#Wargame Wednesday – Harpoon Captain’s Edition (GDW, 1990) – Entertaining, Educating, and Training?

Thank to @Ardwulf for parting with this item. Ardie…you let your fear of Harpoon get the best of you here because this is NOT a complicated near-simulation like Harpoon purports to be….

In the late 1980’s I was, in many ways, a hard-core wargamer. I relished playing complex wargames. I was a Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) fanatic and when the then-new Star Fleet Battles Captain’s Edition Basic Set released in 1900 I grabbed it up. For air combat games I enjoyed the Fighting Wings series from JD Webster, in particular his modern Air Superiority title from GDW in 1987. For naval combat I was all about Harpoon. I started out with the Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II in 1983 and in 1987 jumped to the new GDW edition informally called Harpoon III but more simply known as Harpoon.

In 1989 I finished college and joined the US Navy. Between training, something called DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, and a few years stationed overseas my first few years of the 1990’s were taken up by concerns other than wargaming. So the truth to the matter is I missed Harpoon Captain’s Edition when it was first released in 1990.

By the mid-1990’s the Soviet Union had fallen and was already a fading memory. I vaguely remember browsing through a game store (Compleat Strategist in Virginia?) and looking at Harpoon Captain’s Edition: Exciting Modern Naval Battle Game. To be honest, a wargame about the Cold War Gone Hot in the North Atlantic at that time seemed so quaint. Furthermore, the game didn’t even look like Harpoon. I mean, the box art looked like the Harpoon series but when the cover also says “Easy to Learn – Fun to Play” and “Start Playing in 30 Minutes,” well, that was just NOT the real Harpoon I wanted to play!

Battle Stations!

Welcome to the arena of modern naval combat! In this game you will become a naval commander, in charge of guided-missile ships, nuclear submarines, and jet aircraft. While warfare between naval vessels and aircraft can be a complicated and technical business, the critical tactical decisions are made by captains and admirals who do not generally study a radar or sonar display themselves. They receive the distilled results of all the technical, data-gathering assets at their disposal and make decisions accordingly.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition provides a clear and concise description of modern naval warfare. The game places you int he same position as a ship’s captain or the admiral commanding a task force. Many details have been kept out of the game to allow the players to concentrate on command decisions, but the overall capabilities of various sensors and weapon systems are still presented accurately.

START HERE

To make it easy to learn the rules, they are broken up into separate sections. Each section begins with a description of one aspect of modern naval warfare. Section one covers surface naval vessels; section two covers detection of enemy vessels; section three deals with submarines; an sections four and five add aircraft to the game. In each section, specific rules are presented that translate that aspect of warfare into game terms. After several rules have been presented, you will be directed to play a scenario which uses and illustrates those rules.

The scenarios themselves are all contained in the Captain’s Briefing. Each scenario lists all the information necessary for play, such as forces available to each side and starting positions. The Captain’s Briefing also includes discussions of various modern weapon systems and a number of advanced rules.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Rule Book p. 1

The above is pulled from the beginning of the rule book and pretty much tell you everything about the game. Harpoon Captain’s Edition is a relatively low complexity wargame that’s supposed to be simple to learn and fun to play. It’s also supposed to teach, as designer Larry Bond tells us:

The Captain’s Edition of Harpoon is supposed to be fast, simple, fun to play, and it is all of those things. But it also includes all the fundamental principles of modern naval warfare, so as you play, you can learn a great deal about how ships, subs and aircraft fight today.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Designer’s Notes

So how well does Harpoon Captain’s Edition actually live up to what Mr. Bond claims?

A Training Aid for Education?

