Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bolt Action Battle Report: Operation Barbarossa, Battle for Smolensk

On 6 July 1941, forces from 10th Panzer attacked across the Dnieper River towards Elnya, quickly overwhelming forces from the Soviet 13th Army.

On Sunday, John came over with his recently painted Soviet forces and we replayed a game based on this river crossing (though we might not have actually known it at the time).

Here's what the table looked like.  Looking south.  Soviets will defend in the village on the left, and the Germans will attack through the woods in the center from the right.  The bridge (key terrain for both sides) is just to the south of the woods in this photo.

John had an infantry company, which seemed like about seven thousand Soviet soldiers, supported by a commissar, two anti tank guns, and a T34 tank.  And a really unfortunate medic.  His 1st platoon was an LMG squad, an SMG squad, and two rifle squads.  This platoon was also backed-up by a T-34/85 tank, tank riders, and an anti-tank gun.  John's 2nd platoon was 2 LMG squads, a rifle squad, and an anti-tank gun.

On the German side I brought a Panzergrenadier company team.  I had a company commander in a Panzer IV, a platoon of three Panzer IV tanks, an infantry platoon with 3 squads, and a veteran squad in a Hanomag half track which represented the combined remnants of a platoon from the earlier stages of Barbarossa.

The Soviet higher HQ (regiment) mission was to block the German advance by preventing them from crossing the river at any cost.  The German higher HQ (battalion) mission was to seize the bridge over the Dnieper in order to pass the 10th Panzer forward into Elnya.  John selected missions for his forces that focused on a spoiling attack across the river in order to disrupt the German advance.  He also set a victory condition for his Commissar to execute at least one soldier.  He did.  Several.  I selected platoon objectives: the tank platoon would seize the bridge (both sides) while the infantry platoon would seize the woods on the west side of the river and the town on the east side of the river.  Neither John nor myself revealed our company and platoon missions to one another.

John deployed his 1st Platoon on the east side of the river and the rest of his forces were held in reserve.  On seeing his deployment, my plan changed a bit as I realized there was no way I could advance across the open space on the north side of the woods, so I changed my plan and decided to advance through the woods in the center and use smoke to screen an assault crossing of the river into the town.

 Soviet AT gun with commanding fields of fire to the north of the bridge.  Bad juju.

John's deployment with the bridge in the southern sector of the battlefield.  The Germans will attempt to advance infantry through the woods north of the bridge, cross the river to secure the south side of the bridge and eliminate any anti-tank threats, then push the tanks across the bridge to secure the river crossing.  What could possibly go wrong?

LMG squad defending the east side of the river.  I would need to drop smoke here to get my infantry across the river.

AT gun waiting to smoke the first thing to cross the bridge.  That guy needed to be dealt with, but I didn't have any perfect ideas yet.

The German Forces move into their assault position.  I advanced the squads into the forest and was going to shift the tanks to the right to cover the approaches to the bridge.

John has a cunning plan for this tank:

John surprised me again with a quick counterattack across the bridge led by his tank, which caused me to shift my infantry to the right towards the bridge.  John's T-34 immediately smoked one of my tanks and then immobilized the company commander's tank.  His tank riders jumped the gun and rushed forward without support, and were cut down by my rifle squads and the veteran squad.

John starts to move his arriving reserves into position to attack across the river and into the woods.  This is going to be a problem.

One tank burns and the commander's tank is immobilized.  My veterans had to deploy early to deal with the tank riders while my infantry advances into the woods.

John pressed the attack in the center and massed forces near the bridge for a big push into the woods.  Realizing I had completely lost the initiative, I backed my squads out of the woods and set up a defensive line to meet his attack.  Then my forward observer called an artillery strike.

My tanks pinned the T-34 pretty well, but could not penetrate the armor.  Meantime, John's horde of infantry is massed to bring the hurt across the river.  Looks like an artillery target for me.  We decided that the infantry could advance across the river, but could not fire while doing so.

The artillery strike obliterated the medic (she took over 14 hits from a medium howitzer).  Pinned the T-34 beyond recovery, and generally forced john to spread out his attacking forces to advance piecemeal into the forest.

The fight for the woods was the central crisis for this battle.  I had my units in ambush, so John's initial advance was met with a shredding wall of MG-42 fire.  John's LMG squads responded in kind, though, and my three squads in the woods got hammered pretty hard.  Then one of my squads FUBARed and annihilated its neighbor squad with friendly fire.  Crap.

Here you can see my squads on the edge of the woods as I withdrew them and transitioned to defense.

John's infantry is across the river, but not in the concentration he had hoped, mainly due to the artillery barrage messing things up for him.

At turn six, the Germans were still on the West side of the river, though the large number of Soviet casualties were starting to take their toll on John's forces.  John and I decided to play on.

John had nearly cleared me out of the woods when I committed my tanks to the edge of the forest to smash his infantry attack.  My veteran squad in the Hanomag redeployed to the north end of the woods and destroyed John's last LMG squad.  Then in a decisive but late move I pushed a Panzer IV across the bridge (who in-turn pushed the wrecked T-34 across the bridge) and got a perfect shot off on the AT gun, knocking it out.  By that point the Soviet lines had collapsed and the bridgehead was open, but it was too late for the Wehrmacht.  The sun had fallen and due to the long delay in forcing the river crossing, the German battalion commander recalled the assault company to establish a hasty defense along the West side of the Dnieper for the inevitable Soviet counterattack.  My commander, who had suffered an immobilized tank on turn 2, certainly faced court martial proceedings for incompetence and failure to achieve the battalion objective within time constraints.

Germans finally clear out the woods and establish a bridgehead on the East side of the river, but it is too little, too late.  They will need to withdraw and prepare to defend against the Soviet counterattack in the morning.  John's spoiling attack resulted in the near annihilation of his command, but by delaying the Germans as they dealt with the attacking Soviet infantry, John's risky plan stalled the German penetration and secured an operational win for the Red Army.  Good Game!

The German commander in his immobilized tank had a very not good day.

Mechanized infantry Veterans eliminate the last Soviet infantry in the woods.

German tanks roll across the bridge and into town as evening falls, only to be told to return to the west side of the river, ceding their hard-won ground.

This was a really enjoyable game.  The fact that we did not know one another's victory conditions led to some really fun game play.  John totally surprised me with his spoiling attack, and it paid off for him in the end.  Even though his company was almost completely annihilated in the late stages of the battle, they managed to hold-up the German advance long enough for their higher headquarters to react and force the Germans to transition to the defense.  Great stuff.

Butcher's bill:

Soviet losses, around 90 plus a tank.  Advancing into ambushing German machine guns is costly.

German losses, 16 (four of which were friendly fire), one tank killed, and one tank immobilized.

The takeaway: Quantity has a quality all its own.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Tournament Gaming is Bad for Table Top Wargaming (I'm looking at you, 40k TOs)

Back in 2002, Jervis Johnson offered the wargaming world (specifically concerning 40k) a mea culpa for introducing and promoting the Grand Tournament (GT) style of play.  Writing in the Citadel Journal, Johnson states, “…the tournament style of play has its place, but it is a place well down on the pecking order of what constitutes a really good game.”  In a fairly scathing critique of tournament play as the "lowest common denominator" of the tabletop wargaming experience, Johnson offers an interpretation of top-end miniature wargaming as asymmetric scenario-based games and campaigns that leverage the fundamental strengths of tabletop wargaming.  These strengths-creative engagement by players in developing the world, and experiencing compelling stories-are what sets our hobby apart from all other games, with the obvious exception of RPGs.  Over the past few years, the 40k community in the United States has started to describe this style of gaming generally as "narrative" wargaming, though we have a myriad of different interpretations of what narrative wargaming entails.

While "narrative" wargaming is a fairly recent idea in the tournament-dominated world of US 40k events, it is hardly a new concept.  Anyone who has attended a Historical Miniature Gaming Society event in the Mid-Atlantic has seen the overwhelming draw of scenario-based narrative gaming.  The HMGS model wargame is run by a game master who develops the scenario, creates the force organizations, builds the terrain, paints the models, and referees the game.  Instead of a competition to identify the best player, as you would find in a tournament event, HMGS events are more a competition among game masters to see who can provide the best wargaming experience.  Judging by the size of HMGS events relative to the largest GT-style events in the Mid-Atlantic region, the HMGS model of narrative wargaming is far more popular than tournament-style gaming.

Some US 40k events recently have started to provide HMGS-style "narrative" wargaming experiences.  Adepticon, for example, will feature numerous hosted 40k games this year.  Other events in the US have attempted events billed as "narrative," but in reality they simply offer more of the same tournament gaming experiences within a narrative context.  The center of gravity for 40k events in the United States still rests squarely in the tournament. 

Why does it matter?

Tournament gaming is not as interesting as narrative wargaming.  With an absolute premium placed on fairness through balance and symmetry, tournament games are relatively bland affairs that give rise to meta lists and predictable game flow.  Tournament style games lack the spontaneity, surprise, and uncertainty of narrative wargames.  

Tension and uncertainty enrich a wargame immensely.  The classic example I will use is our local gaming group's use of completely hidden setup.  Imagine: you are an attacker moving your forces onto a tabeltop with no enemy models visible (the GM knows where they are).  The tension caused by this uncertainty creates a level of excitement unknown in non-refereed tournament games.  Such a mechanic is completely unfair, and thus could never be incorporated in tournament play.

This unfairness is kind of important, because the vast majority of wargames (40k chief amongst them) are not balanced.  Warfare is unbalanced-deliberately so-so why on earth should we expect a wargame to be balanced?  To attempt to provide a fair and balanced tournament experience using an unfair and unbalanced set of army lists is a little nuts, and as we see in the 40k tournament circuit, produces a lot of vitriol directed at the game designers, tournament organizers, and among the players.  I was at a large Mid-Atlantic 40k tournament last Summer and did not find a single player in the 40k GT who talked to me about their awesome games.  The conversation was dominated by complaints about getting stomped by cookie-cutter meta lists over and over and over again.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of tournament play can be found in the manner in which talented tournament gamers leverage and exploit game mechanics to produce innovative non-tactical ploys.  For a lot of tactically-focused wargamers, this exploitation can feel like a violation of the social contract intrinsic to the game, which often leads to hurt feelings on both sides as tournament gamers get labeled as "win at all costs" or worse.  This is not fair to tournament gamers.  They are not violating the social contract by optimizing their resources and exploiting game mechanics to win.  In fact, their actions uphold the social contract.  Remember that this is tournament play; players enter into tournaments in order to determine who is the best player under a set of uniformly-applied conditions.  If anyone is breaking the social contract, it is the tactically-minded player who enters into a tournament designed to identify a winner, and then lashes out at the winner, who played within the confines of agreed-to rules, for winning.  Hard not to call that sour grapes, or, in the words of bitter tactical gamers, "douchy."

This leads to the real big problem raised by tournament play.  Because the games are unbalanceable, and tournament play demands unachievable balance, the tournament focused culture of the US 40k community is fraught with negativity.  Nasty accusations are being thrown around the blogosphere placing blame on the GW Design Studio (Make balanced army lists!), tournament organizers (Ban broken army list entries!), “competitive” players (Stop being WAAC douchebags!), and “non-competitive” players (Stop whining and learn to love losing!) alike for the degeneration of the 40k gaming scene.  These accusations all contain valid points, but all fall well short of characterizing the cultural problem facing 40k wargaming in the United States.

The cultural problem rests in our fixation on tournament gaming.  Tournaments are designed to identify a winner.  We play tournaments to win.  Successful tournament gamers optimize lists and exploit game mechanics to solve complex problems and win.  That is exactly the right approach to successful tournament wargaming, and it is exactly why tournaments should not be the centerpiece of wargaming.  Tournament gaming places overwhelming value on winning, and that promotes a gaming culture driven by exploitation of game mechanics.

This is where tournament gaming starts to damage the hobby.  Our tournament fixation provides a largely negative experience base to under-gird the gaming culture.  It goes something like this: I check out a sample of the seventeen billion podcasts and blogs out there that tell me how to optimize my tournament list so I can most efficiently leverage game mechanics.  The message is clear-the correct force selection leads to success in GTs.  Because I, like the vast majority of wargamers, am an average player, I take my optimized list to my first GT and get stomped.  Clearly, I got my list wrong, so I go back to the podcasts and blogs and re-tool my list, go shopping for some more ridiculously overpriced models, and I get stomped again at my next GT.  When I'm not getting stomped at a GT, I am playing in my local gaming group, but because we are all focused on tournament success through list optimization and game mechanics, my gaming experience is loss, after loss, after loss.  The only guy I can beat is that one dude who refuses to update his Feral Orks list and has really bad dice.  This cycle of failure-driven motivation repeats itself ad nauseam, netting GW a lot of money as I keep heeding the optimization message, keep buying the newest and shiniest game winning models, and keep getting stomped until I rage quit the game, lashing out at GW, douchy WAAC gamers, and their scummy TO enablers on some public forum on my way out the door.  TOs and tournament gamers naturally respond in kind, and the discord deepens. 

As the 40k community in the US is starting to figure out, this is not sustainable.  Dissatisfaction with 40k has reached a fever pitch in the blogosphere as gamer patience (and money) runs thin, while in the background the podcasts and blogs continue to beat the drum that the road to GT success runs through list optimization.  This is the culture that must change if we are to get back to enjoying 40k as a fun activity.

The good news for 40k players is that it is not the game.  There is nothing wrong with 40k.  The problem is us and our nearly exclusive prioritization of tournament play at all levels from our largest wargaming events to local gaming groups. If 40k TOs would take the plunge and introduce true narrative gaming events-look to Adepticon to lead the way in this-they might simultaneously save a really neat wargame and increase the size of their events.  

So what's the solution?  

Keep playing in tournaments!  Seriously.  But make them a side dish that enriches your wargaming experience rather than the main event.  At the personal level, form a gaming group and experiment with true narrative wargaming.  Offer to GM a game and impose true hidden setup.  Give players mission tasks that do not specify victory conditions.  Make force organizations that support a tactical scenario, regardless of point imbalance.  Make beautiful terrain and set up tables asymmetrically so that side selection actually matters and the table top looks more like a battlefield and less like, as another member of our gaming group describes tournament terrain, "40k Paintball." 

But cultural change does not begin and end with local gaming groups.  Tournament Organizers: Go play in a hosted game at Adepticon or go to one of the HMGS events (Historicon is coming in July!) and experience true narrative wargaming.  I challenge you to add true hosted narrative war games (vice "narrative tournaments") to your events.  Offer prizes for the best GM and see what happens.  

In fairness, true narrative wargaming is not for everyone.  Some gamers thrive on the predictability and control that optimizing resources and leveraging mechanics brings to a gaming experience, and naturally prefer tournament gaming to narrative wargaming.  Unpredictability and uncertainty can push high-octane competitive tournament players so far out of their comfort zone that they cannot enjoy the gaming experience.  We have seen this in our local gaming group.  Fortunately for these players, the tournament scene is not going anywhere.

As I said before, none of this is new.  Historical wargamers have been enjoying the deep experience of narrative wargaming for over a century.  If the 40k GT community wants to soothe the discontent and advance the culture surrounding the game, we can start by prioritizing true narrative game play and relegating tournament play to a more appropriate spot in the "pecking order" of really good wargaming.

Wouldn't it be cool to enjoy playing 40k again?