When I hear the word Bulge game, I immediately think of a huge monstrous wargame with 2 maps and literally thousands of counters (see A Time for Trumpets from GMT Games). They take days to play, have stacks that are 6″ high and require large tweezers and good lighting. Don’t get me wrong. That is great but not always realistic for gamers like us who have kids and lack the table space to play anything above a 1 mapper. A game covering this topic, namely the last ditch effort for the dying Nazi war machine to strike back at the advancing Allies as they approached the Rhine and German territory, has to by its very nature and topic be a monster. Or does it?
Over the years, we have played our share of Bulge games, but recently took the new 1944 Battle of the Bulge from Worthington Publishing out for a spin. I was unsure about what to expect as the game is marketed as a Bulge game in under 2 hours. After our initial play, well, we really enjoyed the overall experience and actually found it was very captivating and engaging, for a game that really only had about 30 counters on the board at any given time.
Low Counter Density
At the start of the game at setup, the Germans have a total of 18 counters on the board, in addition to 4 off board assets in the form of Artillery units and one Leader (Manteuffel). Among the starting German units there are 3 different Armies, including the 7th Army, 5th Panzer and 6th Panzer. These are made up of 11 Infantry units, 2 Airborne units and 5 Armor units. On the other side of the line, the Allies have just 12 units defending the Bulge at the start with units from the American 1st Army and American 3rd Army/VIII Corps. These are made up of 7 Infantry units, 3 Armor units and 2 Mechanized Cavalry units. Later in the game, the Allies will receive Artillery units and Air units which can be used to increase the number of dice in combats. That is not a lot of counters and frankly it simplifies the decisions from turn to turn. Many of these units are multi-step units and have their breakdown counters stored off board on the OOB Cards and when they are hit and take losses, you simple replace those counters with their breakdown counters until they are eliminated.
The great thing about the low counter density is that it allows the players to actually plan their attacks, by being able to see their units quickly and what is arrayed against them and then make decisions about how best to go about doing what they need to do. As opposed to hunching over those large stacks in typical Bulge games desperately looking for a few more Combat Factors to get to the next odds column on the CRT. This keeps the game play moving along and that was palpable as we actually got the feeling of tension as we were trying to break through and push ahead.
As we all know, in Bulge games the Germans are trying to break through the Allied lines and rush to the Meuse River to push the defenders back and regroup to continue the attack. The German player will come to see that they have a good mix of powerful, mobile Panzer divisions and weak, slow infantry formations. The German player will have to balance these two forces as they can outrun their support with their Panzers and find that they don’t have the strength to get through the prepared defenses of the Allies as they hole up in towns. The Allied player has a very different situation, with mostly veteran and robust multi-step Infantry units, and only a few Armor and elite Airborne divisions. This will cause the Allied player to play defensively and try to use the terrain and its many twists and turns to their advantage. The countryside of the Ardennes Forest is crossed by many rivers, has a very limited road net and is filled with rough and forested terrain and these will decidedly dictate the possible courses of the battle. These elements when coupled with the low counter density really make for a fast playing yet interesting situation with a lot of different possibilities along a similar trajectory or axis of attack. Don’t be confused by this statement as there really are only a few ways to maneuver for the Germans but what will change each and every game is the variableness of the combat system and how effective your attacks will be allowing for that opportune breakout. I know that when talking with the designer Dan Fournie last year for an interview he stated that play balance was the most difficult design challenge. He really set out to design a game in which the Germans had a real chance to cross the Meuse, but at the same time making it so that achieving this is difficult and unlikely, as it was historically. This leads me into the next point that I wish to discuss in the combat system and those fickle, yet extremely interesting dice.
Simple Combat System That Works
One of the most interesting parts of the game is the simple combat system. This game doesn’t use a CRT and the dice you roll are not looking for a specific number but rather a combination of symbols shown on them. First, you need to understand the information found on the counters and how that translates to the combat system. Across the bottom of each counter, appears 3 numbers. Left to right the numbers stand for Dice Rolled in Combat (DRC), Strength Points or unit steps (SP) and Movement Points (MP). For example, an Armor unit will have 2 to 5 dice that are rolled in combat, 1 to 6 steps and 5 or 6 movement. The important number to know for combat through is the DRC.
The next thing you need to understand is about the dice. The dice are 6-side dice but they only have 2 results on each die, a NATO symbol for Infantry and one for Armor. The other 4 sides on the die are blank. Yeah, you read that right, a 6-sided die with only 2 results. There are lots of opportunities for those dice to roll nothing for you and that is both a blessing and curse as you want them to roll well for you but not for your opponent as each combat is simultaneous and both sides get to attack.
The process of attack requires that the attacking player spends 1 RP to attack a unit in a target hex. If the units used to attack are from different Armies/corps, then 2 RP will have to be spend. This simply represents the concept of cohesion of command. It costs a bit more to order units from another formation. As I mentioned before, combat is simultaneous so both players roll for attack and defense at the same time. The attacker will total the number of dice to roll for the attacking units, using their units DRC to determine the base number of dice and then modifies that total by any terrain and whether they are out of supply. The defender then adds any terrain modifiers to his defending unit’s dice and reduces dice if out of supply. The players roll their attack and defense dice. A hit will be scored on opposing units for each symbol that is rolled that corresponds to an opposing unit’s symbol. It is a simple, fast process without the need for CRT’s or complex calculations. Armor symbols rolled with effect Armor units but also can be used to reduce an Infantry unit if not Armor is present. This symbol works really well. It is simple and straightforward but really creates some interesting decisions. The main decision is understanding how the terrain will affect your attacks and whether you want to actually do that attack. Forest will apply a -1 die result an any unit attacking into it while Rough terrain will apply a -1 for each attacking Infantry and a -2 for each attacking Armor unit. Cities and Towns also provide a +1 or +2 die bonus to defending units. These choices must be taken seriously and can effect how you go about dislodging your opponent from that choice rough terrain.
After understanding the negative modifiers on your dice pool due to terrain, sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind and attack. It may not be the best attack, but as the Germans you really have no choice but to keep slugging away until you eliminate those stubborn defending Allies. After all, the Americans did respond to the German plea for surrender at Bastogne with the famous retort Nuts! An understanding of the dice, and how they can benefit you or hurt your efforts is key but you almost must understand that time is limited and you have to make progress. But the dice are fickle and sometimes you will roll 6 dice only to see no hit and sometimes you will score 3 hits on just 3 dice. You must know that the dice are bad….but they are bad for you both and that is what makes the combat system charming. It is simple and just works.
I love it when a wargame adds in a resource management element because after all we have unlimited desires but decidedly limited options and resources. Resource Points (RP’s) are the driving mechanism of the system used in 1944 Brattle of the Bulge. RP’s represent the logistics and command emphasis necessary to get things accomplished in a military operation. Think of these RP’s as fuel, ammunition and food to keep your men fighting. You now, the old beans and bullets! As I have thought about this system and how this is modeled, the more I think that Dan Fournie is a genius and really modelled a real world element that other systems simply overlook. One of the things I have always had a concern over with most traditional hex and counter wargames is that every unit can usually move and attack every single turn. There is typically no modelling of fatigue, lack of fuel, low ammunition or inability to maneuver. This is the principle of Clausewitz’s friction of war and this game believes that principle is necessary in a good wargame and must be taken into account. Every unit cannot move and attack every single day! The RP system forces the player to make tough decisions about how they will utilize their limited RP’s to maximize the utility gained from their troops. RP’s are used to refit, move units and launch attacks, but there are never enough RP’s to do all three every turn.
Another feature, which I thought was really well suited to a game the Bulge, was that movement and combat are free-flowing. A unit can move and then attack, or attack and then move, or move or attack, or do nothing. Lots of different choices! The player is forced to make decisions and prioritize their effort as each RP is expended. Breakthroughs are possible without any additional rules or phases, but the cost of a big effort and push in one sector of the front is the inability to do anything much at all on another. Finally, the German and Allied logistical situations are replicated without complex supply rules, but is basically reflected in the RP system.
