What’s the deal with…Eupen in Battle of the Bulge?

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Christmas_44_in_the_Ardennes

With so much die rolling in Battle of the Bulge, you’re bound to hear a number of complaints when things don’t go someone’s way. It’s the case with any game where you roll dice, and you can make an argument that the complaining is just as much a part of the game as the act of rolling. “You sank my battleship!” “Pretty sneaky, sis.” Et cetera. But there are a couple of places in Bulge where the customer service seems to be particularly bad.

One of those places is Eupen.

After the jump, how do you say that, again?

Eupen (pronounced OY-pen) is a pretty important space in Battle of the Bulge. It’s across the Ambleve River, which protects the Allied northern flank, and gives the Germans direct access to both Spa and Verviers. It also serves as a supply line for the Germans when they are attacking those spaces. A more subtle but very important point is that the bridge from Malmedy to Eupen allows Axis units to concentrate in Eupen from two or three spaces away, which is crucial when assembling for a major armored thrust. So busting into Eupen early in the game seems like a great idea.

Furthermore, it looks like a cakewalk. After all, the ten-point German juggernaut in Gemund usually has no problem crushing three or four strength pips of Allied infantry in Elsenborn, and rolling into Eupen on the next turn with an almost intact combined arms-kampfgruppe should be just as easy, right? I mean, the Allies have maybe two lousy strength points there. How hard could it be?

As many people — judging from the complaints — have found out, it’s actually pretty darn hard. Because you expect that nine or ten dice of armor and infantry should be able to wipe out a couple of pips of defenders, failure to do so seems like a quirk of the dice gods. We’ve already shown the fallacy of that kind of assumption in Bastogne. Is it a surprise that Eupen isn’t any different?

The differences between Elsenborn and Eupen are stark, and easily show up in this graph.

Eupen_odds

The dark green line shows the distribution of probability in Elsenborn. As we saw last time, the likelihood of scoring 7 or more hits is a whopping 30%. Against Eupen, the chances of that exact same force scoring 7 or more hits approaches zero. In Elsenborn, half the time the Germans will score five or more hits. In Eupen, with exactly the same units, half the time they will score two or fewer. Is there some kind of magic involved? In the words of one player, is it true that “it’s built from spines and watered with blood?” Could it be that “when the devil goes a-wandering, and his hooves lead him to Eupen, he turns the fuck around?”

While I absolutely love Chris Gardiner’s take on the foul vapors that seem to infest that game space, the reasons for the disparity in expected results can adequately explained by two objective facts: Eupen is outside the range of Axis artillery, and it can only be attacked on Dec. 17th or later, when the surprise attack bonus has expired. That’s a huge +20% to hit that you don’t get, simply thanks to the clearly documented game rules. Although it would be great if it were due to some kind of devil counter. That wouldn’t be the first time mankind attributed quirks of probability to supernatural causes.

If you’ve just feverishly calculated the odds yourself, and are about to send me an angry email saying I got it all wrong, I have to confess that I misled you. A little. Because to emphasize the shortfall in results compared to expectations, I gave the Germans another handicap, and calculated the expected hits using one other -10% modifier: defending armor. And once again, it doesn’t take the devil to make armor appear in Eupen. Just more dice, and a retreat result. Or an Allied command decision.

We talked a lot about combat commands* last time, regarding elements of 9th Armored Division and the defense of Bastogne. But 9th Armored Division actually starts spread out all over the map, and Combat Command B begins the game in Malmedy. It’s the only Allied armored unit on the northern half of the battlefield. And it’s squarely in the sights of the Germans’ biggest and best unit, the land battleship that is the 1st SS Panzer Division.

1SSPz_attack

The 1st SS Panzer starts the game in Stadtkyll. Assuming the Germans cleared Losheim of the US 14th Cav (89% success rate), the Germans will have the opportunity to move 1st SS Panzer to Malmedy and attack CCB/9 Arm, or that unit and 14th Cav, which 23% of the time will have retreated to Malmedy. As you can imagine, the chances of CCB/9 Arm making it through this attack aren’t great: although about 10% of the time it will be forced to retreat to Eupen (giving the Allies the defense bonus for defending armor I mentioned above), 71% of the time (4 hits or more) the Allies will play the rest of the game without Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division.**

1SSPz_Malmedy

But if the Allied player rescues this unit with his first move, the Germans can execute the Longvilly Lunge and block another part of 9th Armored Division from making it up to Bastogne from Beaufort. And then we do the whole Bastogne dance. The question is: what makes more sense? Saving the northern armor? Or reinforcing Bastogne?

I’m going to come clean with you right now and admit that I don’t have an answer. Just like with all the numbers we trotted out last time, the best recommendation I could make on the Bastogne thing was a sincere shrug. But in the interest of showing you more graphs, I wanted to suggest one more twist on the Allied opening moves, and that is moving CCB/9 Arm to Spa, and leaving Bastogne to its own devices.

1SSPz_Spa

If the Allies don’t put a unit in Spa before the end of Dec. 16th, the Germans can usually take it for free, using the aforementioned 1st SS Panzer Division, moving from Malmedy on the first impulse of Dec. 17th.*** Of course, this lets the Allies bring the 10th Armored Division up into Bastogne, making it much less likely that the Germans will be able to take that town early on. But Spa is worth half as many VP per turn as Bastogne. How much sense does it make to trade 2VP per turn for 1VP per turn?

The answer, as always, depends on how you plan to play. Spa is an important point on the map not just for the VP, but because it guards the approaches to Verviers, which is a 2VP city and furthermore is the entry site on Dec. 20th for the US 3rd Armored Division, a fearsome six-pip unit which will likely form the basis of any Allied battlegroup when the counterattack starts. Taking Verviers before then will delay the 3rd Armored’s entry and push it across the Meuse to Liege or Wanze, exposing it to a lonely cross-river assault before it can fully engage in kicking Nazi butt. But any Allied assault on Verviers has to come through Spa or Eupen, since Stourmont is vulnerable to having its supply cut in Werbomont.

Holding the Ambleve River further canalizes the German attack, forcing the Axis player to make time-consuming (and costly) single-unit attacks across the river until he captures a space. If an early attack on Spa fails, the German may become discouraged and focus his efforts on forcing the Ourthe to the west or south, allowing the Allies to strip the sector of units.

Bringing the 10th Armored into Bastogne can significantly bolster the defense there, but it essentially traps it until reinforcements arrive in Arlon … on the 22nd. That’s five days and a lot of impulses. If the Germans don’t take Bastogne, they can still work around to the north and south, trying to isolate the defenders who can end up being trapped there. This often becomes the second “Race to Sedan” (the first one being in 1940) where skillful German play can delay or prevent the arrival of the Allied Dec. 22nd reinforcements. While losing Bastogne costs the Allies 2VP per turn, it frees a five-pip armor unit to threaten the weak German infantry likely to be striking for the map-edge road spaces, and with the elite armor arriving on the 22nd can form a powerful battle group to hunt the almost-surely depleted German forces.

Bastogne_surrounded

Furthermore, moving CCB/9 Arm to Spa only gives up Bastogne if the Germans don’t attack Spa across the river from Malmedy on their first impulse. And if they don’t, the next Allied move can be to bring the 7th Armored Division down from Verviers into Spa, and the elite US 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) over to … Eupen. Whether the Allies already have a unit there or not (sometimes the Allies will bring 102 Cav from Monschau on the 16th, and sometimes the 99th Infantry in Elsenborn is forced to retreat), this will give the Allied player at least four strength pips in Eupen on defense. And it’s worth remembering this important section of the rules, on terrain modifiers:

terrain_rules

In another almost magical coincidence, Eupen happens to have a forest and a town, giving it a total of three terrain hit reductions. The four strength pips of Allied infantry in Eupen can take advantage of all three. Furthermore, the fact that the Big Red One is an elite unit means the Germans will have -10% to hit, an identical modifier to the “defender has armor” handicap I gave them in the chart at the beginning of this article. Which means we can still use that chart to calculate the chances of the German force in Elsenborn blasting through the Eupen defenders. With a four-strength infantry and three terrain reductions, that’s seven hits required to clear the space and threaten Verviers or Spa. And what did we say about the chances of the Germans getting seven or more hits from that ten-point assault force on Dec. 17th? It approaches zero.

Maybe Eupen is cursed, after all.

* A combat command was a brigade/regiment-sized combined-arms force that made up US armored divisions from 1942 until the early 1960s. Each division was composed of three, designated Combat Command A, B, and Reserve. The force allocation was usually unbalanced to favor CCA and CCB, with CCR comprising units undergoing refit or rest from action.
** The chart does show that if the 14 Cav does get to retreat to Malmedy, the German chances of success drop to 42% because they will need to score 5 or more hits (having three pips of defense allows the Allies to use two terrain reductions. This is analogous to the benefit of having that extra pip in St. Vith, discussed last time.
*** Couldn’t the CCB/9 Arm be forced to retreat to Spa? No. Units will never retreat across an unbridged river if there is a bridged river available. A bridge crosses the Ambleve from Malmedy to Eupen. No such bridge exists from Malmedy to Spa. Units will then retreat closest to a map-edge space. Eupen is map-edge space.
The image at the top of this post of a tank crew from the 5th Armored Regiment stopping near Eupen to open Christmas presents was found here.
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