Watch your team ‘profit from the lessons of battle experience’ in Sherman Leader. Board Game Review
Sherman Leader Board Game Review Publisher: Dan Verrsen Games. Designer: Richard Martin. Price $90.00
Passed Inspection: Mounted map board that provides a clear representation of the battle space while providing access to commonly used charts and tables. Clearly written rules that include illustrated examples. High quality die cut counters. Well designed unit and leader cards with artwork that captures the feel of the period. Quick game play that builds and engaging narrative.
Failed Basic: Does not contain an exhaustive inventory of equipment/units. Could use additional terrain tiles to expand the variety of constructed battlefields.
THUNK! The runner flopped to the ground next to the lieutenant. “Sir, Sergeant Saunders says he sees three enemy tanks moving up through the draw on the left and about 20-30 infantry moving into the woods on the right. Sergeant wants to know if he should shift right and take on the rifleman and let Howard’s boys deal with the tanks.”
As he spoke he pulled out his canteen. Out of words, he took a long pull from the metal can, then screwed the lid back on.
S-1 – Sherman Leader hits the beach
Solitaire (or Solo) wargaming has been an important part of the gaming going back half a century. Arising from the difficulty in sometimes finding an opponent for a face to face game, game designers have embraced the solitaire play ethos and often give it consideration when designing a game. Today, you can find many games specifically designed to be played by one person against the processes and procedures that mimic an opponent. Dan Verrsen Games (DVG) new title Sherman Leader, is a solo game that drops you into the battlefields of the Second World War.
DVG’s bread and butter are solo games as can be seen from their burgeoning list of games with “Leader” in the title. Sherman Leader is an evolutionary follow-up to Richard Martin’s earlier game “Tiger Leader”. Tiger Leader provided a view from the German side of the trenches, with Sherman Leader, you’ll take command of an American combat team with tanks, infantry and supporting arms such as mortars and AT guns. Once in command, you’ll lead that team in a series of battles than emulate one of several historical campaigns from the war.
Battles are relatively short, confined affairs. While you’ll spend a bit of time resolving the fighting, you’ll spend as much time managing your men and equipment, stuck in the iron triangle of equipment and human limitations, mission requirements and the ever-ticking clock.
S-2 Dropping the bow ramp and storming out of the box…
Sherman Leader consists of the following components:
• Tactical Display Sheet
• Headquarters Sheet
• Player Log
• Die-cut cardboard counters
• Dice (2d10 and 1d6)
The Tactical Display Sheet is the stage upon which the game unfolds. The majority of the display sheet is reserved for the area on which the terrain tiles are placed. Think of this area as the map where the counters are placed and moved during each individual battle. You’ll spend much of your game focused on this board and the designer and graphic artist have created an artistic interface that is engaging and pulls you into the game. This effect is enhanced by having the background of this space display a map showing the strategic situation in eastern France in from late in the Ardennes campaign.
Surrounding the map space on the Tactical Display sheet are a variety of charts, tables and tracks used to manage elements of the game. These range from a representation of the area of operations occupied by the enemy battalions, the turn track and a complete break down of the campaign game turn and tactical battle turns. It’s a nice representation that keeps your nose out of the rulebook and focused on the game.
In addition to the helpful tables, the Tactical Display Sheet contains spaces for the Special Condition cards, event cards and the active enemy battalion card that currently being engaged. This last is helpful in that it keeps this card and its text close at hand for review.
The Headquarters sheet is a player aid that helps you manage your units, leaders, other enemy battalions not currently engaged and the cards that define the theater and mission that make up the active campaign. In addition to these management functions, the headquarters sheet also provides a handy reference to the complete list of hits your units may suffer as well as prompts that explain the various enemy movement options that govern the AI engine.
