Wednesday, December 05, 2007

AAR: J53 Setting the Stage

Matt Shostak
Russians: Matt Shostak
Germans: Mike Denson

The second of Pete Shelling's brilliant Broadway to Prokhorovka mini-CG trilogy of Kursk scenarios, this action has a character all its own. It's a short (5 turns) and sharp firefight between the SS and Russian Guards, over the relatively open countryside boards 33 and 44. As the Russian player faces the playing area, board 44 is at the top and 33 at the bottom. The key terrain features are the 3 clusters of buildings. One is smack dab in the middle of board 44, and contains only one multi-hex building. Another is at the right side of 44, just across the board join, and has two multi-hex buildings. The last is in the middle, but close to the bottom edge of board 33. These multi-hex buildings are important because the Germans can win by controlling any 3 of the 5 total. They can also win by exiting about 45 CVP off the map at the lower right half of the board. That lower right half is dominated - nearly covered entirely - by a couple of huge grain fields. One of the big attractions of this trilogy is that each player gets to choose parts of his forces. Here the Russians get to spend some points on fortifications, and their tank choice is between 4 heavier KVs with boxed 11 armor, or 4 faster, lighter KVs with an armor leader. The Germans get to pick two of three groups of tanks, and also between two roughly equal platoons of infantry and halftracks.

I chose almost entirely mines and wire, and the heavier KVs, figuring I'd need their armor against the Tigers. Any Russians set up in buildings get to be HIP, and naturally the fortifications start hidden as well, so there wasn't much to look at from my setup, although there were a few counters on board under concealment. I put just a token force in the front middle building, and the majority in the other two clusters, especially the right side one, which looked like the most likely target of the German assault. Several wire counters went in front of the rear buildings, and a few squads were there, plus my 7-0 and field phone to call for 80mm mortars. Most of my mines went to the right side building area, mostly in front of the buildings. One wire was used to block a gap in the woods to hinder his vehicular movement.

The SS attack was about as subtle as a punch in the nose, and as brutally effective. They lined up on the right side (as I faced the map) and just charged straight at the right side building cluster. The tanks led the way, coming on crew exposed and popping a lot of smoke with their dischargers. Several tanks stopped just two hexes away from the building to shell the defenders. The infantry followed up, often with armored assault, to close the distance quickly. My 9-2, MMG, 4-5-8 commenced the shooting with an 8 down 2 at a full stack of 3 SS squads and a leader, and rolled boxcars to malfunction the weapon immediately. It would later be ruined on the next repair roll. The offboard mortar artillery arrived in my preregistered hex and shocked a PzIII, which was then hit and killed by my 45LL gun, which was set up behind the front and center building pointing back toward the right.

I won't try to describe the exact order of the rest of the events at the right hand building cluster, but instead just try to note the highlights. However, the first key moment I can't forget. The SS were bunched up, without a lot of cover, in front of the buildings. I had artillery falling just a few hexes away. I could make a 3-hex correction and drop it right on top of a juicy stack, with the likelihood of taking under fire several other locations packed with infantry as well. The line of sight was tricky, and I had to think about it a while. Finally I decided the potential reward was worth the risk of a blocked line of sight from the observer. I rolled for contact on the phone, and came up boxcars again. Ouch. I was extremely disappointed, not so much because this would hurt my chances to win (although it would), but because this was one of those rare opportunities in ASL. How often do you manage to get everything lined up just right for an artillery stonk on a whole bunch of the enemy at once? After the game I measured the LOS and it was clear, so anything but a 12 on the roll would have put the Germans in some hurt. Admittedly, it could have strayed on top of some of my guys in the buildings too, but they had better cover, were likely dead anyway, and the potential for a huge score against the SS was right there in front of my eyes. And it was guaranteed to land on some of the Germans. It was so disappointing.

The German infantry, despite their tremendous firepower, had a lot of trouble breaking the stalwart Russians in these buildings. Part of that was because the vehicular smoke drifted in the wind and hindered many of their early shots, part of it was poor dice for Mike, and part of it was timely morale rolls on my part. The Germans were hardly bothered by the mines. It only slowed them down, and the tanks drove right over them (they were AP mines, not AT), and created trail breaks for the infantry to follow. The German vehicles aggressively drove on top of the Russians, or in bypass, to limit Russian fire opportunities against the SS infantry. But they paid the price. The other PzIII was killed in close combat, with the Russian squad generating an 8-1 leader to boot. The Russian 9-2 battle hardened to a 10-2 early, and when a StuG got up close and personal in bypass, the 10-2 showed the squad how to immobilize it, which effectively mission-killed it since it couldn't see anything from that bypass vertex. The other StuG also died in CC when a Russian 4-5-8 jumped it in the road. One Tiger bogged on the wire, and later mired. The other continued his bypassing ways, but eventually immobilized on a startup roll, also in a place where it had limited effectiveness. A series of hot rolls from the Russian troops took their toll on the SS, but all of a sudden in one fire phase, the Germans broke the last of them and captured the two buildings.

At this late stage in the game, it looked like Mike was going to push for the exit victory, and so I reinforced that area with my tanks. After some consideration, however, it looked like he changed his strategy on the fly and took a right turn for the lone building in the middle. I think this was a smart play, because the exit strategy was looking less and less viable. The timetable was short either way, but taking just one building looked easier. I don't think I played very well in the end game. For one thing, I was too convinced that Mike would still go for the exit. I should have hedged my bets a little and sent two tanks to the middle building, and the other two to guard the exit. I also blundered with one of my KVs. I decided to drive it past some German infantry to reinforce the threatened building, but I forgot that the squad had a flamethrower. It was hidden under a CX marker. I paid the price as Mike jumped on the opportunity and killed the tank. Later I drove another KV next to this squad (at least I knew what I was doing this time), and the German FT squad dispatched that one too.

On his last turn charge the lone mobile Tiger, which had untangled itself from the wire earlier, charged out in front of my 82mm mortar crew and went CE. I figured he'd try to pop smoke to cover his infantry assault on the remaining building, so my nearby KV held its fire, waiting on the infantry move instead. Mike promptly declared bounding fire and killed that KV too, and even brewed it up, which would greatly hinder the fire of my squad that was underneath, hoping to cover the approaches to the last building. I only had one KV left, and its fire was hindered by that smoking wreck too. Yikes. The SS charge fell short in the end however, when my infantry fire from in and around the building went on a hot streak and broke and pinned several units. Mike threw in the towel at that point.

Great game, Mike, you outplayed me over the last couple of turns and almost pulled it out. As I said earlier, I'd recommend this scenario to anyone. At 5 turns it should be playable in a tournament setting, although it might be helpful to arrive at the tourney with a Russian setup already written down since there is so much HIP to record and that can take time. Also, this scenario has reinvigorated my desire to play the Broadway to Prokhorovka CG, of which it comprises the middle third. As a club we once tried to play this as a relay with different pairs of players in each round, but in this case I want to give it a try on my own against someone in all three. I think some of the CG considerations might very well change each game in some subtle ways too. Banzai!! 6.2 has analyses of all three of these scenarios, which I think are well worth reading. Carl Kusch did an excellent job studying Setting the Stage for that issue.