Sunday #Wargame #Boardgame #Book Summary – One day to 2 Minutes to Midnight (@stuarttonge) while Napoleonics from @gmtgames kicks off the summer Game of the Week series (mentions of @compassgamesllc @Academy_Games @UNC_Press)

Boardgames

Countdown to Midnight

A reminder that the Kickstarter campaign for 2 Minutes to Midnight by Stuart Tonge and his new company Plague Island Games starts tomorrow! Read my comments here and then please look at the campaign. I’ve said it before that “cubes as influence” games are not really my thing but I really enjoyed the thematic elements of 2 Minutes to Midnight—it’s good enough to overcome my bias. I think many of you will find the game interesting and worth the investment!

Wargames

New Arrivals

Several GMT Games P500 preorders arrived this week. Going into the “To Play” pile is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (Wing Leader Expansion Nr 4). Also arriving is Ted Raicer’s The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944.

I am very interested in getting Wing Leader: Legends to the table as it includes the “Decision Over Kursk” campaign system. Some readers may recall several “My Kursk Kampaign” postings from earlier this spring where I dove in-depth into that battle. At the time I wanted to explore the air war more:

As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”


History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 1 Introduction

Although you can’t see it in the photo of The Dark Summer, I am, frankly, a bit surprised the game shipped in a 1.5″ deep box. One can interpret this as a sign that the game is smaller, and with a single 22″x34″ map and two countersheets that appears true. I guess I thought a Normandy campaign game just “has to be” big but this one-mapper is already challenging my preconceptions.

Game of the Week

Now that I’m back to a pretty regular work schedule (office is basically 100% reconstituted) I need to work on getting back to a “regular” gaming schedule. Thus, I will be starting a “Game of the Week” approach to play. Basically, the Game of the Week approach gives me seven days to unbox, learn, play, and consider a game. I have a rough idea of how a week might progress:

  • Sunday – Unbox new game, start rules learning/review
  • Monday – Rules learning/review, set up first play
  • Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – Play
  • Friday – (Skip Day)
  • Saturday – Considerations/Clean up (Family Game Night?)
Sticker Day for Commands & Colors Napoloenics

I have a backlog of games on the “To Play” shelf that I need to get to over the next few weeks of summer before getting to Wing Leader: Legends and The Dark Summer: I’m trying to play games in the order of their arrival:

Looking (Further) Ahead

I need to work off some of the excess in the “To Play” group because more games are scheduled to arrive over the summer. If all goes well, I’ll be adding Panzer Expansion Nr 1 (which will complete my collection), Tank Duel (Expansion #1: North Africa and Tank Pack #1), and Wing Leader: Supremacy (Second Edition Upgrade Kit), all from GMT Games, in the next 60 days or so. There is also a (theoretical) chance that Reality Shift from Academy Games might arrive but Uwe and Gunter making a delivery date is rare.

Books

While playing games I also am also committed to reading more. When possible, I like to mix a book with the Game of the Week but that’s not always possible as I have other books on the “To Read” pile. I finished up Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021) and it will be the subject of this coming week’s “Rocky Reads for Wargame” column. I am pretty sure that 2034: A Novel of the Next War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis will likely be read in conjunction with Indian Ocean Region when it is up for Game of the Week.

Plastic Models

One of my favorite online sources for plastic models closed due to bankruptcy late in 2020. Thanks to a new owner, www. squadron.com is back. The reopening has not been the smoothest, but they are trying to work out the kinks. Given how few good plastic model retailers there are online I hope they make it!

Foodie Watch

The RockyMountainNavy family tried a new-to-us restaurant this week. The Capital Burger bills itself as purveyors of “luxe” burgers. They use a proprietary blend of beef to make their burgers; I never imagined it could make a difference—but it does. Their Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts are my new favorite and a great replacement for french fries. Oh yeah, it all pairs well with a good ale….

Roasted Wild Mushroom and Swiss Burger (Roasted Portobello Mushrooms, Jarlsberg Swiss, 15-year Aged Balsamic, Truffle Aioli)

Thinking About My #Wargame Order of Battle

I’ll admit it—I am a collector of wargames. According to my BoardGameGeek collection I “own” 728 games and a further 230 expansions. Of the games, 353 are categorized as a “Wargame” by BGG. Suffice it to say I have lots of game boxes I need to shelve if I want to see my collection. But how do I shelve them?

To date, I organized my wargame shelf by Publisher-Stock Number. I also put several series games together at the end of the collection, in particular Victory Games Fleet Series and Panzer/MBT and Wing Leader from GMT Games. With my focus more on War Engine Games (see “Rev’ing My War Engine”) I think I need to relook at my organization.

Being a History major from college, I tend to organize my thoughts in historical order. Although keeping games arranged by publisher gives the look of a more organized shelf, it also scatters many topically related games about. So I feel I need to return to some sort of historical chronology.

As it gets really hot outside I think I will take advantage of working in the basement and reorganize the wargame collection. I’ll let you know what I end up doing when I figure it out.

Two Minutes Seems Like Almost 50 Years – First Impressions of 2 Minutes to Midnight – Coming soon to @Kickstarter from Plague Island Games #wargame #boardgame @stuarttonge

BLUF – A nicely twisted CDG where you might know your history, but to win you’re going to have to out-DIME your opponent to influence the restless people of the world.

Memories of a Cold Warrior

In many ways I am a child of the Cold War. I came of age in the 1980’s and fully remember the “Evil Empire,” “Star Wars” missile defense, the shoot down of KAL007, and the movie The Day After. When I joined the navy we studied all about the “Big Bad Bear” because those darn Soviets were the epitome of evil. I also remember Cold War wargames/boardgames, like Ultimatum: A Game of Nuclear Confrontation (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) and of course Supremacy: The Game of Superpowers (Supremacy Games, 1984). Even role playing games were all-in with titles like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984). It’s really hard to explain the (irrational?) fear of a nuclear war that was part of everyday life back then. It was something I grew up with and accepted.

The Year of COVID Gives Us a Cold War Plague

Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a “Cold War Gone Hot” trope has grown popular in wargaming. I personally have enjoyed several newer titles like Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020) or Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). Arriving soon to Kickstarter is a new historical strategy game, 2 Minutes to Midnight by designer Stuart Tonge and his new game company, Plague Island Games.

2 Minutes to Midnight – Box Cover

Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although the design is not final, the game as I played it is very near what you will see in the Kickstarter.

When one first looks at the box and components of 2 Minutes to Midnight, there are inevitable comparisons to the iconic Twilight Strugglefrom GMT Games. After all, both games cover the Cold War, both use cards, and both push cubes around a map of the world. More than a few potential players are likely to pass on 2 Minutes to Midnight because they think they’ve “been there—done that.” That’s very unfortunate because 2 Minutes to Midnight is an easy to learn (but not easy strategy), highly thematic game that forces you to consider all the levers of power a nation has from diplomatic to intelligence to military to economic. All used to fight a tension you might not expect.

2 Minutes to Midnight – Box Back

As I played the game, there were several “a-ha” moments that help make the game enjoyable and memorable for me. So let me step you through some background to the game, the card mechanics, the thematic cards, and the subtle tension of a play of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Put together, 2 Minutes to Midnight delivers an easy to learn but tense game of deep decisions using history you know, but not as you know it.

From Blue Water to Cold War

2 Minutes to Midnight, is not the first design by Stuart Tonge. That’s a personal favorite of mine I already mentioned, the Cold War at sea Blue Water Navy. Stuart decided to open his own game company and 2 Minutes to Midnight is his inaugural production. The game is certainly ambitious, as Mr. Tonge lays out in the Historical Introduction:

2 Minutes to Midnight is a playable simulation (or historical game if you prefer) of the Cold War from the end of World War Two to the early 90’s when historically the Soviet Union dissolved.

Your task as the American player is to paint the world in red, white, and blue — ensuring Europe remains free, and spreading democracy into every corner of the world — but especially the bits with lots of oil and significant economies.

