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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

UK Games Expo'10 #2. Once more unto those hex-and-counter battlefields

The best laid plans
My experience of- and the feedback from, CC@UK Expo'09 had led me to reconsider the tournament's format, which had been very open last year: players just paired up at their own convenience and chose whichever scenario they wished. This had worked well; even so I was wondering if it might be worth experimenting with a more structured format.

My final decision so to do was forced to a degree by space constraints. Last year we had essentially just squatted as many tables as we could get away with in the Strathallen's main opening gaming room. This meant that we occupied space which could easily've accomodated twice our number or more so I wasn't at all surprised when Richard Denning- with whom I was liasing for CC@UK Expo'10, asked me about space requirements so that he could allocate us a specific room of our own.

The result of all this was that CC@UK Expo'10 was set up with 6 preselected scenarios to be played in seeded rounds. The scenarios were:
  • 8: Breakout Dance.
  • 13. Tussle at Maleme.
  • 19. Metaxas Season.
  • 21. Saint Agatha (@RD/KA! here).
  • E. West Tank Barrier.
  • K. Burning Buna.
In the event this format was abandoned on Saturday in favour of last year's because players were having to sit around for too long waiting for others to finish so that the next round could begin. This was pointless, the main aim of the tournament being to play as much Combat Commander as possible.

Veterans of CC@UK Expo'09: Steve, Mike, Lawrence & Paul

One last big social-networking surprise!
I wrote last Thursday of how fB had added to my enjoyment of UK Expo'10 by enabling my meet with Louise on Friday afternoon. It turned out that fB's contribution to my grand weekend wasn't over. My mobile rang while I was setting up a scenario while awaiting my opponent for my evening's first game in CC@UK Expo'10. It was Stuart. And the big deal was? Let me explain.

Stuart and I grew up on the same housing estate when we were kids. Our age difference was sufficient to mean that weren't big buddies or anything but we were pals. As so often happens we lost touch a bit when my family moved elsewhere just before I went to secondary school. Somehow or other Stuart and I got back in contact in the 80s and he started visiting Edinburgh as often as he could because he loved gaming. Stuart had a particular passion for Up Front (a man of evident impeccable taste); in fact our last meeting was when I visited him in London back in the mid-80s, for the sake of playing as much Up Front as possible among other things.

Robert & Stuart

You'll've guessed the end of this story by now dear readers: I'd found Stuart on fB a couple of months ago and sent him the inevitable message; he'd got back to me the week before the Expo; and I'd just had time to let him know where I'd be that weekend before heading south. So it really was a pleasant surprise to see him walking into our room at the Strathallen just in time to join our tournament of the next big thing in WW2 tactical wargaming since Up Front's heyday back in our own halcyon days.

My fortunes of war
Breakout dance
Stuart having gamely volunteered to join the tournament on the spot it was fortuitous that I was setting up this scenario because it was surely the smallest and easiest of those I'd selected. Random selection giving me the Russians was handy too because that meant I set up first. I knew what I wanted to do and went with a variant of the setup (picture below right) I'd devised after my German victory against Tony back in 2008. Sad to say my variation was no tactical correction, just a memory lapse which placed an MMG with a squad in the line instead of with a leader in the firebase.

I lost by a fairly convincing margin of 11VP. An early close combat victory gave me a good start IIRC. Thereafter I made what I think was my key mistake, breaking my line when I massed around the Russian objective house on my right flank. My manoeuvre gave Stuart a local superiority in the centre which he exploited to force victory with an attack on the wooded hilltop marked as a Russian objective, and with some units exited to boot. Not bad for an absolute beginner.

Metaxas Season
I must confess that I put this scenario into the tournament because I really like it and was hoping to get a chance to try the German assault after my previous victories as the Greeks: against Badger and 'Uncle' Martin. So I was quite pleased when that was my consolation prize for being in last place after the first round. My opponent was Johnathan Townsend, another of the tournament's 3 newcomers.

Johnathan's setup bore little relation to the one I'd used as the Greeks. The key difference IIRC was that he didn't concentrate his fortifications. In any event I wasn't too worried about how Johnathan's fortifications would interfere with my plan, which involved sending 2 Pionier squads - without weapons, through the woods and up the cliffs; the other Pioneer squad- with flamethrower and Cpt. Wehling, round the end of the cliffs: all this under cover of as much smoke as possible. The rest of my force would make a drive up the centre to attack the settlement for those extra VP.

