I must admit to being a bit of a “Blockhead” when it comes to wargaming because blocks eloquently address issues of fog of war and step reduction in one simple design element. Blocks in the West, VentoNuovo Games’ Western companion to their Blocks in the East, borrows much from games that have come before it, such as Columbia games Eastfront and Westfront, yet offers a distinctly different tack while providing a more intricate and nuanced simulation of the Western and Mediterranean theater during World War II.
Game Components That Dazzle
What you get is a heavy duty rectangular box chock-full of some of the most magnificent gaming components you will ever see. There are 2 maps on heavy cardboard stock covering Western Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to Scandinavia and Northern Europe down to North Africa. A smaller map of the Mediterranean theater has a much larger hex grid which helps prevent block congestion that often occurs when playing on the regular map. Words like beautiful, stunning, and awe-inspiring come to mind when you first view the game boards. Terrain, roads and Railroads, Holding Boxes, National Boundaries, Ports, Factories, Major and Minor cities and Convoy Supply routes are all clearly and colorfully laid out with little to no ambiguity.
The units are represented by over 300 blocks in various national colors and require stickers to be applied. Although some may complain about the time it takes to affix the stickers, I managed it in 30 minutes while watching an episode of Seinfeld. The stickers are visually stunning and clearly depict unit type, combat strengths and organizational information. Unit types include infantry, motorized infantry, cavalry, artillery, paratroopers, Marines, tanks and “tankettes”, artillery, headquarters, forts and fortresses, fighters, bombers and strategic bombers. For those unfamiliar with block games, the stickered informational side of the block faces you while the blank back side faces your opponent thereby hiding your unit type and combat strength from his reconnoitering eyes.
Supply is monitored using little plastic black and white barrels while the color-coded plastic production factories come in white, red, blue and black accounting for the various kinds of production points they provide (respectively general production, armor points, aircraft points and hydrogenation for the Germans synthetic fuel production). Small cubes of various colors help track the various types of production points in your supply pool.
And if that’s not all, there are event cards for each side that are utilized in the advanced game which can affect politics, production, strategic planning, supply etc. A magazine quality color printed rulebook of 24 pages completes the component manifest and includes the instructions for the basic and advanced game including optional rules which are all very clear and well indexed. There are 3 short scenarios (one of which depicts the fall of France in 1940) and 8 longer scenarios that cover the battle of England from July to October 1940, Operation Husky, the Normandy invasions and subsequent breakout from the beachheads to the final campaigns in France and Germany. If you have not yet gotten the idea, simply put, the components are top-notch and set a high bar for other historical game publishers to achieve.
Playing the Game
The sequence of play starts with a Weather Determination Phase which is either good or bad (rain or snow) and somewhat dependent on the area of the map being affected. Bad weather adversely affects attacking combat units, reduces the range of supply line traces, restricts amphibious or airborne invasions, prevents air units from flying combat missions and makes certain types of terrain more difficult to traverse.
Next is the Strategic Warfare Phase which abstractly represents the attacks by German submarines on the Atlantic convoys. This is only used in the advanced game.
During the Supply Phase, the phasing player marks each unsupplied unit with a white (empty) barrel which halves their movement allowance, prevents them from attacking and prohibits replenishment with replacements of any kind during the production phase. Production comes next and this is where players spend production points to rebuild or repair on map units. An interesting aspect of this is that it some units have color codes to their combat strengths which means that in the basic game you have to expend 1 production point to repair a black step, 2 production points to repair a white colored step and 3 production points to augment a red color step. In the advanced game, building or rebuilding units often requires the expenditure of different types of production to produce armor or mechanized units. I particularly like this variable aspect production as it gives each unit a unique character and makes for difficult decisions whether it is worth the extra expenditure to build a unit back up to its full strength.
