History to #Wargame – A retrospective look at Crisis: Korea 1995 (@gmtgames, 1993)

WARGAMES ON NEAR-FUTURE OR CONTEMPORARY CONFLICTS ARE RISKY. Although very interesting, they can just as often turn out to be “right” as often as they are “wrong.” Fortunately, we got through the mid-1990’s without a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula so Crisis: Korea 1995 (GMT Games, 1993) is now an alt-history title. I recently pulled the game out for my 2019 CSR Wargames Challenge to play and think about. The game emphasizes ow three parts of then-modern warfare were viewed in that day. Taking a retrospective look at this title is a great chance to study the game model and see how it holds up against time.

The three areas Crisis: Korea 1995 emphasize are:

  • Exploitation or breakthrough by mechanized forces
  • North Korean Special Forces
  • Joint Air Warfare.

In 1993, the memory (lessons?) of DESERT STORM were undoubtably fresh in the mind of all involved in development of Crisis: Korea 1995. Battles like that of 73 Easting were already becoming legendary stories. However, as designer Gene Billingsley notes in the introduction to 7.0 COMBAT, he did not let any sort of victory fever taint his game model:

In contrast to what we witnessed during the Persian Gulf War, it is our belief that combat in Korea will inflict heavy casualties on both sides. The major reasons for this are terrain and massed firepower. With very little clear, flat terrain to speak of, and line-of-sight limited to an average of less than one mile by the numerous hills and ridges, even stand-off fights (tank engagements, TOW missile shots, etc.) will be fought at relatively short distances. Artillery firepower will be telling, as both sides deploy large numbers of guns with pre-plotted fires concentrated on likely routes of advance and reinforcement. Unit cohesion will play a telling role as huge losses take their toll on troop organization and morale.

Crisis: Korea 1995; 7.0 COMBAT
North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength; Defense Intelligence Agency; October, 1991

Further, instead of simply making Crisis: Korea 1995 a game about Air-Land Battle in Korea, it appears that the designer tried to reflect some of the then-current thinking about how North Korea would fight. In 1991, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) publicly released North Korea: The Foundations of Military Strength. Although this title is not directly referenced anywhere in Crisis: Korea 1995 I am sure the designer and researchers used it. With regards to North Korean offensive operations, DIA makes the point that:

North Korean infantry and armored elements of the first-echelon divisions of the forward conventional corps would attempt to penetrate the allied forward defense. The mechanized corps, brigades augmented with attached self-propelled artillery, and combat support elements would attempt to pass through any openings the frontline corps create. The mechanized corps quickly would penetrate deep into South Korea, bypassing and possibly isolating many allied units.

North Korea: Foundations of Military Strength; Chapter 6 – Employing the Armed Forces, Offensive Operations

In the game Crisis: Korea 1995, “exploitation” is found in the Initiative Turn Sequence of Play where the initiative player can perform exploitation movement and combat. When I first saw this part of the SoP I tried to rectify it with my understanding of the US Air-Land Battle concept. However, after rereading the DIA product, I see it as reflective of the North Korean doctrine of war. Adding exploitation movement and combat to the initiative player is an elegant way to model the NK doctrine of the day.

North Korean Exploitation Corps from North Korea: Foundations for Military Strength; DIA, 1991

The second combat area Crisis: Korea 1995 really digs into is Special Forces. The intelligence assessments of the day also emphasized the North Korean Special Forces and is reflected in the lengthy treatment it gets from DIA; eight full paragraphs or the same as Ground Forces which were the core of the North Korean Peoples Army. As DIA tells us:

North Korea classifies its special operations units as reconnaissance, light infantry, or sniper. Team-sized elements conduct reconnaissance to collect intelligence or targeting information. Light infantry operations are combat operations conducted with company- or battalion-sized units against military, political, or economic targets. Sniper operations basically are the same as light infantry except they are conducted in team-sized units.

North Korea: Foundations of Military Strength; Chapter 5 – Military Forces, Special Operations Forces

I again wonder if the designers didn’t use the DIA publication because that paragraph basically describes the game system in Standard Game 10.0 SPECIAL UNITS and Advanced Game 21.0 SPECIAL FORCES!

