Sunday, 12 October 2014

Playtesting a WWII campaign

I am presently working on a campaign module to compliment my Into Battle - WWII Tactical rules. The module is going through a second playtest and the 7th battle in the campaign is being played out today.

This post covers the AAR of this battle and discusses some design aspects behind the mini-campaign module. Please press 'read more' for the rest of this post.
The campaign games will generally have between 2 and 4 platoons per side (with 16 bases maximum per player). Though the campaign has been designed with a specific ruleset in mind, it should easily be adapted to fit other sets and indeed would be suitable for some tactical boardgame systems (swap out the terrain generation system for a board selection process and house rule some of the other features such as morale ratings).

The campaign is set in Russia 1943, details of which will follow in a later post, but suffice to say that we are representing part of the front of a fairly localised offensive in which the campaign objective for the attacker is a city and along the way there are various battlefields that must be crossed. Whenever an attack fails, in the next game the other player becomes the attacker and so the campaign progress is marked by a series of attacks and potential counter-attacks.

Each battlefield is themed to a generalised terrain type, such as city, suburb or wooded etc. and the terrain is randomly generated before play. In our game today, we will be playing on a 'open' board, which has the lowest terrain density of any of the battlefields.
After each battle there is an administration phase. This allows for a number of functions, such as some knocked out vehicles being recovered from the battlefield and sent to the workshops. Importantly, during this phase, each player blindy draws a reinforcement chit from their pool. This will add a number of differing troop types to their current Order of Battle. The combination of this reinforcement mechanic and the randomly created battlefields makes for some dynamic situations. For example, in our game today, the Soviets have built up a respectable tank force and at last the Germans have some panzers arriving on the scene. The open nature of this battlefield lends itself to tank combat and so todays battle will see the first major tank contest of the campaign.

There is much to describe about the campaign, but this post will remain focused on this particular playtest game and further information about the campaign will be set out in detail in a subsequent post.

Background - The Soviets have just captured an important town and continued to advance out into the open ground beyond. The Germans had earlier managed to repulse an attack against the town but have since been falling back in the face of substantial enemy forces that included armour, while the Germans did not have any real anti-tank capability. If units are forced to retreat too early in a battle, they rout and are not available in the next battle. 

In todays battle, the depleted German force is joined by a combination of some of those re-organised (previously routed in an earlier game) units, together with a reinforcement of some medium tanks. This is a chance for the Germans to take on the Soviet armoured spearhead and try to break the momentum of their advance.
Random generated map (open theme)

The open scheme has the lowest number of dice rolls to generate terrain. The fields give cover to infantry only and do not block line of sight. The Germans have accumulated a fair number of defensive aids (mines, entrenchments and wire) into their Order of Battle lists and so due to the critical nature of this battle, their engineers will add these to the landscape to help slow and disrupt the enemy.

Deployment German - Defenders can deploy up to four hexrows deep, though here the Germans want to hang back so that their tanks get the best opportunity to strike out at enemy vehicles early in their advance. They will however place a minefield in C7 to help deny the enemy the use of the hedge as cover. Their entire order of battle has only 10 bases (they really have been on the ropes in the last couple of games).
German Order of Battle deployed: 2 x Pz IV, 1 x Pz IIIj, 2 x StuG IIIg, 1 x half track, 1 x HMG, 3 x rifle sections, 1 artillery observer with 1 x off board artillery mission. (engineering have 2 x mines, 3 x entrenchments, 3 x wire).

They have a StuG far left behind the hedge, a Pz IV in the woods nearest the viewer, a Pz IIIj and a Pz IV in entrenchments in the centre of the board and a StuG over in the far right field. The HMG is in the left hand orchard. The 3 infantry sections are in F2, E7 and D7.

Attacker Strategy - The Soviet Order of Battle has become quite large, they have more troops than the maximum 16 bases that each side is allowed to deploy, so they select a predominatly armoured force from the troops available to take advantage of the open terrain and partly in the knowledge that if they win, the next board is wooded and they will want to preserve their infantry for that game.
Soviet Order of Battle deployed: 6 x T34d, 4 x T70, 1 x SU 76, 1 x SU 152, 1 x HMG, 3 x rifle sections, 1 x artillery observer with 2 x off board artillery missions.

They will enter the board in three main groups. the infantry will take two turns to enter the woods and move out into the fields. The six T-34's will attack in the centre and a mix of T70's, SU 76 and SU 152 will, under the cover of smoke, push down the Soviet left flank, hoping to pull defending armour out of their positions as they threaten to outflank the defenders.

