Mike came over last night for our group's regular game night. I use the word "group" in the sense that in the past six game nights, we've had three people show up *once* and the rest of the time it's been two people. Not that there's anything wrong with that - as Chris said, he'll have fun so long as one other person shows up, and so Mike and I played a few turns of FAB: Bulge again, this time with the correct rules.
I once again played the Forces of Darkness while Mike attempted to stave me off. Rather than going for Bastogne, which seems to be the focus of many players (mostly, I think, because of historical drama rather than an actual reason), I concentrated my forces in the north. One of the things I really enjoy about this game is that the Germans are forced to keep their army organization more or less intact - the plan called for 6th Panzer Army to push through the northern portion of the operation to the Meuse and cross into Liege, while the 5th Panzer Army was to make a push in what became the center, but only to protect 6th from the south. Bastogne was a valuable target solely because it was a junction of local road nets in the area. In our game, I more or less ignored it.
As such, my 6th units did an excellent job of pushing into Malmedy and some rather difficult terrain, largely by taking advantage of a rather nice hole I opened up further south, allowing a reserve unit from 5th to penetrate about halfway into US territory. The resulting US response forced Mike to make tough decisions about where to send his few strong units, and he ended up forced to retreat from many of the difficult terrain areas in the north. By the end of turn three, I had taken two of the six yellow star spaces on the map, was two spaces at most from the remainder, and had taken Luxembourg city in the south, which by now was barely garrisoned at all. Could I but take two more in turn 4, I would be one point from an auto victory.
One of the things that Rick Young has done with this game is accurately show what the German goals were. Yes, they were trying to get across the Meuse and threaten Antwerp, the only real port the Allies had that could lift in the sort of materiel they needed to cross the Rhine into Germany. But to do that, they had to push in a certain direction, largely because fuel was such a huge problem for them. When the attack bogged down in the north, they tried to make an end run in the south and ran right into the jaws of Patton's 3rd Army. As such, I was trying to slide 6th along the operational boundary with 5th, where the terrain was easier, but I had enough success with 6th Mike rarely had the chance to set up fieldworks - he had to resort to using his engineers on turn three to get anything going at all in that regard), but the pinning attacks I made on my flank were successful enough to push him back there as well.
Success in this game hinges on two things - concentration of forces and smart use of assets. For the Germans, what assets you get are fairly important, and most of mine ended up being for 5th and 6th. In a particularly key encounter where a one-step Peiper Kampfgruppe had penetrated into a key area but couldn't bring up the additional unit I thought I could because of the rule saying only one unit may cross a river into a newly contested area, I brought up two battle assets that preserved the KG's sole strength point, and indeed forced the US to retreat! A much better use of the von der Heydte paratroops than just dropping them and hoping something came from it. I also ignored the south (other than 7th Army, which really has no choice but to threaten a couple of map edge VP spaces), despite Mike giving me about as clear a path to Bastogne as one could hope for. At the end of turn 3, I even managed to use my special action to encircle Trois Ponts by exploiting Lehr into 6th army territory.
Have I said I love this system? We had a few rules questions here and there, but in all it is the perfect storm of wargaming - relatively clean and elegant rules that provide a rich strategic and tactical situation that rewards the use of effective tactics. Even better, it puts you in a very specific role - that of mid-level commander, able to control certain aspects of the battle while others (such as what assets you receive) are at the mercy of your higher-ups. Even the fact that the opening fighting is scripted, as would have happened in any planned battle, works toward placing you in this role - you don't have any say in how the initial assault would begin, but you do once the situation becomes more fluid. The fact that the block aspect adds fog of war in a very simple and effective way just makes the design better.
This, along with Combat Commander, is the New Age of wargaming, much as the card-driven designs of 10 years ago did. FAB breaks the Bulge mold in many ways, but Young (standing on the shoulders of giants - Simonitch, Heller, Sinigaglio, Freeman) does it in a way that lets us concentrate on the war instead of the rules, just like Combat Commander did, and does it in a historically accurate way. In FAB, you have little control over what resources you get. In CC:E, you have relatively little control over how your troops will operate. Both designs put the lie to the omnipotent/omniscient view that most wargaming falls prey to and instead gives us a true sense of history without a two-inch binder of rules to cover every possible situation. To be fair, A Victory Lost does the same thing, although using an even more retro basic hex and counter system tied with a few effective twists to breathe new life into an old concept. Starkweather, Young, and Hansen are on the forefront of what keeps wargaming great, and with any luck these types of designs will draw more smart and curious younger gamers into the hobby.