As we approach the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, I wanted to share my thoughts on one of its many games. Winter Thunder is a substantial revision of a previous design from Brian Train called Autumn Mist: The Battle of the Bulge published in 2004 by Fiery Dragon Productions. The new updated version includes many changes to that original game, including a newly researched Order of Battle, with revised counter values and reinforcement schedule; cleaned-up rules including a solitaire play system; and a drastically revised map (the former map was literally contained on a post card) with a different ground scale and treatment of terrain. This is a very approachable and playable game on one of the more infamous battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, and is one that I have been interested in for awhile now as I really like Brian Train designs and am on somewhat of a personal quest to obtain copies of all of them somehow. Wish me luck!
How Does the Game Play?
My first point under this heading will be a statement that you should refer to each and every time you play any wargame designed around a famous battle that we know the end result of (isn’t that all of them?). This game is a historical simulation of one of the most famous battles of the European Theater of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. The same as the historic conflict, the Germans catch the Allies off guard in this game and at first have them outclassed and overmatched. The game is intended to play out as a see-saw affair, with the first 3-4 rounds of the game swaying to the German side, as their mighty Panzer divisions simply roll over the weaker American units. Then, as the Allies recover from the initial shock and awe of the campaign, and begin to finally receive their better reinforcements over the course of the game (check out what they get in round 3!), the worm will turn and the Germans will be at a disadvantage and will begin to see their forces weakened through continual attrition after attack after attack. The key to the game is about effectively using the Mission Matrix Table to your benefit to get the results that works best for your situation, whether that is the Germans or the Allies.
For the Americans/Allies, this means strategically falling back to more defensible positions from which to counter attack in future rounds, while at the same time, taking advantage of occasional situational favorable odds to deal decisive blows to the attacking Germans causing unit losses that they cannot afford to replace. In the early rounds, as the Americans, I will gladly trade a step for a step or two. For the Germans, this mostly means attacking consistently with favorable odds and overpowering the Allies. Blitzing through openings using the advantage of Exploitation movement whenever possible to cause havoc and to force the Allies to react. But, I will cover this more in-depth later in the review. Just understand, as the Americans/Allies, your first few rounds will be a little bit depressing as you are beaten in each attack and can’t seem to muster enough power to do anything. Don’t worry though, this is what the design intended. Just continue to prepare for the inevitable counterattack when the weather clears, slow down the advance of the bulge using Road Blocks and Improved Positions when possible, and you will have more assets such as Air Points at your disposal to turn the battle in your favor.
So, how do the different phases work? I am about to lay that out for you.
First off, I want to take a look at the Operations Phase that is used as it is pretty novel and works very well for the game. The system requires players to activate various formation HQs through a random activation process using one of my favorite methods, the chit-pull. Players place various available HQ counters (see picture below that shows HQs as chits with flags in the center of the counters rather than a NATO symbol) into a “Dunnigan Ceramaceous Randomizer” (or simply a clean, dry coffee cup) and draw them out one at a time. The HQ chit that is pulled can then be used to activate any nearby combat units within command range to move and fight. The HQs are specifically named but are not restricted to only being able to activate units associated with that formation. Instead, HQs can be used to activate any friendly units within range, which is determined by tracing a line free of enemy units no longer than 5 tactical Movement Factors (MF). Once a unit has been activated, it cannot be activated again on this turn and is turned sideways to denote that. This system works very well and is pretty flexible as compared to other chit-pull systems I have played. It also simulates the fog of war as you will not be able to activate the specific HQs and units that you necessarily want to. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you could, if you could only draw the correct HQ chit, assault a weakened Panzer stack and remove them from the game. But, before you have the chance to activate your units to carry out that plan, the enemy draws the correct chit and reinforces or “digs in” those units making your task much more difficult.
The combat resolution system is also very unique and simply works well. It uses a near-diceless system (a d10 is used to check if a particular unit takes casualties, but whether a check is required arises only after comparing attack and defense missions chosen by the players).
Mission Matrix Table – The Best Part of the Design!
