Monday, November 24, 2008

Rhiannon, my sweet pea

Rhiannon is the second of my cats. I adopted her in August, 2006, two weeks after I adopted Grendel. I didn't really start out with the intention of getting another cat. I just thought that Grendel needed a companion to hang with when I was away at work every day. I've always wanted a Manx cat and while Rhiannon isn't a Manx (at least I'm pretty sure she's not), but she does have a stubby bobtail. At the shelter, she was listed as a domestic shorthair (that's cat-speak for mutt). Two things stood out about her: the wee, stubby tail and her sweet nature. Her manner was a bit shy, but she purred up a storm when I was with her in the shelter and figured I had to have her. 

The first surprise came when the shelter staff brought her up from the kennel area. I brought my own carrier and they put her in it while I was at the front desk paying the adoption fees and filling out paperwork. When the shelter worker emerged with my cat, the look on his face was just short of horror and the carrier in his hand shook like it held a wildcat. After he set it on the counter, I had to hold the carrier to keep it from vibrating off the edge. Inside, Rhiannon (still named Coco then) was turning and turning in circles backwards and emitting angry growls. The staff looked so embarassed and someone asked me, before they ran my credit card, if I was really sure I wanted her. I figured that despite this performance, she was still the cat I met in the visitor room. I paid my fee and took her home. Still, all the way home, she turned and turned in the carrier and if I could translate cat, the things she must have said might make even me blush. She only calmed down once I parked the car in from of the house and took her in.

Once home, I thought she'd calm down a bit. Grendel was very curious about the new family member and I thought I'd try to introduce them by a coup de main rather than the slow, gradual introduction method of isolation and limited contact. I set the carrier on the living room floor. Grendel sniffied at the cage door and, from inside, Rhiannon sniffed back. I opened the door to the carrier and out she popped. For barely a second, the two cats stood nose to nose in amity: a touching, tender scene.

Then fireworks.

Rhiannon, I discovered, doesn't like cats. She hissed, growled, swatted, and ran upstairs with Grendel in hot pursuit. So much for the coup de main method of cat introduction. She ran to the bedroom and under my bed, so I got Grendel out, shut Rhiannon in, and let her chill for a while.

When I came back about a half hour later, she was still under the bed. I figured that trying to coax her out would have the opposite effect, so I just got up on the bed and sat there for a while. In time, I heard a rustling below and from one side of the bed, Rhiannon floated up like a fairy and landed on the bed. She came up to me purring and head-butted and rubbed her face against my hands. She was back the the sweet kitty I knew from the shelter. I left her again for a while. When I came back, she was sleeping and only awoke when I took her picture.

It took about two weeks of isolation with chaperoned visits to get her to stop going crazy every time Grendel came near. Even then, there were moments when Rhiannon would react badly to Grendel's intentions. It didn't stop them from adventuring together.

On day about a month after I brought her home, I was working in my den and noticed an absence of cats. They're always hanging around me wherever I go in the house, so it was odd that they weren't there. I looked out in the hall and on the windowsill above the stairs: no one. Curious, I went downstairs and looked around without sighting them. Now I was really perplexed. I looked behind and under the furniture and in the cupboards. I looked down in the entryway. I went back upstairs and looked in the rooms. By now, I was starting to worry that they had gotten out of the house somehow. They're inside-only cats and I fear that if they were outside they might get scared, confused, lost--or eaten by coyotes. However, I couldn't see any way they would have got out, so I continued to scour the house calling out to them the whole time.

I have three large bookshelves on the main floor of the townhouse. They're six feet tall and I have a lot of pictures and bric-a-brac on top. Finally, en route back down from searching again upstairs, I glanced at the top of the shelves to see two green eyes peering out at me from between some pictures. About a foot away, I discerned a large black and white lump crouched behind some other pictures.

The little furballs had been hiding from me and probably laughing at my antics, if cats can laugh. Despite my annoyance at being made a fool of by critters with brains no bigger than a walnut, I was happy to see them conspire together. It was a good indication that Rhiannon was getting over her cat hatred--at least her hatred of Grendel. By Christmas of 2006, they seemed thick as thieves.

(The introduction of Maebh to the house was a return to trauma and drama, but that's another story.)

