Saturday, August 29, 2009

The end is nigh?

Battlestar Galactica
Dave added himself to the recently familiar turnout, making us 5 for Sunday's games. Donald had first choice and he plumped for Battlestar Galactica. I was pleased with this choice despite the anti-climax of our last play. The imminent expansion I wrote about back in June was part of the reason for this: I want to have played the basic set often enough to have gone well beyond first impressions when I get a taste of how the expansion changes the game.

Preliminary testing
Sitting down Monday morning to get to work on the write-up, I decided on pictures of the key cards which'd been part of the Cylons' final onslaught. I set to work with the scanner. The first scan- fullsize at left, was terrible: the pictures were too small and the resolution was terrible. I briefly considered just using them but, remembering recent testing of the ideal setting for scanning miniatures, I decided instead to run a quick settings test. (No prizes to the readers who notice the smidgin of irony here, but cheerful greetings for sure to those who might wish to register their groans at my lame attempt at humour!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

WTF?! WFRP3... & FTW?

An otherwise fruitless trip last week to the big F in Glasgow's FLGS- Static Games, netted me some news which frankly had my mind reeling in horror and tooling me up to join an internet mob of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding heresy hunters. I refer of course, to FFG's announcement on August 12th of the impending Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition (all rumour of which had completely passed me by). My entire vocabulary of superlatives distilled into ichor would barely summon the merest whiff of my rage, instinctive and despairing, at another oh so typical corporate betrayal in the face of which I was already brewing vituperation and vitriol (all sight unseen, naturally enough).

Kenny, Static's proprietor was pretty astonished himself. Telling me of reports from the FFG WFRP3 seminar at Gencon, he explained that this was going to be a completely new system. What? Why? What was wrong with WFRP2 (except that it wasn't FFG's own product, naturally enough)? We both agreed easily that WFRP2 was an exemplar of how to do a new edition well, and that it had been successful and popular. We discussed the issue at length and I left, none the wiser but determined to remain true to the prejudices awakened by my spasm of geek rage.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The original combat commander

Regular readers might remember that the book Infantry Attacks, by the legendary Erwin Rommel, was part of my booty from UK Expo'09. I've finally got round to reading it, finishing it during my journey home from London.

Infantry Attacks (Infanterie greift an) was first published in 1937. It was this book which first brought Rommel to the attention of Adolf Hitler, a fateful moment which was ultimately to prove fatal to Rommel. It was translated into English in 1944 for the US army, one result of which was Patton's memorable remark:
"Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"
Between the covers
The book details the actions Rommel participated in during WW1. He fought as a junior field officer on many fronts:
  • Belgium and N. France, 1914: 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment- the unit in which Rommel was a platoon commander, was part of the German 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany; 5th Army was part of the Schlieffen plan's 'hinge'; these operations included a crossing of the Meuse river which Rommel famously crossed again with his 7th Panzer Division in 1940, at Dinant some 100km north of his 1914 field of operations. (BTW: I know I misspelt 'Schlieffen' on the map's labels!)
  • The Argonne, 1915: a forested region just east of Verdun (you can see its location on the small map- above), the Argonne was where Rommel got his main taste of the trench warfare that was infamously to dominate the Western Front for the next 4 years; the picture- above left, is from the aftermath of the heavy fighting in the Argonne, and shows what has since become an archetypal image of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the massed artillery bombardments of WW1.
  • The High Vosges, 1916: in October 1915 Rommel was posted to the Württemberg Mountain Battalion with which he served for the rest of the war; after long training the battalion went into the line in the Higher Vosges- a range of mountains in France close to the Franco-German border.
  • Rumania, 1916: Rumania entered the war on the Allied side on August 27th 1916; as a result Rommel's Württemberg Mountain Battalion was transferred to Transylvania (in German: Siebenbürgen); there the battalion took part in several successful mountain attacks.
  • Carpathians, 1917: the Württemberg Mountain Battalion was again transferred, to be part of a summer offensive to close down the Russian front after the revolution of February 1917; although still a junior officer, Rommel played a significant role in two weeks' heavy fighting to take and hold Mount Cosna.
  • Carinthia, 1917: Rommel's last operation as a field commander in WW1 was the 12th Battle of Isonzo- better known as the Battle of Caporetto, and referred to by Rommel as the Tolmein offensive, for the town near the Württemberg Mountain Battalion's assembly area (this can be seen as 'Tolmino' on the map- above right); the offensive was a huge success for the Central Powers, and a complete vindication of the new stormtrooper and infiltration tactics which Germany had developed.
In each chapter Rommel details his orders; describes the dispositions of his forces and the terrain across which they would be fighting; details and explains the resulting plans; and gives an account of how the action developed and how he responded to events. These technical details are filled out with some anecdotes from the fighting and from frontline life. Most chapters conclude with "Observations", in which Rommel draws conclusions about what happened and why.

There are illustrations in addition to the text. These are not the photographs so familiar from many campaign histories. They are are sketches and maps of the battlefield, of a style which makes them look like they were drawn by Rommel himself. This impression is strengthened by the fact that many of the illustrations aren't maps; rather they are views of the battlefield from vantage points I can only assume Rommel actually occupied at the time.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed with this book at first. It is extremely dry, written in a very curt style which provides little more than the barest account of the matters Rommel covers. This wasn't helped for me by the nationalistic tone of the book: to read Rommel in Nazi Germany singing the praises of German soldiery in what I knew was going to be an account of his role in the slaughter of WW1; a book written as a careerist manoeuvre as he sought advancement for the sake of playing a bigger part in the war he must already've seen on the horizon; well, let me just say that didn't capture my enthusiasm.

Soon enough though the book began to grow on me. The first thing that came to my attention were hints of the character of the man well-known from his exploits in the Western Desert in WW2; namely his penchant for getting into the thick of the action and so losing sight of the overall picture. Something for which he has sometimes been criticised, this was no doubt more forgivable in a junior field officer in any case.

My interest was further piqued by the commonplace references to 'squads'. I've long believed that platoons were the basic low-level tactical units on the WW1 battlefield, and that squads didn't come to fill that role until 1918. Rommel contradicts this with references to squads being given mission objectives essentially from the very start. Wikipedia's coverage of the development of infantry tactics in WW1 breaks the subject down into:
  • Stormtroopers: a formation first devised by the Germans in 1915 and first used on a large scale by the Russians (this surprised me: the Russians in WW1 are generally known for their infantry tactics the same way that the British were known for tank design in WW2; ie. not at all!) in 1916.
  • Infiltration tactics (or Hutier tactics, for Oskar von Hutier, the German general who devised them).
It is worth noting that neither of these have anything to say about the move to squad-based tactics as such, although a key feature distinguishing infiltration tactics from what had gone before was the use of smaller units.

In any event, once this issue had got me to consider the book more favourably, I soon realised that I had been labouring under the impact of false expectations. I'd unwittingly been expecting a frontline commander's version of a campaign history of the sort I've read so often. Infantry Actions is a very different book. Instead of the campaign overview with telling details and vivid anecdotes to fill out an account of all levels of the action, it is a field commander's account of how he went about the business of commanding his forces in battle.

What Rommel typically gives us therefore is something like this:
  • We marched all day, bivouaced late and ate little.
  • Orders came through in the dead of night and we set off.
  • Reaching our objective we (I) conducted reconnaisance to determine:
  1. A breakthrough point for the assault units.
  2. Positions for the fire support units.
  3. Avenues of approach.
  • A plan was formulated, eg.:
  1. 1st platoon would be the assault force.
  2. A company on the left, and B company with 3rd and 4th HMG platoons on the right would provide fire support.
  3. D company plus 5th HMG platoon would be in reserve.
  • Orders were given, my units moved into position, and the action began.
  • As the action developed:
  1. The fire support plan pinned the enemy as expected, the assault forces broke into the enemy position, and I ordered a platoon from D company forward to exploit the breakthrough.
  2. A company was pinned down by heavy fire and strong enemy forces appeared, threatening to turn our left flank, so I ordered another platoon from D company plus the 5th HMG platoon up to hold the line.
  3. The initial breakthrough secured, I ordered 2 platoons of B company plus 3rd HMG platoon to consolidate on the assault platoon to prepare for further exploitation.
  • And so on and so on until the action was concluded.
This isn't an actual example. It's just to give a flavour of Rommel's treatment of his subject matter; namely a technical account of his role in his units' exploits. The book is chock full of this sort of stuff, all written in the professional soldier's clipped jargon to boot. When Rommel does break out of this vein to bring in anecdotes, they are often about the fate of crucial or particularly popular NCO's and officers, or about the situations in which he found himself as he made his way about the battlefield.

Sometimes Rommel is in the thick of the action; other times he is talking about the sound of gunfire and the conduct of squads, platoons or companies from the perspective of a company or a battalion commander who often can't see these units. In all cases he is talking about the tactical situation; the demands it placed on himself and his men; how he organised, commanded and led his men to meet those demands; and whether or not it looked as if those demands could be met in pursuit of the objectives which had to be gained in fulfilment of his orders.

In other words: precisely because it is dry compared to the more familiar campaign histories, Rommel succeeds admirably in putting the reader neatly inside the head of a field officer in command of his units during intense action. Therefore this is a very good book indeed for anyone who has any interest at all in that subject matter. The breakdown of its parts also makes it ideal for dipping into, to read about this or that action. So it's no surprise that Infantry Attacks was recommended reading in the US military for several decades. I expect I'll read it again myself. ;)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Heavy metal highlights

I was down in London for a family wedding last weekend. I had some time on my hands before my return journey on the Monday, so I hooked up with a friend and we paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum. I've only been to the IWM once before, many years ago. I had less time on that visit than the couple of hours at my disposal on Monday and I didn't have a digital camera then either, naturally enough. Here are a few of the pictures from that Monday afternoon.

Me with the famous 15" naval guns in the background

Panzerjäger V Jadgpanther

The information panel at the IWM and the wiki article both note that "many military historians consider the Jagdpanther to be the best tank destroyer" of WW2. This is an opinion I share:
  • Its 88mm L/71 main armament was simply the best gun in its class in the entire war, able to destroy any Allied tank at any range (L/71 means that the gun barrel is 71 calibre lengths long, ie. 71x88mm= ~6.25m; the longer a gun in calibre lengths the greater the muzzle velocity its shells achieve; the greater the muzzle velocity of solid AP shot the greater its penetration).
  • The thick and well-sloped armour gave the Jagdpanther one of the best defence profiles of any AFV to see action.
  • It was also fast, with good cross country performance.
The Jagdtiger was better armoured and had a more powerful gun, but was far less mobile and therefore easier to deal with; and the Tiger is more famous, naturally enough. Still, I would have to say that an encounter with a Jagdpanther would probably've offered the worst chance of survival for Allied tankers, especially in the infamously vulnerable tanks of the Anglo-American armoured divisions in Normandy and beyond during 1944-45.

Given all that, just imagine the bollock-shrinking fear of the Cromwell crew in Normandy whose tank came out from behind cover to find this very specimen right in front of them. Imagine too their sheer relief when their puny OQF 75mm scored several quick penetrations in the weaker side armour- picture above left, to put the Jagdpanther out of action.

Readers the slightest bit familiar with modern ground warfare will know that AFV's are disadvantaged in urban settings because buildings constrain their movement and their fire arcs. AFV's with fixed mount weapons, like the Jagdpanther, are even more hampered because they have no rotating turret. A few shots taken from the 1st floor balcony should give you some sense of this.

Above right you can see a couple of views that any bazooka man or PIAT gunner would've wanted to see: high flank shots with the vehicle's vulnerable rear-decking exposed to fire. Infantry support or sheer dumb luck would be the Jagdpanther's only hope in a situation like this. The picture above left shows though that simple height advantage wouldn't always work. Here a quick pivot is all that would be needed to bring the Jagdpanther's main armament to bear. In this case the poor bloody infantry would've been praying for divine intervention.

Assorted pictures
Daimler armoured car

The British army was apparently much better at making armoured cars in WW2 than it was at making tanks, as exemplified both by the general high opinion of the Daimler armoured car, and by the fact that it outlived its own replacement. Phrases like "it incorporated some of the most advanced design concepts of the time" are simply not commonly associated with British AFV's of the period. I suspect that this might have something to do with the usefulness of armoured cars in colonial policing, which would've given the British army experience of armoured car deployment which could've served to prevent development of these AFV's being stymied by spurious doctrines as was the case with the tank.

Matilda II infantry tank

The Matilda II was a prime example of those spurious doctrines in action. It was an 'infantry tank', ie. a tank whose purpose was to support the infantry, hence eg. it was very slow because it wasn't expected to travel much faster than infantry's walking speed. Yet its main armament- a 40mm gun, wasn't provided with HE, so that the tank couldn't actually effectively support infantry in their main role, namely assaulting enemy infantry to seize ground. Thus it was essentially designed to support infantry against tank attacks, a role which wasn't part of the very doctrine which produced the Matilda itself. With thinking like this behind tank procurement it is hardly surprising that Germany's blitzkrieg of the early war years mesmerised its opponents.

Sherman tank

Ubiquitous and reliable, the US M4 Sherman was the mainstay of Allied armoured forces from 1943 onwards. No match for the superior Panther and Tiger tanks, it was also outclassed by its German opposite number, the Panzer IV.