1944 Battle of the Bulge has daily turns so the concept of replacements is a bit more limited. Units that are in supply in Bulge can only “refit” a maximum of one SP per turn which is a reflection of the concept of re-grouping scattered men and receiving additional supplies, rather than replacements arriving from the rear. The cost is one RP per SP for infantry, but two RP’s are required to refit one armor SP. Here is the Resource Point uses and their costs:
How Does it Deal with Issues of the Battle including Road Congestion, Fuel Shortages and Weather
One of the elements from this battle that needs to be addressed is the concept of small county roads and moving tanks and trucks down them effectively. Traffic jams are portrayed passively through the Terrain Effects Chart without the need for additional markers or rules. And I love this as I hate markers in wargames. They get cluttered, block the beauty of the counters and make it hard to see their combat and movement factors. It normally costs ½ MP for Armor to traverse a road hex, and 1/3 MP for Motorized Infantry. However, if the road hex is occupied by a friendly unit as the other units attempt to move through, it costs a full movement point. This was a concept that really matters to the Germans particularly as you are trying to race ahead and breakout and your own units will be your downfall. We found that these MP’s and their effects for traffic jams really became apparent in the first ring of cities and towns that the Germans can reach after breaking through the initial Allied lines. It seemed that the Germans always came up a single MP short of being able to reach them to then use them on the defensive. This is intentional design and really makes for a difficult situation…and I really enjoyed that.
Fuel shortages are handled by the RP system. This is crucial to the design, and flow of the game as discussed above. As the game progresses, the German player receives additional divisions as reinforcements. However, beginning on Turn 5 the German RP level begins to decline. So, the German player is racing the clock, to achieve objectives before they are constrained by decreasing logistical support (RP’s). There is also an optional German Fuel Shortage rule that was pretty nifty as you roll a d6 and the number rolled will coincide with a single Armor unit that will be unable to activate. A simple way of handling this issue but that created some angst. I found myself hoping that I rolled certain Armor units, either because they were out of the fight due to distance or they had already been destroyed.
The real problem with lots of simulation style wargames is that they always typically play the same. Same set up. Same objectives. Same victory conditions. Anything that can make the game imminently repayable is a good thing and welcomed. In 1944 Battle of the Bulge, there are several different ways to create different variable objectives to effect the scoring and outcome of the game. There are 4 variable German Objective Cards that the German player will draw secretly at the beginning of the game and which they will keep secret from the Allied player. These include Hitler’s Autumn Mist (standard victory conditions), Rundstedt’s Plan Martin (a “small solution” plan) and Spoiling Attack (victory based on attrition—units eliminated). This creates a great deal of realistic uncertainty for the Allied player, and provides great re-playability. We found this to be one of the best parts of the design and reminded us of another Worthington Publishing game in Dunkirk: France 1940 designed by Doug Bryant.
This game is highly playable…and in under 2 hours is not your grandfather’s Bulge wargame. This one is good and very well done. But you need to remember that it is not a hard charging simulation of the battle but more of a well designed, with simple to understand rules and that is foremost a very playable experience. But, just because a game is simple, doesn’t mean that it is simplistic. This game has a total of 12 pages of rules, and frankly, three of these pages include extensive movement and attack examples as well as various variants. The thing that I liked best about this game is that we could play it in under 2 hours, switch sides and see if we could do better.
I have played several Bulge games and this one is definitely up there for me, mainly due to its short playtime, interesting modeling of various elements and very different combat system. But don’t think that this will compete with the likes of A Time for Trumpets from GMT Games, Deadly Woods from Revolution Games or Enemy Action: Ardennes from Compass Games. Those games are in a different class and simulate the game in a more traditional style of wargame. But if you are looking for a game that can be played quickly, and even multiple times in a day or evening, and that is variable with changing objectives, then 1944 Battle of the Bulge is for you. The game also takes a step up in the production realm for Worthington as the map is simply gorgeous, and doesn’t just use the earth tone grey, lighter grey and brown for the various hexes but now has well drawn forests, rivers, bridges and roads to adorn the playing surface.
And keep in mind, that Dan Fournie is using this system to do a D-Day game called 1944 D-Day to the Rhine that should be coming to Kickstarter yet this year. Keep an eye out on the blog for an interview on that one incoming over the next few months.