Saturday, April 12, 2008

TCS: Omaha comprehensive review

Omaha comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 3
Published: 1991
Designer: Dave Powell

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. 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.

Omaha specifics:

Rules: Tactical Combat Series Rules, 2nd Ed. (version 2.0)

June 6-8, 1944 Normandy, France, D-Day

Four full-sized maps

Unit symbols: AFV are silhouettes, Weapons and troops are map graphic symbols

Opposing Sides: German: 352d Infantry Division, partial, but reinforced. Variant adds elements of the Panzer Lehr Division

U.S.: First Infantry Division, reinforced

Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 25 or so.

Playing time: Up to "hundreds"of hours, according to the box

Omaha was the third Tactical Combat Series game and probably the most ambitious ever.The game's topic is the invasion across the beaches of Normandy at Omaha Beach. It's a division-sized amphibious assault into a heavily fortified zone. It's a very big game.

The special rules in Omaha are about as long as the series rules. Just about every conceivable factor is covered, from the different kinds of landing craft, naval fire, air support, beach defenses and more. The ocean even goes in and out with the tide.

In keeping with series precedent, no particular rule is very complicated on its own and all the procedures are straightforward. It's merely the sheer mass of everything that makes it a "monster." I won't say that two people can't play it, but this screams "club project" all over it.

During pre-game planning players can draw up op sheets, but most of these will end up being wasted for the U.S. side as their units tend to land at the wrong beaches, so the game allows a sort of abbreviated "line entry" orders system to be used, which skips most of the detail in favor of trusting the players to play honestly. Units that land at the wrong spot can march along the beach to the right spot if they choose, and then execute their planed orders, but this often isn't wise. Getting off the beach as soon as possible is vital, so it's usually better to just deal with the spot you ended up.

Units coming ashore are exempt from any command control until the reach the "shingle" on the beach, which is about at the high tide mark. Getting off the shingle and moving inland requires a kick in the pants and there to provide the boot are a random selection of leader counters drawn from the historically available battalion, regiment and division leaders. It's a throwback to an earlier leadership style but it worked. Units within three hexes of a leader can move and fight freely. The leaders all disappear at the end of the day, however, so the players need to reorganize their forces into cohesive formations before that.

There are six small teaching scenarios using company-sized firefights to show off elements of the rules.

The major part of the game are the seven scenarios depicting major parts of the invasion battle divided up temporally and geographically. Only one of these, a battalion-sized skirmish on one part of the map, could be termed small. All the rest are major projects. The eighth scenario brings it all together for a grand, three-day 129-turn campaign game. Good luck!

There's also a 9th scenario that assumes Rommel was able to position the Panzer Lehr division close to the coast. Nothing like sending some Tigers and Panthers rumbling towards the beaches. A later Operations Magazine variant changed the Tigers and Panthers to Mark IV tanks, but either way it appears like a grim variant for the U.S.

All the scenarios are rated for balance, with ratings from 0 to +4, indicating that the U.S. is favored. While American losses will be severe, the reality is that there aren't a lot of Germans behind the beaches and the ones there aren't very good. The only scenario rated in favor of the Germans is the Panzer Lehr one at a -1.

The "optional" "Miller Artillery Tables" are not really optional in this game with the printed rules. There's a lot of lead in the air and I would strongly recommend playing with the 3.1 rules or later and skipping straight to that more streamlined system.

Omaha stands out among the TCS line for its scale and the drama of its topic. If you get to play it you'll be left with something memorable.

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