Monday, January 26, 2015

Khalkin Gol: Sabres on the Steppe

Way back in the August of '14, Phil Bardsley got the clever idea to play a Bolt Action game based on the Battle of Khalkin Gol between the Russians and the Japanese in 1939. He'd just picked up three of the newly-released Warlord Games BT-7 models and wanted to use them in a game. Bill Stewart, Dick Larsen, Jerry "Banzai!" Tyer, and I already had a lot of Japanese infantry, tanks, and heavy weapons. In addition, Bill had buckets of Russians, including a lot of Cossack cavalry from the Coppelstone Back of Beyond range. So we though, why not?

It took a while to get going and we had to cancel once, but we finally got to rumble on the Mongolian steppe one Saturday. The game was at The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA.

Jerry, Dick, and I were the Japanese. Bill, Phil, and Bob "Mad Ivan" Mackler, pony-killer of the steppe, were the Russians.

I laid out the terrain: hills, a mostly dry riverbed (using my excellent Wizard Kraft river bits), and scrub. Bill and Phil gave me much grief over the scrub. However, we needed something to break up the bleakness of the table and to provide the micro-contours that troops in a skirmish game need for cover to distinguish between totally completely open terrain and some bits of concealment and protection in what appears otherwise to be a vast open space. I need point out, too, that both Phil and Bill deployed in and stayed in the scrub the entire game. I feel vindicated.

The key terrain piece was a ramshackle wooden bridge across the dry riverbed that both the Russian and Japanese high commands had deemed "must hold." The Japanese deployed first no closer than 12" to the bridge. The Russians followed deploying no closer than 18" to an enemy unit or 12" to the bridge.

I was on the left with a reinforced Japanese platoon of three 12-man squads, two MMGs, a sniper team, a flamethrower team, and a light AT gun. Jerry was on the right with a similar command, but with no flamethrower and a wee 70mm mountain gun in place of the AT gun. Dick, the Japanese Patton, was in the center with five tanks: two Type 97 Chi-Ha and three Type 95 Ha-Go.

Facing me (on the Russian right), Phil had his three BT-7s and a reinforced platoon of three 9-man squads, one MMG, and a medium mortar. Bob was in the center with three squads of Cossack cavalry and a Putilov horse-gun, Bill had the Russian left opposite Jerry with three squads, an MMG, and a mortar.

The Russians deployed, tanks 'n' horses
Our games tend to have lots of units and the command dice bag is bulging on turn one and grows less bulging with each passing turn. I chose the never-fail brown command dice. For some reason, in every game we play, the brown dice are the first several dice pulled. Turn 1 was no exception.

I started out by putting a 37mm AT round into of one of Phil's tanks. I managed to penetrate and start a fire, but the uncharacteristically phlegmatic Russians just put it out and went on fighting. I laid down some fire on Phil's MMG and managed to knock out two of its three crew and suppress it.

My advance across the dry river
Before the game, Jerry recalled how in his last Bolt Action game running a Japanese force against an SS platoon with all the trimmings (assault rifles, chain saws, etc.), he simply used the Banzai rule to get into contact and won big. Units in Bolt Action need to roll an order test (morale, basically) when they're given a command while pinned. Each pin marker counts as -1 on the dice roll, so once a unit gets a few pins racked up against it, it becomes increasingly harder to get them to do anything. The Banzai rule for the Japanese lets them ignore any pins if the order given to the unit is Run and they move towards a visible enemy. Stormed at by shot and shell, the Japanese keep on coming, until they win or until they're all gone.

I've always considered the Banzai rule to be a mixed bag. If a Japanese unit is pinned down to a point of near-immobility, the rule lets a Japanese player make the most of a bad situation by just charging in. Moving at 12" per turn on a Run order, they're likely to make contact within a couple turns and, assuming they have enough figures remaining to make an effect, they can cause a lot of damage. The Banzai rule also requires fighting to the death, i.e., they don't go away after losing a round of close combat; like the tough fighters rule, they keep fighting until they're all gone or until their opponents lose. In my experience, as both Japanese and opposing player, it's dicey. They'll take a lot of fire going in and may be too shot up to pull it off. I have failed spectacularly to make a Banzai attack work and have foiled a few with sheer gunfire.

I'm also a bit uncertain about some of the fine points of the rule. As long as the Japanese player gives a Run command to the unit, it can move without taking a command check even if it has one or more pins on it. But how does that work if the unit is going through rough terrain. You can't give a Run order to a unit in or moving through rough terrain, but an exception allows it if the unit will make contact. So, is it OK to give a run order to a unit to move through rough terrain against an opponent that is more than 6" away?

In any case, Jerry went into the game expecting to be able to Banzai! to victory. It turned out to be glorious, but fell somewhat short of victory.

He launched his platoons towards Bill's positions and kept a steady advance all the while racking up pins (and losses) from Bill's fire. Jerry's right-hand platoon managed to get into contact with just a few figures remaining. Bill was able to wipe them out easily losing only a couple figures himself.

Two against too many
Jerry's middle platoon, attempted to attack Bill's "Festung Schrubben" position, but got sidetracked. He managed to shoot off an attack by Bob's Cossacks, but eventually succumbed to fire.

Jerry's left-hand platoon got war-Macklered. Jerry gave it a Run order that put it within 18" of  of one of "Mad Ivan" Mackler's squadrons. He had no option to fire defensively and "Mad Ivan" came in rolling three dice per Cossack (i.e., 24 dice!). Jerry's Banzai Buddies got Ginsu-ed by the Cossack sabres.

When banzai isn't fun any more
Meanwhile, in the center, Dick's tanks sparred with Phil's BT-7s and with the Cossacks. The Japanese tanks all had two MMGs per vehicle, so they could throw a lot of fire against soft targets. The tank battles were mostly desultory. One of Phil's tanks was immobilized early on and later destroyed. However, many of the shots were misses, bounced off, or did only superficial damage. Bob's horse-gun popped away at Dick's tanks as well, but to no success.

One of Dick's tanks got a bit close to the Cossacks, apparently thinking it was immune to men on horses. "Mad Ivan" answered the challenge and came galloping up. It was a long-shot from the start. Already shackled with a few pins from machine-gun fire, "Mad Ivan" passed his morale check to charge tanks and came on across the bridge with sabres flailing. He rolled for his penetration modifier and score a bunch of pluses. However, because troops without AT grenades can't do more than superficial damage, he couldn't knock it out outright, but he did set it on fire (we assumed that every Cossack had a bottle or two of Vodka to make ersatz molotov cocktails). Dick failed his morale and the tankers bailed out, presumably to the tender mercies of the surrounding Cossacks.

Sabres on steel
The Cossacks' glory was short-lived. Dick's remaining tanks opened fire with their MMGs and the Cossacks went reeling back. By the end of the game, Bob had exactly three horsemen left, one of whom was his company commander.

Back on my end of the table, I chipped away at Phil's infantry and plinked useless shots at his tanks with my single AT gun. Phil kept up a lively fire on the AT gun with his mortar, but failed to hit after several attempts. I managed to Banzai! away one Russian squad, though it left my attacking squad much reduced and in the open where it hung on in tatters, having been badly shot up.

My other two squads, one mostly intact and one untouched, worked away on Phil's remaining foot troops uphill and burrowed in the scrub. By game's end, I was encircling his MMG, a much-reduced squad, and mortar. These and two of his three tanks were all that were left. I was moving my flamethrower team up to attack the tanks, but we called the game before then.

Bardsley's last stand
Dick managed to take and hold the bridge with his remaining Chi-Ha. He'd taken out one of Phil's tanks and kept the other two occupied. He'd also pretty much laid waste the Cossacks. Despite "Mad Ivan" Mackler's unexpected success against one tank, cavalry versus tanks is generally not a good idea.

Larson-san takes the bridge
We only completed four turns, but it was enough to call a decision. Bob had covered himself with glory, but got all his ponies killed. Phil was holding precariously to the scrub, Bill was in better shape, but may have seen things turn for the worse in another two turns.

Bill holds to the end—good thing he had scrub for cover!
Dick had lost one tank and held the bridge, I had lost the equivalent of one infantry squad, but was in good position to un-scrub Phil.  Jerry was almost non-existent. He'd banzai-ed! forward and got the worst of it. His wee 70mm pop-gun and company commander was all he had left. With mandatory seppuko after his losses, we'll have to take that down to just the wee pop-gun.

Lonely on the steppe - Jerry's last remaining unit

This is one of those posts that I mentioned earlier were in perma-draft state. I started this just after we played the game. Now, months later, I've finished and posted it (my New Year resolutions in action!), although I've forgotten now much of how the real game actually went.


  1. Wow - impressive game with tons of great models/figures; all the while using a favorite set of rules. I admit I'm not really into the period, but the variety of troop types does make it very appealing. Those Russian tanks look pretty advanced for the time IMO.

  2. David,

    It wasn't the scrub so much that was the problem. It was the density of the outgrowths. Before you did some thinning and clear cutting they reminded one of Amazonia or Humphrey Bogart towing the African Queen through the swamp.

    From memory, that is a pretty good AAR and as usual your photography is excellent.