Tuesday 28 April 2015

Battlegroup Blitzkrieg - The Story So Far

My copy of Battlegroup Blitzkrieg arrived bang on time on the 16th of April. As I had pre-ordered (just call me fanboy), I had the pleasure of getting the book before its 'official' release at Salute 2015.
Essential companions - you need the £10 core rules book to supplement your supplement.
Total cost including p&p £40.
I have had the time to read it through thoroughly, and I have played a small solo game. I have also given the game an outing with some comrades from the Oxford Wargames Society at a recent club night. And I had a go a few weeks back with a Battlegroup Kursk game. So what's the conclusion? Well, prepare for a longish post - I am not a wargames butterfly, and committing to a new ruleset is a major thing for me. Of course, I will be using the rules for Poland 1939, so comments on sections relating to France 1940 will be limited.

These Is The Rules, Mate
I think I have found the new WW2 gaming experience I was looking for. As a 1:1 scale game, Battlegroup was bound to be a significant change from the 1 base:1 platoon scale of Blitzkrieg Commander; but 'a change' wasn't going to be good enough. I wanted a set of rules that were enjoyable and reasonably straightforward to play, and that I could see myself playing for a good few years. And I think BGB is a winner on all these fronts.

My reservations about the concept remain - can you fit a set of rules covering the whole of WW2 in a single 180 page A4 size book? Of course you can. But there's no use carrying on bitching about it - the guys behind the Battlegroup series have decided on their approach, and I feel they are genuine about wanting to bring out the full character of each campaign. So it's time for me to get over it. The books do make an enjoyable read, and to be honest they are a pleasure to own. And they have that lovely new-coffee-table-book smell. Oh dear me; I seem to be feeling a little faint.

But the real test is, are the rules any good? For me, they score by being built on a basically simple structure that adds enough detail to keep things interesting without going over the top. The three guys I played with at the club night were all new to the rules, but all had a positive reaction. I wasn't much of an umpire, being a newbie myself, but after a couple of hours we were well into the swing of things. There is a reasonable amount to learn and become familiar with, but moves don't seem to drag or get bogged down. The learning process is a pleasure.

This is a 1:1 scale set, so a 'unit' is a single vehicle, an infantry squad of maybe 8-10 men, or a weapons team like an HMG or anti-tank gun. Small teams like artillery observers also form a single unit.

The simple basic structure I mentioned is the turn itself - one rolls some dice to decide how many orders are available to you this turn, then you get on with issuing an order to each of your units one after the other. The basic orders are to either move twice, or fire twice, or move once and shoot once, or shoot once and move once. As an alternative, you can order your units to be ready to fire or move in your opponent's turn. There are, of course, a selection of other more specialist orders available to let you do all the other types of things with your units that you might want to. And that's about it, apart from the chance to rally pinned units at the end of the turn. None of those endless phases and sub-phases and 'go back to the number you first thought of' that characterise some of the sets I've looked at recently.

Movement rules are simple and sensible. It is in the firing rules that most of the extra detail comes in. This is the part of the rules where the writers seem to have had the most fun. To quote the rulebook "the heart of the game is shooting at each other's units". There is a basic division between 'area fire' (what you might call suppressing fire), and 'aimed fire' (aimed at destroying individual units). To give you a feel of the rules, firing is divided into:

Area fire with small arms, MGs and HE
Aimed fire with small arms, MGs and autocannons
Aimed fire with HE
Aimed fire with AP
Indirect fire (artillery and mortars)

The first on the list is particularly simple, having only 2 steps. The last, indirect fire, can be challenging at first, having a basic 6 steps, with the last step ('fire for effect') being subdivided into a further 7 steps. Ouch! But the steps are there for clarity, to lead you through the process by the nose, and once you have the hang of things indirect fire is good fun to call in. The authors make clear that the complication is deliberate, to give players the feel of a process that could be both time consuming and liable to break down in real life.

The morale rules are by contrast brief and basic - a single die roll is about it.

The only other thing worth mentioning is the Battle Rating system. Each unit has a battle rating (separate from its points value), which you need to add up before the game in order to get your force's total battle rating. When anything bad happens during the game, most commonly losing a unit, trying to rally a pinned unit, or the enemy capturing an objective, you then take a Battle Counter from a pot, which usually has a number from 1 to 5. This number is taken off your battle rating, until the time comes when your battle rating gets below zero and you must pack it in, ceding victory to your opponent. Some counters have special effects to produce the odd surprise.

The quick reference sheet is 2 sides only (as all QRS's should be).

In general, the rules are easy to pick up, but this is a set where the usual advice to start small and then build up gradually to bigger games is particularly sensible. There are four levels of game (defined mainly by points totals), Squad, Platoon, Company and Battalion. My first game was a company level scenario using Battlegroup Kursk, which rather maxed out both players as we tried to learn from scratch. For my first solo game I therefore went down to squad level, and had the additional pleasure of being able to fit the game on our little 4' x 3' dining table.

