Black Wednesday comprehensive review
Tactical Combat Series No. 7
Designer: David Friedrichs
Repeated from earlier reviews. If already familiar with TCS skip this part.
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. Offensively, units either fire area-effect weapons such as small arms and high explosives or with weapons with a point effect such as anti-tank guns.
Similarly, they are either area targets such as soldiers or point targets such as a vehicle, or occasionally both. 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. 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 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.Series designer Dean Essig firmly insisted 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 (Except the modern Force Eagle's war) can (and should) be played with the latest edition of the rules.
Black Wednesday specifics:
Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1
Feb. 10th-11th, 1943, Kranis Bor, Russia, near Leningrad
Two full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV, weapons and troops are all are full color icons. These are termed "Enhanced" TCS counters in the rules.
Russians: 63rd Guards Rifle Division, 72nd Rifle Division, 708th Rifle Regiment, Red Banner Tank Brigade, independent tank battalion.
Axis: 250th (Spanish Blue) Infantry Division elements, German regimental-sized Kamfgruppe Heckel
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 34 or so.
Playing time: Up to 50 hours, according to the box
While not the first game with the final 3.1 version of the TCS rules. Black Wednesday was the first to really take advantage of the streamlined features of that update. In particular, its hard to see how the older artillery rules would have worked with this game, as the number of guns involved is truly massive. The Axis alone have 16 batteries available. The Russian have no less than 12 battalions of artillery, not counting another dozen battalions of guns and rockets firing the preparatory barrage!
Likewise it's fortunate that morale is tracked at the battalion level in 3.1 instead of the company level of earlier versions, otherwise there's be more than a hundred company morale boxes.
This is a massive infantry battle, a corps-sized frontal assault into a fortified line. The Russians have 63 tanks available, but terrain and command restrictions will limit their effectiveness, even though they're mostly good tanks (T-34s and KV-1s). The Spanish have no tanks, but there's a chance of a few German AFV arriving as reinforcements, so this is truly an infantry/artillery fight.
There are a fair number of special rules covering various OB, terrain and doctrinal issues.
The bulk of the special rules deal with the Russian preparatory barrage which can either follow the historical schedule or one drawn up by the player before the game. In either case the prep must be fired, must be fired on schedule and woe to the Russian that get in the way by accident. The Spanish will need every advantage of the on-map fortifications to survive.
One notable restiction the Russians labor under is a strict limit on the number of op sheets in play. Normally, in TCS op sheets can comprise units of any size, although the game system rewards op sheets that include at least one whole battalion. The Spanish/German player will, for example, generally organize his op sheets by battalion. The Russians, in contrast, are limited to just one op sheet per division. This means they can have just three implemented op sheets and three non-implemented (op sheets being readied) at a time. In addition, they can have a separate op sheet for the tank units, if they're not included on a divisional sheet.
Besides the obvious inflexibility involved in having the whole division operating on one op sheet, the Russians have further disadvantages. For any divisional op sheets implemented during the battle (in other words, any after the initial one in place at the start of the game), the actual implementaion is battalion by battlion, controlled by die rolls.
A further implication of this rule is that failure is simply not an option for the Russians. Executing the failure instructions for a whole division or any large part of one will doom the whole Russian effort. There isn't time to start all over.
Some other interesting rules include forward observers for the Russian artillery, commissars who can "encourage" units to ignore suppression results (at the cost of a step) and "bunching" which requirs the Russians to stick together.The wording of the bunching rule illustrates the proper frame of mind that TCS players need. "Bunching is meant to be a guideline, not a hard and fast 'do this or suffer' rule. ... If you find that you are already looking for ways to circumvent it -- save yourself the trouble and play without it."TCS is not a game system for rules lawyering.
As usual, the game includes multiple scenarios depicting various phases and incidents in the battle, limiting the scope in area or time to provide digestable portions for two players. Any of the two-map scenarios can also form the basis for a campaign game. There's also a hypothetical scenario depicting a German counterattack to retake Krasni Bor.
Black Wednesday is massive game, probably best played a group project, although it is playable by two players with patience and space to leave the game set up.