2009-11-29

Attack on Ste. Marie

Date: 6 June 1944, 1300 hours
Location: Ste. Marie du Mont, Normandy, FR
US Orders: Capture the church in Ste. Marie.
German Orders: Prevent US victory conditions

Since Mike was in town for the weekend, I planned a "big" miniatures wargame scenario. World War II is still Mike's favorite period as far as I know, and I have plenty of troops and terrain in 15mm to put on a good show. However, we haven't played any WWII rules in several years, and I was planning on 5 players: 2 more than we ever had when playing WWII games previously.

I decided to use the Disposable Heroes rule set. Although we had never played these rules outside a convention, I remembered them being easy to learn and not too fiddly. We preferred Arc of Fire when we most recently played WWII skirmish games, but those rules take a bit more learning than I wanted to put in for one night of gaming.

Since I haven't studied any World War II history in a long time, I decided to use one of the canned scenarios from the SkirmishCampaigns books I had on hand. I needed a big enough order of battle for 5 players without many vehicles. I chose Attack on Ste. Marie because it used a fairly large board and had enough squads to split 5 ways. It's one of the scenarios from the "Normandy '44- First Hours" scenario book. We played it once before, years ago, so I knew I had the terrain. I also wanted to build a game around my fancy French church, so I could use it for more than one game over its entire lifetime. After I set up the board, it really didn't look very familiar, so I wonder what we did the first time?

In this operation, US paratroopers who were airdropped into the area only 12 hours earlier were tasked with capturing the church in the center of town. The German defenders were also heavily armed, highly trained paratroopers. To answer Mike's question from turn 1 in the game: the Germans didn't get artillery support because their observer in the church steeple was destroyed by US paratroopers using a captured German gun. I was worried about Disposable Heroes' lack of hidden unit rules, so I didn't give the Americans any artillery support either.

The Germans were defending with two Fallschirmjaeger squads, one platoon HQ, one artillery radio team, and one Panzerschreck team. The Americans attacked with two Paratrooper Infantry squads, two Infantry Squads, 4 Sherman tanks, and a jeep with MMG.

I broke all squads into two teams each, for unit activation purposes. The vehicles were one unit of tanks and one jeep unit, until we enough vehicles blew up, at which point we switched to one vehicle per unit/activation.

Mike played the German defenders, and Andy joined him when he arrived. Frank and I attacked with the Americans. When Dan arrived, he took over the vehicles, and finally I switched sides when Mike got bored (sick: he failed his guts check) enough that he had to leave (and there weren't many tanks left). I'm sorry you weren't feeling better, Mike! So I thought I'd write this up so you can see what you missed...

The Americans had 10 turns to capture the church, and the Germans only had to mount a static defense and prevent the capture. The dilemma for the Americans was: if you run into the open, you get shot (a lot); but if you don't, you can't capture the church.

In the first few turns, the American infantry found heavy cover within firing range of the enemy, and holed up. With both sides under heavy cover, no one was hitting the enemy very much; and paratrooper Guts scores prevented everyone from failing any morale checks. It turned into a trench-like war of attrition. Unfortunately Frank was playing the Americans, so my Germans (after Mike left) were pretty much impervious to his attacks.

The tanks were a different story: the first several turns each saw one or more vehicles destroyed. Finally Dan drove a tank out of range of the rockets, while keeping the enemy within MG range. At that point the rules demonstrated the pointlessness of bringing a gun to a knife fight: Dan spent so many turns trying to acquire his target that his infantry had killed it before he could shoot anything other than his pintle HMG at it. One more infantry squad would've helped a lot more in this rule set, than the 4 tanks.

In the end, the infantry ruled, which is to be expected in an infantry game. Dan's Americans advanced from the West and were decimated in the open (as they should be). Frank tried to advance through the orchard in the north, but met with strong resistance from the occupied townhouses.

Finally, it was turn 8, but the Americans hadn't made a lot of progress. They calculated that the only way to even reach the church was to send one or more units sprinting towards it while the rest provided cover. On the last turn, I pinned the sprinters just before they ran out of cover towards the church. The Americans cleared the final German out of the church tower that turn, but it was too late.

In the end, the Germans had 6 infantry left (out of 33). The Americans had 11 infantry (out of 48), 1 functional tank, and one rolling coffin (out of 5 vehicles). The losses were huge. By percentage they were slightly worse for the Germans, but unfortunately the Americans weren't able to capitalize on their advantage.

Catalog of (scenario/rule) Errors:
  • The German paratroopers had an accuracy of 6 (not 5), but we never took advantage of this.
  • The Germans had two areas of Anti-Personnel mines. I have no clue where they were, since Mike left before anyone walked near them. Would they have made any difference?
  • If we had not made the two errors above, I expect the Americans would've needed more help: leaving off the Artillery support was probably also an error, under the circumstances.
Catalog of Complaints:
  • I don't think the SkirmishCampaigns/Disposable Heroes rules translation worked well for this scenario. The Guts scores were 10 or 11 for most troops on the board, and the cover was heavy for almost all troops most of the time. This translated to "roll 1 to hit" (see also: we missed the German paratrooper ACC6) and "roll 10 to fail a guts check" almost always. There weren't nearly enough morale effects in the game, but truthfully I would've expected fewer casualties than we saw, given the low hit rate we should've seen.
  • Less of a complaint than an observation: we use a few metrics to judge WWII skirmish rules. Grenades either suck or they don't (we think they sucked in this game, but never actually used them to find out). Close combat is usually extremely painful, but sometimes it's a huge waste of time (you're better off shooting instead): in this case, we never found out. Vehicles are usually nearly pointless against infantry, but also hard to kill; in this game, they proved relatively easy to kill, but not very powerful against infantry. Lastly: M1 Garand rifles are usually not represented well. Either they're too powerful compared to a manual rifle, or they're equivalent to the weaker weapon. DH models them as equivalent during a "stand and shoot" standoff, but better when used to actively assault the enemy, and this felt pretty good in the few games I've seen.
  • We played in 15mm scale, with a very terrain-heavy board. I think the rules would've worked a lot better in 25mm scale with fewer layers of terrain than we played with.
  • I think we were playing with an old version of the rulebook, but a new version of the quick reference sheet for the rules. The old rulebook caused confusion in some areas, especially the pin/fall back/rout section. I'm really not happy with the writing used in this version of the rulebook, it needs much clarification.
Highlights:
  • I have plemty of ammo, so what if I need to roll a 1 to snap-shoot that tank with my panzerschreck. Hit! Penetration! Damage? no result... it bounced off a tread.
  • We learned a lot about the "Man Alone" rule: if only one guy in a unit is left, he can't move towards the enemy, but he can join another squad. Frank had a donut convention with all of his squad leaders; they had as many SMGs as a Russian rifle squad.
  • Dan played the lawyer: since "half your figures shoot" rounds up, he left his individuals to fire separately instead of combining them, and got more dice. Besides, how dangerous can one guy be, really?
  • Oops, tanks don't block line of sight, when you can shoot from the second floor of the building.
If I were planning on playing any more WWII skirmish games, I'd do one of two things: either look into a more recent version of DH available for sale, or just give up and spend my effort on Arc of Fire instead (more likely).

Overall the game was fun, and it allowed people who don't know or care much about WWII or miniatures games to roll dice and kill the bad guys. But it did feel a bit like a luck-filled dice fest, and lacked some of the subtleties I remember from Arc of Fire.

I really enjoyed being able to set aside the time for a "big" miniatures game outside a convention, which is rare these days since I have kids who aren't opponent aged yet. I wish Mike was able to enjoy it a bit more, though. I'd love to get another game set up for Christmas, but I'll concentrate on something a bit less serious. Maybe we can play my French and Indian War scenario in Blood and Swash?

Thanks for a great game, guys! Until next time...

