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Dolphin Adventures: setup

Better pic, showing setup! Fish will be smaller and blue. Tokens smaller too. Shoals will be a cluster of fish.


Researching Mission Command

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 5

Wow! Rather a long gap between Retrospectives 4 and 5. Very sorry for the hiatus between June and September. Hopefully the remaining Retrospectives will follow on a bit quicker. In my defence, I’ve been working away at another couple of projects – a Euro board game called ‘Dolphin Adventures’ and an introductory board wargame, possibly the subject of a different post at a later date.

This post is a little bit of an interlude from describing how we developed the mechanics and implemented our approach, to talk about research. As there are a lot of very knowledgeable WW2 buffs in and around wargaming, we figured that it was important to do extensive research, so that we have defensible positions for the decisions we’ve made. We’re keen to make the game based on reality, but on the other hand, it cannot be so complex in its reflection of reality that it becomes less than attractive to play. So, as in all simulation games, we’ve made some compromises, and electing to present an umpired game, we do rely to an extent on the unknown umpire to use judgement to keep the game flowing, rather than to stick rigidly to the letter of the rules.

Mission Command is primarily about command, control and communications. I describe it sometimes as a means of demonstrating that combined arms tactics – co-ordinating infantry, artillery, tanks, AT guns, other supporting weapons and air power – was fiendishly difficult. Pretty much any of the thousands of secondary source military history books show this, a good starting point being Antony Beevor’s best-selling books on Stalingrad, Berlin, D-Day, The Second World War as a whole, and his latest one, Ardennes 1944. John Keegan’s books are also excellent for an overview of the military aspects of the topic. This is just a small sample from an overwhelmingly long list.

For the type of detail that we need for Mission Command, we have to go to primary sources, for which the Internet is a godsend. When I was writing my first wargames rules back in the ’70s (not for publication, I hasten to add!), detailed source material was in very short supply, unless you had access to the British Library or university collections (which I did not at that stage). Now, a search online can pull up vast amounts of material, and it’s a problem of sorting the wheat from the chaff – information overload is a common problem. There are numerous collections, including the Bundesarchiv and the US War Department, as well as commercial, semi-professional and amateur sites with relevant materials. Various US organisations have published vast numbers of de-classified briefings on their own forces, and translations of German, Italian, Japanese and Soviet documents from WW2, which are invaluable. For example Lone Sentry and other websites have all the US Intelligence Bulletins, issued monthly from September 1942 to the end of the war. Combined Arms Research Digital Library has a whole collection of “obsolete” military manuals, and the US War Department makes much of this information freely available.

For how it’s supposed to be done, we consulted various descriptions of national doctrines, for instance the German “Truppenführung” of 1933/4, and the US Field Service Regulations for Operations. Fortunately many such documents are now published (in English) and readily available on the Internet. However, theory and practice varied considerably, so eye-witness accounts and good quality detailed narratives are essential for investigating what actually happened – or might have happened. Divisional histories now abound – simply look up your favourites on Amazon for a flavour – and can give some detail, though often lacking the precision in terms of units, numbers and outcomes that are needed for accurate modelling. Some of these are devoted to praising their subject and many are purely descriptive rather than analytical, so I’ve found that cross-referencing from several sources is essential. It’s helpful to have divisional accounts from both sides. For example, for some of our Normandy scenarios we’ve compared the History of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend (Meyer), the Combat History of the 21 Panzer Division (Kortenhaus), the accounts of 43rd Wessex, 51st Highland, 3rd Canadian, and so on, to give us multiple perspectives on the same combat actions.

