ONE OF THE FIRST WARGAMES I PLAYED OH-SO-LONG AGO WAS AIR ASSAULT ON CRETE/INVASION OF MALTA (Avalon Hill, 1977). Since then, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this battle. So when I saw Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) put Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (2017) on sale I jumped at it. Besides the theme appealing to me, so did the price. As of today the game sells for $172 (!); I bought it on sale for $40!!! So…a bit of a danger sign there. Why would a company sell a game at over 75% off? Is there a problem with the game?
After spending over a week of evenings learning and playing the game, I am torn. In some ways Operation Mercury is perfect for me, but it also presents problems. I really like the fact Operation Mercury is a chit-pull game but I have problems with it being a monster game and chatty rules.
My first Grand Tactical Series (GTS)
Before this sale, the only MMP game I owned was a single title from The Gamers, Dean Essig’s predecessor company. Operation Mercury is therefore my introduction to the Grand Tactical Series (GTS). As the MMP ad copy puts it:
The Grand Tactical Series (GTS) recaptures battles on a grand scale with the color and atmosphere that the great campaigns deserve. Updating Victory Games’ popular, playable and accurate Panzer Command system, the series is also created with exquisite historical detail and a game system that allows the players to see the great “Whys” and “What Ifs” as the campaigns unfold.
The back of the box tell us the game scale is Company/Platoon at 500 meters per hex and each turn representing about two hours. That’s fine until you realize Operation Mercury is trying to recreate the entire campaign of multiple divisions fighting at the company level across most of the island of Crete:
OPERATION MERCURY maintains the same level of detail and scale as other Grand Tactical Series (GTS) games. Players command divisions and maneuver company-sized units to fight one of the most desperate battles of the war. Using the GTS 2.0 rules, OPERATION MERCURY offers two players or teams a wide range of scenarios ranging from a single small map with a few units on each side to the full battle including up to two German divisions and several Commonwealth and Greek brigades. OPERATION MERCURY covers all the major airdrops and fighting across the island from Heraklion in the east, through Rethymnon, and from Maleme to Suda Bay then south to the Askifou Plain, scene of the last major fight during the withdrawal.
wargame conflict simulation
To fight those divisions and brigades, Operation Mercury is in many ways a monster game. The game box ships with 5x 22″x34″, 2x 17″x22″, and 2x 8.5″x11″ maps. It also comes with 8x countersheets (1568 5/8″ counters). Simply put, I don’t have tabletop space to play the full campaign game. Fortunately, there are 14 scenarios (including a Learning Scenario) of which eight require two maps or less.
The many counters in Operation Mercury also presented me with a problem (literally) right out of the box. It became very clear early on that I would have to organize all the counters if I was to ever find what I need. That’s because Operation Mercury hews much closer to the ‘conflict simulation’ school of wargaming. Of the 1586 counters, about half are markers and half are units. Units are not generic; each has an individual identifier. When setting up a scenario one needs particular units. I spent a lot of time hunting the unpunched countersheets for “1. Geb.Pi 95” (only to discover that the front of the counter is misprinted as “3. Geb.Pi 95.”). Most importantly, this hunting made me realize that before I punch any counters I need an organization scheme unless I want to spend hours (and I do mean hours) hunting for the particular counters needed in a scenario.
I was very surprised when I opened the Grand Tactical Series rule book. My going-in impression of MMP was built around the mythology of Advanced Squad Leader and the SPI-approach to rules (everything – subbullets and all – numbered). So image my surprise when I opened the rule book to face ‘chatty’ rules. As found in A note about the rules:
There are two sets of rules. The one you are reading now is repetitive and written in a chatty style. It is repetitive because we have duplicated many rules throughout the sections, so you don’t have to flip through the rule book to find the one place where a rule appears. We hope the chatty style makes it easier to read. The tradeoff is longer rules. For those who prefer concise rules (or who find the chatty style irritating), we have included a set of short rules and also tried to put as much useful information as possible on the charts and tables. Experienced gamers should be able to start playing with the short rules and charts and tables. We hop there are no discrepancies between the rules, but this rulebook governs should there be.
First, I dislike chatty. The rules are supposed to communicate how to operate a model; procedures that are best explained procedurally. Second, I find it very hard to find rules in this rule book. Give me an index! The glossary is close but still, an index, please! Finally, the ‘short rules’ is apparently an eight-page Grand Tactical Series 2.0 Rules Summary that is mostly flow charts and again has no cross-references.
What about the rules themselves? Well, there are parts I like and dislike.
Random Chit Activation
LIKE…BUT. I have written before about my new-found love of chit-pull games, especially for solo play. This puts Operation Mercury right in my wheelhouse. That said, learning the rules for activations was not possible in the ‘short rules’ meaning I had to divine them from the chatty.
HUH? It took me a moment to wrap my head around the concept that a Leg unit using Regular movement pays 2 MP for a Clear hex and 1MP if in Column. A change from the usual (expected?) 1MP/Half-MP model. Once it clicked it clicked but it was unexpected and jarring at first.
DISLIKE. This is where the chatty-rules totally fails me. When the designer sees fit to provide a one or two-page flow chart in the Rules Summary I become wary. At first I depended on the ‘experienced gamer’ claim and tried to play from the flow charts. FAIL! So I then had to go find the rules in the rule book (after all, they are the authoritative version, right?). I eventually figured it out but it was not that easy.
Learning the Fire Combat rules also uncovered some of the underlying game model to me. In particular, the use of color fire ratings to show the different combat doctrines. As noted here:
Historical note: In contrast to the Germans, Allied infantry companies relied more on Fire Rating and less on shock. In particular, Allied methods depended on an almost indiscriminate use of firepower, featuring the light mortar, which stressed quantity more than quality. The Purple Fire Rating reflects this style of fighting. These units use Direct Fire and hence may attempt Opportunity Fire. They cannot use Indirect Fire like regular (green Fire Rating) mortars do and so their fire does not cause Barrage markers to be placed.
As I look over the counters, I can’t help but notice colors other than purple and green. Indeed, many units in Operation Mercury have white or pink. It took me a while to figure out the color is the Weapon Class and directly tied to the Combat Results Table. At the end of the day I figured it out but for something that was explicitly called out in a historical note the full story got buried deep in the rules.
I also have a hard time understanding why there are so many die rolls during combat in Operation Mercury. In a typical direct fire combat event the following arrangement of rolls is very likely:
- Assaulter Bravery Check
- Defender Opportunity Fire
- Troop Quality Check
- Combat die roll
- Defender Direct Fire (x2)
- Combat die roll
- Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
- Combat die roll
- (If this was first round of fire a second round is possible)
- Defender Direct Fire (x2)
- Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
That’s as many as 11 die rolls to resolve a ‘single’ combat. And I’m going to fight how many companies in that division? How many die rolls are possible every turn? I don’t understand why so many die rolls are necessary. When your model requires this much effort from me I really want to understand why. Without understanding the rationale I have a hard time accepting this level of effort from me.
Repetitive? Yes. Confusing? Yes.
There are some rules that just plain bug me. Take for instance that Bravery Check to start an Assault combat action:
29.13. Bravery Check
When a unit has to performs an Assault each Assaulting Unit must pass a Troop Quality Check as its Bravery Check. If a Unit fails its Bravery Check, the Unit does not perform the Assault. A Command Point cannot be used to pass a Bravery Check. Note thet [sic] a Bravery Check is performed like a Troop Quality Check but is not the same thing regarding the rules. A Bravery Check will always fail on a roll of 9.
So, same but different? Let’s look at a Troop Quality Check:
29.47. Troop Quality Check
A test a Unit must pass before it can do various things such as Rally when not in command or Opportunity Fire. To make a Troop Quality Check, you roll a die for the Unit. The Unit passes if the die roll is equal to or less than its Troop Quality Rating (as modified by any applicable modifiers). A nine always fails and a zero always succeeds. A Unit may be able to spend a Command Point instead of rolling a die to pass a Troop Quality check, but a player may not do both (roll, and then spend a Command Point).
No mention of the Bravery Check. To find that mention one must look to the next glossary entry:
29.48. Troop Quality Rating
The measure of a Unit’s morale, supply and training….A Command Point may not be spent to pass the Troop Quality Check required for a Bravery Check, Opportunity Fire and Engineer Actions.
Why the needless terminology of Bravery Check? Just call it a Troop Quality Check without the ability to spend a Command Point!
[OK, yes. The use of the term Bravery is certainly more dramatic, but I don’t think too many people are playing Operation Mercury as a ‘narrative’ game.]
A working-class wargame
More so than most any game I acquired in the past few years, Operation Mercury really makes me work to learn it. Although I consider myself an experienced gamer, it appears my definition and MMP’s do not align. After stumbling through the Learning Scenario using the Rules Summary, I went back and started with reading the full rule book. Then I reset the Learning Scenario and tried again. Only after becoming proficient at the Learning Scenario did I attempt Scenario 1. The investment to learn Operation Mercury was easily the most I have spent in at least the last two years.
This in turn also makes me work harder to explain my thoughts on Operation Mercury here. I want to like the game, but at the same time the overhead from executing the rules is onerous at times. Given the designations of units, it is essential from the beginning that player have a plan for organizing counters or many long hours (yes, hours) will be spent setting up a scenario – and I for one do not welcome that sort of stress coming from simply opening the box.
A monster, or two, in little bites
Then there are the scenarios for Operation Mercury. The Exclusive Rules have 14 scenarios including the Learning Scenario. Fortunately, most can be played on one or two maps. But in doing so yet another organizational need was exposed. Of the 14 scenarios, most use the Campaign Counters but the first four are battalion-level scenarios (vice the campaign Regiment/Brigade) that use a different set of counters. In practice this means the first four scenarios are the same, but different, games as compared to campaign scenarios. So confusing!
A lifestyle game
To me, Operation Mercury and the Grand Tactical Series is not so much a
wargame conflict simulation as it is a gaming lifestyle. If you are buying a MMP GTS game for anything near retail it is big investment of money. The game physically requires a big investment in space. You must be willing to invest time to organize, time to learn rules, time to set up, and time to play. These investments in many ways outweigh even the not-insignificant monetary cost of the game.
Yet somehow in the end it comes together and works. For the most part. If you have the space and time and patience to play Operation Mercury you should. It took a great deal of effort but I eventually figured the game out. The game mechanics really are not hard and the flow charts help once you understand them. The scenarios present many interesting challenges and decisions. Operation Mercury truly is a grand view of the battle.
I am glad I purchased Operation Mercury as I can explore a bit of MMP’s GTS line up. In the end though, Operation Mercury taught me that GTS is not my thing; the Standard Combat Series is much more suitable to me these days.