#History to #Wargame – Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean Campaign through The Darkest Hour (@Helionbooks) and Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet (Avalanche Press, 2001)

Exploring history through reading and wargames….

I love my Osprey Books, but these days the titles from Helion Books seem to capture my attention more. Like Osprey Books the Helion titles are illustrated with many photographs and color artwork along with extensive tables of information. For a wargame player, The Darkest Hour series of books from Helion provides in-depth background into the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive into the Indian Ocean in 1942 which in turn makes playing a wargame like The Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet that much more enjoyable since the “why” of certain rules or victory conditions becomes much easier to understand.

History Reading

Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 1: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Opening Moves (Asia@War No. 31), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (84 pages) / Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 2: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Attack against Ceylon and the Eastern Fleet (Asia@War No. 33), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (72 pages)

The Darkest Hours from Helion Books

From the book backs:

The Darkest Hour presents the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive in the Indian Ocean area in March-April 1942, the main goal of which was to destroy the Royal Navy in the Far East and achieve domination on the western flank of the Pacific War on the eve of the Battle of Midway. The bold operation by two Japanese task forces (Kido Butai and Malay Force) in the Indian Ocean would only be possible with the fall of Singapore in February and the Dutch East Indies in early March 1942.

The first volume examines events up to the capture of the Andaman Islands and Christmas Island…

The second volume examines the Japanese aerial assault upon the British bases on Ceylon, and the attacks on the carrier HMS Hermes, cruisers HMS Cornwall and Devonshire, and the destroyer HMS Vampire.

The Darkest Hour Vol 1/Vol 2 book back

The Darkest Hour series is basically broken out into a strategic/operational volume and a tactical volume. The strategic/operational aspects of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Indian Ocean campaign are covered in Volume 1. The first volume sets the strategic situation and follows the operations up to the morning of 5 April 1942. This is where Volume 2 starts. The second volume dives into tactical details of the battles fought between 5 April and 9 April after which Kido Butai retired. To be fair, the later half of the second volume steps back up to the operational/strategic levels following the early April battles but that is not the focus of the volume.

Both volumes of The Darkest Hour are well illustrated. I don’t consider myself well-read on the Indian Ocean campaign, but I do think I have more than passing knowledge and some familiarity with the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see photographs in these books that I do not recognize from elsewhere. The color plates are as one should expect but what really caught my attention was the other illustrations that in hindsight present information I have obviously seen before but never paid attention to. For instance, color plate ix in Volume 1 presents “Japanese Aircraft Carrier Deck Markings in Indian Ocean Offensive.” I have looked at countless pictures of Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers but never before did the different flight deck markings stand out to me.

In terms of written content, The Darkest Hour is a fairly-comprehensive overview of the political and military situation surrounding the April 1942 campaign. The split-volume format works quite well with the background situation covered in the first volume and a zoomed-in focus on key battles in the second volume. I hate to always be making comparisons between Osprey and Helion but The Darkest Hour is a great example of why I enjoy Helion books; The Darkest Hour provides a high-level overview but with more-specific depth when needed. For the wargamer in me, The Darkest Hour gives me a deeper understanding of the “why” behind a wargame scenario or campaign without it becoming a doctoral-depth deep dive.

The wargamer in me also enjoyed a little wargame-ish call out in The Darkest Hour. Buried in the middle of Volume 2 is a section titled, “Simulation of the battle of Aircraft Carriers in the Indian Ocean” (Volume 2, p. 47). This small entry discusses the article “The Brave Operation in the Indian Ocean” published in the Japanese magazine Gakken as part of their Military History Pacific War Series in 1992 (though the bibliography credits it as 1993.). The source article is in Japanese, but from the summation presented in this volume it certainly appears the (uncredited) author/researcher conducted either a wargame or some form of operations analysis. Alas, the scenario presented is more a flight-of-fancy than any real serious analysis, with Kido Butai being surprised by a combined air strike from HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable just as the five Imperial Japanese carriers are set to launch a strike. Fortunately for us, there is a wargame title available that can be used to explore Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean campaign.

Wargame Pairing

Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet, designer Michael Benninghof, Avalanche Press (my copy is boxed first edition 2001).

Here is how Avalanche Press describes Eastern Fleet::

Following their victory at Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet moved through the American, Dutch and British colonies of South and East Asia. Having taken the mighty British naval base at Singapore, the next move was to enter the Indian Ocean and challenge the Royal Navy there. 

