Monday, March 23, 2009

Crossing the Chir in Slow Motion

Once a year, the wargame fans in our gaming group head over to Doug's place in Sunriver for a week long gaming gathering hat is referred to as WBC-West. It's our own little version of WBC. Minus the hundreds of attendees. And the competitions. And trophies.

But it's got lots of wargaming. So that's good.

This year, we're trying an experiment and having WBC-W in May. August was proving problematic for a variety of reasons.

One thing most of the attendees do before heading over is lock down a schedule. Which games, against whom, and when. Practice games are held to get the rules cemented in our head and verify that, yes, we do actually want to play this for real. After all, if you only get to do this once a year, you don't want to waste a full day playing a substandard game or botching critical rules. And you certainly don't want to be stuck as odd-man-out when everyone else is playing eight-hour games.

So, at this point the character of Two Sides will be changing a tad until late May. Mike and I have entered practice mode. We're planning a “monster” game this year to finish off the week – four of us will be playing the Drive for Oil scenario of Case Blue, the OCS game covering the 1941-1943 adventures of Army Group South. Mike and I will also be playing The Mighty Endeavor earlier in the week.

So, our schedule for a while is pretty locked in. This week, we played the Case Blue version of the Chir River Battles scenario that originally appeared in Enemy at the Gates. It was a nice refresher – 3 turns, and you're playing on less than a letter-sized portion of the map. In fact, it's small enough that we played it twice (once from each side) in around 3 hours.

The next couple weeks, we'll be tackling the Edge of the World scenario, also from Case Blue. It's the “intro” version of the scenario we're playing at WBC-W, so it's a perfect lead-up. We're also going to be using the sessions as an OCS trainer/refresher for anyone else in the group interested in OCS. I'm also going to try to write up an OCS instructional manual as a post on here in a couple weeks.

After that, Mike and I will spend a session going over the first few turns of The Mighty Endeavor to get an idea of how we want to approach that. So, for those of you following along at home, here's what we'll be covering on the blog for a while:

This week - Case Blue, Chir River
Next week - Case Blue, Edge of the World
Apr 1 - Case Blue, Edge of the World part 2.
Apr 8 - Either Edge of the World, the Finale, or The Mighty Endeavor.
Apr 15 - Either The Mighty Endeavor (if we didn't play the week before), or something else we haven't decided on yet.
Apr 22 - No gaming – I'm at Disneyland all week for our daughter's 5th birthday party. (though Vassal's always a possibility.)
Apr 29 – Unknown game to hit the table.
May 6 - No gaming this week as WBC-W is the entire next week, so I don't get a night away the week before :)
May 13 – WBC-W.

Besides Case Blue and The Mighty Endeavor, games it's looking like I have a shot at playing that week include Friedrich; some large 3-player game which could be Clash of Monarchs, Here I Stand, Savannah, or something else; Through the Ages; Combat Commander; Command & Colors: Ancients; and a host more possibilities. I intend to post session reports on most, if not all the games I play either here or on my personal blog.

Okay, enough context. We played the Chir River Battles mini-scenario last week. How did it play out?

First time through, Mike took the Russians, who are on the attack. The initial setup is illustrated here:

The brown circle indicates the Russian supply source, and the blue circle the German. The red circle is the hex the Russians must occupy by the end of the third turn.

You can't see the contents, but you can definitely tell the Russians have two large stacks – right next to the supply source, and another stack in a salient just NW of Nizhne-Chirskaya. That's also where the bulk of the Russian artillery is stationed. You can also see that the Germans are rather weak in the NW sector, and that right next to the German supply source is the 11th Panzer Division, waiting to counter attack.

Mike worked from the position of Russian strength, and pushed hard straight south with the idea of breaking through, then shooting west. I used the 11th Pz Div to counter attack exposed points and pulled back the survivors of the initial onslaught. I ended up creating a defensive line on the west side of the Tsinla river and points north. Mike nearly had enough to get to the goal, but wouldn't have been able to fight off the garrison once he got there. So, a minor German victory here.

We turned it around and I took the Russians. My idea was to attack west through the German weakness, then push south. I was slightly hampered by warm weather in the first turn keeping the Chir from freezing. I wasn't as committed as I should have been, and ended up not being able to reach the goal. Another German victory.

Mike differed in his approach with the Germans and took a forward defense, forcing me to fight through his troops early – something I wasn't consistently able to do. His approach gave me the opportunity for overruns where mine specifically avoided them. It will be interesting to see which defense works better once we figure out the Russian offensive plan.

When we talked about it afterwards, we realized that with the supply structure in place, there were two things neither of us did that look to be necessary to win this scenario as the Russians. First, you have to blow through the German lines at the rail bridge just south of Oblivsk. That's the only way you're going to be able to create a supply line long enough to pull off an attack on the VP hex. Second, neither of us used what might be the best Russian unit on the board – the 8th Gd Tank Brigade stationed in the middle of the line. (It's the 8-4-8 red unit you can see in the middle of the setup.) That's the key unit, I believe, as it's got a 16 MP move mode that can project strength pretty much anywhere on the map.

So, Mike attacked too far south, and I attacked too far north. This scenario is a nice little puzzle, however, and a great refresher or learning scenario for OCS. There's no air units or other strangeness – just straightforward give and take.

So, if you've got that Case Blue sitting around and you're wondering how you're going to tackle it, head over to The Gamers Archive and snag the Chir River Battles scenario and give it a go. It'll be a well-spent evening.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No cheer at the Chir

One of the sessions in our upcoming WBC-W game-athon will be a 2-day, 4-player 'monster' game. After some discussion, we settled on one of the games from the MMP/Gamers OCS line, and choose the 'Drive for Oil' scenario from Case Blue (BGG entry). (OK, that's not such a huge monster in the grand scheme of things, but it's a start for us.)

So, as part of our preparations for WBC-W, and Case Blue specifically, Eric and I will be spending the next few weeks getting back into OCS. Last night saw our first foray into Case Blue, with the Chir River training scenario. This was a scenario that was a part of the original Enemy at the Gates OCS game, and which (along with a lot of others) was not included with the enlarged version of the campaign, Case Blue. (I've never understood why they weren't converted and included with CB.) Anyway, several devotees of OCS have started converting these old scenarios to Case Blue, so, it seemed a good place for Eric and I to start, as it's only 3 turns long, with a small group of units and portion of the map.

The scenarios sees the Russians attacking to the SW of Stalingrad in the middle of December in 1942, trying to gain a foothold over the Chir River. The Axis have a lot of crummy units holding the line, but with a full panzer division to provide mobile backup. The Russians win if they break through the Axis lines and capture Morozovsk (to the left from the Axis perspective), and the Axis win if they prevent that. Here's the opening situation from the two perspectives:

I randomly got the Russians, and my plan was to force a gap in the center/right flank area with the two infantry divisions (212th and 93rd Gds), where they only faced a couple of Alert battalions, using 5Mech Corps to drive through the gap. From there, drive to Morozovsk, whilst trying to protect my flank from 11Pz. The second part was to use the existing bulge into the Axis lines, and 1Tk (stacked under the 12-2-2), on the left to also force a gap, threatening to pocket his entire frontline, leaving them out of supply, and forcing him to also protect his right flank of 11Pz as they try to stop my main thrust.

A grand plan, but it went awry from the first roll. I started with an overrun of a minuscule Alert battalion by my 1Tk units in the bulge. However, despite a +1 action rating modifier, I managed to roll a 6 column defender surprise shift (needed 6+ to avoid defender surprise), which meant I lost one of the attacking units, although I did remove the Alert battalion. Further, after moving in, we spotted that this would leave 1Tk unsupplied, as the HQ couldn't throw that far, so it had to pull back. (Frozen march is 6MPs, and a frozen minor river is +3MPs, so it can't throw across the river.) In all my following combats I rolled another couple of defender surprise results, and a single attacker surprise. Fortunately, my combat rolls were generally very good, so things mostly balanced out, as without that things would have looked pretty bleak. However, by the end of the turn I'd surrounded several units, cutting them off from supply.

Then Eric went into action with 11Pz. They came storming forward, and overran the mech unit holding the pocket, gaining surprise for another 6 column shift, and promptly vaporized. So went the rest of the turn, with Eric gaining attacker surprise in 4 out of 5 combats, for 6, 6, 5 and 2 column shifts (4 at +2, i.e. needing 8+, 1 at +1, i.e. needing 9+). By the end of the turn 5M and 1Tk Corps had pretty much ceased to exist, and for no loss to the Axis.

It was pretty clear that there wasn't going to be any Russian win in this game. With there still being a gap in the Axis lines, I pushed my remaining strength forward, attempting to take out part of 11Pz. Once again I didn't have much success, although I did successfully overrun the 11Pz artillery unit that had been left exposed, and managed to clear Surovikino, to create a better line of supply to the units on the left, and once again surround some of the Axis front-line units.

Once more, however, the dice didn't go in my favor as Eric's attrition rolls were 4 and 5, meaning both stacks survived, one with no loss, the other with a single step loss. (The first needed a 8+ to die (AR3, 2-5 no loss, 6-7 1 step, 8+ 2 steps), the second 6+ (AR2, 2-3 no loss, 4-5 1 step, 6+ steps.) Elsewhere, he just rejigged his line, with little (or no?) combat.

In the final turn Eric won initiative, and chose to go first. He started a withdrawal, and pulled everyone back, knowing that with a single turn to go, I had a lot of ground to make up. In the pocket, one of the isolated units still survived, as the AR3 stack only lost a single step, but the AR2 stack lost its final step.

However, there was still a chance! Eric had left one hex in his line protected by a single Alert battalion, and I threw what I had left against it. But it was not to be, as I couldn't muster the '6' required on two dice to get the exploitation result to allow the units to drive through the gap and have a chance of overrunning Morozovsk, although, thinking more about it, I wouldn't have had the MPS to do that, anyway.

This had taken around 1.5 hours, so we set it up again, and switched sides.

This time it was Eric's turn to suffer from the dice, as his very first roll saw the best weather possible, not what the Russian player wants, leaving the rivers unfrozen. (In my version I did well on the weather rolls, having frozen rivers each turn.) He pushed a little in the bulge area of his left, but didn't risk any attacks across the river, settling for setting up for the next turn. I pushed 11Pz forward to blunt his attack in the bulge area, successfully pushing him back, but at the cost of a panzer battalion.

In the next turn the weather became frozen, and Eric pushed forward. He attacked along his right flank, all the way to the end, hoping to turn it and set himself up for the final turn. I moved 11Pz across to protect, and removed his leading units in combat.

In the final turn, I won initiative, and chose to go first. I pushed all my units forward, in what I considered to be a very 'gamey' tactic, taking advantage of a gap in his lines to put all his lead units out of supply. If this had been part of a larger game, rather than a focused scenario, I wouldn't have done this, as I fully expected most of my forward units to get blasted, and wouldn't have been prepared to give up so many units for such a short-term gain. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, as Eric over-ran all those Alert battalions I'd pushed forward, but they'd done their jobs, as he didn't have anywhere near the range or capability to get close to Morozovsk, so the Axis won, once more.

In the post-game kibitzing we discussed how the Russian player should tackle this puzzle. We agreed that there are a few items that appeared critical, and which we learned through play:

  • Rail bridge at 30.31 - without it the Russian HQ can't throw supply far enough to allow an attack on Morozovsk, so removing the LW division protecting it is vital
  • 8-4-8 armor unit - neither of us used this unit effectively, but with its big movement and combat strength it should be used in the drive/attack on Morozovsk
  • Get the Katyusha across to the point of attack in the first turn, or at least use it to DG 11Pz

OK, it's a very limited scenario, but it served its purpose. We got back into the OCS groove, and very quickly too, with a minimum of rules referencing, as either one or the other of us remembered the specific rule in question. We're planning to do the Edge of the World scenario over the next few weeks, which should have us ready for WBC-W. Not having played OCS for several months now, I'd forgotten how good it was, and how much I liked it.

