By Paul Comben
Just imagine for a moment that you want to experience some naval campaigns/battles in game format, but that the only material out there is Fear God and Dreadnought and Flattop. Or you want to re-fight the Napoleonic Wars, and have a straight choice between Empires in Arms…and nothing else. Fortunately, throughout the history of the hobby, games on particular subjects have come in all shapes and sizes – count those Battle of the Bulge games, or treatments of the battle for Normandy. Gettysburg has also been done more times than I care to count – games to fit on one small table, and games that require tables for the tables as well as the multiples of maps. And with all such subjects, you have not had to burn your brain with feats of comprehension if massive rulebooks and immense game play times are simply not your thing – alternatives are nearly always to hand. But until relatively recently, World War 2 squad combat, from Dunkirk to Iwo Jima, meant owning and learning some of the most involved and complicated systems in the hobby; and dear me, you had better learn them, as there was nothing much else out there for a long, long while.
The arrival of far more approachable squad level games has been one of the quiet revolutions of the hobby in modern times. The immensely popular Combat Commander series, the very beautiful Conflict of Heroes series, and now the Band of Brothers series from Worthington, have opened up this area of simulation to a wider audience with systems which are significantly less complicated than anything you would find in the ASL rules folder.
And what about Lock and Load? It is gorgeous, clever, markedly less complex than ASL, but it is still a weighty work and not really, at least in my opinion, in the same “family group” as those aforementioned titles. But even within that family, there is considerable variety in how things are done – where the link exists for me, beyond the low to moderate level of complexity, is that these games, each in their own way, have a touch of “the Up Front” ethos about them. Just to refresh memories, back in 1983, Up Front was proudly touted as the game that was going to combine serious squad level realism with instinctive, straightforward play – fog of war, battlefield panic, the back and forth pulse of action and reaction, that was the essence of the design. But it did not quite work – it was far more fiddly than it was ever meant to be, crammed in more detail than it needed, fell between two stalls at various points, and, in the opinion of not a few people, mucked the whole thing up by including tanks.
But the aim was a noble one, and it has remained the aspiration for many a designer since. Combat Commander has its Up Front traits (including no tanks), Conflict of Heroes has the accessibility, but there is just something about Band of Brothers which puts it a rifle muzzle ahead – the best example, in my book, of “less is more” within all aspects of the design.
I came to this series via the second game in the line, Ghost Panzer, so that is where I am going to concentrate my efforts in this article. The game covers the battles of the 11th Panzer Division, with eastern front scenarios covering a period from Barbarossa days to the desperate struggles of 1943. Western front expansions are promised. However, with the game as stands, we do get a considerable variety of military hardware and scenario types. The tanks of 1941 are eventually replaced by their rumbling, blasting successors – Tigers, Panthers, T34/85s, lots of lovely stuff.
And what does it look like?
Ghost Panzer uses what I would call its own variation of the squad level map norm. If you have seen ASL maps, LnL maps, even CoH maps, you have a rough idea what to expect with the Worthington series. The one difference is that the artwork on these GP maps is somewhat impressionistic, looser, in a sense, almost comic-like (and I mean that in a positive way). The maps, on thick (ish) card, are functional and attractive after their own fashion. The one thing I did not quite like is the persistent tendency across near all these games to present territory as if nothing remotely warlike has occurred there. A few ruined or damaged buildings, buildings faithful to their region, a suggestion of tank tracks in the fields…something please to suggest a theatre of war rather than what could pass as an English hamlet in Wiltshire.
The counters are again done, at least to my eye, in a quasi comic-book style, (for infantry and markers) while tanks and guns are rendered in a form of quasi 3D photo realistic way. But everything blends well together, and the counters do look good on the maps, which they match nicely. As an extra plus, this is a big unit, big marker game – no squinting at tiny numbers and symbols as you resolve actions.
A little to my embarrassment I did have a few problems with the rules – some procedures were not quite where I expected them to be, but that might just be due to my wearing, aging brain. Certainly, I can report that just about everything is present and correct, and if you are going to be tripped up with anything, I am guessing it will be if you are carrying baggage from the other, more complex designs, and then start shuffling through the rules looking for where it is catered for in GP – in fact, there is a very good chance it is not there at all, or has been presented within another concept which does the same job with a fraction of the effort.
