Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sicily calls us again

Mike and I returned to the table these last few weeks with GMT's latest release, Fast Action Battles: Sicily.

I'd played the first FAB game, The Bulge, a couple times soon after it was released, and felt it to be a very solid, if not quite spectacular, game. It certainly brought some new life to the block game genre with fresh concepts like asset chits and a move away from the buckets of dice, A/B/C combat resolution you get in most block games.

I do remember a ton of hype surrounding FAB:Bulge right after it came out, which eventually settled in, and the game's rating on BGG stabilized (it's now the #84 ranked wargame). While not the greatest thing since sliced bread (That is DAK2), it's a quite accessible and quick Bulge game, and I've certainly been looking forward to Sicily coming to market.

As long-time readers on here are aware, Mike and I played the OCS: Sicily game to completion a couple years ago. I hadn't played any other game that tackles Operation Husky, so I was definitely eager to see how a higher-level, and simpler, game would handle the largest amphibious invasion of WWII.

And so, the game hit the table last month. We took one session playing the tournament scenario to get the feel for how things went, then switched sides and played the campaign games over a couple evenings.

So how does the game play?

At the beginning of each turn, both sides draw a number of asset chits from a cup. The Allied quantity never changes throughout play, but the Axis steadily draws fewer and fewer assets. These assets cover pretty much everything that isn't a full combat unit: air and naval support, engineering, artillery, detachments, replacements, “special” actions that could be a number of activities, etc. These assets are either used or eliminated, depending on what happens to them during the turn. If used, they're put back into the cup at the end of the turn, possibly to be drawn again. If eliminated, they're probably done for the game.

Many times, the detachments we drew filled the role of ablative armor as losing full units costs you a VP and losing assets doesn't. (Directly, at least. Diminishing support over time has its own drawbacks, of course.) Engineers are handy for blowing bridges, and there's a couple places on the map where that's almost a required tactic. (It's not as prevalent as in the Bulge, but close.)

After assets are drawn, the phasing player has an admin phase to do various actions that don't involve moving or combat. Then the non-phasing player has a go. Finally, movement, reserve movement, combat, breakouts, and supply. After all that, you draw chits again (though about half the number) and the Axis player has his turn, reversing the roles of phasing and non-phasing player. After that's done, you do a VP check and continue on to the next turn if needed.

How were our sessions?

When we played the tournament scenario, Mike took the Allies, and had a relatively easy go of things, though he only won by one VP. (VP ranges in this game seem to run +/- 8). The campaign game is the first five turns of the nine-turn full campaign, and covers the initial breakout after the landings.

Turns out we'd played a particular rule wrong (though I can't for the life of me remember what it was) which made things a little easier on the Allies. Given the tourney scenario took us less than 3 hours to play, we figured the campaign would be easily played over a couple evening sessions, and we were right. So, the next week we swapped sides (by random choice) and played the campaign.

The starting situation has the Axis with 8 VP. VPs are scored through control of certain areas, and elimination of large units (anything with three or more steps.) Some areas score points for either side controlling them, some only score for one side or the other. So taking some areas provides a two-point swing, others only one. That part of things is a tad confusing, but if you use the control markers properly, they should be pretty easy to count up. The Allied goal is to drop the VP counter below zero, and back up onto the Allied side – the more VPs you have, the more significant your victory.

During our campaign, I probably wasn't quite as aggressive as I could have been as the Allies, but I was still making decent progress. Around turn 6 (of 9) I had the VP counter down to 1, and things were looking pretty good. However, I stalled out big time up until the last turn, and going into turn 9, we were sitting at a flat 0 score. I had two or three opportunities to pick up a point, and the first two failed miserably. The final assault up the east coast was going to decide the game. I had eight dice that would hit on a 50/50 chance, and I needed five hits to force a victory. Anything less would be a draw. I ended up with a good final roll providing six hits, which actually gained me another 3 VP through unit death and taking a critical area. So, while I scored a major victory, it was literally that close to a draw.


The game plays remarkably similar to FAB: Bulge. There were very few core rule changes, but the game-specific changes make the game. Rules are in place to enforce the animosity between the US and British/Canadian forces that existed in the actual operation. There are areas of the map that are forbidden to one side or the other, and other areas that have to be explicitly opened up before units can move in there. This does a much better job of simulating the operational restrictions the two forces were under than approached by anything in the OCS title. The difficulty of taking difficult terrain (particularly behind blown bridges) was quite clear. Overall, I felt it gave an excellent feel to how this campaign actually panned out.

After you've given the introductory and tournament scenarios a go, expect the campaign game to take you four to six hours. Probably closer to four after more plays.

Mike commented when we were done that he couldn't see what he could have done differently as the Axis defender. When I pointed out that we nearly had a draw, he realized he wouldn't need to do much more. More play will naturally start fleshing out any balance issues that might result. And given it's only a 4-5 hour game, it will probably see more play than most. It is a tad disappointing that the campaign game does not last the full historical length of Operation Husky – you never get to the point where the Axis started withdrawing units into Italy. It would be cool if GMT released an expansion that let you play it all the way through, but the game still stands well as is.


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