The second new game arrival this week was Ray Weiss’ Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). This is a Standard Combat Series game. I have come to expect that a SCS game has a “gimmick” or some special rule to highlight the battle or campaign depicted. However, in my first look through the rules I don’t see any obvious special rules. This might be a case where the scenario and order of battle are the “gimmick.” A deeper look will have to wait until after I get through Atlantic Chase.
If you are a follower of my blog, you might recall me making occasional references to Mrs. RockyMountainNavy and her students. In this year of COVID schooling she really leaned in to help the young daughter of a friend. Miss A is in first grade and, coming from a family that speaks nothing but Korean at home, is an at-risk learner. As a first-grader, this was the year she needed to really learn to read. So Mrs. RMN tutored her. Well, actually she did more than that. Miss A was at our house two of the four online school days each week while her parents worked and Mrs. RMN tutored her as well as helped her with online learning. We also played lots of games—but only after the school day or her tutoring was finished. But before I tell you about a game let me tell you a bit of the backstory.
Miss A started the year as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student in a Title I school. That’s a school where over 40% of the students qualify for reduced price or free lunches. Although Miss A’s teacher tried, online learning is NOT what those economically—and often educationally—disadvantaged children needed.
Mrs. RMN basically did all the teaching for Miss A this year—and it shows. She had taught all four of our children to read, even our Autism Spectrum boy. She went back to school to study Early Childhood Education. In other words she knows what she’s doing. She has a phonics reading program she knows and believes in. We have all the sight words cards a child needs. We have a children’s library with literally a thousand books (that’s just K-3…and I kid you not for we bought through the Scholastic Book Club for something like 15 years straight). All the books are marked with their Accelerated Reader level so we could make sure Miss A was reading the right books for her stage of learning.
Miss A is doing so well in reading that she left the ESL classes. She is doing so well in reading that she is at the top of her regular class—far ahead of many of her peers. The tutoring Mrs. RMN provided was certainly helpful, but also the environment we gave Miss A was very important. Where her fellow students lacked books to read because the school or local library was closed Miss A had hundreds to choose from (we try to get her to read 8-10 books a month – or or two or three each week). Where her fellow students lacked social opportunities, Miss A had “three older brothers” in the RMN Boys. Miss A also had plenty of opportunities to play games and benefit from all the great learning and socialization skills they build.
Last week Miss A completed the phonics readers that Mrs. RMN uses—all 68 books. It’s a great achievement so we decided to reward her. We made a nice certificate and printed it on heavier card stock. We also decided to buy her a game because as often as she is at our house she has picked up gaming too.
Of course, after we gifted Dragon’s Breath: The Hatching to Miss A we had to play it with her. Actually, she had to play it with me as I am her “game teacher” while Mrs. RMN is her “school teacher.” Thus, it fell on me to quickly learn the game and teach it to Miss A and Mrs. RMN.
Here is how HABA describes the Dragon’s Breath: The Hatching:
“Oh no! The nest, complete with dragon egg and sparkling stones, is frozen inside an ice column! Help Dragon Mom melt the thick layer of ice, but be careful that the egg doesn’t fall out of the nest! Earn points by collecting the fallen sparkling stones and placing them on your amulet.”
Dragon’s Breath: The Hatching is a light dexterity, set-collection game. Players take turns being the Dragon Mom and melting the ice tower full of crystals and topped by the Dragon Egg. As the Dragon Mom blows (melts) the ice tower, the player removes a ring and watches as crystals fall. If the Egg drops then Dragon Mom covers one of two holes on the treasure box. The other players now take turns collecting the different color crystals that fell and place them on their cards. As a card is completed, it is retired for scoring and replaced by a new card. The Dragon Mom player does not have cards to collect, but instead can put one or two crystals in the treasure chest on their turn, effectively keeping them away from the other players. A round consists of removing the three levels of the ice tower, and the game ends after each player has been the Dragon Mom once. At the end of play, scored cards are added up with the winner being the player with the highest score.
Miss A absolutely loved Dragon’s Breath: The Hatching because of the “cute” Dragon Mom wooden character and all the “pretty diamonds.” Both Mrs. RMN and myself realized the game could have a darker side since the Dragon Mom player effectively “hate-drafts” crystals to keep them away from others. Miss A realized that too, and was always very sad when she lost out on a crystal, but squealed with glee every time she kept a crystal away from me! In other words, she loves the game.
I am very proud of Miss A who has come so far in this horrible year of COVID schooling. I am also very proud of my wife and all she has done for Miss A this year. In a year where schools failed our children, Mrs. RMN has worked wonders to keep Miss A not only on track, but to push her ahead. Miss A is very proud of herself because she can read. She is also proud of herself because she does good in school. We constantly tell her she can do anything because she is smart. We also have given her a passion to play games. In this year of COVID, I think Miss A will not only enjoy Dragon’s Breath: The Hatching but also remember it for a long time.
Welcome to the exciting world of Advanced Squad Leader. ASL is a detailed wargaming system that can simulate any company level ground action from World War II. The playing pieces represent squads, half-squads, leaders, crews, guns, and vehicles from every major and minor combatant of World War II. The battlefields are represented by geomorphic mapboards upon which the counters are maneuvered. Starter Kits provide the new player with an easy method for becoming familiar with the basics of the ASL system using entry-level scenarios, counters boards, and rules.
Thus reads the introduction to the rulebook for ASL Starter Kit #1 (ASLSK1) from Multi-Man Publishing. Although I have played wargames for over 40 years now, I have not played any iteration of Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) in all that time. Last year, I listened to the “Unraveling Complexity” episode of the Ludology podcast (Nr. 238) where the hosts took the seemingly obligatory swipe at the legendary rules complexity of ASL. In my blog thoughts on the episode I responded to the hosts and challenged them to get an ASL Starter Kit and try it for themselves before they throw around disparaging remarks so casually. When Multi-Man Publishing announced that ASL Starter Kit #1 was back in stock I jumped at the chance to get it for myself because it’s a hollow challenge if I haven’t actually done it myself. What follows are my thoughts on the game written from the perspective of a Grognard experiencing the game for the first time. Along the way I am going to try to also keep in mind what this game might be like for a new wargamer experiencing it for the first time.
SPOILER ALERT – It’s a GAME, not a simulation, but it does come with a tech manual.
What You Get
Multi-Man Publishing is very upfront about what Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 is and isn’t. New players and Grognards alike need to pay attention for ASKSK1 is “a complete game the introduces players to the ASL Infantry rules.” In other words, the rules for artillery and vehicles are not here (you need to buy SK2-Guns and SK3-Tanksfor those).
The contents of ASLSK1 are very nice for a starter package. The game ships in a bookshelf-size 1.5” deep box. Two geomorphic mapboards each 8”x22” can be laid out in numerous variations to form your playing surface. There are also 280 counters that are probably a bit smaller for the Eurogame boardgame crowd (being only 1/2” in size) and, like so many cardboard chits for wargames, do not have come with those nicely rounded corners! Six scenarios each with a setup card are also included. Rules come in a 12-page rulebook. Oh yeah, and two d6 dice!
A very appealing factor of ASLSK1 is the price. Retailing at a mere $28 this game comes in at the low end of cost compared to many wargames and even for many boardgames. The cost is certainly enticing and makes the initial buying decision that much easier. This low cost of entry is very good for new gamers because the “risk cost” factor is relatively low. That said, the next two Starter Kits which cover artillery and vehicles cost $33 and $40 respectively. Alas, when one gets to SK4-PTO which covers the Pacific Theater the cost jumps to $65! For a “starter kit!” One popular meme in wargame circles is that ASL is as much a lifestyle as it is a game. Well, if one “invests” $168 for just “starter kits” then yes, one should also expect that jumping fully into the ASLfamily will be expensive.
The Effect of Complexity
One barrier to entry for new players of ASLis the game’s reputation—ASL is stuck with the moniker that it is more simulation than game. Even the Ludology crew explained away the complexity of ASL by dismissively calling it a “simulation.” If you listen closely to what they say you will discover that, using their terms, ASL actually is a game with a high degree of Rules/Mechanism Complexity. The complexity and difficulty of learning ASL is legendary and woe be the one who asks to learn to play ASL for they are assuredly going to give up, right?
The truth, though many gamers new and old might not want to hear it, is a bit more complicated and as usual the legend is not supported by reality. Well, not all of it.
Here I will draw upon the writings of J.R Tracy in his essay “Design for Effect: The ‘Common Language’ of Advanced Squad Leader” found in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016). To quote Tracy at length:
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly 30 years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark for complexity and comprehensiveness, while its players possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design for effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude—ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a rich rewarding game, offering dramatic cinematic narrative as well as an intense competitive experience.
J.R Tracy, Zones of Control, p. 113
As Tracy points out, calling ASL a simulation doesn’t withstand even cursory examination:
A player enjoys tremendous information advantage over his World War II-commander counterpart, with a complete grasp of the enemy’s composition and objectives in most cases, as well as an exact knowledge of the positions and readiness of his own forces. Many elements of command and control are either abstracted or missing altogether; the morale state of discrete infantry squads varies, for instance, but the cohesion of the overall formation is little affected by losses. Infantry might halt or even run from the fight under enemy fire, but tanks move implacable forward, their crews unshakably committed until their vehicles are immobilized or destroyed. Offboard artillery, representing supporting batteries, is handled via a process both cumbersome and complex (even by the standards of the game!).
Zones of Control, p. 115
Tracy points out that designer John Hill’s goal was not a simulation, but a game “full of snap decisions made under stress” (p.115). He goes on to write:
All this adds up to a very interactive combined arms puzzle. While the C3I aspect of ASL is sketchy to nonexistent, the basic parts fit together the way they’re supposed to, and without proper coordination of the various pieces it all falls apart very quickly. Flexibility and a knack for improvisation are vital; combat is resolved via die roll, and though a given outcome may be likely it is by no means certain. The occasional extreme die roll often highlights the narrative but need not define success or failure—that depends on reaction and adaptability of the players. Adversity provides the stress, and whether a competitor thrives under that pressure determines whether he overcomes or succumbs.
Zones of Control, p. 115-116
ASLSK1 attempts to limit Rules/Mechanism Complexity by focusing solely on rules for Infantry combat. As a “starter kit” one expects that the rules presented are either a streamlined version or just a portion of the main rules set. ASLSK1 takes the later approach by presenting just the rules necessary for infantry-only fights (i.e. squad-carried support weapons only—no artillery or vehicles). This choice means that while the breadth of the ASL rules presented are truncated, the depth of the rules are not compromised on. In effect, ASLSK1 is a “bite” of the larger rules set that introduces only enough of the game system necessary to facilitate play. This “bite-size” ASL is an excellent marketing approach for enticing new gamers in. It also can entice Grognards like me because one gets to experience, or taste, the game system before deciding on further investment in the product line.
The Book of Rules
The Ludology gang also talks about Component Complexity and here is where I think ASL is rightfully criticized, especially so when talking about the rulebook. The size of the full ASL rulebook is legendary with a rule for everything. Buying just the rulebook for ASL 2nd Edition will set you back between $44 and $96 for deadtree versions, and even $59.99 for the electronic softcopy!!
In a starter kit, I generally expect that the rulebook is formatted to ease learning the game. Alas, the ASLSK1 rulebook is not. The ASLSK1 rulebook is 12 triple-column pages of lots of text and few graphics. As a Grognard I know this page count is short compared to many games but to a new wargamer these wordy pages of ‘wall-o-text’ almost certainly look daunting. Thankfully there is color used but still, once you start reading, understanding the rules can be a real challenge.
Writing rulebooks is an art and ASLSK1 draws upon the traditional craftsmen at publishers Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970s and after for its format. The very formal 1.0 / 1.1 / 1.1.1 format in the ASLSK1 rulebook makes reading the rules very stiff and without a pleasant flow to the voice. This rules format is certainly good for adjudicating rules disputes (“See, 1.2.4 clearly states that a support weapon dropped and by itself does not ‘accidentally’ fire at a passing squad, you idiot!”) but is not so great for readability. Indeed, the rulebook for ASLSK1 is more akin to a technical manual than a book for reading pleasure. According to one assessment I ran some rules text through the readability index was 11.4—quite literally meaning you need be a high school graduate to understand the rules.
A great part of the challenge in reading the rules for ASLSK1 is the extensive use of acronyms. Section 2.0 Definitions take up the equivalent of one entire page of the rulebook. The fact the rest of the rules rely so heavily on acronyms means understanding this “second language” is an essential part of just learning the game.
ASLSK1 includes several examples of play that should help learning. However, the extensive use of acronyms forces one to interpret the examples on two levels—first one must decode the acronyms and then second translate the game terms into the actions in the example. For instance, look at this example of play:
During the American PFPh, one 7-4-7 in hex yN5 forms a multi-hex Fire Group with the 6-6-6 in hex O6 to fire at the German units in hex P5. The total firepower is 19 (6 FP for 6-6-6 in O6 is doubled for Point Blank Fire plus 7 FP from 7-4-7 in N5), and the attack occurs on the 16 column of the IFT. The DRMs include a +3 for the TEM of the stone building and a +1 for the orchard Hinderance for a total DRM of +4. The original DR is 6; after adding 4 the final DR is 10. Cross-referencing 10 on the 16 column of the IFT results in a Normal Morale Check (NMC). Thus, each unit in hex P5 undergoes a NMC. One 4-6-7 rolls an original 9 and the other rolls a 7; neither DR is modified. The 4-6-7 that rolled a 7 has a Pin counter placed on top since it rolled equal to its morale on a morale check. Finally, the American units have a Prep Fire counter placed on them.
“Prep Fire Phase Example (assuming German ELR of 3)”, ASLSK1 Rulebook, p. 5
Aside from the extensive use of acronyms, this section is difficult to understand in great part because of where it appears on the page. This example of play is placed above rule 3.2 Prep Fire Phase (PFPh) and Fire Attacks meaning it is very possible to read the example before the rules involved are introduced. It also doesn’t help that the rules for “ELR” in the title do not appear until the end of the rulebook a whole seven pages later.
The net impact of the approach used to write the rulebook in ASLSK1means that to learn the game one must either invest significant time ahead of play to learning the game or find an experienced player to teach you. To help learning to play, I strongly believe ASLSK1 could use a play book; that is, a dedicated second book that uses a highly narrative format to explain a game. Further, the play book should use a tutorial approach staring with setup and progressing through a play of the game. The tutorial should not be designed as a lesson in tactics, that is for players to discover on their own, but rather a comprehensive description of the different situations that players might commonly encounter in a game. One possibility is to use a two-column playbook with a narrative/mechanical explanation of the activity on one side with a facing “as the rules tell it” on the other. This could allow a player to both see how the game operates both narratively and “by the rules” while comparing them to each other.
Due to the absence of a play book or strong tutorial, and given the few examples of play, it seems to me the best way to learn to play ASLSK1 is to first peruse the rulebook to gain a basic familiarity with the rules then set up ASL Scenario S1 “Retaking Vierville” and simply walk thru the first few turns together with your opponent. Unlike many boardgames, one (preferably both) players need to read the rulebook ahead of time—this is not a game where you can just open up the rulebook and start playing immediately after unwrapping. During this first play refer to the rulebook liberally. Step thru a few turns very deliberately. Accept the fact your first game (or two) will not be competitive but for learning.
On the Table
I have to admit that ASLSK1 on the gaming table looks very nice. The small footprint of the game (often a single 8”x22” map) and low counter density in the scenarios take much of the intimidation factor quite literally “off the table.” These smaller looking games help invite new gamers in as the legendary difficulty of the rules look quite manageable when you have only a small handful of counters on the map. Even experienced gamers will enjoy the smaller scenarios that don’t take up an entire day (or more) of precious time.
When playing ASLSK1 I can hear a narrative developing out of the Sequence of Play:
“Hey guys! Let’s go get them! (Rally Phase)
“Cover me!” (Prep Fire Phase)
“Move it!” (Movement Phase)
“Where did THAT machine gun come from?” (Defensive Fire Phase)
“Get ‘em over there!” (Advancing Fire Phase)
“Come back, you maggots!” (Rout Phase)
“Go go go!” (Advance Phase)
“Bayonets!” (Close Combat Phase)
This eight-phase game turn is actually easy to start processing and understand once you start playing around with the rules. Even the Ludology hosts admit that they “heard” ASL is not that complex of a game once you learn it. I agree.
Snap to It!
As I played my games, I kept asking myself if ASLSK1 was delivering those “snap decisions” that designer John Hill wanted or was this truly a “slog” of a game with lots of chrome but little to show? I found my answer a bit mixed. Each turn starts off very procedurally with the Rally Phase and Prep Fire Phase. The Prep Fire Phase in particular lends itself more to pre-planning than snap decisions. However, after Prep Fire the next phases become full of more and more snap decisions. As the turn progresses and your plan inevitably “comes apart” it really does become an issue of who is more adaptable and manages the chaos more effectively.
One passage in the rules under 3.3.1 Defensive First Fire brought the whole “snap decision” design front-and-center for me:
Any time a unit or stack expends MF in the LOS of a Good Order DEFENDER unit, the DEFENDER has the option to temporarily halt movement while he fires at it in that location with as many attacks as he can bring to bear. The DEFENDER must first place a First Fire counter on top of any unit or SW that has fired and exhausted its ROF. Defensive First Fire must be resolved before the moving unit or stack leaves the intended target hex or expends another MF. The DEFENDER may not request that a moving unit or stack be returned to a previous position to undergo attack, however, the ATTACKER must give the DEFENDER ample opportunity to declare his fire before moving on, and must declare the end of that units’s movement before moving another unit. (My emphasis)
3.3.1 Defensive First Fire, ASLSK1 Rulebook
This is “snap decision” in action by the game design. As I first looked at the Sequence of Play I first saw ATTACKER and DEFENDER in an IGO-UGO pattern—I totally missed the real interactive nature of the design. It was though my plays of ASLSK1that I discovered every turn is indeed full of “snap decisions” for both the Attacker and Defender.
As I played and experienced turns of many snap decisions, I started asking myself if this is the real ASL experience. The back and forth turns of infantry combat inASLSK1 are very enjoyable but I question if that same free-flow of snap decisions can be sustained by a game system that adds in artillery and vehicles and more and more special rules. My opinion here is that ASLSK1, and possibly SK2 & SK3, when played together may be pushing the “limit” of the snap decision game design. As more special rules (chrome) gets added onto the core design of the system I fear those snap decisions will be overcome by managing all the rule “exceptions.” Too much rules overhead is not very inviting and the thought of that challenge may be enough to scare new players away.
Are you Chitting Me?
ASLSK1 uses markers stacked on the board to show current unit status. This very typical wargame solution to manual tracking of status could drive new or potential players away. Some players may bristle with the constant adding/removal of status markers. Admittedly, the markers take away from the visual spectacle of the game and some players might lament losing sight of their counters under several administrative markers. In practice I found the numerous markers very helpful as they are the quickest way to note unit status. Offboarding this information to a player card would likely slow the game down as it introduces a different layer of complexity to the board and would force players to constantly reference back and forth between a unit on the board and data held in their tableau area. No thanks!
Starter or Finisher?
If you are a new wargamer I absolutely encourage you to try ASLSK1. You can’t beat the price and though learning will take a bit of some effort (and brain cells) the narrative experience that comes from play is very rewarding. Who knows; you may end up liking the game and go further down the ASL path of play life. Even if you chose to shy away from ASL, the fact that you have learned such a foundational game in the hobby means you will be more ready to explore other game systems. If you can learn and play ASL (even the Starter Kit version) there are few wargames you can’t learn and play!
If you are an experienced gamer and either never tried ASL(like me) or tried it long ago and was turned off by the complexity, ASLSK1 is an excellent low-cost, low-risk way to dip back into world of ASL. In a way, the starter kit family is akin to a “chose our own adventure” approach to wargmaing ASL—get the starter kits that interest you the most and learn the rules in a modular approach to mix and play as you like. You may find that ASLSK1 is a good “filler” game that can fill some time on a game day while waiting for all the gamers to arrive or to fill-in when your opponent gets that sudden-death victory and you have some time to kill.
Do I Finish What I Starter?
Now that I have ASLSK1 under my belt, where do I go from here? Personally, I am curious to see how artillery and vehicles fit into the game system so it is very likely that SK2 and SK3will end up in my collection in the near future. Beyond that I am less sure. I can’t help but feel that the game system will get “overloaded” with “bloat” if one adds in too much of that “chrome” that ASL is infamous for. I genuinely enjoy the “snap decision” part of the game design and don’t want to lose that. A part of me wants to go back to a simpler time with my Avalon Hill 1980 fourth edition copy ofSquad Leaderand just play that title for it captures the snap decision elements in a game design that is not overloaded.
Like the title says, didn’t get much gaming in this week as I return to basically full-time in the office. After a year of semi-telework it’s a bit of a shock to the system but, honestly, I love to be back at the grind.
In late 1980 I was in 7th grade. I had been playing wargames for less than a year at this point and was heavy into my very first wargame, Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing (1979). By this point I probably had the second game in the series, ’88’ (1980). I also surely had started playing the pocket edition of Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). This was also the start of my “serious’ military history reading, especially since my neighbor worked for Ballantine Books and monthly would throw a box of history books over the back fence into my yard. So when I open the pages of this issue of Strategy & Tactics it brings back many great hobby memories.
At the time this issue was published, I was just starting to read wargaming magazines. The $5.00 cover price for the issue was a bit steep for me. It would be another few years until I started making enough of my own money in chores that I could afford luxuries like an issue of Strategy & Tactics.
The feature article in this issue is “The Central Front: The Status of Forces in Europe and the Potential for Conflict by Charles T. Kamps, Jr. Mr. Kamps wrote more than a few articles for wargame magazines back in the day and I always thought they were well researched. The main article is rather short (four pages) but the added text boxes that follow are awesome and include:
Skeleton Order of Battle, Fulda Gap Battle Area
The Airborne Threat
Air Support (with an interesting aircraft readiness chart…boy those high-tech F-15s were difficult to maintain!)
The Big Picture: A Scenario for Invasion
The Miracle Weapons (TOW, other ATGMs, FASCAM)
Nuclear & Chemical Operations
The Prophets (with a shout out to Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985 which I read religiously)
The last text call out box is “The Wargames” where Mr. Kamps relates results from “professional” wargames. The author lets us know what he thinks of these wargames when he concludes:
Having participated in Command Post Exercises in Europe wherein general officers and senior field grade officers accomplished their objectives by fraud, (e.g., map movement of mechanized units through impassable terrain; ignoring or defying umpire rulings on combat resolution; etc.), the author issues a caution to regard all “official” results with a degree of circumspection.
Charles T. Kamps Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14
On page 17 is Volume 1, Number 1 of “For Your Information: A Wide Ranging Survey of Historical Data and Analysis.” This column would be one of my favorite parts of S&T in the future. These little factoids, an early version of a wargaming wiki, were awesome for me to read and store away. “FYI” contributed much to my military history historical knowledge.
I was surprised, but not surprised, to see the secondary feature article, “Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973” was written by Col. Trevor Dupuy, USA, Ret.. Dupuy founded The Dupuy Institute and is the paragon of an operations research specialist. I would read several of Dupuy’s books through the years but I was not aware of this connection with SPI. In retrospect, it should be obvious to me. Christopher Lawrence, who worked at The Dupuy Institute with Col Dupuy, writes in War By Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) about Dupuy and combat models in the 1970s:
By the early 1970s the models were being used to war game a potential war in Europe for the sake of seeing who would win, for the sake of determining how we could structure our forces better, and for the sake of determine what supplies and other support were needed to sustain this force on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
This development of models created a need to understand the quantitative aspects of warfare. While this was not a new concept, the United States suddenly found itself with combat modeling structures that were desperately in need of hard data on how combat actually worked. Surprisingly, even after 3,300 years of recorded military history, these data were sparse.
It was this lack of hard data on which to base operational analysis and combat modeling that led to the growth of organizations run by Trevor N. Dupuy, such as the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization (HERO). They attempted to fill the gap between modeling communities’ need for hard data on combat operations and the actual data recorded in unit records of the combatants, which required some time and skill to extract. It was an effort to integrate the work of historians with these newly developed complex models of combat.
I really enjoyed the “Gossip” column and all the name dropping. There is talk of the new and amazing Ace of Aces (Gameshop, 1980) with “no counters and no map.” I remember this game very fondly as my friends and I would play endless rounds on the school bus going to to/from middle school. Star Fleet Battles also gets a mention along with the forthcoming Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) which I would purchase.
Then there is this little snippet—”In the role-playing corner of the world, Chaosium is working on a role-playing game on H.P. Lovecraft’s work.” How little did we all know that Call of Cthulhu would still be going strong 40 years later!
“These books are filled with things that are not fantasy but area actual in the real demon world and can be very dangerous for anyone involved in the game because it leaves them open to Satanic spirits.” Guess what they are talking about. Right. Dungeons & Dragons. It seems there is trouble in Heber, Utah. The Mormons are in an uproar over the game and, in fact, the state legislature is debating banning the game. “D&D banned in Utah” read the headlines next week, and up will go sales again. It is also rumored that a Christian organization forced a Phoenix store to withdraw D&D from sale. Something about it coming from Satan and working with the Anti-Christ. It’s probably all a Communist plot anyway. Oh, they said that too?
“Gossip,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 35
I was surprised to find David C. Isby reviewed Warship Commander 1967-1987: Present Day Tactical Naval Combat and Sea Command: Present-Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare. Both games were by Ken Smigelski and published by Enola Games in 1979 and 1980, respectively. I have these two books and for a while they were a direct competitor to Harpoon (now from Admiralty Trilogy Games) in my collection. I like how Dave Isby characterizes Warship Commander; “This book presents a study of modern naval surface combat set up in the format of wargame rules, aimed primarily at miniatures play but easily adaptable to boardgame format.” He goes on to say, “The book is a thorough, detailed simulation of a fascinating subject, and is worthy of comparison with the best boardgames.” On Sea Command he states, “Sea Command is an eduction in modern naval combat in wargame form.” Yes, I know!
Looking across the “Games Rating Chart” I find several games I either owned or would own in the next few years:. As much as we talk about the Golden Age of Wargaming being dominated by SPI or Avalon Hill I see more than a few other companies listed here with Yaquinto being a personal favorite:
Ironclads (Yaquinto, 1979) ranked #1 in Civil War and Late 19th Century (I had the Yaquinto version but traded it away; these days I’m stuck with the Excaliber version with side-view ship counters. Yuck!)
The back page of this issue has an advertisement for For Your Eyes Only, a military affairs newsletter I actually subscribed to for a while. There is also an advertisement for a new bi-weekly newsletter by a guy named Richard Berg who was starting a new publication, Richard Berg’s Reviews of Games.
In many ways I feel lucky to find this particular issue of Strategy & Tactics. There were so many great games talked about within these pages that I am personally associated with. It’s great to see where the wargming hobby was in late 1980 when my hobby journey was just starting.
Alternate History is a finicky genre of fiction. There are a few titles out there I like such as Fatherland by Robert Harris or SS-GB by Len Deighton. Wargames are a form of alternate history fiction in that the historical outcome of a battle is not always the result. In my collection, I have several 3WW and XTR Corp titles that went deep into an alternate history setting for their wargames. Tomorrow the World (3WW, 1989) by designer Ty Bomba was set in an alternate 1948 world where the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese won World War II and uneasily divided the world and especially the defeated United States (very Man in the High Castle-like). In addition to the strategic wargame Tomorrow the World, XTR Corp (publishers of Command Magazine then associated with 3WW) published several other magazine/folio games in the same setting. I have three of the games, Seven Seas to Victory (1992) which is naval combat around the Panama Canal in 1945 (US vs Nazi Germany), Black Gold (Texas Tea) (1990) recreating a 1948 offensive in the Middle East, and Mississippi Banzai (1990). Thanks to a random number generator, the operational-level Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on my gaming table recently.
Reverse Stalingrad on the Mississippi
Mississippi Banzai envisions the opening offensive of the 1948 war against Nazi Germany by the Imperial Japanese with a strike in the heartland of American. Imperial Japanese forces, attacking out of western Missouri and Iowa, try to surround the German 6th Army at St Louis and secure the strategic towns of Ft Madison and Burlington to the north as they need to eventually march on Chicago. Designer Ty Bomba and developer Chris Perello are very up front that they wanted to design a game with lots of maneuver. Although the Mark Simonitch map looks more like a desert than the wheat fields of the American Midwest, the game design achieves what the designer wanted—lots of maneuver across a relatively open map with low counter density. The combination of maneuver and “elastic combat” in Mississippi Banzai make this low-complexity game, darkly themed game a rather enjoyable thinking challenge.
Small Game – Big Battle
Mississippi Banzai is physically a small game. The actual “map” of the battlespace takes up 3/4 of the 22″x34″ map with the remaining area dedicated to various game tables and charts. There are 300 counters of which about 20% are markers—not combat units possibly appearing on the map.The 16-page rule book is actually only 11 pages (triple column) of rules and five pages of front/back matter, setting background, and Designer’s Notes. Rules are not very complex with very simple movement and combat. Supply effects are determined at time of movement and combat. All told Mississippi Banzai is a rather small, uncomplicated game.
The real treat in playing Mississippi Banzai is in that simple play. The game last at least 8 turns after which a random roll determines if Winter Rains end the Japanese offensive. The game will automatically end after Turn 12 so time is not really on the Japanese side. The Japanese player also has limited reinforcements as only once PER GAME the Japanese player may Petition the Emperor for more units.
The German player in Mississippi Banzai starts with a smaller force but has access to reinforcements every turn. Once per game, the German player can Appeal to the Fuhrer for extra reinforcements. The German player is going to need every reinforcement they can get because they start off with fewer forces on the board and must rush in new defenders to stem the Japanese offensive. This dance between a juggernaught with nothing behind it and a defender desperately rushing in new forces to stop the rolling giant is what makes Mississippi Banzai an interesting, challenging game.
The New World Order – How Retro
The rules of Mississippi Banzai are in many ways built upon basic, even classic wargame mechanisms:
Air Power is abstractly represented by air chits that are used for Air Superiority,Interdiction, or Ground Support Missions. Chits on Air Superiority missions cancel each other and excess missions cancel enemy Interdiction or Ground Support missions. Interdiction units are played at the end of the owning player’s turn and represent areas which require extra movement points to pass thru. Ground Support provides column shifts on the Combat Results Table (CRT).
Supply is simple trace checked at the start of a unit’s movement or at the time of combat.
Stacking is a 4-unit maximum.
There are no zones of control rules but units cannot enter hexes with enemy units unless they are mechanized and conducting a Mobile Assault.
The most interesting terrain is Major River/Bottom Land. To enter a Non-mech unit pays 2 MP but a mechanized unit has to pay 3 MP. The cost is the same whether one is crossing the river or not.
Mobile Assaults (MA) are Mississippi Banzai’s overrun attacks. During movement if a mechanized unit wants to enter an enemy-occupied hex it (always) costs 3x MP for the defender’s hex. MA cannot be combined with attacks (i.e. each stack conducts MA independently—no combining attacks.
Prepared Assaults (PA) are conducted in the Combat Phase. Both MA and PA in Mississippi Banzai use a simple CRT with results that I describe as “elastic combat.” Combat losses are described by a number or “E” for eliminated. Implementing “1,” “2,” or “3” results has a nice twist—the number is the steps lost OR the number of hexes the ENTIRE STACK must retreat. The owner chooses how to satisfy the loss/retreat. Thus, combat is “elastic” in that sometimes the units stay in place but other times they “bounce away.”
A Concentric Prepared Assault is when a single hex is attacked by stacks from up to three hexes and awards a column shift on the CRT.
The Japanese player can use the Banzai Attack which doubles the combat factors (on attack or defense) but comes with a mandatory step loss.
Fog of War, or the ability to examine enemy stacks, is an optional rule?
Artillery fires in barrages at the beginning of each combat phase. In the case where a hit is scored and there is more than one unit in the hex, “put all of them in a coffee mug and draw. The drawn unit is the one that takes a step loss.”
Chrome rules, such as they are, in Mississippi Banzai are few but uncomplicated. The Germans have the Maus super-heavy assault guns which are great in combat but ponderous to move. German Leaders grant bonus movement and column shifts in combat. There are special units like “Amerindian Japanese Puppet Troops” and the “Kwantung Siege Army” as well as “Kempeitai Suicide Commandos,” “FLAK,” and airdroppable units.
In this dark comedy version of a Cold War Gone Hot, Atomic Bombs are also a part of Mississippi Banzai. It’s an optional rule, but if you’re already playing this game why hold back? At the start of each game turn a roll is made to see if a bomb is available. If yes it MUST be used! There is a 1 in 6 chance of a dud. If the bomb explodes there are game effects that stay on the board even after the blast. Units wishing to move thru an Atomic Bomb blast hex have to roll on the Blast Entry Hex Chart to see if they even can.
Victory in Mississippi Banzai is very straight-forward. Control of three locations by the Japanese determines victory. Ft. Madison and Burlington are one point (and one hex) each while to get the single Victory Point for St. Louis all four hexes need be controlled.
A Fascist Lovefest?
There may be a few amongst you who are appalled by Mississippi Banzai and the theme. Not only does the game have the stereotypical white-on-black Nazi SS counters, but the most numerous American ally comes in the form of KKK Calvary. Even designer Ty Bomba back in 1990 obviously got some negative feedback which he addresses head-on in his Designer’s Notes [Note: Emphasis text as in original]:
This is a game, which if it were made into a film, would fall into the genre of “Black Comedy.” That is, it philosophic purpose is to examine some aspect of the audience’s worst fears, and using satire, irony and (most of all) exaggeration, make fun of them. To the anal-retentive among you I say, “Remember it is only a game.”
Viewing and enjoying a movie like Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe doesn’t make you an advocate of nuclear warfare. Likewise, playing Mississippi Banzai should not be taken as an indicator of pro-fascist leanings or a wish to revise the outcome of World War II. It is only a game.
From a more military science oriented perspective, I wanted to examine a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII).
Mississippi Banzai, Designer’s Notes
It seems to me that if Mr. Bomba wanted to use Mississippi Banzai to explore, “a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII)” he could very easily make a “Stalingrad on the Nile” or something to that effect. Yes, the thematic setting of Tomorrow the World makes for match ups that some may find very interesting but Mr. Bomba doesn’t mention that match up as a design driver.
Putting “History” Behind
At the end of the day I think I’ll just quietly pack away Mississippi Banzai and put both it an all my Tomorrow the World-related games on the shelf. If I want to study Stalingrad, or a Stalingrad-inspired situation, I’ll just get a Stalingrad game.
This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!
I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….
Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!
RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….
I don’t have personal insight into this matter, but based on the writings of these three authors in the early 2000’s I don’t think there was any love lost between them. During this time Isom and Parshall/Tully were both writing their books and previews of each thesis appeared in the Naval War College Review where things got a bit, uh, “interesting.” In the Summer 2000 issue (Vol. 53 Nr. 3) Isom wrote the article “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost” where he previewed his main arguments. A year later, in the Summer 2001 edition (Vol. 54 Nr. 3) Parshall and Tully penned an essay, “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway” which was a direct response to Isom. Not to be outdone, in the same issue Isom penned his response to Parshall/Tully in “They Would Have Found a Way.” This back and forth bickering would continue into their respective books. Parshall/Tully published Shattered Sword first in 2005 and the book went on to critical acclaim. Isom would not publish his book until 2007 and the reception was, shall we say, less boisterous. To this day Shattered Sword is held by many as the gold standard by the revised Midway history crowd whereas Midway Inquest is “just another Midway book.”
The Wargame Within
As I thumbed through Midway Inquest I scanned the chapters and appendix titles and was surprised by Appendix D. I didn’t remember this appendix but this time through the title caught my attention, “A War Game Exercise.” As Isom writes:
The following war game rules, though simpler than those used in such institutions as the Naval War College, simulate the carrier battles of 1942 with quite uncanny accuracy. This is because the values built into them—relating to hit ratios for bombs and torpedoes dropped from various types of aircraft used in 1942, and damage to the carriers of both sides—were derived largely from the statistics of the actual carrier battles of 1942.
Dallas Isom, Midway Inquest, Appendix D, p. 341
Isom uses these war game rules in his “Chapter 10: Postmortem” where he explores several what-if scenarios. Indeed, Chapter 10 is composed mostly of narrative outcomes of several war games and to wargamers appear in many ways like an After Action Report (AAR) or session report.
Isom’s war game rules number only seven and focus on combat results—there are no maneuver or flight or search rules. To me, Isom’s war game is really just the combat model for a wargame and one that uses a very operations research approach based solely on statistical analysis. If there is one lesson the past year of COVID should of taught everyone it is that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In his what-if scenarios, Isom attempts to appear authoritative by relying on the war game results when in reality he manipulates so many non-combat variables that in the end one must read his scenario as something akin to a fanciful fantasy with only a smidgen of historical grounding. Not that I enjoy them less; rather, I enjoyed reading them for the AAR aspect and it ignited my desire to get Kido Butai to the table to compare the two combat models.
Wargame to Book
Isom doesn’t provide any provenance for his rules so I cannot determine where they derived from. Given Isom’s association with the Naval War College, and even his reference to that institution, it would be reasonable to assume the rules were derived in part from there. Isom’s use of “war game” is also very Naval War College like—whereas “wargame” is used by many it seems the Naval War College has long preferred the terms “war game ” or “war gaming.” On the other hand, the lack of credit given by Isom combined with the lack of sourcing implies that Isom developed these rules on his own. Maybe Isom the lawyer is an aspiring wargame designer?