Tuesday, September 12, 2006

AAR: J110 - The Prelude to Spring

Nick Drinkwater

German: Nick Drinkwater [ELR3; SAN 3]

Russian: Stephane Graciet [ELR3; SAN 2]

The first, second and third questions the german player has to ask himself when starting the setup for this scenario is "How in the hell do I stop that lot with this?" The fourth question is "When do my tanks arrive?", the fifth question is "No, really, when do my tanks arrive?" and the sixth and final question is "Can we play something else?"

BUT, you must hang in there as this is actually quite a neat scenario. It will be one continuous Personal Morale Check for the Germans from start to finish, of that there is no doubt, but if you can stop those Russians, you really can slap yourself on the back with a feeling of "job well done". It is doable, no question, but you will really need to think hard about the initial setup and play a very good game defensively or you will get steamrollered. There are options and there is some flexibility, but this is tough...

We're in December 1944 in southern Hungary - the siege of Budapest is about to start and the Russians are starting to close the loop. In this scenario, a very tough Russian Armoured breakthrough unit needs to get 22CVP off the west edge of a mixed farm and woodland configuration of half-boards 18,43, 4 and 17 laid widthways across the playing area (hexrows R-GG) from east to west. This Russian force has a lot of fun toys for both the breakthrough phase (2 x IS2, a SU- 100, and 2 x T34 85) and the initial attrition phase (8 x 458, 2 x 248, a 9-2, 8-0, couple of LMG and a .50 cal HMG - ouch!). They have effectively 30 hexes to cross over 8 turns, and at start, a really brittle german screen to try and impede them. As the Germans have no anti-armour assets onboard until Turn 3, sneaky armour rush tactics of trying to go full speed and get off in two turns have been stopped by SSRs which means that the Russians can only move half MP in Turn 1, and cannot exit the board until Turn 4. The key to a Russian victory here therefore, is to really apply confined arms tactics - if the germans can kill a couple of tanks and separate the infantry from their armour then they have a much better chance.

I think the German setup for this is one of the hardest I've had to do during my time playing ASL. As it is December, all the grain is open ground and there is ground snow in effect. The board configuration means that the Russians starting on Board 18, must initially walk across the Board 43 'grain' before they can hit the safety of the western woods mass. Next board for them to cross is Board 4 which is not easy as although there is some small woods, they tend to be isolated in big patches of nothingness. Finally, they need to cross the half of Board 17 with the small stone building and the scattered woods, though there is another 'open glade' at the very back which may prove tough for them to cross. I have been provided with 4 1/2 467's to start with, a Lt Mtr, a MMG, an LMG, and a 9-1 and 8-0. Oh. I have also been given a Pak 37 which has a straight 75 Gun with a B11. And that is it. That is not good. The first thing to decide is where to place the Pak, which for this time of the war, is truly AWFUL. It's basic TK is 14, while the worst of the Russian frontal Armour Factors is 11! It does have HEAT, but the TK of that is 13 - no help there then. So you need to be thinking hard about sly side and rear shots to do anything with this relic. With all that open ground that the Russians have to cross in Turn 1 and 2, it is very tempting to put the infantry screen upfront to take advantage of the opportunity to inflict some cheap kills...I got sucked into this, and had everything concealed in a scattered line with the plan of doing one, maybe two rounds of shooting, before doing a very fast fighting withdrawal back into the woods on the east side of Board 4. You also need to try and make the Russian armour cagey about the faust threat (2-hex range) so that they don't simply bypass you at their leisure so you do need to spread out a little, but this is really tough to do and yet try to be mutually supporting with only 4.5 squads across a 16 hex wide half-board. I put a squad, LMG and 8- 0 on the far southern board edge to stop any Russian rush down the south side in the shelter of the Board 43 walled compound and then put the 9-1, 2 x 467, MMG in the middle of the board either side of the main road that bisects Board 43 with the 247, Lt Mtr and the last of the 467 infantry to the north to block that side. I declined to put the Pak in the upfront defense line as the OB gives the Russian two starting throwaway half-squads solely for the purposes of sucking up fire and to test woods for hidden guns, and the value of this piece lies more in its potential threat and keeping the Russian armour honest than its real ability to cause any lasting damage. As a result, I place it in the sneaky and hopefully unobtrusive half-hex of woods in GG4 on board 4 where it has a relatively good view across much of that board, east of the diagonal hedge line, but it is far enough back that it won't immediately be found out by the Russian infantry screen.

So, still feeling really tentative about the setup, we kick the thing off. After Turn 2 and some truly horrible rolling, my 9-1 and 467 with the MMG are dead without having fired a shot, my south flanking 467 is prisoner, the 8-0 leader is interdicted as he desperately tries to run back to the southern side of board 4, and the the Lt Mtr has broken down on its first shot. The reserve central 467 is broken and about to go down as prisoner and I am left with a concealed 467 and a lowly half-squad with a duff mortar. Man, this was ugly, and it wasn't even Stephane's armour that did the carnage. He actually fired off all the tanks at my concealed squads, something that I was very happy about as he had three tubes in there with Low Ammo B11s. He missed everyhting on Turn 1 with these, but didn't drop the ammo either (in fact he did not suffer a single break down or ammo drop of a single gun all scenario long, including the LMGs - these are obviously some of the newer, better weapons out of the Ural arms factories I guess). However, he also had that 9-2 with the .50 cal HMG and this is what really did the damage - stacked with a couple of squads firing at long range to my guys in the woods, he was still at 6-1 shots, and went through my concealed guys like a knife through butter. My southern flanking squad went down to some lousy CX 4+2 shot and my rolling was generally horrible (see below). I had one good opportunty to whack a squad in ambush from a concealed 467, but he rolled the required 2, dodged the ambush and killed me in melee (I have never ever actually won an ambush with Stephane!). With the hole created, the Russians surged through the middle and south side and they were off and running. In reflection, the 9-2, HMG combo at startup is really tough to beat, even if you are concealed, and it may be something to consider by making much more of the initial foward line actually set up at the back of Board 4 in a backline defense, so they can still be alive and help out when the armour comes. Like I said, this is a tough, tough decision forcing setup for the germans and needs a lot of consideration.

So Turn 3 kicks in, the Russians are busy killing off the last of my front-line defenders at no cost to themselves and the first Russian armour ventures into the middle of Board 4. It's a T34-85, a great and common tank that we really don't see enough of in east front scenarios, and it has 16MP. Though I'm hoping it and maybe one more tank will stop in my kill zone of the Pak so I can maybe get two tanks, I'm aware that it still has a lot of MP and it is about to disappear out of my LOS; there is no guarantee that a second one will appear, so I drop HIP and stick one up the tail-pipe. My first casualty caused on the Russians so far. In response, a couple of nearby Russian squads immediately make a beeline for the gun, and though I blast one squad, most of my resultant fire is horrible like normal and my valiant crew are straight into a melee fighting for their lives with a 458 and the 8-0, having just rejected the surrender of the broken 458. This melee goes on for three turns more (heroes!) and I manage to CR the squad before I go down in a flurry of grenades and bayonets. Still, that is another squad and a half out of the game as they don't have enough MP to make it off in time, and overall that crew and gun has bought for me a tank, two squads and a leader. Not bad at all.

I then rush on my reinforcements but am instantly faced with the same problem at the back as I was the front - 16 hexes of broken woods and open terrain to cover with only 2 1/2 467s and a 8-1 / LMG this time - far too many avai;able sneak-by routes for the Russians. We also get a Panther and two MkIVJs to balance out the armour, but I am really staring a hammering in the face here. By T4, Stephane has an amoured mass in the west edge of Board 4 adjacent to the woodier part of Board 17 and is just waiting for the Russian infantry to catch up. I send a Mark IV to the south where I have a great view of the Motion SU-100 but he can't be seen by anything else, so I pop off a shot and miss (9). I also send the Panther to the north to loop round where I have a great view of the other T34-85 but again miss with the bounding fire (10), and the T34 goes into motion. My other MkIV goes into the middle woods Board 17 road to block any quick and sneaky rush by the IS-2s. Next Turn, the SU-100, with little other option drives forward at me, I fire, miss (11), IF, miss, gun breakdown (11). Great. On the north side, the T34 charges at the Panther, so I fire, miss (10), he keeps coming at me, so more IF, miss (9). Awesome sequence of rolling there - I'm now just dicing myself. Stephane then misses adjacent with his BFF shot and then does one of his usual tricks and re-starts and enters my hex in motion, and compounds this by sending a squad in for CC, but these guys also fluff their attack. Still, not a good place to be in at all. Next turn, my MkIV with the broken gun goes up in flames from fire from the SU-100, and he sends one of the IS-2s after one of my sole surviving squads in the Board 17 woods. However, I still do have a mobile Panther and with my current location being distinctly unhealthy, I line up the 9-2, and two 458s in open ground for a fantastic 16-1 Overrun - net result, one broken squad on a 1MC (roll a 10 on the IFT). More horrible, horrible rolling.

With the destruction of the southern most MkIV and the elimination on snakes of a subsequent half-squad I moved into the hex to threaten dashing russian tanks with fausts, Stephane takes the wide-open opportunity to drive off both the SU-100 and one of the IS2s (including a 8-1 AL) for 17 very easy VP. Eeeek. Only 5 left to find and get off the board. Luckily I do claw one small victory when I flame the other IS2 with a 8-1 directed AFPh faust shot in the woods road, but things are grim. And then we do a quick reality check - I actually now outnumber him in tanks by 2-1 and he now has only the last two turns to get off the remaining infantry or the other T34-85, and the infantry's path is not easy as they have to go across the last open glade on Board 17. Hmmm. Certain defeat into possible victory?

I trundle the Panther over to the north side again to challenge the last Russian tank, and though it misses on it's Bounding Fire shot, it whacks it hard from behind next turn in DF - however, importantly the T34 does not burn (a nine on the TK) and the crew get out - another of numerous examples of Stephane just getting the critical roll when he needs it (not unknown in our games!). I can't even get them with MG fire on hazardous movement as they jump out either as I roll another 10. Stephane tries to jump my northern single squad in CC, but I casualty reduce them and he rolls a 12 so I am able to withdraw into the isolated stone building to help block russian victory routes. But as is symptomatic in this game of widely swinging fortunes, he tries one 8+4 attack by an adjacent CX 458 and of course pulls up eyes - needless to say I fail the 1MC. Normal service has been resumed. My only other squad is now in the only other isolated wooden building on the south central side but I do have a LMG to throw out firelanes across the path of the numerous Russians who are desperately trying to run off through the glade. To help stiffen the last ditch defense I even take a very risky big ESB move with the surviving MkIV which just pays off and gives me enough MP to peak around the woods so that I can now see the whole of the Russian exit area.

The last two turns are desperate - the damn T34-85 crew escapes off the board and Stephane is also able to sneak off another HS as they shrug off both the Firelane and as much DF and Resid as I can lay - this does not come completely without some cost to the Russians: the 9-2 goes down in a hail of lead and every MC and pin result is critical and they do fail a few (though not a one from the 1RF firelane). I stop most things dead in their tracks and do kill off one or two squads, but one critical result is that a MkIV overrun against a lowly Russian half-squad results in a damn berserker and another attack generates a Hero! Madness, but Stephane is always able to pull out the critical check on demand and finds lots of 2s, 4s and 5s (but only one warm SAN inducing 3 in the entire game!) when necessary. At the beginning of German T7 he is at 20VP and just needs one squad to make it off and he realistically has three units that could do it. I run the Panther down adjacent to one squad in woods in hexrow 2, but miss again with BFF on main armanent and MG - no matter, I'll get him in Russian T8 when he makes the dash for victory.

And so we come to it. Russian T8. And here the berserker half-squad really hurts as it eats up attacks - first it uses up my LMG and First Fire capability of my last squad. I whack a couple more squads in SFF but the MG goes and breaks (of course), and he has used up a lot of my fire opportunities. Stephane takes the next units here (HS and the hero) and shrugs off a 1 RF with ease, so I throw out an adjacent Final Fire that causes a NMC - the hero fails is wounded, drops to 3MF and will be unable to get off (yes!) and the HS..........pins!!! YES!!

