As Wargamer’s resident Great War Grog, I’ve been wanting to review a game in this series for a long time. Unfortunately, Editor Joe is a whip cracking taskmaster (Oi-ED), so I haven’t had time. Until Now. A coupla three weeks ago I finally got my pre-order for Compass Games’ third volume in John Gorkowski’s Red Poppies Campaigns, this time around Assault Artillery! La Malmaison 23 27 October 1917. It was new enough the Boss said yes, and I gotta tell ya, the wait was worth it. Color me very impressed, in a horizon blue sort of way.
Assault Artillery! (AA) covers the four days of French attacks against German positions along the Chemin des Dames ridge, using their newly created tank corps, the Artillerie Speciale. Cost as of today is $52.00 US, not bad for a hardcopy product considering all you get. AA includes a hardcover box, two six-side dice, a 32-page rules book, two 22 x 34-inch larger hex map sheets, three 5/8 inch countersheets and three player aid cards. One is an admin card for casualties, while the other two have a terrain effects chart on one side, the sequence of play on the other. AA does not use a CRT (combat result table).
… come again? Yeah, I know, just hold that thought. I’ll discuss it later.
The rules themselves are only 17 pages long, backed up by an excellent three page example of play, four pages of campaign rules to tackle all four days of the actual assault, with the rest of the manual devoted to four scenarios and the campaign battle itself. Color illustrations abound, all in that matte (as opposed to full color glossy) finish that Compass has become noted for. It reminds me when I picked up my first SPI game with matte finished counters, contrasting with the glossy type used by Avalon Hill. I always thought the matte looked a bit more ‘military’ then and I still think so today.
Text is very detailed and precise and absolutely grammatically correct to the nth degree. And oddly enough, this may be my only quibble with the game. Though specifically defined, many of the terms used in AA do not correspond to what I would call traditional ‘game speak’. For example, AA uses the term ‘Dispersed’ which traditionally has meant a confused, disorganized state of affairs. Here, however, the term could convey a tactically valid open order fighting formation used late war, or simply crew served weapons unlimbered and deployed. Likewise, I have often seen the term ‘Spent’, as in ‘exhausted’, used in many wargame rules, but I’ve never seen the concept as an active verb or indicating simply ‘finished’. For example, AA states a certain action “still spends the (reacting) shooter,” meaning it has completed its function for the turn. And of course, a unit spends movement points, etc. It’s all good and correct grammar because I checked, but I might have used different wording.
The counters are also nicely done, using top down images of French Schneider CA1 and Saint Chamond tanks (my favorite piece of Great War hardware ever), and NATO symbology for other units. This includes crew served weapons, so you see markings similar to Wehrmacht symbology in World War II. To me, IMHO of course, this is a much better option than the silhouettes and mini pictures used in other games, and again, looks far more ‘military’. Other counters exude Great War ambience with artwork that feels like it came off a 1917 military map. The two game maps look the same way, but still modern enough to sport unobtrusive hex and line of sight markings.
AA uses a game scale of one hex equals 200 yards, while one turn represents 10 minutes real time. Each counter accounts for one infantry company, one section of crew served weapons and one to one platoon of armored vehicles, not only tanks but armored cars and the like.
Prior to game turn one in any scenario, there is a Preliminary Bombardment Phase that players can execute. The phase is important because later when on-call artillery is used, time delays could be longer because of blasted terrain and cut communications cabling. For example, use of a Runner may take longer and the chances of a botched request for fire might be increased. Otherwise, AA game turns are single, integrated affairs covering both players, using three separate phases. This is especially notable because this means there are no separate player turns and none of the three phases are melee or fire. They are:
Initiative – Here the opposing players have a die roll off where the winner is the first player in each of the Command Couplets during the next phase. The difference in the die rolls is the number of couplets, and in the case of a tie, there are three with the Central Powers side going first. For example, the French player throws a four (4), the German a six (6), so the Kaisertruppen win the Initiative and there will be two couplets.
Command Couplets (now I do like this term) – This is the meat of the game. Each couplet allows each opposing player to activate one (1) unit or one (1) group of units for play. By group of units this can mean off-board artillery, 12 units of the same command in up to six contiguous hexes, or a blob of nearby units if using combat infiltration tactics. The Germans have the latter in the form of their Eingrief companies. The fact that all the counters in a group have been activated does not mean they need be used, and the rest of the couplets work the same way.
If a unit counter is used, it may perform one of the following functions. These are Call Off Map Artillery (OMA), Cancel OMA, Deploy, Dig, Fire, Move, Reaction Fire and Transport. Reaction Fire takes place during your opponent’s activity period, while expending a Movement Point can initiate melee by taking the friendly unit into an enemy occupied hex.
