WARGAME WEDNESDAY: Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda – Central Front Series, by SPI

Wednesday , 14, June 2017 5 Comments

After The Red Storm, my dad and I continued our WW 3 series with Fifth Corps, part of the Central Front Series.

Let me tell you – this game was a slog. I don’t think I’ve ever played game more stressful for the offensive player.

The map is impressively large, and we actually had one of the sets where, if we really wanted to (and were completely crazy), we could’ve had two impressively large maps that adjoined to run a scenario that would’ve been twice as large, twice as crunchy, and twice as time consuming.

Soviet units and movement are incredibly detailed, with specific orders of movement for divisions to represent their columns (e.g. tanks, mech infantry, self-propelled artillery, then rear guard mech). The game features a wide array of unit type and organization. Divisions must remain coherent and fight together, though certain units (mostly engineers, artillery, and helicopters) are able to provide support to units in their army groups regardless of divisional organization.

The primary goal of the Soviets is to move across the map as quickly as possible, getting units off-board to disrupt the NATO response to the breakthrough in the Fulda Gap. They have just seven turns to do it.

So, a few things: whereas we never used any nukes in either NATO: Next War in Europe or The Red Storm, Fifth Corps assumes you’ll use them, you’ll use lots of them, and you’ll use them every turn.

Part of why nukes were never used in NATO was that there was a 50/50 chance of strategic nuclear war breaking out and ending the game instantly, but if we had used them, they would’ve wiped out pieces quickly and north-central Europe would’ve quickly become an almost empty wasteland of scattered and out-of-supply troops. Not sure how nukes would’ve worked out in The Red Storm; if my dad had used them as the Soviets, he may have been able to keep my zone-defense from holding where it needed. But if you’re not nuking with every available nuke on every turn in Fifth Corps, you’re wasting your ability to nuke and your precious time.

Unfortunately, nuking is extremely tedious and nukes aren’t particularly effective. You have around a dozen different types of nukes with different attack values and ranges that must either be traced to in-supply artillery or delivered by air. To make matters worse for the NATO player, they have to secretly plot all of their nuclear attacks on the previous turn, hopefully nuking hexes where the Soviets end up at the end of their attacks. There were pockets and cities that I nuked every turn, over and over, and failed to accomplish more than bogging the NATO troops down. In fact, the primary purpose of offensive nukes is to slow down pockets of resistance while you move around or through them. About the only units I was able to actually kill using nuclear assaults were the handful of German attack helicopter crews that had been thorns in my side.

Seven turns is a very short amount of time for the Soviets to fight their way through the NATO resistance; here is where Fifth Corps showcases its central mechanic. Players can keep moving and fighting till they both agree to end the turn or the treads fall off their tanks. Rather than taking damage, units get “friction points”. Moving results in friction points, firing artillery results in friction points, and combat results may result in friction points. A unit is destroyed when it receives six friction points. Non-artillery recover one friction point per turn, while artillery can recover 2.

This means that after a turn or two, nearly every piece or stack of pieces on the map will be covered with friction point counters, hiding their faces. And because the recovery of friction points always begins with flipping the unit from its active friction side (which indicates that it has moved, taking a point of friction, and allows it to move in impulses beyond the first), you have to sort through all of your stacks and restack them all each turn to remove friction.

Because defending units can retreat as a result of combat in lieu of taking friction points, the Soviets are going to be taking more licks and wearing down much faster, often unable to actually eliminate NATO units. Units who moved in the initial phase can attempt to move in subsequent phases, taking more and more friction, so the Soviet player must weigh the amount of geography he must cover in a very limited number of turns against the fact that his units will fall apart much faster by pushing forward rather than resting and repairing those tank treads.

Somehow, I managed to win. Somehow, I managed to break through in a few spots, forcing my way through and around enemy units. Though my Russo-Polish center and Czech southern flank were held and stalled in the forests, my East Germans found a hole around a city I’d dropped about 30 nukes on. I kept diverting more and more troops from those lines to get around north, force marching and risking serious potential breakdowns and a possible counter-attack against the center. In the end, I got enough guys through and there were too few NATO units who weren’t trying to hold the front to stop everyone I’d squeezed through. Units here and there were sacrificed to create distractions while others drove pedal to the metal down the autobahns.

I have never been more exhausted by a game than by Fifth Corp. A single turn could last well over an hour, sometimes two, weighing options to force march this or that tiny pocket of troops, trying to move into position so that three or four impulses later, guys who’d only moved in the first impulse could make their big attack or breakthrough in the sixth or seventh impulse. Each turn left me feeling drained and in a daze; did my troops make enough westward progress? Did I suffer too much wear and tear on my hardware to make the gains that I did? Why the hell can’t those damn Czechs tank battalions finish off those American cavalry companies in the forests that they’ve been chasing for the last three turns?! The Soviet player will suffer this in ways that the NATO player won’t; the NATO player merely needs to keep his units in the way—moving fewer units, taking fewer active impulses, and being able to take casualties as retreats means their troops stay fresh and recover faster. The NATO player has less to worry about in terms of strategy and objective, and it creates a VERY asymmetrical play experience. It was probably the hardest earned win I’ve ever had in a war game, and I can’t say that it was fun earning it.

– Alex

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Impressive. That game is a monster as is, if I remember correctly. I can’t imagine doubling the size and number of units.

    I salute your stamina.

  • mc says:

    i have hof gap and firefight in that series. tough games. and very hard to find people that want to play them

    • Alex says:

      I can imagine. It took us a couple weeks to get through all seven turns, and those nights I’d try to get two turns in as the Soviets, I’d be ready to collapse.

      We had both the Fifth Corps game and the Hof Gap with the optional rules to combine them, but we only played Fifth Corps. I can’t fathom trying to play the expanded version.

  • Scott says:

    This game is the classic example of one that is better served as a computer simulation instead of a board game necessitating all the manual steps you described.

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