Thursday, December 29, 2016

Enemy Coast Ahead: Attack on the Ennepe Dam?

On May 17, 1943 a lone bomber codenamed AJ-O piloted by Flt. Sgt. Bill Townsend was circling the dark skies over Germany awaiting orders. In the early morning hours, the aircrew finally received the message they were waiting for. Their target was the Ennepe Dam. In the fog and darkness, the pilot and navigator finally arrived near what they thought was the Ennepe Dam and circled around to pinpoint it on the ground. After making several passes to get the altitude and trajectory right, the custom-made dam-busting bomb codenamed "Upkeep" was finally dropped. With the other men of 617 already having made their bombing runs on the other dams in the Ruhr, Townsend decided to head home to England.

What really happened that night is still not really clear. Years later, eyewitnesses reported that another nearby dam (the Bever Dam) was attacked. Reports from the aircrew of what they had sighted on the ground are consistent with landmarks near the Bever Dam. In the fog and darkness and confusion of the night, it seems that Townsend may have mistakenly hit the wrong dam.

Scenario 5 from Enemy Coast Ahead is a beginner scenario that features a lone bomber attacking Ennepe Dam (the ambiguity is removed for the sake of newbies) in clear weather (also changed to help out the newbies) with a veteran aircrew. There is also the choice to take off the training wheels and have the scenario setup much closer to its historical realities (fog, green aircrew, uncertainty over which dam is being attacked).

As a new player of ECA, I found this scenario was an excellent starting scenario for me. It shows you how to procedurally go through each step of an attack run through to release and return to base. I'm providing this article to anyone who is curious about how this game plays. An an aside, you'll have to forgive the unclipped counters - my kid decided it would be a gas to hide the counter clipper on his old man!

The biggest factor here working for us is the skill of the crew. For newbies, we get to start with a veteran crew, which gives significant bonuses to everything from navigation to altitude & speed as well as bomb-aiming. Green crews use the "2" spots for these tracks, which give far less of an advantage.

Our veteran aircrew is attached to AJ-O Lancaster, piloted by Townsend. Luckily, we have a good bomb-aimer, Sgt. C.E. Franklin, on board.

And here is the portion of the map we'll be using. As you can see, each square of the map is meant to show the plane's relation to the target dam. Our plane starts in the circling near box and then makes its run by going into the Far box. We can decide to release anywhere along the track - either close, near, or far. Once we decide to release Upkeep, the bomber goes into the release box and the release procedure commences. Finally, the bomber climbs and then circles near in order to find its bearings and head for home. This is a basic rundown of the attack part of each turn.

AJ-O starts off in the circling near box with its Upkeep marker. The reverse side usually has two numbers on it, representing possible damage done to the dam if the bomb hits it. We will have no idea what the reverse side of this marker says until the Morning Reconnaissance is performed in the morning.

AJ-O then makes its run and moves into the far box. We roll a six-sided die to determine how many chits we get to pull for altitude and speed. We roll a "1" and cross-reference this number with the chart to find that the number of chits we can pull for speed reduced by 2. Since our veteran crew can usually pull 3 chits, this means we can only pull one speed chit. We get to pull our usual number of altitude chits (3).

For speed, we are doing 231 mph and we can choose one of our three altitude chits. Of course, we want the one that will let us pull more chits later on for when we release so we pick the 60ft chit and put the other two altitude chits back in the cup.

I could opt to release now at this point. I would pull four chits from the cup and hope that the release bonuses they give me would be enough to help contribute to a successful release. However, I've decided that I want a really good number of chits. Since the dam has no defenses, there is nothing really stopping me from moving closer and trying for a better altitude so I go for it. I put the plane into the near box and exchange the 231mph speed chit for a 220mph speed chit. This will give me 3 chits to pull for the release instead of just 1.

I decide that things are not going to get any better for my aircrew. We're at pretty much the optimal altitude and speed so its bombs away! We try to release Upkeep and now we pull our 6 chits from the speed and altitude cups (3 chits each).

We take the best altitude and the best speed chit and get (did I pull four altitude and two release chits by mistake? - whoops, looks like it. Oh well.) one chit with a +4 and another with a +3. We roll 2d6, add our release modifiers, and crew skill modifiers. The die result is a 6 modified by release chits to a 13. We add +1 for our bomb aimer to make 14 and the crew skill level adds 2 to the release roll for a final tally of 16. Since we need 15 or greater for a successful release, our Upkeep is dropped and hits the dam.