While the Tactical Display and Headquarters sheets form the stage on which the game unfolds, the cards represent the cast of characters and some of the key scenes that comprise the narrative. The cards are the heart of the game. There is an impressive quantity of cards in the game. Fortunately, you don’t use all of the cards all at once. There are seven types of cards in the game; campaign cards, operations cards, battalion cards, special condition cards, event cards, unit cards and leader cards.
Campaign cards define the timeframe and region in which you campaign takes place. Campaign cards cover North Africa, Italy, the major campaigns in Western Europe ranging from Normandy to the push into Germany and three campaigns from the Pacific theater.
The campaign cards define the probability of an active enemy, the type of terrain tiles to use, modifications to the size of the base force you will build and the time frame which governs which units can be selected. In addition, special campaign specific rules will be listed on the card. Think of the campaign card as the stage directions for creating the setting of the upcoming campaign.
Paired with the campaign cards are the objective cards. The objective card sets the narrative tone for the campaign by providing the type of operation that the players units will embark upon. These range from facing an enemy invasion, conducting an offensive, to being isolated and cut off from friendly lines. The objective card defines the rough size of the enemy force that you will face over the campaign, though not the specific units. Lastly, the objective card defines the length of the campaign and the base size of your force. The objective card does provide an actual objective – it defines the victory point thresholds for measuring victory.
Battalion cards are the antagonists in the campaign. Each card represents an enemy force in the players area of operations. While they are labelled battalion cards, the name is misleading. It’s more like elements of that battalion. The naming convention works as it helps craft an identity for the specific enemy force.
There are a variety of cards ranging from advance guard scouts to rear echelon artillery and support units. Each card includes a victory point value representing the value of the unit and a breakdown of the tactical elements that comprise the force. Each card has a unique character with some being tank heavy assault forces while others may be robust, but static, defensive forces.
Unit cards are the bread and butter of your own combat force. Each represents a single vehicle or a fire team of infantry. Units are detailed and represent the characteristics and traits of the item being modeled. There are tanks – M3/M5 Stuarts, M4(75) Sherman, M4 Easy Eights, Jumbo’s, Wolverines and more. Light armored vehicles are present and include armored cars, halftracks and self-propelled guns. The infantry breaks down into a standard representation of fire teams, machineguns, anti-tank teams and mortars.
Each unit is rated for it’s effectiveness against soft targets, armored targets and its own defensive rating. Many cards have special traits listed that modify their firepower if they move, or define restrictions above and beyond the standard rules. You won’t need to be looking at data annexes as all the information you need on the unit is listed on the card.
While there is a plethora of units to choose from, the game does not have an exhaustive inventory of equipment. The force mix is optimized to support the games focus on the European theater in 1944.
Leader cards are a key part of the game. Each unit requires a leader. Each leader has a number of unique attributes that define how effective they are under fire, how well they stand up to the stress of combat and any special trains they may possess.
Each leader card is named and includes a nice portrait of the leader designed to help you bring the character to life and add more depth to the narrative backstory of your command. The deck gives you a diverse choice of leaders, including several African Americans which allows you to represent units such as the 92nd Infantry Division (Colored) campaign in Italy or the exploits of the 761st tank battalion in Northwestern Europe. It’s a nice gesture to include the diversity of Americans that served in the war, especially during the later months in Europe when the replacement shortage led the army to trial integrating black soldiers into ‘regular’ combat units.
Special condition cards provide a unique condition that dominates the campaign turn. Sometimes it’s something good (like mail from home that lifts your boy’s morale) and sometimes it’s something bad, like enemy aircraft pinning down your units.
Event cards are similar to the special condition cards, except that they shape each battle fought in a campaign turn. You may find an unplanned reward for success. It may be an unexpected obstacle that throws a wrench in your carefully crafted plan that impedes your progress – and may end up denying you victory!
The effect of the special conditions and event cares helps create a unique campaign narrative and introduces an element of the ‘fog of war’ that can disrupt your plans.
The campaign log sheet is a one-page roster that helps you track operation points, battles, stress and damage during the campaign. It helps keep track of the status of leaders and units between battles. Use a pencil here as you’ll be making changes as experience levels change and damage is repaired.
