Since I first started seeing Old School Tactical being advertised last year on social media, I have been asking myself the question, “What does ‘old school’ mean?”. I know that this question could spawn heated debate on the issue for weeks but in my humble opinion, it means several things. One that immediately comes to mind is the use of CRT’s, DRM’s and tables, tables, tables to refer to in order to decide the outcome of any combat. Another is the use of odds calculations and ratios for the combat system. Another aspect that makes something old school is the use of lots and lots of square counters and obviously the use of good old dependable hexes! (I still remember the first time I saw a wargame with hexes and thought, how messy!) It also means you move all of your pieces and then I get to move mine. Old school more typically is a nostalgic term that many of us gray hairs use to talk about the good old days and why things are so bad now. But “old school” is more than simple nostalgia, a fistful of counters and an over reliance on CRT’s with print so small Grognards must reach for their glasses to read it. It means a game that takes a good amount of time to play and that will tax you, and make you pull your hair out!
So after now having played Old School Tactical designed by Shayne Logan and published by Flying Pig Games, I must now ask the question “Does OST have what it takes to be considered an ‘old school’ wargame?”
What is Old School Tactical About?
But first, before we dive into the philosophical argument over meaning, let’s take a look at the basics of Old School Tactical and how it plays. Volume 1 of Old School Tactical is a simulation of small unit combined arms engagements on the Eastern Front of World War II during 1941-1942. The game is a tactical battle game where historical units, weapons, armor and vehicles will duke it out on a beautifully crafted board full of hexes. During a turn, players will go back and forth using an Impulse Point System to activate units to either Move, Assault Move or Fire. The players will play through a predetermined amount of rounds and at the end, victory points and casualty points will determine which side is the victor.
The Impulse Point (IP) system is very revolutionary in my opinion and attempts to model the difficulties and uncertainty of battlefield command. The amount of Impulse Points that each side has to work with each round is determined by a dice roll during the Turn Sequence (read more on this below). Each side either rolls 2 or 3 dice, depending on the scenario and its circumstances, and then marks that number on their Impulse Points track. This means that either side will have between 2-18 IP’s to use during that round. These points are then used in order to activate individual units or groups or stacks of units to take actions such as Move, Assault Move or Fire. Each of these actions costs 1 IP or if moving or firing an entire group, it will cost 2. The Impulse Point system is designed to simulate the rigors of battle including poor communication, lack of ammunition, fear or courage under fire and many other considerations that existed during combat. This system can be extremely frustrating at times, especially when you roll poorly and end up having only 2 or 3 points while your opponent rolled extremely well and has 15 units. This means that you will be able to take less actions this round while your opponent gets more. More actions leads to greater results on the battlefield and can truly determine the outcome of the game. If a player has less IP’s than his opponent, he can pass his turn and take no action without losing a point. If a player has more points and decides not to act, then they must sacrifice one point that round. This part of the system is really good as you have to decide how best to use those points. Do you wait to perform an Opportunity Fire on your opponents move when they come into range? Or do you seize the advantage and move across an open field in order to take up defensible positions in that small structure before your enemy can benefit from it? Great decision points with this system that create significant opportunities for strategy and definitely an aspect that doesn’t feel “old school” but more modern.
