Friday, February 29, 2008

Eric's OCS Review

I mentioned a few days ago that I'd be putting my more detailed thoughts about The Gamers' OCS into a separate post due to length. I've started writing this post about three times now, and I think I've finally figured out the approach I want to take. My apologies for taking a bit longer with this than I've planned – I'm fighting a nasty cold at the moment.

OCS examines large operations, mostly from WWII. Games published to this point have covered various parts of the East Front (Guderian's Blitzkrieg II, Case Blue, Hube's Pocket, Enemy at the Gates), Africa (DAK2, Tunisia), Sicily, Southeast Asia (Burma), and the Korean War.

First, let's look at the structure of the typical OCS game.

All OCS games come with a game-specific rulebook that includes the scenarios as well as game-specific rules. The scenarios usually include one or more massive, full-campaign scenarios. For example, DAK2's full campaign is some 240 or so turns. Obviously, not something you'll be completing in a single weekend, let alone an evening. However, there's a number of smaller scenarios that give you a chance to play the game in ways that handle nearly any time frame. For example, the Race for Tunis scenario we played is 14 turns, but the full campaign game is up to 58 turns starting from the same deployment.

When you first look at an OCS game in any sort of detail, the following features will stick out:

  • Comprehensive rule book
  • Relatively standard turn sequence
  • Detailed counters
  • Unit Modes
  • Supply

Let's take a look at each area in turn.


The rules are up to iteration 4.0 as now shipping with Case Blue (and available gratis on The Gamers Archive website.). Given that the system is over fifteen years old and has been through constant modification and use, they show their maturity. The rules are very cleanly written and are not overly dense. There's also bits of Dean Essig's (the designer) wit. For example, if you manage to get a combat where both sides have zero strength you “call it 1:1 and just shake your head.”

However, even though the rules have been revised a number of times, the older games require very little change, if any, to use the new rules. In fact, there are only two changes to Tunisia (which shipped with version 2.0i of the rules) required to use version 4.0. One is to add a Flak value to the ports at Bizerte and Tunis. The other is to ignore the game-specific rule on rail control. Everything else still works which indicates that the fundamentals of the system are very sound – it's just the details and implementation that have changed over time.

A very nice feature of the rulebook is a well-designed index. It came in handy many times during our recent game.

Game Flow

The turn sequence is very straightforward and is structured as follows:
  1. Weather and Initiative determination.
  2. Air unit return and refit.
  3. Reinforcements
  4. Movement (includes breakout, movement, and barrage segments)
  5. Supply
  6. Reaction (includes movement and barrage segments)
  7. Combat (includes barrage and combat segments)
  8. Exploitation (includes movement, barrage, and combat segments)
  9. Clean Up
Each player goes through steps 2-9 in this sequence, and the turn is complete. Some games may alter this sequence a tad, but never drastically.

It's just a slightly modified Igo-Ugo system. (The exception being the reaction phase allowing limited activity on your opponent's turn.) Nothing groundbreaking here, but as exists throughout OCS, it's the interplay of the various parts that make the game stand out.

The biggest thing to note here is the possibility for a double turn. If you went 2nd in one turn, there's a 50/50 chance you'll have the choice to go again before your opponent can respond. Timed well, this can be devastating. Of course, if you DO get the double turn, your opponent may find himself in the same spot on the next turn. So, it's a situation you must plan for.

Detailed Counters

The counters in the game are very detailed. Some have as many as 11 pieces of information on them. Here is a typical combat unit counter.

This is the Royal Scots Greys Battalion from the 7th Armored division as fought at El Alamein. This counter is in combat mode. (The flipside of this counter is the move mode version and the bottom three numbers are 3-4-18.) Standard NATO symbology is used indicating this is a tank battalion. The yellow background in the symbol indicates the Armor category of unit. (Red = mech, clear = other.) The yellow bar indicates it's part of a multi-unit formation, in this case the 7th Armored division. The numbers across the bottom are combat strength, action rating, and movement rate. The red-on-yellow indicates a tracked unit. (white = leg, black = truck.) Full details on this are in the rules, but as you can see there's a lot of information here. Divisional units may have size ratings, artillery has range, etc.


