Thursday, 11 April 2019

Platoon Commander KURSK

This is a WWII tactical game from Flying Pig Games. The core system is designed by Mark H. Walker and the Kursk module is designed by David K. Van Hoose.  The counters are platoons and ground scale is 150 metres to the hex.





An initial glance at the friendly sized components and the short rules, give a sense that this has been designed with a view to being very accessible and having relative ease of play, encouraging players to get what can typically be a complicated subject - armoured warfare, onto the table quickly.


As part of my streamlining of wargames, I bought it to compliment my more complex tactical games and to be the sort of thing that can come down off the shelf often for a face-to-face session. Can it be that game?


With the scenarios set in 1943 in the Kursk theatre of operations, there are a range of interesting actions and unit types. The expansion module (Tracks in the Mud) offers an additional map, some more units and six scenarios.


This post looks at the generalities of the system and will highlight some of the mechanics by playing going through the sequence of play for one turn. Tracks in the Mud is also discussed.


Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.




The game is nicely presented in a deep box with two mounted boards, each being a four panelled folding board measuring 17” x 22”. I really like the size of these boards and whether played as a  one board scenario or with two boards set side-by-side, the size seems a better fit for general gaming on a domestic table than the huge boards that come in Flying Pig’s other tactical game, Old School Tactical - as nice as they are.


The artwork is pleasant, done in rather gentle shades, with the benefit of oversized hexes. Four large counter sheets with oversized (1 inch) counters representing an east front 1943 order-of-battle, give an adequate variety of units, but with plenty of each unit type, so that it is easy to build forces at the company / battalion level.


These are the easy ‘pop-out’ sort of counters with the pre-rounded corners. The artwork on them is very clear and the information on the counter is well organised with colour coded backgrounds to ease play. I wish all armoured games had tank artwork looking like this. For those who are colour blind and are wondering how the colour coding has been done, the below 3 counters for their top left value are using green, amber and red boxes respectively. The first counter is also using blue behind the bottom centre value '5'.





The package has a good quality feel to it, with care taken on presentation, so I was surprised to see only one play aid card. It is very nicely done, but both players could do with one, because it explains the colour coding for weapon ranges used on the counters. I have had to get a double sided copy done down at the local copiers. Finally a small deck of chance cards and a clutch of 6 ten sided dice are included. Overall, the package is physically a nice thing to have.


The Platoon Commander system has been used in a couple of previous games, but this edition is both deluxe and uses version 2 of the rules. V2, doesn’t apparently add much, just smoothed out artillery and air strike rules and level two hills are now in the game.


The rule book is just 10 pages long and is written in an easy to assimilate style. Sections on each subject are fairly concise, but everything you need is pretty much there, it is very user friendly and will be appreciated by new gamers. The only section that I had to read a couple of times related to Line of Sight, which though straight forward, does not seem to use language that recognises that this version of the system now has level 2 hills and to this ‘old tactical gamer’ the term or concept of ‘reciprocal LOS’ would have also helped.  There are some simplifications in the LOS rules that many will appreciate, such as a blind hex that is created behind towns, cities and woods is only ever 1 hex deep regardless of the different permutations of attacker / defender positioning in terms of distance and height from the blocking terrain - thank you!


I had a few questions which were promptly answered on BGG (thank you Eddie Carlson) and I have included them in the Resource Section at the foot of this post.


Units that fire or move are immediately marked with Fired or Moved markers and such units are pretty much spent until the next turn and so one has to be careful when considering when to act (good) because spent units have no further 'reliable' chance to react and it can be possible to overload the enemy position once its units are all used. I find that fine, but some used to and preferring 2nd fire and final fire type sub-routines might feel a loss of game empowerment as a defending player. It really just means you have to think a bit more about about when to act, maintaining cross fires and holding some things in reserve, which is what a good defence should be doing anyway.


The basic principle of combat is that the attack value is rolled against on a combat chart to give a number of hits. In gun v armour combat, that attack strength is reduced by the defenders armour value. Either way, the process is the same, you end up with none, one or some ‘hits’ scored. The defender then rolls that many D10 to try and negate the hits (also known as Save Rolls in some systems). These saves are simply rolled against the force morale level (rather than individual counters having their own survival ratings), which most often is 5 for the Germans and 3 for the Soviets. The term morale here is fairly generic and is covering soft factors such as training, experience and field craft etc. It is a pretty blunt and effective way of forcing qualitative differences between the sides into play.


There is some obvious randomness to this, but overall, trends will flow through, so better morale and more powerful kit will overall show their advantage. In my last face-to-face game, my Soviet’s fired and got a result giving a goodly 5 hits. It was a Yippee moment. The German with morale of 5 (and importantly the D10 has the ‘0’ as equaling zero, so this gives the German player 60% chance of successful saves) rolled 4 of those hits away. Now this in some ways is as fickle as the mood of the dice, so in the next similar situation, the German unit may have failed all the saves, or any number of them in between.