She remains the sweetest of my cats--sweet to me, that is. She's always the one who likes to snuggle with me when I'm reading or watching TV. She likes to head butt me when she wants to be petted. There are times when I'm working on my computer, a position not conducive to cat snuggling, when Rhiannon will paw at me to abandon my work and sit somewhere where she can snuggle. At these times she also employs an insistent meowwwwrl that's somewhere between imploring and commanding. She especially uses this vocal skill when it's breakfast time and I have the temerity to want to sleep past 3:00 AM, hence her nickname "Mrs. Grumble."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Somewhere west of the Rhine

Two weekends ago, we played a game of Kampfgruppe Commander that was rescehduled after and earlier delay (thereby preempting my plans to play Field of Glory). Mark Serafin put together a scenario set in France in 1944 where the German forces are in retreat while an American command attempts to cut off their escape routes.

The Germans set up a covering force in hidden positions on board. The American forces started on turn one with a scouting force probing for the German positions, to be followed by stronger forces on subsequent turns. Each turn, someone from each side drew a chit (poker chips with labels) that indicated what comes on board that turn. The options varied widely. Some chits were blank, others were unexciting. 

In the Germans' case, the chits were often for retreating forces like field kitchens, supply wagons, etc. Some combat units were available, but their mission was to retreat unless the German players could pass a test that called them into the fight.

German forces in retreat

The American scouting force performed somewhat dismally. I blame myself and my penchant for rolling 10s in this game. 10s are bad in Kampfgruppe Commander. 10s are never good. I roll many 10s. In scouting, a 10 means not only have you not found the enemy, but you just won't. Ever. This failure meant that for most of the early turns, the Americans learned about the German presence in the good ol' fashioned way: they got shot at.

"Do you see any Germans?" 
"Nope. You?" 

The American forces that came on as a result of chit draws were mostly battalion-level units. For the Germans, the chits draws mostly produced the aforementioned field kitchens, supply wagons, and mobile brothels. This disparity gave the Americans an opportunity to drive hard against the initial German positions and before long the German lines looked like a mini version of the Falaise pocket.

American armored forces attack the lower end of the German pocket

American infantry supported by tanks advances on the other side of the pocket

In response, the Germans moved a Fallschirmjäger battalion down from the top end of the pocket to attack the American flank.

Fallschirmjäger taking up poisitions against the American right flank

However, American infantry moved in to counter the threat.

American infantry moves into position to counter the German move

The Germans forces in the pocket died hard. Fearing destruction, they Germans voluntarily routed some units back, but this proved to be a mistake as American forces attacking other parts of the pocket easily destroyed the routed forces.

As things looked bleaker and bleaker for the Germans, they finally got a good combat unit in the chit draw. Using these forces in a local counterattack, they recaptured a town and forced back, with loss, the American light tank company of M-24s., which were no match for the German Panzer IVh tanks. The Shermans, which had started up to cut off the road where Germans forces were entering, had to be recalled to counter the new threat.

Shermans, supported by an AT gun,  dueling with the Panzer IVs

Meanwhile, the rest of the American combined arms force advanced to cut off one of the German reinforcement roads and survived an infantry counterattack to hold a vital position. The Americans counterattacked to regain the lost town, and the Panzer IVs got knocked about, but not yet entirely destroyed. It was time to call the game.

The central positions at the end of the game

American units in position to cut off German reinforcements

The Americans didn't have a clear victory. They had cut off one reinforcement road, but had not reached the bridge where the Germans were exiting their forces. To get there, the Americans would have a hard fight taking the town in front of the bridge and anything could happen. The Germans mostly got lousy chit draws, but that could change; there were good units that hadn't been drawn. The Americans were pretty lucky in their chit draws and still had the possibility of getting tank destroyers, artillery, and aircraft.

It was a good scenario. The Germans made a decent stand against superior American forces. We especially liked the chit draw as a means of determining reinforcements. We expect to see chit happen in our future scenarios.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Boney at bay

On Saturday at The Panzer Depot, we refought the battle of Aspern-Essling (first day) using Napoleon's Battles and a whole lot of 15mm minis. I haven't played Napoleon's Battles for maybe 12 years and was afraid I'd be out of practice. But as one of my fellow players noted, it's like riding a bicycle. And so it was. Within a few turns I was back in the swing, but I shudder to recall what errors I may have made in my first few "learning" turns.

The scenario leaves no margin for error for the French side. A small force, only marginally reinforced throughout the game, needs to hold its ground against an increasingly larger Austria juggernaut. The French started with two infantry divisions (one each in the villages of Aspern and Essling) and three cavalry divisions (two light and one heavy in the center between the villages).

The French setup

Austrian forces are meagre on turn one, with a division of mixed infantry/cavalry/artillery poised to strike at the French left in Aspern. However, each turn brings on a new corps or two of Austrians. The ratio is roughly 3:1 in favor of the Austrians once all the forces have arrived on the field.

The Austrians attack Aspern

I played the French left under Marshall Massena and Jeroen Koopman played the French right under Marshall Lannes. The faceless Austrian horde was commanded by Steve Puffenberger, Ken Kissling, Mike Kennedy, and the father/son team of Pat and Morgan Clifford.

We opted not to use a previous house rule that limited the effect of firing into a village. The house rule was supposed to minimize the tendency to let attackers shoot a defender out of a village. Not using it in this game allowed the attacking austrians to shoot the French out of Aspern. The one Austrian attempt to take the village by assault met with failure, but they had enough muskets and cannon to make themselves masters of the village after about five turns.

The Austrians overrun Aspern

The French had a few significant counterattacks that staved off an early defeat. At one moment, Jeroen sent a heavy cavalry brigade into the advancing Austrians and in a marvelous string of luck, managed to destroy eight limbered Austrian batteries that were strung out on the march. It ultimately cost him half the brigade when he was counterattacked by Austrian cavalry outside of Essling and routed back behind the French lines to be eventually rallied by Marshall Lannes.

At one point, I was able to repulse two Austrian heavy cavalry brigades with a single brigade of light cavalry (lead in person by General Lasalle). Much action took place in the part of the French line beside Essling. At several points it looked as if the Austrians had a wide open opportunity to drive through the hole in the French center only to be stymied by desperate French counterattacks.

The contested ground beside Essling after the French cavalry counterattack

As French reinforcements eked in from the single road that lead from the bridge to Lobau island, we threw them into line where we could. The division of the Young Guard went to the French right to shore up the open flank beyond Essling. There they were instrumental in defeating a large attack of Austrian cavalry.

The division of the Young Guard advancing in column to hold the French right

After taking Aspern, the Austrians pressed the French left and center and started a division through the marshy land between Aspern and the Danube. The French reinforcements struggled in the restricted area to form from march column to combat formations. The situation demanded that divisions be deployed piecemeal and the French found it difficult to form a cohesive line.

The French reinforcements march on to shore up their faltering left flank

In the final turns of daylight, the French heavy cavalry and horse batteries finally showed up in time to form a solid cavalry force on the French right. However, the French infantry had been badly mauled in the course of the game and had very little that could hold the ground against the Austrians who kept up their inexorable advance despite taking as good as they gave in losses. One heroic French brigade held the line of the sunken road until it finally dispersed as a result of routing a superior Austrian brigade (the "winner's loss" took it to its dispersal level).

Massed Austrian reinforcements descending on Essling - Custer's Last Stand on the Danube

By the end of the game, the French barely held on to a perimeter just below where they started, but they had lost Aspern and would soon lose Essling as well. In his last hurrah, Jeroen made a desperate gamble with a combined arms attack on a brigade of the Austrian grenadiers only to get routed back beyond the town, leaving it wide open for the Austrians to stroll in at night.

French positions at nightfall

Historically, Napoleon held on the first day and only withdrew back across the Danube after a second day of fighting. In our case, Boney et cie. would need to withdraw without attempting a second day's battle.

It was great to play Napoleon's Battles again after such a long time away. Back in the 90s when I played it regularly with my friend Bob Mackler, it struck me as the ideal scale and level of detail for a grand tactical Napoleonic wargame. Unlike Empire, which was also grand tactical, but represented every battalion as well as companies of skirmishers, the play moves very quickly. We started the game at noon and ended by 4:00 having completed all daylight turns in the scenario. There is also never a dull moment. As Bob used to say, it's the fightingest Napoleonics game. The battle can go back and forth several times before a winner can be determined. Even though the French are massively outnumbered with no significant qualitative edge (by 1809 the French were less than they'd been in 1805 and the Archduke Charles had done wonders reforming the Austrian army), they can still perform well at Aspern-Essling.

Apparently, there is a third edition that will come out soon from Lost Battalion games. There's no more information about it than a brief announcement that confirms the rumor. I may be tempted to get it, but I can't imagine painting 100s or 1000s of gaudily uniformed 15mm men. Fortunately, I think, there are enough people who have whole armies already.