Thursday, March 06, 2008

New Product Review: Kreta: Operation Merkur

Nick Drinkwater
Thought I'd try my hand at a brief product review for the newly released Kreta: Operation Merkur.

As some of you are aware, there has been a major stirring of angst on the Gamesquad Forums about this product, principally about the perceived thinness of the map and also a lack of very final, final, final editing on some of the text. I'll address those below. The short summary is that is another very strong output from the HOB boys again, which, though not their best, is certainly right up there in terms of overall quality and fairly high in terms of bang per buck. Personally I think the High Ground pack was their best to date, shading Onslaught to Orsha and the first two SS packs by a nose, but overall this is definitely a very good product. At $65, its not necessarily the absolute best value for money of all the recent splurge of ASL products we're received in the last three months, but it is still pretty good value all the same, and I don't think anyone will be disappointed if they add this to their collection.

So what do you get? The pack comes in a simple loose-leaf folder with a representation of Paratroopers falling out of Junkers 52 over Crete and a knocked out Matilda - direct and to the point. The inside of the loose leaf folder has a black and white representation of the map together with the disposition of the Anzac troops, and a simple table for tracking scenario CVP and CG victory point. All straightforward stuff.

The Map:
This is a map of fragile beauty and is a beautiful work of art - massive congratulations to all those involved in this. The map is large (56" x 40") and will need a big table to layout if you don't wish to cut yours up. However apart from scenario OM7, all the other six Operation Merkur scenarios all look like they will play out on sections of the map that are actually away from the main central fold, so the map could be folded (or sliced) to reduce the playable area needed. The hexes are a little on the small size but they will probably be OK as there won't be many super stacks developing in this. The scenarios set on the map (see below) focus on Maleme airfield and Tavronitis Bridge, Hill 107 or the small villages (Maleme and Pyrgos) dotted around the map. The map is dominated by four principal topographic features...Hill 107, rendered in the shades of brown we are all used to from standard boards, the airfield (a dirt field rendered in a tan shade),
the dried up Tavronitis river bed which is portrayed as sand-coloured hammada, (much like the stuff we are used to on Boards 25-31) and the northeast corner which is a mix of grain, vineyards, olive groves and villages split by a gully - there is even a small strip of beach in the very north (but no ocean). "Normal" level one ground away from all the hills is in the normal green colour we are used to from geomorphic boards - this is mainly covered by vineyards and olive groves and a few small Cretan hamlets of stone buildings. It is wonderful and I can't wait to play on it...under Plexiglass!

Yes, it is 'thin', but with all the hype from the online doom and gloom community, I was expecting something like finest tissue paper, and it is definitely thicker than that. Handled with care and it should be fine, though I could see concerns about colour permanency along the creases with repeated use (but then this is true of some of the older maps from MMP as well). I think personally that this issue is a bit of a storm in a teacup...with all the money we have invested in ASL over the years, getting this map laminated will not be too big a bugbear to carry, and I think it is a crying shame that this has deflected praise from an overall very good product. I see that from the Forum conversations, some of the principals of HOB have either decided to chuck in ASL for good (Klaus Fischer) or are pulling their hair out in frustration about these issues (Steve D), and there is a big part of me who think that it would be a massive loss to the hobby if they
did fold...please say it ain't so! If you want more on this debate, you can easily find it on the Forum archive and check it out yourself.

