GDW’s Road to the Rhine

Markus and I caught up for another Road to the Rhine scenario (you can read about our last effort here). The more that I play this the more I like it. The Allies can do anything, but not everything. The key mechanisms are Maneuver Supply Points (MSPs), which you need to move your units effectively. Units that have a movement factor of more than 15 (most Allied units) need to spend an MSP to move their full allowance and engage in combat. MSPs are also needed to fly air missions.

The other is a really clever mechanism where a player’s game turn consists of a series of impulses. Each turn is a week, and each impulse could be a few hours to a couple of days. In your turn, you move the units that you want and attack. Your opponent then moves and attacks with any units in reserve. A unit can only activate during one impulse per turn, and if you want to react to your opponent’s moves in their turn, you have to place units in Reserve (which also costs MSPs) in your own turn. Impulses continue until the phasing player decides to call a halt – the reacting player *doesn’t* get a reaction in the final impulse.

So you *can* play it Igo-Hugo and move everyone in a single impulse, but if you try it you’ll probably have your head handed to you on a plate. You have to think about the sequencing of your attacks, keeping a reasonable reserve for your opponent’s turn, and so on. It’s a game that was really ahead of its time.

It’s not perfect, of course. The GDW rulebook has some ambiguities, most of which can be nutted out, but there is still a bit of errata. Basically, it’s not always easy to find what you need. The CRT is very attacker-friendly, so much so that even at 1:1 the attacker has a 1/3 chance of forcing the enemy out of its hex. But it also does make limited local counterattacks easier, and except at very high odds the attacker will often take losses as well.

This game was the Market Garden Battle Scenario, which is just the Allied portion of the September III turn, and just uses the north map. I had the Allies, and we began with 22 MSPs, which seemed a lot compared with the 4 German MSPs. But during play I found my MSPs draining away like wine at a wedding, with me footing the bill. To win a strategic victory I had to get a supplied unit across the Rhine. Getting across the Waal or the Roer would give me a tactical victory, and the would Germans win if I couldn’t manage any of these.

Of course, I also had my paratroopers – the US 82nd and 101st Airborne, the British 1st Para and the 52nd glider division, plus the 1st Polish Parachute brigade. I had to pre-plot the hexes they would land in, but I could choose the impulse to land them during the game. Very useful if the weather is poor.

I decided to drop them around Utrecht rather than where they were dropped historically. But I thought that I’d make my initial drive on the ground towards Nijmegen before dropping my paratroopers and hopefully pull some of the German reserves away from my intended target.

One of the things that we both found was that the game scale made it obvious why Montgomery was able to convince Eisenhower to go ahead with Operation Market Garden. Most games that concentrate on Market Garden itself have units parachuting in, and XXX Corps desperately fighting through difficult terrain along a narrow front to link up with them, and possibly you wonder why they went with such an awful plan. But they don’t show you the prize had they succeeded.

Even had Patton breached the West Wall, there was still the Rhine and a lot of difficult terrain to slug through. Getting into Holland would have basically put the Allies on the North German plain, and would have made the consolidation of Antwerp easier (those MSPs grow for the Allies as they secure harbours). In the new year they could have been in a position to encircle the Ruhr and cut it off from the rest of Germany.

The U.S 1st army (incorrectly labelled as the 2nd) and the Canadian 1st army both have quite lengthy fronts to maintain. The British 2nd army by contrast has a short front and lots of punch.

Road to the Rhine - setup

In this scenario, the prevailing weather is ‘rain’, which means that there is a 1/3 chance that my aircraft will be grounded on any given impulse. Naturally, it rained first up. Still, I attached near the hinge of the British and U.S armies and managed to begin pushing my way towards Nijmegen. The Germans shuttled some reserves into Arnhem to protect. Ha! Falling into my cunning trap!

Road to the Rhine - end of 1st impulse

The skies clear for the second impulse, but I want to draw more defenders out of my drop area. I bring on more reinforcements and activate the Polish armoured division.

Road to the Rhine - 2nd impulse activations

The Poles drive across the Maas and the newcomers take their place in the line. The German lines in Holland as reserves rush to protect the Arnhem crossings. However, although the situation on the ground looks promising, the allies have already used 12 of their 22 MSPs.

The clouds roll in again for the third impulse, again removing the paratroopers from play. Th German defences in front of Utrecht are now dangerously thin, allowing the British to smash their way over the Rhine and seize the city.

Road to the Rhine - 3rd impulse - Utrecht falls

However, the Germans still have reserves available, and the SS are thrown into the attack. Their opponents retire in reasonable order, but the Germans have managed to cut the British spearheads off from the remainder of the 2nd army.

Road to the Rhine - 4th impulse - German counterattack

On the fifth impulse the skies clear again, and with the Allies’ supply situation becoming critical, it’s now or never. The paratroopers jump.

Road to the Rhine - 5th impulse - The paratroopers land.

The Allied planners had, as the photo shows, planned a drop on Utrecht itself, but as parachute drops can’t be made in a major city, they were placed in an adjacent hex north of the Rhine. The Utrecht bridgehead is reinforced, but the Germans blocking the progress of XXX remain in place.

The Allies have nothing left in the tank. They must declare another impulse because they can’t declare their last impulse when they make a parachute drop. Some units rush north, but without MSPs there are no attacks. However, a supplied division remains north of the Waal. The Germans have to dislodge it to prevent an Allied tactical victory. Alas for them, there are no reserves nearby. The Allies declare the final impulse and the game ends in an Allied tactical victory.

