Monthly Archives: May 2018

Scream Aim Fire rules review

The author of these rules, Jamie Kirkpatrick, asked me to review them, and emailed a Word copy to me. I like to help out other people in the hobby, so I obliged.

Scream Aim Fire is available on Amazon for £7.50 (that link is to the WW2 – Napoleonic is here). It started life as a set of WW2 skirmish rules, and it was then adapted to Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds a bit odd (I did) you need to understand what these rules are about. They are not about historical gaming. They are a bit like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie (or a video game). The uniforms, vehicles and terrain may look  historical, but the thing itself is designed for entertainment pure and simple. If that bothers you (it bothers me) then these rules aren’t for you (they’re not for me). But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the quick and entertaining game that the author promises.

The version of the rules I have for WW2 covers about 28 pages. That makes them sound a lot longer than they are. They are written in 24 pt font (the usual default is 12pt and professional texts are usually smaller still) and double-spaced. You might be able to get the text onto 3 pages of more conventional text. There are a few pictures but no more than normal these days (actually a bit less). Opinions vary on this sort of rule-writing approach. The upside is that they are very quick to read. The downside is that there are lots of gaps which you will have to fill in for yourself. For example, nowhere does it define what a unit is. But that’s pretty easy to figure out from context (a vehicle or squad of men).

What of the game system? It seems designed to produce a random pattern of play. There looks to be little point to applying any strategy; you need to go with the flow and grab whatever opportunities present. Play is by random activation (each unit has a token or card which you pick out blind). The rules don’t say if you put the card or token back, but by inference you must. There is also a random event token/card, which is quite a neat idea. Once you  pick a unit you have to throw dice to activate, and and see what it can do (you might be forced to move or fire, rather than choose which). At pretty much every stage a dice throw can thwart you. At regular intervals a “shock and awe” means that your unit might disappear if you throw a six. The rules cover artillery and even aircraft (if aircraft are brought on the other side brings on its own one and there’s a dogfight).

I have not tried playing them. The rules require you to prepare two things which aren’t part of the normal wargames kit before you start. You need those cards or tokens to see which units get picked (and a random event), and  you need a bag of tokens marked one to five, which are used at various stages. Neither is hard but it stopped me giving them a 20 minute go. Without playing them it’s hard to tell you how the game flows. My guess is very erratically, and that is the chief source of entertainment.

I have only had a glance through the Napoleonic version. But they share the same mechanisms. There’s no need to worry about columns, lines and squares!

The verdict? These are quite unlike anything I’ve looked at before. If you aren’t bothered by historical authenticity, and you like being entertained by random events, and don’t mind filling in any gaps in the rules yourself, then you might like them. They look very suitable for solo play (in fact they probably work better solo that with two or more players). If you want to make the transition from video games to the full 3-D experience of tabletop gaming then this may be worth a go. But I would be a little surprised if that covers any regular readers to this blog.

Back to Napoleonics – Bloody Big Battles

BBB in progress 21 May 2018

This week we took a break from our WW2 games. My Napoleonic figures got an outing as we decided to try out Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB) on club night. It went quite well.

BBB is a set of rules based on the Fire and Fury game system, designed for European wars in the later 19th Century. But they are quite usable for the Napoleonic era (and doubtless for the American Civil War too). I like them because they have a very stripped down simplicity, while also being a successful system for recreating big historical battles (as its name suggests). I have used them before for a recreation of Waterloo in 2015.

Their simplicity is one of the things that drew me to their use on club night. But there’s another factor: the Fire and Fury command system is ideal for multi-player games. So many rule systems require some sort of top down command process that makes it quite hard to run different parts of the table in parallel. But in BBB there is no higher command system; no PIPs to allocate; nobody decides which units to move and which to leave. You throw dice to see whether each unit moves, in any order you like. Commanders’ role is confined to affecting this dice roll if close enough.

This did not work so well on this week’s outing, as I was the only player who knew the rules, and I was a little rusty. So instead of players working in parallel, they worked in sequence guided by me. This slowed the game down a lot, and we were nowhere near finished at the end. But the players were starting to get the hang of it, and if every player has a quick reference sheet, I could see this working fine. Perhaps I need to step back and act as gamesmaster next time to facilitate this. But the players seemed quite happy – they were expecting more complexity than there was.