The player aid card has plenty of useful material on it, but feels a little too cramped for my liking. It could do with some graphics, clearer headings, and possibly have the infantry and vehicle/gun characteristics on separate sheets just to give the eye a break.
At the core of the game, and where I sensed the Up Front ethos the strongest, is the importance of unit morale and/or proficiency. In Up Front you could not fire at anything, or move anywhere, without the relevant fire or movement cards. This was the Up Front way of dealing with issues of player omniscience. In this design, morale and proficiency checks do the same thing. Infantry of whatever type will not fire, move, or do much else that is useful, if they are feeling iffy about it. Morale is reduced by fire causing suppression – and when units get even a bit suppressed by incoming nastiness, you simply cannot count on them doing anything. Near everything requires a quick check with a die to see if a unit is going to function. With the pieces of crewed hardware you get proficiency checks. These create those realities of the combat zone, that just because you have a big gun in the right place to fire at a big juicy tank does not mean that you make the shot – the crew may be shaken out of their wits; the breech might have jammed; the crew may have heard or glimpsed movement in the other direction.
Fire itself is a chart-less exercise, which takes a little bit of time to become acquainted with, but is essentially dead easy to operate – you check to see if you can fire, roll a total with any modifiers applied, and if you have a result lower than a unit’s casualty figure or armour rating, you are in business.
Something which can cause one of those “trip-ups” I referred to, is the apparent lack of hitting power for ordnance being directly affected by range. It is harder to hit things at longer ranges, yes, but it is not immediately obvious that a gun firing at a tank is falling off in effectiveness when range gets longer. But let us not rush things – ability to hit is catered for in the proficiency rating, and that can be affected by longer distance shots. On the other hand, given a clear LoS, any gun can fire from one end of the playing surface to the other. What is worth thinking about, however, is what precisely is going on with those attack factors and armour ratings. If you think of any gun’s rating as a basic evaluation of how brilliant or middling or dire this piece of ordnance is, and that the protecting armour is looked at the same way, quality of gun firing at quality of armour is neatly catered for without having either the gun or the tank festooned with numbers and turret markers – if a good gun hits a miserable bit of armour, it is likely to go boom whatever the range is.
As the game blurb says, there is a “natural” encouragement to do things appropriately. Stacking units in most circumstances is a very bad idea, as you are inviting disaster from anything that can open fire. Unlike ASL, you cannot loose great blasts of infantry firepower from multiple squad groups – units fire individually, and with units accruing graduated hurt from multiple hits, being able to get a multiple of units to sequence fire on the same target is likely to wipe it out.
The design has no squad leaders. Instead, tactical prowess is conferred via Command Points. These points represent the ability to perform actions which can improve the battlefield from either player’s perspective – get a form of pre-emption to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity, or to stop a bad situation deteriorating further. Like much else in the game, this all works very smoothly.
And, joy of joys, you can play the thing solitaire. Although there are some specific solitaire guides in the rules, they are not that long (or clumsy) because they do not need to be. One telling aspect of what a wonderful piece of design this is, is that even Decoy counters, one of the banes of the solitaire tactical gamer, work a treat here if used with the right spirit – mucking up fire plans and causing units to panic from imagined presences if you, the player, are properly determined to play both sides well.
In short, Ghost Panzer is representative of so much I admire in good design. It is clean, lean, clever and colourful. It is not ASL lite; it is, with it partner game, Band of Brothers Screaming Eagles, a piece de resistance of getting things right, and the embodiment of understanding that you do not need masses of rules to provide masses of realism and quality gaming experience.
Jim Krohn, the designer, deserves the heartiest congratulations for gifting players one of the finest tactical systems I have ever seen. Worthington has long had a reputation for making games at the lower end of the complexity ratings. This design hardly breaks the mould in that regard – but in my opinion, unlike some other Worthington designs in recent times, this one is as sophisticated as it is gloriously clean in function. I truly hope that Worthington will support the future of this line of games because, to be blunt, it is the best thing they have. I must admit that much of Worthington’s other present or near future output has left me cold – but this series is genius, and should be enjoyed by players and thought about by designers in terms of what it teaches about getting things right.