Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Gaming in Brussels

Elaine and I visited our friend, Graham, in Brussels for a long weekend. It has been years since we were last there. Plenty of good food, wine and beer was consumed, and we had a trip out to Ghent as well. On the Saturday, Graham and I sat down to play wargames, whilst Elaine went into town to view some Brueghel’s.

Graham has a gaming room and, what is most impressive, are the pair cabinets he had custom made to accommodate his figures. Each had a footprint of 4’x3’ and a dozen draws sized to fit 15mm figures, plus a few deeper draws for 28mm figures etc. Each draw had been fitted with a steel lined bottoms so magnetised bases can be used. I was most jealous! For the last decade or so, Graham has been into Flames of War (FoW) and he plays competitively, winning many competitions. His figure collection for FoW is extensive, and they are beautifully painted and modelled (again, he has trophies for ‘Best Painted Army’ on his cabinets). I have never really gotten into FoW; I’ve played half a dozen games about 6/7 years ago, didn’t particularly like the rules, so dropped out. I do have the rules and some 2nd-hand codexes etc. (bought mainly for the artwork), but I’m not sure about which edition they relate to. In addition, I’m very much not a competitive gamer, this aspect of the hobby holds little attraction for me. Therefore I was expecting a drubbing, especially because Graham usually beats me whatever game/rules we are using! Graham drew up some army lists (1,750 points?), we diced for which to use, and diced for the scenario etc.

The first game (sorry no photos, I forgot my camera) was an Early War (1940) clash between French (me) versus Italian (Graham). I was the defender in the ‘Fighting Withdrawal’ scenario. My force was a deep(?) recon company with lots of Panhard a/c, a few Hotchiss tanks, some infantry and artillery. Graham had plenty of M-13 tanks(?) (not sure about Italian tank designations), recon m/c and infantry, plus artillery, and most scary, some lightly armoured flamethrower tanks. From Graham’s pre-game chat, it seemed my task was to stay alive because I would have to withdraw platoons from turn 3. If I survived to turn 6 and 7 I could then remove objective markers so long as I controlled them. I understand the basics of FoW but Graham knows the factors by heart, so I relied on him to compute the factors and tell me how many dice to roll and what scores I required. I don’t know the ‘cheesy’ mechanics/rules that arise in competitive play. I decided to focus my thoughts and plans squarely on the objectives of the mission; no rash moves or actions for me! I sat my artillery (good AT factor) on the objective marker on my left flank, and used most of my platoons to defend the 2 other objectives on the other flank. Graham sent his whole force against these 2 objectives. I soon discovered how poorly armoured a Panhard a/c is, and quickly resorted to hiding if possible. Luckily the gun on the Panhard is not bad, so I took out many Italian tanks in return.  The flame tanks did not turn out to be as scary as I first thought, but they did keep me on edge for most of the game. Withdrawing platoons is key and I was fortunate to be able to pull out weakened Panhard platoons before they broke through losses. I resisted an urge to charge one Panhard platoon into the Italian gun-lines and held back (unusual for my normal gaming style). By turn 6, I still held the objectives. I removed the first objective marker just before Graham closed in on it, and got the second marker off as well. Now I just had to stay alive for victory. I moved my depleted forces back towards my secure left flank and away from the onrushing Italians. Foolishly I allowed Graham to get one clear shot at a unit, and any losses could have remove them, breaking my company morale and handing victory to the Italians. The ‘Dice Gods’ saved me! Victory was mine, but that mistake in the final turn could have cost me everything! I was amazed to win, and I think it was down to concentrating solely on the victory conditions of the scenario, and ignoring other attractive, aggressive opportunities.

The next game was Late War, with me playing the Germans versus Graham’s Russian hordes. The scenario was ‘Dust Up’, where objectives/deployment are in opposite quadrants. My force was a very small Panzer/Tiger training company (4 or 5 Tigers, 3 Panthers, 4 PzKfw-III and a couple of weak infantry platoons). Unfortunately the Tigers did not have the ‘Tiger Ace’ bonuses, all the tanks were ‘Unreliable’ and they could not ‘Stormtrooper’ move. I started with only the Tigers and 1 infantry platoon on-table. The Russians had a many more platoons on-table, including a massive artillery unit and a large Valentine tank platoon. On the first turn one of my Tigers suffered from a 6” shell landing on it, and I realised that big tanks were not quite the leviathans I had imagined. I was initially confused about what I should be doing to win the game, and the Russian re-enforcements forced my Tigers to move to defend my own objective markers. The Russian numbers are intimidating, especially when a dozen or more sizable A/T guns towed by APC’s charge your Tigers, backed up by a dozen or more Lee tanks! The Reds also had special forces, dressed in German uniforms, running around, who my troops refused to fire on. My panic subsided as my Tigers resisted and the problem became how quickly I could take out the pesky Red horde before they overwhelmed me. I realised I was focussed on survival, and not really doing anything to bring about a win for myself. I therefore threw my reserve Panthers, PzKwf-III and a sole infantry platoon against the Russian gun-line and supporting Valetines on the other flank. I threatened the first objective marker, but Graham could always move troops to contest it. My true aim was the second, deeper objective. I whittled down the Russian guns and my lone infantry platoon made a Kamikaze charge on the remaining guns. Graham threw poor dice and the gun-line collapsed. My Panthers advanced on to a hill that was sheltering Graham’s Valentines and promptly missed with every shot. Now, Graham began a run of amazing dice rolling (more 6’s than you can believe possible) and KO’d my Panthers with long-range AT from the flank, plus his Valentines, which had also moved to my flank. I thought I had blown it. My infantry was contesting the objective, but Graham could now move his Valentines back to destroy them. Graham now suffered a brainstorm, for some inexplicable reason he moved his C-in-C away from the objective marker. I immediately thought this was a mistake but believed he had some ‘sneaky’ move planned which would win the game. Not so, and at the end of his turn I pointed out that my infantry were now in sole control of the objective – Victory to me (again!). I was stunned; two victories in a row against Graham is unheard of for me, let alone playing FoW!

With the wargaming completed, the rest of the weekend unfolded. We did play some boardgames in the evenings; 2 games of ‘Carcassonne’, a couple of games of ‘Welcome to the Dungeon’ and a game of ‘San Juan’. Carcassonne is a classic and needs no further discussion. I had recently bought ‘Welcome to the Dungeon’ and this was its first outing: It is a filler game with a push-your-luck mechanic, and the theme is almost superfluous. We were not particularly impressed; it was OK but not as gripping as I had hoped. I don’t think this game will have many appearances, but as it only lasts 30 minutes, it may fulfil its role as a filler at the end of a session. Graham had just bought ‘San Juan’, and interestingly I also have the game, bought 2nd-hand but had not yet played it. It is a card-based resource management/construction game. The rules are simple but the strategy more complex. There are different ways to win because of the various buildings you can construct. Graham was the run-away winner due to his clever use of a ‘Bank’ and a ‘Crane’ at optimal points within the game. We all enjoyed the experience and look forward to many more games to explore the intricacies of the design. So, ‘San Juan’ is a definite HIT. We may get it off the shelf when Val and Chris visit in a couple of weeks.

Finally I would like to thank Graham for his great hospitality, and for graciously allowing me to win both games of FoW. Although I enjoyed playing FoW I’m still not convinced about the rules, but maybe I have been a bit too negative about them in the past. The ‘gamey’ aspects of FoW remains a problem for me: I cannot get used to wheel2wheel, track2track deployment of tanks; or packed tanks ‘hiding’ in blind-spots; or large calibre artillery on-table etc. etc. But each-to-their-own, if the game is enjoyable then that’s the main thing.

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