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Subject: Last Stand(ing) in the Rain, AAR Part II rss

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Gregg Keizer
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Welcome back to "Tattlin' About Typhoon," or in mundane phrasing, the second installment of an AAR of my solo through Last Stand: The Battle for Moscow 1941-42, a game by Masahiro Yamazaki published in Six Angles magazine in 2008 and destined -- eventually -- to appear as a refresh from MMP.

[Part I of this AAR is here:

I'll pick up the action at the start of Turn 3 -- that's marked October III, so I figure it kicks off Oct. 21 -- in a bit. But first a short side trip.

The Last Stand uses the "untried" mechanism where combat factors are unknown until the unit enters battle for the first time. (Others more attuned to wargaming history will have to say when this debuted and/or became a thing, but I first ran into it back in the day playing PanzerGroup Guderian out of S&T.)

Only Soviet units are untried, and all except the three Soviet Guard cavalry corps and the three Katyushas start so on the map or come in that way as reinforcements (or what the rules dub "Reorganization," which is the term for reinforcements pulled from the Dead Pile according to a set schedule).

I haven't cared for untried units since first exposure, mostly, I think, because I disliked the additional randomness and tilt from the historical. I do understand why they're in the designer toolbox and why they can be attractive to others, though.

Fortunately, Last Stand offers an alternative. The back side of each counter (again, except for the Guard cavalry corps and the Katyushas) that provides full info, including combat factors, provides a hex number for the historical setup position or game turn if it's a reinforcement. I went with the historical.

Even using this option, the rules say to introduce the reorganized units (those raised, Lazarus-like, from the Dead Pile) on their untried sides. I did as I was told and found -- to a bit of surprise -- that I liked this uncertainty. Somehow, the quality randomness of these units, ones I imagined leaned toward rallied units, quickly-fleshed-out units that had been mauled in combat and then were forced back into battle, and the like, felt real. In any case, the combination of known and unknown in a turn's reinforcements did not bother me. YMMV, naturally.

At end of German's Turn 3

It's still raining sheets. Cold sheets. And there's still mud, bottomless mud, where drivable tracks once showed trucks how to get from, say, Milyatino to Yukhnov.

So except for units remaining within eight hexes of the west-edge supply sources, only the 3. PzGrp stays in supply. All of the divisions that were OOS at the start of the turn flip to Isolated during the Supply Determination Phase. Those within eight hexes of a supply column/depot unit from their own formation -- if that supply unit cannot trace a road-based line to an appropriate west edge source -- stay in OOS. (See the prior AAR.) When I played this turn, though, I spaced on that rule; some units showing in the image above as Isolated should be only OOS. Whoops.

Army Group Center is nearly incapacitated as the Isolated units' MPs and combat factors get halved and then halved again. For example, 9. PzDiv, which is at the tip of the 2. PzArmy spear east of Tula and normally a 9-7-12, becomes a weakling 3-2-3 after quartering and rounding up.

Only the fully-supplied 3. PzGrp keeps any momentum: After breaching the entrenchment line before Moshaisk, it presses eastward to attack the next defense. 6. PzDiv forces its way into Kubinka and threatens Naro-Fominsk, another garrisoned town on the army group's list of objectives. But the Soviets solidify and prevent the capitulation of Naro-Fominsk. Moscow remains a distant 88 km. away.

Elsewhere in the 3. PzGrp's area and north of the Moscow highway, 14. Inf (motorized), 36. Inf. (motorized) and 161. Inf. attack north of the Rusa River, heading for the important road and rail junction of Istra. They, too, fall short after breaking through the second line of fortifications.

But the 3. PzGrp continues to only screen Kalinin with a pair of infantry divisions while a third holds Rzhev after it waltzed into the city, barely impeded by the militia-made garrison. In the real Typhoon, a large portion of the 3. PzGrp was ordered to take Kalinin, even though officers on the ground said their men were exhausted and the city was outside the range of supply support. I didn't want to repeat what I saw as a mistaken misdirection of scarce resources. Yes, Kalinin was an objective city and once taken would block an avenue of Soviet counter-attack from the northern edge of the map. But to the German player, Kalinin is a dead end and to keep it in supply through November would require one of the three 3. PzGrp supply convoy/depot units. (In December and January, the snow would erase the secondary road used for tracing supply, and then its defenses would be hung out to dry.)

