Review: Iron Cross

Rating: 4 stars

Iron Cross is a new Company – Battalion level World War II game, written by Stuart McCorquodale, Darryl Morton and Mark Mainwaring and published by Great Escape Games.

The first thing that struck me when I heard about this game was “why do we need another Company Level WWII Game?” However, these rules do attempt to bring something new and different to this level of gaming.

The design philosophy behind Iron Cross is based on the fact that, at this level of gaming, the most important aspect of is Infantry and Tank warfare, and this is what the rules concentrate on. The game is designed to be ‘fast play’, and as such has been quite intentionally streamlined – the rules themselves cover a mere 10 pages. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the production of the rules is very good indeed – they are very clearly laid out and have lots of helpful tips and examples.

To play the game, you will need a tape measure, some D6 and D10, plus a couple of different types of token, which reflect command and morale. It will also be very useful to have something which will aid in determining line of sight (more of which in a moment).

The game is designed to be played at multiple scales, on a game board as big as you like – indeed a quote in the rules states ‘The bigger, the better’. In 15mm, you should be able to get away with playing on a 6’ x 4’ board, but the authors are really looking at tables 8’ x 6’, 12’ x 8’ or bigger.  The smallest infantry unit in the game is the section, or weapons team. An infantry section is represented by 5 figures (based on a single stand, or grouped together if individually mounted) whilst a weapon team such as a HMG or mortar, is depicted by a group of four figures. A typical platoon will be represented by six or seven infantry units, with a couple of accompanying support elements. The individual armament of models on infantry bases is not important.

Each model of a vehicle represents a single one of its type, and is split into light, medium or heavy.

Play takes place over a number of turns. There are four basic scenarios in the game, and each has a recommended turn length.

Iron_Cross_cover_800pxAt the start of the turn, each player rolls a D6, and the higher score has the initiative and is the active player. The game is played using command tokens. Each player is allocated a number of these tokens at the start of each turn, depending upon the number of units he has available. The active player may start the turn by playing a command token. With each token he can activate a unit, make a morale test or order a unit to fall back. Units that activate may either move, fire or move and fire (in either order). Once the activation has been completed, the token is placed next to the ordered unit. The active player may then use another command token: he may activate another unit, or he can attempt to activate a unit that has previously been given an order. If a unit is activated a subsequent time (after the first) the player must make an activation roll on a d6. This must be greater than the number of tokens on the unit. If that roll succeeds, then the unit may move/fire again, but another token is placed on it (the token is placed whether the roll was successful or not). A unit’s first activation does not require a dice roll.

The active player continues to order units until the player runs out of tokens, choses to pass play to his opponent, or has the initiative seized from him.

The active player’s opponent does not sit idly by, waiting for his turn, rather he can react to any command token the active player places. Most people are familiar with the concept of ‘overwatch’ in games. Essentially, the non-active player’s entire army is in overwatch. Whenever an active unit takes an action which is in line of sight of an enemy unit, that unit can react to it. The non-active player may play a command token of his own to activate the reacting unit. However, the reacting unit must make an activation roll of 3+ in order to do so. If successful, the reacting unit may interrupt the active unit, either firing, or maybe moving away.

Play carries on in this fashion – for each command token the active player places, the non-active player may react. However, if ever the non-activate player rolls a 6 when taking an activation roll, he immediately becomes the active player, and the roles are reversed for the turn – this can happen several times over the course of a turn.

Also, at some point, the active player may decide that he has performed enough actions this turn – after all, he may well want to keep back some of his command tokens to react to his opponent.

As you can see, the turn can be very dynamic, with both sides taking actions in a tit-for-tat manner.  There are always decisions to be made – do I play all my tokens now, thus seizing the opportunity to strike, but leaving myself unable to act when my opponent activates, or do I keep orders in reserve, just in case?

The turn ends when both players have played all their command tokens.

Movement is done in inches. Infantry move at 6”, Light vehicles 12”, Medium Vehicles 10” and Heavy vehicles 8”. If moving through difficult terrain, you may have to take a test on a D6 in order to move.

Firing is performed using a D10, rather than a D6. The basic number needed to hit is 5+, but this has several cumulative modifiers.

Interestingly, there is no range limit in Iron Cross (with the exception of infantry anti-tank weapons and flamethrowers) – hence why a line of sight aid is useful. Given the relative size of the battlefield being fought over, and the capability of the weapons being used, if you can see it, you can shoot it – remember, effective weapons range for tank guns was generally 500 – 1,000 yards – much more for something like an 88mm – so our average model battlefields are well within this capability. This has the potential to make life very interesting, especially if you have previously played games where this is not the case; coming under fire from the other side of a large table simply because you carelessly thought the enemy to be out of range is something of a wakeup call.

If you hit the target, you inflict a Morale Marker on that unit – you may also have the chance to inflict a second marker. Hits against armour work in a similar way, but have extra tests to penetrate armour, which could inflict more morale markers, or even destroy the vehicle.

Units accumulate Morale Markers during the game – these make the units more difficult to order, and will eventually lead to the unit being removed from battle – think of them as a combined indicator of casualties, cohesion and morale. However, Morale markers can be removed by making a morale test as a normal activation.

And that’s basically it for the rules of the game. The rest of the book is taken up with examples of play, orders of battle for late war armies: Germans, British, Americans and Russians, four scenarios and several special rules (Anti-Tank guns, Flamethrowers, Machine Gun teams etc.).

There is no enforced morale in the game: a unit breaking or being destroyed is essentially the same thing. However, since losing a unit will mean that you command tokens are reduced for subsequent turns, the game mechanics encourage you to withdraw units that have been badly mauled, both to preserve their command token value, but also to ensure that morale checks are only done on the units that really need it.

The game ticks along at a fair pace, and due to the nature of the action / reaction system, it demands the participation of both players at all times (no sneaking away from the table for a swift beverage here), so from that side of things the game does exactly what it says on the tin.

I do however have a few reservations. As I mentioned earlier, the design philosophy of the game centres around the actions of infantry and tanks, almost to the exclusion of everything else, which means that artillery is almost completely ignored. Mortars are dealt with in an almost rudimentary fashion, and are very much a literal hit-or-miss affair: no area of effect and no scatter if you miss. There is no place in the rules or the army lists for any heavier artillery, either on or off table – there is a Howitzer special rule, which is used by some tanks such as the German StuH42, British Centaur or Sherman 105mm which gives some bonuses, but that is about it.

All units are allowed to use smoke grenades, essentially to create a smoke screen to conceal their own position. However, in my reading of WWII tactical doctrine on the use of smoke by the British and Germans, smoke was always laid on the enemy, and not on your own units. I know it sounds minor, but it actually fundamentally changes how your tactics work.

Finally, whilst the book recommends that player use historical orders of battle and also recommends that scenario designers impose restrictions on what forces can be chosen, the army lists provided (which, to be honest, are fairly vanilla across all the nations and only give very rudimentary difference between the armed forces, such as the ratio of anti-tank units allowed) impose very little restriction, and anyone creating a force can pretty much chose what they want. To this end, these don’t strike me as a ‘tournament’ set of rules, but rather a fast-play ‘club’ set of rules.

Ultimately, whilst Iron Cross is a good, fast, fun Infantry and Tank game, and uses different mechanics to challenge the thoughts and thinking of the players, for me it falls short of being a full World War II game.  At Company to Battalion level, there is no getting away from the fact that artillery had a major tactical influence on the battlefield – whilst ignoring it may give the game the designers want to play, I’m not that it then authentically reflects period. It’s the same with the armies involved. I don’t think it’s quite enough to simply create stat lines for each of the respective countries armoured vehicles. For an historical wargame (at least in my opinion) armies have to reflect their actual equivalents, and to have all four nations in the rules be essentially able to operate in exactly the same way isn’t quite right. Having said that, it is relatively easy to adjust forces, in both tactical flexibility and firepower, by adjusting how many command tokens they are given – as such, the command token mechanic is a subtle and yet vital part of the game

One major plus for the game is its ability to handle multiple players with ease, and without the need for an umpire. Essentially, you can appoint a senior commander for each side, who can then allocate command tokens out to his subordinates, who can then basically get on with the game – something that is hugely beneficial for big club games.

There is a lot to like in Iron Cross, so much so that my criticism may appear overly harsh. Whilst they sacrifice a certain amount of granularity and detail for the sake of game speed, the result is still very pleasing. They certainly make playing large WWII multiplayer games possible in the space of the average club night, and are ideal as a set of rules for resolving battles in map campaigns.

The Company plus level World War II game is a crowded market, but Iron Cross is a very worthy addition to its ranks.

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