Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Finally, a day out - 

It's been an awful long time since I did anything constructive, gaming-wise, so it was with much relief I went to Aaron's yesterday for some gaming.  I had to skip a day off work to do it, but after the weekend last month when I was still at work at 1 am a couple of nights looking after student experiments, I deserved a break.

First up was a new game to me (and Aaron for that matter) - Dux Bellorum, whose raison d'etre is "Dark Age" gaming.  I've got a bunch of 15mm Dark Age stuff still based for WRG-style games, so took them along - I won the NZ Nationals once with a DBM Armorican force back in 1997 - that's the "Sub-Roman British" list with a Saxon ally, with the "British" part being French Britain - Bretagne - rather than "Great" Britain.  The Saxons caused as much mayhem  - and intrigue - in "Little Britain" as they did on the mainland, including establishing bases on some islands off the coast for a while from which to raid from.

We used the vanilla starter army lists from the author's website to represent an Armorican force versus a Saxon force.  The British one is very cavalry-heavy, although that isn't actually too bad for an Armorican force, whose infantry seem to have been almost non-existant, at least as far as source materials go.  This gave 8 units each side.  The Saxons are all foot warband - half standard quality, half high quality.  The Armoricans are half "Noble Riders", one unit of (non skirmishing) archers, and 3 of standard shieldwall.   Aaron took the Saxons while I took the Armoricans.  I parked my shieldwall on a ridge on my baseline while I sent out my horse to do the actual fighting, not too different to how it usually played out in DBM for that matter.

15mm TableTop Games figures; these are 25 years old now. 
Dux Bellorum in an activation-points style game, although the activation points are mostly used in practice to save your units from taking "hits" during combat.  You can also use them to try and deal out more hits, and to increase the chance of successfully carrying out a move, but this is usually not as useful.  It played out quite well, and gave quite an exciting game, as you can see from Aaron's account.  The main design crux of the game is clearly the balance between number of units and number of activation points (and what can be done with them of course).  It seems the authors has achieved quite a good balance here - there is a high enough number that you can have quite a big influence of the course of things, which adds to the "Heroic" feel of the period, with its focus on leaders' comitatus units to most of the heavy work - and of course, the mostly small scale of the actual battles in this period.  As can be seen from the picture, units accumulate "hits" during combat (the markers are Aaron's, are a much better alternative than having an unsightly dice tagging behind each unit showing how many hits have been taken); however, a unit fights just as effectively whether it has taken no hits at all, or has taken 5, so it's very binary. All in all, it's definitely worth a look; I feel we will be giving it another go some time.  Sorry about the lack of pictures - we didn't exactly go overboard in preparing any scenery for the day!

Next up was Shipwreck, another new system to us.  Neither Aaron nor myself own any moderns naval models (yet!  They are cheap enough...), so we just put down a couple of counters each on a blue cloth to represent the ships from the rulebook's play-along scenario.  I've heard some good things about the system from a couple of blogs, but in practice, we simply couldn't understand it!  The play test scenario was riddled with self-contradictory passages, some even in the very same paragraph, like when stating a certain ship had better radar when it actually had worse; the data cards had loads of mistakes, etc.  All in all, very frustrating.  In fact, we gave up after 90 minutes, and searched on-line for some clarifications. we found an amendment sheet, which didn't actually pick up all that many of the mistakes, let alone clarify things.  If we want to pursue this one, it looks like we will need a walk-through from someone who is familiar with the system. It's relatively complex - you have to keep track of every SSM fired individually, for example - including who has spotted it, etc.

My Armorican general's comitatus.  Scourge of Saxons!
So then we moved onto the latest iteration of DBA - version 3.0, which has some tweaks to make Dark Age gaming more interesting.  We played Armoricans versus Saxons twice, with Aaron taken the Saxons twice more.  The masochist - for warband have been really handicapped in this edition.  They no longer get rear support versus mounted, so die horribly against cavalry; I can't imagine what you would do against knights with them, which not only have the same higher factor against warband as cavalry do, but quick-kill them to boot!  They desperately need a rear support factor...  Franks wouldn't try and form up deep aganst Narses' Byzantines in a DBA world! 

One of the problems with vanilla DBA is the lack of "heft"- it doesn't feel like much of a battle with just 12 elements a side.  One way around this is doing a "Big DBA" - tripling the number of elements a side and doubling the table width to make it more DBM-ish in scope.  The other is simply doubling all the dimensions involved - including element width and depth so you just play with four times as many figures, with everything else , such as time to play, unchanged.  For our fifth game of the day, we we went this root, using some of Aaron's freshly painted 15 mm Gauls and late Republican Romans.   I took the Romans, and managed to drive my central legions deep into Aaron's warband block, only to see them all evaporate in a single bound of carnage.  Fortuna was not with Rome this day...   "Blades" (ahem: legionaries) in version 3.0 have been weakened since they now have to follow up when they win.  That's probably not too wrong, but they still look a bit silly in DBA - Romans basically should deploy in a single wide line, with maybe one or two elements in reserve.  Definitely NOT with an entire line in reserve, let alone two such lines!  I'll need more playing under my belt before I feel I can evaluate this iteration of the rules.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Big Bases -

When I left New Zealand for a "short" stint of work in Japan - this is back in early 2000, you will understand, I started work on a homebrew set of ancients rules, which I call TEXNH TAKTIKH: The Art of Tactics, or AoT for short.  I've been working on them on and off ever since... I will get them finished; I just have to quit my current job and its associated time demands first!  

15 mm Naismith xystophoroi in wedge formation.
The rules use a square 80 mm basing system, regardless of scale.  Actually, the size of the base isn't actually that important either, so long as both sides use the same size - and it is square.  But 80 mm bases are good compromise between being big enough to get a decent amount of "big unit" feel without being too big to be manageable in terms of physically making them.  I use 2 mm thick cardboard - usually sourced as artists' mounting board or similar, which is sufficiently thick it won't warp.  

