Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crossroads. It's all about the Crossroads.

A while back, Mike and I played Bastogne, the most recent entry in The Gamers/MMP's SCS series. This game covers the US 101st Airborne's defense of the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

As you might guess from the scope, this game is at a much lower scale than, say, The Mighty Endeavor. Turns are one day, hexes are about 400 meters, and units are typically companies.

This game also features game-specific rules that are nearly as long as the series rules themselves. And here is where the game makes its statement.

If there was ever a game that demanded a “play this once to understand how it works, then play it for real” mantra, it's this one. The package as a whole plays very differently from any other SCS game (though I haven't examined all of them yet for a full comparison – I'm looking at you Fallschirmjager.) and has a number of rules mechanisms that stand out.

Before I get into that, though, I want to take a look at the package as a whole.

As compared to Rock of the Marne (which shipped with some rather critical errata that fundamentally changes the game) the Bastogne rules are extremely tight. There's only been one errata published so far, and that involves an example figure that is a little misleading (though not actually incorrect.) Mike and I have found no issues at all in the rules. VERY tight. Also, this is the first SCS game with a color rulebook. It adds a nice touch to the package, and makes the rules example illustrations all the more useful. (I count five illustrations in the rules.) The map and counters are what you would expect from The Gamers – no stylistic changes here.

So, about those rules.

There are four primary additions to the standard SCS rules that define this game. I'll tackle them in increasing order of importance.
  1. Artillery and Disorganization
  2. Assymetrical turn sequence
  3. Artillery ammunition
  4. Road march
First, artillery and disorganization. Artillery is somewhat simplified in the game – roll 1d6 at or under the artillery units strength to hit (and causing disorganization) and if you hit, roll a 2nd d6 to cause a step loss. Usually, this is on a 6 only, but 88s kill on a 5-6 and “yellow” artillery kill on a 4-6. More on the “yellow” artillery in part #3.

If you're disorganized, you don't have a zone of control, can't use road march, and attack/defend/move at half normal rates. This is pretty devastating to the attacking Germans, in particular, as they need every thing they've got to break through or around the defending Americans.

The turn sequence is modified primarily to simulate the way artillery was handled in this situation. The Americans used their ground artillery to stop attacking Germans, and the Germans used their artillery to support their attacks. As a result, all ground artillery fires in the German turn after movement – Americans first. Also, each side gets a road march phase before their normal movement, and the Americans can use air barrage on their turn between their two movement phases. In some ways, the turn can be thought of as one big sequence:
  1. US Reinforcements
  2. US Road March
  3. US Air Barrage
  4. US Movement
  5. US-initiated Combat
  6. US Exploitation
  7. German Reinforcements
  8. German Road March
  9. German Movement
  10. DG Removal
  11. US Barrage (land & any remaining air)
  12. German Barrage
  13. German-initiated Combat
  14. German Exploitation
There's an interesting note here – the DG markers placed by artillery hang around through both sides' movement phases, and the air barrage effectively comes after all that – it allows the air barrages to target German units that provide the largest threat in the subsequent movement phase.

I've mentioned “yellow” artillery previously. These are larger guns with more limited ammunition. As a result, their use is tracked throughout the game. The US starts the campaign with 20 artillery points and the Germans have 18. Each time you fire an artillery unit that has a yellow background to its unit symbol, you spend an artillery point. The US also gets some ammo replenishment later in the campaign (up to three per turn, averaging a little over 1 per turn.) Their use needs to be rationed, but they typically have long ranges (8-14 hexes compared to 3-5 for standard artillery), allowing them to be placed in more strategic positions well off the front lines.

I saved the rule with the largest impact for last – Road March. During the road march phases, any unit currently on a road or railroad and not adjacent to enemy gets three Road March points to spend. A unit can go as far as they want for a march point, but must stop whenever they:
  • want to change road types
  • encounter friends (they may skip over the top of one, but must stop behind two or more)
  • would move adjacent to enemy
Using these rules, it is entirely possible for a unit to cross the entire map in a single turn. Also, armored units have movement ratings between 12 and 16. Given that the primary roads cost a half MP per hex, and most armored units can also move in exploit, it's clear units can cover a LOT of ground in a single turn if they're given the room to maneuver.

The Germans come on from the east, and they're trying to get into the town – surrounding the Americans is the best way to find a breakthrough point. This puts a premium on the crossroads – fitting, as this was the reason why Bastogne was so hotly contested in the first place. The Germans will eventually surround the Americans (their final large set of reinforcements come from the south) but the key is how much damage have the Americans done to them by then.

The general flow of the game is that early on, the Germans are trying to work around and through the Americans. They need to be aggressive, but they can't work some formations very hard, as they'll be recalled to other theatres on later turns – VPs are scored depending on the number of steps removed from the map for four of these formations. In the mid-game, the Americans are trying to establish a solid perimeter while the Germans are fishing for a breakthrough point to get into Bastogne. The late game likely involves the Germans trying to exploit whatever gap they were able to create.

