Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Does This Game Make Me Look Fat?

Or - How To Lose That Bulge In Three Hours!

Mike was the only person to show for our regular Tuesday night gaming session, so we decided to go wild and try out the new Fast Action Battles - The Bulge from GMT Games. Mike had yet to receive his copy, and I had barely read the rules, so it is with a certain amount of amazement that I tell you that we were able to get through three turns.

FAB: Bulge (I will use FAB from here on out, although that refers to the game series, currently at one game and counting) follows what must be the first or second most revered topic in American wargaming - the German surprise offensive in the Ardennes at the very end of 1944 at the weakest point in the American lines. The battle has a huge place in American military folklore, being one of the three really major undertakings in Western Europe (the Normandy landings and subsequent breakout, and the ill-fated "Bridge Too Far" drive on Arnhem being the others, although arguably aside from the two Airborne divisions the US wasn't nearly as involved in the latter fiasco). The story is very American - poor planning and doctrine thought the Germans would never attempt a drive on Antwerp, the Allied supply source, and certainly never through the very same spot that they'd used to blindside the French for the second time in 25 years. And certainly never in bad weather when the Allied air cover advantage was negated.

Of course, the Americans were flattened early, but the timely intervention of Patton's 3rd army, the brave holdout of the 82nd Airborne in Bastogne, and the failure of the Germans to get beyond the Meuse river into the Allies backfield fits the concept of US exceptionalism to a T - take it on the chin, come back fighting, and win. Never mind that the German plan hinged on several unlikely events - taking a major fuel depot, quick advancement through the difficult terrain in the north of the Salient, and of course the holdout of Bastogne, the major road intersection of an area where control of the road network was key - this is a story that fits American's perceptions of themselves and so we game it over, and over, and over. Perhaps only the East Front holds more appeal to wargamers, and then only because it is the Bulge in a macrocosm taking place over 5 years and costing millions of lives.

The inherent problem with any Bulge game is that it's a pretty grim outing for the US in the early going. Little chance for counterattack until Patton shows up in force, so the US's job is that of plumber - patch every hole you can find, and do it for long enough until you can shut off the flow of German troops. It is not surprising that many Bulge games are more interesting solitaire unless you can find a US player with a masochistic streak.

So what does FAB bring to the table that differs from it's predecessors? Let's take a look:

o Limited Intelligence. The Germans had a pretty good idea of what they were facing, at least regarding the OOB. What they weren't sure of was how and when the reinforcing armies would arrive. While the Allies had some sense that the Germans were massing, they weren't expecting any trouble (other than Patton, who had his troops ready to come up and assist should the Germans get feisty) and certainly didn't have specific troop knowledge. The block mechanism allows the German to enjoy the same "I am *so* screwed!" attitude that the US player gets, because every lost step you have looks really small compared to two unknown blocks in a space you want to advance into. No other Bulge game does this as well, at least the handful I know of.

o Asset allocation. I suppose that other games have made stabs at this, but in FAB the combination of flexibility and really elegant basic mechanisms combine to take care of a lot of special cases. All of the crazy chrome that normally is de rigeur in a Bulge game (bridge blowing/repair, arty, concentration of force, air power, Greif), all of these things are handled by the assets. The assets you have available depend on the turn, what you've used in the past, what you've blown in the past, and what you think you'll need. However, since there is a pool of assets and you draw randomly from said pool up to twice a turn, you never know if the High Command will grant you what you want/need. Mike pulled all five of his engineers on turn 2, which isn't as bad as it seems. I had a horrible time getting the engineers for the two Panzer Armys back to repair several blown bridges in the north, but did get a good mix of arty elements to help me reach Bastogne on Turn 3. Even if the event is a dud, you can use it to corral a couple of assets you used in the prior turn for reuse without hoping the draw goes your way. Tie in the importance of what Higher Echelon the unit belongs to, and there's an awful lot of both flexibility but in a way that the combatants were forced to use historically. Even the German's fuel shortages are done using assets - it's brilliant.

o Breakthrough/Exploitation. Each side has some great ways to breakthrough and exploit their enemy's lines. You can mark units as "Reserve" during your movement phase, then move them once you've (hopefully) blow a hole in the enemy line. Even armor that fight in the Combat phase has a chance to advance a little further and fight a little longer if their attack overwhelms the defenders. As a last resort, if you've got a breakthrough but no one to exploit it, you can always use one of your Special Actions to allow breakthrough movement and combat. In other words, you can plan your breakthrough, but can also take advantage of battlefield opportunity if the conditions are right.

