Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Rommel: the Brevity scenario

British left, Axis right. Italians are forward on the
objectives. On-table Germans are in the back row.
The third Italian objective is just out of the picture
at the top. Scenery was highly improvised!
I got my first chance to set up a game of Rommel on the tabletop. It was the  scenario for Operation Brevity, a limited British offensive against Axis forces in North Africa in May 1941. 

Actually, it wasn't so much of a competitive game as a collaborative exploration of the rules, at least to start with. We worked together on the initial Axis deployment. My collaborator, Chris, then set up the British based on their historical deployment. 

Although it wasn't my original intention for us to adopt sides, Chris effectively assumed control of the British while I started making decisions for the Axis.

The British close in on the vulnerable
central objective. It is quickly overrun.
In  the scenario, as in historical reality, the British make a strong showing at the beginning before German reinforcements arrive.

Some German forces are deployed on the back row while others arrive in a later turn (but we didn't get that far). The Italians can be deployed forward to  hold the objectives.

Deployment is very straightforward, but it all feels a little different if you're not used to playing many grid games.

Stalemate on the Axis right.
In our very short game the British soon captured the central Italian-held objective and seriously depleted the Italian forces guarding the town. The struggle for the other Axis objective was a stalemate. 

A counterattack by the German forces already on-table was only partially successful. Had the game continued I think it would have swirled around with both sides threatened by isolation. We completed three moves but didn't have time to pursue the game further. At this point the Axis line seemed very thin indeed. Although this is an introductory scenario, it's an interesting one and should repay playing with different strategies. 

The counter-attack by the on-table German units.
Reading rules is one thing: actually playing a game on the tabletop is another. I hadn't really absorbed the rules properly and we relied on the QRS, whatever I could recollect  and whatever we had to time to look up properly. We didn't get everything right (crucially we neglected to tip retreating attackers) but it was a good start. By the end I felt there probably wasn't a lot more to learn for the basic game and that when everything is learnt, the turns will be playable very quickly, leaving maximum time and energy for play rather than rule referral.

Steven Thomas' Balagan blog recently reviewed a range of Operational-level games that predated Rommel. By  his definition Rommel would not count as an Operational game because the basic unit is a company. 

The town (Sollum) was a hot spot. The defenders
  are critically worn down and destined to shatter.
However, the game is very highly abstracted and certainly  feels Operational. You have to second-guess your opponent with the selection of events and tactics which are pieces of narrative on cards rather than emanating from the position of lead castings, companies are concentrated to apply pressure and combat is attritional. Fights certainly grind to a conclusion over several turns but there are no knockout blows.

My collaborator judged the game to be complicated in comparison with Sam Mustafa's Bluecher and although he considered it realistic he didn't warm to its attritional nature which he found unexciting. Each to his own.

Now for some of the physical practicalities. 

 Deep-Cut Studio gridded meadow mat from
1. My tabletop consisted of 1 ft square cork tiles with little Go counters at their centres to remind players this was a 6" grid. It was OK but still required a degree of mental adjustment. I really felt it would be better to have clearly defined 6" squares with edge lines and I've since ordered the Deep-Cut Studio gridded meadow mat from BigRedBat for use with my 10mm armies.

2. The unit cards don't provide the immediate visual clue given by models and can be awkward to pick up without long nails. If used as game counters they need to be based on MDF.

3. Command Post cards are, I believe, a big improvement on the Command Post sheets but can again be fiddly. This isn't just a question of size but more importantly a result of being printed on ordinary card stock. Proper playing cards are coated and glossy and slide off each other easily.

4. Tipping didn't actually lead to any ambiguity in the game but I think it might. Players naturally want to point attacking units towards their targets. Keeping them perpendicular, unless tipped, feels too much like a boardgame. In future I think I will use markers to indicate tipped.

5. In addition to the D6s used for Ops, I must remember to pack two D6 of another type for combat resolution.


  1. Your gridded terrain mat looks great!
    Can you explain "tipping?"

    1. The mat is highly recommended. The grid is very subtle. Tipping signifies a state requiring some degree of reorganisation or resupply, and is applied to attackers who have been repulsed or artillery after having bombarded. It's indicated by literally tipping the unit 45 degrees.

  2. Point of order, good Doctor. Technically I categorised Rommel as tactical because of several factors: the small scale of forces (Division per side), the low ground scale (1:6,667), short game duration (1 day), and nominal supply rules. And, of course, the point you mentioned, that each stand represents a company. By this criteria Rommel is very tactical.

    That isn't to say tactical is bad, just not what I'm looking for to refight things like the 2nd Battle of Kharkov on table.

    But I'll watch your blog closely to see how your experiment pans out.



    1. Hi Steven

      I was going to tip you off that you had been mentioned in my post but your own reconnaissance outpaced me. My reconnaissance is obviously not as good as I hadn't noticed you'd subsequently added in a section on Rommel.

      Broadly speaking you are quite right. Taking into account the range of factors that you very properly do, the default game is perhaps grand-tactical but not operational in scale.

      I picked on the use of companies as a failure point (to count the game as operational) because it's a factor that can't be changed. The other factors are more elastic or arguable. The game can be multi-day as you noted. It is also theoretically possible to expand the game to any geographical size given a small enough grid and/or a collection of tables. Supply is fairly abstract but no more so than in some board games.

      The basic mechanisms are simple and scaleable. Setting up a mega game of Rommel is not necessarily the best operational option but it's a possibility.

      Good to have a dialogue.


    2. Yup, after your comment on my post, I purchased the rules and added a section.

      I like Sam Mustafa's as a game designer so I remain interested in Rommel. But I would consider it for refights at the scale it is designed for. It would, for example, probably make a brilliant option for refighting my favourite, Krasny Bor, where four Soviet divisions hammered a Spanish division.

      But for huge things, like Kharkov 2, I think my starting point would be something else. Something bigger. Stands as divisions. 20-40km across each hex/square. That kind of thing.

    3. Modern historical battles can be very inconvenient for wargamers with regard to overall size, balance of forces, and protracted time periods. I guess most of us get into a game and try to find battles to fit it, when we should start at the historical end and then find a game to represent it.

      I'm very interested in your quest for a satisfactory Operational-level game, especially if you can also come up with a scenario for the Jarama Valley campaign as I've always wanted to use my Crossfire SCW kit for something at a higher level.

      IMO fictional games are fine at low level but once you go up the scale you really want to fight historical battles which means that scenario development has to go hand-in-hand with rule development.

      With Rommel, Sam Mustafa has largely left scenario development to gamers. This is in sharp contrast to a game like Bloody Big Battles which is completely based on historical scenarios, a wide range of which are provided. But then Rommel is also intended for pick-up games.