Tuesday, September 12, 2006

AAR: J110 - The Prelude to Spring

Nick Drinkwater

German: Nick Drinkwater [ELR3; SAN 3]

Russian: Stephane Graciet [ELR3; SAN 2]

The first, second and third questions the german player has to ask himself when starting the setup for this scenario is "How in the hell do I stop that lot with this?" The fourth question is "When do my tanks arrive?", the fifth question is "No, really, when do my tanks arrive?" and the sixth and final question is "Can we play something else?"

BUT, you must hang in there as this is actually quite a neat scenario. It will be one continuous Personal Morale Check for the Germans from start to finish, of that there is no doubt, but if you can stop those Russians, you really can slap yourself on the back with a feeling of "job well done". It is doable, no question, but you will really need to think hard about the initial setup and play a very good game defensively or you will get steamrollered. There are options and there is some flexibility, but this is tough...

We're in December 1944 in southern Hungary - the siege of Budapest is about to start and the Russians are starting to close the loop. In this scenario, a very tough Russian Armoured breakthrough unit needs to get 22CVP off the west edge of a mixed farm and woodland configuration of half-boards 18,43, 4 and 17 laid widthways across the playing area (hexrows R-GG) from east to west. This Russian force has a lot of fun toys for both the breakthrough phase (2 x IS2, a SU- 100, and 2 x T34 85) and the initial attrition phase (8 x 458, 2 x 248, a 9-2, 8-0, couple of LMG and a .50 cal HMG - ouch!). They have effectively 30 hexes to cross over 8 turns, and at start, a really brittle german screen to try and impede them. As the Germans have no anti-armour assets onboard until Turn 3, sneaky armour rush tactics of trying to go full speed and get off in two turns have been stopped by SSRs which means that the Russians can only move half MP in Turn 1, and cannot exit the board until Turn 4. The key to a Russian victory here therefore, is to really apply confined arms tactics - if the germans can kill a couple of tanks and separate the infantry from their armour then they have a much better chance.

I think the German setup for this is one of the hardest I've had to do during my time playing ASL. As it is December, all the grain is open ground and there is ground snow in effect. The board configuration means that the Russians starting on Board 18, must initially walk across the Board 43 'grain' before they can hit the safety of the western woods mass. Next board for them to cross is Board 4 which is not easy as although there is some small woods, they tend to be isolated in big patches of nothingness. Finally, they need to cross the half of Board 17 with the small stone building and the scattered woods, though there is another 'open glade' at the very back which may prove tough for them to cross. I have been provided with 4 1/2 467's to start with, a Lt Mtr, a MMG, an LMG, and a 9-1 and 8-0. Oh. I have also been given a Pak 37 which has a straight 75 Gun with a B11. And that is it. That is not good. The first thing to decide is where to place the Pak, which for this time of the war, is truly AWFUL. It's basic TK is 14, while the worst of the Russian frontal Armour Factors is 11! It does have HEAT, but the TK of that is 13 - no help there then. So you need to be thinking hard about sly side and rear shots to do anything with this relic. With all that open ground that the Russians have to cross in Turn 1 and 2, it is very tempting to put the infantry screen upfront to take advantage of the opportunity to inflict some cheap kills...I got sucked into this, and had everything concealed in a scattered line with the plan of doing one, maybe two rounds of shooting, before doing a very fast fighting withdrawal back into the woods on the east side of Board 4. You also need to try and make the Russian armour cagey about the faust threat (2-hex range) so that they don't simply bypass you at their leisure so you do need to spread out a little, but this is really tough to do and yet try to be mutually supporting with only 4.5 squads across a 16 hex wide half-board. I put a squad, LMG and 8- 0 on the far southern board edge to stop any Russian rush down the south side in the shelter of the Board 43 walled compound and then put the 9-1, 2 x 467, MMG in the middle of the board either side of the main road that bisects Board 43 with the 247, Lt Mtr and the last of the 467 infantry to the north to block that side. I declined to put the Pak in the upfront defense line as the OB gives the Russian two starting throwaway half-squads solely for the purposes of sucking up fire and to test woods for hidden guns, and the value of this piece lies more in its potential threat and keeping the Russian armour honest than its real ability to cause any lasting damage. As a result, I place it in the sneaky and hopefully unobtrusive half-hex of woods in GG4 on board 4 where it has a relatively good view across much of that board, east of the diagonal hedge line, but it is far enough back that it won't immediately be found out by the Russian infantry screen.

