Tag Archives: WW2

Sam Mustafa’s Rommel: first look

This game has been out for a few years now, and I’ve had my eye on it. It’s by Sam Mustafa, one of the world’s top wargames designers, for whom I have had a huge respect since the days of Grande Armée. Here he goes into a whole new era: WW2, and he has produced a game at operational level, to use the US military terminology (which I would otherwise call grand tactical). Each player has one or more divisions, and the playing area represents 72 square kilometres (or more…). Such games are commonplace as board games, but not on the tabletop, where games tend to have the flavour one-to-one representations, even when (for example Rapid Fire!) each piece actually represents a platoon or more. Now that I want to bring in such elements as artillery and air power to the tabletop, this is the sort of game I’m looking for. So at long last I splashed out on a copy.

I was rather underwhelmed at first. It’s quite a small book, like the Napoleonic Blucher from the same stable. The typesetting and visual appearance is similar to Blucher too, and overworked to my taste. The scantily clad 1940s girls adorning the chapter numbers may be very evocative of servicemen’s pin-ups, but it is just annoying to me, I’m afraid. The photos are a bit underwhelming too, and there aren’t many of them (though I don’t mind that so much). More seriously, as I got into the rules there seemed to be a lot missing: antitank guns, infantry guns (except when they aren’t), heavy mortars, recce units, AA units. Air power is dealt with in a very abstract way. Worse, the game structure seems very “gamey”, with each player having a “Command Post” sheet that reminds me of something similar in Saga, the very gamey Dark Ages game. The worry here is that you spend too much time playing the rules, rather than making decisions that resemble those of the historical counterparts. Sam badly overdid this in my view with his 18th century Maurice game, where players were playing hands of cards as well as troops on the table in a way that bore no resemblance to how actual generals went about their work.

But it quickly got better, though I still can’t reconcile myself to the visuals. Producing a game at this level is a tough gig if you are used to traditional style rules. You have to leave a lot out or else the whole thing gets overwhelming. This is the sort of thing that Sam is so good at. The game went through a lot of testing during which a lot of extraneous stuff was thrown out. I suppose if I want 120mm mortars, Bofors guns or Grille SP guns on the table then I need to go for a system like Rapid Fire. Likewise for model aircraft, though these could be brought in at a pinch as markers or tokens for “Events” or “Tactics”. The Command Post is much simpler than the Saga equivalent, and it is just a more sophisticated Command Point system. That may be too gamey in the end, but it’s not like playing a hand of cards.

So, what about the game? The first thing to say is that it is played on a grid of 1km squares. Practically these can’t be more than 6in (15cm) across, or else the table gets too big. That brings some challenges that I will come to. If you don’t like squares it is easy enough to adapt to hexes. The advantage of squares is twofold. Most important, they are very easy to mark out on the table using very discrete dots for the corners or the centres (the recommended method). Second is cosmetic; modern maps are marked up in a square grid, and maps played a critical part in the conduct of war at this level. Hexes make it look more like a board game. The use of squares to regulate movement, combat and artillery ranges feels like an excellent compromise for this sort of game. But it does mean that a lot geographical features get lost, like those support units: villages, roads, streams and so on.

Beyond that it really is quite hard to explain, especially since I haven’t tried playing it yet. It has an IgoUgo turn system. The player has a very limited budget of “Ops” (Command Points to you and me – I’m afraid I dislike Sam’s game terminology almost as much as his graphic design), which can be spent on movement, “Events” or “Tactics”. Doing well in combat looks expensive in points, while moving around is not so much. The combat resolution system is quite basic, but looks pretty appropriate. The whole thing is so unlike conventional games, though, it will take a little learning. As ever, Sam has thought of that, with basic rules and advanced rules, and a simple introductory scenario.

So what are my concerns? The first concerns my toys. For WW2 they are mainly 20mm, which is undoubtedly on the big side. It should be possible to get three Shermans into a 6in square (three is the stacking limit), but it would be a squeeze. There aren’t many photos of games in progress, but these mainly seem to be 6mm models on a 4in grid, with occasional 15mm or 2mm models. Undoubtedly the smaller models look better, though often I find their bases to be distracting. But 20mm models on a 6in grid will be not unlike 15mm ones on a 4in grid. Of course the missing toys grate, especially the anti-tank guns, which played such an important part in tactics of the time. The advanced rules allow what they call “tank hunters”, lightly armoured SP AT guns like the German Marder or Russian Su-76. That looked a bit of a cop-out to me – a bit of warmgamer’s bias to anything with tracks. These really are just mobile AT guns with almost no attack value. This clearly grated on early gamers too – as the downloadable optional rules contain an extra rule on massed AT guns. This is meant to represent such tactics as German Pakfronts, used by German, Soviet and British armies from mid-war on. There is also a “Tactic” to represent the presence of 88s and British 17pdrs (“Pheasants” – though I think that term only applied to the early improvised weapons on 25pdr carriages, of which I actually have a rather crude model). If you wanted to, it would be quite easy to put on heavy mortars or infantry guns, as after all the rules make occasional provision for 75mm howitzers. The issue is how concentrated these units were in practice – as an artillery unit needs to be quite beefy to get onto the table. Indeed it is quite hard for me to reconcile the presence of German 75mm guns in the early and late periods, and US pack howitzers for paras, but not American Chemical Mortar units, which played quite a significant role at Salerno, for example. Of course this game is doubtless plagued by dozens of issues like this, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

After the toys issue, I thought there was something else missing. There is no recognition of the significance of vantage points and commanding heights. That shows the influence of the Tunisian and Italian campaigns on my thinking, for my Project 1943. Commanding heights were critical objectives, and their possession influenced the direction of battles in these theatres. It was also a big deal on the Western Front in WW1, even around Ypres were on first impression the ground is pretty flat. On reflection I am feeling this is not such a big problem, as I don’t think it was such an issue in the relatively fluid battles fought across relatively flat terrain for much of the war. There are ways it can be dealt with too in the exceptional places, perhaps with the use of the Recce tactic, or other parts of the Command Post; exploiting a vantage point should surely require CPs. But that brings on another issue: the game has a fairly easy to understand open architecture when designing units, but the design of the Command Posts is less transparent. Each country (with the US and Britain treated as integrated allies) has a standard CP for each of the early, mid and late war periods. This looks as if it should work well enough for most of the time, but there will always be a case for tinkering with it, and the design aspects of this are not transparent.

Still, I feel I must give this a try. This means I must give some thought as to table design. I am not inspired by the photos of games In action. Firstly, with my 20mm models I think I need to go for an abstract look, bringing to mind maps rather than real terrain. That would men no physical terrain pieces on the table. There just isn’t room, and they look wrong. A tree is not a forest. A lone building is not a street. The terrain markings need to be flat, so that the models can go on top as glorified counters. Features can be named, including ones that have no game significance (like villages and major roads), but would have been important geographical markers. It might be a bit ambitious to give every square a name (72 squares!), but there should be enough to help navigation. I think that would do a lot to give the game atmosphere . I do have some 6mm models too, though only a US army that is ready for the table top. I was thinking of using these to try out Battlefront rules, based on the late war (perhaps the Lorraine battles in September 1944). Some thought needs to be given about these as well. It is more practical for these to have more representational terrain though the temptation is to have smaller (4in) squares, which make this harder. This is worth thinking about. I have a feeling that a weak visual appearance on the tabletop is one of the reasons these rules haven’t caught on as much as they might have done.

A final issue for me is to think about ways to make the use air power less abstract. I totally understand why Sam never attempted this – it entails a whole new layer of the game. It is purely something I need to get off my chest. Air power did have an important part to play at this level, though it was often away from the main battle front. I would like players to have air assets which they then choose to deploy to influence the battle as best they can, through front line support, air superiority, interdiction or medium level bombing. I think space could be made for this in a game like this. But a while down the track on that one!

But overall Sam Mustafa is to be congratulated in taking on a very challenging project, and coming up with solutions I would never have thought of, and giving insights into the sorts of compromises that have to be made. I am looking forward to trying these rules out. One day.

WW2 – I Ain’t Been Shot Mum

Domestic circumstances mean I can’t go back to painting miniatures (we’re about to put the house onto the market), so my hobby time at home is largely devoted to pondering rules. After spending quite a bit of time (successfully) on Napoleonics, I switched to WW2, where my group at the club has failed to find anything satisfactory for our club games.

So far I have been trying to create a mash up of Battlefront WW2, Battlegroup, and Iron Cross. This uses the (largely) the IC game scales (units, distances, etc.), the BF turn system and BG armour and gun ratings, with quite a lot of other ideas thrown in. It’s a struggle, though the sort of challenge I enjoy. It is much harder doing WW2 rules than Napoleonic! While making some progress I thought I was missing a certain something, and decided to acquire yet another set of rules for inspiration. This was I Ain’t Been Shot Mum (IABSM) from Too Fat Lardies. These are used by other players at the club, and TFL are an interesting publisher, whose motto “play the period, not the rules” I wholeheartedly agree with. This post is my reaction from a read-through. I haven’t tried them out.

