Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AE:TK - Barbarossa Learning Experiences

In our last episode, we went through the Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg learning scenario Case White and discussed some of the trickier elements of the game introduced in that scenario. The second learning scenario in the box concerns the Barbarossa invasion of 1941, and adds many new elements, but not enough to be overwhelming. This essay will discuss the trickier parts of that scenario, both in terms of understanding the rule as well as the application of the rule.

Several new rules are introduced, but we will focus on Option Cards, Supply, Minor Allies and shifting territory,  and the expanded Sequence of Play that the previous scenario ignored.

Perhaps the most important core concept in AE:TK is the Option Cards. Each Faction (Axis, Western Allies, and Soviets) have a deck of these cards, divided into Pre-War, Limited War, and Total War subdecks. Pre-War are used until war breaks out (historically this was the German invasion of Poland), in which case everyone is at Limited War until Germany ends up in two front war. There are a lot of variations, but that's the basic idea.

On every seasonal turn (every second turn, with a three turn gap in the summer) you play a card face down that you will reveal at the *next* seasonal turn, which is called your "pending" card. At the same time, you reveal your previous "pending" card as your active card. These cards vary widely in their effects, from focusing on building up your army, to making diplomatic overtures, to running major (or minor) campaigns. Reinforcement units are often received, replacements are placed, various tables may be consulted. It is important to note that most cards have requirements for certain board conditions or previous option cards to have been played (or not) in order to play them. If a card doesn't meet the requirements, it goes back in your hand, but you don't get the benefit of the card, so this is a good thing to pay close attention to. Also, playing a card will often remove other cards from your deck, so by doing one thing you give up the opportunity to do another.

Option cards also grant Blitz markers for each turn that season, and also effects that can extend to other turns. Anything in a red box only happens during the Seasonal turn, anything outside it can be used every turn that card is the active card. For example, the Germans get replacements with their Operation Barbarossa card, but only in the seasonal turn. In contrast, the Russians will often get "conditional" replacements that come at the end of their turn, but on every turn.

The cards include the time when they were historically played, so you can simply use that sequence rather than try to go off of the reservation, and the authors suggest doing that in your first campaign game or two if you wish. However, the real joy of this game is in fact trying different paths. You'll almost certainly still invade Russia at some point as the Germans, but otherwise all sorts of things could go differently.

In the Barbarossa scenario, each side is given two option cards to play and specific turns to play them. This gives you the experience of seeing how they work without having to deal with more than 50 cards to choose from.

I should also note that the important things about the option cards in this scenario are what Blitz counters you get, what reinforcements go to your Force Pool, and how you place replacements. Replacements go to cities in your Home Country (or to HQs in your home country) and you'd be surprised how few of these there are. Because of the three unit stacking limit, and also because at the start of this scenario the Germans are pretty far forward, that means you'll probably want to get these units down but not combine them until they get to the front. It's also why the errata'd scenario book calls for you to use the West Map so that you can see where the German cities are. However, after the first turn you don't need that map anymore, so you can pick it up and use the game tracks located on the cards used for the one-map scenarios. Note that these German replacements can come in in Czechoslovakia, Austria, the Polish Corridor, and Germany, but not in Poland, Rumania, or Hungary. Or Finland for that matter.

Next up is Supply. If there is a part of this game that I feel like I'm doing wrong, it is supply. Unlike many games, AE:TK treats supply as you go, so if a unit is out of supply at the moment it would need to know whether or not it was in supply, that's when you check. There are no OoS markers as a result, which I appreciate - in fact, TK has relatively few markers that relate to unit status, making counter density very manageable.

Supply has different effects on different units in different situations, and while these are all nicely organized in the Supply rules, I am very happy to say that the developers put in a great summary on the same sheet as the CRT is on for each player. They do not detail what constitutes a supply line, but really it's not terribly difficult - you trace back to a city in your Home Country. Also important is that friendly ground units cancel out EZOCs for purposes of supply, as in many games.

A supply path is traced from the unit back to a supply source, which is either a city in that unit's Home Country, a friendly supply depot, or for the Russians the eastern edge of the board. There are also off-map boxes that represent areas like the Middle East or Central Asia that can be supply sources. It is also possible to use a Supply Convoy (a type of support unit) to trace supply providing there are Open Ports (ports with friendly ground units in them) in the area. A unit can trace two hexes over any non-prohibited terrain to a road or rail hex, and from there back to the supply source via road/rail. Only one contiguous section of road can be involved, and the path can cross one connected strait in lieu of the road section. The line can't pass through cities in conquered or enemy countries unless a friendly unit is there to control it.

For our purposes, being out of supply creates the following affects based on the unit type and where we are in the SoP:

  • Armor units don't get a column shift during Blitz combat,
  • HQ units can't support at range, and don't get a column shift (not mentioned in the Case White essay, but an important part of combat),
  • HQ units can't be a replacement location,
  • Ground units can't create an Air Base or Naval Base,
  • Ground units can't combine,
  • Ground units can't move in the Operational (normal) Movement Phase - this is particularly big, and
  • Ground units can't advance after combat or exploit. 
There are other effects, but they aren't part of this scenario. 

Here's why this is a little weird. Let's say that the Germans bypass a couple of Russian units during their invasion, and these units are placed out of supply. If the Russians wish, those units can sit there for the entire game doing nothing but blocking rail lines. They can't move during OpMovement, but they can move during Reserve Movement, assuming there isn't a unit projecting an EZOC to stop them. They can attack normally, with no dings to any combat factors.

I find this a little crazy, but like most things in AE:TK, there are times when the purpose of the rule becomes more apparent. In the case of supply, the basic idea is that quite often those units can be better used elsewhere, and the player has the chance (after combining but before breaking down units) to simply pick these units up off the board and place them in either their force pool or delay box as appropriate. For an army like the Soviets, this works out well because their basic infantry units are one-steppers on their flip sides, and have no delay stripe so they go straight back to the force pool. That's handy because a *lot* of Soviet option cards given replacements every turn, and some give a *lot* (like 21 steps). Whether it's more important to have these units behind the lines tying up dinky units and interrupting supply or to place them on the map to slow down the Germans is a good question for the Soviet player.

That said, this just feels wrong to me. Bypassing enemy formations is a basic element of blitzkrieg tactics, and while I understand we're at the level of armies (and army groups, for the Soviets), every other game on the east front uses supply rules that knock armies out, and fairly quickly. I suspect there are other reasons why out of supply units are generally returned to the force pool fairly quickly, but in my play it seemed more like I was creating problems in my backfield rather than forcing hordes of Soviets to surrender. 

Of course, a big part of the Barbarossa scenario is to teach you to manage your supply effectively so that you can use those Blitz counters and tank units more effectively, not to mention the limitations of the road/rail net in Russia. Russia is a big place and while there are a lot of rail lines present, at the same time there are some areas, particularly in the far north and south, that will have very limited rail nets. That's a good thing. At one point, I found myself looking at a situation where I could advance a few hexes after combat with a few units, and between trying to set myself up for bringing in replacement steps as well as making sure everyone would be in supply, it was a bit of a trick. The player who can see these situations in advance will have an advantage, obviously. 

Next up is the inclusion of Minor Countries, allies, and shifting ownership of land. First of all, there are three types of land in AE:TK: countries, dependents, and regions. Countries are areas of land with associated units. Austria, at the beginning of the game (assuming you start in 1937) is a country, as it has it's own units. During the game, the Axis can play a Hitler Demands Austria option card that will almost certainly result in Austria being "ceded" to Germany. At this point, Austrian land becomes part of Germany and Vienna is German Home City. Later, if the Axis does the same with the Polish Corridor (the area around Danzig), and war results with Poland and Poland is conquered by the Axis (as happened historically), the Polish Corridor is ceded and becomes German, but the rest of Poland (possibly excepting East Poland if the Russians have an agreement with the Germans) becomes a Conquered Minor Country and has to go through certain conditions and steps to become an Active Minor Country in the future. The Axis will need to garrison Polish cities in order to trace supply through them. Interestingly, if the Soviets take East Poland, it becomes ceded to them, and is treated as though it is Russian Home territory until some other event takes place that changes that status. 

Note that the Polish Corridor noted above is not a country - it is a "region" which means it does *not* have units associated with it. Similarly, there are areas on the map that also don't have units associated with them that are called "dependents". The basic difference is that a dependent has a country that it is directly associated with, while a region is part of a larger dependent or country. There are many references in the rules to countries, and it's important to remember that these references do not apply to regions or dependents unless explicitly stated. 

An important aspect of minor countries that you are allied with is that you can't just go traipsing through them with units from other countries. For example, the Hungarians can't run around in Rumania, that just makes the Rumanians mad. The Germans have a little easier time of it, but they can't leave multi-step units floating around or else they become interned, which means you don't get them back until the start of the next season. The Germans instead need to either leave their units broken down as single-steppers, or else perform an emergency breakdown from the multi-step units at the end of the turn, which of course sends the multi-step unit to the delay box. 

The Barbarossa scenario gives a perfect example of how this works. At the start of the scenario, there are three 1-2-3 infantry units stacked in one hex in Rumania on the border with Bessarabia, a region that was ceded to Russia due to an earlier option card play. At the start of the Axis turn, these three units can be combined into a multi-step infantry unit, and if you intend to attack with them this is an excellent idea. However, if at the end of the turn they are still in Rumania (which does *not* include Bessarabia at this point), they must either be broken down at the end of the German turn or else interned on the pending option card, either of which is going to take a multi-step unit out of your force pool for some time, possibly the rest of the scenario. Best to leave them be if you aren't attacking with this group in the first turn. You can also "occupy" the minor, but that creates a lot more problems that it's worth, essentially turning that country into an ally of your opponents. There are times when this makes sense, but Barbarossa isn't one of them. 

I really like this rule, as it reflects that while Rumania and Germany were allied and had similar world views and enemies, at the same time it also shows that they were separate countries. Think of how happy Canada would be if US troops wandered around willy nilly, fighting moose and polar bears as they went. You can do a lot of things with a minor country, but it doesn't make that country *your* country, as in many other grand strategic games. 

Finally, this scenario adds in most of the rest of the Sequence of Play. Most obvious is the Seasonal Phase, where you play Option cards, but also the placement of convoys (both troop and supply - you'll need these to get Russians to Murmansk and the German 20th Mtn to combine with a Finn ski unit), and exposure to Conditional Events, which warrant a bit more discussion. 

Conditional Events take place at the end of the player turn after everything else is done, including declarations of war. There are two types of conditional events, those that are dictated by the Option card in play (this includes non-seasonal replacements), and those that occur when the right situation exists. All Force Pool cards hold units for these conditions, which include things like Their Finest Hour (which affects the British when things get exciting in and around France) and, most importantly for this scenario, Russian Emergency Mobilization. The conditions for these events and what you do once they occur are listed on the Force Pools in brief and in the rules in detail, but they mostly consist of you following a series of steps with few decisions to make. This is a nice way of creating some of the "out of the book" situations that occurred historically. 

The final thing that comes up in the sequence of play is the Delay Box. Any striped unit that ends up there over the course of the entire turn (which runs Axis-Western-Soviet) has a die rolled to see how many turns, modified by several possible situations, it is until the unit comes back to the Force Pool. For example, in Barbarossa the Germans have four strategic hexes belonging to the other factions (all on the West map per the special rule for the scenario) and thus have a -1 drm. A unit being rolled for in the May-June turn that gets a three result, would be placed two turns ahead on the turn track, in this case July-August, whern it would be placed in the Force Pool when the turn marker moves into that space. That means an Air Force unit placed on turn X would go to the Delay Box during Unit Removal on turn X+1 and could conceivably be available for placement again anytime between turn X+2 to X+7 depending on the roll and the DRMS (which could push it out even further if things are going badly in that department). Many of the markers you'll place in the Strategic Warfare box in this game will affect the Delay roll. 

While these were relatively minor rules changes, I should also note the expanded use of support units. In this scenario, that meant that you now have convoys, which allow for very limited troop movement or supply lines across seas, as well as Russian interceptor units, which can "contest" placement of Air Force units as well as other support units that aren't in this scenario. Contesting simply means that the Germans place an Air Force unit, and the Soviets can use their interceptor (assuming it is in range of an Air Base) to send both it and the Air Force unit to the Delay Box. 

