Tank Battles at Tobruk

This Harold Hock design, published by Avalon Hill, dates back to 1975. I think this is the first time I have played it since then…

It’s a very detailed game about tank v tank warfare. There are detailed charts which show you how many times a weapon can fire in a turn (which varies according to whether the target has been acquired), the chance of a hit, the hit location, and the type of damage, all while taking into account target aspect. Since you roll dice for each shell, each hit, and each potential penetrating hit, you roll a lot of dice. This is not for the faint hearted.

The playability is further dragged down by the lack of markers. So, for example, you have to keep track of which targets have been acquired, which tanks have suffered mobility or firepower kills and so on.

I played scenario one. A group of nine Grant tanks take on a mixed German force of Panzer IIIh and IIIj tanks with a couple of Panzer IVe’s thrown in as extra targets. Around a dozen turns later there were five Grant tanks still in one piece and one immobile but still firing and no more German tanks, the desert being littered with burning wrecks. The German tanks were shot up as they tried to close in to more effective range. The surprising aspect was that of the Grant two guns, the smaller 37mm seemed to do the most damage.

The game is chock full of great ideas but is a real drag to play. You can see, looking back, how it was an inspiration for others. In fairness, the slow play may be down to the scenarios which are too big for the die rolling required. The other handicap is that the charts were all weapon and vehicle specific. So, it wasn’t like you could (or can) instantly develop versions for other vehicles and weapons that were not included in the box.

I enjoyed it as a diversion and a trip back in time. Forty-five years ago, this was the height of gaming sophistication. I may never go back to it, though.

On the Table Catchup

After finishing off the first scenario of Brazen Chariots (it was a draw) I decided I wanted to play something else. I opted for Ukraine ’43 (first edition), a GMT game designed by Mark Simonitch. I played this against the designer back in 2015 and this was an opportunity to refresh the experience.

There are a lot of Soviet troops out there

The campaign is a puzzle for the Germans: how do you stop the Soviets who have overwhelming superiority and seemingly endless numbers of troops? While many gamers have a tendency to over think their play, this type of game requires it. If you put a unit one hex out of place, or fail to cover the area where the enemy breaks through, you will lose.

Somebody’s about to be encircled

One of the aspects that is worth highlighting is that the game provides a Victory Point level that has to be attained to avoid defeat. This translates into a measure of success – for both sides. It also encouraged me to play the short scenario, reset the game and try it all over again.

Good fun.

In the desert

On the table currently is Brazen Chariots, a game in Dean Essig‘s Battalion Combat Series (BCS) about the 1941 battles around Tobruk. I last played this at ConsimWorld 2019 but fairly recently a new version (2.0) of the rules was produced. I wanted to get up to speed with these as the next game in the BCS is about the battles for Budapest and I am keen to try that out.

The full campaign game is beyond me – I don’t have space for the three maps – but there are plenty of other manageable scenarios that I can make my way through. I’m going to start with the first and keep going until I get bored or otherwise redirected to another game.

Invasion!

On the table has been Salerno, a game in the Variable Combat Series designed by Nathan Kilgore about the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. MMP published it.

It’s an “I go, you go” system with the main wrinkle being the aforementioned variable combat system: bigger units determine their combat strength by drawing from a pool of chits so it becomes that bit more difficult to get the exact combat odds you want. (A really nasty – and therefore worthwhile – option, makes every unit that has a chit redraw it after a certain number of turns. I am unsure how realistic that is, but it’s probably fun.)

The maps (roughly one and a half of them) are split into three areas with tracks allowing movement between them. For example, one covers the landing of the 8th Army, one covers that of the 10th, and so on. Unfortunately, while the mechanics of moving from map to map are easy, the rules were a right royal mess. That was a pain.

Anyway, the invasion starts, the Allied forces land (in special broken down units just for the invasion turns), and then have to battle across the land to secure victory. First, the broken down units reform. That was a pain.

The invading units might get disrupted on landing. The disruption rules were somewhat short and lacking clarity. That was a pain.

The availability of airpower – for both sides – depends on how many airfields the allies capture. OK, got that. But whether your air force turn up or not – on the attack or defense – depends on a die roll. And that si the same for Axis as it is for Allies. I never could get my head around that one. You guessed it; that was a pain.

The annoying thing from my perspective is that I can recognize a ton of work and love went into this. But the rules were not clear enough for key elements, and that was a real barrier to enjoyment. I wanted to like this, but couldn’t. It’s interesting to compare this to games like The Killing Ground and Jaws of Victory (admittedly more complex) which take the same variable system and add some real bite to it, without cocking up the rules.

In a word, disappointing.

