Thursday, 20 August 2015

Metal under tension

A quickie update.

This past weekend Mi Hermano Chofer Jonesy and I popped over the Pennines into the Land of Mordor for a day of gaming with an assorted band of reprobates, including T'uther Chris, Marvin the Arvn and No-Nickname Tony.  In addition to assorted card/board games, I persuaded the guys to have a go at AirWar C21.

The scenario was an obvious continuation of the last Paradiso game - with both sides stalemated on the ground, both sides sent ground attack aircraft with fighter escorts to try to break the deadlock.  A beermat-sized target area was placed in the centre of the table, and any damage points caused by ground attacks made in that zone counted as victory points.  Culo Raton sent four Shenyang F6s loaded for ground strikes with rocket pods, with an escort of four Mig-21s, while the Paradisan Air Force rolled up with their four Super Tucanos escorted by a flight of four F5E Tiger IIs.

To reflect the relatively small numbers of aircraft available to third-world/developing airforces, I ruled that the loss of any jet aircraft would equate to -5 victory points - in a situation where a single aircraft might represent 10% or more of a nation's air force, it makes sense to encourage players to conserve their forces and avoid "banzai attacks".  Because they are much cheaper and easily replaced, I ruled that the Super Tucano turboprops only cost -1 victory point if lost (which I thought slightly compensated for their slower speed and inferior air-to-air combat capability.

It's always interesting to watch other people play a game for the first time and form their own opinions about how to do things.  The Paradiso players both decided to try out Special Manoeuvres in the second turn of the game before the opposing sides had made contact.  Unfortunately a bad run of dice rolls meant that all the F5Es failed.  Two immediately went into stalls which took several turns to recover from, and one of the other two presented its tailpipe to an oncoming Culo Raton Mig-21, who took advantage of the situation and scored the first kill of the game.

As expected a large cluster of airplanes converged on the target area, but it was at this point that the Culo Raton players revealed their fiendish strategy.  They chose to forgo ground attacks with their Shenyang F6s which instead used their guns to join in the air-to-air combat.  The Tucanos all managed to reach the target area and unload their rockets, but two of them fell to the combined gunfire of the Culo Raton planes.  Ironically, the remaining two Tucanos had a Mig-21 fly right in front of them and even with their puny .30 cal machine guns were able to cripple the jet, which limped home.

The battle devolved into a big hairy furball, but the Paradisans never quite got back into the game and withdrew once the Tiger IIEs had expended their Sidewinders.  This left the Culo Raton aircraft free to bombard the target area unopposed.  Having splashed one Tiger and two Tucanos at the cost of only one Mig21 damaged, they were easily the clear victors.

Everyone had a good time, except possibly No-Nickname Tony, whose lower lip may have been wobbling a bit on losing his F5E so early on.  Being only the first proper game we'd played with the rules, we got a few key points wrong - we had planes doing Special Manoeuvres at Low Altitude and making attacks while doing "Break Turn" manoeuvres, both of which are no-nos.  The consensus of the other players was that Special Manoeuvres were on the whole a waste of time, a conclusion they reached after the disasterous Paradisan second turn.  Personally I'm inclined to disagree: I think a successful manoeuvre can win you a killing shot, just as a failed manoeuvre at the wrong time can leave you stranded in someone's sights.  Jonesy favoured doing nothing but Break Turns (a relatively easy move which let you make 75 degree turns instead of 45 degree ones, without too excessive a penalty for failure) but that was before we realised that you couldn't use weapons in the phase you did a Break Turn.

Everyone agreed that the Paradisan's had brought a knife to a gun fight with their Super Tucanos.  While they may be great counter-insurgency ground attack craft, they were a positive liability in an air-combat environment.  The sooner that Paradiso takes delivery of those ex-Israeli A4 Skyhawks, the better!

We also agreed that the ex-Soviet gear seemed to have all the advantages - The Mig-21bis carries four missiles compared to the F5E's two (according to the standard load), just as the F6s carried twice as many rockets as the Tucano.  I'd tried to equip all sides with weapons dating from around the mid-80s, and in the case of the Paradisan Sidewinders I'd made them the export-model Sidewinder-Ps rather than the much more powerful domestic Sidewinder-Ms available in that era.  I'd done so deliberately because I wanted both sides to be using rear-180 aspect missiles.  I'm going to have to go back to the airplane stats and do a bit more balancing work in setting up furture scenarios.

