Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Overwatch - review

This is another review in the Once and Future Rules series, of wargame rules that are out of print, but that got a lot of play at one time (at least, in the clubs and groups I played in since the early 1980s).

We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate.  This is the revenge of reality.
                   -Heinz Guderian

Overwatch was a rule set that was really very popular with the gaming crowd that played at the Campaign Headquarters store on the Virginia Peninsula (the parent store was in Norfolk, but I played at the store that was originally located in Hampton, and later in Newport News, much more frequently).



The crew at the store had originally gotten a copy of the 1979 playtest edition of the rules, which they almost immediately migrated to (previously playing a mix of Tractics and Angriffe).  But, the version I own, and the one I played mostly, was the second edition that came out in 1984.

These rules, written by Robert Davison, were written with 1/285 (or 1/300) scale miniatures (micro-armor) in mind.  The two earlier sets (Tractics and Angriffe) were written for HO scale miniatures, but could be adapted to micro-armor.  The ground scale is fifty yards to the inch, and the time scale is a minute to a turn.  For our games, which were tank heavy (as the rules tend to also be written for), and extremely tactical (not a lot of off-table assets, and not a lot of off-table maneuver), these rules were perfect for the games we were playing.  Davison chose to focus the rules on the period of 1943-45, which also suited us in our games (many of which were in the terrible latter years of the Eastern Front, as well as during the American campaigns in Italy and France).

The turn sequence is a non-simultaneous turn sequence, which works very well, although fire combat execution is done so as to mimic simultaneous action.  The turn is broken up into six phases, although I recall that once we were playing frequently, there was a tendency to slip phases 3/4 and 5/6 together, which is (as I recall) a big mistake and leads to weird outcomes.

  1. Move Sequence Determination - dice roll to see who moves first (this is not a choice; if you roll high, you go first)
  2. Movement Execution - both sides move, based on the order determined earlier, side A then side B
  3. Target Acquisition and Fire Designation - Using the target designation rules, determine who CAN shoot, and from those, both sides (again, side A first) will announce fire intentions.  This cannot be altered.
  4. Fire Execution - All declared shots from the previous phase are not executed.  If you didn't declare a shot, you can't take one now.
  5. Reaction Fire Designation - If you did not have a shot declared in phase 3, you could now declare a target.  It is possible, that because of weapons fire, you could see targets now, that you couldn't acquire before.
  6. Reaction Fire Execution - All fire designated in phase 5 is now executed.
When followed, this leads to pretty good results.  When players get sloppy, and start declaring and executing, all in one swoop, or even before the other player declares, then it gets fuzzy, and the old enemy of simultaneous movement rears it's head here - the argument about "I would have done that, but now I'm going to do this instead". . .

The rules cover a definition of how movement is handled (it is pretty straightforward and sensible).  Infantry, in a game with 1 minute turns, and 1 inch to 50 yards, does not move fast (1 inch per turn).   But, for our games, this hardly mattered, as we didn't do too much in Overwatch games with infantry, other than crew served weapons (gotta have those AT guns out there, you know).

Other rules covered are all the rules for direct fire (arc of fire, line of sight, target acquisition, chance to hit, dice modifiers, results of hit, etc), indirect area fire (artillery), direct area fire (howitzers, etc.), effects on soft targets, tank riders, close assaults, overruns, morale, and a description of the various support weapons (crew served, and man-portable).  Rules exist for weapons such as flame throwers, rockets, and smoke rounds (from regular weapons, and from smoke mortars, etc.).

The book gives some useful generic organization notes (sections, platoons, companies, batteries, etc.).

C2 is described, but it only really affects calls for indirect area fire missions (artillery).  And the rules are pretty clear, that if a spotter is in radio contact (and he is assumed to be), and the firing battery is available (which it is, unless it is on table and moving), then fire missions arrive in the same turn they are called for.

Good rules are presented for terrain and its very specific (tactical) effects on line of sight and target acquisition.

But, the bulk of the book is given over to tables.  The first set of tables (Table A through Table H) are tables in support of the rules - things like acquisition, the chance to score a hit, hit location, the effects of HE rounds, and the area of artillery are just some of these.  But the next set of tables are the data tables on equipment.  All of the major combatants of Europe in the period covered (43-45) are present - the Americans, British, Russians and Germans.  Each nationality has a page (or two in the case of the Germans) of information about AFVs.  There is also a page of information about weapons for each nationality (but Americans and British are combined).

Finally, some additional equipment tables exist, detailing soft skin vehicles, and the more common artillery pieces. This is followed up by the appendices, which cover a wide variety of additional equipment (less common vehicles and weapons) that are not on the main charts, as well as a section on points values, and finally a discussion on some of the special ammo used in the war (like the American High Velocity Armor Piercing, or HVAP round).

