Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Painting Challenge Report #6

 January is gone and I'm happy with my progress so far in the Painting Challenge. Usually, by this time in the competition my painting mojo suffers; but not this year. I think the Saga project is keeping me engaged and committed.

The past week I finished a second unit of 8 warriors (1 Saga Warband point equivalent). The minis are from the Gripping Beast plastic Dark Age Warriors box, straight from the sprues. Shileds as usual from the superb Little Big Men Studios range.

 


The unit is generic enough to play a rol in any Dark Age warband and even later periods, like for example acting as light infantry for an El Cid/Reconquista army. I'm now close to conclude a 4-point starter warband: I already painted one levies (1 point) and the two warriors (2 points) units. I only need now to paint the Guards, which hopefully should be ready next week.

 


I have also started looking for a suitable warband leader.For a cavalry-free army, I have already prepared this chief standing on a boulder. Happy with the final work but I may add in the future a stardard bearer. I'm planning in any case to paint some other warband leaders, and at least one riding a horse.

 



Following this week's submission my accumulated scoring has reached 442 points, representing 63% of my 700 points target for this year's Challenge.

 

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Painting Challenge Report #5

 Time flies, I can't believe that 5 weeks are already gone since the beginning of the Challenge (and the winter period)

Very satisfactory progress this week. Despite having less time available for painting, I managed to finish another 8-men Warrior unit for my Saga warband. These were initially to be part of an Anglo-Danish warband, bu the models are so generic that can be part of any Saxon, Viking, etc unit in the Dark Age period.

 

 

The second part of the entry are Saruman and the Palanthir. These were painted to win some bonus points by visiting the 80s Studio site of the Challenge Studios. The model is from an (very) old Mithril range bought in the 80s literally (it was even in the sealed original blister pack!)

 


Quite happy with the painting work, depicting Saruman in the act of conjuring Sauron's Eye in the Palanthir.

This week I scored 67 points, taking my Challenge's accumulated to 377 points. I have already covered 54% of my March 21st deadline target of 700 points, so not bad at all. Now I need to keep the momentum.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Painting Challenge Report #4

As expected, the end of the Christmas holidays has reduced my total paint time and slowed the output. In any case I have been able to produce one new 12-men levy unit for my Saga Late Roman Army warband.

Being levies I wanted the unit to lack uniformity. So instead of using the Gripping Beast Late Roman Infantry box, I decided to scavange different pieces from the Dark Age Warriors box and spare heads with helmets from other different boxes.


My idea was that likely they were supplied with helmets,  Roman army tunics and shields when called for service. But being conscripted, some may be have been arriving late or the army's depot may have been depleted, and therefore they had to provide their own clothing and weapons.

 


Another example of the flexibility allowed by the Gripping Beast plastic boxes, many of whose parts can be interchanged, providing endless configuration options. The shields are transfers from Little Big Men studios. I went for a similar pattern to give the unit some uniformity.

With this entry, my scoring stands now at 310 points, representing 44% of my Challenge's 700 points target this year. 

 

Monday, 16 January 2023

Sicily '43 by James Holland

After many decades reading about the Second World War, I realized that I had some major gaps in other many "secondary" (or not) theaters, like for example the Italian campaign; or in main War theaters like the Pacific (covered last year with the excellent trilogy written by Ian W. Toll); or most of the Eastern Front battles.

Following a visit to Montecassino and Anzio in late April 2022, I made a firm self-committment to start filling those gaps inmediately. Over the late summer and the autumn 2022, I focused my attention in the "other" 1944 Western Europe battles (= excluding Normandy, Arnhem and The Ardennes) and in the 1945 campaign. 

Not an easy task, as surprisingly there are not many published works. Luckily I found a couple of superb books to fill this gap:  the late Robin Neillands´ "The Battle for the Rhine 1944", covering from just after the Falaise pocket in August 1944 to the end of The Bulge in very early 1945.

And followed byPeter Caddick-Adams' 1945: Victory in The West  which seamlessly continued the narrative at the point where Neillands book concluded (just after The Ardennes) and until the capitulation of Nazi Germany in May 1945.

For 2023 I planned to research two very different topics: the 1943-45 Italian Campaign and the whole of the Eastern Front (from Barbarossa to Berlin). Being undecided about which I should  go first, I arranged a poll in Twitter, and (surprisingly ) the majority opted for the Italian Campaign (3 to 1). 

My reading open shot for this theater has been  Sicily '43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe  written by James Holland. He's one of may favorite military history writers of whom I had already read his two tomes on the War in the West, Normandy and Arnhem.

 

Brief summary of the campaign

The Sicily campaign extended between July 9th and August 17th 1943 and was the Allies' first step into Continental Western Europe. The operation had four distinctives phases: 

1. Before the invasion, the aerial campaign in Sicily and South Italy to gain control the skies before the actual landings. This campaign was a complete success. Bombers protected by fighter screens flying from Malta and North Africa, rendered destroyed the Axis airfields and many of the enemy planes operating in the island, forcing the Italian and German air forces to pull back to continental Italy and Sardinia. For most of the campaign, Allied forces enjoyed full air supremacy.

2. The landings and  consolidation of the beachheads: previous to the major landings, commando and US Ranger forces successfully crippled many of the critical coastal defences; the naval and air bombadment during the sea assault made the rest. Unlike in Normandy almost a year later, landings were generally very sucessful and with little effective opposition. The major Allied disaster in this phase were the airborne operation, very badly executed due to the inexperience of the transport crews.

3. The fight inland. After a successful landing, the Germans and Italians counterattacked aiming to force a reembarking of the Allied troops. With the exception of the attack led by the Hermann Goering division in the US sector at Gela, these counterattacks were ineffective and costly to the Axis forces. 

With the Italian resistance weakening, the Germans took full control of the island operations. Reinforcements were sent across Messina and the units pulled back to a main defence line around Mount Etna, a rough and easily defendible area with few access roads. The Allied advance slowed in that difficult terraind and casualties increased significantly.

Source: Wikipedia
 

4. Evacuation: by the end of July, and with Mussolini ousted, the German command saw no reason to continue in the Island and planned an evacuation through the Messina Strait. The goal was to avoid another "Tunisgrad" and to save as many troops and weapons as possible. The evacuation was successfully executed between August 11th and 17th. Despite the overwhelming Allied air and naval superiority, a concentration of naval and flak guns in the narrrow strait made impossible for the Allies to interfere with the evacuation to the continent.

The Book

Sicily 43 is a thick 600 pages detailed book, with abundance of maps, photos and annexes. 

This books fills a major publishing gap around this operation. As in other previous works, Holland relied on diaries, interviews, letters and other materilas from the people involved, not only combatants but also civilians victims of the terrible consequences of the war.

The structure of each chapter is similar: start with "the voice" of an individual witness involved in the specific event of the chapter and from there zooming out to have a panoramic view of the situation. The using these personal voices helps the reader to get inmersed into the situation, sometimes in a very dramatic way: the Italian officer that found a naked Italian young woman on her bed killed by the shrapnel of Allied naval guns while sleeping; or the frequent comments on the thirst, flies and stench of dead affecting both sides.

The book is written in a very engaging style. In addition, chapters have the right length for me (around 15 pages) perfect to spend 20 minutes reading in bed before sleeping. The number of maps is right and the level of detail enough to follow the narrative, including all the main locations and geographical features mentioned in each chapter.

There is a lot of useful material in the book for wargamers, given the detailed description made of some of the encounters. On a more general level, there are three issues that attracted my attention specially:

The technical weakness of the Tiger I tanks. The HG division had a battalion with 17 of these monsters and almost all were lost due to techncial glitches or breakdowns. The lack of a transport (rail) forced the tanks to move via dusty roads to the front line, losing many in the way due to engine failures (one even caught fire in a retreat, blocking the road to the rest of the columns)

The myth of the race to Messina. Using available documentation, the author busts this long-time standing myth (nurtured with the Patton film) about the competition between the American commander and Montgomery to be the first in the city. Neither Alexander (the C-in-C)  directed or favoured the  in any way the English Army corps, nor Monty obstructed the communication lines to gain an advantage over Patton's forces.

The disastrous execution of the airborne operations. Firstly, these troops were superbly trained but nobody seemed to worry about putting on equal foot of excellency the transport crews in charge of taking the paratroopers to their objectives. Second, despite the disaster with the first wave (night jump with inexperienced air crews), the Allied command attempted a second wave that was even worse: where to the the previously mentioned factors, you have to add that the element of surprise was already lost and the enemy was ready to confront an airborne assault; and on top of that, the route to the LZs crossed the area of the Allied fleet, with many losses caused by friendly AA fire.

The disaster of the airborne contrast with the effeciency (both in terms of resultsaand limited casualties) of the raids executed by the Rangers and British commandoes  attracking their objectives landing from the sea. The Allied command seems not to have taken stock or learned almost mothing in following operations.

And a final note: did the Italian-American maffia have a rol in the massive surrendering of Italian tropps in the island? There is an interesting tale in the book of yellow pennants in Sherman tanks, maffia leaders and active OSS personnel but without a clear conclusion.  

Conclusions

Sicily was a clear Allied victory, controlling the island in 5 weeks albeit with a high cost in casualties. It is estimated that Allied suffered 24,000 casualties of which 4,800 were KIA. German forces suffered around 28,000 casualties of which 4,300 were KIA and around 10,000 POWs. Italians had the highest casualties, 37,000 in total of which 4,800 were KIA and the rest wounded.   

Strategically, Italy was ousted  the Axis forces lossing several hundreds of thousands of men from the Italian army as a result (only in Sicily surrendered over 100,000 Italians); German divisions had to be transferred from the Eastern front and from Western Europe to defend the South; and logistically speaking the operation was a feat and a success for the Allies.

Was it a complete victory? To some extent the victory was tarnished by the ability of the German army to pull out in the face of overwhelming odds, extracting close to 60,00 men and many thousands of vehicles, guns and tanks that were later used in the defensive battles of the Italian campaign, until the unconditional surrender in May 1945.

 

What's next?

My next goal is  the campaign in the Italian penninsula, and I have two books in sight:

1. Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle: The War is Sicily and Italy 1943-1944  (second book of the Liberation trilogy).   On this I have second thoughts, as I liked the book on Torch and Tunisia (An Army at Dawn) but didn't like much the third dealing with Normandy to Germany (The Guns of Last Light) 

2. James Holland's Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War 1944-45. The main drawbak of this book is covering the period from Montecassino to the end of the war, thefore Salerno, the drive to Rome and Anzio are excluded. On the positive side,  I already covered Cassino/Anzio with  Peter Caddick-Adams book, used to prepare my battlefield visit on April 2022.

Other potential interesting readings, but exclusively focused on the Canadian armies, are the excellent series written byCanadian military hostrian Mark Zuehlke: Ortona, Forgotten Victory, The Gothic Line, The Liri Valley, and The River Battles.

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You can follow James Holland in his website, Twitter account or by listening to his podcast channel "We have ways to Make you Talk" in collaboration with Al Murray. 


 

       

  


      

 
 

 

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Why SPQR? Dissecting of the Ancient-era Wargame

In previous posts, I commented my growing interest in board wargaming. In fact, this is a return to my origins, as I seriously started  playing wargames with Panzerblitz, a Christmas present from my father to both, my broher and me in 1980.

