Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TCS: A Frozen Hell

A Frozen Hell comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 12

Published: 2000Designer: Al Wambold

TCS Overview

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, currently 3.1.

A Frozen Hell specifics:

Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1

8th-12th Dec. 1939, Finland
Two full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV, weapons and troops are all are full color icons.

Opposing Sides:
Finland: Task Force Pajari, 16th Infantry regiment and several independent battalions
Russian: 139th Infantry Division

Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 17 or so.Playing time: Up to about 30 hours, according to the box.

Chronologically the earliest TCS game, A Frozen Hell was the last one published by The Gamers before Dean Essig sold the line to MMP.

The first 11 TCS games appeared in just 8 years, but dissatisfaction over the state of the armor rules prompted delays in a number of proposed titles while playtesters, game designers and series designer Essig debated aspects of what would eventually be known as the 4.x rules set. This ended up taking more than a decade to work out and as of this writing the new rules have still not been officially published.

In the meantime, some projects that didn't involve a lot of armor, especially tank-on-tank, went forward. Among them was A Frozen Hell, which is an unusual TCS title in many respects.

For one thing, it's the only game to abandon the 20-minute daylight, 1-hour nighttime turn length that had used so far. Instead both day and night turns are 30 minutes long. Because, however, the fighting took place in the far north during the dead of winter, the majority of turns are night turns. Most of the remaining turns are twilight or dawn/dusk turns. As a matter of fact there are only 10 full daylight turns per day! What's more, even during those daylight turns there's a significant chance for reduced visibility due to fog, mist or snow. Oh yeah, and the fighting took place under a new moon, to the nighttime visibility is just 1 hex, instead of the usual 2. And most of the map is covered in dense forest and swamp.

What all this means is that the fighting takes on a particularly intimate character, with ranged fire, and especially long-range supporting weapons such as machine guns and mortars playing a much reduced role. There's one battalion of Russian tanks available, but they play a very minor role because of the extremely restrictive terrain and the fact they're not very powerful tanks anyway(more of the ubiquitous T-26).

The Russians have considerably more supporting weapons than the Finns, but it doesn't do them much good given the terrain and weather, so the battle ends up being nearly a pure infantry brawl. The Finns have a significant edge in morale, while the Russians have a small edge in numbers. The Russians do, however, start off more concentrated and are particularly well-led, having a command prep number of 3, which is just slightly worse than the Finnish command prep of 2. The Russians are limited to just three implemented op sheets and no more than three battalions per op sheet, but they're well-advised to keep their troops together in any case.
Special rules cover things such as ski troops (almost all the Finns) artillery fire knocking down trees and knocking holes in the ice, Finnish raids, the talented Finn leader Lt. Col. Pajari and hungry Russians looting Finnish field kitchens.

The Russians have more and bigger guns, but will have a hard time using them effectively. The FO rule seen before in Black Wednesday and GD '41 makes an appearance, although the FOs aren't the usual supermen and can be targeted normally. In many scenarios the Russian guns are forced into direct fire mode anyway.

Two rules of particular note are ambushes and Russian bonfires. Because of the extremely limited visibility that characterized the fighting, defending units won't always get to fire their usual "overwatch" fires and sometimes will even be taken by surprise by the moving units in a special kind of assault combat termed "ambushes" in the rules. Various factors affect the chance of this happening such as the existence of illumination, the types of op sheets involved, weather and similar considerations.

One special factor hindering the Russians are "bonfires." Ill-equipped for the very harsh conditions, the Russians often warmed themselves overnight using bonfires, with rather obvious tactical disadvantages. Russian units not assigned to an op sheet when night falls light a bonfire in their hex, which makes them especially vulnerable to raiding Finns.

As is usual TCS practice, there are a number of scenarios (eight) breaking the fight into discrete portions suitable for playing when space or time limits apply as well as a grand (in this case 99-turn) scenario that depicts the entire battle.

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