Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Wargaming with Stars & Crosses

I’ve discussed traditional chit-and-board wargames before – how they still have a following and occasionally infuse the market with new material – and lament they don’t enjoy greater popularity among gamers who often revel in complex rules. Doug Anderson recently released Stars & Crosses, a game covering company-level engagements in northwest Europe during World War II. It’s available in PDF from Wargame Vault (with a print-on-demand rulebook if you prefer) that can range from a print-and-play, hex-based board wargame to a full-fledged, 6mm micro-scale miniatures wargame with gorgeously crafted terrain. However you play it, Stars & Crosses provides an easy-to-learn wargame experience with basic and expert rules, modular board, and rich possibilities for extended and advanced play. At $2.99 for the PDF rulebook and printable component file, Stars & Crosses is a fantastic way to dive into the board or miniature wargame hobby.

(Note: I know Doug Anderson from various online community interactions focusing on gaming; he provided me a comp download of Stars & Crosses, though I bought a print-on-demand rulebook as physical reference at the game table.)

Stars & Crosses uses some original, intuitive rules to provide a wargame experience a step or two in complexity beyond “battle games” like Memoir ’44. The mechanics evolve from traditional chit-and-board wargames, with core rules for a basic game and individual expert rules to add gradually for greater depth of play. The use of a modular hex tiles to create the board increases the replay value and – with the scenario set-up material included in the rulebook – enable players to create and fight skirmishes between American and German companies across the entire northwestern European theater. The printables PDF includes all the markers, unit pieces, and hex tiles to print as needed. If miniature wargaming is more your style, use the print-and-play hexes for ideas on modeling your own terrain; the rulebook includes photos of Anderson’s own terrain, the printables hexes are top-down photographs of the terrain, and the Stars & Crosses blog offers more ideas on converting the print-and-play, chit-and-board wargame into a full-fledged miniatures game.


Stars & Crosses relies on some basic wargaming elements. Each side has several counters representing the elements in an infantry company – platoon HQs, rifle teams, machine guns, mortar teams, etc. – plus some heavier support units like tanks. Each counter shows the unit’s capabilities: movement rate in hexes, attack power over range, number of dice rolled when attacking, and the unit’s “armor” value when resisting damage. Each terrain tile includes a label with the terrain type, the armor value granted to infantry in that terrain, and a cover rating that affects attack success. Devise a scenario and opposing forces, arrange a number of tiles equal to 2.5 times the number of total units, and take turns deploying those units in set-up zones.

Each turn includes a movement and combat phase. Players take turns placing a “move” marker on three of their units, then alternate actually moving those units. A unit can freely move if it’s next to a platoon HQ or equipped with a radio; otherwise it must make an “initiative check” by rolling 4 or higher on a d6. Terrain hexes don’t affect infantry units moving as much as they do vehicles, though they provide varying bonuses later in combat and might block line of sight.

Combat gets a little more involved. Like movement, only three units on each side can attack – they don’t have to be the ones that moved – and combat alternates between players using one unit at at time. After confirming line of sight, the player rolls a number of dice for the unit’s strength, trying to exceed a value equal to the number of hexes to the target; so shooting at target two hexes away requires a die roll greater than two. Terrain cover and penalties for attackers and defenders having moved modify dice results downward. If any dice still exceed the hex range value, they score a hit; yet the attacking unit’s power (which decreases over range) must meet or exceed the defender’s armor value (as modified by terrain and any previous attacks) to destroy it. Destroyed rifle squads (and American platoon HQs) are downgraded to half strength; all others are removed. Rifle squads hit but not destroyed get a “flanked -1” marker, reducing its armor value for all subsequent attacks that turn and making it easier to destroy.

It might sound complex with this extremely brief summary, but in play the mechanics work smoothly. The rules for movement and combat – including the basics and extra modifiers – take only two pages each. The expert rules offer 14 pages of more in-depth mechanics for support units, mine fields, close assault, weather, air support, and hidden units, among others. The scenario set-up section provides guidance for building and reinforcing companies, determining themes and objectives, and arranging the battle board. Several reference tables summarize unit stats, game mechanics, and modifiers provide.

A half-sized game set-up: an American
platoon wants to take out that German gun.
I found a lot to love in these basic rules. I prefer the alternating movement and combat between player units to the “I go, you go” approach that can steamroll opponents in one fell swoop. I found keeping squads adjacent to the platoon HQ a realistic challenge when planning movement, with the uncertain results of the “initiative check” occasionally frustrating one’s plans. I like the limitation of only three units moving and attacking to keep the overall action manageable. Prohibiting “deployed” units like machine guns and mortars from attacking the same round they moved seemed realistic and limited their greater power relative to the rifle squads. Enabling rifle squads (and American platoon HQs) to take a hit and operate at half strength gave them greater resiliency and importance in the game.

I’ve only explored the core rules and glanced over the expert rules, but what I saw reinforced the game’s intuitive nature and familiar grounding in traditional wargames. This casual game might not be ideal for handing over to younger kids, even those with experience with board and wargames, but could easily serve as an introduction when hosted by an adult fluent in the system. (That said, any game-savvy teenagers could probably figure this out on their own.) The rules certainly weren’t as intimidating as old-school wargaming rules; the accessibility of the mechanics and the novelty of the print-and-play terrain hexes fueled my enthusiasm to devise a scenario and play out the action.

