26 June 2011

AAR J116 Brigade Hill

Scenario J116 Brigade Hill (ASL Journal 8) depicts an action that took place during the Kokoda Track (or Trail) campaign in 1942. The track was the only overland route on Papua that connected Port Moresby on the Coral Sea with Buna on the Solomon Sea. On 21 July 1942, the Japanese landed approximately 2000 troops at Buna and a couple of nearby villages. Over the course of a month, they brought more troops ashore. By August, the Japanese fielded a force of some 6000 infantry and support troops. Their first objective was the airstrip at Kokoda, but the real prize was Port Moresby. The port is only 450 nautical miles from Cairns, Australia. Contrary to Australian fears at the time, the Japanese were not planning to use Port Moresby as a jumping off point for an invasion of the Australian mainland. Rather, Japan was more concerned with projecting airpower and safeguarding its gains in the Netherlands East Indies.
Historical background
At first, there was little that the outnumbered indigenous and (Australian) militia forces could do to stop the invaders. Fortunately for the defenders, a month passed before the Japanese were able to consolidate their beachhead and bring ashore more troops. Unfortunately for both belligerents, the tortuous track, disease, and hunger steadily took its toll on their soldiers and equipment. The track was, and largely remains, a single-file foot path that ascends to more than 2000 metres. It traverses dank jungle and moss forests infested with mosquitoes and land leeches. Days are generally hot and humid, with frequent torrential downpours. Nights are cold and damp due to the altitude. Malaria is common, and at the time dysentery was rife.

In spite of these conditions, the Japanese took Kokoda, and by September had rolled back the Australian defenses at Isurava, crossed the Owen Stanley Ranges, and begun their descent toward Port Moresby. On a ridge southwest of the mountain village of Efogi, the Australians had prepared yet another blocking position. 
The 2/27th Battalion, recently arrived from Port Moresby, was dug in along Mission Ridge—so named for the missionary’s hut located beside the track. The other battalions of the 21st Brigade (Brigadier Potts), were deployed in depth behind this fresh battalion. The 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions had been bloodied a week before at Isurava and during the week-long withdrawal back to Efogi. Both were understrength. The 2/14th Battalion took up positions  immediately to the rear of the 2/27th. The 2/16th Battalion, less D Company—assigned to protect the brigade supply dump and headquarters—was strung out along the track farther south. Brigade headquarters was located on a hill some 700 yards to the rear of the 2/16th. Although the distance between the forward companies of the 2/27th and brigade headquarters was less than two miles, it might as well have been ten given the nature of the rugged terrain and the muddy track that constituted the main line of communications. The Japanese commander would take advantage of this.

In the early hours of the 8th, a reinforced Japanese battalion struck the forward companies of the 2/27th. Despite repeated attacks—as many as eight assaults, according to some reports—the Australians held firm. However, by day break, Japanese intentions became clear. During the night, the Japanese had pushed a strong force along the entire left flank of the Australian brigade. Shortly after dawn, Japanese troops cut the track between brigade headquarters and the headquarters of the 2/16th. Brigade staff, and D Company of the 2/16th were heavily engaged. Fearing that his headquarters and vital supplies were about to be overrun, Brigadier Potts radioed the commander of the 2/16th for assistance. However, the battalion commander reported that he too was heavily engaged. His own headquarters had been threatened from the rear since 06:30. All that he could spare was a platoon led by a sergeant.
J116 Brigade Hill: Ken Dunn (Australian) versus Chris Doary (Japanese) AAR
After my scheduled opponent for the first round of MMP’s Iron Man contest bowed out, the organizer, Ken Dunn, offered to pinch hit. For those who don’t know, Ken is the man behind the Starter Kit series, and a number of other game designs.
We agreed on J116 due to its short length. We diced for sides and I got the Japanese. This worked out well given that the Japanese appear to be the underdog in this one and I played them once last summer. It would also give me more practice commanding these unique troops. It was only a year ago that I began to experiment with the Japanese and PTO again. The last time that I had “striped” a squad in ASL was during the early 1990s.
Based on previous experience, I opted to defend only hills 502 and 507. Admittedly, I did post some units on either flank of Hill 526. However, these forces were positioned merely to slow an anticipated flanking envelopment. My defence was predicated on four things:
1. delaying the enemy as long as possible;
2. channeling his movement into my kill zones;
3. executing a successful counterattack vs. his reinforcing platoon; and
4 effective use of my reinforcements. 
My reinforcements would either take advantage of an opportunity to seize hex P8 (or U6), or reinforce Hill 502/counterattack any Aussies on/south of this feature.
So much for best-laid plans. Here is what my defence looked like from the Aussie perspective.

Turn 1 Australians
Leaving a small force to garrison hex P8, the Aussies probe the centre before sending the bulk of their forces toward the Japanese right flank. The Japanese play coy and decline Defensive Fire. There is no Advancing Fire. The Aussie positions at the end of their first turn are shown below.

Turn 1 Japanese
I use my first turn to reorganize my positions in light of my opponent’s opening moves. Interestingly, Ken declines to fire on my units as they shift eastward on my right flank.

Turn 2 Australians
The Aussies continue to push hard into my right flank. An Aussie section opens fire during the AFPh on my concealed stack in X0. An LMG-toting 9-0 leader appears. During the APh Aussie units in the centre slip onto Hill 526 taking their first objective without a fight. My “position” in V2 falls at the same time. I reveal a 4-4-7 in X6 and a 2-3-7 in CC8 in order to strip Aussie concealment on Hill 526. So far my plan to delay the enemy as much as possible seems to be working.

Turn 2 Japanese
Things begin to heat up in my PFPh. My knee mortar in CC8 begins the festivities with a hit (but no rate) on the 4-5-8/LMG in U4. I manage a NMC. And in what becomes a pattern for much of the game, the Aussie section breaks. Smelling blood, the evil MMG stack in BB8 lets rip with a pair of deuces! The surviving HS rolls snakes, and immediately goes berserk. The Japanese machine gunners let rip another burst (1,5). The HS is nonplussed. A third burst (2,4) and the berserk HS rolls itself into oblivion (6,5)! The Japanese count their blessings and let their barrels cool.
During the MPh, Japanese units continue to fall back and reorganize. The Aussie mortar HS in U6 takes a couple pot shots at his enemy counterpart in CC8. This fire does nothing but generate a sniper attack on P8, breaking a 4-5-7/LMG. The turn ends with Japanese having reinforced Hill 507 in anticipation of an Aussie attack from the south.

Turn 3 Australians
As anticipated, Aussie reinforcements set up to enter in the southeast (GG1-2). After some failed entrenchment attempts on Hill 526, the Aussies continue their push along my right flank. The dummy counters in X1 are brushed aside first, then a search of the area reveals little. (Searching for Japanese in the jungle is a bit tough with a +2 drm.) Japanese defensive fire is limited to random mortar rounds from CC8 that doing nothing to the Aussie HS in U6. I reveal a HS in CC3 in order to strip concealment from his 9-1 stack as it advances into U5. But little else occurs this turn.
(Note: the Aussie 8-1 stack in Y1 ends its turn concealed.)

Turn 3 Japanese
Given that a 4-5-7/LMG remains broken in P8, I set my reinforcements up to take advantage of any failed rally attempt this turn (P11/Q11). But the Aussie section in P8 rallies. My Prep Fire is light (three salvos from my knee mortar in CC8), but enough to break the mortar HS in U6. I use the MPh to consolidate my position on Hill 507. Ken’s DFPh is soured by “boxing” his MMG. Below is the situation prior to the 9-0 gaining concealment in CC2.

Turn 4 Australians
Ken foregoes Prep Fire in favour of searching and movement. He finds nothing initially, but some of my men on Hill 507 tire of this game and open fire on those shadowy men in odd-looking hats. No one finds his mark until the MMG stack opens up on a lone 4-5-7 in FF2. This bit of good news is tempered by the fact that I now have to contend with concealed Aussie units on either side of, and adjacent to, Hill 507. Ken has three turns to take hex CC4, and his units are only two hexes away!

