Tuesday 30 March 2021

Spring is here, and it is time to paint

 Regular readers may have noticed a dearth of modelling posts in recent months. I often lose my painting mojo over winter, and retreat into the festive season making the most of the short days instead. This lockdown winter has been particularly tough, and while I've kept up my regular gaming sessions with my pals from Sheffield Wargames Society and Wargames Developments, putting on the odd game has been my sole wargaming activity and I haven't picked up a brush in months.

Anyway, things are changing. The sun is appearing more often (in between the howling gales, and torrential rain/hail/snow storms), the days are longer and I got my jab a couple of weeks ago.

Hooray for the National Health Service! And we can actually start to meet up with people outside again soon. 

I often start painting projects in spring, it used to correspond with a bit of a shopping spree at Triples, and there is something about it being a bit lighter during the day which encourages me to get the paint brush out. I have a few projects I've been meaning to get around to for a while, mainly aimed at filling some odds and ends in for particular games I have planned. This was kickstarted with this little gem last week:

One of my old H&R 75mm pack howitzers with a paratrooper crew, rebased onto my more modern bases.

And there are suddenly two of them. What could they be for? Well, you'll just have to wait and see,

Anyway, various delivery organisations have been dropping off parcels this week (aren't modern logistics wonderful). Aircraft, tanks, infantry, support vehicles and with more on the way next week. Plenty to keep me going over the new few months, and plenty of new material for some mid-week modelling posts.  

I was particularly excited to discover that Zvezda do a T-28 with two turret options (thanks Tom), even if it looks like one of their more complex kits on opening the box. I did notice a bit of a shortage of Zvezda stuff online, possibly a victim of Brexit? Who knows. I managed to get most of the stuff I was after, and I've also got some of the re-sculpted Peter Pig figures to play with.

So what on earth have I been doing all winter when I haven't been playing wargames? Hmm, well apparently racking up over 192 hours of play on Fallout: New Vegas, Ultimate Edition. Thoroughly recommended, and they really don't make computer games as intricate as this one any more. I have managed to bring peace and stability of a sort to the post nuclear wasteland around La Vegas now, so it is time to put the Xbox away for a bit and do something else. Still a couple of DLC quests to do, so I may come back to it at some point, but not for a while.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Battle of the Jarama - Playtesting Spanish Civil War operational rules

I have a certain hankering to go back to the Spanish Civil War again, and I've had a long standing design for a scenario covering the Battle of the Jarama in 1937. Somewhere or other I found a very detailed OB which actually listed the battalion level composition of the Nationalist brigades as well as the artillery holdings for both sides rather than the vague acounts you find in Thomas, Beevor et al.  Originally I thought I'd do it using Megablitz, in a similar manner to the 1938 Battle of the Ebro game I ran years ago, but MB doesn't really work in a remote multiplayer environment as it relies on hidden strength points, hidden order chits and hidden combat results and I can't think of a way of modding it for remote play without breaking many of its core systems.

It was easy enough to tweak OP14 into something more suitable for 1936 though, by simply beefing up the armour and air support rules and modifying the ground scale a bit to represent the rather more dispersed units and the timescale to allow for the increased ground scale. Job done I thought,  but then came the interesting experience of seeing how it actually played out.

At a ground scale of 5km = one hex, it ended up looking something like this. Madrid is off the top of the map, the Jarama runs through the hills in the middle and the main road from Madrid to Valencia is off to the right. This is already a bit bigger in frontage than the average WW1 battle (avid readers may recall the Battle of Amiens on a front of 12km I ran a year or so ago). If we were playing this f2f I'd go with a smaller ground scale (say 3km per hex) but there are limits to what my camera can sensibly show to remote players.

Next up, I tried some deployments. For playest purposes I just used one base per brigade, each brigade represents a couple óf thousand troops (3-4 weak battalions), already much smaller than the WW1 equivalents. However, I could manage a passable imitation of the deployment of Pozas's Central Army Corps with eight mixed brigades along its historical front and even manage a small reserve.

On go the Nationalists from the Army of Africa. Their brigades are quite big, typically composed of two regiments, each of multiple battalions. Mmmm. OK, well they can have two units per brigade, they've also got those bad boys from the Condor Legion with Panzer Abt 88 and a ton of artillery including 155s and 88s, plus a really annoying cavalry brigade with three weak regiments. So I'll have to let the brigades stack as irl they had wildly varying frontages.

They've also got some planes. Condor Legion Ju52s vs Soviet supplied Pe 2s. I didn't bother repainting the markings. OK, so there is a fair bit of stuff there but not particularly more dense than other OP14 games we've run, certainly nothing like Peronne 1918 where I had something like six entire Corps on the table.

And off we go. The Army of Africa smashes into the surprised Republicans and pushes them back over the Jarama. After a few days Lister and El Campensinos communists and International Brigades rock up and push the Nationalists back again, to a degree. That was a fairly typical rhythm for all the bigger SCW battles as both sides only had the resources to fight one major engagement at a time.

So we end up with this sort of thing. Moroccan Regulares have made it over the river and up onto the heights, but Pavlovs Tank Brigade and the IBs are bravely counterattacking up Suicide Hill and have pushed the Regulares and their accompanying Panzer 1s back across the river into St Martin de la Vega.

All well and good, I played this through a couple of times and although the activation, movement, combat and reorganisation mechanisms worked fine, I hit a snag. SCW battles are long, really long. The Jarama lasted, in fits and starts from the 6th Feb until the end of the month, although the climax of the battle was on the 12th-14th. OP14 doesn't do long battles very well, it works for a day or two (or maybe three) at most and even with just two turns a day, it was taking forever with the whole overnight exhaustion/reorg sequence becoming quite onerous.

Sure, I could have gone for a smaller part of the action, but that rather defeated the point as these aren't large forces - maybe 25,000 Nationalists and 30,000 Republicans with less than a hundred tanks and planes on each side. For whatever reason, the force, space and time ratios weren't working - a function of more modern force densities with WW1 era command systems I suspect.

So, back to the drawing board. The map scale looked about right, as was the level of troop representation, I just needed something which could run multi-day Army level battles with a bit less faffing than OP14, and I had a go with Panzergruppe instead. I had to fiddle with the unit ratings a bit and the deployment was a bit different due to the shorter artillery ranges and lack of strong ZOC.

Off we went again. Here the Nationalists have pushed hard on the north and south flanks, bypassing the Republican centre. Barcuelos cavalry keep them pinned place, but already the Regulares are next to to the Republican gun positions.

This effort felt much slicker as the reorganisation and supply sequence is built into each game turn. Units face the same choices of march, fight or reorg but it is all integrated into a single decision point. The only real tweak I made to the existing system was allowing units to try and reorg when they were adjacent to the enemy, albeit it at a penalty. This is quite a high density battlefield compared to the Ukraine in 1942 and forcing units to break contact to reorg seemed to be too much. This may  be too beneficial to the defence, but seemed to play OK in practice. The reorg mechanism is something I've fiddled with on and off ever since I first wrote Sinai 67 and I've never really taken into account the larger ZOC sizes which came from moving to a grid.

So here the Nationalists have pushed Posas back to the Jarama in the south, hits are scattered all around, but the Nationalist units are much stronger and can bear them. The two Republican units closest the camera have only one hit left each and  need to make a choice - stand and dig in? stand and reorganise, or leg it back a hex to avoid another Nationalist attack next turn. In the event they managed to reorg, but the converged Nationalist attack pushed them back again and gained a bridgehead over the river. 

Up in the north the Republicans have managed to get their guns and one shattered brigade over the Pindoque rail bridge, while one unit holds a bridgehead supported by the guns on the far side. The pursuing Nationalist are also a bit ragged with multiple hits. Stop or reorg? The main road to Madrid is only a few km away now (the town and bridge in the top right corner) so the Nats opted for a desperate attack which just succeeded (adjusted combat value of 11 vs 10!) and the Republican brigade fell back.

So in turn Barcuelos cavalry crossed the River Manzanares and are parked right next to the road to Madrid. The road is now cut by their ZOC, while the replenished panzers and field guns move up in support. Oooer! What are the Republicans going to do about that - although in fact next turn Listers division came piling down the road from Madrid and thoroughly blocked Barcuelos unsupported cavalry, who also happen to have outrun their supply lines.

This worked pretty well, and the simpler turn sequence meant it was easier to keep track of the unit supply status, which was pretty important as it was the only thing stopping the Nats waltzing across the map in the first few turns. I also experimented with card driven activation for each major unit to model and element of command friction, but it just slowed things up, and in the end I opted to revert to a dice driven initiative system modifed by command quality for each side, which introduced enough friction without going down the whole OP14 card system. The 15mm toys weren't overpowering either, although 6mm would fit the hexes better, but I prefer the character of the bigger figures for this period and the vehicles are all fairly tiny.

So, good to go I think, and it was enjoyable doing some run throughs of the a scenario I've had planned for at least 15 years and good to be doing some proper play testing. I suspect it will still be a bit chaotic in a remote environment as the units aren't as well defined as in OP14, but I'll just have have to try and keep track of stuff. It doesn't help that at this stage neither side really had divisions as combat formations, just a random assortment of brigades under varying levels of ad-hoc higher HQ. I still think OP14 would work for the SCW, but for more restricted actions spanning a day or two. I shall try this out on the Sheffield group and see how we get on.

Saturday 20 March 2021

Lindern at VCOW

 My session at VCOW 2021 was a re-run of the Lindern game I'd run at the club a couple of weeks before. It is always best to playtest Conference sessions if possible - I needed to be sure I could fit it into the allocated time.

I had a pretty good turnout for this one, three Germans players and Four US with a couple of observers. I sent out the briefings beforehand so they'd have a chance to think about it prior to the game.

Nigel, Ian, Dave and Ken took the US, while Jonathan, Ian and Rob took the Germans. 

The setup was the same as last time. A couple of German companies in each of Lindern and Toad Hill, with a small armoured KG in reserve and some artillery in support. The main change I'd made was to substitute a company of Pz IVs for the Tiger IIs, Tigers would have been an unnecessary distraction.

The main German defences were the fortifications in Lindern and on Toad Hill, with the AT ditch in front.

The US forces as before. Two lead infantry battalions, a couple of battalions of artillery and in reserve another infantry battalion and a tank battalion.

All looked quiet from the US lines, just shells landing around the German positions.

I sent each side a couple of photos of their setup.

The action opened with an all-out attack on Toad Hill. Both US infantry battalions formed up to assault the pillboxes, covered by artillery fire. The German defensive fire was quite effective (you can see the hits on the unit in B1).

Lindern was unscathed.

The US reserve infantry (Ist Bn) rolled up on Hill A1, while IInd battalion assaulted in two waves across the AT ditch, covered by the 105mm guns.

Unfortunately the leading waves were cut down despite the German being suppressed, but they did inflict some losses on the defenders.

The US IInd battalion headed for Lindern and came under artillery fire near the AT ditch. US artillery replied in kind.

US IIIrd Bn becmae disordered and fell back to B1, while Ist Bn advanced east off Hill A1 and IInd Bn outflanked Toad Hill from the south by crossing the AT ditch as US artillery shelled the Hill. The Germans were down to half strength now but had inflicted significant damage on the US (the equivalent of three companies).

At this point the US armoured reserves came on down the central road from C1.

The Germans responded with the 9th Panzer KG, who drove through the railway underpass to the outskirts of Lindern.

IInd battalion assaulted the German positions, but fell back disordered with  heavy losses from German defensive fire, but Ist battalion followed up and overran the weakened defenders with minimal loss. Toad Hill had fallen!

US IInd and IIIrd Battalions needed to reorganise, but Ist Bn was in fine fettle.

The US tankers took up position on Hill D2 overlooking Lindern and the engineers set about gapping the AT ditch. The German armour failed its movement roll and was stuck down in the valley. Not a great place to be under the guns of the Shermans.

US Ist Bn pressed on eastwards and crossed the rail embankment. This prompted the German HQ to withdraw into Lindern and US artillery plastered the town. Both IInd and IIIrd Bns had reorganised now, and IInd Bn occupied Toad Hill as IIIrd Bn approached the AT ditch.

The Germans made it up onto Hill F4 and settled into a long range gunnery duel. The Germans became disorganised while under fire.

US Ist Bn took the rail crossing east of Lindern under heavy fire.

Meanwhile the Pz IVs came off worst in the gunnery duel and fell back in dissarray to the woods on the reverse slope, leaving some burning tanks on the hill.

Faced with the loss of their communications to the rear, the Germans launched a desperate counterattack against US Ist Bn, including the Regimental CO!

The US troops gunned most of the outnumbered Germans down, but to everyones astonishment, the Regimental HQ survived. This left the crossing objective contested, so it was in theory a German win (for the next couple of minutes anyway). No-one rated the Obersts long term chances against the best part of an infantry battalion, so I think really the US got that one.

The 9th Panzer boys failed ot rally so would no doubt slip away.

The US engineers successfully gapped the AT ditch, leaving the way open for an armoured exploitation via Lindern, which was now largely empty of defenders. Toad Hill was also firmly in US hands, unhinging the defences further north.

The US tankers consider the best route into Germany.

Well, that was a very difference to approach to Sheffield game. The US ignored the open flank on the right, and instead crashed  right through the main German defences. Great stuff! The tankers in this game were also quite subdued, unlike the Patton like action in the last game, but it did mean that the US ended up with all their tanks, rather than just half a dozen battered survivors.

The players all seemed to enjoy it, the comms held up OK and we finished in plenty of time for a chat (the actual game only took an hour and fifteen minutes) so we had a good washup afterwards. It is a mature game system, and I was glad to expose it a wider audience. For those interested, the rules will be published in The Nugget at some point, and here is the scenario with both German variants. Lindern

Saturday 13 March 2021

Battle of the Isonzo

 Tim put on a rather grand 54mm WW1 game covering one of the (many) Battles of the Isonzo. This one featured Arditi and Alpini assaulting an Austrian mountain battalion in the winter of 1917.

I was CO of the Austrians, and we had three rifle companies and an MG company to defend our mountain lair. We had to plan for this sort of thing:

Tim has been busily painting the relevant toys, these are Austiran mountain troops largely converted from Airfix 1/32nd scale WW2 Gebirgsjager. Close enough.

We ran the game prep over a number of days of real time, with air recce, then a preliminary bombardment and finally the infantry assault.  The view from our mountain top was very grand, but annoyingly the Italians seemed to be hiding in the trees.

So, it was time to call up the airforce to take some photos.

We had this rather grand Hanover to fly over the Italian lines.

Very unfairly the Italians responded by sending their own planes over for a bit of a shufti.

Meanwhile our gunners got ready to repel the attack. These guns are from Tims huge collection of 54mm guns, being tin plate toys of all things.

Our initial operational planning was done from this highly detailed topographical map!

The Austrian positions are marked in blue. We had companies on the plateau and Hill 49, with MG bunkers and an OP on and around Hill 171. We also had a company of Stosstruppen in reserve, ready to intervene a required.

Following the air recce, w had a chance to fire off a counter-bombardment on the Italian positions.  The planes showed that the Italian front lne was packed with troops, and the big stars are where I wanted our bombardment firing. That sector seemed a better approach for the Italians as Hill 171 was well covered by MGs, so softening up the enemy in the south seemed to be the way to go.

