by Paul Comben
Designer: Ray Weiss
Publisher: Conflict Simulations LLC
Some readers of this article may recall that I spent time last summer playing the old Conflict Games design, Verdun: Dagger at The Heart of France. I posted my turn reports on the Vintage Wargames page over on Facebook. This was a design I had first played shortly after its publication in 1978, and forty years on, I had to report that my feelings about the game had not really changed much. It was certainly interesting, and after its own fashion it was probably fairly faithful to its theme. Its main fault, at least in my opinion, was that it was all a bit too literal – there was lots of artillery at the battle, so the game gave you lots of artillery units, and by the time they had all been squeezed onto the playing surface, those same units came to resemble cars parked around Wembley Stadium on FA Cup Final day. Everything became a vast repetitive exercise in counting up factors, and it was hard to distinguish a design philosophy moving the game forward. In short, it just was what it was.
CSL’s new treatment of the battle certainly does have a philosophy, and it is a philosophy that is worth becoming acquainted with if you have any sort of interest in the battle. Part of that philosophy has to do with the designer’s (Ray Weiss) intention to create a series of games (called 2140) whereby players can enjoy the sort of unfussy simulation models that belonged to the vintage era of SPI as well as GDW’s Series 120 titles. But however much nostalgia Ray has for an earlier epoch in the hobby’s history (that he is too young to remember directly, so I am remembering it for him), what he has created in his Verdun offering is rather more than a celebration of “Let’s Bang Some Factors Together.” There are some rather clever and slick aspects to this design that have a distinctly modern feel about them. This is certainly not a game that is a literal/mechanical rendering of what was often a terribly mechanical battle of process; rather the designer has picked out what he believes is the essence of the battle and brought that to the fore with some simple mechanisms that have the potential to cause players (like me) some very serious nightmares.
The end product is not perfect. In places the rules could do with a sentence or two more of exposition, and in other places what I suspect is the consequence of a very tight budget means we are one of two aids and listings short of complete gaming ease. But these are certainly not fatal flaws, because first and foremost, as I have already said, this is a very clever design, and I found its creator to be very approachable and positive about offering clarifications. If this is followed up with an amended set of online rules and a few accessible extras (like some kind of track to enable you to work through the combat modifiers), all will be well.
There are some rather clever and slick aspects to this design that have a distinctly modern feel about them
The game operates at divisional level, with divisions colour-coded for corps organization and the heavier calibers of artillery grouped into divisional-sized units. Smaller ordnance is carried by the infantry divisions as a second unit value to the right of their strength point integer – thus no need for the massive artillery parks found in my other Verdun game. Infantry divisions have two sides – mobile and entrenched. Entrenched units have a stronger strength point value, but cannot move or attack. This is one example of the model presenting players with a quandary – being mobile makes you vulnerable, but you must be mobile to attack; on the other hand, being static also carries the negative of making dug-in units more susceptible to attrition as they are likely to see their increased strength shift them a column up on the attrition table. This is also another case where the rules could have done with another sentence of explanation (had there been room), as while I can make a case as to why being entrenched can lead to more wear and tear (more anon), without any further clarity, I am merely making a supposition from how the relevant mechanisms present themselves to my eye.
At the absolute heart of the game, however, is the function of the Administrative Point pool. These points are what make the game so playable, challenging, and bloody difficult to master. The respective German and French pools cover a variety of different battle contingencies. They represent elements of manpower commitment and loss, the feeding of major offensive/defensive effort, and the simple fact, key to the designer’s take on the battle, that Verdun never was, nor never could be, a battle of thrust and counterthrust across miles of frontline because neither side ever had enough of anything in place to make that a reality. Rather, beyond the endless deluge of shells, the attempted taking and retaking of ground was the product of tight concentrations of force fighting over limited portions of the overall battlefront.
Players are tethered to this reality by various nuances in the way the Administrative Point pool is diminished, but ultimately boils down to the simple fact that you just never have enough points to do things any other way. The Germans start with 75 points; the French with 45. Each subsequent turn both players receive a smaller amount of replenishment, but if either pool falls to zero, that is game over for that side. And without going into every last detail, if the Germans attempt to go on the Angriff with everyone along the entire front, after just a turn or two of feeding the front and dealing with their own damage limitation, they will be in danger of falling to an embarrassing loss by having nothing left in the kitty.
This, of course, reflects the reality that Falkenhayn (who seemed to have all his really good ideas after the war was over), was only able to put a limited amount of divisions into the fight given increased German commitments to looking after the corpse they were shackled to, and thus put his faith in artillery and shells and gas doing what he never had enough men sporting bayonets and rifles to achieve. The design also bears this out in that it is really the power of the German artillery, the column shifts the Germans get early on for their preparation work, the gas and the flamethrowers, and the utterly hapless position the French have put themselves in by sticking themselves in a salient filled with dodgy forts and a serious risk of encirclement, that gives the Germans their advantage – at least to begin with.
But it all has to be very carefully managed.
To understand this, we can now look at the key phases in the average game turn:
Build Phase: Both sides, in their respective player turn, get extra APs, and can look to return previously eliminated units to their force pool (by paying APs) as well as bringing units already in the force pool onto the map. For the Germans this is not straightforward as for the French, as nearly all new German forces “available” from the second turn onwards have to be paid for in Administrative Points. Thus, if the Germans spent too much on turn one, they are already in a bad position.
Attrition Phase: Putting both sides in a potentially very bad situation are their respective attrition phases. Coming immediately after the build phase, if the Germans have been too extravagant with adding new forces or rebuilding others, or the French have tried to patch up broken units beyond their means, this phase can wreck you.
The phase is essentially an abstracted representation of various bad things happening. It is the effect of bombardments beyond those either player is directly in control of; the various depredations of being in the hell of the battle area; small actions and frayed nerves wearing away at every unit’s mettle, and very probably a number of other unpleasant things besides.
Every stack belonging to the active player is checked to see if attrition occurs – the only immune units being the heavy artillery and the gas and engineer detachments. The more strength you have in a hex, the more likely you are to suffer attrition, and that at a higher rate. You can “pay” for attrition by decreasing Administrative Points, but good luck with doing that if you have been stacking up across the map, as you simply will not have enough of a pool to do both this and keep your side of the battle going – it really can be that costly, and is prohibitive enough even if you have tried to be careful. Attrition can also be paid for in unit disruption and demoralization, but again, too much of that in the wrong places and you will be leaving forces terribly vulnerable.
After my own early play, the only possible imperfect solutions appear to be not stacking unless you absolutely need to for those one or two specific assault attempts, and then use the relatively cheap option of moving again in the later Operations Phase to unstack. You might also consider keeping forces off the map if they really are presently surplus to requirements. Speaking of which…
Operations Phase: After “free” phases of movement and combat, the player can opt to move and fight again with eligible forces, but this time around things get very expensive. Simple moves are relatively cheap in terms of points, but if you want (really want) to move and engage with a couple of corps late in your turn, the cost is going to be massive. If one or other player enters this phase with 40 APs left (and that’s somewhat on the generous side), a two corps thrust, with payment being by the corps, is going to cost fifty percent of that, rising to seventy-five percent if the activations both involve heavy artillery fire in an extra siege phase.
Easily overlooked but well worth keeping in mind is reserve status and reserve movement. Although this can be employed, with costs, in the Operations Phase, it can be used in your “regular” Reserve Phase at no cost to bring reserve status units to where they might be needed after you have seen the latest triumph or disaster come your way. Even better, you can also employ reserve movement in a non-phasing step, allowing you to rush units into place before the Crown Prince or Petain or Mangin can poke something through the gap in your defences.
In my opinion, what we have here is plenty of evidence that the designer has done rather more than create a fun bit of something to do with a famous battle. The key mechanisms certainly feel like important elements of the Verdun struggle are being presented, but what about the two armies and those famous or infamous forts? Starting with the Germans, attention is bound to be drawn to the power of their heavy artillery and supporting field ordnance. But there are certain “invisibles” to bear in mind as well. That the Germans went into Gericht with typical Teuton thoroughness is reflected in the potent column shifts they receive for combat early in the game. And then there are the flamethrowers, whose shifts are available for an expenditure of APs per combat equal to a maximum of half the attacking strength – 3APs buying a +1 modifier etc.
