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).

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

It’s actually been quite a while since I played Hannibal. I think I probably last played it 2 and a half years ago, perhaps? I played it a ton back in 1998-2001, but not so much since then.

Part of that has been playing through the new card-driven stuff from GMT, but quite frankly, a lot of those games have turned out to be disappointing. Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin got a fair amount of play, but For the People was awfully complicated, Wilderness War was fun but fiddly and lacking serious replayability, and Thirty Years War had serious problems.

So it seems things came full circle … back to Hannibal.

I played Carthage, Matt was the Romans. Hannibal did his usual thing, heading off to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Trouble started right away. Strategic tip #1: Always, always leave Mago behind in Spain. It’s so easy to just bring him along with Hannibal, but he needs to stay behind to sea move reinforcements. I regretted this mistake, especially in light of the fact that Hannibal then painfully lost his first battle, losing 4 CUs and the Elephants. I was somewhat demoralized.

One of the great things about Hannibal, though, is that defeats are rarely as bad as they look for either side. Hannibal hung tough, stalling the Romans, while Hasdrubal brought in reinforcements. Once re-energized, he went back on a tear, getting up to four provinces in Italy, triggering Capua’s defection, and beating up on a couple Roman armies. Spain and Africa were very weakly-held, but the Romans could never really take advantage. Hannibal is ultimately doomed in Italy of course – the Romans just have too many guys and the good generals will show up eventually – but if you can keep Italy in play long enough, you should do well.

This was only Matt’s second or third time with the game, and there are definitely subtleties to the game that it takes a couple (or more) plays to appreciate – managing risks with the battle cards, the flavor of the event deck and what this means for the weight to give to the three theaters (Italy, Spain, and Africa) and the risks and advantages of campaigning there. Despite this though Matt played a good game, and it turned out to be pretty close; the Carthaginians won by one province in the end.

I’ve played this game a lot, even if not recently, and it’s still a wonderful game. It’s not too long – 2.5 to 3.5 hours for most people, not too complex, with lots of tactical details and plenty of excitement. After playing so many GMT card-driven games, I had completely forgotten what it’s like to look at a hand of strategy cards and be able to plan out tactics and specific operational goals for your entire turn based on the mix of events and activations (let’s see, I’ve got the Traitor in Tarentum card, so that means if I can secure Apulia I can then play it to set up a base in the south, but that would mean that I would need to use X and Y for activations…). No other card-driven game, with the possible exception of Successors, has nearly such an interesting mix of cards. Paths of Glory is the next best, but even it’s still more about separating the cool and/or relevant events from the weak ones and deciding which events you can afford to play give pressure to play operations rather than having a card mix which can really drive the on-board game by presenting real opportunities and surprises.

I enjoyed this game and hope to get some more play in. I’ll be hosting a Hannibal event at Origins, and I need to do a bit more prep work, figure out the timing for rounds and such. If you’re going to be the and like Hannibal, sign up!

A final note, I noticed going through my box that I had an old copy of the First Punic War variant from the General. I even have the generals mounted and cut out … but it really needs a new card deck since so many events are changed. I think it would be a fun variant, so I’m thinking going over to BoardGameGeek and seeing if we can get a pool of GeekGold going to offer to someone who makes up a nice deck.

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?

Ukraine ’43

Mark Simonitch is a designer/developer/graphics guy who I hugely respect, but unfortunately his Ukraine ’43 has sat on my shelf now for some 3 years as I’ve tried to find a chance to play. It has resisted all the rather drastic wargame purges of the past few years, and today I was glad it had when Charles game by and I finally had a chance to play scenario 3.

What I think got me the most was how clean the game is. One reason it has been tottering on the brink has been that it has 20 pages of rules, which for me is an awful lot. Once you sit down and play it though, Ukraine ’43 feels like a 12-pager. I’ve become so used to games from GMT which feel more complicated than the page count (perhaps because the only way to get down to that page count is to leave out all the errata they have to eventually publish). Ukraine ’43 is a really clean system, the rules are amazingly eratta-free, and it plays well. One of Mark Simonitch’s great traits is the fact that his games are comparatively focussed, with that focus being on real, high-level decisions, with peripheral stuff streamlined.

Like most of these games, the real meat is in the allocation of a handful of very powerful units – the artillery, breakthrough artillery, sappers, and armor for the Soviets, and the Panzer Divisions for the Germans. So the fact that the game is big is not as daunting as the raw counter density might indicate, and you concentrate more on the big decisions than the micromanagement as is usually the case with these bigger games.

I also really like the “magnitude” combat system, where the bloodiness of combat is proportional to the number of units involved. This is a technique that a lot of games could use, OCS not the least.

As I become more and more jaded after playing serious games for some 20+ years, it’s always a real treat to discover a great, new, engaging game, and now I’ve had the privilege of finding two in the last two weeks – Ukraine ’43 and Lock ‘n Load. This is almost as many as the whole last year, at least on the wargame side. Great stuff.