Friday, June 12, 2009

Got GD'42 today

I was there at the beginning.

20 years ago I bought Bloody 110, the first game in the second series of games by The Gamers, which was predicated on presenting players with series based on standardized rules so they could spend time playing and not wading through rule books. They were not completely successful, as most games from The Gamers were pretty heavy. And the Tactical Combat Series, TCS, was no exception. Make no mistake about it, TCS is a full-blown grognard hex-and-counter wargame system, which puts authenticity first. It luxuriates in charts, die roll modifiers and intricate procedures.

What it doesn't so, however, is bury itself in abstractions. While detailed and intricate, the game system is surprisingly intuitive. At 125 yards per hex, 20 minutes per turn and with platoon-scale troop units and individual tanks it's obviously very tactical. But at its heart it's not a game about lieutenants and captains, but a game about majors and colonels. Although games in the series cover everything from actions by company-sized commands (Semper Fi) to corps-sized commands (Black Wednesday), it's at the regimental level that most action takes place, with battalion as the main maneuver element.

It's also been a remarkable stable set of rules Bloody 110, which came out in 1989 was follwed a year later by Objective Schmidt and Omaha and a Second Edition of the rules, which simplified some of the more excruciating procedures, including the artillery fire system. I'm an artilleryman, and I still found the round-by-round tracking of fire missions in the first edition tedious. Optional "Miller Tables" started a process that resulted in much more sensible artillery rules later on. In 1993 a third edition of the rules, styled 3.0, appeared in Matanikau and GD'40 which further simplified things.

GD' 40 also inaugurated an interesting experiment, where the game system would attempt to follow one famous unit, the German army's GrossDeutchland, throughout the war with a game from each year it fought.

Finally, in 1994, the rules stabilized with version 3.1, which introduced battalion-level morale, and the final version of the artillery rules. Oddly, this 1994 game, Hunters From the Sky, which included the 3.1 version of the rules, didn't use most of that rule book because that game, uniquely in the series, didn't use the command rules. Now, while it's certainly possible not to use the command rules, it seems rather pointless to. They really form the heart of the game system.

Relying on written plans, inspired by actual military maneuver graphics and procedures, the command system is an important part of the system's authenticity. Older tactical combat games such as PanzerBlitz suffered from the problem of too much happening. Even Squad Leader and the later ASL suffer from this flaw. The typical game of PanzerBlitz or ASL depicts an hour or so of fighting and moving, but at far too accelerated a rate. Real battles can last hours, due to fear, confusion, coordination, etc. and all the other friction of war. TCS battles, in contrast, unfold at a much more realistic pace.

With the 3.1 rules the system reached a stable state that would last for 15 years, over nine more games and even through the sale of The Gamers to Multiman Publishing in 2000.

An important part of the system's longevity was system designer and guru Dean Essig's insistence that no game ever be made obsolete by later editions. All updated rules were backwards compatible. This no doubt constrained design choices somewhat, but it was a real reward for those who stuck with the system. So often early adopters of game systems end up finding their early support "rewarded" by having their initial games being made obsolete by newer versions.

This policy, however, apparently helped insure that the 4.0 rules were a long time coming. TCS was always an infantry- and artillery-centric system, which is no surprise, given that Essig was formerly an infantry officer who commanded a mortar platoon before a tragic training accident caused his military career to end. It worked best for infantry-dominated fights, but had some problems in games that included a large amount of armor on both sides. While some other changes were made in 4.0, it was the perceived need to fix the armor interaction that drove the development of 4.0. But the rules also had to remain compatible with all earlier versions, which meant no new markers or new values for counters.

How successful 4.0 is in this regard, I can't say yet, but given that it's been playtested for about a decade I think the chances are good.

GD '42 introduces a new graphic style for both counters and map, compared to all earlier versions. As it's only the third new TCS game since MMP took the line over it's a welcome addition and provides hope that the system will continue. It's possible the pace of TCS releases may pick up now that 4.0 is out, because I believe several other TCS titles that feature armored fights were on hold until the problem was solved. The game before GD '42 was Bloody Ridge in 2005, which didn't have any armor.

I'm hoping we nee more TCS soon. I've been anticipating Arracourt for a long time.


  1. I have always believed that Panzerblitz/Panzer Leader portrayed much too quick a pace for the battle. I believe the hex size was 250m. and the turn time was 6min. I think a Panther moved about 10. In clear terrain, that's 2.5km/6min or 25 kph. The tank was capable of greater speeds than that of course but, as you say, in the context of a simulation where men are scared and confused and getting conflicting information and perhaps orders, I can't imagine things progress this fast. The fact is, I don't know and never will know what it is like in battle, but:

    “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”

    -- Karl von Clausewitz

    How long WOULD a typical Battalion level fight (a la Panzer Leader) last? I know it could be anywhere from minutes to days, but does anyone have an estimate, e.g. for a meeting engagement?

  2. How widespread do you think the appeal for this game is?

  3. In answer to Paul, I think the appeal for this sort of game is limited. While authentic, the game system is labor-intensive, especially the command system. It's definitely not a "gamer's game."

  4. Sounds like a good game for an electronic/computer treatment a la War in Europe. No AI, but an interface to play solo or against an opponent.