As you set up each battle, you’ll randomly generate the battlefield terrain by drawing a set of 6 terrain tiles. The campaign card will define which type of tile to use. Sherman Leader comes with sets of double sided tiles that depict desert, winter, European country side and jungle.
The jungle terrain tiles are appropriate for the battles of the Southwest Pacific in ’42-’43. The tiles depict lush, verdant woodlands, broken up with small clearings and the occasional settlement. Structures are depicted as thatched grass roof huts. It’s generic enough to work for most gamers conception of “the Pacific”. It’s a landscape that does not show the effects of heavy bombardment, or rocky outcrops, but is focused on trees and pools of water. These tiles were the most problematic when generating battle maps as they kept throwing up ‘illegal’ maps with blocked entry areas and isolated sections of the maps. Aside from that, the tiles did a good job of generating a feeling of close terrain with the troops at knife fighting ranges.
The European tiles are a good mix of types. At first glance, one could wish the bocage tiles were a bit denser as the occasional patch of the bocage doesn’t seem to be as dense an obstacle to line of sight as the jungle tiles. However, the effects of the scattered bocage certainly lives up to the reputation. Not only does it block line of sight, it’s superb cover and a good defensive bonus to boot.
The North African tiles are a set of tan colored cardboard tiles that depict the mostly open country of North Africa, with some rocky outcropping and settlements. There’s one thing that is odd with these tiles and it’s the inclusion of Saguaro cactus on these tiles. Though it’s meant to impart a sense of a desert landscape, these iconic cacti are indigenous to the American southwest. Yes, this is a bit of nit, but it’s jarring as it pulls you out of a sense of place in North Africa.
The rulebook is a glossy, saddle stitch bound, 28-page document. The rules are clearly written, well laid out and provide a nice example of play. The book is organized to guide you through each phase within the game turn. Mechanics are clearly explained and are paired with concise images and diagrams to convey the information.
The organization of the rules will speed you through familiarization with how the game is played and speed you along to playing the game.
S-3 Load up…
The heart of the game may be the individual battles, but the soul of the game is the campaign structure. The campaign gives you the context to care about your troops, maintain your equipment, and sometimes be willing to accept a tactical setback so that you can regroup and come back the following week.
Sherman leader includes several different campaigns, each with different campaign lengths and difficulty levels. The campaign requires you to manage the stress level of you troops, repair your equipment and recognize when the men and equipment might be damaged, but still need to be considered combat-ready.
Once you start a campaign you cycle through the number of weeks indicated. Each week is a turn within the campaign. During that week, you’ll fight tactical battles against those pesky enemy battalions, resolve the enemy progress, regroup your units and prepare for the next week’s operations.
The ETO campaigns are the meat and potatoes of the game. Each campaign provides the key settings from Omaha to deep inside the German Reich. You’ll see many of the old familiar enemy units here – German medium tanks, Tigers, Panthers and the ubiquitous sturmgeshutz. A generic 8-wheel armored car and halftrack round out the standard vehicles and complement a mix of rifle and anti-tank units.
The Pacific campaigns are short and sweet. They include the debacle that was the 1942 Philippines campaign and the bloody fights on Saipan and Okinawa. While enjoying the love shown for the Pacific theater, it could really use a couple of more campaign cards. Something for the southwest pacific theater either in the Solomon Islands or New Guinea would be nice. Additionally, a campaign card or two covering MacArthur’s return to the Philippines on Leyte and Luzon would bulk out the Pacific campaign deck. But don’t be disappointed! With the cards you get in Sherman Leader, you can still spend a fair bit of time yomping through the jungle fighting the soldiers of the sun.
S-4 …And move out!
So, what’s is Sherman Leader like to play? In a nutshell – it’s a fun, challenging game optimized for solitaire play. The game values creating a compelling narrative over bogging down in the quantitative minutiae of a process modeled game. Your units are specific, and are personified with a leader. Enemy units are the faceless horde of bad guys with tanks.
