Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rumble on the steppe


I ran a spur of the moment Kampfgruppe Commander game at The Panzer Depot yesterday. Around Thursday, I stopped by to see if there was anything planned for Saturday and on hearing there wasn't, I determined to get a game going.

Because my figures are all Germans and Russians, I didn't have any trouble deciding where the scenario would be set. The big problem was my lack of enough models and figures to pull it off using only my own figures. (Mark "Joe Stalin" Serafin couldn't make the game, so his vast store of Soviets wasn't available—and it slipped my mind to ask Ken Kissling if he had any Russians.) As I've posted before, I have a lot of irons in the fire. Figures I started painting years ago are tucked away unfinished. I knew I had some partly-completed Russian tanks stashed somewhere, so I got to work—rare for a sluggard like me—and finished 11 tanks for the game.

I set the scenario in late 1943, after Kursk about the time the SU-85 appeared in service.

The Germans comprised two SS panzergrenadier battalions, a understrength tank battalion of Pz IVs, and a late-arriving "fire brigade" of a heavy panzer company of Tiger Is with an attached GW 38t "Bison." The German forces would start with a single battalion on the table ensconced in one of two towns (their choice). The remaining German forces would come on piecemeal with the Tiger company arriving last. Chris Craft, Ken Kissling, and Steve Puffenberger played Germans.
The lone German position at the start: bristling with nastiness
The Soviet force comprised a tank destroyer regiment of SU-85s, a tank battalion of T-34cs, a tank battalion of T-70s, and two Guards mechanized infantry battalions, one of which had an attached company of lend-lease M3 Lee tanks—known infamously to the Russians as a "coffin for seven brothers." The Soviets all entered the table on turn one. John Kennedy, Bob Mackler (playing his debut KGC game), and I were the Soviets.

Victory conditions were points based. Each side got five points for every town block they controlled plus a variable number of points for destroying enemy stands. These points were biased towards German losses being more dear than Russian losses.

I figured that the SU-85s were more than a match for the Pz IVs and that by turn six, when the Tigers came on, the Germans might be on the ropes. As it turned out, the Soviet battle plan didn't match our strength against their weakness.

I came up on the right flank with a mechanized infantry battalion (plus the M3s) and the T-70 battalion. My goals was to occupy the two-block town that was about 2/3 of the way down the table and deny it to the Germans when they came on. Bob went up the center with the T-34s to support my attack on the left, and John was on our far left flank with the other mechanized infantry battalion and the SU-85s to attack the town where Chris had dug in his panzergrenadiers.
Bob's T-34s take position on a ridge with my Guards infantry behind

John's attack started to fall apart quickly. Chris plastered him with 120mm mortar fire and opened up on the SU-85s with his PAK 40 causing losses. 

John's Guards dug in during their attack on the town
My advance on the empty town stalled after Chris moved the Pz IVs right outside it to blast out anything that came in.
Panzers vor! That's a lot of metal to face sober. It's good that we have vodka!
As it turned out, Ken, with the other panzergrenadier battalion, managed to occupy one of the blocks in the town before I got there. I did, however, start moving up my T-70s to a position to occupy the woods next to the town.
Fear me: Wee T-70s prepare to occupy the woods and face off Pz IVs
I threw one infantry company into the remaining block of the town along with the M3s. The resulting firestorm of  opportunity fire put losses on both companies, who failed morale and sat shaken. I figured a strong German counterattack would sweep me out and give the Germans complete possession of the town.
Russian advance into the town stymied
The counterattack didn't come, but the M3s disappeared the next turn after return fire from infantry, a PAK 40, and some Pz IVs obliterated it. The shaken infantry hung on and later recovered from being shaken. Meanwhile, the T-70s outperformed all expectations by inflicting more damage on a company of Pz IVs than they took. Never underestimate the salutary effect of vodka on communist ardor. Fearing the ignominy of losing real tanks to a swarm of armed wind-up toys, Chris withdrew his panzers to a safer place.
Fear me part deux: T-70s inflicting hits on Chris' precious panzers
Now was the time to go for broke and see if I could take the other town block. I figured that I would make one attack that might weaken Steve's defense and follow up on my next turn with the real attack that would take the town. I hit the town with mortar fire, which resulted in the defenders being shaken, and then I moved in. I managed to pass through the opportunity fire unscathed and to my surprise, took the town after two rounds of close combat when Steve decided to pull out rather than die to the last man (an interesting side effect of having enemy points gained for your losses). Bob moved some T-34s into the other town block and another company beside the town in support.
The town is ours! For now.
I also immediately attached a 45mm AT gun to my company and forced Chris to withdraw another company of his panzers to safety. My victory proved short lived, however. In the next round, Steve counterattacked with a panzergrenadier company. My company broke, losing half its strength and all its assets (an MG and the AT gun). The only bright spot was that Steve had called in a barrage of 105s on the town block, which didn't wind up coming in until the end of the turn. Without any remaining command pips to call off the barrage, his company had to tough it out, which they did without loss (sad to say).

I then attempted my own counterattack with a fresh company backed by engineers with flame throwers, but it got shot to bits by the defending Germans.

By this time, John had come to the conclusion that using the SU-85s to attack the town held by Chris' panzergrenadiers was a wasted effort. He had recovered his earlier losses from the PAK 40 and figured that he should be going after the Pz IVs instead. He shifted the regiment to the center of the board and started exchanging shots.
Tank destroyers in the center
By this time, Ken's anticipation of the Tigers arriving was satisfied. In my scenario planning, I thought the Tigers would arrive to save the day, instead of just coming to pile on.
дерьмо! The fascist invaders of the Motherland bring on the big guns!
Ken started shooting at my T-70s, so instead of having bloody great chunks torn out of my battalion, I fell back behind the woods to rally and recover. Even for mad Russians, discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. Bob also discreted and pulled out his T-34s that were beside the town rather than see them aerated by 88mm holes.

By this time, things were looking hopeless for Stalin's minions. Chris' control of the town he started in had never been seriously threatened. John had suffered some losses in his mechanized infantry battalion and it looked very doubtful that he would be able to take the town.
Still defiant! Chris' panzergrenadiers hold the town
I had shot my bolt with my own mechanized infantry. I lost one company outright and the other two were licking their wounds behind a ridge line. The gallant T-70s hadn't lost a stand, but that would change if they ever got seriously entangled with the Tigers.

On the other had, the Soviets had lost only two tanks so far (my M3s—now burning coffins for 14 brothers in the town). We still might have hurt the panzer forces and gotten the better points total in an exchange of losses. But, I don't think we could have taken any town blocks from the Germans. Our infantry strength was shattered. By this time the Germans had about 60% more points than we did: another victory for Deutschland in its losing war on the steppe.

Post Mortem
I like the scenario and the other players did too. It needs to be tweaked for balance, however. The choice of units was largely determined by the figures and models I had painted. I would rather have used Pz IIIs for the german tank battalion, which is correct for 1943, but I don't have any painted. Otherwise, I could have used another T-34 battalion, but I only have the one painted. As it was, the T-34s were badly outgunned by an equal number of Pz IVs. But the T-70s were perfect!

I used the alternate Command Decision TO&E for the Russians of a battalion with three two-stand companies instead of the KGC formation of a regiment comprising three four-stand battalions. The battalion formation makes the Russian units too brittle and too weak in firepower. I've used the battalion formation in other games, but I think I'll abandon it. As with the tank units, it's a matter of how many figures I have painted. I only have enough for one regimental formation (12 stands), so I couldn't field more than one formation. I do have enough figures already started (and nearly done) to fill out a Soviet infantry division of three regimental formations.

I think the panzergrenadiers were too strong as well. I might have used two-stand companies instead to make them less resilient and reduce their firepower. If I had PAK 38s painted, I would have used them instead of the PAK 40s, which were still limited in number in 1943.

Another factor was the terrain placement. I intended to enable the Russians to fully occupy by turn 1 or two whichever of the two central towns the Germans didn't occupy at start. Instead, it took too long for the Russians to get there, by which time the Germans had already occupied part of it. Still, the back and forth attacks and counterattacks proved to be the liveliest fight of the game.

I need to get back to the painting table and replay this scenario again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ma vie en plomb
(My life in lead)

Today I stopped by the American Eagles hobby store in Lake City, WA to confirm a rumor that they were closing. Indeed they are. Their last day of business will be April 9th, 2011, just over 42 years since they opened for business.

American Eagles had seen its better days pass some time ago. The store's founder, Mike Edwards, opened his store a few blocks from his home in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle in April, 1969. His son George, who's run the place for the last decade since Mike died, says that his dad started the store because he was a plastic modeler and he had had the wonderful epiphany that if he owned a store, he could get his plastic model kits at wholesale.

For military-minded hobbyists in the greater Seattle area, American Eagles was a mecca. In their hey-day they carried several lines of miniature figurines, as well as paints and other accessories for wargamers. They also had a basement/back room where there was regular miniature wargaming. During its career, American Eagles moved from Ballard to the Greenwood neighborhood, back to Ballard again, and finally to its Lake City location. A scrapbook at the front counter of the store contains several clippings of antique articles from local newspapers telling all about the store and its devotees. Even though I've only been a customer since I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1991, I felt very nostalgic looking at them—less because of the store itself than because its history and eventual demise resonated with my own experience growing up as a kid who liked models, wargames, toy soldiers, 'n' stuff. The hobby stores of my youth have almost all come and gone as well.

American Eagles' closing is another mark indicating the passing of an era that will never return. In the 1950s to 1970s, hobby shops were a going concern. Before video games and the overly-structured lives that kids live today, hobby shops were a wonderland of creative things to do. Kids these days don't go into hobbies like we did in our youth. Internet commerce, too, has extracted its toll and the brick and mortar hobby shop is a dying breed.

I grew up in San Jose, CA where the notable hobby shops of my youth were Huston's Hobbies, D&J Hobbies, and San Antonio Hobbies. Huston's was around in the 1960s when we first came to San Jose and I recall it as a place my father would take me to buy plastic model kits (of tanks and warplanes, of course). Huston's disappeared in the early 70s. Later, the shopping center they were in, Town and Country Village, was bull-dozed for a new, swank shopping center (Santana Row).

D&J hobbies started as a wee nook of a place next to a pet store in Campbell, CA. My friends and I used to ride our bikes there to buy Rocco Minitanks and plastic models. My first job was working at D&J from 1977-1978 (by which time they had moved to a larger location). They're still in business—it must be almost 40 years now—and their current location is even larger than when I worked there. I think that diversity, especially Jan Pozzi's (the "J" in D&J) emphasis on crafts, has kept the store viable for walk-in shoppers. D&J never had much in the way of miniature gaming, but I was able to order Hinchliffe figures for myself and get them cheap through the store. But Darryl ("D") and Jan are getting on in years. When they retire, I don't see the store remaining.

The big store for wargamers in my area was San Antonio Hobbies in Mountain View, CA. In our pre-driving days, my friend Ron and I used to take a long bus ride up from San Jose, through Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale to Mountain View. The event was always a day-long excursion, which usually netted us a handful of Minifigs, dearly bought at 25¢ a figure. San Antonio carried the full range of Minifigs in their little boxes. We would have Natalie, the attractive older woman who worked the wargaming section, pull out box after box for us to pick through and get the figures we wanted. San Antonio closed shop some years ago after the owner suffered a stroke. He couldn't find a buyer for the store, so he just shut it down and liquidated whatever stock he had. San Antonio Hobbies had a few career workers, one of whom I knew for years, who were well paid with competitive benefits. I'm sure they once thought their future was secure.

There were a few other places as well, like Mickey's Model & Hobby Shop in Sunnyvale, whose eponymous proprietor sat painting bootlegged Britains toy soldiers in his tiny store. Even with his limited stock, Mickey never knew what he had on hand. Any call to ask if he had something would just get the response that he had "many, many things" and that we should come in and look for ourselves. Mickey's is long gone, I don't know when. Even the shopping center, another Town and Country Village (there were three in the Bay Area in my day), has been bulldozed and a newer shopping center built on its ruins.

There was also The Gametable in Campbell, CA that opened in the mid-70s. It was the first dedicated gaming store in the area. It was co-owned by three brothers and for some years was a hot-spot for miniature gaming. It went out of business in the mid-80s after a brief change of ownership and a few location changes. One of the original owners, Larry Duffield, now runs his own board game company, LPD Games, in picturesque Fort Bragg, CA.

I get a little misty-eyed thinking back on those days and how I've lived my life in lead minis. However, there are still stores that remain. The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA has been hit by the economy, but it's still a great store with a lot of miniature figures, paints, etc. It's also a place where gaming occurs regularly throughout the week. The Game Matrix in Lakewood, WA has miniature gaming one Saturday a month (when it's not pre-empted by a Pokemon tournament).

Despite constant bewailings of the "graying" of the wargame hobby, I can't help but notice how many gamers are younger than me (leaving aside notice of how many are older). One store's passing, doesn't mean the end of the hobby. Still, I think Donne's lines are fraught with portent: "Send not for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee." When I'm an old older fart, will there still be a wargaming hobby to participate in that doesn't involve only me and a lot of other toothless fossils? I hope so.

Postscript Jan 12, 2016

I noticed today that D&J Hobby is gone. When I was in San Jose in 2014, I saw that the store had been sold to new owners who moved it about a half mile down the road to a much smaller space. I poked around, but the new store was clearly not the old store. The people running it were young and enthusiastic, but I had the sinking feeling then that the store wouldn't last. Alas, their Facebook page shows them as permanently closed. Their last timeline post is November 3, 2015, so the end was recent—although they were posting liquidation sale notices for several months before that.