Thursday, April 17, 2008

TCS Leros

Leros comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 8

Published: 1995
Designer: David Friedrichs

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.

Leros specifics:

Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1
12th-17th, 1943, the island of Leros, Greece
Three full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV, weapons and troops are all are full color icons.
Opposing Sides:
Commonwealth: 234th Infantry Brigade, reinforced; Italian coastal artillery
German: Kampfgruppe Mueller with elements from the 22d Air Landing Division, Brandenburg Division, 1st Bn, 2nd Parachute Regt., 2nd Bn 22nd LW Field Regt. and 3rd Bn, 440th Infantry Regt.
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 8 or so.
Playing time: Up to 120 hours, according to the box

The Tactical Combat Series seemed to have an affinity for invasion games in its earlier days. Even Matanikau featured a scenario with Marines coming ashore in Higgins boats. In Omaha the invaders came by sea, in Hunters From the Sky the invaders came by air. And in Leros, they come by both.

Leros uses the same airlanding system as Hunters and its own naval transport and landing system, although it has similarities to Omaha. Most of the game's special rules revolve around getting to the island, although a few also deal with a few minor aspects of the island battle.

Leros presents an interesting situation because the invaders do not have a significant numerical advantage over the defenders, nor a huge edge in quality.

The main things the Germans do have going for them is the sheer size of the island and their uncontested air supremacy.

The island, while small in an absolute sense (just a few miles from end to end) is still relatively large for a defending force that only amounts to three battalions at start. The Germans can land literally anywhere, although some beaches are clearly better than others. A few places are too well covered by Italian coastal guns to be practical, but Germans willing to brave some losses have more options than the British defenders can cover.

The classic solution to the British problem would be a mobile defense, but this is where the second German advantage comes in. Every turn there will be German aircraft overhead, making movement around the island very difficult for the British.

Historically the battle was very hard-fought and evenly balanced, but ended in a British defeat that Winston Churchill thought very humiliating so late in the war.

As was becoming the typical TCS pattern, the game provides multiple scenarios depicting various parts of the battle limited by area or time as well as a campaign game that can use any of the three-map scenarios as a starting point. While the forces involved are not large by TCS standards, the number of turns can be heroic, up to 275, so this is still a pretty big game when played as a campaign. There is one small, one-map, 4-turn scenario involving about a dozen German company-sized units against about 8 companies worth of British that is the best bet for an evening's play.

A few minor variants add some additional Allied forces such as a high-quality company of Greek commandos and a low-quality battalion of Italian garrison troops. There's even a chance for some British air support if the British player is feeling too persecuted by the Luftwaffe.

The British command wasn't very effective and this is reflected with a rather below-average prep rating of 5 and a restriction of no more than 6 implemented op sheets, which is a very unusual restriction for a non-Russian army in TCS. They also don't get the usual staff modifier.

On very important errata clarifies that Italian coastal guns only get to fire at one beach zone per turn. The published rule directly contradicts itself within six sentences, which is an embarrassing oversight. Still, it's worth noting that the amount of errata in the TCS line is generally fairly limited by wargame standards and rarely critical.

There's probably no TCS game where vehicles play a smaller role than in Leros. Even in Matanikau, which was set in the jungles of Guadalcanal, there were some tanks and half-tracks. In Leros the only "fighting" vehicles are some unarmored flak halftracks the Germans can lug to the island. And some of the heavy weapons on both sides have integral "nominal trucks" to move them around. That's it.

Both sides have a lot of different ways to approach the battle and it's unlikely players will exhaust all the possibilities, so this game has high replayability.

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