Friday, August 28, 2009

Postcards from Smolensk

By now, you've probably seen my brief review of Red Star Rising, and Mike's summary of our 4-session game. Here's my view of the game as it progressed and some after-action thoughts.

Early Turns

Push back everywhere as far as I can. Run ahead with the armor and lock future targets in place. Use the fact that most Russian units can't exit a ZOC on their move.

By the end of turn 3, Army Group North is heading off to Leningrad, Army Group Center had reached the railroad that runs south out of Leningrad, and Army Group South had reached Kiev.

I feel like I'm doing okay at this point.

By turn 5, I've crossed the Luga in the north, crossed the Dnepr in the center, and have invested Kiev in the South. Odessa has fallen without a fight.

Things are still looking pretty good.

By turn 7, the advance on Leningrad has stalled, Soviet reinforcements have begun arriving in the center, and Kiev has been taken. The door to the Crimea is about to be blown open.

Concern is rising, but progress is still being made.

Winter is coming.

Turns 8-11 are winter. It is about here that I really understood what was going on. I was probably too aggressive in the winter turns. All combats in the winter add +3 to your die roll. The CRT looks like this:

Everything from a 7 on includes required step losses. I suffered a lot of attrition in the winter turns.

If you look at the far left edge of the pictures Mike took of turns 8 through 10, you'll see small changes in the area just north of Leningrad. This is where the Finns were trying to break through from the north. If you look on the CRT above, you'll see a couple places where, at 3:2 or 2:1 odds in the woods and roll an 8, the attacker loses a step loss with no harm coming to the defender.

The Finns managed to do this three turns in a row (turns 8-10). After that, there really wasn't anything left up there to use, so I abandoned Finland.

I took Sebastopol on turn 11, and began moving units across the Crimea. The goal was to attack Rostov from the south.

What happened after the thaw in '41 was a stabilization of the center, the repulse of the north, and the destruction of the south.

By the time we reached the fall mud, it was clear that the Soviets were in the ascendency and I'd reached my high-water mark. Rather than spend weeks confirming that fact, we decided to call it after turn 20. Massive Soviet victory.

As a reference, here's some key cities, the equivalent turn number when they fell in real life, and when they fell in our game.


Around turn 7, I started falling behind, never to catch up.

So what happened?

I obviously wasn't aggressive enough in the first three or four turns. Remember my OCS tip about how if you're comfortable with your supply situation, you're not being aggressive enough? Bingo. Fell into that trap.

Notice how I don't have a single armor unit out of supply in the early turns? This is definitely a result of not fully understanding how the supply rules work. In the summer months, attrition from being out of supply is a rare thing – only a 1 out of 6 chance of losing a step. I should have been running my units behind Mike's to force more kills instead of just pushing him back two and three hexes at a time.

Because, if you don't kill off those units, they eventually come back. And when they did start returning, I simply didn't have enough left to hold them off. If I had been able to kill more units off early, I would have been in far better shape in the summer of '41. I need to push the armor further and let supply catch up to them instead of stopping at the edge of my supply range and waiting for the depots.

The buzz on this game in the hands of experienced players, the Soviets have almost no chance of winning. Given how much fun we had playing, I'd be more than happy to get to that point – it would be an enjoyable journey.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Red Star Risen

Eric and I were all set to put OCS Korea (BGG entry)on the long-term gaming table, when I started reading the rules for MMP's Red Star Rising (RSR) (BGG entry) on a whim. I'd traded for this one some time back, but never really looked at it much, apart from a quick 'oh, that looks nice' check on the components. The more I read, however, the more I liked the look of this one, and I proposed that we should consider a diversion from the plan. Eric read through the rules and agreed that it looked intriguing, so it became our next target.

RSR covers the whole of the eastern front campaign, from the start of Barbarossa through April 1944, when the Soviets had pushed the Axis back to their start lines and more. A very strait-forward game from a rules point of view, but it takes a few standard mechanisms and adds some very interesting twists.

The first is the turn order sequence, where it goes the same route as the GMT EFS games with an asymmetrical sequence, as follows:

Supply determination (both sides)
Axis reinforcements
Axis move (including overruns)
Axis combat
Soviet combat
Soviet reinforcements
Soviet move (including overruns)
Axis tank movement
Clean up

The first thing to note is that the Soviets fight then move, so the challenge is that the Axis may not be where you want him to be by the time combat comes around. This also has the interesting side effect that when you can pin him down to combat, if the Axis player loses steps, then you can follow up with overruns. Finally, note that Axis tank movement after the the Soviet turn. This gives the Axis player two chances to move his armor units (and overrun) and then a combat before the Soviet player has a chance to react. Potentially very devastating.

The next thing is that RSR starts with the basic Victory in the West chit pull mechanism for the strength of Soviet units, which come in three types, but then introduces a couple of twists. The first is that any Soviet unit that has a strength chit and is not adjacent to an Axis unit in the clean up phase has that chit removed. Interesting, as this models a couple of different things. Firstly, if the unit has already taken a step loss, then it is a simple way to model the continuous feed of replacements to units. Second, it represents additional training provided to units removed from the front-line. Secondly, the initial pool of chits get removed from the game as they are removed from units (for whatever reason), and new chits are added to the cup for each of the three pools during the game, so the average strength builds during the game. Both are neat, elegant, and totally simple, way to reflect the growing strength of the Soviet army over time.

However, before that all sounds too easy for the Soviet player to manage, there's a slight wrinkle. It costs +3 MPs to move out of a ZoC, and guess what the MA of Soviets armies are? Yep, 3MPs. Again, a simple mechanism that models the lack of tactical (although it feels odd to use that word in a game of this scale) flexibility that the Soviets showed in the early part of the conflict. Once those Soviet armies are committed to the front line, they ain't going nowhere until they're dead, pushed back, or the Axis player chooses to release them from ZoC. (German corps have a 4 MA.)

Weather is fixed by game turn, and impacts the whole map equally. The turns are of varying length to better reflect the tempo of combat in the prevailing weather. There is a +3 combat modifier in the first winter, and +1 in subsequent years, for both sides. Which brings us nicely to combat. A pretty standard combat table, odds-ratio, A or D results in terms of step losses or retreats, with three levels of terrain effects, and strength modifiers for rivers. Where it differs is above the normal '6' result, only reached by modifiers. Here, there are automatic step losses, mostly of the 1/1 variety, but with the odd attacker only loss, and heavier defender losses further up the odds. As well as the previously mentioned weather modifiers, an overrun has a +1, and Soviet leaders have a +3/+4. The Axis player does have air units, which gives him a 1-column on attack or defense.

Added to the above, both sides have the ability to breakdown into smaller units to cover more ground, or combine for a more potent force. Stacking is also asymmetric, allowing the Soviet only a single army per hex, regardless of its type or strength, but the Axis can stack several units together, and when there are two panzer corps together then they can create an almost unstoppable force.

Another asymmetric area is in supply. Soviet units are supplied if they can trace a 6MP (rail being half, marsh 2) line to to an HQ, which is itself in supply if it's on a rail line connected to a major supply source. Axis units, on the other hand, have to trace 4MPs (same) to a supply depot, which has to be connected by a chain of depots back to a supply source on the west edge of the board. Units that are beyond double these ranges also have to roll for isolation, with the risk of losing steps, which increases with the severity of the weather, more so for the Axis.

The only weak part, I thought, was in the section on industry and the strategic part of the game. The Soviet player has various types of industrial infrastructure dotted about the map, and which the Axis player can capture. Failing to do so allows more Soviet leaders to come into play, but the whole thing just seemed a trifle unfinished and a little tacked onto the rest of the game.

Overall, from just a read of the rules I was very keen to get this played, and when I suggested Eric look at it, he liked what he saw too, and it became our next undertaking.

(As with Sicily, here's a page of pics taken at the end of each turn, so you can follow along.)

With Eric once more on the attack as the Axis, he made short work of my Soviet starting position, pushing forward with his panzers. He made good progress in the north, where all the Soviets start out of supply, but less so in the south. By around turn 7 he was keeping up with where the Axis had got to in 1941.

From there on, however, things started to go a little awry. In the winter I held him and even pushed back in a few places. I had decided that the Leningrad front was an area where I wanted to focus, as if I could gain control of that front I would be able to sweep around into his supply lines. Eric had pushed forward all the way to the gates of Leningrad before winter set in, but with the +3 modifier I was able to push him back, and with the reinforcements I'd been feeding in there I was starting to work my way around his flank.

My weak area was in the south, where I was a little thin on the ground, and when the good weather came Eric tried to break out. Note the situation at the end of turn 11! Fortunately for me he'd outrun his support and I was able to dump a whole load of new armies into the area, which stabilized. I also saw this as an area with a lot of potential, as it was mostly held by weak Romanian units, so I reinforced there heavily, including my first tank army.

In the middle it was a major holding action, aiming to slowly give ground. By this time the chits in the cup meant that the Axis didn't have the big overruns and combats any more, and was limited to 2-1 and 3-1 attacks. It was also around this time that Eric started rolling like total crap, with 1s coming out every other roll, forcing him back. He also had his panzer corps attacking in a wide frontage in the woods to the south-west of Moscow with no other support, so they'd focus and gain a hex here, but would allow me to advance at the other end there, where he'd pushed me back last turn. This went on for several turns as we went back and fore over the same ground. In the meantime, I'm reinforcing the flanks, and swapping my crummy armies for stronger shock armies and, around turn 20, guards armies.

Going into the second evening session (turns 15-18 - we started with a full day, that covered the first 10 turns) I was starting to feel that I was gaining control. Some large gaps were starting to develop in various places, especially the south. Although a fortuitous overrun result in his panzer movement phase had opened up the way to Kharkov, with only 2 panzer corps and no support it was more a noose than anything. Sure enough, although he held the city for a turn, he ended up losing a couple of panzer steps for no real gain.

I'd added a second tank army to the south, and started driving through the gap that had developed, all the way to the major river, and had cut off his entire southern flank. In a couple of turns I'd removed all Axis units in that area, and had started to cut off supply to the south of his main line. In the north I was clear of his line, had them essentially pocketed and was starting to drive south, ready to cut off supply from the northern part of his main line.

And it was at this point that Eric conceded a major Soviet victory, as there was no way he was going to be able to stop me from pretty much rolling up his line from both directions at my leisure. I'd been studying the position whilst waiting for Eric to arrive that evening, and I'd said that I felt that the game would be over that evening, and so it was.

Eric seemed to be doing well to start with, so what happened? Although he was pushing forward, given that I wasn't putting up much of a fight, but keeping my armies more in reserves, perhaps he wasn't pushing hard enough. In the winter period I was able to push back a little, but this could have gone so much worse for the Axis as pretty much all the die rolls were low, meaning that the combats weren't forcing step losses. It's here that the depth of the Soviet army begins to tell as each step loss drains the life blood from the Axis army, but the Soviets have an almost unending supply of troops to feed into the mix.

Where I think Eric's game collapsed was in the use of his precious panzer corps in the fruitless fight around the woods to the south-west of Moscow in the summer of '42. Although he was winning lots of combats, being unable to cover the whole front with his 6 panzer units meant that I'd just walk straight back into the ground he'd kicked me out of, so he was making no progress. I was delighted to see the panzers fighting over the woods, where what I feared was that he'd bring up the infantry from the south to hold the woods, and move the panzers south to let them loose in the open country. As it was I faced lots of infantry attacks in the clear, being pushed back a hex or two, and even gaining ground as his die rolls sucked mightily. With the panzers coming in from the north and south, I could have been pocketed, with no retreat routes, rather than facing being pushed back across an even front, with clear and safe retreat paths. Whilst the Soviets get a steady flow of reinforcements, it's hard to redeploy armies, and I could have been in trouble.

