#WargameWednesday – A bright game in THE DARK SUMMER: NORMANDY, 1944 by @tdraicer fm @gmtgames (2021)

Coming off my “Shelf of Shame” this week was The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944 by designer Ted Raicer and published by GMT Games (2021). The Dark Summer is the latest in Ted’s Dark Series from GMT Games following The Dark Valley: The East Front Campaign, 1941-45 (2013) and The Dark Sands: War in North Africa: 1940-42 (2018). The signature feature of the Dark Series is the use of the chit-pull mechanism for activation which not only introduces a manageable “fog of war” element into play but also makes this series of games very solo-friendly. In The Dark Summer, Mr. Raicer and GMT Games gives us a refined version of the Dark Series that delivers a very playable version of the Normandy Campaign focusing not on the “Battle of the Beaches” but instead on the breakout.

The Longest Day Reduced to a Round

When I see a game about World War II in Normandy, my mind first goes to the movie The Longest Day (1962). Indeed, I think for many wargamers the invasion of Normandy is almost always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a wargame set around D-Day.

The Dark Summer covers D-Day…and a whole lot more. In hindsight, given a game scale of 2.25 miles per hex and weekly (uh, sorry, “one quarter of a month”) turns it should be no surprise the critical invasion days are reduced to just a part of a turn. At first I felt a bit cheated; in The Dark Summer the landings on the beach are often reduced to a single die roll and then an advance inland. It felt so much different from the popular depiction of D-Day that at first I wondered if the landings were being trivialized. However, after playing the entire game (not only the first turn) I discovered that The Dark Summer doesn’t minimize the sacrifices of those who came ashore on D-Day; on the contrary, after play I see how game puts those invasion day efforts into context with the entire campaign. It took me a bit to see the obvious; The Dark Summer is not a game about the invasion of the Normandy beaches, but about the breakout.

Edgy Breakout

Whatever drama The Dark Summer lacks in regards to the invasion of the Normandy beaches, it makes up for in the race that follows. Players have 10 turns to either take back invaded beaches (Germans) or if the Allies to push out and “take the edges” of Cherbourg or Brittany or points to the east on the map. Cherbourg, which is not even on the map, is really the “make or break” victory condition. The Allies can virtually guarantee a win by seizing Cherbourg early but if they wait too long and don’t take the city by the end of turn 7 then it turns into a German Sudden-Death Victory. A close examination of the Victory Point Tables reveals a fundamental conflict—the Allies gain VP for capture of cities or exiting units whereas the Germans earn VP by eliminating certain Allied units and exiting others. The danger each side faces is that an all-out attempt to maximize VP could hand an automatic victory to the opponent. This make The Dark Summer a “race to the edges” of the map, but it must be a managed run that keeps (leaves?) some units behind to prevent automatically awarding victory to your opponent.

Good Chit-Pull

I have sung praises to the chit-pull mechanism before and The Dark Summer only reinforces my beliefs. I really enjoy the chit-pull mechanism for how it introduces a pleasant form of randomness into unit movement and combat as well as how it enables solo play. Even the special rules that basically “pre-scripts” the initial invasion round looks far more restrictive on the page than it actually plays out. Of the three Dark Series games I own, I feel The Dark Summer is the most thematically appropriate implementation of the chit-pull mechanism amongst the group.

Brightest of the Dark?

While the three games of the Dark Series share that common chit-pull mechanism, each is a very different game. I have described The Dark Valley as a “playable monster” game and the scope (the entire war in the Soviet Union) takes up far more table space and time than The Dark Summer. Likewise, The Dark Sands, which is more similar to The Dark Summer in that it covers a campaign (North Africa), also has some rules that mechanically make the game more challenging to play (I’m looking at the two-scales of maps here). In The Dark Summer I feel designer Ted Raicer has found a “sweet spot” for the application of his system.

What I enjoy most about The Dark Summer is the extreme playability of the game. Physically the game is relatively small with play on a single 22″x34″ map using less than 400 counters. The 24-page, double-column Rule Book really is only ~17 pages of rules, none of which are overly complex or illogical. Play time is listed as four hours and I found this estimate about right; indeed, my solo games actually played a bit faster. The Dark Summer naturally paces itself as “a bit rushed” in that both players feel the need to work quickly to try to get to their victory objectives before time expires. The combination of a smaller game, easy to digest rules, and a natural thematic “hurry up” makes The Dark Summer a complete—and highly enjoyable—game experience playable in an afternoon.

