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Review of Combat Mission Battle for Normandy – Market Garden, part 1

How does Battlefront’s latest Combat Mission game stack up?  Boggit starts to fill us in in his two-part review.

Developed and Published by Battlefront Inc.

Reviewed by Boggit, 21 March, 2014

Click images to enlarge

Dedicated to Jim Zabek for his friendship, and mentoring

Historical Overview

On September 17th, 1944 German forces were routing from the Battle for France through Belgium and into Holland.  It was a situation that had to be exploited to maintain the momentum of the Allied advance and to end the war before the Germans reorganised to halt the Allied pursuit. The problem for the Allies was maintaining their drive to Germany having had so successful a pursuit. Lines of communication were now overextended and in the absence of a convenient and functional deep water port – like Antwerp – supplies were still had to be brought from the Normandy beachhead. With supplies running low Eisenhower had to ask himself who should be given priority for logistical support.

 

US paratroopers from 505th PIR return fire after making contact on the first turn of this scenario.

US paratroopers from 505th PIR return fire after making contact on the first turn of this scenario.

 

Of the three main army groups in northern France, Bradley’s First Army was approaching Aachen, and the Huertgen Forest, Patton’s Third was in Lorraine about to take on the Metz Fortified Area, with the West Wall next – all difficult terrain favouring the defence. On the other hand Montgomery’s 21st Army group was on the northern flank, closer to the sources of supply, potential supply ports, and seemingly relatively open terrain. It was a logical choice for maintaining an effective pursuit on a serious supply budget.

Operation Market Garden

A daring plan to bypass the West Wall and drive into Germany’s industrial powerhouse – the Ruhr area – was set in motion. What would follow would be a massive airborne operation – similar in size to the D-Day operation – to grab key Dutch bridges, whilst the British 30th Corps linked up with the air drops and exploited their success. What happened was that the Allies overstretched themselves, and were let down by a series of intelligence and operational planning errors that, taken together, contributed to the ultimate failure of the main objective of the operation.

By 26th September, Operation Market Garden was over. The Allies had failed to take Arnhem – the jump off point for exploitation to the Ruhr – and the British 1st Parachute Division had also been destroyed as a fighting unit, losing all its heavy equipment, and approximately 70% of its strength. As the commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Corps (General Browning) put it: The operation was “a bridge too far”.

Although the operation failed to achieve its purpose, it was not an unmitigated disaster. The Allies had seriously damaged many German formations. They also gained a salient running through Holland to the Lower Rhine, and the German border. Whilst at first glance it might appear that all they had gained was a road leading nowhere, the Allies cut off substantial German garrisons in Western Holland, which would ultimately be reduced, predominantly by the Canadian Army. They also extended the front lines committing Germany to find additional troops to defend it, so weakening resistance on the Eastern Front. It was a failed operation, but not a disaster in the greater scheme of things.

 

Thirty Corps advance up Hell’s Highway – apparently this is the wide bit!!

Thirty Corps advance up Hell’s Highway – apparently this is the wide bit!!

So the scene is set. But what does Market Garden bring to Combat Mission Battle for Normandy?  It doesn’t actually require the Commonwealth module (although why a serious Combat Mission fan wouldn’t have that is beyond me), just the core game, as it provides the relevant nationalities and Market Garden related formations within the expansion itself – for example Polish paratroopers, but no Polish armour, nor Canadians, as you’d get with the Commonwealth module. Not surprisingly, Market Garden adds new combat formations, equipment, campaigns, scenarios and quick battle maps. Market Garden also requires that owners acquire the version 2.0 upgrade of the CMx2 engine to play this expansion.

The upgrade is worth a mention, not just because of the requirement to play Market Garden but because its introduction has been the source of some controversy in gaming circles. Battlefront has taken some criticism for charging for their upgrade for Battle for Normandy, since it was used for the basic version for Fortress Italy, but was not provided as a “patch” for Battle for Normandy, which used v1.0 for its core engine. Battlefront take the view that v2.0 is a conversion of Battle for Normandy to the upgraded Fortress Italy version of Combat Mission game and as such is not a patch, but an optional upgrade for their Battle for Normandy version of Combat Mission. Some players may feel the charge for the upgrade inappropriate – as a kind of uber-patch, which a developer should provide as normal support of their product. However, I agree with Battlefront who argue that the upgrade is much, much more than a patch. It is a substantial improvement to the core code underpinning the Battles for Normandy game, and so is not restricted to just the Market Garden expansion. It introduces new features into the Combat Mission Battle for Normandy game such as new unit commands- such as the target briefly command, and the target armour arc command, but also it adds features that improve the functionality of the game like moveable waypoints, improved frame rates, and a pausable realtime TCP/IP mode for multiplayer games. The upgrade  is not restricted to game play but improves on the scenario editor support giving new editing tools, perhaps the most dramatic being the ability for scenario designers to assign specific uniforms on a unit by unit basis for even more variation, and visual appeal.

