Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AE:TK - Case White Learning Experiences

The first two training scenarios in AE:TK cover the German invasion of Poland in 1939, called Case White by the Germans in their planning, and Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of Soviet Russia and it's recently ceded or conquered lands in 1941. This essay will cover the trickier rules introduced in Case White.

Case White is a very small and very short scenario, taking only a portion of the Axis player turn, with no concern for mechanisms such as option cards or the delay box. In essence, it is there to give you a good sense of the basics of movement and combat, but also the use of air and blitz support markers. Like the other training scenarios, the authors suggest that you read a small amount of rules (in this case, the glossary of definitions, component descriptions, and overall sequence of play at the start of the rules), and the rules on ZOCs and Stacking. You'll spend more time punching, clipping, and setting up the counters.

The rest of the rules you'll need are intended to be read as you go. As the authors state, this does not make for a fast game, but it does allow you to learn both the rule and the application as you go, and I am finding it to be a very effective method, at least for me. AE:TK has a very large rulebook, and while it's organized well it's not an organization that lends itself to learning right out of the box. For example, all of the rules that are centered around the Sequence of Play come first, followed by housekeeping rules that permeate the game (Supply, Stacking, ZOCs, etc), followed by reference sections on markers, different types of events, and special rules for the usual chrome "rule-breakers" like the fall of France. This organization works well, but not for learning the game. Much better to follow the suggested path, I am finding.

If you are using a table you'll need both maps as Poland is *right* in the middle of it. It's too bad they couldn't have reprinted the map on the back of one of the existing maps (same goes for Barbarossa, which also needs the West map for the first turn in order to place replacement units), but that's a small nit - it's not like the scenario is going to take more than an hour, much less if you know the rules. However, this is something that GMT games has done repeatedly with some of their games, notably the Barbarossa series by von Borries, and perhaps Decision could make small printable maps of the necessary areas for both of these games available on their website to facilitate learning with the physical components (which I almost always prefer).

The major things you learn to do in this scenario are to a) understand the mutable nature of the units and how they "evolve" from single step units to multi-step units; b) understand how Blitz markers and air support units affect the game, and c) learn about the basics of movement and combat. I'll cover each of these separately.

Units in AE:TK are treated differently depending upon whether they are single step or multi-step. A brief perusal of the units shows that while two one-step infantry units (with attack-defense-movement factors of 1-2-3) when stacked together have a composite value of 2-4-3 (as movement doesn't combine), a two step infantry unit will have a value of 3-4-2 (or of 4-4-3, depending on the infantry unit). With three one-step units, the comparison is 3-6-3 compared to 5-6-2 or 6-6-3, which is a marked improvement in attack values. Note also that stacking limits units in a hex to six steps and three units, so you could only fit three one-step units in a hex but two 6-6-3 three-steppers (or three 4-4-3 two steppers, both of which come to a total of 12-12-3 for their factors).

That said, single step units have a lot of uses. They can hold conquered cities to allow supply lines through them, in certain types of hexes they can create Air and Naval Bases and Open Ports to allow various operations, and they move at double speed along road and rail connections so this is a preferable form for units far from the front. They are also the way that replacements come onto the board, which I'll go into in greater depth in a later essay.

Once you get the units to the front, however, it's clear that the much higher attack value and ability to get more steps into a single hex has greater value. What mechanism is used to convert these single-step units into multi-steppers, and vice versa when mobility is more important than step density and attack power? The answer is in the Combine/Breakdown segments early in the player turn.

Before understanding how that mechanism works, however, you must understand how each country's potential armed forces are managed. Each player has a Force Pool display that dictates what units are available for use during the game. Units are added to the Force Pool as Option Cards are played, and once in the Force Pool they can be placed on the board depending on how large the unit is in terms of steps. Single step units are placed during Replacements, while multi-step units are placed as the result of Combining smaller units. In many cases, you will flip a single step unit to create a two-step unit, while in others you replace two single-step units (that have nothing on their reverse side) with a two-step unit that has a three step unit on it's back. UK forces are a good example of the former, German forces a good example of the latter.

In the sequence of play, the order goes like this: Replacements are placed (during seasonal turns, every two or three turns in the game) according to the option card selected during the previous seasonal turn. These go, in general, on a city or HQ unit in your Home Country (which I'll discuss in more detail in the Barbarossa discussion). The next step in this process is to Combine units, which is surprisingly straightforward. For example, let's say that you have placed three 1-2-3 German infantry units in Berlin. During the combination step, you look at your Force Pool and see that you have a few units you'd like to build, but right now the main one is a new HQ. Since HQs aren't defined as to how they are built on your Force Pool sheet, you use infantry steps. Curing the Combine step, you take two 1-2-3 infantry units and replace them with the two-step HQ from your Force Pool. The 1-2-3 infantry units do not have a white or black "delay stripe" on them, so they go right back into your Force Pool. Now you have a two step HQ and a one-step infantry unit, and you'd like to bring the HQ to full strength, so you flip the HQ and place the remaining 1-2-3 unit in the Force Pool as it too has no stripe.

This works in the opposite way during the Breakdown step, which comes not long after the Combine step but before any movement. Let's say that we have a three-step infantry unit in Berlin, it's 1942, and we have to get these units a long way into Southern Russia so that we can use it against Stalingrad. Unfortunately, this unit is a 5-6-2, so it's already slow, but it also doesn't get the double movement rate for road/rail it would were it a single-step unit. By far the best option is to break it down to single-step units so that it can move up to six hexes along road/rail rather than two hexes max in it's multi-step form. The first breakdown takes a 1-2-3 unit from the Force Pool and flips the 5-6-2 to it's 3-4-2 two-step side. We still have three steps in the hex, but in a different form. Now we finish the process by taking the 3-4-2 unit and replacing it with two more 1-2-3 units. Note that we couldn't do this if there was a second unit in the hex before we started the breakdown process! The 3-4-2 unit, which has a white delay stripe, is placed in the Delay Box on the map, where it will learn of how long before it returns to the game after all players have taken their turn.

When units lose steps in combat, or indeed at any time you need to break down a unit, you go through the same process. This may seem to be a strange way to manage your armies, but in fact it forces you to plan ahead to some degree. For example, during the Reserve Movement Phase, your main goal, aside from positioning your armies before your opponent moves, is to get your units that aren't in Home Country cities stacked so that you can reform your units at the front. It's a very different system than I've seen in other games, where usually you just get RPs and flip units, but I think it's more realistic given the 30-60 days a turn represents. I'd put it at about two notches below the supply/fuel system in OCS but gives the same type of interruptions to operational tempo, albeit at a much larger scale. When you have units that are getting beat up, you have to pull them out of the line (out of an EZOC) so that one-steppers can come in and combine with them at the start of the next turn.

Combining and breaking down is not a critical element of Case White, but the rule does get introduced (although without replacement units - you start the game with some units that combine early, and of course there is combat) and it is a central feature of the game.

The other core concept that new players may not have seen is that of Support Units. In this case, there are two pieces that get placed: a Blitz Marker and an Air Force Unit. Technically, a Blitz marker is not a support unit, but it is treated much like one in it's core respects.

First on the board is the Air Force unit. The unit must be placed within 3 hexes of an Air Base, which is defined as a city, port, or road/rail hex that contains a friendly unit. For much of the map, that means about half of the hexes could potentially function as air bases, although you need the friendly unit there. Normally the opposing player(s) would have the chance to contest placement of a support unit, but since the Air Force is the only unit of this type in this scenario, we'll leave that for the Barbarossa discussion.

An Air Force unit does some important things, but for our purposes the critical ones are that enemy units can't move or retreat through them, and they give a combat bonus to attacks against units in hexes in or adjacent to the Air Force unit. This is a good point to mention that column shifts are very important in AE:TK, especially at higher odds. The CRT goes from 1:3 up to 1:1, then 3:2, then 2:1 and 3:1, then a column for 4:1 *and* 5:1, 6:1 through 8:1, and finally 9:1+. That means that if you have 3:1 odds and get two column shifts, you are suddenly doing as well as if you had an 8:1 attack. The target odds you want to see are 6:1 to avoid a decent chance of failing in combat, so shifts are important, and judiciously placed Air Force units help.

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned, and it took a little digging, was that support units are not ground units and as such do not project a ZOC. This was, rather obviously in hindsight, in the section on ZOCs, but if you were trying to figure it out by looking in the section on retreats the text won't help. The support unit section, which is rather extensive and admittedly (by the authors) to be the most difficult to learn rules, does say that enemy units can't enter hexes with enemy Air Force support units, but that isn't a ZOC and doesn't work like one. This is an excellent example of why the introduction system works so well and why just reading the whole damned book and then trying it out doesn't. There's too much interaction between the rule and how it's applied to use the latter method.

The other placement is of the Blitz marker. This can be placed *anywhere* on the map, but where it goes is very important for a couple of reasons. The first is that any units within two hexes after Operational Movement may attack in the Blitz Combat Segment that occurs before the Normal Combat Segment. In other words, if your units are within two hexes of this marker, they can attack twice. Since you need to control Posen, Krakow, and Warsaw to win this scenario as the Germans, and since there's a solid line of Polish units in the way to Warsaw, this is an important thing to be able to do. Also, certain types of units present in an attack, such as tanks, will give a column shift during Blitz combat but not during normal combat. One of the key learning elements of the Case white scenario is how to best place these markers/units to your advantage. Note that Air Force units will stay in their hex after placement for a full turn, and then they go to the Delay Box, so very often you will use the unit once and not see it again until a few turns later, at the very least it's gone for a turn. Blitz markers, however, are granted based on the currently selected Option Card, so you get them every turn during that season. Cards like Barbarossa and Case Yellow give up to three Blitz markers to one side or the other. It's entirely possible both sides will get them on their respective turns!

This leaves us with learning about movement and combat. For Movement, I've already mentioned getting your single steppers into place for combining with other single-steppers and reduced multi-step units in anticipation of the next turn, which typically happens during Reserve movement. That phase occurs after combat, but units in EZOCs cannot move, and units can't move into EZOCs. That means you need to be very careful about advancing after combat.

The other critical thing to learn about combat, aside from how important column shifts are, is how units can "exploit" after combat, which is based on the retreat result combined with retreat/attrition results that the losing side can't "pay". Note that EZOCs in this game are "semi-sticky" meaning that you are allowed to move from one EZOC to another, but must immediately stop in that EZOC, which is true of units that start out of EZOCs. Interestingly, friendly units cancel EZOCs for movement, although units must be in supply to move, so moving out of supply stops your movement as well. This encourages you to move one unit 'between" EZOCs so that other units can move through that hex, a very important tactic.

Which leads to one other important element of Blitz counters: Normally, a unit in a city that gets a retreat result can choose instead to convert each hex of retreat to a step loss. If a Blitz marker is in the city hex, however, the unit must retreat. This is very important to knock units out of critical hexes that contain lots of steps.

Otherwise, movement is very straight-forward, and aside from the usual rules for retreats and advances after combat, grognards should find this part of the game to be pretty standard stuff.

I should note that some rules are not addressed at all in Case White, notably Supply. Supply is a little wacky in this game, but I'll cover it in much greater detail when I discuss Barbarossa in my next entry.

You will also find the Case White scenario to be very good at forcing you to learn "doctrine" in AE:TK in a relatively limited setting. The scenario is intended to be a bit of a puzzle, so you may need two or three attempts to succeed. I did on the first try, but my path was far from optimal and I simply got lucky on the last roll. I'll note that you need to "control" the three hexes, which means you need to have German units in them, and given that you must lose tank units first that can lead to situations where a unit that you intended to advance adjacent to Warsaw can't because it has to stay behind to control Krakow or Posen. Since units can't move into EZOCs during Reserve Movement, where your units end up is of critical importance.

Next up, the panzers head east...

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