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Hitler's Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Bulging out all over...once again. rss

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Steven Goodknecht
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I've always believed that for many wargamers the amount of complexity they desire in their games is in direct proportion to their interest in the subject. A wargamer with only a passing interest in WWII East Front will likely play The Russian Campaign much quicker than Case Blue. As for myself, in the past decade or so I've tried to decrease rather than increase the complexity whenever possible. Problems with my memory has made doing so desirable. But last year I did the exact opposite with one game. I've been a Battle of the Bulge enthusiast for over 50 years. The first Avalon Hill game I owned (not played) was naturally The Battle of the Bulge. In 1978 I purchased SPI's Battles for the Ardennes and it instantly became my Bulge game of choice until recently. I wrote a glowing review of the game over six years ago and it remains one of only two games that I have rated a '10'. Last year I gave the game to a good friend of mine. The break was complete.

Ordinarily, I am not fickle about games and I still do think that Battles for the Ardennes is a great game. But suddenly, I wanted more. My new choice was Hitler's Last Gamble, yet another game by prolific Bulge designer Danny S.Parker. Before going further, a word about Mr. Parker is in order. He first came on the wargaming scene as a contributor to SPI's Wacht am Rhein. He then designed Dark December for OSG and the fabled The Last Gamble for Hobby Japan. He has conducted tours of the battlefield, contributed to Charles MacDonald's book, A Time for Trumpets and written his own book, Battle of the Bulge. Obviously, his Bulge credentials are impeccable.

In 1989 he designed Hitler's Last Gamble which I believe was supposed to be a remake of his earlier The Last Gamble game.That was good because the latter had an excellent reputation but finding a copy is beyond challenging and the prices, assuming the unlikelihood of finding a copy, are exorbitant. For a publisher, he approached World Wide Wargamers, hereafter known as 3W, which at that time was a logical choice because choices were limited.

Now, a word about 3W is in order. When SPI folded at the end of 1981, 3W became by default, one of the largest wargame publishers. They were handed a unique opportunity to step up and assume the SPI mantle. But they proved incapable. It's not that 3W was a bad company, they would often get great ideas. Their problem was, they couldn't spell them. Production was 3W's Achilles Heel. They seemed unable to transform the idea of a game into a polished, finished product. Even when handed a finished product, such as Hitler's Last Gamble, they managed to screw up the game in translation.

No doubt, if SPI had still been in business they would have been Parker's choice to publish the game just as they had Battles for the Ardennes. The result would have been a game with more polish. What happened with 3W as the publisher resulted in a game requiring 19 pages of errata. Yes, you read that correctly, 19 pages of errata. How do you even achieve that, you may ask? Well, 3W really outdid themselves on HLG. So what should have, could have, been the last word in Bulge games for quite some time, was beset with problems. Even so, it was still a very good game for those with the patience and perseverance to decipher the cryptic puzzle that 3W published.

In 1989 I had mostly quit gaming the previous year, having sold most of my games. But I was aware of HLG's coming and I was still a Bulge enthusiast. So I bought the game when it came out. Battles for the Ardennes was one of only 12 games I had kept and HLG was unable to replace my old favorite. The production problems plus the added complexity just didn't seem to be worth the trouble at that time. However, there were several ideas and concepts in the game that I really liked.

But when I decided last year that I was ready for a more complex Bulge game, HLG wasn't my first choice. Instead I tried Ardennes '44. The game was good but the numerous chrome rules wore down my memory and I sold it. Then I reacquired a copy of HLG. But I immediately hit the same problem that I had with Ardennes '44: lots of hard-to-remember chrome rules. But I decided to persevere with this game and that leads us to the reason for this review: What this game provided that I now wanted in a Bulge game.

For one, I've always been a fan of Parker's Bulge games. The man truly understands the battle and his games are always detailed and historically valid. While playing Ardennes '44, I was struck by the fact that some of the mechanics seemed reminiscent of HLG. Not surprising, Mark Simonitch was a playtester for HLG. I like that most of the armor/panzer units are presented as battalion sized units. But what sets HLG apart from Ardennes '44 and other Bulge games is that for the first time, units are presented in the Task Force/Kampfgruppes they actually fought in. The Bulge OoB has always been Parker's forte and HLG's is one of the very best of any Bulge game.

Another feature of the game I like is the Reserve rule. Before movement, the phasing player may place a Reserve marker on any unit not in an enemy ZOC. The reserve units may move ½ their movement allowance in the movement phase and may engage in combat, then finish their ½ movement allowance and fight again in the Exploitation Phase which follows the Combat Phase. Or they may remain in place during the initial Movement Phase and move their full movement allowance during the Exploitation Phase and then engage in combat. Your opponent needn't remain idle during your turn either. Following the Movement Phase but before the Combat Phase, there is the Enemy Reaction Phase. The non-phasing player may move any reserve units he has up to their full movement allowance, thus possibly upsetting any attacks by the phasing player or blocking an advance after combat. As you can imagine, the Reserve rule can be used to great advantage by both sides and requires careful planning. The player who is able to maximize the benefits of the Reserve rule will have a decided edge in the game.

The last new feature that persuaded me towards this game was the Armor Superiority Table. Each armor/panzer unit in the game has a numerical rating. When opposing each other in combat, the numbers are cross-referenced on the table and either favor the German, Allied or defending player. The result is either an addition or subtraction to the die. Very easy but also very neat in its effect. So a Stuart tank is no longer equal to a Panther in combat.

In addition to the above, there are also rules for surrender, Allied air supremacy, weather effect on ground conditions, capturing fuel dumps, blowing bridges, coordinated attacks and the usual plethora of special rules governing the first day to simulate the German surprise. All the things that make a Bulge game feel like the Bulge.

There is a Basic Game, an Advanced Game and various Optional Rules. Some rules I don't use. Leaders and ground contours are more trouble than they are worth for me. Nor do I use the Commando units for Operation “Grief”. Their effect on the battle was primarily psychological and I can't justify going through the trouble. A nice chrome touch, but unnecessary for my enjoyment of the game.

Now, about those 19 pages of errata. Are they necessary to play the game? Well, it's certainly a lot easier if you do have them. Sure, you can probably muddle through without them; common sense will answer many questions that arise. But it's better and easier to have them and they are available here on BGG for downloading.

I will briefly touch on the game's graphics. The map was done by Dean Essig of The Gamers. The two maps look okay, not bad but nothing spectacular. I personally think the Battles for the Ardennes maps from more than a decade earlier are more attractive. What is nice is that every city, town and village in the Ardennes is named. Practically every hex on the board contains a small village. Very helpful if you are reading a detailed account of the battle. You can easily follow the action. The map and counters are the same scale as Battles for the Ardennes, except for the armor/panzer units now being battalion level.

The 52 page rule book is laid out with an Introduction, Basic Game, Advanced Game and Optional Rules sections. They are followed by Scenario Set-Up and OoB, Game Variants, Designer's Notes and Design Credits. A full 20 pages in the center may be removed, or not, and contain the scenario set-up, reinforcement schedule, Aircraft OoB for both sides and the charts. The charts are spread throughout and take time to find. The Bridge Demolition Table is still in with main rules. Typical 3W mish-mash.

There is also a 32 page Historical Background and Order of Battle Booklet. There is no movement on the first turn of the game. The battles occur as they did historically; every unit is in place as they were on the morning of December 16th. This booklet presents the game as history. The players perform all 15 initial attacks as they occurred, but they roll the die and determine the result. Each attack is explained and gives the historical result. This I really like. The booklet also contains a complete OoB for both sides with details about the various divisions involved. The sort of thing that shows that the designer is also an historian.

Also, the map hexes are oversized. Great! That means bigger, easier to read counters! Right? Wrong. The hexes may be larger but the counters are still only 1/2”. Why? I suppose just because it was 3W. Another opportunity missed. I like the look of the counters but they are hard for me to read. So I made larger counters and matched the originals in color as closely as possible. Making new counters was okay because you will be shocked to hear, several also had errata problems and required corrections. The box cover art is strange: A picture of Patton with fantasy tanks in the background.

The game is complex but Battles for the Ardennes also had many chrome rules to remember. That is just the nature of Bulge games, the extra chrome is needed to properly portray all of the features of the battle. But with HLG, Mr. Parker wasn't trying to re-invent the Bulge wheel. HLG struck me as an expansion of BftA. Many of the rules are the same or similar. The complexity level is raised and new concepts are added, but in a natural way.

I recently took my gaming partner, Jon Quinn, down this Bulge rabbit hole but he wasn't too enamored with the game. It was a learning game and required lots of rules searching and chart searching. Jon's not a Bulge enthusiast and I'm sure he would have been happier with something simpler. And I perfectly understand that attitude. As I said at the beginning, that is usually my attitude also these days. Like me, Jon would prefer The Russian Campaign over Case Blue. HLG is probably a game I will most likely play solo. And that's fine. I can play slowly and try to learn all of the nuances this game possesses.

So for now and the foreseeable future, Hitler's Last Gamble is my Bulge game of choice. And I'm content, warts and all.

Initial set-up showing partial map:

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Rob Veenenberg
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Hi Steven,

Your story resembled mine. Compliments with your work on the enlargement of the counters.....

My first wargame was AH's Battle of the Bulge and I bought it in 1972. Later followed Dark December and read some books of Mr Dany Parker about the 1987 a friend of mine bought Hitlers Last Gamble and as a Geographer I felt instantly in love with both the map (lightyears from Bulge 65) and Counters (Lightyears from Bulge 65). The OB was thoroughly done and Bulge 65 seemed quite misserable now, with their fantasy set up and fantasy unit identifications.......
I played the game and it felt great with long armored columns of Germans headed by Kampfgruppen moving towards the Meuse around St. Vith and Bastogne....
Bought the game in december last year in shrink and did a lot of reading of the rules, the 19 pages of errata and a so called 2nd version incorporating them.
Closer reading I felt not amused by many things still unresolved. THe Armor Superiority table was too one sided in favor of the Germans who lost a lot of Panthers to US TD's in Rocherath-Krinkelt (in the Mist and Fog) and elsewhere. I adjusted a lot and managed to rewrite all rules (especially about ZOC's, stacking and combat) and tables on just 14 pages.....

Now I will test the rules very thoroughly.

Danny was precise with OB-data but forgot to add a Flak-regt to the Führer Begeleit Brigade...(just to mention a detail).
I added a little chrome with Infra red devices for the Panthers of 2nd Wiener Panzer Division and the Elite performance of Pattons 4th Armour Division. Also SG4 did better than its JG-friends in air attacks...and the Me262 could not be negated by Allied Fighter(bombers).

There were unresolved errata about the turn sequence of Air Attacks and Road Interdiction and unrealistic rules about double night movement aso. I skipped these along with Commanders and Forced Marches.
Some counters like those of the 30th US Infantry, has some strange combat factors.......what to do with them, since it did a very good job in shutting the door behind Joachim Peipers mighty column in Stavelot.
The short days of December 1944 were very exhausting for the hunry stressed very young and older Wehrmacht soldiers and such over optimistic manouvres were seldomly practized. At La Gleize the Museum shows the exhausted hungry, slim German soldiers, who can only be pittied because of their hopeless tasks and the 6 weeks of Bulge only made things worse on the Eastern Front and resulted also in the longer terrible bombing of once stunning German cities.

HLG is one of my favourite games because of the map, units and rules.

If you are interested I can send you a copy of the First Set: 20 turns in Wacht am Rhein. In a next version I will extend the rules for the 36 turn complete game of the Bulge.

Greetings, drs. Robert Veenenberg (Geographer and Historian).

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