A Bulge game by John Butterfield, published by Compass games, covers the German 1944 Ardennes offensive, including the Allied recovery and counter-attack over the period from 16th December through to 28th.
The map uses areas (rather than hexes) and so our ground scale is roughly 15 miles per area, each turn of 1 day is further broken down into interactive impulses representing about 1½ hours of action and units that are mostly divisional.
It is a two player game, but is very solo friendly, something that in these Covid times has become more of a relevance in general. The box say that playing time is in the region of 1 - 3 hours.
There may be familiarity with this game to some readers, as the system and subject was first released a few years ago for a digital platform, available on the iPad and later followed up by an east front game.
Anyway, here we are, in boardgame format and with much to enjoy. The rest of this post will give way to to some observational notes, interwoven into an AAR, which will have an exploded view of the first turn, so that we can discuss some of the system in practice, such as combat.
If you are not a boardgamer, but fancy a dabble, this may be a game that will get you interested.
Please use the ‘read more’ table for the rest of this post.
From the outset, this very much has the feel of a players game. The map board is hard mounted and the counters are large, good quality, with ready rounded corners, just waiting to be pushed out of their frame.
With the Bulge battle being almost a perennial subject for new boardgame designs, the map area that we fight over is familiar and to some extent an old friend. Previous experiences give a rough expectation as to how the battle should play out, the significance of key terrain locations and a timeline of likely advance for the German forces and Allied reinforcements.
The rule book (above) has plenty of coloured illustration and because of this the 19 pages given over to rules (really only 11 significant pages) are in fact much more concise than that page count hints at. They are a very easy read that will encourage an early outing on the table.
The Battle of the Bulge as a subject hardly needs any introduction and is a perennial favourite for wargamer designers. At it's heart, the engine in this game is built up around an Area / Impulse system. The map is divided into geographical locations and these are rated with their defensible value. For example, Bastogne forms an area, as does Losheim and Malmedy (below) each being notable and defined districts.
The turn track is split into days. There is a 3 day mini campaign, which is essentially a ‘Race to the Meuse’ scenario and the then the full campaign that runs for 13 turns (16th - 28th December 1944). On each turn, there is a sub-track that divides the day into 1½ hour slots from 0530 hours to 1900 hours. These are called turns in the game, but regular gamers might likely think of them as impulses in keeping with terminology of other similar systems.
So in effect, a new day sees both players start a series of impulses. In each one the non-initiative player activates first and then the initiative player activates an area. They then move on to the next impulse and repeat.
The only change to this is that on the first impulse (0530 hours) only the initiative player activates and on the final impulse (1900 hours) only the non-initiative player activates.
Generally the German player has the initiative in the first part of the game and the Allies in the second part, reflecting the historical tempo of the campaign.
An impulse allows the player to activate on area of the map and ‘use’ their units in that area. Firstly they get a chance to move if desired and if the situation allows and then any of those units that find themselves in the same area as an enemy unit, are obliged to attack. At the end of that, all of the friendly units that were in the area activated are marked with a small black cube to show they have activated, regardless of whether they did or did not do something. Units can only activate once per turn.
The system of impulses will not always guarantee that you will be able to activate everything, but mostly, you will get a chance to activate the units that matter, so it can be a case of prioritising those things that you want to do and those things that you are forced to do in response to enemy action, with impulses flowing back and forth, this is a very interactive game for both armies and it is worth saying at this point, also very solitaire friendly.
Casualties are suffered by step losses and some units have multiple steps, with more than one counter representing the unit, so for example U.S. 1st Infantry start with a strength of 4. The first casualty will flip it to strength 3, a further casualty will see that counter swapped out for its less powerful sister counter, showing a value of 2 and then that counter can be flipped to it’s 1 value side if taking another loss.
The defender gets an opportunity to reduce the number of casualties they suffer in an attack by a value of 1 if they choose to retreat everything in the area. The attacker always suffers full casualties.
The terrain in each area can also reduce a defenders casualties, though open terrain does not and indeed open terrain can potentially lead to increased loss.
