Monday, March 30, 2009

First Impressions: St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot

Zeb Doyle

Before I get into the latest Le Franc Tireur offering, I want to offer up a huge thank you to the Banzai editorial staff. Matt Shostak and Rick Reinesch do a huge amount of work behind the scenes to bring us Banzai and their efforts are worthy of public praise and acclaim. It's always a pleasure to download their latest opus and it's due to such unsung heroes that the ASL hobby is alive and thriving. Thanks, guys!

Now, you might argue that most or all thriving hobbies have similar people volunteering their time and effort and that's probably true, but I still think that ASL players go above and beyond. In large part this is because of the flexibility and depth of ASL. With clever SSRs and some thought, you can simulate a vast range of different actions and that really frees people to create and design some amazing things. Just recently, for example, I played a very enjoyable scenario featuring an obscure 1943 Japanese-Italian clash. Great stuff, and a testament both to the strength of the ASL system and to the dedicated hobbyists who dig this stuff up and produce it for the rest of us. The ability of any individual to pursue their passion, no matter how obscure, and translate it into ASL is one of our hobby's great strengths. Whether it's scenario designers spending hours playtesting or Matt and Rick spending hours proofing, the rest of us all benefit greatly from their labors.

Before you think I've overdosed on Prozac here, let me admit that nothing is perfect and there is a dark side to all this. As designers seek out ever more obscure actions to simulate and the consumer becomes ever more jaded and sophisticated, there's a bit of a trend to the esoteric and the complex, and this often puts more of a burden on all of us. When Recon By Fire #4 came out, the included German captured vehicles were pretty cool. Their chapter H notes showed that a huge amount of work had been lavished on them and the research behind them was really impressive. I punched and clipped the counters, played a few scenarios with them, and now they languish in a dust-covered Plano in my closet. I have to tip my hat to Chas Smith, who designed it all, but so far the time I've spent enjoying his work hasn't come close to justifying his effort. It barely justified my own efforts reading over the notes and punching the counters. This goes double for the Spanish Blue Division counters I picked up somewhere; they have a neat divisional insignia mark on each counter, but otherwise they are identical to German units. There are what, ten or fifteen Spanish Blue scenarios total? The time I'd spend punching, sorting, and storing those counters would probably exceed the time I'd ever spend playing with them. Sadly, some devoted hobbyist somewhere decided to spend a lot of effort putting together some really nice counters, but all that work is effectively wasted for me since it's just not worth my time. It's a real pity and it brings me squarely to my thoughts on Le Franc Tireur's St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot. For those (like me) who knew nothing about this, Wikipedia has a good overview:

First, the disclaimers: these are just some rough first impressions. I've opened the package, glanced at the counters, and barely skimmed the rules. As such, it's not a review and I may very well change my mind on some or all of these comments. Reader, beware! With that out of the way, let me say that Operation Chariot is a very impressive-looking labor of love. I bought it with low expectations and more because I'm an ASL junkie than anything else. Even when the postman brought me a very attractive box, I wasn't moved. Le Franc Tireur always has really nice graphics. When I opened it up and started looking over the contents, though, I started getting excited. Even the box itself is pretty cool, really being more of a sturdy folder. As I mentioned, it's graphically very nice and it's also quite functional. I'm actually going to keep it around to hold everything, a stark departure from my usual habit of tossing the box and figuring out a less bulky method of storing everything. I can't remember the last time that happened and it's a pleasant change. Inside the folder are two big mapsheets, a rules book, 200+ new counters, five reference sheets, and 15 new scenarios. Seven of these scenarios are on geomorphic boards and represent WWII actions around the world, and the remaining eight focus specifically on Saint Nazaire and take place on the included map.

The map, like everything else in the package, is quite attractive and seems to do a good job of portraying the port of Saint Nazaire. I don't have a ruler handy, but I'd guess the two mapsheets together are about as big as the Red Barricades maps, and are roughly half water and half land. It looks like a fun playground for 600+ British Commandos to storm ashore and blow up dry docks and lock gates, thus denying the key port to the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck. The physical quality of the maps is quite high. They're printed on thick slightly glossy paper and thus look something like HOB's first edition Operation Merkur map, but without the tissue-paper thickness problem. I would have preferred a matte finish, and there is a noticeable difference between the two sheets in the green land color (one sheet has a brighter, vibrant green, the other a duller green), but this will only bother the most obsessive among us. Looking over the credits, I see our own Sam Tyson did the map design and he appears to have done a great job. Nice work, Sam!

Moving on to the rules book, we encounter the perfect example of that esoteric and complex pursuit of passion that I referred to above, and here's where my excitement started draining away. As with the map, the physical quality of the components are very high, and I'd put them on par with anything MMP produces. The entire book appears to be very well thought out and playtested, with everything from designer notes to rules to Chapter H notes. There are 12 pages of rules for Motor Gun Boats (MGB) that are required to play all of the scenarios (giving options like cruise speed, battle speed, sea haze, camouflage, torpedoes and deploying anti-boat mines) and another 15 pages of rules specifically for the St. Nazaire map and scenarios, covering everything from new terrain (power stations, U-Boat pens, buried fuel tanks, tidal mudflats) to new units (searchlights and HMS Campbeltown, the explosives-packed destroyer that carried in many of the commandos and was then detonated to destroy a key caisson) to the special circumstances of the raid (ruse de guerre). Finally, there are 8 pages of chapter H notes, which are just as comprehensive as the rest of the rules, and include motor gun boats (MGB) for virtually every nationality. Everything from captured or commandeered fishing smacks to JFK's PT boats are included. If you ever had the hankering to drive a German Schnellboote-100, a Japanese armored barge, or even a Russian patrol boat armed with T-34 turrets and 132mm rockets, all in ASL terms, then this is the product for you!

