Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blitzkrieg 1940 review

Blitzkrieg 1940 is a hard-core hex-and-counter wargame of the campaign that doomed France in 1940, with a second scenario considering what might have happened if the French had attacked Germany in 1939 while the panzers were away in Poland. It was one of two issue games in Command Magazine No. 42 in 1997. The other game was Hell Before Night.

The game uses turns representing two days, hexes representing seven miles and unit counters representing divisions and some smaller units.

In general, the game is fairly typical of XTR World War II operational-level wargames, with standard wargame attack-defense-movement factor unit counters, zones of control, an odds-based numeric step loss combat results table and players turns comprising two player turn “couplets,” which means the actual number of player turns is about double the number of the player turn track.

Systemically, there are two notable rules.

The first of these is the variable order of the movement and combat phases. During a player turn couplet the active player can choose to either move and then attack or attack and then move. The Germans get a one-columns odds shift in their favor if they choose to attack first, then move, on the theory that their usual technique involved hasty attacks, so taking extra time benefits them. The Allies, on the other hand, suffer an odds shift penalty if they move, and then attack, on the theory that their more ponderous command style usually needed to set up attacks deliberately and they were at a disadvantage in mobile operations. This simple variation in turn sequence goes a long way towards capturing the difference between the two armies without extensive special command control rules.

The second notable design technique is “volatile” units. The defending side’s units in each scenario (Germans in 1939, Allies in 1940) have variable combat strengths that are determined each time the unit is involved in combat. For example, a typical French Infantry division in 1940 has factors of +3-+5-6. When it attacks it rolls a die and adds the attack factor as a modifier to the result, so the final attack value will range from 4-9. Likewise, when defending +5 is added to the die roll, resulting in a defense strength between 6-11. This provides an effect similar to the “Untried Units” rules in other wargames, except here the value can vary from battle to battle. The modifier can be a negative number. For example, a Dutch static brigade with a combat value of -2 would subtract 2 from the die roll, to a minimum of 1, so it’s value in attack or defense will range from 1-4.

This provides an antidote to “factor counting” and captures the greenness of the armies involved, at a considerable cost in “wristage,” as the designer admits. An attack by three fully-stacked hexes of French units against a German-occupied hex will needs 13 die rolls to resolve!

This is an extreme case, however, as neither side will have the luxury of organizing very many such massive battles.

In the 1939 scenario the French have seven turns to drive through the Siegfried Line to the Ruhr area. If they succeed in getting a unit within a “Ruhr Endangered Area” they win, otherwise they lose. In this scenario it’s the Germans, in grey. who have most of the “volatile” units, with 34 “0-+3-6 infantry divisions on the defense. (A volatile factor of ‘0’ means there is no addition or subtraction from the die roll, so this units have attack factors of 1-6.) The sole “mobile” reserve is the 0-+2-10 76th truck-mobile Infantry Division. Eight more volatile infantry divisions make up a strategic reserve. All these units have just one step. On the fourth turn the Germans get two experienced two-step, non-volatile 8-10-6/4-5-6 infantry divisions transferred from the Polish front.

The French (in red-on-white) have 47 non-volatile divisions available for their offensive (The British have not arrived, the Belgians and Dutch are assumed to stand aside). Handicapping the French are a very inefficient peacetime deployment at start and the fact that all their units have just one step. Except at the very highest odds the attacker will usually lose at least a step or two in every attack, making the French army powerful, but brittle in the extreme. In addition, the terrain on the Germans side of the border is heavily fortified, filled with rough terrain and cities and cut by numerous rivers. Between the various movement and combat penalties, the French will find the going very tough, especially considering the limited time they have.In the 1940 campaign, of course, it’s the Germans who are on the attack. Their white-on-black Panzer divisions have four steps, and their field grey infantry two steps each.

On the other side, the yellow, red and dark blue French units all have just one step, as well as volatile combat factors. The BEF, in tan counters, has volatile factors but two-step divisions, giving them more staying power.

Various special rules account for the German “Sickle Cut” operation through the Ardennes, airborne Coups de Main, Allied capitulations and other facets of the campaign. The Germans win by achieving victory points for forcing capitulations, breaching the Maginot line “destroying: the BEF or causing “severe” RAF pilot losses. They lose victory points if the Allies control any German cities (hah!) or cause “severe” losses to the German forces. Whether the criteria in within the quotation marks above have been met is determined by rolling a die and comparing the result to a table of losses. The game is 10 turns long. The amount of luck involved in all this may bother some players. By the way, the historical result was a game victory for the Allies! The designer explains that the Allies did go on to win the war, so the German player has to do better than the historical result in order to win.


(Yes) For Wargamers: A reasonable simulation of a difficult-to-simulate situation. The conventional wisdom is that the French had very little chance of winning this campaign because of deeply rooted flaws in their military doctrine, so the challenge is creating an interesting situation for the player of the doomed side. In this the game succeeds.

(No) For Collectors: Nothing special.

(No) For Euro gamers: A hard-core hex-and-counter wargame. The volatile unit mechanic, in particular, will not have any appeal.

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