Review: Battlegroup ruleset

Plastic Soldier Co. and Iron Fist Publishing have teamed up to produce the Battlegroup series of books. From my understanding Battlegroup Kursk was the first set of rules released combined with supplementary material to describe that engagement in WW2. From there, a small ‘mini’ book was released with just the base rules. There are several other books released that detail different campaigns with various theater selector lists for forces and scenarios, but these only have special rules related to those campaigns. You need the small rulebook in order to play.

The scale for Battlegroup is set at 15mm to 20mm. Additionally it is a 1 man = 1 model system. There is no basing of units into fire teams. However as the game plays, actual basing isn’t really an issue. There are many examples of folks playing the game with multiple troops on single bases (like Flames of War). However, having a handful of single troops on lone bases is ideal to indicate casualties for a squad.BG Kursk Cover

The rules themselves detail a pretty ambitious task of outlining a system that can be played at a variety of engagement sizes, from a squad up to an entire battalion. The squad level game is a bit of a misnomer as they expect you to take at least a platoon of troops, but it does give you varying levels of forces to play which can range from a few squads for an afternoon of fun, up to a full day of gaming at the battalion level. It’s a point system game, where you decide a point total and purchase units up to this limit. I picked up Battlegroup mainly for company level games.

The game utilizes a IGOUGO system of sorts. A player will roll a set number of dice to indicate the total units they can activate for that turn. For a platoon level this would be 2d6, while at the company level would be 3d6. I groaned a bit at this first but digging into the rules a bit more, I started to like it.

You roll to activate units, which really breaks down into teams. An entire platoon is really 4 individual units (a command team, plus three 8 man squads), and in addition you might have a few LMG teams that are also units. So that 3 platoon company suddenly mushrooms into 12-18 units, making that 3d6 activation roll a little more unpredictable. Add in additional MG teams, AT assets, field guns, artillery spotters, a few tanks, mortars, etc. You suddenly have a lot of things that may not be able to activate on your turn.

Each activated unit can be given one specific order; firing, maneuvering, a combination of the two, or just waiting in ambush to react to your opponent. Reaction orders also are a nice element, giving a chance to interrupt an opponent’s turn. This really allows for a fluid back and forth type of game making the turn progression more tense and engaging.

Movement is a flat rate for vehicles and infantry. Difficult ground will reduce movement to a d6 inch roll depending on the type of vehicle or terrain. Overall movement is a simple, easy system to execute.

There are maximum effective ranges for weapons, with small arms topping out at 30″. However this is tweaked some as there are two modes of fire. Area fire is a simpler affair where total firepower is determined and a single die is rolled to see an effect. If successful, they pin a unit.

The alternate is aimed fire which has a maximum range and individual die rolls for troop weapons, designated to inflicting casualties. Successful rolls to hit forces the target unit to roll for saves (6+ if in open ground, and much better if in cover). Failed saves result in casualties and morale tests, likely resulting in a unit either being pinned or forced to retreat. Combined with aimed fire is the need for spotting a target unit. Again a simple d6 roll test altered by different modifiers. If they can’t spot the unit, they can’t conduct aimed fire (area fire does not require a spotting check).

Vehicle fire mimics small arms fire some, however there is more gradation in target numbers to hit based on the type of gun and target armor. Also unlike infantry units, vehicles must keep track of the number of rounds fired. Close combat is more of an extension of aimed fire. When units come to within 5″ of each other, an intense firefight breaks out with both sides making attack rolls.

Morale is a pretty simple affair. If a unit is pinned they cannot be given an order until it is removed (more on that later). If a unit suffers a casualty, or is damaged, while pinned they roll on a d6 chart. On a 2 or less most units will break outright if they are pinned. The game is exceedingly dangerous to units in the open. Get them pinned and follow up with effective fire, you likely will have them break and run.

This leads into an interesting tweak to the the game, the Battle Rating. Every platoon, tank, command team, etc. in your army has a Battle Rating (BR). The total represents the overall morale and will of your force to fight. For each unit that is destroyed, you draw a random counter. These are also taken for other aspects of the game, such as your opponent having more scouts or when your opponent takes an objective. Effectively the only way to unpin units requires you also to draw a counter (unpinning d6 units while doing so).

The counters themselves are an uneven distribution of numbers ranging from 1 to 5 (with most being 2-4). As you draw counters you put these aside and secretly sum up the total. If the total of drawn counters ever exceeds your force’s Battle Rating, your entire group collapses and withdraws from the battle. This makes for some nail-biting decisions. Pinned units can do nothing and are exceedingly vulnerable to additional fire. If they break, you draw a BR counter. If you decide to rally some units, you draw a BR counter. So there is this fine line of deciding when to try and unpin units (or instead just let them keep hitting the dirt), as you never know how much pressure your force can take before they break.

There are rules for calling in off board artillery and air support. A series of rolls are made to simulate communication and firing priority. As off board artillery goes, there is a fair amount of randomness where rounds actually land, certainly allowing for the potential of friendly fire. Anti-air assets on the table also have a role which is a pleasant change from other systems.

