2021 #Wargame of the Year – or – Indian Ocean Empire at Sunrise Samurai versus North Africa Dark Summer Atlantic Chase with @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @hollandspiele @MultimanPub

As regular readers likely know, I am, always have been, and will very likely forever be a Grognard. My first real “game” was a wargame—Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing—found under the Christmas tree in 1979. Over forty years later I still play wargames.

In 2021, I acquired 35 wargames and a further nine expansions. If the year had a theme, one might call it my ‘Retro’ year with the addition of “older” wargames like Charles S. Roberts’ TACTICS II from Avalon Hill (1973 edition) or The Battle of the Bulge from Avalon Hill in 1965 or Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge from Rand Games Associated in 1975 to my collection. The 1980’s also got some love with Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (SPI, 1980) and Drive on Frankfurt (Pacific Rim Publishing, 1987) as well as or The Hunt for Red October (TSR, 1988).

That said, I took in six titles this year that were published in 2021 and thus are candidates for my 2021 Wargame of the Year:

Atlantic Chase (Jeremy White, GMT Games) – Atlantic Chase is a very different wargame—in some ways too different for me. As much as I am a naval wargamer (look at my nickname!) this one didn’t click with me. At heart it’s a game of trajectories and time much more than locations. There are many out there who sing praises to the rule book but I found the 10-episode tutorial a bit much. (Status Update – SOLD!)

Atlantic Chase from GMT Games

Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games) – The latest installment in the Commands & Colors system. I keep thinking that C&C will reach the point that there can be “nothing new under the sun” but Samurai (pleasantly) surprised me. Controversial in some respects, some folks didn’t like the “magic” found on some of the cards. Personally, I found it highly thematic (magic is often used to describe something that is unknown or not understood) and the Honor & Fortune system just builds upon the themes of the game that much more.

Command & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games)

The Dark Summer (GMT Games) – The Dark Summer is the latest installment in Ted Raicer’s Dark Series from GMT Games. I love the Dark Series as they use the chit-pull game mechanism that is very solo-friendly. In some ways The Dark Summer is the perfect balance between The Dark Valley (GMT Games, 2018) which is a mini-monster and The Dark Sands (GMT Games, 2018) which can be challenging to play given the two different map scales.

The Dark Summer (GMT Games)

Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (John Gorkowski, Compass Games) – Indian Ocean Region is the second installment in the modern operational-level war-at-sea series that in many ways is the spiritual successor to the Fleet- Series from the 1980’s. While I always loved the “Battle Game” of SCS/IOR, the political card game was less exciting, though I must admit it has grown on me with this version.

Indian Ocean Region (Compass Games)

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele) – Another John Gorkowski title. Like so many Hollandspiele games this one can be a bit quirky. The telescoping scale of the game delivers an interesting view of the conflict.

Empire at Sunrise (Hollandspiele)

North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 (Multi-Man Publishing) – Released late in the year, this one barely makes the list. I’ve yet to explore this title too deeply but the Standard Combat Series version of the very popular Operational Combat Series (OCS) DAK looks to be yet another “playable monster” game.

North Africa (Multi-Man Publishing)

…and the winner is…

Empire at Sunrise.

Empire at Sunrise was released so early in the year it’s easy to forget. Also, not coming from from the larger GMT Games but tiny Hollandspiele it tends to get drowned out in the marketing and social media “talk.” Empire deserves attention because that telescopic scale takes what could be three separate games and relates them to one another to make a coherent story. It’s an interesting game design on an under-appreciated historical topic. While Hollandspiele may not deliver the production quality of a larger publisher, the games are perfectly functional and do what they are supposed to do; enable gaming, exploration, and learning.


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#Wargame Wednesday – Chasing the elusive in Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 by designer Jeremy (Jerry) White from GMT Games (2020) is an interesting beast. The game has generated buzz within wargaming circles, in no small part because of the very different design and approach taken in writing the rules and tutorial for the game. Reading some comments, one might be tempted to believe that Atlantic Chase is akin to the second coming of sliced bread. To me, when evaluating any game it is important to separate the package and the game system. While the package of Atlantic Fleet is in many ways innovative and could be an example of the future for wargame rules writing, the system itself has one major feature (hidden information in the open) that it executes extremely well but otherwise it is actually a quite narrowly focused wargame.

USPS Broke Their Back Delivering Your Box Today….

My very first impression of Atlantic Chase was “wow, that’s a big game.” It formed from simply carrying and opening the box. GMT Games warned us that this would be a heavy box with a 4.0 lbs. shipping weight and they weren’t kidding! When one opens the 3″ deep box you are immediately faced with a very tightly boxed set of components. As one starts unpacking you find:

  • Rule Book (64 pages)
  • Tutorial book (56 pages)
  • Advanced Battle Rules (24 pages)
  • Solitaire Scenarios (15x over 72 pages)
  • Two-Player Scenarios (9x Operational, 12x Mini, and a Campaign Game over 60 pages)
  • Inset Maps (2)
  • Player Aids (x5)
  • Task Force Displays (x2)
  • 1.5 Sheets of Counters
  • Mounted 22″x34″ Game Board
  • Wooden Bits and Dice
  • GMT Box Insert

At the time of writing this post, Atlantic Chase retails for $69 on the GMT Games website. That’s a very reasonable price for all the components one gets in the box.

Of Gucci Interrogatives – Rules and Tutorial

Opening up the Rule Book for Atlantic Chase one immediately sees that it is different. This is not just another wargame with the classic SPI format of rules (1.0 / 1.1 / 1.11 / etc.). Instead of those classic wargame rule walls of text, Atlantic Chase uses a very hobby boardgame, graphics-heavy approach to the rules with extensive use of color, illustrations, and symbology. In most cases, the rules are laid out with step-by-step examples following. It is a very “Gucci”-looking set of rules printed on glossy paper.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is also written in a very different manner which I call “Interrogative Rules.” Every rule starts off with a question such as, “How do we play?” or “Can the Target TF be a Station?” This is a much friendlier approach to teaching rules than a wall of text. That said, though the layout of the rules seems quite intuitive and the question-answer approach is friendly enough the rules as written are complex. I ran several examples of rules text through different readability checkers and all came back with at least college-level or expert reading levels required. For comparison, I ran some text from the Learn to Play guide from Root (Leder Games). That text, written in a very boardgame conversational style, scored “fairly easy to read” and Grade 8.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is divided into six broad sections – Introduction, Concepts, Actions, Common Modifiers, Common Results, Battle, and Optional Rules. Of the sections, Concepts and Actions are by far the most important and learning how to execute game Concepts through game Actions is the heart of the Atlantic Chase game design.

Although each broad section in Atlantic Chase is a logical follow-on to the previous one, the 64-page Rule Book actually just lays out the rules and doesn’t “teach” you how to play the game. For that you need the 56-page Tutorial book. The designer even tells us that the Tutorial book is where the learning is at for both “Newbie” or “Salty Grognard:”

NEWBIE If you are entirely new to wargaming you should start with the Tutorial book. The player aid will also help untangle the knot of Atlantic Chase.

SALTY GROGNARD If you are an experienced wargamer but new to Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory system and its implications may prove elusive at first. The episodes in the Tutorial book are miniature scenarios intended to explain not only the rules of play but also how you use those rules to achieve operational objectives. Each episode is also rendered in entirety as an illustrated example of play (which is why it is so long). Start there.

Rule Book, Atlantic Chase, Introduction, p. 1

So I did what the designer recommended and laid out Atlantic Chase starting with the Tutorial scenarios. There are 10 “mini-scenarios” presented. For each scenario the player is directed to read certain pages of the Rule Book. In many ways, in Atlantic Chase designer Jerry White is using a version of the classic “programmed learning” approach to wargames. The major difference in this 2020 version of programmed learning is that GMT Games spreads the “rules” and “tutorial” over 120 pages and two books with liberal use of those “Gucci” graphics..

