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Subject: The battle for Hessia, a review of NATO Division Commander rss

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Thomas Herrlich
Germany
Marburg
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A few months ago I picked up this game, since I was intrigued by its theme and the fact that it actually plays in the area I live in. So today I decided to write a review.

Material

The Material you get is very well done, even if you can tell it's origin from the late 70's (and that's 9 years older that I am). The map is crystal clear and accurately depicts the area of the game.


Map sample from the game

Being from the area, I can shed some light on some shortcomings and notable terrain-features of the game.
In the North of the map you will find the major city of Fritzlar (with an military air-base, home to the Attack Helicopter Regiment 36) and the famous Eder-Talsperre(bombed during the 2nd Worldwar). The western Border is formed by the Cities of Marburg (thats where I'm from ) and Giessen. Further notable is the Autobahn A 5/European Route E 40 (in Game falsely labeled E 4) and the medieval Fortress of Ziegenhain, which creates an formidable defensive position sitting on top of a hill on a flat plain. What comes to notice though is the fact that the map is full of small, but not game-changing mistakes, usually villages are moved a little bit or are miss-spelled. I know this game is from the 70's, but this amount of errors is very detrimental to immersion.
To enable the main selling point of the game, limited intelligence, two identical full maps were included.
The counters are functional and despite their age crisply printed.


Sample counter sheet

Again, here you will get two sets of counters.
Further material includes two play-aid screens and a booklet of tables, the rulebook as well as a scenario-book and a small booklet describing the situation and command and control issues of that period. Furthermore you will find an advertisement sheet for the game, several sheets of game-tracks, two dice and two counter trays in the super-sized box, the trays are in surprisingly good order, I expected them to be brittle from 30 years of storage.

The Basic Game

The basic game tried to simulate two often ignored concepts in wargaming: Intelligence and Command and Control
This begins with the fact that you usually start with an empty (apart from your units) map and have to assign your assets to reconnaissance to gather information about your enemy. These assets are used to raise your Operational Intelligence level (which doesn't decrease over the course of the game, one of the major criticized points of the game). Furthermore you need to invest assets in sector-coverage, allowing you to search a number of sectors for enemy units. The higher your level of Operational Intelligence is, the more information you will obtain from such searches.
Furthermore there is tactical intelligence. Every unit has an inherent intelligence level denoting how 'visible' it is (used also in OpInt). Using this value every engaged friendly unit is able to raise the intelligence level of this enemy unit.

In the basic game Command and Control is somewhat simplified, as each headquarter (there are several types of them) generates a number of Staff-points, which could be used to change modes of units.
Which leads us to another core-concept of the game: Modes
Basically each unit has a mode, ranging from Administrative Movement (Fast, bad on defense and attack), over Hasty and Deliberate Attack to more arcane modes such as Triple Zone (a unit is spread out over several hexes), Mobile Defense (good all-around mode) to Reserve Mode (allowed to remove fatigue). Many critics of the system questioned why not use a simple all-rounder mode? The answer is simple: There is no real good all-rounder mode, every mode has specific trade-offs that need to be weighted against each other. Even when it comes to assuming a fixed defensive position, the obvious choice (Position Defense) is not6 the optimal one, yes it gives the biggest bonus to defgense, but when looking at the Mode Change Cost Table, you will see that this mode is much more difficult to assume than a Hasty Defense. So each mode change must be weighted against it's cost and the need to change the modes of other units.

Combat is handled in a fashion more similar to other games. Each unit (Battalions and in some cases recon-companies) has a printed attack and defensive vaulue. Furthermore controls every HQ a pool of so-called Combat Support Points (CSP - Field artillery, Air, Signal, Engineer), which can be used in various fashions. Signal and Air-points can be used for Intelligence ans described above, They can fire Interdiction and Counter battery-missions, and support combat via Barrage and Final protective fire. To make things even more complex, every type of CSP has an inherent maximum-range.
Combat itself is differential based, with the number of allocated CSPs, the Intelligence-status, Fatigue-level and strength of the units, surprise, terrain and weather, as well as a number of more arcane modifiers affecting the final results. Notable is the fact that each fire mission consumes precious Ammunition-points, making the soviets with their limited supply (NATO supply is normally larger and resupplies from behind the frontline) more vulnerable to ammo-depletion.
Losses are suffered gradually, each unit is rated on TO/E levels from 0 to 6(undamaged) representing the losses in materiel an men.

Controller Game

The big selling point of the game, essentially the player role-plays a division commander, using several character-attributes to affect his decision-making. Instead of an true opponent, he faces an 'gamemaster' controlling the enemy forces and, despite being all-knowing when it comes to the situation on the table, is bound to plan of operation.

Miscellaneous

A big plus-point for the game was the fact that booth sides play differently, despite only a few minor special rules, simply from their composition of forces. You are able to use chemical and nuclear weapons (on booth sides, and with nukes goes everything, from a small 1 kt Warhead, over neutron-bombs to strategic 200 tk bombs prone to level a whole part of the map). Somewhere I heard someone complain over the fact that you are unable to use Engineer to aid in river-crossings. Being from that area I can assure you, that it is possible to wade even the rivers which are labeled 'Major' on the map without any problems on foot, so complex bridging-equipment would be unnecessary.

Verdict

Well, truth be told the game is really unpolished, bringing it into the same category of 'Have they actually playtested this?' like Campaign for North Africa.
On the Other hand it's still the best operational simulation of war in the thankfully never realized 'Battle for Germany.

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Adam D.
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Very nice overview. I have a soft spot for games that really emphasize which point of view they are trying to simulate.

I think you are right, though, this one appeared to get a lot of R&D time and not a lot of hands-on time. I'm assuming because of the limited resources at SPI.

My wish is that somebody with military experience like a Dean Essig or Mark Walker would grab this by the reigns and re-do it for WWII or Korea.
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Pete Maidhof
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Islip
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Thanks for putting thist together Thomas. I appreciate the effort and view from someone who lives on that ground.
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Christopher Donovan
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Louisville
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I've always wondered what this game was all about. There's a game out by Victory Point that takes a similar "HQ" perspective called Bulge 20. Presumably it plays faster, being limited to 20 counters...
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M St
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Actually, to anyone who likes NDC but is sad about its unpolished state, I recommend Air & Armor. It came out seven years laters, was clearly influenced by NDC, but does 90% of what NDC tries to achieve, with 20% the effort. It is the best WWIII operational game I have ever seen, and unlike NDC, it is spectacularly playable.

That said, it is not about Hessia, it's about Franconia (Wuerzburg region)... can't satisfy all criteria.
 
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Jens Kaufmann
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Quote:
The western Border is formed by the Cities of Marburg (thats where I'm from ) and Giessen.


Greetings from the S├╝dviertel! It is nice to see the quite big number of wargame-maps which feature the town of Marburg.
 
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Eric Smith
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The definition of a "career-limiting assignment" - be a developer of "NDC" - and one that I avoided, as did John Butterfield, Joe Balkoski, and other SPI-folk. This is not really a game, it's a discourse. I could use other words, but let me say that I admire parts of this system. But all of us at SPI at the time knew this had nothing to do with making wargamers happy, that is, actual players. In fact, we didn't view "NDC" as a game at all. It was an exercise in helping our government learn. Redmond and his team did great work on the project, but we developers avoided this project as a kind of death star. I never learned if it had its intended impact on our military leaders, it might have, I just don't know.
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Pete Maidhof
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Eric,
Thank you for your efforts at SPI back in the day. I appreciate your view point as I agree that the "game" is not as developed as I would have liked. The modes are maddening at times as it is well documented here at BGG. The Operational Intelligence is problematic, and I came around with a very basic, but comperable work around just the other day. I wish that Engineer CSP's were addressed more that just hidden in one instance in the Defensive Final Protective Fire summary.

That said, I am currently "enjoying" the "game". Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I find the game as more of a study than a competitive face to face game. Causing a lot of discussion and hopefully better understanding of how things may have played out in reality. I have been talking up my gaming group to give this a try as an an umpired 2+ player double-bind. Should be pretty cool.

There are also other games out there that can do most of what NDC can do, and probably more eloquently, such as the previously mentioned Air & Armor, as well as Flashpoint: Golan and its offspring Flashpoint: Central Front. There is still room for this "game" in my stack of games in the the attic, with a chance to come down and be played every year or two

R/S
Pete.
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Kent Reuber
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M St wrote:
Actually, to anyone who likes NDC but is sad about its unpolished state, I recommend Air & Armor. It came out seven years laters, was clearly influenced by NDC, but does 90% of what NDC tries to achieve, with 20% the effort. It is the best WWIII operational game I have ever seen, and unlike NDC, it is spectacularly playable.


In Air and Armor, the combat units are companies, while in NDC they are battalions. Because A&A's game turns represent just 2 hours (6 at night) and because the lacks supply rules, I'd consider A&A to be "grand tactical" rather than operational.

I'm curious--what's the time scale and distance scale of NDC?
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Pete Maidhof
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NDC 8 hours per turn. One mile per hex.
 
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Darrell Hanning
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Quote:
Many critics of the system questioned why not use a simple all-rounder mode? The answer is simple: There is no real good all-rounder mode, every mode has specific trade-offs that need to be weighted against each other.


The answer is simpler than that - the game engine is centered in part on units having these different modes. Without them, the entire staff employment model is virtually meaningless.
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M St
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kentreuber wrote:
M St wrote:
Actually, to anyone who likes NDC but is sad about its unpolished state, I recommend Air & Armor. It came out seven years laters, was clearly influenced by NDC, but does 90% of what NDC tries to achieve, with 20% the effort. It is the best WWIII operational game I have ever seen, and unlike NDC, it is spectacularly playable.


In Air and Armor, the combat units are companies,

Actually, this is not correct. A single step is a company. A counter can be nothing (a dummy) up to a couple of battalions, and the most effective method is to plan the activities of larger stacks in battalion terms.

Quote:
while in NDC they are battalions. Because A&A's game turns represent just 2 hours (6 at night) and because the lacks supply rules, I'd consider A&A to be "grand tactical" rather than operational.

I wouldn't - they have essentially the same map scale, the same level of interaction, no ranged fire except for artillery units. It is at the lower end of the spectrum (thus no supply - but then there are oodles of operational games out there that give a mere nod to supply), but looks operational to me...
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