Sunday Summary – Summer Heat Wave of #Wargames, #Boardgames, and #Books

Not only is the heat arriving in waves, but so are the games!

Wargames

Boardgames

2 Minutes to Midnight: Fight the Cold War. USA vs Soviet Union – 1949-1991. A Strategic Historical Game (Preview Copy) (Stuart Tonge, Plague Island Games, 2021) – Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy. Plan is to share thought s around the kickoff of the Kickstarter campaign in mid-late June! Stay tuned!

2 Minutes to Midnight Preview Copy

Books

Am reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson by Steven E. Maffeo (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) and sitting down with the wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009). I am working to make this a “#Wargame to History” (or is it “History to #Wargame?”) or “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” entry.

Puzzles

No, not puzzles, but actual jigsaw puzzles. As I type this I just got my shipping notice for my Academy Games historical puzzles. More relaxing summer fun!

#SundaySummary – Stepping into Combat Commander: Pacific (@GMTGames), a throw back to the Falklands (admiraltytrilogy.com), red alert kudos for No Motherland Without (@compassgamesllc) and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (@StrongholdGames) #wargame #boardgame

Wargames

I was able to pull off an excellent local trade to land a copy of Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander: Pacific from GMT Games this week. It only cost me my 1984 copy of Ranger from Omega Games. This is my first foray into the Combat Commander series of tactical infantry games from GMT. As there were several snow days in my local area I had the opportunity to do a sort of “deep dive” into the game and get multiple plays in. My major discovery is that Combat Commander: Pacific may be built on many “new-age” mechanics but it is thematically highly realistic. Those thoughts will be the subject of a later posting.

In 1982, the Falklands War occurred at an important time in my wargaming career. I was in high school so “aware” enough to follow the geopolitics and I had friends with common wargame interests for playing game like Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983). So it was very interesting this week to read The Falklands Wargame which is an unclassified, publicly released study prepared in 1986 for the Strategy, Concepts, and Plans Directorate of the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency. What really caught my attention is the study lead was none other than CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.) who wrote the foundational naval text Fleet Tactics and was greatly admired by the designers of the Harpoon series of naval wargames available these days from Admiralty Trilogy Group. It’s a very interesting document which has made me think of many of my Falklands wargames, especially those using the Harpoon series of rules. So of course, more thoughts to follow!

Boardgames

Got No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) to the gaming table several times this week. I played the solitaire module provided in the rules. Mechanically it works fine, though the hard part for me is now trying to get those mechanics to do what I need them to do. Component wise, well, this title is a bit of a miss. The red game board is good looking but all the red counters and markers get lost on it making it very hard to see the game state. More detailed thoughts are coming in the future.

<soapbox on> A shout out to Compass Games is also in order. There was a minor production issue with my copy of No Motherland Without but it was quickly resolved by Compass Games. Awesome customer service. And no, I didn’t mention it before because I was giving John and company a fair chance to resolve the issue which they did to my utmost satisfaction so I will commend, not condemn Compass publicly and share with you a positive story not an undeserved negative one. </soapbox off>

Kickstarter

After lamenting a few weeks back on my reluctance to back any Kickstarters I succumbed to the pressure – to back Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (Stronghold Games via Kickstarter). My hope is that this can be a Family Game Night title. Speaking of which, we have sadly fallen off the Weekly Game Night bandwagon. Time to get back up….

The Pratzen, Austerlitz 1805 by Peter Perla from Canvas Temple Publishing will fund later today. As this posts I have less than 20 hours to resist temptation. Yeah, Napoleonics is not my thing but I absolutely respect Dr. Perla, love CTP productions, & would need a bigger gaming table.

Books

With the arrival of new games and my “Falklands Excursion” this week the reading for My Kursk Kampaign was put on hold this week. As I resume my reading I am through the events of July 12, 1943 and the Battle of Prokharovka so now turn to the aftermath and follow-on actions – which means The Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, by Trevor Bender from RBM Studios should land on the gaming table again.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame- China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power (Michael A. McDevitt, 2020)

BLUF

A very thorough analysis of the present capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). This is perhaps the best single-source compilation of open source analysis on the PLA Navy presently available. Persuasively argues that the PLA Navy is a “blue-water” navy – today. Analytical breakdown offers many opportunities for wargaming.

Naval Institute Press, 2020

Not your father’s PLAN

How often do we hear about “China rising?” If you subscribe to that school of thought then you are in for a surprise if you read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications by Michael A. McDevitt, RADM, US Navy (Ret.). In this very recent (late 2020) publication from Naval Institute Press, RADM McDevitt argues that fifteen years of anti-piracy patrols has already made the PLA Navy the second most-capable naval power in the world. He further argues that the PLA Navy is well on track to be a true “world class navy” but 2035, a deadline set by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Rear Admiral McDevitt starts out with a discussion of where China’s maritime power ambitions come from. The sources he uses are nothing special; everything is publicly available (although some needed to be translated). This is good grist for wargame designers; understanding what China wants to do on the high seas supports good scenario design.

The second chapter, “Getting Started: Learning How to Operate Abroad” contains the core argument in the book. McDevitt shows how fifteen years of overseas anti-piracy patrols has directly contributed to the development of a highly professional and capable blue-water navy. For wargame designers this is a challenge; so often wargames looking at the PLA Navy seem to dig into the whole “China rising” meme and don’t acknowledge (or refuse to acknowledge) that the Chinese Navy is not “coming soon” but “already here” and far removed from a second-rate coastal defense force that couldn’t even deal with Vietnam.

The next several chapters are probably the best for wargame and scenario design. RADM McDevitt addresses area denial, anti-access and a Taiwan campaign, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean in turn. In each section he discusses the what the PLA Navy is charged with accomplishing and the doctrine and equipment they developed to meet the challenge. His discussion of equipment is particularly helpful for wargame designers as each piece of kit is evaluated against what its mission is. This evaluation is far more helpful than just comparing it to the US Navy. The breakdown by area also can be useful for scenario design, and if one puts it all together a larger campaign view is possible.

Pacific Trident III

This book is not the only writing on China’s navy that Rear Admiral McDeveitt delivered in the past year. In February 2020, RADM McDeveitt wrote the final report for the unclassified Tabletop Exercise (TTX) Pacific Trident III sponsored by the Sasakawa USA Foundation. The goal of Pacific Trident III was to explore challenges to the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances. In that final report, RADM McDevitt foreshadowed some of what he was going to write in China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power. Like in his book, some of the policy recommendations from the TTX are good wargame fodder:

  • Recommendation 3: The United States should consider the merits and risks of adopting a position on the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, persuade other countries to support this position, and develop diplomatic strategies as well as military contingency plans based on these positions (emphasis mine).
  • Recommendation 4: The United States should conduct a policy review of its responses to Chinese aggression against occupied or unoccupied features in the South China Sea. While the details of military actions should be classified, the United States should make it clear that treaty obligations would be invoked by aggression, and could under certain circumstances result in military intervention (again, emphasis mine).
  • Recommendation 6: Planning associated with US military options in support of the TRA [Taiwan Relations Act] recognize the requirement for a rapid expansion of consultative and cooperative mechanisms with Taipei.

Other Views

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) was kind enough to publish Toshi Yoshihara’s article, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited.” The article is adapted from a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Seizing on Weakness: Allied Strategy for Competing With China’s Globalizing Military. Yoshihara’s thoughts go hand-in-hand with McDevitt:

Imperial overreach is not as farfetched as one might assume, despite China’s impressive wealth creation over past decades. As a classic land-sea power, which faces the seas and shares contiguous borders with its neighbors, Beijing must always stay alert to threats in the continental and maritime domains. This inescapable two-front challenge imposes perpetual opportunity costs: every yuan spent on one area is one fewer yuan available for the other flank and vice versa. The trade-offs between its landward and seaward commitments could impose built-in limits on China’s global plans.  

Toshi Yoshihara, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited”

Rocky’s Thoughts

Best Value

Up-to-date capability assessment mixed with analysis of doctrine and mission.

Weakness

Read it now because the PLA Navy is growing so fast the data will be outdated sooner than later.

The PLA Navy from Office of Naval Intelligence (2015) – sorely out of date

Wargame Application

Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020)

The discussions in “Chapter Four – Area Denial” and “Chapter Five – Keeping the Americans Away: Anti-Access and the Taiwan Campaign” have lots of potential Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020) scenario material. One part in particular that struck me is RADM McDevitt’s assertion that the anti-access strategy doctrine of the PLA Navy is not too unlike the Soviet Union in the Atlantic during the Cold War. This made me immediately think about a 21st Century version of Dance of the Vampires, the Harpoon scenarios and campaign that Larry Bond and Tom Clancy used to support the writing of Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel. It would be great to see a new 21st century version starring the PLA Navy!

Dance of the Vampires from Admiralty Trilogy Games

“Chapter Six – The PLA Navy and the South China Sea” is perfect update material for South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017). The same can be said for “Chapter Seven – The PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean” and the forthcoming release of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (Compass Games, 2021).

A 21st Century VitP?

As I read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, I appreciated how RADM McDevitt broke down the problem geographically. At the same time, it made me realize that many (all?) modern naval wargames take that same approach. We have wargames on the invasion of Taiwan and confrontation in the South China Sea or Indian Ocean. We also have wargames that can deliver a very fine tactical simulation of a modern conflict. What is lacking (in the commercial hobby wargame space, at least) is a wargame that shows the entire campaign. What I’m thinking about here is something like a Victory in the Pacific-type of overview. Although McDevitt breaks the PLA Navy problem down into discrete geographic areas they are all interrelated: the flow of shipping in the Indian Ocean must travel through the South China Sea to get to the mainland. I can think of no commercial wargame that looks at rolling back the PLA Navy across the globe, or even across the Pacific. Just what is the Plan ORANGE wargame for the 21st century?

Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977)

Citation

McDevitt, Michael A., China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020.


Feature image: 200818-N-KF697-3150 PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2020) Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulehsan (OPV 07), Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Winnipeg (FFH 338), Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73) and Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Manawanui (A09) maneuver during a division tactics (DIVTACS) exercise during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). Ten nations, 22 ships, one submarine, and more than 5,300 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from August 17 to 31 at sea around the Hawaiian Islands. RIMPAC is a biennial exercise designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships, critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The exercise is a unique training platform designed to enhance interoperability and strategic maritime partnerships. RIMPAC 2020 is the 27th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Isaak Martinez)

Threat Tuesday – Projecting a future US Navy for #wargames

BATTLE FORCE 2045. It sounds like a new science-fiction wargame but it’s actually the name of the the latest future force plan for the US Navy. Secretary of Defense Esper unveiled the plan in early October.

Esper’s Battle Force 2045, which he rolled out during an online event today at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, lays out plans for achieving a fleet of 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, and a fleet of 355 traditional battle force ships by 2035 – all in a resource-constrained budget environment.

Throughout the rest of October the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) ran a series of articles assembled under the Fleet Force Structure Series. This series of nine article looked at the future force structure in depth.

In particular, I call your attention to “A Decisive Flotilla: Assessing the Hudson Fleet Design” by Robert C. Rubel which in turn links to the Hudson Institute analysis “American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage.” This analysis includes several nice tables for a future order of battle that can form the basis of wargame studies.

It would be interesting to see Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group) data annexes or counters in South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) for Battle Force 2045.


Feature image courtesy moto1.com

Sep/Oct #Wargame #Boardgame Acquisitions featuring @gmtgames @hollandspiele @worth2004 @MultiManPub @LnLPub @Academy_Games @FFGames @UnstbleUnicrns @MoonrakersGame

In early September I wrote about how many games might be arriving into the RockyMountainNavy gaming collection given the reawakening of the publishing industry as they struggle to recover from COVID-19.

Boy, did I underestimate myself.

Turns out that between September 1 and October 15 I took delivery of 16 (!) items into my gaming collection. This includes:

  • 8 wargames (+3 expansions)
  • 3 boardgames (+1 expansion)
  • 1 accessory

I also diversified my acquisition chain. In addition to Kickstarter and publisher pre-order systems, I also used a local flea market, online digital, BGG trading, publisher direct sales, and (gasp) my FLGS!

Wargames

Washington’s Crossing (Revolution Games, 2012) – A not-so-complex look at the Trenton Campaign of 1776. My more detailed thoughts are here.

