A Brief Review of Crusader by Mark Mokszycki
For starters, this is not a review of the Gamers SCS series of games and I will not go into the mechanics. The rules for these games, as well as the SCS series rules, are posted at the Gamers/MMP website for those who are interested.
I will briefly say that the motto of the SCS games, for those who are unfamiliar, is "simple, but not simplistic." I think this is an apt motto. The system is easy to grasp, with only 6 pages of rules (8 for the newest living rules, but only because the font is larger and there are more illustrations). Yet there is enough depth of strategy to satisfy most seasoned wargamers.
The series is not without its faults, and many of these fault are more apparent here in Crusader than in other games of the series. I've heard others fault SCS for the following reasons:
1. HQ hunting is a viable strategy.
2. "History on steroids"- the CRT is extremely bloody.
3. The exploitation phase allows many units to do too much... especially exploit-capable artillery, which can act as "grav-artillery"- rushing to the front to fire off their barrages, then retreating to safety before their opponent can react.
To some extent, I agree with all these criticisms. And I like SCS anyway. It is fast, fun, and playable, even if not overly realistic.
HQ hunting is indeed a viable strategy, but smart players will try to protect their HQs, both through unit placement and fog of war (stacking) rules. It's true that many SCS games, Crusader included, encourage using HQs on the frontline to provide a column shift in combat. As I see it, you can't have it both ways. You can use your HQs upfront to great effect, but at a high risk. This can make for some tough decisions which I rather enjoy.
History on steroids- yes. The CRT is in fact very bloody. Crusader is perhaps the bloodiest game in the bunch. But keep in mind that two players pushing cardboard pieces around on a map are probably going to take much greater risks and instigate more fights (at lower odds) than commanders in a real life battle where human lives are at stake. Played with the fog of war rules and a cautious approach towards long term goals, the bloody CRT is somewhat mitigated.
Grav artillery. Yes, it exists in SCS games. It's not really much of a problem in Crusader. This was more a problem in Yom Kippur (also SCS series). I like the SCS exploitation phase rules, but I agree that these rules can occasionally be exploited (no sarcasm intended).
So again... while I agree with all the major criticms of SCS to an extent, I don't think they ruin the game. Nor do they ruin Crusader.
Now let's move on from SCS to Crusader specifically.
Crusader is not my favorite SCS game. Nor do I dislike it. I think it's possibly the best game in the series for learning the system, as it is stripped down to the bare essence of SCS. There are virtually no game-specific rules to memorize here, save the reinformcement rules, the Rommel special abilities, and a couple other very minor rules. If you've played other SCS games, you'll be gaming in no time. If you haven't played other SCS games, this is the best place to start.
Two or three turns into my first game of Crusader, I though it was too fast and too bloody. I felt the CRT and movement needed to be toned down. A LOT. After all, most units in this game can cross the entire map in a single turn and then participate in an attack using overwhelming force. This is due to a combination of clear terrain, generous road networks, and units with very high movement rates. This makes most potential defensive strategies moot. No defensive line you build will help protect your rear, as enemies merely pay extra MPs to waltz right through your zone of control (and their super high movement rates make this very possible). Does this break the game? Well, it depends on your expectations.
Firstly, this is desert warfare. Unless you have a couple months to lay mine gardens, you can't really generate a perfect defense. You're in the freakin' desert! That means it's very easy for your enemy to outflank you. Not only that, but Crusader represents a type of desert warfare involving very poor intelligence as to enemy movements and troops dispositions. I'll talk more about this later.
As a game, Crusader is rather unusual in that it doesn't build to a grand climax as do most wargames. It starts out as a fast, crazy, chaotic armor battle, and gradually devolves into a slow slogging match between sparse troops of mostly infantry. After two complete plays, I came to appreciate this unique aspect of the game. Now I rather like it. But this "loss of steam" may not make for every wargamer's fantasy scenario.
The first turns of Crusader are extremely bloody and can they can really make or break a player. The British needs to hit and hit hard on turns 1-4 to grind down the German armor, because the German units will eventually return to the game as full strength reinforcements (unlike the Commonwealth units, which return later at reduced strength).
It's easy to be aggressive in this game, ganging up a dozen or so units on a lone stack. But just when you start to feel invincible, it's your opponent's turn and he does the same thing to you. I'm not sure this resembles desert fighting at all, when viewed on a single player turn basis. But the important thing in a wargame, after all, is that the various phases and sequences of a turn all add up to a combined outcome that resembles something historically plausible. And I think at the latter, Crusader ultimately succeeds.
There have been suggestions posted on Consimworld as to how to "fix" Crusader. Firstly, I don't think it's broken. However, I agree that it might be better with the right changes.
If each turn of Crusader had represented only 1 day (instead of 2), with all units getting half their movement and the CRT yielding far more retreat results, this might have been a better game. The players could have actually *reacted* to each other's moves during those first few uber-bloody turns, instead of just smacking each other silly turn after turn. But as it stands, the game is faster, shorter and simpler. And it's still pretty fun.
I feel that the followup SCS WW2 North African desert game, Gazala, comes closer to doing desert warfare right. Gazala has its own issues, but overall it is the better game. But it is also larger, more complex, and takes longer to play. And therefore Gazala is not a good starting point for newcomers to SCS. Crusader is also better if you have limited time or table space. It uses a single map, and can be played to completion in 5 or 6 hours, whereas Gazala uses two maps and takes twice that long.
As I revisited this game again and then again (I have now played it three times), my appreciation increased. While still not my favorite SCS game, I feel I initially misjudged certain aspects. I'll briefly touch on these now...
Firstly, the game is bloody, but so was the actual battle! About 75% of the tanks were destroyed in the first 2 days of the 11 day battle. This overall historical outcome certainly resembles the 3 games I've played of Crusader.
Secondly, units go fast and drive circles around the defender, but it could be argued that this simulates the imperfect AI inherent in the real Operation Crusader, which was a confusing mess for both sides invloved. There was limited air recon available, so most recon was the old fashioned type invoving guys in trucks with binoculars.
During my first game of Crusader, I felt it was rediculous to see enemies coming at you from miles away and not be able to react as they surround you... however, I now see that "miles away" is really just what it sounds like. Maybe you can spot them at 3 or 4 miles away. That's about 2 hexes, in game terms. So it's unlikely that in real life you'd be able to spot any of those massive flanking maneuvers that the game is famous for, and react to them in an intelligent way. Especially without reliable aerial recon.
Finally, when we played our first game of Crusader we were new to SCS and we overlooked 2 vital things- the fog of war (not being allowed looking at enemy stacks) and the precise order of air unit allocation. Played correctly, both players will be more cautious than in our previous games, and both players will likely last longer.
Still, even with cautious play, both armies will probably grind themselves into dust within 4 or 5 turns. The remainder of the game will probably be a slow march up the coastal highway by the battered Commonwealth infantry, while the Axis trickles full strength reconsitituted units into the game in an attempt to keep Tobruk. This is very different from the first few turns of swirling armored combat... but I enjoyed the later turns of the game all the same.
I haven't mentioned the graphical presentation. It is standard for the Gamers. The map is clean and functional, if rather drab. But it is the desert, after all. I rather like the map. It looks nice after all the pieces are in place.
The counters themselves are also clean and functional. I wish the various browns chosen to represent different nationalities were more different, since this can occasionally lead to some confusion. But I can live with it. Note that this problem (the similar browns) was later fixed in Gazala. It must have bothered more players than just this one.
Overall, I like the graphics. They aren't winning any awards, but they are still very nice.
I should probably mention that the full campaign game is 11 turns long, and it can probably be played in 5 or 6 hours, maybe even faster if you are an SCS veteran. The game includes several shorter scenarios as well.
Before completing this post, I must give "Kudos" to Gamers for including some interesting strategic notes along with the Crusader rules. If you are a first time player, be sure to check out the section on the "Ariete Gambit" before you play the Axis side.
There are better SCS games out there, and certainly better simlulations of the desert war. But if you're looking for something relatively smooth and simple that still has some strategic depth, this might be for you. Crusader is fun if you don't mind the "start out crazy fast / end slow" aspect of the game timeline.
OVERALL RATING: 7.5 / 10
COMPLEXITY: 3.5 / 10
Recommended mainly to those with an interest in learning SCS, or with an interest in this particular battle.
- Last edited Tue Feb 27, 2007 1:19 am (Total Number of Edits: 4)
- Posted Mon Feb 5, 2007 5:33 am
You pretty much captured everything I feel about this game - it's got a couple of annoying quirks, but if you can embrace them (and strategize to minimize them - particularly the effects of HQ hunting) this is a low-complexity, entertaining romp in the desert.
Are the back side of the counters blank?