Thursday, December 31, 2009

Heh. I'm a loser

Finished off the year with a quick 2-player game of Small World against the Young General -- and he schooled the Old Warrior. He played a very aggressive pick-on-dad's-guys game for the most part -- and it didn't hurt that he got them Ghouls, too.

Final score: Young general 66 -- Old Warrior 53.

Yeah, I'm al oser. But I'm also a Red Sox fan, if there's anything a Red Sox fan knows, it's that "there's always next year!"

Pawndering 2009

The general feeling seems to be "good riddance to 2009."

It was a difficult year for most people and the society at large, between the economy, war, terror and political bickering. I have to say that I'm looking forward to 2009 entering the archives.

Even in my game world it was a year of disappointment.

The biggest and saddest event was the sudden and shocking passing of my friend Mark Perry at age 50. Mark was a good buddy, an excellent gamer and a really fine fellow and he will be missed. The year had started out with the passing of another dear friend of mine, Patricia Paul, also at age 50, after a long illness. Trish wasn't an avid gamer, although she enjoyed a game of Lost Cities every now and then. But she, too, was a great friend and a fine person. These passings are enough to make 2009 a sad year to remember.

Although not comparing to the above, I have to say that my World Boardgames Championships trip was a big disappointment as well. I had been looking forward to it for months and yet, just as I headed down there I came down with a truly awful sinus infection. It was so debilitating that I had to cut the trip short and return home.

It wasn't all bad, of course. I was able to make some new gaming connections at the Central Connecticut Wargamers, the Connecticut Game Club and several Meetup groups. I'm hoping to expand on these contacts this coming year and get in some more games. I also enjoyed the singular honor of being named Geek of the Week on Boardgame Geek, which seemed to pelase my fellow wargamers considerably.

There were a number of great games that came out this year as well. Among the ones I was happy to get were Martin Wallace's Waterloo, the Deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle and the block games Caesar's Gallic War, 1805 and Asia Engulfed. Perhaps the one I had the most fun with was Small World.

It was a good year for expansions and additions to existing lines. I added to my collections of Axis & Allies Miniatures, War at Sea, Munchkin, Memoir '44, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Fluxx and Lost Worlds. Especially notable was the long-awaited GD'42 with the 4th edition of the TCS rules.

The coming year promises more good gaming stuff. There are a number of products on the horizon. The long-dormant Great Campaigns of the ACW seems like it will finally get an addition, The Dungeons & Dragons themed master set for Heroscape looks promising, as does the eagerly anticipated Commands & Colors: Napoleonics.

Bring it on, 2010.

Happy New Year.
The coming year promises some more

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Planning another Game Day -- Heroscape this time

Pawnderings will be sponsoring another game day on Saturday, Jan. 9th at The Arkham Asylum comic and game store at 276 West Main St. in Norwich, CT. Set up will begin at 11 a.m.

We'll be playing Heroscape, the Clashing Fronts scenario from the first Master Set. Players can bring their own 300-point or 500-point armies or draft from my collection.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quick and Dirty Check Your 6 using A and A Miniatures and some D6

P-40 in a scoring position on a Zero

I've been wanting to try out Check Your 6 for months but other things kept getting in the way, but I finally had a chance to try out the rules in a solo session this evening. This not only allowed me to try out the Check Your 6! rules but also the Hotz Mat I purchased specifically for use with the game.

Disclaimer: I received my copy of Check Your 6 from my friend Mark Fastoso, who designed the Flying Tigers mini-campaign contained in the base game rule book.

I had long wanted to have some tactical aerial warfare rules I could use with my Axis & Allies Miniatures aircraft while still keeping the aircraft available for use with A&A minis. This required a rules set that did not require modifications to the aircraft, special stands and a big investment in extra materials. Check Your 6! fits the bill perfectly.

Now one only has to look at the BoardGame Geek listing or the publisher's Website to know there's lots of ways to enhance the game and add a lot of bling and that's great. But you actually don't need it. A photocopied Move Chart, an A&A miniatures plane model and a couple of D6 and other dice and you're in business.

For instructional purposes I tried a duel between a pair of P-40Bs and a couple of Zero. I decided to mix up the pilot quality a bit in order to explore that important part oft he rules, so I made one P-40 pilot a Veteran and the wingman a Green pilot. Both Zero pilots were Skilled.

I arranged a simple head-on encounter between elements at the same Tactical Altitude Level (4) assumed to be in the Medium Combat Altitude Band. The Hotz map has 2-inch hexes, so it's a little smaller than the standard assumed by the rules (27 hexes across instead of 30). I bought a 2-inch size because I wanted to be able to use the Hotz map with other games that use 2-inch hexes such as Heroscape, Tide of Iron and Lord of the Rings: Tradeable Miniatures Game.

Both sides climbed at first and were at TAL 6 when they pulled into range for a head-on pass. At the last minute the Veteran US pilot took advantage of his edge in skill to sideslip out of the line of fire of the lead Zero. Unfortunately his Green wingman has to follow to maintain formation and ended up in front of the lead Zero at a 2-hex (Close) range. Both planes blasted away and both got hits. The Green pilot managed an airframe hit on the Zero, which would have significance later, but the Zero was able to shoot down the P-40 due to the hitting power of its cannon.

This left the Veteran facing two enemy planes, although the damaged Zero was somewhat constrained in its maneuvers.

The next several turns were spent with wild maneuvering where the superior quality of the P-40 pilot made a big difference. He wasn't able to prevent the Zeros from getting shots, but he was able to prevent them from getting good shots, and eventually the P-40 was able to use a series of Special Maneuvers to get behind the undamaged Zero for a moment. A quick shot that wasn't all that solid still managed to bring down the Zero due to it's poor Robustness.

Faced with an undamaged Veteran P-40 the surviving Skilled but damaged Zero exited the map with a quick dive. Because the P-40 had a dive advantage this counted as exiting off an "Unfriendly" edge and the plane failed the subsequent aircrew check and was considered destroyed after all.

I'm looking forward to trying this with some live opponents. It's detailed enough that I think it's most likely to interest experienced wargamers, although other gamers might like it in a group setting. I think it will work a little better with slightly bigger dogfights. I notice that most of the provided scenarios involves 4-12 aircraft per side.

The Hotz Mat worked fine. laying flat and not being difficult to move the plane models on despite the cloth surface.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Another look at Trenton, this time using Rebels & Redcoats

The Trenton Battlefield

After my session of Hold the Line I became curious how authentic a more traditional hex-and-counter wargame like Rebels & Redcoats might be dealing with this unusual battle, so I played a solitaire session of the game.

Of course, unlike the abstract unit treatment of Hold the Line, Rebels & Redcoats is very specific about the exact units involved and the telecsope is bumped up in magnification enough to capture even very small units. For example, the 20 dismounted dragoons of the 16th Lt. Dragoons rates a 1-factor counter in R&R.

The game begins with a fixed setup for the Hessians/British. Basically the Rall Regiment and half the Lossberg Regt. hold the north end of Trenton, the Knyphausen Regiment in deployed by the orchard on the southeast side of town and the Jagers cover the west side. Rall, himself, the dragoon detachment and the rest of the Lossberg regiment in the center. To represent surprise all the Hessian guns start the game disrupted. Each Hessian regiment has a gun section.

The battle opened with Greene leading the Philadelphia Dragoons, the Pennsylvania Rifles, the 1st and 3rd Virginia and Bauman's artillery down Pennington Road and around the northeast side of trenton as part of an effort to start cutting off the Hessian force. Washington led German's regiment, the Delaware company and the 1st Continental with Forrest's 2-section battery and Hamilton's artillery against the Rall element at the north end of town. Washington was bale to drive the Hessians back with an assault.