T34/85 tank

Widely regarded to be the best tank of WW2 (though not by yours truly who reserves that accolade for the Panther), the T34 was probably the most influential design of the period, and certainly the most numerous production tank of the war. Unlike the Matilda, the T34 was able to be upgraded, an 85mm gun replacing its original 76mm main armament in 1944.

25 pounder

Field artillery was another area in which British designs excelled, the 25pdr being perhaps the most famous field gun of WW2. Anglo-American fire control was very advanced and well-trained crews using the 25pdr could bring down a truly astonishing weight of fire. The story goes that captured Germans in Normandy in 1944 asked to see the 'belt-fed field guns' so great was the pounding to which they had been subjected.

That's it for the selection of pictures from my recent visit to the IWM. I'm sure I'll be back, and that it'll be somewhat sooner than the 20-odd years since my last visit. Fingers crossed I guess. ;)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fighting Formations preview #2: The frakkin' game!

(A quick note: this post was supposed to go up soon after the first part, posted a fortnight ago. Unfortunately the CSW website crashed for more than a week so that I couldn't get the information I needed to complete the article, hence the long delay.)

Fighting Formations went live on the GMT P500 at the end of June. It crossed the 500 preorders line in mid-August (17th AFAIK), meaning that will go into production. An xmas release is possible although I'm not holding my breath on that score to be honest: it's just a bit too much to hope for.

Opening FF@CSW last November, Chad announced:
I'll begin by answering the obvious question first: "No, this is not Combat Commander with tanks."
The most obvious difference was made clear immediately: FF is not card-driven. This should've been obvious to fans of CC who've followed Chad's oft rehearsed explanations of why the inclusion of tanks would quickly overload and crash the CC card engine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's for real; it's big; and it's incoming!

The GW company blog yesterday confirmed the rumours that've been floating round the net for some 6 months now: there is to be a new edition of the classic boardgame Space Hulk; and it will be about as spectacular as some were predicting. That this much is true can be seen from the pictures below, which I culled from the GW site. First, a look at the promotional video clip.

Next, a selection of the pictures (you'll find the rest on GW's site, naturally enough).

The box and its contents
The game will be released on September 5th, in what GW is calling "strictly limited numbers". I confess find myself wondering how GW might choose to define the term "strictly limited", if only for the simple reason that I can easily imagine a print run of several tens of thousands selling out via internet preorders in the scant 3 weeks before the new Space Hulk 'hits the shelves' (I preordered 2 myself thanks to Andy's kind offices; I know from the B&C that I'm not the only person in Glasgow to do so; and I'd even think about turning up and queueing on the day to get a 3rd set- yep, it's one of those games dear readers!).

In any event, months of rumour and anticipation coupled with some last minute stoking of the fires with talk of a 40K 'mystery box' means that however large a print run GW have prepared (and the company must've figured on having at least a day or two's stock available for their stores and their distribution chain, surely?), it will sell out in no time at all as fans old and new clamber over each other to get their hands on copies. Assuming this is what happens, will we I wonder see GW resort to this marketing strategy again?

Meanwhile, what about the contents of the box? I won't repeat the list of goodies which you can find on GW's site. Sufficeth to say that 40K fans are only too aware that the samples here are very high quality pieces even by GW's standards. The posing on that Terminator is extremely dynamic and I imagine modellers the world over will be setting to work in the weeks and months to come to make their regular Terminator minis look similiar. This all looks very promising.

Key questions right now for this ardent fan of the previous editions are:
  • Will the board pieces be backward compatible with those from the previous editions? There is no reason why they shouldn't be, but you don't have to have been a GW customer all that long to be only too familiar with the built-in obsolescence at the heart of their marketing model. I guess we just have to hope that the design team will have proved every bit as keen to expand on their own existing Space Hulk layouts as are the rest of us.
  • What will the heavy flamer rules be like with the obvious return to the larger flame templates as used in 1st edition? I confess I'll need something special to persuade me that these rules will be better than the 2nd edition flamer rules, which were one of the better features of the new edition.
  • How will the extra wargear and characters work? There'll always be the option, as with the flamer rules, of returning to older rules or bringing using homebrews, but your silver tongue might fail you in the face of opponents who prefer the current official version.
But this is mere speculation right now. All these and other mysteries will be revealed very soon. ;)

Addendum, 19/08/09
One of Andy's comments referred to more pictures over at the Warseer forum. For those who are interested, they can be found here. It's also worth keeping a regular check on GW's Space Hulk product page, because it's being updated daily with new pictures until the end of this week.

Related @RD/KA!
- Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
- Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
- Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Happy birthday to RD/KA!

Four years and counting
Today is RD/KA!'s 4th birthday. My gaming blog began life on Saturday 13th August 2005 with the first of a series of reports on the 63rd Worldcon. In those 4 years 350 posts have covered games, comics, movies, books, food, and sundry other topics of interest to gamers; but as the 'Labels' list at the bottom of the page shows, writing about the games I've played has been staple fare. There have been highs and lows as regular readers will know, but you can be sure of one thing: as long as I'm playing games, I'll have something to say about them. Onwards and upwards! :-)

Another Sunday session
We were the four for Sunday games we'd been the last time. Gav was keen for more Risk and Andy was hankering after a game of Roborally, which I fancied too. So that made a plan.

Designed by Richard Garfield of Magic: the Gathering fame, and first published by Garfield Games in 1994, Roborally was published in a new edition by Hasbro/Avalon Hill in 2005. I own the original edition and 3 out of 4 of its expansion sets. I've not had a chance to look over the new edition in detail, but I confess I don't like the look of it too much. Or, to be more precise: there are 2 features of the new edition I don't much like the look of.

The first of these is the replacement of the original virtual bots- ie. counters representing each bot, with the docking bay. Virtual bots are a solution to the impossibility of stacking the bot miniatures when the situation demands 2 or more bots occupy the same square, eg. at the start. I'll freely grant that the new rules might be simpler than the originals, but I'm not sure they're more fun. That is to say: I'd like to think there is an extra layer of potential chaos offered by the old virtual bot rules.

One amusing example I can remember involved a bot, a virtual bot and a proximity mine. The 2 bots were adjacent to each other and the real bot dropped a proximity mine. The question arose: would the virtual bot set off the proximity mine? We perused the rules:
  • Virtual bots don't interact at all with other bots, virtual or otherwise; they interact normally with everything else.
  • Dropped/launched devices are active as soon as they are dropped except to the bot that set them, which has until the end of that register phase to move away.
And so the proximity mine went off under the bot which had dropped it!

The other feature of the new game I'm not keen on is the timer: a 30 second timer is set when the penultimate player has finished programing their bot. I have stoutly resisted suggestions to use time turns in Roborally for years; I'm hardly going to applaud when a new edition makes their use official.

For Sunday's game I canvassed for a board a lot simpler than that we had raced across the last time we played. Winning assent I chose a layout which was fairly open and which used simple board elements, but on which there were still enough different elements for maximum entertainment value. The result was the layout below.

Back Stretch and Pit Row

I cleverly neglected to record the flag locations; but I can remember the start and the 1st flag, because Twonky reached those 2 locations.

The game was entertaining as ever. Highlights among the hijinks were:
  • Donald lost his life on the first turn.
  • Gav was the first to reach a flag.
  • Gav's bot remained virtual for an unprecedented 4 turns.
Most entertaining perhaps were Donald and Andy's encounters with an express conveyor belt. Donald arrived there first. Calculating his move, he figured that he was doomed:
  • From the start point (X marks the spot) they were unable to get off the belt.
  • Whichever card they played then, the conveyor was going to move them to the edge of the board.
  • Once there, they faced 3 equally destructive choices:
  1. Let the belt carry them off the edge of the board.
  2. Move onto the pit.
  3. Move onto the oil slick, from where they would slide across to the conveyor, which would carry them off the edge of the board.
Fortunately for Donald, it turned out that he had an option which could save him: Overload Override which allowed him to rotate and move in the same register phase, thus handily escaping the express conveyor before it carried him to his doom. Andy wasn't so fortunate.

The final insult for Andy was that it was Donald's fault that Andy's bot had ended up on the conveyor in the first place. Andy had picked up the Robocopter option. He had finally decided to use it and his bot began to move at a fair clip. Then he was lasered by Donald: his Robocopter was shot off: and his bot was dumped back on the factory floor. His curses were colourful.

Gav was making solid progress while all these hijinks were going on. He won the game with a solid lead:
  • Gav: 4 flags.
  • Andy: 2 flags.
  • Me: 1 flag.
  • Donald: 0 flags.
C++ CPU: 1

I really like Roborally, and this game was no exception. I'd like to play more often, to which end I think we'd have to consider how to stage the game as filler. The key to this is single board layouts, and choosing the right number of flags according to the difficulty of the board.

With time still at our disposal we turned to Risk as Gav had requested. With hindsight Gav might be regretting this because he was the number victim of circumstance in our game: he was playing yellow; eliminating all yellow armies was my mission; so Gav was the consistent target of my unrelenting attacks.

  • Andy: occupy Asia and S. America.
  • Donald: occupy Australasia, Europe, and 1 other continent.
  • Gav: eliminate all red armies (Andy).
  • Me: eliminate all yellow armies (Gav).
The turn order didn't favour Gav because his turn was after mine. I was able to pick 3 or 4 lone yellow armies with some opportunistic attacks in my first turn. After that I quickly took S. America, which gave me a solid base which was never seriously challenged. Nobody had paid any attention to N. America during setup and it was left untouched until the endgame, so I was able to leave a minor frontier force to secure the South and turn my attention to Africa. This too soon fell to my green hordes.

Meanwhile, Andy was trying to secure Asia. Unfortunately for him his efforts were constantly foiled by Donald's and my attacks from Australasia and Africa respectively; neither of us were keen to see 7 armies/turn appear on our borders.

Elsewhere, Gav finally bit the bullet and launched an attack against my strong Icelandic outpost. No one could understand why I was holding Iceland in such strength. The answer was simple: Gav had territories nearby and I was massing for an attack. Gav pre-empted me and broke through Iceland into the virgin lands of N. America, from where he later fought his way through into central Asia in an effort to put as much distance as possible between his armies and mine.

By this time my position was largely unassailable. I was eventually able to seize N. America with the help of a timely set of Risk cards. My mission long since evident to all, Andy tried to stave off my increasingly inevitable victory by finishing Gav off himself. This failed. I won the game next turn, cashing in another set of Risk cards to amass a huge army which I promptly sent through Kamchatka to finish off the handful of yellow units still on the board.

Final position
  • Andy: 9 territories (all in Asia).
  • Donald: 11 territories (Australasia and Europe).
  • Gav: -
  • Me: 22 territories (Africa, S. America, N. America, Kamchatka and Japan).
Puny microprocessor 1
Glorious world conqueror 1
Grunts still counting on their fingers 0

I think I was well served by my mission which, barring lucky setups, I feel is a bit easier than one which involves controlling continents. This is because:
  • The mission isn't geographically defined so that it is less susceptible to bad setups.
  • Other players's attacks on the player you must eliminate contribute directly to your victory.
It'll take a few more games with these missions in play before I can be sure. ;)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Back to the beastly badger baiting!

Badger's visit for gaming last night saw me still in the mood for light relief so we again eschewed Combat Commander. Left to choose, Badger opted for our old favourite, Memoir'44. We considered playing an Overlord game but we were starting late and Badger wanted to be sure we'd play more than one game. So we decided to start with the first scenario from the Air Pack, and to proceed from there.

Yellow Beach
The first scenario took us to France in August 1942 for the ill-fated Operation Jubilee, the experimental amphibious assault on Dieppe. Operation Jubilee is best known for the heavy casualties suffered by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division in the main assault: a frontal attack on the port itself. The Yellow Beach scenario covers one of the flanking attacks made by British commandos.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The long road back to the painting table

Gearing up and clearing the decks
It's been three months since I wrote about returning to the miniatures hobby I'd put aside a few years ago. I still haven't picked up a paintbrush in anger in those weeks, but I'm getting close. In the meantime I had to empty a large walk-in cupboard to clear the space to reestablish my painting table. Although everything's packed away again so that I finally have a functional workspace I'm going to have to unpack and reorganise everything again at least once before I'm satisfied.

For the sake of the bloggery I've invested in the finishing touches to my layout for miniatures photography:
  • A nifty wee tabletop tripod.
  • A quality PVC backdrop.
  • And a pair of cheap halogen spots; I'd've thought these would give bad light, but the guy in the camera shop where I bought the backdrop pointed out that digital image manipulation makes it easy to correct the light.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Fighting Formations preview #1: Some background

Readers who know me from the days of yore will remember the effort I put into designing a viable model of operational command and control for WW2 tabletopping. At the same time, regular readers should be only too aware that I regard Chad Jensen's Combat Commander as second only to Courtney Allen's classic Up Front as an exemplary gaming treatment of these matters, albeit both on a smaller scale (and that's a very close second, which has as much to do with accidents of history and biography as it does with matters of absolute quality).

Just to remind readers:- Chad's Combat Commander has enjoyed remarkable success in the past 2½ years:
  • Two boxed core games - CC:E and CC:P (the first already in reprint).
  • A boxed system expansion - CC:M.
  • Two zip-locked battle pack expansions - BP1: Paratroopers and BP2: Stalingrad.
  • The 3rd of the planned battle pack series - BP3: Normandy - sprinted through GMT's P500 system last April in record time.
  • A similarly continuous stream of new scenarios, maps and counters appearing in C3i magazine.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Claymore 2009: expectations fulfilled but not exceeded

The new home
To cut to the chase: Claymore lived up to the cautious optimism engendered by its long overdue change of venue; and that's the "cautious" as much as the "optimism". The new venue is Telford College's new main campus, opened less than 3 years ago. So, while not pretty outside, the building is spacious, bright and airy inside. A far cry from the cramped and stuffy lodgings from which Claymore suffered at the old Meadowbank venue, this was unanimously praised by everyone to whom I spoke.
Spacious, bright and airy: the main convention hall (the college refectory)
That said, readers will already recognise there were reservations (and I'm here considering the venue not the event):
  • The second convention room was in the gym; not quite as nice as the refectory; and a few minutes away - this didn't bother me as much as it did others.
  • The bring and buy: the great failure of the new venue this was (again by unanimous opinion) more cramped and poky than it had been at Meadowbank.
Even though the bring-and-buy's room was too small for its purpose, the very fact that it had a room of its own was interesting. The painting demo had its own room too. I wonder how many side rooms like this there are available in the new Telford College campus, and how many of them could feasibly be put to use by Claymore? It'd be nice if there were possibilities like this which the event could use to expand. Time will tell I guess.

The painting demo
The painting demo was my next port of call after the bring-and-buy. This had its own room, showing already the new attractions on offer at the more spacious venue. The demo was quite well laid out, with a webcam, digital projector and screen; all of which showed the potential of the latest technology to make something really interesting of an event like this.
Our painters (in no particular order): Andrew Taylor, Brian Philips and David Imrie
Did our 3 painters make the most of this chance to showcase their skills and pass the fruits of their experience? To be honest I don't know because I didn't return after my brief early visit. Of what I did see I can say:
  • Our painters looked as if they'd suffered a few teething problems with the basic logistics of their event, which is hardly surprising for a first go.
  • There was no sign of a programme: it strikes me that a schedule structured around the 3 basic experience levels- beginner, intermediate and advanced; that this would've made for an event a more attractive showcase for the painters' skills.
What I do know is that I hope Claymore repeats this in 2010, and that I remember to take names. D'oh!

The tables
I did visit the 3 participation games I'd found listed in the programme. The first I found was the Dingwall Wargames Club's 1/144th scale Dambusters game (not much to see on the website BTW, but there are contact details). The table was full so I booked my seat and headed for the Dundee Skirmishers. When found this proved to be a demonstration game, but I took some pictures of the frankly quite impressive layout.
The Soviets move out from the cover of the treeline
Duncan - "The Little General" - shows off his handiwork
Some nice terrain
"Bombs away!"
It was soon time for my Dambusters game with the Dingwall club. This game was delightfully simple:
  • Objective: 4 Lancasters must breach a Ruhr dam in Operation Chastise, as immortalised in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters.
  • Gameplay: Make a bombing run lasting 6 turns, taking your luck with the flak and trying to bring your Lancaster to the ideal speed and height before you dropped your famous bouncing bomb.
  • Rules:
  1. Each turn, you could accelerate/decelerate or climb/dive.
  2. Roll 1d6 to determine how many feet or mph you gained or lost.
  3. Flak was likewise a simple roll of 1d6 to generate results varying from damage to enforced changes in speed or height.
  4. Each player had 3 'jokers'; cards they could use once each, eg. for dice modifiers or rerolls.
  5. The final bombing run was a simple percentage dice roll with modifiers for damage, and for degrees of variance from the ideal speed and height.
And that was that, except that, with rules that fit easily on a single sheet of A4 and which could've been squeezed comfortably onto a single sheet of A5, the game was actually simpler even that than summary.

Dambusters in action (note the white tape which marked each turn's movement

In our game I was Y for 'Yankee', number 3 in line. By the time I'd seen the previous 2 bombers move for a turn or two I had an idea of what I thought would be good tactics: we were coming in hight and fast; and with 6 turns of flying I was going to have to adjust for a few turns before I could hope to pull into straight and level flight. So I opted to climb straight away rather than dive then find myself having to climb again. The reactions of the Dingwall gamers told me that this was quite smart.
Yours truly prepares to brave the flak again
After this promising start it all went pear-shaped with the dice so that I ended up providing some light entertainment for everyone else. The 'high point' was when I needed to roll high; rolled 1; decided to use my 'joker' for a reroll; and rolled the inevitable 1 again. The hilarity of my bombing run notwithstanding I was able finally to hit the dam with a lucky roll of 29%. Three of our four planes hit the dam on that run, for 69% damage. It was the highest score at that time but we were well down the day's rankings in the end, including at least 3 who managed to blow the dam.

Thirty minutes on 'Bloody Omaha
The tagline for this game staged by Royal Air Force Wargamers Association (Leuchars) was (I paraphrase):
"The average life expectancy of a US Ranger in the first wave at Omaha beach on June 6th 1944 was 30 minutes. Can you survive that long?"
Six hardy volunteers led a squad of 12 US Rangers fully equipped with bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges, led by none other than Captain Tom Hanks (AKA. Captain Miller) himself. Our objective was simple: get up that beach and blow that bunker!
Two of the RAFWA guys beside their lovely table
The picture above shows the details of the table:
  • The brewed-up Sherman complete with poor GI who'd lost his legs when the tank ran over them.
  • The beach obstacles, including the damn wire.
  • The bunker.
  • And our landing craft.
You can also see the survivors of the previous attempt huddled by the shingle where they'd failed even to breach the wire.

The rules were simple again:
  • We were mortared.
  • We were machine-gunned.
  • We moved (8" minus wounds).
  • Then we fired - 1, 2 or 3d10 depending on weapon, needing a 9+ to hit (pesky bunkers).
  • Then we took our actions, eg. doing first aid or setting a bangalore.
So, our 6 brave volunteers had a quick planning session, in which yours truly suggested splitting to go up each flank, meaning that half of us would've had to have run twice as far diagonally across the beach. My 'plan' quickly forgotten, we piled out of our landing craft, spread out, and took the short route - straight ahead.

My BAR man (each of us had 1 character from Saving Private Ryan: I think mine was Pvt. Reiben with the BAR) was in the front, so he was targetted first. He was dead in 2 turns, but not before he'd managed to lay down some effective fire on the bunker. Quickly out of the landing craft and doubling in bounds via the beach obstacles our squad soon managed to reach the shingle bank, led by my #2 character, who proved to be the day's crackshot with 2 KIA's to his credit. We were helped in this dash by the inaccuracy of the German mortars, which constantly missed us, and which finally only hit the landing craft once we'd all made our exit.
Four of our brave team, including (on my right) the hero of the hour: our medic
Safely hunkered by the shingle, we reorganised and waited while a bangalore cleared a weak section of the wire. Then our men were running towards that bunker as fast as their legs could carry them. We'd picked up a flamethrower from a casualty at the shingle, and our flamethrower man proved deadly. One attack disposed of the HMG and a 2nd attack cleared the trench in front of the bunker.

The rest of us sprinted round the back to finish the bunker off with our satchel charges. Of course, in our haste we'd forgotten the 'murder hole' (about which we'd been quietly reminded by one of the RAF guys; I'd actually thought he was just talking 'in character' so to speak). We were lucky: we managed to set our satchel charges before the German in the murder hole opened fire, killing my character with a single shot just before the bunker blew. We'd won, and our casualties had been remarkably light, all things considered.

Both of these games were great fun: simple concepts cleanly executed for maximum ease of play on the day; ideal public participation games in other words. The 'Bloody Omaha' game was my personal favourite:
  • It was a lovely piece of work, featuring Tamiya models which were a bit of a nostalgia rush for yours truly.
  • The combination of simple rules; just enough players to generate command confusion; and the relentless pressure of the GM's made for a tense and dramatic half hour's gaming.
  • On top of all that, my hooting and hollering was largely in celebration of success instead of in an ironic response to ever more hilarious failure.
I heard later that this game won a well-deserved Best of Show.

The swag
I bought some stuff as you'd expect, mostly books. Of particular note was a pile of 6 (count them: 6!) Osprey Campaign series paperbacks for a mere £25. You can be sure I availed myself of that offer with enthusiasm dear readers. The same trader had many fascinating books at irresistibly reduced prices, one of which was an odd little volume: Britain, France, and Belgium, 1939-1940, by Brian Bond. I say "odd" because books on this campaign are relatively rare; rarer still are books which deal with the geopolitical background to the Anglo-French strategy instead of merely rehashing the familiar story of the German blitzkrieg. I may have more to say about this book in the future.

And I treated myself to a new game, naturally enough. More about this too in due course no doubt.

The verdict
This year was as much fun as I've had at Claymore in many a year. The sheer pleasantness of the new setting played an important part in that, as did the comforting rituals of catching up with old friends. Most important though was the simple application of the lesson I learned at UK Expo'09: have something to do. You can be sure I'll be applying this to future visits to Claymore. Meanwhile, a big thank you to the guys from Dingwall and Leuchars, as well as to all at SESWC for all their efforts. ;)