HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDWaffen SS General Paul Hausser
On 24 July, 1944 (D + 48) the Allied armies in France, despite already suffering over 122,000 casualties, had still only managed to gain control of an area that invasion planners had originally expected would be in Allied hands by D + 5. However, all that changed when, on July 25th, the Allies launched “Operation Cobra:” a major offensive that, its architects hoped, would finally break the German defenses that still confined the Allies to the Normandy peninsula.
The offensive succeeded beyond its planners most optimistic expectations. On that date General Bradley’s American First Army smashed into Waffen SS General Paul Hausser’s Seventh Army which held the western flank of the German front near the town of St. Lo. After a violent Allied aerial bombardment and a short, sharp fight on the ground, Bradley’s forces broke through Hausser’s front and pushed south into the German rear. For the first time in the campaign, the Allies had gained freedom of maneuver; a crisis now confronted the German OKH: with the rupture in the German front rapidly widening, the survival of all of the German armies defending Normandy — Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s entire Army Group B — now hung in the balance.
The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part in the battle. The four-color, hexagonal-grid game map depicts the area of northwestern France — an area approximately 105 kilometers north to south, and 160 kilometers east to west — over which the historical campaign was fought. For purposes of scale, an individual map hex is equal to 3.2 kilometers from side to side.
COBRA is played in game turns, each of which represents three days of real time. A complete game is thirteen turns long and spans the critical early phases of the Allied breakout, from 16 July to 23 August, 1944. Each game turn is divided into a German and an Allied player turn. The game turn sequence for COBRA is roughly symmetrical, and proceeds as follows (the German player is always the first to act): German Weather Determination Phase; Replacement Phase; Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; and the Mechanized Movement Phase. Once the German player has completed his turn, the Allied player then conducts his own player turn in the following sequence: Allied Weather Determination Phase; Supply Phase; Replacement Phase; Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; and finally, the Mechanized Movement Phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.
One critical feature that separates the movement rules of COBRA — and the other titles in the PGG family of games — is the incorporation of a far more flexible type of ‘Overrun’ combat into the Initial Movement Phase of each game turn. Unlike earlier titles which also used Overrun combat as an integral part of their game systems, but required overwhelming odds for success; in COBRA, just like in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, Overruns do not require particularly large strength differentials to be effective. Even comparatively low-odds Overrun attacks are, with the right die-rolls, capable of clearing a path through an enemy line for the Overrunning and/or other phasing units to exploit. Only units with ‘Divisional Integrity’ — that is: all divisional component units are present in the same hex — may, so long as they meet all other requirements, conduct up to two Overrun attacks in any given Initial Movement Phase. U.S. mechanized infantry divisions are the one exception to this rule: these American divisions may only conduct one Overrun during any single Allied game turn. What this translates to is a game situation in which German and Allied units can potentially attack enemy positions during both the Initial Movement Phase and again during the Combat Phase. Mercifully, unlike in PGG, units in COBRA are not ‘disrupted’ as a result of a successful enemy Overrun; more importantly, neither side’s units are permitted to conduct Overruns during the Mechanized Movement Phase.
Falaise Escape Corridor Aftermath
The supply rules in COBRA, as the previous paragraph illustrates, impose very different restrictions on the combat operations of the two sides. However, general supply requirements for Allied and German units are very similar. German units are in supply if they are able to trace a supply path of any length, unblocked by enemy units or their ZOCs, to the eastern map edge. Allied units, to be in general supply, must be able to trace an unblocked supply line, of any length, to that part of the northern edge of the map that depicts the base of the Normandy peninsula. For both armies, movement supply is determined at the beginning of each movement phase, and combat supply, at the instant of combat. Supply effects are identical for both sides: unsupplied units are halved (fractions rounded up) for both movement and combat; ZOCs, however, are unaffected. Unsupplied units may not conduct Overruns, but may attack at reduced strength. Somewhat surprisingly, unsupplied Allied units are permitted to attack, but any such unsupplied attacks still require the expenditure of a supply point.
General Omar Bradley
In PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, uncertainty is baked into the turn-by-turn play of the game because of the presence of ‘untried’ Russian combat units. COBRA has no ‘untried’ units, but what it does have in their stead is a game feature almost as frustrating and unpredictable: that of Weather. And weather, in COBRA, plays a key role in determining the flow and tempo of the game. The way it works is relatively simple: At the beginning of each player turn, a die is rolled to determine the weather condition — Stormy, Overcast or Clear — for the balance of the phasing player’s turn. Interestingly, the possible outcome from each weather roll is directly influenced by that of the previous player turn. What this means, in a nutshell, is that, while dramatic turn-to-turn swings in the weather are always possible, actual weather conditions in the game will tend to either stay the same, or to change gradually from player turn to player turn. Weather and its effects are critically important to both players. Weather rolls significantly affect German movement capabilities, but, at the same time, they also control the availability of valuable Allied ‘Air Points’. For example, depending on whether the German player rolls Stormy, Overcast or Clear weather, the effect on German movement can range from ‘no effect’ (Stormy) down to a two-thirds reduction in available movement points (Clear). This means that weather conditions will directly impact the German player’s ability to maneuver his units to meet developing Allied threats as they arise. In the case of the Allied player, the type of weather rolled will determine whether the Allies have ‘0’ Air Points (Stormy), ‘3’ points (Overcast), or ‘6’ Air Points (Clear weather). And speaking of Air Points: the Allied commander can use his Air Points — one per attack — to shift his combat odds 1 column to the right. In addition, once per game, beginning on turn two, the Allied player may use 6 Air Points to conduct a ‘Carpet Bombing’ attack against any single German occupied hex. Such an attack may, for obvious reasons, only be conducted during a Clear weather turn, and the target hex cannot also be attacked by Allied ground units during the same game turn.
Field Marshall Gunther von Kluge
COBRA, as already noted, shares many common features with PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN; however, because of certain operational factors unique to the Normandy battlefield, it also incorporates a number of design elements that set it apart from its East Front predecessor. One of the more obvious of these differences can be found in the role played by headquarters counters. In PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, Russian headquarters units and their ‘Command Spans’ represent logistical and organizational centers that form a crucial link in the Russian player’s supply network. In COBRA, headquarters have no supply function; instead, they impart a combat bonus to any friendly attackers within the headquarters’ Command Span. German headquarters provide a bonus 1 column shift to any eligible units whether they are attacking or defending. In contrast, the single Allied headquarters in COBRA — that of Patton’s 3rd Army — can improve a single American (only) attack with a 2 column shift to the right, or, alternatively, can support two different American attacks, each with a favorable 1 column shift. Unlike German headquarters, however, “Old Blood and Guts” does not confer any defensive advantage to American units within his Command Span. Another interesting, if minor, twist to the COBRA combat rules has to do with the special role that German Tiger Tank Battalions play in the game. These units, when participating in an attack, shift the battle odds 1 column to the right. This bonus, it is important to note, only applies to attacks; Tiger Battalions have no effect on combat odds when defending.
Finally, as might be expected, both the Allies and Germans in COBRA periodically receive reinforcements; however, unlike PGG, the two sides also receive replacements. Replacements enter the game in the form of abstract Replacement Points, each of which represents one step; for a unit of either side to receive a Replacement Point (and be rebuilt one step), it must be in regular supply and three or more hexes from the nearest enemy unit. In addition, no unit may be rebuilt more than one step per game turn, however many steps it has actually lost. The Allies receive an unlimited number of Replacement Points during the Replacement Phase of each game turn; the Germans, on the other hand, only receive two infantry and one mechanized Replacement Point per game turn.
The winner of COBRA is determined by comparing the accumulated victory points of the two sides at the end of turn thirteen. Both players add to their points by completely destroying enemy units. In addition, the Allies gain victory points for exiting American mechanized units off the western map edge on or before game turn seven. The German player receives victory points both for exiting units off the eastern map edge, and/or for maintaining supplied (and either out of Allied ZOCs or disengageable) mechanized units on the map east of Falaise at game end.
The original SPI version of COBRA (the one profiled here) offers only the Historical Game; there are no alternative scenarios or optional rules. Later reissues of the game, however, beginning with the two-map TSR version, do include additional scenarios and game situations for players interested in additional gaming options.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONGeneral George S. Patton
The 1944 Allied campaign to liberate German-occupied France offers an extraordinarily rich vein of different possible topics for conflict simulations. The historical events surrounding the Battle for France — considering the numbers and types of units involved, and the generals commanding them — really encompass virtually everything that a game designer could want in the realm of World War II military operations. The 1944 Western Front narrative begins, of course, with the costly but successful D-Day landings. Very quickly, however, the arc of the story shifts from the early efforts to expand the initial invasion lodgments on the Normandy peninsula, to the later, even tougher Allied struggle to push through the difficult bocage terrain of the Norman country-side against a tenacious and determined German foe. Finally, after weeks of bloody fighting and near stalemate, the chronicle of the spring-summer 1944 campaign in France suddenly changes again with the armored breakout by Patton’s Third Army, and the ensuing Allied encirclement and destruction of nearly 160,000 German troops in a massive pocket near the town of Falaise.
U.S. Sherman tanks passing through St. Lo after the breakthrough.