Therein lies the rub. I'm not sure that many of us ever had that hankering to begin with, and I'm positive that even fewer of us are willing to master 12 or 27 pages of new rules to do so. The 12 pages gives us access to only the seven non-St. Nazaire scenarios, and although 27 pages lets you play all 15 actions, these rules do not appear to be for the faint of heart. Looking over the five reference sheets (which, like the 200+ new counters, are gorgeous and equal to MMP's production values), we have rules for things like squadron keeping, searchlight defense plans and decisions on where to stash commandos in the Campbeltown (below deck starboard aft zone, on deck port midship zone, or perhaps the on deck bow zone?). In a sense, there's so much in the box here that it's almost an entirely different game, and that seems to be the product's real strength and weakness. It opens up an entire uncharted area of WWII, but it's so new and so foreign that there are lots and lots of new details to cover. There is no way to pull off the shrinkwrap, read over ten or twelve new SSRs, and jump into the action here.

To further cloud the picture, many of the fifteen scenarios are rather small. I've included a very brief overview of the seven non-Operation Chariot scenarios below, but here, let me note that of those seven, only two of them have over twenty total squads. Of the scenarios that do take place on the historical map, it's a bit harder to gauge the size as some of the German force is randomly generated, but five of them also seem to be quite smallish, with three MGBs and fifteen British squad equivalents total in those scenarios. At this point, you're probably wondering just how quickly these games will play after you've spent all the time and effort to learn the ins and outs of MGBs. Well, Le Franc Tireur is nice enough to put an estimated time of play on each of their scenarios, and although I can't say how accurate they are, many of these games are expected to play out in the four to five hour range. If you total everything, including the bigger full-on St. Nazaire raid scenarios, you get an estimated 37 hours for the Operation Chariot stuff and 28 hours for everything else. That's 65 total hours, which would seem to amply repay your efforts in reading rules and punching counters, but it also assumes that you'll want to play every single scenario.

It's a real shame to have to sit here trying to analyze the potential fun factor of the scenarios vs. the extra time needed to master the rules for them but this is a situation where you have to do just that. Normally in these product first impressions, I like to throw in a sentence or two about value and whether you are getting good bang for your buck, and I'd love to say that it's a fantastic product and everyone should get it, because it really does seem to be a fantastic product. Every part of it looks really good, and it seems obvious that a lot of effort and care and playtesting went into it. However, it's also so dramatically different from everything else that I think it ends up being an amazing creation by a truly devoted hobbyist that really isn't for everyone. Talking a bit about the value, it's available from the Gamer's Armory for $77.50 (disclaimer: I've ordered from them before but have no other connection) at That's a lot of money ( you could get VoTG for the same price, just as a very rough comparison) but you really do appear to get a whole new game for that price. The real question is whether you're interested in learning and playing that new game.

For myself, I'm glad I got it. As I said earlier, I'm an ASL junkie and this is easily the most interesting and unique addition to ASL in a very long time. Having said that, I'm skeptical that I'll play more than a few of these scenarios myself, and as a guy who is constantly playing and loves complex, esoteric stuff, I'm really the target audience here. If you do have any interest in Operation Chariot at all, or Motor Gun Boats in general, I'd strongly recommend you pick this up. For everyone else, it's going to be a tougher decision and I can't really help you. Hopefully, when I actually look over the rules, they'll turn out to be super simple and intuitive and I can come back with a stronger recommendation. Of course, when was the last time anything in ASL was super simple and intuitive? In short, based on some cursory skimming of Le Franc Tireur's St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot, I'd love to give it an unqualified two thumbs up, but just can't do it.

I feel bad about that. The designer, Andrew Hershey, along with the Le Franc guys and the Fredericksburg Fire Eaters playtest team look like they've really created something great here, but it looks so complex and esoteric it's not going to be for everyone. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that it is a success both commercially and on game tables everywhere, but I just don't see it getting a lot of play. Still, maybe this is a sign of just how healthy our hobby is. There's so much ASL stuff being produced right now that even when designers do go above and beyond in contributing to our hobby, we don't have to follow them in pursuit of their specific interest, and can afford to pick and choose instead. So, instead of wringing my hands over how well St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot is going to do, I think I'll just be happy that so much innovative ASL is being created. The best part in all this is that the innovation feeds on itself, with designers everywhere benefiting from each other's efforts. For example, with this latest creation, Eric can easily design that Guns of Navarone scenario he's always talking about. That's all I've got for now, I'm off to reap the fruits of Matt and Rick's labor by reading the latest Banzai.

Thanks for reading, and I'll try to remember to bring this by the next Austin game day meeting so interested people can get an actual look of their own at it. Also, I've included a very barebones listing of the non-Operation Chariot scenarios below. Finally, does anyone else have this?


PS: along with the map having two different shades of green, I've also noticed several typos throughout the text. Most of these are understandable given the large French involvement in the production (the area was riff with Germans, loose concealment, etc) and all of them are minor. These are the only physical imperfections I've seen so far.

