Rocky Reads for #Wargame – From Submarine 2nd Edition (Avalon Hill, 1981) to Star Fleet Battles (@ADBinc_Amarillo, 1979) with The Enemy Below by Cdr. D.A. Rayner (Henry Holt & Company, 1957)

I recently pulled my copy of the novel The Enemy Below by Commander D. A. Rayner off my bookshelf for rereading. I am fortunate to have a first edition, second printing hardcover version (sans dust jacket) from 1957 published by Henry Holt and Company. This book was originally my father’s and although the dust jacket is gone the interior flaps of the jacket were preserved in the front of the book. Growing up, I think I read the book before I saw the 1957 movie on syndicated TV. As good as the movie is, I am very much in the camp of “book over movie” critics.

Action Stations!

When I started wargaming, one of the earliest games I acquired was Submarine designed by Steve Peek from the Avalon Hill Game Company. My copy is a 1981 Second Edition which I bought brand new soon after release. Even today, I recall sitting down and learning the rules to Submarine with The Enemy Below at my side. Back then, and even today, I judge the “realism” of Submarine on the basis of how well it can recreate situations in The Enemy Below. The book is ripe for a wargame setting as communicated on the dust jacket:

Then, for forty merciless hours, it was depth charge vs. torpedo, destroyer vs. submarine, crew vs. crew, and, ultimately, Captain vs. Kapitan. Attack after attack, the stratagems of the two masters cancelled each other out. Each hour the U-121 drew closer to its rendezvous and, sensing the fact, the Captain radioed for reinforcements. But before the Cecilie or fleet destroyers could influence the outcome, the absolute battle between absolute equals was played out to a startling conclusion….

The Enemy Below, Dust Jacket

Compare this to the introduction for Submarine:

One of the few remaining campaigns of World War II yet to be covered on a tactical level has been the submarine war against commerce shipping and naval fleets. It was a war of no fronts; of hit and run tactics; a one-on-one duel reminiscent of the air war of World War I, complete with aces and acts of chivalry. But it was also fought with no holds barred, a struggle in which a second’s hesitation or lapse in concentration meant the difference between death and survival….

Submarine is a tactical recreation of the submarine war. A player assumes the role of either a submarine or escort captain. He can launch torpedoes at convoys or combat ships or hunt down submarines with depth charge runs.

Submarine, 1.0 Introduction

Looking at those words, is there any real wonder how one could not link The Enemy Below and Submarine together?

Pop History?

In retrospect, I sorta laugh at myself when I think about how I judge Submarine. After all, I studied to be a historian so I should be looking at any wargame critically from a historical perspective, not through the lens of popular culture. It’s akin to gamers today who play the videogame Call of Duty and praise it for being “realistic.” Then again, The Enemy Below is popular not for being a techno-thriller (ala The Hunt for Red October) but for being a deeply human story. Which makes me admire The Enemy Below even more; the book simultaneously captures the human and technical with a proper balance between the two of them. When I play Submarine, it is the influence of The Enemy Below that helps me remember the human side battle which barely gets a nod in the game system (see rule 49.0 Crew Quality).

Interestingly, I have a second submarine-themed wargame designed during this era. Up Scope! Tactical Submarine Warfare in the 20th Century was designed by Joe Balkoski for SPI in 1977. I’ve owned this game since the early 1980s but have never played it (and only rarely opened it) in part because the Designer’s Notes make reference to it being a counterpart to Air War (SPI, 1977) and placing realism over playability. With regards to The Enemy Below, Up Scope! has even less human connection. That design approach, and lack of connection to the book, can explain why Up Scope! rarely (or never) hit my gaming table over the years.

The Enemy Below…the Stars

I also must thank The Enemy Below for its influence on another wargame from my early years. In 1966 the Star Trek original TV series Season 1 episode “Balance of Terror” featured the USS Enterprise hunting a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device. It’s easy to see how the writers for this episode adapted The Enemy Below story. Romulan warships equipped with cloaking devices appear in the wargame Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) which uses Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as canon for the setting. I spent many, many hours of my youth playing Star Fleet Battles and always enjoyed the challenge of hunting a Romulan under cloak.