Meanwhile, from the West side of town came Gen. Sullivan with the balance of the Continental army. Most of the force maneuvered through the woods to set up a wide front attack, but a four-regiment task force drove back the Jaeger pickets at the bridge.

The Hessians used their half of the 0730 turn to consolidate their regiments roughly along Fourth Street. The Jaegers failed in their disengagement attempt and dispersed. The Rall Regiment was able to successfully retreat into a reserve position near the orchard on Second Street. At the end of the turn the disintegration levels were American 0, Hessian 4.

The 0800 turn saw Sullivan's wing push into Trenton on a wide front, successfully driving the Hessians back from King Street and along First Street to cut off the bridge. During the historical battle the Americans were able to set up their guns to sweep the streets, but the R&R rules don't allow that to happen because the town hexes block the line of sight, so this is a case where the more abstract game (Hold the Line) is actually more realistic on a detail than the hex-and-counter game. Instead Washington led the artillery with him to join Bauman's guns to the northeast of the town in hopes of getting a clear shot. Greene led his light troops, dragoons and one regiment to chase the British Dragoons out of the isolated house east of Trenton.

The Hessians spent their half of 0800 slowly falling back along Queen Street. At the end of the turn the disintegration score was American 2.5, Hessian 6.

The Americans were getting concerned at 0830 about the lack of progress and tried some bombardments, which had no effect because of town hexes and bad rolls. Greene continued to lead his lights and dragoons to the South of the town, completing the encirclement. meanwhile Washington created a grand battery in the northeast able to fire on the main Hessian position between Fourth and Third streets. Sullivan marshaled his forces in preparation for a massive push on the 0900 turn. One brigade's worth of Sullivan's troops launched an assault to secure the intersection of Queen and Third streets but was repulsed with some disruptions.

The Hessians, for their part of the turn concentrated their forces at the two ends of their line, leaving just half of the Lossberg Regiment to hold the open field in the center.

At the end of the turn the disintegration levels were American 4.5, Hessian still just 6.

The final turn, 0900 began with intense bombardment of the Lossberg field from both sides. Uncoordinated fire by four gun sections at the intersection of King and Second streets only netted one morale check, which Lossberg passed. A coordinated blast from Washington's grand battery on Fourth Street also only achieved a morale check -- which Lossberg again passed!

So now it was time for a massive, coordinated American assault across the length of Queen Street from hex 1705 to 1608 -- four hexes worth. A couple of regiments also launched a diversionary attack on the Rall Regiment, mostly to exert a zone of control.

General Greene's attack on the field portion of Lossberg was a 2-1 with a +2 for Greene, but the die roll was a measley 3, adjusted to a 5 for a NED0 (No Effect on attacker, Defender morale check) which Lossberg, naturally, passed!

The diversionary attack by the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle and Ward's regiment against Rall and the rest of Lossberg went very badly -- Attacker Eliminated.

The next attack was three stacks of Americans with no leader against Rall and his stack in 1706. This 3-1 attack was shifted to the left by two for the town, but brought back right by one for the American light infantry to a 2-1. Rall subtracted 1 from the die roll, but Washington added 2, for a total +1. The die roll of 6 became a 7 for a DR2. The Knyphausen Regiment lost half its strength in the retreat through zones of control, but most of Rall's force survived. Sullivan took the hex.

The Hessian retreat created an opportunity for the 1st and 3rd Virginia to attack Rall's force but this attack failed, and the two American units retreated, one disrupted. Several American units failed their rally rolls and left the field.

In the Hessian half of the turn Rall launched an assault on the Philadelphia Dragoons to open up an escape route. This attack succeeded in eliminating the horse unit. The other half of the Lossberg regiment joined its portion in the fields to launch an attack on Greene's force at 1-1 which ended up being repulsed with an AR2, although true to form the Lossberg Regiment only took one disruption form the multiple morale checks caused by retreating in a zone of control.

The 16th Dragoons sacrificed themselves making a diversionary attack against several stacks of American units to cover the withdrawal of Knyphausen and the guns.

So the game ended without the Hessian being driven to their disintegration level and even having a clear escape route along Second Street. The final disintegration score was American 15.5 and Hessian 19.

Although considerably more detailed, I can't say I was left feeling like Rebels & Redcoats did a better job of reflecting the actual battle than Hold the Line did.

Trenton, Dec. 26 session of Hold the Line

The Day after Christmas provided an opportunity to play an anniversary game commemorating 233 years since Washington led his bedraggled army across the Delaware in a bold bid to salvage something from his disastrous 1776 campaign.

The Young General decided he wanted the British (in this case Hessian) force, despite the historical outcome. He was impressed with the strong contingent of Elite infantry. And indeed, the Hessian force was remarkably strong, considering the historical record, with three elite Infantry units (marked 4E on the map) and five regular infantry. Rounding out the force was an artillery unit and one 2/1 General (Representing Rall -- spelled Rahl in the game notes). The effects of surprise are shown by giving the Hessians a Command Level of just 1 for the first five turns, rising to 2 after that.

The Americans did not have a huge advantage in numbers, just 9 regular infantry and three artillery units. The biggest American edge was in leadership, with Washington (2/2) and "Greene" (1/2), although by the setup Greene really should be Sullivan. The Americans have a Command Level of 3. The Americans also have a positional advantage, as can be seen from the map, with all their troops in two consolidated forces while the Hessians are spread out. The Hessians do have four hexes of town to bolster their defenses, though.

The victory conditions are interesting, with both players having a goal of 6 VPs. The Americans can get one Victory Point by taking the indicated town hex, while the Hessians can earn 2 victory points for every three units that escape across the bridge. The burden of attack is on the Americans, if the game ends without either side getting to 6, then the British win. The scenario instructions don't indicate a game length, so we assumed it was 30.

The initial turns really went well for the Americans, with multiple Action Die roll s of 3 giving the American 6 action points to work with. Hessian luck wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either, so the first five turns they had 2 or 3 action points per turn available. The Americans advanced on the bridge and generally closed along the whole line. The Hessian unit nearest the bridge was able to escape over it, and the two elite units on the Hessian left pulled back a bit in preparation for their own run for the bridge. The Americans jumped out to a 3-0 lead by eliminating the Hessian guns, the forward elite unit and the regular unit between them. So far the Hessians had inflicted just one hit on the Americans.

The next few turns saw the Americans try to push their advantage with a general advance across the front. Rall was threatened with encirclement as Washington led a regular unit to capture the victory point hex and other American units closed in. Another Hessian regular fell, at the cost of one American unit, so the score was 5-1.

The Hessians then rallied, as the Elites counterattacked the Victory Point hex and recaptured it, while Rall fought his way to them. The Americans lost the victory hex and two infantry units. This closed the gap to 4-3

Still, the press of numbers began to tell. The Americans could afford to pull badly damaged units out of the line and had enough command to rally others. The guns had been brought forward into range and Washington and "Greene" led fresh troops to the front. Both of the remaining Hessian regular units were eventually ground down and eliminated by Turn 16, making the final score 6-3. Presumably Rall and the two elite units would have surrendered at this point. Illustrating how tough the fighting was, only one of the surviving six American infantry units was still at full strength.

It was an interesting fight, although probably not a particularly authentic rendering of the battle, even by Hold the Line standards. Winning the battle with such losses would definitely have taken a bit of the shine off the trophy compared to the actual event, where no American troops died in the fighting (although some did die from the weather).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!!

U.S. Army troops celebrate Christmas in 1943 in the South Pacific.

Santa placed a copy of the new Axis & Allies: Pacific 1940 under the tree, and Young General gave the Old Warrior a copy of Scrabble Slam!, I'll say more about both in coming days. The holiday was a good one, full of food, fun and family.

