Friday, February 1, 2013

CANCON 2013 - Day 1

Over the weekend of 26-28 January 2013 the annual gaming convention CANCON was held at Australia's national capital, Canberra.

With the assistance of my long time gaming buddy, Ray Ashton, I ran a demonstration game set in the Cold War period using 3mm (1:600 scale) miniatures. I have an extensive 3mm moderns collection, built up over the past 2-3 years, with the intent of running very large scale games. As everyone knows, one of the advantages of 3mm gaming is that you can run the same level and size games as you play in other (larger) scales, but play them in a much smaller area. So they are ideal for players who (for whatever reason) need or prefer more compact games. However, when I first saw the fantastic Oddzial Osmy miniatures from PicoArmor, the megalomaniac in me immediately realised that you could also go the other way - the same sized (or even bigger) tables with LOADS of miniatures. Here was finally my opportunity to play high-level actions at a 1:1 representational scale (miniatures:real troops or vehicles).

In going about my project, I kept a few key design aspects in mind:
  • 3mm miniatures 1:1 representational scale. One vehicle model = one real vehicle, one infantry model = one real infantryman, etc.
  • High-level actions. Each side involving a Division or more of troops.
  • ground scale of 1:10,000 (ie. 1cm = 100m, or 10cm = 1 km)
  • Utilising a hex movement and range system. During the project, I fell in love with hex or square based rules systems, due to the simplicity and speed of play these introduce to games. I also discovered the "Hexon-II" terrain system from UK company, Kallistra. This enabled me to use a fully modular (and therefore re-configurable) hex-based terrain system. Additional advantages are:
  • that it has 10cm hexes (across the flat), which meant in my ground scale these would be 1km hexes, making ranges and movement very easy to convert and represent, and
  • I could buy it un-flocked and flock it myself, meaning for the first time in my gaming career I could make my miniatures and gaming surface match (mis-match of these is a personal 'pet-hate' of mine!)
  • Company-to-a-stand basing and rules. (ie. the miniatures would be based with a full company on each base to allow high-level games to be played quickly). Due to my decision to go with the Hexon terrain, I also decided to integrate my basing system into this and went with 10cm hex bases for my company-bases. This was easy, as Kallistra also sell "individual hex templates" in their Hexon system, which are flat hex shaped templates (bases) in plastic about 2mm thick. The hex bases also assist in play by allowing easy identification of facings and arcs, which can be incorporated into your chosen rules.
  • As divisional commanders, players needed to be manoeuvring units at a level not lower than "two-down". (ie. as per the accepted military planning principle, "two-down" means that a Divisional commander would order units at the brigade / regiment level and be tracking the status of his battalions. This ties in with company stands, as the latter simply become 'strength-counters' for the battalions or regiments)
My choice of rules to use for the demo game was not easy. I have considered many sets of modern and world war two rules (and even some for other periods) to try and determine their suitability to use for a game with the characteristics I described above.  For these reasons I tended to concentrate on those rules that were already pitched at the higher tactical end. These are generally games that claim to be able to allow players to play brigade / divisional actions, generally with platoons as the basic miniatures stands in the game. I'll expand a bit on this topic in  more detail in a future blog post, to outline some of my thoughts on the various rules.
Suffice to say that after some deliberation and play testing, I opted to go with the "Air & Armor" board game rules from West End Games. These I slightly modified for tabletop use (but I made as few changes as possible) and they turned out to be very good indeed. The game is unfortunately now out of print, but is still available on eBay (where I bought my copy) and other sites. The rules met pretty much all my criteria above; being a board game, they are hex based and the level of the game was pitched very much at the level I was interested in. Any of you who ever played the board game will also know it has many cool mechanisms and represents the challenges of command very nicely for the Divisional level and above, as well as representing the doctrinal command and control differences between NATO and Warsaw Pact armies very well.
So, below is a bit of a battle report for the first game (game two will follow). We actually played two games over two days. Whilst the Air & Armor (A&A) rules allow you to finish a high level, division-plus per side, game within a few hours, I deliberately only opted to go with one game per day. This meant people could join in, we could explain the rules, we could talk to on-lookers about the miniatures, rules and terrain and generally take it easy. On a selfish side, it also allowed me and Ray (and the other players) to have a nice long lunch, regular breaks and some time to look at other games and (most importantly) the trader's stands!
Both days, we had a nice big table (12' x 6') with loads of terrain.
Day One
The scenario I had chosen was a Soviet Divisional advance (full Motor Rifle Division, with all assets), against a US Mech Brigade conducting a delaying defence in their sector. The Soviets also had access to a battalion of air-mobile infantry in Mi-8 helicopters to assist in capturing defiles, or other tasks if necessary. There was no set time limit, however the longer the US Brigade could delay today, the better prepared the main divisional defensive position would be prepared in the subsequent game (see game 2).
The table was typical western-European terrain, with plenty of hills, fields, woods, towns and rivers. Of particular note was two rivers running across the Soviet's axis of advance, at about 1/3 and 2/3 of the way down the table. Each was crossed by two major roads running down the table (there were also some lateral roads), crossing at bridges located at towns on the rivers.
The Soviets had to advance down the length of the table (12' = 3600mm = 36km), which in the A&A rules is eminently do-able in one day even against opposition. The turns are 2 hours each, so this is only 12 turns, and on any given turn formations could travel up to 12 hexes (12km) if on-road and on 'march' orders. On other orders (due to proximity of enemy, or other factors, like terrain), the troops move as little as only 1 hex (1 km) per turn (eg. Assaulting through Woods). Being forced to do this would obviously slow the Soviets down (a lot!).
From the US commander's perspective, the scenario was also tough. He had only a Mechanized Brigade of a Battalion of tanks( 4x companies of M1), two Battalions of Mechanised Infantry (total of 8x companies of Infantry in M2s), and a portion of the Division's artillery (2x Battalions of M109 - 6 batteries all up). Unfortunately for him, he had no air support (due to inclement weather). So a pretty tough task to defend an 18km frontage and 36km depth with such minimal assets! The main hope for the US commander was the two river lines, and the choke-points at the bridges in urban areas, where the Soviets would need to force crossings. These were very good (but obvious) defensive locations.
The battlefield (looking from the Soviet start-point) is below:
The US commander (Ray) deployed the majority of his force well in depth, between the two river lines in hidden positions. He positioned the remainder, comprising small blocking forces on the first river line (bottom of photo), defending the urban areas and the vital bridges they contained. Each of these blocking forces comprised a half-battalion combat team (2x companies) of mechanised infantry. The US artillery was located within range of these, to support the defenders. Effectively the forward US combat teams were there to delay ('speed-bumps'?) and more importantly spot for, and trigger, the artillery which would inflict the majority of casualties.
This strategy worked well in the game. The A&A rules make Infantry defending in urban terrain a tough nut to crack (as they should be!). Even more so when the attackers also have to attack across a bridge. The battle played out pretty much as you'd expect in these circumstances. The Soviets came on like a bulldozer, on both main axis of advance (the two roads). One of the things that I like about the A&A rules is the speed of movement possible - I always find the wargames rules that make the best games are those that allow a decent amount of manoeuvre.
Within the first turns the first echelon Motor Rifle (MR) regiments conducted Regimental attacks on the two forward US combat teams, supported by Divisional Artillery. The US combat teams and supporting artillery inflicted heavy casualties, killing two companies of each in the lead soviet regiments. Importantly, they lost no casualties themselves and had delayed the Soviets so far by 3 turns (6 hours). But they were forced to withdraw and give up the vital bridges.
The US combat teams withdrew and consolidated on a second (intermediate) line between the two rivers, defending from wooded ridge lines where possible. The US artillery also withdrew back behind the second river line, to support the intermediate and second river defensive positions. A few tank companies that had been in reserve also assisted by coming forward to 'stiffen' the intermediate line of defense, and to help delay the Soviets as much as possible. As the Soviet commander, I pushed my Regiments forward as quickly and aggressively as possible, to pressure the US and keep them under pressure. The lead regiments again conducted quick attacks, this time destroying some Mech Infantry and Tank Companies, but again at the loss of some more of my own troops. The remaining US troops fell back behind the second river line to defend the two bridge crossing points. These now effectively both had battalion strength forces (4 companies each) of mixed Tank and Mech companies.
I consolidated for a turn or two (again, vital time I was delayed) and then threw the lead (BTR) MR Regiment  into a deliberate assault against the left bridgehead. I left my other weakened BTR MR Regiment to threaten the other bridge, therefore not allowing the forces there to switch and assist the bridgehead I was attacking. 
This is where things went wrong (for me as the Soviets). In my excitement, I had declared my assault prior to moving my Divisional Artillery up (a rookie mistake - had the Russian commander been at the Vodka all day?!). This meant I sent my BTR regiment in to attack a town, across a bridge, defended by a battalion. As you'd expect, it wasn't pretty. I lost the majority of my regiment to defensive fire by the defending US battalion and their supporting artillery. In the A&A rules terms, they fell below three stands and the regiment was therefore "shattered" (making it next to useless from that point on).
Kicking myself for my stupid error, I decided to have another go at it. I pushed up my second echelon (BMP) regiment to attack the same bridge. At the same time, to increase the pressure, I landed my air-mobile battalion in Mi-8s behind the town. My thinking was they could cut off retreat, and push back into the town to help secure the bridge by attacking the defenders from the rear. Unfortunately there were a few flaws with this thinking. I had landed them in the open a couple of hexes from the town - to avoid enemy AA fire, because they had to land in the open, and because infantry on foot are *really* slow in the rules (moving only one hex per turn). The three-company battalion then got rolled up from the flank by a single M1 company that had been sitting in reserve near the town, assisted by artillery. The whole battalion of light infantry died gruesomely and quickly!
At the same time, the BMP regiment's assault also failed to do more than kill a company or so of defenders, taking half the regiment in casualties at the same time. Doh! Having more or less spent this regiment and already shattered one other, I determined that I could not force the crossings and exit the table with the required numbers to meet my victory conditions (over 50% of at least two of my four regiments). All I had left was a weakened BTR regiment (about a battalion lost from it already) and my division's tank regiment, which was fresh but not suited to fighting through infantry in towns to force the crossing, which would have been suicidal for the tanks. So I pulled back, conceding that the US had inflicted maximum delay and therefore accepting that the following day, they would be fully prepared for my attack at their main divisional defensive position.
The game worked very well. Unfortunately I didn't get many photos of it (lots of photos of day 2 to come though). Everyone enjoyed it a lot. It was amusing to see Ray's initial despair at the overwhelming Soviet odds and seemingly unstoppable rapid advance in the first half of the game. This started to change when I came up against the stronger second line of positions, and particularly when I made a couple of silly mistakes which cost me a lot of troops for no gain. One thing I did entirely overlook was the option of using my Divisional Engineer battalion (which just trundled along behind my division) to push forward and create a third potential crossing point on the second river line. This would have further spread the US defenses and given me options when I conducted my assault to try and breach that line.
The Day 2 report follows....

1 comment:

  1. So it turns out that I dropped by to see that game and took some pics too: