Friday, July 31, 2009

Axis & Allies miniatures -- Churchill tanks

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

There's an old engineering saying about customer requests: Cheap, fast, good -- pick two. A similar dynamic seems to be in play in the design of armored fighting vehicles, particularity under the automotive conditions of the 1930s and 1940s. Striking a balance between mobility, firepower and protection was extremely difficult given the state of technology.

The genius of the Russian T-34 tank was that it managed to provide strong protection, good mobility and effective firepower in one design, but that achievement was precisely what made it remarkable. Most successful tank designers were satisfied with getting at least two -- like the Tiger, which sacrificed mobility in favor of firepower and protection or the Sherman, which had good protection and mobility, but was under-armed. The sorry state of British tank design during most of World War II is that they struggled to get at least one right -- the Churchill tank being a prime example. A contemporary to the Tiger tank, the Churchill had a similar level of protection, but was even slower then the Tiger and was armed completely inadequately. This Churchill IV is No. 4 of 60 in the Eastern Front set.

As a heavy tank, the Churchill wasn't a success, but it did provide an excellent basis for special purpose armor, for which the British seemed to have a knack. They had an entire armored division -- the 79th -- which was equipped purely with various special purpose tanks -- two of which show up in AAM, the Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank (No. 8 of 48 of Base Set) and the AVRE engineer vehicle ( 9 of 45 in D-Day set).
All the models are well-done, and I think the AVRE is an especially striking vehicle to get on the table.

Eastern Front Churchill IV


Rarity: Rare

Speed: 2

Defense: 7/6

Cost: 25 for AVRE, 28 for Churchill IV, 35 for Crocodile

Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges:

7-7-6 (Ch. IV), 10-5-4 (Crocodile) 12-6-4 (AVRE)

Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges:

11-9-8 (Ch. IV), 13-11-9 (Croc.) 10-0-0 (AVRE)

Special abilities

Crocodile & Churchill IV: Superior Armor 2 -- An attack must beat this unit's defense by 2 or more to score two hits against it. (Note: The AVRE does not have this SA, although I'm not sure why, because it has the same armor protection as the other versions)

Crocodile: Hull-Mounted Flamethrower —This unit’s short-range attack ignores cover. If this unit rolls three or more 6s on a short range attack, the target is destroyed immediately. This ability doesn’t work against enemy units that are behind this unit.


This unit ignores Obstacles. This unit destroys each Obstacle it crosses. This unit destroys each Obstacle in hexes it enters.

Blast — When this unit attacks, make a separate attack roll against each unit in the target hex. (This includes friendly units.)

Bombardment — This unit can’t attack Aircraft.* This unit’s attacks ignore cover.

* revised wording

Base Set Crocodile

Historical text:

AVRE: Equipped with a 290mm spigot mortar—known as the “Petard”— and attachment points for mine clearing and obstacle crossing, the Churchill Armored Vehicle Royal Engineers was very successful on D-Day.

Churchill IV: The Churchill had a long service life with many variations thanks to its combination of heavy armor and a large interior.

Crocodile: Slow but very heavily armored, the Crocodile was a Churchill Mark VII fitted with a hull-mounted flamethrower in addition to its 75mm main gun.

Crocodile version showing hull-mounted flamethrower

The unit in history: The Churchill was originally designed in anticipation of a return to World War I trench warfare, so it included very heavy armor, superior obstacle-crossing capability and even sponson-mounted cannon. The fall of France resulted in a new situation and a present danger of invasion so a modified version of the Churchill was rushed into production. In keeping with British notions of an "infantry" tank, the Churchill was well-protected but exceedingly slow and rather lightly armed. The Churchill IV, in 1942, is typical of these early marks. While able to take it, the Churchill didn't have much ability to dish it out. What it did have was a spacious hull that made it well suited for modification for special tasks and it was in this role that the tank made its biggest contributions. Among the special versions of the Churchill were the Crocodile flamethrower tank and the Armored Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) which was a general combat engineer support vehicle used for breaching obstacles and clearing fortifications. One interesting aspect of the AVRE was that it's crew included a sapper who would exit from the tank to emplace explosives.

D-Day Set AVRE

The unit in the game: The basic Churchill IV in the Eastern Front set has impressive defensive ability, but it's weak main gun stands little chance against German heavy armor and its slow speed means it will be hard to bring it into action.

On the other hand, the specialist versions found in the earlier sets have some interesting uses. There aren't too many flamethrower-equipped vehicles in the game and the Crocodile's high defensive factors mean its stands a good chance of getting close enough to use it. There's a 22 percent chance of eliminating a soft target outright with the flamethrower, plus a 10-die attack will kill or disrupt most soft targets anyway most of the time. If the Croc gets close enough it has a 37 percent chance of an instant kill against any tank, plus very high chances of damaging or destroying even Tigers and their kin. Flamethrower attacks ignore cover, which is a nice feature as well.

The AVRE version is one of the few ways to quickly eliminate obstacles, so it's useful when one suspects the Axis player may employ them. The Axis have no comparable capability. The AVRE's spigot gun is not quite as nasty as the Croc's flamethrower, but it also ignores cover and has the ability to affect all the units in a hex, which has been made even better with the new stacking rules.

All versions of the Churchill are reasonably costed. The agonizingly slow speed makes them hard to use, but it apparently does help to keep the cost down.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BGG Down for maintenance

Very annoying when they go down. I think this is an unscheduled outage.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The summer of '69

It's hard to believe 40 years have gone by. It's sort of a Biblical-sounding length of time. Does that make me a Methuselah?

In March of that year I bought a copy of Midway, and my friend Andy R. and I played it at least 6 or 7 times that spring time. I got into wargaming in the first place due to my interest in naval gaming, but naval gamers are definitely the smaller part of the wargaming crowd and my friend was no exception. It wasn't until I got my second wargame -- Stalingrad -- that I can say that my hobby really took off, because we played that game constantly all summer long. I still have the turn record chart from that era and it reflects dozens of games, nearly all of which were from that summer and fall.

Shortly after that the wargame collection began to grow with titles such as Guadalcanal, Waterloo, Afrika Korps, Jutland and 1914 and the number of plays for any one title dropped off a bit. I started subscribing to Strategy & Tactics in 1970 and the collection really took off.

But the real foundation for the hobby was laid in those summer days and nights in 1969 as my friend and I (and eventually his older brother) self-taught ourselves about wargames. It was a grand summer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

As I was saying ...

Bowen Simmons' latest design entry demonstrates that his Gettysburg game will definitely not be rehashing the same ground as his Napoleonic designs.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

WBC plans

I'm planning to be at the WBC for about three days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, in case anyone wants to get together for some FTF gaming. I'm not going too heavy on tournaments this year. I think I'm just going to play in the Memoir '44, Battle Line, Lost Cities and maybe Nuclear War tournaments. As none of those are lengthy games and I have no reason to think I'll see much success in any of them I should have plenty of time for FTF gaming.

I'll be bringing along Martin Wallace's Waterloo, Friedrich, Bonaparte at Marengo, Napoleon's Triumph and Axis & Allies War at Sea, but as always I'm willing to play almost anything.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Gettysburg game has me salivating

Bowen Simmons has a series of "design entries" at his Web site on his new Gettysburg game, and it's looking intriguing.

Here's a sample:

Check out the entry here

What I think is fascinating about Simmons as a designer is his ability to break with his own past. Most game designers who develop successful mechanics use them over and over again in their new designs, to the point that those techniques can become synonomous with their names. I think everyone knows what to expect in a Richard Borg, Larry Harris or Jim Dunnigan design.

Simmons, on the other hand, isn't afraid to start from first principles each time. This can be a little confusing, because the one constant is his devotion to the "look" first pioneered in Bonaparte at Marengo. But anyone who mistook its surface resemblance with BaM for how Napoleon's Triumph would play were in for a surprise. I think many BaM players found that NT was a lot more different than they expected.

Likewise, I expect to see the design entries for Guns at Gettysbrug revealing something very different from either of the Napoloenic games.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Axis & Allies miniatures: 57mm ATG

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

Base set 6 pdr

The entire efficacy of the light anti-tank gun is based on the tactic of the ambush, but nothing is harder to reflect in most tactical wargames. Light anti-tank guns are designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, but hiding them on the wargame board is virtually impossible unless the game uses some sort of hidden units rule -- and even then the tank-equipped player still knows that there's an ATG out there, somewhere, so there's much less chance for surprise than in real life. So it's no surprise that accurately representing anti-tank guns is one of the weakest areas in tactical wargames -- and Axis & Axis miniatures, being decidedly on the simpler side as such things go, is no exception. It's very hard to use ATGs of any sort in AAM, and the lighter weapons, which rely on ambush and getting shots at favorable angles such as the flank are even harder to use. Because of that, ATGs are not all that popular with players, even when "priced" low for DYO scenarios. Despite how ubiquitous they were (often battalion-level weapons) the 57mm anti-tank weapons that equipped the U.S., U.K. and U.S.S.R. wont see the table top battlefield very often.

Set II ZIS-2

The weapon does show up multiple times across the sets, however. The first time is as the British 6-pounder Antitank Gun, No. 7/48 in the base set. Although not identified as such, it's clearly the same weapon that is the Canadian Entrenched Antitank Gun (1/45) in the Reserves set and the British Entrenched Antitank Gun (5/60) in the Eastern Front set. Although a different weapon, the Soviet ZIS-2 57mm Model 1943 in Set II (14/45) and 1939-45 set (26/60) is identical in game terms.

Reserves set Entrenched Antitank Gun

The 6-pounder model is a little funky, with a dwarfed-sized trail. The Entrenched ATGs are better, although the small pile of sandbags in front of the gun is more suggestive of an entrenchment than being one. The Canadian piece is in desert colors, while the British piece is suitable for northern Europe. The ZIS models are both serviceable, with the main visible difference between the two is the sand color in the base of the older one.

1939-45 set ZIS-2

Rarity: Common (except for the 1939-45 set ZIS, which is uncommon)
Speed: 0
Defense: 3/3
Cost: 7* (Higher values are printed on the cards for most, but all have bee revised to 7 by the updated cards online)
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 3-3-3
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 11-9-8

Special abilities:

All: Relocate 2 -- This unit has speed 2 during your assault phase

Entrenched antitank guns: Entrenched -- Until this unit moves, it gets +1/+1 defense.

Historical text


On 20 September 19444, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield and his crew destroyed two Tigers and at least one self-propelled gun with their 6-Pounder gun from less than a hundred yards. He won a posthumous Victoria Cross for the action.
Entrenched ATG

Antitank guns were more effective when the gun team had time to provide additional protection for themselves.


The ZIS-2 antitank gun saw action in Operation Zitadelle, at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. It was the largest tank battle in history and one from which the German Army in Russia never really recovered.

The unit in history: Early antitank doctrine in most armies revolved around very small, portable antitank guns in the 20mm-40mm range deployed as battalion support weapons. While adequate against the light armor common at the start of the war, it quickly became evident that the rapid up-armoring of tanks would rapidly require bigger guns and by 1942 larger guns in the 47mm-57mm range were making it to the front in most armies. These weapons were handicapped by the desire to keep them light enough to operate with the infantry, but soon tank armor outstripped the capacity of anything other than field artillery-sized weapons to cope with. Despite being unable to cope with heavy tanks and of marginal utility against most medium tanks, these weapons served to the end of the war. They were still useful against light armor such as half tracks and armored cars. The 6-pounder, besides serving in all the Commonwealth armies, was also used by the US as the M-1 57mm ATG. The Soviet ZIS-2 was a different design, but was a comparable weapon in every way.

