('As I See It' are game reviews from the perspective of a gamer who is short on time and attention span. My favorite games that are fun and interesting, where the mental load is on making decisions not bean counting or fiddliness. Therefore the review spotlights innovative, clean, and elegant mechanics that work toward the above and key decision points. I play both eurogames and wargames, but since eurogames tend to be well reviewed in BGG already, I'll be mostly be reviewing wargames.)
To do Raid on St. Nazaire proper justice, you must understand it within historical context. The British, at considerable time and manpower, had finally found and sunk the Bismarck. However, the Royal Navy also feared that her sister ship, Tirpitz, would also attempt to break out and raid Atlantic shipping. They decided the best way to prevent this would be to destroy the Normandie Dock, the only dock on the Atlantic coast which could accommodate the battleship. And here's where it really sounds like something out of Hollywood: since an air raid could not guarantee the destruction of the dry dock, they ordered Operation Chariot, a commando raid into occupied France to destroy the facilities by hand. Sure, Typhoon had been stopped at the gates of Moscow, but Normandy would not liberate France for another two years. Right now, Hitler was the master of continental Europe, and 611 commandos and sailors were about to step into the teeth of his Fortress Europa.
The plan was this: while the Germans were distracted by an air raid, the destroyer HMS Campbeltown and a flotilla of small craft would enter the St. Nazaire basin masquerading as German ships. The Campbeltown would ram the caisson of Normandie Dock and scuttle herself so that explosive charges in her hull would be placed next to the caisson. Meanwhile, commando demolition teams would land and plant charges behind a shield of commando assault teams. The British would blow up their primary objectives and any targets of opportunity (say, the reinforced concrete U-boat pens that were also impervious to Bomber Command), load back onto the boats, and head home.
"No plan survives contact with the enemy." - NapoleonReally, I think that says it all. The game, Raid on St. Nazaire, honestly recreates "the greatest raid of all." Things will go wrong. Many men will be killed, wounded, or captured. And it is an absolute blast to play.
I think the best way to explain gameplay is to walk through the sequence of play.
Harbor Defense Fire: Two things went wrong with the British plan. First, the distraction air raid lacked its usual vigor, which tipped the Germans off to something amiss. Second, the signal lamp code which the British used to mimic German ships was out of date. In short, the Germans were not as off guard as the commandos anticipated.
In game terms, the German naval guns will shoot at you. A lot. The effects range from casualties among the commandos and/or sailors, knocking out guns, forcing the boat to evade or turn away (temporarily reducing movement factors), permanent speed reduction, setting the boat on fire, to outright sinking or exploding. This is what happens in wooden motor launches with extra fuel tanks sitting on the deck...
It's a very painful experience. It's a very humbling experience. Like eating rice and beans for dinner. The first time you play, you'll probably think you missed some rule for leniency, but you haven't. Stiff upper lip, wot, wot? Luckily, the Germans are limited to only 12 hits; the defensive fire continues until it misses but, given modifiers from searchlights and fires and such, if you are hit by fewer than 12, consider it a godsend.
To put it one way, even though the Sunk result only occurs once in 36 times, it'll probably happen at least once a game. But even worse are fires, which happen with probability 5/36. Boats on fire lose 1 MF (i.e. half), are easier to hit (brightly burning flame in the dark), and are automatically hit (doesn't count against the 12 limit) once in the next harbor defensive fire, which will probably remove its last MP (probability 5 in 6). A ship on fire is pretty much a lost cause, and you should consider getting those sailors and commandos off because all they're doing is getting shot to pieces.
