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Subject: Why I'll Probably Always Suck at Bulge Games rss

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Jon Gautier

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[Well, I wrote this a couple of years ago for the Paper Wars Bulge issue. Just received my copy and this didn't appear, so here it is.]

What is it about the Bulge? At least thirty-plus games published on the same topic and still counting. Grognards still snapping them up, asking: "What's the scale?"; "How does this one handle Skorzeny?"; "What are the engineer rules in that one?"; "How do the first turn rules compare?". (Note for later on: people rarely discuss the victory conditions.) I've seen a lot of explanations, including the notion that lots of gamers and game companies are American and the Bulge was a big American victory. Or the (more sinister) opposite: all too many gamers kind of have a "thing" for the German army and the Bulge was the German army's last great offensive.

For me, the Bulge seems to have a bit of everything: massive surprise attack; desperate defense against overwhelming odds; the fighting withdrawal followed by the counterattack; the race against time and distance. The Bulge is just cool and exciting. And, yes, I am an American and the Bulge was a pretty damn fine moment for the American army (albeit after a poor start). Also, the Bulge is a pretty good gaming situation—most Bulge games seem to be pretty well balanced as games. Well . . . except I never seem to win at them, especially as the Americans.

I've thought about why I always lose, and there are a number of reasons, the most depressing of which is that I'm generally just a lousy player—and I know I can't blame the dice: it's me. Another is that my frequent opponent, Adam Starkweather, is just deadly at every game he plays.

But with Bulge games there is that and even more. I once played Iron Tide and Ardennes '44, switching sides with my opponent for each game—I lost all four games. We also played Deluxe Bitter Woods and America Triumphant with me as the Americans. I lost both of those games as well.

The two times I played the Germans I didn’t do too badly. My opponent skillfully got his units in my way and clogged up the roads in the middle of the map. My Germans maybe got historical results, maybe a bit worse.

But it was in my four games as the Americans that I really got stomped. The Germans would just surge over the map, automatic victory often just within their grasp. My American units weren't getting wiped out, though. Instead, they were building up on and holding the flanks and ignoring, for the most part, the Germans running through the center of the map, capturing towns like crazy.

What was going on in addition to the usual "Jon bad, bad player/Opponent great player" situation? Basically, I refused to read the victory conditions. Or, more precisely, I read the victory conditions and promptly forget them, or never bothered to understand them in the first place. "Oh ho," you say, "this moron deserves to lose." And maybe so. But consider: victory in many games is pretty intuitive and easy to track. In fact, in many games a running total of VPs, or the size of the piles of dead units, or just a glance at the map, can tell the players who is winning.

Not so in most of your Bulge games. I don't think I have to make a tedious list here of the different victory conditions in various Bulge games. You know what they look like: a long, long list of names of teeny-weeny towns in Luxembourg and Belgium, followed by a list of how many panzer divisions have to cross the Meuse and exit the map.

What's so bad about all those towns? Well, the sheer number is a pain for starters. Try finding them in that rugged Ardennes terrain. Try remembering all those incredibly forgettable Belgian names. How many of them even figured in the actual battle? How many of them register higher than bupkis in strategic importance on the Western Front?

So what does this mean aside from the fact that it is a royal pain the keester to keep track of who had the last supplied unit to pass through La Chaudprefontainestogne?

Well, it means that Bulge victory conditions are all pretty artificial. We all know that they have to be artificial. Because the Germans had as much chance of taking and holding Antwerp as they did of taking and holding Los Angeles. Heck, on December 16 Manteuffel and Rundstedt didn't think they could do it, and by December 18 they knew they couldn't do it. Come to think of it, Antwerp—the objective of the whole German offensive—doesn't even appear on the maps of any Bulge games. So how can the Germans "capture" Antwerp in your average Bulge game? Well, of course, they can't. Instead, they get VPs for some combination of capturing a bunch of cow towns, crossing the Meuse and/or exiting units off the map in the general direction of Antwerp. Oh, and maybe Liege thrown in to keep the Allies honest.

Sure, I know, lots of games have exit conditions for whatever reason: and, yes, Bulge maps would be ridiculously big, with lots of unused real estate, if they went all the way to Antwerp. But really—isn't that the dirty little secret here? Actually depicting Antwerp in a Bulge game (and, by necessity the area of operations of the Ninth Army and 21st Army Group, which would include Aachen at a minimum) would kind of show just how hopeless the German objective was. Sure, you're playing DBW or A'44 or Iron Tide or whatever, and you as the German player are kicking some serious butt and taking names. You're through Bastogne and St. Vith. Pieper and 12SS and 2nd Panzer and 116th Panzer are over the Meuse and off the map. Automatic Decisive German Victory, baby. You are the heir of Guderian. Now add a map depicting Antwerp. Oh, there's 30th Corps in front of all those German panzer divisions. And how about the German flanks and lines of communications? I mean, we all know that the German 7th Army had barely enough divisions to cover the Southern flank as far as Bastogne. Who's minding the store from there to Antwerp? Patton hasn't gone on vacation, and he has to be dealt with. How about the Northern shoulder? If all those speedy panzer divisions have gone unmolested towards Antwerp, who's dealing with the 1st and 9th Armies? Did the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 30th, and 84th Divisions just run away? How about 2nd and 3rd and 7th Armored? That's a lot to handle for some VG divisions and green paratroops.

Ok, the horse has been dead for some time and you get the point. As most Bulge designers will acknowledge (hey, check the designer's notes), the Germans just couldn't "win." But it's a cool situation to game, and if it's a game we need victory conditions, so enter all those little meaningless towns and the map exit conditions. And if you look at the part of the rules that tells you what the victory conditions mean, you'll find that none of them actually have the Germans winning the war—or even getting a negotiated peace with the Western Allies. Usually, a decisive German victory means prolonging the war for a few months so either: a) we nuke Berlin; or b) the Russians get to the Rhine first. Probably not what Hitler wanted.

So why do I ignore the victory conditions? Because I know that Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Hodges, Gerow, Middleton, Collins and all the rest didn't give a damn about whether the Germans went through this or that town. The main objective, once the scope of the German offensive was understood, was holding on to the North and South shoulders, solidifying them, extending them, and then cutting the Germans off somewhere in the middle. This is what happened and it worked. Nobody got in the way of the Fifth Panzer Army until just before the Meuse, by which time its rear was already in jeopardy. And aside from a few British armored (sorry, armoured) cars, the main units opposing Fifth Panzer Army came from the North. Peiper also ran into trouble not primarily from the West but from units arriving from the North. 12SS was cut to pieces on and near Elsenborn Ridge making attacks no gamer would make. And never mind why the Germans made those attacks, the point is that they were stopped by the 2nd Infantry Division, the 99th, and a part of the 1st, all holding on to the Northern shoulder—and not rushing to defend the center.

But what works in a Bulge game for the Americans? It isn't building up on the flanks. Usually it's throwing units in front of the Germans to slow them down. Sure those units get chewed, but so do the Germans and soon the Americans can form a line of sorts. But try letting the Germans go while you build the flanks and see what happens. Go ahead: defend Elsenborn ridge and extend the line West from there. Place all your reinforcements on the flanks of the German advance and let the Germans run all over the vast center. You will lose the game. Why? Because the Germans will get lots of victory points for capturing a ton of towns from the middle of the map on. They may even exit several divisions. Never mind that the Germans can't possibly scrape together enough troops to defend both flanks of that penetration—all the way from the Our and Elsenborn to the Meuse and beyond! Sure, the German player gets those divisions Hitler took away from the 15th Army. It still wouldn't be enough. But how's a designer going to account for all of that and still have a playable game?

We all know what we really want: a Bulge game that depicts the whole area to the North and maybe, just maybe, a little more of a slice to the South as well. Yeah, let's see Antwerp and Aachen and the Hurtgen. Let's really see why the Germans didn't have a chance. Let's have a free German set up scenario; and a "Small Solution" scenario; and a Rundstedt fantasy scenario: a fighting withdrawal to the Rhine. Hell, let's just have the whole goddamed Western front at regiment/battalion. Will it be a good game? Who cares? I'm just tired of having to defend La Chaudprefontainestogne and getting my butt kicked when I don't bother to.

(Oh, I heard tell Joe Youst was going to have a Hurtgen game that could be linked to Wacht am Rhein 2 for just this purpose. Let's get that baby going!)

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Jeffrey D Myers
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Nice article!

Although people complain about the map in America Triumphant: The Battle of the Bulge, one good aspect of it is that the itty-bitty victory point towns are circled conspicuously in yellow. This springs to mind, being the most recent Bulge game that I have played.
 
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Thomas P. Felder
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This is why I am still not fully into wargames.
Some of them just don't make sense.
 
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Mark Mokszycki
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Quote:
I'm just tired of having to defend La Chaudprefontainestogne and getting my butt kicked when I don't bother to.


Beautiful.

Nice article, and I think I agree with you (to an extent). Victory conditions can really make or break a game. Even when they don't break it per se, they can artifically constrain a player's possible strategies. Victory conditions in a situation like the bulge are obviously tricky to simulate without creating a complex tree of if/then either/or situations that develop as the game develops. Maybe this is one reason (apart from the very interesting situation) that there is room for so many bulge games.

I'd like to see still more designers try their hand. We ultimately need a buldge game with streamlined, flexible yet intuitive victory conditions. And I'm a firm believer that you can never have too many bulge games.
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Tim P.
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the Bulge is not a fave subject of mine, but the upcoming FAB: The Bulge seems to be a fresh spin on the subject.
 
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Alan Kaiser
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Very nicely said. I agree that there isn't much point in trying to get historical with the victory conditions in Bulge games and many similar games. It's one reason why I don't like grand strategic WWII games (either European or Pacific theaters) especially if they try to guide the players down some sort of historical path. What's the point! You know neither Germany nor Japan can hold out and go the distance. So there is always some very non-historical date thrown in to indicate that if the Axis side holds out until that date they get to claim victory even though they end up doing so from their graves! The large scale Pacific theater games are especially prone to this type of thing because Japan just doesn't have the ships/planes/men/oil to get into a long conflict with the Allies. So while the games are fun (Pacific theater is a favorite of mine) there is always that voice in my head telling me I'm wasting my time heading toward a predetermined outcome.

I also think it would be very nice if more designers would include some what-if type scenarios. What if you could use all those Panzers and SS divisions for a different goal from roughly the same Bulge start point?? What if you were allowed to play out the initial days of the Normandy landing with some hypothetical mix of historically available units (and not just the ones that were in the region at the time)?? What if you could play Hitler and his top generals and position resources around Europe and then use that distribution of play out individual battles??

And lastly, a little known historical tidbit. Pieper and his band were just going out for donuts and weren't aware of the Allied presence. There happened to be a really great bakery in La Chaudprefontainestogne! That makes just as reasonable victory conditions as you usually see in these games. It just goes to show how bad donuts are for your health!
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Nevin Ball
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Quote:
Well, I wrote this a couple of years ago for the Paper Wars Bulge issue. Just received my copy and this didn't appear, so here it is.


Why wasn't it? Paper Wars would have had their "Bulge Issue" if they had included your article, waited to run the reviews for Iron Tide and America Triumphant, and reprinted the old review on The Last Blitzkrieg.
 
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Ha! I've always had the same Victory Condition issue with Bulge games. I read all the mechanics and digest them, then I get to the victory conditions and think "Holy Cow, I'll never remember that, let alone explain it to my opponent!". I skim them, kinda getting the gist but not really. So, part way through a game I'm floundering strategically of what to do. Still a fun battle to play though.

Entertaining read!

PCS
 
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Brian Morris
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oi_you_nutter wrote:
the Bulge is not a fave subject of mine, but the upcoming FAB: The Bulge seems to be a fresh spin on the subject.


Same here. I've never been interested in the battle much even though my grandfather fought in it (he was a tank driver and saw heavy action in the event). But I really love the game system that Rick Young has created with Europe Engulfed and Asia Engulfed. I've been reading the rules and I think the system will work extremely well at the more tactical level that the FAB series covers. So I finally broke down and ordered FAB: The Bulge a few weeks back.

I still want Rick to do America Engulfed: The Civil War.
 
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Jon Gautier

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Nevin wrote:
Quote:
Well, I wrote this a couple of years ago for the Paper Wars Bulge issue. Just received my copy and this didn't appear, so here it is.


Why wasn't it? Paper Wars would have had their "Bulge Issue" if they had included your article, waited to run the reviews for Iron Tide and America Triumphant, and reprinted the old review on The Last Blitzkrieg.


Sorry, I have no idea why the essay was dropped. I got the issue today and opened it looking for the piece. Imagine my sorrow. (Not really--more people will probably see it here.)
 
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Jon Gautier

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FAB Bulge is great, by the way. I played it last year and have a review of it up on BGG if anyone is interested.
 
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Anye Freer
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I can't seem to beat the Bulge in real life, so I can't imagine I'd do any better in a game!kiss
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Andrew C
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Mark Jackson
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Hey, I know it's a little more bit-heavy & fluffy than the games you guys are discussing (I still have an 80's AH Battle of the Bulge in the closet that I've never played through to completion) but what about the victory conditions in H/AH's Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge? They seem pretty clear to me & don't get into the whole "Germans must reach Antwerp" weirdness.
 
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Robert Wesley
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It sounds to 'moi' like YOU ought to be getting this: Fortress Europa and then set UP the "Bulge" 'Scenario' for that! I much prefer the longer "game" where I can then amass the forces over TIME, and then try to make those up into an even more HUGE amount as well. Then, you might even be able to make it ALL the 'way' to "Paris"!
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Uwe A. Redjac
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Dieroll Honker wrote:
I'm just tired of having to defend La Chaudprefontainestogne and getting my butt kicked when I don't bother to.


It is zee Chaudprefontainestogne Deux Pas De Trois. DEUX PAS DE TRIOS!!! YOU WILL GET IT, NON!!?

You loose zee game because of your Americáine cultral ignorance.

Tut suit. Away, away, away whés you.
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Mark Mokszycki
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Wow, that's amazing how his German accent comes through, even via text!
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Uwe A. Redjac
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duckweed wrote:
Wow, that's amazing how his German accent comes through, even via text!


Damn - it was supposed to sound faux French. blush
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olivier revenu
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uweareuter wrote:
it was supposed to sound faux French. blush


it was not enough arrogant...
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Nathan kilgore
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Thanks for the reprint Jon. I was getting all hot for this issue too when I noticed that my Iron Tide commentary and the long delayed review were not going into that issue.
Nicely thought through point by point. One case in point on the reasons for the "cow town" victory points is the simulation. They act as the veins through which the Germans keep their pipe dream alive. They also act as milestones in Iron Tide. The Allies get to punch back 15 turns longer than many of the others and you get to looking back behind the Allied line to see how much was accomplished, while kicking the German player around like he just did to you for the first part of the game. I just got kicked around by a second time player, so maybe you need to play.....me.sauron
 
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Arrigo Velicogna
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No one has tought that if you let the german run in the middle of the map and leave Ike will dismiss it?
There was a reason why he disagreed with Patton idea of letting the german run out of the ardennes. you can't p'resent to the american pubblic opinion the idea of rampaging german on the western front would have been anathema. They had to stop the german in the ardennes. I think that the exit area and the go for antwerp gamble usually makes sense. And if lose liege you lose a great deal of supply...
 
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Ron Dokter
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I play wargames for about 2 years now and I must admit, I don't read victory conditions. But not only those of a Bulge games, but from any wargame. You know who won anyway.

I buy a book about the specific situation, read it and you know the "victory conditions". Then I apply these to my own game and surprisingly they often match the designers.

In a Bulge game you don't defend a meaningless town (for you it's meaningless, but I'm sure for the people who lived there it's not). You defend freedom, so every bit of land is precious. Yes sometimes you must make sacrifices, you abandon a small town. But I think by no means the amirican soldier was happy to leave this small town he just had liberated. So I think these "victory towns" are just for this purpose, to let you think must I keep this little town or not. For us it's just a point, then it where lifes.

Greetz Ron
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Arrigo Velicogna
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In the bulge you defend cross roads not towns... other the crossroads happend to be in town but that isn't the point. You are buying time to ohld ont he flanks (lose Elsenborn and you will see the results evn historically if the german were able to do a real break throught toward liege thinghs would have been bleak for Ike). The dicision to hold or not hold Bastogne, saint Vith and the toher crossorads was done to delay the german movement and prevent the apparition of a real breaktrough. The allied were really really low on reserves (the British Army was cannibalizing infantry division and the US Army was about to screw up it's replacement system). Ardennes were a prime defensive terrain. That and the morale\PO reason I have already mentioned.

Then we have to consider that often games, like professor Sabin love to say, use viuctory conditions also to sho how better or worse you have done in respect of your historical counterpart, not only in term of absolute Victory. If you read the victory conditions for what they are and they are well written and accompanied by good notes they will explain what you are doing and why.

Often victory conditions are one of the most interesting part of the rules. because they show the appraisement of the situation by the designer.

Arrigo
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