Open Vassal Playtest, Saturday 4 February 2017, 2000 UTC

Excerpt of an account of 359IR’s fighting vicinity of Chambois, ~22 August 1944

After a restorative holiday visit to the US I’m bringing back a great number of new documents from the John Colby papers housed at the University of Oklahoma, two of which are particularly illuminating about the action at Beau Coudray in which two companies of 357IR were overrun. (This will be the subject of an upcoming scenario, BEAU4.)

Anyway, I’ll be doing a drop-in playtest of the learning scenario SEV0. Download the playtest package and drop me a line. Or just show up. As usual, communications will be via Skype (neal.durando). If you need help using VASSAL, just let me know. It isn’t hard–there’s remarkably little configuration hassle.

VASSAL module
Playtest Kit

Demo at MMFW

Karl and Chris face off in a small scenario called “American Patrol”. I set out the counters and let them ask questions.

In hindsight I should have played against them both, hotseating between games. One of the difficulties of playing in a museum is that there are a lot of fascinating artifacts literally within arm’s reach that are catnip to chatty people like me.

I’m glad to have selected Band of Brothers to provide the base rules for the system. Both Karl and Chris were able to pick up concepts like LOS, movement costs, and fire attacks with a simple, verbal instruction. I don’t think Karl ever looked at the player aid card. This has less to do with the indifferent brevity of my explanations and more to do with the staying power of the base system designer Jim Krohn’s simple, enabling design decisions.

The experience inspired me to organize a starter set, a smaller footprint, print-and-play version of FTGU. Over the next month I’ll organize the four learning scenarios and a reduced counter set into four ledger-sized pages.

Demo at Military Museum of Fort Worth, 15 January, 1200 hours

Current exhibit (ends April 2017)

I’ll be there with the director of the museum. I’ll do a quick presentation of the game and we’ll get right to it. Depending on the number of people who show, I may run a short tournament with the prize being a complete set of playtest counters to the winner. We’ll play BEAU0 and SEV0, two all-infantry learning scenarios which take place on an excerpt from the Beau Coudray and Sèves maps. When I get a moment, I’ll put this together as a PnP sampler of the whole module. Anyway, hope to see you there!

A note about the Military Museum of Fort Worth. Tyler Alberts’s labor of love in honor of his grandfather is unbelievably well curated. Really a jewel of a museum and where I’ve done the lion’s share of my research. Tyler has unbelievably precise knowledge of individual veterans in addition to an excellent and deep understanding of 90ID’s actions from Normandy until the end of the war. He is especially good with the social history of the artefacts in his displays. If you want to know where the laundry number in a 1942-issue U.S. musette bag can be found, Tyler is you man. He can probably even track down the original owner. Even if your questions aren’t about 90ID, if you have a question about the experience of the citizen-soldier in the Second World War you would be hard pressed to find a more accessible and knowledgeable source.

Open Vassal Playtest, this Sunday 2000 UTC

Obligatory tactic-y image.
Obligatory tactic-y image.

At 2000 UTC, Sunday, 19 November, I’ll be conducting a live, drop-in playtest of a small, learning scenario for my game Band of Brothers: From the Ground Up. Download the VASSAL module and meet me on the server at 2000 UTC (1500 EST, 1400 CST). Just open the module in VASSAL and hit the server connect button at the upper right and voilà. Voice comms will be via Skype (neal.durando). I’ll teach the rules, but if you want to read them, they’re in the package.

Sèves Learning Scenario

An intervisibility puzzle. Germans must not allow themselves to be flanked.
An intervisibility puzzle. Germans must not allow themselves to be flanked.

Here’s the third installment. One more to go. Pushed the counters around once, upped the US and dinged the Germans. The situation is 22 July 1944. After a hard day of fighting to gain less than a kilometer, 1- and 2/358 try to integrate their lines. The scenario is here and you can right click to download the VASSAL module.

It will be important to consider flanking, mines, crossfires, and dusk. I think this will be a fine illustration of how closely fought engagements in bocage country really were. Here’s a draft crossfire rule. I already see that the cases of 180° hex spines already need to be added.

Optional base game rule 3: Flanks are alway in effect in FTGU. If a player makes two consecutive direct fire attacks in the same impulse at normal range against the same infantry target across two non-connected hex sides, place a flank marker on the target unit. Note: a vertex is not considered part of the hex side. In addition to the usual negative effect for melee, the infantry unit under a flank marker now tests morale at -1. Remove the marker in the Recovery Phase.

capture
Cases A, B, and C from left to right. Yes, I’m aware there’s an error in the graphic.

 

Yaaaah!

Hmm. This looks familiar.
Hmm. This looks familiar. And, yes, I know it is impossible to stack all the German units on the starting hexes.

