#Wargame Wednesday: The next big “war game” on the block – Siege of Mantua by @amabelholland fm @Hollandspiele (2022)

The latest offering from publisher Hollandspiele, Siege of Mantua (Hollandspiele Hex #68), designed by Amabel Holland landed on my gaming table recently. At the risk of Jim “The Gascon” Owczarski declaring me a heretic, I note that Napoleonic wargames are not really my thing. Which in turn makes me wonder how did this title featuring a lesser-known campaign of Napoleon end up in front of me? The answer is part curiosity at the production and part reputation of the designer. I was not disappointed.

Designer Amabel Holland’s Siege of Mantua from Hollandspiele is an exciting marriage of new production techniques paired with simple game mechanics that delivers deep decision space.

RockyMountainNavy, July 2022

Mantu-wha?

Although the rule book for Siege of Mantua has some background material, I went in search of another explanation of the siege. One of the simpler ones I found was from Britannica:

Siege of Mantua, (June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”

After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Siege of Mantua”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 May. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Mantua. Accessed 2 July 2022.

Siege of Mantua takes as its starting point the third attempt to relieve the fortress in November 1796. Not that it really matters as the situation is presented in such an abstract manner the time of year is unimportant; the focus is on the general situation.

My my, what big BLOCKS you have…

In a roundabout way Siege of Mantua was birthed by a godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman. Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland relates how Herman’s children’s game for Hollandspiele, Ribbit, isn’t necessarily a hot seller. The result was a large collection of, ugh, large wooden blocks sitting around unused. As Amabel is prone to do, the pieces were nudged around and a new wargame design emerged. At this point, Steve Jones of Blue Panther, the printer for Hollandspiele (and other companies like White Dog Games) came forward with a method of printing directly onto blocks. If this process really worked, a major cost factor of block wargames—printing stickers—could be removed and perhaps more importantly that “player irritant” of having to apply stickers to blocks could be eliminated.

[In the past days I’ve handled the blocks in Siege of Mantua often in an attempt to see if the printing will rub off. Not that I’m trying to rub off the print, but I am very interested in how long it can last. Should I apply a clearcoat spray to help preserve it? Will it really last longer than stickers? So far, so good!]

So interesting did the new block production process for Siege of Mantua sound that my interest was piqued. Add to that the fact that Amabel Holland has, in my not-so-humble-opinion, an excellent track record in creating “interesting” wargames. My first Hollandspiele wargame was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele Hex #10, 2017). That game remains in my mind the best “logistics” wargame ever printed. The game mechanics of Supply Lines challenged me even back then to look at my personal defintion of a “wargame.” I mean, it has little wooden cubes and no hexes!

Speaking of wood, the blocks in Siege of Mantua are HUGE! These are not your panzer-pushing grandpappy’s Commands & Colors blocks; these are HEFTY 1.5″x1.5″ blocks. Flip the table and you’re going to be sanding gouges out of the wood floors from where these land.

But they really work for this game.

Siege of Mantua could be a small footprint game. The map is a generous 22″ x 34″ (by illustrator Ilya Kudriashov), maybe twice the size really needed. Maybe Amabel felt that the bigger blocks needed a bigger play area. At the end of the day the oversized component’s just work. Siege of Mantua may (barely) fit on that 3×3 card table to play, but any table you put it on will simply look gorgeous.

It’s a War GAME

While Siege of Mantua has incredible table presence thanks in no “small part” to the oversized blocks, what really struck me in play was how much “game” was in the design. Personally, I long have preferred to use the single word “wargame” when describing my hobby. To me, “wargames” are conflict recreations—not strictly modeling & simulation (M&S)—but paper recreations of war presented in a gamified fashion. I’ll freely admit that my preferred gaming tends to skew towards “realism” or “accuracy” or “less abstraction” but I never wanted to go all the way to M&S. Admittedly, there are some wargames that are highly abstracted that I love to play; though I have a hard time seeing a “war game” like Stratego as a wargame, I accept it is on the spectrum of wargaming.

In Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland assembles a grouping of game mechanism that individually are simple and even abstract. When put together, the resulting wargame is a very playable game that recreates the conflict in an easy to digest manner. While it certainly feels (looks?) more GAME than conflict, the call for strategy & tactics is right there in front of you.

