Monday, June 27, 2016

Playing Cassino '44

The situation near the end of the game.  Notice all the disrupted and demoralized units.  This game mechanic successfully recreates the confusion of the battlefield. Leaders have to help rally their troops while other leaders continue to direct the attack with fewer organized units as the attack continues.
A British air unit bombards one one of the Nashorn platoons, disrupting it and allowing the British tanks to close range on the position.  Nashorns have an 11 firepower with a 9-hex range. Sherman's have a 5 firepower and a 6-hex range.  It is an important tactic to not leave the British armor exposed to the Nashorns without putting them within range to fire back at the weakly armored German units.
The scenario begins at 3:30 AM, so darkness is a big factor with the initial British advance.  As mentioned in my previous post on Cassino '44, leaders are the most important pieces in the Panzergrenadier series.  Setup has to carefully take the positioning of leaders into account so that both sides can maximize their movement potential.  This is always true but especially in night turns when the rules require a leader to be present whenever units move through non-controlled (enemy or neutral) hexes in darkness.

Perhaps the thing that took me longest to learn about the PG series is that the player usually needs to move carefully and not rush headlong into an attack.  As with actual history, attacks should be well-planned with units and leaders in proper orientation, artillery and/or air preparation fire against enemy positions, and coordinated attacks of armor and infantry, if both are present.  In the case of this scenario, the burden of attack falls upon the British.  There is really no reason to press the attack as early as possible in the scenario due to (a) limited visibility at the beginning and (b) the sooner you push the Germans off the road, the more time they have to mount a counterattack and retake part of it.  The Germans have to only control one hex of the road (and suffer fewer causalities in the process) to win the game.

So, the British operational approach should be (a) close with the Germans under cover of darkness, (b) concentrate artillery firepower to cause maximum disruption of German lines, and (c) press the attack more vigorously later in the scenario, this includes a possible flanking attack by some additional British infantry.  By pulling close to the Germans, the British negate such things as the superior range of the German Nashorns and allow for effective spotting of their artillery assets.

By contrast, the Germans spend the first few turns of the scenario (a) selecting effective defensive positions along the wooded areas and ridgeline near the road, (b) digging in with their infantry to maximize defensive cover, (c) deploying their strong points so they extend the defensive area afforded by the wooded hexes and other advantageous terrain, and (d) creating a reserve of armor ready to move and/or fire upon the points in the line most threatened by the British assault.

When dawn arrives, increasing visibility from 1 hex to 2 hexes, the Germans have positioned themselves in the most favorable terrain along the road, using wooded areas and ridge lines where possible.  Many units have dug-in for better defensive modifiers.  The British are just out of visibility range and preparing to use their infantry to coordinate an initial assault with various artillery assets at their disposal, while readying their armor for a possible breakthrough and roll-up of the German line.

The British initially advance with a thin line of infantry in order to spot for the artillery. Everything else is held in reserve for whatever situation might arise.  Bombardment in PG can sometimes cause casualties, but more often it simply results in a moral check on the unit(s) targeted for the attack. Moral is a huge factor in games of this scale.  Units start out in "good" order but can digress into "disrupted" and "demoralized" conditions depending upon a number of factors. These various states of deterioration render the unit less effective and ultimately make it harder to command and easier to kill.

Bombardment also serves to point out the need for dispersion among units.  In PG three combat units can stack in a single hex.  This maximizes firepower and the ability to effectively assault enemy hexes. But, this offensive advantage comes at a defensive price.  Three units stacked in a hex results in a greater chance for artillery and/or air power to be effective.  For that reason the Germans, in particular, keep only one or two units in a hex. This improves their survival rate in terms of bombardment while also allowing their more limited numbers to cover a wider front in order to meet the British advance.

Over the next couple of turns, the initial bombardments manage to cause a few disrupted units in the dug-in German line.  The Germans, of course, have their own artillery, but it is not quite as strong overall as what the British bring to the table.  Still, their counter-fire degrades some of the British. But the British have plenty of units in reserve, out of spotting range.  They bring up infantry supported by Sherman tanks and other armor assets and begin to attack the disrupted parts of the German line with direct fire. 

Direct fire, like bombardment, is mostly a matter of causing deteriorating morale.  So, a unit disrupted in bombardment can be more easily demoralized by direct fire in subsequent actions.  A few casualties do result in this process.  In the case of this scenario, a few more British units suffer losses in strength than the Germans up to this point.  But, that is to be expected as the burden of attack usually brings more casualties when confronted with a prepared defensive line.

The Germans are spread pretty thin along the road and can only afford a minimal amount of force to cover their flanks against what is essentially a frontal assault.  The British, however, have placed a sizeable force on the German right flank.  This force delays its attack until the frontal assault situation becomes more developed.  Several turns into the scenario, chaos begins to emerge on the battlefield.  Leaders on both sides become more active in rallying their troops and improving morale so that the units will function at full capacity again.  This takes away from their ability to coordinate attacks and to direct defensive fire so natural "lulls" in combat occur.  Organized attacks become more piecemeal.  This favors the German somewhat, though they have their own problems with rallying troops and maintaining order under the constant rain of British artillery fire.

It is when chaos reaches a certain level of difficulty for the German command structure to manage that the British launch their flanking attack.  They meet resistance by a handful of available German platoons and a platoon of Strumgeschitz III's in support.  It is not enough to stop the British advance and the Germans are forced to conduct one of the more difficult maneuvers to pull off tactically or operationally - a fighting retreat.  The Germans have their armor in reserve to assist with such situations but the frontal assault has demanded that most of it be placed in support of units along the road.  There is little to assist the German right flank.  Still, the British force is rather limited and the Germans decide to try to slow it down by redirecting artillery fire.

The British now start assaulting the battered German line. Assault combat is a good time to concentrate your forces instead of dispersing them. Three units in good order can usually combine to force one or two step losses in an enemy hex in addition to causing further deterioration of moral, often routing the defending units.  The trick is find three units in good order.  By the time assaults take place a lot of the game board is littered with units in all states of disarray. Good leaders, once again, show their importance by being able to shuffle effective platoons around in order to make concentrated assaults on particular hexes.  In the case of this scenario, the German line begins to crack.

Later in the battle, as command and control continues to deteriorate for both sides, the British flex their superior armor numbers and advance all along the front with their Sherman tanks.  The Germans have held their two Nashorns in reserve. As the Sherman's crack the German line and portions of the German infantry begin retreat due to demoralization, the Nashorns use their vastly superior firepower and range to hammer the Shermans.  The superior quality of their crews allows them to make two opportunity fires each turn against the moving Shermans. 

Anti-Tank Fire is handled a bit differently in PG. Whereas the other types of combat (bombardment, direct fire, assault) have results tables depending on the amount of force directed at the enemy, Anti-Tank fire is a simple comparison of the tank's firepower against the target's armor defense factor. As with all combat in PG, there are a bunch of die roll modifiers to consider, but everything is basically decided on the differential between one tank's gun and another tanks armor. The Nashorns are highly effective against the Shermans, knocking out several of them.  In turn, the Shermans cannot match the range of the Nashorns nor their firepower.

The British, however, begin to receive sporadic air support as the scenario continues.  The British strategy is simple.  Keep the Shermans out of range except on turns when they receive air support.  Use that air power to suppress or destroy the Nashorns. That allows the Shermans to either support the British infantry in clearing the road or to penetrate deeply into German territory, close the distance between them so that the firepower of the Shermans can finish off any disrupted, and thinly armored, Nashorns.  By this time the Germans cannot afford to protect the Nashorns with an infantry platoon - there just isn't enough German infantry left as they lose control of the road.  

As the British prepare their armor assault they force a hit on one Nashorn platoon even as it knocked out its third Sherman.  The air unit hits the other Nashorn, disrupting it. Disruption halves the firepower of any unit, reduces it to moving only one hex per turn and prevents it from assaulting enemy forces.

This basically dooms the Nashorns, as the Shermans supported by Stuart tanks, close the range and concentrate their firepower.  The Germans are forced to direct all available artillery and anti-tank guns at the Shermans.  But all the Germans do is beat back the assault at the cost of half their Nashorns.  But, while the direct fire power of tank units is reduced when flipped, the anti-tank firepower remains constant in the reduced condition.  So, by the scenario's end 24 turns (6 hours) later, the Shermans and Stuarts are regrouping, the wounded Nashorns retreating.

The scenario ends with the British in control of the road but having suffered more casualties in the process.  In terms of the game's victory conditions, things would be a minor victory for the Germans if the British lost at least 25 steps during play, tank units counting as two steps.  But in my admittedly amateurish play (since I don't play this game system often) the British suffered only 19 step losses, the Germans 15 steps total.  So the game ends with a minor British victory instead. The level of casualties suggest I was not aggressive enough in my play.

But I enjoyed my several weeks of occasionally immersing myself in this game.  It brought the perspective of tactical combat to life for me, it challenged my mind and ability to organize, and it was juts plain fun experiencing the unpredictable chaos the system models.  This gave me a feel for tactical system games.  My next wargame choice will likely be at a different scale. But, I have nothing planned for my game table at the moment.

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