the-scheldt-campaign

The Scheldt Campaign has been a game that I have had a great deal of interest in since news broke earlier this year that it would be reprinted by Hollandspiele and given the deluxe edition treatment with laser cut counters, an updated map with new art as well as a beautifully designed box. As a fan of Brian Train and his designs (I own A Distant Plain and am greatly anticipating Colonial Twilight next year!), this game looks very interesting to me and covers a little talked about, and definitely under represented, part of the history of World War II.  I reached out to Brian to see if he would give me some information and he did a great job of getting me nearly 3,000 words on the game. So, enjoy the interview:

Grant: Why did Hollandspiele choose to reprint The Scheldt Campaign?

Brian: Hollandspiele is two people, Tom and Mary Russell, who at one point were working with Mark Walker to produce the “Tiny Battles” folio games and YAAH! Magazine. I got to know them from producing my games Winter Thunder (Battle of the Bulge) and War Plan Crimson (fascist US invades Canada in late 1930s, hmmm) in the former, and three games – Army of Shadows, Guerrilla Checkers and Uprising – in #2 of YAAH! magazine.

In 2016 they struck out to form their own game company and reached out to a number of people, including me, to see if there were any designs they could produce in the first wave of product. They gave me the old soft-soap about how I was one of the best and most innovative designers they had the pleasure to work with, and they had room in the catalogue for obscure, oddball or asymmetrical conflicts, without the limitations on map and counter size in effect for Tiny Battles. And their terms made sense: I retained all rights to the game while they got a license to produce it for three years; and a royalty per game sold with some money paid up front.

I offered them a number of designs and we settled on Scheldt as the most likely one. Since it was firmly historical and World War II so would sell well, but it was different enough because it was the first game ever designed to focus strictly on the Scheldt Campaign and which emphasized the asymmetries between the two sides.

Grant: You really are a great designer so they aren’t just buttering you up. What is different in this deluxe edition?

Brian: A box, thick laser-cut counters instead of thinner die-cut ones, different layouts for the player aids and rules, new map art. But it’s the same game as the original Microgame Design Group one, underneath.

Grant: On to the game itself. I understand the game system used is based on the Victory Point Games Bulge 20 The Ardennes Offensive game by Joseph Miranda. What is this system and why did it make sense for your design?

Brian: Joe introduced this Staff Card Engine (or system or what have you) to the world with Bulge 20 in 2009. But my personal introduction to it was when I was working on BCT Command: Kandahar (Modern Conflict Studies Group, 2013) with him, Jon Compton and Michael Anderson in 2010. This game uses a modern adaptation of the system, and I made yet another adaptation of it for my game Next War in Lebanon (which suffered greatly in “development” when it was published by Decision Games in Modern War magazine, and which is available for free print-and-play in its original form from my website under the title Third Lebanon War. (https://brtrain.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/next-war-in-lebanon-redux/)).

In its basic World War II form, and which I adapted for The Scheldt Campaign, players select and play from a hand of cards that cover basic staff functions.

Each player has a C2 Level which represents the maximum number of Staff cards he may have in his hand at any one time. The current C2 Level also determines how many Tactical Units the player may have under command of a single Task Force HQ at one time. Also, the mix of Staff Cards differs between the German and Allied sides.

Each Player selects his hand of Staff Cards from those in his Available Pile during his Planning Phase at the end of his Player Turn. Cards remain in your hand until played or your ensuing Planning Phase, at which time you keep or discard any cards in your hand and then select back up to your current C2 Level (thus planning out your next turn).

There are never enough Staff Cards so you have to balance out the need to push on vs. the risk of burning out your front line units. I liked this aspect of forcing hard choices on players, and being able to at least partially script the turn coming….though your choices could be rendered bad ones by the enemy’s selected actions.

scheldtcvr1
This image was to be used on the box cover itself but Brian felt everyone looked too happy…”Hey, I’m dry on a boat!”

Grant: Tell us a little about the history of the battle and why it was important? If Market-Garden had succeeded would we be talking about the Scheldt estuary?

