Published by Worthington Publishing and designed by Dan Fournie, 1944 Battle of the Bulge deals with the German Ardennes offensive and is primarily looking at December 16th through to December 25th.
It is pitched at the lower end of the complexity scale, with short rules, low counter density and relative fast play.
It has some rather nice game mechanics that keep both players engaged and which uses some concepts from Worthington’s Holdfast series.
Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post, which highlights some of the game mechanics and gives a quick overview of a first game with conclusions.
Firstly, is the ‘look’ of the game. It is fabulous. The map is a mounted 8 panel affair, with artwork that is just ‘very Ardennes 1944’. It has over sized hexes (bigger than usual), which take over sized counters.
|Germans set up to the right|
The counters are large, clear and come with pre-rounded corners, which just ‘pop’ out of the tree frame without leaving nubs or needing to be tidied up.
Many of the units have multiple steps and so are represented by two counters. The Allied order of battle card has just 12 units staring on the map and a further 21 will join them as reinforcements. The starting units are mainly fragile 1 step regiments, while the reinforcements are divisions.
The German at start forces are divisions, with 18 counters split between 7th, 5th Panzer and 6th Panzer armies. They have 10 units for reinforcements, so overall, this is a low counter density game, with the reinforcement counters dripping in over the course of the game.
The rulebook is 12 pages long, but it is heavily illustrated, so is really a shorter rule set and a very easy read. There are no obstacles to getting this to the table, with easy read rules and fast push out counters.
Headline game mechanics:
Dice - Units attack and defend simultaneously, rolling a number of dice equal to their combat factor, but adjusted for terrain and situation (such as supply). The dice are interesting. They have 4 blank faces, an armour face and an infantry face.
When rolled, the blanks represent ‘no result’, the infantry symbol will hit only infantry targets and the armour symbol will hit either infantry or armour, but must target armour in the first instance. Each hit reduces the target unit by 1 step. There are no retreat or advance after combat results. This system is all about hits and reducing units.
Resource Points - Each turn, each side gets an allowance of RP’s. You can use these to rebuild units damaged by combat, to activate individual units to move and to select 1 target hex to attack (with any number of units). As the game progresses, the Allies RP allowance increases and the German allowance decreases.
Attack / Move sequence - Each turn, a unit can move once and attack once, provided that RP’s are spent each time. The interesting part is that this sequence is dynamic in nature, with individual units able to attack then move, or move then attack and there can be gaps between doing that. So say German 62nd Division moves now. It might save its attack for much later in the turn, when other units have moved up to support it, or it might choose not to attack at all. It could attack, clear the enemy away and then a Panzer Division could activate for movement and move through 62nd Division in a sort of break through attempt.
Support - artillery, air support and leaders can add additional dice. The Germans can only use assets in attack and don’t get air support and their artillery support vanishes by turn 5. The Allies can use their assets in both attack and defence situations. Allied support tends to materialise later in the game. Allied infantry also get some ‘strategic’ road benefits for their infantry, as they were so well resourced with transport and were relatively safe from air attack.
SS Panzer Brigade 150 (Operation Grief) - this formation was intended to penetrate Allied lines by employing captured Allied vehicles and English speaking soldiers. In the game it starts in ‘disguised’ mode and when it enters an Allied Zone of Control, it can roll a dice and attempt to slide past that ZoC without the usual movement penalties. If it succeeds it can move on and try the same thing again, but if it fails it is flipped over to its ‘non-disguised’ side and from then on performs like a normal unit. While disguised it does not have its own ZoC and cannot attack without losing its disguise status. A simple rule that captures elements of Operation Grief quite well.
Optionals - there are rules that randomise weather, which will influence how much air support the Allies get and whether German Resource Points are reduced. As with most Bulge games, the effects of low fuel supply comes into play mid game and then in the final part of the battle gets even worse, reducing the abilities of German mechanised units.
There are also some optional scenarios that the German player can secretly draw on, so that the Allied player is uncertain what the German objectives are. These are shorter scenarios. This fog of war can be further enhanced by using dummy counters and ‘hidden’ markers that conceal the nature of the unit below them when they are not adjacent to an enemy, but these are optional and so do not impact on solo players.
