The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.
Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.
“Office-al” Game: Iron Curtain (Ultra Pro/Jolly Roger Games, 2017). Not necessarily a solo game but having to walk away between hands helps one to forget what is there making “two-handed solitaire” doable. Small game also got some big attention from office mates.
Speaking about throwbacks to old wargames, GMT Games announced this week that Jim Day’s next entry in the Panzer (Second Edition) series, Panzer: North Africa, has “made the cut” in their P500 program. Longtime readers might recall that Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) was my very first wargame. I eagerly bought up the entire original series; Panzer, ’88’and Armor, and they still own a prominent spot on my gaming shelves. I am glad that after 40 years a “new” edition of ’88’ is coming.
I recently pulled my copy of the novel The Enemy Below by Commander D. A. Rayner off my bookshelf for rereading. I am fortunate to have a first edition, second printing hardcover version (sans dust jacket) from 1957 published by Henry Holt and Company. This book was originally my father’s and although the dust jacket is gone the interior flaps of the jacket were preserved in the front of the book. Growing up, I think I read the book before I saw the 1957 movie on syndicated TV. As good as the movie is, I am very much in the camp of “book over movie” critics.
When I started wargaming, one of the earliest games I acquired was Submarine designed by Steve Peek from the Avalon Hill Game Company. My copy is a 1981 Second Edition which I bought brand new soon after release. Even today, I recall sitting down and learning the rules to Submarine with The Enemy Below at my side. Back then, and even today, I judge the “realism” of Submarine on the basis of how well it can recreate situations in The Enemy Below. The bookis ripe for a wargame setting as communicated on the dust jacket:
Then, for forty merciless hours, it was depth charge vs. torpedo, destroyer vs. submarine, crew vs. crew, and, ultimately, Captain vs. Kapitan. Attack after attack, the stratagems of the two masters cancelled each other out. Each hour the U-121 drew closer to its rendezvous and, sensing the fact, the Captain radioed for reinforcements. But before the Cecilie or fleet destroyers could influence the outcome, the absolute battle between absolute equals was played out to a startling conclusion….
The Enemy Below, Dust Jacket
Compare this to the introduction for Submarine:
One of the few remaining campaigns of World War II yet to be covered on a tactical level has been the submarine war against commerce shipping and naval fleets. It was a war of no fronts; of hit and run tactics; a one-on-one duel reminiscent of the air war of World War I, complete with aces and acts of chivalry. But it was also fought with no holds barred, a struggle in which a second’s hesitation or lapse in concentration meant the difference between death and survival….
Submarine is a tactical recreation of the submarine war. A player assumes the role of either a submarine or escort captain. He can launch torpedoes at convoys or combat ships or hunt down submarines with depth charge runs.
Submarine, 1.0 Introduction
Looking at those words, is there any real wonder how one could not link The Enemy Below and Submarine together?
In retrospect, I sorta laugh at myself when I think about how I judge Submarine. After all, I studied to be a historian so I should be looking at any wargame critically from a historical perspective, not through the lens of popular culture. It’s akin to gamers today who play the videogame Call of Duty and praise it for being “realistic.” Then again, The Enemy Below is popular not for being a techno-thriller (ala The Hunt for Red October) but for being a deeply human story. Which makes me admire The Enemy Below even more; the book simultaneously captures the human and technical with a proper balance between the two of them. When I play Submarine, it is the influence of The Enemy Below that helps me remember the human side battle which barely gets a nod in the game system (see rule 49.0 Crew Quality).
Interestingly, I have a second submarine-themed wargame designed during this era. Up Scope! Tactical Submarine Warfare in the 20th Century was designed by Joe Balkoski for SPI in 1977. I’ve owned this game since the early 1980s but have never played it (and only rarely opened it) in part because the Designer’s Notes make reference to it being a counterpart to Air War (SPI, 1977) and placing realism over playability. With regards to The Enemy Below,Up Scope! has even less human connection. That design approach, and lack of connection to the book, can explain why Up Scope! rarely (or never) hit my gaming table over the years.
The Enemy Below…the Stars
I also must thank The Enemy Below for its influence on another wargame from my early years. In 1966 the Star Trek original TV series Season 1 episode “Balance of Terror” featured the USS Enterprise hunting a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device. It’s easy to see how the writers for this episode adapted The Enemy Below story. Romulan warships equipped with cloaking devices appear in the wargame Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) which uses Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as canon for the setting. I spent many, many hours of my youth playing Star Fleet Battles and always enjoyed the challenge of hunting a Romulan under cloak.
A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, Annapolis (Naval Institute Press), p. 9
ALL TOO OFTEN WHEN WE GROGNARDS PLAY WARGAMES, we focus on the ‘how’ of the fight and forget ‘the why.’ My history of playing naval wargames shows this to be very true for myself. My first naval wargames were Wooden Ships & Iron Men (Avalon Hill, 1974) and Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983). Both of these game are very tactical; in each you are often fighting an individual platform (or groups of platforms) executing a specific mission or task. This makes it very easy to get focused on ‘how’ a platform fights but not necessarily understanding ‘why’ the ship/sub/plane is there. Operational-level wargames, like the venerable Fleet-series from Victory Games in the 1980s, do a bit better of a job by forcing you to combine platforms to execute missions. But at the end of the day the real reason for a navy does not always come thru. In true wargamer form, the battles are often fought out to the last with no objective other than the complete an utter destruction of the enemy. Fun (in a way) but not very informative.
Thus, I was surprised at Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). The game is another in the recent renaissance of ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ wargames, this time focusing on the naval war in the North Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, and Baltic. As the ad copy says:
Blue Water Navy covers the war at sea, air, close-ashore and low-earth orbit from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and West over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Cuba. The game models the full order of battle that could be expected in 1980’s wartime, from multi-regiment Soviet Tu-22 Backfire bombers to multiple US carrier groups.
I posted some thoughts on Blue Water Navy before. At that time, I focused in on the ‘how’ to play the game. With my extra Coronatine-time I pulled the game out again for a deeper dive into the system. I happily discovered another layer of the game that I had missed; one that makes Blue Water Navy a great example of ‘why’ navies fight. It is so obvious. I mean, designer Stuart Tonge put it in the Introduction, “Always remember the game is about the convoys – if they get through, NATO wins the war.”
Of the 32 numbered major rules in the book, the two most important for this discussion are 18.0 Amphibious Landings & NATO Troop Delivery and 20.0 War & Invasion Tracks. Indeed, buried within 20.0 is the actual victory condition for the Campaign Game:
Hammer and Sickles: This shows when the game is won. To win the Soviet player must be able to count four hammer and sickle symbols on War Tracks overrun by Soviet armies.
“But wait,” you say. “I thought Blue Water Navy is a naval wargame! What is this talk of Soviet armies?” The truth is no matter what you do in Blue Water Navy, as a player you are trying to move the Invasion Marker along the War Tracks.
The Soviet player advances along the Norway and Denmark Invasion Track by putting Troops ashore using Amphibious Landings. NATO can strike Soviet troops to stall the advance. One advance is cancelled for every three hits scored by NATO. This means NATO needs to project power ashore, in this case using airpower or cruise missiles to slow the Soviet advance.
The North and South War Track both represent the invasion of Europe. The North Invasion Track is the classic Central Germany front and the South Invasion Track is the route through Yugoslavia to Italy. Every turn the Soviets advance one box westward. On the North War Track, NATO can cancel the advance by expending Supplies or Partial Supplies. These ‘supplies’ can only be delivered by NATO Convoys to Western Europe ports. On the South War Track, the advance is cancelled by hits by NATO, much like the Norway or Denmark War Track.
Rule 28.0 NATO Losses also forces the NATO player to think about what he is fighting with. A Convoy Massacre (destruction of a Convoy) earns one NATO loss point. Another point is lost for a carrier damaged (2 if sunk). If the carrier is lost north of the SOSUS line it’s another loss point. If the NATO loss marker ever reaches six points, it’s worth one Hammer and Sickle of the four needed to win for the Soviet player.
There are several other rules that have an outsized impact on the number of Hammer and Sickle. Rule 22.1 First Strike Points (FSP’s) , “…represents the nuclear posturing of both sides. If the Soviets can maintain a credible First Strike capability, the Politburo…will feel able to take aggressive actions such as using nuclear weapons or assassinating high-value targets.” FSP’s play directly into 27.0 Soviet Stability which tracks the political climate in Moscow. If the Soviets trend toward instability, the advances may be slowed, more ‘supplies’ arrive, and at worst they lose a Hammer and Sickle. Oh yes, less you think nuclear weapons are a quick route to victory, once the genie is out of the bottle and Battlefield Nuclear Weapons are used those Hammer and Sickle spaces on the Invasion Tracks with more than one are reduced to a single symbol.
