Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wargame review — Enemy Coast Ahead: The Dambuster Raid

All in a Night's Work

(Originally published on December 19, 2014)

Designer: Jeremy White
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games

Sitting comfortably in our early 21st century, we’re used to reading about sprawling military operations from the two World Wars, endeavors that unfolded over the course of weeks, months, indeed years. Yet some of them, despite the incredible complexity involved in planning and execution, only lasted a couple of days. And in the case of Operation Chastise, a mission designed to breach strategic German dams using special bouncing bombs, the whole thing got done in a single night—from May 16 to 17, 1943.

GMT’s Enemy Coast Ahead brings that frantic night to the tabletop, in a package engineered for a solo player. (Multiplayer rules are provided, and while they technically work, they act more like a nice bandage than anything else; the game was built from the ground up for the solo experience.)

Enemy Cost Ahead runs on three interlocking modules: you can play Module 3, or 2 and 3 together, or else 1 and 2 and 3. Number 3 is the Attack module, where scenarios have the player manage several Lancaster bombers (or just one!) as they approach a specific dam and try to adjust both speed and altitude in order to release Upkeep—the special spinning bomb—just right. Essentially, the Attack module boils down to the actual release of Upkeep, with a bunch of positive and negative modifiers poured onto a 2d6 die roll that tries to reach at least 15. And while this is definitely an oversimplification, Enemy Coast Ahead works very much like a push-your-luck game. Because you might get lucky and hit just the right altitude and speed as you begin your approach… but most likely, you’ll just be in the ballpark, requiring major adjustments. (Of course, you could go ahead and drop your bomb anyway, but then you’re relying on a Tooth Fairy-level of belief in your dice rolling skills.)
If you do decide to stay the course in order to make those adjustments—bringing you a little closer to the dam—you’ll have to brave flak and other defenses standing in your way. And if you get hit, you’ll need to decide if you abort or keep going, at the risk of losing your damaged Lancaster, which will adversely affect your performance level come debriefing time. Your gunners will try to take out those defenses, of course, but it ain’t easy work.
Still not good enough? Some dams will allow you to spend a third “step” to try and hit the speed and altitude nails on the head. This means facing more even more danger, naturally, in addition to being potentially too close to the target for an optimal release.
Then, if you do make it all the way to release, pull on the stick and climb (that blasted hill behind the Eder dam is a bitch to avoid!) and pray a nightfighter hasn’t sighted you. Unless attracting attention away from another dam was part of your mission all along…

Then comes the Flight module, which consists in flying those waves of Lancasters from England to their actual target(s). Various problems will plague the aircraft, from not always being able to stay in formation to drawing hazard markers along the way—and the closer to your target, the more hazard markers, naturally. Evasive maneuvers allow you to remove a certain number of those markers before they are resolved. So will you brave the marker whose back tells you for certain that it is flak (maybe all your Lancasters are in good order and you’d rather have a damaged one than risk anything else), or will you get rid of it and take your chance with the marker showing a question mark?
The push-your-luck vibe comes back in the Flight module, where Lancasters that have reached their target may try to “acquire” it (i.e. move into the Attack module). If your planes are in a good order wave, they’ll reach the dam together and launch a cohesive attack. If their formation is compromised, however, individual planes will be delayed in their attack, which gives more time for nightfighters to show up and foil the whole operation. So do you go in with your scattered aircraft anyway, or do you spend one more turn trying to get back in formation, understanding that you’ll need to face a whole new slew of hazards?
It’s a riveting question, and the answer is never easy.

Finally, there’s the Training & Planning module (i.e. the Campaign Game) where you request resources to acquire planes and train pilots. Again, some interesting push-your-luck decisions rear their pointy little heads. You want to order extra training? Just spend your precious resources points and roll the dice—or you might want to hang on to them and just be content with the level of training you’ve achieve thus far. Feel like requisitioning more resources? No problem, except all that personnel and matériel movement might attract some unwanted attention, which could result in heightened defenses when (if?) your precious Lancasters make it to their target.