Harpoon Captain’s Edition packs alot into what is actually a relatively small package. The 17″x22″ map covers the G-I-UK Gap and nearby seas using 1″ hexes. There are 300 counters though most are markers and will not regularly be used on the map. The rules and briefing books are each 16 pages. All the ships and aircraft appear on 54 cards. Each player is also given a card for keeping track of bases and a combat reference chart to keep behind a screen so the other player cannot see your allocations. There is a roster pad to keep track of hits and ammo expenditure. There are also ten little plastic aircraft that don’t look like any kind of maritime patrol aircraft active in the US or Soviet inventory (but they were probably cheap to put in the box). In many ways this wargame looks like a training aid packaged for a ship’s wardroom.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition – Out of the Box

Basic Game

The programmed learning approach uses 15 scenarios:

  • Scenarios 1 & 2 use Surface Ships and Surface to Surface Missiles
  • Scenario 3 adds Naval Gunfire
  • Scenario 4 adds Detection
  • Scenario 5 adds Dummy Units
  • Scenarios 6/7/8 adds Submarines
  • Scenarios 9/10/11/12 adds Patrol Aircraft
  • Scenarios 13/14/15 adds Tactical Aircraft

The first few scenarios play very fast…20 minutes or less in some cases. The later, more complex scenarios going on for as long as 21 turns (7 days), can take up to 2 hours to play. I actually played through all 15 scenarios (plus one Advanced Scenario) in a dual-hatted solo mode in about six hours of actual play time.

Each turn is very simple in execution. Players begin by assigning their ships or submarines to Task Forces. Each Task Force moves when their movement chit is drawn during the turn. At that point, the player decides on a speed and radar status. While moving, Task Forces can be attacked (if detected).

In surface to surface missile (SSM) combat, defenders use long range SAMs, short range SAMS, and point defense weapons to defend in layers. The game mechanics emphasize the need to “rollback” defenses; indeed, the whole idea of “Rollback” is given a major sidebar discussion on page 7.

Submarines are treated much like surface ships except of course you use Sonar to detect them and ASW to attack. Submarines can attack using SSM or torpedoes.

Patrol aircraft remain on the map continuously but move when their chit is pulled. They are most useful for detection though they also have an attack capability.

Tactical aircraft are weapons that are fired when needed; they do not have a movement chit. Tactical aircraft do have a radius (or range) from their base. When attacked, aircraft may be aborted or even shot down by defenses. Unlike ships or submarines, aircraft have no ammo limits. Fighters can also be assigned different missions like Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which acts as a “fourth layer” of defense. However, if not enough fighters are available they might only be able to act as Deck Launched Interceptors which still attack but at the same time as the long range SAMs.

Combat factors represent the number of d6 rolled. The simple Game Reference Chart tells you the results.

Fast, Simple, Fun

Here is how my first combat in Scenario 3 played out. A US Task Force consisting of a single Arleigh Burke destroyer and two O.H. Perry frigates each screening a single merchant ship had to travel from Scotland to Keflavik, Iceland. Opposing their transit is a Soviet Task Force consisting of a single Sovremennyy destroyer and two Krivak-class frigates. The US Task Force moves under EMCON (EMissions CONtrol – radars off). To avoid being struck at range the Soviets also move in EMCON. The result is both task forces meet in the same hex (60 miles across) just off the Faroe Islands.

The Soviets move first and enter the same hex as the American Task Force. The visual search needs a 1-2 to detect the Americans…and they do. The Soviets initiate the attack with 8 factors of SSM from the Sovremennyy allocating 4 SSM to each merchant.

  • Long Range SAM Fire: The US Arleigh Burke defends the entire Task Force with 10 factors of Long Range SAM. That’s 10d6 with 1-3 a miss, 4-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The roll is below average with only 4 hits…4 SSM (2 against each merchant) continue inbound.
  • Short Range SAM Fire: Each OH Perry has a single SSM they can use to defend themselves or the ship they are screening. The first Perry misses, the second downs a single inbound SSM.
  • Point Defense: Although all the US warships have point defense weapons, they can only be used to defend their own ship and not another.
  • Merchant Attack 1: Two Soviet SSM attack; each rolls 1d6 with 1-2 Miss, 3-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The rolls are 3 and 6 – three hits which sinks the merchant.
  • Merchant Attack 2: A single SSM attacks. A roll of 6 (!) is a double hit which cripples the merchant; at 2/3 damage the merchant is reduced to a speed of 1 (sitting duck).