Flying Colors 3rd Edition Update Kit (GMT Games, 2020)(Expansion) So many Age of Sail games take a super-tactical view of ships that playing them can become unwieldy. Flying Colors takes a more ‘fleet commander” point of view; here you can be Nelson at Trafalgar, not Captain Hardy. The 3rd Edition Update Kit brings my older v1.5 up to date with the latest counters and rules, allowing me to set sail for new games in the future.

White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (Hollandspiele, 2020) – The follow-on to the gateway wargame Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019). Don’t let the low complexity of the rules fool you; the game is full of impactful decisions. I have more thoughts here.

French and Indian War 1757-1759 (Worthington Games, 2020) – Another entry in my collection of Worthington block wargames. Simple rules but deep decisions. It’s been a long-time since I labeled a wargame a “waro” but this one crosses over between the wargame and boardgame crowds.

Harpoon V: Modern Tactical Naval Combat 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020) – More a simulation model than a game. I’ve played and owned Harpoon titles since the early 1980’s. Can’t help myself; I love it.

Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) – Another entry in the Standard Combat Series from MMP. I like the multiple eras of play and the ‘Road to War’ rules that deliver replayability in a (relatively) small package.

Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack in East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018)Acquired via trade. I like chit-pull games as they are good for solo play. I am also interested in this title because of the time period; I have played Operation Barbarossa to death and am interested in a late war perspective when the Soviets were on the offensive and it was the Germans rocked back on their heels.

Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)Acquired via trade. Got through a trade more on a whim than with any real thought. First look is a very simple ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ wargame. Realistically it has only seven pages of rules!

Nations at War: White Star Rising (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010) – I don’t really need another World War II tactical game system; I’m very happy with my Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games. Acquired through trade with no real big expectations. First impression is this platoon-level game is reminiscent of PanzerBlitz (Avalon Hill, 1970) but with chit-pull activation and command rules (both of which I really like). Maybe some interesting potential here, will have to see…. (Acquired at same time were two expansions: Nations at War: White Star Rising – Operation Cobra and Nations at War: White Star Rising – Airborne)

Boardgames

One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; worker placement games is not really my thing. However, I really do like One Small Step. Not only does the theme engage me but the team play version of worker placement makes it a good game night title for the RMN household.

Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) Acquired via flea market. I jumped at an opportunity to get this game via a local flea market at an excellent price. Thematically excellent but I still have doubts concerning gameplay. It does create a very good narrative though….

Here to Slay: Warrior and Druid Expansion (Unstable Games, 2020) (Expansion) Here to Slay is the #1 played game in the RMN home. The RMN Boys (and their friends) love it. The game is far from perfect; like many others I don’t feel it is anything like an RPG as it proclaims and it’s too easy to win with “six classes in your party” versus slaying three monsters. Maybe this new expansion will change that with a bit more focus on the warrior class. Maybe….

Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020)Fresh arrival. Bought because I keep looking for a decent Traveller RPG-type of boardgame or something that captures the same vibe as Firefly: The Game (Gale Force Nine, 2013). My other attempts to find these types of games, Scorpius Freighter (AEG, 2018) and Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019) were less-than-successful. This title just screams OPA in The Expanse. Playing it will have to wait as there is a backlog of games in front of it in the to-play queue (obvious from the above).

Accessories

Sirius Dice: Spades (Sirius Dice) – I picked these up sorta on a whim. They look and feel good. If I ever get back to playing RPGs they may come in handy.

A Modern Simulation #Wargame – Harpoon V (admiraltytrilogy.com, 2020)

How many wargames do you know get a mention in a major mainstream publication, like Forbes? In August of 2020, the ‘new’ Harpoon V naval miniatures wargame from Admiralty Trilogy Games got just such an article. So what makes Harpoon V so special?

Way back in 1982 I was a wee middle schooler who had started wargaming just a few years before. The major titles in my collection were the Panzer/88/Armor series by James Day from Yaquinto Publishing and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). That same year, the United Kingdom and Argentina fought the Falklands War. The extensive media coverage fascinated me to no end, and not long after I found a copy of a miniatures wargame called Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) and its supplement Resolution 502. What immediately struck me about Harpoon II was that the game was more a simulation than, well, a game.

One of the greatest news magazine covers ever….

