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Unconditional Surrender Europe -- Panzers That Go Bump in the Night

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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From gallery of FinalWord

I just spent two days in the wargaming equivalent of the land of Oz, also known as GMT’s Unconditional Surrender Europe. And just like in the classic film it looked grand from a distance. And all the rumors spoke of its magical properties. Here was the place you could go to have your wish of an innovative new strategic level World War 2 ETO game fulfilled.

All you needed was a brain, some heart and the courage to have a go at it. Having a little of the first, enough of the second and plenty of the third, I dove into the mini game Case Blue, included in C3i magazine to introduce players to the USE system. This was followed by playing a couple of the scenarios from the main game.

After a few turns it quickly became apparent I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or in Europe for that matter. The “S” word should not be used when describing USE unless you’re talking about it simulating the carnival ride bumper cars. That’s what armies essential are in this game. Think of it as the military expansion to Ricochet Robots and you won't be far off.

You pay one or two production points to move a unit. Units move individually and “attack” by spending movement points to bash into enemy units. The most likely result, particularly if the attacker is the Germans, will be that the enemy retreats one space. Then you can spend more movement to bash into him again. Repeat for every unit you have, with armor being particularly good at bump-and-grab. Both sides roll in each combat and if you seriously outroll your opponent the defender may flip and retreat or the attacker may lose all his remaining movement points. That is essentially what you spend hours doing. And don’t even think about defense in depth. Having a friendly army covering your backside is the fastest way to get yourself unconditionally dead.

There’s some tactical, though generally obvious, finesse involved in bumping through enemy lines in order to isolate units that will be subsequently attacked. But don’t think about making large pockets of isolated defenders, you are only isolated if you are not adjacent to another friendly unit or city so only a single army can ever be isolated at any one time. Supply is checked at the end of your own move so surrounded pockets don’t suffer from being out of supply and can ‘bump’ back at full strength on their turn.

You don’t alternate moving units so be prepared to sit through a good long time of your opponent bumping your lines out of shape. Then it’s your turn to form a new line, hammer your old line back into shape if you can, or at least bump off the enemy units that stuck their necks out too far. Your not so much a general as a blacksmith.

The supply rules are bizarre and seem to have come from history books not available to the general public. Completely encircled cities not only supply armies in this game, you can build entire armies in them behind enemy lines. This even though no army-size unit was ever built in a surrounded city behind enemy lines. Not in World War 2, not in World War 1, not in the American Civil War. Never.

The point of surrounding armies was that it made them less effective and impossible to sustain in the field. Once this happened there were only two results: surrender/dissolution or a breakout/break in. They never got larger. They never organized entire new armies. Never. It’s not the first game to allow this, but it’s particularly dopey here.

That's because in USE the smallest units are armies, as in 100,000 to 150,000 men. Army scale makes for low counter density but it also means if you want to garrison a city you will have to use 100,000-plus soldiers to do it. This matters, for example, in Case Blue where you simply don’t have enough pieces on the map as the Axis to take and hold your victory cities without the Russians playing Twister on your supply lines. Oddly, Case Blue is an introductory game that’s essentially unwinable by one of the sides. Not the way to go methinks.

Overall USE is among the most process heavy games in recent memory. Take a peek below at the Fortranesque flow chart of what just the Action Phase involves. This is for each unit.

Every combat allows each player to secretly commit extra assets to it (using a go, no-go, style bidding mechanic) — either air power or event chits. That’s fine but eats up time way out of proportion to game effect. After the 50th time you start ignoring the hidden commitment mechanic and just say you’re adding/not adding to your attack.

Diplomacy and National Will have been abstracted to the point of near pointlessness. Much time is wasted on this as well as strategic warfare for very little meaningful effect. Diplomacy in particular is clunky and random. It’s neither fun nor generates realistic results.

A good example of the much-process-for-little-effect problem is the production system. Production is often at the core of strategic level games since it allows success to reinforce itself and allows swings of momentum.

In USE many major cities contain a factory and each nation has production equal to a multiple of the factories it controls, usually two times. This number is what you can spend to activate your units, purchase replacements and purchase random acts of diplomacy. Okay so far, except the points don’t accumulate and you have so many (except in Case Blue where the Germans don't have enough) that the vast majority of the time you can move everything and build back everything you lost in combat. Like much of the ancillary stuff in USE, it’s a lot of fuss for very little variance. Maybe this begins to matter in the later stages of the full campaign. I don't know, but I hope so.

At first USE is somewhat fun. But like munchkin karoke, it quickly gets mind-numbing. So after enjoying a few turns of Fall Blau, I quickly found myself wanting to do nothing so much as stop after a few turns into the scenarios. Thankfully, my opponent felt the same way. It just all felt so fiddly-wrong and it could have been set on Barsoom for all the World War 2 feel it has. It was work to play this: blue collar work, outside, with a shovel, and no gloves, facing hard ground, on a 100 degree day, with only dirty water to drink.

The feeling wasn't unlike what I get when playing a made-to-be-played-solitaire game, these always fill me with nihilistic dread. Except here you have to wait for your opponent. And you need an opponent.

Still, if one enjoys process heavy, solitaire games like Patton's Best, or the more recent The Hunters, they may find something to like here. Many people apparently do.

But do yourself a favor before laying down the substantial green this game is going to cost you and try it out with Case Blue. That will allow you to pull back the curtain. You may see a wizard artfully conjuring up magical mechanics that blend into a state-of-the-art WW 2 simulation, or, like me, all you see is some bumper cars and a couple of 40+-page instruction manuals on how to drive them.

The rules are comprehensive and well written, the designer seems to go above and beyond in supporting the game and it certainly brings something new to the table, so it's not an F in my book. But I'd rather find myself aboard a hot air balloon in a tornado than have to spend another day with USE.

From gallery of FinalWord

Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe
Unconditional Surrender! Case Blue
Board Game: Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe

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