Archive for December, 2013

Microgame experiment 3: WW2 tactical game ?!?

As a few fellow designers have been putting together some rather excellent 18-card (plus tokens) microgames, I thought that I’d have another go at this design constrained format. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a WW2 logistics microgame, but lacked inspiration. Then it came to me that it *ought* to be possible to design one to demonstrate the difficulty of combined arms tactics in WW2. As an aside, my wife did question whether it was actually *useful* to do this – but then, it’s my project and I sometimes like to follow a whim.

A dozen pages of fairly amorphous notes later, I’ve come up with something that’s a cross between Magic The Gathering and Up Front, boiled down to 18 cards, 5 sets of coloured cubes and a d6. I gave it a solo run through and, surprisingly, it ran from start to finish without breaking. It bent a bit, but it feels like it might be viable with a few tweaks and a very carefully worded rulebook.

The cards include a very few ‘units’ representing infantry plus supporting tanks, artillery, HMGs and anti-tank weapons. The support stuff is expected to be attached to the infantry, so I can get away with multi-function cards here, to give players decisions about what function to use. There are even fewer terrain cards (just a Hill, Woods, and Building), also doubling up as Entrenchments. The rest of the cards are actions, such as Fire, Move, Withdraw, Retreat and so on. With a hand size of only 3 and a deck reduced by stuff staying on the table (deployed), the flow of cards is key. I decided that you can play a card, then any follow-up cards permitted by the initial card played; for example, Move means you can follow-up with Fire, Smoke means you can follow-up with Move. You complete your turn when you run out of follow-ups (usually very quickly ‘cos you only have a 3-card hand). Then you can manipulate the deck in one of three simple ways and refresh your hand to 3. However, your opponent can interrupt your play and cancel the rest of your turn – for example, a Move can be interrupted by Fire.

I’ve added in simple range tokens, so there’s some manoeuvre element. Plus an enemy that’s fired on has obviously been spotted, and gets a target token – making it easier to hit next time. That also encourages manoeuvre, because you’ll want to move to remove the target token.

I’ve kept firing to a simple d6 modified by supporting units, terrain and one or two other intricacies, probably to be honed away in due course.

The victory conditions are simply to force the enemy to take retreat tokens; 3 such tokens and it’s presumed you’ve broken the position. Or alternatively, if no effective resistance is offered, you advance to a negative range chit (a la Up Front).

The motivation for the game is to show that combined arms is difficult. Therefore I’m aiming for it to be a challenge to attach enough supporting units and gain positions so that you can amass sufficient modifiers to inflict casualties and force the enemy back. So far, with only one playtest, we’re not yet there. But it was reassuring that a quick attack with just infantry was beaten off by a combined arms force, even if the latter only just held on.

Step one accomplished!

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Mission Command: Hanging out the washing 1

Saturday, 7 December 2013. A small gathering of Mission Commanders at Frome to try out the new fortification rules for MC. The scenario: A rather hastily put together one owing to lack of sufficient time (other game design projects, including our Ivor The Engine board game, getting in the way) saw a British brigade group feeling its way forward to the main line of resistance of the Westwall (or Siegfried Line) in February 1945. This was a pseudo-historical scenario, so people couldn’t look up what happened. We had 4 British players (there were a few late dropouts owing to Christmas stuff), a single German player (2 hoped for, but work intervened) and 2 umpires.

Dear British players: The Americans to the south are pushing east towards the Rhine in a series of difficult operations. As they move east, the British corps position, of which your forces are a component, have not kept pace, so the American flank has lengthened and there is the potential for a dangerous German response in the future. Montgomery has decided that your forces need to push back the weak German forces immediately to your east and south, preparatory to crossing the River Wurm, an important tributary of the Ruhr. This will close out the salient. The difficulty is that the Wurm forms part of the Siegfried Line (the Westwall).

Although aerial reconnaissance has been carried out, the exact locations and strength of the enemy’s defences are not known. Today’s operation has two limited objectives: (i) find out where the German main line of resistance is, and locate any outlying defences; (ii) push the German forces that are to the west of Munchenkirchen back to their MLR. This operation will help planners to decide where to cross the Wurm.

In contrast, dear German player: You and your men are exhausted, but at least you’re still alive. If you can hold the Rhine, maybe the Führer can come up with a plan to throw back the allies. In the last fortnight the pressure has eased slightly. You’re still grossly outnumbered, the allies have air supremacy, artillery supremacy and tank supremacy, but you’re holding out. Your unit is Kampfgruppe Hoffnung, positioned just west of the River Wurm, near to the town of Munchenkirchen, which is part of the Westwall. Now you’ve heard that the British have started to move forward again; at least you have good defences close to hand.

The German mission would have been a delaying action, but the Germans don’t do those – they do ‘defence’ and ‘withdrawal’, though sometimes it can feel the same in the late war period.

The game worked well within its confines. Meaning that there’s a good scenario in there waiting to get out, and I should have spent more time preparing (but that’s often the way). The British more or less succeeded in their mission. The German left flank was pushed back with some loss, as a roughly company strength group got itself surrounded in a relatively isolated strongpoint, which was then demolished by petard mortars – a very effective weapon. The British advance was cautious and probably about as fast as historically, I guess. They pushed forward roughly 1.5 km in about 3 hours, taking casualties mainly from artillery (well emplaced and far back ex-Soviet 15.2cm howitzers primarily), and having to deploy against successive pillboxes and dug in anti-tank positions. There was extensive, judicious and effective use of smoke, which limited German mortar fire particularly, and  an initial rolling barrage. Counter-battery fire knocked out one Wespe battery, but despite several attempts, couldn’t seem to get the other one.

The Germans managed to knock out a couple of the Churchill ‘dustbins’ through flanking fire – as one British participant put it (I think approvingly) “enfilading fire from a defilade position”. It takes a lot of work to design a good defense, and I’ve learned a lot myself from doing this setup and seeing what does and doesn’t work. German artillery (as historically) was the killer to the British; several companies got pasted, including some engineers working on a road block, and this caused loss of time as they naturally pulled back to regroup (‘ran away’ as the Germans might put it). However, back they came to resume the advance or to put in a fresh company. They were also able to bring up supporting tanks too, which the Germans were unable to do (having no tanks and virtually no fuel). For the British it was really a matter of time and grinding casualties, put down smoke and artillery shells, receive surprise fire from a new strongpoint, bring up the engineers and smash through; an essential combined arms effort which was difficult to co-ordinate (though I’d say that John, an experienced real life military commander, made it look fairly easy).

The fortification rules worked well – one d20 roll and a lookup table to determine the outcome, with graded effects. It was apparent quickly (and correctly) that although the field guns and small arms could keep the Germans’ heads down, it needed heavier weapons, engineers and demolitions to get through. And then the only German defence is flanking antitank fire against the engineers and their heavy equipment, and artillery fire to try to stop the infantry. Unfortunately for the Germans, there’s just not enough artillery to hold back the tide completely. So as long as the British can take the casualties, they will probably manage to grind through. Then again, this was only the outpost line and extensions to the main line of resistance. The main Westwall was going to require more firepower to overcome. Next time.

Many thanks to all the participants.