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FAB: The Bulge» Forums » Reviews

Subject: FAB: Bulge, best game I've played in ~6-9 months rss

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Steve
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So I've been playing FAB: Bulge since I got it a few weeks ago. I've recorded 3-4 ftf games now and a number of solo games so I'm in a position not to put the "Final Review" that many BGGers like to see, but what I believe is nevertheless an informed review.

I don't like to talk too much about rules or production, but I'll say a few words about the production. Most of it is devoted to gameplay thoughts which I myself find far more interesting.

Production

Production is pretty outstanding for a wargame and a GMT production (which have been getting better anyway, IMHO). Best wargame I have, at least. Color series rulebook and playbook. Full suite of playeraids. Nice counters and plenty of wooden blocks and stickers. The developer has been *painstaking* about having introduction material in the game including a 30 minute (like an actual 30 minute) intro scenario separate map and full walkthroughs of an entire player turn to illustrate all significant aspects of the game in the playbook. The game also has plenty of the necessary chits for everything you'll be doing, so no bookkeeping or anything. Could use a few more control chits, but if you're only a minor wargamer you have like 100 different versions of German and US control markers--or you can cludge it with something else. Not an issue. The map looks great as well, it's amazing to think that this game used to be a point to point game, Mark Simonitch really did a wonderful job. My only component problem is the blocks are not painted as well as I would like (American green specifically; they can have some distinctive gold lines on them). Fog of war, I suppose, could be hurt with such a relatively low block density game.

I really want to put a special word in to congratulate Rick Young and John Foley for the variety and quantity of playaids and introductory material. John Foley, especially, seems to have a near fanatical devotion to making games he develops easy to get into and very few rulebook references. Asia Engulfed had this same level of production in this sense (another Foley/Young collaboration). It makes me far, far more likely to purchase a Foley/Young or Foley produced game in the future. A leg up reputationwise on the competition. I had to mention that.

Gameplay Niche

The general way I would describe the gameplay niche FAB falls into is mostly by comparing it to another game that I have, A Victory Lost, which got a lot of acclaim last year. Similar niches in my opinion. AVL is a great game, incredibly tightly designed, almost euro in its stripped downness (I put a review up on BGG of it). But it is, to me, boring. I don't feel like playing it--there's almost an abstract quality to the game to me. By contrast, FAB: Bulge is a superior production to my tastes because it's only slightly more complex ruleswise than AVL, in the same operational scale, but has a ton of color along with the important decisions. At its heart it's a introductory complexity block game (hidden units) but the units have different quality levels--so poorly trained units can become more veteran as they get shot up but more commonly elite units lose their quality as they lose the forward elements.

Overall, I think the design makes AVL look like a dry eurogame by comparison, though I do respect AVLs design. This is intro wargaming done right: it shows off all the cool color of wargaming without being overwhelming like many of the other games I play which I would never try to foist on someone who wasn't as crazy as me in terms of wargaming. I think in retrospect, after trying to introduce it to a player a few weeks ago, it is a more complex and difficult game than I gave it credit for. The rules are relatively light (like 9 or 10 pages) but something about the game plays extremely unconventionally. I think it puts together some different systems (assets vs. units) that require some different thinking and haven't been done too much before if at all--this leads to a learning curve longer than it perhaps deserves. Many players coming in will not have played a similar game in many respects and will suffer from their experience with other games.

Gameplay Thoughts

The glue that holds the whole system together is the assets system and it is the game's major innovation. These are smaller units, artillery and events that are not on blocks like the major units (i.e. 101 airborne) but rather on cardboard chits. Basically at the beginning of each turn you add new assets into your old pool of assets you used in the previous turn and you draw a certain number determined by the turn. They represent high command assigning you whatever resources they can. So early in the Bulge the Germans have a huge amount of artillery and combat assets as German high command had everything ready for their final big offensive. As time goes by the Allies start to draw more assets and become more dangerous, especially in later turns as air units are finally added to the mix (in real life weather was horrible until late in the game, grounding air units for a long period, which is why the Germans chose to attack). Anyway, assets and where you use them really matter and there are just never enough of them--blown bridges and engineers are critical for the allies while for the Germans the only way to blast really strong units out of tough terrain is by using your max 2 artillery chits for every attack. The Germans never get the numbers of engineers they so desperately need to repair bridges, tear down enemy fortifications and build roadblocks.

