Thursday, March 31, 2011

And then a hero arose ....

Game Store Tony and I continued our Grand Normandy Campaign, this time playing Pushing Through Caen -- although before long it looked like it would better be called Pushed Around Caen.

Yep, the initita going was grim for my British. Every attempt to push across the river was decimated and repulsed, and before long I was staring at the wrong side of a 4-1 medal count in the 5-medal game. My sole foothold remaining across the river was a single surviving troop figure hunkered down in some sandbags across the central bridge.

And then a hero arose.

Or at least that's my theory.

The first card that hinted at a turn-around in fortune was a Medica & Mechanics that restored the depleted unit to full strength. A subsequent shot from the Germans missed. Then a Behind Enemy Lines card allowed the rallied unit to charge close enough to fire upon and eliminate the German artilelry unit and then jump on the Verrieres Ridge medal objective!! Now it was 4-3 in the medal count.

A few turns of battling elsewhere left both sides weakened, with several units down to 1 or 2 figures, and the score tied at 4 apiece.

An attempt by a German infantry unit to retake Verrieres left it cut down to a single figure and Game Store Tony reluctantly pulled away to the shelter of a building -- and right into a Barrage card!

"That's it," Tony glumly noted as the four dice rattled across the table. After all , there was a 93.25% chance of getting at least once hit. A terrific come-from-behind win!

The dice rolled to a stop -- two stars and two tanks.

Oh, come ooooooooooooooon!!! Aaargh!

There was no second chance, as Game Store Tony's next shots scored that final hit for the final medal and a 5-4 scenario win, a 15-9 campaign win and brought the Grand Campaign to a tie. But worse, the dice quashed a great war story. Damn!

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Arcane Story Part III

Zhonghli Quan nodded and the battle began.

The Hundun Spirit let the Phoenis and Raven divisoons at the double time straight into the softly golden glowing ground that seemed blessed by the gods. Reaming there and keeping the opposing Daqin army out would hearten his own troops and slowly demoralize the enemy, Quan knew. Still, it was a transient advantage, because there was a similar blessed ground near the Daqin host that they'd undoubtedly seize as well. So in the end it would come down to hard fighting.

As Quan expected, the Daqin began their advance in the center, although he was disconcerted to see that the Daqin were leading with their archers, ratehr than the large-shielded infantry. He was even more disconnected when those archers let fly with a surprisingly devastating flurry of arrows that mowed down half of the Phoenix Division in seconds! This was unexpected, as the Daqin, known as Romans in their own tongue, were reputed to be indifferent archers. It was evident this was some outdated intelligence. It appeared that the Daqin planned to followup their success as a small body of mechanical construct infantry charged toward Phoenix Division.

This appeared to be a premature move, however, as the Hundun Spirit quickly noted the advance and fired, downing several of the constructs. The Phoenix Division regained its composure and dropped a few more and finally the crack Raven Division wheeled into firing position and finished off the constructs! First blood to the Han. Quan nodded again and the Dragon of Wrath began its advance on the right.

The Daqin archers continued to fire on Phoenix, although less accurately now, possibky due to fatigue and now some of the large-shielded infantry advanced as well, with some occupying the blessed ground on the left and others moving towards the Hundun Spirit.

Soon a swirling melee developed in right center and it became hard to make out the details. The Daqin fed in unit after unit, including some of their fearsome steam-armored infantry. Quan, too, carefully fed new troops into the fray.

Some minor affairs caused a momentary distraction. The Dragon of Wrath was pestered by another group of constructs, which were quickly reduced to a pile of parts. Quan's own constructs of the Honor Division came under effective fire from some additional Daqin archers. Losses were heavy, and some arrows fell close to Quan, himself, but he judged it was not the critical sector and kept his focus on the central fight. Eventually the Hundun Spirit, himself, fell under the rending blows of the steam armored infantry. He was, as a spirit, naturally impossible to actually slay, but without the coherence of his armored to confine the spirit in place, he dissipated. He would eventually regroup and rejoin the Crusade, but in days or weeks, not tomorrow.