But I wanted to say a small prayer of thanks and remembrance for the soldiers serving far from home this holiday. Especially for American and Coalition troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not just them. Over the entire world there are sailors on watch, soldiers on guard duty and airmen dutifully monitoring radar screens today. So it is, has been and always will be.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hopes dashed at Boulder Dash -- An Axis & Allies minis session

I've been wanting to get to this little scrap since last weekend, which would have been the 70th anniversary of the battle, but holiday tasks took priority and it was only on Christmas Eve that the Young General and the Old Warrior were able to sneak in a game of Axis & Allies Miniatures, Scenario WW-1, "Bolder Dash."

This firefight, from the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, depicts an action fought on Dec. 19, 1939 at Summa, Finland.

The Soviet order of battle is very straightforward, with three commissars leading 11 squads of Soviet Moison-Nagant riflemen from the 138th Rifle Division against a fortified Finnish line. Helping the troops out is a KV-1 heavy tank that arrives on the second turn. By 1939 standards the KV-1 is a monster of a tank, with a defense factor of 6 all around and the Heavy Armor special ability, which allows it to ignore the first Damage result. About the only drawback to the tank is its relatively low speed of 3, which is further reduced to a 2 by scenario special rule to account for the deep snow. On the other hand, it's a small battlefield, so even that speed is sufficient.

The defending Finns at the start are comprised of troops from the 6th Division represented by German pieces for the most part: Two MG-42 machine gun teams, one PAK 38 37mm Anti-tank gun and one light mortar. There are also three infantry units, but I replaced the German Mausers shown on the scenario sheet with three Finnish Infantry that were not available when the scenario was originally published. They have identical stats so there's no game effect from the substitution. The final element of the Finnish force are two tank hunter teams represented by German Panzerfaust pieces, although there were, of course, no Panzerfausts in 1939. "They represent the bold troops who tackled tanks with satchel charges, Molotov cocktails, and by opening hatches and tossing in grenades."

The battlefield was mostly flat, with some trees and a small knoll on the Soviet side of the map, and two larger hills on the Finnish side. The dominant terrain features were a pair of parallel lines of antitank boulders that stretched across the whole field from north to south, separated by two hexes of open ground. The Soviet objective was to capture and hold at least three hexes of the antitank boulders closest to the Finns. The boulders had no effect on troops, but the KV-1 would have to stop upon reaching one and needed to roll a 1-4 to leave a boulder hex.

Young General decided he wanted the force with the tank.

So the Old Warrior proceeded to set up, placing one machine gun team, the mortar and two infantry on the small hill on the right (South) flank, with the aim of deterring a Soviet advance on that side and having the ability to lay grazing fire down the antitank boulder line. The other machine gun, the ATG and the remaining infantry unit set up on the larger hill. By scenario special rule Finnish units that did not move received automatic "cover" against enemy fire, which basically meant they could not be killed, only disrupted. This was a powerful deterrent to Finnish movement.

As expected, Young General set up mostly on the North side of the battlefield, in front of and beside the forest.

Here is the set up:

The yellow disruption markers mark the boulder lines. The Soviet Objective Marker (from the Gale Force 9 set) shows which line is their victory condition.

And in true Soviet fashion, he made a human wave rush for the boulder line, barely stopping to pop off a shot. The Finns redeployed their riflemen behind the big hill, to form a reserve for the final turns of fighting, while the machine guns blasted away. Unfortunately the marksmanship of the machine gun teams was nothing special, even when the right flank team was able to conduct several turns of grazing fire on the Russian troops huddled among the boulders. The short range of the light mortar forced it to relocate and it ended up getting disrupted a few times, but even so its fire even eliminated a Russian rifle squad. Attempts to slow down the Russian advance by picking off commissars failed as they seemed too good at ducking and generally ended up being disrupted, when they weren't missed entirely.

The 37 mm ATG wasn't able to hurt the infantry, but the KV-1 showed up soon enough and went straight up the middle. The ATG crew must have eaten their Wheaties that morning because on two consecutive turns they managed to roll 6 hits and disrupt the KV-1! Eventually they missed, however, because covering rifle fire from the boulder line disrupted them (and the nearby machine gun team) and the KV-1 lurched forward, unslowed by the first boulder line, and joined the infantry and commissars at the boulder line.

Meanwhile the tank hunter teams had appeared, one on each flank near the first boulder line. The South team had a short career, being gunned down by the KV-1 on Turn 4, but the North team led a charmed life, passing through rifle and pistol fire unscathed to chase the KV-1.

The final act was dramatic, as the Finnish infantry counterattacked to try to drive the Russians out of two of the four boulder line hexes they occupied, with supporting fire from the machine guns and mortar. Meanwhile the ATG popped away as the tank hunter team attempted to close in on the KV-1. Both sides took very heavy losses at the end, with the Soviets cleared from one hex and the KV-1 left holding the key third hex alone. The ATG rolled 7 successes on the KV-1, but its Heavy Armor special ability kicked in, reducing the Damage result to a Disruption. Then the tank hunters attacked on the very last roll, getting just enough successes to get one hit on the KV-1, making it end the game Damaged! The Soviets ended the game holding three hexes and came away with a victory, despite their heavy losses.

The Soviets ended the game with four rifle squads and a damaged heavy tank. All three commissars and 8 squads were lost. The Finns also suffered heavily, losing all three infantry squads and both tank hunter teams.

This is the situation at the end of the game:

The markers are from the Gale Force 9 Axis & Allies marker set.

Boardgame News post that quotes Pawnderings

A link

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Natanz strike a scenario in latest Naval Sitrep

A Satellite view of the Natanz facility

There's a lot of media speculation about a potential Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz, but very little hard data-based analysis is available from open sources. (We can only hope that our Intel community has done that sort of analysis already.

The latest issue of the Naval Sitrep, No. 37 (Oct. 2009), has a very extensive scenario for the Harpoon4 system and analysis of a potential Israeli strike on the Natanz nuclear site that looks extremely interesting.

The Natanz site is famous as the place where Iran has installed thousands of centrifuges to process uranium. It's an attractive target for the Israelis because it's a fairly vulnerable part of the Iranian nuclear program.

I'm going to look it over in more detail over the next few weeks, but at first glance the strike looks surprisingly doable from an operational standpoint. Its wisdom from a strategic point of view is outside the scope of the scenario, although it's the biggest question of all.

Still, it's interesting that the only deep analysis of the issue I have seen anywhere is in a wargame-related publication.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Blast from the past -- Bounty Hunter

Picked up a copy of Bounty Hunter: Shootout at the Saloon today for $5.

This is another in the series of groundbreaking picture combat books designed by Alfred Leonardi in the 1980s. Other examples include the Ace of Aces series and Lost Worlds series. These were "first person shooters" long before the video game era.

I used to have a copy of Bounty Hunter, but lost it somewhere along the line. While I liked the game, I wasn't such a big fan that I wanted to spend a lot of time tracking down a replacement copy -- but when a copy in excellent condition showed up at a local store for just $5 I went ahead and grabbed it.

The game is probably the most elaborate of the picture books, with a very detailed shot location procedure, but is also perhaps one of the more limited ones. Unlike Lost Worlds and Ace of Aces, where the players are only concerned with their relative positions, in Bounty Hunter the characters move around in the context of a fixed battlefield (the Saloon) and there are necessarily a limited number of locations in play (fifteen). Also unlike Lost Worlds with its dozens of character books and Ace of Aces with dozens of different aircraft in four different World War I book sets, Bounty Hunter has just the two characters. Apparently a second set was designed (there are references in the first set to possible expansions) but the artwork was lost and Leonardi didn't think redoing all the work was worth it.

