Sunday, 25 January 2015

Game 25 - The Guards' Counterattack

The title of the scenario will be familiar to many of course.
It was sad to hear of the recent passing of John Hill, designer of 'Johnny Reb' and the older (and classic) 'Squad Leader'. Re-opening the old SL box brought back a lot of memories, as I'm sure it would for many of us. I can still say with conviction, that this was the only board style wargame in my collection, that I have played every scenario for, at least once.

Those same rules have of course come in for a knock in recent years - with complaints of too much detail, too 'little' detail, the wrong approach to WW2, the wrong scale for WW2, lack of fog of war, etc. etc. etc.

The modern answer to the fog of war problem at least, appears to be card activation or dice activation, which leaves many people (including me) cold.

So it was with new eyes that we took a fresh look at the old classic...and also I took particular interest in Steve's comments over at Sound Officers' Call, who outlined beautifully how the rules mechanisms can echo actual military thinking and tactical initiative, especially so with a view to the conduct of fire and movement.

For those detractors who allude to the lack of 'fog of war' or other issues, the fact remains that it is neither adequately simulated by cards or dice activations - let's face it. Having potential control over all of the counters on the board means very little when faced with whether to activate a unit in terms of 'prep fire' or leave it to move and engage a flank, or keep it in reserve. It's that aspect of the rules which allows the player to make tactical battlefield decisions..and yet, makes it so difficult to make the right decision. That is, in essence, the mainstay of the game. Sure, you can activate every unit on the board. But making the wrong call can have disastrous effects.

Some of the elegant mechanisms we found in this replay of the old classic included:

  • The decision to 'prep fire' and leave the unit static with a base of fire is heavily dependent on how many broken units can be brought back to the battle in the rally phase. It's easy in the early turns, but as units start to melt takes nerves of steel to commit your troops to early action...even if you can get them back in play.
  • Risk is inherent every time you move.
  • No other game simulates the pressure on individual squad leaders and platoon leaders - with the resultant effects of them being broken or killed - which can be catastrophic (I'm including IABSM here).
  • No other game adequately places the focus on support weapons, their breakdown and potential capture by the enemy. In addition, their enhanced range can have major effects on the battle.
  • The averaging effect of 2D6 and the requisite bell curve means that when less probable rolls happen (as in our game - twice) the effects can be devastating. The trick is to follow up early enough and exploit the relative weakness on the other side.
  • The scale is perfect for WWII. Other rules  seem to 'scale'  on the basis of offering a gameable scenario through making exceptions or fudging MMGs etc. etc., though Squad Leader trumps them in terms of making the player really feel like the company commander - losing touch with named commanders feels terrible, while watching them advance as the position is taken is momentous.
  • (The only annoying episode was when I couldn't read 'Sgt Kelso' or any of the other leader's names on their counter, without a bright light and my glasses. Thirty years ago, this wasn't a problem !!!)

You can't argue with these mechanics, and to see them all still working thirty years after I last played them (and understanding their design intent much more clearly now) is very refreshing.

Miniatures games (for which the rules were originally designed until Avalon Hill insisted on a board/hex wargame) will follow. There's also a version for miniatures here:

Rest in Peace John.

Early weight of smg fire is devastating on the defending Germans.

Avoiding crossfires from what was essentially a 'beautiful' defensive setup also allows the Russian guards to make inroads into the German buildings.

By mid game, the ability of the Soviets to set up their own crossfires and keep German broken units under 'desperation morale' allows them to almost move around the battlefield at will.

By game end, moving Russian units, who have effectively silenced the last of the machine gun platoons in the German buildings, are able to capture enough ground to win the game.

Excellent rules...glad to see them once again.