Sunday, 17 September 2017

Germantown by GMT

Germantown by GMT

Designed by Mark S. Miklos (series designer) and Bill Madison, Germantown is module 7 in the Battles of the American Revolution (BoAR) series.


Chew House is fortified in the game

This post gives a light overview of the game and its mechanics against the background of an AAR.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.



Trullinger Lane, German Reform Church, Chestnut Hill and Greentree Tavern. This is the sort of geographical detail that gives an instant pleasure when browsing over the maps in this system. This intimacy with the battlefield works hand-in-glove with the individualistic attributes of the units, to bring greater enjoyment to the series of the local actions that create the narrative of the overall battle. 

Knowing that Wanderon’s Mill is next to the creek, with earthworks covering the bridge, or that the 37th Foot has a morale of zero and the 64th Foot has a morale of +1 brings much to the feel of play.

The map is a standard 34” x 22” heavy paper affair that includes the various game tracks needed, so I can run this game fully off a large pinboard. The counters are of the larger type and fit comfortably in the hex, which matters as stacks are common and there is plenty of close multi hex contact.

The rulebook is a series booklet, so if you are into the series you will already know your way around the rules and just need to look at the exclusive rulebook that covers this particular battle. At the time of its publication, the exclusive rulebook was disappointingly needing errata, though this is now sorted and easily obtainable as a download from the GMT site. There are also a couple of items of errata on the play aid card, so it is worth downloading the latest version at the same time. The exclusive rulebook does have a rather nicely presented history and detailed order of battle for both sides and I like that sort of touch in a package.


Start up positions on the map 

Photo above - At the start, the British (red) line runs up through Germantown. Their Hessian Allies (green) are to the south and the American main column is advancing down Germantown Road, with the militia out on their right flank. Note American reinforcements will come on at the top of the map, mainly on turn 2.

The counters use icons, which are nicely done so that the uniforms of the various units are shown and the counters are successfully colour coded, making them easy to both read and manage during play.

The system runs off a D10 (two supplied) and as with many D10 systems, this can bring quite a wide swing of fortune on each of the combat ratio columns on the Combat Chart. Modifiers are only ever applied to the die roll.

At one end of the map is the important Morale Track (common to all the games in the series). As various things happen in the game, such as receiving or inflicting a loss, the Morale Marker of each army will move up or down that track. Both sides start off in the Good Morale range, but as friction causes morale to deteriorate, the marker will slide down the track into the bands of  Fatigued, Wavering and finally Demoralized, at which point that player will immediately lose the game regardless of where they are up to on the map in relation to their victory objectives.

Every combat unit is individually rated for morale and as the army morale track slides in the lower morale zones, a units individual morale will always be adjusted downwards by 1 if the army gets Fatigued and then by 2 if it slips into the Wavering zone. This will really hurt those units that start the game with an already low rating (American militia start with a -1 rating in this game).

Local successes will also contribute to morale increasing, so the relative position on the Morale Track for the two armies is important. I like the way this makes a player push hard when they think the enemy is at a tipping point on the Morale Track, while at the same time, an army can be on the ropes, but still manage to hold on or even pull back a little. It is the accumulation of unfortunate outcomes that will harm a player most and in that respect the system is initially forgiving of an ‘unlucky’ streak by either player. 

One of the things that the system does well is to introduce chrome with the exclusive rules that give the battles their individual form. In this battle, we have the rather wonderful American leader (Major General Adam Stephen) who through drink, has his forces moved randomly over the battlefield and when they contact friendly forces there is a (once per game) chance of friendly fire, which can then lead to local panic.


The Chew House forward position
The American vanguard gets a turn 1 advantage in combat for the surprise attack and the British forces are released over the first three turns as they slowly respond.

The game opens with dense fog for 3 turns and then there are random degrees of fog until turn 7 when it automatically clears. The fog will shorten artillery ranges and may reduce movement.

Who goes first each turn as Player 1 in the sequence of play is determined by initiative. For the first three turns, this will automatically be American forces. From turn 4 onwards, this is randomised, with the current army morale levels feeding into the result and so players will find that they are sometimes given back-to-back player turns, which can suddenly open up opportunities and be significantly detrimental against an army with Wavering morale.

The sequence of play has some nice interactive phases. We have the Defensive Artillery Phase, in which the non-phasing player fires artillery (the only time that artillery is fired), which is useful to disrupt enemy plans. There is a Rifle Phase, which is a joint, simultaneous phase, with a hex representing 200 metres, these are only firing at adjacent hexes, but they can cause some interesting moments on the battlefield, however rifle armed units can also create a combat penalty when they become involved in close combat.

Combat is mandatory by adjacent units.

The only bit of the system I don’t like is the use of tactic chits (or cards that do the same job as in the case of Germantown). Essentially in each combat there are 8 different stances that each player can choose from, though some of them need certain circumstances, such as a leader being present or an open flank, but they represent such things as frontal assault, flank attack or withdrawal etc. Before each combat, each person secretly selects their stance (there is now a good series solitaire mechanic for solo players and the chart is included in this game) and then they are compared on a matrix and will produce a die roll modifier within a range of -2 to +2 to the attack dice. It has been described by some players as akin to Rock, Scissors, Paper and lacking any real skill due to the element of guessing or luck. I don’t think the rule is worth the faff and importantly to me, ignoring it (which you can without any problem) speeds up play without any sense of dumbing down the integrity of the game.

REPLAY NOTES.

The following notes are based on a play through to just help pick up on a few design aspects, plus highlight a few situations that brought some narrative to play - for me at least. I will do turn 1 in some detail to get some design features across and then just drop into an overview.

Turn 1 - It is dense fog, restricting off road movement and artillery ranges. The main American forces advance down Germantown road, while on their right, militia move parallel through the woods. The advance guard (on the road) get a +1 in combat on turn one, so we may as well use that.

Conway’s Brigade with +1 morale and Moylan’s Horse move adjacent to British 2nd Battalion (light infantry) and their Corps Reserve artillery, which are acting effectively as pickets in a forward position, blocking the way to Chew House and Germantown.


The attack opens.
After movement, it is the Rally Phase, but we have nothing to rally this turn.

Next is the Defensive Artillery fire. Artillery can only fire 1 hex in the dense fog (3 hexes normally). They only have a strength of 1 here, so will need a 7 or more to hit (on a D10). They get 9, so now roll on the Damage Table, getting a Retreat result. This causes Conway to retreat back across the stream, leaving just the weak cavalry unit to continue with the attack (ouch).

Next is the Rifle Phase, which is a simultaneous phase, but nobody in contact is rifle armed on this turn.

Finally we get to the Close Combat Phase. Artillery does not participate (it only ever fires in the defensive phase), so we look for the odds ratio first. The cavalry is strength 1 and the British infantry are strength 4 - so we have a 1:4 attack ratio, but the lowest column on the Combat Table is 1:3, so we will go with that. Both of these units will count as their respective ‘lead units’ as there are no other alternatives that they are stacked with. 

The attack die roll is modified as follows; +1 American first turn surprise, +1 American for their +1 morale and -1 because the British also have a +1 morale, which works against the attack, so in effect is reversed and counts as a negative modifier to the attack dice (if you think of it as countering the American morale). So overall the die roll will be modified by +1. (note - the designer has pointed out to me that there should have been an additional -1 modifier for the 4:1 using the 3:1 column, so the overall modifiers would have been zero).

The Americans roll a zero (worst result) modified to +1, which would cause the attacker a Step Loss. However ….. In this scenario, the American player starts play with a a single Momentum Chit. This I suppose is best thought of as an Advantage Marker and one of its powers is to allow a re-roll of the combat dice ….. essential in this instance. They spend the chit and re-roll to get a 5, modified with the +1 to 6. This result is a PIN, both sides are pinned in place, the cavalry have been really lucky and Army Morale is not adjusted. (re the designers note above, the zero modifier would have kept the 5 as a 5, which is a retreat result for the Americans, which in this situation would have been even better for them).

The turn now goes over to the British player.

The British have restricted movement on Turn 1 and combined with the fog, they can’t do anything about reaching and supporting the pinned units, though in other respects, the British picket have done their job in that they have kept the road blocked.

Bad luck continues to follow Moylain’s Horse and they surrender! Normally cavalry could retreat, but if pinned and they withdraw, then the Army Morale will drop one point, so they stayed hoping to survive the hour, but the outcome was worse, as not only did they suffer defeat and lose a morale point (anyway), but the British also gained one morale point for seeing them off!

Turn - 2. Dense fog persists and the American gets the Initiative, so will go first. Both these conditions are automatic for the first three turns.

This turn, the Americans get a significant reinforcement that enters on the road at the top of the map and forms the left flank of the main attack. The reinforcement also includes the ‘tipsy’ Stephens, who leads his men cross-country southwards. Under the special rules, this formation has liabilities (causes friendly fire) that we may see in future turns.

In the centre, Sullivan takes charge to try to open the road and get the advance going.  His rifles (Doyle) open the engagement and cause the British 2nd battalion to take a Step Loss. The subsequent Close Combat sees the 2nd Battalion go Disrupted (forced to retreat 3 hexes), but the artillery passes its morale check and stays in the hex. In some ways that sounds good for the British, but if the enemy fight a lone artillery unit, it is automatically captured and the attackers advance into the hex.

Turn 3 - The picket has held its ground and the main British force is released this turn.

Turn 4 - The fog reduces to Moderate (random roll). Both armies still have good morale and the Americans win the initiative (rolled for). They bring up two artillery brigades to Chew house and force the 46th Foot to retreat 3 hexes (Disrupted) and 40th Companies under Musgrave fail their morale and they also abandon Chew House (which is fortified). British Army Morale drops from Good into the Fatigued band.


Charles Grey leads his men over the creek

PHOTO ABOVE of Major General Charles ‘No Flint’ Grey, leading 44th Foot, 17th Foot and 3rd Artillery Brigade past the Paper Mill and over the crossing at Paper Mill Run.

On the American right, their Militia start to get entangle with the Hessians in the woods. 2nd Jaegers (rifles) fire into the left of the Militia, causing Philadelphia Company to surrender as all escape routes are blocked by Zones of Control. Armstrong manages to hold his other units steady.

As the Hessians engaged all along the line, the Militia take further losses, but stand their ground. However, the deteriorating situation sees the British Morale return to good and the American morale dip into the Fatigued band.


The Hessians against the Militia
on the British left.

Turn 5 - The fog clears (randomly selected). It is important who gets the initiative, if the British can get it, it will give them a back-to-back attack and they may be able to drive the American morale down significantly. The die is rolled ….. a draw, roll them again (there is some tension to this) and the Americans get it - they have a chance here to recover their position.

The drunken Stephen moves his troops further away from the action (towards the north west), he is now well in the rear of the army, perhaps the safest place for everyone's sake!

The Americans fail on both flanks, but bring a lot of pressure to the British centre. Wayne pushes beyond Chew House and attacks the British 40th Companies, who together with their leader Musgrave, are removed from play. The overall effect of this attack in the centre pushed the British Army Morale chit halfway down the ‘Fatigue’ part of the track, so that the morale level of all their units is now modified by -1, while the American Army Morale returns to Good …… just!

In the British part of the turn, Cornwallis brings on reinforcements and they make straight for the threatened centre. The Hessians push on the American right against the Militia in the woods, causing heavy casualties and killing Armstrong.


British right wing.

Turn 6 - The Fog clears (randomly determined). Both armies are now fatigued, though the Americans are at the lower end of that band and in danger of going into the Wavering band, while the British are at the top end and could actually see their morale return to Good quite easily.

The British win the initiative this turn, so they get a back-to-back move, this could spell disaster for the Americans.

In the centre, the British disengage and put a 1 hex gap between themselves and the Americans, they reinforce the line and generally consolidate. On their right, they push into the American flank and capture Matthews together with McDougall’s Artillery Brigade. On their left, they push further into the militia.

On the very last British attack of their part of the turn, against Berk’s County Militia, they cause the removal of the unit and American Army Moral crashes to zero (demoralised) and the game ends in favour of the British.


End of play

Well there are certainly some ‘what-ifs’ here. If the British had not won the initiative their centre would have come under greater threat and the morale situation stabilised somewhat. Or, if that final attack by the British had resulted in something other than the loss of Berk’s County Militia, then the Americans would have survived into their turn and who knows, via initiative, may even have gained their own back-to-back turn. 


There are other factors, for example, had the militia (who start the game with negative morale values anyway) just throw lone units forward to block the Hessians rather than concentrating against them, there would have been less militia losses and the American Army Morale would have held up, to give ‘who knows what’ benefits. All good - there is a lot of replay value in this system.

Anyway, while the game was on the table, I ran it again and got a different game. This was a tight contest, that by turn 8 (10 turn game) had the Americans putting a lot of pressure on British positions, particularly on the British right, but the American Army Morale was at the low end of fatigued. Stephen managed to march half his force off the table!

Play was tense, it mattered who won the initiative and as a turn ended it, was frequently touch and go whether they or the other side would dip into another morale level band. In the end, the overall poorer morale levels of individual American units made it difficult for Disrupted units to recover, which held back the prospect of American morale increasing enough.  That and the odd bad (usually unlucky) result here and there accumulated until turn 9, when the British won the initiative and pushed the American Army Morale down to Demoralised.

Conclusions - Though the gamer is obviously playing at the army level and the Army Morale Track underlines this, the detail on the map and the individual attributes of units and whether rifles or artillery are around, draws the gamer into becoming immersed in the various local situations and combats across the map to an enjoyable degree and local actions feel important. These local actions can also feed into the Army Morale Track, so strategic and local perspectives are working hand-in-glove from a player perspective.

Some control is taken from the player due to the Initiative mechanic at times offering a back-to-back player turn to one side or the other, that can really hurt the non-phasing player. Also the D10 based combat result table can produce wide swings in fortune. The random nature of both these, due in large part to the D10 itself, may frustrate some player styles. I am okay with a bit of chaos in my games and a bit of loosening of control and unpredictability does help solitaire play 

The tactical Chit rule, just seems like an unnecessary way to bring another combat modifier into the game and to perhaps impart a sense of greater tactical focus on individual actions. It is a nice idea, but the associated randomness and extra step in combat resolution does not feel (to this gamer) worth it. Oddly enough, I think this non-solitaire friendly mechanic probably can be enjoyed more in solitaire play - thanks to the new solitaire tactics play aid and the player generally having more time to do a leisurely game rather than trying to pack a face-to-face game into a single session. 

It is nice that there is a single series committed to the American War of Independence. I probably enjoy the maps as much as anything else. The AWI does have some nice sized battles, allowing both local and grand tactical levels of the battle to be explored.

Size - Main charts etc are on the map, so the playing area only needs to be 22” x 34”. Most of the forces are on the map by turn 2. For the most part players will be moving stacks of units plus some informational markers, though the hexes are big enough for this not to be an issue. Set-up time is around 15 minutes.

Gaming time - The box does not give us a playing time, the players familiarity with the system and whether they choose to play with the Tactics Chit rule will have the biggest impact on playing time.  It is a game that is suitable to fit into a single session in an evening of around 3 - 4 hours or so.

Complexity - The box says Medium (5 out of 9). Familiarity will impact on this figure. For a new player, there are some things that are done differently and so there is a learning curve that will be felt in the early turns of the first game. Of advantage is the fact that this is a series game and once the system is known, there is a lot of game that can quickly be got into. Basically treat the opening of your first game as a learning exercise and everything will quickly fall into place.

Solitaire - The box says low medium (4 out of 9) This is a two player game that works well for a player doing solo play. The only rule that is not solitaire friendly is the Tactics Chit rule. However you can either totally ignore the rule or use the solitaire play aid (provided in this game) that randomly (though in an intelligent way) selects the stance of each force for each combat. So overall this rule in practice does not impact the solitaire gamer as much as it might. As mentioned above, both the Initiative mechanic and the D10 based Combat Table produce some unpredictability that help solitaire play. I would actually raise the score given on the box.


RESOURCE SECTION:

COMMANDERS is my sister site that is a bit more snippet based than here and worth (I think) a browse with a coffee. LINK

https://commanders.simdif.com/


GERMANTOWN (mini folio game) played under a different system produced by Decision Games and covered by a post here. LINK

http://battlefieldswarriors.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/auto-saved-post.html







7 comments:

  1. An interesting and in-depth review. I enjoy reading your conclusions of the game, and a game that interestingly uses D10.

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    1. Thanks Peter, I think you would enjoy a gander at the exclusive rules to this game as there are elements that you could draw into your own AWI games.

      Here is a download link, scroll down to Germantown exclusive rules.
      https://www.gmtgames.com/t-GMTLivingRules.aspx

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  2. Another first rate game review from your pen, Norm! I appreciate your review format and that you tend to stick to the same template review after review. Lends a lot of consistency to your review process. The astute reader will quickly pick up on and anticipate your next step. Adding in a short play example is really icing on the cake.

    For Germantown, when I first saw your headline, I thought you were tackling CoA's Brandywine and Germantown. I was REALLY looking forward to your perspective on that game and series since I tried and failed with BAR many years' ago. The GMT version looks to be set one level higher in abstraction than COA's BAR series. This one looks more playable.

    As for the usage of D10, sometimes the possibility of wild swings I can accept; in other designs, I cannot. Sounds like D10 works for you in this setting. While I enjoy chaos in my game too, too much variability in a game is less an intellectual contest and more of a bout with fate.

    The best part is that after finishing, I have a good idea whether or not the game may be to my liking. I would enjoy reading more on design philosophy within each game. That might be interesting to others as well.

    Again, excellent job.

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  3. Thanks Jonathan, it is only recently that I have come to realise that I have fallen into a formulaic review style, probably because I don't really see myself as a reviewer, as I only write about things I like, so my stuff is absent of the essential critique element of a review, but I agree that a consistent approach works well, as does this format.

    I have never really looked at BAR, for rather superficial reasons, it has always struck be as complex and the counter artwork puts me off, I suppose I should actually take the lid off a game before being so dismissive.

    In some D10 based games, you don't feel its 'presence' so much. I think you start to here, but it still sits within reasonable bounds for me.

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    1. Granting that the BAR is not for everyone, I can say I enjoy it. For the counters, COA learned from the La Batt system that there needs to be some way to tell the organization of a unit and thus despite the 'color', the counters are actually pretty easy to use. The rules, though a bit involved when looking at them, are not as difficult as they look, helped by one of the best organized and written rule books in the Hobby.
      The double pack is of BRANDYWINE & GERMANTOWN is really a great bargain. For your purposes, I think, the maps, though beautiful, probably cover more space than you'd also like.
      One thing the BAR AWI sub-system had to introduce was 'voluntary rout', allowing the Continentals to move when they need to do so in the organized-disorganized fashion.

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  4. Mark, I have just checked my dealer out and was surprised at the breadth of the series. Thanks for highlighting, I will explore further. On reflection, when I think of some of the things I have bought, I am surprised that I have spent so much time on this hobby and yet not given this series the look it obviously deserves.

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