Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cards, commands and combat #1. Golden Oldies

Badger and I enjoyed something of a WW2 tactical megasession last Thursday as I'd said.

Up Front
As brilliant as is Combat Commander, 2 years solid play had left both me and Badger looking to ring the changes a bit in our gaming sessions. And as much as I want to see Conflict of Heroes in action again, there really was nowhere else to go to reopen our gaming horizons than back to the great grandaddy of CDG's, Up Front.

Badger was quite happy to have a go. He'd won his 1st and 2nd games against me after all, way back in 2005 (although I must point out, for Badger's benefit, that our Up Front score stood at 2-1 in his favour on Thursday night, not 2-0 as he'd imagined). I gave Badger the standard scenario I offer to players new to Up Front: Germans against my Americans in Patrol.

I really don't like the basic 12-man American squad. In fact it's my least favourite in the game (and that probably includes the French and the Italians).

Why? Well of course there is the BAR, which is just too light to be an adequate squad support weapon. And then there is the poor morale (fully 1/3 of the squad is ML2 or less). Most of all though, I dislike its lack of flexibility. And I'm not here talking about the discard capacity. I can live with that. No, it's simply that both of the typical solutions to the problems of fire and movement posed by the line American rifle squad just aren't very appealing.

Take the one above, which I used in our 1st game. It conforms to a tactical principle whose importance I continue to uphold despite less than stellar performances at Up Front in recent years. This principle is the 3-group setup. Typical for large squads like the Japanese, Russians or Italians, this is not the rule for the smaller squads. I maintain its importance because of the flanking and card-cycling opportunities it offers.

The problem with the American 3-group setup I used is those 2 weak ML2 riflemen in the firebase (group B). They render particularly fragile the already low FP of the firebase. I mean, OK, I guess you could put all your best men in the firebase, but what would be the point of a manoeuvre element comprising 2 ML2 riflemen and the ML3 Cpl. Moores?

All these issues notwithstanding, I confess I was quite sanguine about my chances when I saw Badger's setup, whose weaknesses I judged to be:
  • Only 2 groups (naturally enough).
  • Poor group selection; with a mix of high and low ML in each group (so that the wimps would hold back the courageous); and with an underpowered base of fire.
Oh the folly of hubris!

The game started badly for me when my firebase set up in a marsh. Badger promptly moved forward. I equally promptly made the 1st of my 2 moves to exit the marsh. When the time came to make my 2nd exit move, I made my game-losing blunder: I moved forward instead of sideways again. I'd reasoned that Badger only stood to gain 1FP, while I would at least get my firebase off its startline. Of course the entire group broke under a hail of fire, after which I saw a lone Rally 1 card for most of the single deck that the game lasted.

Badger promptly moved his 2 groups forward to range chit 2, so that my pinned firebase was now in their RR3 killzones. My firebase died just as I had pulled together a hand for what would've been my first truly interesting turn in the game. Sheesh!

I was keen to play again, for which we swapped sides. Badger chose the 2nd typical American tactical solution: 2 groups with a strong firebase (although the firebase is usually group B). This time Badger's firebase started the game in a marsh, so I was feeling quite hopeful as the action opened.

Oh the folly of optimism! My 1st fire attack into the marsh was reduced to an ineffective Fire Strength 0 by a -3 Concealment card; my 2nd to 0 by a -2. The latter attack's 1st shot pinned Sgt. Burnett; the 2nd broke my LMG. Two failed repair attempts later, I junked the LMG.

There followed some high jinks with transfers as I reorganised my squad, before I made that game's fatal mistake: holding a Stream as Badger's firebase (intact IIRC) moved forward to range chit 2, I foolishly charged forward out of open ground to range chit 2 myself (lured by those extra 2FP for Hessel's SMG at RR4). Badger was therefore able to display 1 of the BAR's virtues - that it suffers no special penalties for being in a stream, while punishing me for giving him those extra 2FP from his own tommy gun: he opened fire with a 17/8 fire card, killing 3 men.