Brian: In September 1944, the First Canadian Army, as the force on the left flank of the Allied advance, was largely occupied in reducing the German garrisons left behind to hold out and destroy the minor Channel ports like Calais, Dunkirk (which actually held out until the end of the war) and Ostend. Meanwhile, the Second British Army captured Antwerp largely intact on 4 September 1944. Some bridges across the canals leading inland were blown, but the dock facilities were mostly undamaged. Getting the port running again would have solved the tremendous logistical problems the Allies were facing, as much of their supplies were still coming in through the invasion sites at Normandy. But those docks were at the end of 60 miles of heavily mined estuary, covered by coastal artillery batteries.

Montgomery saw an opportunity open up with a perceived weak spot in the front line, and thought he could make it to the Rhine and Ruhr industrial region with an “airborne carpet” of troops (“Market”) dropped to clear the way for a quick mechanized advance (“Garden”), so ending the war quickly and removing the need for a campaign to clear the mouth and banks of the Scheldt and Walcheren Island. I suppose if Operation Market-Garden had been every bit the success he hoped it would be, the Scheldt Campaign would never have had to be fought. But I think that the probability of Market-Garden having that degree of success was remote.

As it was, priority over what supplies were arriving was given to the Second British Army and its XXX Corps, then engaged in “Garden”. The First Canadian Army could not advance beyond Antwerp, and close off the approaches to Walcheren Island. So by the time Market-Garden was closed down in the last week of September, much of the German 15th Army had managed to withdraw to defensive lines on the Turnhout Canal and reinforce Walcheren Island – which made the campaign much longer and harder than it could have been. The mines in the Scheldt were not swept until after the German surrender of Walcheren on 8 November, and the first supply ships did not enter Antwerp until 28 November…just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, two and a half weeks later.

Grant: I read where the nature of this campaign poses challenges to the players due to the grinding, attritional nature of the fighting; the difficulty of the terrain fought over, etc. How did you deal with each aspect to include it in game play?

across-the-scheldt
Buffalo amphibious vehicles taking Canadians across the Scheldt.

Brian: There are many kinds of objectionable terrain on the map: woods, polder (reclaimed wetlands) and flooded hexes to flounder about in; canals and rivers to cross; villages, towns and cities to fight through; and the Scheldt Estuary itself, which can only be crossed by amphibious units or captured ferries. The Germans had had years to fortify Walcheren Island and the area around Breskens and Knokke-zur-See with blockhouses, entrenchments and fortified casements for the coastal artillery batteries that guarded the mouth of the Scheldt. Most of the land was entirely flat and saturated, so difficult to move or drive through, and roads tended to be on top of dikes and were straight, or silhouetted vehicles moving along them. Another terrain peculiarity was the Walcheren Causeway, the only land link to Walcheren Island. It was 40 metres wide, 1600 metres long, and dead straight: and the Allies had no choice but to attack directly over it, in full sight of the defending German garrison.

In a battle, the defender is allowed to reduce the number of hits received by the terrain modifier of the hex itself, and still further if it was attacked across a canal, river or causeway hexside, and still further if the hex is fortified.

There are no weather rules in the game, as the weather was uniformly awful throughout.

Grant: How do players choose what units to activate and how is this decided? By points? A certain number of units?

scheldt-campaign-counters-2

Brian: The player whose turn it is plays the staff cards from their hand in any order desired. Playing a G-3 Operations marker lets the player move or attack with one “unit”. A unit can be anything from a single Tactical Unit (which can be anything from a scratch battalion of draftees to a full brigade of infantry or tanks) to a Task Force composed of a number of Tactical Units equal to a side’s C2 Level (in the game this is 4 for the Germans and 7 for the Allies). So obviously it is more efficient to group your forces into these task forces, but if you do you dominate less ground.

Grant: How is combat handled as I understand it doesn’t use a CRT?

Brian: In the battle sequence the attacking player plays a G-3 Operations to declare the attack, and either or both sides may commit G-2 Intelligence or G-4 Logistics markers. G-2 markers may change who gets to fire first (normally it’s the defender), G-4 markers allow firing of supporting artillery in range and (for Allies only) added airpower.

Combat resolution is a “bucket of dice” system: roll 1d6 per Attack Factor or Defence Factor involved. A “5” is one Hit, and a “6” is two Hits. Hits are distributed by the affected player among their Tactical Units, and each Hit reduces the Tactical Unit’s combat factors by one. Hits are modified by defender’s terrain, water hexsides, fortifications, retreats and the presence of a couple of chrome units. When the Hits on a Tactical Unit exceed its Defence Factor, the unit is eliminated (and can’t be brought back into the game).