One last thing that I found strange - during my solo games I'd used a pair of set-squares (visible in the photos in the last post) for measuring angles - the angles you most need to use are 30, 45 and 60 degrees, all represented by corners on the set-squares, while a high-mobility Break Turn can be measured by putting a 45 degree and 30 degree corner next to eachother.  For the game this Sunday I went to the trouble of printing off copies of the turning circle from the rules.
For some reason though, the players did not get along with these at all.  And we're talking a relatively clever bunch of people here.  But despite it being as simple as "High mobility planes normally turn H, if doing a Break Turn they turn HBT", the turn circles fell by the wayside to be replaced by some truly dubious "eyeballing" of turns.  Then someone hit upon the idea of using a square D6 as a sort of 45 degree turn indicator (if you line it up with the flat front of the flying base, then the corners are pointing 45 degrees)  I'm beginning to think that I might be better off picking up half a dozen cheap "back to school" geometry sets for use with this game.

Applying the Culo Raton victory (on behalf of the Farmers' Revolt) to our ongoing campaign rules, I think the capture of the fuel depot from the previous land battle will give them control of a Secure Supply of Food and Materiel.  That leaves the campaign status as follows.

Farmers - Control of the Foothills of Monto Blanko. The Bridge at El Humber. The Goodwill Of The People, Secure supply of food and materiel.
Army - Secure base of operations at Verdaville. The Airfield at Los Anillcamino. The Sunrise Corp Processing Plant
Uncontrolled - Foreign media interest. The fertile Piso River valley. Support from the Church.  

I think I'm going to fight this particular campaign thread until one side has just twice as many resources as their opponent, before having a UN enforced ceasefire reset the situation.  Now that Culo Raton has become involved I don't want things to escalate into all-out war too quickly!

Anyhoo, this post has taken far longer than I'd planned, and I've not even managed to mention the care package I received from Carl of SoloWargamingInTheUK.  More of that in a future post.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Gonna take a ride into the danger zone.

With the escalation of tensions between the Caribbean island nations of San Paradiso and Culo Raton, both nations have placed their respective Air Forces on high states of alert.

The Fuerza Ariale de Republico Paradiso is small and poorly equipped by western military standards, however compared to other Caribbean nations it represents a significant force to be reckoned with.  For its primary air-superiority fighter, Paradiso operates a dozen or so of the venerable Northrop F5E Tiger II, a 50 year old design which thanks to a series of avionics upgrades and modernisation refits remains a capable and credible threat well into the 21st century.  Although normally utilised as an interceptor/air superiority fighter, the Tiger II can be equipped with Paveway II and Mk82 bombs for a ground attack role.

Regular ground attack, counter insurgency and border patrol duties normally fall upon the Embraer EMB314 Super Tucanos.  The Brazilian turboprop trainer/light attack aircraft excels at close ground support, with it's acrobatic agility and long loiter times compared to jet fighters.  They may be no match for jet fighters in air-to-air combat, but since they are mostly employed against local insurgents and narco-traffickers.

Bringing up the rear of the formation are four A4 Skyhawks, recently purchased from Israel and not yeat operational.  Another veteran airframe that's still effective on today's battlefield, the A4s will represent a significant improvement in Paradiso's surface attack capabilities (including anti-shipping strikes) in an aircraft that can actually hold its own in a dogfight.

As a whole, the Paradiso air forces are in dire need of modernisation.  Countermeasures like chaff and flares are not universally fitted, and the standard air-to-air missile is the older, less capable AIM-9P model. Ground attack weapons are mostly unguideded bombs and rockets, with a handful of laser-guided Paveway bombs available for the F5Es.  And of course, the small size of the air force means that any aircraft losses are felt keenly.  The loss of two airframes might represent 10% or more of the available fleet.

Meanwhile the forces of the Culo Raton Ariale Patrole are equally ready to repel their Imperialist neighbours.

Like any good Communist dictatorship, Culo Raton operates mostly ex-Warsaw Pact or Chinese built equipment, often buying third or fourth-hand hand-me-downs from former Soviet client states.  Their fleet of MiG-21s have been extensively modernised and brought up to the MiG-21bis standard.  Primarily used as interceptors and air-superiority fighters, they can be equipped with an austere ground-attack capability.

The air force also has a handful of ancient Sukhoi SU-7 Fitter fighter/bombers.  Considered hopelessly obsolete everywhere else in the world, they still offer Culo Raton a significant ground-strike capability.

