Saturday, 14 April 2012

Strategic, Operational or Skirmish?

Last night, I played Empire Total War, and got involved in a long running battle with the Spanish to capture Gibraltar, it would give me a strategic base controlling the access to the Mediterranean, and allow me to base ships in my constant fight with the Barbary States Pirates - who keep raiding my merchant fleet and costing me valuable trade.

I have attached a You Tube video of the game if you do not know what it is - even if you do, I commend the video to you, because it is really well made, and has a classic sound track:

I captured Gib twice, and lost it twice. My last army fought well against overwhelming odds, but finally succumbed, as did one of my best Generals - I am now faced with the big decision of stripping Britain of her home army and sending a well guarded convoy to try for a third time, or admit defeat, at least in the short term.

Another factor I have to consider - I commenced building fortifications around the town, and if the Spanish complete them, it will be a tough ask to try and re-take it. All of this happened because I supported my ally Portugal when the Spanish invaded. Spain is an ally of France, who appears to be building a fleet to challenge mine, I am thoroughly enjoying the also got me thinking about war gaming, and the different aspects of the hobby, and players tastes.

For example, my secret war gaming friend was into Twilight 2000 as a kid, he told me about a number of other games, including Dungeons and Dragons (I think), and Leather Clad Bikers from Mars ( I swiftly moved away from that conversation.....), and I think this legacy shows up in his war gaming preferences.  He firmly enjoys skirmish games, and even when we played WW2 Rapid Fire, he confessed that a small part of him was not imagining the units as companies, but as single units of men and machines. He enjoys the character building of his units in linked battles. Its his bag.

I on the other hand used to play some Avalon Hill board games (Battle of the Bulge for example - which now has a different connotation now I am middle aged), and the classic game Diplomacy to name a couple. My dreams were of vast operational battles, and of combined arms, air and sea movement to win a campaign rather than the close down tactics of small unit battles.

I will one day participate, or run a campaign set on the Russian front (obviously units would have to be abstracted down to playable levels on the table), which would link in with an Artic Convoy campaign - where successful arrival of allied ships would be represented by Lend-Lease kit on the table, with a number of players taking command of different aspects of chain of command, with an overall leader who would issue the commands using a map, and have no contact with the table top action (sad I know).

That is what interests me, and is probably why I am running an AWI campaign at the moment with four players.

I have talked about a Normandy campaign with a wargaming friend, with players as the German command, against an umpire driven Allied force. The difficulties of command, and miscommunication, as well as tactics and operational decisions fascinates me. They know the invasions is coming, when, where and how? - now, that is a different story.

The AWI campaign is an example of people with hindsight - as umpire I know of every missed opportunity, I actually think one side could win the game out-right, but the commanders do not know what I do. I can appreciate now, how our historic leaders and commanders appeared to make 'historic' mistakes - we have the whole picture in hindsight, they did not.....................

It does not mean that I do not enjoy skirmish games, I just prefer the large battles, and campaigns, ones where I can actually make a difference, good or bad by my operational moves, and not just a few poor dice rolls during the battle...................

Now, do I strip Old Blighty of troops to capture Gib, and take away her Channel Fleet to escort it?...........................

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Not tonight Josephine - 28mm Napoleonic skirmish game

My Secret Wargaming friend has been busy, he has painted some figures, scratch built some buildings, and asked for others for his birthday. He has started his Napoleonic armies, something he promised he would never do, because he didn't know where it would end......................

A French sentry guards the prize - a command wagon full of secrets

For a while, my secret wargaming friend has been patiently working on this project, and it has been well worth the wait. Tonight he put on a great skirmish game. I was the British commander (represented on tabletop by a suitably dashing command figure), SWF - the French, and he too was represented by a command figure (who's tunic was a little too tight around his belly).

I had strict orders to reconnoiter a nearby town, and bring back captured supplies if possible. I had 13 men for the task, and had to cross a river to get into the town.

The British approach was from the bottom left of the picture then on toward the bridge

There was another crossing point, a ford in the river. It seemed as though the game designer (SWF), was tempting me to split my force, I seriously considered it, and discarded the idea. If my opponent wanted me to split my force, then it would not be a good idea to fall into the trap.

So I decided against it, and opted for the less than subtle - " charge across the bridge and straight toward the enemy". I borrowed the idea from a World War One guide to assaulting enemy trenches that I had recently borrowed..........

The dashing commander, painted in my likeness, along with the short drummer boy, and an overweight standard bearer.

The Forlorn hope

The town was guarded, at first glance by four or five sentries, easy pickings to my group of hardened soldiers. It was the first time I have ever played Napoleonic's, and I was not disappointed. It took me a little while to get my head around the fact it was skirmish rules, but once I had done that, the game was quick, and I felt provided a suitable flavour for the period.

My column approach the bridge at the double

This time the pigs couldn't escape - the gate was closed

My brave boys were quickly spotted by the French sentries. Not surprising really, since they were marching down the centre of the road in bright red tunics. I was hoping speed may give me an advantage - it almost did, almost.

The sentries raised the alarm, and previously unseen French Grenadiers started appearing from the nearby inn, and house. The pressure was on, and I had to get over the bridge. I formed up some of the men in line for volley fire to see of the enemy sentries on the other side of the bridge.

A quick exchange of musketry between the British advanced group and the sentries resulted in private Stevens being seriously wounded. Note the brave officer sensibly leading from the rear - no need to make early futile gestures is there?

The exchange of shot eventually saw the French commander woken from his slumber. I am not sure what he thought was going on, but he was obviously in a rush at this point. He started to shout commands to his troops.

More Grenadiers appear from inside the buildings

Fool-hardy, or brave - British troops, led by a portly sergeant hailing from Hereford, race across the bridge, with French musket balls speeding past their heads.

My opponent, was at first bemused by the rather direct and unimaginative approach of my little company of men, until they crossed the bridge - without suffering a single casualty due to some horrendously poor French dice rolls.

At this point, he sent a man to move the command wagon. The race was on.......

French Grenadiers, in a bit of a panic, try and move the command wagon, and it's precious content away from the speedy British scout force.

The French commander takes personal command of the blocking force

For some of the occupants of the town, life continues as normal......he is called Pepe and belongs to the landlord of the inn.

Vicious hand to hand will soon be on the agenda

Unfortunately, the game was not finished when time was called, down to the both of us getting used to a new rule set.

A good game and great evening.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sink the Bismarck - the original movie

Before you read my post about re-fighting the Hood v Bismarck, watch this You Tube video. It aptly reflects my war game (OK perhaps I am exaggerating, but it gives you a good flavour of events if you are not already aware)

WW2 naval wargaming - Battleship Zenith computer moderated rules

Saturday, and a quiet interlude between Easter weekend family duties and responsibilities saw this war-gamer disappear from the hustle and bustle of daily life to the sanctuary of his war games den (sounds posh, but it just means a table in my garage - although I can lock myself in if I wish, and ignore the world by playing loud martial type music).

I am a naval war-gamer! - there, I have said it, I feel better that it is now out in the open, a niche interest in a niche hobby?

Luckily, I have some wargaming friends close by, and I can always con them into a game or two.

I use Battleships Zenith for World War 2 - click here for further info

This allows a very quick, but very accurate simulation of naval battle. The players get on with the world of being an Admiral, the computer does the glamorous number crunching bit, but everything else is the same from measuring your move, to plotting the gunnery distance between the ships - all the computer does is calculate the number of hits, the armour penetration and angle of shell hit, and the damage.

I intend to hoodwink some of my secret wargaming friends into a game, I may even try and drag the French commander from my AWI campaign in (if you are reading this Rochambeau?). So I needed to familiarise myself with the system again. This is what I did yesterday in my oasis of wargaming bliss.

So with time against me, before my absence was noticed by my ever observant wife, I dusted off an old, but interesting scenario - the naval war-gamers favourite - The battle of the Denmark Straight. The mighty Hood v Bismarck.

This may seem a forgone conclusion, as history tells us, but I think it is a very engaging tactical battle, that with a bit of luck, could have been a different story.

The mighty Hood

I started the battle with the ships about 20 miles away from each other, on a clear day, but with moderate seas. The rules set also deals with spotting, and it was not until the ships closed with each other did they spot and identify the opposing force.

The brand spanking new HMS Prince of Wales - some may say an unlucky ship.....

I use 1:3000th scale ships, a mixture of Skytrex and Navwar models. The ships closed and Bismarck opened fire first, immediately hitting the Hood and knocking out some of her AA and tertiary guns. Mmmm, will this go the way of history?

Prinz Eugen - consort to the fearsome Bismarck

The Mighty Bismarck

The Hood found herself taking some hits which would have caused me some concern in a game. The Bismarck was also hit a couple of times.

Shells land around the pride of the Kreigsmarine.

Two hits on the Hood, a further hit from the Bismarck resulted in a forward turret being knocked out.

The games was getting interesting, but then suddenly BANG BANG BANG on the garage door " secret war-gamer what are you doing?"

