Ardennes ’44

This is about the 5th time I’ve played Ardennes ’44, and I’ve been pleased that it’s been holding its own, even just playing the 6-turn version, which can be played in about 4-6 hours. The 8 turn scenario might be a bit more interesting – the Germans might have an outside shot at taking Bastogne, and so a few more options – but at the price of taking the playing time over the magical 6-hour boundary beyond which it would be difficult to finish in one sitting. Our games have generally been pretty close, although the Americans have won more often.

So, here are some of my thoughts on winning as the Germans, on a sector-by-sector basis.

7th Army: Separated from the rest of the offensive by the dense terrain between Ettelbruck and Wiltz, this army operates more or less on its own. Obviously, you have to take Diekirch and Ettelbruck. But you can also cause significant heartache to the Allies by blocking some of those exit zones on the map edge, which will suck up numbers of good-quality US reinforcements for virtually no purpose. If the US does not give this sector enough attention, thinking it a backwater, you should definitely commit the artillery to make them pay.

5th Panzer Army: The 5th Army has two objectives, Bastogne and St. Vith. St. Vith has to fall for you to have any chance, and this will require a set-piece assault – bring up the artillery, surround the city, and pummel it. Don’t mess around with chancy low-odds attacks against the city itself; work on encircling it instead. Bastogne, on the other hand, is a goal that should be unachievable in the 6-turn game … but you still want to drive hard for it. The purpose here is to open a yawning gap in the American lines somewhere between St. Vith and Bastogne. If you can unhinge things there, you can breakthrough into the point-rich area to the north, or go around to exit units. This is where you can win.

6th Panzer Army: This unit has two avenues of advance: north of the Warche (through Eisenborn) and south of the Warche. The northern option is a non-starter – the American units there are too good. Be happy if you can take Eisenborn. South of the Warche you have some options. You’re likely to see severe traffic problems initially, but you have a large number of potent units. The problem is, you’re also close to the point where the best and most numerous US reinforcements arrive, and the terrain is, as usual, awful. I’ve never seen the Germans progress even to Malmedy in this sector – it’s just too easy to reinforce. Unless you can create a crisis elsewhere, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of VPs, and I certainly wouldn’t redirect units from other sectors here or put artillery here at a high priority. But, if you can attract divert reinforcements from the center, that’s still good. And as always, you want to be on the lookout for opportunities. The Americans will have to strip or neglect some sectors to bolster others, so you want to be prepared to exploit weaknesses.

Bearing in mind that wherever the Americans commit the reinforcing 9-6-6 Combat Commands and 6-defense infantry units your offensive is likely to stall out, I think the most likely vulnerability is the long dangling flank between St. Vith and Bastogne. Pressure in the 6th Panzer Army and 7th Army sectors won’t create breakthroughs, but will divert units that create the possibility of a breakthrough somewhere in this sector. Look for opportunities both to seize VP locations and to exit units.

Also bear in mind that your offensives will stall out without artillery support. I find that you will win or lose based on whether you have your artillery in the right place at the right time in the right quantities. Artillery makes the difference between just dislodging the defenders and getting bonus advances and breakthrough combats.

As I say, I’ve been quite happy with both the playability and the replayability of the 6-turn game for both the US and the Germans. I’d love to play the whole campaign game sometime, but that would be an almost prohibitively long game (although to be sure, I imagine it often won’t take 22 turns to realize the Germans aren’t going to make it across the Meuse).

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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.

Ardennes ’44

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?