Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Initial Review: Part 2 - BFP2 Operation Cobra

Nick Drinkwater

Instant Out of the Wrapper Review: Part 2 - BFP2 Operation Cobra

Making up the second half of the last week's ASL party pack was Bounding Fire Productions 2: Operation Cobra, another excellent contribution by Chas and the BFP team. Unlike BtB2, with the two loose leaf covers, this is full-on magazine style format, with unsurprisingly, a full on focus on aspects of Operation Cobra, the main US breakout operation in western Normandy in late July 1944. The pack has four principal components: the magazine itself with four main subsections, a collection of 12 scenarios on separate cards, a single overlay designed to specifically reinvigorate Board 6, and 88 new 5/8th" counters.

First up for me was the magazine, and this is black with a touched-up cartoon-cum-photo look of a Stuart passing a burning German half-track, about to drive straight into the path of a faust-wielding panzergrenadier - poor old tank crew! The magazine is 56 pages long and starts with a quick editorial from Chas Smith on the genesis of this pack and how some other scenario designers (including George Kelln and Steve Swann) have also contributed. Interestingly, whilst the inside cover is and advert for Into the Rubble, the inside back cover gives tantalising details of BFP 3 "Blood & Jungle" - a PTO-focused mega-scenario pack including 40 scenarios, a new board, a custom map and counters and rules for rare and new vehicles. Looks AWESOME!

Bocage Article
The main highlight for me in the entire pack is the outstanding full colour, lavishly illustrated 23 page long article on bocage. This starts with the basis of all bocage rules: gaining, losing, using and abusing wall advantage and then walks you through the whole bocage-thang hand in hand. Due to space restrictions in some other magazines, the reader is often asked to imagine or assume that "unit X isn't there", or that the "terrain feature in hex Y2 doesn't exist", or that the "three units that were in the road in Figure 3 have now moved to hexes X, Y and Z". In a refreshing change, in this article, each new example or new movement phase typically has its own small colour illustration dedicated to it, and even better, it is almost invariably on the same page and adjacent to the piece of text being referred to. This sounds like a small thing but I really liked the lavish illustrations as it meant I could focus on what the text is trying to say rather than doing that AND trying to do the mental tricks of remembering which unit has changed status, or which has moved, or which building isn't in play, all the while flipping the pages to find the correct picture. As I said, it might only look like a small thing, but it makes the learning and reading process so much smoother and that is to be commended strongly.

In the article itself, all aspects of bocage are covered, including the one or two issues still open to debate about how to treat hidden guns in bocage with boresighting or aspects of the recent Perry Sez on bocage and SCW. Sensible recommendations are given on both of these issues. The article shows in numerous examples, small tactical illustrations of the advantages and rare disadvantages of defending and attacking in bocage country, and finishes with two great fully worked tactical examples where many of these lessons are applied. Also, included are rules for BFP's light bocage terrain, together with fully illustrated examples of how Light Bocage LOS effects impact elevation and other aspects. A good read of this article allied to a quick review of the recent new examples and rules clarifications that came with Action Pack 4 and you are well placed to play all of the 30 or more bocage-related scenarios that have been produced in the last 12 months! Normandy fans have never had it so good...an excellent overall contribution to the hobby with the near definitive article on the subject.

New Weapon - the Pueppchen
Next up in the magazine is a short overview of the history and ASL genesis of the Pueppchen, a wheeled Panzerschreck-like Gun (its a 5/8" counter, not a 1/2") one. The design philosophy of this is explained in detail and in response to this, a very powerful beast indeed has been created. The Pueppchen acts like a PF except that every three hexes of range for the Pueppchen acts as one-hex of Panzerfaust range so that a moving Sherman in the open 6 hexes away would be hit on a 6: well, that's OK you may say, but its the scary ROF 3 that concerns me more as a beleaguered US armour leader.

The fact that in real life it could fire 10 rounds a minute (and so warrant the 3 ROF) doesn't necessarily mean that it did. That's a huge thing and I wonder if its been a little overcooked here. Note that the Pueppchen was operated all over the European fighting theatres, so whereas I may only expect to lose a single tank in bocage country to this ROF of 3 and then be able to bypass it or get infantry to cope with it, elsewhere in places like Italy or Russia, I may well scrag a couple more.

There is no backblast with this weapon and it has a manhandle of 12. Again, (indeed as one of the examples makes clear), moving this beast up hills in bocage is really hard work - moving it around in grain-fields however, probably much less so. I know its listed as super-maneuverable, but I was wondering if trying to lug the ammo around for this thing may be tougher than an M12 would imply too - maybe the ROF could have been dropped by one if you'd manhandled the gun out of its original defensive position. The TK number of the Pueppchen is a healthy 26 and it breaks down normally but it has no gunshield - even so, with a ROF of 3, I may start treating it like a 12IFT FP plasma machine gun on people in stone buildings! As noted by the rules, I may indeed not get the acquisition, but then with the ROF and an B of 12, I may not care. As the authors themselves list, "this is a PsK on steroids". Indeed.

There are examples of its use included in the scenarios of the pack - I'd really be interested to see how this works for people! I haven't played with this yet so all these comments should be viewed in that light, but the basic details above are essentially correct and I was just musing on how they would apply in game terms - in practise, maybe the beast is not as deadly as it sounds. However, as Zeb Doyle remarked to me, if they were really this good, why didn't the Germans have them everywhere?!!! Just wondering...

Scenario Notes Article
The third big piece of the Magazine are design notes for all of the new scenarios plus all of the scenarios included in BtB2 (this magazine really should be considered as an extension piece for the BtB2 pack as many of the new scenarios use boards and overlays from the BtB2 pack). These are really quite interesting and briefly try to put each scenario back into its historical context as well as the reasoning behind the use of a particular weapons system in that scenario, but they are mainly short advice notes on how the scenario may play out. These feel like very truncated mini-versions of the Schwerpunkt notes for those who are familiar. I like this stuff so this was all great for me, but again other's mileage may vary.

Historical Article: Operation Cobra
The final big article of the magazine addresses Operation Cobra at a strategic and divisional level in 15 pages. Regiment and combat unit listings are provided for all the US forces involved. There is a brief summary of the battle readiness of the various German divisional level units provided, with several interesting historical nuggets thrown in, removing one or two misconceptions that are held about the battle in other literature. As well as these detailed unit listings, there are short historical notes on the US use of tactical airpower, use of NW Europe camo uniforms, the carpet bombing which started the op and a full genesis of the Culin hedge-cutter and equivalent equipment that assisted in the breakout.

The article ends with a very high-level historical review of the operation at the corps and divisional level ending at the point where 3rd Army was activated. These kinds of articles tend to split the ASL-playing crowd and I see this will be no different: for those who love this stuff, this may keep them amused for a while trying to pick holes in it for points where they disagree. For those who know little of the battle, this is a good place to start to get involved, especially with the selected bibliography that Chas has thoughtfully provided. For many however, including myself, this is all a little bit "so-what"? If I want to read a good general review of Cobra and some of the subsequent exploitation, I'll probably go read the relevant copy from Osprey and be happy in life, even if they are incorrect on one or two details about e.g. the 9th Infantry Division's tank support. Overall, these articles are not really my personal cup of tea, but again your mileage may vary...

The pack also comes with only a single overlay, but what a hugely valuable contribution it is - this one is a good little wood-building-hedge hamlet to cover up the monster stone chateau on Board 6. It is designed solely to work on Board 6 as the road net only matches that board, but this will make a huge change to this old familiar, with or without bocage being in play. A couple of the new BFP2 scenarios already use this overlay in bocage format - great idea and great job on this one!

88 counters are provided in this - excellent quality, very slightly glossy with a very good match in terms of color to your existing ASL sets - they are differentiated by having BFP printed in small yellow type but otherwise look and match your existing counters well. These counters show various iterations of US tanks with Culin or other hedge-cutter devices attached, the Pueppchens, some more versions of US armour with bow mounted Flame-Throwers included, and various Firepower combinations of P36 Thunderbolt or equivalent rocket-mounted fighter-bombers included. These are just variants from the base air support rules and just extend the burgeoning collection of variant allied air support systems I have in my counter collection, which includes Typhoons from King of the Hill and Sturmoviks from Onslaught to Orsha. Just looking forward to seeing the Me 262 in its ground support role one day too! A single page of rules is included to cover the details of this, and some simple application to the hedge-cutting rules are added too.

