The German Hetzer is just one of those strange looking little vehicles that can easily become a wargaming favourite. With its very low profile, it was the perfect ambush vehicle.
This post is taking a single incident of a ‘hidden’ Hetzer ambushing a Sherman 76 and running through two rule sets to see how they model the relationship between these two very different vehicles.
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As sometimes happens, it was a situation in a boardgame that inspired this transfer to the tabletop. A scenario in the game ‘Old School Tactical’ Vol II by Flying Pig has a situation in April 1945, in which some first and second line German squads are holding a position. Their defences are bolstered by a pair of Hetzers that have been set up hidden. The American infantry are attacking and in support they have Sherman 76’s and Hellcats, to hunt down enemy armour.
|This is the action moved onto the tabletop, showing|
the Sherman 76 left and Hetzer right.
This post will give a tight focus on a single element of the game, when one of the Hetzers fire, exposing their position. Firstly we will look at how the boardgame manages this little ‘duel’ and then we will take to the tabletop with a couple of models, to see how the Battlegroup rules from Iron Fist Publishing gets on.
I had actually started all of this with a view to testing several rule sets that have different approaches, with a view to bench marking them against what was going on in the boardgame. However, it started to get a little dry, repetitive and too long, so we are back to just two sets.
Just for the record, the other sets were Iron Cross, Blitzkrieg Commander IV, Tigers at Minsk, Wargaming an Introduction and One Hour Wargames and it is likely that these will be compared in a future post, with a link back to here.
Firstly .... what of these two vehicles with their quite different characters?
The Hetzer - Built on the old reliable chassis of the 38(t) tank, it was a turretless tank destroyer with a notably low profile. It carried the 75/48 gun which essentially was the main German medium sized gun of the mid war years and was an effective weapon against typical allied tanks. The Hetzer’s diminutive size and hitting power made it an ideal ambush vehicle.
|The Sherman M4A3 (76)W advancing cautiously over|
The Sherman - was the tried and tested American main battle tank, seeing wide service in western allied armies. Classed as a medium tank, for much of its life, production concentrated on versions carrying the 75/40 gun, which fired a very useful HE round, but it’s armour penetration bordered on the adequate, rather than good and as they started facing increasingly more heavily armoured enemy tanks, an up-gunned version was produced that carried the useful 76/52 gun.
For our trial here, we will copy the boardgame situation and have the Hetzer take up cover behind a hedge and being classed as hidden. As a Sherman 76 approaches, the Hetzer will open fire at a range of around 350 metres. There are some generalities common to a goodly number of tactical WWII systems but perhaps these are the main ones that we hope to see when we compare the rules today and when making future comparisons;
The Hetzer is hidden and so cannot be seen until it moves or fires.
The Hetzer will fire first, interrupting the Sherman’s movement (as opportunity fire).
Usually anti tank fire needs to secure a hit on the vehicle first, if it does then a check is usually made for armour penetration.
If the Sherman survives, the Hetzer will no longer be hidden and can be targeted.
The Hetzer has a very low profile and that may make it harder to hit.
At the ranges used here, each vehicle can destroy the other.
Once a gun fires at a target, it may ‘have found its range’ and in some systems can put a target acquisition marker on the target to get a helpful modifier the next time it fires.
|A section of the OST board. The Hetzer is hidden|
behind the hedge.
Old School Tactical.
OST pretty much ticks all of the above boxes and so is typical of the genre. It is the sub systems and routines that give games their different feel and help making them favourites and for OST, it is probably the impulse / activation system that become the obvious feature.
Generally, an Impulse Point is spent by a side to do one thing with one thing and then play switches to the other side who spends one impulse point to do one thing and so on. The relevance here is that a unit can fire twice in a turn, but can only move once and if it moves, it can then only fire once and with a penalty because it moved, but each of those things are done in different impulses. So in this turn, our ambushing Hetzer will get a chance to fire twice, while the moving Sherman may fire just once!
|The Hezter data card|
Here is the Hetzer stats card, you can see on the boardgame image that we are firing at 7 hexes distance. I did this deliberately, so that none of the examples here and in the future will be using point blank fire. On the card it says that at range 7, the Hetzer needs to roll 7 or higher (on 2D6) to hit and if it hits, it will have an armour penetration value of 9.
The Sherman is using an impulse to move and get onto the board as demanded by the scenario and situation. As the tank advances, the German player calls out to the American player to stop moving, while they open up with opportunity fire.
The Hetzer, will be revealed and rolls to try and get a hit. It will get a bonus of +1 for Ambush Fire. The fact that the target is moving is not taken into account either way in these rules. We must have regard here for the fact that the Hetzer could just as easily miss! but in our example, we get a hit.
The Hetzer anti armour value (9) is compared to the front armour value of the Sherman (6), which gives a difference of +3 in the German favour. Armour penetration works on a differential system, using 2D6 on a combat results table for a spread of results.
Looking at the +3 column on the table and rolling 2D6, we can note that an '8' or higher will destroy the Sherman. However the Hetzer only scores a 6, which although does not destroy the Sherman, it does still get one of the other results that are less than a knock-out. A +3 differential is quite good, so even a 6 gives us a Broken Test result, which the Sherman must now take.
They fail the test and get a broken marker, so now they can’t move or fire until they rally that marker off ..... they are sitting ducks! The German player puts a ‘target acquired’ marker on the Sherman to show that next time the Hetzer fires, it will get a bonus, as it has found its range and target.
Since the Sherman was still moving when it was hit, it was obviously still the American impulse. It would usually be the German turn now to get an impulse, but because the Hetzer’s opportunity fire produced a result, that counts in this system as the Hetzer having used its next impulse, so it is the American impulse again. They pay their Impulse Point and decide what to do. They really have no choice, they must attempt to rally the broken marker off. They will need to roll 9+.
Regardless of whether they do or don’t rally, play switches back over to the German side, who could have the Hetzer fire a second time (can fire twice in a turn). So even though the example does not get an initial straight knock-out, there is plenty of nuance going on to engage both players interest.
Instead, let’s look at the other side of the coin and assume the Hetzer missed it’s first shot, it has revealed its position and is no longer hidden. It becomes the American impulse and they can spend an Impulse point to get the Sherman to fire as a unit can fire once if they also move in a turn, so let’s do that.
The Sherman has to see if it hits the Hetzer. It needs 7+ on 2D6, but since it has moved this turn, it deducts one from the dice. It gets lucky and hits the Hetzer. We now compare gun / armour values. The Hetzer has a generous defensive value of 8. I assume this reflects the well sloped armour and more importantly the unusually low profile of the vehicle. It is behind a hedge, so the cover value of the hedge (+1) is added to the armour to give a defence of 9.
(Note, in these sort of games, a designer is generally choosing whether cover will influence the 'To Hit' test or whether it will influence the defence value of the target, it seldom does both).
The attack value of the Sherman at this range is 9, so with 9 v 9 as a differential, we are firing on the zero column, which needs a 10+ to destroy the target. There is just a 17% chance of doing that and so unsurprisingly, it fails by rolling lower, but the score is still enough to get a damage result.
The Hetzer rolls on the damage chart and gets a ‘6’, which is a potential abandonment result. This requires the crew of the Hetzer to take a morale test and if they fail, the crew permanently leave the vehicle. They however pass and since the impulse has now passed back to the German side, they could spend an Impulse Point to conduct their second fire - which of course they do!
A significant aspect of this replay is that the Hetzer seems quite tough, helped a bit by the hedge, but clearly the designer is factoring in that low profile and here, that equalised the gun / armour differentials, so that we were on the zero differential column for the Sherman’s attack. This meant the Sherman needed 10+ for the knock-out, but there were other outcomes available on a 6+, so overall there is a 72% chance that the Sherman will get some sort of effect.
At this range and in these circumstances, the Hetzer has the edge, but because there are other outcomes other than knock-out available, there is a fair chance as each side fires that they hit and cause harm and so the worry is not so much a concern about hitting, more a dread about missing and play passing over to the other player.
Interestingly, an ordinary 75mm armed Sherman would be at a notable disadvantage here as the anti tank value would drop from the 9 that the 76mm boasts to just 6 on the 75mm version. This would put the attack on the minus 3 differential, making a frontal straight knock-out against a Hetzer in cover impossible in the same circumstances, though some lesser effects can occur.
There is a more in depth article on this blog about the gun / armour relationships in this game using the Russian T-34 and German Tiger I tanks to illustrate play. There is a link in the Resource Section at the foot for this post.