One reason for using big bases like this is for the aesthetics - you can depict "formations" on a single base even with figures as large as 15 mm; of course, the opportunities are even greater with 6 mm figures.  In terms of game mechanics, big bases are a reaction against DBM-style elements.  They cut down on fiddly micromanoeuvring.  When elements were introduced back in WRG 7th Edition they didn't serve much actual purpose in the game, but that all changed with DBA.  DBA only used a few such unit-elements, which worked fine given the delightfully simple limitations of the game, but when DBM came about, the limitations of such small elements became more noticeable.  Too many "units" for a general to command basically (my Modern Spearhead gaming suffers from the same problem).

Eumenid battle line in 15 mm. 
When I think of what the sources say about ancient pitched battles, the only one that readily comes to mind mentioning any sort of "small" unit is Diodoros, when detailing Eumenes' deployment of three small groups of young household cavalry trainees (often misunderstood as grooms or similar) in front of one of his cavalry wings, each said to be composed of 50 men.  And since they are not mentioned again in the actual battle narrative, despite the importance of the cavalry action on the wing, these micro units can't have had a huge influence on the subsequent fighting...  

Some of my Naismith 15 mm Macedonian pikemen.
Not that I was ever happy with the old 6th Edition-style units with their single figures, mind you.  Phil Barker was absolutely right when he said figure casualty removal was a bizarre mechanism for non-skirmish ancients games when you thought about it - "units" (by which I mean any collection of combatants, not just those in formal regiments) don't physically shrink as they lose a few men here and their due to enemy action.  In 7th Edition you still had units, but they no longer lost figures, bases, or elements as they suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - and this was definitely a good thing.

Another xystophoroi wedge, with some Tarantines behind them,
However, the legacy of 7th Edition and its element-based successors has meant that "rebasing" is something every ancients rules designer has to seriously think about.  My 80 mm square bases are also big enough so that new players can just plop down their troops based for example, DBM, onto an AoT base and have a go.  Four 15 mm-sized WRG elements arranged 2 by 2 will fit onto an AoT base no problem to give the right sort of figure density to look right for most units.  

Of course one great advantage of any set of rules that uses "bases" as opposed to "figures" as its basic building block is that you don't actually need to use figures at all: a base with a printed out picture of the troops in question stuck on top will do the job of providing a nice visual feel. There are after all, many superb illustrations of troops on the net that can be used.  I've always thought that photos of figures would make a very cheap stand-in for the figures themselves for young gamers who can't possibly afford to actually buy their own lead mountains...

Who can pass up a picture of a jumbo?!
Of course, having rebased my Hellenistic troops on non-WRG bases, I've cut myself of from gaming with them using DBX rules (except DBA can still be done, with some simple work arounds), but that's not a huge issue.  I've still got more than a few other armies on WRG-style bases, after all!  Some are even still in New Zealand, where I've not touched them for over a decade...  Although now I think about it, one has probably gone AWOL, given I lent it to my club as a sort of "lend-out" force for people to borrow.  I suspect it has been mishandled severely in the meantime...  Anybody seen my Nikephorians?

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A day out with Lost Battles -

Work's finally starting to ease up, and yesterday I headed off down the road with my 15 mm Successor armies in the boot of the car to play a couple of battles of Phil Sabin's rules (Lost Battles).  Since Aaron was keeping the record of what went on, he'll no doubt be posting a proper write up on his blog soon, but here's my brief recollection. (edit: Here's the link to his first post, on Raphia)

First up was Raphia.  We followed the scenario booklet OOB, despite my misgiving about it in several key points; most notably in that Phil arbitrarily reduced the fighting abilities of the Seleucid phalanx to give the Ptolemaic side a better chance of winning the battle.  I took the Ptolemaic side while Aaron played the part of Antiochos III.  My left crumbled as in real life, forcing Ptolemy to seek shelter behind my phalanx; unlike real life, Aaron wasn't forced to pursue my defeated troops, and thus his cavalry were free to sweep around my rear.

Young Ptolemy has managed to extricate himself from his stricken left, and is attempting to urge on his central phalanx, who are alas being sorely pressed by their Seleucid opposites.  At the top, my victorious right is taking time to mop up the Seleucid left wing.

On my right, I broke his left, although not as swiftly as was required, and the central clash of pike was resolved in favour of the Seleucids, as my army's morale was shot by being surrounded and having my camp ransacked (there is no possibility of defending a camp in Lost Battles with just "baggage guards",  a very different handling of things to one of Phil's previous rule sets: Legio ; you need to leave out some of you normal troops to do the job in Lost battles - a point I had forgotten).  As a result my entire army routed (i.e. real-life surrendered) with the exception of a single pike unit on my right, giving Aaron a comprehensive victory.

Here's the scene just before my army broke and ran.  The unit on my left didn't make it off the board in time; that pesky elephant on the Selecucid left held up my victorious right.  Not a great day out for my lads!

Next up was Ipsos.  This isn't one of the scenarios featured in Lost Battles, due to the lack of decent sources - numbers and troop compositions can be ascertained reasonably reliably, but deployment details are very murky, so we used the free deployment rules.  I took the Antigonids while Aaron took the allies.  Each side had two generals, and the Fighting Values were somewhat larger than for Raphia: 72 for the Antigonids and 79 for the allies.

Here things also went well for the underdog - which happened to me this time around...  Demetrius' charge on my left was well supported by high dice rolls, and Seleukos was killed attempting to rally his cavalry.  The Allied elephants were deployed across the battle field, but didn't achieve all that much, and my right also put in good work, so Lysimachos was well boxed-in in the allied centre.

