Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The final!

With the larger game taken care of, and enjoying the meal it was time to pick a scenario for the final. The refreshing swim earlier that day was almost a long distant memory.

Our swimming location, earlier in the day
The choices were "Men From Zadig", "88s at Zon" and "Ham and Bloody Jam".  The best scenario here is probably Ham and Bloody Jam, the short opening to the Pegasus Bridge campaign, which has the night glider landing - but John and I both felt that with time pushing on, a Glider and Night rules refresh was probably not the best option.

Keeping things straight-forward we opted for 88s at Zon, which is the starter kit conversion scenario of Zon with the Wind. I'd not played it before and with just a half board in play it seemed like a sensible option.

Playing Starter Kit scenarios in a full ASL setting can be a little tricky.  Do you allow bypass, defender's concealment, snipers, multi-level buildings, etc?  Marc had ruled that the scenario should be played under full ASL rules, with SANs of 2.  The question about prisoners (counting double, or usual VP or nothing) for exit conditions was also tricky. With just 7 VP needing to be exited by the US, under normal rules a squad with a German squad as a prisoner would make up 6 of those points.  We decided to try to play the game without exiting prisoners, to keep it unambiguous.

The scenario itself is relatively well balanced, 30-35 in favour of the Germans. With the lack of a high German sniper number often seen in situations like this, the Americans would also benefit from both a speed boost thanks to bypass and danger from any difficult LOSs to deal with from the Germans up in higher level buildings. However, the German concealment would mean that the initial defensive and first prep fire shots in the US turn 2 would be probably ineffective.

Bypass for this scenario exposes the US to more open ground to cross, and with 2 88s holding up the German OoB I felt they would have enough to stop 10 US squads. We both bid Germans - so diced for sides.  I won the Americans with balance, an extra 7-0 leader, and I left John to set-up.

I tend to struggle with exit VP scenarios. They probably are the hardest to judge when attacking from a timing point of view. The first turn tends to be a struggle to get on board, the second usually has the infamous prep-or-move dilemma that is extenuated due to the time shortage issue.  Turn 3 is the consolidation turn and turns 4 and 5 are all about moving into position for the final push off the board on turn 6.

John's set-up looked like he was defending in depth on my right, where the majority of my forces were due on, in turn 2, but plenty up front to keep me honest at the start with 2 squads on the left covering the grain and hilltop. I'd need to push hard at the start on the left and exploit any weakness that the might occur - giving him the dilemma of weakening his left to prevent the break through just as the new troops were arriving.

John, smiling after the pain of my dice..
I knew this scenario will punish Americans for dilly-dallying and figured that the US can't hang around.  I moved aggressively to begin with, with the 7-0 "free" leader, giving him a BAZ that he shouldn't have been able to fire as I discovered later.  Then the traditional half-squad rush began and with my turn 2 reinforcements about to come on the right, John's defending squads began to ruthlessly chop down my first probing attack.  A K/2 and another squad broken, followed by the loss of the leader were all compensated when I managed to win the close combat and reclaim the dropped BAZ from the initial combat.

John pulled inwards to defend the hill a little stronger but in doing so a gap appeared along the left, I pushed a squad along the foot of the hill and generated a hero who became instrumental in encircling the front line squads.

The heavy side of the US OoB arrived to take their place on board, but I was hesitant to give them too much open ground to cross. At the beginning of turn 3 they faced 3 concealed stacks of defenders, open ground a stone buildings on hills to occupy.

"If in doubt, don't prep" is a mandatory thought for these types of games, but with a MMG, 3x747s and a 9-2 leader, it's awfully tempting!  My heart sank when I announced "no prep fire" on turn 3 and began the dashes. A few sneaky half-squad 'bumps' to drop concealment helped turn the close combats my way and I got lucky with some morale checks, making it largely in tact.  Feeling good that I had traded 3 or 4 hexes in movement for not taking the prep-fire shots John's problem was now one of having to shoot at me and reveal himself to the oncoming 8+3 shots from the assault firing 7-4-7s or remain concealed with the squads that hadn't yet shown themselves.

The view from my bedroom window
By turn 4 I was ready to begin pushing towards the exit hexes when finally one of the 88s showed up.  Predictably it broke the 747 but hidden in the woods it allowed me to alternate hexes to force the gun to continue to change CA as it attempted to hold off the Americans that would be running on turn 5.

The defence on the right was crumbling, and although the melee was holding me up, 6 points of squads had made it off board.  The Gun had fired, lost rate, intensive fired but there were gaps free of residual and it allowed the 9-2 to jump from his spot on the hill to race past the finish line.

The second gun never revealed itself - it too being on the back hexrow - we discussed how maximising these Guns was key to the German positions, and perhaps one Gun needed to be in a more advanced position.

However, I'd won the game thanks to some solid morale check dice results and I like to think, avoiding the prep-fire phase in T3.

We wrapped up and finished off a bottle of wine. Marc had beaten Jan in the Men from Zadig, but although happy with winning the tournament, I was pretty sad not to be seeing these kinds of views in the mornings..

I'll upload some more pictures later, as the prizes were great.  I was presented with a book on the Tatsiskaya raid, which I'd like to put a scenario together about (although one does exist already), and almost as importantly, an ASL umbrella!

I headed back off the next day, thanks to John and Wally driving me back to the station, where we said our goodbyes.  I was left to reflect on again, the hospitality, camaraderie and good times that we'd had over the last 3 days.  Marc's organisation of the tournament was first class, the food was great and the weather had been perfect (rain when we were playing, sunshine when we swam, overcast and cool when I'd hiked).

The tournament is run twice a year, and whilst it's only one full day of ASL scenarios, I'd challenge anyone to come up with a better view whilst playing the game.

The flight back was mercifully uneventful and all too soon I was back in drizzly London.  The bank holiday gave me a chance to recollect all the great memories and new friends I'd made.

John, Jan, Wally and of course, Marc - thank you!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dropping down to Earth

The view from the venue
Another day to visit Zurich, and more spectacular scenery.  Every time I felt I'd seen something great, there was something even better.  The only disappointment was that the photos just can't do this justice - I would come across another great view, only to see just how little a camera (especially a phone camera) can capture.

It's no exaggeration to say that it felt that my eyes were wider as I struggled to take in the vast valleys and amazing colours that the various lakes presented.

By Friday we were on the way to the Sieblick house, which turns out is part of a perk/bonus of Marc's employment.  The employees share it throughout the year, and there's no surprise that between them there's barely a weekend spare.

A train, and then bus took us up the hills, and beyond the Wallensee lake where the tournament was to begin.

Friday night was spent preparing dinner and chatting ASL - as we met Jan and John. John's an ex-pat, from Scotland, living in Germany and Jan was from Germany living in Switzerland.  Along with Wally, John's girlfriend we were 5, and soon dinner was prepared and we settled in to a German card game that pitched us all together in bar-room-brawling.  The mechanics were simple, you attack someone with an attack card, modified by perhaps a weapon and a fighting style, and the opponent may respond with a defence or counter-attack.  Despite me seeming to be the first choice for everyone to attack, my Knight style combined with a morning star was enough to give me a slender victory.

Then it was time to pick scenarios and opponents for Saturday's game.

I didn't really fancy "Sherman Marches West" - and I'd drawn Marc, the tournament organiser.  He fancied playing "A Desperate Affair", featuring a German paradrop against a dug-in British defence.  Happy to give it a go we chose sides, and both ended up with our preferred sides. I wanted to be a master of my own destiny, preparing a defence rather than submitting to the fickle whims of a paradrop, whilst Marc looked at the chance to seize Crete in what would be a reversal of history with one of the very few airborne assaults the Germans made in WW2.

The scenario is fought over 4 full size boards.  To win the Germans must clear two connected (horizontal or vertical) half boards, and occupy them.  With 3 full wings of paratroops, and a 4th landing on turn 3 of 8 it would prove to be a dispersed yet frantic game.

I was pleased to see that John and Jan had chosen the same scenario, it's nice when there's the same scenario going on next to you because you immediately have context when there's a talk about balance or a rules question comes up.

The British have a choice to either defend in clumps or spread out.  If you opt for a dispersed attack the paratroops have an easier time of the landing, but they must spread out further when crossing the mostly open ground to flush out the defenders.  Defend in strength in small areas, the Germans know where to push, and can focus on securing larger areas of the board, but must risk a much tougher landing that they are almost powerless to prevent.

The paradrop rules are simple and effective. It doesn't stop the first hour of the game being one constant reach for the rulebook, but soon the lightly armed Germans are scampering around re-arming themselves (pre-1942 airdrops have a special rule combining the number of hexes entered with a dice roll that allows the squad to jump from an almost unarmed unit to the 5-4-8s they were trained to be).
Here's me, holding on to Crete's finest grain fields...

I opted for a mix of dispersed and clumped defence.  Marc's drop-points were then determined (they begin a full distance/direction extent before the drift even begins) and it looked like he was going to force a strong attack in the centre of the board, with an adjoining wing coming in on the flank.

My dice were good and Marc's deployment rolls (when the paratroops hit the ground they require a NTC to prevent deploying) were bad.  I'd eliminated 2.5 squads before I'd taken the first casualty but as the game went on the Germans with their rearming and weapon canister recovery become ever stronger.

It looked good for me, then it swung back around again and by the half-way stage it was pretty even.  Even in that we both thought we were going to lose.

A break for a swim in the Wallensee lake (and some interesting photos to probably appear, 3 almost naked ASL players in the back of an Audi!)  - then some light lunch, meant we were ready for the second half of the game.

Marc (right) considers the drop zones
My British troops were crumbling but the Germans were struggling with their own difficulties.  Having finally found the particularly useful 81mm mortar weapon canister the half squad gave it to the crew, who quickly assembled it. The British, being no strangers to the damage the larger mortars can do, quickly ran into hiding, leaving the German crew manhandling the mortar for 3 movement phases up and down hills.  Having been there yesterday - I felt their pain, but none more so than Marc who when they finally had the target in their eyes, they promptly broke the mortar.  A quick repair later, but by then it was too late as the poor half squad they were originally targeting had run off to the safety of a board edge!

The fight continued with Marc taking a half board and giving him options to take one of the three adjacent half boards.  With only between 1 and 2.5 squads defending each I couldn't afford a break or sniper attack to decimate my defence.

On my last turn I generated 2 heroes, and one of these ran around to cause a problem in Marc's rear(!) - but he put a quick end to that as his 9-2 and 8-0 combined with each other to wipe out my hero and full squad in CC.  It was a mutually destructive combat that left us both feeling like we'd got the wrong end of the luck.

Finally the last turn had come and Marc had chosen his target.  I had 3 hexes to defend, each with a half squad, and one with a LMG, hero and 8-1 leader, at the front.   The charge came!

The first half squad KIAd the first on-rusher, but another got close.  A squad ran towards the LMG/hero stack and was taken on on a 3 down 4 shot.  The next shot took out another half squad but there were more coming.  The squad reaching the adjacent hex I had to consider the safety of the stone building or final protective firing another 3 down 4.  I took the shot, rolled an 11 and groaned.  Breaking the MMC in that hex meant there were just two half squads left to defend the board.  They were 2 hexes away from the closest German squad. One in the open, one in woods.

Marc is sure the weapon canisters were somewhere...
Marc's last chance was a spraying fire, 1 flat and 1-up-1.  Needing low low dice, he didn't get the luck and that was the game wrapped up, by the closest of margins.

It had taken us about 7 hours, but a replay of the same scenario would be much quicker knowing the paradrop rules (again) now.  That assumption's only valid for the next few months as they'll be forgotten soon, but we all commented on what a fun scenario it had been.

On the other side of the table, John's British had defended against Jan's Germans, but it had almost been all over from the first turn.  Jan's first wing almost completely landing off board (and suffering a 1 hex move for the first 3 turns) meant that it was almost impossible to recover from.

We packed up, drank more wine and settled down for a BBQ, which somehow tasted better in the fresh clean air of the Swiss hills.

Dragon training

After the stresses of the check-in everything else would seem calm and organised.  The flight was a quick 90 minutes and I was soon at Zurich airport.

Picking up an All Zone ticket for the train journey to Marc's B&B that he'd rented to me, I paid the 20 swiss francs (£16) and received a tour guide like description from the ticket office of just what that bought me.  Not only would it take me on the trip to (and back) to Marc's house in Erlenbach, but would allow me free travel all day on the trams, buses and even boats.  There were free entries to museums and discounts at restaurants too.

The train ticket operator slipped from Swiss-German to English effortlessly and not for the last time would I be a little ashamed of my poor foreign language skills.  Ah well, I can't roll dice well and be fluent in other languages.

The train journey was smooth and efficient.  The trains (complete with two floors) arrive exactly on time, they left, on time, were clean, quiet and spacious.  The scenery was amazing, and just in time for Marc to send a text to check I was ok, I'd arrived in Erlenbach.

Settling in, I checked out the local area and then headed off to Uetliberg, a hilly-'mountain' type area.  It was another train journey that promised more opportunities of a great view of Lake Zurich and the surrounding area.

To get there, it was a more quaint journey, on a happy orange train. I felt a little guilty jumping off at the top to see pensioners walking up from the foot of the mountain, and even joggers, complete with a drenched-in-sweat t-shirt, but I tried not to let it put me off my coke and cake!

Arriving there, and walking to the summit I wasn't disappointed.  Amazing views of a spectacular area. I spent the afternoon there, and returned back to Marc's house where he, his wife Mirjana and lovely 3 year old daughter, Lynn had cooked dinner for me.

Marc's house is nearly 400 years old, and had recently had over £1m spent on it in renovations.  Its location and decor was a wonderful place to spend the evening whilst we enjoyed a chat and the delicious cheese, nut and onion flan that Mirjana had baked.

We finished the evening with a quick game of Dragonheart, a two player card game that combines trick-taking with press-your-luck. Marc beat me but of course, I'll put that down to jet lag :-)

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Unconscious Incompetence

Sometimes it's hard being an international jet setting ASL player.  

The 6am flight from Heathrow to Zurich posed some logistical challenges:  Firstly there was the fact that I was arranging everything - something I'm not that used to, and frankly, not that good at.  Secondly it was the early flight.  Very early.  

Heathrow is an hour away from me, and proud in the knowledge that I've never missed a flight yet, I knew no matter what happened, I'd make it on time! 

With an alarm set for 2:30 and a second set for 2:45 it meant that I'd have no problem catching that plane!  Like clockwork the Swiss themselves would be proud of, I awoke 2:30 in time to see the alarm go off, switched if off smugly, then promptly fell back into a deep sleep.  2:45 arrived and this time I remembered that it really was time to get up. 

Showered, packed (yeah - I know I should have done this earlier) and heading off I felt unstoppable! My organisational skills would be undoubtable from this point on.

An hour later I was pulling into Terminal 1 at Heathrow suddenly aware that I hadn't seen any signs for 'Purple Parking' the long stay car-park that the holiday booking thing had booked for me.  I figured it would simply be a case of following signs to the long-term parking and that would be it.  Oh no.  That would have been far too easy...

When I arrived at the long-stay parking it didn't look very purple, and gave me the distinct impression that the £20/night wouldn't be covered in my itinerary.  Not to worry - it was only 4am, 2 full hours before the plane was leaving - I had time to find the real Purple Parking.

I drove around for a bit, saw a sign for the magical, mystical Purple Parking but couldn't see any way in.  I drove some more and ended up in another car park, so I asked the man behind the button in the machines (that I only thought were used when the barrier had trapped the car inside the carpark).  He scoffed a reply about being in the wrong place and directed me left, right - 3rd right and then left to the lights and on my right - or something like that.  I didn't even know if he actually knew where I was or even which way I was facing, so I was a little perturbed at his laxidasical response. 

Little did he know I had the star of my world - a mobile phone complete with the internet.  A quick search for Purple Parking, Heathrow gave me the mystical post-code and I was on my way. Albeit a little longer way than I'd expected - it was 6 miles away and a 14 minute drive.  No wonder the barrier phone man sounded so unconvincing in his directions…

At 4:25 I made it to the back waters of Heathrow- in an area that resembled downtown Mexico rather than our wonderful Olympic city. No matter - with time to spare I rolled into the car park, and with efficiency I'd only come to expect from anywhere other than the UK, the carpark attendant greeted me with a sarcastic sounding "Mr Ramsey?" - both impressed and concerned at his tone, I nodded.

"Yeah mate, good news is you're at the right company car park - bad news is it's not this one. You're booked into the Heathrow one."  Sigh. Really.  So - then he gave me my dilemma: "You can give me some time and I can book you into this one, or you can drive to the Heathrow one, and you can get your bus from there.  It's quicker from there, but you've got to get there yourself" (obviously!)

Urg - with time ticking away I foolishly trusted myself to get me out of the mess I was minute by minute getting myself into.  I would drive to Heathrow (again) with the help of his (new) postcode he gave.

So, back I went - time ticking ever onwards…. Only, at the exact point of the postcode there was a different car parking company. Parking Express.  So, of course, like the idiot I am, I pull in, take a ticket - go through the barriers, and then decide it's probably worth checking I'm at the right place.

By now, you're probably ahead of me.  You're right. I'm in Parking Express - very unlikely to be Purple Parking. But do you think it deserves the disdainful look that the next bus driver I asked where I was?  Probably it did.

So, at this point even finding the exit in these car parks was a frustrating exercise.  All the while annoying myself that it was now nearly 5am, I'd in all likelihood have to pay to get out of this car park and stuck behind other drivers who felt like at 5am they had all the time in the world to catch their probable 10am flight to no-where-specialville…

Eventually I find the real Purple Parking, tucked behind a Premier Inn and wait for the bus to take us slloooooowly to terminal 3, then finally allowing me the chance to get to Terminal 1 with no time left.

5:31am I reach the check-in desk at Swiss Air. It's deserted - no queues, no cases, just bored looking check-in clerks. Not a good sign.  There could have been some tumbleweed rolling across the area - I didn't have time to look hard enough.  I needed help - I need humanity to show a kind face to me.  This is the moment that Darwin tells us that we must rise up to the challenge! Here was my destiny. Here was my challenge!

Do I pick the camp looking guy or the chewing-a-wasp faced battle-axe of a woman? The guy looks kinder but he's further away? No one said it would be easy.

I risk the angry lady and opt for the sympathy card.  

"Hi - I'm so sorry I'm late, have I missed my flight to Zurich?"
"Uh hu"
"Oh - no, really -I'm desperate to get out there, I've really been messed around by some incompetence today!" (technically my own, but no need for details at this point)
"No.  Unless you've already checked-in."
"Ah - no, that's what I was trying to do here"
At this point, she actually sniggered.

She asks for my details and here I learn another valuable lesson:  Don't store your foreign currency inside your passport.  She looked at it as if it were a bribe and passed it back to me almost smiling at her camera as if to say that she wasn't going to get persuaded like that.

She sighs again - picks up the phone and dials deliberately slowly... and this is how it went (word for word - her side only):

"Hi, got one here that wants on for the Zurich flight -
… uh hu
… Really? [the incredulity in her voice was as audible as it was croaky]
… He's got baggage to put on.
… Are you sure? [snidey look at me]
… Really, at this time?
… but at this time?
… sigh. Ok - I suppose so"

Now - I'm no genius - but I don't think she wanted me on that flight.

"You'd best run, it's the gate furthest from here" were her parting words to me, in what proved to be the understatement of my day so far.  

Running though Heathrow I had "Chariots of Fire" playing in my mind.  It's a long song, so I had to put it on repeat.  Gate 33 is closer to Gatwick airport that Heathrow.  

I finally made it. 5:52!

I thanked the staff for allowing me on - "No worries" the lady said "I'm still looking for another 31 passengers!"  

I wanted to tell her they were probably still hunting for Purple Parking, but decided to relax for the first time in the morning and waited for the flight to board.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Time for another trip!

Continuing the theme of exciting ASL trips around the world, my next destination takes us to picturesque Switzerland for the Alpenfestung IV tournament.

The tournament is in perhaps the prettiest location I've ever seen for an ASL event (having been to both Blackpool *and* Ohio, I appreciate I'm coming from a limited perspective!) but take a look at the venue below. 

Marc Blume first contacted me to talk about his project about timing scenario play lengths, and we had a brief chat about how the algorithm works for the Scenario Archive.  He's taken a different approach, namely using both a statistical and algorithmic approach, somehow factoring in other people's reported playing time too.

It's clever and there's some heavy maths behind it all, which interests me because I took the lazier approach of sticking to a formula for the archive's predictive time for scenarios.  It's interesting to me because I was hoping to see whether the times for each site can be comparable, and if they differ was there an obvious preferred approach.

Here are the scenarios on offer, and a comparison of the Archive's time to play vs Marc's time:

Ham and Bloody Jam
The Men from Zadig
88s at Zon
A Desperate Affair
Gabriel's Horn
Sherman Marches West    

So, you can see with the exception of Sherman Marches West, they all fall within Marc's predictive 11% range - it will be interesting to see how close we both get.

Anyway - back to the venue, because the photos are more interesting than playing time predictions!

So, the tournament revolves around 2 rounds, between 4 players.  We play one scenario from the "long list" and one from the shorter one.  I've played only Ham and Bloody Jam from the list, it's a classic night scenario from the Pegasus Bridge module. It's a little dicey, and can often come down to whether the British can land their gliders without heavy casualties.  Lose more than a squad or two, and the Germans will most likely succeed in defending the bridge.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is Marc's incredible efforts in organising the event.  Through the use of his wiki, he's meticulously planned everything and if the weekend runs as smoothly as it should, it will be a great trip.

I leave for Switzerland at an ungodly 3am tomorrow morning...