Thursday, April 10, 2008

Objective Schmidt comprehensive review
Tactical Combat Series No. 2
Published: 1990
Designer: Dave Powell

TCS Overview repeated from Bloody 110 review: Now published by Multi-Man Publishing, the TCS is one of The Gamers founding lines of series wargames that use a common set of standard rules to allow players to explore many different battles without having to learn a new set of rules every time.

In TCS the ground scale is 125 meters per hex, time is 20 minutes per daylight turn and units are platoons of troops, weapons sections and individual vehicles, so it’s about halfway between the ASL/Squad Leader squad-based systems and the traditional PanzerBlitz/First Battle platoon-oriented systems typically seen in tactical 20th Century wargames. Unlike most of its peers, TCS games always depict specific historical incidents on the actual terrain. There are no “geomorphic” representative maps or generic counters.

Distinctively, the TCS system is much less concerned with the characteristics of the hardware used than the typical tactical wargame, being content with painting with a fairly broad brush. Units are characterized as firing weapons with either an area-effect such as small arms and high explosives or with weapons with a point effect such as anti-tank guns. Similarly, they are characterized as being either area targets made of dispersed elements such as soldiers or a being a point target such as a vehicle. If armed, the unit has a range and if made up of troops a morale rating. If it’s a vehicle or gun it has a defense rating based on its armor.

Platoons have five “steps” while weapons units have one or two. Units accumulate losses without ill effects until they are eliminated on the theory that most of the unit firepower come from certain key weapons that will tend to be manned continuously in spite of losses. Someone will always pick up the machine gun. Vehicles represent individual machines and are either hit (mission kill) or not.

As one would expect there are rules covering special conditions, tactics and needs such as smoke, fortifications and various terrain effects, but the basic structure is very straightforward and, compared to other tactical wargames, uncomplicated. This aspect of the game is deliberately kept simple.

The real heart of the game system is the command control rules, which mimics the kind of staff planning that goes into conducting actual military operations at this scale. Players actually draw up their battle plans in schematic form on “op sheets” specifying exactly how they plan to conduct their attack or defense using specific units in specific ways. Once the plan is drawn up it waits while sufficient “weighted turns” accumulate in order to put it into effect. How much time passes will depend on factors such the complexity of the plan, how many different units are involved, the nature of the mission and the overall quality of the unit’s staff work and a die roll. A simple movement plan involving no contact with the enemy by a single company under a highly trained staff might take just a turn or two before coming into effect. On the other hand, a complex, multi-battalion deliberate assault by a poorly-staffed army like the Soviets may never actually happen.

This is a fascinating and unique system that’s proven rather popular (there are 15 TCS games) that creates a very different pacing from what’s usually seen. Long stretches of time tend to pass with relatively little going on interspersed with periods of intense action. It much more closely resembles the pacing of actual military operations than most tactical wargames.On the other hand, this is also the system’s biggest weakness. It is wholly unsuited for competitive playing styles. It relies absolutely on the players making good faith effort to act within the spirit of the rules. It relies on them faithfully executing plans that no longer make tactical sense because ground facts have changed since the plan was drawn up. It requires players who will not attempt to wring every possible “legal” advantage the rules might allow but instead try act as the real-life commanders would have. It’s pointless for players whose first consideration is winning to play this. This is a game system for people interested in the journey, NOT the destination.

It can be played solitaire fairly easily by drawing up alternative plans for both sides and then dicing among those for the actual plans being used. The command control system itself mitigates the usual problems of solitaire control because there’s a good chance your own plans will go to hell because of developments you couldn’t foresee.

One very important aspect of the system is series designer Dean Essig’s very firm rule that no game in the series would be made obsolete by any rules changes. All updates to the system are required to be backwards compatible and therefore every game can (and should) be played with the latest edition of the rules. The one exception was Forces Eagles War, the one “modern” series game that was never followed up on due to the end of the Cold War and the subsequent decline in interest in that genre. That game must be played with the rules included and is not compatible with the rest of the system.

