Ambush!

Ambush! & Battle Hymn

Author: Lutz Pietschker
Version: 1998

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Ambush! and Battle Hymn: Solitaire Wargames

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Contents:

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Wish you were there?

Move Out! box, 6k So you watched "Kelly's Heroes" and all the other war movies that take a walk on the light side? And you felt a desire to experience similar heroism and adventure, but some instinct tells you that reality might not be quite as funny as Hollywood, and this feeling keeps you from selling all your belongings and join the Foreign Legion? And, on top of that, you are alone with your desire?
Well, you can be helped: "Ambush!" should be precisely the game for you. You drag yourself through all corners of the war-torn world of the 1940's with your "poor bloody infantry" squad, while Germans, Japanese and what-have-you are out to shorten your heroic career as much as they can. Feel the misery to stumble into the fire lane of an MG42, trip a booby-trap, get shot at by the occasional sniper- but also feel the glory to take out that King Tiger tank single-handed with your last hand grenade! The scene is set, the spotlights are on, featuring- YOU!

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The Game: Abstract

The basic "Ambush!" game was first published around 1984 I believe. The modules "Move Out!", "Silver Star" and "Purple Heart" add new missions and usually new maps, counters and rule extensions. All the missions play in Europe, on D-Day and after.
"Battle Hymn" is a complete game again, and (like its module "Leatherneck") plays in the pacific theatre of operations ("Visit The Banzai Experience!").
A 2-player version of the game has been published in 1989 under the name of "Shell Shock". I never really played it, but after browsing the rules it seems that the basic concepts have been pretty well translated.

The game is covered in "General" Vol. 26-5 (a review) and "Victory Insider"

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Game concepts

You start to each "mission" (scenario) with a squad of 8 soldiers who have distinct capabilities (initiative, perception, weapon skill, driving skill) and an individual set of equipment, from rifle to hand grenades (and even a limited supply of ammunition clips). This is similar to a simple role-playing game. As (and if) your soldiers live through their adventures, they increase their skills, and they may buy new equipment at the start of each scenario.
The mission briefing gives the objectives for that mission (victory conditions), and often additional rules or special equipment.

The game starts in "operations" mode of a rather rough time scale, with your soldiers moving from hex to hex and making an "event check" in each. The event check is performed by aligning a hex number on a cardboard sleeve with a hex letter on a mission card and reading the result in a viewing slot. Usually this is either "no event" or a paragraph number that you look up in a paragraph booklet (which contains some hundreds of paragraphs, even funny ones that are never used). The paragraph often gives conditions, e.g. a die roll against the soldier's perception, that lead to another paragraph telling you what exactly is going to happen. Eventually, the enemy will appear, and the game switches to the second mode, "rounds", that last as long as enemies are on the map. Play may switch between operations and rounds any number of times in a mission.

In rounds, the time scale changes to something like 5 to 15 seconds per round (enough to move approx. 40 m, fire one aimed shot, or load a bazooka). Your soldiers must first become aware of the enemies that appeared (which may take up to 2 rounds if they are not very bright), then "advantage" is determined for that round (die roll), and then soldiers may act in the order given by advantage and their personal initiative rating. You may find yourself exposed to some bullets without even being able to react! (Hence the name of the game, probably.)
You have a large choice of possible actions while in rounds. One important concept is that some soldiers are marked as "commanders", giving them a special role as they may prevent soldiers inside their command radius from panicking, or may give additional actions to those soldiers (presumably by inspiring them to greater-than-usual activity).

The enemy is represented by counters similar to your own, and he has similar characteristics that are noted on "soldier cards". The soldier cards show skill values for that soldier and a matrix of paragraph numbers that describe his possible reactions, dependent on the situation and a die roll.

Certain events in a mission trigger a "condition" change. When that happens, you change the mission card, and the enemies will also start to behave differently than before. Thus, the system keeps track of events rather well and often behaves as if equipped with a somewhat nasty intelligence.
Light weapons are not usually displayed as counters but are personal equipment, and you keep track of them on a squad record sheet. Vehicles and heavy weapons take counter form, as do personal weapons that have been abandoned by soldiers. Additional counters are provided to mark soldier status, mission-specific landmarks, or special locations.

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Game play

In your first missions you get by with "household equipment": Rifles, MGs, hand grenades and such. Other items are added soon: Flamethrowers, demolition charges, vehicles, rubber rafts. Later you encounter even more sophisticated gadgetry like bulldozers, parachutes, boats, scuba equipment, caves and tiger traps... you name it, they got it.

The rules are not overly complex, but that is well compensated by the lots of errata, errata of errata, mission-specific rules additions, and the like. Not an easy one to get playing quickly! (Please consider that English is not my native language, so things may be better than I describe them here.) To spare yourself some frustration, just play the first few scenarios as training missions. You might even play them a few times over to get the hang of the game. Re-read the rules often during or after play: You will find that you cheated yourself quite a few times, for better or worse, by disregarding parts of the rules. Read the official hints on playing Ambush. And above all: Do not take the game too seriously, it is made for glamour and not for perfect simulation.
In a game system as complex as this it is astonishing how few errors were made in the mission paragraphs that guide the action. I believe there are one or two missions that led into dead ends or endless circles, but all in all the missions are well-designed.

Once I really got playing, the game had me in its grip for quite some time. I had overwhelming victories, killed my squad off time and again, and also had scenarios that took up to ten sessions before I was able to win them once (there was that nasty airdrop into Normandy...). For month on end my table was littered with the game components, and they did not gather dust either. What more can you say for a game?
I strongly recommend to play the game as a campaign, for it is only then that you will experience your men grow more experienced with every mission, and only then will they become "personalities" of their own which you may love or curse but certainly will care about.

Are there any hints I can give, beyond the "official hints"? Different people play different style, and I often acted "naturally" knowing that survival-wise this was not the best strategy. Nobody forbids you to crawl on your belly from the first moment of the game, but would you do that? I rather tried to adopt standard tactics like dividing the squad, having one half giving cover to those who ventured forward, and similar procedures. This way, I never had the feeling to cheat the system, but I admit I lost some good men in the process.
You may make educated guesses about enemy positions and behaviour, but you will also stumble into unexpected traps. It's unavoidable, and part of the fun!
Ah yes, and one more thing: If you fumble at things you do not fully understand, tell your comrades to keep a safe distance, for their own safety.

Because the game relies on a prepared set of paragraphs for each mission there is no real "design-your-own" capability. Depending on your memory, you may play the same missions some times over before your soldiers develop clairvoyance. This is especially true for the later scenarios. I played through the complete series in a couple of months and found that the very first missions still lurked in my memory somehow and played rather similarly to the first time when re-played them. Later missions, however, have been designed to have more random events, and you may play them a few times without repeating the same scene over and over.

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Game components

The map boards are printed on paper, not cardboard, so if you play very often you might consider to mount them yourself. They feature a 2-cm hex grid and colours that become ever brighter from module to module.
Counters are the usual 1/2" and 3/8" cardboard counters.
Fate is played by a couple of 10-sided dice.

A few small things I did to improve playability by cleaning up the map and simplifying bookkeeping:

Not too much, eh? That shows how well-designed the game really is!

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Aftermath: Soldier Grave

Purple Heart box, 54k I am not sure who has said this: "My opinion about heroics was fundamentally changed when I noticed that the date of the heroic deed usually coincided with the hero's day of death." (I think it was a German television showmaster, the late Robert Lembke.)
Did you make a similar experience right now, in your first game of "Ambush"? Don't worry, so far your soldiers are only made of "Hollywood and cardboard". When the director gives the "cut", they will rise, dust their clothes and light a cigarette.

But wait until that sergeant who has led so many soldiers through so many missions, through most dire straits, seemingly invincible and immune to harm, with lightning reactions and a sharpshooter's eye, steps on that silly mine and dies- just so. Can you resist the temptation to take a short look around if someone is watching, and then re-roll the dice?
Remember, nobody guarantees a happy end in this movie!

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Ambush! and Battle Hymn Games and Modules

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Written and published by Lutz Pietschker. Please send comments about technical problems to the site master.
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, last change 2011-03-12