Fritz and I played a great game of Chain of Command this week, not only a lot of fun but a battle that really made me think during the game and afterwards. I'm still relatively new to CoC, but I learned a lot this game, and wanted to share. Let me know what you think folks.
Several people have commented about how difficult it can be to win with the Spanish Civil War People's Militia, and while there are definitely plenty of weaknesses, it also turns out that there are a few significant strengths as well. Frankly, I was surprised to win, even against green Peninsular Army troops, and I've been giving a lot of thought to exactly what happened to make it possible. There are two main areas I want to talk about: Patrol Phase, and Militia Tactics.
The more I think about it, the more I play Chain of Command in general, the more I realize that the game really can be won or lost on the patrol phase. This week's game is a perfect illustration of that principle in action. It's not everything, but "winning" the patrol phase puts you in a position to take advantage of whatever strengths your platoon has. Others have written far more extensively about this
extremely important part of the game, but I'll add a few points. If you play CoC I
also recommend checking out the game creator's series on CoC Tactics
(start here, go right to the Patrol Phase tutorial, or download the whole thing as a pdf).
Ignore the patrol markers below for now and just look at the terrain. The photo was taken from the Militia's table edge (Attack/Defend scenario), facing the Army's side.
The center of the board is dominated by a hill planted with vines. At the top of the hill is an old wooden fence, at the bottom a short stone wall. Beyond the fence is pretty much nothing at all, with the right upper corner (from the milita's vantage) being more or less dead open ground with only a few bushes for cover. By contrast, the militia's left upper corner (army's right) is rich with
obstacles and cover. Hedges, fields, and a stone wall on the far side.
This is also the only corner that the army may deploy vehicles from
(via the road).
The hill itself isn't too high, but it is high enough to effectively divide the board in half in regards to line of sight. Anyone on the right can't shoot over the hill to someone on the left, and vice versa. The only place on the board that can shoot everywhere is on the hill itself. However, once again, the opposite is true here... everyone on the board can shoot at anyone on the hill.
There is a sort of conventional wisdom among wargamers that it is always good to control the center of the board. Now, while this is true much of the time, the means of control really depends on the game you're playing. In some games, this means planting some bad-ass unit right in the middle of the board and hoping your armor saves justify the gain in tactical options that being at the center gives you. In a game of fire and maneuver (like CoC), playing like that can be deadly. Especially when the center of the board doesn't feature the best cover.
Ok, lets look at how the patrol phase actually played out.
For "Attack/Defend" the defender may place his markers up to 18" forward of his table edge (and all markers must form a chain no more than 12" from another marker), while the attacker starts on the edge, but gets 1d6 free moves once all markers are placed. While significant, 1d6 isn't a lot, even at best, given that the defender is already nearly up to the half way mark on the board. Clearly, the attacker has to know exactly where he wants to launch his attack and use those free moves aggressively.
Fritz kept his markers pretty close together (about 8") which allowed him to move up very quickly (as closer markers move faster), but forced him to concentrate in one relatively small area. He chose to concentrate on the center. As I set up a broad front at the beginning (markers at the max 18" from the edge, and 12" apart), so we locked down very quickly. In fact, with his markers being so close together, they were easier to lock down. Even though keeping them that far apart reduced my ability to move forward quickly, it was Fritz's choice to come at the center in a close, tight formation that allowed me to envelop his markers and trap him there. I must admit, this was partly luck on my part. I didn't fully realize how good a position I'd landed in until the game had fully developed.
See the picture of the final position below. The red lines show which markers have locked down (come within 12" of an enemy marker). As the patrol phase ends when one side is locked down, it is a very wise strategy sometimes to lock down your own markers quickly, to prevent the enemy from continuing to maneuver. As you see below, Fritz's most forward marker (on the hilltop) locked down three of mine. This was entirely intentional on my part. My last marker locked down two of Fritz's. What this left is Fritz's markers locked down very close together, with one marker left in the rear with little to do. It also locked him down in an unenviable position to place his Jump-Off Points.
As jump off points must be placed behind cover, they are always further back than the patrol markers. Below, see the JoP placements, blue being the militia, red the army. Fritz succeeded in getting two JoPs placed at the center of the table. One allows him to dominate the hilltop, with a full field of fire across the board, although with only an old fence and some grape vines to hide behind. The second JoP behind the hedge offers better protection, and can support the hilltop to some degree (indeed, by the end of the game Fritz had a senior officer there, with the hilltop well within his command range), but can only fire on the (army's) right side of the board, the hill blocking the view to most of the left. The third JoP was almost at the table edge, too far back to be particularly useful (except to the field gun which deployed there, but which also had no vantage to shoot over the hill).
What was the outcome of this? See the image below. Fritz had one section on the hill, another behind the hedge supporting them. I had an armored car with MG on the left, a section with LMG at center, and a MMG supported section in the barn on the right, all able to fire at the section on top of the hill. His single section could indeed shoot anywhere on the board, but you can only shoot at one target at a time an hope to be effective. However my militia was able to concentrate all of its fire on that exposed point. Far from the strong-point Fritz hoped for, it became his achilles heel.
So yes, the center of the board and hilltop line of sight can be useful to hold, but based on the image below, which side could be said to "control" the center of the board?
Shock accumulated fast, the junior leader went down (morale loss), and a senior leader was placed there to deal with the shock. The officer took a hit before the two of the team's three sections finally broke. Fritz finally withdrew the last team from the hill, but by that time, he'd already lost several command dice (two broken teams and two injured officers in that section alone), and the game was more or less over.
