Sheppard's Crook

The occasional blog of a closet would -be wargamer and modeller

The Tractor Works

I played my second game of Squad Leader on Monday. It was the scenario of The Tractor Works in which a crack unit of German assault engineers had to capture and hold the said works amidst the ruin of Stalingrad before the Russian counterattack could sweep them away. This scenario introduced explosive charges and flamethrowers. It also added concealment, which was a bit tricky to play solo.

The game was a bit of a slugfest which saw the German assault defeated thanks to a series of quite awful dice rolls. I finished it early when it was pretty clear the Russians were going to win. The game was OK but it would be nice to get to the armoured rules where things may become more expansive than claustrophobic street fighting.

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Squad Leader Revisited

I had said that I would look again at original Squad Leader as one of my 6 by 6 Challenge games.  This is very much a classic game of World War II infantry combat, according to Boardgame Geek it was first published in 1977.  I have the final 4th edition of 1980.

It is very much a tactical combat game that I am sure traces back to miniatures games rather than a more conventional boardgame reliant on rolling odds on a combat results table (CRT) or at least as I remember from the early to mid 1980s.  Indeed a quick search on the internet shows that there are Squad Leader in Miniature to enable the game to be taken from the board to the table using miniatures. As the blurb on the box says, this is a board wargame system rather than a set game and this makes it quite attractive from a replayability standpoint.

I had decided to play the first 6 scenarios from Squad Leader but then I came across a fan site which referred to a “Tactical Training Series” (TTS) which is a series of 6 scenarios to help newcomers learn how to manoeuvre and fight – apparently the game as written does not quite do this.  This looked attractive but then I decided to stick to my original plan.  I had played the first scenario “The Guards Counterattack” about three times over the years, played the second scenario about once and had managed to go no further.  This time I had to get to at least scenario 3!

The game set up for the first scenario – I was surprised at how small it was

I will not give a blow by blow account of the battle.  Suffice to say it was a bit of an infantry slog in the ruins of Stalingrad.  The Russians had the better of it overall and scored a narrow victory.  It certainly showed the benefit of hard cover and the dangers of running in the open across lines of fire.  I quite enjoyed it even though there was an inevitably large amount of rules referrals and some mistakes – I did not quite use the leadership modifiers right in firing for example. And here’s to playing the second scenario!

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The Scots Campaign in England – the last battle

So what was happening to the north while Lord Cottar was successfully extricating his army from the grip of the Parliamentary forces?  As mentioned before, in a dastardly English trick the Commonwealth Navy had transported the New Model Army for a direct attack north of the border.  All that could face them was a scratch Scottish force that was deployed in three lines in blocking positions at the river, between the impenetrable forests and finally on top of the hill.  If the Scots could hold the English here long enough, Cottar’s army could return in time to throw the English back.

That was the narrative behind the 6th and final scenario in this leg of the 6 by 6 Challenge.  Scenario 26 – Triple Line had been previously randomly selected from One Hour Wargames and the game was again set up on the chessboard with minimum paper terrain.  In this scenario, the winner was whoever held the hill on the northern edge of the battlefield on the 15th and final turn of the game.  The twist here was that the Scots could not move (but they could fire) unless an English unit came within 2 inches (half an infantry move) of a Scottish unit.

The battlefield at the start of the 1st turn. The English to the south are deployed just off the playing surface which is the 6 by 6 grid.

With the Scots handicapped by an inability to move it looked like a foregone conclusion for the English to win.  The English set up to maximise their firepower from the infantry in order to clear the bridge without letting the Scots move.  To begin with things worked well, especially as the English appeared to have been practicing firing hard.  However, the effect of the bridge and the lack of manoeuvring space between the river and the 2nd Scottish line without triggering a move caused a hold up in the English crossing the river in force.  And the Scots themselves were also well equipped with shot and powder to the extent they threatened to put a serious dent in the English progress, further hampered by the charge of the Scots lancers.

However, numbers told, especially in the numbers of 5s and 6s thrown by the English to eventually destroy their opponents.  And so it was the English occupied the hill on the 14th turn to win the game.

The good thing about OHW are the finely balanced scenarios and the approach to quickly and randomly setting up forces to give a different tactical challenge each time.   The rules themselves are “crude but effective” and calling them crude is rather unfair – simple might be a better word.

I have enjoyed the narrative story-telling side of the linked scenarios and will no doubt return to this again in the future.  But now I must turn my attention to the 3rd leg of my 6 by 6 Challenge – will it be the venerable Squad Leader or the rather more recent Memoir 44?

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Holding the Gap

As I mentioned in my last post, the “miniaturised” version of OHW had proved to be quite successful to the extent that I turned round and played another game straight away.  This time it was scenario 24 – Bottleneck.

With the loss at Connor’s Bluff, Cottar’s Scottish army was chased back to the Scottish borders before they could find a place to turn in an effort to hold the rampaging Parliamentary army.  Cottar had found the ideal battlefield whereby his outnumbered force could defeat the English.

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The battlefield at turn 1 – The Scots are based just to the north of the wood and lake, except for the Highlanders in the forest.  The English are just off the playing area looking to force their way up the road as well as sweep around the lake.

The Scots had 4 units to the English 6. To win they had  to have at least one unit within 4 inches (2 squares) of the road by the end of turn 15.  The swordsmen (Highlanders) are hidden in the forest which is impassable to the English.

The battle unfolded in two parts.  The English charge up the road was blocked by some exceptional firing by the Scottish regiment that was based on the road.  The English had led with their own swordsmen who, while good at hand to hand, had no firepower and, worse, blocked the firing of the supporting three infantry regiments.  The swordsmen were quickly despatched and the following infantry regiment was also sent reeling back before the next regiment could finally see off the resilient Scots.

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The English worked their way around the lake on the east flank, where the cavalry charged the Scottish reiters. In a close run fight, the reiters were just victorious thanks to the damage inflicted by firing before contact.  This success was short-lived as the English eastern infantry regiment closed the range and sent them routing through firepower.

The crisis point

The crisis point of the battle was reached with the English threatening the last Scottish unit in the open.  However, the Scots were clearly experienced and well provisioned with shot as they continued to shoot down the English regiments who were clearly  worn from the long pursuit north (ie they threw too many ones which either resulted in little damage or the loss of firepower).

The game ended with the Scots still holding the road and the Highlanders emerging from the forest to confirm the victory.

This miniaturised OHW game also ran quickly with seemingly no loss of fidelity from the original rules.  I know this seems to reduce OHW almost to the level of a boardgame but it worked pretty well for me.

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The Scots Make a Stand at Connor’s Bluff

When I last left the Scottish forces under the command of the newly ennobled Lord Cottar they had had an unbroken string of successes against the Parliamentary forces of the north and west midlands.  However, thanks to a typically underhanded English trick, instead of facing the victorious Scots in a straight fight, the Lord Protector had instead embarked the New Model Army onto the Commonwealth fleet and had headed north into Scotland on a punitive expedition.  Cottar’s army needed to head north and quickly!

This is the back story to the fourth engagement in my loosely connected campaign of 6 battles taken from the book “One Hour Wargames” set in the time of the English Civil Wars.  This time around I had selected scenario 20 – Fighting Retreat which had the Scots retreating north before an on-rushing Parliamentarian army.  The Scots had only 4 units while the English had the more standard 6.  The aim of the game was to be in possession of the hill on the northern edge at the end of the 15th turn.

In a further twist I decided to do this game in miniature.  Normally a game of OHW takes place on a 3 foot square table and the units I use are 3 DBx bases wide by 2 deep.  However, both the kitchen and dining tables were otherwise engaged and I didn’t fancy the floor, so instead I decided to adopt an idea I had read on Shaun Travers’s blog in which he had played a OHW game on a 30cm square tile.  In my case I used a chessboard on which the squares are 2 inches per side.  Therefore, using a 6 by 6 grid (quite apt for the 6 by 6 Challenge!) from the board and only one base per unit I could scale everything down by two thirds.  With some terrain swiftly cut from paper and glued to the board with Bluetac the set up looked like this:

The position at the start of turn 1 – the Scots are on the board at the bridges across the river.  The key hill – Connor’s Bluff – is to the north.  The English are massed just off the 6×6 playing area

The play progressed pretty quickly, the chess grid helping speed up the game as not everything needed measuring (eg infantry can move 2 inches per turn = 1 square) although care needed to be taken not to guess too much over the diagonals.  In short, the Scots decided to hold the river line on the west flank, while sending an infantry regiment to hold the hill.  on the east flank an infantry regiment took up a blocking position between the central marsh and the eastern wood, while the reiters acted as a mobile firepower reserve.  The Parliamentarians pressed quickly up to and across the river, hoping to use their reiters to soften up the Scots with their firepower.  Thanks to some superlative shooting on the Scots western flank (some good dice rolls!) one of the English regiments was destroyed while the other was allowed across to allow the Scots reiters to have their turn (and try to eat up the turn counter).  This proved to be a critical error as the English east flank, despite having been held up for a time, managed to break through.

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The Scots are victorious in the west but lose out in the east

The English cavalry finally got across the river and into contact, successfully defeating the Scots reiters but falling foul of the supporting infantry.  But this had enabled the two remaining English infantry regiments to close on the Scots on Connor’s Bluff and by the end of turn 13 out of 15, had carried the day.

This was yet another finely balanced scenario which had within in it some interesting challenges in terms of choice of strategy.  Using the smaller board and units also worked well and I was able play another game directly afterwards.  I quite liked the basic looking terrain – it reminded me of the pictures in Featherstone’s “Battles with Model Soldiers” – although may be next time I would try some printed terrain from JuniorGeneral.org or similar.  I suspect I will be returning to this sort of format again in the future!

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Four Against Darkness – The Final Chapter?

The band of brave adventurers had escaped from the lair of the fire demon having rescued the High Priestess but had then been ambushed by more demons of the Darkness.  Although they had been beaten off, a Parthian shot had left the High Priestess mortally wounded.  With her dying breath she gave the party a clue as to where to find a powerful relic but had further charged them that only through peaceful means could the relic be recovered.

For this adventure I decided to up-gun all the minions and bosses by a level to make them a bit tougher for the party.  I also decided to make the party follow the “Let peace be your way” quest to make it more challenging, reasoning that the High Priestess was from a peaceful religion.  Completing a quest would result in am Epic Reward, ideal for a powerful relic.

final map
I decided to use a smaller map size to force a shorter game

The party dived into the darkness and quickly confronted an animated statue which was quickly despatched.  It was the first Boss of the game.  Despite giving the goblins in the next room the opportunity to parley, they decided to fight and were quickly put to the sword.

Doubling back the adventurers came across a shambling Mummy.  It became clear that this was the master of the dungeon complex (ie I rolled 6 to which I added 1 for the statue which meant it was the Final Boss – already!).  Another short sharp fight followed but ended when Zandemar fried the Mummy with a lightning bolt, gaining a level as the result.  A couple of corridors later they came across a couple of orcs who were happy to be bribed (it was either that or a very quick death), resulting in the first peaceful event of the game.  A couple of rooms later, having despatched some aggressive fungi folk, the party was then able to bribe some goblins to look the other way.  A tough fight with half a dozen vampire frogs left Albanac bloody and bruised but otherwise victorious. Th party then came across an Iron Eater which quickly lived up to its name by devouring the heavy armour of both Albanac and Uthacar before being defeated.

The adventurers had now reached a dead end and doubled-back.  They returned to the room where they had bribed the two orcs who had been joined by a solitary troll (I rolled a wandering monster) who was itching for a fight.  However, Zandemar, now a level 5 wizard, stepped forward and sent all three minions to sleep, completing the quest.  The relic was magically revealed to the party as a Shield of Warning, which Albanac took (he had no armour following the encounter with the iron eater).  They then worked their way out of the dungeon without further mishap.

By the end of the series of adventures, all the characters were at Level 4 except for Zandemar who was Level 5.  I have enjoyed playing 4AD and the addition of The 9Qs did add a little to the end.  The game is a good way to while away an hour or two and will benefit also from “the deeper levels addendum” when it comes out.  However, I don’t think I will be exploring it further.  This completes my first set of 6 games for the 6 by 6 Challenge.  Only another 27 to go!

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Exploring Four Against Darkness

In my last post I relayed the tale of the second chapter of the pre-programmed adventure Dark Waters, at the end of which I expressed a degree of boredom with 4AD.  The game is, after all, a randomly rolled up dungeon crawler into which the player has next to no strategic input.  In hindsight, what had made it interesting for the first couple of games was the novelty of the system and the possibility for me to tell the story around the dice rolls.  Perhaps the last time I had played it I wasn’t quite in the mood to fill in the gaps.   The upside of the 6 by 6 Challenge is that it is making me play games but the downside is that it may be making me play games whether I want to or not in order to hit the target.  But the upside outweighs the downside!

To help build a little creativity and provide some sort of narrative background to the dungeon crawl I thought I would turn to one of the solo RPG game engines I have been toying with for the past year or so.  I went for John Fiore’s The 9Qs as it looked simpler than, say, Mythic and therefore more in keeping with 4AD’s simplicity.  For those unfamiliar with solo or GM-less RPG game systems (and I am hardly an expert!) the aim is to provide suitable prompts to the players’ imaginations to push and pull the story in unexpected directions driven by random, largely dice-driven, elements.  In the case of The 9Qs  there are three sets of three questions (hence 9 questions) which broadly align to the beginning middle and end of a story/adventure.  As it explains at the outset, the system works better if the player has a ready-made context in which to set the action to help guide what happens next – starting from a completely blank sheet of paper would make this very difficult.

For the context I went to the Realm of Taakae from the venerable book Fantasy Wargaming by Martin Hackett.  You can find this book for pennies on Amazon and Abebooks and it is a nostalgic look at fantasy gaming in the late 80s and early 90s.  It is hardly cutting edge but did contain a fairly simple but well described world which would provide useful enough backdrop to any fantasy gaming I might ever get up to.

Not the last word in fantasy wargaming, but I have a soft spot for the book and the Realm of Taakae is useful, if basic, but best of all, free.
I might one day write up my modifications to Taakae but we will see how far I let my “inner nerd” off the leash!.
And so to begin!
The 1st point is to determine why the group is actually together in the first place.  That was easy enough: they were a group of would-be heroes determined to find objects of power in order to defeat the looming evil known as the Darkness.  Then to answer the 1st question: what was happening that would get in the way of their motivation.  A random idea generator was empowered (I rolled one of Rory’s Story Cubes), the result of which triggered the thought that a King’s Herald (I had rolled a mobile phone!) had arrived in the town to declare that a group of demons had violently kidnapped the High Priestess and taken her to who knew where.  Rescue the Priestess and the heroes may be given clues as to where to find the objects of power.  The 2nd question concerned what else was going on that may affect the heroes’ plans.  Another Story Cube was rolled to reveal that a black glistening arch had appeared in the sky (having rolled a rainbow) over the nearby mountains to show that the Darkness was stirring and that the heroes needed to act quickly to avoid disaster (further dice rolls gave this “guidance”).
I decided that I had enough for the background to a 4AD adventure.  The party was on a quest to rescue the High Priestess from the demons.  The resultant dungeon crawl is shown below.

The party penetrated into the dungeon complex.  It had clearly been a place of good power in the past and a residue of power was to be found in the remains of a blessed temple that gave power to Flandrian the Cleric.  But it had long since fallen to the Darkness and was infested with giant spiders, zombies and fungi folk.  But these were no match for the heroes especially now they were all at least level 3 and by the end would all be level 4.  Having penetrated into the depths of the complex they came across the Arch Fire Demon holding the High Priestess captive.  (I had rolled a small dragon but thought the fire demon was more authentic, especially as it was the Final Boss).  A short but brutal fight followed which resulted in the destruction of the Demon and the escape of the party through the secret exit they had discovered earlier.

I then returned to the 3rd question of The 9Qs to see what would happen next.  The party was attacked by a demonic raiding party.  While the heroes fought them off, a stray demonic arrow (the Cube picture) mortally wounded the Priestess who, as she died, gave them a clue as to where to find a powerful object.

Using The 9Qs did help a little to provide some context for the 4AD game although the game engine does require some time and thought to be paid to it: it’s not a “shake the box” type of game and you do need to be in the mood for it.  4AD itself needs a power up for higher level characters – level 4 characters are tough and I found myself scything through minions and ignoring vermin.  I will play one more adventure to finish this part of the Challenge but I think that, for me, 4AD is a bit of a dead end, clever as it is.

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Dark Waters – the denouement

I played the second chapter of the 4AD programmed adventure Dark Waters.  Following on from the first chapter, the brave party of adventurers had now to descend into the depths of the flooded caves under the pirates’ hideout looking for the gold statue of Tezany of which they had had a tantalising glimpse before it had been whisked away.  Unlike Chapter 1, this was actually a standard 4AD roll-the-dungeon adventure but with appropriately themed aquatic monster and special features tables.

The underwater caverns of Dark Waters

I will not dwell too much on the details of the adventure.  Suffice to say, the party explored the largest cavern system of their careers to date.  A high spot was meeting and defeating a Sea Hydra (a tricky Level 5 weird monster which grew attacks as it lost lives) before progressing through several rooms, hitting a dead end, doubling back to the Sea Hydra room before meeting a wandering monster.  This was, you’ve guessed it, another Sea Hydra.  The party then progressed north through a series of interlocking corridors before coming across the Final Boss, being the Avatar of Tezany, the Shark God, with 8 cultist minions.  The fight was hard but bloody to begin with, until Zandemar remembered he had discovered a sleep wand early in the adventure, which he promptly used to on the Avatar.  Having defeated the Avatar and recovered the gold statue, the party worked its way out of the complex with little trouble. All the characters had levelled up to Level 3 apart from the cleric Flandrian who had got luckier and made it to Level 4.

I am afraid I got a little bored with this one, although this was partly down to the roll of the dice which meant I met quite a lot of monsters and not very many special features and no special events.  It’s really these elements that add to the story of the game as there is a chance of a clue or being sent on a quest and these seemed lacking in Dark Waters.  I am going to explore whether I could use a solo roleplaying game engine to add something to 4AD for the last two games in the 6 by 6 Challenge but I think this may be a bit of a gaming dead end.  Having said that, you may need to be in the right mood to play this game in order to be prepared to fill in the story telling gaps which makes this more interesting.  I will have to see!

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Dark Waters Chapter 1

Cover art for the Dark Waters adventure

I’ve gone back to Four Against Darkness for the next instalment in the 6 by 6 Challenge.  This time I have played one of the pre-designed 4AD adventures published by Ganesha Games.  I downloaded it from Wargames Vault in pdf format.

Dark Waters has two chapters.  Chapter 1 sets the scene for the overall adventure and takes the form of a pre-programmed, follow the map type of adventure.  It reminded me of the Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures of my dim and distant youth, or the slightly more recent Fighting Fantasy books, albeit rather shorter.  I haven’t looked at Chapter 2 yet, but this is rather more faithful to the original 4AD random dungeon generator but with different tables more aligned to the marine theme of the adventure.

I will not give a blow by blow account of my Chapter 1 adventure as it would be a bit of spoiler.  Suffice to say the adventuring party of Albanac the Warrior, Flandrian the Cleric, the Dwarf Uthacar and Zandemar the Wizard joined forces once more in search of the leader of the corsairs who was hiding in his underground lair. There were some tense moments either in combat with some of the boss level monsters or dodging traps.  Zandemar finally levelled up to Level 2 having managed fail all his previous levelling up rolls in the previous adventures. Flandrian too levelled up while the real “star” was Alabanac who became a Level 3 Warrior and would be known as the “Iron Wind” due to the way he sliced through the opposition.  Uthacar on the other hand would be known as the “Unready” due to the almost unbroken run of ones in combat.

I quite enjoyed the programmed adventure but I think I prefer the random generator approach as you really never know what is going to come next.  Having a theme to the game does help though.  Where I think 4AD is interesting is in the way the characters start building a rather rudimentary backstory which could be used to spur the imagination if ever a wider RPG or wargame campaign were ever to be generated.

I hope my next instalment of Deep Waters will not be too long delayed.

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The Battle of Warchester – the Scots March On

The commander of the Scottish Army, Sir Vernon Cottar, fresh from his epic victory at Louthburn, re-gathered his forces and continued his march south by way of the west midlands.  Thomas, the Lord Lieutenant of the Northern Marches had been recalled to London to answer for his failings to the Lord Protector and had been replaced by Anthony Smythe, the Lord Lieutenant of the Welsh Marches, despite calls to recall Fairfax from his self-imposed retirement.

Despite being offered few units of the New Model Army by way of reinforcement, Smythe was charged with blocking the Scots’ march south at Warchester, either at the main road through the town or by holding the high ground to the west.  If he could hold Cottar there long enough (ie to the end of the 15th turn) then much of the New Model Army itself would be able to march north and block the way south. (This is Scenario 14 – Static Defence).

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View of the battlefield from the west during turn 1 – the key hill is in the left lower corner, Warchester is top centre.  The battlefield is divided by the central woodland. The scenery is somewhat rudimentary!

Cottar himself had been reinforced by the first of some Royalist sympathisers. Rumour had it that he had been joined the Royal heir but this was not confirmed.  The wily old soldier, veteran of Marston Moor and the continental wars knew that Smythe would have to cover both key landmarks (ie would have to keep at least two units within 12 inches of the town and the hill) and therefore concentrated his forces on the town, looking to cover his left flank with a unit of reiters and a unit of Highlanders (swordsmen).

The position after Turn 2

The Scots advanced on Warchester, looking to wear down the defenders with their firepower while the powder lasted.  Supplies were clearly being disrupted to both armies as very quickly most units ran out of firepower (rolling 1 or 2).  Although taking damage, the English unit in Warchester would prove a tough nut to crack being under cover.  The Highlanders were pushed forward into the wood with the aim of attacking an open flank if they could find one.  On the English right, the cavalry was sent forward to see if they could encircle the Scots flank.  They quickly thought better of it when faced off by a further Scottish infantry regiment.

The Scots close in on Warchester

With the English cavalry retiring on the right to await a better opportunity to attack, the Scots were able to concentrate all their forces onto Warchester, although the Highlanders were still pushed forward under cover of the wood.  The second English infantry regiment moved forward from behind the town to blast the advancing Scots, only to find their matches were damp and the powder kegs empty.

The battle proceeded to its inevitable conclusion.  With the English having to leave two units to hold the hill, they could only look on as the Scots slowly encircled Warchester’s plucky defenders and moved into the town.  But could the English hold on just long enough to be relieved by the New Model Army?  The answer was not quite.  By the end of the 13th turn, the Scottish infantry were just able to surround the last English regiment and winkle them out.

For his victory, Cottar was ennobled and became Lord Cottar of Hawburgh.  But his work was not yet done and he pressed on south looking for fresh victories.

This was another finely balanced scenario from One Hour Wargames, although this one was as much a battle against the clock (the 15 turn limit) as it was against the English.

Next up: Scenario 20 – Fighting Retreat

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