History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

For tabletop wargamers, a popular game series in the past decade is GMT Games’ Counter Insurgency (COIN) Series. Starting in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss – COIN Vol I , the system now (nearly) encompasses 14 volumes spanning conflicts from the past, present, and even future. I personally own two titles, Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – COIN Vol. V and Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 – COIN Vol. VII with two more on order (Brian Train’s China War: 1937-1941 – COIN Vol. XII and J. Carmichael’s Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Revolts – COIN Vol XIII). All of which means I have limited familiarity with the COIN system as a player and am far, far from being a COIN designer.

That said….

I recently read an article by Robert Neff called “Rebels At the Gate” in the May 1, 2021 edition of The Korean Times Online. The article discusses events from 1894 on the Korean peninsula focusing on a peasant rebellion that took place amidst the Sino-Japanese War. This passage in particular got me thinking about a possible game design:

The rebels ― identified as the Donghaks ― claimed to number several millions and had sworn to the death that they would rid the country of the foreign vermin. They didn’t in 1893 and, according to Sallie, they didn’t on September 15, 1894:

As a result of the threat, the “doors and windows were barred and the gates guarded by the legation soldiers but the night passed quietly and the excitement has entirely abated.”

However, the abatement was short lived. A few days later, Alice (Sallie’s sister who resided with the Sill family in Seoul), insisted she did not worry about the Chinese and Japanese soldiers rather “the danger now [in Seoul] is from the [Donghaks], Koreans who hate all foreigners and try to exterminate them whenever they can ― so a guard will be kept during the winter at least and perhaps longer.” A few days later she reported the rebels had advanced to a point about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. She insisted she was not worried and expressed the greatest confidence in the American marines guarding the legation in Seoul. 

The attack on Seoul never materialized. However, for the next couple of years, the regions outside Seoul were almost in a constant state of unrest.

Robert Neff, “Rebels at the Gate,” Korea TImes, May 1, 2021

It turns out that 1894 was an important year in Korean history. The book Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Michael Shin, Editor, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2014) devotes an entire map titled, “The Year 1894: Gabo Peasants’ War, Sino-Japanese War” to this one year which shows not only significant battles but also the many peasant uprisings.

Korean History in Maps, p. 108

After reading Robert Neff’s article and looking at the 1894 map, the thought, “This really could be a COIN game” crossed my mind. Certainly, the historical events of 1894 are ripe for narrative exploration using the lens of a COIN game. One of the most powerful aspects of the COIN game system is the system’s ability to depict the interactions of multiple, often asymmetrically powered factions. In this case there are four factions:

  • Tonghak (aka Donghan) – “…the growing Christianity, the declining village economy, and certain government mismanagement led to the development of the strong anti-government and anti-foreign sentiments of the conservative Confucian literati as well as those of the Tonghak believers. The Tonghak had been seeking the legitimacy of their religion, exoneration of Ch’oe Che-u, the founder of the Tonghak sect, who was executed in 1864, and the prevention of the spread of foreign religion. At the same time, they were antagonized by illegal taxes which the local officials collected from the peasants.”1
  • Joseon (Korean Government) – “When the Tonghak Uprising became an open rebellion, the weak Korean government asked for Chinese help. Meanwhile, a truce was reached between the Tonghak rebels and the government…[which] issued a twelve-point reform program.”2
  • China – “The Chinese government whose aim was to strengthen its control over Korea sent an army of 3,000 soldiers and a naval force to Korea, violating the agreement which it had signed with the Japanese in April 1885.”3
  • Japan – “Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that it now had legitimate cause to fight a war with China, and the time was right. Consequently, it sent an army of 8,000 troops and a naval force to Korea.”4
  • Missionaries/Diplomats/Westerners – I don’t see these as a separate faction, but rather events or “terrain” that factions must be wary of.

These faction snippets can help define victory conditions, as well as thinking about the various Commands and Special Activities of each faction. At this point, my limited familiarity with COIN hinders me to design further but once I get another few games in house as examples I might be better suited to explore a possible design.

Focusing on the year 1894 also seems to make sense as that one year had a good ebb and flow of events. Broadly speaking, the year went though at least three distinct phases.