Hmm, this scene looks familiar!  Obviously Antigonos being on a horse instead of a litter has lifted his army's spirit!

Once Demetrius's horse swept around the allied rear, with the allied elephants in front of their phalanx rather than behind it, the allied morale collapsed, handing me as big a victory as Aaron had extracted from me in the previous game.  A great couple of games.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014


Still flat-out at work, what with it being the busiest week of the year in terms of teaching hours for me, but I did manage to take time out on Sunday to go to a beer festival, and while I was at it, get a couple of my non-gaming friends introduced to Zombicide.  This is a very much tongue-in-cheek boardgame pitting the players ("survivors") against swarms of game-controlled zombies.

The game comes with 70-odd plastic minis, which is one of the reasons it also comes with a rather hefty price tag...

The photo is courtesy of one of my friends who is keen to have some more games - we couldn't play all that much given our kids running around, and other people muscling in on our precious table space under the shade (it was over 30 degrees, so being out in the sun would have been death).

The minis are begging to be painted up properly, but that of course means I now have the makings of a plastic pile to complement the lead mountain sitting in the bottom of my gaming cupboards.  Such is the price of progress, I suppose!

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Notitia Dignitatum -

Work-wise (as in "real" work), this is the busiest time of the year for me, so I've not being doing much in terms of modelling, to say nothing of gaming.  But I have spent a while pottering about in one of the dim corners of my long-neglected website - updating some of my Notitia Dignitatum pages.  The so-called Notitia Dignitatum (Latin for "Register of Dignitaries") is a unique document dating from ca. 400 AD (albeit only in various copies made a bit over 1000 years later) that describes the bureaucracy of the late Roman Empire.

And why is this of interest?  Because a great deal of that bureaucracy involved the army - by far the most important component of the Imperial machinery.  And more specifically, the document records not only the names and stations of all the many hundreds of units in the army, both East and West, but also their shield patterns.  In colour no less!  Not all of them, alas, for some units' patterns are missing for reasons still unexplained, particularly for the Eastern cavalry, but there are still quite a few illustrated.  Over 280 in fact...

Click to see the page enlarged and read the unit names.
Here, for example, is a page from the manuscript copy currently lying in the French national library in Paris, showing the shield patterns of 12 legionary units assigned to one of the Eastern central field armies, that under the command of the "Magister Militum per Thracias" - the Commander of the Soldiers in Thrace (you can also make out images showing through from the other side of the page, most notably against shields with white backgrounds).

So this truly is a unique document.  If you own a late Imperial Roman army, you don't have to make an educated guess as to which units carried what kind of shields - this thing tells you!  (Let's just ignore for the moment the almost endless possibilities of manuscript corruption over the long centuries...)

And I've been slowly adding images taken from the various manuscript versions of the document to my website, so people can compare and contrast the various versions (some are clearly better than others - but what constitutes "better" is often in the eye of the beholder...).  I'll probably never "finish" the job - because with hundreds of units, each shown in multiple manuscripts - the task I have undertaken is truly vast in scope.  But I'm clearly an obsessive idiot at times, so why not?

Friday, 14 February 2014

OT-62s -

I've just received some print-outs of the TOPAS and OT-62 models I described in my post of December 12.  They've come out quite well, given I ordered them in the cheapest ("white soft & flexible") plastic, although the wheels were really too finely sculpted to be very noticeable.

OT-62 variants...
If I'm bored one day I might make up some alternative versions with deeper wheel cut-outs purely for the WSF plastic - but this will necessitate making the tracks wider than scale.  It might also be a big job, time wise - I'll have to inspect the (virtual) model and see, because sometimes shifting a bunch of components laterally is a doddle; sometimes it is almost impossible, depending on how they are connected together.

...and Polish TOPAS variants.
I've also made up and printed out some bridges that I will use on my terrain boards - I want them to be removable in case they get blown in-game by engineers.  Bridges make excellent scenario objectives, because it doesn't matter how many amphibious vehicles you have in your attack force, the logistical train will be carried on trucks - lots of trucks - and they need bridges. 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Making terrain boards -

I've been asked to describe how I make my terrain boards - but since this required a lot of explanation, I've made it into a complete new new section: it can be accessed from the menu at the upper right.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Macedonian War Machine -

I've always been interested in the Macedonian army, ever since my high school obtained copies of Peter Conolly's "The Roman Army", "The Greek Armies", and "Hannibal and the Enemies of "Rome" in the early 1980s, along with Phil Barker's "Alexander the Great's Campaigns" - just the kinds of thing to stir a budding wargamer's imagination (the one advantage of being at an all-boys school, I think, is these kinds of things can find their way into the library...).

Fast forward 30 years, and "The Macedonian War Machine" has just arrived at my door this evening, and a long time it has been in the receiving.  Not because of any delay in the dispatch from Pen & Sword Books, mind you; indeed, the book was only first published last September, and I didn't know it had been released until the end of the year.

Image from Pen & Sword
No, I've been waiting for this book for a long time because it's taken its author, David Karunanithy, 15-odd years to finally get it published, and I read a draught manuscript of it some 12 years ago! Which is actually somewhat comforting, in that it gives me hope that I may eventually bring out a book of my own, despite the ideas for it having languished for in the various computers I have gone through over the past decade...   David's already had some great contributions to make on the subject over the years, with many of them finding their way into Slingshot.

So far, I've only got through the preface, acknowledgements (and my ego is flattered by being there, I have to say), and the forward, so this is, despite the tag, hardly a book review, more of a shout-out: I know I will thoroughly enjoy the book itself. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part VIII - Conclusion

By the 9th turn, it was only 1100 in game terms, but 4 o'clock in real life, and both Aaron and Pat had to leave at 5-ish, so we determined this would be the last turn.  The Czechoslovakian traffic jam on the southern flank had still to be resolved - there was yet another motor rifle battalion waiting to come on right there, and several more tank battalions were also scheduled to arrive over the next few turns, although these were to thankfully enter now mostly vacant roads to the north.

On the opposite side of the board, the US 2/30 Infantry Battalion had now arrived to reinforce the 1st Brigade's central sector, creating what appeared to be an impenetrable mass of American might.  And while this certainly looks formidable, it has one great weakness.  This massive concentration of force created what is aptly termed a "target-rich environment".   One of the problems with MSH is that there is a great incentive to bunch your stands together (concentration of firepower) with precious little penalty - because artillery fire, like all other attacks in the game, is generally conducted on an element-to-element basis.  "Generally", however, does admit of one notable exception - multiple rocket launchers.  And the one thing a Czechoslovakian force has going for it is an abundance of multiple rocket launcher stands.  Because most of the ones in the 15th Division were very short-ranged, they had yet to play any part in the battle, since they spent most of it moving into position.  But by the 9th turn, the last had arrived, and they were now deployed just shy of the table edge, waiting for somebody to give them a target.  How many MRL stands does a Czechoslovakian Division have at its disposal?  Fourteen!  That's enough, should they all be called in at once (an impossibility to be sure) to target every single American stand in this picture in a single bound.  And while there was no way the whole lot were going to be let loose at once, it was inevitable that some were going to be called in successfully.  See that village just below the ridge with the smoke marker next to it?  Four elements, right there (3 in the village itself, plus a stand of infantry lurking in the rear outskirts) capable of calling in rockets, all with targets galore to monitor.  Sure they might need a six to succeed, but one's going to get lucky at some point...

So, as is the nature of large but unfinished games, things were looking quite interesting just at the point we had to call it a day.  At the close of the day, Aaron's Americans had earned more victory points than Pat in charge of the Czechoslovakians, essentially due to the unanswered combat losses the Americans had inflicted until then.  On the other hand, looking to the future, the Americans had little hope of securing much in the way of their positional victory conditions, while three Czechoslovakian battalions were currently crossing the river to their north with not much the Americans could do about it, (short of the rain stopping, followed by some particularly spectacular airstrikes...), so their victory point lead was about to disappear.

So, what was learned?  Personally, I was satisfied by how it went.  We didn't get through as many turns of play as I had hoped - but got through more than I had feared! Of course, a game this size really does demand more than one active player on the WarPac side, but I think we did OK in that regard, all told.  And I like the way neither player lined up against each other in the manner I had expected they would - so there was a real fog of war element there even without any hidden movement (which would be totally awesome, but... work, work, work!) or troops deployed in hidden ambush position.

One thing that did become clear to me was I really do need some sort of base labelling scheme.  While I know my troops well, and can tell them apart (assuming I don't start crossing their command arrows, that is!), that doesn't apply when somebody else is commanding them, because then I have no idea from moment to moment which stands came from where.  And the player borrowing them certainly has absolutely no idea which stand belongs to which unit!  The little white sticker dots you can see in the photos were added by Pat as play progressed because he couldn't tell the command stands from the grunts, to say nothing of one battalion from another.  Now I've been reluctant to do this, because I don't like the look.  But a more discrete colour coding system along the rear edge of the base would be unobtrusive enough, I've decided, and couldn't be seen from above or the front.  So now I just have to come up with a scheme to get all the information I want, and yet retain enough simplicity - it has to be easy enough for someone who isn't me to understand, after all!

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part VII - the main clash

Don't you suppress me! Did you see that?
The rain continued throughout turn 8.  The 15th Reconnaissance Battalion couldn't quite extricate itself quickly enough from the American left flank forces, and its morale check resulted in it fleeing for two turns toward the rear.  This left the Americans in this sector free to transfer their attention to the advancing 1/68 Motor Rifle Battalion, which quickly began wilting under the attention.  Pat needed a coordinated attack here, but the nearby 1/20 Tank Battalion was only near by - it being positioned one turn behind was looking like it might be one turn not near enough.

At this stage of the game, Pat had had very little in the way of artillery to call in, because a lot of it was still moving into position off-table, but it was gradually coming on-line.  He had left both the divisional and attached army-level anti-tank battalions, each of 4 stands of towed 100 mm guns, off-table, figuring they would be of no use on-table in a meeting engagement as they would never get into a position to fire; instead he used them as light but long-ranged divisional guns - it was accepted practice for such field guns to be used like this because although they had a light shell, they had a very high rate of fire coupled with a long range: 21 km, longer than anything else in his inventory.  And even though he needed to get lucky suppression shots to touch Aaron's entirely self-propelled artillery, he did manage to take out a stand of M110s!

A nasty ridge line brimming with steel
Aaron's albeit less numerous artillery had come into action much earlier.  Pat had succeeded in infiltrating some stands, including a recon asset, into a village near what was turning into Aaron's "main line" of defence.  This could prove to be a thorn in Aaron's side later on.  However Aaron had at least isolated them, due to a devastating artillery barrage on the following-up infantry elements that were otherwise shielded from the guns of his tanks due to the terrain angles.  Here we see the bulk of Aaron's central forces along with some nervous Czechoslovakian stands in front unwilling to expose themselves to its massed firepower...

Here's the view at the end of turn 8, taken from the northeast.  In the foreground, 1/62 MR Battalion is about to start crossing the newly laid bridge over the river, and the following-up 2/62 MR battalion has backed up behind it, waiting its turn.  The surviving stands from the 15th Reconnaissance Battalion are streaming backwards up the verdant hill to their left, while 2/20 Tank Battalion, along with two stands of MTU-55s from the Divisional bridge-laying company, from the 10th Engineering Battalion, has just made it onto the board.  In front of them 1/20 Tank Battalion is coming under fire, and 1/68 MR Battalion is taking casualties and far too many suppression hits for its liking.  In the distance to the west a powerful American force lies deployed, waiting for their opponents to advance on them.  And in the south, the board lies strangely deserted of troops from either side...

During this turn, Pat finally managed to get an order through to get one of his southerly columns off the jammed-up road net, and moving across country.  Unfortunately for him, the Americans located the 68th Motor Rifle Regimental HQ as a result of lax radio discipline in the process, and called in heavy artillery on it.  Exeunt one RHQ stand.  No more order changes for them unless they came from the DHQ itself, and Pat wasn't willing to expose himself to the same risk of destruction quite yet...

Bridged at last!
The rain continued during the 9th turn.  In the north, the unopposed river crossing was finally under way: the lead elements of the 1/62nd Motor Rifle Battalion had finally made it to the western table edge.  Some victory points in the bag at last for the Czechoslovakians; who had yet to make any serious impact on any American fighting formation in terms of casualties.  To the south of the river crossing, the American Armored Cavalry had by now inflicted enough losses amongst the Green-rated 1/68 MR Battalion that it had to take an early morale test; it failed badly and evaporated.

The accompanying 1/20 Tank Battalion was also taking heavy casualties, with its front elements largely eliminated - its bridge-laying section suddenly found itself perilously close to the action!  You can see its lead recon elements hanging on virtue of being mostly protected from the American fire by the fact they are not "real tanks" and thus not the highest target priority for the opposing M60s....

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part VI - the action intensifies

The bridge-layer moves up the column
Rain continued during throughout the 5th turn as the opposing forces continued to move onto the developing battlefield.  On the northern sector of the table, the Czechoslovakian BVP-1-equipped 1/62 Motor Rifle Battalion was somewhat surprised to find they had been able to march clear up to the river without contacting the enemy, so the vital AM-50 bridge-laying equipment that had been protected toward the rear of the column was suddenly need up front.  Yet more delays for the Czechoslovakian advance!

Mexican standoff...
Meanwhile, Aaron had made a small tactical error in his handling of the encounter between the two clashing recon battalions: he had moved an element of TOW-equipped M113s into the middle of a village.  This is a very poor place for such a vehicle to be, since you can't actually shoot our of the centre of a village: you have to move into the outskirts first.  Unfortunately, TOW-equipped vehicles can't shoot if they have moved, and there was a stand of BVPs waiting outside for him to emerge, ready to kill him as soon as he did.  Aaron's discomfiture in being trapped inside a village was compounded by the fact I had done exactly the same to him in our last game together; although that was more serious, involving bottling up a company and a half...  Rushing into a built-up area is only useful if you aren't going to actually want to shoot from it (observing is fine) - you need to actually make it to the far side for that. 

Half-way through turn 6 (0930 by the game clock), after Pat had moved, but before Aaron had, the rain stopped, giving Aaron the opportunity of bringing his air support to bear.  However, Pat succeeded in a radar-jamming EW mission, giving Aaron a dilemma.  He could send in his sole ARM-armed strike at the opposing off-table SAM battery, and attack it at a penalty (meaning he'd kill it only on a 5 or a 6), or he could wait a turn, knowing that Pat couldn't keep maintain his jamming mission, and attack at better odds (4, 5, or 6), but run the risk of the rain returning. He chose to delay.

Turn 6
Here's the view from the northwest corner of the board.  The bridge-layer accompanying 1/62 MR battalion has nearly made it through the waiting column to get into the crossing place.  Further along the river, the Czechoslovakian 15th Reconnaissance Battalion has started to take serious casualaties from 3/7 Armored Cavalry A troop as more of their stands move onto the hill between the village near the bend in the river and the approaching Czechoslovakian 1/20 Tank Battalion.  However, the main body of this battalion is as yet too far away to influence the fight - only their lead reconnaissance elements are getting close to the hill.  Coming across towards the northwest from the centre of the Czechoslovakian deployment zone is the 1/68 Motor Rifle Regiment, followed by the Divisional HQ which has just made it onto the table and is also moving in column up the centre - this was mostly a collection of EW stands (some were represented physically in this scenario) and towed AA guns.  Following up Aaron's 3/7 A Troop is B troop of the same Squadron, plus 1/30 Infantry, which is making for a ridge that another Czechoslovakian column - the 1/51 Motor Rifle Battalion - is fast approaching.  Beyond that, another Motor Rifle Battalion, 2/68, is backed-up, mostly off the table, waiting its turn to move down the road.  Pat was trying to get an order change through, and get it moving off the road, and more towards the centre of the table, but wasn't succeeding yet.

Turn 7 - the advance continues
Unfortunately for Aaron's plans, the respite from the rain was just that - a respite.  It immediately started raining again.  But it wasn't all bad.  All the mud was seriously compromising Pat's ability to manoeuvre the few combat elements he had that he could get off the roads, because his tracked BVPs were all in the north, where the enemy wasn't, while his wheeled OT-64s struggled forwards toward an increasingly dangerous looking American centre.  Here we see the lead elements of the 1/68 Motor Rifle Battalion attempting to move forward as quickly as they can to relieve pressure on the 15th Reconnaissance Battalion, and coming under long-range fire from lurking M60A1s to which they can't reply...  Not a great position to be in, especially when you are still trying to deploy from a marching column!  Pat was leaving it a little too late in dismounting his infantry here.  APCs are not tanks; they are buses and it is much better to be rid of them too early than it is to wait too long, because then they will die...

