Here's another AAR from the latest game day. A big thank you to Mike for hosting...I know I had a great time and I think everyone else did too (BTW, Mike, if you want to share that margarita recipe, I'm all ears!). We had a good mix of scenarios, including an ASLSK game, some tourney sized action, and even a few large scenarios. I think Shostak and Motes won the prize for fastest play time, with some bad dice effectively ending a smallish scenario on turn one, while the Denson/Seningen and the Roundhill/Schwoebel games going down to the last die roll. Meanwhile, I had the pleasure of playing Rick in DB045 The Backhand Blow, a scenario that also went down to the last die roll, although in extreme anticlimactic fashion.
Rick and I have had a lot of fun with East Front slugfests in the past, and we were hoping that The Backhand Blow would continue that trend. The scenario revolves around Manstein's counteroffensive to retake Kharkov in early 1943 and features a full company of 6-5-8 SS attacking down boards 23 and 49. Along with the standard 9-2 leader and lots of MGs, the SS get three Tigers (with a 10-2 AL), two PzIVH, a PzIIIN, and a Marder. This impressive force is pitted against some tough Russians, including 18 assorted elite and first line squads, a .50 cal, lots of mines and dummies, as well as a 45LL and a 57LL AT gun. The Russians also get two HIP T-34s, as well as another two T-34s that can secretly set up HIP or enter from off-map on a prerecorded turn and hex. It's a clash of two powerful forces, with the SS firepower and Tigers balanced by the extensive Russian HIP capabilities. The VC in this scenario call for the SS to score 99 points in 7.5 turns by capturing buildings, killing Russians, and exiting off the far map edge, with the interesting twist that any CVP the Russians score is added to that German 99 VP target.
This twist makes things quite tricky for the Germans because every loss they take saps their combat power, takes away EVP, and adds to the difficulty of the task. It's a little like running on a treadmill where the more tired you get, the faster it goes. A more concrete example is contained in the designer notes to the scenario, where it's helpfully pointed out that if you lose your Tiger with the 10-2, not only have you lost a very powerful unit and 11 EVP, you also now need to score 110 VP to win. Obviously, if the Germans take serious losses early, the scenario will turn ugly fast and so they have to be very careful especially with their tanks. The SS Panzer arm consists of seven AFVs, worth a total of 50 VP, and of which everything but the Tigers are vulnerable through the frontal AF against the Russian AT assets. Despite all this grim arithmetic, the scenario looked like a lot of fun and Rick graciously obliged me by taking the Russians.
He set up a very solid defense, with enough up front to slow me down but with the bulk of his force positioned in depth,causing me to abandon any hope of a grand flanking maneuver. I was going to have to dig the Russians out of their stone buildings squad by squad, and I started aggressively going at it from turn one. Things started poorly for me and a few low-odds shots caused a lot of damage. Over the first game turn, I had over 25% of my force break. However, the damage wasn't permanent and that ended up being the high-water mark for the Russian cause. Over the remaining seven turns, my SS troopers behaved like the 8ML he-men they're supposed to be, shrugging off 1MCs like they were nothing and dishing out tons of damage in return. It was pretty amazing how well my infantry performed and on the few occasions they did break, they simply rallied back as if the DM counters on them weren't even there. Anything my infantry couldn't kill, my sniper did, breaking a vital 6-2-8 who then died for FTR and wacking an 8-0, who took a squad with him via a boxcarred LLMC.
That was disheartening for Rick, but he sucked it up and focused on destroying my tanks, which are really the key to this scenario. Here, Rick did a great job reading my mind and setting up HIP traps, but his luck ended up being even worse than with his infantry. A T-34 ended up looking at the side of a Tiger needing an 8TH. Result: no APCR, miss, IF, hit, bounce, burning T-34. The second T-34 tried to take on my lowly PzIIIN. Result: miss, return HEAT shot Shocks T-34, Tiger moves up and delivers CH APCR hit to rear, burning T-34. My PzIIIN proceeded on its merry way, discovered the 57LL but was missed, drove on, discovered the 45LL, and survived six or seven ROF net TK5 hits to the front before the AT gun malfunctioned. The final two T-34s drove on map around turn four and confronted a PzIVH and the Marder. Result: Marder goes for APCR, T-34 dies. PzIVH goes for APCR, T-34 dies, Russian AT threat completely eliminated causing no German losses. Now, SS tanks in 1943 do have access to a surprisingly high amount of APCR, and net 5TK shots against PzIIINs and the sides of Tigers are not high-odds shots, but if you were to describe what happened in our game as 'statistically unlikely' or 'improbable' or 'really really lucky,' you'd be right.
You'd also be right if you figured that, thanks to all that luck, I was in great shape heading into the final two turns. I'd stupidly bogged a Tiger in a trench and the Russian sniper had Recalled my Marder, but my total losses were an amazingly low 7 CVP, I'd killed tons of Russians, captured every building on the map but one, and had my entire force ready to attack that last bastion. The only problem was that the last building is a factory where every hex is fortified and every Russian within is Fanatic by SSR. As anyone who has played RB knows, fighting 6-2-9s at one hex range in +2 TEM is very slow going, and although I threw everything I had at the factory, I ended up being completely shut out of it. In the end, I had to run my tanks off the map (surviving a last-ditch MOL attack) and ended up winning with 111 total points. That doesn't sound too close until you factor in those 7 CVP I lost and remember I needed 106 VP to win...had that last MOL hit my charmed PzIII, I would have not exited it, would have had to score 112 points, and would have lost.
The true difficulty of the task really didn't become apparent to me until after I'd played. As written, the Germans win by scoring 99 of a possible 196 VP, but that assumes the SS infantry can move an average of three hexes per turn against some very stout opposition and exit. I think instead they're going to be so busy grabbing buildings and killing Russians that you can't expect any infantry to make it off. Speaking of buildings, I don't think it's realistic to expect the Germans to take the factory either, which by SSR is worth double points. If you take out the German infantry EVP and the factory points, you're looking at trying to score 99 of a possible 152 points. Factor in three tank losses (and with six HIP Russian AT assets, that seems highly possible), and suddenly the Germans need 116 out of 135....very tough sledding and no margin for error. As an interesting comparison, the scenario designer notes say to budget two turns for taking the factory but expect overall losses in the 25%-40% range. Since I took 8.5% losses and arrived at the factory with two turns to spare and ended up barely winning, that seems like a very optimistic view to me.
At any rate, I'm certainly not complaining since I won and had a lot of fun playing. It was just unfortunate that what looks like a real slugfest has to be approached by the Germans as an exercise in casualty avoidance, with any slip up likely equaling a loss. I can't recommend the scenario as written at all even though there's a lot of promise underlying the flawed VC. If I were to try it again, I might tinker by giving the Russians the balance but ignore the provision that German losses add to their required total....obviously that's a big change, but I think the scenario needs something along those lines. So, final rating on The Backhand Blow: exciting situation, lots of promise, neat SSRs, but VC are a fatal flaw.
Anyway..thanks for reading and thanks to Rick for playing,