After a week of hard slogging at the painting table on the 28mm VSFs I decided it was time for a break. So this morning I dug out the Heroscape terrain I bought last week, printed off a copy of Mr Robert Cordery's "Portable Wargame" rules, picked up Programmed Wargames Scenarios by CS Grant and turned to Scenario #1 Hill Defence. In true Cordeguayan fashion, the forces were hastily cobbled together from whatever boxes of 15mm I had to hand, so in the end a Red force of 19th Century/WWI Russians faced off against a Blue force manned by WWI French with some British Colonial Lancers on loan. Grant's book offers the gamer a choice from several different forces for each scenario, but rather than mess about too much with the troops I just took the first option for each side. This gave Red a force heavy in Cavalry, but Blue had two guns, which I decided to take as machine guns.
Being the first time I'd used the Heroscape hexes in anger, I spent a little time experimenting. I worked out that the largest tiles in the set fit together to form a rectangle, and eight of these rectangles (which was all the large green tiles I had) created a 16x18 play area that nicely filled about 2/3 of my coffee table. After a bit of experimenting I then got the hang of replacing some of the large tiles with combinations of smaller ones to allow wooded areas of different colours. The sand tiles make fine woods, with a couple of small trees scattered about for visual effect. Roads were simple enough to do with masking tape and I could have easily used the Heroscape pieces to create a river across this size terrain but this scenario didn't call for it. Finally, I had absolutely no buildings appropriate to western Europe, so a colonial hut had to stand in. (I have already hit Amazon to order a "town in a bag" which I think is perfect for this level of game.)
I decided to take on the attack as Red, so the forces were laid out according to the charts in the book.With Blue having those MGs on the flanks, I decided to try a big cavalry attack on my left to try to sweep that gun away. A single cavalry unit was left on the right to demonstrate and draw the attention of the Blue cavalry if need be. As it happened, the Blue tactics rolled from the book indicated that they would hold their position and not deploy their reserve under any circumstances.
So for the first couple of turns, the Field Gun kept up a constant barrage of the enemy infantry on the edge of the village. Shells went long, peppering the built up area behind them, to no real effect. The two flanking cavalry units proceded forwards as planned, moving swiftly up the road. Since the enemy cavalry didn't seem to be responding I decided to take a chance with my right cavalry and found they could make it into close combat with the MG without having to endure a round of fire first. The cavalry charged home, at a slight disadvantage due to the slope, but both sides dice came out a 6 - no result. The cavalry were forced to recoil a hex away leaving them vulnerable in the open. On the left flank, the large cavalry brigade were unable to make contact, and so spread out along the road parallel to the Blue lines, ready to charge the MG in the following round.
On Blue's activation, the MGs were able to wreak havoc on the exposed cavalry. The lone Red cavalry unit on the right was cut down, while one of the units on the left also fell. Blue took the opportunity to move one of the infantry units in the town forwards to the T-junction bringing it into range of the cavalry for the following round.
The following round came and the Red gun finally scored a hit, pinning the infantry on the edge of the town. But when the initiative came around, Blue was set to activate first. Another volley of fire took out a second cavalry unit in the brigade leaving only one left. When the activation switched to Red, I decided to try to charge in anyway. This time rather than heading straight up the hill I wheeled and climbed the hill further to the left before swinging back around to hit the MG on the flank. The rest of the activations were spent starting the Infantry on the slow trek forwards.
Rolling for the close combat, I got the exact opposite result to the first combat. Both cavalry and machine gun tore eachother apart. This was the only time a Red unit made it onto the ridgeline, which technically should have triggered a Programmed Response, but since the triggering unit had been instantly destroyed, I decided it didn't count as "in force" since that flank was now completely unthreatened.
With all the Red cavalry gone it was down to the infantry to make the slow slog towards the blue lines. Had Blue gone for Field Guns instead of MGs the infantry wouldn't have had a chance, but they were able to stay out of range of the remaining MG and would only have to endure a couple of turns of rifle fire from the defenders in the centre. Meanwhile the red Field Gun rolled forwards a hex in order to bring the remaining MG into range. It maintained a steady but completely ineffectual barrage for the rest of the game.
After several turns slogging (which passed very quickly, since Blue was effectively unable to act, being out of range) the Red Infantry came within rifle range of the defenders. Over the last two hexes of movement, Blue's volleys took a heavy toll, destroying two of the five attacking units and pinning a third. Finally the two surviving units went in on the left of the village.
Although the assaults were successful in breaking the defending units, one of the attacking units was also destroyed. At this point, with only two infantry units and a Field Gun left, facing an well dug-in opponent in the village with secure flanks, I decided as Red commander that the mission had failed and withdrew in shame.
Looking back, I think the force balancing in Grant's book must assume that Cavalry will be more effective in raw combat power than infantry, whereas in The Portable Wargame that's not the case, Cavalry and Infantry have the same Close Combat power plus Infantry have the advantage of attacking at range. Cavalry's only advantage is its speed. I think you could double the number of cavalry units in the army lists and be more balanced. Alternatively, picking a different army list for the attacker could have made a big difference. Instead of 5 infantry, 4 cavalry and 1 gun I could have had 8 infantry, 2 cavalry and 2 guns, which I think would have had a much better crack at the defence.
It was after setting up the Heroscape terrain and setting out the figures that something clicked almost audibly. I won't call it a lightbulb moment, since that implies some original idea on my part whereas all I'm doing is copying Bob Cordery (who in turn is standing on the shoulders of Morschauser) But there was a sudden and tangible realisation that here was something new with a lot of potential. This style of game, element-based small scale figures on a map-like hexed terrain, seems to be exactly what I want for "coffee table" gaming. The relatively small number of figures makes an experimental delve into other periods quite a reasonable proposition.
The Portable Wargame rules remind me so much of DBA in how they play, while using completely different game mechanics. Indeed I'm getting the same buzz right now from PW that I did from DBA the very first time I played it all those years ago, with the realisation that you could play something that felt like a large battle in a 2ft square terrain in only an hour.
While I was playing, I received a parcel containing another nearly-full set of Heroscape, so I think I could now expand the 16x18 terrain I used for this battle to cover the whole of the coffee table, and still have enough tiles for plenty of hills or a sizeable water feature. So I'm afraid to say this looks like the end for my advocacy of individually based 15mm figures. Once the current 28mm VSF project is completed I can see myself rebasing the 15mm Colonials/ Late 19th, Early 20th Century collection for Heroscape and The Portable Wargame.