In the northern sector, the bridging section was now getting down to business.  Everything had essentially ground to a halt here while the bridging equipment was being deployed.  The lovely AM-50 model in half-deployed position is by Dragoman.  You only need the stand looking like this for a single turn - but the effect is worth it!  Of course, a single bridge across the river was hardly going to let a single battalion across in reasonable time, let alone the following regiment!  More were clearly going to be needed...

And here's the one accompanying 1/20 Tank Battalion as it moves to reinforce 1/68 Motor Rifle Battalion.  This is an armoured  MTU-55, as befits an armoured battalion; the AM-50 is mounted on just a truck.  The excavating vehicle behind is a scratch-built KN-251 (some close-up shots here); it won't see much use in a meeting engagement game like this, but on the defensive such vehicles are quite handy for digging defensive positions.  There are also some APCs here carrying engineering stands attached to this particular battalion.  The engineering aspects of the game are something that Keith McNelly's point-based scenario system entirely dispenses with: you "buy" the defences themselves rather than make them with engineering vehicles you "buy", which is an easy abstraction to make, and quickens things, but leaves an important part of "the game" unrepresented, I feel.

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part V - the battle begins

Pat and Aaron got to my place at 9 in the morning.  After running through the scenario rules with them, they plotted their orders on their maps; together this took up the next hour - Aaron had actually formulated a plan the night before, only to discover in the morning that he hadn't noticed the page detailing the objectives and victory points associated with them, and thus proceeded to rewrite his entire attack plan!  Of course Pat had a much bigger job here, with so many more units.  So turn one (0630 game time) started at 10 o'clock in real time.

Turn 1: the scene is set
To the left you can see how the finished battlefield looked.  I had run out of time the previous night making up woods - there are rather few of them on the board, and those that are there aren't finished yet.  C'est la vie.  The river wasn't also finished properly - the water surface needs smoothing out, painting properly (so the centre is darker than the edges), and then needs to be given a more glossy varnish.  Still, I can't say I'm unhappy with the overall result.  Of course, with so much time invested in making the stuff, I have a vested interested in saying so!  But Pat said he'd have been perfectly happy being just a photographer all day, looking at the spectacle of the thing, so that was nice to hear.

The scenario rules called for a rain check (6 to turn on rain, 6 to turn off rain) not every turn, but every moving phase, so twice a turn in other words.  A single phase's rain would turn freshly ploughed fields (the darkest brown ones) into mud after a single player's movement; it would take three phases' worth of rain to turn all the other ploughed fields (light shades of brown) into mud.  Rain would also stop all aviation, of course; this being 1979, all-weather aircraft are a thing of the future.

Pat's available air assets were some ragtag fixed-wing stuff (the Czechoslovakians were still flying some MiG-15s at this date!), plus a single flight of helicopters: a stand of Mi-4 Hound Bs armed with light rockets, so fine against infantry, but no good against armour, paired with a stand of Hind-Ds - the Czechoslovakian military had only just procured their first MSH stand's worth of Hinds by this time.  All in all, more of a nuisance than a threat.  So overall, Aaron's air assets were the more formidable, despite not including any helicopters at all.

Turn 2 - like 18th century naval lines
As it turned out, rain started falling on the very first check, so the freshly ploughed fields had turned to mud before the end of the first turn.  This was going to complicate Pat's tactics more than Aaron's.  Except for a few jeeps, the American force was entirely tracked, and while mud would slow them down, it wouldn't halt them completely.  In contrast, half of the Czechoslovakian force was wheeled, and thus fast on firm ground, but they couldn't handle the mud at all.  Initially, however, this wasn't much of a concern - there weren't so many freshly ploughed fields around, after all, and at the start of the second turn it stopped raining, anyway, alleviating the worry.  With the rain ceasing planes were potentially soon available... but the advanced recon forces had yet to spot each other, as their paths had unknowingly turned somewhat parallel to each other, just out of spotting distance, or were screened by low rises and hedges.

Turn 3 - enemy? What enemy!
The weather held out during the third turn, but since the recce forces still hadn't spotted each other, the pilots were still on the ground.  At least some combat formation troops were now making their way onto the field.  You can see the first battalions of both OT-64 equipped motor rifle regiments snaking the way along the roads; 1/68 to the fore, 1/51 further away.  And it is possible - but only just - to see a stand from the regimental recon company of the 62nd Motor Rifle Regiment about to enter a village on the far board, presaging the arrival of 1/62 battalion next turn (the other two stands are already in the village).

Crap!  It's them!
Now on the fourth turn, things got more interesting.   The recon forces finally found each other.  It's something of a crap shoot in my experience when this happens - somebody has the initiative, somebody doesn't.  Somebody has the wrong kind of element out in front for what the other guys has, somebody doesn't.  In this case, first blood went to the Czechoslovakian 15th, as their lead element sported a 73 mm main armament, while that of the 3/7th had a 12.7 mm HMG...   But that wasn't the interesting thing.  The rain kicked in again, so no one was going to be bringing any aircraft to help in this particular portion of the fight.  More amusingly, two of Pat's OT-64 stands from 1/51 Battalion where half-way across a not-so recently ploughed field, and before they made it to the other side, it had turned to mud, and they were bogged!  Just what I had hoped might happen when I made the weather rules up, but I never expected it to actually happen.  Ah, umpires, they're evil, I tell you :-)  So Pat was left with a choice: abandon the APCs and slog forward on foot (it was a complete company that was bogged, so that was a viable choice), or wait for the battalion's ARV section to reach them and tow them out.  He chose the latter, as it wasn't far away, but he probably would have saved time overall by just marching forward on foot.

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part IV - The Czechoslovakians

The Czechoslovakian force under Pat was large, but not the best quality.  It consisted of the entire 15th Motor Rifle Division, plus a tank regiment, the 14th, diverted from the 4th Tank Division, assuming it could make it to the battlefield on time, that is.  These were second-echelon forces, so some of the men would have been newly conscripted, meaning one of the regiments, the 68th Motor Rifle, counted as Green in MSH terms, rather than Regular.

