Our Back of Beyond campaign continued on Saturday with a heavyweight clash on the outskirts of Penza between Jonathan’s White Army (led by Pete, Doug, Patrick, and Mark), and Theo’s attacking Red Army (Theo, Neil, me) at the War Room.
In the largest game yet, using Rob's and Philip's figures, the Bolsheviks had 12 brigades, while the Whites had nine brigades. Each side also had a fantastic armoured train, expertly assembled and painted by Rob...
The table was bisected by a railway line and a river, with several hills and scattered woods. The railway junction ran through a suburb of Penza – the city held by Jonathan, who had been digging defences there since turn one in the campaign.
Theo approached from the southern side in a bid to take on the Whites, who defended from the northern table edge.
Turn 1: 11:50am
After a lengthy deployment by both sides behind a screen, I advanced with one infantry and two cavalry brigades on the Bolshevik left flank.
Pete, commanding the White right, immediately pushed a cavalry brigade forward onto the hill to face my command.
Meanwhile, Neil moved forward on the Bolshevik right, and Theo pushed cavalry into the town... which, contrary to assumptions, conferred no meaningful protection on its garrison...
Patrick, leading the White centre and left, began a cannonade against the Red centre and the town, which inflicted some losses there.
Turn 2: 12:25pm
Pete attacked one of my Bolshevik cavalry brigades on the Red left, doing damage. His cavalry attack put one of my Red lancer units to flight, and he followed up, threatening a Latvian rifleman unit to their rear.
Pete also launched his Cossack brigade across the river towards my Bolshevik forces (which came under fire from my light artillery). A couple of cavalry melees also led to White success in this sector.
In the centre, meanwhile, some Bolshevik cavalry was expelled from the town after failing a morale test due to White long-range fire. A unit of Red infantry in the centre also broke.
Patrick pushed a cavalry brigade forward from the lightly held White left flank, onto the hill.
It was now obvious that the White defensive lines were exceptionally strong, particularly on the centre-left, where artillery positions were bolstered by guns mounted on the White armoured train. These weapons were trained on the Bolshevik centre and their units in the town.
Turn 3: 2:20pm
After lunch, my Bolshevik cavalry began to counter-attack the White cavalry (now led by Mark), which slowly became degraded.
But both the Reds and Whites were in a meatgrinder on the Bolshevik left, and Mark charged my Red lancers with White Cossacks.
Neil’s advance on the Bolshevik right was proceeding apace, and destroyed one of Patrick’s cavalry units in its path.
Patrick was forced to pull out his cavalry brigade on the White left wing but was still causing casualties to the Red centre.
Turn 4: 3:30pm
Two of my Red cavalry units, reduced to three figures apiece, were routed after failed morale rolls. But the White Cossacks facing me also had to pull out – disordered and broken.
Turn 5: 4:05pm
Although my Reds had gained de facto control of the hill on the Bolshevik left, and scattered the White cavalry, I was reduced to only half a unit of cavalry out of four, when one of my brigades unexpectedly routed!
The Whites' remaining cavalry on my sector were forced to retreat, however, even as Theo’s centre was taking further losses from Patrick’s artillery and armoured train.
At this point, with the Bolshevik train still some way off a useful firing position, Theo ordered a Bolshevik retreat.
Play ended at 4:40pm.
The Reds had taken higher casualties than the Whites, losing three cavalry brigades and some infantry, to the Whites’ two cavalry brigades.
There had been no massed or decisive attacks launched, largely owing to the strength of the White defences.
Afterwards, Rob suggested that the Bolshevik train - which Theo could choose to deploy in situ or instead call in from the far table edge - might have been deployed in the Red centre to maximise firepower against the White centre. Along with the train’s artillery, three light guns in the centre could have pummeled the White lines in preparation for an infantry assault.
In actuality, the Red train was arriving from the far left table edge, and never made a decisive offensive contribution. In contrast, the White armoured train was on table at the start, and thus in position to cause major disruption to the Red centre.
The outcome of the game was that Theo’s attack - launched due to his precarious strategic position between two White armies north and south of Tsaritsyn - had been repulsed. He had failed to break the White lines at Penza within ten turns. Given the length of each turn, such a possibility was always unlikely.
Jonathan’s defences were strong, but he had also out-scouted the Reds, giving him the advantage of placing prepared positions in advance of Theo’s attack.
Thanks to Rob for setting up, umpiring, and hospitality, and to all who played in this engaging if indecisive encounter. The figures and models were sumptuous; the game itself leaving all with plenty of food for thought: and giving me my first BoB command experience!
Campaign Notebook: How to win a Back of Beyond battle?
So, after four major BoB battles, what have we learned so far?
First of all, the games are looking visually spectacular, and are being enjoyed by all, and exceptionally supported by Rob and Phil. Second, each battle has been different as various configurations of troops and players with contrasting temperaments and objectives take to assorted tabletops.
Thirdly, it seems that the larger the battle, the less decisive it proves to be, as both sides take longer to organise, deploy and launch meaningful attacks. With less time to play, less is getting done in the games... meaning they take on the character of probing actions.
Cavalry is still being used ‘Napoleonically’ rather than as mobile infantry, or a recce force, and is often bearing the brunt of casualties – possibly because it can move quicker and encourages a more offensive psychology in players than the infantry does…
We have yet to see a successful assault on prepared infantry positions, perhaps because the artillery is cancelling each other out, and no general has yet risked a mass assault on their opponent’s lines. Do the rules on deployment need to be revisited, or simply better exploited by players? Should battles have fixed terrain objectives, or instead be wholly governed by players' subjective level of cautiousness?
What then is the purpose of battle in this alternative BoB world, where winning an engagement is both risky and difficult, but where, conversely, losses can be relatively easily replaced? Do players have sufficient skin in the game: enough to try to win decisively or risk defeat every time they fight?
Is stalemate inevitable? Could it be that greater concentration of force or aggression is required on the battlefield? Or perhaps, on the operational level, more than one corps is needed to attack a weaker or poorly positioned enemy army from different directions – thus forcing a tactical battlefield advantage? Can players successfully bridge the gap between campaign map and tabletop?
Is a mass infantry-heavy army - capable of soaking up casualties to screen a targeted attack - the way forward, or simply better battlefield coordination of the various arms? Should players work more closely with allies outwith the tabletop to establish a strategy enabling more numbers and firepower to be brought to bear in alliance warfare along multiple fronts?
It remains to be seen who will get the formula right, how - and when... but the possibilities are numerous.
Bring on turn three!