The next installment in the short learning scenarios I’m writing for each map. Okay, I’m getting a little slap happy here. Even so, this situation will familiarize players with SATWs, night, paved roads, and my simple turreted vehicle rule. Which reads:

5.3.3 Turreted Vehicles
Vehicle units with a colored or white ring around the vehicle depiction may choose to fire outside of their front firing arc without changing the orientation of the vehicle. This is important in terrain which restricts movement, such as narrow or sunken roads, or where the player chooses to avoid the risk of vehicle bogging.
(5.3.3.1) Firing out of the front firing arc always requires a proficiency roll, even at ranges under 5 hexes. Fire outside of the front firing arc suffers the usual -1 for turning to fire applies and anti-personnel firepower is reduced by 2.

I doubt I’m really going to playtest this. Well, I might do it if someone requested to play it live via VASSAL. Drop me a line if you want to read the module rulebook. You can have a look at the scenario here and right click to download the VASSAL file here.

Splendor vs Elegance

I think the following falls within one standard deviation of reality. What about you?

Jim Krohn’s lucid designer notes from the first game in the series are tonic against the rules creep one finds in other tactical systems which, considering historical realities, do not hesitate to color outside previously established lines. ASL and ATS invent new systems for new situations; they do not address these needs in terms of existing rules opting for a maximalist approach. They take a stab at splendor at the cost of adding distinct procedures, rather than taking an exacting look at previous rules and grinding out some elegance. Elegant rules are brief. They are also easy to internalize. Consider, for example, the ease with which a contemporary “no lookup” system like BoB or LnL conduct infantry fire with respect to ASL, ATS, Panzer, TCS, et al. Enough about that. The base game, Band of Brothers, sensibly avoids the complexities of separate locations within a hex.

One of the AOs in From the Ground Up features an important fire lane that the Germans identified and exploited, impacting the subsequent battle in a decisive fashion. They did so with machine guns placed at elevation in buildings. My cartography is accurate enough to show the same fire lane, but no such line of fire could exist at the base elevation. BoB doesn’t accommodate upper levels, wisely foregoing the rules bloat in-hex locations entail. The historical record even bears out this choice — I’ve seen little US tactical doctrine of the era that supports exploitation of upper levels at assault ranges. (Even though there is plenty of documentation of doing so in tactical practice.) Additionally, the historical record of the battle in question includes an explicit order to avoid using buildings for defense to limit post-combat damage claims by civilians.

Most Second World War tactical designs still echo John Hill’s Stalingrad. From what I’ve read of tactical doctrine and combat reports, in a fluid battle (not Stalingrad) it was rare that a squad would place itself in an upper level if area security was not secured. Weapons companies often set up in good supporting positions, but this is usually well outside danger close range for artillery (~500 yards), mostly outside of BoB’s scale. It was Squad Leader (SL), in its first scenario that encouraged the multi-locational aspect of hexes. The first SL scenario actually proposes a quantum state for units in buildings: they may both fire and be fired upon as if occupying upper and lower levels simultaneously. The interchangeability won’t work for a protracted battle. Here’s what I came up with:

Upstairs
An MG WT (only) may count the base elevation of its line of sight as including that of the building for infantry fire attacks (only) if another squad, unrevealed decoy, or WT accompanies it in the same hex. Place the MG WT on top of the two-unit stack to signify that it is upstairs. So long as the MG WT has a squad beneath it to ensure area security, the MG WT may now fire as if were at an elevation equal to the base elevation plus the obstacle elevation. Signify an MG WT is downstairs by placing it underneath an accompanying squad. MG WTs without an accompanying squad may not benefit from being upstairs. Melee against the hex is conducted normally.

upstairs_example_blog
The upstairs MG in M12 may fire on A as its level (base elevation 16 + obstacle height 2 = 18) is superior to the intervening garden hexes; the squad on the bottom level may not trace LOS across two garden hexes. The MG (level 18) is superior to the intervening elevation 16 hex in M11 to fire on B, although fire would still be modified for the bocage; the squad may not see it at all, as it does not enjoy superior elevation to all intervening hexes. Similarly, the squad may not fire on C as the same hex cannot be seen over. However, the bocage, (level 17; elevation 14 + 3 obstacle height) creates two blind hexes behind it, one of which is cancelled because it is a hexside obstacle. The MG could fire into N8 with the bocage modification but N7 is a blind hex.

There is a bit of a problem with this that I’ll address in a subsequent post. Perhaps live playtesting will tease it out.

 

Small is Beautiful

US sets up within two hexes of crossroads.
US sets up within two hexes of crossroads.