Moving now to;
Battlegroup, published by Iron Fist Publishing.
I have pulled this up as my first comparison simply because it is a popular set that has enough nuances in the gun / armour values, that specific vehicles in gun duels remain interesting and vehicular differences are visible and so it compares well with OST. In addition the rules also require that a target must be observed (by way of a test) even before the firer can test to see if they have hit the target, so on face value, that extra hurdle might bring down overall lethality in the game, we shall see.
|The Hezter has the Sherman in its sights.|
In this system, a player plays out their full turn before the other side takes their full turn. The player rolls dice to see how many orders they can implement and then they go from unit to unit, executing an order that best suits what the unit needs to do.
This includes being able to put ‘reaction’ orders on units. This allows those units to be active and react in the other players part of the turn, to either fire or move. For our purposes, we can perhaps think of this as putting a unit into overwatch and for the playing of this trial, we shall assume that in the Previous German turn, they marked their Hetzer with a ‘Reaction Ambush Fire’ order.
It is now the American player turn and they must decide what order to give their Sherman 76. There are 4 orders that look immediately interesting, as follows;
- Open Fire - this allows the unit to fire twice
- Top Speed - this allows the unit to move twice
- Fire and Manoeuvre - the unit makes a single fire and then conducts a single move
- Manoeuvre and Fire - the opposite of the above
Since the Hetzer is hidden, we can reflect the need of a cautious advance by the Sherman by giving a Manoeuvre and Fire order. This will allow the Sherman to move and if by chance the Hetzer becomes exposed, the Sherman can fire.
We need a special rule to show that the Hezter is hidden and cannot be targeted until it either fires or moves. The Sherman executes the first part of its order and moves nearer the Hetzer. At 18” distance, the Hetzer attempts to open fire against the front facing of the Sherman.
|The lovely Hetzer model is a pre-paint and I had to add mud to the wheels, so that it didn't look too posh next to other vehicles!|
Firstly it must be able to observe the target taking an observing test. They must score 2+ on a D6 as the target vehicle is in the open. If the Sherman had also fired, spotting would be automatic. On the face of it, the 2+ feels a little strange in our situation as we have an ambushing gun tube waiting for this very moment, but the rules give a whole page to reflect designer intent on this point and observation is not strictly about ‘seeing’ and enemy. It covers things like are the troops ready to fire, have they had the right order, is there some smoke drift, do they have a casualty etc.
It is also an interesting touch that it is only aimed fire that needs to be observed, Suppressing (Area) fire does not.
Anyway, we pass our test! This 17% chance of failure should really be fed into the overall percentages of making a successful strike, as it is a figure not without significance and you just know that you will roll a ‘1’ at the worst possible moment!
Next we must test for a hit. At this range, the firer needs a 3+ on a D6, but the target has moved, so there will be -1 to the die roll, so having successfully observed we find ourselves with a 50/50 chance of a hit. I think I would be a little nervous as the Hetzer commander on those odds, with the trade-off of becoming exposed, but it is in keeping with what the OST system above demands.
Anyway, the shell hits so we check for penetration. Every gun has an anti tank value, the Hezter is 8 and every vehicle has an armour value stated as a letter. The front face of a Sherman 76 has an armour value of ‘K’. We cross-index those two values on a chart, which gives the figure ‘5’. We must roll 2D6 and score greater than 5 for a knock-out. rolling exactly 5 will result in a pin and a morale test and anything less will just cause a morale check. So if the Hetzer makes it this far, there is a 72% chance that it will knock out the Sherman. Morale checks are generally safe, but they do contain a pinned and abandoned result.
Let’s assume that the Hetzer either missed or just inflicted a morale test that didn’t go anywhere. It is now exposed and the Sherman still has the second part of its order left ‘Fire’.
The Sherman must also observe the Hetzer, so the score needed on a D6 to observe a vehicle that is obscured (hedge) and has fired is 2+. Let’s agree that it does this. The Sherman must now test for a hit on the Hetzer. It must score a 3+, but the die roll is modified down by -1 for the target being obscured and by another -1 because the Sherman moved ...... a tough shot, needing at least a 5 to be rolled on a D6, this is certainly not an equal shooting contest, but the detail and nuance of how the vehicles circumstances influence outcome is appreciated.
Anyway, Lady Luck gives us a 5, so we have hit. Now checking for a result. Cross-index the Sherman’s gun (7) with the Hetzer’s armour (I) and the result is the value of 8, so the Sherman must score higher than 8 to knock out the Hetzer, or exactly 8 to pin it or less than 8 to cause a morale check.
Again, it we look at the armour values, the Hetzer (I) is two column shifts better than the Sherman (K), so again one assumes that the designer has given the Hetzer armour value a lift for its low profile (good).
So in this duel, the Sherman is clearly disadvantaged, needing higher than an 8 to knock out the Hetzer, while the Hetzer can get its kill on a score higher than just 5, though by April ‘45, the scene would likely include several allied gun tubes around the place, to bring some concentrated fire onto the Hetzer’s position (that’s how the Old School Tactical full scenario is set out anyway).
If the Hetzer survives, it would likely either scoot away or use a Fire (twice) order, but as shown below, the Hetzer has to be thoughtful about ammo use.
|In my boardgame, American M-18 Hellcats were trying|
to move around that far flank!
Two systems, both reflecting that a Hetzer in cover at the end of the war still presented a challenge to tanks advancing, even if they were decently gunned. Of course in a full scenario, there would be other assets and they would be moving to unhinge the Hetzer’s position or even just bring more gun tubes into the picture ...... but then in the full scenario from the OST game, there is a second hidden Hetzer :-) and that brings a fuller dynamic to the situation, bringing greater interplay, especially as the American force get a couple of very lightly armoured M18 Hellcats, which in my playing of the boardgame game, tried to move nervously around the German left flank.
Both systems have it that the Hetzer and Sherman 76 can be harmed by the other and that besides straight knock-outs, there are other aspects of harm that can significantly move the direction of the firefight, for example, the Sherman in the OST example going ‘broken’ would have brought about a real sense of urgency for the American player as, while stuck in the open, they desperately spend Impulse Points trying to rally off that result before greater harm follows. That emotional connection with a game pulls you in and shows that something is being done right.
Likewise, in my Battlegroup trial, the Hetzer fired on the Sherman, needing greater than ‘5’ to destroy it, but they rolled 5, so only pinned the Sherman, though it also had to take a morale check, which they passed. The pinning is serious because while pinned, a unit cannot be issued orders and this sitting duck needed to lose that pin, so in the rally phase, it did that, but at the cost of having to draw a Battle Rating chit out of a draw bag, which have different values on them that effectively count down towards the break point of a players viability to stay in play. Like the OST game, there is plenty of nuance here, even with a tank not getting knocked out.
The point is that it all felt like it mattered.
One of the interesting differences in the systems is that OST has a gun line that shows that Armour Piercing performance of the gun declines over range, with reducing gun values, while Battlegroup considers the involvement of range as part of the ‘to hit’ process and once hit, regardless of range the Armour Piercing value is constant.
Battlegroup has the unusual sub system of vehicles being issued individual ammo loads, divided into High Explosive and Armour Piercing, so this is not a game in which you should fire on the off-chance of a hit, shots are precious. Several medium tanks, including the Panzer IV and the 75mm Sherman have an initial ammo load of 9, but the Sherman 76 is down to a load value of 7 and the Hetzer has a meagre 4! You are allowed to choose your own ammo allocation, so giving a Hetzer 4 AP and not carrying any HE, might be a necessary compromise in scenarios where they are clearly in a tank hunting role. At some point, that Hetzer is going to need an early resupply.
I liked that both systems brought out the differing characters of the vehicles and the importance of taking up a good position, you do get drawn into the action and while the nuances are there, the number of calculations are not onerous and the total amount of rules overhead is fairly tame considering this genre can be potentially complicated. At what point you cut back on detail to become more generic is a fine line. For me both the systems satisfy my want of detail Vs playability.
In time, an impression of the full scenario, with its infantry, tanks, tank destroyers, panzerfausts, bazookas, first and second line squads as presented in the OST game, deserves to be brought to the tabletop, but before that I will likely run a few more rule systems through the trial presented here.
Previous blog article looking at gun / armour relationships in OST. Link
My sister webspace COMMANDERS is a bit more snippet based than here. Link.