Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quick first impressions of two new CH products

Zeb Doyle

The Christmas elves at CH have been busy this holiday season and have brought us Kursk-Devil's Domain and Peleliu: White Beach One just in time for Christmas! My copies showed up yesterday, and I've spent all of 40 minutes looking at the new products, so this is in no way a review. Instead, I'd like to share my first few preliminary impressions.

First off, let me say that I understand ASL is a niche hobby. Anyone producing stuff for it is participating in a labor of love and not a business that's going to bring them wealth and fame. So, I try to give all those people the benefit of the doubt. If a few words are misspelled, if the grammar isn't perfect, if a tank is identified as a Panzer IVH instead of the correct PzIVJ because you couldn't justify the cost of a $300 reference book, that's completely understandable to me. Every time I comment on an ASL product, that's in the back of my mind and I hate to be overly critical.

That said, ASL is a game of details, and when those details get neglected, it can lead to a lot of questions and clarifications. Unfortunately, I think both these new CH products fall into this category: they look like real labors of love, with attractive maps and interesting situations. However, even a quick examination of both Devil's Domain and White Beach One seem to show a lack of development and polish such that I can only recommend them to people with a deep interest in that specific historical action. Again, I hate to be critical, but a) it's somewhat frustrating to see so much time and effort short-circuited and b) it's really frustrating that, based on CH's track record of doing this, I volunteered to help proof-read for both these, but never heard back from anyone.

Let me move from abstract rant to two specific examples. Peleliu, for instance, is an attractive product with eight scenarios that all look interesting, a large HASL-style map, and a 12 page booklet with new terrain, rules, and historical commentary. Great stuff, until you actually start reading the commentary. Due to the multiple repeated sentences and slight incoherence, I assume it's a cut and paste job that was never edited. For example, in the section 'The Imperial Japanese Navy,' you read "While the IJA fought for the beaches the IJN units having built the airfield and assigned to the island much longer than the IJA controlled the airfield area." Later in the same paragraph, we learn that "While the IJA fought for the beaches the IJN units having built the airfield and assigned to the island much longer that the IJA controlled the airfield area."Other sentences don't repeat but still require repeated reading to puzzle them out: "Although they did have improvised explosive devices, which are more reflective of a set demolition device, as they were command, detonated."

Now, it's true that this is just the historical commentary. In a sense, it's just a bonus, and certainly any problems here won't affect game play of the scenarios. Unfortunately, some of the new rules and scenarios have similar puzzling issues that would appear to require emails to the designers to sort out. Again going with Peleliu, rule 5.3.1 states that Marine 7-6-8 squads may deploy in their RPh by passing an NTC even if no leader is present. 3-4-8 half-squads can freely recombine, and the Deployment limits of A2.9 are increased from 10% to 25% for this squad type. There's even a historical footnote to justify the SSR, explaining that these Marine squads were highly motivated and trained to split into fire teams. Great stuff!

However, let's take a quick look at G17, the standard ASL rules for the Marines. The stuff covering Marine squads is exactly a half page long, so it's not as though there's a ton to look over. A17.11 already allows 7-6-8s to Deploy in its RPh by passing an NTC or during set-up with no limits at all. So, 100% of the Marine 7-6-8s could Deploy pre-game if they wanted, not just 25%. A17.15 mentions that these 7-6-8s are the standard Marine squad for all actions 4/44 and later, and since Peleliu takes place in 9/44, it would certainly seem as if the CH 7-6-8s and the standard ASL 7-6-8s are the same squad. The CH SSR seems to be trying to give the Marines a bit of historical flavor but is blissfully ignorant that this is already covered in the core rulebook.

The problem here is that the mere presence of an SSR like rule 5.3.1 with the deploying Marines, greatly strengthens the case of those critics who argue that CH designs mainly for their ATS line and then converts the scenarios into ASL without a great deal of playtesting and via someone who may or may not be conversant with ASL. I'm agnostic on that debate myself, but rule 5.3.1 does really make me wonder if the skeptics are right. If CH does have a good explanation for this apparent lack of knowledge about a fairly basic Marine nationality trait, I'd love to hear it.

