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CJ Hakansson
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Vasteras
Sverige
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Operation Dauntless published by GMT and designed by Mark Mokszycki

A review by CJ Hakansson

By not claiming to be volume two of a multi-purchase new series, Operation Dauntless is oddly shy for being a tactical wargame set in the second world war. When I first heard about it, and by sheer curiosity skimmed the rule book, I kind of got stuck and read the whole thing from cover to cover. Which is an odd thing for me to do, several months before I would even get the chance to play it. Hmm. That's peculiar, I thought, I better get this one.

So when it finally arrived to Europe and I coughed up my hard-earned 550 SEK (a lot more than what you americans pay for it, I can assure you) I was of course expecting it to give me my money's worth, but I had no idea that it would become one of my favourite games and put old favourites in the corner.
From the sheer amount of joy it has brought me, those 550 svenska kronor, was the best spent gaming funds I've ever parted with.

A couple of weeks ago my regular opponent, Malin, and I finished the campaign game. It's sort of a mini monster, really. It's epic in length and scope, but not in table space which we are grateful for since we only have my family kitchen table to wage war on. Initially, we felt that we'd never be able to play it through, but after having done a few tutorials, a scenario or two, of which there are quite a fair number of, we still felt that however good they were, there was some things missing that only the campaign would bring out.

For example, this is one of the few games I know of where you can actually carry out a fighting withdrawal in realistic manner. Further, the German commander is hard-pressed for manpower, materiel, AP and artillery ammunition, but even the powerful Brittish army who has an abundance of manpower and various off-board assets, still has to be very mindful of casualty conservation and fatigue. For any of those concerns to have any impact on the play there has to be consequences beyond the tactical skirmish. Besides, we always feel that tactical games end too soon and feel like they take place in a vacuum that has very little to do with reality. By their very nature, they encourage unrealistic risk assessment by the players. We prefer to have our decisions, good or bad, matter in the long run.
So into the campaign we went boldly.

Fast forward to five weeks later. To put it mildly, the campaign took a fair bit of time to go through. But on the whole it was quite manageble and we had a blast. We played five sessions of eight hours a piece, which brings it up to around forty hours in total. In between sessions I was forced to return the kitchen table to my family, meaning that we had to pack up and stow away the game between each session (see below for details). Included in those 40 hours are lunch, tea breaks, random incoherent ramblings about odd off-topic stuff and of course those moments where we're laughing so hard we'd need a few minutes to calm down. But still, forty hours. That's an entire work week! Oddly enough, this was what the designer had claimed in his notes as well. Normally, when a designer says 40, he means 120. But not this time.
Which can only mean...
He had obviously played his own game!
Yes, a bit of sarcasm there for all those designers who can't be arsed to actually make it through their own campaign game.
(I know who you are)
No, Mark and his colleagues have played the game (quite a few times, I later learnt) and it shows.

During our after-campaign chat afterwards, Malin and I were at first a bit stunned to have actually played it through to the last turn. Even for a hobby as silly as pushing little counters around and occasionally do vrooming and ka-booming noises, it is still kind of an achievment. In endurance, if nothing else!
We were dazed not only from our investment of time, energy and resulting brain drainage, but also from realising that we both had had a really amazing gaming experience. Eventually, combat fatigue dissipated as we started to discuss and debate the finer points of the system, our units and the scenario. Re-living the triumphs and disasters, while trying to analyse what we had done well and what our greatest blunders had been.

Then we went quiet for a few moments, just looking at the game and the final positions of our units, which we by now had oddly personal relationships with.

What would have happened if I hadn't lost all those Panthers in that unfortunate duel with a bunch of lowly Shermans (the rolling fire hazards of the western front)? What would have been the outcome if my opponent had pressed harder initially and ignored the eastern flank where I had hidden all those mines? What had happened if her Sherman Crabs had worked and her AVRE's would have made it to the right place in the right time, what would, what if...?
Then we exchanged looks and knew that yeah, we have to play it again!

So while a lot of games gather dust on my shelves, we're right now on our second playthrough of the Campaign game. This is rare, even for us, so it occured to me that maybe I should share the fun we've had by throwing out a couple of bullet points about why I think this game isn't just good - but good enough to make me eagerly spend not just one, but two (and likely a lot more), full forty hour work weeks playing it. Especially since, between work and family my leisure time is really strained.