Solo #boardgame charging with Supercharged (@FoundationDietz, 2021)

This week I have been racing around Circuit de Rocky with some casual solo games of Supercharged: Racing in the Golden Age of Cars (Mike Clifford & Mike Siggins, Dietz Foundation, 2021). Supercharged is an easy to learn, great to solo if you need to, card-driven auto racing game. Movement mechanics are dead-simple; stay on the Racing Line, Overtake when able, Spin Out if you are Blocked. Pit Stops are a flip of a card. Slipstreaming is very helpful—watch how you stack your cars to make slipstreaming opportunities count! The Action Cards in Supercharged also create some great narratives like in the second race where the first Japanese car retired at the start (broken axle – obviously popped the clutch, right?) and then the second retired after getting stuck after a spin out in the first lap.

Supercharged also has a simple, yet very appealing, table presence. for the second race I sat on the sofa playing the game (solo) on the coffee table in front of me. As the RockyMountainNavy Boys came home we talked about our day (especially the panic buying of gas). While talking, I was casually flipping cards and moving cars. The Boys took a very keen interest in the game which will very likely land on the gaming table this weekend. Personally, I am looking forward to using the Tactics Cards and seeing how these “rule breaker” actions change the game. Later in the evening, Mrs. RMN told me that Miss A, who was at the house during the day, was absolutely fascinated with the game as it sat on my gaming table in the loft. It was laid out as the first race ended and she was intrigued by the cards and artwork. She told Mrs. RMN that it was “obviously” a math game; a reference to the Team Cards which have the various speeds for the teams (like 7+6 for an A-Team or 5+4 for a C-Team).

Order of Finish (Race 1/ Race 2):

  1. France / United Kingdom
  2. Italy / Germany
  3. Italy / Italy
  4. France / Italy
  5. Germany / Siam
  6. Germany / France
  7. United Kingdom / Belgium
  8. Japan / Netherlands (Lapped)
  9. Netherlands / Egypt (Lapped)
  10. Siam / United States (Lapped)
  11. Egypt / United States (Lapped)
  12. USA (Lapped…almost double lapped!) / Egypt (Lapped)

Winnings Thru Two Races:

  • Italy – $140,000 + 100,000 = $240,000
  • France – $140,000 +$20,000 = $160,000
  • Germany – $50,000 + 80,000 = $130,000
  • Egypt – $20,000 + 100,000 = $120,000
  • Netherlands $40,000 + $60,000 = $100,000
  • Siam $90,000
  • Belgium $80,000
  • Japan – $30,000

Winnings in Supercharged make for an interesting campaign game. Of course, the “A-Teams” of Italy, Germany, and France are at the top of the standings and Italy has way more money even though they have not placed first in a race. Look at that Egyptian “C-Team” with three Top 12 finishes in two races—making some good money, eh?

Supercharged (Dietz Foundation, 2021)

#Wargame Wednesday – Standard has advantages in Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (@MultiManPub, 2020)

For a few weeks a single wargame, Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (Jeremy White, GMT Games, 2020) occupied both my time and gaming table. Although I ended up enjoying playing the game, the time needed to learn the rules (10 tutorial episodes) was a bit much. When I moved onto the next game in my “to play” list, Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (Ray Weiss, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) it was a totally different gaming experience, and frankly, more enjoyable.

Rostov ’41 is another edition in the Standard Combat Series of wargames from Multi-Man Publishing (MMP). MMP advertises the SCS as follows:

The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games. Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation: rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.

MMP Website

Rostov ’41 and the SCS are exactly the type of game I was hoping to use to “Rev My Gaming Engine.” In this case, the “standard” in SCS is the main draw. Opening up Rostov ’41, I first pulled out the eight-page Series Rules, v 1.8 and gave them a quick skim to remind myself of the fundamentals of the game. I then pulled out the eight-page Rostov ’41 Special Rules and read them a bit more closely. New series rules really only cover three pages with the balance of the Special Rules given over to scenarios and charts. In the case of Rostov ’41, important ‘changes” from the Series Rules are a modified Sequence of Play (1.1) and Barrages (1.6).

Quick Start

Unlike Atlantic Chase, which took me multiple hours (spread over multiple days) to learn before play, Rostov ’41 was on my gaming table literally within an hour of opening the box. It’s at this point that I usually slow down; study the setup, make cautious moves at first as I not only rediscover the game system, but also explore the strategy and tactics needed to reach victory in the particular scenario.

Rostov ’41 box back

The box back of Rostov ’41 is actually a very accurate description of game play. I don’t usually associate “wild gameplay” with a SCS title but with this game it’s quite appropriate. The warning on the back of the box is also easy to ignore…at the player’s own peril:

The German player must use his limited and overstretched forces to pull off a brilliant coup. Playing it safe won’t cut it; speed is all important. With a lot of skill and a bit of luck, Rostov will be yours. Then you’ll have to pay the piper.

The Russian player must conserve his forces as the German rapier expends its energy. While the capture of Rostov requires a lot of skill and some luck on the German part, don’t begin to think your job is easy. Derailing that German drive can easily consume precious forces needed for your main effort: turning the tables on the Germans and taking back great swaths of the Motherland.

Rostov ’41, Box Back

Deep Gaming

I usually play the full scenario for new games but in this case I decided to take a graduated approach to my Rostov ’41 play. Scenario 2.2 “Fritz on the Mius” is the initial German assault and covers turns 1-4 of the campaign game. Scenario 2.3 “Fritz Grabs Rostov” starts mid-game covering turns 7-14 while scenario 2.4 “Soviet Counterpunch” is the Soviet counteroffensive on game turns 11-14. Taking this approach allowed me to explore each segment of the battle separately. Most helpfully, this approach allowed me to learn what both sides need to accomplish in the larger campaign.

Playing Rostov ’41 this way took me a few days but still far fewer than I devoted to Atlantic Chase. By the time I ended my exploration of Rostov ’41 I found myself very satisfied. The main difference in playing Rostov ’41 and Atlantic Chase was that my familiarity and understanding of the SCS system allowed me to “fight the battle” and not “fight the game.” What I mean here is that in Rostov ’41 I was able to study the campaign and the history whereas in Atlantic Chase I am still learning the system making game play more about “manipulating the levers” vice “fighting the battle.” As I am a wargamer that enjoys studying the history of a battle I derive far more enjoyment from the later.

Finding the Right Gear to Maximize Revolutions

Playing Rostov ’41 helps me to reaffirm my “Rev My Game Engine” approach to playing wargames. Looking at my current preorder list, of the 28 games I’m waiting for, seven are truly “unique” to me. All the others are either expansions or derivative designs from ones known to me (with admittedly varied levels of familiarity). Although I look forward to exploring new and different game designs, I also realize that I personally need to take the new in moderation. This is also why I have mad respect for content creators like Grant & Alexander (or is it Alexander & Grant?) from The Players’ Aid or Kev at The Big Board Gaming because they seem to always be taking in the new. How do they enjoy what they’ve got?

History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

For tabletop wargamers, a popular game series in the past decade is GMT Games’ Counter Insurgency (COIN) Series. Starting in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss – COIN Vol I , the system now (nearly) encompasses 14 volumes spanning conflicts from the past, present, and even future. I personally own two titles, Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – COIN Vol. V and Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 – COIN Vol. VII with two more on order (Brian Train’s China War: 1937-1941 – COIN Vol. XII and J. Carmichael’s Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Revolts – COIN Vol XIII). All of which means I have limited familiarity with the COIN system as a player and am far, far from being a COIN designer.

That said….

I recently read an article by Robert Neff called “Rebels At the Gate” in the May 1, 2021 edition of The Korean Times Online. The article discusses events from 1894 on the Korean peninsula focusing on a peasant rebellion that took place amidst the Sino-Japanese War. This passage in particular got me thinking about a possible game design:

The rebels ― identified as the Donghaks ― claimed to number several millions and had sworn to the death that they would rid the country of the foreign vermin. They didn’t in 1893 and, according to Sallie, they didn’t on September 15, 1894:

As a result of the threat, the “doors and windows were barred and the gates guarded by the legation soldiers but the night passed quietly and the excitement has entirely abated.”

