Britain’s Finest Hour? Maybe, but not this wargames. Thoughts on Operation Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? (Command Magazine/XTR Corp., Issue 45/October 1997)

I don’t envy wargame magazine publishers. It can’t be easy to consistently meet a production schedule of both magazine content and wargame. Even when using a “tried and true” system I am sure that there is lots of development work needed. To often the delivered product is just not-quite-ready for primetime.

Such is the case with Operation Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? (Command Magazine/XTR Corp., Issue 45/October 1997). The theme of the game interests me; a hypothetical German invasion of England starting in September 1940. I recently pulled the game off the shelf to play. Rather than give it something like a full review, I am going to note my reactions or thoughts on various aspects of the game.

Set up and Ready to Play

Components: The game has a very small footprint using an 11″ x 34″ fold-out map. There are 172 counters for units and markers. The rulebook is a short 16-pages in double-column layout. There is also a single page Turn Record Sheet in way-too-small print and with no way to mark off items. Already I can see the state-of-the-art for wargame presentation has come along way since 1997. Today this would likely be a nice cardstock play aid with plenty of graphical hints suitable for photocopy or even maybe dry-erase ready.

Game Length: In the Introduction, it does does say “OSL takes from four to six hours and is suitable for solitaire play.” The game is so small surely this can’t be true? Later, in 4.0 How to Win, I read that the “winner is determined on or before the end of Game Turn 80.” Eighty turns! This means that every turn needs to be no more than 4 1/2 minutes long.

Set Up: Easy for the British. If it has a hex on the unit place it there. It it has a two-digit turn of entry place it in the Misc. Holding Box. All other units to the Reinforcements Available Box. Similar ease for the Germans.

Command Points: Players must use Command Points (CP) to activate their units. Per 6.7 German CP Limits the Germans automatically have two (2) CP each turn and can “earn” up to four more for a total of six per turn (see 6.6 German CP Awards). The British on the other hand roll a die per 6.8 British CP Awards. By the way, the British CP Awards Chart is in the rulebook and not on the map. On certain turns the CP can be affected by 6.9 RAF/RN Surge. If a surge is chosen, then the effect is rolled on the RAF/RN Surge Effects Table (again only in the rulebook). Regardless of the surge effect, the CP awarded via the die roll on the British CP Awards Chart is reduced by one. HOWEVER, Rule 6.11 First Week British Flatfootedness is in effect for Turns 1 through 4 which reduces the British CP die roll by one. All this decision space is presented on Turn 1 of the game; it took far longer than the expected 4 1/2 minutes for the turn just to figure out these rules interactions and determine the British CP.

Reinforcements: Arrive on the map using CP. With so few CP available and with CP also used to activate a unit already on the map it certainly appears the game will be “static.” Maybe that small map is not inappropriate?

Movement: Terrain effects are very limited and generally impact combat, not movement.  +1 for ease of play.

Combat: There is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in OSL. Units roll against an Anti-Armor or Anti-Infantry Rating. Using a d10, if the number rolled is less than or equal to the rating it is a hit and the target unit loses a step. There are rules for Artillery (13.5 Artillery) and Retreat (13.6 Retreat). Modifiers to combat are given in 14.2 Terrain, 14.3 Supply, 14.4 German Ground Attack Support Aircraft, and 14.5 German Super-Heavy Artillery in France. The later rule may be the most useless as the Super-Heavy Artillery can only fire up to four hexes from their on-map site. The range covers exactly six hexes of Britain. Could this be the definition of a useless chrome rule?

Gameplay Experience: I spent about 30 minutes setting up the game and reviewing the rulebook. I then played for about 2 hours. It was a slog. Early turns took much longer than the 4 1/2 minutes needed (the first turn was over 10 minutes) and, although later turns moved faster as more of the rules “clicked,” I still only made it out to just past Turn 15. At this point I was looking at 4.4 Winning which has a method of ending the game early (based on a die roll) if at the end of any turn the German VP is 46 or greater. Personally, I hate a wargame mechanic that artificially ends a game based on a chancy die roll like this. But in OSL the game seems so endless this “early out” mechanic is most welcome!

Cost: OSL has a cover price of $29.95. This converts from 1997 dollars to just under $47 today. Pricey…not sure it is really worth it absent a full play aid overhaul and tighter game development.

Tone: I have very mixed feeling about the editorial tone in the rulebook. The writers try to be welcoming to new and veteran gamers alike. There are Beginners Notes and Old Hands Notes as well as Design Notes and Historical Notes thrown in throughout the rulebook. In many ways the writing seems condescending to new gamers. If one was to follow the writer’s advice, then most Markers (rule 2.9) and rules 8.0 Replacements, 9.0 Supply, good portions of 13.0 Combat and 14.0 Fire Modifiers as well as all of 15.0 Optional Rules are not used. I question what game is left without these sections; simpler maybe but interesting? Probably not.

Bottom Line: Operations Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? is in many ways a classic hex-and-counter wargame. Classic in most game mechanics and certainly in presentation. Combat is “innovative” in that it doesn’t use a CRT and Command Points limit the amount of “boom & zoom” across the map. But at 80 turns this game is TOOO LOOOONNGGG. If the mechanics could be tweaked to make this game absolutely no more than 3 hours it might match thematic appeal to game mechanics.

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