Order of Battle

At first glance, the battle situation in Siege of Mantua seems very game-balanced. Both sides have ten blocks. The game starts with Mantua under siege by the French and the Austrians entering along two separate paths to relieve the garrison. The French have the advantage of interior lines.

A closer examination of the starting situation in Siege of Mantua reveals a far more challenging condition exists for the French. Three of the ten French blocks are Dummy blocks with no combat value; the rest of the force is Leader Napoleon and six combat blocks with 16 starting strength points. The Austrian force starts with two Leaders (one of which is under siege and cannot move unless the siege is lifted) and eight combat blocks with a total of 24 starting strength points.

Don’t tell the Austrians those are Dummy troops besieging them…(Photo by RMN)

Fog of War

In Siege of Mantua Amabel Holland takes full advantage of the fog of war game mechanics that blocks enable in wargames. This is the real strategic heart of the game as players move their forces about trying to gain a local advantage while deterring their opponent. You can see the block there, but what is it? Is it a Leader? What strength does it have? Could it even be a dummy? The fact the blocks are so big just adds to your frustration; I mean, its right there in front of you! Movement rules are relatively straightforward, but Special Moves interfere with your ability to track or guess what a particular block is or it’s strength.

Just Moving Down the Block…

Movement in Siege of Mantua is a point-to-point system. Doesn’t seem like anything special until you get to the rule for Communications. If your units can trace a path between them that is unblocked by enemy units they are In Communication. By the rules, in your Player Turn you can move one group of blocks from a single city to another city or point. But when groups of blocks are In Communication, you can move some, all or none of the blocks In Communication so long as every block only moves once.

Now the pursuit in Siege of Mantua becomes a subtle game of blocks and feints. A strategic move can cut Communications and prevent a rush forward. Split commands require twice as long to move as each grouping must move on separate turns. Napoleon starts with the advantage of interior lines but the Austrians need to collapse his defenses and cut his Communications while trying to maintain (and even create) their own

An easy march to Mantua… (Photo by RMN)

Battling Blocks

As befits a wargame, the mechanics of battles is also an essential element of Siege of Mantua. I am deeply impressed in how Amabel has represented combat in a simple abstract fashion. It starts first with your Unit Pool which is composed of a collection of 16 units split over four (4) levels. The beginning pool is 4x Level 1, 6x Level 2, 4x Level 3 and 2x Level 4. The higher the level the better the unit’s Morale Value (MV) or its ability to stand in combat.

When forces meet in Siege of Mantua, players take turns revealing their blocks. When a unit block is revealed, the current strength is the number of units drawn from the pool. Both players takes turn revealing blocks then secretly drawing and allocating units to the battlefield. I love the challenge this gives players; you might have big strength locks but you might end up drawing mostly low-level units from the pool. Is that lone unit in the Right Flank a high MV or a weakling?

Leaders play an important role in Siege of Mantua. Like so many other rules, the implementation is simple—if you have a Leader in combat you get five (5) Commands; if you don’t you only get three (3). Those Commands are used to order units to move or fight.

The combat rules themselves in Siege of Mantua are highly abstracted. Sorry, Jim, you won’t find infantry or artillery or cavalry, just “units.” Combat is accomplished by simply rolling 2d6 for each lane and adding the number of units attacking. The combat result is compared to the MV of the lead unit. If the combat result is greater than the MV of the unit, it is Broken and set aside. The combat result is then compared to the next unit and the process repeated until a unit with an MV equal-to-or-greater-than the combat result is revealed which ends the attack. If the attack is a Flank Attack, the combat result is compared to ALL defending units simultaneously and results assessed.

If a unit rolls doubles in combat in Siege of Mantua the attack is Repulsed with the lead ATTACKING unit Broken. There are a few exceptions, notably a Level 4 unit cannot be Broken (which you will see shortly is very important) and the rule that Flank Attacks cannot be Repulsed.

Battles in Siege of Mantua consist of a number of Battle Turns, the number of which are randomly rolled at the beginning of a battle. When the designated number of Battle Turns have been played, players have the option to Retreat. In a Retreat one retreating block must lose a single strength step. That is, unless you want to “Double the Stakes.”

Doubling in Siege of Mantua consists of passing the Doubling Cube to an opponent. Accepting the cube means the battle will continue, but the losses will be doubled. The doubling can happen multiple times for 2, 4, 8, or even 16, 32, or 64(!) losses. How’s that for push your luck?

When a battle in Siege of Mantua ends another simple, yet deeply important, rules kicks in. For every block (unit and Leader) on the winning side that took part in the battle a single surviving unit can be upgraded; that is, promoted to the next Level. Units on the winning side that were Broken in battle are degraded—losing a Level. Broken units on the losing side are similarly degraded before being placed back into the pool. Thus, to fight and win improves your forces for the next battle. Fight and lose and a downward slide begins…

End Game

While a game of Siege of Mantua is composed of turns, the end game does not automatically occur after a set number of turns but rather when your opponent has five or fewer blocks remaining at the end of YOUR player turn (regardless of how many block YOU have left). Like some Amabel Holland designs there is a risk that the game becomes a stand-off,; stuck in a seemingly perpetual loop. In my experience these sorts of situations usually occur when somebody(s) are not properly following Amabel’s rules. With the cat-n-mouse movement, Leaders in combat and adjusting force pools or the Doubling Die a stand-off never really happens and, if it does, it can be broken by a rigorous reading, processing, and enforcement of the rules.

Looks Simple, But Really Deep

As you hopefully can see, Siege of Mantua not only takes advantage of those big blocks to bring out the cat-and-mouse aspect of maneuvering forces, but also the decisions one makes in battles become very important. Are you willing to win that battle, no matter the cost? Winning means the chance to field an even stronger army next battle, but losing means your forces degrade. What are YOU going to do.

At the end of the day, Siege of Mantua delivers a highly visually appealing wargame that uses a collection of simple, individually abstract game mechanics that come together to seriously challenge players to make hard decisions in an imperfect information environment. In the past, I’ve used the phrase “simple complexity” to describe games that I feel are excellent examples of simple game mechanisms that, when combined in an innovative manner, create deep decision space for players. Siege of Mantua is the latest addition to the pantheon of “Simple Complexity” wargames in my collection, it just so happens that this particular title is also beautiful on the gaming table .


Feature image by self

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Library – Alternate History/FICINT for Wargamers (updated June 2022)

Excellent fodder for helping think about the “what if” in a wargame.

Ackerman, Elliot and Admiral James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, New York: Penguin Press, 2021. Another China war FICINT book in the mold of Ghost Fleet (below).

Bresnahan, Jim (Ed.), Refighting the Pacific War: An Alternative History of World War II, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. Using a slightly different approach, each chapter describes a situation and then learned commentary by authors and historians follows.

Bywater, Hector C., The Great Pacific War: The History of the American-Japanese Campaign 0f 1931-1933, Bedford: Applewood Book, original copyright 1925. Often called, “The book that predicted Pearl Harbor,” the reality is much deeper and is tied to advocacy regarding the development of U.S. military warplans in the inter-war period. Obvious inspiration for many wargames like Great War at Sea: War War Plan Orange (Avalanche Press, 1998) or Plan Orange: Pacific War 1932 – 1935 by Mark Herman from RBM Studios (2016).

Clancy, Tom, Red Storm Rising, New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1986. Co-written in parts with Larry Bond, lead designer of the Harpoon-series of wargames (Admiralty Trilogy Group). This includes the famous “Dance of the Vampires” chapter that was developed using Harpoon.

Cowley, Robert (Ed.), The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Image What Might Have Been (Includes the complete texts of What If? and What If? 2), New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001. More than just military alternative history…

Deighton, Len, SS-GB, New York: Sterling, 1979 (2012 edition). Britain under Nazi German rule. Essential tie-in to most any Operation Sealion wargame.

Deighton, Len, Spy Story, St. Albans: Panther Books Ltd., 1974. Interesting because wargames are used as a major plot point. According to the book back of my copy:

“Patrick Armstrong is a tough, dedicated agent and war-games player. But in Armstrong’s violent, complex world, war-games are all too often played for real. Soon the chase (or is it escape?) is on. From the secretive computerized college of war studies in London via a bleak, sinister Scottish redoubt to the Arctic ice cap where nuclear submarines prowl ominously beneath frozen wastes, a lethal web of violence and doublecross is woven. And Europe’s whole future hangs by a deadly thread…”

The beginning of each chapter has excerpts from the “TACWARGAME” wargame rules or a Glossary or other “Notes for Wargamers” from the “Studies Centre, London.”

Dick, Philip K., The Man in the High Castle, New York: Vintage Books, 1962 (1992 edition). Nightmare Nazi German and Imperial Japan rule a conquered America.

Downing, David, The Moscow Option: An Alternative Second World War, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2001. Moscow falls in ’41…then what?

Hackett, General Sir John & Other Top-Ranking NATO Generals & Advisors, The Third World War: August 1985, New York: Berkley Books, 1979.Written as an act of policy advocacy, this book reignited the genre of speculative military fiction (and policy advocacy) that had laid dormant since Bywater’s Great Pacific War from over 50 years earlier.

Harris, Robert, Fatherland: A Novel, New York: Random House, 1992 A masterpiece of world-building fiction. There are parts where, with a little imagination, one can see the broad outlines of “post-war” conflict.

Macksey, Kenneth (Ed.), The Hitler Options: Alternate Decisions of World War II, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1995. Ten short stories; my favorite may be “The Jet Fighter Menace: 1943” written by the esteemed Dr. Alfred Price.

Showalter, Dennis E. & Harold C. Deutsch (Eds.), If the Allies Had Fallen: Sixty Alternate Scenarios of World War II, New York: MJF Books, 2010. Sixty means much shorter, lesser developed scenarios.

Singer, P.W. and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. The first in the new fictional intelligence (FICINT) genre of books picking up long after Hackett’s The Third World War.

Stieber, Whitley and James Kunetka, War Day: and the Journey Onward, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984. While at least one chapter may make a good Harpoon scenario, I found the post-World War III elements also intriguing for post-apocalyptic scenario design.

Tsouras, Peter G. (Ed), Cold War Hot: Alternate Decisions of the Cold War, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2003. Ten short stories from end of World War II thru the Cold War.

Tsouras, Peter G., Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1994. One of the earliest Alternate History titles in the 1990’s.

Tsouras, Peter G., Gettysburg: An Alternate History, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1997. Unlike many other Tsouras books this is authored exclusively by Peter.

Tsouras, Peter G. (Ed.), Rising Sun Victorious: The Alternate History of How the Japanese Won the Pacific War, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Turtledove, Harry, S.M. Stirling, Mayr Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams, Worlds That Weren’t, New York: Penguin, 2003. Four novellas by master authors.


Feature image Red Storm Rising, TSR, 1989 (personal collection)courtesy

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Library – Military Science for Wargames (updated June 2022)

Not strictly wargaming but useful texts for designers and players.

Brown, Ian T., A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2018. Major Brown, USMC, tells the story of Col John Boyd and how his concepts of war came to influence the U.S. Marines as expressed in their own seminal doctrine manual, Warfighting. A must read to understand Boyd and his theories.

Clausewitz, Carl Von, On War, New York: Penguin Books, 1968. How can you study military science without the (western) Father of Military Science?

Dunnigan, James F., How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st Century (Fourth Edition), New York: Harper, 2003. Dunnigan is a prolific wargamer designer and while this book is not a set of rules or the like, it does provide insight into what it was about war he considered important enough to model in his games.

Dupuy, Col. Trevor N., U.S. Army [Ret.], Attrition: Forecasting Battle Casualties and Equipment Loses in Modern War, Falls Church: NOVA Publications, 1995. A follow-on to Numbers, Prediction & War that expands on the QJM (Quantified Judgement Model) and TNDM (Tactical Numeric Deterministic Model).

Dupuy, Col. Trevor N., U.S. Army [Ret.], Future Wars: The World’s Most Dangerous Flashpoints, New York: Warner Books, 1992. Excellent inspiration material for wargame designers. Appendix B is a short tutorial on “The Tactical Numeric Deterministic Model (TNDM)” which is very useful for wargame designers to study.

Dupuy, Col. Trevor N., U.S. Army [Ret.], Numbers, Predictions & War: Using History to Evaluate Combat Factors and Predict the Outcome of Battles, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1979. This book is where Col. Dupuy’s Quantified Judgement Model (QJM) that eventually becomes the Tactical Numeric Deterministic Model (TNDM) is born.

Dupuy, Col. Trevor N., U.S. Army [Ret.], Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat, Falls Church: NOVA Publications, 1987. Discusses much of the historical basis for the QJM and TNDM.

Hughes Jr., Capt. Wayne P. (USN, RET), Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (First Edition), Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986. Written at the height of the “Reagan Navy” built by Navy Secretary Lehman, this was the book that underpinned the Maritime Strategy. First introduction of the “Salvo Equation” that today not only is used to describe anti-ship cruise missile combat but even modern artillery theories apply it.

