I’m very glad to see this game as it has been on my Kickstarter/Preorder GeekList since it funded on Kickstarter in December 2020. Originally projected for delivery in May 2021, arrival in July 2022 leaves five games ordered earlier than Reality Shift that are yet to deliver. Sigh…
Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical contest currently taking place between the United States and China in a disputed region of the South China Sea. The game is driven by a card deck that captures developments ripped straight from today’s headlines, bolstered by cards with a context-setting reading of recent history, and a set of speculative cards capturing a diverse range of potential future events.
The Chinese player works to influence other countries in the region, establish territorial claims and regional hegemony, and improve its world standing. The U.S. player works to maintain influence with allied countries in the region, secure freedom of navigation, and keep China in check. Success for both players hinges on the support and allegiance of non-player countries in the region. The game stops short of dealing with a potential full-scale military conflict. Rather, it requires the nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.
GMT Games Ad Copy
If you are looking for a wargame that depicts a potential military conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China then you need Next War: Taiwan (Mitchell Land, GMT Games, 2014) or South China Sea (John Gorkowski, Compass Games, 2017). Flashpoint South China Sea stops short of military conflict. In military planning terms, this is the Competition Phase of an operations plan. In some ways Flashpoint South China Sea is the Political Phase in South China Sea. Hmm….
The other new arrival this week was a micro-expansion published by designer Dan Bullock for No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2020). One comment I had about the original Compass Games publication was the very “red” look to the game; many of the original markers were “lost” in the color scheme on the board. This micro-expansion includes new markers that use a different color scheme that is easier to see on the board. It also includes eight (8) new Policy Cards for the West player to use in the Songun Era of play.
Both of these games will be landing on my office desk in the next few weeks (months) as “office-al” gaming. I especially am looking forward to Flashpoint as it is supposed to be playable in 30-60 minutes; i.e. lunchtime!
The majority of historical wargames go to great lengths to avoid being categorized as “alternate history.” A major exception seems to be more than a few titles by designer Ty Bomba which revolve around a horrible alternate past where Nazi German and Imperial Japan win the Second World War. The title game in this series is the 1989 title Tomorrow the World published by 3W. Tomorrow the World, with its global scale, led to two other titles including Mississippi Banzaiand Black Gold (Texas Tea)both from XTR in 1990. The latest issue of Paper Wars magazine, Issue No. 101, features the newest of Mr. Bomba’s alternate history games in this series, Case Geld: The Axis Invasion of North America, 1945-46.
To me, Bomba’s Tomorrow the World and wargames in that “setting” are yet another “bad guys win WW2” story in the vein of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (1962) or Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) or Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992). The difference is whereas books are passive—the reader will expereince the story through characters—a wargame demands the player actively participate in the story by making decisions. This ‘active participation” means the players must take on the role of an evil belligerent, in this case either Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany. This approach makes some people uncomfortable. Although Ty Bomba never acknowledges this condition in any the Designer’s Notes for Case Geld, the clever use of a unique player arrangement may help players get past mental reservations they may have against playing “the bad guys” in the game.
Here is how Compass Games describes Case Geld on their website:
This two-player (solitaire adaptable) alternative history mini-monster has two mapsheets and one counter-sheet to cover the bicoastal invasion of North America by the Japanese and Germans (who have already conquered the rest of the world) at the army/corps level and 50 miles per hex. Command is split-sided. The player running the defense of the US west coast against the Japanese invasion there is also running the German east coast invasion, and the player running the US east coast defense against the German invasion there is also running the Japanese west coast invasion. Victory is possible by each of those four commands. Low-intermediate complexity.
Take note; Case Geld is quite literally an East/West Front game with the Germans invading the U.S. East Coast and the Japanese invading the West Coast. As you discover when reading the rules, the “dividing line” in the American Midwest (actually a north-south line centered on Tulsa) splits the continent as well as the defending and invading commanders.
