Thursday, 10 March 2011

Arnhem - A Bridge Too Far

With the recent purchase of the Valiant British Paras, I've gone all nostalgic and have been looking back at 1 of the first hex and counter boardgames that I owned.

Those of you of a certain vintage (ie over 40) will remember that before Fantasy Flight Games, before Multiman Publishing (MMP), and before Decision Games 2 games companies dominated the hex and counter boardgame world - one was Avalon Hill (now part of Hasbro) and the other was Simulations Publications Incorporated or SPI for short.

Back in 1977, having read Cornelius Ryan's epic book "A Bridge Too Far", while shopping in Dundee with parents, I was in the toy section of the John Menzies store when I spotted a game which on the front of the box had a picture of British Paratroopers on it, a picture that had been used in the book. The game was entitled "Arnhem"

I quickly parted with my £4.95 which was most of my holiday money not really knowing what I was buying. And on opening the box, I discovered a map with a super imposed hex grid and a 100 little cardboard counters.

I had never seen anything like it before. I had played "wargames" such as Risk and Campaign but this was totally new and very, very, exciting.

As I read and re-read the rules, I came to understand that the game was part of a series of 4 which collectively were know as the "Westwall Quad", the others in the series being "Bastogne", "Hurtgen Forest" and "Remagen". Each game used the same set of "Standard Rules" and then each game had it's own set of "Exclusive Rules" which gave each game their own unique flavour. You could in those days buy all 4 games in 1 quad pack or buy them separately. Over the years I have played all 4 and Arnhem stood out as the outstanding game of the 4 and indeed was widely recognised as one of the best games of it's type.

Although called Arnhem, the game in fact simulates the whole of the Market-Garden Campaign. It does so with only 100 counters (3 of which are drop zone markers "DZ" and 1 game turn marker). Compare this with such monster games on the subject such as "The Devil's Cauldron" by MMP or another SPI game "Highway to the Reich" which have literally 1000's of counters, yet in my opinion, Arnhem works really well even with such a low counter mix and produces a tight game (between 2 equally skilled players) whether you play Allies or Axis.

Each unit represents in the main, a battalion size formation, with the Allied Airborne forces of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne Division and Ground units of XXX Corps being represented and the various German ground formations that took part in the Campaign including the Nemesis of the British Airborne Division the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions.

The counters use Nato designations to depict the different troop types, infantry, armour, airborne and so on and are easy to identify once you get the hang of it. The crucial numbers at the bottom of each counter depict the attack strength, defence strength and the movement factor of the unit (artillery have 2 additional factors, Final Protective Fire, used when adding additional support to another friendly defending unit and range).

The terrain on the map, plays a crucial role in the game. The Allies during the Campaign were hampered by the fact that they were effectively constrained to using a single road to get to Arnhem and therefore in the game if the Allies can stay on the road their progress will be swift, but if forced from the road, the cost of entering a non road hex is a minimum of 2 movement points and in some cases, completely impassable to motorised troops, thus very simply recreating the very narrow front that the Allies had to work in.

Combat is worked out on a simple odds ratio, with the higher the odds in your favour, the more favourable the outcome on the Combat Results Table (CRT) with units retreating being the more likely result and only in exceptional circumstances will there be a straight elimination. The type of terrain the combat takes place in, greatly affects the result of the combat and with the use of "Zones of Control" (ZoC) retreat results can easily lead to the destruction of a unit (basically you cannot retreat into a hex that is in an enemy ZoC). Nor can you retreat into impassable terrain.

Obviously, with such a small counter mix and a short set of rules (8 pages in total) there has to be some abstraction and simplifying of some of the aspects of the Campaign. Air Power is available only to the Allies in the form of ground support points and only a certain number of these are available each turn (and in some turns not available at all - representing the bad weather that hampered much of the Campaign). The Allies have an "Engineer" unit, representing the logistical support of XXX Corps and crucially provides the Allied forces with the ability to cross unbridged rivers and repair bridges which have been demolished by the Axis Forces (an event that can occur on a roll of a "1" or a "2" on a D6 the first time an Allied unit comes adjacent to a bridge hexside). The Germans have the ability to "disappear" off map and come back on a later turn between certain points on the same map edge thus creating the ability to mass their forces off map, safe from attack and then unleashing them at a point where the Allied defences may be thinnest.

The key to victory, is of course the bridges that crossed the crucial waterways that straddled the road between the Belgian border and Arnhem and control of the bridges will allow the Allied Ground troops to reach 1st Airborne as they desperately hold out in Arnhem. But to work out the winner of the game it is necessary to keep a tally of each sides' victory points (VP's) and these are earned in different ways. For the Allies, getting Ground Troops north of, firstly, the Waal River and then the Rhine itself is realistically the only way to generate sufficient VP's to win the game. Destroying Axis units only generates 1 VP for the Allies, whereas having a ground unit north of the Waal and with a Line of Communication (LoC) to the Belgian Border generates 5 VP's for each such unit every turn and 10VP's for such a unit north of the Rhine at the end of the Game. The Germans on the other hand receive 5VP's for every Allied unit they destroy and 3 VP's per turn for every Allied unit that fails to be able to trace a LoC (in the case of an Allied Airborne unit, their LoC is traced back to their DZ).

Thus the Allies are forced to push their ground forces forward as quickly as possible in order to get them across the Waal River as early in the game as possible, while defending their LoC against German attempts to break it and at the same time try and avoid getting their units destroyed.

Simple, effective, mechanisms that can generate a really tense game.

With the demise of SPI back in the early 1980's production of the game obviously came to a stop and while some SPI games have since been reprinted and re-designed by Decision Games Arnhem has not been one of them (Edit - just checked the Decision Games web page and Arnhem is available as part of their Folio series - price $19.95!!!). It is still possible to pick up a copy on Ebay but the another way to get hold of the game nowadays is not a paper version of the game but rather an online version of the game produced by a company called Hexwar.
Hexwar are probably better known nowadays for helping produce the online versions of the Field of Glory range of PC games but for several years now they have been converting a number of the old SPI games into an online version and Arnhem is one of them. It does require a monthly subscription to play, but the games that have been produced so far have been very well rendered and retain all of the features of the original hex and counter game, and you can play against people anywhere in the world - the games are not real time based, you make your moves, fight your combats and end your turn, the results are then sent to your opponent and the next time he is online he can take his turn and submit the results and so on.

Right now that I have got the game looked out it's time to get Ruarok and Cammie introduced to it's delights - battle report to follow in due course Dear Reader!


  1. Hi. Just stumbled across this post. I have a copy of this game I picked up at a car boot sale. Unfortunately it came without a copy of the rules. Would you be prepared to email me a scanned copy?

    1. Sorry englishrobs I have been away from the blog for quite sometime but if you are still looking for a copy of the rules then please pm me and I will get you a copy