Saturday, February 21, 2009

The bitterest of ends

My choice again, and this time it was a bigger game, Compass Games' Bitter End (BGG entry). This has been on my peripheral radar for a little while as it's been getting some good press, and I eventually decided to pull the trigger and get a copy from Boards and Bits.

Eric's already given a good description of the main differences from 'regular' wargames, so I'll just give my take. I really like the presentation: nice big counters; big hexes; good charts and play aids; clear (if unexciting) counters; attractive map, very wintry; clear rules. Overall, a game that makes you want to play it.

The game mechanisms are all mostly familiar: supply-move-fight-exploit; hard ZoCs (i.e. stop on entry, cannot move ZoC-ZoC); hard stacking limits (i.e. cannot exceed at any time). The main difference, and one that takes some getting used to, is the combat result mechanism. Each combat produces a number, the attack level, from which the defender's terrain defense level is subtracted, to give a combat result. If the result is negative, then the attacker suffers a loss/retreat; positive, and the defender suffers a loss/retreat; equal, and there's same-hex combat. Each step loss reduces the result by 1, and any retreats are measured in MPs. Now, there are other games that use a similar system (although I can't, off-hand, remember where I've seen it before), but where BE differs (at least, in my recollection of those games that I can't remember!) is that retreating units cannot use roads, and if the retreating unit does not have enough retreat MPs to enter a hex then it loses a step and enters that hex.

And it's that last point that is the one that's difficult to handle. The easiest point to note is that it now becomes critical to ensure that your units have good retreat paths. Defending in the middle of a clump of Rough/Wooded hexes (defense level 4, 4MPs to enter) now becomes a dangerous proposition, as any combat result less than 4 means that you're going to lose a step in retreat. In some cases the retreat hex terrain is of more consideration than the defense hex terrain. In a couple of cases I found myself deliberately choosing weaker defense terrain rather than better, expecting to create a higher combat result which would allow a safe retreat. The other angle is that, as attacker, you don't want your attack to be too successful, as that might give the defender enough MPs to retreat into that nasty terrain behind it.

Now this just all seems rather counter-intuitive, and it was hard to get a handle on it. However, by the end of the game we were both getting more of a grip on how to use the mechanism. Don't defend in the middle of that clump of Rough/Wooded hexes (as you would in other games), but right at the back edge of it so you can retreat into the clear hex behind. Now, I don't have any real-world military experience, but that just doesn't strike me as right.

Anyway, back to our play of the game. We played the 6-turn scenario, the first turns of the full 26-turn campaign game, with me as the Russians. For initial deployments I pretty much just dumped units in a line, not knowing what to expect from the game. This allowed Eric's initial attacks to put a lot of my units out of supply. As OoS units can't use one-hex minimum movement, and remembering that units can't move ZoC-ZoC, a large part of my force was eliminated or stuck. Next time my deployment would be way different.

Eric pushed on five main axes: Székesfehérvár in the south; Mór-Czákberény in the center; from Tata south-east towards Tatabanya; from Tata east along the south side of the Danube; east along the north side of the Danube. For the first, he pushed a little too far and I was able to cut off his panzer spearhead, and push the supporting units back. In the second he gained some initial success, but I strongly reinforced (too strongly, really) and pushed him back, again cutting off his lead units. The Tatabanya axis almost gained as far as Biscke, one of the victory condition hexes, but, again, I was able to blunt his offensive by aggressively advancing with units from a cavalry division in his flank, cutting his supply.

This last move was aided strongly by the resolute defense of Tata by a couple of units, which sucked in a lot of potentially dangerous German SS units. (In other words, Eric rolled like crap in his attacks to remove the defenders from his back field.) These were originally heading east of Tata, but he was never able to develop this axis of attack. In fact the Tata defenders were able to retreat across the river, where they were able to contribute to the move to place the whole Tatabanya axis out of supply.

North of the Danube is where Eric had the most success. He forced me back, and then used his Sturmboot to cross the river, taking Esztergom, the other of the mandatory victory condition cities. This was the most scary of the five axes, but Eric missed the eastern approach and I was able to run an armored unit around and into Esztergom, also putting everyone out of supply. It was also here that we made our biggest (only?) rules gaffe, as motorized units are not allowed to use the Sturmboot to cross the river. Anyway, I pressed into his ZoCs, so the only units he could free up to attack Esztergom gave him a fairly weak attack, which failed. Elsewhere, his attacks to free up his supplied units also went badly, and with only one turn for him left to capture the other mandatory victory condition city of Biscke, plus two of the three others, he called it a day. With it being my turn, lots of reinforcements coming in, and a few units freed up to push him back around Biscke, it was clear that the Germans weren't going to get near to winning.

After the first evening's play I was a bit 'hmmmm' about BE. Now it's just 'hm'. The whole combat system still doesn't sit quite right, but I can work with it, However, once you figure out how to deal with it, it's not too hard in play terms. The game was certainly tense, and I was very concerned that I'd made a mistake by reinforcing the southern area too much, and neglecting the main victory condition axes. As it turned, Eric was the one who had an evening of rolling less than average dice, while I was ahead of the curve.

One thing that I would like to try at some point is the whole campaign game. It has a totally different set of victory conditions to the scenario, being based around how well the Germans do in getting close to liberating Budapest, holding towns at the end of the game, etc. With all those Russian replacements and reinforcements it's going to be a real hard game for the Germans. However, it's estimated at ~25 hours, so unlikely to be done any time soon, but I can see us having another go at the scenario.

Overall, a thumbs up to Compass Games for Bitter End.

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