May 16, 2016 by crew
Beasts of War readers have certainly seen me (@oriskany) write plenty about World War II gaming, using a variety of systems. In this series, however, I’ve collaborated with community member @piers (Piers Brand) from Ironfist Publishing to highlight one system that I feel hasn’t received enough attention on Beasts of War: Battlegroup.
Presented by Ironfist Publishing and Plastic Soldier Company, Battlegroup is a tabletop minis game playable in just about any scale (commonly 15mm, 20mm, or 28mm). The game quickly made its mark, with “Battlegroup: Kursk” being nominated for Beast of War’s 2014 Best Historical Game. But what sets this system apart from its peers?
What’s Different About Battlegroup?
While other World War II systems certainly have a healthy dose of historical flavour and detail, with Battlegroup such accuracy is baked into the core framework of the system. From the makeup of German panzer platoons to how an artillery fire mission actually works, history and tactical realism are more than flavour … they take centre stage.
In short, the kinds of methods, organizations, and tactics that worked on the battlefield are the ones that work best in Battlegroup, and not because the “rulebook says so.” The rules, rewards, and consequences are designed in an effort to replicate battlefield “physics” naturally, so the player is barely aware of them from a “gamey” point of view.
In this way, players that are familiar with World War II battles can try the tactics they’ve read about and tend to be rewarded when they work. German, Soviet, British, and American units are better at certain methods because their ratings reflect actual unit characteristics, as opposed to “turn to page 163 and invoke ‘X’ rule to get ‘Y’ result.”
Conversely, players less familiar World War II are free to experiment on their own. When they find something that works in the game, they may be surprised to find an account of an actual commander who did the same thing. The player has (vicariously) stood in that man’s boots and faced the same problem, and arrived at the same “answer.”
This isn’t to say that Battlegroup isn’t accessible or fun. Pretty much any miniatures of the chosen scale can be used. There are no restrictive rules on basing. The game is also scalable, where beginning players can get started with small squad or platoon-sized scrimmage games before moving up to company or even battalion.
Personally I prefer scenario-based play, based on historical research, that tries to replicate a given engagement on a given day. Battlegroup certainly supports this, but also presents a detailed and carefully-calculated point system that allows list-based army construction if players prefer a more tournament-style method of play.
To play Battlegroup, players need the core rulebook, a handy-sized 60-page resource perfect for quick reference at the table. However, players will also need at least one of the campaign supplements. These are larger hard-backed books, lavishly illustrated and packed with background, detail, army lists, painting guides, and scenarios.
These books also come with great reference sheets that can be carefully cut from the book, along with sheets of markers and counters (discussed in more detail later). With these references at hand, gamers will be able to play with a minimum of reference back to the books for important rules, lists, charts, and other information.
Other than that, the game requires very little in specialized components. Any six-sided dice will do, players won’t even need that many. Just about any 15mm or 20mm miniatures will work, along with terrain. Tables usually run about six feet, unless you’re playing a very large battalion-sized battle in 20mm, where eight feet might be better.
The Mechanics Of Battlegroup
The overall turn structure in Battlegroup is deceptively simple. Players start by rolling “Orders Dice,” usually 2d6, 3d6, or 4d6 depending on the size of their force and the number and quality of their officers. These “bell-curved” results dictate how many orders the player can issue to their force this turn.
There are about fifteen types of orders you can give, from basic movement and fire to resupplying heavy units with ammo or repairing (or towing) broken-down vehicles. You can call in artillery (depending on how important your little battle is in the grand scheme of things). Officers can rally pinned units, combat engineers can ply their trade.
You can also plan ahead for actions during your opponent’s turn by setting units on “Ambush Fire” or “Reserve Move.” In this way, it’s never strictly “the other guy’s turn,” you’re always engaged at the table and can inflict a surprising amount of damage during the opponent’s go, especially if you’re on defence.
One of the most unusual mechanics of the Battlegroup system is the use of “Battle Rating Counters.” To begin with, each side has a “battle rating,” a number which defines your force’s threshold for casualties, chaos, terror, and impatience with higher command. This is larger and better trained the force, the higher its battle rating.
Each time a unit is destroyed (a vehicle knocked out or an infantry team eliminated), you have to blindly draw a battle rating counter from a cup, box, or other handy container. Other factors can force you to draw a counter, such as coming under air attack, losing key officers or objectives, or being attacked with flamethrowers.
These counters usually have a number from 1 to 5 on them. This is the number of battle rating points your force has just lost. You put the counter face down on your side of the table, so your opponent can see how many counters you’ve had to draw, but not how many battle rating POINTS you’re actually down.
This means that you always have a vague idea of how badly you’ve hurt the enemy, but you’re never really sure how close he is to breaking. Sure, he may have a battle rating of 45 and he’s had to draw ten counters, but that could mean he’s barely been blooded, or that his men are about to put a bullet in their own commander.
I’ll admit this mechanic sounded a little random to me … until I tried it. In fact, the pool contains more “2” and “3” counters than “1s”, “4s”, and “5s”. This, plus the number of counters drawn in a typical game, results in a bell-shaped probability curve that stabilizes the game, with just the right amount of battlefield chaos.
Still, you never know what will happen, and this yields glorious gameplay. History is littered with heroic last stands – along with units that seemed to crumble straight away. One side will attack an objective, and come within an inch of taking it before failing, never realizing that their enemy was just a breath away from complete collapse.
Adding still more flavour, some counters have a special rule printed on them instead of a number. These do not affect your battle rating, but allow some special event to take place on the battlefield. A unit might go “Beyond the Call of Duty” or suffer a “Breakdown.” These add just enough cinematic chaos without making the game random.
Better still, which special counters are put into the mix at the game’s outset can be fine-tuned to reflect special conditions of the battle or the campaign. For example, if the battle is at night or bad weather, any “Airstrike” counters can be removed so both sides know that no one is getting any air support this battle.
When you army reaches its battle rating, you have lost the game. Your men have broken, your second-in-command just threatened to relieve you of command, or you’ve been ordered by HQ to break off the action. Frustrating? Sometimes. But this is how it happens, and Battlegroup strives for that realism.
More To Come!
Of course, we’re barely scratching the surface of this subtle, textured, and in some places almost deviously-designed wargame. We hope you’ll join us in the coming weeks for further explorations of Battlegroup, and post your comments and any questions you might have below.
Better yet, if we’ve piqued your interest, head over to the Plastic Soldier Company or Ironfist Publishing websites and see about giving this game a try. Or, if you’ve tried Battlegroup, tell us about your games!
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"While other World War II systems certainly have a healthy dose of historical flavour and detail, with Battlegroup such accuracy is baked into the core framework of the system..."
"One of the most unusual mechanics of the Battlegroup system is the use of “Battle Rating Counters"..."