Flying Colors from Mike Nagel and GMT Games has been out now for over a decade.  Released in 2005, a later “deluxe” 2nd edition added thicker counters to the game and included errata fixes. The game covers fleet actions from the late 18th century into the very early 19th century and attempts to capture the feel of fleet actions in that time period. Subsequent expansions have added more ships, the War of 1812 and Imperial Russian naval actions against Sweden and Turkey. There are more commanders and ships than you could use in a lifetime!

I like to ask a few critical questions of games in my reviews rather than meander through each review. I don’t care too much about components, rulebooks, packaging, unless it prohibits enjoyment of the game. If you want to see what comes in the box, there are plenty of videos, pictures, and descriptions around the web to satiate your appetite. Flying Colors poses several problems that must be addressed to qualify it as a solid age of sail naval wargame.

The central question is whether or not the game encourages period appropriate fleet tactics. Does it discourage boarding, does it encourage the French to shoot for the rigging? Are there incentives for British to pound away between the wind and the waves? Does the game encourage battles to stay “line” battles or to strategically break the line when the moment is right? Does the game reflect the appropriate timing for a ship to strike and how is boarding handled?

It’s a tall order for any boardgame to touch upon each of these points. In fact, there are many games that cover this time period and topic. Few of those games, however, match the scope of the battles. For example, Wooden Ships & Iron Men is intended to provide a more tactical game of ship to ship combat with pre-plotted movement as a central gameplay mechanic. Close Action from Clash of Arms provides a more detailed version of Wooden Ships & Iron Men for those who want to dive even further into running your own ship. Fleet action games exist, but aren’t always from the right period. Nagel, for example, drew heavily upon the work of War Galley, a game from the Great Battles of History series, to get the feel of fleet actions. Frigate, a 1974 release from SPI, might be the closest in terms of scope and intent.

If we’re to seriously examine this game, then we need to first ask, “What constitutes a fleet level action from a ship-to-ship game?” After all, if I can cobble enough miniatures and people together I could use Wooden Ships & Iron Men to play out the Glorious First of June! True, and it is something that happens with Close Action. There is currently a game with 70 players who each control a ship going on that I’m a little bummed I missed out on this time. So, we can’t look at the number of ships involved as the sole determining factor. Flying Colors, after all, published rules and a map for ship-to-ship duels in the Serpents of the Seas expansion. The same is true of Frigate from SPI that has introductory scenarios that feature a handful of ships.

For me, the difference comes down to the way the rules enforce line combat. Flying Colors addresses this in two specific ways. The first is through the use of commanders placed aboard specific flagships in each scenario. The commanders have ratings for quality and command radius. While quality modifies initiative, which can be the difference between life and death in Flying Colors at times, it is command radius that matters more.

Command radius determines how big an area the commander can exert his influence in the battle. While ships remain in the line, the command radius can travel from ship to ship to help preserve the cohesion of the fleet. When the battle inevitably breaks down into chaotic action as one fleet attempts to break the other’s line, command radius helps reinforce the need to protect the flagship. Central to this is the concept of Formation Commands and ships acting out of command.

Tactical games don’t have a need for these concepts because one player is effectively controlling each ship as an independent captain would command it. In some fleet actions, this was very much the key to success. After all, one of Lord Nelson’s more enduring leadership lessons was to instill subordinates with the capacity to act according to his combat wishes. Summed up so well in the famous quote, “…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” However, this independent action is not Nelson’s first priority as you can see in the quote. That initiative and guns blazing recommendation is, “…in case the signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood….”

Commands allow players to control many ships at once in Flying Colors. This is a massive advantage to controlling ships individually as command phases pass back and forth across the game. After all, if I can use one Formation Command to put six 74-gun broadsides into your ships, I’m nearly guaranteed victory. There’s no guarantee a ship can even act if it’s out of command. Each out of command ship must first roll against the fleet’s Audacity Rating to determine whether it may act. As you might imagine, the trick is how to ensure that your one or maybe two commanders have the range to retain their influence.

This is one of the best points of the game. It helps ensure that you keep your ships of the line in the line as long as possible. It also works to encourage the side without the weather gauge, in some scenarios, to work toward breaking the line. One of the best things about the game, however, is that it discourages “bumper boats.” In Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the rules seem to encourage a fair degree of banging ships together and boarding. This bumper boat style of play suits the kind of swashbuckling low-complexity approach to the topic that has made it so fun over the years. Historically speaking, it’s inaccurate. While boarding helped to secure prizes both merchant and military in nature, the approaches were carefully considered. After all, going bow first would just result in an uncomfortable tenure under bow raking fire sure to decimate any ship. Further, the bow of a ship in the 18th and early 19th century is its weakest point because of the joinery necessary to achieve the bow’s unique shape.

There are, of course, still rules, but it’s not without risk. In Flying Colors that means that the odds for a successful boarding aren’t as great as they are in Wooden Ships & Iron Men, but also because it’s no guarantee that you won’t foul the rigging and be able to cut away when you desire. The larger the ships involved, the more likely the ships are to become fouled.  Further, the ships must ensure they are successfully grappled together. There is an opportunity for the target ship to evade such an attempt, but once engaged in melee combat it’s a matter of an opposed roll based on the Marine values and rates of each ship.

I do want to take a moment here and say that the level of detail included in Flying Colors for something like grappling, evasion, collusion/fouled rigging, and melee combat is in odd contrast to the intent of retaining a fleet level combat game. It’s here, in these nooks and crannies of the rules that I think people begin to forget that the intent is to provide reasonable odds and systems for the handful of ships that might engage in melee combat rather than encouraging tangled fleets trying out “Nelson’s Patent Bridge” between three ships.

On the subject of combat and tactics, I am particularly fond of how Flying Colors handles gunnery. In order to resolve combat, the rules only require that you determine the firepower which is a combination of the range to the target and the firing ships rate and roll on a hit result table. The system, once you remember the modifiers of course, is straight forward and quickly managed. It’s one of the great joys of the game. There are hits for the rigging and for the hull as you might expect from a game like this.  The French are encouraged to fire at the rigging as they did historically and the British are encouraged to fire at the hull for similar reasons. The roll of the ship is managed by whether the shot is windward or leeward which adds bonuses and in most scenarios the French and British are aligned with their strengths already as they were historically.

My main critique of the game falls here. The French did historically try to take out the rigging of the British. It was not, however, for the reasons found within Flying Colors. It was to avoid or escape an engagement. If a squadron of ships found themselves being pursued and were somehow overtaken, it was advantageous for them to escape as quickly as possible. Knocking out rigging would afford them that opportunity and deny the British the ability to bring another supporting squadron into the battle. The scenarios in Flying Colors, however, provide that battle has been joined already. Rigging hits are staggeringly powerful in game terms.

A ship must strike its colors (surrender) if it meets either criteria below:

  • It has been dismasted and is within 5 hexes of an enemy ship.
  • It has fewer than three hull hits remaining due to damage.

Once the criteria are met, they will roll on the “Strike Table” which says that a ship rolling because of hull damage only needs 4 or more while a ship rolling because of rigging damage only needs a 6 or more. This is also where the commander comes into play and the fleet’s Audacity rating which acts as a de facto commander rating on non-flagships because both the Command Quality of the commander and the fleet audacity are subtracted from the roll. In most scenarios, Audacity is between 1 and 3. So the average ship, once dismasted has a fairly good chance of striking. This is further exacerbated by the Hit Results Table which makes it easier to get rigging damage than hull damage for good reason.

I’m not sure what the solution to this would be. When 750 pounds of shot come scorching through the air above the decks, that lead will rip holes and tear cordage! As the British player, it can feel unfair on an emotional level. That said, I’m not convinced that it influences scenario outcomes. It may be specific instances where a British ship has failed to stay in command or lay down enough weight in shot at their target first. Rigging hits slow a ship down, but hull hits reduce a ship’s rate which lowers the damage they do AND makes them more vulnerable to capture.

This is a lot of detail, but what does it all mean about Flying Colors and its expansions?

Flying Colors is, without question, my favorite age of sail boardgame. The game’s map can get cluttered at time with chits and markers. However, you can use separate tracking sheets rather than putting the tokens on the map. Some people even play with miniatures. The record-keeping nonsense aside, nothing gives me a more authentic feel than this game has over the past 7 years since I first got my copy. I am looking forward to GMT Games next expansion for the series called Under a Southern Cross which takes us to South American AND…where we get to see Jack Aubrey himself in action! Well, not quite Jack Aubrey, but the real life gentleman upon whom the character was based, Thomas Cochrane.  Here I am next to Cochrane’s uniform and personal effects in Edinborough from July 2017.

Lord Cochrane and Me!

Lord Cochrane and Me!

 

Operation Market Garden is a well covered wargaming topic.  Others that rank higher include Bulge, Gettysburg, Normandy, Stalingrad, and Waterloo. As a result, there is a deep roster of fantastic designs at all kinds of scales. Few of those games have been poorly received which makes it even more complicated to place this game in their midst without an encyclopedic knowledge of the other games.  As a result, this review will not attempt to rank or compare other Market Garden games to each other. Instead, I’ll be looking at this game solely based on its own merits.

First, though I think we need to establish what the review criteria are going to be for a Market Garden game. After all, what measuring stick do we use outside of just fun (and it is that) if we don’t pick out a few criteria. The essential questions a Market Garden game must answer for me are:

  1. Does the game capture the scale and fragility of the airborne landings?
  2. Does the game force the allied player to move quicker than they would like with the 30th to get them northward?
  3. Does the game provide the Germans with ample reinforcements of increasing strength over the course of the game?
  4. Does the game have a solution for blown bridges and have a fail-safe that provides for the possibility of success in a worst-case bridge scenario (all bridges blown)?
  5. Does the game model supply (and critically the lack thereof) in a reasonable way that hurts, but doesn’t wholly cripple the allied forces?

There are other criteria for a game to successful as a game, but for a Market Garden game to succeed, it must first check at least these checkboxes for me. So, let’s dive in!

Airborne landings are handled smartly with regard for flexibility of drop zones increasing as time goes on while also increasing the difficulty of contested drops. The scattered mechanic limiting movement and combat factors is a sensible approach that temporarily, and at the regiment’s most critical moment, stings the allied player. German players will be challenged to balance holding/blowing bridges and river crossings while contesting drop zones. Early on, the Germans will have the opportunity to roll and see if the 406th releases which has the quickest route to disrupt the 82nd Airborne’s drop zone and create enough force to stage the first meaningful counter-attack by the Germans. Even this opportunity is handled with care though. There’s only a 50/50 chance the 406th enters in turns 1 – 3. For the Germans this can be a huge boon or a hearty reinforcement in turn 4 that can add to the scheduled reinforcements for the area around Nijmegen.

As the game progresses, protecting the drop zones and retaining airborne supply units is a full time job. This is particularly the case around Arnhem with the British 1st Airborne Division who quickly find themselves surrounded and besieged. At first, these are weak German piecemeal reinforcements, but quickly turn into armored opposition and full strength German regiments ready to tear up the Red Devils. I tried both keeping a large defensive perimeter in the woods northwest of Arnhem and falling back into a small defensive perimeter in  Arnhem and found both problematic. In terms of ensuring a successful reinforcement landing in turn 3, it’s important to hold out near the drop zones or the allied player is likely to suffer S-1 or even the dreaded S-2 drop results meaning scatted with one or two step reductions.

Speaking of step reductions, one of the great bits of chrome for airborne landings in the game is the ability of the airborne units to earn replacement steps based on their drop losses. Each division can only earn 1 replacement step per turn, but they quickly become necessary and the Germans though weak early on can land significant punches of their own with a bad die roll or an ill-advised and overly aggressive allied attack against a city hex.

So, does the game model the fragility and scale of the airborne landings? Without qualification, yes

Before we start looking at how the game models the British 30th Corp, let’s look for a moment at combat and Zones of Control. As with all Simonitch Campaign ‘XX designs the CRT is odds based and punishing. Equally important though is the concept of ZOC Bonds which effectively create barriers through which supply and enemy units cannot travel. ZOC Bonds also work a bit like Three Stooges movies. You might remember how someone would kneel behind an unsuspecting character while they’re startled and fall over backwards in retreat only to get dumped on their butt….The same is true in Simonitch’s ZOC Bonds. If a unit is forced to retreat through a ZOC bond, they are eliminated.

Understanding and using ZOC bonds is key to building an effective defense and to create static lines without requiring hundreds and hundreds of counters to pull it off on the map. They also increase the value of the CRT results which require retreat or give the option for determined defense which is also a significant choice. In certain situations, you may be afforded the opportunity to put up a determined defense which allows you a chance to stand your ground and fight. It is risky, but also can punch the attacker in the nose in a desperate defensive final stand. When faced with a retreat though it can sometimes be the far more attractive option.

It’s decisions like these that characterize the success of the fun in a Simonitch design. Whether it’s The Caucasus Campaign, France ’40, Ukraine ’43, Normandy ’44, or Ardennes ’44 you know that the tension in the history and design will remain because of these core principles that help characterize this ruleset. Further, each game has a great way of fulfilling the historical campaign’s unique flavor without invalidating the underlying ruleset established more than a decade ago.

Combat is risky, dangerous, and punishing for attackers who don’t bring sufficient force to bear. This is particularly evident in the required breakout by the 30th Corps who must race northward at breakneck speed to relieve first the 101st Airborne, then the 82nd Airborne, and finally rescue the Red Devils in Arnhem if they have enough steam left…or the Red Devils are left standing. An option for the 1st Airborne I had no considered is holding out until the airborne reinforcements could be landed and then slipping south to hang with the 82nd in Nijmegen only pushing northward again AFTER the 30th arrives.

That’s putting the cart before the horse though. The 30th starts at the southern end of the map and must breakout across a series of bridges. While I’ll cover bridges a bit more, it’s worthwhile to note that Holland ’44 does an admirable job of creating stress on the German AND allied player with the bridge demolition and rebuilding mechanics. After all, if it were too easy to blow the bridges or repair them for that matter, they wouldn’t be as important. They are, after all, key to the 30th getting northward to relieve the 1st Airborne in Arnhem!

The 30th looks stuck at first glance. A lot of firepower with very little room for maneuver and only a few well defended checkpoints against which they can throw that weight of arms. A mistake I made was screwing around with getting the right units in the right position. Throw your weight around blindly in the first turn. The negative combat modifiers and halving of your firepower are going to happen regardless and optimizing your attacks doesn’t actually get you all that much. Key to the success of the initial 30th assaults will be their artillery which gain extra column shifts in the first turn to help overcome the disadvantages. Use the rule helpers in that first turn or suffer mightily!

In subsequent games, I learned that there’s very little you can do wrong in the first turn other than not be aggressive as the allied player. The German player’s hands are tied as well in that first turn, but what they lack in combat stopping power they make up for in Traffic Marker stopping power. The main highway north is surrounded by woods and polder (a misery inducing terrain nightmare unique to this game) making off-road movement a literal slog. So, when the first three traffic markers hit the road and start their +2 Movement Cost punishment of the allied player, they can be devastating. As with other German “power” in the game, the German player starts with just 3, but grows to earn all 6 Traffic markers only removing one. They become less effective as time goes on so the three to start and six to finish seem appropriately strong throughout. Limits on placement mean you don’t run into them well ahead of your lead units or something awful like that.

