Critical Hit (2014)
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8 scenarios, 2 pages rules, 6 12" x 18" light cardstock map panels, 2 countersheets with 482 die-cut counters. This product was released in two versions: one in which the map panels are folded in half and one in which they are flat.
Fateful Stand (FS) is a medium-sized historical module depicting combat around the village of Noville in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. The village, which lies north of Bastogne, became part of that town’s defense during the German offensive, defended by Team Desobry of the 10th Armored Division and elements of the 101st Airborne Division. The aggressive defense of Noville by this American force during the dark days of December 1944 seriously delayed the southern flank of the German offensive and played a key role in the defense of Bastogne.
The release of Fateful Stand created a controversy within the ASL community because of what some believed to be “false advertising.” The initial marketing copy that preceded the release of FS proclaimed that the game was a “boxed module,” that it had “color…rules” and that it came with a “color play aid.” It also claimed to contain “three separate countersheets.” Moreover, the packaging on the product put the words “A Band of Brothers” above “Fateful Stand” and included a large graphic of a leader counter named “Lt. Winters.” However, none of this was actually true. The product came with no box other than the plain white cardboard shipping box that mail-order copies were shipped in. The rules were black and white. There was no play aid, color or otherwise. There were only two countersheets, not three. And there is no “Dick Winters” counter, either (in fact, the “Band of Brothers” was not present during the fighting for Noville, though a month later they would fight in the vicinity; FS does include one scenario related to that action).
What the module does come with is 8 scenarios (7 of which dealing with the fighting of December 19-20 and 1 with the Easy Company attack in January), two countersheets, 2 pages of black and white rules, and 6 cardstock maps, which are the meatiest part of the module. No designer is mentioned (often, when this is the case with Critical Hit, that means the designer is Ray Tapio, but in this instance who knows?), nor are any playtesters listed. The latter should usually be taken by ASLers as a warning sign.
As noted, the maps are the most important part of the module. In 2013, Critical Hit switched to a new and somewhat controversial method of printing its historical maps. Instead of printing them on large sheets of paper, as they had done for 20 years, as have most other wargaming companies, Critical Hit began to print its maps on 12″ x 18″ glossy heavy paper/light cardstock panels (similar in thickness to the sheets official overlays are printed on). Thus what might at one point have been one historical map would now consist of four or more slightly overlapping map panels. The switch was probably made for reasons of cost (and possibly new printing equipment acquired by Critical Hit).
When Critical Hit first debuted these map panels, some products containing them came with the panels folded and some came with the panels unfolded. FATEFUL STAND HAS COPIES IN BOTH VERSIONS, so it is IMPORTANT to understand which version you may be acquiring. The reason is that unfolded versions naturally lie flat but are harder to store and easier to damage (and Critical Hit doesn’t provide a ziplock for them). Thus some people hate them. The folded versions are more convenient, easier to store and protect, but must be kept flat like old folded paper maps. Make sure you acquire the version you prefer.
The folding issue is one reason the maps have been controversial–although Critical Hit may have finally settled matters in favor of folding–but only one reason. The advantages of this type of map are 1) they are more durable than large, paper maps; and 2) the paper and the gloss finish allow them to be more bright and colorful, and thus more attractive than some of Critical Hit’s other very drab maps. The disadvantages are primarily 1) the glossy finish causes reflective glare which can be very frustrating in some situations; 2) in some cases (including Fateful Stand), Critical Hit is leaving a border around the maps that requires players to use scissors or a rotary cutter to trim all the maps (thus, in effect, the maps have to be assembled by the players); and 3) the panels are completely impractical for large maps, because so many of them have to be precisely positioned. The wargame company GRD tried map panels for a while in the 1990s, but there was so much resistance from players that they abandoned it.
Fateful Stand illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of this map strategy. First, the six maps all have a thin white border around them, which means that they cannot be played as is (technically, two of the maps, which do not mate with the others, would still work without the borders, but the other four would not). They have to be trimmed, which is very irritating, especially if you are a gamer with a shaky hand. Second, the four Noville maps have to be positioned together to be used, and accidentally nudging any of the panels can send the whole map area awry, requiring the maps to be fixed to the playing surface or played under plexiglass. Above four maps and the exercise becomes frustrating, so Fateful Stand is just within the upper limits of practicality for this form of map. On the other hand, the maps are all bright and attractive and certainly invite play.
As noted, four of the maps mate together to form a roughly 35″ x 23″ playing area dubbed the “Noville” map. It represents the terrain around the village of Noville, which includes several other nearby hamlets, as well as various patches of wood, hills, farmland and countryside. The terrain is fairly varied and interesting. One new terrain type is introduced, “Hay Bale” hexes, which look like golden orchards but are treated like in-season grain but affect LOS only through the artwork depiction. The graphics don’t look like hay bales at all; perhaps hay stacks are actually meant? There are a relatively small number of such hexes in the game and will have no great effect.
None of the maps are labeled and distinguishing them from each other is not always easy. The fifth map is dubbed the “Houfallize Road” map, because it depicts an area between Noville and Houfallize. This map is characterized mostly by open, wintery fields, divided by walls and hedges, with a few lonely farmhouses. The sixth map, dubbed the “Bourcy Road” map, is similar, but perhaps even more open.