So, still feeling really tentative about the setup, we kick the thing off. After Turn 2 and some truly horrible rolling, my 9-1 and 467 with the MMG are dead without having fired a shot, my south flanking 467 is prisoner, the 8-0 leader is interdicted as he desperately tries to run back to the southern side of board 4, and the the Lt Mtr has broken down on its first shot. The reserve central 467 is broken and about to go down as prisoner and I am left with a concealed 467 and a lowly half-squad with a duff mortar. Man, this was ugly, and it wasn't even Stephane's armour that did the carnage. He actually fired off all the tanks at my concealed squads, something that I was very happy about as he had three tubes in there with Low Ammo B11s. He missed everyhting on Turn 1 with these, but didn't drop the ammo either (in fact he did not suffer a single break down or ammo drop of a single gun all scenario long, including the LMGs - these are obviously some of the newer, better weapons out of the Ural arms factories I guess). However, he also had that 9-2 with the .50 cal HMG and this is what really did the damage - stacked with a couple of squads firing at long range to my guys in the woods, he was still at 6-1 shots, and went through my concealed guys like a knife through butter. My southern flanking squad went down to some lousy CX 4+2 shot and my rolling was generally horrible (see below). I had one good opportunty to whack a squad in ambush from a concealed 467, but he rolled the required 2, dodged the ambush and killed me in melee (I have never ever actually won an ambush with Stephane!). With the hole created, the Russians surged through the middle and south side and they were off and running. In reflection, the 9-2, HMG combo at startup is really tough to beat, even if you are concealed, and it may be something to consider by making much more of the initial foward line actually set up at the back of Board 4 in a backline defense, so they can still be alive and help out when the armour comes. Like I said, this is a tough, tough decision forcing setup for the germans and needs a lot of consideration.

So Turn 3 kicks in, the Russians are busy killing off the last of my front-line defenders at no cost to themselves and the first Russian armour ventures into the middle of Board 4. It's a T34-85, a great and common tank that we really don't see enough of in east front scenarios, and it has 16MP. Though I'm hoping it and maybe one more tank will stop in my kill zone of the Pak so I can maybe get two tanks, I'm aware that it still has a lot of MP and it is about to disappear out of my LOS; there is no guarantee that a second one will appear, so I drop HIP and stick one up the tail-pipe. My first casualty caused on the Russians so far. In response, a couple of nearby Russian squads immediately make a beeline for the gun, and though I blast one squad, most of my resultant fire is horrible like normal and my valiant crew are straight into a melee fighting for their lives with a 458 and the 8-0, having just rejected the surrender of the broken 458. This melee goes on for three turns more (heroes!) and I manage to CR the squad before I go down in a flurry of grenades and bayonets. Still, that is another squad and a half out of the game as they don't have enough MP to make it off in time, and overall that crew and gun has bought for me a tank, two squads and a leader. Not bad at all.

I then rush on my reinforcements but am instantly faced with the same problem at the back as I was the front - 16 hexes of broken woods and open terrain to cover with only 2 1/2 467s and a 8-1 / LMG this time - far too many avai;able sneak-by routes for the Russians. We also get a Panther and two MkIVJs to balance out the armour, but I am really staring a hammering in the face here. By T4, Stephane has an amoured mass in the west edge of Board 4 adjacent to the woodier part of Board 17 and is just waiting for the Russian infantry to catch up. I send a Mark IV to the south where I have a great view of the Motion SU-100 but he can't be seen by anything else, so I pop off a shot and miss (9). I also send the Panther to the north to loop round where I have a great view of the other T34-85 but again miss with the bounding fire (10), and the T34 goes into motion. My other MkIV goes into the middle woods Board 17 road to block any quick and sneaky rush by the IS-2s. Next Turn, the SU-100, with little other option drives forward at me, I fire, miss (11), IF, miss, gun breakdown (11). Great. On the north side, the T34 charges at the Panther, so I fire, miss (10), he keeps coming at me, so more IF, miss (9). Awesome sequence of rolling there - I'm now just dicing myself. Stephane then misses adjacent with his BFF shot and then does one of his usual tricks and re-starts and enters my hex in motion, and compounds this by sending a squad in for CC, but these guys also fluff their attack. Still, not a good place to be in at all. Next turn, my MkIV with the broken gun goes up in flames from fire from the SU-100, and he sends one of the IS-2s after one of my sole surviving squads in the Board 17 woods. However, I still do have a mobile Panther and with my current location being distinctly unhealthy, I line up the 9-2, and two 458s in open ground for a fantastic 16-1 Overrun - net result, one broken squad on a 1MC (roll a 10 on the IFT). More horrible, horrible rolling.

With the destruction of the southern most MkIV and the elimination on snakes of a subsequent half-squad I moved into the hex to threaten dashing russian tanks with fausts, Stephane takes the wide-open opportunity to drive off both the SU-100 and one of the IS2s (including a 8-1 AL) for 17 very easy VP. Eeeek. Only 5 left to find and get off the board. Luckily I do claw one small victory when I flame the other IS2 with a 8-1 directed AFPh faust shot in the woods road, but things are grim. And then we do a quick reality check - I actually now outnumber him in tanks by 2-1 and he now has only the last two turns to get off the remaining infantry or the other T34-85, and the infantry's path is not easy as they have to go across the last open glade on Board 17. Hmmm. Certain defeat into possible victory?

I trundle the Panther over to the north side again to challenge the last Russian tank, and though it misses on it's Bounding Fire shot, it whacks it hard from behind next turn in DF - however, importantly the T34 does not burn (a nine on the TK) and the crew get out - another of numerous examples of Stephane just getting the critical roll when he needs it (not unknown in our games!). I can't even get them with MG fire on hazardous movement as they jump out either as I roll another 10. Stephane tries to jump my northern single squad in CC, but I casualty reduce them and he rolls a 12 so I am able to withdraw into the isolated stone building to help block russian victory routes. But as is symptomatic in this game of widely swinging fortunes, he tries one 8+4 attack by an adjacent CX 458 and of course pulls up eyes - needless to say I fail the 1MC. Normal service has been resumed. My only other squad is now in the only other isolated wooden building on the south central side but I do have a LMG to throw out firelanes across the path of the numerous Russians who are desperately trying to run off through the glade. To help stiffen the last ditch defense I even take a very risky big ESB move with the surviving MkIV which just pays off and gives me enough MP to peak around the woods so that I can now see the whole of the Russian exit area.

The last two turns are desperate - the damn T34-85 crew escapes off the board and Stephane is also able to sneak off another HS as they shrug off both the Firelane and as much DF and Resid as I can lay - this does not come completely without some cost to the Russians: the 9-2 goes down in a hail of lead and every MC and pin result is critical and they do fail a few (though not a one from the 1RF firelane). I stop most things dead in their tracks and do kill off one or two squads, but one critical result is that a MkIV overrun against a lowly Russian half-squad results in a damn berserker and another attack generates a Hero! Madness, but Stephane is always able to pull out the critical check on demand and finds lots of 2s, 4s and 5s (but only one warm SAN inducing 3 in the entire game!) when necessary. At the beginning of German T7 he is at 20VP and just needs one squad to make it off and he realistically has three units that could do it. I run the Panther down adjacent to one squad in woods in hexrow 2, but miss again with BFF on main armanent and MG - no matter, I'll get him in Russian T8 when he makes the dash for victory.

And so we come to it. Russian T8. And here the berserker half-squad really hurts as it eats up attacks - first it uses up my LMG and First Fire capability of my last squad. I whack a couple more squads in SFF but the MG goes and breaks (of course), and he has used up a lot of my fire opportunities. Stephane takes the next units here (HS and the hero) and shrugs off a 1 RF with ease, so I throw out an adjacent Final Fire that causes a NMC - the hero fails is wounded, drops to 3MF and will be unable to get off (yes!) and the HS..........pins!!! YES!!

Only two units to go...the squad adjacent to the Panther tries to run out of the way by looping around the tank in the board edge woods, I follow and change CA with the adjacent MA, fire the gun....TWELVE!! Un-freakin-believable. I try blasting with 16+3 firepower MGs....the last shot to deny victory to the Russians...and of course, I roll a 10.

Cue Russian cheers of victory and big smiles all around as the squad strolls off for the victory. Cue general unhappiness and distraught look again on behlaf of the Germans, as I of course have basically diced the crap out of myself.

Another awesome game with Stephane that took its huge emotional toll - he played really well and until Turn 6 played it perfectly - the mad dash for the easy VP by the two tanks actually hurt him a lot as it gave me a lot of local tactical freedom on the southern half of Board 17, especially so when I managed to toast the other IS2 with the Faust. He was now outnumbered in armour and the T34-85 was always going to struggle with the Panther still alive. Effectively his infantry were left to hoe it alone and although I only had two squads left, I almost pulled it off apart from some dud rolling at crucial times. If he had left both tanks on for a turn longer, I think he would have strolled to victory as I would have been forced to use my panther and Mk IV for other more suicidal things to try and kill the tanks and the infantry really could have waltzed off without too many issues. In post-game discussion, we both thought that the at-start placement of the Germans is critical in light of the threat posed by the .50 cal, and perhaps a rearward defense may be the way to go - this is especially emphasised as behind the board 4/43 forward woods mass is a lot of open ground on Board that any retreating Germans are going to really struggle to get back across in the face of marauding Russian tanks. Also, with sixteen hexes of boardwidth to try and defend against that much Russian threat, we felt that the German infantry reinforcements needed boosting by one squad - which funnily enough is just what the official balance is (+LMG). There is just too much ground to cover with 2 1/2 squads and it will only take one lucky shot at the very end to carve a very big hole in the defense that the Russians could pour through.

Anyway, it is a lot of fun, very desperate and I would recommend that the more experienced player always take the Germans as they are the more unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes. Also, note that there is a confusion that hasn't been sorted out yet between the marked entry point for the Germans on the track record (Turn 2) and that quoted in the OB setup (Turn 3). We played Turn 3 based on comments online from the designer, but this does need a swift and speedy resolution by MMP.

I would really welcome other's people's experiences of this one, especially if they have played the finger-in-the-dyke germans.


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