The Americans have the advantage of interior lines nearly the entire game, but are somewhat outnumbered until Task Force Abrams arrives as a relief spearhead. This group arrives on a 5 or higher on turn 8 (of 10) 4 or higher on turn 9, and 2 or higher on turn 10.

The Germans score VPs in three ways: removal of formations early in the game (up to 8 VPs for that), occupying any hex of Bastogne (2 VPs each turn there's a German unit in any hex of Bastogne at the end of the American portion of the turn), and opening up routes across the map at the end of the game. (4, 5, or 8 VPs depending on the route) The Germans win with 12 or more VPs, Americans with 11 or less.

Our game flowed somewhat like this:

Mike (playing the Americans) bottles me (playing the Germans) up early on, and there's a front nearly the entire north-south section of the map. He slowly gives up ground as I wear him down, pulling back units to handle my reinforcements coming from the south. He inadvertently opens up a route along the southern edge of the map (note: this route is not obvious, but if the Americans allow it to be opened, the Germans can prematurely traverse the map) and I start to flow units around his southern flank. I slowly push back and around while he gives ground. Occasionally, I push individual units through the lines to threaten Bastogne in order to draw reserves off and hopefully weaken a section of his defenses. On turn 8, I finally break through and get enough units into Bastogne itself that he can't dislodge them. The decision point comes down to whether I can disorganize or dislodge four units he has sitting on the central (8 VP) route in the final turn. I have a good run with my artillery, DGing every unit, and that's the game – 4 VP from formation removal, 4 VP from occupying Bastogne, and 8 for the central route, totalling 16 for a Minor German victory. (two more VP needed for a major win.)

My thoughts:

I'd played a handful of turns of Bastogne a few months ago at our WBC-West retreat. I was very pleased with it at the time, and this playing didn't disappoint. It might be the best of the SCS series to date (or in the top 3 at the very least), but plays very differently than the rest of the system. The Road March rules take some time to get your head around – at first you feel like there's too much mobility, but then you realize, it's really up to you – protect the critical crossroads or pin opposing armor, and you'll hamper the opponent's movement – fight hard for them and take them, and you open up the map. Both sides need to play finesse with some units and push others hard. Both sides need to ration their good artillery, and there can be some difficult decisions around the best targets, particularly in the middle-to-late portions of the game. Tactical reserves are critical to exploit openings. There's no supply rules, so infiltration is both expected and critical to your success.

Net/Net: it's a rather different experience from any other hex-and-counter game I've played in recent memory, but it's does a great job of portraying the difficulties of the situation: The Americans had no idea where the Germans were coming from, but here able to shuffle units around long enough to hold the Germans back until help arrived. I give it two thumbs up – just play it once to get used to the Road March rules before you play it “for real.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Not your father's Bastogne

In our ongoing wait for table space to get started with our OCS Korea (BGG entry) game, I proposed The Gamers' SCS game Bastogne (BGG entry). Eric and Chuck had played through the first few turns and had raved about it, so I was intrigued and we had the opportunity. Win-win baby!

Although nominally part of the SCS range of games, Bastogne changes quite a few of the major rules. The main move-fight-exploit turn sequence is still there, but there are quite a few additions and changes to the various systems.

  • Road movement phase: An additional movement phase, just prior to the regular movement phase; any unit that starts on a road (of any description, including railroad) and isn't in a ZoC has 3MPs; each MP can take the unit as far as it wants until it either changes to a different type of road, or encounters another friendly unit; moving units are not allowed to enter a ZoC
  • Artillery: Artillery units may fire ranged barrages; there are two types of artillery, yellow, which requires the expenditure of (limited) ammo, and white, which fires for free; artillery has a hit number, most 4 in the case of yellow, and 2 for white, and rolling this number or below is a hit and causes the target to become Disorganized (DG); after achieving a hit, it's possible for the barrage to cause a step loss in addition, 4-6 for a yellow unit, 6 for a white, and 5-6 for an '88'; all artillery barrages have to be spotted, which means the target has to be adjacent to a friendly unit
  • Air: The Allied player can get Air Support, starting on turn 6, the number of air strikes being a d6; they don't need a spotter or ammo, but otherwise act like yellow artillery
  • Barrage phases: There are two barrage phases, one in each player turn; however, only Allied air units may fire in the Allied barrage phase, and all may barrage in the German player turn

The turn sequence is:

Allied Player Turn:

  • Reinforcements
  • Road March
  • US Barrage (air only)
  • Movement
  • Combat
  • Exploit

German Player Turn:

  • Reinforcements/Removals
  • Road March
  • Movement
  • DG Removal
  • US Barrage (all units)
  • German Barrage
  • Combat
  • Exploit

The Road March is the one that's hardest to get used to. Units can zip from place to place really quickly, and a clever German player can keep some of his armor units on the roads in reserve and relocate them to the other side of the map in a twinkle. This makes holding the intersections and road choke points of vital importance. Miss a road and suddenly the enemy is in your back field, as the other player has 3 movement phases in a row with no chance to react. And some of these armored units have 14 of 16 MPs to spend per phase. That's a lot of freaky movement potential, with nothing the other player can do about it. He can only watch as all these units drive on by, and then take another exploit movement to drive some more. I find this a little much to stomach, and I think there should have been some sort of reaction/reserve phase to allow some way to mitigate it. Either that or reduce the movement allowances.

