Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Combat Commander: Stalingrad Campaign: The Bitter End

Matt R and I started playing our Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign game last February, nearly 9 months ago. We've been playing one scenario from it at a time over the past months, usually once a month but with a couple of months where it just wasn't feasible. We got through seven battles, with the last one ending the campaign.

In our final game, I was knocking on the door of Mamyev Kurgan, which is to say that if I won I won the campaign. However, because we were on the 7th battle, there was a chance that if Matt won that he'd take the whole thing if the Sudden Death roll for the campaign ended it (and there's no initiative card use for that roll, either). I was left with two Russian SMG platoons to throw in (one being the worst you can use in the game), as well as several good reinforcement units left over from my assault platoon from the previous battle (and my elite command platoon). Matt had two good platoons left, including his assault platoon, but only one veteran Rifle squad to reinforce. We each ended up choosing one extra platoon, although I was hoping to be the attacker because my units were geared for that (SMGs, Assaults, a flamethrower, and a medium mortar).

Matt decided to try to hold the hill by being the defender, and spent all but his last two points on fortifications, running not only a bunch of wire to avoid a frontal assault, but also a trench line on the summit of the hill as well as a bunker in Obj5. Our open objective was 3 points for every Obj, while my secret objective was 2 more points for Obj5.

Since my flamethrower wasn't coming in until the first time trigger, I didn't have much to do other than take shots with I began by setting up the only units with decent range, my Rifle platoon, in the middle of the board on my side (the board was going the "long" direction). My SMG platoon was set to the left flank, with a single Rifle platoon and a small mortar team off to the right to discourage any shenanigans on that side. Almost all of Matt's units were at the top of the hill, with a couple guarding the rubble-filled approaches half way up. What kind of put me in a bad position early was the lack of artillery support - there was no radio available for 1942 when I rolled, although I knew that once my medium mortar showed up that I'd have at least a little ability to lay smoke.

Since I had filled up all of my foxholes and wanted to have a little space for the Assault team, leader, and mortar units coming at the first time trigger, I figured I might as well do two things - shoot and run a single SMG unit up the hill and see what happened. There was a bit of rubble at the foot of the hill that the squad went for, and despite running into some wire along the way (which seemed to happen on that end of the board about six times), he made it up to the lower level of the hill, where he even survived being broken in open terrain somehow. Meanwhile, my rifle Fire Group blew away the advance German on that flank, and the human waves began.

My good friend Mike says that CC is about who draws the Advance/Ambush combos and who doesn't, and in this game it was me. I managed to start infiltrating the trench line at the top of the hill, and then had the dream hand as I advanced into the bunker: an Advance, a Recover, and *four* Ambush cards. I wasn't even saving them up, they just kept ending up in my hand when I drew every turn. By now, Matt had four units out of the six he could afford to lose on his Surrender track, and things were looking grim. However, by now I had the flamethrower up on the top of the hill in good cover, and once that happens things aren't going to get any better any sooner. A few turns later, I'd wiped out the last unit I needed to to get him to Surrender, and the campaign was mine.

So what did I learn from this? Firstly, Matt decided pretty early on to be the defender, even though my units were almost ideal for me being the attacker (except for the lack of decent smoke). Perhaps his best option was to force a Recon rather than a classic attack/defense situation to minimalize my attacking strength. Had he had a single HMG instead of his four LMGs, defense would have been a no-brainer, and to be fair he did have a nice 13 FP group shooting at me early, although I was drawing enough Recover cards to keep my situation stable. Running that SMG squad up the hill was also an attempt to keep him occupied which went better than it should have thanks to my Rifle fire group taking out the closest German unit.

The other thing I learned was not to roll terribly when you are firing weapons. Matt had a truly Deansian string of luck in the middle part of our game, rolling no better than a seven over nearly 10 combat rolls, and then only once. Most were 3's to 5's. I didn't lose a single unit in the battle, and by the end the entire hill looked like it had been overrun by Red ants. Get it? Red ants? Ha ha! Erm...

As such, the net result was a little anti-climactic. That's the thing about CC: sometimes you get a great story (and I think this particular game *did* have an interesting story, just not for the Germans, with that lone unit rushing and making the top of the hill), and sometimes the game just goes south and it's not a lot of fun for either side. At the same time, I've had so many really memorable sessions that I love playing the game. In fact, I played one of the other Stalingrad pack scenarios with my friend Connor last week (the one where the Germans have to surround then take a house), and I got creamed. Still, you look for the exciting parts, like where I was one turn away from taking the last two perimeter objectives right when a Time trigger occurred, giving Connor two extra Russian squads with LMGs. In that game, my problem was that I was getting into position to advance without having the necessary cards to back it up, and Connor kept advancing into *my* hexes and killing me off.

Hard to believe this game came out only three years ago. In that time, I have played as many games of CC as I have of all other wargames combined. Part of the appeal is that I have many opponents because the game is so accessible and short (four hours is a very long scenario), but part is that it tends to capture the imagination of people who can think of all these little cardboard counters as actual soldiers in the field, assaulting a defensive strongpoint, walking through the forest singing just before the Finns sweep down on you, or holding out with a lone knocked out tank and a Jeep with a .50cal MG in the back against a horde of German Volksgrenadiers. I can see why ASL has such a huge following, as it has all of the same advantages with the sole exception of simplicity (although much more detail regarding individual weapons systems, plus vehicles). I can live with the tradeoffs just fine, and CC will continue to be a game that is a jewel in my collection. Although I think I'll wait a while before taking on another campaign game for nine months, though...

Thanks to Matt for sticking with the campaign over the months. We both learned a lot about the campaign metagame (as I've detailed in earlier posts), and I think he learned quite a bit about mid-20th century tactical warfare doctrine, which this game *does* encourage.

Which gives me an interesting thought - WW2 is clearly the most gamed topic in the hobby, with the possible exceptions of ACW and Napoleonics (in minis, especially), yet this war was largely unique. It saw the advent of air power as indispensable, the birth of mechanized warfare, as well as effective strategic warfare against infrastructure. Modern warfare, from (say) Viet Nam onward, is a much different affair, with the enemy consisting in large part of insurgents just trying to take their country back. Warfare prior to that point still relied heavily on defensive power with trenches and machine guns and a lack of wireless communications preventing effective exploitation of breakthroughs in the vast majority of cases. Effective doctrine and radio changed everything, then computers and insurgencies changed it again. Now, it is hard to believe that any superpower, no matter how powerful, could take and hold a country with a determined resistance movement. Seven years in Afghanistan and six in Iraq have put the lie to the value of bringing democracy to people who aren't asking for it and aren't ready for it.

So here we are in the wargaming hobby, largely playing games for a period of warfare that was exceedingly short. I can only think that the age of massive (and well documented) armies fighting over vast tracts of land is over, at least until we *really* start to run out of oil and start fighting over that (while expending it in the process). Of course, at that point none of us will have the leisure time for board wargaming...

1 comment:

Mike said...

> CC is about who draws the Advance/Ambush combos and who doesn't

It's Chuck who first made that comment, although I tend to agree with him.