#Wargame Wednesday – Wargaming America’s Stand-In Force

Have you heard of Force Design 2030? It’s the new warfighting concept for the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently it’s become quite controversial. What I find interesting is the prominence wargaming is getting in the arguments for and against the concept.

“Normally what would have happened in the past, there would have been a concept, there would have been war games, there would have been field evaluations before these sorts of drastic moves were made,” Van Riper said.

“Jeopardizing national security: What is happening to our Marine Corps?” Marine Corps Times, March 21, 2022

Tim Barrick, the wargaming director for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University wrote for War on the Rocks recently about his perspective. As a wargamer I found some of his comments insightful as it pertains to the uses of wargaming.

One of the commandant’s first priority tasks was to identify risks associated with this design. The task sparked an immediate series of wargames, which I oversaw, to examine the divestments. Based on this risk assessment, the commandant decided to proceed in some areas while deferring trade-off decisions in others, pending more analysis.

Wargames…as risk assessment. A solid reminder that wargames don’t (can’t?) predict the future, but are useful to help identify areas of concern (i.e. “risk”).

In an article in Politico, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper appeals, “What we want to see is these changes are based on thorough study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.” Yet there were reams of reports on wargames, experiments, and studies on potential investment decisions and warfighting concepts that informed Berger’s decisions. 

Wargames…as one tool in the Commandant’s kitbag to help inform decisions (not make them).

There is, however, a legitimate critique of the commandant’s approach: He handed the force development enterprise a single course of action, which dominated the analysis and wargaming in a way that left little room for a consideration of alternatives.

In the military planning process, the step for wargaming is preceded by COA (Courses of Action) development. At the very least there needs to be at least two COA identified; Most Likely and Most Dangerous. This apparently did not happen.

Having wargamed many of the ideas that contributed to stand-in forces, my view is they are, without a doubt, applicable to crisis response scenarios and will do better than the legacy force under most circumstances. 

An opinion, but again one informed by wargaming.

Force Design 2030 drops the active component infantry from 24 to 21 battalions and the size of each battalion from 896 to between 733 and around 800, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. As such, in the most extreme case, the Marine Corps drops active component infantry from 21,504 to 15,393 — a 29 percent overall reduction. However, based on experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps is likely going to settle around 800 per battalion, a 22 percent reduction in total infantry

Experimentation in the Warfighting Lab, aka “wargaming,” used again to inform a decision.

What is a concern is that Force Design 2030 envisions infantry that are both commando-like in their employment and episodically become the core of new littoral combat teams focused on sea denial. Given the National Defense Strategy, the idea of a littoral combat team contributing to a joint maritime campaign has merit. There are many joint, Navy, and Marine Corps wargames from the past several years that support this. But multi-tasking the infantry, by design, to be both commandos and littoral combat teams may undercut their ability to effectively do either. There are alternative configurations that avoid this stress to the force. The service’s World War II-era coastal defense battalions serve as precedent for this. According to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in the ongoing refinements to the infantry battalion and the Marine littoral regiment, such an alternative approach is in consideration.

It’s good to see wargaming being used to inform decisions, as well as some acknowledgement that although they were handed a single COA, there are still alternatives emerging form the process. Marines and wargaming have a bit of a controversial history, with then Maj Gen Van Riper right in the middle of it (look up Millennium Challenge 2002).

As Paddy Griffith said, wargames fall into four broad categories; for fun, for teaching, for historical research, and for prediction. I’ll argue that even though commercial hobby wargames certainly try to emphasize the “for fun” part (though everyones defintion of “fun” is different), they also teach and can be used for historical research (as in exposing new understanding, i.e. to inform the players).

Prediction is a much tougher subject. In recent weeks I can’t even tell you how many “experts” have popped up on social media claiming expertise on tank warfare in the Ukraine based on a high score in World of Tanks. Putting those clowns aside, there are some commercial hobby players who don’t want to even touch wargames about the future and only want to play historical conflict simulations. Others look at modern/near-future games as not that different from science fiction. With the recent sinking of the RFN Moskva, I think we can at least see that some game models can be “validated.” Beyond that, I think hobby wargames can be useful in providing insight into the future. The real challenge is not in designing a wargame that looks at the future and “gets it right,” but understanding the various biases and assumptions underpinning the game and models. Before one can draw conclusions, one must understand the model.

While it has been very good to see professional wargaming getting some attention, I also see danger here. It is going to be very easy for some to say “the wargames are wrong” and therefore so are the decisions the wargames are supposed to inform. In some ways the criticisms are justified; especially if the wargames were only given a single COA to evaluate. There are some who might compare the situation to historical wargames that have only a single scenario and special rules to achieve outcomes closer to reality. As I have argued before, wargame designers and players need to be ready for “non-historic” outcomes because sometimes history was the outlier, not the mean.

Here’s to hoping the Force Design 2030 wargames were truly informative and not driven to produce a true outlier condition.

Feature image courtesy @KrulakCenter on Twitter

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Moskva Burning – Using the #wargame Harpoon V from admiraltytrilogy.com to assess the story

Update as of April 14, 4:30pm Eastern time. Reports from Russian state media now say Moskva sunk while under tow.

As I start writing this post, it is the day after the news broke that the Russian Navy cruiser Moskva either was struck by Ukrainian coastal anti-ship missiles or suffered an ammunition explosion and fire. Pending further developments, let’s assume for the purposes of this post that the ship was attacked. This allows me to look at the event through the lens of wargaming, specifically using the rules for Harpoon V: Modern Tactical Naval Combat 1955-2020 (designers Larry Bond & Chris Carlson, Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021).

