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 CARENTAN Great Battles of Small Units from STRATEGEMATA This is the most recent game from Strategemata in this splendid series of small sca...





Great Battles of Small Units



This is the most recent game from Strategemata in this splendid series of small scale engagements from WWII.  Previous games in this series featured Polish units[a link to my review exploring the system can be found at the end of this review], but inevitably Carentan is exclusively an American affair.  Even more than the first two, the focus homes in on an even smaller geographical area, resulting in a map that I find particularly interesting. 

In physical terms, the components remain the same adequate, but modest quality that I have commented on in my previous review of this series.  They are functional, but lack the gloss and glamour of the major companies.  Only the move to full colour box art and an artistic depiction of action and drama adds a brighter touch.

The contents are identical in every way - an approximately folio size map of predominantly green background, a brief eight page, plain paper rule book, including a substantial number of simple, minimal-looking, illustrative examples and  small thin counters.  Once again unit I.D. is in very small print and the important colour coding unfortunately uses too many similar shades of blue.  

At set up, these start out reasonably clear because of physical grouping, but as units become intermingled in the course of play I found that a good degree of care was needed to make sure that I didn't inadvertently activate the odd misassigned unit.
Plain eight page rule book

One of two counter sheets

Perhaps the strongest of the components are the card-based player aids, in particular the double-sided set-up display for the two scenarios.

The set-up display and turn track for the main scenario

I'd strongly recommend a look at my previous review of this system with its innovative elements - a link to which can be found here Black Cavalry.   If you do, you may wish to pass over the next section where I'll briefly recap the key features of the system and their defining originality.  

Most notable is the lack of any dice.  Instead you'll need to supply for yourself a standard pack of cards which are either drawn from the deck or played from your hand to resolve the various game functions.

Each player starts the game with a set number of cards in their hand and there will be very limited opportunities to replenish or exchange these cards as the game progresses.  I like this slight ability to control the outcome of a limited number of your chosen actions and the awkward decisions of which choices and when to take them.  

However, possibly the most important of your choices will be how many formations you decide to try to activate when you have the initiative. A single formation can be automatically activated for free, but a single formation rarely provides many units.  More than one formation means you'll have to pay for all, including the first one.  Activation costs also cover Artillery and Air Strikes.  

So, add up all your costs and draw a card - here's where a nice powerful 10 pt card in your hand may well tempt prompt use!
Fail to get a draw high enough to cover all your costs and you get none of them.  Push your luck takes on a whole new meaning.

This is one of my favourite features of this novel game system and it closely interacts with the next novel element.  In fact, this combination is the single strongest reason that I enjoy and value the game. Only the player with the current Initiative actively undertakes the turn.  The other player can only react.  This may happen in two ways.  

Initially, the first time an active unit moves into line of sight and fire range of an inactive unit, the player without the initiative may draw a card [no playing a card from your hand] to determine Defensive Fire.  The result from 0 - 3 will allow you to place a marker that shows how many fire attacks the unit may make this turn. Alternatively you may forego Defensive Fire and choose to wait until an enemy unit moves adjacent so that you can retreat one hex. 

The third major feature is the handling of Initiative, using the four card-suits, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades and a chit for each suit, with the German and American flag on opposite sides.  An initial pre-game card draw, usually of 3 cards at the beginning of the game establishes a starting set.  In Carentan, the Allied side of each Initiative marker will be uppermost depending on which cards are drawn. So if the 3 cards drawn showed a club and two hearts cards, the Club and Heart markers would be set with the Allied flag uppermost and the Spade and Diamond markers would be set with the German flag uppermost.  

As the game progresses, whatever card is drawn at the beginning of a turn to determine who has the Initiative, its marker is flipped to the reverse side.  Following our example from above, if a Heart was drawn, the Allied player would have the Initiative for the turn and the Heart marker would be turned over to show the German flag. As a result, on the next turn the four markers would now show only the  Club's marker for the American player and the other three suits' markers would all show the German flag and so the initiative draw would be much more likely to favour the German player.

For the rest of this review, I shall concentrate on the specifics of the situation in Carentan.  The major scenario is named Purple Heart Lane and covers 10th - 12th June 1944. Obviously the first consideration is the particular geography of the battle, which can be seen below.

 This is a very different situation from those covered in previous games in the series and a two page historical sketch gives an excellent summation.  It covers the importance for both the Allies and the Germans, the geography of the area and the course of the battle for the town. To the north extensive marshland and canals  made approach extremely difficult and slow.  From the east, the avenue of attack is still limited, though less so.  The map scale is much smaller and in the very centre lies the objective of Carentan, with a damaged railway embankment running from west to east.

Defending the town and area is the best German unit available in that area, the 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment commanded by Friedrich von der Heydte [a name immediately familiar to anyone who has played any of the many games that cover the Battle of the Bulge!].

The very restricted terrain means that there is little room for manoeuvre, so each play-through offers little opportunity for variety of options.  It is a good, old-fashioned slugfest.  The Allies have to batter their way into Carentan and artillery is likely to play a more significant role than in previous games.  

The scenario plays out over 24 turns and I should also add that the American units that you can see are only the at-start units and the reinforcements that enter over the middle turns will more than double their final number.  Whereas this is all the Germans have to defend with, unless you add in the optional variant that may bring in up to 6 additional German units late in the game on turn 20!  It comes as no surprise that the Allied victory condition is to control all hexes of Carentan.  

However, the German victory condition isn't simply to prevent the American player from achieving their goal.  Specifically, the German player must control the road from Auverville on the south edge of the map to either of the two hexes where it enters into Carentan at 1111 or 1112.  I understand the historical logic of this, as it would have served the Germans little to hang on to a small portion of Carentan and not have a supply line/retreat avenue south.  However, it does make the German player's task even harder and makes me feel that at best the German might achieve a draw, which is the result if neither side manages to achieve their victory condition. 

For those who want a shorter playing experience, there is a scenario of 12 turns that covers the German counter attack.  The title for this one is Battle of Bloody Gulch [must admit this conjured up images of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western shoot-out rather than a WWII battle!].  Here the Germans are on the attack with slightly fewer units than the Americans who also gain another six units very early in the scenario.  The layout can be seen below.

The only advantage the German player initially enjoys is that all the American units at the start of the this scenario are single step counters or on their last step.

Overall, though I miss the additional two, very brief scenarios of Black Cavalry, I really enjoyed the intensity of this head-on collision.  Counter density is slightly higher, but by comparison with the majority of hex and counter games, this is still a small game and this is emphasised by the essential design feature of activation which means that only a limited number of units will come into play in a given turn.  Above all, I recommend this fresh and innovative approach that is easy to learn and apply.  I certainly hope that further great  battles of small units will continue to appear.

Once more my thanks to Strategemata for their providing this review copy and their friendly commitment and support.