Sunday Summary – Catching up on @kickstarter & playtest commitments #wargame #boardgame @Academy_Games @stuarttonge @DracoIdeas @fortcircle @Bublublock @FoundationDietz @Worth2004 @hexsides

While my summer gaming has been languishing lots of work from Kickstarter campaigns continues. Some of the news is better than others and all seem to be feeling the effects of the shipping industry challenges.

Speaking of playtesting, I am overdue in getting the playtest kit for Warsaw Pact by Brad Smith to the table after he also graciously provided it to me. Looks like I have some printing, cutting, and taping in the (overdue) near future!

Full Foodie

Recently visited the Seattle area and found The Waffler, a most excellent breakfast restaurant!

Breakfast Waffle Sandwich with Home Fries. Yes, it’s as big as it looks!

The Real Game of Life – Minus #Wargames and #Boardgames with @gmtgames @NolanNasser @BoardGameGeek @gCaptain

I’ve been quiet on the blog recently. That’s what happens when Real LifeTM hits you hard. Between a near 100% return to work (now with MASKS…yeah…NOT!) and family “situations” my wargame/boardgame time dropped to zero. With an upcoming (and really needed) summer family vacation in the not-too-distant future I expect to stay “quiet” in this channel for a few more weeks.

The worldwide shipping container shortage is also slowing not only my, but I am sure many of your, gaming habits. The July 22 update from Gene at GMT Games provided a good snapshot and some idea of the impact on publishers of not only container shipping, but component supplies as well:

Supply Chain and Shipping Slowdown. As I noted last month, we’re in a bit of a slow period at the GMT Warehouse/Office as we wait for our printers to begin shipping us some of the 21 new products that are currently being printed. The same global supply chain and shipping issues that are hampering businesses worldwide are having a negative impact on our operations, too. Both the time to get games printed (due to the issues they are having with their component supplies) and the shipping time to our warehouse (which has doubled over the past few months) are seeing big delays at the moment. 

Still, we did just get a notification that three games will ship out to us at the end of July, which with current shipping times should mean we get them in early to mid September. So, at least we’re starting to see games that are at the tail end of the printing process and prepping to ship. Tony is telling me that this should accelerate over the coming months and that between September and the end of November we should see most, if not all, of those 21 new products in our warehouse.

Of course, we have plenty of other games nearing print readiness as well, and we’ll continue to send those to the printer as our art department has them ready (see the Production Outlook later in this update for current details). We’re hopeful that we’ll see some improvement on both the supply chain and shipping sides before year end, but in the meantime, we’ve just had to adjust our planning to take the delays into account. The result has been this “lull” in new games between now and early September. Once the pipeline is open again, though, we should see a steady stream of new products to ship out to you all for the remainder of 2021.

There are other clues out there. Nolan (@NolanNasser) of Deep Water Games tweeted about the dramatic increase in shipping container prices.

I’ll also say that @BoardGameGeek on Twitter is also covering the shipping apocalypse pretty well. How long will these shipping challenges last? Industry insiders are saying maybe until AFTER the Chinese New Year in February 2022!

On a more personal gaming level, the lack of game time and supply challenges means I have not bought a new game in over a month. That’s unusual for me when compared to the last three years. Of the 31 games I have on preorder/Kickstarter not a single one is tracking on time. Sigh….

On the plus side, all this delay means I should get a chance to catch up on my unplayed games, right?

Sunday #Wargame #Boardgame Summary – Falling behind yet catching up with @gmtgames @LeeBWood @ADragoons @stuarttonge @compassgamesllc

Game of the Week / Wargames

SO…MY GAME OF THE WEEK plan totally fell apart this week. I was supposed to have Jim Krohn’s Space Empires 4X (GMT Games, 2017 Third Printing) on the table but was overcome by events like a busted hot water heater. So Space Empires will slide into the schedule later.

The Empire…will be back

Next up was “supposed” to be Wing Leader: Legends (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2021) but that will be preempted for a new trade arrival. It might be hard to believe that, given I have been a wargamer since the late 1970’s, that I never owned TACTICS II by the great Charles S. Roberts himself from the first (and as far as I am concerned the only) The Avalon Hill Game Company. I got a very good condition 1973 edition and I am anxious to go through it and learn as much as possible from this iconic wargame. Look for an Unboxing Day entry over at Armchair Dragoons on July 15 and a forthcoming Wargame Wednesday entry.

It took 40 years for this to arrive….

Speaking about throwbacks to old wargames, GMT Games announced this week that Jim Day’s next entry in the Panzer (Second Edition) series, Panzer: North Africa, has “made the cut” in their P500 program. Longtime readers might recall that Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) was my very first wargame. I eagerly bought up the entire original series; Panzer, ’88’ and Armor, and they still own a prominent spot on my gaming shelves. I am glad that after 40 years a “new” edition of ’88’ is coming.

Courtesy GMT Games

Boardgames

Congratulations to Stuart Tonge and the successful Kickstarter funding of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Full Disclosure – I am a backer and even wrote an article that was used in the campaign. Although this is the first title from Stuart’s Plague Island Games I feel he is getting good help/advice from industry and is on track for a successful fulfillment. That said, one hopes that the current shipping container shortage and record rates don’t trip Stuart, or any game publisher, up too much. Of course, the sooner Stuart is done with 2 Minutes to Midnight the sooner he gets back to Blue Water Navy: The Pacific for Compass Games and now on preorder….

Kickstarter funded

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Mad Narratives and FICINT with @gmtgames @Toadkillerdog @ArmyMadSci @JerryHendrixII @august_cole @peterwsinger

Wargaming China

If you are a professional wargamer and you are not paying attention to the work of the U.S. Army Futures Command Mad Scientist Laboratory you are sadly behind the times. To help you stay abreast of happenings I call your attention to a recent article from Ian Sullivan, Special Advisor for Analysis and ISR at the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Army Training and Doctrine Command. Mr. Sullivan can often also be found writing for GMT Insider with features like his recent “We’re Moving Through Kashmir: Playing Next War: India-Pakistan or “All Along the Demilitarized Zone – Playing Next War: Koreaseries of articles.

In the Mad Scientist Lab article, “337. “No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan,” Sullivan uses designer Mitchell Land’s Next War: Taiwan (GMT Games, 2014 – to be updated in a forthcoming 2nd Printing) to explore just such an event, for good reason:

In November 2020, I wrote a previous post arguing that wargaming can help us visualize what the threat can be.  It can help us imagine it and provide context to our thinking about it.  It can help us check our assumptions, and perhaps even offer thoughts and ideas that we would never have considered.  It will not tell us the future, or lay out with certainty what will happen.  But it can offer us an opportunity to prevent a failure of imagination of the kind warned against in the 9/11 Commission Report.  By imagining the threat, we may be in a position to make better decisions during moments of crisis.  This time, I’m using a copy of GMT Games “Next War: Taiwan” to help visualize what such a fight could entail.

MSL 337

Sullivan’s article appeared in the same week as strategist and retired US. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote his thoughts on the “Davidson Window,” and his interpretation of testimony from out-going Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral Phil Davison. Admiral Davidson observed that China might try to reintegrate Taiwan “in the next six years.” Sullivan uses a narrative built from playing Next War: Taiwan to tell us a very important story:

In an effort to guard against the failure of imagination, I will add a narrative to help explain what happened in the game.  Rudyard Kipling once said that if “history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  Narrative writing is a powerful, and by spinning it around the bones of a game, I hope to help imagine what a fight could be.  Tom Clancy and Larry Bond used this method in their novel Red Storm Risingwhere they crafted a narrative around the results of a series of scenarios they played of the wargame Harpoon.  My effort here, however, is intended to be more in the spirit of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, originally published in 1978, and intended to help NATO leaders imagine what a fight with the Warsaw Pact could look like.

MSL 337

Sullivan’s narrative, written as a Report to Congress after a Chinese victory, is actually a great example of “Fictional Intelligence,” or FICINT. Unfortunately, the creators of FICINT, P.W. Singer and August Cole, might disagree.

FICINT

In another recent Mad Scientist Laboratory episode of their podcast, Convergence, guests P.W. Singer and August Cole, co-authors of Ghost Fleet and the leading example of Useful Fiction (or as Cole and Singer like to call it, Fictional Intelligence – FICINT), talked about what FICINT is:

In today’s podcast, Messrs. Singer and Cole discuss the power of fictional intelligence; the importance of storytelling, narrative, and verisimilitude in crafting tales of future possibilities that resonate and inform; and the significance of imagination.  The following bullet points highlight key insights from our discussion:

FicInt, also known as fictional intelligence or ‘useful fiction,’ combines extensive research and futures forecasting with worldbuilding and narrative, one of the oldest forms of communication. The finished product involves an engaging and plausible storyline to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.

FicInt has four “rules of the real” that separate it from science fiction:  research must be embedded in the story (usually via footnotes); the story must take place in a real-world setting; the story must involve real world people; and the timeline must be realistic. Using these rules, any white paper, report, or executive summary can be distilled into its key themes and drafted into narrative.

FicInt is also distinguished from science fiction via its engagement with the policy community. Fictional intelligence strives to react and be useful to the policy community, and thus engages with policy experts before, during, and after its development. This engagement may involve commissioned stories, workshops on how to create FicInt, or briefings on the end product.

The goal of FicInt is often to expose and prevent a possible future, rather than predict it. By creating plausible storylines, the security industry can adapt and develop programs and technologies to create an alternate future that prepares for the situations exposed by FicInt.

The value of narrative, compared to non-fiction research, can be found in three elements:

Understanding:  Narrative effectively packages information the way our brains are designed to absorb it, creating lasting messages.

Action:  By connecting information to our emotions, narrative is more likely to promote action.

Connection:  People are driven to share narratives, leading the audience of FicInt to become part of its marketing. This virality contributes to the creation of a network of people with increased understanding of potential futures.

Establishing FicInt credibility involves connection with target audiences and the real-world people featured in the narratives and responding to their feedback. This process ensures the end story is as accurate and plausible as possible.

MSL 332

I was surprised they didn’t mention it in their podcast interview, but Cole and Singer see wargames as very distinct from FICINT. In a post where I discussed narratives and wargaming (“#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives” 25 Nov 2020) I dug into some of Cole and Singer’s thoughts on FICINT and wargaming based on a journal article they wrote. To summarize, I think Cole and Singer confuse “simulations” and “war games” and thus do not give proper credit to the narrative power of wargames. I hope that Ian Sullivan’s article above shows the weakness of their position and lets us rightly focus on the narrative power of wargaming.


Feature image courtesy cdn.newsapi.com.au

#Wargame Wednesday – Bonding clearly with stress free shifts determined to breakthrough narratives in Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (@gmtgames, 2019)

This past week I played Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June- December 1942 as my Game of the Week. Stalingrad ’42 is a wargame designed by Mark Simonitch and published by GMT Games in 2019. It is part of Mark’s ZoC Bond Series of wargames, named in part to their unique version of Zone of Control (ZoC) rules so often used in wargames. Due to time challenges I was only able to play the eight-turn, one month Fall Blau scenario. Along the way I discovered much more about Mark’s ZoC Bond system and wargame narratives.

Bond, ZoC Bond

The unique game mechanism in Stalingrad ’42 is the ZoC Bond. In addition to the classic ZoC (all six hexes surrounding a Combat Unit) that has the usual game effects of affecting movement, those same Combat Units can also form ZoC Bonds:

7.1 How to form a ZOC Bond

Any Combat Unit in Good Order can form a ZOC Bond….When two such units (or stacks) are two hexes apart (with one vacant intervening hex) they create a bond between them that no enemy unit may enter or cross. Due to the pattern of a hex grid there are two types of ZOC Bonds—Hex Bonds and Hexside Bonds.

Stalingrad ’42, Rules of Play

ZoC Bonds have tremendous game effects in Stalingrad ’42. Units may not enter or cross a bond during movement, if forced to retreat across a bond the unit is eliminated, attacking units cannot Advance After Combat across a bond, nor can supply ever be traced into or across a bond. Thus, it is important for both players to pay close attention to where bonds exist, or don’t, and plan accordingly.

Weather, or Not

Like one would expect in a game on the Russian front, weather can have a huge impact on movement in Stalingrad ’42. However, the rules specify that the weather is automatically Clear on Turn 1-16 (late June through late August) (see rule 3.0 A. Weather Phase). This means that Minor Rivers can be crossed at no extra cost. In turn, this means that in the Fall Blau scenario Major Rivers are the primary obstacles to movement.

Interestingly, in Stalingrad ’42 all Minor River Hexsides don’t cost extra movement to cross (unless Rain) but they ALWAYS double a defender’s Defense Factors. Minor River Hexsides also halve an attackers Attack Factors if all the attackers are attacking across a Minor River Hexside while also not allowing a Tank Shift (see below).