Errata - there is a small amount of errata, but one of the significant ‘suggested’ changes for ‘better play balance’ is that there is greater freedom where Allied reinforcements will arrive and a couple of low strength units can come on a turn early. This was done in response to some gamers reporting that the German forces were romping to a very early victory. The changes can be found over in the files section on BoardGameGeek. Having played the amended version, which gave the Germans a tough game, I would quite like to try a game with the rules as written, just to see the impact that the changes make.
Anyway, for a game that scores itself 1.5 out of 5 for low complexity, there are some nice procedural twists that will please players and keep them engaged with play.
So onto some action. We are choosing the full campaign game which is 10 turns (10 days). I am also allowing the option for two of the Allied units to split into smaller bodies. This will help them initially block routes, but the weaker units will be more susceptible to loss.
Below, a familiar sight to Bulge gamers, the opening turn sees a formidable German force ready to push against a thin, fragile Allied line. Clervaux initially holds out against an assault by 2nd Panzer (with supports) and the parachute unit Von Der Heydte lands just outside the important road junction of Trois Ponts.
This centre sector is clearly the critical point and the Allies direct the initial element (reinforcement) of 101st Airborne towards nearby Manhay, to block a breakthrough.
Below, by December 18th (turn 3), CCB/9 were still holding out at St. Vith, a critical road hub, but they were being by-passed and surrounded. 1st SS Panzer raced on ahead, leaving St. Vith to be ‘mopped up’. On December 19th, St. Vith fell to a combined assault by 50th Infantry and 116th Panzer.
82nd Airborne loses Bastogne and at Manhay, the 101st Airborne are lost while standing firm and fighting off three German divisions, who were then joined by another two divisions, making for an overwhelming attack.
Below, December 2nd and elements of Allied 3rd Armored arrive on the southern part battlefield, putting in an impromptu attack around Bastogne, which failed. They made a more cohesive attack the following day, which also failed to gain ground, but did stop the German drive in that sector and started to draw in additional German forces.
|The red control marker shows the captured Bastogne|
Below, finally, the only place that the Germans could attempt to breakthrough was at Huy on the River Meuse. 1st SS Panzer attacked the British 43rd, who sustained heavy casualties, but held. Against a background of 15th Panzer Grenadier, 3rd Panzer Grenadier and 9th Panzer (randomly selected) having fuel problems and the clear skies bringing plentiful Allied air support, the German offensive ran out of steam, falling short of their objectives.
My comments here are based on a single face-to-face playing and having played it once, we would probably play slightly differently next time, now that we understand how everything knits together. It was a lot of fun. The timescale used (ends 25th December or earlier) means that the game is all about the German attack, rather than the Allied counter-offensive, but as the Allied player, I still felt that I got a good game.
The Bulge is just one of those titles, rather like Gettysburg or Waterloo, that seem to have a new game release built around it every year and so gamers often have several different titles on the subject in the collection. So the question is how does this game fit in to what is already available and done?
It is without doubt a highly accessible system and it looks lovely. That is two pretty big obstacles dealt with for wanting to bring a game to the table. What of subject, accuracy and depth?
For most of my collecting years (decades), Bulge games follow the format of a German explosion of troops across the map, hoping to get as far as they can before the inevitable Allied response blocks them and then counter-attacks, rolling them back with very strong armour support.
That in fact was the ebb of the actual battle and typically in game terms, the German player gets to ‘play’ the first half of the game and then the Allied player gets to ‘play’ the other half and while that happens, the other player tends to sit on their hands a bit. i.e you have to be a patient Allied player to wait until you get enough strength to play out the second half of the game. Often, these games are longer than a single 2 to 3 hour session and the player on the ‘receiving’ end might become disenchanted.
Of late, I am seeing Bulge games that are much more punchy, that tend to only cover up to the 25th December (the German drive) and seemingly give the Germans a game chance of pushing across the Meuse River and exiting the map for victory (when in fact the furthest they got to was Celles). These games seem less realistic from the historical narrative perspective, but perhaps more exciting and doing a better job at keeping both players engaged.
