Friday, October 03, 2008

AAR: Buck9 To Take Back a Hill (Prepared)

Nick Drinkwater

US Player: [SAN 3, ELR 3] Nick Drinkwater
Japanese Player: [SAN 5, ELR 3] Zeb Doyle

A real slogging match set on Bougainville in 1944, where US troops from the 37th Buckeye Division have to eject an intrusive force of Japanese who have just captured a chunk of a large massif overlooking an American airbase. The game is set solely on Board 39 and strict setup limitations mean that the Japanese are limited to solely operating between hexrows M and Y - any Japanese who step out of bounds are immediately eliminated. This particular piece of real estate has been thrashed hard by numerous artillery barrages and so all woods symbols on a hill hex here represent palm trees instead - this is a significant transformation in terms of LOS issues but also in a lack of rally terrain. Note that woods at Level 0 (on the board edge) is still light jungle. Also, as the pillboxes on the hill were once owned by the Americans, they all set up as known - there are four of them in this, the longest version of this scenario.

The designer of the Scenario Pack is Mark Pitcavage and he has attempted to create some interesting variability in some of the scenarios in this pack by a variety differing measures. I'd played "Up the Numa Numa Trail" a couple of weeks ago and really liked it, so I had no hesitation in playing this. For this scenario, players can select a "Hasty", "Delayed" or "Prepared" attack option which, due to some big changes in OB, initial starting conditions and variable VC, effectively results in three separate scenarios masquerading under the same name. The shortest game is the simplest and is the "Hasty" attack - in this, US preparatory measures and OB are at their simplest and the Japanese are at their skimpiest. In contrast, the "Prepared" attack has significant force augmentation to both sides and also the US get to use a Bombardment as well. Due to an early finish on the Singling CG, Zeb and myself had more time available than we first thought, and so we opted to play the longest of the three alternative options available, the "Prepared" Attack, for the chance to get a chunky game in.

In hindsight, this is probably the toughest of the games for the US to win as the Japanese have the always attractive "have one good order MMC on any hill-hex" as their VC - I personally think this is a fairly simple condition for most defending forces to achieve, especially with nations that can deploy and particularly for the Japanese where their half-squads are so tough to kill off. Despite this, I've no complaints here though as my eyes were open to this as we went into the game, and we were more looking forward to playing a big fun scenario than we were on the winning / losing part of it. And that's what we got.

The US have a starting force that is good but brittle: fourteen 666s, some DC's, MMGs, an HMG, three mortars, and a batch of -1 and 0 leaders - this is the basic force for the "Hasty" Scenario, but as we were playing the long version, so I also received at start an additional three 666s, four 667 Assault Engineers, two Flamethrowers, three more DCs, more MMGs and more leaders including a fearsome 9-2. I am also blessed with 100mm OBA directed by a Level 1 observer and I will have inflicted a pre-game bombardment on the Japanese too. That is fairly tasty, though it is going to take some maneuevering to get the mortars into a place where they could see anything to be useful.

In response, the basic Japanese have an HMG, six 347s, six 447s, a couple of Mortars, and a DC, plus a 10-1, 9-1 and 9-0. That is tough enough, but then they also get the "Delayed" attacks units (8+1, six 347s in Turn 4) and also the "Prepared Attacks" units too as at start units (9-0, three 347s, MMG, Lt Mtr). On top of this they receive a total of thirteen foxholes and four wires to block US movement, and through their natural abilities, two squad equivalents of HIP units. Due to these being ex-American pillboxes that the Japanese had previously captured, no tunnels are received. Despite this, that is a really tough force to kill off, and the US have to climb up a lot of terrain, although as woods are actually palm trees on the hill, the climbs up are not necessarily going to invoke CX for advance vs difficult terrain as we would normally expect on Board 39.

In addition, the real joker in the pack is that the weather is overcast - the rain makes a huge difference in this game as ascending and descending become an extra MF - this has implications for rallying in particular - when its dry, units have enough MF to have to run back all the way to the board edge to get to the light jungle rally terrain. As soon as it starts raining, most units won't have enough MF to make it to the sheltering jungle so they are able to rout only a single hex downhill and be safe - that was definitely a help to me for recycling troops and of course it also stopped Smoke and WP from Zeb's mortars which was also helpful. However, if the rain turned heavy, this was more of a help to Zeb as it meant my fire attacks were overall less deadly due to the +1 LV effect at all ranges and so it becomes just that little bit harder to hurt Zeb's extremely stout and dug in defenders (effectively +3 shots instead of +2 due to the foxholes. Overall, we both thought the rain was a double-edged sword for both sides - a nice touch to give the scenario a bit of a twist.