At any rate, I mentioned above that I didn't want to get overly critical, so I'll attach a list of questions/clarifications I have so far below, and end here. Again, I'm sad to say that there are enough little flaws here that I can't recommend these products to most people, but if you like playing on attractive historical maps or have a strong interesting in either Kursk or Pelileu, these look worth checking out.

Thanks for reading,

Kursk Questions:

Rule 3.2 reads that "trenches are equivalent to woods for both rout and rally purposes (e.g., units in a trench receive a -1 DRM to Rally attempts)" The -1 DRM is already a standard rule (A10.61). Is it your intent that trenches be treated as woods per A10.51 Direction, and that units can therefore use them as rout targets?

Per rule 9.1 Civilian Interrogation is NA. Does that mean that standard Interrogation does apply?

Rule 9.12 discusses A-T Ditches. By SSR they may set up HIP and any AFV entering a hidden A-T Ditch is automatically eliminated. However, per A12.33, all fortifications always set up HIP. Is that part of the SSR redundant? Also, per A12.33 any fortification is revealed once an enemy unit is within 16 hexes and has LOS. Given that none of the scenarios appear to take place at night, I don't see how an AFV could ever move into a location with an HIP A-T Ditch. What am I missing?

Rule 9.13.1 says that Fougasse FTs have an X10 number. The example in 9.16 says that Fougasse FTs malfunction on a roll of 11 or higher. Which is correct?

Peleliu Questions:

Rule 3.12 says that all ponds are treated as Deep. Generally in ASL, only Rivers have a Depth. Is there any affect on game-play to having Deep ponds?

Rule 3.24, same question as Kursk rule 3.2: it reads that "trenches are equivalent to woods for both rout and rally purposes (e.g., units in a trench receive a -1 DRM to Rally attempts)" This is already a standard rule (A10.61). Is it your intent that trenches be treated as woods per A10.51 Direction, and that units can therefore use them as rout targets?

Rule 5.8.1: should read drm and not DRM

Rule 6.7: same question as Kursk rule 9.1: Civilian Interrogation is NA. Does that mean that standard Interrogation does apply?

Section 8 of the rulebook says that "The Japanese force on Peleliu did not have access to standard mines; therefore minefields are not available in Peleliu scenarios." In scenario 1 Spitfire Three, the Japanese OB is listed as having 24 AP mine factors and 12 AT mine factors. Is this correct?

Scenario 6 Valley of the Dead. SSR 7 read "The Japanese player may secretly choose to receive an Offboard High Caliber Mortar. If the Japanese player chooses this option the Marine player may make a secret pre-game purchase" of various fortifications. If the Japanese choice is secret, how does the Marine player know whether to purchase fortifications? If the Marine player gets to buy the forts, are the Set DCs they can buy in addition to the DCs in the Marine OB or are they subtracted from that total?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

AAR: BFP42 Bukit Full of Trouble

Zeb Doyle

Australians: Matt Schwoebel
Japanese: Zeb Doyle

Anyway, moving onto actual ASL content, work and the flu have kept me away from doing much lately, but I was fortunate enough to get in a game with the redoubtable Matt Schwoebel a few days ago. We went with BFP-42 Bukit Full of Trouble, one of the many good-looking offerings from Bounding Fire’s Blood and Jungle pack. The scenario is set in 1942, one of the darkest periods of the British Empire, and pits some desperate Australians trying to hold a vital Singapore crossroads against a Japanese onslaught.

The Australians have a simple enough task; to hold a single building on the village boards of 42 and 43 for the 7.5 turns of the scenario, and they have a very solid force to do it as well: a company of mostly elite troops, a -2 with several HMGs, some DCs, a 40L AT gun, lots of dummies, and some roadblocks, wire, foxholes, and mines. It’s the makings of a very solid defense, but it pales in comparison to what the Japanese bring to the table: 18 squads, half of whom are elite, a 10-2, two HMGs, two FTs, lots of DCs, Ha-Go tanks, 70mm OBA
with a PR hex and lots of ammo, and even a Ki-48 Lily bomber.

With all that combined arms goodness, I volunteered to take the defense, but Matt wouldn’t hear of it. He’s had more success defending against me than I care to admit, and perhaps he was trying to keep his streak alive. We did end up giving the Australians the balance, however, which downgrades the Japanese 10-2 to an 8-0…just eyeballing the scenario, it appeared that the Japanese had plenty of tools even with that change.