There are no other planes circling to assess damage so we put the Upkeep marker face up on the dam's damage track and we will turn it over later after the Morning Recon is performed.

In the meantime, it's time to get the hell out of Dodge. AJ-O goes to the climb box. The visibility table is consulted after rolling a "5" on 2d6 and we get fog. The plane goes into the Circling Near box and we roll to see if there are any German nightfighters spotted. Lucky for us, we roll a "10" and there are none nearby. AJ-O attempts to return to base. We roll an 8 and the plane lands safely at Scampton just as the sun begins to rise over England.

It is time to see what kind of damage we have done to Ennepe Dam. We flip over our Upkeep counter to find it has a 5 on one end and a 4 on the other. If I roll even on a d6, the dam takes the four damage. If odd, it takes 5 damage.

I rolled a 1 and the dam takes 5 damage. Astonishingly, we have a chance to actually breach the dam. As per the track on the map sheet, the dam is breached at 6 damage when it is at full water level. I need to roll a final d6. If the roll is a "1", the final damage is reduced from 5 to 4. If the roll is a "6", the final damage is increased from 5 to 6 and we're suddenly heroes.

I roll a d6 and get a "2". Ennepe Dam is heavily damaged but not breached.

According to the mission result in the scenario, we get a result of "good show". Townsend is awarded the DSO and the confusion over what really happened that night remains long after the war as it did in real life.

It is incredibly hard to breach the dams, just as it was in real life. I have played through most of the scenarios several times and can't ever remember scoring a breach - though I have come close. Sometimes you can have the best rolls on the attack and release but the Upkeep just doesn't have enough oomf to get the job done. The scenarios with multiple planes are a bit more interesting as each crew takes its run at the dam and hopes for the best. Although I haven't yet tried the full campaign yet, I suspect this is where the game really shines with more decisions to make early on that ripple down through to the actual attack run.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Dambuster Raids

Enemy Coast Ahead (GMT, 2014) is a solitaire game designed by Jeremy White that simulates the RAF no. 617 Squadron's May 1943 raids on German dams in the Ruhr. This game held a special interest for me because as a kid, I read Paul Brickhill's book and I remember being fascinated by the technical problems of the bomb design, the raid, and marshalling together the right men and training in secret to do something that had never ever been done before.

Reading up on it now from the vantage of age, I was surprised at how ineffectual the whole thing was on the German war effort. The civilian losses and the POW deaths that resulted from the bombings are pretty appalling too. In the end, it seems the main effect of the raids was to boost British morale, which would have been much needed in those dark days. At the time, however, the raid was seen as a chance to strike a serious blow to Germany's war-making capabilities as its industries in the Ruhr industrial heartland would be rendered destroyed or inoperative for months or even years.

One interesting aspect of the game is how the reality of today's sensitivities can often clash with the historical realities of the past. Yes, I'm talking about the dog. For those of you not in the know, the men of 617 Squadron had a dog who served as their mascot. Its name was a racial slur. The dog's name is mentioned in the rules one time and the dog has a counter but the text on the counter reads "Jinx". This is because the dog died shortly before the raids and its death was kept a secret from the aircrews so they wouldn't see this as a bad omen.

If the Jinx counter is pulled prior to the raids, the news of the dog's death spreads throughout the squadron and negatively modifies die roll result selection. Although there are a few people who take the inclusion of the dog's name in the rules as objectionable, most reasonable people have understood that using this kind of terminology is an unfortunate but real part of history. Jeremy White has chimed in on this subject many times and his explanations and justifications for keeping the dog in the game are sound, sensitive, and reasonable. I think it was the right choice.

King George visits 617 Squadron at Scampton airfield just after the raid.

Moving beyond all that, the game is a real pleasure to play. There are no hexes or maps in the game. There are a series of playing aids with sequential rules that tell you what your bombers can choose to do next. Outcomes are determined by chit pulls and die rolls. There are 10 scenarios in the game, the last of which is a full campaign game that involves selecting, training, and planning the missions before carrying them out. Everything is played out on a paper mat and although that may not sound exciting, it works very well for the kind of game this is.

This is very much a game of risk management and opting for the least unpalatable option out of the many available bad ones. Some dilemmas you might encounter during the game

  • Do you spend another turn circling around again for a better approach to the dam and risk being discovered and shot down by a German nightfighter? Or do you take what's given and drop an "Upkeep" from a less than optimal altitude or speed and hope for the best before heading for home? 
  • Do you turn on your Aldis lights for a more exacting bomb release altitude and risk alerting the Germans to your presence? Or do you approach in the dark and reduce your accuracy? 
  • How do you keep the mission secret if it appears someone is talking after having too many beers while out on the town? If you quarantine the base, you end being unable to bring in replacement aircrews or ground crews. 

Here is an extremely rough account of what the game can be like - I have intentionally skipped out on a few important details for the sake of brevity:

A typical beginner scenario mission goes through turns, each of which are broken down into phases. You start off circling the target then going to the Run phase. As your bomber gets closer to the dam, you pull chits to check your altitude and speed. Based on this, you can decide to release your "Upkeep" (codename for your dambusting bomb) or continue with the approach and release nearer to the dam, adjusting either your current speed or altitude. In some cases, you'll get shot at by flak and have to deal with balloons. Meanwhile, your gunners will have the chance to shoot at dam defenses to make your lives a bit easier.

When you decide to release, you pull a number of speed and altitude chits and check their release modifiers then add these to a 2d6 die roll. Other modifiers to the die roll are made based on crew training, bomber damage, and a host of factors. If the modified die roll result is above a certain number, your Upkeep successfully releases and damages the dam. If it's below a certain number, you either miss or end up with the bomb damaging your plane upon release. As you turn away from the dam, you have to check for German nightfighters before heading for home.

If another bomber is on hand to assess the damage, you turn over your Upkeep chit and it tells you what kind of damage it does. If not, you turn over all the Upkeep markers on a particular dam at the same time when Morning Recon is performed. In either case, you roll a die for each Upkeep marker and it may add or subtract a damage point to the dam. If the dam accumulates enough damage, it is breached and the mission is a terrific success. Each scenario gives a very prosaic account of the result of the mission and how it affects your men. This is by far one of the coolest things I have seen in a game.

Eder Dam right after the May 1943 raids

If you don't like these kinds of games where the system is nakedly out there for you to sit down and work with, you probably won't like this game. It is a very procedural game with "pull this chit at this time" kind of flow to it.

However, if you can live with a very procedural game approach and let it go to work on your imagination, you'll build up a tense story in your head of what's happening as your bomber crews die in the darkness or arrive back home as heroes. I would say it would depend a lot on whether or not you are familiar with and enjoy any of the source material that the game is based on. If you're like me and you grew up with the story, you'll fall in love with it as soon as you open the box.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gulf Strike - Scenario 1: America - Heck Yeah!

Hello down there!
It's turn 7 of my latest game of Gulf Strike scenario 1 and Iran is doing terribly. It has taken us seven horrible turns of mucking around with supply problems to get down to the capital of Saudi Arabia and do battle with the Saudi forces protecting the capital. Along the east coast, a handful of Iranian units attempt to break the back of the lonesome small group of elite defenders protecting the Al Hufuh airbase from attack. Without supply or reinforcement, it seems they won't last much longer.

On the other hand, the United States is now activated this turn and can start to get some serious units on to the table.

At the beginning of the turn, we roll for a Random Political Event and get nothing at all. So we go ahead to the Global Military Stage and the US units start showing up at the bottom of the Strategic Map.

I put a US SSN in the waters between Madagascar and the African coastline. Meanwhile, the USS Enterprise CVN-65 is placed to the east with a Marine amphibious ship with some of Uncle Sam's Misguided Children aboard. Now the US has a toehold on the way to achieving naval and air parity with the USSR in the region.

The Saudis keep their elite Mechanized Brigade northwest of the capital in reserve. I put the Iranian 11th Armored Brigade in reserve near Al Hufuh airbase just in case I need to chase down the Saudi paratroopers later in the turn. Two of my truck units dump off two brigades from the 8th infantry division just north of another brigade from the mighty 8th sitting adjacent to the Saudi 1st Mech Brigade. I really want to recombine these brigades into a single infantry division but I would have to perform a withdrawal of the brigade sitting next to the Saudis and that would result in a hit. I might do it anyways later in the turn.

One of the trucks rushes over to hex 0755 to pick up an air defense unit to transport up to the big weak link in our supply chain in 0947.

Supplies are a huge problem for the Iranians this turn. I started off with 10 supply points this turn after spending with abandon last turn. After gaining 20 supply points to reach 30, I realize that I will have to pick my fights carefully this turn and then go for a bigger push next turn with more supplies. I choose my key objectives carefully. I really want Al Hufuh this turn, so I will spend the 7 SPs needed for a hasty attack (armored division and artillery brigade) on the airbase.

