Barbarossa Derailed

From tactical level combat on the East Front, to operational level. On the table is Smolensk, one of MMP’s OCS games, this one featuring the summer ’41 battles to take Smolensk and open the road to Moscow. The historian David Glantz wrote a number of books about the campaign suggesting that the seeds of Nazi defeat on the East Front were to be found here. More typically, commentators have pointed at Stalingrad or Kursk, but rarely an event so early in the war. The arguments will continue and meantime I can game the situation and draw my own conclusions.

OCS is an intensive gaming experience. You have to plan ahead, sequencing your moves, maximizing your meager supply, pushing your cardboard soldiers to the limit, and extracting every last advantage from the interaction of the various rules systems.

For example, some air forces can conduct ‘hip shoots’ which, if they go well, cause enemy forces to lose their protective Zone of Control and reduce their fighting power. Timing such a strike is crucial. For example, the combat system gives huge bonuses if your lead unit – in attack or defense – has a higher Action Rating (troop quality). So small high quality units are best deployed wherever the action is or might be.

There’s lots more. OCS game turns are not short affairs. The downside is that when playing face-to-face there’s not much to do. I think that’s why some OCS games in conventions have lots of side games going on at the same time. This is not so much a disadvantage if you are playing solitaire, but it does mean there’s a big burden on the solo player. It’s hard work. Whether it’s enjoyable is a matter of personal taste.

On top of all of this is the perennial discussion of whether the system is an accurate model of WW2 operational level combat. I’ll not go there now. What I will say is that even setting up a scenario and getting a couple of turns in can be very educational about the campaign being portrayed. As usual, this means my non-fiction reading list has been expanded by a couple of books on the campaign.

I love this hobby.

Tiger, Tiger…

So, continuing with the ATS module Panther Line, I moved on to the big scenario, number 4: Tigers on the Balcony. This is the crucial encounter between dug in Soviet forces on the dominant ledge, (the ‘Balcony’) assaulted by a mix of German infantry and pioneers (combat engineers) with three self-propelled guns and four Tiger tanks. The sitting defenders can be outflanked, but turn two sees the arrival of a chunky set of Soviet tank and infantry reinforcements.

To put it mildly, there’s a lot to chew on here and it was probably too much for me to handle on my own. My play will not have been optimum, for sure, but it was equally certainly fun and let me continue to enjoy the system at its best. I called it for the Soviets when it was plain the Germans were not going to overcome the loss of a couple of the Tiger tanks.

I then went on to play the much smaller, but equally fun, scenario 9: Pioneer Spirit. German pioneers and infantry have to take positions held by some top quality Soviet defenders.

As printed, the scenario allows the Soviets to hide a couple of squads. Playing solitaire, I came up with some random tables to inject some of the mystery and fog of war to match the missing hidden troops. These worked OK, but I’d love to give this one a try against a live opponent. I suspect that if the Soviet player doesn’t get the best out of his hidden troops, the defense will not endure.

That’s about it for ATS for now. I’ll be going back to it, but other games are screaming for attention.

Holding the Line

I have moved away from the desert and am now embroiled in deadly combat on the Eastern Front.

I started with scenario 1, Right Hook, featuring an all infantry encounter with hordes of Soviet troops trying to take a fortified high-ground position held by somewhat second-rate Nazi defenders. This environment was a real contrast to the open terrain of the desert and it took me a couple of turns to get used to the changes. I played this scenario twice and thought it was one of the better ones.

Next, I jumped to scenario 10, Hammer and Anvil. This is an armor fight (though the Soviets have a 57mm anti-tank gun, too) between Tiger tanks and a motley selection of Soviet armor. This scenario brilliantly showcases the impulse system that ATS uses and is a real nail biter. (Instead of “I go, you go”, each side takes turns to move or fire one unit or platoon at a time. Deciding what to move or fore and when adds real tension and excitement to the gameplay.) Another good scenario.

Now I am playing scenario 6, A Nasty Surprise. This one has a rag-tag bunch of Nazi infantry, backed up by a couple of Tigers, tussling with a sizeable Soviet infantry force stiffened by half a dozen anti-tank guns.  It’s too early to comment on the quality of the scenario, but it does look challenging.

