Sunday 27 March 2011

Playtest Scenario – "The Devil’s Breath" posted

I’ve posted the scenario for “The Devil’s Breath” game which I umpired last week. You can find it located on the right hand side-bar of this Blog, below “Things I Blog about” and above “Blog Archive”.

It’s located in Google docs, with open access for anyone to view - you don't need a Goggle account or email address. If you have any comments (particularly regarding the best way of posting playtest and draft scenarios like this), please do let me know. If people find this interesting, I'll add a few more of the playtest/ draft scenarios we have been playing through onto the Blog soon.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Devil’s Breath

Last night’s game at the St Albans Wargames club saw us descend into one of the true horrors of industrialised warfare – a poison gas attack in 1916. Mindful of the sensitivity of the subject matter, even after almost 100 years, you can surely imagine the hallowed and respectful silences as our group of players solemnly wargamed out the grim scenario. Errr....well, not quite perhaps (there were the inevitable wisecracks and gallows-humour), but at the end of what was a tense and competitive game, I think everyone in the room felt they’d gained an insight (however small) into just how hellish war can be.

The Scenario

The scenario was fairly straightforward. I'll post the full scenario and special rules for any comments in the next day or so, but here’s the outline. The German 171st Infantry Regiment and the British 17th (Country of London) Battalion of the London Regiment have been stationed on opposite side of the front line in France for a month. There is a fierce and vicious rivalry between both regiments, with perceived atrocities on both sides. An hour ago, a late afternoon assault by the British was beaten back with heavy casualties on both sides. The survivors, under the command of an exhausted Captain Romford, are recovering in the British front line trench, short of ammunition and having exhausted their supply of bombs and rifle grenades.

Enraged by continued British “depredations”, the commander of the German regiment ordered a swift counter-stroke, a gegenangriff, against the British front line led by the regiment’s stosstruppen detachment. The stosstruppen, led by Leutnant Max “Eisen” Lehmann are a small, veteran force, supplemented by two small flammenwerfers , assigned by a pioneer regiment for the mission. The stosstruppen assault is preceded by a short barrage by German trench mortars (taking place before the start of the game). The German players also had three barrages of gas shells (filled with asphyxiate gases such as chlorine and phosgene) which could each produce a gas cloud over an area of 24” by 18” and which would moves 4” per turn with the wind. Each gas barrage dissipates after 3D4 turns.

The German forces’ mission was to occupy the British front and reserve trench lines within 10 turns. The British had to hold their front and reserve trench line positions by the end of the game.

The Battle

The German stosstruppen concentrated on their left flank and “leant into” the barrage, ignoring casualties caused by short-falling rounds. A favourable draw of cards saw Leutnant Lehmann close assaulting the British front line trench in the first turn, deploying his stormtrooper bombers and “trench cleaners” (armed with bayonets and “trench brooms” – Mauser automatic pistols) with deadly effect. The first British section was all killed in the close assault for very little loss, and the front line was breached.

German stosstruppen sections in the centre of the table had similar, if less dramatic success, piercing the British line and forcing the defenders to retire.

The second turn saw the deployment of two German gas barrages, aimed beyond the British reserve line to “box” the defenders intro the forward trench areas and impede reinforcements. In a truely chilling recreation of Wilfred Owen’s incredible poem, the remaining British defenders of the front line remained “Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind”....

Both sides immediately “masked up”....

... although the British reinforcements arriving from the rear areas were caught in the gas barrage and suffered several casualties through “shock”. As the gas shells rained down, British defenders continued to fall back in the face of German pressure, the pressure clearly growing on the face of the exhausted and battle-scarred Captain Romford (whose “Status Level” dropped from III to II as a result of the accumulated combat stress during the day’s fighting).

A German Granatenwerfer 16 was dragged forward to add to the pressure on the remaining British defenders...

....while the German stosstruppen sections consolidated their gains and brought the flammenwerfers into position in the front of the assault.

Help was at hand for the British defenders of the forward trench area as the reinforcements arrived through the gas clouds, suffering a number of casualties through the draw of a Poor Gas Discipline card.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling;
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

Amidst the chartreuse sea of chlorine gas, the German stosstruppen pressed forward, bursts of flame shooting towards Captain Romford’s section. Not content with the damage done by one of the flammenwerfer, Leutnant Lehmann orders a German machine gunner, armed with a captured Lewis gun, to scale the trench wall, get out on the parapet, and direct a withering, enfiladed fire on the approaching British reinforcements hurrying to Captain Romford’s rescue.

The pressure was too much for the gallant Captain Romford, who collapsed with nervous exhaustion and shock. Several of his section surrendered, and the others fled, while the British reinforcements edged backwards out of the inferno.

With foresight, and not a little luck, a second, pre-planned (smaller) German gas barrage landed almost directly on the British reinforcements, causing further dislocation of the pending British counter-attack. When the counter-attack was launched by Leutnant Carshalton, it was uncoordinated and overwhelmed by greater numbers of aggressive stosstruppen.

By the end of turn 8, the Germans had pushed the British back into a small area of the reserve trench line and were continuing to rain bombs and grenades on them after exhausting the liquid in the small tanks of the two flammenwerfers. The British had been beaten back, and at the end of a tough, competitive game, the honours were left with the German forces.

The Reckoning

It was a hard fought game, and one which was very close fought right up to the end. Both groups of players adapted to their roles perfectly and, while the game was played in a terrific and friendly spirit, there was no doubt that the Germans were focused on revenge for the casualties caused by the British assault earlier in the day. The Germans certainly had better luck at the start of the game with a kind draw of early cards (including a number of bonus cards of “Sturmabteiling Vor!”), and some luck with the positioning of the second gas barrage directly on the British reinforcements. Against that, the British forces were very well handled and, with better fortune, could well have held the reserve trench (and claimed victory) by inflicting disproportionately greater casualties on the German attackers. Particularly noteworthy was the German's use of the "Devil's Breath" - deploying the gas barrages to impede and dislocate British movement through the accumulation of "shock" as opposed to using it as a weapon against the British front line trench (which the German players did consider, but did not choose).

As I mentioned above, I’ll post the full scenario on this blog shortly which will set out a couple of the additional rules we’re play-testing including more detailed rules for gas attacks, gas discipline and shell-shocked Big Men.

Until then, mes braves...

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Winter Sports Terrain – “The Abode of Madness”

One of the things I was keen to do alongside painting some trench raider figures was to build some specific terrain for No Man’s Land on the Western Front. The trench boards which were made for Salute in 2009 included a number of generic No Man’s Land sections which were basically flat with numerous shell craters. However, they seemed to fall short of having the real “signature” of No Man’s Land.

As I built up some of the forces for the trench raiding games, I tried to think through what I needed. I also looked back at some of the terrain building maxims I wrote about when I started this blog a year ago.

Here’s what I came up with:

Compatibility: I wanted the new terrain to fit easily into the existing trench board terrain, so that, ideally, someone looking over it would not know that the boards had been built almost two years apart.

Set a time and a place”: I wanted to establish the setting very strongly in the eyes of my players. I wanted to “Set a time and a place” for the terrain, both by super-detailing and by the overall image of the terrain. Here’s Wilfred Owen’s description of No Man’s Land from a letter he wrote on 19 January 1917: “It is the eternal place of gnashing if teeth. It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer...No Man's Land under snow is like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.” I wanted to try, respectfully, to recreate that feeling of an alien landscape and to coax the players into a world where “the shell-holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood”. A place where the players would, in Edmund Blunden’s words, imagine that “the days were melancholy and the colour of clay”.

Remember you’re building wargaming terrain, not a museum model”: I wanted the new No Man’s Land terrain to be practical, as well as dramatic. In one of the boards I built a couple of years ago there are quite a few small shell craters. Although these look dramatic, it can be hard to get singly mounted 28mm figures to stand up straight in. It’s not a big point, but I wanted to see what I could do about this on the new terrain boards.

Playability: Although I felt that modelling terrain of No Man’s Land offered some very dramatic opportunities, I didn’t want to become too focused on creating a work of art which would simply not be interesting to play a wargame on. I wanted terrain which was playable and versatile and which could open up a number of interesting wargame scenarios. Perhaps there’s another maxim here along the lines of reminding myself : “Don’t forget you have to play on this....lots of times

With this in mind, I sketched out the first couple of boards. I wanted a shell blasted copse without trenches which could be used as a defensive strongpoint, or an area needing to be patrolled or scouted owing to it breaking lines of sight across the front lines. I also wanted a small area of shell shattered trenches which comprised part of a now crumbling and abandoned area of the front line and which now stood, isolated, in No Man’s Land. These could be a contested area for night-time patrols, a jumping off point for an attack, or a bastion of desperate defence.

Both boards, but particularly the set of trenches, were also inspired by the very graphic images in the film “Deathwatch”, which is a very entertaining low-Budget British horror film from 2002. Whatever the quality of the film to a horror aficionado, I think they got the “look” of the trenches spot on, helped by some fine acting from a good cast. Check it out, as I hope you’ll like it as much as I do.

Building the terrain coincided with a spell of warm-ish spring weather, allowing me to get back into my garage workshop after a long winter. I started with cutting the trenches from a block of 40mm thick Styrofoam, and cutting a number of saps out to large trench craters from the trenches themselves. Unlike on a couple of the other trench terrain boards, I made sure that both the shell craters which had been sapped out to, as well as the trenches, had flat bottoms to help the 28mm figures stand straight. As regards dimensions of the shell craters to which a sap had been dug, I made sure that each of these could accommodate a 60mm round base, large enough for a support weapon, such as an HMG or mortar. I also wanted to make sure that the trench was positioned at an angle, leading the eye inwards towards the heart of the game and creating an interesting visual aspect to contrast to the other, linear, trench terrain we have built.

I then glued and screwed the Styrofoam to the base board of 6mm MDF (cut 600mm x 600mm) as described in my earlier blog posts last year. I weighted the Styrofoam down as it glued hard and fast before the next stage.

I roughed up the shell craters to which the saps had been dug using a couple of chisels of different widths, and glued down four strips of non-warp marine plywood to the Styrofoam base as a housing for a small base of trees to be positioned on the base.

I whittled down a number of sturdy branches which had fallen from trees in the garden during the winter into something which looked (at least to my eye) like the shell-shattered woods found on the Western Front.

Here, for example, is what was left of the infamous Deville’s Wood on the Somme after very heavy fighting in 1916...

I listened to a couple of my favourite podcasts on Sunday morning while making the trench sides and fixing them in place, again by the same methods as I mentioned in blog posts last year....

....and tried to remember to leave a couple of areas in the trenches themselves which could be “flooded” with water resin to create a waterlogged appearance.

A couple of the sapped craters I built up using some Styrofoam scraps, pinning the foam in place and liberally gluing with PVA to hold it in place.

Then I “painted” a mix of white PVA, Polyfilla (basically powdered DIY cement/ ‘spackle’) and dark grey paint to the base of the trench, into which were placed duckboards (cut from artists mounting cardboard) and a mix of sand and gravel (again, as described in detail in my earlier blog posts).

One thing I remembered to do was to raise up the level of the ground in the sapped craters, allowing kneeling HMG, Gratenwerfer and mortar crews to be just visible at ground level. I’d been a little disappointed that on a couple of other boards the HMG crews in a kneeling position had looked as if they had been firing into the wall of the trench! It’s a tiny point, but something which had niggled me occasionally! I therefore built up the crater with a base of spare off-cut Styrofoam and Milliput.

After a full-ish day’s work, I was left with the board in the stage as shown in the photograph below. It’s starting to take shape, although there’s a lot more work still left to do to really get to the first finished stage. To provide me with a little encouragement, I set the trench section alongside the copse board on Sunday evening to get an idea of how the two might look alongside each other. Again, there’s a LOT of work to do, but when you’re in the middle of a project it helps to try and draw a little encouragement from wherever you can!

Next time, there’s an AAR of a game we’re playing tonight using the “Through the Mud and the Blood” rules from TooFatLardies, following which, I’ll cover the fist stage in building the copse which you can see in the last photo above. Take care until then.

Monday 14 March 2011

“Smack and Back” - British Trench Raiders 1917

Here’s the completed British raiding force for “Winter Sports”, comprising 32 raiders and a couple of snipers. They’ve been a good project to do in January and February – different enough to keep my interest up, but nothing too demanding during the cold winter weekends.

As I’ve mentioned before, the figures are a mixture of Great War Miniatures, Musketeer Miniatures and First Corps. I still need to add barbed wire to a few of the bases to finally finish these guys off, but otherwise they’re ready to go. Here’s the British “Big Men” for the trench raiding party, shown by their hexagonal bases, and a close-up of the raid commander. If you liked the figure of the raid commander, standing on the duckboards next to a grasping hand of a fallen enemy, the credit for that idea goes entirely to Phil Robinson (check out his great blog "News from the Front"). I shamelessly ripped off Phil’s idea for the figure. 'On the shoulders of giants', as they say!

I’ve added a photo from Stephen Bull’s recent book “Trench” which captures the gritty, resourceful look of a raiding party very well. The wargames figures available in 28mm are a pretty good likeness for these troops as they drift into No Man’s Land on a “smack and back” raid. “Trench” has a good chapter on raiding parties and sniping in No Man’s Land. It’s a handsome volume, and while readers of Dr Bull’s other works might not get much new out of it, it’s very enjoyable to read through.

To finish up, here’s a couple of posed pictures of a raiding party working their way along a line of entrenched shell craters. I’ve added one in sepia, just for fun as well as another evocative print from “War Illustrated”.

Next up, will be a book review of the recently published "Landrecies to Cambrai", and some pictures from another of our wargames set in No Man’s Land (“The Devil’s Breath”) using the "Through the Mud & the Blood" rules, plus some German trench raiders to round off my “Winter Sports” project as Spring slowly arrives. Hope you can join me for these.
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