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.”

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