Thursday, October 16, 2008

Combat Commander scenario 20: a viable Russian strategy and its opacity

A reminder of the story so far
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how Combat Commander Scenario 20, A March in December, is unbalanced, but not broken, despite the early wave of overwhelming Finnish victories. Today, naturally enough, I'm going to lay out the Russian strategy that I think makes the scenario a fair contest.

The core of the Russian setup is simple enough as I said: you've got 15 squads and 17 available road hexes, so just pick which 2 to leave empty. I'm sure there are good reasons to choose hexes other than those I've indicated here; the 2 I've marked here are those I chose in my last game as the Russians, my 2nd attempt to get out from under that fiendish Finnish ambush.

I noted before that the key to the Russian strategy in this scenario is the denial of exit VP to the Finns. To this end the Russians have to mass their weapons for mutual support. More important perhaps even than that in my opinion is that the Russians also have to mass their leaders. Readers familiar with Combat Commander might already have recognised how unusual is the deployment of the Russian leaders on that map, because no effort is made to maximise the number of squads within the leaders' command radii. In particular, those 5 squads strung out to the SW are very vulnerable to concerted attack, being able only to fire and manoeuvre individually because they are out of command.

Facing the Finns and those molotovs
Seeing this, I wouldn't be surprised if players faced with the Russian defence in this scenario, and thinking along lines similar to myself, were to consider spreading their leaders further down that road just a bit so as to get additional squads moving more quickly and with greater coordination. It is the expected Finnish tactics which makes me think that this would be a mistake. The keys to the Finnish tactics here are:
  • The 2-hex command radius of their best leader, who can get as many as 8 squads into position on each side of the Russians strung out along that road.
  • Those 8 molotovs which, by depriving Russian units of their cover, can make the early waves of Finnish fire attacks in the centre quite devestating (they're not marked on the map, but you can assume that the leader and 7 squads in those pictures has a molotov).
There are other elements to consider (not to mention other possibilities altogether), but I think that this the best approach for the Finns because of those crossfire opportunities, and because I think the molotovs should be massed for maximum effect.

Pictures B and C show the basic variants of this setup, with setup C perhaps being the better of the 2, because, by blocking the rear of more Russian squads, it allows the Finns more chances to wreak carnage with combined fire attacks and routs. Pictures A and D show more aggressive Finnish setups which take the fight directly to the Russian leaders. This would be based on the reasonable assumption that the Russian plan involves stacking 3 of their 4 MG's with leaders (the Russians get to place their MG's after seeing the Finnish setup).

So, back to those poor harassed Russians, and that temptation to spread those leaders further down that road. Consider the simplest of options: moving the best Russian leader just 1 hex further down the road, in the hopes that another Russian squad can move early and so avoid the worst of the Finnish ambush. If you look at setup A, you'll see that this would render the Russians' best leader open to an all out assault (ie. adjacent to 4 Finnish squads and therefore to as many as 5 molotov attacks) by Finns playing the more conservative of the most aggressive attacks. Similarly, if the Russians were to setup a leader 2 hexes further down that road, then he'd be vulnerable to the same onslaught from either of the most conservative Finnish setups.

Contrariwise, the Russian setup as shown means that the Finns can only maximise their attacks on that best Russian leader by using their most aggressive setup, as per picture D. This has some immediate disadvantages for the Finns:
  • Only 3 squads are initially able to attack that best Russian leader, and none of them can form firegroups.
  • All the Finns' advantages notwithstanding, this setup is the riskiest of them all, offering the greatest opportunities for a swift and crushing Russian counter attack (eg. a quick advance into an overstacked melee could kill the Finns' leader and leave their centre essentially paralysed).
  • The maximum number of Russian squads have open lines of movement towards the Finnish map edge and the exit VP which are crucial to the Russian strategy.
  • The Russians could decide to setup their MG's elsewhere, ie. in the NE corner of the map, so that the attack on the centre loses its strategic purpose.
This scenario is one which, for the Russians, puts a priority on a feature of Combat Commander which strongly distinguishes it from other tactical board wargames: exit VP. Sure, other games often incorporate into their victory conditions units exiting the board, but Combat Commander integrates this completely into the core system, and gives additional incentives to seek exit VP by allowing units so exited to re-enter as reinforcements. From play and from reading across the net, I have learned that recognising when to cut and run instead of standing and fighting can be one of the hardest decisions to grasp. This is therefore the first feature of Scenario 20, A March in December which makes the Russian strategy opaque. On top of that need fully to understand and apply a feature of the game which makes it unique AFAIK, this scenario also requires the Russian player to deploy and use weapons and leaders in ways running counter to all normal doctrines. It is this triple layer of opacity that I think is what has given rise to the appearance that this is a no-win situation for the Russians.

A final note
That game I referred to which Badger won because he held the initiative card was closer even than I suggested last time.

Badger had effectively cleared the centre and finished off my attempts at exit VP in the SW, leaving him ahead on VP. Pretty much all I had left were that leader, those 4 squads and a MMG in the NE (better deployed for activation by the leader by now, naturally enough). Flushed with what he was sure was an inescapably imminent victory, Badger looked at me and said that I'd have to get them moving.

OK, I said, playing an Advance and moving everything forward so that they were adjacent to the Finnish units which had been sitting there throughout the game. Badger's surprise turned to something more when I played another Advance the following turn to bring my units in melee with the Finns. This included an overstacked melee to make sure that my leader wouldn't die due to Badger holding too many Ambush cards for my comfort. This was what cost me the game. The tension of the moment (coupled, no doubt, with the lateness of the hour) meant that I sent 1 unit too many into that overstacked melee, resulting in the loss of 2VP the consequence of which was that the VP marker found itself on the '0' space. The game ended almost immediately thereafter giving Badger the win as described.

So near yet so far! Ouch! ;)

- Got game!: our first game goes to the Russians.
- A Winter War. Unbalanced but not broken?: we have another go.
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