Still, there are some interesting ideas in the game, as I recall, and I'm glad to add it back to my collection.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tankettes and the limits of theory

One of the problems facing military force planners and doctrine writers is that they have to do most of their planning in peacetime when they can't test their musings against reality.

This drawback is inescapable, although there's reason to think modern simulation techniques and realistic training can mitigate it. Still, military planners in the interwar period were faced with an especially challenging environment. Military technology was developing at an exceptionally rapid pace for peacetime in the 1930s (less so in the 20s because there was a surplus of Great War equipment lying around and other factors slowing things down such as naval treaties and Versailles.)

So it's not surprising that there were a lot of things that sounded good on paper in the writings of military experts in the 20s and 30s that turned out to be wrong in the light of actual combat experience in World War II.

For example, what's the best way to field tanks. After World War II the major powers have settled on the Main Battle Tank idea, which is that the only tank worth the trouble is one that is powerful enough to fight other tanks, mobile enough to exploit its own breakthroughs and cheap enough to field in adequate numbers. Modern armies have a number of specialized lighter vehicles for recon, infantry transport and mobile artillery support, but they generally have just one kind of tank (although they may still field a previous generation of MBT as well).

The British, no slouches in tank thought between the wars, thought there should be a functional divide between heavily armored, but slow "Infantry" tanks and fast, but lightly armored "cruiser" tanks. Unfortunately they compromised the experiment a bit by having inadequate firepower for either, but even improved firepower in later models didn't save the concept. The French followed a similar idea.

Most of the other powers went more with a light-medium-heavy division for their tank arms. This worked better than the infantry-cruiser division of labor, but also eventually fell out of favor too as it was found that light and heavy tanks were just as much trouble as medium tanks but nowhere near as flexible.

One further notion that was already falling out of favor even before the war got going in earnest as the "tankette." All the major armored powers has already decided the concept was unworkable, but tankettes saw combat with some of the second-line armored powers such as Italy and Japan and with minor armies such as Poland. The idea was that swarms of highly mobile, 2-man tankettes with machine guns would overwhelm the enemy. It turned out that the logistic cost of the tankettes did not justify their limited combat power. And they were vulnerable to a wide variety of weapons. Anything that could kill a tank could kill them, as well as many weapons that were not powerful enough to kill a tank.

It was a cute idea, but simply didn't work. The attractiveness of the concept is illustrated by the appearance of the AT-ST "chicken walker" in the Star Wars universe, which is again a small, fast, 2-man fighting vehicle not unlike a tankette in concept. Of course, in a fictional universe anything can happen, and whatever tactical drawbacks the AT-ST might have (and they do seem to take heavy losses) are not necessarily reflected in the scripted outcomes.

But in the real-life crucible of World War II the idea was discarded.

Tankettes do not appear in large numbers in wargames, but in those games where they do appear, such as Advanced Squad Leader and Axis & Allies Miniatures they are not especially useful.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fighting in a blizzard

We're all hunkered down this weekend after a substantial snowfall Saturday night that prompted blizzard warnings in some parts of the New England and elsewhere.

With the fire crackling nearby and Christmas lights blinking a few feet away, it would be easy to forget the abysmal conditions that soldiers often find themselves coping with. Even in the rear area at a major headwuarters a soldier's life is full of minor annoyances and inconveniences, but the close you get tot he front the more you can be sure you'll be in discomfort. Indeed, I'd say that physcial misery is a greater constant in warfare than death and destruction. Battles last hours or days, but bad weather can last weeks.

Which brings to mind bad weather and how soldiers fight in it. Any kind of stromy weather or precipitation can bring problems, of course, but fighting in the snow and cold has to be among the most challenging. Currently we're in the anniversary weeks for the Battle of the Bulge, 65 years ago, and the Winter War, 70 years ago. Both were marked by a lot of fighting in the cold and snow, but they are hardly the only ones.

Before the modern era figthing duringt he winter was rare, but not unheard of. Winter fighting is difficult for modern, well-equipped armies, it's hard to imagine how much more difficult it was in the pre-industrial era when even summer campaigning could mean deprivation. So it's even more remarkable to see that there were a number of battles that did take place in snowstorms. Perhaps one of the most famous was the Battle of Trenton, which may very well have saved the American Revolution by giving Washington''s army a badly needed win. Another notable fight ina snow storm occurred a few years later on Feb. 7-8 1807 at Eylau, where Napoleon experienced a setback and check in his string of victories.

While it was difficult for black powder era armies to fight in the snow, it was possible. On the other hand, I'm not aware of any ancient era battles that occurred in the middle of a snowstorm. Possibly the logistics were too tenuous for an eancient army to attempt such a thing. Perhaps the most famous snowy campaign in ancient times was Hannibal's passage of the Alps, but that didn't involve any fighting, Indeed, the route was chosen because it avoided any fighting.

Generally in strategic or operational level games the weather conditions are incorporated into the basic mechanics. The major exception to this is East Front wargames, which generally have extensive rules about the Russian winter. Weather rules are more common in tatcical level games, with many such as Advanced squad Leader having special rules that would allow players to set a design your own scenario in a blizzard.

Some games I know of that incorporate snowy weather include ASL, Eylau, A Frozen Hell, Memoir '44 and nearly eveyr strategic level Eastern Front wargame.

Are there otehrs?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Out of the box, Twilight Struggle

I've long intended to get this game. Besides being very well-regarded as a game, it also has a lot of personal interest for me as a Baby Boomer -- it's not just history to me!

Just about the time I was thinking of getting it, though, I heard about the Deluxe Edition GMT was planning, so I decided to hold out for that.

It arrived yesterday and naturally I haven't played it yet, but I thought I'd share a few out-of-the-box impressions.

First off, the box itself is impressively tough. It's one of GMT's "armored boxes," and it should last a looooong time.

Inside the box is a very nice, solid mapboard and a full-color, lavishly illustrated rule book with a 3-turn example of play.

The cards are first rate, the counters thick, euro-style affairs and four player aid cards. I think they intended on including two, but the first run came out too flimsy, so they included a second set on firmer cardstock, or so it appears, as two of the aids are lighter stock than the others. There are some baggies for the pieces and a couple of dice (one red, one blue in a nice touch.) Oh, and the box has an insert that will keep everything from rattling around.

Altogether a first-rate presentation. I'm looking forward to the first game.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

65th anniversary of the Bulge

Couldn't let the night end without noting that today is the 65th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge.

From a wargamer's standpoint it was high drama and a perennial favorite of designers. Nearly every wargame designer, it seems, has felt the need to make a stab at the battle.

But underlying that gameboard drama was the heroism and sacrifice of real people, heroes whose ranks are diminishing daily at a rapid clip. So let me just note the anniversary of their big challenge and say 'thank you' for meeting it.

New Axis & Allies miniatures set -- models good, cards not so good

Picked up my first couple of boosters from the new Early War set of Axis & Allies Miniatures today.

I've been looking forward to this set because it provides a chance to highlight some of the lesser-known aspects of World War II. Besides being a good wargame, I've always liked the educational potential of the A&A series. This Early War set comes out just in time for the 70th anniversary of the 1940 Campaign in France on some other early war events such as Greece and the Balkans.

My initial draw from two packs was the following:

Rares: German Panzer II Ausf. F, nicely done if ordinary looking model and Slovak PzKpfw 38(t) which is a nicely detailed model with an eye-catching camo paint job.
Uncommon: German Panzer II Ausf. F, I'm glad this is an uncommon because many will be needed for 1940 battles and German Sd Kfz 231 armored car. Both are good models with the kind of basic paint scheme expected with uncommons.
Common: French Canon de 75 modele 1897, I think the trail is truncated, but otherwise a nicely done piece; Japanese Type 99 LMG, very nicely detailed; Belgium Officer, good detail and animated pose; Japanese Bicycle Troop, very unusual pose of the trooper firing while sitting astride his bike; and two South African Infantry, another nicely animated figure.
One change I didn't like is that the bases no long include any identifying information except for the set logo and the collector number, requiring players to reference the data card to find out what the unit is.

