Bounding Fire Productions (2011)
Country of Origin:
32 scenarios, 9 8" x 22" unmounted geoboards (DW-2a, DW-2b, DW-3a, DW-3b, DW-4a, DW-4b, BFP-L, BFP-M, BFP-N), 394 die-cut counters, 16 pages rules/notes, 42-page magazine-style booklet
Crucible of Steel (CoS) is Bounding Fire Production’s second exercise in gigantism, following the equally huge 2009 release Blood and Jungle. It is one of three huge ASL-related products released or scheduled for release in 2011 (the others being Kampfgruppe Scherer and Festung Budapest) that will cost consumers over $100 ($125 in this particular case). That’s a lot of money to lay out, especially during a recession. Unlike the other two modules, though, CoS could have been split into two or more smaller and less expensive products, allowing people either to purchase the whole thing over time, or at least to purchase part of it even if they could not afford the whole thing. Gigantic modules like this one offer a sort of prestige to their publisher, but they don’t necessarily do favors to gamers on a budget.
Like Blood and Jungle, Crucible of Steel has a theme–in this case, the theme is the Battle of Kursk, or at least the southern shoulder of the battle (where the Germans were more successful than in the north). It was on the southern shoulder that the famous tank battle of Prokhorovka took place. Unfortunately, the timing of CoS’s design was a bit off, as it came out too soon to take real advantage of the publication of the best and most detailed book in English on this subject, Valeriy Zamulin’s Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative, published in English in the summer of 2011. However, reading that book will certainly whet players’ appetites for CoS, and vice versa.
The least impressive part of CoS, but one that added to its cost, is the 42-page full-color magazine-style booklet that comes with the product. The best article in the booklet is probably the first, “A Walk Through of Crucible of Steel,” by Chas Smith (all of the articles are actually written by Smith), which is essentially an extended set of designer’s notes for the module, focusing mostly on the new boards and counters in the game. The second article is the rather self-explanatory “Slopes in ASL.” Unfortunately, though this is nowhere stated, this rules article is not original but is rather a revised version of a slopes rules article by Smith that appeared several years ago in Recon by Fire #4. The next article is another rules article, this time on dug-in and entrenched AFVs. The last article is yet a third rules article, this time on fortifications. At this point is it really necessary to tell readers, as this article does, that it costs 1 MF to enter or exit a foxhole? The people who need to know that are probably not the people spending $125 on a third party product on Kursk. Given the high price of this product, it would probably have been better not to have included the booklet at all.
Of much more interest are the counters. CoS provides a sheet and a half of 5/8″ counters and a half-sheet of 1/2″ counters, all of which are well-done and attractive. Most of the 5/8″ counters consist of German vehicles. These include a few duplicates of existing vehicles, such as Pz IVHs, but a number of new vehicles as well, including Pz IIs modified to become APCs as well as captured T-34s in German colors. Most of these counters are provided twice–an additional set is included that is colored black, to cater to ASLers fixated on the Waffen SS. There are also a number of specific German aircraft types represented. This is a somewhat polarizing feature, as there are some ASLers who love the idea of having a more specific and less generic Air Support system in ASL, but there are also many ASLers who are only interested in ground warfare and greatly prefer the simpler and more abstract Air Support rules in official ASL. In addition to the German counters, there are a number of Soviet AFV and aircraft counters, though many of the Soviet AFV counters are merely duplicates of existing counter types (presumably for use with some of the larger scenarios).
The 1/2″ counters include blue and black SS and German army counters for assault engineers (following in the footsteps of Valor of the Guards, which created special assault engineer counters that displayed a small DC on the counter), as well as a few Soviet assault engineer counters. There is also a new type of crew, a 1-2-8 anti-tank crew that is mostly chrome and could probably have been represented by SSR and regular crews, and a new type of squad, a 4-2-8 “anti-mobility” squad, which surely is the most unusually named squad in all of ASL, beating even “dare death squads.” The only thing special about them is that they can place minefields.
About 60 informational markers are also included, which include some that many ASLers might find handy, including MA Fired markers, BMG Fired markers, CMG Fired markers, ALL MGs Fired markers, Dug-In CE markers, and VBM counters that indicate the hexside being bypassed (so that players do not actually have to squeeze an AFV directly above a hexside).
Unlike previous Bounding Fire Production counters, these counters are “grey-core” counters, which means that, like official ASL counters, they are printed on grey cardboard (the style historically used by “official” ASL publishers Avalon Hill and MMP) rather than white cardboard. Apparently, some people complained that with earlier BFP counters one could tell the BFP counters from the other counters because the color of the sides of the counter was white, not grey. This is a complaint of the most niggling kind, especially considering the wide range of inconsistency in colors and shapes that ASL counters have been printed in over the years. Nevertheless, BFP responded.
Actually, they did more than respond, because also included in CoS is a reprint of the complete countersets of Blood and Jungle and Operation Cobra, which had been printed with whitecore counters. BFP has said that they did this at their own expense and that this did not add to the price of Crucible of Steel. It is rather remarkable that BFP went to this effort, especially given how nice the Blood and Jungle and Operation Cobra counters were to begin with. This was something they absolutely did not have to do, but it does show dedication on their part. It is not clear from their website whether or not these are available separately.
The CoS rules and notes include 6 pages of aircraft rules, 4 pages of German vehicle notes, 2 pages of Soviet vehicle notes, and 4 pages of “historical battle rules.” These latter include rules for “Sparse Orchards,” “European Hillocks,” “Hexside Buildings,” and the new counters mentioned above.
CoS also comes with a bevy of geomorphic maps–9 of them, in fact, though 6 of them are designed to be used together as pairs (as they each include a non-geomorphic edge that mates to a similar edge on another board). They are very slightly longer than official boards (see image below), though the hexgrids seem properly sized. This can cause map match-up problems under certain (though not most) circumstances. They should have been cut to the correct size.
The intent of these boards was apparently to try to represent the nature of the terrain in the vicinity of Kursk. However, it is not necessarily clear that they succeeded. If one uses Google Maps satellite photos to look at the vicinity of Prokhorovka, for example, or even reads descriptions of the terrain from books, one sees that it is dominated by very large farms, frequent stretches or patches of woods and/or brush (sometimes significant in size), a large number of gullies and streams, and various villages (including many examples of the stereotypical Russian village lining a road, with two rows of houses along the road, each house with family gardens immediately behind them and the larger fields behind that. The CoS maps look nothing like that. In particular, though fields dominated the terrain, there are few of them on most of the maps, which make it seem much more unsettled. Gullies and streams are few and non-existent, respectively. Woods and brush are almost non-existent. Critical Hit actually did a better job in capturing the nature of the terrain in its 2010 Kursk: Devil’s Domain module on Ponyri. Of course, that was a historical map, not geo-boards.
The boards introduce several new terrain types, none complicated. The first, the so-called “European hillocks” (which has an air velocity much different from that of the African hillock), are basically just regular old hillocks with a bit of extra rules to take into account things like seeing over or through grain. The second is the hexside building, which is simply a tiny building that straddles a hexside (basically as part of two adjacent building hexes, each consisting of more than one building). All it does is prevent bypass (and, of course, block LOS). The third is the Sparse Orchard, which is basically just an always out of season orchard. Like other BFP geomorphic maps, some of these also have Slopes, which some players won’t mind and others will dislike. The same can be said for hillocks as well. However, in this case, the argument for including slopes and hillocks can perhaps be made more easily than for other maps, because of the relatively flat nature of some of the terrain.
Board L is an unremarkable wooden-buildinged crossroads village board. It’s not clear how the inhabitants make a living, as there are only two fields in the vicinity. It’s not really different from a number of other official boards. Board M is the one board that includes a number of fields, though only a few buildings. It also includes a large, dominating bald hill (and one of the few gullies to appear on these maps). Board N is an odd board, being mostly open ground, a few scattered sparse orchards, and two buildings, each near a single small field. It’s more like something out of the Old West, perhaps, than Kursk, which was a settled area.
Boards 2a/2b, the first of the “double” boards, is also odd. While it does include a large field (finally!), there is only a single building associated with it. However, the large field is basically a loner (there are only a couple of other, scattered, much smaller fields on the map), and it is not clear who tills any of these fields, because there are no villages or collective farm settlements anywhere on the map. Indeed, the entire double map only has 2 tiny buildings on it. Most of it is wide open, punctuated by some slopes, some -1 terrain, some hillocks, and some level 1 hills. There is also a single gully in the middle of the map. It seems like, if anything, it would be more suited for terrain hundreds of miles to the southeast of the Kursk area.
Boards 3a/3b manage to come a bit closer to Kursk-like terrain. They depict a small crossroads village surrounded by a number of medium-sized fields (though there is still far too much open terrain beyond them). There is, though, a large 2-level bald hill that dominates the entire map area.
Boards 4a/4b are essentially just a more open, flatter variant of Boards 3a/3b. There’s a small crossroads village, surrounded some scattered smallish fields, and a one-level hill mass. Maybe all the open ground is actually somehow fields that are lying fallow.
In the end, one might be a bit disappointed by the maps in CoS, which, though attractive enough, mostly do not resemble the terrain they are ostensibly supposed to resemble. BFP has been much better at their geomorphic maps in the past.
Of the 32 scenarios that come with CoS, the vast majority (all but seven) use the new maps. In addition, some scenarios use maps that come from other BFP products. Almost every one of the scenarios also use BFP counters (though there are a couple of these where the BFP counters are technically not necessary and other things–overlays or official counters–can be used instead). The combination of the maps and counters means that one must pretty much always bring the entire product along if thinking about potentially playing a scenario. It is not really possible to just grab a scenario to take to someone’s house or to a tournament to play; other components are virtually always also required.
Almost all of the CoS scenarios (all but five) are designed by Chas Smith. These scenarios also mean that BFP has released almost 100 new scenarios (i.e., not including reprints) since 2009. That’s a lot of scenarios to adequately playtest in such a short time span (many groups take a full year to research, design, playtest and release a selection of only 10-16 scenarios) and it raises legitimate questions. However, it must be admitted that the limited ROAR record since its release for the large Blood and Jungle has not been troubling in terms of balance. Time will tell, of course. [2014 update: so far, the scenarios in Crucible of Steel seem pretty well balanced, overall]
A scenario pack based on Kursk runs any number of theoretical risks. Much of the battle was a bloody stalemate, even on the southern flank, and the battlefield was rife with multiple fortification lines, massive use of artillery, and airplanes covering the battlefield. One could also imagine a product concentrating on the southern flank, as CoS does, ending up fixated on the Waffen SS units that fought there.
Happily, CoS avoids many potential pitfalls. It is true that the scenarios in this pack strongly tend towards the large. There is really only one scenario (see below) that can be claimed as small, and even many of the medium scenarios are largish. Designer Chas Smith loves large scenarios, so this was expected even before the pack came out. However, in this case, BFP did make a determined effort to ensure that there were enough reasonably sized scenarios (i.e., suitable for tournament’s play or an afternoon or evening’s worth of play) in the pack to be able to provide some value to the ASLers who prefer or usually play such (they make up the bulk of ASL play overall). As a result, a number of the medium-sized scenarios in the pack are quite tournament compatible. It was nice to see CoS consisting of more than just massive all-day scenarios and it adds value to the product.
Nor are the scenarios loaded up with OBA and Air Support (which was a problem with Critical Hit’s Kursk module Kursk: Devil’s Domain). There are many scenarios that have neither OBA nor Air Support, which will no doubt bring a sigh of relief to those ASLers who are not over-fond of such ASL elements. Another thing that CoS is not overloaded with is the SS. Chas Smith and company refreshingly chose to feature a wide variety of the German units that fought on the southern flank, not just the Waffen SS divisions. There are no Night scenarios in the pack.
One thing it did not avoid, nor in all likelihood even try to avoid, was the heavy presence of fortifications. When one combines the historically heavy use of fortifications on the battlefields of Kursk with the inherent love of fortifications on the part of Chas Smith, one can imagine that Crucible of Steel would turn out to be a fort-fest.
A significant majority of the scenarios are what can be termed “fortifications-heavy,” with significant numbers of trenches, pillboxes, wire counters, minefields, and the like. Those who like crafting that “perfect defense” may be happy. It does mean, however, that players who prefer more mobile scenarios to those where cracking prepared defensive positions is dominant may have a shortage of actions from which to choose. Of course, someone who bought a Kursk module thinking there might not be a lot of fortifications would be foolish, indeed, so it is hard to criticize BFP on this score. Kursk was famous for its fortified lines.
The Germans are the attackers in the vast majority of scenarios, which is a bit odd considering the battle was one that featured some very famous Soviet counterattacks. The scenarios have a wide range of SSR intensiveness, which is a welcome variety. While the scenarios don’t force players to use crews for their heavy SW, the OBs rather encourage them to do so, creating a somewhat camouflaged grudge rule.
The scenario mix include a number of potentially interesting actions. BFP-76 (Trial of the Infantry) is a tournament-sized action that allows the Soviet defenders to purchase various fortifications. BFP-77 (Burning Down the House) is a large combined arms German attack against a fortified Soviet village and is to some degree a tank vs AT gun battle. The Germans get some OBA (needed for Smoke) to help them cross the open ground, something they don’t have in a number of the scenarios in CoS. BFP-78 (Operation Wheatfield) is nice because it uses 3 board halves (BFP M, 43, and 57) to create a reasonable approximation of what the terrain in the region actually looked like. The scenario itself features a German combined arms attack (including tons of toys, from FTs to DCs to Tigers) against a highly-fortified Soviet position.
Perhaps the most playable scenario in the mix, BFP-80 (Rathushniak’s Sacrifice), features an attack by 11 Waffen SS squads and 7 tanks against a Soviet position held only by 6 squads, a 9-2 leader, some light AT assets, and 4 76mm artillery pieces. However, early indications suggest it may be unbalanced. BFP-84 (Kreida Station) uses board BFP B from Into the Rubble to depict a German infantry attack on a Soviet-held railroad station, the more built-up terrain giving a bit of a different feel than many of the other actions in the pack. BFP-89 (Relentless Pressure) is interesting because it depicts a rare Soviet attack in this product, but also because the attack is against a raw and poorly trained German infantry division (represented by 4-4-7 and 4-3-6 squads).
The excellently named BFP-91 (Death Roamed Freely) uses boards DW-1a/1b from Blood and Jungle as well as board 57 to depict a large “town” fight. The attacking Germans have 30 squads of varying (mostly good) quality, heavily armed with toys (including 2 FT and 6 DC). The defending Soviets have 21 squads (mostly elite), well armed, and two 76mm infantry guns. The Germans win by controlling 7 key buildings. The super-sized scenario in the pack is BFP-104 (Flying Turrets), which depicts a massive Soviet-Waffen SS armored clash. The attacking Soviets have 35 squads, tons of SW, and 65 AFVs (including 40 T-34s of the M41 and M43 variety!). They also get a lot of air support. The defending Waffen SS have 20 squads, heavily armed, 7 guns, and 38 AFVs, including 5 Tigers. They too get significant air support, as well as 150mm OBA. Obviously, it is well suited for team play.
The scenarios that have gotten the most play include CoS’s release are BFP90 (Early Morning Action), BFP89 (Relentless Pressure), BFP97 (Renewed Pressure), BFP99 (Ivonavskii), BFP101 (Panzer Spirit) and BFP82 (Steamroller). All are balanced. The top two scenarios are BFP95 (Obian Highway) and BFP102 (Tolstoy Woods), both of which have a knife-edge balance.
Crucible of Steel is a good product, though given its nature and subject matter, not everybody will be attracted to it. The maps and the magazine are the only aspects of CoS that are disappointing, and the magazine doesn’t affect play value. The counters are good and there are a wealth of scenarios. Though definitely expensive, certainly CoS offers a lot of play value, and fans of combined arms East Front actions in particular will find much to enjoy here, especially if they don’t mind fortifications. It will no doubt be popular.
|Scenario||Size||CoS Map||Other BFP Map||Fort. Heavy||OBA||Air Support||Night||Waffen SS||Other|
|BFP-73 Preliminary Move||M||N, M||–||Yes||–||Yes||–||–||Mist|
|BFP-74 Coiled to Strike||L (VL)||DW-4a/4b, DW-3a/3b, M, N||–||Yes||–||Yes||–||–||Good title|
|BFP-75 Schreiber’s Success||L||DW-4a/4b||–||Yes||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-76 Trial of the Infantry||M||M, N||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-77 Burning Down the House||L (VL)||DW-4a/4b||–||Yes||Yes||–||–||–|
|BFP-78 Operation Wheatfield||L||M||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-79 A Hard Push||M||M||–||Yes||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-80 Ratushniak’s Sacrifice||M||N||–||Some||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-81 Iron Coffins||L||N||I, H||–||–||–||–||Yes||All armor|
|Scenario||Size||CoS Map||Other BFP Map||Fort. Heavy||OBA||Air Support||Night||Waffen SS||Other|
|BFP-83 The Second Belt||L (VL)||DW-4a/4b, N||–||Yes||Yes||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-84 Kreida Station||L||–||B||Some||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-85 Churchills at Kursk||M||DW-2a/2b||–||–||–||–||–||Yes||All armor|
|BFP-86 Panzer Regiment Rothenburg||L (VL)||DW-2a/2b||–||Yes||Yes||–||–||–|
|BFP-87 A Fork in the Road||M||L, M||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-88 The Bunkered Village||L||DB-3a/3b||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-89 Relentless Pressure||M||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-90 Early Morning Action||S||L||–||–||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-91 Death Roamed Freely||L (VL)||–||DW-1a/1b||–||Yes||–||–||–||Good title|
|BFP-92 Trenches in Flames||L||L, N||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-93 Klein Stalingrad||L||DW-4a/4b, N||–||Yes||Yes||–||–||–|
|Scenario||Size||CoS Map||Other BFP Map||Fort. Heavy||OBA||Air Support||Night||Waffen SS||Other|
|BFP-94 To the Last Shell||L||DW-2a/2b, L||–||–||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-95 Obian Highway||M||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-96 Hotly Contested Town||L (VL)||–||–||Yes||Yes||Yes||–||–|
|BFP-97 Renewed Pressure||M||L||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-98 Place of Honor||L||DW-3a/3b, M||–||Yes||Yes||Yes||–||Yes|
|BFP-100 Tiger Vanguard||L||L, N||–||Yes||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-101 Panzer Spirit||L||L||–||–||–||–||–||Yes|
|BFP-102 Tolstoy Woods||M||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-103 A Knife in the Flank||L||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|BFP-104 Flying Turrets||L (XL)||DW-2a/2b, DW-3a/3b, M, N||–||Some||Yes||Yes||–||Yes||Bombard-ment|