FT109 Hitler's Lost Iron: A 1943 action covering a British commando raid against a German-held Norwegian iron processing facility. 6.5 turns, with ten half-squads and two MGB attacking eight half-squads and two 105mm guns.

FT110 PT-109: Also 1943, eight American Marine squads trying for an evacuation by sea. Three LC and two PT boats (plus JFK) try to take them off before 17 Japanese squads can take them down. This is one of the longer ones at 8 turns.

FT111 Ghosts of the Danube: 1944, a Russian reconnaissance team supported by partisans tries to capture elements of the Russian Liberation Army. This is eleven squads total, with the Russians also getting an assault boat and an MGB. 5.5 turns

FT112 Danube Log Jam: 1944, with a Russian flotilla trying to clear some German strongpoints along the Danube. Eight attacking squads and six MGB take on seven squads of defending Germans over 6.5 turns.

FT113 Blood on the Shores: 1944, a monster at 9.5 turns, with Germans trying to recapture a FlaK battery from a Russian reconnaissance group. Eight Soviet squads and an 88L against 13 German squads and two MGB.

FT114 Yellow Extract: 1942, a seven turn Dieppe action here, with five British and American squads and a MGB holding out against 11 German squads.

FT115 Nearly Entombed: 1942, 5.5 turns, with a compromised Russian raiding force near Murmansk trying to evacuate while under pressure from the Germans. Five Russian squads and three MGB against 10.5 Germans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

OwlCon AAR: LSSAH31 Hold At Any Price

Zeb Doyle

Germans: Zeb Doyle
Russians: Robert Delwood

Anyone who has been reading through my serial Owlcon AAR will be relieved to hear that this next game took place on Sunday morning and was my last match of the tournament. I had been slated to play Rob Burton again (aka Sergeant Mayhem, which aptly sums up his fun approach to the game), but family obligations intervened and fate robbed me of yet another hotly anticipated match. That was pretty disappointing; Rob is a great opponent and our last two games had been marred by fatigue and headaches. I had been really looking forward to playing him when we were both at peak form. Now I'd have to scramble around and find another opponent. Lady Luck hadn't completely deserted me however. Walter managed to produce Robert Delwood from somewhere and we sat down for a just-for-fun, non-tourney game. I'd played Robert once before in SP78 The Golovchino Breakout and had a great time. Robert also runs a very thought-provoking ASL website at That website, along with the CTASL one, was very helpful in reassuring me when I moved down here from CO that I'd still be able to play! So, despite Rob's misfortune, it was with great anticipation that I sat down to play Robert.

We settled on LSSAH31 Hold At Any Price, which was perfect for a just-for-fun game. It's a 1943 east front action, with nine SS squads hunkered down in the board 3 village. They're trying to keep a good order MMC in the village and are facing 17 assorted Russian squads and ten T-34s. This sounds pretty straightforward, but there's a high degree of randomness inserted as well. In the pregame, every building hex gets a DR, with an 8 or higher rubbling that hex with the potential for falling rubble. That can make the German setup pretty random, but the Russians have some issues as well. They are divided into three groups, all of which enter from offboard over the first three turns. Each group is randomly selected and enters on a random board edge. Since 14 of the 17 squads enter in one group, and the unsupported T-34s won't do much against the PF-equipped SS, a wide range of outcomes are possible. The Russians could easily get their infantry entering on turn three of a 5.5 turn game on a board edge far away from their armor. Conversely, they could get a perfectly sequenced attack, with the infantry entering turn one and two follow-on waves of tanks right behind them. Obviously, not a good scenario for a highly competitive playing.

It still looked like fun though, and I got the Germans and started making rubble rolls. Well, between some high dice and lots of falling rubble, every building in my setup area was swiftly converted to rubble! That meant that the 14 building hexes I had been counting on to be rally terrain, block LOS, allow me to skulk, etc, were now just a wide-open sea of +2 and +3 TEM in full view of the level one and two hills that surround the village. Lady luck, where did you go? I could only hope that she'd be equally unkind to Robert's Russians. I threw down my squads in a 360 degree perimeter and crossed my fingers...

Things started off nicely for me as Robert had to bring on a group of five T-34s first thing. They spent their turn driving up and getting some area acqs, but they couldn't really do much. Even better, turn two brought on a group of three T-34s and three 6-2-8s. Fate was frowning on both of us. It was too good to last though, and by the end of turn three, I was facing down the entire Soviet force, which had spread out in fine fashion to completely surround me. At that point, things got ugly fast. Any German squad that dropped concealment was immediately encircled and shot up by multiple T-34s. When the inevitable MC was failed, my leaders had to go to the squad to try and rally it, as rout was absolutely impossible. Going anywhere would automatically be getting closer to a known enemy unit. Robert had done a fantastic job overcoming his bad luck and now I was paying the price.

Over the next two turns, Robert continued to keep the pressure on, pounding me with the hilltop T-34s, and drawing the noose tighter and tighter with his infantry. I had some good luck during that time, with my HMG tearing some Russians up and the manning squad generating a hero and going fanatic, but elsewhere my troops were literally dying where they stood. By the time turn five rolled around, I was very thin on the ground and really just hoping for a lucky ambush in CC followed by a withdrawal for the win. Again though, Robert was alert to the possibility and maneuvered very well to try and take that option away. It rapidly became a moot point when my three remaining squads all pinned or broke in the last AFPh, and I failed to produce any last-ditch snake-eyes, giving Robert a well-deserved win.

Well, it wasn't the ideal way to end my weekend, but it was still a reasonably fun game against a very entertaining opponent. Robert has lots of strong opinions on ASL, including everything from the 12-point target facing to proper ASL etiquette, all available on his website and it was cool to talk some of those things over face to face. As for the scenario itself, I wouldn't play LSSAH31 Hold At Any Price in a competitive's a bit too random. It's still a fun scenario and a neat concept though, so if you're looking for a bit of fun and don't mind a high degree of randomness, I wouldn't remove it from playlists entirely. With an opponent willing to wheel and deal in the pregame a bit, you could probably eliminate some of the more crazy possibilities and end up with a fun time. If doing that, my suggestion would be to bring the big Soviet infantry group in on turn two, and perhaps have each side place a few rubble counters pregame rather than randomly rubbling the entire village. Another option would be to figure 40% or so of the buildings are going to rubble on average, and just randomly place that many rubble counters. Whatever you do, make sure you have an opponent like Robert, with a steady stream of conversation that would make any ASL scenario an enjoyable experience.

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Walter for putting the event together. When can we start to prereg for 2010? :)


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Owlcon AAR: FrF30 Biderman's Escape

Zeb Doyle

Russians: Zeb Doyle
Germans: Walter Eardley

Trying to finish up my Owlcon AAR here, after escaping with a victory over Rob in The Mius Trap, I managed to pry Walter away from running Starter Kit stuff and we sat down to pick out a scenario. Walter really goes above and beyond during Owlcon, running the tournament, helping people out with rules, making real headway in bringing in fresh faces with the SK offerings, and so I felt lucky to get the chance to roll some dice with him. We ended up picking FrF30 Bidermann's Escape, a Friendly Fire offering set in 1944. It didn't seem to quite have the depth of their best scenarios, but still looked fun and fast.

The fast part is obvious with a single look at the card: it's 5.5 turns, half of board 22, fifteen total squads and four vehicles. Not exactly Last Bid territory here. Walter got the Germans, who are entering on one side and trying to exit three squads/vehicles off the far edge. Their fun toys include a 9-2, an MMG, and two SdKfz 10/5, which are 20L-armed flak halftracks with a 6FP IFE attack. The flakwagens are out of VoTG, and are made much more powerful by the addition of a little sheet-metal on their frontal VCA facing. It only gives them 0 AF, but that makes them far more resistant to small arms and also allows them to FG just like any other armored HT. Suddenly, that opens up all kinds of options, like being directed by the 9-2!

Against this marauding force, I got six 4-4-7s, some concealment counters, and a pair of museum-worthy T-26 tanks entering as reinforcements on turn one. These relics have some nice machine guns, a 45L, and robust 3 frontal armor, but the red MP, radioless status, slow speed, and urban terrain make the SdKfz match-up much more even than you'd think. The tanks are nice enough, but a little out of place in 1944. I'd hate to see them meet a PF, let along a Panther! My set-up was pretty straightforward, with everyone strung more or less evenly across the board, and the plan being for the tanks to backstop the line against whichever German threat looked most serious.

Things started off well for me. Walter sent both flakwagens and six squads down my left side, with the remaining platoon to my right just to keep me honest. The initial exchange of fire went moderately in my favor, with a big break for me when Walter parked one of his halftracks in bypass. I got a razor-thin LOS to the vertex from one of my T-26s and managed to immobilize it. That was great, as those fast and small targets were not just machine guns on wheels but also a major threat to drive right through my defense and exit for VC. I had been really worried that Walter would park them in bypass, put the 9-2/MMG in the same location, and tear me up with 16+0 and 16+1 shots, but now that option was out the window.

So, things were going well on my left. Over on the right, things were going fantastically. I'd left a single squad forward to slow down Walter's diversionary platoon and that lone 4-4-7 managed to break a Dashing squad on a 2-2 and get into a firefight taking 16+2s while only dishing out 8 and 4+1s and still win. He then advanced into CC with the last good order 4-6-7 squad in the sector, more to DM the adjacent stack of Germans than anything else, and promptly won that fracas as well. My Order of Lenin winner spent a few more turns chasing Walter's broken rabble, and then ended the game running over to the left side to harrass the main German force.

Obviously, the effective loss of a 9-1, 3x 4-6-7, and an LMG to a single 4-4-7 was huge and meant that Walter's remaining force was now grinding forward against a numerically equal foe. Walter did a great job and managed to get his remaining flakwagen off, but at that point he needed some good dice to go with his good play, and it just didn't happen. It went down to the last turn, but I managed to block off the German exit area pretty well and a last-ditch SMC overrun failed giving me the win. Good times against a great opponent with a well-executed attack. I might have tried the 9-2/flakwagen stacking trick a bit more, but overall this was a classic case of a small and dicy tourney-sized scenario being small and dicy.

One more installment to go...thanks again for reading!


Friday, March 06, 2009

AAR: SP79 The Mius Trap

.... or "My Owlcon adventure continues..."

Zeb Doyle

Russians: Zeb Doyle
Germans: Rob Burton

After my very fun game against Ken, Walter matched me up with Rob Burton and we decided to head to the East Front for some mid-war action in SP79 The Mius Trap. This Schwerpunkt scenario caught our eye for several reasons; it's reasonably sized, features some interesting VC, and takes takes place shortly after the Kursk offensive in 1943 thus offering up some of the neat armor match-ups so common to that period. Rob and I have played several similar combined-arms clashes in the past and always had a great time, so this looked like a perfect scenario for us.

The Mius Trap (and spare me the Disney and Mickey jokes, please. Walter watched us play and he already told all of them) is 6.5 turns long, with the Russians defending the two flat and mostly featureless hills of board 11. They must, by SSR, place three foxholes on each hill and at game end, the Germans have to control all the foxholes and buildings on one hill and at least one foxhole/building on the other hill. This sounds (and is) simple enough, but makes for a lot of fun and guessing about your opponent's intent during play. The Germans get twelve squads and decent leadership (including a 9-2) right off the bat, plus four StuG IIIGs and another four squads on turn two. The Russians start with just six squads and a single leader, get four T-70s and four squads on turn two, and then three T-34 M41s and three 4-5-8s on turn three. This stream of reinforcements for both sides mean that you can attempt to disguise your intentions about which hill you are really going for just a bit or (in the case of the Soviets) react and send more troops to any trouble spots. One complication here is that all the reinforcing Russian infantry must enter as Riders, and since three of the T-70s are radioless by SSR, it's very tough to split up those troops. All-in-all, it's a very interesting situation and a lot more thought-provoking than some of the 'pack your troops into the VC building' scenarios.

Instead, both sides have some serious and fun challenges. The two hill masses are both fairly wide open with only hedges to interfere with LOS. The right hill (from the Russian perspective) has a large grain field, while the left hill does have a small patch of woods. Overall then, there's almost no cover and broken units will likely have to rout completely off the hill to find rally terrain. This forces both sides to think long and hard about how to position their infantry as those brokies may waste several precious turns getting back to the action. This could be huge, especially if it happens on the hill that's not getting the main push and thus has fewer troops dedicated to it. Even though the infantry is vital for actually capturing or holding those foxholes, the wide-open LOS and low TEM environment dictate that the armor will also play a huge role, so let's look at that next.

The kings of the battlefield are the four German StuGs with their small size, black TH, good frontal armor and that hard-hitting 75L. They even get a pair of armor leaders for extra fun. In a shoot-out though the front facings, they'll dominate the Russians, as a hit equals a kill against the T-70s and the net 6TK or 9TK (hull/turret) against the T-34s stacks up well against the Russian net 5TK (for the 76L) or net 2TK (for the 45L). The further the range, the better for the Germans, as those black TH and the ability to go CE tilt the odds even further towards the StuGs. Obviously, the Russians want to avoid the shoot-out and turn it into a knife-fight instead. Getting onto the StuG flanks allows access to that weak 3AF and uses the lack of a turret against them. Close-in fighting also makes the Russian APCR much nastier, and since all the Soviet armor has A6 (due to Guards status and C8.2), it's a very real threat. APCR kicks the 76L TK up to 17 and the 45L up to 15, very respectable numbers even against the StuGs frontal armor. Finally, the Russians have the advantage of speed and numbers. Seven total tanks (and three with 17MP) against the four German assault guns mean the Soviets have a very good chance of getting some of those tasty flank shots.

I can't remember if Rob wanted the Germans or if we diced for sides, but I ended up with the Russians and started putting together a defense. Obviously, the foxholes are key and I set most of them as far away from the Germans as possible. This meant they were on the very edge of the hill and any unit I had in them could cross the crest line and get out of LOS if needed. That also put my rally terrain much closer to the foxholes and would make broken Germans either low crawl or rout far far away. I did try to get clever with one foxhole, putting it in the middle of the woods clump on the left hill. That was about the only area on the entire map where I could skulk, the StuGs couldn't get at it, and I also had some ideas about sucking the Germans in and then tying them down with pointblank fire and CC. Since I only started with six squads and one leader, I didn't fancy going toe-to-toe with Rob's 9-2 and MMG, so my troops were all set up back on the hills with no LOS to the German set-up area. That did abdicate all initiative to the other side, but I figured the concealment gain and force preservation would mitigate that somewhat.

Rob was all over the total freedom of movement, and soon there were large stacks of Germans headed towards my hills. The entire initial force charged towards my left hill, while the reinforcing StuGs and infantry went towards my right. In response, I sent my turn two wave of T-70s and riflemen towards my left to respond to Rob. I soon had seven squads and four tanks in that area facing twelve German squads, while the right saw my three squads facing four 4-6-7s and the StuGs. There had been no real action to this point, as my Russians were hiding as best they could. Really, the most interesting development to this point was Rob mentioning that he was exhausted from staying up until 3AM the previous night with Eric playing drinking games.

Things picked up a bit on turn three, but it rapidly became apparent that Rob was rather the worse for wear after the night's festivities. I've written before that ASL is a cruel mistress who punishes even the slightest mistake, and that held true once again. It's not that Rob make any major mistakes, or even many minor ones. However, when a few of your units are even a single hex out of position and this happens repeatedly turn after turn, it's almost impossible to avoid defeat. The seeming insignificance of Rob's miscues are why I can't point to anything specific (and are, incidentally, why I think it's so hard to get good at this game) but his attack into the woods-patch on the left hill bogged down with heavy casualties. This, along with my T-70s pestering the German infantry, caused Rob to react by swinging two StuGs over from the right-hand hill in support. Here, he made the one mistake I can point at, by parking the two assault guns where a hedge really limited their mutual LOS. They could still cover each other a bit, but there were some big blind spots for my turn three reinforcing T-34s to exploit.

After puzzling over just how to take advantage of the situation, I decided to send in two T-70s first and see what happened. Well, what happened was that Rob, needing a six TH, torched the first tank with a CH, keeping rate. Hmmm...was the fatigue just a ploy? Was Rob playing me for a fool? I decided not to mess around with the second T-70 and drove right into the lead StuG's location, staying in motion and locking it down. There were no good choices for the Germans here, and Rob elected to hold his fire. I then drove my first two T-34s up to the action, leaving them in the blind spot of the wing-man StuG. Deciding the CH had just been luck, I got frisky with my last T-34 and drove it far into the rear, DMing some broken Germans along the way and ending up in LOS of the wing-man SuG but hull-down behind a wall. Rob opted to take that shot, even though it required spinning the AFV a few hexspines, and rolled the required 3TH...but it was a hull hit and the shell slammed harmlessly into the wall. My return AFPh went one better. I rolled the needed 3 to hit him and then a 5 for an immobilization. Ouch.

That left the lead StuG really hung out to dry, and Rob elected to try and drive him away in his turn four. That didn't work so well, and although I burned through all my APCR shooting at it, the StuG was destroyed. The immobilized StuG was hit in the rear by an ATR and another lucky roll for me (net 5TK) knocked it out completely. Trading half of Rob's armor for a single T-70 was obviously huge; the two assault guns were slightly misplayed when placed where they couldn't quite cover each other, but I'd still been very lucky. At this point, you think I'd be in great shape, but that wasn't quite the case. As you may recall, my set-up had placed a single foxhole on the left hill in a clump of woods, and Rob had finally captured it. He didn't have all twelve squads that he'd started with, but enough landsers remained to stuff any possible counter-attack. So, if Rob could take the three foxholes on the right-side hill, he'd still pull out a win. Over on that side, we now both had four squads, along with the last two StuGs, far too even a match-up for my taste.

At this point, I was kicking myself for my perceived 'cleverness' in placing that one foxhole where tanks couldn't get at it. Instead, my remaining six AFVs would have to try and ride to the rescue on the right-hand hill. They wasted a turn maneuvering towards it, during which a 5-4-8 looking for a Iron Cross torched a T-70 via a placed DC. Meanwhile, Rob's remaining StuGs blasted two of my squads out of their foxholes and laid down some smoke rounds to cover the approach of his infantry. By the end of my turn five, my tanks were finally in position to influence the action on the right-hand hill, but I was down to two squads trying to guard one last foxhole. It was going to be close.

Close, that is, until Rob rolled up some Gusts at the start of his turn six and all that nice smoke he'd placed vanished. That was a horrible piece of luck, and although he coaxed one more smoke round out of his StuGs, the German infantry would now be forced to cross open ground to get that last foxhole. The only real choice was whether to maneuver a bit for position and try the rush on the last half turn of the game or to charge in right away. Well, Rob is a man of decisive action and decided to take the foxhole then and there. It was a tough decision and I'm not sure there was a right answer, but in the end a last desperate charge of a 9-1/4-6-7 was stopped just short of the foxhole by a 4-2 CMG shot from a T-34. Both units broke and with all the other German infantry in the area broken as well from earlier rushes, the Soviets got the win.

It was another fun game against a great opponent, and had the gust not intervened, the German infantry would have had a corridor of smoke covering them as they made their turn six rush. At that point, the game likely would have gone down to a CC in the foxhole, and the Russians would have been the ones facing a series of difficult decisions on their last player turn. The scenario itself was quite enjoyable, and plays out in a more interesting fashion than the impression you get just looking at the card. I have to tip my hat to Rob for handling his rough luck and my great dice with a shrug and a smile. Now that I think about it, this is the second scenario we've played where the weather was a huge swing factor. I pulled out a victory by the barest of margins in ASL119 Ancient Feud only because I rolled up a mild breeze on the very first turn. Sorry about that Rob, and maybe next time we should play a scenario with no smoke in it! Finally, this was another game in which I learned a valuable life lesson: never play drinking games with Eric.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Owlcon AAR: CH41 Test Of Nerves

Zeb Doyle

Owlcon AAR Part III; Saturday Morning:

British: Zeb Doyle
Germans: Ken Havlinek

I was pretty excited about the Saturday morning scenario since it was to be the prearranged duel on the drumlins with Nick Drinkwater. I’d actually had a beer mug commissioned especially for the occasion, with a picture of a lion on one side (his troops) and a donkey (Nick) on the other side for trash talking purposes. I figured that ‘lions led by donkeys’ jokes would be the only entertainment of the scenario as the troops under Nick’s hapless command would doubtlessly be butchered. It appears Nick felt the same way, and (as I have already written) he tearfully backed out of our match and I instead found myself playing Ken Havlienk in CH41 Test Of Nerves.

This scenario is based on the second day of the fight at Villers-Bocage during which Michael Wittman and accompanying Tigers tore up the British 7th Armored Division. Since the event is so famous, there are multiple ASL scenarios representing the action. At first glance, the CH version seems a little vanilla, with five turns of action on board 24 and a small German force of six 5-4-8s, three Tigers, and a Panzer IVH attacking four British squads, three Cromwells, a Firefly, and a 57L AT gun. The British get some 76mm Battalion OBA in support, and win at game end if they have a stopped AFV with functioning MA and LOS to a key crossroad. One minor oddity is that that the British (despite defending) set up second and move first. What really makes the scenario stand out from the other Viller-Bocage actions is that both sides get to set up their AFVs HIP. That simple SSR goes a long way towards making the scenario a true test of nerves.

The defending British armor is clearly outclassed, with only the Firefly able to deal with the Tigers through the frontal armor. The 57L ATG and the 95mm HEAT round from the Cromwell VI also have a chance, but require a bit of luck with their depletable ammo and TK rolls. Both sides have armor leaders, but again the Germans have the edge, with a 10-2 Wittman and a 9-1 wingman against an anonymous 9-1 and 8-1. The British infantry is also outmanned, with only four 4-5-8s squads and a single leader (who also has to handle radio duties) against six 5-4-8s, a 9-2, 8-1, and an MMG. The 76mm OBA helps out a lot here, but even better for the British cause is the fact that much of their set-up area has LOS to the VC crossroads; the onus is on the Germans to come forward and dig out all that HIP armor for the win.

Ken ended up with the Germans and set up for the attack. I then placed my plucky defending British. Set-up is always tricky, and I spent a lot of time fussing over where to station my lone leader and his radio. There’s no good spot that offers both good LOS and safety from the German firepower, and eventually I decided he’d end up in the rear of the infamous board 24 hillside multi-level building (V3). My Firefly (easily the most important British piece of equipment) was HIP in the X1 woods clump, with the 95mm Cromwell VII well back covering it. Only the Firefly actually had LOS to the crossroads, as I was trying to strike a balance between covering the VC area and forcing the Tigers to come and get me. The remaining two Cromwell VIs, the AT gun, and the infantry were scattered about, mainly ready to die in place to protect the Cromwell VII and Firefly.

The first player turn was pretty boring, as all my infantry were set up out of LOS to get concealment and only moved into their actual defensive positions during the APh. Thankfully, Ken is a very entertaining guy, with lots of (real) stories about strippers, chigger and red ant attacks, and all kinds of other crazy stuff. My main take-away was that if you return from Africa and come down with a cold that lasts more than three days, immediately go to the emergency room. It’s still a toss-up however as to whether tropical parasites are worse for your health than current girlfriends learning about ex-stripper girlfriends.. Learning all this valuable info actually made me forget to whine when my first roll for radio contact was a ten.

The first German player turn featured a lot more action. Although I again failed my radio contact roll, Ken’s dice were even worse. A 2-3-8/PSK died to a 6-2 K/, and left the vital LATW sitting in no-man’s land for the rest of the game. Even worse, a precious Tiger malfed its MA and based on an earlier shot, I knew it had an armor leader in it. Ouch. All this bad luck continued into turn two, when I pulled a red card for the OBA and broke my 95mm howitzer Cromwell trying to place smoke. Thankfully, the Cromwell later managed to repair the MA, our bad luck largely subsided, and we were able to focus in on the tactics and not the dice.

The next few turns saw Ken’s jackbooted troopers grinding me down in very efficient fashion. The two Tigers that still had functioning MAs blasted me up and his 9-2 kill stack also did a lot of damage. Ken also did a great job being patient with his armor and using his infantry to probe for my HIP traps. As such, my 57L was soon discovered and only managed to knock out the Pz IV with a desperate IF shot before going down. By the start of my turn four, my infantry was pretty much out of the running and although my HIP armor all remained undiscovered, Ken still had two movement phases left.

At this point, I made a moderate-sized blunder. I finally had a spotting round in place, but my leader had been forced to fall back into some woods to establish a rally point and couldn’t see anything useful. Here, I should have just accepted the reality that my infantry was gone, called in harassing fire on top of them, and at least cut way down on Ken’s maneuverability for the rest of game. Instead, I went soft, kept my SR uselessly dancing around, and futilely tried to rally my remaining DM rabble. I am a lucky guy, but for once, adapting a strategy of trying to roll threes and fours didn’t pay off for me and with the German turn four MPh rolled around with not much between Ken and my tanks…

Luckily for me, Ken didn’t quite take advantage of my miscue. He’d done a fantastic job over the first three turns of cautiously grinding me down, and now that I had nothing left to stop him, the shift to all-out blitzkrieg didn’t fully happen. He bagged my remaining infantry as prisoners, spread out a bit to guard against a final-turn rush by me to get LOS into the VC area, but didn’t quite push hard enough to actually find any of my armor. That wasn’t terrible, but he then parked both his Tigers with working MA on the crossroads right where my Firefly could see them both. This was really a piece of bad luck, especially after Ken had done so well avoiding that faux pas earlier.

With those two tasty targets in my sights, the Firefly opened up in DFPh on the lead Tiger.. Needing an 8 to hit, I rolled a 9, but revealed my 9-1 AL for the kill. The AFPh was equally tense. Ken’s last MA Tiger blasted back at me with a base 3TH. The dice bounced around and came up with a five. There was a moment of silence as Ken rechecked his notes and declared the shot a miss. I had to let out a big sigh of relief even as I felt for Ken at the same time…it had been the 10-2 Wittman AL that had malfed his MA, not the 9-1, and if things had gone the other way, my Firefly would likely have been burning and the game all but over.

After that big break, I managed to kill off Ken’s second Tiger in my turn five PFPh and reposition my armor such that one Cromwell had LOS to the VC area and all the others were covering the Firefly. That put way too much pressure on the German infantry, and although Ken did everything he could with the hand he was dealt, lots of CMG and point-blank MA fire ended the game with a British win.

It’s certainly an interesting scenario, and one I’d play again as either side. It’s obviously on the small end of tourney-sized and the OBA and armor make it a bit dicy, but I think both sides have just enough tools that losing one weapon system won’t completely doom you. The HIP tanks are also a lot of fun, and it is enjoyable watching the Tigers skulk around in fear of the Firefly. Well-played on Ken’s part; the loss of the PSK and the 10-2 Tiger (who never repaired his MA) made the hill just a bit too steep to climb, but he was still right in it all the way to the end, and a more aggressive infantry force on turn four might have made all the difference.

That’s it for now, thanks again as always for reading my drivel.


Houston February Gameday

Zeb Doyle

Here's another report after my successful exfiltration from Houston:

I'd been inserted into the Bayou City ostensibly to reclaim a 'lost' rulebook, but my real mission was to monitor Houston ASL activity and see if they pose any threat in the Texas Team Tourney this year. Gentlemen, the reconnaissance was successful, but I bear grim tidings. Walter's Starter Kit work at Owlcon is really paying off with two new faces at his game day. Randy is an old-time SL player who really seems to know his stuff, and Mark Carter is enthusiastic and learning fast. Even worse, Mark deployed some amazing and delicious cutting edge caffeine technology. The two half-gallon cardboard containers (one loaded with Sumatra blend, the other Pike's Market) were shocking enough, but they also came with little paper cups all marked up with trippy quotes like "A movie is not what it is about. It is about how it is about it." It's like they're all trying to keep Houston weird or something. At any rate, I'm not sure how the Houstonites have mastered the secrets of caffeine so quickly and completely (I suggest intensive interrogations of Roy Casagranda), but we must face the truth: there is a coffee gap in Texas and we are on the wrong side of it. This massive stockpile of caffeine, actually based in Cypress and thus in easy reach of our shores, is something we cannot stand for. I suggest we force the Houstonites to verify there are no offensive supplies of coffee there, blockade Walt's house, and initiate a series of U2 reconnaissance flights over the area.

Aside from the coffee issue, things are going well in the world of Houston ASL. Steve Miller and Walter faced off against John Hyler in G44 Abandon Ship and I'm pretty sure John won. It WAS his birthday, so maybe Steve and Walter were just going easy on him. Mark and Randy had a good game of some SK scenario, the name of which currently escapes me. The final game featured Tom Gillisov and myself in a entertaining match of ESG7 Backstab. This is an early war pillow fight with a lot of Italians attacking some unmotivated pre-capitulation French. Tom tells me that the scenario takes place near the Riviera, and we had a lot of fun picturing a bunch of Left Bank bohemians being rousted out of various cafes and drinking establishments and press-ganged into the army, being thrilled to be assigned to the fleshpots of southern France, and then getting steamrolled by a bunch of Italians.

That mental image was the highlight of the scenario, sad to say. The more I think about it, the more I think it may favor the Italians. They get 24 squads, of which 16 are first line, while the French have to make do with twelve, including nine green squads. Both sides have the 2 ELR, which hurts the French more as most of their units disrupt immediately rather than ELRing like the Italians. The French do get a 155mm ART piece which is pretty nasty, but it's also B11, while the Italians have a FT tank, a FT, an HMG, an 81mm MTR, and dominate the armor battle with seven tanks vs. two. Sure, almost all the Italian equipment is B11 as well, but there's a lot more of it and nothing is quite as vital as that 155mm is to the French. I may have had an inkling of this in my subconscious, because when Tom picked the scenario, I went right for the attacking Italians. I obviously wasn't thinking too clearly though, and not even the copious amounts of coffee helped, because I got confused and pulled myself three CMG-armed tanks, rather than the two CMG and two 37mm tanks I should have received. That was another thing I didn't notice until after the game and it really made the lone 37* armed FT-17 a lot tougher...

However, even with that minor mess-up, my Italians were able to pretty much accomplish everything they wanted to do. The VC involve capturing a hill or exiting 35VP (including 25 infantry VP), but since it's a Deluxe scenario, I only had to go 15 hexes in eight turns to achieve either objective. Thus, my men were able to move at a very leisurely pace...more a stroll in the country than an offensive.My worst unit, surprisingly, was the 81mm MTR, which got into position on turn two, dropped its only smoke round of the game on Tom's ART piece, and then spent the next seven fire phases shooting at that same 155mm gun. The MTR never got rate, often rolled an 11, which is what it takes to miss a double-acq'd, large target, and ended up never doing a single thing. I tried not to whine about that too much, but when Tom finally told me to shut up and stop being such a Nick about it, I knew I'd failed.

All the rest of my units performed well though, with the FT tank KIAing everything it shot, my many machine guns getting ROF and disrupting lots of units, and my infantry generally running around and taking prisoners. Tom had rather poor luck, with a 60mm MTR and an LMG X-ing out very early on; obviously something that will happen when green units use B11 weapons, but not something you'd expect on the first shot either. Many of his troops disrupted on their first chance too, and were rapidly taken prisoner. To Monsieur Gillisov's credit, he never complained once, not even when my dice really went into hyper-drive and battle-hardened a 3-4-6 into a 4-4-7 who then captured his 4-3-7 in CC, opening up a flanking maneuver on his 155mm which eventually resulted in its death. That was pretty much the game, and by turn five with more prisoners than good order French squads we called it. Decent but not great fun, and although I'm bad at judging balance and had good luck vs. Tom's bad, I'd not hesitate before taking the Italians again.

That's all for now; thanks for reading and stay tuned to see if there's any resolution to the Cypress coffee crisis,