Eastern Fleet is a complete game in the Second World War at Sea series covering these campaigns. Scenarios range from the Japanese invasions of Burma and the Andaman Islands through the massive carrier raids to the planned but never executed invasion of Ceylon. The Japanese often have overwhelming superiority in the air, which the British must counter with guile while trying to lure the enemy into range of his slow but powerful battleships.

Pieces represent the ships and aircraft that took part in the campaign. The Japanese fleet is built around its five powerful fleet carriers with their deckloads of Zero fighters, Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo bombers, all wielded by expert pilots and crews. They are supported by four fast battle cruisers, fast but lightly protected heavy cruisers and big destroyers armed with the awesome Long Lance torpedo.

Eastern Fleet ad copy
First edition box cover (courtesy BGG)

The SWWAS series of wargames are operational-scale campaign systems; players represent fleet commanders fighting a campaign. The situation in Eastern Fleet lends itself to an easily manageable campaign due to the number of ships and aircraft involved. Though the map may not be as crowded as some other titles, the situation is no-less tense.

As I reviewed my copy of Eastern Fleet for this posting, I was surprised by what the game actually covers. My first edition has three Battle Scenarios, only one of which is from the April 1942 campaign (and one of these scenarios is purely hypothetical). Looking at the eight Operational Scenarios, only three are from the March-April 1942 period; the other five range from July 1942 out to February 1943; several of those Operational Scenarios are outright hypotheticals! The actual depth provided in the background is also “thin” to say the least. Looking at SWWAS: Eastern Fleet after reading The Darkest Hour I now see the game’s focus more on “widgets” and less on the situation:

The Royal Navy is outnumbered and outgunned in the air, with three fleet carriers — all of them smaller than their Japanese counterparts — and one nearly useless light carrier. The British do have four old and painfully slow R-class battleships and the much more useful Warspite, newly rebuilt in an American shipyard. British cruisers are vastly inferior to those of the Japanese in both numbers and capability, as is the case with the British, Australian and Dutch destroyers.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

In a further example, here is the background for Operational Scenario 3 ” Raid on Ceylon – 26 March – 11 April 1942,” arguably the main focus of The Darkest Hour (especially Volume 2):

Having stunned the British with the rapid conquest of Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies, The Japanese next turned their attention to the hapless British Eastern Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean. The crack First Air Fleet targeted British bases on Ceylon and Allied merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, a large troop convoy used this diversion to move the 18th Infantry Division from Singapore to Rangoon.

Operational Scenario 3

Compare that “backgrounder” to the introduction of The Darkest Hour Volume 2:

At the beginning of April, the expected Japanese carrier-borne strike on Ceylon could severely influence the strategic situation in the Pacific War and lead to more threatening Axis’ combined operations against the British Empire in the following months. The Royal Navy’s command correctly interpreted the Combined Fleet’s plans. However, the British lacked more detailed intelligence information about the enemy’s movements in the Indian Ocean to prepare for a night counter-attack. With only two modern aircraft carriers and dozens of bombers with fighter escorts at his disposal, Admiral Somerville could rely only on Japanese mistakes and his instinct to hit the stronger task force, literally described as “invincible,” without taking the risk of being destroyed in return….Once set sail for the Indian Ocean, Kido Butai had only one chance to destroy Eastern Fleet and could not afford to make any mistakes.

The Darkest Hour, Volume 2, Introduction

I have to hand it to Avalanche Press; they do a great job setting the game up as the “invincible” Imperial Japanese Navy versus the underdog Royal Navy. For the longest time the (simple) Avalanche Press version of the history has dominated my conceptions of the campaign. The Darkest Hour goes a long way towards reeducating me by providing a deeper understanding and a greater level of appreciation for the challenges both sides faced.

There is one other aspect of Eastern Fleet that I feel fails to delivers—the “secret” British base at Addu Atoll. Again, we go to the ad copy:

But this is the Royal Navy, with a tradition of victory and a secret base on which it can fall back in the middle of the supposedly empty Indian Ocean. The British cannot be counted out until their last warship is sunk.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

What are the Eastern Fleet rules for that secret base?” Avalanche Press first tells us, “The Japanese were not aware of the base’s existence during the April 1942 carrier raids in the Indian Ocean, and Somerville’s fleet used it extensively. So we should expect some secret base rules, right? Well, not so fast…

In our game Eastern Fleetwe gave Addu Atoll no special secret abilities: The Japanese player knows the British have a base there. The game system doesn’t lend itself to “secret” bases, since the opposing player is going to figure out that a task force probably isn’t going to halt in mid-ocean for several turns. Optional rules make it harder to detect, but unlike Chuichi Nagumo the Axis player already knows it’s there and therefore knows to look for it.