My plan went like a dream. Fortifications known and unknown notwithstanding I was able quickly to reach the cliffs and ended up working around them to make the hilltop where I cleared out the bunker complex in short order. So overwhelming was my attack that I was through the settlement and into the southern wood in time to attack Johnathan's reinforcements as soon as they arrived. Even with this- and 9 Greek casualties to none of my own, my victory margin was a surprisingly slim 13VP.

Sad to say my satisfaction was marred, seriously so. Why? Because I'd made a crucial mistake which was overwhelmingly in my favour: I thought my IG18 had smoke (it doesn't), which wouldn't've been so bad if I hadn't managed to land a Smoke-10 square on Johnathan's bunker, effectively crippling his 75mm cannon for the decisive period of my approach to the bunker complex. Johnathan was very sporting about this but I know how much havoc the 75 can wreak on the German attack with its 2 shots/activation, so I have to call this game a bogey from the perspective of claiming to have cracked the Metaxas Line.

West Tank Barrier
West Tank Barrier was another scenario I was pleased to revisit, having played it twice against Badger earlier this year. This scenario is challenging for both sides:
  • With few weapons to boost their firepower, the Americans have a long advance through light cover at the end of which they have to assault a bunker- perhaps through wire; their major advantage is a flamethrower which should help them make short work of the bunker when they finally reach it.
  • The Japanese are outnumbered and have much poorer leadership; they enjoy the advantages of cover, better firepower and their infiltration ability.
Either way, you're guaranteed a tense game exemplifying what makes the PTO unique in the CC system.

Sitting down to play the Americans against Robert I was quietly confident I'd be able to exact a small measure of vengance after the victory he'd sneaked against my Poles last year:
  • I knew the situation I faced.
  • I had a deployment and a plan based on previous experience:
  1. Sgt. MacGowan- my best leader, and my 2 best squads- the Rifle Marines, were equipped for bunker busting: they'd go straight down the middle, ie. to their objective by the shortest route.
  2. Lt. DeMoss would lead a platoon down my right flank to seize objectives and exploit towards the bunker in support of MacGowan's platoon.
  3. Sgt. Savage's platoon would be in reserve, advancing in support of the bunker assault if necessary.
My plan worked well, really well. MacGowan's and DeMoss' platoons' manoeuvres went without a hitch. The secondary objectives were soon all mine and I'd taken quite a toll on the Japanese without losing a single casualty while continuing to advance on all fronts. Things looked even better when I was able to use the cover of smoke to clear the bunker with surprising ease. Robert's force was by this point almost completely gone: victory was in my grasp.

Then came the turning points:
  • The Japanese hero Mifune popped up in my rear and promptly proceeded to regain an objective for Robert.
  • Mifune went on to join a Japanese infiltrator who'd regained a second objective.
  • I sent Savage's platoon on a long sprint back to regain that first objective.
  • I handed over the Initiative to save a close combat- I was ahead but it was close; which I lost anyway.
A Sudden Death check followed shortly thereafter (it might even've been immediately: I have a nagging suspicion that my losing close combat roll turned out to be a Time Trigger). The VP adjusted after revealing the hidden objectives, it turned out that we were tied (we wouldn't've been if Savage's platoon had been able to regain the objective adjacent to which they were sitting while I searched for the right order), so Robert won because he held the Initiative card. Gah!

All weeping and wailing aside this was a great game, my favourite of the tournament. I really like this scenario and had a great time playing it against Robert, who maintained his equinamity in the face of my onslaught before teaching me a lesson or two about always covering your rear against the threat of Japanese infiltrators: Savage's advance up the flank was tactically pointless and meant that I had to use orders to get his platoon back into the rear. If they'd not moved up in the first place that position'd've been covered when that pesky hero Mifune arrived. This would almost certainly've saved the game.

Still, revenge will be all the sweeter when I finally win out over Robert, now twice my nemesis at CC@UK Expo!

Slopes of Hell
My last game saw me playing Johnathan for a second time. We opted to play a scenario about the Kokoda Trail, one of the key moments in the 1942 battle for New Guinea, which saw the Japanese get as close as they ever did to the northern coast of Australia. The battle of the Kokoda trail looms large in the Australian history of the PTO in WW2 and it can still awaken strong passions, as witness this thread- on CCP@BGG, about another Kokoda trail CCP scenario.

I know a bit more about the battle of the Kokoda trail than I do most others in the PTO because I'd read about it in William Manchester's gripping Goodbye, Darkness and watched a similarly fascinating movie on the subject, Kokoda: 39th Battalion. The CCP scenario about the engagement as dusk fell that cold and wet day in September features a strong force- mine, of well-equipped 2nd rate Japanese troops battering down a jungle trail as they try to break though the perimeter of the exhausted ANZACs- Johnathan.
This game turned out to be another rollercoaster ride, an examplar of the 'never give up' ethos of CC. Johnathan set up a strong force right up front in the NE corner of the map. The rest of his troops were deployed strung down the trail. So my 3 platoons consisted of:
  • Sgt. Oba- best leader, with a well-equipped strong platoon deployed to beat down the ANZAC advance guard in an in-your-face firefight before dusk fell.
  • My other 2 platoons went in my centre and on my right to head off down the trail as quickly as possible.
The opening 3 turns saw 2 Time Triggers:
  • The first on one of Johnathan's defence rolls during my opening fire attack.
  • The second when my MMG found themselves in booby traps (AKA 'Mines') as I pulled them back to save their broken Team from a quick KIA on Lawrence's next turn.
This parade of Time Triggers continued so that there had been 5 by the time Johnathan was into his second deck, while I was still in my first. With the gathering dusk now rendering fire attacks largely useless I was beginning to wonder if I'd have enough time to win. The turning point which broke the game in my favour came when I advanced several squads in all directions and Johnathan's centre disappeared under my bayonets. I took full advantage of the freedom to manoeuvre thus gained and so won comfortably.

Aftermath
CC@UK Expo'10 saw 10 contestants play a total of 27 games over 2 evening sessions. The final rankings were (NB. numbered bullets represent players tied for tournament VP with the last bullet point above; rankings here were determined by casualty difference.):
  • James Falkus (another champion with a perfect 5/5 record).
  • Mike Smith.
  • Steve Bishop.
  • Paul Laverack.
  1. Johnathan Townsend.
  • Me.
  1. Robert Lloyd.
  2. Stuart Facherty.
  • Lawrence Smith.
  1. Matt Deaville.
Matt Deaville and James Falkus- 2010's champion!

James received a £20 voucher for his triumph. For my part, I finished 2 places down in the rankings compared to last year, so I'll take a measure of consolation that I still managed to finish above the 2 players who beat me. Bitter? Moi?

Afterthoughts
The bad?
There were less of us than there were last year. This was largely down to lack of publicity I believe, of which there was none. I've already made my excuses, so I won't repeat them here. Just like last year I met quite a few people during the weekend who were interested in Combat Commander, so there is clearly potential for this event to grow. More advance publicity is surely the answer.

Our space wasn't so much constrained as cramped. It was ours at least. Some thought is going to have to go into dealing with next year. The seeded format didn't work. At least we know that the loose format is the best for our situation. There'll be a tweak or two for next year no doubt.

The good
First and foremost: everyone had a good time playing lots of Combat Commander. This is key to the long term success of our tournament. More than that, I felt that there was a new sense of esprit de corps because most of us were known to each other from last year. This too can only be good for the future.

Acknowledgements
My votes of thanks go to:
  • Richard Denning: for his work helping me organise the tournament in the months running up to the event.
  • The rest of the Expo crew: for their help during the 2 days of the event.
  • Everyone who turned out: you're the people for whom we all make the effort.
I'd like to give a special thank you to Barry Ingram. Barry generously stood aside to let my friend Stuart join the tournament at the very last moment. I'm sure I speak for Stuart and myself both Barry when I say that your gracious gesture was much appreciated. Thanks mate.

And that's that. See you next year lads: June 3rd and 4th. Mark your diaries now! ;)

Related@RD/KA!
UK Games Expo'10
- #1. Friends old and new
- #3. Games to the left of them, games to the right of them
- #4. Winding up and wending home
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