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Our Chief Weapon is Supplies

Our Chief Weapon is Supplies

Posted by Alan Emrich and Lance McMillan on Sep 13th 2018

Our Chief Weapon is Supplies

Or Looking at ETO Supply in Isolation

By Alan Emrich and Lance McMillan

"Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." – General Omar Bradley, attributed

As impactful as logistics are to the “modern” mechanized armies of WWII, using Frank Chadwick’s ETO series’ supply system is a very fast-and-intuitive affair. A unit’s supply state is often obvious as a coup d’oeil (at a “stroke of the eye”) because you get such a clear, high-level look at the map which, by hex-and-counter wargame standards, is fairly uncluttered by units. Better still, there are only two states (besides Supplied) to concern yourself with: Out of Supply and Isolated, and these are intuitive and easy to apply.

Supply problems in late Summer of 1941

At a glance, the number of Countdown markers on Supply Cities and HQ markers indicated the extreme logistical problems both sides are having, but Kiev (lower-center) is keeping several Soviet units propped up with its 6-hex supply radius.

We designed the ETO logistics system to showcase how operations were conducted – not just that you needed to keep your units in supply for them to function at full efficiency, but that the overall state of your army's logistical network would tend to dictate the pace and direction of your in-game operations. Concurrently, we realized that most wargamers do not revel in the time spent playing supply sergeant. ETO is, after all, a good time rock and roll “panzer pusher.” Therefore, as much as possible, the ETO logistics system had to function in the background. Our goal was to have players consider their logistics when operating their units, but not have to worry about details. Thus, the supply system’s footprint treads lightly on players allowing them to spend more cycles on strategy than memorizing rules.

We are very happy with the feedback from testing: the logistics system has evolved into another lauded ETO feature by those learning and playing the game. It is quick to grasp, simple to apply, and meaningful in its consequences which impact play and decision-making. In this article, we will explain how logistics works in this series, from high to low.

What Your Opponent Knows Can’t Help You

Ground Logistics Steps

The first thing players notice about the Logistics Phase in the play sequence is the word “opponent’s.” Quite simply, at the start of your turn you check your opponent’s supply lines (and vice-versa) to denote those enemy units and facilities suffering any lack of supply or communications. Please, reflect on that concept for a moment and let it soak in…

How many wargames have you played where players checked their own supply lines each turn, but it was a chore, so players get lazy and they didn’t inspect all of their pieces quite close enough… and some that were out of supply were not marked so and performed in excess of their abilities that turn? You’ve seen that, right? Please, save your mea culpas as we are probably all guilty of the Fudged Supply Trace at some point.

So in ETO, with the shoe on the other foot, the first thing your opponent does is check your supply situation – and you can bet that every one of your unsupplied and isolated units will be discovered and marked accordingly. Particularly with your opponent’s reward of gleefully rolling for Isolation step losses upon discovery! And whatever your opponent finds will remain their supply status until the start of your next turn.

What this means is: 

  • A) You check my forces and discover that I have them in supply at the start of your turn; then 
  • B) You pocket them so that, by the end of your turn, they are well-and-truly cut off; but 
  • C) on my next turn they can make one last mighty swing with their full Attack Strength; before 
  • D) I manage to relieve that pocket so they’ll be back in communications at the start of your next turn (when you check my unit’s supply status again) OR I couldn’t rescue them so, at the start of your turn, their supply situation becomes dire indeed.

That is how the (red) ball (express) bounces in Frank Chadwick’s ETO. Your opponent’s supply situation is your responsibility and back-and-forth encirclement battles and relief operations abound in practice. It works perfectly with the ETO design dictum that if you are not attacking then you should be counterattacking!

Running with the Lights On during Regular Movement

ETO Supply dice

One trick used by experienced ETO players is, at the start of your Regular (i.e., final) Movement Phase as you position your units in the posture the enemy will confront them in, it is best to keep an eye on your own supply lines while moving your units! 

That is, players will often plunk down the Supply dice (pictured here) atop their friendly functioning Ports, Supply Cities, and HQ markers to see where their “supply umbrellas” extend. Knowing where their “supply leash” ends means moving intelligently either into or out of a hex that is (or isn’t) in supply (and will soon be checked by your opponent).

In fact, doing a good job monitoring your own supply situation during your Regular Movement Phase means that your opponent has little to contribute when checking your supply situation at the start of their turn (since you have pretty much already done it) except to add the Out of Supply and Isolation markers to those units that you have already planned for. This makes the game play that much faster. 

Canny players on both sides pay attention to the troops’ positions taken up in every Regular Movement Phase!

Supply dice in TITE's vassal version

In this Vassal module for Thunder in the East you can see the yellow "Supply dice"
and their 6-hex radius for supplying Soviet Ground units nearby.

Ultimate Supply Sources

So, where does supply come from? If you answered “A mommy supply source and a daddy supply source love each other very much…” than we have a special chair for you in front where we keep an eye on wise guys.

Each faction has its Ultimate Supply Sources; everything tracing supply does so back to one of these eventually. They are:

  1. That unit’s National Capital City (in its Home Territory), or
  2. A friendly map edge (these are defined separately in each of the four game volumes)
  3. A friendly, functioning Supply City that can, itself, trace by rail or sea to another such friendly, functioning Supply City in that unit’s Home Territory

Strategic Ground Supply Considerations, Part I

The most important strategic consideration for keeping the supplies flowing is having “functioning” supply sources. That is, when you capture a Major Port, Supply City, or relocate an HQ marker, its ability to serve as a supply source is impaired. It is “not functioning” as a logistics center for a specified number of game turns (these game turns represent Weeks in the spring and summer and Fortnights in the winter) as indicated by its receipt of a Countdown (or “Delay”) marker. All of your Delay markers “countdown” by 1 at the start of your turn until, at last, that facility is mended and serving as a functional logistics center again.

Minor Ports are always captured intact (no delay) but have only a 0-hex supply radius (i.e., only things actually in that Minor Port hex are supplied). Major Ports and Naval Bases require 4 turns of repair (but at least until that occurs they function as Minor Ports), and it also takes 4 turns to repair a captured Supply City hex.

German Strategic HQ marker

HQ markers, for their part, do not “move” per se, but instead “relocate.” That is, you simply point at the map during your Special Movement Phase and say “put this HQ there” at some friendly City hex and poof!, there it is. Its relocation is simulated by the 3 turns it must countdown to regain its supply functionality (or 4 turns if an enemy unit occupied its hex, forcing its involuntary relocation).

When to relocate an HQ behind advancing forces is a major decision in the game.

Thus, in Frank Chadwick’s ETO, logistics move forward in “bounds” requiring time to reestablish. When to relocate an HQ behind advancing forces is a major decision in the game. While relocating (i.e., counting down), they are not supply sources and thus the forces in their vicinity will usually be out of supply while waiting for their logistical tail to catch up. This very neatly and simply simulates the strategic and operational “pauses” that sweeping campaigns saw as forces outran their supply.

For grognards seeking simulation of railroad repair and conversion, these logistics rules partially cover it through the “logistical bound” time delay abstraction. Another aspect of the Rail War is covered by the definition of a “friendly” (i.e., usable) rail line as one that connects two friendly cities – that is, if you don’t control the cities at both ends of a particular stretch of rail line, the trains don’t run there (so capturing rail junctions takes on some increased importance). With little rules weight, together these concepts neatly simulate the War of the Rails in WWII Europe.

Green Light, Yellow Light, Red Light

When your Ground unit is In Supply (Green Light), that means it can trace a Line of Communication (LoC) via overland, rail, sea – or some combination thereof – back to an Ultimate Supply Source and (this is a very important “and!”) it is also under the umbrella of, and can trace and overland path to, a logistics source (e.g., Port, Supply City, HQ, or Airdrop Supply marker). That is, only when both of these conditions are met: In Communication and in a Supply Radius, is a Ground unit In Supply.

When supplied, of course, everything is lovely for that Ground unit in that it suffers no logistics penalties.

When your Ground unit can only trace an LoC back to an Ultimate Supply Source (of any length no matter how tortuous, even through enemy Zones of Control if friendly units are in that hex, etc.) but is not under the functioning supply umbrella of a logistics source, that unit is said to be “Out of Supply” or simply “In Communication” (Yellow Light). Its Attack Strength is halved but its movement is unaffected and it can receive replacements.

When your Ground unit cannot trace an LoC back to an Ultimate Supply Source, that unit is “Isolated” (Red Light). Isolated Ground units cannot attack at all and have their movement reduced to 1 hex only; worse, each isolated stack of Ground units (not each unit in that stack!) is reduced by one step 50% of the time. Isolated cities do not produce supplies or other resources, and cannot receive reinforcements. Isolated HQ markers must forcibly relocate.

Taking Air Supply Lightly

Air Supply marker

Supplying Air units is simple since they are abstractly located off the map. Any City hex with a Line of Communication and not in an Enemy Zone of Control can fly all the Air units desired from it.

What is interesting is that some Air units are Transports and can drop Air Supply to Ground units, thus creating a single “in supply” (i.e., 0-radius) hex for a stack of units (as shown here). Units that were otherwise Out of Supply in that hex are now Supplied; units that were otherwise Isolated are now In Communication (i.e., merely Out of Supply) and, if a City hex has Air Supply, adjacent Isolated hexes are also In Communication (welcome to the Demyansk pocket).

Strategic Ground Supply Considerations, Part II

With the Ground supply system outlined above, let us consider some supply puzzles:

Barbarossa attack with huge Soviet Pockets

1. Isolated Incidents: When you have units trapped in a large (multi-hex) pocket (e.g., on the frontier after Barbarossa, or historical Demyansk, Stalingrad, or Korsun), what do you do with them? You hope that they can break out (or their comrades break in) and return to communication; from there, they can try to maneuver their way back to safety.

Or would it be better to die holding their ground as long as possible, giving the opponent a rock to crash against in an effort to pin some enemy forces down, destroying them and buying you some time?

Logistically, Isolated units are rolled for on a per-hex basis. That is, if you have 3 steps in a single hex, you may be looking at 5 to 7 turns on average to eliminate them purely due to Isolation. 

If those same 3 steps were individual 1 step units spread out over three different hexes, they could all surrender on the very next turn! 

For this reason, if there is no hope of relief, birds of an Isolated feather tend to flock together just to keep the attrition rate down. Of course, in doing so they are easier to contain and operate past (there are always trade-offs).

2. Supporting Attacks: When you put a Strategic HQ marker in Attack Mode (think of this as spending the material needed to put it in “attack supply”), it provides a positive shift to nearby Battles. With two ways to divide those shifts (one to every Battle within that Attack HQ’s Range or two to a single Battle), you must decide if you will spread them out or concentrate those shifts at a single Battle.

Soviet Strategic HQ in Attack mode

Sometimes the answer is obvious, such as when you are fighting only a single (or a single critical) Battle; in that case, drop the hammer on it and enjoy two automatic combat shifts. When you are making multiple attacks to inflict attrition, rupture a line and/or reduce pockets, you probably want to fling a single shift into myriad Battles which that HQ can support. The decision comes when you are making only two or maybe three Battles that you could support – do you spread your shifts out (one to each of them) or ignore the others and concentrate two shifts at a single Battle?

3. Pushing Things: When conducting your Regular Movement Phase (i.e., after combat) you must consider the post-movement supply situation for your units. The question here is, if you can push them beyond their in-supply range, should you go there? If you do, those units will be Out of Supply (i.e., reduced to half Attack Strength) for sure – you might also be inviting the enemy to counterattack your lead elements for overextending themselves.

Ultimately, this logistics consideration weighs heavy as you cannot account for your opponent’s actions next turn. If you keep that unit back in supply and it can reach the enemy during your Special Movement (i.e., pre-combat movement) Phase, it will be able to attack next turn at full strength – and that alone could be vital to keeping your momentum going. If you press past your supply radii, you can certainly capture ground and make life uncomfortable for the enemy, but if they blast you back on their turn then, when your next turn comes around, you will only have half-strength forces in the vicinity to counterattack with!

Leaps, Bounds, and Isolation

In the leaps of Barbarossa, the "bounds" of Axis supply are strained and many German units have pressed forward beyond their supply capabilities (which are counting down in Minsk an with the AG Center HQ marker). By doing so, they have trapped many Soviet Army units, but it is risky...

Experienced players carefully reflect when this situation presents itself. It is a razor’s edge decision to push deeper into enemy territory (where you hope there is no counterattack waiting and they simply abandon terrain to you) or to insure your strength for next turn’s operations (daring them to strike back). If you’re charging into an area near a functioning enemy Strategic HQ marker, their counterattack potential is all the more dangerous if it goes into Attack mode! In Attack mode it can pour out Reserves and provides favorable attacking combat odds shifts.

One thing is sure, in the ETO system you won’t inflict the losses you need against the enemy by having your units sit on their butts in carefully selected defensive positions. If you want to inflict enemy losses, you must hurl the die in anger and achieve some bloody combat results! The Angel of Logistics' wings are constantly fluttering over your ground forces urging them to mete out retribution. Make sure you give your opponent’s units a jolly rotten time of it.

If you want to inflict enemy losses, you must hurl the die in anger and achieve some bloody combat results!

4. Leaps and Bounds: As mentioned earlier, when and where to move an HQ marker is what defines phases of a campaign. HQ marker relocation is the exclamation point denoting decisive action and movement.

Historically, ground campaigns saw dramatic alternating cycles of intense offensives followed by quieter periods where operational activity dwindled to almost nothing, those lulls being associated with preparing the next big attack. Simply put, as the armies moved forward they used up their supplies and outran the ability of their logistical services to replace them, which in turn necessitated that they pause to allow time for equipment to be repaired, losses replaced, and for new forward depots to be established.

In game terms this means that successful offensives occur in discrete "operational bounds." During each bound your army can typically move forward about 200 miles (6 hexes) before it runs out of steam (or, for the Soviets, with their paucity of transport vehicles, this distance falls to only 120 miles or 4 hexes). To drive past that point you must either have to capture another Supply City (and wait for it to regain its functionality as a supply source again) or you can bring in a headquarters to act as an interim/temporary supply hub. If you’re burning resources to maintain an HQ in Attack mode, Motorized units (those with a white Movement Allowance) can stay supplied up to double its printed Supply Radius (but it is economically very expensive to keep your foot on the accelerator thus).

Timing an HQ’s relocation between cities near the Objective hexes of Minsk and Smolensk is critical to both sides in Thunder in the East. Making the leap to the Major Port of Tobruk is a key moment during North African campaigns in The Middle Sea. For the Allies invading the Continent in Decision in the West, much hinges on capturing Antwerp as it is the Major Port (once functioning) that allows HQs to relocate outside of Anchorage hexes and into the interior of the continent (i.e., only Major Ports can extend communications along rails and roads).

You must make these fateful decisions: should you leap half-a-bound now and start the process of getting that HQ marker functioning again? Or do you wait in hopes of capturing a better position and relocate it a longer bound next turn? This is a simple-to-grasp but brutally challenging-to-make decision upon which your larger war effort turns. Sober judgement, calm reflection, and a respect for your opponent’s ability to counterattack and threaten your counting-down HQs are your best counsellors when the time comes. Knowing when and where to re-position your HQ markers is an art which separates the great players from those who are merely competent.

Ships Ahoy!

Now we must anchor your knowledge of naval logistics and how it applies to ETO and comes to the fore starting with Volume II: The Middle Sea. There are basically three matters to attend to, and they all occur rapidly:

1. What ability do you have to trace a Naval Line of Communications (NLoC) across given Sea Zones?

2. Are your Naval units At Sea still shipshape or is it S.O.S. time and they may be forced to Retire?

3. How goes maintaining your navy at anchor (your “Fleet in Being”)?

Lines At Sea

Naval Logistics Sequence

It is easy to tell where you can trace a Naval Line of Communication. You either have a friendly Convoy marker in that Sea Zone or, failing that, there is not an enemy Warship unit At Sea in it. That is, you can always trace a Naval Line of Communications unless blocked At Sea by enemy Warships, but you can trump their presence with a friendly Convoy marker. Therefore, the status quo becomes “communications must flow.”

Anchorages tracing supply by sea require Convoy markers all along the route back home. When that is the case, every Anchorage works normally; when that is not the case (i.e., there is no chain of friendly Convoy markers but at least there are no enemy Warships at sea interdicting that route), then all Anchorage hexes in that Sea Zone function only as Minor Ports. This is a big deal because typically you can only load cargo (specifically Resource Points, plus Heavy or Medium Ground units; i.e., "the good stuff") at functioning Major Ports. In addition, a functioning Major Port allows HQ markers to trace a rail line back to it for supply, thus untethering it from an Anchorage hex and allowing supply further inland.

You establish a Convoy marker in a Sea Zone during your opponent’s turn (i.e., when your supply is checked). If you have an unloaded Merchant Shipping (MS) unit in that Sea Zone, your opponent places (or upgrades to) a Full Convoy marker for your faction there. Where you currently have a Convoy marker without an empty MS unit to sustain it, it is reduced by one level per turn to Partial, Partial + Out of Supply, and then finally goes away. 

Allied Supply Convoy in the Aegean Sea

Convoy markers have no reduced effect at reduced levels; those levels merely serve as a “countdown clock” showing how much has been “eaten out of them” by all the Anchorage hexes in that Sea Zone they are supplying.

In practical terms, this means much of your navy will be protecting Merchant Ships that are keeping your supply lines open and transporting cargo. 

Most wargamers, when they find they have ships to command in a game, typically push them out into the middle of the sea in search a large, decisive Jutland-like naval engagement. Doing so in ETO is a recipe for trouble; you’re going to need those ships for escorts through good times and bad and to threaten interception of your opponent’s naval operations (i.e., the Fleet in Being strategy) to keep them honest. You won’t be building a lot of new ships during play (Battleships take 4 years to produce, Submarines 18 months), so be careful not to fritter away the ones you have!

Sea Rations

Now, Naval units At Sea must eat and, regardless of the presence or absence of a friendly Convoy marker in their Sea Zone, they are on a fixed schedule before they reach S.O.S. (Save Our Ship) status and must roll for their “Isolation.” This type of Isolation on Naval units does not inflict step losses as it does for Ground units (as Naval units do not have "steps" to lose), but they do need to return to harbor to Refit and Repair – and Isolation makes it potentially mandatory to do that immediately.

  • If you put them At Sea to patrol a particular Sea Zone and leave them there presumably... 
    A. Daring your opponent to come out and fight OR
    B. Protecting your empty MS unit and so place a Full Convoy marker there, then
    during your opponent’s next turn (again, when your supply is checked) your helpful opponent will tag your At Sea Naval units with an Out of Supply marker.
  • If you defiantly leave them At Sea another turn, your opponent will cheerfully flip that Out of Supply marker over to its Isolated side.
  • On their third turn without making port, your opponent rolls for each of your Naval units with an Isolated marker which has a 50% chance to immediately Retire and Refit.

Ships remaining at Sea in ETO

After participating in a Naval Engagement, Naval units must Retire, Refit, and Repair – this means plunking Countdown markers on them to represent the number of turns (Weeks) it will take to mend them back to shipshape. In the meantime, should they operate At Sea before completing their countdown, they function on their Damaged side (which you really don’t want; again, they just take too darn long to rebuild if you lose them, and fighting damaged means their next port-of-call is likely to be the Force Pool).

Inclement weather and Limited Endurance ships (i.e., Monitors, Escorts, Destroyers, and Coastal Submarines) have to make their S.O.S. rolls every turn, so they typically sail out during your Special Movement Phase only to return to port in that same turn’s Regular Movement Phase (i.e., they tend not to linger At Sea).

Refitting adds 2, 3, or 4 turns of delay to Naval units at a Naval Base, Major Port, or Minor Port (respectively). Add this in addition to any light combat damage suffered (one Hit on a Naval unit translates to 1d6 of additional weeks’ repair), and it will be some time before that ship is completely ready for action again. Damaged Naval units in a Naval Base or Major Port repair at the rate of 1 each per turn; while ships in a Minor Port repair at the rate of 1 for a single Damaged Naval unit there per turn!

Pack Up Your Troubles…

Like the other systems in the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series, wargamers see that the complexity arises not from complex rules, but from the scope of the decisions players must make. In actual gameplay, the logistics are very simple to grock and quick to play, but their scope and impact casts a proper shadow over every player decision!