Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gaming Cassino '44: An Overview

Cassino '44 fully spread out with the playing counters unpunched.  The map is artistically impressive but it is too big for my gaming table.  You can see Monte Cassino in the upper right.  The scenario I chose to play sets up on the two maps on the left.
On May 15, 1944, two reinforced British regiments attacked a stitched together German kampfgruppe near Monte Cassino in Italy. The British attempted to cut a major road held by the Germans who were blocking supply from getting to the 8th Indian Division in the overall attempt by Allied troops to capture Monte Cassino.  The attack began in the predawn hours, with visibility limited by darkness. The road was taken but the Germans launched immediate counterattacks and control shifted back and forth until the British finally secured the area mid-afternoon with the assistance of heavy artillery fire and a few aircraft sorties. This was a small part of Operation Diadem.

Long-time readers know that I enjoy military wargaming as a hobby.  Currently, I have a scenario set up on my gaming table representing this specific attack.  It is part of a game from Avalanche Press called Cassino '44: Gateway to Rome, another of their popular Panzer Grenadier (PG) Series.  I own several PG games in my collection. Most of them represent fighting on the Eastern Front but I recently bought this one because it offered a grand-tactical look at the four battles for the capture of Cassino between January and May 1944 - a typical situation in the overall Italian Campaign of World War Two.

PG games come with several scenarios depicting the innumerable tactical actions of the Second World War.  In the past I have played their Guadalcanal game as well as Eastern Front. I own other games from this system but use them more as a reference than for play.  There are other gaming systems which I prefer to play with my limited time. I have blogged about many of them over the past 8 years. But the time felt right to revisit this series.  So here I am, setting things up, learning the fourth edition of the rules, and getting ready to roll some dice.  

Like most PG scenarios, this one simulates a relatively small action. In and of itself it did not decide the Battle for Cassino. But small military actions are the primary focus of the PG tactical series.  As a player your control (or attempt to control depending upon the effects of moral and causalities) the actions of infantry and tanks at the platoon level and artillery at the battery level.  I was drawn to it because it represents the different fighting capabilities of the British and German forces in Italy in 1944.  On the British side there is a battalion of Sherman tanks (among others), the most reliable Allied tank of the war. On the German side there are two Nashorn platoons (among others), a weapon system I have always found interesting for some reason.  It is a clunky beast with inadequate armor but it sports an 88mm gun that was perhaps the finest armored tube of the war.
My gaming table all set to start the scenario.
Let me start by explaining why I don't normally play modern tactical games like this.  I prefer wargames of a strategic or operational scale. Strategy and operations are ultimately what wins or loses wars.  So games on that scale seem more relevant to me. Tactical scale games are interesting but they are more tedious for me in many ways. For example, at the tactical scale you have to deal with "spotting" and "line of sight." Obviously, soldiers tend to seek cover in the terrain they are fighting over.  So, if they are in a wooded or urban area they are less likely to be seen by the enemy than in, say, an open field. Rules governing this tend to be more of an art than a science. There are innumerable ways where it becomes questionable whether one unit can fire at another due to the lay of the land.

Then there is the whole idea of "ranged fire" that does not appear at the operation or strategic level. Each type of armor or artillery or infantry has a particular strength of fire at particular ranges.  It isn't that complicated to understand how to reduce fire values due to ranges but it does require more mental capacity when are attempting to keep track of who has fired at whom and what the variable effects are of range upon fire.  To me this is often experienced as more "bureaucracy" to game play. 

"Opportunity fire" is another fundamental tactical system concept. In PG terms opportunity fire is where a unit is spotted at particular ranges during its movement.  If the enemy decides to fire upon the moving target then the target has to stop and opportunity fire has to be resolved.  The result of this could be the end of the unit's movement or no effect at all, in which case you have to keep up with how many movement points the unit has used before entering the next hex, where more opportunity fire can be triggered.  If the unit can continue movement then another possibility for opportunity fire is simulated. This is a realistic simulation of tactical combat but it often slows game play to a crawl, hex by hex.

Each PG turn represents 15 minutes of real time. Usually, depending upon the scenario, the player can complete his turn within that amount of time.  But, when the fighting becomes intense - which is, after all, the point of the game to start with - it can take much longer than that to resolve everything. As a rule I have never really enjoyed playing games that take longer to play than the time frame they represent.  

For these and other reasons, modern tactical wargames are not what I prefer to do with my limited gaming time.  On the other hand, these games do offer a lot of excitement and insight into this scale, which is where the "real" fighting takes place in every battle and war.  I like the PG system because, as these things go, it offers a realistic feel with minimal (but necessary) game "bureaucracy." I also enjoy the system because it is a great way to gain insight into the weapons and tactics each side used during the war.  You can compare tanks from 1941 with tanks from 1943 with tanks for 1945, for example, and obtain a genuine appreciation for the evolution of armor and the diversity of armor types during the war.  I'd just as soon experience these details within the context of a gaming system as I would to read about them in books. 

This particular scenario is one of 30 that come with the game. That is a plus in any larger format PG game - lots of different situations to exemplify in a historical manner all the types of fighting that occurred at the scale where an individual leader can change the outcome of the battle.  The British outnumber the Germans roughly 3 to 2 in terms of infantry and 2 to 1 in terms of tanks. Additionally, they have more artillery and the variable advantage of air power (you roll a die to determine whether or not they receive an air attack that turn). Moreover, they have more leaders which is a huge advantage. As the PG rules clearly state: "Leaders are the most important pieces in the game."  This is as it should be with any tactical system. Without good command and control your troops cannot coordinate their actions and they will not recover as quickly from enemy fire and adverse conditions.

British leaders prepare their assault with six platoons of Sherman tanks in reserve.
A platoon of German Nashorns awaits, partially hidden by the woods hexes to the right. Some half-tracks are next to them loaded with infantry ready to move along the road depending upon where the British decide to attack. A German stronghold marker protects the flank at the top of this photo.
The game itself is a beautiful design.  The map, counters, and other components are of the highest printed quality. Avalanche Press is a leader in the industry with their artistic presentations, though I have purchased a few aesthetic duds from them too. Cassino '44 is a four-map game, which means it will not fit on my gaming table.  I only have space for two maps.  Fortunately, outside of the two campaign games provided, most of the scenarios can be played on one or two maps.  The scenario I selected uses most of the southern two maps. Mount Cassino is off the map to the north.  The scenario depicts fighting the Liri Valley, just south of the mountain.

The British have 24 game-turns (about 6 hours) to clear the Germans from the would-be supply route in order to win. But, the victory conditions also stipulate that they must inflict more causalities on the Germans than they receive. So that precludes a reckless direct assault.  This attack must be more methodical.  For their part, the Germans win if the hold just one hex of the road by the end of the scenario and inflict more causalities on the British than they receive.  Visibility during the first few turns is only one-hex due to darkness, unless hexes are illuminated by flares.  Full visibility (12 hexes) does not come until half-way through the attack.  

The darkness is a slight advantage to the British, however, as it allows them to advance (units in good order typically can "activate" themselves but at night it requires a leader to do so) without the Germans spotting them (except for flares). Everything is set now.  Let the die rolling begin!  I'll post an after-action report whenever I complete the scenario - which may be awhile due to my limited playtime availability. 

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