Turn 4 Japanese
The Aussie Vickers is kaput. Time to counterattack! My boldness costs me a HS and a “striped” squad, two-thirds of this damage directly attributable to a pesky enemy HS. But the rewards are sweet: a 4-5-7 and a 4-5-8 eliminated for failure to rout. Feeling especially emboldened, I send a HS into bamboo versus what I know to be a concealed (albeit CX) 4-5-7. Incredibly, I ambush the Aussie squad, but fail to hurt it. The Aussies graciously respond with a pair of sixes and out of the bamboo my HS hops. I’m getting worried now, though. I have had far too much luck in this game…

Turn 5 Australians
Predictably, the turn starts out bad. A 4-5-7 in AA3 wounds my 9-1 leader. He survives his wound check and averts a minor disaster. The Aussies near Hill 507 inch their way forward as others rush toward the now lightly defended Hill 502. The 4-5-7 in EE2 attempts to fall back into FF1, but is quickly reduced to a broken HS despite the attempts of an 8-1 to help.
During the DFPh, my knee mortar in CC3 fails to hit the menacing stack in AA3. The MMG stack has more luck. The enemy 8-1 breaks, along with a 4-5-7. But two 4-5-8s remain unharmed in AA3. Feeling desperate, I reveal my HIP squad and LMG in AA4. However, it only manages to reduce the 4-5-7 and pin a 4-5-8/LMG. These Aussies just cannot take a hint. Indeed, they have the effrontery to “stripe” my squad in AA4. On the plus side, his 2-4-7 in FF1 is eliminated for FTR, and his 8-1 locks himself into melee with my 9-0 in FF0. Here is the situation at the end of Turn 5A.

Turn 5 Japanese
My Japanese are in a bit of a bind. They need to hold off the main Aussie effort on my right flank, but also need to buttress the defences on Hill 502. Much will depend on the effectiveness of my PFPh. If I can relieve some of the pressure on Hill 507, then I will be able to shift some resources to cover Hill 502.
My knee mortar in CC3 has no WP to smoke off AA3 and is too close to fire smoke. HE rounds only manage to pin one 4-5-8 in AA3. The hapless 3-4-7 in AA4 fires, but fails to impress the Aussies next door. The MMG stack has more success, reducing and pinning the adjacent 4-5-8 with a K/3. Disappointed by these results, the Japanese opt to consolidate further on Hill 507, while dispatching a HS to deal with the melee in FF0. A few Japanese units take up impromptu defensive positions on Hill 502.
Except for a 3-4-7 pinning in CC2, I survive the DFPh unscathed. What a relief.
In the APh, I shift my units around on Hill 507 in order to provide covering fire onto Hill 502. (I am particularly relieved to get my two MMGs into BB4 and out of LOS of that nasty enemy stack in AA3.) I send the mortar HS from CC3 into CC with the pinned 2-4-8 in BB3, with the hope of preventing an Aussie move through this hex next turn. Another HS jumps the Aussie 8-1 in FF0. In CC3, both HS are eliminated. In FF0, the 8-1 is wounded but survives to keep my units locked in Hand-to-Hand Melee. Not what I was expecting in either case. The situation looks bleak for the Japanese on Hill 502 and less than stellar for the Aussies around Hill 507.

Turn 6 Australians
Aussie Prep Fire versus the CC3 position is ineffective. But this fire does tie up a platoon of frustrated squaddies in AA3. The floppy-hat brigade nevertheless manages to close on Hill 502 during the MPh. Unfortunately for the Aussies, Japanese return fire is more effective. A HS goes down under a hail of “aces” in BB3, and a 4-5-8 breaks in AA3. The wounded Aussie NCO finally succumbs to his wounds during Close Combat. The real news, however, is that the Aussies have captured hex AA8. With Hill 502 in enemy hands, the Japanese have no choice but to mount a counterattack and endure another in return. It looks like the game will come down to who can hang on to hex AA8.

