Insights and Impressions – Heights of Courage: The Battle for Golan Heights

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Game Information

Designer: Steve Newhouse
Artist: Nicolas Eskubi, Dean Essig
Publisher: Multi-Man Publishing
Players: 1-2
Playtime: 240-900

Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973, is a game covering the Golan Heights portion during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

In October, 1973, Syria and her allies lead a surprise attack to recapture the Golan Heights in conjunction with an Egyptian assault across the Suez Canal into the Sinai.

For a little over two weeks, massed Syrian armor tried to swamp the Israeli defenders who were buying time to allow mobilized reserves to arrive. They succeeded and managed to turn the tide launching their own offensive toward Damascus.

Heights of Courage is the 16th game in the award winning Standard Combat Series. It complements the 1995 CSR award winning game Yom Kippur (which covers the fighting in the Sinai). It uses the same 8 page standard series rulebook applicable to all the other games.

Because both sides have offensive and defensive phases of the battle to enjoy, victory is determined by comparing the best Syrian performance in their early offensive to the Israeli offensive results at the end of the game. This forces both sides to fight tooth and nail on both the offense and defense with enormous time pressure on perform rapidly.

The game captures all the sizzle of the fast-paced armored battle with enough steak to give the game the appropriate level of depth. For example, it uses an innovative two tempo operational speed, to both players as the battle goes beyond the endurance of the forces involved. Each player can select to go “fast” in order to fight more or “slow” in order to get more replacements.

While Heights of Courage cannot be directly linked to Yom Kippur, the game provides rules to allow players to play both games in tandem so as to play the “whole war.”

Four scenarios allow different looks at the 17 turn campaign (turn length varies based on when a cease-fire occurs).
4.1 The Historical Battle for the Golan Heights (17 turn long version)
4.2 The Historical Battle for the Golan Heights (10 turn short version)
4.3 Operation Badhr (6 turn look at the initial Syrian offensive)
4.4 Operation Al-Owda (Original Syrian plan – which can be played in the 6, 10 or 17 turn versions)

Carl

Heights of Courage has been in my library for a long time. It was one of the oldest members on my shelf of shame. That was unfortunate.

We got it off that shelf the other day. David had the day off. His wife said he should spend the day gaming with me if I was available. My boss was accommodating, and we had nine hours of gaming in which we played two games, the second of which was Heights of Courage.

Heights of Courage was of interest to me due to the Middle East being prominent on the news during my childhood. In addition, it’s not typical fare from what I have seen for wargames. There are many games covering the area and this specific conflict, but there are far fewer than the Battle of the Bulge, or Normandy.

The Standard Combat Series from The Gamers via MMP also intrigued me. I enjoy all three categories of wargames. Operational seems the richest. SCS appeared to simplify the rules overhead while still providing a good game. These two reasons are why I purchased Heights of Courage in the first place.

I’m glad we had an opportunity to play the game as we are now familiar with the general rules. Now we can work on getting more SCS titles to the table.

David

Going into the play, I was completely blind. I knew little about the conflict and even less about the game, or even the SCS system as a whole. But I gave Carl the chance to choose the next game we played, and he promised this as a relatively simple one to get played on a whim. It certainly was relatively easy to grasp and play, although not nearly as short as I was misled to believe.

On with the insights & impressions!

Insight #1 – Mind the Gap

Carl

Many games have one side or the other having fortifications. In Heights of Courage there is an anti-tank ditch that runs along most of the purple line (the ceasefire line after the 1967 Six-Day War). This ditch, and the Isralli strongholds along it, are the initial hurdle for the Arab forces.

The strongholds establish a continuous enemy zone of control along the ditch. Movement through this would be slow. Attacking is also slow due to terrain effects, firing across the ditch, and the features of the strongholds themselves. We only have one play under our belts, so I don’t know which strategy is most effective. I can say that attacking can work if managed correctly, and it is possible to get some forces across the ditch in the first turn.

David

For the Israeli side, the ditch is a line of no return. If I sent a unit across that line, he would get the remnants of one of his reinforcement teams – something I wanted to avoid since this particular scenario did not require me to accomplish anything as an aggressor. However, clever placement of troops along the way can be a really great way to slow down the enemy’s advancement and tie them up in battles that could also be a real benefit if they happen to weaken his force along the way.

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Insight #2 – Time Matters

Carl

This game is reminiscent of The Battle of the Bulge in that the historical battle had the Arabs pushing into Israel. Eventually the tide turns and the Isralli’s push into Syria.

From a gameplay perspective this is important to keep in mind. The short scenario outcome depends on matching the initial historical results of the conflict for the Arabs, or preventing this by the Israelis.

David

This one felt a lot like some of the other more modern conflict games we’ve played with one side being focused on holding key points against a superior offensive force pushing in. The difference here was that my Israeli defending units did not feel severely underpowered. Were there times I was on the bad end of a 4:1 or 5:1 odds conflict? Sure, but those were the exceptions more than the rule. Even when he mustered in some pretty ridiculous sets of stacks, I was able to hold some ground. What I found to be the most interesting was the presence of a second move+attack phase (essentially) on each side every round. It had limitations, of course, but for the most part it opened up some interesting gameplay options as well as really made the board accessible to blitz across during a time of need for either side. That allows layers of depth to the approach when mapping out a turn – something that definitely contributed to the game’s length because it was almost like every turn was a double turn.

Insight #3 – Terrain Matters

Carl

Terrain in this game was easily understood. After four hours of playing I forgot to check terrain when defending. My printed defense should have been multiplied by three. I then chose to retreat to avoid step losses. This allowed David to take one of my victory point objectives by advancing after combat. He did not forget the TEC multiplier when he defenced.

A simple mistake. It taught an important lesson. Don’t get so caught up in the moment that you forget the basics.

David

This offset my own mistake of leaving said objective without a defender. Mistakes are always made on both sides, and thankfully this one featured more mistakes from our decisions than missed rules. I think by that point we were both exhausted from the long and grueling session, and the stacks of counters we needed to move, count, and sometimes recount several times per round. Even while it is fun in the process, the procedure can wear on you. But yes, that terrain is critical – something I was quick to notice as the defending Israeli force. Having that 20-defense tripled to a 60 can help offset the ridiculousness of a set of stacks hitting the 80-attack range.

Insight #4 – Nice numbers, kid. Now don’t get cocky!

David

Let me start by saying this game is all about stacks of counters. In order to effectively take down the opposition (or successfully defend) you need to make stacks, as a single counter is not likely to last long. While there are limitations to the size of the stack, getting them stacked to the max and bringing in multiple stacks to attack one spot seemed to be the best way to get to a favorable ratio. However, there were times when the terrain underneath might boost the defender by a large amount, making it more of an even match than one might expect. More than once we had really large numbers on both sides that evened out to a 1:1 or 2:1 when Carl’s aggressive force was likely expecting a 4:1 or better ratio. I love the added element of fog of war making it so your opponent cannot examine your stacks – they have to go in hoping they bring enough units to make a dent.

Carl

Having terrain triple the strength of defending units at first seemed very unfair. In a more honest analysis, it is the only way for some defending units to have a chance, and terrain is an important battlefield tactical consideration. As part of military history it is why trench warfare has been used in several twentieth century engagements – There was no terrain, so we created it ourselves.

Having one’s multi-unit attack neutered due to terrain is frustrating, but it is also a realistic factor in combat. Being on the other side of that equation can be huge. As we both mentioned one of the riverside objectives that was retaken was a mistake on my part due to not factoring in my triple defense. My smaller stack would have offset the larger force that David brought in to drive me out. This was late in the game so it was an easy mistake to make. As a painful mistake, it is not one likely to be made again.

Insight #5 – Don’t forget the riverside VP targets

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David

For hours I did a good job of leaving some decent forces to defend the riverside VP locations – ones that would score Carl points at the end of each round if he controlled them. And then he pushed in hard toward two of the three areas he needed to control at the end for points, and my natural reaction was to move in the reinforcements to try and slow that down. Slow down it did, as he then expertly diverted his forces to take the areas I left abandoned, and I needed to go on the offensive to try and retake one of them to prevent the game from ending early, and then needed to retake a second point the next turn (and kick him out of an end-game scoring location) in order to keep him from hitting that 2VP mark he needed to win in this “short” scenario. Needless to say, it was close but I failed to accomplish all three of those tasks – successfully doing two of the three but coming just short of the final objective. Both sides need to be aware of those three locations, and how accessible they can be for either side. If I needed those reinforcements to move, I should have stalled them until the very last turn when he would not have been able to exploit them.

Carl

I did not forget the riverside objectives. I was watching those the way a bear watches dumpsters in US National Parks.

I was heavily engaged in two locations that were endgame objectives for this particular scenario.

I had one Syrian Brigade loosely grouped mid-map within striking distance of two of the riverside objectives.

I had units that could disengage from one of the end-game locations and take the third riverside objective, which still had a defending force.

So I did do one thing correctly. I still misplayed defending one of those locations. All in all this is an ongoing theme with both of us, and it is important as wargamers.

Always be prepared for the unexpected, and plan to have some way to react.

It is easy to get locked into a plan, or defending one location. This is especially true as conflicts in areas intensify, or fortify. Those areas of the board get primary focus because of everything going on in those areas. You do need to keep attention on those areas. You also need to be prepared to move sideways rather than charging forward if the opportunity arises. This is true as the attacker and defender. As the attacker, the more areas you can jeopardize, the more the defender has to spread their forces out, or make sacrifices. The reverse is true as well.

Wrap-Up

David

Carl convinced me we should play this after an epic battle of Arquebus, calling this a “beer & pretzels” game. I’ve now learned two things: never drink beer with Carl, as I’ll be at it all day, and always double-check the play time before going in blind on a game. It wasn’t a terrible experience by any means, but it was surprising to have this one game eat up the entire afternoon of our spontaneous all-day gaming session. While part of me wishes we could have visited a handful of other games instead, I am glad we ended up playing this as it is the sort of game that was ideal for the day since we had from 9-6 to play games. We both knew the opener, but let what we wanted to play dictate where we went from there.

And the game did live up to Carl’s promise of a fairly easy-to-learn system. The two rulebooks combined (one for the system as a whole, and one for the specific game) were less than half of a game like Holland ‘44 or Enemy Action: Ardennes. I can appreciate the game and the system, and how it opens doors to other games in the same way that learning a Men of Iron or a Commands & Colors game does the same thing. Moving along to the next game in the system, or revisiting this one, should be a fairly smooth process.

The biggest issue will be finding the time. While things mostly moved forward in a smooth process, it was still a long play for the shortest scenario in the box. During a normal gaming session, this is at least a 2-weeker for us and could stretch into 3 or 4 with a longer scenario. While that isn’t a bad thing per say, I’ll always prefer a game we can start and finish in the same sitting. We have so many games to visit (and revisit) on our two shelves that we cannot possibly hit them all even if we play a different game each week. However, I am convinced that when we do revisit the SCS system for another play, it will be another fun experience.

Carl

In my defense, from the designers notes on the back of the SCS rulebook:

“These games are made for the “break out the beer and pretzels, and here we go” type of evening.”

That being said, the game did go longer than I expected.

Overall the system was a nice variation on other operational games we have played. We did make a few mistakes, but this was a much cleaner first play than many other games we have sampled. Playtime is important as I do like to play multiple games in a single session, and at least finish one.

I do have permission to start planning a self-built topper for our dining table. At 3 feet x 4 feet it should be able to accommodate a 4×6 foot topper with a cover that allows us to leave games like this setup for longer periods of time. Hopefully we can open with something shorter and then return to something longer that is in the works. I prefer to play games in one sitting as well. I also see the play in chunks style as a better learning experience as we can revisit the rules between sessions and find errors earlier in the process and incorporate the corrections into the next session.

And we do have, due to me, a lot of longer games to get to. In “The Gamers” series we have BCS and OCS to try. We have multiple operational systems from other publishers to try, or revisit with different titles.

Over time, I have come to appreciate the varying complexities of the games in our combined libraries. We have everything from twenty minutes to week-long options. Prior to wargames this level of variety mostly existed, but the shorter games tended to be very lightweight, or party games. I can get a mental “burn” from the shorter wargames that were not available or very rare in occurrence in my earlier gaming life.

The Standard Combat Series is a keeper as a system. Heights of Courage is an interesting title to start with as I am aware of the conflict. It’s one that has happened in my lifetime (I’m not young, but also not old). The scenario was interesting, and the option to play both the “as executed” and “originally planned” options, as well as playing both sides, adds to replayability.

It may be some time before we revisit this particular game, but we will have plenty of opportunity to revisit the system in the coming year as we have a series of monthly themes loosely planned. If you haven’t tried SCS you should. This is especially true if you’ve steered clear of operational games due to the rules overhead. We already have several other operational series under our belts. They all are different. This one’s most distinguishing feature is the simplicity of the rules, and the depth of the gameplay that provides for.

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