Advanced…Not Really

The Advanced Rules in Harpoon Captain’s Edition are actually very few. Each adds a bit of chrome but with minimal rules overhead. The real gem of the Harpoon Captain’s Edition design is the Advanced Scenarios. In an advance scenario, players randomly draw a Mission Chit that assigns them one of nine missions. Each Mission provides some background, the objective for the player, and a “mission budget” to buy forces. Each “asset point” can buy one flight of four aircraft or purchase ships based on their hull value (usually 1-2 points). Some ships are High-Cost (like the Kirov or Arleigh Burke classes which costs double. Here was the first random match up I played:

  • NATO Mission 6 – “Major surface forces will be entering the North Sea soon to conduct operations against Severomorsk. Your mission is to prepare the way by engaging and destroying enemy naval and aviation assets. Objective: Destroy at least six asset points worth of enemy forces, and destroy at least two more enemy asset points that you lose yourself. In addition, prevent the Soviets from achieving their objective. Force: 25 points.”
  • Soviet Mission 8 – “The war is going against the Soviet Union, and morale is sagging. An important and visible victory is required to boost the morale of troops in all theaters. Objective: Destroy the runway at Leuchars airfield or sink either the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz or [battleship] Iowa. Force: 30 points.”

An Entertaining, Educating, Training War Engine

Harpoon Captain’s Edition is definitely FAST to play. Some of the programmed scenarios are actually too fast. The real “test” of the design is the advanced scenarios that pit mission vs. mission. If the players both draw “large” missions the game will likely go the full two-hour advertised length. More realistically, the potential asymmetric match-up can lead to an “early” win. That’s not a negative for the game can be easily reset for another match!

While I initially shied away from Harpoon Captain’s Edition because I though the rules were too SIMPLE, what I discovered is actually a wargame of modern naval warfare in a design distilled into its essence. For designer’s who built their reputation on the accuracy of datasets and “realism” in how they interact, this distilled version of Harpoon is actually quite refreshing. Playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition also drove me back to rereading Dance of the Vampires (GDW) which details the scenarios designer Larry Bond and author Tom Clancy used in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel in 1985. I can’t help but feel some of the simplifications Bond talks about in Dance of the Vampires made their way into Harpoon Captain’s Edition.

Dance of the Vampires courtesy ATG

Quite simply put, Harpoon Captain’s Edition is FUN to play. The game also teaches without preaching. Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about modern naval warfare tactics, I found myself applying them almost without thinking because it was the “natural” choice to make in the game. Sure, I need to sink the merchants, but first I’ll rollback some defenders before saturating the defenses with a massive SSM strike. That is, after I use my Patrol Aircraft to detect which task force is real and which is a dummy. All while avoiding the dreaded Tomcat fighters and delivering a massive Backfire bomber raid.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition is “fast, simple, fun to play” just like Mr. Bond said. That’s because it is a well-designed War Engine of modern naval warfare. The programmed training teaches you the engine in easy to bite bits. After you learn, the real challenge comes from taking on different missions, never being sure what your opponent’s mission is. That’s 81 possible mission sets but a near-infinite set of possible scenarios since each side gets to buy their forces. Even though some asymmetric match-ups are possible, the emphasis on tactics over the reputation of a weapon system leads to a balanced game. In the 16 games I played (split-personality solo) the net result was 8 American wins and 8 Soviet wins.

The combination of entertaining play and education actually places Harpoon Captain’s Edition in an interesting space of the wargame hobby. As Colonels Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks and fellow author Fred Cameron tell us in The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020), wargames come in four basic types; Entertainment, Educational, Training, and Analytic. Harpoon Captain’s Edition appears to be derived from a Training game for the US Navy designed to Educate about the fundamentals of modern naval warfare that GDW was able to send to the commercial wargame market for Entertainment. The fact that it can be used to Train or Entertain while still Educating is an impressive bit of wargame design.

Given my recent readings on the modern Chinese Navy, I have to wonder if there is potential for an updated, 21st century version Harpoon Captain’s Edition but using the PLA Navy instead of the Soviets. After all, the fundamentals of naval warfare are constant, even if technology is challenging how some of them are applied.

It took me 30 years to get my copy of Harpoon Captain’s Edition. I’m very happy because I discovered that it is far from the quaint design I expected.

