Tuesday, April 15, 2008

TCS Hunters From the Sky

Hunters From The Sky comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 6

Published: 1994
Designer: W.G. "Wig" Graves

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.

Hunters From The Sky specifics:
Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1
May 20-23rd, 1941, Maleme, Crete
Two full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV are full color icons, Weapons and troops are map graphic symbols
Opposing Sides: Commonwealth: 5th New Zealand Brigade and elements of various other British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek formations
Germans: Sturm Airlanding Regiment, reinforced with elements of the 5th Mountain Division and 7th Air Division
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 18 or so.
Playing time: Up to 20 hours, according to the box

With the 3.1 version of the rules the Tactical Combat Series would reach the maturity and stability that could carry it through the next decade and more.

The artillery system was now brought into the regular action phases providing a fully streamlined sequence of play with the minimum amount of fuss. Also simplified was morale, with morale losses now tracked at the battalion level instead of the company level."Buttoning up" was added to the armor rules, doing something to reduce the effectiveness of armor.
The major unresolved issue of 3.1 was the stodgy interaction of armor with other armor and anti-tank weapons. Many players thought there should be a more dynamic "dueling" kind of mechanism to better reflect the nature of tank combat, but addressing that issue was put off to the future.
Oddly enough, Hunters of the Sky makes very little use of any of the new features of version 3.1. There are just five tanks in the game (all British) and very little artillery (a grand total of seven batteries).
The biggest oddity of Hunter of the Sky is that it's the one game in the series that doesn't use the command rules at all. Considering that the command rules are basically the heart of the entire game system, this is very odd indeed.
The Germans are completely unhindered by any command considerations at all and can be used however the player sees fit. The biggest challenge for the Germans is landing in one piece. Almost all of the Germans arrive by air, either in gliders, by parachutes or by airlanding. Each has its risks, particularly if the Commonwealth still has some functioning anti-aircraft guns in range of Maleme airfield.
On the other hand the Germans are very powerful. Many German platoons have a firepower of "9" which makes them one of the strongest shooters in the entire TCS line. They also have a base morale of "1" which means they will almost certainly fight down to their last step. Every one of these guys that gets show down by AA fire or lands in the sea is therefore a big victory for the Commonwealth, because they're going to have a tough time dealing with them once they land.
The Commonwealth does have a few tanks and the Germans have almost no antitank capability. They have a few 37mm ATG, but the "AT" rule that normally allows infantry a close assault ability against armor is suspended for this game. But the tanks are too few, not very strong and the best ones (a pair of Matildas) are also prone to break down, so they're not a game-changer.
Meanwhile the Commonwealth is laboring under two big handicaps. First, the Germans have complete air superiority and there will be Stukas and Me 109s blasting the British almost every turn.Second, the Commonwealth does have a command control restriction. Each battalion has a battalion defense zone, which is defined by a 10-hex radius from a certain hex. Their units can operate freely within that zone, but not outside of it until "released." In the historical game the battalions aren't released until midnight on 21 May, but as an optional rule there can be a die roll to release units, which aids the Commonwealth a bit.Commonwealth units within a battalion defense zone that haven't moved are considered "dug in," but once they move they permanently lose that status. No other units in the game can ever be dug in, which is usually a function of being on a Prepared Defense op sheet in this game system.
Obviously the Commonwealth player has to devoted a lot of thought to his initial setup because he's not going to want to move very much. Being dug-in provides an important -1 column shift on the area fire table that the Commonwealth will badly need facing the firepower-rich Germans. Perhaps even more important, being dug in provides a beneficial -2 modifier on the morale table.
Aside from the rules needed to detail the German air assault there aren't many special rules in Hunters. Perhaps the most colorful is the ability of the Germans to capture and use some British equipment, up to four Bofors guns and a couple of trucks.
The first three scenarios break down the action into its main phases with relatively short 23-45 turn lengths. There's also a grand, 204-turn, campaign game that covers the entire four-day fight. Players can either use the historical German landing schedule or create their own.
This game plays quicker than the usual TCS game because there's less paperwork involved, but it's still a large game without any really small scenario.

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