Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paul Koenig's D-Day: The British Beaches: Sword

For part three of our tour of a handful of Victory Point Games titles (the first was actually my play of Waterloo 20 from EGG, the second was Israeli Independence), we turn to the Historical series and it's sub-series, Paul Koenig's D-Day. There are three packages in the series with five total "games", each sharing the same general ruleset with a very small number of special rules, different maps and units for each invasion beach, and grouped according to the nationality doing the invading (it was all pretty much the same nationality doing the defending). 

Like the Napoleonic 20 series, PKDD maintains a design limit of 40 counters total for the entire game, including some markers (although there are other markers used for replacements, damage, and a few other things that don't count, apparently because they are round instead of square). For this game (meaning the Sword Beach map and counters) there are 12 British units, one game turn marker, seven activation chits, 12 German units, five artillery markers, and three Allied support markers making up the 40 counters. 

Units are very simple, with NATO symbology (armor, infantry, paratroop, glider, and heavy weapons, of which only the last has a game function), containing a single combat value and movement points, which range from 6 to 12 depending on type. The back of each unit shows it's starting location or turn of entry. Units are grouped by their higher echelon, shown as color coding in their symbol. I personally am not color-challenged, but do think that it would be easy for publishers to take this into account when devising their human factors. It is possible that the units do have some other way to distinguish the parent organization than background color that I simply missed because the color was able to do the job for me, but if they didn't they should have. 

The maps are small, on the order of a sheet of paper, but are very functional and with oversized hexes, for a map that's roughly 10 hexes wide by 14 hexes deep. It's not a huge play area, but it's effective given the small number of units. The landing beaches are in the NW corner of the map, with the major city that you are to capture nearby, with the Pegasus Bridge causeway to the south. The map also contains all of the tables you'll need, none of which affect combat per se. There are several terrain types - city, town, clear, beach, bocage, swamp, and road, with river hexsides. Terrain affects both combat and movement in most cases. 

The round damage markers are a clever idea, although there is still that color-challenged element. When a unit takes damage, it places one of the larger round damage markers on it's one-hit side under the unit, so that you can clearly see the light yellow color as a halo effect. If the unit takes a second hit, you flip the damage marker to it's orange two-hit side. The third hit removes the unit and the marker. It's very effective, although again not so much if you can't distinguish the colors, and in poor lighting that could be a problem even if you see color just fine. Again, I did not have a problem easily seeing a difference. 

The game is made up of a series of turns, eleven in all, two of which are night turns that allow both sides to recoup their losses and for the Germans to redeploy to a certain extent. The sequence of play is activation based, which makes for good extra tension as you never know who will go first, although in some cases (as with all such games) it can determine the winner in a close match. 

Day turns (three to a single day before you get to the night turn) consists of three phases, the first of which is only important for the first three turns, at least in Sword. First, you land at the beaches according to the beach-specific schedule. For Sword, there are three landing points, and for each landing point you have three British units, one showing up each turn during the day. For each unit landing that turn, you roll on the Landing table for that turn number, which represents the pillboxes and other beach defenses the invaders have to wade through. The first turn is the roughest, as you'll average one hit per unit, although it gets better as the day goes on and the defenses are eliminated on a schedule. On the first turn, you also roll not only for the landing 1st Airborne units, but also for any German units they land next to. Since these spaces are pre-determined (there's no randomization for where they land), that means five extra rolls on this table. Of course, after all of the units have landed at the end of the first day, you don't need to continue with this phase starting with the night turn 4. 

The second segment of the day turns is to determine support. First up is to see who has arty support, done by rolling one die per player and giving the difference between the dice to the higher rolling player, so a German 3 and a British 5 would give 2 arty markers to the Brits. Next, the Allied player rolls for air/naval support, which is simply 1-3 markers based on a table with even chances of each result. There is also an optional rule that you can use to try to gain a Leadership chit that gives you a one-time bennie, but I found myself unable to remember to use the arty/support as it was and left this optional rule out for my first game. 

Now for the meat of the game, the activation phase. All of the activation chits are placed in a cup and drawn one at a time, with the player owning those units activating them once their chit is pulled. You have four choices for activating units (five with the replacements optional rule, which I didn't use but would recommend): you can fire at full value, you can move, you can mobile assault with half your movement and firepower, or you can pass. If you fire at full value, you can't move the unit, although the Germans have the option of retreating before the Brits fire, in which case the firing unit may then convert to mobile assault. Heavy Weapons units may fire at range (two hexes) for half their attack value. If you mobile assault, you can move and then fire, or vice versa, but can't move/fire/move. When you fire in this mode, you only get half of your attack value, but since fractions round up in this game, it's not as bad for many units as you might think. You may also move into a unit's space to assault them at additional cost during both move and mobile assault activations, and for mech units with large movement factors there's an optional rule that will allow you to continue movement if you're successful. You can also simply pass with the unit. It is worth noting that you *can* group units to fight together, but only if they have exactly the same type of activation, so you can't move a unit up to help with a Fire activation, as the moving unit would be performing a Mobile Assault activation. Indirect fire is a Fire activation, so you *can* include it if you want.

