Wednesday, April 9, 2008

TCS: Bloody 110

Bloody 110 comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 1

Published: 1989

Designer: Dean Essig

TCS Overview: 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 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.

Bloody 110 specifics:

Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules (1st edition; version 1.0)
Dec. 16-17th, 1944 near Clervaux, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge
Two full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV are silhouettes, Weapons and troops are map graphic symbols
Opposing Sides:
German: 2d Panzer Division
U.S.: 1st Battalion, 110th Infantry Regiment, reinforced
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 12 or so.
Playing time: Up to 30 hours, according to the box

Bloody 110 is the inaugural game in the series and introduces the system’s concepts. Notably it includes five examples of completed op sheets depicting various kinds of operations. Later editions of the rules added a few more, but there’s no one “right” way to do these. Players should draw them up as best suits the situation and remembering that they will be expected to make an honest effort to live up to their plan.

A very large part of the rules is spent on an artillery subsystem that betrays the designer’s background as a mortarman. Fire missions are executed shell by blessed shell. Each is called for, arrives and drifts into its final exploding spot. This results in a very instructive but exceedingly tedious illustration of why artillery is an “area” weapon. Technical artillery terms such as “target reference points” and “final protective fires” are depicted in detail.

Fortunately for the sanity of the players, there’s not a lot of artillery available on either side, just a few hundred rounds at most in total. This may sound like a lot, but it isn’t, and both sides will have to be judicious in expending shells.

In this first edition morale losses are tracked by company among the infantry type units and vehicle units don’t worry about morale.

It seems like every TCS game has some unusual or distinctive units. In Bloody 110 among those are the regimental headquarters company and 28th Infantry Division Rest and Recreation Camp, which were tapped to form ad hoc infantry units. They’re not very good (low firepower, lower morale) but they’re there.

The game includes six very small “teaching scenarios” involving company-sized firefights and 10 historical scenarios depicting the fighting around Clervaux and Marnach on the 16th and 17th of December in whole and in part. Some guidance on play balance is provided using a -4 to +1 scale with negative numbers favoring the Germans. As one can see, the entire situation is generally favorable to the Germans and the historical defense by the 110th was heroic in scope, so players wanting a challenge will be eager to play the Americans!

As implied earlier, one doesn’t play TCS games looking for evenly balanced, fair fights. One looks to experience the challenges of actual battlefield command, where things are rarely fair.

No TCS game has ever been reprinted nor am I aware of any plans ever to do so, so the only way to get a copy now is from the used game market. Every TCS game is, however, completely stand alone and no other games are ever required for play, so it’s easy to get into the system at any point.

Played with the right mindset, the TCS system is probably the most realistic tactical wargame series out there despite its relative inattention to hardware details such as armor thickness and horsepower to weight ratios.

1 comment:

  1. Seth,
    Constantly peruse your reviews, you really do a GREAT job, thanks for your efforts. I've been in the hobby 35 years and have had a career similar to yours, wish that I had your way with words though!
    Richard Savage