Fighting in the Desert

On the table, scenario 5 of Gazala, a game in the Standard Combat Series (SCS) designed by Dean Essig and produced by the Gamers. The scenario is about the British collapse in June 1942 and Rommel’s Afrika Korps’ taking of Tobruk.

As far as I can tell, with competent play, a draw is most likely. The Allies need to get 35 units off the board. To achieve that, they need to strip the Tobruk garrison, allowing the Axis to achieve their goal: the capture of Tobruk. If both sides achieve their goals, it’s a draw. However, that doesn’t mean the game is a bore. Far from it. The SCS can generally be counted on to produce some challenges and that’s what happens here.

SCS games come with a standard rulebook and another specific to the game. So, if you know SCS, you should have little to learn before being able to play any game in the series. Unfortunately, because there are two rulebooks, it also means that you frequently have to check both to see what standard bits remain and what are changed. I prefer a single rulebook. It’s not a major issue, but it’s a pain.

As for the actual system, it’s “I go, you go” with – in this case – an asymmetric sequence of play to reflect tactical and operational differences. Combat is odds based, and the Combat Results Table (CRT) uses 2d6 to provide a range of results. For example, a 3:1 attack on this CRT is likely to succeed, but it is also possible to fail, and badly so. Therefore, each side will typically have crucial combats that go against the grain and from which that side has to recover. That makes games exciting, but the luck element may – not always – seem to be too influential. If that bothers you, don’t play wargames.

I have had fun mucking around and trying to work out a way to get an exclusive win for each side. In that playing, I have come to realize that odds based CRTs may not be fit for purpose.

For instance, if 12 combat factors attack 4, the range of results is the same as if 36 combat factors attacks 12. Doesn’t sound or feel right to me.

Part of my mucking around has been trying out my own fire based CRT, where each unit contributes its attack strength and damage to the enemy is based on a die roll for the column matching the total firepower, with both attacker and defender getting to fire. Going back to my examples, with 12 combat factors on the attack, they are less likely to do as much damage as 36.

The devil is in the detail, however. For example, some of the units have a zero attack strength. What should I do with them? Having them solely as sacrificial lambs doesn’t seem right. Giving such units a nominal firepower of 1 is OK, but perhaps that should only be when defending on their own.

As another example, it’s generally understood that piling in more attackers may not only increase casualties for the defender but also for the attacker. Tricky stuff.

Meantime, until another solution pops up, it’s back to fighting in the desert.

 

Rundstedt Attacks!

For the last couple of weeks my solitaire boardgaming has been taken up exclusively with Scenario Three – Rundstedt Attacks! – from Barbarossa Army Group South. I am glad that I played the two previous (smaller) scenarios first, as they were a good introduction to this one which features more space, more tanks, and more challenges.

The scenario is on one map, and is about the initial attacks through the Lvov Gap. There are several special rules to replicate the historical limits on the forces and both players have much to do. The Axis player has to secure the Victory Point (VP) hexes and destroy enemy tank and artillery units. The Soviet player has to hold the VP hexes and destroy enemy tank, artillery, or motorized division units. Continue reading

Army Group South

On the table for the first time, almost 25 years after buying the game, is Barbarossa: Army Group South, 1941.

The game, designed by Vance Von Borries and published by GMT Games, features an operational level system that made its debut with Typhoon (about the 1941 attempt to take Moscow). This volume is one of a series about Barbarossa, dubbed the East Front Series (EFS). Continue reading

Solferino

Moving on from Flying Colors, I am playing Risorgimento 1859 and specifically the battle of Solferino. It’s the French and the Piedmontese against the Austrians fighting over the reunification of Italy.

So, I cut out the counters and set up the scenario.

The Austrians are stuck, mainly, in big stacks in reserve with only a few units available to move at the start. The Piedmontese are also in reserve.

On to the map come the French. Slowly. What a traffic jam. The first time I tried this, I forgot the Strategic Move option. After a really messed up turn, I started again and the SM helped, but not by much. While the Austrians sit about for the first couple of turns, the French are trying to get their troops onto the battlefield so they can pick off bits and pieces before the Austrians wake up.

Eventually, the forces collide. At this point, you notice how much of a cookie cutter the forces are; most of the infantry have the same cohesion (6) and that’s the only point of distinction other than the few Jagers, Chasseurs, and Light Infantry. That last set of three can do small arms fire into an adjacent hex. At a maximum of 1 hit per fire, it’s effective roughly 60% of the time. Super skirmishers?

Cavalry are not much use except against other cavalry. But we do get to have light and heavy cavalry.

After properly completing the first three turns – and it was slow – I decided I’d had enough. The game simply wasn’t working for me. It’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t click because there is a lot that should appeal.

Let’s see.

There are a lot of counters. The scale is a bit strange – battalions, complete with facing rules, in a gunpowder era game with 325 yard sized hexes. All units are equal in combat strength, but their cohesion rating may affect matters as there are modifiers for the side with the higher cohesion.

The game is not complex, but there are several important exceptions. For example, units in cultivated terrain (vineyards?) might have their ZOC restricted. For example, units pay different costs to move adjacent to an enemy unit, depending on type and whether it’s into a ZOC or not, but cavalry can only move adjacent if charging, and charging has its own restrictions.

Combat has each side rolling a die, applying the modifiers, and getting the number of hits inflicted on the enemy from a table. The maximum damage is 3 hits. (Maximum stacking outside of towns is two units or three artillery per hex.) If you want to maximize damage, you need to surround the defenders so they take an extra hit from retreating through a ZOC. Units take hits up to their cohesion level and then are eliminated. (Sort of like the GBOH series for Ancients.)

There is a commendable effort to make casualties count with brigades becoming hors de combat and corps becoming demoralized. Unfortunately, the player aids don’t give you any support in this task, so you are on your own when trying to track this.

Activation has this sort of halfhearted continuity mechanism. You go, you roll to go again. If you succeed, after the two activations play passes to the other side. If you fail, after the first activation play goes to the other side. Why bother? I understand the desire to move away from straightforward “I go, you go” but it didn’t seem worth the effort. Maybe chit pull would have been better. Maybe “I go, you go” would have sufficed.

Too many games are competing for my attention. This one failed to hold it.

All at Sea

Flying Colors, designed by Mike Nagel, was originally a self published design. It’s a game about fleet actions in the age of sail, focusing on the higher level perspective and speeding up play by cutting out a fair amount of lower level detail. GMT published it in 2005, followed by an expansion (Ship of the Line) and two more complete games: Serpents of the Seas (a 2010 release about naval battles of the American Revolution and War of 1812) and Blue Cross White Ensign (a 2014 release about the Imperial Russian Navy).

There was a second edition of Flying Colors released in 2010 and just this year a new third edition. GMT offered an upgrade pack for those who had earlier versions of the game and I duly acquired it.

The upgrade includes all the stuff that was in the Ship of the Line expansion as well as all the scenarios and all the ships and leader counters required to play the campaigns and scenarios that originally were published in C3i magazine. It’s a bumper package nd it inspired me to get the counters cut and the game on the table.

To start off, I played Minorca – the encounter between Admiral John Byng and a French fleet on 20 May 1756 that ultimately led to Byng’s court martial (for failing to press his perceived advantage against the enemy) and death by firing squad.  In my replay, the French secured a win after the British took heavy losses in closing for the kill. (They captured one French ship, but several of their own struck their colors after being dismasted and left to drift.)

As usual, the early turns contained a fair amount of checking the rule book. But, soon enough, I was able to cut down those references to the rules and ran the game mainly from the provided player aid cards. It’s a veritable marker farm – though you can all but eliminate these if you want to use rosters – but there’s plenty of space, and it for sur beats individual logs for each ship. It’s highly playable solitaire, so my powers of replicating schizophrenia were not unduly challenged.

The high level perspective is more than enough to give you a sense of the historical setting and potential strategies and tactics. And there are are a huge number of scenarios with small, medium and large encounters. Also, Serpents of the Seas introduced a duel system that deals with single ship v ship encounters and adds a deck of cards to the mix. That’s less playable solitaire, so I have nothing to say about it beyond that I’d like to give it a try, face-to-face, sometime.

After Minorca, I started and am currently finishing off the battle of Sadras. The real event took place on 17 February 1782 between Admiral Edward Hughes and his British fleet trying to impose their rule over the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal and the French under Admiral Suffren. I think the British are going to win this one.

I like this system a lot. It gives you a sense of the historical time and place and a taste of the challenges facing the respective fleet commanders. It’s not complex, and there’s plenty of scope for house rules for those who want more detail. One of my current top ten wargames and highly recommended if you are at all interested in naval history.

Early Days

I finished scenario one of Wing Leader – Origins  with a narrow victory for the defending British against the raiding German forces. The German bombers absolutely pulverized Dunkirk, but in the plane-to-plane combat, the Spitfires and Hurricanes were just too good on the day for the German Bf 109E aircraft.

Next up was scenario two set in Warsaw on 1 September 1939, featuring four squadrons of Polish pilots in P.11c aircraft defending the capital against German He 111P-1 bombers and their Bf 110C-2 escorts. This one was a draw. The Polish side had the better luck with the dice overall, but the special rule giving them a favorable modifier in cohesion checks also had a substantial effect. More than once they outlasted their opponents in dogfights due to that modifier.

This was a good outing for Wing Leader.  I hope to play it again, soon. But it’s now time to move on. What next?