Components…Two Games in One?
Case Geldis very much a magazine wargame. To play you get a 16-page rule book, 288 counters, and two 22″x34″ maps. The rule book is full color with several colorful examples of play and the rules are written in standard SPI case notation. The counters are nicely die cut; in fact, they are almost too nicely die cut as they literally fall apart in shipping or handling.
As already mentioned, Case Geld comes with two 22″x34″ maps. The “East Map” is landscape style and covers all of the lower 48 states. The “West Map” is oriented portrait style and covers the U.S. west theater but extends northward to cover the lower part of British Columbia in Canada as well as provides space for game tables and tracks. When laid out together the maps have significant overlap and end up L-shaped taking up more like 40″wide and 36″ tall. As I often use a 3’x5′ gaming table this resulted in some overhang. Not unplayable, but a bit annoying.
Case Geld is a very different two-player game. That is because each player plays both a U.S. defender and an invader. The U.S. East Coast commander is ALSO the Japanese invader while the U.S. West Coast defender is also the German invader. This creates a very interesting atmosphere during gameplay where each player is simultaneously fighting against and cooperating with the other player.
The rules of Case Geld actually lay out four different commanders; U.S. East, U.S. West, German, and Japan. While the U.S. players have a common Strategic Phase, the plain reality is that this game is seemingly optimized for four (4) players, not two. Why designer Ty Bomba or publisher Compass Games don’t mention this astounds me. Given the “low-intermediate complexity” of Case Geld would this not make an excellent group wargame?
Maybe, just maybe Compass Games and Ty Bomba don’t mention the multi-player option in Case Geld because they think only a few people will play an alternate history wargame where the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese start as victorious. I understand how some wargamers could be uncomfortable playing such a game. If you are such a player I ask you to consider if the different two-player, attacker/invader commander approach is enough to get you interested.
Unusual Magazine Game
At the end of the day, Case Geld is simultaneously what one would expect in a magazine wargame and a bit different. From a component and rules complexity perspective Case Geld is a very standard magazine wargame (albeit with a slightly oversized map when fully laid out). The two-player/four-commander/attacker-defender roles assignment of players is very different. That different approach, where a wargame can be played solo, two-player, or even by three or four is probably worth studying to see if/how it can be applied to other games or lead to future designs.
Speaking of markers, designer Dan Bullock offered a set of after-market markers for his game No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) which should make the game look so much nicer on the table.
The Kickstarter fulfillment for Reality Shift from Academy Games is supposedly “ready to ship.” Funded in December 2020 with an original projected delivery of May 2021, it’s only running about a year late. Sadly, of the nearly 20 items in my Kickstarter/Preorder GeekList this one is smack dab in the middle of the pack, doing much better than the oldest P500 from October 2019 that still languishes…
The Spring 2022 edition of Naval War College Review has an article by Jonathan Parshall, co-author of Shattered Sword. The new article, “What WAS Nimitz Thinking?” looks at the Admiral’s battleplan for Midway. One part I really enjoy in this Parshall analysis is the comparison of “Bad Hornet” and “Good Hornet” with regards to that carriers initial strike. Of great potential interest to wargamers, Parshall actually looks at some of the alternative battle situations by using an Operations Research approach through the work of Aneli Bongers and Jose L Torres and their article “Revisiting the Battle of Midway” published in a 2020 issue of Military Operations Research. Hmm…
Feature image courtesy navsource.org. The accompanying text reads: “On Thursday, 4 June 1942, during operations near Midway Island, an F4F-4 Wildcat, # 3-F-24, from VF-3—USS Yorktown (CV-5)—, piloted by Ensign Daniel Sheedy, accidentally fired its .50-cal machine guns while landing on USS Hornet (CV-8). ENS Sheedy had been wounded during the battle and the controls to safe the guns had been shot out, according to eye-witness accounts. Five Hornet crewmembers were killed (one of them LT Royal R. Ingersoll II, son of ADM Royal E. Ingersoll and grandson of RADM Royal R. Ingersoll) and 20 others wounded in this accident.”
The virtual China wargame simulation is sponsored by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC). NPEC commissioned Mark Herman, a nationally renowned wargame designer, to create and organize the war simulation. The wargame is designed for Congressional and U.S. government staff.
The objective of this war simulation is to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.
The scenario’s purpose is not to predict the future but to create a ‘credible ’situation to enable the team discussion and decisions around U.S. policy responses to PRC aggression against Taiwan and Japan. Teams were asked to not fight the game scenario, as this was the given design. The time of this scenario was held in May of 2021, post-U.S. inauguration. There was no comment on the composition of the U.S. government and all that mattered was the U.S. policy trajectory over the last decade. Again, participants as a team were asked to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.
Within the game, China was presumed to be expansionistic and poised for its most aggressive phase against Taiwan and potentially Japan. From China’s perspective its expansionist trajectory has: (1) Ignored World Court ruling on the South China Sea; tepid U.S. response, (2) origin of current Pandemic; took no responsibility and paid no price, (3) broke Hong Kong autonomy promises (One State, Two Systems); tepid World response, and (4) in pursuit of its desire to reunify Taiwan into the PRC. The next steps, per the stated agenda, were to re-establish Party control over Taiwan.
NPEC October 2020 China Wargame
The website has many of the pre-game briefing materials as well as turn notes and the final report posted. There are also videos of the Initial Brief and the War Simulation Explanation delivered by Mark himself.
Mr. Herman’s professional wargame is one of several I’ve seen in the public over the past few years regarding Taiwan, includingThe Poison Frog Strategy: Preventing a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwanese Islands done by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in 2021 that more recently appeared on NBC News Meet the Press (the public-facing final report is available here). Admittedly, while the two wargames cover the same topic (“Taiwan”) and both physically appear very similar (hexes and counters), they truly are two different games. They are also not “wargames” in the sense that they emphasize conflict, but instead focus on creating discussion of policy issues. The additional fact that Mark’s game was run virtually versus the in-person Meet the Press event also leads to two very different games. Regardless, the NPEC materials on Mr. Herman’s wargame can serve as an example for others who look for how one might approach a policy wargame. In the case of Mr. Herman’s NPEC wargame, we get a peek at how a “professional” wargamer does a “professional” wargame.
Judging from the NPEC “War and Diplomatic Simulations” page, Mr. Herman—listed as a member of the NPEC Team—appears to be quite busy designing professional wargames even today. In the olden days, there were examples of wargame publishers picking up a wargame done for a government customer and publishing a “commercial” version. In effect, this is the story of Littoral Commander. Could we see a Mark Herman modern China wargame on the shelves of our FLGS in the future?
Summary: “How do we establish or improve wargaming education, including sponsors, participants, and future designers? The question stems from the uncomfortable truth that the wargaming discipline has no foundational pipeline, no established pathway from novice to master. Consequently, the wargaming community stands at a dangerous precipice at the convergence of a stagnant labor force and a patchwork system of passing institutional war-gaming knowledge. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to ill-informed sponsors, poorly scoped wargames, an unreliable standard of wargaming expertise, and worst of all, risks the decline of wargaming as an educational and analytical tool. This fundamental challenge is a recurring theme throughout this volume and each author offers their own perspective and series of recommendations”.
It’s no secret I love some “heavier” wargames, and its no secret that the RockyMountainNavy Family has also played some heavier boardgames. That said, both the RMN Boys and myself like some lighter games, especially to use as “fillers” on weeknights. For my birthday the RMN Boys gifted me a copy of Star Wars: Jabba’s Palace – A Love Letter Game (Z-Man Games, 2022). This week, looking for a quick game we could play while we all were home in the evening together for once, it got pulled out. The resulting play was most excellent!
I introduced the RMN Boy to Love Letter way back in 2012 with an English edition blisterpack. At first the RMN Boys were hesitant to play this “love” game, but the easy rules and quick gameplay won them over. A few short years later the youngest RMN Boy took Letters to Santa (2012) to school and it was a big hit at indoor recess. The oldest boy even has a copy of Love Letter: Batman (2015). Yet, while new versions are appreciated, we never stopped playing the original.
Our first play of Star Wars: Jabba’s Palace was a bit of a journey of discovery. The game now comes with four different “agendas”—win conditions.—to choose from. We went with the very straightforward “Exalted One” as it is the most similar to standard Love Letter (high card in hand at end of round wins round). What we hadn’t experienced before was the two factions, in this case Rebels and Scum, and how that changes up the cards and their interactions. Suffice it to say we really, really enjoyed the new twist on play!
With a short window of time to play we changed the winner to the first to three tokens. Sure enough, after six rounds were were tied 2-2-2. By now the RMN Boys were getting the hang of the cards. After eliminating me early (seems my lot in life) the two boys faced off against one another. With Luke Skywalker (Rank 7) already showing on the table, RMN Jr. smugly laid down the Rancor (Rank 6) and read the card: “All players with the lowest number in hand (except 0) are out. Count up out loud from 1 to find the lowest.”
“One”. His grin was so wide at this point it was sickening. RMN T was absolutely stone-faced.
“Five!” Said with a hint of glee…but RMN T never flinched.
“Six?” Some doubt in the voice.
“Seven?” Genuine confusion now.
“Eight.” Again RMN didn’t flinch. Very confused, RMN Jr. lays his card, Jabba (Rank 8), on the table.
RMN T now had a wide smile on his face as he laid his card on the table. Han Solo. Rank…0.
For the first time in the evening Mrs. RMN came to the table to see what had happened. Maybe it was RMN Jr. pushing back from the table and loudly muttering while walking around in disbelief. Maybe it was my side-splitting laughter. It wasn’t RMN T who said nothing but was wearing a grin a country-mile wide.
Yes, Jabba’s Palace has definitely entered the filler game rotation!
Although the rule book for Siege of Mantua has some background material, I went in search of another explanation of the siege. One of the simpler ones I found was from Britannica:
Siege of Mantua, (June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”
After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.
Siege of Mantua takes as its starting point the third attempt to relieve the fortress in November 1796. Not that it really matters as the situation is presented in such an abstract manner the time of year is unimportant; the focus is on the general situation.
My my, what big BLOCKS you have…
In a roundabout way Siege of Mantua was birthed by a godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman. Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland relates how Herman’s children’s game for Hollandspiele, Ribbit, isn’t necessarily a hot seller. The result was a large collection of, ugh, large wooden blocks sitting around unused. As Amabel is prone to do, the pieces were nudged around and a new wargame design emerged. At this point, Steve Jones of Blue Panther, the printer for Hollandspiele (and other companies like White Dog Games) came forward with a method of printing directly onto blocks. If this process really worked, a major cost factor of block wargames—printing stickers—could be removed and perhaps more importantly that “player irritant” of having to apply stickers to blocks could be eliminated.
[In the past days I’ve handled the blocks in Siege of Mantua often in an attempt to see if the printing will rub off. Not that I’m trying to rub off the print, but I am very interested in how long it can last. Should I apply a clearcoat spray to help preserve it? Will it really last longer than stickers? So far, so good!]
So interesting did the new block production process for Siege of Mantua sound that my interest was piqued. Add to that the fact that Amabel Holland has, in my not-so-humble-opinion, an excellent track record in creating “interesting” wargames. My first Hollandspiele wargame was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele Hex #10, 2017). That game remains in my mind the best “logistics” wargame ever printed. The game mechanics of Supply Lines challenged me even back then to look at my personal defintion of a “wargame.” I mean, it has little wooden cubes and no hexes!
Speaking of wood, the blocks in Siege of Mantua are HUGE! These are not your panzer-pushing grandpappy’s Commands & Colors blocks; these are HEFTY 1.5″x1.5″ blocks. Flip the table and you’re going to be sanding gouges out of the wood floors from where these land.
But they really work for this game.
Siege of Mantua could be a small footprint game. The map is a generous 22″ x 34″ (by illustrator Ilya Kudriashov), maybe twice the size really needed. Maybe Amabel felt that the bigger blocks needed a bigger play area. At the end of the day the oversized component’s just work. Siege of Mantua may (barely) fit on that 3×3 card table to play, but any table you put it on will simply look gorgeous.
It’s a War GAME
While Siege of Mantua has incredible table presence thanks in no “small part” to the oversized blocks, what really struck me in play was how much “game” was in the design. Personally, I long have preferred to use the single word “wargame” when describing my hobby. To me, “wargames” are conflict recreations—not strictly modeling & simulation (M&S)—but paper recreations of war presented in a gamified fashion. I’ll freely admit that my preferred gaming tends to skew towards “realism” or “accuracy” or “less abstraction” but I never wanted to go all the way to M&S. Admittedly, there are some wargames that are highly abstracted that I love to play; though I have a hard time seeing a “war game” like Stratego as a wargame, I accept it is on the spectrum of wargaming.
In Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland assembles a grouping of game mechanism that individually are simple and even abstract. When put together, the resulting wargame is a very playable game that recreates the conflict in an easy to digest manner. While it certainly feels (looks?) more GAME than conflict, the call for strategy & tactics is right there in front of you.
Order of Battle
At first glance, the battle situation in Siege of Mantua seems very game-balanced. Both sides have ten blocks. The game starts with Mantua under siege by the French and the Austrians entering along two separate paths to relieve the garrison. The French have the advantage of interior lines.
A closer examination of the starting situation in Siege of Mantua reveals a far more challenging condition exists for the French. Three of the ten French blocks are Dummy blocks with no combat value; the rest of the force is Leader Napoleon and six combat blocks with 16 starting strength points. The Austrian force starts with two Leaders (one of which is under siege and cannot move unless the siege is lifted) and eight combat blocks with a total of 24 starting strength points.
Fog of War
In Siege of Mantua Amabel Holland takes full advantage of the fog of war game mechanics that blocks enable in wargames. This is the real strategic heart of the game as players move their forces about trying to gain a local advantage while deterring their opponent. You can see the block there, but what is it? Is it a Leader? What strength does it have? Could it even be a dummy? The fact the blocks are so big just adds to your frustration; I mean, its right there in front of you! Movement rules are relatively straightforward, but Special Moves interfere with your ability to track or guess what a particular block is or it’s strength.
Just Moving Down the Block…
Movement in Siege of Mantua is a point-to-point system. Doesn’t seem like anything special until you get to the rule for Communications. If your units can trace a path between them that is unblocked by enemy units they are In Communication. By the rules, in your Player Turn you can move one group of blocks from a single city to another city or point. But when groups of blocks are In Communication, you can move some, all or none of the blocks In Communication so long as every block only moves once.
Now the pursuit in Siege of Mantua becomes a subtle game of blocks and feints. A strategic move can cut Communications and prevent a rush forward. Split commands require twice as long to move as each grouping must move on separate turns. Napoleon starts with the advantage of interior lines but the Austrians need to collapse his defenses and cut his Communications while trying to maintain (and even create) their own
As befits a wargame, the mechanics of battles is also an essential element of Siege of Mantua. I am deeply impressed in how Amabel has represented combat in a simple abstract fashion. It starts first with your Unit Pool which is composed of a collection of 16 units split over four (4) levels. The beginning pool is 4x Level 1, 6x Level 2, 4x Level 3 and 2x Level 4. The higher the level the better the unit’s Morale Value (MV) or its ability to stand in combat.
