Tuesday, April 18, 2006

AAR: ASL 114 - Cautious Crusaders

Nick Drinkwater

Before I got my head handed to me in Dash To Mt. Croce at the last game day, I managed to get in a slighter meatier scenario against Allen 'It's good to be the' King. Earlier in the week, we'd settled on ASL 114 Cautious Crusaders, which looked to have a fun mix of zany early war Axis Minor Action. It had been far far too long since I'd last played Allen, so I was really looking forward to our game.

Cautious Crusaders is a pretty interesting scenario for a number of reasons. From a purely historical standpoint, it's one of the very few battles featuring the Slovakian army in Russia. From an ASL standpoint, both sides have 4-4-7 as their majority squad type, but the attacking Slovaks are actually outnumbered throughout the entire game, and both sides have a number of important decisions to make about when and where to give battle.

The Slovakians appear to be the more challenging side to play. Their twenty squads trickle in over the first third of the nine turn game, and crossing board 48 under fire and capturing a railway station (represented by a Factory) and six other multi-hex buildings from the Russians is no easy task. They do get five nice Czech tanks to help them, along with some truly terrible armored cars, and skillful use of these assets is the key to a Slovakian victory. They also receive some 70mm OBA, which, thanks to a mild breeze, is likely to be used as smoke to cover the advance.

The Soviets, meanwhile, get some 80mm OBA of their own and have the traditional Russian advantage of plenty of bodies to work with. Eleven 4-4-7s and six 4-2-6s start on map, with another eight 4-4-7s joining the fun on turn three. That gives the Soviets 25 squads in stone and wooden buildings against the 20 Slovakian squads coming through the open. The Russians also have an edge in that they start with a nice assortment of on-map SW, including a HMG and Lt. MTR, while the Slovaks have minimal non-inherent firepower, having to wait until turn three for a single MMG.

Despite all those advantages, the Soviets still have challenges of their own. Their first and worst problem is the set up restrictions. Two-thirds of their force is locked into setting up in buildings or foxholes on the forward map. This places the bulk of the Soviet force squarely clustered around the board 48 'crossroads of death,' which is impossible to defend, especially when you are facing superior armor.

This brings us to the second Soviet challenge, which is facing the Slovakian AFVs. Although the five Czech tanks aren't exactly Panthers, they do have 3/1 armor and 8 machine gun factors. The Slovaks also have three armored cars, which are a bit of a joke with 18 MP, red B11, no reverse movement or radios, but which still serve well for cutting rout paths or VBM freeze. Against these eight AFVs, the Soviets have two ATRs, an on-map 37L AT gun, and another 37L that gets towed onmap on turn two. Overall, the Slovakian can't go completely wild with his armor, but the tanks will certainly dominate large areas of the battlefield.

Along with the interesting match-ups between the opposing sides, there are also plenty of tough decisions to be made. The Soviets, with their numerical superiority, can try a very aggressive defense and take advantage of the Slovak staggered entries. Conversely, a quick retreat to board 49 is very hard to stop and has the advantage of preserving the Russian force for the end game. A choice must be made between defending the factory to the death and dispersing forces throughout the multi-hex buildings as well. Meanwhile, the Slovakian has to decide how hard to push with his initial six squads that enter on turn one, how aggressive to be with the tanks, and decide if it's better to go for capturing buildings or killing Russians during the early and mid-game.

Obviously, there's lots to think about in this scenario, and Allen and I had a pretty decent discussion about it ahead of time, even probing into minutia like the advantage the Slovakians have because their 4-4-7s ELR to 3-4-7s, not 4-2-6 conscripts. When it was all said and done, Allen decided to play the Communist hordes, and set up a fairly dispersed defense on board 48, with several units clustered around a level two hill overlay. Back on board 49, the key railway station was devoid of troops, but a large upper level stack with good LOS threatened HMG fire over a large section of the map.

Faced with this display of force, my first challenge was how to get my initial wave of troops onto the map. I had to enter two tanks, three armored cars, and six bicycle squads. After some thought, I abandoned the bicycles off-map as being impossible to use, and send my entire force in on the extreme left side, with lots of vehicular smoke being used. The advantage of this attack was that it let my six squads face just two of Allen's, and it threatened both the level two hill and the railway station.

This attack saw lots of my infantry break from hilltop MTR fire, but my tanks were able to clear out the opposition pretty quickly. The Slovak armor really paid off by not just breaking the Soviet squads, but also cutting their rout paths and forcing surrender. Killing off units for failure to rout is obviously an important ASL tactic, but it's even more vital in a scenario like this. As I pulled out the prisoner counters, I joked to Allen that since the scenario card describes the two sides as Slavic brothers, I was going to try and capture his entire force without killing a single Russian.

That approach actually worked well over the next few turns as the remainder of my troops entered the field of battle and engaged the Russian pickets. In several cases, Allen's conscripts failed MCs and Disrupted, and the few scattered 4-4-7s I ran into were quickly broken and captured as well. Even better, my initial push down the left side was able to capture the lightly defended railway station with relative ease, bagging me another platoon of Russian prisoners. The combination of point-blank machine gun fire from the tanks and the rout-cutting and VBM freezing of the armored cars was vital in accomplishing this, although one funny moment arose when a bypassing armored car had to spend several turns blocked in by Allen's OBA. You'd think someone would have figured out that driving in reverse could be a handy feature...

Despite my early success and my peaceful 'take prisoners' policy, Allen was still doing a great job of making my attack a slow, bloody process and his Slavs showed no compunction at killing my Slavs. Although the Soviets had taken heavier losses, they still outnumbered me, especially considering how many of my troops were tied down guarding prisoners. Worse, I'd lost three tanks to ATRs and OBA. Amusingly, Allen wasn't just satisfied with doing damage to my men; his artillery was tearing up the town too, with multiple buildings on fire and partially rubbled. This traditional Soviet scorched earth tactic was a lot of fun to watch, but didn't really help me with my next task: capturing the remaining six multi-hex buildings against a numerically superior force.

Once again, it was the AFVs that would have to carry me to victory. At this point I caught a big break when my infantry stumbled over the Soviet AT gun. It was in a spot with decent LOS and I'd luckily never moved a tank near it. Now it was caught without infantry support and quickly overrun. That left Allen with a single AT gun, but I knew where it was, and could afford to be very aggressive with my remaining armor. Over the next few turns, I repeated my earlier tactics, using the tanks as hammers to break up the Soviet infantry, while the armored cars cut rout paths and (more importantly at this stage) made it really tough for Allen to shift his troops from building to building.

It had been a close game throughout, and things only got more intense as we moved towards the final turn. I think board 49 really does a nice job of capturing the transition from rural to urban terrain, and that transition was captured in the fighting, with the fray devolving into a series of point-blank attacks and close combats. The same basic challenges we'd faced in the early game still applied, with the Soviet struggling to bring his numbers to bear, and the Slovakian working hard to obtain a series of local superiorities, but every unit and every move took on an increasing importance.

It ended up being an extremely chaotic and tense end-game, with both sides leaving victory buildings empty while enemy squads lurked just across the street. The difference was that Allen just couldn't get his troops where he needed them; I was forced to leave my buildings empty because I just didn't have the manpower to both garrison them and attack. In the end, I was able to slip some squads around a flank to grab some more buildings, and ambushed and killed a very pesky 10-0, 4-4-7, HMG combo that had survived four or five 16+3 attacks. That lucky CC got me another building and freed up my tanks to interdict the roads even further.

Allen still had a very good chance at a turn eight counter-attack, but played a bit too conservatively and instead massed his troops for a huge turn nine onslaught. By that point, I was able to use my superior maneuverability to establish at least a tenuous garrison in each of my captured buildings, and that made the last-ditch Russian offensive a very long shot indeed. It's amazing how much more difficult a multi-hex building becomes to capture when even a 7-0 is in it! Allen made a good try of it, and I was forced to actually kill a good deal of the Soviets, but in the end I had the win with a building or two to spare.

It was a really great game, and I want to thank Allen for a fantastic time. There's very little that's more satisfying than discussing a scenario, playing it out, and having it go down to the last turn with good play on both sides. As far as the scenario goes, Cautious Crusaders offers an interesting situation where both sides have tough decisions and lots of options throughout, and the feel really changes as you shift from board 48 to board 49. I'm pretty terrible at judging balance, especially after a single playing, but I'm sure some people will give the edge to the Russians since they have the edge in numbers and terrain and that may be the case.

Ultimately, though, I think that as long as the Slovakian player is very comfortable with armor, it's gonna be a fun fight for both sides and that's all that really matters. In the end, Cautious Crusaders is a meaty scenario that really lets both sides try different things (build a factory festung, backed by the AT guns and OBA, or disperse?), and things like that are more important to me than ensuring it's exactly balanced 50/50. I'd rate the scenario pretty high. Thanks to Allen for another great ASL experience, congratulations to the designer, and thanks to you for reading,


No comments: