Monday, May 08, 2006

AAR: ASL 117 - With Tigers On Their Tail

Zeb Doyle

Things had been extra crushingly busy at work lately, and I'd been forced to go a long time without an ASL fix. So, I was pretty excited when Matt Schwoebel dropped me an email saying he was looking for some action. As the weekend rolled round, I headed to his house with nothing but ASL on my mind. That changed quickly when I arrived and was offered my choice of five different beers along with a fantastic view of downtown Austin. Suddenly, I was lulled into complacency and just looking to relax after the long week. That was when 'Shark' Schwoebel sprung his trap and informed me we were playing ASL 117 With Tigers On Their Tail and he was taking the Russians.

Too dazed by his lavish hospitality to do anything but nod acceptance, I sat down and cast my eye over the scenario card. With Tigers On Their Tail is a 1944 fighting withdrawal writ large, with 18 Hungarians squads and a bewildering array of 14 Turans, Nimrods, and trucks fleeing across the wide open expanses of boards 50, 11, and 9. A few hill overlays and a pond tighten things up a bit, but for the most part the terrain is very wide open. A pair of Tigers gets the task of watching over the Hungarian retreat, and those big cats will be needed, as hot on the heels of the retreating Axis is a horde of Russians, with 23 squads and 29 vehicles, including 12 T-34s, entering over the first five turns of the eleven turn game. The Hungarians win by exiting at least 30 VP and exiting more than the Russians, so both sides are constantly faced, not just with the standard ASL decision of 'shoot or move,' but also whether to risk units in combat or try to save them as exit points.

Despite my daze from the beer and the view (both great!), a few things stood out. Whenever you play a scenario named after a unit in the game, it seems like that piece ends up playing a key role. Based off that, I figured the Tigers might be kind of important. As I looked closer, I realized those two tanks were supposed to hold off twelve T-34s over the course of the game. They would be reinforced by a StuG and a PzIVH, but those were the only Hungarian vehicles with any chance at holding back the T-34 swarm. Even in my befuddled state, I could tell that losing the Tigers meant losing the game.

With that in mind, I set the Tigers up on a hill overlay on the middle of board 11. I'd resolved to protect them with everything I had, and being hull down in a level three location seemed like a nice place for them to start. The remainder of my force entered from the north edge, and I sent the majority of my infantry down the left flank into the wooded hills of board 50. The StuG, PzIV, and Nimrod also entered here, to protect the rear and flanks of the vital Tigers. Everything else, including five assorted Turins and a smattering of infantry with an HMG and two 50mm MTRs, came in on the right flank and climbed the hills of board 9. The forces on both flanks tried to head for easily defensible chokepoints, while board 11, dominated by the Tigers, was left wide open in the middle.

It was then Russian turn one, and Schwoebel tried to keep the hospitality going by offering me another tasty beer, but couldn't completely restrain himself and started to gloat about how my entire defense centered on just two pieces and how crippled I'd be if anything went wrong with just one Tiger. Meanwhile, I was busy observing that the Russian challenge in this scenario is trying to keep pressure on the Hungarians with a force that enters in an rather piecemeal and ungainly fashion. Big mobile combined arms scenarios, especially fighting withdrawals, can be very challenging to play. Although that's true for both sides, the Hungarian ends the first turn with his entire force on board in any configuration he wants and with the Tigers dominating the map. The Russian has a vastly superior force, but has a far more difficult time coordinating it, and has to be very patient with it as his most powerful units don't enter until turns three and five.

This lack of coordination could be seen from turn one, when Schwoebel received four SU-76s, three T70s, and two M3A1 scoutcars with the inherent .50 cals. Certainly a nice force, but not one that can easily engage the more balanced Hungarian groups of both armor and infantry that exist at scenario start. Likewise, the turn two wave of sixteen 4-4-7s in trucks is a welcome addition to the battle, but comes with only three LMGs for long range fire. Somehow, the Soviet must pressure the Hungarian with these ungainly groups from turn one while also thinking longer term about how to link the streams of reinforcements into balanced battlegroups...all under the watchful eye of the Tigers.

Given the high complexity of the scenario, with different battlegroups trying to seize short term opportunities as they arise but also needing to coordinate with other units in the medium and long term, it was inevitable that we'd both make some mistakes. After the first two turns, a large mass of Soviet infantry had gathered on my left flank, but there weren't quite enough of them to do anything decisive on their own, and they were entirely without armor support. This really minimized their threat and made me quite optimistic that I could exit a good deal of my force while shutting Schwoebel out in that sector. On the right flank, however, I was kicking myself for not committing at least one 75L armed tank to the area. Schwoebel had sent all his T-70s and SU-76s to the area, and although the Tigers had claimed a few, the remaining Soviet AFVs really outclassed my Turans and were forcing me to give up ground at a rapid rate. In both areas, the player with the better balanced force was winning.

As turn three dawned, Schwoebel decided to throw caution to the wind and brought his first wave of T-34s directly at my Tigers. Elsewhere, the action also picked up, with Russians hurling themselves headlong at my retreating Hungarians. This ended up being a good thing for me. Backed by the PzIV and the StuG, the Tigers turned multiple T-34s into funeral pyres in the middle, while on the left the board 50 stream also became a deathtrap for the Russians. Here, Schwoebel's sizable but non-decisive amount of force was badly bloodied when I got several sneaky lines of sight and some very good rolls to really put the hurt on his troops. On the right side, the Soviets got a little overextended in their attempts to push AFVs forward out of LOS of the Tigers, and I was able to launch a quick counter-attack. There's nothing more helpless than an SU-76 in Bypass, and some fancy BFF took out several of them along with an M3A1 scoutcar. As we wrapped up turn four, I couldn't help but think that Matt was the most gracious host I'd ever met: great beer, great views, and great ASL.

This warm fuzzy feeling of complacency lasted until Russian turn five, when the last wave of T-34s entered the map. With the survivors of the first wave getting perilously close to my precious Tigers, the key moment of the game approached. My four guns capable of killing T-34s all had great shots and I had the opportunity to really cripple the Russians. Instead, my lead Tiger malfed its MA, sending Schwobel into full-on gloat mode. He pressed his sudden advantage well and forced my second Tiger into an Intensive Fire shot which only resulted in a Disabled MA. Later, when my PzIV also malfed his MA, I started rethinking just how good a host Schwoebel really was. I think the moral of the story here is always drink another man's beer but never use his dice...

As I was learning this bitter lesson, a true disaster developed in the center of the board. The StuG miraculously managed to cover the retreat of the Tigers, and even kill another T-34, but was then blasted into scrap along with the PzIV. When my malfed Tiger MA also became Disabled in the RPh, I was left with two Recalled Tigers and four Turans with a 10TK or worse to face the six remaining T-34s. Thanks to my three boxcars, I didn't have a single long range weapon left that could engage Schwoebel's armor. My pregame fears had all been realized and now I was faced with the worst-case scenario.

Thankfully, the fighting on the flanks had been going very well for me. I hadn't managed to meet the Hungarian challenge of keeping the Tigers alive as killing machines, but the Russian challenge of forming cohesive combined arms groups on the fly was proving equally difficult. On the left, my troops imitated Horatio at the board 50 bridge, with my two MMGs proving to be a big advantage over the unsupported Russian infantry. On the right, board 9 didn't have nearly as good a chokepoint, but I was able to kill the last SU-76 with a hail of MTR fire, freeing up my Turans. That really made life tough for the Soviet infantry, since the Turans are great at killing unarmored stuff. It's only the T-34s that give them problems in this scenario.

Schwoebel could see that as well as I could, and only paused to offer me another beer before sending his T-34s swarming across the map to bolster his stalled infantry. As we approached the end game, things got very interesting, with both sides weighing the damage each unit could do against the exit points it represented. The armor became even more important, as at this point only the tanks had the speed to maneuver to combat and then still exit. The infantry had to choose between fighting and running. Here, my smashing victory on the left flank really paid off, as I could left behind a relatively few blocking units and exit the vast majority of my force.

The T-34s were still the deciding factor, though, and Schwoebel used them well, swinging them over towards board 9 to break up the stalemate there. I had to get lucky to stay in the game, and Lady Luck ended up smiling on me quite a bit. Two T-34s en route to some protective infantry fell prey to very low-odds faust shots. Another effectively put itself out of the game with an failed ESB roll, and in a bit of payback, a T-34/85 Disabled its MA on a boxcarred Intensive Fire shot when I ran a Turan at it in desperation. All these improbable events were absolutely required to keep me in the game and left Schwoebel with only two T-34s to carry the day on the right flank.

In an impressive display of just how important combined arms are in the scenario, the two T-34s still managed to drive off my Turans and supporting infantry in double-quick time. This opened up some daylight for the board 9 Soviet infantry who piled into their trucks and headed down the road. With the time pressure now huge, we were both making agonizing 'fight-or-flight' decisions every turn. Amazingly, the game came down to turn 11, which saw a mass exodus off the south edge by both sides. In a moment of high drama, a lowly Hungarian 3-4-7 managed to get some resid on the road the Russian truck convoy had to take, and although the eight or so RFP attacks only managed to immobilize a single vehicle, it was a truck carrying a full squad and a 9-1 leader, giving the Hungarians the win.

It's impossible to dislike a scenario that ends like that, and the way Schwoebel was wining and dining me, I could have played Soldiers Of Destruction and had a great time. Trying to filter out my bias, though, I still think that With Tigers On Their Tail is a classic in the making. The mixture of a fighting withdrawal and a combined arms shoot-em-up is a very compelling combination. The VC really add to this, since every unit sacrificed is one less unit that can exit. The combination of all these various factors makes this scenario one of the more complex I've ever played as far as decision making goes and it's certainly a very 'advanced scenario' despite not straying out of the standard Chapters A-D.

The fact it is so complex makes me think it likely won't go the full 11 turns very often on initial playing. Instead, since the scenario rewards skill so much, I think the better player has a very good chance of building up a big lead early, and if neither side is very experienced, I feel the Tigers on the hill will win it for the Hungarians more often than not. It's also a major time commitment, as those 45 vehicles and 40 squads are all going to be making tough decisions each turn. Despite these hurdles, the reward is worth it, so look it over, formulate a plan, and give it a go. The experience will be well worth it, and think of the Major Johnson points you could score with this puppy at the tournament!

Finally, a huge thank you to Matt Schwoebel. In all seriousness, his hospitality was wonderful, he put up with me leaving in the middle to pick up someone at the airport, and he didn't complain at all at the end when the series of improbable PF shots stole away his win.

Thanks for reading,


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