Sunday, December 03, 2006

A&A: Battle of the Bulge - First Impressions

Picked this game up at Jesse's new Hobbytown store last week, and it was the first game of the bunch to get a tryout in solo play. Verdict is somewhat mixed, but overall positive.

First, components. Avalon Hill seems to manage to do both a great and a miserable job on components in every game they've done since they were Borged. In Vegas Showdown, it was the crappy player mats and the lack of a marker to track non-room oriented Fame. In Bulge, there are a few problems. First is the standard "divided box", which is completely useless as the dividers don't manage to reach the bottom of the box. Since many of the components are flat (chips, supply markers), these end up sliding around all over the place. Second is the color registration of the board, which I freely admit is supposed to look like it's snowy, but ends up making it difficult to see the individual hexes. Third is the poor figure mix, which is just crazy. There are far too many artillery units in every nationality (four for the Brits when they use exactly one), while there are arguably not enough infantry markers. The turns are color coded, so it is easy to lose track of which units come in on which turns if a turn is skipped on the card (there are numbers but no notation that indicates no reinforcements on an intermediate turn). Finally, the 5 point supply markers are difficult to distinguish from the 1 point markers, and there are so few in the game it wouldn't have taken much to make them a bit larger.

If you think I'm being harsh about the components right off, keep in mind that there's a very good argument that Avalon Hill games are *all* about the components. People play A&A because you have lots of little army men spread out around the board, not because it's a great game. I know there are a lot of fans, but I think that if you replaced all of those units with your standard wargame counters that it would be much less successful. With the resources of Hasbro behind them, there is simply no excuse to do this poorly. The pieces are nice, they all correspond to either US or German weapons (except the Brit aircraft, oddly, and there is no differentiation in the game between US/UK), and the board is, unusually for an A&A game, not overly crowded.

I bought this thinking that it would be quite a bit like the other A&A game I like in the series, D-Day. The "battle" games feel a lot more like they are actually trying to duplicate a historical struggle, unlike Europe or Pacific which feel more like they are loosely themed on WWII. Bulge definitely meets this criterion, but does it in a much different manner than D-Day. To start with, the game is hex-based rather than area-based like every other A&A game (OK, the collectible minis game is hex-based, but let's pretend it's related in name only). There are zones of control, for God's sake. If there was ever an "entry" game to try to bridge the gap between wargames and euros, this may be it.

As for the historical aspects of the conflict, this game does a pretty good job of simulating them. The road net through the Ardennes is critical, as is (gasp!) supply, and even exploitation by armor. Of all of the A&A games, I feel this one best captures the strengths and weaknesses of every arm of the military. Artillery is strongest (after bombers), but has the most limitations on movement. Armor can exploit breakthroughs, but it costs precious supply to do so. Infantry is critical for protecting the more powerful and/or vulnerable elements of a force, but are weak on the attack. Trucks can get your slow units and supplies up to the front, but it's important to use them well or risk losing them, sometimes to the other side. What's most surprising is that these elements are all incorporated in a fairly elegant way.

The sequence of play is very straightforward, but a bit reversed from the usual IGO/YUGO system common in wargames. First is the air phase, which is heavily abstracted - you have the same air units every turn, at least once the weather clears up on turn 5. Second is combat, which (aside from the first turn, which is all Germans) is done on a hex-by-hex basis with each side choosing which neighboring hexes to attack and spending supply to do it, flipping the supply token over to show which hex is attacking which. This is a very elegant mechanism, and forces the players to choose which attacks should take precedence. Since the defender gets no "return fire", sequencing can be important. Third is movement/reinforcement, which also requires supply, and is again done on a hex-by-hex basis that *almost* works. Movement is all Axis units first, so it can be tough for the Allies to bolster a position easily, although the Allies do get the benefit of responding. Finally, the front line is moved forward (and this is a useful element, it's not just there for people who can't remember which of the 10 front line hexes belong to who), new VP are totalled, and stacking is enforced.

Combat is a system I've never seen before, but it's a winner. I'll try to explain it verbally, but to be honest you won't get it until you have it demonstrated to you, and then you'll be amazed that that's all there is to it. The attacker rolls a number of dice based on the attacking units. There are no terrain benefits (rivers only affect movement, towns only affect forward projection of German force), so things are very simple - one die per infantry, two per tank, three per artillery. Artillery was a deciding factor in the battle, so this is one of the historically accurate elements of the game. Every 6 or lower is a hit, but it's not quite that simple. Once you've removed the non-hit dice, you then start assigning hits to the defending elements based on the numbers you did roll.

This is best explained with an example. Let's say that the defender has two infantry, one tank, one artillery, and a bunch of supply markers. In the order given above, dice are assigned to the various units based on the number showing on each die. In this example, let's say the attacker rolled six hits - 1, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6. The 1 is assigned to the first infantry, the three to the tank, the fours to the artillery, the five to supply, and the six wraps around to the first infantry unit. For all but trucks and supply, one hit requires a retreat, two eliminates the unit. As such, in this case, there are two hits on the first infantry, one on the tank, two on the artillery, and one to supply. The first infantry unit is eliminated, as is the artillery. The tank, with one hit, is forced to retreat, and one supply marker is eliminated. Again, the defenders don't respond, they must attack on their turn and expend supply to do so.

Since only sixes or less hit, there are other rules that take effect if there are more than six units in a hex, although trucks and supply, regardless of how many are in the space, will only get a single "slot" assignment. To make tracking this easy, there are six tracks that slide out from under the side of the board. When I was first looking at the game, this seemed like a crutch for the mechanism-challenged, but it really is an amazingly effective system. The result is that you can withstand even an overwhelming attack with some luck, but you want to have multiple units in the space to do so. Trying to do this as the Allies is a major challenge.

Movement is a bit more of a bugaboo. You enable a space for movement by expending supply, but it can be tricky to keep track of who has moved already. Trucks and tanks can use the road net to move as far as they'd like, but have to stay on the road (tanks may instead move one space not using the net, the two types can't be combined). Tanks can also "blitz" by spending an extra supply to get a second move. Zones of control are sticky, so this can be handy for penetrating a porous line. Trucks can pick up units and bring supply from off-board, although on-board units have to pay supply to be picked up (and trucks themselves don't require supply to move). The other problem is that the rules say that all on-board units move first, although it's pretty clear that you can use the trucks that aren't in ZOCs to bring on supply and units (although this isn't explicit in the rules).

The biggest problem is that the Allies can't bring on reinforcements behind the front line, meaning the battle has no real reason to form a bulge. In fact, it's to the German's benefit to press forward along the entire board rather than try to break out across the Meuse River, as was the historic goal. If there's a flaw in the game, this is it. While some of the Meuse cities have high VP amounts, they aren't that much higher than many of the other cities on the board (5 points vs 3 or 4), so why make a big push in the center with vulnerable flanks? Of course, it's an A&A title, so I may be hoping for more than I should, but given the general desire to fit the game to history, I find this a bit mystifying.

In the final phase, the front line is moved forward to mark German penetration. Empty hexes to the east are included, so long as they don't have cities (even a single supply unit will prevent control). While this may seem a bit specious, there's a good reason to even have a marked front line - the Allies can use supply in a space that Germans have advanced into for movement as long as they are adjacent to that hex. The same goes for trucks that have been captured, although they aren't allowed to move for either side. The front line also restricts which hexes Allied reinforcements can enter from, which is occasionally a factor. The Germans then get points for all of the hexes behind the line. Once they hit 24, they win.

So what works? The combat system, for one, makes for accurate but tough-to-predict results. The "I pick one attack, you pick one" element adds a lot of tension. The way supply is used is brilliant, and is perhaps the best element of the game (in fact, the box lid calls it a "battle of supply" among other things). Game play is brisk, and there is little reason to be fussy about most things (such as exactly what units to have in a space, so long as you have a couple of infantry and tanks the supply, trucks, and arty are relatively safe). Aircraft are appropriately abstracted, and are best used in their historical roles (interdiction, with some assault assistance for the Germans). My favorite missing mechanism from the "strategic" games - no economy, just set reinforcements.

What doesn't work? No motivation to actually form a Bulge, the lack of flanks off-board (most wargames on the subject at least require garrisoning forces on the edges of the board), no real motivation to concentrate attacks (three supply "depots" across the board seems to get it done for most purposes). Also, because the rules mention aircraft before combat, the writers assume players will skip this section when learning the game and don't explain combat fully. There are a few rules ambiguities, and a few non-ambiguities that get cleared up when you think about it a bit - can retreated units attack from a new hex? A: No, because they can't retreat into a zone of control. And, of course, some component issues.

All in all, Avalon Hill has made a good introductory wargame that introduces some critical elements used in more advanced designs. Unlike the D-Day game, however, the game isn't as successful in demonstrating what the Germans were actually trying to do.

One last nit: The box cover describes the battle as "one of the most brutal in WWII". Please. It may have been the most brutal the US was involved in in Western Europe (although some of the battles in Italy such as Anzio and Monte Cassino were probably more 'brutal" depending upon how you define the term, and Kasserine certainly wasn't fun for the US by anyone's definition). Without question, the entire war on the Eastern Front was more brutal, and the various island invasions in the Pacific were all "brutal". Even the Omaha beach landings were probably more "brutal" in a sense, although very short. Admittedly, the siege of Bastogne was 'brutal", but when the entire offensive lasted a little more than a week, it's hard to take this sort of thing seriously. American revisionism wins again - it is a sad fact that wargames that involve the US (ACW and WWII being at the top of the list) sell much much better than non-US involvement, even more than the Eastern Front and North Africa. Americans seem to think that our history is the only one that matters, and that is an abject failure of our educational system. Sigh.

Regardless, this is a title worth checking out if you don't mind a glaring historical shortcoming and want a good light wargame that can act as an introduction to more sophisticated titles.

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