Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday board gaming

I managed to get a few board games in over the holidays, which is always a treat. I have so many board games and I play too few.

Men of Iron

Today's game was Men of Iron – Volume I: The Rebirth of Infantry from GMT Games. This came out in 2005 and I've had it sitting in my closet unpunched for almost five years. It looked interesting back when I bought it and now I'm eager to play some more. Dave Schueler and I played the Battle of Courtrai scenario. I've had an interest in this battle since I read about it in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror about 30 years ago. The scenario was one of the reasons I bought the game in the first place, so it was a nice treat to play it at last.

The historical battle, fought in 1302, was one of those affairs lost by the side who should have won if only their commanders weren't arrogant, impetuous, and stupid—in other words, French nobles. An insurrection in Flanders brought a French force of mounted men at arms and footsoldiers commanded by Robert, Comte d'Artois to the city of Courtrai (modern Kortrijk in Belgium) to hand out some whup-ass to a force composed mainly of burghers with pikes and a curious little weapon called the godendag. The Flemish burghers, and a small handful of knights fighting on foot, were commanded by William of Jülich.

Flemish burghers with godendags

Up until this time, the mounted knight was the über-weapon of the medieval world. From the time of Charlemagne, heavily armored men on horseback pretty much kicked butt on whatever poor, footslogging oiks they came across. William and his men, who were poor, footslogging oiks, knew this and they prepared the ground in front of their position with ditches filled with water from the Groeninghebeke, a small stream that ran across the front of the Flemish position. The idea was that the mounted knights would be hard-pressed to get any impetus against the Flemish infantry because they would be disordered by the rough, marshy ground.

In a rash act of good sense, Robert sent his footsoldiers in first, supported by Genoese crossbowmen. These troops began to make way against the Flemish line, which created all kinds of panic among the French knights who feared that the glory of winning the battle may fall to their social inferiors. To avert this looming disaster, Robert recalled his footsoldiers and let his mounted knights charge in—right into the ditches where their impetus was checked and Flemish burghers with godendags (the word means "good day") bashed their brains in. The Flemish were under orders not to take prisoners and about 1000 knights were killed in this inglorious episode of the battle. Robert was among the fallen, as were most of the French leaders. The rest of the French army took to their heels and the Flemish chased them for miles.

One interesting note about the battle is that many of the slain knights wore golden spurs they had won in tournaments. The Flemish stripped these from the corpses and nailed them to the altar of the Church of Our Lady in Courtrai. The battle was ever afterwards called "The Battle of the Golden Spurs." The spurs remained on the altar for 80 years until another French army won a battle at Roosebeke (1382), near Courtrai, and in the aftermath of their victory, burned Courtrai and took back their lost spurs.

The game Dave and I played had a different result. I played the French, less stupidly than Robert d'Artois, and managed to break through with my infantry and finally made a ditch-free gap that my mounted knights could exploit. It was touch and go for a while and I seemed to be alternately on the verge of winning and losing. It pretty much came down to the wire until Dave's Flemish reached their break point. The only casualty of note was John of Renesse, a Flemish leader, who perished in an early stage of the game. I lost a lot of infantry, but only two out of 12 men at arms units. In this scenario, Flemish units eliminated or forced to retire by mounted men at arms count double for determining the break point. The rule is supposed to encourage the French player to "do a Robert" and risk his men at arms who face greater risk of loss because of the ditches as well as risk being unhorsed by the nasty godendags.

I think the system works pretty well. Richard Berg, the game designer, made a generic system that can be applied to several historical battles with scenario-specific rules. The activation system offers some interesting choices. A player can keep activating commands and moving as long as he rolls the commander's activation number. Unless he passes, fails an activation, or has an activation seized from him by his opponent, there is no structural reason in the rules why a player can't just keep moving and fighting. Of course, odds being what they are, a player will fail activation at some point. But the trick for the opponent is whether to challenge a new activation or to hope for a failed activation, which will allow you to activate a command yourself. A failed challenge gives your opponent another free activation, but if your opponent is on a roll with good dice, he will be able to keep exploiting any successes, or mitigating any disasters before you can do anything to react. So, you may feel you need to jump in and take the initiative back.

The Volume I bit of the game title makes it sound like more are coming (or might have come in the intervening years since the game was published). Oh, alas. This game covers the battles of Courtrai, Falkirk, Bannockburn, Crecy, Poitiers, and Najera. I hoped that another volume would cover some of the later Hundred Years Wars battles as well as some of the Swiss wars of the period. However, GMT does have a volume covering the Crusades on its P500 list. As with anything on the P500 list, this game could be years in coming...