Reinforcements, newly built units and rebuilt units now arrive on the map in friendly controlled major cities and/or fortress hexes in their home country. Additionally, players deduct automatic production point expenditures in 4 different technology fields including infantry, armor, fighters and bombers. Every Technology has 3 different Tech levels with higher levels giving more capability in available movement and combat power. Early in the war the Germans are usually ahead on the technology curve but the Allies quickly catch up. It is another interesting way to depict national differences in army quality and equipment that does not add significant overhead to the rules.
Units can move an unlimited distance via strategic rail movement in the Strategic Rail Movement Phase but each nationality has a limited capacity and must pay one yellow production point or one headquarter action point per unit moved. After strategic movement is complete, onboard units can move regularly but their movement allowance depends upon their nationality, unit type and technology level. So, for example a Tech 1 French unit has 3 movement points while a Tech 2 German unit has 4 movement points.
Unit stacking is limited to 3 ground units of which a maximum of 2 can be ground combat units, while the rest can be some combination of headquarters, fortress, artillery or air unit. These limits may be temporarily exceeded in a battle hex by one further air unit so that a player may have an Air Force of one fighter and one bomber in combat. Stacking is a bit problematical for me because the limits negate some of the fog of war realized by hidden blocks. Since a player knows that there is a maximum of 3 ground units allowed in a hex, two of which can be combat units, he knows that any units above 2 are going to be HQ’s, artillery or aircraft. Although he still will not know exactly the strength or type of units in the hex, he can deduce the likely composition of any hex that has more than 2 units. Additionally, any more than 2 blocks do not fit well in the hexes on the main map (this is somewhat mitigated with the larger hexes of the Mediterranean map) resulting in a lot of unit congestion and significant obscuration of underlying terrain. Larger hexes on the main map would definitely make life more convenient!
After friendly movement is done, the enemy air units may fly to any battle location hexes within their range as Reaction Movement.
Combat occurs when friendly units enter enemy occupied hexes and players proceed through a fixed combat sequence of air to air combat, antiaircraft fire, air to ground combat, artillery fire and finally ground combat. If the hex contains friendly and enemy air units, they exchange fire in the air to air combat step until one side retreats or eliminates opposing air units. Then the planes must survive withering antiaircraft fire from ground units, major cities, minor cities, fortresses and bunkers. It is here that I have one quibble with the game system in that the antiaircraft fire seems dramatically overpowered. Ground units roll one die per step, major cities and fortresses roll 2 dice each and minor cities are bunkers roll one die each. After surviving any air to air combat, the remaining planes are usually decimated by ground fire so that the few surviving aircraft usually inflict insignificant casualties on ground units. In World War II, antiaircraft fire resulted in attrition rates that varied by nationality from 3%-7% but here the attrition rates are anywhere from 30%-50% making aircraft more of a liability than an asset. We devised our own homegrown rule that ground units, cities, fortresses and bunkers all roll one die hitting on a 6 which seemed to be more realistic in terms of antiaircraft effectiveness.
After air to ground combat is resolved, artillery fire is adjudicated with offense artillery inflicting losses before defensive artillery. Finally, ground units exchange fire but this time defender fires first. After all combat steps have been resolved, the defender can choose to retreat units from combat or remain in place resulting in another whole combat round starting with the antiaircraft fire step again. Once the enemy has vacated the hex, tanks, armored headquarters and Tech level 2 tankettes may spend one additional movement point to Blitz into an adjacent hex and initiate another round of combat. Tech level 2 Air units, artillery and motorized infantry units that were involved in the original combat may follow the armor units in this Blitz Phase. The defender does not get to react air units into the new blitz combat. Blitzing is a great way to punch a hole through enemy lines and after final supply status is judged, the attacker can exploit any combat successes in the Armor Exploitation Phase where tanks, higher technology level tankettes and motorized infantry can move again without provoking any new combat. The combination of blitzing and armor exploitation allows grand encirclements to be achieved if the defender is not careful. This is really what gives the sweep of World War II mobile combat and is very nicely simulated.