Because of the 3. PzGrp's special supply properties -- it can remain in supply even in the worst weather, thanks to the Smolensk-Moscow highway -- its units are especially valuable. And because The Last Stand does not allow units to switch formations, what you get is all you get. 3. PzGrp's strength should be husbanded as much as possible for the most critical task of driving on Moscow and/or taking objectives along the highway. Not pissed away on secondary tasks.

That's easy to write but hard to accomplish. The German player must almost always watch as the hard-fighting 3. PzGrp's forces weaken faster than the other two armored formations simply because of its operational tempo, notably overruns (which are not allowed by units marked OOS or Isolated).

Units of the 4. PzGrp struggled under OOS and Isolated markers -- the former were those who had been in supply the turn before -- but managed to push the Reds out of both Maloyaroslavets and Kaluga, a pair of objective hexes. The advance then faltered when faced with the entrenchments immediately east of Maloyaroslavets.

Further south, the 2. PzArmy, also short on fuel and ammunition, made little progress beyond Plavsk even though it faced easier terrain and weak defenses. With no offensive punch, there was little reason to throw away divisions on low-odds attacks. Reinforcements, including the fully-supplied 18. PzDiv (which began the turn within eight hexes of the 2. PzArmy's west-edge supply source), were unable to reach the front lines and the stumble forward again fell short of Tula.

Speaking of Tula....

The city, which Guderian never managed to take during Typhoon-in-reality, is a tempting goal in this area of the map. Not only does it control the one road that can support the 2. PzArmy's drive toward Moscow from the south, but it contains two garrison units, twice the usual for an objective. Capture it and both those garrisons flip to Damage markers and go on the Damage Track.

Also in Tula, one of two "factory" units on the Soviet side (the other is, not surprisingly, in Moscow). These units add a one-point factor on defense like a garrison but more importantly, allow placement of reinforcements if the city is surrounded or cut off from Soviet lines. A factory also guarantees that units in the city remain in supply for defense, again even if the city is under siege. (In Tula's case, that can translate into at least one additional turn before falling than would have been the case sans factory.)

Because the rain and mud halted much of the German advance, the various formations' infantry divisions have closed up on the panzer and motorized spearheads. The 4. Army has turned toward the southeast, looking to cross the Zusba River and fill the gap north of Tula, between that city and Serpukhov along the Oka River. The 2. Army was far behind -- it had finished dealing with the last in the Bryansk pocket -- and the 9. Army was struggling through the woods and swamps to the west of Rzhev.

I had plans for the 2. and 9. armies; the former was to guard the southern flank of the salient while the latter did the same for the northern. The red-tinted hex sides along the north, east and west edges -- those are Soviet supply sources. But they're also allowable reinforcement entry points. The Soviets may bring in up to 5 units (the tally doesn't count HQs or Katyushas) in any red-tinted hexes on the northern edge, up to 5 units in any such hexes on the southern edge. There is no limit on the eastern edge. Stacking limits must be maintained while placing the units. These edge reinforcements can be placed in an EZOC. Because the Soviet can enter on the northern and southern edges, it behooves the German player to guard against a quick thrust, even a raid, that would, for instance, cut the supply line of the 2. PzArmy. Later, when the Soviets get their time in the sun and begin the winter counter-offensive, those long flanks are going to be irresistible. I really liked this aspect of The Last Stand; too many games allow the player on offense to throw everything into the point of attack, with little thought to flank protection or reserves. This game motivates the German player to do that kind of thinking. Makes it more realistic, I think.

But before the Germans' turn ended I needed to play logistician. Like the Great Oz, wargamers know secrets, like the upcoming weather. Turn 4 will be frost/frozen, when the rains stop and temps drop, hardening the ground so mobility returns. (Remember, you can play with the optional variable weather rule, but for Turn 4, all but a D6 roll of 1 freezes the ground. A 1 continues the rain, which would be, frankly, disastrous for the Germans.) Placement of the supply columns/depots will be important come the opening of Turn 4, when the Germans check units for supply status. I wanted as many of the currently-OSS-or-Isolated units to be within eight hexes of a supply column/depot.

The one place where there was a problem was 2. PzArmy. The formation's supply column had been held up Turn 1 by Soviet units blocking the Orel road, then it was stalled by the weather in Turns 2 and 3 (supply columns' MPs are halved during the two rain turns). The furthest forward it could get was Orel. (Check the image above.) That meant the two eastern-most divisions -- under the Isolated markers nearest to Tula and Stalinogorsk -- would remain out of range and out of supply Turn 4. The solution? Retreat to Plavsk. Rather than cede ground, I kept them forward, risking attack by the Soviets, banking on their desire to keep their meager forces around Tula intact because they'd devote all or most of their later-this-turn reinforcements to stopping 3. PzGrp. I haven't played GMT's Eastern Front series or MMP's/Gamers' OCS so I haven't gone in the deep end of wargaming supply, but this it for the decisions it requires and the pretend authority it provides.

Soviets ... shampoo, rinse, repeat

During the Soviets' half of Turn 3, they "reorganize" 4 rifle divisions, 2 tank brigade units and one cavalry divisions from the Dead Pile. True reinforcements amount to 1 rifle division and 3 tank units, with the armor's strengths 4-3-9, 6-4-9 and 7-4-9. The trio would make a potentially dangerous counter-attacking force if, that is <i>if</i> they could be spared from defense. They cannot.

With the weather to shortly change, the Soviets can no longer put all they have in front of the 3. PzGrp; other mobile formations, including the 4. PzGrp and 2. PzArmy will be able to run amok next turn when they return to full supply.

The Soviets plop the known quantities in front of 3. PzGrp, hoping to hold onto Naro-Fominsk just south of the Smolensk-Moscow highway and on the northern end of the line, Klin and Istra, all objective hexes and thus dear. But with the fortification line breached and too few units to stop panzer infiltrations, the Soviets make a mistake and decide to pull back to the next entrenchments in the stretch from hex 2309 in the north to 2312 in the south. The maneuver units around Istra remain where they stand -- that town and Klin must be held -- but further south, just to the east of Maloyaroslavets, the three remaining divisions bolt for the rear. They can make it to the fortifications by using both their regular movement and exploitation movement. Serpukhov is left to its own devices. There's only so much that can be done with straw.

(The Soviet player may not realize it -- in fact, does not, this being his (my) first time at the rodeo -- but he has likely lost the game at this point. He has been unable to stop the Germans from closing on Moscow during the most critical stretch of the game, Turns 4-6.)

The pace of the game

That The Last Stand has a definable pace is not unusual -- lots of wargames do -- but the clarity of that pace was a surprise to me. Credit the weather, which drives the road-bound German supply and thus limits (or not) that side's actions.

Turn 1 is like Barbarossa all over again. Panzers infiltrate, overruns send the Reds reeling and everyone exploits like hell to balloon the enemy's Dead Pile. Another turn like that, I thought, and the Germans would be gawking at Lenin-in-a-glass-box. Maybe. (Not a bad ad hoc what-if? to try here.)

But the two turns of rain dampen optimism as much as the paper-based ground.

So, when Turn 4 arrives, to drop the temps and freeze the mud, it's panzer weather again. The game's key moment for the Germans happens somewhere in this three-turn span. If the Germans are to win, they must do it here. In fact, they may have just two turns to get things done: The Germans will likely spend their half of Turn 6 getting ready for the Soviet offensive.

Starting with their part of Turn 6 but particularly in Turns 7-10 (because of the snow), the Soviets can go on the attack to drive the Germans from Moscow, reclaim as many of the objective hexes as possible and destroy as many German units as they can, for a win on points.

The Germans, meanwhile, must hold on to as many objective as possible so that the Damage track doesn't get cleared. That's tough: The Germans receive just one lousy division as reinforcement during this span and never pull units from the Dead Pile. Their formations get smaller while the Reds continue to get stronger.

Next time, "Get Frosty," the tale of Turns 4 & 5.
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