Eastern Fleet: Britain’s Secret Base (Nov 2011)
Courtesy Avalanche Press

I don’t know what “optional rules” the Avalanche Press is talking about as I don’t find any such rule in my first edition rule book. Maybe it was added in a later edition?

Feature image “Aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sinking, 9 April 1942by Unknown Japanese photographer – http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/302403 courtesy Australian War Memorial.

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

#ThreatTuesday: South China Sea #wargame danger zone – Will the PLAN wield a trident with ASBMs and carriers?

I play wargames to learn. Wargames, or what some call “historical conflict simulations” have taught me alot of history. But I also believe wargames can provide insights into the future. While think tanks use wargames to inform or influence decision and policymakers, hobby wargamers can explore similar issues using commercial titles.

I recently read the article “Analysis of the Relations between Chinese Aircraft Carriers and the Maritime Order of the South China Sea” in The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis (Vol. 34, No. 3, September 2022, 433-452). What caught my attention in particular about this article was the authors; Xingxing Wang and Jiyong Zheng, are from the Shanghai International Studies University; Fudan University; People’s Republic of China. Articles about sea power and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are a dime-a-dozen these days, but to read an article written by “the opposition” is not as often encountered. Wang and Zheng’s article is intended more to inform than to propagandize, but it does fit into a series of studies around the maritime aspects of the U.S.-People’s Republic of China (PRC) competition that relates several articles and books together. Along the way, we also have an opportunity to look at what wargames can help us better explore these issues.

Aircraft Carriers

As Wang and Zheng explain:

“China has gradually shifted its geopolitical focus from land-based control to sea-based developments out of both security and economic considerations. Marked by the official launch of its aircraft carriers a decade ago, China has dedicated resources to building up its navy as a blue water force rather than the offshore defensive force that it had primarily been until that point. Meanwhile, by serving as the pillar of sea power, these aircraft carriers will play more important roles in China’s naval development, ultimately reshaping the global strategic picture of sea power. This article aims to explore the influence of Chinese aircraft carriers to maritime order of the South China Sea and strategic pattern of global sea power by analyzing the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet’s operational design and reconstruction of China’s naval strategy. The presence of Chinese aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and their inherent combat capabilities has inevitably cased a subversive light on the region and brought the attention of the United States’ and other regional actors’ own activities and strategies for the region. This research has great significance for understanding China’s grand strategic conception and practice on the South China Sea issue as well as construction of a new maritime order in the context of China-U.S. competition.” (Wang & Zheng, 433)

If you are a wargame player like me, then you might of gamed out a confrontation between a PLAN Carrier Task Force and a U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group (CSG) using a game like South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017) or Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020). Playing such scenarios may lead to the assumption that a PLAN Carrier Task Force is not a true match for a CSG. While that conclusion may have some basis, it ignores the impact of the PRC’s “carrier killer.”

Carrier Push Back

Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger are co-authors of the book Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century (Asia@War No. 29, Warwick: Helion & Company Ltd., 2022). Doyle and Herzinger frame the issue this way:

“The idea of an anti-ship ballistic missile has taken root in China’s military planning. The country is not only building more of its first version of such a weapon, the DF-21D, but has developed an anti-ship warhead for another such missile, the more-numerous DF-26, billed as having a 2,500-mile-range — more than enough to hit Guam from several hundred miles inland in China. In theory, that puts any naval adversary at risk long before it is in Chinese waters, let alone within striking distance of China’s coastline.

That puts US carrier strike groups — a linchpin of US power projection, able to hit any corner of the world at short notice with overwhelming force — in a situation they have never before faced. For years, US war planners took for granted that American naval power could operate unimpeded anywhere on Earth and deliver strikes with relative impunity. If a missile can sweep that option off the board, it changes the balance of power not just in Asia, but across the Pacific.”(Doyle & Herzinger, book back)

Photo by RMN

Again, wargames like Harpoon V or South China Sea can help game out the impact of these anti-ship ballistic missiles, at least at the tactical levels. While South China Sea provides some insight into the strategic impacts of the ASBM on operations in the South China Sea, the topic is actually underrepresented in wargames. Maybe, just maybe, the arguments advanced by Wang and Zheng regarding the capabilities of a PLAN Carrier Task Force are not that inconceivable if the PRC uses their “carrier killers” to keep the U.S. Navy out of the South China Sea…and beyond. That in turn creates opportunities for the PRC to “wield a trident.”

Trident Strategy

Kohji Kuhara of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force writes in the Spring 2022 edition of the Naval War College Review about China’s ‘Trident” Strategy (Kuhara, Kohji (2022) “Countering China’s “Trident Strategy—Frustrating China’s Aims in the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 75: No. 2, Article 4):

“China is trying to construct a naval strategy to deny U.S. forces freedom of action in the western Pacific Ocean. Looking back to the U.S. Navy’s last major strategic contest, against the Soviet navy during the Cold War, provides comparisons between Soviet and Chinese strategies that yield insights and analogies that can help develop more effective countermeasures against undesirable Chinese initiatives.”

Kuhara reminds us that, unlike the claims of Doyle and Herzinger, the U.S. Navy has indeed faced before a situation in which access to the worlds oceans was contested. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union challenged the United States for supremacy on the high seas. Wargamers can play out this confrontation in many games, ranging from Victory Games’ Fleet series (Victory Games, 1985-1990) for operational campaigns to the strategic Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) or Seapower and the State (Simulation Canada, 1982). Alas, there are very few “modern” equivalent game showing the confrontation between the U.S. Navy and PLAN, and certainly none at the strategic level. Quite simply, there is no good wargame to help fully navigate “the danger zone.”

Danger Zone

Hal Brands and Michael Beckley write in Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2022) that:

“China is at a perilous moment: strong enough to violently challenge the existing order, yet losing confidence that time is on its side. Numerous examples from antiquity to the present show that rising powers become more aggressive when their fortunes fade, their difficulties multiply, and they realize they must achieve their ambitions now or miss the chance to do so forever. China has already started down this path. Witness its aggression toward Taiwan, its record-breaking military buildup, and its efforts to dominate the critical technologies that will shape the world’s future.” (Danger Zone dust jacket)

Photo by RMN

Finding a wargame, or in this case maybe more properly a strategy game that looks beyond kinetic military confrontation, of the U.S.-PRC competition is nearly impossible. I had some hope earlier this year with the release of Flashpoint: South China Sea from GMT Games which advertised itself as thus:

Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical contest currently taking place between the United States and China in a disputed region of the South China Sea. The game is driven by a card deck that captures developments ripped straight from today’s headlines, bolstered by cards with a context-setting reading of recent history, and a set of speculative cards capturing a diverse range of potential future events. 

The Chinese player works to influence other countries in the region, establish territorial claims and regional hegemony, and improve its world standing. The U.S. player works to maintain influence with allied countries in the region, secure freedom of navigation, and keep China in check. Success for both players hinges on the support and allegiance of non-player countries in the region. The game stops short of dealing with a potential full-scale military conflict. Rather, it requires the nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.”

Photo by RMN

Alas, for all the theme in the ad copy, Flashpoint: South China Sea is more “Euro” than “wargame;” it’s a mechanically well-executed game with the thinnest of themes layered over. Consequently, its ability to explore the “danger zone” is limited at best.

Building from the Brands & Beckley book, we can see how the “Trident Strategy” is but one part of the danger zone, and the PLA’s “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles are one of those technologies that change maritime strategy. Does our perceptions of what a PLAN aircraft carrier is intended to do change?

Wargaming the South China Sea

Wargames seem very popular in the think tanks of Washington, DC. A recent article from War on the Rocks by Robert Haddick titled “Defeat China’s Navy, Defeat China’s War Plan” talks about what wargames are “teaching” decision and policymakers:

“Washington has already lost the war for Taiwan — at least according to the most recent wargames organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank’s simulation of a conflict between the United States and China saw several U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups sunk, hundreds of U.S. combat aircraft destroyed, and thousands of U.S. military personnel lost in the war’s opening days.

These games, planned long before the most recent Taiwan crisis and set in 2026, add to decades of analyses of the Taiwan scenario conducted at war colleges and think tanks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Scheduled to be written up later this year, the games have reinforced at least one previously well-known conclusion: should the United States attempt to fight the battle for Taiwan relying mainly on military forces located west of Guam, U.S. losses will be severe. The United States and its allies might stalemate the People’s Liberation Army. But the cost could very well be too high for U.S. society to sustain. And if China’s leaders believe this, even wrongly, deterrence will collapse, and the risk of war will rise.”