I am _so_ looking forward to the WBC-W OCS session, the highlight of the week for me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sand in the toes

Another session, and another game off the burn-down list. This time it was the turn of Shifting Sands, the CDG from MMP of the campaign in North Africa. Whilst I've been aware of this one for some time, it's only recently that it's jumped onto my 'to buy' list as my interest in CDGs in general (and the desert campaign, as a lesser factor) has ramped up.

Having played a little of WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin, Shifting Sands was very familiar, and the mechanisms were mostly in my head. There are lots of special rules that allows for a fair amount of chrome relevant to the theater and its special circumstances and situations, but I never felt overwhelmed at any point.

In our game I played the Allies, and pressed forward smartly. An early play of Poor Morale was useful, although I was very short of Reinforcement cards. By the time the Germans entered, I had captured Tobruk, and was clearing out East Africa after a slow start. I was fortunate to get a couple of good results when the Axis attacked towards Tobruk, repulsing both attacks with even results, although I was down a column in each combat.

In 1941, Tobruk fell to a large Axis attacking force, as my spoiling attack failed, despite a +2 drm. After that the front went quiet, as I was able to move a couple of divisions around from the empty East Africa. Eric did make one attempt on my line, advancing Italian units adjacent in two spaces, but I was able to remove both of them in my turn with Crusader, leaving him no platform to attack.

1942 saw the Torch, Patton, and Vulcan cards all come into my hand on the first turn. With another couple of Torch-specific cards being dealt in the next turn, I went into the Spring 1942 turn with only a few usable cards. Fortunately I was able to hold on to my existing position, and Summer 1942 saw the Americans land in Tunisia. Throughout the year I was running close to the limit of VPs for an automatic Axis victory, but Eric was never able to grab that all-important final VP space.

From this point on I pretty much focused on Tunisia, ignoring the rest of the map unless I had spare operations points I couldn't use in Tunisia. I drove towards Tripoli with infantry and armored divisions, and towards Tunis on two axes with both US and British divisions. However, while the former was successful, Eric mounted a spirited defense of Tunis, shuffling units in from Libya with a succession of well co-ordinated card plays. Combined with a seemingly endless supply of combat cards, some good rolls on his part, and some weak die rolling on my part, I was unable to winkle him out. This despite several attacks, and also a combined attack rolling on the max. column.

Two card plays into the Winter 1943 (and penultimate) turn things were looking bleak for me, as he'd managed to break the US assault into Tunis, and forced me out of Tripoli by abandoning the Libyan/Egptian front and transferring pretty much every available German unit to Tunisia. It was at this point that the game became a total bogey, as Eric spotted that the whole of his Libyan/Egyptian front was unable to trace supply, and should have been removed from the game at the end of the Fall 1942 turn.

This had come about because I'd taken Tripoli, and he'd stripped his line so bare of units (moving some to Tunis and the others towards Tripoli) that I was able to advance and isolate Tobruk in the Fall 1942 turn. This left Benghazi as the only remaining port, and it's not a supply source for the Axis. Of course, if Eric had been aware of this I'm sure he would have put more effort into either defending Tripoli in the first place, or ensuring a line to Tobruk was maintained, preventing me from putting his units out of supply. The other side is that if he had done that, then he possibly wouldn't have had the units to defend Tunis so successfully, and would have ended up losing that instead.

Anyway, we back-tracked to the start of the Winter 1943 turn as best we could, and then re-dealt. (As we'd each played two cards plus combat cards we knew half the cards in each others' hands.) Now that I had no pressure from the east, I was able to release the armored division from the defense of Tripoli to aid in the attack on Tunis, and with the rolls finally swinging in my favor (or even just matching the percentages) I was able to grind him down and take Tunis for the automatic victory. (It requires owning both Tunis and Tripoli.)

OK, the end left a rather tainted victory in my lap, but overall I really enjoyed the game. It went back and fore a bit, and there were lots of areas to be considered. The game mechanisms introduce just the right balance between complexity and chrome, and the variations in the deal of the cards ensures good replayability.

I can see there are a few critical factors. When Torch comes out is the biggest; if it's into 1943 before the Allied player gets to play it, then that could be a game killer for them. Still, I'd look forward to playing this one again.

