Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Black Sun Legion Crushes The Emperor's Enemies

Real life bud Mark of The Conservative Zone has a post today about a Truly Epic Battle we fought last night. He and I get together on Wednesday nights down at the Memphis Battle Bunker to play a table-top wargame with 6mm figures called Epic: Armageddon. It's inexpensive to get into (thankfully for me, as I'm very, very broke) and Mark has a large enough army to spare me some needed troops. I call my troops of Marines the Black Sun Legion. Our banner is blood red with a single black circle in the center: the black sun of the Emperor's retribution rising over the field of our enemies' blood. Whee!

We both field armies of Space Marines, the elite troops of the Empire of Man. Very tough, but middling powerful. And their forces tend to be on the smaller side, numbers-wise. There are also the Imperial Guard (the grunts and artillery); the Orks (think of an army of Hulks: big, green, stupid and love to smash); the Eldar (very advanced aliens with fast, elusive vehicles); the Chaos Space Marines (traitorous Marines who turned to the dark side, like demons in armor); and some other, less common enemies. Space Marines are hard to use well, as they are very strong but not hammer-strong. They are, as I've been trained, a scalpel, not a hammer. They are the troops you send in for do-or-die missions against a specific objective. Eldar can out-maneuver them and Orks can just overwhelm them with numbers, making victories hard to achieve. But Space Marine v. Space Marine is double-tough. Broad, fronted battles aren't their forte.

Our forces were 5000 point armies, which is pretty danged large! We each had about 16 separate forces in our armies we could use, made up of anywhere from one to 40 units each -- troops of all kinds, bikes, anti-aircraft, gunships, tanks, artillery, transports. That's a lot of troops and vehicles running around blasting away at each other. We've been playing forces half that size up to now, but lately the lure of the "mega army" has been too great. Mark is getting new toys for his army and I need to be counter-balanced in size to keep things competitive. Our battlefield table was four feet by eight feet of store-provided fields, woods, roads and hills.

Anyway, I've been slowly learning and finally began to earn victories of my own this month. Last night, though, was a wowser. Mark has been recently working on an "Epic Tactics 101" primer and he shared it with me. Big mistake! I've been watching and learning from his playing style, but somehow seeing it in print crystallised some things for me. Seeing his analyses laid out so clearly was like seeing into a window. When we met last night, I was clear on some things.

When we first started playing I had vowed not to make the kinds of mistakes in the game that I make in real life. First and foremost was to not second-guess myself into inaction. I do that all the time, in the real world. I think of it as being too smart for my own good. If I let myself get overwhelmed by fear, I'll talk myself out of anything. So, I vowed to always follow my instincts and not overthink them. Second, was to be bold. If an opportunity presented itself, but had lots of risk attached, I wouldn't hesitate. I'd jump all over it. Last night, I reaffirmed that philosophy and it paid off.

In the very first turn, I sent a squad of very powerful Terminator Marines straight into the heart of his troops, to attack one of his two detachments of tactical marines, the ground troops that are the backbone of any Marine army. The result was to crush and break those troops and send consternation to Mark. He now had a detachment of Terminators in his own backfield to deal with, a crippled line, and scrambled plans. He's used this trick with me a number of times, and I felt ready to turn the tables. He was also trying out a new troop unit and strategy, so he didn't need the extra headache my tactic gave him. It was right out of his Epic Tactics primer. Hee, hee....

At the end of the first turn, I had a broad, strong front in the center of the battlefield, which is a good thing. Normally, I have too wide a front line, too easily breakable and too thin to provide support to the forces next to them. He ruthlessly exploits that defect every time. This time, except for a garrison I had wide to the left, I worked to keep my forces together in the middle. It was working. He either had to go around them, or leapfrog that line with other forces.

But I still had a bit too much of my troop strength along the flanks, which isn't as good. Mark is really good about keeping his center line strong and supported. But with so many of his troops off the board at the start (either waiting in gunships or waiting in orbit in drop pods for later turns) he didn't have his usual depth and coverage. So, I took another risk. I had a Thunderhawk gunship full of two detachments of Assault and Devastator Marines sitting on an off-table airfield that I had also planned to use later in the game. This unit is pretty powerful; it can be flown in and landed anywhere in the battle. He had only his other force of tactical marines holding down his center and I saw an opportunity to smash those troops and open up the whole center to my army. In strategic terms, this would be A Good Thing Indeed.

At first, I dithered and anguished about the risk. I had previously tried a similar stunt, only to have his troops shoot the gunship out of the air, killing everyone and everything before they could do anything, a wasteful and harmful loss. I fretted about it happening again. Then, I remembered: Take the gamble, if it will pay off handsomely. And this gamble would, if it worked. I brushed away my indecision and went for it.