More high jinks followed as I desperately tried to pull something together with more transfers, but I'd lost the 1 chance I'd had. This had been to use Cpl. Hessel and 3 riflemen to flank Badger's firebase. This would've equalised the firefight - in terms of FP at least. It'd've been a slim chance, but it was pretty much the only chance I could've played for. I missed it until it was too late.

Cocky young pup 2
'Old man' 0

Gah! Just gah!

Seriously though, those 2 games were like so many I've played lately, being decided by 1 crucial blunder. Legitimate whinges I might claim aside, I'm struck by this in a way I've not been before. This is a tempo typical of Up Front, and what it amounts to is that you'll get 2 attempts at any objective:
  • A properly considered manoeuvre.
  • A desperate attempt to retrieve the situation with ragtag forces regrouped from the remnants of the failure of phase 1.
I find the narrative inherent in this dynamic the cardplay more or less imposes upon the game to be quite authentic. It finds a strong echo in the many accounts of infantry action I've read down the years.

Our old favourite Memoir'44 was next up before we moved on to what we knew was our inevitable destination. Badger chose to take us to Operation Cobra, the American breakout from the Normandy bridgehead in July 1944. Random selection gave me the Americans: lots of tanks, with air support? I was satisfied.

Badger began the game by immediately playing Air Power, bringing in his Me109. I was pleased to see that he equally quickly failed his Air Check, thanks to the presence of my P40 Warhawk (and yes, I know the P40 didn't operate in the late ETO; I guess it's just standing in as a generic American fighter-bomber). I continued to make good use of my own air power, discovering the delights of Ground Interdiction as I pinned his armour in place to prevent them from overrunning my advancing infantry units.

My decisive blunder came when, in the heat of the moment, I rashly played Behind Enemy Lines, looking for both the kill and the objective medal that'd've put me within 1VP of victory. That "D'oh!" moment later, I realised that I'd lost my airplane because I hadn't ordered it. This freed up Badger's right flank, while my dash for that objective left a 1-model infantry unit exposed to casual mopping-up on Badger's part.

Recognising that it was all or nothing, Badger threw his already weakened armour into the fray (he'd brought his elite armour across from the centre by this time). I just couldn't take them down. Caught in the open my units were easy prey to armour overruns. Weakened to the point of destruction, my surviving units made for cover, which deprived them of attack opportunities. Badger took full advantage of this lull in my own attack to pick off the units he needed to win.

"Tactical genius"? 3
'Old man' 0

I continue to enjoy playing Memoir. It's not my favourite iteration of Commands and Colours to be sure, but it's still a great game, and a valid light tactical/operational WW2 simulation to boot, despite what some might say. The core mechanics are pretty solid, in particular the basic treatment of fire and movement. What I think the game lacks is the layer of chrome that would make it feel as much like WW2 as Commands and Colours: Ancients feels like the age of swords and sandals.

The air rules are growing on me. The extra tactical options air power offers a commander are fun to use, and credible to boot. Moreover, the 'use it or lose it' rule has an effect on play which I find similarly authentic: when you are relying on air power, the rest of your attack tends to bog down a bit. AFAIK, studies from WW2 up to the present day have shown that this is precisely what troops do: hunker down and wait to see what the air strikes do. So that's quite good really.

I also have to confirm my previous remarks about the presentation of the Air Sortie rules. These actually work quite simply, but the way the rules are written makes them very difficult to understand. After several readings I still got them wrong when Donald and I played, and it took me a serious double-take to get them right on Thursday.

If this is more than just my aging brain, then I suspect that the issue'll already've been done to death on M44@DoW. In any event, I cannot commend the clarity of exposition of something so simple rendered so confusing.

- Cards, commands and combat #2. Fun in Stalingrad!


Adelaide Gamer said...

Nice to finally see what was in 'Up Front', having never actually played it. If it makes running across the open into the teeth of a machine gun a suicidal action that could decide the game, then it would get my thumbs up.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Hello again my antipodean friend. So, the chatter of MG fire has finally attracted your attention! You can expect to see more in the future because I plan to get the game out more regularly.

And charging through the open into the teeth of an MG isn't always suicidal, which is one of the special delights of the cardplay. Sometimes you can do it and get off scot free. But more often than not, doing it against a prepared opponent whose troops are in good order, well 'nuff said. ;)