When a combat is initiated from an adjacent hex, each player will secretly choose a chit from among those aligning with their posture, either from the red colored Attack Mission chits or the blue Defend Mission chits. The Attack Mission chits include actions such as Balanced Attack, Infiltrate, Blitz and Frontal Attack. The Defend Mission chits include actions such as Stand Fast, Balanced Defense, Defend in Depth, Counter Attack, Delay and Withdraw. These drawn chits are revealed and then located on the Mission Matrix Table and DRMs are given for attack and defend actions and whether one side or both will take casualties. Notice that sometimes, neither side will take casualties. This is very strategic as you must choose an action that has a realm of outcomes that you can live with after your attack. The worst thing is to choose an action chit only to find out that you chose poorly and lost a few steps, that you will be unable to recover only to gain one hex. Choose wisely!
This system is really neat and took us a few rounds to really figure out. Each action chosen should be chosen for a specific purpose in mind and can go along with the strategy needed to win the game. During the early rounds as the Americans/Allies, I found myself choosing Delay or Withdraw often as I didn’t have the powerful units to stand up to the mighty German forces. This meant I was able to retreat without taking casualties in order to delay the German advance until my more powerful units, such as the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne units, would appear in round 3. Or I could even choose a Balanced Defense if I wanted to force the Germans to take casualties if I only had one step units defending, as their loss didn’t count toward Victory Points in the end but would hurt the Germans if they happened to lose a 2 step unit.
Once the matrix is checked, units will be forced to take casualties, if and only if, the chosen action allows for casualties. Notice on the below Matrix that a “-” means that no casualties will be taken by either side in that phase. Casualty resolution is pretty simple. The player will simply calculate his Casualty Check Total (CCT) which is done by adding up his total Combat Factors in the battle, plus or minus any modifiers as identified in the Mission Matrix Table, and adding other modifiers such as terrain factors. This CCT number is simply compared to a roll on a 10 sided die and if the die roll is equal to or less than the CCT, the unit must take a step loss. After losses are calculated, if any HQs are eliminated, they are removed from the game until the next Turn End Phase, where they will reenter the game as directed. Then any Advances or Retreats, as indicated again on the Mission Matrix Table, are carried out with the defender going first followed by the attacker. This can be a key to the game as this step will set up the Germans for quick advances, using Exploitation, or can pin American/Allied units or move them out of Command Range.
Another really great strategic element to the game is Exploitation Movement. Exploitation is generally chosen in order to take advantage of a successful attack by immediately following that attack up with an additional attack on the retreating units. This is a special class of tactical maneuver. When an HQ unit is activated, the player can choose to place a special Exploit marker on top of several units before conducting any regular movement or combat. After the combat is conducted that round for the units that either didn’t move prior to attack or that used tactical movement, and then after all resulting retreat or advances have been resolved, units that were designated for exploitation may then conduct movement and combat. Exploitation can only be conducted by motorized units so planning is required to be able to use the benefit as you must make sure that you have units in reserve ready to roll.
When properly used, Exploitation can really benefit the Germans particularly as they are trying to break through the American/Allied lines to wreak havoc and capture Town hexes which will grant Victory Points at game’s end and also to spread out the Americans/Allied troops to make them focus on several points at once. A focused attack along the same front, will allow them to concentrate their forces to stop breakthroughs, so make them react rather than being predictable. Also, in later rounds, as the Allied counterattack is in full force after they have received their better reinforcement units, they can also take advantage of the mechanism to try desperately to take back those captured Town hexes prior to final scoring. Neat little mechanic that we enjoyed quite a bit.
Improved Positions and Roadblocks
I really enjoy a good wargame that includes the role of Combat Engineers. They make life for combat troops bearable as they can build fortifications that protect as well as those that hinder the enemy. In Winter Thunder, a big part of the American/Allied strategy will have to be a coordinated retreat and fall back to more defensible positions to withstand the onslaught of the Germans and to hopefully contain their advance. The two elements in the game that are available to aid this effort are Improved Positions (IP) and Roadblocks. I want to talk about these aspects a little and provide some thoughts on their proper use during the game.
IPS are simple. Any in-supply unit that is under the command of an HQ, that hasn’t moved or participated in combat that round, may place an Improved Position marker in its hex. The effect of the IP marker is to give an additional +1 to the Terrain Modifier of the defender’s hex. If the units in the hex with the IP move or attack, the marker is removed. That’s it. No rolls needed. You just place the counter and you have a more defensible position. The end result of these IPs is that they make it harder for your units to take losses but are not meant to make your forces invincible. Use them wisely and don’t think that they will protect you more than they are intended. I found that these were very important to keeping the American units alive in the early going and found myself using them often rather than flinging my under powered units headlong into the German war machine for an underpowered and futile attack that more often than not was like suicide charge. These IPs are very key to any possible victory for the Americans.
Roadblocks are also very simple but provide a good means of slowing down the German advance until reinforcements can arrive from the rear to bolster the beleaguered Americans until they can muster sufficient forces to counterattack and drive the Germans back. When an Allied HQ is activated, they may place one Block marker in or adjacent to the HQ unit, or to the hex of a friendly unit that is in Command Range. Only one Block marker per hex is allowed and the hex must be empty or friendly controlled. The Block markers stop units once they enter the hex with them and are then removed. They act as speed bumps only and also disrupt supply as the enemy cannot use the hex containing the Block marker to trace supply. Really neat little element that can be used in multiple ways. To impede the Germans advance as well as to cause issues with supply.
As we all know, the greatest Allied advantage during World War II over the Germans was air superiority. Well, in a game where weather is bad, this advantage is nullified and the war becomes more even. In Winter Thunder, the Allied player has access to Air Points each round. During Mist conditions, the Allies only have 2 Air Points, and when Overcast, 0 APs. But, as you would expect, when the weather clears, the APs are in full force and the Allied player will have their maximum allotment of 4 APs. How are these used? They can be used each turn to provide a DRM in either attack or defense and these points are never lost or shot down. Once used, you simply note that the point is used for that turn and you still have access to whatever remaining points there are. We found that these points were best used when the odds were severely stacked against the Americans/Allies in order to make sure that the Germans would lose something form the battle. I found myself counting and then asking myself how the use of an AP would help me to improve the chances of the Germans taking a loss. Sometimes this meant I had to use 2 APs but if it caused a loss and thereby weakened his future capabilities, I deemed it as worth it. I liked the way this abstraction was handled as it gave a good intermittent benefit to the Allies but wasn’t overpowered.
Where Are the British?
Well, as you know, the Battle of the Bulge was mostly an American battle but there was British involvement. This involvement was mainly as a last line of defense as historically the British used the Meuse River as a line and planned to stop the German advance there if it came to that. In the game, this is very well done as there are only 9 British units from 30 Corps and they have a lot of limitations on their use. They can attack across the Meuse River only if the Germans occupy one of the cities adjacent. They also are limited in their HQ use as they can only command British units. These British units can only enter the game through the Northwest Zone, which is located in the upper left corner of the map, far away from the initial action, and will not have a hand in the game if and until the Germans reach the Meuse. In my opinion, if they are ever really involved, that is a very bad sign for the Americans, and is a portent for defeat.
Overall, Winter Thunder is a very unique take on the Battle of the Bulge and is an enjoyable play experience. I really found that the meat of the game, and the element that held my attention the most, was the Mission Matrix. This is a very unique and well designed element to handle the outcome of combat, and frankly, I don’t know that I have ever played a game with such a system. I really liked this part of the design and found that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what actions made the most sense for the situation while also trying to anticipate what my opponent would do so I could capitalize on his errors. This design is very tight and there isn’t a lot of wasted motion or effort on elements that don’t add to the playability of the system. I really like that the game didn’t seem fiddly at all and all elements worked well together and were very easy to pick up, at least for their utility. Strategy is another topic and will take several plays to master. I didn’t really talk about the components much in this one but I will say that I really liked the constricted and funneled nature of the map itself. The map layout does a bang up job in conveying the cramped and restrictive nature of the terrain (remember this was a battle that occurred in the middle of a huge pine forest) and the Germans need to find the openings and exploit them in this small footprint. If you are interested, you can check out our unboxing video to get a better look at the components. Overall, a fairly easy to pick up system that models the conflict well and is fun to play.