When fighting, both attacker and defender roll dice to inflicts hits on the other. The current strength of the unit is the number of D10’s rolled and to the right of the counter is a number that shows the score needed to get a hit. So if that number was 3, any die roll of 1,2 or 3 would result in a hit.
This hit number can be modified by certain factors. For example, on turn 1 (16th December) the Germans get a +1 to their hit chance for surprise attack. They get another +1 if they attack an area that has a white artillery symbol (reflecting their initial artillery support capability). Defenders get a -1 fighting against enemy armour and so on. This list of modifiers is quite short and quickly remembered.
And that in a nutshell is the system. The rules of course have their typical Bulge nuances such as the importance of bridges, fuel supply and commandos, but there is nothing onerous here. Before the 16th turn begins properly, the Germans get a bonus of three free activations to represent their surprise attack.
Anyway, let’s look at those opening three free impulses that the Germans get in closer detail.
Impulse 1. Bleialf (above), a wooded area is contested. The defenders (U.S. 112/28th) are in place and the attackers (116th Panzer and 560 VG) share the same area. The Germans activate this area. The first thing to consider is whether the German units should move. They can’t advance into the importance junction of St. Vith beyond (on the left with red 1 Victory Point marked), because they are tied down by the 112th and they don’t want to retire into friendly areas, so we go straight to combat in the Bleialf area.
The Germans use 116th Panzer first. It has a strength of 4, so it gets 4 dice, but that plus sign on the counter means it gets a bonus dice, so 5 dice altogether. For attack, they use their red hit value which is 5. This is increased to 6 because it is a surprise turn and then it is increased to 7 because the area has a white artillery symbol, showing the Germans can claim artillery support. So 5 dice are rolled, looking for 7 or less for hits.
They score 9, 9, 9, 4, 3. They are unlucky with those 9’s and score just 2 hits. The 560 VG now roll their 2 dice. Their hit value of 3 is also increased by +1 for surprise and +1 for artillery support, so they are needing 5 or less to hit. They roll and score just 1 hit. So in total the allies have suffered 3 hits.
First the number of hits can be reduced by the terrain value. The wooded area has a -1 symbol, so the total number of hits are reduced by 1, leaving 2 hits. Fire is of course simultaneous, so next we need to allow the allies to fire back, they use their pre-hit strength, which unfortunately is only 1, so they get 1 die. Their hit value is 3, but this drops to 2 because enemy armour is attacking. The weak attack rolls high and does not cause a hit (had the Germans been hit, an attacker does not benefit from terrain and so would have had to absorb the hit).
So the final result is that the Allies suffer 2 hits and the Germans none and this is now applied. Even if the Allies retreated to reduce their hit by 1, they would still be left with 1 hit, which is enough to remove the 112th from play. The Germans are now the sole occupant of the area and can claim control. They place a control marker in the area and mark each unit with a black activation cube. (Important note - in the game destroying the enemy allows victorious armour to immediately make a break-through move, but these are not allowed during the 3 surprise turns .... shame because St. Vith is a prize worth having).
Again a German activation as part of their initial surprise attack. They would dearly like to activate Panzer Lehr in Prum and push through the newly captured Bleialf and push on to claim St. Vith, but special rules do not allow German armour to move in these 3 surprise bonus impulses, so instead they activate the Clervaux area.
26th VG try to clear out the area by attacking 110/28, but they get a bloody nose for their efforts, take a loss and 110/28 continue hold the town. This old monastery town was an effective stronghold.
The Germans activate the Losheim area (above), clear the area and place a control marker in it.
The game is now ready to start properly.
It is the 16th December and the impulse track starts at 0530 hours. The Germans having the initiative will be the only player to be able to use the 0530 impulse and likewise, at the end of the day in the 1900 impulse, only the non-initiative (Allied) player can activate. On all impulses in between both players can each activate one area, with the non-active player going first each time.
By the end of the first day, the Germans have made adequate progress. I note that if the German player wants to, the surprise turn attacks will almost certainly free up a passage to St. Vith (a road hub and victory point location), allowing Panzer Lehr on the 0530 hours impulse of the 16th to move from Prum, through the just captured Bleialf and then straight into an unopposed St. Vith. This seems rather too easy to take compared to the historical time table.
Overall, I am finding the play slick, little reference of rules is needed and a certain excitement comes from the loose parameters of opposed combat. So you will often get middle of the road and typical results, then suddenly one combat can crush a defence or give a bloody nose to an attack or counter-attack. this does break up the ‘certainty’ of the game and will help with future re-playability.
The German Commando rule is very streamlined. Once on either 17th or 18th December, the Germans can select one Allied unit and put an activation cube on it, effectively taking it out of pro-active use for the rest of the day. That is a very effective way of dealing with the commando effect without the usual rules overhead that Bulge games can employ.
By the 17th, the Germans are fighting for the Bastogne area and they get a bloody nose. Again on the 18th, they renew their attack, getting nowhere. As an example of the excitement that comes from the opposed combat mechanic as mentioned above, the Allies bring the newly arrived 10th Armored to Bastogne to counter-attack and they are roughed up for their efforts!
What I am not getting at the moment is a sense of despair of the Allied side, they don’t have an "Oh no, I have too many points of crisis" moments, they seem to have enough capability, for now at least, to prevent any significant enemy breakthrough and I can’t imagine how the 3 turn ‘Race to the `Meuse’ scenario is likely for a German win. By contrast, there is a good gamer emotional connection with the German force as they start to be ground down and start to lack local punch for real decisive combats and the way ahead look fraught.
It is worth talking about victory here. Only the Germans score VP’s. Capturing (or losing) VP objectives will effect the German VP track, as will either side totally losing a unit originally of 4 steps or more. On specific turns in the game, the current VP value is compared to a 'win range' of the turn track. Too low and the Germans immediately lose the game, too high and the Allies immediately lose the game. Get between the two value and the game continues.
As I start the December 19th turn, I note that at the end of the 20th, to stay in the game, the Germans must have scored at least 4 victory points. Currently they are on 3, for capturing St. Vith and destroying two large enemy units. I am scratching my head, wondering where the extra VP will come from by the end of this turn to stay in the game at the start of the next turn.
The Germans are fighting for Bastogne which will yield 2 VP’s if captured, but that is strongly held. They are also fighting for Verviers, which is also worth 2 VP’s. This one is possible, but the Germans only have two tank units in the fight at the moment and they have already depleted down to 4 steps each already. They may break themselves here by attacking before the new reinforcements reach them - it is this sort of thing that is giving the German player the better emotional connection with the campaign.
And then it happens! The Germans attack Verviers (top of the map), destroying the large occupying Allied unit and capturing the area, giving them 3 victory points, which will keep them in the game ..... unless of course they lose units or territory themselves over the next couple of days!
20th - Panzer Lehr reaches as far as Huy. At Bastogne, the 101st have arrived and the Germans are taking heavy losses in a battle of attrition.
21st - German fuel shortages start, the 1st SS Panzer at Verviers are the first to have to halt operations. There is disaster for Lehr at Huy as U.S. 3rd Armored counter-attacks, removing Lehr from the game and reducing the German victory points by 1. This had been the furthest point of the German advance. The Germans retire from attacking Bastogne, having suffered too many losses.
22nd - Both players end the turn early by ‘passing’ part way through the impulses, a clear reflection of a stalemate that is creeping across the battlefield. The Germans capture Spa, putting their victory points up to 6, which gets them through today’s target. Victory points will next be checked in 2 days time.
23rd - clear wheather arrives. This means the Initiative now switches to the Allies, the Germans can no longer use strategic movement and the Allies will get a +1 bonus to all of their hit chances. Additionally, the Allies will not suffer attrition if put out of supply.
24th - Well, a roller-coaster of a turn. The Allies go over onto a limited offensive, taking advantage of their air support. There are attacks and counter-attacks all over the map, both sides harming each other ...... and themselves in these actions, but it is the Germans who suffer the most on the victory point track, with their losses pushing them down to 4 VP’s.
This is one of the turns that the Germans must check their VP’s against the schedule. Today, they need at least 6 to stay in the game and 12 or more to win. Their new reduced level of 4 means that this is the end of the road to them, they have been defeated and the game ends.
Looking at the board, it is clear that the Germans would not be able to resume a meaningful attack, though the Allies have largely spent their forces in this day of attacks, so neither would they be in a position to push the Germans back until replacements and reinforcements arrived. But for the system to call the game as a lost cause for the Germans feels right for the situation in front of me.
Conclusion - This has been a very enjoyable run out with the game and I am sure it will make repeated visits to my table. I know that many visitors to this blog are primarily figure gamers who may not have a boardgame collection, but I think this title would be well suited to the gamer who fancies having a couple of good quality, easy to get into boardgames, that can come out and be replayed without a huge re-investment of learning rules each time. In some ways it reminds me of the old classics that can become favourites and that are played often.
Once the game gets under way and is familiar, it steams along and games will be played to a conclusion in a single session with minimal reference to the rules. The rules take a potentially complicated subject and provide a game that has a good Bulge feel without excessive chrome rules and where there is extra chrome, it is rather elegantly implemented, such as how fuel shortages are handled, which has both players involved in the process.
Interestingly, there aren't any bridge blowing rules, which are common to Bulge games, but the movement rule concerning road movement and contested areas very nicely brings an effect of bridges into the game.
At the start of this game, I wondered how the Germans could ever win the 3 day Race to the Meuse scenario, but I now see that firstly the Germans need to be more aggressive in their moving forward than I played them, plus knowing that Allied reinforcements will soon be entering the map helps make for a cautious German player, but if you are only playing a 3 turn game, then as the German player, you don't really need to worry about those reinforcements and can make a much more reckless drive forwards.
Also, I suggested that the Allies did not feel like they were under enough pressure, but it is worth saying that their big reinforcements that arrive can also be quite brittle and in our game, we saw the Allied strength pretty much exhausted in it's one day of attacking on the 24th, so in this Bulge game, the Allied attack when it comes is not going to sweep the Germans from the board. In that regard the Victory Point method of ending the game at a point that an army looks like it cannot achieve the goals set my army commanders is both relevant and good.
For my collection this will be a keeper as it is not only a players game, but also what looks likely to become a series and I do like common rules across several games. The front of the box describes it as WWII Commander Volume 1, so hopefully there is much to look forward to.
I bought this game in a world of ‘I already have Bulge games do I need another one?’, but I am glad I took a punt on this one.
Last year, I played Bitter Woods (another Bulge design, but bigger in execution), also by Compass games, in real time, with the game played to match the actual calendar days. A full write up happened as the game played out and there is a link to that AAR in the resource section below if anyone is interested in a bit of narrative gaming.
Complexity - the box says ‘Low’ and I would agree with that. This starts with an easy to read and well illustrated / exampled rulebook. The core system is very easy, giving speedy play and the turn track has helpful reminders of rule events. There are a few important rules tucked away here and there, but as with all rules, just jotting the important ones down as a reminder for next time you come to the game will suffice, plus, you could actually read the whole rules once before each new playing without that being a burden.
Size - The game comes in a standard ‘bookcase’ style box. The map is in 6 panels and there are two order of battle cards that you will want set out on the table, these can just sit to the side of the board in the space that the usual 7th and 8th map panels would use on a full map sized game. So this is definitely kitchen table sized gaming. Counter density is relatively low as the unit sizes are mostly divisional and multi counter units only have one of their counters on the board at any one time, the rest sit of on the order-of-battle card.
Solitaire - The box says 'High' and they have that right. As with many games, this is a two player game that plays well solitaire, just play each side to the best of your ability. The above replay was done as a solo game. The back and forth nature between sides of the impulse system actually helps solo play because you are always responding to just a single activation when you play 'the other' side.
Time - The box says 1 - 3 hours. This takes into account that there is a short 3 turn scenario (Race to the Meuse), but it also factors in the chance that at certain points in the game, the game may suddenly end because victory points earned (or not earned!) trigger the end of game threshold for one of the players. I thought these work quite well, because they do tie in nicely with how well (or not) one side may be doing.
Bitter Woods replay LINK