Ever since my mom bought me Fortress America as a youth, I’ve had an interest in wargames. I cut my teeth on the Milton Bradley’s Gamemaster Series and then I discovered the wonderful games of Avalon Hill and Victory Games. The depth of strategy in these games combined with the history lessons learned from them have kept me playing them ever since. While the original incantations of these companies longer exist, there are companies that still produce games that carry on the tradition of deep Ameri-style war games. GMT Games in one of these companies. Probably best known for their card driven Cold War strategy game Twilight Struggle, GMT Games also makes the more traditional counter based war games as well. Ardennes ’44: The Battle of the Bulge is one of their newer releases.
This is the 2nd edition of the 2003 release of same name. The rules and map have been updated since the first edition and game rebalanced. The World War II and Battle of the Bulge have inspired many games over the years. Does Ardennes ’44 stand out in the crowded pack or will it be lost this crowded market? And if you own the 1st edition is upgrading worth your while? Let’s find out as we take a closer look at Ardennes ’44: Battle of the Bulge.
First let’s talk about the components of the game. The map for this game is huge. It comes in two parts that are 22″Â x 34″Â. When combined you have a 44″Â x 34″Â made of the Ardennes region of Belgium. The main scenario uses both parts so you’ll need a big table to play the full game. The maps are printed on a glossy paper and look really good. The hex numbers are easy to read as are the markings for roads and towns. On the sides of the map, you have areas to place status markers. And for an added touch the insignias of the different military formations involved in the battle are displayed on the map as well. I only have one issue with the map. I’ve had my copy for a little over the month and the glossy map is already showing signs of wear at the folds. It also has some tearing at the vertices of the folds. So be gentile with the map kids. I’ll probably have to make a trip to the craft store and get some acid free tape to repair the tearing. This is something expect with paper maps over time. I just wasn’t expecting to see this after one month though.
Three sets of counters are included that represent the Allied and German forces in the battle. The units have the typical attack strength, defensive strength, movement rate and NATO unit symbol normally found on most wargame counters. They also contain a lot of other information as well. The upper right corner of each unit contains the unit’s setup hex number or the turn number it enters as a re-enforcement. This is something that is really handy. It helps speed set quite a bit since you can grab a unit and immediately know where it belongs oppose to looking at its Unit I.D. and cross referencing it on a setup chart. Other special unit properties like unit experience, 1st turn movement and attack restrictions, as well as range on the artillery unit are on the units. So a lot of information is crammed on these little 9/16″Â pieces. Yet all of the information is easily read. The one problem my friends and I had with the units was remembering what all the colored boxes meant. So a lot of time was spent flipping through the rule book trying to find what each meant, since there was not one master list of all the markings you could find on a unit.
The rulebook is full color with the rules divided into subsections of subsections which should be no surprise to the experienced wargamers. It follows a logical progression for explaining the game rules and provides examples of some of the more involved game concepts like zone of control. In the back of the rules there is an example of play. This is a detailed play by play of the first few turns of the game. This helps one understand the rules but also gives an example of the strategy in the game as well. This is a welcome addition to the game since it helps remind players of all the special rules in effect during the first turn of play. Also it includes something I think should be in every wargame rule book, a printed copy of the counter sheets. If I were to lose a unit, I would be able to use the information on this page to recreate the single counter myself. With a game like this missing one counter can change the game a lot, especially if it’s a piece that starts on the board. So having the ability to easily create makeshift replacements is a godsend.
The final components are a player reference card and a turn record track card. The player reference card is full color, 4 sided and printed on card stock so it’s nice and durable. This contains the combat charts and terrain effects chart as well as a miniaturized version of the map highlighting the victory point hexes the German player is trying to obtain. I really wish one for each player was included. There was a lot of passing the card between players and it would have been so much easier having two copies of it. GMT Games does have a copy you can download on their website and print out and make your own. The issue with that is the two of the four pages in the PDF are heavily pixelated and barely readable. Hopefully that’s something they’ll fix soon
The turn record track card serves a few purposes. It keeps track of the current game turn and tells you of any turn specific events, like the start of the German Fuel shortage or the change in weather. It also serves as holding area for the reinforcements entering that turn. I found it rather poor for this use. On some of the turns both sides have a lot of reinforcements so you end up with giant stacks of precariously stacked counters. One wrong move when bringing in reinforcements and you’ll have a big mess of counters everywhere. I found it far easier to store the reinforcements in a counter tray and have each tray compartment represent a turn. So on any given turn I can just pull all the markers out of the appropriate tray. A far cleaner way of bring in reinforcements than the having giants stacks of counters sitting on a turn record track.
Outside of the tearing issue with the map, the components are quality and the presentation is quite nice. Ardennes ’44 is a good looking game with counter that are very easy to read, even if you may not remember what everything on the counter means.
Now let’s talk about the gameplay. The standard game consist of 22 turns, that represents the time between the morning of December 16th, 1944 – night of December 26, 1944, with each turn simulating a 12 hour period. Each turn consists of 8 phases. What these phases are vary depending on if it’s the Allied or German players turn. Here’s a rundown of those phases:
Phase 1 is Artillery Supply Phase. Artillery units that fired in a previous turn are flipped to their ready side. The amount flipped will vary between German and Allied forces. This simulates the supply constraints the Germans were experiencing.
Phase 2 is The Fuel Shortage Phase. This is strictly for the German player and does not go into effect until turn 7. The German player rolls on a chart and the result is the number of units the Germans must mark out of supply.
Phase 3 is the Bridge Phase. This is where either player can build or try to blow up bridges. Bridge access is key for the German advance so blowing up a few will greatly slow the advancing Wehrmacht.
