Sunday, 28 April 2019

The Welcoming Party (Battlefleet Gothic Battle Report)

The Welcoming Party - A Battlefleet Gothic Battle Report

Kor'nel'T'au O'ran'Gal'leath grasped the hand-hold of his command drone, every molecule of his being charged with anxious tension as he floated noiselessly in the darkness of his ship's bridge. O'ran hated waiting here like this, forced to do nothing but feel the air slowly grow more stale and the heat from the ship's interior slowly bleed away. With every subsystem powered down, O'ran knew that death could find the Kir'qath at any time, even if the enemy never appeared. All it would take is one suitably sized meteorite in the wrong place at the wrong time made out of the wrong stuff... 

Worse still, with their systems powered down like this it also meant that the ether drives of O'ran's squadron would not be charging, so they'd be completely incapable of escaping the system in the event of a calamity. The only thing that would keep O'ran and his crew alive now would be stealth - with almost no energy signatures to detect, the Kir'qaths were indistinguishable from space debris beyond more than a few million Tor'kan. They might be killed by a fluke accident, but no sensor in the galaxy was going to pick them up. 

But that still didn't make O'ran any less uneasy as he waited for the Gue'la to appear. It had been several rotaa now since his squadron had arrived in the system as part of several elements of Kor'vattra fleet K-42 dispatched by Kor'O'T'au Kais'Y'eldi'Aloh in a series of raiding missions intended to disrupt the latest Gue'la attack in their sector. Deep reconnaissance had located a new Gue'la battlegroup en route to the Tau borders armed to the teeth - fleet intelligence had even identified a battleship-class vessel with nova cannon armament. Most troubling of all however was the flotilla of transport ships accompanying the battlegroup, which meant it was almost certainly an invasion force. The Tau were badly stretched out in this sector, especially as more of them were dispatched to the nearby system of M-88 to counter threats there, and a successful Gue'la assault on even one of the planets supporting Tau fleet bases could easily tip this conflict in their favour. 

The great weakness of the Gue'la was their logistics chain. The Tau knew that if they could stop the buildup of fuel, munitions and supplies for the Gue'la battlegroup then it would be rendered useless until more could arrive, and the attack could be ended before it began. Even a small delay in the Gue'la offensive would buy the Tau valuable time to prepare a defence. This, then, was where O'ran and his ships came in. While the bulk of K-42 was underway to M-88 to contain an imminent crisis there, a number of small strike groups would interdict Gue'la supply convoys in the region and delay their operations long enough for the fleet to return and defeat them in force. 

The Skether'qans had managed to succeed in tracking the convoys' movements, but even if they were still transmitting to the strike group O'ran was in the immense distances involved and the limits of communications technology meant that word would be delayed considerably, so the enemy could be expected to appear any time now. The suspense eroded O'ran from the inside out. He worried about the Tau working alongside him - this squadron was a recent command, appointed to replace recent combat losses, and most of O'ran's crews were fairly new. The Kor'nel knew that after the Damocles Crusade the greatest weapon in the Gue'la arsenal was fear, and he was concerned that his squadron crews might panic under pressure. 

Still, he could compensate for this with some good simple planning - he knew that only the transport ships in a convoy really mattered, the escort force was just a bluff, and all it took to down the standard Gue'la transport was a few good missile impacts. Thus, all his ships needed to do if called on was avoid any Gue'la attacks and keep firing gravitic missiles for as long as they could. If his crews could just keep the loading and firing cycles of the gravitic launchers going, then the missiles' own drone guidance mechanisms would take care of the rest. Ideally keeping well away from any Gue'la warships would be enough to reassure his crews. 

At once the sole functioning communications receiver on the bridge sounded a short burst of coded static. O'ran knew that it was the pre-arranged signal from the strike group's Gal'leath class starship indicating that long range probes had detected energy signatures matching Gue'la transports on approach to O'ran's position. It was almost time. 

The Kor'nel pressed a finger to the ship's intercom. Ship to ship links were currently powered down, but the Kor'els commanding the other vessels of O'ran's squadron had been briefed to power up their ships immediately upon detecting O'rans own spacecraft activate. 

"Kor'nel to all hands," O'ran said, "Gue'la convoy detected. Proceed to battle stations and prepare to power up all systems on my mark." 

Now would be the moment of truth...

Following on from my last adventure in the cosmos, about a month ago I was able to play my second game of Battlefleet Gothic. Pictures from my first game generated a surprising amount of interest on the FLGS's facebook page, and through that I was able to discover another two prospective Battlefleet Gothic players with fleets nearby. After a quick bit of group-chat work, I was able to arrange a game against one of these players who was all to eager to take their shiny new Imperial fleet out for a spin.

Said Imperial fleet was very impressive, including an original GW sculpt Apocalypse class battleship no less, but the most exciting thing of all was that it included a couple of Imperial transport ships. This is very important, because it meant that the player was the only one among us who actually had any transport ship models, so it was now possible to make use of the Battlefleet Gothic scenarios that feature them.

Since I myself have some planetary defences in the form of Tau orbitals, I'd ideally like to stage a Planetary Assault game in the near future, but as a stepping stone to that we agreed to run a Convoy scenario and - if there was time afterwards - a 1000 point Fleet Engagement. As it transpired, a series of delays in getting to the store meant we only had enough time for the Convoy scenario, but it was still another night of tremendous fun and the happiest I've been playing tabletop wargames since my first Battlefleet Gothic game.

So it is that we now join a small raiding force from Kor'vattra fleet K-42. Their mission: interdict a convoy of transports carrying supplies for a coming Imperial offensive. If they succeed, the Tau will have enough time to prepare, and millions of lives will be saved.

But first they will have to deal with the power of the Imperial Navy...

Fleets and Strategy 

Convoy is a weird scenario. It's easily the most asymmetric mission in Battlefleet Gothic, and it's very easy to wind up with a massive imbalance of points between the opposing fleets. This isn't necessarily a problem because of the scenario win conditions - only the transport ships actually matter for the purposes of victory conditions, so it's entirely possible for the attacking side to win without hurting a single enemy warship, and equally possible for the convoy side to win without firing a single shot.

As the player without any transport ship models, I would be the attacker for this game. On the one hand this meant that my fleet list wasn't restricted by transport ship numbers, but on the other hand it also meant that the attack force at my disposal was entirely randomised. Rather than deploying my fleet normally, or perhaps having to choose elements to go into a reserve force, I instead get a randomly determined number of rolls on a special table to determine which parts of my fleet list I can actually use. The table is set up to allow a little predictability, but realistically I could end up with anything from a full contingent of capital ships to a couple of stands of attack craft.

This has two direct consequences for me. First, it means that all of my carefully thought out plans and doctrines for space combat with the Tau fleet now take a screaming nosedive into hell. It also means that flexibility is going to be key to my success. Since I have no way of knowing what forces I'll actually have on the table, I will need to prepare several different contingency plans for different combinations of ships and weapons.

There are however a few constants that I can plan around. As I've already mentioned, the convoy transports are what's important in this scenario - I only have to knock them out in order to win. As escort sized ships, it only takes one good hit from an ordinance attack to take them down. Thus, all of my plans will likely at their heart boil down to 'avoid the convoy escorts and mob the transports with ordinance' (of course, 'and then we mob them with ordinance' is really how any sensible strategy for Tau in Battlefleet Gothic should end. After all, when all one has is a hammer, everything starts to look suspiciously like a nail...).

Likewise, while I may not get much choice in the ships I'll be using, the ships themselves still have the same weapons that I know. Because of this, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for something armed with a missile attack - with their high speed a few volleys of missiles will be perfect for picking off those transport ships, and the unique ability of Tau missiles to turn will allow them to manoeuvre around escort forces and exploit holes in the Imperial defence. Consequently if I can field something with a missile armament I can lay down a barrage of missiles early on then zip away out of danger, ideally laying waste to the transport ships without ever exposing my own forces to enemy fire.

Of course, the way the Convoy Attacker table is structured it's more likely that I'll end up with just the ordinance itself rather than the ships that normally deploy it. Most of the table outcomes leave you with varying numbers of ordinance attacks, which come in a choice of either Deadfall torpedoes (normal torpedoes that can be pointed in any direction before firing) or attack craft. Knowing this I'll be going with the attack craft, and in the event of these outcomes the attack craft will consist entirely of Mantas. Going without any kind of fighter cover at all has its risks, but the transport ships I'm gunning for only have one turret apiece and since I'll only get one attack run on them I want to ensure I can inflict maximum damage when I do. If I do encounter enemy fighters, the Mantas also have a handy 4+ save against interception from their defence systems.

The real trick to the attack craft however will be their manoeuvrability, allowing me to evade escorting warships and constantly stay trained on the transports, rather than only really getting one pass at them like I would with the torpedoes.

Thus, my strategy roughly comprises three contingency plans:

Plan A - The Works
If I can get at least one ship with missiles, it will stay as far away from the convoy escorts as possible, avoiding combat while pelting the transports with missile fire from long-range standoffs. If I get two or more such missile carriers, they will attack from different angles, forcing the Imperial fleet to split its defence across multiple aspects and maximising the chances that at least some of the missiles get through.

In the event that I also get some gunboats to go along with the missile carriers, then they'll run interference on the Imperial defence ships, distracting them from both the missile carriers themselves (allowing them to keep pumping out ordinance unmolested) and the missile salvos they fire.

Plan B - Missiles
As Plan A above, but with some attack craft squadrons to add to my missile attacks and no gunboats to distract the convoy escorts.

Plan C - Attack Craft
I'm guaranteed to get at least two squadrons of attack craft. In the even that's all I'm left with, I'll make use of my experience playing [i]Command and Conquer: The Covert Operations[/i] and carefully manoeuvre my Mantas around any Imperial escorts to attack the transport ships.

Although they're determined randomly, any capital ships and escort squadrons that end up in the attacking forces are still drawn from a fleet list, so I will need to compose one. The list I went with in the end is identical to that from my first Battlefleet Gothic game. There are two reasons for this. First, I need a list that includes a little bit of everything, just in case I roll up multiple capital ships and/or escort squadrons. Second, I am still bound to the Tau fleet list restrictions, which limit the numbers of certain ships I can field.

This does unfortunately mean that I am saddled with an Explorer class starship I cannot use (the maximum points cost for an attacking capital ship in a Convoy scenario is 200 points, which is just under what an Explorer class costs), but since I have to include one in a 750 points fleet (which is what we agreed to before reading the scenario rules closer, and I figured it was OK to stick with that limit in mind since my actual forces would be randomised anyway) there's nothing I can really do about it. On the positive side it at least means I have the ability to field a squadron of 3 Orcas if I need to.

Kor'vattra Fleet K-42 Strike Group 88 Black

Capital Ships

National Geographic - Gal'leath Explorer class starship (Vash'ya Configuration): 230 pts

Alice Liddell - Il'fannor Merchant class starship (Dal'yth Configuration) with reinforced hull: 120 pts

Sulaco - Lar'shi Hero class starship (Vash'ya Configuration): 180 pts


Delain Squadron - 3 Kir'qath Defender class starships: 135 pts

Sirenia Squadron - 3 Kass'l Orca gunships: 75 pts

TOTAL: 740 pts

The Imperial fleet facing me ended up comprising of a Dauntless class light cruiser with torpedo armament and a squadron of three Cobra class destroyers, plus two pairs of transport ships for a total of four.

Attacking Forces and Leadership

With my fleet list determined, I now needed to make my rolls on the Convoy Attackers table to see what parts of it I would be using. This should ideally be done in secret, as the attacking forces are then deployed as nondescript 'contact markers' in a similar fashion to the Hidden Setup rules in Warhammer 40,000, such that the convoy fleet will never be quite sure what's beyond the next waypoint.

So, with baited breath I make an initial die roll to determine the number of rolls I'll make on the table. I end up rolling a 5, giving me 3 rolls plus an additional two for there being two pairs of transports in the convoy, for a total of five table rolls. I proceed to make them and get...

... two 6s, a 5, a 4 and a 2!

I actually rolled three 6s first, but between not having enough viable capital ships to deploy and refusing to believe that any player could be so lucky I re-rolled the third one until I got a different result (which took two consecutive tries!), giving me the 2. This left me with two capital ships, a squadron of escorts worth no more than 150 points, a squadron of escorts costing less than 100 points and 2 waves of attack craft. A formidable attack force by any standard.

My capital ships were the Merchant class and Hero class, while my escort ships were a trio of Defenders and Orcas respectively. The attack craft waves would be comprised entirely of Mantas.

Now that my actual forces were sorted, I needed to roll up their leadership values just like any other Battlefleet Gothic scenario. As always this would be critical for me, as Tau fleets live and die by their ability to reload ordinance and my plans would require a steady flow of missile waves. Once again any poor leadership rolls would only be compounded by the absence of a fleet commander. In the last game I played my first few leadership rolls went really well, so this time I decide not to squander any chances for good rolls by determining the leadership for my most important element first, the squadron of Defenders. I manage to...

... roll a 1, giving them a measly leadership of 6. Brilliant.