Here I feel that while the game leans towards the latter category, it does, importantly, put both players in the emotional seat of the historical commands. The Germans are desperate to push on to make gains and the Allies are at pains to close down the German advances and it that regard the ‘feel’ of what the Bulge battle was all about is preserved.
I didn’t think the German player had to be as concerned about flanks as is the case in some Bulge games, until the end of play.
Our gaming attempt brought a strange counter-intuitive feel to the sustainability of German strength. In the rebuild phase, a side can rebuild each of their (in supply) units up by one lost step by spending a resource point for infantry and two for armour, though units that have deteriorated into the 'dead pile' can't be rescued. The consequence of that capability in our game was that the Allies took a load of losses, with whole units being taken out of the game, while the German army at the end of play was in almost as good shape as it had been at the start of play.
It still all worked because Allied reinforcements essentially choke off the German avenues of advance, so I think this is a design for effect thing that in practice actually doesn’t matter.
It is of course most likely that in our first game, we did not play as the design intended. As the Allied player, I stood and held ground at all costs. This allowed units to be surrounded and so were not able to be built back up and as a consequence went into the destroyed pile (can’t be rebuilt).
My opponent likely did not make as much use of aggressive movement forward that the game requires. This requirement is helped by the fact that enemy Zones of Control don’t stop movement, they just create higher movement costs, allowing defensive lines to be unhinged.
The consequence of both of play styles for this game meant that we never exhausted the Resource Points track each turn, it felt like we were over-resourced, which is probably the indicator that we were not doing enough on the ground and this allowed the German army to spend freely on building units back up to strength.
On reflection, as the Allied player, I should have been using Resource Points to manoeuvre out of position, to keep units in supply, allowing me to add replacements to them and forcing the German player to spend RP’s to move back into contact before attacking. This would have given the German player less scope to keep rebuilding his forces. I'm still not convinced that the RP track will generate hard choices of how to spend points, but I need to explore that further.
So really, it will be the second and third playings of this game that will give us a better appreciation of the system.
My face to face game sessions are relatively short and in that regard, getting this to the table, having an engaging game for both players and concluding in a session, delivers what I need.
There is quite a bit of clever system in this easy ruleset, allowing the game to punch above its weight. I am pleased with the purchase and will get this back to the table over the next few weeks .... perhaps in time for the battle anniversary.
Complexity - the box suggests 1.5 out of 5 for complexity, which seems fair. There are some one liners tucked away here and there that can be overlooked or forgotten, which can actually be said of most rules, but really, by turn 3 of the first game, we had most of this under out belts and everything I wondered about during play was answered primarily by the rules, but I also referred to the Q&A sheet twice (to do with bridges) which is available at BoardGameGeek.
Overall, I think you get a lot of game for a short rule set.
Size - This has a standard sized wargame board. If using the two A4 (Letter) Order of Battle cards, some space will be needed for them. I found them a useful place to keep and organise the 'other' counter for units that have more than 2 steps. Anyone who has room for ‘1 mapper’ games will be fine with this title.
Solitaire - The box describes solo value as low (1.5 out of 5), but I feel this is mostly based on the optional rules that allow units to ‘hide’ below a hidden counter and for the Germans to choose an alternative scenario, keeping their objectives secret from the Allied player. These are optional rules and so the solo player is free to ignore them. As such, this, just like the majority of wargames is a two player game that plays fine as a solo experience.
Time - The box says a game will complete in 2 hours or less. Factors to consider here are that the alternative scenarios are shorter and the natural playing tempo of players (fast / slow), but, with relatively few counters and a Resource Points track potentially limiting what you can do, the game proceeds at a good rate. Also, you won’t have your head buried in the rule book! An initial game might take a little longer (ours was 3 hours), but familiarity will bring play within the suggested 2 hours or less.
A few years ago, I played another Bulge game, matching each daily turn of the game with the historical calendar. So I played the opening turn (16th) on the real 16th December and then the next day played the second turn (17th). The point is, this was blogged at the end of each day without knowing what the next day would bring and it became a rolling narrative, which of course is now complete. Here is a LINK to that story (you could do the same with this Worthington game and it would be easier!).
My sister webspace COMMANDERS is being re-configured to showcase various figure and boardgame systems that I am enjoying and give a flavour of where current ongoing projects are up to. Link.