LOG-ing in #Wargames

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

 Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps), 1980

WAY BACK LAST MONTH was CONNECTIONS 2019. I have been really busy since with little time to write up many thoughts, but I will take this opportunity to make amends here.

On Day 1 of CONNECTIONS 2019, I attended a seminar given by CAPT George F . Nafzinger, USN (Retired), on Logistics; the Red Headed Stepchild of Wargaming. I went into the seminar sorta expecting a discussion of how to wargame logistics, but unfortunately walked away hearing a siren’s cry on why logistics needs to be considered. I happen to be in the camp of wargamers that accepts (welcomes?) logistics rules in my games, when done right. Even if the seminar was a great missed opportunity by CAPT Nafzinger, it was still a good occasion for me to think about what I like, or don’t like, when it comes to logistics in wargames.

In wargames, probably the most famous supply rule ever is the Pasta Rule in The Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979) by legendary (and now sadly passed) designer Richard Berg:

[52.6] The Italian Pasta Rule

One of the biggest mistakes the Italians made during the entire Desert Campaign was to provide their troops with a diet which was composed, in large part, of spaghetti and macaroni. Aside from providing insufficient protein (this wasn’t Buitoni Brand) pasta has one serious drawback in the desert: you need water to cook it! Therefore, each Italian battalion,when it receives its Stores, must receive an additional 1 point of water when stores are distributed. Any battalion-sized unit that does not receive their Pasta Point (one water point) may not voluntarily exceed their CPA that turn. Furthermore, Italian battalions not receiving their Pasta Point that have a Cohesion Level of -10 or worse immediately become Disorganized, as if they had reached -26. As soon as such units get their Pasta Point,they regain the original cohesion level(i.e., the level they had before they disintegrated.)

This rule is always given as an example of the excessive chrome in a wargame. I agree; it’s taking supply rules to the excess. The real trick to me is to have realistic rules that don’t slow down gameplay. In the 1980’s and into the 90’s, many wargames that I played had log sheets. Indeed, some of my favorite games like the Fleet-series of the Great War at Sea/Second World War at Sea-series games tracked fuel or weapons expenditures. This approach was good but time-consuming and at times tedious. If one wasn’t keeping a log the rules ofter called for tracing a legal Line of Supply (LoS) at the start and/or end of movement or when conducting an attack. No LoS = No Move/Attack.

Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004)

Starting somewhere in the 2000’s, I noticed a change in how supply was treated in several of my games. I think it was in Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi (GMT Games, 2004) that I first recognized the concept of “roll for expenditure.” Instead of tracking each individual round expended, aircraft in combat roll against a number that will exhaust their ammo. This sped up play because, instead of tracking on a logsheet, a simple die roll was made. It also made for some interesting situations; a flight could exhaust their anti-air missiles on round 1 or go a few; you just didn’t know. A similar rule is found in the Wing Leader-series where aircraft roll as part of each attack to see if they can attack again.

Courtesy GMT Games

In more recent years, I have come to really appreciate the approach designer Ted Raicer took in several of his games like The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). Here, supply is only checked when the Supply Chit is pulled. This makes for some great opportunities; early in a turn (less chance of the Supply Chit coming out) one can be aggressive, cutting away from supply points if they dare. In the mid-turn, as the chance of the Supply Chit appearing increases, one is less daring and naturally tidies up their lines. If it is late-turn, moves often become ones of consolidation as the players wait for the inevitable draw. These logistics rule organically enforce supply but in way that makes it more a flow of the battle.

Courtesy Hollandspiele

Of course, the ultimate supply or logistics wargame to me is the Supply Lines of the American Revolution-series by Tom Russell at Hollandspiele. In these games, supply is the game up front; it’s not a supporting arm. Playing these games may be the best map exercise on the American Revolution a wargamer (or military historian) can get as you immediately are shown why a certain route, or city is important to your campaign.