This might be too random for some, but it tends to make the game quite dynamic, maintains interest and can be an equaliser between two players of different skills or assist the solitaire player. It can certainly shake the scenario up. It might not be something that the more dedicated tactical gamers would want in their ‘go to’ game, but I think those gamers will typically already have a more complicated system that they use to give them their version of realism or greater certainty, but this game is doing something else and it is fun, so it probably compliments the heavier systems rather than competes directly.


It is worth mention here that the first hit on a unit is a disruption, the 2nd is a flip (casualties) and the 3rd is removal of the unit from play. ‘Disruption’ in some tactical games is not usually too serious, perhaps an almost nuisance status, but here it closes you down, leaving you both ineffective and vulnerable, as a disrupted unit cannot fire or move or start close combat and is halved when defending against close combat. It is also just 1 step away from the slippery slope of loss. Since the Soviets morale is typically lower, it is not long before their forces are blunted by having a number of disrupted units on the table at any one time, because they are less successful at rally (due to that lower morale figure) than the German units.


As with many modern tactical gaming systems, artillery fire and air-strikes are simply inserted into the process with relatively straight forward rules that draw from rules the sub-systems already use and are explained in just a few easy read paragraphs. It is easy and it works (oh - and can be devastating!). Other rules such as moving fire, intensive fire, opportunity fire and flanking fire, are set out in one or two paragraph blocks - it is all very accessible.


The player turn has interactive elements, but with interesting twists. So once the initiative is decided and the Rally Phase (try to lose disruptions) done, the player with initiative can fire with a unit or play a fire based card. Either way, they do one thing, then play flips to the other player who can take one fire action. Play then returns to the first player, who might then fire with another unit or call artillery in or play an air-strike card etc. This continues until both players do not want to fire any more units. Importantly, units that fire are marked FIRED and they are done for the turn.


It then becomes the Movement Phase and this is handled differently. The player with the initiative decides which player should move first. Having decided that, that player then conducts all the movement they want (i.e. it is not an interactive impulse driven phase like the Fire Phase is). When units move they can suffer opportunity fire from any unmarked enemy unit and at the end of their movement, they are marked Moved. Then the other player moves all of their units.


Having the initiative and deciding who moves first is often quite nuanced. Do you want to move now to grab that important position, or perhaps get the benefits of using moving fire  (moving and firing a unit in the movement phase, but with penalties to both) or do you want to force the enemy to move so that you can better respond or even do something surprising, like say suddenly reinforce the right, without the enemy getting a chance to respond that turn. So overall, a good game effect for very little rules overhead.


In the Close Combat Phase, units adjacent to an enemy can declare close assaults. These units must be either unused so far or have a Moved marker on them. Units that have fired cannot Close Assault, including those that just used moving fire.

This phase returns to an interactive impulse driven style of play, so the player with initiative will make the first assault, the other player then gets a chance to launch a close assault and so it goes, until neither side want to make any more close assaults. So in choosing the most important place for your first close assault, might mean giving the enemy a chance to put in a spoiling close assault against your forces in another important location. It seems a stack of tanks can attack another stack of tanks, using their Close Combat Value. This feels a bit odd, but in some respects it hasn’t really bothered me because the resulting odds ratio results typically makes it dangerous for the attacker to do without it being a gamble.


The flow of play essentially gives Fire first, which properly feels like it is there to support the following movement and assault phases or for the defender, it gives an opportunity to break up the enemy potential for attack or moving to contact.


The fire table columns are each differentiated by the value of ‘2’. So the ‘8’ column, goes up to the ‘10’ column and then the ‘12’ column etc. The effect of this on the design is that counter values have to be given in even numbers and so the limited range of even numbers available means that the ‘overhead’ to put a lot of weapon value variables in is rather squeezed. So most, what we might term medium guns, have an AP attack value of ‘8’, the next value is ‘10’ which the Panther tank uses and the next ‘12’, which the Tiger 1’s 88mm uses. This means that there is less nuance to insert guns of only slightly different performance, so here, the Soviet T-34's 76mm gun is performing the same as the Pz IV’s gun. And the Soviet 85mm on the T-34/85, the same as the superb German 75/70 on the Panther , though the designer has built in the potential for a subscript number that can act as a die roll modifier to tweak either armour or gun potential in some cases.


I’m not sure whether the designer has factored in that Soviet platoons had less tanks in them than German platoons, though I suppose the rigours of war makes this a less than definitive thing to model, as a days fighting could quickly diminish establishment numbers. The thing is, if you are a bit of a tank nut, you will see things here that might cause you to question things, but for the most part, this is not what this game is about, it is more about the feel of action and for the game to be accessible. The level of abstraction, randomness and dynamics of the system does smooth some of these things out - however that said I still find my eye drawn to some of these issues. I guess I want both my cake (ease) and my bun (accuracy) and in truth, life seldom delivers both!


That colour coding on the gun values gives maximum range values. The lowest maximum range is represented by a green box behind the firepower strength, this being just 5 hexes, or in game terms 750 metres, so the design is limiting Pz III’s, Pz IV’s and T34’s etc to engaging out to a maximum of 750 metres, that seems short, but within the game, it is probably necessary to do that to make the longer ranged guns relevant and also we can pretend that the system is working to a sort of effective range. The next maximum range is 8 hexes and that is given to gun values printed against an amber background. My eye was immediately drawn to the KV-1s, which in reality had a gun and ammo that in performance, matched that of a T-34 (green range value), yet here it is give an amber range (1200 yards). There is no justification that I can see for doing that. Yes the KV-1s is a heavy tank, but only in terms of armour, not gun. Likewise the Churchill, another heavy class tank is given the amber range treatment rather than green. In game terms this might work to give the sense of a heavy hitting machine, but if you know your stuff or care, then this sort of thing matters - if you don’t, then it doesn’t. (EDIT - I have since had contact with the company via BGG who say that in general, some decisions are taken to help the design / play, but that they are continually looking at tweaking these things if necessary and they also hint at future modules).


There are some small things that I just can’t help distracting myself with, such as the relationship between the AP gun value 10 on a Panther and the value 12 on a Tiger. The high values on the latter reinforce the almost mythical persona of the Tiger as being a significant heavy hitter and in game terms there is probably a benefit to this, but it is an area of the game that can matter to some folk as to whether they feel values are accurate enough. The Panther gun was slightly better than the 88/56 even with standard AP, though in a system like this with broad categories of performance, the gun values should probably be equal (what really made the Tiger I, THE tank to become etched in the mindset of the soldier for the rest of the war was that it had this punching power a full year before the Panther came off the production lines, so it earned a reputation when it was the only tough kid on the block, plus they typically turned up where the fighting was most intense).


The rest of the counter values seem to be broadly where one might expect. It would be interesting to see some design notes about this area of the design and whether the values are being used to force vehicles into certain categories. So the Panther for example even with its rather fine hard hitting gun does never-the-less performs the role of a medium tank, while the Tiger is needed to be shown as a ‘heavy’ and this may be what the design is trying to do by putting a space between them. Though in truth, we are only separating them by 1 column on the Fire Table and as soon as those multiple dice are rolled, outcomes will take on a life of their own anyway and smooth some of this out anyway, so perhaps in the big scheme of things it is moot.


One of the things that falls out of the system is the tactic of stacking two similar unit types (i.e. either leg or armour) together, so that any hits on the hex are shared by the two armoured units or two leg units. So for example a stack of two tank platoons, say T-34's, getting a result of two disruptions, would spread those disruptions, so that each counter suffers only a disruption, from which they might recover in a Rally Phase. If a T-34 was alone in a hex and got that same result, the first hit would disrupt them and the second would flip them permanently  (a third will remove them!).

Some have commented that this is a counter-intuitive thing that encourages things to go around in gangs of two and creates target dense hexes, which can seem to make things safer from flipping. But you do this tactic at the disadvantage of quickly acquiring a lot of disruptions and you might not want a load of units disrupted all over the table, otherwise your attack / defence is doomed. Having one unit absorb fire by disrupting and perhaps flipping, might at times be a better option, so that another unit elsewhere is left alone at full strength and undisrupted, plus if a lone unit absorbs all the fire of a particularly devastating attack and is destroyed, any excess hits are lost, whereas had a second target been in the hex, those hits would have been counted and absorbed.

Also, Artillery and Air Strikes are powerful and can deliver their attack to a hex plus 2 adjacent hexes for artillery and 1 adjacent for air strikes, so dispersal, rather than ganging up will have its moments of being the safer option. If you have a leg unit and an armoured unit in a hex, then the attacker must choose which one to attack, so there are different ways of approaching this depending on what you want that turn or your attack / defence to deliver.


One final thing, each player’s personal influence over the battle is represented by placing a Focus counter and an Aid counter into hexes of their choice. During play units with a Focus counter can re-roll one of their attack die, a unit with an Aid counter can re-roll a Rally die. There are other nuances to these chits, but without re-iterating the entire rule section, the above generalisation will suffice. They allow you to add emphasis to the part of the battle that is particularly important to you.  





The game does use cards, but these support the game and don’t drive it. Typically at the start of play, each player will get 1 or 2 cards, dependent on the scenario instructions and then be allowed to draw one or two cards each turn. During a turn, each player may expend a maximum of two cards. Each card has two instructions on it, one for the Soviet player and one for the German player, you just choose the one that applies to your force. The abilities on the cards are quite varied and so have the ability to ‘mix it’ and liven things up, typically bringing quite a bit of variety to the game, without additional rules overhead.