Without further ado, this is what I love about Operation Dauntless...

*Combined Warfare
There are very few games that manage capture how differently infantry and tanks operate, as well as the difficulties of managing them to co-operate into a combined warfare approach. The Gamer's Last Blitzkrieg, a part of the Battalion Combat Series, and GMT's No Retreat! North African Front both come to mind, but on a purely company sized tactical level, full of nit and grit, nothing beats Operation Dauntless.

The infantry are reliant on mortars, man power (fluid or massed), carriers and of course machine guns for defense. They excel in firefights, which are the normal state of affairs, but if you really NEED that damn hill or that ugly bunker not now, but yesterday, you need to assault it. With pioneers, determination and some luck infantry can make a go of it themselves, but if you want to pull off successful assaults, however, having a bunch of steel monsters around is going to help you a lot.

Tanks aren't different beasts and in Operation Dauntless they operate according to a completely different rules set. They ignore ZOC's, they laugh at Friction Fire, they are unaffected (more or less) from ranged high explosive attacks, they are immune to firefights and going up for an assault against them is a risky business. If you can't manage to sneak up on them with a well placed grenade, panzerfaust or PIAT (which takes place as a separate and nerve-wracking mini game with chit pulling), chances are they'll close their hatches and say ”Enemy infantry at nine o' clock. HE. Engage.” End of story.

Anyone knowing anything about tank tactics know that tanks are not squares, nor do they look like anything like bath tubs. Tanks are triangles. Big, rolling Bermuda Triangles of death. Where each tip means Mobility, Firepower and Armour while the resulting area is the equated lethality. In most other games, they are mobile bunkers at best, with perhaps higher movement values, but still operating at the same rhythm as the footsloggers. In OpD, they work more like they do in real life. Tanks can zoom around the entire battlefield, cut off your vital escape routes and generally hit all the soft parts of your army while laughing at your despair.
Tanks are extremely brave, you see. Like the knights of old, they are so brave that they only fear other tanks.
No wait, they also dread AT-guns, which to them are like mean people hiding in the bushes with the sharpest, pointiest sticks in the history of man. Hurty, hurty sticks. In Operation Dauntless AT guns actually work the way they should.
If you're a little too eager to attack, failing to notice that there's a section of AT pieces lurking in that bocage 1,5 kms away, then you had better do a really quick reverse. Take off like a car thief, or you WILL be gone in sixty seconds.

Further, the tanks also operate with a completely different tempo than your other troops. Rules wise, this is represented by a Armour Reaction Cycle, which in short means that Hell is just half a blink away! As soon as a tank is as much as revealing the tip of his antenna to the enemy, the normal turn sequence, which is about 90 mns game time, is interrupted by a flurry of back and forth gun duels that can keep going (more or less) for as long as you have anything not burning still within range. In minutes you are either having a celebratory cigarette between your trembling fingers or you are just an expensive and smoldering installation of modern art. More often than not, you break away before either happens, since there's just so much you can push your luck, even sitting in a Tiger. Sure, the german tanks are beasts, but that doesn't matter if you don't know how to handle yourself. Getting the first and best shot, really counts. As it should.

*Playability

Operation Dauntless is so packed with goodies, I'm surprised it didn't cost me more. This is a game that wants to be played and the designer has gone out of his way to make sure you are up and running as quickly as possible. There are tutorials, plenty of examples and even a couple of flowcharts for just in case. Tracks are printed both on the map and the separate turn/organiser sheet, which makes it easy to set up and manage, even with limited table space. Surprisingly, the campaign game is breeze to set up and rip down over multiple sessions. It just took us about 25-30 mns to check the photos we took with our tabs and cells, get the markers out from last session and then we were back into it. Actually, it took longer to re-orientate ourselves strategically than it took to mechanically handle the unpacking of the game. Since there's virtually no stacking (really big, lovely hexes) it's easy to take a couple of snaps and then bag it back up. No muss, no fuss.