Terrain types:
Overall, a deft touch has been exercised here...just enough flavour to be juicy without being swamped in a sea of chrome. As remarked earlier, the Tavronitis river bed is treated as Hammada so you will need access to a simplified Chapter F ruleset for this, as you will also for many of the scenarios where light and moderate dust is in effect for the early turns. Due to the nature of the fighting, there are few scenarios with vehicles, so hammada immobilisation checks will be limited, though some seriously degraded British armour (matildas and mark VIs with lowered B numbers and red MP) are present, still suffering from a lack of spare parts after the "advance to the rear" from mainland Greece. In this map, the bridge is a two hex structure, and the hexes below the bridge are rally terrain to the Germans only. Irrigation ditches appear on the map, as do slopes, steeples and narrow streets (you'll need Pegasus Bridge rules at least, though some of this is
in ASLRBv2), and the Perimeter Fence at Maleme is treated as a barbed wire fence (KGP rules). During the brief stay in Crete, the RAF were busy and built aircraft revetments (walls) and gunpits (treated as small, 2-unit trenches) for their AA Guns and the runway will be difficult for all infantry to cross (runway rules). Vineyards have been printed directly onto the map, and their is also a Reedbed terrain type which acts as a lighter form of marsh. As this is Crete, olives play their part in this region and the Olive groves come in two flavours - normal (as per Chapter F rules) and olive groves lite, which are less difficult to move around and through.

The other thing that may come into play is the creation of Cretan flat roofs on single buildings in a single hex. This is interesting as this creates a separate location from the house itself and the opposition can move onto these exposed positions (+1 TEM) from an outside stairwell, even if the inside of the building is occupied by the enemy - though they face TPBF if they do so...ouch. At least one of the OM scenarios involves a fight for one of the villages so this may come into some use at some point.

Unit Variantism & Counters:
This has all been kept to a merciful absence. Your standard counters are all going to work fine in this pack. HOB have provided a small half-sheet of counters (all marked unobtrusively with HOB) which mainly consists of more gliders, Junkers 52 planes, some German leaders and unarmed German para counters together with some dm recoiless rifles etc...not quite HOB's best efforts (Fortress Cassino counters are fabulous) as the gloss on them is fairly heavy, but still very useable. There are also a few Brit leaders and some captured German guns. Overall though, in this whole module your Anzacs stay as standard Anzacs, your German paras stay as standard German paras and your Cretan irregulars are portrayed as partisans (but poorly armed and with few tricks apart from ability to declare H2H CC and No Straying bonus). If you do receive the Maori battalion in your OOB, you get some tough H2H -1 CC dudes who can kick some serious ass, but this is all very
straightforward and handled well. The Allies also get to salvage some crappy RAF weapons from the burnt out planes on the airfield which is a nice touch - these come as new counters. Note also that it is not only the Commonwealth who get punished with crap-ish weapons - the Germans get no elite bonus for their SW in this due to their entering by air assault, representing limited access to fresh ammo.

For those who like Glider and Para assaults, this module is heaven for you. If you don't...well, there are still some options and several of the scenarios are set at post-airdrop phase, so they may be smoother for some of you. In the big monster scenario OM 7, "Too little, Too light", the Germans get to reinforce by Junkers 52 landing on the airfield...the rules for this are basically glider landing rules, but if the Junkers miss the airfield, they will be in trouble as the crash drms are nasty. These rules all look very straight forward to apply, being a variation of the already existing rule-set and should pose no problems. Note that in some of the scenarios and in the main additional rules, the Allies get the option to have more of their weapons in AA mode and for longer...this could hurt the attacking Germans somewhat, but it probably is mitigated by the dust modifiers that are usually in place for the first couple of turns in some of the scenarios.

Editing and Proofing:
A shame and a little frustrating, and for me this was more of a detraction from the whole product than the map thinness issue, but it is still not that bad. It would seem that the transfer of proofing files from Germany to the USA and back meant that the final product went out with some small but annoying typos due to configuration setup differences. As a result, parentheses (inverted commas) around certain words were transformed into weird zingbats symbols and occasional overprinting in the text blocks of the scenario cards in particular, which makes it a little harder to read. This seems to have applied throughout the layout process and so even Scenario Titles have this issue - so "Stentzler's Wary Reconnoitre" reads as "Stentzler~s Wary Reconnoiter", "Morning's Peril" reads as "Morning~s Peril" and the trusty British 3" AA Gun comes across as the 3$ AA Gun in the VC of OM-3, Hill 107.

Really frustrating for the guys at HOB and I can see why they are pulling hair out on these gremlins - it is this tiny miss in the final editing and the map thinness issue that has raised so much scorn and criticism online. Yes, it is very annoying, yes people will feel (rightly) aggrieved at something that could and should have been picked up, but I hope this does not cause the demise of HOB... I am sympathetic to some of the stronger criticism that has been raised on this issue as people are fronting up $65 for this product, but I hope patience and forbearance can rule the day. But note, HOB do need to get this right in the future. Teething troubles with paper stocks and intransigent printers is one thing (the map here, the back to front counters in RbF4)- a final edit of the printed product using US-based software is quite another and could have been caught.

Similar to Onslaught to Orsha, the pack is divided into two parts - seven scenarios that are set exclusively on the new map, (identified by the OM terminology), and ten more that are played on geomorphic mapboards, labelled AoC (Assault on Crete) scenarios. This is very cool value for me and I think this contributes a lot of value to this pack. None of these scenarios are micro (smallest is 5.5 turns), a few are on the small size, several are on the medium tournament size (6-7 turns), and there are a couple of real biggies, including the pack monster OM-7 at 13 turns. As noted earlier, some, but not all, involve glider, airlanding and paratroop drops and due to the inherent uncertainty of these and the ability to shoot and kill the Germans before they even get started, some people understandably will shy away from these. Like the glider attack in Pegasus Bridge however, if the worse does happen and the Anzacs get lucky and shoot down a third of the
attacking force, then maybe just pull the counters and start again! Personally, I love all the esoterica of ASL so the more the merrier! Night scenarios are limited to one-quarter of OM-7 only and there is not much other oddness going on here, apart from limited SSRs adding flavour, not Chrome. Note also that if big combined arms assaults using King Tigers is what floats your boat, then this too is probably not for you either as only 5 of the scenarios feature vehicles (mainly bad British, tanks, carriers and one motorbike scenario...low level elite infantry fighting for their lives is what this pack is all about and I am really looking forward to trying these scenarios out.

OM-1: Morning's Peril.
Daylight glider assault with early dust.
This is a recreation of the old Annual 89 scenario "Bofors Bashing", but played on the historical map and set on the NW corner of the airfield. 13 glider's worth of paras need to capture all 3 AA Guns in 6.5 turns, with 4.5 squads of Kiwis in defense. A no-move on Turn 1 SSR means that the defense starts confused. Looks small and bloody!

OM-2: Glide Path to Hell.
Daylight glider assault with early dust.
Another reincarnation from the 89 Annual, this time its the old "Descent into Hell", where as well as destroying the AA Guns, the Paras need to capture Tavronitis Bridge, again in 6.5 turns. Set in both the river bed and the airfield, as well as achieving the VC of OM-1, they now also need to control the bridge and approaches. The paras receive another 9 gliders for the bridge assault while the Brits get boosted by 6 more squads. Again, lots of grenade and knife action.

OM-3: Hill 107
Daylight glider assault with early dust.
Eight para glider squads with tough leaders and good SW (including a dm RCL) need to take the level three heights of Hill 107, the number of hexes they need to take being reduced for each AA Gun they knock out. Nine squads of entrenched Kiwis and Royal Marines plus two big AA guns stand in their way. Seven and a half turns to do this, though the glider landings here look quite rough.

OM-4: The Umbrella Men.
Daylight parachute assault with early dust.
Eighteen para half-squads look like they are going to have a very tough landing on the olive groves, vineyards and stone hovels of Maleme and Pyrgos - to win in 8.5 turns, they need to control the majority of the buildings and eliminate the lone Bofors gun. The Kiwis are weak in this one (second line), but they have help from Cretan partisans and four (yep, count em, 4) MMGs and a captured Pak 37. If the paras don't get too knocked up in the air drop, they should have the quality to see this one through.

OM-5: Stentzler's Wary Reconnoitre.
Ground assault only.
Eight turns for a very strong force of paras (17 squads) to take a chunk of Hill 107 real estate from 17 Kiwi squads with light SW help. Movement restrictions on some of the Kiwi platoons give the Germans the early freedom of movement they will need to fulfil this one. Straight-up infantry fight with little complications.

OM-6: Waltzing the Matildas.
Combined arms ground assault only.
The clue's in the title I guess. Six and a alf turns for two Matildas with moderate infantry support to either go for a CVP win or take the bridge back from 8 para squads with mortar and AT Gun help. The tanks are critical here as the runways will be hard to cross. Their is a 22 CVP cap on the commonwealth (though the tanks don't count).

OM-7: Too Little, Too Light.
Combined arms ground assault, with OBA, air support and a brief night rules section.
The monster in the pack. Thirteen turns in total, the first four using night rules, where the advantage is with the Kiwis. They receive Maoris and some real bad tin can tanks (Mk VIs) in Turn 5, but the Germans can use the Bofors guns with no penalties. The Kiwis have to clear a batch of Level 3 hexes from Hill 107, and capture at least 3 Gun pits, and a batch of building hexes. The Kiwis start strongly with ~33 squads in the first two turns against 16.5 para squads, but the paras get to reinforce 9 more squads direct to the action through Ju 52 airlandings in the later turns. This has it all and looks like a must play...a swirling chaotic melee that is not for the feint-hearted!

AoC1: Rushing Hill A
Ground assault with air support against entrenched infantry with late arriving armour.
The first of the non-historical map scenarios, this has 15 very well supported paras trying to capture the heights of the Board 39 hill, with help from a RCL and the 105 mm MTR - tasty! This time its the Aussies in the fight and these guys are extremely tough and they get some 100 mm ART guns and good MG and Matilda support. Set on half boards 39, 38, 17 and 6. To make it even more interesting, some scattered survivors of earlier decimated airdrops are scattered amongst the Aussie positions on Hill 39. Seven turns. Another one of the more interesting scenarios in the group with some interesting setup questions.

AoC2: The Venetian Fort.
Ground assault in urban terrain.
Dual entry on to half boards 21 and 23, the six British squads and fifteen green Greek squads need to evict 11 para squads from a medieval castle with very thick, high battlements. The quirk in this one is the SSR representing height advantage and CC across the venerable castle walls. Seven turns and bloody looking, especially with a bunch of Greeks bent on revenge.

AoC3: The Olive Oil Factory
Ground assault in rural terrain.
One of the shorter scenarios in the pack at six turns. A mixed group of Aussies and Greeks need to evict a bunch of mixed quality and walking wounded paras, suffering from ammo shortage in a factory on Board 49 - half boards on 44 and 49 are in play. One of the simpler scenarios in the pack.

AoC4: Town and Country
Ground assault in rural terrain on Deluxe Boards.
The sole deluxe scenario in the pack set on Boards d, h and f. The Brits need to get 14 VP onto Board f by the game end (Turn 5.5) offset by the number of surviving para units. No H2H CC is allowed by SSR and this is really a very straightforward all-infantry assault, with two carriers to assist.

AoC5: At the Apex
Dash for victory ground assault - straight up infantry.
A desperate escape from encirclement back to a friendly perimeter held by the Black Watch is what the Australians need to achieve here and they need only 8VP back in safety to win over 5.5 turns. In their way is a motley group of 11 para squads, but the Australian's friends in the Black Watch have limited movement options at the beginning, so its not completely straightforward. Has the feel of a Schwerpunckt scenario in that the tactical challenge is going to be interesting to resolve here. Set on boards 46, 4, 44 and 12 and Cretan rooftops and light olive groves are in effect.

AoC6: 42nd Street
Infantry ground assault with a ton of hand-to-hand melees!
Wild swirling H2H CC melees inspired by the Maoris, amongst the olive groves surrounding the dusty road of "42nd street" is the name of the game here. Sixteen para squads face off against 27 Kiwi squads and the Kiwis need to inflict 20 CVP at game end (modified by the number of surviving para squads on boards 35 and 38) - you can just see these guys lining up to do the Rugby Haka war dance before they kick this one off! Carnage across boards 43, 35 and 38 in 5.5 turns - looks awesome!

