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.

Talisman 4th edition

Our RPG group took a break from its Mutants and Masterminds campaign last night to play Talisman 4th edition. The 1st edition was published by Games Workshop in 1983 and, apart from the updated graphics, the current edition feels much the same as the original.

Each player controls a unique character type, each of which is rated for strength and craft, the two main combat attributes. Characters also have fate points (which allow you to re-roll dice), gold (to purchase items) and life points. Each tie a character loses a fight they lose 1 life point. Lose all of them and that character is killed. A player can then start again with a brand new character.

I had a gladiator, which had strength 4, craft 3, fate 1, gold 1, life points 3. In addition, he starts with a sword, which adds 1 to his strength, and a helmet, which may deflect a blow that otherwise could have caused him to lose life points. Each character aslo has one or more special abilities. The gladiator is allowed to use any followers he attracts to fight for him (each follower adds 1 to his strength).

The board is divided into 3 circular track. The outer track, where characters begin, is the easiest to navigate. The next track is more challenging, and the inner track is very tough indeed. The aim of the game is to get to the centre most space on the board and claim the Crown of Command.

Players take turns in rolling a dice and moving their character that many spaces around the track. There are decks of cards that players randomly draw from when they land on a space. The card might be a monster, which must be fought, or an item (weapons, magical items and so forth), or other beings which might be potential followers, traders and so on. Additionally, there are spaces  like the Temple where characters can go for healing, or one might consult the village mystic and be given a blessing (or a curse).

Essentially, play continues with characters collecting items and getting more powerful until they feel strong enough to move into the centre board spaces, which contain very challenging encounters. Players get stronger by defeating monsters. Each one is rated for strength or craft. Both roll a D6 and add their relevant abilities, the highest roller wins (a tie means that neither is defeated and the monster remains in the space). If the monster is defeated, the player collects the card. Collect monsters worth 7 of any attribute (so seven monsters with the strength of 1, one of 3 and one of 4, and so on) and you cash them in and raise that ability by one.

There is more detail, but this is the game in essence. I had played earlier editions of Talisman years ago and wasn’t impressed, and sadly my impressions were confirmed. The issue is one of time. The random nature of movement and of card distribution means that if you get poor cards, you’re unlikely to do well in the game. For example, a character that’s high in strength might keep running into creatures with craft as their attribute, and have trouble beating them. In a game of 1 or 2 hours, that’s OK. You can grin and bear it, and hope for better next time. Our game lasted for 5 hours for about 1/2 that game it was a show-down between 2 of the 5 players. At this point the game became an exercise in tedium.

The other thing that left me less than impressed was that there is little interaction between the characters. One can attack a character if you land on another character’s square, but the rewards for doing so are quite small in proportion to the difficulty in doing so. In practice, the game is a solitaire game played by several people at once.

We played with two of the expansions, which add variety on monster and treasure types, but probably serve so simply make the game longer. There are rules for shorter games and had we used these my opinion might have been different. It was entertaining for the first hour or two, and if it can be kept to that you might find it worth persevering with. Young adults who are interested in fantasy-themed games, but balk at miniatures or pen-and-paper-style RPGs might also find this to their taste. I run D&D sessions for my youngest step-son and his friends roughly once a month and I think they would enjoy this. I may get a copy to try out with them.

Lash of the Turk mini-review

A game thats quick, pretty and a good model of a historical situation should be popular. The kicker might be the topic. Fortunately for me, Lash of the Turk ranks highly on that score. And it’s certainly quick. Our play of the first scenario (The Year of Mohacs) came in at the two hour mark. It’s pretty enough, as these counters will attest (original image uploaded to boardgamegeek by Marc Figueras).

A portion of the countersheet

Many of the counters are back-printed, with a 16th century and a 17th century version of the unit. But apart from the leaders, the Transylvanians (who can swap sides) and one artillery unit, the values for these are exactly the same. The only difference is the icon. Not a big annoyance, but it felt… odd because it was so unnecessary.

We’ll begin with a brief AAR. I commanded the Turks, and Markus Stumptner the Hungarians. The Hungarian armies, led by Louis II begin concentrated around the fortress of Buda, ready to march south along the Danube. Their Transylvanian allies led by John Zapolya were mostly around Sibu. Suleiman’s Turks started their campaign at Belgrade.