Courtesy ATG

In the October 2006 issue (#31) of The Naval SITREP: The Journal of the Admiralty Trilogy Game System, the co-designers of Harpoon V assessed the anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) attack on the INS Hanit in July 2006. I’m not going to go into the same technical depth here but instead want to talk a bit about what Harpoon V helps explain and what it doesn’t.

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.


If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Courtesy Military-Today.com

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

Courtesy @Naval_Graphics on Twitter

The “Engagement”

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.


  • Missile Size/Height of Flight: The Neptune is a “Very Small” missile that approaches at “Very Low” altitude (Annex D)
  • Radar Detection Range: The MR-710 Fregat-M (Top Steer) air search radar has a detection range of 27 nm versus a VSmall target (Annex J1)
  • “A radar’s range is reduced by rising sea states, rain, and nearby land masses” (5.2.9 Environmental Effects on Radar)
    • Although it is unclear exactly where Moskva was operating, general weather reports from the region indicate poor weather with possible precipitation; assuming Sea State 3 with Light Rain the detection range is reduced by 40%
    • The Fregat-M is a 4th Generation radar so technically it should be able to deal with the environmental clutter and keep the full detection range—if the crew was properly trained.
  • Missile Speed: The 3M24 flies at 580 knots, or almost 10 nm a minute. That’s a little less than one Tactical Turn (3 minutes, or 6x 30 second increments) in Harpoon V.

Once the missile was detected the ship’s defenses should have engaged. Maybe…but not so fast…

Of SAMs and CIWS…

  • Reaction Time: Rule covers Reaction Time; with a 3rd Generation SAM the normal delay is 3 increments (90 seconds) with a variable 0 to +4 increments added (see Combat System Reaction Time and Combat System Reaction on page 8-4).
    • Moskva at best may have gotten one SAM volley off and then point defense CIWS—if they were fully alerted at General Quarters
  • SAMs
    • The S-300 Fort (5V55R) [SA-N-6a Grumble] has a minimum range of 2.7nm (Annex D1)
    • The Osa-MA (9M33M2 [SA-N-4a Gecko] has a range of .5 to 6.5 nm (Annex D1)
    • Using 8.1.1 Radar-Guided Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), step 7) Punch the Table, we look up SAM Intercept Table – VLow Altitude Targets and cross-reference Subsonic & Transonic with 3rd Generation (Fregat-M radar) and get”S-P” meaning there will be one chance to engage at Short Range and one chance for Point Defense (good guess above!)
    • If the S-300 Fort got off a two-SAM salvo, the Probability of Kill (Pk) is around 80%; the Osa-MA is a bit less with a Pk of ~75% for a two-SAM salvo
  • CIWS
    • Moskva mounts two, twin AK-130 130mm/70 guns; given the short reaction times involved I’m going to rule they were very likely not able to get into action fast enough to engage the inbound missiles
    • Moskva also mounts six AK-630 30mm close-in-weapon systems (CIWS); assuming one pair is able to engage at Point Blank Range it has roughly a 76% chance of knocking down a missile.

The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.

Damage (Out of) Control

Regardless of the defenses, if stories are to believed at least two ASCM got through and hit. Let’s see how Harpoon V portrays that:

  • Applying Damage (14.1): Two hits cause ~74 points of damage which is less than the 85 needed to reach 25% damage and no loss in speed (14.1.1); 341-74=267 damage points remaining
  • Ship Critical Hits (14.1.2): To compute damage ratio take 74/267 for a result of .277 rounded down to .2; the Critical Hit Damage Ratios table indicates a a D6 roll of 4 is 1x Critical, 5 is 2x Critical, and 6 is 3x Critical.
  • Missile Impacts (14.1.5): Guided missiles cause additional Critical Hits because of the airframe and fuel based on the damage points from the missile; the 3M24 will cause D6/2 extra Critical Hits PLUS one Automatic Fire Critical hit
  • Critical Hit summary: So far that’s between 0-6 Critical Hits with an additional automatic Fire Critical
  • Fire Critical (14.4): Rolling D6 gets 3 or 3% of the original 341 damage points or 10 more damage points scored immediately (257 remaining)
  • Flooding Critical (14.4): Let’s assume for the moment that one of those other Critical Hits was a flooding scoring 4% (13 DP) for a total of 97 hits or 244 remaining; this is more than 25% overall damage so speed is reduced
  • Weapon Critical Hit/Mount Detonation (14.5): There are some reports that “broadside ammunition” was the cause of the fire. Moskva has those huge tubes for the P-500 Bazalt (4M80) [SS-N-12 Mod 1 Sandbox] missiles; if there was a Weapons Critical Hit that scored against this weapon, there is a 10% chance of detonation which would score 71+D6 damage (average 75?) reducing the damage points to 244-75=169 which is just under 50% remaining which means speed is reduced to 16 kts and kicking off another round of Critical Hits (75/169=.44 rounded to .4 for between 0-5 more Critical Hits)—it’s easy to see a snowballing damage effect here especially if more fires or flooding in involved…
  • Fire & Flooding Severity Level (see 14.4): If Moskva suffered at least 16% in Fire and Flooding damage the crew is considered “Overwhelmed.” The damage is considered a “Conflagration” which has a 25% chance every Intermediate Turn (30 minutes) of causing a magazine explosion which can only be avoided by flooding the magazines and pushing ordnance overboard.

So why is everybody seemingly surprised at the outcome of events?

“Naval combat at sea has always been highly lethal to the participants.”

Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.)

Unexpected Lethality?