One way this personification is done is through the way your units can absorb casualties in the form of a variety of specific types of hits. Battle Fatigue, shell-shock, PTSD. Whatever you call it, it’s a measure of a unit leader’s state of mind and ability, and how that impacts the effectiveness of their troops. How you manage that stress will directly influence your troops performance in each week’s battles.
Unit leaders are VERY important in Sherman Leader. A bad leader can ruin a team’s performance. You want as many capable leaders as possible to ‘get the jump’ on the enemy. Some leaders are ‘fast’ and allow for things like a mobile defense in which you can hold the enemy at a longer range to maximize your weapons and reduce your exposure. Conversely, you can close the range and try and knock out key enemy units quickly. Getting those good leaders means husbanding your green troops through battle and giving them the time and opportunity to develop into the capable leader your team needs.
Enemy units are nowhere near as robust as ‘your guys’. When hit, enemy units roll over and die. This dichotomy in capabilities requires some mental adjustments on the part of the player. Raw numbers and odds ratios don’t tell the whole picture here, as friendly units will likely be able to absorb significantly more fire than their opponents. As a result, it’s tough to gauge unit capabilities on raw numbers or with a basic odds ratio.
Sherman Leader feels almost cinematic in it’s narrative. Think Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One or Guadalcanal Diary. Your boys are fighting the enemies of democracy – as Frank Capra might have said – and they’re a bunch of red-blooded American heroes. You’ll know their team leaders – Moore, Howard, Kowalski, Smithers – and you’ll follow their exploits through each of battle of the campaign. Some of them will make it home, so will not, others may rise to the occasion while some will crack under the strain of modern war. But each battle will have that feel of a beleaguered band of brothers facing steep odds of achieving victory or even surviving.
In a sense, Sherman Leader feels a bit like a role-playing game. Thanks to the nature of the campaign, you’ll generate your characters (your units and leaders) and over the course of their adventures you’ll watch as they gain XP and new abilities. You’ll commiserate in their setbacks, cheer their victories and mourn their loss when they fall to the enemy. You will watch as your troops take advantage of – to paraphrase General Lucian Truscott (ret.) – “…the ability to profit by the lessons of battle experience”.
Sherman Leader is a fun game. And it does a good job presenting a narrative of battling the Axis in World War II. But it’s not an exhaustively complete game. While the unit cards do provide a solid representation of the basic troop units that fought in the war, there are omissions that could make an even more satisfying product. Things such as unit cards for the M1 37mm anti-tank gun used on both the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, flamethrower assault teams for those nasty bunker assaults. Differentiation between rifle infantry and the better equipped armored infantry units would help develop the character of the force the player builds. Artillery support beyond a team mortar or a lone M7 Priest would be nice. The game could also use additional terrain options that expand the range of possible battlefields. It would be nice to see additional terrain types such as ridges and rivers, roads and bridges added to the game. This would best aid the jungle terrain as it’s so hard to generate valid maps with the terrain set, but increasing the unique battlefields for the other theaters would also add a lot of value to the game. (Editor’s Note – The Terrain Expansion Packs have been released and are available now! How’s that for service?)
None of these absences are what we can call broken items. In fact, they could all be easily addressed through what we can hope will be future expansions to the core game that added additional units, leaders and abilities and terrain tiles.
Sherman Leader is a fun engaging game that will give you countless evenings of entertainment as you play through the numerous possible campaign combinations provided. Grab a copy of Sherman Leader and move out. The enemy won’t wait, soldier – and neither should you!
(Full Disclosure – Armchair General’s Editor and Contributing Writer Rick Martin is the designer of this game and Tiger Leader.)
Armchair General Rating: 96%
Suitability for solo play: 5 (1-5, 1- not suitable for solo play, 5-perfect for solo play)
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.