Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Panthers are burning

Yesterday, our little group played another game of Kampfgruppe Commander (KGC). I created the scenario and provided almost all of the 15mm figures and models, being most happy to get my long-in-production Panther Ds into a game (you could still smell the dullcote). The scenario was a revision of something I tried last month with a smaller number of players. We've played several very large games of KGC over the last few years with up to two divisions on a side. The tendency of large games is to collapse under their own weight. When every player has too many formations to control, it just gets bogged down with complex interactions. KGC is highly reactive in the way it's played and when too many things are happening to your formations simultaneously it's overwhelming. 

I envisioned smaller games with players running no more than two formations and used the scenarios from Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz as inspiration. I've loved PanzerBlitz since I first played it at the tender age of 10, when it had just been released. I've thought many times about adapting the 12 PanzerBlitz "situations" to scenarios using Command Decision or KGC because the representational scale is the same. However, there are some snags in this plan as I'll post in a later blog. I used Situation 11 for this scenario, which represents the 9th SS' attempt to relieve the First Panzer Army at Buchach in Poland as part of the battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket in March 1944.

I had to fudge a bit with the forces involved because all those Panthers would be overkill against a bunch of T-34s—even T-34/85s. I decided to give the Russians back-up from a regiment of SU-85s (also freshly painted for the game) and SU-152s and reduce to German armored force to a reduced battalion of Panzer IVs and a kampgruppe comprising two reduced companies of Panther Ds and a reduced company of Tiger Is. I also expanded the German infantry to two battalions instead of one and eliminated the StuG IIIs.

The Russians—run by Ken Kissling, Mark Serafin, and Dave Redding—began the game hidden with their probable positions indicated by markers. The infantry and T-34/85s were set up on the table at start but the SU-85s and SU-152s were varaibles. On a 50/50 chance, one formation could be deployed on board in lieu of already-placed dummy markers or, failing the roll, would enter on turn 2. The other group would arrive on a turn indicated by the roll of an average (2-3-3-4-4-5) die. 

Steve Puffenberger, John Kennedy, and I were the Germans. Steve ran the Panzer IVs on the far left of our attack, John ran one of the panzergrenadier battalions (with half-tracks) and I ran the panzer kampfgruppe (starting with two small Panther companies) and the other panzergrenadier battalion.

The Germans moved first and entered with all their forces on turn 1, except that the Tiger company was kept off until a turn indicated by a roll of two average dice. I rolled two fives, so we didn't see the Tigers until the game was nearly over.

The table was 6' x 10' with the Germans attacking from a narrow end. The Russians were set up anywhere back from 24" from the German entry point.

Steve made first contact when the 45L66 AT gun supporting Dave's infantry battalion ambushed the Panzer IVs inflicting loss. Meanwhile, John advanced against the village where Dave's infantry lay in wait.

Panzergrenadiers attack a Russian-held village

On my side of the table, I ran my Panthers out in the blithe assumption that I was invincible—which would be true if I were being attacked from the front, but I opened myself to ambush from Mark's SU-85s firing at my weaker side armor. He inflicted a hit on me, but my return fire inflicted more damage on him and routed him away.  My other Panther company was also ambushed by the second company of Mark's SU-85 regiment, this time with greater loss to me because the hits came against my (comparatively) flimsy side armor, but I was able to turn to the SU-85s and drive them off.

SU-85s ambush the Panthers

I advanced one panzergrenadier company toward the woods where the first SU-85 company had been. There were still markers there and I wanted to be sure there were no nasty surprises. The woods, as it turned out, were lousy with cossacks—or rather, with submachinegunners. I went in for close assault and after the first round of combat, Mark chose to run away.

Panthers and panzergrenadiers advance on the German left

They look like they mean business, but…

I advanced the other two panzergrenadier companies towards the village to my front. At this point, I came under very effective artillery fire and had one company rout with loss. I also retired one of my Panther companies in order to attempt to recover my losses incurred in Mark's ambush. Now I had a bit of a shambles with almost half my force licking their wounds.

Meanwhile, Mark took his surviving SU-85 company around to the other side of the table to face off Steve's Panzer IVs. Outmatched, and having already lost one company, Steve took refuge in some woods and traded shots.

After several turns, John succeeded in driving out Dave's Russians from the village. However, he took a lot of losses and had to spend a few more turns recovering.

Germans overrun a village

Finally getting my units in order, I was able to resume my advance against suspected Russian positions to my front. 

The Panthers return to the attack

Having learned nothing from my ambush experience, I continued to push on aggressively with my Panther companies. I overran a couple suspected positions that turned out to be dummies. However, I finally encountered hidden infantry that ambushed me and wiped out one of my Panther companies for good and inflicted more loss to the second, which I pulled back.

Sensing blood, Mark moved out one of his T-34/85 companies in an attempt to finish off my Panthers, but I withdrew and he chose not to follow. Even badly wounded, the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with. I dug-in my panzergrenadiers, who had to stand a few turns of artillery and mortar fire, and retreated my remaining Panther company to recover my losses.

With another T-34/85 company ensconced in an orchard, Mark opened up on Steve's Panzer IVs, but failed to do significant damage.

T-34/85s in the orchard

John, once he'd reformed and recovered losses, moved up to the edge of a large field and prepared to move forward against the Russian center. The Russian SU-152s entered the game and Ken ran them across the river and into support to the left of the T-34/85s holding a village atop a large hill.

SU-152s fording a river

However, as Ken turned his SU-152s against John's panzergrenadiers, Steve got a good shot on their flank and sent them running back for cover. I moved my panzergrenadiers forward and called in mortars and artillery on Ken's infantry, forcing them to retire with loss.

On turn 10, the Tigers finally came up. I'd recovered losses from my Panther company and from the panzergrenadiers. With the Tigers in play, I attempted one more attack. 

The Russians in front of me were still unspotted, so I ran up a panzergrenadier company to spot the T-34s I knew were lurking there. As I crawled the unit up to within sighting distance, I was ambushed by infantry and badly mauled. However, I had spotted the T-34s and the Panthers and Tigers could open up next turn or force the T-34s to retire.

Tigers and Panthers in the final assault

By this time, the Russians had withdrawn to the center of the table. Most of their previously engaged infantry was taking cover behind the village held by Marks T-34/85s. But it was too late. I intended that the Germans would need to drive up to the river on the opposite edge of the table in 12 turns in order to win. Barely halfway there and with losses, they didn't meet their objective. The Russians were hurt, too, but not as much. They still had most of their tank strength, but any attempt by them to go toe-to-toe with the Panthers and Tigers would be disastrous.

The highwater mark of the German advance: a lone panzergrenadier stand outside a heavily defended village

As with every game of KGC we play, there were a few house rules. One thing I did was to reduce the HE fire effect of tanks. There has always been an alarming tendency for tanks to sit back and shoot infantry out of towns. With the fire effect reduced by 2 at all range bands (minimum of 1), the tanks don't have much effect, even though it never really came up in the game.

I also reduced the ability of artillery FOs to call fire on targets that are outside the engagement range of the formation their batteries support. It's also been prevalent in our games for FOs to call fire on units half-way across the table. In this game I pushed out the distance a bit more than the engagement range to a standard 24". That seems to work, although apart from my last losses from ambush at the village, all the losses to my panzergrenadiers came from mortar and artilley fire.

I think the PanzerBlitz experiment worked well. Despite a lot of "Oh crap! We're doomed" from one side or the other at various points in the game, it was well balanced. I think I was too aggressive with the Panthers and learned—again—about the need for infantry support for the tanks, which is especially galling giving the superior quality of the German tank-infantry cooperation. I'm now looking at possibilities for Situations 7 and 8.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Once more unto the black hole, dear friends! Once more...

This Saturday, Bill Stewart and Mitch Berdinka hosted a 28mm Napoleonics game at The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA. This is the third time since November that I've played Napoleonics, which my friend Kevin Smyth calls "the black hole of wargaming" because of its profound ability to suck into its maw the entirety of your hobby experience. I am feeling the pull—but I resist.

The rules we used were 2nd edition General de Brigade from Partizan Press. The figures were mostly supplied by Bill Stewart, although as word got out that the game was to be played, it became a kind of bring-and-play with people volunteering a few of their own units to the mix.

We wound up with two French ligne brigades (each of three battalions), one French légère brigade, a brigade of Polish lancers and hussars supported by a Polish foot battalion, an 8-gun foot battery, and a four gun horse battery. 

French légère in column

Opposing this were three british foot brigades (three battalions each), a foot battery, and brigade of heavy dragoons supported by a horse battery.

Redcoats in line supported by 9-pounders

Most of us were brand new to the rules. Mitch had run a game of the Battle of Maida a few years back using 15mm figures, which was my only experience (and his, too, I think). Even so, the exposure I had gave me some clue to how to use my troops most effectively.

I ran one of the French ligne brigades. As the game began. my brigade had assault orders, while the rest of the French had advance orders. I formed up my battalions in column, screened by skirmishers, and headed full speed at les goddams to my front. Being in column naturally attracted the attention of the British guns. No artillerist can resist a dense mass target. My right-hand battalion took some punishment in its advance for a few turns until they moved out of the battery's arc of fire. My left-hand battalion also took some losses due to very effective British musket fire.

Just before contact, the columns are exposed to British muskets

On my right, Bill Stewart's ligne brigade advanced in line with skirmishers forward against the British guns. On the extreme right, the légère skirmished across a stream against the British leftmost brigade. 

French and British skirmishers exchange fire as more French move up to assault across the bridge.

On my left, Mitch ran the cavalry, Poles, and the horse battery. As I assaulted with my brigade, Mitch ran his cavalry against the British dragoons. However, his charge was blasted by the British horse battery and he was forced to halt unformed. Since the Dragoons had countercharged, he might have been doomed, but the Rosbifs failed their morale check to charge home and they halted unformed as well. Meanwhile, Mitch ran the Poles up against the British horse battery, but got sent running back after a "whiff of grapeshot."

After advancing for a few turns, I finally came within charge range of two British battalions. Ken Kissling, who commanded these battalions, had ignored the Wellingtonian art of "making war sitting on his ass" and advanced against me. When I charged, he chose to countercharge me instead of shooting me (hopefully) to bits as I came in. I was able to get 2:1 odds against his left-hand battalion and was even up against his right-hand one. The dice favored me, barely. I pushed back his right-hand battalion, following up to remain locked in combat, and forced the left-hand one to retreat. 

A little worse for wear after enduring the British fire last turn, les fantassins come to grips with the Rosbifs

My mêlée victory left me unformed, which required a turn of rallying before I could advance against the British again. Once reformed, I charged my center battalion against Ken's right-hand battalion, which was locked in the third turn of ineffectual combat with my left-hand battalion. This charge did the trick and threw back les goddams. With my right-hand battalion, I charged again against his left-hand battalion, which had since recovered morale and reformed. They didn't stand it and routed away before contact. When attempting to recover morale next turn, they failed again and ran off the table. At this point, I reformed my troops and regrouped for the last push against the redcoats. 

With 30% losses to the flanking battalions, the brigade reforms for its last assault

Meanwhile, on my left the opposing cavalry brigades were at it again. Once again, the French failed to charge home, but the British dragoons countercharged successfully and routed the French horse. Unfortunately, the dragoons rolled badly for their pursuit check and wound up being blown—unformed and no pursuit.

The clash of cavalry—just before a bad French loss

Also, on my right, Bill's brigade had advanced to the foot of the hill where the British foot battery and two battalions stood. His skirmishers were taking a steady toll and he had nearly shot away one of the British gun crews.

The French pressing the British center

In the final charge, my left-hand battalion failed its morale check to charge home, but the center battalion was enough to do the trick. The British battalion was unformed and retreated, so its ability to make a stand was pretty feeble. It had significant minuses in mêlée due to its losses and status, so there was no contest. My right-hand battalion went forward to chase off the last of the British skirmishers. The result was a big hole in the British line. I was in position to turn my battalions toward the British center and support Bill's assault.

The last assault

At this point, after about 3.5 hours of play, we called the game.

Responses to the rules were mixed. Like any rules, they have their, sometimes irksome, idiosyncrasies, but overall, I liked them and I hope to play again. This is the style of gaming I like. The dice can vary widely, but with 2D6 as the standard die roll for everything, there is an averaging built in that mitigates extreme differences without preventing them in rare circumstances.

After scouring the Web for manufacturers of 28mm Napoleonics, I've cooled off and won't be painting any figures soon. I have far too many other irons in the fire. However, somewhere I have a few blister packs of Foundry French cuirassiers. Maybe I will paint a squadron or two…