Monday, June 30, 2008

Plenty of 'starting experience'

Thanks to my wife’s cat Sam (I will no longer claim him), I’ve made some interesting discoveries about “Island of Death.” The game has certainly re-kindled my interest in APL’s “Red Steel” system – but that’s not the point.

Because of all the variability built into the game’s opening mechanisms, it has an incredible amount of replayability. Owing to a couple of table-top escapades by Sam the Cat, I’ve now gone through the opening day of the hypothetical invasion of Malta three times. And the starting positions delivered by the amphibious landing and air drop mechanisms have been quite different on each re-start.

[A quick note about the cat. He’s still alive, despite his depredations of the sacred hexgrid. He only assaults the Big Table when he gets locked in my office for the day and, unfortunately, I managed to lock him in twice before figuring out where he had established his new hiding place. The second time he came very close to expending another cat-life, but then I discovered the four missing counters on the seat of my office chair. Not quite sure how they got there in unchewed condition, but there you have it.]

In solitaire play, the beach landing zones and air drop zones are chosen pretty much at random. Selection is weighted toward a couple of favored spots, but otherwise it’s tough for the defenders to outguess the dice in their opening deployment.

Unless the Luftwaffe and the Regia Marina are wildly successful in knocking out coastal guns on the first turn, the two Italian infantry divisions that hit the beaches are going to take fairly heavy casualties. The assaulting companies have to survive the coastal guns, and then each company that lands has to make a Landing Loss roll and then survive any Waterline Combat initiated by adjacent Allied units. It’s potentially bloody business.

Each division has six infantry battalions, and they’re generally going to attempt to get three or four of those ashore in the initial landings. The Italians also have six companies of marines that can be assigned to either division. Plus they need to get their divisional HQ ashore fairly rapidly. Potentially, the Italians can put 30 steps ashore in the initial landings. If 20 of those land safely, I think they’re doing pretty well.

The airdrops are even more wildly variable. The solitaire drop table has five target hexes, basically spread at intervals east-west across the island. Each airborne formation targets one of those hexes, then more-or-less randomizes the location of their Drop Zone Marker by using the air drop scatter table.

Quite frankly, when you start rolling on the scatter table – crap goes everywhere. Some of the battalion-sized serials land intact and pretty close to the DZ. Others scatter into individual companies that get dumped all over the map. Including into the drink, which is very bad for the Axis.

The results of the air drops, in particular, are critical for the Axis. Their parachute troops are the primary bad-asses they need to take the island. Italian paratroops typically have a +2 morale advantage over the Allies, and the German guys have a +3 advantage. In a game where each point of morale advantage translates into a column shift on the CRT, those are pretty important guys not to dump into the Med.

My three starts of the game have each yielded different Axis loss results. In one of them, they took just 15 steps of losses. In another, they lost 17 steps. In my latest they had some particular problems with air transport navigation (apparently) and lost 21 steps before the beginning of the Allied response.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A visit to the sunny Island of Death

Time to wake up the old blog again, I guess, and see if I can’t bang out a few lines for entertainment and illumination.

The Big Table is currently occupied by one of the newest releases from Avalanche Press, “Island of Death”. It’s a battalion / company level game covering a hypothetical invasion of Malta by the Axis. As a sometimes-fan of “hypothetical” games – and aren’t most wargames somewhat hypothetical anyway? – I find it an interesting and overlooked topic. I’m also a big fan of the game system (more on that in another post), so at basically $20 this game was a lock for me to buy. So far, I have not been disappointed.

Since actually playing the thing is on my mind right now, I’m going to dispense with the introductions and jump right into getting it set up.

In this version of 1942, Malta is defended by a mish-mash of British and Maltese units. Except for coastal defense artillery, the island is weak on artillery support – a single arty battalion. Coastal batteries are plentiful, but they can only fire on Italian warships and on units that are landing amphibiously.

The attackers are primarily Italian troops. Two infantry divisions constitute the amphibious component of the attack, supported by the Folgore parachute division and the Ramcke brigade of German fallschirmjaeger. A third Italian division stands by to land by glider at captured airfields. Add to that a few odds-n-ends (like Italian Marine companies). A number of Italian warships are also on the scene to provide support and suppress the coastal batteries.

The Allied combat battalions, security companies and AA units deploy in ‘historical’ locations. I noticed a couple of oddities about the deployment locations. In a couple of spots Allied units are deployed in open terrain within a hex or two of a fortress, but nothing is deployed IN the fortress. I’m a little curious about that, especially in a couple of cases where British companies are near, but not in, a fortress. It may be something to quiz the developer about, should a motivated mood strike me.

After the fixed setup, the Allies then free-deploy their eight Strongpoint units and their buttload of coastal guns. As I’m playing this one out solitaire, I’ll be using the various solitaire landing tables provided in the game. Some landing locations are more likely than others, so that figures a bit into the setup.

The amphibious landing table makes it most likely that the Italians will land on the North and West beach zones. The areas most easily covered by the Regia Marina, I guess. You roll a d6 to set the landing zone for each Italian division. 1-2 is West, 3-4 is North, 5 is East and 6 is South. The East and South zones are closer to a lot of airfields and such, but they’re also straight in the teeth of the Allied deployment. Two Italian divisions land amphibiously (4th and 20th Infantry). After a couple of die rolls, the 4th is coming ashore in the West, the 20th in the North.

The airdrop location table scatters five drop zone points pretty much evenly spaced across the East-West axis of the island. After you roll up an initial hex, you then go through the scatter routine to place the final drop zone marker. The individual drop serials will scatter from that point. There are two drop zones: One for the Folgore division and one for the Ramcke brigade.

After some more dice rolling the ‘plan’ actually worked out to be interesting. The amphib divisions are coming ashore in the West and North. The Folgore division is dropping in the southwest corner of the island, where they can link up with the 4th Division and drive eastward. The Ramcke Brigade gets the tough job of dropping in the middle of all of the airfields and defenses in the eastern part of the island, ostensibly to tie-up the Allied response while the three Italian divisions get established. The danger is that a badly scattered drop (less likely with the Germans) will give the Allies a chance to chop the Germans to bits in the first couple of turns.

The setup lets the Allies place their coastal guns anywhere on the island, with a restriction that they must place at least 8 of the batteries within 2 hexes of the port of Valletta. So I’ve setup quite a few of the coastal guns farther inland, where they can still hammer the beaches but will be out of range of most of the Italian warships. Of course, that means they generally won’t be able to fire on the warships – but my plan is for them to ignore the warships and blast away at the landing waves as they come ashore.

I tried to site most of the guns inland to cover multiple beaches. Considering the landing areas chosen, most of the guns on the eastern half of the island are kind of useless now. The guns around Valletta can cover a couple hexes of the northern landing zone.

After I rolled for the landing beaches it occurred to me that I probably hadn’t covered the western zone as well as I thought – but then it’s also the beach zone farthest from any important locations. The northern beaches are set to get hammered, though.

The Axis want to take a couple of airfields as early as possible so they can start landing more of their guys. The third Italian division (some glider guys) can only arrive at airfields.

With any luck, I’ll get the amphib landings going and resolve the air drops in the next day or two. It will be interesting to see what happens when the dice start rolling.