Most of this, I believe, is due to a successful patrol phase. I think that if Fritz had attempted to flank me with his patrol markers, particularly on the left, it would have been a far harder fight for the milita. Before we'd begun the main game, Fritz's force was confined to difficult area to advance from. Pushing his attack at the center of a broad front across minimal cover was bound to be a problem.
Yes, they have the odds stacked against them. Taking "Highly Motivated Militia" from the support list removed the two most unforgiving rules, but there were plenty of hobbles remaining: Only 4 command dice to the army's 5, if hit in the open they take more shock, and most importantly, the sections don't have junior leaders nor do they have sub-teams unless a senior leader makes them (and you only get one senior leader, who isn't quite as good as the enemy's). Basically a militia section is 10 men (or women in this case) with no officer and little training.
But believe it or not, within these weaknesses we find a great advantage. I'm not really sure it was intentional in the rules, but lets look at it.
It's all about the way force morale works. As Fritz pointed out to me, this is a game about driving off the enemy more than killing him. And that's a psychological game, where morale is the deciding factor. A typical army section (for the Spanish Civil War) has 3 teams and a junior leader, and you roll for morale whenever a team breaks and again if wiped out, and again if the whole section breaks or is wiped out. You also roll if your junior leader is wounded, killed (and both can happen in one game), or routs from the table as part of a broken team. The worst case scenario if the enemy breaks and then wipes out the section would be as many as ten rolls on the morale chart.
In the example above, where the hilltop section broke, Fritz had to make a roll for each team that broke (2), for a junior leader being wounded, a senior leader wounded, and the wounded junior leader routing from the table. As many of these rolls can produce a result of -1 to -3 force morale, we can see how Fritz's 5 rolls on the force morale chart doomed him, as he only started with 8 morale (bad luck on that roll!)
The militia, by contrast, doesn't work like that at all. A section is just ten guys without a real effective leader. They make one roll if they break, and another if they are wiped out (but no roll for routing from the table). That's 2 morale rolls max for each militia section (and max -2 morale at worst roll), compared to 8 rolls max for the regular army. The biggest threat is the loss of the senior leader.
Of course, militia break really easy. They take more shock than the army, and have only one leader for the whole platoon that can reduce it. When a section accumulates enough shock to prevent it moving or firing effectively, it's essentially doomed. But if you have enough morale (and I was lucky enough to start with 11), it doesn't really hurt too bad to lose a section of militia.
This means playing militia calls for very different tactics than playing a professional army unit. It's that whole "quantity is its own quality" thing. Playing professionals, if a section is getting chewed up, it makes sense to use the officers to try to save the unit and reduce shock, and retiring it out of the firing line when it gets too chewed up. Better to pull back for a couple of phases, get rid of that shock, and find a better position on the enemy. This makes sense, given the amount of time and effort that went into training those men. Playing militia, it seems better to say screw it and leave them there to break and die. You probably have more militia to replace them with anyway.
As it turned out in this particular game, with 11 force morale, these militia would be a real pain to chase off the field. The platoon has 4 sections, and if the army wiped out all 4 of them, it would still only be 8 rolls on the morale chart. If I only lost 1 morale for each roll (unlikely), I still would have been at force morale 3. Sure, I'd only have had a (very frightened) senior leader and and an armored car left, but No Pasaran!
So, thinking about how to best use militia tactically, it seems to me that buying extra sections, and either adding the men to the existing sections (to make them last longer) or having back up sections makes sense. Others have cautioned against buying lots of extra sections or units from the support list because of the limited command resources of 4 dice. I disagree. It could make a lot of sense to have 6 10-man sections and hold 2-3 off the board entirely. Wait for the sections in combat to break (and they will), then pour in the replacements. A section breaking and running is only likely to cost you 1 point of force morale. The off-board units can't be shot at and don't use command dice until they replace broken units on the firing line.
You still have to play smart with deployment, obviously, and win the firefight, because if the enemy gets close, you're probably going to lose in close combat, and this strategy hinges on not losing those jump off points to the enemy. In other words, keep your distance. This is not a force to be charging with.
It also makes sense to keep the Senior Leader back away from the action until the most crucial moment of decision. It's so tempting to want to put your senior leader up front with a section that's getting chewed up. But the risk of losing the section (-1 to -2 if the section breaks) is just not as great as losing the leader (-1 to -3 for wounds, kills, or routs, and you might have to make 2 of those rolls), and just won't often be worth it.
On an role-play level this represents the willingness to throw untrained men into the fight knowing that most of them are going to die for the cause. Seems pretty in character with the conflict actually.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it overall though. While the individual sections are fragile, the lack of rolls on the morale chart mean that militia can be quite stubborn despite casualties. I haven't played the Russians which seem to have similar organization, but I wonder if similar tactics are in order there. Does this reflect the willingness to allow masses of untrained men and women to go to their deaths for the cause? Or is there an imbalance in game design? Is this a "cheap" tactic, exploiting the rules? I don't know. Of course, this is an unofficial SCW supplement, and still a work in progress [Edit: I was completely wrong about the supplement being unofficial - it's the real Lard! Further, after some wonderful comments by the two creators, it's very clear that these rules are working as intended. Good to know!]
There is also an optional rule set for "Irregulars" in the supplement that may provide more realism within the existing rules, but I haven't yet tried them and have no idea if they change the feel of the action.
Any CoC players have any thoughts on the above?
EDIT: Fritz has his own analysis up on his site as well.