Been rumbled by the wife

" couldn't find the washing up liquid darling" and I returned from my bliss to the busy family world

Friday, 6 April 2012

Rapid Fire - The battle for Greece April 1941

Wednesday night saw a secret wargaming friend re-introduced to the Fast play WW2 rules, Rapid Fire. The rules feel like an old friend, and are one of my oldest rule sets.

The portion of Greece to be fought over

The premise was an Axis armoured thrust south to capture a bridge protected by a hotch potch British scratch force. I was keen to show my opponent the various aspects of the rules, so I generously gave him a whole unit of conscript Italian armour and infantry - how nice of me.

The Italian advance column enters the table

The Axis faced a half battalion of dug-in British infantry, supported by a platoon of cruiser tanks. There was a possibility of the remaining ten tanks of the company joining the battle. In addition the British had some universal carriers, and ten Mk VI light tanks. The aim was to hold a bridge over a narrow river.

The bridge - with Italian armoured cars racing to capture it

My opponent raced straight for the bridge, sending ten armoured cars, with a company of M11 tanks in support. The British had the single platoon of cruiser tanks to stop them. It was a big ask.

The British command post watches the approaching Italians with some concern.

Lead elements of the light British armour also races toward the bridge

A cruiser tank is hit defending the Bridge

British infantry take defensive positions atop a rooftop overlooking the bridge

Italian infantry de-bus and race to covering positions to support the assault on the bridge

My opponent saw a company of universal carriers and a company of light tanks racing to a wheat field to take cover and be in a position to fire on anything crossing the bridge - so he called for the Luftwaffe.

Bombs drop amongst the British unit

The infantry dismount and race for cover during the aerial attack.

The attack stalled due to the stubborn defence of the single platoon of cruisers, five armoured cars were destroyed crossing the bridge, to the cost of heavy damage to the cruiser platoon. The Italian commander called on his reserve, a company of German armour, and a company of motorised infantry.

The German infantry dismount from their lorries.

I called on my final reserve, ten cruiser tanks, and they moved quickly to cover the British left, and for a period of time held back the Axis forces. They seemed to have stalled the attack.

Desperate to cross the bridge, my opponent used his well armoured Panzer IV's to force their way over

Italian infantry moved toward the bridge, following the German armour

In a master stroke, the Italian commander called on his final reserve, an 88. This was to prove the turning point in the battle. This gun quickly took out five cruiser tanks, and caused their comrades to run for cover. Almost immediately, the last tank of the venerable cruisers blocking bridge was destroyed.

The game was up, and the surviving British units withdrew.

An Axis victory - and a good game to boot.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

American War of Independence campaign

This campaign is still very much alive and kicking. A naval battle was fought last night between British and French squadrons, somewhere off the east coast of the 13 colonies. Now, I am bending campaign rules by putting the battle on the blog so soon after the event, and I have to be careful what I say - so please dear reader, forgive me, if on occasion, I appear a little vague.

The British squadron under the direct command of Admiral Graves

Admiral Graves, and his squadron of four ship of the line, and a sloop, had been in pursuit of a smaller French squadron for nearly a week, following a brief skirmish a few days before.

The French squadron under the command of Admiral Des Touches, was half the size of the British squadron, with just two ship of the line and a frigate (which was minus part of its mainmast that had been shot away in the skirmish earlier in the week).

The British had completely surprised Des Touches, who had to rely on the speed of his vessels to extract himself from trouble. Finding himself considerably outgunned, Des Touches was forced to ignore his original orders and sped toward safety - doggedly pursued by Graves.

The two ship of the line of Des Touches squadron

Meanwhile, unbeknown to Graves, and Des Touches, another squadron was going to play a part in the little drama unfolding in the campaign. This squadron was under the command of Admiral Arbuthnot, a famous Admiral within the game and a character that had appeared a number of times in the Yorktown Times (the campaign newspaper).

Arbuthnot was in his flagship, the 98 gun second rate, London. He was in company with a 36 gun frigate, the Flora, and escorting two merchant vessels. The cargo of these ships (if indeed there was any cargo, must remain confidential), but this group of four vessels were heading in the opposite direction to Graves and Des Touches. The three squadrons met on a fateful Sunday night, with the war-game taking an unforeseen turn of events that left all the players and umpire opened mouthed (a bit dramatic I know, but I am trying to build up the tension in my story).

The London (Flagship for Arbuthnot), leading the squadron to the fateful encounter on Sunday evening. (As an aside, the campaign diary records that a certain Midshipman called Horatio Nelson was serving aboard the London on this deployment.)

The player who was taking the role of Des Touches looked forlornly at the table, he found his little force sandwiched between 9 British vessels, and to his west he was edging close to the coast. He had no room to manoeuvre. Luckily, the wind was blowing to the east. So he had a chance.

Graves on the other hand had his own problems, Arbuthnot's squadron was acting under strict instructions from General Howe himself (the senior British commander and player). The arrival of this squadron on the scene was as unwelcome to Graves, as it was to Des Touches. It complicated the situation.

Des Touches trying to outrun Graves

Des Touches smelled a rat, a big fat juicy " I caught a British convoy rat" and made a decision, his damaged frigate would be bait, and tempt the Pursuing Graves in its direction, leaving his two 74's to molest the convoy. At least that was his plan, but was it the correct plan in the campaign? He considered the following:

1. Would risking his squadron, if it was lost, decisively swing the strategic balance of naval power against the French?
2. Is the risk worth taking?
3. Is the pursuit of the merchant vessels and their unknown cargo (if indeed they were carrying anything other than ballast) worth the risk?

It was with these thoughts firmly in his mind, that Des Touches ordered his 74's to close with the convoy.........

Graves sent two of his 74's to close with the damaged French frigate and opened fire at long range, quickly reducing the frigates mainmast to a shattered stump, further slowing the frigate.

Meanwhile, his flagship, a lumbering 98 gun second rate, the two other 74's and the sloop pursued the French main body as it closed on the convoy.

Arbuthnot, ordered his squadron to sharply turn to starboard, heading east, attempting to place the London and Flora between the merchant ships and the French 74's under Des Touches.

Both sides opened fire at long range, and slight, if not steady damage began to be caused to various vessels.

Graves felt fairly satisfied at the position he found himself presiding over. He was an approaching menace to the rear of the French 74's, and the London was not a vessel of inconsequence in the defence of the convoy.

Surely the French would make a token attack and disengage?

The umpire was thinking firmly along these same lines.

The Flora was passing within 100m of the starboard side of the London when fate dealt a terrible blow to the British................a broadside from the closest French 74, still over a 800m away hit the London, with devastating consequences...........

The London explodes, all hands, including Admiral Arbuthnot and Midshipman Nelson lost

Now, I have played over twenty games using 'clear for action' computer moderated rules, and this has never happened before, additionally, and most impressively, the rules considered the proximity of nearby ships, and added damage as appropriate. The Flora had all three masts and sails shattered, and left them dangling over her starboard side. She was too, effectively out of the battle, losing her captain (J.Pulford), and 2nd Lt Charteris, along with 28 other ranks.

In an instant, and through no fault of the British commander, the game had been turned on it's head

The Flora, with smoke and the wreck of the London in the background. Her campaign diary records that this was her captains last deployment before retirement to Nova Scotia.

Even Des Touches was momentarily shocked by the exploding London, but soon returned to the task at hand. He noted that the two merchant vessels were quickly moving to the east. Even though his 74's were quick, he wondered if he could close the gap. His other option, the frigate, was doing her duty, well astern, and was too damaged to take up the chase

A long range duel between ships of the line followed, but each minute brought the merchants, who had now turned north, closer to the formidable protection of Graves squadron

Graves squadron fan out in pursuit, exchanging fire with Des Touches

Merchant vessels sail east, leaving behind the crippled Flora (stern most), and with the remaining smoke from the London explosion in the background, the ship torn apart like matchwood.

By now, it was becoming clear that Des Touches would be unable to engage the merchants, and to dally any longer would endanger his command, he was already resigned to the loss of his frigate. Reluctantly he turned away from his pursuit course and started to sail away from Graves.

Des Touches heads south, with the crippled French frigate, and part of Graves squadron in the background

French frigate under fire from three of Graves squadron, her rigging a mess and trailing to port.

Graves was left holding the ring so to speak, he had protected the merchant vessels, and captured a damaged French frigate, but at a heavy cost. The London was no more, and the Flora had no masts and would have to be towed.

He had some tough decisions to make for the next campaign turn, some of which include:

1. Should he escort the merchants and call off his pursuit of Des Touches?
2. What should he do about the Flora - she would need to be towed, slowing his squadron to a crawl, or risking the vessel assigned to tow her unescorted.
3. The French prize, and her prisoners would also slow his squadron, or be an easy prey if left alone.
4. Had the loss of the London tipped the naval balance of power in French favour?
5. How would the CinC and the press react to news of the loss of the London and Arbuthnot?

The next campaign turns happens in two weeks.........