PBI US!

At last, I’ve completed the painting of a 15mm regular US Rifle Battalion (1944), in time for our 10 November Frome Mission Command: Normandy game. Pete’s making the other pertinent miniatures: most of a light armoured Division Combat Command. Scale: 1 figure is 5 to 10 men, 1 vehicle/gun/heavy weapon is 2 to 5 real ones.

For those that care, the figures in the figures below are mainly from the Plastic Soldier Company, with a smattering of Peter Pig (57mm gun and crew, most officers) with transports purchased from Mr Ebay. PSCs are Late War US Infantry 1944-45 – I quite enjoyed putting together and painting these – plus US Infantry Heavy Weapons – not so much. I found the latter very fiddly, sometimes seemingly unnecessarily, and some of the weapons are over-sized. But I would stress that the Late War US box is great. The Peter Pig stuff is good, but again the gun itself is over-sized, with a barrel nearly long enough to be a 17-pdr.

Figure 1 – US Rifle Company attacking

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Figure 2 – Close up

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Figure 3 – HQ with some heavy weapons

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Figure 4 – US Rifle Company configured for AT wtih 57mm gun attached. In Mission Command: Normandy, you can supply one of your Rifle Companies with all the spare bazookas held at Battalion (making 4 elements, one’s unfortunately out of shot); the downside is you have to crew them with your own riflemen, so small arms fire is significantly reduced. But that’s a lot of bazookas!

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Figure 5 – the Full Bradley (well, it’s not a Monty, is it?).

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Open Battles Solo Mode: GI Joe versus the Romans

This post is about testing the solo rules in Open Battles with aircraft, using the 2-player version of the scenario I designed for the first anniversary of the Airfix Battles Appreciation Facebook group: GI Joe versus the Romans. Open Battles is our working title for the new game under development by Nick Fallon and I (for Modiphius) as a follow-up to Airfix Battles.

The historical background in brief is that on 15 July 1944 the hard-fought, intense battle for St Lo had not yet been won by the Americans of General Bradley’s 1st Army. XIXth Corps had attempted to outflank Hill 122 to the north-east of St Lo for several days, but stubborn German defence had blunted his lead divisions. Therefore, he called upon the recently-arrived 35th Division to carry out a more direct attack. Approaches to Hill 122 were covered by the villages of Emilie and Les Romains. The scenario represents part of the attack of the Nebraskan National Guard 134th Regiment on the hard-core survivors of the German 352nd Division, the same division that had opposed the Americans at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

I opted for the US in this game, as I’d already played (and lost) as the Germans. For the 2-player and solo versions we use only about half of the battlefield, so that we can limit each Force to 19 Stars apiece.

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Initial German set-up

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German troops. The Captain’s Air Defence Controller attachment is, as you can see, a very new card. He allows the player to buy a Field Fortification in any scenario without needing a Unit tab.

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US set-up. The half-track contains my Engineers led by a trusty Lieutenant. I also have off-table Spitfire and Thunderbolt. Also, my Captain has a Forward Air Controller who can call in air strikes anywhere in line of sight.

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My US troops. I have a preparatory air bombardment – this represents a few Marauders helping out before we go in.

Preparatory bombing: I chose to bomb the known field fortifications, hoping to pin the 88. But not particularly effective, caused a couple of German losses and pinned the PaK40.

My first card is Rolling Thunder, so I launched an immediate air raid on the PaK40 to clear the way down the left flank. Rolling Thunder permits 2 vehicles to Move then Fire, so it’s perfect for a couple of planes. I can target the PaK in the Field Fortifications only because I have the FAC attached to the Captain in LoS of the enemy square; normally aircraft cannot spot things in cover. The A-OK 88 starts the scenario ready to fire, so it opened up on the Spitfire. Brilliant flying from the pilot meant he avoided all 3 potential hits from the gun, completed his strafing run and caused a casualty on the PaK. The Thunderbolt following up decided to strafe and finished off the crew (terrible cover save rolling from the Germans, because they do get +1 on their cover saves in the trenches there).
However, on the very next turn the 88 fired again at the Spitfire (using its normal Order), scored 3 hits again, and this time the pilot’s luck ran out and he was shot down.

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Honours even?

End of Round 1: With the PaK knocked out, both US Infantry Squads have moved up ready to assault down the left flank. German fire has been intense and both have lost men and are pinned.

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End of Round 1: First US attack. Note the barbed wire – these “model” pieces are actually extraordinarily sharp! Handle with care because they’re very realistic!

Calamity in Round 2: My assault got under way, and eventually we pinned the dug-in Grenadiers #5 in front of us by using all our firepower including the half-track; the enemy was also down to 3 men. Then disaster! My engineers were hit by an artillery strike and forced to retreat; my plan had been to get them to clear the barbed wire so Squad 11 could get through. Then the 3 German Grenadiers rallied and charged my pinned squad 8, forcing them back as well. It’s not looking good.

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First attack beaten off. It was so hairy there that my Captain had to engage directly and beat off the Grenadiers himself.

Situation stabilised a bit. US troops regrouped. Another Thunderbolt strike failed, and the plane was damaged . But we eliminated the German Grenadier Unit #5 as well as the PaK, and caused casualties on their other Grenadier Unit (#4). However, that German Unit in the multi-storey building is tough – extra dug-in, plus it has height advantage, so better range than us and can fire over the hedges without them blocking LoS. We suffered a lot from flanking fire.

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Getting ready for another assault.

Round 5: Thunderbolt’s last attack . Coupled with the loss of another squad that retreated off the board in the face of MG fire, it was nearly over for the good guys. I was hit hard by the Engineers’ failure to rally for 3 Rounds – they were supposed to be the mainstay of my attack!

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Got to dig deep now! Squad 11 is about to retreat off-table.

Sudden change of fortune in Round 6: Our attacking Engineers, having eventually been persuaded to get back over the hedge, were immediately pinned in the open again, this time by the enemy’s command team consisting of their Captain and an Air Defence Controller (with just a pistol)! Fortunately, this was a very temporary setback. An Artillery Strike on the pinned German Grenadiers holding us up in the centre of the battlefield caused them to rout, so the flank fire was neutralised. At the same time our engineers rallied straight away (!) and shot down the German commander and his side-kick. This meant we just needed half-a-Star to demoralise them, and this was achievable by taking the empty Field Fortification. So, it looks like the US may have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat!

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German command team is killed.

Final position: Technically, the game ends when the halftrack enters the field fortification square. I’ve adjusted the duration of the game by changing the victory conditions to – Game ends when all Forces of one side are demoralised; so, in a 2-player game, demoralisation of one side automatically means the other side wins. However, you can always play for the final denouement of taking the Pillbox. In this example, the Engineers have AT(6) + 1 for the Mechanised Assault + 1 for the flank attack. They manage to just about knock it out in this example. It’s quite possible that this will take more than one go, so it’s best to be prepared .

This was a very close game. I’d taken 8 Stars of losses, the Germans 9.5 by the end. For a proper assessment of balance, we’d need to play it a few more times.

The Solo Rules seem to be working fine. Important points to remember when reading the Enemy Behaviour table: aircraft are Vehicles! If the enemy is in a good position, don’t override that by interpreting the Enemy Behaviour table in your favour – for example, an enemy Unit in Cover won’t Move as a result of a Default Order if moving doesn’t improve its position or enable it to Fire.

One important point is to add a Default Order clause as the 1st clause of the current version: If the enemy has an unprepared AA gun, carry out an Air Defence Order to prepare it. For aircraft, I’m introducing a method within the AI for enemy planes – but not yet shared with my co-designer Nick Fallon, so I’m keeping it up my sleeve for now.

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Final denouement: a very close finish, the US just squeaked it.

Connections UK 2018

On Wednesday 5 September I nipped down to my alma mater, King’s College London, for probably the best professional wargaming conference in the world, Connections UK. Within the over 200 delegates from across the globe were some of the finest wargames designers you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, this year I could only attend the one day, rather than the whole 3 day conference, but there was a splendid packed programme (and also good nosh too).

There were excellent presentations from Professor Phil Sabin on Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design, and from Brian Train on Game design as a form of journalism. The former covered some of the material in the good professor’s book Simulating War. “Operationalise the dilemmas for players” was a phrase that stuck in my mind. Brian’s perspective was a new one for me, and I’d really like to review my thoughts on it once the transcript / audio has appeared. Matt Caffrey, who introduced the first plenary, mentioned a couple of new books to look out for: his own “On Wargaming” and a forthcoming book “Successful Professional Wargames” from John Curry’s History of Wargaming project.

The second plenary was on Wargame development, rather than design or implementation, and was a very welcome part of the programme. This is one of those areas where we could get into a bit more detail about the nuts and bolts, whereas I have felt that previous conferences had more of a focus on selling wargames to potential professional users than on advancing the craft. Dave Manley had an interesting presentation on nesting 3 games within the topic of conflict in the High North (the Arctic). It highlighted the difficulty of nesting, in that the implementation of a follow-on game can be perceived as very dependent on outcomes from the first game. Much of the development here is how to get credible traction with the follow-ups without predetermining too much – or in short, fudging it. Players need agency and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to have it. Volko Ruhnke gave a stimulating talk on model calibration, a central point being related to a systems thinking approach: calibration is the process of making your game outcomes interesting for the purpose of your game, as opposed to being accurate (true to reality). He involved his audience in a striking interactive session modelling the spread of an epidemic disease in less than 10 minutes including explanation. This involved a couple of simple rules: (1) If you are touched on the shoulder once, you must touch 3 others on the shoulder (you’re infected); but (2) if you are touched twice, you sit down (you’re dead). The point was that we could easily tweak the design to give interesting results about how to prevent spread or to experiment with different lethalities. This approach to calibration has direct impact on my own designs, and it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the game when wrestling with development problems as a result of testing – for my own Mission Command: Normandy game, I’m focusing now much more on the player perceptions of command, control and communications rather than on mechanics, because the purpose of the game is to show differences in those areas.

The Games Fair is a central part of Connections. This year, there were about 20 games on offer during the afternoon and evening sessions. These ranged from the historical Western Approaches Tactical Unit Wargame, based on the exercise used during 1942-5 to help to train naval officers, through a modern naval wargame used in the education of postgrad naval architecture and marine engineering students, to Phil Sabin’s excellent brand of WW2 dogfighting, as well as the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset and the Strike! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame, both already used by the UK military.

I played Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers game, a cunning asymmetric abstract game with a squared board. The COIN player uses relatively few pieces on the squares, and the Guerrilla player has relatively large numbers of pieces played on the nodes. The COIN player takes in a fashion much like draughts, whereas the Guerrilla has to surround the COIN pieces. My interest was in its simplicity and how it was aligned to its purpose – showing the different approaches of each side; particularly in the light of my own abstract conventional historical strategy micro-game The March of Progress. As it happens, my own game has a couple of asymmetric scenarios, and it’s great to see how the world’s master designer at this type of game works his magic.

The key note address was by Volko Ruhnke on “Wargames and Systems Thinking” – so that’s 2 of my primary interests in 1 session! I won’t attempt to cover Volko’s address here in detail – however, I commend it to you for reading/listening, if and when it’s available on the internet. One of his main points was that wargames start out as mental models in the head of the designer. They’re simplified in accordance with their purpose. When you produce a wargame (in other words, when it’s out of your head), it’s then an external model subject to use and critique by others. This is a good thing. When we have many external models, we can synthesise them in order to get closer to reality. Many perspectives and many types of modeling media will get us closer to reality, as the different types have different strengths and weaknesses. So, implications for defence (and in my view for a discussion of history too) are to use a mix of models, a mix of people and to involve model users (consumers of models, if you will) in model building. It was a very stimulating talk.

Apart from the sessions themselves, an absolutely key component of the conference is chatting with leading experts in the field. I’m very grateful to so many fellow conference goers for putting up with my comments and also for engaging in constructive discussions.

The aim of Connections UK is “To advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.” From my viewpoint, as a hobby gamer and commercial designer, it’s a highly successful conference, enabling the linking of professional wargamers and designers with those who wargame as a hobby and those of us involved in design for a variety of purposes. Though I’m not a “professional wargamer”, I’m keen that my designs might pass on some historical lessons to other wargamers. Connections UK gives a great many useful perspectives, and I hope to keep on going back to Kings.

It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Air Today, Done Tomorrow

Update on the Open Battles draft

Open Battles rules drafting continues apace. I’ve written up the resolutions to the air rules – now a bit simpler, I hope, so more fitting for the Airfix Battles oeuvre. I’m also quite pleased with my little icon for air Units: BlackPlane, though it will probably need to be re-drawn better, so it’s iconic at smaller size. Nothing says WW2 aircraft like a Spit!

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, didn’t have aircraft. We’re adding them in to Open Battles, but keeping it simple, because it will remain a basically on-the-ground game. I’ve shown 2 or 3 draft Unit cards on the Official Airfix Battles Facebook group, so folks can get a preview of how we see the aircraft operating in the game.

SpitfireIX ME109G

The basic anatomy of the aircraft rules is that each Unit is 1 plane, and they start off-table at their airfields. You use a Vehicle Move Action to bring a plane on, which changes its status from “Ready for Take-off” to “Engaged”. You can place the plane model anywhere convenient on the tabletop, because they don’t obey the same movement rules as ground troops. To carry out an attack, play a Vehicle Fire Action – then put your aircraft next to the target (no extra Move Action required) and shoot, using air to ground or air to air as appropriate. Most of the late war aircraft have AT and MG as well as AA weapon types. Rockets and bombs are commensurately better AT, as you’d expect.

