Battlegroup Playtest – Brits vs. Germans in Defensive Line

I have been hooked on Chain of Command for a few years now. Sometimes I get the itch to move up to a company-level game, though. I enjoy the greater degree of combined-arms action at the company level. Companies still turn decisively on the actions of individuals, so they make for characterful subjects. I cut my teeth on Flames of War. I enjoyed the game, but it was definitely a game. When I came across I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, I moved on from FOW without a second thought. Unfortunately, nobody else came with me, and several games of IABSM have left me feeling ambivalent about the system that sounded so good on paper.

I am in the initial planning stages of a new project now—Ardennes 1944. The Battle of the Bulge is among my favorite topics of traditional military history, and this project has been gestating for a while. I am inclined to play it at the company-level, so the first step is to settle on a system. I have narrowed the competitors down to two: Battlegroup and IABSM. This weekend, I tested the Battlegroup by Iron Fist Publishing. How did it go? Read on!

Battle Report

We played the defensive line scenario at the platoon level, capping points at 500. I played a British infantry platoon on the defensive with some armor support. My opponent played an attacking German SS platoon with armor support. I included a little bit of everything in each list so that we could give every mechanism a trial run – artillery in direct and general support, armor, armored transports, machine guns, and defenses. I didn’t take sufficient notes for an in-depth battle report, but here’s an overview of the action:

 

The Germans out-scouted me, so I started with a morale counter. My opponent’s probing force (including his battlegroup commander in a Panzer IV, on which also rode his FOO and a machine gun team…probably a bad idea) pressed forward brazenly. A farm divided my fields of fire to the front, so I positioned a 6 pdr to deny the larger central area. The little gun didn’t inflict much damage besides some pins and a kill on a recon halftrack, but it spooked the hasty assaulters and denied most of my front for the rest of the game. On my right side of the board (west), a single infantry squad cowered in foxholes, praying for armored reinforcements. My opponent wisely targeted them for a breakthrough.

Three turns in, most of my opponent’s reserves showed up. They were primarily Panzer IVs with panzergrenadier tank riders. They closed the gap quickly and scared the solo rifle squad off the table (pinned, a single kill, after which I failed a morale roll). The British platoon commander rushed over, dismayed to find his squad heading for the rear. He stepped into the breach, positioning himself with his trusty PIAT team behind a hedge.

The German attack came on relentlessly. My FOO furiously worked the direct-support mortars. These guns didn’t inflict many casualties, but they expended a lot of rounds and achieved some key pins to slow up the assault and force my opponent to draw morale chits. My armored reserves came in just as the Germans crashed through my front-line defenses…and not a moment too soon! My Firefly dispatched two Panzer IVs, forcing morale chit draws. These, together with earlier draws to rally troops, broke my opponent’s battle rating. A narrow victory for the plucky British defenders!

 

The Good:

Overall, we had a good time with Battlegroup. The game came to a satisfying conclusion within about two and a half hours, which was impressive considering this was our first time playing. I spent the first two turns furiously flipping through the rulebook, but by turn three everything clicked perfectly. My only persistent question came from autocannon fire, but that was a minor issue. By the end of the game, we were only making infrequent references to the rulebook and playing right off the two-page quick reference sheet. Play also moved quickly because the turn structure allows players to coordinate unit actions and focus on key tasks. We rarely had enough orders to issue one to every unit, though, so player control was not total or given.

Battlegroup’s morale system is outstanding, and my favorite part of the game. The system creates a lot of tension when drawing chits and denies players perfect knowledge of their opponent’s standing. The inclusion of random events in the chits is fun too. Sometimes the chit doesn’t damage morale, but brings in an airstrike, causes an enemy tank to drive over a mine, or pins an enemy unit. Those random events bring a gratifying degree of friction and narrative to the game.

The scouting phase is another of the system’s strengths. The side with the fewer reconnaissance assets must take a morale chit before the game begins. Most scenarios also start with several turns where only reconnaissance units are on the table. This gives a role to units that are often under-valued and under-represented in other games. Here, recon units can snag key terrain and screen the arrival of the main force.

Finally, I like the system’s point-based force building scheme. I can hear Lardy gasps. The system helps players create reasonably historical forces that are reasonably evenly matched, though. This makes collecting figures easier, scenario design simpler, and the game more “pickup” friendly. A group could pick this game up and set point-values for a session’s play, significantly cutting down on preparation and coordination requirements.

I have to give a shout-out to Battlegroupbuilder for making the force-building and roster-printing process a snap!

The Not-So-Good:

Reviewing my list of complaints reveals something fundamental about Battlegroup – it is definitely more a game than a simulation. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It is a point of interest, though, and one the game’s creators have acknowledged elsewhere as a design principle.

My first complaint is that players control elements down to the team level. I understand the thought behind this. After all, the game is supposed to scale from the squad all the way up to the battalion level. Because I am looking for a company-level game, I prefer control down to the squad level (the old two-levels-down dictum). Team control gets messy, and as the size of engagement grows the complexity of tracking units explodes. I admit that it does work well at the platoon-plus level, which is what we played.

Officers and senior NCOs play a minor role in Battlegroup. Officers give you an additional guaranteed order, and most can call artillery or mortar strikes, but otherwise they are just another infantry team. The system incentivizes lead-from-the-rear officership. This criticism reveals my Lardy orientation. I want my leaders to be out front and influencing the battle. I also want them to have some personality for the sake of game narrative.

German Recon Moves OutArtillery, I thought, was a bit wonky. The basis of my complaint is the way fires come in. An observer calls for fire, the spotting round deviates (upwards of 4D6”), and then the player decides whether or not to fire for effect. There’s no firing adjustments, though some spotters such as FOOs can re-roll one scatter dice, and a new mission must be called each turn. Artillery’s effects spread strangely in the beaten zone too. Possible hits are calculated by the number of guns firing, usually maxing out at four hits. These are placed one at a time on units by proximity to the barrage aim point. One team could pick up a hit while an adjacent team just a few inches from the aim point gets away unscathed. The trade-off here is between speed and realism. Battlegroup sacrifices some realism to streamline the game. Again, this is not an inherently negative aspect, but potential players should be aware of it. On a related note, the game does not allow players to call for smoke. The designers explain smoke’s absence by claiming its presence on the battlefield is abstracted and incorporated into the observation roll when conducting aimed fire. This is another example of streamlining play. It works for the game, I think, but I’m looking for something more realistic. Besides, smoke capability would give my 2” mortar team something to do besides twiddling their thumbs off-table.

My final complaint is about ammo tracking on vehicles. Players have to choose an HE and AP load-out for each vehicle before the game begins, then track rounds fired. I didn’t think tracking was burdensome, but the system just didn’t do it for me. The purpose of the rule, I think, is to force players to make strategic decisions about main gun usage, and to encourage the purchase and use of soft-skinned ammo carriers rarely seen on most miniatures battlefields.

Bottom Line: I enjoyed Battlegroup and will play it again. I think it is a terrific system for club or convention play, or for introducing new players to WWII gaming. I will also continue buying Battlegroup’s theater handbooks. Not only can I use their theater-specific rules and force lists for inspiration and general guidance in other games, but the books are packed with inspiration eye candy. That being said, I don’t think Battlegroup will be my go-to rules for my own projects. Fortunately, I can base figures for my alternative system in such a way that they will work perfectly for the occasional Battlegroup game.British Reinforcements Move Out

Where to next? I am returning to IABSM for another trial run. Previous experiences with IABSM generated two great complaints from me: the system was too chaotic and rarely produced a satisfying conclusion in an afternoon or evening. I have some house rules brewing to address these issues:

  • Steal Battlegroup’s “reserve move” order idea – Units in IABSM will be able to reserve their movement to use later in a turn or on a tea-break, hopefully enabling better coordination
  • Units chits/cards will be for a unit type (e.g., armor platoon, infantry platoon) where possible, not for specific units. I hope this will give players the opportunity to better coordinate actions and concentrate efforts. I understand the stated rationale for the system’s inherent chaos, but I’m not so convinced of its accuracy or necessity. I am convinced that it gets in the way of a satisfying game for many players.
  • Use Battlegroup’s point values as a rough guide in scenario building.
  • Abolish the linkage between number of men in squad and number of actions. I’m going to have to figure out the nuts and bolts of this, but it will probably resemble CoC’s activation options.
  • Spotting – Need to think hard on this. Hidden deployment and blinds are a fun part of the game, but they require a lot of bookkeeping and make players overly cautious. Definitely good for simulation, but maybe a little too harmful for achieving decisive action in an afternoon.
  • Incorporate morale – This is easy…one of the Lardy summer specials features a bolt-on morale system for IABSM
  • Less a house-rule, more a best practice – Incorporate more of a reconnaissance fight in scenarios

Do you have any house-rules for IABSM that have improved your gaming experience?

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