As the Soviets you must win the Cold War outright or hold on long enough to try to eke out a win by clinging to power. The fall of the USSR was not inevitable. Maybe it was likely that it would fall, but without Gorbachev — the great progressive — a harsher regime could have held on to power for longer and perhaps even evolved into China-style communism with strong trading ties to the international community.

Alternatively, a harsher regime might have held on grimly in relative poverty for another decade while brutalizing the people and threatening annihilation… Let us see if you can do better than history!

2 Minutes to Midnight, Historical Introduction

Like the Cold War, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a bi-polar, uh, two-player game though a solo play mode is also provided. According to the box, a full game of nine turns covering 1946 to 1991 could take up to six hours. Fortunately for us with time constraints, shorter scenarios rated for 2-4 hours are provided.

Scenario Set Up Cards

What’s Your Marshall Plan?

On the surface, playing a turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight is very easy. Assemble the proper deck of cards for that turn and start flipping ‘em over to resolve actions. Each card has an event or allows for actions that usually will result in placement or removal of influence in various countries around the globe. One can also foment and resolve coups, create a crisis, and fight small wars—or even major ones.

2 Minutes to Midnight also features a robust technology tree. Developing your superpower economy and maintaining (or gaining) strategic advantage is just as important as what countries you control.

Technology and Balance

Your goal in 2 Minutes to Midnight it to control other countries. If you have influence, the country is the right government type, and is not in a civil war you move along the Victory Progress Track. If your marker arrives at the end of the track, you gain a Star (for the USA) or a Hammer & Sickle (for the Soviets). It’s also possible to lose a star/hammer & sickle by losing influence over countries. Whoever has the most stars or hammer & sickles at the end of the game wins, though there is a sudden death condition which triggers if one side is three or more ahead of the other at the end of turn 4 or any turn thereafter.

Don’t be fooled; the relatively simple rules of 2 Minutes to Midnight open up many complex player decisions. These decisions are driven by the cards. Here is where the inevitable comparison to Twilight Struggle begins. Rest assured though, 2 Minutes to Midnight is NOT a reskinned Twilight Struggle because the cards, though delivering similar game effects, here act as powerful narrative builders.

It’s in the Cards – Mechanics to Theme

If you are a player of many card driven games (CDG) you probably are well versed in the “Ops-Event” card format. Usually speaking, on any given card players have the choice of executing the event (which often results in the card being discarded from gameplay) or play it for “Ops”  points—some sort of action. The cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight in many ways play out the same as many standard CDGs, but with a nice mechanical twist that is also the heart of thematic play. 

At the start of each turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players construct a unique deck which is a combination of historical events associated with that 5-year period and a set of “standard” cards. On Turn 1 this makes a deck of 14 historical events added to the 16 standard cards. Historical event cards are usually resolved but they can cycle into the next turn under certain conditions (more on that later). These are the “event” cards of the common CDG design. On the other hand, standard cards are used to trigger actions and will “cycle” into the next turns deck. This mix of by-turn “event” cards and constantly cycling “standard” cards delivers the same Event-Ops Points decisions as your standard CDG.

Cards (Courtesy Plague Island Games)

“OK,” you say. “So in 2 Minutes to Midnight the designer split the standard CDG one-card design format into two separate cards. All that does is drive up the price of the game because of more cards. Big deal!” Yes, it is a big deal because by splitting the cards Mr. Tonge was able to dig deep into the theme of the Cold War and deliver us a retelling of history that is at once familiar, but also unpredictable.

Those unique event cards in every turn of 2 Minutes to Midnight are the thematic heart of the game. The cards take you through major events of the Cold War in 5-year increments. But watch out; you might think you know what will happen, but our past may not, literally, be “in the cards” as you play. You might think you know what historical event is coming, but the deck is shuffled so events happen sometime during the turn but almost certainly not in historical order. Furthermore, each event does not automatically resolve like it did in our timeline. The Bay of Pigs? There’s a chance it doesn’t happen, as well as a chance the US goes “all in” unlike the historical result. The event may even be delayed, cycled into next turn’s deck. The Soviet crackdown on Solidarity didn’t have to happen in 1980….

