Chris and I had another go at ‘O’ Group sample scenario transferred to the Eastern Front. As in our first play test, “Cristot” became “Kristov” and the Germans were attacking a Soviet defensive position. Adam was umpire and provided rules knowledge, figures, most of the terrain, and narrative for the battle report. I add some extra thoughts at the end.
We had another go at the Christot scenario (or its Russian counterpart ‘Kristov’). Steven would be the attacking Germans again, with Chris stepping in as the defending Soviet commander. I would play the umpire/rules guru. In the previous battle, we felt that the balance of forces might have overly favoured the defender, so I tweaked it a bit further, taking away a Soviet MG Squad and reducing them to just one artillery strike.
As before, the table consists of scattered farms, crop fields, woods, and the village of Kristov forming the objective – the Germans could win by either taking two of its four sectors, or breaking the defenders. The Soviets had to stop them by either holding out for 16 turns, or breaking the attackers. It was a nice looking table, although the woods looked a little sparse (something now fixed with a purchase from Timecast at Salute – most of the terrain is by them, although a few of the buildings are by Total Battle Miniatures). I added some ‘scatter terrain’ in the forms of hay and corn stacks, and may experiment more with this.
Chris opted for a traditional defence – one Company either side of the main road, with his third Company in reserve. Steven made a similar plan to the first game, advancing on a broad front with the intention of launching a decisive assault on the objective with his reserve Company. This time, he nominated the woods directly in front of Kristov as the consolidation point for deploying his reserves.
The Soviets deployed a screen of Combat Patrols, with some units deployed in ambush. The Germans deployed their own patrols, but could also deploy some units on table. Steven opted for one Platoon each of rifles and MGs to advance down the centre, with another rifle Platoon moving on the right.
As the Germans advanced, they came under mortar fire. A disadvantage of clustering units together in ‘O’ Group is that artillery can strike multiple targets, and as a result Steven’s strong central deployment suffered shock and was held up, although they did not suffer any casualties.
Chris also began to deploy units on his far right flank – although these would not have an immediate impact, they would prove crucial later in the game!
On Steven’s right, he advanced a Platoon into the wood feature forming the Soviet left flank. Chris deployed a Platoon of his own to counter, and these units would go back and forth shooting and rallying shock throughout the game without any casualties – with neither player willing to deploy additional resources on this flank, a stalemate developed.
Steven continued to advance down his centre and left, although one Combat Patrol was neutralised when it bumped into a Soviet ambush. Although Combat Patrols are hard to knock out, they can only bring on a unit if they are not too close to an enemy, so a show of force was enough to halt this probe. A constant dilemma posed by these rules is whether to send forward a Combat Patrol, or simply to deploy troops and have them advance directly – both have advantages and disadvantages.
Even worse for Steven, Chris now deployed his artillery against his forces advancing in the centre, again stalling the advance through shock. Chris also deployed his MGs to defend the objective, and Steven now began to suffer casualties as well.
The key actions
However, Steven was now ready to make his move. To start, he called for artillery on Kristov, and received a Nebelwerfer strike! As well as giving me an excuse to swap in some of my ‘ruined building’ terrain pieces, it suppressed Chris’s MGs (killing one section, with the other fortunate not to rout), as well as dispersing a Combat Patrol and suppressing the Soviet Company Commander. Suddenly, the objective was wide open, and Steven rushed forwards.
Another German Platoon peeled away from the centre to the right, where a Soviet Platoon looked an easy target. Made hesitant by German fire, and presenting its rear to the Germans, the result seemed certain… but the dice thought otherwise! The Germans reeled back in disgrace, and to add insult to injury the jubilant Soviets were able to rally off some shock.
Back in the centre, Chris was scrambling to stabilise the objective. First, he deployed his reserve Company into the objective, where they ran headfirst into a German Platoon that had rushed forward in the wake of the Nebelwerfer barrage. Steven now had control of one objective sector – just one more and he would win! However, the Soviets, inspired by their comrades on the flank, charged in with bayonets and ejected the Germans from Kristov.
Next, Chris began to swing his right flank in on the Germans. In his rush for the objective, Steven had left his left flank open, and now Chris had two Platoons threatening to roll the Germans up. Being second line, the Soviets were disadvantaged when moving and shooting, reducing their impact, but Steven was still forced to react. He pivoted his MG Platoon, which had until now been peppering the objective, to the left. This succeeded in suppressing one Soviet Platoon, with casualties, but would it be enough?
The tide turns
In short – no. The Germans were having to fight in two directions, and inevitably took a pounding whenever they left a flank open. Chris now switched from desperate defence into a full counterattack! By launching it simultaneously from the now-secured Kristov and from his right, he was able to find flanks everywhere, and soon Steven’s Company (reduced to Platoon strength; this might have been an opportunity to use the ‘resquadding’ command where shattered Platoons can be combined into a single ad-hoc Platoon), was driven back in disarray. To rub salt into the wounds, the German Company Commander in question went hesitant, further reducing their ability to resist.
Chris even extended his counterattack to the other flank, where the disgraced German Platoon still lay, licking its wounds. They would be spared a court martial, as the onrushing Soviets wiped them out.
In the centre, Steven had finally deployed his reserve Company Commander, with Combat Patrols. However, as mentioned earlier, Combat Patrols cannot bring on troops if there are enemies nearby, and the onrushing Soviets never game them the room to deploy the desperately-needed reinforcements. In a final act of defiance, Steven deployed his second MG Platoon, but even this failed to make an impact on Chris’s Soviets (although given time, it might have enabled the Germans to escape). With Steven’s Germans in retreat across the board, and his forces about to break (he’d lost 10 Squads, with 12 being the break point), we called the game: a clear Soviet victory for Chris!
Adam’s Observations and Conclusions
Of the three of us, I am the only one who has fully studied the rules, with Chris never having played or read them before. That being said, by the middle of the game, Steven and Chris had ‘got the hang of it’ – the game was flowing nicely, and I was able to bring up the relevant mechanics to execute their orders. There were some hick ups early on, particularly with Chris’s deployment, but I was able to fudge this to avoid any serious problems – being a club that primarily plays Crossfire, there were naturally a few moments where assumptions were carried between the two rules (for example, in Crossfire a unit at the rear of a wood can shoot out of the front; not so with ‘O’ Group). Particularly pleasing was the fact that we were able to reach a conclusion in roughly 3 hours, making the rules a decent contender for a club night.
As noted previously, ‘O’ Group is certainly a more complex game than Crossfire, but given that I had put a lot of time into learning the game, this didn’t prove a major problem on the night. A post-game scan of the rules revealed a couple of things I had got wrong or forgotten, but there was nothing game-changing. Still, this is probably a caveat for the rules – not impossible to learn, but there’s a learning curve and it probably demands more effort than many of its competitors. This is likely a matter of individual taste, and certainly a different design philosophy compared to most games we play at our club.
I was happy with how the game went. The outcomes were plausible, and there were plenty of moments where the players had to make major command decisions, with decisive consequences. On one flank, a fight dissolved into a stalemate, as neither commander felt it was worth feeding resources into a messy forest fight- realistic. On the other side of the table, pressure against an exposed flank eventually became decisive, and the German advance was stopped cold, and then routed – again, realistic. Chris ultimately won through a well-timed counterattack, every wargamer’s favourite!
Still, we had a number of concerns, many of which came as repeats from the first battle. This game was played before Salute 2021, and I was keen to chat to Dave Brown, the rules author, who was there running an absolutely stunning game of ‘O’ Group set in Stalingrad, well worth its ‘Best in Show’ award. Dave was kind enough to chat to me and answer some of my questions (I have also found him very responsive to questions online).
Attentive readers may have noticed that in both battles, Steven failed to get his reserve Company on the table. This wasn’t just an oversight, however: the problem is understanding how the reserves slot into the ‘Company boundaries’ system, given that the on-table Companies already seem to cover the whole front. The answer, ultimately, is that rather than getting bogged down with exact lines of demarcation, to simply go with what seems ‘right’. So for example, in this game two options could be: 1) leapfrog the reserve Company into the lead for the assault on Kristov, or 2) create a three Company frontline, so that one Company could shift left to intercept the flanking Soviets. Ultimately, I think the answer has to be: fuzzy solutions, do what seems realistic.
Our other key question was balance. Having used the points system as best as I could to create a balanced game, I was unsure if the game was still too slanted against the attacker – this issue is exacerbated by ‘O’ Group’s points system, which as described in the previous report makes it hard to judge exactly what the balance of forces is. On both occasions, the attacker lost fairly heavily, and we wondered if the scenario I had laid out was simply unfair.
However, with the release of ‘O’ Group’s first scenario pack (for 1940 France), it’s clear that the balance of forces on the table is not unreasonable for ‘O’ Group, something that Dave confirmed to me. He stressed patience and concentration of force for the attacker – in both games, Steven attempted quick coup-de-mains against the objectives, which resulted in the attacking forces nearly, but not quite, succeeding, and ending up cut off and crushed. Notably, Steven only deployed his second MG Platoon after the game was already gone – might it have proved enough to secure his flank against Chris’s decisive counterattack? My suspicion is that the ‘Crossfire mindset’ is at play here – those of you who have played Crossfire will know how hard it is to take ground in that game, and might find it impossible to resist charging forward and seizing terrain when the opportunity arises. ‘O’ Group, I think, rewards a different approach. Having the best understanding of the rules, I am keen to try taking on the role of the attacker myself, to see if it is possible for the attacker to win this scenario. The long-suffering Steven has agreed to this, so hopefully in the near future we can see if a different approach yields better results for the Germans!
Steven’s Observations and Conclusions
The table looked even better than last time. Adam is investing in terrain and it makes a difference. And he is now putting down more terrain. A trend I hope he continues.
Unfortunately, after two games, I still don’t get ‘O’ Group.
I confess I’m struggling to find effective tactics in ‘O’ Group and in this scenario particularly. In the first play test I tried a feint in the middle with a (theoretically) reinforced right hook. It didn’t work. In practice I had two companies against three and couldn’t make headway. In this game, I decided to go for broke. Feint on the right and drive up the centre. Again, in practice, I had two companies against three and couldn’t make headway.
Now you might ask, why did I have only two companies … well, the orbat did give me three, but I’d kept one as a reserve, with a consolidation point forward on the table. I figured I’d capture the consolidation point, deploy my reserve and attack the final objective from there. I was trying to simulate an attack in two waves with the second wave leap frogging the first. So I kept a company off table. But that left my on table forces seriously outnumbered by the defender. I’m forced to the conclusion leap frog attacks don’t work in ‘O’ Group. At least I don’t know how to make them work. Next time I’d just line up the companies side by side and try to hammer my way through.
Another thing I found a bit odd, was that in both games the Soviets immediately flipped over from defence to attack, and counter attacked using superior numbers. There was nothing about the rules or scenario to encourage the Soviets to defend. The incentive is to get close and shoot. Since they had three companies on table and I had two, they immediately advanced against my attacking troops. This makes sense in the rules/game, but I’m not convinced that after 12 minutes of actual combat (the bottom end of the time scale for ‘O’ Group), a battalion in defence would leave its positions and switch over to the attack. That is because there was no “defensive position” – there were just two opposing forces on a table.
I didn’t really like Combat Patrols in the first play test, but my opinion on them is now confirmed. They don’t work for me as a game mechanic. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they are meant to create a fog of war, and they do, but this fog of war is both more and less than I think is reasonable. As a player you are as ignorant of where your own troops are as your opponent is, which seems odd to me. In the confusion of an attack I can almost accept this, for example, troops wandering off rather than advancing towards the enemy. But for defending troops I find it very strange. I would expect that a defending officer would know the battalion’s deployment plan and hence know where their troops were located. That isn’t true in ‘O’ Group. You know where a small number of units are, because they are in ambush, but the rest are deployed from Combat Patrols, and Combat Patrols can be anywhere. Actually, technically speaking, Combat Patrols start 18″ from company commander, at any time in the game, and can then move away from there; which is close enough to “anywhere” for me.
Secondly, because Combat Patrols can end up anywhere, in practice they appear in front the of the attackers or appear to the flank and then counter-attack the attackers. I don’t like that. This mechanism means the game isn’t a test of one commanders tactical skill against another. I think the test of skill should be whether the defender predicts where the attack is coming from and deploys to stop it, and whether the attacker can second guess the defender and surprise them. In ‘O’ Group the defender doesn’t need a plan – they just have to respond to what the attacker does. And the attacker can never surprise the defender, because the defender doesn’t actually have to plot the deployment of the majority of their troops. Actually, in this game Chris did secretly plot where he thought all of his troops should be deployed, something a sensible officer would do, but when we found out he had done this, we told him to ignore those dispositions. Which, for me, is a bit weird. The game encourages the opposite of what the actual commander would do.
And all of that leaves me struggling with what actions ‘O’ Group is actually simulating. With the caveat that I’ve only played two games, I don’t think it models attack-defence very well. I mentioned that the first play test felt like a meeting engagement. This impression, that all battles in ‘O’ group are meeting engagements, has been reinforced by the second play test.
Adam and I have agreed to have another go. This time with him putting in the attack. We’ll see.