Thursday, September 29, 2011

Breakthrough: Cambrai - Breakout or Break-In?

When I discovered wargames at the age of 10 circa 1973, wargames came in two flavors - Avalon Hill hex and counter igo-ugo games, and SPI hex and counter igo-ugo games. It wasn't until the 80's that designers decided that a hexagonal grid placed over a map and an entire player taking their turn with little involvement from the other player wasn't written in stone for the hobby. Through the rest of the century and into the present day, wargame design has seen lots of new styles emerge, from the card-driven game to the "block" game, to maps based on point-to-point or area movement. There is still a definite appeal to the hex-based wargame, but it's not the only game in town anymore. 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and fresh design approaches has been that of the area/impulse game, which I will simply call AIM for the purposes of this discussion. While I am no historian, it seems to me that the first widely known game was Storm Over Arnhem, published by Avalon Hill, followed in turn by Thunder Over Cassino and Turning Point: Stalingrad. It was this last game that got my attention, around the time I started returning to wargaming after my long lack of opponents starting in 1981 when I went to college and gaming meant D&D for several years. 

All of those games were novel and different and set in locations where everything was a complete slog, especially in TP:S, as every combat produced rubble that turned the entire map into a WW1 Western Front simulation. Historical yes, but interesting to game? The fact that I never got past the learning scenario, which seemed to me to be not only a good size in terms of what I could commit to a long term game as well as enough of the flavor of the system to hold my attention without overdoing it, speaks volumes. 

Of course, I had no opponents, so I was playing solitaire, which while interesting did not show off the true value of the games, which was that you had relatively little downtime since you activated a single area and could only operate with the units that started the impulse in that area. The randomness of the turn length was another attractor, as you never knew if you were going to get to do as much as you wanted to in a turn (this actually makes AIM games good solitaire exercises too). 

And then, in the 90's, AH published Breakout: Normandy, which has, until now, been the gold standard in AIMs. The game had all of the hallmarks of the earlier AIMs but in a more mobile setting, even with the bocage terrain. To this day it remains one of my top 10 wargames although I have played it nowhere near as much as I would like to. 

Since that time, there have been other attempts to create games in BK:N's image. There were successes (Monty's Gamble), and not-so-much games (Royal Tank Corps), at least in my book. The genre got out of WW2 into WW1 (RTC again) as well as at least one game set in the American Civil War. However, unlike card-driven wargames, which took off so much that it got to a point where a relatively small percentage of games coming out were of high quality, AIMs came out at a much slower pace. Since 2000, there have been dozens of CDGs, a handful of AIMs. 

Along comes Breakthrough: Cambrai (BT:C) in 2011. This is a game that has been waiting for publication for about three years since it made it's preorder numbers at MMP, kind of a long wait for that sort of thing, but then most of the smaller operations were pretty shook up by the economic issues of 2008 and the resultant disruption of printer services, many of which were the only services which had worked with wargame publishers. I'm not saying that's the only reason, but it has had an effect on the industry that most gamers don't seem to be aware of. 

BT:C walks in the footsteps to some extent of Royal Tank Corps, which modeled the same British offensive in late 1917. There aren't a lot of operational-level games that cover specific WW1 battles that take place much after 1914 in the West, largely because the offensives were of limited effectiveness at a strategic level. Not to say there aren't games out there, just that there aren't many compared to the other periods/conflicts that are commonly gamed. The Cambrai Offensive, however, stands out because it was the first use of massed tank formations and very nearly achieved it's goals. It certainly showed that tanks could be effective on the battlefield, a lesson the Germans learned very well and carried into their blitzkrieg doctrines in the early years of 1939. As such, it's no surprise that there are multiple games on the subject. 