Combat is not simultaneous – the second side to fire does so with whatever is left. So who gets Tactical Advantage (first fire) can be very significant among evenly matched forces.

scheldt-campaign-counters

Grant: How do HQ counters work? How many units can be activated from each HQ or are there different types with varying bonuses and abilities? What are the OOB mats and how are they used?

Brian: See above. HQ units are Task Forces that contain one or more Tactical Units in them, and the units are kept in matching boxes on the Order of Battle (OOB) mats.

Grant: What are the Staff Markers and how are they used? Can you describe them for us?

Brian: In the game you have four kinds of staff markers, with the following functions:

  • G-1 (Administration):
    • Enter reinforcement units (not in Isolated hexes);
    • Recover 1-3 Hits from Tactical Units (only one card per Tactical unit, and if not Isolated)
  • G-2 (Intelligence):
    • Regroup Tactical Units in Operations Zone of a Task Force HQ;
    • Play in Battle sequence to take or keep Tactical Advantage (first fire);
    • Play any time to inspect enemy Staff Marker hand or OOB Mat for 30 seconds
  • G-3 (operations):
    • Conduct Tactical Movement with one unit (which can be anything from a single battalion to a Task Force HQ fully loaded with combat brigades and supporting arms);
    • Conduct an Attack
  • G-4 (Logistics):
    • conduct Strategic Movement (either triple MF with one unit, or cross-Scheldt movement with one Tactical Unit);
    • Play in Commitment step of Battle sequence to give Combat Support (German can play one for artillery; Allied can play one for artillery and one for Air Support)

Originally the Hollandspiele edition was supposed to have poker-sized cards, but this did not work out and so there are Staff Markers. But if you go to the files section of the BGG entry for this game, you can download a set of nicely made cards by player John Collis to print out! https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/125416/scheldt-campaign/files

Grant: What is the Allied objective and what is the Axis objective? Which side has the harder go of it?

Brian: The Allied player has 32 turns (each turn is 1-2 days) to eliminate all 10 German coastal artillery units. Five of these are in the Breskens Pocket on the west side of the map, five are on Walcheren Island. If he does this in less than 32 turns, he gets extra victory points and both sides compare Victory Points to derive a scale of victory. If he does not do it in time, the German wins an Impressive Victory.

The Allies get points by finishing up quickly, occupying cities, and destroying German HQ units. The Germans get points for eliminating Allied Tactical and HQ units, keeping cities, preserving their HQ units, and if the Allied player chose to add optional units or bomb the dikes on Walcheren Island (which floods the whole island but may destroy some German units).

The Allied player is constantly on the offensive, but he must consider carefully how burned out he will allow his units to become. The Germans are on the defensive, and are playing for time, but they can organize a small reaction force of two paratroop regiments and some assault gun brigades that delivers a sharp counterattack.

Grant: What points of strategy would you recommend for the Allies? For the Axis?

Brian: It’s a pretty straightforward situation. The Allies must reduce the Breskens Pocket, and get themselves onto Walcheren Island. The latter can only be done by an approach march up the long Beveland Isthmus, fighting across two canals and difficult terrain. There are three occasions during the game when the Allies can land a commando brigade directly on Walcheren Island, but this one unit is not enough to take it. So it’s a question of when and where to deliver main efforts and how long to keep them up.

It’s also pretty straightforward for the Germans – defend tenaciously, but not stupidly. Buy time. A well-timed counterattack can throw off the Allied schedule as well.

Grant: How does the terrain affect gameplay?

Brian: See my earlier comments on terrain; it definitely favours the defence. There is always another river or canal to cross, or polder to fight through.

Grant: The map looks awesome. What has changed on the map from the original game? What role does the map play in the game?

scheldtmap1

Brian: The map in the new edition was done by Ilya Kudriashov, who has been getting a lot of work lately. Besides this game, he has also done maps for other small-press companies: Compass Games, Tiny Battles and Victory Point Games.

The content of the map hasn’t changed, but the style certainly has. In the original, Microgame Design Group edition, I asked Kerry Anderson to give the map and counters a late-70s SPI look – which he did very ably. Ilya gave the map an overall gray tone and made all the colours muddier, giving it a dull, saturated look. Ilya also used the “caltrop” style of hex drawing, which marks in only the vertices of the hexes and makes the hex grid fade considerably. He also used a serif font for the place names, which made me recall the other time Walcheren Island was fought over – a disastrous campaign in 1809 when the British landed 39,000 men on the island in hopes of destroying a French fleet at Vlissingen (Flushing), failed, and lost thousands of soldiers to disease.