However, the abatement was short lived. A few days later, Alice (Sallie’s sister who resided with the Sill family in Seoul), insisted she did not worry about the Chinese and Japanese soldiers rather “the danger now [in Seoul] is from the [Donghaks], Koreans who hate all foreigners and try to exterminate them whenever they can ― so a guard will be kept during the winter at least and perhaps longer.” A few days later she reported the rebels had advanced to a point about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. She insisted she was not worried and expressed the greatest confidence in the American marines guarding the legation in Seoul. 

The attack on Seoul never materialized. However, for the next couple of years, the regions outside Seoul were almost in a constant state of unrest.

Robert Neff, “Rebels at the Gate,” Korea TImes, May 1, 2021

It turns out that 1894 was an important year in Korean history. The book Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Michael Shin, Editor, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2014) devotes an entire map titled, “The Year 1894: Gabo Peasants’ War, Sino-Japanese War” to this one year which shows not only significant battles but also the many peasant uprisings.

Korean History in Maps, p. 108

After reading Robert Neff’s article and looking at the 1894 map, the thought, “This really could be a COIN game” crossed my mind. Certainly, the historical events of 1894 are ripe for narrative exploration using the lens of a COIN game. One of the most powerful aspects of the COIN game system is the system’s ability to depict the interactions of multiple, often asymmetrically powered factions. In this case there are four factions:

  • Tonghak (aka Donghan) – “…the growing Christianity, the declining village economy, and certain government mismanagement led to the development of the strong anti-government and anti-foreign sentiments of the conservative Confucian literati as well as those of the Tonghak believers. The Tonghak had been seeking the legitimacy of their religion, exoneration of Ch’oe Che-u, the founder of the Tonghak sect, who was executed in 1864, and the prevention of the spread of foreign religion. At the same time, they were antagonized by illegal taxes which the local officials collected from the peasants.”1
  • Joseon (Korean Government) – “When the Tonghak Uprising became an open rebellion, the weak Korean government asked for Chinese help. Meanwhile, a truce was reached between the Tonghak rebels and the government…[which] issued a twelve-point reform program.”2
  • China – “The Chinese government whose aim was to strengthen its control over Korea sent an army of 3,000 soldiers and a naval force to Korea, violating the agreement which it had signed with the Japanese in April 1885.”3
  • Japan – “Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that it now had legitimate cause to fight a war with China, and the time was right. Consequently, it sent an army of 8,000 troops and a naval force to Korea.”4
  • Missionaries/Diplomats/Westerners – I don’t see these as a separate faction, but rather events or “terrain” that factions must be wary of.

These faction snippets can help define victory conditions, as well as thinking about the various Commands and Special Activities of each faction. At this point, my limited familiarity with COIN hinders me to design further but once I get another few games in house as examples I might be better suited to explore a possible design.

Focusing on the year 1894 also seems to make sense as that one year had a good ebb and flow of events. Broadly speaking, the year went though at least three distinct phases.

  • Gabo Peasant War Begins: Starting in January the first peasant uprisings in the South broke out. These uprisings spread into a full rebellion and by May troops from China and Japan arrived. At this point there was turmoil within the Korean government with palace intrigue in Seoul as a deposed king tried to place his son on the throne.
  • Sino-Japanese War Begins: By July, the Chinese and Japanese enter into open conflict. While the two outside powers fight, another peasant uprising begins which unites the Japanese and Daewongun Koreans (an alliance which eventually falters thanks to coup planning by the Daewongun). Interestingly, the Korean government fights alongside the Japanese against the rebels even as they try to implement reforms (carrot and stick approach?).
  • War Moves On/Peasant Rebellion Collapses: By November, the Chinese-Japanese fighting moves into Qing China and the peasant army is defeated with it’s main leader, Jeon Bongjin, captured. He was executed on April 24, 1895 just days after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the Sino-Japanese War and the tributary relationship between the Joseon and Qing dynasties.
Korean History in Maps, p. 109

Like I said, I’m no COIN game designer but this is a very interesting topic—and a great thought exercise.


Feature image from The History of Korea by Han Woo-Keun (Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing, 1970)

Footnotes:

1-4. Nahm, Andrew C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Seoul: Hollym, 1993, p. 158-162.

Sunday Summary – Puzzling over 1979-2034 Rostov Submarine Barns (#wargame #boardgame #books @MultiManPub @HABA_usa @FoundationDietz @Bublublock @compassgamesllc @DanThurot @USNIBooks @Academy_Games)

Wargames

A very pleasant week of wargaming. I got Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (Ray Weiss, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) to the gaming table for multiple plays. I really enjoy the Standard Combat Series and this title was truly a Rev to My Gaming Engine. Deeper thoughts will come in this weeks “#Wargame Wednesday” posting. I also pulled Steve Peek’s Submarine (Avalon Hill, 2nd Edition 1981) off the shelf to support a “Rocky Read for #Wargame” entry on The Enemy Below (Cdr D.A. Rayner, Henry Holt & Co., 1957) that will post later this week.

Boardgames

The Kickstarter campaign for 1979: Revolution in Iran (Dan Bullock, Dietz Foundation) successfully funded this week. This is the second game in what I (very informally) call the Axis of Evil Strategy Game Series. The first game, No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2020) was the subject of a very nice Space-Biff column this week.

Miss A brought her birthday present game, Barnyard Bunch (HABA, 2019) to the house this week when she came for her tutoring with Mrs. RMN. This is a very kid-friendly cooperative game that was really fun to play together with her and Mrs. RMN. The goal of the game is to keep the animals from running away. Every turn, a player rolls the die to see what animals advance (depends on color of die face), or retreats one space (the Farmer), or which is taken all the way back to the barn by the Dog. Then, you draw a card that will advance an animal, lure an animal back one space with food, or show the Farmer (choose one animal back one space) or Dog (one animal back to barn). Not much strategy needed as the game is played cooperatively with all players participating in the choice of animals moved by the Farmer or Dog. Given Miss A is 7-years old we thought that maybe the game is actually too simple for her. However, we were later told she took the game to a friends house and taught it to her friend. So…it was an obvious good choice by Mrs. RMN, right?

Puzzles

No, not puzzle games, but real honest-to-goodness jigsaw puzzles. Got notice this week that two historical puzzles I ordered through Academy Games arrived at the warehouse. For the RockyMountainNavy Boys summer enjoyment they will get to work on these 700mm x 500mm, 1000-piece puzzles featuring cover art from Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and 878: Vikings. As I look at the pledge page I see very few puzzles ordered. I know we are coming out of COVID lockdowns but, hey, let’s show some love here!

Books

With the arrival of summer I decided to order “a few” more books for those lazy evening reads. I started off with Naval Institute Press (where I am a member) and ordered several from the Fall 2021 catalog. Stupid me, I failed to realize two of the books are “coming later this year” so I only got one book from this order in hand (Norman Friedman’s Network-Centric Warfare, 2009). I also ended up ordering seven more books from the “Clear the Decks” sale section—still awaiting delivery of those. I then ordered two titles from Amazon which is how 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman with Admiral Jim Stavridis, USN (Ret.) and The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of World War Two by Malcolm Gladwell arrived on my bookshelf. Of the two, 2034 is very likely to feature in a near-future (no pun intended) posting of “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” since Compass Games is scheduled to release John Gorkowski’s Indian Ocean Region in the South China Sea series of wargames this month.

Rocky Reads for #FamilyFriday

If you’ll indulge me, I wish to do something a bit different for my Rocky Reads this week. It has to do with family and friends.

Some regular readers may recall I occasionally talk about Miss A, the young first-grader that Mrs. RockyMountainNavy tutors. I talked recently about how this past COVID year Mrs. RMN taught Miss A to read.

Take a look at this picture:

Miss A reading her book

That’s Miss A reading a special book which was a gift for her seventh birthday. As a matter of fact, it’s her book; as in the story is about “her” and friends around her. In this story she is a magical unicorn with an Aunt (Mrs. RMN), and friends with a boy unicorn (RockyMountainNavy Jr) and a girl unicorn (named after her best friend). In the story, Miss A gets to be the hero.