British Covering Fire: Sometimes I think the designers put this step in to tease us. After the ruse was up, the guns of the Campbeltown and motor launches were supposed to provide covering fire for the raid. However, as ships get sunk and guns knocked out and the Campbeltown abandon the scuttled ship, the To Hit modifier gets even worse. If you do hit anything, consider yourself lucky. Not that it will matter much as German guns and searchlights recover quickly: a disrupted target will be out for ~0.71 turns (their recovery check is before the next Harbor Defense Fire); an "out of action" target will be out for ~1.33 turns. Which means, if you hit a target on turn 1 (your penalty gets pretty bad on subsequent turns), it has a good chance of recovering by the time most your commandos land on turns 2 and 3. I remember one time I put a searchlight out of action; it came back online at the start of the next turn. No, I'm not bitter at all. These are just the sort of things you come to expect from Raid on St. Nazaire.
Dockside Defensive Fire: Oh, the Germans naval guns aren't done with you yet. Harbor Defense Fire was for off-board guns to fire at your boats; now the on-board guns have their go.
(courtesy of elirlandes)
The map is divided up into 5 lettered sea zones (A through D plus Z) and two approach zones. During the dockside defensive fire, German guns fire into the nearest sea zone containing British. The number of guns firing into each zone determines their To Hit number, which in turn correlates with how many times you get hit in each zone, though it's still capped at 12 (per zone). Long story short, there may be ways gimmick this by moving boats so that they shield others, but you're still in for a world of hurt. But chin up, stout fellow! You'll soon get your own back.
Naval Movement: This part is fairly simple as just about everything costs 1 MF: moving one sea zone; the Campbeltown ramming the southern caisson; entering or leaving a landing area; stopping to pick up or transfer survivors on a boat (there will be a lot of men stuck in boats on fire or dead in the water); making a torpedo attack. Oh, yes, a number of your ships are armed with torpedoes, which you can use to attack lock gates (more on this in the Demolition section) or the German flak ship, Sperrbrecher 137, which is sitting in sea zone A and will give you headaches during dockside defensive fire. Like many things in this game, torpedo attacks are dicey (except German defensive fire; you can always count on getting shot), but they are potentially more useful than covering fire.
Anyway, most of your ships your motor launches have 2 MF, but a number will have lost some permanently (due to fire or speed loss) or temporarily (due to evade and turn away results). The shortest path to the two planned landing sites at the Old Mole and Old Entrance are 3 and 4 MFs, respectively. Thus, most of your commandos will come ashore on turns 2 and 3; a commando team that hasn't unloaded by then probably is on a motor launch that got badly mauled and won't be coming at all.
German Activation: One of the things the game simulates is the confusion of the German defenders. The first turn of the game is 0128, and even if the Germans were tipped off by the bombing raid, it takes them time to organize a response against the British raid. In this respect, the British still maintain the element of surprise and initiative, which can be used in their favor.
German units with enough presence of mind to respond to the British (stosstruppen) appear in the following manner: a roll on the activation table determines how many units from the force cup are drawn. For each unit, another roll determines where they appear. Thus they can appear far away or sometimes among your men; the randomness here is one of the few ways the Germans can keep you on your toes and makes the game more interesting. While the basic activation table averages about 5.39 units per turn, the German response moves from weak confusion to overwhelming because of two factors: first, the table starts with a -3 modifier which grows to +4 (each pip of modifier is a bit less than 1 unit); second, Stosstruppen are divided into 5 alert levels that contain mixes of increasingly stronger units. When an alert level is depleted, the next alert level begins to enter. Thus the German response both increases in activity and number as the initial shock wears off. Eventually, the Germans will receive armored cars, which are impervious to small arms fire.
(courtesy of wetwebwork)
British Movement: Land movement takes place on a point-to-point map. Each connection has a single or double line showing how many MF it takes to use that connection; there are also 3 MF lines connecting the map to holding zones, and dotted lines show where units cannot move but can attack across. A commando unit with at least 4 of its 6 men remaining has 3 MF; all others are reduced to 2 due to carrying wounded. Entering or leaving an area with enemy units consumes an additional MF.
All I will say here is that the commandos should move aggressively: demolition teams should move to their primary targets as soon as possible; assault teams should shield them or engage known stosstruppen. The number of active Germans will grow quickly, so the British must seize their rapidly closing window of opportunity while they can.
German Movement: German movement is system controlled. In short, stosstruppen move to fire at commando teams if possible and toward the nearest commando if not. And they move independently without coordination. Now here's the ingenious part: to simulate German confusion, German units have variable MF. Each turn, a movement number is rolled. All stosstruppen of strength less than the move number have 0 MP; equal gives 1; 1 more gives 2 MF; 2+ more gives 3 MF. This means larger stosstruppen units will move against you more aggressively while smaller ones hang back for their own safety.
And all this happens after the British move. Thus, you can attempt to ambush the Germans, but they might not cooperate. For instance, you could send an assault team into a defensive building and hope that the nearby Stosstruppen stop in the neighboring open space so you can blast them. Or you could hope a large stack moves into your space so you can grenade them (more on grenades during Land Combat). Then the move number is too high or too low and your plans develop cracks.
Night firefight in action
Land Combat: The land combat system captures the chaos of two forces running into each other in the dark. Basically, each firing unit has a To Hit equal to their number of men left plus modifiers, such as defensive buildings, searchlights, and being in the same area. If it hits, another d6 (called the effect die) determines how many casualties the attack inflicts. Thus attacks are anything but certain. I remember one time I attacked a 4-strength Stosstruppen and knocked it down to 1 man; he came back to eliminate my last full strength assault team. Stupid searchlight modifier...
German fire is system controlled. The German fire doctrine, as the rulebook calls it, has them fire in a believable manner with preference given to searchlight illuminated commandos, those in the open, and those with the most strength (i.e. those that are easiest to spot). They also give preference to assault commandos, simulating assault units covering the demolition teams.
There is considerable differentiation between the 3 types of units. The elite commando assault units armed with Thompson and Bren guns have a bonus To Hit. Commando demolition teams armed with pistols and carrying about 70 pounds of equipment fire with a penalty To Hit. The Germans only shoot after the commandos fire and take effect first. Early on, your commandos will be able to wipe out German units before they have a chance to act. By alert level 2 or 3, you probably won't be able to eliminate the strength 6 stosstruppen in one attack, but hopefully you can reduce them enough so their attack misses. Then, as casualties mount and German reinforcements pour in, combat will tip in their favor.
However, the assault commandos have one more trick up their sleeves: grenades. A successful grenade attack, a 50-50 proposition, eliminates all Germans in the stack (the exception being multiple German guns, which we'll get to in a second). The chancy but potentially big payoff fits in well with this game, and you'll probably find you'll need to resort to it sooner or later. Assault commandos have limited grenade ammo (3) that is consumed, not only in grenade attacks, but occasionally when the unit takes casualties.
German guns and searchlights are like permanent, stationary enemy units. Besides covering fire, an attack with effect greater than or equal to its strength can disrupt them or put them out of action. However, those with strength 5, like the two sitting on top of the pump house (overlooking spot the Campbeltown rams) or the one guarding the Old Mole landing area, are tough to crack. Few things are more frustrating than spraying the pump house with all 6 Campbeltown commando units but achieving little to nothing because none of the effect rolls were high enough. And even if you disrupt them, they're likely to be restored at the beginning of the next turn. On the other hand, a successful grenade attack eliminates a gun or searchlight permanently. Furthermore, if the gun is already disrupted or out of action, the grenade attack is automatic.
Destroying the northern caisson and winding station
Demolition: The goal of the operation, of course, is to destroy as much of the dock as possible. Of primary importance are the northern and southern caissons of Normadie Dock plus their winding houses and the pump house. Among the secondary targets is the power station which, if destroyed, shuts off the searchlights for a turn or so until they get their backup generators up. Targets of opportunity include some oil storage tanks east of the dock, the U-boat pens, and German ships moored in the port.
