Saturday, May 10, 2008

Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

Last weekend, Mike and I got together for a big project – OCS Sicily, the full campaign including the landings. Our first plan was to play this over a week-long retreat in the summer, but it's not looking like I'm going to be able to attend that. So, as we both had the weekend free thanks to my cashing in some familial karma points, we decided to give it a start. Back when we first decided we were going to embark on this, Mike had volunteered to take the Axis defense, so we each already knew what posture we were going to take.

Back in Operations #43, (which is available on Magweb) a set of articles was published that looked at the historical campaign and translated it to how you might organize it in the game. I sent Mike a copy of the Axis article from that set, and I worked on the Allied. I figured having this base to work from would save a lot of time as planning that invasion is highly complex and we were going to need all the time-saving measures we could manage in order to make significant progress.

We had initially discussed using the scenario that starts immediately after the initial landings, but since part of what we're doing is learning how the system works, it would have been rather silly to skip the landings. We'd never done anything to this point that involved Naval, and the Sicily campaign exercises the naval rules like no other game in the system.

I don't know how closely Mike adhered to the article I sent him, but I did notice that there were some things in the distribution of forces on the Allied side that didn't work in the 4.0 rules, and I didn't actually notice it until after I had begun the invasion. That slowed me down a bit. (The technical issue is that transports and supply cannot be landed in any fashion that requires either a roll on the landing table or a contested beach assault. Essentially, you have to control a port before you can land transports or supplies making it difficult to bring transports on in the initial wave. This is something I'd change next time I play. I may have wasted four or five brigades worth of space on my landing craft in that initial wave by taking transports along.)

Historically, the Allies had heavily bombarded the island ports before landing, and then invaded in two separate, though rather close, sectors. The British and Canadians landed near Punta della Correnti in the far southeastern tip of the island and then north up the eastern coast. The Americans landed along the beaches between Licata and Capo Scaramia on the eastern half of the southern coast. That leaves a gap around 25 miles (about 10 or so hexes) between the two landing forces. Fortunately, this gap is lightly defended, and one of the initial goals of the invasion is to link up the Canadians to the Americans to bridge that gap.

The initial island defense looked something like this (all pictures are taken from the north looking south, and are hotlinks to larger versions. This particular image has callouts.):

(ignore those two tall stacks in the water south of the island. Mike took the picture just after I started moving stacks from the Floating Forces box towards the island.)

The initial British and Canadian landings went well. The Americans, not so much. The 1st Inf division in particular failed miserably in taking Gela. Historically, this was the location of the strongest Allied counterattack, so I guess it's close to what happened, just a bit early.

The paradrops, however, were just as much of a disaster as they were historically. The British attempted to land five units. Three made it. One landed in the water, and one landed on an enemy unit. The American attempt at landing was intercepted and completely repulsed by an Axis fighter squadron. No American paradrop support arrived.

The end of turn 1 positions can be seen in the east here:

and in the west here:

Turn 2 began the slow process of establishing a beachhead, claiming more space, and getting supplies to the island to fuel the advance. As nearly all the initial landing troops are foot, they didn't need supplies to move, but any combats or defenses had to be paid for. This was aided by two of the Italian Coastal Divisions surrendering on first contact, nearly completely opening up the corner of the island to British and Canadian advances. So, there was a steady cautious move forward.

In the west, not so much. I still hadn't taken Gela, and needed to bring in supplies and reinforcements to secure the beachhead. So progress was small.

End of turn 2 positions are here in the east

and here in the west.

Turn three was more of turn 2. Things weren't progressing as quickly as I would have liked, and I was having a hard time not stepping on my own toes in the east. The path up the coast to Syracuse is narrow and moderately well defended leading to something of a traffic jam, but not quite up to Battle of the Bulge proportions. I also lost half my remaining landing craft during the reinforcement phase of this turn. (They get pulled out to prepare for the Salerno landings.)

End of turn 3 positions are here in the east

and here in the west.

Turn 4 saw the Axis essentially abandon Syracuse. One small unit was left behind in the port. I also decided I had enough supply to land the 2nd Armored Division west of Licata. I thought quite a bit on the prior turn whether to land them west of Licata (as I decided) or in the gap between Licata and Gela. However, as Mike was slowly abandoning his active defence of the Gela area, I decided to land west and begin threatening the western end of the island. This had the advantage of also taking Porto Empedocle which (after some minor repairs yet to be performed) will give yet another entry port for land supplies and units.

End of turn 4 positions are here in the east

and here in the west.

Turn 5 began the major Commonwealth advance in the gap between landing areas. Mike had begun abandoning the heights and my advances were finally allowing some breathing room down by the coast. In particular I now had full control of the primary road (hwy 115) from Syracuse to Licata. This would help greatly in supply delivery.

End of turn 5 positions are here in the east

and here in the west.

Turn 6 saw one major incident – Mike found and exploited a gap northeast of Gela that allowed him to run a small unit behind the Canadian line and shut down the airbases behind the lines. The remainder of the turn was small steady advances along most of the front. The 2nd Armored was performing well and was clearing space along the beach.

End of turn 6 positions are here in the east

and here in the west.

Turn 7 was mostly resupply. I finally cleared that small unit out of Syracuse and now have access to that port.

Mike forgot to take photos of the final state before we logged the positions and tore down.

I'm in the process of entering the positions into Vassal, and we'll be able to continue the game at a later date. Which we most definitely will.

After we finished turn 7, Mike looked up Driving to Messina scenario which begins two days later than the point at which we quit. Significantly more territory had been gained in the real campaign than I had been able to carve out so far. I'm probably ½ to 2/3 as far as the Allies had gotten by July 21. I've also got a few more losses than the historical campaign. So, it's not looking great from my point of view, but if I can slow down his retreats off the island, I should do okay.

How did I feel about this session? First, we didn't get any where near as far into the scenario as I had hoped. We ended up averaging around 2.5 hours per turn. There are a few reasons for this. The first two-three turns are going to take a long time because the landings simply take a long time to resolve. There's a lot to do, both in the preparations for the landings, and resolving the landings themselves. Of course, more familiarity with the naval rules would help, but not THAT much.

This was also, by far, the largest OCS scenario we've attempted to date, and may have been a bit more than we were expecting. I know Mike admitted to having problems keeping his brain around the whole thing while not forgetting critical issues. (For example, he accidentally left a couple units out of supply around turn 6 or so and lost them both due to attrition.) His job was pretty tough, though, as he didn't really know where I would be coming from on landings beyond the first wave, and he's got interesting decisions on when to stay and fight and when to pull back to the next defensive line.

It wasn't as bad from my perspective as I had clear-cut objectives. My issues were more tactical in nature. Trying to keep from stepping on my own toes in the east, keeping everyone supplied, etc. I know I wasn't as diligent about doing fighter sweeps and such to keep my air units operating at peak efficiency as I should have been. My primary job from this point in the campaign is to establish my supply net and determine where the next primary offensive should be.

I think this campaign is the largest piece of OCS I'd want to attempt as a 2-person, face-to-face venture. If we tried anything bigger (say, one of the mid-sized scenarios from Case Blue) I'd want to run it as a four-player game, minimum. One of the drawbacks of OCS is downtime. There can be significant amounts of time when the other player is moving before you get to your reaction phase. Mike and I briefly talked about doing OCS as a chit-pull kind of mechanism, but I think there would be major integration issues with other parts of the game mostly related to unit and aircraft states (mostly when DG results are cleaned up or how frequently you can reactivate aircraft. There's likely other things as well.)

I'm a big fan of OCS. I love the system and will always be looking for opportunities to play. However, I'll readily admit that this wasn't my favorite session so far. I definitely felt at times that we had bitten off more than we could chew, and by the time we were done playing I was done for a while. It wasn't like the last couple playings where I couldn't wait to get it back on the table. Next OCS may or may not be a continuation of Sicily, but it'll be happening again. I'm thinking maybe something small from Case Blue might be in order. We may just continue Sicily via Vassal once Mike gets comfortable with that system.

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