This promised to be a massive slugfest and due to the need for me to kill, like, everything, promised to go right to the full 8.5 turns, which is just what we wanted. The pre-game bombardment definitely started well for me - several of Zeb's dummies were removed, a couple of squads were striped and overall it showed he was setup light on his left (east) side. As Zeb is not an idiot, he had followed the Duke of Wellington's fine tactics and gone for a complete reverse slope defense, (a clearly superior tactic from one of Britain's best ever generals), as it meant my Artillery was completely invalidated as the Level 1 south board edge observer was never going to see a thing - the whole USA OBA thing was a bit pointless really as I strongly suspect that a reverse slope defense is what most people would adopt: maybe it was a design "double-bluff", that, even though it could never be used, it did ensure that the Japanese were very unlikely to setup a forward defense and so give the US an easier initial turn or two. Whatever. All I knew was that one of my key weapons was completely nullified: not sure if this was by design or accident, but the end result meant I was going to be doing this the hard way. The main impact of this was that it did put a LOT more stress on Flamethrowers to perform though.

As I was not impeded by the no-go entry areas that put such a crimp on Japanese movement plans, I planned to send a two squad platoon with Lt mtr around to the immediate west end of his defenses, where they could put long range shots onto reinforcing squads and try get some oblique shots at the back of his defense line - also, they were placed to clean out a pill-box that anchored the far west of Zeb's defense line. On the far eastern flank, I tried to send two other Lt mtrs and a platoon on a big flank move to the far eastern hills, to again enfilade the open ground back of the hill and his reinforcement's approach routes. Finally, the rest of the US spread out to make sure no sneaky and annoying Japanese squad slipped through the lines to create havoc in my back field, but there was an emphasis on the centre and far right of my attack where the troops were basically doubled up to pile on more firepwoer through big Firegroups. The aim was to pin the Japanese frontally and then roll up their line working east to west, using my left flankers as the shield. That was the plan anyway.

Most of the early game started pretty well - as I moved into LOS, Zeb placed the 4 wires on the leading front edge of the Level 4 hill from hexrow M - P which showed that the top of the hill immediately west of the central gulley was strongly protected and would form his last stand position; in contrast, his bombarded dummies and the lack of PB, FH and wire showed his line east of the gully would fold more easily. He had a nicely placed pillbox isolated on the level 4 promontory at the back of the hill (hex R3) which could sweep all of the eastern hill top with HMG fire. At the very back of the board but still on level 1 (near hex S1), he had placed the last two pillboxes in and adjacent to the small bamboo nest there to reduce their access to a CX-crawl by my good guys. All in all a very tough defense. I methodically started the climb and progressively worked my way through some of the outlier "?" stacks but again I was faced by the Zeb Doyle deployment half-squad defense which re-cycled blocking units endlessly. Next, the light rain started in Turn 3 which helped with the rally and return to action aspect of the attack as my guys did not need to run to the board edge anymore, but did add the extra MF for moving up an elevation level to get back into the attack. Despite this, some early progress was being made before I ran into the first of the outpost lines with a squad and a half in a Foxhole...cue the first Flamethrower....or not: Twelve. Gone, no shot.

OK. That was a little depressing, but from that point, the game just turned into a horribly depressing and familiar cycle of morale check failure followed by morale check failure followed by multiple failed rallies followed by Zeb finding the fours and threes on his dice for 2+1 and 2-0 shots again and again. It was agony to watch me go through my the same grim pains roll after roll, turn after turn, (and not, by any means, for the first time against Zeb). There were so many low points that its hard to choose one...perhaps the pin against a Japanese half-squad that I achieved with a 16 flat shot, who in return broke my 8-1 and 666 with a lowly 1+1 shot back. It took the 8-1 three turns to rally - three turns. At first, we laughed, but then it was like the four stages of acceptance of death as I went from comedy to despair to fear to anger in about two hours of nightmare ASL. Happy I was not.

After a lot more misery of me doing nothing really of significance and the rain turning heavy, I had a slight upturn in fortunes in Turns 5 and 6 as after some timely sniper action to take out two Japanese leaders, my 9-2, hero and HMG got to work and managed to destroyed two MG and their crews in the promontory pillbox, and this was followed up with three wins in CC vs some measly half-squads - I was just about ready to push on into the heart of his defenses. I had managed to drop my other FT in slightly ill-advised move which left its owners exposed and then killed for FTR. Zeb comically tried to pick it up with a leader who proceeded to fluff it twice (!), and a half-squad that then tried to do the same got shot to pieces and killed for FTR.

Finally, I had also realised that the Mortars on the east side were also really just junk iron in this scenario and I started to zap the flanking platoon along the north side of the board to snuff out the double pillbox bamboo complex. All looking good until I received another "4" from a 2+1 shot from the pillbox covering force. I rolled two 11s and a 10 and all my advancing platoon stopped in their tracks. Next up, I assault moved the HMG combo adjacent to a couple of squads in a foxhole below them on the back of the main western part of the ridge, but also to where they could see a lot of additional defenders of the back of the hill. Of course with yet another 4 roll from Zeb on a four flat shot, my HMG squads went running back down the hill with a 10 and a 9. Considering it was going to take at least one more turn to get this weapon back and firing, this was an almost fatal blow to my chances; however, my remaining FT was still alive and it could roast a hex a turn so we still had one more up the primer for its first shot of the game...get ready to blast....CLICK! Another 12.

I wish I could say I laughed but I didn't. Numb would be a better feeling. Senseless also sounds about right. Stunned was in there too. Zeb had a lot of sympathy, but what else could he say...he rolled an average near 5 on his attacks, I rolled an average over 8 on my morale checks and so I didn't even get a sniff of a chance in this one. We believe that not a single 666 passed a check in the entire game and we're talking a batch of 1's and NMC's here - from memory only my 667's passed a check and that was only once or twice. Rally attempts were no better as on average it took 2-3 attempts to get a unit back into action, and critically I missed a batch of simple non-DM ones on my player turn. It was horrible.

Of course, I conceded at this point. It was US Turn 7 and Zeb had six new 347s installed snugly in the foxholes to add to his 5 or so other squads left over from the at-start defenders. I needed to kill three squads minimum a turn and for that I was going to need both the FT and -3 HMG stack to be at full operating strength and neither of those were doing anything for at least another turn. I had no serious heavy weapons left and most of my units were going to need to rally and re-advance over the top of the hill again to apply some pressure and there just wasn't enough time.

Its a shame the die-rolling turned so horrible at the end, as by Turn 6 we both thought the US were in with a shout and it was going to go the distance - maybe about 60-40 to the Japanese, but definitely still with a shout, before the second horror sequence from hell kicked in and killed the game off really early. With the helpful VC I would definitely rate this one as slightly pro-Japanese (60-40), especially so if they adopt the reverse slope defense and invalidate the US artillery, which seems such an obvious plan. The biggest problems the US has is with the time, the six morale in 0 or +1 terrain at best and also the sheer number of bodies and hence full hexes the Japanese are able to fill. If the wonder weapons don't work, then the US need to do this with firepower alone - doable, but much trickier. I also don't think the Japanese need six more squads as reinforcements in Turn 4: that is a huge help and completely replenishes the Japanese OB, which wasn't weak to begin with, whereas the American's will already be starting to hurt - maybe limit that to 2-3 extra squads at most or even for the Prepared Attack, the Japanese recieve Forces 1 and 3, and not 1, 2 and 3.

Overall, a pretty nice scenario and I would recommend it - the vagaries of the rain certainly offers some variety, even if the defense is forced to be a bit static. The official balance is for an additional 666 squad, but I would reckon time and not bodies is the biggest US handicap here - the rain slows them down and makes the Japanese harder to dig out and so I would say another Turn for the US may actually be the best solution of all - I just think they are a little bit undercooked relative to the task in hand, but it certainly could be fun if you can roll under seven every now and then on all the important checks.

So, now that Victor Behar has left to go west, I am happy to report that I am definitely moving up from number 2 and falling into first place as Houston's worst die-roller. Zeb can confirm this - its official. I came out of this scenario feeling shellshocked and crushed by the hammering both Zeb's and my dice gave to me. But, again the early finish meant that we still had a little free time to slip in another small scenario, so would things improve this time?


Nick Drinkwater said...

Just realized I got the title wrong! We played the "Prepared" attack, not the "Delayed" one. Everything else in the AAR is right!



Nick Drinkwater said...

Had some nice feedback with the scenario designer Mark Pitcavage on his own forum on this scenario:

"From Mark:
That's a good and very detailed AAR! I'm sorry you got so diced, though. If it is any consolation, I think that iteration of the scenario is a bit tough on the Americans--it received the least playtesting of the three iterations (I had problems getting HOB to do their playtesting) and more playtesting would have probably more clearly revealed the strength of the Japanese reinforcements just as bodies.

I was also pleased to see that you liked Up the Numa Numa Trail, which is my favorite scenario from the pack."

From me in return:

"Hi Mark,

Dicing on FTs and rally checks aside it was a fun scenario, just a tiny bit OTT re the Japanese reinforcements - just thinking aloud, its highly unlikely the US will have killed that number of Japanese squads by Turn 4 when they arrive, (and the Japanese weren't exactly outnumbered to begin with), so this is a really big boost to them - and they're facing 6 morale troops. We did like the rain and the Palm-tree aspect to the jungle in particular.

Re the US OBA - was it intended to be a double bluff to keep the Japanese off the hill-edge in a reverse slope defense? If so, it succeeded but of course did nothing else to assist the US attack. Just musing on the intention...


And finally from Mark again:

"There's no great subtlety to it; it is there to use if you can and the Japanese give you the opportunity...."