Two for Turenne with Bonaparte on the Bench

Having had a hiatus from writing, it’s time to work back from most recent to the more distant. Last Friday I caught up with Markus after my D&D session was cancelled (an event that ought to have been a surprise but alas it was not). After a brief exchange of e-mails, Markus and I decided upon Turenne: Campagne d’Alsace de 1674. A product of the French magazine Cassus Belli, it was a title that I’d not heard of. My knowledge of the period sadly lacking I nevertheless looked forward to it. I have seen the great man’s tomb in Les Invalides, an indication of the regard that his generalship was held in. He was not a young man during this campaign, being in his 74th year, and he was to die in the following year at the Battle of Salzbach.

The game has a mere three pages of rules, and the map is long and relatively  thin, featuring the Rhine valley along The Palatinate/French border. Two cities, Mulhausen and Strasbourg, and a portion of Basel are neutral independent entities. The units are generic strength point markers placed under flags to indicate armies (no leaders as such, so that the great man himself does not appear on the map). Both sides also gain a number of dummy markers (illustrated by a rather cute duck) with which the enemy may be foxed.

The game sequence is rather simple. Both sides roll a dice and add to that their current VP level, the higher result goes first. All units for one side are moved, combat is had, the other side has their turn and thus the campaign continues.

Armies have ZOCs which force opponents to cease movement, and there is no provision for overruns. The CRT is differential, with reasonable returns for the attacker at around the +6 mark. The narrow terrain allows the canny player to send out swarms of dummies that will be handily spotted but nevertheless holding up the enemy (perhaps they represent small flying detachments). Units have 8 movement points, and with a relatively extensive road network which costs 1/2 MP per hex, units zip around the map hither and yon.

There are three scenarios of varying length, from 9 game turns to 24 game turns. Victory is based on points, which are gained for eliminating enemy strength points and capturing enemy cities. Players also get points for entering neutral cities. Now this is not something that’s easy to do. The hopeful army moves adjacent, and in its next turn asks permission. In scenario 1, the hopeful army must roll a ‘1’, the size of the army being irrelevant. In scenario 2 the bigger the army the greater chance of success. Presumably the bigger army has in its train a series of trained diplomats that can haggle with the city’s parliament.

The victory points for being the first to enter these are quite large, so a lucky initial die roll may be the difference between victory and defeat, particularly as the request for entry is a single-shot attempt. Fail and the good burghers close their gates to you indefinitely. A mitigating circumstance is that the games are typically short. The first nine-turn scenario took about half an hour. The second scenario of 24 turns took about the same length of time (though we ended it on turn 14).

In all scenarios the French are outnumbered, if not initially then by the game’s end. They have to therefore zip about the map concentrating against one foe before concentrating against another. Their chief problem is that their enemies can do the same. The notes (according to Markus, whose French is light-years in advance of mine) indicate that Turenne manouvered against enemy supply trains in order to force battle. There are however no supply considerations, and armies have no real centre of gravity. One does pick up points for taking enemy cities, but this impacts on the field armies not at all. If the enemy is taking your cities, well then you can simply take his, and the merry dance can continue while we have game turns in us.

The siege rules are also interesting. One must surround the enemy with ZOCs, and once begun it will take three (I think) complete game turns for the fortress to capitulate. A nice piece of Vaubanesque exactitude, though I prefer a spot more randomness with my sieges, thank you very much. A superiority in strengh poins is necessary to maintain the siege. As far as we could tell, the besieged cannot fight the besiegers at all, so one has to be careful about when to accept siege.

With a mere 2 pages of actual rules (the charts take up the third page) a few things could have stood better explanation, but we managed to sort things out (we think). I played the French in both scenarios, and given that I lost rather handily in both it’s clear that I am no Turenne (though my hair is suitably long, I cannot imagine the Marshal in a flanellette shirt). The French need to find a force and pick on it quickly, with killing units off that cannot retreat due to being surrounded by ZOCs a premium. In time the weight of enemy reinforcements makes itself felt. I might have won the second. I could have bagged a force in Strasbourg but was tardy in setting the siege and relief armies poured over the Rhine before it fell. Oh well. It was good to have played it, but it frankly felt a little bland. With time and a few goodly tomes under one’s belt it might be worth tinkering with.

We had time for a third game and cast about for suitable candidates. One that Markus has had for a while was the Columbia edition of Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign.  It’s a typical Columbia block game, with hidden strength points, but without the HQ activations that you see in other titles. The map is a reasonably well done point-to-point rendition of the Belgian countryside.

The Avalon Hill edition I remember as being fun to play, but then I was in high school and would play anything that had a board. It was however difficult to get the historical rate of Allied concentration. Markus tells me that it ws impossible, but let’s stick with difficult. The French could move 2 stacks, the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies 1 each.