The next year I read the book Hunt for Red October by author Tom Clancy. I immediately started to recreate the scenes of Red October in Harpoon II. In 1986 I read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and again was struck by the bug to recreate the scenes using Harpoon. Just a year later, Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1987) hit the shelves and I eagerly bought the base game and all the expansions. I continued to follow (reinvesting every time) when the title shifted to Clash of Arms as they published Harpoon 4 (1997). So it should come as no surprise that I am once again investing in the latest version, Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020).

My Harpoon Collection (original image courtesy Admiralty Trilogy Games)

What keeps me coming back? Well, the Harpoon series is less a game and more a simulation. Look at how the current publisher describes Harpoon V:

Harpoon is the flagship of the Admiralty Trilogy Group’s games. First published in 1980, it has undergone several major revisions, with the last, Harpoon 4.1, being printed in the late 1990s. Although the system has remained fairly stable, naval technology has continued advancing, and there have been further developments in the game systems as more information has been acquired. It is planned plan to issue a new edition, Harpoon 5, sometime in the near future consolidating this knowledge and standardizing Harpoon with the other products.

The era of modern naval combat began on October 21, 1967 when Egyptian missile boats launched four Soviet made Styx surface-to-surface missiles and sank the Israeli destroyer Elath at a range of 13.5 nautical miles. The face of naval warfare changed forever!

Harpoon 5 handles all aspects of modern maritime combat: surface, sub-surface, and air. Harpoon 5 is a system of detailed but comprehensible rules covering the many facets of modern naval actions. Consistent rating systems and evaluations of the capabilities of modern naval vessels, aircraft, submarines, and helicopters make it possible to achieve realistic results when simulating known situations, by extension Harpoon 5 also achieves realistic results with hypothetical scenarios.

Harpoon 5 can answer questions like:

Are carriers powerhouses or sitting ducks?
Can transatlantic convoys survive in a modern wartime environment?
In the cat-and-mouse games between US and Russian submarines, which is better?

As much as Harpoon V is a simulation, I have to give kudos to the design team to trying to make the game more ‘playable’ without losing ‘realism.’ The key to this balance is in the ratings system of platforms, weapons, and equipment that takes into account different technological eras. A simple “Generation’ rating for many weapons and combat systems (such as radars) accounts for how ‘smart’ they are. Thus, one can see the difference between a 500 lbs. bomb as it transforms from a ‘dumb’ unguided bomb in Vietnam to a laser-guided version in the Gulf War to a ‘smart’ GPS-guided munition of today. Or how it is much easier to spoof a Former Soviet Union air search radar on an exported missile boat in the 1980’s than it is to detect a modern Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) surface search radar.

Critics of the Harpoon series often cry the game is unplayable. Well, I challenge them to consider if they are judging the series as a war game or a simulation wargame. I argue that Harpoon, being more a simulation, by necessity uses a more complex model that requires more player manipulation. Many time in wargames, the model is simplified or heavily abstracted in the name of playability. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the ‘abstraction’ is done purposefully. The Harpoon series, because it leans more heavily into the simulation than gaming aspects of the design, can seem chart-heavy. I agree with many critics who say the game can be made more ‘playable’ if in a computer version, much like Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO). That said, I like the player manipulation of the model, even if it costs me some playability. Besides, I don’t have an awesome gaming computer to run all the great graphics of those other games; indeed, my MacBook struggles even when running Table Top Simulator! That’s OK; I use the many nice counters from my Clash of Arms Harpoon 4. More recently, I have looked at investing in Paper Forge printable standees like their Modern US Navy Cruisers set.

CMANO – Quite honestly it’s computerized Harpoon

I will also admit that I look at Harpoon V as more a ‘professional’ wargame than a recreational one. No, I do not work in a DoD wargaming organization but even I use Harpoon for what-if exploration of current issues. As a matter of fact, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms, 2010) is literally air strike Harpoon with a political game bolted on. That is the power of Harpoon!

Harpoon – without ships but lots of strike aircraft and geopolitics

Then there is the investment. The base rules are available from wargamevault.com for $20. However, to really play one needs to buy the data annexes. The first four, America’s Navy, Russia’s Navy, American’s Aircraft, and Russia’s Aircraft are available in pdf form for $16…each. That collection is great for replaying the Cold War but, let’s face it, the real match-up most modern naval gamers want to play out today is the US versus China. So, ATG, when is that data annex going to be available?

