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GrogHeads Reviews World at War: Blood & Bridges

World at War: Blood and Bridges, Published by Lock ‘n Load Publishing

Review by Michael Eckenfels, 13 July 2014

 

INTRODUCTION

The fascination with the hypothetical balloon going up in Europe in the 80s doesn’t cease to amaze me. I think this is mainly because I am a child of the 80s and during that time, as I was getting into wargaming, a conventional NATO vs. Warsaw Pact ground war was a very real possibility. Gaming it out to bloody completion was compelling and riveting for me. And now, about a quarter century after the Berlin Wall fell and communism (more or less) has left Europe and Russia, it’s still something of a hot gaming topic. Whether you play it out on your PC or on your dining room table, there’s commie tanks looking to grind outnumbered Westerners under their treads, somewhere. photo 2 Blood and Bridges is a Lock ‘n Load game that captures a slice of the West vs. East “war” in the 1980s. It is not a grand strategic game, but rather a tactical one, that focuses on platoon-level combat. If you’re looking to decide the fate of the entirety of Western Europe, you’re going to be disappointed. However, this game delivers, in a way, something better: a focal point battle (or series of battles) fought over the Rhine River Valley in the western part of West Germany. The premise is: the Soviets have taken something of a beating from NATO ground forces, but have doggedly ground their way forward, and are making a final, massive thrust towards this all-important geographic feature. In their way is the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), making a steadfast final stand of sorts – a very British thing to do! As I discussed in my First Impressions article some time ago, this particular game is part of Lock ‘n Load’s extensive NATO vs. Warsaw Pact group of games going under the World at War nomenclature. This particular game, Blood and Bridges, is touted as a stand-alone expansion. You do not need World at War to play it.   COMPONENTS I discussed the components extensively in the above First Impressions article, so I may repeat myself somewhat here.

  • Box. Blood and Bridges comes in a ‘standard’ size wargame box, which is great as I am somewhat anal when it comes to displaying my wargames (much to my wife’s chagrin). The box artwork is great. Everything was done by veteran gaming artist Marc von Martial, so I expect nothing less from him.
  • Rulebook. The rulebook for Blood and Bridges is magazine-quality full color; the pages don’t feel quite as thick as a magazine’s, but that might just be my perception. That’s not to say it’s a bad quality at all, as it is excellent work. The rules are very well-organized as anyone with experience reading a Lock ‘n Load manual would figure out, but there are a few issues with the rules missing a word or two (nothing you cannot figure out easily enough, though). It also, at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously – such as one bit that suggests wargamers drink Merlot while they game. I thought most of us were uncultured swine that swilled fermented, yeasty beer. I guess you learn something new every day.

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  • Game Counters. There are 352 counters, all 5/8” in size. They’re of normal counter thickness and therefore decent enough to handle and move around. The counter artwork really stands out. The font is interesting and has a total retro 80s feel to it, but I had a problem telling a “3” from a “5” because of it. The colors, too, are sharp and make units easily distinguishable (gray for West German, olive/tan for the British, and of course, red for the Soviets).However, it’s odd that the Soviet vehicles face to your right while the NATO ones face left. The artwork is great, but the direction they face makes no sense in the scheme of things (since Soviets that  come from the Lock ‘n Load counters tend to have a ton of information on them (just to pick one as an example, the Soviet BMP-2 has no fewer than eleven numbers on it in addition to other info). However, it’s organized easily enough to find what you need. If you have trouble reading small text,  this might be an issue as some numbers are rather small.

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  • The Map (22”x 34”). The map is VERY nice, structurally speaking. It’s mounted, so it’s thick, easy to handle, and it is in one piece (and cut in such a way so that it folds up nicely). I indicated in my First Impressions article that the artwork was, surprisingly, ‘fairly dull-looking.’ In comparison to the rest of the high-quality components, the map looks rather underwhelming, but that’s not to say it’s a bad map in and of itself. The design is simple, clear, and straightforward, instead of packing it in with high detail and possibly making a mess of it all. The map has grown on me over the intervening months and does what it is supposed to do – become a framework for the real content, the counters, and not get in the way.. When you look more closely at the map, you’ll see detail that is not immediately apparent, such as burned-out houses, battle damage to the ground, a shadow under a river bridge, and so forth – all good attention to detail.

