#WargameWednesday -The 80’s are calling and they want their 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) back!

AFTER basically taking April off from heavy gaming, I jumped back into my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge this week with the 1987 Winner for Best Modern Era Boardgame, 7th Fleet from Victory Games. In late 2018, Compass Games announced they would be reprinting the Fleet-series. This got me thinking….

I played 7th Fleet not that long ago so this play was a bit easier since the rules were not stale in my head. This time through I asked myself why this game should be reprinted. The best answer I came up with was, “Because it does operational-level naval combat from the 1980’s so well.” 7th Fleet, and indeed the entire Fleet-series, is an excellent snapshot of what naval combat in the 1980’s at the operational level was expected to be. This is not to say it is perfect; the Fleet-series was informed by the best publicly available information. I want to focus on three issues, sea-skimming missiles, cruise missiles, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) to help make my point.

The sea-skimming missile shot to fame (no pun intended) in the 1982 Falklands War with the Exocet anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). As a sea-skimmer it was harder to engage because it usually flew below most weapons engagement envelopes.

In the Fleet-series, “sea-skimmers” like Exocet get their own call out in the rules and prevent the defending Area Anti-Air value from being multiplied when in defense. It is interesting to me that the only missile attribute that gets recognized is sea-skimmers. Other attributes, like speed or steep diving, were simply factored into the SSM Attack Value. This “boutique rule” (my term) makes the Fleet-series a reflection of its time. I wonder what the update is going to do; keep the sea-skimmer “exception” or go further? How should the Fleet-series handle supersonic and hypersonic ASCMs?

The other missile that gets recognized is Cruise Missiles. Rule 10.5 Cruise Missile Combat lays out the use of cruise missiles. In 7th Fleet, only the US Navy mounts cruise missiles so this is, in effect, a bonus US rule. Today, we understand that some of the very large Soviet missiles also had a land-attack capability. Another boutique rule; another limitation of the understanding from the 1980s, and another challenge to the designers and developer’s looking at a reprint.

In the Fleet-series , during the Strategic Detection Segment of the Strategic Cycle, Reconnaissance air units in an air zone can locate an enemy surface unit (or stack) or attempt to place a Strategic Detection marker on a submarine. In other words, all detection is from tactical, organic assets. The role of space-based ISR is ignored. Not that it was unknown; even the CIA took note of a Jack Anderson column in the Washington Post in February 1985 that talked about Soviet threat satellites.

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To be clear, I am absolutely NOT accusing designer Joe Balkoski or Victory Games of ignoring the role of space-based ISR. Even though Jack Anderson got a scoop in 1985 the contribution of space-based sensors to ship tracking was actually highly classified at the time. For the designers to not include them in the game is understandable, and another example of how the Fleet-series is a product of its day.

All of which makes 7th Fleet and its sister-games in the Fleet-series so wonderful. To get a good taste of what people popularly thought the Cold War at Sea would look like one either read Tom Clancy or played a Fleet-series game. The game rules capture the essence of naval combat in the 1980s with few boutique rules or rules exceptions. I am fortunate enough to own the entire Fleet-series so I have little pressure to acquire any reprints. I am interested in seeing what is done with the reprints and, if there is enough differences, may look to invest.


Feature image BoardGameGeek

 

My CSR #Wargame Challenge for 2019

This is the time of the year that many in the boardgame community start their “challenges” for the coming year. The classic is the 10 x 10 – pick 10 different games and play each ten times during the year. As a wargamer, I sort of like that thought but want something more applicable to my niche of the hobby.

The other night I was messing around with the Advanced Search function of BoardGameGeek and sorting my collection in different ways. For some reason I noticed certain games of mine are Charles S. Roberts Award winners. This drew my attention because wargamers know that Mr. Roberts is the father of modern wargaming:

Charles S. Roberts…invented the modern wargame industry virtually single-handedly. As a designer and original owner-operator of Avalon Hill, he was responsible for the creation of the first modern wargame, including many of the developments, such as the Combat Results Table (CRT), which were later to become commonplace. (grognard.com)

According to Wikipedia, the Charles S. Roberts Awards are:

The Charles S. Roberts Awards (or CSR Awards) was an annual award for excellence in the historical wargaming hobby. It was named in honor of Charles S. Roberts the “Father of Wargaming” who founded Avalon Hill. The award was informally called a “Charlie” and officially called a “Charles S. Roberts Award”….Created at the first Origins Game Convention in 1975….The last year the awards were given was 2012.

After sorting my game collection, I discovered I own 20 CSR Awards winners. The challenge I am giving myself is to play all 20 games at least once by the end of calendar year 2019.

CSRAward
Courtesy consimgames.com

My 2019 CSR Challenge games are:

  1. Squad Leader – 1977 Best Tactical Game
  2. Victory in the Pacific – 1977 Best Strategic Game
  3. Mayday – 1978 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  4. The Ironclads – 1979 Best Initial Release Wargame
  5. Azhanti High Lightning – 1980 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  6. Wings – 1981 Best Twentieth Century Game
  7. Car Wars – 1981 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  8. Ironbottom Sound – 1981 Best Initial Release Wargame
  9. Illuminati – 1982 Best Science-Fiction Board Game*
  10. World in Flames – 1985 Best Twentieth Century Game
  11. 7th Fleet – 1987 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  12. Tokyo Express – 1988 Best World War II Boardgame
  13. Tac Air – 1988 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  14. Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign – 1990 Best World War II Board Game
  15. For the People – 1998 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  16. Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 1990 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  17. Crisis: Korea 1995 – 1993 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  18. Paths of Glory – 1999 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  19. Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 – 2004 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  20. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear – 2008 Best World War II Boardgame

A nice perk of making my own challenge is that I get to make the rules. For instance, since I don’t always own the edition that won substituting a later edition or version that I own is acceptable. For instance, I own Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition) – that is a legal substitute.

I will keep this blog and a GeekList over on BoardGameGeek updated with my progress throughout the year.

So, what is your 2019 Wargame Challenge? 


*  Yes, I know Illuminati is NOT a wargame, but it is the only non-wargame CSR winner on my list. Besides, the RockyMountainNavy Boys may like it, so it stays!

Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek. Afrika Korps was a 1964 design by Charles S. Roberts.

Playing in the Big League – or not – Little Navies in Game of the Week 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987)

My Game of the Week theme is South China Sea. Having looked at Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984) and now 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) I wanted to play out a South China Sea scenario. Looking for a bit of historical inspiration, I studied the Johnson Reef Skirmish (14 March 1988) which is right in the time period represented in 7th Fleet. I postulated the skirmish continues and grows into a bigger confrontation. I could take advantage of the PLAN counters in the game.

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The PLAN in 7th Fleet

This battle could play out on a small corner of the south map. This would save space and allow me to explore interaction of Air, Surface, and Submarine units in a low density environment.

But then I looked at the countermix, especially Vietnam. In 7th Fleet, Vietnam simply has no fleet! The Vietnamese People’s Air Force makes an appearance using older MiG-21 fighters. But the small Vietnamese fleet is nowhere to be found! This is because at the time the VPN had only lightly armed transports –  negligible forces by the standard of 7th Fleet. Indeed, the “smallest” unit in 7th Fleet appears to be flotilla of several small ships (like older destroyers or corvettes) or a patrol squadron of patrol ships/combatants. Lightly armed transports? Forget about it!

So I am back to the (scenario) drawing board and thinking about another scenario. Now I know I have to “up the scale.” Given that the PRC was getting friendlier with the US during this period, maybe try PLAN versus Soviet Union? At the time, the Udaloy and Sovremennyy-class destroyers were just entering the Soviet fleet. Let’s see…a Soviet Task Group (Udaloy, Sovremennyy, Dubna replenishment ship) enroute to a friendship port call in Vietnam gets sideways with the PLAN…including a newer Han-class SSN? Could the Soviets also have a submarine (Foxtrot or Tango?) shadowing them to help “delouse” from those pesky American submarines?

Hmmm….

The Old South China Sea – 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) Game of the Week for 26 Mar 2018

Continuing my South China Sea gaming theme….

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Courtesy BGG.com

In the mid-1980s the Cold War was still hot and wargames reflected it. In the realm of modern naval combat, the series that stood above all others was the Fleet-series from Victory Games. Designer Joseph M. Balkowski created an operational-level game that captured many aspects of modern naval combat in a detailed, yet playable, game. The third game in the series, 7th Fleet: Modern Naval Combat in the Far East, covered my Game of the Week theme –  the South China Sea. As I reviewed the rules for 7th Fleet I was struck by how much I remember; and how much I have forgotten. It is in the forgotten parts that I am rediscovering the awesomeness of the game design and how simple design choices make for awesome game rules.

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Basic Game Rules

Having not played 7th Fleet in a long time, I decided to focus my Game of the Week on the Basic Game at first, and if time permits to look at the Advanced Game. At first glance, the 64-page rule book looks daunting. Upon closer inspection, one discovers that the first seven pages are introductory materials with the rules starting on page 8. 3.0 Sequence of Play is presented on one page (page 8) and covers the entire ruleset; Basic and Advanced as well as Optional rules. The Basic Game Rules themselves are only 18 pages with a further 13 pages given over to nine Basic Game Scenarios.

The Basic Game Rules start on page 9 and jump straight into the heart of the game, rule 4.0 The Action Phase. Here is the first place my memory of the game was (pleasantly) refreshed. In particular, I had forgotten the nuances of 4.3 Limitations on Activation and 4.4 What Activated Units Can Do. I had forgotten that Surface Units when activated use a combination of move/attack with one move and up to two attacks…but the attacks can only be before or after the move and not in-between. Submarines can activate using a combination of move and a single attack, and Air Units are the only platform that attacks during their move. These simple activation distinctions between units capture so much of the different capabilities of platforms and immediately show me the simple genius behind much of the game design.

Another Basic Game rule that has subtle nuance that I had forgotten is 6.0 Stacking. The rule specifies a “limit of 12 surface combat units per hex.” Surface ships in the game are divided into two broad categories; Surface Combat Units and Non-Combat Surface Units (See 2.3 Playing Pieces – Summary of Counter Types). Thus, I could have a convoy of any number of amphibious assault or tankers or oilers in a hex as long as I have an escort of no more than 12 surface combat units (CV, CG, CL, DD, FF, BB, Corvette CO or Patrol Combatant PC). I remember games from long ago where I always had my convoys of no more than 12 ships (escorts and convoy together) smashed because they had never had enough escorts. Now I know why!

Rule 7.0 Strategic Air Missions is pretty much like I remember it. I always loved the challenge that came with planning Strategic Air Missions because any aircraft assigned to these missions is committed for the entire day (3-turn sequence). I really like 7.4 Tactical Coordination Missions but I think I used to play it wrong by keeping aircraft on these missions all day instead of returning them to base after they provide a bonus in combat (i.e. they can be used to support a single combat resolution).

As a fan of the F-14 Tomcat, I have always loved 8.0 Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and especially the AEW and CAP bonus. I had forgotten rule 8.3 CAP and SSM Combat where a CAP under certain conditions can contribute to defense against SSM attack. The rule specifies that a CAP mission with an EW air unit or a US F14 INT unit can aid, but I wonder if this rule should be reconsidered for aircraft like the Soviet S27 or M25 INT given that we now understand much more about “look down-shoot down” capabilities?

Some critics of wargames point to the “perfect knowledge” of the game board as a drawback. Rule 9.0 Detection creates a game mechanic to limits what can be done with that perfect knowledge. I forgot was the subtle differences between Strategic Detection and Local Detection and how surface ships are pretty much automatically detected once within range whereas players must still attempt to detect submarines. This little nuance is a simple game mechanism that goes a long way towards portraying different platform capabilities – detailed yet playable.

10.0 Combat has so many little flavor pieces that add depth to the simple combat model without bogging it down with too much chrome. Item likes 10.4 Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Combat where the defender can position his units in his defending stack but the attacker then rolls to see which half of the stack is attacked; imperfect targeting! I had also totally forgotten 10.9 Close Defense Hex Combat…don’t go too near an enemy coast!

The scenario that would make the most sense to play for my Game of the Week is 13.3 Scenario 3: Battle of the South China Sea. I am hesitant to jump into this one given the complexity is rated as “High” and the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy does not make an appearance in the scenario. Indeed, China is treated in a very interesting manner in this game. 2.3 Playing Pieces specifies that the Allied Player (i.e. the US player) controls counters from Taiwan…and China! I have to remind myself that 7th Fleet was published in the mid-1980s…before the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

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PLAN of Long Ago….

Looking at how the Chinese Navy is presented in 7th Fleet is a stark reminder of just how far the PLAN has come. It is a real shame that the Fleet-series has not been updated over the years. The game mechanics are solid and the design choices made by Mr. Balkowski give us a playable, yet detailed, version of naval combat that still can find application in the 21st century – 30 years past the Cold War.

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PLAN of Today-ish (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015)

Featured image “Full page magazine ad from S&T No. 117” courtesy BoardGameGeek.com.