Potentially, Pat had a whopping 17 manoeuvre elements at his disposal - 5 regiments each of 3 battalions (the tank battalion in each Rifle Regiment having been broken down into companies and attached to support the infantry battalions), the divisional reconnaissance battalion, plus the Divisional HQ and attached assets itself.  Of course getting these onto the table was going to prove a problem.  Pat was a newcomer to Spearhead, so didn't quite appreciate what a traffic jam he would get into if he stuck mostly to the roads...

Here's Pat's plan; black text again represents additional turns of delay beyond the scheduled arrival times.  He, like Aaron, completely ignored the corner closest to his opponent, so they both surprised me somewhat here (the two "missing" corners represented dense forests, which nobody had time to traipse through, and so could be omitted completely from board...).  This meant that he too essentially approached his opposite number head-on; although he didn't know that when he formulated his plans; he only suspected it.  In fact he assumed some Americans would start much further into the centre of the board than was actually the case.

You can see that too many units are trying to use the same roads - although the different colours here indicate units coming on at 2 turn(ish) intervals, the typical unit in road formation actually took 3 turns to get on the board due to it size, leading to traffic jams; and the southernmost road in particular was being used by two separate marching groups, leading to massive delays.  Also note how 1/68 Motor Rifle Battalion is also crossing the path of 1/20 Tank Battalion - and when they met one or the other - or both - had to give way...  Don't do this at home, kids!

Incidentally, we played this game at what I consider "normal" scale: 1" on the table-top representing 100 meters.  So the board was nearly 10 km across, and 7 deep - the right sort of size for a weak Division to contest in earnest when on the attack.  I made up a bunch of scenario rules for handling off-table artillery distances rather than use the too simplistic standard rules - most of Pat's artillery was short-ranged, and had to deploy quite close to the battlefield to shoot across it...

Like Aaron, Pat started with one unit already on the table: the 15th Reconnaissance Battalion.  Here you can see it in the early morning light, just starting to leave the road net and heading across country.  Awesome farm shed by Leven Miniatures, by the way, highly recommended: detailed and cheap!  Pat's major objectives were to break American units, and also exit units from as many different exits as possible along the south and west board edges.  Securely bridging the river was also a minor objective.  Unfortunately, Pat's reconnaissance unit didn't include a bridgelayer (the unit can swim most rivers it meets), so he would have to wait for one to be brought up if wanted to cross the river to the northwest - you can see a pattern forming here! 

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part III - the Americans

M60A2s in Germany.  Photo from Point Alpha
The American force under Aaron was compact, but powerful.  It potentially consisted of the entire 3ID 1st Brigade, plus certain Divisional assets: some heavy artillery batteries, some AA sections, two armored cavalry troops from the 7th Armored Cavalry Regiment's 3rd Squadron, two combat engineering from the 10th Engineering battalion.  In 1979, the 1st Brigade had four fighting battalions rather than the usual three, as it had two armored battalions, one of which was equipped with M60A2s instead of the usual M60A1.

US DoD photo of an M60A1 in Germany.

One of the ACAV Troops, A Troop, was organized as a small MSH battalion, as it was to be already deployed on the table at the start of the game.  The other Troop, B Troop, was attached to one of the infantry battalions, 1/30, counting as a (rather large) MSH divisional recon company, and thus keeping track of its morale separately from its host battalion.  This would be the next American formation to arrive at the battlefield.  The 1/30 infantry battalion had cross-attached a company with the 3/64 armored battalion (M60A1s); likewise 2/30 had cross-attached a company with 2/64 Armor (M60A2s). 

The Brigade had a battalion of M109s (1/10 Field Artillery, M109A2s, perhaps) in Brigade-level support; the observer stand for this was attached to (if I remember correctly) to 3/7 A Troop; a combat engineer company.  A battalion of short-barreled M110s (3/76 Heavy Artillery), was available at the Divisional-support level, and their observer stand was with 3/64 Armor, as was a section of AA troops (1 M48 Chapparal and 1 M163 Vulcan stand) from 3/67 Air Defense Battalion, and the Brigade HQ.  This would be the third manoeuvre element to arrive.

Next on the board would be 2/30 Infantry, and bringing up the rear would be 2/64 Armor, with another AA section and combat engineering company attached.  Depending on the weather, up to four flights (single MSH stands) of air support were available in the form of F-4 Phantoms, the first of which was equipped with anti-radiation missiles.  Noticeably absent was the provision of any supporting helicopters, which were presumably busy supporting the Division's other Brigades.  The force was also given access to a Corps-level unit of 175 mm guns: 1/75 Heavy Artillery, but only from the 8th turn, and only two turns' worth of firing, and that for counterbattery purposes only, as this unit was needed elsewhere as well.

The major US objectives were to exit their Cavalry Troops off the northern edge of the map, and, of course, to break as many opposing battalions as possible.  Minor objectives involved successfully keeping the river from being bridged by the enemy, or better still, bridging it yourself, and also not expending all the artillery ammunition.  The river was small, but ravined, meaning it couldn't be forded; it had to be bridged (both of the road bridges had been blown during previous actions) .

Aaron was given four possible entry points for his four battalions that started off-table: you can see his deployment options and orders to above right.  The black numbers represent how many turns delay entering from that particular spot would entail in addition to the scheduled arrival times (which were from the 2nd to the 9th turns, depending on the battalion). As you can see, Aaron chose to meet the enemy mostly head on, although aiming northwards to some extent; being an American order changes shouldn't come too hard, and he should hopefully be able to avoid enemy radio-interception efforts. 

