How Hard is TCS, To Learn, To Play?

I was recent asked by several people just how hard is Tactical Combat Series?

Over the last 8 days I have put about 50-60 hours of game time in.  Plus the time you can estimate for yourselves corresponding with all of you on the various topics that presaged our getting started.

On the 17th  June we kicked off game play.  I likely have an equal amount of hours in blog posts and video editing which includes the recent uber technical difficulties (whining video post to come ;)).

Someone is going to make software cross plat-forming easy one day.

As I thought about answering the hardness question I realized that I may be uniquely qualified as a novice player to answer the question “is TCS hard to learn and play.”

As an avid conflict simulations and “wargamertypeof guy” I am always looking for  games that have several key characteristics:

  1. A historical era I am interested in
  2. A specific situation that I know or am inspired to learn about
  3. A series based approach that allows for the coverage of more than one title. Less rules more game.
  4. Consumable rules
  5. High quality graphics and units
  6. Powerful potential narrative
  7. Films well

The  Battle of the Bulge – but from the 110th’s/28ID vantage point, or looking at 101st Airbornes defensive situation in Operation Market Garden made the series compelling to me.  In fact the unique take on a lot of the battle and thoughtful execution is one of the reason that the series has been so successful I think.

Of the above criteria TCS does a pretty good job.  The history is generally accurate, and has improved over time.  The series has been around for over a decade now and has matured significantly since the early 3.0 series rules days. Where dice-ing off for artillery rounds  and poor Armor rules hinder playability.  It felt from what I can tell very much an infantry game.  The convaluted sequence of play and some of the issues around close assault, night and on board arty have all been cleaned up nicely.

Lets look at the rules and sub systems.

The standout feature of TCS system in my book that is similar to other signature Dean Essig designs is the use of Operational Planning.

What are you going to do, when, with what, and how.  Put down in writing!

This tool is optional and does take time to get used to, as it is a significant departure from ‘traditional gaming’.  Attempting to pre plan a game at the platoon level , across 2-3 or more battalions can be maddeningly frustrating, whilst at the same time exhilarating and fun as you really sit down and look at the goals of the organizations you control, the forces arrayed against you, their special provisions, terrain you will fight over, weather, special restrictions, artillery resources, morale considerations and reinforcements.

Wow. I’m starting to feel like a Colonel/Polkovnik/Oberst already.

Then of course once you have a plan you must stick to it, no omnificent, prescient reactions based on your opponents activities.  That or fail your plan, head back to the Rally point and build a new plan and hope it implements before you are wiped of the map. http://www.gamersarchive.net/theGamers/archive/tcs/TCSGeneral/Opsheet2.htm  Gives a nice summary of how to use Op Sheets.

Don’t get me wrong your plan is broad brush if you like – Capture Hill 202, defend this area, Move here.  You could blindly write orders, or you could dig down to the platoon level.  Thats up to you.

Don’t go to war with out the right men and weapons tho.  If sure would be a bummer not to have attached a section of AT guns or those extra Mortars if you really need them.  Or discovering that the general course you have mapped out goes over horrid terrain will take too long to get to and you will miss the battle altogether.

Umm, HQ, a little help here…where are my Infantry Guns and MGS?

Once you grok the Op Sheet process you can start learning the game. Although all the avid players will tell you to learn the system first free of these constraints.

I say bollocks go all in. Start with Op Sheets. Doing Op Sheets last order makes them feel like a constraint, that is added in.  They are not!  But this is how I felt after learning some of the game first. You go back and now this ‘extra optional rule that is one of the first sections of the rules changes a lot of things for you.

Learn this part of the system, even with a smaller scenario, but get a feel for what it takes to create a Prepared Defense Op Sheet, an Attack Op Sheet and live with what happens.  Then you are ready to learn about the game rules.

I come from the background of so many gamers – Avalon Hill games,  (Waterloo, Panzerblitx/Leader, Afrika Corps, D-Day etc) then SPI (WiE, LotR, CityFight, Nato Division Commander,  Wellingtons Victory ) 20+ years ago. Then a long hiatus, and back into to it with TRC, WaW, the Great Battles of History series and a little CC.

