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Posted on Dec 11, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

It’s the 4th Armored Division’s Iron Will versus German Steel in ‘Patton’s Vanguard: Arracourt, 1944’. Board Game Review.

It’s the 4th Armored Division’s Iron Will versus German Steel in ‘Patton’s Vanguard: Arracourt, 1944’. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Patton’s Vanguard: Arracourt, 1944. Publisher: Take Aim Designs and Revolution Games. Game Designer: Michael Ringella. Developer: Roger Miller. Price $ 30.00. 

Passed inspection: An easy to grasp area movement game that showcases a key Western Front tank battle during late summer 1944. A solid game with easy to read counters.

Failed basic:  Organization of the rulebook requires a careful reading to extract all the relevant rules for each scenario.

After Allied forces broke out along the Normandy front, they raced across France. In early September, the Third Army was nearing the German border. General Patton’s orders were for the 4th Armored Division to strike northeast into Germany. But at the same time, the German Army was preparing a major counterattack in the same area. This would be the first combat for Germany’s newly raised Panzer brigades and the ensuing battle would be the largest tank battle between the United States and Germany until the Battle of the Bulge.

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On paper, this looked like a tough fight for the Americans. The Germans were using large number of their formidable Panther (Pzkw V) battle tanks. But a simple comparison of raw numbers would be misleading.

Lieutenant General Walter Kruger, who led the German LVIII Panzer Corps, was deeply critical of the battle worthiness of the new panzer brigades. “Panzer Brigades 111 and 113… were makeshift organizations,” he wrote. “Their combat value was slight. Their training was just as incomplete as their equipment. They had been given no training as a unit and they had not become accustomed to coordinating their subunits.” His disgust for the caliber of troops sent to the front from rear-echelon formations was evident in his description, referring to them as “barrel-scrapings.”

The Panzer brigades had some key organizational weaknesses that reduced their effectiveness to less an a comparable battlegroup based on a panzer division would have been. Mostly these weaknesses were due to a lack of supporting artillery and a dearth of recon (aufklarungs) units. But as Kruger noted, these units were mostly untried, green troops.

Opposing the Germans were elements of the US 4th Armored Division. One of the American Army’s crack armored formations, the 4th Armored was equipped with Sherman and Stuart tanks and supported with M18 Hellcat tank destroyers and prodigious amounts of field artillery. Having trained together for several years and campaigned across France under excellent leadership for the past two months, the 4th Armored division was a capable combat force. 

At a time when the Allies had focused on their major airborne offensive into Holland (“Operation Market-Garden”), the German counteroffensive in the south was a bit of a surprise. Over the ensuring days, a series of sharp actions occurred as the Germans attempted to dislodge and destroy the elements of the 4th Armored Division. It was a decisive action, but not the result the Germans sought. By battle’s end, the German panzer brigades were spent, while the 4th Armored’s soldiers shifted over to the attack.

Mike Rinella brings this experience to the table with ‘Patton’s Vanguard: The Battle of Arracourt, 1944’. Patton’s Vanguard is another in the series of area movement game that Take Aim Designs have produced over the past few years. Using a system that will be familiar to players of classic Avalon Hill games such as Storm Over Arnhem or Turning Point: Stalingrad, Patton’s Vanguard depicts combat between the US 4th Armored and the elements of the Wehrmacht opposing them.

Let’s start with unpacking the game. Like many of the Take Aim Design games, this ships in a clear plastic bag. It’s reminiscent of the packaging of early GDW or SPI games or current games from companies such as High Flying Dice Games or War Drum Games. Inside the plastic bag you’ll find a full-color cover page featuring an imposing painting of General Patton. The back of this cover page doubles as the player reference aid, with helpful tables and charts. There is a single sheet of die-cut 5/8” counters, a 16-page rule booklet and a four-color printed unmounted paper map.

