I recently read Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II (Viking, 2018) while at the same time playing Mark Simonitch’s wargame Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden, September 1944 (GMT Games, 2017). As far as book + wargame combinations go it was not great; The Battle of Arnhem is a book very focused on telling the story of the many faces of human suffering around the battle. It is not an analysis of the battle that greatly contributes to understanding decisions faced when playing Holland ’44. That said, the early chapters of the book set the stage for Operation Market Garden in a manner that can make the opening situation of Holland ’44 more understandable. It certainly influenced my strategy in play. More importantly, while playing Holland ’44 I discovered how much I enjoy Simonitch’s “‘ZOC Bond” war engine and am happily adding companion game titles to my wargame collection.
Going to Market
In the early chapters of The Battle of Arnhem Beevor make it clear that he believes Operation Market Garden was a disaster from the start.
Many historians, with an ‘if only’ approach to the British defeat, have focused so much on different aspects of Operation Market Garden which went wrong they have tended to overlook the central element. It was quite simply a bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Montgomery had not shown any interest in the practical problems surrounding airborne operations. He had not taken any time to study the often chaotic experiences of North Africa, Sicily and the drop on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Montgomery’s intelligence chief, Brigadier Bill Williams, also pointed out the way that ‘Arnhem depended on a study of the ground [which] Monty had not made when he decided on it.’ In fact, he obstinately refused to listen to the Dutch commander-in-chief Prince Bernhard, who warned him about the impossibility of deploying armoured vehicles off the single raised road on the low-lying flood plain.
Williams also acknowledged that at 21st Army Group ‘enemy appreciation was very weak. We knew little about the situation.’ Yet towering over everything else, and never openly admitted, was the fact that the whole operation depended on everything going right, when it was an unwritten rule of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy.Antony Beevor, The Battle of Arnhem, p. 36
Holland ’44 – A Proven War Engine*
Holland ’44 is not a very difficult system to learn. The core of the game is essentially covered in 18 numbered rules written on ~22 double-column pages (I am referencing the Revised May, 2018 version of the rules). The game system is not very “original” in the sense that Mark Simonitch has assembled many proven and well understood mechanics into this game system. Although the rules are not broken out in a “series versus game” set of rules (like so many other War Engine games – SCS I’m looking at you) it is pretty easy to see which rules are “standard” and which rules are “game unique.”
If there is one rule I would highlight in Holland ’44 it is 12.0 Determined Defense. This is not a game-specific rule but rather a series rule. The Designer’s Notes in Holland ’44 mention that the rules for Determined Defense were changed from Ardennes ’44—I can’t speak to those changes since I don’t (presently) own Ardennes ’44. I can say that the rules for Determined Defense go a long way to adding dramatic flavor to battles in Holland ’44. In many games, when a combat result calls for a retreat the defender often has the option of stopping the retreat by taking an additional step-loss. Determined Defense in Holland ’44 starts with the same initial premise but carries it a bit further. Provided at least one step survives combat, the defender can try to cancel the retreat portion, as well as any Disruption and advance after combat. To do so requires a roll on the Determined Defense Table to see if the attempt is successful and if any additional combat losses are incurred. There is even a provision for Desperation Defense (12.4) which can be invoked if an entire defending stack faces elimination. The Determined Defense rule goes a long way towards evoking important thematic elements of a battle, and in the case of Operation Market Garden it is very useful for capturing the flavor of desperate defenses of Allied paratroopers deep behind enemy lines or by understrength German units throwing themselves into battle in an equally desperate bid to slow the Allied advance.
One point I took away from reading The Battle of Arnhem was that Operation Market Garden depended on speed. For Operation Market (the airborne portion) success demanded the speedy seizure of bridges before they could be blown. In Holland ’44 the German player has a 2 in 3 chance of successfully blowing a bridge, except on Turn 1 when it is only a 1 in 2 chance. Further, the Allied airborne army needs to quickly seize bridges and get themselves defensively oriented before German reinforcements arrive. For Operation Garden (the overland portion of the offensive) Allied ground forces need to push up few roads rapidly and try to relieve the airborne troops as soon as possible. Of course, the Germans will be attacking from the flanks and playing Traffic Markers which represent traffic congestion and add movement points.