I would like to push at the center of the Saudi lines near Riyadh. This is their weakest point and my strongest spot. They have an armored brigade with a strength of 3 in hasty defense and rough terrain for 10 total combat value. I have two Iranian armored divisions (strength 5 each) with an artillery brigade in hasty assault formation adjacent to them for a strength of 20 and a die roll modifier of +2.

Since the Americans have activated this turn, they get to do some stuff. The Enterprise and the Marine amphibious landing ship at the bottom of the strategic map move up towards Diego Garcia, expending both Naval Activations allotted for the First Action Stage.

We have a pair of B-52 bombers and it would be a shame not to use them this turn. They pound the Iranian base in Basra for 1 hit and an F-5 Tiger is assigned a damage point. The Iranians got off pretty light, all things considered.

The First Action Stage Assault Segment comes around and the Iranians decline to put air support up to help their troops. Not only would the air strikes themselves drain supplies but the Saudis have poured all their own air into Intercept mode so going this route would entail clearing the air of Saudi fighters beforehand.

As promised, the Iranian 4th and 5th Armored Divisions deliver a beating against the Saudi 2nd Armored Brigade. Facing total annihilation, the brigade takes one hit and shakes off the other with a one-hex retreat south into 0660. Iranian 5th Armored pursues into 0659 and prepares a coup de grace in the next Action Stage. The road to Riyadh is now cleared for the 4th Armored Division.

The Battle for Riyadh - Saudi 2nd Arm. retreats. The road lay open to Riyadh.

In a classic case of overkill, the Iranians attack Al Hufuh airbase with an armored division and an artillery brigade. Rolling on the 3-1 column with a +2 die roll modifier against a reduced elite brigade of Saudi paratroopers, the die roll comes up 8 modified to 10. Wow! It isn't even close. 4 hits get assigned to the Saudis.

The elite paratroopers are eliminated with the first hit. Three hits left to assign. The air defense unit in the Saudi base hex takes them and is eliminated. The base itself is just barely hanging on. A truck unit in the same hex. It doesn't matter - support units can't combine their defense strengths so things are looking real bad for the Saudis here soon, especially with an Iranian armored brigade just to the north sitting in reserve mode.

Things look dire for the Saudis. The way to Riyadh is open and one of their airbases is just about to fall. However, in this assault segment, the Americans can try to do something. They gather three detachments from the 5th Special Forces Group and drop them into hex 0947, where the Iranians have foolishly left a supply depot unguarded!

We roll for the raid on the depot and get an "8", modified to 13 for attacking a Supply Depot on its own. The result is 3 hits and the depot is utterly destroyed. Unfortunately, this was the main node for the Iranian army down in Saudi Arabia so the whole invasion force is now out of supply! Oh man.

Let's file all this under lessons learned:

1.) Have redundant supply paths for your units if possible so that if one depot is taken out, at least some of your guys will remain in supply and functioning.

2.) Don't leave supply depots alone in a hex. Ever. Always have a unit with them, even if it's a lowly infantry brigade.

3.) I probably could have avoided this headache from the start by putting an airbase in 1046 instead of in Kuwait City. Then put a supply depot there with an infantry brigade and air defense (and an F-14 Tomcat) to firm it up a bit. Suddenly you have a pretty defensible supply depot serving as your main supply mode from Basra down into northern Saudi Arabia.

In the Second Action Stage, the Iranians get 3 NMPs while the US/Gulf Council gets zero.

In the Movement Phase, the Iranian player can pretty much only look helplessly on the map and try to figure out how to rebuild the whole affair from scratch next turn. The first order of business is trying to secure an airfield where a supply depot can be safely stored and used as a relay to help the Iranian army down south in Saudi Arabia. The C-130 in Tehran is loaded up with Iranian Spec. Forces troops from the 55th Brigade and they are unloaded in hex 1046 in Kuwait. We'll use a CH-47 to transport the airbase from Khark Island next turn into 1046 and get a supply depot set up there as quickly as possible.

During the End Stage, 20 hits total are assigned to the out of supply Iranian army sitting down in Saudi Arabia. Initiative will go over to the US player next turn. Wow. This is pretty embarassing but it's the kind of experience you never forget that starts to teach you how to play the game properly. Ignore the importance of supply at your own peril and watch your enemy have a field day.

Iran purchases a supply depot and places it in Tehran for transport next turn. The Saudis lose 4 supply points to Yemeni guerillas operating on the border. What a mess!