Air Assault on Crete Part 2 and Invasion of Malta

Wednesday , 20, January 2016 13 Comments

Over the holidays, my dad and I had the opportunity to both finish Avalon Hill’s Air Assault on Crete and try out the accompanying Invasion of Malta mini-game. Crete wrapped up with a very narrow Allied Victory. Malta has proved to be… frustrating for the Germans.

In Crete, I managed to just barely evacuate enough troops to make the points cut-off and “win”. The game lasted until about turn 14, by which time I was down to three combat units covering the retreat down the heavily strafed road to Sphakia and one lone battalion of Greeks trapped north of Kastelli that was not worth doing more than keeping cut off. In the end, the game produced a more or less historical outcome: the Germans took the island, but the pyrrhic nature of the victory is enough to dissuade Hitler from making further large scale airborne assaults, and the Allied forces’ teams of specialists and technicians were able to make it to North Africa to ultimately turn the tides there.

The results in our Crete game seemed to confirm a lot of my theories on strategy and the game’s balance. The “basic” game in which the only victory conditions are possession of the air bases on the island is a gimme for the Germans. If we’d been using these victory conditions, the Germans would’ve had an insurmountable lock on the game starting on turn three and the rest of the game would just be running out the clock until we decided to quit because playing out foregone conclusions isn’t very fun. The “advanced” game, however, seems like it would be almost impossible for the Germans to win; the “down to the wire” victory I had achieved was more due to incredibly poor strategic placement of my non-combat units that cost me several in the first turns. Regardless of the victory conditions you select, I can’t imagine this game lasting for the full 20-something turns. Still, Crete was a relatively quick play and fun enough.

Malta is a different story. Invasion of Malta is a mini-game with more or less the same mechanics playing out a hypothetical Axis attack on the island. Unlike Crete, the Axis force is comprised of several battalion strength Fallschirmjager units acting as shock troops to prepare the way for a massive Italian Amphibious invasion, and, instead of poorly equipped and highly scattered Allied resistance, they have to dive straight into a hornets nest of AA, heavy artillery, coastal guns and extensive fortifications. To make matters worse, the 9 strength Fallschirmjager Battalions are not allowed in Malta to break down into their smaller company sized pieces, meaning an Exchange combat result will always hurt the Germans more than the Allies. The fun doesn’t stop there: as soon as the Germans lose 50 victory points (battalion units are worth 21 and HQs are worth 5, so 3, at most 4, units), the German force “breaks” and must begin retreating for a beachhead, airstrip or port; if there’s no legal evac point available, they hit the coasts and, I don’t know, try to swim back to the Motherland. I really cannot see the Axis player winning this.

Our first play-thru, my dad was the Axis again, and we made it three turns before he gave up the situation as hopeless. His strategy was to land his paratroopers in the southeast part of the Island, close to the airstrips so he could take them and begin landing airborne reinforcements ASAP. He found his units scattered and dispersed by the massive Anti-Aircraft nests on the eastern half of the island. Where Crete will see drift modifiers of +2, maybe maybe maybe +3, because of the smallness of the theater, range of the guns, and battalion sized AA units (modifier of 3 instead of 1) units landing on Malta face drift penalties of between +5 and +9. The units that weren’t shot down (drift roll of 10 or higher), drowned because they drifted into open water or landed right into fortified hexes got picked apart pretty quickly. My dad conceded before his first assault group of Italians reached shore; after our second play-thru, I doubt they would’ve made any difference.

I was certain that my dad had made a mistake in going straight in and doing an airborn landing in the middle of the most heavily fortified part of the island and was determined to see if I could do better. And I did, but not by much. I made my airdrop primarily south of Mellieha at the north end of the island with a goal to secure St. Paul’s Bay and Salima Bay beaches to land my Italians, with a secondary airdrop just southeast of Valletta to create chaos and eliminate coastal batteries. In the first few turns, my more conservative strategy seemed to be paying off; I’d secured the north of the Island, eliminated several coastal batteries east of Valletta and even succeeded in seizing the bastion in the south part of the city. Unfortunately, the Germans ‘broke’ before my first assault convoy could land, and after my decent start I was suddenly losing all of my units as they fled for the ocean. Even though my secondary airdrop had managed to neutralize several of the coastal batteries, their astonishing ranges and ability for the “heavy” guns to ignore line of sight meant that over half of my initial convoy and about 3/4s of the second wave were sunk right off the bat by the guns still active in Valletta and Marsa Scirocco.

After about 6 turns, thing are looking to be a completely lost cause; that I did twice as well as my dad did on the initial playthrough is not much consolation.

The best way I can describe Malta is as a strategy puzzle meant to appeal to one player who can find someone to be ‘intelligent resistance’: a two-player “I Wanna Be the Guy” where player 2 controls the nightmarish environment player 1 must navigate. There’s not a lot of reward in winning as the Allies here. I imagine that the Axis player must play even more conservatively at the start, waiting for the first convoy to land somewhere relatively safe, like the northernmost part of the island, before making any sort of concerted push towards their objectives. And the fun to be had is in figuring out what works. The Allied player pretty much sits back, shoots down German planes, sinks German ships and pounds anyone who manages to land with heavy artillery.

Overall, I’d say that the double-pack Air Assault on Crete/Invasion of Malta is a good value, but I would recommend it to experienced wargamers who want to try something different and asymmetrical and who have grown bored with their other WW2 games. They’re both fairly quick to play and set up (so long as you don’t let the pieces from the two games get mixed together), which is a big plus. I would not, however, recommend this for more inexperienced wargamers, particularly not as an introductory game, as the balance issues and the frustrations related to the complex set-up strategies required would certainly be magnified greatly.

-Alex

13 Comments
  • cirsova says:

    Spoiler: the next time we got together, my dad suggested I count up my airborn casualties before continuing; turns out I had already lost.

    I keep reading that Malta is the more popular of this double-game; anyone out here play this as the Italians and have a winning strategy you can recommend?

  • VD says:

    Nice writeup. Definitely not for beginners, but an interesting change of pace.

    • cirsova says:

      Thanks!

      Unless some of those who’ve recommended Malta come out of the woodwork and can tell me how we were doing it wrong, I’d almost treat it like some of those “Waterloo” games in which both players take a shot as Napoleon and the winner is person who did not lose as badly. I’d say that Malta returns a “historical result” in that the island is so heavily fortified that an attack against it would have been suicidal (hence why the plans to do so were abandoned).

  • Scott says:

    May be worth your while to look up any articles on Malt / Crete in old copies of AH’s The General magazine. They always had articles on the best set up, rules modification, etc.

    • cirsova says:

      Yeah, my dad loaned me his copy of the General from 78 featuring it. I’ve only had a chance to thumb through it some, and between reviewing Planet Stories and having moved onto War and Peace (the Avalon Hill game, not the book), I haven’t quite had the time or impetus to dig too deeply.

      I got through some of the parts on Crete, which pretty much confirmed my summations from the previous post.

      Most of what I’ve found on BGG focus on Crete, rather than Malta, except for one poster who says it “imposes severe problems on both Players”, but while pointing out “the total Axis forces far out-number and out-gun those of the Allies” goes on to list 9 lengthy points that make it nigh impossible for the Axis. While the Axis player may have literal boatloads of troops, the Allies have a 1/3 chance per gun in range per unit per turn of sinking them before they get ashore.

      There’s a pretty good post comparing AAOC to OP Mercury, but it doesn’t bring up Malta.

      Another guy figured out how to combine AAOC with Panzer Armee Afrika.

      But no one saying “This is how Malta works!”

      • Scott says:

        “This is how Malta works!”

        Sometimes one has to admit that the designer didn’t really have the game and/or scenario tested well or that the alchemy of making it all work under the stated rules will ever be discovered.
        A potential project is to study up on any Axis plans to carry out an assault and create your own rule modifications, even if you have to state the background is that all Axis assumptions were valid.

        • cirsova says:

          Well, if anything, it goes to show WHY the Axis never tried to seize Malta: thought it was a small target, it was covered with AA, Coastal Guns, Artillery and fortresses that would make any airborne or amphibious assault a bloodbath.

          Even Crete, with its understrength and scattered defenders proved difficult enough that Hitler dressed down Student, and the Nazis forswore airdrops.

          • Scott says:

            That may have been the designer’s intention to point that out.

            I’m guessing the air raid on Taranto bought Malta some time and there was never enough Axis strategic bombing assets and capital ships to make available to suppress Malta’s defenses.

            My man, and yours, CDR Marc Antonio Bragadin in his book, The Italian Navy in World War II, lays the blame on the Germans for assigning air resources to reduce Malta and instead supporting Rommel’s drive on Egypt. He argues that the 8th Army was too well supplied and advancing on the Nile was futile. Better to address Malta and the war of the convoys.

  • Mark says:

    Malta: There was an important Errata in one of the GENERAL magazines that indicated you could break the German battalions if needed for casualties. That does take some of the ‘pain’ out of the situation. We played plenty, though, prior to that erratum. One of the keys to the Malta situation is to essentially land the German battalions more ‘safely’ but use the Italians more aggressively. The Beach between Birzebuggia and Valleta is something of a ‘Death Zone’. There are too many positions for CDAs, far too many for the airborne to get them all. The North is too far away, though, since you must seize Birzebuggia or Valleta by turn 13. The one airfield in the Northwest-Central part of the island is often a target because even though the Allied player KNOWS you want it, he can’t be strong everywhere. Picture landing the initial paratroopers in an arc around that airfield, with the German battalions towar the desolate North and Italians on either ‘wing’. The Allied player wants to hold onto the airfield…but…he/she must also keep you from sweeping Defenders and CDA from either beach. There are two dummies for the time of the Assault and for the destination as I remember it. So the Allied player won’t know immediately whether you’re heading for any of three possible beaches. Focus on the air field first and start landing Spezia. In that way, you get more Italians to start pressing the Brits. Try not to ever attack with just the German airborne so you have ‘casualty fodder’ with Italians also attacking. That’s not always possible on Defense, but it’s also difficult to get good odds on 9 point units. Even with no breakdowns, it’s not a cake walk for the Brits.

  • Mark says:

    MALTA (cont.): In our games, the crucial point was seizing the supply port. You have about 3 days to get the port. Valleta is usually more difficult as a ‘last defense’ location than Birzebuggia which is more approachable. On the down side, it’s physically further away. One opponent dropped the Germans NW of the southern beach….and the Italians much closer to the airfields. Yes, they scattered….but the also ended up in positions in whch some Allied battalions were trapped and destroyed AND …and air field became vulnerable and was lost. My friend did this because he looked at all the upside down counters and mostly didn’t know what to do. Sooo…there are the airfields………

  • Mark says:

    “This is how Malta works!”
    The combined package is designed so that you can take your ‘lessons learned’ from Crete and apply them to Malta. I think that’s why there’s not a strict ‘Historical Deployment” for either side (although the Allied side is ‘restricted’ a bit to historical deployment).
    At Malta, note that the Amphibious Invasion occurs some turns following the start of the game. Why? The airborne assault is designed to ‘clear the way’ for the amphibious invasion by clearing Defenders away from beaches AND, especially, lancing the positions of the coast defense artillery. Axis goals are to ‘clear the way’ initially, and then seize an airfield to bring on additional strength. Overall goals are to seize the three Victory hexes. One of the port victory hexes must also get captured by turn 12 for supply purposes. What this means is that you will likely only rarely land the amphibious invasion (and in consequence neither the airborne as well) in the Southeast between Marsa Scirocco and Valleta/Grand Harbor because the AA will likely be intense in that area and the CDA positions too numerous to suppress even were the airborne able to land successfully. Amphibious invasion in the North is probably ‘too far’ from the necessary ports. The best beaches then are to the East and West. The airborne must plan their drop with this point in mind. They must attempt to land close enough to quickly affect/threaten beaches and airfields but far enough away to gain only mild drift DRMs.
    Play it again with these points in mind and see how well it works for you and your Dad.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for the suggestions on this. It may take us a bit before we get a chance to revisit it, but I’ll bring it up and keep it in mind.

      I think that I may have been onto something on my turn as the Axis, but I didn’t play it conservatively enough with my German troops.

      I am skeptical about the rules that state a coastal gun has full line of site clear across the island; were we doing that right? I feel like I would’ve stood a chance if the guns in the Southern Command region weren’t able to hit ships landing at St. Paul.

  • Mark Dreyer says:

    thanks for the write up – I just purchased the game at an auction for $4 used – and like to read these sorts of things prior to diving in! thanks again!

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