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France '40: No Substitute for Inexperience

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Microbadge: ReviewerMicrobadge: Microbadge: Wargamer of 40+ yearsMicrobadge: This place intentionally left blank.Microbadge: Brutal Reviewer
Board Game: France '40

After playing several unsatisfying strategic level World War 2 games within the last year – Unconditional Surrender and Supreme Commander – which have very different interpretations of the war in the west in 1940, I got to thinking about games that have successfully made this one-sided campaign interesting. And there aren’t many. I can think of at least a half-dozen games I’ve played on this campaign that have missed the mark (by rank of awfulness):

1. Strange Defeat. The Fall of France 1940.
Strangest thing about this title is how something this ugly and half-baked ever got published. If trained gibbons and a mimeograph machine were involved that would explain it, otherwise there’s no excuse.

2. The Game of France, 1940.
Avalon Hill’s SPI-designed relic from another era. Among the last kids picked even at a time when we only had half a dozen kids on the ‘playground.’

3. 1940. GDW 120 Series game that abstracts everything to the point of pointlessness in order to meet a price point and fit into the cute little box.

4. Blitzkrieg 1940.
A typical Command magazine game. Which is to say fun to play once or twice and not much concerned with history.

5. The Fall of France. GDW’s Europa series title. A quagmire of stacked counters that I recall taking longer than the actual campaign to complete. Great for its time but that time is long gone.

6. Case Yellow, 1940. Ted Racier’s take on the campaign. Long playing time, much of it uninteresting. Chromey in a not good way. The best of this bunch by far though.

The crux of the issue is that if you make the French behave too historically it’s a German romp. Unhinge them from their historical command and doctrinal problems and you often end up with Superfrench who hold on for months or even years past their expiration date.

At the time the French-Allied forces looked more than sufficient to stop the Germans. With roughly equal numbers of men, more tanks and artillery and on the defensive, the Allies seemingly had the tools to contain any German attack and then dig-in for another bout of trench warfare. Qualitatively the Allies weren’t outclassed either as more than half the panzers in the French campaign were model 1 and 2s. So it really came down to doctrine and leadership along with some German innovations, like close air support and widespread use of radios.

For my money the operational game that best manages to simulate this situation is GMT’s France ’40. Designed by Mark Simonitch and similar (though not identical) to the system used in Ukraine ’43, Ardennes '44, and Normandy ’44, France ’40 contains two games in one box (some shared pieces but separate map for each).

The Dynamo game, about crushing the Dunkirk bridgehead, is uninteresting and really more of a solitaire exercise. But the main invasion game, Sickle Cut, is a tense and fun affair.

You start with a smaller but much more mobile German force facing a French army with a large front to cover and that has dispersed its armor, preferring to parcel it out to support individual infantry divisions.

French leadership and initiative failures are represented by GQG markers, which the German gets to place every turn (starting with 6 but declining as the game goes on). Stacks suffering from Grand Quartier General meddling don’t attack and move only 2 spaces. This allows the German player to target key areas of the defense (the effect also represents air interdiction) for weakening.

Still, fighting your way through the French lines is not easy. Though you can exploit gaps, it quickly gets lonely behind enemy lines. And you need a supply line stretching the length of the map to win. Out of supply penalties are soft: You can exist out of supply for a time but can’t do much offensively. It takes Guderian-size cojones to charge past the mass of French divisions on your flanks and head to the coast.

I’ve only played Sickle Cut twice (one German, one Allied win) and Dynamo once (Allied win) so do not have a strong opinion on play balance. The Germans certainly require more finesse to get right and I have a nagging fear that this game may fall more on the side of Superfrench once you figure out optimal strategies. Then again, if the French had acted optimally, they likely would have been able to contain the German onslaught.

A point not often discussed in wargaming is that certain campaigns are more realistically simulated with inexperienced commanders. Command control rules are a way to artificially introduce that element, but it may be best simulated by players who are new to the game. Ideally you've played other games in the series so you have the rules down pat, but your first play of France '40 is the one that will most realistically put you in the role of the actual commanders.

France ’40 is what you hope to, and should, get when plunking down $40-$50 for a wargame. It checks all the boxes: solid textual presentation; graphically attractive; playtested to achieve a semblance of play balance; and overall entertainment value for the money.

There’s nothing innovative or new enough here to rank it an A but it’s the very definition of a solid B wargame. I'd play it again any time.

From gallery of FinalWord

France '40
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