Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Battlegroup Blitzkrieg - The Story So Far

My copy of Battlegroup Blitzkrieg arrived bang on time on the 16th of April. As I had pre-ordered (just call me fanboy), I had the pleasure of getting the book before its 'official' release at Salute 2015.
Essential companions - you need the £10 core rules book to supplement your supplement.
Total cost including p&p £40.
I have had the time to read it through thoroughly, and I have played a small solo game. I have also given the game an outing with some comrades from the Oxford Wargames Society at a recent club night. And I had a go a few weeks back with a Battlegroup Kursk game. So what's the conclusion? Well, prepare for a longish post - I am not a wargames butterfly, and committing to a new ruleset is a major thing for me. Of course, I will be using the rules for Poland 1939, so comments on sections relating to France 1940 will be limited.

These Is The Rules, Mate
I think I have found the new WW2 gaming experience I was looking for. As a 1:1 scale game, Battlegroup was bound to be a significant change from the 1 base:1 platoon scale of Blitzkrieg Commander; but 'a change' wasn't going to be good enough. I wanted a set of rules that were enjoyable and reasonably straightforward to play, and that I could see myself playing for a good few years. And I think BGB is a winner on all these fronts.

My reservations about the concept remain - can you fit a set of rules covering the whole of WW2 in a single 180 page A4 size book? Of course you can. But there's no use carrying on bitching about it - the guys behind the Battlegroup series have decided on their approach, and I feel they are genuine about wanting to bring out the full character of each campaign. So it's time for me to get over it. The books do make an enjoyable read, and to be honest they are a pleasure to own. And they have that lovely new-coffee-table-book smell. Oh dear me; I seem to be feeling a little faint.

But the real test is, are the rules any good? For me, they score by being built on a basically simple structure that adds enough detail to keep things interesting without going over the top. The three guys I played with at the club night were all new to the rules, but all had a positive reaction. I wasn't much of an umpire, being a newbie myself, but after a couple of hours we were well into the swing of things. There is a reasonable amount to learn and become familiar with, but moves don't seem to drag or get bogged down. The learning process is a pleasure.

This is a 1:1 scale set, so a 'unit' is a single vehicle, an infantry squad of maybe 8-10 men, or a weapons team like an HMG or anti-tank gun. Small teams like artillery observers also form a single unit.

The simple basic structure I mentioned is the turn itself - one rolls some dice to decide how many orders are available to you this turn, then you get on with issuing an order to each of your units one after the other. The basic orders are to either move twice, or fire twice, or move once and shoot once, or shoot once and move once. As an alternative, you can order your units to be ready to fire or move in your opponent's turn. There are, of course, a selection of other more specialist orders available to let you do all the other types of things with your units that you might want to. And that's about it, apart from the chance to rally pinned units at the end of the turn. None of those endless phases and sub-phases and 'go back to the number you first thought of' that characterise some of the sets I've looked at recently.

Movement rules are simple and sensible. It is in the firing rules that most of the extra detail comes in. This is the part of the rules where the writers seem to have had the most fun. To quote the rulebook "the heart of the game is shooting at each other's units". There is a basic division between 'area fire' (what you might call suppressing fire), and 'aimed fire' (aimed at destroying individual units). To give you a feel of the rules, firing is divided into:

Area fire with small arms, MGs and HE
Aimed fire with small arms, MGs and autocannons
Aimed fire with HE
Aimed fire with AP
Indirect fire (artillery and mortars)

The first on the list is particularly simple, having only 2 steps. The last, indirect fire, can be challenging at first, having a basic 6 steps, with the last step ('fire for effect') being subdivided into a further 7 steps. Ouch! But the steps are there for clarity, to lead you through the process by the nose, and once you have the hang of things indirect fire is good fun to call in. The authors make clear that the complication is deliberate, to give players the feel of a process that could be both time consuming and liable to break down in real life.

The morale rules are by contrast brief and basic - a single die roll is about it.

