Thursday, November 12, 2009

And thus, Moebius-like, it begins anew...


Once again, Dade Cariaga and I are slated to play a Red Barricades campaign game. Red Barricades is a historical simulation of the assault on the factory complexes in North Stalingrad by the German Sixth Army during October and November 1942. The game itself is a supplement, or "historical module", for the Advanced Squad Leader game system developed by the Avalon Hill Game Company in the 1980s. This post is directed toward ASL grognards, like myself and Dade, who are well-versed in the nuances of the game. For those not so well-versed, I will apologize in advance for what may prove to be baffling references to rules minutiae and incomprehensible jargon. Dade is providing an analysis of his own at http://dadecariaga.blogspot.com, and readers are encouraged to read his musings as a supplement to mine (and vice-versa).

Dade and I must have played RB Campaign Game III: The Barrikady at least a dozen times, both head-to-head and two-on-two. I'm confident that, between the two of us, we have achieved an understanding of Red Barricades that rivals any who play the game. After so many playings, we have reached the conclusion that the victory condition for RB CG III - controlling all but 5 stone locations on the entire map by November 11- is simply too stringent for the Germans to meet. In so many of our playings, the Germans smash their way merrily through the Russian defenses until about October 30 or 31 - then they hit a wall. The Russian is able to slowly build a numerical advantage that becomes insurmountable by the end of October. However, the victory condition for RB Campaign Game I: Into The Factory seems much more attainable for the German: essentially, control the factory complex by October 29. Since in our previous playings the German has usually done this (or come very close) by the end of October, we decided to give RB CG I a try. Having played the Russian side in our last game, Dade agreed to take the Germans while I will mastermind the Russian defense.

Before I proceed with a discussion of my defense strategy, it is necessary to point out some truisms that have become apparent to Dade and I through our many playings:

#1: As the German, attack the Russian where he is strong

This runs counter to conventional ASL wisdom. In most ASL scenarios the attacker will analyze the defense to find its weakest point, then exploit that weakness to achieve the victory condition (often to exit forces off an opposite map edge or capture key terrain features). In Red Barricades, capturing terrain is only important to the degree that it helps you surround and destroy Russian forces. We estimate that the German, to grind out a win, must destroy twice as many Russian forces as the German loses. Letting Russian squads slip away to form up a defensive line the following day is a recipe for failure. Find the Russian strongpoint, engage it, and prevent the defenders from escaping. In so doing the German will capture the ground he needs to win that day's scenario.

#2: Whatever the German wants, the German will get

Early in the campaign, the German forces are a "coiled spring" (to use the words of my opponent) that launches with violent force into the waiting Russian defenders. The German simply has too many tools at his disposal, and the quality of German forces is so high, that (barring disaster) whatever the German sets out to capture he will capture. The Russian can only hope to slow him down and exact as high a price as possible. The moment in the campaign when this becomes no longer true is usually quite palpable, and signals the end for the German.

#3: For the Russian: Fight in the factories!

Russian troop quality is, on the whole, inferior to that of the German. This is assuaged by the fact that the Russian has many more squads at his disposal and units are much cheaper to purchase. Nevertheless, facing down the German outside the factories is a losing proposition - German firepower will decimate the Russian defenders. Inside the factories, however, Russian forces are Fanatic - a condition which increases their morale and prevents them from Cowering. This ameliorates many of the shortcomings of Conscript troops (of which the Russian will always have plenty) and, coupled with the Stealth afforded to 1st Line and Elite Russian troops, can even out the quality discrepancy.

#4: For the Russian: Don't let the German attack down the river bank

Most AARs of Red Barricades games depict a strong German thrust southward past the factory complex toward the (mis-named) Chemist's Shop (hexes W9-X9-X10) and the Commissar's House (hexes BB18-BB19-CC19-CC20). To allow this as the Russian is, to Dade and I, madness. It is a common outcome, because the Russian front in that sector is the softest, comprising mostly wooden buildings, wooden rubble and a large debris field. The softness of the defensive terrain naturally invites an attack. The solution to this is to make "the corner" - that section of the initial Russian line that faces the easternmost German entry point at hex U1 - as hard as possible. Wire, mines, pillboxes and trenches, backed up by a module of 80mm Battalion Mortar, can make a day-one German thrust to the Chemist's Shop a nightmarish endeavor. Many Red Barricades afficionadoes turn up their noses at the thought of spending precious CPP on Fortifications. I consider such purchases absolutely necessary.

#5: ...but the hammer will fall

Eventually the German will need to bust through the ever-growing Russian bunker complex (see #2 above). The hammer often takes the form of Heavy Artillery to smash away the fortifications followed by a company of Pionieren to crush any remaining defenders. The key for the Russian is to make sure that the German spends as much as possible to crack the defenses. The Russian has plentiful replacements to throw into the line, but the German has limited assault troops to bust through it. Any troops spent pushing through the bunker complex won't be available later on when they are needed to dig the Russian out of the Commissar's House.

#6: Don't let the German take the high ground

As the campaign game progresses, the German accumulates an inordinate number of support weapons. The most dangerous are the Heavy and Medium Machine Guns which, when massed and directed by one of the plethora of high-quality German leaders, can wreak havoc on Russian defenses. When these "kill stacks" are placed in Level 2 stone building locations they are afforded a commanding overwatch of the battefield and can train their fire on any Russian hard point in their view. Fortunately for the Russian many of the multi-story buildings on the map will burn down or be rubbled during play. It behooves the Russian to burn them down just before the German captures them. If the German manages to take one intact, then pre-registered 120mm artillery fire or a Katyusha rocket barrage is a reasonable response the following campaign day.

Disclaimer: the preceding truisms do NOT comprise a complete treatment of the intricacies of the Red Barricades game, just some key points that deserve mentioning.

My Initial Defense: October 17, 1942

OB-Given Forces:

Rifle Coy [Full]
Rifle Coy [Full]
SMG Coy [Full]
2 x 45LL Anti-Tank Guns
50 FPP
5 Fortified Building Locations

Purchases (8 CPP):
+160 FPP (cost: 4 CPP)
SMG Coy [Full; in Reserve] (cost: 3 CPP)
80mm Battalion Mortar OBA Module [Normal Ammo] (cost: 1 CPP)

I have divided my defense into three strongpoints: the area around the intersection of Skulpturnaya and Tramvanaya Streets at hex D10 ("The Intersection"), the factory at O6 ("The Manufacturing Hall") and the wooden buildings/rubble fronting Pribayatinskaya Street near the German entry point at U1 ("The Corner"). There are two transition areas between these strongpoints - "The Point" comprising the stone building at F5 and adjacent rubble hexes, and "The Debris Field" between the Manufacturing Hall and Pribayatinskaya Street.

"The Corner"

I believe this to be the lynchpin of the Russian defense. In past games I have devoted all 210 FPP to beefing up this area with wire, mines, pillboxes and trenches. To make it even stickier, I typically add two dug-in KV-1 tanks. For this playing I opted to purchase a reserve SMG Coy (to be deployed elsewhere) instead of the tanks, and decided to attempt a bit of deception by splitting off a fair bit of the FPP to make a nasty surprise at The Intersection.

The headquarters for this sector is building Z1. I have Fortified both ground-level locations and have set up Wire in the three hexes (Y1, Y2, Y3) of Leninskii Prospekt directly in front of the building. Upstairs, in Z1, is a 9-1 leader directing a rifle squad and HMG. Downstairs are two rifle squads with LMGs, one each in Z1 and Z2. A third rifle squad occupies Z0. I plan to hold this building at all costs.

In front of the headquarters are four squads in W1, X1, X2 and W3, protected somewhat by Wire in V2 and W2. If a German attack comes this way, these poor bastards will probably be killed. Hopefully one or two can make it back the the HQ. Hex W2 is a prime spot for placement of a hidden Pillbox, and I'm hoping that the Wire placement will lead my opponent into thinking so.