It Takes DIME to Deal With All That Unrest

In a not-so-subtle way, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a supercharged DIME game. DIME is an acronym for Diplomatic-Intelligence-Military-Economic and used to describe the levers of power available to nation-states. 

When a card is flipped in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players will try to place influence. Sometimes that influence is diplomatic and other times it is economic (investments). Spies are powerful intelligence tools that can suppress unrest or steal (or protect) technology or interfere with trade. Technology, like your military, is important as it becomes die roll modifiers leading to success—or failure. You might need to resort to your military to resolve aggressions or even occupy a country. Placement of influence can also trigger other events, from unrest causing coups to civil war.

During my early plays of 2 Minutes to Midnight I focused on placing influence as I tried to out-DIME my opponent. As the turns progressed I came to be annoyed by the constant unrest and coups and uprisings that I had to keep swatting down. There were times when there was even unrest in my homeland that hindered my choice of actions. Gradually, it dawned on me that the constant unrest is a feature and not a bug of the game design. While the cards and actions in 2 Minuted to Midnight are your DIME toolkit, there is another power in play – unrest.

The way I see it, part of the gameplay narrative of 2 Minutes to Midnight is the a reminder that the Cold War, while commonly seen as a bi-polar conflict (like 2 players in a boardgame) was actually composed of many smaller conflicts that included not just other nations, but other people. The constant unrest in 2 Minutes to Midnight is as though the “third world” (player?) or opposition political party at home is constantly reminding the superpowers (or you as the “party in power”) that they too have needs and concerns that you must respect (or at least deal with) if you want them to be in your sphere of influence and not actively oppose you. 

As much as I personally am a wargamer and never am one to pass an opportunity for a good battle, in 2 Minutes to Midnight I found that unrest was my best friend for influence. If a country was already friendly I had to use all the DIME tools I could to keep the unrest down. Conversely, I could use unrest to disrupt my opponent. It’s subtle, but the tension between influence and unrest is what makes so many decisions during play generate a narrative that has real meaning and importance.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

One thing I remember from my plays of Supremacy were all the little mushroom clouds placed around the world as nuclear armageddon unfolded in front of you. If you are looking for a game of superpower nuclear armageddon then 2 Minutes to Midnight lives up to it’s name—close but not quite. Stuart points out that, “There is no strategic nuclear exchange modeled in the game — it would be quite unlikely that anyone involved in such a thing would consider themselves a ‘winner’, so I made an early design decision that would not happen.” Which is fine. I don’t want a game of the end of the world, but enjoy the tension of being “that close.”

Cold War, Burning Memories

Playing 2 Minutes to Midnight for me is a bit of a nostalgia trip. When an event occurs, I see in my mind the news reports or talking with my friends about it. In some cases I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and tingle as I relive the fear of what could have been. For myself, playing 2 Minutes to Midnight is my chance to “do it right” and try to win while avoiding the ultimate game ending event.

When playing 2 Minutes to Midnight with a group of non-Cold Warriors, you will likely all find yourself starting to follow the story, paying particular attention to placing influence for causing (or defending) unrest. The narrative of play that develops is very enlightening. My boys said they couldn’t understand how America could possibly drop into unrest until we started talking about the Vietnam War at home and the Oil Shock of the 1970’s. These conversations caused them to look at many of the events in a new light. They started to realize that all-too-often what happens “over there” really does have an impact “back here.” They also started looking closer at the Soviet system and how it seemed rigged for failure and the huge efforts it took, sometime demanding humbleness on the world stage, for it to have any chance of thriving. 2 Minutes to Midnight also exposes the easy way of the military option, or literally “Peace Through Superior Firepower.” It’s easy to go for the military option and forget that you could invest in a bit more DIME.