Via YouTube

With an online moniker of “RockyMountainNavy” it should be obvious where my loyalties lie between navalists and (ch)air force advocates. This makes it a bit hard to accept Haddick’s advocacy of using U.S. Air Force bombers to defeat the PLAN:

“Destroying China’s maritime power would end China’s capacity for conquest in the western Pacific. Yet the Chinese navy is not an Air Force priority, despite its vulnerability to U.S. bombers. As Taiwan-focused wargames show, the shortage of U.S. anti-ship munitions represents a missed opportunity that will come with high costs. 

Civilian policymakers should make China’s maritime forces a top targeting priority for the U.S. bomber force. First, they should require Air Force officials to explain how their munitions strategy supports deterrence by denial against Chinese forces. Following that, they could demand the Air Force fund the rapid development of Mark Gunzinger’s affordable mid-range munition and acquire, say, 2,000 long-range anti-ship missiles, even if this means acquiring fewer joint air-to-surface standoff missiles. Policymakers could also demand the Air Force repair and return to service some of the 17 B-1B bombers that were recently sent to the boneyard despite each being able to carry 24 long-range anti-ship missiles. These relatively minor expenses would quickly add substantial striking power against the Chinese Navy.

More broadly, policymakers should recognize that the sensor-missile military-technical revolution has transformed the Indo-Pacific into a military theater where long-range aerospace power dominates. America’s aerospace power is an enduring competitive advantage that matches up well against several Chinese vulnerabilities, starting with its navy. Exploiting this competitive advantage is the most direct way to strengthen U.S. deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Regardless of my service biases, even I recognize that Haddick’s proposal is probably worthy of exploration with a wargame. This seems like a good scenario to explore at the tactical level using Harpoon V or at the operational level using South China Sea.

What does the wargame tell you?

Which brings us back to our original inquiry: Wang and Zheng talk almost exclusively about the “defensive” power of a PLAN aircraft carrier. What if the PLAN wants to operate those carriers out to the limit of, or beyond, the coverage of their ASBMs? Will the pointy end of the trident be sharp or dull? Does that change the nature of the danger zone? What are the alternative strategies that armchair commanders can wargame at home? More broadly, how can we use hobby wargames to explore this strategic situation?

Feature Photo: Simon Yang, CC-BY SA 2.0

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

#ThreatTuesday – The sky is falling…with SKYFALL via @CovertShores

HI Sutton over at Covert Shores has a “look” at possible preparations by the Russians to test their nuclear-powered cruise missile, codenamed SKYFALL. At least one previous missile test ended in a failure. Talk about a hot topic…

Wargamers may be interested in gaming out an intercept of this weapon. Not only do you have to find it, intercept it, and shoot it down but you need to do it in a manner that 1) Doesn’t irradiate yourself and 2) Brings it down away from a populated place and 3) Helps you file the Environmental Impact Statement for the debris field.

See “SKYFALL Imminent: Signs Of Russia’s Next Nuclear-Powered Missile Test” via Covert Shores.

Feature image courtesy HI Sutton.

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

#ModelMonday – On the front line of the hobby with Frontline Model Kits & Hobbies

My local plastic model hobby shop closed in February 2017 and there simply is no replacement in the area. So this past weekend RockyMountainNavy T and myself were trekking from Northern Virginia to Blacksburg for Virginia Tech Parents Weekend and decided to track down a rumor that there was a hobby shop in Staunton, VA.

We were very happy to find Frontline Model Kits & Hobbies. The young owner is Christian, who started coming into the shop at 10 years old and now has taken over for Jack. Both were in the shop and both were very kind. We were so excited to find this slice of heaven that we forgot to take pictures!

My verdict? Sure, you might be able to find some kits at better prices online, but there is something unmatchable about walking aisles and randomly picking up boxes. Thumbnails online don’t do justice to many of these kits.

Tamiya JSU-152 in 1/35 scale

RMN T found himself a Soviet tank destroyer, and I added a sci-fi kit I have been coveting for a while.

MPC Hawk Mark IX from Space: 1999

I encourage you to visit Christian online or if in Staunton to drop on by…you won’t be disapointed.

Oh yeah, I got another “plastic model this week too…

“You expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to BUILD.”

Feature image courtesy Christian Vames

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

#FridayReading Paired with #Wargame – From Midway into the Danger Zone as seen Ex Supra (mentions @ADragoons #fscsgame @gmtgames @AEI @Iron_Man_Actual)

Three new books this week that I will read and likely use as “inspiration” for gaming.

The Battle of Midway, Craig L. Symonds, Oxford University Press, 2011

Wargame Pairing: C.V.: A Game of the Battle of Midway, 1942 (Yaquinto Publishing, 1980)

The ad copy for Symonds’ The Battle of Midway claims:

Symonds is the first historian to argue that the victory at Midway was not simply a matter of luck, pointing out that Nimitz had equal forces, superior intelligence, and the element of surprise. Nimitz had a strong hand, Symonds concludes, and he rightly expected to win.


I think Symonds’ argument that the American victory “was not simply a matter of luck” is a valid claim when compared to Gordon Prange’s 1982 book Miracle at Midway (Penguin Books). I’m not so sure you could make that same argument when comparing it to Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books, 2005). I also recently visited this topic in my article ““What WAS Nimitz Thinking?”: Another Battle of Midway Wargame Analysis” for Armchair Dragoons.

Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, W.W. Norton & Company, 2022

Wargame Pairing: Flashpoint: South China Sea (GMT Games, 2022)

It has become conventional wisdom that America and China are running a “superpower marathon” that may last a century. Yet Hal Brands and Michael Beckley pose a counterintuitive question: What if the sharpest phase of that competition is more like a decade-long sprint?

Over the long run, the Chinese challenge will most likely prove more manageable than many pessimists currently believe—but during the 2020s, the pace of Sino-American conflict will accelerate, and the prospect of war will be frighteningly real. America, Brands and Beckley argue, will still need a sustainable approach to winning a protracted global competition. But first, it needs a near-term strategy for navigating the danger zone ahead.


Both authors are from the American Enterprise Institute, a DC-based think-tank generally described as “right-of-center.”

Ex Supra: A Novel by Tony Stark, (Self-Published?), 2022

Wargame Pairing: Traveller/Cepheus Engine Role-Playing Game (Various publishers, 1977-2022)

This book started out as a work of Fictional Intelligence (FICINT) that the author, Tony Stark (@Iron_Man_Actual on Twitter) expanded out. The ad copy for Ex Supra reads:

This is the story of the war after the next war.

In 2035, an AI-driven disinformation campaign turned us on ourselves. We became the enemy’s first strike weapons, and as we set fire to our own country, the People’s Liberation Army seized half of the Pacific. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity. 

Ex Supra ad copy

Feature image courtesy reddit

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

#RPGThursday – Loose thoughts on Cortex Codex (not Fandom anymore, 2022)

New arrival this week in my RPG collection is the Cortex Codex. What is the Codex?

The first version of the Cortex Codex has arrived. It’s an alphabetical listing of every Cortex rule. It’s the collated form of the wiki-ish thing they’re going to put on the web site.

On the plus side, the explanations of rules are really good. On the minus side, there aren’t bookmarks and the index-like table of contents doesn’t have page numbers in it.

I love Cortex, and I was a lot happier with the Prime handbook than a lot of other people, but this one’s a bit awkward. Hopefully we’ll see an updated release soon.

Miss Atomic Bomb via RPG.net forums 1 Jun 2022

The Cortex Codex is a three-hole punched, loose-leaf assembly of the rules. I think I can see what the publisher/designer intended; each major rule is its own section that can be swapped out and updated as necessary. New rules are simply added in (alphabetically) as needed.

Yeah…you sorta can “see” though the pages…

With the recent sale of Cortex by Fandom to Dire Wolf Digital, I wonder what’s going to happen to Cortex in the future. While the Traveller/Cepheus Engine system is my first go-to set of rules for role-playing games, I have always enjoyed various Cortex-driven RPGs (like Serenity/Firefly Role-Playing Game and Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game). Like Miss Atomic Bomb above, I too enjoy the Cortex Prime Game Handbook and find the system highly suitable for many different genre of role-playing games.