North Korean Special Forces from North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength; DIA, 1991

The emphasis on Special Forces in Crisis: Korea 1995 is also not surprising given the involvement of Joe Bermudez, author of the book North Korean Special Forces which was first published in 1988. Joe gets a shout-out from Mr. Billingsley in the Game Credits, and Gene tells us why in his More Design Notes:

I’ve always liked games that let you resolve Special Forces Missions. I used to love ambushing enemy Supply Convoys in Mark Herman’s GulfStrike (still one of my favorite all-time games!). But I never liked keeping track of each detachment or mission on a separate piece of paper. Thus, the Special Forces Mission markers. In Korea, the North’s Special Forces are very, very important. The North Koreans have so many eggs in that basket, that you could almost say that, regardless of whether the NKPA Special Purpose Forces succeed or fail, they will have a decisive impact on the conflict. If they succeed, the US/ROK command structure, mobilization capabilities, air power, and reinforcement capacity will be in serious trouble. If they fail, the North, in my view, doesn’t have a prayer of winning the war.

Crisis: Korea 1995; More Design Notes

A third area of then-contemporary warfare that Crisis: Korea 1995 looks deeply into is the air war. It is amazing to look at the Advanced Air Game in Crisis: Korea 1995 and compare it to the the Gulf War Air Power Summary Report from 1993. The report, assembled by the RAND Corporation, may not have been released until 1993 but it is obvious that many within the Services were already thinking about and incorporating the lessons learned from DESERT STORM. Again, the best insight into the model comes from designer Gene Billingsley in another part of his More Design Notes:

This air game took a long time to put together. I want to especially thank Matt Caffrey, J.D. Webster, and a host of F/A-18 Hornet pilots who helped me though the various part of the host of redesigns and modifications to get the game where it is now. Basically, I wanted to create a system that would allow for interaction between Detection, SAMS, Strikes, and SEAD aircraft without bogging the player down in counting hex ranges and plotting interception points. I really like Mo Morgan’s Tac Air game, as it represents the interaction really well, though at a different scale. For this scale, I couldn’t find any system that really gave that kind of feel without reverting to Mark’s GulfStrike-like approach, which would take WAY too long for this game. The Air Defense Tracks seem to do the trick, and are an aspect of the design that I personally enjoy very much. Even after they win the Air Superiority battle, the US/ROK planes have to duel with that huge air defense system. then again, if they wipe outs its detection capabilities, essentially blinding it, they can pull off something akin to Desert Storm. We’ve tested this system in theory in other parts of the world already, and it should port (if we decide to do another in this series) without much trouble. I want to keep improving it, however, so if you have suggestions on how to make it better, let’s hear them.

Crisis: Korea 1995; More Design Notes
Top Gun – North Korean Style (YouTube)

Beyond the three areas of emphasis, as a former Navy Guy I was very disappointed that Crisis: Korea 1995 abstracted the naval aspects of the war. Designer Gene Billingsley tried to explain why in his notes for 6.81 Sea Control:

In game terms, we have greatly simplified and abstracted this sea battle. At one time we had about 200 counters representing virtually everything that floats in the theatre. Unfortunately, each turn of naval combat at that scale added about three hours to each game turn, with marginal enhancement to game play. Basically, after three or four turns, the North and South Koreans were virtually wiped out, and the US was in form control of the majority of the waters around Korea….The only essential information to determine from the sea battle is “Can you move troops and supplies to and from ports and beachheads?” Thus, we’ve opted for sea control die rolls to determine control, with a built-in assumption that once the United States Navy gains control of the sea, it will not relinquish control.