I should also mention at this point that the game has no Zones of Control (ZOCs). That's right, none. This isn't surprising, as few tactical games do (mostly because opportunity or reaction fire fulfills the same effect). However, the reaction part is not present in the game. This means that often you'll need to consider movement carefully, as you don't know most of the time what formation will be activated next. I consider it to be a plus in this game, but you may be fussier than me. Right!

Combat is fairly straightforward, but requires careful thought. This is a game that clearly demonstrates that you can have a robust and interesting combat system without a lot of rules but that will still force you to consider the entire turn. First, you compute the attack value, taking defensive terrain and the mode the attacker is in into account. For example, a 4 AV unit Firing into a town space would  have an attack value of 3, and the same unit assigned a Mobile Assault activation would attack at 1 (4 halved minus 1). Two hits on a unit will also reduce it's combat value by 1 as well.

Next, the attacker decides whether or not to assign support, with limits of one arty and two Allied support tokens per attack. The defender can respond with the same numbers. Each support token assigned raises or lowers the attack value accordingly. In our Fire example, adding one arty to the attack and two support to the defense would result in the attack value lowering to 2. 

Finally, the attacker rolls 1d6. If the number is below the attack value, the defender takes a hit, and may choose to retreat one space if they wish with no additional effect. If the number is above the attack value, there is no effect. If the number hits the attack value dead on, *both* units take a hit. That means that if you are attacking with a unit that can't do better than a 1 attack value and that has two hits, it will only inflict a hit if it dies in the process. There is no advance after combat. There is an optional rule that I recommend that prevents damage to a unit inflicting indirect fire on a target unless the target is capable of indirect fire back. 

Assaulting a unit in it's hex is slightly different - in this case, terrain plays no part, but the defender may fire at the attacker using the exact same process above. If they inflict a hit, even via an exchange, the attacker retreats back to the hex they entered the assault hex from and the assault is over. Otherwise, the attacker may then attack using the same process, this time with the defender forced to retreat if they take a hit. The example of play included with the game mentions that if both units take a hit in an assault that both must retreat, but the rules don't state that in any form, and I always take the rules over the examples. If neither unit is able to inflict a hit, then both units have the option to retreat (although you'd expect the defender to be the one to do so as there's no incremental damage inflicted in the process, and the attacker came into the hex so you'd imagine they'd be there for the duration). 

On night turns, both sides roll for replacement points, with 1-5 giving that many points, but 6 resulting in no RPs at all, which can be devastating for the Allies for reasons to be seen later. Each point removes one level of damage, so a unit with two hits can be returned to undamaged by spending two points. Then the Germans can then redeploy up to half of their MP for units that weren't replaced. 

Victory is determined after the 11th turn (9th day turn, or three full days) by a point schedule that is largely determined by which beach you are playing on. In Sword, you get 2 points for controlling hexes bordered in red (the city and the three Pegasus Bridge complex hexes, which count as one hex for VP), one point for each town. The Germans get points for killing Allied units (one per unit), so it's important that the Allies manage their losses, and a good reason to use the replacements activation optional rule (not to be confused with the night replacement, which isn't optional). The Allies get points for exiting undamaged units off of one of the three marked roads on the map as well, but this is a pretty bloody game and it's difficult to get undamaged units *onto* the board for the Allies. High score wins. 

In my game, things went really well for the Allies for the first couple of turns. They wiped out the Germans on the beach, although they also lost their Airborne unit at the bridges early when the 21st Panzer units assaulted them successfully after the drop had gone poorly. By the end of the first day, they had control of the NW corner of the map and were pressing into the 2VP city. They'd also managed to take the bridges. However, they rolled a 6 during their replacement phase the first night, so no replacements, while the Germans rolled a 5 and were largely able to get back to fighting trim. 

Fighting continued around the three towns on the east side of the board, with the Germans holding one, losing one, and fighting for the other with one of the PG units from 21st Panzer making life difficult along the eastern beach town. In the end, I discovered why it's important to hold onto the spaces you control rather than just giving them up when two units headed for the German controlled town to the east from the bridges, only to have a German unit zip into the area and deny those points to the Allies at the end. The final score was 8 to 5 for the Germans, but it would have been very close had the Allies not given up the 2 points for the bridges to take one point from the Germans for the town. The Allies had lost seven units by the end of the game, which was where most of the German points came from, and no Allied units had been exited for VP heading to Caen. 

Play time for the title is about an hour, maybe a bit longer while you're getting used to the system. Each activation chit only activates three or four units, so play is brisk and combat is quick if agonizing to decide where you want to use your support. I'm looking forward to punching and playing the Gold Beach map and units soon, which don't have the airborne units or the exit rules - it's all about taking VP spaces in that game. I'll also be picking up the other two packages in the series, and I think a "campaign" game played across all five beaches at once would be very interesting as a team game. 

At $15-$16 a pop from VPG's website, these are a steal, and very portable. The map is even small enough that you could play on an airline tray table if you weren't too worried about the pieces falling off and you not being able to get to them on the floor!

Definitely worth a look. A very different scale and mechanisms than most D-Day games, and one that allows individual looks at each beach. 

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