Conflict of Heroes

Another game played over the holidays was Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk 1943. This game is the second volume of the Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games (Uwe Eickert). This volume introduces a refined activation system that makes for better game flow and also better ability to react to your opponent's actions. As the title indicates, the scenarios are set during the Kursk battles of July, 1943 (Tiger tanks!). Dave and I played the Black Knights of the Steppe scenario today after Men of Iron. He was German and I was Russian. It was a tight game, but in the end I managed to salvage a win. I played the scenario once before as the German and lost. It's a tough win for them.

A few weeks back we played the Wounded Tiger scenario. I was German and Dave Russian. I lost the immobilized Tiger to an aggressive attack that managed to come around to my rear and get an attack at point blank range. (It's like Oddball said in Kelly's Heroes, "A Tiger has only one weak point; that's its ass. You gotta hit it point blank and you gotta hit it from behind.") Unluckily for Dave, he couldn't get the rest of my tanks and the Pz VI and Pz IIIs wreaked havoc on his T-70s and T-34s—much to both our surprise.

This series is excellent and I hope Uwe continues to add more titles. The rumor I hear is that the next volume will move from the steppes of Russia to the jungles of Guadalcanal.

Richard III

The third game that got some play over the holidays was the latest block game from Columbia, Richard III: The Wars of the Roses. I have a longstanding interest in the WotR, so this was a nice title to see coming. I played my beloved Yorkists and Dave played the nasty Lancastrians. The game is played in three "campaigns" that roughly approximate the three main historical phases of the wars. I managed to win the kingship—for Richard of York—in the first campaign and held it through the other two. No paper crown for his severed head this time around. It looked uncertain on several occasions, Dave blasted me in several battles with those newfangled cannon things, but I managed to hang on through every battle, even if I had to run from a few to avoid annihilation. This game is fun and playable and worth more playing time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Drums along the Odon: Les Anglais are attacking the 'burbs!

Yesterday we ran a play-test of Kevin Smyth's latest Hundred Years' War scenario at The Game Matrix in Lakewood, WA. We used a simple home-brewed set that Kevin wrote called Arrowstorm. All the rules fit on one sheet, so it's quite a departure from other games I've played recently.

The scenario is based on an historical attack made by Edward the Black Prince on Île Saint-Jean, a suburb of the city of Caen in Normandy in 1346. The situation had a french force of dismounted knights supported by town militia defending a fortified bridge across the Odon river, with support from a couple of Genoese cogs, and also defending against an attack on the other side of the town from Sir Thomas Holland (later 1st Earl of Kent).

I played Holland making the rear attack on the town, while Adrian Nelson and Tim Barella played the Black Prince and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick making the attack across the river. (This game marks the first time I've seen Tim in many years, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him there—despite his wretched die-rolling.)

Defending the town were Dave Schueler, Wes Rogers, and Wes' son-in-law (whose name I forget). They had free rein to set up anywhere and chose to defend closely around the tower of the fortified bridge.

The English attack lacked siege equipment, so the initial attack across the bridge had to wait until scaling ladders and a battering ram arrived. We also had to neutralize the cogs in the Odon, who could fire crossbows and ballistae against our forces crossing the bridge.

Accordingly, Tim massed his three archer units against one of the cogs with the intent of burying it under a storm of arrows. The scenario had the English being low on arrows, so we had limited ability to shoot. Desultory skirmish fire wouldn't deplete our arrows, but massed fire and arrowstorm could run us out of arrows quickly. We had five points of massed shots available per archer unit. A simple massed fire cost one point, an arrowstorm—the medieval equivalent of FPF—cost two. Tim shot off an arrowstorm with three units against the cog with almost negligible result. In response, Dave took out several archers with his return fire. The plan was already in doubt.

On my side, I massed my two 2-figure units of archers on the right to run them past the town and into the open area facing the pallisades situated beside the tower. My other forces were a 10-figure unit of men at arms, a 20-figure unit of professional footsoldiers, and a 10-figure unit of Breton javelinmen.

The open area gave me more ability to get my bows where they could fire for best effect, even though the fire was reduced because of the pallisades. I didn't bother trying to attack through the gaps in the town; I only needed to keep enough troops in the town area to keep Wes' troops at bay. While advancing between the outer buildings, my troops were assaulted by the burghers of Saint-Jean who hurled sticks and stones from the upper floors of the buildings. I had to peel off some troops to storm the buildings and lost only one figure overall from a falling chamberpot.

Wes and his SIL, commanded the troops initially facing me and started by trying to move against my flank with crossbowmen and militia. I positioned one of my archer units to sweep the open space between the building rows and held them back. No one wanted to face annihilation by arrowstorm. My other archer unit advanced to take position against Dave's militia along the palisade.

I brought up the other archer unit and after a couple turns' shooting, the militia was decimated and ran off abandoning the palisade, which Dave refused to re-man with his men at arms. Fear of arrowstorm was a bit daunting.

Meanwhile, Adrian had been fording the Odon with his 20-figure unit of Welsh spearmen. This seemed to promise a way across the river other than the bridge, but the time spent fording enabled Wes to bring up some militia foot and a few men at arms to strike them at the river's edge.

Despite their rough handling, the Welshmen didn't run, but by standing they got surrounded and in the end only a single Welshman remained, though not for long.

The ladders and battering ram had arrived to much cheering in the English camp, but it was discovered that only one of the ladders was sufficiently tall to scale the tower (which elicited less cheering). Nevertheless, Adrian sent his footsoldiers in the van with the ladder and ram supported by his men at arms. His intention was to let the footsoldiers act as quarrel- and bolt-fodder while placing the ladder and battering the gate.

I now began my attack against the palisade in earnest. With Dave's unwillingness to re-man the pallisade, I targeted the defenders of the bridge tower and cogs with my archers and sent my footsoldiers and men at arms over the undefended palisade against Dave's defenders.

At first, I routed away the reconstituted force that had fled the palisades earlier as well as a small number of men at arms. However, Dave sent in his men at arms and suddenly the match-up wasn't exactly best suited for my continued success. My footsoldiers, hardy as they may be, were no match for Dave's men at arms and were routed away. However, I was able to move my small unit of men at arms to fighting Dave's men at arms and continue the fight.

Adrian's troops managed to get on top of the bridge tower and were chasing its defenders down into the bowels of the barbican. The troops outside were still banging away with the battering ram and having little luck.

Alas, for me. My men at arms got the worst of it and were soon clanking along in their armor trying to catch up with the running footsoldiers. The Bretons had been wiped out earlier by some crossbowmen, so all I had to keep on with were my two units of archers. Both units had depleted arrows and were facing better-armed (and armored men).

At this point, our time ran out. The game limit was ten turns and we stopped then on the verge of what may have been an English victory: We were over the palisades in the rear of the town, we had men atop the bridge tower and men in it, we had many more men on the bridge ready to burst through the gate—or be let in once our men inside the tower gained control of it.

Post mortem

The game was a lot of fun and moved very quickly. As with any Hundred Years' War game, the English archers are just atomic and any French victory is won against greater odds than the numerical disparity would indicate.

Although based on the historical attack on Caen during Edward III's initial chevauchée that started in Brittany and culminated in Picardy at the Battle of Crécy, I think Kevin made a few adjustments for play balance. Historically, the French had only some palisades and were greatly outnumbered by the English. They had abandoned the fortified bit of Caen to defend Île Saint-Jean because that was the wealthy suburb of the city and its richest burghers wanted it spared the depredations of les Anglais. The bridge tower was actually built to defend the walled city on the north side of the Odon and the Île Saint-Jean is on the south side. The sources are murky as to whether they possessed any part of the actual bridge defenses. It seems as if they built a hasty palisade on the bridge, but the fortified bridge may have had barbicans on both sides. If so, the English would have been in possession of one side and the French the other.

The two sources I have for the battle, Jonathan Sumption's The Hundred Years War I: Trial by Battle and Clifford Rogers' War Cruel and Sharp make no mention of Holland's flanking force, but I defer to Kevin's more extensive library on all things Hundred Years' War for this. The most interesting narrative of the action comes from Bernard Cornwell's novel The Archer's Tale, but it is a fictionalized account.

I have some other sources that just mention the battle in passing. It seemed to be a small affair involving about 1500 French defenders and only a portion of Edward's army under the Earl or Warwick. The English took the walled town that the French evacuated and then rushed without orders to the Île Saint-Jean where they overwhelmed a hasty defensive position, mostly by going around it, and looted the town, in the course of which they killed many of the defenders and a few thousand burghers. Generally, being a French burgher in the path of an English chevauchée during the Hundred Years' War was a bad thing. A very bad thing.

Kevin is running this game again, perhaps with some tweaking after our play test, at Dick Larsen's Drumbeat event and likely at Enfilade! in May.

The cats love their momma

Whenever Lorrin comes over, the cats are alerted to her arrival by the beep-beep of her door locks being activated electronically. When they hear it, they come running.

Lorrin has been in Australia over the holidays, so the cats haven't seen her for a few weeks. Sitting upstairs the other evening with the munchkins about me, one of my neighbors came home and beep-beeped their door locks. Suddenly the room emptied as the cats ran downstairs to greet Lorrin, who was still in Australia. When I followed them down, they were crouched expectantly at the top of the stairs leading from the foyer. They all looked up at me and back at the door expecting Lorrin to open it and step in.

It's nice to see how the cats have taken to her. Grendel is anybody's friend, but the girls, Rhiannon and Maebh, are choosier. That they love Lorrin is a good indication that I have the right woman in my life.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Los! (D.A.N.G. VIII)

Today was the 8th occurence of Dave's Annual Naval Game (D.A.N.G.) run by Dave Schueler as part of our Christmas vacation activities. I haven't been to all, but all that I've attended have been a great time.

This year's even was "Action off Tunisia" and was a small combatants campaign set in 1943 during the Axis' last gasp in North Africa. I played the Axis side along with Kevin Smyth and Arthur Brooking. The Allies were represented by Dale Mikel, Scott Murphy, and Dave Creager.

The area covered by the campaign stretched from Bone in Algeria to Valetta in Malta, though most of the action took place in the area around Tunis to Porto Empedocle in Sicily. (Bone, btw, is now called Annaba and in its earliest incarnation as Hippo Regius, it was the home of St. Augustine.)

The tasks each side had to perform were routine patrols, minesweeping, minelaying, and convoy. In addition, the Allies had to keep German convoys from getting into Tunis. Each day of the seven days covered by the campaign was divided into AM, PM, and Night turns. We plotted our missions and Dave determined if any of our forces collided. The day provided three actions.

Action 1: Fighting off Porto Empedocle, Sicily

We (the Axis) sent our missions out at the start of the game with the hope of running into something worth fighting. Our major forces were at Porto Empedocle (a.k.a. Port Imbecile) on the south coast of Sicily. We sent our five schnellboote (a.k.a. S-Boats or, to the British, E-boats) swanning about hoping, unsuccessfully, to catch a convoy while we swept outside our port for mines using our remaining two craft, a pair of under-armed Raumboote (R-boats, also E-boats to the Brits). As the R-boats swept away, they ran into a pair of British destroyers bristling with guns of every calibre.

Having no torpedoes and armed only with a single, rear-firing 20mm autocannon and two forward-firing light machine-guns, we were for it as soon as contact was made. Our only hope was to run like hell and seek safety under the shore batteries of Porto Empedocle. As luck would have it, the British were able to pound one of our boats (mine) with 4" naval guns—no mean feat given the odds against their hitting small fast craft with big guns. However, Jolly Jack Tar forgot Nelson's maxim that "no sailor but a fool fights a fortress" and pursued us right into range of the 88mm batteries that protected the harbor. As shell after shell found its mark on one of the British destroyers, they made about and headed out of range with one ship at full steam and the other limping from significant damage. Our loss was a single R-boat. We figured it was not a bad exchange as we hoped the damaged DD would be out of action for the rest of the campaign, or at least most of it.

Action 2: Tangling with Fairmiles off Tunis

The next action was fought at night on Day 2 in the waters outside Tunis, but too far away this time for us to expect help from shore fire. We sent the two S-boats we had in Tunis off to patrol in the area of Bizerte, but instead ran into a force of three British Fairmile C motor gun boats and three Fairmile D motor torpedo boats (a.k.a. "Dog Boats").

Although not mounting 4" guns, the Fairmiles also bristled with firepower. The Cs mounted 2-pdr. pom-poms, 6-pdrs., and a few 20mm mounts. Our ships had torpedoes, which are next to useless against small craft, and two single 20mm mounts (fore and aft) along with some light MGs. Again, we were not only outmatched in firepower ship vs. ship, but outnumbered 3:1.

The S-boats ("S" stands for schnell!) were fast, but the Fairmiles were plenty fast, too. We took a peppering from them. Kevin commanded one boat and Arthur commanded the other. Early on, Arthur's boot took a hit to his steering that forced him to continue straight for four game-turns. Unaware of this, Dave Creager "crossed the T" with one of his Fairmiles only to get rammed by Arthur's unintentional kamikaze. The resulting crash was about as bad as it gets. Arthur's boat cut Dave in two and destroyed itself in doing so.

Meanwhile, Kevin managed to get away from Scott's boats and the action ended with one S-boat damaged and one sunk on our side and a Fairmile C sunk on the Allied side (possibly minor damage to some other boats, but I don't think were were hitting anything). This was another morale victory for Der Axis. The loss of an S-boat for a Fairmile MGB was a favorable exchange for us.

Action 3: Destroyers (again)

The final action of the campaign took place on day 3 when the five S-boats we had in Porto Empedocle were en route to Tunis to operate from there, since that's where the action tended to be. In their first two missions of the game, the S-boots had come up empty in their sweeps to find enemy forces. In this mission, which was more an attempt at transit to a new base, they came into contact with the same two British DDs that ran into the shore batteries at Porto Empedocle. It seems that by herculean effort, the boys in Malta managed to get the damaged ship repaired within 24 hours and both DDs were fit and ready for another fight. They, too, were en route to operating in Tunis and moving at flank speed.

This was another "brown trousers" moment for us, but we finally had the A-Team in action, however outclassed it may have been by the DDs. These S-boats were of a later class than the ones that saw action off Tunis. Armed with torpedoes, a 40mm autocannon, a dual-mount 20mm, a single-mount 20mm, and light MGs, they had some firepower and their torpedoes had worthy targets. We also had speed with a top rate of 40 knots vs. 36 knots for the DDs.

We shot off a volley of torpedoes at the point that we sighted them and they were still unsure of our presence. Arthur fired all his "fish" at Scott's DD while I fired one boat at Dale and kept the other boat's torpedoes in reserve, as did Kevin with his one boat. We basically had only bow shots, so our chances of a hit were slim. The torpedoes had to run one turn before arming and our targets managed to side-step them.

The shooting was a little better for us than in the last encounter with the destroyers. They hit one of my boats with a 4" gun (I got away with minimal damage from it), but for the most part, they were not hitting well. We scored plenty of hits with significant, if not extensive results. The DDs having armored bits, a lot of our hits were ignored. We did manage to shoot up Dale pretty well and he was on fire, had lost some weapons, and had his bridge out of action for a few turns.

Arthur turned and retired after his torpedo volley and the Brits never sighted him. Kevin managed to turn his boat and scored most of the hits on Dale's DD. I had turned one of my boats around but the other kept straight to avoid running into my own torpedoes. It was at this point that our fortunes turned.

Still as overly-aggressive with their bigger ships as they were when they ran them up against shore batteries, Scott chased my lone boat and in so doing ran into the torpedo spread I'd fired three turns earlier. Both fish hit and the resulting damage sunk the ship. The action was over with no boats lost for the Axis and one DD sunk and another damaged (superficially) and making away.

After action

By now it was late in the afternoon and we called the campaign. So far, the Axis had managed to get one convoy through to Tunis as well as a special mission in and out of Tunis involving secret cypher machinery and what-not. (All very hush-hush.) The biggest disparity had been in ship losses. We lost one R-boat and one older S-boat while sinking a Fairmile C MGB and a destroyer. Dave called it an Axis win.

It would have been interesting to see how the rest of the campaign would have gone. We had another convoy coming in, which was well-guarded by a corvette and several MFPs. It was the only time in the game we would have had our own ships bristling with firepower. (But, then only if the Allies had contacted it.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too much cat

I believe I have discovered a new sub-species I will call felis silvestris catus extremis: too much cat. Perhaps not the only member of this sub-species, I think Grendel exhibits tendencies that exceed normal cat behavior to a sufficient degree to warrant reclassification and put him on the cutting edge of feline evolution.

Felis silvestris catus extremis can be identified by the following traits:

The ability to look deeply into your soul and convey to you an understanding beyond words that you are an insufferable prat.

"Please, human, don't fool yourself."

An uncanny ability to preempt anything you plan to do by interposing itself between you and your desired activity.

"No, you aren't going to use this, are you?"

A degree of aloof coolness that noticeably reduces the temperature in a room by several degrees.


A heightened sense of paradox between dependence and disdain.

"I want nothing to do with you, now rub my belleh just there."

A grandly imperious manner that often expresses itself in heroic, statuesque poses.

"The Emperor Grendel. Yes, I like how that sounds."

An intensified insistence on getting its fair share (i.e., all) of the available food being consumed or prepared.

"You. Pie hole. Fill. Now."

