Talking chit in #wargames- or – Eating my words in Operation Cannibal (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1996)

I make no secret of the fact that wargames using the chit-pull mechanic are a new favorite of mine. In the past two years I have acquired awesome games like Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018 and Runner Up for the Golden Geek Wargame of the Year in 2018) or The Dark Sands (GMT Games, 2018). I also enjoyed the excellent Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg & Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018) and the small-but-strategic Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019) or Jour de’ Gloire –  The Battle of Issy, 1815 (C3i Magazine, 2018). This past week I took delivery of The Dark Valley: The Russian Campaign 1941-1945 (GMT Games, 2019) and have started exploring that game.

Using the Advanced Search function of BoardGameGeek, I was messing around and randomly decided to look at what Chit-Pull Mechanic games are in my collection. According to BGG I have 18 games with the chit-pull mechanic, ranging from my top ranked Battle Hymn (8.25) to Operational Cannibal: Burma 1942-1943 (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1996) with a paltry 4.0 (Not so good, it doesn’t get me but could be talked into on occasion).

Operation Cannibal? What’s that? So I pulled the game off the shelf and took a look.

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Courtesy BGG

Operation Cannibal is a game about the December 1942 to April 1943 campaign along the west coast of Burma. It is a small game with a single 17″x22″ map where each hex is 4km. Units are Battalions/Companies and shown using 140 counters. There is also an 8-page rulebook that includes four scenarios. Stated game play time is 1-12 hours.

The impulse and chit-pull mechanic in Operation Cannibal is interesting. Every turn, the Japanese player rolls for the weather. The result is the number of impulses in the forthcoming turn ranging from six to zero (Monsoon). The Japanese player will pick a number of impulse chits equal to the weather result MINUS ONE (but never less than three) and adds them to the cup. The British player picks chits equal to the weather result MINUS TWO (but never less than two) and adds them to the cup. Every impulse a chit is drawn from the cup and then executed. Consecutive impulses are allowed but never more than three in a row (14.4). It is possible that in poor weather turns (3 impulses or less) that one player might not get any actions.

Even when an impulse chit is drawn, there is variability. There are four types of action chits; FULL, ATTACK, CHOICE, or HALF. What you can do is dependent upon the type of chit drawn. I seem to recall this part of the game was what I disliked. I vaguely recall confusion and a slowness of play because I was unsure what could, or could not, be done on each action chit. Of course, a simple quick reference card, like that found in the files section of BGG, can make all the difference. I never downloaded that content until now (never had a reason to).

I played the first scenario, Donbiak, to see how Operation Cannibal plays. This is a two-turn scenario that is very useful for learning the game. After playing the short scenario I must admit that I have to reconsider my opinion of Operation Cannibal. The game is not as bad as I remember. I really like the variable number of impulses. With a player aid it is easier to process the different actions available on the different chits.

That is not to say the game will jump to the top of my chit-pull games. Operation Cannibal is fairly easy to play but component-wise it is a bit gaudy and unappealing. The camouflage (Jungle-capable) units are hard to read and the map is very uninviting. The rule book lacks any sort of helpful graphics. There are some good thematic elements (Japanese supply lines being different than British) but in the end the game lacks that “X-Factor” that makes me want to play. More specifically, nothing happens in the game – the battle is B-O-R-I-N-G.

So I will be revising my BGG rating for Operation Cannibal to a 6 (OK – Will play if in the mood) mostly because it can be a smaller game. I worry about the longer scenario; 12 hours for a game this small seems excessive. I note that many of the negative ratings on BGG are not related so much to game play but to the boring topic chosen. I note that the same system in used in MacArthur’s Return (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1994), another game sitting on my shelf.

Postscript

As I hunted the Avalanche Press website for a good link to Operation Cannibal I came across this old page. Very insightful.

We published Operation Cannibal in 1997, alongside Red Steel. I chronicled the misbegotten birth of Red Steel in an earlier piece but the circumstances around Cannibal are far worse. Publishing it was just as bad a decision, but that might have been the least of its problems.

….

After all that, Operation Cannibal turned out to be a weak seller. Its low price point carried it through its first months, but the fact is, the game’s best scenarios are in the 420-piece version. It’s not so much that the game is flawed, it’s that it models its campaign too well: a slow, painstaking British advance through the jungle. It’s the sort of thing we put in our wargames these days for the sake of completeness and as a historical illustration, not because we intend them to be the centerpiece of the game’s play.

I’ll be glad to see this one burn; while I’ve written a sheaf of content for games like Red Steel, Imperium and America Triumphant, when I even think about Operation Cannibal the burning in my guts that had me hospitalized for much of 2000 and 2001 is back. I should never have green-lighted it for production, and I should have made the decision to cut our losses and spike it on the drive back from Ozzie and Harriet’s. Callie’s good deed went for little gain.