Now let me stop and award a personal “atta boy” here – As a designer one of the most frustrating things to deal with is forcing players to think and act like their historical counterparts. This is especially bad as regards keeping units of the same formation close together for command purposes. Instead I see individual counters move, shoot and communicate like they were equipped with the newest GPS supported Maserati. Because you get one (1) activation per Command Couplet, this means if you want to have more than one hex full of units do anything, they need to be close by and have the same commander. Bingo! I’ll file this under, “damn, why didn’t I think of that” so I can steal… I mean, do research on it in the future.
Administration – Removing markers from units and such.
So how do you destroy the enemy? The key is the Cohesion Check. Everything worth doing, such as shooting, moving across nasty terrain, swinging trench shovels and the like, requires a Cohesion Check. Each unit in the game has a Cohesion Number, and as an example, that for French Late War Infantry is seven (7) whether Formed or Dispersed. Assume one of these Formed Poilu companies is shot at by a German machine gun section which has a Firepower Rating of +2 at a range of two (2) hexes. The French player throws 2D6 then subtracts -1 from the die roll to account for range, adds +2 to the die roll for the German firepower score and another +1 for the French unit being Formed. If the resulting modified die roll is greater than the target’s Cohesion Number (7) the unit is flipped to its Dispersed side and is considered Spent. If the modified die roll was 11 or more, the units is destroyed and equal or less than the Cohesion Number (7), nothing happens at all.
Brilliant. There is no fire or melee phase because both functions, as well as some movement, have been merged into the unitary Cohesion Check system. Fire is no longer a separate function, but merely a die roll modifier for the Cohesion Check. This was easy for me to pick up because, quite frankly, I’d seen it before, in the pages of the Twilight of the Sun King miniature wargaming rules. It’s a little bit ‘out of the box’ compared to traditional play, but I can absolutely attest that once you get used to the novelty of the way it works, it becomes super simple and makes the game go very quickly.
This is a good thing, because while the overall gameplay process is quite simple and easy, the devil, typically is in the details. The Cohesion Check, not a problem. The actual parameters one needs use for specific instances, like trench fighting or dealing with cover vice concealment when deciding line of sight, this is where the complexity lies. In this case, I’m OK with the concept. I always lean towards history in my gaming, and AA is incredibly comprehensive in its presentation thereof. There are rules for trenches, bomb traps, creeping barrages, even a Rally rule that reflects follow-on waves of attacking troops recovering the stragglers from the first wave to rejoin the fight. Personally, the line of sight rules were the roughest for me to wrap my head around, but I did, and at the end of the day I found AA and by extension the entire Red Poppies series one of the simplest games to realistically model such a complex subject.
And realistic it most certainly is. The integrated turn process when garnished with the Cohesion Check produces a very confused type of gameplay, where the ability to react is far more important than planning. It is also the type of gameplay where a substantial victory is nigh near impossible to achieve due to units continually being knocked out of the game. It is a type of gameplay which calls for slow methodical slogging vice rapid maneuver. It is the type of gameplay where even when you play both sides in solitaire, the “what the Hell is going on?” environment seems very much in control, whether it really is or not. It is the type of gameplay that has World War I written all over it.
Finally, let me note the so called ‘campaign’ system. For my review I not only played several iterations of Scenario 1, Combined Arms Assault (and yes, I know, I stack counters funny), but also the Campaign Scenario 1, the Perfect Battle. This covers all four days of the battle back to back, with losses and the like carrying over from one day to the next (a player may recover no more than half). AA accomplishes this by dividing each day into a twelve-turn attack game, followed by a six-turn counterattack game, determining isolation followed by an optional six-turn night attack game then both sides recover. Wash, rinse, repeat the next day for four days, and get even more of the realism I noted above. It works well and is a nifty little bonus for the game.
I’ve always been concerned about the high prices of hex and counter paper games, but with AA I’ll make an exception. It covers a unique level of Great War combat using a novel system and it does it damn well. Also, like the previous volume which featured Austrians and Russians on the Eastern Front, AA looks at the French at war, something not often seen both on the table or on the screen, to including film and television. Instead its always Tommies or Doughboys, and World War I was so much more. Yes, this time it’s worth it.
So, my pronouncement? I live in Pennsylvania and Compass sits in Hartford, Connecticut. It isn’t that far away so if you don’t wanna see a crusty old retired colonel pounding on your door, there better be Italians on the Isonzo, Serbs, Turks, Brusilov’s Russians et al, coming up in future releases. The tabletop community deserves nothing less.
Five Stars. (We don’t use stars here Bill-ED)