For orders of battle, it’s tempting to go for easily available ‘official’ ones. However, while units might have been at their pristine best at the start of a campaign (though that’s debatable), once the fighting started, the formal orbats, numbers of men, and amounts and types of equipment were quickly reduced or varied. In addition, it’s important to remember that quoted strengths, particularly at division or higher levels, often included support troops in addition to combat troops, and in many cases the ‘tail’ outnumbered the fighting men. Written material was not necessarily accurate – even the legendarily bureaucratic German Army monthly reports were suspect late in the war – but sometimes that’s all the evidence available. An example of this classic issue that we encountered was how to establish the composition of a late war German Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion: there are several published ‘official’ orbats from 1943 through to the end of the war, but shortages of equipment, adequately trained men, and the simple fact that it took several months to change from an older pattern to the new one, meant that in many cases we’re using a best guess of its actual composition. Equipment lists would often state, for example ‘armoured car’, or perhaps ‘light armoured car’, because the precise type was not considered important. Non-standard divisions, like the 21st Panzer (neu), are even more difficult to pin down, owing to use of converted equipment from conquered countries, in this case mainly French. For this reason our scenarios may have listing that are quite different from “official” sources, as we’ve attempted to take into account likely attrition rates, and the statements of eye-witness combatants.

For the potentially controversial issue of the effectiveness of weapons, we’ve reviewed multiple sources, including other wargames as well as primary sources with judgements of combat effectiveness and documents with field test results. Our view was that we’d go with our assessment of the ‘inherent military probability’ of effectiveness, taking into account as much evidence as we could realistically review. Fortunately the scale of our game (a vehicle model = 3-5 vehicles; an infantry figure = about 10 men) means that we don’t look specifically at individual shots at individual vehicles or men, but rather at the effect of a bunch of shots on a bunch of vehicles or men. At this scale, a KO on a vehicle doesn’t mean that all the vehicles have been knocked out, but simply that that group of vehicles is rendered ineffective – probably one or two have been brewed up, the others perhaps damaged, or the crews have removed themselves from the action. Similarly casualties amongst infantry are split between killed, wounded and ‘had enough’.

However, in relation to tank and anti-tank guns, we still wanted to differentiate between types across the range of light, medium and heavy tanks, and across the whole war. We felt that the relatively coarse-grained approach of small, medium, large, very large guns (or similar) didn’t do justice to the variations from our research. There was a reason why guns were upgraded by increments sometimes within a single tank type, and that’s to do with their effectiveness in action. So we have a fairly large gun table – though it reduces a lot in any one scenario. In fact, there’s even more variation by type of ammunition used, but we shrank from that complexity – it’s far too complex to track the availability and selection of ammo type at our scale. In a couple of areas we would have liked to do that (specifically the 6 pounders in Normandy and later with discarding sabot ammunition, and the US use of Pozit fuses in late ’44), but we decided the additional complexity didn’t warrant it.

Using similar reasoning our armour table has armour values from 1 to 10 to give sufficient variation to take account of strengthening armour across various models of medium tank over several years (for example the Churchill or Panzer IV), and giving realistic values to weakly armoured half-tracked troop carriers, stretching up to heavy tanks, such as the Jagdtiger.

Our research into scenarios has also been very lengthy, though I’ve not yet been able to turn many of our play test versions into published ones – these will be following over the coming weeks. As I’ve mentioned, the divisional histories, especially those written by eye-witnesses are very valuable for reasonably accurate accounts of units involved, what happened where – corroborated against other evidence – and evidence of what combat was like. Some books written by military historians are strong on overall narrative of the ‘arrows on a map’ style, which don’t often cover actions at company, battalion or brigade level in enough detail for a coherent scenario. Some books can be very misleading (for example those by Stephen Ambrose), as they may be focusing on a good story, peddling a particular theory or simply repeating another person’s view without analysing it, instead of giving an account with evidence. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s story of German ‘tanks’ at Pegasus Bridge early on 6 June is entirely misleading, but has been followed in several accounts, and the exaggeration distorts the undoubted achievements of the forces taking the Orne bridges and those relieving the coup de main force there.

Perhaps the most important part of our research is that as the game design, development and production continues, we also continue to collect, read, absorb and analyse new material. The game will likely change as a result until the final production version, and even then, as is the case with many wargames, contact with many many more players will result in further information and perhaps more revisions.