Of course, WW1 was a very different conflict from WW2, and so the game system needed to have some changes in order to attain the right feel. Here's a partial list:
  • Alternating Impulses - A big part of how the game works has to do with the Sunset DR, which when compared with the number of the current impulse can change the weather and also end the turn. Most previous titles would see each side have their turn in a single impulse, so in Impulse 3 both sides would get one chance to activate an area or pass. In BT:C, the player with the initiative starts with impulse 0, then the other player takes impulse 1. The result is a shorter "day" and a faster game. This makes considerable sense given how much less coordination units were able to exploit in that earlier pre-wireless radio (at least at the necessary level on the battlefield - units were enormous and extremely fragile at the time). I should also note that sunset DRs only take place during the British turn, so the British are guaranteed to have the last impulse barring a Pass impulse choice. 
  • Less Exhaustion - In most AIMs, units that are activate for movement tend to become exhausted (flipped to a non-moving and less-defensible side) and must be refitted during each night phase to return to combat readiness. In BT:C, the units that tend to get exhausted are the tanks, which are readily refit, although often at a less effective level. All of the tanks (which are also all British, of course - tanks were not, and arguably are still not, a defensive weapon) have a 50% chance to lose 33% of their starting effectiveness when they are exhausted at full strength, and it goes downhill from there. The Germans, being defenders through much of the core game, are going to take hits with their infantry and garrisons, but get to refit them more easily. The garrisons, which are essentially "pre-exhausted" units with an extra step, can come back like Russians at Stalingrad, and the British can "dismount" cavalry units to refit infantry, but otherwise this entire subsystem feels very different from predecessor games. 
  • Abstracted Artillery - RTC had an elaborate artillery system that was a little gamey (you rolled to see if units ran out of shells or not) and time-consuming. BT:C, on the other hand, has abstracted artillery to a fairly small set of options, but ones that can have a big effect on the game. The idea of Bombardments from earlier titles is present only in the very limited Hurricane Barrage system, which will usually produce, at best, two attacks per full turn per side, and with no guarantee at all that you will ever get them back. For the Germans, having a fresh barrage marker available offboard also means a defensive bennie in combat, which also acts as a nice way to demonstrate the German defensive stiffening as the offensive goes on. The larger effect has to do with support markers, which can be used either as Rolling Barrages that lower movement costs in an area or as Direct Support which increments your attack value, effectively the same as having an extra fresh unit in the attack. Support markers are generally created through die rolls at the end of the day, and you can either bank the points for later or request them for the next turn, but once requested they must be used in the next turn or lost. This makes for a nice decision point in the game, although obviously the Brits will choose to take them early in general and the Germans will probably bank the first points they get. However, don't discount the ability to build them up so that you have a turn with a lot of lowered movement costs and buffed up attacks. 
  • "Scripted" Opening Offensive Moves - BK:N saw the attacking side landing at predesignated beaches, and MG:MG saw paratroopers working in very specific operational areas. BT:C has the British units limited to very specific areas and zones for the first two turns. For example, infantry divisions can't move into an area in the first turns if there is a division designator in the space that doesn't match their own division number. Tanks have more flexibility, but there are red numbers and blue numbers and the tanks are limited to those areas based on the colored dot on the counter. That means more tanks in the blue areas in the eastern part of the map. Once a breakthrough is achieved, the restrictions are lifted in the "green fields beyond" as well as once the initial plan makes contact with the enemy, but it does force the British to a pretty specific set of opening possibilities. While this may sound like a drawback to the game, it actually does a couple of things besides model the historical doctrine. For one, it lets new players start with a relatively small number of choices early on. Secondly, it allows the game to model the release schedule of the cavalry divisions, which were still at this time considered to be the units that would actually make and exploit the breakout (the tanks were considered to be the spearhead, but one that would break in the process and not be good beyond the initial fighting). Three areas on the board, when controlled by the Brits in the first turn, give immediate reinforcements available for use on the next impulse, and one also gives an infantry division plus an extra tank unit. 
  • Haig, You Dick - It's great to have turns that can end at almost any time, so why not apply it to the entire game? Historically, the British commander was very nervous about his flanks, as well as his forward progress, and this is modeled in the game as the "Haig roll" that takes place every turn starting on the second. In essence, the Brit rolls 1d6 and if the number is 7 or greater he can continue. Yeah, you read that right. The Brit can improve his chances by contesting various areas - 1 and 6 (not 5 as is in the rules and player aid sheet, the only really big mistake in the rules aside from some unfortunate multiple usages of the word "assault") which are kind of far from the tanks and thus take a little more effort to contest, as well as areas on the eastern side of the board, defined by a canal running north-south that correspond to the general goal of the offensive. The flank areas give +2 drms to the roll each for being contested or controlled, while the eastern areas are +1 for contested and +2 for control. To guarantee the offensive continuing, the Brit player must contest the two flank areas and control one eastern area, which pretty much dictates what needs doing in the first two turns. 
  • He's Not That Bad, Really! - Fortunately for the Brit, he also starts with the advantage, which does two things that are a bit different from earlier games in the genre. First, whoever has the advantage has the first impulse in a turn. This can result in a double impulse, which can be devastating if played effectively. Secondly, it can also be used to override some game results, although not like in earlier games where it let you make a reroll. Instead, there are six or seven very specific things it will do, such as improve an attack from a repulse to a stalemate, which is extremely useful, or allow a tank refit to preserve the existing quality level of that brigade without a roll. It also lets you override the Haig roll, so the British player who uses his advantage for any other purpose in the first two turns is a gambler, or in fact at any point in the game before he can guarantee the offensive will continue by taking the necessary areas and contesting or holding them. Unfortunately, these choices are not part of the player aid card, which is otherwise excellent, so you'll be looking them up frequently. Fortunately, you will internalize them by the third or fourth game turn. 
The result is a game that stays true to the AIM philosophy but does things in a different way for a different time, and in a fairly elegant manner. 