So, once the 30th cross the Buccholdt-Terrenfals Canal and enter the Netherlands they need to dash to Eindhoven, their first destination in 3 additional turns. In the three games I played, allied players were not able to make this happen. In the one where I screwed up and was overly cautious, this was obviously not going to work, but even knowing I needed to get cooking didn’t help much. There are simply too many German units waiting in the wings that get dislocated and need to be removed that divert a lot of strength away from the main push and for an overly cautious player…too much strength. Again, it benefits the allied player to move swiftly with the knowledge that these German units are the Amuse Bouche of the German forces that are coming…

As the 30th does finally reach Eindhoven and weave its way north we can effectively answer the second challenge of the game design about the requirements of the 30th. Yes, you MUST move more swiftly than you’re probably comfortable moving. It’s evident why the task was too tall an order and failing some exceptionally good luck on the part of the allies, you’re unlikely to feel like you’re making good enough progress. Don’t get hung up on the deadlines set forth by the turn track though, you can exceed those limits later on depending on how well the Airborne divisions have occupied the “middle sector” of the battlefield which can be a bit gooey to get started.

In every game, I found that the Germans were able to put up a significant roadblock just south of Nijmegen and again in the town of Best or Son depending on where the allies try to make their push. So, the 30th is absolutely needed and siphoning off too many forces ruins any real chance of northerly advance.

This leads us to the third important question of the game: Can the German actually stand up to the onslaught of firepower they face through turns 7 or 8? After all, it’s just a math problem that the 30th will break out and that the Airborne will be able to have their way for a little while with the weak units on the map at the start of the game.  Even the clever hidden units aren’t much more than speed bumps for the allies early on in the game.

While German armor appears in turn 4 of the game, it’s not until turn 7 that the Germans get sufficient forces to start really making a difference.  In particular, the most vulnerable units are the 1st Airborne. I’ve alluded to my struggles with them already and the reason is quite simple. They have the largest and most contested distance between their drop zones and their target of Arnhem. Additionally, they have three separate and heavily trafficked reinforcement zones sitting in close proximity to either their drop zone or their target north of the Lower Rhine.

The Germans quickly establish their reinforcement staging areas from which they can push forward once they build up sufficient combat strength. Nijmegen and Arnhem are the two closest to the majority of the reinforcement areas constituting reinforcement zones F, G, H, I, J, and K. After turn 7 there are no more entries outside of B,C,D, and E for the most part.  I seem to recall there was one loner unit that comes straggling on late, but the entire western side of the map is ignored. Coupled with the 30th’s decision that they need to make around Son on how they’re going to travel north it means there is plenty of time for the Germans to set up.

In my games, Groesbeck became a staging area that was powerful enough to go uncontested, but kept launching bullets into Nijmegen until the 82nd was all but eliminated and just scampering around the map Out of Supply. The Germans only worthy opponent going into the night turn of September 20th was a combination of the 30th and 8th corps. I do have to admit though that I did not follow the AO requirements for the 12th Corps, 30th Corps, and 8th Corps through the 2100 row of hexes as a way to experiment with a faster breakout. I’m clearly not a good player here because it didn’t seem to do a whole lot in terms of racing up to meet the Germans or trying to meet strength with strength. Why would Simonitch include them if not to prevent odd CRT bedfellows?

So, in short answer to the problem of German strength increases as the game progresses the answer is yes. I almost feel like it’s a bit too strong, but then again, most of these German reinforcements are 3-5-3 and so they move a little slow and don’t individually pack a punch. Grouped together and launched as divisions rather than regiments they pack a nasty 1-2 knockout punch.

Let’s take a quick look at bridges now to answer the fourth challenge of the design. Simply put, the bridges are handled perfectly. On turn 1, the Germans are at a significant disadvantage. I was surprised by what a -1 modifier does, but it’s significant. In every single game that -1 modifier proved to be a lifesaver. After all, a missed opportunity for a blown bridge requires that the Germans rewire it.  Rewiring requires allied units not have the bridge in their ZOC. That, turns out, to be exactly the right amount of time to get to specific bridges to save them.