BFP14: Opening Phase
6.5 Turns on 3/4 of BFP D and 17. An all-infantry fight with largely German 5-4-8 para conducting a small retreat to from the BFP D bocage-lined roads back to the Board 17 hamlet. A CVP cap on the fourteen 6-6-6s allied to some OBA for both sides will keep the US honest.

BFP15: Cobra's Venom
Big scenario, big scenario! 7.5 turns of mayhem on three boards (BFP D, E and 42) as the US drive south immediately after a carpet bomb attack on the Lehr. There is big replay value on this one as random dr dictate the status of guns and tanks (and yes they can be destroyed) and random DR dictate the quality of the 14 possible German infantry units (and yes they too can be destoyed too). The Lehr could receive a Pueppchen, four Panthers and four quality AT Guns, but the American force is strong men armed indeed, with ten AFV (including Culin tanks and FT M4), assault engineers and 21 squads overall, plus some OBA. However, the German VC of building control looks like the US have a lot of work to do here, even if they are very unsettled at start. Wow!

BFP16: Snake Charmed
Over 7.5 turns, a very strong US battle group (8 tanks with a dozer and Culins) and 21 1st and 2nd line squads) have to blast 37 VP off the south edge of the road-bocage board BFP D. The immovable object they need to overcome is a tough SS battlegroup of 11 full SS squads, two tough AT Guns, another Pueppchen (and black SS versions are provided as counters for those who care) and two MkIVs as reinforcements. This is a great looking 5-6 hours of bocage fun.

BFP17: Seize that Crossroad
7.5 turns for another typical US battlegroup to wrest a crossroads on Board 18 from an infantry force of the Lehr. The 10 5-4-8s and 4-6-8s and 4-6-7s are stiffened with a couple of dug-in Panthers but they need to hold off 15 Elite, 1st and 2nd line squads with Culins, and M10s driving across the light bocage of BFP D. This looks to be another very solid 5-6 hour long scenario. The US task is stiffened by the presence of a CVP cap.

BFP18: Necklace of Pearls
The US has a tough job here with enforcement of keep the N-S road free of German units and stay under a generous looking CVP cap. They have 7.5 turns to achieve this over boards BFP E and 24, and rarest of rare, the Board 24 valley is still in play! The Germans are 14 mixed elites, 1st and 2nd lines with mines, wire, roadblock and three Panthers. After setup the Germans are subject to the results of shellholes and rubble creation and also a morale breaking TC. The US entering from the north and in Turn 4 the west, consists of 21 mixed quality squads and 12 Shermans including 4 Culins. A very solid combined arms attack, another mid-sized 5-6 hour long scenario.

BFP19: Russian Style
7 turns on BFP D and C. The US must take all multi-hex buildings on BFP C and send 30 VP of US units off the south edge after entering 12 tanks with 12 squads (elite and 1st liners) as riders - the 'Russian style' of the title. These two boards have a lot of choking bocage terrain to hack through, much of which is oriented perpendicular to the US axis of advance, but the US can secretly designate eight Culins, 4 Gyros and a bow FT to attain some leverage. Two turns of rocket armed FBs will assist this as seven 2nd line, four MkIVs and a Stug try to stop them. Yet another mid-sized scenario but this one has a couple more funky toys in it too.

BFP20: Bypassed Lehr
6 turns, all-infantry tournament special set on BFP E and 6 with the special new overlay applied. The Germans are numerous but brittle (5 x 5-4-8 and 10 x 4-4-7) and well stuffed with MG, but they are facing twenty elites and 1st lines with a 9-2 and MMG in light bocage - they need to hold onto four or more Board 6 buildings at game end. Simple, quick and fun.

BFP21: Ripe for the Picking
Another big scenario set on three boards (BFP E and C and 17) over 9 turns. A mixed Wehrmacht and Das Reich Turn 4 reinforcement battlegroup must stop the 3rd Armored Division from accumulating 100VP from either CVP or exit VP. The initial Werhmacht force of 5.5 1st line squads, roadblocks and a couple of 50L AT guns is merely a speedbump to a mighty US task force: 13 half-track mounted elites will burn a hole in this light bocage protected bandaid, especially when the two bomb AND rocket FB and the 6 Shermans and 3 honeys get working. The bad guy cavalry consists of six 6-5-8s in half-tracks added to four MkIVs. No Panthers or Tigers here - just average late-war tanks duelling in the hedges. The softp-skin nature to bith forces will make this a really interesting combined arms challenge. Great-looking scenario!

BFP22: Speed Over Caution
5.5 Turns, Light Bocage is in effect on board 6 with the sweet little chateau covering overlay in place. Six US Shermans of differing flavours (including Gyros and two with Culins) and 11 6-6-6s, have to fight their way down board 6 lengthwise and take all the buildings within 5 hexes of a central crossroads or exit 20VP from a rear road exit after before game end. Timing means that its only realistic to get the armour off (unless you load up with riders and leaders) as the Germans have an HMG, seven second line squads, a couple of (probably hidden) Panzershreks to stop you. Oh, yes. And two Panthers. Rally points and recycling with your smoke are the order of the day here.

BFP23: Prelim to Death Night
A rarity in these packs - a genuine German attack! Tourney quickie as 13 SS mixed units try to desperately grab a vital crossroads in light bocage on BFP C and 46 from a company of elite US (and H2H combat is in effect). The US are well equipped with MGs but the Germans get a rarely seen PzA III/IV assault gun. Though small, I really like the look of this one - it smacks of the desperation of the SS as they try to force a way out of the tightening trap.

BFP24: Death Ride of Das Reich
This is different to everything else in the pack and another with much replay value. The action is set on three separate boards and three SS Battlegroups must each force their way across their respective boards - to win the SS can get 44VP off any one board or 110 VP collectively from the three boards together. The US has to divide its infantry forces into four parts with one group acting as a reinforcement to any one board of the US' choice on Turn 4. Lots of choice then for both players over these three separate 7.5 turn scenarios. Careful decisions will need to be made but both sides force pools are tasty: the US gets 10 squads, a 57L AT Gun and 5 M4s to play with, whilst the SS receive 12 mixed quality SS squads and a huge (30) number of odd vehicles ranging from Armoured Cars, Flak HTs, Marders and Mark IVs. A great number of iterations available in this one and this looks a real chess like struggle in many ways. A cerebral scenario - excellent job.

BFP25: From Villebaudon to Valhalla
And finally, another German attack in another big scenario, this time nine turns long and set on BFP C and E. The German wins by accumulating VP for hex control and for multiples of 10CVP inflicted on the US. The US are tough in this - 11 1st lines, lots of MGs, and 100mm OBA stiffened by two rocket and bomb FB, and six M4 versions, a Stuart, a Meat Chopper (!!) and three M10s and two Priests. Awesome. The Greyhound Division has its own punch too though - 5 x 5-4-8s and 15 x 4-6-7s with 100mm OBA and 6 Panthers and Flak Trucks, reinforced by five more 5-4-8s and four more Panthers and another Flakpanzer. Another monster combined arms scenarios.

So there you have it - 12 excellent scenarios but like the BtB pack, no real oddities in the rules. Again, most of the scenarios are on moderate, no wind days and there is no night or odd stuff in here. The majority of the scenarios are US attacks but the last three all give some German attack variety. These scenarios are mainly on the medium to large size but all should be completed in a long day's play at most. Players will definitely need to exploit all their combined arms skills in these scenarios to the fullest, but the random factor to BFP-24 and BFP-15 definitely take these scenarios to new heights in terms of replayability. Quality is just what you'd expect from BFP now, being glossy card with lots of colour printing on the cards and a clear and simple layout which is easy to understand. Awesome job on these guys - brilliant stuff.

So overall, another excellent production from BFP - where will it end? Hopefully it won't. The magazine is generally really good and the article on bocage elevates it above many other of this type of publication. My small questions about the representation of the Pueppchen aside, there is plenty here for everyone, and even if the historical articles aren't your thing, the rest of the production is stuffed to the gills with great stuff. And rejuvenating Board 6 is brilliant! A-- overall - another great piece of work guys! Many thanks for reading to the end of this...


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