Component quality is good for this sort of thing - paper map that has clear information available while still being aesthetically pleasing; 5/8" counters that are mostly readable (I find the soldier figures in the background to be a little distracting from the counter factors, and the division numbers along the top bar are a bit small for my aging eyes); a concise and mostly clear rulebook aside from the problem mentioned above; a minimum of chrome beyond the initial turns, and that very well documented and understandable chrome; and good player aids, although I think that having setup cards for units, especially with this small a number of units, is redundant given the fact that their entry turns and areas are given on the units themselves (I understand it's good to know you have all the units you are supposed to have, but this can be done by including those four cardstock sheets into the playbook, and four is a good number of pages to add at a time). Minor nits at best. I'd also liked to have seen bridge counters that said "captured" rather than "intact" as in other games, but we just use the counters in that manner (unmarked bridges are German). 

I have only really gotten in a single game with my good friend HazMatt, who took the British as I thought it would a) be more interesting and b) be relatively accessible for a guy who hadn't played an AIM game before. In fact, I think this is an excellent learning game into the system, much more so than Storm Over Stalingrad, which while an excellent game and a good game for newer players (I even suggested it for Matt and his 10 year old son to play) is sufficiently different from other games in the system to be a poor gateway game to most of the other games in the genre. However, I could see it being a good introduction to BT:C, and then on to MG:MG, and finally BK:N. 

Matt had some mediocre rolls early, with his initial Hurricane barrages only really doing any real damage in one area in the middle of the board. The first turn's sunset DRs don't affect the day ending, although they do affect weather (which in turn affects Hurricane barrages and whether or not you get your once-per-impulse air unit attack bump), so the Brits will have up to seven impulses and the Germans six. Most of the German impulses will involve trying to blow up bridges, but there is some opportunity for moving up reserves in the first turn. As such, the Brits can't hope to take all of the cavalry release areas, some of which require moving through other German held areas, as well as the two flank areas for the Haig roll, so it's important to pick a couple to put your focus on. It's also important to be thinking about how to use the 12 support markers you've gotten for the turn. Matt focused on the Red areas, the ones more to the West and on the flank, and made some good progress but with very little movement in the Blue areas, although he was off to a good start there. In fact, he penetrated very nearly to area 6, which I would have guessed would be very tough to get to. Since one of the victory conditions is to have fresh supplied cavalry in one of three zones on the north (German) side of the board at turn end, it wasn't a terrible strategy at all. However, he did not release any of his cavalry on the first turn, although they enter normally on turn 2 if unreleased. Even more reason to focus, as you probably have a breakthrough if you control a cavalry release area. 

The second turn saw the Germans reinforcing area 6 only to be blown out, so now area 1 was contested and the Haig roll was at +4. However, Matt had used his initiative to turn a repulse in area 1 into a stalemate, allowing him to stay in the area and contest it, so he really needed one of those southern areas and the Germans weren't really cooperating. Because moving a unit doesn't exhaust it, Matt took the chance that he might be able to exploit my relative paunch of decent units near the victory point area (they were in the southeast corner aside from the eliminated units blown out in area 6) and brought up a cavalry division to try to achieve victory quickly. However, there isn't a lot of unit density in this game and I was able to stall him just long enough and get good enough combat results to prevent him from advancing, although he was getting up to 13 of the 20 areas he needed to control that would also give him a victory. Fortunately for me, the turn ended fairly quickly although Haig didn't fail the gut check and we went on to turn 3. 

Turn three also went fairly quickly. Matt was now trying to cross the southern end of the canal and as such left his backfield open, which I exploited successfully the previous turn. However, I hadn't noticed that I didn't have much in the way of reinforcements in that area on turn 3 and was a little at risk, but Matt's attempt to resupply his southeastern units failed and things were looking good. He made a couple of shots at getting his cavalry into the sudden death zones, but it was a long way from his side of the board and close to mine, and I had some good units coming in to screen them. Sadly, the turn again ended quickly, and this time Haig lost his nerve and called off the offensive. Probably a smart idea strategically - many of Matt's tanks units were either down to their last Imperial gallons of petrol, and his overall position hadn't developed quite as well as he'd hoped. Still, aside from leaving his backfield (Zone H) open to a counterthrust by my infantry division, as well as giving up the Initiative, although that was not a terrible decision as it involved a drm for that roll, Matt made good decisions through the game despite it being his first AIM. It would be interesting to see what a more easterly focus rather than northern might accomplish, and to me that's a very good thing in this game. 

My initial impressions of the game are as follows:
  • This is an excellent introductory game for new wargamers, especially those coming from the multiplayer strategy niche of the hobby. Area-based maps will be familiar to many players, the math is pretty accessible to a 12-year old (or precocious 10 year old, and aren't they all when they're yours), and the initial situation is limited enough that you can learn as you go through the first two turns. It's also short enough to be easily playable in a short afternoon or long evening for a first game, more like 2-3 hours with the core scenario with experienced players. Certainly the rules can largely be taught as you go, which is also nice in an introductory game.
  • This is also an excellent game for grognards as well, although smaller unit counts and simpler situations typically mean that the game will have fewer paths to resolution than more complex games (but not always). Time will tell on that score. Certainly there are some things to try out, and being an AIM it's very good when played solitaire as there is no hidden information and the turn length is largely out of the player's hands. 
  • Great to see the system move to a different era successfully. The same designer has an ACW game using many of the same modifications to the system, although I have not played it as that's not really my era. Certainly a more successful, IMHO, transition than RTC was. 
  • Multiple scenarios allow for quite a bit of variety regarding time commitment as well as situation. The core scenario runs for one week and covers the British offensive, but you can play the following week and the German counterattack as well, either alone or in conjunction with the first week. Unlike other games in the series that would only continue if the game was more or less undecided (based on a specific VP count), this game appears to be the kind where you can predict how long you'll be playing for. Few AIMs actually have multiple scenarios, usually just extensions to the core game, so this is a nice addition. I recommend the scenario that goes for two or three turns for new players, and the game can be taught and played to completion in three hours (about what we took at our slightly leisurely pace). 
  • The designer made some definite choices about the scope of the game (RTC included the flanks in much more detail) that I think were good ones, certainly the arty rules are very clean and effective. Unit count and density on the map is extremely manageable, so no tweezers required (which I consider to be a good thing). He includes a very good set of designer's notes at the end that are well worth reading not only for his rationale for his choices but also considerable insight into the battle that you might not get from play because of the level of abstraction chosen for that particular element. 
While I won't make a recommendation with such a small amount of play, I will say that if you are in one of the following categories this is a game you should look into:
  • Are interested in AIMs but have found BK:N's ruleset daunting;
  • Are a solitaire wargamer;
  • Have a need for a shorter or less complex wargame, possible for play with younger family members;
  • Enjoy or are curious about AIMs;
  • Have an interest in WW1 battles;
  • Want to see the effect of the first battlefield use of massed tank formations;
All in all I'm very pleased with this game at a time when I'm feeling a little saturated with new wargames and so many new releases turn out to be disappointments once they hit the table. At my age, approaching 50, I'm much more interested in shorter games with easily graspable mechanisms and systems, and they're much more likely to see table time rather than be relegated to the shelf for play "some day". BT:C has already broken through to my play table and will again in the near future, so my very early verdict is, without question: 



Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write such a helpful review - norm Smith.

Michael Rinella said...

I agree. It's reviews like this that I look to when I design the next game.