I consider myself an informed and well-rounded board gamer. I have to be in order to fulfill my role as a critic. Here’s me coming clean: I’ve never played a David Thompson release.
That’s more difficult than you may think. He’s become one of the most prolific designers in recent years. I never had interest in War Chest. My distaste for deckbuilding left me waffling on trying the Undaunted series. I suspect that Sniper Elite: The Board Game could be one of the best titles of the year, and I hope to eventually try it.
Let’s forget about all of that. I’m here to critique Lanzerath Ridge from Dan Verssen Games. My first David Thompson work, and one I will remember.
Dedicated solitaire games almost always feel confined and small. They tend to have less components than a full-blown multiplayer affair. They also tend to require less time, perhaps less setup too as they need to contend with the popularity and ease of video games. I’m thinking of titles like Friday, Under Falling Skies, and Onirim. I’m also thinking of Zulus on the Ramparts and Dawn of the Zeds.
Those latter two are States of Siege releases, a popular single player series of wargames that focus on tower defense style gameplay. Lanzerath Ridge is part of the Valiant Defense series from DVG, a collection that closely mimics the overall approach of the States of Siege line. Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms and Pavlov’s House are two well regarded Valiant Defense games.
Lanzerath Ridge doesn’t feel small. It feels like a sandbox simulation that does an exceedingly great job of never sacrificing playability for verisimilitude. It manages a strong balance on both ledgers, presenting a game flush with detail atop a very smooth chassis.
Part of that expansive feeling is a foundation built atop a layer of historical literature. There was a tremendous effort here in researching the battle of Lanzerath ridge and integrating the details and story into a coherent and multi-layered design. The rulebook includes a number of references as well as detailed writing illuminating what occurred between a small group of American soldiers and the encroaching SS Panzer Division on the first day of the Ardennes Offensive. There is even a companion book you can purchase or download for free that farther enrichens the experience and widens its breadth.
The result of this peripheral effort is that the gameplay appears more sincerely connected to the actual historic events. This could very well be an illusion, myself granting extra credit for Thompson’s grind, but I think there’s a strong bond here between solitaire wargamer and the Lanzerath ridge battle, the tie being the tremendous amount of transparent research crafted into the design space.
As I mentioned, this reminds me broadly of the States of Siege line. Just like those games, we’re randomly placing enemy troops upon incoming paths that must be protected. Here, it’s the Lanzerath ridgeline, our troops huddled in foxholes and mustering every ounce of strength to repel an enemy of much larger magnitude.
This design handles the assault in four waves. Each represented by a unique deck of cards containing their own strategic pattern. I’d rather not discuss the feel and approach of each deck, as becoming familiar with the waves and where the aggression is focused is part of the joy of discovery. There is a personality almost to these offensives, however, and it certainly influences preparation and strategy.
Much of Lanzerath Ridge is juggling priorities. There is a tight economy as you spend five action points each turn to perform activities such as firing small arms, moving through your positions, and performing reconnaissance actions. The more significant actions require exhausting troops, creating a heavy cost as you can no longer activate them this wave. Push too aggressively and you leave yourself defenseless and overspent.
There is a satisfying ebb and flow where you often feel as though you have time to breath early in the attack wave. This is when you will want to send a soldier or two to radio in information on the enemy, collecting intelligence which rewards victory points at the conclusion of the game. or zeroing in on positions to blast with artillery.
Enemies can push unexpectedly fast towards the treeline. You have some idea on how much distance they still need to cover and how long this will take, but the randomness of your firing actions and where foes will pressure can leave you suddenly overwhelmed. You will spend a great deal of effort preparing for this, setting up defenders to repel the invaders and keeping your options open. If one adversary makes it into your defensive position and remains into the next round, you lose outright. I’ve had plays where everything was going extremely well. I could envision the little smirk on First Lieutenant Bouck’s face. Then the unthinkable happened and the line collapsed. It was tragic.
What particularly interests me about this design is in how it presents such an expansive look at this particular conflict feeling such a big game for its size, while also remaining very personal and focused on the defenders of the battle. By presenting the American soldiers as actual people that participated in the battle – men you can read about and study – it transforms a mere wargame into an interactive memoir.
Many of the GIs faces are even shown, providing a sharp bite whenever one of them falls to an MG-42 or unlucky mortar round. This connection to the people that lived through the battle grows ever stronger across multiple plays. You begin to remember bits and pieces of previous narrative, moments stick in your head like that time McConnell rushed to Jenkins aid and stabbed the SS rifleman, followed by Jenkins hopping on the BAR and lighting up the Germans in the approaching field. It’s cinematic, but it’s also impactful. These people grow personalities emoted through gameplay that linger. You become attached.
The Germans on the other hand are faceless. Depicted as helmets and weapons, they’re a menace. Targets to be shot and blown to hell. This lends a sinister overall tone to the attack, one which melds well with the story being told and fosters one-directional sympathy for the defenders. The purposeful expression here is well-done and creates a considered whole.
One of the strongest aspects of this game is the areas in which it applies detail. Ammo is tracked for instance, but only for the two .30 caliber machine guns and the BAR. This supports the sense of desperation as you have to carefully consider how many rounds to expend and when to let ‘er rip. Restricted use also allows for more dramatic outcomes, as the light MGs are capable of vast devastation and can swing events in your favor. But it’s smart in that it avoids having to count bullets for the entire group, instead focusing in on a couple of key positions.
This focus on specific elements of the battle is carried through to barbed-wire spaces and trip-mines. There is morale and intelligence to measure. And the ability for commanders to un-exhaust nearby troops. None of this is overwhelming. It’s all small touches that enhance the quality of the narrative, simulation, and tactical gameplay.
This is a very solid wargame that begs deeper exploration. It’s the type of design that I play in bursts, leaving it set up over multiple days and rattling off several plays before returning it to the box. Then, when I come back to it weeks or months later, I will have an inkling of strategy coupled with those fond memories of the men and their various quirks. But I will have to re-develop and learn some of that lost skill, creating a cycle of exploration that breeds endurance as a product and sustains replayability.
It doesn’t quite hold up to constant exhaustive play. While you have many tactical options, patterns emerge and the repetition can grow monotonous if pressed too hard. That’s the nature of this style of game without a living and contemplative opponent. It’s why I prefer exploring these games intermittently in bursts. In that mode, they’re highly rewarding and appropriately creative.
David Thompson’s accomplishment primarily resides in his effort forming that vibrant tether between participant and historical event. This is not performed in a standard or staid way, but rather with a personal and carefully crafted approach. The human element pierces the dense barrier of historical games. It elevates the design beyond just another solitaire puzzle. I can suffer the anguish in losing souls, and I can enjoy the triumph in repelling the onslaught. Thus, I’m invested. I’m not detached. I feel.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.