Well, look at that! Bestseller on Wargame Vault (image captured Sep 26, 2020)

“All game, no history.” Really? Musings on why I play #wargames

Recently on Twitter, the following tweet was reupped for comments:

The Tactical Painter @PainterTactical ·

Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.

I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:

Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy · 
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.

Complexity as Realism…or Not?

First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty 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 of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player 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 richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)

Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).

“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.

Or so I thought.

Wargames as Insight

Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)

My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:

  • Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
  • Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
  • Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
    • Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
    • Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer

I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:

Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)

Games, Not Simulations

Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.

MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:

Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.

…But Fun

Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.

I still play the more complex games, but my approach to them has changed. While I still use them to explore conflict, I also try to enjoy it. My attitude these days is one of wanting to game a conflict, not simulate it. I think many designers and publishers get this. This is why the new Harpoon V from Admiralty Trilogy Games is more player-friendly. It’s why Buffalo Wings 2 (Against the Odds) is having a successful Kickstarter. And yes, it’s why even Advanced Squad Leader is still a money-maker for Multi-Man Publishing (especially when one looks at the face-to-face tournament play aspect).

All of which is to say I play wargames for the fun of learning and making interesting decisions. They don’t teach me history, but they offer a pathway to further insight.

“All game, no history.” Not true for me.


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

#Coronapocalypse #RPG – A different #TravellerRPG future with @IndependenceGa6 #TheClementSector Earth sourcebooks

IN THE PAST FEW WEEKS, I PLAYED SEVERAL Traveller RPG-related wargames. Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1982) and Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018) are based on the Third Imperium setting. However, my modern “preferred” setting for my Traveller RPG is The Clement Sector from Independence Games (formerly Gypsy Knights Games) using their modified version of the Cepheus Engine ruleset.

A major reason I like The Clement Sector is that it is in the future, but not so far in the future (like the 56th Century of the Third Imperium) that I cannot relate. Here is how Independence Games describes the core setting:

In 2210, scientists discovered a wormhole allowing travel to the opposite side of the Milky Way galaxy.  Once across, exploration teams discovered worlds far more suited to human habitation than those in star systems nearer to Earth.  Were they terraformed by some unknown race?  Are they just a coincidence in the vast diversity of the universe?

Over the ensuing years humans left Earth and began to colonize these worlds.  Nation-backed colonies.  Corporate colonies.  People who simply no longer felt compelled to remain on Earth.  The best and brightest.

In 2331, the unthinkable happened.  The wormhole collapsed leaving those in Clement Sector cut off from Earth.  Now these new worlds and new civilizations must stand on their own.

The year is 2342.  Adventure awaits!

Originally, The Clement Sector focused in ‘the other side’ of the wormhole and the regions that grew up around there. I really like the setting because it has everything one may prefer; a subsector that is very Space Opera, another that is Space Western. I also absolutely enjoy how Independence Games makes their sourcebooks; a combination of wide topics with ‘seeds’ of adventure thrown in. They paint the broad strokes of the setting but leave plenty of space for you, the GM or players, to fill in. In an era when so many folks play IP-derived settings then complain of being ‘constrained’ by canon, The Clement Sector is a refreshing dose of freedom. Which is why I approached a few of the most recent releases with a bit of trepidation.

Earth Sector: A Clement Sector Setting

Earth_Sector_Cover_540xI actually talked about this sourcebook back in February 2020 and was not so keen on it then. Truth be told it has grown on me in the short time since. Earth Sector: A Clement Sector Setting focuses on the Earth Sector but AFTER the Conduit Collapse. I was concerned about this ‘alternate-future’ look and although there is certainly a good deal of ‘history’ in the product I am very pleased on the post-Collapse focus. Indeed, that is what saves the entire product for me – it is as much more of a look forward into the ‘future’ than a tie to the ‘past.’

A major reason Earth Sector has grown on me is another one of those Traveller games-within-games. As the ad copy for Earth Sector states:

Using the relationship matrix developed in Balancing Act: Interstellar Relations in Clement Sector, Earth Sector contains detailed reports on which nation is doing well, how much they are raking in from their colonies, and upon which nation they may yet declare war.

