September 19, 2021

Another Bulge Game? A RetroGrognard Look at Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge by David C. Isby and Rand Game Associates (1975)

RockyMountainNavy, 30 August 2021

“The question must be asked: is another Bulge game really necessary?” 

Often asked by so many wargamers, the above question is surprisingly not found in one of the many Battle of the Bulge wargames published in just the last year, but in the designer’s notes for Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge by David C. Isby and published by Rand Game Associates…in 1975.

“Another Bulge game,” said way back in 1975.

According to the BoardGameGeek database, Hitler’s Last Gamble was the THIRD published wargame on the Battle of the Bulge (the others being Avalon Hill’s The Battle of the Bulge (1965) and SPI’s The Ardennes Offensive: The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 (1973). Apparently, even back in the early days of hobby wargaming there was a perception that the Battle of the Bulge was a topic that was already overplayed. If this topic was overdone back then, what did designer David C. Isby try to give wargamers that was different?

In Hilter’s Last Gamble, designer David C. Isby gave us a game that, in his own words, “is an attempt to capture the historical situation of the Bulge while retaining simplicity.” Looking at this wargame almost 50 years later it is interesting to see what a wargame designer in the 1970’s considered as yet another “simple” Bulge game.

Simple Package

By modern wargame publishing standards, Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge is an, uh, simple-looking, somewhat low-quality, production. My (players) copy is packed like a folio game with a 12-page black & white rule book (double columns). The five-color map is a non-standard 20”x27.25” and several panels of player aids/charts are included—again in non-standard dimensions. At least the counters are (kinda) standard coming in at two-colors and 5/8” squares. 

IMG 2454
Hitler’s Last Gamble (click images to enlarge)

Simple Intent 

“We tried to keep the game as simple as possible while retaining simplicity. Nothing is easier to lose track of than simplicity.”

In the designer’s notes to Hitler’s Last Gamble, the first element of simplicity designer David C. Isby addresses is the map. Here, Mr. Isby exercised simplification:

“The road network comes from a Belgian map of 1947. It showed that just about every hex in the game had some sort of road in it. Of houser, many of these roads were made for farmer’s carts, not Panzer divisions. So we only used the roads that large units could move along easily, incorporating the rest of the road network into the terrain itself. The criteria between “rough” and “very rough” terrain is that the latter has a smaller secondary road network than the former. Similarly, the Allied demolition of bridges and the German shortage of bridge-building materials was expressed in the different movement costs for rivers.”

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The Mapboard is a realistic military map of the Ardennes area of Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. A hexagonal grid has been superimposed upon the map to regularize the positioning and movement of the playing pieces. The different types of terrain that appear on the map and their effect on play is explained on the Mapboard.
Rule Book, p. 3
IMG 2458
Mapboard
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Simple Graphics, Mostly

The counter art in Hitler’s Last Game is simple, yet unique for its use of period-sourced symbology. While the American units are depicted using NATO symbology, the Germans use map icons as found in German sources from World War II. Not only do the counter colors distinguish the units, but the different icons also help immerse players into their roles and visually accentuates the differences of the combatants even while mechanically—in the name of simplicity—both sides play out relatively alike. It’s a simple, yet highly immersive, graphics decision that helps build narrative during play. Now, I am sure there are more than a few wargamers out there who didn’t (don’t?) appreciate using anything other than NATO symbology but the low counter density and few different unit types makes following “which unit is what” not that difficult!

IMG 2456
Symbology in Hitler’s Last Gamble

Hitler’s Last Gamble also experimented with different graphics for the Combat Computation Chart (CCC). Here, instead of the usual alphanumeric A2/D2 results, Rand Game Associates used symbols and icons to show the results. Contrary to the designer’s goal of simplicity, here is an instance that I feel missed the mark. Then again, this was the early days of the hobby and experimentation was very likely seem as a way to advance the hobby. Maybe Rand Game Associates thought their symbology would catch on—I’m interested to see if it appeared in any of their other titles. Looking at the different graphics on the charts, I cannot help but wonder, “What if?”

IMG 2457
Combat Computation Chart graphics

Simple Game Mechanisms

Hitler’s Last Gamble. like so many Bulge games, focuses on the traffic problems that plagued the movement of forces in during the battle. Interestingly, Mr. Isby talks about some game mechanisms that were dropped in his quest for simplicity. Specifically, he references the use of a “strategic point system” from an earlier design, Saratoga 1777, that in effect was a point-to-point movement system with the added use of large hexagons. He comments, “This was too limiting on mobility and posed more problems than it was worth, so it was dropped, especially after the results of the “Spirit of ’75” Survey results came out and showed that the Strategic Point System was not held in high esteem by a large mount of the membership.” Gee, even way back in 1975 we had “hex or death” wargamers? [Making Ardwulf just how old?]

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So, with mixed emotions, it was back to old fashioned hexagons.
Rule Book, p. 12
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Like I mentioned in a previous article on TACTICS II (Avalon Hill Game Company, 1961/1973) some of the terminology used in Hitler’s Last Gamble is also non-standard. What every modern wargamer calls “stacking” is here called “Concentration of Units.” Instead of “Zones of Control” we have “Range of Influence.” The biggest terminology difference which I already mentioned is the Combat Computation Chart (CCC) which will have even more discussion later.