Felis sylvestris catus extremis has yet to be accepted by the scientific community. However, recognition must come and being the first to identify this sub-species will surely earn me a Nobel Prize for science.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ancients Rules Redux

As I posted earlier, I had my first opportunity to play the Crusader Historical Miniature Rules last week when Chris Craft ran his Hundred Years' War game at The Panzer Depot. I've had these rules since they were first published, but I only gave them a read-through before shelving them. I was already invested in Field of Glory (FoG) in 15mm and starting in 28mm, as well as having a WRG project going on, and I wasn't contemplating adopting yet another set of ancients rules. But that was before I played them.

I had a good feeling playing them, not just because I won. I've played Warhammer Ancient Battles (WAB), which left me cold. Crusader rules have some of the same basic mechanics, which all derive from Donald Featherstone's rules from the early 1960s, but play a little less dicey and stylistic. The combat resolution uses D10 rather than D6, so you get a bit less restricted results. They also dispense with the armor saves for hand-to-hand combat and missile fire, which saves time in resolving combat.

Figure basing is not too standardized, the rules don't really require bases that match exactly and the number of figures per base isn't a factor in resolving combat. Chris uses a 2-inch square base for all troop types mounting 2, 3, or 4 figures depending on type. Each base has set combat values based on the type of troops, their morale, and their skill. There is also "chrome" that applies to certain types of units. For example, troops classified as phalanx have special combat abilities that give them extra abilitiy to prevail in combat, which reflects the historical power of Greek and Macedonian phalanxes.

In Chris' game, there was a lot of heavy armor so missile fire seemed less lethal than in WAB. I think that in a game set during the Punic Wars, the effect of missiles will be greater, but then there won't be massed formations of English longbowmen.

I have a lot of ancients figures kicking around. Mostly unpainted. So I have the potential to start a lot of projects: Greek hoplites, Macedonians, Thracians, Late Romans, Sassanid, Mycenean, Picts, Medieval Irish, Saxons, Post-Roman British. I commented to Kevin Smyth the other day that if I bought no more figures, I would still have enough to keep me painting for the next five years. Although, I have to admit that's less an indication of the mass of unpainted lead I have than it is an indictment of the slowness with which I paint.

I'm also contemplating switching my Carthaginian project from FoG to Crusader. An interesting observation is that basing the Carthaginians for Crusader the way that Chris has doesn't affect playing FoG and is a bit more economical with figures. Chris plans on trying FoG with his Hundred Years' War units. This makes me think that I can play Crusader rules using the Later Roman and Sassanid armies I have for FoG in 15mm. (S0, on the other hand, basing figures for FoG wuld also allow them to be used for Crusader.)

In sum, the Crusader rules have me thinking that they might make an interesting change of direction or at least and option that can be exercised with my current figures and projects.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

F.U.B.A.R. in Italy

Saturday's Kampfgruppe Commander II game had a mixed result. On the plus side, we played until there was a definite conclusion. (Rare for us.) On the minus side, I haplessly threw away the better part of my forces and the bad guys escaped to fight again.

I designed a sceanario set in Italy, 1943 during the Allied advance to the Volturno line after the Salerno landings. Five American battalions (three infantry--with support from an M8 HMC, some M10s, and a company of combat engineers, one tank, one paratroop) with artillery support needed to force a crossing of a river by a single ford. Three reduced German panzergrenadier battalions, (supported by artillery, a company of Pz IIIMs, and a company of StuG IIIGs) had to hold them back for five turns and then bugger out across the river themselves.

My initial fear in designing the sceanario was that the Germans would be easily overwhelmed by American superiority in numbers and firepower, so I had the Germans set up hidden and delayed the entry of the American paratroops. As it turned out, these changes made it a bit difficult for the Americans to press the Germans very hard. To winkle out hidden troops requires a few turns of patient scouting. By the time we found them, they would be escaping to safety.

The Americans attacked from opposite sides. I came in with two infantry battalions, supported by the engineers and M10s. Ken came in with the tank battalion and an infantry battalion supported by the M8. John, ex-82nd Airborne himself, ran the paratroop battalion.

As always, I lead with my chin. I tried to cautiously advance, but I still had a lot of open ground to cover, so there wasn't a lot of cover. Turn one left me with all my troops on the table but not one successful spot of an enemy position.

Mark Serafin, commanding the two German panzergrenadier battalions with support from the StuGs facing me, soon enlightened me as to where his units were. Artillery, mortars, and small arms opened up on my leading companies. I lost most of one compnay destroyed and routed on turn 1. In the following turns, I had another company shot up and routed and another two shot up. My advance over the stream against Germans on the wooded hill, got about halfway there before artillery, mortars, and small arms fire completely destroyed one company and routed another. By this time, my attack was a shambles and Mark was in a position to start withdrawing his units towards the ford where they could exit.

On Ken's side, his tanks advanced against Steve Puffenberger's forces, a single panzergrenadier battalion supported by a company of Pz IIIMs. Ken lead with his tanks followed by the infantry.

The Pz IIIs were outclassed by the M4A1 Shermans and Steve was hard pressed to hold his ground.

However, Mark, having nothing left to worry about from me, turned his StuGs to face against Ken's advance and managed to hold him in check for a few turns.

Because the Americans failed to break through and block the ford in time, the Germans were able to skeedadle on turn 6. They managed to get their Pz IIIs and some infantry companies off that turn and had more companies staged to get off the next. I had only one reduced company and the M10s to try and chase down the Germans as they left. It wasn't nearly enough.

The rest of my forces were a shambles cowering in the woods or behind a slope trying to recover morale and their some losses. They were in no position to continue the fight.

The scenario was a bit flawed. By design, the paratroopers wouldn't enter the game until turn 3, although they didn't really come on unitl turn 4. I should have had them come on turn one. Without a strong enough initial attack, the Americans didn't have enough force to press the Germans. My scenario design in the past few games I've run, is an attempt to get more mobile and fluid encounters. This scenario has potential, but I need to rethink a few things.

The day at The Panzer Depot was rewarding, too, because John was running a sale that attracted a few old grognards from days past. Even Bob Mackler showed up, which was a pleasant surprise. I haven't seen Bob in years. We had a good chat about gaming, our jobs, and, of course, our cats.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Non nobis, Domine...

I finally had a chance to try out the Crusader Historical Miniature rules. I've had them for some time now (although they are currently misplaced), but I never played them until tonight. Chris Craft has been using them for his Hundred Years' War games, using his beautifully painted 28mm armies of Perry Miniatures' excellent Agincourt to Orleans range.

Chris hosted a game at The Panzer Depot pitting two English commands versus three French commands. The French had several units of dismounted men at arms, three units of mounted knights, three units of crossbowmen, and some brigans (basically armed rabble). Against this the English had three large archer units and a fourth smaller veteran archer unit, two units of dismounted men at arms with a third unit of household men at arms, and a small gun.

The French mass looked daunting, but we English stood up with archers behind stakes and the men at arms positioned in gaps between archer units or forming a second line. Fortunately, too, we had woods protecting our flanks, just as Henry V did at Agincourt. Our first bow shots were desultory. Long range bowfire against heavily armored knights isn't much of a chance. However, as they moved in the odds got better and we inflicted some damage. On the right, where my troops were, a unit of Breton mounted knights charged impetuously into my veteran archers. The fire they took coming in as well as the stakes stymied the charge and the archers threw them back. It was the first of a series of charges the Bretons would attempt, all to no avail. The archers held until finally bowfire and gunfire finished off the hapless Bretons near game's end.

On the English left and center, the initial attacks were repulsed, although the two units of French crossbowmen on that flank were doing serious damage to our leftmost archer unit. The French right wing commander had some trouble getting his two units of mounted knights into action. They were stuck behind the rabble and had to do several turns of maneuvering before they could get a free charge at the archers. When they did charge—a single unit in column—it was a disaster for them.

After their first attacks went bust, the French persisted. Their second attacks had better luck and the English left was hard pressed. We ultimately lost an archer unit and had another badly mauled with 50% losses. The men at arms held up well and the archers on the right, and the gun, were able to hold back or repulse any renewed French attacks.

French overall losses were severe and the "royal fellowship of death" piled up as lost stands at the edges of the table. The English lost about 11 stands total, while the French lost about three times that amount (or more?). By the time the French players threw in the towel, the English were about to counterattack with massed bowfire against their shattered units followed up by men at arms.

I thought the game played well. My only complaint being that I didn't have my camera to take pictures of Chris' very well-painted figures. The mechanics of the game were pretty simple and it was easy to catch on without any trouble. The Crusader rules are suitable for all periods of the ancient and medieval period. The game has me thinking about options for a lot of ancients figures I have sitting about. I acquired a large number of Greek and Macedonian figures from Foundry some years ago. I've been slowly painting them in bits, but I haven't really found a set of rules for them. I think Crusader may be it. You can have a good game with only a few units and can always expand the armies as time goes on. Chris has been working on his Hundred Years' War armies for some time and he's still expanding them. The Crusader rules may also be perfect for the Sassanid and Late Roman figures I have piled up, too.