AoC7: Their first and last.
Infantry ground assault.
Probably the smallest scenario in the pack, 8 welsh squads need to have suffered less than 14 CVP versus 10 para squads with SW support. A fairly straightforward scenario with few real surprises in this one. Seven turns long, set on boards 44 and my favourite, the drumlin board, 18!

AoC8: The Game's up Aussies.
Combined arms assault versus a tricky fighting withdrawal
This looks like a fun version of ASL 1 "Fighting withdrawal" with a twist, as the Australians conduct a last-stand defense with a small group of the rearguard, while some of the rest of the force try and hold on to key Board 38 buildings for as long as possible. At the same time they also have to try to get some of their force off the south edge for extra CVP. This one looks like a good tactical challenge with many choices on both sides on what to commit, where to commit it and when it gets a' movin'. The Aussies probably have the harder task here as they will need to be played with finesse to get their withdrawals just right. The Germans however get the fun toys - kettenfreds, motorcycles, light tanks and trucks. This could be my favourite in the pack due to the tough questions being asked and the fun toys involved. Oh yes...the Aussies get fun Italian guns to play with too! Eight turns on Boards 15, 50 and 38.

AoC9: Unsung Heroes
Infantry Ground Assault.
Straightforward infantry attack by sixteen para squads (including engineers) versus sixteen very lightly armed Greek 1st line squads. The Germans win by controlling all buildings on Board 17 and most on Board 43 and this is all very normal, apart from the fact that these are some desperate Greeks. VERY desperate Greeks as they can all declare Dare-Death status! Love it! Ten turns for the paras to cross Boards 44, 17 and most of 43.

AoC10: Glide Path to Invasion
Daylight Glider Assault.
Set on Board 30 with the escarpment overlay in play - groan, I hear you all say, but give this one a chance. The Gliders, with eight squads need to land on top of the escarpment and destroy three big nasty AA Guns, but the desperate gun crews receive infantry and carrier support in Turn 2. Interesting pin rules on the defenders govern the initial landing of the gliders - if a gun goes unpinned, it has a chance to shoot down one of the offending gliders - special SSR govern this process and this could leave a nasty hole in the attackers. This actually looks like a quite fun scenario and I like the Escarpment overlay and desert terrain. Set on Board 30, seven turns long, but clearly dominated by the escarpment. Carriers are fun too!

Campaign Game:
This is very different from your usual CG, being more similar to the linked theme Market Garden scenario set of the 91 Annual. No perimeters, RG teams, battle-hardening or anything like it. Instead, the CG consists of six OM scenarios played in order (OM2-7: OM1 is not played as that is already incorporated into OM2). Each scenario card has certain VP awarded to it and these are marked next to the title - the winner gets full VP, the loser gets half. In addition, an extra point can be won or lost depending upon the CVP inflicted in the scenario, according to the chart on the scenario pack inside cover. And that's it!!! All very simple, and perhaps not what everyone was expecting, but the designers explain this as being a result of the Allied lack of reinforcements. Basically, everyone was in place already when the air assault began and there was little opportunity to get reinforcements in during the time-frame of the battle.

For me, that works pretty well. I just rarely struggle to get time to play a full CG these days, but I can easily see me being able to play these six scenarios in order against someone over a few months. Again, this may not be for those who really want a RB style CG, but it is different and I applaud the designers for trying this.

Overall Summary:

B++ for me...if the final editing had been that little bit more tidy, would have definitely moved up into my A- or A category. Still, a really good, infantry-dominated slug-fest between the elites of the nations involved, set on a beautiful, outstanding map. What's not to like?

1 comment:

Sean said...

Hey, thanks for the comprehensive review, I have my PAYPAL payment on hold as I read the review and have decided to reward Steve Deth with my money and by Kreta.

I have played all of the GeoMorph scenarios from Orsha and had a load of fun, they are worth the money alone, so am going by your recommendation.
Whilst criticism helps to keep a focus on quality, we all have to remember that the guys putting the effort in are not doing it to earn millions, so ASL community lets show some support... Cheers, Sean