Band of Heroes – Boardgame Review
Band of Heroes is the second offering in Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘N Load series (the first was Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam) and portrays squad tactical combat in a fast paced, realistic simulation which is long on fun, and short on complexity. The game pits troopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions against SS Panzergrenadiers, Fallschirmjäger and Wehrmacht soldiers, and focuses on the squads that fought in Normandy, the weapons they used, and the armored vehicles that fought along side them. The game’s title is inspired by the final battle scene in Saving Private Ryan, and this action is recreated in a scenario appropriately named "The Alamo."
The artwork of the counters and map boards is truly stunning. Individuals, teams, squads, support weapons, vehicles, and fortifications are depicted in gorgeous colors and remarkable detail. The size of the counters-5/8" for squads and leaders, 3/4" for teams and 7/8" for vehicles-makes the information easy to read. Components have number ratings for morale, leadership, movement, range and firepower. All infantry counters have a good order side, and on the reverse, a "shaken" side. The reverse of vehicle counters contains a "To Hit" table. In addition, leaders and heroes are often assigned skill cards which bestow special abilities such as enhanced morale or sighting. The fact that individuals are named gives the game a more personal flavor. You think twice before ordering Cpt. McCauley and his squad to dash in the open into the waiting sights of a German MG42! Unlike Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, the geomorphic map boards are mounted on hard stock. Each hex represents fifty meters. The maps are a little too "busy" for my taste, but the "bleedover" effects of the graphics give a realistic appearance. Finally, the rule book gets you into basic game play in just twelve pages, and the volume 2 edition updates all Lock ‘n Load rules, making Lock ‘n Load a unique game system.
I began tactical wargaming with Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, which I thought was an excellent game at the time and one I played repeatedly. However, once Advanced Squad Leader made its appearance, I lost interest. The reason – the game became too complex and sacrificed playability for realism. For me it was impossible to play the game without having to constantly refer to the rulebook. Band of Heroes, on the other hand, offers a combination of realism and playability that once again makes tactical wargaming fun. Once you master the game mechanics there is very little need to refer to the rulebook. Plus, the six charts and tables needed to play the game are contained in a simple to use four page folder. Everything is at your fingertips!
The heart and soul of Band of Heroes is the impulse system, which I first encountered in Avalon Hill’s Storm Over Arnhem, then in Thunder At Casino, Turning Point Stalingrad, and finally Breakout Normandy. Because those games were operational in scope, they used area movement to cover the large scale of combat. What Mark Walker has done so beautifully in Band of Heroes is adapt the impulse system to a tactical wargame which creates a feel of simultaneous movement, yet maintains the action/reaction sequence so characteristic of infantry combat. Since each game turn is a series of impulses where players alternate moving and firing their units, there are many decisions which have to be made over the course of a scenario (usually lasting from five to eight turns). Deciding when to use leaders to support fire attacks, when to hold them back so they can rally shaken troops, and when to lead an advance into an enemy occupied hex are only a few of the decisions that face each player during a hotly contested scenario. And unlike Squad Leader the impulse system provides both players with flexibility to try different tactics. It’s possible to "draw" enemy fire by moving one squad, then charging the enemy position on a later impulse with other uncommitted units. Band of Heroes blends these tactical elements into a game that flows smoothly and has high excitement level. The impulse system is as close as you can get to simultaneous movement in a board game.
Another realistic change from Squad Leader is the need to spot units that are in degrading (such as a wheat field) or blocking terrain (woods and buildings). Just because the American player can see the German squad and machine gun hiding in the stone building, doesn’t mean Lieutenant Clarkson can. A successful spotting die roll has to be made in order to fire at the unit, and the chance of spotting a unit in a wood building is just 50% for the best leaders in the game. A failure to spot the enemy can throw a monkey wrench into the most carefully planned attack!
As in all games, luck plays a factor in Band of Heroes. However, the number of impulses and good scenario design equalizes the luck factor. Although Lady Luck will undoubtedly smile on both players, it will be that player who best employs sound infantry tactics who will emerge victorious.
While the primary focus of the game is on the infantry, the armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) add their own flavor. The well-designed counters are realistically depicted and are large enough so that all pertinent information can be easily read. The primary use of tanks is to destroy enemy vehicles, but in some scenarios only one side has AFVs, so armor can be used to knock out stubborn defensive positions to advance an attack. And it’s a tanker’s dream to catch infantry in the open where machine gun and cannon fire can pound the hapless squads during an overrun attack. However, the armor must beware the infantry support weapons – bazookas, panzerfausts and panzerschrecks. Just as in real life combat, sending tanks into street fighting without infantry support is begging destruction.
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