Eight men, spread far enough apart to minimize casualties in the case of an explosion, yet close enough together to keep their fears in check. They snuck through the French countryside in search of danger.
Sgt. Gillick wasn’t green, but he also wasn’t grizzled. Unfortunate circumstances led to his squad performing reconnaissance on the sector. The GIs that made their way through the area this morning were now bodies. The goal was flushing out the cluster of German snipers responsible. The work was grim, but it was their work now.
Ambush! is evocative. It takes a while to get there. As a collection, it’s many different pieces. A thick and obtuse rulebook written in a time when standards were lower. Odd contraptions such as a sleeve and large cardstock inserts that facilitate paragraph lookups. A number of quaint components, including the standard perforated cards of the time that look like they belong in a rolodex as opposed to a board game. Also, a hilarious mail-in form that reinforces the nature of this 1983 box being that of a time capsule.
This is a game with audible creaks. Like an aged home that groans under wind as if it’s been wounded. Beyond the physical limitations of the industry 40 years ago, the ruleset itself is cantankerous. It’s not overly complex or comparable to modern systems-focused games, but it’s demanding in process. Some of that is the philosophy of wargame design of its time, but much of it is the state of solitaire gaming and the lack of developed design principles in this regard. As I push around chits, reference tables, and read tightly formatted text, I can see John Butterfield and Eric Lee Smith struggling to capture their truly inventive idea with the tools they had. The labor and strain are visible, but so are the results. In fact, I find much of this title absolutely brilliant – in the context of its time. There’s no better comparison than to classic film. The achievement of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane comes to mind immediately.
Private Belmer was on point. He was pushing through the tree line towards the road beyond, doing his best to keep his head down and eyes open. Behind him was fellow rifleman Nachtrab, followed by the Sergeant and Whiteman on the BAR, and finally Private Garrison in the rear. He didn’t feel comfortable nor confident, but he did what he could to hide it.
Approaching a bend in the brush, he stole a look over his right shoulder. He was searching in the distance for the second element of their squad which was securing their flank. Livingston was leading the fireteam, intent on providing support and covering their exposed side.
Then he heard it, a sharp rustle ahead. It sounded as if someone was in a tree above.
But there was nothing. Must have been the wind.
No matter the pain of procedure, it keeps returning to the narrative. The work is there and you must put it in. The bulk of play is the Operations phase, individual soldier chits moving freely into new hexes. You look at the space designation and then slide a big cardboard sheet into the cartridge folder until you can find the appropriate cut-out. Usually there is a numerical reference listed, which then requires you pull out the paragraph book and flip to the correct entry. Then, maybe you find a single sentence with nothing but flavor text. Maybe you stumble into a German picnic and everything runs red.
That excitement permeates each lethargic step. It’s the magic of the experience, presenting a great unknown for you to explore. In many ways, this is more a game of adventure than war.
It absolutely has me in those moments. You can see the throughline to titles like Runequest, Rocky Mountain Man, or Tainted Grail. The strength of exploration and destiny tumble from the design and delights the soul. My heart races a little faster and the very foundation of later work rises from the dirt like scattered seed.
There’s historical insight on these paper maps and non-descript chits, but there’s also a presence that is rich and wonderful in the moment, regardless of year. I wouldn’t say the framework is timeless, but the emotions and sensations wrought absolutely are.
Someone was screaming. Private Theel couldn’t make out who. Dirt and flora were kicking up around him and everything was dancing. Something was wrong. He was standing. No, he was on his back. Nothing felt right.
Blase was standing above him, his Thompson jolting around in his fists as if it was feral.
Then Theel was moving. Through the branches above, the blue sky fought for his attention with the blackness blotting his vision.
The most significant source of contention with this design – and where its geriatric frame begins to buckle – is in the combat. Yes, that’s a somewhat serious issue for a wargame.
It’s too slow. There’s an elaborate initiative system for tracking actions which is overly cumbersome. Instead of simply moving one hex and checking for a paragraph citation, we now must calculate movement points and terrain costs. We have to juggle targeting modifiers and lines of sight. There are a number of special rules for vehicles. And, awkwardly, we still are required to check each space for a paragraph entry.
It’s as if the game is marching along presenting this vibrant world to explore and, as best it can, getting out of the way. Then you find a Wehrmacht trooper and the gears jam. The engine grinds to a halt.
The combat isn’t terrible. The actions offer several options and there are solid tradeoffs in closing ground versus laying down covering fire. You can go prone or pull back, perhaps finding a better approach vector. Enemies are controlled by rolling against a chart and referencing a paragraph, which presents a simple procedure that actually works relatively well. Different enemy types, such as officers versus machine-gunners, behave uniquely with their own considerations.
It’s just all too ordinary. It gets in the way of the better half of the game, ballooning playtime in a similar fashion to the resource grind of many lesser modern narrative titles.
There’s a level of redemption found in the deadly nature of it all. The combat, while slow and demanding, produces intense moments where the well-being of loved characters is put on the chopping block. The soldiers feel fragile and ready to succumb to their horrific environment without warning. Rolling on the damage chart is dreadful business.
Everything is made worse – and acutely better – by the allowance of squad creation. You name each of your troopers. In any campaign game it stings losing a squad member, but it burns something more when that poor bastard is your best friend. Or your brother. Or maybe your grandfather who actually served in World War Two.
This is where the game digs in and entrenches itself. It begs questions of mortality and exposes war for its horrors. It’s the identity of Ambush!, presenting an adventure wargame that obliterates emotions like a Panzer IV running over a calf.
Whiteman stopped. After burning through dozens of rounds he was reloading again. What rattled him wasn’t the concussion of an errant grenade or the thunderous cacophony of small arms fire, it was the silence. It was over.
Before he could tell his legs to move, he was running. First he spotted Nachtrab, then Belmer. Both were fit, secure behind a fallen tree and managing to avoid the devastation surrounding them.
Sgt. Gillick wasn’t so fortunate. He was face-down next to the German officer, both bodies a tattered mess. Then Whiteman saw the rest of it. Bits of flesh and bone sprayed about in the foliage, the aftermath of futility.
Much like Citizen Kane, I don’t know how often I will come back to Ambush! It’s a special game and a historical artifact of our hobby. The paragraph system is fantastic; however, it’s also limited in its fledgling state. Returning to scenarios is likely to produce identical beats, as much of the exploration is in service to discovering specific enemy positions. This, along with the game’s pace and encumbrance, relegates it to infrequent bursts. It’s the sort of game I’m going to approach at best annually, committing to a strained re-read of the rules and then a multi-session campaign where I leave it all setup on my table. And that’s well enough. I can only stomach a sporadic gutting of loved ones.
A copy of Ambush! was generously provided by one of my readers. I am eternally grateful for such kindness and will cherish the gift.