TANKS by Gale Force 9
Well it’s been a while since I did a ‘review’ but a couple of things have twisted my arm:
· I have a liking for the game.
· It seems to be rapidly getting a following.
· It was the catalyst of a lot of debate when we talked about it on Meeples & Miniatures.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Tanks is a game (remember that word for later), in fact it is a tank skirmish game set in WWII. One of the new ‘hybrid games’ really, it is neither a full blown wargame or a board game – much in the same way as X-Wing. Played on a relatively small ‘table’ (3x3) and only needing what you get in the box to play (at a starter level). One can then purchase ‘expansions’ which add options to the basic game. Nothing to stop you using a full blown table laden with lovely terrain, but plays just as well using the 2D thick card stock terrain that one finds in the box. Indeed the box promises an,
…easy-to-learn, quick-play, small-scale game, where you take command of a tank platoon, seeking to destroy your opponent’s tanks and secure victory. TANKS is a flexible game with lots of ways to create a finely-tuned army that fits your play style.
A tank platoon consisted of 3-5 tanks for most of the countries involved and this is what will be present on the table during your battles (games). So, in the finest review style paying homage to old man Clint Eastwood, let’s see what is the Good, Bad and the Ugly…
Well, it’s WWII tanks, enough said. And add to that it seems to follow my old doctrine from War Games Journal days and it is set in the proper stage of the war – my motto was ‘Early war; that’s May 1944’ and a disbelief that anyone would want to play anything before Normandy unless it involved a lot of sand – so we have the big guns out and about and that’s always a good thing. Seriously though the production values are excellent and what we would expect from GF9 (whose Spartacus and Firefly games adorn my games shelves) and their, now, parent company Battlefront (the Kiwis responsible for the set of Flames of War WWII rules which is played by the most number of players – love it or hate it, that is the truth). Excellent value the box contains all you need to start playing and the components are top notch. One caveat must be thrown in I suppose; the tanks are FOW kits (the same as in their starter sets in fact) and need putting together. While definitely on the ‘easy’ side of model making they will require cutters, glue and a sharp knife. Not the easy open the box and whack it on the table one finds with a lot of ‘hybrid’ games.
In the box are two Sherman tanks and one Panther; all the counters, markers and rulers you need for two players (in thick pre-cut card stock); 2D terrain in the same material, some houses and woods which are double sided so you can style your play area as Normandy or Northern Europe; all the dice you need in two opposing colours; the tank cards (interestingly, and a very pleasant surprise, all the tanks from all the nations that are getting ‘wave one’ appear in the box) and a set of ‘critical hit’ cards. All in all, as alluded to earlier – great value box set at around £16.50.
Game play is easy to pick up; fairly intuitive (in an abstracted way) and fast, with 100point ‘normal’ games lasting 45-60 minutes. It uses d6 and no more than 6 a roll so it’s not ‘buckets’ of dice. It is fairly unambiguous in measurement, movement uses a stick; ranges are unlimited and no ‘bands’; LOS is easy to see – basically everything to help competition play smooth and friendly really, and you have to think this is where the game is heading (again much like X-Wing).
Initiative - tanks are given an initiative score and tanks move in lowest initiative to highest and then shoot from highest to lowest. This can be altered by ‘upgrades’ which alter the initiative score in either or both the movement and then shooting phases.
Movement is easy and abstracted – put the stick (which is arrow shaped) anywhere on your tank, then place the tank fully on the edge of the stick with any side FLUSH with the stick. Most tanks can move in this way twice, but some can only do one stick, some three sticks. This is so unambiguous and easy, very fast to do and easy to pick up (but more of this mechanic later on).
Firing, which is perhaps the most important bit of the game, is fairly simple and fast. You roll a number of fire dice – this is normally 4 with the more powerful guns (88,90mm) at 6 with others (76, 17pdr 85mm and such) at 5. The amount of fire dice doesn’t change. Any 4-6 rolled is a hit, with the 6s being potential critical hits. The target then defends by rolling their armour/defence dice. This is normally 1 with 2 and 3 being saved for the heavy boys. Any 4-6 rolled negates a hit with the 6 meaning the defender can choose which hit it cancels (meaning critical hits can be got rid of first if the player wants). However, the defence dice pool can be modified by a number of things. Dice are added for the speed both the target and firer are moving – making stationary fire more likely to hit, but lots of movement making it harder to hit. Cover adds a die, proximity subtracts a die, as do flank/rear shots. Critical hits allow one to draw a card – this has some effect on the target and between 0-3 damage as well. Mechanic wise this is nice, covers most things you want and more thought has to be put into which hits to cancel than appears at first thought. However, some people will find it hard to hit well if both tanks are flying around at speed 2. Once your tank takes the number of hull points it has (5-6) it brews up!
That is all there is to the basic mechanics, but Tanks is a tank building game as well and your base tank can be ‘upgraded’ with better than normal crew and upgrades to armour, ammo and equipment. Some of the crew are unique heroes, most are not but obviously one can only take one driver upgrade, one commander upgrade, one loader upgrade etc. etc. This alters the mechanics a lot and adds all the flavour to the game. Again, I love this mechanic and it is very similar to X-Wing style games.
The booklet has a number of missions in, which are all fairly basic types for competition style games. But the system would be easy to adapt to any scenario, real or imagined – so long as it’s just tanks.