Matt proceeded to add to his reputation as defensive wizard, putting together a very interesting set-up that would never have occurred to me. There were a few units placed in the forward compound on board 43, a fair number of troops in the main village on board 42, and a lone building far in the rear of board 43 was protected by an entire platoon. That last building was protected by a huge thicket of bamboo, leaving me to approach it directly through a ton of kunai or via a long and indirect route of open ground. Not fun.

Looking it all over, Matt had certainly make things tricky for me, but one downside to his gambit was that no single area was especially well-defended, and the Japanese are the best nationality in the game at taking advantage of that situation. I decided to swarm over the defense in the forward compound and the village as quickly as possible, and only then turn my attention to that last building.

The game started with my pre-registered OBA trying to dump WP on the forward compound. Matt had a bunch of concealed units there, but I figured the risk of the extra chit draw was worth it with a 7/2 draw pile. This worked well, with the WP revealing a single Australian squad and a bunch of dummies, and was the start of a game-long trend of aggressive Japanese play being rewarded with good luck.

That single Aussie squad was swiftly overwhelmed, and I then started to push into the main village. My dice weren’t great, and Matt’s weren’t terrible, but there was a definite pattern where everything I tried typically worked and most of Matt’s tricks came up empty. For example, my OBA pulled four straight black cards (one of which was replaced) and always scattered to a decent spot. Meanwhile, when some of my Japanese hit a wire/mine hex, Matt rolled 10’s on both mine attacks and I rolled a 2 on my wire MF dr, allowing me to avoid the trap painlessly.

As it turned out, Matt had other issues as well. He’s a die-hard Michigan graduate, and his alma mater happened to be playing The Ohio State football team that day. We had the game on…background noise for me, life and death for Matt. This led to a few surreal moments: “OK, my Aussie 4-5-8 and HMG will fire at your DC guy, 8 flat shot…snake-eyes, goddammit, FML!” “Huh? You killed my squad and kept ROF.” “Yeah, but Michigan fumbled AGAIN!”

Between my dice and Matt’s distracting Wolverines, I was easily able to envelop the village. Here, the full Japanese toolkit was put to use, and OBA, DCs, and FTs tore apart the defense. Since the scenario is early in the war, No Quarter is not automatic, and I was able to capture everyone pretty much as soon as they broke. After the entire Australian village force had been bagged, I tidied things up with a quick Massacre and turned my attention to that final building over on board 43.

At this point, I was in a good position to get the win. One reason the village had fallen so fast was that Matt had protected his final bolt-hole with mines, the 40L gun, his 9-2, an HMG, and several squads. That meant I had my work cut out for me, trying to come through kunai and open ground, but also meant I still had three turns and a largely intact force to do it. If the village had held out for even one more turn, the end-game would have been much more interesting.

As I brought up my tanks, called in the OBA, and rushed my troops through the kunai, Matt’s remaining troops suddenly started fighting as well as his Wolverines were playing. A 12+1 attack from the OBA took out the 40L, a sniper broke an LMG squad, an Aussie squad whiffed on a 2:1 HtH CC roll, and a Ha-Go hit the 9-2/HMG stack and rolled snake-eyes on the resulting 4+0 attack to break everyone. Suddenly, there weren’t any good order Australians left, and the game ended with a whimper.

Despite the anti-climactic finish, Bukit Full of Trouble is a solid and enjoyable scenario. It’s hard to comment on the balance, given my good dice and Matt’s distractions, and the 4-0 Japanese W/L record on ROAR is too premature to offer much insight. If playing it, I’d try giving the Australians the balance and make sure the more experience player takes the defense. Regardless of whether you tweak it or not, it offers up the full Japanese combined-arms experience, which is always a lot of fun. The Australians get the challenge of trying to stop it, and as Matt demonstrated, they have more than one way of going about doing it. I think his unorthodox defense is certainly a viable way to win, and a more conventional ‘pack the village’ approach could certainly succeed as well. Good times for both sides.

Thanks to Matt for the game and the hospitality, and thanks to you for reading.