Salerno ’43 Review
Today I’m upping the ante with my recent dive into wargaming. Putting on my big boy trousers and stepping up to ‘hex and counter’ games. My first foray proper into this world is with Salerno ’43, a game from GMT Games and designer Mark Simonitch. It’s a game in his 194x series of games, which feature his Zone Of Control – or ZOC – system.
Out of my depth
I think it’s best to start with some kind of disclaimer like I did when I tackled Gandhi. I came at that game as a Euro game fan, looking in on the COIN series. With Salerno ’43 I’m doing something similar. I chose this entry in the ZOC games as my first because I did some research. Research which told me this was the smallest map, and the lowest number of units to manage. It’s touted as a good beginner’s game for these reasons, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see why.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a game suited for wargame newbies like me, however.
I’ll be frank with you and admit that even as someone who’ll happily sit down and learn a heavy Vital Lacerda game like On Mars, I struggled to get to grips with Salerno ’43. It’s not that there’s anything missing in the rules. Everything is in there. It’s just very referential. There’s an example of play at the back of the rulebook, but it still leaves you feeling like you’ve been shoved in at the deep end of a swimming pool after reading the Ikea ‘how to swim’ instructions.
If you’re new to the world of wargames, even just the basic setup can feel quite alien. In a hobby board game you’d expect a list of components, maybe an overview, and then instructions for setup in the first few pages. Setup in Salerno ’43 depends on the scenario you’re playing, and the first time it’s mentioned is on page 23 of a 32 page rulebook. Performing setup relies on some reading between the lines and a little guesswork, but you’ll get there. It’s not necessarily that this style of rules and instructions is wrong, it’s just different, so be prepared for a culture shock.
Swimming to shore
You’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t like Salerno ’43 after that opening salvo. The truth is very different. Salerno ’43 is a great game, once you get your head around the way it works. It’s a scenario-based wargame, based on real events. If you play as the Allies, the game commences with a beach landing, with a long-term goal of forcing your way into Italy. The Axis are just there to try to stem the flow, and to hang on until reinforcements arrive.
It’s a very evocative piece of game design, with so much attention to detail. Take the initial beach landings for example. Uncle Beach was famously where the main resistance came during 1943, and so the dice rolls for the commando units landing there are the only ones that can take any significant damage. The terrain matters, and roads make an enormous difference to how far mechanised units can travel. Rivers aren’t just pretty lines on the map. Infantry slows to a crawl as they wade across, and vehicles won’t cross at all without bridges. It takes some wrapping your head around to have to be able to read a map to figure out your best channels to attack and defend.
If you’re a hex-and-counter newbie, like me, you might think that the stacks of tiny tiles with some numbers printed on them aren’t even as exciting as a meeple, and that’s saying something! The surprising truth is that despite the layer of abstraction on the table, where platoons of men are replaced with small tiles, you get very invested in them. Part of that is the knowledge that they represent real people who fought and died in the conflicts, but as much of it is the attachments you make as you tell your own story.
Thanks in part to the smaller number of units in Salerno ’43, losses feel palpable. When one of your commando units is destroyed, it hurts. Not only that, it forces you to sometimes alter your plans very dynamically. Mark’s clever ZOC system creates invisible zones around, and links between, your units. Enemies getting too close have to stop, and woe betide anyone that tries to cross the bonds two of them. This comes to life most noticeably when you’re trying to stop a retreat. Units forced to retreat through a ZOC bond are eliminated.
There are some really clever little things you can do within this system, which take time and repeated play to emerge. A unit surrounded on three sides is effectively useless because those bonds act as fences, penning it in. If another friendly unit moves into one of the spaces, breaking that bond, the trapped unit can sneak out, as if you’ve held the door open with your foot. It all goes towards adding a surprisingly deep, and nuanced level of gameplay.
Combat uses a table of ratios to determine how effective your dice rolls will be. If you don’t like the available outcomes on your 2:1 attack in the table, you can shift a column to the right by throwing in air support, or artillery. When the weather’s bad, you might find things shifting the opposite way. It’s a simple, elegant way to portray combat with just a die and a table on your player aid.
Reinforcements flood the map as the rounds tick by, weather patterns change and affect movement, and the whole thing feels alive. The first time German reinforcements arrive and drive their trucks halfway across the map, using the movement bonuses from roads, is a real eye-opener. I was worried that a game with a standard setup, and what feels like a standard set of first turns, could feel dull quickly. The clever part comes in the small changes that happen in the opening landings, and it can lead to vastly different outcomes and board states.
If you’ve gotten this far in the review, there’s probably one question that’s prodding your brain. Would I recommend Salerno ’43? The answer is yes, but I need to lay down some caveats first. If you’re an experienced wargamer, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble picking this game up. The smaller map and reduced unit numbers might make the game seem a bit simplified, but Salerno offers up a constricted, meandering maze of mountains and roads which make for stark contrast to the open battlefields of some games. It’s not a game about large-scale combat, it’s a game of shepherding and hindering for the Axis player, and trying to pry open a large, grey walnut for the Allies.
If you’re a board gamer coming at Salerno ’43, looking to take your first step into a world of hexes and tiles, just be realistic about what you’re letting yourself in for. Even the fact that the board is just a folded map – with no actual board – can be a big shock (you can buy mounted boards from GMT). The concept of a unit’s ‘steps’ is terminology you might never have come across, and that’s just the first of many such idiosyncracies of these games. If this sounds like a bridge too far for you, then honestly, you probably won’t have the perseverance to get to the juicy flesh under the thick skin of this game’s fruit.
If you’re still intrigued, then go for it. War games aren’t about glorifying war, and if you take the time to read the supplements in the books, they’re incredibly educational. This is a strategic game which enacts a real-world scenario, and if anything leaves you with a sense of reverence for the people you portray. The gameplay is tight, the player aids are fantastic, and the whole thing is an enjoyable experience. The rules are excellent reference tools, just don’t expect to learn how to play from them. Instead, check out the excellent playthrough of the extended example of play from Stuka Joe and this after-action report from The Players’ Aid, to get some feel for how the game works. It’s a great system, a great game, and I want the rest of Mark’s ZOC games now…
Review copy kindly provided by GMT Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own. All images ©Scott Mansfield .
If you enjoyed this review, please consider my Ko-fi membership. It’s cheap, and you’ll make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
Salerno ’43 (2022)
Designer: Mark Simonitch
Publisher: GMT Games
Art: Mark Simonitch
Playing time: 180-600 mins