“Let me reach into my magic bag here and see what I get. Oh, will’ya look at that?”
“Yeah for me.”
“OK, first I roll for morale. I need a 7 or less. (Dice rolling). Heh heh.”
“You just got lucky.”
“Well, now I’m going to move like a hellcat through these woods, stopping at the edge and attack at point-blank range. So….I get to roll 3d6 and any 4 or more is a hit, agreed?”
“Short range is -1, but moving is +1, right? So they cancel out. OK.”
“Alright (dice rolling). Well, look at that! Three hits!”
“Lucky….but I still get my saving roll. Lets see…Mr. Tiger defends with 3d6 and any 4 or better blocks a hit. Good odds….(dice rolling)….Well, frak.”
“Oh, darn your bad luck – nothing. So my three hits get through. Lets see, first disrupts, second is step 1, third is step 2. You’re dead!”
“Well blast. And here I always thought Tigers were powerful.”
This (somewhat) dramatized exchange was not taken from a roleplaying game session. It describes an actual engagement between an American M18 Hellcat tank destroyer and a German Tiger I tank in the wargame Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock ‘n Load Publishing (2010). What I hope stands out to you is that very non-classical, no odd-based combat resolution system. Indeed, the combat mechanics of Nations at War: White Star Rising is what sets the game apart to me.
Another Tactical WWII Game?
I recently acquired Nations at War: White Star Rising (hereafter NAW:WSR) in a trade. The copy I got is a ‘players copy’ in relatively good shape. A previous owner took it upon themselves to clip most of the corners on most of the counters. I traded more out of curiosity than to get another tactical World War II game; one of my favorite wargames (of all eras or types of conflict) is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) and I was sure this would not replace that game in my pantheon of wargame heroes. That said, the Nations at War series struck me with a bit of a PanzerBlitz-vibe and I thought it would be good as a simpler, quicker-playing wargame for weekday nights against my battle buddy RockyMountainNavy T.
A Systematic View
I admit it; I am a bit of a game mechanics freak. I love playing wargames to not only explore the history of the situation, but to also explore how different designers approach an issue. When I got NAW:WSR to the table I quickly discovered that the initial PanzerBlitz-vibe I got was purely from scale and looks. As I explored the gameplay in NAW:WSR I discovered a very different approach to depicting conflict in World War II. The system integration of Chit-Pull, Command & Morale, and a different Combat model make NAW:WSR a unique game that captures the essence of the fight in a very streamlined set of rules
Each turn in NAW:WSR is very straight-forward; Pull a Formation Marker from the cup and execute actions with that formation. Once two End of Turn chits are drawn, the turn ends and play proceeds to the next turn. Yes, NAW:WSR uses that favored mechanic of mine – chit pull. This makes the game both very-solo friendly but also introduces some ‘friction’ into play since players can never be sure just when they are going to activate.
Command & Morale
The second element of the design of NAW:WSR that I really enjoy is the simple command rules. Each formation has at least one Headquarters that is rated for Leadership, Command Range, and Morale. When the formation is activated all units check to see if they are in command range; if yes they activate normally. However, if a subordinate unit is NOT in command range, they need to pass a Morale Check (each hex rolls equal to or less than the Morale Level) in order to activate normally. If the unit fails the Morale Check, an Out of Command marker is placed on the unit that limits what it can do during the turn. This simple mechanic nicely captures the essence of the C2 problems forces on the battlefield faced – again using a relatively simple mechanic that plays quickly without bogging down the turn.
As you can see from the narrative at the beginning of this post, combat in NAW:WSR is somewhat different than many wargames. Although this title has been available since 2010, this was the first time I can personally recall seeing this sort of system used in a wargame I own. But does it work?
NAW:WSR is a platoon-level wargame which places it in an interesting area on the spectrum of conflict simulations. Platoon-level games are simultaneously detailed and abstracted. The detail is often found in the order of battle for at the platoon-level you can easily depict the many elements of the combined arms fight. Thus, you don’t get just a Sherman tank, you can get an M4A1 or an M4A3E8 (aka “Easy 8”). To tactical gaming purist out there, those are two very different beasts!
The problem is that the detailed order of battle in turn demands a way to differentiate units in terms of their capabilities. Traditionally, hex & chit wargames use the classic Attack-Defense-Movement triumvirate of ratings to describe units. This simplification sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the detailed order of battle because unless you get more detailed the abstraction of triumvirate often fails to differentiate between units. The lack of differences can be made worse by the use of a traditional Combat Resolution Table (CRT) that strictly compares odds. A greater part of this issue is the classic use of 2d6 for games which limits the range of results and can be very sensitive to modifiers if not used carefully.
NAW:WSR takes a different approach to differentiating units by using five descriptive ratings:
- AP Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
- HE Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
- Assault Factor rated by Assault Factor-To Hit#
- Armor Value rated by Armor Value-Save#
- Movement Factor
Taken together, these ratings can be used to describe a finer grade of differences between combat systems without becoming too detailed. One can capture which weapons reached further than others; the combination of Firepower and To Hit# gets to now only who throws more ordnance downrange, but how likely it is to do something if it hits. Then there is the Armor Value and Save# which not only describes how much armor there is but how likely it is to actually do something.
It’s easy to see that the designer of NAW:WSR tried to avoid an odds-based Combat Resolution Table (CRT). To attack, the player selects the appropriate Firepower ensuring that the target is in Range (Extended and Reduced Range is possible) and then rolls a number of d6 equal to that Firepower. Every die that is equal to or greater than the To Hit# scores a Hit. If the target is a ‘soft target’ (non-armored) they roll a number of defensive d6 equal to the terrain defense bonus. For every defender die that rolls five (5) or greater one hit is ignored. In a similar fashion, ‘hard targets’ (armored vehicles) roll a number of defending d6 equal to the Armor Value plus the terrain defense bonus. Each defense die that rolls equal to or greater than the Save Number offsets one hit.
This is how you get a US M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer (AP Firepower 6-3-4) attacking a German Tiger I (Armor Value 3-4) at range 1. The Hellcat has a Special Scenario Rule (SSR) that allows it to move up to three movement points and still shoot but at a penalty of +1 on the To Hit#. During the turn in question, Kamfgruppe Beck (the Tiger I formation) had already activated and the Tiger I moved resulting in an Ops Complete marker being placed on the unit. When the 507 PIR formation was activated (the M18 being cross attached) the Hellcat player recognized that since the Tiger I was Ops Complete it was not eligible for Opportunity Fire. Using the SSR the M18 moved through a hex of woods and pulled up one hex from the Tiger I. The M18 then took the shot at range 1 (Reduced Range) which is -1 on the To Hit#. The Hellcat here rolled 3d6…and each was a 4 or greater scoring three Hits. The Tiger I attempted to save itself and rolled 3d6 (Armor Value) but got no additional defense bonus die because it was in open terrain. None of the three die rolled were equal to or greater than 4 meaning all three Hits scored. This was enough to outright destroy the Tiger I. That was by far the best outcome for the Hellcat because if the roles were reversed it is doubtful the Hellcat would survive. The Tiger I would attack at 7-3-3 whereas the Hellcat defends at 1-6. At Reduced Range that AP Firepower becomes 7-3-2 meaning any of the 3d6 rolled that come up at 2 or more is a hit. The poor Hellcat would get a defense bonus die for being in the woods but even so that’s only 2d6 rolled…and each needs to be a 6 to offset a hit!
All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Save Number works. Even in a wargame. When it comes right down to it, the combat model in NAW:WSR is not really all that different than the traditional odds-based CRT, it just uses a different randomizer model to deliver similar odds. The real difference is that the NAW:WSR model “operates faster” because there is little need to “math it out;” instead you simply pick up dice and roll comparing to a number on the counter.
What’s Old is New Again
Nations at War: White Star Rising will get to the table against my battle buddy. The relatively small footprint and quick-playing nature of the game along with just enough ‘detail’ helps to create an immersive, narrative gameplay experience. The different mechanics are just that, different.