The counters are executed in the clean, uncluttered style familiar to players of games from Take Aim Designs. Counters generally depict company sized units, though some supporting units represent battalions (mostly artillery, engineers and anti-aircraft units. Armored units are depicted with a side silhouette of the unit’s primary vehicle with other units using the NATO standard symbol for infantry, armored infantry, artillery and the like. Counters also contain a unit id for the company and parent unit as well as the classic trifecta of attack factor, defense factor and movement factor. There are a number of markers to depict control of an area and the status of bridges (there a lot of bridges on the battlefield!). Lastly are a few counters that depict unit leaders and help track the game turn, weather and out of supply status.

The rule book is 16 pages, but the actual rules are only 14 pages. It’s actually even shorter as this includes all the diagrams and the material for the two scenarios. The rules include a glossary, but it’s better thought of as an index – about half the items in the glossary are defined, but almost all the items have the numeric reference to the specific rule with more information. 

The map is a nice depiction of the battle space around Arracourt. It does a solid job depicting the complex network of canals and rivers, hills and forests that define the battlefield. Layered onto that is the transportation network and villages. Add all that up and the map does a good job of explaining and supporting why each area received its specific defensive terrain effects modifier (TEM). If you have a good eye for reading a map, you’ll see the strong natural defensive positions to occupy as well as the kill zones to avoid.

Bringing the game to the table, it’s not a surprise to see that it plays much like the other titles by the Take Aim Design team. Each game turn is made up of a dynamic number of impulses in which each player performs one action. Those actions are typically move, assault, conduct ranged fire by armored units, artillery or air bombardment or a general regroup/rearrangement of all the players units.

When reading the scenario rules, you’ll need to take careful note of the special rules regarding tactical superiority as these rules impart a good amount of mobility to the Americans (and to the Germans in the second scenario).

Much like you’ll see in ‘Last Battle’, the weather has an important effect on the game. Unlike in ‘Last Battle’, here the weather starts with heavy fog blanketing the area. It’s a blessing and a curse. The fog allows the Germans to get up close and assault the US units without suffering from ranged tank fire or the wrath of the massed US howitzers and tactical aircraft.

As the impulses stack up, it becomes more likely that night will fall and the current game turn will end. Once that happens both sides perform recovery and refit actions, check their supply status and see if either side has achieved victory.

 Did I mention the US artillery units? One thing that really grabbed me about the game is the sheer bloody effectiveness of the US Army’s artillery units. It really captures the feel and effectiveness of artillery as the ‘king of battle’ and how – once those Piper Cub spotter planes show up overhead – for the German army it can often feel like you are facing the ‘Unites States of Artillery’.  It’s true to a lesser degree of the German artillery, mostly due to it only appearing in the second scenario and not being the equal of a US 155mm battalion. But wow – the massed fire of what can essentially be all of the division’s artillery is a devastating tool. Unleash those big guns and you are all but guaranteed to break up a German attack.

The choice of assault and ranged fire actions do a nice job of modeling the various combat options available to both sides. With the US being mostly on the defensive, they really want the fog to lift. When the fog burns off, they can park their tanks and tank destroyers on the hills and in the woods and reach out to shoot up the approaching German forces. When the skies clear, things get even better as the tactical aircraft (fighters and medium bombers) can finish up what the tank guns and artillery started.

The Germans will start off using assaults, in large part as the fog prevents using ranged fire. To maximize their resources, each assault needs to be as large as possible – you want to overrun the Americans to keep your momentum and minimize your losses.

Overall Patton’s Vanguard gives an experience that seems to reflect the historical record. The game models the realities of armored warfare. The need to concentrate your forces on attack, use your mobility to protect your flanks and the punishing effect of battalions of effectively handled artillery.

A little over a year ago, I presented a tabletop miniatures game using Command Decision depicting what would have been scenario 1. It was a bit of a massacre. The German player was grousing about the poor quality of his troops, even if they were in their nice, new, shiny Panther tanks. That result is often what happens when playing the first scenario in Patton’s Vanguard. Scenario 1 is a tough fight for the Germans, so I’d say the game can give a pretty historical result.