The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

To be or not TB2

Part of the story of the Moskva attack includes the Ukrainians using a Bayraktar TB2 drone (Harpoon V stats found in The Naval SITREP #56) to “distract” the crew. Personally, I am unsure as to the chances that the Ukraine Navy would operate a TB2 at range (the datalink is rated in Harpoon V as 150 km range), at night, and in bad weather but it’s possible? Some allege the TB2 pulled off Moskva’s radars so they didn’t “see”the attack coming on on the other side. Note that the air search radars used aboard Moskva provide 360 degree coverage. A more plausible explanation to me is that the crew became fixated and focused on a potential TB2 threat and in turn failed (at night and in sea clutter) to see inbound sea-skimming missiles. This is a reality of life in combat and not necessarily replicated in a wargame simulation model.

Courtesy aerotime.aero

Which is the real point of this post; wargames can help us understand more about a battle but in the end it cannot capture many human factors. Was Moskva ready for an attack? If not, how long does it take the crew to react (this is a major training issue). Was the crew “distracted” by a TB2 and lacked the discipline to maintain their sector watch and “missed” the inbound missiles? We may never know these answers.

Feature image courtesy koko.ng

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My 2022 #TTRPG CharGen Challenge – Shot down in Luftwaffe: 1946 Roleplaying Game (Battlefield Press, 2005)

In January 2006 I discovered a website called drivethrurpg.com. This was an incredible discovery; a website devoted to digital publishing of role-playing games. Here I found games I had never heard of before. My first order was for a Twilight: 2000 supplement I didn’t own. The second, on January 11, 2006 was for a 2005 game titled Luftwaffe: 1946 Role-Playing Game from a publisher I had never heard of, Battlefield Press.

At the time, I had discovered a website called Luft 46 which is still accessible today. At first I thought the RPG and website were associated with one another. Then I discovered that the Luftwaffe: 1946 RPG was based on a comic book series. Luckily, I was able to find some issues in a local comic store.

Luftwaffe: 1946 used the Action! game engine based a target number and 3d6. Basically, to make a skill check you took Attribute + Skill Level + 3d6 and tried to beat the Target Number.

If Luftwaffe: 1946 has a problem, it’s that the game engine and character creation rules are unbalanced. The character creation system in Luftwaffe: 1946 is extremely dense. The end result was my appreciation of the game was also unbalanced; I liked the game engine but didn’t like the character creation system.

Dallas ‘Tex’ Miller

U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lieutenant assigned to a special air squadron flying captured German X-Planes

  • Body Group: Strength 5, Reflexes 5, Health 5
  • Mind Group: Presence 5, Intellect 5, Will 5
  • Derived: Defense Target Number 15, Initiative 5, Toughness 5, Life 25, Move 10, Cool 5, Fatigue 5
  • Skills: Athletics – 1 / Acrobatics -1; Heavy Weapons -3 / Aircraft Machine Guns (Spec) – 2; Military Science – 3 / Tactics (Spec) – 2; Small Arms – 2 / Pistols – 1; Technical – 1 / Repair -1; Transportation – 3 / Pilot (Spec) – 4
  • Abilities: Ace! Technique -2 (Gunnery, Masterful Controller), Attack Combat Master, Heightened Awareness, Rank 2 (1st Lt.)
  • Disabilities: Famous (1), Recurring Nightmares (2)

Tex has a good life, getting to fly the latest Luftwaffe wonder weapons. Today it’s a Salamander-D, or the forward-swept wing Heinkel 162D (Maneuver Bonus +1). Tex is just trying the basics and is making a Immenlman Turn (Target Number 21).

The GM says the Governing Attribute is Reflexes (5). Tex adds his Transportation (+3) and Pilot (+4) or a total of 12. The 3d6 roll is 10 plus the Maneuver bonus of +1 for a total of 23. Tex pulls off the Immelman but the Salamander is being a bit slippery in its handling!

A bit later Tex decides to try an execute a Lag Roll (Target Number 24). The roll is as before (12 + 1 + 3d6). The 3d6 rolls com up with 7 for a total of 20; the maneuver fails with and effect of -4. Normally, Tex would have to make a TN18 skill roll to retain control with that -4 modifier added in, but his Masterful Control ability gives him the “ability” to ignore the negative penalty. The roll is 12 + 1 + 3d6 (11) for a total of 23—Tex maintains control and is starting to discover the Salamander’s true limits!

An RPG Atrocity

In the end, I gave up on Luftwaffe: 1946 not for the game, but for the politics of the comic book author. What bothered me is that he insisted that removing the swastika from plastic model kits amounted to censorship. He also stated, “I made a careful study of Nazi Germany and found out that their atrocities were not much worse than what other major countries had done to their people and their neighbors throughout the centuries of warfare” (p. 5). Now, I’m not so stupid to think my country is totally blameless, but I absolutely disagree that the United States of America and Nazi Germany are somehow morally equivalent. This forced me to relook at the entire setting in Luftwaffe: 1946. In the end, I decided not to pursue this game any further.

Feature image by Gareth Hector on Luft 46

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#SundaySummary – RockyMountainNavy’s recent military reading acquisitions #military #books #wargames

As much as I play wargames, I also try to keep up a good pace of reading. Here are some of my recent reading acquisitions.

Cumming, Anthony J., The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010. // Bought to compliment my learning of Paddy Griffith’s Wargaming Operations Sealion: The Game that Launched Academic Wargaming (John Curry, The History of Wargaming Project, 2021). Will also inform a future replay of Britain Stands Alone (Jim Werbaneth, GMT Games, 1994).