This is, for me, a wonderful system of increasing interest but not at the cost of simplicity. By far the best part of this assets system is that it basically sucks a lot of the chrome out of the game while still leaving all the good elements (unique events, cool character) of chrome. What would normally need endless timed rules and bullet points that you have to keep track of by memory instead get event and asset chits you draw--so you can just look up the correct rule in the series booklet when you draw the chit if it's something exotic but not constantly have to think about it and whether it applies now. Even these special events and unique gameplay aspects are generally not terribly complex rules. Need to simulate German infiltration teams redirecting US units on the battlefield? As the Germans you may draw the Grief team interdiction chit to simulate it--then you just look up the rule in the playbook or playaid, decide where to deploy it and roll a die to see its final effect and that's that.

Strategically, I think one thing to mention here is the masterful but tricky use of timing in the game system. The reason this game works is because of the carefully considered order of play. Mastering the timing of how and when you want things to move is the key to the game. And it really works. It's not a terribly complicated timing system but it is more involved than I go-you go. Basically you can manipulate the timing of your units' movement with reserve markers--units with reserve markers can move after your own normal movement and combat phases or even during the other player's turn after he moves his units! This means that correctly assigned, you fill gaps and more importantly jump through and exploit holes you (usually as the German) put in the enemy line. You can also use your own assets during the other player's admin phase--perhaps putting field works with engineers or a roadblock at an awkward time before the other player moves or even putting replacements in a key area before he moves and attacks. I haven't yet mastered this, especially putting myself in good positions to exploit holes with reserves and armor.

Another gameplay consideration is that in this game both sides get to attack and defend, with the Germans obviously doing more attacking than defending. For me, it's almost a prerequisite that games have this quality, and it is featured here. It is hard to muster enthusiasm for a longer game where you never attack, at least for me. In later turns the US army swells in unit terms and perhaps more importantly its asset cup does too--with powerful airstrikes. I do wonder, perhaps, if there is too little for the US player to do in the game? Right now I do not think so, otherwise I would not rate the game so highly, but it is a concern since the US player starts with so little (many 1 pip strength units) that their main choice is where to retreat to. In my games that weren't sudden death victories, though, the game has gone down to the wire as the Germans try to defend key victory spots until the end of the 9th turn from a large American counterattack. I think so far the well chosen victory conditions make this more than just a "Germans gamble, attack, succeed and win or gamble, lose and lose the game" type game like, say, many WWII strategic games are--the Moscow or bust syndrome.

On the negative side, I am concerned that the game may be predictable. Borders between armies set by high command (which are extremely expensive movement pointwise to cross) and terrain that is virtually impossible to push through when defended by reasonable units (-3 terrain) forces the action to certain areas. But is this really a complaint? I have it on good authority from people from the area that the terrain modifiers are accurate and that the -3 areas are virtual swamps. And this is wargame, which is about exploring possibilities within the constraints of history. I don't think this is a serious problem with the game, just a possibility to bring up for the reader. Also, the assets system, which determines a great deal of the game, is quite flexible in putting serious decision points into the game even if the unit movement could sometimes be predictable.