The other thing that surprised me was that there was little in the way of reserves in the Axis side, pretty much every unit was on the front line. One of the big lessons in OCS is that of maintaining reserves, and I tried to make sure I had a second line where possible. Certainly that became a lot easier for me as the game went on and the reinforcements started to flow. So, when the breakthrough did come in the south, there was nothing there to stop it from being a game winning situation.

One thing we both commented on, was how freakin' far it is to Stalingrad from the Axis starting position. It's still a wonder that the Axis forces managed to penetrate so far into Russia. And that the Soviets managed to push them all the way back again.

The verdict? Absolutely superb game, one of my favorites of all the games we've played together. A monster in scope, the entire east front on one (large) map, the rules are elegant and simple to handle, yet give a great feel. The game simply flows, with little apparent downtime, the various asymmetric mechanisms fitting together just beautifully. The components also must be mentioned. Clear map and counters, comprehensive, and readable, rules. My only gripe is that the northern map uses a marginally different hex size to the main map, and it's impossible to get the alignment straight at both sides. As it turned out, the northern section might as well not have been there, as after a brief attempt on turn 1, Eric gave up on anything happening there.

Go out and get this game, find some table space, and go play it. You'll have a blast.

Eric's going to be out for a session, so with only the one evening before the mini-break to play something, I suggested that we do something short, like going back to Academy Games' Conflict of Heroes (BGG entry), as I'd like to get through all the scenarios in the game this year. After that, we're going to do some Musket & Pike, as we tackle GMT's Gustav Adolf: With God and Victorious Arms (BGG entry) - the whole box, all scenarios. From there it will be OCS Korea, assuming the table is clear. Unless we get diverted again.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rising Star

Over the last few weeks, Mike and I have been playing Red Star Rising, the entry in Multi-man's IGS line that covers the entirety of WWII in Russia from the initial Barbarossa invasion through the spring of 1944, the point at which the Russians have pushed back into Romania, and are threatening Germany itself.

The game is based on the old SPI Victory in the West system that has random unit strengths, but with a number of changes. The game was previously published in 2004 by designer Masahiro Yamazaki in Six Angles Magazine #9 as “War for the Motherland.” This, in turn, was a complete rework of a version originally published by Rampart Games.

Multi-man gave it a magnificent graphics workover with a map by Mark Mahaffey, one of my favorite artists. (The final version can be seen on Mark's site.) My understanding is there's some rules updates as well. The rules are written by the same team as Devil's Cauldron and Warriors of God (Jon Gautier; writer, Adam Starkweather; developer). I've been extremely critical of their particular style of rules writing in the past, but I must credit them here – from their body of work of which I'm familiar, this is by far their best effort. We had very few rules questions during play.

As I mentioned, the game covers pretty much the entire eastern front. The map (when playing the full campaign game as Mike and I did) reaches from the Arctic circle down to the Caucasus Mountains, and from just inside the Prussian/Polish/Hungarian borders all the way to the Caspian Sea. This at about 35 km/hex. There are six scenarios covering varying amounts of time from the three-turn Introductory Scenario up through the full-meal-deal at 40 turns.

Two structural design choices make themselves known right up front. First, time is relative. One of the bigger problems in modeling large-scale games on the eastern front is how to handle the varying level of activity. OCS handles it through supply availability. Barbarossa (as published in World at War magazine) handles it through changing movement rates every turn. Red Star Rising handles it through changing the time frame covered by a turn. Turn lengths range from 10 days in the height of summer to two months during the mud in spring and fall.

The other interesting choice is an asymmetrical turn sequence. Turns flow as follows:

  1. Supply

  2. Axis Reinforcements

  3. Axis Movement

  4. Axis Combat

  5. Soviet Combat

  6. Soviet Reinforcements

  7. Soviet Movement

  8. Axis Tank Movement

  9. Admin

So, the Germans get to move then fight, the Soviets must fight, then move. This tweak alone allows the Germans much more control over where and when fights happen. And that's before you even get to the Axis Tank Movement phase where the German tanks get to move (and potentially overrun) again.

The game is filled with little design gems like this. One of my favorite – it costs three extra movement points to move out of a ZOC. Russian units typically only have three movement points. No problem, you can always move one hex, right? Yup. Unless you start in a ZOC. This effectively pins any Russian units in place when they're adjacent to the enemy. Until you get to winter when it's only 2MP to move out of a ZOC. (Oh, and only Axis tank and Russian Guard Cavalry can ever move from ZOC directly to another ZOC.) These all work together to emphasize the inability of Russian units to detach from an engagement once stuck in.

Another interesting design is the CRT. Most results are given as A# or D# where the number must be satisfied by retreats or step losses in any combination of the owner's choice. Unless you get into the bottom portion of the chart (rows on the chart are numbered 1 to 10+ and you roll a D6 for combat, and the bottom portion is from 7 higher). If you manage to get down there, you see results like #/# where the numbers are required step losses for each side. How do you get down there? Overruns give a +1 DRM, Winter '41 gives a +3 (the other two winters giving +1) and Soviet Leaders give positive modifiers (usually +2 through +4) to Soviet attacks in their (typically) 3-4 hex range. So, you want to roll high, but not TOO high as the Axis, and once the Soviet replacement system gears up in '42, you want big numbers all the time. Oh, and the CRT isn't strictly linear in the bottom portion. You'll see things like 7 giving a 1/1, 8 giving a 1/-, and 9 giving a 1/1. (Yes, that means an 8 gives the attacker, but not the defender, a step loss.)

Finally, that random unit strength I mentioned earlier. The Russian Army-sized units (and Guard and Russian Armor) draw a chit when they don't have one and are either engaged in combat or adjacent to an Axis unit during the Admin phase. Over the course of the game, the Soviets get these chits as reinforcements, and they get stronger over time. Also, during the admin phase, if a Russian Army unit has a strength chit but is not adjacent to an Axis unit, it puts its chit back into the draw cup. As step losses are taken by flipping this chit, this means a Russian Army unit that takes a step loss but manages to disengage can regain that step loss merely by staying disengaged throughout the turn. This does a good job of simulating the Russian ability to replace losses during the course of the campaign with better and better quality troops. The Axis units, however, are excluded from this chit-draw mechanism.

The deeper you go into the rules, the more you realize the two sides have almost entirely different rules. Supply is handled differently, reinforcements arrive differently, etc. And it just works. The two sides DO play completely differently, but very much along the lines I'd expect. The German army is mobile, strong, but neither large nor resilient. The Soviet army is large, ponderous, and relentless. And gives quantity a quality all its own.

Mike and I mostly got the idea to play this from a thread on ConsimWorld asking “What's your best bang-for-the-buck game you own from Multi-Man publishing?” So many people responded with Red Star Rising as at least part of their answer we just had to give it a go. The effort was worth it. This game is simply (in the vernacular of Dave Eggleston) Top Shelf. There was probably only one rule that made us go “huh?” and that involved removal of Soviet Factories (there didn't seem to be a downside to doing it for the Soviets). Hardly anything major.

I'll give a full session report in my next post, but consider this my mini review after around 20 hours of play.

Top Notch.

Give it a go. If you're at all interested in WWII in Russia, this is probably the most playable full-campaign entry out there.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tearing Down Games (And putting them back together!)

A while back, I mentioned there was a system Mike and I used to tear down and set up OCS games in progress. As we're currently hip deep in a Red Star Rising game, now's a good time to explain the system. Having it at your disposal may help you tackle longer games, as you won't have as much need to keep the game set up over time.

I found it in an old issue of Operations. I think it was the Gaming Techniques article in Operations #30, but I honestly can't recall.

This technique will work for any game that consists of 1/2” counters (only) and a map that has easily referenced hexes (or areas, or spaces, or whatever.)

The key to the system is a specific kind of ice cube tray that makes 1/2” ice cubes. These are referred to as “mini ice cube trays” or Pro Cocktail Mini Ice Cube Trays, or something like that. You'll also need some sort of recording device such as a notebook or piece of paper or Notepad or Excel on your computer.

Each tray has 90 spaces in it. You can see examples of what I'm talking about here. I've got four of these trays. The last time Mike and I tore down Sicily, it took 2 1/3 trays to hold everything. They're usually sold in packs of two for $5-7 or so.

To tear down the game, you do the following:

Take a stack of counters at a particular hex. (note the hex location) and put the stack into the top-left space of the ice cube tray. Orient the stack such that the bottom points away from you, and counters sit so you can read them. (This will have the edges of the counters pointing up as if you're laying the stack on its side.) Keep doing this until you finish the first row of six spots in the tray. You should also now have a row of six hex references noted down.

Go to the next hex on the map, and the next row in the tray. You should now be moving typewriter-like along your notation as well as the ice cube tray. If you fill up the first tray, go on to another sheet of paper (or whatever notation method you care about) and continue on into another tray. Labeling the trays wouldn't hurt.

You'll develop your own take on this system relatively quickly. I use the “readability” orientation of the counters to know which side of the tray is the “front” and can then match up the top-left of the tray to the beginning of my notes rather easily. It also helps keep track of which is the top of the stack.

There's a few tips/tricks I've discovered after having done this a couple times.

  1. Photograph the board before tearing down. You won't be able to verify anything but the top counter in a stack, but it will help you confirm “odd” placements when you're setting the game back up. Even the most meticulous record-keeping can be off by a hex here and there.

  2. Don't overfill the spaces in the tray. I think they can hold about seven or eight normal counters. If you need to, move on to a second space for tall stacks. You'll have a devil of a time getting them back out again.

  3. Having separate trays for each side can split the work and make teardown go even faster. It can even keep the fog of war in place if you care about that.

  4. Occasionally, there will be a counter that slips down and lodges itself into the tray. Save it for when you get the rest of the counters out of the tray and then work on it with nothing else in the tray to disturb. It's possible to damage counters that get stuck this way, so take care. Consider having some blank ½ counters around to put behind counters going into a slot on their own.

  5. Use tweezers. Don't even consider doing this without them.

  6. The system works better on games that have a fair amount of stacking, as it's easier to have four or six counters in a slot than one.

  7. I work across the short end of the tray, as it's easier to have fifteen rows of six columns than the reverse.

It took me about 30 minutes to tear down Sicily the last time and there were counters in something around 200 hexes. Setting the board back up took slightly less time as Mike took one tray and I took another. Once you get into the swing, it goes rather quickly.

I haven't looked around for solutions that will handle games with 5/8” or larger counters. It would be quite handy for games like Panzer Grenadier or similar that have larger counters.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Some place in Spain

OK, the original plan called for Eric and I to hit OCS Korea after we finished Sicily, but we're going to get diverted to Red Star Rising (BGG entry) instead, because it looks rather intriguing. Before that, however, I wanted a short game to hit the table, something that wouldn't tax our brains too much, something that was familiar, and, preferably, another in the (extensive) list of unplayed games. An SCS game was the ideal choice, as we'd played The Mighty Endeavor just recently, so I suggested Guadalajara (BGG entry), the game on the Italian involvement in the Spanish Civil War. I picked this one partly because of our recent play of España 1936 (Eric's take, mine), and partly because Guadalajara looked colorful and interesting.

This entry in the SCS line covers the exploits of the Italian divisions in Spain, and their initial push for Madrid, when the Nationalists thought that a big push and taking Madrid would end the civil war quickly in their favor. It was not to be, however, as first the weather then the Republicans thwarted the over-confident Italians. The game changes quite a lot of the basic SCS rules, and adds a lot of special rules on top, some of them quite fiddly. All this would be acceptable, except that this is quite probably the worst set of rules in any of the SCS games. Even with the extensive errata there are numerous holes and poorly worded sections that remain unclear on the intention. I'm really surprised that they managed to get out the door in their final form.

The Republicans start on the main part of the board, with the Nationalists and Italians coming in from the east. The main feature here is that the Nationalists have to remain north of the river dividing the map, the Italians south. The Italians aim to get units off the west side of the map, driving on towards Madrid, or, failing that, victory comes down to the number of VPs gained for capturing villagess. Complicating the Italian effort is one of those special rules mentioned above: they're not allowed to move west of hex-row 16xx until they capture Brihuega, which makes it kinda imperative that the Italians head in that direction. To do this they have 3 militia divisions and some regulars. The militia have to be handled carefully, as if they take too many step losses they could fail morale and withdraw from battle.

Facing them is a growing army units supporting the Republicans cause, including Communists and Anarchists, so it becomes a race against time, and the Nationalist player needs to press hard.

As I'd played the Nationalists in our previous game on the Spanish civil War, I offered to take the Republicans this time, which left Eric on the attack. He opened with a fairly devastating attack, rolling lots of high dice with his Italians. However, his Nationalist allies fared the worst, as all his bad die rolls were concentrated with them. However, we did miss one critical rule, and that was that all of the Italian/Nationalist units get a free exploitation move on the first turn. This would have allowed Eric to push forward and move the battle line several hexes to the west, and likely had a huge impact on the game.

As he appeared to be concentrating his forces on Brihuega, my battle plan was to try to force his northern Italian flank, threatening his supply lines for his main thrust. I got set up with some strong units, artillery, and air support as well, and then rolled snake eyes in my first combat of the game. I tried a couple more times, but each time rolled poorly on the combat and lost more steps than I caused Eric to lose, which is pretty bad given how the CRT is slanted towards the attacker. I even committed my best unit in the whole game, but it died in two straight combats as first I rolled poorly in my attack and then Eric rolled well in his attack. All this was enough to reduce my flanking attack to a feeble holding action.

In the meantime, Eric was grinding onwards to Brihuega, but my reinforcements were arriving in strength, and I managed to stack them up high enough that they could absorb the losses. In the end Eric just couldn't clear them out fast enough, and the end of the game came before he could get to Brihuega.

In the north, the Nationalists were making the best they could of their bad start, but also didn't make much progress. They got as far as Miralrio in the last turn or two, but didn't manage to capture the big 5VP village of Cogolludo in the north. Elsewhere there was a minor skirmish over Abanades in the far southwest corner of the map, as my attack to recapture it whiffed again on 3-1, then saw Eric twice succeed at 1-1 to remove one of my two units there. In a final turn Hail Mary I managed to get a result on 1-1 to force him out and recaptured the 2VPs, which was enough to force the result into the Major Victory for the Republicans.

We managed to screw up several rules in the game, beyond the afore-mentioned exploit in the first turn. Armor effects are DRMs, not column shifts. Trucks tripped us up a couple of times. Partly this was due to my having only read the main game rule book, not the errata, up until 30 minutes before the game, so trying to keep track of the changes was a pain. Plus, I think there was a little bit of SCS complacency - we knew how to play, so just barely skimmed over the rules. It changed a lot more than other SCS games I've played.

OK, given all that, it wasn't too bad of a game, but I didn't really feel that the outcome was in doubt for most of the game. Even given my disastrous attacking through the game I still walked away with a major victory, so, what happened? Certainly that first turn was critical. Whilst the Italians rolled a couple of 11s, the Nationalists rolled a few 3s, which more than balanced it out, as the 11s were overkill. The attack in the north never really put much pressure on me, and I was able to divert most of my reinforcements against the Italians. Plus, missing the first turn exploit meant that the main battle was fought 5-10 hexes further east than it should have, allowing me to build up in front of Brihuega.

Given all the other options, and SCS titles, I think this one's unlikely to hit the table again. Sure, it would be interesting to see if getting the rules right would make it any easier for the Italians, but there are so many other options out there that are calling loudly to me. I'm not even sure why I picked this one, really. Perhaps it was just all those nice colors. Ooooo, shiny.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stalled on the Road to Madrid

After Mike and I completed Sicily, we were looking for something smaller before our next big venture. Mike had a few ideas, and we eventually settled on Guadalajara, the recent SCS game from MMP/Gamers that covers one of the major battles of the Spanish Civil War.

As Mike and I both mentioned a few weeks ago, neither of us know very much about this conflict, and after playing Espana 1936, I'm still not convinced I know anything. So, it was time to take the scale down a notch and play a specific battle.

This battle involves a combined Italian/Nationalist army attempting to break through the area around Brihuega on the road to Madrid.

This battle is one of those situations where the attacking side needs to make progress before the defenders are able to reinforce and effectively fight back. I took the Italian/Nationalist Side and off we went.

The actual session report here is going to be shockingly brief. It took us two nights to play, probably 5.5 or 6 hours total, including setup. The gist of our game was this: I pushed towards the edge of the map, Mike slowed me down, reinforced, then stalled my advance.

One final battle on the last turn put him in the Major Victory category. (It was a Major victory if he won the battle, Minor if he lost.)

The session isn't really where the story is, though. Instead it's in the rules.

First warning: do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to play this game without a thorough study of the errata and frequently asked questions, both available at The Gamers Archive. In fact, I'd recommend marking up a printout of the electronic rules you'll find at that site with the errata. It's that extensive, and that important.

These are, by far, the worst rules ever published by The Gamers. In my experience, at least. Now, many of you probably know that SCS – at its core – is a VERY simple system. Move, fight, exploit, switch sides, repeat. The Guadalajara rules as written manage to convert this into a convoluted mess. There's loads of exceptions in the first turn, the Truck rules are simply strange (even more so once you incorporate the errata), and you're never sure you've caught everything. It might take three playings to really get the rules down, and this is an SCS game.

If there was EVER a game that exemplifies the argument against separate series and game rules, this is it.

Now, that said, if they can update the electronic rules to incorporate the errata and clarify things to handle the FAQ issues, there's a good little game here. It just takes some work to find it.

There are some interesting tweaks. The biggest is the separation line. The Italians must stay south of the River Badiel (and a line extending it east) while the Nationalists must stay to the north. You can't even fire artillery across the river. (It's unclear if ZOCs extend across the separation line, however.)

Another odd tweak is the restriction on the Italians moving too far west before they take Brihuega. The Italians are forbidden from moving west of the 16.xx column (about four hexes west of Brihuega) before taking the city. The justification for this is that it's a major communication/logistics hub and the Italians were not interested in moving further west before taking the city. This rule has the intended effect, but there's some odd side effects.

The primary Italian goal involves exiting a number of units along the main highway that runs north of Brihuega towards Madrid (point B on the above image). Until Brihuega falls, there may as well be a large gulf across the road – you just can't go any further than the 16.xx column (illustrated on the above image). So, it's possible to see a number of units just sit there on the road waiting for the city to fall. It didn't happen in our game, but it's been talked about in online forums as an odd side effect. This forces the Italians to focus on something other than their victory conditions in order to fulfill their victory conditions. Odd, but I can see what the designer was trying to impart.

The supply rules didn't seem especially onerous, and the Italian Volunteer Morale rules never came close to being in play for us. Probably because, as typical for me, I was insufficiently aggressive as the attacker even with an Attacker-friendly CRT. (at 1:2 odds, a 7 or higher has no negative effect on the attacker.)

There are tank rules reminiscent of the WWI games in the series, which is understandable as tanks didn't really progress until after WWII got into full swing. As in Espana 1936, tanks augment a combat instead of being full-fledged participants, and the tanks fight each other if both sides are represented.

Net result? I heartily do NOT recommend Guadalajara as a first SCS game. However, if you do your homework and make sure you've got the rules down, it seems to be a decent game. It's not in the top five SCS games, but it's notable for covering an under-represented conflict. And, it's in print for an eminently reasonable $32 retail.

I know I'd like to give it another go after some study. It's easy to go into an SCS game thinking “I don't need to learn much to play” and I think that's what Mike and I both did. Do yourself a favor - prepare yourself before playing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

OCS learnings

I've played a few OCS games now, and here are a few thoughts on what I've learned, especially after the Sicily game.

1. Use reserves

For the defender, this is critical, especially artillery. Sure, it burns supply, but it forces the attacker to call off the combats or attack at low odds. And throwing more units into a hex that's had a stack lose a step to a freak barrage result can be the difference. For the attacker this is also critical. You never know when you're going to get that freak set of results that opens up the defenders, and throwing in the reserves can be crucial. Anther point is that your opponent cannot put units in a ZoC into reserve, so using your reserves to move adjacent cuts down the defender's flexibility, perhaps allowing an even better exploitation next turn.

2. Attack reserves

Attacking the defender's flexibility is critical, so using barrages to attack reserves can be a good tactic, even with the big negative column shift for unspotted barrages.

3. Keep up the attack!

Sometimes you've just got to burn the supply (and units) and keep attacking. That means an overrun in the movement phase, followed by a combat, then an overrun and more combat with released reserves (or, if you're lucky in the combat, exploitation units) in the exploitation phase. Keep the defender on the run!

4. Defend in depth

To counter the above, you have to defend in depth, to ensure that the attacker isn't exploiting in your back field. Nothing is going to ruin your day more than an armored division breaking through and cutting supply to everyone.

5. Be aware of Spotting rules

(This one is related to Sicily) Keep a mix of Italian and German troops together, as the one nationality cannot perform barrage spotting for the other. Keeping them mixed means more flexibility when performing barrages, especially when your opponent has air superiority, and you don't know which of your artillery reserves will be the target.

There, an exercise in teaching granny to suck eggs.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sicily Post-Mortem

So, after all's said and done, what are my thoughts on Sicily? I'm likely rambling below, so bear with me. Mike posted a link in his last post to all the game images, so if you want to follow the progress, you've got the source material right there.

I was pretty happy when Mike suggested returning it to the table after a long layoff. The point at which we'd left the game looked pretty ambiguous as to the final victor (at least to my untrained eye) and I hate leaving things in uncertain states. That said, I knew it wasn't going to be very interesting from Mike's perspective, as the majority of his game from that point on was going to be figuring out when to flip the switch from defending to evacuating. The rest was playing defense in rough terrain while maintaining supply lines. Not all that exciting.

First off, we were rather ambitious, er, naïve, er, something in tackling the landings in our first attempt. I can pretty much guarantee rules were botched during that. There are some unique features in nearly every OCS game, but the amphibious assault rules are by far the most extensive, and cause repercussions throughout the remainder of the campaign. Get off to a slow start, and you'll have trouble winning.

That said, running the landings was very instructive from my side as the Allies. I attempted to use the historical setup and initial goals as much as possible. Of course no plan survives first contact with the enemy and this was no exception. This game will certainly teach you how to keep separation in your multi-unit formations. I'd have to go back and look at some of the pictures, but my recollection was that I spent a turn or even three early on doing a lot of reorganization work separating my divisions that had been jumbled during the landings.

I had general “this is this group's first objective” strategies, but more detail would have been better. I'd even recommend printing out a copy of the map (extracted from the Vassal module) and drawing out planned advances for each division after the landings. In fact, I'd recommend doing that before starting any OCS campaign as the attacker. Not only does it make the game go faster (as you know what you're attempting to do) but it forces you to learn your available forces early.

The quickest way to lose a wargame is to not have a plan. Even a bad plan is better than no plan.

It is amazing to me how much more I felt like I knew OCS after Mike and I restarted than when we first began this venture. The intervening plays of DAK2 and Case Blue cemented a lot of things into my mind. Plus, in Sicily, you'll feel like you can try anything because you actually have supply to pull off many of your plans. Case Blue? Not so much... That's a game that'll teach you how to run an offensive on fumes, duct tape, and silly putty.

How is Sicily as an OCS game? Well, it's unique in a couple respects – it's the only amphibious invasion in the system, and it's the only game set on an island. (At least until the Crimea add-on comes for Case Blue.) There's no edge-of-the-world issues, no worrying about off-map movement, etc. The game really highlights the competitive nature of the US vs. Commonwealth forces, and the US Air Force vs. Army as well. What you can do is frequently hampered by one of those dysfunctional relationships.

However, after the landings are settled, and the drives north and west have commenced, it's not a very interesting game for the Axis. You fight with whatever Italians don't immediately surrender, use the Germans in required amounts until the window opens to begin evacuations and then bug out. Harass when you can, find an new defensive line when you can't. Deny, delay. There aren't all that many opportunities to attack after the first quarter of the game or so.

There simply aren't many WWII campaigns where both sides get attack possibilities. At least of short duration. The exceptions are probably North Africa and Burma. In nearly every other theatre, it was one side hammering on the other until the other side recovered and returned the blows (East Front) or the other side capitulated (France '40 AND '44, Italy, etc.)

Sicily's been unavailable at retail for a long time, now. As a result, prices have started to climb. It's worth the money if:

  • You're an OCS nut and don't have it yet

  • You've got a defensive specialist in your gaming group

  • Sicily is particularly interesting to you.

And there's a lot of reason for that final point. It's the largest amphibious invasion of all time in terms of men landed and frontage assaulted. It's the subject of Rick Atkinson's latest book Day of Battle. (Which I still need to read, btw.) It's the 2nd major test of the US army in the war after Operation Torch, and the lessons learned on Sicily would be carried forth to Normandy a year later.

Plus, Sicily and Hube's Pocket are probably the shortest campaign games in the series so far. So it's VERY playable. I think we spent a total of 50 hours on the campaign, and we're not the fastest players on the planet. One more evening likely would have gotten us to the full campaign end.

Plus, it's one of only four 2-map OCS games. (Tunisia, Hube's Pocket, and Burma being the others.)

So, if those points do it for you, see if you can grab a copy for a reasonable price. Just remember that the Axis game isn't entirely interesting in this one unless you really like defense.

OCS Tips

I've put a couple tactical tips into my last two posts, and I'll certainly be coming up with more over time. A few that come to mind right now are:

If you're attacking, and you're comfortable with your supply situation, you're not being aggressive enough.

While pacing an offensive to match your supply lines is what the overall commanders typically want, it's not the way the most effective commanders operated in WWII. Look at Patton's drive across France, Rommel's desert operations, and Guderian on the Eastern Front. These guys pushed HARD and forced the action when they got there – the supplies eventually arrived in enough quantity to support the advance (well, with the possible exception of Rommel).

Use reserve mode frequently.

I'll admit right up front that this is my weakest part of OCS play. I'd love to see an article in Operations (hint hint) that details a variety of effective uses of Reserve Mode. My tip last week was Mike's putting artillery in reserve to slow likely attacks from me once a solid front line developed. If you've got your forces organized properly, putting armor in the back line on reserve for use in the exploitation phase is obvious primary use.

If you've got off-map box resources, use them. Every turn.

These resources usually have no supply cost and can't be touched by the enemy, so use them heavily. Don't neglect them just because they're out of the main field of vision.

That's a few for now - I'll have more over time. Keep your eyes peeled :)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

One-sided Sicily

OK, it took over a year, but we have played the OCS Sicily: Triumph and Folly campaign game to a conclusion. We both blogged the first part of the game (Eric's take, my take part 1, part 2, part 3, thoughts), and then put it away for a while. We had another weekend session, which we didn't blog, after which I wasn't overly interested in continuing it. Having got past the initial landings and the counter-attacks, it had settled down to the grind, with the Allies doing all the advancing and attacking, and the Axis forces defending and just taking it.

After coming back from the WBC-W event Eric and I discussed what we wanted to do with this blog, and what games we wanted to do it with. It was then that I proposed that we get Sicily back on the table and play it to a conclusion. My motivation was more so that we could say we had played the whole game, start to finish, than I was really looking forward to actually playing it. Don't get me wrong, however, and interpret this as any disillusionment with OCS; it firmly remains my favorite game system of all time. Period. No ifs or buts.

Before much more ado, though, a quick discussion on the game end and victory conditions. The game ends as soon as the Allies capture Messina, Palermo and Syracuse, and is won or lost from VPs in three areas. First, the Axis player scores 1VP for each turn beyond the August 8th turn until the game ends, i.e. the longer they can hold out the more VPs scored. The game automatically ends on the August 29th turn, so there are a maximum of 12 VPs to be earned here.

Second, the Axis player also scores points for extricating German combat units from Sicily, to Italy and then off the board, in a range from -7Vps to +7VPs. The former is achieved if only 12 or fewer German units are evacuated by the end of the game. From 13 units onwards, stepping in increments of 2 units and 2 VPs, the Axis player moves up the chart, with 19-20 units scoring 0VPs, 21-22 scoring +1, etc. And units can't be evacuated before August 10th. Note it's combat units only - artillery units and HQs don't count. This is kinda surprising, as I would have thought that being able to escape with equipment would be a good thing.

Third, the Axis player scores 1VP for each ship damaged, or 2VPs for each ship sunk, but this is relatively hard to achieve, as a ship can only get a single DG in a player turn, and it requires 2 DG results to score a damage. When Eric took a double turn late in the game I focussed my air units on his ships in my turn, putting two into DG, and then got the initiative roll to attack them again, getting the second DG required for damage.

A minor Axis win is a net 10-12 VPs, a major win, 13+VPs, and a draw 6-9VPs. Anything less is an Allied win, of one sort or another, but I'm not interested in them, because I'm the Axis and we don't talk about no dirty, stinking Allied win.

So the Axis game is one of balance. Too much emphasis on a strong line to keep the Allies out of Messina (likely the last city to fall) means not enough units are evacuated, and a large negative modifier. Evacuating too much too soon means risking an Allied breakthrough. Either one leads to an Allied win.

When we last left our intrepid gamers, 7 turns of the game had gone by. The Allies were landed in strength, had stabilized their beach heads and were pushing forward. The deployment had followed history, with the Brits pushing up the east coast and the Americans doing the big end-around to capture the western end of the island. The Brits had started the grind towards Mt. Etna and the north east.

The landings had gone fairly well for the Commonwealth forces, but the Americans had a tough time. I had concentrated most of my force on the Americans, and for a short time entertained thoughts of throwing them off the beach at Gela. Concentrating on the Americans did mean I gave the Commonwealth an easier time, but they didn't feel to be pressing too hard. So, by the time he was getting off the beaches and linking up, Eric was behind schedule. The story continues....

Then we hit the middle game, where the Commonwealth forces were driving over the relatively open terrain, before hitting the constricting paths around Mt. Etna. It was here, if anywhere, that I feel I played my poorest. I defended too often in open terrain, and could have been subject to a lot of losses. I should have been falling back to the rougher terrain more quickly, rather than defending in the open. I pfaffed around with my defenses, and didn't have a coherent plan. However, and fortunately for me, this is where I feel Eric also played his poorest, as he had an opportunity to take advantage of my weak defensive positions and really press the attack with the Brits. Some concentrated attacks, with lots of reserves to back them up, could have been just the ticket to blow a hole in my lines and start bagging some serious German losses. Perhaps having just set the game up, we were both getting to grips with the position. Perhaps he hadn't enough supply. But this was the time when I was most subject to a breakthrough.

Meanwhile the Americans were making slow, but steady, progress in the west. Trouble is, the Allies can't afford slow and steady. More dramatic action was needed, and a few times Eric declined to attack when at low odds, despite having large AR modifiers. On more than one occasion I was surprised to be handed the turn, expecting the Americans to keep up the tempo.

As it was, I was able to fall back in good order on all fronts without suffering much in the way of German losses, keeping a solid depth of units. I managed to get a few replacements, which helped, but I don't think I was over the average roll.

The latter part of the game became pretty much a grind. Eric came around both sides of Mt. Etna, but didn't achieve a breakthrough on either side, although with only a 2- or 3-hex path there wasn't huge chance of that. On the coast there were some good successes with barrages, taking out steps, but often the follow-up attack rolled weakly and was unable to take advantage. Several times having reserves would have allowed advantage of the few successes, pressing onto my second line, but Eric didn't make great use of his available reserve markers. It was here that I used most of my reserves, either with artillery units to break up his attacking stacks, or to add fresh steps to the defenders of likely combats. Mostly both.

The other side of Mt. Etna saw Eric's attacks implode on a series of weak rolls late on in the game, although they were fairly low odds attacks against some strong defense. However, by this time the game was well advanced and Eric really had to start pressing, taking the risks that bit him in the butt big time. After that, this front was quiet, and I was able to shift forces to the coast, although I'd been starting to do that before his attacks failed, as he was now attacking up a single road, with mountains to each side, and I was confident that I had enough strength to hold him at bay.

Over on the other side, the Americans finally took Palermo and had started driving along the northern coast, having cut the island in two, although with only a 1-hex path of usable terrain it was more of a walk than a drive. Some more distinctly average rolls didn't allow for much progress, especially as I had a procession of units to choke him up with.

And so it went until we had got far enough that we had a winner. The victory, in the end, went the way of the Axis forces, as we stopped the game when about to start the August 22nd turn, 4 turns from the end, and declared a major Axis victory. At that point I had scored 7VPs from game turns and I had 3VPs from damaged ships. I had 15 units exited, with 3 more to move off-map that turn, and another 4 ready to cross the straits. That means in 2 more turns I would have had 21 units off, for 1VP, 9VPs from turns and 3VPs from ships, for a total of 13VPs, enough for a major Axis victory, and there was no way that Eric was going to break through and end the game before that happened. In fact it was looking increasingly unlikely that he'd get to Messina before the game ended, and it's possible that I could have ended the game with 15-20VPs.

Here's the ending position:

(And here's a page of turn by turn pics for those interested.)

So, how did my game pan out? Rather unsurprisingly, my aim was to defend strongly initially, and then switch over to a gradually collapsing front towards Messina. As always with this sort of strategy, the timing of the switch is the critical factor, and her I think I got it mostly right. Overall, I'd say I achieved my objectives, although I did hang around too long in the open terrain in the east. There were a couple times there that I had to scramble to form a line, but mostly things went to plan. I was most concerned about an early drive by the Americans to split the island in two, isolating my Fallschirmjaeger division, and a lot of units that wouldn't be evacuated. However, it never materialized, and they were able to dash for safety.

As usual in these sorts of games, there was a certain amount of dice wackiness going on. Like the puny Italian fighter that took on the might of the Allied air forces and emerged victorious. Eric's seemingly unerring ability to make his flak rolls, and my total lack of same. A coastal unit managing to fend off a couple of American armored battalions. (A whole bunch of snake eyes on combat will do that for you.) In our evening sessions my artillery was either on (never rolled less than an 8) or off (couldn't even roll a 6). Overall, though, I don't think either of us really rolled against the curve, but in certain areas it did add up. e.g. I think Eric's replacement rolls were a full pip (or was it two?) below average. (I should really start recording these things.)

Overall I'm in two minds over Sicily as a game. Sure it's an interesting situation, and using the landing rules certainly makes for a different OCS game. However, this is a rather one-sided gaming situation after the first few turns. In fact over the second weekend session and all the 5 or 6 evenings it took to get to completion I performed not a single ground combat. Not one. I bobbed; I weaved; I used some artillery; I stood my ground; I got beat up; I retreated. But no ground combats. Now, whilst there is a certain challenge in executing a good defense (which can sometimes be harder than attacking), I certainly prefer a game where the defending side has some opportunity for offensive operations. (In this vein MMP's A Victory Lost (BGG entry) is a good example. Even though the Axis are heavily on the defensive, they still have some decent punch, and are very able to deliver a good blow if the Soviet player stretches a little too far.) However, all that said, I think I'd do it again, as at least I'd know what to expect.

I'll post a few thoughts on OCS separately. Meanwhile, onto the next game!