Feature image courtesy the internet

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

#Wargame Wednesday or #RPGThursday? Alone just Five Parsecs from Home—Third Edition: Solo Adventure Wargaming (@Modiphius, 2021)

It seems I am always getting dragged into arguments discussions about “What is a wargame?” This should not be one of them. I mean, with Five Parsecs from Home—Third Edition: Solo Adventure Wargaming it can’t be any more obvious since “wargaming” is part of the title, right? In reality, I am torn whether to place my impressions in my #Wargame Wednesday or #RPGThursday or even a #TravellerTuesday column. That’s because Five Parsecs from Home is part wargame and part role-playing game with a healthy dose of Traveller RPG inspiration.

Here is how publisher Modiphius advertises Five Parsecs from Home:

Five Parsecs From Home is a solo adventure wargame where you assemble a ragtag crew of galactic trailblazers and head out to explore the stars, pick up jobs, and every now and then —  engage in some action-packed, sci-fi combat!

Battles are procedurally generated with huge combinations of enemies, weapons, battlefield circumstances and objectives whether fighting rivals or carrying out jobs.

With each encounter you earn experience and loot, progressing your crew and story as you send your crew to look for contacts, trade, explore the colony, recruit replacements or train up their skills.

The game is playable with any miniatures you have on hand and requires only a small number to get started, making it ideal for both experienced and new science fiction gamers. All you need is a few six-sided dice and a couple of ten-sided dice. 


“Adventure wargame.” That’s an interesting adjective for a wargame and certainly a thought worthy of consideration. Hang on to your thoughts as we will come back to that in a bit.

Wargame or RPG?

It’s Traveller

Five Parsecs from Home is Classic Traveller. No, I’m not talking about the Third Imperium setting for Traveller, I mean the original, near setting-less, GDW Little Black Books 1977 version of Traveller where the Imperium was a distant, nebulous entity. Here is part of the introduction to Five Parsecs from Home:

Here, in front of you, is the Fringe: a scattered array of worlds that defy generalization, anarchistic colonies of determined frontier settlers, crime-ridden concrete towns, corporate-controlled extraction bases, and battle-grounds for warlords and pirates.

Opportunities for credits are everywhere you care to look: mercenary work, doing dirty jobs for the corporations, helping solve the trouble of some colony. If you have a ship to your name and a crew you can trust, you can go far.

Sometimes it even pays well. Find allies when you can, because your enemies will certainly remember your face. Nobody makes it very far on their own.

Of course, you may not live to spend your ill-gotten gains. Maybe you end up face-down in the radioactive sand after a shoot-out. Maybe you’re collateral damage in a Galactic War invasion. Maybe you try to pet a Krorg.


To me, that screams Classic Traveller (or maybe Serenity/Firefly Role-Playing Game…but you hopefully get my point).

It’s a Role-Playing Game

Five Parsecs from Home is a role-playing game (RPG). There are rules for character generation as well as encounters and narrative play to get one through an adventure (campaigns).


I would call character generation in Five Parsecs from Home as “just enough.” As in you create “just enough” to have a bit of some personality for your player characters (PCs). Of course, the focus is on combat so whatever attributes or skills the PC has in Five Parsecs from Home are combat-oriented. You also have “just enough” detail on your ship. There is no real role-playing—the adventure is driven by tables—but there are “just enough” story hooks that a bit of a narrative emerges as you progress.

Unlike Classic Traveller/Cepheus Engine where PCs bring their attributes and skills to the game, Five Parsecs from Home has two metagame currencies: Experience Points (XP) and Story Points. XP is used to grow a character, but Story Points are how the solo player gains a degree of leverage over the procedural development of the adventure narrative.


When I’m asked to describe adventures in Classic Traveller two terms come to mind: Patrons and Encounters. PCs seek Patrons to find a job and move from encounter to encounter as they adventure. Five Parsecs to Home leans hard into this approach

Five Parsecs from Home is built using campaign turns. After creating a crew of characters and kitting out both them and their ship you travel and explore. Every campaign turn there WILL be a battle to fight. Whereas in Traveller the narrative flow of the adventure is set by the Game Master (GM), in Five Parsecs to Home the Campaign Turn is defined for you. That’s because Five Parsecs from Home is designed for solo play—the campaign turn sequence replaces the GM. In many ways Five Parsecs from Home is a bit more of a “rigid” directed adventure than the solo play rules available for Traveller: more specifically the newer Cepheus Engine version as found in various Solo titles from Zozer Games.

It’s a Wargame

Five Parsecs from Home is a miniatures wargame. More exactly, it’s a set of combat rules for skirmish battles. Indeed, a campaign turn in Five Parsecs from Home is built around getting to, through, and then determining the aftermath of a battle.