Ah, the return of dining table wargaming! Nice.
Germans advance
The Polish counter stroke fails and they lose the game.
The Supplements
So why does one need the supplements, and why are they so large? Well, as far as the game goes they include detailed army lists laying out the composition of all the possible units and how these fit into an overall force organisation, along with points values, battle ratings and any special rules the units might be able to use. There are also the equipment lists (or 'stats' as most gamers would call them) which give you the movement rates, armour classes and weapons of all the various vehicles, along with weapon stats. Then there are potted histories of the campaigns (in this supplement, Poland 1939, France and Belgium 1940), and what you might call an army summary of each of the combatants (Polish, German 1939, German 1940, French, Belgian and the BEF), giving a brief overview and some background to the various vehicles, guns and aircraft. There are also 9 scenarios in a range of sizes, which look pretty useful. Three of these are from the Polish campaign, then there are 3 German-British, 2 German-French, and one German-Belgian. The layout is, as the adverts say, 'lavish', which means the authors don't stint themselves on space, layout and production values. One detail I liked were the perforated pages for the quick reference sheet and the page of battle counters, which allowed you to extract these without destroying the spine of the book trying to get a decent photocopy.

Online support is good. The rules are published by Iron Fist Publishing, but are sold by The Plastic Soldier Company. The main forum is situated on the Guild Wargamers site. The Iron Fist site has some useful downloads (e.g. QRS sheets) and interesting links related to the game. The occasional Despatches online magazine (2 editions so far), is a good read, and can be accessed via Iron Fist.

Now, readers of this blog will not expect this gushing waterfall of positivity to last forever. I do have some reservations, and there were one or two things I thought were missing. 

As for the whole 'lavish' thing, this is not something I'm bothered about. I could have made do with 'basic', but people seem to love 'lavish' these days. I'll say no more on this. 

Although the rules are generally well written, there are a few explanations which are lacking and things which are unclear. That I am not alone here is borne out by the extensive Q&A on the forum, where many pages of quite basic questions have come in from players. The upside to this is that the answer you want is generally available with a bit of searching, and the authors (particularly Piers Brand, the author of BGB) seem happy to chip in with definitive responses. I think there seem to be more of these minor issues than there should be, but don't let this put you off the rules - most players will have few problems.

As to missing things - first, there are no rules for my personal little favourite, the armoured train. Admittedly, situations suitable for the tabletop involving armoured trains were few and far between in reality, but for a set of rules emphasising period character and flavour, armoured trains would have been a no brainer for me. Rather more difficult to understand is the lack of basic rules for cavalry - the movement rules and organisational details are there, but nothing about mounting/dismounting, number of horse holders, or what type of target they are when mounted (the answer seems to be treat them as soft skinned vehicles). This is a small but strange hole in the rules. Also missing is my favourite ground attack aircraft, the Henschel HS-123. Including the Bf-109 instead, as the rules do, I find odd, as the 109 wasn't really a ground attack aircraft at all in this period, whilst the HS-123 was significant and (importantly!) makes an interesting model.

And no rules for smoke. How strange, I thought, flicking desperately through the rule book trying to find how to fire it. Piers' response to queries on the forum is "it's abstracted into the spotting rolls. We assume smoke, dust and other obscurants are ever present and troops are popping smoke as needed." A bit unconvincing, to be honest, for a ruleset that goes into so much detail for firing such a wide range of weapons (up to and including 155mm guns and rocket batteries). As a way out of rules for tank smoke mortars, smoke grenades and the like, this is a fair enough approach, but I will develop my own rules for smoke from artillery and from medium and heavy mortars (i.e. weapons able to use indirect fire in the rules). The same goes for armoured trains - I'm not putting my model on hold for the lack of some rules!

Nothing either for airborne troops. Glider assault on Eben Emael? Fallschirmjaeger in Holland? Sorry! Piers has indicated these rules will appear in the supplement including Crete. He also added that, of course, there are no Dutch lists in BGB. I think there should have been. Apparently, they will be made available in a forthcoming article in WSS magazine, which is something.

A detail too far for me was that vehicles with significant weapons have an ammo figure, which you need to keep track of. This means you can make use of supply units to top up ammo when needed. I doubt I will be bothering with this extra workload - the odd 'ammunition low' battle rating counter will cover this aspect for me.

Other rule areas are surprisingly vague - line of sight is left entirely to player agreement, taking account of the situation on the table. This is actually quite liberating and caused no problems at the club, but the principle might have been made more explicit. Things like visibility within woods, or how close to the edge of a wood you need to be to see in or fire out, must be made up by the players without guidance. 