For the most part, I quite like these cards and they make sense when played, such as suddenly discovering a minefield or bringing in an air strike, but there is one card (Soviet) that basically just instructs that the ranged enemy attack just made can be cancelled. It will typically be played when the enemy has just made a very successful and probably deserving attack, but there is no reason or storyline to it and it reminds me of the reason why I dislike card driven games, it is a sort of rude, play it on the other player and say ’I don’t need skill, I have a power card - take that mate!’ The feeling is too random and not worked for. But that’s just me and that is just one card - I could leave it out the deck I suppose, but the Soviets do need some help in these scenarios, so perhaps that is why it is there.  The cards overall probably serve a purpose in dampening down or averaging out some potentially high levels of potential damage.


Of note is the separate expansion cards that you can get. These are only 9 new cards and oddly the artwork on the backs of the card do not match the original card deck. Instead they have a black and white graphic that says ‘Bonus deck’. It appears this was a mistake and I am guessing that it was 'holding' artwork. The result is that these cards will always be identifiable as one of the 9 expansion cards - that might matter to some, it doesn’t bother me practically, but it loses something in the aesthetic look of the deck.


To get a working snapshot of the sequence of play and a turn in action, we will interrupt the playing of Scenario 11a (the first of three scenarios that follow the course of the days fighting for Prokhorovka on 12th July), which has the Germans trying to capture Hill 222.6 at the same time that lead elements of newly released 5th Guards Tank Army are reaching the battlefield.


Here is a snapshot of turn three;


INITIATIVE PHASE.
Both sides roll a d10, we are just looking for the best roll. The Germans get it, so this turn they have the initiative.


DRAW ACTION CARDS PHASE.
In this scenario, each player is drawing two cards at the start of each turn. The Soviets get two very useful cards, the sniper and an air strike! The German player tries to look confident (read smug) as though he has just picked up the best two cards ever, but in reality these are unlikely going to be any help this turn!


RALLY PHASE.
This is when both players will attempt to remove their Disruption markers, simply by rolling a d10 and getting equal to or less than their force morale value. Units in cover will get a modifier. A player may have a card that will help them.


FIRE PHASE.
The player with the initiative (German) gets to take a fire action first. Two Pz III platoons are stacked together and below them are T-34’s 6 hexes (900 metres) away. The Pz III’s have green gun values, with a limited maximum range of 5 hexes, so cannot fire at them.


There is however a Tiger I platoon on high ground with their AP fire value of 12 on a red background. The red means they have a maximum range of 10 hexes. They see a stack of two T-34 platoons, at 7 hexes distance, which have an armour rating of 4.

They fire. 12 attack value minus 4 armour value gives a modified attack value of 8. So we go to the 8 column of the Fire Table. We move two column left for firing at long range and roll a d10 and cross index the die roll with the attack column and get a result of 4 hits. The Soviet player now has to roll 4d10 to try and negate (saves) those hits. They must roll equal to or less than their force morale value, which in this scenario is 3, though zero on the die counts as zero. They negate 2 hits, but 2 hits get through. Because the two units in the hex are of the same type (armour), they must equally absorb the results, so this means 1 hit on each T-34 platoon. They are both in good order, so will take a Disruption marker each.


Play now passes back and forth between the two sides. Notable moments this phase are;  


The Soviets play two cards. The Sniper card, which Disrupts a Panzer IV platoon and an Air Strike card (attacking two adjacent hexes), which Disrupts a Tiger platoon and an adjacent Panzer IV platoon.


A second Tiger platoon fires at the recently disrupted T-34’s getting a further un-negated 2 hits, so since each of those T-34’s are already disordered, the new hits flip them to their weaker sides. This damage is permanent.


The Soviet KV-1s’ get long range shots off against a couple of Panzer III’s, causing 2 Disruptions.


Finally, the German player plays an ‘Aggressive Leadership’ card, allowing them to use a unit without regard for marker status. They choose to fire with the Tiger I that is already marked with a Fire marker. It rolls a 6, but the player wants a better outcome, so flips the command Focus counter that happens to be sitting with the Tiger tank, which allows a re-roll ...... a 9 is rolled! (High is bad), so the potential targets have a lucky moment! and the Tiger tank commander says over the intercom ‘Oh dear, never mind’!


MOVEMENT PHASE.
The player with the initiative chooses who should move first. The German player instructs the Soviet player to go first. This is not a fully interactive phase, so now the Soviet player will move all of the units they want to before the phase is handed back to the German player. Any unit unmarked can opportunity fire on moving enemy units if they are within range.