(For those of you who are miniatures wargamers, the rules are figure-agnostic. The rules recommend using 15mm or 28mm figures and ranges/movement is in inches.)

In many ways Five Parsecs from Home is a battle scenario generation system. I appreciate that not all fights are straight-up murder hobo missions. Maybe you have to deliver an item, or search something, or maybe secure something. Some missions are for your patron while some are determined by a rival or maybe a quest.

The battle rules for Five Parsecs from Home are not very complex. As the combat system uses a grid square, it is a bit more complicated than the Range Band combat found Classic Traveller/Cepheus Engine but not by much. On the other hand, it is not as complex as that found in Classic Traveller combat games Snapshot or Azhanti High Lightning. The battle rules in Five Parsecs from Home are pretty much what I expect from a set of miniatures wargame rules; simple with just enough chrome to make it fit the theme but with a definite focus on playability.

Part of the reason the battle rules in Five Parsecs from Home work is the opposition “AI” in the rules. Rather than rigidly defining how an enemy force operates the game system give you a basic “doctrine” or “tactical tendencies” of how the opposition operates on the game board.

What is it?

So, if you ask me if Five Parsecs from Home is set in the Traveller RPG universe, I will probably answer, “Yes.” If you ask me if Five Parsecs from Home is a role-playing game I will also answer in the affirmative. Finally, if you ask me if Five Parsecs from Home is a wargame I will also answer in the positive. Which brings us back to the “adventure wargame” label…

Five Parsecs from Home is a solo skirmish wargame using role-playing game mechanisms to create your squad/crew. It is not unlike the Traveller Combat System in Classic Traveller nor unlike the related Snapshot or Azhanti High Lightning games where players are given more detailed combat rules for their characters. But Five Parsecs from Home goes a step beyod just being combat rules by adding solo “campaign” or “session” rules to help you build a story of how you got to the battle and what the aftermath is.

In many ways, I see a near-direct lineage between Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1980) and Five Parsecs from Home; both are a RPG to create characters that then move those characters through an adventure of encounters. Behind Enemy Lines was World War II in Europe; Five Parsecs from Home is a sci-fi future.

So, is Five Parsecs from Home a true “adventure wargame?” While I’m not necessarily going to categorize Five Parsecs from Home as a “wargame,” I’m certainly going to use it for some adventure gaming.

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

#ThreatTuesday – Sub-optimal NorKs and Ukraine Air-to-Air Survey (mentions @19_forty_five admiraltytrilogy.com @WessexGames @gmtgames)

North Korean Submarines

In a past #ThreatTuesday on North Korean military reference sources, I mentioned that there was no good single-source on the the North Korean Navy (aka the Korean People’s Navy). A recent article posted to 19fortyfive.com may help explain why. See “North Korea’s Submarine Fleet: Underwater Coffins Or Threat To The U.S. Navy?” by Christian Orr (posted 30 Aug 2022). Given the current state of the KPA, it is not surprising that even years ago Larry Bond gave them a Kilo-class SS in his Second Korean War book Red Phoenix (1989) just to make it interesting.

Ukraine Dogfights

Another interesting 19fortyfive.com article is “The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming” published 02 Sep 2022. Author Sebastian Roblin presents a survey of aircraft losses in the war, with a particular focus on trying to identify those that fell in air-to-air combat. He concludes:

It’s essential not to over-extrapolate from an incomplete dataset drawing on deeply selection-biased sources. However, it does suggest the technical advantages of Russian fighters (especially long-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles) are working in their favor.

Nonetheless, both sides’ aviation operations are geographically constrained by the robust ground-based air defenses of the other. On the balance, that means Russia’s air force can’t press its advantage into Ukrainian-defended airspace to claim air superiority. That allows Ukraine’s air force to continue flying and impose costs on a foe with a larger number of more advanced warplanes.

“The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming”

While the title of the article seems to focus on the air-to-air aspects of the Ukraine War and would therefore seemingly make good scenario fodder for a modern dogfight wargame like Air Superiority (GDW, 1987) or AirWar: C21 Max (Wessex, last updated 2008) the truth is that you probably need to use a more operationally-focused wargame. Titles like Harpoon 5 from Admiralty Trilogy Group (using a variant inspired by Persian Incursion) or a modern Red Storm (GMT Games, 2021) would be more useful.

Feature image courtesy Creative Commons

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