The map (again)
(courtesy of elirlandes)
However, besides the dock, most of the British victory points will come from destroying the swing bridges and lock gates that connect different areas of the port to ensure that Germans do not find the Campbeltown explosives in time and to hamper repairs. As you can see from the above picture, there are 3 points where the British can completely sever land movement through a successful demolition action. Moving right to left: the swing bridge between Zones 2 and 4 (purple circle); the swing bridge and lock gates between Zones 2 and 3 (green circles at the Old Entrance); the 2 swing bridges and 2 lock gates between Zones 3 and 4.
Battle over the canal bridges
To place charges, a demolition team rolls less than or equal to their number of men remaining with modifiers for having just moved into the space, whether the target is their primary objective, and penalties from combat. Once the charges are placed, on a subsequent turn they can be resolved, ranging from destroy to damaged (half VPs, bonus to follow-up demolition attempts) to no effect (charges remain but are "at risk," giving a penalty to this charge's future resolution rolls).
Consolidation: At the end of the turn, stosstruppen who are in the same space combine to form units up to 6 strength. Thus weak, cautious German units eventually evolve into more aggressive, more potent units.
This turn sequence repeats until all British units have been eliminated, evacuated, or escaped. At the end of the game, the British tally up their victory points from demolition and men exiting safely to see if they "won." The rulebook states that 70 VPs is a victory, but I don't think this is possible without impossibly good luck. To put it in perspective, if the Campbeltown and her 4 demolition teams are successful at their primary objectives, that would be 38 VPs. If all commando demolition teams destroyed their primary targets (assuming all of them even land), it would total 65 points. 10 VPs from withdrawn and escaped men is about fair. Historically, the British got 53 points, which is a decent benchmark. Really, since it's a solitaire game, you can make your own victory conditions, and the rulebook suggests (and I agree) trying to beat your previous results.
The thing about a game like Raid on St. Nazaire is that so much is unique that I'm not sure what is core mechanic and what is chrome. Firstly, the naval system has a wide range of effects from inflicting casualties and knocking out guns to disrupting movement and starting fires. The game has replayability simply by the fact that naval defensive fire has a large effect on which commando units land where and when. There is also variability among the British launches: 4 boats carry torpedoes and no commandos (exception: Falconar, who took Hodgson onboard when his original transport developed engine trouble) will play a part in your strategy; Ryder and Wynn have more than 2 MF (3 and 4, respectively), useful for picking survivors from burning and sinking boats since it's harder for them to lose all their MF. The naval system feels like it faithfully recreates the details down to open sea encounters they might experience making their way back home.
Back on land, there is differentiation between the various unit types: assault commandos, demolition commandos, stosstruppen, guns/searchlights, and armored cars in terms of firepower, resilience, and mobility. The British have the advantage of firing first, but German guns, searchlights, and armored cars are more resistant to normal attacks. Thus you have to decide how use your two flavors of commandos against an array of enemy opposition. Enemy flak towers can make long range attacks, and assault units can respond with mortars.
Helping the Germans on both sea and land are the four searchlights. If they are active, they have the potential to turn a turn a near miss into a hit by illuminating the British boat or commando. The British can temporarily earn themselves a respite by destroying the power station.
There are a couple types of special locations in the game: the moored German ships and U-boat pens. Besides providing defensive terrain, both have an intrinsic protection in the form additional German activation if the British attempt to enter. Starting with the 0222 hours turn, the ships begin to withdraw to the U-boat pens and disembark any onboard stosstruppen there. The U-boat pens also have inherent defense in that grenade attacks only eliminate one German unit.