The only other thing worth mentioning is the Battle Rating system. Each unit has a battle rating (separate from its points value), which you need to add up before the game in order to get your force's total battle rating. When anything bad happens during the game, most commonly losing a unit, trying to rally a pinned unit, or the enemy capturing an objective, you then take a Battle Counter from a pot, which usually has a number from 1 to 5. This number is taken off your battle rating, until the time comes when your battle rating gets below zero and you must pack it in, ceding victory to your opponent. Some counters have special effects to produce the odd surprise.

The quick reference sheet is 2 sides only (as all QRS's should be).

In general, the rules are easy to pick up, but this is a set where the usual advice to start small and then build up gradually to bigger games is particularly sensible. There are four levels of game (defined mainly by points totals), Squad, Platoon, Company and Battalion. My first game was a company level scenario using Battlegroup Kursk, which rather maxed out both players as we tried to learn from scratch. For my first solo game I therefore went down to squad level, and had the additional pleasure of being able to fit the game on our little 4' x 3' dining table.

Ah, the return of dining table wargaming! Nice.
Germans advance
The Polish counter stroke fails and they lose the game.
The Supplements
So why does one need the supplements, and why are they so large? Well, as far as the game goes they include detailed army lists laying out the composition of all the possible units and how these fit into an overall force organisation, along with points values, battle ratings and any special rules the units might be able to use. There are also the equipment lists (or 'stats' as most gamers would call them) which give you the movement rates, armour classes and weapons of all the various vehicles, along with weapon stats. Then there are potted histories of the campaigns (in this supplement, Poland 1939, France and Belgium 1940), and what you might call an army summary of each of the combatants (Polish, German 1939, German 1940, French, Belgian and the BEF), giving a brief overview and some background to the various vehicles, guns and aircraft. There are also 9 scenarios in a range of sizes, which look pretty useful. Three of these are from the Polish campaign, then there are 3 German-British, 2 German-French, and one German-Belgian. The layout is, as the adverts say, 'lavish', which means the authors don't stint themselves on space, layout and production values. One detail I liked were the perforated pages for the quick reference sheet and the page of battle counters, which allowed you to extract these without destroying the spine of the book trying to get a decent photocopy.

Online support is good. The rules are published by Iron Fist Publishing, but are sold by The Plastic Soldier Company. The main forum is situated on the Guild Wargamers site. The Iron Fist site has some useful downloads (e.g. QRS sheets) and interesting links related to the game. The occasional Despatches online magazine (2 editions so far), is a good read, and can be accessed via Iron Fist.

Now, readers of this blog will not expect this gushing waterfall of positivity to last forever. I do have some reservations, and there were one or two things I thought were missing. 

As for the whole 'lavish' thing, this is not something I'm bothered about. I could have made do with 'basic', but people seem to love 'lavish' these days. I'll say no more on this. 

Although the rules are generally well written, there are a few explanations which are lacking and things which are unclear. That I am not alone here is borne out by the extensive Q&A on the forum, where many pages of quite basic questions have come in from players. The upside to this is that the answer you want is generally available with a bit of searching, and the authors (particularly Piers Brand, the author of BGB) seem happy to chip in with definitive responses. I think there seem to be more of these minor issues than there should be, but don't let this put you off the rules - most players will have few problems.

As to missing things - first, there are no rules for my personal little favourite, the armoured train. Admittedly, situations suitable for the tabletop involving armoured trains were few and far between in reality, but for a set of rules emphasising period character and flavour, armoured trains would have been a no brainer for me. Rather more difficult to understand is the lack of basic rules for cavalry - the movement rules and organisational details are there, but nothing about mounting/dismounting, number of horse holders, or what type of target they are when mounted (the answer seems to be treat them as soft skinned vehicles). This is a small but strange hole in the rules. Also missing is my favourite ground attack aircraft, the Henschel HS-123. Including the Bf-109 instead, as the rules do, I find odd, as the 109 wasn't really a ground attack aircraft at all in this period, whilst the HS-123 was significant and (importantly!) makes an interesting model.

