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Thursday, September 08, 2005

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Memoir'44

Part 2: The Elements of Fire and Movement
Basic fire and movement of tanks and infantry
Disregarding terrain effects for the moment, the basic fire and movement rules for tanks and infantry can be summed-up as follows:
  1. Infantry can move 1 hex and fire ('battle' in Borg's terms), or 2 and not.
  2. Infantry firepower ('battle dice' in Borg's terms) is 3/2/1 at ranges 1/2/3, respectively.
  3. Tanks can move up to 3 hexes and still fire, and always with their full 3 firepower.
Immediately then we can see a neat representation of infantry closing with the enemy to bring their weapons to bear, or of deploying at the double to cover, or to some other position from which to launch your attack (eg. moving round a flank). The firepower structure gives a nice feel for long-range 'plinking' with heavy weapons and desultory rifle fire, as against a close range firefight where all of an infantry unit's weapons can be brought to bear at full effect.

All of which contrasts nicely with tanks' ability to zip around much faster, always able to bring their full firepower to bear, because they have cannons.

It is obviously technically inaccurate that there is nothing in the rules to reflect the effect of range on the accuracy of tanks' guns, but the point here is to represent the relative prowess of these 2 fundamental arms of fire and movement on the WW2 battlefield.

The smoothly modelled expression of these relative strengths is deepened by the simple fact that infantry units have 4 models, while tanks have only 3. This means that, all things being equal, it will take any unit a minimum of 2 turns of good shooting to destroy an enemy infantry unit. Tanks, on the other hand, always face the chance of being destroyed by a single good turn's shooting by any unit firing with full firepower.

In addition to this, there are 3/6 kill results on a battle dice against infantry, as opposed to 2/6 versus tanks.

So, without even considering the effects of range and cover, the basic structures of Borg's system of fire and movement give a nice feel for:
  • The vulnerability of the infantryman on the battlefield relative to the armoured tank;
  • The survivability of infantry units, by virtue of their numbers; which tank units don't enjoy because their numbers are always smaller.
To round this section off, attention must be paid to the rules for advancing after combat, and armoured overruns.

In a rule that will be familiar to grognards everywhere, if a battle at 1-hex range (a.k.a. 'close assault') results in the target hex being empty for any reason, the firing unit may advance into the vacated hex. More than that, if the advancing unit is a tank unit, it might well be able to conduct an overrun attack, which is another attack at an eligible target (which could be the same or a different unit according to circumstances).

This rule is the key to tank tactics in M44, and it is the rule which most neatly conveys how dangerous massed armour is in open country. If you can get several tank units in among the enemy, you can wreak utter havoc in no time at all. Or you can have them cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. The effects of this on play are just plain brilliant, everything would-be Rommels and Pattons could wish for.

Already then we can see that, with rules that could literally be written on the back of an envelope, Borg has given a finely nuanuced rendering of the fundamental aspects of fire and movement of tanks and infantry on the WW2 battlefield. His approach isn't to present each in painstaking detail. Instead he presents the distinguishing features of each relative to the other in a form appropriate to the fast and fluid game he wants us to play.

Terrain effects on movement
One thing that is missing from M44 is that mechanism familiar from so many other simulationist boardgames: a table of terrain effects on movement expressed in terms of various deductions from movement factors according to unit and terrain types.

M44's approach to this is much simpler. In M44, terrain typically either:
  • Has no effect on movement at all, eg. hills.
  • Stops further movement upon entry, eg. towns and woods.
  • As above, plus you must start adjacent to the feature to enter it at all, and/or may only exit it to an adjacent hex, eg. hedgerows.
This is essentially an example of the enforcement of the point-of-view (POV) engineered by the cardplay. I have already outlined my thinking on the POV issue (here and here).

The point here is that the M44 player represents anything from a company to a divisional commander depending on the scenario, though I would suggest that most games put you in the seat of a brigade/regimental commander. What I mean to say is that, at that level of command and degree of remove from the sharp end, the tactical details of terrain effects on movement are quite irrelevant. What would be important are the general effects of the different terrain features on your manoeuvre elements. This is what the above-noted effects do: terrain either having no effect on your units; slowing them down; or really slowing them down and requiring a potentially risky approach march.

A neat feature of these rules is the effect of terrain like towns and woods. These allow any unit to enter such terrain while moving at full tilt, only to be reduced to a 1-hex/turn crawl thereafter. This gives a great feel for cover beckoning to and welcoming your units, but bogging them down thereafter.

It also has to be noted that these rules for terrain effects on movement are more or less essential in a game in which the regulation infantry move is 2 hexes. Cut it no matter how you will, traditional mechanics for dealing with this decisive feature of warfare couldn't've worked. But that's not a matter of authenticity as such, so I won't be pursuing this point here.

Terrain effects on combat
This subject falls into 3 categories:
  1. Moving fire.
  2. LOS.
  3. Cover.
I will take each in turn.

Moving fire
The M44 rules for terrain effects on the fire of moving units are quite simple: some terrain types - eg. towns and woods- prohibit fire the same turn that a unit enters those terrain features; others - eg. hills - don't. At first sight I guess some might find this overly constraining. I know I did, at first sight. It could be argued that it allows for a measure of opportunity fire by the enemy as your units take up their firing positions. I wouldn't find this persuasive though, because the same cannot be said of moving in the open, a situation in which this kind of enemy fire would be all the more likely.

For me, this is once again all a matter of enforcing the POV offered by the cardplay command and control. The effect of these rules on play is that you typically have to plan at least 2 turns in advance to get the full effect of advancing to a covered firing position - the best such positions at least. That is:
  • An order to get into position.
  • Another order to open fire.
And so we have another simple rule reflecting the reality, in this case the way in which dense terrain - eg. woods and towns - can disrupt your units' formations, temporarily reducing their combat effectiveness.

LOS
The M44 LOS rules are a simple variant of the Squad Leader hex-centre to hex-centre rules. Most terrain features, and all units, block LOS traced through their hexes. The authenticity lies in the fact that this enforces careful disposition of your units to avoid them getting in each others' way. The simplicity lies in the fact that the short ranges over which LOS is traced mean that you can eyeball this without ever actually having to trace a line from centrepoint to centrepoint.

Cover
Though it's not unique, perhaps the most striking feature of terrain as cover in M44 is that each terrain type's cover is defined according to the firer's unit type, not the target's unit type. This is striking because it is in some sense counter-intuitive, or so it would seem from the simple fact that these rules are those which have caused the most confusion among the people I have introduced to the game. That's still not very much confusion at all, but it has been enough to be notable.

Terrain as cover in M44 takes 2 forms:
  • Firepower reductions.
  • Ignoring the 1st flag result in combat (the flag results are retreats).
The latter is confined to prepared positions, and nicely reflects units' reluctance to leave entrenchments and pillboxes. This is neat, but there is little more to say about because it is so straightforward.

Firepower reductions can be summed up as: always a reduction of 1; unless you've got tanks firing into certain types of 'dense' terrain- eg. towns and woods- in which case it's 2.

The effect of this is to cap the basic structure of fire and movement with rules that make tanks pretty useless against those 'dense' terrain types, where their impressive 3 firepower will always be 1. Infantry, on the other hand, can close in for a respectable 2. What we have then is a smooth rendering of the reality that, in close terrain, you really need to send your infantry in to winkle out the enemy.

Add in such things as the need for infantry to close to medium range (ie. 2 hexes) to have any effect at all on units in cover, or the still juicy 2 firepower tanks enjoy against more open terrain types, eg. hills, and you can see that M44's 3 simple layers of rules: basic fire and movement, terrain effects on movement, and terrain effects on combat; all unite to give a rendering of its subject matter in which all the distinctive elements interact to give a degree of authentic detail that belies the game's simplicity.

All of which is enhanced by a degree of sheer playability which I believe is itself an aspect of the game's simulationist credentials, but that's for another day. ;)

Related@RD/KA!
- Part 1: Another hymn of praise to cardplay
- Part 3: A few little details
- Part 4: The authenticity of sheer playability
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