Last Word

The bottom line is that I highly recommend this game as an intro to wargaming. At first I thought I could be unequivocal, that it could be someone's first wargame. But since teaching someone the game I have decided that it is definitely far more complex than jumping in at CC: Ancients or Battlelore, and probably more complex than even AVL or something like that. Not in rules length, but in unconventional design decisions. It is worth it, however: in my opinion you will be far more likely to create a wargame partner with this game than a drier simpler wargame! It's so much more colorful for only a handful more rules. I also think it'd be manageable for a newcomer to pick up given all the effort that was made in the finished product to accommodate newbies--play a few short games of The Nuts! 30 minute scenario, for example. I think a problem for many people who get recommended wargames is that they are recommended intro wargames that are highly stripped down and mechanical--I know if I had started with AVL I'm not sure how far I would have gone into wargames from boredom. It doesn't show off what's cool about wargames. Mechanical competitive games are already done well by good euros; why make someone play a euroish game for their first wargame? By contrast, if you pick this game up IMHO you'll get a good taste of exactly why wargamers play their games and what makes them different from other games, with only a slightly steeper complexity level. Right now it is a 9, it may actually go up on more plays. It is early yet.
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Jim Cote
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I haven't played a ton of wargames, but what was also new to me in this game (besides the asset system) was the ways in which damage can be absorbed. The attacker can ignore every hit after the first by aborting the attack. The defender can absorb hits by becoming disordered and by retreating. In effect, you are saving steps by giving up attacks or by giving up ground. From a game play point of view this is a great decision, and from a realistic point of view it feels right as well. You can stand your ground and take your hits, or perform a fighting withdrawal. I was so impressed with the simple ideas in this game that I ordered it before I even finished reading the rules. That's almost unheard of for me.
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Steve
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Absolutely Jim. I think that observation should have been in my review! The game actually features a very painless and logical way to incorporate retreat and probing attacks. I think the retreat one is important but has been done nicely in different ways before in other games. To me the aborting attack mechanic is really a breakthrough in the genre, though. It may have been done before but I haven't seen it. It basically lets you shut down the operation if you take too many losses and come away with just a bloody nose, giving the attacker options besides push ahead at full steam that incorporates information about the strength of the resistance they are facing, just as a real commander received reports on opposition strength and effectiveness.

Which all brings up another generality--there is actually a degree of decision making within combat in FAB which is rare. You don't just find out where you are on the CRT and find out the results--it's an interactive process where both players make decisions--should I take these losses or do I need to shut the attack down because I'm meeting too much resistance? Is this ground worth staying in and taking extra damage or should I trade space for losses as the defender? Which assets do I deploy?

This all goes back to my comment about timing--I think the biggest strength of this game (and the designer) is his mastery of timing different decisions to allow interesting situations in his games that I've played. This is a characteristic of the Asia Engulfed design too, which right now I don't like as much as this game but is still a good game and features cool timing decisions.
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Christophe Sancy
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Brilliant review, Steve. Fully agree. I'm deeply impressed by the level of innovation in this game. Most of the time, there are 1 or maybe 2 new mechanics in a new wargame, but the rest is pretty conventional.

AVL is indeed a nice game, bought it as soon as published, but... I don't regard it as a true innovative design. The chit pull system is OK, it brings more dynamic, less downtime. Low counter density, limited chrome, reasonable timeframe: this is what a lot of gamers are looking for. But it's still a classic design. And I'm not enjoying it as much as I'd like to.

The FAB game system is innovative in every detail. You get the fog of war of a blockgame, but it doesn't follow the Columbia's logic (which is still the case of Prussia's Defiant Stand- bought it but didn't play it yet) . Thanks to movement, stacking, contested zones, hit resolution rules, there's nothing like a map overcrowded with blocks. You described very well the excellent assets/events & timing aspects. The nice thing is all those innovative mechanics put alltogether provide a consistent, fast system (thanks to a lot of playtesting and the evident John Foley's added value). So, this is not just another game about the Bulge topic. Rick Young has done it again: he's not only a game designer, I regard him as one of the few game creators: people able to develop a good simulation, but who have an original and innovative point of vue on gaming & on game design.

About the concerns. Predictable/terrain. As I indeed had the chance to do it somewhere else under another avatar ID (did you read James Crumley's books ?), I confirm you that the terrain modifiers are perfectly accurate. The Germans never succeeded in seizing the Elsenborn ridge, located in a wild & swampy steppe. The only doubt I have is about the rather passive role of the US player in the first part of the game. Blow bridges, build field works, retreat, and wait for better times ...

Wargaming is really becoming more and more interesting, if I also consider new titles as Corps Command: Totensonntag...

A great game and a great review !
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Johan Sammelin
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I've played very few wargames - but somehow this release got me quite interested. After reading the rules, I am now convinced I need this game. Too bad no one I know like wargames...
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Johan,

Never fear, the Internet is here!! There will be a VASSAL module out soon for FAB:BoB, which is great for PBEM games, and can even be used to play a game in real time. VASSAL doesn't really enforce the rules as such, it is mostly just like playing the board game, only in digital form.

A new module from the WarGameRoom and Bruce Wigdor is also in the works, which is THE way to play over the Internet IMHO, if you have the time to sit and actually play the game in real time. The WarGameRoom modules do enforce the rules for each game, by comparison to VASSAL or CyberBoard. I can't wait for this one... git'R done, Bruce!!
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Jeffrey D Myers
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garysax wrote:
Which all brings up another generality--there is actually a degree of decision making within combat in FAB which is rare. You don't just find out where you are on the CRT and find out the results--it's an interactive process where both players make decisions--should I take these losses or do I need to shut the attack down because I'm meeting too much resistance? Is this ground worth staying in and taking extra damage or should I trade space for losses as the defender? Which assets do I deploy?


This really makes sense for a block game, because you don't always know what you are getting into. One can probe, take a hit, and withdraw if need be.

Thanks for the nice review!
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Andrew C
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...too...many...games...

I just picked up and started soloing Iron Tide: Panzers in the Ardennes. And FAB: Bulge is sitting there, waiting for me to play it. I need more time.

Ah well, great review. After reading it, I'm more excited than ever to play FAB.
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David McLeod
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Piqued my interest, with other FAB titles on the way could be my re-entry to wargamming, thanks for the review!
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Dan Conley
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I FINALLY caved and got this one this past week! Looking forward to getting it on the table! Thanks for a GREAT review! Since I haven't actually PLAYED yet, about the only thing I can comment on is the quality of the paint job on the blocks. I totally agree with your assessment. Hope that improves in future FAB releases...

Thanks again for a fine article!
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Mike Wall
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Fired by several solo sessions to gain familiarity with the rules, got in first ftf last night - superb! The Tournament scenario sits easily in an evening's play [took us 3 hrs - and that's with only one of us being familiar with the rules.]

One of the few Bulge games I've played where genuine Bulges can and do occur. In fact I would say that it's essential, as a German strategy to put pressure all along the front will lead to German defeat.

Surprised by the comments about the block colours. Have had no problems at all - in fact under some artificial light sometimes have had problems distinguishing green from grey!
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Charlie Sheppard
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peacmyer wrote:
garysax wrote:
Which all brings up another generality--there is actually a degree of decision making within combat in FAB which is rare. You don't just find out where you are on the CRT and find out the results--it's an interactive process where both players make decisions--should I take these losses or do I need to shut the attack down because I'm meeting too much resistance? Is this ground worth staying in and taking extra damage or should I trade space for losses as the defender? Which assets do I deploy?


This really makes sense for a block game, because you don't always know what you are getting into. One can probe, take a hit, and withdraw if need be.

Thanks for the nice review!


This decision actually has little to do with fog of war. It usually has more to do with whether the terrain being defended is worth the extra casualties to hold or not.
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David McLeod
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Well, further to my previous comment that this review "piqued" my interest I have also done the proverbial cave in and picked up a copy last weekend. I guess I was pritty lucky with the blocks, mine were in decent condition. There were a couple that were off colour (slightly) but thanks to the "stickering your blocks" reference section I was able to insure that the blocks aren't to distinguishable from one another. (this section was actually really useful for a novice block gamer)

Again, thanks for the review! Hope to play this soon!
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Steve
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As an update, I've been playing this more recently and I am still very comfortable giving it a 9. Just had a great game where it came down to the last turn as the Germans, the Bulge ended up collapsing just one turn too early and it was clear I was going to lose the game on points.

Playing the Germans seems a tall order but really isn't--Kevin Garber said once that as the Germans you should never use your special action as the Germans for anything but breakthroughs until later in the game. The most helpful strategy advice I've ever received for the game. The game ends at just the right time, when the USA has had plenty of time to enjoy some counter attacks but the game is not yet a boring rout.
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Pierce Ostrander
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Quote:
Last Word

The bottom line is that I highly recommend this game as an intro to wargaming. At first I thought I could be unequivocal, that it could be someone's first wargame. But since teaching someone the game I have decided that it is definitely far more complex than jumping in at CC: Ancients or Battlelore, and probably more complex than even AVL or something like that. Not in rules length, but in unconventional design decisions.


Just one man's contrary opinion here... this game is definitely not simple! There are many, many exceptions and therefore a LOT of rules-overhead. This is not an introductory wargame. Stick with Hammer of the Scotts, or Crusader Rex or Nepoleon at Merango or one of many other high quality truely simple games when introducing newbies or moving into wargames yourself. This one will bury you.

See my review HERE for further explanation:

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