And no rules for smoke. How strange, I thought, flicking desperately through the rule book trying to find how to fire it. Piers' response to queries on the forum is "it's abstracted into the spotting rolls. We assume smoke, dust and other obscurants are ever present and troops are popping smoke as needed." A bit unconvincing, to be honest, for a ruleset that goes into so much detail for firing such a wide range of weapons (up to and including 155mm guns and rocket batteries). As a way out of rules for tank smoke mortars, smoke grenades and the like, this is a fair enough approach, but I will develop my own rules for smoke from artillery and from medium and heavy mortars (i.e. weapons able to use indirect fire in the rules). The same goes for armoured trains - I'm not putting my model on hold for the lack of some rules!

Nothing either for airborne troops. Glider assault on Eben Emael? Fallschirmjaeger in Holland? Sorry! Piers has indicated these rules will appear in the supplement including Crete. He also added that, of course, there are no Dutch lists in BGB. I think there should have been. Apparently, they will be made available in a forthcoming article in WSS magazine, which is something.

A detail too far for me was that vehicles with significant weapons have an ammo figure, which you need to keep track of. This means you can make use of supply units to top up ammo when needed. I doubt I will be bothering with this extra workload - the odd 'ammunition low' battle rating counter will cover this aspect for me.

Other rule areas are surprisingly vague - line of sight is left entirely to player agreement, taking account of the situation on the table. This is actually quite liberating and caused no problems at the club, but the principle might have been made more explicit. Things like visibility within woods, or how close to the edge of a wood you need to be to see in or fire out, must be made up by the players without guidance. 

There is also the odd rule I disagree with. When throwing for number of orders using the designated number of D6s, there is the opportunity for quite a wide variation in the number of orders available. A bit of command frustration is one thing, but with this system some bad luck over 2 or 3 moves can really spoil your chances, rather unfairly I think. I might try using average dice rather than D6 for this. Another more minor example - artillery spotters can spot for arty and mortars, which I don't think accords with reality. But enough - this post has gone on long enough and I don't want to nit pick.

Time to wrap it up. The reason I'm going for these rules is that they promise a straightforward but entertaining gaming experience which is enjoyable and fresh. Games seem to have a number of interesting twists and turns, made possible by some clever rule mechanisms. The scale is very different to what I have been used to, which I was hesitant about at first, but which turns out to be a real plus. The Battlegroup rules are well worth your attention.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A Return To Poland 1939, and Battlegroup Blitzkrieg

Over the past year I've spent most of my wargaming time developing and testing Honours of War. With the manuscript now submitted, it's time to give my other main period some attention - the 1939 Polish campaign.

1. Wheeling out the Armoured Train
The first tickle of interest was inspired by a scenario map in MW377. As you can see, 'The Bridges at Monocacy' was an ACW scenario - but my thinking was, firstly, what an intriguing map for a wargame and secondly, that railway line can mean only one thing - a chance to use my armoured train!

Many thanks to Henry Hyde for providing this map. Image © Miniature Wargames.

I decided to go for a scenario where Polish recce forces were co-operating with an armoured train to seize the two bridges on the map. They would encounter opposition from German recce and armoured forces. Additional inspiration regarding encounters between Polish and German recce units came from the excellent PIBWL site, for example the accounts of actions involving the Wz.29 Ursus armoured car. Rules in use would be Blitzkrieg Commander.

Scenario - The Bridges at Zamosc (6' x 4' table)

Poles CO CV8 (with the cavalry)
Initial forces (static deployment)
On railway from south east corner - armoured train (CV8) with Tatra T-18 drasine
On road from X - reconnaissance company; HQ CV7, 2 x Wz.34 armoured cars, 1 x Wz.29 armoured car, 4 infantry units (trucks), 2 mg units (motorcycles).
Forces arriving on the road from the west on move 5 (mobile deployment)
Cavalry detachment; HQ CV8, 6 cavalry units, 2 mg units (tazchanka), 1 37mm ATG (horse tow), 2 x TKS tankettes (mg).

Germans CO CV9 (with the tanks)
Initial forces (static deployment)
On road from Y - Reconnaissance detachment; HQ CV9, 1 x Sdkfz221, 1 x Sdkfz222, 1 x Sdkfz231(6-rad), 3 infantry units (trucks), 1 mg unit (truck), 1 37mm ATG (truck tow).
Forces arriving from the east on move 5 (mobile deployment)
Panzer battlegroup; HQ CV8, 2 x PzI, 2 x PzII, 1 x PzIV, 3 infantry units (trucks), 1 mg unit (truck), 1 75mm IG (truck tow).

The German forces arriving from the east should dice - on a 1, 2, 3, or 4 they arrive between the river and the north board edge. On a throw of 5 or 6 they arrive up to 30cm south of the river.

The bridges are the objectives, so obviously possession of both gives you a victory, and one each would be a draw. I suggest a turn limit of 10 moves.

This scenario is untested at the moment, and so may need tweaking after the first game. The idea is that the Poles have the advantage at first with their armoured train, but this is in turn threatened by the German armour on move 5. The arrival of the Polish cavalry will then hopefully even things up. I suggest the T-18 and one of each side's armoured cars be rated as recce units, and all other armoured cars are rated as recce support units.

2. Buying Stuff
Of course, no renaissance of interest in the 1939 campaign could avoid the spending of a little money. I thought I already had all of the worthwhile English-language books on this subject, but was alerted to one I had missed by the Polish Army 1939 section in Anatoli's Game Room. The book in question is from MMP, entitled Invincible Black Brigade (by Jerzy Majka), and deals with the creation, organisation and exploits of the Polish 10th Motorised Brigade. Being from MMP, this 120 page, A4 sized soft back is aimed particularly at modellers and so is fundamentally a picture book, with a large number of excellent and interesting photos of all the kit involved. But there is also a decent summary of the fighting which the brigade undertook and a good organisation table, along with some nice colour profiles of tanks and soft skins. All told, well worth getting, although cheap copies may be hard to find - I was lucky to get mine off Amazon for about £20.

I also decided my Polish armour needed a modest reinforcement. I ordered a 7tp twin-turret tank from QRF Models, to match what I already had, and out of interest I also ordered a 7tp from Battlefront, which can be completed as a single or twin turret vehicle.

My 2 original QRF models are on the left. The Battlefront 7tp is on the right in unpainted condition.
In between is my new QRF 7tp with tracks from a True North Miniatures vehicle.

The Battlefront 7tp is easily the best 15mm model of this vehicle you can get - you can make either version, it is pretty accurate and you get the option to have a tank commander in the turret. The only negative is that the rivet detail is overdone and needs sanding down. Unfortunately, at the time I was building my Polish forces the Battlefront Poland 1939 collection was way in the future, and I had to rely on the QRF models, which at the time were the best there was. I am actually quite fond of them - they are inaccurate, but have a quaint old school feel about them. Sadly, the moulds for the older QRF offerings are in poor shape these days. The tracks for the 7tp I received seemed to have been eaten by moths. I should have sent the model back, but I found some tracks from an old True North Miniatures offering which, whilst too small, were good enough for my needs.

I also ordered an additional Praga truck from QRF, a vehicle used extensively by the 10th Motorised Brigade. Confusingly, this model sits in the 'German' range of QRF vehicles. This is another old kit and whilst a bit rough, is just about acceptable for wargames purposes. QRF seem to have a generally good reputation, mainly due to their main man, Geoff, being considered an all round good egg. However, if ordering their older kits (usually obvious by the dodgy old photos on the website) be ready for poor quality. Their newer stuff is generally good. 

The QRF Praga truck as it comes from the manufacturer. Poor, but just about acceptable.

It is a great shame that Battlefront never completed their Polish range, particularly with the soft skin vehicles eagerly awaited by fans of this period. It just goes to show that big companies driven by profit margins rather than enthusiasm for the hobby won't always give you what you want.

3. Battlegroup Blitzkrieg
Talking of profit margins, we come to Battlegroup Blitzkrieg. When the first 'Battlegroup' title came out (Battlegroup Kursk, of course), I was predictably enraged that a 180 plus page, A4 size, full colour rulebook only covered one campaign of WW2. Clearly, a book that size was plenty to cover the whole war, and the principle behind the rules was endless supplements to maximise profits.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing you find me eagerly awaiting the latest supplement, which covers the 1939-1940 campaigns in Poland and France. That's £25 plus £5 p+p to you sir. £30? Have I gone soft? I think the answer is yes, a bit. I have been looking for an alternative to Blitzkrieg Commander for a while now - not because I have grown to dislike the rules, which I continue to consider excellent, but because after over 10 years of use I feel the need for a change, or shall we say a new perspective. But the various sets I have looked at all failed to inspire - mostly, they were too complex for my taste.

However, a while back my wargames buddy and good friend Paul acquired a copy of Battlegroup Kursk, and recently we got around to having a game. The rules (in my opinion) sit in a slightly uncomfortable space between skirmish level and the company level rules exemplified by Flames of War. The author (Warwick Kinrade) indicates the rules can be used at 4 levels - squad, platoon, company and battalion. The game I played with Paul was at company level: the rules proved a little hard to pick up, and were rather more 'granular' than we are used to (granular being a fancy way of saying 'detailed' in this context). We didn't get anywhere near finishing the game, but against my better judgement I began to develop a fondness for the rules. They were indeed a change from BKC, and at squad or platoon level I thought they could be a lot of fun. Once I am more familiar with them, company level might be OK as well, but I feel battalion level games would take a lot of time, familiarity and patience, as well as a fair amount of space.

This experience coincided with developing the scenario already presented above. In order to give the different perspective I was seeking, I had determined to play the scenario at what BKC players tend to call the squad level, where each stand of infantry represents a squad rather than a platoon. This means your basic formations are companies rather than the more usual battalions. But, having never tried this before, I found that how to play at this lower command level was far from obvious. Apart from the statement that ground scale changed from 1 cm = 20 metres to 1cm = 10 metres there wasn't much guidance. Did you have to double all game distances? Weapon ranges are given in centimetres, and only one range is specified, so where did that leave you? I didn't know, and neither did those who responded to my forum question. So it seemed that Battlegroup Blitzkrieg might fill this void.

I have already purchased the Battlegroup 'core rules' booklet for £10, and to be honest I am looking forward to playing another game. As long as I keep the games small, all that detail will be fun. It was also interesting to read Warwick's justification for this extensive series of large and expensive books. He says:

"The reason why Battlegroup exists is to try and infuse World War II wargames with more historical character... Each supplement deals with an individual theatre or period of the war in detail, providing gamers with its own unique character and feel".

This, it seems, means in particular a number of special rules in each book intended to provide that 'historical character', plus a series of very specific army lists. Do I buy this? Well, I don't want to call Warwick a liar so I accept his intention, though whether I actually agree with him is another matter. BKC managed this very well using a modest number of simple rule variations, conspicuous among them different command ratings for different armies in different periods. When I get hold of Battlegroup Blitzkrieg I guess I'll be able to judge the quality and accuracy of the army lists and special rules, and we'll see. I am by no means a beginner in this period. It might be interesting to play the bridges scenario above with both BKC and BGB, and compare. Let's hope I have the time and motivation.

And that's it. Let me know what you think of the scenario, and I eagerly await comments from anyone who plays the Battlegroup rules.