Leros: Endgame

When we last left off, the British were pressing the attack home on Leros, when the German reinforcements landed.

The prospects for this attack were looking increasingly grim, but the Brits kept trying, which ultimately ended up savaging both involved battalions, putting the British below the threshold for possible surrender. Facing down a couple of days of pounding at the hands of the Luftwaffe, the British conceded. You know, I was going to chide Milton a bit for pressing home the attack well past any rational point – but every game of TCS or CWB I’ve played has ended up coming down to this, one player pushing an attack they see as critical well past any sane limits, creating a situation where the game will be decided one way or the other right then and there even if the odds are bad, and the player would be better off breaking off and regrouping. I think players just can’t face down the prospect of doing it all again, regrouping, reorganizing, writing up more Ops sheets, rolling more dice …

Which leads us to my final appraisal on TCS, which I have been holding out to pass until we had finished. I think TCS is an interesting system, but one that is critically flawed in a number of ways. The most important one is that it is just way too slow. Some of these game reports I’ve written, I have a hard time coming up with anything interesting that happened during that session. Combat is tedious, with multiple die rolls on multiple charts to come up with a step loss and an often totally irrelevant suppressed result. Due to the fact that Assault combat is suicidal and you can’t evict a unit from a position without killing off every last man in the platoon due to the lack of any sensible morale rules, interesting and/or decisive results essentially never occur; you spend way too much time resolving fire that has little effect. The order system only works when players are utterly scrupulous about not trying to push it. And don’t get me started on the LOS or SYR retreat-route rules (“we can’t write a reasonable rule, so, like, just do something sensible please!”).

But the critical element is the time commitment. You know, I love OCS, which takes just as long to play, but it’s interesting because every turn you’ve got stuff happening, combat can be deadly, and the situation is fluid. You move from opportunity to crisis with surprising rapidity. TCS, though … I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the old saying is that combat is hours of tedium followed by minutes of terror. In TCS, you game out both at equal fidelity, not a thrilling proposition.

So I won’t be playing Leros again, not when I could be playing OCS or Barbarossa or ASL or GCACW. The time commitment is just way too high for too little action. I actually hold out some hope that some other more mobile, higher-firepower, more open titles might be better, maybe Screaming Eagles, GD ’40, A Raging Storm … but I am not hugely optimistic. Several of my TCS titles are now on the eBay pile (Black Wednesday, A Frozen Hell, Semper Fi!) and will hopefully go out this weekend. An interesting concept and a reasonable attempt, but I have much better uses for my gaming time than this.

Leros

When we last played, the German’s hopes had been saved by the fact that one British battalion had turned left instead of right. Today, that errant battalion accepted some new orders, to join in on the attack on Leros.

This resulted in basically the entire orders of battle on both sides blasting each other at close range. Both sides took a serious beating, as the Luftwaffe field units on the south side of Leros had their front line turned, and several hexes were rolled up by brutal crossfire. On the other hand, a couple 88s on the frontline and the newly-arrived artillery battalions also started dishing out some brutal fire, which combined to chew up the attackers pretty well. On the northern flank, the British attack was compromised by parts of a reinforcing German battalion actually landing behind them, resulting in a very confused melee with no clear result yet.

By the end of the session, with morning (and the intervention of the Luftwaffe) just a few turns away, the southern assaulting battalion had been chewed up and stalled, although not without loss to the defenders also (including one of the 88s).

We discovered one rule we had been misplaying last time. The basic rule is, illuminating rounds don’t scatter. The specific game rule is, Illuminating rounds do scatter. Sigh. Not a huge difference I think as we would have plastered everything with IR regardless, but it does make a difference (the no-scatter IR in the series rules is pretty dumb anyway). We also realized that we can user our plentiful mortars to drop IRs too, so basically both sides have access to as much IR as they realistically want, which lead to the night turns being little different from the day turns, just a one shift left on most fire and a one shift right on most morale checks.

We thought that the once the Germans landed their heavy equipment the British might be doomed, but we decided there was still enough game left in there to keep playing, at least another session or two. The Brits are in a hurting way, but it’s by no means a done deal.

Leros

If you recall, after last session the Germans were in real trouble. They were backed in to the city of Leros, which is out on a broad peninsula. The infantry arm had suffered heavy casualties. We had no heavy weapons. The Fallschrimjäger troops in Portolago has been driven off with heavy casualties. And two fresh British battalions were poised on the outskirts of Leros, ready to launch their attacks, and interdict the critical pier.

Things were not as they seemed, however. The critical problem from the British point of view was that the fresh battalion south of Leros had as its objective not Leros or the pier, but Portolago to the west – the op sheet had been written up hours ago when the situation was less clear. So rather than being able to make a quick right turn and terminally stall the German operation, they instead pressed on to the now-irrelevant city of Portolago that the Fallschrimjägers had already abandoned.

Which allowed the German reinforcements, including some light armor, the heavy artillery, heavy mortars, elements of several infantry battalions, and some heavy flak guns to pour into Leros, turning the tide of battle almost immediately. The artillery right away started pounding British point units, the mortars (which are seriously overpowered in this system by the way) started supporting the forward units, and all of a sudden the British attack from the north looked much more tenuous, especially since what looked like the southern concentric supporting attack was in fact not going to happen.

So things went from looking pretty rosy for the Brits to looking pretty ugly. Once the Luftwaffe starts shooting again in the morning, especially since we’ve wiped out their AA defenses, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to hold out for two more whole days.

I did some research on the net, and the general sense seems to be that the campaign is pro-German. Early on that didn’t seem very likely to me, but now I am willing to entertain the thought. We took about the riskiest strategy possible and it didn’t exactly pan out as we hoped, but it still looks like we should probably be able to pull it out. Still, it was a nearly-run thing. If that British battalion had orders to go after Leros instead of Portolago, things might be very different.

One last thing, I have to say that the night rules in TCS are a joke. There are no restrictions on what you can do at night, and visibility is still what, 250 meters? And the plentiful and infallible illuminating rounds makes even those restrictions almost moot. ASL has awesome night rules, even if they are a bit heavy, and TCS really, really needs to be improved in this respect. The 4.0 beta night rules are actually even worse, if that’s possible. A shame. TCS is an interesting system, but playing a big campaign game like this you certainly get to see its weaknesses as well.

Leros

Just a few quick comments for a quick session in which we only finished 3-4 turns:

This is, I think, where things are starting to look pretty grim for the Germans. Most of a fresh British battalion landed just outside Leros to close the noose around the Germans holed up there, just remnants of two battalions that have taken very heavy casualties in the infantry arm. The Luftwaffe field battalion holding south of Leros was completely overrun (not a shocker given their 5 morale, but still). The Fallschrimjaegers, who have held on but who were badly depleted after a dicey initial landing were pushed out of their blocking positions in a confused melee. And both British battalions encircling Leros got their attack orders rolling. Not good.

While I fully expect it will be a tough fight, in all honesty these Germans are not very good troops; except for the excellent Fallschrimjaegers, platoon-for-platoon the German OOB is not a match for the British. We need those heavy weapons that land in the second wave. Unfortunately, it looks like the reinforcements will land just a few turns too late; the pier is not very secure and a concerted British effort will likely push us off of it, in which case we are doomed.

I thought the central landing area would work out, but in retrospect it was too big of a gamble. It’s no longer 1941, and these Germans just aren’t tough enough to tangle with Brits; plus, we had some rather bad luck on the initial landings, which our position couldn’t afford.

At the end of the day, though, I choose to blame it all on the Luftwaffe. While our air support has achieved a few results, given we get 3-4 planes every single turn the lack of any real significant contribution from them has been pretty impressive. I’ll have to run the numbers some time, see what you can actually expect, but after all the hype as to how the Luftwaffe was the decisive element of this campaign, I certainly expected a bit more.

Anyway, I expect 2-3 more sessions should wrap it up.

Leros: Approaching Endgame

We finished something like 8 turns this time, largely because the fighting in Leros finished up and we entered the “calm before the storm” phase as the entire British OOB is in position and just waiting for their attack orders to implement before crashing into our little foothold. Meanwhile, my Fallshcrimjaegers in Portolago continued some inconsequential skirmishing with some remnants of the Irish brigade that was starting to infringe on the future landing zone of the heavy equipment. Fortunately, they were driven off (or eliminated), and the recoilless rifles and mortars arrived without incident.

At which point the game got interesting. I think one of the things that may have been frustrating Milton (the British player) here is that neither side really has a lot of heavy equipment in this game, so it’s a lot of squads taking pot-shots at each other which takes absolutely forever to accomplish anything. Milton has also had bad luck with his artillery. Well, this session demonstrated that in reality (unlike what you might take away from, say, Squad Leader) if you want something done right, what you need is not a bunch of squads but some heavy firepower. The recoilless rifles are a poor substitute for 105mm howitzers, but they’ll do the job. Once you start shooting on the 16+ tables, things start getting interesting. Milton’s luck with his arty also cleared up, much to the dismay of the paratroopers who got seriously whacked.

Anyway, as you may have noticed from my session reports, I move back and forth a bit on TCS. It’s a good enough game, but the real question is does it justify the time commitment. Last couple of sessions, I’ve been leaning a bit more towards “no”, despite the good stuff. For a big game it’s not bad, but it seems the pacing is off. Combat has been described as hours of boredom followed by minutes of terror, and TCS seems to treat these times equally. It seems that sometimes the 20-minute turns need to be a lot more intense – you often read about the “mad minutes” in which every gun on the line is firing with devastating results. You can bring bring massive quantities of firepower on a hex and it’s hard to do more than a step loss (less than a squad) and a suppressed result. And then, you have to play out the 20 minute turns where everyone is mainly realigning and taking low-odds pot-shots with the same detail as the heavy-combat turns. Finally, the command system is really just not quite tight enough. I’ve been referencing the 4.0 beta rules to see how they’re dealing with some of these acknowledged problems, and while generally I like what they’re doing, one thing that definitely worries me is that they are making combat significantly less lethal by generally weakening the area fire table and significantly increasing terrain benefits. This certainly has me concerned.

So I dunno. This is a game I still like the core concepts of a lot, and if you want a system game for the “big picture” of a WWII battlefield, you won’t find better (PanzerLeader? PanzerGrenedier? Please … even Squad Leader is much more fantasy than reality). There is enough good stuff in TCS that I still really want to like it. I’d like to play A Raging Storm or Screaming Eagles, games where both sides have a lot of firepower, before passing final judgment. But I do find myself questioning whether TCS deserves the space it’s taking up on my shelf when stacked up next to OCS, GCACW, Ukraine 43, Barbarossa, etc. Because realistically, I’m still at the point where I have too many games I’ll never play, and while I’m certainly not thinking of liquidating my entire TCS collection anytime soon, some of the weaker games (like Hunters from the Sky or A Frozen Hell) are probably eBay candidates.

One way or the other, this game won’t go on too much longer. Everyone is lined up; as soon as the British attacks press home, things will be decided one way or the other.

Clearing out Leros

It’s getting confusing, always talking about the Island of Leros vs, the City of Leros, but I think we were finally able to declare victory in clearing out Leros. The city, that is. There are a couple weapon platoons on the outskirts yet, and a persistent platoon (and, somewhat more irritatingly, a Bofors AA gun) occupies Castle Leros – and probably will for the foreseeable future, given the -4 terrain shift and the fact that it’s on top of a huge hill. But, the city and the critical pier are under control and the outliers should be rolled up momentarily. The cost was quite high on both sides, though – the Irish battalion that was manning the defenses was wiped out, and the elements of two German battalions that were attacking were badly mauled, one of them savaged. The pioneers won’t be doing a lot more pioneering this game. Meanwhile, the Fallschrimjaegers occupy Portolago, and have driven off a probe on their perimeter. The first batch of reinforcements (the Fsjr weapons company) will be arriving in just two turns.

Overall, the terrain we’ve occupied is quite satisfactory, but the losses have been very high indeed for the Germans and even once the heavy weapons show up, we may have a shortage of actual infantry to clear the rest of the island. Erasing the Irish, the best meaningful British unit (the tiny SAS and SBS contingents have also been badly mauled) was a big plus, but it’s now a race against time to bring in the reinforcements before the British can bring enough force to bear with a counterattack.

I do end up wondering if TCS suffers from somewhat similar problems to one of The Gamers’ other series, the Civil War Brigade series. In a nutshell, the problem with CWB is just that it takes too freaking long, for two reasons. Firstly, combat is much too incremental – you roll 6 dice on something like 5 tables to do only a tiny amount of damage, a point or two to a single brigade. Secondly, the game simply doesn’t reasonably model fatigue, so players can push their troops far beyond any rational, historical limits, so the lulls in the action simply don’t occur, and the fighting at some level goes on continuously 24 hours a day. The problem with this is that even desultory combat is comparatively time-consuming to resolve. Now, TCS certainly doesn’t suffer from this to the extreme of CWB – I once played Thunder at the Crossroads (Gettysburg CWB) for three Saturdays straight, 8 hours each, and we never got past the initial skirmishing. Here, we’ve played only 5 sessions, none much more than 2 hours, and a lot of stuff has happened. But enough? I dunno. TCS is not nearly as incremental as CWB, combat does take a serious toll and the game moves along – but formations never really become fatigued in any kind of a recoverable way, so battles are less decisive and drag on longer than they should be. Morale isn’t really well-covered – units will never break or withdraw unless their commander wants them to, regardless of casualties, and those mounting casualties rarely have any effect on the morale of the individual units. Fortunately, the new 4.0 beta rules do seem to address a few of these issues.

Thinking about this question of whether the time investment justifies the gaming content, this situation might make a good one to try to adapt to the Thunder At Cassino system. It’s short, smaller, self-contained, and an interesting battle with some interesting choices and units. At the Thunder at Cassino level it might have the requisite number of interesting decisions per minute to be unquestionably worth it. TCS is much more of a “flavor” game, you play it for the sense of the pressures of battle, to make incremental decisions that add up to something in the end (you hope), not really because you are making big, crucial decisions all the time like in an OCS game (or Puerto Rico).

Leros, Part III

We played I think 5 turns in about 2 hours tonight, so we’re getting the turns down to something pretty reasonable. Ron was unavailable, so I got to run the main assault on the city of Leros this time. We made a little more progress towards clearly the city and the critical pier, but the advance did stall to some degree. We control now some 75% of the town, but there is still a Bofors AA gun in Castle Leros causing us immense difficulties, and a platoon of Brits who stubbornly refuse to abandon their position by the pier. We managed to eliminate just a single British platoon while clearing another chunk of the city, but at the same time German losses are mounting steadily and the pioneers, so critical to the offensive operations, are being slowly bled. The Luftwaffe forces are doing their job – the paratroopers have dug in Portolago and should be a major nuisance to attempts to reinforce Leros, and the luftwaffe ground units, despite their appalling morale, have successfully eliminated the coastal guns that threaten the pier we hope to use and have held up against the admittedly minimal forces the Brits have thrown at them. The first heavy weapons will be arriving soon, in the form of some recoilless rifles and bigger mortars for the Fallschrimjaegers.

The lesson learned today was something I knew, but which is good to reinforce – things can take a while, and TCS is very attritional. Unlike SL, a position can hold out for a turn or two even against determined assault with firepower, and assault combat (the only way to rapidly force the issue) is risky and deadly for the attacker. So often you just have to be patient, especially when you lack any serious heavy weapons or armor as we do. Also, this is not (alas for us) 1941 anymore, the Germans don’t field any decisively superior troops, and an average of 4 morale makes assaults hard to press home.

I’ve been looking over the TCS 4.0 rules posted in beta format, and they look very nice, a significant improvement over 3.1. The Battalion Morale rules especially may actually work now, and I like the fact that Fired markers are now removed at the beginning of your action phase instead of the end of the turn – should force some more choices. I’m thinking about doing a Screaming Eagles or Objective Schmidt at Homercon West if I can find an opponent and a scenario that’ll take only a day to play, and I’d like to try out the new rules.