The book comes with a handful of scenarios depicting typical engagements you might see, from patrols to withdrawing actions. Most scenarios also dictate the use of objectives. Given that holding objectives forces your opponent to draw BR counters, these alternate goals add some variety to the scenarios and provides for some differing victory conditions.

As mentioned earlier this is a point system game. You select units up to an agreed total. The actual force lists are rather structured however, with limited choices based on the core units you pick up. The game is very infantry-centric but armor heavy battlegroups can also be drafted up.

There are no force lists within the rules however. These are all provided separately in different campaign books which have battlegroup lists, special unit rules, unit profiles, etc. and are very much themed towards specific combat theaters. In this aspect, historical gamers will probably enjoy this as gradation in forces can be achieved to represent different parts of the war. With a universal force list for different nations, this would be harder to model. However, you are not getting a complete game just picking up the ruleset book. You also need to invest in a campaign book to play the game.PaK40_BGKursk

The Good – There is a lot here to like. Yes, it’s an IGOUGO system. However with the random die activation and a plethora of individual units representing a platoon, you aren’t going to be able to count on activating every model on the table during your turn. Further, the reaction orders also provide a means to make responses to your opponent’s actions making the game even more dynamic.

Pinning units matter and is an effective means to shut down your opponent. The splitting of fire modes into either suppression or trying to inflict casualties is also a nice touch via the area and aimed fire orders. Among this is the Battle Rating system. Pinned troops are effectively out of the fight. To reactivate them requires drawing a BR counter. If you let them sit pinned and they get hit by further fire, they will likely break forcing you to draw a BR counter as they are destroyed. Do you let them remained pinned and wait a few turns before opting to unpin d6 units? Or do you force your hand early and just unpin that one unit? It’s a challenging decision with slow degradation of your force’s morale, along with the unpredictability when it has had too much and will retreat, all of which makes for a fun game.

The rulebook itself is written fairly clearly and offers plenty of examples. There is a good amount of artwork and photographs to entice the reader. It’s a rather handy size and well bound. The addition of a solid quick reference sheet at the back of the book is an especially nice touch.

The Bad – The game does have it’s share of bookkeeping. Ammunition use for tanks is the most notable. For a tank or two this isn’t much of an issue, but running with a platoon of armor, it could bog down. I dig the concept as a means to balance out heavy hitting guns compared to the armor workhorses and also a way to mimic logistical problems, but it’s clunky. I wonder if using a d6 roll to determine if a unit was out of ammo would be better.

Another thing that crops up are past orders for opposing units. Spotting a target can also depend on whether it fired the previous turn or not. Get a big enough game going and it can get a little murky keeping track whether individual units fired the previous turn or not, so you likely will need to use markers indicating given fire orders.

Some of the task resolutions require a lot of procedural die rolls. Artillery is especially damning as you need to make a fire mission request, a communications skill test, then determine how close the spotting round hits, the number of guns that are part of the strike, etc.. While all the die rolling allows for more predictable results due to probability, it can be a chore to go through.

The rules express a differing view of design also. Some parts are well detailed (like vehicle aimed fire and artillery) while other aspects of the rules are glossed over with abstract task resolution. There aren’t hard definitions of cover. Close combat is very streamlined under a general assault that takes place within 5″ of an enemy. There are some points in the rules suggesting resolution by player agreement as opposed to hard, defined rules. It just seems a bit of an odd match in how the rules are presented where some elements are highly detailed, while others are not.

The book would really be aided having an index. Some important rules are shuffled off into sidebars. It’s not incredibly difficult to find what you need, but tracking down a key rule can sometimes be a little bit of a chore. The book itself is a scaled down version of the larger campaign books. I appreciate the lower price of the rules, however the print is exceedingly small. This isn’t a comfortable font to read at all and it’s a shame a larger one wasn’t used.

The Verdict – Battlegroup is a solid WW2 miniature wargame. There are some rough spots and with larger games, bookkeeping can get to be somewhat clunky. Additionally, this isn’t the most innovate set of rules and you’ll likely be finding yourself treading over familiar game elements found in a myriad of other WW2 rules.

However it gets a lot of things right. One thing that stands out with me is the sheer unpredictability of unit activation and force morale. You can count on your plan of battle up to a point and then… well… things get interesting. It’s another game that emphasizes suppression and pinning of units. This has an important role in the game and you’ll find ordering units to cross open terrain will get either pinned to hell, ripped to shreds, or dispersing in a retreat. The utilization of cover and judicious use of ambush orders are needed.

Yes, it is a point based game. However taking a peek at some of the campaign books, it doesn’t feel like a tournament army list-of-the-month game. Battlegroup really seems to have it’s feet firmly in the historical camp. I’m certain that it’ll get some complaints on not having proper campaign TOEs, but there are far more hits than misses with the force lists.

I don’t think Battlegroup will quite replace my WW2 infantry skirmish game of choice. I need to get a few more games in, however I still feel that Bolt Action scratches that itch for me. However I wanted a ruleset I could use for 15mm and was looking for something different to Flames of War. Battlegroup does this quite well, and I totally expect it’ll be my go to rules for WW2 company action in the future. If folks are interested, an excellent overview of the rules as an intro report can be found in a list of PDF download links.