Thursday 12 December 2019

Playing the Patrol Phase in Chain of Command

One of the most innovative features of the Chain of Command rule set is the patrol phase, a pregame phase that determines the jump-off-points from which each side's units will deploy onto the table. This simple but very clever mechanic introduces a strong element of fog of war and yet manages to do so without the need for fiddly record keeping. It means the appearance of enemy units on the table is anything but predictable, as it should be. That said, neither is it totally random. The enemy jump-off-points provide you with limited intelligence - these are the areas from where you might expect enemy activity.

Many players create themed bases to represent their jump-off-points and a common approach has been to focus these around a pile of supplies and ammunition.

Alternatively you can add a bit more flavour or narrative with a few figures instead.

However, where they are placed on the table is far more important than how they look. As a new player this pregame phase can take a while to grasp. Don't be lulled into believing it is nothing more than a gimmicky mechanic, an alternative to the traditional method of both sides entering from opposite ends of the table. In my view it is far more than that. The phase is a moment of critical tactical importance that deserves some very deliberate thought from each player. I would go so far as to say that a poorly played Patrol Phase could very easily cost you the game.

If you haven't downloaded it already, I would recommend you read the CoC Tactical Primer written by Richard Clarke from Too Fat Lardies. It has a chapter on the patrol phase that is very useful for helping to understand what you want to aim for during this important phase. I would also recommend you check out this very good post from the Tiny Hordes blog that explains the mechanics and the movement of the markers.

The best way to demonstrate the importance of the phase is with an example. The Probe scenario (from the core rule book) is a good introductory scenario. It has a simple proposition for both sides - one player needs to move a unit to the enemy base line and the other must prevent that happening.

For our example we will use this table below, where the attacker will come from the top of the picture and the defender will be covering the outskirts of a village.

Before the game each player should consider what they need to do to achieve a victory. This will go a long way to determining the best place for jump-off-points. The attacker is looking for a route across the table with the least resistance and one that allows for a good combination of fire and movement. The defender is looking to ensure there are no easy routes to victory, which means being able to deploy units to cover any possible avenue of attack. 

This is where the patrol phase, or more specifically the placement of jump-off-points, can introduce an element of bluff and counter-bluff. For as long as the defender is unsure where the attacker's main effort is coming from they will be reluctant to commit the main part of their force. In the same way, for as long as the defender has not deployed most of the platoon the attacker will remain unsure where the main line of resistance will be. Jump-off-points might indicate where you could expect enemy activity but they don't guarantee that's where it will be. 

Looking at the picture below there appears to be three possible avenues for the attacker. On one or both flanks, where they can find cover in the wheat fields (1 and/or 3), or alternatively, they could attempt a coup de main (perhaps with a fast armoured car) directly down the road (2). The latter might be a risky tactic but if timed well it could catch the defender by surprise.

The defender needs to consider a number of factors, for example, how fast the attacker can move - will they have vehicles? How best to cover the width of the table, particularly the flanks? How far forward to defend? Should there be a fall back position in case things go wrong? All of these questions are the sorts of tactical considerations any platoon commander would be taking into account in a real life situation. For that reason it's important to consider the patrol phase as a key part of any scenario.

In this example the options for the attacker during the patrol phase are somewhat limited, however given the number of possible approaches, jump-off-points should be placed to keep all options open in order to keep the opponent guessing.

The attacker could look at placing these across the table as in the picture below. That provides options to attack along any one of the three avenues listed above. Not only does it do that, it also means the defender is uncertain which avenue to cover and is unable to concentrate the defence against any single point until it's clear which way the attacker intends to approach. Keep in mind that you don’t have to deploy from all of your jump-off-points. You could deploy your entire force from a single one if you wished, the others could act as dummies to keep your opponent trying to guess your plans.

So, what sorts of thoughts should be going through the defender's mind? The most obvious one is that the attacker has to cross a fair amount of ground with little in the way of cover. The defender, on the other hand, can fire on those exposed units from the cover of the hedgerows and houses. This makes the hedgerow an attractive proposition for a forward defence line.

There are a number of possible locations for jump-off-points to ensure the entire width of the table is covered. That said, the hedgerow does not guarantee immunity from enemy fire. What if the attacker manages to suppress fire effectively from one or both flanks with a powerful firebase? That could certainly be something to consider if you were facing a platoon of German panzer grenadiers. What is a good position for the defender might also make a good target for a well armed attacker. Something to think about before deciding on a forward defence.

It would be wise to consider a back up position with an option to respond if the attacker attempts a coup de main directly down the road. One of the buildings further back in the village offers a good vantage point with lines of sight covering both flanks. It might also be the place to deploy an anti-tank weapon should the attacker try to force a passage directly down the road.

With that plan in mind the defender may be looking for jump-off-points in these three locations:

Having decided the optimum places for the jump-off-points the defender then wants to make sure the attacker's jump-off-points are as far back as possible. In particular they want to ensure the hedgerow at the edge of the village is denied to the attacker. With that in mind the defender should play an aggressive patrol phase pushing as far forward as possible looking to have patrol markers locked down well in advance of the hedgerow.

Despite the fact you might want your jump-off-points further back on the table there is no reason not to push forward during the patrol phase. Just because the rules require you to place the jump-off-point at least 6" further back than the patrol marker does not mean you have to place it exactly 6". In fact there are times when you might want to place it much further back. That doesn't mean you don't want to play an aggressive patrol phase. One of your aims is to prevent the enemy from placing their jump-off-points where it is most beneficial to them. There's no reason why you shouldn't consider pushing your patrol markers forward but then place your jump-off-points much further back to a position that suits you best. Just be conscious of the position of enemy patrol markers, because their final position will determine the arc in which your jump-off-points are placed.

A common issue I've noticed with new players is a sense of urgency to deploy their entire force as quickly as possible. Obviously there will be occasions when you might want to do that, but generally I think you need to look at it from your opponent's perspective. When your units are not on the table don't think of them as unavailable instead think of them as concealed. No commander in their right mind throws away the advantage that gives.

If your opponent doesn't know where your units are then they can't be targeted. For as long as they remain hidden your opponent must be wary about moving units lest they be caught in the open or by surprise. This can apply to both attacker and defender. While it's often easy to see the advantage of staying concealed while on the defence the attacker doesn't want to be too hasty showing their hand before knowing where most of the defenders are located. Once most of the attacking units are on the table the defender has more freedom of action to deploy to counter their movement. The patrol phase is about thinking ahead as to how to use that concealment to your advantage both as attacker and defender.

In our example we considered the option of the defender using the hedgerow as a defensive line, but thought should be given to when and how to deploy units to that position. Ideally the defender will want to keep that deployment for the moment it is likely to be most effective, for example if the enemy have advanced to within close range and to a position that makes it difficult to withdraw to effective range or to better cover.

While considering in what direction the enemy might approach, it is also worth considering how fast they might approach. Movement rates may be variable, but you do have a few certainties. An infantry unit moving over a medium obstacle can never move more than 6" (based on rolling 2D6 and removing the lower dice for crossing the obstacle) and a unit moving at the double across open ground will never move more than 18". Now even with that knowledge the unexpected may happen, normally in the form of a double phase. Nonetheless it is possible to make a rough estimate of the threats you face, which means thinking not only about the placement of your jump-off-points but also the timing of your deployment from those points. Ideally that will be when it is most advantageous to you and most disadvantageous to your opponent. A little planning and thought prior to the start of play will go a long way and is exactly what your historical counterpart will have been doing prior to any action.

The example I've given here is very general and the final decision on placement of jump-off-points should be determined by all the circumstances of the scenario. Assess the relative strengths of each platoon and the likely support options that might be used. There could well be circumstances when a much deeper defence is required. In that case you might select a single jump-off-point at the hedgerow because you only intend to deploy a light screening force, preferring to hold better ground further back.

Consider how things may play out if you or your opponent has a pre-game barrage, especially if you are defending against the Russians. The Russian national characteristic Wrath of the Gods enhances the effect of the pregame barrage, where the odds against your units deploying in the first turn drop from 2:1 to 3:1. If your jump-off-points are too far forward there is the chance you could fail to deploy through the barrage before they are overrun. You may want to decline a good position for a jump-off-point rather than risk losing it. Losing a jump-off-point is not the end of the world, but that doesn't mean you should be careless with them. Give some thought to a fall back position. There is a lot to be said for a defence in depth and you should consider the option for one JoP forward and two back. In the event things don't go to plan ensure you have left yourself with options.

Most importantly don't rush into the patrol phase without first making an appraisal of the terrain, the aim of the scenario and the relative merits of both sides. Once you have a clear idea of what you are aiming for then normally the patrol phase itself can play out very quickly.

If you have found this useful you might also find this post on Deploying in Chain of Command of interest.

You can find posts about other aspects related to playing Chain of Command on this page about CoC tactics.

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Wednesday 4 December 2019

Game markers for Chain of Command

I've created some new markers for my games of Chain of Command. These are based on a set I picked up from Olympian Games at the MOAB game show in Sydney.

Several years ago when I first started playing Chain of Command I used on online supplier to create a set of custom MDF markers. I was after something to show things like Pinned, Broken, Tactical and Overwatch and kept these fairly simple to keep the price down. The markers came unpainted and all I did was paint them by hand to help me distinguish the different types. They were functional but not particularly attractive.

Since then a number of suppliers have produced sets of markers for CoC (including Too Fat Lardies themselves) and there is now an excellent choice in MDF and perspex. Lately I've been trying to find ways to keep the game experience as immersive as possible and reduce the amount of markers and other non-terrain clutter from the table. The markers made by Olympian Games come in a range of colours but I opted for the plain MDF versions with the intention of customising them.

As each type comes in a distinctive shape I didn't feel the need to use colours to differentiate between them. The solution would be to use the same technique as when I base my figures and that way they might blend in more with the terrain. The first step was to give them some texture using sand and PVA glue.

They were then sealed with a primer before painting using my usual colours for bases.

Finally flock was added to match the bases for my miniatures.

As these will also be used in urban environments I thought I'd leave a few without any texture or flock so as not to look too out of place in those settings.

I think these serve their purpose while doing a much better job of blending into the terrain.

They match the basing of my miniatures and so sit more naturally with them in a game setting.

There was no need to use different colours or flock to distinguish each type of marker and I'm glad I realised that wasn't going to be necessary. It's clear enough to see what each marker represents.

They sit well together and with the miniatures.

This was a quick project that was carried out amidst the making of other terrain and often while waiting for glue or paint to dry on those other projects. A good result for a small amount of effort.