Saturday, July 5, 2008

Infiltrating Drop Zones

Mike's choice this week, and he wanted to give The Devil's Cauldron another try. The concern was whether we could fit one of the intermediate scenarios into an evening. Adam Starkweather (the designer) claims that the Empire Strikes Back scenario is playable by experienced players in two hours, so we gave that one a shot figuring we could get it done in our 3 hour timeslot.

We were on a bit short notice as Mike had just returned from the east coast so we needed to do a little chit punching before we got started. All the incredibly tiny high-contrast text on the counters does make it a tad slow in finding the precise pieces you need, but eventually we got it all together. I was curious how the German cause would play out in this scenario so I requested the Germans.

The Empire Strikes Back scenario covers the German counterattack by Korps Feldt towards Groosbeek and Mook south of Nijmegen on Sep 18, 1944. The game starts with the 0700 turn and continues until either the 1500 or 1700 turn depending on which turn the Allies decide to do their supply drop. This means either a 5 or 6 turn game. Only two divisions are involved: Korps Feldt on the German side, and the 82nd Airborne for the allies. For the Germans to win, they have to have non-suppressed units in the drop zones, have taken possession of a hill on the way to Mook, and have occupied the easternmost hex of Mook at some point. Allies win if the Germans do none of this. In the likely event the results fall in the middle the Germans win if they've eliminated at least three steps of allied units. Not as easy as it sounds.

The game begins with a German divisional activation and all German troops are off-map. They come in at hexes marked around the edge of the board. Two formations headed straight towards the drop zones, and a third has a choice of two entry points near the southeastern corner of the map. I was concerned about Mike moving units between my formations and separating them, so decided to take the more northerly of my two choices. Given my experience, I might not choose this option the next time.

I came on the map in three columns, one per formation. As the allies cannot exit their deployment zone, I was unhindered in my initial advance. Of course, to make any headway whatsoever, coming on in column was a necessity. My northernmost formations were able to come out of column before any real resistance was met, and by the end of the third turn, I had begun to enter the southeastern drop zone. Turn four (1300) got me slightly further in, but I was not able to reach the southern drop zone before the supply drop occurred in the fifth (1500) turn.

Turn 2 North:

Turn 3 North:

Turn 4 North:

Turn 5 North:

In the south, I had much further to go before any resistance was met. By the end of turn 2, I was only two hexes shy of KG Goebel's first objective (the hill northeast of Reithorst). By the end of turn 3, I had taken it. (Turns out, only a rearguard was holding Reithorst and the hill. More serious opposition awaited me in Mook should I have made it that far.)

Southern turn 2:

Southern turn 3:

Southern turn 4:

Southern turn 5:

When we got to the start of the fifth turn, Mike revealed he planned the supply drop for this turn, and this made the fifth turn the end of the scenario. I looked over the victory conditions and realized we were probably in tiebreaker territory. I had achieved (and didn't look like I had a chance to lose) three of my four objectives. This meant the winner came down to how many steps the allies had lost. If I'd taken out three or more steps, I'd win, less and Mike would win. Going into the third turn, I'd taken out two steps, so my goal was to take out one more. Axis losses aren't relevant to the victory conditions, so it was a case of “I'm going down and taking someone with me.”

It was close, though. Normally, the last activation chit in a cup isn't played (it becomes the first chit for the next turn, but the scenario special rules allow a 50% shot of the last chit in the cup being played in both the first and last turns. My divisional activation chit was the last one in the cup, and I got the chance to play it. It was on this activation that I got that third step eliminated thus winning the scenario.

I had no chance of reaching Mook, and I may have gotten into all three drop zones had the game gone another turn, so I feel I did pretty well for a first play. Experience will teach me how to get those units close to Mook. (I've got some ideas, but I'm not saying just in case I get the Germans again vs. Mike in this scenario.) In effect, the scenario was a draw as neither of us did anything very definitive except perhaps my advance in the south.

The activation flow was interesting. I picked up two dispatch points on the first activation of the game. I spent those initial two on formation chits for turn 3, and didn't get to spend any more the remainder of the game. I didn't get any in turn 2, didn't get to roll in turn 3, didn't get any in turn 4, and finally got two more in the final activation of the game. Those, obviously, were useless. Mike, on the other hand, started with a lot more dispatch points, and was able to keep a relatively high total throughout the game. I don't believe he ever felt hampered by an inability to focus extra attention where needed - I certainly did. (having one or two more activations for KG Goebel in the south could have made a big difference in the outcome of the game. Learning to manage your dispatch points is definitely a developed skill.