Clearly their losses in the last game have left the squadron with an influx of green inexperienced recruits for replacements. On the other hand, that same previous game must have given my other crews some valuable combat experience, because the rest of my leadership rolls go much better with 4s and 5s for everything else, leaving me with:

- Ld 8 for the Sulaco

- Ld 8 for the Alice Liddell

- Ld 8 for Sirenia Squadron

- Ld 6 for Delain Squadron

Not bad at all, all things considered. Ld 6 on the Defender squadron is of course less than ideal, but I still have Ld 8 on one of my missile carriers, and the high leadership on my two gunboat elements will certainly come in handy when getting them into position.

The Imperial fleet ends up with:

- Ld 7  on the Dauntless class

- Ld 8 on the Cobras

- Ld 6 on the transports

The Imperial Convoy

Convoy - The Battle

Celestial Phenomena and Deployment

After rolling for celestial phenomena we ended up with two small planetoids (one small planet and a moon), both to starboard from the convoy zone. There were also two small asteroid fields, one near the small planet (ahead of it from the convoy's entry point) and one just port of the convoy zone.

With the celestial phenomena set up, it was now time for me to deploy my ambushes. I put the Defenders (or rather, the contact token for the Defenders) down first, placing them as close as possible to the corner opposite the convoy's entry point. They would remain around the convoy's escape point, staying well back from the Imperial ships while they unloaded their missiles and attacking the transports with their railcannons as a last-ditch measure should it come to that.

The capital ships went down next. I placed them in the opposite corner to the Defenders, aiming to hit the transport ships with missiles from two directions to split up the Imperial defence efforts, as well as acting as a distraction from the Defender squadron. The Hero went closest to the convoy's entry point, with the Merchant behind it to cover the broadside arcs.

The attack craft then went on either side of the asteroid field near the planet, as close as possible to the centre of the board, with an aim towards springing them on the transport ships as they reached the mid-way point or further distracting the convoy escorts. Finally, I placed my squadron of Orcas behind the small planet - once the convoy passed them they would spring into action and swing around the planet to get behind the transports where they could attack with impunity.

Imperial Turn 1

As the convoy player, the Imperials automatically had first turn, which ended up being very uneventful with nothing yet to shoot at. The convoy transports and their escort force entered the table and moved straight ahead their full movement distance, with no ships going on special orders.

Table at the start of the first Tau turn

Tau Turn 1

None of the Imperial ships were close enough to detect the Tau yet, and none of them were on special orders, but I could still activate one marker voluntarily to start getting some forces in play. I chose the Defender squadron, which duly appeared in line abreast and moved forward at half-speed before firing their first wave of missiles.

Convoy sighted - commencing attack!

The missiles themselves proceed to move forward at maximum speed in an attempt to circle around the convoy escorts and hit the transport ships behind them.

Imperial Turn 2

With hostile contacts on their scopes the Imperial crews leap into action. With some fortunate leadership rolls the entire Imperial fleet goes on All Ahead Full and rockets ahead as far as they can, activating my two attack craft waves in the process (which end up being a wave of four Manta squadrons and a wave of three Manta squadrons). No-one shoots at anything, but the Dauntless and Cobras both fire their torpedoes.

Rockets away!

In the ordinance phase, everyone's rockets move forward. The torpedoes from the Cobras travel wide of the Defenders, but the Dauntless's salvo continues on a heading that will bring it dangerously close to my capital ships. My own missiles surge forward, but a combination of relative movement and the limits of their 45 degree turning arc means that they end up hitting the Dauntless! After turret rolls they inflict two hits on the light cruiser with no critical damage, and fail to reach the transports I was aiming for. The Mantas make a beeline for the transport ships, but are too far out to reach anything this turn.

Tau Turn 2

With all of the Imperial ships now on special orders, I can now activate two contact markers, and duly bring both of my capital ships into the fight. The restrictions on contact token placement during deployment meant that the two ships ended up being somewhat out of position to support one another, so the Hero moved forward at half speed while the Merchant moved forward its full distance to catch up.

The Defenders inch forward at half speed, attempt to reload ordinance and predictably fail. Fortunately nothing else needs to go on special orders this turn. They do however take some long-range shots at the Cobras with their railcannons, and with some help from the Merchant's own batteries manage to shoot one down. The Hero takes a few shots at the Dauntless, but fails to inflict any damage. It also fires its missiles and launches two squadrons of Barracudas.

In the Ordinance phase, my first priority is getting rid of that wave of torpedoes on an intercept course with my capital ships. One of the Barracuda squadrons makes quick work of it, while the other moves to shut down any further launches. With that crisis averted, my missile waves continue to arc around towards the oncoming transport ships.