Now I just have to find where I've put them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Queen Maebh the Merciless

Cat three is named after the mythical queen of Connaught from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. She is a contradiction in many ways. She's the menace of the other two cats, an absolute imp of mischief with me, but she cowers under my bed upstairs when visitors come.

I've always had a fondness for Manx cats. Rhiannon—even though she's my sweet pea—is more of a bobtail than a true Manx. I could be slighting her, but she doesn't show much Manx traits other than a short tail. Maebh is definitely a Manx. 

I saw her when she came in at PAWS in Lynnwood where I volunteered. She was part of a group of cats that came in from Mississippi to alleviate shelter crowding in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. She was huddled in the back of her cage looking at me with her big green eyes in a way that was apprehensive but not scared. 

Her torbie coat and "rumpy riser" tail made her irresistable to me. I weighed the options of adopting a third cat for a day or so and when I came back to the shelter she was gone. I  asked what happened and the staff told me she had been adopted. I felt a bit relieved that fate had intervened to make my decision for me.

A few weeks later, I was browsing the PAWS website when I spotted her in the list of cats available for adoption. I left work early that day to get to the shelter and sure enough, those familiar green eyes were staring at me again from the back of the cage. It turns out that she hadn't been adopted, just sent for foster care after a bout of URI. Now I thought fate had handed the decision back to me and I didn't hesitate. Since it was too late to adopt that night, I had the shelter reserve her for me for next day. I visited with her in a small room where she hid under a chair and remained cautious and passive while I tried to pet her. Not sure how she would be at home or if she would get along with the other cats, I adopted her and hoped for the best.

She mewled a bit on the way home, but wasn't at all like Rhiannon when I brought her home. With two cats already, I decided I would first see how she did with the others before adopting the isolation and slow introduction method. To my surprise, she popped out of the carrier as if she were a different cat. Toward Grendel and Rhiannon she was bold and cheeky--even toward me she showed a new disposition of acceptance. She and Grendel became instant friends.

Rhiannon was another story. Fussbudget and ailurophobe to the last, Rhiannon hissed, growled, and grumbled at Maebh every time she got near. Maebh, for her part, wanted to "play" with her new big sister. Rhiannon was less than pleased and I spent a lot of time separating them and soothing Rhiannon. Even now, after two years, Rhiannon is still fussy when Maebh gets to close. Still there are times when the fireworks are on hold.

Maebh is a playful 5-year old with a penchant for getting into things. She loves playing with dice and I have a lot of dice, though fewer now than before I got her. I find dice in the corners and under furniture—along with other things. Maebh showed a tendency from the start for what I call "poo hockey." This sport consists of pulling dessicated bits of cat poo out of the litter box and batting them around the house. She is also a terror to the cat toys.

She's very vocal and often goes off into another place in the house to loudly meow to me until I come to get her or, more often, I meow back and she comes running. She has a distinctive walk, which is all the more unique because of her nubbin tail and nether fluffery. One of her nicknames is Miss Mavis Fluffybottom.

She loves to pick play fights with Grendel who weighs almost three times as much as she does and they often scamper through the house together. (Often in the night, to my chagrin.) Where Grendel lays, Maebh lays too.

This doesn't stop her from biting his ears as they snuggle until, usually, he runs away from her just to get some peace. At times, however, he stands his ground and plants a big paw on her head until she emits a mournful "waaaaaaaaah" sound that expresses less a fear of his firm hand than a frustration at being foiled in her mischief. She also follows me aroung and is fascinated by what I do.

She often jumps up on top of the cupboards to watch me work in the kitchen.

She's turned out to be a great addition to the house and is the instant love of visitors, despite keeping her distance from all (except one). When I have guests, she and Rhiannon start the evening hiding together—one of their only bonding experiences. As the evening wears on, Rhiannon may venture down to see the strangers, but Maebh strays no farther than the stairs where she rolls on her back and makes odd sounds to attract my attention. If any stranger approaches, she scoots back under the bed.

Now she's family. On any morning that I can sleep in, I get up and feed the cats at 5:00 (or 4:00 during daylight savings) and go back to bed. By the time I get up again at 8:00 or later, I've got all three up there with me.

There are even other times when you can find them all in a bundle.

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.