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)

#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives

The Regiment over at the Armchair Dragoons in their Mentioned in Dispatches podcast recently discussed, “Is Wargaming Dead? Or only mostly dead?” (Season 5, Episode 9). It’s a good discussion so I recommend you take the time to listen. At the end Brant asked for community discussion and feedback. As I wasn’t a guest I’m going to use this chance to give you another of my two-cents.

Wargames as Narratives

One part of the podcast I really enjoyed was the discussion of why different games are appealing. One guest offered that some games are more appealing because they are supported by a good story, or narrative. Players often enjoy these games as they build their own narrative story through play.

I started thinking about the connection between narrative and wargames and find it interesting. Listening again to the podcast, I think the guest are discussing how some games are more popular because they build a narrative that the players can immerse themselves in. The example used in the podcast is Battletech. In a game of Battletech, players command giant mechs marching across a future battlefield. In many ways, it is a very personal skirmish game of individual combatants. Battletech is also supported by a very rich canon of background that not only adds color to battles, but often times also helps explain why a confrontation may be occurring. The background often is used to justify certain victory conditions or rules. Players that read and ‘buy into’ the narrative of the Battletech universe are most likely to derive greater enjoyment when playing.

Not all wargames have this same rich background. Indeed, in the realm of historical conflict simulations, the background is often real history. How can wargame narratives help gamers to enjoy a game more?

Very broadly speaking, I think wargames get shortchanged in terms of narrative. Wargames have always told a story. The problem is not that the story is not there, the problem is connecting the story to the player.

Sometimes that story is historical; more often it is alternate history. But before I discuss alternate history, I want to explore how a good wargame narrative can educate, entertain, or inform.

To explore this topic I’m going to first consider two types of wargaming narratives, the Session Report or After Action Report (AAR) and the Story. I’ll then look at the (supposedly) new world of Fictional Intelligence (FICINT) before coming back to alternate history.

Session Reports and AARs – Dramatic?

I have a love/hate relationship with session and after action reports (AAR). All too often I find people use them to clinically report what happens in the war game; i.e. they focus on how the game mechanics play out. This method acts to educate the reader as to how the game operates or how enjoyable it is. To me, that format of a session report or AAR is not a true narrative. I want the game to tell me a story. Finding good examples of such wargame narratives is challenging, but few exist. Here is the one of the best wargame narratives I have ever come across:

Striker in Action: a Firefight

It’s the sort of ticket that you hate: a jerkwater tech 8 world where there hasn’t been a serious fight for forty years, a banana republic without enough money for a standing army, and now a real shooting war. And you’re in the middle of it, as a mercenary cadre for the militia that’s supposed to track down and drive out the other side’s mercenary strikers. It’s the sort of ticket that could get you killed.

You hired on because you were short of cash, needed a job, and know your business. So now you find yourself the commander of a platoon of militia in a sweep through woods tracking down a report of an enemy border incursion. Another platoon is off on your left, but too far away in the dense foliage to be much help in a firefight. In the event of serious trouble, your company’s reserve platoon will back you up; then again, in the event of serious trouble you doubt that your platoon will survive long.

There are forty-one men in your platoon, including yourself and your platoon sergeant. None of them, other than yourself, has ever heard a shot fired in anger, but two of the three squad leaders and your platoon sergeant have been in a long time and seem to know their jobs well. You deploy the platoon in a skirmish line to sweep through the woods on a two squad frontage. You keep them fairly close together, so that verbal orders can be passed down the line and men won’t straggle off. You put the two squad leaders at either end of the line and you walk a couple of meters behind the center. You leave your platoon sergeant with your least reliable squad as a small reserve force about fifty meters behind the line.

Suddenly there’s automatic weapons fire off on the right, the area covered by your first squad. You call the squad leader on your helmet radio to find out what he’s run into.

“Tiger One, this is Tiger Leader. What’s your status, over?” (Tigers: a good example of wishful thinking, you think to yourself.)

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger One. We’re catching some small caliber autofire from up ahead in the trees. I’ve got some men down here and a couple took off, but I think we’re keeping their heads down, over.”

