Dale's Wargames

My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

When it Comes Down to the Last Roll of the Last Unit on the Last Turn

The last game I played was a scenario called "Hook's Farm", which was adapted by the author of the rules Tin Soldiers in Action (TSIA) from a scenario of the same name in H. G. Wells' book Little Wars. I had built my version of this scenario in order to play it with my gaming buddy, Justo. I live in Arizona (USA) now and he lives in Texas (USA), so we were going to play it over Skype by each of us having a board, miniatures for both sides, and markers. As TSIA is played on a square grid it is very easy to call out the grid number of the unit moving or firing and the grid number where you are moving to or firing at. Sort of like the old Milton Bradley game Battleship.

I was farther along with the miniatures and board, so when Justo missed the first deadline, my wife offered to game with me as we had not gamed together for some time. It was a mercy killing. Although technically she lost, she had beaten the snot out of me and her main attacking force was still intact.

Justo got his miniatures finished and we played a game at the tail end of the New Year's holiday and it was fun. I was attacking that time but ... well, I got smashed again. Really stupid move on my part right at the start and it put me on my back foot for the rest of the game. I got so distracted by that error – and Justo was on the hunt for blood – that our picture taking sort of petered out. That is why there was no battle report.

So, we decided to run the game again last night/this morning with Justo attacking this time. Hopefully this battle report will show more of the subtleties – and dare I say it (because the author of TSIA will read this), some of the peculiarities – of the rules. Also, you will get a double view of each turn! The first picture of each turn will be Justo's version of the game, while the second picture will be mine. Note that he was using American Civil War paper figures (and a cat), while I was using handmade, wooden Austro-Prussian War figures. Note that most of our pictures are end-of-turn shots.
Actually, neither Justo nor I are using the right period figures for the scenario, although Justo's is probably closer to the mark. The scenario has the infantry armed with rifled muskets, so that works for both sides of the ACW and for the Austrians in the Seven Weeks' War, but not for the Prussians, who are using early breechloaders. The artillery in the scenario have smoothbore muzzleloading guns. Again, this still works for the ACW, but due to them being rated as "medium", they are insufficient to be used as 12 pounder Napoleons. Ironically, the Prussians were still using smoothbore artillery, but the Austrians were already using rifled artillery. As for the cavalry, the scenario gives them only close combat weapons and no ranged weapons or revolvers, so they are really not suited for either ACW or the Seven Weeks' War cavalry. Probably the best representative would be armies from the 1850s, such as the Franco-Austrian War of 1859.

The Scenario

You can get a copy of the PDF of the scenario by following the link or searching in the files section of the TSIA board on BoardgameGeek.


The Blue defender can set up their forces anywhere in rows 1 through 3, with a single unit being able to occupy square D4, Hook's Farm. The Red attacker set up their forces in row 8. The objective is to hold Hook's Farm at the end of turn five. The two forces are identical, save that the defender must eliminate one unit of their choice before the start of the game. If a player loses their Commander-in-Chief, they automatically lose (or draw if both players lose them).

The houses rarely come into play, save for Hook's Farm, but the woods have a large spoiling effect on wide sweeping movements. The largest impact is from the two hills.

Hills have several effects on the game. Shooting uphill is penalized, but downhill is not. Close combat attacks are not penalized, either uphill or downhill, but they can affect morale before and after close combat by giving an advantage to an uphill defender. The greatest impact, however, is on line of sight (LOS).

The easiest way to describe the line of sight rules with hills is to compare it to other rules. The closest I can think of is Memoir '44 (M44). Hills are plateaus, not ridgelines. Line of sight from hill square to hill square is unimpaired by all terrain at ground level (elevation 0). However, there are a few peculiarities that may surprise people. Like M44, the 'plateau effect' means that other hills block LOS to the ground level. Looking at the map below, a unit in C4 could see A6, for example, but not B6. The hill in C5 blocks the LOS to the latter. Here is the complete LOS for square C4. Gray squares are not visible.


As you can see, hill squares are actually very restricted in their LOS. Knowing that the defenders start in row 3, on the back edge of the hill, you can see that the entire rows 7 and 8 are out of LOS, allowing the attacker to approach the hill without coming under fire, only being fired upon once they get up onto a hill square. Given that the attacker starts in row 8 they have a fundamental choice to make: move to row 7 on turn 1 and stay out of firing range moving up and firing on turn 2, or move to row 6 on turn 1 and take the fire. If the defender moves first, the latter is the obvious choice, but if the attacker moves first...?

This also means that there are 'power squares', in terms of LOS. For the defender, one would be square C6. That square dominates two directions, plus one-half of the hill.