Turn 6 Japanese
The turn starts out badly for me. The squad that I broke the previous turn comes back with a vengeance. The 8-1 in Z2 not only rallies this squad, but also instills it with a fanaticism born of desperation. The addition of a hero in this hex is almost too much to bear at this late stage. It now looks like the Aussies will be going for both hills during Turn 7.
I try to mask AA8 with WP, but no dice, and no HE hit either! My 4-4-7 in BB8 likewise fails to budge the adjacent squatters. The only bright moment is a sniper activation that allows me to reposition my sniper counter to AA9. Even my MMG teams come up short. I do eventually break the 4-5-8 in BB3 with a sixteen-flat shot from my hilltop 4-4-7s. However, it is my trusty 3-4-7 in AA5 that comes through in the crunch, breaking the 9-1 and pinning the 4-5-8 in AA8. The enemy sniper subsequently pins my 3-4-7, but the damage is done.
My formerly concealed 8-0, 4-4-7 and LMG crawl uphill into BB8. The pinned but plucky Aussies in AA8 do not fire, preferring to wait until the DFPh. And what a defensive fire it is! They roll “snakes.” My leader wounds, and both squads stripe. I manage a normal morale check with my advancing fire. Incredibly, his leader wounds, fails his wound check and dies. The 4-5-8 breaks, but survives his LLMC. 
I flood the forward slopes of Hill 507 with troops. Although the Aussies still have a chance to grab CC4 on their last turn, I am fairly confident that this hill will hold. With this in mind I turn my attention to Hill 502. My MMG stack teams up with the 3-4-7/LMG in AA5. The battered squads and leader in BB8 move forward in the APh to reclaim hex AA8. The die is cast for a momentous final turn.

Turn 7 Australians
The Aussies rally a squad in Z2, but not in the more crucial Z8 hex. The stack in AA3 reduces the Japanese stack in BB2 to a solitary Good Order (GO) 1-3-7—so much for my right flank. My stack in AA8 receives a pounding too, leaving me with a GO 2-3-7 and a wounded leader. This is the situation at the end of the PFPh:

Tragedy strikes the Aussies early in their MPh. Ken rushes a 4-5-7 from X7 into Z7. My HS in BB7 fires. Although the enemy squad passes the NMC (1,3), my sniper pins it in place. One down, two to go on this hill.
In the east, the Aussie stack in Z2 charges into the AA2 gully. My 1-3-7 in BB2 First Fires and rolls a “seven.” The Aussies shrug off the NMC. So the HS fires again (3,2). Everyone passes again, except the leader, who pins. The stack continues on to BB1, and then to CC2, where my HS pushes its luck with an FPF shot. However, it is academic at this point, as the Aussie stack can no longer reach DD3. So ends the Aussie bid for hex CC4.
During my DFPh, my “killer” stack only manages a NMC (4,4) versus the enemy stack in Z8. Happily for me, this is enough to break the 4-5-7 in this hex. All that remains to threaten Hill 502 is a HS in Z7. My HS in AA8 fires (1,3). The Aussie HS breaks (6,5) while the pinned 4-5-7 creates a hero! Ken is ecstatic. I am relieved.
With the help of his newly-minted hero, Ken’s pinned 4-5-7 breaks my last GO MMC in AA8. A 7+1 Japanese leader is all that stands between Ken and a victory. His 8-0 advances into CC, but is disappointed to learn that the pinned hero cannot join him. Ken is even more disappointed to learn that—after dispatching the Japanese leader in CC—his triumphant Aussie NCO cannot gain control of the victory Location. Here is what it looked like after the dust settled.

Admittedly, I should have lost this scenario, largely because I left Hill 502 lightly defended for too long. I should have had my reinforcements camped out in front of AA8 long before his assault materialized. A number of fortuitous rolls saved me from my folly. That said, I stand by my earlier statement that the scenario appears to favour the Australians. I wonder, however, if an extra turn would not make for a better Japanese balance provision. After all, holding victory hexes is what this one is all about. In the end, it was an entertaining scenario with plenty of wild swings to keep things interesting for both parties. If you are looking for a good PTO tutorial, this may fit the bill. Thanks again to Ken for a good game and good company.
Only a handful of men were able to fight their way south and link up with brigade headquarters. The bulk of the brigade was cut off and compelled to leave the track and go “bush.” As darkness fell, Brigadier Potts was able to disengage his force (brigade headquarters, D Company of the 2/16th, and a platoon from a composite company that had moved up the track that day), and fall back to Menari. By the 10th of September, the 2/14th and 2/16th had managed to fight their way around successive Japanese blocking positions. However, by this time the two battalions only had a combined strength of 307 all ranks. The 2/27th performed magnificently as a rearguard for the rest of the brigade. However, it would be two weeks before the survivors of this battalion rejoined the main Australian force at Jawarere, just 40 kilometres east of Port Moresby.
Scenario designer
Australian Murray McCloskey has designed a number of scenarios for Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) and Critical Hit over the years. He has made a speciality out of designing Australian scenarios, especially actions where his countrymen have faced the Imperial Japanese Army. His first MMP scenario that I am aware of is J101 The Coconut Plantation, published in ASL Journal 6 in 2005. The following year, he published Break Contact. This small scenario pack contains six tournament-sized scenarios that cover the exploits of Australians in Crete, Papua New Guinea, and Syria. He has published several other scenario packs that showcase his interests, and those of his Australian collaborators. Murray is a seasoned player. Apart from regular Australian tournaments, he has attended numerous ASL events in Europe and the United States. Indeed I had pleasure of meeting Murray last year in Cleveland. With Brigade Hill, Murray has created a tense, and surprisingly fluid action on board 36.
Further reading
Dudley McCarthy. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army - Volume V – South–West Pacific Area – First Year: Kokoda to Wau (1st edition, 1959), pp. 221-224.