Miles and Miles of Sand and Khaki

The last couple weeks, Mike and I have been playing Shifting Sands. This is a CDG published a few years back by MMP. Mike had never played, and I'd only played a couple times in a PBeM tournament, but had never played face to face. I'd also never played the Axis, so this was a fresh experience for both of us.

Shifting Sands covers WWII in North Africa, but also includes the fighting in the East Africa and Middle East theatres as well. These two areas are ignored in nearly every other North Africa game, but here you must balance your efforts to handle these fronts. The game runs the entire cycle of the North African war from the Italian declaration of war against the British through Operation Torch to the final departure of the Axis from Tunisia in mid-1943.

The game itself is on the simpler end of the CDG spectrum, but there's a fair number of exceptions, mostly involving where reinforcements can appear. It is directly derived from Paths of Glory. It uses three decks of cards per side (though these are 1940, 1941, and 1942 decks and their appearance is turn-based and not tied to a side's progress in the game) and it has both Large and Small combat units. (Divisions and Battlegroups in this game.) Each turn you get six action rounds, though you get increasingly more cards each year to reflect the growing commitment to the theatre. As in Paths of Glory, there's also a rather involved inter-dependency in card play. Many cards are prerequisites for others, and there's a whole side-track of cards played in the effort to take Malta. Knowing what cards are coming when, and what you need to play first, is an important skill in the game.

As this was my first time playing the Axis, I decided to focus on the things that had always given me problems when playing the Allies. Be a pest in East Africa, threaten things in the Middle East, and be opportunistically aggressive in Libya. Then, just hope you've got enough to slow down the Allies when Torch is launched and the Americans arrive.

The game starts with the Axis having 10VP, and the primary mode for the VP track going up and down are key cities being taken. The Allies have to get the score down to 4 by the end to win, or take Tripoli. (Or both Tripoli AND Tunis if it's after Torch being played.) The Axis are trying to get the score up to 14 at the end of a turn, or take Alexandria, Port Said, and the Suez.

During our game, I quickly got the score up to the 12-13 range, but I could never quite do enough to get it higher. Mike was being effective with Malta Convoys (cards that cut the Axis hand size way down) and as a result I was drawing very poor hands. I hardly got a chance to use Rommel in combat at all as we had built up a rather static front in Libya with a no-mans land between. If I crept up to set up an attack, he'd beat back before I could attack. And, as time was mostly on my side, I was content to let that happen. My goal at this point was to create speed bumps in his attempt to get to Tripoli, and hope I was able to fend off the Americans once Torch arrived.

Once we got into 1942, Mike was holding 4 or 5 cards between turns. I surmised he'd drawn Torch early (it can't be played until the 3rd 1942 turn even though you might draw it right off in 1942) and was getting things set up. I was attempting to answer while not compromising my defense in Libya. Hard to do when you can't move anything west of Tripoli until after Torch is played.

At this point, Mike did what I expected in Summer '42. He played Torch, Patton, and Vulcan (the two most important post-Torch cards) in quick succession. This put all the Americans in full supply making his attacks far cheaper. He pushed hard down to Tripoli, and took it in the Fall of '42. I was trying to answer from Tunis to cut off his supply, but couldn't make any significant headway.

It was here that our game got off the rails. I had forgotten that I can't trace supply from Bengazi, and Mike had cut off Tobruk from the rest of my forces. As he now had Tripoli, this meant ALL my units in Libya outside of Tobruk were eliminated during the Attrition phase of the Fall '42 turn for being out of supply. Remembering this would have radically changed how I managed the 2nd half of the Fall '42 turn, but I had certainly goofed. I noticed this a couple action rounds into the next turn, and we backtracked to restart that turn. This eliminated any threat on Mike from the East, as I was going to be able to retake Tripoli rather easily (and likely win the game) had I kept those units, and he was able to just grind down the forces I had in Tunis and Bizerte. I held on as long as I could as Mike wasn't going to be able to win via VP – he had to take Tunis. Eventually, he did in Winter '43 as the last Axis unit on the continent fell.

One of the keys to doing well as the Allies in this game is getting Torch out as soon as possible, and with him being able to follow up immediately with Patton and Vulcan it was a tall order for the Axis to hang on.

