Saturday, 14 January 2012

Scripted Idiocy?

Scripted Idiocy?

Recently I had Ted Raicer’s Case Yellow on my gaming table (actually desk) for several days. And to be quite honest, I cannot really create an opinion of it. It is not a bad game, not a bad simulation and quite a nice overall package but it cannot go in my top tier for several reasons. Anyway let’s have a look at it.

Picture from Boardgame Geek.

Case Yellow is a nice and polished GMT presentation. One map, back printed, covers northern France and western Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands. The graphic style is pleasant to the eye and information are quickly conveyed. I like the map. I have mentioned that it is back printed one side is used for the “historical” scenarios with several “special” zones marked and the other for the “better prepared France” scenario. Counters are standard nice and well made. Play-aids are quite functional. There is also a small intro scenario covering the fall of the Netherlands playable on a separate A4 sized map. Very nice addition. My only gripe with the map is that while there are reinforcements box in the map there is no information on where these units enter. There is space for a simple notation “south” or “west” or “ports” and that would have speed up the game play.

The rules are quite puzzling. There are two booklets, a rulebook and a playbook containing allt he scenario instructions and example. Several of the rules could have easily been fitted in the main rulebook allowing for better reference. As far thr4 system is concerned you need some time to get used with some quirks, especially the ZOC rules, but is fast flowing and usually logic. It is a bit fiddly in a couple of points and the paratroops’ rules have a gaping hole3, they do not tell you if you can drop on enemy occupied hex or not, Ted told me on CSW no. What is important is that the system really depicts the several different armies involved in the campaign and, despite being game with a more broad brush approach (the basic units are corps and division with just very few lower units throw in it) rather than say Victory in the West (Division and Regiments) it does a good job of portraying the armies’ identities.

Two thing came to my attention: the action sequence and the attrition rules. The action sequence is subtle. You have chits and you pull chits out of the cup. But it is not your usual chit activation systems. Case Yellow has a tradition sequence of play; it is just the order of the sequence of play that is not traditional. On the usual turn the Allies will have one movement and combat phase. The Germans three phases and they can decide to take a phase as movement or combat while the allied not. It is not that the Germans, being blonde haired supermen, can do so much more things than the allies. They do marginally more, but they decide when to do them. This is a better representation of flexibility.

Armour attrition is another nice touch to represent the inherent weakness in mechanized operations. Your tank will break down. End of the line. Sooner or later they will break down. You will repair and refit, but far from being awfully powerful indestructible machines your tin cans or metal monsters will have problems. That will force you to slow down and regroup. Again while panzer divisions are better trained and organized their tanks were indeed crappy as any tank (let’s face it, our small city care are much more reliable than a Panzer 38T or a Char B1B and guzzle less fuel too… ok if you have a big American SUV maybe the last is not true).

All it is good. Where the game fail abysmally is in the historical scenario. It is not historical and it is incredibly fiddly. There are some rules that are, quite frankly, absurd and redundant. The French cavalry screen has no chance to stop the panzer division, with any result except elimination forcing the removal of the French Division Legere de Chevalerie involved. Ok, the panzer punched a hole in them (not really, the DLC did a quite good fighting withdrawal as they were instructed) but the main point is that except a combination of stupid moves and very bad luck every German player will kill them anyway, so why this rule? If the German player fail to do the modicum of planning required to get rid of them he has to be punished, and bad rolling is indeed an accepted component of the way we simulate friction of war. The same thing goes for the awful “blind spot” rule. Ok you do not want the allied player to react into the Ardennes, but the rules is partly superfluous (the bulk of allied units are indeed fixed on turn 1, they will be able to intervene only after the Germans are in position for the river assault if not already across. The entire absurd nature of these limitation culminates on the “dyle plan” rules. For those of you not familiar with history the Dyle Plan was the Anglo-French operation to move the bulk of their mobile force in Belgium to shore up that country and possibly rescuing the Netherlands. So far so good, allied units historically assigned to the plan are ordered to carry it out by the designer. But they are also forced to deploy in a certain way, to stay in a certain area except if you declare an evacuation from Dunkirk. Now, this is absurd. Yes, allied command and control system was slow, French and British generals reacted slowly to the German moves, but the game goes a step too far. It actually forces the Allied player to sit passively and give the German player a way to know allied moves beforehand. If the crossing of the Meuse fails the Allied units will be still fixed in their area, they cannot even counterattack in Belgium if the Germans move out of contact. The notes do a lot to talk about allied shortcoming and the poor quality of the commanders, but beside missing completely the historical point this is not about restraining the player from doing a-historical things, this is scripting idiocy on one side and giving the other side a-historical foreknowledge. It also, fails to explain the rationale behind the Dyle Plan, a rationale explained in the previous Victory in the West. The allied commanders had to support Belgium and the Netherlands for political reasons. The hope was to reach the Netherlands in time with the French 2nd Army to prevent their collapse. Faint, irrational, or just a mirage it could have been, but the game do not give you any incentives to do that. It simply order you to move the 2nd Army to Antwerp and then the second army is free. The rest of the allied force just sit passively without doing nothing if the Germans do not cooperate.

To be quite honest in the view of this historian the “historical” scenario is pure fantasy. The best way is to scrap the “blind spot rule” and the French DLC restriction altogether and use a toned down version of the dyle plan. Follow the script on turn 1 but then operate freely in Belgium and Netherlands. At the end of turn 4 (Dunkirk) just scrap any restrictions. The engine will restrict the allied player to do too much anyway. Also have the allied player able to declare Operation Dynamo only if there is a pocket. There is no reason to go for the evacuation if the front is holding (oh there is one, grab VP…)

I have also problem with the way some of the options in scenario 3 are presented.

Still the problem is that instead of recurring to sensible incentives to gently led players to historical decisions in this case Ted has simply put everyone in a cramped train following a track.

Case Yellow is certainly a good game, it has some fiddly bit, but the system is indeed good, accurate and appropriate. But Case Yellow has also some of the worst rules I have seen around. It is scripted idiocy at his worst. It is not an historical simulation but a train wreck in the attempt to rail history. As historical simulation scenario 1 deserve an 1, but the game still get its merits. Just ignoring the historical aberrations can make scenario 1 a better experience and has you appreciating the effort the Germans had to pull out to achieve the historical results. It rewards pre-war gamble on tactical air support and mechanization and the gamble of Manstein approach. Still leave you with a window for failure and show what the Allies got right.

The game is not bad, it is actually above average, but there are problem with historical accuracy, problem that have been grafted on a surprisingly accurate system. Minor gripes here and there slow down you game play as the fact that you need a couple of plays to get the system run smoothly because there are several minor points you will forgot easily, yet it pack surprisingly a good punch for its size. Buy it, but beware that the history the game tries to tell you is highly suspect.