The remaining Imperial torpedo salvo zooms off harmlessly into the asteroid field. The Mantas move around the Imperial warships, but doing so leaves them just short of reaching the transport ships.

Imperial Turn 3

Deciding that the best course of action is to make a quick break for it, the Imperial ships attempt to go on All Ahead Full orders again. The Cobras succeed, but a poor leadership roll on the subsequent ship leaves the Dauntless and Transports stuck making a full normal move.

The Imperial ships attempt to fire at the Mantas, but miss. In the ordinance phase, the Tau missile waves swing around and begin bearing down on the transport ships.

Tau Turn 3

With only one token left to activate, I spring the last component of my trap. The Orca squadron powers up and races over the planet to get close to the transport ships and behind the remaining Cobras. The rest of my ships move up their minimum half distance. The Hero passes its command check to reload ordinance, as do the Defenders.

My capital ships both take some shots at the Dauntless, but again fail to do any damage to it. The Defenders likewise miss their shots at the passing Cobras. The Orcas however are much more successful. They open up on the transport ships at close range, downing one with their railcannons and another with their ion cannons.

The remaining two transports do not live much longer, being downed in hail of cruise missiles in the subsequent ordinance phase.

The transports are destroyed and the Imperials are surrounded.

With that, all the transport ships and one Imperial escort are destroyed, for no Tau losses (though in a symbolic fourth round the Dauntless managed to take a hull point off one of the Tau capital ships), resulting in a decisive Attacker's Win for the Tau.

What Millitant Learnt

As I predicted, Tau missiles are lethal in a Convoy scenario. Their ability to hit multiple targets in a single move makes them great at rapidly destroying single hull-point transport ships, while their variable speed and turning ability makes them hard to intercept. My gunnery weapons were somewhat more useful in this game, more indeed than I was expecting, but gunnery shooting is still very clearly a sidearm in the Tau fleet. My Mantas never ended up contributing much, but I remain confident that they were the wiser choice over the deadfall torpedoes. What was less wise was deploying them as single solid waves - in hindsight I can see it would have been wiser to split them up as individual stands so that they would better be able to overwhelm defence efforts and have better chances of hitting multiple transports (unlike torpedoes and missiles, attack craft only make one attack run - once it's done they're gone). Fortunately I had enough other threats flying around to cover for that oversight.

My victory was certainly in no small part a result of rolling far better on the Convoy Attackers table than I had any right to, but I still feel like my planning was sound and maximised my own strengths. I'm also starting to get better at judging relative movement and planning ahead for where ships are going rather than where they are now, though I still make mistakes there. Perhaps most importantly however, this victory has left me confident in my ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and situations, something I was very concerned about prior to this game. For a long time I was unsure how well I'd fare if unable to employ my carefully formulated fleet doctrine with Soviet Military Science precision, but after this game I feel like I can reliably come up with a feasible Plan B if needed.

In the first game I felt like my opponent was too cautious in their approach, but in this game my impression was the opposite - here I feel like my opponent was too reckless. A mad dash across the table looks good on paper in a Convoy scenario, but I can't help but think that my opponent would have been better off if they were more cautious and took the time to properly clear a path for the transports first. My very favourable attacking forces rolls meant the Imperial fleet was heavily outgunned from the start, but even so some more aggressive use of their torpedo attacks (in particular firing multiple torpedo salvos instead of powering on with All Ahead Full) could have done a lot to level the playing field - even if I evaded them all, doing so would have shut down my movement options considerably and forced me to fight more on my opponent's terms. Instead I was largely left with free reign to dictate the battle and strike where I wanted to with overwhelming force.

Unlike my previous game, I can't point to any definitive MVP unit on either side here. That said, I am increasingly impressed with the performance of my Defenders, which have done well despite setbacks in each of their outings. More and more I find myself considering them an indispensable part of my fleet, and more and more I find leaving them out of a fleet list is less than an option. They certainly require different tactical thinking to other escort ships, but when played to their strengths as an economical missile platform they have satisfied me even when hamstrung with poor leadership. It's particularly telling that in all of my theoretical 1000-1500 point fleet lists I've created thus far I've prioritised more Defenders over a second Hero class starship.

That covers everything I think. The success of this battle has been typical of of the convoy raids conducted by K-42 fleet elements, and their actions have delayed the Imperial invasion by several Kai'rotaa, providing the Tau ample time to prepare for it.

Celebratory dumplings and Ku'Lu'Na soda all around!