Photo by RMN

Dunnigan, James F., How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare for the Post-Cold War Era, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1993 Third Edition. // Written by one of the Elders of Wargaming, this book supposedly provides much insight not into wargame design, but what topics Mr. Dunnigan thought was best suited for inclusion in a wargame about the post-Cold War era..

Dupuy, Colonel T.N., U.S. Army, Ret., The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, 1980 Third Edition. // Colonel Dupuy is in many ways the greatest evangelist of Operations Research, a field of military study closely related to but not the same as wargaming. I have Colonel Dupuy’s much later 1993 book Future Wars: The World’s Most Dangerous Flashpoints but inThe Evolution of Weapons he delivers a historical perspective.

Fontanellaz, Adrien, Red Star Versus Rising Sun – Volume 1: The Conquest of Manchuria 1931-1938 (Asia@War Series No. 22), Warwick: Helion & Company, 2021. // Helion books are much like Osprey; a decent short summary of the topic usually build upon secondary sources with photos, maps, and color plates. Pre-World War II in Asia is an interest of mine; here is just a sampling of the topic. More of a guide to further reading.

Fontanellaz, Adrien, Red Star Versus Rising Sun – Volume 2: The Nomonhan Incident 1939 (Asia@War Series No. 27), Warwick: Helion & Company, 2021. // I am constantly fascinated with the Battle of Nomonhan; this is a decent summary again based primarily on secondary sources.

Photo by RMN

Friedman, B.A., On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. // Argues that the military fascination with the Operational level of war is misguided; instead we should focus on Operational Art.

Photo by RMN

Schelling, Thomas C., Arms and Influence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966. // My job has me going back to the roots of deterrence theory, which also conveniently fits with my interest in game theory and wargames.

Thorpe, George C., Pure Logistics, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986. // With the 2022 Russian invasion of the Ukraine the study of logistics is suddenly all-the-rage. Let’s see what was said 30 years ago…

Photo by RMN

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My 2022 #TTRPG CharGen Challenge – Misdirection in Prime Directive (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005)

In a previous post, I explained how I totally failed to understand the d20 Modern system, in part because the system reference document (SRD) I bought was missing a key section on determining Abilities for a character. A few years later, I found the “next generation” of Prime Directive, the role-playing game of the Star Fleet Universe. This new Star Fleet Universe RPG used the d20 System. I decided to give it a try.

Technically, Prime Directive d20 required the use of the Third Edition Player’s Handbook (v 3.5) from Wizards of the Coast. The intro matter indicated that d20 Modern could be used (with a little work) so I took the dare and tried.

“A Character Starts With a Story”

So starts “Chapter 3: Character Classes” in Prime Directive d20 (hereafter PD20). This story-first approach was not my norm; I usually rolled up a character first and then developed a backstory. Not in PD20:

The usual way to create a character is to design him or her just as though he was a character in a story you were writing. Start by deciding what type of person you want to be. you can take your inspiration from a fictional hero or heroine — or create your new “self” from the ground up. Once you have some idea what sort of person you want to play, it’s time to bring him to life!

PD20, p. 44

In some ways the story-first approach of PD20 made sense. After all, how does one get a bridge crew or Prime Team out of a random character generation process? So I plunged forward.

To get some inspiration for my PD20 character I looked a the different classes archetypes in the core rulebook. Officers, agents, Marines, merchants, and rogues were all there. The character education path was again very familiar. Figuring out different Prestige Classes was a bit of a challenge, but I eventually understood. Skills were rather straightforward while Feats took some getting used to.

It’s the Little Things…

Ultimately, PD20 suffered from two problems that made it difficult for me to generate characters; Abilities and Character Sheets.

Once again, PD20 forced me to rely on my d20 SRD to generate character Abilities. Of course, the SRD I possessed did not have that section in it. It put me in a pissy mood—I needed to buy a new SRD but I was so pissed at WotC I refused to do so. Why should I go buy the latest Dungeon’s & Dragons Player Handbook just to figure out how to generate Abilities when I don’t even play D&D?

Some of you are saying, “Just go to your FLGS, find the Handbook, look up the page, and take notes!” Yeah, I could of…BUT WHY? It was such a simple thing it shouldn’t have to come to that. Others of you will say, “Dude, look at DriveThruRPG.” Well, in 2005 I hadn’t discovered DTRPG yet!

To add further insult to injury, PD20 does not have a character sheet in the Core Rulebook. Yes, there was a website with some information but once again I felt like I was being cheated out of the little things.

I would eventually get around to creating PD20 characters, but it would not be for a few years. When I eventually did I found the usual problems in a military-based campaign; too many chiefs and not enough indians. It would also take a new Star Trek book series, Vanguard, to help me see a different approach to the Star Fleet Universe and go beyond strictly “military ops.”

Fortunately, Prime Directive d20 comes at the end of my Dark Milieu of role-playing games. From 1996 to 2005 I had sought out a replacement for my beloved Traveller RPG—and failed miserably. While I failed my final Difficulty Check in 2005 with PD20, things were just as quickly to change as I was soon to go from Dark Milieu to “Into the Black.” But before I jumped that far I had to try a little alternative setting…

Feature image courtesy starfleetgames.com

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – The weeping Earth through Plains Indian Wars (John Poniske, @gmtgames, 2022)

The Earth is Weeping

In his 2016 book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, author Peter Cozzens delivers a narrative history of the American Indian Wars that tries to reset the record. As he explains in his Prologue:

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate the changing national conscious.

The Earth is Weeping, p. 7

The Earth is Weeping is a book that tries to bring balance to the historical record of the American Indian Wars. Following the tragedy/massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, most Americas for the next 80 years viewed brave Indian fighters (cavalry) and courageous settlers as heroic. But in the 1970s that view changed as people began seeing whites as villainous conquerors, and the Indians as victims—thanks in no small part to Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cozzen contends Brown’s book made no attempt at historical balance. Peter Cozzens book The Earth is Weeping does not ignore injustices done to the Indians, but he insists we not ignore the white perspective, either.

Courtesy goodreads.com

In a similar manner to The Earth is Weeping, John Poniske’s game Plains Indian Wars (GMT Games, 2022) attempts to deliver a balanced view of the American Indian Wars. This balance comes in two flavors; game balance and historical balance. For the former the game excels but for the later it maybe shies away from the hard parts of history a bit too much, but maybe for the right reasons.

Photo by RMN

Game Balance

Long ago (and I mean LONG ago) GMT Games put Plains Indian Wars up on the P500. At the time I thought ordering it didn’t pull the trigger. The topic is not really of interest to me so I didn’t even pay attention to the publicity around it. That is, until I heard that the game system is a loose relative of Academy Games’ Birth of America-series. The Birth of America-series games (1754: Conquest, 1775: Rebellion, 1812: Invasion of Canada) and the closely related 878 Vikings are the favorite lite, family wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. Yes, even more popular than Commands & Colors, Hold the Line, or even Enemies of Rome. Once I discovered Plains Indian Wars shared some of that lineage, I HAD to have it.

1775 courtesy Academy Games

[In a March 16 post on BGG, John Poniske states that, “[Plains Indian Wars] was originally designed for Academy – they turned it down.” That’s…sad for Academy Games.]

Part of what makes the Birth of America-series of games so appealing to me is game balance. In every game, you have asymmetric factions working together to deliver victory. Victory is usually based on area control. Admittedly, the combat part of the history in many Birth of America games is glossed over because casualties don’t really matter—the only judge of victory is who controls a particular area.

Factions On the Plains

In Plains Indian Wars there are seven “factions.” The Major Indian Factions are the Northern Plains Tribes (NPT) and the Southern Plains Tribes (SPT). The Major US Factions are the Cavalry and Settlers. The three “minor factions”—all controlled by the US player(s), are the Enemies of the NPT/SPT, Wagon Trains, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Every major faction has a deck of 15 cards (larger in size than those found in a Birth of America game), custom faction dice, and color-coded cubes. Minor factions have cubes but no cards, and only the Enemies faction has custom dice. The 34″x22″ mounted game board is a stylized map of the area (i.e. not totally geographically accurate) but well laid out and easy to use in the game.

Photo by RMN

Symmetrical Asymmetry

Each turn of Plains Indian Wars consists of a series of random draws of a faction disk from a bag. This game mechanism, lifted directly from the Birth of America-series, is in great part what makes every game so engaging; you simply don’t know in what order the different factions will operate. Major Factions use their cards in a turn to take different actions. Some cards are Migration, Engagement, War Party, or an Event.

Another asymmetrical game mechanism carried over from the Birth of America-series in Plains Indian Wars is the custom faction dice. Dice come with one of three faces; Blank (retreat), Treaty (end of combat), and Weapon (hit). Each factions dice are not the same; the US Cavalry has 3x Weapon, 1x Treaty, and 2x Blank making it deadly in combat. The NPT/SPT/Enemies dice are 3x Blank, 1x Treaty, and 2x Weapon making them rather balanced. Settlers, on the other hand, have 4x Blank, 1x Treaty, and only a single Weapon making them disadvantaged in combat.

The end result of the asymmetric factions in Plains Indian Wars is actually a very mechanically balanced game. The key to victory for each player is to use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Although Plains Indian Wars is categorized as a “wargame” on BoardGameGeek, the real “war” in the game is for territory. The US Player(s) gain points for completing the Railroad, exiting Wagon Trains across the board, and for controlling NPT/SPT areas. The Indian Player(s) gain points for stopping the joining of the Railroad, eliminating George Armstrong Custer on the turn he enters, eliminating Wagon Train cubes, eliminating Cavalry cubes, and controlling NPT/SPT and Enemies regions. They also lose points if the US Player controls more Enemies regions than they do. All of which in play means the US Player is constantly trying to expand the areas they control while the Indian Player is trying push back the Settlers and impede the flow of Wagon Trains.

Historical Balance

Similar to how the different factions in Plains Indian Wars are mechanically balanced in play, the game strives to depict a similar historical balance. There is no “absolute struggle between good and evil” as neither side is necessarily “good” or obviously “evil.” Event cards in particular call-out some situations that are significant and not necessarily to be crowed about. Game play tends to emphasize the broad strategy of the day (the ends) but it also tends to gloss over how that was done (the means) which in many cases carried intense racial undertones. In several discussion threads about Plains Indian Wars on BoardGameGeek, designer John Poniske has mentioned some design decisions that are ahistorical but were made in the name of game balance. Which is to say that even the designer recognizes that Plains Indian Wars is an imperfect view of the American Indian Wars.

This brings me back to Academy Games’ decision to not publish Plains Indian Wars. I don’t know why that decision was made and hope it was for financial reasons vice any “commentary” on the historical aspects of this game. One criticism of the Birth of America-series is that the Native American factions don’t have much agency and tend to be used as pawns of major factions (not rue in 1812, but I can see the argument in 1775). In Plains Indian Wars the Northern Plains Tribes and Southern Plains Tribes are elevated to major factions and certainly have “agency” in the game. Plains Indian Wars could of brought “balance” to the Academy Games catalog, but I digress.

