Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hope this post finds you in good spirits (literally if you'd like) and that the holiday season is going well for you.

Weather, family, and the holidays ended our Two Sides gaming a little earlier than expected this year, but we'll be cranking things back up next week with a look at Unhappy King Charles, the latest CDG from GMT Games covering the English Civil War. Designer Charles Vasey is a bit of an expert on the conflict, and it will likely lead to Mike and I taking a look at his earlier (and more detailed) effort The King's War.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Results at the Marne

Mike and I finished up our Rock of the Marne game last week with the final three turns. As expected, this only took us a couple hours as we maneuvered for the final VPs we thought we could reach. I'll post the final positions and let you know I ended up winning 12-11.

I took Chalons-sur-Marne for 6VP, and two roads leading off the southern edge of the map for 3 more VP each.

Mike took Chateau-Thierry (3), Fere-en-Tarden (2), Soissons (2), an Aisne bridgehead (2), and Bois Meuniere (2).

There were some significant runs of bad dice in this game. It's a definite poster child for “all dice rolls are not created equal.” Yes, the total may have ended up average (Mike was logging this, but I don't actually know what the totals were) but there are some VERY high leverage rolls. Probably the most important are the HQ replenishment rolls. If you do poorly on those, you're not going to get very far in this game. Both sides have the onus of attack placed on them for significant stretches of the game, and not having any attack supply hamstrings your efforts.

Now, my thoughts on the game.

Our biggest concern had been with the “monkey-drill” associated with the breakdown regiments. This has since been fixed with errata, but not in the way I expected. Operation Michael has a breakdown phase before movement, and a reassembly phase after exploitation. The fix to Rock of the Marne makes you do all your breakdown/reassembly before any divisions are moved, and only breakdown regiments that have not moved yet can reassemble. This significantly changes the game from the rules as printed.

I was originally concerned about the VP hex placement, then I realized that having nearly all the German VPs at the south edge of the board forces the German player into a decision around turn 7: they can either turn it into a race for VPs and a high-scoring game, or pull back, play defense, and try to win ugly. I decided on the former, and it worked out for me. (Though, had one or two die rolls gone the other way, Mike wins.)

I have a number of other concerns, but I realized they all come down to the structure of the CRT.

First, trenches seem to have very little effect. Technically, they shift you left 2 columns when your attacking a unit in a trench and halve the distance of any retreats. But, given the minor differences in the columns of the CRT, it doesn't make much practical difference. (For example, the 4:1 column rolling a 7 is A2D3 – attacker takes two step losses, defender takes three. The 2:1 column gives the same die roll an A3D2 result. A lone division is going to be dead no matter what.) After seeing what was happening to units in the trenches, we pretty much abandoned them. Mike pulled south in the eastern sector, and I pulled east out of the trenches in the way of the counter-attack.

I also think the CRT is too bloody. If I was playing the Germans again in the initial turn, I'd try something like this:

1.Break down every division in the easternmost trench line.
2.As there's no “minimum attack strength” rule, attack with solo regiments against every solo unit in the French trenches from Reims east. (out of 36 possible die roll results, 6 will lose to regiment to no effect, 27 will reduce the enemy at the cost of the regiment, and 3 will eliminate the division and reduce the regiment.) There's 12 solo divisions and 6 solo regiments in that general area at the start. You will certainly open up gaps.

Given the lack of a minimum strength for attack, later in the game it makes a lot of sense to send solo reduced regiments up against any assembled division you can find on its own. You're going to lose the regiment, but the enemy will lose 0.92 steps on average. But, since 1 divisional step = 3 regimental steps, you actually come out ahead. And, if it's a reduced division, you'll eliminate it 30 out of 36 times.

I'm curious to run a simulation of this, but let's say you're lone reduced division is being chased down by 3 other divisions. You break down your division into three reduced regiments, and send each after a separate division. You will lose your one reduced division, but you'll take out somewhere around three divisional steps in the process. Occasionally, you'll take out full-strength divisions, but it's likely at least one of those chasers was reduced. And he's probably gone now on top of any other losses you can inflict. (Given average dice, which certainly were not in evidence during this game.)

My impression of WWI combat was that the defender had a severe advantage, and it required a 3:1 superiority to have any real chance at success. The results the CRT give seem to be the opposite, and reward well-timed “suicide” attacks. Given the German superiority in numbers (something like 54 divisions to 37 at the start with 30 regiments available in the pool to the French 18) it's just a matter of grinding down the French, given enough attack supply.

Ah, yes. The other big concern. I appreciate what the difficulty in replenishing HQs is supposed to represent. The attack could only be maintained for so long. But, the random nature of replenishment means you are at the mercy of die rolls late in the game. (Mike, in particular, had his counter attack across the north edge of the map stall out because he couldn't get HQs replenished.) It also has the effect of shaping the German attack. They will push further wherever attack supply appears.