For my play, the British 1st Parachute Division seized Arnhem Bridge on the morning of Sept 18 thanks in part to the Germans being unable to blow the railway bridge to the west of Arnhem that provided an “end around” pathway. The 82nd Airborne likewise seized Nijmagen Bridge early on Sept 18, but at the cost of abandoning their drop zones (which would come back to haunt them later). The 101st Airborne lost the Son Bridge but took the Best Bridge after making a mad dash from the drop zones. Coming up from the south, elements of 30th Corps reached Eindhoven late Sept 18 and kept pushing, but that resulted in a very narrow path of advance that was easily congested and constantly threatened along the flanks. At the end of the game the Germans inflicted more casualties than VP hexes the Allies secured thus handing victory to the Germans. The German victory very clearly exposed the dangers of the Allies being too hasty.
I Love it When A Plan Comes Together – NOT!
After playing Holland ’44 I heartily agree with Beevor that the plan for Operation Market Garden was poor from the beginning. In my play, the weakest part of the plan exposed was the airborne landing schedule. Historically, Operation Market landed elements of three divisions on the first day and provided for follow-on landings of remaining individual divisions on following days. According to the plan, the remaining elements of the 82nd Airborne were to land on D+1 (Sept 18 – Turn 3) followed by remaining elements of the 101st Airborne on D+2 (Sept 19 – Turn 6). Along the way, the Polish Airborne Brigade may enter (if the weather is right). Of course, the weather determines the number of Airlanding Points available; if the weather is less-than-perfect the arrival will slow down.
Remember what I said about speed above? Well, even after reading The Battle of Arnhem and the Designer’s Notes about the 82nd Airborne drop zones and reviewing the rules for the German 406th Division I still aggressively pushed the initial 82nd drop out of their DZs. As a result, the follow-on airborne elements (slowed due to Cloudy weather) were sent to DZs that were enemy controlled. This was the most disastrous part of the battle and it was only through some fortuitous die rolls that the (few) remaining 82nd defenders in Nijmagen avoided total elimination. Next time I’m going to have to replay the 82nd “closer to history” to see what sort of a difference it makes.
Late to the Game – Again
Holland ’44 was published in 2017. The game uses a set of core mechanics that traces all the way back to Ardennes ’44: The Battle of the Bulge from GMT Games back in 2003. I point out these dates because I have somehow missed this great system for nearly 20 years. Actually, I didn’t miss it as much as I ignored it. I admit that I have been more a tactical wargamer than an operational-level aficionado. Thus, series games like Conflict of Heroes (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) or Wing Leader (GMT Games) or Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) occupy both my World War II shelves and gaming time. Late in 2019 (and seriously in 2020) I discovered the joys of Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series (SCS). Now, with Simonitich’s “‘ZOC Bond” series I have found another operational-level war engine that is easy to learn and I like to play. The fact that Holland ’44 is built on a proven war engine is a great draw for me. If there is one part of my wargaming personality that has become very clear to me in the past year it is that I enjoy proven war engines more than learning yet another “new” system.
My copy of Holland ’44 is second hand. Actually, it is third-hand; the gentleman I bought it from said he got it from another wargamer. Whoever the original owner was they treated this game very gently. Not only were all the components complete, but the additional items from “The Northern Scenario” found In C3i Magazine are included. To top it all off, the counters are very neatly trimmed and sorted into bags organized by game use. This loving care is indicative of a true wargamer. Alas, there is no provision for this kind of gamer in Harold Buchanan’s “Historical Conflict Simulation Player Taxonomy.” Regardless, I want to give credit where credit is due!
*I take the term “War Engine” from the excellent chapter “War Engines: Wargames as Systems from the Tabletop to the Computer” by Henry Lowood in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016) which was edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Lowood calls games that combine a game system plus scenarios a “war engine” as contrasted with early wargames that were monographic (unique game system and one battle/campaign). The earliest example is PanzerBlitz of which Lowood writes,
“In contrast to monographic games, PanzerBlitz introduced the game system as a generator for multiple mini-games. Wargamers came to call these mini-games “scenarios,” possibly borrowing from the term’s currency among RAND’s Cold War gamers to describe synopses or imagined or hypothetical political crisis….Henceforth, I will call this combination of system + scenarios a “War Engine.”Henry Lowood, Zones of Control, p. 93-94