  • Gabo Peasant War Begins: Starting in January the first peasant uprisings in the South broke out. These uprisings spread into a full rebellion and by May troops from China and Japan arrived. At this point there was turmoil within the Korean government with palace intrigue in Seoul as a deposed king tried to place his son on the throne.
  • Sino-Japanese War Begins: By July, the Chinese and Japanese enter into open conflict. While the two outside powers fight, another peasant uprising begins which unites the Japanese and Daewongun Koreans (an alliance which eventually falters thanks to coup planning by the Daewongun). Interestingly, the Korean government fights alongside the Japanese against the rebels even as they try to implement reforms (carrot and stick approach?).
  • War Moves On/Peasant Rebellion Collapses: By November, the Chinese-Japanese fighting moves into Qing China and the peasant army is defeated with it’s main leader, Jeon Bongjin, captured. He was executed on April 24, 1895 just days after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the Sino-Japanese War and the tributary relationship between the Joseon and Qing dynasties.
Korean History in Maps, p. 109

Like I said, I’m no COIN game designer but this is a very interesting topic—and a great thought exercise.


Feature image from The History of Korea by Han Woo-Keun (Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing, 1970)

Footnotes:

1-4. Nahm, Andrew C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Seoul: Hollym, 1993, p. 158-162.

Sunday Summary – Puzzling over 1979-2034 Rostov Submarine Barns (#wargame #boardgame #books @MultiManPub @HABA_usa @FoundationDietz @Bublublock @compassgamesllc @DanThurot @USNIBooks @Academy_Games)

Wargames

A very pleasant week of wargaming. I got Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (Ray Weiss, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) to the gaming table for multiple plays. I really enjoy the Standard Combat Series and this title was truly a Rev to My Gaming Engine. Deeper thoughts will come in this weeks “#Wargame Wednesday” posting. I also pulled Steve Peek’s Submarine (Avalon Hill, 2nd Edition 1981) off the shelf to support a “Rocky Read for #Wargame” entry on The Enemy Below (Cdr D.A. Rayner, Henry Holt & Co., 1957) that will post later this week.

Boardgames

The Kickstarter campaign for 1979: Revolution in Iran (Dan Bullock, Dietz Foundation) successfully funded this week. This is the second game in what I (very informally) call the Axis of Evil Strategy Game Series. The first game, No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2020) was the subject of a very nice Space-Biff column this week.

Miss A brought her birthday present game, Barnyard Bunch (HABA, 2019) to the house this week when she came for her tutoring with Mrs. RMN. This is a very kid-friendly cooperative game that was really fun to play together with her and Mrs. RMN. The goal of the game is to keep the animals from running away. Every turn, a player rolls the die to see what animals advance (depends on color of die face), or retreats one space (the Farmer), or which is taken all the way back to the barn by the Dog. Then, you draw a card that will advance an animal, lure an animal back one space with food, or show the Farmer (choose one animal back one space) or Dog (one animal back to barn). Not much strategy needed as the game is played cooperatively with all players participating in the choice of animals moved by the Farmer or Dog. Given Miss A is 7-years old we thought that maybe the game is actually too simple for her. However, we were later told she took the game to a friends house and taught it to her friend. So…it was an obvious good choice by Mrs. RMN, right?

Puzzles

No, not puzzle games, but real honest-to-goodness jigsaw puzzles. Got notice this week that two historical puzzles I ordered through Academy Games arrived at the warehouse. For the RockyMountainNavy Boys summer enjoyment they will get to work on these 700mm x 500mm, 1000-piece puzzles featuring cover art from Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and 878: Vikings. As I look at the pledge page I see very few puzzles ordered. I know we are coming out of COVID lockdowns but, hey, let’s show some love here!

Books

With the arrival of summer I decided to order “a few” more books for those lazy evening reads. I started off with Naval Institute Press (where I am a member) and ordered several from the Fall 2021 catalog. Stupid me, I failed to realize two of the books are “coming later this year” so I only got one book from this order in hand (Norman Friedman’s Network-Centric Warfare, 2009). I also ended up ordering seven more books from the “Clear the Decks” sale section—still awaiting delivery of those. I then ordered two titles from Amazon which is how 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman with Admiral Jim Stavridis, USN (Ret.) and The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of World War Two by Malcolm Gladwell arrived on my bookshelf. Of the two, 2034 is very likely to feature in a near-future (no pun intended) posting of “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” since Compass Games is scheduled to release John Gorkowski’s Indian Ocean Region in the South China Sea series of wargames this month.

