Rocky Reads for #Wargame- China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power (Michael A. McDevitt, 2020)

BLUF

A very thorough analysis of the present capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). This is perhaps the best single-source compilation of open source analysis on the PLA Navy presently available. Persuasively argues that the PLA Navy is a “blue-water” navy – today. Analytical breakdown offers many opportunities for wargaming.

Naval Institute Press, 2020

Not your father’s PLAN

How often do we hear about “China rising?” If you subscribe to that school of thought then you are in for a surprise if you read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications by Michael A. McDevitt, RADM, US Navy (Ret.). In this very recent (late 2020) publication from Naval Institute Press, RADM McDevitt argues that fifteen years of anti-piracy patrols has already made the PLA Navy the second most-capable naval power in the world. He further argues that the PLA Navy is well on track to be a true “world class navy” but 2035, a deadline set by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Rear Admiral McDevitt starts out with a discussion of where China’s maritime power ambitions come from. The sources he uses are nothing special; everything is publicly available (although some needed to be translated). This is good grist for wargame designers; understanding what China wants to do on the high seas supports good scenario design.

The second chapter, “Getting Started: Learning How to Operate Abroad” contains the core argument in the book. McDevitt shows how fifteen years of overseas anti-piracy patrols has directly contributed to the development of a highly professional and capable blue-water navy. For wargame designers this is a challenge; so often wargames looking at the PLA Navy seem to dig into the whole “China rising” meme and don’t acknowledge (or refuse to acknowledge) that the Chinese Navy is not “coming soon” but “already here” and far removed from a second-rate coastal defense force that couldn’t even deal with Vietnam.

The next several chapters are probably the best for wargame and scenario design. RADM McDevitt addresses area denial, anti-access and a Taiwan campaign, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean in turn. In each section he discusses the what the PLA Navy is charged with accomplishing and the doctrine and equipment they developed to meet the challenge. His discussion of equipment is particularly helpful for wargame designers as each piece of kit is evaluated against what its mission is. This evaluation is far more helpful than just comparing it to the US Navy. The breakdown by area also can be useful for scenario design, and if one puts it all together a larger campaign view is possible.

Pacific Trident III

This book is not the only writing on China’s navy that Rear Admiral McDeveitt delivered in the past year. In February 2020, RADM McDeveitt wrote the final report for the unclassified Tabletop Exercise (TTX) Pacific Trident III sponsored by the Sasakawa USA Foundation. The goal of Pacific Trident III was to explore challenges to the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances. In that final report, RADM McDevitt foreshadowed some of what he was going to write in China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power. Like in his book, some of the policy recommendations from the TTX are good wargame fodder:

  • Recommendation 3: The United States should consider the merits and risks of adopting a position on the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, persuade other countries to support this position, and develop diplomatic strategies as well as military contingency plans based on these positions (emphasis mine).
  • Recommendation 4: The United States should conduct a policy review of its responses to Chinese aggression against occupied or unoccupied features in the South China Sea. While the details of military actions should be classified, the United States should make it clear that treaty obligations would be invoked by aggression, and could under certain circumstances result in military intervention (again, emphasis mine).
  • Recommendation 6: Planning associated with US military options in support of the TRA [Taiwan Relations Act] recognize the requirement for a rapid expansion of consultative and cooperative mechanisms with Taipei.

Other Views

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) was kind enough to publish Toshi Yoshihara’s article, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited.” The article is adapted from a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Seizing on Weakness: Allied Strategy for Competing With China’s Globalizing Military. Yoshihara’s thoughts go hand-in-hand with McDevitt:

Imperial overreach is not as farfetched as one might assume, despite China’s impressive wealth creation over past decades. As a classic land-sea power, which faces the seas and shares contiguous borders with its neighbors, Beijing must always stay alert to threats in the continental and maritime domains. This inescapable two-front challenge imposes perpetual opportunity costs: every yuan spent on one area is one fewer yuan available for the other flank and vice versa. The trade-offs between its landward and seaward commitments could impose built-in limits on China’s global plans.  

Toshi Yoshihara, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited”

Rocky’s Thoughts

Best Value

Up-to-date capability assessment mixed with analysis of doctrine and mission.