Special rules - none. The battle will last for one hour. Soviets will have won if at any point any of the following 3 conditions exist;
1. they get two bases (of types described in the campaign rules) off the German side of the board AND at least 4 enemy bases have been removed from play due to either fire or retreat.

2. they simultaneously occupy four or more of the German baseline hexes.

3. the board becomes empty of German (non-observer) bases.
Any other result will be a German win.

Turn 1. 0800 hours
The Soviets advance onto the board as shown in the above photograph. In their part of the turn, the German tankers cause enough alarm for the attackers to halt and take up firing positions. The results are, The StuG on the right knocks out the SU 152 (burning). The StuG on the left fires across the battlefield at the SU 76, hits but only stuns the vehicle (perhaps track damage or spall maybe?). A Pz IV takes on a T-34b, needs a 5 to hit and do harm (on a D10) and gets the 5! a roll on the penetration table results in a knock out (burning).
above, one assault gun burns, two tanks are stunned while advancing through a smokescreen. (note burning vehicles can never be recovered after a battle). The second Pz IV fails and the Pz III gets a hit and stun against a T70. Relatively pleased with their opening, their artillery observer brings down fire onto three T-34's and surprisingly this leave two tanks knocked out and the third stunned - an exceptional result for the artillery. Shocked, the Soviet morale rating tumbles from 8 down to 4.

Turn 2 0805 hours
Concerned at these early losses, the Soviet vehicles all stop to engage in a duel with the enemy armour. Two more rifle sections push into the woods (everything must be on the board by turn 2). The woods now have three rifle sections in there (target rich). The HMG moves out from the woods to deploy in the field and are immediately pinned by the German HMG in the orchard - which fires so intensively that it breaks down (permanently).
Hex A7 goes 'out of command', so on the left, only two T70's can fire at the StuG dead ahead of them. They need 1's (on a D10) to secure a harmful hit and one of them gets it. The StuG is knocked out (not burning). The T-34's manage to knock out the Pz III and an artillery strike against the woods at F3 causes the half track to explode, but the Pz IV is left untouched.
At the end of their turn, the stunned T-34 recovers, perhaps the crew had been momentarily concussed and disorientated.

In their part of the turn, the Germans don't have it so good this time. The StuG on the left goes out of command and the two Pz IV's fail to get targets. The pinned Russian HMG in the field takes a further pin and so is removed from play. Soviet morale drops to 3, there is every chance that their attack might falter.

Turn 3 0815 hours
(random events are rolled - the Soviets get 'tank fright' so cannot leave cover. This only effects their T70's who are still getting cover from the smokescreen. The Germans get 'sniper' and pin another infantry section in the woods at A3).

At A7 the T70's remain out of command (can't do anything with them). Three T-34's duel with a Pz IV, they get 2 misses and 1 kill. The Soviets use their second (and last) artillery mission, aiming at the HMG in the orchard, the fire is innacurate and falls in the orchard hex next to it, pinning a rifle section. All three Soviet rifle sections in the woods are now pinned. They are vulnerable.

The Stug in E1 hits another T70, but only causes a stun - the T70's have been very lucky in the sense that they have not suffered a fatal penetration, though stunned vehicles remain so until they pass a test.

Turn 4 0827 hours
(random events are rolled again! this happens when doubles are rolled for the game clock. The Soviets inflict a sniper attack in F2 and the Germans suffer H.Q. Suppression, which means this turn, all their hexes must roll for command).

A T-34 takes out a Pz IV and the loss causes the German morale rating to crash to zero. All German bases must test for fall back, but only the HMG fails, taking it off the board edge. The two remaining T-34's turn in their hex to face the StuG, the combination of turning before firing and the cover of the hedge for the StuG will make a hit impossible this turn. For its part, the StuG continues to fire at the T70's but only gets a stun on a vehicle already stunned (no effect).

Turn 5 0839 hours
(Randon event again .... this is very unusual to get three in a row and also the minutes are racing away with high clock rolls. Both sides get an infiltration result. The Soviets use theirs to get their third T-34 into the field and face the StuG). The T34's all fire at the StuG and fail and one of the T70's recovers from its stun status - perhaps it needed a track repair, they have been out of action for almost 40 minutes. The Soviet infantry in the woods go out of command, so they can't move or lose any of their pins. Their infantry in this game have been really limited, spending much of the time pinned
Turn 6 0847 hours
At last the Russian infantry in the woods start to move out. They enter the field. The three T-34's again engage the StuG, one gets a stun result and then another betters that with a knock out (not burning). The Germans are now without an armour presence.
On the Soviet left the T70's start to advance and the SU 76 recovers from its stun. The last of the smoke screen disperses - it seems to have hung around for ages.
The Germans start to retire out of the firing line. Two Rifle sections leave the board, leaving one section at E7.
Turn 7 0854 hours.
The Russian infantry in the field fire at the Germans in the orchard, getting a pin. Everything else advances
The clock dice are rolled, taking the time to 0901 hours. The game has now exceeded the 1 hour deadline and so ends.

The Soviets have failed to achieve their victory conditions (see discussion below) and so the game is counted as a German victory.

Post Battle Admin.
A/ The losers (Soviet) collect up all of their surviving units off the board (including stunned vehicles), these are returned back into their Order of Battle list and will be available in the next battle.

B/ They can attempt to retain any deployed but unused flamethrowers, demo charges and molotov cocktails (none were deployed to the forces in this game).

C/ They regain any units that retreated from their own baseline and add these to their order of battle.

D/ Any units that routed off their own baseline are also retained, but these cannot be used in the next battle. They will need to re-organise and so cannot be used until battle after the next one.

E/ Any of the losers units that exited via the enemy baseline (i.e. advanced off the board) surrender and are removed from the order of battle.

F/ The winners now go through the same process A - D (not F), but in addition the winners recover any units that exited the enemy baseline and they can attempt to recover (recover on a roll of 1 on a D6) any friendly armoured vehicle that were destroyed in the battle but did not burn. Recovered vehicles will not be available in the next battle, but will return from the worshops to join the battle after that one.

G/ Players go to their respective reinforcement pools and draw one reinforcement chit. These new units will be available in the next battle.
H/ Both players roll on the artillery table to get their artillery allocation for the next game.

Game facts. The Germans lost a half track (burned), 2 x Pz IV, 2 x StuG, 1 x Pz IIIj and a rifle section. Their workshops recovered 1 x StuG. Their reinforcement draw gave them 3 x Pz IIIj and 1 x Marder II. Also returning to their Order of Battle are the following previously routed units, 2 x half tracks, 2 x rifle sections, 1 x HMG and 1 x mortar. They were unlucky on the artillery table and will not get artillery suppport in the next battle. As the winners, their morale rating will get a +1 in the next battle. In the next game, the Germans will become the attackers, giving them an opportunity to counter-attack back into the town that they lost in the last game.

The Soviets lost 1 x SU 152, 3 x T-34 and 1 x HMG. Two of the vehicles were burning, not that it makers any difference to the losing side as they cannot recover vehicles to their workshops. For their reinforcements they drew 2 x 45mm anti-tank guns, 2 x trucks, 1 x entrenchment, 4 x rifle sections and 3 x T70. Considering they are defending next, that is a pretty good draw. They held back 6 rifle sections from this battle, so in additiion to the 3 sections that survived this battle and the reinforcement of 4 rifle sections, they will have a very respectable infantry based force to fight in the next battle, which being a town will suit an 'infantry strong' player. It does cross my mind that the German counter-attack is already doomed - but who knows? They were also a bit unlucky in their artillery allocation and will get just 1 x observer and 1 x off board artillery mission.

Out of interest, I did continue the battle for just one more turn to see what might come out of it and the picture below shows the final positions of that turn.
Discussion. I suppose the first thing to deal with is why this looked on the table like a Soviet win, but that they are treated as the loser. The campaign victory conditions are strict. They reflect the demand for continued forward moving, taking ground and also to create the opportunity for repeated and determined counter-attacks, which were strong characteristics of the historical campaign. The system does not reward the stronger side for just sitting back and using their firepower advantage to destroy the other side without the associated taking of ground. 

The reason for combining the requirement of both exiting the enemy baseline and causing casualties is to prevent the above and ensure that a strong attacker does not simply gather in one part of the board and punch their way off the map without actually also engaging the enemy. Indeed, the surrender rule in the inter-game admin phase actively discourages that.

In our game, the Soviet spearhead came upon determined resistance. They chose to stand and duel with the T-34's, but their left flank (which under normal circumstances could have made the necessary advance) became tied down by a combination of 'stun' results caused by enemy fire and moments of being out of command as the focus of the command went to the T-34 duel. 

In this regard, the Germans although taking high casualties performed their defence well and in effect repulsed the attack (which now, for good or bad, causes them to counter-attack in the next battle). For their part, the Soviets knocked out five armoured bases, which may actually help them win the next battle, but they did not achieve any of their victory conditions for this battle. The time frame is tight in every battle and this is intended to make an attacker make a careful balanced judgement about the emphasis they give over the relationship between advance and fire - bottom line, the attackers have to get moving and inflict casualties ... yes very tough!