Not all games can be like Supply Lines, nor should they be. Supply rules are essential to get the fullest understanding of a battle or campaign. The real trick is is to use a mechanic that can be applied quickly and with as little administrative burden as possible. I personally enjoy a game where I don’t have to keep small tick-marks on a logsheet. I really like how designers are using a chit-pull mechanic in conjunction with their supply rules. How about you? What supply rules do you like (or dislike)?


Feature image: The Campaign for North Africa; courtesy War is Boring.

#Wargame #FirstImpression – Ted S. Raicer’s The Dark Sands, War in North Africa, 1940-42 (@gmtgames, 2018)

I took the new Ted Raicer wargame The Dark Sands, War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018) out for try this weekend. After punching (and organizing) all the counters I tried out scenario 1.1 COMPASS. As the Victory Conditions state, there is no losing this scenario for the British. Instead, the two-turn scenario serves as a great “training wheels” scenario to learn the Dark Chit-Pull System.

As I was preparing to play, I watched the entire Twitter video series from @PastorJoelT. I highly recommend it!

Unlike @PastorJoelT, my map did not have any issues. As I played through my first time I did have some thoughts….

Rulebook

The Rule Book for The Dark Sands is 20 pages. At first this looked a bit intimidating, but while reading it I realized that the how to play is covered on about eight pages with the balance mostly definitions and descriptions. Unfortunately, the how to starts in section 16.0 Sequence of Play on page 12. For some reason I found this arrangement hard to process. If I had my druthers, I think I would swap 5.0 How To Win on page 7 with 16.0 Sequence of Play. As I was reading all the rules on 6.0 Terrain Effects or 7.0 Unit Stacking and so forth I found myself needing to understand where in the game the rule fits.

For example, rule 12.7 Panzer Doctrine includes 12.7.1 Momentum which allows Panzer Divisions to perform a second Action. But the rule for an Action is covered in 18.0 The Action Phase…six pages later in the rulebook. Before I could play my first game, I ended up having to read the rulebook three times; once from start to finish just to find the rules, a second time to focus on the how to play (16.0 – 23.0) and a third time to learn all the other definitions (6.0 – 15.0). Thankfully, the core mechanics of the Dark Chit-Pull System are not very complex and I was able to get to play quickly…after the third rules reading.

Action Chits

As much as I love the Action Chits for introducing a fog-of-war element and making The Dark Sands very solo-friendly, I found the ACTION CHIT DESCRIPTIONS play aid a bit hard to use. Instead of a single page with a wall of text, I would have liked to see two cards (half-sheet?), one British and one German, that included all the “generic” actions as well as the faction-specific ones. Having a separate play aid would help in between turns to be able to look at what what could be coming and during a turn to see what the particular chit really means all without getting in the way of an opponent who is trying to do the same!

The Play

As I already stated, the actual how to play rules for The Dark Sands is rather compact. This helps the game play along rather quickly. Each of the scenarios (four in the Playbook) are rated at 2-4 hours while the Campaign Game (all 17 turns from December 1940 thru December 1942) is rated at 18 hours. In my play, the first scenario went by in far less than 2 hours (even while learning). The first scenario played so fast that when I finished I just went ahead and reset for the three-turn scenario 1.2 SUNFLOWER. Which leads me to my last point…

Organization

eago%jovqucr7agqkwf0baA key factor in being able to enjoy The Dark Sands is organization. As far as the arrival of units is concerned, there is a very nice Reinforcement Track across the top of the maps. Every unit has a spot on this track. This means setup can be easy…if one prepares ahead of time. For myself, I found that I can organize my counters in two small hardware cases from Dollar Tree. Not only do all the counters fit (in some semblance of the order of arrival) but they also lay neatly within the box with room to spare!

Final Thoughts – and a Look Ahead

I enjoyed my play of The Dark Sands so much I went ahead and ordered The Dark Valley, The East Front Campaign, 1941-45 (Deluxe Edition) as well as The Dark Summer, Normandy 1944. I realize that Dark Valley, covering four years, will be a larger game than Dark Sands while Dark Summer may be more focused. My main point is that The Dark Sands has captured my imagination and brought enough enjoyment that I am willing to pledge for the two other games in the Dark Chit-Pull Series.

I don’t think I will be disappointed.


Feature image courtesy GMT Games