Look at that face. Can you see the magic and joy from her reading?

When I read for my Rocky Reads or History to Wargame I know I am reading to learn and understand more about history. I also know that when I read, the younger generation is watching. If they see my joy then they are more willing to try reading.

Miss A has been lucky this COVID year to have Mrs. RMN to teach her how to read. I hope we have given her a good start on life.

One can’t read enough.


Check out dinkleboo.com for personalized kids books. Well worth it.

#Wargame Wednesday: 2020 Golden Geek Awards -or- you can’t be disappointed when you have no expectations

We all “know” the Golden Geek Awards sponsored by BoardGameGeek are a popularity contest. Although I recognize it as such, I still follow along, if for no other reason than to try to understand why certain games are popular. The 2020 winners represent a mixed bag for me.

I am very happy to see that David Thompson and Undaunted: North Africa (Osprey Games) won the Best 2-Player Game category. To see a “wargame” gain this wide an acceptance is happiness for this Grognard of 40+ years. On the other hand, I ruefully shake my head at the winners in the Wargame category. At the risk of reigniting the never-ending debate on “What is a wargame” I‘ll just make the observation that the defintion of a strategy conflict game seems very loosely applied here.

Don’t get me wrong; I am very happy to see Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle (GMT Games) win. After all, it’s the #18-ranked War Game, the #417-ranked Strategy Game, and ranked #842 overall on BGG. A well-deserved kudos is also owed again to David Thompson for Undaunted: North Africa (#91 War/#1130 Overall) as the Runner-Up along with Mark Herman and Geoff Englestein’s Versailles 1919 (GMT Games) which is #247 in War/#1251 Strategy/#3008 Overall.. Each game is a good design and obviously very popular. My personal favorite in this category, The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games) is actually not that far behind, ranked #271 in War and #3223 Overall. The real difference appears to be the number of owners of each game with Imperial Struggle most assuredly benefiting from the Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, now in 8th Printing) legacy as well as the production power of a larger wargame publisher in GMT Games. These factors combine to get this title onto many BGG user’s gaming tables. All three games (four if you count The Shores of Tripoli) are in many ways “cross-over” games that are ideal for what Harold Buchanan calls Convert wargamers.

While some Grognards may be tempted to dismiss the Golden Geeks, I hope instead that everybody recognizes that the hobby boardgame space for wargames is alive and well. Let’s get past the tired old “what is a wargame” arguments and simply focus on good games that we can all share together.

Sunday Summary – Biting into new #boardgames but few #wargames

This week was more dedicated to family events than gaming, so no news on the wargame front. For boardgames, the new arrival this week was Bites (boardgametables.com, 2020). I picked this game up since they offered a coupon in honor of the game being nominated in the Golden Geek Game of the Year for Light Boardgame category. The RockyMountainBoys and I played. Bites is light and fast and it doesn’t take too much thinking (not very strategic). We decided it’s a good lite family game highly suitable to go on vacation where one doesn’t necessarily want a longer game but instead need shorter, engaging games. Last year the winning vacation games were Here to Slay (Unstable Games, 2020) and Fort (Leder Games, 2020). This year we’re likely to add Supercharged (Dietz Foundation, 2021) and Bites.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The secret behind the #wargame Wing Leader (@gmtgames) found in The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by @CalumDouglas1 (Tempest Books, 2020)

Somewhere in the last year I can across a recommendation to not miss the book The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum E. Douglas (Tempest Books, 2020). Fortunately, I landed a copy of this coffee table size (and weight) book and I don’ regret it for a moment. Not only has is shown me more of the technology behind fighter engines in World War II, it also has shown me how those very same engine designs influence Formula One racing engines of today. It also has given me a deeper understanding of various air combat wargames, and in particular designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series from GMT Games.

“What?”, you say. “Formula One and WWII engines are related?” Yes, and in the most interesting ways as author Calum E. Douglas explains in The Secret Horsepower Race:

Today’s engines are now bearing the fruit of the work done during the Second World War, sometimes through a ‘second discovery’, sometimes through an old idea being rekindled. All Formula One motor-racing engines have the axial swirl throttle which started as a radial design in France and was designed by Daimler and then Mikulin in axial form. It is now normal practice for Grand Prix engines to run at over 130OC coolant temperature, for exactly the same reasons as Professor Messerschmitt complained so bitterly to Milch in 1942, and the water-cooled exhaust valve-guides of the Jumo 213 are to be found in the design of many Formula One Teams.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

In The Secret Horsepower Race there is an image on page 425 that shows a German Jumo 213 J connecting rod in a 1945 sketch just above a sketch of a “modern” racing engine connecting rod. Just how similar the two look is very striking and brings home the lesson of just how “advanced” the fighter engines of World War II actually are.

Connecting Rod from 1945 to “Modern”

The Secret Horsepower Race is certainly a more technical read than I normally undertake. After all, I’m a History major, not an engineer! That said, Mr. Douglas spins a fascinating tale that, though full of technical detail, also has enough history and espionage that it really entertains. I found myself drawn in and slowing to carefully read the account.

Book to Wargame

As I read The Secret Horsepower Race I found myself thinking of several air combat wargames I’ve played. In the late 1970’s when I started playing wargames, I acquired copies of designer S. Craig Taylor’s Air Force and Dauntless (Battleline, 1976/1977). These were my first introduction to the world of air combat wargames. If there is one rule I remember from those games it’s that inline engines were more vulnerable to damage than radial engines. In the 1990’s I moved to J.D. Webster’s excellent Fighting Wings series of games where engine power was a key factor in helping one “maintain energy” while in air combat (I highly recommend the latest version of Buffalo Wings from ATO Press). In the late 2010’s it was Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and his Wing Leader series from GMT Games that caught my interest.

The Wing Leader series uses a very different air combat wargame design, most noticeable from it’s side-view of battle. It is also, perhaps, the design most closely based on the secrets of The Secret Horsepower Race:

Speed. The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Manoeuvrability turned out to be less important than power and speed. The pre-war biplane fighter advocates lost that argument, though in the right conditions these aircraft proved to be a handful. The division of aircraft into 50 mph bands is crude, but works to define generational improvements. As the war dragged on, leaps in performance tended to be in increments of 25 mph or more.

Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Wing Leader: Aircraft Data Card Creation, v2.2

Book to Life

Although I read The Secret Horsepower Race to learn more about aviation history, I was pleasantly surprised by the connection to Formula One racing. It also taught me more of the engineering history and mathematical basis behind the designs of several wargames. More importantly, Calum E. Douglas teaches some real life lessons that go beyond history and wargame and are most applicable to my wannabe engineer youngest. To quote Mr. Douglas’ conclusion at length:

The blood, sweat, and tears which went into making a basic engine such as the Merlin into a war winner is not manifested in some magic gadget, but is concealed in hundreds of thousands of hours spent on fundamentals of engineering; making new drawings; machining parts with precision; organising the manufacturing in such a way that parts are of high quality and are checked properly; rigorous testing; chasing faults down as soon as they emerge; and all the time pushing incrementally forward.

That is how real high-performance engine projects are conducted, and those who were not there, or who have not done it themselves, can never understand the strain a designer faces watching an engine they have been responsible for start for the first time. In this moment their entire reputation stands fragile – a failure can mean disaster and the expense of tremendous sums of money and time. The engine designer is pleased when the engine runs and does its job.

This small pleasure is not enough, as those who devote their careers to engines know just how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach that ostensibly simple plateau. Even one tolerance written incorrectly on a drawing, one missed particle of dirt during assembly, or a simple decimal point being out of place in a calculation can spell ruin.

That these engineers were able to make hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art engines at all during the chaos of total war is a demonstration of the indelible lesson that success depends on focused effort and above all a deep level of mathematical understanding mated to pragmatic organisational thinking. Engineers today who see the power which was wielded with only a slide-rule and pencil and adapt the same mindset to use their computers instead of being used by them, will achieve spectacular success.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458