Columbia have added a lot of extra blocks (according to Boardgame Geek 84 blocks compared to 48), so that the units are divisions, more or less. The French can now move 3 stacks, and the respective Allied armies 2 each. The road limits are more generous, and bridges only halve movement allowances if crossing them to get into battle. There are now 4 turns per day, rather than the previous 3, so the campaign should move at a pace commensurate with the added level of granularity. The 3 army commanders also make an appearance, and offer some bonuses in force-marching and morale. he Allied ability to concentrate has been improved markedly.

Physically, the new map is no bigger than the old, so the initial French set-up leaves one with the impression that Belgium is to be invaded by several enormous ziggurats. What seemed of great moment however was simply disappointing fluff. Loking at the maps of the 2 editions I find that the area around Charleroi is unchanged, whereas I while playing truly thought that additional towns had been added to the Belgian border region. The reason that I thought this was that it seemed impossible for the French to achieve their historical concentration at Charleroi, and I remember many games of the earlier edition with the French in Charleroi by the end of turn 1.

One reason that the concentration didn’t take place in hindsight was player error. Cavalry could have been fed across the river, a battle forced and infantry fed in as reinforcements. The big problem facing the French though is that the river severely limits the ability of the French to bring troops to bear because the crossings are contested, and thus halved. True, the French can force-march troops, but this still doesn’t address the congestion issue. Essentially, the amount that can move along a major road has gone up 25% (from 8 to 10), but the number of actual units in play has almost doubled. The going for the French is simply slower.

What we found therefore was that the Allies could get into position early and the French late. The climatic Battle of Charleroi featured the combined Anglo-Prussian armies attacking Napoleon’s Grande Armee from Quatre Bras and Ligny respectively. We called the game at that point (and thankfully I was the Anglo-Prussian commander so I got to win something).

I suspect that while an approach up the centre could be better done, it’s not I think a viable strategy in this edition. True, there are other approaches one could take, so this does not necessarily detract from the game simply as a game. But if it cannot model the approaches that the historical actors took (and even if we want to discount Blucher, presumably Wellington and Bonaparte had good reasons for the approaches that they took) then it is of no interest to me, and yet again a game falls off my radar.  So disappointing, but at least I won something, and helped Markus increase the percentage of his game collection played, o generous soul that I am.

Next, we stay in similar areas geographically, but move forward 99 years.

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Vietnam: A Short Decisive Campaign

Having just written about print-and-play games, I thought that I’d use the opportunity offered by a relatively late night watching cricket (Australians versusEngland – yay!!) to try a solitaire game. I decided upon Solitaire Caesar. Having seen that I had neglected to print the counters for it, the Emperor Iohannus I decided to abandon the Pax Romanum to the barbarians, with the court relocating to mid-ninteen sixties Vietnam (and not much pax here either).

This was Vietnam Solitaire, designed by David Kershaw. At $4 U.S, it seemed a good bet, with little lost should the game disappoint. The components themselves amounted to a 7-page rulebook (including a page of optional rules and some designer notes), an A4 map and some tiny counters with barely visible illustrations (but are perfectly serviceable).

South Vietnam is divided into 5 regions (Hue, Central Highlands, Cu Chi, Saigon and the Mekong). Each of these regions is sub-divided into 4 areas, each of a particular terrain type. For example, the Central Highlands have 3 jungle areas and 1 of rice paddies, Saigon one of rice paddies and 3 urban (this being a complete list of the terrain types).

The designer argues in his notes that the U.S/ARVN will lose eventually. The player therefore has the task of holding on for longer than was done historically. There’s no unit scale for the units, and each turn is a year.

The engine is the Political Point (PP) track. The track starts at 1, and things during the turn such as U.S/ARVN recruits (and losses), attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail and napalm use drive the PP track up. At the end of the turn, any region with NVA/VC units that doesn’t contain U.S/ARVN units adds to to the track, an area without NVA?VC units subtracts one from the track. If the PP track is 14+, the game ends with the collapse of South Vietnam.

Each turn begins to see how far the Ho Chi Minh trail expands. There are 6 regions adjacent to South Vietnam: Haiphong, Hanoi, north Laos, south Laos, north Cambodia, south Cambodia (each numbered 1-6. Each of these can contain a trail marker, and each such region with a trail will produce an NVA unit. The trail starts in Hanoi and Haiphong, and 2D6 are rolled to see which regions gain a marker (no marker is laid in an area already containing a marker). Some years therefore will see the trail leap ahead, and others where it remains somnolent. Each trail area points to a corresponding South Vietnam region, to which NVA recruits are directed.

The U.S player can then attack these with B52s or Green Berets. The Green Berets are more discreet (costing but a single PP each, and there are 2 of these available), but less effective, with the trail removed on a 1-2. The B52 is noisy and costs 2 PP, but removes the trail on a 1-4. Hanoi and Haiphong can only be attacked by B52s, but as both areas point at poor little Hue, it’s worth considering attacking these early to relieve pressure in the north.

