I recently scored a “veteran” players copy of The Battle of the Bulge by commercial wargaming pioneer Charles S. Roberts and published by The Avalon Hill Co. in 1965. I say “veteran” because the condition of the game is fair at best. The mapboard is still in one piece if not faded and stained in places, the counters are a bit faded with the faces rubbed off ever so slightly (and never been corner clipped), the rule books and play aids are yellowed with coffee staining in places, and the box bottom and top blown in seven of eight corners. Still, the game is complete and playable. So I played, and in doing so opened up a bit of a look into the past. Playing The Battle of the Bulge, one of commercial wargaming earliest titles, is a nostalgic look to the past of our hobby and highlights how early wargames were very much complete systems, as well as showing us how far our hobby has come.
From the Outside Looking In
The Battle of the Bulge comes in a 14x11x1.5-inch flat box. The only real indicator that this is a “wargame” is not found on the cover but on the box edge which which on all four sides has the Avalon Hill logo and the words, “The Battle of the Bulge | World War II Ardennes Battle Game.” The box bottom is plain with no graphics or text. Indeed, without the “battle game” phrase there is actually no indication this is a game, much less a wargame.
The cover art for The Battle of the Bulge is uncredited. The picture is evocative; the olive drab-clad American soldiers clutching their M-1 Garand rifles in the snow while a German tank burns in the background. The text on the box is taken from the letter the Germans sent to Bastogne demanding surrender and the famous “Nuts!” reply.
The components of The Battle of the Bulge are very much what one expects in a classic hex and counter wargame. The 22×28-inch map is mounted using a split quad-fold. Rules are found in an Instruction Folder (8×10, 4 pages) which include the “Basic Game.” A second booklet, the Battle Manual, is a 16-page digest-sized booklet with the “Tournament Game” and “Optional Rules” as well as “Diagrams of Play” and “Historical Commentary.” Counters come in a single die-cut sheet (170 counters total?) in two colors: Grey-Blue for the Americans and Pink for Germans. Interestingly, on the counter sheet the Grey-Blue is labeled “German Order of Battle” and the Pink labeled “Russian Order of Battle.” Also included are two Order of Appearance cards—one for each side— and a Time Record Card.
“…historically correct re-creation…as challenging as Chess only more versatile.”
When reading the Instruction Folder for The Battle of the Bulge is becomes obvious that Mr. Roberts and Avalon Hill took much pride in their games and really saw them as something different. First off, they viewed wargames as highly personal experiences. This personal investment in play comes through in the introduction (emphasis is from original):
YOU are there. YOU are Brigadier General McAuliffe. Your 101st Airborne Division is hopelessly encircled at Bastogne. the German commander demands that you surrender or face complete annihilation.
Your reply note reads, “NUTS—the American Commander.”
Truly one of the most inspiring rebuffs in the annals of military history—the Americans held out.
Now, today, you CAN be there…re-capturing history in a new battle game that was to D-Day what Gettysburg was to the American Civil War.The Battle of the Bulge, Instruction Folder, p. 1
The Instruction Folder claims The Battle of the Bulge is a “historically correct re-creation of the famous World War II campaign of the same name. To back up this claim, General Anthony C. McAuliffe, USA, (Ret.) is credited with providing technical aid. Yet, even when acknowledging General McAuliffe there is still an emphasis on connecting the player to the game; “But now YOU are in command. YOU get the thrill of leading all of the same Regiments, Brigades and Panzer Units over a realistic topographical map of the actual battle area.”
It is not until the description of the games in The Battle of the Bulge that we finally get to wargame. Here we find a recognition that Avalon Hill understood that wargaming was something new for the gaming hobby when they write, “The BASIC GAME is designed to introduce the beginner to the “new art” of wargaming.” They go on to say, “The TOURNAMENT GAME is designed for the true wargaming aficionado…it is as challenging as Chess only more versatile.” I personally find some humor in how Mr. Roberts and Avalon Hill thought about their players; “If you like to think…if you like to be challenged…like to try your luck and intelligence…play THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”
“…a realistic topographical map…”
While claiming The Battle of the Bulge is played on ” a realistic topographical map,” a closer look at the board reveals many abstractions. Some are acknowledged by the designer; “Only the roughest and most densely wooded areas have been reproduced on the board.” Then there is some wonky terminology to deal with when hexes are called squares (“Hereafter, these hexagons shall be called “squares.””). It’s almost as though the rules were written for a pre-hex map…
The Sequence of How to Play
Every turn in The Battle of the Bulge consists of four steps, laid out in a section labeled How to Play. Nowadays, the phrase “Sequence of Play,” or SOP, is far more common. This is another early example of how wargames drew from boardgames and at this point were yet to establish their own terminology. The same can be said of Victory Conditions which in these rules fall under the header How to Win.