The Turn Sequence is fairly standard and includes both administrative steps, such as moving the Turn Marker, deploying any reinforcements designated by the scenario and adjusting smoke counters and performing any specific scenario rolls. During the Free Rally step, each player that has units that have been affected by a condition from a firefight, such as a Shaken or Broken counter, gets an automatic Free Rally Roll. In order to rally their unit, they must roll a 7 or higher on 2d6 if they are Shaken and a 9 or higher on 2d6 if Broken. Leaders that are within their Command Range of units making this roll provide a +1 DRM. If they are successful, the counter is removed and it remains if unsuccessful. A Free Rally costs no Impulse Points but can only be tried once during this step. Bog Rolls are also performed during this step for any vehicles located in an unfriendly terrain hex, such as Woods, Farm, Brush, Hedge, etc. for their type of movement, either Wheel or Track. If they fail the Bog Roll, they remain bogged down and if they really fail by rolling a 1, a vehicle can be permanently immobilized. Initiative is a very critical part of the Turn Sequence and is simply a roll off between the two players to see who gets to take the first action. Following this roll comes the most important roll of the round, the Impulse Roll. This is simply where a scenario can be readily won or lost. As mentioned above, each players rolls 2-3 six sided dice and adds their total up accumulating from 2-18 Impulse Points to be used during the round. This step felt very frustrating during our plays as you can literally roll “snake eyes” and have 2 IP’s for the entire round. That round would include lots and lots of passing and not much else. I can deal with one bad round but 2 in a row can be utterly devastating. Next up is the meat of the game, the Play Turn where each player uses those earned IP’s to wage war on each other by performing various actions including Move, Assault Move or Fire. Lets take a quick look at each of these steps in a little more detail:
- Move – Each unit has a printed movement cost on their counter and each hex that they move into costs a certain amount of movements points. Pretty standard stuff really. The player must use an Impulse Point to move a single unit or 2 IP’s to move a group of units which can consist of an attached Leader and up to 2 units. If moved as a group, the units can only move as far as the lowest movement allowance unit in the stack. Each terrain hex has a different movement requirement based on whether you are using foot, wheels or tracks. Fortifications and wreckage from vehicles can impact movement. If a unit or group is attacked it must stop in that hex if they become Shaken, Broken, Immobilized or take casualties. After a unit or group is moved, you place a Moved marker on top of them as each unit may only move once per turn, excluding Assault Move.
- Assault Move – Units may also move into an adjacent hex that contains enemy units as a part of an Assault Move. Each unit or group can only perform 1 such Assault Move per turn which also simply costs 1 IP. A Melee marker is placed in the hex and the hand to hand combat takes place at the end of the current turn in which the Melee marker was placed. Units that are Broken, Shaken or have taken casualties prior to the Assault Move cannot perform the action. In my humble opinion, Melee is the best part of the game!
- Fire – A unit can make a Fire attack at another hex if they are in range and have Line of Sight. They simply spend 1 IP, name a specific target in that hex and then roll. A unit can Fire twice per turn. If they have moved prior to the Fire attack as one of their two allowed actions that turn, they will suffer -1 to Attack and a -1 DRM. After the unit Fires, you place a Fired marker on that unit. Combat results are determined with a very simple formula. Attacker FP – Defender Defense = Attack FP. Once this number is determined, you roll 2d6 and you consult the appropriate column on the Infantry Combat Table for the results of the attack. For example, a Russian Shock unit with FP 5 attacks an adjacent hex with a German Assault unit with Defense 3 who is hunkered down in a Light Structure which offers +1 Defense. The formula looks something like this; Attacker – FP 5 + +1 Adjacent Target for a Total Attacker FP of 6 – Defender – 3 Defense + +1 Terrain for a Total Defense of 4 = 6-4 = 2. I roll 2d6 and obtain a result of 5 and I consult the +2 column on the ICT. The result of this combat is that the unit becomes Shaken. But first, the unit gets a chance to save itself with a Gut Check (see below for more detail).
The possible results on the ICT include the following:
X – Unit destroyed. The unit is removed from play and an appropriate amount of Casualty Points are scored by the player that eliminated the unit.
C – Casualties. If the unit is at full strength, the counter is flipped to its reversed side and the attacker scores 1 Casualty Point. If the unit is already reduced, the unit is removed from play and the attacker scores 1 Casualty Point.
B – Broken. The unit is Broken if it fails its Gut Check roll and cannot move or fire.
S – Shaken. The unit is Shaken if it fails its Gut Check roll and has both its movement and firepower halved.
A Gut Check is a roll against a set number that is provided to each unit that potentially is taking damage from an enemy Fire Attack including Broken and Shaken. The Gut Check number is set by the scenario and is a measure of the morale of the units or their fighting spirit. If the roll on 2d6 is equal to or greater than the Gut Check number, the unit passes the check and the affect is ignored. If it rolls under the number, the unit fails and the appropriate marker is placed on the unit. I like the Gut Check and it will remind players of other tactical games of Morale.
One of the major differences in Old School Tactical from many other older wargames is the difference in the use of the Impulse Points where each player moves one unit or a group of units and then it is the other players turn. The Opportunity Fire is a further step away from ‘old school’. When an enemy unit or units are moving, the other player can announce a halt in their movement at any point and may fire at those units if they are in range and their is a Line of Sight to the target. This action requires 2 Impulse Points and if the attack misses and has no effect, the group may continue their movement to the end. During the Opp Fire, the attacker can only target one unit in the group but may fire on that group as many times as they have IP’s and while the moving unit hasn’t reached its final movement hex. I love Opp Fire and its proper use can truly affect the outcome of a battle more than direct Fire Attacks as when units are moving they are generally out in the open, rather than hunkered down behind a Stone Wall and their defense is easier to overcome giving the attacker better columns to consult on the ICT which leads to generally more lethal results.
The big benefit that the Impulse Point system has over its counterparts is the level of engagement of the players. You no longer have to wait for your opponent to move all of their units before you get a chance to move yours. Old School Tactical forces you to pay attention to each and every move your opponent makes and to constantly survey the board and plan your reactions. I think that you would have to work pretty hard in OST to not be not be engaged due to the fact that at any moment, your opponent could make a critical miscalculation or assume you aren’t paying attention and move an inviting target within range and the Line of Sight of one of your units allowing an Opp Fire action. The Impulse System is as close as you are every going to get to recreating a real-time battle on the table.
There are 2 type of cards in OST, including Unit cards and Luck cards. The Unit cards simply provide the various statistics of the units that are included in the scenario as an easy reference. There are cards for each type of unit and vehicle included in the game and I have found that these cards are a great resource to remind you of the full capabilities of the units. We have particularly found the Leader cards to be useful as Leaders effect several different types of attacks and actions differently and have rules about Attaching, Casualties, etc. that are nice to not have to search through the rulebook to find.
The Luck cards are a one time bonus for various situations and are a really good part of the game. I would like to see an option for the use of Impulse Points to buy a new Luck card. We found that in several scenarios one side had several unused IP’s at the end of a round with nothing to do with them. Allowing the “purchase” of one additional Luck card would be a good addition that won’t affect balance.
Now to a look at the crowning achievement of OST. The vehicles in all their glory, including Trucks, Armored cars, Panzers, Stug III’s, T26’s and T34’s. A lot of tanky goodness! The rules for vehicle combat take into account various aspects that are really great including facing, forward and rear defense, fire arcs, etc. and to be honest it is pretty straightforward once you get the moving parts down pat. The vehicles use their own Vehicle Combat Table and the results are a little more lethal than Infantry combat, as should be expected. I really enjoy the addition of the vehicles to this game and their strategic uses are infinite. In one of our matches, I was able to move a BA 20 halfway across the map (using the movement bonus for wheeled vehicles on roads) to successfully prevent the Germans from moving into one of the objectives that I was trying to hold. I do look forward to playing many more scenarios with these steel beasts.
What I Liked About Old School Tactical
Impulse System – I already commented about this quite a bit above but really enjoyed the use of the Impulse System. It is very different than the more traditional I-Go-You-Go prevalent in many older wargames and is definitely a more modern design that works very well with this game. One very interesting aspect of the system is the pass rule, where if you have less IP’s than your opponent, you can decide to pass without having to forfeit one of your points. Normally, if you decide to pass, but have more points than your opponent, you have to spend an IP to do so. This was a great design choice as it really does make a good attempt to address any discrepancy in IP due to an unfortunate low roll. I do have a small concern with the system and how the points are determined but I will expound on that more in the section below.
Counters and Production Value – Where do I start with this. The counters are more than I would have expected from the game. They are truly functional with large clear print and beautiful graphics (can I use the word beautiful to describe a wargame?). They are in fact works of art! I like their size as well and feel that it improves gameplay because I can readily see what is coming at me without having to pull out my field binoculars. The counters also come pre-rounded so you don’t have to do man-booking (scrapbooking for men is counter clipping in my opinion!) and can spend that clipping time in playing. I also really like the use of color to identify the elite units, with the Russian NKVD and Guards units being two different shades of red, one more blood red and the other leaning toward maroon. They really stand out from the crowd and help you to identify their elite units more easily. The German elite units, including the SS Rifle, SS Leaders and the SS Sniper, are jet black and coincide perfectly with their uniforms as well as their very nasty reputation. When you open the box and actually see all of the counters together in their pre-punched form, it truly is a site to behold. I would love to see other companies take this much time and effort in their counters. I also like the more traditional NATO unit designations as well, but with a squad level tactical game, I prefer to so a unit silhouette with some color for the elite. Great part of the game!