The shift to tabletop games with minis came later around 1983-84, when we founded Club Dragon in Madrid and got in contact with that world. Fast forward to early 2019:  I approached a group of boardgamers in the club playing Simonitch's Holland 44: being a Market Garden related game, I couldn't resist giving it a try. The lockdown in 2020 and  VASSAL (an Internet based application to play boardgames live) explains the rest.


 

What is SPQR

SPQR is one of the titles in which I'm investing more playing time (and money) since early last year. The game is part of a series called The Great Battles of History (GBoH) produced by GMT Games,  focused in the Ancient period (from Late Bronze to the early Dark Age). The series was designed by two heavyweights of the industry: Mark Hermann and the late Richard Berg. I currently own four titles of this series (SPQR, Caesar Deluxe, Cataphract and Chariots of Fire) but there's a fifth title looming in the horizon for me in 2023 (Great Battles of Alexander Deluxe currently in P500 "made to cut" phase) 

SPQR is the module focused in the emergence of the Roman Republic. The game covers the Punic Wars and the wars with other Macedonian-style armies, until Mario's reforms. SPQR enable players to fight two classical tactical visions: the Roman flexible manipular armies vs. the combined-arms phalanx-based used by Carthage and Greek peoples in the Mediterranean.

Content

SPQR was initially launched in 1992. The SPQR Deluxe is the latest release (2018), including a an in-depth revision of the original rules (4th edition updtaed in october 2022) and a large number of the scenarios published since 1990 in different publications (mostly in C3i magazine issues

SPQR cames in a HUGE heavy box, that contains 3 scenario booklets, 6 two-sided large unmounted maps, two sets of 3 player-aid cards, five and a half counter sheets with units and different playing-aid counters, and two 10-sided dice (note: there are several "unboxing" videos in YouTube, should you be interested in taking a closer look to the materials).

The Playing System Described

Armies have two type of counters: commanders and fighting unit (see illustration below). Commanders are critical to the game as they enable activation of units, either in groups ("line commands") or in a case-by-case basis ("individual orders"). 

Armies have army commanders ("overall commanders"), the most experienced and with better attributes; and "subordinated commanders",  leading groups of units on differents parts of the battlefield line. Within a range, the commanders have the ability to active units. The number of possible sequential activations with the same commander is variable, depending on his level of seniority, and the ability to react of the enemy commanders, that can potentially interfere in thise subsequent activations, stealing the initiative to the enemy.

Units are of many different types: slingers, light/medium/heavy infantry and cavalry, elephants and phalanxes, with also different abilities and attributes aligned with their hisorical roles in the battlefield.

The sequence of play of a typical game is organized in turns that are subdivided in phases. 

In each phase, a commander is activated (based on their rating, first the lowest rated and then sequentially from low to the highest rated leader) enabling them to order troops to move, fire and finally undertake the close combat fighting. 

As a result of fire or melee, units accumulate "cohesion points" equivalent to shocks; when these cohesion points equal or exceed the unit's cohesion level (= moral), that unit breaks. When all the melees are over, broken units retreat 2 hexes and the winners move forward to ocuppy the position. 

In their activation phase, commanders can also attempt to rally broken units or to reduce the cohesion or shock points accumulated of good-order units but in risk of breaking in subsequent turns. 

Once all  commanders have been activated, the turn moves in another phase where non-rallied routed units must expend their full movement allowance towards their tactical edge. If leaving the board, then they are considered destroyed. 

This is followed by an administrative phase in which units low on missiles (archers, slingers or javeliniers) can resupply; commander counters are returned to their active side and some markerts ("moved" for example) are also removed. Victory points are accounted, and if both sides remain undefeated, a new turn is played.

This is a basic explanation of how the game develops. There is a lot of additional aspects to consider in each phase of a turn that exceeds the scope of this post: for example missile units can use harrassment and dispersal tactics instead of clashing in close combat; routing elephants can create havoc both among friends and foes; light units can refuse combat and retreat when heavier units approach; cavalry winning melees can go out of control, etc 

Games are won by forcing the enemy to withdraw from the battlefield. This is achieved by causing the enemy enough "cohesion points" to erode the overall army's morale. It is possible that both sides reach their own break point levels simultaneously, in which case the game is a draw.

What I Like the Most of SPQR

First and more important, it's an Ancients era game which is a period I love. Each unit has its own features and arguably you can (and actually must!) use historical tactics in order to have a chance to win. 

For example: Cartaghinian tactics should rely on the mobility and quality of its cavalry to outflank the Romans and to disorganize their lines, while the phlanxes in the centre should be used to fix the Roman front. The cavalry and the light infantry are the hammer, the phalanxes are the anvil in the Carthaginian tactics book.

Romans on the other hand. must attempt to move fast into close combat along all the line to avoid the outflanking of the cavalry, to leverage on their superior close combat ability.

 

Second, the importance of command in this game. In this sense the game is not just line your troops, activate leaders and ordering charge forward, losing control of the battle, but significantly more subtle: through the command mechanics, players can shift reserves between flanks, take advantage of gaps in the enemy line to explot a penetration, control the cavalry, assess the best timing and place to hit the enemy, arrange a tactical retreat to reorganize your lines, etc

In this sense, it draws paralells with the approach to design of Too Fat Lardies rulesets, that stresses the importance of command in the battle and how to make the best use of the available assets, over the pure technical aspects of the hardware (weapons) or software (men) in combat. 

Two important notes: 

1. The players do not have infinite command resources. A general plan for the battle must be drawn before the game begins; but players will need to make decisions, assess alternatives and decide between different options at each turn, based on the prevailing conditions in the battlefield. 

2. Friction is fully embedded in the game mechanics, of course through the combat and moral checking resolution die rolls; but also on the fact that leaders activations not always succed and enemy leaders have the option to "trump" (literal rules terminology) your own activation, but also with risks if failing to do so. The leader activation phases create a very dynamic game environment, distancing SPQR from the old traditional IGYG designs. 

Again, this draws significant paralells with the design philosophy of Richard Clarke and Nick Skinner at Too Fat Lardies.

Finally, the importance of morale in the games.  As explained above, units have morale levels (called "Troop Quality"), accumulate "Cohesion Hits" (equivalent to shock points) and when are equal or higher than its TQ, the units break and rout.

In each game, armies are assigned an overall force morale level or "army withdrawal" threshold. When the sum of accumulated cohesion hits (from individual units routed out of the map or destroyed in combat) reach this threshold, the army is considered demoralized and must abandon the battlefield.


This has important implications for players. Commanders have the ability to rally units,  therefore stopping them from routing out of the table and enabling returning to fight, albeit with a lower combat efficiency. As the battle progresses, casualties mount and the number of broken units increases. 

There's a point in which commanders must take decisions: should they keep control of the battle front to cause cohesion hits and break the enemy's army morale? Or alternatively, should they move to the rearguard, to regroup and rally fleeing units to avoid their own army collapsing? 

Again, remember you have finite command resources, and decisions are not easy. The calculus should be based on the likelihood to cause more cohesion hits to the enemy relative to your own potential casualties; and if these will be enough to reach the army withdrawal threshold.

This is another paralell design development to that used by Too Fat Lardies with the concepts of "shock" and "Force Moral", introduced in many of their more recent rulesets, like Chain of Command, Sharp Practice, Infamy! Infamy! or O'Group (the latter authored by Dave Brown).

The goal to win a game is not the physical destruction of the enemy forces, but to cause enough erosion in their overall morale level, as to force abandoning the battlefield.

Conclusions  

A well designed game recreating the environment of the Ancient 300-200 BC period battles in a very efficient way. The games are very dynamic, and as commented above, introduced a series of design elements  (command control, morale, friction) particularly nice to my taste after many years playing with Too Fat Lardies rulesets.

It is not a very complex set of rules at all, but I won't use SPQR to introduce someone new to the hobby. The reason is the amount of small details (like special rules for specific units or exceptions) that you need to be aware of and need to learn to play the scenarios.  

Another positive aspect is that, although the GBoH system covers a wide historical period,  each volume of the series focuses on a subperiod. All games share the general mechanics but with significant changes and adaptations to the specific aspects of the covered subperiod.

Many may wonder if I did not find any negative aspects in the rules. I'd say that the main "con" is the structure and writing of the manual, not a best-practice at all. It's gone throiugh several updates (the 4th edition is the latest release) but the potential to improve is still substantial. In any case, Mark Hermann and particularly the late Richard Berg both had a reputation among aficionados, so no surprise here.

 

Useful Resources    

The official GMT SPQR page where you can download the lastes revised version of the rules, tables and errata documents. It is also a gateway to other interesting links (articles, videos, etc)   

The C3i GOBH Center is a trove af articles on tactcis, scenarios and other related materials covering the whole GBOH series (not only SPQR)

The SPQR Boardgame Geek page is anogther must-have bookmark. Lots of videos, files to download, and critcial, a forum to clarify any type of questions curated by a lot of nice knowledgeable participants.

Finally, the site to download the VASSAL file if you fancy to play live online with international gamers. 

  


 

 

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Painting Challenge Report #3

 Third week of the Annual Painting Challenge concluded and my progress is good. Clearly having been on holidays for a couple of weeks helped, as I consider myself a slow painter. Now that I'm back in the office, I'm afraid that some momentum will be lost, and the weekly scorings will decrease.

This week I went back to the Saga related projects and finished an archers unit. These are rated "Levy" in the Saga rules and the unit must have at least 12 minis. The models are 28mm plastic straight from the Dark Ages Archers box.


You may remember from three weeks ago, the Arab archers unit also included some minis from the same bow. I only needed to swap heads from the Araba Spearmen box. This is one of the great advantages of the Gripping Beast boxes, the pieces are fully interchnageable between boxes, enabling an infinite number of poses.

 


The second part of this week's entry is a Darth Vader model. It is 3D printed and was given to me by one of my club pals, pushing me to enter into the Star Wars period. The model also scorer 20 bonus points in the SciFi studio of the Challenge. 

 


I'm still resisting to jump into that wagon... but who know if this might be the project for the next winter Challenge XD 

 With the points scored this week I'm now at 250 points or 36% of my 700 points target for this Challenge

   

 

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Painting Challenge Report #2

Concluding the second week of the Challenge with good progress in my painting plans, thanks mainly to being on holidays for a couple of weeks. After 9th January I'll be back in the office and it's unlikely I'd be able to mantain the momentum.

Two main entries in the Challenge blog. The first is a scenery project only half-finished, that's been standing in a corner on my painting table for many (too many) months: a stone house to play with 28mm minis, part of a bulk purchase of my gaming club in Madrid... as was designated by the club's Junta as a "volunteer" to paint it. Finally concluded thanks to the Challenge.


 

The second post in the Challenge blog was a collection of different pieces: a Panzer IV of an early model- featuring in the supports list of my Chain of Command's German Early War infantry platoon project



 

The second are a German Fallschirmjager sniper team and officer, also for the early war period. These are painted with the jump suit uniform in the greenish/field grey colors of that time. The models are 3D printed files from Eskice Miniatures.




 These are two funny models, specially the team member with the decoy watermellon head. I couldn't resist adding them to my unit



These will be part of another club project to play a Crete 41 invasion campaign, to take place later in 2023.

Finally and as part of the Challenge bonus points scheme, I needed to paint a mini using the  greyscale. My happy idea was to repaint a very old Ral Partha troll form the early 80s as it was caught outdoors at dawn and therefore turned into stone.




 

Following this week's contributions, my current accumulated score is 163 points or 23% of the 700 points target. Not bad for a couple of weeks