Thursday, April 24, 2008

TCS: Screaming Eagles in Holland

Screaming Eagles in Holland comprehensive review
Tactical Combat Series No. 13

Published: 2002

Designer: Nigel Roberts and Bob Runnicles

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.

Screaming Eagles in Holland specifics:

Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1

22nd-23rd Sept., 1944, Veghel, Holland
Two full-sized maps
Unit symbols: AFV, weapons and troops are all are full color icons.

Opposing Sides:
Allied: 101st Airborne Division (partial) and elements of the British XXX Coprs
German: KG Walther (elements 107th Pz Bde, 1st Bn-16th VG Regt., SS KG Frundsberg, 1st Bn-21st FJ) KG Huber (1035 Regt., KG Von der Heydte)
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 19 or so.
Playing time: Up to about 20 hours, according to the box.

The first TCS game published under MMP's logo after The Gamers was sold, Screaming Eagles in Holland provided some evidence that the series would continue after publication of new games became sparse in the new century. In the first 8 years of the system there were 11 titles published. In the last 10 years only three (or four if GD '42 appears soon).

Screaming Eagles in Holland is a pretty straightforward TCS game, with a good mix of all arms and quality troops for the most part on both sides. The Allies have elite paratroops, Sherman tanks and a decent amount of artillery, although a little lighter in size than they're used to (mostly 75mm Pack Howitzers). The Germans also have paratroopers, as well as SS infantry, some regular infantry, '88s', assault guns, Panthers and Panzer IVs. The Allies have a chance for some air support, as do the Germans as a variant, so just about every aspect of the rules comes into play.

The Allies have an edge in command quality, with command prep ratings of 2 or 3, compared to the 3 or 4 of the Germans. In addition the Germans are limited to just seven implemented op sheets (3 for KG Huber and 4 for KG Walther) and the two KG cannot coordinate in any way, representing the problems the Germans had historically in sequencing their attacks. The two German groups were attacking from opposite directions and had no communication with each other. They weren't even in the same corps! The best way to play this game is with at least two German players who are not allowed to communicate with each other.

As so often with TCS games, many of the special rules have to do with terrain considerations peculiar to a specific battlefield. In this case, the dominant characteristic of the area around Veghel was its extreme flatness and wet ground. In an extreme contrast for those who have played Leros, Hunters From the Sky or Semper Fi!, there's just one contour line on the entire map! One small 20 meter-high knoll is the only significant high ground.

In order to prevent unrealistic long-range fire, lines of sight between 0 elevation hexes are caped at a maximum of 10 hexes because in reality there existed numerous small LOS obstructions such as bushes that aren't big enough to rate a terrain symbol but did limit visibility.

Still, some long-range spotting is available, making artilelry and mortars useful. Beside the knoll and many buildings, the countryside is also dotted with windmills and church steeples, which make good observer perches.

The flat ground is waterlogged in many places, restricting cross-country mobility on much of the map, especially for vehicles. This limits the effectiveness of the armor units on both sides considerably, but probably hurts the Germans more because their tanks are better than the Allied armor while much of their infantry is inferior to the U.S. airborne troops.

One interesting side note is that one of the units in the U.S. OB is Co. E, 2nd Bn, 506th Parachute Infantry, which was the topic of the famous book and television miniseries Band of Brothers. The fighting in Holland is in Chapter 8 of the book and Part 5 of the miniseries.

There are just four scenarios in the game, which is about half the usual number. The first is a 77-turn campaign covering the entire battle over two maps. The second concentrates on the second day's fighting on both maps, and so it amounts to a shorter campaign game. The last two are shorter (10-13 turn) one-map fights suitable for an evening's play.

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