Units are always in one of a number of different “modes.” (Combat, move, reserve, strat, disorganized, exploitation.) All but the last two are voluntary and can be changed before a unit moves during the movement phase. Disorganized mode is cleaned up during your cleanup phase, but if you get put in DG mode during your opponent's combat phase, and he gets a double turn, well, you'll be thankful if you get a chance to clean up the DG later on – odds are those units won't be around by then.


Supply and logistics are pervasive, of course. This is probably the signature feature of OCS. You must move supply counters around the board, and you can only do this by air, rail, or transport points (generally trucks.) In addition to the typical “trace supply” you see in most wargames where units must trace a path to some supply source to be “in supply” that's only part of the picture in OCS. Here, you must also spend supply for fuel to move truck/tracked units, refit air bases, artillery barrages, or for combat. (On either offense or defense.) Needless to say, you have to plan in advance where you're going to be attacking, and the supply situation dictates when as much as anything else.

The side effect of dealing with this admittedly fiddly feature of OCS is that it indirectly enforces a pacing to an offensive that comes close to matching what happened historically. You can't just run a huge offensive across an entire front unless you have LOADS of supply to pay for it.

OCS is not designed for beginning wargamers. I think the 40+ page base rulebook, highly detailed counters and sheer size of the games would scare off new players, in any case. That said, once you're ready for a game like this, there's really nothing like it.

Pulling it Together

Mike and I spent a fair amount of effort into learning OCS. It is, after all, a 40-some page base rulebook (combined with 5 or 6 pages of game-specific rules) and we wanted the game to go relatively smoothly. The rules are detailed, but each individual section makes sense. After finishing a section, you're not going “huh?” and rereading things because you're confused. You end up rereading because you want to capture everything you can. As a result of this preparation, we had a VERY good initial experience.

The design of the game is such that you typically only deal with one piece of the rules at a time. For example, in your movement phase, you want to get supply into place to fuel your units. How do I do that? Trucks, air, rail or shipping. Which do I currently have available? All but rail? Cool. How do I ship supply? And here you're only dealing with shipping. Each individual task is simple enough that it becomes second nature after you do it a couple times.

For example, in our game all my supply reinforcements come either into Algiers or on trucks tied to divisions coming into play. How do I get the supply from Algiers up to the front? Ship it or airlift. Shipping is relatively simple: I've got a max capacity overall, and each port has a maximum it can handle. Portion accordingly.

Of course, I might need to use some of that shipping capacity to bring in new units as well... Decisions decisions...

Another example: I want to attack a stack of units and hopefully both damage AND push them back. How did the real-life commanders do it? Soften them up with either air or artillery barrages (or both) then charge in with the troops. Hopefully you've also got tanks in reserve to exploit the gap you opened.

How does it happen in OCS? Exactly the same. Air barrages happen at the end of the movement phase. Call in air support and see what happens. There are actual plane counters that must be within range of the front, and you better bring a fighter escort just in case you're in an enemy patrol zone. If that doesn't work out, fire the ground artillery. Artillery barrages happen before combat is resolved, and hopefully you can disorganize your opponent by now. If you've got good strong troops and you've weakened your opponent, fortune might provide you and exploitation result from the combat allowing your units to plow through the gap. Even if not, units placed in reserve can be released to take advantage of the opening you've hopefully opened.

Exactly how you read about it in the books, eh? That's how it feels on the table. You can plan and execute operations just like the historical model. Of course, having all these moving parts at your disposal means it's pretty easy to mess up these operations as well :)

All the maxims you hear about warfare apply. “Keep reserves.” “Maintain a rearguard.” “Garrison supply dumps, ports, and other important sites.” “Don't outrun your supply lines.” All these tenets have to be adhered to, and it's because of the subtle indirect effects of the rules.