Rocky Reads for #FamilyFriday

If you’ll indulge me, I wish to do something a bit different for my Rocky Reads this week. It has to do with family and friends.

Some regular readers may recall I occasionally talk about Miss A, the young first-grader that Mrs. RockyMountainNavy tutors. I talked recently about how this past COVID year Mrs. RMN taught Miss A to read.

Take a look at this picture:

Miss A reading her book

That’s Miss A reading a special book which was a gift for her seventh birthday. As a matter of fact, it’s her book; as in the story is about “her” and friends around her. In this story she is a magical unicorn with an Aunt (Mrs. RMN), and friends with a boy unicorn (RockyMountainNavy Jr) and a girl unicorn (named after her best friend). In the story, Miss A gets to be the hero.

Look at that face. Can you see the magic and joy from her reading?

When I read for my Rocky Reads or History to Wargame I know I am reading to learn and understand more about history. I also know that when I read, the younger generation is watching. If they see my joy then they are more willing to try reading.

Miss A has been lucky this COVID year to have Mrs. RMN to teach her how to read. I hope we have given her a good start on life.

One can’t read enough.


Check out dinkleboo.com for personalized kids books. Well worth it.

#Wargame Wednesday: 2020 Golden Geek Awards -or- you can’t be disappointed when you have no expectations

We all “know” the Golden Geek Awards sponsored by BoardGameGeek are a popularity contest. Although I recognize it as such, I still follow along, if for no other reason than to try to understand why certain games are popular. The 2020 winners represent a mixed bag for me.

I am very happy to see that David Thompson and Undaunted: North Africa (Osprey Games) won the Best 2-Player Game category. To see a “wargame” gain this wide an acceptance is happiness for this Grognard of 40+ years. On the other hand, I ruefully shake my head at the winners in the Wargame category. At the risk of reigniting the never-ending debate on “What is a wargame” I‘ll just make the observation that the defintion of a strategy conflict game seems very loosely applied here.

Don’t get me wrong; I am very happy to see Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle (GMT Games) win. After all, it’s the #18-ranked War Game, the #417-ranked Strategy Game, and ranked #842 overall on BGG. A well-deserved kudos is also owed again to David Thompson for Undaunted: North Africa (#91 War/#1130 Overall) as the Runner-Up along with Mark Herman and Geoff Englestein’s Versailles 1919 (GMT Games) which is #247 in War/#1251 Strategy/#3008 Overall.. Each game is a good design and obviously very popular. My personal favorite in this category, The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games) is actually not that far behind, ranked #271 in War and #3223 Overall. The real difference appears to be the number of owners of each game with Imperial Struggle most assuredly benefiting from the Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, now in 8th Printing) legacy as well as the production power of a larger wargame publisher in GMT Games. These factors combine to get this title onto many BGG user’s gaming tables. All three games (four if you count The Shores of Tripoli) are in many ways “cross-over” games that are ideal for what Harold Buchanan calls Convert wargamers.

While some Grognards may be tempted to dismiss the Golden Geeks, I hope instead that everybody recognizes that the hobby boardgame space for wargames is alive and well. Let’s get past the tired old “what is a wargame” arguments and simply focus on good games that we can all share together.

Sunday Summary – Biting into new #boardgames but few #wargames

This week was more dedicated to family events than gaming, so no news on the wargame front. For boardgames, the new arrival this week was Bites (boardgametables.com, 2020). I picked this game up since they offered a coupon in honor of the game being nominated in the Golden Geek Game of the Year for Light Boardgame category. The RockyMountainBoys and I played. Bites is light and fast and it doesn’t take too much thinking (not very strategic). We decided it’s a good lite family game highly suitable to go on vacation where one doesn’t necessarily want a longer game but instead need shorter, engaging games. Last year the winning vacation games were Here to Slay (Unstable Games, 2020) and Fort (Leder Games, 2020). This year we’re likely to add Supercharged (Dietz Foundation, 2021) and Bites.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The secret behind the #wargame Wing Leader (@gmtgames) found in The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by @CalumDouglas1 (Tempest Books, 2020)

Somewhere in the last year I can across a recommendation to not miss the book The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum E. Douglas (Tempest Books, 2020). Fortunately, I landed a copy of this coffee table size (and weight) book and I don’ regret it for a moment. Not only has is shown me more of the technology behind fighter engines in World War II, it also has shown me how those very same engine designs influence Formula One racing engines of today. It also has given me a deeper understanding of various air combat wargames, and in particular designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series from GMT Games.

“What?”, you say. “Formula One and WWII engines are related?” Yes, and in the most interesting ways as author Calum E. Douglas explains in The Secret Horsepower Race:

Today’s engines are now bearing the fruit of the work done during the Second World War, sometimes through a ‘second discovery’, sometimes through an old idea being rekindled. All Formula One motor-racing engines have the axial swirl throttle which started as a radial design in France and was designed by Daimler and then Mikulin in axial form. It is now normal practice for Grand Prix engines to run at over 130OC coolant temperature, for exactly the same reasons as Professor Messerschmitt complained so bitterly to Milch in 1942, and the water-cooled exhaust valve-guides of the Jumo 213 are to be found in the design of many Formula One Teams.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

In The Secret Horsepower Race there is an image on page 425 that shows a German Jumo 213 J connecting rod in a 1945 sketch just above a sketch of a “modern” racing engine connecting rod. Just how similar the two look is very striking and brings home the lesson of just how “advanced” the fighter engines of World War II actually are.

Connecting Rod from 1945 to “Modern”

The Secret Horsepower Race is certainly a more technical read than I normally undertake. After all, I’m a History major, not an engineer! That said, Mr. Douglas spins a fascinating tale that, though full of technical detail, also has enough history and espionage that it really entertains. I found myself drawn in and slowing to carefully read the account.

Book to Wargame

As I read The Secret Horsepower Race I found myself thinking of several air combat wargames I’ve played. In the late 1970’s when I started playing wargames, I acquired copies of designer S. Craig Taylor’s Air Force and Dauntless (Battleline, 1976/1977). These were my first introduction to the world of air combat wargames. If there is one rule I remember from those games it’s that inline engines were more vulnerable to damage than radial engines. In the 1990’s I moved to J.D. Webster’s excellent Fighting Wings series of games where engine power was a key factor in helping one “maintain energy” while in air combat (I highly recommend the latest version of Buffalo Wings from ATO Press). In the late 2010’s it was Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and his Wing Leader series from GMT Games that caught my interest.

The Wing Leader series uses a very different air combat wargame design, most noticeable from it’s side-view of battle. It is also, perhaps, the design most closely based on the secrets of The Secret Horsepower Race:

Speed. The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Manoeuvrability turned out to be less important than power and speed. The pre-war biplane fighter advocates lost that argument, though in the right conditions these aircraft proved to be a handful. The division of aircraft into 50 mph bands is crude, but works to define generational improvements. As the war dragged on, leaps in performance tended to be in increments of 25 mph or more.

Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Wing Leader: Aircraft Data Card Creation, v2.2

Book to Life

Although I read The Secret Horsepower Race to learn more about aviation history, I was pleasantly surprised by the connection to Formula One racing. It also taught me more of the engineering history and mathematical basis behind the designs of several wargames. More importantly, Calum E. Douglas teaches some real life lessons that go beyond history and wargame and are most applicable to my wannabe engineer youngest. To quote Mr. Douglas’ conclusion at length:

The blood, sweat, and tears which went into making a basic engine such as the Merlin into a war winner is not manifested in some magic gadget, but is concealed in hundreds of thousands of hours spent on fundamentals of engineering; making new drawings; machining parts with precision; organising the manufacturing in such a way that parts are of high quality and are checked properly; rigorous testing; chasing faults down as soon as they emerge; and all the time pushing incrementally forward.

That is how real high-performance engine projects are conducted, and those who were not there, or who have not done it themselves, can never understand the strain a designer faces watching an engine they have been responsible for start for the first time. In this moment their entire reputation stands fragile – a failure can mean disaster and the expense of tremendous sums of money and time. The engine designer is pleased when the engine runs and does its job.

This small pleasure is not enough, as those who devote their careers to engines know just how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach that ostensibly simple plateau. Even one tolerance written incorrectly on a drawing, one missed particle of dirt during assembly, or a simple decimal point being out of place in a calculation can spell ruin.

