Wurzburg Pentomic

After nattering on like a raving lunatic about fallout shelters, nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union, in all fairness I now need to provide a look at the game that set the Wayback Machine in motion.

“Wurzburg Pentomic” is one of two games published in Strategy & Tactics magazine issue 263. The other issue game is “Kabul ’79″. The games share the Cold War Battles series rules — but play quite a bit differently due to an extensive array of game-specific special rules.

Of the four games published to date in the Cold War Battles series, Wurzburg Pentomic is the only one based on a hypothetical battle. The basic premise is a Soviet invasion of West Germany some time in the 1950s.

The time period in which the game is set is a central element of the design. Folks old enough to remember SPI’s “Modern Battles” quad games will no doubt recall the original “Wurzburg”, a folio-sized game that covered a hypothetical Soviet-NATO battle in the late 1970s. Wurzburg Pentomic is set about 20-25 years earlier, during the US Army’s period of reorganization along what was then called the “Pentomic” division structure.

Under the Pentomic structure, each US division was organized into five battlegroups. Each battlegroup was theoretically self-supporting, which gave it the ability to operate fairly independently. This allowed the division’s combat elements to disperse more widely in what was expected to be a battlefield environment dominated by the threat of tactical nuclear weapons. The division kept some powerful artillery support under central control, but otherwise the battlegroups were equipped to fight with decentralized command and logistics.

Enough doctrine. On to the game.

Wurzburg Pentomic (“W-P” from here on out) is basically a folio-sized production. The two games in Cold War Battles 2 share a single, standard-sized map sheet. The maps are wedged onto the sheet along with some charts and tables, so neither map is symmetrical.  Each game also gets exactly one-half of the standard sheet of half-inch counters.

There are a lot of positives to the game, so I’m going to get the bad news out of the way first. A couple of things in the package definitely aggravate me.

The map arrangement is a head-scratcher. A game-turn track and both CRTs (Mobile and Assault) are printed on the sheet. As a result, the game maps wrap around the gadgetry, leaving game-play areas with oddball sections and geographical enclaves defended by stalwart box borders and lines of type.

I’m a firm believer in leaving charts and tables off of game maps entirely. Maybe a turn track or other tracks/boxes that can be squared off with the map. But wrenching around the playing area to accommodate the CRTs is less than ideal — especially considering that the CRTs will usually be useless (as in “upside down”) for one of the players. Far better to print the tables on a separate sheet and square off the maps to avoid the “thick forest defended by typography” syndrome.

I realize printing CRTs on-map probably saves a page of the rulebook, but the “upside down” problem alone always justifies planning for at least one stand-alone sheet of play aids. Just for a tease, one of the CRTs is reprinted in the rules anyway because the on-map version is screwed up.

The next aggravation is as much a question as it is a complaint: Who ate crayons and puked on the countersheet?

Technicolor Commies and multi-hued Forces of Freedom.

Technicolor Commies and multi-hued Forces of Freedom.

Seriously. There are two sides in this game: Soviets and NATO. But the combat units are printed in about a dozen distinctly different colors. They’re not muted variations of the same basic colors, either. Each ‘command’ (usually a division) gets a nice, bright color all of its own. NATO units are variously drab green, forest green, light blue, dark blue, gray and tan. Soviet units are white on red, black on red, orange, yellow,  white and black.

Ugh. It’s not the first time Decision has used a Crayola color scheme on game counters. Sadly, I doubt it will be the last. Are things like ‘formation stripes’ along the counter bottoms or ‘formation colors’ in the unit symbol boxes such advanced graphic concepts? Somebody loan them a Pantone color chart, too. Good heavens.

It’s a double-aggravation because in general this is a pretty good game. The map artwork is fine. But the color scheme for the counters is simply wretched. I mean, really. Orange?

Those production faux pas aside, I found a lot of game-play value in W-P. The ‘series’ rules are an adaptation of the old Modern Battles system. Zones of control are semi-rigid. Once a unit is in a ZOC, it can only leave via combat result or by expending half of its movement allowance to withdraw. Combat against all enemy units that project ZOC into a friendly-occupied hex is mandatory — although artillery barrage and/or air points may be used to ‘soak off’ some mandated attacks.

Combat is based on differential and the attacker usually chooses which of two CRTs to use: Assault (bloody) or Mobile (lots of retreats). Soviet combat strengths — attack strengths especially – are generally higher owing to their preponderence of armor. The designer, Joe Miranda, also notes that Soviet regimental-level artillery assets have been factored into the combat strengths, as those guns were intended to engage in near direct-fire support.

In the orders of battle, the US has more independent artillery units. Particularly useful are the Pentomic artillery battalions, which can split the fire of their ’5′ strength points onto as many as 5 different target hexes. Pentomic artillery is very handy for firing ‘soak off’ barrages so the US player can more effectively concentrate ‘normal’ attacks against his opponent. It’s also worth noting that as the game progresses into the later turns (9 total game turns), the US gains an increasing advantage in the amount of air support it receives.

The two US Pentomic-organized infantry divisions in the game — 3rd ID and 8th ID — gain additional advantages if/when the nuclear weapon optional rules come into play. Their constituent combat units are more resistant to damage from atomic attacks and they have a smaller chance of being affected by some of the game’s nuclear-related random events. The numerous US ‘leg’ infantry battalions can also take advantage of airmobile movement when helicopter transport is available.

Another interesting special rule in play is that units of different commands aren’t allowed to stack together. Elements of the ‘higher command’ formations — V Corps for the US, 8th Guards Army for the Soviets — are the only exceptions.

Each side starts with one or two commands on the map; everything else enters play through random reinforcement dice rolls. The US starts with 3rd Infantry Division and 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment on the map. The Soviets lead off with the 79th Tank Division. The entry of everything else is in the hands of cruel fate.

Because of the random reinforcement mechanism, W-P has a nice degree of replayability built in. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in play between a game where, say, the US 3rd Armored Division enters on Turn 2 and a game where it enters on Turn 6.

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