Saturday 27 October 2018

Somewhere in Normandy

or My first foray with Chain of Command

Four months since my last blog entry means it has been too long between drinks, though included in that was a month on holiday abroad. Still, it's no excuse, so I am hoping to be a little more regular and frequent with both playing and reporting. 

Last weekend I got together with Michael to have our first crack at the Too Fat Lardies (TFL) Chain of Command rules. I've had the rules for a while now and have built up some fairly handy German, British and US mid- to late-war forces. I have been vicariously experiencing games via regular review of the threads and AARs on the TFL forums and the excellent video accounts of Travis of Tabletop CP. But while this gives you a fair understanding of the rules and game-play, it's never the same as getting the figures onto the table and experiencing it for yourself.

So, as an introduction for us we decided to keep it simple - keeping it infantry only (British vs Germans) and using the Patrol Scenario.

Michael was keen to try the Germans, and took a regular infantry platoon (a Senior Leader, a 2-man Panzerschrek team, and 3 Truppen each with a Junior Leader and 1x3-man LMG team and 1x6-man Rifle team). I had a regular British infantry platoon (two Senior Leaders, a 2-man PIAT team, 2-man 2" mortar team, and 3 Sections each with a Junior Leader, 1x3-man LMG team and 1x6-man Rifle team).

We rolled a "2" for supports, meaning just one point each, and given no defensive supports available we both went with an off-table Senior Leader. (I wasn't thinking too much about this, but this was a silly choice for me given that I had two Senior Leaders anyway. As the game played out, I'm really regretting I passed over the medic!)

The Germans started with a Force Morale of 9 and the British started with 11. So fairly evenly matched all round.

Our setting was normal French farmland running up to the edge of a village. There were a few, mostly hedged fields in the centre, including one with vines. The hedges were ordinary farm hedges,  not like the heavy Bocage country of much of Normandy. There was a farm house and outbuildings on the bottom left of the table and the beginnings of the village on the right. A road ran from left to right across the middle of the table, with joining roads from top left (surrounded by woods) and bottom centre. Above the village was cratered ground and a bombed-out manor. There was an open orchard at top centre leading up to the manor and a walled orchard at bottom left running up to the village. There were two rocky outcrops near each of the road junctions and some low hills.

The rough plan of the table and some photos below will provide a better idea of the terrain and layout. We randomly decided our friendly sides, with Michael/Germans at the top and myself/British at the bottom.

"Somewhere in Normandy"
Looking from Bottom Left
Looking from Right
Looking from Top Centre

The Patrol Phase

Chain of Command includes a pre-game Patrol Phase to determine where the players' deployment points will be. This is an abstracted game-within-a-game intended to reflect the first probes and  points of contact for each side's reconnaissance forces, providing identification of suitable points for deployment, known as Jump-Off Points (JOPs).

Richard Clarke - one half of the Two Fat Lardies and author of Chain of Command - has described the deceptively simple Patrol phase as a "short but vital phase of the game". Andy from Tiny Hordes has also provided an excellent overview of how the Patrol phase works.

For our Patrol Phase we each selected 4 patrol markers. I rolled a 6 so was starting below the village (bottom right) and Michael rolled a 4 so started above the central fields (top centre). I was hoping to get something up towards Michael's left flank; he was trying to keep me hemmed in to the corner, which he was pretty successful in doing.

Patrol Markers locked down
I ended up placing two JOPs in the walled orchard and one in a building in the village. Michael placed one among the vines in the centre, one behind the hedge at the top centre, and one behind a cart near the farm outbuildings in the bottom left.

Jump-Off Points in place

Into Combat

With the higher Force Morale I had the initiative and started with what, at the time, felt like a heaven-sent opening roll of the Command dice: 6-6-3-3-3; a double phase and the opportunity to get all of my Junior Leaders and sections on the table. So out went all three sections, one from each of the JOPs. My thinking was to use the next phase if I could to push these sections out and ideally threaten the German deployment points. In hindsight, I think I had a rush of blood to the head and seriously overestimated how far I thought I would get! The next phase gave me some "2"s and "3"s on my Command dice and the sections all moved, effectively pushing further away from each other and towards nothing much in particular! By the end of my double phase I had one section on the wrong side of the fence/hedge of the bottom centre field; one pushing up and around the left-most house of the village; and one moving up towards the cratered terrain.

British 1st Section, Left Flank
British 2nd Section, Centre
British 3rd Section, Right Flank
The next phase saw the Germans bring on a squad off their central JOP with the rifle team inside the small enclosure and the LMG on the road. Michael also added a couple of Chain of Command pips.