Guarding the approach to the Chemist's Shop are a rifle squad in W4, a 10-0 Commissar directing a rifle squad and MMG in W5, and a rifle squad with 50mm MTR in a Trench in V5. The Trench position is fronted with Wire in U5 and V4. Again, hex V5 is a prime location for a possible hidden Pillbox, and I'm hoping my opponent expects one there. I've placed a 1S Foxhole in Y6; this serves as a fallback position for the MMG from which to interdict Leninskii Prospekt and to protect the adjacent AT Gun (see below).

Both AT Guns have been assigned to prevent an armored breakthrough in this sector. One is emplaced in U9 facing V7, with the task of destroying any tanks that come down Pribayatinskaya Street toward the Chemist's Shop. This Gun can also swing around to cover The Debris Field if necessary. The other Gun is emplaced in Z5 facing Y4, with the task of destroying any tanks that cross Leninskii Prospekt to threaten the HQ.

I would not be surprised if the German makes a full-strength push to the Chemist's Shop on day one - he knows full well that the fortifications now are as weak as they will ever be. However, he lacks the CPP to purchase both Heavy Artillery and quality troops to exploit a breakthrough. Most campaigns start with a schwerpunkt attack by the German at The Intersection. It will be interesting to see if Dade tries something different. I have placed the Field Phone so as to be able to provide support of the defense of The Corner (see the Manufacturing Hall below).

"The Debris Field"

Since there are no Strategic Locations (other than the one stone rubble hex in U6) in this sector, its defense is light - one rifle squad each in R5 and T5 claiming Wall Advantage. If the German comes hard in this direction, those squads will get out of the way and hopefully enfilading fire from the Manufacturing Hall can slow down the German long enough to form a defense of the large factory in R10. Artillery fire directed by the Field Phone will also help, at least in the initial stages of the attack.

"The Manufacturing Hall"

In my experience, this is the easiest to set up yet the hardest to defend against a determined German push. Experienced ASL players know the value of Smoke, and my opponent is nothing if not experienced. The German always has one module, and usually two modules, of 80mm Battalion Mortar OBA to play with on day one. These are perfect for laying Smoke screens, and the best-positioned MGs are worth absolutely zero when their manning infantry can't see out of their own hex because of Smoke. If the German drops Smoke on the L5 building or the Manufacturing Hall it will be very hard to keep him out of them.

The setup is simple: string a half-dozen or so squads along the buildings stretching west from the Manufacturing Hall and keep the best hardware close to or in the Hall. I put rifle squads in J5 and in the upper levels of L5, M5 and N5. Downstairs in N5 I put a 9-0 Commissar directing a rifle squad and MMG with an eye toward laying a fire lane toward W1 to interdict a German attack on The Corner. I Fortified hex O5 of the Hall, and put a rifle squad and HMG there. Why not put the HMG with the Commissar in N5? I've learned the hard way that HMG in precarious positions end up unpossessed and ultimately lost to the enemy. Even though the lines of sight are not outstanding, I'm happy to keep my precious HMG as safe as possible in a Fortified Factory location. Directly above, hidden on the Rooftop of O5, is a 7-0 manning the Field Phone. He is in a position to direct artillery fire in defense of either The Corner or The Intersection. This is a bit of an exposed position, and I hope the German doesn't drop his own artillery on the 7-0's unprotected head. Behind the wall in P5 is a rifle squad with an ATR to try and stave off any attempt by German AFV to pull the VBM freeze maneuver on the HMG next door. On the Rooftop in P6 is a rifle squad with a 50mm MTR. The level 2.5 factory Rooftop affords both the artillery observer and the MTR squad very nice lines of sight.

I'm most worried about a strong thrust directly at The Manufacturing Hall. If that happens, all that I can hope for is to bloody the German nose as well as possible and fight a fallback defense. I don't think Dade favors this attack vector, but he might surprise me.