Phase 4 is the Movement Phase. Each unit has a set number of movement points (MP) to use in a turn, with advancing into different terrain types costing a different amount of points. Travelling along roads reduce movement costs while trekking through forest will slow your units down greatly. Units also have the options of using tactical movement instead of their MP. This lets them move 2 hexes regardless of the MP cost. There is one final option for movement, Strategic movement. This is simulates loading up infantry battalions on trucks. It increases infantry’s movement greatly but prevents them from attacking in the combat phase. This phase is also where that turn’s reinforcements enter the board as well using their full MPs to advance into the fray.
Phase 5 is the Rally Phase. This is where units disrupted or broken in combat attempt to recover.
Phase 6 is the Combat Phase. Combat is conducted using a Combat Ratio Chart. Used in many wargames, this method of combat takes the attackers combined attack strength and divides it by the defenders defense. This is rounded down into a ratio of, say, 1 to 2, 1 to 1, 2 to 1, etc. The attacker then rolls on the chart and references the appropriate column for the result of combat. Something to note, in the rules that came with the game, it states the maximum total strength you can attack with is 15. This is a misprint and was supposed to be listed as an optional rule. When I played the game I abided by the 15 attack strength cap and found it enhanced the game. It made combat more strategic and risky. The combat became more about positioning your units to execute favorable attacks than creating a giant unstoppable and unrealistic mass of units attacking a single point.
Phase 7 is the Traffic Marker Phase. This is where players get to place Traffic Markers that increase the MP cost of a given hex by 2. Placements of these markers are crucial. At the beginning of the game, the Allies use them to slow down the advancing German army, and as the game progress and more Allied units are coming from the west, the German player can use the markers to make it more difficult for the Allies’ reinforcements to get into the thick of things.
Phase 8 is the Supply and Surrender Phase. All of the active players units are checked to see if they are in supply or, if they are isolated, they check for surrender. Sometimes just by surrounding units you can force their surrender and remove them from the game without combat. This is a highly effective tactic for those units that get bunkered down in a city, where attacking would result in heavy casualties.
Phase 9 is the Victory Phase. This only happens on the Allied players turn. This is where the number of victory points the German players accumulated are counted. Each victory hex in their possession is worth 1 point, and for every 4 attack factors that have exited the west edge of the map they score 1 point. In the standard 22 turn game, the Germans are trying for 10 victory points.
The overall mechanics of the game are not super complex as war games go, but when compared to board games in general, they’re rather complex. This is definitely not a beginner’s wargame. Setup takes about 30 minutes. This is placing the Allies in their predefined spots and the German player setting up his pieces as he chooses in this predefined army starting zones. The first play with my friends we found each turn taking close to an hour. A lot of this time was spent strategizing and looking up rules. At that rate it would have taken us 22 hours to play the full game, and we are experienced wargames familiar with the basic concepts of wargames in general. I can only imagine how long it would take someone new to the hobby. As we became more familiar with the game and rules the time per turn was closer to 30 minutes. Even at that rate that’s 11 hours to play the full game. So if trying to play the full game, expect to spend an entire day doing so, or play in a place where you can easily leave the game setup and resume it later.
The game does come with 3 shorter scenarios. There are a 6 turn and an 8 turn scenarios that replicate the beginning 3 or 4 days of the battle respectively. There is also a 10 turn scenario that represents Patton’s counter attack at the end of the battle. Your chance of being able to complete one of these in a single session is much greater than the standard game.
I had mentioned earlier, this is the second edition of the game. The map has been updated from the first edition. The game designer actually travelled to the Ardennes and saw some errors in the map and corrected them so the map is closer to reality than it was before. Also some units have seen their attack factors change. Some Allied units were reduced to while some German units saw theirs increase. Plus there are a variety of rule tweaks and changes that help smooth out the mechanic or balance the game more. The entire list of changes is in the rulebook, which is freely available on GMT’s website here. So if you own the first edition and liked it, I recommend reading that to see if you feel buying the second edition is warranted.
My gaming group really enjoyed this game and will likely get it back on the table at some point. I played as the Germans and during the initial few turns it felt like any point the Allied line was going to break and the Wehrmacht would march freely to Antwerp. It kept bending but never broke which is very historical. Often times with games that try to recreate battles, it will feel like the side that won in the real world will always win the game, which makes for a poor game, if the outcome is predetermined. With Ardennes ’44, I never felt like I was out of the game quick. It wasn’t until the supply shortages hit and waves of Allied reinforcements arrived that the Germans were fighting a losing battle. Really the way the game is setup the German’s best chance for winning is early in the game before the supply issues and Allied reinforcements hit. If they can punch of few holes in the line early the German’s have a good chance of winning. The longer the game goes though the more it favors the Allies. And that is what makes Ardennes ’44 a great simulation of the Battle of the Bulge. It perfectly recreates the conditions of the battle without predetermining the outcome. I thoroughly enjoyed this game and it’s a welcomed addition to my wargaming collection.
That said, it’s not for everyone. The long play time and the steep learning curve for non wargamers make it a bad entry point into the genre. Plus the price of $55.00 for a game that you’ll probably realistically only get a few plays from makes it a hard to recommended to anyone that isn’t a big wargamer, used to that kind of cost per play. This isn’t something unique to Ardennes ’44, the same can be said for a lot other wargames as well.
Overall Ardennes ’44 is a great game for a niche market. It’s not something that I can see your general gamer enjoying. They will probably find it too involved and long to play. However this is a great game for experienced wargamers that are looking for a deep simulation of the Battle of the Bulge. They’ll find it historically accurate while balanced enough to leave the result in the air. That makes for a great wargame that is worth adding to any grognard’s collection.