So no super hard games (except a fully chromed CityFight!).  TCS is an order of magnitude more complex, no. TCS is not more complex, I believe it is just more involved. Thats what it is. Involved.  You are applying brain power in a thoughful fun way.  To me I am solving a problem each time its my activation. We are attempting to re create combat, command and control and conflict at the platoon level in grand scale. So its gunna hurt a bit.

To me its like this when I look at the map :

I want this group of troops to cross the river and attack hex X.  Who needs to cover their move, who is moving. Who is going to suppress enemy while the rest get into position.  Do we have smoke, mortars or Arty to help?

As I look at each unit and its abilities individually and in combination the options are become clear, the trick is to remember what you have at hand.

Rules and their sub systems:

Unit capabilities

What can each unit type do? There are Infantry units, Weapons sections, Mortar sections, mobile guns ( Anti Tank and field guns + 88mm guns), various vehicle types, and artillery. All have specific capabilities and features.

LoS

Any system that has Line of Sight as its first major mandatory rule, has got some serious intentions.

Wow why is that?

Well lets see, you have more than just a line of sight from a to b, you have visible range (day night, fog, twilight etc), actual LoS; will the terrain allow me to see the men, or the tank(s) and spotting range; can I see the guy 75 yards or 280 yards away from me? Can I see that tank in hull down? Is that a group of men approaching thru the woods?

Terrain based LoS is complex it most times, TCS seems to pride itself on the apparently highly accurate topographical terrain maps, which are can make for many LoS discussions even in ‘low flat terrain” when a hex has partial contour lines, a challengingly placed building etc.  In many ways terrain that was a little more conforming to the hex pattern would sure make life easier and speed play.  The loss of geographic accuracy maybe too high a price to pay tho, jury is out on that one.

In an effort to help that madness the guys at TCS took it upon them selves to offer 3 different systems of Los determination…..yup. You choose.  I use 8.5 rules for contour heads, as it fits best with the LOS chart that comes with the series rules.

Fire

Firing is simple right? You point and shoot. Ahh cool I hear you say some thing easy.

Well yes. In essence that’s correct. However.

Suppression Fire Action, Point Fire Actions , Mortar Fire, Arty, Air Sorties, high trajectory, and low trajectory  are all simple, when considered in isolation.

There are nice clear tables that help you work out column modifiers for the attack strength, (SFA or PFA) which happen quickly. After a few rounds you will be off to the races.

Just don’t expect to actually kill anything straight away.  TCS models the dynamic effects of fire combat brutally.  If you have overwhelming force, i.e. arty or a tonne of Mortars, then you are killing some dudes who are literally toast.

Suppressing Fire Actions (SFA) actions are a full turn (20 minutes) in effect of fire at a target hex. Hard vehicles are not affected typically. Most units can SFA.

PFA or point fires are designed to kill vehicles.  The PFA is a shot at a selected target in a hex.  The other fun item here in the shooting at shit category is the AT Assault or attack.  Your brave souls race from behind the building or out of the trench and fire at the tank.  You either kill it or you don’t. Terrain is your friend in AT attacks, as is night.

Arty has its own little sub system, with different types of fire, HE, continuous (yes rounds fall all turn) and Fast Fire (double fire power, double ammo cost), Battery or Battalion (all the batteries in a Battalion…duh. That fire is subject to adjustment. Scatter, bad shoot, and no shoot results.  Different nations have different skills sets. Who’d a thunk it!

If however you expect to kill those 60 guys in that dug in position, in the trees, quickly with SFA or PFA then think again.  It could take several rounds of fire and one or two close assaults to take those little buggers out.

So combat strength works as a function of # of men, and weapon types and experience as far as I can tell. Combat strength tables runs from 1 to basically 100.  Most infantry attacks are going to be in optimal situations at less than 2 hexes (150 yards), from multiple directions, combined with mortar fire to obtain at minimum 9-15 strength with as few negative modifiers as possible.  Negatives include -2 columns for being dug in in fire mode versus not dug in move mode in a variety of terrain situations. For instance  -5 if you are dug in a well built stone village, and additional -2 if you had already suppressed them!

No really they are harder to hit right!