Hughes Jr., Capt. Wayne P. (USN, RET), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Second Edition), Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Updated for the emphasis on littoral combat.

Hughes Jr., Capt. Wayne P. (USN, RET) and RADM Robert P. Girrier (USN, RET), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Third Edition), Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. Updated yet again to show the connection of fleet tactics to naval operations.

Lawrence, Christopher A., War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat, Lincoln: Potomac, 2017. Lawrence is the successor to Col. Dupuy at The Dupuy Institute. This book explains the work of “quantitative historical analysis” as it applies to modern conventional combat. Students of the War in Ukraine should be dusting off this text and the previous works of Trevor Dupuy.

Ryan, Mick, War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022. Mick Ryan is a retired Army Major General from the Australian Defense Forces who brings a perspective steeped in U.S. and U.K. military thinking but with that different “down under” approach and mentality.


Feature image Col. Trevor N. Dupuy, father of the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM) and the Quantified Judgement Model (QJM). Read about Col. Dupuy and TNDM/QJM at the Dupuy Institute.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#SundaySummary – “All the News That’s Fit to Print” in Paper Wars Nr. 101 from @compassgamesllc

Wargaming

This week saw the arrival of two new wargames; Case Geld: The Axis Invasion of North America, 1945-46 by designer Ty Bomba found inside the latest edition (Nr. 101) of Paper Wars: The Journal of Compass Games and The Siege of Mantua by designer Amabel Holland from Hollandspiele. I’m going to address the wargames in later posts, but for today I want to talk about the latest Paper Wars.

As the title says, Paper Wars is focused on Compass Games and serves as the “house organ” for the publisher. This often is a red flag for me because a publication that is hyper-focused on a single publisher means I find only a few games of interest in the magazine. Paper Wars Nr. 101 has proven to be a bit different:

Looking at the next few issues of Paper Wars, the wargame titles don’t really grab me. Maybe I got lucky this time and finally found an issue that has both a wargame of interest and interesting articles.


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Library – Wargame-related Texts (updated June 2022)

Titles that are related to wargaming (not necessarily design) and often with a focus on the history of the profession/hobby.

Antal, John F., Armor Attacks: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics & Leadership, Novato: Presidio, 1991. A “choose your own adventure” approach to wargaming.

Appleget, Col. Jeff, USA (Ret.), Col. Robert Burks, USA (Ret.), and Fred Cameron, The Craft of Wargaming: A Detailed Planning Guide for Defense Planners and Analysts, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. Focuses on wargaming as part of the military planning process.

Curry, John, United States Naval War College Manual Wargaming (1969): Wargames at the Start of the Missile Era, The History of Wargaming Project http://www.wargaming.co, 2019. These were the rules used in wargames at the Naval War College in the late 1960’s; provides a “professional” set of rules to compare other games to.

Curry, John and Chris Carlson (ed), The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules: USN Wargaming Before WWII, Volume 1, The History of Wargaming Project http://www.wargaming.co, 2019. Another set of historical Naval War College rules; these are very similar to those used by the U.S. Navy before World War II that trained so many of the senior officers that fought that war.

Curry, John and Paddy Griffith, Paddy Griffith’s Wargaming Operation Sealion: The Game that Launched Academic Wargaming, The History of Wargame Project www. wargame.co, 2021.Explores Paddy Griffith’s 1974 Operation Sealion wargame for the British Army Staff College that attempted to use a wargame to seriously explore military history.

Friedman, Hal M., Blue Versus Orange: The U.S. Naval War College, Japan and the Old Enemy in the Pacific, 1945-1946, Newport: Naval War College Press, 2013. Focuses on wargaming at the Naval War College in the 1945-1946 academic year and the role it played in planning for a post-war Navy.

Harris, Christopher and Patricia Harris with Brian Mayer, Teaching the American Revolution Through Play, A middle-school teacher’s guide for using Academy Games’ 1775: Rebellion in the classroom (or homeschool).

Lockwood, Jonathan S., PhD and LtCol Donald J. Hanle (USAF), Wargaming and Intelligence Education: Joint Military Intelligence College Discussion Paper Number Six, Washington, D.C.: Joint Military Intelligence College, 1998. Short essays on the use of wargames in professional military education (PME).

Nofi, Albert A., To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, Newport: Naval War College Press, 2010. Recounting of the Fleet Problems that leveraged wargaming at the Naval War College and how they prepared the U.S. Navy for war against Japan.

Parkin, Simon, A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II, New York: Little Brown & Co., 2020. Actually a book describing early Operations Research, it still is close enough for wargaming to be part of the family.

Peterson, Jon, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020. Although focused on role-playing games, there is some good history here about how skirmish miniatures wargamers and role-playing games diverged.

Peterson, Jon, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021. Another entry in MIT Press’ Game Histories series. Chronicles the story of Dungeons & Dragons without the hyperbole of the major characters, Gygax and Arneson. Fans of Chainmail and other skirmish miniatures games that helped birth D&D will find more morsels of interest here.

Prados, John, Pentagon Games: Wargames and the American Military (Includes three playable wargames), New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987. Another “advocate” text for professional defense wargaming; of great interest is the three games included.

  • Pentagon: Monopoly in the Military—”Create your own defense budget and then protect it from bureaucratic politics inside the Pentagon”
  • The R&D Game: Congressional Chutes & Ladders—”Design new weapons systems and guide your project through to Congressional Approval”
  • Last Days of Saigon: Playing to Break Even—”Match wits with the joint chiefs as you plan the evacuation of U.S. troops from South Vietnam”

Only the last game is hex & counter, showing even in the 1980’s professional wargaming was looking at “serious” gaming using different gaming mechanisms.


Feature image courtesy Imperial War Museum

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

A Different #Wargame Mission -or- Thoughts on The Mission: Early Christianity from the Crucifixion to the Crusades – A Solitaire Boardgame by R. Ben Madison (White Dog Games, 2020)

What is a wargame? (Answer…DON’T ASK).

I recently acquired a new game. From designer R. Ben Madison and White Dog Games in 2020 comes The Mission: Early Christianity from the Crucifixion to the Crusades – A Solitaire Boardgame. In many ways this “game” is not in my wheelhouse because it comes with two strikes; the game mechanism is solitaire-by-design and the topic is religion. A bit to my surprise, I found The Mission to be a very engaging game design and topic.

The Mission – box cover

Wargame or Boardgame?

For very personal reasons, I hesitate to call any game about religion a “wargame.” When I was looking at the sales material about The Mission I noted the solitaire game mechanisms are built upon the venerable States of Siege game engine—very much a wargame. But then the subtitle of The Mission calls itself, “A Solitaire Boardgame” so I found some comfort. Once I got the box and read more I found this discussion on the box back:

Beginners and experienced players will find this an intriguing, and very different kind of game. While certainly a war of ideas, it is still very much a war game, where victory depends upon managing scarce resources (including Holy Relics!) and making shrewd strategic decisions to benefit the Church. The Mission is a power-politics overview of the Early Church form its beginnings through the Crusades, but one that never loses sight of the importance of church-building and pastoral ministry.

The Mission, box back
The Mission – box back

Now, I read my history books and I understand there were holy wars throughout time immortal, but is the creation of the Church a war? A challenging viewpoint from designer R. Ben Madison. My experience with a few R. Ben Madison designs taught me that he often has a viewpoint and is not afraid to wear it on his shoulder. This is especially the case in his very strong pro-British viewpoints in Mrs. Thatcher’s War or Don’t Tread on Me. Would he do the same here and show irreverence at the history of the Church?

Alas, designer R. Ben Madison in The Mission uses the States of Siege game engine to deliver a unique and thought-provoking view of the rise of early Christianity. While playing The Mission I never actually felt like I was in a wargame, even when combat was involved. Instead, I strongly felt the resource-management, almost engine-building aspects of the game. At the same time, it inspired me to seek out more knowledge and build understanding.

Much of The Mission is actually presented without real commentary. The game turn track—called the Acts Track—relates historical events and there is some historical commentary in the rule book. While playing the game I found myself actually looking for more information than was provided. What exactly were those Heresies? Further, while your “mission” in The Mission is to grow the Church, in many ways you are “along for the ride” as events will happen with or without your actions. The actions you do take won’t really stop/start the rise the Church, but they will influence the degrees of success (or failure) on the rise.

The Mission – rule book

One commentator, Dan Thurot at Space Biff, states, “The Mission is too preoccupied with being playable.” In this case I don’t mind that emphasis, as it lets me play a “game” of religion without too much commentary.

Get Used to Different

Religion and myself have an on-again, off-again relationship. I was strong as a youth, fell out as a young adult, was luke-warm for some years, and recently have tried again. Playing The Mission has supported my return to religion, if for no other reason than it has inspired me to learn more. Playing games to learn about and better understand the world is one of the major reasons I continue in this hobby (and why Eurogames—so often just game mechanisms with thin themes pasted on—usually fail to attract or keep my attention). What I really enjoy about The Mission is how it can “teach without preach;” i.e. it gives me a relatable pathway to learning without throwing it in my face.

The Mission is going to be on the table for a bit as I experience it more. In this case a slow-play is quite welcome as the game becomes a vehicle to learning and not just a pass-the-time entertainer. R. Ben Madison in The Mission has given me a very different wargame that takes some getting used to, but is impressive in its ability to deliver an experience far beyond the simple gameplay on the table.


Feature image courtesy teepublic.com

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – #SnippetThoughts >> Don’t Tread on Me: The American Revolution Solitaire Board Game, 2nd Edition by R. Ben Madison (White Dog Games, 2015)

As a general rule I tend to not like solitaire games, in no small part because the “AI” or “bot” or whatever is running the “other side” in the game is often represented using very procedural rules. It is that very “procedural” part of a solitaire game design that makes me feel like I don’t have agency in the game. In this respect, Don’t Tread on Me (DToM) by R. Ben Madison at White Dog Games is not that different from the many other (often vanilla-playing) solitaire games out there.

Except it isn’t vanilla, but a fine wine.

2nd Edition map is 22’x17″

Maybe it’s the perspective. In DToM you the player take on the role of the British side. Your job is to defeat those “Damn Yankees” (whoops, wrong war!) and keep the colonies in the Empire. You face the challenge of putting down the insurgency in the colonies, much like the United States would have to deal with the Viet Cong in Vietnam two centuries later.

(Colonies) of Siege

Don’t Tread on Me is built around a game system that is commonly called States of Siege. Truth be told, States of Siege is probably better thought of as a genre of games rather than a set of rules since each game in the “series” has its own variation of the rules.

Don’t Tread on Me – At Start

This is where DToM is very procedural. The various steps in a turn should must be executed in a very procedural manner to avoid “breaking” the AI. This is usually where I chafe at a solitaire game; the game system often makes me feel like a human component manipulator and not a gaming player given agency in decisions. Solitaire games also tend to be “predicable” in that the set procedures often force one to adhere to a well-known (or easily recognizable) historical/game flow.

This is where DToM shines; for within the seemingly rigid procedures there are plenty of decision points to give the player agency. Lest one become too comfortable with the flow of a turn, there is a chance some random event or a major/minor campaign will break out. As a player you can plan for such eventualities, but you never really control the emerging, often chaotic, situation. This is where one must have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to an ever-changing situation—albeit one rigidly played out. Although DToM tends to follow a “known” historical flow of events, the actual arrival of the event or how much of a change it makes to the game state (i.e. history) is driven by player decisions.

DToM also reminds the players that they are the British Empire and those “rabble rousers” are beneath them. Designer R. Ben Madison never misses a chance to tear down the Founding Fathers; George Washington is an inept General, Thomas Jefferson is a fleeing coward, and Sam Adams is a “spin doctor.”

Which is why playing DToM and winning—or losing—is so satisfying. To win is to overcome history when it was stacked against you. To lose is to be defeated by those colonist so beneath your station.

Britain’s Vietnam

In more than one place R. Ben Madison draws a comparison in Don’t Tread on Me between the U.S involvement in Vietnam with the British counter-insurgency in North America. Maybe that is a good comparison, though I personally feel it simplifies (dare I say, “white washes”) much of the history of the later conflict. By framing Don’t Tread on Me in terms of a very unpopular and divisive war a player starts play with a real sense that this is different.

Like most solitaire games to win is actually a challenge. Sometimes the loss can be blamed on a game system that is so rigid and procedural that one glitch in execution radically alters the game and makes victory a mechanical impossibility. Yes, that can happen in Don’t Tread on Me but the procedures are rather straight-forward and it immediately becomes obvious in play that victory or defeat will depend on the player decision, not the bot.