“OK, Tiger One, hold on. I’m on my way. Tiger Leader to all Tigers. Code X-ray. Acknowledge, over.” You give a codeword you worked out with the squad leaders before moving out, meaning stop the advance and hold in place.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Two. Wilco, over.” That’s second squad on the left flank.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Four. Wilco, over.” That’s your platoon sergeant with the third squad in reserve.

Once the acknowledgements come in and you’re sure there’s been no screw-up, you begin making your way through the undergrowth toward the sound of gunfire. On the way, you make a brief situation report to the company commander on the company radio net.

“Ringleader, this is Tiger Leader. I have a couple hostiles on my right and I’m taking automatic weapons fire. Some casualties already. I’m going to sort things out over there now, over.”

“Roger, Tiger Leader. Do you need help, over?” Help? Probably, but what can Company do right now?

“Negative, Ringleader, but stay on the line. Out.” If you could see anything you could call for fire support from the company mortars that are set up about half a klick to the rear, but by the time you radioed them the fire coordinates, they put rounds near the target, and you adjusted the fire to where you wanted it, you could be commanding an ex-platoon. Or you could have the second squad pivot to the right in line and try to hit the ambush party in flank, but it would take time to explain to these militia men what you wanted them to do, what axis to move out on, what to do once they got where you wanted them, what to expect, probably when to breathe. That takes time, and all of a sudden time is what you don’t have.

Three men from first squad break through the undergrowth, heading for the rear. You yell at them to stop, but they vanish into the undergrowth almost as soon as you see them. You could follow them, stop them, and get them turned around with a quick pep talk, but you’ll probably do more good over on the line with your first squad leader.

“Tiger Four, this is Tiger Leader. Code Olympic. I say again, code Olympic.

Acknowledge, over.” This is the code word to your platoon sergeant to bring the reserve squad up on line. By now you’re thinking ahead, and the reserve squad’s firepower might be handy a little closer to the action, especially if it starts to spread.

Finally you get to first squad, just as the firing dies down. There are just four men remaining out of the thirteen in the squad: the squad leader and three of his troopers. Two men are down with minor wounds and the rest have become separated during the confusion of the firefight. There’s no sign of the hostile troops, and the first squad is visibly shaken. The enemy has withdrawn into the dense woods, and you’re left with the job of putting your platoon back into some sort of order.

You take the first squad in tow and head toward the original center of the platoon’s skirmish line. On the way, you find four of the missing men; after they stopped running, they just sat down and waited for someone to come along and tell them what to do. It figures. There’s no sign of the other three who ran off; they don’t answer a radio hail. Later they will no doubt claim they never heard you.

When you link up with your platoon sergeant and third squad, you give your NCOs a quick briefing on the new platoon formation. First squad goes into reserve with the platoon sergeant, third squad takes the right, second squad stays where it is. When everyone’s on line, you move out.

———————————-

The above action took place in a Striker game, and serves to illuminate the essential nature of the Striker system and how it differs from previous miniatures rules. When attempting to understand these differences, it will help to keep in mind that Striker, as a part of Traveller, has been designed to be, to some extent, a roleplaying game. Miniatures players may initially have difficulties coming to grips with the basic assumptions of Striker, perhaps more so than a role-playing gamer would.

The essential difference is that Striker addresses the problems of battlefield command and control more directly and emphatically than any other rules yet published; actions which would be commonplace in many other miniatures games simply cannot be done in Striker due to the constraints of the command and initiative rules.

Consider, for example, the short action described above. A platoon is moving through dense woods, two squads in line and one in reserve. The righthand squad blunders into an ambush, takes casualties, returns fire, and about two-thirds of the survivors (inexperienced militia) run away. So far, most miniatures rules will produce similar results. It is in the player’s reaction to this that Striker departs from the rest. With most rules systems, the player would begin to move the rest of his platoon in order to bring fire to bear on the ambushers. Assuming that they could reach the area in two turns, they would begin firing at the enemy in the third turn. A brief firefight would ensue, ending with the withdrawal of the ambushers. On about the fifth turn, the platoon would again be moving out, gradually taking up a new formation to compensate for the losses it had sustained. The emphasis is on the actions of the platoon.

In Striker, by contrast, the emphasis is on the actions of the platoon commander. The intent of the rules is to put the player in the role of a small unit commander and force him to think about what he would be doing with his time if he were actually present on the battlefield. Here is the action again from the platoon commander’s viewpoint, described in game terms and broken into 30-second Striker turns :

On turn 1, the enemy fired upon first squad. On turn 2, as first squad halted to return fire (an action within the abilities of the squad leader), the platoon commander gave a brief order to the remainder of the platoon to stop the advance; the chatter back and forth, with acknowledgements, took all his time in that turn. On turn 3 the officer began making his way toward the site of the firefight, receiving a situation report from first squad’s leader on the way. On turn 4, he was encountered by routing militiamen, and was forced to decide whether to rally them, bring up his reserves, call for support from the company mortars, or keep moving; he decided to move the reserves into the line, again a simple, previously agreed upon code. On turn 5 he reached the right flank squad, in time to find the ambushers gone. On turn 6 he personally led the remnants of first squad back toward the center of the line. On turn 7 he encountered the stragglers and, still moving, attached them to his retinue. He arrived back in his original position, followed by first squad, on turn 9, finding both his platoon sergeant and the second squad leader there. He held a short orders briefing to explain the new order of advance to the three NCOs, an unforeseen situation for which no ready-made code word existed, explaining to each of them their positions in the new line, their new objective, speed of the advance, and a place to rally in case of disaster. The briefing took four minutes in all, or 8 turns. Then, on turn 18, the squads moved to their new positions and on turn 19 the advance resumed. Total elapsed time, a little under ten minutes, or 19 turns instead of 5.

Striker, Book 1, Basic Rules, GDW, 1981

Wargame: The Story

Wargame narratives can also be used to entertain. This is not easy and takes more than a bit of effort. A prime example of wargame-turned-narrative is “The Dance of the Vampires.” The popular version of this story is found as chapter 20 of Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising. The chapter is the high point of the first act in the book and features a regimental-size Soviet Backfire bomber raid against a US-French carrier battle group.

There is a second version of the story – a very wargame one. Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario was written by Larry Bond and tells the story of the wargame behind Clancy’s chapter. As Mr. Bond explains:

Tom and I decided that the best way to explore the possibilities was by using Harpoon to game out an attack. This is not how “Dance of the Vampires” was written. We already knew how the chapter had to end. What we were seeking was a better understanding of what factors drove each side’s thinking. When all those untried systems were pitted against each other, how would they interact?

Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario (2nd Ed), p. 2

When one reads the scenario book Dance of the Vampires, it is easy to see how Clancy and Bond got to the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” in Red Storm Rising. When both are considered, it’s readily apparent how a good wargame narrative can contribute to the making of a good entertaining story.

While “Dance of the Vampires” is a great story based on a wargame, it is far from the only one. One of the most successful examples may be the Battletech series of novels. However, I have long preferred the narratives found in Captain’s Log, the house magazine of Amarillo Design Bureau supporting their Star Fleet Universe. What I consider one of the best examples of a story based on a wargame was found in the predecessor to Captain’s Log, the old Nexus magazine. The first “story” written in Nexus, “Behind the Glory of Heroes,” was published in 1983 and reprinted in Captain’s Log #13 in 1993. Here is the story of Petty Officer Kelly Wright, working E-Scan aboard a Federation Base Station that is attacked by Romulan warships.

It was a long time before the approaching warships uncloaked and became visible. Immediately three pairs of warp engines were captured by her E-Scan; one pair quite large and the other two only slightly smaller. Very quickly a fourth pair, much smaller pair, was picked up. Her computer estimated the three larger emissions were cruiser class engines and the fourth pair, the smallest ones, were destroyer-type engines. Very quickly the computer, in communication with the scanning network of the station, confirmed the approach of a KR Cruiser, two War Eagles, and a Klingon-type frigate, probably the KR5 that had been seen in this sector some weeks ago. She fed her information to gunnery.

Her professional detachment was shaken a bit when she picked up torpedoes heating in their tubes. But soon the starships would get here and drive them off. All they had to do was hang on a few minutes. It would be a tough fight, no doubt, but she was confident. When the base’s phaser warning light came blinked on her console, she shut her equipment off. The emissions of the phasers would blind her, and E-Scan wasn’t needed any more. Sensors One and Two would govern the weapons fire.

She sat back and felt the floor hum with the shots. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the warning light, poised to turn her equipment back on the moment the light went off.

She never actually felt the blow. She simply found herself on the floor stupidly thinking she should have strapped herself in as they do on the ships. The air was acrid with burning plastic and a putrid-sweet smell she didn’t recognize. She vaguely heard screams in the distance and a muffled bleating of something, but her ears felt as if something was pressuring them. Her eyes began to sting and water.

“Behind the Glory of Heroes,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 4

Like all the stories in Captain’s Log, the narrative is playable in one of the Star Fleet Universe games. Indeed, the editors of Captain’s Log would only publish stories that “followed” the rules of the universe (i.e. replicable without breaking game mechanics).

Another feature of Captain’s Log that I really enjoyed was the narrative found in “The Academy.”

One of the most popular features of Captain’s Log is the Academy, a fictitious future classroom where cadets from Star Fleet Academy (with names suspiciously like those of the SFB staff and playtesters) sharpen their tactical skills in classroom debates and simulator exercises.

“The Academy,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 39

I hold Captain’s Log as a prime example of how the experiences of a wargame can be told through creative fiction. It’s sad that we don’t see more of this, but that may be because telling a story in hard. Sometimes, it takes professionals.

FICINT

While wargame narratives can educate and entertain, it also can be used to inform. Here is where the professional wargamer side of me steps forward. In many ways, I consider a some wargame narratives to actually be what some have taken to calling FICINT – Fictional Intelligence.

‘FICINT’ (Fictional Intelligence), also known as ‘useful fiction’, is an analytic tool that melds narrative and nonfiction. Its attributes are particularly attuned to aiding in visualizing new technology and trends – key issues at play in geopolitical change emergent great power competition. But it is not mere storytelling. There are rules to using this tool successfully, however.

Abstract, “Thinking the Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer, 2020

This quote comes from a recent journal article written by August Cole and Peter W. Singer, authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (HMH, 2015). In a recent journal article for Queens University in Canada, Cole, an author by profession, and Singer, part of a think tank, explain how in Ghost Fleet they wanted to, “bring to the surface…the issues of a world to come, in which there was not just a resurgence of great power rivalry and a risk of war, but also a future in which traditional US military advantages through new technologies such as space-based communications or fifth generation jest might give way to new vulnerabilities, such as supply chain security and weaponized satellites….Doubling down, we went the route of a new kind of novel with research endnotes.”

Unfortunately, Cole & Singer tend to denigrate the usefulness of wargames in ‘useful fiction’. They don’t like wargames because, as they put write, it violates their “rule of the real” which are:

  • “…it must be set in the real world.”
  • “…also reflect the real world.”
  • “…should reflect who realistically might be there and how real people would act under those circumstances.”
  • “…what Clausewitz called ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ should also be ever-present.”

Cole and Singer go on to discuss one further point:

The rule of the real also means there is no ‘vaporware’ in FICINT. Unlike in science fiction or frankly in many military wargames and program plans, any technology or system in the story must already exist or be in development.

“Thinking The Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer

Here I disagree. The narrative from a wargame can follow Cole & Singer’s “Rule of the Real”…if the right wargame is played. The best wargames for FICINT are obviously ones that project into the near future. A recent example of how the narrative of a wargame can be ‘useful fiction’ is found at the US Army’s Mad Scientist Laboratory in an article titled, “281. Would You Like to Play a Game? Wargaming as a Learning Experience and Key Assumptions Check.”

I recently came across an article in War on the Rocks by Dr. James Lacey, entitled How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”1 The piece was written a year ago, and details his work at the Marine Corps War College where he had his students simulate a broad global conflict involving the United States dealing with simultaneous outbreaks of conflict in Europe, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait. To run the event, Dr. Lacey used the commercially available Next War series of games published by GMT Games, which simulate a near-future conflict in these areas. The game system is complex, but in Dr. Lacey’s words, offers a reasonable approximation of near future conflict at the operational level of war. Dr. Lacey’s article, and an earlier piece he wrote on wargaming,2 offer a compelling argument for the utility of gaming as a classroom learning tool, allowing students to analyze critical problems and test their solutions, and most importantly, discuss what they learned with a rigorous after-action report (AAR) discussion.