In the German half of the phase, they want to have a Panzer IV both move and fire. The Panzer IV’s have a movement value of 5 on a blue symbol. The blue symbol means they can both move and fire in their movement phase. The fire can happen at any point in the movement, even before the movement occurs, but the movement allowance is halved and rounded down and the fire is taken 2 columns to the left (bad). They move 1 hex to a ridge, bringing them adjacent to two T-34 platoons that are already covered by a Move marker, so they cannot react with opportunity fire. (see below photo) The Panzer IV’s fire and inflict 3 hits. The Pz IV’s still have one movement point left, but decide to stay put, but they are then given a Fire marker and not a Move marker due to using moving fire, so they will not be able to attack in the upcoming Close Assault Phase.


CLOSE ASSAULT PHASE.
The Germans have the initiative, so can call the first assault, but they don’t have anything they want to assault with. Play flips to the Soviet side, so that they can call an assault. They identify a potential target, but when they look at the odd ratios (which are used for Close Assaults) which can cause hits to both sides, they shy away from making an attack. At this point, play flips back to the German player, but both players declare that neither of them want to make assaults in this phase and the phase ends.


HOUSEKEEPING PHASE.
All Fire and Move markers come off the board.


AID and FOCUS PHASE.
There are a number of things a that a player can do with these markers. The Germans flip the Focus marker that they used on the Tiger, back over to its full strength, so that it can go back to be potentially used twice in the next turn (i.e. it can be used once and then flipped, used once more and then removed from the board).


ADVANCE THE TURN MARKER.
End of the turn.



Tracks in the Mud, is the expansion to Kursk and is something that left me with mixed feelings. It starts with the box artwork, always something of a personal taste, but compared to the Kursk box, well, make your own mind up, but they don’t seem to come from the same stable of design intent.


It comes with another mounted board, which is very good and useful, I was really pleased with this. It is themed as a woods board and reminds me of how the basic Squad Leader system was given a boost to the variety of available scenarios when that ‘woods Board 5’ appeared in the Cross of Iron module those many years ago.


You get a new counter sheet, which is great, expanding kit is always good in a tactical game, but the decisions of what it should include, I felt was a lost opportunity. It is not a Kursk campaign expansion, but rather an expansion of Platoon Commander itself and so out of the six scenarios presented, the first two cover the first day of invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the last two cover hypothetical battles between the western allies and the Soviet Union in 1945.


You will either like the hypothetical idea or not. A counter has been included for a Maus platoon (German super tank), but at the close of war, If I am allowed to be pedantic, only two chassis and one turret of this new vehicle existed, so this is an example of the ‘fun’ end of the tactical spectrum that this game can sit at. Playing a bit loose and fast with kit is more annoying  in scenarios 1 and 2, both set on day 1 of the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, June 1941), but some of the kit used is out of context time-frame wise to those opening battles. Long gunned StuG IIIg’s and Panzer III’s from the 1943 order-of-battle are used together with a brand new counter brought into the expansion, the Marder II. The Marder likewise is a vehicle from the future and would not appear for another year and was made specifically with the huge number of captured Soviet 76.2mm guns, so while the unit counter itself is appreciated for Do Your Own scenarios, it would have been better if appropriate vehicles would have been on the counter-sheet instead to service these early scenarios and perhaps a better option than including an American order-of-battle, to keep the whole package east front focused and perhaps giving a proper east front 1941 / 2 flavour instead. The scenarios are fairly generic, so you could of course just have put a mid 1943 date on the scenario background and been much nearer to a good representation!


In scenarios 1 and 2, the Soviets get T-60’s (the first ones were actually produced 3 months after the setting of this scenario), plus these unfairly, have to face the 1943 long gunned versions of the StuG IIIg and Panzer Pz III, so for this gamer, these things matter and even if you argue this system is more towards game than simulation, it still matters, scenarios could have so easily been constructed around the available kit or deliberately had appropriate kit added, it just leaves me feeling why! No doubt these scenarios will give fun games in the tradition of the designers skill, but for me, they have taken the edge off the package and it leaves the feeling of unnecessary ‘liberties’ having been taken in the game.


However, that aside, the extra board is most welcome, as is the extra counter sheet.


Conclusions - It is worth reminding the reader that this is not a review site, I buy all of my games and only waste my e-ink on those things that I actually like, so yes, I like this game.


I pondered at first at exactly which way to approach this post. It is intended to be an easy play game and though I want that, I also want the accuracy, so even though there will be many gamers that will just enjoy the play of this system for its own sake, there will be gamers like me, who can’t help themselves looking at gun /armour values and the like and be left with some doubts that in truth never needed to be there in the first place.


The design seems to have needed some heavy tanks and while the Tiger is a good example of a hard hitting and well protected vehicle and justifies big values that makes it a heavy hitter, the Soviet KV-1s and Lend Lease Churchill by contrast were just heavily armoured, their gun values were nothing special and should be in the realms of the that used by the the T34/76 (i.e. green banded). Whether there are valid design decisions around this that escape me, I don’t know, perhaps the feeling is that more confident heavily armoured vehicles can spend more time engaging targets that are further away without being pre-occupied by their own safety - I just don’t know.  