Weakness

Read it now because the PLA Navy is growing so fast the data will be outdated sooner than later.

The PLA Navy from Office of Naval Intelligence (2015) – sorely out of date

Wargame Application

Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020)

The discussions in “Chapter Four – Area Denial” and “Chapter Five – Keeping the Americans Away: Anti-Access and the Taiwan Campaign” have lots of potential Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020) scenario material. One part in particular that struck me is RADM McDevitt’s assertion that the anti-access strategy doctrine of the PLA Navy is not too unlike the Soviet Union in the Atlantic during the Cold War. This made me immediately think about a 21st Century version of Dance of the Vampires, the Harpoon scenarios and campaign that Larry Bond and Tom Clancy used to support the writing of Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel. It would be great to see a new 21st century version starring the PLA Navy!

Dance of the Vampires from Admiralty Trilogy Games

“Chapter Six – The PLA Navy and the South China Sea” is perfect update material for South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017). The same can be said for “Chapter Seven – The PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean” and the forthcoming release of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (Compass Games, 2021).

A 21st Century VitP?

As I read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, I appreciated how RADM McDevitt broke down the problem geographically. At the same time, it made me realize that many (all?) modern naval wargames take that same approach. We have wargames on the invasion of Taiwan and confrontation in the South China Sea or Indian Ocean. We also have wargames that can deliver a very fine tactical simulation of a modern conflict. What is lacking (in the commercial hobby wargame space, at least) is a wargame that shows the entire campaign. What I’m thinking about here is something like a Victory in the Pacific-type of overview. Although McDevitt breaks the PLA Navy problem down into discrete geographic areas they are all interrelated: the flow of shipping in the Indian Ocean must travel through the South China Sea to get to the mainland. I can think of no commercial wargame that looks at rolling back the PLA Navy across the globe, or even across the Pacific. Just what is the Plan ORANGE wargame for the 21st century?

Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977)

Citation

McDevitt, Michael A., China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020.


Feature image: 200818-N-KF697-3150 PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2020) Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulehsan (OPV 07), Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Winnipeg (FFH 338), Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73) and Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Manawanui (A09) maneuver during a division tactics (DIVTACS) exercise during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). Ten nations, 22 ships, one submarine, and more than 5,300 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from August 17 to 31 at sea around the Hawaiian Islands. RIMPAC is a biennial exercise designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships, critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The exercise is a unique training platform designed to enhance interoperability and strategic maritime partnerships. RIMPAC 2020 is the 27th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Isaak Martinez)

Threat Tuesday – Projecting a future US Navy for #wargames

BATTLE FORCE 2045. It sounds like a new science-fiction wargame but it’s actually the name of the the latest future force plan for the US Navy. Secretary of Defense Esper unveiled the plan in early October.

Esper’s Battle Force 2045, which he rolled out during an online event today at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, lays out plans for achieving a fleet of 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, and a fleet of 355 traditional battle force ships by 2035 – all in a resource-constrained budget environment.

Throughout the rest of October the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) ran a series of articles assembled under the Fleet Force Structure Series. This series of nine article looked at the future force structure in depth.

In particular, I call your attention to “A Decisive Flotilla: Assessing the Hudson Fleet Design” by Robert C. Rubel which in turn links to the Hudson Institute analysis “American Sea Power at a Crossroads: A Plan to Restore the US Navy’s Maritime Advantage.” This analysis includes several nice tables for a future order of battle that can form the basis of wargame studies.

It would be interesting to see Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group) data annexes or counters in South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) for Battle Force 2045.


Feature image courtesy moto1.com

“All game, no history.” Really? Musings on why I play #wargames

Recently on Twitter, the following tweet was reupped for comments:

The Tactical Painter @PainterTactical ·

Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.

I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:

Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy · 
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.

Complexity as Realism…or Not?

First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)

Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).

“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.

Or so I thought.

Wargames as Insight

Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)

My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:

  • Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
  • Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
  • Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
    • Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
    • Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer

I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:

Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)

Games, Not Simulations

Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.

MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:

Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.

…But Fun

Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.

I still play the more complex games, but my approach to them has changed. While I still use them to explore conflict, I also try to enjoy it. My attitude these days is one of wanting to game a conflict, not simulate it. I think many designers and publishers get this. This is why the new Harpoon V from Admiralty Trilogy Games is more player-friendly. It’s why Buffalo Wings 2 (Against the Odds) is having a successful Kickstarter. And yes, it’s why even Advanced Squad Leader is still a money-maker for Multi-Man Publishing (especially when one looks at the face-to-face tournament play aspect).

All of which is to say I play wargames for the fun of learning and making interesting decisions. They don’t teach me history, but they offer a pathway to further insight.

“All game, no history.” Not true for me.


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

Coronatine Comments – Random #Wargame & #Boardgame Shoutouts to @ADragoons, @Bublublock, & @tomandmary with mentions of @compassgamesllc, @StrongholdGames & @hollandspiele

Rule Books

DragoonsLogoHEADER-2-1RECENTLY, THE GENTLEMEN AT ARMCHAIRDRAGOONS WERE KIND ENOUGH TO POST A REVIEW I WROTE. My major knock on the game is that, “play is unfortunately marred by a rule book that makes learning the game harder than it should.”

In the case of Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) a better rule book has:

  • An index
  • Deeper numbering of paragraphs to ease cross-reference
  • Consistency in terms & language

A rule book needs to be governed by a style guide. I won’t tell you what to use, but when you don’t it’s really noticeable! There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is not a magical wargame rule book template that an aspiring (or well-established) designer can just download from the internet. What is needed is not a format as much as an attitude.

Complexity

IMG_0574In a Twitter reply to my Armchair Dragoons article, Dan Bullock (@Bublublock) said, “Every time I see BWN referred to as medium complexity, I feel marvelously stupid.” Indeed, an underlying theme of my post this week, Hard Core #Wargame? Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983) is complexity as how each individual sees it. In the case of Blue Water Navy a great deal of the complexity is learning complexity from the less-than-stellar written rules. In Assault for the mystery reviewer I talk about it appears mechanical complexity, i.e. using the game components, was far too complex for them. I feel a longer think-piece coming…but it’s not quite fully formed yet.

Name Games -or- BGG Don’t Fail Me Now!

Picked up on a small thread on BoardGameGeek about BGG renaming wargame titles. You know, like taking the last two games I discussed on my blog, Assault and Dawn of Empire, and making sure the database names are Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 and Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War in the Atlantic, 1898. Personally it doesn’t bother me as I clearly see a subtitle as part of the title. Apparently I am too simple, because the BGG policy appears to not only incorporate subtitles, but also any box cover description. Taken to the extreme, games like Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games becomes either:

  • “Terraforming Mars: Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World” or
  • “Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World: Terraforming Mars”.

Yes, leave it to the hobby boardgame community on BGG to make this an issue. Well, if this is the new policy I can’t wait to see the update for Supply Lines of the American Revolution – The Northern Theater, 1775-1777: being a Game of War, or Logistics & Deception; & a suitable & commendable past-time for gentlemen & ladies both; invented by Mr. Tom Russell, a Patriot born in these United States with cartographical embellishment by Ania B. Ziolkowska. I mean, it’s about time Tom and Mary Russell (@tomandmary) of Hollandspiele got recognition for this fine work!

SLAR_wB_1024x1024
Courtesy Hollandspiele


Feature image courtesy pinterest.com

History to #Wargame – A “historical” scenario of Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

FOR MY CORNATINE SUNDAY AFTERNOON SOLO GAME I put my newly-arrived copy of Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 (Compass Games, 2020) back on the table. This time I decided to play the “historical” scenario with no Extra Time  (campaign is played for the standard six turns) and no Extra Warships for the Spanish (although they get the battleship Pelayo which they historically didn’t).

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I adopted a “Caribbean Fleet-in-Being” strategy for the Spanish. My thinking was the Spanish should move their ships to Caribbean ports and threaten American Squadrons. For the Americans I adopted a Blockade strategy. Within the limits of Dawn of Empire, both approaches approximate history. However, that’s where the history ended and the alternate past of Dawn of Empire began.