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V. CONCENTRATION OF UNITS
Four units high normally, six in towns, divisions count as three units. Atrillery doesn’t count, but no more than one per hex. Limit applies only at end of segment.
Rule Book p. 2
VI. RANGE OF INFLUENCE
Upon entering, must stop and move no further that turn. May not move directly from hex to hex of a Range of Influence, but may leave and re-enter. Attacking not mandatory. They block retreat routes and supply lines unless a friendly unit is in them.
Rule Book, p. 2
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Another rule in Hitler’s Last Gamble that is simple and can still be seen in use today is Exploitation Movement. The intent of the Exploitation Movement is to give certain units, in this case armored/mechanized units, a bonus movement phase to portray their superior battlefield mobility. In Hitler’s Last Gamble, Exploitation Movement is not automatic and certain conditions (supply, Offensive Supply Points) must be met. In many ways, Exploitation Movement in Hitler’s Last Gamble is akin to Exploitation Movement found in modern game systems like Multi-Man Publishings Standard Combat Series. Again, I don’t know if Hitler’s Last Gamble is the first use of an Exploitation Movement rule but it is the earliest example in my collection.

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All units may make exploitation moves except: German Volksgrenadier and non-Panzergrenadier paratroops, Engineer units, Artillery units. Allied Infantry and Airborne units may only make exploitation moves if they begin the exploitation movement segment on a road.
Rule Book, p. 2
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Supply was a vital element of the Battle of the Bulge and Hitler’s Last Gamble does not ignore it. Although many wargamers will cry that any supply rules are too complex, in Hitler’s Last Gamble Mr. Isby used two simple forms of supply. First is General Supply which is pretty much as wargamers expect—units must be in supply (trace a supply line free of enemy Range of Influence) to move or attack. In Hitler’s Last Gamble there is also Operational Supply Points (OSP) which the Germans use. The number of OSP varies by turn (less as the campaign progresses). The German uses OSP to attack or move in the Exploitation Movement phase spending 2x OSP per unit to attack and 1x OSP per unit to move. 

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German units in General supply may move normally, but to attack or make Exploitation Moves, they must be in Operational Supply after turn 3. German units must first be in General Supply to qualify for Operational Supply.
Rule Book, p. 5
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Combat in Hitler’s Last Gamble is simple like many wargamers likely expect—but with a wrinkle. The simple part is the use of classic attacker-defender odds. The wrinkle is that there are two Combat Computation Charts (CCC)—also confusing called Combat Calculation Charts—this games Combat Results Table (CRT). The attacker gets to decide which CCC they want to use. Nowhere can I find an explanation of the advantages/disadvantages of either CCC. As best I can tell by simply looking at them, CCC1 favors retreat or destroy results whereas CCC2 has many Engaged results:

“Engaged. Defending units may not move in the following turn, may attack. If defending unit still adjacent at the start of of the following turn, the attacking unit may not move either, but may attack. Attacking unit may not participate in exploitation movement after receiving such a result. Units engaged should be inverted. Therefore, the defending unit in an engaged situation loses its next opportunities to move and attack. The attacking unit loses its opportunity to make an exploitation move in the following exploitation movement segment. Engaged units count toward the concentration limit and exert a range of influence. Units entering  apex containing friendly engaged units automatically become engaged as well (Notes to CCC2)

In many ways, in Hitler’s Last Gamble CCC1 is a classic “attack and destroy” CRT whereas CCC2 is a “delaying” CRT. I can easily see the German commander favoring use of CCC1 (destroy the Americans) while the Americans initially favor CCC2 (slow and delay the Germans). A simple game mechanism that makes for a very interesting decision space.
(ed note: shades of the mid-70s SPI variable CRTs with “mobile” and “active” options)

IMG 2457
Two (!) CRT, uh, Combat Calculation Computation Charts
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SELECTION OF COMBAT CALCULATION CHARTS
The attacking commander always selects which Combat Calculation Chart he wishes to use for a particular battle. He is always free to choose which Combat Calculation Chart (CCC) he wants to use. He is never compelled to use one or the other.
Rule Book, p. 5
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Simple Scenarios

Mr. Isby also tried to present simple scenarios meaning that Hitler’s Last Gamble needed less table time to play. He writes, “One difference between this game and other Bulge games is the provision of many different scenarios. One not need fight out the entire game.” I am reminded that in the mid-1970s wargames were in the midst of a major change in design approach as the hobby shifted from “monograph” games (one battle presented in one scenario) to “war-engines;” wargames that presented or allowed for multiple scenarios around a common set of rules. Hitler’s Last Gamble is not a true war-engine game like it’s near contemporary Squad Leader (Avalon Hill, 1977) but the multiple scenarios is a good example of the transition period in the hobby.

The use of Variable Historical Occurrences (VHO) in Hitler’s Last Gamble is also a simple way to introduce replayability. There are 28 variable possibilities (15 Allied, 13 German) that can be used singly or in combination with one another. This is a great, simple, way to “change up” every game and ensure that no matter how familiar one might be with The Bulge, every game of Hitler’s Last Gamble will likely be different.

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If it is desired to select a non-historical scenario or to employ the Variable Historical Occurrences Optional Rules, this is now resolved.
Rule Book, p. 5
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Simple History?

One part of wargaming I enjoy is how it helps me to simply study history. In Hitler’s Last Gamble, Mr. Isby helpfully tells us what his primary sources were so we can read them too. Not only does Mr. Isby cite published works, but he also talks about records pulled from the National Archives. I realize that in today’s digital archives age such a quaint activity seems foreign, but I find it commendable that the designer went looking for material beyond that available from the bookseller (the Internet of the day) and conducted some original research. I am aware that some of the sources used are not presently “in vogue” or maybe the final word in historiography but they do give us a snapshot in time and insight into what then-“current” history was like.

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The accuracy came from many sources.
Rule Book, p. 12
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Simple…Solitaire?

Hitler’s Last Gamble also includes solitaire rules. In this case, The Relief of Bastogne minigame is used. In this scenario, the Americans are surrounded in Bastogne and the Allies have to relieve them. The Germans are simply trying to maintain the siege of Bastogne. The solitaire rules introduce a simple priority system used to move German units. This is not an AI like found in Conflict of Heroes: Solo Module or even a Bot found in so many GMT Games these days, but it is obviously an early predecessor to both. Again, I don’t know how widespread solitaire rules were this early in the hobby but seeing it here once again demonstrates that so much of what we see as “today’s normal” has roots in the far past of our hobby.

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The Relief of Bastogne minigame, as with all the different scenarios of HITLER”S LAST GAMBLE, can be played solitaire with one player filling the roles of both commanders. These rules, however, enable the player to take the role of the Allied Commander in the Relief of Bastogne mini game playing against the German forces which move mechanically.
Rule Book, p. 9
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Simple Joy

I must admit that playing Hitler’s Last Gamble brought out some simple joy. Set up was easy given units that start on-map have a set-up letter printed on their counter, and reinforcements are tracked with easy-to-use charts. The Sequence of Play is very straightforward (no shifting initiative rolls), the Terrain Analysis Chart for movement is simple, and the supply rules not overly complex. Combat is as-expected with the exception of the CCC choice which is an interesting decision but not one that requires too deep thought once the differences on the two CCC are understood. Exploitation Moves are again simple; reinforcements, Airpower, and Corps Artillery is nice chrome but not complex to implement. Only a few units have special rules and they are easy to track. A previous owner marked up the rule book and map with errata and highlighted key rules sections that helped my understanding of the rules. 

One criticism that came across in the (few) comments left on BoardGameGeek is that Hitler’s Last Gamble is a “Panzer pusher’s dream” and that the game heavily favors the Germans in the early turns. I too found the Germans pushing out strong and many American units being cut off or surrounded. I also found that CCC2 really does favor the Americans as it slows German movement. When the American use CCC2 and gets that Engaged result against a defending German unit, the German cannot move in the NEXT turn (slowing them down). In the early stages of a campaign game of Hitler’s Last Gamble, the real key is for the Americans to slow down the Germans because, ultimately, the Americans are going to get reinforcements while the Germans will start to suffer from limited Operational Supply Points. It is incumbent upon the Germans to try to get as quick a victory as they can, while the Americans want to “slow roll” the Germans whenever possible while playing “the long game.”

Hitler’s Last Gamble, the earliest “yet another Bulge game,” is a truly a simple-appearing, simple to set up, simple to play, simplified view of the Battle of the Bulge that nonetheless delivers a satisfyingly simple, yet at the same time simply complex, game experience. The understated key to the game is the two Combat Calculation Computation Charts which give players a simple decision that hides much of the complexity.  The Variable History Options also make this simple game simply replayable meaning every game experience is very likely to be new—and full of simple fun.

 


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3 thoughts on “Another Bulge Game? A RetroGrognard Look at Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge by David C. Isby and Rand Game Associates (1975)

  1. Actually SPI had their 1st Bulge game which was Bastogne (S&T #20 & boxed) on the entire battle packaged along with Anzio BeachHead. So Hitler’s Last Gamble would have been the 4th Bulge game after Battle of the Bulge,Bastogne, Ardennes Offensive & then HLG.

  2. Hoi y`alls, and what about the “Major Battles and Campaigns of General George S. Patton”-circa 1973? I’ve got it and their “MacArthurs”-version, as they also both employed combined ‘Cards of Points’ used in movement purposes for ‘Groups of Units’ so they would traverse from ‘Point to Point’? There were even ‘obverse Mapboards’ of which you shall engage one another into ‘Battles’, or the ‘Sicily Campaign’ at most! I also have the ‘Rand’ version for “Rommel: The War for North Africa”, of which it portrayed their ‘German Army Symbols’ as the Axis Units, and used that “Combat Results Symbols” as well.

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