Road to the Rhine - 6th impulse - the game ends.

Road to the Rhine - game's end.

One of the reasons that the hook of Holland was so weakly defended is that in the campaign game the Germans can open the dykes, which will flood the country and cost precious MSPs. There’s no such penalty in this scenario though, and there should be some sort of penalty for the Allies if they do the same thing that I did. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed it immensely. Colour me very impressed indeed.

Rough at Raphia

Chris Harding and I recently tried GDWs venerable The Battle of Raphia, published in 1977.  One of GDW’s 120 Series (in theory that’s how many minutes a game in this series would take to play), this one actually takes less than the advertised time. Really, you should be able to get through a game in a bit over an hour.

Raphia was an enormous engagement (at what is today Rafah in southern Gaza) between Ptolemy IV of Egypt and Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid monarch. Both sides fielded over 60 000 infantry, more than 5 000 cavalry and many elephants. A victory for Ptolemy, the battle was notable partly because Ptolemy trained a native Egyptian phalanx which took part alongside their Macedonian and Greek overlords.

The game has an  interesting stacking mechanism where all units of the same type may stack together at beginning of the game. Units may then leave the stack, but may not re-enter. What his does is give you a sense of formations becoming increasingly brittle as the game progresses. In the rules as written, there are no limits as to numbers. There is errata listed on boardgame geek and at web grognards which limits stacking for phalanx units to five per hex. There’s no indication as to whether this is /was ‘official’ or not, so we played with the rules as written.

The game is then played over 12 turns. Well, really six, as each ‘turn’ is a single player turn. Both sides dice for initiative, high roller goes first. One player moves, then fights, then it’s a new turn. Phalanx units ‘face’ their front 2 hexes, all others have all-round facing. Phalanxes must move into one of their front hexes. They also have the option to pivot one hex vertex at the cost of all their movement points. So you have to think carefully when you set up because it’s hard to correct once battle’s joined.

Units must stop when they reach a unit’s front hex. Combat is voluntary. The top unit(s) in a hex fight, with additional units in the stack adding +1 to the stack’s combat strength. result are some combination of morale check or unit elimination.

It all sounds simple, and it is. Morale is handed nicely. The combat results table only has losses for the defending unit, which doesn’t seem right, and seems to encourage reckless assaults. BUT if a stack attacks at a numerical disadvantage, units attacking must take a morale test, and failure causes the testing unit(s) to rout. So you still need to choose your attacks carefully.

There are also some nice touches of chrome, particularly with the elephants. Elephants rout in random directions, and cause morale tests for each stack that they pass through. They can be decisive, but you need to make sure they are not likely to cause your own troops too much harm. Another is the handling of the Egyptian phalangites, which must dice for morle when they first go into combat. They may either prove to be the worst troops on the board (being new recruits), or the toughest (defending their homeland),

There are some problems though. The rules are the usual GDW full-of-holes fare. It took two experienced gamers a while to figure out whether routing units keep retreating in the movement phase (which they do). More serious is game balance. Historically Ptolemy carried the day. Each infantry units has a number of spear illustrations (phalanxes 3, hypaspists 2, peltasts 1). The side with the greatest number of good order spear units on the board at the end of the game wins. Now, Ptolemy starts with 122 spears, Antiochus with 92. Cavalry and elephants don’t count at all in calculating victory. This is where Antiochus has a clear advantage, and if the Seleucid player is to win this advantage needs to be pressed home. I suspect that usually this won’t be enough.

In our game, I took the Seleucids and set up two big phalanxes with my best units on top to try overpowering Chris’s phalanxes, which had fewer units but covered more territory. I anchored my elephants on the seaward flank and my cavalry were all posed on the other, with my other infantry covering the gap between the phalanx and cavalry. My cavalry initially drove his off, but made little impression on his phalanx, though it was usually hitting its flank. My elephants were also relatively ineffective. Nevertheless, the final total was 103 Chris and 88 for me. Certainly a favourable casualty count, but not enough to win.

The lack of cavalry effectiveness points to another beef I have. different units are more effective against some types than others. Few are effective against a phalanx, which is right, if they are attacking it head-on. If it’s hit from the flank it should be in serious trouble. Unfortunately there are no favorable modifiers for hitting a flank (except for elephants, which can’t attack a phalanx except in the flank).

I’m not really sure that the stacking rules quite work, and the errata limits of 5 units in a phalanx certainly sounds sensible. Playing with the rues as written, I think the sensible thing for both sides is to have their most powerful phalanx unit heading one phalanx each. This would give Ptolemy four phalanxes versus two for the Seleucids.

The game also needs some work on balance. I don’t think that the Seleucid cavalry is generally going to cause enough mayhem to tip the balance. The designer recognises this and gives players the option to forego the 4 powerful Egyptian units (not all scholars believe that these were present). I think that giving units a positive modifier for flank attacks would be a better solution though.

With those caveats I quite enjoyed it. There are a lot of variants on boardgame geek for it that may be worth trying. Charles Vasey also nicked bits of it for his Flodden game which I’m very keen to try (if anyone has a copy they’d like to sell please let me know…). At worst, you could probably get through two games in an evening, so you can just swap sides. It’s aged rather well over its 30+ years.