The first question was how to adapt the rules to the era. This is where I came apart in my Waterloo game. I made several changes then, especially around the use of cavalry, and they worked badly. In fact I was assured that such changes were unnecessary. I had a very interesting dialogue with Chris Pringle, which you can read on my Waterloo post. Taking his comments to heart, I made very few changes this time. I looked up an old magazine article on adapting to BBB for a game of Borodino, and found myself rejecting most its modest changes (incorporating a square formation, for example). I made two main changes. First (which I had from my Waterloo game) I halved the figure scale for cavalry, so as to double the number of cavalry bases on the table. Second I adopted the fire table from the magazine article, which lengthened the ranges of artillery and musketry. The official versions were meant to reflect the relative strengths and weaknesses of these weapons compared to more modern ones. Two further adaptations were not changes. I did not use the rule on skirmisher bases. Regulars to this blog know that I get uptight about the treatment of skirmishers in wargames rules, and I wasn’t convinced by this one, both visually on the table (the skirmisher base is kept in close order in the main unit) and on historicity, in the Napoleonic context – it makes more sense when all armies used specialist jager/chasseur units at divisional level. More to the point I wanted to keep this first outing simple. I will return to this. A second change was to the way close combat assaults are determined. Instead of adding some factors and subtracting others from your dice, I arranged modifiers so that each side only had additions, which they could record on a D6, which could then be added to the score of the thrown dice; the result depended on the difference between totals thrown by each side. This worked very well, and Assaults did not get us into the tangle they did in my Waterloo game.

What of the scenario? Chris suggests that scenarios should be based on history, so that the game can be used to appreciate the choices that were available in real battles. There is no system points balancing and terrain choices. Scenario design is a very important element in how the system works – as Chris made very clear in his comments to my blog. I picked on Ligny – since that fitted with my French and Prussian armies (my Austrians not being table-ready). But this was too big for an evening game – so I took the situation of what would have happened if the French had pressed their attack a couple of hours earlier, as commentators suggested they should, before the Gerard’s and Thielmann’s corps arrived. I did some rapid standardisation of unit sizes. Prussian infantry units (four in each corps) were 6 bases (representing about 8,000 men), apart from one smaller unit which was 4 bases. I mainly classed these as Trained, but one unit in each of the two corps was Raw. The cavalry units were 4 bases, and all ordinary trained cavalry. Each corps had three artillery units, including one heavy. In the end I decided not to play horse artillery (which isn’t in fact catered for in the main rules). All the French infantry units were four bases (about 5,000 men). The line infantry (four units) was classed as veteran, the Young Guard as Trained Aggressive and the Old and Middle Guard as Veteran Aggressive. The cavalry units were 3 or 4 bases. They were mainly (three units) classed as Veteran, except the Cuirassiers (Trained Aggressive); the Guard cavalry was Veteran Aggressive. I gave the French three standard artillery batteries, on the assumption that any reserve batteries were still working their way up to the field.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do a proper job on the terrain, and then I couldn’t find the stream pieces in the club’s terrain boxes. I plumped some hills randomly across the table, except one which was formed the basis of the Prussian I Korps position. We experienced a slight technical problem. The Tiny Wargames mat we were using proved too slippery when placed over hills, so we used some slightly incompatible hills placed on top.

How did the game go? We started with the Prussian I Korps in place with II Korps moving in from the Prussian left. The French had four divisions of line infantry ready for the attack (three from Vandamme’s corps in the centre and one, Girard, from Reille’s corps to the left. They threw Vandamme’s divisions into a frontal assault on I Korps position by attacking Ligny, though the left hand one wouldn’t budge. The line cavalry moved out to the right to counter II Korps. The attacks on Ligny didn’t have much effect, except that the defenders got a short on ammo result, and had to be relieved. After two moves of failed movement throws Vandamme’s left division finally got moving; it joined an attack with Girard (from Reille’s corps) on the St Armand complex. This they did at right angles: one frontally and one in the flank. Though Girard was beaten back by strong fire, the other division’s flank attack went better: a bloody assault with two drawn assault rounds gutted the Prussian unit, while the French veteran status meant that it could fight on. Meanwhile the II Korps moved in on the French right. The French cavalry was immobilised by first artillery and then infantry fire. One of Vandamme’s divisions was called off to face this threat, while two Guard units were also pushed into this sector. The battle was slipping away from the French.

There are a couple of pointers here relevant to the historical battle. First it shows why Napoleon waited for Gerard’s corps to arrive, even though this allowed the Prussians to strengthen their position. An  attack on the Prussian position really needed to be conducted from two directions: frontally on Ligny, and on the Prussian right flank through St Armand. They needed two corps to do that, and if Gerard wasn’t there he’d have to have used the Guard, which was a reserve formation. Second it shows how terrain protected the French right, and how important this was. In our game II Korps successfully did what on the day III Korps tried and failed to do. The terrain obstacles that got in their way weren’t in our game – though they looked relatively slight on the map – a shallow stream and some rather open villages. I will have to look at the detailed map more closely to understand what it was that made an attack from this direction so hard.

And the rules? I think the longer weapon ranges were probably OK. Though it means infantry engaging at the equivalent of nearly a kilometre apart (6 inches on the table) this represents the more spread out nature of warfare not fitting our wargames representation – this would have included the use of skirmishers and divisional artillery. But it did mean that infantry could pressure cavalry with firepower, and I’m not sure how historical this is (to be fair cavalry wasn’t supposed to be good at holding ground in this era though). The fighting is often pretty indecisive with units being pushed about and forth without suffering serious damage. This means that I suspect that one turn covers quite a bit less than an hour’s worth of fighting (though St Armand went more to type). I felt this with our Waterloo game too, especially with the Prussian advance being slowed down relatively easily. It was probably a mistake to class the Cuirassiers as Trained though, as this makes them much more likely to be stopped by a bit of firepower. The Young Guard should probably not be classified as such either – perhaps the Aggressive rating (which affects the Assault) should be dropped to distinguish them from the veteran Guard units.  Or the older Guard units could be given “Devastating Volleys”.

Many of the issues reflect scenario design, and our inexperience. The French in the attack needed to think of more ways to achieve advantages for fire and assault. The skirmisher rules may give them more opportunities for this, though I remain sceptical of the BBB rule. Maybe introduce this on our next game. In fact I have an idea to represent skirmishers by deploying special bases in front of the units, and using this to extend the infantry firepower range (instead of the 6 inch allowance), but having cavalry able to suppress this. That’s for the future. I have learned to resist fiddling with mature rules systems like BBB.

One thing that will need more work is scenarios. I might try my Ligny minus scenario again, but with more historical terrain – but this doesn’t look the most exciting game for a club night. I have a battery of scenarios from the Crimean War onwards published by Chris Pringle, which I could try adapting for my French and Prussian armies. Otherwise I need to look at some mid-sized Napoleonic battles. I also need to think about getting my 15mm Napoleonic armies into better shape. I will resist trying to build some armies for Bismarck’s wars though!

I also like the visual appearance with my 15mm figures. The variable sized units of three or more bases look much better than the standard two base units required for Blucher or Horse, Foot, Guns, the two best alternatives. Cavalry units still look a little pathetic in 15mm. I am considering adjusting the figure scale down again, to be one third of the infantry (which means that the men to figure ratio would in fact be equal, as my cavalry bases have two figures and infantry six). I’m also thinking about something similar for artillery, which I think is a bit too compact (and adjusting the fire tables). But not until we have more experience under our belts. Meanwhile BBB Napoleonics look very promising for club nights.

An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Iron Cross house rules – first go

Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.

These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.

Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.

So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.

I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE.  And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.

I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.

Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.

A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.

And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat.  There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!

There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing.  Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.

I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!

In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!


Iron Cross WW2 rules: our first outing

One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.

The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.

The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.

How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine.  Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout.  It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.

The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.

Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a  Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.

A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.

Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.

Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.

A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45  degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.

The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.