I like both map versions actually. Kerry did a very good job of what I asked him to do, in portraying something done in the style of my favourite period of wargame graphics, and Ilya has produced something that looks like it should make a squishy noise when you unfold it.

Grant: What part does bluffing play and how does a player bluff? What about tempo? How does it affect strategy?

Brian: The Staff Markers a player has in their hand is a secret (you can play a G-2 Intelligence to look at it, or to get 30 seconds to look at the enemy’s OOB Mat). So there can be a certain amount of bluffing involved, in that neither side is exactly sure who has an extra G-2 or G-4 marker to steal that first-fire advantage, or give a defence an unanticipated boost.

Grant: How does the solitaire design work? Does it play well?

Brian: The game is quite playable solitaire, though you do lose that bluffing and suspense if you lack the necessary degree of brain bifurcation. As I said, the situation is quite straightforward but there are a lot of difficult small decisions over when and how to press an attack, or abandon a defence.

Grant: What optional rules are included?

Brian: There are quite a few special units that fought or could have fought in the campaign, with rules to match. Included in the standard game are:

  • a detachment of “Funnies”, armoured engineering vehicles from the 79th Armoured Division, which reduce the effect of the defender’s terrain;
  • the 1st Canadian Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment, which can reduce the hits applied to one infantry Tactical Unit in combat;
  • the 5th Assault Regiment, another detachment from the 79th Armoured, equipped with amphibious vehicles to carry one infantry Tactical Unit across water; and
  • the 4th Special Service Force, a commando brigade that can be landed directly onto Walcheren Island (though, owing to the requirement for the right combination of tides, daylight and shipping, there are only three chances during the game to do this).

The Allied player also has the option of adding the British 51st Division, stripped from elsewhere on the front, and/or dropping up to two parachute brigades. Using these units means foregone opportunities elsewhere on the front, so the German player receives Victory Points in this case.

There is one optional rule for a “Tactical Reaction”. To do this, a defending player expends a G-3 Operations marker when an attack is declared against them, which allows a shift of one unit (again, this can be anything from a single Tactical Unit to an entire Task Force) from an adjacent hex, to join the defending forces. It is mostly for the benefit of the German player, and reflects the German historical ability to engage in mobile defence and their use of “firefighter” reaction forces kept a short distance behind the front line to launch quick small counterattacks.

commandos_landing_near-walcheren
Royal Marines wade ashore near Vlissingen to complete the occupation of Walcheren, November 1, 1944.

Grant: What are the “what if” scenarios?

Brian: Players have a choice of playing a free setup game which starts a few days before the historical beginning of the campaign. Players have more discretion on how to deploy their forces, but now the Allied player must begin by fighting across the Turnhout Canal.

Grant: What are you most pleased with regarding the design? Is there anything you would change?

Brian: I really like Joe Miranda’s Staff Card system, for its flexibility and how it can be altered to show many different circumstances. I already noted that this system, used originally and here to show a campaign between two conventional armies, has also been used to cover modern conflicts between two very different kinds of antagonists. I would like to do more games using this system, when I have the time. Meanwhile, there is nothing I would change about this game.

Grant: How long does a session take to play? What either increases or decreases the play time?

Brian: Perhaps between two to three hours, though as always this depends on who you are playing against and how familiar you are with the system itself. If you are facing one of those Analysis Paralysis types, and can restrain yourself from hitting them in the neck with a big wrench, add another hour or more.

Grant: What has been the player reaction to the new version?

Brian: Good! The game has received some very nice ratings on BGG (though that does not mean much) as well as good reviews (which means a lot more).

Grant: What do you like most about the game play? What makes it different from other similar games?

Brian: In my game designs I like giving players difficult choices. This game abounds in them. There is only one other game on the Scheldt Campaign, a 100-counter folio game from Decision Games, but in my opinion it has serious flaws in its history, choice of system and course of play. But it is another game. And it is different.

Thank you for your time Brian in answering my questions. You always do a great job of giving in-depth information that can help potential buyers of your games make a purchase decision. If you are interested in purchasing The Scheldt Campaign by Hollanspiele, proceed to this link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/the-scheldt-campaign

-Grant