Only two units to go...the squad adjacent to the Panther tries to run out of the way by looping around the tank in the board edge woods, I follow and change CA with the adjacent MA, fire the gun....TWELVE!! Un-freakin-believable. I try blasting with 16+3 firepower MGs....the last shot to deny victory to the Russians...and of course, I roll a 10.

Cue Russian cheers of victory and big smiles all around as the squad strolls off for the victory. Cue general unhappiness and distraught look again on behlaf of the Germans, as I of course have basically diced the crap out of myself.

Another awesome game with Stephane that took its huge emotional toll - he played really well and until Turn 6 played it perfectly - the mad dash for the easy VP by the two tanks actually hurt him a lot as it gave me a lot of local tactical freedom on the southern half of Board 17, especially so when I managed to toast the other IS2 with the Faust. He was now outnumbered in armour and the T34-85 was always going to struggle with the Panther still alive. Effectively his infantry were left to hoe it alone and although I only had two squads left, I almost pulled it off apart from some dud rolling at crucial times. If he had left both tanks on for a turn longer, I think he would have strolled to victory as I would have been forced to use my panther and Mk IV for other more suicidal things to try and kill the tanks and the infantry really could have waltzed off without too many issues. In post-game discussion, we both thought that the at-start placement of the Germans is critical in light of the threat posed by the .50 cal, and perhaps a rearward defense may be the way to go - this is especially emphasised as behind the board 4/43 forward woods mass is a lot of open ground on Board that any retreating Germans are going to really struggle to get back across in the face of marauding Russian tanks. Also, with sixteen hexes of boardwidth to try and defend against that much Russian threat, we felt that the German infantry reinforcements needed boosting by one squad - which funnily enough is just what the official balance is (+LMG). There is just too much ground to cover with 2 1/2 squads and it will only take one lucky shot at the very end to carve a very big hole in the defense that the Russians could pour through.

Anyway, it is a lot of fun, very desperate and I would recommend that the more experienced player always take the Germans as they are the more unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes. Also, note that there is a confusion that hasn't been sorted out yet between the marked entry point for the Germans on the track record (Turn 2) and that quoted in the OB setup (Turn 3). We played Turn 3 based on comments online from the designer, but this does need a swift and speedy resolution by MMP.

I would really welcome other's people's experiences of this one, especially if they have played the finger-in-the-dyke germans.


Follow-up to J106 AAR

Nick Drinkwater

Hi Eric,(I posted this to the community as I started to get a bit philosophical and I thought some might be interested - also, may be able to come to Austin in late Jan - see below).

Many thanks for the kind words - I try and give a bit of my (admittedly) somewhat laymans view of the scenarios and the tactical options I've taken, as well as an interesting summary of the action as it happened without going into the intricacies of every die roll. I freely admit that I'm never going to be as analytical of the game, the terrain and the percentages as some who have more chess-like brains than me, and due to the nature of life at the moment, I'm always going to be a little ring rusty after several weeks of non- play due to work-requirements, followed by an intense burst of ASL- ness, before going dormant again. I wish I could play more and on a more regular basis but c'est la vie. So, in an effort to retain a slightly broader view of the game in the AARs, I always try and identify the high and low(!) lights of the scenario, and those key passages of play which strongly influenced either my decisions or the final result; this being a dice-based game, this will always include those outrageous moments of good and bad fortune that we all suffer in this most addictive of pastimes - this is something I think every player can empathise with as we've all been there at one time or another.

The other thing I try and do is always keep an eye on those small and big things I've learned during the scenario as I am keen to try and improve my general gameplay - I've had many useful feedbacks from Zeb in particular (Thankyou, oh mighty Zen Master!) who has been great in showing me when I've sharked people on some critical 'buried in the rule minutiae' rules-slip. I personally think his AARs are outstanding, but I think quality AARs is a trend that reflects well on Texas ASL with the recent amusing efforts by Tom and the brilliant illustrated AAR by Matt showing this so well. Thanks to the guys for their effort with the Banzai Blog, which is an innovative way of getting this work by so many into the public domain.

I would love to play you FTF, as, as you have noticed I don't really do VASL - I live in central Houston, but it may be that for the last weekend in January I may be free to come to Austin for a long weekend of gaming if anyone's up for it, as my wife's probably going to be away that weekend - I can't fully commit to this yet as we haven't booked any tickets and work has not decided on it's 2007 plan for me yet, but it could be possible and it would be great to catch up and push cardboard. Hopefully yourself, Zeb or some of the others may be able to just make a provisional note in your diaries?

Hope this catches you well - new AAR sometime this week as I'm trying to stem Stephane's russian horde in J110 Prelude to Spring this afternoon - a forlorn cause if ever there was one!

My upper lip is the definition of "stiff" - comes in the genes, old boy!



AAR: J106 - Marders not Martyrs

Nick Drinkwater

German [ELR 3, SAN 3]: Nick Drinkwater

Russian [ELR 3, SAN 2]: Stephane Graciet

A very simple one-evening-special scenario out of the new Journal 7, which has the closest feel to an original Squad Leader scenario I've experienced in a long, long time. Not surprising really as this was originally apparently slated for ASL Starter Kit 3 before a decision was made to not include open topped vehicles as part of those rules...as a result it was easily retrofitted back into regular ASL and now forms a simple intro-plus scenario to vehicles with the added spin of needing to get familiar with OT and hull-down rules. As a bonus, the new ASLSK board v was included in the Journal as it is needed to play this one - this board has a good open Russian country feel to it as there are no hedges or walls, but its applicability to represent a western European battlefield may be a little more open to question.

It's the late summer of 1942, the grain is in season, the orchards are heavy with fruit and its a nice summer day. The play area includes approx 2/3 of the board with the Germans defending the backfield area across two low (hills) with a couple of isolated wooden buildings and the board edge woods half-hexes to offer a little bit of cover. The Russian infantry sets up 1/3 of the way onboard - the central area of the play area has two small board edge woods that flank a large central grain field with an axial orchard road. In the Russian back area is another low (level 1) hill that pretty much covers the whole short axis of the board - the Russian Armour, entering from offboard will need to climb and traverse this before they can join their footslogging brethren. To win, the Russians must exit 17VP (3 of them infantry) off the westboard edge (hexrow I) after 5.5 turns.

What gives this scenario the ASL feel is the nature of the force: a small (5 squads) force of the classic 467 Landsers has to hold tight against a mass (10) of the comfortingly familiar Russian 447s. The leadership of the Germans is a 9-1 and a 7-0, whilst the Russians get an 8-0 and a 9-1. Support weapons are fairly similar - the Germans get the brutal MG42 HMG and two LMG, whilst the Russians have to lug a MMG and a couple of LMGs. In addition, the Russians receive a Lt Mtr, normally something we sniff at derisively, but vs open topped vehicles, actually something of a threat out to a range of 20 hexes - it is a concern. Finally the Germans get two Marders with the 75L gun , which is good but not outstanding in late 1942 though the ROF of 2 is very cool, whilst the Russians, get four KV1- E which is a nice-ish tank for this time period as it has 11 AF all around, a good MG platform and is equipped with Radios - it also has a straight 76 Gun, although it has only 11 (Red) movement factors. My basic TK for this scenario is 6 so I will be expecting some bouncing shells, though I do have the option of APCR which has a much healthier TK of 9. One drawback of the Marder is limited HE, so I will be doing a few 2 IFT AP shots at the marauding Russian infantry horde somewhere in this.

My defence is fairly simple - I stick the 9-1 and HMG on Level 1 of the single two level wooden building just in case the Russians feel like doing an amoeba creep through the big grain field, a 467/LMG goes in a board edge woods half hex to seal off the northern side of the board with a 467 reserve behind them as the mobile fire brigade. On the south side, I set up the remaining two squads in isolated buildings to assist the main HMG strongpoint. I keep one eye on the ability of the two LMGs to place across-the-board lateral firelanes through the grain field. Once I see which way Stephane is coming, I'll drop the HMG down to ground level to assist with firelanes where necessary. My only flaw in this is that there is no support if the HMG-manning squad go down - it is a key weapon and needs to fire all the time, but with only 5 squads... Finally, I get the Marders hulldown on the east ends of the two low level hills - they have a clear unobstructed view to the Russian level 1 entry area and will try to pick off at long range anything that wanders into their gunsights.

Stephane clearly doesn't want to do the amoeba creep through the central grainfield and so splits his force to do two board-edge shuffles using the cover of the edging woods. On the north side, his smaller flanking squad of the MMG, 8-0 and three 447s swiftly runs into trouble as they near the woods edge and they are unable to get anywhere for the entire game and on more than one occasion fail to recover the dropped MMG - my single overwatch 467 / LMG pretty much nullifies this threat from the start. Stephane's other plan to use the Mortar to harass my Mortars also goes awry as I manage to retain HE shots long enough to KIA the one squad there in Turn 1 Defensive Fire - similar to Tom's recent AAR of this game. This is a major plus for me as it takes out one of the threats to the Marders from the start. Finally Stephane's main infantry slowly crawls along the south edge whilst not doing a lot. The KV1-E's come on very cautiously trying to remain anonymous in the background as they struggle over the hill, but one gets whacked on an APCR shot as it tries to sneak across my LOS.

By Turn 3, things are going OK for me, but in two swift attacks big holes appear in the defence - first off my AL Marder rolls a twelve, and with the other one already being shot out, Stephane takes the opportunity to send the remaining 3 KVs to the south side to assist the main Infantry rumble. Then my 467 manning the HMG is broken then CRs to nothing on a box-car on a low attack...the essential MG is out of action. After a turn of dithering, I wake up to the fact that the 9-1 can still manage to shoot the HMG at half-effect and this is needed right now as there are 6 Russian squads, 2 x LMG and the 9-1 lined up in the woods edge just waiting to go. I try to dash the 7-0 back across the road to help with MG-manning duties but he ends up CR'ed and wounded to form the bastard step-child of ASL, a broken 3MF 5+2 leader! Way to go! In turn 4, Stephane risks the bog check successfully to send a KV1 through and adjacent to one of my (broken) 447 / LMG flank squads. Things are falling apart everywhere now as my other Marder is out of HE (but not APCR) and has 8 ROF shots in a row at a squad in a grainfield, but every 2FP HE- equivalent attack fails - yuk. Even though my broken squad is doomed to rout Stephane takes a Bounding Fire shot at them anyway - and of course it bites him hard when he rolls eyes and battle harden back to a 467. In the next turn I start up the working Marder, get it hull down on the next hill to the south, take the bounding fire shot and of course leave the stopped KV there a smoking charred ruin.

This is big - Stephane now has to get both of the surviving KV's off- board AND get at least 1-squad and a leader off the board as well. I still have four of my five squads functioning and then to cap it all, the other Marder repairs its gun. In Russian Turn 5, Stephane tries a series of slightly suicidal but no-other-choice infantry moves to get them in position for the T6 end-game rush exit strategy, but some accurate and lucky defensive fire and judicious use of Firelanes breaks most of them - I get two more lucky breaks when my dead-eye Marder takes out a third KV in German DF - he now has to get off the sole surviving Marder (not certain) and at least 10VP worth of infantry which is going to be really tough from here. Finally a low odds 6+2 shot breaks the 9-1 and 2x447 stack in the burning KV hex. These low crawl back one hex and if they can survive into T6 could miracle rally and still dash off to help the win, but through a CX move with one of my squads, I eliminate them with an FTR move and that was that.

So at last a win. Nothing great and there were one or two bone-head moves by me, but overall I had slightly better dice than Stephane, although in the mid-game it looked a bit grim. Stephane had many 2+2 shots against the CE Marder crew but they all failed and that became a problem for him. Stopping the northern flankers cold with just one squad was really cool and getting rid of the Mtr in Turn one was a major plus and keeping APCR was very useful, and I think Stephane missed an opportunity when the HMG went down as he should have risked a squad to charge that building and stop me getting that HMG back. I can't criticise him for taking the bounding shot on the Broken Infantry as we've all done that one, but their battle hardening and return really crimped the big infantry push in Turn 5. It was not a bad scenario though like all small scenarios it could be a little dicey if any of two of the three key German assets go down early in the game - the Russians really need to do a big combined arms push and concentrate on trying to get at least one of those Marders off the board with as much +2 vs CE crew fire as quickly as possible.

As always, welcome comments!