For example, you'll never find a rule mandating a rearguard. However, enemy zones of control have limited effect on movement. (You must be in combat mode, and units using leg- or track-based movement can ignore your ZOC in any case) means it's hard to avoid leaving gaps in your line. Keeping a rearguard can make the enemy pay for sneaking through these holes. Reserves can be released in the exploitation phase to take advantage of holes created during combat, or released during the reaction phase on the opponents turn to shore up positions under attack.

The effect of (admittedly a lot of) straightforward rules is that you find yourself, after a few turns, playing the situation, not playing the game. You're thinking about what you're trying to accomplish and where you can pull the resources from to get it done. The fact that we were doing this five or six turns into our first full-scale playing still blows my mind. I did NOT expect things to go so smoothly.

After having gone through the rules after we played, we've found 6 that we missed. Six. And these weren't always full rules – in a couple cases it was a single sentence within a rule. Now, a good portion of this is due to good preparation but I believe it says great things about the maturity and intuitiveness (if that's a word) of the rules. The net result was the most engaging and engrossing wargaming experience I may have ever had. It was a lot of effort to get to this point, but it was worth every minute. I can't wait until the next time we get it on the table.

OCS is not a system everyone will like. There can be a fair amount of downtime between turns when there's a lot of counters on the map. Not everyone will like dealing with the fiddly nature of the supply counters, or just tracking supply at such a detailed level in the first place. And some of those counter stacks can get pretty tall. However, as far as "monster" wargames go, OCS is right at the front of the pack of big games that make sense and are playable. If you go through the rules and they seem inviting to you at all, give OCS a shot. You won't be disappointed.


Dug said...

I'm delighted to hear that you had a good experience playing a scenario - common wisdom says that the game shines in the campaigns where the decisions you make early on will affect the overall situation but that you must adapt successfully throughout the game to do well. In Tunisia in particular, the scenario you played has few units, but one or two out of position and you can be in serious trouble quickly with no real chance to recover.

That said, there is some potential for our gaming group to maybe set up a full game and play in teams. I'm not convinced that Case Blue is the right game for us (until I get a much larger house), but Tunisia certainly seems like something we could try. The trick will be finding the right place where we can leave games set up for long periods of time, but also finding people who can commit to regular sessions for a fairly long period of time (I'm thinking a year of monthly all-day sessions, a number I'm *totally* pulling out of my ziplock). I don't know that we could do it over a full week at Sunriver, although that's a possibility as well.

Shoot, I even went out and bought my own copy of the game.

Thanks for the great breakdown. Interestingly, many of the points you make about how warfare works (supply, combined arms strategy, etc) are present in FAB: The Bulge in a much shorter and more accessible format, although without the magnificent sweep of history that an OCS game would bring.

Congratulations, you've got me thinking about playing monsters like this and von Borries' East Front series now. Bast*rd.

Eric said...

Glad to hear you went out and bought the game - stage 2 in the master plan of OCS domination has taken flight! Monster games WILL prevail!

While the system's strong point is truly the campaign, there's a lot of value to the scenarios. Each seems to provide its own type of puzzle to solve.

We specifically chose Race for Tunis because of its structure - low counter density early, building over time - as it would allow us to figure out the system without exploding our brains from counter overload.

Another possibility was the Edge of the World scenario from Case Blue - it has a similar structure, but Mike's copy hadn't arrived by the time we had to make a decision so we went with the game we both owned.

There were also a number of possibilities from DAK, but none that worked quite as well and were only one mappers.

Speaking of Case Blue - don't think it has to take huge amounts of space - there are some pretty meaty two-map scenarios in there that are screaming for group play. I'll probably bring my copy to Sunriver in any case just to lay out all the maps on the floor somewhere and drool.

As far as realistically playing campaigns for the group go, Tunisia's campaign is just shy of 60 turns, and Sicily's is 30 turns.

I'm looking forward to the time I get FAB: Bulge on the table. I haven't even read the rules yet due to OCS and a nasty cold, but I'm sure it's going to shoot towards the top of my lists.

Speaking of that nasty cold, I can't believe I just reviewed a wargame and didn't talk about the combat system. I wonder what else I missed due to the meds?