CTadv5Long ago, Classic Traveller Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron included rules for determining budgets for a world. The idea was players could design and build fleets and fight with them. Over the years, this world budget concept has often cropped up in the game. Independence Games added their take on the concept with Balancing Act: Interstellar Relations in the Clement Sector:

It also includes a game within a game called “The Balancing Act”. This game will allow you to take on the role of a head of state in Clement Sector and go up against other leaders as you attempt to push your world ahead of your competition. These rules can easily be used in other settings and games where one might wish to become a leader of a world.

What I really like about Balancing Act is that it is not solely focused on the military (although that certainly makes up a large part of the ‘balance’). Although most RPGs are inherently very personal and focused on a individuals in a small group, as a GM I can use Balancing Act to ‘world-build’ the setting.

Subsector Sourcebook: Earth

EarthSectorFrontPromoCover_1024x1024@2xComplementing Earth Sector is Subsector Sourcebook: Earth. This product looks beyond the Earth and to the whole subsector. Again, the post-Collapse focus is what makes this product; there is enough history to broadly explain how the various locales came to be and how they are dealing with the post-Collapse situation. In addition to all the ‘details’ about the planets, this subsector book also includes the Balancing Act data meaning it is ready-set for GMs and players to start their own world-building adventure game.

Which brings me to the last new product this week…

Tim’s Guide to the Ground Forces of the Hub Subsector

Tims_Hub_Cover_Final_1024x1024@2x.pngIndependence Games already publishes their Wendy’s Guides for space navies in The Clement Sector. Tim’s Guide to the Ground Forces of the Hub Sector takes that same concept an applies it to non-space forces (ground, aerospace, naval) and organizations. Unlike the other products I talked about above, this first Tim’s Guide goes back to ‘other side’ of The Clement Sector and focuses on the Hub Subsector.

Like the Wendy’s Guides before, each planet has their non-space forces laid out. Planetary factors related to The Balancing Act are also included. As I so often say about Independence Games’ products, the depth of detail is just right. For example, one entry may tell you that the planet has a Tank Company equipped with FA-40 tanks, but they don’t tell you the details on that tank. It might be in one of the vehicle guides or, better yet, you can use the Cepheus Engine Vehicle Design System to build your own. [I guess it is just a matter of time until Independence Games publishes their own The Clement Sector-tailored vehicle design system too.]

The other part of this book that I appreciate is the fully detailed “Hub Federation’s Yorck-class Battlecruiser, a seafaring vessel capable of engaging forces both on the oceans and in close orbit.” The Traveller grognard in me wants to take this ship and place in a Harpoon 4 (Admiralty Trilogy Games) naval miniatures wargame scenario and see how it goes.

So there you have it; three new The Clement Sector books for YOUR game. That’s probably the most under appreciated part of Independence Games. Unlike so many other settings, The Clement Sector empowers the players and GM. There is lots of material to chose from, and many adventures to be created.

#Wargame #Miniatures Monday – 2019 Origins Challenge in Fear God & Dread Nought (Clash of Arms/ATG, 2001+)

FEAR GOD & DREAD NOUGHT (Clash of Arms, 2001) won the 2001 Origins Award for Best Historic Miniatures Rules. To me, FG&DN was the third what is now called the Admiralty Trilogy of naval wargames which includes Fear God & Dread Nought (1906-1925), Command at Sea (1926-1955) and Harpoon (1955 to Present day). Along the way, a “fourth” game in the trilogy was released by the Admiralty Trilogy Group, Dawn of the Battleship which covers 1890 to 1904. For my 2019 Origins Award Challenge I pulled out FG&DN and took another look at the game.

To me, Admiralty Trilogy games get a bit of a bum rap. These games are often associated with complexity; indeed, I have heard these games referenced as “ASL for the navy.” Personally, I think people confuse detailed data with complexity of the game engine. I know both Mr. Bond (the series creator) and Chris Carlson (co-designer FG&DN) and they are both gamers. They are also analysts, and one should recall that the first trilogy game, Harpoon, grew out of a US Navy training aid. In many ways, FG&DN traces its legacy to “professional” wargames where the training and simulation needs often come at the expense of playability. My long-time focus on simulation over gameplay may be why I often overlooked playability issues.

Long ago in 2007 I created a Geeklist where I compared nine different World War I tactical naval wargames I had in my collection. In my informal comparison I played the same scenario (Goeben Escapes) for each game. For FG&DN I found it took the longest prep and play times across the nine games. However, while not the fastest game, it was among the games that seem to most accurately portray the battle. So the question is, what do YOU want in a game? Playability? Realism? Where you fall along that spectrum will go a long way towards determine if FG&DN is for you.

I still enjoy FG&DN. Several year back, Admiralty Trilogy Group took the license for the Admiralty Trilogy and started publishing electronically on WargameVault.com. By 2017 they realized FG&DN needed an overhaul. While many of the rules changes focused on the combat models, playability did factor into decisions.

Finally, when looking at the present state of the game I realized I have not kept up. In October 2018, ATG published FG&DN, 2nd Edition. Good thing it’s my birthday and I can buy a present for myself to see just how good the overhaul was!

A Willing Foe & Sea Room

#Wargame Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) – Modernizing Harpoon 4 (Clash of Arms/Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2006+)

WHEN IT COMES TO TACTICAL MODERN NAVAL WARGAMING there is only one game for me: Harpoon. I started with Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1984) and their awesome module Resolution 502 covering the Falklands War. I kept playing Harpoon even when it changed publishers to Game Designers Workshop (GDW) with Harpoon 3rd Edition (1987). I followed along when Clash of Arms picked it up for Harpoon 4 (1996). These days the game is published – electronic version only – by Admiralty Trilogy Games. I recently pulled out Harpoon 4 as part of my 2019 Origins Challenge. Harpoon 4 won the 1996 Origins Award for Best Modern-Day Board Game.

I find that surprising because, 1) Harpoon 4 is a set of miniatures rules – not a board game, and 2) the Harpoon series has many more vocal detractors than advocates.

Harpoon has never had a board. From the beginning it was designed for miniatures. The Clash of Arms version came with counters that one could put down on a board but that alone doesn’t make it a board game.

The Harpoon series also has many detractors. I have heard Harpoon described as “ASL for the sea.” There is a bit of some truth there as one of the issues in Harpoon has long been that speed of plays dramatically slows as the most important actions occur. I believe this occurs because for the longest time the designers of Harpoon saw the product more as a “simulation” than a “game.” Thus, realism took precedent over playability. However, that balance is in the process of changing.

I think the real impetuous for change came when Clash of Arms published Persian Incursion in 2010. PI used Harpoon 4 as its base game engine:

Persian Incursion explores the political and military effects of an Israeli military campaign against Iran. It uses rules adapted from Harpoon 4 to resolve the military action. But its goal is to look beyond the military action by modeling the political and intelligence actions and consequences of a potential political conflict by including a card-based diplomatic/political component to the game.

Players spend Political, Intelligence and Military Points to influence allies or enemies, purchase reinforcements, execute military strikes or shape their own domestic opinion. Players choose variable starting conditions that shape scenarios, while random strategic events influence play in unexpected ways.

That said, PI took a long time to play, mostly because it took a long time to plan. Once play started, the speed of combat resolution was slow even with streamlined air-to-air combat or bombing rules changes.

Looking at the ATG presentation at Cold Wars 2010 one can see the level of detail that went into the game. But even though PI streamlined air-to-air combat, it still was not enough.

ATG is now in the process of updating Harpoon 4 to what they are calling Harpoon 4.2 (4.1 being an incremental update published in 2001). Two presentations, one at Historicon 2018 and another at Cold Wars 2019 lays out their plan.

Going beyond a simple edit and update, the ATG team wants to incorporate many new understandings of naval warfare they have uncovered. Some of these are the result of declassification of Cold War records, others are original research. The part I am most interested in is when they say, “Virtually every section of the rules will be modified, re-written to improve playability while retaining the fidelity of the earlier versions of Harpoon.”

Play-a-bility.

As much as I love Harpoon (I rate Harpoon 4 8.25 on BGG – # 17 or in the top 3% of my collection of 700+ games and expansions) even I will admit it can use a playability scrub. I hope the focus on playability delivers a playable game that simulates modern naval warfare, not a ponderous simulation that purports to be a game.

Can’t wait!

Admiralty Trilogy – A Willing Foe and Sea Room