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When to Build 'Em Up and Break 'Em Down

When to Build 'Em Up and Break 'Em Down

Posted by Alan Emrich on Aug 30th 2018

When to Build ‘Em Up and Break ‘Em Down

The Large and Small Benefits inside Your Change Box

By Alan Emrich


Frank Chadwick’s ETO offers Large, Medium, and Small units on land, air, and sea (with the different size Naval units appearing in the series’ next game, The Middle Sea). However, it is the nature of Ground units to enjoy a malleable organization structure, and this story is told through each faction’s Change box.

Axis Change Box (Thunder in the East

Designed as a primarily Corps level / Medium size Ground unit game, but in spanning the entire length of the war and breadth of its theaters, Frank Chadwick’s ETO design recognized that flexibility was needed to get certain parts of the narrative correct. Players sending Small (Division size) Ground units off to fight in the Wilderness Theaters (i.e., the Arctic in the north and Desert in the south), dropping from the skies, or landing from war flotillas was a natural. Forming Medium Ground units into Larger battering rams which concentrate a lot of firepower through a single hexside nicely shows the other side of that same coin.

Allied Change Box (The Middle Sea prototype)

The Soviet Army has its own unique organization structure, but the Western Armies (i.e., those of Germany, the UK, and most others) work with a similar Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E). While all of the Large (Army-size) Ground units that appeared historically are included, only enough Division breakdown formations of Motorized units are included in Thunder in the East to provide some flexibility when conducting special operations (and not enough to cover the map with “ants”).

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the Axis Change box, but the principles offered here translate to Soviet Mechanized units in their Change box as well. Note that unit IDs are also malleable through Change Box activities; i.e., it is only important to get the correct value units out of the change box, not their historically accurate ID names or numbers.


Build Ups: Timing and Purpose

Contradicting the song title (“Breaking Up is Hard to Do”), building up is hard to do (and deliberately so). Amassing sufficient component Ground units in a hex to form their assembled Army or Corps unit when combined is an exercise in bad timing. Consider: the best time to amass troops to assemble is immediately prior to your Combat Phase when such easy concentrations would be most beneficial. Unfortunately for the canny gamer, history rears its head and, with a nod to operational problems of logistics, organization, and coordination, you can only assemble “little ones into big ones” at the beginning of your Regular Movement Phase, just after combat! This requires some wrong-footed combat approaches and/or forward-thinking planning for future organizational needs.

This simple procedural design solution simulates the forethought required to organize Ground units upward. You must sacrifice their deployment flexibility during that turn’s Special Movement and Combat Phases so that the units wishing to assemble will be stacked in the same hex when the time comes for them to combine. Essentially, you have to plan your build ups ahead of time and concentrate these forces on the turn before you need their larger guise.

Typically, you assemble built up units to concentrate their Attack Strengths. This is a big plus due to the attack limit of one Major unit per hexside; battering rams, when in the right place at the right time, are very useful and can often secure a critical hex. Better still, forming 10+ Attack Strength Motorized units allows them to conduct overruns, the threat of which really keeps your opponent’s deployments honest.

These alternate Panzer Corps are featured in The Middle Sea

Of course, assembling Large units often has drawbacks. Simply doing the math, adding their component units together, you usually see that their sum does not equal their larger unit’s values. The newly assembled Army unit, which requires full-strength Corps components, might be slower and lose something in the translation of its Combat Strength (but it still usually worth it to build a “battering ram” when required). On the other hand, assembling Medium (typically Motorized) units in Thunder in the East actually means improving their numbers and concentrating their Attack Strengths, so why would you ever break them down into Divisions in the first place?

Do you see the German Panzer Armies and Division prowling around?


Break Downs: Timing and Purpose

Again contradicting the song title, in ETO breaking up is easy to do. Armies can split up into their component Corps, and Corps into their component Divisions, with the ease of waving a pistol. At any time during movement (and without spending a single Movement Point to do so!), including during Advance After Combat, you can break down a Major (i.e., Medium or Large) unit according to its TO&E in the Change box. This can also happen involuntarily when Large units suffer combat step losses, so breaking down assembled Major units seems to happen all the time.

Naturally, units break down (as they build up) according to their TO&E in the Change box. But to answer the question why would you voluntarily break down a Major unit after forming it and enjoying its advantages, I offer these reasons:

First, and most importantly, Corps typically break down into their component Divisions to add those Divisions to a hex hoping to squeeze in enough factors for a higher combat odds attack. This is nothing to sneeze at: a full strength German Panzer Army unit can put 24 Attack Strength through a single hexside in combat; supplement that with a 4 Attack Strength Panzer Division unit, and now you’re looking at an incredible 28 factors per hexside concentration (which means attacking a reduced strength Soviet Rifle Infantry Army unit at 5:1 rather than 4:1 odds; or a reduced strength Guards Infantry Army unit at 4:1 rather than 3:1 odds, etc.). Battering rams like these can knock down almost any wall (especially when supported by Air and/or Naval units for potential extra odds shifts).

German 4-2-[6] Panzer DivisionAnother reason, something that you will see in future games in the ETO series, is that Divisional break down units are easily transportable by sea (and, for Airborne and Mountain Divisions, by air). Furthermore, the backbone of forces operating in the Wilderness Theaters (i.e., the Desert and Arctic) are the Divisions which, although Small units, can exert a Zone of Control (except to block retreats). These extreme climates also prohibit Army units and Strategic HQ markers from operating there.

Imagine the TO&E of a Panzer Corps unit sent to Italy in 1943 to hinder the Allies driving up the boot. By breaking down into its three component Heavy Divisions, it creates multiple ZOC obstacles along that narrow front which should slow the Allies down nicely. That is exactly what the Germans did in response to Italy’s surrender and the Allies’ Operation Avalanche landings!

Army units typically break down into their component Corps to cover more ground and spread their Zones of Control wider. When Advancing After Combat, sagacity permits having half of that Army unit (i.e., one of its component Corps) advance while the other half stays put and keeps the line of communication open to the advancing unit. That is, these Large Army units best illustrate the axiom that you build up for attacks and spread out for defense.


The Change Box Shuffle

Army units and their Corps components carry with them two important notes: 1) You can only build up an Army unit from full strength component Corps units; reduced strength Corps need not apply; and 2) But a reduced strength Army unit does break down with a natural reduction in its component Corps units’ strength. This is illustrated by their TO&E in the Change box, but the general rule is this: when the component Corps units are different, the Axis get the worst end of it (i.e., the better component Corps unit absorbs its Army’s losses) while the Soviets get the better end of it (with their cheap-and-easy Tank Corps bearing their Army’s losses and their Late War Mech Corp unit surviving).

An important note about shuffling units to and from the Change box is that you cannot spend Resource Points (RPs) to buy units from the Change box and place them onto the map. That is what your Force Pool is for, not your Change box! Players must take care that they do not inadvertently expand their Order of Battle by misplacing exchanged units into their Force Pool. Players must also carefully split losses suffered from units breaking down (especially those breaking down involuntarily) between the map (the surviving component Corps units) and the Force Pool (the eliminated component Corps units).

The Middle Sea Build Cost chart (playtest)

Small Units Back from the Dead

One thing the Axis player will discover in Thunder in the East (but the Axis and Allied factions will really appreciate in the other games in this series) are the dubious delights of dead Divisions. When eliminated in combat, these return to their owners Force Pool (not the Change box!). And Division units in your Force Pool have some interesting abilities.

First, they are cheap to replace at only ½ RP each. That is not to say they’re a great value (Major Corps units usually provide a better bang-for-buck), but Small units are low price. Better still, Small Motorized units, resurrected from the Force Pool, require no Fuel Point (FP) expenditure to replace back onto the map – and for the Axis, that is often a vital consideration.

Second, their placement back onto the map is far more flexible than it is placing Major units. That is, you must build Major units back in their home territory, but Minor units (e.g., Axis Divisions, Soviet Tank Corps) only require a supplied City hex. Also note that players can directly place (silver) medaled Major Medium units onto the map via Korpsgruppes/Battlegroups or, for the Axis, convert them in place with Force Pool-dwelling Division units (instead of a reduced strength Corps). It’s something to think about and fascinating to see on the map – for 1/2 EP, boom!, a German 1-2-[5] Korpsgruppe turns into a 4-2-[6] Panzer Division from the Force Pool. I bet the Soviets didn’t see that coming!


Small, Medium, and Large

The Change Box is only for Ground units and their organization. Air and Naval units do not “make change” during play but suffer and recover from losses in their own special ways which are examined more closely in other articles. For now, you have the case for Ground unit organization – building up and breaking down – there is a proper time and place for everything!

These alternate German Panzer Corps units will appear in The Middle Sea.

If you would like to watch the author explain this in a video, look here:

Video errata: Small Heavy units do exert Zones of Control, but their ZOCs do not affect Retreats!