Continuing my South China Sea gaming theme….
In the mid-1980s the Cold War was still hot and wargames reflected it. In the realm of modern naval combat, the series that stood above all others was the Fleet-series from Victory Games. Designer Joseph M. Balkowski created an operational-level game that captured many aspects of modern naval combat in a detailed, yet playable, game. The third game in the series, 7th Fleet: Modern Naval Combat in the Far East, covered my Game of the Week theme – the South China Sea. As I reviewed the rules for 7th Fleet I was struck by how much I remember; and how much I have forgotten. It is in the forgotten parts that I am rediscovering the awesomeness of the game design and how simple design choices make for awesome game rules.
Having not played 7th Fleet in a long time, I decided to focus my Game of the Week on the Basic Game at first, and if time permits to look at the Advanced Game. At first glance, the 64-page rule book looks daunting. Upon closer inspection, one discovers that the first seven pages are introductory materials with the rules starting on page 8. 3.0 Sequence of Play is presented on one page (page 8) and covers the entire ruleset; Basic and Advanced as well as Optional rules. The Basic Game Rules themselves are only 18 pages with a further 13 pages given over to nine Basic Game Scenarios.
The Basic Game Rules start on page 9 and jump straight into the heart of the game, rule 4.0 The Action Phase. Here is the first place my memory of the game was (pleasantly) refreshed. In particular, I had forgotten the nuances of 4.3 Limitations on Activation and 4.4 What Activated Units Can Do. I had forgotten that Surface Units when activated use a combination of move/attack with one move and up to two attacks…but the attacks can only be before or after the move and not in-between. Submarines can activate using a combination of move and a single attack, and Air Units are the only platform that attacks during their move. These simple activation distinctions between units capture so much of the different capabilities of platforms and immediately show me the simple genius behind much of the game design.
Another Basic Game rule that has subtle nuance that I had forgotten is 6.0 Stacking. The rule specifies a “limit of 12 surface combat units per hex.” Surface ships in the game are divided into two broad categories; Surface Combat Units and Non-Combat Surface Units (See 2.3 Playing Pieces – Summary of Counter Types). Thus, I could have a convoy of any number of amphibious assault or tankers or oilers in a hex as long as I have an escort of no more than 12 surface combat units (CV, CG, CL, DD, FF, BB, Corvette CO or Patrol Combatant PC). I remember games from long ago where I always had my convoys of no more than 12 ships (escorts and convoy together) smashed because they had never had enough escorts. Now I know why!
Rule 7.0 Strategic Air Missions is pretty much like I remember it. I always loved the challenge that came with planning Strategic Air Missions because any aircraft assigned to these missions is committed for the entire day (3-turn sequence). I really like 7.4 Tactical Coordination Missions but I think I used to play it wrong by keeping aircraft on these missions all day instead of returning them to base after they provide a bonus in combat (i.e. they can be used to support a single combat resolution).
As a fan of the F-14 Tomcat, I have always loved 8.0 Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and especially the AEW and CAP bonus. I had forgotten rule 8.3 CAP and SSM Combat where a CAP under certain conditions can contribute to defense against SSM attack. The rule specifies that a CAP mission with an EW air unit or a US F14 INT unit can aid, but I wonder if this rule should be reconsidered for aircraft like the Soviet S27 or M25 INT given that we now understand much more about “look down-shoot down” capabilities?
Some critics of wargames point to the “perfect knowledge” of the game board as a drawback. Rule 9.0 Detection creates a game mechanic to limits what can be done with that perfect knowledge. I forgot was the subtle differences between Strategic Detection and Local Detection and how surface ships are pretty much automatically detected once within range whereas players must still attempt to detect submarines. This little nuance is a simple game mechanism that goes a long way towards portraying different platform capabilities – detailed yet playable.
10.0 Combat has so many little flavor pieces that add depth to the simple combat model without bogging it down with too much chrome. Item likes 10.4 Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Combat where the defender can position his units in his defending stack but the attacker then rolls to see which half of the stack is attacked; imperfect targeting! I had also totally forgotten 10.9 Close Defense Hex Combat…don’t go too near an enemy coast!
The scenario that would make the most sense to play for my Game of the Week is 13.3 Scenario 3: Battle of the South China Sea. I am hesitant to jump into this one given the complexity is rated as “High” and the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy does not make an appearance in the scenario. Indeed, China is treated in a very interesting manner in this game. 2.3 Playing Pieces specifies that the Allied Player (i.e. the US player) controls counters from Taiwan…and China! I have to remind myself that 7th Fleet was published in the mid-1980s…before the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Looking at how the Chinese Navy is presented in 7th Fleet is a stark reminder of just how far the PLAN has come. It is a real shame that the Fleet-series has not been updated over the years. The game mechanics are solid and the design choices made by Mr. Balkowski give us a playable, yet detailed, version of naval combat that still can find application in the 21st century – 30 years past the Cold War.
Featured image “Full page magazine ad from S&T No. 117” courtesy BoardGameGeek.com.