Monday, August 24, 2009

Bastogne SCS

All right, let's see if we can get some momentum going here again.

I had a chance to play MMP/The Gamers' latest Standard Combat Series game Bastogne the other day. I have sort of a love/hate (well, maybe like/dislike) relationship with this particular series. I like that it's simple and I can play almost all the game 15 minutes out of the box with little to no frustration. I like the minimalism of the design, the fact that it's sort of a throwback reductionist system, with hexes, ZOCs, CRTs, and basically all the standard components of a 70s-era wargame. The series tries to take these absolute basics and use them in interesting ways.

As I played the first 4-5 turns of the full scenario, I was really excited about Batogne and felt like it did a lot of stuff right. The early game is awesome, with a mixed bag of Germans ranging from elite armored units to low-quality infantry driving into the teeth of American paratroopers and an armored combat command. They deal with constricted terrain and US artillery and lousy roads - sort of a microcosm of the entire Battle of the Bulge. SCS games like to be small to mid-sized, I think; the good games in the series have only moderate counter density and unit counts, like Afrika and Fallshirmjaeger. Bastogne does have a fair number of units, but the low stacking limits (a feature that seems to be popular with Bulge games recently) of only a counter or two in a hex keeps things under control. It's not quite in the ideal SCS zone, but it's close enough. The rules for road marches, which allow units to rapidly move across the map if not engaged, are terrific in allowing players to rapidly redeploy troops as was historically possible, while avoiding the worst of the problems of having units with immense movement factors as was the case in Crusader. They allow for reasonably surprising attacks, as well as forcing players to maintain reasonably strong and coherent lines.

But by the end, Bastogne had let me down. After turn 5, the game collapses under its own weight, much like The Mighty Endeavor did when it turned into a tweezer-fest in the final showdown on the German border. As is unfortunately so often the case with The Gamers-branded games, Bastogne falls apart on the player objectives. The Germans have to secure the cross-board roads on the last turn, but this turns into a mess of hunting down rogue US units (there are no supply rules, so units can exist in isolation in perptuity), working out all combinations of possible road march moves, and (for the Germans) grinding out the last few battles required to win, or (for the US) keeping a handful units in range to interdict the roads. After the major clashes of the first half, the second half of irritating cat-and-mouse securing is a serious letdown and I found it extremely tedious.

I find that I mistrust how The Gamers' games tend to do victory conditions. I've heard the terms "Design for Cause" and "Design for Effect" swirl around their games, but I really think of these two terms more as "the right way" and "the wrong way". Bastogne has several "Design for Effect" rules (or, in the case of supply, non-rules) which are basically arbitrary hacks to force the players to behave historically. For example, the US player receives reinforcements from TF Abrams, the lead units of Patton's army, coming up from the south. Historically, they were apparently used to try to relieve pressure on the besieged Americans, not to block the roads. So there is a special rule which says that these units don't count when determining whether or not the Germans control the roads, which means the Germans can "win" by securing a route paste Bastogne despite the presence of a large American armored formations on said road. The game would be silly without the rule - it would be extraordinarily hard for the Germans to secure the southern route, leaving them the northern route as the only viable way to win - but I'm not sure this is much of an improvement.

Too many SCS games have hacks like this to coerce historical play rather than to actually get at the roots of what is really going on. I refer you to Bowen Simmons fascinating and brilliant piece on Quiddity in his design diary for The Guns of Gettysburg. Obviously, the devil is in the details and maybe Guns of Gettysburg won't work out. But that's how you design victory conditions, and I anxiously await the new game.

It's easy to speculate on what might have been for Bastogne, how the victory conditions might be tweaked to make the game more interesting. If the Germans could win as soon as the roads are secure (seems reasonable), that might help - the US aren't getting any stronger as the game goes on. Or something more nuanced than "take and hold one of two roads plus some spare change" might have been good. Or some supply rules ... I disagree with the designer's notes on this, I think some supply rules would have helped to deter both unsupportable German suicide runs into Bastogne for cheap points as well as lone isolated Americans hunkering down off the grid for days in order to jump on supply roads right at the end.

All this is speculation though. Unfortunately, I think the second half of Bastogne just doesn't work very well. So for me, this is yet anther SCS game with a lot of promise that can't deliver. Gamers' games often seem to have these sorts of victory condition problems, and Bastogne seems to suffer more than most.

I'd be interested if anyone can, as a thought experiment, come up with a good answer for what the Quiddity was for the siege of Bastogne. All I can come up with is the somewhat unsatisfactory "as the Germans, you're hosed". This seems like a tactical battle that was lost at the operational level because the Germans never had the forces to win, in large part because they never had the forces to undertake the whole Bulge thing in the first place.