This play of Dawn of Empire I focused in on Orders and specifically payed much closer attention to what orders can follow what. The “order of Orders” is very important and creates many interesting strategic choices. For instance, a Blockade order can only be followed by a Coal order, unless you have too many units coaling in which case the Coal becomes an Anchor. Overall the impact is that squadrons really are only effective / available every other turn (maybe even every third or fourth turn if using Transit). My first time playing I didn’t catch the nuance that a Raid MUST be followed by a Transit which in turn is followed by a 2nd Transit, Coal, or Anchor. So before you send that Raid out you better think about what you also need that squadron to do in the future. What you do NOW has a huge impact on what you can do THEN – and you must plan accordingly.

This play of Dawn of Empire I also paid much closer attention to the Port Attack Resolution and experimented with port attacks using both Raid (every other unit in squadron combats against the Port Attack & Defense values) versus Blockade (every third unit in squadron combats against the Port Mine Factor & Defense). A subtle, yet impactful difference.

My play of Dawn of Empire ended in an American Automatic Victory at the end of Turn 5. The Americans lost a battleship, two monitors, and a cruiser in fleet battles during the war. The major battle was on Turn 5 (mid-late June) where the bulk of the Spanish fleet was lost in a major battle south of Cuba in the North Yucatan Basin area. The crazy thing is the battle should not have happened; the smaller American squadron was on Blockade of Cienfuegos and the large Spanish squadron was sailing for Havana under Transit orders. There was only a 33% chance of meeting…but the odds fell that way. This battle was all the more surprising because in the first round Admiral Sampson, aboard the American battleship Indiana at the time, was forced to leave the engagement when Indiana was Disabled. Although leaderless and outnumbered, the Americans outlasted the Spanish and secured the victory not only in the battle but in the war.

That said, the Americans were not happy with the results of a late Blockade of Havana where the harbor defenses almost sunk the battleships Oregon and Iowa. Had the war continued, the Americans would of been hard-pressed to repair the combined 8x Damage to both ships in any sort of a timely manner. The closest port is Key West, but it can only repair 1x Damage per turn. Mobile Bay is a bit better with a Repair Ability of 2. Hampton Roads is the best with a Repair Ability of 4 but the damaged ships would take four or five turns to get there. Another possibility was to send them to Key West, do enough repairs to get a better speed, then go to Hampton Roads. No matter the choice, the time necessary was huge. Oh yeah, you also want to sail them as Independent units, not Squadrons, to avoid being intercepted. Planning, planning, planning!

This play convinced me that the Optional Rules in Dawn of Empire really are necessary to get anything near a balanced game. Rule 11.J Extra Warships is basically a given and adding 11.I The Germans should be interesting. For a bit of added realism (with little rules overhead) I also want to experiment with 11.B Alternate Delayed Repairs (slower damage recovery), 11.C Maintenance (assigned damage), and 11.H Restricting Disabled Ships (if unable to reach a friendly port then scuttle and lost).

Dawn of Empire is not really a historical game. I am not sure if it really can recreate the true historical situation given there is no land warfare component to the game. Instead, Dawn of Empire delivers a near-pure Mahanian view of the Spanish-American Naval War in the Atlantic – in a very fun and easy-to-learn and play manner.

My Inexpensive #Wargame Storage Solution

WITH CORONATINE KEEPING US AT HOME FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME, many are turning to a hobby to keep themselves from going insane. This is especially true for myself as I generally eschew television. Fortunately, I have my wargame/boardgame hobby to keep me going. Between occasional games against the family and plenty of solo play I keep myself busy.

Boxed In

But there is another side of hobby gaming, and it involves organization. There are more than a few games with many components, be it bits or bobs or cards or Meeples or what. In the boardgame world this need to organize has created a whole pocket industry of insert organizers. I am not immune; I invested in Folded Space organizers for Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016) and Scythe (Stonemaier Games, 2016).

 

IMG_0545
Folded Space insert for Scythe – Level 1. Second level compartments to side ready to fit in.

The wargaming world is usually simpler. Traditional hex & counter wargames usually come with flat paper components and cardboard chits (counters). Some games have so few counters that they can just be dropped in the box. In older days many games came with storage trays. These days a few still do (like the custom Game Trayz that Academy Games included in Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019). Some publishers, like GMT Games, sell trays. Many wargame publishers usually include at least a few small plastic baggies in the box.

Plastic baggies work well for organizing wargames. I go a step further and buy resealable zip close bags from Michaels. Depending on the day, some of these bags even have an area for marking the content making figuring out what bits go back where that much easier after play.

For many gamers, a game tray or box for storage of counters becomes essential. Some folks, like the gents at 2HalfSquads, have very detailed solutions. Although I can identify with these hyper-organizing wargamers (and I was one of them myself in my Star Fleet Battles/Federation & Empire-playing days) I tend to shy away from those larger boxed solutions. That said, some games just beg for an organized solution. This is especially true when you have many different types of units or organizations.

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Courtesy 2HalfSquads

936D74EB-64C6-4D92-A6D2-BE31D855A40DWhenever possible, I like to see all components of a game stay within the box. This is a major reason baggies remain a staple of my collection. That said, I recently found some small boxes at my local Dollar Tree store. These boxes are 7.125″ x 4.875″ x 0.87″ and have 11 compartments (10 standard, 1x double-width). These small containers have rounded sections making it easier for clumsy, more arthritic fingers like mine to dig counters out. They also stack nicely. I have found I can stack these 2-deep in a 2-inch game box and still have room at the top for flat products. If the map is mounted getting the box to totally close is a challenge, but with unmounted games it works well.

 

The first game I organized using these boxes was The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). The boxes worked out quite well as each I divided the counters into two boxes (British and Axis) with markers shared between. This arrangement really speeds game set up – just give the right box to each side and go!

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Notice the unused roll of baggies….

In practice I end up using a combination of trays and baggies. This weekend I organized my copy of Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019). For the 1,176 counters, I used four (4) boxes for all the units (each formation in one compartment) and smaller-count markers. As it worked out, there is one box for all the NATO formations, two boxes for the Warsaw Pact, and one box of markers. I put all the Posture, Time, and Attrition Markers in three separate larger bags. The box for Less Than 60 Miles is a bit larger (European) sized box so I was able to fit four boxes (double stacked), cards, and markers with space left for the folded map, player aids, and rule books. There is just the slightest of lift on the lid.

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4x boxes in 2x stacks with cards to the side; larger bags (recycled from Scythe?) for large-count markers

I use a similar solution for Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). Here the box is smaller (American) sized and I found if I used four storage trays then the cards could not fit. So I use three boxes (1x US, 1x Soviets, 1x NATO) and some additional baggies. Not as neat a solution but it works. The lid closes with the slightest of lift.

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The 2x decks of cards forced me to use only 3x boxes and more smaller bags for markers. Not as neat but it still works….

The Dollar Tree storage box also work very well for organizing smaller folio games. I use a single box for Poland Defiant, The German Invasion, September 1939  (Revolution Games, 2019). In this case the single box separates formations and markers. I can either lay this flat on a shelf or store upright with the game taking up less than 1″ of lateral shelf space.

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Most formations in own compartment with more numerous shared markers in double-width compartment

Of course, the best part aspect of these boxes is the price. Literally $1 per box. There is a Dollar Tree in my neighborhood and every time I go there I always check to see if there are a few in stock. With the larger games recently organized my “reserve” is down to two boxes – I like to have four on hand “just to be ready.”

What organizing solution do you use?

 

 

#Wargame #FirstImpression – War at Sea goes 1898 in Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

A fresh take on an under-gamed naval war. Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 delivers an uncomplicated, ahistorical version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, one should expect the rules to be polished, but instead it suffers from a rulebook that is annoying inconsistent.

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Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898. Designed by Stephen Newberg. Published by Compass Games, 2020. Complexity – Medium-Low. Time Scale – 1 Turn = 11 Days. Map Scale: Strategic Areas of Varied Sizes. Unit Scale – Individual Warships. Number of Players – 2. Solitaire Suitability – Medium. Average Time to Play – 2-3 hours.

War at Sea Goes 19th Century

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (Compass Games, 2020) doesn’t try to hide its heritage. In the Introduction, designer Stephen Newberg acknowledges that the game, “…owes its original inspiration to War at Sea, designed and published by John Edwards of Jedko and developed later by Don Greenwood for publication by The Avalon Hill Game Company….” That said, Mr. Newberg goes on to state:

Dawn of Empire borrows a number of concepts from this earlier game as a starting point, such as area movement, individual capital ships, battle line resolution, and rolling sixes to hit. It then diverges in other areas to reflect the Spanish-American War situation.

All of this makes Dawn of Empire both familiar to older Grognard wargamers while remaining fresh for a new generation of players.

Rigging the (Game) Ship

Component-wise, Dawn of Empire comes with a nicely-sized 22”x34” mounted mapboard, 216 5/8” counters, two (2) Player Aid Cards, one Battle Mat, the Rulebook, and four dice. All the components are physically of top quality; indeed, this game looks like a luxurious Eurogame in terms of physical production standards.

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The mapboard for Dawn of Empire is of a mounted split-fold design. Mine came out of the box with just a hint of warping but after sitting out for one night it laid fine. The board covers from the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts across the Caribbean into the Atlantic. Compass Games chose to use a matte-finish on the board which, while certainly reducing glare, also has a bad habit of showing scuff marks. Oh yeah, it looks like there was a layout error too. In the Search Matrix Box there is some extraneous text oriented the wrong way. To be honest though it took me two days to notice it.

I don’t own War at Sea (Jedko, 1975) or its successors but I do own Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977), a very close cousin. One issue I have with Victory in the Pacific that Dawn of Empire doesn’t fix is the lack of holding boxes on the map. It’s not like there is not enough map area, just look at the large land area along the edge in the US or at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A missed opportunity.

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The counters in Dawn of Empire are very nice. Here, Compass Games elected to use what I term Eurogame-style counters; thick and rounded off the sheet. This results in a higher degree of wastage on the sheet but the counters are beautiful to play with immediately after punching.

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The rulebook for Dawn of Empire is the game’s weakest point. Like so many rulebooks these days, it needed another set of eyes and one more pass to work out some of the layout issues. Most noticeably, the last sentence of 7.3 Combat Resolution is lost under the graphic at the top of the page. Unfortunately, this small layout mistake is far from the only issue.

In an example of a simple rule that turns out to be more complicated than it should be, even the seating rule for Dawn of Empire makes me pause. Looking at the map, the continental US is along the north and west edges whereas the Spanish start in the Caribbean and Atlantic to the south and east. However, rule 9.6 Set Up directs, “The Spanish player should sit on the West side of the map while the US player sits on the opposite side, looking in from the continental US and Gulf of Mexico.” I think this is a simple East-West confusion but how can I be sure? Further, the recommended seating places the players along the short edge of the map. From a strictly ergonomic point of view, would it not make sense to be seated along the long edges of the board with less reach needed? Sure, one side has to read upside down but….

The rulebook for Dawn of Empire also lacks a consistency of styling which makes understanding it difficult in places. For instance, occasionally red text is used. However, it is difficult to discern if the red text is intended to highlight a key rule or an easily overlooked rule or to distinguish a design comment. I can’t tell because the red text is used for all three!

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Another issue I have with the rulebook for Dawn of Empire concerns the placement of certain rules. I don’t understand why the game set up instructions are found at 9.6 Set Up under the major rule 9.0 Area Control and Victory Points. I personally feel it would be better situation at the end of 3.0 Components and before 4.0 Sequence of Play

Sometimes the most basic of rules in Dawn of Empire are needlessly complicated by the use of alternate terminology. An example of this is Defense Strength and Damage. Rule 3.41 Ship Units calls the relevant factor “Defense.” The counter guide printed on the map uses the term “Defense Strength.” When you get to 7.0 Combat you have to make the jump from Defense/Defense Strength to “Damage.” The result is needlessly complicated and clumsy rules like 7.32 Results that introduces yet another term, “Defense Value” (note also the use of red text):

Roll again for each 6 hit and the result of the roll is the number of damage points taken by the target, including for any units which received both hit and disabled results. Put damage markers on each damaged unit to represent the amount of damage taken. Similarly mark each disabled unit with a disabled marker for return to a friendly Port at the end of the current round of combat. Units that accumulate damage greater than their defense value are sunk and should be noted to be removed at the end of the current round of combat.

Given the provenance of the game, one might think the rules in Dawn of Empire are tightly conceived. Alas, the rules are far from being so. I am not sure if it’s just format errors or oversight, but some of the rules just don’t make sense as written. For example, the Combat Phase of the Sequence of Play in both the rulebook and on the Player Aid Card clearly states:

The resolution of combat within each area follows this sequence:

  1. Search Resolution Segment
  2. Port Attack Resolution Segment
  3. Battle Line Resolution Segment
  4. Disengagement Resolution Segment

However, rule 7.5 Port Attack Resolution states, “When opposing squadrons…are still in the area after (my emphasis) any other combat has concluded for the turn, they must make a Port Attack.” Additionally, a close reading of Turn 1 of the Detailed Sample of Play indicates the Port Attack Resolution comes AFTER all other combat. SO WHY IS THE RULEBOOK AND PLAYER AID CARD SO WRONG?

Familiar Yet Original

Mechanically, Dawn of Empire derives much of its game system from War at Sea. Players will find familiar phases like New Forces (Reinforcements), Movement, Combat, Area Control and Victory Points, and Repairs. For those familiar with the War at Sea family learning Dawn of Empire should be that much easier.

But Dawn of Empire is not a straight rehash of War at Sea. Designer Stephen Newberg tries to capture essential themes of naval warfare at the end of the 19th century without excessive rules overhead. Mr. Newberg explains his design goals in his Design Notes:

As with my prior extension of the War at Sea family of design concepts to cover the Age of Sail, this design pushes the basic ideas a good deal. Fuel considerations were, at this point in naval history, a hugely important and the logistics of keeping fleets going with constant supplies of coal had not not yet been fully worked out. Half a dozen year later in the Russo-Japanese War, a lot of these kinks were gone and coaling much less of a constraint. By the time of the Great War, another decade on, all of the major powers had solved the logistics involved and systems were in place to make keeping fueled a much less central consideration.

Additionally, Spanish-American War era fleets had gotten smaller as the Age of Sail closed, but had not really started their growth into the huge groupings of warships that would typify the First World War. As a result, searching for and, after finding, coming to grips with opposing squadrons or warships was not yet as systematized or reliable as it would become heading into the Great War.

Two [sic] reflect these two really large breaks with the general concepts of War at Sea family ideas, new systems had to be developed. Specifically, these are the Orders systems and the iterations  of these orders with search and then engagement. Both of these new structures take some getting used to. In effect, they produce a form of sequencing where the players must think ahead, turn wise, to make sure they have the maximum possible units in the right places at the right times and with the right orders to have the best chance of both finding and then fighting the opposing forces.

Order at Sea

Dawn of Empire sets itself apart from other War at Sea games by the use of an Orders Phase. In this phase at the start of every turn both players secretly assign orders to squadrons (stacks) of warships. Each order (Anchor, Blockade, Coal, Patrol, Raid, Sortie, or Transit) limits not only what the squadron can do in that turn, but also has a significant impact on the potential for combat. Individual ships also have orders, but are limited to a lesser selection. Certain orders must also be followed by other orders, meaning what you do this turn matters into the future. The orders also have a major impact on the chances of meeting in combat for even when opposing squadrons are in the same area they don’t automatically find each other. Depending on their orders, the chances of meeting vary greatly. Few meetings are automatic; at best you might have a 2-in-3 chance of meeting, but often the chances are more like 1-in-2 or even 1-in-3. These easy rules capture the essence of naval combat at the end of the 19th century.

Bucket of Dice

One note on combat. Like all the War at Sea family, combat in Dawn of Empire uses the “bucket of dice” approach with a single d6 rolled for every Attack Factor (or is it Attack Strength?). Each 5 rolled is a Disabled (leave the battle) and each 6 rolled is a hit – which must be rolled again to determine damage. This is a very simple combat resolution method, but with the game only coming with four (4) dice players will have to find many more dice else they may develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from all the die rolling!

But I Thought the US Won Easily…

Even the most casual of students of naval history may question if the Spanish-American War can make a good subject for a balanced game. Mr. Newberg acknowledges, “In the historical events, the US Navy simply wiped the Spanish forces off the map.” He goes on to make his case for alternate history with, “The reasons for this are varied, but they were no certainty.” Dawn of Empire presents the players with a very alternate view of the history. Mr. Newberg explains:

On paper, the Spanish looked to be a very serious threat. And from a strategic standpoint, they could have been. A huge concern for the US command was the vulnerability of the Eastern seaboard of the nation to raid, particularly considering the light defensive infrastructure of the two main naval bases at Key West and Hampton Roads. The Spanish never forced the US to do more than be concerned, however, and this was a serious strategic error on their parts. In the game the Spanish player is fully able to correct this, and the US player must be on guard for it. Additionally, in the Caribbean, the Spanish did little to attempt to consolidate their forces at sea, instead concentrating in ports. This enabled the US to maintain loose blockades by rotating watchers and, when a sortie did happen, to apply full force. In the game, the Spanish player need not be so cooperative in their own destruction.

Setting Sail

For the Spanish player, the first play, and maybe even every play, of Dawn of Empire can be daunting and frustrating, but maybe also the best challenge. Unlike history, the Spanish player in Dawn of Empire does not have ships that were inadequately supplied, out of repair, and poorly manned. Historically, the Spanish fleet was vastly outgunned. Mr. Newberg tries to help by giving the Spanish their battleship Pelayo even though that ship historically was in France for a refit and not available. Using comparisons of the period, the Spanish sail 24 ships against 35 American. The disparity of guns (Attack Factors) in the game is even more lopsided, with the Americans carrying 73 against 41. This matchup is extremely ahistorical as six of the Spanish ships (11 Attack Factors) are actually extra warships that did not participate in the historical campaign (the six ships are presented as an optional rule for the players to try if they want).

Scoring in Dawn of Empire is through control of Sea Areas at the end of a turn. Different Sea Areas award different VP amounts. For the Spanish, the most lucrative Sea Areas are the US East Coast at 4VP and the Gulf of Mexico for 3VP (the American player gets 0VP for control of either area). If the Spanish player adopts the historical approach of Rear Admiral Cervera (who in Dawn of Empire is NOT the best Spanish leader) and allows themselves to be blockaded in port with occasional sorties to contest the seas, the Spanish will likely lose, and lose big. However, if the Spanish player can take advantage of their better-than-historical logistics to conduct raids and contest valuable Sea Areas while remaining mobile the outcome may not be so preordained. Interesting? Yes. Historical? Hardly…but to even try to make Dawn of Empire anything near balanced one must accept ahistorical conditions.

Battle Report

After all my harping on the rules and ahistorical setup you might think I hate this game. Well, as annoying as the rulebook might be (and honestly, its annoying but not that annoying) I was happy, if not a bit surprised, to find the gameplay very enjoyable. Dawn of Empire is not a complicated game, and the use of Orders challenges the players with good strategic choices in play. Im my first play (two-sided solo – thanks Coronatine) I tried to play the Americans closer to history but went asymmetric with the Spanish and focused on Raids from the Atlantic. The result was a clear Spanish victory. What Dawn of Empire lacks in historical grounding it makes up for in creating an interesting, even challenging, match-up.

Final Thoughts

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 is a fresh, very alternative view, of an under-gamed naval war depicted using a classic and proven wargame engine with a few modern tweaks. Dawn of Empire delivers an uncomplicated, rather straight-forward version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, it adds innovative rules to capture the essence of naval combat in the late 1890’s. Unfortunately, the rulebook lacks consistency that, while playable, makes learning the game more annoying than it should be.

#Coronatine #Wargame Thoughts – Why to fight in Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (@compassgamesllc, 2019)

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.

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Blue Water Navy Invasion Tracks (North to South): Norwegian, Danish, Europe North and Europe South. Hammer & Sickles for the win!

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.

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From my NORTHSTAR ’92 cruise above the SOSUS line. Nice to know if sunk I would’ve been worth an extra NATO loss point!

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.

(Alternate) History to #Wargame – Apr to June 1947 Flight Log of Hauptmann B – or – #FirstImpressions of Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

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.

Game Statistics

  • 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
  • Fighter Kills: Ventral Gunner-5, Tail Gunner-4, Flight Engineer-1
  • 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.

Impressions

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.

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Courtesy Compass Games

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.

NarrativeAmerika 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.

10912135Alternate 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.

Feature image courtesy Compass Games