Review: Salerno ’43 (GMT Games)

As the title suggests, Salerno ’43 depicts the initial Allied landings on the Italian peninsula with the usual panache that Simonitch lends to these historical proceedings. If there was ever an entry point into the 19xx series, this is certainly it.

The purported first game in a loose Italian trilogy, the design features the same scale and unit size as it’s sister game, Normandy ’44 (day turns with battalions/regiments fighting over 2 mile hexes). At this level, there are more moments for narrative drama and intimacy than the larger games in the series. It feels more personal when a reduced regiment of a thousand men holds off a blistering tank assault than the mass of divisions and tank corps seen in Stalingrad ’42 and Ukraine ’43.

The game features a ZOC bond mechanism in which eligible units create near unbreakable connections that will prevent enemy units from moving through. This allows an alternative to stiff, rigid zone of control and can help simulate a whole stack of units being spread out, abstracting their potential coverage of terrain without having to separate them from one another.

Combat is heavily guided by force multiplication. The use of artillery, naval bombardment, tanks, and elite troops can take an ordinary 1:1 attack and transform it into a deadly 4:1 bulletstorm. But much of the terrain and logistic complications will nullify this force multiplication. Hills double infantry defense values and negate any armor shifts. The trickle of supply points allows only a handful of artillery units to be supplied and primed to fire at a time. And occasionally the weather will pour down torrents of rain, shifting all attacks on the CRT to the left for the duration of the turn. In short, it models the beginnings of the Italian campaign well and the agony is sure to increase with the next two entries.

Some new terrain makes its debut, namely the mountain side hex which when crossed will reduce the attack efficiency of a unit and to add insult to injury, supply cannot be traced back over these hex sides. Much time will be spent poring over the terrain, looking for the nooks and crannies to outmaneuver your opponent.

My favorite feature of these games is the determined defense. This allows the defender to delay or alter the result of the combat table with the potential cost of incurring more casualties. Lead unit quality, terrain and artillery support can assist the defenders and with certain high roll successes, additional casualties can be inflicted on the attackers. It’s a high stakes, gripping mechanism that adds tremendous narrative flavor, especially on this level of simulation.

Another additional feature is the ability for the Allies to shuffle units and reinforcements in-between ports and beachheads, enabling them to maximize their superior numbers and firepower across sectors.

The only minor quibble I have with the game is something endemic to conflict simulation and is more of a hallmark of it being a game and not a simple simulation. Victory conditions can be hard to nail down and often times in Simonitch’s designs, victory, and therefore success, is gauged by how the player faired in comparison to the historical participants. Generally, there’s a creeping benchmark of victory points that if you far exceed, can trigger an early victory but if a player falls too far behind can trigger an automatic defeat. This does simulate various political pressures placed on commanders but because a line has to be drawn and a victor declared, the endings can seem artificially dramatic, as if the seizure of one victory hex  will decide the fate of the entire campaign. But this is the nature of the beast.

But perhaps the most exciting element of wrapping up a campaign of Salerno ’43 is the dread and excitement that there is more to come. The Gustav Line looms in the distance and the battle of San Pietro, the misery of Monte Cassino and the liberation of Rome are all to come. Hopefully, Simonitch will marry all three designs together for a near seamless slog up the peninsula. But in the meantime a return visit to the beaches of Salerno will most certainly be warranted.

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