Overall I'm impressed with the modeling. So far it's some of the best yet.

On the other hand, the recent trend of skimping on the data cards has continued. The Eastern Front set abandoned the use of quality illustrations of the unit on the card, going with a standard set illustration on the back and a silhouette on the data side. Now, in this set the silhouette is gone as well, so players will have to refer to the numbers only to ID units. One improvement is that the special abilities are listed in a larger type and all the data needed for play is bright and easy to read. On the other hand the historical text is definitely a step down from previous sets, with much of the text banal mere statements of the obvious like "South Africa Declared War on Germany in September 1940" without providing any flavor about the unit depicted.

All-in-all the quality of the models is more important than the cards, so overall the set is an improvement over the previous set. I'll say more as I get more sets.

New design entry for Guns of Gettysburg

As always, a fascinating read.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Axis & Allies -- Bazooka

I'll be posting, on an occasional basis, musings about particular pieces in the Axis & Allies series of miniatures.

Base Set

The Bazooka, collector No. 16/48 from the Base Set and No. 27/60 from the 1939-45 set, is the game depiction of one of the most distinctive American weapons of World War II, formally known as the Rocket Launcher, M1 (and later M1A1, M9 and other models).

Rarity: Common
Speed: 1
Defense: 4/4
Cost: 4
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 4 - 0 - 0
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 9 - 4 - 0

Special abilities:

Close Assault 10 — This unit has an attack value of 10 against Vehicles in its hex. This attack
ignores cover.

Historical text: The M1 rocket launcher, or bazooka, fired a 60mm rocket. It was rushed into production for the North African campaign in 1942.

A bazooka team destroys a German tank in street fighting in 1944.

The unit in history: Ever since tank started terrifying infantrymen in the Great War there's been a search for a man-portable anti-tank weapon to hold the beasts at bay. Close-in weapons such as Molotov cocktails, satchel charges and grenades were risky to use and of limited effectiveness. The usual solution at the beginning of World War II was the same one from a generation before, the anti-tank rifle. Unfortunately ATR's were already reaching the limits of their effectiveness against the lightly armored tanks of 1939 and would soon be hopelessly inadequate against the up-armored later tanks.

1939-45 set

The bazooka was a happy marriage of two technologies, recoilless rockets and shaped charge warheads, and was tested by the U.S. Army's Ordnance Corps on the very eve of World War II. The initial tests were so successful that the weapon was rushed into production for fielding with the troops invading North Africa in November, 1942. It was such a rush job that the troops weren't even trained in how to use it, so its combat debut was unimpressive. In fact, it backfired on the Allies. The Germans captured some bazookas and, recognizing a good idea when they saw one, reverse-engineered and improved it to create their own Panzerschreck.

Unsurprisingly for a hastily fielded weapon the bazooka had a lot of flaws in field service, but it was still a very popular, versatile and useful weapon. Among its tactical drawbacks was the large back blast, which created a friendly fire danger and gave away the firer's position while making the weapon hard to use in confined spaces such as buildings.

The unit in the game: The bazooka is an economical way to make American infantry units dangerous to approach. The 10-dice close combat attack is enough to threaten the heaviest armor with damage. The back blast drawbacks are not reflected in the game, but neither is the bazooka's ability to stealthily stalk tanks. The Axis player will be very aware of where the bazookas are. Still, it's well worth tossing a few bazookas into any mix of U.S. infantry that might face any armor.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Axis & Allies Miniatures -- Making do with what you got, the KMT

One of the irritating things about most published strategy advice and army/warband/deck builds in collectible games is that they assume the players have access to the full line of available figures/cards. I suppose there may be a few players with unlimited budgets and time out there, but most of us have to play with what we got -- either putting up with the luck of the draw from randomized boosters or making a few strategic purchases of singles.

Most articles also seem to assume a minimum of external constraints so the army creator has the most flexibility to make use of clever combos. This may be OK with fantasy game, but I think the history-based AAM game loses a bit when you let it drift into fantastic anything-goes army builds that mix Germans and Japanese or 1940 French with 1945 Soviets.

So here's an exploration of an army build that shows more than a passing nod to history and tries to make the most out of what one player has in the box while obeying the standard army construction rules from the Expanded Rules.

The basic parameters in force will be for a 100-point army using historical army limits and year restrictions. The 100-point army is being picked because I intend to field a KMT Nationalist Chinese army and I am certain I can't field a larger force. I will only use models I own, with no proxies. The army will be tried out later against a contemporary Japanese build.

The Historical Army limit in this case is that the Nationalist Chinese can't be in an army with any other nationality. This is a pretty strict condition, in that the Chinese don't have many units to choose from. Some "historical" builds get around this by giving the Chinese access to some weapons they did actually field such a P-40 fighters and Sherman tanks, but going by the rule book these aren't available yet. (I'd like to see the Chinese eventually get a little help here. A Flying Tiger reprint of the P-40 would be good and giving the Chinese a few support weapons would be appropriate -- maybe some captured Japanese mortars and anti-tank guns).

On the other hand, being a pure Chinese army gives them more points to use -- their "100-
point" army will actually have 110 points to spend. Their biggest challenge will be spending that many points while remaining within the 15-piece army maximum size rule.

The year restriction will be 1939. This actually helps the Chinese, because they have no post-1939 units yet, but it limits the Japanese considerably.

The process of building our KMT force starts with taking advantage of the Formation Rules to field the Chinese Infantry Company for 26 points. While somewhat cheaper in build points as a formation than its components would cost individually (26 instead of 31) the biggest advantage of the formation is that it gives the Chinese 12 pieces while only counting as 5 against the army maximum size. I'd have considered fielding TWO of these units, but I don't have enough KMT Riflemen to form a second company.

In any case this gives us the following units to start with

1 KMT Officer (Key Special Ability is +1 initiative)

10 KMT Riflemen (Special Ability is actually a big disability, disruptions kill the unit)

1 KMT Machine-gun team (Double-shot SA, but subject to "Overheat")

I have just one T-26, so we'll toss that in for the limited antitank ability it brings. It costs 11 points, so the total build is now 37 and six units.

I happened to draw a lot of machine-gun teams out of my boosters, so I can add seven more of these units to the order of battle for 42 points. They will obviously form the real core of my force.

The build is now 79 points and 13 units. I'll toss in one more KMT officer to add a little redundancy in that department, which brings the force up to 14 units and 84 points.

I still have 26 build points left but one more slots for units, so the balance will have to be spent on support units and obstacles.

There's little point in buying a fuel dump for one tank and I have no confidence in the Chinese being able to protect an ammo dump, but a Headquarters seems like a useful support, giving the Chinese a second bite at the initiative apple each turn. Adding one of these costs 7 points, bringing the total to 91.

I'll add a couple of pillboxes for four points, bringing the total to 95. One pillbox will probably hold the HQ, hopefully protecting it from a marauding Zero and the other one will likely hold an MG team.

I think minefields are likely to be useful, so I'll add in all five of those I own for 10 points, bringing the force total to 105 points.

I'll spend three points to buy six barbed wire, which may be helpful if the Japanese field a lot of infantry. I'd buy more, but I don't have any. This brings the total to 108, so I finish off the buy with two tank obstacles. The Japanese will probably field some tanks and this may help keep them out of a key hex or two. I debated whether another pillbox might not be a better purchase, but the pillbox benefit isn't very strong, and I'd rather have the variety of options having another type of piece may provide. This brings the total to 110 points.