His 3/7 A Troop started a foot or so into the table and was tasked with driving straight off the northern table edge - Aaron underestimated how fast the lead elements of the Czechoslovakian force would come across the table at him...  

Here you can see them as they were deployed in column of march on the table; light down low as befits the early hours (this photo was actually taken at 10 am, but in mid-winter, so the light angle wasn't too far off...)

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part II - player briefings

0630, 17 October 1979

Briefing note to the commander of the 15th Motor Rifle Division, Czechoslovakian 4th Army, near Iphofen.

Colonel: the Soviet 8th Guards Army has now advanced deep into West Germany, forcing the American 3rd Infantry Division back from its assigned positions, and toward the south, to the hills beyond Creglingen.  The 4th Army has been tasked with protecting the southern flank of the 8th Army, but NATO airstrikes on our supply lines have hampered our efforts to maintain a continuous front, and have also slowed down the delivery of supplies to the 8th, whose advance has now stalled.  We cannot surrender the initiative we have built up over the last 36 hours, and are now advancing toward the Ochsenfurt-Creglingen line south of the river Main looping around Würzburg.  Your lead elements are currently in the vicinity of Oberickelsheim, having moved during the small hours of the night through the hills between Schlüsselfeld and Iphofen.  

However, intel reports that elements of the American 3rd Infantry Division are now moving back north in an effort to oppose you.  You must stop them from breaking through your line of advance; and if possible, you are to continue your own advance west.  We need the area clear of enemy forces if we are to use the airbases we have just captured at Kitzingen.  The area around Oberickelsheim is relatively open, and not the best terrain for our infantry to fight in.  We are diverting elements of the 4th Tank Division to assist you in your efforts, although they will take time to arrive in your area.  How long will very much depend on the weather and how it impacts air operations.  Meteorology says rain is possible during the day - but not certain.

Good luck.   4th Army HQ

0630, October 17, 1979

Briefing note to the commander of 1 Brigade, 3 Infantry Division, at Simmershofen.

Colonel: the Soviet 8th Guards Army and its supporting assets have now advanced deep into West Germany, forcing the 3rd Infantry Division back from its assigned positions. However, although the withdrawal of the 3rd to the south was not in the direction we had planned, it has nonetheless been accomplished without a notable loss of cohesion, whereas the 8th Guards Army has taken quite a pounding in its advance, and its supply lines must be suffering greatly under our continued air interdiction efforts.

Of the 3rd Division's four combat brigades, yours is not only in relatively good shape, but is also best positioned to execute a possible stalling attack on the flank of the 8th Guards Army.  The Czechoslovakian 4th Army appears to be tasked with guarding the southern flank of the 8th Guards Army, but it does not seem to have kept up with the rapid advance of the 8th.  Intel received 3 hours ago (0315) suggests its lead elements were at that time only just starting to leave Schlüsselfeld, 40 km ENE of your current position, heading east.

It would appear that all that currently lies between you and the river Main looping around Würzburg to your north is whatever units the 4th Army may have moved into the area over the last 3 hours.  If you can push through the region of Oberickelsheim to re-establish contact with the river, and prevent any further easterly advance by opposing forces, we will not only be in a position to use the river loop to secure our right flank for future operations, but the division's artillery should be able to move into a position to keep the Soviets from using our own captured airbases near Kitzingen.  You know the area well.  It's the most open country in the region, and one of the few places we could easily mount an operation like this.  You must seize the opportunity presented us!  But keep your force intact.  Reaching the river will avail us nothing if you do not have the forces in hand to exploit the position.  Hopefully the weather will hold so air force assets can assist you in your efforts.  But don't rely on it - meteorology predicts intermittent rain is a real possibility.

Good luck.   7 Corps HQ


Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Action at Oberickelsheim - Part I - Preview -

I was going to paint up some Seleucid 15mm catafracts over the New Year break, but instead I've been creating a Modern Spearhead scenario.  I think that's two years those damn catafracts have been sitting on my desk now, all undercoated with nowhere to go...

Now the reason I'm doing a full-blown scenario is because I'll be hosting not one but two gaming buddies come this Saturday, so I want to take advantage of some of the extra possibilities available when you have an umpire.  Ancients battles are pretty-well much stand-up affairs, so an umpire isn't necessary, but modern warfare gaming is something that can benefit a lot from the players having incomplete information.

I've been beavering away on my terrain boards, and now have ten of them, so that's 40 square feet of table top.  I struggle to fit just 6 in my "games" room, so putting 10 of them together requires me to take over our apartment's living room.  "Coincidentally" the wife and kids are away at the in-laws until Monday...  Here we see them put together, and with all the villages in place, but without any woods positioned yet (I have to make those up this evening; there may be a few more touches added to some boards, for example, along the stream banks).  The complete Czechoslovakian 15th Motor Rifle Division will be commanded by Pat who'll be coming over from Kobe (I'll be assisting move the hordes...), and Aaron will be bringing up his American 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division from Iwade in Wakayama (Pat and I were both at Aaron's house last week playing Machiavelli). 

Here's a reverse angle shot, showing the initial lines of advance for each force; white for the Americans, moving north; orange for the Czechoslovakians. moving west, so they are going to meet more or less at an angle rather than head-to-head.  Each force will start with a single reconnaissance unit on table, and other units will be gradually fed into the conflict.  Neither side knows the exact victory conditions of the other, although they should be able to extract some hints from their initial briefing information.  Which I can't post here yet, lest my players read them, so you'll just have to remain in the dark about the background for the moment!  The date is 17 October 1979, so it's M60s and M113s for the Americans, while the Czechoslovakians are stuck with towed AA guns on-table instead of missiles.  But at least they now have some BVPs; the division having just ditched its OT-62s the previous year.