Overall, ATS is giving me a good solitaire friendly gaming experience. There’s no doubt the game lacks the depth of ASL – what some would call the crippling detail of that system – but the payoff is in speed of play. I hope to keep playing both systems for many years to come.

Desert Fighting

Here’s more proof of my love for tactical combat wargames, especially those set in World War 2. On my table now is the first ATS (Advanced Tobruk System) game, first released around 2002. In scale and looks, it’s very close to ASL, but has enough differences to make it attractive as an alternative gaming experience.

By way of full disclosure, when this first came out I invested a lot of time in trying to improve the rules as that, in my view, was the weakest aspect. A summary of the position is that some of my ideas were taken onboard and some weren’t. I supported the system (translation: I bought other ATS modules) but didn’t play it much after the initial surge of activity.

Over the years I have tried to get back into ATS using various of their Basic Game products, but none worked. What’s changed? Some of the fans of the system have put in a ton of effort and started an independent support operation consisting of a blog with already a couple of outstanding articles, podcasts, and other excellent support material. So, I dusted off my copy of Tobruk and started to immerse myself in ATS again.

So far, I have finished playing two scenarios (solitaire) using the rules in the box.

First up was Clash of Armor which allowed me to get to grips with most of the armor rules. The Germans won rather easily and I need to go back and see how to improve the defense.

Grant tanks on the prowl

The setup calls for the British to start with six dummy counters and six Grant tanks for a total of twelve counters. So, I picked twelve likely locations and drew a counter from the supply each time a possible location had its first chance at a shot. Basic, but it worked.

Then I tried Goschen’s House to tackle the infantry rules. The Germans have a 75mm howitzer and it is a killer if it hits. It took the British too long to deal with the gun and so the Germans won again.

For sure I got rules wrong and could have played better, but these sessions clarified what parts of the rules I need to work on. Besides, it was fun.

The latest rules are on their way to me. (I have the electronic version but prefer to read the physical version. I’ll use the electronic version for reference.) Once the real version is here, I’m hoping to do some more rules learning and playing.

 

Trouble Ahead?

Out of the wrapper and on to the game table:

An unusual game about potential conflict in the South China Sea which includes a Political and a Military set of rules. In some scenarios, using cards, you play out the political aspect and the shooting can start at any time or not at all. Or, you can skip the politics and go straight to war.

The components are good, though the back side of some of the counters is slightly off. I found the rules a bit rough, but nothing that could not be bridged with some common sense. The system is easy and accessible and gives each player plenty to think about. The decisions are tricky, not the rules.

Some have criticized the lack of scenarios – there are only half a dozen or so – but if that bothered me, I’d be able to get some fan created ones from BGG. The current challenge, given how much fun this is, is how do I stop myself buying the next in the series?

July 1863

Ahead of the 158th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I have been indulging in the heady mix of gaming and reading that brings history to life.

On the games table:

This game, part of the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series, includes three campaigns:

  • Here Come the Rebels – 1862 Antietam Campaign
  • Roads to Gettysburg – 1863 Gettysburg Campaign
  • Rebels in the White House – Early’s 1864 Raid on Washington

Each has several basic game scenarios and one or more advanced game scenarios. I am playing the basic game of the 1863 set which runs from June 30 to July 3, allowing me to see the situation before the great battle and how it developed.

To help put everything into context, I have been reading this alongside my game playing:

It’s well written and quick thorough, but – so far – avoiding putting too much detail before the reader so as to blur the overall picture.

Although I am fairly well read about the battle, there are always fresh perspectives; there’s always something new to learn. In addition, it’s fun and educational to compare a serious historical narrative with how the situation is expressed in the game.

For example, in the real campaign, each side only had the roughest idea about the location of the main enemy forces. The battle happened almost by accident, starting as a small encounter that mushroomed. Because the game doesn’t give you that lack of knowledge, it has to use other techniques to try and recreate the situation. For now, let’s say that they work, and although the game that arises is enjoyable, there’s a sliver of a sensation that an umpired version of the game with full fog of war is what we need. Till then, gaming and reading are pretty damn good as they are.

Sixth Fleet

Just got this off my table.

I played through all the basic scenarios to get the rules sorted, then one of the intermediate scenarios.

The strategic air allocation is the most challenging part for the solo player, but that apart it’s a breeze.

It was fun. I’d forgotten how much fun.

And now the other Fleet Series games are calling to me.

