Critical Hit (2016)
Country of Origin:
3 12.5" x 18.25" nonstandard heavy paper/light cardstock geoboards (Djebel 01, Djebel 02, Djebel 03), 12 pages rules, helicopter play aid, IIFT play aid, 648 die-cut counters, 10 scenarios
French Algeria (hereinafter FA) is a module that attempts to introduce ASLers to the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962), a long and bloody guerrilla conflict in which Algeria achieved its long-sought independence from its French colonial rulers (a useful English-language overview of the conflict is Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace). This long war, though very much a guerrilla war (as well as a terrorist war, on both sides), does have material for ASL-scale actions, though the long distance from World War II means that some other tactical system would have been more suited than ASL.
However, regardless of its feasibility as a concept, FA is not so great in its execution, giving the impression of a somewhat superficial, hasty effort.
It should be noted that the module, with scenarios by Belgian Pedro Ramis, takes a decidedly Franco-centric view of the conflict, as the very title of the module itself suggests. Every scenario description is written from the French point of view, apparently entirely taken from French materials, and even on-line Algerian sources do not seem to have been consulted.
FA comes with 12 pages of rules, the bulk of which are taken up with helicopter rules (helicopters appear in 5 of the 10 included scenarios). Leaving aside helicopter and chapter H style rules, FA has only 3 pages of rules to represent all of the combatants, terrain, and fighting of this 8 year war, which is rather insufficient. Moreover, some of the rules that are included are not necessarily good rules, as we shall see.
The French in FA are unfortunately rendered in British colors rather than French. Avalon Hill chose to use British counters to represent the Free French in ASL in order to allow them to use British weapons counters. This was itself a bad design idea, as only a few French units were ever armed by the British, with the bulk being armed by the U.S., with the Free French forces also using French and some captured German weaponry. But there is absolutely no reason to continue this “tradition” into the Algerian War of Independence, especially as Critical Hit actually provides a complete counterset for French units. So they could easily have been rendered in French colors. Instead, the French in FA don’t even look French.
The French use all the standard British squad types, plus one new squad type, the 7-4-8 Para/Commando squad. It should be noted that one consequence of the Franco-centric nature of this product is that forces other than the French Army are not represented, even when they fought on the French side. Most notably, the Harkis are excluded from the module. The Harkis were native Algerians who supported the French in the conflict (which was almost as much a civil war as it was a war of national liberation). Some were part of the French Army and so would be included as French forces, of course, but most of them actually served as irregulars and auxiliaries, from local self-defense militias to guerilla-type units to conventional formations. Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 150,000 Algerian Muslims served in such a fashion–but they do not appear in this module at all. Nor are there units to represent any of the pied-noir/colon vigilantes (French colonists in Algeria, somewhat analogous to Israeli “settlers” in the West Bank).
The French in FA have a couple of special rules, most of which are of doubtful merit. One decent rule is a so-called “optional” or SSR-mandated rule that French MMC that suffer Casualty Reduction may possibly become “Walking Wounded” or “Badly Wounded” instead, conditions represented by markers. “Walking Wounded” in FA is similar to that in some previously published HASLs: such MMC have a 3 MF allowance, IPC of 2, and a +1/-1 CC penalty. “Badly Wounded” MMC have a 2 MF allowance, an IPC of 1, and a +2/-2 CC penalty. Similarly, leaders can now also become “Badly Wounded” instead of just wounded, which gives them 2 MF, ML reduced by 2, and leadership reduced by 2. Apparently, leaders can receive an infinite number of Bad Wounds.
These rules are generally included to allow evacuation by helicopter or other means as victory conditions, or victory-related conditions, in a scenario.
However, the FA rules also come with a new SMC, the “medic,” which is an awful idea. Medics are a kind of Hero that cannot attack or defend and are created during play by a Good Order MMC near a Badly Wounded MMC or leader. Once created, they stick around until eliminated and have wonderful miraculous effects, being able to turn a Badly Wounded MMC to a Walking Wounded MMC and a Walking Wounded MMC to a perfectly healthy MMC. It is actually possible for a Badly Wounded MMC to somehow lose all of its wounds and become perfectly normal again within the span of two Rally Phases, i.e., a single game turn. In fact, the rules do not seem to prevent two medics from accomplishing the same feat within a single Rally Phase. Not only is this pointless chrome but it’s totally unrealistic, too.
Another new French SMCt–and just as bad an idea as the medic–is the “Grenade Launcher SMC.” These GLSMC are like heroes, though without DRM, but which contain an inherent grenade launcher. The SMC are represented as (2)-4-8. They can ignore hindrances between them and their target hex. They can get air bursts. They may not take part in Fire Groups. Apparently they cannot get acquisition or spotted fire. Their mortar/grenade launcher never breaks or runs out of ammo, but has no ROF. Note, too, that this grenade launcher costs 0 IPC, so this SMC can also carry and use another SW as well.
Rules like this are simply bad ideas and are much better represented by standard or SSR-designated inherent squad capabilities (like Molotovs, PF, and ATMM) rather than as SMCs–which can be abused by players so easily (a GLSMC can block an exit route, keep control of a building, prevent a rout, etc.). Half of the scenarios in FA feature these little monsters.
The French and Algerians both get one new additional type of SMC, the “Sharpshooter.” What is the Sharpshooter, you may ask? Well, it is the old Squad Leader sniper SMC, inexplicably resurrected, dusted off, and strengthened (a 2-8-8 unit rather than a 1-8-8 unit, with a -4 DRM against leaders). They do not replace SAN, which still is in play as normal, but are in addition to it (though scenario-given rather than generated). They appear in half of the FA scenarios. No historical justification is provided for the resurrection of the old Squad Leader sniper (a counter justly retired). Ray Tapio of CH apparently anticipates a negative reaction to this unit, as he writes that “Players are gently reminded that the core system, prior to ASL, contained over 90% (or more) of the concepts designed by John Hill (dec.), including ‘Sniper’ counters.” In other words, don’t bitch because John Hill allegedly liked sniper counters and you will desecrate his memory if you don’t like them. Another bad idea.
The insurgents are represented by the Armée de Libération Nationale or ALN. Other Algerian forces, such as the Mouvement National Algérien, the ALN’s rivals, are not represented. The ALN essentially had both pure guerrilla forces and a somewhat more conventional “army,” but only the latter is represented in the module. The ALN appears in FA as rather ugly green-on-brown two-toned counters. Note that there is absolutely no reason for two-toned counters to be used in FA. Two-toned counters are only used in ASL 1) when different combatant forces share a same or similar weapons pool or 2) when combatants represented as part of a multi-combatant ASL force (Allied Minor or Axis Minor) might fight each other (such as Romanians and Hungarians). Neither situation applies here, nor are the ALN in any way related to the Soviets or to Axis Minors, the two colors their counters have–which are a very bad color combination. Why Critical Hit did not simply give the ALN its own color is inexplicable.
The ALN have 4 squad types: Elite 4-4-8, 1st Line 4-3-7, 2nd Line 3-3-7, and Conscript 3-3-6. It doesn’t really seem historical that an irregular force such as the ALN has four levels of squad types (and note, no partisan squads for the moussebiline). The major attribute of the ALN is that they are super-stealthy super-secret ghost soldiers. First, they get a -2 for all Ambush dr (except when they get more; keep reading). Second, they get a special type of Super Concealment called the Suspect counter (S?). Suspect Concealment is basically in addition to regular Concealment. During set-up, ALN units that would normally be concealed get S? counters instead (units that wouldn’t be concealed at all get normal concealment). S? counters quarter any fire against their units, as opposed to the halving of fire caused by regular concealment. Moreover, units under S? counters get an amazing -4 to their Ambush dr and if they do ambush anybody, they can Withdraw up to two hexes rather than just one. Moreover, if they lose their S?, it is simply replaced with a regular concealment marker. ALN units can also gain concealment even if in LOS of a known enemy unit. If this sounds like overkill to you, that is because it is. The Algerians weren’t ninjas, for crying out loud.
The ALN have a rather odd selection of SW in FA. Their countermix consists entirely of 3 German MMG, 8 2-7 LMG (apparently Bren guns), 5 German LMG, 2 57mm RCL, 1 75mm RCL, 2 7-16 MMG that are 4-8 MMG when DM, and 2 4-8 LMG. They have 2 50mm MTRs, 5 DCs, and 6 single-use 1945 Panzerfausts. The first thing one notices is that there are no French SW in this whole mix; apparently, no WW2-era French weapons survived WW2. Nor, apparently, did American support weapons, though the FLN had a fair number of American weapons.
Where did all the Panzerfausts come from? The rules say only that the ALN “found a supply” of them and “pressed them into service against the French.” This writer, curious, did come across a single reference by an Algerian saying they had come “captured” Panzerfausts. But if so, where did they come from? Certainly not from North Africa. Were they smuggled in? And would they have been 1945 Panzerfausts? And how common were they? Clearly some research needed to be done here. They show up in two scenarios.
The rules give them OBA “as Russians,” but no scenarios have ALN OBA, nor are there any radio or phone counters for the ALN.
