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Our Chief Weapon Is Supplies

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

Or looking at ETO's Supply Routine in Isolation

by Alan Emrich and Lance McMillan

"Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." – General Omar Bradley, attributed

As impactful as logistics are to the “modern” mechanized armies of WWII, using Frank Chadwick’s ETO series’ supply system is a very fast-and-intuitive affair. A unit’s supply state is often obvious as a coup d’oeil (at a “stroke of the eye”) because you get such a clear, high-level look at the map which, by hex-and-counter wargame standards, is fairly uncluttered by units. Better still, there are only two states (besides Supplied) to concern yourself with: Out of Supply and Isolated, and these are intuitive and easy to apply.

The half-clock D-shaped Countdown markers tick down by 1 each turn until removed and supplies again flow.

We designed the ETO logistics system to showcase how operations were conducted – not just that you needed to keep your units in supply for them to function at full efficiency, but that the overall state of your army's logistical network would tend to dictate the pace and direction of your in-game operations. Concurrently, we realized that most wargamers do not revel in the time spent playing supply sergeant. ETO is, after all, a good time rock and roll “panzer pusher.” Therefore, as much as possible, the ETO logistics system had to function in the background. Our goal was to have players consider their logistics when operating their units, but not have to worry about details. Thus, the supply system’s footprint treads lightly on players allowing them to spend more cycles on strategy than memorizing rules.

We are very happy with the feedback from players: the logistics system has evolved into another lauded ETO feature by those learning and playing the game. It is quick to grasp, simple to apply, and meaningful in its consequences which impact play and decision-making. In this article, we will explain how logistics works in this series, from high to low.

What Your Opponent Knows Can’t Help You

Who better to find your supply vulnerabilities than your opponent?

The first thing players notice about the Logistics Phase in the play sequence is the word “opponent’s.” Quite simply, at the start of your turn you check your opponent’s supply situation (and vice-versa) to denote those enemy units and facilities suffering any lack of supply or communications. Please, reflect on that concept for a moment and let it soak in…

How many wargames have you played where players checked their own supply lines each turn, but it is a chore, so players get lazy and didn’t inspect all of their pieces quite close enough… and some that were out of supply were not marked so and performed in excess of their abilities that turn? You’ve seen that, right? Please, save your mea culpas as we are probably all guilty of the Neglected Supply Trace at some point playing wargames.

So in ETO, with the shoe on the other foot, the first thing your opponent does is check your supply situation – and you can bet that every one of your unsupplied and isolated units will be discovered and marked accordingly. Particularly with your opponent’s reward of gleefully rolling for Isolation step losses upon discovery! And whatever your opponent finds will remain their supply status until the start of your opponent's next turn.

What this means is: 

  • You check my forces and discover that I have them in supply at the start of your turn; then...

  • You pocket them so that, by the end of your turn, they are well-and-truly cut off; however...

  • On my next turn they can make one last mighty swing with their full Attack Strength before either:

  • I manage to relieve that pocket so they’ll be back in communications at the start of your next turn (when you check my unit’s supply status again)...

  • OR I could not rescue them so, at the start of your turn, their supply situation becomes dire indeed.

That is how the (red) ball (express) bounces in Frank Chadwick’s ETO. Your opponent’s supply situation is your responsibility and back-and-forth encirclement battles and relief operations abound in practice. It works perfectly with the ETO design dictum that if you are not attacking then you should be counterattacking!

Running with the Lights On during Regular Movement

One trick used by experienced ETO players is, at the start of your Regular (i.e., final) Movement Phase, as you position your units in the posture the enemy will confront them in, it is best to keep an eye on your own supply lines while moving your units! 

That is, players will often plunk down the Supply dice (pictured here) atop their friendly functioning Ports, Supply Cities, and HQ markers to see where their “supply umbrellas” extend. Knowing where their “supply leash” ends means moving intelligently either into or out of a hex that is (or isn’t) in supply (and will soon be checked by your opponent).

In fact, doing a good job monitoring your own supply situation during your Regular Movement Phase means that your opponent has little to contribute when checking your supply situation at the start of their turn (since you have pretty much already done it) except to add the Out of Supply and Isolation markers to those units that you have already planned for. This makes the game play that much faster. 

