Although there are many Battle of the Bulge games available for gamers, there has always been an endless debate about which one is the best. Over the years the many games on this subject have either been playable, but not realistic, or realistic to the point of being unplayable. One of the better thought of games has always been Ardennes ’44 from GMT Games. A revised, second edition has now been made available and attempts to bridge the gap between giving Bulge enthusiasts the chrome that they want and the playability that most other gamers have been asking for when trying to simulate this desperate German attack late in 1944.
Over the last several years GMT has continually impressed with the quality of their game components and Ardennes ’44 is no exception. You get two beautiful maps covering the Ardennes area where the attack occurred, close to 600 counters, a full color rulebook, and reference card with all of the tables and terrain charts. The maps are extremely well done, giving the impression of a forested area during the winter with clearly marked roads, towns, cities, etc.
The first thing you notice are the heavily wooded areas, bottlenecks with a +4 MP notation, and secondary roads through the forests. All of these things come into play during the game, so studying the map beyond how well its done can be vital to your success. I also liked the nice touch of including in very small font the amount of movement points from the main reinforcement entry hexes for units using strategic movement.
The counters are also well done and much thicker than those seen in most games, almost giving it a Euro type game appearance. Most of them are combat units, but there are also quite a few set aside for destroyed bridges, improved positions, combat results, and more. There are also a few specialty markers for traffic, German prime movers, Allied strategic movement, and others that will be discussed below. Combat units are rated for attack, defense, and movement with the number of steps marked on them as well. Some armor units show the silhouette of the main armored vehicle plus a quality rating that decides if one side or the other gets an armor bonus.
The rulebook is laid out well, clearly going through the various phases of the game with most of the special rules after the sequence of play, movement, and combat, which I believe helps the gamer to absorb the base system easier. There is also a two turn example of play which was of great help during my first turn to make sure I was doing things right! Overall, there isn’t much to complain about in the components area.
Basically, there are three turns per day, with only a few steps in the night turn to resolve. Each day follows a strict sequence of play, which starts with an artillery supply phase, German fuel shortage, bridge demolition/repair, movement, combat, rally, supply/surrender, and victory check. The Allied side of the turn is similar, but without the fuel shortage phase. Ardennes ’44 is essentially a traditional hex and counter game, so many of the basic systems will be familiar to gamers. Where the exceptions come in starts with the zones of control where a concept called “bonds” has been added to the rules. Basically, a ZOC bond is formed where two units have a hex in between them covered by both of their ZOCs. Essentially, no unit can move into those during regular movement, but the bond doesn’t extend into certain types of terrain. It took me a couple of times reading through this section to get it and a few turns of becoming familiar with this concept during the game.
Movement isn’t difficult, but understanding the differing types of terrain and how mech and non-mech units move through them will be critical for success, especially if you’re the Germans trying to push down the various roads. As gamers we all understand how important terrain is, but in this game it is magnified by a factor of ten. Everything, from moving through bottlenecks, which terrain armor gets a bonus attacking into, deploying forces to attack down forested roads, ZOC bonds, etc., depends upon the terrain. I think to really succeed at this game you need to study and understand the TEC closely. With the stacking limit being three steps(usually one unit) plus a few steps of certain armor units, getting the right combination of units down roads for attacks can be a real challenge.
Combat is actually one of the simplest parts of the game! You total up the attack factors(I use the optional rule of only being able to use 15 factors maximum-makes it even tougher on both sides), then divide by the defender’s defense strength plus the terrain bonus to get the odds. This can be modified by supporting armor(in certain terrain), artillery support, disrupted/broken, and a few more which cause shifts on the combat table. The results range from retreating a number of hexes, engaged, losing a step, or a firefight result where the attacker can decide to press the attack with about a 50/50 chance of success. If you retreat two hexes units are disrupted (can’t move or fight during their turn) or broken, which is being disrupted for two turns. The trick, at least it seems to me, is to launch a series of attacks that will carry you through to broken and disrupted units behind the front lines, which are easy meat where possible. This is what creates breakthroughs in the game, but achieving this is not going to be easy for the German side. It sounds like a lot of work here, but it goes much faster than I’ve explained it.
The rest of the rules are standard fare for most gamers. Sections on reinforcements, replacements, bridge blowing, supplies, etc., are nothing that most gamers have not seen before.
What would a Bulge game be without chrome or special rules? I think most gamers expect this for any Bulge game and they will not be disappointed with Ardennes ’44. The chrome certainly makes itself felt with special rules for the Americans on the first few turns, Peiper’s forces being allowed to move and attack the first night, the much sought after fuel dumps, and several other interesting rules for this battle. One of the more clever rules I think in the game is the traffic and Greif markers that both sides can put out each turn. Each side gets six of these markers, which represent traffic jams if you’re the Germans, or commando/deception operations if you’re the Americans trying to move through these markers. They are placed then two dice are rolled, with the numbers on the dice corresponding to markers that are removed from the board. Simple, effective, and quite random, with both sides never knowing where the extra +2 MP penalties will be used best. Add to this the fuel shortage rules, the very restrictive rules on might movement that require some planning in the previous turn, and the rules for fighting on forested roads for armor and you have quite the feeling for German operations in the Ardennes. I also liked the strategic movement rules where limitations are placed on each side regarding how many units per turn can use this function.
The set up and first turn are going to take awhile. The set up goes pretty smoothly, considering this game is on the verge of being a “mini-monster”, with areas for German divisions marked for set up and hex numbers provided on Allied units. The first turn will take some time as you need to get used to the movement and combat systems, plus the special rules for the beginning of the battle. By the third or fourth turn, however, the game becomes easier to play and despite more and more units being fed into the battle, it is still quite manageable. For the German side the theme must be that you need to stay flexible. Bridges will be blown, combat may not go your way, traffic markers can cut access routes, decisions need to made to either move artillery or reinforcements, and fuel shortages will stop thrusts cold.
The German player must be ready to change the axis of attack quickly, look for alternate routes across the map, and decide where the main effort for the next few turns will be. It’s not quite chaos, but creating a plan on Turn 1 then sticking to it through the entire game could be a recipe for an unprecedented disaster. In one game an American infantry unit and an artillery unit held a town with two bridges adjacent to it. Despite throwing everything at it (rolling poorly on the combat and firefight tables didn’t help!) the Americans held the town for several days. The German mech forces looking to break out sat around waiting a turn or two to move down the road and finally gave up. They doubled back, hit some traffic markers, had to use secondary roads and finally reached the front lines about three days behind where I thought they should be!
For the Allied player it is a game about survival. The first few turns are a nightmare where you try to hang on as long as possible. Slowly and surely more forces arrive, but many of them are a long way off and will take some time. Unlike in many Bulge games where Allied reinforcements seemingly appear out of nowhere, with Ardennes ’44 there must be some planning about where the reinforcements should move to and assemble. There’s few times in the game where they move directly into combat, but rather start to move where you think the Germans might be in 2-3 turns. The Allied player must also continually search for the right places to defend and try to deny the Germans a highway to Antwerp. By analyzing the terrain, identifying the main German points of attack, and getting forces into blocking positions, the Allies may be able to survive until the mid game. Finally the weather clears, the Germans have taken a lot of step losses, and a counterattack can begin. The question will be is if it is too little or too late to affect the outcome.
Not only is this a very good Bulge game, it is one of the best WW2 games that I have had the pleasure of playing. From the map to the counters to the rules, everything has been thought out pretty well. I think the game does a great job of simulating an attack in poor weather across very restricting terrain. Both sides face several challenges during play and I could easily see where different strategies could be tried out over the course of several games. With a short game covering the initial attack, a Patton’s counterstroke scenario, and the full campaign, there is plenty here fro the gamer to try. If you’re into Bulge games then this is a definite must have for your collection. If you’re into WW2 battles then again this game is very, very good and needs to be played. The initial attack scenario will take around six hours to set up and play and the full campaign game could easily go over ten hours, so this is not something that you will complete in an evening. Also, it may be a bit out of the range for first time wargamers as the game isn’t overly complex, but the special rules, complex terrain, and a few other factors add a bit to the complexity. However, this is an outstanding game and should not be missed by any Bulge fan.