Charles S. Roberts used the concept of Zones of Control (ZOC) in his earliest wargames, TACTICS and TACTICS II (Avalon Hill, 1956), and once again it makes an appearance here. The concept of a zone of control is so engrained in wargamers that it is easy to assume you know the rules without reading them. So it was with some surprise that when I carefully read the ZOC rules in The Battle of the Bulge I discovered I was mistaken in my rules assumptions. Specifically, two lines stood out to me:
- “A Unit’s zone of control extends across rivers and into dense woods and rough terrain.”
- “You automatically cause combat when you move a Unit into any one square of an enemy Unit’s zone of control.”
Surprise! Unlike many wargames where a ZoC does NOT extend across rivers or are stopped by inhospitable terrain like woods and rough, in the Battle of the Bulge they absolutely do reach out. Further, for the longest time I always assumed attacks to be optional…yes, you can approach an enemy (and a ZoC may stop movement) but ultimately the decision to attack is separate from movement. Not so in The Battle of the Bulge; here movement into a ZOC is automatically an attack.
For a battle game the rules for combat in The Battle of the Bulge are actually a bit hard to learn. That’s because the combat rules for The Basic Game are contained in the Zone of Control section, the How to Resolve Battles section, and then on the Basic Game Battle Results Table and How Different Terrain Effects Combat Factors on Defense charts both found on the “Basic Game Battle Results Table” card. The terrain effects chart is tabular rather than graphical, likely a result of the limitations of printing in the day. The rules for Multiple Unit Battles are in the Instruction Folder and in the “Appendix” of the Battle Manual.
Once all the rules for combat in The Battle of the Bulge are found there are few surprises for Grognard wargamers. Combat odds are rounded in favor of the defender and simplified. Combat results are fairly standard with Eliminated, Back (Retreat), Exchange and Engaged results.
“New Art” not Chess or Roll and Move
Several of the movement rules in The Battle of the Bulge specifically call out differences from boardgames in yet more examples of how Charles S. Roberts and Avalon Hill were trying to explain the “new art” of wargaming. There is the seemingly obligatory chess reference: “Unlike chess and checkers you may move all Units you choose to move before resolving any battles.” Soon after is a rule that seems humorous to me but I’m sure it was written very seriously because somebody asked the question: “The die is used only to resolve battle—it has nothing to do with movement.”
Chrome for the “true wargame aficionado”
Charles S. Roberts claims the Tournament Game for The Battle of the Bulge is “designed for the true wargame aficionado.” In the Tournament Game, the
Victory Conditions How to Win changes and several rules providing more realism, but some additional rules overhead, are introduced. There are new rules for Fortifications, Fortresses, Isolation and Supply, US Air Supremacy, One-Way Traffic, and a new Battle Results Table. Of these rules, the hardest to play might be the Isolation and Supply rules where a unit is eliminated after six consecutive turns of isolation, yet there is no easy in-game way of noting which units are isolated or for how long the condition has existed.
The “Tournament Game Battle Results Table” also shows some interesting concepts that are seen in later wargames in one manner or another, but not necessarily used in the same way presented here. While the same combat results of Eliminated / Back (Retreat) / Exchange / Engaged are used, two other results, Advance and Contact, are introduced while the rules for Engaged are modified:
- The new Advance result allows an attacker to advance, but in a variable fashion and not the usual advance in to the hex vacated by the defender found in so many wargames.
- Contact calls for no casualties, no retreat, no advance; the defender in their turn must withdraw or counter-attack.
- Whereas an Engaged result in the Basic Game did not allow for reinforcements to be added to the battle, in the Tournament Game players follow a 3-step routine that gives much more agency to players vice the highly restrictive automatic attack rules of the Basic Game.
“…for the player who thrives on…complicated variables…”
The Battle of the Bulge also includes a section of optional rules. I like how the designer introduces them and really throws down the gauntlet to the players:
Optional Rules may or may not be added at your discretion. They add additional realism and complexity for the player who thrives on handling the many complicated variables inherent in true-to-life battle situations.The Battle of the Bulge, Battle Manual, “Optional Rules”, p. 6
There are seven optional rules in The Battle of the Bulge. When considered with the perspective of a long-time Grognard, these “complicated variables” aren’t really all that difficult to integrate into play:
- Strategic Air Power allows the American to attack a single “square” with German units at the least immobilized and at worst eliminated.
- Tactical Air Power awards 20 attack factors each turn to the American player to add to ground attacks.
- Weather can change…the weather but once it clears is stays that way.
- Retreat Through Blocking Terrain may be the trickiest to remember because it “breaks” the movement rules.
- Armor in Engagements is another rules exception which exempts armor from Engagement results.
- German Supply limits the number of German attacks.
The last optional rule in The Battle of the Bulge, Play-Balance, once again reveals insights into what Avalon Hill thought of their gaming customers. I also find it interesting because it is the opposite of where the wargaming hobby seemed to go in late 1970’s and 1980’s with the rise of numerous “conflict simulations” that hyper-stressed realism often at the expense of playability. In the time of The Battle of the Bulge, Avalon Hill wrote, “We find that many Avalon Hill players are more concerned with play-balance than with historical accuracy.” This may explain in part some of the historical inaccuracies that eventually are at the root of much criticism of the design. One must recall that Avalon Hill intended these battle games to be introductory and, as the quote tells us, no matter how factual the game claimed to be the first priority was given to playability. I’d argue that just 15 years later the pendulum had swung hard the other way with titles like Advanced Squad Leader that, while playable, hyper-stressed realism. Now, over 50 years later, we constantly see designers struggle with balancing “realism” (whatever that word means) and play-balance.
Show Me Your Wargame
The Battle Manual for The Battle of the Bulge devotes three pages to Diagrams of Play. The first page is How to Have Combat and uses three graphics to show two examples. The second page has a single graphic attempting to explain Multiple Units Battles which is a shame since that may be the single most difficult rules concept to grasp. This is followed by two graphics (with two more on page three) devoted to How to Have Combat in the Tournament Game.
Tell Me About Your War
One part of wargames I alway enjoy is the historical commentary, and The Battle of the Bulge is no exception. That said, I feel Avalon Hill missed an opportunity here because, though General McAuliffe, the US commander at Bastogne was a technical advisor, the Historical Commentary does not appear to be written by him. That said, the military historian in me found the account quite balanced, which is not what I really expected to see with the benefit of almost 60 more years of scholarship.
Within the Historical Commentary of The Battle of the Bulge there is also some recommended basic strategy tips for both the Germans and Americans. However, the part I found most interesting, and the one place General McAuliffe’s advice is explicitly recognized, is in the Addendum to the commentary which actually gives us some insight into the design of the game:
Most historical accounts of the Ardennes campaign take the reader into January. Thus, many divisions that took part in the Battle of the Bulge, arriving after December 30th, 1944, naturally are not included in Avalon Hill’s Order of Battle. As pointed out in discussions with General McAuliffe, the overall German timetable hinged on their crossing the Meuse River by approximately December 23rd. Operations beyond the end of December could be classified as nothing more than mop-up campaigns since the German chances of victory beyond this point were quite remote.The Battle of the Bulge, Battle Manual, “Historical Commentary,” p. 14
When playing The Battle of the Bulge, one aspect of play that really stood out to me was what data was off-boarded and in what format. I use the term “off-boarded” to mean data used in play that is not presented or tracked on the game board. In the case of The Battle of the Bulge the only “data” on the map board is the map (location and terrain), a grid coordinate system, a compass rose, and units when in play. Like many wargames, the combat results tables (here called Battle Results Tables) are kept on a player aid card that is passed between players. Each player has their own order of battle cards displaying at-start forces and reinforcements each turn. The turn track is also kept on an off-board card, but to record the passage of the turn players do not move a chit dow a track but one has to physically mark off each turn using a pen or pencil. This is surely a legacy boardgame mechanism! I’m very happy we got past this way of tracking turns and now often use a track with a counter that moves turn to turn. In some ways the “old art” approach makes for interesting gaming history; in my copy of The Battle of the Bulge I see the record of nine games the shortest of which was five turns.
While The Battle of the Bulge certainly shows its age and there are concerns with the historical accuracy in parts, at the end of the day Charles S. Roberts and Avalon Hill deliver a decent battle game. I am willing to forgive Mr. Roberts a bit given The Battle of the Bulge was very much “new art.” By modern standards, some of the design choices are not the best or even elegant but when considered against contemporary games of the day it is nothing short of incredible. A query of the BoardGameGeek database of games released in 1965 yields a list of just over 200 titles of which only 30-some are ranked. The query results tell us that The Battle of the Bulge burst upon the gaming scene the same year as those classic boardgames Trouble and Operation arrived.
I’ll take The Battle of the Bulge over those games any day of the week, and twice on the weekends!
My copy of The Battle of the Bulge also includes rules for play-by-mail (PBM). PBM requires one to record unit positions and mail them to your opponent. The part I find most interesting is how to resolve a random die roll:
Because of the separation of opponents, combat is not resolved by the roll of the die. Instead – you obtain the results of each battle by consulting the New York Stock Exchange report that is printed daily in the business financial section of your newspaper. You look up the closing quotations for a pre-selected day’s stock transactions. The result of each battle is determined by the last digit of the Sales-in-Hundreds column for the particular stock(s) you have pre-selected.The Battle of the Bulge, Play-By-Mail Instructions, “How To Record Combat”
Far cry from the random die roll apps of today, eh? And more insight into how Avalon Hill viewed their gamers; everybody would have a daily newspaper and everybody knew how to read stock reports. Was this an early version of gatekeeping?