The whole point of choosing this campaign was that both sides were stretched and that makes for a better two player experience, so balancing the orders of battle to get nearer that position has now become the important part of the design, as everything else seems to be working quite well.
The first playtest of the whole campaign resulted in some quite big changes being made across most of the module mechanics and these changes have largely stood up to the second running of the campaign. 

However, having reached the 7th battle, some things needed tightening a little further, so minor modifications have been made to the terrain creation table and also to the order of battle of each side. The module has had a re-write to streamline some ideas and the artillery table has been 'calmed down'.

I have also introduced a new rule. 'Panzer Grenadiers' ..... From the 3rd battle onwards, to reflect the arrival of 2nd Panzer Division, if the Germans are the attackers, then immediately before the game starts they roll a D6. On a score 1 - 3, just for that battle, the troops are counted as being panzer grenadiers (they get an extra fire dice to reflect the extra LMG in the section). After the last reinforcemenmt chit has been drawn, this conversion will only happen on a roll of 1 - 2. I really like the introduction of this rule.

In one of my early battles (for a river crossing), defending panzer IV's and a StuG were destroyed by a force of T70's and SU 76. This was surprise outcome, with some lucky rolling on the part of the Russians (which of course might translate into something like experienced crew .... who knows). But this went on to have an impact on the following battles. The result could have easily (and perhaps likely) gone the other way, reflecting the dynamic nature of play and it is the knock on effect of one game onto the next that makes campaign play so interesting.

Finally, winning a battle can also be a curse - it may not suit a player to be the attacker in the next game and they may choose to fight a limited attack (spoiling attack) in which they stay close to their baseline, intending to retreat early after inflicting some casualties on the enemy from good positions - though equally they may take high casualties and if they suffer enough early on, they may even end up routing off the board and not being available for the next battle (which did happen in my 5th battle 'attack at Hill 101'). Generally however, it does give some breathing space for the weaker force to move the game on and get another set of reinforcements - for which they may have a desperate need. This happened to the Germans in the 6th battle. They were critically short of armour, but they got enough armour as a reinforcement and returns from workshops to allow the stand in our 7th battle to happen.

Anyway, things seem to be going well and it is keeping my interest. I am always looking forward to the next battle to see what it brings (this one surprised me and perhaps the next one will) and that is at the very heart of running a campaign game.

I will shortly be making the campaign module available as a free download and hope there are things in there that gamers will find interesting.
Above - Just out of interest, this is what the terrain generation process threw up for the next battle (theme suburb). I can see the infantry of both sides being very interested in the left hand side of this board. The Soviets only have one entrenchment in their Order of Battle and are without mines or wire, so their left wing could be a vulnerable area.


  1. Appetite definitely whetted by this AAR, Norm. I continue to enjoy following along with this project and I know I won't be alone in saying that I will be downloading this supplement as soon as it becomes available.

    Regards - Russ

  2. Russ, as always, thanks for looking in and commenting. I think you will like what the module does and you can whip out the terrain track and put your own in for a 1941 campaign of your own choosing and then just modify the terrain generator if needed. Mine makes use of fields because it is a summer campaign, but you winter set-up may need a different terrain type, so that the level of cover generated within the board remains about the same.

    After my above post, each side is left with 4 more formation chits to draw. After that, no new troops and the campaign will go until one or both sides are too exhausted to take the fight to the enemy. I can't imagine that will take very long, but I like the way the campaign ends by an offensive running out of steam, rather than setting a fixed date, which is only something we are able to do with hindsight.

  3. Norm,

    (I think my previous comment has been eaten). The campaign sounds very interesting and the mechanics of it well thought out. I still have not got around to your rules :-( MY WW2 is in hiatus, likely to be restarted in the new year. Your rules are up there to try. I am toying with completing some ancient rules on a similar sized board to yours so I can reuse it for your rules.

  4. Hi Shaun, I read through your most recent outing with ancients and loved your 'I like them now - maybe not tomorrow' comment, it made me smile. My campaign has been doing much the same, I am on the second full playtest but at around battlles 8 and 9, I did more tinkering than would be fair to call 'fine tuning' with the result that I will have to playtest the whole run again, just to see that I have not done anything too heavy handed. As you know, some quite unforseen consequences can jump out during a play test. I am painting up some ACW ready for for my New Year project.

    I have been doing some design notes while playtesting the campaign and will try to organise them into a post if that interests anyone.



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