All six maps have “winterized” graphics. This means that the artwork is intended to reflect a wintery, snow-covered ground. Thus the ground is shown as a very lightly textured light grey (with elevations being darker shades of grey), trees have a little snow cover on them, roads are partially obscured by snow, and even some buildings have some of that white stuff hanging on to their eaves and such. Winterized maps, by their very nature, are fairly monochromatic, but many ASL players find it much easier to suspend their disbelief about playing winter scenarios or campaign games when the playing area actually looks wintery, rather than sunny and bright and green. The only real problem with the winterized graphics here is the representation of gullies, which are rendered so narrowly that they bring into question line of sight interpretation issues (especially in those spots where white actually causes breaks in the gully artwork). Later Critical Hit winterized maps made gullies wider and easier to interpret.
Not related to the winter artwork is another map problem: woods hexes pretty much completely obscure the center dots and hex numbers, which are rendered in black across the map. On dark hexes, they should have appeared in white.
Overall, however, the maps are nicely done.
Fateful Stand comes with two countersheets, one consisting largely of American and German guns and vehicles and the other of American and German MMC, SMC, and SW. Ostensibly, there are enough of these counters to play every scenario in the product. None of the counters are new to the system; they all duplicate existing American and German counters, and thus are not necessary for play of this product. They are there mostly because Critical Hit knows that ASLers are more likely to buy a product with counters. However, they are attractively done and well printed, at least.
The module comes with 2 pages of rules, but really, there are no extra rules of consequence. The first page provides a historical “prologue” for the actions depicted in the product, while the second page basically just tells you how to interpret the map graphics. There are really only a few lines of simple rules, such as Kindling being NA, Hand-to-Hand CC being allowed, etc. One of the really attractive features of this product is that players can basically leap right into playing on a historical map without having to absorb a lot of extra rules.
Fateful Stand comes with 8 scenarios, which seems a tad stingy. One scenario, FS1 (Bourcy Probe), uses the Bourcy Road map. Another scenario, FS2 (Houffalize Road Probe), uses the Houffalize Road map. The other six scenarios all use the Noville map, although FS4 (Fanwise Forward) interestingly uses both the Noville and the Bourcy Road maps.
About half the scenarios are small in size, while there are three large scenarios. One scenario hovers right at the small-medium border. Some of the small scenarios are very small indeed, such as FS1 (Bourcy Probe), which pits 5 German squads and three halftracks against 3 U.S. squads and two Shermans.
Four scenarios use OBA; one scenario uses a stripped-down version of the Night rules.
The three large scenarios offer the most play value, allowing some substantial and meaty play on a historical map that can really evoke that “Battle of the Bulge” feeling. One of them, FS5 (Back through the Fog), which uses part of the Noville map, is an exit scenario depicting a U.S. attempt to get past a German blocking position in order to retreat towards Bastogne. The blocking forces consist of only 5.5 German squads and 4 Mk IV tanks. The Americans include 15 squads, 6 Shermans, a tank destroyer, a scout car, four halftracks, and a truck towing an anti-tank gun. They need to exit 72 EVP, so they can’t afford to lose much of their force. Moreover, they only get full EVP if they exit from a single hex.
The two really interesting scenarios, though, are FS3 (Fateful Stand) and FS4 (Fanwise Forward). The former uses the entire Noville map, while the latter, as mentioned earlier, adds the Bourcy Road map. Fateful Stand depicts a massive assault on Noville by the 2nd Panzer Division. It is 14 turns long. Attacking forces include 25 squads (many of them elite) and no fewer than 21 AFVs, of a variety of types (no Panthers or Tigers, though), as well as two modules of OBA. The defending Americans consist of 22 squads (almost half of them elite), 6 AT guns (!), and 12 AFVs. The Germans can enter from several sides but have to attain three victory conditions to win. It looks like a really interesting meaty scenario.
What makes it even more interesting is FS4 (Fanwise Forward), which is actually a continuation of FS3 and depicts a major counterattack by the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment as the “cavalry” coming to the rescue of Team Desobry. This scenario, 16 turns long, begins where FS3 leaves off: all counters are left in play from the end of the previous scenario, just as they were (with a little bit of clean-up). The Germans get some reinforcements, coming along the Bourcy Road: 15 squads, mostly crappy, and 3 AFVs. However, coming up from the south are the Americans. They are coming to kick ass and take names and they left their notepad at home. Their force consists of no fewer than 20 7-4-7 squads (led by 6 leaders, including a 10-3 and a 9-2, as well as two heroes), along with 8 halftracks of varying types and 7 Shermans. Their goal is to take the high ground around Noville.
Played together, these scenarios present a 30-turn monster historical scenario that will range widely over the map area and offers both sides a chance to launch a major attack and a chance to defend. This is something that not very many ASL products offer. It is these two scenarios, plus the attractive historical maps, that make this product worth considering (though at $60, it is not cheap), and make it something of a no-brainer for the Bulge fanatic.
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