Printables & Modeling

The PDF file comes with the rulebook and a “printables” file containing all the print-and-play components: unit tiles, move markers, pieces related to expert rules, and the terrain tiles used to design the board. These hexes consist of top-down photographs of Anderson’s custom-made terrain for the game. Just print, mount on cardboard, and trim. Need more road hexes? Just print some. Want more units? Print those, too. Print them to cardstock or mount them on cardboard or other material for greater durability.

Although Stars & Crosses plays like a more traditional chit-and-board wargame, the size of the hexes easily lends it to conversion to a miniatures game. Anderson includes some notes on basing 6mm infantry and vehicle miniatures on the unit counters, but his photography on the back cover, in the printables tiles themselves, and on the Stars & Crosses blog shows just what gamers can do to graphically enhance the game with miniature wargame crafting techniques. Want to play a quick chit-and-board wargame? Print and trim the pieces and map hexes and have at it. Want to craft an impressive miniature wargame spectacle? You can do that, too. Don’t know where to look for 6mm micro-scale figures and styrofoam terrain hexes of the right size? Head over to the GHQ website where you’ll find a full range of World War II Micro Armour figures as well as Terrain Maker hex material (and micro-scaled terrain supplies and buildings).

Actual Play

I was so impressed by what I read in the Stars & Crosses PDF I ordered the print-on-demand rulebook and started printing out my own sets of counters and hexes from the printables PDF.

I don’t have a color printer, so I printed some of the components on colored cardstock: German counters on gray and American counters on green. Alas, I didn’t have enough green cardstock to use for printing the terrain hexes, though I did dab some green watercolor paint to help indicate trees and hedgerows (it proved too faint to effectively enhance the terrain’s visual impact). I mounted everything on sturdy cardboard, especially important to make sure the hex pieces don’t get jostled around during play. I had no qualms about playing a solitaire game against myself; it’s something I’ve come to accept, especially with the affirming views from pillars in the wargaming community.

I love the scene from Band of Brothers where Lt. Dick Winters’ hastily assembled team attacks the guns at Brecourt Manor, so I devised a small scenario to simulate that kind of “take out the guns” action (and found a big-gun piece among my Axis & Allies miniatures, though it’s an anti-tank gun and not large-caliber artillery). The Stars & Crosses scenario rules suggested a 50-hex board for most games (about 10 units on each side), but I wanted a smaller engagement for a number of reasons: fewer units and a smaller board could help me focus on learning the rules and unit capabilities; I wouldn’t have to print out, mount, and trim 50 terrain hexes; and I could get started a lot more quickly. So I set up just over 20 hexes in a basic arrangement, including two pieces of rough terrain, a few clear fields, some orchards, and a number of hedge hexes, all leading to a gun pit the German platoon had to defend. The Americans took the standard infantry platoon of five units: a platoon HQ, two M1 rifle squads, a 6mm mortar team, and a .30 caliber light machine gun. The Germans took their standard platoon – the HQ and three Kar 98k rifle squads – bolstered with one MG 42 heavy machine gun. Each platoon deployed along opposite edges of the hex board I’d arranged, with the MG 42 taking a position with a good field of fire through open terrain into the orchards.

The game played well, with only a few instances referencing the rulebook during play in the first game. The reference sheets served nicely in guiding me through most procedures. I quickly learned to keep units near the platoon HQ to guarantee their movement; outliers that broke away from the core platoon often lost the “initiative check” and failed to move, wasting mobility. Although having cover really helped – and moving increased the difficulty of getting hit by enemy fire – I realized combat took place at very close range, two hexes maximum for most units except the mortar and machine guns.

The Americans quickly swept away the German defenders in the first game, so in the second one I gave the Germans an additional MG 42. This evened things out quite a bit; the Americans had a harder time overcoming the Germans in the second game, and lost outright in the third (mostly due to bad die rolls and units away from platoon HQ failing “initiative checks”).

I expect I’ll be playing more Stars & Crosses as time allows. I’d like to explore different scenarios. I also need to enhance my terrain hexes. Coloring in the trees didn’t do much, though I suppose I should have found a way to print the hexes in full color from the start. I experimented with one hedge hex – as I found I didn’t always notice when hedges blocked line of sight – and added some vegetation material and grassy flocking, but the cardboard-mounted hex warped a little. I might have to investigate getting some of the Terrain Maker hexes from GHQ and crafting some better tiles, though I fear outfitting the unit counters with tiny 6mm soldiers is a bit beyond my budget and abilities.

For those who enjoy World War II but might find wargames intimidating, Stars & Crosses offers the perfect introduction to chit-and-board wargaming, an entry point into miniatures wargaming, and excellent potential for continued play with new scenarios, additional units, and expert rules. The $2.99 price tag provides everything for a print-and-play game and the ability to expand both terrain and forces; sure, you have to print, mount, and trim your own components, but you’d be hard pressed to find a wargaming rules set as well-designed as Stars & Crosses.

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