There is nothing revolutionary here in these rules, except maybe in how the fire phase is handled.  That, even, is not too unique.  What works is that these rules have a nice simplicity, and they are also appealing to those who like all the detail about their tanks.  For some reason, in the early and mid 80s, we loved this sort of thing (see more discussion on this "cult of detail" when I review Seekrieg, later on in this series of articles).  One of the other WW2 rulesets I played and plan to cover, is Angriffe.  It also covers the same spread of data (to almost the same level of detail).  The WRG WW2 rules get away from this, somewhat, by introducing armor class for tanks (in the WRG rules, each AFV is rated a letter, from A to F, for front and side armor, rather than using mm of thickness, as Overwatch and Angriffe do).

But what really seemed to work in these rules, is that the model for combat was at the same time very specific, and also abstract enough to move quickly.  It was very specific, in that it covered (mostly) armored warfare in Europe, in the period 1943-45.  Meaning, that most of the rules were covering tank-on-tank action, with some considerations for artillery, and even less for infantry.  On the other hand, this narrow focus allowed a bit of abstraction to creep in.  Most AFVs of the time have a very similar set of physical design features that lend themselves to a generic hit location system (this is an abstraction).  The "to hit" roll is based on three things, really - what is the gun class (i.e. - the accuracy of the optics used for targeting the weapon, combined with the inherent accuracy of the weapon itself), whether the target or firer are stationary (or moving), and a modifier for range.  That is it - this makes it simple to represent, but it is an abstraction (what about crew training?  what about visibility?  what about the state of the equipment?).  Finally, weapon effects from direct fire weaponry is an abstraction.  Does the stated penetration of the round you fired, at the range you fired, exceed the listed armor for the vehicle, at the hit location you determined your shot to strike?  If so, then the vehicle is destroyed.

Walking through the combat adjudication is a nice way to see the simplicity of the rules.

First, table A gives you the knowledge of who you can see. This is based on target class (infantry, artillery vehicles, etc), and is given in yards.
Table A - Target Acquisition

Next, table B gives you the chance, as described above, of scoring a hit.  This is a percentage value based on a matrix (for each gun class) of whether the shooter or target are moving or stationary.  This is modified by -20% for each (round up) 1000 yards (20 inches).
Table B - Hit Determination

Table C is a 2d6 roll to see where the hit strikes.  This incorporates rules for hull down targets, and also for low-silhouette targets.
Table C - Hit Location

Table D gives you the information needed to determine if direct fire HE rounds are effective against a target (firing that big 152mm howitzer might be nasty vs a light tank, but what about vs infantry in a building?).
Table D - HE Effects

Table E is a set of tables for determining the effects of machine gun fire.
Table E - MG Effects

Table F is a set of charts detailing infantry weapons and their effects.
Table F - Small Arms Fire

Table G is a set of charts for resolving area fire attacks (artillery missions).  It is done by determining the number of weapons, and caliber, and this sums up to an attack factor.  That factor is then matrixed against the target types in the fire mission area (which is detailed on Table H), and a chance for a kill results.
Table G - Artillery Effects

That is it for the rules.  It is driven by the charts, which are very straight forward.  It is a good set of rules, if not brilliant in innovation.  However, for us it worked very, very well.  One of the things that is of interest to the WW2 armor battle wargamer is the interaction of different weapon systems.  By taking a look at (Table P) the Russian weapon data here:
Table P - Russian Gun Penetration

And (Table L) the German AFV data here (the first half, there are two sheets of German AFVs):
Table L - German AFVs

We can see that a round fired by a Russian 76.2mm L41 gun (the weapon on most models of the T-34/76) at about 1000 yards, can penetrate 73mm of armor.  If you compare that to the front upper-hull armor of most German AFVs, you can see that it won't kill a Mk IV F2, G, H, J or any of the big cats (Panther, or either mark of Tiger).  It won't kill a StugIII, or the big Self Propelled Anti-Tank pieces (Elefant, Jagdtiger, etc).  So, if you are firing a T-34/76, you should either be prepared to get a side shot against those German targets, or maybe hope you hit a softer piece of the tank (although the turret is usually worse...).  It is that kind of data that tank nerds (like I used to be, and still devolve into from time to time) really like.

Overwatch is a far cry from the abstracted details in a game such as Flames of War, or Blitzkrieg Commander, although I really like BC (mostly for the innovative rules, and the way it incorporates infantry, making the combined arms operation quite important).  And it is very much a different game than Bolt Action.  It was really a different game from the contemporaries of its own time (Angriffe and Tractics), but it did compete, somewhat, with Jagdpanzer and possibly the WRG 1925-1950 rules  The latter played faster (and I had some extremely enjoyable games of the WRG WW2 rules), but they sacrificed more detail in the quest for faster play..

With Overwatch, you get all that neat data driven analysis and comparison, and the game moves quickly.  That's probably why we played it for most of the 80s.
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