Also, all victory locations are clearly marked, the victory conditions are easy to understand and you really feel as the game and its various aids want to help you spend more time with the decision making than with fiddling through the rule book. I think we had to refer to the rule book a couple of times in the first session and maybe once or twice per session from then on. By then, we had of course a couple of scenarios under our belt, so we knew the basic flow of the firefights, but not the rhythm of the campaign game. That was a whole other learning curve.

*Fun decisions
This is the normal decision cycle of OpD. You make a bunch of operational decisions at the start of the turn (if, where, how and with what you are going to attack or defend, for example) and then you get into the action, using the tactical mechanics which I feel create a really strong narrative by themselves. You make a couple of tactical micro decisions here and there (the armour reaction cycle, the retreat instead of taking casualties option and so forth). Then its back to the operational decisions again. I like it. It keeps me invested on both levels without feeling overburdened with too much detail. I'm not interested in whether someone has this or that gun, I am interested what they do with it. To me, it's a really good blend between immersion and decision making, as well as simulation and game.


*Command system
The command system is optional, but I truly recommend using it. It's fun and thematic with operational zones and attack corridors. It's really easy and reminds me of the one used inWaterloo 1815: Fallen Eagles, by Hexasim. It doesn't take away your ability to act, but it does the same thing that the Tactical Combat Series of games from The Gamers do, it adds operational delay in your ability to respond to sudden changes on the battlefield. I think it does so well, especially for being so easy to use. It doesn't have a huge impact on play, but it's really fun and weirdly enough it actually helps you organise your maneuvres more often than not.

*Easy, but complex
Some, mostly veterans from Mark's earlier game Red Winter (which I haven't played yet), say that the OpD is too complicated. Who am I to argue? If that's how they feel, then that's how they feel. I however, don't see it as complicated. All of the rules are extremely simple on their own. It's still a game made up of very easy, intuitive mechanics. What makes it perhaps a bit daunting (whohoho!) is how they all interact. Which they admittedly do in a complex manner.

This can be seen as a weakness perhaps, but to me, it's definately a plus and what makes me and my buddies come back to it again and again. It has a lot of depth and when you finally understand how things mesh together, you will have one of those eureka moments and everything from then on wil start feeling intuitive. I also appreciate that you can't predict or number crunch the system. There are so many things that can happen that you will have to behave like an actual commander at the time and the place, ”stack the odds” in your favour and hope for the best. Which to me, simulates quite well the juxtaposition of the two opposite faces of tactical warfare – the sheer chaos where reality breaks down into the surreal and the nearly pre-deterministic, statistical side that's more like a really unsafe factory floor that produces death in a precise and timely fashion.

*Components
Fy fan, you get a helvetes jävlar bunch of stuff in the box (pardon my Swedish)! It's crammed with designer's notes, TOE's, background information, tactical and operational hints, examples, unit guides and well, what isn't there, you really don't need to know to feel fully immersed in this conflict.

If you're a beginner to military history, the only thing that might throw you for a loop are the unit sizes. Or as it's put in layman terms: ”What's the little stick on the top of the mail-thing?”
The counters and the map are gorgeous (fits on a standard kitchen table with no problems) and informative. I distinctly remember that the play test counters (note: I wasn't a play tester, I just happened to see them on GMT's page for the game while reading up on even more designer's notes that sadly didn't make it into the already packed game), had a number for each tank unit counter, letting you know just how many vehicles it represented. It doesn't add anything useful to the game, so I understand why it was left out, but I would actually like to see that kind of information included, not just on the tank units, but the approximate manpower of the infantry and artillery as well. It helps with the immersion, adds human interest and it's a god-send gift to beginners for whom ”company” is just a nice, fuzzy word about having friends to play games with.

*Transparence
Mark is really open with his thought processes, which is good, both for critical analysis, as well as understanding why some things work this way or that. Apart from making the rules easier to understand and remember, if they feel intuitive to the gamer, it really help beginners understanding what is going on and that in turn makes it feel real. Not only to them, but to me, as well, by the way.

*Play balance
Okay, so the first campaign was a total bust for the Brits, but despite seeing the writing on the wall (or perhaps hearing her commanding officer crying himself to sleep every night), my regular opponent Malin, kept playing to the bitter end with her Polar Bears (cuddly but dangerous). Credit goes to her for being such a great gamer and a good sport and credit to the game that was fun for her to play, even if she knew she couldn't win.