The U.S. player then takes units and places them on the map. Again, the only limit is how much the player wants to ramp up the PP track. ARVN units cost a single PP, US infantry/marines cost 2, the U.S air cavalry cost 3. Naturally the higher cost units perform better on the battlefield.

The U.S player may then launch napalm attacks against NVA/VC units (which are eliminated on 1-4, regardless of terrain, but at a cost of 1 PP per use). The U.S. player then launches attacks with any units that occupy the same areas as NVA/VC units. Each unit rolls a D6 and if it rolls the indicated number for the terrain type it causes a hit. The ARVN for example cause a hit 1-2 in urban or rice paddy terrain, but a 1 in jungle. VC units are the reverse of this, and NVA units hit on a 1-2 regardless of terrain. U.S. ground troops hit on a 1-3 and the mighty air cav hit on a 1-4.

Combat continues until either only 1 side remains in an area, or until one sides retreats to another area within the same region. NVA and VC reinforcements may then arrive (randomly determined, and more combat may take place if they arrive in an area with U.S/ARVN units). Finallythe player rolls a D6 on the PP table, which may mean that the next turn is played as normal, or the U.S may lost the ability to lose/recruit certain units. The higher the PP level, the more likely is the latter.

There is a surprising amount inside this package. The U.S player has to decide whether to escalate the conflict quickly and clear the insurgents from the map. This they can certainly do, though there will be a PP cost, partly offset if they can clear the NVA/VC from areas and thus cause the PP track to decrease.  On the other hand one can try a “softly, softly” approach which will keep the PP track relatively low, but allow the NVA/VC to quickly multiply. The player is thus cast on the horns of an interesting choice.

In my first game I tried the latter approach. In 1963, the Ho Chi Minh trail extended into northern Laos. The U.S authorised the use of Green Beret units to interdict the supply of men and materiel south, but to no effect (2 GB units rolled 2 sixes – curses!). The Saigon government 3 ARVN units. One was sent to the Central Hghlandsa to contest the VC presence there, and one to reinforce the Hue and Cu Chi regions. In addition, the U.S sent an air cav team to reinforce the ARVN drive in the Central highlands (this took the PP track to 9).

The decision was made to not employ napalm. The US/ARVN drove out the VC with no loss. Perhaps due to the success of this drive, no VC cadre were recruited. However, a nerve was touched in Hanoi, and 2 NVA units crossed the into the Hue region. These quickly invested a lightly-garrisoned Hue and took it without loss (the eliminated ARVN unit took the PP track to 10). The air cav redeployed to Hue in order to ensure that it was re-taken from the North Vietnamese sometime in 1964.

The PP track fell to 9 due to the pacificatiobb of the central highlands. Rolling on the PP table, a ‘5’ meant that in 1964 no U.S units could be recruited.

It was decided that 1964 should see an escalation in the war as far as practicable. Obviously the North Vietnamese felt the same way, as the Ho chi Minh trail made its way into southern Laos and southern Cambodia. Green Berets were sent into Cambodia, again without effect. B52s in southern Laos were successful in interdicting the trail, but those in the north of the country were not (this poor result saw the PP track move to 15!).

ARVN ground troops attacked VC cadre in all regions exept the Central Highlands, with the hope that they could pacify most areas and drive the PP index down. The air cav aided the assault on Hue, which succeeded without loss. Hoever, the ARVN drives in the Saigon and Mekong regions were driven back (both units in these regions were eliminated, with the PP index to 17). The writing was on the wall. NVA reinforcements appeared in the Mekong and Hue. Though the Central Highlands remained pacified, the Mekong and Saigon were in the hands of the enemy. The government of South Vietnam dissolved, and Ho Chi Minh lived to see Vietnam re-unified.

The game played quite well (and quickly – it was over in about 1/2 an hour). A full game shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. One thing is that the US player has to use napalm. It has a high chance of killing enemy units at a relatively low cost. I suspect that escalation from the word go will be necessary. If done well, with a little luck there may be a couple of years of relative quiet that will drive the PP index down. This is not a game to play if you want to have absolute control over things. There will be games where the dice will beat you, and no amount of good play will help. If you can stand that, then this should be worth the effort to assemble. You may get a half-dozen games or so out of it, but at about $0.75 U.S per game this would seem to be excellent value indeed.

Print and Play Boardgames

I’ve bought a couple of items from Wargame Downloads in the past, but have not had the chance to try most of them. Unternehmung 25 and Malaya (both freebies) seem rather good for postcard-type games. I’m keen to try Solitaire Caesar (because of the topic, and to compare with Fall of Rome). I also have Vietnam Solitaire, Switzerland Must be Swallowed and Baptism at Bardia. Markus Stumptner and Chris Harding have tried the latter and tell me that it’s probably not worth the effort. There are a number of Schultze Games titles for download (Fall of France and one I hadn’t seem before – Eureka Stockade – the first wargame set in Australia?).

The quality of the game that is downloaded is of course unknown, but then it’s the same for anything that you buy off the shelf (though some judicious checking of the BGG ratings may help).  In theory the commercially-published game should be better tested, much seems to get released that is decidedly under-cooked.

I was trawling through Drivethru RPG looking for some traveller RPG material when I found a number of pleasant surprises. Amongst the Traveller stuff are four boardgames available for download: Fifth Frontier War, Dark Nebula, Azhanti High Lightning and Imperium. The first and last of these I own, and AHL I remember fondly playing in high school. Into the cart it popped and I continued browsing the e-aisles.

Noticing that ‘board games’ were offered undr product type, I soon abandoned my Traveller-looking operations and wandeed to different pastures. Much of the material proved to be from Guild of Blades (and thus of poor quality) or from Lock ‘n Load (which may or may not be fine but at this point not of interest). I was surprised therefore when GDW’s Russo-Japanese War (which includes both their Port Arthur and Tsushima titles). Into the cart it went too. Also among the boardgames lurked Belter. Of less interest, it remained out of the cart (though looking on BGG I see that there are solitaire rules for it…. hmmmm).

Sadly the work of printing components and mounting the counters mean that these tend to move continually to the back of the play cue. Hopefully some of these will appear on the table in the near future.

Crossing the Rio Grande

Last night Chris Harding and I played Rio Grande: The Battle of Valverde. It was published in Strategy and Tactics 143, making it one of the early Decision Games products. We both viewed upcoming the session with a sense of trepidation. Partly it was the comment made by designer Richard Berg on BGG about his own design: [I] will say that while the map is very nice, the counters are truly dreadful. Interesting battle, mediocre system. Now he says this in order to indicate that his next on the subject is better (and that we should buy that instead of wasting our time and money looking for this one), and that is perfectly fine.

The other reason for the trepidation was reading the rulebook. It’s not an easy one to read and get a sense of how things will work. It uses his (in?)famous Turn Continuation Table. Players dice for initiative, the player winning it getting a single free action. An action can be things such as movement, combat or resupply (troops can run low on ammunition).   One that action is done, the player announces the next formation to activate, announces their (single) action and rolls 2D6. If the dice fall within a particular number range they can perform that action, otherwise the opposing player gets to roll on the TCT (and may themselves have a free action). Play continues back and forth in this manner until all formations have activated twice (or both sides pass, or a random event intervenes). A unit that wants to melee therefore has to spend an activation moving adjacent, then possibly having to weather defensive fire. Both sides will therefore tend to deploy and engage in firefights at several hexes distance.

It all seems a bit too much (a chit-pull system may work much better and require less rules verbiage). A good flow-chart would go some way to make better sense of it. However, we were both reasonably surprised. A hidden gem is certainly is not, but neither did it bark nor wag its tail. The relative smallness of the battle, and the consequent small number of units on the board meant that play didn’t feel overwhelming.

The main issues were that the rules were ambiguous in many places. It wasn’t always clear when players received a free action when a failed roll occurred. The biggest issue we had was artillery activation. They are not independent units, but it wasn’t made clear which formations they were attached to (or whether in fact they could be activated with any formation). The game was also not overly generous with its markers, and on occasion we had to remember which units in a formation had 1 or 2 actions, who was or was not dismounted, and so on. Once we got used to how things (seemed to) work though we went along at a nice clip. Ten turns (8:30 to 13:00, in half-hour turns) took a bit over two hours.

The battle itself featured a small Confererate cavalry force commanded by General Henry Silby trying to cross the Rio Grande in search of badly-needed supplies. Opposing them was a small U.S. cavalry/infantry led by General Edward Canby.

The terrain on the battlfield is largely open, but there are lot of groves (which I imagine is light bush, rather than pleasant orchards) which impede movement, and provide some cover but do not block LOS. The Confederate side of the river also features a series of sand dunes (representing the old rio Grande riverbed) which do block LOS (unless immediately adjacent, so units can set up firing positions behind them). There are also a small number of fords across the river (which both players know, so there is no need to scout for them). The Confederate side again also has a number of 2nd-level positions that overlook some of the fords (and again provide cover).

The Federals start with but a single unit on map, the Confederates with two, and both sides feed in reinforcements as the battle progresses. The Confederates are out-numbered, and the the Federals have infantry (slower, but more fire-power, and longer range). Cavalry may dismount, but the Confederates remain out-ranged even so. The Confederates however automatically gain the initiative on turn 1, so the big question for them is what to to gain an initial advantage.

Historically, the Federals drove the Confederate vanguard and pushed across the  river. The Confederates in time retreated to the old riverbed. Sibley fell ill during the course of the action and handed command over to Colonel Tom Green for a period.

The Federals moved to force the Confederates from their position, but the Confederates attacked the Union right to forestall this. This was bloodily repulsed, but a second attack on the Union centre carried the day for Sibley’s men. A Federal cavalry charge could not restore the situation and Canby ordered a retreat.

Both sides gain VPs for causing step losses, and for crossing the Rio Grande. Both sides are thus rewarded for aggression.

I played the Confederates in this game while Chris commanded the Federals. The Confederates automatically get the initiative on turn 1. By the end of the turn both units had crossed the Rio Grande at the northernmost ford (hexes 2110-2010-1909) and dismounted astride the road that follows the river northward (in groves at 1607 and 1609). The plan was to force the Federals to attack on the western bank of the Rio (where I gain the VPs) and to allow my reinforcements time to come up.

It was an excellent plan, if one did not take into account the following:

1. Union numerical superiority

2. Union entry hexes being much closer to the fords than my own

3. The old riverbed that lay between me and the current riverbed (which though an excellent defensive position also inhibits movement across it.

Chris, an ungentlemanly cad (and thus well-suited to taking the Federals) decided not to ignore the aforementioned three points and, while sending a sizeable detachment to deal with my not-so-tenable-road-striding position also began to cross the ford in numbers.

My reinforcements were able to deploy to the riverbed during turn 2 but, a Southern gentleman does not hide when the enemy is to the front! The groves in front of said of old riverbed marked where the Confederate line would be set.

It wasn’t in fact a bad position at first, and Confederate artillery soon brought the advancing Federals under fire. It was not the devestating fire that I’d hoped that it might be. However, if it can be said that a good general makes his own luck, then I would have had to make a new CRT, because I wasn’t going to cause a whole lot of damage from the range at which my men began to fire.

By turn five however things began to hot up, and a Federal unit suffered a step loss advancing towards the Confederate guns in the grove. However, being able to bring effective fire to bear also meant that the Federals were able to lay effective fire. Causig casualties also meant that ammunition began to run lowand so precious actions were spent bringing up new supplies.

Meanwhile, the Confederate units that had crossed the Rio Grande fell back before the advancing Federals and re-crossed the ford lickety-split. They had prevented a sizeable contingent of the Federal force from crossing the river too early, but needed to cause casulaties and now fell back for the sake of self-preservation.

The Confederates, gentlemanly as ever, consented to remain under Federal fire even though themselves outranged. A step-loss gave food for thought, as did the Federal force manoeuvering on the Confederate right to gain the old riverbed. Bowing finally to the contraints of military necessity the Confederates fell back towards the protection of the old Rio bed. This withdrawl took place despite the worsenin condition of the commander (one of the random events is a possible worsening of Sibley’s health, which occurred on two consecutive turns: at 11:30 am and 12:00 pm.

The imagined Union assault on the Confederate position did not materialise. Instead, the Federals consolidated their position along the high ground near the fords. The infantry formed a line and settled down comfortably for the afternoon. Seeing the  lack of movement from the Federal lines the game was called on the 13:00 turn, for what, for all the relatively bloodless nature of the battle, was a resounding Federal victory

One of the things that became apparent to us was that the Confederates need to contest the river-crossings. There is a goodly amount of higher ground close to the fords that the Confederates can use to bring fire down upon Federal reinforcements. Because both sides get VPs for crossing the river, waiting at the old river bed will be a losing strategy for the Confederates.

However, the Union troops have an advantage in numbers and should be able to force any contested fords. The Confederates will fall back to the old riverbed. So far so good. However from a historical point of view things will unravel from here. The Federals have simply to cross the river, hunker down and await the Rebs, as Chris in fact did. The Confederate attacks that took place will thus be replicated but for the wrong reasons. As the Federals will get 3 VP per unit simply for having crossed the river, they have no reason to attempt an attack on the Confederate positions as they did historically. As VPs are also gained for casualties the Federals are likely to gain an advantage here as well.

In summary, not bad, but on reflection the Federals need to be given a reason to do more than simply cross the river, both for game balance and so that becomes possible to model the historical battle.

Next up for Chris and me: Clash of Empires, which I must say I’m quite looking forward to!

Keep on the Shadowfell session

I’ve been with my current RPG group for 10 years this year. In that time we’ve tried Ravenloft, Deadlands and will soon be starting a brief Mutants and Masterminds campaign. We keep returning to Dungeons and Dragons though, and we are working our way through the Keep on the Shadowfell module (which we’re using in the Forgotten Realms setting). it has a nice mix of town (really village) role-playing and a good old-fashioned dungeon-crawl. The nice thing about this game is that we are running it with 2 DMs, which makes running sessions a breeze. We also have a nice, natural division of labour. I enjoy running the tactical combat sequences, my co-DM (Tony O’Brien) is very good at description and story improvisation.

Our last session was on Friday night (June 20) and we picked up in the middle of a melee. So now to a brief outline of the campaign thus far is herein penned for your amusement:

Warning – spoilers ahead!

