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Posted on Mar 30, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“A High Price for Our Blood…” Review of Golan ‘73: Fast Action Battle.

“A High Price for Our Blood…” Review of Golan ‘73: Fast Action Battle.

By Ray Garbee

Golan ‘73: FAB. Board game Review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Michael Gustavsson and Rick Young. Price: $65.00

Ray Garbee

Passed Inspection: Explores a pivotal battle in the modern history of Israel and the Middle East. Quality map board presenting the geography of the Golan Heights. High quality components. Challenging game play.

Failed Basic: The quantity of errata items that have been reported. The rulebook shares the same structure as other FAB series games with rules split between the ‘core’ series rules and those rules specific to the game. It’s a little confusing if you are new to the series.

On October 6th, 1973 Israel was stunned as the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a coordinated assault that coincided with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The Arab states – rearmed and trained by the Soviet Union – initially made impressive gains on both fronts. However, following the mobilization of the IDF reserves, these gains were erased by masterful counter attacks launched by the IDF. The war ended badly for the Arab states with the Israeli army troops deep into western Syria, shelling the outskirts of Damascus and the Egyptian Third Army cut off on the East bank of the Suez Canal.

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It’s an interesting conflict in that it marked a turning point not just in military operations, but in the perceptions of the political realities in the region. The war led to positive outcomes such as the Camp David peace accord in which Egypt recognized Israel and settled its border in the Sinai. It also resulted in a failure to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Syrians, which remains a source of contention to this day.

In 2013, GMT Games produced the board game Golan ‘73: Fast Action Battle (FAB) by Michael Gustavsson and Rick Young. Golan ‘73: FAB is an operational level game of ’73 war focused on the Golan Heights. The players take the role of either the Israeli Northern sector commander or the Syrian Army commander overseeing the invasion. The game is tightly focused on the initial days of the war, covering the period of the Syrian invasion through the ‘high tide’ of the Syrian offensive and the initial Israeli counterattack. It ends before the historical Israeli push into Syria.

Opening the box, you’ll find a solid set of game components including a heavy cardstock map; assorted game pieces such as wooden blocks, unit stickers for wooden blocks, cardboard counters for the assets and special events; plus, the rulebook, playbook and charts required for play.

When I open a new game, the first thing I want to see is the map. The map is the stage on which the action unfolds. It sets the tone of the game as well as shaping the course of events through the depiction of space and barriers. My overall impressions of the map in Golan ‘73: FAB are quite favorable. Like the other ‘Fast Action Battle’ titles, Golan ‘73: FAB divides the map up into irregular polygonal shapes that depict areas ranging from Mt Hermon and Booster Ridge in the north to El-Al in the south.

The map does a superb job of capturing the geography of the Golan Heights. Inspecting the depiction of the terrain provides excellent insights into just why the Golan is so important to both Israel and Syria as a key defensive barrier. Whomever controls the heights controls an excellent defensive position that provides sight lines into the other’s country. It’s an example of the classic case of wanting to control the ‘high ground’.

The map depicts the numerous wadis, the eastern escarpment overlooking the Jordan River valley and the topography. From that you begin to see how the landscape channels military operations along certain lines of attack and defense. Each space is classified with a defensive die modifier that impairs an attacker. The map depicts that value with a set of symbols that convey if it’s clear open ground or ground so difficult as to represent a natural fortress. You quickly visualize how the key settlements and the road network channel the broad offensive strokes along the border into focused operational thrusts to be performed by your units.

Those units are represented by sets of wooden blocks. Golan ‘73: FAB is a classic block game in which stickers depicting various units are attached to one side of a square block. The sticker faces the owning player, except when in combat. The sticker displays the unit name, unit type (with the standard unit symbols familiar to wargamers) and unit strength. Each quadrant of the block may depict the current strength of the unit (as measured in ‘pips’). The back side of the block is blank, showing nothing to an opponent and introducing a limited fog of war aspect to the game.

In addition to the blocks the game includes a good number of conventional cardboard counters. While some of these counters fill the traditional role of markers (indicating things such as emplacements, bridges, disrupted or out of supply units) the majority of the counters represent either assets, events or special actions.

Assets represent low level supporting units such as a headquarters staff’s planning ability, artillery, engineers and smaller combat formations that could be cross-attached between divisions. These assets are depicted with counters showing the unit type and name in the standard format familiar to many wargamers. In addition to the ground forces, your assets can include air support or Surface to Air Missile (SAM) batteries.

Event counters represent significant one-time historical events that depict actions which fall outside the scope of the core rules. These range from the heroic actions of Lt. Zvi Greengold defending the heights, the IAF attempt to knock out the Syrian SAM batteries in Operation Doogman 5, or the Syrian surface to surface missile attacks aimed at Israeli airfields. In addition, events also represent the efforts behind electronic warfare (EW) jamming and counter battery artillery missions.

Lastly, there are the special action counters. Though few in number, they are mighty in effect. The special actions convey the ability to do a number of functions ranging from performing reconnaissance of hidden enemy units, moving reserves to plug a hole or exploit a gap, or even scraping up reinforcements to bolster a battered unit.

Bringing the map and the counters to life requires applying the processes that make up the rules of the game. The rule book is similar to other GMT rulebooks and certainly shows its lineage to the other Fast Action Battle series games. The core rules of the FAB games are in the first sections. This covers the basics such as the turn sequence, standard terrain features, moving units, combat and determining when a unit is out of supply.

The core rules are then followed with rules specific to Golan ‘73: FAB. This includes any special terrain rules such as Mt. Hermon, the escarpment and wadis as well as the rules for the assets and events unique to the game.

Supporting the rules are a small number of charts. These include set up and reinforcement schedules for each side, as well as a game turn chart, an expanded game turn chart, an asset summary chart and a combat resolution chart. The reinforcement schedules sit to the side waiting to disgorge their contents into action within the game. The remaining charts are presented via two, double sided cardstock sheets.

In addition to the rulebook, Golan ‘73: FAB includes a playbook which provides detailed examples of play. For every part of a game turn, you’ll find a clear, detailed example. As is the case with FAB: Sicily, the examples of play are very well done. Each is a synthesis of an illustration of the example combined with detailed annotation describing the action under review, complete with references to the main rulebook. Almost every question you might have can be found in one of these examples in the playbook.

The game plays much like a conventional IGO/UGO game. The exception is that within each player turn the non-phasing player has the ability to perform limited actions – mainly participating in the defense of each battle, but also with the ability to move and attack with reserve units, as well as perform administrative actions such as blowing up bridges or constructing field fortifications.

The turn sequence results in a game where both players are engaged throughout the entire game turn with the opportunity to expend assets on key actions that influence movement or combat actions. The block game aspect introduces a limited fog of war by concealing the exact identity and strength of units, though the unit count is low enough that you’ll mostly keep track of the really important ones.

Each game turn consists of the following phases; Reinforcement phase, two, player turns consisting of a movement phase, a combat phase, a breakthrough phase and the supply phase, and at the end of the turn – the victory check phase.

In the reinforcement phase you’ll bring reinforcements into the game, along with newly arriving assets and event counters.

Following the reinforcement phase, you advance to the first of the two player turns. In each player turn you start with the admin phase. At this point you’ll replenish your pool of available assets and events through a blind draw. Last in this phase, you’ll execute events and actions as defined in the rules. This includes building field works, reinforcing units or performing special actions. This is done first by the phasing player, followed by the non-phasing player.

Following the admin phase, you’ll advance to the movement phase. This is straight-forward as the phasing player moves his blocks. If you want to fight, you’ll move into an enemy occupied area. You’ll need to review the movement point costs and some of the special terrain cases, but there’s nothing here an experienced gamer has not encountered before.

