Tuesday 29 March 2011

Bourlon Wood

We played on Saturday night a WW I "monster scenario" (at least for the Mud & Blood standards) loosely simulating the British efforts to gain control of Bourlon Wood during the Cambrai Battle. I said "monster" because it involved over 100 minis per side and, as I initially feared, it was an oversized game that did not fit well with the scale of Through the Mud and Blood.  That translated into a very loooooong game that we need to cut abruptly after almost five hours playing, ending with a clear advantage to the German (as you will read below) at that point.

Map and terrain
The base of the game was a tank scenario developed by Sidney Roundwood (his blog is a MUST for a any WW I player, and I have recommended it several times in previous entries of this blog) and published with the Toofatlardies Christmas Special  2010.

We played in a  7' x 5' table, with the British deploying on the right side. The map below shows a  lightly shelled terrain, the double German trench line of the defensive system, a mid-table fortified position and the wood (Bourlon) and a small farm (2 buildings) at the rear.

This is the actual table from the British side...

... and now from the German perspective (note: it is not clear in the photo, but we have acquired the new painted rural roads of En Cobertura who have already supplied the boards and the shell craters; an excellent addition to their expading range).

British forces and objectives
The British attacking force were "A" Platoon of the 19th Bon (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), 119th Brigade-40th Division, comprising a Company HQ (2 senior BigMan, 2 runners and a LMG), 3 infantry platoons (one in reserve off-table scheduled to enter the table in turn 10), supported by a Stokes mortar section (with 1d10 limited ammunition supply) and 2d10 artillery barrage (to be pre-planned by the British). The attacking infantry was reinforced with the 1st Company, "D" Bon of the Royal Tank Corps (a three Mark IV tank section, 2 male and 1 female).

The specific turn of arrival of reinforcements was not told to the players and they were left guessing, but they had the option of sending the C-in-C Big Man off-table to accelerate the arrival by 1d6 turns. 

British Officers before the battle (...looking very confident)

The OOB resulted in the largest British force we had ever played, with 23(!) Big Man and over 120 figures on the table (including Big Men and tank crews). 

The victory conditions of the scenario was to have full control of Bourlon Wood at the end of the game, which translated into positioning at least 1 operational tank  no more than 6" away from the wood edge and 3 non-routed infantry sections inside the wood.

Should these conditions not being achieved, an alternative scheme was proposed based on victory points gained by the number of casualties made to the enemy and the control of key areas of the map (trench lines, bunker, infantry sections in Bourlon Wood...)

German forces and objectives
The German force was the 10th Kompanie, 3rd Bon Lehr of the Regiment 50-214th Division, comprising an up-to-strength platoon (4 sections), a very weak second platoon (1 bomber section) and a third platoon in reserve off-table (scheduled to enter the table on turn 5). In addition, the Germans had a Grenatenwerfer 16 and 2 HMGs with smK ammunition and 14 points of SOS artillery fire. The infantry was supported by two 77mm guns  (acting in anti-tank role),  entering the table in turns 5 and 10 respectively each gun.

German Officers before the battle (...looking quite optimist) 

The OOB gave a total of 100 figures on the table, including 19 Big Men and the crews of the HMGs and guns. As in the case of the British players, the turn of arrival of the reinforcements was not known by the German players and he also had the option to send their C-in-C Big Man to accelerate the arrival of the infantry (not the guns) by 1d4 turns.

The Germans would win if the they maintained  Bourlon Wood under control at the end of the game, although a victory points table was also supplied should the game end in a draw (with the wood contested, for example).

Plan of battle, deployment and game development 
The British plan was to concentrate their forces in one strong wing on their righ flank. The initial deployment covered less than half of the width of the table, with the tank section ahead...

... and the two initial infantry platoons (4 sections each) behind in columns. This resulted in a very crammed deployment  from the very beginning.

The British artillery plan was based on the assumption that the Germans were going to articulate an in-depth defensive scheme (that was actually the German players deployment, in a very historical manner) and also looking to interdect the arrival of potential German reinforcements (an information presumed by the British commander, as he had no information about the German forces on and off-table facing him). For that reason, with the exception of 1 turn on the trench line, the rest of the barrage concentrated in the second half of the table.

At the other side of the table, the Germans decided to leave three sections in the trench system, to place an HMG in the bunker  located in the centre of the table and a fourth section plus another HMG in the small wood copse to the left of their line. The Grenatenwerfer was placed at the edge of the rearmost wood.

The SOS fire plan was diced according to the table in page 43, achieving 6 turns of artillery, one LMG and one small anti-tank piece (the latter deployed at the edge of Bourlon Wood). According to the SOS rule, the German could pre-register one target per 24" of front, giving a total of 2 firing locations in this case; both were located to the left of the German line and in front of the first German trench line  

The deployment of  the Germans was based on the assumption (proved right!) that the British were likely to concetrate the attack in one flank, and likely the right one (the hill to the left of the British line was a bad terrain for tanks and they were unlikely to launch an attack through that flank).

A key new aspect that I introduced to rule this game was that both C-in-Cs had to give specific orders to each unit under their respective commands and from the moment the game started no verbal communication was allowed among players. Each player had to comply with the orders provided and these could only be changed by the C-in-Cs using runners (of which 3 were alloted to each). This rule not only increased the level of fog of war but was also useful to "tame" 8 players and to "smooth" the game, considering the very larg card deck that I had to handle (over 60 cards including the Big Men, initiatives, special  and national cards, etc).

Once all pre-game preparations were concluded (artillery plans for both sides, orders, etc), the game began. And from the very start the concentration of British units developed into a significant traffic jam, when the sections in the rear were being activated before those in the front, lacking no room to move and finally getting blocked.

In the meantime, the two male tanks, "Dorian Gray...

...and "Daniel Craig" moved at the maximum possible speed, leaving the acompanying infantry behind. "Dorian Gray" arrived to the first defensive line and crossed the trench withouth problems, and decided to charge on the defending German infantry...

... overunning and killing two privates under the tracks (ouch!), while the rest put some space between them and iron monster, except private Schuman that decided to take revenge on his two falling comrades and without hesitation threw himself  into the tank with a bundle of grenades...

 ..penetrating the iron skin of the beast and knocking down the frontal MG.  Private Schuman was about to repeat the feat when the German SOS fire card came into play and, unfortunately, one the German shells deviated from the target and fell directly over the tank, desintegrating our heroe in a thousand small body parts.

The second tank, "Daniel Craig" attacked the trench a few inches away on the left...  

....but unlike his iron comrade, it blundered and got bogged in the first trench line. His commander (2nd Lt Kimpton), probably under shell shock did not try to unbog the tank. And unfortunately for the crew of "Daniel Craig", the German section just opposing them was a veteran grenadier squad...

...strongly supplied with Geballte Ladung  and did not hesitate to take their chance. The first attack achieved over 5 hits and the tank went into flames; the crew bailed out with two casualties.

While these actions were taken place, the British artillery barrage crept slowly to the rear of the German defensive line, but causing very little damage to the units hidden in the central bunker position and the small wood copse respectively.

The German commander, suspecting that the barrage was likely to be concentrated in his rear lines, decided in a bold move to leave the table with the idea of holding the incoming reinforcements (5 infantry sections and 2 field guns) off-table until the British artillery fire extinguished. 

This action probably meant the victory to the Germans, as in the meantime the SOS artillery fire was creating havoc and a real carnage among the British crammed troops. Instead of scattering around and fly away from the central point of fire, they decided to go to earth!.

Inevitably this resulted in a useless waste of units, most destroyed or routing off-table because of the accumulation of shock points. This aerial view of the table shows the empty battlefield after the artillery attack.

The only effective point of penetration achieved in the German defensive system was on their right flank, where "Dorian Grey" and a couple of infantry squads resumed the advanced, once the tank crew recovered from the unexpected attack of private Schuman.

At this stage we had been playing for five hours and were just concluding turn 10 (out of 25). My assessment was that the British were unlikely to achieve anything close not juts to victory, but to a draw. The German defensive strategy was clearly working: they had  just a couple of units spent but 2 HMGs and 2 strong infantry sections still intact; add the reinforcents pouring into the table (5 infantry sections and 2 guns), and they were enjoying a clear superiority over the British.

A new British infantry platoon also arrived in that turn, but to all purposes it was hard to see how in the remaining 10 turns was going to cross the table and reach Bourlon Wood in decent shape. The British players challenged this assessment and asked for some additional turns, as they thought feasible rebalancing the situation with the new reinforcements (in my personal opinion, quite an unrealistic idea; but it is true that the British players did not know about the existance and the size of the German units entering the table, moving in concealment through Bourlon Wood).

The final decision was to stop the game at that point and to consider the possibility of using this final situation as the starting point for a new scenario: a situation where a British assaulting party had just taken a first trench line from the enemy and now was consolidating the position, to resist the expected German unavoidable counterattack... but that's a future story.

Some takeaways
First a lesson:  Mud & Blood is designed for a specific game scale and it is a bad idea to stretch the rules-set. In other words, 10-12 Big Men and probably no more that 2 platoons (and some support weapons per side) is what you can put on the table to have a decent game. This scenario scale went out of hand when I tried to accomodate so many players (eight as already mentioned) and looking with hindsight did not make any sense at all.

The huge size of the card deck created a lot of inefficiencies, as it took very long lapses (several turns in a row sometimes) for some of the players to see their units activated, resulting in a gradual lose of interest in the game while never reaching the level of tension and engagement that we have experienced in other games.

Tactically, the Germans hold the hand from the very beginning, outguessing the British deployment and line of attack; the German player also showed great initiative when sending the C-inC to hold  the reinforcements off-table (scheduled for turn 5) before falling to the deadly  British artillery fire.

The crammed British infantry deployment  rendered useless the higher firepower they enjoyed at the start of the game. To illustrate this point, enough to say that not a single LMG shot was fired in the whole game, as the line of fire of the LMG sections was all the time obstructed by other units (and then, these were wiped out by the German artillery)

I don't want to conclude in a negative tone and true, the players did enjoy the evening; but as the organiser and umpire, unfortunately I cannot say that this has been one of my most successful games. Lesson learned!



  1. Las fotos estan bien, echo de menos alguna mas de la penetracion por la derecha.

  2. Benito,

    Wow….where to start!

    First….great report and photos. In thought this was a wonderful AAR, and perhaps all the better for examining what went right and what went wrong with the game.

    Second …. As I wrote the original scenario, I feel I have to take a big part of the culpability for a slow game! So, for the record …. mea culpa, old chap – any blame for the set up is entirely mine!

    Third….some other thoughts. “Through the Mud & the Blood” is aimed at “large scale skirmishes”. I think you’re probably along the right lines when you mention 10 – 12 Big Men per side and a couple of platoons, with tanks, at least on the table you used. We’ve tried and play-tested larger games, but the play can be fragmented – as you found. The problem is additionally compounded when there’s more players, as the delay on the card draw is longer. That being said, those challenges were not of your making (lots of players), and I think it was a phenomenal and remarkable effort to try and accommodate them.

    However, I think the real killer was the deployment area – being very narrow in game terms for the British. I winced when I saw the “traffic jam” reference – historical, but painful to play through, all the same. When that happens, the Big Men really need to drive the infantry forward, even if it means casualties – going to ground is just likely to make things worse. Of course, historically, this is precisely what did result in dislocated attacks…

    The German tactics were bold and spot on, especially with the SOS artillery fire.

    We’ve consistently found back that the British tanks outpace the infantry groups in the early stages of games until the tanks get bogged or immobilised. It’s a real challenge for the British.

    All in all, a learning experience, I guess – but a valiant and noble effort all the same. Hope you had a large glass of Rioja afterwards.

  3. SOS fire stop us during, almost, two turns, more of less. The German players artillery deploy were in the middle of our way on the right side, but not in the center, because our troops didn´t move during in the center, with one exception, one tank, the one that finally was destroy on german trenches.
    If german artillery fire on the right, missed a little bit more, I think, we passed the trenches and attacks the forest behind.

    Sorry, my english is no enought good.