The adventuring party, Mila (human cleric of Chauntea, run by Jason Littlefield), Darganesh (human fighter, run by Michael Brockhouse), Rajesh (eladrin wizard, run by Mark Burgoyne), Finnan (halfling rogue, run by Jason Diprose) and Ankasha (Teifling sorcerer, run by Ben Head) have been called to the village of Winterhaven by Winterhaven’s resident cleric (Lenora, a human priest of Chauntea) to deal with an unusually well-organised group of kobold raiders. She believes that there is something more sinister behind it. The party discover that a cult of Shar is operating in the area.

It is rumoured that near Winterhaven lies the remains of the shadow wyrm Shadraxil, slain by Sir Jerold Keegan, a knight of Cormyr. The adventurers discover that, in reality Shadraxil’s power was so great that he was instead banished to the Plane of Shadow and sealed there behind a magical portal. The cultists seek to release Shadraxil and unleash a reign of terror across The Realms.

What the party does not yet know (and are not likely to be reading this…) is that Keegan was driven mad by the dragon, and he slaughtered his family, along with the castle garrison. He remains in the castle: a skeleton seeking release from undead torment. The ruins of his castle has been occupied by the cult, who have lured goblins into occupying the upper levels (with false tales of treasure) while they perform the rituals necessary to release Shadraxil from his imprisonment.

In the previous session, our heroes had travelled from Winterhaven into the foothills of the Thunder Peaks and found the ruins of the keep. It had been deliberately abandoned by Cormyr so that the tragedy that befell Sir Keegan should not be repeated. Over the centuries the keep has fallen in on itself, but enough of the outer walls remain that it is still an impressive spectacle. It was obvious to the party that the keep was in use because of the path hewn through the rubble into the centre of the ruin where the once stood the centre-most tower. They approached with much caution but, as it transpired, with little silence.

Descending down a stairwell, the adventurers came into a large open room with 4 floor-to-ceiling stone pillars. A passageway led away from the room directly opposite the entrance. Down that passage stood two goblins, crossbows readied. Without belabouring the details, the party moved into the room, Darganesh falling into a pit trap filled with rats. What the party didn’t count on was that goblins from adjoining areas would join the fray.

At its height the combat involved 20+ goblins, 2 guardian drakes and a hobgoblin torturer (wielding red-hot iron pokers as weapons). by the end of the session, Ankasha and Mila were unconscious and dying, while the remainder had barricaded themselves behind a door that led down a flight of stairs. Beating on the door were 10 of the goblins, one of the drakes and the torturer. And that was where the session ended.

One of the things that pleased me with that session was that it generated quite a deal of player chatter after the session, which to me is a sign that thet enjoyed it. So Tony and I were looking forward to finishing the encounter off, but wondered whether it would last long and, more to the point whether any of the party would survive. While we knew that the torturer was low on hit points and that half of the remaining goblins were single hit point minions, we also knew that the party’s hit point levels were down.

We were interested to see how they would approach things, so we gave then a run-down of the previous session to get their heads into the current session, and gave them a few minutes to discuss options.  Tony and I were right: it was a short session.  Spiking the doors shut,  Darganesh, Rajesh and Finnan stepped back from the door, splashing oil on the  steps near the door’s entrance. As the door burst asunder, a couple of the goblins fell and, while more got into melee the oil was then set alight. The torturer, the drake  and most of the goblins were killed, a couple of singed survivors  fled from the castle and Ankasha and Mila were revived.  Making their way back to town to recover, the party now readies itself to head back to Shadowfell Keep.

Which is where the next session will pick up from………

Fifth Corps a Bore?

Chris Harding came over (after some phone-confusion on my part) to ohh and ahh at the new house and, more importantly to push around some cardboard after a 6-week hiatus. Earlier in the day, he e-mailed me the results of a game of Sicily: The Race for Messina with his son (also called John). John was the victor in that encounter, which prompted Chris to suggest that perhaps that the name is not sufficient reason for my head-on-a-platter state.

So after some social banter we got down to business. Fifth Corps is one of a series of games published as part of SPI’s Central Front series (the others being Hof Gap and BAOR). Two later games, North German Plain and Donau Front (published during the 3W tenure of S&T) used the same scale, and the maps were compatible with the earlier games but the system was drasitcally modified. The SPI progeny revolve around the Friction Point.

After determining who goes first (both players simply roll a D6 and the highest roller goes first), both sides move units in alternate phases. Units will generally start the turn on their fresh side. When they move they gain a friction point (in the first instance they are simply flipped over). Units may move in subsequent phases in the turn but only if they moved during the initial phase. So stay put in the first phase and that’s it for you for the turn.

