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The Importance of Combat Phase Reactions

The Importance of Combat Phase Reactions

Posted by Alan Emrich on Jan 6th 2018

There is a mechanic in many interactive games called “take that!” It is a deterministic method where you suddenly put the smack down on your opponent, particularly in an unexpected or surprising way. Some great games top that by allowing that to be countered by another “take that!” action which then turns the tables back to their advantage – and so on (known as the Action/Response method of conflict resolution).

More procedure-oriented simulation games, such as wargames, manage this through segmented opportunities for players to react to the actions of their opponent. This is another aspect where Frank Chadwick’s ETO shines as it offers players some interesting conflict interactions and decision points rich with tense, meaningful decisions.

Defender’s Interception of Attacker’s Air Missions

The opponent’s Available Fighter units (i.e., anything with an Air-to-Air Combat Strength) can intercept the phasing player’s Air Missions and, generally, should do so. Of course, intercepting to best hinder the enemy is a given, but here is the secret to success: Air Missions can only be Escorted by one Fighter unit, while a Packet of two Fighter units can combine to Intercept them! That is the fulcrum upon which the non-phasing player can find their advantage in the skies and achieve favorable columns on the Dogfight table. Thus it is always good to have pairs of Fighter units standing by to Intercept.

Hint: Vulnerable Fighters (with an 8-ball icon) make better Interceptors while Tough Fighters (with a shield icon) make better Escorts. This is the nature of how intercepting and counterattacking occurs during Dogfights, which is the subject of another article, but for this conversation on reactions, please keep that in mind.

Even when intercepted, however, a Packet of two Mission Air units (i.e., two Bombers) usually sees at least one of them dropping ordnance over the target. Since the Dogfight table will, at most, inflict two results against the targeted group, two Attack Mission Air units plus one Escort Mission Fighter unit can always get something through. Still, the Intercepting player always gets to pick their (air) battles (if not their opponent’s air combat losses) and so should seek the best opportunities and advantage possible when reacting by intercepting enemy Air Missions.

Defensive Air Missions

The defending player, too, can hurl red lightning bolts from above in a Battle, and enjoy their own Close Support dice! When you have such red-bolted Ground Strike units in the Available box during your opponent’s turn, they can be committed to defensive air support. This can really ruin the attacking player’s odds (and possibly their day). The sudden, unfortunate addition of your defensive air support can really be demoralizing.

Of course, you will not want to risk those Ground Strike units without Fighter escorts if the phasing player has kept back any of their own Fighter units to intercept your Group. When both sides commit Close Support Missions, Escorts, and Interceptors to a single battle, it can turn into quite a fur ball overhead (fortunately, air combat resolves very quickly).

Fighters and red lightning (i.e., defensive) Ground Strike Air units are why the game offers players a Rush Recovery Step during their opponent’s turn – another form of reaction in preparation for events in the air to come. Having Air units on the Air Display mat is one thing, maintaining them is another, but spending Fuel Point (FPs) so that they can do double-duty on your turn and then fly on the opponent’s – that’s something else entirely.

For the Axis, this is a mighty constraint as they have the lowest FP production; they will certainly feel the incessant and increasing use of enemy Air units from the lavish Rush Recovery lifestyle their opponents’ expansive fuel depots afford them. By the end of the war, facing the U.S. Air Force rich with red-bolted Fighters and swimming in FPs, the Axis is hard-pressed to attack them without flying against their plentiful Defensive Air Support.

Attacker’s Interception of Defender’s Air Missions

Flak You!Just as the defender can intercept the attacker’s Air Missions, so too can the attacker intercept the opponent’s defensive air support. This is why players should hold some Fighter units in reserve, to pounce on these opportunities. If your opponent looks on the Air Display mat and notices that you have no fighters in the Available box, they can fly their Mission Air units unopposed and therefore unescorted. You never want that; even if you decline to intercept, they threat of doing so will keep their Fighters busy at all times. Never let the enemy’s Fighter units rest because you can’t threaten to intercept their Mission Groups!

Another small reaction for the non-phasing player is, during a Campaign Game, they can build Flak to take a pre-bombing shot at enemy Missions hitting the defender’s fixed targets (i.e., Air Base, Anchorage, and Objectives). Flak takes place after Dogfights at that hex but prior to their bombing and automatically Damages one Ready Mission Air unit over the target (or, if they are all Damaged, shoos one away by Aborting it).