Not too many things really, so long as you keep pounding your head with the fact it is a GAME. Try and turn it into a tank simulation game and you are going to fry your brain with outrage. Let’s face it, it is a simple gateway game into FOW and/or a comp game which I suspect they would love to see grow so that comps are a big part of the play scene. It isn’t a game to which anyone veering to the ‘rivet counter’ side of WWII gaming is probably going to enjoy, or at least not let themselves enjoy. The national characteristics (which add flavour on, well, a national level) are very broad and don’t really apply to all the tanks of that nation, instead, like many things in the game, they are a game balancer. Stats of the tanks can seem to be off kilter – why is the Brit Sherman worse than the American one? Probably due to the playtesting showing the national characteristics gave a more powerful affect and so needed balancing. Ground scale wise it doesn’t add up. Tactics of the day will not work particularly well on the whole (getting to the flank being the exception) and seem to be inspired by the film FURY, move as fast as you can ‘til the German tank can’t shoot you all and then pound away. One shotting an opponent isn’t impossible but is very hard to achieve, again probably a game balancing thing. Tanks are destroyed, on the whole, by chipping away. But, do these things stop it being a good game – NO. Do they stop it being a good representation of tank warfare in WWII – YES. If that is an issue, probably don’t play it – if it isn’t then have lots of fun!
If any aspect of the game is going to make a seasoned WWII player rage quit, then it will be the movement. Unless you embrace the fact that your tank can basically move like Messi cutting through a Sunday League team’s defence then it will drive you mad. Not a lot can’t be done with the movement stick and the rules as written. Other tanks don’t block movement so if that arrow can be laid over them and you can fit you can move! A tank can start pointing one way, move and end up pointing the other – no being trapped in an alley way ala Kelly’s Heroes in this game. Reversing is as fast as forward movement (insert Italian tank jokes here) as there is no way to decrease the move at all when using the stick. Now played with a mate who will make what one deems sensible/real moves and this is no problem. Play with someone who is playing the GAME or when winning is paramount (read - comps) then it could cause high blood pressure unless one embraces the dark side! A high initiative tank, especially if it is German with the Blitzkrieg move at the end of the turn, will be able to waltz around the scenery and your tanks making it hard to gang up if you are close and probably hard for anyone to hit as all tanks are probably going to be moving 2. Also stationary fire hardly negates 2 or 3 speed movement – which isn’t a bad thing per se but means that you do tend to get a few strange CHARGE moves to get in real close.
There is NO Tiger, even though you can field one or two of the 20 Pershing tanks present in Europe at the end of the war. I’m sure there will be in some wave of releases, but wave one isn’t it. Probably more due to the fact that Battlefront have, as yet, no plastic Tiger in their range - but a disappointment to say the least.
Building your platoon is done by points, not any historical organisational reason. A Pershing, 75mm M4 and a 76mm can be fielded in the same platoon. As could a Panther, StuG, Pnzer IV etc.
Honestly, I love the game! But I have embraced it as a game… one I can use tanks with and pretend I am in FURY. I’ve actually had a few emails and comments since coming out and saying I like the game from people who are outraged that I (someone who was the Wargames Journal’s WWII bod, someone who in Ambush Alley’s original Force on Force rules was classed as the WWII armour expert, someone who has championed rules that give a ‘good feel’ combat wise like Nuts) can like a game which is so perversely at odds with reality in a fair number of ways.
Perhaps there lies the reason… It is so far away that it doesn’t bother me, I can not see it as anything BUT a GAME and have embraced that. I have spent the last two weeks saying, “So what, it doesn’t matter, it’s a GAME.” Do I expect Formula One car realism from Formula D, do I expect space science realism from X-Wing, aerial warfare realism from Wings of War – NO of course not, so why should Tanks have to come out as realistic? It shouldn’t and nor does even pretend to be. It is supposed to be a game, a gateway game into other WWII games maybe, or a stand-alone fun game which will make a good organised play set. And this it does very, very well. For new players coming from say X-Wing or Armada etc. etc. who have no, or little, experience of WWII games and little knowledge except from films and video games, the game will be highly intuitive and fun – I have heard the adjective, awesome, used a number of times by new players.
In a number of ways, it does introduce some fairly new mechanics into the mix for WWII games. The upgrade cards are an excellent way to make the tanks different to each other. The fire and defence dice mechanism is very good for a quick paced game. The movement stick makes it very straight forward. If the intention had been to provide a set of rules for seasoned players to get into I imagine it would be fairly easy to make the rules suitable for that client base. Put caveats on the movement stick use and stick a half way measure, make the fire arcs more defined, make stationary fire more powerful, tweak the stats more and you would have a game which would sit well with them. BUT that is not the target audience, not their unique sale point – newbies are, comp players are, converts from other similar games are. For them TANKS is an excellent game as is. Even for some long term ‘real’ war-gamers who don’t dabble in WWII era the game will provide a good ‘beer and pretzel’ affair for the end of the evening at the club.
For the seasoned WWII player then it’s going to be down to if they can get over the bad and the ugly, can they embrace the dark side and see it as a GAME not a system that will slot alongside their favoured set of rules (although it does kind of make me annoyed that Rapid Fire is acceptable to many who would be aghast at TANKS – in many ways RF is even more abstracted and far-fetched) – if they can, then they may find a lot in TANKS to like.
As for me, I’m hooked, yes I will probably play with 3D scenery making the table look pretty, yes when I play in comps I will probably still inwardly cringe at the myriad of mixed tank platoons. BUT, I will be having fun and I will be playing with tanks… Even if it is only a GAME. So let me take you by the hand, and lead you to the dark side!