The advanced rules add tremendous detail including weather, elite units, advanced production (whereby different color blocks must be used in combination to rebuild units and produce new units). Headquarters are introduced which now control which units may be activated for movement, combat, blitzing and exploitation. Several headquarters have their own special characteristics and rules which adds a lot of historical variety. There are optional rules for the advanced game that allow the building of new factories, introduce new terrain modifiers, abstractly portray parts of the naval war and add rules for cavalry charges, special Panzer attacks, Stuka bonuses for Jericho Trumpets, airborne assault, amphibious landings, partisans, the Nazi atomic bomb, German Volkssturm, strategic bombing, reserves units, lend lease, strategic warfare, optional weather, unit upgrades and even rules for team and solitaire play. All in all it is quite a varied and complete package and the depth and detail truly demonstrates the amount of research and labor that Emanuele Santandrea devoted to this game.
So What’s Not to like?
There is so much to like about this game that the few quibbles I have with it are easily forgiven.
Utilizing blocks for Fog of War provokes wonderful tension since players are challenged with the uncertainty entering combat against an unknown and unquantified opponent. Moreover, the blocks allow for easy recording of step losses since the combat strength is on the top of the block and losses are marked by simply rotating the block 90°. Unique to this game is asymmetrical combat strength step losses where some units lose more than one strength point with each rotation. For example, some allied Marine units lose strength 6-5-3-1 which gives them a lot of staying power until they are really worn down. Artillery units are more brittle losing combat strength sequentially 6-4-1-0. I really like the disproportionateness of the step losses which I believe more accurately depicts individual unit morale, training and character and makes the combat units feel less generic. I think this is a great idea that should be applied to other games.
Also, I particularly like the combat strength color coding which provides for variable production costs to rebuild steps while giving each unit a unique character that makes for difficult decisions whether it is worth the extra expenditure to build a unit back to its full potential. This is a very sophisticated design choice that gives a good feel for the logistical aspects of the war without overburdening the overall design.
The combat system is detailed but not overwhelmed by minutiae and seems to adequately portray the attritional nature of World War II contact. Furthermore, the mobile aspects are well portrayed by use of blitzkrieg attacks and armor exploitation. Again my only minor complaint about combat is that the antiaircraft fire needs to be toned down as it results in improbable losses which tend to nullify airpower effectiveness.
Although the nuances of the stacking rules may subtly diminish some of the fog of war, this is a very minor issue overall. What is more annoying is the block congestion that occurs which could have been mitigated by using larger hexes on the main game board. A small step to correct this was taken with the addition of the Mediterranean theater board where the hexes are twice as large.
The only other caveat I have is not with the game design in and of itself, but rather the theater of war it depicts. In Blocks in the East, there is more geographic expanse for sweeping maneuvers and dynamic breakthroughs. On the Western front, things are more congested and the game follows the characteristic narrative of the Allies bludgeoning onshore, grinding towards a breakout from the beachheads, and, having achieved that, outracing the Axis to the Rhine before the Germans can establish a defensive position. The Italian campaign becomes the usual grinding slaughter. Again, this is not the fault of the game system and, to its credit, the design models the historical events quite well. To me, the Western theater is just not as much fun to play as the Eastern front. For sure, there are many options for the Allies to pursue as they do not have to invade Normandy and the game system does not coax you into any particular historical chronicle since many other viable options exist. Indeed, I give great credit to the game design because it does not inhibit you from exploring all of these possibilities.
Blocks in the West is obviously a labor of love by its designer Emanuele Santandrea, and his online support extols the same passion. With its exceptional components, clever design elements, extensive advanced game rules and variety of optional rules, this game delivers on multiple levels. Moreover, it can be mated with its Blocks in the East brethren enabling a simulation of the entire European theater. If you are a fan of Columbia Games Eastfront and Westfront, as I am, you will comfortably slip into this design without enduring a steep learning curve. Moreover, you will most assuredly relish the added detail and challenges that this game system offers.