Germans bring on their first squad
Over the next couple of phases, I dithered as Michael moved his first squad forward and brought on his Senior Leader and the two remaining German squads: one on his left flank with the rifles heading into the orchard and the LMG team moving behind a hedge; and the other into the centre with the rifles lining the vineyard hedge and the LMG on the road. The Senior Leader was also in the centre, which was looking like where most of the action would be.

I brought on my 2" mortar team with the Platoon Sergeant at the corner of the walled orchard, moved my left flank section over the hedge into the bottom centre field but only slowly forward and the right flank section moved into light cover in the craters and probably in the most effective position of all my sections. However I was not getting any great lines of fire other than the centre Bren team which had already lost a man killed and not doing any damage in return. I started laying some smoke to hinder the German's MG42s which were effective in adding some small amounts of shock to my central section.

The German's strengthen at the centre

The village buildings were providing me cover but no effective fields of fire, with no windows overlooking the German's main central position. I decided to split my centre section, putting the Bren team on the village road between the brown and white houses and with the rifle section going tactical and moving out into the clear on the other side of the white house with the smoke providing my only cover.

Then Michael rolled 6-6-6-4-3 on his Command dice, giving him a double phase and ending the turn in between phases, so also lifting my smoke screen; as well as activation of his Senior Leader and one of his Junior Leaders to get things set up for a stonking!

Unfortunately (as is too often the case for we newbie AAR writers) when the action heats up we forget to take photos! So you will have to rely on my description from hereon in.

For the first in his double phase, Michael advanced his left flank squad further into the orchard, still in cover but almost within striking distance of my right flank section, to which his LMG team had continued to add light casualties and shock . I had earlier reminded him of the German national characteristics and I was pretty sure he was getting ready to pounce. At the centre, he tidied up his rifle firing line and brought his two LMG teams together and both within close range of my centre rifle team that had just broken cover.

On the second of the double phases, with the smoke lifted and enough from his Command dice, he poured in a withering fire onto my central rifle team, knocking out their Junior Leader and adding enough shock and kills to pin them. Given the number of dice he was rolling it's amazing he didn't do more damage, but this was bad enough.

On his left flank, the cry of "Handgranaten!" went up. He was fairly unlucky with his hand grenades, with only one hit adding just one shock, but with his follow-up 3D6 he was easily able to move to initiate close combat. When we started to add up our dice he was not so happy. I'd only lost one man and not a lot of shock (3 points) from the section his team was up against, so Michael had 10 dice to my 21. As it was, Michael had what he called "an arsey* throw" (four "6"s and two "5"s cf. to my six "5s" and no "6"s) - netting us six kills each, but with Michael also inflicting four additional shock and enough to break my section. (* In Australian slang, "arsey" means "to pull something off without skill".) Both our leaders went down wounded, which meant he held the field with one man left and a knocked-out leader, while my chaps bolted. Moreover, they were close enough to the table edge to vacate the field altogether!

My Force Morale plummeted from 11 to 5 in one phase! My next phase I was able to use my Platoon Sergeant to unpin my centre section (actually, now my right flank!) and move all bar the knocked-out junior leader back behind the cover of the white house. I'd also been able to get this section's Bren team into the brown house and bring out my ranking Senior Leader with the PIAT team (I really don't know why I did this).

Michael used his phase to consolidate his MG42 position at the centre, including getting some height to enable fire down on my recently arrived PIAT team, wiping them out immediately and following up by killing my Lieutenant to boot! It was a horror story, but also the price of a really DUMB move on my part. And so my Force Morale dropped to 2.

Given this was a stand-alone game, we decided to play to the end, which came quickly enough. My left section had finally made up enough ground to start to get some fire onto Michael's right flank rifle team, but our fire exchanges were fairly equal and made little impact either way. Michael rolled up another triple "6" with his Command dice, with the effect that the end of turn saw my centre section's Junior Leader revive but now 4" away from his nearest troops and so fully exposed to two MG42s at short range. And with him went my last two Force Morale points!


I feel like I have learnt so much from this one game, it is hard to know where to start, so it might be best to start with an overview and then work through some of the specific stages of this game.

We both certainly had an excellent afternoon of wargaming, even if I got a severe pasting! And it has given me even more desire to play more Chain of Command. It also seems to bring to the fore those two key elements of TFL games - command and friction - and I can certainly see why it has such a dedicated legion of fans.

I can see what Richard and others are saying about the importance and subtlety of the pre-game Patrol Phase, and suspect I will always struggle with it. I read recently that it is worth walking around the table during the Patrol Phase to get a more 360° perspective which I will definitely try in future. In our post-game postmortem we agreed that Michael played this perfectly whereas I was probably trying to do too much and cover too many bases. Looking at this mechanism more generally I can also see how this can introduce a significant amount of variation into the game, even if you were using the same terrain layout and forces, and what that can mean for a dynamic campaign game fought within a reasonably confined territory.

I think for both of us our JOP placements were good, but having started with our JOPs where they were, I probably made the mistake of too aggressive a start, particularly given I was probably in a very strong defensive position. My initial double phase didn't help, as it made me feel I could do more than I could. I joked to Michael afterwards that I managed to perfectly combine aggression with indecision, and he was able to capitalize on the combination. Michael also described this as the common wargaming problem of moving because you can, not because you should. Certainly my initial plans of an envelopment on both flanks were ridiculously ambitious (as well as just plain ridiculous), not least of all because I was moving in those directions before any German had deployed!

When reflecting on this, I felt it may have been that I am used to gaming earlier periods and so was not really appreciating the greater range and effectiveness of our weapons here, and feeling instead the need to always close the range. Michael is a little more comfortable with this kind of weaponry (he does a lot of Warhammer 40K and sci-fi wargaming), but in any case he nevertheless seriously out-maneuvered and outplayed me on the day.

I really enjoyed the way the Command dice work in providing your options for unit deployment and activation, including the flexibility of adding some together, as well as the frustrations that it can also deliver when the combination doesn't go your way, reflecting that ever-present friction and reminding you that, while you may be in command, there are limits on what you can control.

I also like the variability of movement - a common feature of TFL games - which further adds to the sense of friction and which works so brilliantly in a WW2 platoon-level skirmish game. There is still much I need to think about and practice when it comes to deploying units to the table. My starting inclination is to deploy as much as I can, if and when I can - I think mostly because I am so used to having all my troops available to me at the start of a game - but I can really see how holding back for the right moment can be so much more effective.  

The firing, shock and casualty mechanisms work much like Sharp Practice 2 and quickly become second nature to run through and apply. What was impressive is the firepower of LMGs, particularly the German's MG42s. I've seen this in many AARs, but it is something else to see it in action. Get two of these triangulating you in their cross-hairs and ... well, you won't be there for long! It may take me some practice before I get the hang of reacting to, as well as better coordinating, this kind of firepower.

This game also reinforced for me the importance of cover in a way which differs again from some of the earlier period wargaming that I am used to (where those things that provide "cover" can be more a hindrance for effective maneuver). Again, I'm sure that practice helps here.

Notwithstanding his "arsey" result, Michael thought that the close combat mechanism is too loaded in favour of the defender - and has had a similar experience with, and reflection on, fisticuffs in Sharp Practice 2 - but I believe it does reflect the genuine bloodiness of close quarters combat in any period, particularly if the defending side has not already been seriously softened up.

So all-in-all Chain of Command really does bring together all these elements into a beautifully constructed and realised whole. I am very keen to get back to the table to try out different troop types and qualities, as well as different support options and different scenarios. I've also been doing some thinking about possible campaigns - both for Sicily and Italy (1943-45) and Western Europe (1944-45) - which hopefully might find their way into future blogs.

Finally, you may have been wondering where the good Captain Fortier has been through all this. Well, as is customary, I will let him have the last word:

18 August 1944, "Somewhere in Normandy"

Ma mie chéri

I so wish to tell you where I am but the censors are still being quite strict, so "Somewhere in Normandy" is all that will get through at this time.

I am yet to find the QG to which I've been assigned for liaison duties, but no-one seems to be missing me too much and so I am traveling with any old unit who'll have me along for a couple of days in the right direction. This morning I messed in with some English chaps from the _______ regiment whose cook had managed to get hold of some pretty fair ham and coffee. 

I got talking with a young Captain relatively fresh from home who was pretty shaken up after his men got something of a mauling yesterday. He welcomed one of my Gitanes and some brandy and told me how his company had been patrolling around the village about 3 miles east from here when a platoon ran into Germans doing the same thing. By his account they were equally matched but his men were inexperienced and maybe a little over-confident and so got leurs culs remis à eux! He lost one of his best young officers - and friends, I'm guessing - and so today he has le cafard. But it is a good lesson that even when the Boche look like they're running they can turn around and blacken your eye! I'm sure it is a lesson Capt. ______ has learned; I'm also sure he will go on learning and look forward to blacking a few Boche eyes himself!

As much as my being back in France warms my patriot's heart, I can tell you I'd prefer to be back in your arms and enjoying the warmth of your bed! Last night, I spent another cold damp night in le Trou de Loup huddled up next to my driver Caporal Gonzague. He smells so much like epoisses, I'm inclined to sleep alone in the jeep, but they do make easy targets ...

Extract from Fortier's War: The Collected Correspondence of Capt. Julien Fortier, 1939-45, edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.