Monday, February 16, 2009

The Beginning of the Bitter End

Mike had something different for us to try this time out. Instead of a new game, we've started Compass Games' 2005 release Bitter End. This game covers the (failed) German attempt to relieve the siege of Budapest starting on New Years Day 1945. It re-implements the 1983 release of a similar name from Hobby Japan. We knew going in this was going to be a two-session game (they estimate the scenario we're playing at 5 hours which means 7 or 8 on a first-time playing) so this post is a look into my first impressions after getting through two turns.

Bitter End is a moderately attractive game. It's on two 34x22 maps, and the terrain looks relatively good. There's a bit of difficulty in parsing some of the different types of wooded terrain, but nothing too bad. The counters are nothing spectacular (standard NATO symbols or vehicle silhouettes) but the colors work well.

In my mind, there's two things making Bitter End stand out. The way the CRT is used, and the turn sequence. Other than that, it's a relatively standard hex-n-counter game. Let's look at the second item first.

A turn (and there's 25 in the full campaign, I believe) flows like this:

  1. Weather Phase
  2. Supply Phase
  3. Movement Phase
  4. Combat Phase
    1. Roll for air support
    2. Conduct combats
  5. Exploitation Phase
    1. Optional combats if adjacent
    2. Non-fighters can move
  6. Russian player does steps 2-5
  7. End of turn.

There's a handful of things to note, here. First off, everyone is eligible for exploitation. This effectively means units can either fight twice and move once or fight once and move twice each turn. Second, if you think about the flow from turn-to-turn, one side gets two move/fight cycles after the other is done moving and before it checks supply. As we discovered, this means the Russian player must be very careful with his initial deployment or he can find a good chunk of units out of supply before he ever gets to move.

Supply, btw, is relatively simple. Trace on the road net back to your side of the board, with one section of up to 5MP of non-road movement. However, as the front lines are 5MP or more away from the road in some locations, supply can be rather tricky early on. (Which, in my experience, is the reverse of many games. Usually supply is something you don't have to worry much about early, but more later. Here, it's in your face from the start.) Now, that said supply isn't THAT crippling. Attack and movement rates are halved, and OOS units cannot use one-hex-movement to always move a single hex. No further effects. (Yes, this means OOS units in the middle of bad going are pretty much stuck there. And as defensive strength isn't compromised they won't go away quickly.)

Okay, let's get on to the meat of the matter. How combat is handled. The game uses a ratio-based CRT. Odds range from 1:3 to 9:1. Attacks below 1:3 odds are treated as two step losses for the attacker and a one-hex retreat. Not where you want to be. One (weak) criticism the game's received is it doesn't have a perceptible advantage in reaching 3:1 odds. This is old wargame lore that 3:1 is a magical place to be. What this game does have is the removal of any possible negative effects to the attacker in clear terrain at 3:1. That's good enough for me. How the CRT is used is the kicker.

First, compute your ratio, rounding in favor of the defender. Then, roll a die and include a few modifiers to the roll. (There are no column shifts in the game that I've found.) You end up with a modified die result between 1 and 6. This gives you a number between 0 and 7 as a result. You then subtract the terrain value of the defenders' hex from that number. This gives you a final result that can range from -4 to 6. Negative results indicate the attacker losing the battle. The loser must apply that number in step losses and/or MPs spent in retreat. Note, this isn't hexes in retreat, but movement points, and you can't use road movement.

And that last sentence is what makes this game strange.

There's a few other things to note that solidify the situation: If a unit gets a final result that's higher than its movement rate, it loses a step before attempting to apply the result. Also, if you must spend more MPs in retreat than you have left, you lose a step.

The net effect of this is the true result of an attack is as much determined by the terrain surrounding the losing unit as the terrain it occupies. And, it creates strange anomalies. For instance, if a unit is in and surrounded by rough ground (2 MPs, defensive value 3) , it's actually better to score a slight victory against it than a big one. As if you manage a “5” result on the CRT, that will be reduced to a “2” and allow it to retreat one hex. However, if you score a “4” on the CRT, that's reduced to a “1” and results in a step loss as the unit must spend more MPs in retreat than it has available from the combat result.

Now, there's some design for effect going on here, obviously, as defending units will mostly need to receive combat results in increments of the MP value of the terrain behind them to survive, thus dying off faster. And I can definitely see that a unit forced to retreat into nasty terrain might be completely broken up and lose any combat effectiveness. But, it seems very odd that scoring better won't help as much. And it seems VERY odd that the final result of a combat is seemingly more dependent on what's behind you than what you're in.

This is particularly noticeable as the best result on the 3:1 column of the CRT happens to be a “5”. The actual results on the 3:1 line of the CRT are (from die rolls 1-6) 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1. Loading up on “-1” modifiers such as armor vs. infantry, divisional integrity, etc. actually accentuate the problem as suddenly you're looking at a 1/2 or 2/3 shot at receiving that “5” as your result vs. the one result that will force a step-loss on a unit in rough ground: the 4. (A final result of zero leads to a “same hex” combat situation that allows some give and take, but I'll talk about that next week.) It seems very odd to me that adding on to your advantages, while decreasing any possible negative effect, does not make it any easier to actually eliminate the opposing unit.

Okay, enough for now. This post just covers my first impressions of the game after two turns. We'll be trying to finish out the scenario this week, so hopefully we'll get some better ideas of game flow over time. For now, though, it's a definite “huh.”

No comments: