Death Ride - Halfaya Pass01 Feb 2012 0
Death Ride Halfaya Pass
Publisher: GSI (Grognard Simulations, Inc.) http://www.grognardsims.com/v/dr_halfaya.html
Halfaya Pass (otherwise known colloquially as "Hellfire Pass") is a significant geographic formation in far eastern Libya, almost to the border of Egypt. It is a natural cut that cuts southeasterly through a tall, 600-foot escarpment and has served for many hundreds of years as a route from Egypt to Libya; in ancient times it was considered the border of Africa and Asia. If one wants to move eastwards or westwards, it is the best route to choose, otherwise, one would have to detour many miles to the south in order to pass it by.
Because of that, during the battles of North Africa, but especially those fought in this area during mid-1941, Halfaya Pass became central to both Axis dreams of moving eastwards into Egypt and British aspirations to move west to liberate Libya. No less than three major engagements were fought over it -- Operation Brevity, Operation Battleaxe, and Operation Crusader. Four, if you count Operation Compass, but as that was a routing of completely incapable Italian forces by the well-prepared British, its arguable whether it actually counts or not.
Halfaya Pass, game view
Halfaya Pass, Google view
There have been many games published on North African warfare during World War II, and several just on this area and the battles fought here. This particular game, however, takes a tight lens view of the pass itself and the battle fought over it during Operation Battleaxe. Specifically, the game focuses on the 4th Indian Divisions attempt to pry the Germans from this fortified position. Rommel was no fool -- he knew this pass was the key to British hopes of relief of Tobruk, and he assigned manpower to it accordingly. The British plan was to attack from the east and from the south. On one side, the British threw three infantry battalions and one-and-a-half heavy tank squadrons (made up of the famous Matilda heavy tank) into action against a comparable German force that might not have had quite as many tanks, but they had the venerable 88mm antiaircraft gun. In essence, this game captures that slugfest on a tactical level.
Halfaya Pass, game board close-up.
Upon opening this box I was greeted with color! Color hand-outs, to be precise. No black-and-white game aids here -- everything is printed in color, and that's more than pleasing. The scenario card has a really nice version of the game map printed on it (albeit with something of an error), giving the Germans their set-up and the game's overall set-up in clear detail.
| Full-color handouts that come with the game
||The Order of Battle for both sides
The counters come in three small sheets, but are thick and well-printed. The printing of combat factors in a secondary weapon/primary weapon format was a bit confusing at first to me (I would assume primary would always be first), but that's the only minor issue I faced when reading the rules and checking things out. The counters are packed with about nine pieces of information, but they are presented in an easy-to-read manner.
Game Overview card
The 'error' I mention above seems to be more of a design oversight and it might be more of a result of personal taste than design work. The set-up map shows the German units in a blue color in and around Halfaya Pass... but it also shows the British units along the map edge in the same blue color. When I first tried to start a game, this really threw me, because I was expecting beige or red units -- and was trying to figure out where, exactly, the British get to enter the map. Only after I finally paid attention to the unit nomenclatures was I able to figure it out. A big oversight on my part, but it shows you how far design can impact one's overall look at something.
| Note the German units (at left) and the British units (at right) - same color
|| A close-up of some of the British starting positions
What I really like is that the rules are printed not just in color, but also are bound in a spiral. The production costs on this game must have been fairly high, but regardless, the quality is terrific. The rulebook is only 20 pages long, and not every page is packed with rule information -- there's the usual table of contents, designers notes, and a couple of Appendices for clarification purposes.
As anal as I am about documentation (as a writer, technical writer/editor, graphic designer, and sometime game manual writer myself), I am particularly hard on this aspect of games, whether they be PC or board-based. So little things that some people might not care about will catch my eye. For example, spelling "piecemeal" as peicemeal in the Historical Commentary section or "reinforce the font" (instead of front) in the Maneuver section shows that there might not have been as tight an editorial review as I would expect it to. For me, not catching little things like this will raise questions in my mind as to whether or not such errors might have made it into the game system itself. Fortunately, I did not notice any while playing through it a few times for this review.
Be that as it may, there are only a few of these fairly minor errors throughout. The documentation is otherwise well done and descriptive, starting out with the usual introduction to the battle and the system, followed by a very good depiction of how to read the counters, and next with a highly detailed Sequence of Play. This is followed with the rules themselves, in a two-column format. Finally, the manual is rounded out with tactical advice for both sides, and the aforementioned designers notes and historical commentary.
The German units are portrayed by platoons and battery elements, while the British are modeled similarly. Even though the Germans are outnumbered, the German strength is in their weaponry, which makes for more of an even fight. Right out of the box, when you read this, you get a good feel for how the game will flow; I greatly enjoy games that allow for an even fight without giving one side or the other too many advantages. And as a smaller-scale game, able to fit on a kitchen table (at least, this Death Ride game can) and touted as a quick play, I am all about that. I'm hoping not to be disappointed.
Close-up of German OOB
For gameplay, the game focuses a considerable portion of its Sequence of Play to something it calls "BOS", or Battlefield Operating Systems. This is comprised of several elements, including Maneuver, Fire Support, Intelligence, Combat Service Support, Mobility and Survivability, Air Defense, and Command and Control. The most interesting thing about this system is that the game does not limit the players to completing any one of these seven functions in any particular order; as the rules state, this "will provide for considerable interactivity between the players and inject uncertainty into the battle." Truer words were never spoken, actually; if anything they actually underplay the amount of uncertainty one can expect in this game.
Personally, I cannot stand Supply or Command and Control rules, insofar as the meticulous and game-slowing record-keeping that both require. Tracing certain hex lengths back to an HQ, which itself has to trace a line back to location X or map edge Y, or dealing with supply points or other such factors has always been too fiddly for my tastes. Granted these are important aspects of conducting any kind of realistic game, but we ARE playing a game here and trying to spend our time exchanging chaotic pummeling fire and rushing for last-second victories instead of determining how many trucks we have to move how many boxes of sauerkraut or dirty pin-up calendars. (And if there's a game that focuses on the latter, let me know.)
Close-up of British OOB
In any case, the Supply and Command/Control rules are nicely optional, as I think they should be for any game. This lets you get into it without being too 'fiddly' and lets you incorporate them later as you have time or interest.
"Moving" in this game is something of a broad term, as there are several different types that ensure an incredibly chaotic time. Regular movement is available to, of course, move your units from one hex to another. Overrun movement exists so that you can assault enemy units. Overwatch movement lets units move and fire at enemy units that themselves use opportunity fire on friendly units (a reaction to a reaction). Reserve movement allows movement during an enemy player's turn where enemy units move to assault (thereby reinforcing assaulted hexes). Finally, and most interesting of all, there's Withdrawal movement, allowing units to back off from close contact with at least a decent chance at avoiding destruction as a result.
British units on the move
There are two types of combat -- Fire and Assault. Both are exactly what you think they are, firing on units from a range and conducting close-in assaults. What's interesting here, though, is that target types (being Hard, Medium, or Soft) can only be attacked together. So when firing on a stack with different target types, an attacker cannot attack all enemy units in a hex but instead, only one target type at a time. This makes for some interesting combinations during combat, especially since you have the further option of selecting individual units to attack and not just a whole stack.
And there are several types of fire combat as there are several types of movement, too, depending on the situation. Opportunity fire occurs during the enemy's turn; defensive fire occurs when enemy units move into an adjacent hex; there's also battery and counter-battery fire. Chaotic much? Yep. Unpredictable? Oh, yes. The fire combat essentially dissolves into a free-for all instead of some structured "I fire on my turn, you fire on yours." Defensive fire is especially a pain, especially when moving British troops to try to pry stubborn Germans out of their defensive positions. (Hint: The Germans are quite good at defensive fire, especially because they tend to do it. A LOT.)
German units awaiting the assault
Combat is resolved using the old ratio system, where attack factors are divided by defense factors to get said ratio, which is then cross-referenced versus a 10-sided die roll (the die is included in the game, which is nice, but what gamer doesn't have a 10-sided die handy at a moments notice). The die roll can, of course, be modified based on external situations, of which there are many listed on the Fire Table. This includes close air support, firing after movement, firing on a fortified or dug-in defender, and so on. There are over a dozen things that can affect a fire roll, so again, NOTHING is really completely a foregone conclusion in this game.
Casualties are expressed in levels of "Suppression" and elimination. Either you do nothing, the target is Suppressed for a certain number of levels (more than four levels means elimination), or it is completely destroyed. Destroyed forever, though? No.
There's a little thing called "Combat Service Support" that can bring destroyed units back from the dead. The Germans get 60%, rounded up, of their armor and truck losses back; the British get 30%. Then there's "Medical", which means both players can replace 25% of their infantry, mechanized, and heavy weapons casualties. All of this occurs on the first daylight turn of each day, of which there are two days total, so it's not like the board is swimming in reconstituted units. However, it adds some measure of ability to try to make up for any silly or lucky moves made, leaving each player in the game until the very end.
This deserves its own section because quite honestly, fortifications and mines enter into this game quite predominantly. Both sides have already-laid mines and wire which stop movement once they are entered. Empty fortifications and dug-in counters are removed if an enemy unit moves into the hex; this is something I also never really liked (really? Units have time to eradicate every bit of an enemy's fortifications in the heat of battle?), but there it is. The game does mention an option to where the placing player can put these obstacle counters on the map face-down, adding even more uncertainty for both sides. I haven't tried this yet, because there's already plenty of uncertainty in this game (and that's said with glowing praise, not sarcasm, for once).
Air units are represented in the game, but only in a generalized fashion for close-air support of ground combat, as well as for interdiction to make the movement point cost of exiting a hex increase. They can also be used to conduct their own ground attacks alone, if desired. They can be placed either during the players or enemy's turn. The Germans of course have their 88mm air defense units in the game, but they're even better when used against Matildas. In fact, its something of a note of pride for a German player to see how much British armor he can eliminate using these things. Even the game manual makes a note of this.
Overall this is a fantastic game. It is just small enough to learn and play in a single sitting, it won't take up a huge amount of room if it DOES take more than one sitting (for whatever reasons), and the design and look of the pieces are great. But most of all, this game really takes to heart the feeling of your combat plans tumbling completely out of control once you meet the enemy. Turns, counter-turns, fire, counter-fire, move, counter-move... and even then there's some countering to the countering. It's a fantastic blend of simplicity, chaotic cardboard bloodshed, and down-to-the-wire gameplay on a supremely tactical scale. It can be played solitaire as well, which I did twice; the 'secret placement' of obstacles really comes into its own with that kind of play.
If you're looking for a slugfest in a box, this game is for you. If the other Death Ride games in this series are anything like this one, I hope we can bring you some reviews of those in the very near future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Eckenfels is an instructional designer and freelance writer living in southeast Texas. Hes a huge fan of the Houston Texans football team, through thick and thin, is writing the first novel in a trilogy of books due to be finished sometime this Spring of 2012 (check out "The Trinity Trilogy" on Facebook and 'like' it; he'd appreciate the support), and has acted in a dozen stage productions and a few films, one of which was accepted at Sundance in 2010. Hes now getting back into the game review business and is enjoying every minute of it.