That is a long way from the defender's start line and a big gamble to take at the game start. But I digress. The point was to show how LOS to and from hill squares work.

Deployment

Only one picture for this, from my game, as Justo's picture did not come through.


The attackers (Prussians, in my case) are at the bottom of the picture in row 8. From left to right: two infantry brigades, a limbered artillery battery, the cavalry reserve with the Commander-in-Chief, another limbered artillery battery, and two more infantry brigades.

The defenders have an infantry brigade defending Hook's Farm, then in row 3 from left to right: an unlimbered artillery battery, two infantry brigades, and a second unlimbered artillery battery. Finally in row two is the cavalry reserve with the Commander-in-Chief.

I am a bit perplexed by Justo's deployment. I was not expecting the cavalry to be directly in front of Hook's Farm. Given that he made a very successful charge early in the last game, I figure that he wants to duplicate that success, so will be aggressive with this cavalry.

I still have not painted the central hill, put the roofs on the houses and am missing two guns and three limbers models from my units. Oh the shame!

Turn One

Justo is taking pictures from the right flank of the defenders/left flank of the attackers. He has advanced his light cavalry (which is in open formation) into the woods on his left flank. (Note that in my picture I have this wrong. I thought he was still behind the woods.) Either way, I reacted by moving my cavalry reserve to defend against a flank sweep.

Justo was unlucky in that he was forced to move his troops first, so he decided to move up to the base of the hill and not expose himself to the full fire of my forces on turn one. Only one infantry brigade exposed themselves and they took a single hit as a consequence.



Note that because Justo took his infantry and cavalry around his left flank, I did not move the artillery battery in C3 forward to C4, where I normally move it. Moving it to C4 would have not only limited me to one shot that turn (although it would have been canister and not round shot), but it would not expose my artillery to fire from the infantry in A6. Not having made that move will have a significant impact the whole game because that artillery battery's fire will not only be reduced in strength (because it will continue firing round shot from long range and not canister), it will be limited in its targets because of the narrow LOS.

Turn Two

The infantry brigade I threw out front into E5 was crushed by the weight of fire coming from Justo's gun line, as was his infantry brigade in C5 from mine. We both ended up pulling our units back. (I took the worst of it though as my unit had lost 50% while Justo's had only lost 25%.)



A second infantry brigade (in D6) of Justo's was badly battered, but he started inflicting hits on my infantry brigade defending Hook's Farm. I decide to gamble a little by moving an infantry brigade into F5 (in front of my battery on the right, which had already fired), but honestly I forget why I did it. If rushing an infantry brigade out front resulted in its slaughter last turn, why would this one not turn out the same?
Now you may wonder why I would make that move. Would it not block the LOS of the artillery battery? Well, actually, no. For those used to LOS rules in US boardgames, this may seem a little peculiar. Unit A has LOS to unit B.


In most US boardgames there are rules that say something like: "LOS on the 45º diagonal (or down the hex spine for hex-grid games) is blocked if there is blocking terrain or a unit on both sides of the line, but is not blocked if there is blocking terrain or a unit on only one side of the line." Not in TSIA. The rule specifically states that "if the line of sight passes through a square containing an obstruction", the LOS is blocked. The key is: "passes through a square". How do you know if a line passes through a square when you are on the 45º diagonal?

I thought about it this way. If I were moving from square A1 to B2 – along the 45º diagonal – would I first move into squares A2 or B1? No. So if I can move directly from A1 to B2 without passing through another square, why would LOS be any different? Turns out I was right. By the way, this only applies to the 45º, 135º, 225º and 315º diagonals. LOS is determined by going from the center of the starting square to the center of the ending square, so if the line is not at one of those four angles you will be passing through another square, which may in turn block the line of sight.
Justo decided to move his cavalry reserve back out of the woods, then close up into close formation. Looks like he is preparing to charge!

Turn Three

My gambit with the infantry brigade is crushed as Justo's forces all get first fire, leaving me with 75% casualties! I retreat to the house on my left flank, never to be useful again. Otherwise, units continue to be whittled down.

Reinforcements! Peanut makes a flank attack!

Justo long considered charging with his cavalry against mine, but after discussing the Axis of Attack rule – which essentially forces a charging unit to charge to its 'front' at the end of their movement – we agreed he could not charge.

This is a legal attack by A. The charge into B (square A3) is within the Axis of Attack after moving into square A2,
Further, when he considered charging my artillery in C3, we went through the odds of that succeeding and again he decided against it. In the end he pulled his unit back into reserve in the center, looking for an opening against a weak unit.

My unit defending Hook's Farm continues to get whittled down, having lost five tin soldiers from the fire of Justo's gun line. Further, there was the sudden appearance of an infantry brigade on its flank. I must do something about that!

Turn Four

This turn and the next is all that remains of the game. My defending unit in Hook's Farm is starting to look really weak. I do not have much time to save them and for some reason I have no fresh reserve infantry brigade to replace them.

Fortunately, my units were able to act before his infantry brigade on the hill could fire, so I pour all fire into that fresh unit, causing it three hits. It passed its morale check, however. I had more luck coming as my cavalry reserves' card was drawn next. After much hemming and hawing, I decide to charge them into the infantry brigade threatening Hook's Farm, mostly to work through a close combat example. (Justo had played a game previously with his son, and he said that he probably messed up that part of the rules.)


This is a fairly good charge as there are no units that can provide supporting fire.
Supporting fire occurs if an enemy unit is adjacent to a charging unit. If so, it can fight in close combat by providing fire into the charging unit before the charge hits home! You do not want to make charges into supported units as you will simply be shot down. Note that supporting fire is taken by units with ranged weapons, but it is played out as close combat, not ranged combat. One big difference is that cavalry no longer gets a defensive modifier.
The infantry get first strike as they have ranged weapons, but they score a measly one hit. With 11 figures remaining and 22 dice for close combat, the light cavalry cut the infantry brigade to ribbons.

The '5' and '6' are hits. All nine infantry are cut down.
This allows me to take a cavalry breakthrough.
In TSIA, cavalry are pretty much fire-and-forget, one-shot weapons, which to my mind is as it should be. A cavalry breakthrough occurs when attacking heavy cavalry simply wins a melee or attacking light cavalry wins the melee by completely wiping out the enemy unit. A cavalry breakthrough allows the cavalry to continue the charge and attack units adjacent to the losing unit.
At first I hem and haw over whether to stand, advance and take the position, or take the cavalry breakthrough. The second option – to advance but not take the breakthrough – makes no sense. To stand means that my cavalry will be blocking my artillery's shot next turn, unless I get lucky enough to move my cavalry before my artillery is commanded to act. To breakthrough, however, means that I will take fire from both an artillery battery and an infantry brigade (albeit one with 50% losses). Justo points out that I will still take the fire if I stand there, laughs and calls me chicken, so I go ahead and take the breakthrough. (Real strategic thinking there, eh?)

But now the issue is: which unit to charge? If I charge the artillery, here is the sequence of events for resolving close combat.
  1. Both sides take a morale test. The artillery cannot fail the test because it is superior, unlimbered, and has an attached commander.
  2. The infantry conducts supporting fire with three dice.
  3. The artillery conducts defensive fire with nine dice.
  4. I conduct my close combat attack with the remaining figures, getting two dice per tin soldier.
  5. If I win, there will be no more units within my axis of attack, so the cavalry breakthrough ends.
If I charge the infantry, here is the sequence of events.
  1. Both sides take a morale test. The infantry will fail 33% of the time. If they fail they will be disordered, halving their dice in combat and making them more susceptible to losses if they lose the combat.
  2. The artillery conducts supporting fire with nine dice.
  3. The infantry conducts defensive fire with three dice, unless they failed morale in which case it will be two dice.
  4. I conduct my close combat attack with the remaining figures, getting two dice per tin soldier.
  5. If I wipe out the infantry, there are additional units within my axis of attack, so the cavalry breakthrough can continue.
Clearly the infantry are the better odds, but the artillery would be a bigger loss to Justo. Justo continues to razz me saying that the only real choice is to continue to kamikaze with the cavalry. I choose to charge the infantry to show him that my cavalry is just as fearless as his were last game!


By the way, I have my Commander-in-Chief with me, so if I lose him, the game is over for me unless I can kill his Commander-in-Chief too!

Justo rolls and whiffs, something like one or two hits. I cut the infantry brigade down and continue on to his second crippled infantry brigade cowering behind the artillery.

Now ponder that for a moment. My cavalry will be charging into a third, half-strength infantry brigade with two artillery batteries firing canister in support. The artillery batteries alone will be firing 18 dice and the infantry six dice (assuming it holds morale, otherwise it would be three), so that it 21-24 dice, needing ...

All of the sudden it dawns on me. I say: "Justo, have you been counting only the '6's as hits or both the '5's and '6's as hits?" He bursts out laughing and then groans. He has been whiffing because he was only counting '6's! I tell him that I don't know how to back out of this and do it over. He tells me not to worry about it, let's keep going. I allow the first artillery battery and the infantry to hit on '4'+ (but the second battery is still '5'+) to somewhat make up as compensation. But his dice went cold and he still whiffs, but at least this time it was legitimate.


That said, the losses are just too much and I lose the combat. I retreat in disorder to the woods, take a single loss to desertion, and lick my wounds.
As it turns out, Justo was right. To not advance and take the breakthrough would have been a waste of the unit. I was going to take all that fire anyway when his cards came up. You pretty much have to view cavalry as one-shot and do as much damage as possible once you decide to commit them. If, in the end, you are allowed to retreat, count your blessings.
Oh, and my Commander-in-Chief survived.



My infantry brigade defending Hook's Farm is down to four tin soldiers. It is looking grim. My cavalry is down to three figures. (I have a yellow marker in my photo instead of an orange, so it is mismarked. Justo has a missing stand in his photo, but I suspect that is the work of Peanut, who has been batting Justo's paper figures around as he takes a paw in the game.)

Turn Five

This is the critical last turn of the game. (We are not playing the optional rule, Variable Ending, which gives the attacker an advantage by letting the game play out as long as seven turns.) It is after midnight for Justo and approaching midnight for me. We are both getting punchy.

Luck continues to be with me. I rotate out the infantry from Hook's Farm and move in my artillery unit. What I have noticed is that the artillery simply do not fail morale rolls. All of my units fire first, so I pour fire into his artillery in an attempt to whittle them down. Each artillerist lost can cut his dice down by as much as three dice per tin soldier.

I fail all of my rolls. I throw the crippled unit in the house (G4) into the fray (at F5) in hopes of blocking a charge by Justo's infantry on the left flank (in G6). It does not work. Justo's cavalry charges and wipes me out, clearing the way.

Justo ends up with the last three cards of the game. Everyone he has that can pours fire into Hook's Farm. I go from four artillerists to two. Justo's last unit moves and charges into Hook's Farm. I have two artillery batteries and one half-strength infantry brigade defending or providing supporting fire. They cut him down from 11 tin soldiers to four. Justo rolls his last attack and scores no hits.


The game is over and I have won.

How close was this game? If the artillery unit in Hook's Farm had lost one more figure, it would have been reduced to one remaining artillerist. In TSIA that means that the unit is removed as the remaining figure runs off. That would have left my Commander-in-Chief holding the Farm.

When a unit commits to charging into a square for close combat and the preceding fire or morale tests causes the defending unit to be destroyed, the charging unit automatically wins the close combat and may advance into the square. The infantry brigade would have avoided all of the supporting fire.

When the infantry brigade reached the square, it would have found a lone Commander-in-Chief. I would have had to roll a die and on a '6', I would have been captured and would have lost automatically. On a '1' through '5' I would have been forced to retreat, leaving him the victory square, and thus also have lost.

Now, I do not like to point out an error of my opponent any more than I like mine being pointed out and published in a blog. But – sorry Justo, this is an important point – if his infantry brigade behind the artillery had moved as indicated with the dashed arrow to square D6 and fired, he could have obtained that last hit. What were the odds? Well, there were four tin soldiers left, firing at one die per two figures, shooting at unlimbered artillery (half dice), so he would have had a single die roll, needing a '6'. Not good odds, but...

Conclusion

Man! What a close game. This was a real nail-biter of a game of TSIA and certainly one of the most intense games of all time for me. To have the game break for one side or the other on the loss of a single figure! You do not see that very often.

Hopefully this will help others understand the TSIA rules a little better and highlight some of the areas where they differ from US and UK rules, especially boardgames (which we usually associate with grids). To be honest, my first reaction to some of the differences of new rules to the old way that I am used to playing is always somewhat negative, because it is not how I cut my teeth on grid-based games. But that is because it is all a bit unfamiliar. I think that the more I dug into Richard Borg and Neil Thomas rules, and how they made the case that simplicity of design does not make the game duller, but actually enhances the experience, the more it allowed me to appreciate these rules.

Justo was pretty clear when he said that these rules have a really clever design to them and that they are clean. I think he has some of the background that I do with "standard boardgame rules" and thus some of it feels counter-intuitive. But as I explained above about the line of sight rules, when you start thinking it through and challenging those old assumptions, the rules are more cohesive and consistent with very few exceptions. As the author Rüdiger told me in a chat, given that he stopped buying commercial rules more than ten years ago, he hasn't been corrupted by them and how they all play the same way either.

What's Next?

My next project with these rules will be a skirmish game, although I am not sure when I will get to it. I need to think through some ideas because I think my concept of a skirmish game is a bit different than the author's. It is something more than just "one figure equals one man". It is about scale, about zooming in on the action. It will probably involve bending some TSIA rules...

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").