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BATTLES OF THE BLACK CAVALRY HILL262 - CHAMBOIS from STRATEGEMATA My experience up to now of this small Polish war games company ...




My experience up to now of this small Polish war games company has been of their Art of War in C19th through reviewing Battles of the Bloody Steppes covering three battles of the Crimean War.  So, I was very pleased to be given this opportunity to explore their series Great Battles of Small Units.

This is the fourth game in the series and I must confess that I hadn't paid too much attention previously because of the relatively obscure nature of the battles covered.  Battles of the Black Cavalry had already involved the earliest days of September 1939, but this second game to feature the Black Cavalry transports us forward to August 1944 and provides four scenarios set in the actions of the Allies to close the Falaise Gap.

As with other Strategemata games the production values don't match the quality of the major publishing companies.  The single, glossy paper map is quite thin, but printed on both sides.  Its size is approximately standard folio.  The counters [of which there are a good few] are very thin and small.  They sit well in the good size of hex, but the very small numbers printed on them, especially Gun/Armour factors and unit designations can be a trial to read.

Their flimsiness also makes picking them up or adding and removing markers delicate and at times frustrating work.  Play aids too, such as the scenario cards and terrain chart, are on barely more than glossy paper.  

Player aid for one of the two introductory scenarios

Finally, the rule book too is fairly light weight with a mere 8 pages of which six cover the rules and the final two contain examples of key rules.  So initial impressions of the physical side of the contents left me with some reservations.

However, reading the rules and playing the scenarios creates a very much more positive impression.   First of all the rules introduce a system containing a number of very interesting concepts.  The first and perhaps most important is the use of a deck of ordinary playing cards [which perfectly acceptably you will have to provide for yourself] to regulate and introduce a mixture of control and randomness into the game.  This is an element not unfamiliar from some miniatures rules and systems.  [An excellent instance being To The Strongest - a superb set for conducting Ancient warfare!] However, I haven't previously encountered this in board wargaming.  Here all court cards count as 1 pt, while all other cards have their face value.

From the outset, these cards govern everything, including who will have the Initiative and play the turn.  This latter rule stands out for me as a leading innovation and one I have certainly never met with before.  There are four Initiative markers, one for each of the four suits in a pack of cards: Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades.  On one side of the marker is a flag to denote the German player, on the other a flag for the Allied player.

Illustration of the Initiative markers and accompanying rules

A pre-game card draw will determine which suits will determine each side's potential starting Initiative.  From then on, each Turn begins with a card being drawn, the suit determines the Initiative player and the Initiative marker for that suit is turned over to the opponent's side.  Thus a rhythm is established that overall evens out, but can throw up surprises and causes each player to focus very carefully on what he/she needs to do when they have got the Initiative.

What is even more novel is that only the player with the Initiative gets to directly activate their units with a choice of actions from Movement/Improving a Position/Fire and Rally.  However, and this is the third original idea, the non-Initiative player's units have a limited reaction ability.  Each unit can either move away one hex when an enemy unit comes adjacent or, at the point when an enemy comes into range and line of sight, can"roll" [i.e. draw a card] to see how many reaction pts the unit gets.  This will allow the unit from 1 to 3 Defensive Fire opportunities. 

This sets up a highly interactive system that benefits defenders well dug-in on good defensive terrain, especially when the Initiative player has to cross open ground.  It also creates a fairly fast flowing pace to each turn, with the opportunity for reaction, but without an overcomplex set of rules and conditions. .

What I like even more about the use of cards instead of dice is that each player starts a Scenario with a a limited hand of cards, with rare Random Event opportunities to refill or exchange some of those cards. In a variety of cases, a player will have the opportunity to play a card rather than randomly draw one.  

Nowhere can this be more crucial than when you have the Initiative, as your first decision is always how many formations you are going to activate.  To activate a single formation is free  and guaranteed.  To activate more than one formation, then each formation costs 2pts and each support weapon costs 1 pt unless it is stacked with a unit from its formation, an Artillery strike costs 2 pts and an Air strike similarly costs 2 pts.  You must first announce what you are attempting to activate.  Obviously then you can use one of your precious cards in your hand to guarantee success, but if you choose to risk a random card draw and don't pull a card that will pay all your costs, then you forfeit all activation!  

Lots of tense moments here, especially if you have a lot of nice court cards in your hand which count as 1 pt - and remember you can only ever play one card.  So, perhaps you'll be saving those high point cards for activation purposes in crucial turns, but they're equally useful in Fire and Close Combat.  

Fire is very straightforward with each unit firing separately.  It involves simply the play or draw of a single card plus double the unit's firepower compared with the defending unit's morale added to its terrain cover.  If the Attacker scores higher, the Defending unit is disorganised and, if twice the Defender's score, then the unit takes a step loss as well.  Gun/Armour factors add a few more twists too,  though their main problem lies in the minute size of the print on the counters!

Close Combat involves a more complex combination of cards, drawn randomly/played from hand, both face down and face up.  This takes a little thoughtful reading, but help is at hand as a substantial amount of the two pages of examples is devoted to a very clear sequence illustrating these particular rules.

By now, you're probably thinking that the many cards in a deck that are only worth one point serve mainly to clutter your hand or are lurking to be drawn randomly just when you don't want them.  Well. at times it does seem just like that, but be assured they can and do play their part.  When you need to remove a disorganised marker by rallying, a score lower than your morale is required - what better time then to play a 1 pt card.

But wait, you'd just had one of those rare random event chances to discard some cards and all those 1 pt cards had been traded in.  Such is the agony and ecstasy of decisions in this game.

Random Events linked to certain cards

Considering that all this, plus chrome such as random events,  mines and destroying objects as well as Air & Artillery strikes is covered in just six pages is a major achievement, especially counting the degree of innovation I've outlined.  You'll need to read the rules carefully as they are close packed and occasionally, in the early stages of learning and playing the game, I was left thinking that's what I've got to do, but where exactly did I read it.

However, the scenarios provide a very good range that help greatly in getting a feel for the rules.  They start with two very short scenarios that introduce basic rules and can be played in about an hour.  Despite their brevity they not only help to embed the rules, but are genuinely fun to play and mirror the situations that you'll meet in the two major scenarios:  namely, taking or holding an objective and getting units across and off map to win. 

Here you see one of the large scenarios and one of my favourites.  Note "large" is a relative term as it can still be played in about 3 hrs.  What you get is a small Polish force defending a hill, but needing to move some of that force to block the advance path of the German units that will be trying to cross the map from south west to north east and exit the map.

Here's the map itself with the hill to the north and the crucial narrow spur of the hill running down the length of the map.  The next image shows the very short, but rewarding small scenario that plays out on part of that map, as a mixed American/Polish force seeks to thwart the exit of a ragtag group of German stragglers.

The well grouped Allies from only two formations are easy to activate, while the strung out German forces from several formations and with unstacked support weapons demand more careful handling.

So, all in all, this is an innovative and accessible system backed by scenarios that play well, but the presentation would be greatly enhanced above all by a physical upgrade to the counters.  That said, Last Vikings, the next Strategemata game that I shall be reviewing at a later date, does exactly that with some gorgeous counters.

As always, a big thank you to Strategemata for kindly providing the review copy.