The game presents more decision points than those I’ve highlighted above, but I think that summary is enough to give readers a fair idea of the choices they’ll face in Enemy Coast Ahead.

I have to start with the box cover: it’s one of the most dynamic, exciting boxes ever to come out of GMT. It reminds me a lot (appropriately, I guess) of the cover for Bomber Command. Great stuff.

But what’s inside? A thick rulebook, an even thicker scenario book, player aids galore, a healthy dose of tokens in various sizes, four blood-red dice, and a mysterious dark map.
The map immediately appealed to my wargame geek sensibilities, but I was surprised to see other members of my household react positively to it. After all, it’s a black rectangle with a bunch of boxes sprinkled all over. And yet, despite its unusual appearance, everyone thought the map looked “wargamey” and serious—in a very positive way.

The cardboard makers are the usual high-quality GMT fare. I especially enjoyed the oversized Lancaster tokens, which give you a feel for the sheer wingspan of one of those monsters. (And if you haven’t seen a Lancaster in the flesh yet, I urge you to run to your nearest aviation museum and behold the leviathan.)

But the real jewels in Enemy Coast Ahead’s crown are the player aids, which are both numerous and generous. They are, in fact, all you need to play—and indeed learn!—the game. Not convinced? Read on.  


The 48-page rulebook might scare away newcomers, and not without reason. Enemy Coast Ahead does not look like a simple game. So I did what I always do when I know I’m about to review a new wargame: I print out the rulebook in advance and make sure I know how to play before the game even arrives. However, in this case, some unforeseen little wrinkle stopped me dead in my tracks: at the top of its second page, the rulebook suggests that new players set up scenario 5 and learn to play the game straight from the player aids. And I decided right there and then that that recommendation was going to be part of my review. Was it really possible to (properly!) learn to play Enemy Coast Ahead from the player aids?

Short answer: yes.
Long answer: hell yes!

The player aids take newbies through every single step of the whole process, starting with the Attack module and working their way back (when you feel ready to progress) to the Flight module, ultimately incorporating the Training module as icing on an already tasty cake. If, at any point, you’re unsure as to some detail or another, the player aid will tell you what paragraph to look up in the rulebook. (And when you come back, you’ll realize that the required info was on the player aid all along.)

That’s the way I learned to play the game, and it works beautifully. (I eventually read the whole rulebook, because that’s what freaks like us enjoy doing, but it wasn’t necessary.) My first play-through of the Attack module took me about one hour, from start to finish. Not bad! By then I had a good idea of the basics, and I honed my newfound skills over a series of attack missions that kept me enthralled for several hours. Then I moved on to the other modules, again with the player aids as my only guides.

Many people have labeled Enemy Coast Ahead “procedural,” and it is very much that. That’s what makes it possible for the player aids to do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching the game. Does it mean that the system devolves into a boring checklist, rail-shooter of a game? Absolutely not.
Decision points abound every step of the way. And while they may not seem very significant when you simply read about them (another good reason to learn the game by playing it), they become tense affairs when, in the thick of things, you need to decide if you unleash your bomb right there and then, or if you go through some more flak to get that final speed adjustment you think might be necessary to succeed.
I never finished a game of Enemy Coast Ahead without wanting to play another one. The box comes with 10 different scenarios, but I’ve lost count of the number of runs I’ve done on scenario 1—they all played out differently. And I’ll be honest: I wasn’t a big fan of The Hunters, another solo game, distributed by GMT last year. It was a fun design, but it left me feeling there wasn’t a lot to actually do, and that set me up to brace myself when I started playing Enemy Coast Ahead. I needn’t have worried, though: the two systems behave quite differently.

If anything is missing from Enemy Coast Ahead, it’s an index. The player aids are great learning (and playing) tools, the rulebook and scenario book are clear and helpful, but I still wish I could go whip out an index when all of a sudden I can’t remember what the Wallis Bonus does.

Other than that, I love how the game tells gripping stories, with the historical introduction and debriefing page acting as compelling bookends.

Oh, and do use the player aids to learn the game!

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