Much of the rules are dedicated to helicopters. Leaving aside the Chapter H-style rules, FA contains 6 pages of helicopter rules, which are derived from the helicopter rules for the Vietnam scenarios in Critical Hit Annual #1 (being version 1.1 in FA). Those rules were so rough that Ray Tapio of CH called them “experimental.” One can only hope that this version is better. The helicopter rules introduce air crews and “pilot leaders” but focus on the machines themselves. CH helicopters are either airborne or landed. If airborne, they operate at one of two Flight Levels: Nap of the Earth (NOE) or Low. NOE helicopters occupy a Location one level above the top of the highest terrain feature in the hex. Low helicopters occupy an Aerial Location 5 levels above the terrain height. Helicopters can only change FLs within a hex (as if there were aerial stairwells in every hex). Helos use vehicular movement, more or less (including Platoon Movement). They have a lot of MP, too, generally in the 30-60 range.
A fair chunk of the helo rules is dedicated to landing, including what hexes are eligible, rooftop landings, taking off and bogging, and “no-touch landings.” Other rules govern transport of personnel and equipment, including detailed rules for external sling loads, as well as rules for ladders. Naturally, there are combat rules as well, including rules for fixed forward-firing MGs, Door Guns (DMG), Rocket Pods & salvos, Grenade Launchers, and Chin Turrets. Like airplanes, helos must make Sighting TCs before they can attack. There are even rules for Fighter-Bomber vs. Helicopter Aerial Combat.
The helicopter rules in general are pretty reasonable. The devil is in the details, however, and the odds that all the ramifications for these craft have been worked out in the rules by now seem relatively low.
FA comes with a hole-punched cardstock helicopter play aid, which seems rather useful. The other play aid, which appears on the back of the product folio, is a large Incremental IFT QRDC, “developed from Public Domain Internet sources,” which basically means taken from Norwegian ASLer Ole Bøe‘s tables. None of the tables were modified for this module, so players can read all of the Italian and Japanese and Finnish Heat of Battle modifiers, but not the ALN ones.
FA comes with three large heavy paper geoboards depicting hilly desert terrain. Each board (Djebel 01, Djebel 02, and Djebel 03) is 12.5″ x 18.25″ in size, an awkward and decidedly non-standard size, incompatible with any other board size or any other boards. The boards do mate with each other–sort of. None of the boards are properly trimmed, so that boards placed adjacent to each other will create an extra-thick hexrow where they mate. The only solution, other than to trim the boards oneself, is to painstakingly lay one board slightly on top of the other, to get rid of the extra space.
Board Djebel 01 is dominated by a very large hill, mostly Level 1 and Level 2, with a hilltop village on Level 1 terrain forming a little valley in the middle. This is the only board with buildings. Djebel 02 consists of another huge hill, one that takes up almost the whole map, so in a sense, Level 1 almost functions as the ground level on this board. The hill has a variety of Level 4 peaks on it. Djebel 03 is once again dominated by a large hill mass, this one an irregularly shaped mass that includes no terrain higher than Level 3. All three boards are heavily strewn with scrub.
The board artwork is workmanlike.
FA comes with 10 scenarios, pretty equally divided among small, medium, and larger actions. However, the small scenarios are mostly really small, which is often the case with Pedro Ramis scenarios. DF2 (End of a Convoy) features 3 French squads and 2 AFVs against 3.5 Algerian squads. DF3 (Operation 423) has 3.5 French squads and 3 AFVs against 3.5 Algerian squads. Scenarios that small are not worth the effort of learning all the special rules; products like these need to have more substantial offerings.
Two scenarios use Air Support; one scenario uses OBA. No scenarios are Night scenarios. Most of the scenarios are light on SSRs, making it easier to dive in and play them. The French are on the attack in the majority of the scenarios.
FA may appeal to fans of the DTO (especially those who might want to see something other than flat terrain), to helicopter enthusiasts, and perhaps to French ASLers.
2016 Note: Critical Hit included two French Algeria scenarios in its Critical Hit Annual 3. The scenarios are DF11 (Support Good and Bad) and DF12 (Before Sunset on the Beni-Smir).
2020 Update: In 2019 or 2020, Critical Hit made available, for separate purchase ($39.95), a “Monster Map Set” large-hex version of the maps/boards for this product. Critical Hit says that the hexes are “in 200% size,” though it is not clear if this is intended to mean 200% larger (i.e., three times original size) or twice as large. Around the same time, somewhat confusingly, Critical Hit released (again, for separate purchase, also at $39.95), a “HotHex” version of the map. What a “HotHex” map is isn’t entirely clear (“HotHex” maps were released for several Critical Hit products) but seems to be another large-hex version of the maps, as Critical Hit claims that ‘each map found in the module is provided as a 22″ × 34″ set of 4 linking boards.’
Daniel Windham says
Thanks for this review.
When you look at this conflict: The rules of ASL are very difficult to apply. I don’t think adding a medic, grenade launcher, and helicopters remedy that situation.
I think what would be best for FA would be smaller skirmishes between the partisans and the French Paratroopers in the Kasbah and greater Algiers. This would also make more fascinating looking maps and get rid of the medic, and helicopters as those where not commonly used in that particular part of the conflict.