Assault under fire. US paratroopers leapfrog forward using covering fire over open ground.

Assault under fire. US paratroopers leapfrog forward using covering fire over open ground.

The upgrade is available at a fairly nominal price, individually or as part of the Market Garden bundle, which heavily discounts the upgrade to the point where the price charged is almost non-contentious. At least Battlefront has the integrity of being transparent – some developers might have disingenuously described it as a free upgrade with the bundle, but add in the upgrade charge to the price asked. Given that Battlefront are a small, Indie developer on a limited budget, I personally don’t see problem with them making a nominal charge for an upgrade that adds useful additional features, compared to a patch required to fix bugs and anomalies in gameplay, which Battlefront have already committed to. Some people may disagree, but I’d rather have the option to pay for improvements to a game I really enjoy than for those improvements not to be available.

I really like the fact that Battlefront really do listen to the gaming community. Patches released have not just dealt with broken stuff like fixing the Jagdpanzer IV/70 without ammo for its machinegun, but they’ve updated subroutines to make things more realistic. For example, the way machine guns work are now better in respect of aiming, rates of fire, and suppression. Buttoned vehicle situational awareness has been reduced, making them much more vulnerable in urban areas unless they are adequately supported by infantry, and so on. I’m not saying that it is all perfect, but it is pretty damn’- good. There are issues, for example, vehicles sometimes merging through each other when pathing, being unable to see upper stories of a building when the lower floor is blocked from view, soldiers who sometimes apparently want to surrender but actually do not.

Red Devils cross a street to take cover in a nearby house.

Red Devils cross a street to take cover in a nearby house.

 

All at Sea! German naval troops attacking out of the Reichswald run into heavy fire from the 82nd Airborne.

All at Sea! German naval troops attacking out of the Reichswald run into heavy fire from the 82nd Airborne.

 

But these are not gamebreakers. Taken together – the core game, upgrade, and patch history, Battlefront sets a standard of quality that is truly admirable.

Whilst living with a little ignorance, since it is still under development, I’m hoping that the V3.0 upgrade due with Battlefront’s upcoming Red Thunder will expand the features of the game system to include dynamic fire and smoke, flamethrowers, tank riders, bailout and re-crewing for heavy weapons, picking up dropped enemy small arms/equipment, an auto-save feature, etc…  Some of these features are pure wish-list on my part, but a few of these features like tank riders and flamethrowers are already announced. I’m really excited about the way Combat Mission is being grown, and I feel the same anticipation for this as my kids feel the night before Christmas! The v3.0 upgrade will be another nice addition to the core game as and when the Combat Mission series as a whole gets the benefit of it. On the subject of upgrades and patches make sure if you get this module to get the new v2.11 patch which deals in part with the outstanding pathing issues around bridges – vital in this campaign.

In the assault on Arnhem, friendly fire forces my SS troopers to ground. Note the StuG III covering the flank.

In the assault on Arnhem, friendly fire forces my SS troopers to ground. Note the StuG III covering the flank.

 

Terrain and master maps

I readily admit to being a fan of Combat Mission, but why bother getting more than the core game with the v2.0 upgrade? If you are interested in the Market Garden campaign there are very good reasons to get this expansion. Market Garden is a substantial improvement to the core game. It adds a considerable amount of new combat formations, equipment, campaigns, scenarios and quick battle maps. It also adds some new terrain including several new Dutch style urban buildings, a windmill, a footpath, more generic and four historical bridges. Some of the bridges are quite massive structures, like the Arnhem and Nijmegen bridges, so are quite different from the smaller bridges seen previously in the Combat Mission games.

