Sunday, January 27, 2008

AAR: FrF12 The Fields of Black Gold

Nick Drinkwater

German (SS): Nick Drinkwater [ELR 5, SAN 2]
Russian: Tom Gillis [ELR 3, SAN 3]

It was timely that we played this one, as Matt Shostak had listed it in his possible scenario fodder for the Austin Tourney - pure serendipity as we had planned this to play this game a week ago, but still a great opportunity to see how this offering from the second Friendly Fire pack would shake out. At first glance it looks like this will be a cakewalk for a really strong SS Wiking Division combined arms force of ten 468s, a smattering of goodish leaders (-1s and 0s), and an efficient armoured force for the summer of 1942 (a couple of Mk IV F2s, a "smoke puffing" F1, and a couple of Mk IIIHs). All sounds good, yes? Well, maybe. What they are really missing is any kind of infantry support as they have a couple of MMGs and 3 x LMG only (no Mortars) and they have magical anti-tank powers at all (this is June 1942) - an 81mm Mortar would have been great! More critically is the lack of transport - there is no options for riders for me (unlike the Russians) and there are no half-tracks at all so I am 'hoofing' it in, to use a quaint British phrase.

Board configuration and victory conditions means that I have somewhat split objectives - I need to detach a small infantry force up the long axis of Board 18 on my right so that I can control one of the small central drumlins there (in this case, SSR means I can treat this hill like a multi-hex building for control purposes). This is actually quite a 'hoof' for the SS although there is a good approach route through a long axial gulley to get me there. Note however, that with the time taken to get there, whatever infantry you send to do this job will basically be unable to assist you much for the attack on the Board 2 hilltops due to a lack of time (scenario is 7 turns long), so choosing the balance of this force is important. That is difficult but doable.

The other half of the VC is a much trickier beast - I have to control all the Level 3 hexes on the big hill on board 2 - this is a much harder thing to achieve. I personally find trying to take this hill along its long axis instead of into its broad face is always tricky as the defenders can always conduct a "simple delaying fallback then reverse slope" defense. This is a tough road to hoe for any attackers as the scattered woods and cliffs on the hill means that MF / MP get eaten up quickly and yet there is plenty of open ground for the defenders to put up some tough kill zones to make any attacking force very wary.

At start the Russians get a batch of trenches to put on the hill, and an equal number of 447s as the attacking SS. As we're in 1942, they have the Commissar option (a given), and an HMG, Lt Mtr and a couple of LMGs. Normally no great shakes, but this is backed up by a initially hidden 76L AT Gun (BIG, SCARY OUCH!) and another towed 76L AT Gun which starts on the back slopes of Board 2 Big Hill being towed. That bunch can certainly give the Germans (well, probably Norwegian, Swedes and Danes) a bloody nose, but with the SS armour and their extensive smoke assets, taking the hill should still definitely be achievable. However, help for these desperate Ivans is not so far away - on Turn 3, the Russians receive two T34 M41s and four Valentines with all their smokey tricks. That little lot is going to seriously re-align German attention of their tanks as the entry area means that the Russians can come on and drive into the flanks of the attackers.

There is one other thing the German needs to be aware of - VC are very dry and there is a mild breeze blowing from the west, right across the front of the Russian defenses. These Environmental Conditions normally scream out in big, flashing red neon signs "SMOKE! SMOKE!" at the top of their lungs (probably with extra caffeine) and the SS increased depletion numbers help this. This is great as it will help shield my guys on those bare slopes, but this will also be a little double-edged as the Russians will probably be less attrited, much harder to dig out of their trenches, and ultimately any resultant CC will be on a completely even basis - CC doesn't care whether these guys are 8 morale supermen or not. Therefore a degree of caution must be exercised here as there is a need for balancing the urge to smoke everything in sight to actually hurting these Russians at the same time to make the Infantry's task a bit easier.

So, my plan such as it was, was to send an armoured platoon of a MkIVF2, a Mk IIH and the "smoke puffer" screaming up the Board 18 axis to try and get into positions to put flanking fire on the big hill and maybe establish some useful hull-down positions on some of the Board 18 mini-hills for when the Russian reserves arrived. The "smoke puffer" was to stick itself on the small Level two hill on Board 18 and try and find the Russian HMG for some serious smokin' and then the Russian ATG once it had revealed itself - a platoon of infantry was to infiltrate up the Board 18 axis to get to the victory drumlin and hold that - these would be supported by the aforementioned tanks.

For the main assault on the short end of the Big hill, I assigned the other seven squads to push on and push hard, with a couple more tanks to help. Tom tried to sucker me into a criss-crossing firelane trip at the base of this hill, but armoured assault and 8 morale is tough to beat, and only one squad broke. He had entrenched the top of the level two hill which leads up to the "outlier" two-hex level three forward plateau and I formed big firebases to try and suppress them. After a lot of desultory fire, I managed to enforce an FTR and disrupt some scripts on his ground level defenders, but critically the last of Tom's low slope defenders turned berserk from prep fire from me. This was an absolute bugger as he was in dead ground to tanks and nearby machine guns and surrounded by open ground which I jsut had to move through. Of course, I just started to fail morale checks and lost another squad to another brainless open ground move to him too. Eventually he went down in a storm of fire, but the delay was taxing.

My attack force on the Board 2/18 join got hurt a bit too from the pesky light mortar where Tom just continued rolling low and my 8 morale supermen changed their underwear repeatedly - not good and I just couldn't knock the guys off that mortar, despite a couple of 6-1 shots. In another wild swing of fortune, Tom "I only roll 2s and 3s" Gillis created another berserk 7-0 leader which then proceeded to chase another broken squad of mine backwards with little I could do to stop him. Of course, more time and resources were needed to kill these really annoying sods, which when allied to Tom's brilliant ability to roll low when needed, caused yet more unwanted delays and setbacks.

My board 18 force was progressing along nicely when, CRASH, BANG, one of the Mark IIIs was reduced to a smoking wreck by the now revealed AT Gun on the Board 18 victory drumlin. Ouch indeed. I quickly smoked him from a well-aimed shot from the "smoke puffer" but this damage was compounded when my other Mk III broke, repaired, broke again, malfunctioned its main armament and had to withdraw. Tom's reinforcements started to arrive - a split two-Valentine-plus-lead-T34 force on either flank to cause a nuisance. In the meantime, he had unlimbered his other AT Gun onto the rearmost, left Level Two hill where it could offer perfect shots on any of my guys cresting all of the Level three hexes and also on my approaching troops on the frontal outlier. Not good.

I kept pushing on, but lost another broken half-squad to a sniper and then one of my MMG / 468s at the far left of the big hill at ground level received three "snakes" in a row from the cowering HMG which took them out of the game. I did manage eventually to evict the outlier's Level three defenders from their trench, but then got hurt by an adjacent bounding fire shot from a T34 which broke my newly advanced 9-1 leader and the squad with him. At this point I resigned - these guys were flying back down the hill and going nowhere fast and the game was basically up. Through a lot of gulley sneaking, I had eventually managed to get a single squad onto the victory drumlin which was about to take out the AT Gun crew from behind, and in my one inspirational move of the game, I had whacked one of his lead T34s on an inspired bounding fire shot where the 9-2 armour leader made the difference, but the game was definitively 'up'.

When I resigned at the end of Turn 4, I had been kicked out of the one level three hex I had managed to conquer and was running back down that hill. Though I had probably knocked of four of Tom's initial 10 squads, I had lost at least three of mine, but more important, due to holdups from both berserkers, three of my remaining squads were at the base of the hill back near the start line completely out of position, and one other was isolated on the victory drumlin. Of the rest, there were a couple of half-squads available, at the front, but the bulk of my force was still a long way back. We counted out MF and realised that even going full tilt, that at least a third of my force would probably not even get up to the furthest level three hex which they needed to do to control it - AND that was assuming that they were completely unopposed in their run up the hill AND that they were going to use the open ground route only - HIGHLY UNLIKELY! On top of that, Tom's reverse-slope AT Gun with support of the other T34 and Valentines and Commissar, would make Swiss cheese of any of my armour which I put up onto the crest of the hill. It just wasn't going to happen so we called it a day.

We both felt that, even with the SS, this was just too tough an ask for the Germans. The big Board 2 Hill is an absolute bugger to take end-on, and this was no different. We also felt that the Russians with equal squads (with added MOL - forgot that!) were perhaps a little bit too tough in this one, especially when the armour arrives, as the German just has to stop everything for a turn or two and deal with threat. This really dilutes their assets for taking the hill just when they are needed the most. I confess that I didn't play it optimally and you wouldn't believe how easily the SS fail 8 morale checks and rally on 9 checks (well, my SS do anyway!) and so I was always behind the curve on a scenario where clearly there is zero margin for error. However, anything the Russian can do to delay the German on their entry turns is going to count doubly against them in the late game, and that is something that is just too easy to achieve for the Russians. We felt that the Germans either needed some ATR to ward off the threat of the Russian tanks, a half-track to help overcome some of the MF challenges climbing that damn hill, or perhaps an 81mm MTR to give them even a modicum of cover on those bare, bare slopes. As it stands currently, we'd both rate this as 60% pro-Russian.

So Matt, perhaps not one for the Tourney!

And Gillis - learn how to roll '12s' other than for the bloody Wind Change!

A Response by Zeb Doyle

Thanks for taking the time to write up all these great AARs, Nick. Very enjoyable and informative to read them. I actually played FrF12 The Fields of Black Gold against Jim Ferrell and had a great time losing as the SS. I agree with your main points, that the SS are operating on a very unforgiving timetable and can't afford many losses, but I think there are a few tricks to help even the odds. Random comments follow:

First of all, a few times in your AAR you mention the SS get ten squads. They actually get twelve; I hope that's just a typo there! Looking at the VC, I don't actually think the board 2 hill is the tougher target. Admittedly, you only have seven turns to go 17 hexes, but since the VC call for hex control, you can park an AFV on the further hexes at game end to get control in a pinch. The board 3 'drumlin' is 18 hexes away, and since it counts as a multi-location building, you HAVE to get an MMC back there. I think that distance/time challenge is the biggest enemy for the attacker in this scenario and most of the German infantry has to be running forward every turn. It's certainly possible, but you have to be thinking about just how to do it from turn one.

Obviously, there's lots of open ground to get through and the Russians have an HMG, but that's where the tanks really come into play. You've got an S10 gun, two S9s, and six sD7s. That's a ton of smoke, especially with the Mild Breeze in play. The other thing that really helps is the SSR making all the Soviets TI that set up behind hexrow N. That lets the SS stack 'em up and DT on turn one behind a nice smoke screen from the sDs. While the infantry runs forward, the SS armor has three turns to dominate the battlefield before the T-34s and Valentines show up to distract them. Even then, the six German tanks clearly outclass their Soviet counterparts and should be able to deal with them while the SS infantry finishes the job.

For what it's worth, my playing against Jim was quite close and saw the Soviets massed on the board 2 hill with a small holding force on the board 18 drumlin. I send the bulk of my force to storm the board 2 hill while 2x2-4-8/2xMMG/8-1 went to the board 18 level two hill to wear down the drumlin outpost (sounds like you did something similar in your game). It was a really cool fight, and while I took the board 2 hill relatively easily, my MMG stack X'd out a weapon on the first shot. That really hurt, since I'd been planning on seven turns of 4+1 shots on the Soviets to unconceal them and then 8+1 attacks after that to clear the drumlin. Obviously, 2+1 and 4+1 shots aren't nearly as good, and my lone MMG was never really able to do anything. That left several Soviet squads on the drumlin with two turns to go, when my tanks finally freed up from killing stuff elsewhere. Over those last two turns, I had the infantry in place to fulfill the VC but my
tanks, like the MMG earlier, malfed seemingly every time they fired at the drumlin and a last turn rush came up just short. To Jim's credit, he did a very nice job with the Valentines keeping them alive and annoying longer than I thought possible, and (very key) stoically passed up several nice shots to maintain concealment with a squad on the drumlin. That turned my 8+2 tank MG shots into 4+2s and ended up being the difference. Great game against a great opponent though.

Anyway, I think The Field Of Black Gold is a really fun situation and a lot of thought went into designing it. I'd hate to see it branded as a dog, although I can see why you feel the SS have a difficult job ahead of them. My suggestion to even up the balance (and I'd love to hear your thoughts here, Nick and Tom) would be to make the Soviet ART piece set up emplaced and concealed but not HIP. There aren't a lot of places to put it, so losing HIP isn't a huge deal, but it does let the SS armor be aggressive from the get-go (and they do need to be aggressive in this one).

Thanks again for writing the great AAR!


PS: As an aside, the AAR on the ASL forums is not at all (IMO) representative of the scenario. The German armor is so important in this one you cannot throw it away. Trying to overrun an AT gun sitting in the open, unemplaced with no gunshield seems like a really bad idea!

A Response To The Response by Tom Gillis

Good points Zeb. A few comments of my own...I was the one who pulled the counters for this one and I'm sure I pulled 12 468s. I did think Nick should have deployed some of his troops on turn one. It would have made even more 8 morale MMCs to have to look for. Also, though important, I think Nick was over concerned about the drumlin. While he only sent one MMC towards it, (I only had the at start HIP 76L Art on it so it appeared empty...) He did send almost all of his armor assets to bd 18. They lost a couple of turns or so getting into what should have been ideal postions to smoke the bd 2 hill. By the time they were in position tho, I was already falling into my reverse slope defense. I luckily zapped a Mk 3 with my HIPster gun, and thus caused the SS armor to (overreact...?,) against my reinforcing Val and T34s and ART gun on bd 18. By this time my second Art piece was well set up to cover the third lvl victory hexes, situated with the bulk of my remaining troops on the back of the bd 2 hill. I then sent three AFVs along the back side of the big hill with the intent of getting behind what MMCs Nick had on the front of the hill. He had no AFV assets back there, and the SS infantry with no AT assets were looking at being anvil'd and hammer'd by 3 Russian metal monsters, covered by the still holding out HMG. One note about this. After fireing away on Nicks T1, I moved the HMG and Sqd holding it out of line of sight. Nick commented on this at the time saying they wont be able to shoot German infantry advancing next turn. But I figured he would have smoked them and being a 3 ROF weapon, I wanted it on the backside of the hill to cover any cresting infantry. My timely 'zerker threw Nicks troops off also, so suddenly with time running short he had three AFVs heading towards his rear area. When Nick's smokers targeted the Art gun on bd 18 I moved the HMG back to their original position on bd 2. I was trying to be as fluid as I could in my fixed defensive position and not give Nick many targets. He surprised me when he nailed a T34 on bd 18 with a bounding shot, but this just moved his best Panzer away from the hill and potentially getting it stuck in a cat fight with the remaining 2 Vals I had there. This could have erased some of his assaulting potential on bd 2, which was fine by me. I guess my AFV distraction helped because the SS grunts were wondering where the hell _their_ AFV support was at the stalled attack on the front of the big hill. My fire lane trap at the beginning of the game did pretty much fail, but these ground lvl troops of mine did their best to stay and fight and disrupt Nicks time table. All in all a fun scenario that we rated a 6 only because of the belief the SS need just a bit more to make this a more even fight. One or two HTs would have helped. Its always fun playing Nick tho, so win or lose I still had a blast. Yes, my dice were hot all day, but you all can ask Steve how bad those same dice were against him just a week earlier... I wouldn't call this a broken scenario, but it does need some tweaking. We both thought that maybe when it was play tested the Russian infantry were doing poorly so they upped them too much, prob by adding the molotov capability. Nick was very cautious, (maybe too much...) when driving his AFVs near the Russian infantry because of this. Good fun!


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