Making the Cold War Tangible

One final comment on the components of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although I had the privilege of playing a preview copy and I know all the components are not final, I really like how Stuart has creatively used different bits to help you understand, at a glance, what is going on on the board. From traditional cubes to cardboard chits to translucent bingo chips, all the components physically on the board are easy to understand, tell apart, and more importantly help tell YOU what is happening. I will mention that the preview box was literally, and I mean literally, bursting at the seams as it was not deep enough for all the components once separated and bagged.1 Not only does 2 Minutes to Midnight generate a compelling narrative, in play it also looks compelling on the table. By the way, you will need the dining room table for this game; fully laid out 2 Minutes to Midnight was hanging over the edges of my usual 3’x5’ gaming table. This is game not only with a big theme, but with big physical demands.

A Thermonuclear-sized Game

…Then the Wall Fell…Maybe

The Cold War was fought out over a relatively long time—nearly 50 years. Getting to the end of a game of 2 Minutes to Midnight is simultaneously exhausting (so much has happened) yet very fulfilling. The best satisfaction comes from achieving a peaceful world. Even if that does not happen and one side has collapsed in unrest, or lives crushed under a jack-heeled boot, the story you create with the cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight makes the entire Cold War come alive on your table. Which is exactly why 2 Minutes to Midnight deserves to be a gaming collection—it both teaches and tells the story of the Cold War in a highly interactive manner and shows that what happened maybe was destined to happen…or maybe it was just luck (or misfortune) that things turned out the way they did.

The Kickstarter campaign for 2 Minutes to Midnight opens June 14. So please show Stuart some love and check out the campaign and support it if you can.


1 Stuart assures me this is a pre-production issue and the final version will have a box of sufficient depth!

Sunday Summary – Loud But No Rhythm (no fault of @gmtgames @DietzFoudation @compassgamesllc)

Summer is in full swing but I seem to be missing out on those lazy dog days that are good for gaming.

Wargames

Commands & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games, 2017 Third Edition) sat on my game table all week awaiting a good sticker session. Along the way I realized that the dice in the game require stickers which sent me on a quest for a good aftermarket replacement.

Boardgames

The plan was to play Supercharged (Dietz Foundation, 2021) for the weekend family game night but the race was cancelled at the last moment by a late addition to the “Honey Do” list.

Books

Made good progress on Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (UNC Press, 2021). This book will certainly be the foundation of a Rocky Reads in the future; that is, once I finish reading and get Battle Hymn Volume I: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass games, 2018) to the table.

Cicada Rhythms

Peak decibels recorded in the backyard this week was 79.5. That’s supposedly the equivalent of a small chainsaw or loud conversation. Maybe, but the incessant nature of the noise makes it sound so much louder (and bothersome) than it is! I also know that I really have only one tree that a brood exploded (yes, I mean that literally) from under so my backyard is one of the quieter ones around. It also doesn’t help that the bugs are poor flyers and seem to have taken up the sport of bouncing off Mrs. RockyMountainNavy at every opportunity—some of her shrieks have been MUCH more than 80 db!

Family #Boardgame Friday – The towering Spirit of Tiny Epic Samurai Defenders working together (@Funforge @Gamelyn_Games #cardgame #cooperative)

As a forever wargamer, I often find myself removed from the whole Eurogame-Ameritrash conflicts and instead find the fault-lines of my gaming collection falling along that of boardgame versus wargame. I mean, I understand the whole mechanism versus theme arguments, I just don’t really care. That is, until I see it up close and personal in my game collection.

I recently scored several new family boardgames. I wasn’t actively seeking out any of these games but they came along as a great bargain with the game I really wanted ( that one being Space Empires 4x by Jim Krohn from GMT Games, 2011). The seller offered a bargain on a handful of smaller family games so, thinking they might be useful as lighter filler or vacation-suitable travel games, I took them in. As I looked over and taught myself the games, I found two of them, Tiny Epic Defenders (Gamelyn Games, 2014) and Samurai Spirit (Funforge, 2014) actually quite similar in game mechanisms but themed much differently from each other.

Tiny Epic Defenders is another entry in the Tiny Epic series of games designed by Scott Almes. These game traditionally come in small boxes (7″x4.5″x1.5″) and are known for their small footprint but deep play. Tiny Epic Defenders is a cooperative game set in the world of a previous Tiny Epic game, Tiny Epic Kingdoms (Gamelyn Games, 2014 – and also part of the package deal). In Tiny Epic Defenders, 1-4 players must work together in a card-based game to defend the capital city against hordes of enemy attackers. Along the way you can use allies and ancient artifacts to help.

Tiny Epic Defenders set up

Samurai Spirit is also a cooperative game where between 1-7 players are samurai that must defend the village against raiders. In this card-based game, the samurai must choose between confronting raiders or defending against them while managing the barricades of the village and protecting the villagers. If you can’t already tell, Samurai Spirit is based on the movie Seven Samurai with the major difference being that in the game the samurai unleash a “beast mode” when wounded enough.

Samurai Spirit – note “beast mode” characters

Both Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit are variants of a tower defense game. In both games the players are defending a territory against invaders. Another tower defense game, Castle Panic (Fireside Games, 2009), is a family favorite.

A game where the goal is to defend a player’s territories or possessions by obstructing the enemy attackers, usually achieved by placing defensive structures on or along their path of attack. This typically means building a variety of different structures that serve to automatically block, impede, attack or destroy enemies.

Source: BGG paraphrasing Wikipedia on Tower Defense video games

Both Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit play loose with the definition of a “defensive structure.” In both of these games “defensive structures” are characters which, through game actions, act to block, impede, attack, or destroy enemies. That said, though both Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are tower defense games and both even use cards, they are not identical in the game mechanisms used in gameplay.

Given how closely related Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit are mechanically, how do I separate them? That is where theme come in. This is a pure matter of personal preference. For me, the theme of Samurai Spirit, derived as it is from the movie Seven Samurai, is the hands-down winner. I realize that there are some players out there that love everything Scott Almes touches and therefore will faithfully play anything related to Tiny Epic, but I am not one of them.

While Samurai Spirit leans hard into the theme of Seven Samurai, it does so with a nice family twist. That twist is the beast mode which unlocks not only a nicely illustrated side of the character board, but also provides a game mechanism that simultaneously is used to “refresh” a player for later rounds as well as pace the game to face the major foe. I also realize the theme of Samurai Spirit is far more likely to appeal to the RockyMountainNavy Boys who, taking after their wargamer Dad, often use the theme of a boardgame to help them assess if a game should be played. This is not to say Tiny Epic Defenders will be left to collect dust in the collection or be sold off quickly. The small footprint and portability of a Tiny Epic game makes it a good choice to pack when going on vacation.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Finding the Most Secret and Confidential in a Sea of Glory (@USNIBooks @gmtgames)

When reading about the naval war at sea during the Napoleonic Wars one cannot avoid coming across the name Nelson. Horatio Nelson by far the most famous naval commander in the Royal Navy, if not in the world in those days. What was the secret of his success? Many have written about his style of leadership, but author Steven E. Maffeo, a former US Navy intelligence officer, writes in Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) about the role intelligence played in not only Nelson’s success, but of the Royal Navy writ large in those days.

Shhh….

In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.

Sorta.

In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:

Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281

Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson

The wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (designer Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) is an operational level wargame focused on the war at sea in the pivotal year of 1805. Reading the ad copy for the game hints at the role of intelligence in the game:

1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men. 

The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.

1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy

After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.

Most Secret and Confidential in wargame format

Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”

From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.

1805: Sea of Glory is played on a map around the size of Admiral Nelson’s sea desk. Sword is for cosplayers only….

Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.

The British player is not allowed to examine the Napoleon objectives, nor the Allied player the Pitt objectives. Each player may examine his own objectives at any time. These Objectives remain in place throughout the game unless scored by the Allied player, in which case the marker is moved to the Allied VP box. The Allied player is not allowed to look at Pitt Objectives he has scored until the end of the game.

21.3 REVEALING OBJECTIVES

For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.

Fleet blocks represent a group of ships, and have no limit to the number of ships and admirals they may contain, but must always contain at least one ship while not in port. If a fleet is without any ships while not in a port due to weather or combat, it is removed from the map for later use, and any admiral with that block is removed from play.

7.1 FLEETS

After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.

Players may “Count Masts” to determine the approximate number and type of enemy vessels in a port or in an Inshore enemy force under the following circumstances….

13.5 COUNTING MASTS

For each fleet or frigate that searches, the controlling player indicates which block is searching, then rolls two dice and adds or subtracts any applicable modifiers from the Search Attempt and Seasonal Modifiers tables. On a modified roll of 7 or lower, the result is “No Contact.” On a modified roll of 8 or higher, the result is “Spotted.”

14.0 SEARCH ATTEMPTS

At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:

It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.

C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
My Hornblower collection inherited from my father—well-read by both of us

Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:

Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 288

Sunday Summary – How’d it get to be so busy? #wargame #boardgame @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @stuarttonge @Zmangames_ @Gamelyn_Games @Funforge

Wow…no entries on this blog since last Sunday. Tangible proof that the post-COVID recovery is in full swing. Where I live all the COVID mask restrictions were (finally) lifted yesterday by the state dictatorship. Well, except for schools because the dictatorship has already crippled their learning in the past year so why stop now? I guess in future years gamers will look back on the Year of COVID as “happy times” with plenty of gaming. On a personal level, I’ve been back to work full time for a couple of months now and it’s cutting into my gaming time!

Huzzah!

Wargames/Books

I finished reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Stephen Maffeo, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) and pulled 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) out for some comparisons. I’ve got John Gorkowski’s Indian Ocean Region – South China Sea: Vol. II (Compass Games, 2020) ready for a deeper dive now that I’ve finished reading Eliot Ackerman and Admiral Jame Stavridis’ 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (New York: Penguin Press, 2021).

This week was also my birthday. The family really knows what I like, hence the arrival of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics (GMT Games) and Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command (Kent Masterson Brown, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021). This all-but-ensures my Fourth of July Gettysburg Memorial Wargame will be Eric Lee Smith’s Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). Oh yes, and a new power drill to replace my old light duty one that wasn’t up to the demands of Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s “Honey Do” list!

Boardgames

I worked on my first impressions piece of Stuart Tonge’s 2 Minutes to Midnight from his new Plague Island Games label (coming to Kickstarter next month). Spoiler Alert – It’s a big game that some might feel is unnecessary given the powerhouse Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, now in 8th printing) but it deserves a serious look as it builds a very compelling narrative in play.

I had an opportunity to pick up Space Empires 4x by Jim Krohn and GMT Games (2017 Third Edition). At the same time the seller had several smaller games he was looking to unload so a deal was struck. These are lighter games that I thought might be suitable for the family (or vacation travel) gaming table. Thus arrived:

I spent the past week looking through and learning each of the smaller games. Star Wars: Destiny will be turned over to the RockyMountainNavy boys as I know it’s not my thing but they are “modern” Star Wars fans so they can enjoy the characters. Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are actually quite similar cooperative tower defense-like games and either will make for a good family game night title—though I think the look of Samurai Spirit is more appealing. Tiny Epic Kingdoms will compete with Tiny Epic Galaxies (Gamelyn, 2015) which is already in the collection. Sylvion is actually more of a solo game and as such it will land on my table occasionally; if it has a drawback it’s because it’s more eurogame-like and therefore not my personally preferred gaming genre given it’s obvious preference for mechanism over theme (but the theme—what there is of it—is cute). Space Empires 4x is in the “wargame to play” pile…just behind Indian Ocean Region and Stalingrad ’42.

Sunday Summary – Summer Heat Wave of #Wargames, #Boardgames, and #Books

Not only is the heat arriving in waves, but so are the games!

Wargames

Boardgames

2 Minutes to Midnight: Fight the Cold War. USA vs Soviet Union – 1949-1991. A Strategic Historical Game (Preview Copy) (Stuart Tonge, Plague Island Games, 2021) – Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy. Plan is to share thought s around the kickoff of the Kickstarter campaign in mid-late June! Stay tuned!