The Turks have nine turns to take the fortresses of Eszer, Peterwardein (the map spells it ‘Peterwardien) and Buda. That means that they need to get a wriggle on. The Turkish army starts within two hexes of Peterwardein, but their siege artillery train is blocked by swamps. So Suleiman decides to march around the swamp with his train. Unfortunately for him, their is a lot of rain early on. It’s not until GT4 that the Turks take the fortress of Eszer. Suleiman detaches a small force of raiders that harry the area around Banjaluka, with mixed success, and with some losses.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim (Suleiman’s 2iC) crosses the Danube at Belgrade and begins raiding. Zapolya moves up to oppose the Turks, and Ibrahim wins a victory over him at Temesvar. Finally, Louis, and his general Tomori slowly move their army south.

Having driven off the Transylvanians, Ibrahim ditheres. Though the raiding continues, he was in no position to aid his master. However, he also fails to exploit his victory to capture some Transylvanian fortresses. Meanwhile, having taken Eszer, Suleiman finally moves to capture Peterwardein. Unfortunately for him, the Hungarian host arrives outside Eszer and, despite a reasonably strong garrison it’s taken by assault.

Taking Peterwardein, Suleiman masks the strong Hungarian at Eszer. He marches to meet Louis in battle. The dice are not kind to him, and though losses are minimal for both sides (two units each), the Hungarians hold the field. Towards the battle, Suleiman is badly wounded when his Janissaries come under attack towards the day’s end. Carried back to his tent, he succumbs to his wounds during the night. His Pashas proclaim his infant son Selim as sultan, and they appoint a guardian. While messengers are dispatched to find Ibrahim’s army, the survivors begin their march back to to the relative safety of Belgrade.

The unravelling of the Turkish campaign was mostly down to strategic errors on my part. The weather rolls went against me, but I should have sent Ibrahim with Suleiman, where his troops would have made a difference. A small number of light troops could have has the same result, and it would have taken time for Zaploya to effect a junction with the Hungarians.

So what worked? Much of the body worked reasonably well. The sequence of play is igo-ugo; both sides check attrition and recieve reinforcements and replacements. The Ottoman player then do their movement, combat and raiding phases, followed by the Hungarian. There is some interactivity in that a leader stacked with raiders (mostly light cavalry units) can intercept units that move within 1/2 of the intercepting unit’s movement allowance. Supply is 5 hexes to any friendly unbesieged fortress, or a Danube river hex that flows to the appropriate board edge, or to a supplied supply train. Units that are beseiged (and, from GT 3 all units exept fortress garrisons) check for attrition. Raiding cavalry with the army (presumably gathering supplies), forts and towns mitigate these effects, rain and mud (and the Janisarries) worsen it.

So far, so good. Sieges are a nice sub-game; a besieging army rolls to reduce the fort’s effectiveness level (which is used to modify the combat roll), then the defender rolls to see whether they undo the siegeworks. One annoying wrinkle is that new units come in at any friendly fortress. So a unit that dies from attrition far from the front can be re-built at a more convenient spot. What saves this game from being really very good indeed is the antiquated combat system. The old ‘defender retreat’, ‘attacker retreat’, ‘exchange’ might work in some situations. But not here.

In this scenario (assuming roughly equal levels of attrition) the main Turkish army can at best muster a 3:1 to field against the main Hungarian army. There is a 5/6 chance that the Turks will win. There is a 1/2 chance that the Hungarians will lose 1 or 2 units, and a 1/3 chance that they will simply retreat. There is a 1/6 chance of an exchange, where on average each side will lose 2-3 units.

More frequently, the odds will be 3-2 or 2:1, where the reults are less decisive, but the Turks have a lesser chance of winning (1/2 at 3:2, 2/3 at 2:1). This of course assumes no die roll modifiers for leadership. But Suleiman and Louis both have the same leadership rating, so they cancel each other out.

How does this compare with Mohacs? Historically, about 55 000 Turks faced 35 to 40 000 Hungarians (so about 3:2 odds). The Hungarians lost some 14 000 to 20 000 men. The Turks, around 1500. It was a stunning victory for the Ottoman empire. Now, I know that different pieces will represent different numbers of men. But this result simply can’t be reproduced, except by large armies against much smaller ones, which Mohacs was not. Yes, the Turks can win victories, but they will tend to be less decisive.