Does that really matter? A part of me says Plains Indian Wars is fine the way it is. The game presents those broad strokes of history in a very friendly, lite-wargame manner. On the other hand, the historian in me cringes a bit because there is so much to be said…

…and maybe that’s why the game is the way it is.

If one digs deep into the myths and misconceptions of the American Indian Wars they will quickly enter into a highly controversial discussion. Plains Indian Wars is a “top-level” view of that discussion, perhaps best used not to learn the details of the most controversial issues, but to trigger a desire to further explore those outside of the game. The game does not attempt to explain the many myths of history, but instead “exposes” them for the players. This is far from a condemnation of Plains Indian Wars for like the Birth of America-series before it there is only so much that can (should?) be communicated in a historical family-lite wargame. The historical balance in Plains Indian Wars is not simply a balance between factions, but a balance in the presentation of history.

Plains Indian Wars can be played by one, two, three, or even four players. Personally, I think the game shines best as a two-player game where your “thinking” opponent presents the greatest challenge. The solo variants are useful for exploring the various factions, and the three-or four player versions are in some ways even more family friendly. But to me, the best balance between game play and historical flavor is found in the two-player version.

Plains Indian Wars is a welcome addition to the shelf of “family” wargames. Not only is Plains Indian Wars a good game, it also “teaches without preaches” and challenges your mind to explore further.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My 2022 #TTRPG CharGen Challenge – Out in the cold with Cold Space Role-Playing Game by Clash Bowley & Albert Bailey (Better Mousetrap Games, 2005)

As the mid-2000’s came—and went—my quest for a replacement role-playing game after Traveller RPG had gone nowhere for almost a decade. After failing my d20 save, I went looking for other game systems. In doing so, I ended up looking at smaller publishers. Somewhere I came across a copy of a game called Cold Space from Better Mousetrap Games (2005). So desperate was I for a new RPG that I was willing to try anything. I mean, the setting looked interesting; an alternate history Cold War with counter-gravity in the 1950’s, Orion rockets, and the like.

The setting in Cold Space was not the only difference from what I was used to. The entire game system was different from my experience too. Cold Space was my first introduction to what I came to call “Indie-RPG.” These games, many times published in a kind of do-it-yourself desktop publishing manner, were maybe not as refined as the tentpole games (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons). However, each was interesting in how they brought a unique perspective on a game system to an RPG. Cold Space was built using a system called StarCluster. This was my first, and only, expereince with that game engine.

Cool Characters in Cold Space

In Cold Space, there are two “approved” methods of generating the initial characteristics and cash for characters; the Random Method and the Directed Method (p.30, 31). Seeing how I came from the random character generation heritage of the Traveller RPG I instantly went with the Random Method. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure sure I ever tried the Directed Method. Most initial characteristics in Cold Space are randomly generated with 2d6…another link to Traveller in my mind.

After generating the initial characteristics in Cold Space the character enters schooling. Ah, a life-cycle approach to character generation, ala Traveller again! Then, you enter a profession…still more Traveller-like! The skill list in Cold Space is kinda large (`100 skills) but not unmanageable.

Then I tried to play a game using Cold Space.

Check-ing Out Cold Space

Very slowly I was beginning to realize that different role-playing games had different “core mechanics.” I was learning that characteristics and skill levels were not all the same across different RPG systems, and each was related to the “core mechanism” of each design. In Cold Space, the Task Resolution system is built around several different checks:

  • Skill Check: Target number is the character’s skill chance which is base skill (45) plus 5 added for every level of skill with a bonus if governing attribute is above a certain threshold.
  • Attribute Check: A multiplier of the base attribute ranging from x1 (Very Difficult) to x5 (Moderately Easy).
  • Profession Check: Not a skill but familiarity from profession; 3x years spent in profession times promotion level.

Say the character, Major Tom, is an early astronaut that is launching on a mission…

Standing there alone,

the ship is waiting.

All systems are go.

“Are you sure?”

Control is not convinced,

but the computer

has the evidence.

No need to abort.

The countdown starts.

“Major Tom” – David Bowie

As Major Tom’s rocket enters orbit, there is problem. Major Tom attempts to use his Pilot+3 skill to regain control. This is a Skill Check with a target number of 45 plus (2×5=10) or 50. A governing attribute bonus of +1 comes from IQ above 120. Final target number is 51. Major Tom rolls a 65…

Back at ground control,

there is a problem.

“Go to rockets full.”

Not responding.

“Hello Major Tom.

Are you receiving?

Turn the thrusters on.

We’re standing by.”

There’s no reply.

“Major Tom” by David Bowie

If you can’t tell already, the StarCluster engine (a term I would learn later) in Cold Space is built around a d100 or d% die roll. This was certainly NOT Traveller RPG-like but I had played James Bond 007 so the d100 was not totally foreign. At the end of the day, though, the system just didn’t click with me.

Major Tom

In the early days of the contragravity space program, it still took a certain “steely-eyed missile man” to make an astronaut…

Mother’s Milk

Mother’s Milk skill are learned before age 10. Major Tom hails from the American Midwest, and as such he has Rural Moderate resources. This gives him skill in Tracking from the Hunting Set, Endear from the Social Set, Dash from the Sport Set, and Research from the Scientific Set. Young Major Tome grows up in a very middle-class family and has an interest in science.

Initial Characteristics (Random Method)

  • Strength (2d6) = 5
  • Coordination/Agility (same 2d6 each) = 6
  • Endurance (2d6) = 9
  • IQ (%d) = 53 by lookup table becomes 113
  • Luck (%d) = 31 by lookup table becomes 1
  • Cash (%d) = 71 by lookup table becomes $13,000
  • Charisma (2d6) = 5


  • Public Junior High: CHAR+2, IQ+5, Research+2, Negotiate. Young Major Tom is a friendly, outgoing guy who loves to study and becomes a peacemaker amongst his friends.
  • Military High School (cost $1,300): Str+2, COOR +2, Mathematics+1, Astronomy+2. Young Major Tom starts dreaming of the stars…
  • Agriculture & Military (A&M College) (cost $2,000): Observe+1, Biology+1, Operate+1, Husbandry+1. Unable to get into a Military Academy Major Tom still finds a way to get a military education.
  • Officer Candidate School: IQ+20, Leadership+1


Air Force

  • Skills: Pilot +3, Electronics+1, Mechanics+1, Zero-G+1
  • Promotion: +1
  • Pay: $3,000/year

Watching in a trance,

the crew is certain.

Nothing left to chance,

all is working.

Trying to relax

up in the capsule

“Send me up a drink.”

jokes Major Tom.

The count goes on…

David Bowie – “Major Tom”

Major Tom

Characteristics: STR 7 / COORD 8 / AGI 6 / END 9 / IQ 133 / LUCK 1 / Cash $30,000 / CHAR 7 / Constitution 300

Skills: Astronomy+2, Biology+1, Dash+1, Electronics+1, Endear+1, Husbandry+1, Leadership+1, Mathematics+1, Mechanics+1, Negotiate+1, Observe+1, Operate+1, Pilot+3, Research+3, Tracking+1, Zero-G+1

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Mapping the Ukraine War

Many classic definitions of a wargame include some sort of a map. It’s not a hard and fast requirement these day with different game mechanisms, like the “tableau” wargame Tank Duel: Enemy in Crosshairs by Mike Bertucelli from GMT Games (2020). As I follow the War in Ukraine, the wargamer in me wonders about how I could depict parts of the battle. To do so I will need a map. So I started looking at the different ones out there.

Before I get into the Ukraine war maps, let’s review some wargame map basics. First, not all wargame maps are the same (duh!). Broadly speaking, I group wargame maps into several categories:

  • Map Board: The mapboard uses a mapping coordinate system like a real map (Ranger, Omega Games)
  • Hex Map: A hexgrid (or alternatively a square grid) is laid over the mapboard to regulate movement and combat (Advanced Squad Leader, Multi-Man Publishing)
  • Area Map: The map is divided into areas (Victory in the Pacific, Avalon Hill)
  • Point-to-Point Map: The map is a series of connected points or areas (Waterloo, Avalon Hill)

So, which style of map is useful for a wargame of the War in the Ukraine?

Mapping the Ukraine War

Many of the maps I see on social media are broad overviews of the fighting. As such, they tend to be small-scale (large area) with varying degrees of detail. If anything, most seem to be using an area map approach.

The UK MoD map is a broad overview of the fighting with likely lines of advance shown. It also uses what I call “creeping red areas” to show the area the Russian Army supposedly controls. The detail provided on Russian forces is extremely broad.

Courtesy UK Ministry of Defence

The official French map is a little different and focuses on the area the Russian Forces have occupied since the beginning of the war, but forces are excluded.

Courtesy French Ministry of Defense

The open source intelligence (OSINT) community on social media is also tracking the war. @war_mapper delivers maps that show the pre-war occupied areas and the areas occupied since the start of the war. Interestingly, the illustrator doesn’t only use filled in areas, but shows a combination of “lines of advance” and “occupied areas” in a kind of combination area and point-to-point map.

Courtesy @war_mapper on Twitter

Still others try to capture the seemingly different war going on in the Ukraine. @Nrg8000 produces two maps, one of which focuses on routes the Russian Army has advanced on using a very point-to-point map approach.

Courtesy @Nrg8000 on Twitter

The second map from @Nrg8000 is a carefully labeled map showing the “furthest extent of Russian troop movements.” This wording seems to out of the way to not ascribe control of an area to the Russian forces.

Courtesy @Nrg8000 on Twitter

Others try to capture the offensive/defensive thrusts and helpfully bring in some data from beyond the Ukrainian border.

Courtesy @detresfa_ on Twitter

Think tanks also are following the war. The daily map from the Institute for the Study of War is one of the more comprehensive. From a wargaming perspective, at least some force are annotated on the map. It also uses two concepts for area control; assessed versus claimed. The ISW has also been very open about how they are mapping the conflict.

Courtesy Institute for the Study of War
Courtesy Institute for the Study of War

If you have served in the military you very likely have heard of the Common Operating Picture, or COP. Twitter user Jomini of the West (@JominiW) produces a daily map that is the closest to a COP I have seen out there. From a pure conflict wargamer perspective this one might be the most “familiar” given the force laydowns depicted.

Courtesy @JominiW on Twitter

Zones of Control

Before we go further into maps I think it’s important to talk about another wargame concept that is highly relevant to a discussion of maps.One of the oldest concepts in wargames are Zones of Control (ZoC). In many classic wargame rules, a unit projects a ZoC into the six hexes around it. This usually represents recon and screening elements as well as organic artillery or other fires the unit posses that makes movement through the area around, but not occupied by the center of mass for the unit, become challenged.

Spaces adjacent to a unit impact the ability of opposing units to move or attack.

Almost any ZoC rule

In the Ukraine War, the ZoC concept may not be an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. While there is most assuredly some form of Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) or a Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA), if there is one thing the Ukraine War has shown is that the Ukrainian forces excel at striking into Russian rear areas. In wargame terms, Ukrainian forces often operate (quite freely) within the ZoC of Russian Army units. So how do you depict this in a wargame? It’s almost as though you need a hex map for the FLOT, an area map for the operational scale, and a point-to-point map for the supply and reinforcement phases.


The War in the Ukraine highlights to wargamers the challenge of what to map.

Hex Map: PRO: Good for depictions of weapon interactions. CON: At smaller scale (larger area) a greater degree of abstraction is required. The easiest map to integrate with ZoC.

Area Map: PRO: Can cover larger area. CON: Greater degree of abstraction; individual units cannot depict a ZoC.

Point-to-Point Map: PRO: Excellent for portraying lines of communications and key hubs. CON: Almost no integration with ZoC and unable to show “off-road” movement between points.

Tactical Battles: Tactical battles tend to focus on the interaction of weapon systems and as such are large-scale (small area). Are you recreating a tactical ambush? Then a hex map may be appropriate.

Operations: Operational-level wargames tend to focus on the interactions of larger units and different domains of battle. Some wargames, like Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games, very successfully use a hex map. If one choses to use a hex map then the map scale becomes very important. The Next War series uses a scale of 7.5 miles per hex. This would make a map of all of the Ukraine almost 100 hexes wide! In this case an area map might be more appropriate.

Logistics: The war in the Ukraine has certainly focused on logistics. From long convoys to ambushes, the map and area approach both can be used but may not be the most descriptive. Here is a case where a point-to-point map may be useful.

Next War – Last War?

I think wargame designers and players will learn much from the war in the Ukraine, and challenges for how one depicts the conflict will be a part of professional and hobby wargaming for a while to come. Alas, I wish the pre-war wargaming had better and prepared all (except the Russians) for the conflict upon us. Then again, it certainly appears that the Ukrainians prepared for this war a whole lot better than the Russians did…

Feature image map courtesy AFP

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#SundaySummary – Give up #wargames and#boardgames for Lent? NEVER! (mentions of @gmtgames @SchilMil @Academy_Games @LederGames @Volko26 @DouglasBush @JoeStuka @stuarttonge)

Well, with my busy schedule it certainly feels like I have given up boardgaming for Lent! I don’t know about you, but I am (beyond) fully back to work at something like 120% in the office (including some weekends and after hours “events”). It really has put a crimp into my wargame and boardgame time. The Shelf of Shame is growing with little indication that it will be seriously worked off in the near future.

I need to work off some of this backlog because more games are inbound. In what seems to be a post-COVID rebound, the flow of games started in the COVID-era are finally making their way through the pipeline and some are getting closer to delivery. A few titles that may show up within the next 3 months include:

Even though my Shelf of Shame is starting to sag, new games are always welcome. That said, my “acquisition strategy” has been to slow down a bit this year (Mrs. RMN says, “About time!”). Here in late March my trend-line of gaming acquisitions is a bit under-slope from the last few years:

  • 2019 Gaming Acquisitions thru March: 12
  • 2020 Gaming Acquisitions thru March: 19 (+58%)
  • 2021 Gaming Acquisitions thru March: 20 (+5%)
  • 2022 Gaming Acquisitions thru March: 13 (-35%)
Gaming Acquisitions – Cumulative Monthly

I think many of us are going to look back at 2020 and 2021 and see that, even in the worst of the COVID lockdowns, our gaming was in something of a Golden Era. Sure, there was less face-to-face gaming for many, but here in the RMN house the RMN Boys and myself got in lots of good gaming. That “Golden-Horror” time has certainly come to an end, and now we struggle to keep our hobby life going.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Family #Boardgame Night winner with 1st & Roll (R&R Games, 2018)

The tabletop boardgaming life of the RockyMountainNavy hacienda has been in a bit of a funk this past year. Between myself going back to work something like 120%, full-time employment for Middle RMN Boy, and high school senior year and part-time work for Youngest RMN Boy, there is very little time for family boardgaming in the house. Further, the flavor of gaming has changed with even less three-player opportunities. Sensing this, I started looking at more two-player boardgames. One that I recently brought into the collection is 1st & Roll from R&R Games (2018). It’s been a winner!

1st & Roll from R&R Games (2018)

Sporting Games

Although I have a few sports games in my collection, finding one that feels “real” is tough. We have had moderate success in auto racing games with Pitch Car (very light and fun) to Formula D (love the different gear dice!) to Supercharged (card-based simple flavor and fun). The RMN Boys are football fans at heart, and finding a good football game was tougher. We have a well used copy of Battleball which is more toy than sport.

A “Real” Football Game

What impresses me the most about 1st & Roll is just how “real” it plays. The game starts with a Kickoff using the Kick Die. Then, the offensive player picks either a pass, run, or pass/run play (each is a different color die) and the defensive player picks a defense (pass, pass/run, run). The die are compared and if the colors are different the offensive die is rolled and the ball advanced. If they are the same color there is a dice-off. Then a Clock die is thrown which moves the clock or can lead to a Turnover. There are breakaway plays and extra yardage. There is a chance of penalties. You can punt or do an onsides kick or a long bomb or a Hail Mary or kick a Field Goal or even fumble the ball. In other words, it plays not so different from a real football game, but on a small board and with just a few dice.

Equipment Manager

Another element of 1st & Roll that I like is the game components. In particular, I’m talking about the magnetic board. Yup, the board has a thin metal layer inside and the football and down marker and clock are magnetic. Other markers are small magnets. This makes the game not-so-safe for little kids, but then again, they should be playing flag football at that younger age anyway, right?

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0