I recently put on a game of Iron Cross at my club. I realise my review of Iron Cross didn’t come across as terribly complementary, but I hope I gave the impression that the rules do have some good features.

Specifically, they’re a good rule set for multi-player games where people need a simple game that they can pick up on the fly. My local club tends to put on at least one game a week which is open to all comers, so it’s handy to have rules that people can pick up and run with. Iron Cross actually does a pretty good job of this.

An overview of the table. Polish units were entering from the right. Germans started with a platoon on table and their reserves came on from the far side of this photo.

An overview of the table. Polish units were entering from the right. Germans started with a platoon on table and their reserves came on from the far side of this photo.

Game setup

I used the following tweaks to the rules for this game:

  1. Only infantry roll 2d10 at other infantry within 12″. History has shown time and again that tanks do badly against infantry at short range. The rules do contain a very small to hit penalty for unsupported tanks vs infantry, this tweak ramps that up to a level where it actually matters.
  2. Infantry do suffer the -2 to hit penalty for firing on the move. I can’t understand why this isn’t in the rules. Infantry shouldn’t be dancing around once they’re engaged. Rules as written would encourage a defender to constantly shimmy his troops left and right to make them harder to hit, which is just plain silly. If the defender sits still then an equal sized force attacking them will actually have more firepower than the defenders, if they shimmy back and forth then attack and defence has equal strength, none of which is at all realistic.
  3. Hull down tanks are -2 to hit, lesser cover is -1 to hit. No change to the damage roll (ie: hull down is still a 50/50 chance of KO if you actually hit).

I chose an escalating engagement. The advantage of this is that both forces start small, so players can get to grips with the mechanics before bringing loads of stuff onto the table. By the time most of the reserves arrived people understood how command and control worked and were thinking about tactics, not game mechanics. The escalating engagement probably isn’t that realistic for late war in Europe, but it’s  a good teaching scenario.

Each side would start with about a platoon on table, and I divided the remaining units into four parcels and made them write down a march order for them. I’d release parcels of reserve troops as the game went on, although they’d still have to dice for them. I allowed players to dice for whole units, rather than each element. This kept things quick and prevented the reserves coming on in a disorganised mob.

Forces

Both sides fielded roughly a company. On the German side they could deploy an infantry platoon, with an HQ and supporting SFMG anywhere on the table. Their reserves would start arriving from Turn 3, one turn after the Allies, but they’d do so on the flank of the Allied advance. The idea was that the Germans were launching a counter-attack into the flank of an Allied advance. A hammer-and-anvil operation basically.

The Germans from an unspecified Panzer division were:

  • Infantry HQ with schwimmwagen
  • 3 Infantry Platoons (all elements with IAWs)
  • MG
  • Flamethrower
  • 3 Halftracks
  • StuG IIIG
  • Panzer IVG

Facing this lot was the 1st Polish Armoured Division. I had some recce elements supported by infantry at the front, with the main force in reserve. All up:

  • Infantry HQ (plus jeep and sniper)
  • Support Coy detachment (6pdr, 3″ mortar, Vickers SFMG, all transported in Carriers)
  • 2 Infantry Platoons (each with 1 IAW)
  • Tank Platoon (3x Sherman V)
  • Recce Section (Cromwell, Dingo)

The Game

The Germans spread their troops out throughout the centre of the table, hunkering their SFMG down behind some stone walls. Unfortunately the Poles got the initiative and concentrated some fire into it, and the Germans failed their reaction to rally and it took four morale pretty much straight away and went “poof!”. Not a good start for the Germans.

When initiative came back their way the Germans started pushing infantry up on their left, threatening the Polish infantry along the road. In an exchange of fire the Germans took the worst of it though and were unable to extricate their infantry when they started amassing morale, quickly leading to the loss of their second unit. The German players were learning some hard lessons early. In Iron Cross the high move rates of infantry and the ability to reactivate make it tempting to move lone units into good attacking positions and take a crack at your opponent, but unsupported units can be quickly bullied into submission by an opponent re-activating to fire multiple times into them.

Meanwhile at the start of turn 2 the Polish support weapons arrived in their carriers and swiftly advanced up behind a nearby wood and prepared to debus. The rest of the Polish infantry and their recce vehicles were happy to hold back for now, besides watching their right flank for any further German probes. This was sensible because German activity centred largely around gathering up more infantry and the HQ to make a second push there.

Turn 3 started with the German reserves turning up, an infantry platoon in halftracks. I was letting them pick which flank to come in on and expected them to choose their right where they had good cover and the Polish support weapon unit was sitting vulnerable in the open still mounted in their carriers, but they chose instead to reinforce their left where the rest of their infantry were. Fighting broke out again near the road, with the lead German unit making contact with two Polish ones and again taking quick hits. This time the Germans were better organised an issued a “fall back” order at the right time to get their unit out of trouble and take a breather. German reserves were starting to turn up in force now, with a StuG and Panzer IV joining the halftrack-mounted infantry.

On the Polish side the 6pdr AT gun unlimbered and forgetting their job description took a shot at some German infantry holding the ruined house by the crossroads, but the Germans fell back out of trouble before they could be hit. The Poles’ tank platoon was obviously lost down some country lane, so the recce vehicles decided to push up regardless. The Cromwell charged up to claim the crossroads, and managed to get a flank shot on the PzIV in the distance, killing it with one shot. For an encore it spotted some German infantry in a field and machine-gunned them. Predictably the Germans reacted but less predictably they snatched the initiative! Seizing the opportunity the German infantry broke out the panzerfausts and fired three of them at the Cromwell, hitting twice but failing to knock it out (they needed a 5 on a d10 to penetrate!). The Cromwell had several command tokens on it due to its rapid advance so had to sit there and take the beating. The Germans felt their luck had to change and sent in another infantry section and fired several more panzerfausts at the tank, hitting it twice more but still failing to roll above 4 on a d10! The Poles threw in tokens for CMTs but only managed to rally off one morale point. The epic struggle of men vs tank had sucked in an unhealthy amount of the German tokens for the turn, but they had to give up exhausted and spend what few tokens they had left moving some of their reserves.

At the start of the next turn the World’s Luckiest Cromwell executed an immediate “fall back” and got the hell out of Dodge. Its dramatic thrust had winded the German force by killing one of their tanks and then forcing them to spend all their command tokens in the ultimately futile effort to kill it, instead of mobilising the rest of their force. By all rights, the tank should have been smoking wreckage, so medals for those boys.

The Polish Shermans belatedly wandered onto the board, but there was still a rifle platoon somewhere off-table, while the Germans were now fully committed with their last infantry platoon turning up. The Shermans formed a firing line facing the right flank where the German half tracks were milling about threatening a rapid advance, which forced the Germans to change tack and pull the transports back behind the large barn and have the infantry debus.

Meanwhile the Poles were shifting the bulk of their forces to form up along the axis of the road, they had an infantry platoon supported by several tanks, the 6pdr and Vickers SFMG. The Vickers pottered away at some German infantry and the 3″ mortar took a few shots at the Germans for no effect. The Poles seemed content to wait for the Germans to come to them for the moment.

With time dragging on and neither side in a commanding position we called time on the game. The Germans were in worse shape, most of the fighting had been done by their original platoon which was fairly banged up. They lost one infantry squad with two more suffering several morale markers, and they’d lost their MG support. The reserves were still not ready to hit the Poles, despite the armoured group having been on the table for some time. The Polish line was looking strong enough to hold the Germans long enough for their final reserve infantry platoon to show up, so we called it a narrow victory for the Poles. They’d held off what turned out to be a fairly ineffective German flank attack and inflicted some casualties (for none of their own) but the German force would be retiring in good order.

Thoughts?

The game did reinforce some of my earlier disappointments with Iron Cross, such as:

  • Recce vehicles aren’t that useful. They have no role in most scenarios besides fighting, and most recce vehicles aren’t actually that dangerous. Adam didn’t even bother to engage with the Daimler Dingo I gave him.
  • Mortars also aren’t very effective. They suck up multiple tokens, only target a single unit and don’t do much damage. Using them for smoke isn’t really an option either as the smoke rules are very strange. I’ll be house ruling that in future, too.

So the main issues with the game are ones of simulation; simply put a lot of the nuts and bolts of the rules don’t produce realistic results and don’t encourage historical tactics. However (and this is a really big however) everybody had a really fun game and came away smiling. Players picked up the command and control mechanics easily, and all commented on how much they made you think hard about what you should be doing and when. That such simple command rules can give a player that experience is high praise. It involves both sides of the  table continuously, and there are a lot of nuances.

One rule I particularly like is the “fall back” rule. This allows units which haven’t been overextended to be pulled out of fights they’re losing fairly easily (assuming they have a useful fall back position nearby). Both sides used this well to save units from almost certain destruction.

The game does feel clunky when you have to go diving into the rulebook to double-check all the variations on firing dice and results. Much of the talk on sites like TMP is about using Iron Cross’s activation mechanics with better firing mechanics, possibly bolted on from another game. I’m inclined to agree. The rules as written definitely need rationalising and streamlining, it’s not intuitive and the players in this game were still asking me how many dice to roll and when right up to the end of the game.

We played the game at around company scale (about 500-600pts) on 8′ x 6′, but didn’t manage to get a proper result in a club night. If you’ve only a few hours to play you might want to restrict yourself to a couple of platoons to start with.

Overall my verdict remains the same: there’s the kernel of a really good game lurking in the Iron Cross rulebook. Played as written it’s a fun and interactive wargame, although it leans a fair way towards the gamey end of the simulation/game spectrum. If you’re willing to put in a bit of DIY, bend the rules and generally knock the rough edges off it you can probably adapt the solid core command and control rules to produce whatever type of game you like to play.