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One Thousand Cuts: The Battle of Astrakhan (BoB Campaign)

Updated: Apr 24, 2023



Rob's fantastic Back of Beyond campaign reached top gear with its first tabletop battle on Tuesday night, in what proved to be one of the most thought-provoking encounters at the War Room in recent club history.


In a case of ‘death by a thousand cuts’, Philip’s smaller Bolshevik army inflicted devastating losses on the heavy weapons of Pete's larger White army, in return for minor casualties.



Context


The battle resulted from turn one in the campaign (the most immersive ever run at Heston & Ealing Wargamers) with Philip’s Reds attacking Pete's White-held city of Astrakhan on the Caspian sea.



Terrain set up


Both players alternated in placing terrain on the 12 x 6ft table: Pete laying down a defensive position mainly consisting of a river and trench lines, while Philip added hills near his baseline and marshes to protect his right flank.



Armies



Pete’s White army (using Rob's figures) consisted of two infantry brigades, a small infantry assault brigade, three cavalry brigades, a tank and two armoured cars, and a fighter plane, besides supporting light field artillery, and machine guns.




Philip’s Bolshevik army (partly his own figures, partly Rob's and Phil's) was smaller, including a Naval infantry brigade, a regular cavalry brigade, a brigade of Chinese mercenary cavalry, and a fighter plane, to exclude his artillery, armoured car, light tank, and allegedly mythical Beast tank.



Deployment



The Whites deployed behind the river in a long line behind trenches, punctuated by HMG and light artillery posts, with the bulk of the cavalry, armoured cars and tank on the right.



The Reds deployed principally on or behind two small hills – the first concealing the Red cavalry, supported by the Beast tank and an armoured car; the second populated by the heavy gun, light gun, and FT-17 tank and all the infantry.


Excitingly, nobody could foresee the result at this stage, but few would have suspected what was to follow given the ostensibly formidable White defences.



Turn 1


Philip began as he meant to go on, by destroying one of Pete’s entrenched light guns in the White centre with heavy artillery fire, and moved his own Red infantry off the second hill.

In response, Pete hit Philip’s infantry with light artillery fire from the White left flank, and took out Philip’s Putilov-Garford armoured car with HMG fire.



The White cavalry on the left also began its advance towards the Red lines.



Turn 2


The White army, on turn two, tried but failed to take out the Beast tank with its own Mark V tank on the right wing. Meanwhile Pete placed his infantry line into overwatch, while his cavalry brigade on the left continued to advance on Philip’s right flank.



Philip responded by blowing up the Mark V tank with his heavy artillery, and suppressing a White armoured car with his light gun. The Red infantry moved to the right to counter the encroaching White cavalry, meanwhile the Red FT-17 had broken down on the second hill.



A strafing run by the Bolshevik aircraft also destroyed the White light battery on Pete’s far left. Philip then moved his Chinese cavalry into open ground on the Bolshevik far left.


Some lucky rolls were now beginning to cause havoc with the White heavy weapons, particularly owing to the use of double orders for the Red artillery.



Turn 3


The two armies had still not made any major movements, and it was becoming clear that this was a new kind of tactics developed by Philip: attacking (or 'preparing the ground') with concentrated and pin-pointed ranged fire only.


Was this superior generalship or ahistorical gamesmanship - both, neither? Is all fair in love and war?


In fairness, Philip lacked the forces to launch a decisive attack, meanwhile the rules were being observed (though afterwards it emerged some had been forgotten...). Pete, on the other hand, was determined to preserve his infantry for another day and stoically decided not to counter-attack.



Pete moved an armoured car forward, however, and began to inflict casualties on the Chinese cavalry. He also dismounted his cavalry on the left flank, and used a tachanka to take out a machine gun attached to the Red infantry brigade.


Philip responded by menacing the White left with his aircraft, and he destroyed an armoured car with his Beast tank. He proceeded to destroy Pete’s tachanka with artillery fire from the hill on the Red right flank. So far Red artillery or ranged fire had inflicted all White losses.



Turn 4


Pete began the turn by inflicting a further three casualties on the Chinese cavalry, and a few more on the Red infantry (with his dismounted cavalry).



Philip, however, destroyed the final White armoured car with his Beast tank, while his Chinese moved up further on the Bolshevik left.



He also inflicted six casualties on Pete’s dismounted cavalry by using an LMG, light gun and tank fire from the second hill, and a strafing run from the plane.



Turn 5


The cavalry on the White left flank had lost eight figures, failed a morale test, and was forced to retreat, thus ending its threat to the Red right flank.



Philip destroyed a White machine gun in the trenches, and began to advance with his regular cavalry and Chinese. Thus ended the game at around 10:30 pm.



Conclusion


For the cost of three infantry figures, six dead Chinese mercenaries, a machine gun, and armoured car, the Bolsheviks had inflicted 50 per cent casualties on one of the White cavalry brigades, and destroyed all the White light artillery, half their machine guns, a tachanka, both their armoured cars, and their Mark V tank.


Philip's rolling was lucky, but fortuitously synergised with his tactical intentions.


After the battle, Philip intended to turn Pete’s right flank – denuded of heavy weapons – by using his cavalry. Pete's cavalry on the right was still fully intact however.


Rob and Phil adjudicated that while Philip had inflicted comprehensive heavy weapons losses on the Whites, Pete’s army was not broken, and so could retire to Astrakhan.


While Philip had not defeated Pete in the conventional sense, he had seemingly crippled his key heavy weapons: making the surviving White army vulnerable after the battle itself.



A Thriving Campaign


Rob - campaign umpire and author of the tabletop rules - has put a huge amount of time and excellent work into this campaign. We are all really enjoying the process of raising armies, engaging in backroom diplomacy, and plotting our next moves.


He expressed disappointment with the battle in terms of the rules failing to deliver a fair and balanced game given the relative size of the armies. However, I believe that those present on the night had a rather different impression.


I personally think this was one of the best spectacles I have witnessed at the War Room. The psychology made it so. The battle was intriguing because the actual plans of both generals, and their use of disparate resources, made a difference to the specific outcome on the night - reverberating into the subsequent campaign itself.


The game did feel like a 'competition game' and of course, that was inevitable, because higher stakes than usual were at play. However, each player in the campaign can reflect on the game and go on to develop their own style of play and tactics. This, in itself, is a unique learning experience, simulating real military history-in-the-making.


Astrakhan was an immersive battle, a face-off, and a chess-match. This first battle fascinated not because it was a 'freak' result, or showed up real problems with the rules. Rather, because it reflected the psychology of the two players in the moment, with skin in the game, as well as in the context of a wider campaign. It thus bridged the gap between fun gameplay and serious strategy.


I think the players and spectators not only accepted the result of the game with good grace, but have learnt quite a bit from it as well. We are happy to roll with any changes Rob might wish to make (pun intended) - but comprehensive changes are not warranted.


Thanks to Rob for hosting the game and umpiring (and for his continuing oversight of the campaign), to Phil for assisting, and to Pete and Philip for putting on a good show.


On to the next turn, boys!






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