Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Devil's Cauldron - On The Table

Jesse and I had an aborted attempt at playing The Devil's Cauldron, the company-level wargame focusing on the northern elements of the Allies' Market-Garden operation in 1944, fictionalized in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Mike and Eric had played it with very mixed results, so I was very interested to see if their complaints were justified. So far, I'm not sure I've had enough of a sense as to whether or not it's a great game or not, and the die-rolling has required a lot of checking of modifiers so it hasn't really been internalized for yet. This isn't a big deal, Panzer Grenadier had the same issues to some extent, but I'm still interested in playing so that's good. 

We played the very first scenario, which is a small one demonstrating why all of those raised roads running above the polder (farmland reclaimed from the sea between the wars in Holland) were such a problem for the Allies, and a big reason why even after they took Nijmegen Bridge that they were never able to completely reinforce the British 1st Paratroopers in Arnhem. The system uses something called Column that's required for vehicular units in towns and on raised roads, and the stacking limit of one unit in column is in effect - all of the time. That means if one tank unit gets bogged down, everyone stops. And you can't just get off the road. The potential for a single FLAK gun to stop up the entire process is very high, and that's exactly what happened. 

In the end, I was able to create a cross country avenue for a couple of units (which ended up out of command, although in the next activation they would have been back in command), and while I was down to having no armor units left that I could lose I went for the assault on the VP space. It was a near run thing, with both units down to any result giving the victory to the other side, but in the final assault phase Jesse was able to create the last step loss that the Allies could no longer support, and won the game. 

This is not a light system, although it's really not as bad as it might seem. Each unit has a ton of information on it, and almost every marker modifies those values in some way. For example, a cohesion hit lowers your direct fire, assault fire, and troop quality amounts by one, and there are reminders on the cohesion marker that correspond with the locations of those values on the unit counters. That's a pretty useful thing to do, and it makes up for having so many values (eight, counting the formation and division colors). The command point system can drive you crazy (it did me - I got the minimum points on my first turn), but deciding just where to use those points is a huge part of the game. Do you burn one to get the company integrity bonus for sure, or do you hope you get the roll? 

The math is a bit annoying at first, because of all of the modifiers, but like any game of this nature, those things will become internalized after a few hours of play. This scenario, including what seemed like a lot of looking up of rules and me insisting on running through how things worked, took us about 2.5 hours, although I'm sure it would run in less than 90 minutes the next time. However, there are lots of reasons to modify the fire value, and they are different for opportunity fire and direct fire, so that takes a little time. However, indirect fire is the same as direct fire, so the modifier burden for TDC and PG are about the same. 

All in all, the game was interesting and presented a lot of problems for both sides, and this scenario didn't cover paradrops or a lot of other rules (dispatch points, for one, which determines if your formation chits go in the cup or not). As such, it felt a bit like an exercise in figuring out one of the more obtuse of the game-specific rules, which is to say raised roads. In the end, it was a good learning game, and I'm looking forward to playing the next scenario at some point in the future.

We did have one ugly rules issue - the rules refer to using the Range modifiers on the combat table, which say that there is no mod at range 1, then for unarmored targets you subtract one for each additional hex of range to the target. The confusion came with armored targets, where the language said that if the range was more than 1 that the last hex of range gave a -2 modifier, the rest were at -1 past the first hex. To me, that implied strongly that when firing at more than one hex range, you had at least a -2 modifier (for the hex the target was in), and -1 for the rest except the first hex. So a target four hexes away, assuming the firing unit had a range of at least 4, would have a modifier of -4.

Jesse, however, thought that the "last hex of range" referred to the last hex of the *firing* unit's range, so that the -2 would only matter in the fourth hex if the firing unit had a range of 4. In the above example, a firing unit with a range of 5 would only have a modifier of -3 (one for every hex past the first), and only a firing unit with a range of 4 would have the modifier of -4. I felt the language supported my view more strongly, and we're trying to get an authoritative answer. This is the sort of thing that would have been wise to spell out in the rules rather than just referring the player to an abbreviated combat table.

That said, this was the only rule we struggled with. Everything else was pretty clear, especially with the Assault flowchart provided on the official website. I'm looking forward to giving this another try, although I don't know that I can find time for two monster game systems in my life right now (OCS is the other, which Jesse is also interested in - I'm not sure if the supply rules will be his cup of tea, though). Only time will tell.

I do know that learning these games by myself is no longer an option, nor am I particularly sure that I would have been any better at it at a younger age. Of the two (OCS, TDC), the latter has fewer rules and a more streamlined system, but OCS is very elegant in play (plus has been extremely well supported, while TDC has gotten good support but has not yet gotten a Living Rules update, nor are the rules even available in electronic form, the wargaming equivalent of 8-track tapes compared to iPods - electronic versions of the rules are even made available by Avalanche Press, the company voted most paranoid about it's IP). 

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