Trying them out would in fact be less than straightforward. They are card-driven, and a set of cards would have to be created first, or bought; the current logistics at home would make it even harder for a solo trial game (though the system is an excellent solo system). In terms of game scale they fit my brief quite nicely: company level actions with mixed infantry and armour, with a 1to1 scaling of vehicles. Ground scale is 12in to 80 yards, probably not far from Iron Cross (which does offer a scale) – and a bit higher than my current working model (1in to 10m). But game play is not such a good fit.

IABSM follows the current trend of individual unit activation, with units from both sides being mixed up. In this case it is driven by cards. Each unit (platoon) has a card, which is shuffled up and then drawn, together with a “tea break” card which ends the turn, usually before all units are activated. A lot of other cards are added to the pack, including for “Big Men” – leaders. This is a very TFL feature – they love to represent the way that individual leaders can shape a battle. This is a very interesting and flexible system, and it would be fun to see how it works. Once activated each unit has a number of actions (up to four), which be used to move, fire, etc. I find this problematic on a number of levels, though these issues plague other rules systems too. You can loose off several rounds while the other guy just sits there; you can do a “moving ambush” – moving into view of the enemy and then firing before he can react; the highly sequential way in which things are played potentially slows things down, especially for multiplayer games. I may well have exaggerated all these concerns. You can put troops on overwatch, which allows them to react to enemy movement in the enemy turn (though your unit must have been activated earlier in the sequence). A lot of the firing actually takes place at the end of a turn, which is simultaneous (as far as I can tell, I haven’t found that bit of the rules).

A second issue is that the rules are actually quite complicated, though making the usual claims about fast play and simplicity. Infantry sections are made up of men 1to1, with individual casualties; “shock” is tracked for all units as an accounting for morale; AFVs can acquire several varieties of damage. Firing looks quite involved with quite a few dice, because of the number of different effects a hit can have (killing figures, shock, two levels of suppression, and vehicle damage), with different processes for infantry fire, fire on vehicles and HE fire, not to mention indirect fire and air strikes. This makes it much more complicated than any of the systems I am familiar with (Iron Cross, Battlefront, Battlegroup in particular). Now this is probably all quite easy to pick up and play, and overall the rules seem less complicated than Battlefront, though not the other systems, which partly because these other systems have gaps. You would definitely want to play your first game with somebody that knows them, though that is true of most systems.

I won’t be trying them out on my usual gaming partners at the club, but these look very interesting rules, put together by experts in game design. I will find myself filching a number of ideas. I especially like the blinds system, which is particularly flexible. This is part of a spotting system, which looks like an elegant compromise, though I am confused about one or two aspects. (Why is there +1 to the dice for spotting a target that is firing, when blinds can only fire if they reveal themselves?).

I did not find the answer to my missing “certain something” on my current project. I am working on a more traditional IgoUgo turn system, where all units on the same side fire at once, if eligible, but units react faster to each other. This system is based on the Fire and Fury one (and used by Battlefront), but with a twist. A static unit can fire at the beginning and end of its turn, with the enemy eligible for defensive fire in between. This means the fire sequence across a pair of turns for static units is ABABAB, and not BAAB as with the classic system. What I am missing is an idea of what I call “game narrative”. This game is played across a relatively small area (500 to 600m across) with powerful and very noisy weapons. This means that the action should not be too complex – as implied by the activation systems of IABSM, IC and even BF. Events should evolve as a single battle rather than a complex multiple interaction between individual units. For example, when an artillery bombardment is going on (or an airstrike), nothing much else should happen – it is an interruption to the flow of events. This leads me to the idea that one side or the other holds the initiative, for example when conducting an assault, with the other hunkering down and firing like mad. The initiative idea doesn’t have to be baked into a game system, as players should respond to the tabletop situation in that way without special rules. But the idea of one side having the initiative and the other having fewer options might be a way to speed the game along.

But how do you determine who has the initiative, and integrate into this a system for bringing on off-table resources, such as bombardments and reinforcements? I’m still pondering on that one. But I’m hoping to get a fast, highly interactive game that is suitable for a club night, while retaining something of the feel of WW2 warfare.