Saturday 16 July 2011

Defending The Gorge, 3rd September 1939

My relentless search for other people's scenarios that I can rip-off for my own games has once more borne fruit. 

Of late I have been enhancing my moments of relaxation by looking through old issues of Battlegames, and in issues 1 and 2 I found the Battle of Liebenau, a scenario by Jim Purky (aka Der Alte Fritz) for the SYW. Liebenau is a real place where in 1757 a rearguard action by the Austrians against the Prussians was contemplated but never fought. 
Deciding to fight this 'might have been' battle, Jim based his scenario on the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, which of course took place in 1781 during the American War of Independence. In Jim's battle the Prussians must overcome the Austrians who are deployed in depth in three lines, as the Americans were in 1781. The narrow table derives from the supposition that the attack is taking place along a valley with steep hills to either side. Jim's map for the battle is shown below (with written permission of Battlegames magazine. If you wish to use this map contact the copyright holder at the email address given):

My first intention was to refight the scenario as given, as a straight SYW battle. But something in the idea of defending a narrow valley in a rearguard or delaying action rang a bell. Eventually I realised I was remembering 'Defending the Gorges', a 'real' battle from Fall Weiss, Chris Pringle's 1997 scenario booklet covering the 1939 Poland campaign. Chris's map for the scenario is large scale and rather basic, and covers 3 gorges (hence his plural). For the detail of a battle for one gorge, I thought why not go for a table based on Jim's SYW idea. 

There you have it then. From the fictional Battle of Liebenau (1757), via the real Battle of Guildford Courthouse (1781), to 'Defending the Gorge', a representation of 10th Mechanised Brigade's defence against the attack of 2nd Panzer Division in southern Poland, on 3rd September 1939. I have selected the centre of Chris's 3 gorges for my re-fight. Like Liebenau, Tenczyn is a real town, but rest of the terrain is fictional and based on Jim's map. The forces however come from Chris's scenario so should be reasonably correct historically. The game will, as always, be fought using Blitzkrieg Commander. The map below gives the basic layout of the game: the dark green areas are woods. Jim's original table size was 10' x 6' - mine will be 6' x 4'. As you can see the main change is leaving out the river, which didn't feature in the 1781 or 1939 battles:

The Poles
The 10th Mounted Rifles, one of the 2 motorised infantry battalions within 10th Mechanised Brigade, form the heart of the defence. The first line consists of the tankettes of 121st Scout Tank Company supported by a company of the 10th Mounted Rifles. The rest of 10th MR forms the second line. The third line consists of 121st Light Tank Company with its Vickers tanks, supported by the Brigade's reconnaissance infantry company. Off table is a 75mm artillery battery and a 100mm artillery battery. 
Unusually the Poles will have some air support. Even more unusually we have a brief account of the actual mission, flown by the 24th Reconnaissance Flight, in Tomasz Kopanski's book PZL.23 Karas:

"On 3rd September another bombing raid (six Karases) was flown. This time it was directed against a German armoured column moving in the mountainnous terrain in the area of Rabka-Podwilk. Each Karas carried six 100kg and two 50kg bombs. Having located the enemy column, the Flight crews bombed it from an altitude of 600-800m, obtaining direct hits on some vehicles. Then they strafed the column. German AA defences managed to shoot down one aeroplane."

The Poles are thus granted 2 ground attack units (Karas), along with 2 air assets. As the Germans automatically have full air superiority according to the BKC rules, it remains to be seen whether this air support will get through during the game.

The Germans
Elements of 2nd Panzer Division were attacking the Tenczyn gorge. In the game they are allocated a Panzer Battalion (a total of 10 model tanks), 2 Schutzen Battalions, a reconnaissance detachment (standing in for Jim's hussars) and a strong off-table artillery force of 3 105mm batteries and 1 150mm battery. German air support in the real battle apparently came from a force of Me110 fighter bombers, but I allocated 3 JU87 dive bomber units with 6 assets, as I have a Ju87 model available.

Scenario Notes
The game would be played basically as an assault scenario with Tenczyn as the objective. The points balance was about right, but with the Poles able to deploy further forward than normal and with no flank deployment possible, the turn limit was removed. We would just see how it went.
It is not normal for the defenders to have air support, but as described this was available in real life. To speed things up for an evening game I intended to deploy both sides fully in advance. Aiming points for air and artillery assets would therefore be plotted with full knowledge of enemy dispositions. This rather takes the normal guesswork out of this activity, but the advantage would be the same for both sides' air assets, whilst the advantage to the German artillery would help compensate for the forward deployment of the Poles. 
Note there are no FACs, even for the Germans. The rules state an FAC is possible for the Germans, but this seems a bit doubtful to me for the Polish campaign. If one did allow a German FAC in 1939, I think a CV of 6 or 7 would be appropriate rather the 8 given in the rules.

The Game

The game got underway with scheduled artillery and air strikes. 
The Stukas picked off the exposed TKS tankettes supporting the Polish first line. On the right you can see 2 PzIs that have been caught in a Polish minefield.

As the Germans advanced (rather slowly), the Polish Karas made their appearance.
They were shot down by a storm of AA fire and had no effect.

Vickers tanks and the recce company wait in Tenczyn. Bofors AA unit on hill at left: a really useful weapon that makes a pretty good anti-tank gun in this period.

Dug-in troops are a bitch to shift in BKC II: it usually comes down to a close assault. Even then you need to assemble a heavy advantage in numbers to assure success, as here. 

The German right flank has now broken through to the Polish second line.

View of the same situation showing the Polish Vickers tanks taking some revenge against the leading German Panzers.

To the left of the road, the Germans failed miserably to make any significant progress, with a succession of failed command rolls. This was their position at the end of five moves: total advance 20cm!

Unfortunately that was as far as we got. That was the end of move 5 and we had run out of time, mainly due to being rather rusty with the rules. We had gamed from 8.00pm to 11.00pm, with half an hour of pre-game preparation and then taking an average of half an hour per move. Although the game was unfinished, and neither side was anywhere near their breakpoint, I would give a moral victory to the Poles who seem unlikely to be shifted from their second line. The Germans were not really on form and their left flank was a disgrace - some demotions seem likely! It was interesting to see what a tall order breaking through 3 lines of defence is, even when there is a reasonable superiority in numbers. 
Despite the frustrations, we found we had enjoyed ourselves and a pleasant evenings wargaming had taken place. BKC II is always a pleasure to play.

Finally, it's great to see the number of followers of this blog increasing. Thanks for your interest, and for the interesting comments that have been coming in recently. 

Friday 8 July 2011

Black Powder - The Minimalist Approach

Black Powder - Big Games for Elite Wargamers?

Our game has been developed and played almost exclusively on tabletops at least 6 feet wide and between 10 and 14 feet long. The game works best on large tables and using relatively large forces.
Black Powder rulebook, p.4.

It was an interesting decision for the authors of Black Powder to publish a set of rules designed to work best for big armies and very big wargames rooms. The former would make creating forces daunting for the newcomer, whilst the latter would seemingly exclude the overwhelming majority of wargamers, regardless of their experience or the size of their collections. Fourteen foot tables - you must be joking! But Rick Priestley and Jervis Johnson didn't get where they are today without having a keen commercial sense. My guess is that they recognised the appeal of a big, bold product with high production values, and knew that wargamers would adapt it to the limitations of their own circumstances.

And this of course is exactly what happened. Gamers with more normal wargame set-ups than messrs. Priestley, Johnson and the Perry twins quickly adopted reductions in move and firing distances, reductions in unit sizes, and reductions in the size of models used. The good old 6' x 4' table was quickly found to be perfectly adequate for Black Powder.

But there is more than one way to reduce the size of your Black Powder game. 6mm miniatures and halved distances will give you a physically smaller game, but there is still the matter of the army structure as presented in the rules. That is, armies of at least 3 brigades (and preferably 5) with each brigade containing 3 to 6 units. Can you play Black Powder with armies only having 2 brigades, or even just one? And what about brigades of 2 units, or just one? 

The one unit brigade is really already catered for, by the 'marauder' rule. For the rest, it has become apparent to many wargamers that the key to scaling down the size of Black Powder armies is adapting the Brigade Morale rules. And whatever size of game you are playing, these same rules are the key to adjusting game length to your preference.

Small Games for Normal Wargamers.

Players need not feel too bound by these particular rules - we are happy to ignore or change them where we feel it appropriate to do so - we suggest you do the same.
Black Powder, p.96 ('Victory and Defeat')

The authors of Black Powder are sensible enough to indicate from the word go that amending or adapting the rules is fine by them. However, as the above quote shows, when it comes to the Brigade Morale rules they are practically begging the wargamer to make his own changes. The rules contained in the book are central to the stated aim of having big games that can be played in an evening, and they work very well for that purpose. But you might want your big game to last all day, or you might want a small game that will not be all over in half an hour. The answer is to change the Brigade Morale rules to slow down the rate at which brigades are lost. This can be done very simply, and I have adopted 2 main options, one of my own and the other borrowed from wargamer The Last Hussar, whose blog can be found on my list of favourites (see his post for 5th March 2011). The 2 options are completely separate: one does not build on the other.

Option 1.
'Units count as lost for Brigade Morale only if they have been destroyed or have left the battlefield and cannot return'.
Thus shaken units and units that have left the table but are eligible to return are not counted as lost for brigade morale. I have found this works well for extending the duration of big battles into a full day (for example, at a wargames convention), and also for games where you have smaller brigades and/or not too many of them (say 3 brigades with 3 units each, or just 2 brigades). I used this option in my recent 'Battle of Burndt', which can be found a couple of posts down.
Note that with this option, all the other published rules for brigade morale are retained and used normally. There is no extra work or additional thinking to be done when using this option: it could hardly be more simple.

Option 2. (The Last Hussar Option).
'Brigades are only broken when more than half of their units are lost. In addition, shaken units in a broken brigade can be rallied, which may result in the brigade returning to unbroken status. Disorder can also be removed as normal from units in a broken brigade, unless the unit makes a compulsory or voluntary retire move'.
This is an amendment which can cause a modest amount of additional work, and which I use to cope with small games and small brigades. It means you can have a Black Powder game with just 1 or 2 brigades, and brigades with just 2 units that are still reasonably resilient. 
Note that you have to be allowed to recover from disorder even if the brigade is broken, in order to then issue 'rally' orders to remove casualties and restore a unit to unshaken status. This might then mean that your brigade is no longer broken and can resume the fight. Of course, if your 3 unit brigade has lost 2 units destroyed, there is no way back for it. But if it has one unit destroyed and one shaken, you can try and rally the shaken unit in order to get your brigade unbroken again. If you have a 2 unit brigade, it needs to have both its units destroyed to render it completely useless. 
Note also that keeping the pressure up on a broken brigade and forcing constant retire moves makes it harder for your opponent to recover from broken status.

One Brigade Games

Two nice little scenarios came up recently which were just right for trying out one-brigade battles. The first is the Cavalry Clash teaser from Battlegames issue 23. Map is shown with written permission of Battlegames magazine. Contact the copyright holder at the email address given if you wish to publish it yourself.

I won't detail the whole scenario, but this is an encounter battle with a few tweaks to make it more interesting. It involves a single cavalry brigade on each side, with 4 units in each brigade (one of the red units is off-table at game start). Original table size was 9' x 6', with large Charles Grant-style units. Using option 2 above I have played it out solo, and with an opponent at the Portbury Knights club. In each case the battle went on for around an hour and a half, with units falling back shaken then re-entering the fight, as well as the competing brigades becoming broken then recovering. This can result in what looks like a hopeless situation being turned around, if you persevere and use the right tactics to husband your meagre forces. The games were really good fun. For a short game you can stop on the first occasion a brigade is broken, but for the full game you should carry on until a brigade is broken and has no chance of recovery. This will be when the brigade has had over half its units destroyed.
Turns are very quick and the number of moves achieved is high. If there is a down side it can seem as if luck plays a stronger role than normal; and of course the feel of a big battle is lost. My set-up for the game, on a 6' x 4' table and with my own smaller units, is shown below:

The second game is The Combat of St. Ulrich from the Lead Gardens blog (22nd December 2010). I was attracted to this small game by the charming and beautifully drawn map which introduced it:

As you can see this game involves a mixed force of cavalry, infantry and guns, but for Black Powder  this will still only constitute a brigade on each side. As well as using option 2, I decided to make the guns count as units for brigade morale, contrary to the published rules (p.96). Littlejohn summarises the scenario as follows:

A Bleiherzen brigade is surprised by the advance guard of a slightly larger Grolstein force, and rather than withdrawing promptly across the river bridge at St. Ulrich, the Bleiherzen commander recklessly decides to give the Grolsteiners a bloody nose before retreating across the river to safety.

The map of course has different names for the countries, as a result of the development of Littlejohn's imagi-nations. The defending Bleiherzen/Christenheim brigade has 2 infantry units, a cavalry unit and a gun battery. The attacking Grolsteiners/Schwartzbergers have the same with the addition of a grenadier unit (not shown on the map). It was easy to set this up on a 6' x 4' table using my own Prussian and Austrian units, which are slightly smaller than Littlejohn's.
Playing solo, this game was shorter than the all-cavalry encounter. The Austrians were easily beaten in 4 moves, which took me about 45 minutes. However, the game was extended usefully by the Brigade Morale changes. The Austrians would have lost in move 2 under the normal rules as they had their cavalry destroyed and one infantry unit shaken. On move 3 two of the Prussian infantry units were shaken, which would have broken the Prussian brigade under the usual rules. The game might then have been a draw, even though at this stage the Prussians were clearly on top, with the Austrian cavalry destroyed and the Austrian infantry outnumbered in a close range firefight. The dynamics of the scenario obviously affect how long your one-brigade games will last. In this case it would have been fun to change sides and run through the game again, if I had been gaming with an opponent.
Below are a few photos of the game in progress:

The Austrians in front of St Ulrich

The lines come together

 End game. The Austrians have 2 units destroyed and one shaken and disordered.
No need to take this to the wire: they have conclusively lost.

Post Script
Having got the table and figures out and having an hour or two spare, I couldn't resist refighting the scenario with Charles Wesencraft's rules from Practical Wargaming. Straight away, the game had a completely different feel. Wesencraft's 'control table' idea was ahead of its time (a precursor of the Warmaster system if ever I saw one), but combine this with rather too numerous morale tests which are very dice dependent, and units are soon all over the place. This detracts from the feel of an 18th century  action. One also misses rules to create a force structure (no brigades here) and to produce an end to the game. Presumably one fights until a result is obvious or agreed. 
On the other hand firing and melees are delightfully simple, and basically the rules work. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll be giving up on Black Powder just yet. Nostalgia is all very well, but rules have come a long way since 1974!  

Tuesday 5 July 2011

And So It Begins...

Yes, the first supplement for Black Powder has been trailed on the Warlord Games website and will be available soon: though when and for what price we are not told (though Amazon are quoting £15, paperback). 

I should be pleased: to the disappointment of Napoleonic gamers it covers the 18th century, obviously including the SYW. But I'm afraid I regard supplements as first and foremost a money-making concept (or should that just be 'con') cooked up by wargames companies over the last decade or so to generate extra profits. Any real benefit to wargamers is secondary. Those few of you who read my article on 'The New Wargaming' in Battlegames 24 or my post on the same subject in December last year will be familiar with my curmudgeonly and jaundiced attitude to such things.

It's hard to tell exactly what purchasers will be getting, but it looks like some potted histories of 18th century wars and campaigns will be presented, along with suggestions for revised stats, special rules and army lists appropriate for each sub-period. In addition there will be a few scenarios. And what's wrong with that, you might ask. Well, in the great scheme of things I suppose the answer is, nothing much. But I have always been of the opinion that the stats and special rules ideas should have been in the original rules, considering the size and cost of the rulebook. And 18th century scenarios before 1775 were also conspicuous by their absence in that original publication. Plus I don't really need potted histories as I do my own background reading. And lastly, well, who needs army lists? Oh yes, I remember, that will be the suckers who feel the need to be spoon-fed everything by gaming companies who regard them only as sources of profit.

I say, steady on old chap. Let's be a bit more considered.

Won't such a book be a great introduction to the period for newcomers? It might well be (depending on the quality of the information therein), but consider that a 'newcomer' purchasing the rules and the supplement together will have to part with £45 in one go. Oh, and by the way the American War of Independence is not included in this supplement - it will have another supplement all to itself. Perhaps in about 3 years time we will be able to purchase a supplement listing all the available supplements.

Warlord Games have had a great success with Black Powder, and deservedly so in my opinion. It looks like Hail Caesar will be as successful, or perhaps even more so. Good, well done. One has to assume that profits have been made. It would have been a nice bit of old-fashioned goodwill to provide some helpful period-specific stats and special rules for free online, as a thank you to customers. But profits come first, and profit is what supplements are all about. Okay, those guys at Warlord Games are providing employment to people, and they have to pay the mortgage like everyone else. I just wish some wargamers (and they are already drooling around the Warlord Games forum) wouldn't act as if Warlord were doing them a favour just by publishing this stuff. A bit of self respect is required, gentlemen.

So no, I won't be partaking. Which is a shame as I'm sure there will be some thought-provoking and useful ideas present. Perhaps I'll cadge a look at someone else's and make a trip to the photocopier. After all, sharing is one of the great things about any hobby. Unless you publish supplements, of course.

And finally... Don't be offended by this post if you love supplements and can't wait to buy this one. It's just me sounding off. It's my blog, after all. If I can't be bad tempered and self-righteous here, where else am I going to indulge myself?

Good gaming 'til next time.