Saturday, 18 April 2015

Battlegroup from Iron Fist Publishing...

Battlegroup, a review...
A picture stolen from Iron Fist Publishing site...

What is Battlegroup, well this answer is simple it is another 1 to 1 WW2 miniatures game... it is aimed at 15mm and 20mm miniatures and the author, Warwick Kinrade, claims that it is not just a simple generic World War Two system, but, instead, a common base using a set of specific supplements to recreate specific episodes of the second world war. Well I would say this is a big claim. As described in the rules introduction the generic "core mechanics" produces a rather bland game, one that will be unsatisfactory for the majority of players. Well people plays Bolt Action so there are evidently players that are not put off by bland games, but let focus on Battlegroup. What make the game interesting according to Mister Kinrade is the combination of special rules, units, scenarios, and campaigns unique to a theatre (p. 5). I happen to agree with him. Too often world War Two rules tend to be just a very generic 1930-1950 (or even later) mish mash, and getting their feel more from the statistic of the vehicles than anything else. Some are even so generic that they claim you can use the same base to represent a team, a squad, or a platoon...
To achieve this stated end Battlegroup was at start published as Battlegroup: Kursk, focussing on... well Operation Zittadelle including both the Core Rules and the Kursk specific material. To avoid repeating the core rules again and again and charging customer for the same core pages... they had been removed from subsequent books and instead offered separately (looks, it makes sense, if you like the system you will end up buying several of the period books thus you could have ended with the same rules over and over). At the moment, beside Kursk, Normandy, the Fall of the Reich, and Early Barbarossa are covered with a Blitzkrieg volume coming out next month. 
Battlegroup has also an interesting story. It started as Kampfgruppe Normandy published by the now defunct Warhammer Historical. It was a massive and lavishly illustrated book desinged for 20mm figures. Toward the end of the death throes of WHH It was offered at a very cheap price but... well while being a Salute when it was done... I completely missed it... ah... ah... ah... enough of history and self commiseration, back to the rules.

As I have said this is a big claim, and one I cannot yet analyze because I got only the slim rule booklet. So this review will be incomplete by default. I am sorry, I am poor and jobless...

I will not provide a step by step analysis of the sequence of play, it is not my job today. I would say that it is quite conventional; the Attacker takes his turn followed by the Defender. In their turn the two players total their orders, then there is an execution phase, followed by a rally phase. IT is very simple.  But there are twists and interactions hidden. The total number of orders available to each player in each turn is variable. You have a base number (the number of your officers alive) plus a variable die roll. Bigger games (more on that later) give you more dice to roll, smaller ones... well less! The order are quite straightforward: Move,  Fire, Fire/Move (and Move/Fire), plus all the funny things you expect in a WW2 games (loading, unloading, calling for fire, unlimbering...). There are also supply and engineering activities. An important thing to remember is that each single unit can carry a single order per turn, you do not have chain activation of a single elements. Here a turn is a rather specific amount of time, rather than a more fluid "action sequence". Trust me, the rules are quite complete here. There is infantry and armour combat, engineering, artillery, and also air attacks. What I really like here is that the mechanics make sense from a procedural standpoint. There is an underlining logic in what you do and how you do it.
Fire is divided in two types, area fire (you make the enemy lowering its heads) and aimed fire (you kill the bad guys). The two types of fires are handled in different ways and produce different results. Combat is basically you roll to hit, enemy roll to save. With some added twists, like the fact you have to spot (not requiring an order) before firing. I would say it is a system I do not overly like (I do not like to roll so many dice every time), but seems quite standard and well accepted by the community.  Differently from other systems the number of dice rolled are manageable and the score required to hit depends on factors (well I will be honest, I dislike bucket of dices hitting on 6). Ordnance fire, as you surmise, requires first a roll to hit and then rolls for effect based on the weapon, followed by save (ok here I think it is too prone to randomness). Armour piercing hits are resolved (after the customary to hit roll) comparing penetration and armour on a table and rolling two dice to see if the shot penetrates. You know I love TFL games, but this way to resolve penetration is much more to my liking. One peculiarity of Battlegroup is that your ammo is not unlimited so before firing ordnance think twice (avoiding the gamey but customary extreme range shots and reducing a bit of wristage).
As you can see the skeleton of the game is quite tradition and does not have surprises. The mechanics are typical. Yet in almost every case they make sense. I also like the ability to suppress the enemy with area fire. I also like the fact that, despite having a standard Igo-Yugo sequence, the game not only allow for reaction but force you to plan your reaction. You can issue Ambush Fire and Reserve Move orders to your units. These orders allow you to carry action in the opponent turn, provided you have thought about it in advance. It follows the time segmentation I mentioned earlier. In this context it forces you to plan quite well rather than do things safely assured that your units will always be able to do some reaction against enemy moves if necessary. It also avoids the usually fire advantages of the defender. In a lot of game defending forces can use their own action to fire and then fire again as reaction fire in the enemy turn. Here because of the order system the defender cannot magically fire twice.
Morale is handled in a particular way. Units get pinned and forced to pull back (or rout, or surrender!) as usual, but your force morale is handled in a particular way. You get a battle rating (based on your force) at the start of the game. When bad things happens (kills, panic, and so on), or when you rally your pinned units you pull a marker with a number from a bowl. These markers have different numbers on them from 1 to 5. When the sum of the values of the drawn markers is equal to your original battle rating... well you are withdrawing from the field. Now larger forces are evidently more resilient, but you have also a luck factor represented by the number and, even if I cannot still confirm it, probably the ability of different forces to sustain different level of punishment could also be represented by the value of the markers put in the bowl at start. More 1s will make a force less brittle than more 5s.
The game is scalable. You can play small actions with reduced platoons ro larger actions with full battalions. No this is not done with naming tricks. This is done increasing the table size  and, more importantly, using a system that allow you to roll more dice for orders based on the size of your force.  I will say upfront here that I do not think playing a battalion action in 1 to 1 scale is a good idea. Command levels, concerns, and time will be different. You can do it in a well organized multiplayer game, but the larger games are better crowd has never done for me. I think that if you have a 1 to 1 representation fielding a company is more or less the top level, bigger forces requires different considerations, yet someone will do it, if not, just to show how many big guns on big tanks they have. In this light considering how to adapt the game to different force size is a good idea.
Now I have some minor gripes. Minor thing bear with me , but still things that puzzles me. The first one is about fire. You can do two fire actions when you play the "Open Fire" order.  Yet the rules are unclear on the issue if you can use area and aimed fire together. Rules wise this is my main gripe. It is unclear, I assumed an answer (you can),  but in the small rulebook I could not find a foolproof answer. It could cause problems if people assume answers but it is just a minor gripe.
I do not like the artillery system. It appears logical and functional, but I think it is very realistic. There is a common approach in rules that you have to roll for deviation. Battlegroup allow for a single spotting round to be fired and based on its fall the mission resolved. It is common in a lot of rules, but it is wrong. The idea of spotting rounds is that the observer walks them on the target and then switch to FFE. Better system had lees time wasted in corrections, crappy one had a lot of time wasted into it. I would have liked a system were inaccurate shot force you to spend another order to adjust  rather than having the usual deviation system (shades of 40k here?). Battlegroup version is not as absurd as the original version in Rapid Fire, but still it does fail to reproduce artillery.  I could live with the system but I found it more gamey than accurate.  Yet this is the only area in the rules I really do not like.
The last problem, linked to the format of the "common" rules is that I am not really sure of how the Battle Ratings, BG morale, and force selection works. I know they are supposed to be explained in the supplements and the small softbound booklet is more a way to avoid to repeat the basic rules everywhere, but I would have liked to understand these aspects of the game, especially in the light of the of the statement made by the author that Battlegroup aims to be a rule set relevant to each period rather than a generic WW2 set (in the end I got hold of the way the Battle Rating and the Marker realyl works from examples on Iron Fist Publishing website rather than the core rulebook). I know, Will has been even too kind in giving me the softbound for free just to write this review, but, well, if you hope to get an impression of the game from it you miss a key part. Also having the general rules there for reference would have been nice in my view. The rule book provides generic scenarios but no way to build a force. I would have appreciated to sample forces and the battlegroup creation rules being present.
Now I have reached the limit of my ability to do a review based on the available material. It is only a partial review; I cannot really play a game until I get one of the full supplements. Said that I am quite impressed by what I saw. Certainly Warwick Kinrade had been able to articulate his viewpoint and provide a game that reflects it. What Battlegroup is not is a 40k on tracks. It is not even a Flames of War clone. It does not appear to be swamped by special rules; it does not appear to be swamped by special rules and abilities. It appears to provide you with historical limitations and plausible options.  I do not like artillery, but the game effect is reasonable.
From a book stand  point I have nothing to reproach, the writing is good, there is an index, rules are properly numbered to help you (sorry EvilleMonikeigh I think having rule sections numbered is a critical part of rules writing, not some sort of aberration!). There are plenty of examples, and nice illustrations. Except from the confusion about the ability to use two different types of fire everything is properly explained with examples. The graphic presentation is also nice.
Will I play it? Well at the moment I am satisfied with IASBM and CoC, but I can certainly see Battlegroup gracing my table soon, possible with some house ruling for the artillery call procedure (very easy, if the barrage is inaccurate you have the option to ask for another spotting round, and when it is accurate you do not roll for deviation). What really piqued my interest is the order and reaction system and, for the little I have read off, the battle and morale rating. The rules have ptential and, differently from other games the author has given though about scaling the battle based on the forces you field. I am also curious to see  how Warwick's claims about the game being able to represent specific battles and areas rather than being a generic 1930-1950 ruleset will turn out. At that time I will be happy to post a second chapter.

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