Given the innate drama of the basic situation and the potential for sweeping, fast-paced action built into this clash of Allied and German mobile forces, it is not surprising that various designers have attempted to model different aspects of the Battle for France, beginning back in 1961 with Avalon Hill’s D-DAY. Not surprisingly, the scale and design quality of the different titles inspired by the Normandy campaign have varied widely. Some of the Normandy games — such as SPI’s ATLANTIC WALL (1978) or Avalon Hill's THE LONGEST DAY (1979) — have been very big, multi-map monsters, and some — like Avalon Hill’s Smithsonian edition of D-DAY (1991) — have been relatively small; some — like SPI’s BREAKOUT & PURSUIT (1972) — have been good, and others — such as Rand Game’s OMAHA BEACH (1974) — “not so much”. In short, when it comes to the Normandy campaign, different game titles seem to abound. Nonetheless, since its first appearance in 1977, COBRA: Patton’s 1944 Summer Offensive in France has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite treatments of this campaign. Brad Hessel’s design may not be the best overall simulation of the Allied breakout from the Normandy hedgerows, but it is still able to hold its own when matched against other, much newer titles. Moreover, it would appear that I am not alone in my opinion. A quick visit to http://boardgamegeek.com/ will show that COBRA currently enjoys a “Geek Rating” of 6.47; which, all things considered, is pretty impressive for a thirty-three year old game.
Of course, it goes without saying that players who like the PGG Game System will probably also like COBRA. However, even for those gamers who don’t particularly care for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, COBRA, I would argue, is probably still worth a serious look. The original version of COBRA may not offer a lot of different scenarios for players to try, but the game still presents a number of interesting and very thorny game problems for both the Allied and the German players to solve. Moreover, these problems seem to take a different shape every time the game is played. For example, Allied offensive operations, as was the case historically, are constrained by serious supply limitations. The Allied player would like to accumulate extra supply points for use during the middle and late game turns, but, with only thirteen turns to work with, time is short; so while he wants to save supply points, he also needs to keep steady pressure on the Germans right from the start. In addition, while the British and Canadian units will probably be attacking towards the south and east, the Americans will be trying to break out to the west so that at least some American mechanized regiments can exit the western map edge before the end of turn seven. The German commander, not surprisingly, has problems of his own. He wants to contain the Allies during the early game turns; however, once his line begins to crumble, he then needs to begin extricating his mobile forces from the path of the Allied juggernaut so that he can move as many mechanized units as possible off the eastern map edge before the last game turn. Balancing these conflicting goals, particularly in the face of uncertain weather, is what makes this a challenging and often frustrating game situation for both players.
One minor criticism of COBRA that does crop up periodically among certain players has to do with the game’s graphic presentation. This is a common but, I personally believe, unfair complaint that tends to attach itself to quite a few of the S&T magazine games. Certainly, the back-printed counters are visually unimpressive, but they are also, it should be noted, pretty typical of SPI counters during this era. The rules are extremely well done and post-publication errata are minimal. The main complaint seems to center on the four-color game map which, admittedly, is somewhat understated, color-wise. One wit even suggested that the COBRA game map reminded him of a square pizza. This criticism, I think, is a bit overdone. While it is true that the pastel hues of the map are not particularly eye-catching, they are also not nearly as off-putting as some other game maps — those of DARK DECEMBER (1979) and ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1971) come immediately to mind — that I have seen over the years. Moreover, the COBRA game map’s treatment of terrain is unambiguous, and — as is typical with most of Simonsen’s work — the charts and tables printed at the margins are uniformly clear and very nicely done.
Finally, although I personally think very highly of this title, COBRA is, nonetheless, probably not a good choice either for the absolute novice (simply too much detail), or for the ‘chess player’ type gamer who hates nasty surprises: those occasional unlucky weather rolls can really hurt! However, for anyone else who, for one reason or another, has never tried this game — whether they are a casual or an experienced player — I recommend it strongly. It may be old, but it has aged extremely well.
- Time Scale: 3 days per game turn
- Map Scale: 3.2 kilometers per hex
- Unit Size: regiment/brigade/division
- Unit Types: headquarters, armor/panzer, mechanized infantry/panzer grenadier, armored cavalry, infantry, airborne infantry, truck counters, and information markers
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: average
- Solitaire Suitability: above average
- Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours
- One 22” x 32” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Terrain Key and Effects Chart, Combat Results Table, Weather Table and Effects Chart and Allied Supply Points Track incorporated)
- 200 ½” back-printed cardboard Counters
- One 8½” x 11” COBRA Rules Booklet (with Set up Instructions, Combat Results table, and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
- One small six-sided Die (not included with original magazine version of game)
- One 3¾” x 8½” SPI Customer Complaint Card
- One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet
See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU