One thing that I really enjoy about wargaming is the learning aspect. In so many games, there are things that I learn about smaller battles or campaigns that I haven’t heard much about in the past. Experiencing the issues and challenges of the leaders and soldiers from a long past war also gives a unique look into the past and really is one of the major reasons I love wargames. I really appreciate thoughtful designers who delve into the minutiae of engagements to fine those elements that made them unique and that changed the course of history. Such is the case with Patton’s Vanguard: The Battle of Arracourt, 1944 from Revolution Games. The designer, Mike Rinella attempts to fit this historical event into a nice little package that helps give understanding to why the history of the Western Front of World War II turned out the way it did. When I first saw the game, I was immediately concerned with its use of Area Movement, as I didn’t believe it would recreate the tactical element of the larger operation and the use of maneuverability for the tanks involved. But, I was wrong. The game takes into account many of the aspects inherent with tank combat and adds tension to the players as they simply do not know where attacks are going to necessarily come from nor what the targets might be, although this will become obvious tactically as the game wears on and the end goal of control of various areas comes into play.
The Battle of Arracourt
First off, I want to give you a short look at the history, as I sure didn’t know much about it. The Battle of Arracourt took place between U.S. and German armored forces near the town of Arracourt, France between September 18th through the 29th, 1944. The U.S. had enjoyed great success since landing in Fortress Europe on June 6, 1944 with the D-Day landings under the leadership of “Old Blood and Guts” General George Patton. As the Americans began to advance into the Lorraine area of France, growing ever closer to their goal of entering Germany and ending the war, the Germans got nasty and began planning a series of aggressive counterattacks using their superior tanks to hopefully stem the Allied advance and exact some revenge in France.
The German 5th Panzer Army had as its objective the recapture of Lunéville and the elimination of the XII Corps bridgehead over the Moselle River at Dieulouard. With local superiority in troops and tanks, the Germans anticipated quick defeat of the defending Combat Command A of the U.S. 4th Armored Division. With better intelligence, tactics and use of terrain, CCA of the 4th Armored Division and the XIX Tactical Air Command defeated two Panzer Brigades and elements of two Panzer divisions over eleven days of battle.
One of the things I always look for in our plays of consims is whether or not the game design models well the conditions, tactics and outcome of any given battle. Patton’s Vanguard:The Battle of Arracourt, 1944, is a two-player area movement game that simulates the German counterattacks in the Lorraine region of France. As the summer of 1944 drew to a close and Combat Command A of the American 4th Armored Division passed through the French town of Arracourt the war seemed all but over. It seemed as if nothing could stop the Americans from forcing their way across the German border and reaching the Rhine River. The weather, however, was rapidly deteriorating and Allied air reconnaissance failed to detect a counteroffensive by the German 5th Panzer Army. The stage was set for the largest clash of armor on the western front until the later Battle of the Bulge.
The game’s designer Mike Rinella has very skillfully used a simplified area movement system that allows players to experience the rigors of armored combat. The OOB sees the German 5th Panzer Division, consisting of elements of the 111th and 113th brigade, having an early numerical superiority and forces them to take and keep the offensive going in an effort to wipe the American defense from the map prior to the arrival of their reinforcements or to “Make hay while the sun shines”! The Americans however have the advantage of air superiority, if the weather cooperates, and with the use of their XIX Tactical Air Command, can literally bring early showers and rain down fire on the Panzers. So, to phrase things a little differently, the German players will have to literally make hay while the sun ISN’T shining because when the weather is clear, it can be really difficult to make a dent. Another key tactic that the Germans will need to quickly understand and bring to bear in the battle is that of Ranged Fire Combat, which can be devastatingly effective for the Germans and can force retreat fairly easily but with a fairly stiff price, as each such assault will lead to attrition as lead units must always take a reduction and flip.
How Do Ranged Attacks Work?
In a Ranged Attack, the attacker will first designate a lead armor unit. This units Attack Factor will be the base and then each full strength armor unit in the space will add +1 to the attack while each reduced unit will add only +1/2. Leaders can add +1 or +2 as well and the Americans will gain modifiers for Air Support if the weather is clear. 2d6 are then rolled and added to the total Attack Value and compared against the Defense Value of the target, which consists of +1 for each armored unit in the defending hex plus 2 times the Terrain modifier, +1 or +2 for Leaders and then the sum of 2d6. The result of a Ranged Attack is simply the difference between the Attack Total and Defense Total. This difference has very mixed results though.
If the Attack Total is less than the Defense Total, this is considered a Repulse and all attacking units are reduced. If already reduced, they will be eliminated. If the Attack Total is equal to the Defense Total there is no effect on defending units but the Lead Attacking Unit is reduced or eliminated if already reduced. Finally, if the Attack Total is greater than Defense Total, the Lead Attacking Unit will be reduced or eliminated if already reduced and the the defending units must take Attrition Points equal to the difference. Full strength defending units can be eliminated for 3 APs, while you can flip a full strength unit for 1 AP. Eliminating a reduced strength unit is with 2 AP and you can retreat reduced strength units for 1 AP. The lead Defending unit must also absorb the first AP loss but it is then up the player to decide how they lose units. This is a very simple attrition system but replicates the strength of armor and forces tough decisions on each player. I also enjoy the struggle of the German player knowing that ranged attacks can be effective but understanding that one bad roll could lead to your entire stack of Panzers being reduced. A mental Cost Benefit analysis must be calculated with each attack and I like this level of crunchiness. The other reality is that even with a decisive victory, your Lead Attacking Unit will be reduced and as the Germans you don’t have many Replacement Points nor a glut of replacement units to fill that ever widening gap between your forces and those reinforcements of the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, you must attack, and Ranged Attacks allow you the greatest advantage over the U.S. units but you have to be smart about it! You must simply choose wisely and really survey the battlefield to gauge what you can and can’t risk. I will say this that the Germans cannot come back from a few really bad rolls so don’t risk something that you are not confident in. You will thank me in the end.
Once you soften up the enemy, the tactical decisions increase in their risk. Combat is best handled at a distance but the design forces you to get up close and personal in this game as you the Germans must be on the move early and often so cannot simply shoot from distance. The U.S. position is much more a defensive effort from the start and they can afford to simply pepper the Germans with their artillery and wait for their reinforcement. In fact, the U.S. should not be overly aggressive in the early going of either scenario but pick their battles to cause losses and make the German player think twice about pushing.
Units can only attack if they are already located in a Contested Area with enemy units or if they just moved from an Active area or an area chosen for Activation this round. The game doesn’t allow multiple attacks from different adjoining areas. Attacks follow the same rules as Ranged Combat with some minor differences. A Lead Attacking Unit will be designated and then each participating full strength unit in the space will add +1 to the attack while each reduced unit will add +1/2 plus any Leader bonuses. The major difference in Combat vs. Ranged is the Combined Arms bonus. If the attacker has any 3 of the following 4 units in the battle, either armor, infantry, engineer or artillery, a +1 bonus is added. 2d6 are then rolled and added to the total Attack Value and compared against the Defense Value, which consists of +1 for each defending unit in the defending hex plus the Terrain modifier number (no multiplying in this case) and any Leader bonuses or Air Support.
The area movement element created a new level of tactical stress as we had to figure how to deal with large stacks versus maintaining a long line of units stretched across the front. I also really liked that as the attacker, I had a few choices of where my units would come from, but each move must also be scrutinized so as to avoid leaving openings where a rogue Allied unit can blitz through your weakened lines to threaten your supply sources. First off, area movement costs the expenditure of unit’s Movement Factors. To move into a vacant area only costs 1 MF, but it gets interesting as you close in on enemy controlled territory as you will be required to pay 2 MF if you move to a vacant area adjacent to an enemy unit and 3 MF to move into an area with reduced units. If the area you are moving into contains even one full strength unit, you will have to pay 4 MF. This design has no traditional Zones of Control but instead models tactical advantage and control with movement costs. I really felt this aspect was well handled and added some extra intrigue to the design as you really had to plan on how to attack an area. This can also be a very bad thing for the Germans who must advance and if playing a wily U.S. player will find each area they move to costing the most that it possibly can through proper and strategic movement and placement of defending units.
With the large stacks created by the use of area movement, it became increasingly difficult for the Germans to find favorable odds with a possible positive result for those attacks. It became even more challenging once the cavalry arrived in the form of American reinforcements. Those 7-6-6 Sherman tanks and 6-6-6 Infantry units really created quite the challenge for the Panzers. As we messed around with futile attack after futile attack, I was impressed with the balance of the design in regards to the armor. The Germans have the significant advantage in numbers of tanks, which serves them well in their goal of hitting the Americans fast, hard,and consistently, while the Americans tough defensive values really aided them in their goal of simply holding onto victory point areas until reinforcements could arrive.
This combat system and the units really created a historical result with the possibility of a German victory. Victory will not be easy for the Germans, and remember that the Americans have to make proper decisions as well or they will simply be run off the board.
The Impulse System
The final element of the design I want to comment on is the Impulse System. Starting with the German player, each player takes an alternating action or an impulse from five possible choices, including Assault, Ranged Attack, Bombardment, Regroup and Pass. Each player will take an action and then the Impulse marker will be advanced on the Impulse Track. Pretty standard stuff for this type of game but the interesting part is the Sunset DR.
During the American half of each impulse, the Sunset DR will be the first die roll of any kind made by the American player. If this roll is equal to or greater than the number that the Impulse marker is at on the Impulse Track, it will simply advance one space and that turn will continue. But if the roll is less than the number of the Impulse marker, the phase will end and the Turn will advance. This means that typically you will have between 3-8 impulses each turn as 2d6 will most often generate between 6-8 on rolls. This is very important to remember, particularly as the German player, as each of the two scenarios are only 4 turns. This means that you will have about 12-32 activations so you must make each of them count and make progress with all of your decisions. Conversely as the American player, you want to roll low to bring the game to an end as quickly as possible.
This Sunset DR as it is called, further reinforces the theme of this review. That the German player must “Make hay while the sun shines!” (or even when it is not shining as bad weather can be your saving grace) and cannot linger as the Impulse Track is against you after Turn 1. It is possible, however unlikely, that each round could only last 2 impulses each. This would require the U.S. player to roll extremely low on their rolls as during Impulse 2, it would need a roll of 3 or less to advance the Sunset DR, and on 2d6, this is possible. Once again, strike hard, strike fast and strike as often as possible with the Germans because the game can end much more quickly than you realize.
I do not subscribe to the theory that complexity in design equates to a good experience. I want to see mechanics and rules that are understandable yet provide a logical and plausible experience modeling the aspects of the combat. Mike Rinella has done a wonderful job with this game. First in making it playable and understandable and secondly by adding in mechanics that fit the situation. I would classify this game as a good candidate for an introductory wargame. This doesn’t mean the game lacks strategy, tough decisions or the need for good tactics, but simply that the system is straightforward, the mechanics are easy to remember and to carry out and the goals are pretty clear.
The Germans must simply have 10 VPs at the end of turn 4, with those points coming from a combination of holding VP areas (which are the red colored areas such as Hill 318 or Hill 246) and from eliminated and reduced American units. If the Germans have 9 or less, the Americans win. The interesting part is how players will get to these VP thresholds as there is deeper strategy here than meets the eye. As the Germans, you should attack and move your units into defensible positions while you have the early advantage. Also, protect your supply sources and move those infantry counters up to soak up wounds from the inevitable counter attacks once the U.S. reinforcements arrive. You must protect your tanks as they are the real punch in your arsenal.
As the U.S., you must tactically retreat in the early going, using your artillery advantage as a shield and taking advantage of the terrain and holding the hills that give you such a huge defensive bonus, all until your reinforcements arrive. At which time, you should turn the tables and drive the Germans back from where they came. Look for weaknesses in the German lines and attack where they least expect it. If you can somehow get into their supply, you will win the day. But remember, before you attack, make sure you have the odds in your favor as you may not like the outcome.
One final comment about the design is that this game is an excellent candidate for a solitaire game. There is no hidden information, and the system works well if you have to play both sides. I like games that have this type of versatility. And this one is a solid wargame with a very good production value at a nice price point.
Here is a link to the game page on the Revolution Games website: http://stores.revolutiongames.us/pattons-vanguard-the-battle-of-arracourt-1944/