Canny players on both sides pay attention to the troops’ positions taken up in every Regular Movement Phase!

In the Vassal module for Thunder in the East pictured here, you can see the yellow, numbered "Supply dice" and their 6-hex radius for supplying Soviet Ground units nearby.

Ultimate Supply Sources

So, where does supply come from? If you answered “A mommy supply source and a daddy supply source love each other very much…” than we have a special chair for you in front where we keep an eye on wise guys.

Each faction has its Ultimate Supply Sources; everything tracing supply does so back to one of these eventually. According to the rules as of this posting, these are:

[141.2] Ultimate Supply Sources:

To function as a Communication or Supply Source, a location must be that Faction’s Ultimate Supply Source or be able to, itself, trace a Rail or Naval LoC to one.

Ultimate Supply Sources are:

  1. A friendly map edge.

  2. A functioning (i.e., not Disrupted; 124.0) friendly Supply City in the Home Territory (531.0) of any country of the Faction that can, itself, trace a Rail LoC (141.1.2) to another friendly Supply City.

  3. A functioning (i.e., not Disrupted; 124.0) friendly Capital Supply City in the Home Territory (531.0) of any country of the Faction.

Strategic Ground Supply Considerations, Part I

The most important strategic consideration for keeping the supplies flowing is having “functioning” supply sources. That is, when you capture a Major Port, Supply City, or relocate an HQ marker, its ability to serve as a supply source is impaired. It is “not functioning” as a logistics center for a specified number of game turns (these game turns represent Weeks in the spring and summer and Fortnights in the winter) as indicated by its receipt of a Countdown (or “Delay”) marker. All of your Delay markers “countdown” by one at the start of your turn until, at last, that facility is mended and serving as a functional logistics center again.

Minor Ports are always captured intact (no delay) but have only a 0-hex supply radius (i.e., only things actually in that Minor Port hex are supplied). Major Ports require 4 turns of repair (but at least until that occurs they function as Minor Ports) and it also takes 4 turns to repair a captured Supply City hex. Naval Bases required major repairs costing 1 PP, 1 EP, and 1 FP plus a Season's worth of time (and some extra -- much like Retooling a Captured Factory hex); in the meantime, however, it functions as a Minor Port.

[TMS playtest kit] The Allies never did repair the conquered Naval Base at Bizerte because they had plenty of sealift capacity out of Algiers and Tunis.

HQ markers, for their part, do not “move” per se, but instead “relocate.” That is, you simply point at the map during your Special Movement Phase and say “put this HQ there” at some friendly City hex and poof!, there it is. Its relocation is simulated by the 3 turns it must countdown to regain its supply functionality (or 4 turns if an enemy unit occupied its hex, forcing its involuntary relocation).

When to relocate an HQ behind advancing forces is a major decision in the game.

Thus, in Frank Chadwick’s ETO, logistics move forward in “bounds” requiring time to reestablish. When to relocate an HQ behind advancing forces is a major decision in the game. While relocating (i.e., counting down), they are not supply sources and thus the forces in their vicinity will usually be out of supply while waiting for their logistical tail to catch up. This very neatly and simply simulates the strategic and operational “pauses” that sweeping campaigns saw as forces outran their supply.

Bounds and countdowns in the ETO Logistics System.

For grognards seeking simulation of railroad repair and conversion, these logistics rules partially cover it through the “logistical bound” time delay abstraction. Another aspect of the Rail War is covered by the definition of a “friendly” (i.e., usable) rail line as one that connects two friendly cities – that is, if you don’t control the cities at both ends of a particular stretch of rail line, the trains don’t run there (so capturing rail junctions takes on some increased importance). With little rules weight, together these concepts neatly simulate the War of the Rails in WWII Europe.

Green Light, Yellow Light, Red Light

When your Ground unit is In Supply (Green Light), that means it can trace a Line of Communication (LoC) via overland, rail, sea – or some combination thereof – back to an Ultimate Supply Source and (this is a very important “and!”) it is also under the umbrella of, and can trace and overland path to, a logistics source (e.g., Port, Supply City, HQ, or Airdrop Supply marker). That is, only when both of these conditions are met: In Communication and in a Supply Radius, is a Ground unit In Supply. When supplied, of course, everything is lovely for that Ground unit in that it suffers no logistics penalties.

When your Ground unit can only trace an LoC back to an Ultimate Supply Source (of any length no matter how tortuous, even through enemy Zones of Control if friendly units are in that hex, etc.) but is not under the functioning supply umbrella of a logistics source, that unit is said to be “Out of Supply” or simply In Communication” (Yellow Light). Its Attack Strength is halved but its movement is unaffected and it can receive replacements.

When your Ground unit cannot trace an LoC back to an Ultimate Supply Source, that unit is “Isolated” (Red Light). Isolated Ground units cannot attack at all and have their movement reduced to 1 hex only; worse, each isolated stack of Ground units (not each unit in that stack!) is reduced by one step 50% of the time. Isolated cities do not produce supplies or other resources, and cannot receive reinforcements. Isolated HQ markers must forcibly relocate.

Here is the order in which you think about a unit’s supply routine:

1. Does it have any type of LoC (141.1)?

  • If NO, it is Isolated.

  • If YES, go to 2, below:

2. Is it within the radius of, and has an OLoC or RLoC to, a functioning supply source?

  • If NO, it is Unsupplied.

  • If YES, it is Supplied.

That' really all there is to it.

Taking Air Supply Lightly

Yep, that's a lot of panzers that can keep rolling from one well-placed Air Supply drop!

Supplying Air units is simple since its organization is abstractly located off the map. Any City hex with a Line of Communication and not in an Enemy Zone of Control can fly all the Air units desired from it.

What is interesting is that some Air units are Transports and can drop Air Supply to Ground units, thus creating a single “in supply” (i.e., 0-radius) hex for a stack of units (as shown here). An Air Supply marker is slightly pricey, however: it costs 1/2 OP (in real RP costs, it takes 1/4 EP + 1/4 FP for that 1/2 OP) to take an Air Supply marker from the stock for your Air Transport unit to carry to its Mission hex.

During your opponent’s next Supply Step (i.e., when your supply is checked), your Ground units (only; not HQ markers, hex facilities, or anything else) enjoy the following:

  • Those friendly Ground units in your Air Supply marker’s 0 Supply Radius (meaning in the same hex) have their supply state (240.5) improve by one level. I.e., if they were Isolated, they are now In Communication; if they were In Communication (i.e., Out of Supply), they are now In Supply.

  • If your Air Supply marker is on a friendly City hex, your Isolated Ground units (only) that can trace an OLoC to it are have their supply state (240.5) improved by one level to In Communication (i.e., Out of Supply).

Your opponent removes Air Supply markers at the end of your Supply Step. If you want to keep your Ground units in Air Supply, you need to keep the Transports flying!

Strategic Ground Supply Considerations, Part II

With the Ground supply system outlined above, let us consider some supply puzzles:

1. Isolated Incidents:

A classic Soviet "Finger of Life" post-Barbarossa rescue operation to avoid a LOT of potential Isolation attrition next turn!

When you have units trapped in a large (multi-hex and/or multi-step) pocket (e.g., on the frontier after Barbarossa, or historically as occurred at Demyansk, Stalingrad, or Korsun), what do you do with them? You hope that they can break out (or their comrades break in) and return to communication; from there, they can try to maneuver their way back to safety. Often this requires a proctology maneuver that we call "the finger of life," running in a narrow, unit-filled OLoC through EZOCs to barely keep the besieged from Isolation.

Or would it be better to let them die holding their ground as long as possible, giving the opponent a rock to crash against in an effort to pin some enemy forces down, destroying themselves, certainly, but buying you some time to prepare for more fortunate circumstances?

Logistically, Isolated units are rolled for on a per-unit basis in ETO. Think of each bunch of steps in a hex as having a "half-life" (and hope the enemy has bad rolls trying to starve them into submission).

2. Supporting Attacks:

When you put a Strategic HQ marker in Attack Mode (think of this as spending the material needed to put it in “attack supply”), it provides a positive shift to nearby Battles. With the Germans having two ways to divide those shifts (one to every Battle within that Attack HQ’s Range or two to a single Battle to drop "the hammer" on it), the Axis player must whether to spread them out or concentrate those shifts at a single Battle.

Sometimes the answer is obvious, such as when you are fighting only a single (or a single critical) Battle; in that case, the Axis player will drop the hammer on it and enjoy two automatic combat shifts. When making multiple attacks to inflict attrition, rupture a line and/or reduce pockets, the Axis will probably want to fling a single shift into myriad Battles which that HQ can support. The Axis' decision is less clear when making only two or maybe three Battles that you could support – do you spread your shifts out (one to each of them) or ignore the others and concentrate two shifts at a single Battle?

3. Pushing Things:

When conducting your Regular Movement Phase (i.e., after combat) you must consider the post-movement supply situation for your units. The question here is, if you can push them beyond their in-supply range, should you go there? If you do, those units will be Out of Supply (i.e., reduced to half Attack Strength) for sure – you might also be inviting the enemy to counterattack your lead elements and punish them for overextending themselves.

In the leaps of Barbarossa, the "bounds" of Axis supply are strained and many German units have pressed forward beyond their supply capabilities (which are counting down in Minsk an with the AG Center HQ marker). By doing so, they have trapped many Soviet Army units, but it is risky...

Ultimately, this logistics consideration weighs heavy as you cannot account for your opponent’s actions next turn. If you keep that unit back in supply and it can reach the enemy during your Special Movement (i.e., pre-combat movement) Phase, it will be able to attack next turn at full strength – and that alone could be vital to keeping your momentum going. If you press past your supply radii, you can certainly capture ground and make life uncomfortable for the enemy, but if they blast you back on their turn then, when your next turn comes around, you will only have half-strength forces in the vicinity to counterattack with!

Experienced players carefully reflect when this situation presents itself. It is a razor’s edge decision to push deeper into enemy territory (where you hope there is no counterattack waiting and they simply abandon terrain to you) or to insure your strength for next turn’s operations (daring them to strike back). If you’re charging into an area near a functioning enemy Strategic HQ marker, their counterattack potential is all the more dangerous if it goes into Attack mode!

One thing is sure, in the ETO system you won’t inflict the losses you need against the enemy by having your units sit on their butts in carefully selected defensive positions. If you want to inflict enemy losses, you must hurl the die in anger and achieve some bloody combat results! The Angel of Logistics' wings are constantly fluttering over your ground forces urging them to mete out retribution. Make sure you give your opponent’s units a jolly rotten time of it.

If you want to inflict enemy losses, you must hurl the die in anger and achieve some bloody combat results!

4. Leaps and Bounds:

As mentioned earlier, when and where to move an HQ marker is what defines phases of a campaign. HQ marker relocation is the exclamation point denoting decisive action and movement.

Historically, ground campaigns saw dramatic, alternating cycles of intense offensives followed by quieter periods where operational activity dwindled to almost nothing, those lulls being associated with preparing the next big attack. Simply put, as the armies moved forward they used up their supplies and outran the ability of their logistical services to replace them, which in turn necessitated that they pause to allow time for equipment to be repaired, losses replaced, and for new forward depots to be established.

Another approach is to "go deep" instead of "go broad" and leapfrog a pair of HQs along the same trajectory of advance.

In game terms this means that successful offensives occur in discrete "operational bounds." During each bound your army can typically move forward about 200 miles (6 hexes) before it runs out of steam (or, for the Soviets, with their paucity of transport vehicles, this distance falls to only 120 miles or 4 hexes). To drive past that point you must either have to capture another Supply City (and wait for it to regain its functionality as a supply source) or you can bring in a headquarters to act as an interim/temporary supply hub. If you’re burning resources (OPs) to maintain an HQ in Attack mode, Motorized units (those with a white Movement Allowance) can stay supplied up to double its printed Supply Radius (but it is economically very expensive to keep your foot on the accelerator thus).

For example, timing an HQ’s relocation between cities near the Objective hexes of Minsk and Smolensk is critical to both sides in Thunder in the East. Making the leap to the Major Port of Tobruk is a key moment during North African campaigns in The Middle Sea. For the Allies invading The Continent in Decision in the West, much hinges on capturing Antwerp as it is the Major Port (once functioning) that allows HQs to relocate outside of Anchorage hexes and into the interior of France and Germany (i.e., only Major Ports can extend communications along rails and roads).

You must make these fateful decisions:

  • Should you leap half-a-bound now and start the process of getting that HQ marker functioning again?

  • Or do you wait in hopes of capturing a better position and relocate it a longer bound next turn?

This is a simple-to-grasp but brutally challenging-to-make decision upon which your larger war effort hinges. Sober judgement, calm reflection, and a respect for your opponent’s ability to counterattack and threaten your counting-down HQs are your best counsellors when the time comes. Knowing when and where to reposition your HQ markers is an art which separates the great players from those who are merely competent.


Ships Ahoy!

Now we must anchor your knowledge of naval logistics and how it applies to ETO and comes to the fore starting with Volume II: The Middle Sea. There are basically three matters to attend to:

  1. What ability do you have to trace a Naval Line of Communications (NLoC) across given Sea Zones?

  2. Are your Naval units At Sea still shipshape or is it S.O.S. time and they are be forced to Retire and Refit/Repair?

  3. How goes maintaining your navy at anchor (your “Fleet in Being”)?

Lines At Sea

Start by taking a deep breath; you can always, always trace a Naval Line of Communication (NLoC). Your forces counting on an NLoC will never be isolated for that reason! The Axis armies in North Africa will not suddenly disappear from massive Isolation attrition until their last Anchorage there is captured.

Here's the rule:

[141.1.3] Naval Line of Communication (NLoC):

This is an unblocked line of any length (including 0 hexes), traced exclusively through connected Sea Zones (412.0) to a friendly functioning Major Port or Naval Base and that receiving Anchorage is able to trace an RLoC to an Ultimate Supply Source.

  • Anchorage hexes which are one of the two ends of a Strait hexside have an NLoC if the opposite end of the strait is a friendly-controlled City hex and is itself in communication (via RLoC or NLoC to an Ultimate Supply Source).

HQ “Pipelines:” HQ markers cannot trace an RLoC (141.1.2, above) to a friendly functioning Minor Port or Naval Base hex to use its NLoC; that HQ marker must be physically in it to use its NLoC. Thus, securing a Major Port and getting it operating frees up your HQ’s to operate inland. This is why Tobruk is so vital in the Desert War and why the Allies urgently sought to capture Antwerp after their breakout from Normandy in 1944 (and the Axis had Antwerp as their strategic objective during the Bulge Campaign).

Enemy-Controlled Sea Zones: You may trace an NLoC through enemy-controlled Sea Zones, but there are negative effects when tracing through enemy Interdicted Sea Zones.

Sea Rations

Now, Naval units At Sea must eat and they are on a fixed schedule before they reach S.O.S. (Save Our Ship) status and must Retire due to their “Isolation.” Naval units do not suffer the same effects as Ground units when Unsupplied or Isolated. Naval units move and fight normally even when possessing a Supply marker. Unsupplied Naval units are one turn At Sea away from being Isolated, while Isolated (and other S.O.S.) Naval units At Sea check for "attrition” which causes their precipitous Retirement and forces them to Refit (442.0).

[441.0] Naval Supply

During their Supply Step, your opponent checks the supply status of your units, beginning with your Naval units, by performing the Naval Supply Routine (below):

[441.1] Naval Supply Routine: When checking their supply status, Naval units follow this sequence:

  1. S.O.S.: If it has an Isolated marker on it, its owner must immediately Retire (442.0) and Refit (420.5) that Naval unit. If it must Retire through an Enemy Interdicted (444.0) or Storms weather (126.7) Sea Zone (444.0), it Retires and Repairs (420.5) instead.

  2. Consuming the Stores: If it has an Out of Supply marker on it, flip it to show its Isolated side.

  3. Bon Voyage: If it does not have a Supply marker on it, it gains an Unsupplied marker.

[441.2] Naval Supply Effects: Pieces At Sea suffer these adverse effects when Unsupplied or Isolated:

  • [441.2.1] Fighting Trim: Naval units move and fight normally even when possessing an Out of Supply or Isolated marker.

  • [441.2.2] S.O.S.: Unsupplied Naval units are one turn At Sea away from being Isolated; Isolated Naval units At Sea must Retire and make harbor (420.5) to Refit or Repair.

  • [441.2.3] Cargo Ground Units: Cargo Ground units At Sea are always in supply and disembark so.

Therefore, if you put a Naval unit to sea on this turn ("Turn 1") and leave it At Sea, on your opponent's Turn 1 it acquires an Out of Supply marker. If it remains At Sea during your Turn 2, then during your opponent's Turn 2 it becomes Isolated. If it remains At Sea during your Turn 3, then during your opponent's Turn 3 it must Retire to Refit or Repair. Essentially, you can transit across 6 Sea Zones (at the rate of 2 per turn) to make it from one Anchorage across the maps to another before being subject to an S.O.S. situation.

Making Waves for Sea Zone Control

The lowest level of sea control: "Traffic."

Faction has what level of control control of which Sea Zones? Here's the news o:

[444.0] Sea Zone Control Routine

Your Regular Movement Phase concludes with your Sea Zone Control Step where you perform the Sea Zone Control Routine.

  • If, and only if, you have one or more of your own undamaged, unloaded MS units in a Sea Zone when making this check do you conduct this routine.

  • Where you have no undamaged, unloaded MS units in that Sea Zone, do not perform this routine (its control remains status quo ante).

[444.1] Procedure: Conduct the Sea Zone control routine separately for each Sea Zone in this order:

The highest level of sea control, "Interdicted."
  1. If your Patrols marker is already there, flip over to show its Interdicted side. Your control increases to the highest level.

  2. If your Traffic marker is already there, stack on its lower half a Patrols marker. Your control increases to the second level.

  3. If the Sea Zone is Uncontrolled, place your Faction’s Traffic marker there. You have now taken control of that Sea Zone at the lowest level.

  4. If the Sea Zone has another Faction’s Sea Zone Control marker there, remove it. That Sea Zone is now contested and Uncontrolled.

[444.2] Sea Zone Control Effects on Naval Supply: Isolated Naval units (441.0) Retiring (442.0) via an enemy Interdicted Sea Zone (i.e., their opponent has achieved the highest level of control) must Repair (instead of merely Refit) after making harbor (420.5).

[444.3] Sea Zone Control Effects on NLoCs: When tracing an NLoC through enemy Interdicted Sea Zones, your Major Ports and Naval Bases doing so are Disrupted and HQs are Stressed.

[444.4] Sea Zone Control Effects on Naval Engagements: When a Naval Engagement occurs in a Sea Zone, the side having Interdicted control adds one propeller symbol when calculating Naval Combat Advantage (431.2) and Victory (437.1).

The Fleet in Being

Most wargamers, when they find they have ships to command in a game, typically push them out into the middle of the sea in search a large, decisive Jutland-like naval engagement. Doing so in ETO is a recipe for trouble; you’re going to need those ships for escorts through good times and bad and to threaten interception of your opponent’s naval operations (i.e., the Fleet in Being strategy) to keep them honest. You won’t be building a lot of new ships during play (Battleships take 4 years to produce, for example, Submarines 18 months), so be careful not to fritter away the ones you have!

Damaged UK capital ships.

After participating in a Naval Engagement, Naval units must Retire (i.e., return to a friendly Anchorage), Refit (i.e., flipped to show their Damaged side and generally recovered at the rate of one per turn), and Repair (placed in that Anchorage's Repair stack and generally recovered for Refit at the rate of one per Month). In the meantime, they can operate At Sea while Refitting but do so at their reduced (Damaged) values and must Repair when they return to port. (Avoid this, fighting damaged means their next port-of-call is likely to be their Force Pool).

Pack Up Your Troubles…

Like the other systems in the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series, wargamers see that the complexity arises not from complex rules, but from the scope of the decisions players must make. In actual gameplay, the ETO logistics are very simple to grock and quick to play, but their scope and impact casts a proper shadow over every player decision!

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