Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tactical Decision

For our first session, I was given the opportunity to choose our game. I'd received Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (which I'll refer to as CoH for the remainder of this post) for Christmas, and was hankering to get it on the table, so that was my selection. Not to be outdone for the inaugural session, Randy also brought a tactical WWII game along, although it was something a bit more old-school - Squad Leader. Hopefully next session I'll remember to use my digital camera, but for this time prose is going to have to suffice.

I had played CoH once previously with a fellow gamer in the DFW area (howdy, Mick!), and really enjoyed it - it seems to have much of the same decision making as other tactical games I've played, but distilled down into an elegant system that was simple to understand without being simplisitic. Mick and I had managed to get in two or three different scenarios in just a couple of hours, so it also fit the time frame that I tend to prefer. While I'm not one of those "must be shorter than an hour" gamers, some games can overstay their welcome - CoH didn't seem to do that in my previous playing, so I wanted to try it out again. I also wanted to introduce it to Randy, who had heard of it but not yet played.

Randy had read the rules through section two, which covers the rules needed for the first two scenarios - that provided plenty of fodder for our first session. First up, we played Firefight 1 - Partisans, with Randy taking on the role of the Soviet partisans and myself taking on the Germans. This uses the simplest map in the game - a crossroads amongst a small scattering of woods and light woods. The partisans are set up in the central woods on the first map, preparing to ambush a supply column that is on it's way. The Germans have been tracking this group of partisans for some time, and has learned from informants about the planned ambush - and intend to catch the partisans unawares. Essentially, the crossroads is the target for both groups, and holding control is the major source of VPs beyond simply eliminating opposing forces.

I honestly don't recall a lot of details of our first attempt at this scenario - I pressed fairly agressively as the Germans, and occupied the woods along the road on my side of the map very quickly. Randy was relatively conservative, but that didn't work out well for him at all - I had most of his forces eliminated very quickly, and he conceded quickly, suggesting we move on (which was fine with me).

I offered to switch sides, as the Soviets definitely seem to have a tougher time coming through this firefight with a win. Randy demurred, though, wanting a rematch. I'm still not certain I see how the Soviets manage to win this firefight, but our second attempt probably gave some ideas - Randy was much more aggressive this time, rushing Soviet rifle squads right up to my units, especially before they were able to get through the woods and get line of sight (LOS) on them. The Soviets managed to eliminate one of the German LMGs very early on, in close combat IIRC, and that made things more difficult, but once the German Pioneers squad showed up, things fell apart for him again. I think it was definitely the right decision on Randy's part to play more aggressively - espcially going for close combat, where his units had an advantage over mine. Perhaps with some better luck he might have been able to pull out the win. As it was, the second time through was much more interesting - there was much more tension as the fight over the woods happened, and with the Germans losing one of their two LMGs early, I felt pressed. Not pressed enough to stop attacking, but it made the decisions much more interesting. That being said, I think this scenario is pretty difficult for the Soviets.

As we were still enjoying CoH, we decided to attempt Firefight 2 - The Gap, using both Map 1 and Map 2. This scenario has a German scouting force scouting a village, and attempting to determine if Soviet forces are present (and eliminate them if possible). The Soviets need to hold their ground, as there are reinforcements coming (on turn 3 of 5). The Soviets start with a machine gun occupying the lone stone building in the village (in my minds-eye this was a silo), and they have a couple of other rifle squads that start out on the map. The Soviets also start with two rifle squads that begin the game hidden, one of the new rules added in section two of the rules (CoH uses the "programmed" rules method, where they teach you rules in relatively digestible chunks and then use them in a scenario or two). As the Germans, I started with four squads, each a combined LMG/Rifle squad (two units, stacked together), all located on the road on the western edge of Map 1. This time around, the Soviets were much more successful, especially as Randy made good use of his hidden units. Initially, I pressed straight forward, and if I had kept with that thought I'd likely have done much better. As it was, I split my forces (probably a big mistake), sending two squds straight forward, and two squads south in an attempt to flank the visible Soviet rifle squad in the woods. I'll refer to each combo of LMG/Rifles as a squad here, as they stayed grouped for the entire game (also likely not ideal, at least once the lead started flying). I pushed 1st squad forward through the woods, and from that position managed to drive one of the visible Soviet rifle squads behind the copse of woods they had been hiding in. This opened up the entire central clearing, and I rushed 2nd squad through, right up to the copse that the Soviets had been occupying. I didn't want to advance into it, as the close combat experience earlier in the day hadn't been good (even if this time I had a squad with the LMG to help fight back). Then, my fatal mistake, I sent 3rd squad south to probe the forest there - and in so doing, found myself face-to-face with a previously hidden Soviet rifle squad. With some good luck on Randy's part, he managed to roll just what he needed in order to eliminate both the LMG and the Rifles in 3rd squad, putting my in a tough position. Rather than using the knowledge that the squad was south, and going another direction (like, perhaps, straight forward), I sent 4th Squad south to try and eliminate the newly revealed Soviet rifles. I succeeded, but then fell victim to the other hidden Soviet squad. At this point, I knew I was in trouble, but I fought it out for another turn, but Randy managed to skillfully maneuver his rifle squads and eliminate all but 2nd squad, which had advanced into the woods in the middle of the village, within sight of the Soviet MMG in the stone silo. At this point, the Soviet reinforcements showed up, and I conceded defeat.

I definitely learned some important things in this 2nd lesson - group moves may be more efficient, but they are also riskier, as keeping units stacked together in the same hex makes them much easier to attack (spread out, if possible). Also, with forces this small, it probably makes more sense to keep somewhat together in order to have overlapping defenses, rather than splitting up and letting the opponent handle each of my units piecemeal. I'm looking forward to a rematch of this particular scenarios, and I expect to continue exploring CoH - especially into some of the firefights that include armor and other vehicles.

However, we weren't quite done for the day - there's a bonus here at the end for the hardy souls who've kept with me this far. After our three games of CoH, Randy brought out his copy of Avalon Hill's Squad Leader - one of the oldest of the old-school tactical war games. The scenario he suggested we play was one called Alpha-Zero, from a series of scenarios designed by fans long after the initial publication of the game as better teaching scenarios than the larger first scenario (The Guards Attack) of the original game. I think I'm glad that we went with a simple scenario, as while the rules are simple enough, there seemed to be quite a lot going on. After a brief overview by Randy as to how the rules to SL work, we dived right in. Alpha-Zero has a Soviet unit attempting to run across some agricultural fields with light woods, and attempting to avoid being intercepted by a German unit that starts quite a ways down the road. Both sides have challenges - the Soviets have to move cross-wise across the map, and then sideways some in order to make it to the exit hexes (winning if they exit 5 units from the map), while the Germans need to move (quickly) sideways to positions that will allow them to block the Soviet exit (winning only by eliminating enough Soviet units as to make victory impossible). Randy managed to eliminate one of the German squads very quickly, which pretty much insured the win - however we played it out until he got there, but my major mistake was running in open ground within range of one of his squads. Needless to say, cover and manuver are the keys here as well.

It was quite interesting to play an old school tactical wargame right after CoH, as while the situations were similar, the way the rules worked were quite different (30 years of development of game design will do that to you). While SL is by no means overly complex, it seemed to have a few more moving parts than CoH did. I'm going to hold off forming a solid opinion of SL, as I've only played one scenario, and haven't actually read the rules (although I'm not a fan of the AH style of rules writing from that time), but as it stands, I think CoH accomplishes much the same feel as SL, and does so in a more elegant and easier to understand fashion.

I really enjoyed getting a chance to play both of these games - the company was good, as always, and the games were also both quite enjoyable. The brash youngster, CoH, seemed to my mind to be clearer and easier to understand than the old school style of Squad Leader, but the complexity levels are probably not all that far apart. I'll know more once I've managed to read the SL rules myself.

I don't know what our next game will be - it's Randy's choice, so hopefully he'll clue us all in on his session report post. Until next time, happy gaming!


  1. Thanks for the write up Tim. I played Randy that same Squad Leader scenario I believe using Vassal. It was a while back so I don't remember the outcome. Good luck on your blog. I look forward to reading future posts.

  2. Summer of 2006, I believe. I was in a very weird dorm / monk's cell at the University of Virginia where I was stayin while attending an archaeology field school. Good times!

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