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Posted on Mar 4, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Fighting the Decisive Battle of Yesterday’s Future War. Gale Force Nine’s ‘Tanks: The Modern Age’, Tabletop Miniatures Game Review.

Fighting the Decisive Battle of Yesterday’s Future War. Gale Force Nine’s ‘Tanks: The Modern Age’, Tabletop Miniatures Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Tanks: Modern Age. Publisher: Gale Force Nine Games.  Designers: Andrew Haught and Chris Townley. Price $24.99

 

Passed inspection: High quality model tanks. Well laid out rules. Accessible game for those new to table top gaming.

Failed basic: The models are tied to the Team Yankee product line and as a result the game is currently missing some vehicles that are ubiquitous to the modern age such as the Bradley IFV or Apache attack helicopter. Some upgrade cards are only available by buying additional models.

 

At the turn of the 20th Century, military power was measured in the size and number of cannon and cavalry that a nation could field. Times change and by the 1980’s artillery and horses had been displaced by the main battle tank (MBT). The armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off across the Inter-German Border, waiting for the other side to blink. Fortunately, while that war never happened, Gale Force Nine gives us a glimpse of what it might have looked like with their Tanks: Modern Age (Tanks: MA) tabletop game. Like their earlier ‘Tanks’ game, Tanks: MA uses 15mm plastic models as gaming pieces for a table top miniature battle. Players of wargaming.net’s ‘World of Tanks’ video game will be right at home here as they maneuver a small number of tanks into position and trade shots with their opponents.

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The game leverages Battlefront’s ‘Team Yankee’ plastic pieces and setting. So, while it’s called ‘Modern Age’ what we are really fighting are the tank battles of the early to mid-1980’s. Vehicles we take for granted today as getting ‘old’ were not yet deployed to the battlefield and as a result are not included in the scope of ‘Tanks: Modern Age’. Some of these are a bit of a head scratch as the Bradley IFV, Apache attack helicopter are ubiquitous to the modern 21st Century US armory, but in the 1980’s these were just beginning to enter production.

Opening up the box, you’ll find a rule book (with 8” x 11” pages), several decks of cards, card board counters and terrain, three model vehicles and assembly instructions for those vehicles.

The rule book clocks in at a slim 26 pages. The actual page count of rules is even lower as the first four pages are basically background on the setting and the national factions. The rules are well laid out with generous illustrations of the game mechanics and clear definition of the models, the various cards and the sequence of play. The book is structured to explain first the units and data cards and then tackles each phase of the game turn in sequence. It’s an effective format that will have you playing the game in a very short time. Tanks: MA leverages the same core mechanics as the earlier Tanks game making an easy transition for players of the earlier game.

The game includes several sets of cards. One set is the vehicle cards. These are the representation of each vehicle in play during a game. To a degree these cards limit how many of a specific vehicle that you need in order to play. The good news is that every time you buy an additional Tanks: Modern Age vehicle, you’ll get the appropriate vehicle card. The bad news is that if you already have 21 T-72 for Team Yankee, you are going to be very short on vehicle cards. (But let’s be honest – you are unlikely to use 21 T-72 (or even 10) in a single game of Tanks: MA.) There is a good selection of vehicles to choose from in the deck. Basically, every vehicle Battlefront produced in injection molded plastic is included here. This means there are some odd omissions – for example, there’s no US M109 artillery pieces, or Soviet 2S1 guns, while there are French AUF1 self-propelled guns – because the gun turret for the AUF1 is included with the AMX-30 sprues (The two vehicles share a common chassis.)

Beyond the vehicle cards, you’ve got the crew cards and upgrade cards. These assign unique abilities to a vehicle above and beyond the standard traits of the vehicle. These allow you to customize your units and create a unique battle group for the game.

Lastly, we have the damage card deck. When you deal damage, this is how you determine what happened. Cards have damage point values as well as critical hit effects.

Beyond the rule book, there are the cardboard counters. These do two things – represent terrain and indicate vehicle status for things like movement, damage and vehicle id. In addition, there are some cardboard terrain features of buildings and woods included in the game, though these can be replaced with scale models as the players wish.