Late in our game, I was having little luck getting HQs to replenish. (In the 2nd half of the game, you must roll a 9 or higher to be successful. However, Mike had taken out six HQ units over the span of two turns. As those come back replenished into any controlled town and/or with a unit permanently assigned to them, you can pretty much choose where to place them. As this isn't something you want your enemy doing, you're actually DIScouraged from taking out enemy HQs as two turns later, they'll come back where they're most needed. Again, this seems counter intuitive.

It also had the side effect of my sort of exploiting the supply rules. Each bridge across the Marne can only support one HQ, and unsupplied HQs cannot replenish. They can, however, fuel an attack one last time if they're replenished when they go out of supply. As there's no restriction on replacing the Hqs south of the Marne, I just kept funneling them down there, and I probably had eight or nine Hqs placed south of the Marne with only three usable bridges.

Looking back at all these concerns, I'd probably do two things now that the breakdown rule has been fixed. I'd institute a minimum attack strength. (something like you couldn't initiate an attack that would start off the left end of the CRT.) Alternatively, make units defending in their own trenches ignore the first step loss against them. Also, I'd consider making German HQs placed back in play south of the Marne roll to replenish unless a bridge exists to support them. Of course, lots of testing on these changes would be needed, and for all I know they may have been proposed at some point but discarded.

All this being said, Mike and I did enjoy the game. There were tough decisions to make, even with playing the incorrect breakdown rules. The game came down to the very end as the 12-11 score indicates. And now that they've fixed the breakdowns, I'm looking to try this again to see if my CRT concerns are still valid. I think it's a good game, but I'm not sure how historical it really is. Our total play time was around 12.5-13 hours, but I think it's a 10-hour campaign game when all's said and done.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

DSDF hits the Marne

Eric proposed that we play a WW1 game to commemorate the ending of the war, and I suggested that we combine it with a longer, multi-session game report, as our sessions to this point have either been games that fit into a single evening session or our mega-long-term OCS Sicily game. I proposed that we try the new MMP release, Rock of the Marne (BGG entry), and Eric deemed it a good idea. So, for the past few evenings (4 to be precise) we've been slogging through RotM.

RotM is the latest in the SCS series, which has a simpler rule-set than some wargames, with the emphasis on playability, but not to the total detriment of the specific situation and chrome. It has certain similarities to other WW1 games in the series, especially in the limited breakdown counters available to spread the divisions out a little more. These breakdowns give a couple of extra MPs (for the Allied player) or reduced costs for moving into ZoCs, no overrun costs, and gaining exploitation movement (for the German player).

However, unlike Operation Michael in the same series, RotM doesn't provide a specific phase in the game in which to breakdown and recombine, but each division can breakdown immediately prior to moving in the movement phase, and then recombine at the end of its move. This means that as long as you have a few breakdown units available, there is a limited number of breakdown units for each player, you can use and reuse them as each division moves. Pretty big for the German player, and just feels a bit 'gamey'.

These two combine to give a totally ahistorical representation of the campaign. As seen from Eric's earlier post, his Germans attacked pretty much all along the line and just poured through, and I spent most of the early game just falling back. After the first turn the trenches were pretty much useless, as Eric just drove through and I had to fall back or face encirclement.

However, a large part of the game, including the end result, suffered greatly from the DSDF, a term coined by another of our gaming buddies, Doug, and which long-term readers will be familiar with by now. (For new readers, that's the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field. Basically any game that I play, that features dice (or any luck determining feature, it's not really only attributable to dice), will feature wacky outcomes way to the end of the bell curve. Whilst this normally works against me, in the (very) occasional game it works in my favor. Ask Chris about our FAB: Bulge game. Incidentally, I played FAB: Bulge with Eric recently. I got about as far in 7 turns as Chris did in 4.)

This game had it in spades. Early on, I used my Allied aircraft on CAP to intercept the German planes, a successful interception allowing the Allied player to not only negate the German 2 column right-shift on the CRT, but to replace it with a 2 column left-shift. A fairly major change in any single combat. The basic chance for a successful interception is to roll 7 or more on 2 d6, i.e. ~60%. In the first several turns I made 6 interception attempts, and missed every single one of them, which is somewhere off the 1% end of the bell curve. Making even 3 of those would have gone a long way to helping prevent the rather one-sided nature of the early game. (In contrast, Eric made 2 interception attempts, and scored them both, one even high enough to cause a step loss. In my 7 total attempts I rolled low enough to lose 2 steps from my own aircraft.)

Then again, Eric was rolling like a demon in the early part. 10s and 11s were appearing regularly, especially, it seemed, on the low odds attacks, which meant whole stacks of units disappeared, leaving gaping holes everywhere. Naturally these were rapidly exploited by his StossPanzerTruppen. His HQ recovery rolls saw him get most of them back in the early turns (and 90% in turn 5, all but 1 roll being higher than 5, another low probability outcome), although he suffered later on when the recovery number went up to 8 (i.e. he had to roll 9 or higher to recover the HQ).

Despite all this, at the start of the Allied turn 14, the points were 13-12 in my favor, when I made an attack on another 2VP hex, but rolled '2'. This not only eliminated most of my units, it also retreated the remaining unit from another VP hex, which Eric promptly moved into, and was enough to win the game. This was the only result that could have done it, as Eric didn't have any HQs that could provide supply for an attack. I tried to take any VP hex in my turn, but a combination of failed HQ recovery rolls and being unable to roll a '10' or higher in any of the 4 combats for VP spaces gave Eric the game.

(The game in pictures is here.)

In the post-game discussion we noticed that there was one HQ I could have used for another attack on a VP space in that final turn, as the attacking divisions were not tied to any particular corps HQ, and, just for kicks, I rolled. An '11'. That would have been enough to win the game, 11-9. Sigh.

I could go further into the details (like turns where my several combats rolls averaged 4.5, and Eric's averaged 8.5), but you get the general picture. Which is all to say that it's real hard to get a good feel for a game where it's as whacked up as this one. However, some things were readily apparent.

Firstly, the whole breakdown think needed rethinking. Being able to ripple the same breakdown units through each divisional movement just seems wrong. In fact there has recently been a rules change to address this, but rather than just take the same approach as Operation Michael (separate breakdown/recombine phases) they've introduced an even more complex version of the existing rule. Sheesh.

Second, is those very breakdown troops are way too strong for the Germans. Giving them reduced ZoC movement costs, no overrun costs and exploit movement makes them crazy strong. Yes there are limited numbers of counters, but they're pretty much unstoppable. The only thing that stopped Eric from taking Paris was that Paris wasn't on the map to take.

Next, the CRT is a bit too aggressive on the defender results at the upper level, with whole divisions just disappearing in one combat. This means that holes can be blown in defenses, and the German breakdowns units (aka StossTruppen) just pour through, which gives it more of a feel of WW2 'Blitzkrieg' armor operations than WW1. (In fact, at times, it felt more like WW2 desert warfare than the recent game of Afrika II I played with Chuck, which felt more like WW1 trench warfare.)

Certainly the breakdown rule change will make for a considerably different game, but is there enough there to make us want to try it again? Hmm, not so sure, but with so many other games out there to be played, it's going to have a hard fight to make it onto the table. The jury remains out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Back and Forth Across the Marne

Over the last two weeks, Mike and I have continued our Rock of the Marne campaign. We're through 12 turns at this point – just three more to go. To date, we've been playing for around 10 hours with another half hour for setup. Now, there's definitely been some extra time spent on getting your head back into the game than had we been doing this all in one sitting, but it's still probably a 10 hour game when all's said and done.

My last post covered us through turn 3. That is mid-day on July 16. (Each turn is 1/2 day.) On July 18 (GT 7) the Allies began a large counter-attack that eventually ended up pushing the German force back to their starting points, and destroyed much of what was left of the forces in that area.

Our game has deviated from history a fair amount, and the last three turns are going to prove which directions things fall.

This image shows how the historical counter-attack happened. The solid red line is the front on the morning of July 18 (turn 7). I've drawn three sets of lines on this graphic.

The black box is the approximate map area the game covers.

The blue line is through the first three turns. You'll see it pretty much matches up with where things should have been after six turns.

The green line is through twelve turns. I've effectively created two salients that have seriously exposed flanks. This should roughly correlate to the red dotted line on the map. You can see I've continued to push in the southwest and southeast, but am getting pushed back much harder in the west than actually happened.

To what can this be attributed? Well, a number of factors. First off, the majority of German VP hexes are at the southern edge of the map. 15 of 26 points, IIRC. Historically, the Germans never came close to any of them. As I've maintained the offensive across the Marne, that meant I didn't have the resources to also put up a strong defense in the western trenches – therefore I abandoned them and attempted to set up a defense further east. Mike has spent a good portion of the last four turns chasing me across the northwest sector of the map. Our final session will pick up with him catching me as I can't afford to give up any more VP spaces running away.

In the southeast, I've taken Chalons and now have to hold it against a British relief force.

The other concern I've got is holding western bridges across the Marne river. As each bridge can only support one HQ, it's imperative to me to hold them. At the offensive's peak, I held seven bridges. I'm now down to three (though I may be getting one back this turn.) That's not enough to maintain all the HQs that have moved south, so I either need to pull someone back or take more space.

The latter is becoming more difficult as to attack, you need attack supply. To get attack supply, you must have replenished HQs. To replenish an HQ, it must be in supply, and you have to roll higher than your supply number each turn. For the last 1/3-1/2 of the game, that number is an 8 for the Germans. That means I have to roll a 9 or higher on two dice to get attacks supplied by that HQ. Not easy, and in fact on one turn (either turn 10 or 11) I whiffed on ever single roll.

Here's the current board position from the Allied perspective after 12 turns.




I'll wait until next week to post my full thoughts on the game.