Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Double, double toil and trouble...

After last time's familiarity of getting crushed at Combat Commander, we jumped into the monsterness of MMP's Devil's Cauldron (BGG). I'm a great fan of Market-Garden games, one of my favorite campaigns of WWII (inasmuch as one can ever talk about being a fan, or having a favorite, of situations where people died), so I'd been waiting for this one to come out for some time. However, a couple of my regular gaming partners had expressed doubts about the game, or, rather, its Panzer Command roots, a game which I'd never played. Anyway, after taking a few weeks with the rules, Eric and I finally got it onto the table for a run through.

First a short briefing on how the game works. The turn revolves around the action chit draws, there being one chit per formation, one divisional activation chit per, umm, division, and one direct command chit per side. (In the scenarios with only partial formations/divisions some of these chits are not used.) The formation chit allows units of that formation to move, attack, rally, all the usual stuff. You can pay a command point to perform a second action, which must be different from the first. The divisional command chit is kinda like a strategic phase (with units not able to fire, assault or move into a fire zone), except that a command point may be spent to perform a second action that may be combat oriented. The final chit, direct command, is just that, allowing a single action to be taken by any units, at the cost of a command point, but it's the only chit that allows coordinated operations by units from multiple formations.

As might be expected from a low level game, there is opportunity fire in reaction to activations within a unit's Fire Zone, but it requires a Troop Quality check (TQ - roll <= the rating on the counter, d10) before being allowed to do this, and other operations. Each unit has fire, assault and defense ratings, the latter being a modifier to the fire strength, other modifiers being added/subtracted for terrain, range, and unit status. Any d10 result <= the final fire strength is a hit, 9 being an automatic miss, 0 automatic hit. The roll also dictates the combat result - the higher the roll the more severe the results, which are in terms of cohesion hits, suppression and step losses, with different charts for the different types of fire (AT, HE, mortar, etc.) and the defensive class (armored/unarmored). There is also indirect fire for artillery and mortars, which also includes fairly simplistic rules for line of sight and battery access.

We were both feeling a little unsure of the rules (me more so) so we started out with the first, introductory, scenario as a joint effort to figure out some of the mechanisms. That done, we felt a little more confident that we had a handle on how it worked, so moved onto the next introductory scenario. Eric offered to take the Germans as I'd played them almost exclusively in our last few games, and I was more than happy to take the combined elements of 82nd Airborne and Guards Armored to attempt the capture of the Nijmegen bridges.

The scenario starts with the 504th PIR storming across the Wahl, as the Guards try to force the bridges from the other side. The landings went well as all 3 companies passed their Troop Quality checks and spread out on the far shore. Things did not go so well for Guards armored, however, as their fire on the defenders in front of the road bridge had no effect, and they moved to contact with the railroad bridge defenders.

Subsequent activations saw 504PIR force the weak defenders from the fortified VP hex beyond the Wahl, capture the other end of the railroad bridge, and move towards the road bridge. Meanwhile, the Brits continued to show that they had bent rifles and wobbly artillery gunsights and they continued to miss multiple rolls for fire. Even worse, I kept missing TQ rolls, even for units with '7' TQ ratings, and missed 4 out of 5 artillery access rolls (TQ=5). Combined, this allowed Eric to totally eliminated one of the Guards motorized units (TQ=5, Fire=6) at the road bridge in fire and assault. (In contrast, through the entire game I managed to kill a single zero-step unit that gets automatically eliminated in an assault and a couple of TQ=2 units, despite many more fires and assaults.)

In the second turn the 504thPIR formation chit came out early, and they proceeded to rush the railroad bridge, pushing the defenders back with no casualties on either side, but their other assault saw Eric 'I need a 0 to hit anything, oh look another 0!' roll like a demon. Most of the German chits came out early, which allowed him to place lots of artillery barrage markers, which reduce fire and TQ ratings. Once more the Guards aren't able to match the success of the 504thPIR and their attacks and assaults all fizzle into nothing. In the end I've captured the VP hex, control 1 bridge and the other is contested, for a draw.

OK, so that was only the 2 introductory scenarios, and perhaps a little early to offer a final verdict on the game. There are a few more scenarios, ranging from intermediate to advanced, and a couple of campaign games. So, what did I like and dislike?

Overall, the game flows well enough, but it took a while to get comfortable with the actual mechanisms because the rules are a bit of a mess. There are two rule books, one a bit chatty, and the other a more summarized version. Trouble is, the chatty one makes it difficult to find things, and the summary one misses a few things. There aren't enough examples, and in a couple of cases the examples are wrong, or don't fully explain what they're doing, which modifiers are used, etc. I can appreciate what they're trying to achieve, but they fall short of the mark. I also don't like that the glossary at the back of the rule book describes the term, but then doesn't give rule references so you can look up how the rules use the term.

The maps are pretty to look at, but I found the absence of hex sides to take some getting used to. (It uses only the hex corners over most of the map.) Plus, having the terrain indicated by a central hex dot means that you have to keep moving units to confirm the correct terrain type, as the symbol visible at the edge may not be representative of the actual terrain type. The counters are very nicely detailed (and a good size), but the decision to deviate from the usual unit symbiology and use national symbols for, for example, artillery, means you've got to remember two sets of symbols, and this will get worse as they introduce more games using the same system. (The stated intention is to use the symbiology of the unit's nationality, so you're going to have to remember which of several different symbol represent artillery rather than mortars.)

As for the actual rules, they seem to work and provide a reasonable simulation, to my perspective, of the interactions of units and combat outcomes. Units don't get to freely operate without impact from close enemy units, and those enemy units don't automatically get to respond. This means that regular infantry, which has a range of only a single hex, can't opportunity fire on an enemy unit moving adjacent.

There was only one area where I thought there was a rules hole. Consider 3 hexes, adjacent to each other in a triangle, let's call them 'A', 'B', and 'C'. If a unit moves from A to B, then an enemy unit in C has the possibility of opportunity fire whilst it's still in hex A. (Opportunity fire is executed where the unit initiates the action, so the fire is executed while the moving unit is in the starting hex, not the ending hex.) However, if that unit is assaulting a unit in B (i.e. still attempting to move from A to B), then the unit in C does not get an opportunity fire (explicitly denied in the rules). It doesn't seem right that in both cases the unit is moving from A to B, but opportunity fire is only allowed in the one case. This becomes especially critical when considered with the previous point about range, as it now means that the enemy unit can move into A, not being subjected to opportunity fire, and then assault into B, with the unit in C having to idly stand by and watch their buddies get stomped.

However, this situation happened only once in our game, and I'm not sure how much of a deal it would be in a full game, so it may not be a big deal.

I'm certainly interested in trying more of DC, and I'd like to try one of the bigger scenarios, or even the campaign game. However, the question is whether, given the choice, I'd prefer to play DC or one of the OCS games. Hmm, tough choice, but at the moment I'm still very enamored of OCS, and it would get the nod.

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