Crisis: Korea 1995; 6.81 Sea Control
North Korean Navy (KCNA Photo)

As much as it pains me to admit, the “assumption” that Mr. Billingsley makes is reflected by DIA. Here are a couple of pull-quotes about the North Korean Navy from DIA:

  • “Although largely a coastal defense force, the Navy can support some offensive operations.” (p. 44)
  • “North Korea has a limited capability to provide support troops on shore. Therefore, it would have to curtail naval support to he ground forces soon after landing.” (p. 59)
  • “The Navy and Air Force could act in a strong supporting role in the initial stage of an offensive. the level of sustained operations would depend on the size and composition of US air and naval force augmentation. If confronted by strong forces, the North Korean air and naval forces would revert to largely defensive roles.” (p. 59)

In retrospect, Crisis: Korea 1995 is a game that took on a then-contemporary potential conflict and faithfully portrayed its most dynamic parts. The fact that Crisis: Korea 1995 and its other sister Crisis games became the jumping off point for GMT Games very successful Next War-family of games is a testimony to it’s solid core foundations. I am confident that, had war on the Korean Peninsula broken out in the 1990’s, then Crisis: Korea 1995 would have been more “right” than “wrong” about the conflict.

#Wargame Wednesday – 2019 CSR Wargame Challenge – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition, @gmtgames, 2016)

PLAYING SILVER BAYONET FOR MY 2019 CSR CHALLENGE is not really a challenge. I rate Silver Bayonet in the top 4% of all my games on BGG. The original 1990 version of Silver Bayonet won the CSR that year but in 2016 GMT Games reissued a revised 25th Anniversary Edition. I never played the 1990 version but really enjoy the new edition. I think it is rules like 7.0 Attack Coordination that really set this game apart.

One criticism often leveled at wargamers from outside the hobby niche is that wargames are too perfect in terms of information and the ability for a player/commander to control their units. The critics claim that rarely is it the case where a commander simply orders a unit and the unit receives the orders and executes flawlessly. In Silver Bayonet, designer’s Gene Billingsley and Mitchell Land introduce a bit of uncertainly through rule 7.0 Attack Coordination.

Rule 7.0 Attack Coordination is simple in its mechanics but very realistic in its impacts on combat. Basically, after all pre-combat actions, the Combat Resolution Phase begins by resolving Attack Coordination when attacks are coming from multiple hexes against a defender’s hex. There are a few times when coordination is automatic, but in most cases a d10 die roll will be made against an Efficiency Rating or Nominal Command Value; roll UNDER this coordination value (CV) and the attack is coordinated and all proceeds as normal. But, if the roll is not under the CV then how the combat develops depends on how much the CV was missed:

  • If the Attack Coordination roll is EQUAL to the CV, then the attack is Partially Coordinated with the biggest drawback being no Maneuver Combat Support Fire (air and artillery) allowed
  • If the Attack Coordination roll is GREATER than the CV by one (1), it is an Uncoordinated Attack which has the same penalties as the Partially Coordinated attack and more (unfavorable column shifts or die roll modifiers – DRMs – in combat)
  • The worst case is when the Attack Coordination roll is TWO OR MORE GREATER THAN the CV; in that case the Assault or Maneuver Combat is automatically changed to an Uncoordinated Frontal Assault where only one hex can be used to attack (with unfavorable DRMs) while the others stand idly by.

This simple rule helps recreate realistic combat situations. US only attacks by units in the same battalion are automatically coordinated (7.2.1) while Lt. Col. Hal Moore can automatically coordinate attacks between battalions (12.1.1). ARVN attacks with Col Truong are automatically coordinated, but without the Colonel the ARVN default to a Nominal Command Value of 5 meaning there is only a 40% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack. NVA units within command range of their HQ are probably going to do OK as most have an Efficiency Rating of 6 meaning there is a 50% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack. The worst is the PAVN with a Nominal Command Value of 3; meaning there is only a 20% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack but a 60% chance of an Uncoordinated Frontal Assault.

It’s a simple rule. It helps explain how PAVN attacks so easily devolve into that classic, World War II Banzai charge. The rule creates realistic narratives that the players would avoid if they could…but they can’t.

Every time I play Silver Bayonet I find a new reason to respect the design. There are many ways to try and reflect command limits in wargames, and often the mechanics of the rules are cumbersome or feel artificial. Rule 7.0 Attack Coordination in Silver Bayonet is an elegant, simple solution to a complex modeling challenge of command in combat that is both mechanically smooth while retaining a realistic, natural feel.

#Wargaming, it’s in the Cards – Challenging commentary on @gmtgames Washington’s War, For the People, and Paths of Glory

I AM STILL (HAPPILY) WORKING MY WAY THROUGH MY 2019 GAMING CHALLENGES. These past few weeks I was fortunate to arrive at a time in my challenge where I got to play three Card-Driven Game (CDG)* designs:

  • For the People (GMT Games, 1998) won the 1998 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  • Paths of Glory (GMT Games, 1999) won the 1999 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  • Washington’s War (GMT Games, 2010) won both the 2010 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Ancient to Napoleonic Era Wargame and the 2010 Golden Geek Award for Best 2-Player Game / Best Wargame.

In playing these three games, I gained a new appreciation for the range of complexity the Card-Driven Game mechanic can support and how each creates a insightful historical experience.

Complexity

I ended up playing these three games in order of the wars; the American Revolution in Washington’s War followed by the American Civil War in For the People and lastly World War I in Paths of Glory. Not only was playing in this order the same as the historical timeline, the sequence also reflects the increasing complexity of the games.

My copy of Washington’s War (2nd Preprint, 2015) is the “latest published” of the three games I played but is the simplest in terms of rules. Based on Mark Herman’s We the People (Avalon Hill, 1993), Washington’s War features a single deck of Strategy Cards supporting a very streamlined selection of actions. Having not played a CDG in a while this was a good reintroduction to the CDG meachanic as the game focuses on the basics with little frills. Using the BGG complexity or “weight” scale, I put Washington’s War as a Medium Light 2.0 given the simple, rather direct rules.

My copy of For the People is the GMT Games 2nd Edition from 2006. There was a Third Edition in 2015 and I am not sure what changed. Doesn’t really matter; I enjoy my version of the game. In terms of complexity, For the People is similar to Washington’s War in the use of a single Strategy Card deck. Beyond that, For the People is more complex with the designation of Divisions, Corps, and Armies. Victory is determined not so much by area control (ala Washington’s War) but through Strategic Will (more on that later). The added rules make For the People more complex than Washington’s War, but the new rules overhead is not onerous. In terms of complexity I rate For the People a Medium 3.0 on BGG but in reality it plays more like a 2.5.

Paths of Glory, originally published in 1999, is the game that has undergone the most development since its first publication. I have a 1999 first edition, far removed from the English Deluxe Edition, Sixth Printing (2018) that is now available. I have not kept up on this game although I see lots of support available on the GMT Games website. I played the game using the Rules as Written out of the box; maybe not an optimal playing but it’s what I had on hand. Paths of Glory is the most complex of the three games played, most readily demonstrated by the use of two Strategy Card decks (separate for Allied and Central Powers). The cards themselves are also more complex, going beyond the usual Event or Operations Card values and introducing a Strategic Redeployment value and Replacement Points. However, like Washington’s War and For the People, another more subtle mechanic outside of combat is the true heart of the game. In Paths of Glory (PoG) that mechanic is War Status (also more later). Of the three CDG games I played, Paths of Glory is probably the most complex. On BGG I see that over 45% of the people voting rate Paths of Glory at Medium Heavy 4.0. I think that’s overdoing it and a solid Medium 3.0 is more appropriate.**

The progressive complexity level of the games made learning (relearning?) how to play each a simple exercise. I have tried to jump straight into Paths of Glory before and struggled. This time I built a foundation before I started and it worked much better. I guess this means that one needs several games in their collection to build up to the big one, right?

Evocative History

Although nominally a wargame, each of these games goes far beyond depicting their given conflict by looking beyond the battles. Indeed, each of these games is equal parts, if not more, a political game than a combat game.

Looking at Washington’s War, the major pieces scream wargame and combat. The Generals are standee’s and there are many chits for depicting the number of Combat Unit (CU) strength points on the board. In reality, the most important chit in the game is the Political Control (PC). Victory in Washington’s War is determined by colonies controlled, and colony control depends not on your army but on the amount of PC spaces controlled. Generals with armies can “flip” a PC, but it is the use of Operations Cards to “place” PC that is actually the most powerful action in the game. This is highly evocative of the history; armies could certainly protect areas of political control and even changed it at times but it was the political actions of rabble-rousing and the like, often in the background of the fighting, that determined control of the colony. Washington’s War captures this factor of history to a tee.

In For the People, the most important rule is not 7.0 Battle, but 12.0 Strategic Will. As designer Mark Herman notes in the introduction to 12.0:

The Strategic Will model in this game should drive a player’s actions….It is the absolute and relative value of each side’s Strategic Will that determines the current state of the war.

12.0 Strategic Will, Design Note

Rule 12.0 gives the player’s of For the People (FtP) ten different ways that affect Strategic Will. Understanding all these conditions is important because if one plays FtP and just focuses on combat, they are bound to lose the game.

Of all three games, Paths of Glory (PoG) is the most wargame-like. That said, like For the People the most important game mechanic is not Combat, but War Status. As designer Ted Raicer’s Design Notes point out:

War Status in PoG has several elements. First, it represents the progression of each alliance towards a state of modern industrialized Total War….Second, through the rules for Combined War Status, it shows the various effects of such a prolonged and costly struggle on national morale, politics, and diplomacy….Finally, through the Armistice mechanism, the effect of war weariness outside of Russia is introduced.

Design Notes, War Status

Like Strategic Will in For the People, in Paths of Glory careful management of one’s War Status and not simply winning a combat is the true key element essential for victory.

a Waro Awareness

One of the new gaming terms I discovered in the last few years is “waro.” A combination of “wargame” and “Eurogame,” the term attempts to define a new sub-domain of tabletop gaming that mixes conflict simulation with Eurogame mechanics. The poster child games for this genre is the GMT COIN-series. However, after playing these games, I would argue that the Card-Driven Game mechanic, as exemplified by Washington’s War, For the People, and Paths of Glory, are among the first waro games out there. This is not a new argument to the gaming community; long have gamers argued if any of these titles are even a wargame. Regardless of how you think about the issue, for me just playing these games has grown my understanding of what a waro can be.

putting my cards on the table

In some ways I had put CDG designs on the back shelf. I usually play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys so we need three-player games. These games are solidly two-player. CDG designs also tend not to be solo-friendly given the hidden information factor of the cards. There are some attempts to work around this but I have not delved deep into them. However, my recent plays have shown me that these games deserve to be brought down off the shelf, even if played in a sub-optimal solo manner. There is still much to be learned about the history of the times represented and these are amongst the best models to do so.


*Per BGG, a CDG is a game where, “Cards or campaign text depict events, and the challenge is in making decisions and plan their usage to win.”

**I am well aware that my complexity ratings on BGG tend to track lower than the average. I beleive this is because wargames tend to be overrated in complexity by the Eurogamers who dominate BGG.

Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


Endnotes

  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

#Wargame Wednesday – Air/Naval Combat in Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames, 1990)

THE NEXT GAME ON MY 2019 CSR CHALLENGE is Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990). This game won the Charles S Roberts Award in 1990 for Best World War II Wargame. I played Operation Shoestring in the past year so it was a bit fresh in my mind. For this play I decided to focus more attention to the Air/Naval Phase.

As a long-time naval wargamer, I have always been interested in naval combat. Most of my games are at the tactical- or operational-levels of warfare. I really enjoy ship-vs-ship combat and seeing how different weapon systems and platforms work out against each other. However, Operation Shoestring takes a very different approach.

In Operation Shoestring the Air/Naval Phase is part of the Strategic Interphase which you execute only on odd-numbered game turns. Given the time scale (one turn per week for the naval interphase) this seems very abstracted and high-level. Surely, one cannot reduce naval combat to something that happens “occasionally?” However, if one looks at the rules you discover that the focus of the Air/Naval Phase in Operation Shoestring is not combat, but supply. The Air/Naval Phase is where players deliver supplies or troops to the island. Deliver too few troops and one can’t go on the offensive (or sustain a defense). Deliver too few supplies and your attacks (and defense) suffers.

That’s Design for Effect. I love it.My biases initially blinded me to the game effects. Reading through the rules I looked closely at 18.6 Surface-to-Surface Combat. The naval battles around Guadalcanal featured some of the most intense surface warfare actions of the entire war. Operations Shoestring surely was going to give due credit, right? But, instead of finding a rich, detailed naval combat system I found ruthless simplicity. The naval grognard in me revolted at seeing the deadly Japanese Long-Lance torpedo reduced to a single -1 DM. Or American radar advantage being shown as as a +1 DM. What heresy is this?

I soon discovered that the most important naval units in Operation Shoestring are actually Transports. During the Air/Naval Phase players must decide if Transports are used to transport companies (reinforcements) from off-map, supply points, or on-map transportation. Of the three, supply points are arguably the most important. The rule book explains why:

Supply played a critical role in the battle for Guadalcanal. The Americans were initially landed with barely half of their supply of munitions, rations, and medical supplies. For nearly a month, Marines who enjoyed a tactically superior situation languished in a “siege mentality” because basic supplies were low. The Japanese were also plagued with all kinds of supply problems. Their medical situation was so bad more soldiers died from disease and infection than from battle wounds. Unlike many games, this game does not require the players to trace lines of supplies. Rather, both sides must fight naval battles in attempts to keep the troops on the islands in supply. This is very important. If a player’s supply level decreases to “no supply” for more than two turns, his chances for victory are remote.

16.0 Supply

I now see the reason behind the simplified naval model. Operation Shoestring does not attempt to faithfully recreate the operational or tactical naval battles around Guadalcanal but it tries to recreate the effect of those battles. In this case, the effect is the impact of naval battles on supply and troop movement.

Air-Naval combat in Operation Shoestring is an example of where “less is better.” By keeping a focus on the effect of air-naval combat, the impact of player decisions is more connected to the game and the story it communicates. In the case of Operation Shoestring, the importance of supply comes through not with the “traditional” lines-of-supply traces, but from the effects of naval battles.

Design for Effect. Simple complexity. Elegance.

#Wargame Wednesday – Back to the future? TAC AIR (Avalon Hill, 1987)

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.

Project Warrior, Air Force Magazine, August 1982

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).

That’s too bad because TAC AIR, while not perfect, makes learning about Air-Land Battle doctrine quite fun.

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.

I also took note that one “Captain Matt Caffrey” is listed as contributing as a game developer. Today, Matt Caffrey Jr. (Colonel, USAFR, Ret.) is the author of On Wargaming from the US Naval War College published this year. Good to see the grognards of the hobby still contributing to the cause.


* FEBA – Forward Edge of the Battle Area (welcome to the world of military acronyms)

The costs of the #wargame #boardgame hobby

Looks like the hobby boardgame and wargame industry could be hit by tariffs on games and parts made in China. Dependably, hobby gamers on BoardGameGeek and Twitter are all abuzz.

“A 25% tariff is going to make games unaffordable!” Maybe. Roger Miller, President of Revolution Games points out:

Its a tariff on the production cost of games, not the list price. Production as a percentage of list price is usually between 12%-20%. So an increase in total price of 5% would cover the entire tariff.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2204314/lot-games-are-going-get-more-expensive

A 5% increase in game prices is not great, but it’s not the end of the world either.

Other BGG users are lamenting the “inevitable” decrease in quality by not printing in China:

I have had several publishers tell me that they can’t get the quality as good printing in the US as they get printing in China. I don’t know whether that’s true of all types of games or just the games those designers publish. But it’s a mistake to assume the only reason to print in China is price. It’s possible that tariffs could lead to quality dropping as more games are printed in the US.

BGG User Eric Brocius

I think Uwe Eickert of @AcademyGames might have a different opinion:

“…and today we are going to talk about quality issues we are seeing from China.”

Fortunately, I have options. The US-based print-on-demand publishing model of Hollandspiele (@Hollandspiele) is looking mighty appealing right now. Games like Brave Little Belgium (in the header image) are quite likely going to bubble to the top of the purchase queue….

All this drama is going to have to play out. To me, the bottom line is that I will likely have to pay more for games. The question is, “how much?” I believe the increase “should” be less than 25% but I am not sure many companies in the very cottage-like boardgame industry are prepared. So I expect prices to go up by at least 25% and maybe more.

Yes, this means I will have to get pickier on what I buy. But…if companies want to keep chasing my wallet they need to be diligent about controlling their costs and only passing on to me what is fair and proper. To be clear – I am perfectly willing to pay a premium price for a good game; I am not willing to pay premium dollars to a company unable to control their cost AND quality. Just because you can’t control YOUR costs doesn’t mean I automatically accept you passing that problem to ME (close to what I used to hear in the military, “Your stupidity is NOT my emergency!”).

Hey, here’s and idea! Let’s play the games we already got! Maybe tariffs will slow down the spread of the Cult of the New or be the antidote to the viral Fear of Missing Out. For myself I am behind on my 2019 challenges to play all the Charles S. Roberts and Golden Geek and Origins Award winners I have in my collection. That’s over 50 games to play this year! Or maybe I go ahead and pull the trigger on Scythe: The Rise of Fenris and start a campaign. Or I get the latest FREE Cepheus Engine: Faster than Light rules and start that RPG campaign the RockyMountainNavy Boys have been hounding me about.

If anything, I probably need to invest in those expansions or published-but-unpurchased games NOW before people slow down buying “new” games and turn their dollars towards that segment of the market and drive prices up. That’s what I’m going to tell Mrs. RockyMountainNavy to explain the bills. It’s sure to work….


Feature image Brave Little Belgium from Hollandspiele. A “towering” figure in the hobby boardgame industry tried to besmirch this game; don’t “vasel-ate”, just buy it and enjoy a great game!

My CSR #Wargame Challenge for 2019

This is the time of the year that many in the boardgame community start their “challenges” for the coming year. The classic is the 10 x 10 – pick 10 different games and play each ten times during the year. As a wargamer, I sort of like that thought but want something more applicable to my niche of the hobby.

The other night I was messing around with the Advanced Search function of BoardGameGeek and sorting my collection in different ways. For some reason I noticed certain games of mine are Charles S. Roberts Award winners. This drew my attention because wargamers know that Mr. Roberts is the father of modern wargaming:

Charles S. Roberts…invented the modern wargame industry virtually single-handedly. As a designer and original owner-operator of Avalon Hill, he was responsible for the creation of the first modern wargame, including many of the developments, such as the Combat Results Table (CRT), which were later to become commonplace. (grognard.com)

According to Wikipedia, the Charles S. Roberts Awards are:

The Charles S. Roberts Awards (or CSR Awards) was an annual award for excellence in the historical wargaming hobby. It was named in honor of Charles S. Roberts the “Father of Wargaming” who founded Avalon Hill. The award was informally called a “Charlie” and officially called a “Charles S. Roberts Award”….Created at the first Origins Game Convention in 1975….The last year the awards were given was 2012.

After sorting my game collection, I discovered I own 20 CSR Awards winners. The challenge I am giving myself is to play all 20 games at least once by the end of calendar year 2019.

CSRAward
Courtesy consimgames.com

My 2019 CSR Challenge games are:

  1. Squad Leader – 1977 Best Tactical Game
  2. Victory in the Pacific – 1977 Best Strategic Game
  3. Mayday – 1978 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  4. The Ironclads – 1979 Best Initial Release Wargame
  5. Azhanti High Lightning – 1980 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  6. Wings – 1981 Best Twentieth Century Game
  7. Car Wars – 1981 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  8. Ironbottom Sound – 1981 Best Initial Release Wargame
  9. Illuminati – 1982 Best Science-Fiction Board Game*
  10. World in Flames – 1985 Best Twentieth Century Game
  11. 7th Fleet – 1987 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  12. Tokyo Express – 1988 Best World War II Boardgame
  13. Tac Air – 1988 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  14. Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign – 1990 Best World War II Board Game
  15. For the People – 1998 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  16. Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 1990 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  17. Crisis: Korea 1995 – 1993 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  18. Paths of Glory – 1999 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  19. Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 – 2004 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  20. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear – 2008 Best World War II Boardgame

A nice perk of making my own challenge is that I get to make the rules. For instance, since I don’t always own the edition that won substituting a later edition or version that I own is acceptable. For instance, I own Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition) – that is a legal substitute.

I will keep this blog and a GeekList over on BoardGameGeek updated with my progress throughout the year.

So, what is your 2019 Wargame Challenge? 


*  Yes, I know Illuminati is NOT a wargame, but it is the only non-wargame CSR winner on my list. Besides, the RockyMountainNavy Boys may like it, so it stays!

Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek. Afrika Korps was a 1964 design by Charles S. Roberts.