Ahhh  plus  +4 columns for getting good angles, +1 or 2 for range. For example lets say you had :

9 strength and 15 strength for two examples at range of 2.  One unit in the open in fire , one in move mode,  in each case 1 in the woods:

Col. Shifts                   9 Open           9 Woods         15 Open(move mode)      15 Woods

Dug In

Range                         1                      1                                     1                                  1

Terrain                       0                      -2                                 +2                               -2

Suppressed(-2)

Smoke etc

Cross fire(+4)….plus numerous other relevant modifiers

Total                           1                      -1                                  +3                               -1

charts

Roll  |                      | Result:

25                               MC                  NE                                -1step                         MC

35                               MC                  MC                               -1step                         MC

45                               MC                  MC                               -1step                         MC

(46= -1 step)                                                          (46= -1 step)

55                               -1step             -1step                           -2step                         -1step

As you can see a disparate dice set yields asimilar result set from the above situation!

9 factors would be a strong Russian Platoon and an Mg section or a 80mm Mortar. 15 could be a field gun or 2 platoons and an mg section.  You get the picture.

With a distribution set over 66 – 2 d6 one for tens one for units, the results can be very wide, 36 event items in as many as 11 bands, more typically  across 4-6 bands .

Even with 41-50 strength, the loss splits (1 step) start at a roll of 15-36 (occurs 38.9% of the time), 41-46 16.7%, for 2 steps then 51-56, 16.7% for 3 etc .  You have an 11% chance of getting a Morale Check and 0% of No Effect.

The point I guess here I am so poorly attempting to make is 1step losses of a MC appear to be the norm.  Each Infantry platoon has 5 steps, do the math.

Close Assault

Now here is a cool concept.  Lots of thought went into this. It goes something like this:

A team of units approaches a hex they want. Just prior to entering they get shot at in what is known as final over watch fire, but only if the firer unsuppressed.  Then they enter the hex and fight rounds of combat until some one dies or calls uncle.

assault in progress

All –ve modifiers (that’s how I play it) which apply equally are ignored, and you get to add the step count of your unit to your firepower.  This makes for a fast paced set of shooting, as all the rolls typically have at least +4 columns.  Suppression results add a step loss if they happen twice or you SYR.  Neat, just don’t roll 11.

Overwatch

Now you had fun above, you had gotten into position, then took your shot.  Hmm well see those guys 3-4 hexes away that you cant shoot at as they are out of spotting range, they want to return the favor.  Using Overwatch (which occurs in a variety of modes as a result of Fire, movement, Arty, and other such things) they fire at you.

Fortunately only one stack can fire over watch at a time, but these guys got lucky and rolled a 66.  You roll for morale and oops….. need to SYR (Save Yourself Retreat).  They continue to shoot at you as you retreat. Nice.

Overwatch is going to be something that you need to think hard about everytime. It prevents you from shooting SFA’s randomly but also when you have a good shot, as, if you get that poor result then you have have consigned the firer to a hail of return fire, or allowed the unit you are shooting at to sneak by you during its move or worse still assault you. Think, then pull that trigger.

Also waiting until someone shoots at you often gives you a better column adjustments and opens up more choices for units hwo can now see the unit that fired ( Spotting Range adjustments).

How important is this? Well if you fire an SFA,  that’s it for you for the turn and the next turn after that until its your sides activation. So the implication is clear.  It needs to count. See this post : http://wp.me/p1yz7I-75Vz6j .  Otherwise when you shoot you could be subject to Return Fire, units can move past you and your not able to overwatch (opportunity fire) during their movement nor on their approach if they decide to close assault.

I may be wrong here but the premise appears to be that SFA is a fire specific type of fire for units who are working with units planning on initiating a close assault.  The rest of the time we likely want to be responding to fire or movement.

Its been a while since I read the tactical doctrine bibles,

but that feels pretty good, despite the frustration that sometimes mounts as you attempt to get guys into position.  It may go part of the way to explaining the distribution of the CRT and nominal results you obtain.

A suppression is good enough for a close assault, but not good enough to remove the offending unit by wishing it away.

Movement

Fire is first in the rules based on what you are reading for a reason.

You fire, then you move. You suppress then you attack, you bring overwhelming force to  bear.

It is often frustratingly difficult to get the right units in the right location to make suppressive fire, then follow thru on a close assault.  You can be seen but cannot see them. Night, smoke and arty are your friends.

Tanks and other Point Firers have 3 impulses per turn. They can move and fire, fire and move etc. This gives a great feel for the differences between classes of unit, and opens up even more delicious problems of choice, timing and best use of combined forces.

Morale

The concept of morale is not one that I have frequently had to deal with in the modern era of games. Ancients, Napoleonic’s etc for sure.  The Morale Check (MC) result is not benign. Like all good things in TCS it is a simple concept. Roll after every result calling for an MC or a step loss.  Each step loss counts to move you a column up from your morale rating into hell.  The trouble multiples at the Battalion level.  Every unit (platoon) that dies adds one to Bn Morale and one column shift to each individual MC check.  Fortunately Morale is recovered once per hour under a die roll system.

The results of a discrete MC include, no effect, Suppression, Parallelization, SYR and Surrender…..Yikes. This could have been a disaster if not well thought through and well written.  Vehicle morale is a bit more complicated and feels unpolished but it works.  I really like the effect the oveall losses of Battalion have upon what each company is doing.  All of a sudden is not prudent, wise or smart to just “throw those men against that dug in position, as EVERYONE suffers from then on.

Maps and counters

Here is what makes you go…wow wow. Even the old titles are good looking. Omaha Beach laid out before you in glorious detail, the hills of Hagaru in Korea, the Jungles of the Pacific and the Steppes of Russia are all done in a way that really takes you there.

map and counters from GD ’42

Units from the old systems are thick and meaty but challenging to read and apply using 4.0 rules. GD ’42 is stunning. The counter art, organization designations and color codes are perfect. the progression and thought over the last decade or so is readily apparent.

The tables, charts,  morale tables etc have gone thru iterations each title, and now serve to provide an easier playing game with less printing, copying and scanning required.  With Op Sheets several come with each title, I prefer to just use the VASSAL map as a saved image to work up my sheets.  The fact that you could just about play all these games with VASSAL is also a big draw card in my opinion.

Bloody 110 Title #1 of the TCS series

The Narrative and Film

The story that comes from the conflict are strong.  History always has a story.  The  leaders, troops, situations, weather and terrain make for fascinating historical reading and provide great content for each simulation Gamers have published. I like to use real names of real men and leaders from the Divisions and Battalions, for color, often referencing their experiences in the scenario at hand.  Gamers has done a bang up job of  research, and providing great sources. The community built aspect is one that make this a series that war gamers, history enthusiasts and players should get behind and support.

So in summary is TCS hard. I think yes it is. But is it worth it? Oh boy yes it is. The hardness is not in the rules interpretation, layout or intent of a given rule or rules section.  I have seen a couple of people play and played with a person all of which are seasoned TCS folks.  Even they refer to the rules.  Its a detailed set, but it is capturing a unique experience.

The hardness is in the choices to be made, the thoughtfulness required to play, the arse smacking brutal reality of poor planning that only becomes apparent 10-12 turns into your ‘poorly planned Op sheet’. The hardness manifests itself as a reality of warfare that surpasses ASL and its claims to ‘tactical realism’, its breadth belittles Cityfight, its depth mocks Combat Commander, and its tension and action makes a CoH player cry like a girl.

Don’t play this thinking its the ultimate platoon level game of WWII combat.  Its not.  There is no such thing.

Do play this if you want to capture the essence of WWII platoon scale in Regiment and Battalion sized volumes of men and equipment in some o the most harsh, brutal, fascinating battles from WWII.

Ok….its 2200 on the 29th of November 1942. We have opsheets to build see you on the battlefield.

One thought on “How Hard is TCS, To Learn, To Play?

  1. Been ‘stalking’ you for a while now man. Love your videos and games discussions. Think we are of similar age and game tastes, and certainly i relate to the hiatus comment, and return to a bright new world of gamers tcs etc. I have a buddy did research for them, but myself and my buddies kind of dropped the gaming just as they were developing – I now see that as a huge shame, but I am getting back in.

    Anywho kudos to you for what you do, keep them coming, all brilliant, glad I have another voice out there rambling through the gaming undergrowth…

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