Battle of the Bulge open mic night

, | Features

The hex is dead. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to while playing territory-based games like Eador: Genesis on the PC and Battle of the Bulge on the iOS, where you fight over maps built from discrete chunks, each a package of unique personality that you won’t get on a screenful of hexes or tiles.

This is particularly true in Shenandoah Studios’ carefully crafted swathe of the Ardennes where Battle of the Bulge takes place. As an example of level design, it is on par with Facing Worlds in Unreal Tournament, the Shire in Lord of the Rings Online, the last level of Painkiller, Siren Alley in Bioshock 2, and the Glendale track in Need for Speed: Shift 2. So I started writing about each of the territories. I got about half way down the right edge of the map before I was sick of listening to myself write. I’d much rather listen to other people write about this place.

So I opened the mic to various people who either made the game or who have been playing it with me. I asked them to choose a favorite territory and tell me why it was their favorite. The variety of approaches they took is a testament to what a great game this is.

After the jump, the Battle of the Bulge favorite territory poetry/prose slam

Nicholas Karp, COO, Shenandoah Studios: I have intimate memories of many territories, but will pick Bertrix for your survey. Bertrix has a rare but important role in play, often the farthest reach of the Axis southern pincer. But, due to a code design quirk, it came up again and again in debugging. If you zoom the map to maximum magnification and position the SW corner of the map at the bottom left corner of the iPad, the middle pixel of the screen is in Bertrix. As a result, whenever something went wrong during development, it would show up in Bertrix. No destination specified for a reinforcement? It arrived in Bertrix! Buggy strategic movement algorithm? Go directly to Bertrix! The coordinates of Valhalla for eliminated units? Bertrix, of course!

Dave Perkins: Just look at Eupen, so tall and long and forested, no roads entering it from the east, protecting Verviers and its 2 VP like a cup protects the junk, and tell me it’s not the most important territory on the map. If the Allies reinforce it even a tiny bit, the Axis is forced south into a river-choked roadless passage through Malmedy. The people of Verviers will enjoy at least two extra days of cheese and wine socials before having to shine their bayonets and cock their hats.

JoshL: The space that jumps out at me is Werbomont. It is right at that tantalizing corner of the Ourthe that is just one space away from the Meuse. Your panzers are merrily cruising along, enjoying the nice, dense forest and its big defense bonus. And then, bam! They are suddenly out in the open, stuck behind this river. So either they attack across the river, which they can only do one at a time, and probably get cut to pieces, or they sit there uselessly until the weather clears and the allies slaughter them.

It’s no better from the Allied side. “Hey, if I send some guys into Werbomont, I might be able to cut off the panzers in the north!” Uh huh. Nothing can go wrong with that plan.

Tim James: Huy is the light at the end of the tunnel for the Axis. If Panzer divisions race to that territory early in the game, the Allies need to scramble to defend. From there, it’s only a short drive across the Meuse at multiple points.

Yet it always seems just out of reach. It’s the high water mark in most of the games I’ve played. If the Axis can’t capitalize, they need to weigh the risk of holding it. That’s because it’s one of the few territories with the clear terrain modifier. Units on both sides gain a +1 chance to hit. Battles at Huy quickly turn into a bloodbath. The Allies usually have enough reinforcements to take that trade.

There’s never a dull moment at Huy.

Jeff Dougherty, producer, Shenandoah Studios: The area that really sticks out in my mind is Werbomont, the “graveyard of a hundred schemes” to misquote H.P. Willmott. I can’t count the number of times during playtest a promising German offensive bogged down there, stymied by a number of factors. The Germans have most of the board between them and their supply/reinforcement locations, the Allies are one road away from most of their reinforcement spaces, and the river crossing forces the Germans to attack piecemeal into defensive terrain. Even the open ground in Huy doesn’t usually help. The defenders have a village to shelter them, and the combination of river crossing and clear terrain modifiers turn it into a shooting gallery for your panzers. Ah, for all the times Liege seemed within my grasp…

Mike Oberly: I’m afraid my choice will be cliched and boring. As much as I love the entire map, and the thought put into its design, and as much as I love the beautiful turquoise of the west side of the Meuse river, I will say the Bastogne space. I love how the road network around and through Bastogne has a large effect on dictating movement, as it did historically. I love how the German player is more or less forced to the north if he is unable to take the space. Mostly, I love how the placement and design of the space forces both players to make critical decisions early on. And I love that the game design gives both players a decent chance to take/ hold the space if they decide to make that their focus.

Ian “spelk” Bowes: My favorite territory is St Vith. It’s one of the important crossroads and a main thoroughfare for both sides, and whoever can get to it (and hold it) can count it as a true “poke in the eye” gesture towards his opponent.