Overall though, it does deliver a lot of flavour and most things are in the right place to make things feel right during play and I want to tread the path of what this game is, rather than what it isn’t. It is a good game, with good flavour and it more than adequately fills that space that something like the hugely popular Panzerblitz / Panzer Leader once did.


If you just take the first scenario in the core game, which is sort of introductory, as it is small and an infantry only (plus some half tracks) affair. The background story is that elements of Panzer Lehr are attacking into high ground to capture the heights, so that German artillery observers can use those positions. As you manoeuvre up the hill slope and attack, you do get a feel that play is very sympathetic to the back story, it feels right and it is the cleverly crafted relationship between the sub-systems, together with the visual, that is delivering this ‘feel’.


In my last game, a Tiger I was on a level 2 crest and T-34’s below thought they were cleverly using terrain to sneak up on other tanks, then I suddenly noticed that the Tiger had a perfect line of sight to the T-34’s and fired. Regardless of how the system is doing this, the aesthetic and being able to do the process without the interruption of looking things up in a rulebook meant that in my minds eye, this just played out like a moment of cinematic drama, the Tiger’s (imaginary) turrets turned, got their shots off and left some smoking damage at the base of the hill. So the beauty of the game does not come from a load of calculations and rule referencing, it comes from just doing it and I am guessing other systems, some more complex, might just give a similar outcome anyway, some minutes later :-)


The way the phases in the sequence of play use a varied approach to alternating impulses, works extremely well and this works hand-in-glove with the swings in fortune that can happen in each turn. Now some may not like the range of randomness that can come out of single attack or approach run, but it can’t be denied that it makes for a dynamic game that will keep both players fully engaged.


The randomness though, is controlled to an extent so that some things generally fall into line with an overall trend. So, big heavy tanks should overall be confident and those small lightly armoured things will think very carefully about routes they take and not carelessly putting themselves in harms way. The German morale of 5 should see their ‘tactical advantage’ in combat and rallying come through and if you want to charge your units into defence that has not been weakened /  disrupted, then you are gambling, with the odds stacked against you. You can still do that, but understand that it might hurt. In this regard, players are encouraged to make their approaches through avenues of cover and to use firepower to subdue the target and also to think about when to and when not to do something that will effectively make your unit ‘used’ for that turn. So in may respects this game through its sequence of play, sub-systems and abstractions is punching above its weight and delivering what some other systems might use more convoluted methods to get to.


Does putting a T-34 tank company up against a Tiger platoon feel right in terms of capability and outcomes? yes it does. Does it feel right that a tank platoon can suddenly find it has wandered into a minefield or that in an attack, one should fire on the enemy with part of your force, while manoeuvring against it with another part? yes it does. Does it feel like your infantry battalion, tasked with taking the heights is doing just that? Yes it does. And so in total, this system is managing to deliver that rather cinematic approach described above and getting a lot right, by using a variety of systems that are in the ‘design for effect’ camp.


The ‘cinematic approach’ is a great strength of the game, though in my view, that does not justify playing fast and loose with orders-of-battle or gun performance in a historical setting, it can be hard to take a game seriously that doesn’t take itself seriously. I really don’t get why so much of the game tries hard to be ‘right’, only to give some credibility away in those opening scenarios of the expansion by using out of context kit, or having the KV-1s / Churchill guns over performing in terms of range, to presumably make them even more like heavies! It is the sort of thing that will bother the serious tactical gamer and yet this game holds so much promise for all types of gamer, including the serious tactical gamer, who is just looking for either some lighter play or gaming at the company / battalion level for a change.


I would like to see a few more games in this series that deliberately set out to give varied boards and orders-of-battle, such as covering France ‘40. My understanding is that the Strategy Guide (which I don’t have yet) has a points system for ‘design your own’ and this has the potential to take the game to another level of interest.  


As part of my streamlining of board games. I have been looking for a few series type titles that will stand up to repeated play and come of the shelf often with minimal ‘rule re-read’ time. I think this fits the bill for that sort of thing, even if you spend a short time away from the game, you will be back into it in just moments.


Overall, I think the design succeeds. It is taking a modern approach in system terms  and developing the Fired / Move / Moving Fire and Interactive concept a bit further and using a very easy system of hits and saves to mask the complexities that typically fall out of WWII level tactical games. The range of outcomes, emphasised by the card use brings interesting and re-playable scenarios, neither player can take anything for granted, which provides that bit of tension brought about by having respect for the capabilities of the other side to ruin your plan.


Thanks for sticking with a post that became much longer than I anticipated and one may wonder whether I have taken a too in depth look at what appears to be a simple or fun game, but I feel the game is more than that, it is a solid design that has legs to become something bigger and has the potential to satisfy a wide audience.

Complexity - This is interesting, with just 10 pages of rules in an easy read format, one would be right in judging this to be a low complexity system, but there is enough cleverness in there and interactivity to feel like the system is punching above its weight in terms of nuances and what the players can get out of the game. Players can literally push some counters out and be playing within 40 minutes or so of opening the package.


Size - There is a mix of one and two board scenarios and not much ‘off-board’ space is needed, so the game is ideally suited to kitchen table gaming. The box is deep, but this leaves space to store expansion material in there.
Playing Time - The smallest scenario is an infantry only game that plays in just over an hour, the rest of the scenarios are bigger and a game will typically last around 3 hours. Casualties are quite heavy and disruptions are common in this system, so there is a constant thinning or incapacitation of forces as the game proceeds and this keeps things moving at a pace.
Solitaire - This is a two player game, but like many two player games, it can be played solo, with the player doing the best they can for both sides. The interactive nature of play helps solo play, as does the high level of randomness in the system, the situation on the battlefield can often be in a state of flux. The only thing that works against the solo player is the use of the chance cards, but these can be managed and most solo gamers are used to getting around such things. If a solo player really found these to be a sticking point, just deal 1 card to each side, face-up, at the start of each turn, on the understanding that it will be either used or burned off by the end of the turn, that way you get some effect of the cards, while a selection of choice and counter-choice does not build up in each hand and the resulting randomness would still add to the solitaire experience.


Resources.
My sister web space called ‘COMMANDERS’ is more ‘snippet’ based than here and updated more regularly LINK.


An interesting blog page on gun characteristics of the F-34 / Zis-5 (Soviet T34’s and KV-1’s) LINK.


Q&A answered on BGG.


1. When an Eligible Unit (EU) spots for artillery, it only has to see the prime target hex, it does not have to also see the two adjacent hexes that will also be attacked.


2. Playing an Air Strike card does not cause the Eligible Unit (EU) that spotted for the attack to be marked with a Fire marker.


3. When an Air Strike attacks armour, the armour value of the vehicle is deducted from the anti-armour value of the air attack, just as it is with artillery etc.


4. Clarified that a pure armour stack can close assault a pure armour stack, using the Close Assault Factors.

21 comments:

  1. Up to your usual high standards, Norm. I get where you are coming from regarding the Panther and the Tiger, and the various gun abilities. My impression is that if I bought it - and I am *trying* to resist - I would feel compelled to tweak whatever was required to get that part right. The choice of scale is worthy of note. At It's closer to the Gamers' TCS than to PanzerBlitz or others of that ilk. All in all, very interesting.

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    1. Thanks Ellis, I would be inclined to simply treat the KV-1s and Churchill as being GREEN range, but my only hesitation is whether the designer has this wrong or whether the extended range is a deliberate act to reflect something else that we don’t know about and I only say that because the max ranges here are below ‘real’ max effective ranges, so there would be some headroom if the designer was thinking about something else.

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  2. At 150 per hex, I meant to add. I think (IIRC) PanzerBlitz is 250, TCS is 125, and PanzerGrenadier 200. The Tank Leader series is 150 per hex, though. Would love to understand what is truly going on in these design decisions.

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  3. Yes, I think Tank Leader is the closest as that is platoons and 150 metres to the hex. I suppose it is closer because it is also more inter-active (looking forward to the re-print).

    I agree that knowing design intent would be fascinating and the rulebook could easily have had four pages on that, there is so much to write about. I would be interested for insight at the relationship between one hex (150 metres) and two platoons, 6 - 10 tanks being in that space at the same time Vs the distribution of hits and language that we see in other games such as target rich or dispersal.

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  4. Excellent review, Norm.

    This is something I would need to play before purchasing because I am not sure it would find a place in my tactical game rotation.

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    1. Thanks, yes I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that games need to earn their keep if they are to take up shelf space and distract the mind. For me, I think this game is something that my regular oponent can be happy with, to get tanks etc into the mix without too much rules overhead to absorb for occasional gaming. It is fair to say that he would not know that a unit is out of time-frame or that the range of a weapon is questionable and as such he would enjoy the game for its own sake and be glad that the complexity is not there, so that the tactics can be concentrated on.

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  5. Ranges. Now there's a design challenge. We all know that some tanks (Panther, Tiger, etc) were capable of effective long range fire. But capable and common practice are two different things, especially when ammo supply is an issue. And in game terms, there is nothing more annoying than having lots of shots with low odds of success. So, reducing the range does cut that out. But at what point does crew quality kick in, where the better crew knows when to take that long range shot? Tricky stuff.

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    1. Long Range shots with the right gun and velocity do play their part. my undertsanding is that the JagPanther training manual intends that the crew stand off at 2000 metres to engage the enemy. Their gun can reach and destroy and their own armour is proof at that range (subject to air attack, which is the natural counter-solution). So why do we all want our JagdPanthers in 50mm per hex games firing at 350 metres :-)

      One of the things that I like about GMT’s Panzer game, at 100 metres to the hex is that you get this sense of engagements at around 1500 metres and how that fits in with the geography of the map (high ground and protected approaches) and this is something we can never get the feel of with our 50 metres per hex games. Platoon Commander Kursk is a halfway house to this.