The Rule Book for Blue Water Navy is 56 pages. Realistically speaking, 52 pages are ‘how’ to fight the war but there are four essential ‘why’ to fight pages. That is part of the lesson here; the fight is complex even when the reason or objective is simple. All those rules for ships and submarines and different aircraft exist for a few simple reasons. Going back to Captain Hughes’ words at the beginning of this post, Blue Water Navy very clearly illustrates that the role of the navy in war is, At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy.
Postscript Note: Bit worrisome that in this day of return to near-peer competition the ability of the US Navy to protect the movement of forces across the Atlantic is doubtful. See Navy Drills Atlantic Convoy Ops for First Time Since Cold War in Defender-Europe 20. I particularly note this quote, “The Navy is exercising a contested cross-Atlantic convoy operation for the first time since the end of the Cold War, using a carrier strike group to pave the way for sealift ships with a cruiser escort to bring the Army ground equipment for the Defender-Europe 20 exercise.” First time since the Cold War? First time since 1986? Looks like the USN needs to find a way to play the 1:1 scale version of Blue Water Navy more often.
The following is a lightly edited transcription of the Flight Logs of Hauptmann B, assigned to KG 300 in the Azores. Hauptmann B was part of the first group of Amerika Bombers that flew missions against the continental United States starting in April, 1947….
April 2, 1947. First mission today! I have a brand new Heinkel 277 bomber to take us to Amerika. Target is a brass factory in Connecticut. Fought 2x P-80 fighters just before bomb run; no damage taken. Light AA into target area, good bombing [30%] but Medium AA on way out causes much damage and light wound to Flight Engineer. No fighters on way home. Landed safely but repairs will take a week to fix.
April 17, 1947. Anxious to get back in air. Target is Chrysler in Detroit. Amerikans are more awake now; encounter 2x F8F over water shortly after launch but escape with no damage. 2x P-80s find us as we near target but they are driven off without damage. On bomb run 2x P-80 try to interrupt but are driven off again. Our electronics and chaff protects us from AA in target area. Good bombs on target [20%]. On way out Tail Gunner shoots down a P-80; first kill by the aircrew! Rest of way home uneventful and land safely.
April 24, 1947. Another trip to Detroit to hit General Motors. Lose Engine #1 shortly after take-off but press on. Looks like we surprised the Amerikans today as no fighters find us on way to target. Medium AA on bomb run but Bombardier says not sure we really hit target [0%]. On way home jumped by 2x F8F but Ventral Gunner gets two (!) of them. Safe landing again. We also get good news that from now on we will be flying with an Improved Lofte Bomb Sight.
May 1, 1947. May Day visit to Corning Glass Works in Corning, NY. Fought 4x F8F enroute to mainland; Ventral Gunner shot down one. Nearing target tangled with 3x P-80; all shot down (Ventral Gunner-1, Tail Gunner-1, Flight Engineer in Top Turret-1). Medium AA to target, no damage. Bombardier reports very good conditions and good hits [91%]. Egress AA was heavy. Bombardier severely wounded. Encountered 2x P-80 just after feet-wet; fire in Engine #1 put out. Safe landing but Bombardier will be out for maybe 8 weeks. Repairs to airplane means no mission next week. Kills to date: Ventral Gunner-4, Tail Gunner-2, Flight Engineer (Top Front Turret)-1.
May 13, 1947. Today we visited Westinghouse Electric in Philadelphia. The Amerikans are getting lazy as we found no fighters until target area. Ventral Gunner shot down a P-80 for his 5th kill – he’s an Ace now! AA in target area bad, lots of damage. Dropped bombs but Bombardier not sure they hit [10%]. Chased off 2x F8F on way home but landed safely. Bad news is we will have to sit out next week’s mission for repairs. Good news is aircraft will be fitted with new, Improved Kettenhund 3 AA Jammer.
June 1, 1947. Glad to be back in the air again. Target for today is Colt Manufacturing in Hartford. I always have preferred my trusty Mauser! Shortly after launch got jumped by 2x F8F but Tail Gunner shot down one. As we neared Newfoundland 2x F8F got the jump on us from above. Their bullets caused a leak in Fuel Tank 3 and we were getting ready to turn back when a last burst jammed the bomb bay doors anyway. After landing maintenance officer tell us that the Amerikan bombing campaign that Goering claims cannot hit the Fatherland has somehow managed to cut off our supply of spare parts.
June 22, 1947 – Barbarossa Day. Target folder is for Heinz Foods in Pittsburg. No opposition enroute to target area. Jumped by 2x P-80 as we near target; Tail Gunner gets another (1 more and he’s an ace). Heavy AA at target; Bombardier severely wounded but heroically dropped bombs [30%]. Worried about all the hits to the airframe. Almost home- jumped by 2x F8F. Bailing out….
Army Air Corps Intelligence Comment: Flight Log of Hauptmann B found on dead body by PBY Catalina aircrew floating west of Azores early on 23 June 1947. Uniform included an Iron Cross, 2nd Class and Amerika Shield patch on shoulder.
Aircraft Flown: He 277
Tech Advancements: Improved Lofte Bombe Site, May 1947 / Improved Kettenhund 3 AA Jammer, June 1947
Six missions [181% Bombing] in 12 weeks / Best – Corning Glass 91% / Worst – GM Detroit 0% / Colt Mfg aborted before bombing due to jammed Bomb Bay Doors
Crew Status after Bail Out: Pilot KIA (Game Over), CoPilot KIA, Flight Engineer Rescued by U-Boat, Ventral Gunner KIA, Tail Gunner Rescued by U-Boat (Light Wound), Navigator KIA, Bombardier KIA on Bail Out, EW Officer KIA, (Original Bombardier 8 wks convalescence after Severe Wound on May 1, 1947)
So ended my first Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (Compass Games, 2020) campaign game. For true grognards, designer Gregory M. Smith cheerfully admits that the game is a ripoff of B-17: Queen of the Skies (Avalon Hill, 1981) but from the other side. As the Compass Games ad copy states:
Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies is a solitaire, tactical level game which places you in command of a hypothetical, yet historically-based bomber aircraft during a frightening look at what might have been in World War II. Each turn consists of one sortie, during which the player will fly a mission to bomb the mainland of the United States. As the player progresses, he may choose to upgrade to even more advanced bombers in this alternate history game. Amerika Bomber is based on the popular, action-packed B17: Queen of the Skies system and pays homage to Glen Frank’s original system, but with streamlined routines and a few twists. It builds a strong narrative around the pilot as you look to earn skills, rise in rank through promotion, receive awards and survive a dangerous year above America.
Components – Functional. Counters are simple and mostly used as information markers. I wish the boards were on slightly heavier cardstock given the amount of handling they take during a game. I note that two charts, B1 Interception and B7 Landing Chart were updated on BGG due to layout errors. I also wish a few charts were laid out a bit differently. For instance, chart B2 Position Chart has the Friendly Fighter Cover and To Hit (fighter or bomber) tables placed third and fourth whereas you need to roll on these tables before the Damage to Fighters by Bomber Defensive firepower (FP) table which is placed above them on the chart.
Game Mechanics – Having never played B-17: Queen of the Skies or any other Gregory Smith solo air games I cannot compare them to one another. I did find the rules in Amerika Bomber flowed well. After the first few plays there is little need to consult the rule book. That said there are occasions where the game gets in the way of itself. For instance, on Chart B9 Landing in Water or Bailout Over Water (2d6) one modifier is, “-4DRM if radio inoperative (no mayday call.” As I looked at my aircraft display, I couldn’t find the radio until I realized the “FuG 29 R/T” is the “FuG 29 Radio” listed in B4 Aircraft Damage Listings. Consistency, please! Which lead me to…
Errata – I’m the sort of grognard that plays the game out-of-the-box first; I usually don’t look at BGG or YouTube for aids until after I play using the rules-as-written. After play I discovered an official errata/clarifications file available on BoardGameGeek. Most of the “issues” seem to do with proofing. None of the issues make the game unplayable; it’s just really annoying.*
Playing Time – A full campaign game will carry the player from April 1947 thru March 1948. That’s 12 months and potentially 48 missions! Truth is the player will fly fewer (assuming they survive that long) but I cannot see how this is a 2-4 hour game. Maybe I am too casual a gamer because each ‘turn’ or sortie takes me about 10-15 minutes to play – or about one month of game time every 40-60 minutes.
Narrative – Amerika Bomber builds a story within every sortie mission. I mean, look at the AAR above – the game writes the story (although if you want to record it you take more time playing). Over time, you can get promoted, get new aircraft, skills, and technology. This is helpful because it breaks up the repetitiveness of executing each sortie.
Alternate History – The Designer’s Notes in Amerika Bomber is followed by An Alternate History Leading Up to Amerika Bomber written by Frederick Ellsesser. As a piece of alternate history fiction it is OK, but I feel that a more historically focused article would be more educational to the reader. Yes, I’m funny in that way; I like my wargames to teach as they engage me. In this case an opportunity to discuss the real Luftwaffe Amerika Bomber program was missed. I have a book on my shelf, Target: America – Hitler’s Plan to Attack the United States by James P. Duffy that provides very relevant background to the game. A short summation of Chapter 3: The Plan to Bomb America and Chapter 4: The Race to Build the America Bomber would in my opinion fit this need. If this topic really interests you and you want to read the history and not the fiction, then this book is a must-read!
Fit in Collection – I think Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies will land on my gaming table in monthly chunks. Execute a month of missions then take good notes and come back to the game later. I just can’t see playing this game beginning-to-end in one session. That’s not as negative as it sounds; Amerika Bomber in many ways acts as a ‘filler wargame’ that allows me to play in smaller chunks of time.
*I know many of you will tell me, “It’s a Compass Games product! What do you expect!” Yes, I expect better from them which is why I usually avoid buying direct at full price and look for pre-order discounts, sales, or discounted retailers. I also humbly offer my services pre-publication, not that I have any special qualifications.
What if China and North Korea had a “friendly” little dust-up today? By today I mean today; as in what wargame on my shelf could I use to make a quick battle to pass the coronapocalypse?
As I eyeballed my shelf of games, my eyes came to rest on Flight Leader (Avalon Hill, 1986). Flight Leader is a game of “Air-to-Air Jet Combat Tactics 1950 to Present.” I recalled a few years back I made a homebrew scenario with South Korean F-16s confronting intruding North Korean MiG-21s. It was based on a then-contemporary news article. When I pulled the box off the shelf and opened it, sure enough, my scenario was still in there.
One problem I had at the time was how to make fit “peacetime” Rules of Engagement (ROE) into the game. I didn’t just want both sides to start fighting, I wanted there to be a “dance” as both sides jockeyed for position or blocked or pushed the other. The answer I came up with at the time was…well, I really didn’t.
I decided to basically play the same scenario, only this time with North Korea versus China. For the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAARF) I brought a 2-ship formation of J-11 fighters at Aircrew Quality C (2x Average pilots). For the game, I just used the stock SU-27 FLANKER. For the North Korean Air Force (NKAF) I used a 4-ship formation of MiG-21 Fishbed bis/L/N with an optional internal cannon. I set the North Korean Aircrew Quality at E (2x Average, 2x Inexperienced pilots). In the scenario this was a 40pt vs 40pt matchup.
This time I tried to add a mechanism that would (crudely) simulate the chances of things getting out of control. You know, as in “out of control and lucky to live through it” like The Hunt for Red October….
The crude mechanic I decided upon was a d10 check every turn for each airplane. Based on the Aircrew Quality, there was a chance of a pilot “losing their cool” and opening fire. The crude metric I decided upon was:
Aircrew Rating C: Roll 8+. DM +1 per opposing aircraft behind 3-9 Line. DM-1 per opposing aircraft ahead of 3-9 Line. DM +1 if radar Lock-On by any opposing aircraft.
Aircrew Rating E: Roll 6+. DM+1 if any opposing aircraft behind 3-9 Line. DM -1 if any opposing aircraft ahead of 3-9 Line. DM +1 if pilot Inexperienced. DM +1 if radar Lock-On by any opposing aircraft.
As I played it out, the early turns were indeed “peaceful” as both sides jockeyed for position and kept the others in their forward hemisphere. However, once the merge happened and both sides started twisting an turning it got much more interesting. Sure enough, it was one of the Inexperienced NKAF pilots who blinked first.
The fight was on, but that gave me another scenario design problem to deal with; what was victory?
I decided that once the fight started, each side would have to meet certain conditions:
PLAARF: Force NKAF to withdraw. If aircraft lost must destroy 2x NKAF for every loss.
NKAF: Force PLAARF to withdraw. Shoot down at least one J-11/SU-27 if any aircraft lost.
Not the greatest thinking but a start. In this battle the Inexperienced pilot who started the battle took a poor HW (Heat-Seeker, Wide Angle) shot and missed. The J-11s engaged and quickly shot down 2x MiG-21. The last two MiGs took parting shots and scored some damage on a single J-11 before skedaddling. I ruled this a solid Chinese victory.
This battle made me think about the greatest Top Gun parody ever. Makes me wonder which one was Red Maverick….
AS OF THIS MORNING (15 MARCH), my local county health department is reporting 10 ‘presumptive positive’ cases of COVID-19. The school district has already shut down thru 10 April and many events are cancelled to encourage ‘social distancing.’
In the RockyMountainNavy household, we have dealt with COVID-19 since Mrs. RMN returned from Korea right as the epidemic was breaking out there. She laid low for 14 days not because of self-isolation but because others avoided her (the worst ‘racists’ are often from one’s own race). Now there is panic in the wider community (why are people hoarding toilet paper?) and much is being cancelled. One aspect of social distancing we are practicing is to distance ourselves from social media. Frankly, its all doom and gloom with lots of disinformation. In a practical response this means that wargames and boardgames are hitting the gaming table more often.
Tactical tank combat games have a special place in my wargaming heart. Indeed, the first wargame I ever played was Jim Day’s Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979). In many ways, that game set my expectations of a wargame for most of the rest of my life. I believed that a wargame neededmust have a hex map, combat results tables (CRT), dice-rolling, and detailed rules. At the same time, I fell into a very detailed, simulationist portion of the wargame hobby that focused on tactical warfare. Panzer or MBT or Squad Leader for ground combat, the Admiralty Trilogy (Command at Sea or Harpoon) for naval combat, JD Websters Fighting Wings (Actung: Spitfire or Speed of Heat) for air combat. I even took it to the science-fiction realm going all-in on the original Star Fleet Battles-series of games.
Over the years, my fetish for detailed simulations weakened, and in the mid-2010s when I really discovered hobby boardgaming with the family my wargaming perspectives also changed. I needed to find wargames that I could play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys in an evening. I needed wargames that were more than manual modeling & simulation designs. I needed games that would engage them with the history; building a narrative of history through play. This led me to waros, or “wargame-Eurogames.”
Which brings me back to Tank Duel Enemy in the Crosshairs. The GMT Games pages describes the game as follows:
Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs is a card-based game for 1 to 8 players that depicts tank-to-tank warfare on the Eastern Front of World War II in the early to mid 1940s. It attempts to convey the claustrophobia and urgency that tank crews experienced in this bitter conflict, utilizing a simple Action system to keep the action moving at a rapid pace. Players will issue commands with the use of Battle Cards and attempt to score Victory Points by claiming Objectives and eliminating their opponent’s tanks and crew.
The tank board will be used to keep track of information regarding the status of a tank and its crew. Types of condition could include, tank on fire, damage tracks, immobilized and damage to the gun.
Each player will be managing a hand of cards. With these cards the player will be able to take actions.
There is so much here that doesn’t meet my classic (stale?) wargame definition; 1-8 players? Simple Action system? A tank board? Hand of cards?
But it works. I mean, it really works!
A typical Tank Duel game will see four tanks (or more!) in a fight. There is no mapboard but only an abstract range from battlefield center. Lateral movement is through flanking cards. Terrain is also depicted by cards. The battle lasts only long enough to cycle through the deck several times. Best of all, if a tank is destroyed a new one replaces it next turn.
There are still several echos of my tactical tank games here. Panzer players will feel comfortable with the combat tables. But all that detail gets hidden by a set of very innovative Battle Cards. Many will claim that this has been done before in Up Front (Avalon Hill, 1983) and several other games since. That may be true, but in today’s hyper-competitive publishing market it is actually rare to find wargames that totally dispense with the mapboard or dice.
However, it’s not the “non-traditional” mechanics that make Tank Duel a game I enjoy. Few wargames have ever generated a narrative during play like I get playing Tank Duel. As I look over my hand of cards, I try to put together a plan. I try to dash up the hill (Move) so I can get into an overwatch position to shoot (Fire) only to be mired by my opponent playing a Mud card (Terrain) which allows him to flank me (Flank card). As my crew tries to unbog the tank my turret is hammered, killing my Commander and breaking the morale of the crew. As my tank brews up I reset my Tank Board to bring my next tank into the battle, swearing at the loss of my fellow soldiers and looking to avenge their deaths. The more I played, the more I came to realize that what I enjoyed was not the details of the battle (Hey, my 8.8cm gun penetrated your turret from 400 yards!) but the visceral tension of the combat (I have to close the range…I am going to play two move cards to close the range and go hull down to be ready to shoot after that…unless my opponent plays a mud card and bogs me down in something I cannot see!). The real tension of Tank Duel is not the details of the combat, it’s in the making of a combat story.
A combat story without hex & counter or dice or complicated rules but abstracted using a tableau and innovative cards.
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.
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).
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.