 

The basic version of Tanks: Modern Age comes with three vehicle models: one (1) M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (MBT) and two (2) Soviet T-64 MBT. It’s a reasonable mix for the starter set, as it basically provides the ‘best’ tanks the respective nations fielded during the time frame of the game in 1985. For the Soviets, the T-72 would have also been a solid choice, but it’s not the ‘top of the line’ tank in the Soviet arsenal.

The M1 model can be build to represent either the standard M1 model, the slightly better armored M1 IP (Improved Product) or the mighty M1A1 with the 120mm smoothbore cannon. Both early versions mount the 105mm tank gun, the same as the M60 series tank, though the advanced stabilizer make the M1 a much more potent threat.

The T-64 was the ‘premium’ tank of the Soviet Union during the 1970’s and the early 80’s. It was expensive and required a high level of maintenance but delivered an effective weapon with it’s 125mm gun. Typically deployed to tank divisions in northern and central Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, the T-64 was the sharp end of the spear for the Soviet Union.

The vehicle models are a true bright spot with the game. Both tank models leverage the excellent 1/100 injection molded plastic kits that Battlefront uses with its Team Yankee product line. Each builds a fine-looking model that is durable enough for tabletop play.

The M1 Abrams model does a nice job of modeling the stowage racks around the turret as well as the panel lines and hatches on the vehicle. While it’s a more complex build than the similar Zvezda Abrams model, the Battlefront M1 model has an order of magnitude better surface detail than the Zvezda model.

Likewise, the Battlefront T-64 models are wonderfully detailed examples of a Soviet MBT. Assembly is a little more complex than a comparable Zvezda T-72B, but the Battlefront model kit nicely models the external fuel tanks, the snorkel and the commanders NSVT heavy machine gun, details that are missing from the Zvezda model.

Even if you didn’t play the game, the models alone are with the price of the game. Seriously, buy two copies of the game and you’ll have 6 tanks to play with for $50, plus a lot of cards to leverage other vehicles in your collection when playing Tanks: Modern Age.

But enough with the model building. Let’s get on with playing the game!

Let’s start with defining what Tanks Modern Age is and what it isn’t. First and foremost, Tanks: Modern Age is a game. That’s not a bad thing, but if you are expecting a detailed, quantitative model of armored warfare – this ain’t it. It does however offer a game where the capabilities of the various vehicles are represented to a reasonable degree.

Tanks: MA models several different features for each unit that is key to the game: initiative, firepower, protection (aka armor) and damage. Initiative defines the order in which units move with the high initiative units moving last, but firing first. Firepower models, you guessed it, the relative firepower of the unit. Armor being a representation of a unit’s defensive capability and resilience to being damaged. Lastly, damage defines how much a licking a unit can take and keep on ticking.

These basic statistics can be modified by purchasing crew and unit upgrade cards to enhance a unit’s performance. Some upgrades are common across all nationalities, while each nation also has some unit crew upgrades that impact special abilities to the vehicle with which they are assigned.

In a nutshell, high initiative units move last and fire first – making them exceedingly deadly.

I actually like the way that helicopters are modeled in the game. The extreme speed and maneuverability of helicopters has them moving last after all the ground vehicles. And the way that helicopters are integrated into the game very much suggests the Soviet doctrine of the time when helicopters were considered as fast-moving tanks that hugged the ground before popping up to unleash a salvo of ATGM or rockets. Using these tactics, you’ll see why many consider the Mi-24 Hind to be like a ‘flying tank’. Be warned that the basic helicopter data cards in the game have the helo’s armed only with their guns. But if you buy a Tanks: Modern Age helicopter kit you’ll get additional options that up-gun your chopper with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and other goodies.

Tanks: Modern Age is a straight-forward game that delivers what it promises, that being the opportunity to push tank models across the table and have some fun. In some ways, it’s like a tabletop version of ‘World of Tanks’, but without the lag.

Each of your tanks can be improved, either with upgraded hardware, additional equipment or superior crew. There’s a deck of cards featuring these upgrades. Some are nation specific while others can be used by all the factions.