Doomsday

This is part of the Operational System Series designed by Adam Starkweather and published by Compass. The particular game is about hypothetical Cold War going hot in the 1980s.

The game comes with three standard sized maps and one small add-on for Berlin, a mountain of play-aid cards, over a thousand 9/16″ glorious counters, as well as a rule book and scenario book.

There’s a lot to like here. Continue reading

Pocket on the Table

On the table, a meaty game called Jaws of Victory about the WW2 campaign around Korsun and Cherkassy in early 1944.

It’s designed by Milt Janosky and published by New England Simulations.

Here’s an overall view of the first scenario (on one of the two maps) dealing with the Soviet encirclement.

And here’s a closeup showing where the breakthrough is going to be attempted.

Those red counters are Soviet barrage concentrations. Nasty stuff.

The game features turns of a day, hexes that are two miles across, and units ranging from battalion sized to division. It’s “I go, you go” with some reaction allowed and the creation and utilization of reserves. Other points in no particular order:

  • Airpower uses a simple but effective system so it doesn’t take up disproportionate time. (OCS, I’m looking at you.)
  • Extensive use of artillery on attack and defense.
  • Supply uses points and depots, but is streamlined and easy – no magical tricks as to when to supply units. (OCS…)
  • Easy and evocative armor rules dealing with superiority and taking losses.
  • Stacking is not too bad – 3 units maximum – but there are exceptions and restrictions to learn.
  • Combat is odds based with chunky shifts for terrain, artillery and air support, combined arms, armor, and so on.
  • Most units take losses in steps, with different size and quality catered for by different classes (types) of step loss chit.

The physical components are good quality with only a few small, irritating counter errors. The rulebook and playbook are well done with ‘living’ versions maintained on the publisher’s website.

As usual, putting the game on the table has triggered a flurry of reading (and book buying) so I can have a good grasp of the historical context. Some of the source material quoted by the designer is hard to get or expensive, but there’s other material around that should at least provide the basics.

This is wargaming at its finest for me: a meaty, good-looking game that oozes history and makes me want to learn more. I could probably play nothing but this game for the next year, but of course I’m too much of a gaming butterfly to do that. While it’s on the table, though, I’ll enjoy every minute.

 

More Fields of Fire

Hogging the table for a good few weeks, Fields of Fire 2. It’s a solitaire game – second in the series – where you command a company of USA troops (in this case, from the 5th Marines) and work your way through campaigns consisting of several consecutive missions. There are campaigns for WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. (I have played the first in the series.)

I have been focusing on the WW2 campaign which is against the Japanese forces on Peleliu.

The missions are, in general, tough. (If it were too easy, that would be no fun and no achievement to win.) You constantly have to think about force conservation – which is a good thing – instead of simply satisfying the victory conditions for the current mission.

The game is very different from typical wargames: the map is a display of cards, troops need orders to do anything, and the different technical aspects of weapons are restricted to only a few categories, with a few more tweaks for vehicles. Troop quality is important. Your soldiers die all too easily, and green replacements often don’t last long. Grittily realistic is how I would describe it. It’s also engrossing, though sometimes frustrating as the system can kick you when you are down. But what do you do except try again.

The major strike against the game is the completeness of the rules. The second edition rules are an improvement, but still – apparently – managed to retain some errata. More important is that the rules are not comprehensive enough. There are too many situations that are not explicitly covered. And in some instances, as I found out thanks to some feedback on BoardGameGeek, essential information is hidden away in highlighted notes.

I should stress that the game is playable as it stands, but there are several events that may arise which are not covered and you have to use your own judgement. For example, in a couple of the Peleliu missions, the table that determines where enemy units appear in a certain row of the ‘map’ will never produce usable results. The table doesn’t take account of the fact that there is no other beyond which enemy units can be located. So, I had to make up my own table.

What makes the whole situation more annoying is that GMT appear to be ignoring any and all rules queries. They have stopped supporting the game. This is most unlike them.

I’m going to continue to play the game and use that old fashioned system of resolution known as ‘making it up’ as and when required. But I do hope that at some point GMT will return to the game system and give us the rulebook we need. And deserve.

UPDATE: In last week’s GMT news email, they announced a new development team for the game and a new module. It’s not been explicitly said that there will be an improved rulebook, but we can live in hope.