“How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”

Along the way, and to help the process, he wrote…a narrative which starts as this:

The war began in the fall, with a Russian invasion of all three Baltic States and Poland. Belarus sided with Russia, and contributed to the attack. The Russians had some very early success in the Baltic States, but were a bit bloodied in the process. It took Russia about five days to occupy the Baltic States before it was able to turn its full attention on Poland. NATO was relatively well-prepared for the conflict, and had significant air power ready and available on D-day. Most importantly, thanks to solid indications and warning, the United States Army had a strong presence in Poland prior to the conflict. In addition to the standard Europe-based forces of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and a Europe-based US rotational HBCT — in this case, the 2nd BCT of the 3rd Infantry Division — the entire 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st BCT of the 101st Air Assault Division were on hand in the crisis period.

Here is an example where a wargamer took the experience of play, carefully recorded it, and then studied it. The game created a version of ‘useful fiction’ that can be used to educate, entertain, and inform. It is very ‘useful fiction’.

The Alternate History Wargame Story

Historical wargames can create another narrative, an alternate history story. Indeed, one could argue that historical conflict simulations are a form of alternate history where the historical outcome in a game is just one of an infinite number of possibilities.

Too often that becomes the problem; players will protest a game that doesn’t deliver the historical outcome. This is unfortunate because a good designer will give us a wargame where the historical outcome is possible but not guaranteed. That doesn’t mean the historical outcome need be the ‘norm’ for the very outcome that history tells us to expect may have been the outlier event. If I play a wargame and the historical outcome is preordained, I have no interest in exploring further. But if it instead gives me the tools to explore….

Take for instance Cataclysm: A Second World War (Scott Muldoon, GMT Games, 2018). The game is explicitly NOT a recreation of the Second World War. Rather, the game puts the players in the midst of the conditions leading up to the war and lets them figure it out.

At the end of the day, I personally find reading alternate history narratives boring. They are often boring for the same reasons I find the entire alternate history genre tiring; the stories often revolve around an issue that was not central to the change depicted. More importantly, I don’t particularly enjoy alternate history wargame narratives because I want to play a wargame and actively create the narrative, not sit and read it passively.

Wargames Are Narratives

Wargames can create many narratives. Be it to educate, entertain, inform, or just look at how history may have taken a different course, wargames can be used to tell a story. The trick is to tell a good story for those are few and far between.

I’ll personally admit that I write poor AARs. A few times I have tried to tell the AAR with a story. To be honest, I find them fun to write. Here is one of my more recent ones, the “Saga of Lt T in Undaunted: North Africa.” That said, they are far from polished. All too often they lack a focus of purpose. Maybe now after this discussion I will do better?

#ThreatTuesday – The 80’s Are Calling and They Want Their Super Etendards Back!

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Courtesy BGG.com

I have written elsewhere that I am a child of the Cold War and had my wargame coming-of-age in the 1980’s. One of the games I got during that time was Harpoon II. H2 is a miniatures game of modern tactical naval combat. The game system would eventually inform an author by the name of Tom Clancy who famously used the game to play out a key battle of his book Red Storm Rising. That game series is explained in Dance of the Vampires available at Wargame Vault. But Red Storm Rising was still five years away. I was interested in Harpoon because of another war, one that had just happened – The Falklands War.

 

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Courtesy dailymail.co.uk

One of the most dramatic events of that war was the attack on HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982. Using an Exocet anti-ship missile launched from a Super Étendard fighter, the Argentinians sank the Type 42 destroyer. Many times I replayed this scenario as well as the larger naval confrontation. To this day the Falklands War remains my favorite modern naval battles scenario generator.

 

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Courtesy BGG.com

So it was with much interest that I read Argentina intends to buy six Super Étendard fighters. Sorta proves that everything that is old is new again. It also makes we want to bring out Harpoon 4 and see how the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Daring-class destroyer would fare against this new-old threat.

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Courtesy dailymail.co.uk