20-40 EZ

I was surprised to see Stalingrad ’42 impose a limit of 20 Defense Factors or 40 Attack Factors in a given combat (see 8.5 Maximum Attack and Defense Factors). The designer admits in the “Design Notes” within the Play Book that, “This will be the most controversial part of the design.” Mark goes on to explain:

Some players don’t like caps, but I find them very helpful for stress-free gaming. I don’t like it when players (or myself) spend an extensive amount of time trying to find those extra few factors to increase the odds by one more column. It’s not what wargaming should be about. And there is more comfort in knowing that 7 factors in a hex will guarantee that your opponent cannot get 10-1 odds against it, and placing two 3-5-3 rifle divisions in a Stalingrad city hex is enough to prevent the Axis player getting 5-1 odds against it.

Play Book, “Design Notes,” p. 17-18

Yes, it’s controversial in my mind. Maybe Mark and I have very different definitions of “stress?” Personally, I see the hunting around for a few extra factors not stress, but a part of the game. I would argue that not imposing a limit actually encourages one to pay more careful attention to movement and organization of your force as it moves into combat. Many times I enjoy the “analysis paralysis” in a wargame, more so when its coming from an opponent who is struggling against your plan.

Tanks for the Shift

One of the most powerful combat modifiers in Stalingrad ’42 is the Tank Shift (see rule 9.2 Tank Shifts). If one or more “black dot” Tank Units participate in a combat, the owner shifts an entire column on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Elite Tank Units (“red dot”) get a 2-column shift! There are a few exceptions to the rule, but generally the game effect of this rule is that tanks act much like they historically did by bolstering the offense or defense simply by their presence. I like it!

Mark tells us that in playtesting Stalingrad ’42 the German mechanized units were too weak to reach Stalingrad. Adding extra combat strength made them too strong in cities and mountains. So instead, “I gave them an additional tank shift (the red dot)” (Play Book, p. 17). I am happy to see a simple solution to what appears was thorny problem to Mark.

Determined Defense

One of my favorite rules in Holland ’44, and found again here in Stalingrad ’42, is Determined Defense. This rule allows defenders an attempt to cancel retreat results. In Stalingrad ’42, rule 11.1.2 Not One Step Back! goes hand-in-hand with Determined Defense. This simple bit of flavor helps create a narratively dramatic first few turns as only Soviet NKVD units have access to a Determined Defense in the Fall Blau scenario (at least until Turn 8).

My Breakthrough Breakthrough

Earlier this year when playing Heights of Courage (MultiMan Publishing, 20XX), I talked about Overrun Combat and how it took me a while to truly understand the implications of even that “basic” rule. The Stalingrad ’42 counterpart to that learning experience is rule 15.0 Breakthrough Combat. This rule builds upon rule 14.0 Advance After Combat but with a twist:

Any Regular Combat that achieves an Advance After Combat of 2-4 hexes allows units that participated in that attack to conduct Breakthrough Combat. Breakthrough Combat allows units to attack during their Advance After Combat.

15.1 [Breakthrough Combat] In General

Much like Overrun and Exploitation Combat in Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series, in Stalingrad ’42 the rules for 12.0 Retreats, 14.0 Advance After Combat, and 15.0 Breakthrough Combat combine to create a powerful effect that deliver a very “blitzkrieg” feeling in play. Indeed, in a scenario like Fall Blau where the German player has little time (8 turns) to try and grab 8 Victory Points there is great “motivation” to not slowly grind against a defense but to find a weak point, breakthrough, and rapidly exploit the opening. On the other side, the Soviet player needs to cut off those racing German units and counterattacking by striking deep at supply lines is a viable strategy as opposed to a straight-up fight.

Bring a Mask?

I want to also call out a rule found in the Campaign Game, for Stalingrad ’42—rule 34.0 Maskirovka. This rule allows the Soviet player to secretly place Reserve Armies arriving on Turn 21 of the 36-turn Campaign Game. This rule is obviously not usable in a two-handed solo game, but when playing a live opponent the implications are huge in exchange for limited rules overhead.

Fall Blau – The Narrative

I was able to play the Fall Blau scenario for Stalingrad ’42 as part of my Game of the Week series. Fall Blau is the first scenario covering eight turns and using only Map A (roughly Voronehz to Rostov). To win, the Axis player must have at least 8 VP in any Victory Determination Phase. The Soviets win if the Axis player fails.

As much as I was looking for a quick blitzkrieg, the reality of terrain, especially the Minor River Hexsides and Fortified Hexes, made movement and combat on the first turns slower than I expected. I also thought the Special Rule limiting Axis Combat Units to Tactical Movement (2 hexes) only would have a slowing effect but given so many units “start in contact” the impact was less than I expected.

What actually surprised me the most about my play of Stalingrad ’42 was the seeming lack of combat. I first noticed this in the Example of Play in the Play Book but thought that was an artificial by-product of the need to build and EoP and not a true reflection of the game. As I played, I found that although the front was long and many units were present, on each turn there seemed to be focus areas with relatively few units in action on both sides. At first I thought, “Hey, this is hardly an offensive with all these little raids going on.” As the game progressed more units were gradually sucked into battles but, on the whole, it still felt like the actual number of units fighting was small. This didn’t feel like a Russia Campaign game to me at all.

Feeling like the game was becoming boring, I started to think about the narrative that Stalingrad ’42 was delivering. I kept playing and thinking and, gradually, came to realize that my expectation of this wargame was incorrect. I went into playing Stalingrad ’42 and the Fall Blau scenario expecting a sweeping grand offensive with Panzers advancing from North to South across the steppes of Mother Russia. Instead I had a few units fighting, and many more just sitting there. It was then I realized that the narrative Stalingrad ’42 delivers is focused much differently than I expected. At this scale (Brigades, 10 miles per hex, 4-day turns) the fighting depicted in Stalingrad ’42 is not ALL the fighting, just the “most important.” I had to tell myself that although two units may be facing off against each other and no dice are rolled, that doesn’t mean they are “doing nothing.”

Once I made the mental shift that Stalingrad ’42 was showing me the “critical” parts of the battle the entire game sped up in my mind. Whereas before I felt that the game was ponderous and slow with little action, the simple shift in my mental attitude led to a dramatic shift in my enjoyment of the game. Instead of focusing on the “do-nothings” I focused instead on the “action.” The game immediately became much more interesting.

It was at this point the major game mechanics also snapped together into a story. Visualizing the ZoC Bonds became essential in planning both offensive and defensive actions. Rivers became “phase lines” or “defensive lines.” Instead of hunting around for all the combat power possible it became sufficient to get “just enough” to make the effort. Mechanized units with their Tank Shifts became vital on offense or defense, and it became a real game to decide when a Determined Defense was needed or when it was time to turn that Advance After Combat into a Breakthrough. Through the lens of these decisions, a narrative of the battle emerged in play.

Such is the power of narratives in wargames. The story a wargame tells in actually very important to my enjoyment of the game. Too often I feel I get caught up in the mechanics of a game and lose the story. That’s when a game can become too procedural—and boring. This is why I very often personally fail to connect with many Eurogames; the prioritization of game mechanics over theme often means to me that I execute game mechanics but with no motivation beyond optimizing a game engine. I place my workers there to collect something I need, not to raid the enemy. It makes the game boring to me because I start to feel like I’m solving a puzzle, not playing a strategy.

On the whole, I think wargames get shortchanged when it comes to narrative. I mean, many people expect a wargame to tell a story, but so often that story is just an alternate retelling of history. What I think many people miss is a possible narrative about not only how history can change, but why. Not every wargame can do this, but I think more can then we give credit to.

Stalingrad ’42 taught me that putting Panzers on the wide open steppes of Russia and letting them run was not as simple as it sounds. Although the Eastern Front was long and many units fought there, it really was action in key areas with a rather select set of units that made the difference.

I really need to get the other scenarios of Stalingrad ’42 to the table. Problem is it never happens soon enough.

#4thofJuly Sunday Summary – Lazy dog days summer means little #wargame #boardgame action with mentions of @gmtgames @LeeBWood @DanThurot @PastorJoelT @fortcircle @beyondsolitaire #TravellerRPG @FFGames @m_older

Happy 4th of July!

This weekend being the 4th of July holiday in the States usually means I try to play either a Gettysburg or American Revolution game. As of the time of writing this post I had done neither, but I will call your attention to two recent “Rocky Reads” columns I did on the books Meade at Gettysburg and Longstreet at Gettysburg.

The title of this post is only partially true. True—There is little wargame and boardgame action in my schedule right now. Not True—It’s a lazy summer. Reality is I’m back to work 100% of the time with something like 120% of the taskings. My Game of the Week approach was designed to optimize my reduced gaming hours but even that schedule is being threatened by work demands. Add in family requirements for summer vacation activities and gaming takes a back seat.

Game of the Week / Wargames (Mostly)

Time demands meant I struggled to get through Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (Mark Simonitch, GMT Games, 2019) this week. I barely made it through a play of the eight-turn Fall Blau scenario. Deeper impressions coming in my #WargameWednesday column, but I’ll just say as familiar the ZoC-Bond System was after previously playing Holland ’44: Operation Market Garden, September 1944 (GMT Games, 2018) I was surprised by how much slower this game felt.

