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.

Personal Moments – Last EA-6B Prowler Flight

I hate to admit it, but I am getting old. Another reminder literally flew past me the other day. The last EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft for the US Navy and US Marine Corps was transferred to the National Air & Space Museum in Dulles, VA this week.

I went to war in Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 137 “Rooks” aboard USS America/CV-66 in 1991 during Operation DESERT STORM. It was my first assignment in the Navy. It was my first deployment. It was my first war. The squadron flew many combat missions from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Best of all, we all came home.


Feature image EA-6B from VAQ-137 Rooks in 1991.