I played two games of Don’t Tread on Me for my June lead-up to American Independence Day. Both times I lost, the second game by a narrow margin. If nothing else Don’t Tread on Me shows just how much the American Revolution was a “near-run thing.”


Photos and Feature image by self

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#TravellerTuesday – The vices of Startown Liberty

Those awesome folks over at Bundle of Holding recently put out a new Traveller RPG-related bundle, The Gamelords Traveller Collection. This collection honors J. Andrew Kieth, a prolific early illustrator of Traveller (sorry, if all you have experienced is the “new” Mongoose Traveller art then you are poorly served). At one point in my Traveller journeys I had most of these supplements, but I passed them to a friend and then left for college only to never see them again.

Of all the Gamelord items in this collection, the one I remember the most is Startown Liberty by John Marshal from 1984. Why do I remember this one? Because it was so scandalous!

Recall that the early 1980’s was the time of the Satanic Panic. I watched on of my friends burn his D&D books in the fireplace because his parents insisted he “exorcise the demons.” Several of our parent’s looked with disdain on role playing games, but Traveller, being science fiction and not “fantasy”, got a bit of a pass (after all, Star Wars was huge). By the time 1984 rolled around the worst of the Satanic Panic seemed to be passing, and us Traveller players were high school, not middle school anymore.

It also didn’t hurt that during this time my Traveller gang had its own “wretched hive of scum and villainy” going. We played game after game set on the edge of the empire in dive bars and establishments of lesser-repute. We were like a syndicate that would go in, take a place for all the money we could, then leave…guns blazing if necessary. Very wild west! If our parents had really seen what Startown Liberty offered for a Traveller adventure I think they would have blanched, and I likely would have been burning some books in the fireplace too. Three items in particular stand out in my memory.

Games

Gambling has always been a core skill in Traveller. The rules are very benign, nothing like James Bond 007. Here though, the skill was given a background situation and character reactions. Now we could see who was a real cardshark! House always wins? Never!

Drinking

Marc Miller provided rules for Drinking in Startown Liberty. These build on the core skill Carousing found in Traveller. Growing up in Colorado the legal drinking age for 3.2 beer (“Canoe beer” according to Monty Python…”it’s like making love in a canoe; f**king close to water”) was 18 so we weren’t totally ignorant of alcohol, but still we had plenty of laughs as our characters got drunk. Looking back on the book today, I wonder just how much we were influenced by comments like:

In all locales, non-intoxicants can also be purchased, usually for the same price as “mild.” Doing this in a typical Startown dive is a fast way to attract attention, insults and snickers for other customers.

Startown Liberty, p. 28

Prostitutes

OMG, did John Marshal and Gamelords really go there? As much as Startown Liberty tries to capture the vibes of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars (see the Dedication in the front matter) one thing you did not see in Star Wars (movies) were streetwalkers. Yet, in Startown Liberty the very first Street Encounter in the book is Prostitute. Again, looking back I laugh at how the author tried to play off all the “implications” of the event:

As a family game, these rules will not concern themselves with specifics; these are left to the individual player and referees to work out or ignore, according to their own desires. However, in addition to their basic trade, prostitutes may be willing to part with information for the right price, and may also be a source of danger by serving as a decoy for muggers, pickpockets, and the like. Referees can, however, feel free to ignore the whole thing and substitute some other encounter if they or their players would be more comfortable that way.

Startown Liberty, p. 9

Setting aside the “scandalous” elements, Startown Liberty is a great example of a core Traveller adventuring concept: Adventure Through Encounters. The entire book is one big setup for encounters; find a patron, find a job, find a challenge, find an adventure. Given a sufficiently flexible referee there is actually little need for campaign prep. While many players like the “campaign” approach to RPG adventuring, there are others (like myself) who embrace encounters as a way to progress the story, often in unexpected (but no less fun) directions.

Looking back, I see Startown Liberty having many core concepts that later “space western” RPGs like Serenity Role Playing Game (2005) or Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Edge of the Empire (2013) or Firefly Role-Playing Game (2014) would try to get at, but never quite get all the way there like Startown Liberty delivers. While “scandalous” play may not be your thing, Startown Liberty shows a possible way to incorporate it into your Traveller game.


Feature image “A Corellian prostitute solicits Derek Klivianof Rogue Squadron.courtesy Wookiepedia; I’m guessing you ain’t going to see this part of Legends resurrected for the Mouse version of Star Wars…

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0