Theater Reserves are Just Full of Surprises!

By Alan Emrich with John Tiehen

When employing the Optional Theater Reserve rule and its associated Faction mats, new adopters to the Frank Chadwick's ETO game system seldom give its implications their due. After all, the titanic clash of units, large in scope and measured in operational execution, is a full-focus exercise. Theater Reserves sound great in theory, but who really uses them in practice?

You should, that's who!

What Goes In (and How)

Ground units reside in a Faction's Theater Reserve, up to 8 Medium Axis Ground units and up to 10 Large Soviet Ground units. Arrival in their Theater Reserve always places them in the Newly Arrived Units Holding Box (where they remain unusable until your next turn). These units can receive replacements, build up, and break down normally while "off map" in their Theater Reserve.

Ground units eligible to enter the Theater Reserve include:

Newly received Reinforcements

Axis Rail Capacity markerJust-built/rebuilt units from the Force Pool, and

On-map units Rail Moving or marching overland (and spending +1 Movement Point) to an HQ marker in Balanced mode (functioning or not).

How do you find units to spare for placement into your Theater Reserve? There are no easy answers to that question, just multiple factors to consider:

Subtracting Combat Strength and friendly Zones of Control (ZOCs) from the map is bad; granted, depletion from some areas (threatened sectors of the front line) is worse than others (units protecting the rear), but when the enemy is sizing up your strength to consider where to attack – it is usually bad to appear weak (and by so doing inviting an attack).

Gaining mobility by being able to pop out in so many different ways and times is good, and the threat of being able to do so is sometimes better than the act of doing so (per the "Fleet in Being" principle). This alone makes it worth striving to keep something in your reserve, even if that unit that is a glorified hunk of cheese; the threat is poses can be disproportionally much greater than its worth.

The best places to look for tomorrow's Theater Reserves are at Reinforcement and just-from-the-Force Pool rebuilds when there is not an urgent fire to extinguish (this will also save you some Rail Movement getting those forces to the front). Otherwise, you must seek "quiet sectors" along the line where the withdrawal of a unit or two might not alter the front line comparison calculus sufficiently for the opponent to initiate an offensive there. There is no sugarcoating this: on-map units are hard to part with, even when they are only on vacation in the Reserves and waiting like Avengers to return at a decisive time and place.

Soviet Theater Reserves mat

The problem is that there is a one-turn delay between the time you "deposit"Theater Reserve forces and the time you can call on them. That is, adding a unit to my Theater Reserve this turn not make it available to check your breakthroughs on your next turn. It won't be until my next turn before they are ready to be released. And that means it is wise to always find a unit or two each turn to "feed" the Reserves so that your options are always available. In other words, it is faster to make a withdrawal from your Reserves than to add a deposit.

The moral of this story is this: before reaching for this tool in your toolbox, you must first put it there!

What Comes Out (When and Where)

Usually, placing Theater Reserve units on the map occurs when they dramatically emerge from a friendly HQ marker and take their position on the map by conducting an immediate move from there. HQ markers in Attack mode can release an unlimited number of available Theater Reserve units during either friendly Movement Step.

That is, during Special Movement they can suddenly appear to bring strength to Battles from seemingly nowhere (including launching sudden surprise offensives with Major units along quiet sectors of the line). And the look on your opponent's face you suddenly spring such a trap? Priceless.

TITE Soviet Guard Cavalry CorpsThis is harder for the Soviets with the 1 Army unit per hex stacking limit and the inability of Leg units to leave EZOCs during Special Movement. When on offense, the Soviets are wise to have some Small units in their Theater Reserve (e.g., Tank and Cavalry Corps units, especially of the Guards variety) that can be suddenly committed for extra oomph through an attacked hexside that will increase combat odds.

During Regular Movement, releasing Theater Reserves can help shore up a failing part of your line (perhaps you lost a low-odds attack or can see the handwriting on the wall and deduce where the enemy will strike you; thus you might need to deploy some emergency bodies there). More often, though, Theater Reserves deployed during Regular Movement are there to cover the flanks of a breakthrough to help maintain its impetus.

ETO German HQ Balanced ModeStrategic HQ markers in Balanced mode can release one Theater Reserve unit each during the opponent’s turn just after their Combat Phase is completed. That doesn't sound like much. However, after the enemy has blown a hole in your lines during their Combat Phase it is a propitious time to squeeze out a single unit to plug a dangerous hole in your line (thwarting enemy units that would have otherwise run rampant through your backfield). If that newly-placed Reserve unit has more than a single step (so it cannot be overrun by the enemy's advancing Major Heavy units), so much the better.

In addition, you can also place Theater Reserves as Reinforcement units. While this seems far less dramatic then popping them up from an HQ in the middle of a turn, simply returning Theater Reserves to play as Reinforcements where you most need them is an excellent way to redeploy them easily and, for the Soviets fighting in their country, plunking down a full-strength Army or Major Motorized unit at friendly City hex as a Reinforcement can be almost as unsettling to the foe.

Axis Theater Reserve mat

Just as they do on the front line, units constituting of "the good stuff" also make superior Theater Reserves. That is, units with a higher Movement Allowance have a wider deployment range from the HQ marker committing them. Stronger units are always more useful than weaker ones. Major units are great for having ZOCs and Small units are perfect for topping off attacking stacks. If the Theater Reserve is your toolbox, know that there is more than one type of tool you can put in it.

Allow Me to Present My Card

ETO Axis Refit cardThe Axis has one Theater Reserve specific card allowing them to pull rabbits out of their helmet. The Refit & Reorganize card, a Large annual event, presents an excellent opportunity to stretch their Resource Points (RPs) farther. Imagine the entire Axis Theater reserve filled with reduced-strength units and, for the cost of an extra turn "resting" in the Theater Reserve, each improves back to full strength. Poof! For free; just like that. "How does that not break the game?" you ask. Because the Axis player who can pull that many units off the front line for that long during a stretch of non-Mud weather turns has left it so thin that the Soviets have a perfect opportunity for multiple offensives along the line. Therefore, it is up to the Soviet player to keep the Axis player honest when they consider using this card.

The Soviets do not have Theater Reserve specific cards as the Axis do, but they have some cards that combine well with Theater Reserves. For a blistering surprise offensive, combine a mass of Theater Reserve armies with the (Large, annual) Maskirovka card (allowing a Soviet HQ unit in Attack mode to suddenly leap to another City hex); when combined with the placement of instant hordes from the Theater Reserve you can create a knock-back situation that could take the Axis some time to recover from.

Another trick is playing the Human Wave Assault card during your Special Movement Step and, for one glorious turn, your Major Infantry units can overstack and fight through the same hexside together – now imagine that combined with a horde of unleashed Theater Reserves supporting a Soviet HQ marker in Attack mode and you have the makings of an Axis nightmare. Make it count, however, as this is a feat that you can only perform once per game!

Theater Reserves in Perspective

TITE situation mapOur extensive playtesting has taught us this: Keeping desperately needed front-line forces in your Theater Reserve is a tricky business. Neither side seems willing to have disengaged forces off the map waiting in the wings to appear. At some point, however, players consider the potential of Theater Reserves; they begin to plan around the advantages of smiting the ground and suddenly raising up troops before their enemy's eyes and gaining a sudden and unexpected benefit from doing so.

Once players get Theater Reserves figured out and working for them, they never go back to ignoring them. Theater Reserves are the knife you bring to a gunfight because some gunfights occur at an intimate range where the surprise derived from a sudden shiv makes it well worth bringing.

 

Theater Reserve Examples

By John Tiehen

We find an illustrative example for the proper use of Theater Reserves in the Citadel Scenario. The Soviets are (ultimately) the strategic attacker and the flexibility afforded them from the proper use of their Theater Reserves is profound. Manifesting units suddenly from the Soviet Theater Reserve is a vital key to their success.

TITE Stalin markerThe game narrative for Operation Citadel might unfold like this: Stalin sets up in Moscow with Axis forces still close enough to make a viable decapitation lunge thus obliging the Soviet player to deploy a robust defense of the Moscow sector to prevent a lightning defeat. The rest of the Soviet's front line is, therefore, less robust with a focus on defending nearby Soviet-controlled Objective hexes. The Axis only need a few to win and can study the Soviet deployment weaknesses before committing their forces to the map.

TITE Soviet Gd Tank ArmyAn interesting Reaction Defense concept for the Soviets is to deploy beefy Ground units that set up as General Reserve forces in the Theater Reserve. Consider that all five Soviet HQ markers set up in Balanced mode, so why not have units ready for them to pop out at the beginning of the Axis Regular Movement Phase? Anything that is not a 1-step unit (i.e., subject to overruns) is a good candidate and will really slow any Axis advance down; the five Guards Infantry Armies are very promising candidates, don't you think?

Now, project this from a defensive posture to an offensive one. Massing up Tank Armies and Cav-Mech Groups in the Theater Reserve means the Soviets can land a surprise blow en masse from any HQ marker they put in Attack mode! And some strong Small Tank and Cavalry Corps units to perfect attacking odds are also excellent additions to the Theater Reserves. Since most Soviet Mobile units do not have great Defense Strengths, withdrawing them from front-line duty to deploy into the Soviet Theater Reserve is less of a hardship than it is for the Axis, and doing so gives Stalin a very big hammer to hide behind his back – and the Axis can't know exactly where its blow will fall.

Operations Typhoon and Uranus are also good set-piece scenarios for experimenting with the joys of springing sudden Theater Reserves upon the foe. The chaos in those matches makes them great opportunities for experimenting with your Theater Reserves, sagaciously reacting to find a decisive time and place to turn the game in your favor.

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