There is also the odd rule I disagree with. When throwing for number of orders using the designated number of D6s, there is the opportunity for quite a wide variation in the number of orders available. A bit of command frustration is one thing, but with this system some bad luck over 2 or 3 moves can really spoil your chances, rather unfairly I think. I might try using average dice rather than D6 for this. Another more minor example - artillery spotters can spot for arty and mortars, which I don't think accords with reality. But enough - this post has gone on long enough and I don't want to nit pick.

Time to wrap it up. The reason I'm going for these rules is that they promise a straightforward but entertaining gaming experience which is enjoyable and fresh. Games seem to have a number of interesting twists and turns, made possible by some clever rule mechanisms. The scale is very different to what I have been used to, which I was hesitant about at first, but which turns out to be a real plus. The Battlegroup rules are well worth your attention.


Ross Mac said...

Now that is what I call a review well done. Thanks.

Piers said...

Read with interest, always good to see a balanced review, even if I dont necessarily agree with all the conclusions! ;)

Keep up the good work dude, and hope you do enjoy the game, and if ye ever fancy a trip to Ireland, I will run a game for ya.

Keith Flint said...

You can't say fairer than that Piers. Thanks.

Stryker said...

That was a really useful review. I've been thinking on and off of buying a set and now I probably will so thanks!

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

As a Blitzkrieg Commander gamer, I was interested to see you mentioned it... so why is Battlegroup better than BC for you?

Steve J. said...

A very good and detailed review Keith. I have toyed with the idea of these rules, but certain elements put me off, despite some very nice ideas contained therein. The omission of cavalry and Fallschirmjager seems inexcusable to me, given their use in both campaigns. Ditto smoke. Personally I will stick with Chain of Command for Squad to Platoon level actions, with BKCII being used for anything larger.

Keith Flint said...

Steve-the-wargamer: I still think BKC is a great set of rules. But after playing BKC for well over 10 years I just wanted to try something different. I wouldn't say BG is better than BKC - for me they will be 2 complimentary rule sets for playing at 2 different levels.

Rules are a personal thing - I can understand people not wanting to play any set. Looked at objectively, Chain of Command might be a 'better' rule set, in the sense of being a better simulation or representation of warfare. Many people might consider it a more clever rule set than BG. But for me it was just a bit TOO clever. BG is just a game, based on WW2, but it suits me and I find it fun to play in a way I didn't with CoC.

Steve J. said...

As long as you enjoy the game Keith, that's all that matters:).

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

...and without wanting to get to philosophical about it I think SteveJ has it exactly right..! Thanks for the reply Keith...

Piers said...

Cavalry are in the book... so not sure what ye mean there.

And were not many FJ used in Poland or France. Their use other than Eben Emael and the bridges was largely confined to Holland.

The FJ will feature in their own part book coveri BG Crete and early engagements. The list plus airborne rules and the Dutch list (so they have someone to fight) would not have fitted in the book and if put in would have raised the cost.

So the Dutch list will be a free giveaway and FJ will get the proper treatment in the Crete and Desert book next year.

Piers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Piers said...

But couldn't not agree more... play what you enjoy!

Piers said...

Cavalry are in the book... so not sure what ye mean there.

And were not many FJ used in Poland or France. Their use other than Eben Emael and the bridges was largely confined to Holland.

The FJ will feature in their own part book coveri BG Crete and early engagements. The list plus airborne rules and the Dutch list (so they have someone to fight) would not have fitted in the book and if put in would have raised the cost.

So the Dutch list will be a free giveaway and FJ will get the proper treatment in the Crete and Desert book next year.

Keith Flint said...

Piers, thanks for that further info. As you say, cavalry are in the book, but a few rules are missing (unless I missed them), such as what type of target they constitute, how many men are lost as horse holders, do they use the normal embark/disembark rules, etc. Something like the little section on motorcycle troops on p.14 was needed, IMHO.

Piers said...

Are right, got ya. They essentially use the same rules as MCs, as they are treated as a transport. I believe we covered cavalry in a Q&A and a note shoukd have been in Blitz. I will add one to the forum as a sticky comment.

We dont account for horseholders to ease book keeping, but when I have done I remove one figure per 'section' for ease. We tend to simplify things like unit drivers and horseholders for ease.



Piers said...

Here ye go...

Id also echo the comments of playing what you enjoy. Life is too short and wargames rules are such a personal choice its the best option. I dont believe anyone can tell another their rules are superior, just some people like one more than another... and thats a good thing as it gives such wide variety.

For us as the writers and all the work for the books, writing, research, photos, layout is done by just the two of us, we write the books because we want to play them, not to make a fortune! Each book funds the next and its just nice to see people enjoy a game that we do. We publish them in the same way we like to buy our military history and gaming books.

As someone in the industry once told me, if you want to make £1 million in wargaming, start with £2 million!

My point is, most people write rules out of a passion for their hobby and the hope others will share that.

Keith Flint said...

Nothing anyone could possibly disagree with there, Piers.

Thanks for chipping in on the blog. You have been most helpful.