Eastern Front set Entrenched Antitank Gun

The unit in the game: Overpriced at first (at 8 or 9 points) these light ATG are still of doubtful worth at 7 points. The basic problem is that they are not hidden, and therefore enemy tank will not blunder into ambushes against them. One wonders why they haven't been given the special ability of Superior Camouflage, which would better approximate their historical usage. Still, for low cost they do allow a player to field several times the antitank firepower of a comparable tank. If the scenario design is such that enemy tanks will be forced by terrain or other reasons into a kill zone they may get in some shots. Initial placement for ordnance is vital, because Relocate 2 is only for very local and/or emergency use. You really don't want to have to redeploy. The only advantage the 6-pounder has over the Entrenched ATG is that it's available in 1942, but from 1943 on there's no reason to pick it. By the time the ZIS-2 becomes available in 1943 there's a lot of German armor that it can't handle so unless you have some reason to think the Germans won't be bringing any "cats" to the fight, don't bother with it. At best the ZIS has a 50% chance of disrupting a Panther at close range and the chances for doing anything at all drop off rapidly. Only the flank of a Tiger is assailable, but it's unlikely a fully visible ATG will get that chance. Meanwhile most German tanks will have a 50% or better chance of getting a disruption or better against an ATG at long range. The +1 for the Entrenched ATG helps a little, but only that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Collectibles done right ... or at least better

All-in-all, I think Hasbro has done a decent job with the Axis & Axis collectible miniatures, especially considering that it doesn't include any spellcasters or spaceships.

As a primarily history-oriented wargamer, I was excited when Hasbro introduced AAM. I figured it probably wouldn't last long, but it would be a chance to introduce more players to historical wargaming, as it would be on the shelves right there with the D&D and Magic: The Gathering stuff.

Much to my surprise, the land miniatures game turned out to have enough staying power for eight sets, and the third set for naval miniatures line is imminent, with a commitment from Hasbro for a fourth set.

That's not to say that there haven't been some rough spots, particularly for the land game. There have been some quality control issues and a controversial scale change. The naval game's path as been smoother and of the two, I think it's really the better game. The naval theme seems to be a better match for the collectible format and the rules seem a bit tighter for competitive play.

Collectible games, other than Magic: TG have a very high failure rate, so I think it's interesting that AAM and WAS have hung in there.

I think there are three reasons for its longevity.

1) New releases have been well-paced, perhaps even a little slow. This gives people time to accumulate models on a budget and builds anticipation for the next release. Leave them wanting more.

2) Collectors are a higher proportion of the market than usual, so there's a good balance between competitive players and collectors. The inherent collectibility of the models provides a bigger customer base than purely competitive play would, making sales steadier and less faddish.

3) Suitability for other uses. The models in both WAS and AAM are easily used for other game systems. Indeed, the controversial scale change in AAM was made to better align the models with hobby standards. While the WAS models are a unique scale, it's a good scale (small enough for player convenience and lower cost while big enough to show good detail even on small ships such as PT boats, sub chasers and submarines). And there are now enough models to make the line pretty self-contained. There are already enough ships that the line compares well to lines offered by other manufacturers and if a few more sets appear the problem will soon be finding enough suitable ships. (Already cropping up with the German navy).

The collectible format has its irritating aspects, which are well-known and don't need repeating, but if you're going to do a collectible game, I think Hasbro hit the mark with Axis & Allies.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Some more thoughts on Waterloo and other non-traditonal wargames

Actually, it even seems odd to use the word traditional when discussing a hobby that's a little over a half-century old, but most people will understand what I mean -- traditional being the hex-and-counter wargames inaugurated by Charles Roberts/Avalon Hill and made ubiquitous by James Dunnigan/SPI in the 1960s/70s/80s.

For many people hex-and-counter wargames are wargames and they pay little mind to other design choices or even disdain them.

On the other hand, there have always been other ways to skin that particular design cat. Many wargames from the hex-and-counter designers didn't use hexes at all, of course. Area movement and point-to-point maps have a long history in the hobby. And there have always been some games that were outside the main wargame design tradition, such as Kingmaker, Diplomacy, block wargames like Quebec 1759, Axis & Allies and the whole traditional miniatures line.

But for a long time hex-and-counter wargames were definitely where the action was design-wise. This provided many benefits, because the sharing of mechanics and design techniques within a limited universe of choices made it possible for wargamers to digest literally hundreds of wargames in a short period of time. A big draw for series games such as The Great Battles of the American Civil War, the various SPI quad games, The Gamers' various series (SCS,OCS,TCS,NBS etc.) etc. was that it allowed players to concentrate on the battle at hand instead of having to learn brand new game systems all the time.

On the other hand, this self-policing limitation on design tools did have some drawbacks. One of them is that not all situations lent themselves equally well to hex-and-counter wargames. Hexes have geometric limitations that made them problematic for linear warfare and tactical warfare at sea. Counters, being two-sided, imposed limits on fog of war or step reduction unless you added more counters to the pile. Zones of control, combat results tables and well-defined scales often brought anomalies or awkward compromises when applied to specific situations. And as time went on it seems as though hex-and-counter wargames had trouble recruiting new players, while the euro-style games attracted more interest.

Now, like any generalities, these kinds of statements obscure a host of counter examples. Hex-and-counter game manufacturers have gotten pretty adept at marketing their wares to the sort of p,layers who will find them interesting and the Internet has been a great aid. Players can find each other and game makers easily. Many hex-and-counter wargames have turned out to be well-suited for online play, so it's not all doom and gloom.