The victory conditions are such that the Germans need to take three Strategic (red-bordered) Soviet cities in five turns, which they did not do historically - they took Minsk and Kiev, but failed at Moscow. While Germans were beginning the operations that would lead to the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol, these did not really get underway until after the timeframe of this game, which more or less ends with Operation Typhoon. To win you need three strategic hexes, and they are far and few between.

In playing the Barbarossa scenario, I discovered that bypassing units had it's charms but needed to be done judiciously so as not to put Russians in your backfield where you have to spend precious combat cycles attacking them. At the same time, the Russians have two HQs that need to be eliminated quickly if you want to advance quickly, or else they provide defense factors and column shifts in both the Blitz and the Normal Combat phases. You rarely have enough units to get more than a few combats at 4-1, which you generally want at a minimum. Creating combats in the Blitz segment that allow units to get up close to those HQs will make a big difference as they go through the Delay Box rather than back to the Force Pool, as Sov infantry does. This should be your first priority in the first turn. 

After that, it will be easier to go through the Soviet infantry units, although there are a lot of replacements showing up. It's the Emergency Mobilization units, sent to the Delay box on the first turn as the Germans invade, that will either give you headaches or else pave the way to Moscow. Lots of low results will hurt, lots of high results will keep the units out of the scenario entirely. 

Once you've broken through the line and taken Minsk and Kiev, you'll need to proceed very carefully to take Moscow. For one thing, the last turn of the scenario has Mud weather, and that causes quite a few problems, the least of which is that you won't have any air power and you can't escape EZOCs, even if there's a friendly unit in the hex with you. Forget Blitz combat too. However, you can use the one Blitz marker you get for Operation Typhoon to make Moscow an open city (or Leningrad, wherever you happen to be looking for that third strategic hex) so that the Russians can't just load up six steps and refuse to retreat. 

You will also want to pay careful attention to supply - it's especially important as there is no specific supply phase to remind you to do so. Also note that you can't use single-step road movement in reserve movement in an enemy country, so pretty much everything from Warsaw east. 

While the Finns don't really get much steam up in this game, it's worthwhile to send that German Mtn unit up to Finland to build the 20th Mtn, as mentioned above. Note that the Finn ski unit goes on the force pool display in the appropriate box, it does *not* go to the Force Pool (as it would normally). This is true for any of the special builds on your Force Pool display, which usually involve counters from minor countries. If there's a holding box, the unit goes in it when you make the combination. 

I'll also note that the Russian mech cavalry can be built pretty easily, and you simply need a mech unit (not necessarily a tank) to combine with the one-step cavalry unit. These aren't all that much more useful than infantry, but they can give you a shift in blitz combat and are a little quicker on their feet. Or hooves. 

The Russians get Blitz markers for the first few turns, one per turn, but they are difficult to use because the Russians are mostly just trying to keep a cohesive line and protect that last strategic hex. They are perhaps most useful when the Germans barely take a strategic hex and the Russians can force them out by turning the hex into an Open City with the Blitz counter. Otherwise, the Russians aren't going to be doing an awful lot of attacking, and they have few armor units that can take advantage of Blitz combat. They get no Blitz markers at all the last two turns of the game, although they do get 21 (!) replacement infantry steps. If you wanted a good reason to pull isolated Russians off of the board, do it on the third turn so that you've got a lot of units poised to protect that last strategic hex. 

I also recommend that you play this scenario at least twice. You will learn a lot of what not to do in your first play. Case White was easy enough to do that once you'd finished the scenario you could set it up and try something a little different. Barbarossa will take a little more trial and error, as there are more combats and a lot more choices of how you want to assign support units and Blitz markers, not to mention exercising Combining of steps and garrisoning your backfield. 

Barbarossa is also more or less the same starting point for one of the one-map scenarios, Fire in the East, so regardless of which side you'll be playing you'll want to know what constitutes good doctrine. The Germans need an effective Barbarossa campaign to have a chance against the Soviets, so knowing how that works is critical to both sides. 

Next, I will start a series of session reports on the third training scenario, the Fall of France, in which I'll also discuss the rules that are introduced in that game as they come up. 

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