Tim had fashioned this rather grand mountain out of boxes and sheets. My command bunker is visible in the centre.

We had a pretty good view from the top, I don't fancy the Italians chances once they come out into the open.

Our guns fired a barrage on the Italian trenches. Very unfairly they fired back. They seemed to have a lot more ammunition than us. Our gunners did manage to drop their shells roughly where I wanted them Hurrah! That will give them a headache.

Pretty soon the mountain was plastered in shell bursts, smoke and drifting clouds of gas. Tim only told us the effects of the enemy fire, and it turned out we had got off pretty lightly although there was an alarming amount of gas floating around. Gas, gas gas!

Sadly my command bunker had taken a direct hit, which took our HQ and comms out of action for a number of turns. 

It was time to put on my gas mask and helmet. This did slightly seem to impede communications with everyone else, but as I was suppressed for three turns, that was fair enough.

As the shelling ceased, the shrill sound  of whistles broke out along the Italian line. The enemy were coming...  

Hordes of Italians emerged behind the barrage. Alpini in the north, eyeing up the steep crags leading to Hill 171, while the Bersaglieri were in the south, reinforced with a company of Arditi. The Bersaglieri hung back a bit as there was a lot of gas hanging around.

The massed Italians in the valley made a great artillery target, and our heavy guns dropped a defensive fire mission which was bang on and wiped out a whole company. The Italian attack was covered by MGs and the Austrian company on the plateau was suppressed. Our MG on Hill 171 was out of range, while the gun in front of Hill 43 was still suppressed.

Annoyingly the Italians made it into dead ground, so we couldn't see them from up the hill.

Then a horde of Bersaglieri rolled in front of the plateau and made short work of the few survivors of the Austrian company there.

At this point a load of Alpini finished scaling the heights of Hill 171 and appeared right in front of the bunker! Fortunately the bunker on Hill 43 had recovered now, so we poured a crossfire into the Italians, sweeping away a whole company.

The next wave pressed on, while the Bersaglieri were busy mopping up the plateau. 

This turn we suffered stoppages and the Alpini surrounded the bunker, then took it by close assault. There were no Austrian survivors. Hill 171 had fallen!

This was the cue for the Bersaglieri to head for Hill 43. Hordes of them piled up the slope, and now there was just the MG left in my command bunker to stop them. The first volely wiped out the Arditi leading the attack.

On Hill 171 we committed our Stosstrupp company to retake the hill. These boys were as hard as nails, but so were the Alpini.

The Alpini managed to repel the attack, although not without loss, and the Stosstruppen fell back down the mountainside again.

At hill 49, the MG managed to take out another company of Bersaglieri, and combined with their earlier losses from artillery and MG fire, that was enough to halt the attack. The survivors were pinned down in a very unenviable position.

This left a handful of Alpini on Hill 171, and the Bersaglieri pinned down in front of Hill 43.

Meanwhile our untouched reserve company was still dug in  on the reverse slope of Hill 49, ready to re-occupy the lost ground.

The Italians were busy trying to load their MG company up into its mules, but it was too little, too late.

The field cookery company had a nice big can of soup on the go, and that seemed far more appealing then running uphill into Austrian MG fire, so the Bersaglieri streamed back down the hill for tea, able to report that they had stormed the Austrian trenches

This left the lonely Alpini on Hill 171, who were faced with the prospect of being isolated and cut off, so at nightfall they also fell back, but were able to report the capture of Hill 171 and the destruction of the Austrian positions thereon.

Once the Italians had gone, the remaining Austrians re-occupied the vacated positions and reported back to the High Command that the position had ben restored and the Italians repulsed. All Quiet on the Western Front, and all lined up for the next Battle of the Isonzo....

That was a great game, huge fun, and Tims mountain was a miracle of wargames engineering. As ever his 54mm figures were delightful, and the extended preparation, recce and planning time gave a real feel for a WW1 battle, with the actual assault horribly bloody and brief.