I intend to write a small, learning scenario for each map. Here’s my entry for Beau Coudray. Call it “American Patrol“. This is a completely theoretical action, but something like it probably occurred. While waiting for the inevitable German counter attack, a US patrol is sent out to locate an enemy position hampering the progress of the adjacent company.

Meant as an easy tool to learn the basic flow of a Band of Brothers turn and familiarize the players with the terrain, here the US player will have to intelligently maneuver around any trap the German might set, as well as play through the intervisibility requirement set upon US second line units. This is completely untested. So now is your chance.

I will be up on the VASSAL server at 2000 hours, GMT this evening (5 November). You have only to install the program (vassal.org) and download the FTGU module here.

Scenario Design, Armored Feint, finis

So, after another play through I added a 2nd line MG42 team to the German setup pool, mostly because it was a very likely historical deployment. I’ve played through this three times now and I don’t see anything else obvious to take care of. Slowly, I’m learning not to overwork scenario designs, as different playstyles are essential for new perspectives.

I’ve tried full, medium, and minimal initial draws for the Germans. Each present different challenges for the US force. There is some advantage in feeding the fight as it develops and choosing the lane for your reinforcements. But, heck, it’s possible I’m overlooking something.

Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.
Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.

I like how the tank-infantry coordination rule cleaned up. Its easier to remember and makes for some interesting maneuver problems. Was gratified to find the Turreted Vehicles rule I wrote didn’t require refining. I’d forgotten whether I’d reduced firepower for tanks which do not change their facing to target. A vehicle counter with a turret ring may engage targets to its sides and flanks without changing orientation but suffers -2 to its firepower. While I respect the logic of the basic game, new terrain in FTGU cries out for some nuance here. I think mine is an acceptable compromise. All the counters in the module are marked accordingly.

Now I leave it up to you. Comment here or email me should you be interested in testing this or other parts of the module. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a physical playtest kit, but one can be printed (complete with counters) at reasonable cost. However, I’ll be updating the VASSAL module in the next few days and, of course, it will be available for free.

Here’s the finished (for now) product.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design Part VIII

Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.
Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.

Hot washup after a few play throughs:

A. System Rule Change:

After a phase in which a vehicle moves or fires, no infantry or WT may move;

Will become:

Either tanks or infantry may move in the same player activation, but not both.

The original rule allows an unrealistic level of coordination. And I have evidence that 90ID did not undergo tank-infantry team training until the seizure of Gorges, just before their action at Sèves.

B. Scenario Changes

  1. The Mk IV, artillery mission, and elite infantry can only be drawn as reinforcements. A German player may opt to begin with no VP differential and have his complete force. Of course, this will mean less uncertainty for the US, who will only have to find a few real units and kill them to win. This may favor the German too strongly; this is a question for playtester.
  2. The US player gains 5 VP for each unoccupied building at the end of turn 5. This places a premium on pressuring the US flanks as well as making reinforcement draws potentially costly.
  3. German player must decide how many counters to draw before looking at any of them. While I like the granularity of looking at each as it’s drawn, I’m going to shelve the idea for another scenario. Germans are already sufficiently advantaged by the steep terrain and bocage.

C. Remaining Design/Balance Challenges
(Keeping in mind, on the historicity-balance spectrum, the former is more important to me.)

  1. The 105 artillery mission is potentially unbalancing, although its eventuality is somewhat ameliorated by having the players switch sides after turn 5. In Normandy, the Germans typically fired artillery in battalion, rather than battery missions to avoid the very good US counterbattery fire. I feel like I have to include at least its possibility, as this, and the advancing darkness, brought the US mission to a close. Additionally, it would be a relatively economical means to responding to a threat on a crossroads, which were likely preregistered. Very easy to imagine the German regimental commander (1050/77) dedicating a mission to disrupt a potential attack upon report of US armor.
  2. US forces. I’ve considered adding a fourth, first-line, reduced, US squad. My standard for FTGU’s cartography and rules is to try and get at least one standard deviation within history. The reason why I responded to BoB’s base design is that it seems to acknowledge that successful designs understand these limitations and doesn’t go chasing rabbits into a warren of special rules for special circumstances. Middleton is very explicit in his account that it was three teams of five men who attacked the crossroads. He specifies that it was the first sergeant who led the attack. It seems safe to assume that the 1SGT chose his men from the best remaining in the company, which was at least 30% understrength. Middleton is extremely detail oriented with a good memory, just like an excellent NCO. (Four years later, he can list exactly how much ammo he was carrying, certainly the product of a precisely calibrated order.) In short, it is easy to imagine he was one of the best soldiers in his company. Adding another maneuver element to counteract the increased difficulty of the terrain certainly seems within keeping to the one-deviation limit.