It’s not that the game should lead to a Mohacs-type decisive battle. But it cannot, and it’s a shame. It really could have been very good indeed.

All Dice on the Western Front

Quite a few Thursdays ago, Chris Harding and I sat down to Clash of Empires: August 1914. This was in fact our second go at this title, with our first attempt back in early August.

This Kerry Anderson title has 2 iterations. The first was during the final issues of Wargamer Magazine (number 58 back in 1986). The second was with the now-defunct Microgame Design Group in the early years of the 21st century. Our first game used the Wargamer-issue map with home brew counters courtesy of Chris. I urge you, should you try this game (and you should, it’s good fun) do NOT use the counters that came with Wargamer, especially should you play the Western Allies. The French counters in particular (black on dark blue) should come with an OHS&W warning label due to the potential damage to your eyes. They are diabolical, folks, and we pronounce anathema upon them!

The Wargamer map, though also difficult to read is at least pleasant to look at and we found it serviceable. The MDG map is certainly clearer, but has little carto-aesthetic appeal. What we did in the second game was use the MDG counters on the Wargamer map, which worked out reasonably well (though you will need to use the fortress markers from the original game should you do this).

Clash of Empires employs a point-to-point map along which units are moved, the nodes of which are cities, towns and fortresses. Sometimes referred to rail lines, they really represent transport routes. Rail movement does indeed exist for both sides – a discrete number of units per side can be railed anywhere within France (for the Allies) or Germany (for the Central Powers), but then it’s time to hop out and employ the shoe leather. This really works rather nicely. The Germans in particular (who advanced the farthest) found that troops and supplies could be moved rapidly to their railheads, but then had to be marched to where the action was.

Units may move from one node to another in a single turn, or two for units with equine auxiliars (that’s cavalry to you). Not a glacial pace, as each turn is about three days, but you get a sense of reserves and replacements being left behind as the advance gathers pace (should you get your units to do so).

The turn structure itself is quite simple: move your units (stopping them when you enter an enemy-held node), and engage in combat where opposing units share a node. Units have 1-4 steps, with the old one-dice-per-step-and-six-to-hit resolution (which, by the way I think is a perfectly valid alternative to a CRT). Some terrain types cause units to reduce their dice, one (slopes, for example those in front of Verdun) allow the defender to inflict losses first (losses are simultaneous otherwise).

Fortresses (the map is dotted with them) both reduce dice for attackers, and allow defenders to hunker down and thus avoid fighting in the open. These take time to wear down and can slow down an attacker considerably.

There are no stacking limits, so you could in theory place everyone in a single city, though I would suggest this would not be a game-winning strategy. Lest you recoil in horror at the buckets of dice that two armies colliding into each other would produce, the game takes mercy on our poor wrists by allowing only three units from both sides to take part, and there is but a single combat round. If neither side is eliminated, the attacker must first decide to stand or return from whence he came. If the attacker stays, the defender my then choose to stay (in which both sides remain in contact), or withdraw to another adjacent node. Should the defender stay (and don’t in their own turn move out) then they must in turn attack.

Units need to trace lines of supply along lines of communications free of enemy units back to to a valid supply source, with pretty hefty penalties for failure to do so (each unit that cannot loses a step). However, lest this be thought too harsh, supply can be traced through contested areas. For the French these are cities along the east edge of the map (Orleans, Chartres and so on), and for the Germans the cities of the Rhine.

So far, nothing unusual and nothing to make you sit up and take notice. What makes the game shine for me is that it tries to avoid as far as possible the hindsight inevitable in any historical game. We know that the Schlieffen Plan was unlikely to succeed (particularly once von Moltke the Younger got his maws on it). We know that We know that Plan 17 was likely to fail on the firepower of German machineguns. But the generals of 1914 knew no such thing. So anything that can lessen this for me is A God Thing.

The first thing is that units are inverted, so you don’t know whether that unit coming down the road is a German Guards division or a second-line Landwehr formation. Both sides also have unit holding boxes, so that single unit could be just that, or it could be a 12-division juggernaut. So there is a certain amount of guesswork, and you can do things like use your cavalry as probes (they can retreat before combat, so move them into an area and you’ll get an indication of what’s there).

The second thing is the chits (or cards in the MDG version) that both sides draw at the game’s start (5 for the Central Powers, 4 for the Allies). Neither side knew that machine-guns would be so murderously effective on the defence. The British were not necessarily going to intervene in a continental war (unless Belgian neutrality was violated). The German High Command feared that there would be Russian troops sent to aid the French. These and other possibilities are built into the cards/chits. For example, both sides have a ‘Machine Gun Defensive Tactics’ option. If this is pulled and played, then the defender (for the side that pulled it) hits on a 5-6, which then applies to all defenders three turns later.

So all sorts of things may or may not happen. If neither side draws MG tactics, they don’t occur. The Russians may appear. The British may turn up, even without the beastly Hun invading Belgium (and their troops may not have the professionalism that they did historically). So both sides are a bit in the dark about how the war may proceed.

The chits/cards also affect victory conditions. Players gain victory points for holding large cities and cities (not necessarily fortresses – Verdun,  being only a town, is worth no VPs). They are lost for chits/cards played. Most are 1 or 2 VPs and need to be played if you have them. However, some like the Russian Reinforcement and British Intervention chits are worth quite a few VPs and players may have to think about whether these should be played.

So the game plays like a pair of boxers wobbling across the canvas, neither quite sure of what to expect. What we can expect is that the Germans will be on the offensive (with superiority in combat strength points this is not surprising). The only question is where.

I played the Central Powers in our first game and tried to replicate the Schlieffen Plan with even less success than Moltke the Younger. Though I had both the Fortress Capitulates (allowing me to take Liege on turn 1) and Fortress Artillery chits (giving me the big fortress-busting guns) movement through Belgium proved painfully slow (Brussels eventually fell, but Antwerp never did).

For our rematch I defended la Republique against les Boches and thought that it would be fun to try Plan 17. I left a screen of units in the north to slow any German thrust through Belgium, and left a reserve to either send north to defend, or east into Germany as the situation dictated. Otherwise the big divisions were piled up against the German frontier.

I also drew the Russian Intervention, British Professionalism and British Armoured Car chits. I wanted to avoid using the former, but thought that the latter two would certainly be handy should Belgium be invaded.

Chris, dastardly fellow that he is, decided on a thrust though and south of the Ardennes 1940-style. I was taken rather by surprise (it was the weakest point in my line) but of course shouldn’t have been. It was, after all where the Prussians came through in 1870.

So Luxembourg was taken in short order. I was surprised that the Germans also invaded Belgium, but his play of the Fortress Artillery chit meant that Liege was in trouble. My planned invasion (nay, liberation) of Alsace-Lorraine hit a stumbling block with the MG Tactics chit coming up. Merde! My troops got a right hosing, scotching Plan 17 on the spot.

What resulted was a limited German push through Belgium, and a rather better German push in the south than managed historically. Verdun, for example came under heavy German attack (at one point surrounded) and at the end of the game still in danger.

Two things helped stem the tide. One was that the British troops that arrived proved to be as professional as their historical counterparts, but also had an armoured car unit. Though only 2 strength points it fires first in any combat. The second was that the Russians arrived, and not before time as at one point a large hole was ripped in the front near Sedan.

We ended the game on the Sept 22 turn (game turn 14) giving the Allies (that’s me – yay!!!!) a close victory. The end of game positions:

Final Positions - North

Front line – north

frnt sth

Front line – south

The two salients were the positions around an almost cut-off Verdun (tracing supply through a contested node).

While very clever the game is a little long for a single evening (we got through about half the game in 3 hours). The buckets o’dice don’t help, and I wonder whether the engine would work with less polyhedral propulsion? I also wonder about the loss rates. In just over a month the Allies had about 38 divisions hors de combat, the Germans a similar number. If we reckon that a strength point is roughly a battalion, then both sides had about 65 battalions along the western front after about 39 days action. This means that the Allies lost about 125 battalions and the Germans about 80. This seems a little high though this could simply reflect our individual playing styles (I was much less inclined to give ground than perhaps I ought to have been, leading me into a couple of costly counter-attacks).

According to the designer fortresses in the original were rather too powerful (we played the Warg’s version because we both had it), and I would be interested in seeing how game play changed between editions. On the whole, quite clever, and fun for makers of cunning plans.