Gary Christiansen
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SPI's The Ardennes Offensive was James Dunnigan's second effort at designing a game based on the Battle of the Bulge, the German offensive 16 December, 1944 against the Western Allies.

A Little History

This brainchild of Adolf Hitler was the last real offensive of the German army in the second world war. It was an attempt to split the Western Allies by driving on Antwerp and leaving the British trapped north of the attack with the US forces south of the attack. The intent was to deny the major port of Antwerp to the Allies, who by now really needed the supply port for logistics and to put a wedge politically between the US and Britain which would cause one or the other of them to sue for a separate peace so Germany could then deal with the Soviets.

This plan was remarkably to go through the traditional invasion route west of the Losheim gap, pushing towards Liege and Spa with a major armored force (6th Panzer Army) under Sepp Deitrich who had several SS divisions leading his force. South of the 6th Panzer Army was the 5th Panzer Army under Hasso von Manteuffel, which was to support the drive to the Meuse River and beyond. On the far left flank was a much weaker mostly infantry Army, the 7th, which was to hold the flanks and pivot against the US to the south (Patton and the 3rd Army).

Though the initial break through was substantial, the US forces rallied and held. Famous was the stand at Bastogne where the 101st Airborne stopped the 5th Panzer Army from having substantive logistical road networks to support their advance. But far more importantly, the 7th Armored and the US forces on the northern shoulder stopped the Germans for critical days at the small town of St Vith, another critical road juncture, which resulted in massive delays and the destruction of the few advanced panzer elements which had broken through early in the battle.

Air support was limited for both sides initially because the plan of attack called for undermining US Air Superiority by assaulting when the weather was thoroughly overcast. The surprise was a strategic success bringing about a local superiority for the Germans for the first 5-6 days of the battle, but the quick response by the US (and British) brought about a dead halt to the entire advance, and a lingering siege of Bastogne that was lifted ultimately by the US 4th Armored under George Patton's command.

When the US/Allied Air Supremacy again established itself, the Germans pulled out one last trick and tried to attack all the Allied airbases in range, which effectively put the Luftwaffe out of business, but slowed the impact of Allied Air Support... a little. With the US/Allied air back in business, the battle became one of the depletion of German resources within the Bulge, the last of Germany's reserves being ground to dust.

Design for Effect

This game is designed to implement the effect of the events more than to specifically replicate in detail the actions taken, so there are some interesting compromises made to the mechanics to make the game playable.

Design for effect usually means implementing a mechanic to illustrate a specific point instead of designing for the cause which means closer simulation of actions.

Dunnigan designed this with the clear intent of trying to show the elements he thought most critical to the battle. This he states was the difficulty in maneuvering through the Ardennes against resistance. Movement on roads is easy enough, but traffic jams happen any time two units occupy the same hex. He's done this to show the congestion.

To abstract the influence of air power and surprise, the impact is built into the combat results table. The Germans start out with a better CRT and even gain a surprise effect on the first turn, including movement limitations. These limitations to simulate the strategic surprise and immediate recovery are necessary benefits, the normal conditions rapidly devolve into limitations on the Germans in the long run.

Components

This title was published in a day well before the current run of high tech computer graphics and on the budget shy side of the fence. The philosophy of the time had to do with dealing with perhaps a four color process to make the map. That said, the map is a malaise of drab colors compared to today's works of art.

Ignoring the absence of color variety, for its time this map represented a fairly good rendition of the known road network and woods for the battle. Redmond Simonsen was behind this map and his philosophy was that there had to be a function to the graphic or it didn't belong. The graphics clearly display the terrain even if not in the most visually of appealing way, so the map does meet the functional requirement. Early printings of the map had some errors of missing impassable hexes, easily corrected by errata but still, a map shouldn't have errata when published unless it's so complex you'd have to commit an army to the edit process. The map has on it the initial historic setup information for game start.

The counters, 255 in all, are single sided half inch die cut of the time; muted green and gray matte finish with very basic information on them, unit type, strength-movement value, size and some unit designation information. In all they're not unattractive but not any more appealing than any other Nato symbol counters of the time. Once again, functional and effective to the purpose.

The rules are typical SPI fanfold of the time. Not exactly high graphic quality, done in their case and subcase point style that has since become more or less a standard in wargame rules. There is a page of errata for the game too.

Additionally there is a sheet with the Terrain Effects Chart and the CRT on it, with one more heavy cardboard sheet showing the turn record & reinforcement chart(s).

Game Mechanics

Scale- This game is on a regimental/brigade level though there are a few units labeled as battalions. Each hex is 3.15 kilometers in size and the time is based on 1 turn per day of game time. Playing time can vary depending on seriousness of play from 6-24 hours, and it plays fastest with familiarity. Fiercely competitive play with a knowledgeable opponent can become a long drawn out experience, be warned. The map covers the bulk of the Ardennes forest from the German frontier to the Meuse River including most of Luxembourg and a chunk of Belgium.

Movement- This is a tried and true I go/You go system with a series of phases for each player. This works out to regular movement, combat, and mechanised movement for mechanised units that did not participate in combat. The mechanised phase was an SPI innovation intended to simulate the effect of breaking through the line if you held reserves. This allows you to punch a hole in the enemy line and pour units you held back through to hold a much deeper penetration than just the gap you created.

To simulate the traffic conditions and emulate the difficulty in moving about the narrow Ardennes forest roads, there are some painful movement costs involved. This game was one of the earlier titles to use this mechanism to prevent one from merely unstacking adjacent to one unit and piling onto another elsewhere in the line. Disengaging is not allowed without serious effort either.

Zones of Control, the hexes immediately adjacent to enemy units, are sticky. If you enter into one, you can't leave except as a result of another unit being present or through combat. The last unit in the enemy ZoC must stay or fight to leave.

Movement is charged against a unit for moving into or out of a hex with other units at what may seem a prohibitive cost, half or more than the movement value of the unit depending on whether US/Allies or German. This means you won't be unstacking and restacking in the same phase. It also prevents you from dashing down a road with friendly units in the way, since you have to pay stacking costs with each of them along the way. The first one will stop you. So the order you move your units becomes critical.

But the negation of the ZoC for movement if there will be a unit left in the hex does allow for infiltration between enemy units... provided you have the movement allowance in the unit you are infiltrating with. This can allow for a seemingly good defensive line to be vulnerable to slippage from turn to turn. The down side is though the Germans do not have the MP to both unstack and cross a river, and this is not one of the games you can always move one hex.

Combat- Battles are played out in the usual odds measurement method, attacker vs defender odds with the die roll on the CRT for a result to apply. The lower odds on the table are relatively bloodless, a push-push method of combat results with the usual no retreat route resulting in units eliminated.

This is a combat at the option of the attacker game. You never have to attack anyone. And there are benefits to attacking at low odds on occasion. The main means of destroying enemy units is by surrounding them and forcing them to retreat when they cannot. Push-push games do this, forcing the bloodletting to come about because of failed retreats. However the town terrain type makes retreat at the option of the owning player. So you need to actually cause bloodshed to take towns.

The German player has a better CRT to start the game, for the first 5 turns. This is to simulate the absence of the Allied air power. The CRT changes on a die roll performed at the beginning of the turn to the same the US/Allied player is using which is a bit bloodier. This means pretty much the German best make hay while the sun... er, isn't shining.

The rules allow for the attacker to lower his odds as he likes. The Germans are limited to dropping the odds to 2-1, but the purpose in this becomes obvious when you realize a major tactic in this game for extricating units from untenable positions is to do a fighting withdrawal. This won't always work out well but if you carefully plan your attacks right you can in fact make a withdrawal from a salient position to safely retreat units that otherwise would be smothered in the next turn. While it may seem a bit gamey, this was intentional according to Dunnigan, with the purpose to allow for fighting retreats out of dangerous positions.

Special Movement- In this game the roads are particularly critical. Dunnigan really wanted to stress the necessity of controlling the road network so you could maneuver properly, also to ensure if you didn't manage traffic well you'd do very little if any maneuvering at all. But the speed of strategic movement, non-combat/tactical movement is greater than that of travel in a combat formation. So there is a concept of Road Movement in the game which dramatically increases mobility of units traveling the roads. You still have the odd problem of not being able to stack, because the road is now clogged with traffic. So units in road-mode are strung out along the road and cannot be directly adjacent to each other either.

The US/Allies though have the major benefit of the strategic movement, being able to move infantry ten times faster on the road this way. It's about the only way to get reinforcements to the front in time to hold the line sometimes. The Germans have a shortage of trucks, so don't move nearly so well along the roads. Here we see another instance of design for effect, instead of including trucks to move the troops the abstraction for road mode movement includes the limitation on the German player.

Also the effect of artillery on movement is addressed in a potentially overpowering way by bridge interdiction. Any bridge within a three hex radius of enemy units is considered interdicted while you are moving. This prevents road movement across the river at that point, and interdicts supply as well. This abstraction takes out the need for bridge blowing and bridge building which does exist in other games on the topic, and while critical to the battle, Dunnigan deemed a much more reasonably abstracted detail than included.

Supply- Historically, much is made of the supply state of the Germans in this battle. In reality, there was plenty of petrol available for the attack. They just hadn't been able to get it across the Rhine. But there were other logistical issues they were up against as well, among which included the inability to provide enough transport to move their artillery support forward. They also lacked rail connections to bring forward heavier supplies. As they fought their way out of their West Wall positions, they struggled to bring forward anything they needed for this offensive.

Well nothing dies from being out of supply alone in this game. There are three states of supply. Those are, supplied, unsupplied and isolated. Unsupplied units are those without supply but still within three hexes of supplied units. Isolated units are those without supply that are out of the three hex range of supplied units. The effects? Halving of strengths. Unsupplied is halved on attack and full on defense, Isolated is halved on defense and may not attack. Either unsupplied state leaves the movement halved.

Winning- The game is played on a for points basis. There are a couple of conditions for immediate victory for either side, but primarily victory points for the Germans come from either destroying US/Allied units or capturing exit hexes along the map edge. The US/Allied player gains points for destroying German units. The ratio of victory points determines the victor, and there are two other conditional situations for victory.

The German player can get an Immediate victory if he attains 35 VP by the end of turn 6. This represents a major break through that might substantially achieve the objective of reaching Antwerp. Though highly unlikely historically, a good player may go hell bent for leather and successfully rip through to the high victory point exit hexes and achieve at the least a chance of advancing strategic forces to engage the British XXX corps south of Antwerp (where undoubtedly they'd be smacked around both by the British armor and the allied fighter bombers).

The US/Allied player can attain a Cumulative victory if the German player doesn't have 35 VP by the end of 18 turns. This should obviously indicate the Germans aren't doing anything like the damage necessary even for a spoiling attack intended to slow the Western Allies from their own advance.

Playing the Game

Any play of this game between two reasonably well matched opponents will be tense and tight, likely leading to a stalled draw. The game was designed pretty well in terms of balance. To get a victory the players must achieve something more significant than just pushing the front around a bit.

For the German player, each turn they must be causing the US/Allied player casualties. The more the better. The less US/Allied units left at the end of the game, the easier it will be to hold out against a counter attack, for one thing. But more importantly, if the German player can break enough of the US/Allied units he may just achieve that Immediate Victory he so longs to get. Any deep penetration that spreads the US player's units thin gives a greater chance of this, so taking advantage of every mechanized exploitation possible is a good thing.

The problem will be in certain road net points. One of the places this game excels is in making it hard to force the enemy out towns at the crux of a road net. To get places like St Vith, Veilsam, Bastogne, and others, you may have to accept losing units. You'll want to keep this to infantry because late in the game the mobility of mechanized units becomes even more critical.

At some point, it will become obvious the German player has lost the initiative. At that point the German must go into a defensive stance so as not to lose units, and to pick up any US/Allied units he can for victory points. This is where the game gets tough and the play becomes really tight. You can still eke out a victory for the Germans if you can get a good balance of attrition in your favor, but it's by no means simple.

The US/Allied player has to start the game planning to sacrifice space for time. The trick is, the middle of the board is cost free space, there being no victory points there. The bad part is, you can't be everywhere with the limited units you start the game with. You have to find the terrain choke points and make the German player struggle with his movement costs.

As the US/Allied reinforcements start to roll in, he'll be tempted to attack right away. This may or may not be a good idea, but you'll find after a number of plays that holding the line is the critical element of this part of the game. Those huge 3 point Victory Point hexes behind the Meuse River are not ones you want to be giving up. Holding onto towns where the road net converges such as St Vith or Bastogne obviously is a high benefit value (aside from the little rule that says the SW Victory Point road exit hexes only count if the Germans hold Bastogne with a supplied unit in it). Anything that chokes the German's ability to make use of their mobility is a benefit. Sacrificing units is not unreasonable provided you can cover the terrain behind it.

Ultimately though, the Germans will run out of steam and the US/Allied player must start to counter-attack. You must recoup losses to get a good end result. It's possible to win on the Cumulative Victory basis, but much better to win on the balance of VP.

Outside History

The game also includes some scenarios for a different series of events. One or the other side could set up differently than the historical start. There's an US/Allied slowed reinforcement for the possible reactions of disbelief to be more serious on the Allied side of the fence. There's an accelerated set of reinforcements for the German side. And mix/match for the lot of them. The outcomes of the what-if scenarios are pretty much as predictable as one might thing, changing the game balance over all. But additional scenarios is a benefit to any game.

Overall Summing Up

The Ardennes Offensive was a great entry for it's time into the arena of games about the Battle of the Bulge. It's an aged title now and suffers a few of the problems almost all Bulge titles have.

For instance, the German player can pursue a southern flank strategy that is not in keeping with the actual plan of the attack. It's pretty easy to rip through the southern flank to approach Bastogne, but that's about where the easy part ends. This ahistoric approach, while feasible at the time historically would never have happened. Why is it then that nearly all Bulge games seem to have something like this in them?

Well, not all do. But the fact is, the southern shoulder was by no means a desirable route. It was the long way around and what's missing is the way the 3rd Army would have responded against the base of such a salient. In this title, the roads just don't work for you to pursue that path without having captured Bastogne, so even if you do attack the southern shoulder all you do is create a longer reach in the south with little impact. Irritating but not too useful.

In all, a perfect German attack in the outset can put the German in reach of that Immediate Victory, but it's not likely. Most likely is the long drawn out attrition match in which the German player beats the blazes out of the US/Allied player for a bit, then has to go over to the defense in hopes of holding out against losing enough units to make the entire balance swing the other way.

Of the problems in the game is all the movement point costs, the counting and the traffic jam manipulation effort. At river defense positions, the Germans can no longer infiltrate though the US/Allies can which is what allows the counter-attack to work. Another design for effect trick built into the game. But movement and difficulty with maneuver is what Dunnigan wanted to stress in his game narrative of the battle. So this rightly belongs and it's up to player taste to enjoy it or not.

Over all though, there are better games now for this battle though this one is excellent and given to much repeat play. Deluxe Bitter Woods, Ardennes '44, Battle of the Bulge (AH '81), and Iron Tide are all better games in context of more modern, better production quality, and more detail.
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Steven Bucey
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Quote:
Over all though, there are better games now for this battle though this one is excellent and given to much repeat play. Deluxe Bitter Woods, Ardennes '44, Battle of the Bulge (AH '81), and Iron Tide are all better games in context of more modern, better production quality, and more detail.


Well, the couple of games you and I played a couple of years ago were enough to convince me to track down a copy for myself as I thought it was pretty darn good.
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Gary Christiansen
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cratex wrote:
Quote:
Over all though, there are better games now for this battle though this one is excellent and given to much repeat play. Deluxe Bitter Woods, Ardennes '44, Battle of the Bulge (AH '81), and Iron Tide are all better games in context of more modern, better production quality, and more detail.


Well, the couple of games you and I played a couple of years ago were enough to convince me to track down a copy for myself as I thought it was pretty darn good.


Don't get me wrong. I still love it.
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Jim Dietz
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I liked your review. It is a game I'll look for now based on your review.

My only concern is that high production values do not necessarily mean a better game. If the game is tight/balanced, I'll take an old SPI game over a 2006-2007 release (steak over sizzle anyday)
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Donald Johnson
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Nice summary of the game.

One aspect I just figured out is that the bridge interdiction rules simulate bombarding/blowing a bridge and then repairing it all in the relatively simple mechanism.
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