Update: Additional rules complaints:
  • It was not obvious when pin/fall back/rout units were supposed to make their mandatory move. We played that they wait until their next activation, but this ended up sticking them out in the open for too long. As Dan said, "Oh noes, I'm being shot at! I think I'll stop here in the open!" I think we did it wrong.
  • Target acquisition for the tanks was confusing. We failed so hard for so long that I think we must've been doing it wrong.

2009-11-22

Update: Epic Gruit

I hadn't had any of my gruit in a long time, several months at least. I suppose with a limited quantity I wanted to savor it?

Well, today Marla was chopping a huge cabbage, and wondering what the heck to do with it, so I looked up making Sauerkraut. I was uninspired, bu I also remembered my gruit and decided to taste another bottle.

It tastes quite good. It's sort of like a Belgian double style, with a bit of the sourness you'd expect in an Oud Bruin. There is a hint of the same herbal funkiness it has always had, but it's toned down compared to what I remember from last time (Marla agrees).

So, I'm glad I still have some left; it would suck if it went bad and I wasted it. We'll have to drink some over the holidays.

As I started to write this up, I went back and read my original post about the Epic Gruit. Coincidentally, I bottled a year ago today (November 22nd). The Epic continues, as all good epics do.

2009-11-21

The Future is Here

Most people think "the future" involves jet packs and flying cars, but I disagree (even if you manage to make a jetpack that doesn't ingest fossil fuels). The future, if there is one to be had, must lie along a different path.

In fact, the toys of the future cannot exist at all, in the traditional sense, because in the long run there simply isn't enough "stuff" to go around. Inasmuch as the toys of the future will ever exist, they already do; but as William Gibson has said, "the future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed."

I recently saw the latest sign of this future in the state of my Netflix queue. For the first time, the number of entries in our "Instant" queue has outnumbered the number of entries in our "DVD" queue. This bolsters my hope that someday soon, I'll be able to watch whatever I want whenever and wherever I want (for a modest fee, of course) without having to buy something or plan ahead.

Those of you who have been watching pay per view and Tivo for the last 5 years may think I'm arriving late to the party, but the Netflix streaming-on-demand service is different enough that I disagree.

Beautiful Fall Commutes

Fall is a wonderful time for commuting by bicycle. This fall has been particularly mild and enjoyable.

After the clocks fall back, it's dark by the time I leave work. If I don't have to get home quickly, I ride through Schenley and Frick parks. Almost the whole trip home is on trails, and avoids cars. Since it's dark and a bit chilly, there are almost no dogs and walkers.

Once I'm on the Junction Hollow trail, it's basically silent until I get to Squirrel Hill. My generator headlight is bright enough to keep the ride safe. Riding home alone, a silent bubble of light floating in a sea of darkness, gives me time to think and provides a good transition between "communicating with computers" at work and "communicating with people" at home.

It helps a lot that I commute often, and the route is familiar to me. I don't spend any thought on operating my bicycle and I'm completely comfortable with the way it handles. Being familiar with the route allows me to anticipate the tricky parts, but cruise smoothly between them.

Most people who drive often occasionally experience the "autopilot" effect: "How did I get here?" Part of you drives the car to your destination without the rest of you even being aware of it or needing to pay full attention to it. I have the same experience on my bicycle, especially on the way home as my mind is processing the day's effort at work. "I'm at the top of the hill already?" is a particularly nice revelation to have.

Unfortunately, fall doesn't always last very long. But as long as there isn't too much snow, nighttime park rides home can be very enjoyable in the winter as well.

2009-11-11

What drives you crazy?

NPR recently requested listeners to submit a short story (250 words or less) story about "What drives you crazy?" when driving, riding, or walking on our roads. I don't go crazy in writing very well, but here's what I told them drives me crazy while I'm riding my bike:
As a vehicular cyclist, I am required to follow the rules that govern all vehicular road traffic. My gripe is about drivers who treat me as a pedestrian instead of a vehicle. In Pittsburgh, drivers often relinquish their right-of-way and encourage cyclists to cross traffic when it would otherwise be unlawful or unsafe to do so. This unpredictable driving makes intersections less safe for everyone involved, and perpetuates a downward spiral of poor behavior by cyclists who fail to follow the rules of the road and drivers who encourage them to do so. Be mindful of cyclists who may ride where they shouldn't, but for the safety of everyone involved, please don't enourage this behavior.

Alan Ferrency
Pittsburgh, PA

2009-11-06

DBA Army II/2: Mountain Indians

Here's my latest DBA Army: Mountain Indians, II/2. According to the DBA army book, these guys were an enemy and an ally of the Alexandrian Imperial army (II/15), and an enemy of the Skythians (I/43a). They're also an enemy of the early Seleucids (II/19a), which I can morph my Alexandrian army into.

The figures are 15mm Museum Miniatures, and are available in a DBA army pack. I painted everything except for the 2LH General element. The figures are slimmer and shorter than my Essex guys. The horses are downright pinheaded. I haven't stood them up next to each other yet but I think these guys will look tiny. The quality of the sculpting is good overall, but their faces look somewhat uninspired, with mere suggestions of eyes. I quite like the bows.

My only complaint with the army pack itself is that there was no clear way to distinguish either the Elephant or the Light Horse as a general element. The Elephant came with a parasol, but nothing obvious to mount it on and no general-like riders. The light horse figures were all identical.

According to the DBM army list book, the Mountain Indians armies represented by this army list are various tribes living in the mountains in the corner of what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. I've been unable to find much information about these people, so I'm not sure whether the sculpts are accurate.

This was a fun army to paint, for several reasons. As I've said before, I'm getting a bit sick of painting clown suits, so this was a welcome change of pace. These simple solid color outfits are a lot easier to shade with dry brushing and layering instead of ink.

This is the first time I've painted dark-skinned humans, and I think it turned out pretty well. I've seen Mountain Indians painted anything from "got a bit of a tan last weekend" to "how much more black can it get?" and even a few "wow, that's way too pink to be human."

I've also been unable to find much information on what color their clothes should be painted. General recommendations seem to be to use readily available dye colors of the time, with their trousers in "your favorite color of off-white." The freedom of not worrying so much about whether I'm getting it right makes it a bit more fun.

Their shields were apparently faced with cow hide, and so most painters use a holstein-like spotted color scheme. I'm not sure that makes any sense: were holsteins available in ancient India? I'd expect something boring and brownish, but the spots look a lot better.

This army was also very fast to paint, but it exercised some techniques I hadn't used much lately. Unfortunately the photographs didn't turn out well, they aren't focused properly.

With 4 Auxilia and 4 Psiloi, I'm not entirely sure how this army is supposed to stay alive. I guess we'll just have to try it out and see. I expect I'll take a little break from painting DBA armies, but hopefully I'll get some time to play them instead.

2009-11-05

Even More Mordheim

Apparently, at some point I became a much faster painter than I used to be, without getting any worse at it (in fact I might even be better). I'm not sure when that happened, but the "how" probably has something to do with doing a lot of painting, instead of finishing fewer figures more meticulously. Practicing the same techniques many more times makes me both faster, and I'd say slightly better, than I was before.

In any case, here are some more figures I've painted since I finished the Later Achaemenid Persian army.

First is a group of Middenheimer bowmen, for Mordheim. I already have crossbowmen, but crossbows are really expensive in Mordheim, and of course the only figures I've ever had die after a match are the crossbowmen. Now that I have bowmen instead, the crossbowmen are guaranteed not to die for fear of being replaced with cheaper minions!

These figures are Games Workshop Empire Bowmen. I would have gotten a box of the men-at-arms, but they didn't have any, and these are close enough. They'll add a bit of variety to the warband. I painted the blue and green a bit lighter, with lighter highlights instead of darker shadows.

Next up is a Sister of Sigmar. This is another Mordheim figure, a metal casting. I got about 5 of these in a big box of bits from a Games Worksop bits sale. Andy is painting a Sisters of Sigmar warband, so I decided to paint a duplicate of one of the figures to demonstrate the techniques on the same figure he'd be working on.