When forces meet in Siege of Mantua, players take turns revealing their blocks. When a unit block is revealed, the current strength is the number of units drawn from the pool. Both players takes turn revealing blocks then secretly drawing and allocating units to the battlefield. I love the challenge this gives players; you might have big strength locks but you might end up drawing mostly low-level units from the pool. Is that lone unit in the Right Flank a high MV or a weakling?
Leaders play an important role in Siege of Mantua. Like so many other rules, the implementation is simple—if you have a Leader in combat you get five (5) Commands; if you don’t you only get three (3). Those Commands are used to order units to move or fight.
The combat rules themselves in Siege of Mantua are highly abstracted. Sorry, Jim, you won’t find infantry or artillery or cavalry, just “units.” Combat is accomplished by simply rolling 2d6 for each lane and adding the number of units attacking. The combat result is compared to the MV of the lead unit. If the combat result is greater than the MV of the unit, it is Broken and set aside. The combat result is then compared to the next unit and the process repeated until a unit with an MV equal-to-or-greater-than the combat result is revealed which ends the attack. If the attack is a Flank Attack, the combat result is compared to ALL defending units simultaneously and results assessed.
If a unit rolls doubles in combat in Siege of Mantua the attack is Repulsed with the lead ATTACKING unit Broken. There are a few exceptions, notably a Level 4 unit cannot be Broken (which you will see shortly is very important) and the rule that Flank Attacks cannot be Repulsed.
Battles in Siege of Mantua consist of a number of Battle Turns, the number of which are randomly rolled at the beginning of a battle. When the designated number of Battle Turns have been played, players have the option to Retreat. In a Retreat one retreating block must lose a single strength step. That is, unless you want to “Double the Stakes.”
Doubling in Siege of Mantua consists of passing the Doubling Cube to an opponent. Accepting the cube means the battle will continue, but the losses will be doubled. The doubling can happen multiple times for 2, 4, 8, or even 16, 32, or 64(!) losses. How’s that for push your luck?
When a battle in Siege of Mantua ends another simple, yet deeply important, rules kicks in. For every block (unit and Leader) on the winning side that took part in the battle a single surviving unit can be upgraded; that is, promoted to the next Level. Units on the winning side that were Broken in battle are degraded—losing a Level. Broken units on the losing side are similarly degraded before being placed back into the pool. Thus, to fight and win improves your forces for the next battle. Fight and lose and a downward slide begins…
While a game of Siege of Mantua is composed of turns, the end game does not automatically occur after a set number of turns but rather when your opponent has five or fewer blocks remaining at the end of YOUR player turn (regardless of how many block YOU have left). Like some Amabel Holland designs there is a risk that the game becomes a stand-off,; stuck in a seemingly perpetual loop. In my experience these sorts of situations usually occur when somebody(s) are not properly following Amabel’s rules. With the cat-n-mouse movement, Leaders in combat and adjusting force pools or the Doubling Die a stand-off never really happens and, if it does, it can be broken by a rigorous reading, processing, and enforcement of the rules.
Looks Simple, But Really Deep
As you hopefully can see, Siege of Mantua not only takes advantage of those big blocks to bring out the cat-and-mouse aspect of maneuvering forces, but also the decisions one makes in battles become very important. Are you willing to win that battle, no matter the cost? Winning means the chance to field an even stronger army next battle, but losing means your forces degrade. What are YOU going to do.
At the end of the day, Siege of Mantua delivers a highly visually appealing wargame that uses a collection of simple, individually abstract game mechanics that come together to seriously challenge players to make hard decisions in an imperfect information environment. In the past, I’ve used the phrase “simple complexity” to describe games that I feel are excellent examples of simple game mechanisms that, when combined in an innovative manner, create deep decision space for players. Siege of Mantua is the latest addition to the pantheon of “Simple Complexity” wargames in my collection, it just so happens that this particular title is also beautiful on the gaming table .