Tank on Tank,
Designed by Peter Bogdasarian and published by Lock 'n Load, Tank on Tank is a fast play tactical World War Two game with a small footprint, low unit density and easy to learn rules.
This article looks at the system and components as presented in the recent second edition re-issue, which split the game into two modules, one covering the West Front late war and the other covering the East Front with a late '43 to '44 order of battle.
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The new owners of Lock and Load have worked their graphics magic on this system to deliver two low cost modules that are immediately appealing to the eye. The counters are now larger as are the hexes and the information on them is minimal (good), very clear and well spaced out. The maps are double sided, with one side showing a typically summer look with lush vegetation and the rear side showing exactly the same map, but done in a winter white style.
The West Front game has two such maps and the East Front game has six maps, though the east front maps are in pairs, so in effect they provide three maps with the playing space being twice the size of the other module, just that extra gaming space adds an interesting differentiation between the two modules.
The rulebook is an eight Page document with around four pages being dedicated to rules and a goodly 14 scenarios for each module. The rules are very complete, nicely laid out and you really only need a ten minute read if you have been away from the game for any length of time to be fully conversant with it again.
We are not given a scale, but with stacking not allowed and Tigers having an effective range of 3 hexes and other tanks 2, thinking of a hex as being 500 metres across is reasonable and likewise that the units are platoon to company (probably the latter) in strength. The building hexes look like small villages and are typically 3 - 4 hexes apart, so roughly two kilometres apart.
As an example of counter density, the German order of battle in the opening scenario is 2 x Pz IV headquarters, 4 x PzIV's and 2 x Tiger I's and that will deliver a game that can fit into a 30 - 40 minute time slot.
WWII tactical must potentially be the most complex of genres to cover in a game and requires the designer to have a tight focus on the level that they want to simulate. As gamers, we are fortunate that a number of decades have delivered to us an excellent range of tactical games that cover the various theatres in different degrees of complexity, that pretty much caters for all levels of interest.
Within that range of complexity, ToT very much sits at the lower end of the difficulty spectrum, it is a players game rather than a simulation, but it is also rather clever and fun to play.
There are two mechanics that will immediately catch the interest of the tactical gamer, the second being perhaps quite controversial from a gun / armour relationship perspective.
The first is the activation system, it is simple and effective and could easily be adopted into a number of other games to their benefit. Basically, there is a draw cup with six activation chits, numbered 2,2,3,3,4,4. They represent the number of actions that a player can take. In my part of the turn, you (the other player) would blindly draw a chit and look at the number, keeping it concealed. I will then do a number of things, each thing costing one action point. As soon as I have spent the available action points, you would tell me that my turn has ended and return the chit to the cup.
It would then be your turn, I would draw a chit and allow you to do that many things before showing you the chit so that you end your turn, play then reverts back to me and so it goes on.
It is relatively interactive, so much so that there is no opportunity fire. Though a player knows they can always take two actions in their turn, the question will be can they take a third or fourth action before their turn expires?
An action includes moving one counter (or a group of counters if a HQ is activated) OR select a target and fire (from any number of units as a combined single fire) OR take an eliminated HQ counter and swap it out with a non-HQ unit on the table of the same type, in effect promoting one unit to an HQ to replace a lost one.
As the game gets going and the sides engage, this activation system produces an almost cat and mouse type level of play, in which players seek out tactical positional advantage. The various armour values, movement rates and gun ranges come together to give a nice level of decision making, greater than might be expected of a 'simple' game and I feel that it is here that the game scores its greatest success.
I don't normally like a mechanic that relies on two players, as I do quite a bit of solo play with tactical systems, but here the author has provided a solitaire friendly mechanic. I am rubbish at maths, but it strikes me that the mechanic is a good reflection of what the two player chit draw mechanic does and I can see it being a useful device for solitaire players to introduce to other games.
Basically the chit draw is replaced by a die roll (D6). To get a third impulse the solo player must roll higher than a 2 and to then get a fourth impulse, a roll higher than a 3 is needed.
The second item to grab my attention was that firing units do not have an anti-armour value. WHAT! In a tank based game? Well I did say it had the potential for controversy. Basically, when a unit elects to fire on a target, they simply roll 2 x D6 and if the sum is equal to or greater than the armour value on the vehicle, then the vehicle is destroyed and removed from play.
The die roll score gets a +1 for every friendly gun barrel that joins in the attack, including a +1 for the prime firing unit, even if it fires alone.
So what are the variables around this unusual mechanic that gives a small anti-tank gun the same killing power as Tiger's 88mm?
The first thing is the targets armour. A M10 Wolverine has an armour rating of 8, a Panzer IV (generic model, but likely an Ausf H) is rated 9, a Panther 10 and both the IS-2 and the Tiger I have an armour rating of 11. Due to the bell curve of 2D6, the differences between 8, 9, 10 and 11 is quite substantial. It would mean that (with the +1 modifier that the firer always gets - see below) any unit starts with a 58% chance of knocking out a Wolverine, while that chance drops to 16% for a Tiger.
The attacker gets a +1 to the die roll for every unit that joins in the fire against the target (fire activation is by target not by firer, so for example in one activation three tanks could fire together on one target) and that includes the firing unit, even if it fires alone.
There is a bonus for a flank attack and a penalty for the target being in cover (towns and woods). Flank attacks are a little harder to get because of the way that front and rear arcs are established in the game, as shown in the below diagram. This actually adds interest to the game because getting flanking positions have to be worked for.
Finally, range plays its part, most guns have a range of two hexes and the big hitters (T34/85, IS 2, Panther, Tiger I and Wolverine) have a range of three. Small anti-tank guns and infantry have a range of 1.
It is all these things taken together that bring engaging nuances to the game, as vehicles seek to get the best fire positions, keep their weaker armour safe, use the range of the higher muzzle velocity guns and bring in artillery support to effect. The addition of modifiers start to substantially influence the chance of successful shooting, encouraging players to think about positional advantage and resulting in a nice level of decision making and tactical nuance.
Often in the game, the player will find themselves just 1 hex short of getting into a good position, be that a firing position or a victory objective. Likewise, that extra hex of range from some of the vehicles can become critical.
Though the gun sizes are not differentiated (other than by range) with a specific attack value, because of the other things inter-acting in the game, it becomes surprisingly unimportant.
The ratings for armour ratings of a Panther (10) and a Tiger 1 (11) are interesting. I always jump on these vehicles to see how designers have rated them. In the picture below, the first rating is gun range, the second is defensive value and the third is movement.
Both have guns at range three. This basically makes them identical in play, since attack value is only dependent on die roll and fixed modifiers that would equally affect both of these vehicles in any given situation. That is fine, the Panther's 75/70 could be considered to have slightly better penetrative potential over the first 1500 metres, but then the 88 would have the edge, but the difference is small (especially against medium armour) and in a game as generic as this, to get them equal seems right.
The Tiger has a higher armour rating by 1, but on the bell curve, that is a fairly significant advantage. In reality, the Panther's front armour is probably better than the Tiger 1's, but the Tiger I had notably heavy flank armour and usually better trained crews. There is a modifier for all flank attacks, but it is a single generic value, applicable to all tanks and so does not take into account the thick flank hide of the Tiger. So all these things taken together, in a system like this, giving the Tiger a slight defensive advantage is also fine.
The Panther being a medium tank has a movement rating of 2, while the Tiger is a very slow 1. I think most systems would give the Panther a speed advantage and in this game, that rating of 1 makes the deployment of the Tiger an important consideration. I don 't think you can look at raw speed as an indicator of how to rate a vehicle's movement, the transmission problems and manoeuvrability in difficult terrain and break down levels are all facts that should feed into ratings and as such, rated this way, the Tiger does feel ..... well, very Tiger like!
Also, because of that high rating of the Tiger's defence, the attacker is likely to allocate three units to attack, with one trying to get into a flank position. Again that does reflect the sort of attack ratio (and / or flanking position) that we are told was needed against these 'big cats'.
Having looked at these two vehicles that were very different in design philosophy, but much closer in battlefield performance, the ratings on the counter feel justified and reasonable.
If we then look at the Wolverine, we have ratings of 9, 8 and 3 respectively. This exactly reflects the vehicle characteristics of being fast, with an anti-armour role, but vulnerable to enemy fire. Because the vehicle stats reflect this, the player finds themselves managing the vehicle in accordance with those proper capabilities and in my games, I tend to have the Sherman's to chaperone them (though an M10 crew might not necessarily be comforted by that!).
I am guessing if the designer has read the last few paragraphs, his head will be in his hands at the thought that a bit of a tread head is trying to discuss his 'fun' games in terms of simulation, but my point is simply to highlight that this fun game does have a respectable body of thought behind it and under-pinning it. In short it is clever for something that is such a light game.
Most groups are given a headquarters unit in the scenario. This behaves exactly like an ordinary vehicle of its type, but has the additional feature that when activated for movement, any adjacent unit can also be moved as well. It not only adds another nuance to an otherwise simple design, but we have seen the same sort of 'group move' rule in other systems, usually wrapped up in more rules (the same can be said of the air rules).
Units can both fire and move in the same turn, but infantry can only do one or the other (another nice touch). So units can get themselves into better fire positions and then fire, before the enemy has an opportunity to react ......... providing they get the impulses to do so.
The infantry counter has two defensive values. The first, the lower one, is used if they are caught in the open, the other is an 'in cover' value (and they still get the cover modifier as well, making them quite tough to shift). They have a short range and limited movement, but they are good at holding terrain features, which feels right and the armoured infantry get an extra movement point to reflect their allocation of transports.
I am trying something new with blog articles by including a short video clip to support the text. If it works, let me know, if not, let me know and I will drop it, as it is extra work. The below clip just gives a visual representation of what has been discussed here and interrupts a real game to show the fire system and the advantages of range on initial engagement.
It reminds me a little of the pleasures that I use to get from the simplicity of the Team Yankee series (Games Designer Workshop), which, uniquely I think, had odd ratio's for all combat including Tank V Tank and as unlikely as that sounds to be successful, the abstractions just worked to give a good game by being heavily themed on the subject and so it is with the design decisions made in Tank on Tank, which has an equally unlikely attack system - it simply works.
We are presented with light rules that have been nicely thought through by the knitting together of a number of mechanics to produce an engaging game. We happily play 3 or 4 scenarios in a standard evenings gaming session and just enjoy it for what it is.
The rules stay in the box and both sides concentrate on getting that positional advantage. It can make a welcome break from constant chart and rule referencing that can be common with even the most played games in my collection.
I imagine there are gamers who avoid tactical WWII games purely because they perceive them as complicated and perhaps don't play often enough to become familiar with any given set. These games will likely appeal to that audience. In any case, most of us need a light system on the shelves for that quick hit.
The bottom line - This is a very accessible game, but it is a game and not a simulation and it does not pretend to be a simulation, it is just that what it aims to do, it does very well.
Complexity: The box says 3 out of 10, that feels about right, though regular play will bring even that down. You will be playing without the rulebook after the first couple of plays. There are some armour only engagements in the scenarios, so you don't even have to read the infantry or air rules until you need them.
Solitaire: The box rates he game 7 out of 10. The solitaire mechanic for handling action points firmly brings this game into the realms of fun for the solitaire player, as you play each side you can never be sure when the turn will suddenly end. There are no obstacles in this game to solitaire play and that rating of 7 must just reflect a view that an opponent would enhance the game - but that is true of much that we play anyway.
Size: This is a compact game, with the Western Front module being especially so. Counter density is small and the laying of an A4 (letter) sized play aid next to the board (contains the turn track and modifiers) is optional. The game box is unusually robust, making this a good travel game.
Time: The box says 40 minutes to 1 Hour, which is pretty much spot on.
Link to Grognards, an excellent resource for the boardgamer for reviews etc.
Link to Commanders, my sister site, that is a bit more magazines in nature.
Link to Second Chance Games, who sell the game in the UK.