Andy chose the color scheme. I wouldn't have used this blue, but it turned out a lot better than I expected. In these pictures it seems to almost glow, it's a lot brighter than in real life. I need to work on my inking technique on these larger figures, I often end up with a mucky, messy look instead of good shading (see around her leg). After really messing up the blue with ink, I redid it. Now it's shaded by hand with multiple layers of similar colors to build up the gradient.

I have no idea what I'm going to do with this figure. Truthfully, there are some much nicer Sisters of Sigmar figures, I wish I had five copies of those instead of this one.

At this point, Andy has tracked down at least one of every Sister of Sigmar ever made, as far as we can tell. He'll have plenty of options for building a warband; not that Sisters give you many options anyway: "Would you like one hammer, or two hammers?" Painting up the warband should give him plenty of time to decide whether he actually wants to continue painting or not.

2009-11-04

More DBA Elements

In between painting up DBA armies and Uncharted Seas ships, I sneak in a few random DBA elements to round out my other armies. These are all Essex figures this time around.

In the lower right is an element of Greek peltasts (4Ax, auxilia) for my Spartan army that I forgot to show last time around. Not very exciting, so I figured I'd get it out of the way first.

The two Macedonian elephants are intended for use to morph my Alexandrian Macedonian army into an Alexandrian Imperial army and/or any of the earlier armies of Alexander's successors that happen to require elephants.

Unfortunately I mounted the drivers back too far, they should really be on the elephant's neck. I mounted the pikemen facing rearward, based on convincing arguments I read in a recent issue of Slingshot: Elephants can take care of themselves up front, they don't need pikes up there. And those model pikes are about half as long as they should be in real life, they don't even reach the ground. Unless you're facing rearward it would be nearly impossible to swing a 20' long stick from one side of the elephant to the other, to protect the beast's vulnerable underbelly and hind quarters from someone else's pointy sticks.

In the front is a ballista, the artillery element for the Alexandrian Macedonian army. It's not as impressive as a Trebuchet, but it was all there was those hundreds of years earlier. The only case I know of where Alexander used artillery was in the siege of Tyre, which is completely inappropriate for playing in DBA anyway, so I didn't paint this element initially. But it's easier to build some of the successor armies with it, and it was easy, so I painted it.

Coming soon: DBA II/2, Mountain Indians, by Museum Miniatures. These guys are indestructable! Ha!

2009-11-03

Game report: Uncharted Seas

Games Workshop's Man O' War has been out of print for a long time. After failing to find any reasonably inexpensive copies, I started looking for alternatives, and came across The Uncharted Seas.

Uncharted Seas is a fantasy naval miniatures wargame released a year or so ago by Spartan Games in the UK. The ships are nominally 1/600 scale, but since they're fantasy themed and there are no humans to compare them to, it's hard to tell. The largest ship in the image above, the Dragon Lords Battleship, is over 6" long, and the smallest ships, frigates, are just under 1.5" long. The sails are metal and the hulls are separately cast resin.

Frank and I liked the look of this game, so we bought a starter set each and the rules. Frank chose Iron Dwarves, and I chose Dragon Lords. The dwarven boats are almost identical copies of some of the better looking Civil War ironclads. The dragon lords ships have sails patterned after dragon wings.

Each starter set comes with one battleship, a squadron of three cruisers, and two squadrons of three Frigates. The game is new and Spartan Games is fairly small, so they have a few additional ships available for each fleet, but certainly not an overwhelming volume of "stuff you need to buy."

The models are quite pretty, and are high quality castings. The resin parts are cast very cleanly and needed minimal cleanup, but the bottoms needed a pass over sandpaper to flatten them out. The only flaw I had with the resin was evidence of its brittleness: the railing was cracked off in a few places, and I had to repair this with putty. The metal sails needed a bit more cleanup on their edges, and didn't fit perfectly to the shape of the hulls. I chose to solve the problem with epoxy, but drilling the hulls and sails and using pins might have produced better results.

My initial color choice, shown in the oddball Frigate squadron above, was disappointing. The switch to a brown hull and dark yellow spines on the sails improved things immensely. Painting the ships was quite fast using standard inking and drybrushing techniques, but not as fun as I had hoped. The textured surface of the Dragon Lord takes drybrushing very well, and the boards in the hull show ink perfectly. The only real fiddly bits on the Dragon Lords ships are all of the tiny ballistae on the decks of the ship, which are smaller than crossbows for 15mm figures. Everyone else gets cannons, which would be much more fun to paint.

The rulebook has quite high production quality. It's printed in full color and is very glossy. There are many inspiring photographs of painted fleets, as well as digital images showing other paint scheme ideas.

Unfortunately the text itself isn't very good: this is YAUBR (Yet Another Unintelligible British Ruleset). Some rulebooks put 10 pages of rules in a 100 page book and fill the rest with fluff and exposition, making the rules hard to find when you need them. Others put 10 pages of rules on 1 page using tiny font sizes, arcanely terse writing styles, and a heavy dose of omission; an index is impossible without the use of line numbers instead of page numbers.

The Uncharted Seas rules don't fall completely into either of these categories, but have some problems nonetheless. The rulebook constantly comments on the rules, explaining how simple they are and that they were chosen to make the game fast and exciting. Much of this would be better if it were left out, or put into a "designer's notes" section. Unfortunately we came across questions which seemed to be unanswered in the rules, so we basically just made stuff up or decided how to handle things on the fly until we could consult a FAQ... except, there isn't a rule FAQ, only a forum.

Another downside to the rulebook is, the rules have changed since the first printing. Updates are freely available on the Spartan Games website, but this is inconvenient. The new rules make sense where the old ones didn't, at least. I'm not sure how much has been fixed in the second revision of the rulebook, but I'm going to wait for the next revision before I buy another copy.

The rule book comes with templates and counters you can copy and cut out, and third parties have already produced laser cut plywood/acrylic alternatives. At first I thought it might have been nice to have some thicker cardboard templates in the rules, but at this point I think I prefer the thin cardstock: the templates often get in the way of other ships, and you can slip the cardstock under another ship or bend it out of the way fairly easily.

Although the rulebook is not perfect, the rules themselves are quite good, and not difficult to learn or play. The basic feel of the game is very similar to Battlefleet Gothic (BFG), but it's simpler and faster to play. Luckily, not much is lost in the process.

There are a few basic tactical problems you face in "broadsides" naval games like this:
  • Maneuvering a ship while taking into account the effects of wind
  • Lining yourself up for good shots, even though you move forward and shoot primarily to the side
We didn't encounter the first problem, because both Dragon Lords and Iron Dragons are immune to the wind (human, elf, and orc ships are not). The "broadsides" problem was present in Battlefleet Gothic and showed itself here as well. The ships themselves felt faster than I remember ships being in BFG; the 4'x4' board felt crowded with 5 islands and the two starter fleets, and the edge of the board came a lot more quickly than I expected.

The basic combat mechanic is well known to anyone who has played a Games Workshop game: roll more d6's than you can hold in 2 hands, and hope you get a lot of 6's. However, as anyone familiar with statistics knows: despite superstition, rolling more dice produces a much more even distribution of results than rolling only a few. Rolling lots of dice doesn't necessarily make the game feel more random, and this combat system works quite well for its suited purpose.

In terms of ship effectiveness, it's clear that the battleships kick butt and frigates are mostly useless. You can effectively take on a ship one class larger with several of your boats, but it would be very difficult to put much of a dent in a battleship with your frigates.

Overall, we both liked the game enough to be interested in buying more ships. I'll likely get a Dragon Carrier, which launches dragons instead of airplanes, and a squadron of Heavy Cruisers. They also have a Flagship for each fleet, a slightly larger battleship, but the rules for those aren't finished yet and the rough draft looked unimpressive. I may just get another battleship for variety though.