That these engineers were able to make hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art engines at all during the chaos of total war is a demonstration of the indelible lesson that success depends on focused effort and above all a deep level of mathematical understanding mated to pragmatic organisational thinking. Engineers today who see the power which was wielded with only a slide-rule and pencil and adapt the same mindset to use their computers instead of being used by them, will achieve spectacular success.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

#Wargame Wednesday – Chasing the elusive in Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 by designer Jeremy (Jerry) White from GMT Games (2020) is an interesting beast. The game has generated buzz within wargaming circles, in no small part because of the very different design and approach taken in writing the rules and tutorial for the game. Reading some comments, one might be tempted to believe that Atlantic Chase is akin to the second coming of sliced bread. To me, when evaluating any game it is important to separate the package and the game system. While the package of Atlantic Fleet is in many ways innovative and could be an example of the future for wargame rules writing, the system itself has one major feature (hidden information in the open) that it executes extremely well but otherwise it is actually a quite narrowly focused wargame.

USPS Broke Their Back Delivering Your Box Today….

My very first impression of Atlantic Chase was “wow, that’s a big game.” It formed from simply carrying and opening the box. GMT Games warned us that this would be a heavy box with a 4.0 lbs. shipping weight and they weren’t kidding! When one opens the 3″ deep box you are immediately faced with a very tightly boxed set of components. As one starts unpacking you find:

  • Rule Book (64 pages)
  • Tutorial book (56 pages)
  • Advanced Battle Rules (24 pages)
  • Solitaire Scenarios (15x over 72 pages)
  • Two-Player Scenarios (9x Operational, 12x Mini, and a Campaign Game over 60 pages)
  • Inset Maps (2)
  • Player Aids (x5)
  • Task Force Displays (x2)
  • 1.5 Sheets of Counters
  • Mounted 22″x34″ Game Board
  • Wooden Bits and Dice
  • GMT Box Insert

At the time of writing this post, Atlantic Chase retails for $69 on the GMT Games website. That’s a very reasonable price for all the components one gets in the box.

Of Gucci Interrogatives – Rules and Tutorial

Opening up the Rule Book for Atlantic Chase one immediately sees that it is different. This is not just another wargame with the classic SPI format of rules (1.0 / 1.1 / 1.11 / etc.). Instead of those classic wargame rule walls of text, Atlantic Chase uses a very hobby boardgame, graphics-heavy approach to the rules with extensive use of color, illustrations, and symbology. In most cases, the rules are laid out with step-by-step examples following. It is a very “Gucci”-looking set of rules printed on glossy paper.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is also written in a very different manner which I call “Interrogative Rules.” Every rule starts off with a question such as, “How do we play?” or “Can the Target TF be a Station?” This is a much friendlier approach to teaching rules than a wall of text. That said, though the layout of the rules seems quite intuitive and the question-answer approach is friendly enough the rules as written are complex. I ran several examples of rules text through different readability checkers and all came back with at least college-level or expert reading levels required. For comparison, I ran some text from the Learn to Play guide from Root (Leder Games). That text, written in a very boardgame conversational style, scored “fairly easy to read” and Grade 8.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is divided into six broad sections – Introduction, Concepts, Actions, Common Modifiers, Common Results, Battle, and Optional Rules. Of the sections, Concepts and Actions are by far the most important and learning how to execute game Concepts through game Actions is the heart of the Atlantic Chase game design.

Although each broad section in Atlantic Chase is a logical follow-on to the previous one, the 64-page Rule Book actually just lays out the rules and doesn’t “teach” you how to play the game. For that you need the 56-page Tutorial book. The designer even tells us that the Tutorial book is where the learning is at for both “Newbie” or “Salty Grognard:”

NEWBIE If you are entirely new to wargaming you should start with the Tutorial book. The player aid will also help untangle the knot of Atlantic Chase.

SALTY GROGNARD If you are an experienced wargamer but new to Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory system and its implications may prove elusive at first. The episodes in the Tutorial book are miniature scenarios intended to explain not only the rules of play but also how you use those rules to achieve operational objectives. Each episode is also rendered in entirety as an illustrated example of play (which is why it is so long). Start there.

Rule Book, Atlantic Chase, Introduction, p. 1

So I did what the designer recommended and laid out Atlantic Chase starting with the Tutorial scenarios. There are 10 “mini-scenarios” presented. For each scenario the player is directed to read certain pages of the Rule Book. In many ways, in Atlantic Chase designer Jerry White is using a version of the classic “programmed learning” approach to wargames. The major difference in this 2020 version of programmed learning is that GMT Games spreads the “rules” and “tutorial” over 120 pages and two books with liberal use of those “Gucci” graphics..

For instance, in Atlantic Chase tutorial scenario “T1: Old Chums,” the player is directed to, read pages 14-16, 19, 20 (Ignore Intel Limit), 25, 35, and 36. Not stated, this equates to the rules for:

  • Station and Trajectory
  • Time Lapse
  • Action Sequence
  • Pass

In effect, each scenario (sorry, episode in the Tutorial book) of Atlantic Chase introduces a combination of Concepts and Actions. Only after finishing all 10 tutorial episodes did I see the Episode Index on the last page of the Tutorial book that highlighted the key Action rule introduced in each episode. I wish Jerry had put this index up front and added in the key Concepts used in episode order as it helped me to internalize the Actions introduced (albeit after the fact and after I rearranged it).

The net result of this very hands-on programmed approach in Atlantic Chase of playing each of the ten episodes (the last one being a “culmination” episode bringing all the previous Concepts/Actions together) means that learning the game takes some real time. While some of the early episodes are quick and easy, as you get to later episodes (and especially the culmination episode) each takes more time. For a “Salty Grognard” like me the 10 episodes of reading, playing, and internalizing the Concepts/Actions took several hours to complete; for a Newbie there is likely even more time required. So be warned—learning Atlantic Chase is not something that happens in a single sitting.

One also needs to be organized when playing Atlantic Chase. It’s not there are too many counters, but all those fiddly little matchstick Trajectory Markers need to be organized. Here I wish GMT Games had “banded” the sticks because when you have sticks for four different tan Task Forces and each are marked on one side only with none, one, two, or three bands its’s not something you casually have in a pile on the side of the board. You need to have them sorted and ready to grab or put away. The same goes for the various different counters used as some (Active TF, Coordinating TF, Intel) are put on and taken off the board often.

Learning Atlantic Chase – More Space and Time Than Expected

The Chase in Atlantic Chase

In the Design Notes to Atlantic Chase, Jerry White relates that when he first approached GMT with the game, the question most often asked was, “Is this a U-Boat game?” His response, “This is a Sink the Bismarck game!”, only earned him the response, “So, there’s gonna be U-Boats?” Which is sad in a way because once Jerry said “Sink the Bismarck” then people should have known this is a game of surface combatants searching the wide open oceans for one another. U-Boats had a part, much like carrier and land-based air did, but at it’s heart Atlantic Chase, like the entire Sink the Bismarck event, is a chase. That chase is the focus of the game system; it’s telling that in the 64-page Rule Book the Battle rules take only eight (8) pages.

Hidden Information in the Open (aka ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’)

When designing Atlantic Chase, Jerry White, like so many designers before him, faced the problem of hidden information. How does one player “hide” from another player on a mapboard placed in front of them. More concerning, how does one “hide” information from oneself in a solitaire game? In the classic Avalon Hill second edition of Jack Greene’s Bismarck (Avalon Hill, 1978) the players use separate map plots and a modified “A4 – Hit; Hey, you sunk my battleship!” search methodology (calling out coordinates) but the best experience is to use a third-party (referee) that adjudicates search plans and handles sightings. Alas, that methodology will not work in a solo game. Instead, Jerry White uses a Trajectory—the core concept of Atlantic Chase:

The core concept of the game is the Trajectory.

What is a “Trajectory?”

A ship or group of ships operating together, called a Task Force in this game, can be represented as a line, called a Trajectory. It can also be represented more conventionally as a point, in this game called a “Station.” As a Trajectory, a Task Force is not in one place on the Operations Map, it is somewhere along a line, and that line represents information you and your opponent have about the Task Force’s location.

“Core Concept,” Rule Book – Atlantic Chase, p. 3

In Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory is used to present hidden information in the open. As a matter of fact, in Atlantic Chase the players have no other hidden information as even Task Force Displays are visible. Through game Actions, players manipulate a Trajectory to either move a Task Force (maybe a convoy) across the board while the other player/side tries to “reduce the uncertainty” and transform a Trajectory into a Station that they can Engage in Battle.

A British Task Force of 2x CA (upper right), currently a Station (brown cylinder NE of Scapa Flow), lies in wait for the German Slow Convoy (lower right) that is traveling from Narvik to Wilhemshaven somewhere along the white Trajectory….