Gas is an unpredictable weapon – maybe a little too much so in the game, as there is a 50/50 chance the gas will blow back on its German users. I am not entirely sure about this, although maybe the weather around the Verdun area was that much different to what drove the winds and breezes over Flanders. It is possible. In any case, a column shift will go one way or the other depending on luck more than judgment. I have tended not to employ the stuff unless I could afford not to have it blowing in the optimum direction.
One other thing readers may pick up on via my photographs as well as any on BGG is how “gappy” both lines can look, at least in the early running. In actual fact, the lines are not quite as gap-ridden as you first might think, for both sides are on a pretty strong leash when it comes to any sense of wandering around. The Germans cannot stray too far from the rail lines that connect to the north edge of the map, and will need to convert (repair) more of those same lines as they progress further south. The line to the eastern edge is pretty much an irrelevance in this regard. In other words, from any perspective, German logistics are tight. Add to this the need to avoid big value stacks attracting big price attritional wear and tear, and the German line should coalesce as the game turns pass by.
the French player can boost their efforts is in committing to an élan defence
For the French, their big guns are nowhere near as powerful on a unit-for-unit basis as those of the Germans. For both sides however, the smaller ordnance carried with units will be a key factor in combat where the purpose is either to take ground or hold onto it. Although big guns can assist in this role (at half their normal strength) the field pieces will often be the sole contributor to the important artillery ratio modifier. In blunt terms, the more firepower you can bring to bear, the better the modifier you will get, while your opponent will have to cope with a negative modifier that can often produce a result readily absorbed without too much bother.
Where the French player can boost their efforts is in committing to an élan defence. Again, this costs APs to create modifiers, but with the soil of France to defend, that might be a price worth paying. The downside is that if the combat is lost, the strongest unit must be forfeited. Nevertheless, for key positions you cannot simply let the Germans stack up modifiers for abundant field artillery and flamethrowers without putting something into the mix to slow them down. As things stand, this is also another part of the rules where a bit more explanation is needed. The rules clearly state what modifiers are available and how one pays for them, but misses any explanation as to which side chooses first. Clearly this makes a massive difference to how any one combat may go, and how this affects the AP pools. Opportunities to compel or bluff expenditures on opponents abound, with the potential that much of what has been committed to could be negated by the play of the side that calls last. I could make a case for first call going either way between attacker and defender, though I tend to think the attacker should call first.
On turn seven the French get four shock divisions armed with enough field artillery to make anyone happy. I suspect they coincide with aspects of both Nivelle’s and Mangin’s new methods, but that is not expressly stated. Likewise, from turn eight onwards, it is the French who get positive column shifts as the game draws towards its close – ten monthly turns altogether. This kind of call is a bit arbitrary, as it is for many games where certain things always happen at the same time. Clearly the French barely hanging on by their fingernails very late in the game does not comfortably match up with notions of new methods coming into play, but lots of designs do this, and at the end of the day the designer was not aiming to create the last word on the battle but a fun game with some flair.
Which leaves us with the forts. The Germans can deal with these one of two ways (or by a bit of both) – they either employ siege artillery to pound them into rubble and/or they launch a direct assault and carry forces into the hex. In the second case it is up to the Germans to keep or destroy the fort in question, assuming they have actually got into it. For the French, occupying a fort will keep pure artillery attacks off your head for as long as the fort sticks around. Against the Germans coming directly at the place, the fort will give you both a “terrain” modifier for combat as well as a bit of extra artillery to throw into the artillery ratio calculation. The French can also opt to strip any fort of its remaining few pieces of artillery (most of the big stuff was cleared out in the second half of 1915) in order to create some weak mobile units that just might come in handy somewhere else.
So how do you win?
If we want to get fancy about it, one challenge here is coming to an opinion as to what exactly Falkenhayn was aiming to do? What he said he was aiming to do (the bleed France white bit) was written well after the war was over. Taking Verdun for its own sake may have dealt the French a blow to national morale, but that would have entailed driving the French out of the very killing ground he was supposedly keen to keep them in. And as was the case in the late summer of 1914, not every German commander down the line was on the same page. The Kaiser’s son, leading the army facing Verdun, and who was never the insufferable and arrogant berk his father was, spoke of “capturing Verdun by precipitate methods.” That, of course, rather contradicts with luring the French in and holding them there. What does seem certain was that Falkenhayn hoped for impressive results via an apposite use of limited manpower and vast amounts of artillery. But as was the case with what was left of Schlieffen’s plan in 1914, it all eventually ran out of control.
You can win this game, as stated previously, by reducing your opponent’s AP pool to zero. If this befalls the French late in the game, it probably fits Falkenhayn’s apparent concept as much as anything. If the Germans suffer this fate, it might serve to confirm that, for all their vaunted method and technical superiority, they still had no idea how to win wars they had started.
Other means of victory depend on who holds Verdun at game end, whether the Germans hold any of the forts, and how many replaceable and permanently lost units for both sides cause how much of a reduction from the remaining AP pool totals. If the Germans do not have a fort or the smoky remains of one in their possession, they gift a major tactical victory to the French. Other grades of victory for either side depend on the respective VP ratio – after units lost are deducted and the side with more APs is given a VP boost equal to half the difference between the respective totals.
If you play with some of the optional rules the nature of victory and defeat can undergo certain changes. The Germans can go for Verdun to the exclusion of bleeding and blasting anything and anyone else – making that call after their first turn thrusts or foul-ups . This gifts them more APs, but it really is all or nothing from that point, as no Verdun means no win at all. Alternatively, they can opt to shut the city off from the rest of France by cutting the rail lines to the south. This is an interesting option, which demands the Germans cross a fair amount of map, and probably brings its own criteria to how the Germans spend points and employ that limited force.
What do I think of this game?
The system itself, as far as I am concerned, is far more playable (and enjoyable) than Verdun: Dagger at The Heart of France. It benefits in this regard from the designer having a clear idea as to what made Verdun the battle it was and then shaping some simple mechanisms around those elements. The oppressive counter clutter of the Conflict Games title is happily avoided, and the whole thing should happily whizz along at the speed the designer intended.
Physically, this is not a big game, and in accord with the designer’s harking back to a bygone gaming era, the box is indeed about the same size as those of the old GDW 120 line. Counters, by contrast, are identical to those of the modern Hollandspiele line, so there is nothing to baulk at there. Counter printing is crisp and clear, and everything was decently aligned. The map is also far from unattractive, though there are one or two spelling errors – one of which (I leave you to look for it) UK players may find rather amusing! There is not a graphics-based terrain key provided, but in all honesty the terrain types are all blindingly obvious. The one exception I would call out there is that in one or two places I had a modest amount of trouble trying to discern where higher ground began or ended – a matter of definition in merging colours.
There is also only a very limited number of status markers for disruption and demoralization, though players can get around that with a bit of unit rotation or just using something like plastic discs.
But as I have intimated here and there, the biggest issues (that really are not that big) are to do with occasional hiccups in the rules. One last example I would offer concerns affecting terrain (or not) when a defending stack is making its riposte against attackers – I assume the defender works through the terrain the attackers are presently in as opposed to the terrain they are seeking to enter, but that is not explicitly stated.
I do hope, however, that these slips and omissions can be seen for what they are – very minor bits of business that could be corrected and got rid of via a download that would take about as much time to put together as it takes me to enjoy a mug of coffee and a biscuit in the morning. And if I am being just a little bit fussy, the font size for the rules is a tad too small for my eyes. This is not something unique to this title as there are plenty of games out there I need my trusty magnifier for. More pertinent would have been the sequence of play being placed into the SE corner of the map, whose rolling acres seem unlikely to get much action in just about any situation I can think of.
And that is quite enough niggles. Clever design. Playable design. Well deserving a look if you want to leave the panzers alone for a while.
About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.
Paul’s book, “A Dicey Business,” can be purchased as paperback or Kindle eBook from Amazon sites worldwide.
A fun and often hilarious look at his time in the hobby, including the games he has especially enjoyed, the occasionally very odd shop he got them from, and all this and more accompanied by his own illustrations, the book is a journey from 1972 right through to the present – told throughout with a uniquely English take on things.”