Once you’ve carried out a ground attack, you turn the Unit card to show RETURN TO BASE, and it automatically goes away in Clean-up (no further Order needed). Turn the Unit card again to show REFUELLING, so your planes effectively skip the next Round and then can come back.

These cards are not yet final. We’re currently thinking that the “basic” late war fighter, like the Spitfire IX, should be 2 Stars, rather than 1, so that early war planes can be just a single Star, and obviously less effective. Perhaps MG(8) is a bit too much as well, so this might get dialled down a tad. The Me109 Ace would then be 3 Stars.

You’ll need Commanders with Air Unit tabs, so we’re developing these as both Officer Pilots and ground-based air controllers with Forward Air Controllers too.

We’ve also covered anti-aircraft fire. After wrestling a little with the balance of guns like the 88, we decided that AA guns can fire usually fire in 2 ways. First, they can shoot like normal Gun Units, using an Order with a Fire Action. For an 88 on the tabletop, that means you can target any aircraft over the battlefield, owing to its range – smaller AA guns are more limited, but we cannot miss out the 88! Second, you can use an ability called “Defensive Interrupt Fire”. This allows you to shoot at an attacking aircraft before resolving the aircraft’s attack. However, we didn’t want this to be a way for the 88 to shoot down everything that moves as a kind of permanent Interrupt Fire, so you have to prepare the Defensive Interrupt Fire by carrying out a Basic Order that places any Command card from your hand under the AA Unit card – a bit like a glorified Stay Frosty. Then your AA Gun is ready to shoot at aircraft carrying out a Fire Action, but you’ll only get 1 shot of this prepped fire before you have to prep it again. If you can inflict 2 hits on the aircraft, it has to take a Morale Check, and a fail result makes it return to base even though it might not be destroyed. This gives us, subject to more playtesting, a balanced set of Units, I think.

Reflecting the use of MGs against aircraft, we’ve given a blanket AA(1) versus aircraft attacking your square or an adjacent one to all Units with MG weapon types. Again, these Units will have to prep the Defensive Interrupt Fire, so that’s something to look out for if you’re playing against an opponent with aircraft. There will undoubtedly be some 50 cals around in future! Some vehicles might explicitly NOT get this, for example if they’ve only got a Hull MG; that will be on the new Unit cards.

Aircraft don’t follow exactly the same rules as ground troops for Morale results. The Morale Checks are the same, but if they fail, they can’t be Pinned or Retreat or Rout, they simply change to RETURN TO BASE and if they’ve not yet done their mission, they lose it.

Aircraft are likely to be very useful in your Force. However, you’ll need some skill to make them highly effective. For example, you can only see troops in the Open from the air, so you may well need spotters on the ground to help via Attachments and other Units with the Forward Air Controller ability. The enemy might have their own Fighters to keep yours away, so dog-fights can happen in the skies above the battlefield.

Any comments from AB players are very much welcomed!

The March of Progress (was Politics By Other Means): ACW scenario

My 2-player micro-game on strategic aspects of war has changed its name from Politics By Other Means, adjudged too esoteric, to “The March of Progress” (new title courtesy of Charlie, my wife).

In addition, I’m now extending it with another scenario, so that we have a better progression – there was a gap for most of the 19th century. Now we have 18th century Limited War to Napoleonic, then American Civil War (the new one), through World War 1 and finally to World War 2. As there is an Introductory Scenario too, that’s 6 scenarios, which I think is plenty for a micro-game.

Each scenario has various tweaks to make the strategy appropriate to the period. The new ACW one will probably be tweaked so that players start with Economic Points rather than VPs and lose them when they get their cards back by playing the Score card. The Confederacy can start with fewer Economic Points, so they want a quick war (ending by taking Washington quickly), while the Union want a longer affair so their economic muscle can take effect. That’s the overall concept; much work to do on bringing this scenario to fruition.

In the meantime the Napoleonic scenario has been tested a lot more, and is very nearly finalised. Napoleon now gets an extra attack point for each French army he’s using to attack with, in addition to the normal +1 for using the Attack +1 card.

Recent play-testing has suggested that, in order to avoid stalling (a slight problem for a couple of scenarios in certain circumstances) players should earn an automatic single VP when playing their Score card. This appears to be a very elegant solution! As ever, subject to playtesting.

USA soldiers painted

First batch of US soldiers painted. These are 15mm Plastic Soldier Company figures to be used in our Mission Command: Normandy game. I expect to have at least a battalion of regular US infantry done by our November 2018 game.

Speaking of which, we’ve not yet designed the scenario, but I’m keen to do something in Operation Cobra – envelopment and escape.

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