Second Front: review

Second Front is one of the games of the Europa series of wargames (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/26223). It covers the Western Theater of Operations - that is, Italy, France and Western Germany - from July 1943 to May 1945. As such, it features the amphibious invasions of Europe by the Western Allies against the Nazi "Fortress Europe". In order to cover such massive operations, Second Front includes detailed land, air and naval rules.

Rules and Components

As in other Europa games, the map scale is 16 miles to the hex. Ground units range from divisions to independent regiments and brigades, with some specialist battalions. One game-turn equals two weeks time. Air units represent historical types instead of historical groups. Naval units are large task forces, with no individual ships present. In the box there are four map sections and 4,800 counters.

Each turn begins with an Initial Phase, which is used for administrative purposes like bringing in reinforcements, performing constructions, planning operations, etc.

Land movement and combat follows the tried and true "IGO-UGO" sequence. During a player's turn, there is a movement phase, followed by a combat phase, and then an exploitation phase, when motorized units may move again. During the movement and exploitation phases overrun combats may occur. Land movement includes rail movement and administrative movement.

Combat is resolved with a die roll on a simple CRT, with the die roll adjusted by armor and anti-tank effects. There is a host of modifiers that affect the strength of a unit in combat - artillery support (as well as its naval and air counterparts), supply, terrain, engineering, weather and others.

Unlike previous Europa games, in Second Front air missions do not have a separate phase, but are called "on-demand" whenever desired. Air missions include ground support, bombing, CAP, escort, interdiction of movement, and transport. The strategic bombing offensive is represented by dice rolls on a table, with progressive effects on the movement capabilities of the Axis forces.

Naval operations include transport of ground units, naval gunfire support and naval combat. They occur in sub-phases of the movement and exploitation phases, essentially naval phases of their own.

Supply is rather simple, based on the concept of a line of supply to a supply source. This becomes troubling for the Allied player after an invasion, since his line of supply will be limited by the capacity of the ports he manages to capture.

Victory is determined by counting Victory Points, awarded each quarter by capture of cities, and upon occurrence of some events.

The maps are "third-generation" Europa maps, still compatible with the earlier games, but presenting several new features and terrain types.

Land units are differentiated in several dozen unit types, ranging from armor to replacement units. Air units are similarly differentiated, with several subtypes of the He111 bomber, for instance. This attention to detail unfortunately was not extended to the naval units, which present only a very basic differentiation - naval task forces, naval transports, amphibious transports, and carrier task forces.

As is usual in other Europa games, the Orders of Battle for Second Front are excellent and well-detailed, including several entries not used in the game, but present here in order to integrate the games of the series.

The original print run countersheets unfortunately contained several errors; GR/D issued a refit set, although it still presented some small errors.

Overview

First, the problems. My main gripe with the game is with the rules. I have assembled a web page with all the official errata, clarifications, and answers, and there are lots of these. Second Front is still the game generating more rules questions in the Europa mailing list. It is already a burden to remember all the minutiae of the rules, such as all the combat modifiers; add to that the byzantine complexity of the rules and you have a recipe for a headache.

Also, the naval segment of the game is a chore in itself. The Allied player must juggle the ships and their cargo, the shipping schedules and the origins and destinations of the units. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all that, but even so an invasion naval phase brings the game to a screeching halt while the Allied player sorts out his movement.

By the way, the naval system does not agree with the level of detail of the rest of the game. Generic task forces as naval units on one hand, and battalions of high-mountain infantry on the other. This has generated a lot of grief from the Europa community, with some thinking that Second Front should have more detail - like in Storm Over Scandinavia - or even less detail - like in Wavell's War. I think both ways; I'd like to see more detail in the naval forces, but less detail in the transport ships.

Another issue with many players is the on-demand air system. The problem is that, given the sheer size of Second Front, many players are unable to play except by mail or e-mail. But the air system features several steps where both players my act and counteract each other. In a game with low unit density, like War in the Desert, the on-demand air system does not present many problems in a PBEM game, but in Second Front it becomes a huge problem. However, new computer programs, like ZunTzu, may help alleviate this problem.

Given all that, why should anyone play this game? The main attraction of Second Front is the ability of the players to play some of the most crucial strategic decisions of the war in Western Europe: when to invade? Where to invade? How to defend? Granted, the strategic initiative is firmly with the Western Allies by this time, but the Axis player still has some very though decisions to make - since Victory Points are awarded or lost depending on several events, the Axis player may lose the war and still manage to grab a victory. Usually, this involves inflicting "unacceptable" losses on the Allied player. Isolating and wiping out a beachhead, for instance, may reap huge dividends for the Axis.

Granted, a monster game like Second Front isn't to every wargamer's tastes. But this game features both the width of strategic decisions referred to above, and the breadth of operational and grant tactical problems and decisions. This melding of decision levels is, in my opinion, the great strength of this game, and I look forward to several years of playing it in the future.

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