I am an early war enthusiast. Of all the armies I have built, painted and played my favourite by far are my early war ones. So why is it that for the most part, I see mid or late war forces being predominately played at open events? I can only think it is a perception that early war forces are weaker and don't appeal to as many players.
Examples of the early war forces I have played and base my observations on are mainland and colonial French, British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and 'Blitzkrieg' era Germans. I have also played later war armies being USMC, British Para's, Australians and German Grenadiers so I have experience across most periods in the war.
Let's start with what I consider to be early war, it is those forces based on armies from between 1939 and 1941. These forces were mostly caught up with inter-war ideas on tactics and equipment prior to the rapid modernization of those still in the fight after that. I feel Germany is different again from that broad definition aimed at mostly allies but many of the same points I will discuss apply all the same.
What drives a player to choose an army to play in an open event? For most, I imagine it is a mixture of theme and competitiveness where they want to take a cool army that has some great toys that they can have the best chance to win or at least hold their own. Looking at early war and late war you quickly realise which period has all the toys, so I guess naturally and understandably they move in that direction. There is also the issue that Hollywood has made events such as D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge popular so many can relate to that and wish to emulate them. Exemptions will always apply to this rule of course and I am using some pretty broad strokes to paint this picture and create discussion.
Lets break this downLate war forces have squad based and small team anti armour weapons that can really destroy big tanks, something early war can only dream of. The most my early war forces can scratch together is an Anti-Tank Rifle that has a max pen of +2 compared to a 5 point panzerfaust at +6. Early war forces relied primarily on dedicated anti-tank weapon teams and artillery units to stop enemy armour so equipping small squads with that capability just did not occur to nations.
Early war forces have much weaker infantry versus armour - eg Panzerfaust v AT Rifle
Late war forces have a lot more options for squad weapons, more SMG's and assault rifles per squad. These can really act as a force multiplier. Early war squads are mostly rifles with an LMG as standard. Some squads have perhaps one or two SMG's options but your bread and butter infantry squad will just have plain old rifles and a LMG. Another bonus of many late war squads (Germany excluded) is that integrated engineer units with flamethrowers are fairly standard, early war this is not the case.
Early war forces have less weapon options and are weaker when shooting against other infantry in close range but may have a better average range eg Assault Rifle v Rifle.
Late war forces have all the tanks, big guns and thick armour that can bully their way across tables to destroy all in their path. Early war forces generally have smaller, lightly armoured vehicles that are lightly armed in regard to anti-tank capability. It can be argued that many early war tanks have more machine guns but it doesn't matter if you fit a machine gun on every single flat surface of that light tank. It still wont hurt a Panzer IV or M4. The heaviest AT weapon on most early war armour is a light anti-tank gun, penetrating up to +4 at half range you are needing perfect rolls to do full damage. I should also mention Tiger Fear, a German national rule only available to certain tanks built late in the war.
Early war forces have thinner armour, lower caliber main guns and miss out on late war national rules.
Ok so at this point if you are looking at efficiency and options to be competitive why handicap yourself by choosing an early war themed army that misses out on so many good toys? Late war have better infantry options, better support options and most definitely better tank options so really its a mugs choice not to go late. I should also mention as well the over the top availability of late war miniatures compared to early war, how many manufacturers have you seen selling French infantry compared to say SS or US GI's?
Late war is better in just about every way and more readily available due to popularity, it is very easy to understand why there is a proliferation of late war armies when I put it into words but why do I and my friends keep going back to early war?
I think as a veteran of the game I look for challenges to keep me interested, playing French was always very satisfying when you constantly cop those dreadful surrender jokes to pull off a win. Coming up with a viable and interesting BEF list that can stand up to and beat a late war list is amazingly rewarding. Planning out a Home Guard list currently has re-energized me as I contemplate all those inexperienced squads and funky weapons such as the Blacker Bombard. It is the challenge of picking the nerdy uncoordinated kid for your soccer team and beating the jocks at their own game.
Playing early war makes you change your approach to tactics, you really have to look for ways to negate all that late war goodness but how with so many things going against you?
1. Use numbers: Early war units are generally cheap, even more so with inexperienced units so stack those dice in your favour. Get your dice drawn more often giving you a tactical advantage and the chance to shoot first. Run big squads and a lot of them, you wont have big expensive tanks so take 6 or more infantry squads. I regularly run forces with 15-18 dice on average and up to 8 infantry squads.
2. Use HE: Early war forces really relied on artillery support and had a fondness for not planning any advance or defence without gun line support. Place several units of HE in your force, I am happy to run two light howitzers and two medium mortars as standard. If people accuse you of being cheesy you can point at their assault rifles or flamethrowers and just roll your eyes.
3. Use range to your advantage: Many late war armies will have SMG's and Assault rifles so with big squads of rifles and an LMG you should be able to put more firepower on them at range. Use multiple squads with your dice advantage to concentrate fire out to 24" and watch the pins grow and the numbers slowly dwindle so when they are forced to get close to engage you they are already at a disadvantage.
4. Your vehicles are going to be generally light so don't use them like a battering ram: In most cases you will need to be careful with deployment and be very reliant on cover to protect them. Use flanking moves and group vehicles for maximum effect, whatever you do don't get drawn into shootouts with late war monsters, you will nearly always lose. For my BEF, I run two Vickers tanks with two Univeral Carriers to create a very potent little strike force.
5. Finally; be bold!: You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, be aggressive and if you lose a squad or two early that's ok as you will have more where they came from.
I will throw down the gauntlet to all the players out there who are stuck in their cycle of late war armies, get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. Put that Puma aside and pick up a Panzer II, retire that M4 and roll a Matilda II onto the table and let go of the panzerfaust - you can win and have a great time without them.