“…models its campaign too well…” is a very good description. After my replay I think the publisher is being a bit harsh in wanting to “see this one burn;” the game mechanics are decent they just need a more exciting topic.


Feature image BoardGameGeek

 

 

#Wargame Wednesday – Strategist wargaming using Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War 1932-1935 (C3i Magazine, 2016) @markherman54 @RBMStudio1

A few posts back I took to task The Great War at Sea Volume III: U.S. Navy Plan Orange (Avalanche Press, 1998) as being too much of a tactical battle generator and not enough of a design to explore the strategic nuances behind Plan Orange. After playing that game and its sister Volume IV: The Russo-Japanese War (Avalanche Press, 1999) where I discussed Bruce Geryk’s notions of strategists versus recreationists, I looked around for another game in my collection that could satisfy my needs. I ended up pulling Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War, 1932-1935 (C3iOps Magazine, 2016).

I am fortunate that I have already played this game a few times so I am past the point of being forced to concentrate on the how to play and instead can focus on the strategy of play. Although Plan Orange is based on Mark Herman’s previous work Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005), I don’t own that game so I don’t play Plan Orange with a World War II bias or conditioning from that game. Thus, I feel empowered to explore the strategy of this war, liberated from trying to impose the next war on the game design.

3fcollid3dbooks_covers_026isbn3d978026203399226type3dThat said, to a large degree I was also motivated to play Plan Orange based on Mark Herman’s essay “Empire of the Sun: The Next Evolution of the Card-Driven Game Engine” found in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (ed. Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschebaum, MIT Press, 2016). When talking about the players role in EotS, Mark writes:

I wanted the players to be the important theater commanders in the Pacific. Specifically, I wanted the players to represent Nimitz, MacArthur, Yamamoto, Mountbatten, and their supporting staffs. I specifically did not want the players to control the decisions made in Washington, London, or Tokyo, but to respond to guidance and the resources allocated to the Pacific Theater. I also wanted to divorce this design from the choreography of a carrier battle by avoiding tactical detail, as that was not the decision space of a theater commander. I wanted to laser focus on running the military campaigns, not the battles. (ZoC, p. 135)

Mark Herman’s Plan Orange comes with only two scenarios. The core scenario, 15.1 Shanghai Incident January 28, 1932, kicks off with the Japanese holding the initiative and two Surprise Offensive cards, Philippine Offensive and Guam Offensive in hand. The entire game is only six turns (2 years) long. There are only a few ways to win:

  1. Capital Ship Ratio: If at the end of turn 4 the US holds a 2:1 ratio in battleships over Japan or Japan holds a 1.5:1 ratio over the US, that player wins.
  2. Japan surrenders due to conquest or blockade of their home islands.
  3. It is impossible to return an involuntarily repositioned HQ to the map.
  4. If none of the above are achieved, then victory goes to the player who controls all three Philippines surrender hexes.
  5. If the US player has not won by the end of turn 6, the Japanese player wins.

These few victory conditions very faithfully represent the thinking of the day; either achieve the Mahanian doctrine of naval superiority or control the Western Pacific through the Philippines.

All together, Mark Herman’s Plan Orange is well suited for a strategist game. For the Japanese player, the challenge is to drive out the US then hold off the inevitable counteroffensive. For the US, the decision is where to make the advance; Go North, Central Drive, Blockade, and Dash Across are all legitimate options. The question is, which one can you pull off?


Feature image: Back Cover, C3i Magazine Nr. 29 (BoardGameGeek.com); Zones of Control cover image courtesy MIT Press.

 

#Wargame Wednesday – Recreationist vs Strategist in The Great War at Sea: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1999)

After playing The Great War at Sea: U.S.N. Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1998) for my 2019 Origins Award Challenge I decided to jump right into the next winner on my list; The Great War at Sea: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 – The Naval War for the Far East (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1999). Like U.S.N. Plan Orange before it, The Russo-Japanese War (RJW) won the Origins Award for Best Historic Board Game.

First off, I find it very interesting that a set of series rules designed for World War I (aka the Great War) was awarded twice in a row for designs outside of that war. U.S.N. Plan Orange took the game series from World War I into a 1930 campaign while RJW stepped backwards into the late 19th-century. At the time, I saw this as a very positive attribute of the GWAS system; today I am less sure.

Strategists & Recreationists

Bruce Geryk (@SpaceRumsfeld on Twitter) recently wrote his thoughts on Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2004+). Bruce writes about games for “Historical Strategists” versus “Historical Recreationists.” Bruce explains:

I attribute this to the difference in wargamers between what I call “historical recreationists” and “historical strategists.” Historical recreationists are very uncomfortable leaving out events that occurred because there is a certain determinism to their interpretation, or some imaginative verisimilitude that is violated when major events don’t happen. Historical strategists are fine with historical divergence as long as the decision space is the same as it was historically. quartertothree.com, 14 Mar 2018

So I asked myself, “Is RJW a game for strategists or recreationists?” More so, is the GWAS system aimed at strategists or recreationists? Thanks to the framing construct Bruce gives us, I think I have my answer.

RJW and GWAS are firmly recreationists games. In RJW, victory in Battle Scenarios is invariably expressed in terms of ships sunk. A few reward “crossing the map” but even when doing so it is unclear why this was important. Operational Scenarios are even worse, with dictated victory point accumulation directing the action. RJW firmly casts the player in the role of executing a plan (recreationist), not developing one (strategist). In the Great War at Sea system it is near-impossible to see Commander’s Intent*, only the orders.


* Commander’s Intent

The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. . . It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end. (FM 100-5 Military Operations, US Army, June 1993)


The RJW Model

In order to depict the Russo-Japanese War, the GWAS system needed a few tweaks. The vast majority of the changes in the game system involved the tactical combat game. The two new numbered Special Rules included in RJW both focus on tactical combat. Rule 19.0 Effectiveness helps portray technology and training while 20.0 Tactical Map Overlays introduce “terrain” on the tactical map. Beyond that, the only other rule changes that significantly impact the operational game are:

  • Plotting (5.11) – To reflect the lack of wireless communications for the Russian Navy plotting for Intercept and Raid fleets is done three turns, not two, in advance.
  • Balloon reconnaissance – Found in the Amphibious Landings (11.5) section due to poor layout are rules for towed balloons; hard to find rule but very useful!

As I have said before, I have mixed feelings about the tactical combat system; I despise it as a poor depiction of combat while, on the other hand, when playing an operational scenario I appreciate the speed at which combat can be resolved to keep the game moving along. In the end though, the addition of rules and changes in the tactical combat portion of the game fail to impress me as I really desire to explore the operational game.

Rules Confusion

RJW was also the first time I really noticed that Avalanche Press could not handle writing rules. The Scenario Book for RJW is titled, “The Great War at Sea Vol. IV: The Russo-Japanese Naval War Scenario Book.” Being the fourth game in the GWAS series, I expected this book to be compatible with the previous ones. In GWAS, the Special Rules contain new rules, changed rules, and clarified rules. Unfortunately, what rule is what is not clear. The Special Rules for RJW continue the rules numbering from the basic series rule book but without respect for other games in the series. Thus, rule 19.0 in RJW is Effectiveness whereas rule 19.0 in U.S.N. Plan Orange is Air Operations. How confusing!

The rules numbering scheme would not have bothered me if RJW was a complete game. Alas, in RJW Avalanche Press introduced a bothersome trait; the need to own other games in the series. Most egregiously, they throw it in your face up front. Operational Scenario 1: Early Tensions 12-18 January 1904 requires the operational map from Great War at Sea Volume I: The Mediterranean. No map, no play!

Gaming the Russo-Japanese War

In their introduction to the Naval Institute Press/Naval War College Press edition of Sir Julian S. Corbett’s Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, John B. Hattendorf and Paul S. Schurman write:

Corbett’s study of the war between Russia and Japan, written only a decade after the events, contains useful material for the present. He examines in some detail the technical developments of the time that were influential in the war: namely, torpedo attacks, tactical maneuvers, speed and range of battleships, armament, and communications. These aspects are largely of the ‘period piece’ variety, but understanding their interplay nonetheless retains our interest. It is the balance between tactics and strategy that will engage the reflective reader, who may find relationships between then and now that could serve as a basis for a modern war game. (p. xv)

….

Thus, Corbett pointed out the pros and cons of ‘limited war’ by showing that what actually happened was not the only feature of the campaign to warrant assessment. He also pointed out the narrow margin on which Japan operated, a margin that the Russians might have exploited, but did not. It is on this level of combined-operations problems, and the possible variations of combined-operations responses, that this book is most instructive. (p. xvi)

I am glad Sir Julian Corbett’s book is instructive, because the modern (or 1999) war game version in The Great War at Sea Volume IV: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 – The Naval War for the Far East is less so. RJW is not bad as a recreation of the battles of the Russo-Japanese War, but as a game of the operations of the war it is far less satisfying. The game may satisfy recreationists, but a strategist wargamer will find it much harder to explore the situation.

I admit that maybe I am asking too much of the game. Both RJW and U.S.N. Plan Orange are slices of a larger, strategic conflict. Maybe I am being too harsh; instead I should accept RJW for what it is and enjoy it, right?


Feature image BoardGameGeek.com

#Wargame Wednesday – Origins Challenge and the challenge of interwar innovation in Great War at Sea: U.S.N. Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd.,1998)

I keep working my way through my Origins Award Winners challenge in 2019. The latest game in my queue is The Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Orange (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1998). This game won the Origins Award in 1998 for Best Historic Board Game. As a naval wargamer, Plan Orange covers something of a Holy Grail theme for me. Who doesn’t enjoy one of the greatest “what ifs” of history? This title allows you to explore what could of been if the US and Japan had clashed in the 1930s. When this game came out I immediately scooped it up and played the heck out of it!

But…

…my problem today is that as much as I love the theme of U.S.N. Plan Orange, the Great War at Sea (GWaS) system has increasingly disappointed me over time. In the late 1990’s, the Great War at Sea and its World War II counterpart Second World War at Sea (SWWaS) seemed to be the model for depicting an operational-level naval campaign in the early to mid-20th century. Although I viewed the game as innovative in it’s day, with age I am not so sure the game is as innovative as I remember nor models the reality of innovation during the interwar period to my liking.

Design Pedigree

Part of being a grognard for 40 years now is that I pay more attention to the design of a game. When I look at GWaS against other games in my collection I now see how GWaS melds several previous design concepts into a single package. Aircraft operations are like that used in Flat Top (Battleline, 1977). The simple battle resolution and searching is in many ways a refinement of that seen in Flat Top and Bismarck Second Edition (Avalon Hill, 1980). Plotting operations are strikingly similar to that found in Fifth Frontier War (GDW, 1981). I find it conceivable that in 1998 the Origins Awards judges found this marriage of theme with these melded mechanics interesting enough and accomplished in a sufficiently meritorious manner to garner an award. This is not to say that GWaS is a cheap copycat; just that the state of the art in wargame design has come a long way since 1998 and this game series is firmly rooted in the (even then) past.

Interwar Advancements

The book Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Editors Williamson Murray & Allan R. Millett, Cambridge University Press, 1996) focuses on several interwar innovations including amphibious warfare, aircraft carriers, submarines, and radio and radar. In GWaS, amphibious warfare is treated in very little detail with rule 11.5 Unloading. Aircraft carriers are introduced in the Special Rule 19.0 Air Operations and 20.0 Air Combat. Submarines get another Special Rule, 22.0 Submarine Flotillas. The innovation that is missing is radio and radar.


Is is important for this discussion to take note of several other relevant rules. In the Great War at Sea series, rules 5.1 Plotting and 5.2 Missions represent the command and control of the fleet. To illustrate command and control limitations of World War I, players must plot ahead a certain number of turns based on the mission of a fleet:

  • Transport / Bombardment / Minelaying / Minesweeping missions are plotted at the beginning of the game for the ENTIRE scenario. The only way to change the mission is to Abort which states that, starting two turns ahead (16 hours), the fleet must move by the shortest available route and best speed to a friendly port. Once it reaches a friendly port, a new mission and new set of orders can be plotted.
  • Intercept / Raid missions are plotted two turns (16 hours) in advance. Only warships and colliers/oilers may be assigned Intercept or Raid missions.

Allan R. Millett argues in his “Patterns of Military Innovation” essay that, “Radio communications, communications intercept, cryptography, and radar probably represent the most dramatic, technological changes from one world war to the next”(Murray & Millett, p. 345). The U.S. Navy didn’t express any interest in radar until 1930 (Murray & Millett, p. 289) so it falls outside the realm of U.S.N. Plan Orange. Besides, the real change in radar was in the battle between ships, not searching for fleets in the broad ocean.

Albert Nofi in his book To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Naval War College Press, 2010), points out that as early as Fleet Problem I in 1923 communications was identified as an area of concern (Nofi, p. 54). By Fleet Problem V in 1925 signals intelligence (SIGINT) was used to actively redirect forces:

Late on the 10th (2010-2030) several Blue submarines managed to spot elements of the Black Fleet. Shortly afterward, S-11 (SS-116) “fired” four torpedoes at some Black battleships. All four were ruled to have missed, and S-11 was promptly attacked and sunk by Black destroyers. Blue signals intelligence intercepted Black’s communications regarding this skirmish, and shortly after midnight the Blue Main Body altered course to intercept. (Nofi, p. 75)

The ability to quickly redirect the “Main Body” seems to be captured in the GWaS rules for replotting of Intercept or Raiding fleets though the game imposes a 16 hour delay – four times longer than that demonstrated at sea in 1925. But what about the ability to redirect other fleets (like an amphibious invasion force) around “known” enemy locations? By rules 5.1 and 5.2 the only way to “redirect” an fleet with a transport mission is to Abort. This may make sense in World War I, but by 1930 in Plan Orange is it still a proper implementation of the rule? I also note the same rules are used in the Second World War at Sea-series rules….

The use of tactical signals intelligence (SIGINT) was also changing. The U.S. Navy was learning to use SIGINT in ways far beyond how Jellicoe used intelligence in World War I when often, “The Admiralty, as usual, knew the Germans were at sea but did not at first know their objective” (Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, Naval Institute Press, 1994, p. 313). For the U.S. Navy, SIGINT was used to good effect in Fleet Problem VIII in 1928:

Blue was able to secure fixes on the Orange light cruisers on several occasions, and adjusted its movements accordingly. Orange managed to use intercepts to break Blue’s code, but was unable to determine Blue’s course. (Nofi, p. 103)

The search and contact rules in GWaS do not take tactical SIGINT into account in any manner. Should it? To better reflect history maybe it should. Nofi tells us the advancements in cryptography and communications security were very important. In his analysis of “patterns” in the Fleet Problems between 1921-1941, Nofi specifically calls out cryptography and communications security by pointing out:

As a result of notable failures in communications security during Fleet Problems IX (1929), X (1930), and XI (1931), more secure procedures were introduced and tougher ciphers developed. This helped exercise the skills and enhance the experience of American cryptographers, laying the foundation for the enormously successful U.S. Navy cryptographically efforts against Japan during World War II. (Nofi, p. 293).

Plus Side – “Game in a Box”

One factor that is in U.S.N. Plan Orange’s favor is that it is a complete game in the box. Unlike later Avalanche Press GWaS boxed releases which are literally expansions that require ownership of multiple other titles to play, U.S.N. Plan Orange is self-contained. All components needed to play are included. This stand-alone ability makes the game attractive to own as a one-off title and allows players to explore the theme within the GWaS system without further (costly) investment.

To Play or Not to Play

The “complete game is a box” is a good reason for me to keep U.S.N. Plan Orange in my collection. Sure, I don’t play it as often as other games, but when I do it I can pull one box off the shelf and play it. When considering interwar innovations, I grudgingly admit that Plan Orange captures enough of the interwar innovations to keep me playing. One easy change may be to change the delay for replotting to one turn for Intercept/Raids and two turns for all other missions. Certainly I wish it did more, but then again, no game is a perfect model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.

Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):

War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)

The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.

On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level

As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:

Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)

There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.

Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:

This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).

All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)

I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).

So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:

…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)

Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.

#WargameWednesday – That sinking feeling… #SecondWorldWaratSeaCoralSea (Avalanche Press, 2010)

I love naval games. Just look at my Twitter handle or BoardGameGeek user name – RockyMountainNavy. So it should not be surprising that in the late 1990’s and through the 2000’s I bought many naval games. One of the more prolific publishers was Avalanche Press and their War at Sea-series including the Great War at Sea and the Second World War at Sea. Each game is actually two games in one; an operational campaign game and a tactical battle resolution game.

In 2010, Avalanche Press rolled out Introductory games for each series. Second World War at Sea: Coral Sea is the introductory title supporting that line. As the publisher’s blurb states:

Coral Sea is the new introductory boxed game for the Second World War at Sea series. It covers this key battle and is intended as a gateway for players new to the world’s most popular series of naval boardgames. The Japanese player must establish new bases in New Guinea and at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands; the American player must stop them. Forces are very closely balanced, and victory will rest with the player who can best make use of his or her resources.

The game is rated as 2 out of 5 in complexity with a playing time of “30 minutes to many hours.” I recently pulled out Coral Sea to give it a go. My reaction to the game is decidedly mixed; I like the operational aspects of the game but was reminded just what a chore playing the Second World War at Sea-series really is.

The rules for Coral Sea come in two books; Series Rules (24 pages) and Special Rules (8 pages). Mechanically the game is quite simple. In execution, it becomes long, repetitive, and a bit disinteresting. Back to that in a moment.

Set up for a campaign game, even with the low counter density (45 “long” ship counters and 100 1/2″ squares for ships, aircraft, and markers) should be fast but instead it takes time. I spent a good 30 minutes just setting the game up! Not only did I have to place the counters, but copy the Log Sheets (one for each side) and Data Sheets (five pages). This is NOT a pick-up game.

Each turn in the operational game is four hours of actual time. Each hex is 36nm across. Operational Scenario One covers the time period of 1-10 May 1942. That’s 60 turns! Each turn has the same 12 phases that both players have to step through together. 

After checking the weather and assigning aircraft to Air Patrol missions, both players go to the Orders Phase. This is the first great analysis paralysis opportunity of each turn as the players have to plot movement a various number of turns in advance based the mission of the task force. Task forces with a Bombardment or Transport mission plot their movement for the entire scenario or until six turns in a friendly port are passed. This is especially painful because the fastest ships move three spaces a turn while slow ships (like transports) only move one. Fortunately, in Coral Sea each side has only a few task forces, and in the case of the Japanese player at least two have transports and will therefore preplot their slooooowwwww advance across the ocean.

Once plotting is complete, the Air Search Phase with searches and ASW patrols is carried out. If there is an air strike to be launched, in the Air Mission Assignment Phase the orders are written out. This is followed by Naval Movement, Submarine Attack, and Surface Combat (resolved in a separate Tactical Board). Air Strikes and an administrative Air Readiness Phase follows. Players then execute a Special Operations Phase which is all those activities exclusive of the above. The turn ends with an Air Return Phase and then it all starts again.

Simple and straight-forward. Even a bit realistic (preplotting shows delay in orders execution or pre-planning). It works, as long as one is ready to repeat this process 60 times (or 180 times in the 1-30 May 1942 Operational Scenario Two) for a game.

All that for an Introductory game.

I am not going to go into my dislikes of the tactical combat resolution system. For a taste of my opinion I refer you to an old GeekList where I compared World War I Tactical Naval Combat game systems. With that said, maybe a very simple tactical combat system fits this system because it is already a looooonnnnngggg game.

Remember, this is an Introductory game.

coral_lexington
Courtesy APL

As I get older, I am coming to appreciate the luxury of larger counters. This is not the case in Coral Sea which has awesome 1″ long ship counters but 1/2″ aircraft counters crowded with information in tiny fonts – fonts too tiny for my old grognard eyes to comfortably take in. I could also use a pair of wargame tweezers to move or examine stacks of tiny counters.

coral_a6m2
APL

I forced myself to play Operational Scenario One to its conclusion. I took me almost three hours of play time. Thirty minutes of set up and three hours of play.

For an Introductory game.

Looking back, I guess the game makes for an adventurous retelling of the battle but finding that narrative-vibe in-game is hard when slogging through 720 phases across 60 turns.

As an introduction to the Second World War at Sea-series, Coral Sea shows that one needs to be greatly committed to this game system and invest lots of time for little action. For me, it’s going to be a long time until this title – or any other Second World War at Sea-series game – lands on my table again.

#Wargame AAR – Panzer Grenadier Vol 1 Scenario 1: Bogdanovo (Jan 8, 1942)

battle-of-moscow-ww2-1941-russian-soviet-soldiers_e
Soviet Infantry (historyimages.blogspot.com)

From the scenario setup:

ARMY GROUP CENTER, 8 January 1942: After the failure of the Führer Escort Battalion to take the village of Bogdanovo, the 6th Panzer Division took over the task.

This is a single-board scenario with a relatively low counter density. Pretty good for learning (or relearning) the Panzer Grenadier (PG) system. The scenario portrays 4 hours (16 turns) starting at the 0800 Day turn.

The Germans start on the east edge. The approach to the town of Bogdanovo is dominated by a hill about a third of the way to the town edge. The Germans decided to send the majority of their force north of the small hill with only a small force swinging around the south. The mortars set up on the hill, and a truck-mounted reaction force waited – out of sight – behind the hills ready to race and exploit any successful entry not the town.

The Soviets dug entrenchments both north and south of the town and placed their 45mm Anti-tank (AT) guns roughly evenly across the front. The mortars deployed just behind the city and the full-strength infantry strung out between the guns with reduced units deeper in the town ready to move as reinforcements.

The German north advance was led by the Panzers with infantry close behind. Right away, the tanks were engaged by the AT guns but with little effect. The tanks spent the first hour cautiously approaching the town and trying to blast out the defenders at the town edge. The defenders, taking advantage of entrenchments, digging in, and the defensive bonus of being in the town, proved stubborn and unmoving.

To the south, the small German infantry force pushed ahead the best they could, but an into a crossfire between entrenched Soviet units and others dug in at the town edge. This small force, led by a fairly competent Lieutenant, proved fragile with several units being disrupted, demoralized, and even fleeing. The Lieutenant himself failed a morale check and was not able to rally his troops in a timely manner.

As the second hour of the attack began (Turn 5), and with the southern advance bogging down, the northern group changed tactics. The Panzers fearlessly charged into the city without infantry support, getting into pitched assault battles with dug-in and entrenched infantry. Fortunately for the tankers, the infantry was able to quickly join the fight and the Soviets were pushed back into the town.

The later morning proved to be a real slog, with lots of close-quarters combat within the town. The Soviets fought stubbornly, but the Germans kept pushing them back.

At the end of the 16 turns, the Soviets were greatly reduced but there was still a lone unit in Bogdanovo. This lone reduced sub-mashing gun platoon was enough to give the Soviets victory. But even if the SMG platoon had been eliminated, the blood 6th Panzer had paid was enough to cost them the victory (losing more than 7 steps of units).

Observations

Leaders: The Germans needed all six of their leaders to keep the advance going. The Soviets were a bit luckier; being on the defensive and being pushed back into a collapsing pocket actually simplified their command and control issues. In the past, I had often looked at the PG command rules as needless chrome, but these days I have a much greater appreciation – and respect – for what they try to simulate. What I had forgotten was the great impact of morale in PG. Units die, but units are disrupted or demoralized a whole lot more.

Anti-Tank: It is very hard for units without AT guns to have any effect on armor. In PG, armor units are immune to Direct Fire. Indeed, armor can only be attacked by a unit with an Anti-Tank Fire value of when in Assault combat [i.e. close assault – same hex]. In this scenario, the only Soviets units with an Anti-Tank Fire value were three 45mm AT guns.

Markers: I like that markers are used as an easy way to denote unit status, but as the battle starts going the stacks can get very high with units individually tracking their morale status as well as Moved/Fired.

Self Criticism: By the time the German reinforcements came up, precious time had been lost. If the force had been committed to the north they could of assisted in forcing the entry to the town. Doing so may have destroyed Soviet units before they could retreat into the city and avoided the slow grind of close assaults. Committing them early to the southern assault may have allowed a second entry on this town edge. Doing so may have forced the Soviets to defend two axis of advance, with doubtful success in doing so.

Wargame Wednesday – Remember the Main(e) Problems and Innovation

Courtesy BGG

The latest entry in the Great War at Sea (GWAS) series from Avalanche Press is Remember the Maine. The game covers the naval battles of the Spanish-American War of 1898. For a retail of $59.99 the buyer gets a boxed game with a 34×22-inch map of the central Caribbean, standard GWAS tactical map, 100 “long” double-sized and 80 standard-sized pieces. , all of them laser-cut and mounted.

The game is a republication of the earlier Great War at Sea: 1898, The Spanish American War which I rated on Boardgame Geek in 2006 (or earlier) as with a score of 7.5 and the comment “One of the best GWAS games.” Alas, my copy is in storage right now so I cannot do a straight-up comparison between the two versions.

Courtesy BGG

Seven years later I have to question myself. I will be the first to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with the GWAS series; love the subject matter but (sorta) hate how Avalanche Press has packaged the product over time. Remember the Maine is no different. The game has parts I dislike sprinkled in with parts I appreciate.

Out-of-the-Box Impression

The first item I noticed when opening the box is that it is plain with just a thin cardstock slipcover for packaging. I recognize that this is for economic reasons but I can’t help but feel that this package style will not wear well on the shelf.

The counters are the newer laser cut process. Like other games done with laser cut, there are scorch marks on front and back. In this case – given the game covers the age of dirty, early coal ships – the scorch marks tend to add a bit of style to the counters. The internet has tips on cleaning the counters; use a kleenex or the like to rub the soot off (evocative of the era for if you DON’T clean the counters your fingers will be VERY dirty). I guess wargamers will have to get use to cleaning counters in the future rather than clipping corners (ah, the advances of technology)!

What I don’t like is the burnt smell that permeates the whole box. I would set the countersheet outside to air out but it is so thin I think it will fly away at first half-hearted breeze. According to complaints on internet forums, laser cut counters also tend to not stay on the tree though my copy apparently was not too roughly handled since no counters came out until I lifted the sheet from the box.Compared to other counters in the GWAS series, the ones in Remember the Maine are also very dull in appearance (no shiny counters here).

Whereas the counters are dull the map is shiny; yet another reversal of the usual Avalanche Press approach to packaging games. I find the shiny finish detracting as it makes it harder for my eyes to see the map with any glare. I also find the color selection difficult; the red text for Spanish ports is almost impossible for me to read except under the best light (causing the most glare).

RTM
Murphy’s Law in Remember the Maine

There is a version of Murphy’s Laws of Combat which states, “All battles are fought at the junction of two or more map sheets.” Remember the Maine apparently has taken this adage to heart and placed several names and locations at the junction of the map sheets. I find this very unattractive as the maps already don’t line up quite right and require a bit of overlap. At first I thought the spreading of ports or names across multiple sheets was to facilitate their use in smaller scenarios but looking through the scenario book this does not appear to be the case. Indeed, based on the Operational Scenarios presented, one could get away with a two-sheet map running geographically from the northwest to the southeast covering the area from Miami to Bridgetown. Of course, this would not be in keeping with the usual “up is North” approach in GWAS mapping but I have to wonder what the impact on the cost of the game might have been.

The Rules

Avalanche Press must have a bazillion copies of the GWAS standard rules around because this game shipped with the year 2000 edition – again. As a result, the scenario rules have grown to 64 pages, of which 2 are intro, 6 are Special Rules, 44 are Scenarios, 2 are Optional Rules, and 10 are Ship Data Sheets.

Many of the Special Rules are actually errata or updated rules for the Standard Rules. Rules like Fast and Slow Ships (5.11) are now standard. Why Avalanche Press doesn’t redo the Standard Rules is beyond my understanding.

For the Scenario Book the rules format is also inconsistent. For instance, the Special Rules and Optional Rules (not listed in the TOC) all have periods at the end of headers (i.e. “Leaders.“) whereas the scenarios don’t (such as “Victory Conditions“).  This tells me that these two parts were likely written by at least two different people and it appears nobody truly consolidated the effort. Finally, how hard is it to NOT use “Central Powers” or “Allies” in the Remember the Maine scenario book? Once said (like on p. 3) that “The terms “Allied” and “Central Powers” in the system rulebook should be read as “American” and “Spanish” respectively”  is stated why does EVERY scenario start with Central Powers (Spanish) Forces and Allied (American) Forces?

I believe Avalanche Press can present the rules in a leaner, easier to understand fashion if they attacked their fetish with repetition. For instance, the scenario Special Rule for Fleet Limits is used in all thirteen Operational Scenarios, yet the rules appears in EVERY scenario. Why not make a Special Rule that is written once? In Battle Scenarios the Special Rule for General Chase appears in at least 23 of the 32 battle scenarios. Again, why make this an explicit Special Rule for all these scenarios when you could have one Special Rule and then NOT implement it by exception?

The Optional Rules are also a bit of an enigma to me. There is a Special Rule for Gunnery Range (7.6) that appears on p. 5 yet the identical rule repeats in the Optional Rules on p. 52. Again it looks like the Optional Rules were created by the scenario author(s) whereas the Special Rules update the Standard Rules. The lack of merging content signals to me a broken editorial process which creates doubt in my mind for the company as a whole.

Innovative Small Ship Battles

Reading the above one may think I absolutely HATE this game. There was one part of did find innovative and that is the small ship battles. Eight of the Battle Scenarios focus on battles among the smallest ships. This allows one to play out tactical battles at a smaller scale than the dreadnought-focused standard rules. I like this way of highlighting the role of the smaller ships that often fall below the usual GWAS combat threshold.

I also like the range of scenarios included. The 13 Operational Scenarios and 32 Battle Scenarios cover five general periods; the “Disaster of ’98,” the “Blockade of Cuba,” “La Isla de Cuba,” The Far East and Distant Seas,” and “La Armada.” I appreciate this variety of scenarios as it showcases the wide range of missions and historical or alternative battles in this war.

All in One Package

Finally, I must say that I appreciate that Avalanche Press is honoring their commitment to make each game stand-alone without dependency on other games of the series. In the first edition of this game, of the 22 scenarios only 15 were playable using the box components. To play the other 7 required ownership of other games in the series.

Taking the Bad with the Good

Ultimately I am torn on my judgement of Remember the Maine. It certainly is better than its predecessor in terms of content (more scenarios, completely playable out of the box, innovative small ship battle system) but the component and rules quality make me hesitant to fully endorse this product. I think this is a better effort than the recent Avalanche Press scenario books for the GWAS series, but there is definitely room for improvement.

Wargame Wednesday – Haze (Confederate) Gray and Underway

I admit it; I have a love-hate relationship with Avalanche Press and their Great War at Sea (GWAS) series. Love the operational-level of naval warfare, maps and counters; hate their tactical game and loads of boring scenarios.

I also love the Alternative History aspect of GWAS. I have much fun fighting cardboard wars that could-of-been but never-were. Plan Orange is of course my favorite, but over the many years Avalanche has given us MANY more expansions.

Courtesy BGG

One of the latest expansions is Confederate States Navy: A Great War at Sea Scenario Book. CSN postulates, like author Harry Turtledove in his Great War series, that the South somehow doesn’t lose the Civil War and survives into the 20th Century. The focus here is on the Navy.

CSN -like much of the GWAS series-is a battleship lovers dream. This Confederate Navy of 1917 gets no less than 25 dreadnoughts, pre-dreadnoughts, and big cruisers or battlecruisers. They even have a small carrier and early naval aviation. There are MANY scenarios in here including 12 Battle Scenarios (ugh) and 18 operational scenarios (better) including an awesome (but large) scenario where an Union American Navy Expeditionary Force tries to link up with the German Navy in the North Sea while a Royal Navy reinforced by the South opposes them.

In order to fully enjoy this book you need a near-complete collection of all the GWAS games and supplements – good if you got them but bad if you don’t. I also think Avalanche Press’ experiment with laser cut counters needs to be rethought. The thickness is too thin, the colors dull, and the back appears burnt!

See the Brown Burns at the Edges? (Courtesy BGG)

GET IT if you area  GWAS collector.

PASS if you aren’t.