Here's a quick rundown of my Owlcon action, during which I had a great time and many dice were rolled:
I headed down to Houston early on Friday to get in on the Ferocity Fest mini, which took place at Ken's house. The place was easy to find, very close to Rice, and I even beat the rush hour traffic getting there. To make things even better, Ken was a great host, giving us a tour of his fantastic place and breaking out some Chinese rice wine for us that had been given to him by the Chinese Minister of Energy. Even without the ASL action, it would have been lots of fun hanging out with everyone, admiring the house, and drinking wine.
Alas, the peaceful tranquility of the morning was soon shattered as Ferocity Fest begun. The format was was a single round of play, with everyone playing TAC30 Yae Dake and both Marine and Japanese players scoring 'style points' for various actions during the game to determine the overall winner. I got the defending Japanese and had to try and hold a hill from Rob's attacking Marines. The Marines have a ton of firepower in this one, but not a lot of time, and their attack is tricky to coordinate with lots of groups of scattered reinforcements trickling in from all directions. I decided to try and use a wall of halfsquads to block these various Marine assault columns, prevent their linking up, and just try to run the clock out on Rob. I caught some big breaks early, with both Marine FTs X'ing on the first shot and my sniper killing Rob's radio man and then his 9-2. That took the attack from 'difficult to coordinate' to 'impossible,' and my blocking halfsquads were able to slow the Marines to a crawl. In the end, Rob got two of the required eleven hill hexes, leaving my Japanese with a solid win. However, Walter was also playing the Japanese and denied his Marines any hill hexes at all, caused more casualties than I did and was anointed Ferocity Fest champ. Ironically, Yae Dake wasn't really ferocious at all. There's no PTO in play, which takes away a lot of the Japanese tricks, and it ended up playing out as a solid but not exciting scenario. I wouldn't warn people away from it, but there's noting to recommend it either.
We then moved venues over to Rice and started some full fledged Owlcon action. The gaming space was exactly the same as last year, which was both good and bad. It's by far the most noisy and cramped space I've ever played in and there are tons of other gamers basically on top of you, but then again, all those other gamers are being exposed to ASL. With the starter kit making it so much easier for people to try dipping their toe into ASL, I think it's really worth the sacrifice to show the flag at these events and try to get new people involved. The other key to this happening is Walter, who does a great job spotting interested-looking people and roping them into trial games. I think the Texas ASL clubs do a great job of sustaining players but fall short in the recruiting department. Walter is really going above and beyond here and deserves a lot of praise for it. The combination of playing with other gamers to elicit interest and then having the starter kit as an easy entry really does seem to be working. Thank a lot, Walter.
At any rate, by the time I'd checked into my motel and registered at Owlcon, it was getting late. Luckily, Bill "the fastest ASLer in the West" was free and we decided to quickly knock out a scenario. The selection was TEF1-2 The Last Waltz, which features a desperate band of 5-4-8 SS troops trying to hold Vienna against a very tough group of Russian Guards. The Germans are pretty standard, with the usual MMGs, PSKs, and a PzIV, while the Russians are mostly 4-5-8s with some 6-2-8 assault engineers, some DCs and a FT, plus a 9-2. They also get three Shermans but only have a slim numerical edge and no real long-range punch. All in all, it's an interesting match-up with the Russians trying to capture two big multi-hex buildings and score a combination of 24 EVP and CVP.
The game started great for me as my first Sherman drove onto the map, survived a dud PSK round from a perfectly placed HIP 2-3-8, killed the offending HS with his CMG, and then swung his turret two hexspines to score an APCR CH on the PzIV. Good times. The attack bogged down a little after that, with my 9-2/4-5-8/FT combo breaking every single time they were shot at, but I got tons of ordinance and sM smoke from the Shermans and that really let me maneuver freely. The key moment in the game came when a 6-2-8 assault engineer survived some fire to get into one of the big victory buildings while it was guarded only by a broken SS squad. The SS squad routed out, giving me control and letting the remaining Russians focus their attack on a single building. Bill wouldn't give an inch though and so the battle was bloody and fierce. I finally got the FT into action on the last player turn and managed to get the win, but only had two good order squads and a tank left when it was all done. Fun scenario against a great opponent, The Last Waltz is good tourney fodder as it's small but both sides have enough tools that one bad roll won't doom you. I'm not sure there's a ton of replay value, and knowing the building control rules is key, but I enjoyed it a lot.
That was all the ASL I could handle for one day, so I headed back to the motel and tried to calm my mind down to get some sleep. It didn't work real well, and I tossed and turned all night while visions of FFMO and FFNAM raced though my head, but I was back at Owlcon early the next day for some more dicing. My morning opponent was Johnny, a really nice guy who had actually been recruited by Walter the year before. Johnny wanted to learn how to use vehicles, and Rob had been doing some trash talking about having the Tank Ace award all wrapped up, so in an effort to make things interesting I pulled out the all-armor CH58 Death Ride. This scenario features some 24 Russian tanks trying to halt 14 German AFVs at Kursk. I love Kursk scenarios since there are so many types of tanks in play, which makes for some fun TH and TK combinations. Death Ride looked to fit the bill, with PzIII, PzIV, Tigers, several types of T-34s, T-70s, and Churchills all putting in an appearance. The dice gave me the Germans and the super-cool Tiger/9-2 AL combo, although they have their hands full trying to advance against a numerically superior force while killing lots of Soviet tanks and/or exiting.
It was a brutal battle from the start, with Johnny exhibiting some excellent ASL instincts. He used the slower Churchills to guard the exit area, while the T-34s and T-70s maneuvered out of my LOS on my flanks to pick off targets of opportunity. As I pushed forward, my flanks became increasingly vulnerable and the Russians executed numerous well-planned attacks on my PzIVs. Unfortunately, almost every time this happened, I managed to roll a TH that included a one on the cdr, giving me a turret hit and ROF. The turret hit is bad enough, since it changed the net TK on the T-34 M41 from a 6 to a 9, but the Russians can afford a lot of losses in this one. It was the ROF that was the real game saver for the Germans because each PzIV that went down seemed to take four or five tanks with it. Meanwhile, the Tigers were shredding up the T-34 M43s, although Johnny was making it tough on me here too, as I could only get at him at point-blank range and had to risk lots of APCR and DI attacks. The Russians never got the rolls they needed, though, and although I finally malfed an MA on the last turn, I skated past a lot of decent Russian shots, red MP start-ups and so on with nary a scratch to the Tigers. My other tanks didn't fare so well, as Johnny managed to kill about half of mine and didn't let me exit a single vehicle, but I managed to destroy enough of his armor to win. Overall, it was a fun scenario as all-vehicle scenarios go although nothing makes it really stand out. If you're looking for a big Kursk tank battle, but don't want to deal with the Steppe terrain in Clash Along The Psel, then this is a good one. Meanwhile, watch out for Johnny...I think he went 2 and 1 for the weekend in his 3rd, 4th, and 5th ASL games ever. Very impressive.
Next up was Tom "Commissar" Gillisov, who was nice enough to play SP140 Red Valentines with me. This scenario was high on my wanna-play list due to the meaty combined-arms clash and the interesting AT ditch SSR. It looked like a lot of fun, plus there were plenty more tanks for me to kill in pursuit of the Tank Ace award. Tom took the Russians, which put him in the unpleasant position of trying to defend the board 48 'village of death' with a weak infantry force and a 120mm OBA module, with a bunch of Valentines (as you may have guessed from the scenario title), T-60s, and T-34s reinforcements arriving over the course of the game. The Soviet force totaled 13 squads and 14 tanks, which made for an interesting match-up with my 11 squads and 10 tanks, although of course my squads were elite SS and the tanks were split evenly between the very nice PzIIILs and the PzIVF2s with the long barrel. My mission was to take almost all of the board 48 village and have at least two mobile tanks at game end.
Tom set his troops up quite far forward in an attempt to cover the AT ditch, forcing me to enter quite cautiously. I was very worried about losing any infantry early, given that I was outnumbered to start, and so used a lot of sD from the PzIIIs to cover the advance. This worked very well and the SS made it into the ditch with minimal losses. Here, I think Tom made a small error by deciding to stand and fight. The LOS from the off-board 120mm OBA observer is very poor, the reinforcing Soviet tanks have to come a long way to get into the fight, and once the SS infantry makes it to the ditch, it's very tough to hurt them. The situation was only made worse by my good rolls and the fact that Tom didn't pass an MC until turn three, but between the SS 9-2 kill-stack and the BFF Panzers that would then cut rout paths, there were only three Soviet squads left alive after the first few turns. I had taken some infantry losses as well, and was actually in the process of massacring my numerous prisoners to free up troops for another push forward, when the Soviet armor hit me like a tidal wave.
As Tom rolled his tanks up to try and save the day, I was already a little worried. I'd lost a PzIII to an ATR CH through the front and malfunctioned two of my precious PzIV 75L guns, and was having some bad flash-backs to my game of Huns Of Steel where Eric had trashed my PzIV2s with Valentines and then rolled his (effectively invincible) T-34s on for the win. It was exactly the same situation here, and I didn't care for it one bit, especially when I malfunctioned another two MAs firing at the oncoming Soviet armor. Tom handled his units very well, coming in on my flanks with superior numbers, and his good tactics were rewarded with good dice, as his first four attacks (needing a 5TH and a 5TK) were all successful. That and the malfunctions pretty much shattered my Panzer force and the remaining SS tanks were forced to scatter to the four winds and hide. At this point, my chances of victory looked very slim indeed. I was down to three tanks with working MAs and had only killed two Soviet tanks, which meant I was effectively outnumbered 4:1. In addition, while my infantry had eradicated their Russian counterparts, I still had a lot of buildings to run through and capture. In short, it was Tom's game to lose.
That's where I ended up getting very very lucky. I think Tom got caught up in the thrill of trashing my Panzers, and spent the rest of the game hunting my reamining armor with his OBA and tanks. I was able to use lots of tricks like motion attempts and sDs and moving to where I could get out of LOS while expending just a single MP and so forth, and thanks to some good rolls, was just able to keep the required two tanks mobile at game end. Meanwhile, the village was essentially unguarded and although it took every single MPh I had I was able to take the required amount of buildings. In hindsight, my margin of error with my infantry was so slim, the Russian tanks and OBA could have sealed off the village and given themselves an easy win. This isn't meant as a knock on Tom at all, as the decision wasn't so clear-cut in the heat of the moment and he was handling his tanks masterfully against mine. Instead, it's more a testament to how exciting the scenario was; we were both completely caught up in the action and having a really great time.
Overall, I think our playing was fairly atypical. I doubt the SS will generally erase the Soviet infantry so easily, and likewise, the armor battle seems like it should be much more even than it was. So, although I can't pass a definitive judgment, I think Red Valentines is pretty balanced and a ton of fun. If I could do it again (and this is a scenario I'd replay in a heartbeat), I'd try having the Soviets contest the AT ditch, then fall back into the town to allow the OBA and armor to fully support them. Meanwhile, the SS have to realize that they have to push hard every turn but not take crazy risks. I didn't realize just how many buildings I had to tag and almost lost because of it. The game is chock-full of interesting decisions for both sides and I'd really recommend it. Very cool swirling East Front action, but not of overwhelming size. Congrats to Tom as well for sucking up his terrible luck with his infantry, completely manhandling my Panzers, and putting himself in great position to win.
My narrow escape against Tom put me into the finals Sunday morning against Roy. He wanted the Marines in HP18 Flame Tree Hill and I tried to put together a Japanese defense that could hold off his overwhelming firepower. I don't want to write a ton about what happened because the game is worthy of a full-fledged AAR, but Roy went with a hyper-aggressive attack that almost gave me a heart attack, led to several massive swings in initiative, and ended the game on turn two with roughly 50% casualties on both sides. I walked away feeling very lucky to have won, and I think Roy walked away realizing that he'd had about a 60% chance to win, but if he'd done things just slightly differently, he'd have had an 80% chance of victory. It was a great way to end the tourney for me because it packed about four scenarios worth of action into two hours of play and I was able to head back to Austin early. The scenario was interesting and both sides have a lot of fun toys. I want to think over the balance a bit more before making any comments on that. Finally, I want to thank Walter for the prizes. The trophy mugs were very nice and the gift certificate to Barnes and Nobles was very very generous. Thanks a ton. Most importantly though, I would have had a great time even without the prizes. Owlcon's a great event and I can't wait to come back and defend my championship next year!