day sessions to complete, but that should be quite doable.

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