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 LANZERATH RIDGE FROM DVG Here we have the latest in David Thompson's Valiant Defence series, Lanzerath Ridge .  Though retaining a soli...







Here we have the latest in David Thompson's Valiant Defence series, Lanzerath Ridge.  Though retaining a solid core, each one introduces some new nuances or variations.  In this case along with a new artist, Nils Johansson, a major difference is the move away from the constricted location of a single building to a slightly more expansive terrain.
As before, a period of considerable historical research lies behind the transfer of this knowledge to a game and the gaming table.  As with Castle Itter, I and many others have been treated to another little-known episode, but this time drawn from a very famous and often gamed WWII battle.  In this case, we are treated to a very small, but very crucial encounter on the first day of the Battle of The Bulge.  Having played many Bulge games and still owning several such treatments of the whole campaign, it was a pleasure to be introduced to a location, the said Lanzerath Ridge, and the equally brief, but significant delaying action that took place there.  
Once again, I'm indebted to DVG for not only providing this review copy of the game, but as they have so often done in the past provided bonus material.  In this case, the Companion narrative booklet, that is becoming a familiar and very welcome addition to David Thompson's designs.  This is a very substantial 40 pages. replete with several maps, photographs and aerial shots.  All complement a thorough narrative of the engagement and its aftermath, plus extensive appendices detailing the honours the individual men received - sadly many years after the war.
The physical game reflects all the high qualities that are the familiar and expected features of DVG production and the artistic elements of all the Valiant Defence series.

First off is the mounted map.  I'm uncertain how much the differences lie with a new artist or the fact that we're being treated to the much more expansive terrain of woods in winter.  I like it very much.  It has an almost monochrome effect and successfully creates a chill wintry scene for me. I also enjoyed having the linear set up with the American soldiers on the north side and the Germans on the south.  A very different feel than the previous games, though I'm glad to say that the strain of where your men are and where you're going to move them to and what they are going to do still generates the same high degree of tension.

As can be seen your troops, the individual soldiers retain the identical features - headshot, name, numerical information, key letter coding for specific skills/attributes and a colour code to differentiate the three squads.  The German enemy units are significantly smaller than usual and that was a little disappointing, except for the four full size MGs. The rest of the counters are generally very small and for once I've taken advantage of the range of coloured blocks supplied as an alternative form of marker.  Normally, I've not wanted to do this as I've liked both the quality and consistency of visual appeal given by the cardboard markers.  Here though I've found the cubes indicating dispersed status and to mark the five men you choose to activate in each Defensive Phase stand out much more clearly and considering the amount of usage that those five Activation Markers are going to get, I think those five green wooden blocks will be absolutely essential.
In all other respects the components match the consistently high standards of DVG games and all David Thompson's previous games.  Four substantial player aids detail all the actions you and your A.I. opponent will take.  This saves a substantial amount of rule referencing in the rule book and helps to rapidly fix them in your head.  The rulebook itself carries on the same qualities of clarity and ease of understanding of all the previous games in the series.

The above example of play, providing step-by-step details of the A.I.'s Assault process, as well as the following extract of one your own Major Actions as the Defender, are perfect examples of the blend that provides such an easy walk through of the rules.

The presentation of the rule book provides yet another of the underlying formats that allows a gamer to move easily from game to game in the series.  Without doubt Pavlov's House, the first in the series, stands a little apart because of its attention to what best can be described as a pyramid of the tactical, operational and strategic feel of a battle. 
In contrast, the last three out of the four games in the series have had the closest links by focusing in on the tactical feel, with Castle Itter undoubtedly the simplest in terms of rules and game play.  Lanzerath Ridge lies somewhere in the middle of the three in terms of complexity, but follows more closely in the footsteps of Soldiers in Postmen's. This is immediately seen from its division into four waves of attack with four distinct decks of cards. 

The first wave of attackers is a mix of fallschirmjagers ranging from 1 - 3 strength points, along with several 3 strength leaders and a smattering of MG42s.  This and the second wave which adds mortars to the attack, I have found relatively easy to cope with.  However, with the third deck, the pressure is really ramped up with significantly more mortar and MG cards starting to bite into your defenders and whittle them down, along with the Disguised Forward Observer card which is displayed at the beginning of this third Attack Phase.  Finally, with the fourth attack you are hit purely by soldiers and a very different sort of game plays out.  This is because of the change of your objectives through two new cards, Deny Equipment and Make Contact, which are placed face up at the beginning of the attack.

Essentially your aim is to get as much equipment and as many of your men off the map and onto those two cards respectively!  I've found this stage immensely exciting and rewarding, but as mentioned the tension and strain is there all the way.  
Apart from the variations in pace and objectives giving this game some of its distinctive features, they also show one of the ways in which David Thompson works the historical facts in so smoothly.

There are several other matching elements that echo the previous game.  One is the Tactical Deck that offers two extra levels of increased difficulty. I love this latter addition, at the expense of making me feel even more inadequate a player!!  Another is the feature of an obstruction to hold up the progress of the German attackers along each track.  In SiPU, these were barricades, in Lanzerath Ridge, they are fences that have to be breached.  I like the additional touch of flavour in that beyond each one there is a further obstacle, a hand grenade that will take out one of your attackers.
Besides being variations on the gaming system they help to introduce and build up each game's narrative individuality.  
Nowhere is this more so than the development of victory conditions for this most recent game.  First of all, there is the out and out failure that can occur at the end of any of the first three Attack Phases, if even one Attacker unit occupies a Defender combat position or at any time if the Defender's morale drops to zero!  If you reach Attack Phase 4, but don't complete it, you do at least earn a draw.  However, if you survive to the end of Attack Phase 4, then a variety of factors bring you VPs that will reward you with anything from a Minor Victory and the award of the Bronze Star to an Epic Victory and the Distinguished Service Cross.
I may never manage an Epic Victory, but I've no hesitation in citing Lanzerath Ridge as an epic addition to the Valiant Defence Series.