Objective Schmidt specifics:

Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules, 2nd Ed. (version 2.0)

Nov. 2nd-6th, 1944 Schmidt, Germany, during the Battle of the Huertgen Forest

One full-sized map

Unit symbols: AFV are silhouettes, Weapons and troops are map graphic symbols

Opposing Sides: German: 983rd Inf. Regt. at first, then 89th Infantry Division and elements of the 116th Panzer Division

U.S.: 112th Infantry Regiment, reinforced

Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 18 or so.

Playing time: Up to "hundreds"of hours, according to the box

Objective Schmidt was the second Tactical Combat Series game and therefore established that it would, indeed, be a series.
The game's topic is one of the better documented fights of the war, the battle for Schmidt, which was detailed in a volume of the Official Army History called Three Battles: Arnaville, Altuzzo and Schmidt, published in 1952.
It was a brutal, nasty affair, that finally ended in failure for the Americans, so it was perhaps a surprising choice for the Official History, but it's a good choice for a game because it's a very unusual situation.
The dominating feature of the entire battle was that the American objective, the fairly large village of Schmidt, was on the far side of a gorge-like river valley called the Kall from the main American lines. The Kall trail was the only way across this gorge and it was just a miserable little forest logging trail. In the event it was forced to be a main supply route for a most of an American regiment which results in the game's drama as the Americans struggle to hold onto their bridgehead in the face of powerful tank-led German counterattacks while having supply problems and limited support of their own.

Special rules detail the U.S. supply problems, the special features of the Kall trail and various other colorful aspects of the battle such as a small raiding squad of U.S. troops called the "Greene Hornets," who have the power to move and fight without regard to op sheets. This special ability, which makes its first appearance here, will be used again in future games to show the flexibility of other special elite units .

There are six small teaching scenarios using company-sized firefights to show off elements of the rules.

The major part of the game are eight scenarios depicting major parts of the four-day battle as well as a ninth, campaign, scenario covering the whole thing. This campaign scenario can be started at five different points, creating in effect five campaign games. There are also a couple of "minor variants," which add additional forces to either side, that can be added to the campaign games creating still more permutations.

Despite the presence of a couple battalions worth of tanks the game is very infantry-centric due to the terrain. What's not slippery woods in the game seems to be town so neither side's tanks will find the battlefield very hospitable.

The Second Edition TCS rules add a few more examples of op sheets compared to the first edition, but don't represent a big change except in one area: artillery. One salutary aspect of the TCS system and series designer Dean Essig has been his openness to constructive criticism and input from players. In fact, most of the later games in the series are designed by players and the evolution of the series rules ha been marked by extensive input from players. An early example of this shows up in the Second Edition's optional "Miller Artillery Tables." Credited to Rod Miller, Essig recommends using these tables to resolve artillery fire for effect concentrations involving 8 or more shells.

The essential effect of the Miller Tables is to skip placing all the shells that aren't going to hit any target and just resolve the ones that hit occupied hexes. The tables to determine how many shells hit occupied hexes by cross referencing how many shells were fired with how far away from the center of the concentration the possible target is and applying a dice roll to account for the variability that would have occurred if the player had diced for every single shot as under the standard rules.

While certainly neither quick nor easy, this is a big improvement over the original system and foreshadows what the eventual solution would be.

The Miller tables are a welcome addition to the system because Objective Schmidt includes significant artillery assets for both sides.

One interesting unit that appears in the game is a supply convoy of four Weasels, a small fully tracked but unarmored vehicle that ended up being the only vehicle that could reliably traverse the Kall Trail. Three time a day the Americans have to run this convoy up the trail to Schmidt or the Americans south of the Kall River suffer morale penalties.

The victory conditions for both sides revolve around hold the towns on the map and controlling the Kall Trail , with losses potentially shifting victory levels in one direction or the other.

As with Bloody 110, the scenarios are rated for balance, with a negative number favoring the Germans and a positive favoring the Americans. Ratings run from -4 to +3, with several at 0, so players have plenty of options. It's still true, however, that game balance is a secondary consideration in TCS and players not overly concerned with winning will get the most out of the game.

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