#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

“War is merely the continuation of politics by other means” – Clausewitz in Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018)

Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018) is an interesting game. I have been trying to get my head wrapped around the game, but I think I didn’t actually grok it until listening to the Three Moves Ahead Episode 439 podcast. Host Rob was joined by Bruce Geryk (@SpaceRumsfeld) to discuss Cataclysm. After listening to their discussion I finally realized a major reason I have a hard time wrapping my head around the game is because I was expecting Cataclysm to be a wargame when it is not.

Let me explain.

Looking at the GMT Games publisher’s page forCataclysm the second paragraph (Not Your Father’s Panzer Pusher) is squarely aimed at the wargamer. It talks about grand strategy, military pieces, military production, prosecuting war, no Combat Results Table but operational effects, resource acquisition, control of border states, and perceptions of power. Everything I think about in a wargame.

However, the next paragraph is actually more important:

Geopolitics and The Clever Use of Flags

Flags are the currency of political capital in Cataclysm. Nations earn flags through public mandate or provocation by opposing powers. Spending this political capital is subject to the effectiveness of your power, which determines how easily you can implement your policies. Readying for war requires you to increase your commitment, straining the stability of your government. You can offset this by using propaganda to shore up your position. You can form strong alliances with friendly powers, or use diplomacy to sway your neighbors to your side. You may need to pressure reluctant partners into taking action. Manage your political actions to suit your goals, but be wary of provoking your opponents, allowing them to earn flags in reaction.

As Rob and Bruce discuss, it is the political game that is actually the core of Cataclysm. Indeed, in the 3-player game they played there was almost no combat. Now that I think of it, I agree that Cataclysm is actually a political game where there is a chance of a Second World War breaking out. This realization requires that I recognize that the “core mechanic” of Cataclysm is not the combat model (my wargame expectation) but the Flags and Political Actions. Once I make this connection the whole “game thesis” as Bruce puts it makes sense. I went into Cataclysm expecting a wargame but instead played a strategy game of politics and diplomacy where war is just another option in each nations toolkit. To put it in Clausewitz-like terms, in Cataclysm, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

carl_von_clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz -by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikipedia Commons)

Thinking about Cataclysm as a Clausewitz-influenced strategy game instead of a wargame actually grows my respect for the design. I encourage you all to listen to the 3 Moves Ahead podcast, and especially Bruce’s comments on the “game thesis” as I think this will help many folks wrap their own heads around this game. I have to admit I am more excited about the game then Bruce and Rob seem to be. Now that I have groked the game thesis and realized Cataclysm is “not a wargame” I want to get it back to my gaming table and play with this newfound perspective.