Insights and Impressions for Rifles in the Ardennes

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When is one play not enough for some insights? I’ve shared them with shorter games after one play, and even when I’m wrong it is okay. Yet there was something about my very first play of Rifles in the Ardennes that left me feeling like an attempt at a post would be wholly inadequate. It took a little time to put my finger on the source of that feeling, and eventually I realized it was because it felt like I saw less than even the full tip of an iceberg. Just like I’ve withheld doing a post for Genesis after playing the solo scenario in that game, I knew that anything I shared here would be doing the game itself a great injustice.

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You see, the game has a lot of variability in the package: three factions to play, rules for custom teambuilding, an 8-mission campaign with XP gains to unlock upgrades for units. And not only that, but the opening mission of the game is a simple advance to the end of the map scenario, one which can be completed without doing anything but moving your forces with every activation should you choose. Can someone even give semi-accurate first impressions or insights after seeing roughly 10% of what the gameplay has to offer: the bare basics of movement, combat, and enemy activations? Cover was a non-factor, as was terrain. I even used a generic team that the book had as an example (only transferred as a U.S. force instead of a German one).

Is it any wonder that a first play would feel underwhelming in those conditions? I knew I needed a second play, and in the interest of fairness it was just using the same team for the second mission in the book. This at least had a little more to it: find the objective (which is on one of the final two spaces) and return to the beginning. Except…

I didn’t look closely enough to see I would also need to clear out the enemies who spawned after grabbing said objective. Oops. Let’s just say that the patrol which spawned was not a good one, ultimately sealing my loss as I ran out of time. After that loss, which taught some important lessons, I felt I was ready at last to give my first impressions on this vanilla experience of a game with many layers left to explore…

Insight #1: Team management is key

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You know the saying that teamwork makes the dream work? Well, it is pretty important here I think. My generic team was almost exclusively made of Riflemen who, by themselves aren’t bad per say. But I quickly learned that their CF of 1 made getting to the required 6 for a hit on most enemies a bit of a challenge. Compounded with the possibility of terrain to add 1-2 to the defensive factor, there were times my Riflemen had a 0% chance of success, leaving me to only be able to attack with my sole LMG unit with his CF of 3 (but Range of 0). Taking the time to build a custom team, with a little more variety in both offensive and defensive strength, will go a long way toward providing a more fulfilling experience. A generic sample team is fine for a first play to get some exposure to the game before making blind choices, but if you’re expecting that generic team to shine…well…

Insight #2: Be mindful of your mission

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This one smarts a little after the most recent play, as I should have payed closer attention to what I needed to do. I felt like I was in control, making steady progress while taking actions to try for a 1-in-6 odds of hitting an enemy with my only unit that could possibly hit. I also got stuck in a cycle of needing to Rally my best unit to prevent his demise. And then, well, about the middle of the mission’s 12 turns I started to get fewer activations which severely hampered my progress and allowed the clock to run out on doing what I needed. This game requires some of the same counter-intuitive wisdom that I needed when playing the campaign of Star Wars: Imperial Assault: sometimes stopping to fight is the worst thing you can do. You can’t ignore enemies all the time, as they can add up and swarm you, but at the same time sitting there locked down in a firefight is a sure way to chew up valuable actions, especially if you aren’t being smart about when you choose to fight.

Insight #3: Actions are never a guaranteed thing

One of the most disheartening things to factor in with this game is your number of actions. Each turn you roll 3 dice, and depending on the numbers rolled you’ll end up with anywhere from 0-3 actions that turn (a 1 or a 2 result is a dead action). It averages out to probably banking on a net of 2 actions per turn, but it is possible to have none on a turn and that can lead to some really bad situations. Even getting stuck with just a single action means you need to choose between offense, recovery, bolstering defense, or advancing toward your objective. That being said, there’s a small bonus boost for actions with a 6 on the die ranging from automatic success in rallying your leader, being able to move into cover as you advance, or locking in points to spend for rerolls and other useful things at a later date. Unfortunately, my second play had a single 6 rolled, but plenty of 1-2’s to go around (including a completely lost round sandwiched between a pair of 1-action rounds…) so you need to be aware of this possibility and plan around it. This is another huge reason to push for the objective early and often, as you might run into spots where you stall on your momentum because of poor luck.

Insight #4: Cover your assets

Oh man, if I only realized just how important cover could be, I would have used it more often. Granted, it takes an action to shift into cover, but it can save so many actions in the long run by making use of the available cover in a stripe. I am yet to actually put my units into cover, so this is speaking from the other side…having run into the frustration of trying to actually hit a meager Rifleman hiding in the Woods. It doesn’t seem like much, but when rolling a d6 for combat even a +1 to your defense boosts your odds of being safe by over 16%. I’d much rather roll it with a 1-in-6 chance of being disrupted than a 1-in-3 chance, and if you extend that by 2-4 units firing at the same potential target that extra +1 could be the difference between disruption and elimination under that firing squad. Considering how my last game ended, with almost every unit disrupted in both of my stacks, the one action spent to take cover far outweighs the side-effect of needing to roll to remove the disruption from multiple units after a lucky AI turn.

Insight #5: Leverage the AI choices to your advantage

You never know exactly what the AI will do after your turn unless you happen to be in the same stripe with them (then they will attack you, but you won’t know WHO they will target for certain). However, you can see the options, and position yourself to be able to take advantage of the possible outcomes. If gaming the system ruins things for you, it is easy to just try and make your most sensible move. But you always know what they might do, and can game plan accordingly. After all, they’ll always get to do SOMETHING. And they have a potentially endless supply of troops. So take advantage of the one point of leverage you do have and try to maneuver them into doing the least damaging option whenever possible.

Wrap-up

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Circling back to where we began, I am looking at this game wondering at what point it will be safe to review the game. After trying to build a team with all three armies? After completing the 8-mission campaign with a custom army? Somewhere in between, or even something short of that? A game like this is as challenging to decide to write about as a game like Gloomhaven: as long as there are more secrets to possibly tease out, there’s a chance what I write ends up being wrong. And so while this may sound like a complaint, it is actually something that excites me: there is more to enjoy in this game and to try. As long as the core system of the game remains fun after a few more plays, this is a game that offers a lot of replay for folks who like to explore a game they enjoy over and over again.

There lies the greatest strength of Rifles in the Ardennes.

Because I don’t know much (yet) about Ardennes, but even I can tell you this isn’t really a replication of it. Throw on any theme of your choosing and you can make it fit. And perhaps that’s a smart way to approach this game’s design, as it then allows the designer to revisit the game and release it across multiple timelines. That approach pays off for someone like me, who isn’t necessarily invested in the history of the game as the driving reason to purchase it.

So far this game has given me a taste of what it can offer with repeated plays, and I’ve enjoyed it well enough to want to see what other secrets it has to reveal. Those secrets, unlocked within team building and a connected campaign, will be what determines whether Rifles in the Ardennes is a valued treasure on the shelf, or just another game amidst a swath of good games.

I really want it to prove to be the former.

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