Quan sent in the Lightning Division horse archers, the Thunder Division lancers and the fearsome Hizume horse. The fighting was hard, and the Hizume, especially, suffered heavily, but in time the Daqin had enough and Quan saw their line waver and then break. A pursuit seemed unwise, however, as his own cavalry was weary and the Daqin's still fresh. He noted that they expertly formed up to cover the retreat, so at least one Daqin leader seemed to have kept his wits about him.

As he surveyed the wreckage on the field, he noted that the human losses were remarkably low. Most of the units that had been wrecked were made of constructs, not living beings. Even the defeated Daqin didn't leave an extarordianry number on the field and indeed, it seemed both victor and vanquished lost about equally. Quan was impressed with the valor and stolidness of the Daqin soldiers, but was less impressed with their eladersm who seemed unimaginative.


Marcus Agrippus glanced over at the bloodied -- and chastened -- Titus. No doubt the defeated general dreaded what Agrippa might report to Augustus. And indeed, the battle might have been handled better, Agrippa admitted to himself. But Titus would get another chance. He had been valorous enough, right in the thick of the fight. He'd been trampled by Han horsemen and had to be rescued by one of his beloved Invictus steam-powered infantry. Still, the Han were a worthy adversary, the toughest Rome had met in more than a century, and this first encounter would provide lessons on how to deal with them in the future. Their foot seeemed none too impressive, although they were not really tested but their skilled archers, valorous horse and fierce Dracos would require more than the standard Roman steadiness to defeat. No, it might be time to ask the Druids for help ... .

A solitaire run through for familiarization purposes I pitted Han and Roman armies of abourd 14,000 points against each other. This is larger than the recommended forces, but I wanted to explore as many units as possible.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

You HAVE to control the air in desert warfare

~ Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success ~
Erwin Rommel

Read more:

Rommel said that based on his experiences while fighting over the very same ground that's being contested in the Libyan civil war and if anything, technological developments in the six decades since his campaign have made the statement even more true.

Air power is not a panacea. There are many conditions (mountains, jungles, urban areas, insurgencies) where its power is muted to some degree or the other. But in the open desert, far from dense civilian targets, the fact is that no army can survive, let alone prevail, against an opponent that controls the air.

Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is just the latest to discover this truth of modern warfare.
The latest reports from the front indicate that the government forces are in full flight after being pounded by U.S.-led air strikes. The rebels appear to be chasing them in pickup trucks.

This isn't the slightest bit surprising. There was never any question that Western air support would be militarily decisive -- all the questions about the long-term wisdom of the intervention rest on political grounds. Color me still skeptical about how we get out of this, but to the extent that we're in, it's good to see success.

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Arcane Story Part II

Arcane Legions

Titus Petronius wasn't entirely happy.

It was true that his co-commanders had brought welcome reinforcements, but Titus would have been much happier with just the additional troops. He suspected strongly that Marcus Agrippa and Diviciacus of Gaul were meant to keep an eye on him for Augustus, not merely aid him in battle. Titus hadn't risen this far by sharing his achievements with others, and with battle imminent with the strange easterners, he wasn't going to tarnish his Triumph by giving too prominent a role to either rival.
So he had posted Agrippa on the flank to lead some cavalry, which seemed to suit him, and likewise the Druid off on the other flank with a hodgepodge of units for a guard. Between them the two spies commanded much less than half the army, however. No, Titus kept the real striking force, his VIIth Legion and, most importantly, his prize elite Invictus, under his personal command in the center. There he planned to win the victory with brute force.

The opposing array was interesting, enough. One couldn't help but stare at the two great Dracos that they had. While wingless, the enormous beasts were clearly the creatures of legend, brought back to life by the mists that had so changed the world. One was a bright blue, while the other was a shimmering gold in color, one on each flank.

Still, Titus was too experienced a Roman soldier to be distracted by flashy "special" weapons. What were the Dracos but a bigger Elephant, after all. Victory always came down in the end to the soldier in the ranks. And here the Easterners didn't look so special. Across from him was a large body of shield-less infantry, most of it the clay soldiers that reports had indicated were more fearsome-loo0king than dangerous. On the left the enemy's true striking forces was apparent, some archers and cavalry. These would bear watching, but Roman soldiers had dealt with their sort before and Titus expected they could do so again. With a little luck they might slay that troublesome Druid, though.

Titus noted that the ground had begun to glow in two spots. There were many theories about the Night of Mist, but Titus thought the answer was obvious -- the Gods of Old had determined to intervene in the affairs of man again. And as was often the case, they seemed to bless this battle by consecrating some patches of ground between the armies. Claiming the consecrating ground always heartened the possessors and demoralized the dispossessed. Titus was under know illusions, however. The Gods played no favorites, rewarding valor and success only. The Romans would find favor from the Gods through victory, not merely for being Roman, and if the strange easterners proved more worthy then they would celebrate the Triumph, not Titus.

Ah, movement. The affray begins, then.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Arcane story -- part I

Arcane Legions

"What remarkable times," said Zhonghli Quan to himself, as he had said daily in the five years since the Night of the Mists changed the world.
The Han Empires' premier general, known to all as the Immortal Tactician, pondered the opposing array as the last of his own troops took up their battle positions. The Crusade had taken his army far from home, and deep in to the vast steppes that formed the contested ground between the three empires of the world. He hadn't been certain until the night before which opposing army he'd encounter first, but scouts had reported during the evening that they'd discovered the camp of the Daqin Empire.
The sight across the shallow, almost imperceptible, valley between the two forces revealed that it was the Daqin, with their enormous shields and sturdy infantry, that would be the first opponent. In their own tongue they were called "Romans," Zhonghli Quan had been told, named after their city. A city that had conquered an empire! Remarkable, especially considering the conquest had been accomplished without the aid of the mists or magical beasts.
But now they were facing another empire that had also conquered its portion of the world without the aid of the mists, and Zhonghli Quan expected victory, even if hard-won.
The array of the Daqin appeared rather conventional, to Quan's practiced eye. In the center was a large mass of the huge-shielded infantry that formed the heart of a Daqin host, interspersed with some archers, a few magically mechanical construct warriors and some units of the steam-powered magical heavy infantry that the mists had made possible.
Off to Quan's left the enemy's flank was guarded by a couple of bodies of human cavalry accompanied by some giant wolves. On the right the flank was guarded more unconventionally with a few more magical mechanical constructs and a group of steam soldiers mounted on some giant bears. A small bodyguard of infantry surrounded a man wearing a conspicuous white robe. Clearly not a fighting man, Quan surmised he was a magician of some sort.
It appeared the enemy plan was to pierce the Han center and overwhelm them in hand-to-hand combat. It could work, if Quan gave them time.
But time was not what Quan planned to give them. On his left he posted a fearsome-looking detachment that should give the Daqin pause -- a luck Dragon and the Souls of Chance with a Great One brute and some magical Qilin. Quan doubted that the Daqin had seen them before. Zhonghli Quan, himself, would contest the center of the battlefield with his bodyguard, the human Tiger Division and the double-strength Honor and Glory divisions of terra cotta construct troops. An imposing, yet fragile force, Quan expected this to be the Yin, or ordinary force.
Quan intended the victory to be won by his Yang, or special force, on the right. Led by the frightening Hundun Spirit, this force would use fire and speed to overwhelm and roll up the flank of the Daqin host. The speed came from a Dragon and the Hizume and Thunder divisions of cavalry. The fire would some from the Phoenix Division of archers and the Raven Division of crossbows. Combining speed and fire was the Lightning Division of horse archers.
Quan cast his eye over to the Hundun Spirit and saw that he was ready. A nod of Quan's head was all the signal needed for the battle to begin.
He nodded.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The perils of war coverage in the media

Rebel MiG-23 shot down over Benghazi on March 19

Trying to get an accurate sense of what's going on in a combat zone from the mass media is not a new problem, as a moment's perusal of newspapers from the U.S. Civil War or World War II reveals.

To a large extent this is a problem without a solution. The inherently limited viewpoints available from professional journalists and the random eyewitnesses that pop up are guaranteed to miss the critical parts. Even historians working long after the fact -- or even actual participants -- can't know the whole story. This isn't an excuse for simply dismissing news accounts of a military crisis whole, but merely a caution that the inherent limitations are kept in mind. One hopes that the U.S. government's intervention in Libya relies on more than what's appeared in news accounts -- but recent history isn't too comforting in that regard.

But it does make it very hard for an interested observer to know what's really going on. To the extent that the news media could do a better job of explaining what is knowable about the situation they are failing miserably. Overall the quality of the military analysis of this conflict, just like Iraq and Afghanistan has been awful -- much less informative than it was during the 1991 war for example. It really seems like the vast majority of news people have no clue about the basic military facts on the ground.

For example, I have yet to see any cogent discussion about the logistics of organizing and supplying effective military forces in the midst of a civil war, especially won fought across vast desert distances. Interestingly, the current civil war involves fighting over the same ground as the World War II desert war -- so there's precedent.

My guess is that Gadhafi's forces will find it impossible to sustain any kind of offensive military potential in the face of Allied air power's ability to interdict his supply lines. But conversely, its hard to see how the rebel forces could organize and supply a counteroffensive that could dislodge the dictator in a time frame that's measured in anything less than months or even years. But this is just a guess. It would be nice to hear more details about what the reporters on the ground are seeing in order to judge.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

70 years later a new battle of Benghazi

It's more than a little ironic that 70 years after Rommel's forces started moving against the British forces not far from Benghazi there's a new deset campaign shaping up on roughly the same battlefield.

While I think the politics behind this intervention are very problematical (yet another war?), militarily the situation is considerably simpler than either Iraq or Afghanistan in an immediate sense. Command of the air is vital in any land campaign, but never more so than in the desert. I don't think there's any question that Western aircraft can make it essentially impossible for Gadhafi's forces to either fly warplanes or mass heavy firepower like tanks and artillery anywhere near Benghazi. I'd expect the No-fly zone and associated "no-drive" zone to have an immediate and dramatic impact on Gadhafi's forces. While it's likley he could still try to take Benghazi with lighter forces (technicals and the like) it's also likely that these wouldn't be enough to root out the rebels who are similarly armed.

What's missing, of course, is a strategic context for all this and what's desired for an end state. It seems that the rebellion never mustered enough support from the key Gadhafi strongholds around Tripoli and I therefore doubt they can win control of the whole country anytime soon, if ever. History cautions us that these sorts of things can dra out for a very long time indeed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tiger Trouble -- 100-point Axis & Allies miniatures session

Played a quick game of Axis & Allies Miniatures with a budding AAM collector/player at the local game shop.

"Bud" doesn't have a large collection, yet, so I thought it best to keep the scenario small and we played without any year restrictions. It was a standard 100-point German (me) vs. British (him). I'd given him a spare Spitfire Ace plane after our last game and he wanted to use that.

I therefore knew he'd have a plane so I decided to field the Flak 88 with gun shield, figuring it could do double duty for AA and AT work. The bulk of my points were spent on a Tiger I, and I filled out my army with two Mauser 98kar regular infantry, one veteran paratrooper and a "Grizzled Veteran" German hero.

As expected, the Brits had the Spitfre Ace, an Inspired Lieutenant, two Vickers MG teams, a 6-pounder ATG and the following armor: One Cromwell, a Crusader and a Stuart.

The battle started off badly as the Tiger' shooting was poor. It could hardly fail to damage the light UK armor, of course, but there were no quick kills. Meanwhile the Spitfire Ace made short work of the 88 and the machine gunners took care of my infantry. The German Hero was also gunned down by the Spit, while he only disrupted the plane in return. By Turn 4 it was the Tiger alone, facing almost the entire British force. The Inspired LT was down, but that was it, although two of the three tanks were damaged.

But British Bud found out how frustrating dealing with a Tiger I is. The paratrooper arrived and shot down the Spit when it attacked, and then he took out a Vickers team before going down himself. Meanwhile the light British guns could make no impression on the Tiger, even at point-blank range, and the Tiger dispatched the Stuart and the Crusader in turn. Time was running out, however. The surviving Vickers was sitting on the objective, so the Tiger ignored the damaged Cromwell yapping at its heels and made for the objective hex. Luckily it made the movement roll to enter the wooded objective, disrupting the Vickers with its Overrun special ability and then killing it in the Assault phase.

Finally the Tiger turned on its tormenter and KO'd the Cromwell for the win. The sole surviving British piece was the ATG. It was a near-run thing, however, because it would only have taken one lucky combo of shots to change things around. The Tiger I is a tough egg, but my basket only had that single egg in it. The Flak 88 was a disappointment. Even though it got a defensive fire attack on the Spitfire Ace, which incautiously bored in for a close-range shot, it's roll wasn't even close. I doubt I'll take one of those again in a small battle.

It took about 75 minutes to play, including army construction time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ivan's War and Fury of the Bear

This week I had several reminders of that unsung "Proletariat of Comrades" known as the Red Army. A colleague at work lent me a copy of a book called Ivan's War about the experience of Soviet soldiers in the Great Patrotic War and at the same time my copy of the latest Tide of Iron expansion -- Fury of the Bear arrived.

Both were thought provoking. To a large extent, of course, it's a common observation that no one who have not been in combat can understand it. The true experience of the combat veteran is probably beyond the ken of mere words to ever express. But even among the inadequate words written about World War II combat the experiences of the Soviet soldier are especailly egnimatic. Nearly all we know comes from their opponents and the official Soviet line -- neither of which is reliable. So Ivan's War, which is based mostly on interviews with survivors and wartime letters and documents, fills a much-needed niche.

It's a fascinating read, filled with compelling stories and unimaginable tragedy. Yet, in the end, it's an unfulfilling work in many ways. As the author admits herself, so much time has passed, too many didn't survive and the official Soviet line is a convenient narrative for too many, for us to be certain we've gotten close to the truth. It seems unlikely they'll ever be a "Saving Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" for the Soviet side of the story, although "Enemy at the Gates" isn't bad.

As primarily a social and oral history Ivan's War is light on the nitty gritty organizational and tactical factors that affected the Soviet performance on the battlefield. It contains enough "big picture" to provide context for the overall narrative but few details. Although the book documents the appalling casualty differential between the Soviets and the Germans, it doesn't really explain how it came about. One wishes she had asked the old soldiers more about exactly how much training they received before they saw combat, for example, or how tactical "lessons learned" reached them.

One can glean from the book however, that many Soviet soldiers, especially the drafts in late 1941 and 1942 and the recruits swept up during the liberation of former Soviet territory probably got hardly any formal training at all. So it's hardly surprising that they had such diffculty matching the Germans (who, in contrast, were religious about maintaining the quality of training despite every difficulty).

Which make it interesting to see that on a squad-stand by squad-stand basis, the Soviet troops in Fury of the Bear are equal to the Germans. An interesting call and one I'm hoping to see the implcations of shortly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

There's no coroner to pronounce it, but it seems to me Up Front is well and truly "dead>"

This update from MMP seems to make it certain that there will never be a reprint of Up Front.

I don't know what the legal issues are about the ownership of the game that are causing the problem and it doesn't seem that we'll ever find out because those that know will not or cannot talk about it. But it seems clear that whatever they are, they are intractable, and therefore I see little prospect that they'll ever be solved. It seems unlikely that it involves someone saying "no" and most instead I suspect that they just can't figure out who can say "yes."

Given that MMP apparently sunk considerable resources into the project the fact that they're calling it off now is a major blow. It truly is a pity, because Up Front is a fine game and ground-breaking one. Being a card game means that it's especially subject to wear and tear. I'm glad I bought an extra set of cards back when Avalon Hill was still around because I was concerned about that.

Avalon Hill was a small company and there were a number of instances over the years when they got into some legal disputes over game rights and they never seemed to come out on the winning end even when they seemed to be in the right. I can't help but wonder if they simply couldn't afford the kind of legal help they needed. Intellectual property law is notoriously complicated and I think that Hasbro probably inherited a mess when they bough AH. They've seemed more than willing to license wargames to MMP and let the rights to other games revert to designers in other cases as is demonstrated by the fairly long list of former AH games that have reappeared elsewhere. I don't think Up Front is some especially valuable property from the standpoint of Hasbro. so it's probable that the rights in question are simply too scrambled to untangle.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Buckles and memory

A few days ago Frank Buckles. the last surviving doughboy, died, moving the First World War out of the era of living memory and irrevocably into History.

In a couple of more years we'll be marking the centennial of the war's beginning, which could be considered the official celebration of the war's passage into the ranks of History.

Now History. of course, starts to be written moments after events happen, but so long as there are living eyewitnesses to events there's at least some check on the tricks of time and some hope of new information and perspectives arising. After the last witnesses pass on there is the occasional emergence of new archeological or documentary evidence, but even these will necessarily be interpreted by scholars with no first-hand knowledge of the events in question. The end result, in my view. is that once an event passes into History the chance to shape the narrative permanently passes. It's subject to revisionism, of course, but revisionism inherently is subject to revision itself and so whatever "truth" can be known about an event almost always must be established within the lifetimes of the witnesses.

This is one reason why phenomena such as the Lost Cause myth and Holocaust denial are so troubling when they occur because I think they're almost impossible to stamp out. If they can get established even while there are living witnesses to refute them, then later historians stand little chance of overcoming them. such myths serve powerful interests or they wouldn't arise in the first place.

The First World War didn't generate anything quite so noxious, but we still lose something when there's no witnesses left. How much and what we've lost we'll find out when 2014 rolls around.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unremarked anniversary

Even by me, but yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the end of ground operations during Desert Storm -- an anniversary little mentioned in the media. One suspects that the ongoing morass that ensued after we did go on to Baghdad has something to do with that.

That said, it is hard to imagine that 20 years have gone by. As it turned out, I missed Round 1 of the Iraq contests because my National Guard unit was not called up for duty -- there being plenty of regular troops available in that immediate post-Cold War world to easily handle the contingency. In contrast I ended up being called out tothe IRR to serve in Round 2 because the military was so short of field grade officers that someone like me was needed! What a difference a decade makes.

The First Iraq War was notable for the quick response of wargame companies to the unfolding situation. Strategy & Tactics rushed out Arabian Nightmare before the fighting even commenced, while even stodgy old Avalon Hill updated its Gulf Strike (under the Victory Games brand) with exampsions that covered the unfolding situation. I remember at the time testing out the situation using both games soliatire -- and each, while using very different systems, made it clear that the only question was WHEN, not IF, Iraq was going to be ejected from Kuwait. Other games, such as Omega Games Desert Victory, made it clear on the tactical level that the Iraqis were out of their depth. As it turned out, no game was able to capture the full extent of the impending Iraqi rout, largely because it was off the charts and anything that reflected the reality would have been deemed "unrealistic."

Even the post-war Desert Storm published in Command Magazine (cover above) had to have special "Historical" rules to reflect the actual event while presenting as a standard game a more credible Iraqi opponent. It didn't help. While a perfectly good wargame, Desert Storm wasn't too popular.

There were a few games published before Round Two as well, notably Back to Iraq (Thre editions in Command and S&T) and Millennium Wars: Iraq and at least one right after the fighting (Iraqi Freedom in Armchair General) but none of them dealt with anything past the intiial fighting. This, of course, turned out to be a major oversight because the period AFTER the conventional phase turned out to be the critical one. It's too bad that on one thought to ask those questions at the time because it might have provided a cautionary tale when it was really needed.