As I See It
As I've said in a previous review, I have a soft spot for solitaire games, probably because they come up with interesting mechanics to make up for not having a human opponent. How does Raid on St. Nazaire do in this respect? Pretty well, actually. One of the things the game sets out to recreate is the confusion of the German defenders: their slowness to bring their overwhelming numbers to bear or to effect an organized response. The game achieves this with a variety of mechanics: the stepped German activation (both in number and size of stosstruppen units); German units moving independently (rather than in concert) and with an variable MF; Germans following a fixed fire doctrine (as opposed to, say, an intelligent player targeting a crucial demolition unit). Actually, Raid on St. Nazaire probably wouldn't make a good 2-player since the German player would find his hands frustratingly tied lest he exert more control than his historical counterpart was capable of.
Before I move on, I want to mention one elegant piece of design: both stosstruppen mobility and effective firepower are correlated to their strength, which nicely simulates smaller units acting more cautiously. I think the movement die mechanism is particularly cool by the way it sets the variable German MF. The consolidation mechanism allows these scratch teams to coalesce and grow in confidence (strength in numbers). Combined with the escalating German activation, the whole system creates a very believable German response, both in behavior of individual units and of the aggregate over time. And all this is done by manipulating one rating: stosstruppen unit strength.
So what is the draw of the game? For me, it's because it's so darn fun! Yes, getting shot is fun. (In a paper simulation only; this statement does not hold in the real world.) I liken the naval portion of the game to the charge of the light brigade, sailing into the jaws of fire and death. But part of your forces breaks through and lands their commandos, as that's where the real fun begins. The assault commandos assert their superior training by sweep aside the measly strength 2 stosstruppen while the demolition teams do their stuff. Soon targets are going up left and right, and you think you might just make it this time.
The fickleness of the combat system means you'll curse every 1 you roll for an effect die and sing every time a German attack misses, and it's always exciting. The commando first fire is only as useful as the number of Germans they can preemptively eliminate, so things can and will go pear-shaped quickly: a bad effect roll, the surviving stosstruppen's attack connects, the commandos' firepower is reduced, and the process feeds back on itself. You grow increasingly desperate and start charging stacks of Germans in the open to make grenade attacks, but eventually the commandos succumb to casualties and sheer enemy numbers. For me, this usually occurs when I'm tantalizingly close to blowing that last bridge too far connecting between two land zones and retreating to safety. This gives me the (probably false) impression that maybe (if the dice were a little friendlier) I could pull it off next game, which explains why I keep pulling this title off the shelf.
The other reason I like Raid on St. Nazaire so much is that it has a very strong paper time machine feel. The naval and land systems are evocative of accounts I've read of the raid: chaotic, deadly, never really knowing when you've bitten off more than you can chew until the casualties start mounting. But the combat which allows swings of fortune on either side is a wild rollercoaster ride from start to (abrupt, bloody) finish.
My biggest complaint with this game is that there's a lot of wristage: restoring guns and searchlights; where searchlights illuminate; during naval combat, who is targeted, whether it hit, and the effect of the hit; the number German activations and the location for each; and the To Hit and effect of each land combat attack. There's a lot of die rolling. Not exactly the most elegant method, but it does generate the lucky (and unlucky) breaks mentioned above. However, too much die rolling can interrupt the flow of the game and break the paper time machine spell.
One final thing I'll mention: because of nature of the battle, the game lends itself to variants which explore "what if?" questions. For one, you are free to change the plan by assigning the demolition teams different primary targets. I don't think there's much to play around with here, but I find it's easier to destroy the two bridges between Zones 2 and 3 than the four bridges between Zones 3 and 4. The rulebook comes with two scenarios, the more interesting of which is one that posits no bombing raid tipping off the Germans with kinder naval combat and slower German activation. I also have parts of The General Vol. 24, No. 4, mostly on Raid on St. Nazaire, which includes an article with other variants and optional rules. One variant has the commandos attack during the bombing raid, where not only slows German activation and movement, but the raid has a chance of remaining undetected (and unmolested by naval defensive fire) for a while. On the other hand, there is a chance of commandos getting caught in the bombing too. The other variant replaces the vulnerable motor launches with a second destroyer, as called for in the original plan. This would make it more likely you'll get the commandos ashore in a timely manner (and thus without taking too much collateral damage) and the non-ramming destroyer would have 8 torpedoes, but number of commando units must be reduced from 19 to 14.
These are the sort of decisions you'll make in the game:
* The thing about Raid on St. Nazaire is that planning (such as the primary target of each demolition team) will only take you so far. Since which commando units actually land varies from game to game, and land combat may cripple or eliminate key teams, you may have to repurpose some demolition units on the fly.
* One thing you can plan beforehand is how to best use your 4 torpedo launches: sink Sperrbrecher 137 to reduce dockside defensive fire; target one of the lock gates so there's one less bridge your demolition units need to blow; or escorting (i.e. drawing fire from) the Campbeltown to maximize the chances of successfully destroying the southern caisson.
* Since stosstruppen randomly appear, the main threat can come from different directions from turn to turn, and I feel you make fewer strategic decisions than tactical decisions responding to the current crisis. Mostly this means anticipating where the Germans will be after their movement and positioning commandos to exploit their first fire.
* There will probably be at least two instances where you will be forced to deal those pesky German guns, which are resistant to normal fire: the two guns on top of the pump house and the guns guarding the Old Mole. Suppressive fire, grenades, or suppressive fire then grenades?
* Since the objective of the raid is destroying port facilities, you should probably give some thought as to how to use your demolition units because they receive penalties to successfully laying charges if they attack and/or were attacked that turn. Do you keep them away from the front so they can do their job in peace or expect them to do double duty since you need all the firepower you can get?
* One big decision you may make during the game is when to cut your losses, abandon the demolition attempts, and attempt to escape. The VP award for destroying primary targets usually outweighs those you would gain by withdrawing, but that's only if you have enough time remaining to place and detonate the charges.
Another shot of the map
I'm not a bits man, but I will say this: rewind about a bit less than a decade to when I first got this game and was cracking open the box. Removing the baggies of counters (I bought it used) revealed this gorgeous, detailed, hand-painted map of the St. Nazaire port. This was also my first encounter with Avalon Hill mounted mapboards, and it blew my young wargamer mind. For one thing, it didn't have a hex grid. I'm not ashamed to admit this was one of the few times components excited my imagination. I don't think anything would have stopped me reading the rules and playing the game then and there.
Historical aside: in amazing stroke of luck, one of the British commandos (or was it his relation?) had worked at St. Nazaire dock and had created a scale model of the port from memory. This was an invaluable aid to the commandos as they planned and rehearsed their raid. This model is currently sitting in the Imperial War Museum, which I made a point of visiting while in London. Besides this model, I'm not sure any map would inspire me to play as much as the map the comes with the game. My one nitpick is that in some places it's hard to distinguish the railroad tracks from connection lines between areas.
The counters and markers are all typical AH fare: 1/2" chits. Not amazing by today's standards, but they have all the important information and get the job done.
The 12-page rulebook is also typical AH. I wish it were better organized, and I still usually forget a rule or two.
The battle was so famous, it was immortalized in a Monty Python sketch:
Cardinal Ximinez of Spain wrote:
Nobody expects the British Commandos! Our chief weapon is surprise... surprise and grenades... grenades and surprise... Anyway, Raid on St. Nazaire is a wild ride from start to finish, very fitting for the battle it explores, and quite engrossing. Besides the combat system that has me hanging on every die roll, I really like how naturally the German response behaves. However, this is achieved at the expense of lots of die rolling. My final rating:
Our two weapons are grenades and surprise... and preemptive fire...
Our three weapons are grenades, surprise, and preemptive fire... and an almost fanatical devotion to the king...
Our four... no...
Amongst our weapons... Amongst our weaponry... are such elements as grenades, surprise...
I'll come in again.
Very good game. I like to play.
Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.
(Corrected some spelling errors.)