That said, on subsequent turns the sound of explosions can be heard across the countryside. It should be pointed out, since the rule is so early on in the rulebook that there are important fail-safes built into the game. The bridges at Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Westervoot cannot be blown. In each case, this would isolate the 1st Airborne to a degree that would assure their destruction beyond hope within a turn or two.

Bridging units are provided to the allies though and it’s important to keep an eye on where they’re at.  It’s one of the trickier little things to do when playing opposed. While your opponent can inspect stacks at any time, they’re probably not checking for those Bridging units if you bury them. However, if you leave them on top of the stack, then it’s clear where that stack may be headed. This is where the breakdown units can be handy to detach and spread out some stacks to try to conceal the direction of your assault and bridge repair efforts.

Finally, it should be noted that bridges aren’t the only way across water. There are also ferries that have their own pathetically small capacity. If you’ve ever seen A Bridge Too Far, you absolutely understand the risk and speed (or lack thereof) with these crossing types.  With this said, it should be clear that I am again strongly responding that yes, Holland ’44 masters the challenge of making the bridges valuable resources while still providing fail-safes that don’t completely isolate and kill off the 1st Airborne or 82nd Airborne solely because of gamey bridge demolition.

Our last consideration is supply. This is the easiest to answer. The Germans have it and in nearly all cases keep it. The allies need to be constantly worried about it and get cut off from it more regularly (at least in my inept playing). As a result, the importance and fragility of airborne supply is highlighted. Pretty early on, it can be attractive to spread out as far as your supply limits allow as the airborne units. However, it is equally apparent how vulnerable you’re leaving your supply source.

In two of my three games at least one airborne supply source was overrun and had to be reconstituted.  In Holland ’44 that means it arrives back in play the next turn (following a supply phase where everyone is out of supply). Another important note here is that airborne supply only lasts through turn 5.  At that point, and moving forward, they need to be able to trace traditional supply lines adding insanely difficult pressure to the 30th and 8th Corps racing north. Yes, artillery can still be supplied from these depleted supply heads, BUT if your units are at half-strength and can only move 2 hexes at a time, it means the Germans have a field day with your units.

In one particularly memorable playthrough the 82nd was holed up in Nijmegen. They had artillery support on defense and the Germans were assaulting. The odds after everything was said and done was 1:1 and the Germans still suffered an A1/DR result. The German lead unit took down a step which eliminated it and then instead of retreating those plucky All Americans went for the Determined Defense and rolled a 5. However, they had an Elite lead unit and Artillery in defense which made it a 7 and the German attackers were forced to lose ANOTHER step while the Americans held. It was triumphant to say the least.

Supply starts out a concern and grows into a full blown anxiety attack. To that end, I would say that its one of the best modeled components of this game and when taken in conjunction with the rest of Simonitch’s rules for Holland ’44 it becomes the foil for the other mechanisms that put pressure on the race to relieve Arnhem.

Conclusion

Without question, Holland ’44 is one of the best games of 2017. It was my second favorite and only fell to 2nd because I felt like Fields of Despair was more innovative. Holland ’44, however, hits every single I expected to find in a Market Garden game. In fact, the design exceeded my expectations by being approachable and deep. I’m most familiar with Ardennes ’44 from Simonitch and that game, at times, feels like it falls on Bulge narrative crutches. That’s not a bad thing for Ardennes ’44, but I wanted to see how Simonitch would tackle Market Garden.

It is something special and unique. I said I wouldn’t rank it against other Market Garden games, and I won’t, but even if you feel like this is “A Game Too Far” for the subject matter, then you’re robbing yourself of one of the best gaming experiences of 2017. I look forward to getting this one to the table again and Holland ’44 is certainly a game that both designer Mark Simonitch and GMT Games should be proud of given the tall order for making a compelling Market Garden game in such a well covered topic.