Next stop, Ranville – planning session, August 2015

We had a good session at the Huntingdon District Wargames Club on Thursday last (13 August 2015).  It was mainly a planning game, based on a session I’d designed for the Conference of Wargamers in July (I’d had to skip that owing to illness).  The start of the scenario was 05:30 in the morning of 6 June 1944 in the HQ of Kampfgruppe von Luck (21st Panzer Division) just south of the 6th Airborne Division’s landing around Ranville and what later became known as Pegasus Bridge.  The fiction of the game was that 21st Panzer Division has got its act together and is committing an early morning attack by a reinforced battalion and half a battalion of tanks, with supports, against the relatively unprepared British.  Questions, discussion and non-definitive answers were around how, where and when to attack, what should be the fire plan for supporting the attack, and finally, what might be its impact given likely British responses.

Orders were to take the bridges and eliminate the paratroops incursion on the east side of the Orne all the way to the coast.  Other Kampfgruppe were dealing with the west side of the Orne, and the landings around the River Dives.

The final plan looked pretty strong, with Ranville as the schwerpunkt:

  • Prong A – Pz IV company, plus veteran Panzergrenadier company to attack Ranville from the south-west, with supporting direct fire assault guns.  Heavy Pzgren company to swing wider to the west past the direct approach to Ranville to stretch the defence, and be ready to support a direct assault on the bridges.
  • Prong B – Reinforced veteran Pz IV company, plus Panzergrenadier company to attack Ranville simultaneously from the south-east, with supporting direct fire assault guns.
  • Short concentrated bombardment of Ranville by 2 batteries of 15cm guns while the attack moves forward.
  • Supporting barrage of various hedge lines (likely British forward positions) by 10.5cm guns and mortars.
  • Once Ranville had fallen, 2 companies of panzergrenadiers to secure it and its flanks, while the first 2 companies launched an immediate assault across the bridges.


“Prong B” – closing in on Ranville from the SE

We didn’t have time to fight the full battle, but were able to deploy the troops and make some educated guesses about the potential results, as I’ve researched quite a bit about the historical deployments of both sides.  Interestingly both 6 Division HQ and 5 Brigade HQ were in or very close to Ranville, and would have been caught in the bombardment, while the British deployment of AT guns to the hedge lines might well have lost these essential defensive elements too.  Looking at the comparative strength of the two sides (bearing in mind that the paratroops were very under strength owing to relatively scattered drops), it seems highly probably that Ranville and then the bridges would have fallen within 2 to 3 hours of the 06:15 attack start time.


“Prong A” – closing in on Ranville from the SW. Note the artillery bombardment on Ranville itself, and 4th (schweres) Kompanie on the left ready to move on le Bas de Ranville to give support to an assault on the bridges.

I hope that we can fight the engagement through at another session!  This scenario will form one of the variants of the “21 into 6 won’t go” set of scenarios currently being written up.

The Big Game

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 3

This post was to have been about the Poor Bloody Infantry and our re-writing of the infantry rules. But in the interests of getting the story in the right order – and it is supposed to be a diary, after all – I’m going to make a quick diversion to the Eastern Front, and our Big Games.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the Abbeywood Irregulars play in a large church hall. It’s a fabulous building in the centre of Frome, called the Bennett Centre – named for William James Early Bennett, the Vicar of Frome Selwood, who built a new Infant School on the site in the 1850s; later it became Frome St John the Baptist Church Hall, and we’re priveleged to name the current vicar as a vital member of our AWI group. For those interested in the history of this wonderfully re-furbished location, see: – visitors are also welcomed. Part of the re-furbishment has been to remove the terrible post-war false ceilings and ‘modernisation’, so that now the building’s main hall shows off its rafters, ceiling and arched windows, up to the bell tower on the roof, as you can see from this picture.


The Bennett Centre (circa 1850)

The hall is airy and well lit by daylight, and new, but traditional, lantern-style lights are suspended from the roof to supplement when needed. There’s even a large stone fireplace. Most importantly the hall is large enough for a multitude of wargamers. AWI is host to one of the South West DBM tournaments (every October), and we can readily fit in 6 lots of 6ft x 5ft tables, with plenty of space to move around. In Mission Command terms, that means a Big Game can be 30km x 25km if necessary.

For June 2010 we mounted an Eastern Front game based on a Russian attack on the cut-off Germans in the Courland Peninsula in January 1945. For this game we had the better part of a Russian Tank Corps versus 14th Panzer Division, albeit the Germans at roughly 50% strength. The Russians were hoping to push the Germans back and over a river, so we needed some depth to the position. We used 5 large tables, with a 2:3 split so players could reach the troops in the middle (see picture), but they had to remember that the gap didn’t represent any real distance so an element on one side of the gap could move straight onto the other side.


Courland tables

The Germans were intended to have a team of 4 (C-in-C, chief of staff plus 2 tactical ops), though on the day we had to adjust to only 3, as I recall. This left them properly stretched (possibly stressed!), which gave a realistic tension. The Russians had a team of C-in-C plus 4, commensurate with their larger numbers of troops. We didn’t permit C-in-Cs to directly move elements on the table, but only to work via their tactical commanders. Therefore they were able to, and wanted to, concentrate solely on the overall operation, especially on how effective (or otherwise) their artillery attacks were, and to gather and react to information coming back from the table. We gave them sufficiently colourful briefings, suggesting to the Russian tactical commmanders that “You must adhere to your orders. High Command takes a dim view of officers with excessive initiative, and you’ve seen many examples of the unfortunate results. Getting shot by the Germans may result in a pension for your wife and family, getting shot by your own side certainly won’t.”

The Russians were able to put in a textbook attack: a large, well thought out artillery fire plan, infantry and supporting infantry over the bridges rapidly, consolidation of gains against desperate German counter-attacks; then a pause as the artillery had to be moved up and a new fire plan arranged. On the other side, the Germans attempted a classic mobile defence with a relatively thin front line. Unfortunately for them the speed of the Russian tank attack caught them a little flat footed, particularly a poorly placed 8.8cm battery that was outflanked and overrun (the commander didn’t survive to explain his error). Their tank counter-attack was a little too late, and the Russians were able to take them on on relatively equal terms. Defence of the built-up area was, nevertheless, excellent, so although the Russians could claim to have penetrated the position, they were likely to be threatened by flanking forces from the town, so couldn’t claim a decisive victory.

In game and scenario design terms, this was a useful play test, because it showed that Russian and German units were handled differently, in accordance with the command and communications structures described in the materials. For example the Germans had more flexible but less powerful artillery, a Russian set piece could steam-roller ahead behind its bombardment, and German mobile and flexible defence was difficult to co-ordinate but could be very successful when they made excellent use of cover and the timing worked. We were encouraged that one of our Russian players, who was completely new to the game, was still able to pick it up and command a tank brigade successfully. The scenario was a tank-heavy game (so perhaps more traditional in WW2 wargaming terms), and it worked well.

Skipping lightly over our Western Desert game in November 2010 (of which more perhaps another time), our next major Eastern Front game built on the Courland experience. We decided to try a full-blown multiple table game to represent a major German attack on a Russian Tank Corps over a sizeable area. This was to be a breakthrough attempt by the Germans using a Panzer Division and an Infantry Division, so we needed to enable penetration and large scale sweeping manoeuvre. We set up the game as a series of match-ups on separate tables, initially one player versus one player, with the C-in-Cs carrying out the overall direction as in the previous game. Each one-on-one table was in effect a separate game linked over time to its neighbours. Each simultaneous match was intended to last up to two hours, then be adjudicated, at which point tied games would be re-matched (in effect continued), losing forces would retire to the rear or move left / right (if able) onto friendly tables, and winners could advance or stay where they were. It’s probably worth quoting our Basic Assumptions:

1. No diagonal movement across conflict tables (winning troops have options of Advance, Stand, Move Left, Move Right).

2. Tied games require either Rematch (assuming one or other side requires that), Stand with no “hostile” intent, Withdraw or Move – Left or Right. [Each CinC elects without knowledge of the other].

3. Losing forces may retire directly to rear or move left/right onto friendly tables. [i.e. tables where friends either won last bound or were not contested.]

4. Reserves will march in formation designed for such at COLD bound rates if on tables which are not actively fighting.

5. Forces which motor thru’ a table as part of the attack (i.e. NOT as part of the Reserves) within 1 hour will be provided with a bonus positioning on their next table, those completing their movement across table within 90 minutes will receive a lesser bonus.

[Note: typical bonuses might be (and depend on map/terrain also) – 1 hr the swift force may start the next game up to 1000m in from the table edge assuming they wished to continue ahead. Also disruption to defenders positioning of troops – he may not position anything other than infantry within 1200m of the enemy’s table edge. 90 minutes – Start up to 500m from table edge but defenders may not position any element other than infantry within 1000m of enemy table edge, Defender’s tanks may not be dug in [?].

6. Umpires may, before table games commence advise a reduction in game time to 90 minutes (otherwise 2 hours as standard) – particularly in first round of games if position lightly held etc.

7. Artillery fire will be limited with Map fire being constrained to prominent features only. [Pre registered firing marks other than onto clear features will not be permitted].

8. We will try to get 4 games in. Might mean 5pm is not achievable.

As you may have noticed, there were some tentative parts to this. In the mixing of the ingredients and the cooking, the recipe worked pretty well though. Players were engrossed all day. Although the starting positions were one-on-one, after the first session we were flexible enough to modify our basic assumptions. One largish encounter continued into sessions 2 and 3, as the Germans pushed across a minefield into a village. The main German armoured attack overran the Russians, the remnants retreating to the east. Advancing virtually unopposed in session 2, the Germans were able to exploit rapidly along an undefended table, while part of the armour peeled off to the east. Players unused to this type of sweeping manoeuvre needed a bit of guidance from the umpires and some insistence from C-in-C – there is a tendency amongst some wargamers to simply head for the nearest enemy, rather than to exploit open spaces. The Russians stuck to their plan, which was to engage the Germans with a mobile defence, and to force the enemy to attack Russian blocking forces in terrain favourable to the defence. However, the Germans retained the initiative, because their breakthrough enabled them to pick their route of advance, and it became difficult for the Russians to co-ordinate, especially because their artillery and armour lacked the command and control flexibility of the Germans. The Germans were able to carry out the classic armoured finesse of hitting Russian artillery with direct fire, their Panthers destroying a regiment of Katyusha rockets while outranging T34s (with mainly 76mm, not 85mm guns). The system of separate tables enabled the Germans to recce ahead with fast-moving armoured cars to find the weak spots, while by-passing strongpoints.

By the end of the day, two main points emerged – (i) the Germans had broken through to the north and were going to be able to link up with an off-table pincer coming from that direction, thereby cutting off all Russian forces to the west. This thrust was to have been blocked by Russian reserve armour, but the speed of the advance and the failure of the Russians to recognise the German schwerpunkt quickly, meant that the reserves were 10km away and far too late to block. In terms of our game mechanics, this was an excellent result, because it demonstrated that the Big Game structure functioned as designed. We had a believable result, well within expected parameters (and the players agreed, which is always critical). And (ii) signifant German forces (half the armour, plus most of their motorised infantry) were engaged in a direct fight with the main force of the Russians. This larger engagement happened because the Germans needed to pin them, and the Russians wanted to bring on a major combat on their terms. Our scenario management permitted this through two expedients: pushing together the tables from two or three of our one-to-ones, and sychronising the time scales.

The latter point was a major learning experience for the umpires. Naturally, when we were operating across several separate tables, the time scales or flow of game turns varied, as players were slower or quicker. One table might be on turn 9, while an adjacent table was on turn 12. If the two tables came to interact, either firing from one to the other, or moving troops between tables, it was necessary to synchronise them, or players would be confused, particularly when looking at communication delays, for example for calling in artillery fire. Our method was initially to attempt to split the difference and adjust both tables. However, this method was not entirely practical, as it could create confusion on both tables. Pete and I decided during the game that the slickest method was to match the two tables using the table that had the most turns as the base line. The other table’s game turn indicator (sequentially numbered cards) was adjusted at the first point of interaction, and then both would operate as if they were a single table. All existing communication delays on the second table would be adjusted to the time scale of the first – a one-time adjustment that proved easy to operate. This mechanism worked because Mission Command doesn’t force any particular relationship between a game turn and elapsed time; our game turn lasts roughly 10 minutes but can happily be variable in length.

Our take-away from this scenario was that the Big Game concepts functioned well, as long as the umpires, and to an extent the C-in-Cs were flexible in reacting to changing circumstances. Some of the sub-games would continue through more than one session, others would last the prescribed 2 hours, but many would be shorter as recce forces or overmatching forces moved rapidly through the next table. While at the start of the day the sub-games would be one-on-one, later sessions could readily be two v one, or larger, as troops moved and operations developed. We didn’t want to force a rigid structure on the players, because that threatened to shake the believability of the overall game. Most operational decisions were taken by C-in-Cs between sessions (which was our initial thought), but we also found that a quick sub-game, say, one hour, might enable intervention during a neighbouring longer engagement, and this type of occurrence was not only acceptable, it was to be encouraged, because it helped C-in-Cs have an impact during a session and maintained the game flow. Without our flexible approach the game would suffer from a disjointed feel and leave some players with a poorer experience.
Next: PBI re-write

Snowdonia: Siege of Petersburg

At a loose moment a while back when Tony was talking about lots of designers doing expansions for Snowdonia, I laughingly said I’d design a Snowdonia – American Civil War mash-up. ACW has lots of railway building (including the US Military Railroad in various places), and logistics is what railways do and what armies need, so I figured ‘what’s the problem?’

A few months (maybe a year?) later, and we’re now unpacking here at the new Chez Paulls in Warboys (yes, military pun there) nr Huntingdon, Cambs. Having found a table, a copy of Snowdonia and my original notes, I’m now putting the lot together to see what happens.

I’ve researched a fair amount on the topic, as I’ve been reading freebie eBooks – autobiogs of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan are all fair ol’ reads. This has been coupled with use of Wikipedia and fairly gung-ho US tourist websites – perhaps not so scholarly, but at least they’ve put stations in vaguely the right positions. I homed in on the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 as a reasonable scenario. This was a very extensive siege over several months, incorporating operations round Petersburg and Richmond as Grant et al attempted to manoeuvre Lee and comrades out of his entrenched positions, while Lee tried to pick off any vulnerable Union detachments. Leaving large armies in more or less the same place for long periods required railroads (sic) for supplies and for swift tactical manoeuvres. The siege was typified by building railroads (primarily a Union activity), as they established communications from the Virginian coast at City Point to the siege lines round Petersburg) and defending / destroying them. Sheridan, the Union Cavalry Corps commander, was responsible for several successful cavalry raids to rip up track and burn stations, cutting the Confederate supply lines or at least forcing them to use much worse road and track transport. The rebels too carried out raids and even sabotage-bombed part of the City Point port.

Though the railroad lines tended to radiate out from Richmond and Petersburg, the Union army helpfully built a US Military Railroad from City Point down towards Petersburg, linking (in my mind anyway) to the Weldon Railroad that was a critical line for the rebels to hold. This forms the script for the Snowdonia expansion, and allows me to use wonderful names such as ‘Stony Creek Depot’, ‘Reams Station’ and ‘Jerusalem Plank Road’ conjuring up an appropriate image of the American Civil War, capped off by Appomattox Manor, Grant’s HQ.

Players are the usual gangs of labourers, but this time you’re working under the rather less than watchful eyes of the Blue and the Gray. As the generals are busy fighting the war, your men can fulfill contracts along the whole line without regard to any particular partisanship (as long as you get paid, what do you care?). Some of the line starts completed, but that’s not likely to last, as Military Events replace some of the classic Snowdonia event track items. You’ll hopefully be able to influence these events by strategic positioning of military stores and garrisons to help one side or the other, as your own personal aims dictate. But eventually the final climactic battle will happen, and this will decide whether any bonuses will be paid to you for specific contracts keyed to Union or Confederate victory. Will you win the logistics war, despite or because of, the outcome of the Siege of Petersburg?

Now for some rigorous play-testing to see if the scenario will stand up to the billing!

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!

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.