Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making Use of What We Have

As a gamer I keep long lists of games and components I’d like to add to the extensive collection of materials I already possess. But sometimes the urge to run a particular game hits me when I don’t quite have all the appropriate pieces; at these times I rummage through the components I have and “make do” with something close, crafting a new game experience to use what I have on hand. Some recent flea market acquisitions inspired me to take this approach on several levels to create an unexpectedly interesting game experience I’d otherwise never pursue.

A Panzer IV waits just inside the
Bois de Bavent behind the minefield.
The regional miniature wargaming convention I recently attended hosted a Sunday morning flea market where gamers could set up on a table to sell their unwanted wargames, painted miniatures, history books, and other wonderful diversions. An old friend had some zip baggies of various Axis & Allies Miniatures (okay, and some Star Wars capital ships from some Wizards of the Coast game I’d completely missed...that I couldn’t resist). The pre-painted vehicle minis work well with 15mm-scale World War II miniatures games like Flames of War (though I’m sure diehard players would cry heresy!) and my own Panzer Kids, still in the development pipeline and awaiting what time and focus I can pry away from real life. Since Panzer Kids focuses on tanks, I was naturally looking for armor; most vehicles I collected when I was buying into the game’s frustratingly randomized booster packs consisted of German and American tanks, with a scant few British ones.

Tank-on-tank conflicts work well in North Africa (and on the Eastern Front, though I’m not a fan of that theater). The campaign in Europe saw extensive use of tanks in combination with other elements like infantry, artillery, and air support, but not many engagements exclusively featuring tanks alone. About the only tanks my friend had – aside from yet more German Panzers – were four British Mark VII Tetrarchs, neat-looking light tanks about which I didn’t know much. He also had some defensive structures and markers I liked: tank obstacles, pill boxes, barbed wire, and minefield signs. He gave me a generous price on everything (many thanks, John...I owe you!).

When I got home I had two interesting revelations that at first seemed like obstacles to using these toys in play. The minefield sign markers were protected in cardboard, so when I took that off it revealed that the piece consisted of lots of black plastic stand with a tiny, to-scale signpost with a “mines” sign on it. Overall not terribly impressive considering how the space devoted to the stand overwhelmed the actual sign. My second problem came from the Tetrarchs; some cursory research on Wikipedia about their actual deployment in the war and then some deeper research in several volumes about D-Day in my personal library (including but not limited to Ambrose’s D-Day, Osprey’s Overlord: The D-Day Landings compendium, even General Compagnon’s The Normandy Landings translated from the French) informed me that they saw brief service with the British 8th Airborne late on D-Day as a very limited effectiveness recce squadron before relegated to infantry support roles. I was a bit frustrated that I had four tanks which saw very little tank-versus-tank action (and also curious why Wizards of the Coast thought such a unit was a good addition to the Axis & Allies Miniatures game when so many other worthier vehicles and units seemed forgotten). Nonetheless I was determined to put both these problematic components to good use in the service of Panzer Kids.

Minefield markers modified with flocking.
Inset: the original minefield marker.
I first addressed the minefield marker issue. This proved easier than I thought. For Panzer Kids’ desert skirmishes I’d created two minefield scenery pieces, lots of sand and some craters surrounded by posts and barbed wire to delineate where, in the basic game, tanks couldn’t go or, in the more advanced game, tanks could travel with a good chance of setting off a mine and sustaining damage. But the five Axis & Allies Miniatures markers gave me a nice option of using them to define the perimeter of a minefield in whatever shape I wanted. To make them more appealing for the wargaming table I simply gave the black-plastic surface a light sanding, brushed it with a mix of water and white glue, and applied some stone and grass flocking to it. After drying and brushing off the excess, I had five rather nice-looking minefield sign markers.

Designing a historically possible tank-on-tank scenario using the Tetrarchs proved a bit more challenging, but led to an engaging game into which I incorporated some interesting solitaire “fog-of-war” elements. The Tetrarchs were comparable to the American M-5 Stuart light tank in both firepower and armor, but were light enough for British airborne forces to deploy them to drop zones on specially designed Hamilcar gliders (a risky proposition for vehicles of any kind, let alone armored tanks). After doing a little more online research, I got the impression the sole use of Tetrarchs in their reconnaissance capacity came late on D-Day when the recce squadron probed areas of the Bois de Bavent, a wooded area east of the area British forces had secured earlier that day. Accounts indicated the Tetrarchs weren’t very effective against the few German tanks and mines they encountered; during the action one was taken out by a Panzer IV and one by a mine.

Tetrarchs head toward the minefield they
must cross before reaching the woods.
I devised a quick scenario incorporating several elements: a wooded area, a Panzer IV, a minefield, and my four newly acquired Tetrarchs. For fun I included two scenery pieces I made to depict “rough ground” with several swampy patches, terrain I could use to funnel the Tetrarchs into the minefield. According to the stats I ran through Panzer Kids, two Tetrarchs were an even match for a Panzer IV, but I figured the minefield served as a serious obstacle that could wear down the British recce tanks, so I stuck with one German tank.

The Panzer IV on the sidelines with its
stat card and the ace; other face-down
cards in the woods indicate where the
tank might be hiding....
To create a more interesting solitaire experience, I tested a method of “fog of war” hidden deployment for the lone Panzer IV. I pulled out a deck of playing cards and separated the two red aces and three other low-value black-suit cards. I set one ace on the Panzer IV model (also from the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game) on the sidelines, then shuffled the other ace with the four other low cards and randomly placed them at the edge of the woods, two on each flank of the central minefield. I determined the Germans would open fire – thus revealing their lone tank – on the turn when any Tetrarch moved across the minefield; at that point I’d turn over all the cards and place the tank where the ace turned up. I’d then simply do all the rolling for the various tank attacks, with the Panzer IV going for the Tetrarch with the most hits and without cover.

The cards are revealed and the Panzer IV
comes out on the right flank as a pair of
Tetrarchs enters the minefield.
I divided the Tetrarchs into two teams each heading for an opposite edge of the minefield. One pair went through while the other held back to provide fire support if necessary. I made my minefield rolls (tanks must roll at or above their attack bonus on 1D6...3 or higher for the Tetrarchs) and, true to historical accounts, bang!, one takes a hit. But they’re in the minefield, so I turn over playing cards, the ace comes up on the extreme right flank of the woods, and place the Panzer IV there next to a tree, giving it cover and making it extremely difficult to hit (requiring a 5 or 6 on a 1D6 roll)...and lining up most of the Tetrarchs so some block the others’ line of sight to the Germans.

Nonetheless the tanks hammered away at each other, with the advancing Tetrarchs entering and taking cover in the woods. It didn’t take too long – with one unlucky roll for the Germans and several lucky ones for the British – before they blasted the Panzer IV out of the game. In hindsight I should have included a second German vehicle, the Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun accounts mention also attacked Tetrarchs on their recce into the woods, giving the Germans a slightly more sporting chance at victory.

Two British tanks take cover in the woods while
the other two provide covering fire out in the open.
Overall the exercise challenged me to use the toys I had at hand in a skirmish I otherwise wouldn’t have cared much about or even designed. It also gave me the opportunity to test some “fog of war” mechanics I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while. In the past I’ve “made do” with other game elements. The setting and theme behind Valley of the Ape emerged from my owning several appropriate sets of 54mm Armies in Plastic historical figures (Victorian British soldiers, Zulus, and Dervishes). I’ve designed demos and full scenarios for the Star Wars Rolelplaying Game using available miniatures dioramas (Mos Eisley and the cantina, among other bits I’ve acquired over the years). One might argue using pre-painted Axis & Allies Miniatures for my own Panzer Kids game constitutes a case of “making do” with the toys at hand.

Want to share how you’ve re purposed gaming materials or “made do” with existing game components instead of buying new materials? Want to start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.