In the end we were both glad we had went for the last turn, since even though it was too late to affect the outcome, Malin pulled off a magnificent armoured breakthrough that would have made any armoured instructing officer glowing with pride and twirling his moustaches. Hit hard, hit fast, bypass an... stick it to them where it really hurts. I tip my black armour beret to you, Malin!

While I, who played the German side never felt threatened in our first campaign, let me tell you that this second one is a whole other piece of total SNAFU. On turn five, just after the heavy barrage has been lifted and the skies cleared, I still hold Fontenay but I've taken casualties I regret and I've had Shermans romping in my rear lines that I had to first unsuccessfully assault with infantry and then literally chase out of the little hamlet with half a company of Panzer IV's. The former bolted out onto a nearby field where all hell broke lose. My panzers hit reverse and quickly went back to hide where it was safe. I am not confident at all about my situation. This is going to be one hell of a fight and I'll have to use every ounce of guerilla tactics I can muster up to cling to the VP's.

*Fairness
Please bear with me for a moment while I preach to the hopefully already converted. No piece of media can aspire to be objective, by its very nature, being a man-made product, based on events in the past, where source material is written by the winners (or the very sore losers) and eye witness reports being the least reliable source of all for observing social interaction, a game as any other media, will always be subjective. That's just the way it is. So, what I mean by fairness is that I feel that the game has given both sides of the conflict a fair treatment of their capabilities at the time. To me, that's a rarity and I like it so much that I want to mention it in passing. This could perhaps be a lesson to many game designers of historical simulations. Don't do games about subjects that are important to you on a personal level, you will be too close and your judgement will be impaired as a result.

To sum it up for all you TLDR's.

Game good. Buy game.
Play game!

10 out of 10 on my like-o-meter.

While you're at it, pick up a copy of No Retreat! North African Front and BCS The Last Blitzkrieg as well. Two of my other favourite games.

EDITED for some of the most glaring Swenglish typos. EDITED again, because of OCD!
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Roger Hobden
Canada
Montreal
Quebec
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
Very nice review !

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Xesqui BCN
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
thanks for your review!
glad that you enjoy the game

Francesc (aka Xesqui) researcher/playtester
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Kenneth Lury
United States
Blowing rock
NC
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
excellent review. Really gets the flavor of the game rather than reiterating the rules.
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Mark Mokszycki
United States
Snohomish
Washington
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
CJ, thank you for taking the time to write and post this thoughtful review. I'm pleased that you like the game!
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Richard Boyes
United States
Bothell
Washington
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
Your enthusiasm for this game will be contagious. Thanks for the great analysis and explanations.

Game ON!
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Tom H
Australia
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Basil Hilder KIA Lone Pine, Gallipoli
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Great review. Love this game and I am only half way through the tutorials!!
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James Webb
United Kingdom
Canterbury
Kent
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Re: Vrooming Tank, Hidden AT Gun
Fantastic review.

Why do so many Scandinavians have a better grasp of English than many of us natives?

It's bad enough that you have a higher standard of living than us, but do you also have to be more literate?

(edited for my poor use of word thingies)
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Bryan Felsher
United States
Rancho Palos Verdes
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Loved reading this post. Makes me want to start the campaign game, but I'm going to try and force my self to save the best for last!
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CJ Hakansson
Sweden
Vasteras
Sverige
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Thanks, guys! Glad you liked it.

And thanks, Francesc and Mark, for having done such a tremendous job and then sharing it with the rest of us.

Wow, GG even, now I can maybe buy myself an avatar!
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Marcin Rewucki
Poland
Szczecin
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Please do. And make your avatar a vrooming Tiger
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Markus Lundin
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Very well written review. I have ordered a copy that is on the way. Really looking forward to read through the rulebook.
Hoppas på många timmars underhållning från det här spelet.
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Malin Ryden
Sweden
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Second replay of the campaign now, Night has fallen after the first day...

This time around the germans are not as cocky... *maniacal british laughter*

(Yes, I am the opponent in this battlereport, we are running the campaign again because... revenge! Also, the game just gets more amazing.)
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