2 Minutes to Midnight Preview Copy

Books

Am reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson by Steven E. Maffeo (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) and sitting down with the wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009). I am working to make this a “#Wargame to History” (or is it “History to #Wargame?”) or “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” entry.

Puzzles

No, not puzzles, but actual jigsaw puzzles. As I type this I just got my shipping notice for my Academy Games historical puzzles. More relaxing summer fun!

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – A super dud – The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little Brown, 2021)

I had high hopes for The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Little Brown, 2021). I was hoping to gain some good insight into B-29 Superfortress operations in World War II. I was hoping that I would get some more background for some of the scenarios for Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2016). The ad copy of The Bomber Mafia looked to be a nice comparison of “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” Curtis LeMay versus General Haywood Hansell, proponent of precision bombing. That story is somewhere in this book, but the way Gladwell tells it makes me doubt every bit of what he writes.

AVOID!

I should know better. The signs that The Bomber Mafia should be avoided were all there in the various ad copy and comments. This “story” started out as an audiobook birthed from the authors Revisionist History podcast. “Revisionist” in this case is what I call “pop history;” soundbites of words allegedly concerning a historical subject that the author contends to be an authority on but in reality has little more (maybe less?) knowledge of than that of a middle school student. I loathe to even call The Bomber Mafia a history book. At best (and if I feel extremely generous) it is a story from history but the depth of research is, well frankly, I think the author would be out of his depth in a puddle. Almost all the sources cited are secondary or even tertiary. More than a few quotes are from history professors and what they think in interviews. There is almost no original critical thought here. Reading The Bomber Mafia is very much akin to reading a Wikipedia compilation.

When reading The Bomber Mafia you first have to get past the word “absurd.” The author repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, tell us that “war is absurd” or such and such a situation was “absurd” or a persons actions were “absurd.” Fine, Malcom, I get that you have an opinion. Sometimes I even agree with your opinion. But I want to read the facts and make a judgement for myself. Not here!

Oh yeah. Then you have the hyperbole of The Bomber Mafia:

If you were the United States and you wanted to drop bombs on Japan, how would you do it? Solving that problem took the better part of the war. The first step was building the B-29 Superfortress, the greatest bomber ever built, with an effective range of more than three thousand miles.

The Bomber Mafia, p. 125

“Greatest bomber ever built.” This must be the “revisionist” history part and where I missed the memo. Given Malcom’s apparent coziness with current(ish) US Air Force senior brass, it becomes obvious somebody drank the Billy Mitchell/Douhet-laced punch.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and the point where I totally wanted to forget ever reading The Bomber Mafia was in the discussion of B-29 operations in the Marianas. Read this paragraph and tell me what you think:

The sole thing the Marianas had going for them was that they were within range of Japan. But even that was an exaggeration. The truth is that they were within range only under perfect conditions. To reach Japan, a B-29 first needed to be loaded up with twenty thousand pounds of extra fuel. And because that made the plane dangerously overweight, each B-29 also needed a ferocious tailwind to lift it off the runway. This was as crazy a situation as anyone faced throughout the whole war.

The Bomber Mafia, p. 128

A tailwind? To reduce take-off distance? Really? Let’s just skip all those fundamental of flight, shall we? The flow of air over wings has nothing, nothing I tell you, to do with generating lift, eh?

The Bomber Mafia is three stories; the story of General Hansell, the story of Curtis Le May, and the story of Malcolm Gladwell traveling the globe and rubbing elbows while “researching” the other two. Unfortunately, Malcom shines no new light on the first two and is insufferable in the third. Do yourself a favor and just stay away from The Bomber Mafia. The angst isn’t worth it.


For a very enjoyable literary takedown of The Bomber Mafia, see “Narrative Napalm” from The Baffler that has wonderful passages like this:

And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, The Bomber Mafia, is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer.

Noah Kulwin, “Narative Napalm”