It’s also the only early game, easily grabbed Victory Point “pump” territory. Secure it, hold it over many days, and it will boost your Victory Points, effectively jabbing your opponents eye on a daily basis. Holding it as the Axis allows you to stream your armour through the less obstructive road networks. Holding it as the Allies plugs the road bottleneck, and can help slow the Axis advance, jamming up those Steel Panthers.

Securing St. Vith and kicking the Axis out was a major part of one of my first Battle of the Bulge scenarios in Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, a very RTS-like pause-able real-time operational wargame from Panther Games.

Joe Bolt: Eupen is the territory that I find to be the most memorable. It was the first one I learned the name, besides the biggy, Bastogne (I’m not a WWII history buff or a wargamer, but I am looking to rectify both of those). The first battle in this territory I had overwhelming superiority at first glance. I was already planning my next moves after a victory. After several turns and several battles in Eupen, I wasn’t any closer to winning control.

That game ended in a big loss, like most of mine do, and I tried to figure out why things didn’t go the way I expected in Eupen. This was when I realized that this game isn’t so simple as just moving things around. The people I lost to were playing a completely different game than the one I was playing. My biggest mistake was not seeing what was right there in front of me. All the information you need is on the map.

There is now a new classic blunder, only ranked slightly behind “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”: never start a war in Eupen, never ever, unless you like losing, cause you will lose, a lot. Eupen made me want to keep playing to discover a better way to play the game. Well, and maybe to try and beat the other people.

Chris “triggercut” Hornbostel: Herve. The name recalls in my own mind’s eye the little dude in the white suit on TV’s Fantasy Island, but I suppose the town of Herve far pre-dates Ricardo Montalban’s sidekick. On the Battle Of The Bulge map it’s a little, insignificant, out-of-the-way space way up north, tucked in between the victory point gumball machines of Verviers to the east and Liege to the west. I’m sure Herve is a lovely and scenic town in real life, but for our iOS wargaming purposes in Battle Of The Bulge, it is a bleak, barren, plain. There’s a road that runs through it, but little in the way of natural defense. It’s no place to be infantry without air or tank support, I can tell you that much.

If you’re the Axis in the game, Herve is tantalizingly close to a dream realized. It’s a “back door” of sorts into Verviers if the Allied player has committed his defenses to that space and the easily-fortified Spa and Eupen that abut it to the south and east, respectively. If you’re the Allies, it’s tantalizingly close to a nightmare. If you’re having to fight there, it’s either because Verviers is about to go down thus rendering your garrisons in those aforementioned adjoining territories moot to the proceedings. Sometimes, though, you’re the Allies fighting there because that’s the remnants of the force that defended Verviers and had to retreat. They’re the last line of defense in front of Liege, and you haven’t gotten an impulse to move them back.

Such is the case on December 19th. I’m playing as the Axis side in a match that, much to the credit of the guy I’m up against as well as the game itself, I’ve never quite seen before. This is an odd-looking map. He’s got me stymied to the south in the heavily-wooded areas of Trois Points and Houffalize. The only place I’ve broken through is a thin ribbon of spaces in the far north, and as described above, as the Axis I’ve managed to take Verviers and forced him to retreat with two infantry that total five strength pips. I’m there with two panzer units, both beaten up pretty badly in the assault on the city, totaling nine strength. I figure I’d better push on that infantry now, when I can do so with nine strength in two beaten up armored units, rather than wait for him to pull back into Liege where I can only send one unit in at a time. My hope is maybe to do enough damage to really pressure that city in the next turn. If I can’t eventually break through here, I’m in trouble, because the battle isn’t going well at all to the south.

The game odds say I’ve got a decent chance at forcing a retreat, maybe 30%. That’s great. It puts my armor at the Meuse, which triggers bonus reinforcements for the Axis. The odds say that I’m very likely to do as much damage to him as him to me, which I guess is a decent tradeoff when the odds are 9:5. I can perhaps afford the hit more than him. I attack…and in an astonishing bit of luck, I lose one strength point, but he loses all five. Both his infantry units are wiped off the map. Not only that, my armor then gets a free overrun move. I take that into Liege, which means I’ve crossed the Meuse. On December 19th, I’ve crossed the Meuse. Game over, Axis wins.

Chris Gardiner: Eupen looks so pretty: a long stretch of forest up in the north. It’s surrounded by bleak, open woodlands, and in contrast to them, Eupen looks snug. The wind moaning through my iPad speakers wouldn’t find me in Eupen. Those dense trees would keep it out. I bet it’s peaceful, there. There’s a quaint little village, too. I can see the houses peeking through the canopy. It looks like it’d be a nice place to stay.

