Putting the non-standard into a standard #wargame – Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (@MultiManPub, Standard Combat Series #19, 2016)

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT USING A STANDARD SET OF RULES IN A SERIES. One advantage is moving from game to game in the series is easier because the learning curve is reduced. A disadvantage often is the game starts feeling too generic and loses the essence of each different conflict. My recent look at Brief Border Wars (Compass Games, 2020) showed me how a good set of series rules can work with just a few exclusive rules to make different, interesting games. Recently, I took advantage of a sale by Multi-Man Publishing and picked up a few different games. Amongst the acquisitions were two games in their Standard Combat Series. I was able to get one of them, Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (MMP, 2016) to the table quickly. I am happy to discover that while the game is ‘standard,’ it also is very unique. More importantly, Panzer Battles teaches us about command and control in warfare; lessons learned over 75 years ago but still applicable today.

MMP describes their Standard Combat Series (SCS) as this:

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

With that description in mind I really didn’t have the highest of expectations. I mean, a game that can be played by both experienced and beginner players is a wide range of abilities. Consider too that MMP is the home of Advanced Squad Leader, anything but an uncomplicated game!

When one opens the box, the first impression is a very simple game. In the case of Panzer Battles you get two 22″x34″ mapsheets, one countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, one Series rule book and one game-specific rule book. Oh yeah – two dice.

The Series rule book is eight (8) pages, with page 8 being totally devoted to Designer’s Notes. For longtime Grognards there is nothing special, unique, or unexpected here. The SCS is bog-standard hex & counter wargame. The Series rules have 13 major sections:

  1. Sequence of Play
  2. Zones of Control (ZOCs)
  3. Movement
  4. Stacking
  5. Reinforcements
  6. Overrun Combat
  7. Combat
  8. Step Losses
  9. Retreats
  10. Advance After Combat
  11. Exploitation
  12. Supply
  13. Hex Control

When you get to the game-specific rule book (12 pages) you start to discover the non-standard of the SCS. In the case of Panzer Battles, designer Dean Essig wanted to capture what made the mobile defensive warfare of the German 11th Panzer Division so special. In Panzer Battles, he showcases the battles fought by 11th Panzer along the Chir River in December, 1942 when they acted as a ‘fire brigade’ against Soviet advances (for details on the battles see here). Basically stated, you have a heavily outnumbered, predominantly infantry force defending with armor in support against a numerically superior, yet doctrinally rigid, mechanized attacker.

Panzer Battles, the wargame, appears to draw it’s title from Panzer Battles, the book, written by Maj. Gen F.W. von Mellenthin (University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). The book even appears to be the origin of the “fire brigade’ phrase. In the 1970’s when the US Army was developing their Air-Land Battle Doctrine, the mobile defensive warfare of General Balck and the 11th Panzer were studied for its application to NATO defense. In 2020 a similar defensive need exists in Poland, Taiwan, or Korea, making the study and understanding of the Chir River battles important even today. It is also relevant to the modern day study of Mission Command, a phrase often used (not always correctly) to describe the command and control philosophy of General Balck – Auftragstaktik.

In order to showcase the Auftragstaktik command and control approach that underpinned 11th Panzer’s actions, Mr. Essig choses to introduce one of my favorite gaming mechanisms, the chit-pull mechanic, into the game. In Panzer Battles, the 11th Panzer Division usually has multiple chits in their draw cup, meaning the force will activate more often. There are a few other game-specific rules (like 1.7 Disorganized Units or 1.10 Barrages) that also capture essential elements of mobile warfare but it is rule 1.8 Activations that is the heart of Panzer Battles.

The end result in Panzer Battles is a wargame that delivers what it promises. The chit-pull activation system shows how the different command and control approach of the 11th Panzer enables it to be that ‘fire brigade’ that rapidly moves about the battlefield to (hopefully) be at the right place at the right time to face the Soviet offensive. It is an excellent case study of Auftragstaktik.

@Hughwally on BGG understands wargaming….

Panzer Battles is not without it’s drawbacks. In my case the quibbles are minor and center on those small counters. As a graying Grognard, I am challenged to see and handle small 1/2″ counters. Even my wargame tweezers don’t always help. One good part is with only 280 counters, rounding the corners (at 2mm radius) doesn’t take forever! Also, at two maps Panzer Battles has a bigger footprint (44″x34″) than I expected, especially in a game with only 280 counters (speak about low counter density….).

Further, while Panzer Battles illustrates the advantage of Auftragstaktik, it does not give the players insight into how to achieve it. In game terms, the chit-pull mechanic clearly illustrates the impact of Auftragstaktik but not how to create it – it’s ‘baked into’ the chits and simply handed the players.

Overall though, I am impressed with Panzer Battles and look forward to more SCS games. I already own Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013). In that game the ‘gimmick” is an ability chose a ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ optempo. I will keep my eyes open for other MMP sales; the regular price of Panzer Battles is presently $48 – in my opinion a little bit steep, but probably fair in today’s economy, for what you get.

Now, about the Grand Tactical Series game Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) and the houseful of maps and counters….

Courtesy @puertoricojoe on Twitter

Feature image courtesy Multi-Man Publishing

History to #Wargame – A retrospective look at Crisis: Korea 1995 (@gmtgames, 1993)

WARGAMES ON NEAR-FUTURE OR CONTEMPORARY CONFLICTS ARE RISKY. Although very interesting, they can just as often turn out to be “right” as often as they are “wrong.” Fortunately, we got through the mid-1990’s without a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula so Crisis: Korea 1995 (GMT Games, 1993) is now an alt-history title. I recently pulled the game out for my 2019 CSR Wargames Challenge to play and think about. The game emphasizes ow three parts of then-modern warfare were viewed in that day. Taking a retrospective look at this title is a great chance to study the game model and see how it holds up against time.

The three areas Crisis: Korea 1995 emphasize are:

  • Exploitation or breakthrough by mechanized forces
  • North Korean Special Forces
  • Joint Air Warfare.

In 1993, the memory (lessons?) of DESERT STORM were undoubtably fresh in the mind of all involved in development of Crisis: Korea 1995. Battles like that of 73 Easting were already becoming legendary stories. However, as designer Gene Billingsley notes in the introduction to 7.0 COMBAT, he did not let any sort of victory fever taint his game model:

In contrast to what we witnessed during the Persian Gulf War, it is our belief that combat in Korea will inflict heavy casualties on both sides. The major reasons for this are terrain and massed firepower. With very little clear, flat terrain to speak of, and line-of-sight limited to an average of less than one mile by the numerous hills and ridges, even stand-off fights (tank engagements, TOW missile shots, etc.) will be fought at relatively short distances. Artillery firepower will be telling, as both sides deploy large numbers of guns with pre-plotted fires concentrated on likely routes of advance and reinforcement. Unit cohesion will play a telling role as huge losses take their toll on troop organization and morale.

Crisis: Korea 1995; 7.0 COMBAT
North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength; Defense Intelligence Agency; October, 1991

Further, instead of simply making Crisis: Korea 1995 a game about Air-Land Battle in Korea, it appears that the designer tried to reflect some of the then-current thinking about how North Korea would fight. In 1991, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) publicly released North Korea: The Foundations of Military Strength. Although this title is not directly referenced anywhere in Crisis: Korea 1995 I am sure the designer and researchers used it. With regards to North Korean offensive operations, DIA makes the point that:

North Korean infantry and armored elements of the first-echelon divisions of the forward conventional corps would attempt to penetrate the allied forward defense. The mechanized corps, brigades augmented with attached self-propelled artillery, and combat support elements would attempt to pass through any openings the frontline corps create. The mechanized corps quickly would penetrate deep into South Korea, bypassing and possibly isolating many allied units.

North Korea: Foundations of Military Strength; Chapter 6 – Employing the Armed Forces, Offensive Operations

In the game Crisis: Korea 1995, “exploitation” is found in the Initiative Turn Sequence of Play where the initiative player can perform exploitation movement and combat. When I first saw this part of the SoP I tried to rectify it with my understanding of the US Air-Land Battle concept. However, after rereading the DIA product, I see it as reflective of the North Korean doctrine of war. Adding exploitation movement and combat to the initiative player is an elegant way to model the NK doctrine of the day.

North Korean Exploitation Corps from North Korea: Foundations for Military Strength; DIA, 1991

The second combat area Crisis: Korea 1995 really digs into is Special Forces. The intelligence assessments of the day also emphasized the North Korean Special Forces and is reflected in the lengthy treatment it gets from DIA; eight full paragraphs or the same as Ground Forces which were the core of the North Korean Peoples Army. As DIA tells us:

North Korea classifies its special operations units as reconnaissance, light infantry, or sniper. Team-sized elements conduct reconnaissance to collect intelligence or targeting information. Light infantry operations are combat operations conducted with company- or battalion-sized units against military, political, or economic targets. Sniper operations basically are the same as light infantry except they are conducted in team-sized units.

North Korea: Foundations of Military Strength; Chapter 5 – Military Forces, Special Operations Forces

I again wonder if the designers didn’t use the DIA publication because that paragraph basically describes the game system in Standard Game 10.0 SPECIAL UNITS and Advanced Game 21.0 SPECIAL FORCES!

North Korean Special Forces from North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength; DIA, 1991

The emphasis on Special Forces in Crisis: Korea 1995 is also not surprising given the involvement of Joe Bermudez, author of the book North Korean Special Forces which was first published in 1988. Joe gets a shout-out from Mr. Billingsley in the Game Credits, and Gene tells us why in his More Design Notes:

I’ve always liked games that let you resolve Special Forces Missions. I used to love ambushing enemy Supply Convoys in Mark Herman’s GulfStrike (still one of my favorite all-time games!). But I never liked keeping track of each detachment or mission on a separate piece of paper. Thus, the Special Forces Mission markers. In Korea, the North’s Special Forces are very, very important. The North Koreans have so many eggs in that basket, that you could almost say that, regardless of whether the NKPA Special Purpose Forces succeed or fail, they will have a decisive impact on the conflict. If they succeed, the US/ROK command structure, mobilization capabilities, air power, and reinforcement capacity will be in serious trouble. If they fail, the North, in my view, doesn’t have a prayer of winning the war.

Crisis: Korea 1995; More Design Notes

A third area of then-contemporary warfare that Crisis: Korea 1995 looks deeply into is the air war. It is amazing to look at the Advanced Air Game in Crisis: Korea 1995 and compare it to the the Gulf War Air Power Summary Report from 1993. The report, assembled by the RAND Corporation, may not have been released until 1993 but it is obvious that many within the Services were already thinking about and incorporating the lessons learned from DESERT STORM. Again, the best insight into the model comes from designer Gene Billingsley in another part of his More Design Notes:

This air game took a long time to put together. I want to especially thank Matt Caffrey, J.D. Webster, and a host of F/A-18 Hornet pilots who helped me though the various part of the host of redesigns and modifications to get the game where it is now. Basically, I wanted to create a system that would allow for interaction between Detection, SAMS, Strikes, and SEAD aircraft without bogging the player down in counting hex ranges and plotting interception points. I really like Mo Morgan’s Tac Air game, as it represents the interaction really well, though at a different scale. For this scale, I couldn’t find any system that really gave that kind of feel without reverting to Mark’s GulfStrike-like approach, which would take WAY too long for this game. The Air Defense Tracks seem to do the trick, and are an aspect of the design that I personally enjoy very much. Even after they win the Air Superiority battle, the US/ROK planes have to duel with that huge air defense system. then again, if they wipe outs its detection capabilities, essentially blinding it, they can pull off something akin to Desert Storm. We’ve tested this system in theory in other parts of the world already, and it should port (if we decide to do another in this series) without much trouble. I want to keep improving it, however, so if you have suggestions on how to make it better, let’s hear them.

Crisis: Korea 1995; More Design Notes
Top Gun – North Korean Style (YouTube)

Beyond the three areas of emphasis, as a former Navy Guy I was very disappointed that Crisis: Korea 1995 abstracted the naval aspects of the war. Designer Gene Billingsley tried to explain why in his notes for 6.81 Sea Control:

In game terms, we have greatly simplified and abstracted this sea battle. At one time we had about 200 counters representing virtually everything that floats in the theatre. Unfortunately, each turn of naval combat at that scale added about three hours to each game turn, with marginal enhancement to game play. Basically, after three or four turns, the North and South Koreans were virtually wiped out, and the US was in form control of the majority of the waters around Korea….The only essential information to determine from the sea battle is “Can you move troops and supplies to and from ports and beachheads?” Thus, we’ve opted for sea control die rolls to determine control, with a built-in assumption that once the United States Navy gains control of the sea, it will not relinquish control.

Crisis: Korea 1995; 6.81 Sea Control
North Korean Navy (KCNA Photo)

As much as it pains me to admit, the “assumption” that Mr. Billingsley makes is reflected by DIA. Here are a couple of pull-quotes about the North Korean Navy from DIA:

  • “Although largely a coastal defense force, the Navy can support some offensive operations.” (p. 44)
  • “North Korea has a limited capability to provide support troops on shore. Therefore, it would have to curtail naval support to he ground forces soon after landing.” (p. 59)
  • “The Navy and Air Force could act in a strong supporting role in the initial stage of an offensive. the level of sustained operations would depend on the size and composition of US air and naval force augmentation. If confronted by strong forces, the North Korean air and naval forces would revert to largely defensive roles.” (p. 59)

In retrospect, Crisis: Korea 1995 is a game that took on a then-contemporary potential conflict and faithfully portrayed its most dynamic parts. The fact that Crisis: Korea 1995 and its other sister Crisis games became the jumping off point for GMT Games very successful Next War-family of games is a testimony to it’s solid core foundations. I am confident that, had war on the Korean Peninsula broken out in the 1990’s, then Crisis: Korea 1995 would have been more “right” than “wrong” about the conflict.

#Wargame Wednesday – Back to the future? TAC AIR (Avalon Hill, 1987)

THERE ARE SOME IN OUR HOBBY who insist that a wargame must be historical. From today’s perspective, a game about Air-Land Battles in Germany in the 1980’s is kinda historical. Or at least historically-plausible. Thankfully, the Cold War never went hot. So playing TAC AIR (Avalon Hill Game Company, 1987) is a blast into the coulda-been past. I recently played TAC AIR as part of my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge. TAC AIR won the CSR in 1987 for Best Modern Era Boardgame.

TAC AIR looks and plays in many ways like a military training aid. That’s because it basically was! Designer (and then-USAF Captain) Gary C. Morgan designed the game FEBA for the USAF Project Warrior. As Air Force Magazine put it in 1982:

For a couple of decades, Air Force people (and the institution) edged away from warfighting as a state of mind, and toward an eight-to-five, business, managerial mindset. Today’s Air Force leaders are determined to reverse that trend, and create a professional mission-oriented force. Project Warrior is the means of change….It is a new program whose goal is to create and maintain and environment for Air Force people to think and plan in warfighting terms….Under “education,” the Air Force is establishing a professional studies support program. It is composed of selected readings, discussion guides, wargaming resources, and other media to develop individual understanding of military strategy, tactics, and logistics, as well as a better appreciation of the role of airpower in the nation’s deterrent and defense policy.

Project Warrior, Air Force Magazine, August 1982

TAC AIR was published in a time when professional and recreational wargaming was at an intersection. Jim Dunnigan’s Firefight (1976) started life as a US Army project. In the 1980’s Avalon Hill was on a roll with Gary Morgan’s Flight Leader (1986) and then TAC AIR which both started in Project Warrior. (Philip Sabin, Simulating War, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

TAC AIR depicts the (then) “modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (TAC AIR, Designer’s Profile).

I played this game a few times back in the late 1980’s but seemingly remembered it as “too much Air Farce.” At the time I was really into modern naval combat (ala Harpoon) and was not as interested in ground combat in Europe. If I really wanted to play a modern Cold War ground combat game I would pull out Frank Chadwicks Assault (GDW, 1983).

That’s too bad because TAC AIR, while not perfect, makes learning about Air-Land Battle doctrine quite fun.

TAC AIR is really two games on one. The “Land” portion of the Air-Land Battle is a fairly standard ground combat game where ground units and helicopters move and fight once per turn. The “Air” portion of this game is where the real emphasis lies – not surprising given this was an Air Force training aid! Every turn in TAC AIR includes an Air Phase which consists of 10 identical Air Rounds. Attacks by air units and air defense fire happens during aircraft movement each Air Round. Here planes zoom around the board dodging air defenses and delivering strikes on ground units to disrupt them. A ground unit that accumulates four Disruption is eliminated.

TAC AIR is also interesting in what is included and what is not. In addition to the ground units and aircraft, there are special rules for Electronic Warfare (a vastly under-appreciated domain of modern warfare even today), the then-highly innovative Joint Air Attack Tactics mixing A-10 aircraft and Apache attack helos, as well as long-range ATGMs and standoff weapons. One aircraft you will not find in TAC AIR is the F-117 Nighthawk. I’m not surprised; Captain Morgan may not have even known about the program and even if he did it was still classified at the time. The F-117 was not “publicly unveiled” until 1988 – a year after TAC AIR was published.

I played Scenario One – “Covering Force” where elements of the US 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment screen against advancing elements of the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Division. Although the combat systems and platforms used were obviously from the mid-1980’s Cold War, I could not help but think about how different – or not – a similar battle in Poland might be today. Makes me wonder if anybody in the US Army or Air Force is looking at an updated version of TAC AIR for today’s military.

I also took note that one “Captain Matt Caffrey” is listed as contributing as a game developer. Today, Matt Caffrey Jr. (Colonel, USAFR, Ret.) is the author of On Wargaming from the US Naval War College published this year. Good to see the grognards of the hobby still contributing to the cause.

* FEBA – Forward Edge of the Battle Area (welcome to the world of military acronyms)