Tuesday, July 28, 2015

DAC: Setting Up

So, the first step in setting up is making a plan. Before you can attack or defend, you need to know what your objectives are, who you have to achieve them with, where you'll be fighting, and how you mean to achieve your objectives.

What: Victory Conditions

The scenario card in ASL tells you what your immediate objectives are. The Victory Conditions (VC) will specify how the players determine who has won a playing of the scenario. Victory may be determined at the end of the scenario's specified turns, or it may come as soon as a player has fulfilled a set of conditions. VC may involve controlling terrain, or clearing an area of enemy forces, or exiting troops off the board, or eliminating (or capturing) enemy units. Sometimes these conditions are simple and clear cut ("the winner is whichever side controls building 8W6"), or competitive ("to win, Player A must exit more VP of troops off the south edge than Player B"), or highly complex ("Player X wins if he controls the bridge, provided he has not suffered more than 12 CVP and Player Z has not exited more than half his AFVs through the northern road").

Australian LMG team, June 1945 (Wikipedia)
Who: Order of Battle

The scenario card in ASL also tells you what you have to work with: SMCs (single-man counters--leaders and heroes or, as the Too Fat Lardies would call them, Big Men), MMCs (multiman counters--squads, half-squads, and crews), SW (support weapons--machine-guns, light mortars, combat engineer gear like demo charges and flamethrowers, anti-tank rifles, and light mortars), and sometimes Guns and vehicles. We'll skip the latter for now, as they don't appear in Death at Carentan (DAC).

One other thing that counts as a support weapon and which we will turn our attention to in looking at DAC is the radio (or field phone). You can't shoot it at someone; you can't even hit anyone over the head with it; but it can call on the Mighty Force of the Artillery to rain down death out of a clear sky, so it is not to be taken lightly.

Sometimes a scenario will grant a player fortifications (roadblocks, barbed wire, foxholes, trenches, pill boxes, and other marvels of the engineer's craft). It may also grant player the ability to conceal his troops, maybe even give him a certain quantity of dummy counters to use in hopes of deceiving the opposing player as to which of his forces are where. More rarely, it will grant a player the ability to hide some portion of her troops; such troops are not even placed on the board at all until some circumstance occurs that reveals their hiding place. Guns, where they occur, are almost always hidden, but this type of concealment is rarely accorded to other troops.

Scenario cards will also tell players where their troops set up or where and when they enter play. Sometimes set-up instructions are specific down to the very hex; other times instructions are more general ("German troops start on or north of hexrow V"). Usually both sides' order of battle (OB) is clear and well defined. But sometimes scenario designers give players options to choose from, or make starting forces or reinforcements variable within a set of options, depending on a die roll. Players are also given options in many scenarios as to where to have their reinforcements enter the board, or when.

Battleschool's new Arnhem dice
Last but not least, the OBs include each side's SAN and ELR. These are some of the great pieces of
chrome in ASL that, in my opinion, make it a more interesting and nuanced game than the original Squad Leader without making it overly complex.

The SAN, or Sniper Activation Number, indicates not only the presence and activity of actual snipers but also the more generalized chaos and random destruction that increases as a battle area "heats up". Of, in making certain die rolls, a player rolls his opponent's SAN, the is a chance (determined by another die roll) that the opponent's sniper "activates". If so, the sniper counter moves via prescribed process to zero in on a hostile stack and may kill or wound a SMC or pin or break a MMC in that location. The die rolls needed to cause an enemy sniper to activate are often ones that are quite beneficial to the roller otherwise (ones that may cause a good shot in fire combat, for example, or keep a unit from breaking when the enemy is shooting at it). This has the effect of decreasing players' willingness to waste time with terrifically long-odds activities that have as good or batter a chance of summoning the enemy sniper as they do of achieving the desired end.

A side's ELR (Experience Level Rating) comes into play when one of its unbroken units has to take a morale check (MC). If a unit passes its MC by rolling less than its morale level (ML), nothing happens. If it rolls its ML exactly, the unit is pinned (it cannot advance and its fire is halved both until the end of the player turn). If the unit fails its roll (rolls higher than its ML) it breaks. It can't shoot or engage in melée and will generally rout away from the enemy until it finds someplace safe to lay low. Only a leader coming to join the unit and rallying it will get it back in the fight. But it gets worse. If the unit fails its morale by more than the ELR assigned to it by the scenario, it not only breaks but is replaced with a broken unit of a lower quality. An elite unit is replaced by a first-line unit. A first-line unit is replaced by a second-line unit, or by a conscript unit. Thus forces with low ELRs are brittle; even when broken units from these forces are rallied, they often come back weaker and more likely to break again.

German horse-drawn sledge; yes, ASL has rules for these! (Wikipedia)
A similar but even less likely process, called Battle Hardening and not tied to ELR, can on rare occasions make units (broken or not) increase in value (conscripts becoming line troops, line becoming elite). Did I mention that this doesn't happen often? We'll go over that process if it comes up in our playing of DAC.

Where: The Boards and Scenario Special Rules

Finally, scenario cards list the terrain boards and the scenario special rules (SSRs). ASL has zillions of geomorphic terrain boards (OK, there are about sixty or seventy, between the original SL boards, official ASL boards, ASLSK boards, and third-party geomorphic boards). These can be fitted together in bazillions of combinations to make a near-infinite number of configurations. On top of which, SSRSs may add individual terrain pieces, or change entire type of terrain into other types (or make them vanish), and weather conditions and time of year may drastically change the effect of terrain--winter freezing streams and rivers, while autumn turns waving fields of grain into open ground or strips bare the branches of orchards. And that's without even bringing up the scores of HASL (Historical ASL) boards that have been printed to represent specific historical battlefields.

SSRs can be few and spare, or numerous and complex. They may describe changes to the basic map, such as overlays used to turn a field into a forest, or blanket rules that transform an entire terrain type for the scenario ("all brush is grain"). They will describe what sort of weather may effect the scenario, and if the combat is taking place at night or not. (Night rules in ASL are almost on the level of the rules that apply to different theaters of war, changing the very nature of combat. Night fighting is a fascinating and very different kind of battle to daytime ASL engagements.) SSRs can create special exceptions to standard rules that occur only in this battle. Or they may impose special limitations, or grant unusual powers, to particular troops.

How: Putting It All Together

The scenario card is available to both players. So, within some limits, both players always know what the other side is trying to achieve, what forces they have to achieve it with, and (to some extent) where those forces start the game or where they will enter. And players always know the basic terrain over which they will be fighting and how long both sides have to achieve their ends. So the great unknown is not what or who or where or even when, but how.

It takes skill and experience to weigh all the factors presented on the scenario card and come up with a winning plan of operations. Novices will see and appreciate the forces they have, the goals they need to achieve, the role that enemy forces might play, maybe even factors like weather or night. But in every aspect of the game, the journeyman will see subtleties begin to appear, and only the master will come close to anticipating all the possibilities those subtleties bring to the table. And even a master's plan will often not survive the first turn's dice rolls.

(It seems appropriate to point out at this point that, after thirty years, off and on, of playing ASL, I'd rate myself no higher than novice.)

Some of the subtleties involve the sort of move-counter move thinking that any competitive game does, from chess to, well, ASL. How can I best attack or defend? What will my opponent anticipate that I do, and how will he seek to counter it? How can I neutralize his countermoves?

Some of the subtleties involve knowing the intricacies of the rules. Is this a situation in which I can bore-sight my weapons, making it easier for them to hit the enemy if he moves where I expect him to move? How many of my squads can I break down into half-squads? What are the chances that my artillery fire will arrive where and when I plan on it coming?

And some of the subtleties are both a matter of rules knowledge and of tactics. Where will my defenders be not only well placed to stop his attacks but have safe routes to rout to the rear if broken? How can I combine the existing terrain and any fortifications I have (barbed wire, say, or roadblocks) to channel his movement into the fields of fire I'm planning? If the VC require him to capture five of these seven buildings, which do I need to relinquish without a serious contest, and which are the three or four I absolutely have to hold to keep him from victory? What will my opponent expect, based on the strengths of his forces, and how can I use that expectation to defeat him? What weaknesses do my own forces have, and how can I use them to my advantage?

ASL board 60 (MMP)
What Does This Mean in DAC? 

The Americans in DAC start out with something roughly the size of one or two platoons and later receive reinforcements that bring them up to close to company strength. They are supported by a battery of artillery, firing from off board. The Germans start out slightly outnumbered by the Americans, with a small portion of their force hidden and the rest concealed, and they receive reinforcements that allow them to outnumber the American troops in turn. The Americans are attempting to seize the hexes that represent the farm, while the Germans are trying to hold them. So how to accomplish these tasks?

Cribbing shamelessly from an AAR posted by Nick Drinkwater in the Bazai Pipeline blog, I'll point out that the Americans have their numerical advantage over the initial German defenders for a short window of time, after which they German reinforcements come pouring in and the dogfaces become defenders in their turn. This means the GIs had best grab all the real estate they hope to hold for victory early on. And, at the same time, they must position themselves to be ready for the German reinforcements; they must anticipate the routes that those reinforcements will take and find the best way to defend against attacks from those routes.

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