o Special Actions. Similar to the mechanism used in Europe Engulfed, each side gets Special Actions based on asset draws, but also through "reusable" SAs that come back each turn. If you don't use your reuseable SA in a turn, you get to bring an asset that has been eliminated back into the game, so you are almost never wasting them. Unlike EE, the range of actions is fairly small - breakthrough movement/combat, reinforce/retreat as defender, remove disruption markers (very useful for the US early on), and replacement of steps. The combination is very intriguing - do you blow the Event asset (they are permanently eliminated once used) so you can save your reusable SA to bring back an eliminated non-event asset, or do you save them up for when you really need them? Another simple mechanism that results in tough choices.

o Troop Quality. There are three troop quality levels in the game, and the differential between given forces gives you a bonus or penalty during combat. A couple of interesting elements to this mechanism - when you make an attack, you designate a point unit (as does the defender), and that unit determines your TQ when you are fired on. For example, if you have a veteran infantry as your lead unit but an elite tank in the space as well, and the defender has green infantry, the defender considers both units to be veteran during combat. Why not use the elite every time? First, many units change in quality as they face combat losses. In some cases, as for many of the SS Panzer units, troop quality will drop to veteran either after the first loss or not long after. In others, green infantry will "harden" as they take losses, gaining veteran status. Since artillery attacks before the actual units fight, it is not always the best idea to force your elite units to take the initial brunt of the attack (defender fires first in ground combat, too). In other words, if you lead with your best unit, sometimes by the time the arty is done with it it's not your best unit anymore.

o Play Time. Three hours to get through three turns may not sound great, especially if the campaign is nine turns long. Keep in mind that we were starting from scratch - I hadn't even gone through the examples of play (which I wanted to wait on until I'd finished the rules, a big mistake as they often cover the outline of the rules then give an example - they are quite well done). We should have made more use of the action matrix, which tells you exactly what units can do what in each phase. Had we looked a little closer, there would have been many more fieldworks placed and units in reserve. I would guess that we could get it down to about one turn per 30 minutes were we to play again within a reasonable amount of time, say, a couple of weeks. The tournament scenario (the first 5 turns) is playable in an evening, even shorter than my other favorite evening wargame, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Tigers in the Mist is the only other Bulge game that I feel moves along even that fast, but it doesn't have a longer campaign game. There is also a 9 turn game that only uses the north portion of the board, where 6th Panzer failed to advance along the lines hoped by the German command, lines that would have given the Germans considerably more fuel to work with. At present, this is included with the pre-orders of the game, but GMT frequently makes these available online after a suitable amount of time so taht the pre-orderers get to feel special.

Which is not to say that there aren't a couple of flaws in the overall presentation. As mentioned before, I really hate rulebooks that split up into the core rules and the game-specific rules. My biggest peeve is that they come in two separate books, so I'm always going back and forth to find the rule then the exception for the game. Once the errata has percolated through to one of GMTs excellent Living Rulebooks available online, I will print the whole thing, repaginate so that all of the rules are in one place, and be happy. Unfortunately, this happens *after* I get familiar with the game. I understand the commercial reasons for such a choice, but given that the series rules generally go through a revision every time the game system puts out a new title, it seems a bit specious to keep this separation. Once a revision comes out, you could do with the single rulebook what I do with the dual books in reverse - print out the pages with the core rules, then stick them into the old book. What makes this approach all the more galling is that the developer inserts references to the game-specific rules in the core rules. Should they use an identical rule numbering scheme in the future games, that's great. I doubt it will happen as the game evolves, but here's hoping.

The other problem I have is with the map. I fully understand that the production material is often different from the proof, often in subtle ways that the producers have little or no control over, even with today's sophisticated computer color matching tech. Still, did we need another area control game where it's difficult to figure out which area is which? The problem in this case is the road net, which probably should have been made more translucent so that it could be seen, but not as strongly as the white area boundaries. All of those straight lines get hard to distinguish into the second beer, you know.

These are really nits, however, compared to the game itself. Assuming the game lives up to it's name and is truly playable in an evening (even the 4-5 hour campaign game once both players are fully familiar with the system), this will definitely be a title that comes out with some regularity. Sure, we've got a million Bulge games. This one, however, definitely does *not* make my ass look fat.

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