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  6. Soooo, did this game make the cut? Sounds like it. 😀. That was a really good analysis of the game mechanics and the aspects of play.
    I know what you mean about Wanting OOBs and tank values being correct. When you know a bit about a period of history it can be harder to gloss over the things that go against your knowledge. It does seem strange to me that the panther tank is less than the tiger. That stuff would jar me too and break the immersion a little bit.
    Nicely written post Norm! 😀

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  7. Stew, I like the game and hope to get another scenario up on the table over the next day or two, just to explore the variability of scenarios within the package.

    We all have periods that are either of primary or secondary in interest and I guess we are more forgiving of systems covering secondary interests because we are happy with just a flavour and in truth we often don't know when something is not right, we just trust and enjoy the design. Primary however ... why, even the right number of shiny buttons need to be on that jacket :-)

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  8. Interesting to see Mark Walker going over to Flying Pig. Wonder why he didn't self publish through his own business.

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  9. My understanding is that Flying Pig is Mark's company that he formed when he left Lock 'n Load.

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  10. Norm, another well-crafted review and look at this game.

    The scale is close to MMP's TCS series at platoon level with 125 yard hexes. While infantry in TCS are platoons, vehicles are individual. Do vehicle counters represent an individual vehicle here too?

    Some of what you bring up in this design and implementation could be quickly reconciled to assess what is going on under the hood if Designer's notes were included. For me, that is often the first section I turn to in a new game. After a quick read of the Designer's Notes, I have a good idea whether or not I "buy into" the designer's thesis and game implementation.

    On the game, itself, in fire, does the attack go in against a hex or unit? The splitting of fire effect against a second of the same target type seems odd to me. Why is fire result only split if there are two of the same type in the target hex? If fire is on per target basis rather than against a hex, this does not make sense to me. If the target hex contained a KV-1 and a T34, what is the rationale for hits only on one but on both if two T34s are present?

    One comment on the counters: I much prefer the top-down view for individual vehicles as opposed to side or silhouette view. The silhouette icons never seem to pointing in the correct direction!

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  11. Thanks, Jonathan, all units in the game are representing platoons and I would live to see a future article somewhere about design intent etc. They do have a house magazine call Yaah, so perhaps that is the place we will see it.

    Broadly speaking, fire goes against a hex, but only hurts one type of unit (armour or leg) in the hex. When firing, a firer must decide whether they are using anti-armour fire or Anti Personnel type fire and thus, only that target type will be affected in the hex, so anti armour against a hex with even two different armoured unit types, would still hit both vehicle counters, even if they are of different models.

    The company do top down very nice tank illustrations in their Old School Tactical game, which is set at 50 metres to the hex and I think they are my favourite tank counters. I think here, the side on view may be a deliberate way of suggestion that facings are not used in the rules. The flanking rules are done in an abstract way, based upon two firers hitting the hex from different directions.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification. I misunderstood the multiple armor targets/one hex rule. Since your example had two of the same armor model, I jumped to the wrong conclusion that the two armor units needed to be of the same type. Two armor units in the target hex makes much more sense in splitting the fire effect than requiring two of the SAME armor models. I must be having trouble with my reading comprehension...

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  12. Hi Jonathan, I can see why you thought that, I have edited the text to get rid of that ambiguity. Thanks for highlighting. It is on the table again and while the scenarios seem to load the board with kit, there does seem variety in the scenarios and I am enjoying the play, with some good story line moments being thrown up.

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  13. Hi Norm, Great review, as always. Your review of Tank on Tank really sold me on that game. No need with Platoon Commander as it is already one of my favourites. It is a really well integrated game in terms of mechanics. I still have some doubts abut the sequence of play but haven't come up with any bright ideas as yet.

    I too would love a France 1940 version (Stonne, Gembloux, Arras, Abbeville and the Dunkirk perimeter perhaps!

    All the best

    Jay

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    1. Hi Jay, yes, the system certainly has the legs to grow into a compelling series, with perhaps a bit more effort put into scenario construction.

      Thanks for the thumbs up on the post, this post topped out at over 7000 words, which I think is probably too much and has left me in a reflective mood re posting v effort.

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  14. Interesting write up, difficult to balance fast play and detail as you said having your cake and eating it. I too would be a bit put out as far as the anachronisms of time are concerned as they would have a real impact on the game, the Kv1/Churchill issue less so as it seems to be reinforcing the heavy tank status? Does sound good for a pick up game though!
    Best Iain

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  15. Hi Iain, I still have it on the table and have enjoyed the play. Upping their game on getting the scenarios and kit just right would certainly help its credentials and make it look like it is taking itself fully seriously and make for a solid series that could capture a wide audience.

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