Friday, April 10, 2009

A night on the Russian front

Up Front
Badger and I began last Friday's session with a game of Up Front, another Patrol because Badger's still green despite his excellent record. Random selection gave him the Germans against my Russians. He chose to go with a variant of his winning setup from 4 weeks ago. I went with my now standard 3-group Russian setup.

Routine trash talking aside, I was quietly confident as this game started. The Russians are probably the best force with which to take on the Germans. Sheer weight of numbers, a capacity for insane charges, and the best discard in the game are strengths which I reckon give them the edge over the British or the Americans. Plus, Badger's run of luck surely couldn't continue?

My confidence wasn't misplaced. As we entered deck 2, Badger's groups were both at range chit 1; group A was wired in woods; B was in a stream. My wimps were entrenched; my firebase - 1 man KIA (his death just pre-empted a 10/5 fire attack, as these things do in Up Front) and another pinned - was entrenched in the open at range chit 1; and Sgt. Rostov's assault group were in brush at range chit 3. I was poised to seize victory in other words.

I did, but not before Cpl. Hessel enjoyed his moment of glory. Flanked from a hill (so that I had 16FP), the pinned Hessel was a hero; his doubled firepower gave Badger that extra 1FP he needed to fire out of the wire. Rostov broke (sheesh!), so that my 15/5 fire attack was pre-empted too. Still, the sergeant promptly made up for this by leading his group to a range chit 4 instant victory before deck 2 was out.

Green troops 0
Hardened veteran 1

A much needed victory. I'd like to say that this victory demonstrates the errors inherent in Badger's alternate setup, but I can't. Dettinger and Hessel in the same group was a definite mistake, as Badger discovered when he tried to lay smoke to cover his group in the stream. That aside, the stream and the wire deprived him of both fire and manoeuvre, so that I was free to roam the battlefield virtually at will. A decisive defeat which by itself proves little or nothing, in other words.

Badger's attempts to reinvent Up Front tactics raise some interesting questions about the game actually. You see, as much as I love the game, I have to admit that there is perhaps something of a flaw in its firepower model, in particular the way it drives players towards the regulation 6-7 man firebase. MG fireteams in WW2 were usually smaller than this AFAIK, typically 3-5 men, leaving the bulk of the squad in the manoeuvre group. But I just can't imagine a veteran Up Front player going with a 4-man firebase, because it just couldn't deliver enough firepower to do its job.

So I'm torn about Badger's experiments. I want to sweep his variant setups from the field to teach him the error of his ways, naturally enough. Yet I'd also like to see another player start to prove that there are viable alternatives to the standard tactics advocated by the old Avalon Hill General article back in the 80's. What I've begun to suspect is that the game's firepower engine has built-in optimal tactics mitigating against these historically authentic variants.

Combat Commander
Blooded on the Russian front at the squad-level, man-to-man scale of Up Front as we had been, a trip to Stalingrad at the company-level, squad scale of Combat Commander inevitably followed. I took the German attack in against Svidrov's garrison in Scenario 37, Dom 31, part of 6th Army's efforts to secure the legendary Barrikady factory.

This scenario was noteworthy for 3 reasons:
  • Sewers were in use for the first time.
  • Several new Russian units were in action, particularly the Garrison teams.
  • I think Badger actually quite liked the map, enjoying its wide avenues and open vistas.
I was quietly confident again looking at this scenario. Sure, I had a couple of problems:
  • Bunkers to bust with neither special forces nor assault weapons.
  • Puny +1 leaders.
All the same, I enjoyed some advantages:
  • The edge in troop quality.
  • Plenty of time (10 time periods - a real luxury).
Concentrated around the Dom 31 bunker complex as it was, Badger's setup boosted my confidence, because it left me an open run up the flank to swing round behind his position, a manoeuvre vital to cut off the Russian reinforcements (each objective I held on time 6 would be 1 less extra Russian rifle squad w/LMG). With hindsight, I suspect that this might've lulled me into a false sense of security.

In any event, my basic plan was sound, but my force selection proved to be poor:
  • A squad on my left to cover possible Russian dashes for the map edge, and exit VP.
  • A leader and 2 squads on my right to run up the flank.
  • The other leader, 4 squads and all the weapons in the centre to take down the bunkers.
Time 1 was eventful:
  • I got a quick kill.
  • A broken Russian unit in the open survived in the face of my HMG platoon's awesome firepower thanks to the timely arrival of Gretchko, the pesky Russian hero.
  • Badger played a Hidden Unit to gain Cpl. Deniken, who would prove helpful in organising his defence against my manoeuvres.
  • I opened fire on Cpl. Deniken with my mortar, generating the Reinforcements event, which gave me a mighty IG33 cannon.
  • Cpl. Deniken's defence roll promptly generated the first time trigger.
Going into time 3 I was feeling quite sanguine:
  • My flanking force had grabbed 2 objectives, leaving me another 3 time periods to grab the remaining 2, thus reducing the Russian reinforcements to the absolute minimum
  • Badger's force was suffering under my withering fire.
On into time 4 I was feeling even better. As the inset in the map above right shows, Badger's force had been reduced almost to half strength, and he had been forced to split his force to hold on to his last objective in the rear.

That was the high point of my game, as this map at time 9 shows. A spate of quick time triggers had given Badger a total of 3 rifle squads/LMG in his reinforcements. These arrived in the SE corner; immediately retook an objective; and promptly used the sewers to sneak down the flank to retake another.

Elsewhere Badger had managed to regroup to move to attack the last objective I was holding (how did he get that 3/3/1 SMG Garrison with its 1MF to move all that way from the bunker?). Outnumbered 2:1, my meagre 2 squads were hard pressed to retrieve the position, but I pressed on. I sent a rifle squad/LMG up the flank to help recapture objectives and brought that lone covering squad across to join my HMG platoon.

The key to the whole position was still Dom 31. I belatedly realised that I just had to get in there and storm it. I finally managed to clear some of the wire in the street, and soon had my platoon lined up ready to advance into close combat. It was not to be though.

Another foolish time trigger ensued to heap more pressure on me, then Badger launched Cpl. Deniken and his SMG squad and team into close combat against my hero and squad holed up in my last secure objective. Ambushes were slapped down so that Deniken and a broken SMG squad faced a broken hero and a rifle squad. A mere 1 up, I heaved a sigh when I drew a 10. The sigh heaved wasn't given time to become relief when Badger promptly drew a 12: not only had he won by 1, but he'd pulled another damn trigger to boot!

The game ended shortly thereafter. Badger was on 30VP IIRC.

Badger 1
Me 1

A great game. It's just a pity that my plan was so poor. My basic manoeuvre was fine: assaulting the strongpoint and going up the right after objectives are the priorities of the situation. I made the mistake of trying to take down bunkers with simple firepower, and I persisted in this mistake for far too long. I was able to set up my assault comfortably enough late in the game, but didn't have enough time to carry the attack through.

I should've set up a 3-squad platoon to assault the bunkers from the get go. This would've left the same HMG platoon to go up the flank to capture objectives and hold them against the onrushing Russian reinforcements. That's what I'll do next time. ;)

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