Let’s break down why, to a Battle of the Bulge player, that paragraph reads like an excerpt from the Rough Guide to the Most Hellish Place on Earth.

“A long stretch”: Eupen is the size of any two other areas. Its western edge borders on Verviers and Spa, both point-scoring locations. To approach them from the south means crossing the Ambleve river one unit at a time — a death sentence. So whichever of them you’re after, you have to go through Eupen. It also means you can’t go for both at once without splitting your forces and sacrificing any sensible odds of victory.

“Forest” : That’s 2 hits negated. “Quaint little village” = that’s a further hit. Eupen throws away three precious hits any time you attack it. Infantry hit 30% of the time, so you’d need TWELVE POINTS of infantry to have a moderate chance of even scratching whoever your opponent’s got lurking in there.

Oh, look. There is no such thing as twelve points of infantry.

That means it’s down to armour, and at least eight points of it. That’s a whole lot of Panzers squeezing between the trees, being whittled down by its impervious defenders. By the time you manage to push through to hit Spa or Verviers, your lovely tanks have lost valuable strength, making next battle all the more painful. And then, assuming they win, they’ve still got the next area to deal with. If there’s anything of them left.

Sure, Eupen looks nice. But it’s built from spines and watered with blood. When the devil goes a-wandering, and his hooves lead him to Eupen, he turns the fuck around.

cannedwombat: This is a hard call to make. For me, the tragedies stand out more than the successes, and I’ve had disaster befall me in every territory. Vivisected in Verviers, bologna-fied in Bastogne, mauled in Marche. Every territory, save one: Prum. Sweet, onomatopoeic Prum. Nothing bad ever happens in Prum. It’s where the Volksgrenadiers go to retire.

Rob “Xemu” Fermier: My favorite territory would have to be Schonberg. I’ve heard and gamed many of the battles from the opening days of the Bulge: the heroic defense of Bastogne, the fights along Elsenborn Ridge, the crossroads of St. Vith. But those guys in Schonberg, the 106 Inf, they have it rough. They are practically guaranteed to start out surrounded on the very first turn as the Axis surprise attacks easily take Losheim and Bleialf.

Yet the defenders of Schonberg aren’t granted a quick and painless defeat. The 62 VG and 18 VG aren’t enough to dislodge them from the forest even with a surprise attack, and the nearby 150 Pz is of little use. So the 106 Inf of Schonberg are surrounded, and forced to slow, painful death. They aren’t strategically interesting enough to rescue or destroy, nor strong enough to fight out on their own. So they sit there, and they starve.

Pat Ward, artist, Shenandoah Studios: There are a few areas that I like but if I can only choose one then Trois Ponts stands out. If I can secure Trois Ponts in the early game, playing either side, I feel like I can take a breather. Completely untrue and probably derives from very early testing, but it’s my little comfort blanket. It’s flanked by Rivers and Forest and is a key point in the Eupen-Bastogne line that’s important to both sides.

Bruce Geryk: Any Slavic language speaker is probably going to say Huy. Just go up to a Polish or Russian speaker, say “huy”, and chuckle. You’ll either get a chuckle back or a punch in the face. But that’s a little lowbrow for this discussion.

On the other hand, I really like Fosse because it’s awesome to see the world of wargaming acknowledge a seminal American choreographer. And the guy who got run over by Pete Rose in the 1972 All-Star Game and was never the same. So giving them a little immortality in the forests of Belgium is an important link between wargame designers and the worlds of dance and baseball. It’s the kind of cultural IQ typical of the genre. But probably too highbrow for this discussion.

Ultimately, Bulge is all about gameplay, and from a gameplay perspective I just love Givet. It’s on the Meuse, so getting there triggers the special German reinforcements so crucial to winning (or as the Allies, to losing). It’s the farthest objective from the German start areas, so just getting there is kind of an adventure fantasy role-playing game, like completing a difficult quest. But like an early Bioware title, it comes with its own special bad joke, and that is that the impossibly named space just across the Meuse, Wannsee-McGillicutty, isn’t an exit space. The great thing about the Meuse objectives is that each one offers the tantalizing chance of a dragon’s hoard of victory points if the Germans can just reach the far shore and exit the map. But getting to Givet is a false refuge, because across the river is a brick wall of map edge. You have pirouette north to Fosse. Which I’m sure he would appreciate. But in a game full of possibilities, Givet is a dead-end. And that’s the kind of middlebrow paradox I’m sure we can all admire.