Thursday, August 06, 2009

Bulge 20 - First Play

I've been fairly impressed with Alan Emrich's titles from Victory Point Games (as publisher and sometimes developer), especially with how he gives some insight into DTP press publishing in much the way that Dan Verssen does for small "professional" publishing. While the games are small, they are also relatively cheap compared to retail for most wargames currently being published (which run from $40 to over $400 if we're going to accept the high end outliers, more like $90 if we exclude the monsters). Avalanche Press does do a few small box games like Defiant Russia for $20, but in general the quality of counters coming from VPG is in my opinion superior, especially if you're willing to spend a little time and money on applying a matte clear coat before you play.

So it was with some surprise that VPG published Bulge 20, which lists at $40. There are more counters in this game than in others, and there is a *lot* of paper comparatively speaking, but the game uses very few counters on the map (certainly less than the 20 implied, although there are other counters on the organizational charts) and the published playing time is 75 minutes. At first blush that seems like quite a bit of money for a DTP game, although to be fair the business model isn't really geared to games with this many components. Alan does a great job of explaining that on his website, and if you've ever wondered why so few DTP companies put out die-cut counters I recommend you check out to find out just what a painstaking process it is.

However, I'm a total slut when it comes to wargames, so I picked up a copy, and I'm very glad I did. Bulge 20 is, in terms of scope, system, and POV, unlike any other wargame I've played.

The trick in B20 is that you are put in the position of a Staff officer on your given side, in charge of planning and running the operation (or the defense). The level is very high in terms of abstraction - there are maybe 12 units on the point-to-point map at any time, although the various Armies hold up to four corps each. And there are less than 30 points on the map itself, and they run from Antwerp in the northwest to Luxembourg City in the southeast. In other words, the map takes a lot of additional space into account than most Bulge maps.

The most important decision you make on each side is choosing the cards that will determine what choices you have during your turn. It's best to think in terms of a standard high-end card-driven game, such as Paths of Glory. The difference is that you *choose* what cards you wish to use during a given turn in advance. The number of cards you can use is determined by what turn you are drawing them, so the German hand size drops while the Allied hand size increases over time. You are also picking your cards at the end of your turn, so you are planning for what you'll need defensively during your opponent's turn as well as what you'll need during your own turn to do what needs doing.

The cards are grouped into four areas along the lines of US planning doctrine. G-1 cards are for organization, such as rearranging your corps into armies on your hidden organizational card, or dropping corps off to extend a line. Understanding how this works is a critical part of the game, as there are definite limitations. For example, if you drop a corps off from an army to an adjacent space, you can't just move over it and pick it up again later. It must first be absorbed by your Army HQ (one G-1 card), then transferred to a specific army (another G-1 card). You also use G-1 cards to flip reduced units back to full strength.

This is a good time to explain the supply rules, as they are critical for the German player and more or less dictate axes of advance. To play many cards (especially organizational G-1 cards) you need to have a Line of Communication (LOC) from your Army HQ (printed on the map for each nationality) to the unit (which can be a corps or an army) that doesn't exceed a certain distance, which for the Germans is a whopping two spaces (three for the Allies). You can take Strategic Crossroads and Supply Depot spaces that will extend this supply line, much as Extenders do in the OCS system. Crossroads are at Bastogne and St. Vith, and the Allied Depots of particular use are in the Meuse cities of Liege and Namur. St. Vith leads to Liege, Bastogne to Namur. You'll need Liege or Namur to take Brussels or Antwerp. These are the historic limitations the Germans faced, and while at this scale it might feel a little limiting, at the same time from a Staff planning perspective, it makes perfect sense.

The next type of card is the G-2 Intelligence card. These cards can be used to allow the attacker to Fire First (or prevent that from happening) during combat, to look at your opponent's hand, or for the Allied player to look at which of the three plan cards the German *didn't* pick. Because, you see, Antwerp may not be the actual goal. The Allies certainly weren't sure of what the Germans were trying to do, and in fact there were two smaller-scale competing plans for what the operation would try to accomplish. One aimed at retaking Aachen, while the other aimed at Luxembourg City and one of the Meuse cities. Interestingly, the Allied player must be careful not to commit Patton's 3rd Army or the Strategic Reserves (which were to be used to cross the Rhine once the weather was more cooperative) as if they are and one of these smaller operations is the goal they actually give victory points to the Germans. G-2 cards can be used to look at cards that are not identified as the actual plan, allowing the Allies to bring those units in that won't hurt them but at a cost of one card.

The third card type is the G-3 card, which comes in two flavors. The first allows movement or combat by a single unit. The stacking limit in this game is one unit per space, enforced at all times, so if you end up with a unit in the way you'll need to plan an extra G-3 card to get it out of the way, or a G-1 card (if it's a corps) to return it to HQ. You can also use multiple G-3 cards to attack a space from multiple directions, which is hard to do but also almost certainly necessary to take a well-defended city. Combat can see the use of various card types, and is of the "roll the number of dice your factors allow, hits on 6, retreats on 5, and you only get one retreat before the 5's become hits" variety. Terrain will play a role in limiting the number of attacking corps from a given army or allow the defender to ignore hits or retreats. An important note is that you do *not* need an LOC to attack or move, but you will need one in order to make use of a VP space, depot, or crossroads.

The other type of G-3 card is air power, which is largely unusable over most of the game until the weather improves (although it may get worse again too). If good, you can use these cards to increase the number of dice you roll in combat, or can be played from the hand to negate an opponent's air card. In any weather, you can take a 50% shot at forcing your opponent to discard a random card through Interdiction. Fortunately for the Germans, they always have one turn's grace of knowing what the weather will be, as you roll for it at the end of the turn but it doesn't actually change for another full turn. Interdiction is marginally useful early, but the Allies are generally so strapped that it may be more useful to have an extra G-3 card instead, but if you end up never using the card at least it has *some* use.

The final type of card is the G-4 card, which I think has to do with Build-Up. You can use these cards to bring back eliminated units based on a die-roll to see how long they take to return. Since you get VP for having eliminated three more of your opponent's units at end of game than they eliminated of yours, that can end up being what the two sides fight over. You can also use it to add extra dice to combat, and also to allow for strategic movement (an extra space but only through friendly spaces), so they can be useful if you're running out of G-3 cards to add to your hand.

Every card type also has "special" versions of the cards, most of them single use (regardless of whether you use them for their intended purpose). For example, the Germans have three special G-3 cards that give specific units (such as the 5th Panzer Army) a bonus in combat, and a G-2 card that gives them First Fire in the turn the card is played in two combats. As the game goes on and these cards are used up, you'll find that the Germans are limited to two of every type of card during a turn except for three G-3 cards (not counting their replayable air card). When you use these is important, especially as one or two allow you to advance into a space that normally isn't allowed because of terrain, although read the text carefully and check to see if you're attacking over a river as this can become a problem (it sure did for me with Liege).

Turns move along pretty quickly, as you're spending the bulk of your cards for fairly quick actions, even combat moves quickly. While Mike and I took three hours to play, much of that was verifying a few rules that weren't clearly worded (such as how eliminated armies came out of the Army HQ space), plus making sure we had the subtleties down. I could see this taking about 90 minutes with some experience, familiarity with the two card decks, and a better understanding of how to manage a handful of pieces on the board that get in each other's way surprisingly often. The planning phase at the end of your turn is the least interesting for the other player, although by then you should be replanning how you'll use the cards that you didn't use defensively on your impending turn. However, it's the planning phase that is intentionally the most critical as you'll need to think of how to use each card type to it's best advantage, and how you'll advance into that city you just eliminated the last unit of but can't just advance into after combat because of the river you forgot about.

As an introductory wargame, I don't know that this is the right game for that. It uses so many alien concepts that it would be difficult to leverage it to other games (although I suspect that this system will become very popular in certain circles). There are no hexes, no odds, organization and planning are everything, and I do mean everything. I also suspect that because of the various victory conditions that many games will end in a tie, which suggests that perhaps it won't produce what many would consider to be "historical" results very often. For example, in our game I was going for Antwerp/Brussels, but came very close to taking Liege (and, seeing as my Peiper card was negated by one of Mike's special cards when it shouldn't have been), I probably would have had an extra card cycle to do what I needed to do to take Liege. While I wouldn't have necessarily gotten to Antwerp or Brussels, at the same time it would have given me back the VP for not taking the final objective and we would have tied. As it was, Mike brought in the 3rd Army and we spent a lot of time learning how dangerous it was to leave an army with no retreat path and with no LOC.

I'm very interested in giving this game another try, now that I've gotten the system down. I'm also hopeful that a company that puts out a more professionally-produced product (from a component standpoint) tries a game in this system out. For a DTP company, the components are pretty nice (they even diecut the counters), but $40 is a lot of money considering that it would be this much discounted with nicers parts from, say, GMT, perhaps less. Alan Emrich even goes so far as to say that this was an experiment in the limits of what VPG could produce, and while there is one more "mini-monster" in the pipeline, he doesn't know that there will be any more based on some pretty strong customer feedback that the game is too expensive given what other companies are doing.

Me, I figure that if the game is actually worth $30 in parts and I spend $40 for a good game, I'm OK with that. I know that this could easily become a WBC-West filler for our group if people knew the system. It's very easy to teach once you've grokked the rules (all 8 pages of them), and the most complex part is just remembering what each card can do, although it's also written on the card in brief.

If you don't mind spending a little extra for a little less component wise, you may find you really like this game. While I think that history will show it was a fairly limited version of what may become a very popular system, sort of like Israeli Independence compared to Zulus on the Ramparts!, at the same time remember that people said the same of We The People, which is still a very popular game despite it's drawbacks compared to later titles such as Hannibal. Recommended.


Alex said...

Thank you for this review. I have been enjoying Victory Point Games' solitaire lineup for sometime and debating splurging on this.
It has just moved up the splurge list...

Peter said...

I found it an interesting system but very pro-German in the balance and how it awarded victory levels. It seems like the Germans will do far, far better than their historical performance in most games.

Dug said...

Peter, the few comments on the 'Geek seem to agree with you. I should have been able to take and hold Liege through the entire game, which in the Grand Slam victory conditions results in a draw. *Winning* a grand slam should be much harder.

Actually, the game started out for me very historically, with a blunted attack in the north. Had Mike closed off my advance route to Liege for the 5th Panzer, I would have been forced to Bastogne and then on to Namur, which was actually what happened.

The Bulge is a difficult situation to simulate historically, as the German conditions for winning were (ahem) unrealistic at best. Even had they crossed the Meuse, there was no way they could keep their supply lines open with Patton's 3rd on the way. I can forgive the tendencies of the game to give the Germans more success than historically while at the same time seeing tremendous promise in the system. I think the Bulge is a great pilot situation to use, as it's popular but yet difficult to measure success in well, and the addition of the extra victory conditions add a dimension that I like quite a bit. If you can get past that element (Paths of Glory has been hugely popular despite very rarely following the historical curve), which shouldn't be too hard given the complexity and unique systemic challenges, and there's an interesting game here.