The game moves rather quickly, once you get into the flow. There's 13 or 14 turns, and they usually take 20-30 minutes each. It's probably a 6 hour game once you are comfortable with it, unless an auto-victory short circuits things. A very manageable length for a game that covers the entire North African conflict.

We did play with two minor rule changes that were instituted for the first PBeM tournament: Rommel's card gives OPs when you play the event, and Malta is not worth any VPs for either side. In the rules as written, winning Malta is worth 1 VP for the Allies and 2 VP for the Axis. A rather large swing given the threshold for winning is 4/5 VP, and was a source of complaints against the game when it was first released.

The modified rules removed the VP bonus and kept the other effects in place. (This has since been modified again to giving 1VP to the Axis for conquering Malta and none to the Allies. I believe this has found the correct balance given the stats that have come out of the tournament games.)

I'm a big fan of this game. Given that the desert war is also my favorite WWII theatre, I'm probably a tad biased towards liking the game anyway, but I've always had fun with it. I think the rules tweaks they've published since release have tuned the game up nicely. Recommended.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Charles Triumphant

My choice this week, and I wanted to get Unhappy King Charles back to the table. I quite enjoyed our last playing, and wanted to see how this game developed all the way through.

We've pretty much covered how the game works last time we played, so I'll just get into the gory details. I thought it would be good to take the same side we had before, and knowing now that the game is more about area control than battles, we both adjusted our play accordingly. So, I took up the Royalist mantle, and Mike played the rebellion-fostering dissidents.

The first play of the game set the tone. Hotham's Plot. Remove up to two cards from the Parliamentarian hand. This removed Mike's ability to have an Ace in the Hole card after the first turn and removed a moderately powerful card from his hand, if I remember properly. I was able to sock away a Major Campaign card after the first turn as Mike raised the standard late making it not as useful on the first turn. It certainly came in handy later.

The Early War went slightly in Royalist favor, as it tends to go. I was doing well in the South, kept Mike out of the North, and even started making slight incursions into the East. (Getting Newark in my favor was a big deal on that note.) As we moved into the Mid War, however, things started going haywire. I had a stretch of three or so turns where I simply couldn't draw operations cards to save my skin. I was getting good cards, regardless. One of the four Alt-Hist cards that made the deck fell into my hands: The King Abandons the Bishops. This removes the Covanenters from the game, and completely removed any pressure on the North. This let me concentrate on the Midlands and South, and even continue making forays East. Also, on one early turn I drew four events – two of them being important Parliamentarian events: one that remove cards from the Royalist hand, and one that draws two extra cards.

After this point while my card draws hadn't really changed (they stayed relatively good), Mike's started getting worse. Even after the New Model Army made it out, he couldn't get enough operations cards to activate Cromwell with any sort of consistency. I had pulled a couple subordinates under King Charles, and managed to keep that force essentially the strongest in the game. Most of the battles in the game went against Mike, and while there was certainly some bad die rolling, a lot of his losses game from the fact I was, generally, stronger than him when we fought. I was mindful of the cost battles can exact, but when you have the advantage and the means, it makes sense to press it.

We called it after then penultimate turn. We did deal out the last hand, and it confirmed that Mike wasn't going to have a chance to turn the game. He controlled the south and seven of the nine production areas giving him 9 points with 12 needed for victory. I was likely to take back at least two or three of those production areas, and he was not going to be able to do much about it. A resounding Royalist success.

I'm always one to give criticism when poor rulebooks appear. Let me give some kudos here – the book is well organized, and we've run into exactly one situation that wasn't covered. And it's enough of an edge case that the question hasn't been publicly answered to this point. (The rules cover what happens when you run out of cards in the Mid-war deck while dealing out hands at the start of a turn. It doesn't cover what happens when the deck runs out on the last card you're supposed to deal. The designer is tracking down what you're supposed to do.)

This one's a keeper. If you're a fan of card-driven wargames (or have been curious what they're about) I can recommend this as possibly the best entry-level CDG currently in print. Just don't go of fighting at every opportunity – your losses aren't replaceable. Go for control, and fight when you think you have the advantage. It pays off.