Brant Guillory, 6 June 2019
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
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So you may have heard about this little shooting match that happened waaaaaaaay back in the ‘40s? Started out when the Germans decided they needed a little more elbow room and they decided that Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and most of Western Europe was perfectly suited to their needs? No? Buddy, you really need to read up on your WWII history.
Tide of Iron is a hex-and-figures boardgame (a combination gaining in popularity) covering actions between the US and German forces on the Western Front in WWII. It is played at the tactical level – squads of soldiers and individual vehicles – and decked out in Fantasy Flight’s trademark gorgeous components and graphics.
Tide of Iron also supports a four-player mode, in which teams play each side; the pieces are color-coordinated in two different shades to support this multiplayer mode.
PLOT, PRESENTATION, & GRAPHICS, or “What’s in the box?”
Hey look, it’s WWII. You know the plot. Tide of Iron is not based around one specific battle. Instead, it lets you play a variety of engagements with different scenarios in the book, and a scenario designer/editor online.
As to the presentation of the game, it’s purdy. The box is roughly 4x12x23, or about the size of my first apartment. Packed inside are over 200 figures – infantry, mortars, machine guns, tanks, halftracks, and more. Like any good Fantasy Flight game, it also comes with 1,230,467,836 little cardboard counters, used to represent everything from command points to squad specialties to vehicle damage to vehicle-mounted infantry markers. There are about 90 cards sorted into various “decks” that are used to spice up the action on the battlefield.
The scenarios are based on actual battles, but the maps themselves are geomorphic boards, with some pre-printed graphics, and additional terrain overlays that can be used to create variations on the maps. There are 12 double-sided map boards, each 10.5 x 7.5 inches. Although there have been some complaints online about boards warping after extensive exposure to the air, this reviewer hasn’t had any problems with his. The two dozen map overlay pieces are all double-sided, also.
There is a lavishly-illustrated and well-indexed 48-page rulebook, and another 16-page scenario book with terrain and counter reference charts on the back. A few reference sheets and 20 dice round out the action.
While the box is el grande, the contents really don’t fill it completely. My expectation is that the extra space is to allow the forthcoming expansions, such as the imminent Days of the Fox to be stored in the same box.
The box is covered in detailed action paintings of WWII scenes involving close-ups of the soldiers, showing the concentration and intensity on their faces. The recurring motif throughout the game is the small circular icons of the US (white star on blue field) and German (iron cross on red) forces. These colors and icons are used on cards, counters, and scenario sheets as a visual shorthand for either side. Additionally, all of the artwork has had the color saturation lowered, and a ‘scuffed’ look applied to it. The net effect is not unlike the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan.
Conspicuously absent from all graphics is the Nazi swastika. Presumably, since FFG sells many games in Europe, this was to ensure the market-friendliness of the product.
SET-UP AND DOCUMENTATION, or “Now What?”
Most scenarios are played on a 3×3 or 3×4 grid of mapboards, any one of which will occupy most of a folding card table. The game requires much more than space for the map, however. Around the edges of the table, players will need space for stacks of cards, a turn record track, reference sheets, command point tokens, and reference cards with the statistics for their squads. And somewhere to roll the dice. Don’t forget the dice.
The game rules are elegantly presented. In fact, most grognards will find it rather simply written, and some explanations drawn out far beyond their need. Given that Fantasy Flight sells games to a very wide audience, this is almost necessary. The rules start with an overview of all the components, and then explains the setup of the game before diving into the nitty-gritty of the rules. Everything is designed to get the player pushing soldiers around the table as quickly as possible.
The game is explained as each mechanic appears in the turn sequence: Action phase, Command Phase, Status phase.
The action phase is where fire and movement take place, including opportunity fire, assaults, running around the battlefield. Certain strategy cards are also activated during this phase.
When examples of play appear, they are always well-illustrated with a mixture of figure icons, status counters, and bright arrows set against the background of one of the hex maps. Most of these examples occupy an entire page. Again, to a grognard, this may seem overly simplified, but Fantasy Flight’s audience with Tide of Iron seems to be closer to Axis & Allies than Advanced Squad Leader.
The Strategy cards are split along conventional lines – artwork on top, text at the bottom, with a card title in the upper left corner, and the appropriate icon (US/German) for the side the icon belongs to. The art on these cards is almost always a WWII-era black and white photograph. In some cases, they’ve clearly been filtered through Photoshop to enhance the artistic value of them, but they are all attractive and evocative of the war.
While the cards are separated into US and German, they are further separated into a variety of themes, such as Ground Support or American Reinforcements or Supply Deck. Depending on the scenario, each side will have a custom-assembled deck based on these themes. In the Silence the Guns scenario, for instance, the German deck consists of German Reinforcements I and Morale I, and the US deck has Command I and Ground Support I. In some cases there are decks I and II in this box; otherwise it’s clear that FFG is preparing for future expansion.
There are also Operations Cards, which offer more global effects. These are put into play at the beginning of the scenario and stay in play. They have flavor text on the back, and their game effects on the front. They have effects like bonuses to firepower when assaulting, or better concealment for squads.
Of course, the real highlight of the box is the mass of miniatures that players use on the map. There are a 5 different infantry figures on each side: regular infantry, elite infantry, and officers are each single figures. There are also dual figures for mortar crews and machine-gun crews. These infantry figures are popped into four-pin bases to build squads. Each squad could have 4 infantrymen, or two troopers and a weapons team. There is no way to build a two machine-gun squad, since all the machine-guns mount on the right side of the base. You can build a squad with both a machine-gun and a mortar team, but it would make little sense in the gameplay.
Thus the customizable squads each have four figures. They also have a small clip on the back facing the controlling player. This clip is to hold a small counter called a specialization token. These indicate that the squad has some additional ability or weapon, such as a medic, engineer, flamethrower, or bazooka.
The build-your-own-squad motif has tremendous appeal for gameplay. Instead of simply giving players a standard countermix and pointing them in the direction of the enemy, this system allows players to customize their forces at a micro level. That said, the assembly of the squads themselves is cumbersome and time-consuming. The first time the game is played, build in at least 30 minutes just to assemble the components. Once basic squads are built, many of them can be left intact for future use; it’s much easier to swap out a single figure to put an officer in a squad than to reassemble 11 squads from scratch. Additionally, the figures sometimes take some ‘oomph’ to get them to snap into the bases.
These are not the most beautifully-cast miniatures. Axis & Allies Miniatures players will be disappointed in the production values. However, once they are all assembled and on the battlefield, the net effect is one of a real battle, and is both attractive and functional.
Each side also has trucks, halftracks, and tanks. These pieces are clearly out of scale with the soldiers, but they are still attractive and functional. The US player has Sherman tanks; the Germans have both Panzer IVs and Tiger Is. The vehicles are not combined with ground troops on their bases – they are free-standing. There are counters to indicate when halftracks or trucks are carrying infantry squads. Those counters are placed under the vehicles and are numerically-coded to counters kept on the side of the gameboard next to the mounted squads.
Tide of Iron might be produced by a company known for its sci-fi and ‘euro’ style games, but under the hood it is pure wargame. Players give orders to their squads and then resolve them based on initiative. Units can be given orders to assault, opportunity fire, or direct fire. Mortars lob rounds on targets spotted by other units. There are no real communication rules; the net effect is that everyone appears to be on the same, perfectly-functioning radio net, unless a card is in play specifying otherwise. While this is usually the norm in a boardgame, it’s not even relevant in a four-player game.
Initiative is established each turn, as players ‘bid’ for initiative by paying command points for it. Since it is a blind bid, it is impossible to know how high one should bid to seize the initiative. But be careful, bidding too much cripples your command pool for deploying command cards with their effects (see below).
Resolving fire was made more complicated than it needed to be, however. Each unit is given a range for it’s weapons. That is not, however, the actual range of the unit. It’s seems to be the suggested range of the unit, since units can fire at ‘long range’ – with a penalty – up to double their actual range, as long as they can see that far. Why FFG chose to go this route, rather than just specifying the actual range, is a bit mystifying.
Units roll dice to attack and count the number of hits. The defender may then roll to remove some of those hits. The remaining hits are then applied to the squad, usually by removing figures from the squad base. The effect for the player is to actually see his forces melting away under fire on the table.
Vehicles accumulate damage counters, and they exist in two states, heavy and light damage. Some vehicles are incapable of sustaining heavy damage; they simply roll over dead, along with their cargo (if any).
Of all the mechanics, the command points are the most intriguing. Markers are placed on the battlefield ahead of time, noting where command points may be earned. So long as the hex with the command point marker is held, the player has that amount of command available to him to deploy command cards or bid for initiative. The best explanation of this effect is that holding key terrain gives your force a tactical advantage on the battlefield, and that advantage is reflected in the ability to control the action through command cards. When that key terrain changes hands, so does the advantage on the battlefield.
There are also command point markers that are specific to one side or the other. If the Americans hold a hex with a German command point marker in it, they do not get the points; they must settle for the satisfaction of denying the points to the Germans.
The nuances of the game are found not only on the gameboard, but in the system of command points and strategy cards. Scattered about the battlefield are markers indicating a command point value. The player controlling these command points uses them to play strategy cards that can provide reinforcements, bonuses to attack or defense, or special effects for the rest of the turn. These strategy cards allow the players to simulate the actions of their leaders on the battlefield, and provide a nice array of tactical options during the fight.
The counters include the markers for command points on the battlefield, others indicating the total number of command points saved up by each player, status markers for each squad on the board (fatigued, opportunity fire, etc), indicators for squads mounted on vehicles, and a variety of other little cardboard chits. While they are all useful during the flow of the game, they contribute to the overall amount of table space needed to set up and play. Tide of Iron will likely occupy the family dining table for the duration of the game.
While hex-and-counter wargaming is still alive and well, it has yet to recapture the popularity in enjoyed from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. In recent years, though, we’ve seen a new genre rise in popularity. Perhaps best termed “hex-and-figure” wargaming, this new genre has seen a variety of recent entries: Memoir ’44 (with its card-controlled battlefield action), Axis & Allies minis (with its collectible components), and now Tide of Iron, with its big-box presentation, and nifty customizable squads and strategy cards. There are two developments worth watching for in this trend. First, will Tide of Iron’s expansions capitalize on it’s elegant and smooth gameplay, which to me, is the best of the bunch? Second, which game will break out of the World War II mold and adapt itself to a new war? Tide of Iron’s rules could easily be expanded to encompass the Korean or Vietnam wars, or other non-American conflicts like the wars between Israel and its neighbors.
Ultimately, Tide of Iron will face a challenge. It looks like a Eurogame. It plays like a wargame. Will Eurogamers pick it up and join the grognards in tactical fun? Will wargamers look past the visual toy-like visual presentation long enough to see the finely-tuned engine of a wargame underneath? Will it move off of the shelves in a mass-market store, and will a mass-market audience find the rich wargame in it to its liking?
I don’t know, but I sure hope so.