Monday, March 30, 2009

First Impressions: St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot

Zeb Doyle

Before I get into the latest Le Franc Tireur offering, I want to offer up a huge thank you to the Banzai editorial staff. Matt Shostak and Rick Reinesch do a huge amount of work behind the scenes to bring us Banzai and their efforts are worthy of public praise and acclaim. It's always a pleasure to download their latest opus and it's due to such unsung heroes that the ASL hobby is alive and thriving. Thanks, guys!

Now, you might argue that most or all thriving hobbies have similar people volunteering their time and effort and that's probably true, but I still think that ASL players go above and beyond. In large part this is because of the flexibility and depth of ASL. With clever SSRs and some thought, you can simulate a vast range of different actions and that really frees people to create and design some amazing things. Just recently, for example, I played a very enjoyable scenario featuring an obscure 1943 Japanese-Italian clash. Great stuff, and a testament both to the strength of the ASL system and to the dedicated hobbyists who dig this stuff up and produce it for the rest of us. The ability of any individual to pursue their passion, no matter how obscure, and translate it into ASL is one of our hobby's great strengths. Whether it's scenario designers spending hours playtesting or Matt and Rick spending hours proofing, the rest of us all benefit greatly from their labors.

Before you think I've overdosed on Prozac here, let me admit that nothing is perfect and there is a dark side to all this. As designers seek out ever more obscure actions to simulate and the consumer becomes ever more jaded and sophisticated, there's a bit of a trend to the esoteric and the complex, and this often puts more of a burden on all of us. When Recon By Fire #4 came out, the included German captured vehicles were pretty cool. Their chapter H notes showed that a huge amount of work had been lavished on them and the research behind them was really impressive. I punched and clipped the counters, played a few scenarios with them, and now they languish in a dust-covered Plano in my closet. I have to tip my hat to Chas Smith, who designed it all, but so far the time I've spent enjoying his work hasn't come close to justifying his effort. It barely justified my own efforts reading over the notes and punching the counters. This goes double for the Spanish Blue Division counters I picked up somewhere; they have a neat divisional insignia mark on each counter, but otherwise they are identical to German units. There are what, ten or fifteen Spanish Blue scenarios total? The time I'd spend punching, sorting, and storing those counters would probably exceed the time I'd ever spend playing with them. Sadly, some devoted hobbyist somewhere decided to spend a lot of effort putting together some really nice counters, but all that work is effectively wasted for me since it's just not worth my time. It's a real pity and it brings me squarely to my thoughts on Le Franc Tireur's St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot. For those (like me) who knew nothing about this, Wikipedia has a good overview:

First, the disclaimers: these are just some rough first impressions. I've opened the package, glanced at the counters, and barely skimmed the rules. As such, it's not a review and I may very well change my mind on some or all of these comments. Reader, beware! With that out of the way, let me say that Operation Chariot is a very impressive-looking labor of love. I bought it with low expectations and more because I'm an ASL junkie than anything else. Even when the postman brought me a very attractive box, I wasn't moved. Le Franc Tireur always has really nice graphics. When I opened it up and started looking over the contents, though, I started getting excited. Even the box itself is pretty cool, really being more of a sturdy folder. As I mentioned, it's graphically very nice and it's also quite functional. I'm actually going to keep it around to hold everything, a stark departure from my usual habit of tossing the box and figuring out a less bulky method of storing everything. I can't remember the last time that happened and it's a pleasant change. Inside the folder are two big mapsheets, a rules book, 200+ new counters, five reference sheets, and 15 new scenarios. Seven of these scenarios are on geomorphic boards and represent WWII actions around the world, and the remaining eight focus specifically on Saint Nazaire and take place on the included map.

The map, like everything else in the package, is quite attractive and seems to do a good job of portraying the port of Saint Nazaire. I don't have a ruler handy, but I'd guess the two mapsheets together are about as big as the Red Barricades maps, and are roughly half water and half land. It looks like a fun playground for 600+ British Commandos to storm ashore and blow up dry docks and lock gates, thus denying the key port to the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck. The physical quality of the maps is quite high. They're printed on thick slightly glossy paper and thus look something like HOB's first edition Operation Merkur map, but without the tissue-paper thickness problem. I would have preferred a matte finish, and there is a noticeable difference between the two sheets in the green land color (one sheet has a brighter, vibrant green, the other a duller green), but this will only bother the most obsessive among us. Looking over the credits, I see our own Sam Tyson did the map design and he appears to have done a great job. Nice work, Sam!