Since Thunder in the East primarily features Air units conducting Close Support Missions to aid their Ground unit (plus the Escorts and Interceptors that protect and threaten them), there is very little call to build lots of Flak. Still, even having a couple will create a marked deterrent to enemy plans to hit your fixed, strategic targets and, should they press ahead and attack them anyway, Flak will create a steady air attrition on them that will buy you precious time between these incursions.

Mutually Assured Destruction and Self Immolation

If you like reactions and choices, then the Ground Combat table should please you. When you choose your opponent’s step losses or Retreat routes, you are now conducting reactive gameplay with very meaningful consequences. While many of these decisions are obvious (“Should I eliminate a step of Heavy or Light troops?” or “Well, there’s only one safe Retreat route for these guys.”), some of these decisions have real gravity and can alter the game with a lasting effect.

Another fascinating decision is when you suffer a Pressed result. When the Attacker is Pressed, that means they you can either bleed one step (of their choice) and force the defender to Retreat (to a hex of the defender’s choice) or simply forget the whole thing by changing that result to No Effect. When the Defender is Pressed, do you Retreat your units and yield the ground or pay a step and hold it? Players must regularly confront these Pressed situations and how they react to them, while very situational, can also be telling.

Cards in Reaction

Each faction has some Event cards played in reaction to their opponent. This is truly the “take that!” mechanic mentioned at the beginning of this article. For the Soviets, their reaction events include:

Scorched Earth prevents enemy Delay markers in Russia from improving that turn (frequently played circa August of 1941 during the crisis of advancing Axis HQ markers and repairing captured Russian Supply City hexes).

Enduring Deprivations reduces the supply effects of all Russian units that turn. This means that isolated units need not roll for attrition, can move normally, and attack at half strength, while out-of-supply units can attack at full-strength. Although the duration of this card (like most) is only one turn, watching the Red Army bounce back even that long could be very disruptive for the Axis timetables.

Generals Mud and Winter provide the Soviet player an opportunity to tweak a weather die roll (for Mud, after which that card is removed from play) or to alter the severity of a Snow turn to Extreme Cold or vice-versa (and each offers advantages in the air and on the ground and so matters when the Soviets are attacking or defending).

Soviet Spies is a good old-fashioned “card play” card allowing the Soviets to peek at the Axis card hand and, if there are any Minor Events among them, to remove it from their hand to the Axis Set Aside pile (where it might come back soon enough, but only if the Axis dedicate another opportunity to reselect if).

The Axis reaction cards are less subtle, combat-oriented events showing German tenacity. These include:

German Officers Show Initiative, when its reaction ability is selected, allows Retreating German units ignore EZOCs. For all the times their opponents thought they had German Army units trapped, there were many occasions where they somehow managed to escape by conducted clever fighting withdrawals. The Axis player must pick the most critical time to react with this card so their trapped units can deftly escape Battles that turn.

Standfast! also impacts German units' Retreat abilities, allowing them to, if desired, completely ignore the Retreat portion of the combat results inflicted on them that turn. They do not have to budge and will not suffer for doing so.

Elite Troops in Battle, when played in reaction, can provide a(n additional) one combat shift in defense when the defending hex includes a German Mountain, Cavalry, or SS Corps or Division unit. This is a desperate measure for desperate times, but if the Soviets have declared many such Battles that turn, the opportunity to react with this card could be very worthwhile.

Defender’s Reserves Deployed

Perhaps the most intriguing “Take that!” in ETO is the non-phasing player’s ability to commit one Theater Reserve unit to the map from each of their HQ markers in Balanced mode immediately prior to the phasing player’s Regular Movement Phase! Imagine the possibilities as your opponent prods, pokes, or rips a hole in your lines and, before they can triumphantly ooze, march, or drive through it – voila! – you have popped a Theater Reserve unit in there like the Dutch boy’s finger in the dike, saving everything from a disaster. The best part is that the HQ markers releasing reserves while in Balanced mode can have a Countdown marker on it! (“Functioning” is a matter of logistical preparation, not the normal ordering of troops about.)

This amazing feat of instant line integrity requires the foresight to have some Ground units positioned in your Theater Reserve (and those with higher movement allowances, i.e., Motorized units, make the best reserves as they give you the most options when deployment them on the map). You must also have an HQ marker in the vicinity in Balanced mode (but that is pretty common). An even greater threat to the phasing player’s equanimity than your Fighter units in the Available box is your Ground units in the Theater Reserve and some properly positioned HQ markers behind your lines in Balanced mode.

In Frank Chadwick’s ETO you must consider your reactions and savor the opportunities to poke your opponent with them. There will be many such small decisions presented over the course of a game that can add up to some real discomfort for your opponent’s plans, and going in with the mindset of doing so is very much proper play!

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