Thursday, February 02, 2006

PanzerGrenadier: Stack 'em high

PG scenarios that don’t include lots of AFVs and transport – and even some of them that do – have some signature characteristics that players need to understand in order to be successful.

In an earlier post, I discussed the game’s pace and its morale-centric combat system. The next thing players need to consider is the game’s use of space.

Frequently, a scenario will give you a deceptively large amount of space to play around in. It’s deceptive in that once you give the victory conditions a good going-over, you’ll often figure out that most of the action is going to be concentrated in a fairly small portion of the map. All of that space may give you a number of initial options for deployment and maneuver, but once the shooting starts the area of the game map that’s really important can narrow down very quickly.

My example scenario – EFD Three: Fontana Alba – is a case in point. Two maps is a huge amount of territory for the number of units involved. But the victory conditions make it pretty clear that the four town hexes are going to be the focus of the game.

(Granted, if the Romanian player wants to play for a draw from the outset he might decide instead to occupy the woods to the south of town, but our Romanians here are playing to win and thus have to capture and hold the town. What kind of weenie starts the game looking for a draw?)

The Romanians have a few maneuver options – they have to decide on a direction to approach the town – but their goal is pretty straightforward. They have to move on the town, soften up the Soviet defense, and then assault to clear out the defenders. They have some time to accomplish this, but not tons of time. The scenario is 30 turns in length, but from the 13th turn (0900) out there is an increasing chance that a Soviet counter-attack will arrive.

In the example game, the Romanians approach the town quickly from the west and cross the river. Their cavalry draws up 3 hexes from the town. This is inside of the range of the Soviet machinegun platoons, but outside of the 2-hex range of the rifle platoons. The 3-hex range allows the Romanians to spot enemy units in the town and begin the process of trying to soften up the defense.

The ‘softening up’ involves bombardment fire from the Romanian off-board artillery – two concentrations of 12-strength fire – direct fire from their two 8-strength machinegun platoons (stacked to allow combined fire), and hail-Mary bombardment from their 5-strength 60mm mortar platoon.

The Russians respond with bombardment fire from their own mortar platoon, which is located in the woods south of town. There is an occasional head-game as the two sides trade activations and ‘passes’, but the Soviet machinegun platoons in the town generally don’t respond with direct fire. They elect instead to hold their fire and await a chance to use opportunity fire at a closer range.

Ill-timed direct fire from the Russian defenders could essentially give the Romanians a ‘free pass’ to an assault. As long as the defense remains in pretty good order (not a lot of disruption or demoralization results), the prospect of taking opportunity fire with a +3 column shift will generally persuade the Romanians that an assault is a bad idea.

Softening up a defense can take time, though. In this game, the morale boost of the Soviet captain keeps the defense steadfast until the 0800 turn, when the Romanian artillery finally has an effect on the units in hex 1004. The machinegun platoon in the hex takes a disruption result and the rifle platoon is demoralized, which at last gives the Romanians an opening to assault without having to absorb a huge amount of opportunity fire.

After their artillery strikes home, the Romanians use follow-on activations to execute a 2-hex ‘charge’ assault with some of their cavalry. Opportunity fire from 1003 inflicts a step loss on one cavalry platoon (which then disrupts) and causes the Romanian 9-morale locotenant to demoralize, but they have enough troops to commit that they can get a couple of platoons into assault.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in the PG system assault is usually a multi-turn process – and the attack on Fontana Alba isn’t going to be an exception. The demoralized Soviet rifle platoon fails to recover and flees to 1003 – but the Red captain feeds one of his reserve platoons into 1004 to bolster the machinegun platoon.

In the 0815 and 0830 turns, the Romanians work more troops into the assault, and also manage to send in an assault on 1003. The following photo shows the situation at the conclusion of the 0830 turn (which is where the situation will be left for today).

One of the things that’s almost impossible to escape in a tactical game is the use of various markers to keep track of what’s happening to the units on the map. PG is no different. MOVED and FIRED markers record which units have activated. DISRUPTED and DEMORALIZED markers show morale status. DUG IN markers indicate an additional status for the defenders. As you can see in the photo, stacks of units with markers can get pretty hefty by the end of a turn. One of the hazards of the hobby, I guess. A good pair of tweezers (or forceps) comes in pretty handy for us fumbly-fingered middle-agers who are trying to manipulate all of it on the gameboard.

Astute gamers will note one thing about my photos of the example game. I am using a mix of ‘old’ counters from the original PanzerGrenadier and ‘new’ counters from East Front Deluxe.

The Soviet infantry counters are ‘old’ counters, distinguishable by the individual numbering of units in the small type right under their unit type symbol. Except for that unit number, they are graphically the same as the ‘new’ counters. But the ‘new’ Soviet infantry in EFD is printed on the thinner counter stock that appeared first in Beyond Normandy (and has since been done away with), so I use the old counters because they’re more hefty.

The game markers are also the ‘old’ style with the plain white backgrounds and rather plain labelling. The new morale and activation markers are much more colorful – distractingly colorful, for my taste. I prefer the plain markers because they’re easier to pick out in one of those big stacks and they lend less graphic ‘clutter’ to the appearance of a game in progress.

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