With its impulse structured turns, Patton’s Vanguard clearly shows its lineage to classic Avalon Hill games like Storm Over Arnhem. That’s not a bad thing, but it does result in many of your units sitting idle while the active area is in play each impulse.

All game designs represent decisions about what to model and how to represent it on the gameboard. In the case of the area movement / impulse activation type games like Patton’s Vanguard, the game experience emphasizes friction and the limitations of command and control systems.

This style of game may not appeal to all gamers, especially those hex and counter folks that like moving and attacking with all their units each turn. Yes, the special ‘tactical ability’ rules allow for representing some general activity around the active area, but you won’t be launching a broad assault across the entire front in a single impulse. Just acknowledge that you – like almost every other leader throughout history – won’t be able to exercise the omnipotent level of control and coordination that staring at the game board may imply. It’s an integral part of the game engine. In practical terms, it forces you to focus on your high priority efforts and then, hopefully allows you time to move those secondary and tertiary groups into the action. It’s a way to model friction and chaos on the battlefield. You’ll need to provide the command decisions as to when and where to strike!

If this sounds like a fun game, it certainly is! Well, unless you are playing the Germans in scenario 1. But if you are, try and remember what the scenario is modeling and that the game is not a reflection on you or your level of skill! It’s a fun, relatively quick-playing game.

If there is a weak spot with the game, it’s the presentation of the rulebook. At an individual level, any given rule seems clear, but the total of the rulebook feels like it was a bit rushed in the editing and layout. Some of this comes from the occasional typos which any one that writes has seen (I’m sure there are a couple in this very review!). The rule book has notes referencing some of the key cross-references to the special rules, but you’ll need to give it a careful read. The good news is that if you do feel like something’s really odd and you are stumped, you have several channels to seek an answer – you can pose your question or Boardgamegeek, Consimworld or even Facebook. I got a little confused by the wording on rule 7.2 and reached out via Consimworld. Mike and team responded quickly and gave a clear clarification that set me on the right track.

While the game has two scenarios, I was a bit disappointed that it lacks a grand unifying campaign game spanning the length of the battle. Some of this may just be representative of how poor the coordination was between the various separate German brigades and divisions, but it would be interesting from a ‘what if’ l standpoint to see what could have happened if the game covered the whole operation and allowed the Germans a better chance to coordinate. The downside to such a campaign is that the Germans may suffer from extended air attack and artillery bombardment.

An area of importance for many gamers is a games suitability for solitaire play. The question becomes – would the solitaire gamer enjoy Patton’s Vanguard? Well, on the one hand, Patton’s Vanguard does not bring dedicated solitaire rules to the table. There are no ‘bots or other rules to automate the play of either side. If you want to play this by yourself, you’ll have to do what we’ve done for years and play both sides. This is not the end of the world. The back and forth nature of the impulses and the die rolls will provide a degree of uncertainty that builds an engaging narrative for the solitaire player.

On the other hand, the power of the internet has made an online option available using VASSAL. For those of you looking for an opponent – check out the Patton’s Vanguard Vassal module. While it does not provide a solitaire AI opponent, it does makes it easier to find an opponent and is quick to set up and allows you to save a game if you don’t have time to play the whole game.

Patton’s Vanguard has a lot going for it. It depicts an iconic western front battle, and provides good insights into why the battle was fought and why it turned out the way it did. It’s a good choice for a game that does not need a whole afternoon to play and it sets up quickly. Fans of the area movement / impulse activation games will find this a welcome addition to their collection.

Armchair General Score: % 95

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for 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. He continues to dabble with designing tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad and hiking.

Patton’s Vanguard Cover
back of cover
overview of the map
Time to unlimber the guns
Defense of hill 318
Battle for hill 264

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