Sunday, April 13, 2008

TCS: Matanikau comprehensive review

Matanikau comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 4
Published: 1991
Designer: Sam Simons

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.

Matanikau specifics:
Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.0

Sept. 26th-27th, Oct. 7th, Oct. 9th, Oct. 23rd-26th, 1942. Guadacanal, South Pacific
One full-sized map
Unit symbols: AFV are full color icons, Weapons and troops are map graphic symbols

Opposing Sides: Japanese: 2nd Infantry Division
U.S.: First Marine Division

Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 8 or so.

Playing time: Up to 40 hours, according to the box

Matanikau was the first game under the 3.0 version of the TCS series rules, which greatly streamline play from earlier. Instead of the rigid sequence of play used earlier most of the action took place now during "action phases" in which units moved, fired and close assaulted/overrun as desired by the phasing player in any order desired.

The major exception to this full integration of activity was the artillery system, which still operated in its own artillery and call for fire phases before the action phases, although this artillery subsystem as much quicker and easier than what had gon beforethe system as well. Gon was the shell-by-shell resolution of all or part of an indirect fire mission. Now the mission's target was selected, the amount of fire in EFSs (effective sheafs) was announced, the player adjusted the target location using a die roll and then placed the EFS as indicated. The fire was then resolved. Considering the sizes of the forces involved there's actually quite a bit of artillery available and this simpler system was a welcome advance over earlier attempts.

The game doesn't have too many special rules, mostly dealing with things such as Higgins boats, naval gunfire and the effects of night combat.

There are special morale rules for both sides (These a re Marines and Japanese infantry, after all!) Marines don't do "Save Yourself Retreats, being merely suppressed instead. Meanwhile, Japanese units do not surrender, but will perform Banzai attacks, with the expected morale effects of being more willing to close into close combat.

The Marines have a small unit called the Whaling Scouts which move faster through the jungle hexes and they also have legendary Marine commander "Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, quite possibly the most famous Marine ever. Indeed, he's quite possibly the "Marineist" marine ever. His battalion, the 1st of the 7th Marines, never needs to be on op sheets (the system's way of depicting the most elite units possible) and recovers morale three times faster than regular units.

As one might expect, Matanikau is another infantry battle. The Japanese commit a company of tanks in one battle, as do the Marines in a different battle. The only vehicle-on-vehicle action possible involves the Japanese tanks against a couple of Marine half-track tank destroyers.

Matanikau's scenarios represent a return to the battalion and regimental-sized fighting seen in Bloody 110 and Objective Schmidt instead of the monster Omaha and as such fit eh scope of the system better. All seven scenarios in Matanikau is easily playable by two players, although the larger ones can also handle multiple commanders on each side as well.

The designers abandoned trying to rate the scenarios for balance as earlier games in the system had, which is probably just as well because the game is best not approached with "winning" in mind. Players, like the historical commanders, are simply given missions to accomplish and the resources available and have to make do. Life isn't fair, and neither are battles. That said, I think that the Japanese are somewhat more challenging to play. Compared to the Marines (and other armies seen elsewhere in the various TCS games) the Japanese are not very well-equipped. For example, while Japanese battalions are actually larger than Marine battalions, with 12 platoons of infantry compared to nine in the Marine units, the Japanese only have one mortar unit. The Marines have five. Japanese battalions have four machine gun units, Marine battalions have seven. While the Japanese never have more than three batteries of artillery support in any scenario, it's not uncommon to see the Marines with three battalions. The Marines also have naval gunfire and aircraft on occasion. The U.S. have a better command prep rating (4 to a 6) which translates into a noticeable advantage in reaction times. The only break the Japanese get is that the Marine artillery units are operating at extreme range and large parts of the map are safe from some guns and a small part is safe from all.

Making life difficult for both sides is the terrain. In a reversal of the usual European pattern, the high ground id open while the valleys are filled with vegetation. That vegetation is think jungle, too, which is impassible to vehicles and slow going for everyone else. A lot of the fighting will be at very short range and there are many more close assaults than seen in typical TCS games, where it can be hard to get close without being shot up. In Matanikau no position is very far from a potential jungle approach and there are few chances for long-range shots.

For some reason Matanikau never seemed as popular as other games in the series. I believe The Gamers ended up destroying some inventory to get the tax write-off. It uses the exact same version of the rules as GD'40 (No. 5) in the series, which was popular, so I attribute it to the relative lack of interest in Pacific ground fighting compared to Europe. TCS would eventually return to Guadalcanal with Bloody Ridge, but otherwise its World War II sites have stayed firmly fixed on European theater fighting.

Despite that, I think it's one of the better games in the whole series. Both sides are well-matched and the scenarios and terrain keep the fight very focused on the infantry battle. The system's armor rules, while passable, have never been its strongest point and the games that avoid having a lot of tanks on the field seem to work best. The new 4th edition rules may change that, but under the current 3rd edition standards TCS is first and foremost about infantry combat.

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