Monday, November 17, 2008

In Remembrance

Last Tuesday was the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. It seemed appropriate, then, to play a WWI game last week. The only relevant game short enough to be played in an evening that I could think of was They Shall Not Pass, the Avalanche small-box game on the battle of Verdun. Mike had a better idea, though: a multiple-evening session of Rock of the Marne, the new SCS game from The Gamers/MMP.

This fit better in my mind, as the game covers 2nd Marne - the final German offensive of WWI. After this battle was over, the Germans collapsed quickly, ending the war just three months later. An appropriate battle to play out given the date. Plus, I'd just gotten my copy as well and was eager to get some SCS gaming in.

We knew this would take at least two evenings to play, and Mike has the ability to leave it set up, so the next few posts will be a continuing look at our game.

We've frequently blogged about OCS on here before, and it's probably my and Mike's favorite series. But OCS is pretty hefty. Sometimes you want a good chicken salad instead of a five-course steak dinner.

SCS is that good chicken salad. It really does distill wargaming down to its essence. All games in the series (among which Rock of the Marne is the 12th) come with separate series and game-specific rules. SCS can be described as an IGo-UGo, ratio-based CRT, move-fight-exploit-supply game. Each game in the series tweaks these basic tools as the designer feels appropriate. Three of the games so far are set in WWI (RotM, Operation Michael, and Drive on Paris), one covers the Yom Kippur War of 1973, one is set in the Spanish Civil War, and the rest cover various parts of WWII.

Given that the basic rules are SO simple (seven pages including illustrations) it only takes a short amount of time to jump into a new game in the series. Rock of the Marne, for example, only has four pages of game-specific rules. These are usually broken up into four sections: overall, Axis/CP, Allies/AP, and optional rules. Following this are the scenarios.

Each game seems to have a small number of specific rules that give that game its flavor. The primary special rule for this one is breakdown units. Both sides have the ability to break down and recombine divisions into smaller, more flexible, and more resilient units. For example, a 8-8-6 (Att-Def-Move) German division turns into two 3-3-6 and one 2-2-6 stormtrooper units. These can then be moved independently and recombined into some other unit from the dead pool later on. (The only restriction is that you can't increase either your total attack or defense strength during the process.) This all sounds wonderfully flexible in being able to move troops around, but another game-specific rule reduces this flexibility a fair amount – many divisions are permanently attached to their corps, and can only draw supply from their Corps HQ. This means that when one of these divisions is rebuilt, they better be somewhere close to their HQ or they won't be good for much.

The other big key to the breakdown units is that a division is (nearly?) always a two-step unit. Each breakdown unit is also two steps. So, a two-step division could break down into anywhere between three and six steps. Much more useful given the CRT is very bloody (as you would expect in a trench-warfare situation.)

Of course, you're limited by the counter set in how many of these breakdown units can be in place at any one time, and given the starting deployment, you've got gaps all over the place you're trying to fill – I could use twice as many breakdowns as are supplied and still be wanting more. So, one of the skills to be developed in playing this game well is knowing where and when to breakdown your divisions.

As we all know so well, knowing how to play a game is NOT the same thing as knowing how to play it well. So, Mike and I sat down to learn about Rock of the Marne.

We started setting up pieces just after 7pm, and only got three turns in that night. I blame that on my inability to really get a handle on the situation as the Germans early on. I know I took a long time in my turns last week, as there's a lot to do for the Germans in very little time. And you really need to understand the entire situation before beginning your push.

The campaign game lasts 15 turns. On turn 7, massive Allied reinforcements come in on the German right flank. Nearly all the VP spaces the Germans are trying to take are at the far side of the map. So you have to cover a lot of ground quickly, then hold on for the counter assault.

Sound like the Bulge? 2nd Marne really is WWI's Battle of the Bulge. It was the last German offensive of the war and it played out in a massive assault creating a salient that was then beaten back mostly by an Allied counter-offensive from the flank. In this case, though, the war ended much more quickly, and the Germans never retreated back onto their own soil. The Armistace was signed while the Germans were still in French territory.

So, how have Mike and I done? I'll post three shots of my position after the third turn. I've just broken through east of Reims, and I've been pushing hard in the center. I've crossed the Marne in several places at this point. I don't know if I'm ahead of or behind schedule (I'm leaning toward the latter) but I just know that both of us are feeling like we're losing at this point – the sign of a great situation.

One quick note about the rules - every time we had a question about something, it was explicitly answered in the rules. So, they may be short, but they're definitely well written. As you would expect from a game from The Gamers.

First, my left (east) flank.

Now, the center.

Finally, the (for now) quiet right. The area to the bottom-right of this picture is where the Allied reinforcements will be arriving on turn 7.

We'll be picking this up again Wednesday night, and at least one more session after that. Mike thinks we'll need four, I'm betting on three. I know I've got a better handle on things now, so I'll be back to my usual quick-playing self.

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