It worked. Totally. He'll tell you I had a moment when the enormity of what I'd risked and its payoff sank in, and I had to catch my breath. That's the fun side of these kinds of games: the ability to immerse yourself in them. If that gamble had gone wrong, the game likely would have ended before the second turn was over. Instead, I was far, far ahead now.

I completely wiped out his center. What on-table strength he still had was now on the flanks of the board, though they were powerful units. On my right flank, deep in my territory, he had sent one of his two gunships of troops to harry me, in response to my Terminator assault earlier. They did little damage, but I had to waste some important troops just trying to kill them in return. I had little luck in that, but did eventually force him to retreat them back to the airstrip off the board. Still, some troops that might have been useful elsewhere got tied up.

He had some units in drop pods still to come. Drop pods are orbital reentry vehicles full of troops that can be landed anywhere on the board and will release a deadly weapon (the Deathwind) on anything under them when they land. It was my first time facing them, and frankly I was scared about it. He could wait until the very end and just drop the lot right onto my backfield -- where my troop strength was minimal -- and do great damage, claiming some important victory points in winning. But there are limitations, too. These troops have to come in at a predetermined time and place; no changes allowed. The shape of the forces on the battlefield can be anything when they finally arrive and it might not help him at all. And they come in so late in the game that they can't do much once they get there.

But, at the end of the first turn, I dominated the battlefield. Completely. Mark's efforts were in a shambles and he was flummoxed. It was great to see. But as turn two started up, he went to work methodically trying to turn the tide. He had some luck there. He was able to break through my left flank late; I didn't have much strength there to repulse that assault. He used his gunships to great effect, chewing me up with strafing runs. He worked hard with what he had to deny me an advance and to chip away at full-strength units to hobble their effectiveness. It worked. He also tried the Terminator Marine-in-the-backfield trick, which I'd expected, but in a slightly different way. I didn't have the needed power to handle the Terminators, and I also had plans to attend to with troops elsewhere, so he was able to hack away at several formations. I made a gamble here, too, that he could be defeated elsewhere in the battlefield even as he attacked me in the rear (ha ha), in a way that didn't give him too many of the victory points and gained me lots of important ones. It sorta worked, but at a very high cost.

I should also mention the role of luck in this game. Like so many paper-and-pencil, table-top simulation, and card games of war, there's a need to replicate the role of chance in battle. Great victories and defeats have often hinged on small moments of luck. To introduce that random element, dice are used in Epic to determine outcomes. It's imperfect, but necessary. In this game, I had great luck in the first turn, but Mark's luck improved in the second and into the third. Dice rolls kept Mark's gunship of troops off the board for another turn. They also let his troops rally at the end of turns while keeping too many of mine broken and unusable.

By the time of turn three, I was still dominating the middle and his end of the battlefield, but he was sowing trouble all across my home territory and marshalling lots of troops from off-table to join the fray. When the drop pods arrived, he managed to nearly destroy my largest force in a single action; even before the dropped troops got into battle. His Terminators were still there, too, and his left-flanking maneuver was quite successful. But I was running wild across his area, and he needed to waste time dealing with me. By the time he could focus on his actions with the Terminators and dropped Marines, the time allotment for the game was almost over. He had a lot to kill and clean out, mostly remnants of detachments he'd beaten up earlier, but not quite enough time to do it. Also, I had some incredible luck with troops that should never have been able to take the attacks they did. It wasn't enough to stop him, much less defeat his forces, but he was slowed down.

Slowed enough that when, at the end of turn three, we checked for victory conditions, I was ahead 3-0! I was stunned. It was the second time I felt like my decisions had led my troops to victory, messy as it was. But it was the first time I felt like I'd made a decisive win. It was great. I'm beginning to believe, as Mark once suggested, that I can really do well at this. I used to enjoy chess and boardgame wargames when I was in my teens and twenties, which is why I enjoy Epic. It has the same "general with an army" feel to it. There are lots of rules and exceptions to learn, but that's coming, and I can feel my mind sharpening because of it.

Next Wednesday, we're hosting a "mega battle" at the Battle Bunker. That's where anyone is welcome to bring a small force. If you want to play, but don't have an army there are lots of folks who will share their troops so you can join in. Two sides are created and lined up against each other on a very long battlefield. Then they have at each other! Melee until one side loses enough, or everyone has to go home. If you're curious, come on down and either watch or join in. The fun is due to start around 6PM. The Battle Bunker has drink and snack machines, but we will order pizzas if enough people want in.

Thanks to Mark, by the way, for addicting me to "battle crack." At least it gets me out of the house once a week.

No comments: