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Subject: Ardennes ’44: not your father’s Bulge game rss

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Michael Arrighi
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For those who have not tried A’44 (Ardennes ‘44) are, in my opinion, missing a spectacular game. A’44 sets a new standard in game design and development. With 22 pages of rules, 8 pages of a detailed example of play, designer notes, counter manifests, and an index, a Bulge game is found of moderate to high complexity. A’44 has a tremendous amount of playing subtlety by amalgamating several aspects of game design into a wonderful work of art. Okay, the graphic presentation is another usual ‘ho-hum’ product we expect from the crew at GMT, in others words, fantastic! Yes, the introduction is glowing but A’44 really does glow, and not with nuclear waste.

A’44 is the “Battle of the Bulge” from the initial opening on December 16, 1944 through December 26, 1944. The Allied counter offensive and eventual elimination of “the Bulge” is not included. The Third Army’s offensive from Dec 22 to Dec 26 to relieve Bastogne and to drive a wedge to Houffalize are encompassed within the time frame but not as a separate scenario.

A particular emphasis in the game is on armor and the ability, or inability, to concentrate and coordinate in the difficult terrain typical of the Ardennes. Thus, armor units are generally represented with battalion-sized units, although the majority of infantry units are regiment-size. A’44 has more individual units than the typical regiment-sized Bulge game. Armor is fast, powerful, and difficult to get it where you need it.

Only units from two divisions may cooperate in an attack. This forces the player to concentrate divisions while on the attack but allows for easy dispersal of units when on the defense, without any rules complexities. Thus, you will not see or use individual regiments running off here and there to add that extra combat strength to gain the magical column shift by increasing the odds. A very elegant and flexible solution to a perennial design issue of keeping operational units together but allowing them disperse as needed in defensive situations.

A third key aspect is the very restrictive stacking rule. A maximum of 3 stacking points is allowed per hex, generally, no more than two units. Some large regiments have 3 stacking points. With most division comprised of 3 regiments and add some armor battalions, concentration is difficult but essential.

When you see the numerous tank battalions, 2-division limit on attack, and stacking limitations; the gamer begins to gain some of the appreciation the local commanders had in trying to execute mobile warfare in the Ardennes. While not impossible, the challenges are formidable to concentrate and consistently achieve overwhelming odds.

Movement is an example of the subtle complexity in the design providing the gamer with tremendous options. There are 3 types of movement, tactical, regular, and strategic/extended. Tactical allows a unit to move up to two hexes, into virtually any terrain; yes, there are some limits and exceptions, such as not being able to enter prohibited terrain, and units can not easily cross unbridged rives, and wooded rough hexsides. Regular movement allows a unit to use all of their movement factors, essentially to travel further along roads and clear terrain, but the going is very slow off road and even along secondary roads. Roads are of two types, primary and secondary, with primary roads representing the wider, better paved roads, and secondary roads representing the narrower, and unpaved/gravel roads. Extended/strategic mode allows units to travel furthest when not in contact with the enemy, regardless of location. Additionally, the foot sloggers, ground pounders, (Allied Infantry), have trucks but this take time to load and at a significant defensive disadvantage. All these are covered in a just a page or two of rules.

One concern raised is that units may use strategic movement (SM) in any direction, including deep into enemy territory or behind friendly lines. While SM in enemy territory is concern, as players develop experience in how to use the “movement markers,” reinforcements, and breakdown units, such surprises will likely be few and far between. At the present moment, the jury is out on the impact of using strategic movement when in enemy territory. In a situation as fluid as “The Bulge” defining lines, town/city control is difficult without substantial booking keeping, so, solutions may prove to be cumbersome and somewhat elusive.

What are these “movement markers” previously allude to? There are 3 types of markers “traffic markers,” “Grief markers,” and “roadblocks.” Traffic and Grief markers have the same function, only the Germans play the “Grief markers” and the Allies play the “traffic markers.” These markers increase movement costs through such hexes and as such represent all the problems beyond the commander’s control associated with advancing in a combat area, congestion, delaying tactics, hesitancy, and the myriad of SNAFUs. Each side begins with 6 markers and then two are removed at random – and no marker may be place within one hex of another. The two that are removed are repositioned the next turn and two are randomly withdrawn. Thus, each player has control over two markers each turn. Over the course of the game, the Germans lose the ability to place all 6 markers. Roadblocks are markers that have no chance of random removal and may be repositioned each turn, representing small unit tactics, and other activities to harass and confuse the enemy. Roadblocks represent a more focused attempt by the ‘high’ command to harass and delay the enemy.

While there is no separate reserve, exploitation or mechanized movement phase, the advance after combat incorporates these concepts. Advance after combat may be performed in any direction and the first hex does not have to be the defender’s hex, “a heresy in game design,” as stated by the designer. Such “thinking out of the box” combines both the exploitation phase with the combat results, allowing the attacker to generate some holes in any defensive line. And if combat is very successful a small number of units may even undertake a second attack, termed breakthrough combat.

The game uses ZOC-bonds. Two units, one hex apart, generate a defense that prohibits the movement of enemy units. ZOC-bonds may be either along a hexside or encompass and entire hex. ZOC-bonds allow units to project a wider defensive front without additional units, or a smaller unit scale. ZOC-bonds are fragile defensive lines, a break in a line at a key location will result in substantial hole, couple with the advance after combat in any direction, breaches will occur. The use of ZOC-bonds requires a different approach from other games and generates quite a “Bulge” feel. The Allies are constantly forming desperate defensive positions that the German are able to break, albeit, usually at some loses. The Germans are able to gain ground but not without a struggle and loses, while the Allies are constantly scrambling to form defensive lines.

The ZOC-bonds allow the defender to form a line. The advance in any direction after combat allows the attacker to punch holes in the line.

Defensive terrain and positions are expressed in terms of additional combat factors added to the total strength in the hex. The attacker’s strength may be halved when assaulting unfavorable terrain, such as across rivers.

The sequence of play has a subtle tweak. Each day has 2 player turns, German then Allied. Between each two day turns is an abbreviated night phase, where each side may move and attack with units previously designated in the PM turn. However, here the order is reversed, the Allies move and combat first and then the Germans; thus, creating a mini-exploitation sequence. For the Allies, the feeling is more traditional a full movement followed by a limited exploitation phase. This allows the Allies an opportunity to counter attack units that advance too far and potentially minimize that run for the hills approach in other games. For the Germans, the approach is different, a limited initial move/combat followed by a full turn. Thus, the German is able to create some limited opportunities an exploit them. Yet, the sequence does somewhat telegraph the move to Allied player which creates another sense of tension for both sides. The challenge is change in turn order requiring players to approach each side with a distinctive approach. Units the player wishes to use at night requires pre-planning, as they must be designated in the immediately preceding afternoon turn, “PM” turn in game parlance. Units so designated, not only telegraph their intent to the opposing player, radio traffic is unusual voluminous; these units have very limited movement in the PM turn nor may they attack in the PM turn.

Given the rules complexity, multitude of options and situations, questions are bound to arise. The support provided by the designer through Consimworld allows almost immediate answers to one’s questions. Gamer’s should be very appreciative of the time and energy that designers and developers devote to the question and answer sessions. Before Comsimworld and the web, one must wonder how games of such intricacy, or any game for that matter, were played?

A’44 puts you in “The Bulge” either as the Allies or the Germans. The German army will advance but there will losses along the way, which if there are too many loses the offensive will grind to a halt. There are not enough units to concentrate everywhere; thus, while clearing the shoulders is possible, trying to completely clear both shoulders will come at the expense of reaching the Meuse. The German player must make some choices regarding the focus and direction of the assault. The Allied player is constantly trying to pull enough units together to form a coherent defense, although careful use of terrain, roadblocks, traffic markers, reinforcements, and breakdown units, will aid to stymie the initial onslaught. The game has both players on the edge of their seats trying to maximize their positions.

A’44 is a winner; a superb 2-player game, with numerous options and challenges for both sides. The game will take considerable time, not something that is possible in an evening. An hour to two per turn would not be an unreasonable expectation, excluding the night turns which consume just a few minutes. The campaign game would take around 30 or so hours and a long weekend would be required for two somewhat fast and relatively game knowledgeable players. The players should be somewhat cordial, as some questions and issues may arise, requiring some friendly discussion. A’44 will be a prized game for years to come.

Summary Information:
Ardennes ’44: The Battle of the Bulge
© 2003 GMT Games
Designer: Mark Simonitch
Developers: John Kranz (Alpha), Tony Curtis (Beta),
2 Map Sheets: total 30” x 37”
3 sets of counters, total 570 pieces
2 Player aid cards
1 Rules Booklet (40 pages)
1 Quick Start Display
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Steve Bernhardt
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Excellent review! I've heard this is the best Bulge game out there; your review makes it sound like the rumor is true.
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Bill W
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Re: Ardennes '44: not your father's Bulge game
Michael, One of the best WG reviews I've read anywhere: well-written, and thorough without detail-overkill. As good as your Cyberboard gameboxes ... and those are the best I've seen.

A question, if you happen to see this: how do you like playing A'44 vs Bitter Woods?
 
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Michael Arrighi
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A'44 (Ardennes '44) vs BW (Bitter Woods)
For me these two games are not in competition; I enjoy them both and highly recommend both of them.

BW is also one of my favorite games, with a clean set of rules. BW is a simpler game but not simple to play, much more chess-like, where the placement of each unit is key, particularly for the Americans during the first 4 to 5 turns. I can pull out BW and teach a knowledgeable gamer how to play it in about 15 minutes and if I what them to be competitive in about 20 mintues BW doesn't have the divisional restrictions, as seen A'44; thus, an aspect is "factor counting" for the optimal attack at the key 4-1 odds ratio with a -1 drm. The 4th edition (L2's Deluxe Edition) has a nice, stiff-card board map; that is oversized, nice for the room for the counters but unfortunately doesn't fit easily on most table tops or under plexiglass, resulting in the occassional "bump and shift", if one isn't careful.

In my opinion, A'44 gives a real flavor for the Bulge at the expense of greatere complexity - at least based on my limited reading: Danny Parker's The Battle of the Bulge, MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets, and various Chapters from Cole's Green Book, amongst other chapters in books and journals. I have yet to read John Eisenhower's Bitter Woods nor Toland's well regarded work.

Thus, I tend to play BW more FTF and occassionaly on-line but will do more solo with A'44 when looking at things Bulge.

And to both Bill and Steve thanks for the nice comments regarding the review.
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Ethan McKinney
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Great review: it really gave me a feel for how the game works in action.

2GG tip.
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Peter
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I prefer to play ASL, tactical battles on Eastern Front. Though I every much like "The Ardennes Offensive" PC wargame made by SSG. TAO is very elegant/clean design/though AI to beat tye of wargame that is close to my heart. Browsing BBG last week getting to Ardennes '44 page by almost an accident and having just red Michael Arrighi amazing review I have decided to get this game, got it in my local store here in Toronto last Friday. I spent some time during the weekend with the game (VASSAL) and I'm blown away by the quality both in terms of the components as well as gameplay. Ardennes '44 is an amazing wargame yet its focus is quality simulation, my kind of game. I know the map, I know the OOB and reading the rules and going through the expanded examples of play is a pure joy! I'm even thinking pre-ordering the second print...hopefully GMT can add the second part of the campaign (all the way until January 1945).

Thanks Michael Arrighi for introducing me to Ardennes '44, an instant classic! I love the fact that it's very solitaire friendly as well (I mostly play all my wargames solo).
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