Seven large master maps of the operational area are included for player made scenarios, giving designers immense scope. The master maps are well researched, mainly focusing on the areas near the bridges, which were historically focal points for much of the heavy fighting. The master maps vary in size from a simulated square kilometre, to nearly three square kilometres. To give an idea of just how good these maps are, Battlefront issued a press release confirming they used period 1:25,000 maps of the various areas with detail down to individual buildings. They also used aerial photos from the internet, and from reference books to allow the overlay editor to reflect an even greater level of detail than shown on the maps. In some cases, this even allowed the accurate placement of individual buildings and trees!  Well that blew me away. Over the years, I’ve played many Market Garden games, both board, and computer, but none with maps like this. It’s like having your own virtual battle tour! Simply amazing!

 

Red Devils hit my flanking StuG III with a PIAT. Heavy fire from the house opposite will shortly pin my SS troopers and wipe out the bailing StuG crew!

Red Devils hit my flanking StuG III with a PIAT. Heavy fire from the house opposite will shortly pin my SS troopers and wipe out the bailing StuG crew!

 

Formations and Weapons

Whilst the new terrain and maps are attractive features, there is much more to the expansion. Battlefront has added plenty of new combat organisations, vehicles etc. for the Market Garden period. Whilst the anticipated Allied airborne forces are all there, Battlefront has added Fallschirmjägers to the Battle for Normandy mix, together with the more eclectic German naval and marine battalions. It’s a bonus in the sense that Market Garden now gives players the chance to retrospectively extend the use of these units to the Normandy period as well. This can be done either through the scenario editor or in the Quick Battles generator, by setting the appropriate date for the scenario. Now you can get Fallschirmjägers to fight in the Hedgerows, for example, as at Carentan, St Lo etc. (a scenario for this is included in the module), or have German naval troops as historically used in the defence of Cherbourg etc. Hitherto this wasn’t an option. The naval troops units are quite interesting, and there is a very nice uniforms mod for them at the Battlefront repository.  The repository is well worth checking out anyway for some really good community mods, extra scenarios, etc, and can be accessed with this link.

The Nijmegen master map from the southwest. It is …. HUGE!

The Nijmegen master map from the southwest. It is …. HUGE!

The Nijmegen master map from the northeast giving a nice vew of the bridges.

The Nijmegen master map from the northeast giving a nice vew of the bridges.

 … to be continued

 


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Further Reading

Histories

A Bridge Too Far – Cornelius Ryan

Nijmegen: Battleground Europe World War II – Grave and Groesbeek  – Tim Saunders

— (Also check out the Hells Highway book by Tim Saunders for a write-up on the Aalst battle in the Allied campaign)

Major and Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Operation Market Garden – Tonie and Valmai Holt

— A unique take on the history of the operation, probably the definitive battlefield guide.

It Never Snows in September: The German View of Market-Garden and the Battle of Arnhem September 1944 – Robert Kershaw

— One of the very few accounts dealing with the German perspective on the battle

Hell’s Highway: A Chronicle of the 101st Airborne Division in the Holland Campaign, September November 1944 – George Koskimaki

Memoirs

A Drop Too Many – Major General J. Frost

Major General Frost’s personal account of his WW2 career culminating in Arnhem as CO, 2 Para, at Arnhem Bridge

Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters – Dick Winters , Cole C Kingseed

— Serving officer in E Coy 506 PIR, 101st Airborne (USA)

Arnhem – R.E. Urquhart

— Memoirs of the battle by the CO of 1st Airborne Division (UK)

On to Berlin – General James Gavin

— Part of the book deals with the 82nd Airborne actions at Nijmegen, Grave, Groesbeek  etc.. Gavin was its CO at the time.

With the Red Devils at Arnhem: Personal Experiences with the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade 1944 – Marek Swiecicki

Freely I Served: The Memoir of the Commander, 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade 1941 – 1944 – Stanislaw Sosabowski

Shifty’s War: The Authorized Biography of Sgt. Darrell “Shifty” Powers, the Legendary Sharpshooter from the Band of Brothers  – Marcus Brotherton

Arnhem Lift: A Fighting Glider Pilot Remembers – Louis Hagen

— The last memoir is of particular interest as you will see from the following links leading to the 1946 Docudrama Theirs is the Glory:

 

Fiction

Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway: A Brothers in Arms Novel  – John Antal

 

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