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  • Two Player Aid charts. One for each player, though the game has  relatively high solitaire play potential. The handouts are of excellent quality in both presentation (full color, well-organized) and durability (good stock, easy to manipulate, it’s not just paper so it won’t blow away easily).
  • Four six-sided dice. Normal-sized white dice with black dots.

GAMEPLAY Blood and Bridges is a game all about destroying the enemy. There are other objectives as well, depending on the scenario (such as occupying a certain hex, or exiting units off a map edge), but at its heart, it’s all about the combat, and it’s rather vicious about it too. Combat is rather simple, even though it can be off-putting to see a plethora of numbers dotting each unit counter. When you fire with a unit, it uses either its AP (armor-piercing) or HE (high explosive) values. This of course depends on the unit type as not all of them have both. Some have anti-air ability, some have anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), but AP and HE are pretty much the basic and most often-used choices. AP is usually used against hard targets, like armored vehicles, while HE is used against soft targets, like thinly-armored vehicles and infantry. Once you figure that out, there’s a firepower rating that tells you how many d6 dice you need to roll. The number you’re shooting for is superscripted there next to the firepower number, and tells you what number or higher you need to roll to score a hit. So you throw your dice, count ‘em up, compare ‘em, and figure out how many hits you get (if any). photo 22 If hits are scored, the defender gets to roll a number of armor value dice, and this of course depends on the unit type (Infantry has none, while T-80 commie tanks have 3). There’s a number superscripting the armor value that tells you what your target number is. There’s also little things like concealment and terrain that can add dice too. The defender rolls, and for each successful die roll, gets to remove one hit. Most units have two steps to them, but some only have one. On the first hit, the unit is disrupted, which will cause it to not fire and if it moves, it needs to move away from the enemy. The second hit causes a step reduction, and a third hit eliminates it.  Fairly easy. There are, of course, a slew of intervening rules that govern these things, such as line of sight (which you must have to fire in the first place), smoke, and other battlefield goodness that can help or hinder attacks. You can conduct assault combat by moving into an enemy’s hex, and AFVs can conduct overrun combat on poor infantry at times. photo 4 As I said…combat is vicious. The many dice rolls that you conduct during a game, once you get the hang of reading the counters, is quick and obviously at times painful (for the side that gets hurt, of course). There is quite a bit of time spent at first referring to the player aid charts and  rules to figure out if you can do something, and it will take a bit of time (at least a couple of playthroughs) for it to start to sink in and you become aware of everything you can do. One thing that suffers early on, that I noticed anyway, is that you need to be really observant about is opportunity fire. If the enemy moves into a line of sight of one of your units, you can try to blast ‘em (if they’re in range, if the unit is in good order, if the unit does not have an ops complete marker). I missed more than one opportunity, but that’s not a knock on the game, just my early observation skills. Once you get burned a time or two forgetting a really good shot, you mentally kick yourself enough to really pay attention from that point forward. As random chance does determine the actual combat results (through die rolls), there’s actually more random chance added through activations. Each turn, players alternate pulling chits from a ubiquitous Opaque CupTM. The chits have unit formation names printed on them (formations are made up of individual counter units), and the chit pulled will tell you which unit’s formations get to act. This makes the game even more of a chaotic jumble, but that’s the point – you’re not simulating a construction line here. However, a player can choose to pass if they wish, and do not have to activate their unit if their formation chit is pulled. To further add to the mix, there’s an end turn chit that’s added to the formations Opaque CupTM, and if it’s pulled, that is the end of the turn. Formations that do not get to go are left in the cup, but provisions are made to help ensure that unactivated formations during that turn, get activated in the next one. Some units, though, have more than one formation chit in the mix, making it more likely they’ll get to do something, and perhaps more than once in a single turn. It’s really quite simple, again, once you get the hang of it. photo 24 The chit pull system is nothing new, but it works well with this game, and can easily be written up to the chaos of a modern battlefield. The lethality of these combat systems (especially the ATGMs) ensures that most games are over pretty quick if one or both sides decide to go toe-to-toe. Speaking of chit pulls, there’s an added bonus to these draws – the Chaos! counter. Not all scenarios have Chaos! counters added to them. Some have one, others have two. Regardless, if this sucker is pulled, there’s a lovely little battlefield chaos table to refer to on the player aid card. This can result in all kinds of battlefield hijinks, such as ‘Snafu’ (where the next formation drawn loses its activation), bad weather, added (or removed) support, ‘shell shocked’ (where the next formation drawn loses one die on all attack and defense rolls), and many other events (11 total). As if there wasn’t enough randomness in the game, the Chaos! counter adds even more – which is actually a rather brilliant addendum to this series of games. In all honesty, there’s so much going on, there’s so much potential in these weapon systems, there’s so many targets (especially in the larger scenarios) and so many random possibilities, that you’re going to feel overwhelmed the first few playthroughs. It’s vital to go with the shorter, smaller scenarios first, which is always natural with any new game you buy, but once you get accustomed to it – you’re going to be in for a BIG treat when you roll out the big scenarios and have yourself a counter-based bloodbath.   SCENARIOS There are twelve scenarios covering the conflict, from the easy first scenario with 17 Soviet and 14 West German counters, to the much larger scenario 10 (“Blood and Bridges”) with almost 50 Soviet counters and almost 40 NATO counters. Some cover light meeting engagements, some straight up toe-to-toe slugfests, and others are designed to showcase the true confusion in conflict. Overall they’re well-designed, balanced, and highly fun to play.; There are a couple of exceptions to “balanced,” but depending on which side you’re on in that, they could be even more fun. For one, Sscenario 3 – entitled “Angels of Death” – is heavily unbalanced in favor of the NATO player. This is a statement I’ve seen elsewhere, so it’s not completely out of left field. The thing is, NATO has Apaches and A-10 tank killers (the A-10s represented as ‘Combat Air Support’) on the prowl, and things can go very bad for the Soviets if they don’t swat these monsters out of the skies early on – no easy feat. The A-10s alone have an AP firepower of six dice and a to -hit of 3 or higher. Needless to say, if you’re wielding these puppies, it’s a treat to mow down Soviet armor. Not so much if you’re on the receiving end of it. photo 12 Scenario 4, “The Defense of Anhausen,” is set up as a prepared British defense of three FV-432 AFV platoons, three Infantry platoons, two Milans, and one Scorpion…against three T-64 platoons, five BTR-70 platoons, five infantry platoons, two Saggers, and one Songster. Needless to say, FV-432s (with an armor value of 1 die and a save target of a 6) versus T-64s (AP firepower of 3 dice with a to-hit of 4 or more) means the British are pretty much meat unless the Soviet player does something really, really stupid. However, Scenario 5 (“Hold The Line”) is much more unbalanced towards the British side. I suppose in the end, all of these scenarios together can meet in the middle. Regardless of complexity, or my own experiences with where scenarios lean, the game almost demands that you find the solution to it, or a tactic that works. Since the game is heavily dependent on luck (via chit pulls from the cup and die rolls), there’s absolutely no guarantee that any tactic will work the way you want it to. Which is, really, how it should be. Even an ironclad plan will disintegrate rather spectacularly when a die doesn’t quite hit that to-hit roll, or your opponent pulls a stunt you were not expecting. So, if there’s so much random chance, what’s the point of going back for more? For one, there’s replayability. This game has a ton of it. Trying one tactic and having it blow up in your face will make you second guess yourself. “What if I had sent that armored unit through the town instead of the trees,” or endless variations of that same question. What if I did this, or what if I did that? photo 25 Some may work better than others, and certainly most tactics revolve around preserving as much of your forces as possible (as destroying them is worth VPs to the other side, naturally). Victory also lies in, as indicated earlier, taking certain hexes, or exiting units. In any case, there’s a swirl of requirements to keep you coming back time and again to try something just a little bit differently.   OVERALL Blood and Bridges is a terrific board game for two players, and has a great for solitaire play, giving it even more appeal. I really enjoy the random nature of the chit pull to activate formations, and the lethality of the weapons systems is tremendous (as I said, especially the ATGMs, making them primary targets). The ebb and flow of the game feels just right and the tension level is there in spades, since one wrong move can shatter your armored spearhead and leave you broken. As far as presentation goes, overall the design and artwork is excellent. Even my initial hesitation with the map board are gone and I’ve learned to love what I see. If you’re looking for a game that is pure U.S. vs. USSR, you’re better off looking at Eisenbach Gap. There are U.S. troops in this game, and West Germans as well, but it’s more focused on the British Army. One thing I do greatly love about the World at War series is that it includes so many of the NATO partners in each of its games, so it’s not just all rehashing the same battles over and over again. If you’re a fan of 80s superpower conventional conflict, the World at War series is a must-have for your wargaming library, and Blood and Bridges represents it at its finest: true nail-biting scenarios with lots of destruction and mayhem.

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