Maps – The base game comes with two 30” x 40” mounted map boards with huge roomy 1” hexes. Usually size isn’t everything, but in this game, size does matter as the large hexes allow for the oversized counters as well as the glut of counters and markers that will also inhabit them as play continues. One of the maps features wintery snow-covered terrain, while the other features Summer terrain with lush green fields, woods and freshly planted farm fields. The map has a very faux realist look and are very well done. I am not included in the ranks of the many Kickstarter backers that also received a Stalingrad map, which includes a massive ruined war-torn city featuring destroyed buildings and a maze of intersecting streets.
My one complaint with the maps is that they are a little unweildy and you have to use Map Markers to identify the boundaries of the scenario. I dont like this and would have preferred to see smaller paper or card stock maps included for each scenario, similar to Combat Commander.
Great Player Aid – The player aid is fantastic and makes gameplay so much smoother.
Lethalness of Combat – When you are in a game that is touted as realistic small unit tactical combat you expect there to be losses. In OST, the offensive minded player will be rewarded as there are not great defensive bonuses from the various terrains. Most offer only a +1 defense and don’t truly make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. So if you like to lose units and force your enemy to lose units, OST is right up your alley!
Melee Combat – Hands down the best aspect of the combat system. Melee is very fast, very lethal and very satisfying. We loved that the calculations can’t be changed by the play of a card so once you figured the number you simply roll and consult the appropriate table. I also liked that the melee takes place at the end of all other movements and Fire attacks as this caused us to definitely try to plan for how to handle the outcome.
Easy to Learn Rules – One of the selling points of Flying Pig Games marketing strategy for OST is the idea that the rules are not too complex that you won’t need to constantly refer back to the rulebook for every action. We agree with this and feel that the rules are fairly easy to grasp. We did find the vehicle rules to be more complex but after one play using them, we felt comfortable enough to only use the player aid and unit reference cards to refer to the rules and not necessarily the rulebook itself.
What I Didn’t Like About Old School Tactical
Counter Stacks – As I mentioned above, I love the counters. Their size though is somewhat of a problem when you have sausage like fingers like I do. With all of the condition counters, used counters, etc. stacked in a single hex, they can get quite unwieldy and are easily dislodged by an unfortunate slip of a meaty fist. Maybe this could be a positive though as if you don’t like your stack you could just nudge it and exclaim “OOPS!” to be able to “tactically” change your position?
Dice Rolling – I have never been a real fan of dice rolling. I feel it is too random of an element to be included in a game that is about tactics and strategy. I feel that dice rolling rewards players that are not as skilled in their decisions and planning. One element that I love about my favorite tactical game (Combat Commander) is the use of card drawing for the dice rolls. While the card drawing is still random, at least this is an attempt to mitigate the randomness as you know that there are certain combinations of numbers and if you have drawn lots of bad results, you know that there are better results coming in the near future. In OST, the dice rolling aspect is somewhat mitigated by the Infantry and Vehicle Combat Tables. If you are worried about a bad roll affecting the outcome of a critical battle, then just make sure you move in more effective units with an attached Leader to improve the column you are rolling on.
Lack of Rulebook Cross References – The rule book itself lacks notations for pertinent cross references. Many of the written rules reference other rules in the book but don’t provide a page number for ease of reference. An alphabetical index would be very helpful if added to future editions.
So, I hope that you have been able to answer for yourself the main question posed in this review, that of “What is ‘old school’ about Old School Tactical?” In my opinion, the answer is very little! This game is a great example of a modern wargame with many new takes on a very popular method of simulating small unit tactical combat during World War II. But, there is a great feel of nostalgia inherent in the design, from the beautiful counters full of information, to the use of CRT’s, DRM’s and terrain modifiers, this game feels…well, ‘old school’ and I think that is a great thing!
To sum up my thoughts and impressions, Old School Tactical is a very well designed system that appears to have laser focus on what it wants to accomplish, namely a fun, interactive and simple gaming experience for those that love tactical combat goodness. I also have been impressed with the balance of the game system overall. I have my concerns about the Impulse Point rolls and the possible negative effects of 2 or 3 bad rolls in a row but as of yet, that is only theoretical as it has never really happened in our games. If you desire an immersive and deeply satisfying thematic WWII tactical game that offers easy play and simplified straight forward rules, yet has depth and complexity built into it’s systems, then OST is for you and I recommend you get it while the getting is good!