For instance, in Atlantic Chase tutorial scenario “T1: Old Chums,” the player is directed to, read pages 14-16, 19, 20 (Ignore Intel Limit), 25, 35, and 36. Not stated, this equates to the rules for:

  • Station and Trajectory
  • Time Lapse
  • Action Sequence
  • Pass

In effect, each scenario (sorry, episode in the Tutorial book) of Atlantic Chase introduces a combination of Concepts and Actions. Only after finishing all 10 tutorial episodes did I see the Episode Index on the last page of the Tutorial book that highlighted the key Action rule introduced in each episode. I wish Jerry had put this index up front and added in the key Concepts used in episode order as it helped me to internalize the Actions introduced (albeit after the fact and after I rearranged it).

The net result of this very hands-on programmed approach in Atlantic Chase of playing each of the ten episodes (the last one being a “culmination” episode bringing all the previous Concepts/Actions together) means that learning the game takes some real time. While some of the early episodes are quick and easy, as you get to later episodes (and especially the culmination episode) each takes more time. For a “Salty Grognard” like me the 10 episodes of reading, playing, and internalizing the Concepts/Actions took several hours to complete; for a Newbie there is likely even more time required. So be warned—learning Atlantic Chase is not something that happens in a single sitting.

One also needs to be organized when playing Atlantic Chase. It’s not there are too many counters, but all those fiddly little matchstick Trajectory Markers need to be organized. Here I wish GMT Games had “banded” the sticks because when you have sticks for four different tan Task Forces and each are marked on one side only with none, one, two, or three bands its’s not something you casually have in a pile on the side of the board. You need to have them sorted and ready to grab or put away. The same goes for the various different counters used as some (Active TF, Coordinating TF, Intel) are put on and taken off the board often.

Learning Atlantic Chase – More Space and Time Than Expected

The Chase in Atlantic Chase

In the Design Notes to Atlantic Chase, Jerry White relates that when he first approached GMT with the game, the question most often asked was, “Is this a U-Boat game?” His response, “This is a Sink the Bismarck game!”, only earned him the response, “So, there’s gonna be U-Boats?” Which is sad in a way because once Jerry said “Sink the Bismarck” then people should have known this is a game of surface combatants searching the wide open oceans for one another. U-Boats had a part, much like carrier and land-based air did, but at it’s heart Atlantic Chase, like the entire Sink the Bismarck event, is a chase. That chase is the focus of the game system; it’s telling that in the 64-page Rule Book the Battle rules take only eight (8) pages.

Hidden Information in the Open (aka ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’)

When designing Atlantic Chase, Jerry White, like so many designers before him, faced the problem of hidden information. How does one player “hide” from another player on a mapboard placed in front of them. More concerning, how does one “hide” information from oneself in a solitaire game? In the classic Avalon Hill second edition of Jack Greene’s Bismarck (Avalon Hill, 1978) the players use separate map plots and a modified “A4 – Hit; Hey, you sunk my battleship!” search methodology (calling out coordinates) but the best experience is to use a third-party (referee) that adjudicates search plans and handles sightings. Alas, that methodology will not work in a solo game. Instead, Jerry White uses a Trajectory—the core concept of Atlantic Chase:

The core concept of the game is the Trajectory.

What is a “Trajectory?”

A ship or group of ships operating together, called a Task Force in this game, can be represented as a line, called a Trajectory. It can also be represented more conventionally as a point, in this game called a “Station.” As a Trajectory, a Task Force is not in one place on the Operations Map, it is somewhere along a line, and that line represents information you and your opponent have about the Task Force’s location.

“Core Concept,” Rule Book – Atlantic Chase, p. 3

In Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory is used to present hidden information in the open. As a matter of fact, in Atlantic Chase the players have no other hidden information as even Task Force Displays are visible. Through game Actions, players manipulate a Trajectory to either move a Task Force (maybe a convoy) across the board while the other player/side tries to “reduce the uncertainty” and transform a Trajectory into a Station that they can Engage in Battle.

A British Task Force of 2x CA (upper right), currently a Station (brown cylinder NE of Scapa Flow), lies in wait for the German Slow Convoy (lower right) that is traveling from Narvik to Wilhemshaven somewhere along the white Trajectory….

Once you get your head wrapped around the notion that your Task Force is somewhere along your Trajectory, and recognize that your goal is to either “advance” your Trajectory or “narrow down” your opponent’s, then the genius of the Atlantic Chase design will come through.

But the Bismarck is So Much Better!

But be warned—Atlantic Chase is an operational-level of wargame of Task Forces searching for or evading one another. The real truth is Atlantic Chase is more an “information game” than a “battle game.” Sure, you can, and sometimes will, fight battles but more importantly you are trying to “narrow down” and locate and track an enemy Task Force. This is not a tactical battle game even if one adds the chrome Advanced Battle Rules. Atlantic Chase is firmly a “design for effect” wargame as it places abstraction over simulation. Coming from a guy like me, a lover of Admiralty Trilogy games which are far less abstract, one might think I would hold this out as a negative of Atlantic Chase. In this case the opposite is true; I find the battle rules in Atlantic Chase just about right and am even wary of using the Advanced Battle Rules because they are maybe a bit too much extra chrome (and added time) that distract from the core game design concept – that information game found in the Trajectory.

An Experience Game

I usually don’t pay attention to comments posted about a game on BoardGameGeek but this comment, by “pilotofficerprune” (aka wargame designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood of Wing Leader) caught my attention because it says what was nagging me about Atlantic Chase:

An intriguing semi-abstract design on cruiser operations in the North Sea and Atlantic. It’s novel and the tutorials are necessary to understand the game. With dice playing a major role it generates strong narratives, but essentially this is an ‘experience game’ that gives a flavour of the subject matter but is low on decision points and ludicity. Catnip to me, but players who like balance and frequent decision-making will be disappointed.

pilotofficerprune, Atlantic Chase rating on BGG

What we have in Atlantic Chase is a wargame with a very nice looking (“Gucci”) and innovative package using a novel approach to rules layout. Although many will point to the tutorials and talk about the “new way of teaching a game” the reality is that it is a modernized version of programmed learning—and it takes alot of time to learn. The game system of Atlantic Chase is the most interesting part of the design in that designer Jerry White has found a very innovative way of keeping hidden information in the open. Atlantic Chase is certainly a game that many Newbies or Salty Grognards should experience, but don’t go into it looking for something much deeper. Atlantic Chase is, at heart, an information game but little more; wargamers looking for deeper decisions may be disappointed once they get past being dazzled by the Gucci packaging.

At the end of the day, I’d tell a wargamer that they absolutely should experience Atlantic Chase. Experience it for the incredible graphical approach to wargame rules. Experience it for the modern programmed learning approach. Experience it to discover a game system that keeps hidden information in the open. Once learned (which will take a while) game play will very likely be a great experience—as long as you don’t look for too deep a game.

Sunday Summary – Chasing rules in Atlantic Chase (@gmtgames, 2020) while waiting to don General’s stars in Rostov ’41 (@MultiManPub, 2020) #wargame #boardgame

Wargame

New arrivals this week include Jeremy White’s Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942, Intercept Vol. 1 (GMT Games, 2020). This game has generated alot of buzz, for the most part because of the very different approach Jerry took to writing the rule book and tutorial. Some people are out there talking about the second coming of sliced bread. I’m not convinced.

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.

With Compass Games announcing that Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot – Designer’s Signature Edition is coming in May and after I did a deep dive of Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps (SPI, 1980) (forthcoming from Armchair Dragoons, right Brant?) I took another look at Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). I looked at it from the perspective of the doctrine of the time(s). That sent me down a rabbit hole excursion into “Correlation of Forces and Means.” Thoughts forthcoming.

Boardgame

I broke down this week and purchased the digital version of Root (Dire Wolf Digital). I’m working my way through the tutorials but so far it’s very entertaining.

Gaming Outlook

Return to work full time is taking away game time so I have to rearrange my schedule. More short evening gaming sessions with maybe a single longer weekend occasion.