But it’s not all sunshine and unicorns. To paraphrase Guderian, ‘Never put new wine into old bottles.’ Tanks: Modern Age is a spirited attempt to shoehorn modern armor combat into the framework of the original World War 2 game. For the most part it works. But there are a few things about the game with which I struggle. Personally, I’m hung up on how the game’s armor defense model is based around movement. It’s an expression of the old canard of ‘speed is armor’ that’s been disproven since British battlecruisers were blowing up a hundred years ago. It’s also something that just refuses to die in game design (and if you look at the design philosophy behind the AMX-30 you see that same mindset alive and well in tank design as late as the 1970’s).

Yes, I get that a moving tank can be harder to hit and a firing tank that’s moving is also less accurate (hello, advanced stabilization?) but it just feels sort of clunky and does not really encourage you to maximize cover and hull down positions. Clearly, the game favors having you move your vehicles about on the table instead of the tactically sound choice of sitting on the military crest blasting away at those poor suckers who are out in the open. Most of our games seem to end in a swirling vortex as the high initiative tanks try to achieve flank shots at close range. That end game looks a bit odd for a formal strategy game, but not out of place in either a World of Tanks game (or – perish the thought – the finale of Girls und Panzer!).

Also, there’s no armor degradation for follow on hits. Soviet tank designs are especially noted for not retaining their armor integrity past the first hit. Yet your tank continues to resist damage with its original value right up to the very end. To be fair, Tanks: MA is not the only game that does this and again – it is a game, not a super detailed simulation of ballistic penetration.

True to its name, the game almost totally omits the role of infantry on the battlefield. I admit, this is a conscious design decision for the game. I mean it’s not like the game is called ‘Infantry: The Modern Age’, right? It’s a feature that this game has in common with the original World War 2 version of ‘Tanks’. There’s just no room for the ground pounding ‘crunchies’ in the ‘Tanks’ universe.

Which is a bit of a shame as the plethora of anti-tank weapons available to infantry in the modern age would make an interesting addition to the game. Between the TOW and Dragon and Milan as well as the AT-3 Sagger, RPG-7 and LAW, infantry units pack a heck of a punch against tanks. To be fair, the game gives these weapons systems a small nod by including an upgrade unit card for ‘MANPADS’ that allow a tank to fire as if it had a missile system from some nearby unrepresented infantry.

But again, Tanks: MA is a ‘beer and pretzels’ type game that is clear on it’s focus and goal. I suspect the designers would say if you want to play with infantry, then step up to Battlefront’s ‘Team Yankee’ or one of the other modern tabletop miniatures rules like ‘Command Decision’ or ‘Fistful of Tows’.

The last thing that bugs me is the ground scale of the game. It just feels off to my perception. I get that we’re balancing the size of the 1/100 scale models against the size of the typical game table. It was a tolerable situation for a game set during World War Two, but the gun ranges for most of these modern tanks in the real world are measured in kilometers. Translating this to the tabletop seems kind of off when ‘close range’ is measured with one relatively teeny range stick. It feels like the game would ‘look better’ if played with smaller scale models – either 1/144 or ideally 1/285. But let’s face facts – one of the design goals for the game is clearly to sell more 1/100 scale models. If you have a bunch of 1/285 scale stuff (aka ‘micro armor’) then by all means you can take the data cards from the game and easily translate it to the smaller models. And it would probably look awesome! For the rest of us using the 1/100 models, be prepared for some spatial compression caused by the scale distortion.

A lot of folks are looking for a game that they can play by themselves, mostly due to a lack of opponents. Well I’ve got bad news for you, solitaire gamers. Tanks: MA is not a solitaire friendly game. A cursory search of the web found no solitaire rules. You could technically play it by yourself, but the tiered initiative means that you are basically just going through the motions. Tanks: MA, like many tabletop miniatures games is in large part a social activity. Sure, you can paint the tanks all by yourself, but showing off your painting skills and playing the game are activities best shared with others. Tanks: Modern Age is an engaging game that is worth your efforts to try bringing at least one opponent to the game table to share the experience.

If you are looking for a miniatures game of modern tanks with excellent models, a relatively low entry price point and a lot of expansion potential, you won’t go wrong with Tanks: Modern Age. It’s a great value, even if all you want from the box are the tank models! It’s a solid game for an evening of pushing models around the table and rolling some dice. So, find a buddy and bring a friend and get your modern tank on!

 

Armchair General Score: % 91

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

 

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 Product Manager 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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