Also note that there's no supply phase, which is because there are no supply rules in the game. You can stick a unit miles behind enemy lines with no worries about trying to maintain a line of communication or getting more food and ammo to them. OK, the scale is 1 turn per day, but I still think that leads to sticking a single unit behind lines just to disrupt movement, which I find to be rather gamey and not the way units would be handled.

Victory is determined by the number of VPs that the German player collects, which is in three different ways. First, he gains point for how much strength each of the four main formations have when they are removed. At or near their initial strength gains 2VPs, around 25% step losses earns 1VP, and around 50% step losses gains 0VPs for that formation. So the German player can't just use them in a reckless manner. Of course, these are the main armored force that the German player gets, so he can't afford to keep them sitting around doing nothing.

Second, is the opening of the routes, to the north, south, and straight through, Bastogne, earning 5, 4, and 8VPs, respectively. If the Allied player retains any combat units (not artillery, and not units from the reinforcing 3rd army late in the game) in good order on the route, then that route is closed and the German player gains no VPS for it. These are only determined at the very end of the game, after the German turn.

Finally, the German player also gains 2VPs if he has any steps in any hex of Bastogne (there are 6 of them) at the end of the US player's turn. There is no requirement to maintain a line of communication or anything, so a suicide run can be useful.

The German player requires 12 or more points to score a minor win.

In our game I played the US, and Eric took the Germans. The early game proved to be very slow, as I did a good job, I believe, of holding the vital roads, and slowly collapsing back towards Bastogne. During this time it was with no help from my artillery, as I hit on no more than 1 in 2 shots with my yellow artillery, with only 2-3 step losses. In the mean time my armor units were dashing back and fore, nipping any incursions that Eric might have made, including the odd single unit that broke through the lines.

Up until the final session, turns 8 through 10, I felt I was in good shape. Eric had scored only 4 VPs from his removed formations, and it was looking increasingly like he wouldn't be able to open any of the routes.

And then the DSDF kicked in, but you fully expected that. On turn 8, I believe it was, Eric went on an artillery frenzy, hitting around 7 out of 8 50% rolls, 3 out of 4 33% rolls and 2 out of 2 66% rolls. I almost ran out of 'DG' markers. In the same turn I missed both my critical 66% barrages. The former was followed up by lots of successful low-odds combats (one roll below 7 in 10 attempts), which decimated my available forces, and the latter allowed the combat to open an exploit path for him to stick a unit in Bastogne.

Turn 9 saw both my air strikes miss their 50% hit rolls in Bastogne, although I was able to clear the single step unit out in a combat, but only at the cost of another step loss to me. I put a unit with two steps into Bastogne to protect it. But Eric ran a unit up and scored 4 out of 4 50% rolls to score two hits and two step losses, and kill it in one go with a pair of yellow artillery units. He runs more units into Bastogne, which I can't clear out, to score 2VPs, and then DGs all my units on the road (and there weren't many of them left) to claim route B for 8VPs and the win.

Wow, talk about a reversal. Eric scored the perfect storm of die rolls as I missed all mine and he scored all his, although turn 8 was probably the real killer, as I just plain ran out of units to cover all the roads. My reinforcements only made it on the final turn as I couldn't roll the 33% nor 50% on turns 8 and 9 respectively, although I'm not sure they would have made a huge difference.

Overall, a fairly interesting game, and one I'd be more than willing to try it again, as it's a good puzzle. A totally different feel than all the other SCS games I've played. The US player has to be careful parsing the map, and can't afford to miss a road. However, something needs to be done about that movement phasing/MA and lack of supply. As it is, the ability to just buzz about in three movement phases with no way of responding doesn't feel right, and it allows the German player far too much ability to indulge in suicide missions in the hope that the dice go kindly and he can score some points or disrupt the US movement.

Due to the upcoming holiday period Eric and I have agreed to postpone the OCS Korea until the new year, when we can get a clear swing at it. I've had to cancel the past couple of weeks due to various things, and on the calendar will be another go at Worthington Games' Prussia's Defiant Stand (BGG entry, Eric's take, my take), a first attempt at the new GMT The Caucasus Campaign (BGG entry), which leaves a single evening before the holiday.