This Chinese army has some obvious deficiencies, but most of them can't be helped. First off, it doesn't have any dedicated AA guns, for the good reason the Chinese have none. There are lot of machine guns, though, so any Zero that shows up will have to be wary. More seriously the Chinese force has minimal anti-tank ability. There's only one proper AT gun, on the T-26, and the Chinese infantry and officers have no Close Assault ability.

Mitigating this, however, is the fact that none of the available 1939 Japanese armor (Type 89A Chi-Ro, Type 87 armored car, Type 95 Ha-Go or Type 97 Te-Ke) has any armor greater than 2, so even the Chinese machine-gun teams have a 25% chance of disrupting them out to 8 hexes away! Add in the double-shot SA and there's about a 6% chance of a single MG team damaging any Japanese armored vehicle. With a total of 9 MG teams in the Chinese force the cumulative chances are not negligible.

In the future I'll post a session report on how this force fares in combat, but comments are welcome.

EDIT: A ForuMini commenter pointed out that the rules were modified on Nov. 12 and the 15-unit army maximum has been dropped, but a new restriction has been placed on obstacles -- only 10% of an army's maximum allowable cost can be spent on Obstacles, so my proposed build runs afoul of that limit. So we will eliminate one pillbox, the two tank obstacles and two of the minefields to bring the Obstacle total back within limits and add in one more machine gun team and two more riflemen to replace them. This gives the Chinese a little more offensive ability.

I expect that my plan will be to use the massed machine guns to lay down a base of fire and then rush the objective with my mass of riflemen on the theory that "they can't kill us all."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Battle of the River Plate -- 70 years ago today

The Battle of the River Plate figures prominently in the public memory of World War II. Partly this is because there was a certain amount of inherent drama about the whole affair -- the gallant German captain who managed to ravage British shipping without killing merchantmen, and who took his own life in defeat. The apparently even nature of the fight. The fact that it's final stages played out in the glare of the international media, among other reasons.

But I think it also played an outside role in the public perception of the war because it happened to be the first major battle involving the Western powers in the war, so it got an extra amount of attention. Few had any inkling that the world was about to see nearly five years of the most intensive naval combat in the history of the world -- combat so intense that many larger, bloodier and more important battles from the war are nearly forgotten today. In the end the Battle of the River Plate was merely a cruiser action between an overgunned German heavy cruiser, an undergunned British heavy cruiser and two light cruisers of average power.

The "pocket battleships" of the pre-war German Navy got a lot of attention in the press, and had a certain amount of glamor in the public eye, but naval professionals were well aware of the type's weaknesses. It's no accident that the British hunting groups formed to find and neutralize the Graf Spee contained two cruisers each -- it being judged that two cruisers should be a match for a German raider that was far from home -- it wasn't necessary to sink or even badly damage the Graf Spee. It was only necessary to force it to use up most of its ammunition and cause an irreparable hit or two that would compromise her ability to continue.

In his ground-breaking set of naval miniatures rules The Naval War Game (1942), Fletcher Pratt remarks that "The battle off Montevideo was not too much of a surprise to some of the players who had participated in a floor game in which the Admiral Graf Spee was pulled down by lighter ships -- though at the time the result of the floor game was discounted."

In the Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures War at Sea game the Graf Spee is awarded a point value of 21, which is pretty good for a cruiser -- but the HMS Exeter at 12 and the HMS Ajax at 13 already match it -- and that's before adding in the Ajax's sister ship Achilles which is not in the game yet, but we can assume would also be worth 12 or 13 points.

In the slightly more detailed Avalanche Press Second World War at Sea series game Bismarck we see a similar disparity. While the Graf Spee is not in the game, her sister ships Lutzow and Adm. Scheer are, and they're worth 37 points each. The HMS Exeter is credited with 23 points. Neither the Ajax nor the Achilles in the game, but their sister ship the HMS Neptune is, rated at 20 points.

More detailed games don't normally try to assign point values for ships, but the same rough calculation holds, the Graf Spee is dangerously overmatched when faced by three cruisers.

I had my introduction to that state of affairs nearly 40 years ago when, as a teen attending my first wargame convention, I got to play a then-new set of rules called Victory at Sea (not to be confused with the later Mongoose Publishing game of the same same). I had the good fortune to command the British cruiser force in the second round of a 3-round tournament using the rules. My opponent was probably more experienced than I was (as I had no experience at all) but there was little he could do as I merely had to sensibly continue to close the range and roll the dice in order to win. (I had won my first round game, a refight of Denmark Straits, by repeating the Bismarck's good fortune by getting a magazine hit on the Hood! My luck ran out in the final round as I drew the luckless British side at the Battle of Coronel).

So to commemorate this battle on its 70th anniversary and relive a bit of my youth, I drafted my Stepson to help me refight this scenario from Victory at Sea.

The initial set up has the Ajax and Achilles in line ahead 24,000 yards off the port bow of the Graf Spee, while the Exeter (oddly enough mispelled 'Execter' ) in this game was 22,000 yards off the Graf Spee's starboard bow.

On turn 1 the Graf Spee turned to starboard to unmask its batteries. I decided to try to get early hits on each British ship and see if I could get a speed advantage to allow an escape. In Victory at Sea non-penetrating hits cause NO damage, which actually seems inaccurate to me. Many armored ships took important hits that didn't penetrate the armor and a more modern set of rules would take this into account. But in this 1973 rule set the British light cruiser 6-inch guns had no chance of doing damage to the Graf Spee unless they closed the range to less than 12,000 yards.

Graf Spee fired at the Ajax with two turrets at 21,00o yards, which provided "12 chances in 36" of a hit. Victory at Sea uses a very unusual system to determine hits. In the early 1970s the only sort of dice available were 6-sided. Dungeons and Dragons and the invention of polyhedral dice was a few years in the future. A modern set would use percentile dice. Victory at Sea approximates the effect of percentile dice by using a table that breaks out the "chances per 36" of achieveing a hit. In this case 12 chances per 36, doubled to 20 chances per 36 because the Graf Spee is "crossing the T" of the Ajax, about a 55.5% chance. 20 chances per 36 translates int0 die rolls of 5 through 8 being hits when rolling a pair of D6.

The German ship's results were as expected, 1 hit on the Ajax. Taking into account rate of fire, number of guns firing and the armor of the target, all computations normally done by the game scenario designer ahead of time, but in this case published for us in the rules, the Graf Spee normally would do 6,120 points of damage. to the Ajax. Due to the range, however, only 50% of that damage is inflicted, so the Ajxa takes 3,060 points of damage. This is enough to knock out one 6-inch turret and reduce its speed to 24 knots, slower than the Graf Spee. The Graf Spee's 11-inch gun was also entitled to draw a card from a standard deck of cards to see if it inflicted a critical hit - needing a spade. None was drawn this time and, as a matter of fact, the Graf Spee didn't cause any critical hits in this battle at all.

Meanwhile the Exeter fired her two front turrets on the Graf Spee at 16,000 yards and managed to land a hit on the Spee's deck armor. For the Graf Spee's shots on the British ships the armor hit was of no import because all the British ships had identical 2-inch thick armor on decks and belts. But the Graf Spee's belt armor was much thicker at 4 inches than its deck at 2.5 inches, so it was fortunate for Exeter to hit the deck, a 50/50 shot at 16.000 yards. This did 1,935 points of damage to the Graf Spee, which wasn't enough to affect the ship's fighting ability. All damage is cumulative, however, so this hit was important.