But at the same time, I am sensing a renewed interest in other design approaches. One very popular line of attack has been what are commonly called card-driven games, which use the detail and flexibility that cards can provide to bypass the chart-heavy approach of traditional wargame designs. Still, most of these designs are coming from h&c game companies and designers and still share many of their attributes, such as cardboard counters and even hexes.

There's a lot more interest in alternative design approaches. While both Axis & Allies and block wargames have been around for decades, both are showing new life these days.

And some designers have explored some completely different approaches to wargame design. Some notable recent examples include Friedrich, Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph. And I put Martin Wallace's Waterloo in that category. Despite having little in common with a traditional hex-and-counter treatment of Waterloo, the game does good job of capturing the essential features of Napoleonic era combat and I think it's an instructive, as well as entertaining exercise, which is what a good wargame ought to be.

What will be interesting is seeing how Wallace and Bowen Simmons (designer of Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph) come up with next. Both designers are reportedly working on a Gettysburg game, and both games are likely to appear in 2010. Back in the heyday of AH and SPI it wasn't uncommon to see both companies releasing competing visions of the same topic, so it's nice to see that sort of choice being offered again. The more the merrier.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Martin Wallace's Waterloo session report

This intrigued me from the moment I heard about it. Like Bowen Simmons' designs of Napoleon's Triumph and Bonaparte at Marengo, Martin Wallace's Waterloo is a wargame, but one completely outside the hex-and-counter wargame tradition. It takes a completely different tack from what we've seen before, yet succeeds in being an-honest-to-goodness wargame and not just a war-themed game.

Wallace's design notes emphasize that he didn't mean for it to be considered a simulation and eh wasn't too worried about coming up with an exact order of battle or making each piece represent a particular number of men. Yet the interaction between the arms and the relative strengths between the armies ended up seeming about right and is consistent with the judgements made in similar wargames.

As it turns out I had the chance to play Chris O. at the recent gathering of the Central Connecticut Wargamers. While I didn't know this, Chris had just gotten a copy and posted a request on the club email asking if anyone wanted to try it. I rarely have Friday nights off, but I happened to have this one off and brought my copy of Waterloo, also hoping to get in a game.

This made it possible to play and finish a game within the four hours we had because both of us were familiar with the rules. I think it would have been slower going if one of us had been required to try to teach the game as well as play it. While not a difficult game, the fact that it doesn't really share any of the usual hex-and-counter mechanics mean the learning curve was a little steeper than the usual, even for experienced wargamers.

The general course of the game is simple enough to relate. I drew the French, and I think my in experience with the game hurt a little bit, as the game system is designed to reward the proper execution of combined arms tactics but I wasn't quite sure how to bring everything together. I made pretty good progress on the French right, Anglo-Allied left in the first few hours, and also captured La Haye Sainte, but ended up butting my head up against Hougoumont rather badly.

When the Prussians arrived and Chris got more action discs he was able to take advantage of my unnecessarily heavy losses to push me over the victory point limit. The final score was 16 for the Allies and 10 for the French.

It was very instructive though and I have a lot of ideas for how I might do better the next time. It's a very entertaining game system, though and Chris was a great opponent as well, so while victory wasn't mine, the fun was.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Between a rock and a hard place -- Finland in World War II

World War II is full of amazing stories, but one that gets relatively little attention in the U.S. is Finland's odyssey between 1939 and 1945.

I think it's astounding that Finland escaped World War II basically intact. It's like being in a plane wreck and getting away with just a broke arm.

It's always tough for a small country to be located near a powerful one. A Mexican politician once lamented that Mexico was fated to "be so far from God and so near the United States." I expect that there are similar sayings in the lore of countries like Vietnam and Portugal. How much harder, still, for those small countries caught between two antagonists, like Belgium or Korea.

So the fact that Finland was able to escape the maw of the biggest war in history without being chewed up and spat out is a testament to their fortitude and good sense.

And interestingly enough, they managed this feat while being on the wrong side, to boot.

Most people sympathize with the Finns about the Winter War, their unsuccessful defense against the Soviets over the winter of 1939-1940. There have been a fair number of games covering that conflict, from the classic SPI game Winter War to newer titles such as A Frozen Hell. It's not uncommon to see scenarios from the Winter War in scenario wargames like ASL. In my collection there are scenarios from the 39-40 fighting in Axis & Allies: Miniatures, Down in Flames (shown above) and Check Your 6!

What's usually passed over with little comment is the Continuation War, where the Finns joined the Germans in Barbarossa. My first exposure to the Finns was in the old Avalon Hill game Stalingrad, where they were one of the Axis minor allies. At the time there was little to set them apart from the other Axis minors other than the fact they're units were a little better and the fact that they were dangerously isolated from the rest of the front. In the games we played in our little circle Soviet players usually wiped out the Finns to eliminate a threat to Leningrad. I remember wondering back then, as a teen, why the Finns would take the chance.

Of course the Finns were a lot tougher than that game reflected, and the Soviets had enough on their plate that they couldn't spare the resources needed to crush Finland. But eventually, as the tide turned, the Finns could see the inevitable result and made their arrangements with the Soviets to exit the war. What amazes me is that the Soviets let them.

One wonders if the indomitable spirit the Finns demonstrated had something to do with this. Perhaps the Finns earned the respect of the Russian elites. And the restraint Finland showed during the Continuation War may also have had something to do with it. Despite a lot of pressure from the Germans, the Finns refused to go beyond the limits of the territory they lost to the Russians in the Winter War. And they refused to join actively in the siege of Leningrad.

So unlike all the other Axis minor allies, the Finns avoided being overrun by the Soviets and were allowed to retain their independence during the Cold War (and sensibly, they didn't push their luck, remaining reliably neutral).

Still, the Continuation War gets a lot less attention than the Winter War in western histories. There's the uncomfortable fact that Finland was a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany. But that co-belligerence was an important distinction. Finland and Germany were not allies. Finland did not ship its Jews off to German death camps. And that distinction was noticed in an era that seemed able to recognize subtle distinctions. The United States never even actually declared war on Finland, for example.

Also reducing interest, I think, is that the Continuation War was not particularly fierce. The Finns reined themselves in, and one gathers that the Soviets did little to provoke them. What serious fighting did occur tended to be between those German forces the Finns allowed to operate and the Soviets near Murmansk. Operating at the very far end of the logistical capabilities, the Germans were not able to succeed against the Soviet defenders at Murmansk, which was honored as a hero city.

Many Eastern Front wargames leave the Finnish front out entirely, or just include the portion near Leningrad. Usually there are special rules that prevent the Germans from making the Finns into the sort of potential threat that caused Stalingrad players to sweep the Finns off the board.

I've had a soft spot for Finland's story in World War II. I think they were truly between the rock and the hard place, yet managed to navigate throught treacherous waters to emerge with polity and integrity intact, if not a little battered.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More on wargame tactics for new wargamers

There's an intersting thread over on BGG called "I Want to be a Wargamer" about how new wargamers can get over the hump of learing how to think strategically and tactically while they are starting to play.

There's alot of excellent advice, but I think one the absolutely best books I've ever read as an introduction to tactical thinking is The Defense of Duffer's Drift .

It has the virtue have having tremendous insight with the added benefit of being very entertianling presented.

As the US Army Command and General Staff College notes: A classic in small unit tactics in the British and U.S. Army, this book is recommended, without qualification, for the modern professional soldier.

What would you do? Lieutenant Backsight Forethought (BF to his friends) has been left in command of a 50-man reinforced platoon to hold Dufffer's Drift, the only ford on the Silliassvogel River available to wheeled traffic. Here is his chance for fame and glory. He has passed his officer courses and special qualifications. "Now if they had given me a job," says like fighting the Battle of Waterloo, of Gettysburg, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up...."While BF's task appears simple enough the Boer enemy causes a multitude of problems, but you, astute reader, with a sharp mind and quick intellect, will no doubt, solve the problem before the first shot is fired.

Here is an illustration from this 1905 classic.

When I was a battery commander and my new First Sergeant wanted advice on how to set up the battery defenses I recommended this book. It's not the specific advice, of course, that is important, but the way that it helps the reader develop the critical thinking skills and tactical sense to deal with his particular tactical problem.
I can't recommend this too highly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Digesting scenario-style wargames

There are a lot of characteristics differentiating wargames from other game types, but one common one is the scenario-style wargame.

Usually tactical in scope, this kind of wargame presents a game system in its rules, while the actual contests are a series of "scenarios" that are generally presented separately. This sort of presentation is rarely seen in other kinds of games, which usually have just one basic situation.

And not all wargames are "scenario-style" games in the way I mean, even if they use the word scenarios to describe varying ways to play the game. In many games there are variations in the game presented, but these would often be better called "variants" than scenarios because they are essentially riffs off the same theme. Sometimes they are fairly minor variations that add a unit or two or subtract some based on some historical decision or event. Other times they are fairly major departures, such as starting a day earlier or with a completely different order of battle. Still, in most cases they don't change the game into something completely different, and mean that a lot of analysis and planning can be transferred as the player tries to determine what to do.

On the other hand, with scenario-style wargames every scenario is really, in effect, a different game. The order of battle, victory conditions and often even the map is unique to that scenario.

This can be a bit overwhelming, I think, especially for gamers who haven't played many wargames. The whole question of what-to-do can be hard to wrap your head around.

So you're sitting down for a scenario-based tactical wargame you've never seen before, you're still digesting the rules and you have to figure out what to do -- knowing that early missteps can be fatal. You have five minutes to scope out the game before your opponent starts shifting about in his seat.

Professionally trained military staff officers and commanders have years and training and experience to help them, but a casual wargamer needs some easy-to-remember and use framework for organizing his thoughts.

Here I think borrowing, in simplified form, the US Army technique of METT-T is helpful. It's basically five bullet points or checklist items that can help size up the situation in five minutes and help the player start executing a plan instead of just pushing troops forward and hoping for the best.

METT-T stands for Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops and Time Available.

Mission, of course, is the most important and yet still often forgotten. In game terms, Mission is usually expressed in the victory conditions. It does little good to slaughter enemy troops left and right if your mission is to escort a supply truck off the map and you let it get blown up. So the very first task is to determine what the mission is and what has to be done to accomplish it.

Enemy. Study the enemy's order of battle. A wargamer has much better information about his opponent than a real-life commander. Use it. Consider whether there are any gaps in capability you can exploit. Is the enemy relatively slow? Is the enemy poorly equipped in some way? Does he have a shortage of anti-tank weapons in a World War II setting or lack cavalry on a Napoleonic battlefield.

Terrain. Examine the terrain. Are there places where the enemy will find slow going or good defensive positions? Does the terrain create choke points where a small force can delay a larger one or is it wide open and put a premium of mobile forces?

Troops. Study your own forces. What capabilities does it have? Does it have special abilities that can be exploited or weaknesses to be avoided. In all cases the interrelationship between enemy forces and friendly forces is relative. Having a light tank available might be insignificant in a big armor battle, or the key to victory in a small firefight against a pure infantry force that has no supporting armor of its own.

Time Available. Time is never neutral. One side always benefits from things slowing down, one side always wants to speed things up. It's vital to understand whether time is on your side or not. Related to that is the question of initiative. Generally the tactical situation will dictate which side starts with the initiative, but losing the initiative when you had it or gaining it when you didn't will have a huge impact on who wins. Make sure you understand exactly how much time you have. A well-designed scenario will be set up to leave one move short of victory with average play.

All five aspects of METT-T are intertwined, which is why it's not a simple checklist. You can't simply think about the Mission and then forget about it while you consider the Terrain or the Time. Your mind needs to roll through all five over and over again as you analyze the scenario. Just because you have a large number of hoplites means that hoplites are your main strength, if the enemy has even more hoplites. It may turn out that your real advantage is that small number of slingers -- or the swamp covering half the battlefield -- or the fact that the enemy's objective is a long march away.

Most military planning tools are too specific, detailed or technically demanding to be of much use on the wargame battlefield. But I've found METT-T to be a useful way to frame my thoughts when I'm sitting down for an unfamiliar battle.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Board Game Nights getting noticed

I'm not sure if it's the recession or what, but newspaper features on local board game nights keep popping up. Here's one from The Arizona Republic.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Games everywhere

Took a ride down to New Jersey today to visit friends. I happened to stop at a urban Dunkin Donuts in Plainfield, N.J. for an ice coffee and came across a bunch of guys playing chess in the coffee shop.

Aside from one older gentlemen, everyone else looked to be 20-something and 30-something African-American men. There were two games going on, each using a set that looks like the tournament sets you can get from the US Chess Federation, similar to this:

I'm not sure if the observers were there just to kibitz or to play. One game wrapped up just before I left and the same two players were setting up for another go. It appeared to me that this was some sort of regular gathering, from the way everyone interacted. It was a nice reminder of how you don't have to be a game hobbyist to get a lot out of gaming. Earlier that day while we were visiting I notice that there was a Monopoly game set up in our friend's living room (and they are definitely not gamers).

I know that Monopoly, and even chess, are looked down on in some hobby gamer circles, but I think it's nice to see any kind of gaming going on out there. There's a lot more to the board game scene than just Settlers of Catan or Tide of Iron

Thursday, July 9, 2009

So, are YOU in command?

One of the early sales pitches for Avalon Hill wargames is that YOU are in command, as shown by the box art for Tactics II, above.

Generally I like games where you can identify with some historical personage, but lots of times this is impractical. For example, in a two-player game of Napoleon or Waterloo, the allied player will be portraying at least two individuals -- Wellington and Blucher.

In many games it's even harder to pin the player as representing some distinct individual and the player really represents a corporate body. Players often make decisions at several command levels, for example. If you're playing Chickamauga you're obviously the army commander, but you are also determining the deployment of individual brigades, which the division commanders would do.

The odd thing is that many games that tout their realism are some of the most unrealistic in the amount of control they give players. In ASL, for example, players who must represent battalion commanders are also driving tanks hex-by-hex down a road and rotating a turret -- and selecting the ammo to fire.

This is one reason I'm tending to appreciate games like Memoir '44 or Tide of Iron more, because their limits on player control seem more realistic to me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Just how important was Midway, anyway

From a comment on my BGG posting on the Big 3 of Naval Wargaming.

Regarding Midway's importance.

I'd like to suggest that Midway may be a "bigger" deal than some are giving it credit for. (It still might not make the Big Three of all time though).

While it is true that the US was embarking on a huge shipbuilding program, including carriers, that Japan could not hope to match, the context is still important.In the historical case, the Japanese lost their four most experienced carriers, many of their crew and the well-practiced elite organization that was the carrier strike force. Combined with the earlier rendering of the other first-line carrier division temporarily ineffective, the balance of power for 1942 was evened up, making the Guadalcanal campaign possible. Even with the damage done to the IJN at Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign was extremely hard-fought and both sides were reduced to almost no fleet carriers before it was over.

Historically, after conceding Guadalcanal the Japanese spent all of 1943 rebuilding their strength -- but the US strength increased much more quickly. The US forces were also very active and had time to perfect a much more sophisticated level of carrier ops than they practiced in 1942.By the time the fleets met again in 1944 the Japanese fleet was stronger (on paper) than they were at Midway, having reassembled a 5-carrier strike force, supported by 4 light carriers. What was lacking was the well-drilled expertise of the earlier fleet.

In contrast, the US fielded four task groups EACH of which was roughly equal to the whole US fleet at Midway. And each task group was much more proficient than the Midway forces, not even considering the improved equipment. Now consider the possible alternative history if the outcome had been reversed. Assume the Enterprise divebomber strike force also fails to find the Japanese fleet, as the Hornet package did. The Yorktown attack sinks the Soryu, but now the three surviving Japanese carriers launch a counterstrike against the now-revealed US fleet.

Under 1942 conditions a deckload strike by a carrier could be expected to sink or disable one opposing carrier (based on Hughes' book Fleet Tactics) so it's reasonable to believe that the expert aircrew from the three Japanese flattops could sink all three of the US carriers.

This would have put the events for the remainder of 1942 and 1943 into a much different context. Barring a later "Midway" style disaster the Japanese strike force would have remained more-or-less intact as a unit. Historically much of the Japanese experienced air crew was attritted away in the Solomons flying from land bases. This would not have happened if their carriers were still available.

Meanwhile the US Navy would have been under increased pressure (and the historical pressure was severe enough) to contest the Japanese, yet would have had little opportunity to assemble and practice the historical formidable forces. Instead there's a good likelihood that the available carrier forces would have been committed piecemeal under tactically disadvantaged conditions. This would have been the best case scenario for the IJN, repeatedly facing portions of the US fleet and defeating each in turn. Over the long-term attrition would have still eventually evened the odds. Japan simply could never hope to do more than possibly replace battle losses in carrier hulls. And one presumes that the hard school of experience would still have resulted in US improvements. Unless the Japanese reformed their air crew training policies. one would expect that some level of parity in capability would eventually be reached. But a US unable to begin a strong advance until 1944 or 1945 would have resulted in a very different war.

How would repeated US naval defeats have affected US public opinion? Pearl Harbor provided a powerful incentive to press on for a final victory, but the historical US public only had to endure about 6 more months of disaster before seeing the tide turn. How different would it had been if you tack on another 18 months of failure?Japan took a huge gamble taking of the US, a much more powerful country. But smaller powers have defeated larger powers before, and the Japanese themselves had the recent memory of beating Russia. They might still have lost in the end because of further events. But to have a chance of winning they needed to have a good outcome at Midway and if they had achieved that outcome I think it's being a bit too deterministic to think that they were doomed to lose anyway. History is full of less surprising victories than Japan achieving its war aims against the USA.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Naval wargaming's Big Three

More than most genres of gaming, naval wargaming's development has been dominated by a small number of designers. Three individuals, in particular, really stand out as giants in the hobby -- Fred T. Jane, Fletcher Pratt and Larry Bond.

All three share some characteristics. They were talented writers who have a long list of published works in both fiction and non-fiction. All three were self-taught naval enthusiasts who became noted experts on naval affairs. Of the three, only Bond served as a naval officer, and he didn't make a career at it. And all three were largely motivated by a drive to understand the naval balance of their own day.

The first of these individuals was Fred T. Jane, whose 1898 All the World's Fighting Ships was really what later wargame designers would call a "data annex" for his set of wargame rules, simply called the Naval War Game. Jane was one of the first popular authors to point out the importance of technical points such as armor thickness and placement and power plant horsepower, not to mention coal capacity as vital in naval affairs. Jane's naval wargame didn't become a big mass-market success, but his data annex crew into an annual series of publications that's still the standard reference today. Jane was born in 1865, just as the Ironclad era was beginning and died in the middle of World War I. His active era covered the dawn of the modern warship era, with the 1898 Jane's appearing fortuitously during the Spanish-American War.

Fletcher Pratt was born in 1897, a year before that war, and lived to see the dawn of the nuclear Navy, passing in 1956. Pratt's active era in wargame design was on the cusp of World War II, with his Naval Wargame rules being published in 1940. They earned considerable notice for correctly predicting that the German pocket battleship Graf Spee was, in fact, not a match for three British cruisers -- in contrast to the conventional wisdom. Pratt's wargame was the standard for naval gamers for a generation, with dog-eared copies becoming cherished possessions among naval gamers. One of my first gaming experiences was playing with modified Fletcher Pratt rules on the deck of the Battleship Massachusetts in 1970.

But even by then there were stirrings among hobbyists that Fletcher Pratt's rules were getting long in the tooth and alternative designs were beginning to appear. Naturally the area where Pratt's rules were most lacking was dealing with naval developments since World War II.

So Larry Bond's Harpoon rules, appearing on 1980, filled a real void. While not the first modern-era naval rules to appear, Harpoon was the best, combining realism with playability and being flexible enough to evolve as naval technology continued to develop. Bond, born in 1952, was a child of the Cold War and served a tour as a surface warfare line officer aboard a destroyer. His rules are not parochial, though, and treat every dimension of naval warfare, air, surface, underwater and electronic. Bond's Harpoon rules are so comprehensive that he really has no competitor on modern topics, although he has long been moving into earlier eras as well. As a matter of fact his latest project is harmonizing his rules sets, currently divided into three eras (dreadnought, WWII and modern) into one comprehensive set covering all naval warfare since the beginning of the 20th Century -- indeed, right back to the era covered by Fred T. Jane's original rules. And so naval gaming comes full circle: Jane, Pratt, Bond and back to Jane.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy July Fouth -- Musings on July 4th, 1863

The Battle of Gettysburg was a very hard-fought three-day battle, so it's not surprising that the fourth day was quiet. Both armies were exhausted.

But they were in very close proximity, and disengaging was going to be a tricky affair. And there was always the possibility that one side or the other might try for the decisive victory that had eluded them so far.

Lee, in particular, apparently hoped that Meade would move onto the offensive on July 4th and provide Lee with a chance to strike a counter blow as he had done so often in the past.

Meade, however, was content to sit on the victory already won rather than risk it with some sort of counter offensive. He was still new to the command, of course, and while he may have suspected that the Rebels had been badly hurt, he knew for a fact that his own army had been severely damaged. Several corps commanders were dead or wounded. A couple of corps were shattered and a number of units were jumbled up after three days of parrying blows. It was true that he had a fresh corp, the Sixth, and it was the largest corps in the Army of the Potomac. But it represented his last fresh troops and Meade was undoubtedly unwilling to throw in his last reserve unless it ensured victory.

On the Rebel side, Lee's artillery had fired off the bulk of the ammunition brought north and no resupply was possible until he returned to Virginia. On the other hand, he did have enough ammunition for a defensive fight. So Lee elected to stay of the field while his trains of supply, loot and wounded prepared to head back south.

Gettysburg is one of the most simulated of battles in wargaming. The very first historical wargame was about Gettysburg, and just about every wargame company and designer has taken a stab at depicting the battle.

But relatively few have tried looking at a possible fourth day's battle.

One of the ones that includes a possible Day Four is the exhaustive This Hallowed Ground game from The Gamers, which shows the battle at the regimental scale, but I'm not sure how many people would be tempted to set up that giant game to play out that special case. I suspect that most people who make the effort to get that monster set up do it to play out the entire battle and not a hypothetical Fourth Day. The historical orders listed for all the corps on both sides are defensive in scope and it starts to rain at 2:30 p.m., meaning that the chances of pulling together something decisive under the rules are not good.

Perhaps a better depiction of the July 4th situation is found in the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series supplement The Skirmisher No. 1, which includes a Fourth Day scenario for Roads to Gettysburg. A portion of the map area for this scenario is shown above.

Actually, it's two scenarios. Variant A is the historical scenario. Lasting two days (July 4th & 5th) it covers the beginnings stages of Lee's retreat, and the major measure of Rebel success is getting the wagon trains away.

Variant B assumes that Lee retained enough ammunition to make a serious fight on the Fourth. This is a straight up fight, a final showdown that will leave one army or the other destroyed.

Time is short in both scenarios, however, because the rain is still coming. In deed, the second day of the two is a whole day of rain, and it may start on the first turn. Players track how many times they tie on their initiative rolls. The fifth tie brings the rain.

I think it's an interesting situation to test out. Was Meade wise to hold back, or did he miss an opportunity to win the war.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Official game of the Washington Post-- Pimp: The Backhanding

If we can have special editions of Monopoly, why not of Pimp: The Backhanding?

Axis & Allies Miniatures: T-34 series tanks

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

Base Set

Ah, the T-34. Widely considered the best all-around tank of World War II -- and maybe of all time (at least according to the History Channel).

The T-34 lives up to its reputation in Axis & Allies miniatures. It really doesn't have any flaws. It's reasonable priced in all its versions, so it's a cost-effective purchase in tournament-style scenarios. It has good anti-tank and anti-personnel attack values, it is speedy, well-protected and generally has useful special abilities. It shows up early and often. The basic 76mm-gun armed version is collector No. 6/48 from the Base Set and again as No. 24/60 of the 1939-45 set. A commander version is No. 8 of 60 in the North Africa set and the 85mm gun-armed version is No. 9 of 45 in Set II and 24 of 60 in the Eastern Front set. An improved 76mm gun version is also in the Eastern Front Set, No. 23 of 60. Cards for all versions of the T-34 have been revised tor elect changed working in the transport special ability.

Set II

Rarity: Rare (except in the 1939-45 set where it is an uncommon and also shows up in the Starter pack)
Speed: 4
Defense: 5/5 (6/5 for the T-34/85 and T-34/76 Model 1942)
Cost: 28 (30 for T-34 Model 1942, 32 for the T-34/85, 34 for the Guards T-34/85 and 38 for the T-34 commander)
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 7 -7 -6
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 13 -11 -10 (14-12-10 for the 85mm gun versions)

1939-45 Set

Special abilities:

All except the commander version (revised): Exposed Transport — This unit can carry one Soldier. That Soldier can be attacked while it’s boarded on this transport. (A friendly Soldier can board or dismount this unit instead of moving during your movement phase.) The original version of the ability was simply Transport, which unrealistically made the soldiers immune to enemy fire. This special ability was added to the Guards T-34/85's list with the revised cards.

All: Superior Armor 2 -- An attack must beat this unit's defenses by 2 or more in order to score two hits against it.

Guards version: Guard Crew -- After rolling attack dice for this unit you may reroll a single die result of 1

Commander version:
Commander Abilities:
Initiative +1

Command Awareness -- Friendly Vehicles within two hexes of this unit get "Awareness" -- this unit can make defensive-fire attacks against soldiers that enter its hex.

North Africa Set

T-34 historical text

Considered by many to be the best all-around tank of the war, the T-34 outclassed its German rivals until the Tiger and Panther appeared on the battlefield.

Guards T-34/85 historical text

The Soviet Army’s elite Guards divisions operated an improved version of the T-34/76, featuring a larger turret and an 85mm gun.

T-34/76 Commander historical text

Few Soviet tank commanders survived the initial year of Barbarossa. Those who did learned from those harsh lessons.

T-34/85 historical text

Once the 76.2mm gun on the T-34 proved to be inadequate,it was upgraded to a high-velocity 85mm gun.

T-34/76 Model 1942 historical text

The T-34, considered one of the best tanks at the start of WW II, was produced in various versions with each new version an improvement over the last.

Eastern Front Set T-34/75

The unit in history: Experience from the Spanish Civil War prompted the Soviets to consider the merits of more heavily armed and armored tanks, leading to the fielding of the KV-1 heavy tank and the medium T-34 tanks which unpleasantly surprised German panzer troops in 1941. The T-34 was the brainchild of tank designer Mikhail Korshkin as a development of the BT series of "fast tanks" based on the ideas of American tank designer Walter Christie. The new tank retained the speedy aspects of the BT tanks while adding a larger gun and more armor. Increasing the effectiveness of the armor was a sloping design that helped deflect incoming rounds. The result was a well-rounded main battle tank that was equally effective at supporting infantry attacks, exploiting breakthoughs or battling enemy tanks -- tasks that had been divided between different tank models in the past. The tank was far better than the German Panzer III and IV tanks encountered in 1941 and was a nasty surprise to Germans. The early T-34s did suffer from some drawbacks, including a lack of a radio and a cramped, 2-man turret. These shortcoming and poor training made the tank less effective than it might have been, but these deficiencies were made good with time and by the end of the war the T-34/85, with a radio, 3-man turret, powerful gun and robust construction was still one of the best tanks in the world and served for decades more in armies around the world.

Eastern Front T-34/76 Model 1942

The unit in the game: The T-34 is an excellent piece in all its manifestations in the game. Its gun is effective against all but the heaviest armor, it can attack soft targets and its armor provides protection against all but large guns. The ability to transport accompanying infantry is very useful -- even exposed and the superior armor 2 special ability makes an already tough target even tougher. Best of all, the tank is well-costed so that most Soviet forces will have an ample supply.