Mercury-Market Garden – Board Game Review
Mercury: The Invasion of Crete and Market Garden: Race For the Rhine. Boardgame review. Published by Worthington Games. Game Designer: Michael Rinella. Game board and Unit Art: Brandon Pennington. Box and Rule Design: Sean Cooke. $50.00
Passed Inspection: Beautiful maps; large, easy to read counters and markers; quick play.
Failed Basic: Unbalanced victory conditions; low replay value; rulebooks are too short and unclear; little innovation.
Mercury/Market Garden is actually two games: Mercury: The Invasion of Crete and Market Garden: Race For the Rhine. Both are part of Worthington Games’ Battle Command series (Anzio-Cassino was the first set of games in the series). They are great-looking, quick-playing, light simulations of two major airborne operations of World War Two. Unfortunately, both games have some serious play balance issues and low re-playability.
Operation: Mercury (Merkur in German) was the German invasion of the Greek island of Crete and was also the first airborne operation conceived, planned and executed almost completely by parachute forces. Airborne operations depend on surprise. Allied code breakers denied that to the Germans, so when the German paratroopers and glider-troops landed, the Allied soldiers were waiting for them. The Germans suffered over 6,800 causalities out of 29,000 troops engaged. They finally won the battle, thanks to Allied leadership mistakes and some truly heroic efforts at reinforcement and resupply on their part, including crash-landing airplanes onto partly occupied landing-strips. The battle for Crete is considered both the high water mark and the graveyard of the German airborne forces. After Crete, the Germans never launched another large-scale airborne operation.
Operation: Market Garden was the September 1944 attempt by the Allies to force a crossing of the lower Rhine through the Netherlands into Germany. In the Market part of the operation, three Allied airborne division were dropped behind enemy lines to seize bridges over the Maas, the Waal, and the lower Rhine Rivers. In the Garden part, British XXX Corps was to race along “the carpet” of airborne forces to reach the Rhine Bridge at Arnhem and cross into Germany. Meeting stronger than expected resistance, XXX Corps was delayed and the British First Airborne Division at Arnhem never managed to secure the last bridge. After fighting for five days the Germans overran the British at Arnhem and the Allies had to wait until 1945 to cross the Rhine at Remagen.
Fresh from the box, the games are just great looking. The double-sided map (one side for Mercury, the other for Market Garden) is thick and sturdy. The maps are also colorful and covered with useful charts and tables that speed up game play. Having the combat results table or the terrain effects chart readily available on the map itself means not having to refer to a separate set of charts to play the game. The maps have admirably large hexes, which reduces the crowding of game pieces that can easily happen in smaller-hexed games.
The game pieces are also large (7/8th of an inch square), robust, and easy to read. These larger game counters allow for the printing of standard NATO unit symbols, set-up hex or reinforcement turn, unit id, combat strength, endurance value and movement factor on the pieces without being crowded in the least. The games’ status markers are equally as large, sturdy and easy to read.
Mercury is played at the company and battalion level; each turn represents a day and hexes about four miles across. Market Garden is also played at the company/battalion level with each turn being a day, but the hexes are eight miles across. Air and artillery support is somewhat abstracted but is available in both games.
The rulebooks are short. Both sets of rules, even with optional rules, are only four pages long. Longer “living” rules are available online from Worthington Games website. These “living” rules are basically the same as the in-box rules with some errata and clarifications added. Using either set of rules, the players should take the time to read them carefully. They are so condensed that missing one line could make a real difference to the player’s understanding of the game.
The sequence of play is broken into four impulses. During the impulses the players may move, attack, arrange for support and resupply, and pass. The German player always goes first in each impulse phase, and all movement must take place before any combat.
Movement is standard: units may move up to their unit movement factor, based on terrain, type of unit and enemy units in the area. Combat is also standard. Units must be adjacent to each other to conduct combat; the players add the combat values of the attacking units and the combat value of all the defending units, figure the ratio, add any modifiers and roll the six-sided die. Both attackers and defenders may suffer damage in combat. If a unit suffers damage equal to or greater than its endurance value, it is eliminated. The loser in the combat must retreat as well.
The shortcomings of the rules come into effect during combat. For example, can the attacker assault from multiple hexes against one enemy hex? The rules do not say you can, nor do they say you cannot, so we assumed you could. If a player eliminates the defending unit, but still loses the combat based on points, does the attacking unit still need to retreat? It is not clear what to do in that circumstance, so my opponent and I played that the attackers did not have to retreat from a now-destroyed enemy unit. Making the rulebooks a few pages longer and offering some examples of play would have been most helpful.
For Mercury, tracing for “in supply” status is typical, that is to say an unbroken line, not occupied by an enemy unit, back to a supply point means a unit is supplied. But the similar rules for Market Garden are just silly. Enemy units DO NOT break a supply route, but wet or forest hexes without a road do, as does destroyed bridges. Another oddity of the Market Garden rules is the fact that the German player may not attempt to destroy a bridge unless an Allied unit is next to the bridge hex. So to protect the bridges, all the Allies have to do is stay clear of them. Further, in the basic rules, the bridges over the Maas, Waal and Rhine may not be blown at all. Speaking of oddities in the blown-bridge rules, blown bridges do not effect movement and they are automatically repaired if a non-airborne Allied unit occupies the bridge hex.
Market Garden has serious play balance issues. Each time we played, the Allied player won, usually within five turns, sometimes in as few as three turns. Simply put, the German player is so handicapped that there seems to be no way for that side to win the game. The bridge destruction and supply rules mentioned above strongly favor the Allies. Also, the Allied player can simply avoid eliminating the German “battle-groups,” denying them the chance to come back as reinforcements. Further, the Germans lack the offensive forces necessary to conduct more than one or two countersattacks per turn early in the game and by later in the game it is too late.
Mercury is also unbalanced but in favor of the Germans. This unbalanced play comes primarily from the imbalance in units’ combat strengths. German units strength is generally fours and fives, whereas the Allies are mostly twos and threes. The Germans generally just steamroll over the weaker the Allied units. Again, in the games we have played, the Germans always won, usually by turn four.
The replay value on both games is very low, for the reasons mentioned above and also that the set-up rules are incredibly rigid. Each unit is assigned a set-up hex or reinforcement turn with no way to vary them. This rigidity means that the games will play basically the same every time.
In short, although these games are fine looking and the big hexes and the big playing pieces are great features, these features alone cannot overcome the fact that the games have serious play balancing problems and that both have a low replay value. While a beginning gamer, looking for a light World War two simulation, or someone intensely interested in airborne operations, could find these games appealing, the general run of wargamers most likely would not.
Armchair General Score: 71%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee working on games and simulations for training. He cut his wargaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He has Bachelors’ degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He just earned his Masters in European History and has decided to use all his education to play more games and bore his family.