On Turn 2 the British ships continued to close as best they could, although they angled away to bring guns to bear and avoid the "Crossing the T" penalty. Graf Spee changed targets for its main guns to the Achilles and got one hit on the Achilles, reducing that ship by the same 3,060 points as its sister for the same loss of speed and destroyed turret. The Graf Spee's 5.9-inch guns fired on the Exeter, getting three hits for 1,620 points. This also had no effect on the Exeter fighting power. Unfortunately for the British, the Exeter rolled very poorly, much to the frustration of my young commodore., getting no hits despite having a 47% chance per turret. The battle would undoubtedly have unfolded differently if the Exeter had even average luck this turn.

On Turn 3 the Graf Spee turned its attention to the Exeter, now that it had achieved a speed advantage ouver the two light cruisers. This time it was the German ship's turn to shoot badly., missing with both 11" turrets, although three of the 5.9-inch turrets scored. The Exeter's return fire again landed a penetrating shell on the Graf Spee's deck. This brought the Graf Spee's cumulative damage to 4,837, reducing the German ship's speed to just 20 knots and knocking out two 5.9-inch guns. The British light cruisers could again catch the Graf Spee and would have to be dealt with! The German 5.9-inch hits did reduce the Exeter a bit, though. The British cruiser's cumulative damage dropped its speed to 24 knots and it lost one turret.

Turn 4 was a brutal turn as the Exeter and Graf Spee slugged it out at 12,000 yards. The Graf Spee landed another 11-inch hit on the Exeter and both remaining 5.9-inch guns also hit, bringing Exeter's cumulative damage over 8,000 and leaving the heavy cruiser dead in the water and weaponless. The Exeter's two remaining turrets also fired true, slamming into the Graf Spee's belt and causing another 5,130 points of damage, bringing the pocket battleship's total to 9,967. This was a serious level of damage, disabling the rear 11-inch turret and reducing speed to 14 knots. The Graf Spee would have no choice but to turn about and face the light cruisers.

The next three turns saw the British lights try to get close enough to penetrate the Graf Spee's armor. They were too close to run away from the Graf Spee's 11-inch guns and had little choice. Both ended up being sunk, with their only hit bouncing off the Graf Spee's belt armor.

So the battle ended with the Graf Spee afloat and all three British ships sunk or dead in the water, so at first glance that might appear to be a German victory. As was pretty common in 1970s rules sets, there was no attempt to define victory provided by the scenario. You were supposed to argue about it afterward, just like real admirals!. Still, knowing the Graf Spee's strategic situation, losing a main gun turret and, especially, half the ship's speed would have to be considered fatal damage. While the Graf Spee succeeded in mauling the British, she didn't succeed in escaping.

Still, the outcome suggest that there's at least some chance for the Graf Spee under these set of rules, so long as the German has decent luck while rolling dice and the British don't.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some 70-year Winter War anniversary games

Young General and Old Warrior got in a quick anniversary commemorative game of Memoir '44 about the Battle of Suomussalmi, Dec. 8-16, 1939. The setup is shown above.

It was actually a fairly sedate fight. The very first card the Soviets got to play was a Dig In card, so almost all my force that wasn't dug in became so before the Finns could do much damage. The Finn ski troops milled around a bit, but Young general was a little slow to close the range and in the meantime the Soviets got some good shooting in and soon the Soviets were up 3-0.

The Finns became more energized and made a special effort to take out the Soviet tanks and eventually both did go down, but the Finns also took more casualties and eventually a long-range shot from the Russian guns picked off the sixth Finnish unit. The final score was 6-2 in favor of the Soviets.

This game wasn't the only Finnish anniversary game I got in today. I also visited the local comic/game store and played a few games of Axis & Allies Miniatures. Two of the games were a modified version of Scenario WW-2, the Battle of Lake Toilvajarvi, fought on Dec. 12, 1939.

This scenario came out after the first couple of sets, so there were a lot of substitutions needed. The whole Finnish force was represented with German troops, and the Soviet machine gun unit was represented by a British Vickers machine gun piece.

Since then a lot of the necessary pieces have come out, so I was able to substitute more authentic pieces for much of the OB.

I replaced the two SS leaders with Finnish Officers. Slightly less effective as leaders, but the Finns have a powerful Hand-to-Hand special ability. All the German infantrymen were replaced with Finnish infantry with identical stats and the German MG42 machine gun team was replaced by a Finnish machine gun team with slightly lower stats. The German an light mortar and expert sniper remained,a s there are no Finnish units of those types yet.

On the Soviet side everything was the same except for the Vickers machine gun, which was replaced by the new Soviet MG team.

This is the battlefield:

The blue is are represents a frozen lake. The Finns set up on the left edge with most of the force, with a reinforcing leader and four squads on Turn 5 coming in on the flanks. Their objective is the "hotel, represented by the hill with objective markers in the middle of the map. It starts off held by two Russian squads, but the rest of the Soviet force is nearby on the lake.

The first battle saw my Soviets trying to hold back a young gentleman's Finnish attack, which was remarkable well-run. His sniper, mortar and machine gun team were very effctive at laying doen fire and knocked off quite a few Russian defenders around the hotel. He timed the rush of his infantry well and they swept into the hotel simultaneously with the reinforcing Finns on Turn 5. The Soviets were wiped out.

Young gentleman's dad now had a go at the same scenario. This time my Russians took a little more circumspect defensive posture, trying to avoid Finnish lines of fire more. The Soviets were able to eliminate the light mortar unit early and it turned out that the dad's Finns were much worse shots than the son. Neither the sniper nor the machine gun team did very well in laying down fire. So the final Finn rush found the Soviets fairly numerous and a vicious close-range melee ensued that saw troops flying off the board. It all came down to the very last die roll where a Soviet SMG unit took a shot at the last Finn on one of the objective hexes, getting a "destroyed" result. The Finn failed its cover roll and that was it. There were just two Finnish survivors at the hotel (one rifle and one leader) and the Soviet SMG unit.

It was nice to be able to commemorate this fighting on its 70th anniversary.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Heroscape meets D&D

The next base set for Heroscape is going to have a Dungeons & Dragons theme, which is an interesting juxtaposition of two major Hasbro brands. D&D is, of course, the venerable RPG originally marketed by TSR in the 70s and 80s and Hasbro already has a line of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures and, until recently, a D&D skirmish rules set to use them with.

So one might legitimately wonder if there's some redundancy here, but Heroscape, despite its RPG-like back story and aura, is essentially a simple skirmish-level wargame with little pretension for any kind of story continuity or even theme. Sure, there's a meta-narrative of the lord Jandar leading his colleagues against the lord Utgar's attempts to seize control of Valhalla, but it appears to be a very loose alliance and there's plenty of times when minions summoned by Utgar and Janadar will be on the same side fighting against other minions summoned by the same lords for the purposes of a scenario.

D&D is much more about internally consistent narratives, and while there have been D&D campaigns set in a vast variety of settings and "worlds," 30+ years of D&D have slowly built up a core D&D mythos that is recognizably different from Tolkien or other fantasy stories. So creatures from the D&D Mythos have assumed enough of a "reality" to be just as valid a summoning source as Earth, Alpha Prime or Grut.

Over at they've started reviewing the new base set, which will be more like the Marvel set than similar to the original set or the Marro-themed set. There will be just 10 figures (4 heroes and 6 bad guys) and a limited number of terrain pieces. To attract veteran players there will be some new terrain types and rules introduced, but the set is also geared toward new players by being completely self-contained.

It's hard to predict where this may take the Heroscape brand. There seem to be no plans for any new waves or follow-on sets in the existing Heroscape universe. The Marvel Heroscape never caught on -- I still see them sitting on store shelves -- so there's reason to wonder if this D&D-theming will work out. Presumably real D&D fans already are pretty invested in their existing miniature lines. Or is the hope that Heroscapers will be lured into trying more D&D products after being exposed to it through Heroscape?

I've though for quite some time that the last decade or so was an unusual state of affairs, where a combination of economic conditions allowed game manufacturers to import large numbers of good-quality miniatures from China at a low cost. We had an explosion of "bling" in games, where it wasn't uncommon to see games with dozens of painted plastic minis or hundreds of unpainted minis.

Heroscape was just one of the manifestations of that trend. The first base set had an amazing amount of stuff for the price. So much stuff that it was hard to get it back in the box. Of course getting stuff back in the box became moot as all the expansions came out. My complete set of Heroscape stuff takes up the better part of two plastic storage bins now.

So I wonder of the kind of product offering Heroscape fans got used to, such as multiples "waves" of expansions with a couple of dozen figures each, is a at hing of the past.

And maybe the new D&D Heroscape is an attempt to merge the Heroscapers into the existing D&D hobby. Time will tell.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Axis & Allies game day is Saturday

Still on tap for a game at The Arkham Asylum, 276 West Main St., Norwich, CT starting at noon this Saturday, Dec. 12..

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter War battles 70 years ago today

After trudging through the snow for a week, brushing back border forces, the Soviets started running into stiffer resistance in their drives to outflank the main Finnish defenses 70 years ago this week.

At Suomussalmi in central Finland and Tolvajarvi near Lake Ladoga the Finns, with their ski troops and sissi tactics proceeded to stop, and then drive back the Soviet spearheads in what is the classic image of the Winter War -- outnumbered white-clad hardy Finns beating back hordes of ill-prepared Russians. Both locations are shown below in this map from the GURPS source book GURPS WWII: Frozen Hell, which provides an excellent overview of the war even if you don't play that role-playing game.

That image is certainly the impression most wargames would leave. The Tolvajarvi battle in particular has been a popular wargame topic with at least two comprehensive simulations being published.

Rarely shown in wargames are the grimmer, more conventional battle along the Mannerheim Line where the war was really decided. There's little glamour in bloody frontal assaults against grimly held fortified lines. The Soviets' December offensive failed.

The old SPI game Winter War does manage to show the true balance between the fronts. While there will usually be some entertaining and dramatic thrust and parry in the center, the game and the war will be decided around the Mannerheim and Ladoga lines in the South.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor mystery solved?

Looks like the fifth Japanese mini-sub has been found, and there's evidence that it's attack succeeded.

Pearl Harbor Day

When I was a child, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a fresh memory for the adults in my life, so it hardly needed special reminders that it was an important day. But today, 68 years later, one can sense that the event is fading into history, as all events do. Americans today have a new nationally traumatic shock foremost in the minds. Our world is a far different one than 1941. Japan is an ally, China a competitor, our biggest international threat a religiously based fanaticism, instead of the political fanatics of the 30s and 40s. So today it is appropriate to take a moment to specially mark this event, despite the amount of new history that's been added to the annals of America in the meantime.

Despite its importance, the Pearl Harbor attack hasn't been the subject of many games. Some strategic-level Pacific wargames do start off with the attack on Pearl Harbor (Victory in the Pacific) while others just assume it's results (Pacific Victory) or give you a choice of starting conditions (Asia Engulfed).

As far as depicting the actual attack goes, there are few. Zero! from the Down in Flames series, has a solitaire scenario about the attack (the map is shown above). The Avalanche Press game Midway also depicts the attack explicitly, and it may be the most comprehensive treatment of the battle in wargame form. It has a battle scenario (No. 1) showing the air raid itself where the Axis player controls two separate attacking waves of planes and the American player the defending ships. While not described as a solitaire scenario, it really plays like one. But the game also provides an operational scenario (No. 5) that gives the U.S. player a much more active role.

That operational scenario starts with the Japanese surprise air raid, but illustrates the risks the Japanese might have faced if they continued to hang around Hawaii making follow-on attacks. While having a powerful air arm in its four fleet carriers, the Japanese strike force doesn't have a strong escort, with just two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 8 destroyers. Even after a successful air raid, the American Pacific Fleet is likely to have a mobile battleship or two as well as up to eight heavy and light cruisers and a couple of dozen destroyers to sortie for retaliation. Already at sea are two U.S.carrier task forces, each with a fleet carrier, three heavy cruisers and 5 or 9 destroyers. Two other American heavy cruisers with escorts are also at sea sea Hawaii. Sticking around could have been risky.

Of course, the biggest risk of an attack on Pearl Harbor seems to have been missed by Japanese planners -- that the Americans would be so enraged by the attack that they would not stop until they had achieved total victory. One really wonders if the Japanese might not have been better off awaiting the American fleet on their side of the Pacific, especially given their advantage in carrier doctrine.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bananagrams Game of the Year? Or Tuf-Abet Re-imagined?

Certainly Bananagrams is the closest thing to a popular fad "board" game to come out in a few years.

There's an interesting Boston Globe profile of the game and it's Rhode Island designer here.

I got to try it recently and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Like many truly classic ideas, it's so simple you have to wonder why nobody came up with the idea before. The basic idea behind the game is to form crossword-style anagrams based on speed, rather than maximized points as per the game Scrabble.

It's really pretty clever and a lot of fun. It comes in a banana-shaped pouch and has144 plastic letter tiles. Player's start with a specified number of tiles and try to use them all to form words, crossword style. The first player who does says "peel" which forces everybody to draw a new tile. Players continue, and every time a player succeeds in using all the tiles they call out "peel" again until there are fewer tiles left than players in the game. Whichever player succeeds in using all his tiles at that point calls out "bananas" and wins.

This reminds a lot of the old Avalon Hill game Tuf-Abet. In that game players rolled dice with letters on their faces. Each player had his own set of 20 cubes of different colors. They used the letters to form crossword-style letter groups. The first player who used all (or most) of his cubes said "Tuf" which started a 3-minute timer where the other players tried to outdo the first player in how many cuibes they used. If someone did then they said "Tuffer" and started a 2-minute timer where everybody tried again to outdo the others. A third round and any subsequent "Tuffest" rounds are 1-minute long. Play continues until somebody uses all their cubes. The winner is determined by a point scoring system that rewards being the first declarer, the final declarer and the number of cubes used, with a bonus for words over 5 letters long.

Interestingly, game documentation included in my copy of Tuf-Abet from 1969 indicates that a patent was applied for. If a patent was ever granted, it is long since expired, as patents are only good for 20 years or less. The Banagram site makes no patent claims, only copyright. The Boston Globe article and the Banagram Web site both mention Scrabble as an inspiration and have no mention of tuf-abet but the designer is certainly old enough to have come across Tuf-Abet in his lifetime, so I wonder if the resemblance between the two games is entirely coincidental.

There don't seem to be any intellectual property problems. As I noted, any patent is long-since expired and there seem to be no copyright or trademark issues either. What is fascinating is how two rather similar games have had such a different reception. Tuf-Abet was never a big breakway hit for Avalon Hill, although it seems to have been a steady seller. Bananagrams is Game of the Year. Bananagrams has a very clever marketing hook, while effective marketing always seemed to be a weakness for the old AH. Tuf-Abet's scoring system and multi-round format is a little more intricate than Bananagrams, but it's still not very complicated by either 1969 or contemporary standards. Perhaps, if Hasbro still has the rights from its AH acquisition, we might see a reprint of the game, given the success of Bananagrams.

I've always liked Tuf-Abet, although I haven't had much success in getting people to play it over the years. While there are similarities, I do think Bananagrams is the better implementation of the idea. By dispensing with any kind of scoring system and going with a simple win-lose game condition the newer game is probably more accessible for a mass market that considers games like Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk as pretty complicated.