Units are allocated Operation Points (in the scenario we tried each unit had 12), and are used for movement and combat. Terrain determines the line of the CRT that you roll on, which effectively functions as a form of column-shift. So a 3:1 in city terrain is the equivalent to a 1:3 in clear. Different types of terrain (naturally) have different Operations Point costs, but players can also choose different types of attack: March, Hasty and Prepared (again with different Operations Points costs). These effectively function as die roll modifiers. So rolling a 1 when undertaking a March attack is the same as rolling a 3 for Prepared (lower numbers are better). Units also move individually or by stack, so setting up multi-hex attacks on a position takes some co-ordination (all units in such an attack must start the phase adjacent to the hex in question).

Each subsequent phase that you move you gain a friction point marker.  Units that are flipped to their friction point side also expend additional Operations Points for each hex entered and each combat entered, so they slow down as the turn progresses. These represent things such as supply usage, wear and tear and casualties. And when a unit accumulates six of them, it’s gone for the rest of the game. So you can drive units a long way in a turn but at the risk of making them extremely brittle for subsequent turns.

They lose Friction Points at the start of each turn if in supply (if on their Friction Point side, they are simply flipped, otherwise their marker is reduced by one), so supplies and replacements trickle to the front (though in uniform quantities to each unit, so there is no option of beefing up some units at the expense of others). In a small scenario it was OK, though I imagine that it could get tedious in the larger ones.

Over that is layered toppings such as artillery (which can make chemical attacks), airpower, electronic warfare and tactical nukes. There is also some attempt to include aspects of doctrine for each side. NATO units of different nationalities may not stack, Soviet divisions have a march order that must be adhered to when they first enter as reinforcements, and so on. We found that it played reasonably smoothly, but then the scenario had no EW or airpower.

Scale-wise, each hex is roughly four km across and each turn represents 1/2 a day. Units are batallions and companies for NATO forces, and regiments with some batallions for Warsaw Pact forces. Units are rated for attack and defence (Operations Points are defined in the Exclusive rules: 12 in Fifth Corps). One thing that the unit scale means is that NATO units will I think seldom get a chance to mount attacks. Soviet motorised infantry regiments typically have a defensive value of 14, while NATO attack strengths are 3-4 (in this scenario around 1-2). That may differ in latr games where weaker Czech and East German formations also make their appearance.

Not that things are smooth sailing for the Red Army. A prepared assault carried out by 2 Soviet motorised infantry divisions (attack strength 20) in total versus a single cavalry company (defensive strength 2) will still have a 1 in 3 chance of causing losses to the attacker. Two such units will mean that the defender has a 1/3 chance of taking no losses at all. Add to that the fact that the Warsaw Pact forces will be expending friction points moving up to the attack and the Pact player may well be in for a bloodied nose. What helps the Pact are:

1) A goodly amount of artillery support

2) the ability to make more liberal use of chemical weapons, which provide a positive column shift (in this scenario 2 such shifts).

The introductory scenario (the Rhine-Main Raid) features 11 companies of the U.S 11th Cavalry Regiment and 3 battalions of West German 5th Panzer division rushing in from the north of the map to forestall an incursion by 2 Soviet motorised rifle divisions.  In this scenario the Soviets move first on each game turn, and get to pick any 4 hexes on the map, in which is placed a ‘4’ friction point marker. This many additional OPs must be expended to enter the hex (on turn 2 they are replaced with a ‘2’ marker, and removed on turn 3.

And now, an interruption of the description for some fictional narrative:

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This report, submitted on behalf of the KGB on the conduct of the attempted siezure of Frankfurt and Wiesbaden on July 12-13 1982, submitted to the Executive of the Supreme Council of the USSR  on August 4th, 1982 was found within Soviet military archives when they were opened during the late 1990’s. Translator’s notes appear in <> brackets:

Comrades! Comrade General Ivan Nebauerevich was given the task of seizing 3 widely separated objectives: Frankfurt and Wiesbaden in the south, and the REFORGER site at Giessen, within a 36-hour time-frame.  The attack was timed for the morning of July 12th. The assignments were adjudged as tough but necessary in order that the Red Army and it’s fraternal allies conduct its principal assaults on the one hand towards the strategic ports of Hanover in the north, and to allow the completion of the encirclement of Munich in the south. For this task he was given two fully-equipped rifle divisions: the 20th Guards and the 39th Guards, both at the peak of their training and fully committed to crushing the enemies of the working class. It was felt that NATO opposition would be sparse and in any event would arrive too late to greatly influence events.

His plan of attack was for one column of the 39th Guards to conduct the assault on Giessen, and for the other column of the 39th, plus the 8th Guards in toto to seize the airfields. The Comrade, when later defending his decision at Dzerzhinsky Square argued that it was in accord with the theories of scientific warfare as expounded by Comrades Budienny and Voroshilov. Comrades, as you know the great Vladimir Ilyich Lenin wrote ‘Better Fewer but Better” in 1923, stating that it was better to have few good-quality people than a mass of poorly-prepared ones to organise work. Comrade Nebauerevich would have been rewarded, it seems, by a better study of Lenin’s works. Such a division of forces would likely to have led to an inability to deploy fully, and that this was what duly occurred. Comrade General Nebauerevich’s poor deployment sent three attack columns onto a single main road artery, where thet were unable to properly deploy their strength. Concentration of one entire division against Giessen may have ensured it’s early capture and released the bulk of that division for re-deployment south to aid in the assault on Frankfurt.

Comrade Nebauerevich compounded this error by ordering aerial interdiction of the main roads heading south into the area, in particular the autobahn north of Wetzlar <hex 2818>, the traffic corridors around the cities of Montabaur <hex 2906>, Limburg <hex 2609>, and the strategic intersection east of Wiesbaden <hex 1610>. In our view Comrade Nebauerevich lacked due care in his choices. Having decided to commit only 2 full-strength regiments to the north, he ought then have interdicted the road network to ensure that U.S were unable to arrive in Giessen before our lead elements. While Wetzlar was deemed a good choice, Marburg and the road network to the north <hexes 2818, 3317, 3125 and 3821> may have served better. This would have been in accord with concentration on the aim. It is now known comrades that Comrade General Nebauerevich was a devotee of the Trotskyite-fascist theories of Mikhail Tukachesvsky and it is likely that these inculcated a defeatist mindset before action was joined.

It must be noted, comrades, that the men of the Red Army performed with the highest valour and professionalism. The lead units of the southern column of the 39th Guards reached the the Main River near Hanau just after midday on the 12th. In the north Alsfeld (located on the main east-west autobahn to Giessen) was reached about the same time.

The imperialists sent elements of the U.S 11th cavalry regiment to oppose the advance.  These were able, despite attempts at interdiction able to reach Giessen before our own troops. One of the few prisoners taken in the area, U.S. army captain Harding told our officers that two companies of the 11th cavalry deployed around the REFORGER site <hex 2621, worth 6 VPs>, and another 2 companies in the western part of the town <hex 2622, worth absolutely no victory points>. Foolishly, comrade Nebauerevich ordered the local commanders to launch an immediate attack on the town, rather than prepare for a later assault on the vital REFORGER sites. These attacks caused grievous losses in men and materiel, and although some elements launched attacks on the central part of the city on the following morning, it became clear that the chance to seize the city was lost.

In the south companies of the 11th cavalry reached Hanau and likewise proved difficult to dislodge. After some initial headway, the advance ground to a halt as the Americans were engaged in fierce city fighting.

At this point Comrade General Nebauerevich could have pulled forces north and west in order to drive on Frankfurt, but instead insisted on trying to root out the by-now stubborn defenders. Perhaps their small number encouraged a nore reckless approach that would not have been used against a more numerical defence.

More puzzling was Comrade General Nebauerevich’s non-use of chemical weapons. All Red Army personnel of the rank of colonel and above had been briefed on the new chemical agents that were deployed to front-line units in 1981. At his de-briefing, Comrade General Nebauerevich indicated that he had forgotten to deploy them! If true this is an astonishing oversite!! Even given his poor disposition of forces, they may have enabled the Red Army to at least have captured Giessen.

In short, Comrade General Nebauerevich’s deployments would have shamed a first-year officer cadet, support arms were poorly used and his tactical decisions were questionable. Comrades, you know that the working class must display no mercy to those who imperil its dictatorship. On the other hand, it must also be lenient with those who make errors in its service. After his de-briefing, we believe that Comrade General Nebauerevich be relieved of front-line command, but be given responsiblty for rear-area security forces where it is hoped that he may in time remove this seriosu blot on his military record. <the reanscript indicates applause>

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Having now had two runs, I would say that this is definitely not a bore, but I would be interested in giving this a run with a larger scenario. The friction point system may also prove rather fiddly with more units. This scenario is definitely a hard one for the Warsaw Pact.

Upcoming Game

Tomorrow night Chris Harding gets to see the new house for the first time. We’re trying Fifth Corps‘s scenario one, which is (possibly) a good one to get into the system. I say possibly, because Chris and I think it rather unbalanced (though given that it’s a learning scenario that is probably of little importance).

It’s only of importance to me in that Chris and I both think that the Soviets have the hardest road. The U.S and West Germans really need just sit in the main objective hexs and the Soviets will be hard-pressed to chisel them out. I play the Soviets tmorrow night, and so I will (as so often happens) get my head handed to me on a platter. Perhaps it comes with having John as a name, and thus my poor game play is really my mother’s fault, so I can have a nice cup of tea and try to master noughts and crosses (gosh, it does have a BGG entry – well, well, well).. 

BGG tells me that I last played Chris on May 1. Moving, illness and lack of transport (one of our cars was off the road with an enoooormous dent made, it seemed, by a rhinoceros  on steroids, just when we wanted said car for moving house) have kept us from gaming for some time, so it will be good to get together.  Last time, I got to play NATO. I lost. приветствия, камрады!!