Looking ahead, I think I’ll be able to get through Space Empires 4X (Jim Krohn, GMT Games, 2017) and Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2021) in the next few weeks. I am especially excited about Wing Leader: Legends because the campaign game is Kursk, which means I get to circle back to My Kursk Kampaign series from earlier this year. After that I think I’ll need to drop wargaming for a few weeks as real summer vacation kicks in. The family takes boardgames on our summer trip so some boardgaming will happen. I figure a return to wargaming won’t happen until mid-August after which Ted Raicer’s Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 (GMT Games, 2021) and Strike of the Eagle (Academy Games, 2011) should land on the gaming table. By then I expect a few other GMT P500 deliveries to deliver too. With the return of the school year I also hope that the Weekend Gaming Night returns.

Speaking of Wing Leader: Legends, I (belatedly) came across this awesome video explainer of air combat in the Wing Leader series by Joel Toppen. Joel’s careful explanation here seemingly draws out this combat example but I find that once you understand the system then combat resolution actually flows quite quickly.

Boardgames

RMN Jr. actually approached me this weekend to play a short, 2-player boardgame. He pulled Kahuna (KOSMOS, 1998) off the shelf so we played. As I quickly scanned the rules I missed the destroy bridges part…but Jr. had not forgotten. It put me at a disadvantage which he mercilessly reminded me of. Regardless of my stupidity a great game was had.

**If you have not read Dan Thurot’s review of Comancheria: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire (Joel Toppen, GMT Games, 2016) then STOP what you are doing and go read it RIGHT NOW. I’ll even understand if you don’t come back because this is one of the best review of a boardgame I have ever read. **

While you’re at it, the words of Kevin Bertram from Fort Circle Games in an interview on the Beyond Solitaire podcast are also very worthwhile to listen to.

Role Playing Games

My middle boy approached me about restarting our Traveller RPG or Star Wars Roleplaying: Edge of the Empire campaigns. While I’m quite happy to run a Traveller RPG campaign loosely set in the Third Imperium using the “modern” Cepheus Engine, I am a bit hesitant to jump into a Star Wars campaign. The setting is the problem. The RMN Boys are huge Di$ney Star Wars fans and voraciously consume all the new content. I am not as excited about the new stories and therefore have limited familiarity with shows like Rebels, The Mandolorian, or the newest Bad Batch. Add into the equation the fact that RMN T is the actual owner of most of the Star Wars RPG splat books in the house and I am at a bit of a disadvantage.

Or maybe not….

In this case my familiarity with non-Star Wars might be an advantage. With a bit of some prep (like reviewing the splat books to see what additional rules are there) I can probably run a campaign that leverages history and is Star Wars but avoids much of their canonical characters. It’s a big galaxy out there.

Books

As it happens to be, I am reading Robert Erwin Johnson’s Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898 (Naval Institute Press, 2013) this week. As I started reading the book, I felt that in many place it reads like a classic Traveller RPG adventure. So maybe I have inspiration for the RMN Boys Star Wars campaign after all.

Next Book

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Do wargames pursue a lost cause? Thoughts after reading Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2019)

In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:

This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.

Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15

While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).

Lost Cause Wargaming?

Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?

Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.

The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.

Mythbusting Narratives

Take for example a piece I wrote earlier this year in “History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices.” While reading books by David Glantz and Lawrence Christopher on the Battle of Kursk, I played Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front (GDW, 1993) and encountered a particular scenario:

According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”

Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.

Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices”

This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.

Critical Reassessment

Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.

Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.

#Wargame Wednesday: West of South China – Game of the Week Impressions of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

My Game of the Week was Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II by John Gorkowski from Compass Games. This is the second (more practically the third) game in the South China Sea-series that traces it’s lineage back to John’s original South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) and a closely-related-but-predecessor design, Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea (Compass Games, 2014). I really love the South China Sea design, especially it’s treatment of operational/tactical naval warfare and even the mixture of politics.

As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II leaves the South China Sea “home waters” and moves to the Indian Ocean. China and the United States are still the two Global Powers, but now there are many more regional actors. The largest is, of course, India. For players that are US-centric (‘Merica!) the game might create a challenge because the “big kid” on this block is not the United States.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts on Indian Ocean Region that struck me during my Game of the Week experiences.

Fall Out!

The counters for Indian Ocean Region are nice. They came shrink-wrapped which was a good thing because once the wrap came off the counters literally fell out of the sprue. They are so neatly cut I don’t think I need to corner-clip them. If this is the “new” standard from Compass Games I like it but beware—you need a plan to organize your counters before opening the shrink wrap because once opened the counters are falling randomly. Sorting will be from a random pile on the table not neatly out of the tree.

I had to put a few rows back for this picture. Can you find the misprints?

Color Counts

I do wish the colors of the counters in Indian Ocean Region had been a bit more distinct between nations. The camouflage pattern on the counters in this case actually works against them as various counters start “blending” into one another. In some wargaming forums, much has been made about several misprinted counters in Indian Ocean Region. My copy suffers from this problem where three USA ship counters are misprinted with the background for Oman. Truth be told, if I hadn’t seen the postings online I may have actually missed it because the USA-gray and Oman-blue-gray are very similar. It is indicative of quality control issues? Maybe…I believe the error crept in during the graphics layout where the challenge of differentiating so many similar colors inevitably led to a small oversight. Do the misprinted counters make the game unplayable? No. Do I wish Compass Games had caught the mistake before printing? Yes. Will I never buy another Compass Game? NO!

That’s a Big Ocean

Indian Ocean Region covers a vast area both geographically and physically with the game. With a map scale of 45 miles per hex and larger counters, there are three 22.5″x28″ mapsheets that, if laid out together, need a table over 5 feet wide. Alas, my normal gaming table is 3’x4′ which means I can easily get a one- or two-map game laid out but the full three-map scenarios require a different gaming space. I see some people talk about linking Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) maps together but that would take the dining room table or more.

(Off) the gaming table….

Yes, I know I’m talking about a first-world wargamer problem, but for somebody like myself who has reached, uh, “agreements” with CINC-HOUSE* over table space this can make gaming difficult. It also drives some game purchase decisions. As much as I am interested in the new version of NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot! (Compass Games, forthcoming in 2021) I think I’ll keep my original edition with its single 22″x34″ map and pass on the enlarged version in the new Designer’s Signature Edition.

Where You Sit is Where You Fight

One of the core mechanisms in Indian Ocean Region is a regulated turn order. The game assumes five major factions can be in play. The default turn order in either a Political or Military Turn is 1) Asymmetric, 2) China, 3) Indo-Am, 4) Symmetric Bay States, and 5) Symmetric Gulf States or ACIBG. There are two Global Powers of USA and China and three other smaller Regional Powers. It is the arrangement of those Global and Regional Powers that raises my PoliSci eyebrow. As defined in the rule book:

  • Asymmetric includes nations that rely heavily on unconventional strategies and tactics, including terrorism….” (Iran, Pakistan, Qatar (?), Somalia, Yemen)
  • China uses central control to guide action in ‘free’ markets.” – China, The String of Pearls
  • Indo-Am represents the established free market/democratic world order.” (Bahrain, India, USA, Diego Garcia, Australia, Britain)
  • Symmetric Bay states want Chinese investment, but are weary [wary?] of too much subordination to Beijing.” (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka)
  • Symmetric Gulf States are free traders with a long history of western engagement.” (Djibouti, Oman, United Arab Emirates).

Setting aside for a moment the mixture of geographical and political divisions, the fixed political alignment of the factions in Indian Ocean Region shows some strange bedfellows that may not be a current, or maybe even accurate, reflection of reality. I especially question the inclusion of Qatar in the “terrorist” Asymmetric States but maybe that is just a quibble over definitions. Also, The String of Pearls rule makes huge assumptions as to the success of Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative in the region—assumptions that are yet to play out and might better be used as an “option” or “variant” rule to more fully explore its impact on the political and military actions of the powers.

Example of Play

I realize that making an Example of Play is difficult. I know it takes time and careful planning as a good EoP will showcase game mechanisms in a way that teaches and reinforces. I am happy to see an extensive Example of Play in IOR—I am disappointed that it is taken from the previous game, South China Sea. Yes, the EoP explains core game mechanics, but by not basing it on the game in front of the reader a major learning opportunity is lost. Reading an EoP can only deliver so much understanding; if I am able to set up the EoP and push the counters around like in the example the combination of reading, seeing, and even feeling (the “tactile”) reinforces and accelerates learning.

I don’t want to say this is lazy but….