Moving on to the rules book, we encounter the perfect example of that esoteric and complex pursuit of passion that I referred to above, and here's where my excitement started draining away. As with the map, the physical quality of the components are very high, and I'd put them on par with anything MMP produces. The entire book appears to be very well thought out and playtested, with everything from designer notes to rules to Chapter H notes. There are 12 pages of rules for Motor Gun Boats (MGB) that are required to play all of the scenarios (giving options like cruise speed, battle speed, sea haze, camouflage, torpedoes and deploying anti-boat mines) and another 15 pages of rules specifically for the St. Nazaire map and scenarios, covering everything from new terrain (power stations, U-Boat pens, buried fuel tanks, tidal mudflats) to new units (searchlights and HMS Campbeltown, the explosives-packed destroyer that carried in many of the commandos and was then detonated to destroy a key caisson) to the special circumstances of the raid (ruse de guerre). Finally, there are 8 pages of chapter H notes, which are just as comprehensive as the rest of the rules, and include motor gun boats (MGB) for virtually every nationality. Everything from captured or commandeered fishing smacks to JFK's PT boats are included. If you ever had the hankering to drive a German Schnellboote-100, a Japanese armored barge, or even a Russian patrol boat armed with T-34 turrets and 132mm rockets, all in ASL terms, then this is the product for you!

Therein lies the rub. I'm not sure that many of us ever had that hankering to begin with, and I'm positive that even fewer of us are willing to master 12 or 27 pages of new rules to do so. The 12 pages gives us access to only the seven non-St. Nazaire scenarios, and although 27 pages lets you play all 15 actions, these rules do not appear to be for the faint of heart. Looking over the five reference sheets (which, like the 200+ new counters, are gorgeous and equal to MMP's production values), we have rules for things like squadron keeping, searchlight defense plans and decisions on where to stash commandos in the Campbeltown (below deck starboard aft zone, on deck port midship zone, or perhaps the on deck bow zone?). In a sense, there's so much in the box here that it's almost an entirely different game, and that seems to be the product's real strength and weakness. It opens up an entire uncharted area of WWII, but it's so new and so foreign that there are lots and lots of new details to cover. There is no way to pull off the shrinkwrap, read over ten or twelve new SSRs, and jump into the action here.

To further cloud the picture, many of the fifteen scenarios are rather small. I've included a very brief overview of the seven non-Operation Chariot scenarios below, but here, let me note that of those seven, only two of them have over twenty total squads. Of the scenarios that do take place on the historical map, it's a bit harder to gauge the size as some of the German force is randomly generated, but five of them also seem to be quite smallish, with three MGBs and fifteen British squad equivalents total in those scenarios. At this point, you're probably wondering just how quickly these games will play after you've spent all the time and effort to learn the ins and outs of MGBs. Well, Le Franc Tireur is nice enough to put an estimated time of play on each of their scenarios, and although I can't say how accurate they are, many of these games are expected to play out in the four to five hour range. If you total everything, including the bigger full-on St. Nazaire raid scenarios, you get an estimated 37 hours for the Operation Chariot stuff and 28 hours for everything else. That's 65 total hours, which would seem to amply repay your efforts in reading rules and punching counters, but it also assumes that you'll want to play every single scenario.

It's a real shame to have to sit here trying to analyze the potential fun factor of the scenarios vs. the extra time needed to master the rules for them but this is a situation where you have to do just that. Normally in these product first impressions, I like to throw in a sentence or two about value and whether you are getting good bang for your buck, and I'd love to say that it's a fantastic product and everyone should get it, because it really does seem to be a fantastic product. Every part of it looks really good, and it seems obvious that a lot of effort and care and playtesting went into it. However, it's also so dramatically different from everything else that I think it ends up being an amazing creation by a truly devoted hobbyist that really isn't for everyone. Talking a bit about the value, it's available from the Gamer's Armory for $77.50 (disclaimer: I've ordered from them before but have no other connection) at That's a lot of money ( you could get VoTG for the same price, just as a very rough comparison) but you really do appear to get a whole new game for that price. The real question is whether you're interested in learning and playing that new game.

For myself, I'm glad I got it. As I said earlier, I'm an ASL junkie and this is easily the most interesting and unique addition to ASL in a very long time. Having said that, I'm skeptical that I'll play more than a few of these scenarios myself, and as a guy who is constantly playing and loves complex, esoteric stuff, I'm really the target audience here. If you do have any interest in Operation Chariot at all, or Motor Gun Boats in general, I'd strongly recommend you pick this up. For everyone else, it's going to be a tougher decision and I can't really help you. Hopefully, when I actually look over the rules, they'll turn out to be super simple and intuitive and I can come back with a stronger recommendation. Of course, when was the last time anything in ASL was super simple and intuitive? In short, based on some cursory skimming of Le Franc Tireur's St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot, I'd love to give it an unqualified two thumbs up, but just can't do it.

I feel bad about that. The designer, Andrew Hershey, along with the Le Franc guys and the Fredericksburg Fire Eaters playtest team look like they've really created something great here, but it looks so complex and esoteric it's not going to be for everyone. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that it is a success both commercially and on game tables everywhere, but I just don't see it getting a lot of play. Still, maybe this is a sign of just how healthy our hobby is. There's so much ASL stuff being produced right now that even when designers do go above and beyond in contributing to our hobby, we don't have to follow them in pursuit of their specific interest, and can afford to pick and choose instead. So, instead of wringing my hands over how well St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot is going to do, I think I'll just be happy that so much innovative ASL is being created. The best part in all this is that the innovation feeds on itself, with designers everywhere benefiting from each other's efforts. For example, with this latest creation, Eric can easily design that Guns of Navarone scenario he's always talking about. That's all I've got for now, I'm off to reap the fruits of Matt and Rick's labor by reading the latest Banzai.

Thanks for reading, and I'll try to remember to bring this by the next Austin game day meeting so interested people can get an actual look of their own at it. Also, I've included a very barebones listing of the non-Operation Chariot scenarios below. Finally, does anyone else have this?


PS: along with the map having two different shades of green, I've also noticed several typos throughout the text. Most of these are understandable given the large French involvement in the production (the area was riff with Germans, loose concealment, etc) and all of them are minor. These are the only physical imperfections I've seen so far.

FT109 Hitler's Lost Iron: A 1943 action covering a British commando raid against a German-held Norwegian iron processing facility. 6.5 turns, with ten half-squads and two MGB attacking eight half-squads and two 105mm guns.

FT110 PT-109: Also 1943, eight American Marine squads trying for an evacuation by sea. Three LC and two PT boats (plus JFK) try to take them off before 17 Japanese squads can take them down. This is one of the longer ones at 8 turns.

FT111 Ghosts of the Danube: 1944, a Russian reconnaissance team supported by partisans tries to capture elements of the Russian Liberation Army. This is eleven squads total, with the Russians also getting an assault boat and an MGB. 5.5 turns

FT112 Danube Log Jam: 1944, with a Russian flotilla trying to clear some German strongpoints along the Danube. Eight attacking squads and six MGB take on seven squads of defending Germans over 6.5 turns.

FT113 Blood on the Shores: 1944, a monster at 9.5 turns, with Germans trying to recapture a FlaK battery from a Russian reconnaissance group. Eight Soviet squads and an 88L against 13 German squads and two MGB.

FT114 Yellow Extract: 1942, a seven turn Dieppe action here, with five British and American squads and a MGB holding out against 11 German squads.

FT115 Nearly Entombed: 1942, 5.5 turns, with a compromised Russian raiding force near Murmansk trying to evacuate while under pressure from the Germans. Five Russian squads and three MGB against 10.5 Germans.


Houlie said...

A very balanced, honest review -- thanks!

Laurent Closier said...

Thanks for your review.

Laurent Closier (LFT staff's member)