The Chinese built Shenyang F6, extensively modernised copies of the MiG-19, make up Culo Raton's primary ground attack capabilities.  Munitions are limited to unguided rockets and bombs, but a nation under as many arms embargos as Culu Raton has to make do with what it can acquire.  In a pinch, the F6 can be equipped for air-to-air combat, but would most likely be outclassed in that role.

So those are the aerial forces I've assembled for the modern Imagi-Nation action between San Paradiso and Culo Raton.  I've deliberately gone in most cases for out of date kit nearing the end of its operational lifetime (apart from the Super Tucanos, which are modern but inexpensive) but apart from the SU-7s I believe all these aircraft are still in active service with at least one nation in the real world.  Mig21 workhorses are still everywhere, Argentina is getting its fleet of A4s a brand new refit from Lockheed with avionics lifted from the F16, while the F5E remains the primary aircraft of the Swiss air force.

After looking at some of the options available, the rules I'm leaning towards are Air War C21 by Wessex Games (available as PDF from Wargame Vault).  I've had a couple of solitaire games and the rules look very good, doing a good job of abstracting the third dimension.  In a dogfight, you have the choice between moving normally, which is a simple half-move/turn/half move/turn based on your aircraft's manoeuvrability rating.  Alternatively you can attempt a Special Manoeuvre, pushing the flight envelope and theoretically involving the third dimension and either a loss or gain in speed.  For example an Immelman manoeuvre, which in real life resolves a half loop upwards followed by a roll to bring the aircraft upright again, in AW:C21 this allows you to make a half move then turn to face any direction, with a drop in speed.  The downside is that these manoeuvres require a roll to complete successfully and a failure can result in unexpected movement, greater than normal speed gains/losses and place you at a disadvantage against incoming fire.  If the results of a manoeuvre, success or fail, takes you over your airframe's maximum speed you take damage as the plane tears itself apart.  If  you drop below the minimum speed, you go into a stall and are no longer flying, but fighting to recover control of your aircraft as you plummet towards the ground.  At best this makes you easy prey to enemy aircraft, at worst you run the risk of fireballing into the ground.

The Special Manoeuvres are definitely the game winners/losers.  You can fly around doing normal moves in perfect safety and will probably find it quite difficult to get into firing position against your enemy.  Or you can take a chance on a Special Manoeuvre which might put you on your enemy's six, or if you fail leave you hanging in his gunsights.  Energy Management, a key feature of Air Combat Manoeuvering (or "dogfighting" to you and me) is also represented as you need to carefully manage the speed gains and losses from manoeuvring in order to keep within the flight envelope.  Too many fancy manoeuvres might leave you slow and energy-deficient just at the time you need to manoeuvre to avoid incoming fire.

In summary of all the air combat games I've played over the years, this one comes the closest to feeling like real flight, without tracking the third dimension.  I'm looking forward to trying out the rules on a live human opponent .

Meanwhile work on the air forces' 1/72 counterparts continues apace.  While I just about managed to hand-paint roundels and flags on the 1/300th aircraft, I think I'm going to try making some decals for the 1/72 aircraft.  I've also settled on a flight stand design that I'm very happy with, and as I'd expected, the 1/72 aircraft look absolutely fine flying over 28mm troops on the ground.  Pictures and more reports to follow.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Welcome to my secret lair on Skullcrusher Mountain

So three years back, I was experimenting with making high, rocky hills with limited paths across them.  I only completed a couple, but I've found them useful for representing significant, impassable hill terrain.

Around the same time, I came into possession of a number of Mega-Bloks pirate playsets, cheap £5 things containing maybe a rowboat and a small island, each of which came in its own clamshell case with the front shaped like a pirate skull.

I had to find a way to use one of those skulls, they were just too good to pass up.

Starting with one skull, I sawed the top off flat.  Fixing it to some scrap MDF, I then built up a hill shape around it using scrap polystyrene.  The hill was made partially hollow, with a cave behind the skull face and a raised floor to allow figures to take up firing positions at the eysockets.  To allow troops to climb onto the top of the piece, I added a winding path around the back of the hill, similar to that on the earlier rocky hills.

The hill was glued, pinned with cocktail sticks, and shoved in a cupboard to dry.

Three years later...

Yes, I said three years later.  I got distracted by Real Life (tm) and forgot about this until about a month ago when I ventured into the outside cupboard and found it again.  This week I decided to finally finish it off.

To start with, there was a major gap between the left top of the skull and the polystyrene "cap" above it, due to my rough cutting job being uneven.  I built this up with greenstuff to the skull had a flat, relatively even rim.  I then coated all the polystyrene in filler to give it a rocky texture.  Then I gave the filler a coat of diluted PVA to reinforce it, before giving the whole lot a coating of black textured masonry paint.  I use this as a basecoat on all my polystyrene hills, as it toughens them and adds a little texture.  After that it was just a matter of drybrushing various shades of grey, adding sand for the paths and flocking for grass and moss.

I'm really pleased with how this has come out.  Obviously it's more suited for fantasy, pirate or pulp games, acting as a scenario objective point rather than generic terrain, so it's only ever going to see limited use.  But I'm sure somewhere on Paradiso here's a "Skull Cave" tourist attraction just waiting to be fought over.  After making so much basic and "practical" terrain, it was nice to work on a totally whimsical piece like this.  Every wargamer shold treat themselves to a "Skull Cave" once in a while.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

I was born in a crossfire hurricane

So this weekend was the forty-fifth anniversary of my being dragged, kicking and screaming into this world.  Attempts to organise a true Big Birthday Bash fell apart as one friend after another made their excuses until we were left with an expected attendance of just four of us.  So on the day I decided to just throw down the green sheet, lay out a Paradiso terrain and just have at it with the new toys I'd been collecting over the past two years using the FUBAR one-page rules.

The result looked a little something like this..

The scenario was a relatively simple one - Driven by their recent failures, the Paradisan Revolutionary Farmers had taken control of a fuel supply depot.  The local Army commander had decided to make a show of force and sent in a full platoon in APCs to clear them out.  Unfortunately El Capitan was in for a surprise.  In addition to their ramshackle technicals, one with a 50 cal, one with a recoilless rifle, the guerillas had managed to acquire a battered old T55 along with a crew of "advisors" to drive it.

The second surprise, and a major escalation of the situation in Paradiso, was that the leaders of neighbouring commnist state Culo Raton had decided to support the rebel farmers and had sent an infantry platoon reinforced with two more T55s across the border to take advantage of the confusion and secure the fuel depot for themselves.  In turn, the Paradisan Army was able to call for reinforcements in the form of a couple of M60 tanks.

Due to the jungle terrain being largely impassable to vehicles, most of the action was focussed along the road on one side of the field.  The rebels kicked things off with an ambush on one of the Paradisan APCs that knocked out its 30mm cannon.  But sadly due to a failed activation roll they were unable to pull back and relocate before the infantry piled out and assaulted the ambush position, killing the whole squad.

Meanwhile the other two army APCs entered the small built-up area (well... there was a diner and a garage, at least) and the remaining infantry debussed and cleared the area, setting up a command post in the diner.  The army plan was for a "hammer and anvil", with one squad engaging the rebels from one side while the other two squads swept in from the flank.  It was a great plan, except the "anvil" was delayed by the ambush just described, while the "hammer" just managed to get the buildings secured when they found themselves outflanked by the arriving Culo Raton APCs.

Things got a little confusing from there.  The guerillas' T55 trundled into action but had its weapons knocked out by cannon fire from an APC.  They then made good use of the weaponless hulk by parking it across the road, blocking the advance of the army's M60s. The arriving Culo Raton forces took out one of the Paradisan APCs with a shot to the rear, debussed their own infantry, then spent several turns brassing up the diner with their cannons, turning it into a smoking ruin and driving the occupants out.  The "hammer" suddenly found themselves under serious threat from the rear and started pulling back towards the facility (ironcally retreating *towards* their original objective.).

By the end of the game, the original rebel farmers had pretty much been wiped out apart from one technical that fled after scoring a mobility kill on one of the M60s.  The Culo Raton forces had gotten one squad to the edge of the fuel depot, along with one T55 that had managed to find a path through the jungle.  The Paradisan Army had managed to get a squad and a half of infantry to the edge of the depot, but its armoured support was cut off and unable to reach them and the rest of the platoon was falling back in disarray.

So let's see, Here we have the guerilla's T55 (a chinese die cast - £6.99 from Ebay) blocking the road for a Paradisan APC (an Old Crow sci-fi model, pretending to be an M113 like real-world APC) and two M60s (Academy 1/48 kits).  Side by side with the T55, the Academy kits are all way overscale, being closer to 1/41, but on the table they don't look too bad.  Since Paradiso is an imaginary nation, I have no qualms about using toys or fictional sci-fi wheeled and tracked vehicles to represent "real world" vehicles, as long as they look the part.
The Culo Raton APCs are the old Marbeth Designs "Hann'Mag" SF APCS that I bought about 20 years ago and have *finally* gotten on the wargames table :-).  They're lacking in details, but they were cheap at the time and do for a sort of BMP/BTR hybrid.  The turrets were an interesting find - on I saw a "Combat Mission" set of 8 vehicle kits and 30 toy soldiers for the princely sum of £2.80.  When I bought one just to see what it was like, the soldiers turned out to be the worst examples of "green army men" I'd ever seen, and the vehicle kits turned out to be tiny cartoonish "pull back and go" toys, the sort of thing you might get with a Happy Meal.  But the turrets!  The turrets for the "M1 tank" kit were perfect for the Hann-Mags, and even buying six whole sets and just using the one turret from each, it still worked out cheaper than getting a similar turret sculpted and 3d printed by Shapeways.  Plus the rest of those kits make great Bits Box fodder (I've already got plans to use some of the other turrets on other APC models I have)


This was the debut for the Culo Raton army, which I originally bought a couple of years ago.  Looking for a fairly generic set of figures with Warsaw Pact equipment, I went for the Iraqi army from the Assault Group.  As I explained to the other players, I'd grown up on a steady diet of WWII movies, so naturally in my mind, bad guys wear grey uniforms.  So it was a natural choice when I came to paint my "OPFOR" for Paradiso.

All in all I was very happy with the look of the game.  As I've said before on an individual basis nothing is particularly well painted or modelled, but put together as a whole the effect is quite attractive and "realistic".  I think I've even won over Mi Hermano Philestino Jonesy, who has been known to argue at length against wargaming aesthetics in favour of pure practicality.  I like to think we're walking a sensible middle ground and still managing to end up with an attractive looking tabletop.

Ruleswise, FUBAR worked incredibly well.  Apart from the farmers who were largely wiped out, there were very few casualties in the game, but overall things felt right.  It was noted that concentration of fire was required to overload a units capacity for suppressions in order to cause significant casualties.  Simply trading fire between two squads/fireteams would likely just result in suppressions on both sides and a stalemate.  As an aside, we also found it best to break the 9 man Paradisan squads (modelled after US Army) into 2 fireteams for activations, while keeping the 6 man Culo Raton squads (modelled after Warsaw Pact) as single units.  I think that reflects the differences between Western and ex-Soviet infantry doctrines quite well.  You could argue that splitting the 9 man squad into two seperate units allows them to absorb twice as many suppressions as if they were a single unit, but I think things balance out overall.

The vehicle rules, always a bit of an afterthought for a primarily infantry based game like FUBAR,  were OK but felt a little lacking.  I'm looking at some of the many FUBAR variants for inspiration, and we're either going to wind up adopting one of them, or otherwise simply lifting out the vehicle combat rules from another wargame to give us the right flavour.

This was basically the sort of wargame I've been wanting to play for a long time - modernish equipment, lots of toys on the tabletop and a fun battle game with a nod to realism but not excessively constrained by it.  The Flying Lead/Pulp Alley/7TV "warband" type skirmish games are all good fun, but sometimes a chap has a need to command more men than he has fingers (and toes), sending armoured columns swooshing up the table, and occasionally stretching to reach a far corner of the tabletop.

As for the final result of the battle.... weeeeeeeeeel everyone on the day agreed that the point where we were forced to finish the game would almost make a good start for another wargame, with both sides having troops arriving adjacent to the objective.  But although the sides are still relatively equal, looking at the table in the cold light of day the Culo Raton forces are much better positioned for an attack on the depot from two sides, while the Paradisans don't have a solid defensive position and will be struggling to bring their supporting tanks to bear on the enemy.  So reluctantly, as I was the commander of the Paradisan "Anvil", I'd have to call this battle a victory for Culo Raton (if not the rebel farmers).

Putting this into the perspective of the ongoing mini campaign that I've documented on this blog previously, the Culo Raton intervention has threatened the Army's control of Secure supply of food and materiel.  A role of 5 on D6 means that campaign resource is sent back to the "uncontrolled" pool, leaving the campaign status as follows.

Farmers - Control of the Foothills of Monto Blanko. The Bridge at El Humber. The Goodwill Of The People.

Army - Secure base of operations at Verdaville. The Airfield at Los Anillcamino. The Sunrise Corp Processing Plant

Uncontrolled - Foreign media interest. The fertile Piso River valley. Support from the Church.  Secure supply of food and materiel.

Since this breaks the Army's winning streak, they've lost the ability to declare a raid on a specific campaign target.  So the next battle is totally up for grabs.  I have an idea to try something very different for a change.