Those Bi-Polar Days Are Over

Scoring in Indian Ocean Region is along a Victory Point Track that has the Indo-Am faction at one end and China at the other. In between sit the three other factions. I’m not sure what the score really tells me. The two “extreme” winners, China and the Indo-Am, are obvious, but why is a score of 14 points (just shy of China) an Asymmetric States (aka “Terrorist”) win? I feel that the score track needs a third dimension to capture the nuance of the regional powers and how they influence, but don’t necessarily “win” against the Global Powers. Then again, if your viewpoint is that the China-USA “competition” is a new Cold War, then this scoring viewpoint fits.

Full Steam Ahead

In the end, I find that Indian Ocean Region does what I expected it to do—deliver a fun, medium-low complexity gaming experience of modern naval warfare. The political alignment using the rules as written may be a bit wonky but there is nothing that says one cannot shift Regional Powers amongst the factions. It is especially interesting to split the Indians away from the Indo-Am faction and see how they might act if more “independent.” Indeed, it is the set up (or playing out) of the political game that creates the best opportunity for experimentation. Once battle is joined, the operational/tactical rules flow nicely and again deliver just enough flavor to make it interesting while not overwhelming one with too many details.

Next Generation SCSX

I don’t know what the future of the South China Sea series of wargames is but Indian Ocean Region shows how the design can be exported to other areas. I hope that John Gorkowski and Compass Games can do a Mediterranean or Black Sea or Baltic edition in the future. Both require the entry of a new Global Power—Russia. I can imagine a very interesting Baltic design with the USA and Russia as Global Powers and Old NATO and New NATO/Aspiring factions and even Neutrals. Such a game alsos need more land-based units that reach out into the littoral areas.


* CINC-HOUSE = “Commander in Chief – House.” If you don’t understand who occupies this position you are sorely out of touch with reality.

Sunday Summary – Leaving the IO behind as the eagle strikes and ZoC’s bond while heading to North Africa with @compassgamesllc, @Academy_Games, @gmtgames #wargame #militaryhistory

Game of the Week

The last week was challenging schedule-wise but I was able to keep on track for my Game of the Week. I’m leaving behind Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (John Gorkowski, Compass Games, 2020) and moving to Mark Simonitch’s Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia June-December 1942 (GMT Games, 2019) that uses the “ZoC-Bond” system I first explored in Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden, September 1944 (GMT Games, 2017).

Wargames

NEW ARRIVAL! I was able to make a trade on BoardGameGeek for a copy of Strike of the Eagle (Academy Games, 2011). I really wanted this game to explore its Fog of War system. Here is how the ad copy for the game describes it:

To simulate the tension of the era from the fog of war, players alternate placing secret orders on their armies in order to bluff, mislead and misdirect their opponents. These concealed orders make it difficult to deduce an opponent’s plans and are used to hide a player’s true intentions and objectives. Players then reveal and resolve the issued orders. They can then disrupt their opponent’s moves, cut off supply and much more. Once orders are resolved the next turn begins.

Units are represented by wooden blocks. Battles are fought with no dice, but with a simple and quick combat system.

Action cards are pivotal to the game in that they allow players to either modify how many orders they may issue, add army reinforcements or modify a battle’s resolution.

Strike of the Eagle, ad copy
Strike of the Eagle from Academy Games

With Strike of the Eagle landing I said goodbye to a few games too. Amongst them are White Ensign/Rising Sun (Jack Green, Moments in History, 1997) as well as “Scratch One Flat Top!” (Peter Bertram, 3W, 1995). Neither are bad games they just…well, I hope they found a good new home.

GMT Games P500

Gene Billingsly at GMT Games dropped their monthly update and boy, did it contain a great surprise. Forty-one years after Jim Day published ’88’: A Tactical Game of Armored Combat on the North African Front (Yaquinto, 1980), the North African expansion for Panzer: A Tactical Game of Armored Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (Yaquinto, 1979) a new edition is forthcoming. Panzer was my very first wargame ever and the entire series has always held a soft spot in my Grognard heart. I am very happy to see Panzer North Africa now on P500. This looks to be a GINORMOUS game that will retail for $139.

Books

I continue to read through Cory Pfarr’s Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment. The book is not so much a reanalysis of the battle as it is a critique of the many critiques and myths that grew over the years debating Longstreet’s actions (or inactions, depending on your viewpoint) at Gettysburg. It’s caused me to dip into Ludology, or “the study of games and gaming.” I can already feel another Rocky Reads for Wargame entry coming….

Do we need to critically reassess some wargames?

Feature image: USS Saratoga at Diego Garcia in the 1990s.