Once you get your head wrapped around the notion that your Task Force is somewhere along your Trajectory, and recognize that your goal is to either “advance” your Trajectory or “narrow down” your opponent’s, then the genius of the Atlantic Chase design will come through.

But the Bismarck is So Much Better!

But be warned—Atlantic Chase is an operational-level of wargame of Task Forces searching for or evading one another. The real truth is Atlantic Chase is more an “information game” than a “battle game.” Sure, you can, and sometimes will, fight battles but more importantly you are trying to “narrow down” and locate and track an enemy Task Force. This is not a tactical battle game even if one adds the chrome Advanced Battle Rules. Atlantic Chase is firmly a “design for effect” wargame as it places abstraction over simulation. Coming from a guy like me, a lover of Admiralty Trilogy games which are far less abstract, one might think I would hold this out as a negative of Atlantic Chase. In this case the opposite is true; I find the battle rules in Atlantic Chase just about right and am even wary of using the Advanced Battle Rules because they are maybe a bit too much extra chrome (and added time) that distract from the core game design concept – that information game found in the Trajectory.

An Experience Game

I usually don’t pay attention to comments posted about a game on BoardGameGeek but this comment, by “pilotofficerprune” (aka wargame designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood of Wing Leader) caught my attention because it says what was nagging me about Atlantic Chase:

An intriguing semi-abstract design on cruiser operations in the North Sea and Atlantic. It’s novel and the tutorials are necessary to understand the game. With dice playing a major role it generates strong narratives, but essentially this is an ‘experience game’ that gives a flavour of the subject matter but is low on decision points and ludicity. Catnip to me, but players who like balance and frequent decision-making will be disappointed.

pilotofficerprune, Atlantic Chase rating on BGG

What we have in Atlantic Chase is a wargame with a very nice looking (“Gucci”) and innovative package using a novel approach to rules layout. Although many will point to the tutorials and talk about the “new way of teaching a game” the reality is that it is a modernized version of programmed learning—and it takes alot of time to learn. The game system of Atlantic Chase is the most interesting part of the design in that designer Jerry White has found a very innovative way of keeping hidden information in the open. Atlantic Chase is certainly a game that many Newbies or Salty Grognards should experience, but don’t go into it looking for something much deeper. Atlantic Chase is, at heart, an information game but little more; wargamers looking for deeper decisions may be disappointed once they get past being dazzled by the Gucci packaging.

At the end of the day, I’d tell a wargamer that they absolutely should experience Atlantic Chase. Experience it for the incredible graphical approach to wargame rules. Experience it for the modern programmed learning approach. Experience it to discover a game system that keeps hidden information in the open. Once learned (which will take a while) game play will very likely be a great experience—as long as you don’t look for too deep a game.

2020 Golden Geek Nominees – The #Boardgame Popularity Contest

The 2020 nominees for the Golden Geeks are available for voting (now thru May 1, 2021). Everybody knows that the Golden Geeks are really nothing more than a popularity contest so I’m not going to comment on what games deserve to be winners. Instead, the awards show me that, 1) There are many games I haven’t played and, 2) The BoardGameGeek game weight system is horrible.

What Game?

There are 16 categories of nominated games. I’m not surprised that I don’t know some of the games, but I was surprised at just how few games I actually know.

  • 2-Player Game: 11 nominees but I only played The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games) and Undaunted: North Africa (Osprey Games) which I both really enjoyed. That said, I did put The Shores of Tripoli as my 2020 Wargame of the Year….
  • Artwork & Presentation: 10 nominees but I only played Fort (Leder Games) which the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself enjoyed. I’m sad that my 2020 Boardgame of the Year, Four Gardens did not make the nominees list (for shame!).
  • Card Game: 10 Nominees and again I only know Fort.
  • Cooperative Game: Another 10 nominees but I only played Back to the Future: Back in Time (Ravensberger) which was a disappointment.
  • Expansion: Of the 10 nominees I only played Root: The Underworld Expansion (Leder Games) which I like.
  • Innovative: Haven’t played any of the 10 nominees. I tried to nominated Atlantic Chase (GMT Games) but it likely didn’t get enough buzz because though is listed as a 2020 game by the publisher though it did not ship until early-mid 2021..
  • Light Game of the Year (GotY): Again, none of the 10 played. I note that this is a perfect category for Children’s games but they seem to be slighted in this category (and every other).
  • Medium GotY: Of the 10 I only played Fort, which I hardly call a medium-weight game.
  • Heavy GotY: None of the 10 nominees played.
  • Print & Play: None of the nominees played.
  • Solo Game: None of the nominees played.
  • Thematic Game: None of the nominees played (are you sensing a theme here?). Too bad that Moonrakers (IV Games) didn’t make it through the nomination process….
  • Wargame: Finally, a category in which I played at least a few games. Here I played Atlantic Chase (GMT Games 2020 but not released until 2021 – strange), The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games), and Undaunted: North Africa (Osprey Games). I at least recognize all the other nominees!
  • Zoomable Game: Huh? None of the 10 nominees played.
  • Best Podcast: I regularly listen to So Very Wrong About Games and occasionally Five Games for Doomsday.
  • Best Board Game App: For digital implementation of a board game that totally ignores Vassal or TableTop Simulator. Of the 12 nominees I only played Root (Dire Wolf).

So, what does this list of nominees tell me? First, I guess I’m not part of the “in” crowd because I missed so many apparently awesome games. Second, I guess I need to take Fort to game gatherings because it is cute art in a medium-weight card game. Third, if I want to introduce hobby boardgamers to 2-player conflict strategy (aka “wargames”) then The Shores of Tripoli or Undaunted: North Africa is a good bet. Lastly, I apparently don’t play the right “popular” wargames any way.

That’s OK, I’ll stick to my War Engine.

“Back” to Moonrakers – A thematic deck-building negotiation #boardgame from @Moonrakersgame of working together—until you backstab one another for the win (with mentions of @Academy_Games & @worth2004)

For the first time in a long time the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself got a boardgame to the table for a weekend Family Game Night. I chose Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020). This is a highly thematic, deck-building negotiation game where players are individual ship owners attempting to complete contracts for Prestige and Credits. The first player to 10 Prestige is the winner. Credits can be used to buy Crew or Ship Parts which come with different powers. Contracts award various amounts of Prestige, Credits, or Bonus Cards but the more “profitable” contracts come with more Hazards which must be blocked with Shields of you risk losing Prestige instead of gaining it.

In the early stages of a Moonrakers game the problem is you often can’t complete contracts without help. This is the negotiation part where the active player (Team Leader) negotiates with the others for help and splitting the rewards. The game notes are very up front that early on you need to ally often, but be wary of when a player is sufficiently independent to attempt contracts solo (thus gaining all the Prestige for themselves).

Moonrakers is also more of a thematic game than I initially realized. It was not until this session that I realized the thematic connection between the colors of the Contracts and the various Action Cards. In Moonrakers there are four different Contract types—Kill (Orange), Rescue (Green), Explore (Blue) and Delivery (Yellow). Each contract type usually calls for playing more cards of the related color—Damage for Kill, Shields for Rescue, Reactors for Explore and Thrusters for Delivery. In my case I built a ship with an “extra” Reactor (reduce requirement by 1), extra Shields and extra Damage. Problem was it was not quite balanced; I was often able to generate extra Shields or Damage but not often both at the same time.

Put together, in a game of Moonrakers all players work together until one gets too far out in front, then the others work against that one. Or, all work together until one player maybe unveils a completed secret Objective Card which then thrusts them ahead. Which is exactly what happened in our play of Moonrakers. On one contract, RockyMountainNavy T “failed” to live up to his end of the bargain (and he sold it very well with a lost look on his face) and the contract attempt failed…after which he revealed the Objective Card “Sabotage” which awarded him a Prestige for being part of a failed contract (as well as showing us a big smirk). Not to be outdone, RockyMountainNavy Jr. ended the game by cashing in not one, but two Objective Cards and taking himself across the finish line after he had “very reluctantly” taken extra Hazards (needed for his Objective Card). I love my Boys but (sigh) they can be vicious game players.

The deck-building, negotiation game Moonrakers is different from our normal family wargame selection—or is it? We often play family-lite wargames which pit the Boys against me. Be it 1775: Rebellion – The American Revolution from Academy Games or Enemies of Rome from Worthington Publishing (still available at half-price!), the Boys like games where they get to backstab their Dad. Bottom Line – Moonrakers has just enough backstabbiness to make it well liked by the RockyMountainNavy Boys meaning it will land on the gaming table again.