If you would like a quick overview of the Australian Army in World War II, I recommend that you track down a copy of this Osprey book at your local library or in a used book shop. The first book that I bought in the Elite series was Finland at War. In my view, this series is a good starting point for research because like Oprey's Campaign and Battle Order series, it includes concise bibliographies. This particular book does a good job of explaining the battalion number designations. It also includes colour plates of unit and formation patches, and some photographs that I had not previously seen. I love the cover photograph. That said, it does not provide much detail of combat at the tactical level. The section on Kokoda/New Guinea is only a couple of pages long.
Opinion of the movie Kokoda below is highly polarized. Folks either love it, or disdain it. For a first time effort by an Australian film school graduate, the movie appears to capture the intensity of the fighting and claustrophobic conditions of the track quite well. I was disappointed to learn that it was not filmed on location in Papua New Guinea. But with a limited budget, the crew nevertheless made the Australian bush look convincing enough, at least to a foreign eye. The story appears to centre on the travails of a group of men in the 39th Militia Battalion. This unit, along with the Papuan Constabulary, bore the brunt of early Japanese attacks until the arrival of the 21st Brigade. I have not seen the movie, but my wife is itching to buy it after watching the trailers on YouTube. For the record, she has probably watched Platoon a dozen times while doing chores! She's that type of gal. :)


Just a quick note to say that the complete flyer for the Canadian ASL Open (CASLO) 2011 may now be accessed on the website of the Canadian ASL Association (CASLA).

See you in September!

23 June 2011

Happy Anniversary!

Advanced Squad Leader turned 25 in 2010. But my journey began much earlier, in 1977, with the release of Squad Leader. Being a nostalgic sort of fellow, I wanted to commemorate not only ASL, but the revolutionary tactical game that John Hill designed almost 35 years ago. And I wanted to do it with a unique set of precision dice. 

I began with an assumption that a set of four dice would be ideal. I wanted an "opposing" set of dice that could be shared between players, or simply used when playing a particular nationality. Germans and Russians were a natural choice. The Ostfront was where the bulk of the fighting (and dying) occurred during the Second World War. More importantly, Beyond Valor is the core ASL module of the ASL system; players are bound to find use for a set of German and Russian dice. In keeping with how dice are utilized in ASL, I would need a white die and a coloured die for each pair. So off I went looking for inspiration. I didn't have to venture far. My ASL Rule Book got me thinking... 

Rodger MacGowan's artwork on the cover of the Squad Leader box included a non-commisioned officer of the Waffen SS. (The NCO apparently belonged to 3. SS Division Totenkopf). The latest artwork on the ASL Rule Book sports a black and white version of this NCO, a reminder perhaps of the game's heritage. I felt that the NCO would be a good starting point for a dice design.

A helpful Canadian on the GameSquad ASL Forums was able to provide me with the black and white photograph upon which the artwork was based. I initially tried to mimic the camouflage pattern on the smock, but the detail was lost at scale. I wanted to add some meaningful text to the design, but even on a 5/8" (~16 mm) die, I was limited to a couple words. Rather than add descriptive text, I opted for "ASL 1985-2010." It was far from perfect, but the contrast of black foil on a white die would prove striking enough.

I then turned to work on the Russian die. The first edition of the ASL Rule Book used to have four images: a German NCO, a Russian officer, a British NCO, and an American. As already noted, the German NCO first appeared on the box cover of Squad Leader. The Russian officer debuted on the cover of Cross of Iron, the first Squad Leader "gamette" that expanded the system. I just noticed that the cover also sports a Knights Cross with Oak Leaves.--what a coincidence, as you shall soon see.

I tracked down the photograph of the Russian officer and went to work. Information on this officer is sketchy. According to one source, Max Alpert, the famed TASS photographer, took the photograph in 1942. He did not record the name of the officer. Some speculate that it is Second Lieutenant Alexey Eremenko; others have identified him as a "political instructor" by the name of Yeremenko. Either way, it is a powerful photograph. I really like the way the officer is calling his troops forward in this propaganda still. There is a sense of urgency and action not seen in the pensive (and posed) picture of the German NCO.

This design required a little more work, first in Photoshop, and then in Illustrator. I'm an amateur where these programs are concerned, but the results were satisfactory given the final size of the artwork on the die.

The next task was to create a matching coloured die for each soldier. Blue was a natural choice for the Germans. In retrospect, I would have gone with a light-blue, and reserved dark-blue for the French. However, the dark-blue does provide a good contrast for a metallic foil. Moreover, these dice would be a special, limited edition set, as I did not intend to make an entire line of 5/8" dice. I chose dark-red for the Russians rather than amber. (I wanted to reserve amber for Commonwealth dice.) I am glad that I did.

The BattleSchool promotional dice used a silver foil, and I was looking for an excuse to use gold foil. I liked the look of the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, and knew almost immediately that it would be ideal for the red die.

Once I decided to use a medal on the red die, nothing less than an Iron Cross would do for the blue die. An Iron Cross on its own seemed lacking, however. After some fiddling about, I chose a Knight's Cross. But I found the ring and clasp at the top of the cross unsightly, especially at scale. Only the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves appeared to work against the ribbon. And that is how I came to use the same medal as on the cover of the Cross of Iron box. 


The ribbon of the Knight's Cross, and to a lesser extent the Cross itself, took a lot of work to clean up and look decent at scale. One of the problems with the ribbon was that while it has three colours, I only had two "colours" to work with: the blue of the die, and the colour of the foil, in this case silver. In the end, I had to come up with a stylized version of the ribbon. It is serviceable, but the red die remains my favourite design.

With more real estate to work with than the white dice, I wanted to add some descriptive text to the coloured dice. In order to reinforce the nationality distinctions, I would not use English for the descriptions. In spite of the generous font library that comes with Adobe Create Suite 3, I felt limited. I wanted a Germanic script for the German die, but had to settle for Lucida Blackletter. I had more success with the Russian die. Candara Bold gave me the austere look that I wanted for the Cyrillic text. This was another reason why the red die became my favourite. The result of all this mucking about can be seen below.

We released our ASL Anniversary BattleDice at the 24th Annual ASL Oktoberfest (ASLOK), held in Cleveland, Ohio (1-11 October 2010). 

As an incentive to those competing in the World Cup at ASLOK, we gifted two sets of ASL Anniversary BattleDice. This USA versus the rest of the world challenge has been ongoing since 2003. To date Team USA has yet to record a win. Congratulations to David Longworth (Australia) and Jim Burris (USA), MVPs of their respective teams.

Our Limited Edition anniversary set of four dice features a unique image on the “ace” of each die. Each set consists of two “matching” pairs of 5/8” (~16 mm) precision dice. We paired the iconic German squad leader with a Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz), and the familiar Soviet officer with a Hero of the Soviet Union medal (ΓΕΡΟŇ CCCP).

We also produced twenty anniversary sets with Gröfaz on the “deuce.” Gröfaz is the title awarded annually to the best player at ASLOK. Gröfaz is a German acronym used to describe Adolf Hitler: Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, or Greatest Field Commander of all Time.

The term is attributed to Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. Keitel was no fan of Hitler, but had given up trying to argue with the Führer. The term stuck. If I recall correctly, General Heinz Guderian once showed his scorn for Hitler's amateur prosecution of the war by referring to him as the Gröfaz. 

We gifted a set of these special dice to the Greatest Field Commander of 2010. Congratulations to second-time champ Bob “Bendizoid” Bendis.