Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Battle of Tali-Ihantala anniversary game (Solitaire to learn SCS)

I've been meaning to learn Multiman Publishing's Standard Combat Series for a while now. I own Karelia '44, which is a module detailing the major Soviet offensive on the Karelian isthmus during the Continuation War in the summer of 1944. As the anniversary is upon us, I thought it was high time to give it a go by myself.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Continuation War (can't blame you), Finland and the Soviet Union had been at war since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, yet the war had been slowed down to a stalemate for a couple of years. In the summer of 1944, to coincide with the Normandy landings, the Soviets launched a major offensive in Karelia to finally break Finland. The scale of the offensive caught the Finnish by surprise and they started a fighting withdrawal across the Karelian isthmus to buy enough time for reinforcements to arrive from other parts of the front.

There was a succession of fortified lines on the isthmus. When a line broke, the Finns retreated to the next one to regroup. The first two lines were broken in the opening days of the offensive and the city of Viipuri lost. The defensive line the Finns now occupied, VKT line, was not the last in the succession, but if it would fall, it was unlikely that the last one would hold either. In the Battle of Tali-Ihantala, the gradually reinforced Finns finally managed to stop the Soviet offensive. Failure would surely have meant that Finland in it's entirety would have fallen behind the iron curtain. The Soviet attack stalled as all available reinforcements were directed to the push on Germany. Peace was ultimately made and Finland remained independent.

Karelia '44 contains scenarios to cover the entire summer offensive, but I opted to play the small Tali-Ihantala scenario. It was small enough to fit in the lid of the game box when I made a copy of the area, which was nice as I didn't finish the game all in one go.

Opening setup of the Tali-Ihantala scenario. The Soviets outnumber the Finns by a wide margin, but the Finns have water obstacles to protect their flanks, a defensive line to get a bonus in defence and reinforcements on the way. The Soviets must also reduce troops on the field depending on Stalin's whims.
When the "boss point counter" nears zero, the Soviet player must reduce troops on the table to appease the high command or the scenario ends. Here's the reduction to keep the Soviet player going for one more round.

SCS seems really simple to learn for a hex & counter game. Basic movement and combat are as simple as they come and won't give any trouble for anyone who's played anything similar before. The effective use of "exploitation capable" forces takes some plays to master though. These troops are able to mount more than one attack in a turn and are able to exploit gaps made by other troops during the same turn (hence the name). This capability is mostly for tanks, mechanized infantry and elite formations.

There are a lot of module specific rules and I think these are the ones that took most learning. Finns in Karelia '44 are able to make some extra actions and so on, and some rules override the normal series rulebook. Nothing too difficult but it takes time to learn how to use them properly. Here's how I did:

The Soviets easily drive back the Finns on their right flank but are unable to cut them off from the main force.

The Soviets play their only "prepared offensive", which allows them more efficient artillery barrages and additional exploitation capability. The Soviets fail to make any gains on that turn.
Two turns of pounding and the Finns do break however and the defensive line between Tali and Ihantala is broken through. The Finns retreat once more to a bottleneck between the lakes.
The Soviets cannot be stopped at this point.
I called the game at turn six as there was little more than artillery left on the Finnish side.

The game took me six turns and was a pretty straightforward slugfest. The Soviets hammer the Finnish defensive line and the Finns try to plug any gaps that appear. The victory conditions of the scenario oddly state that the soviet player needs 8 victory points to win the scenario when the boss points run out, but this doesn't make any sense as the Soviet player is the attacker and he already has the requisite points to win at the start of the scenario! Anyway, I reasoned that the Soviet player has to exceed the historical result to win and set out to see whether the Finnish line could be overcome.

For the first three or four turns it looked like the Soviets didn't have a chance, even with all their numerical superiority. The protected Finnish flanks and good defences meant that it was really difficult to get a good odds ratio against the Finnish anywhere. Even the prepared offensice just fizzled into nothing and the red army had to reduce troops three times because the boss points kept dropping. At some point the Soviet luck turned however and the Finnish line was suddenly broken in two or three places at the same time. This signaled the end of the battle.

All in all, the scenario was not very good gameplay-wise, even if the history behind the battle is interesting to me. It gave me a chance to try out the SCS rules but there was very little manoeuvering to do and I couldn't really give the exploitation rules a good go. Maybe the whole campaign will cement the rules for me. I have a chance to start the full scenario on vassal against another player so maybe I'll give it a go.

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