"The Point"

Defending The Point is a fool's errand. It is a natural salient created by the orthogonal orientation of the factory complex itself, vulnerable on three sides and stuck right out in front. In my experience, building F5 is a charnel house and I'm happy to cede it to the German. However, it's not wise to let him progress past it without a fight.

I don't think Dade will attack in force through The Point because of truism #1: "As the German, attack the Russian where he is strong." I put four Reserve Cloaking counters in the buildings just beyond The Point: an SMG squad and 9-1 in H8, and SMG squad in H9, an SMG squad in I8 and a Dummy in I9.

Behind them I placed a stack of six Dummy Concealment counters on the first level of K10. To an attacker, this looks very much like two squads with two MGs and a directing leader ready to provide supporting fire either to protect the western flank of the L5 building or to bloody the nose of an attack across The Intersection. This ruse will not last past turn one, but I'm hoping it will affect the German's setup and first movement phase.

"The Intersection"

This is the most complicated section of my setup. I will simply describe the placement of forces, then discuss them.

First off, the remainder of the Reserve SMG Coy are backing up this section of the line. A15, B15, D13, E13, F12 and F13 each contain a Reserve Cloaking counter holding an SMG Squad. The Cloaking counter in F12 also holds the Russian's best leader: a 9-2. I'm certain that these forces will be activated by about turn two or three.

The remainder of the defense is designed to hold up a German schwerpunkt attack just long enough for the artillery observer to bring down an FFE Concentration on the Germans while they are still bunched up. I've used this tactic once before to great effect. The key to the defense is bulding B12. I've Fortified the ground levels of B12 and C13, and set up an SMG squad in each hex. In addition, I have set up hidden SMG squads upstairs on the first level of hexes B12 and C13 and a hidden 9-0 Commissar lurks in the ground level of B13 to help stiffen the defense. A rifle squad and ATR is set up behind the wall in A13, hoping to keep any German AFV from driving into the building. In front of building B12 I have placed 6 AP mines in A12 and 8 AP mines in B11 to harass German infantry assaulting the building. To slow down German AFV, 2 AT mines have been placed in each of A11 and C10.

The first wave of the German assault will be met by mostly SMG squads. Two of them are hidden in B10 and D8 simply to slow down the German thrust as much as possible and to lay residual FP. SMG squads in C11 and D10 will hopefully take some shots and make it back to either the B12 buiding or join up with the 9-2 in F12. Rifle squads with Wall Advantage in E10 and E11 have the same goal. One last rifle squad upstairs in level one of F11 is there to take pot shots at approaching infantry.

It's likely that these forces will be mauled. This is CG I, though, and not CG III and it's a bit more important for the Russian to deny the German easy access to the factories. By standing firm on day one, and hopefully landing my artillery blow, I can perhaps exact a higher toll than the German expects to pay.

Final Thoughts

The potential for staggering success or disaster exists for both sides on day one, as both sides' positions are precarious. The Russian defense is reasonably predictable, and the German gets to tee off on relatively weak and poorly-equipped troops. On the flip side, the German has to fight across relatively exposed terrain to engage the Russian and is more vulnerable to fire than he will be in the days to come. One lucky barrage or terrible ROF string from an MG nest can push either side to the breaking point.

3 comments:

  1. You guys are playing a sophisticated game. "Dade knows that I know that he knows I think that the river has to be defended heavily ... "

    Isn't it a little crazy to use Commissars to direct MG fire? Russian leaders are so valuable. I only use Commissars for rally points and never expose them to fire if I can help it.

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  2. "Directing" was a poor choice of words. I wasn't imagining that the Commissar's would be standing firm and directing fire, only that they would begin the scenario stacked with the squads + MGs for two reasons: one, to stiffen the squad's resolve when passing MC, and two, to help the squad reposition the MG if needed. My priority was NOT to have unpossessed MG lying around to be captured by the German. In the case of the MGs in the Manufacturing Hall I was able to get them both out of harm's way. In the case of the 10-0 over in the corner, I got him back to the Chemist's Shop but things went horribly wrong :)

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