Now it’s time for the fight. You’ll resolve each combat one at a time, in the order the phasing player prefers. For each battle, the players allocate supporting assets like artillery, air support or anti-tank or tank units to the fight. Additionally, a player may commit an event like counterbattery fire or electronic warfare to support the battle. Once all the supporting assets and events are assigned, the battle is resolved. Each battle follows a script – first the attacker resolves artillery, then the defender. Then the defender resolves ground fire first, the attacker resolves fire. This gives a nice representation of the power of the defensive. It’s doubly powerful as the attacker’s firepower is reduced by terrain effects, while the defender’s firepower is not. There are some modifiers, but basically, your roll a die for each strength point in the unit or asset, hoping to meet or beat the required hit number. If an attacker wipes out a defender, they may have an opportunity to exploit in the breakthrough segment.

In the reaction phase, the non-phasing player has the opportunity to move units in the reserve in an effort to plug gaps in the line.

Next, in the breakthrough segment, two cases are eligible to move; breakthrough from combat or breakthrough from being designated as a reserve (and not moving earlier in the turn). New combats triggered by exploitation are resolved in the following breakthrough combat phase.

The last act in a player turn is to check the supply status of all units and recover from the effects of disorder. Supply is handled simply – if you cannot trace a line of supply, your out of supply. You can’t really fight and your movement is impaired. Your units must check their morale and, in some cases, may be reduced in strength or even surrender in some cases!

You then ‘lather, rise and repeat’ for the second player. Following the second player turn, the last phase in the game is the victory determination phase. Here’s the point in the turn when you determine if you’ve won, lost or continue to fight on.

One thing to note here is that the special action assets represent powerful multipliers. The list of possible special actions can allow for many types of activities ranging from allowing a unit to move in the breakthrough phase, to reinforce a combat from an adjacent space. There’s a lot you can do with the special action, and with not many of them to use you’ll face a series of command decisions determining which action is the most urgent. The decision on when use a special action and which action to perform will do much to balance the play of the game. At the same time, they can magnify the dominance one side may enjoy. You must choose – but choose wisely!

Those are the nuts and bolts of the game. High quality components. A solid pedigree from a respected game manufacturer. But like a car, you don’t review the parts and pieces, you review how the car handles. So, let’s take Golan ‘73: FAB for a test drive.

The game places you in the roll of either the Syrian army commander or the Israeli Northern sector command. The Syrians begin by wading in to the Israeli defensive line – an elaborate anti-tank ditch backed with strongpoints and a mobile reserve. It looks bleak from the Syrian side on turn 1, but nobody said war was easy. With a little luck, the Syrians can breach the IDF line – it’s tough, but it’s thin. Players need to decide which battles to commit the assets for victory and which attacks are to be diversionary feints.

Terrain plays a large role here as the difficult going of the northern Golan Heights facilitates the Israeli defense. The ground acts as a huge force multiplier, given the relatively weak troops on the border. The excellent ground provides a big boost to the Israeli’s by reducing the Syrian firepower.

In some ways, the game is reminiscent of Sicily: FAB – with the Syrians in the Allied role. The Syrians are constrained by division boundaries and nasty terrain. Both make it tough to bring the massive amount of firepower to bear on the enemy. Meanwhile, like the German Army in Sicily, the IDF player can trade space for time, while leveraging the good defensive ground to slow the Syrian attack. But eventually – around turn 3 or 4, you’ll find yourself backing up against the Jordan River valley. If the Syrians can rupture the Israeli front, reaching the West Bank is an achievable goal. It’s a great goal as if the Syrians have troops in the West Bank at the end of a game turn – they automatically win.

With the automatic victory, the game is not implying that the Syrians have vanquished the Israeli state. It’s more a measure that the immediate military goal of controlling the Golan Heights have been reached and the occupation of the West Bank offsets the historical rout the Egyptians are assumed to be suffering in the Sinai. Conversely, if the Israeli’s achieve their victory conditions, it’s assumed that the war ends much as it did historically, with Egypt and Syria driven back decisively, if not totally defeated. War may be a physical brawl, but victory will better position each side for the post-conflict negotiations.

This is a tough fight for the Syrians. They have to first breach a formidable defense wall and then exploit into the Israeli rear area quickly before the trickle of Israeli reserve units turns into a flood.

The geography of the Golan Heights is a real bear. As noted, the northern end of the Heights is perfect for defense. The handful of Israeli units are even more tenacious when using the great cover offered by the hills. In the south, the numerous wadis act as speed brakes to slow an opposed advance. The rules limit you to one unit crossing a wadi into an enemy occupied area. This is great on the defensive as you can thin out your line knowing that no more than 1 unit will participate in the initial attack. For either side this can be key in either setting up defensive ambushes or having tripwires that help to slow the rate of advance.

Additionally, the sector boundaries limit the ability for the Syrians to turn a flank and surround IDF units in the first couple of turns. Then – if you make it that far – the western escarpment provides a great defensive barrier by channeling the mechanized forces into a handful of keys chokepoints where the roads descend to the Jordan River valley.

The Israeli’s don’t have things all their own way – they are seriously outnumbered and have to guard against being encircled and overrun. At the same time, you need to stiff arm the Syrians and keep them from closing in on the Jordan River and the West Bank.

I usually take it as a good sign when both players in a game feel they don’t have what they need to win. The play balance is tight for the first half of the game. In some of the play throughs the Israeli hang on barely, but the victory point conditions show that if you’ve withstood the worst, you can hang on to the end which will keep both players engaged until the end of the game.

Seems good so far, right? And for the most part it is good – this is an exciting, nail-biter of a game. But, we’ve got to be objective here, and that means tackling some things that were less than good. First up – the errata. There’s a LOT of errata. The good news is that the errata has mostly been identified and catalogued over on Board Game Geek. All you need to do is download the file and integrate it into the game. It appears that most of the errata issues stem from a late production change that corrected a duplicate number on the map. That change cascaded through the rules and counters with a number of references that were not updated. The good news is the map is right and the errors are well documented.

One thing I struggled with was the delineation of the wadi on the map. My perception is that these features could have been made clearer (or at least made more obvious to me). After playing the game twice, I kept finding that I broke movement limits because of a stealthy wadi boundary that had been overlooked. It’s frustrating as I totally agree with the effects being represented, but the depiction on the map is so subtle it can be overlooked. This is likely something that a diligent Israeli player will pick up on as the wadi form an important element of the IDF defensive strategy.

A minor gripe and one in common with Sicily: FAB is there is only one copy of the charts, presumably for use by the phasing player conducting the attack. Including two copies of the charts would have been nice so each player could follow along through the action of each phase.

An important feature in board gaming is the suitability of a game for solitaire play. Golan ’73: FAB is optimized for two players. The game does not include rules for automating one side – commonly referred to as a ‘bot’. Yet it can be played as a solitaire game with one person playing both sides. As the blocks add a degree of the ‘fog of war’ to the game, swapping from seat to seat actually works well. You’ll get interesting changes in perspective for each side with the change in information readily available.

I found Golan ’73: FAB to be a fun, educational game. It’s a great view into one of the most pivotal conflicts of the past half century. This is a war that in many ways shaped the state of the Middle East for decades and still resonates with today’s headlines. You’ll learn about the geography of the region and see just how close Syria came to winning the battle.

This is a solid entry in the growing FAB series. An upgraded mounted map board for the game is currently being solicited through GMT’s P500 program. In addition, a new game in the series focusing on Operation Crusader in the Western Desert is also on the P500 wish list. Investing your time in Golan ’73 will pay off if you already have or plan to acquire addition Fast Action Battle titles.

Armchair General Score: 94%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

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