Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Totensonntag - Corps Command

Had a chance to play Totensonntag, a very small and light wargame from Lock'n'Load Publishing, the same people who brought you World At War and (of course) the Lock 'n' Load tactical WWII and Vietnam games. LnL has a pretty bad record with writing clear rules - Mark Walker prefers a conversational style that's great if you're giving a review, not so good if you want clarity in your rules. I've had trouble getting started with Band of Heroes simply because the rules were so familiar (in a bad way) that I have trouble clarifying specific issues. 

Totensonntag uses the same sort of style, but in this case there really aren't very many rules to screw up. The designer is Peter Bogdasarian, so the rules are a bit closer to a dryer and clearer style. The good news is that every situation we were able to find seemed to be covered, which you'd expect because the game is extremely small. Literally, as the box is smaller than that of Titan: the Arena. Both sides have a total of less than 50 counters combined for use in the game, so it's an excellent introduction to hex and counter wargames. 

The one rule that is a bit of a mess is whether or not you can use artillery to assault - in one part of the rules, assaults aren't mentioned while barrages are, and in another you are told that artillery may indeed assault like other units. A little clarity would have been nice, but we assumed that assaults were allowed. The other strangeness comes from no mention of what the back side of the counters is for (they just mention placing hit counters in the rules), although it's clear enough if you're an enthusiast. Since this game is clearly intended as an introductory game, it would have been nice if they'd caught this. I nit, however - the rules are very complete otherwise.

The subject is the 1941 British surprise attack on the German besiegers of Tobruk at Sidi Rezegh (I'm sure I'm butchering that last word). The goal is to break through with three units to Tobruk, or at least take one or more of the three airfields that the Germans held. All the British have to do is to take a single airfield and do it without losing too many units, while the Germans have to hold them off and do the same. That's a tall order for the Germans, as they have a bunch of Italians sitting in entrenchments a ways away, and it's not terribly difficult for the Italians to be "shattered" (losing four or more units). 

The components are a mixed bag by wargaming standards. The box is pretty sturdy and attractive, as are the board and counters, but the board is on heavy cardstock which is nice enough but this particular material tends to warp a bit and it's impossible to get it to lay flat without some plexi. A paper map would have been slightly less sturdy but would have been a better choice. The counters are a nice size (5/8") and use NATO symbology for the infantry/arty units, and armor illustrations for the mechs. Normally I think this is a good thing, but since some mechs have special characteristics I'd almost have preferred something a bit clearer. Some of the factors have very small notations on them that are almost impossible to read with my 45 year old eyes, and in fact the unit designations (which are not just historical but play a functional role) are nearly illegible as they tend to be a bit blurry even if you have 20/20 vision. The counters are on a fairly thin cardstock as well, although since this is a small game with low unit density I found it wasn't a huge problem. One German unit does have a faulty designation, one of the infantry units. The set up instructions are also incorrect and you'll want to check the 'Geek or the LnL site for errata.

The rules are very short, only eight pages of fairly sparse text with lots of illustrations and examples. This is a game you can learn in 10 minutes and teach in five if you and your opponent have some wargaming experience. There are a few unusual mechanisms in the game, though, so you'll want to read the rules pretty closely the first time out to be sure you understand things. The rules also contain quite a bit of special cases, or chrome, and not all of it is included in the play aid sheet (although the counters have those teeny tiny notations). 

There are six turns, each consisting of a single day, and each day has four impulses. On each impulse, each player rolls a six sided die. That number is used in a couple of ways - first, you can only activate units that have that number as their third factor (where most games put MF) or higher, so the Italians and leg Afrika Korps units that have a factor of 2 will only be able to activate about 1/3rd of the turns. Second, you can only move as many MF as whatever your roll is (although non-leg units move an extra MF). As such, the lower you roll, the more units you can move, but the shorter their range. Higher numbers allow fewer units to move, but they can zip along. Finally, whoever rolls the higher number gets to move first, so there is quite a bit of potential for double moves in the game. 

The more astute among you will notice that no one gets to move at all if you roll a six, and even the 5 result isn't that useful (other than the PzIIIs and recon units). The game takes that into account - if you roll a 5, you can bump your result up or down on the following turn at your option. If you roll a 6, you get to pick the next roll. So, while you might take a hit on the current turn, you have some choices next turn. If both players roll sixes, you pick your initiative numbers secretly, which actually happened to us. Seeing as the turn order was pretty important, it forced the Germans to play a 4 instead of a 3 to get some units out of harms way.

Combat is also very easy, at least once you figure out the numbers. Every unit has an attack value and a protection value, usually 3 and 10 respectively. You roll two dice, add the attack value, and compare to the protection value. There are several modifiers, which are conveniently included on the board, but in general most units will need to roll a seven in order to hit. Once a unit is hit, it is first flipped, which coincidentally lowers the attack value by one. If it can take further hits, there are Hit markers that can be placed on the units. When a unit is down to a combat factor of 0, it is removed permanently (and counts toward whether or not a division is "shattered"). The net effect is that a one factor shift is huge - the difference between having to roll a 7 vs an 8 has a 1/6 detrimental effect. 

Making things more interesting are artillery, which can fire at range if the target is spotted (plus making the 50% "range in" roll) and the ability of mech units to overrun (and recon units to dance away). That last one is important, as usually units can move *or* fire, not both, in any given impulse, and mech get to do both so long as they have that extra MF to do the overrun. Also, stacking is important as only the top unit can be assaulted (arty can pick their target, although they are pretty ineffective against armor even when they do range in). There's really a surprising amount to think about in this game, although the short time frame removes supply concerns entirely.

Terrain plays a big role as well, as units are limited when moving into escarpment hexes (mechs can't do it, moto units can at a cost), so since many of the units are mech they are channeled into a couple of narrow passes giving the game three main fronts - the eastern pass that is lightly fought until the Kiwis show up late in the game, the central front which is lightly defended early but reinforced in depth early on, and the Italians in their entrenchments hoping they can hold out. In our game, the British ignored the Italians for the most part, preferring to throw the South Africans at them when they show up on turn 3. All of the airfields and the road to Tobruk require getting through the passes, and then you have to be ready for the big German counterpunch on turn 3. Those PzIIIs are clearly the strongest and most mobile units in the game, and even though the Germans have four total units their armor and positive DRM make them a serious threat (although the German must be careful not to lose them as they count double towards being shattered).

Even if your units do take a beating, they get a chance to regroup every night based on side and unit type. The Germans regroup best, followed by all infantry units, followed by British tanks, followed by the Italians. ZoCs make it tougher, and in fact the Italians can't regroup in a ZoC at all. As such, every day has a similar flow to it - make the initial attacks, follow through on any breakthroughs or try to push back the attack, then hold the line and pull your damaged units back. Even taking a PzIII unit with a single hit feels very chancy in this game.

Play time is about 2-3 hours for your first game, but play becomes very brisk as you get used to the system and the DRMs. I would imagine this game would be playable in 90 minutes from the time you open the box until it's put away with experienced players (meaning having one game under your belt). Given the small size, this would be an excellent travel game, although no one will be playing it on an airplane soon (although you could probably pull it out while waiting to get on your plane if you were held over). 

This is supposedly the first in a series of games using the same system, and I have to say I think there's a real success here. The game seems to work quite well for desert warfare, and I'll be very interested to see if the system translates to other theaters. I'm quite pleased with the game, and it will make for a nice "filler" at WBC West when games finish earlier than expected. I'm happy to see a newer wargame company having success with different designers, and I'm looking forward to the other titles in this series.

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