For references sake, here's the chits that got held over in each turn:
1st: none (don't recall the last chit drawn, but it was played).
2nd: Axis Direct command
3rd: Axis Divisional Activation
4th: Allied Divisional Activation
5th : none (Axis Divisional Activation got played.)

This is the second time (and third scenario) we've gotten on the table. I'm starting to get a better feel for my thoughts on the game, but I don't know that I'll ever fully know how I stand on it until I get the campaign game played to completion. And, to be honest, that isn't going to be happening any time soon. Maybe the advanced scenarios will provide a clearer picture.

My thoughts on the rulebook haven't changed. A three-level-deep table of contents has been put on the support website, but it's still awkward to use as you can't merge it into an electronic copy. (There still isn't one. On that note, as it seems there will only be an electronic copy if living rules become necessary, and as the braintrust and the fanbois behind the game seem to take anything that's not outright errata with a “You haven't played the game enough to know that it's just about perfect as it is. We playtested it with the rule like that, and it's balanced.” attitude, it's hard to tell if there will EVER be an electronic copy of the rulebook.) It's still difficult to actually refer to anything in the rulebook, as now we're typically only needing to look up special cases – the most difficult things to find in a book that has no index, tons of gratuitous whitespace, poor heading delineation, and isn't searchable.

The issue that came to the fore for me in this playing was opportunity fire. Nearly everything in the game is determined by where a unit is moving to. Opportunity fire is based on where a unit is moving from. This creates some strange effects such as units with small arms (oh, say, your average infantry unit) not being able to opportunity fire on a unit that moves adjacent to it. You can only do this if the enemy unit leaves a hex in range. I'm still not convinced about this.

The rationale for the rule apparently comes from the old Panzer Command rules from which the Devil's Cauldron ruleset is derived. Oddly, those rules claim that the rule is the way it is because disengaging is harder than engaging. Yet, you can't OppFire at someone moving INTO your fire zone. The rule reads like opportunity fire is typically only taken at units moving away from you, which is simply wrong. It's a direct contradiction in my book, and this rule detracts from the game. The negative aspects to this rule would be greatly exposed in a classic scenario of long lines attacking an entrenched position. However, I don't know that there's ever been a game with this rule applied to a scenario that has those conditions.

I rated this with 3.4 stars (on average) last time. I gave gameplay four stars and fun factor three. After playing a larger scenario, I'd tweak that a bit, and add a half point to the fun factor, but drop the gameplay by half a point. No rating change after another session. I'm hoping the opportunity fire issue isn't one that becomes worse in bigger scenarios, but as this campaign didn't see a whole lot of miles-long-fronts-staring-at-each-other type action I'm thinking it may not be that big of a deal in the end. It's certainly sticking in my craw now, however.

The 500m/hex scale also creates an odd feel. The units are small enough that you expect it to act rather tactical. It doesn't. (In fact an entire Combat Commander map would fit within a single Devil's Cauldron hex) But you can't think strategically as it doesn't even come close to even the small OCS scale in Sicily which is eight times further across a hex. Also, you don't have a “higher command” level – there's nothing above division, and the divisions effectively act independently. I hate to draw a miniatures analogy here, but this game feels like 20mm figures. You can paint them like 25mm figures and work on the detail, which is just as much work as painting 25s, or you can paint them like 15mm figures and go for the mass effect, but it costs you more money and space. Maybe my relative inexperience with WWII wargaming is showing here, but it seems like a scale in search of a home.

(To be fair, here, Panzer Grenadier – a game I enjoy - takes criticism for this exact same issue. People used to squad-level tactical games have a hard time wrapping their head around platoon-level at 200m/hex. Maybe 500m/hex is a bridge, er, abstraction level too far. Maybe not. Time will tell.)

I'm still torn on this game. I want to like it but I keep finding things that annoy me. I've been watching Mike gleefully punch and clip his copy, but I still haven't even punched mine. I'm going to have to decide before they start printing the sequel, though. I've got a preorder in for it, but if I'm still sitting on the fence by that point I'm not spending the 2.5 tanks of gas the game will cost.

No comments: