#Coronapocalypse #Wargame Month-in-Review (March 15 – April 15, 2020)

HERE IN THE COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA the DECLARATION OF A STATE OF EMERGENCY DUE TO NOVEL CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) was issued on March 12, 2020. For me the real Coronapocalypse started on March 15, the day before I started my new job. The onboarding was surreal; rushed to get people out soonest, walking into a deserted office, then being told to go home and telework when I don’t even have an office account. Although the teleworking eventually worked out, I still found myself at home more than expected. Looking to fill my time, gaming has been a part of my therapy to avoid going stir-crazy.

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In the first 30 days of my Coronapocalypse, I played 19 different games a total of 38 times. Looking at the list, I think many will be surprised to see Elena of Avalor: Flight of the Jaquins (Wonder Forge, 2017) as one of the top-played games. This of course is because we were helping our friends with taking care of their kids while they were working. Fortunately, it is not a bad game – for kids – and was an unexpected discovery (especially given that we purchased our copy for less than $5).

I am very happy that I got in multiple plays of Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games, 2019). Getting time to do multiple plays allowed me to get deeper into the design and enjoyment. The same can be said about Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2017) which had the bonus of being a dedicated solitaire design that was perfect for Coronapocalypse gaming. This multi-play approach also enabled me to rediscover Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra, 2018), a game which I had under-appreciated.

Given I am stuck working at home, I tried to find ways to mix my wargaming into “professional training.” So it came to be that Next War: Korea 2nd Editions (GMT Games, 2019) landed on the table. I also ordered a copy of the game poster from C3i Ops Center for my new office but, alas, the California shutdown stopped it from being sent just after the label was created.

As disruptive as the Coronapocalypse is, here in the RockyMountainNavy home we tried to keep some semblance of order. This included our Saturday Boardgaming Night with Azul: Summer Pavilion (Next Move Games, 2019), 878 Vikings (Academy Games, 2017), Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017), and Firefly: The Game (Gale Force Nine, 2013).

This month I also explored a few more solitaire gaming titles in my collection. I continue to insist that AuZtralia (Stronghold Games, 2018) is one of the best ‘waro’ games out there. I also got Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands, 1982 (White Dog Games, 2017) to the table right around the time the historical conflict started. Late in the month, my copy of Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (Compass Games, 2020) arrived. First impressions will be forthcoming.

Coronapocalypse also gave me the chance to play more one-on-one with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. RockyMountainNavy T continued his punishing win streak by besting me, again, in two plays of Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 2019).

The game of the month was actually the last one I played. I pulled Patchwork (Mayfair Games, 2014) out to play with one of Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s students. The box was still on the table later that night and I asked Mrs. RMN if she wanted to play. She said yes. You have to understand that Mrs. RMN is a strong advocate of gaming but she rarely plays herself. So we set up an played. She beat me handily (I actually had a negative score). I hope this is a harbinger of future gaming, especially with a title like Azul: Summer Pavilion.

How has your Coronapocalypse lock-down gaming gone?


Feature image courtesy laughingsquid.com

History to #Wargame: Discovering how much went into Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, Tokyo Raid, 1942 (@gmtgames, 2017)

This being April, we are approaching another anniversary of the Doolittle Raid of April 1942:

The Doolittle Raid is the popular name given to a mission flown by members of the United States Army Air Force and Navy.

Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle flew their B-25 Mitchell bombers off of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) in the first strike against the Japanese home islands. The Doolittle Raiders attacked military and industrial targets in several Japanese cities and their surprise attack on the previously untouched home islands of Japan is considered by many historians to be a primary cause of the Japanese decisions that let to the Battle of Midway during which the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers. It was also symbolic as the United States first major strike back. (Courtesy doolittleraid.com)

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Courtesy GMT Games

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, Tokyo Raid, 1942 (GMT Games, 2017) is a solo game but with very strong narrative elements. With the Coronapocalypse shut-in I took the opportunity to explore the game more deeply. I am happy to say that the more I play, the more I come to appreciate the game and the challenges faced by the Doolittle Raiders.

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid is not your usual wargame. First off, its solo. This usually means you can expect a very systematic (formulamatic?) approach to execution of the game mechanics. The Doolittle Raid avoids this pitfall through the building of a narrative where player choice matters and game mechanics that introduce randomness (Hazards) at the right time and in the right amount.

The full campaign game of The Doolittle Raid is composed of six segments, each of which builds the narrative of the story as you, the player, makes decisions.

  1. Planning – Starting in January 1942 the player, most closely personified as Lt. Col James Doolittle, has to make decisions that will impact the execution of the mission. Who do you tell? What modifications do you make to the aircraft? How closely do you guard the crews? Each decision will factor into the success – or failure – of the mission.
  2. Naval – Once the raid sails you have to get to the launch point. What dangers lurk on the high seas? Will you make it to the launch point undiscovered? Will all the refueling go as planned? What do you do if you are discovered early?
  3. Ingress Flight – This is the part of the mission between launch and arrival in the target area. Hazards can appear randomly (although the planning that you did may mitigate some of them). What is the weather? Your flights are lost and don’t have a radio to form up with, or do they? Did your crews have a bit too much liberty and talk to the wrong folks who passed whispers to the Japanese who now are ready?
  4. Over the Target – This segment is the heart of the game. Indeed, most of the scenarios in the Scenario Book depict the events of a single Flight over their respective target area. This is the tactical portion of the game – fighting your way into and out of the target area and delivering ordnance. Again, Hazards can appear and like before your planning and preparation influence how many and your ability to handle them. That decision in January to ask for Chinese help and then building air bases to land your bombers at may have tipped off the Japanese who increase their air defense readiness. This means you face more fighters and flak. Did you take off the upper turret and tailgun to save weight? Really wish you had it now!
  5. Egress Flight – Now that you left the target area you have to get to safety. Again, did you bring enough fuel? Are Chinese bases ready for you? Are the Japanese still in pursuit? Once again, decisions made long ago influence the Hazards you encounter along the way.
  6. Debriefing – Also called the Denouement. In this segment you look back at the mission and try to divine the political and military impacts. Just how successful were YOU?

The game rules for The Doolittle Raid offer a programmed learning approach. Play the Historical Scenarios to learn the Over the Target segment, then add the Flight segment, then the Naval segment and finally play full up from the beginning with Planning.

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Full game board courtesy GMT Games

For myself, I played several of the Historical Scenarios first to get the Over the Target portion of the game down-pat. I then skipped to the full campaign and started with the Planning segment. I adopted a very conservative approach, using a high degree of Operations Security (OPSEC) and avoided briefing people until the last second, avoiding the use of the telephone, and keeping the crews tightly controlled. The impact was less Chinese preparations to receive the planes, less Navy cooperation, and less crew Morale (leading to a few training incidents).. I modified the aircraft with an eye towards reducing weight through less armor & armament (also removed the Norden Bombsight) but with more fuel.

In the Naval segment I didn’t have as much Navy support but the OPSEC got me to the launch point before discovery. The Ingress Flight faced weather which forced me to use more fuel. Over the Target was lightly opposed but actual damage delivered was minimal. For the Egress Flight I tried to get to the few Chinese airfields but weather again played havoc with my plans. Of the 12 planes launched, seven made it to the Chinese mainland, three were lost somewhere, and two were interned in Russia. For the Denoument the raid was barely considered a success given the losses against damage delivered.

In the ad copy for The Doolittle Raid, GMT Games writes:

The Doolittle Raid remains an enigmatic and contradictory episode of World War Two, defying easy interpretation even to this day. Was it a victory or a debacle? Was it a minor footnote in the annals of that war or a significant military event? Was it a desperate bid to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor, or, a harbinger signaling death and horror soon to visit Japanese cities from the sky?

Playing Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid taught me that this mission was far from simple. It is very easy, even in this game, to focus solely on the tactical events (Over the Target). Arguably, the most important part of the mission is not the time over the target, but the Mission Planning that goes into getting the raiders to that point and then getting them out. The Doolittle Raid is a complete package as it shows the impact of strategic choices and operational effects on the tactical delivery of ordnance. The Denouement segment is pure genius; you may discover that what is in one view a tactical failure over the target is in reality a strategic victory. Few games can deliver those lessons as effectively as Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid does in less than 3 hours.


Feature image U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-41196)

Entering the matrix doesn’t mean exiting from #wargames

Over on Rex Brynen’s excellent PAXSIMS website, he posted a link to BEAR RISING, a Matrix game looking at the Baltic in the post-INF Treaty era. As a wargaming professional, I appreciate that Matrix games can be used to explore policy issues and generate greater insight into the issue. Matrix games are a part of wargaming, but apparently some out there want to distance themselves from that connection. Taking a look at BEAR RISING you find this:

What are matrix games? Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed. It can take a long time, look really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to). If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game. The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers. Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed. The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.

Let’s take a few of these sentences apart:

  • “In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s ideas about what things are important before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed.” I guess you have only played wargames like Advanced Squad Leader, right? You totally have missed out on many “light” wargames like Brave Little Belgium or uncountable others? I hope you are consistent in your views and have the same disdain for heavy Eurogames out there and especially for anything designed by Phil Eklund, right?
  • “It can take a really long time, be really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer.” I challenge you to try any of the Academy Games Birth of America-series or Commands & Colors (Compass Games or GMT Games) or a Hold the Line game (Worthington Publishing). If those games are too complicated for you and difficult to teach a newcomer then you have no place talking to anybody about a Matrix game.
  • “Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to).” But you just disparaged rolling dice above….
  • “The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers.” Ah…another bias. Wargames “must” be “fiercely competitive.” Let’s not talk anything about the learning that can come from exploring the situation; it’s war and war is automatically evil! To that I say si vis pacem, para bellum.*
  • “Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed.” I would argue that some of the best wargames, like the new Tank Duel (GMT Games, 2019) or Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2018) generate a “credible” narrative during the game and don’t need a scribe to explain it to the players afterwards.
  • “The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.” Is this not the hallmark of a good game design? A good design will see all players work towards their objective, with the end result being a measure of how well they achieved those objectives. The objectives themselves do not have to the same (for example, who controls the most territory) but can be different like in Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) where the Revolutionaries try to save civilians while the Soviets try to control the city. Or maybe the designers of BEAR RISING are not familiar with a GMT Games COIN game like Colonial Twilight (see Grant from The Players Aid comments about terror) or the asymmetric Root from Leder Games?

I will repeat what I said before; Matrix games are useful to explore policy issues and generate insight. But they are one tool in the vast kit available to designers. To maximize that insight, I prefer designers and players to have open minds and to avoid/remove as much bias as possible. In the case of the BEAR RISING designers, they show me that they have deep biases that make me doubt the assumptions their game is built on.


* “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In my case I strongly advocate studying warfare to understand – and avoid – military disasters of the past.

Feature image courtesy BEAR RISING.

#WargameWednesday – Battles in the Sky

In a previous posting, I discovered that three of my six least-liked wargames are air combat-related. This got me thinking – do I actually dislike air combat games? The answer I discovered is, “No, actually there are many air combat games I do like.” Here are my personal Top 10 Air Combat Wargames.

A comment on ratings: These games are ranked subjectively by me out of my personal collection. As such, this is my Top 10 Air Combat Wargames that I own.

#1 – Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 [My Rating 8.75 / Geek Rating 5.985 / BGG Wargame Rank 140]

At first look I denigrated this game as a side-scroll video game wannabe. WAY WRONG! This unique look at operational air combat just works and clearly brings out the “why” of a dogfight rather than the usual “how.”

#2 – Wing Leader: Supremacy: 1943-1945 [My Rating 8.5 / Geek Rating 5.762 / BGG Wargame Rank 285]

Many people see this as the same as Victories but the late-war combat was different enough from the early war that, although the game system is the same, the play is way different.

#3 – Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 [My Rating 8.5 / Geek Rating 6.099 / BGG Wargame Rank 105]

Operational-level campaigns of modern air warfare. As a former US Navy Squadron Intelligence Officer this is so much like real-life mission planning that I should dislike it as too realistic but I feel just the opposite.

#4 – RAF (West End Games, 1986) [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 6.133/ BGG Wargame Rank 156]

Solitaire, card-driven Battle of Britain. First design with many others to follow that may be more clean mechanically or graphically but unmatched in my collection.

#5 – Buffalo Wings [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.677 / BGG Wargame Rank 506]

Air war over Finland. Technically part of JD Webster’s Fighting Wings series, this one has a cleaner basic game that makes it worthy to be counted as a separate game in my thinking. Detailed air combat that takes a bit of dedication to learn, but once it “clicks” for you it is an easy, fast-paced game that seems realistic yet playable.

#6 – Whistling Death [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.859 / BGG Wargame Rank 200]

Fighting Wings goes to the Pacific. The last real iteration of the Fighting Wings series of games makes it the most refined of the lot and the topic of most interest to me. Maybe too complicated for many but I find it a playable level of realism.

#7 – The Speed of Heat [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.715 / BGG Wargame Rank 505]

JD Webster’s modern air combat game. Second generation of his earlier GDW Air Superiority and Air Strike games. Again, a playable level of realism.

#8 – The Burning Blue [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.979 / BGG Wargame Rank 172]

Another Lee Brimmecombe-Wood operational campaign (see Downtown above). Playing this gives one a whole new respect for the campaign fought out over England in 1940.

#9 – Bloody April, 1917: Air War Over Arras, France [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.740 / BGG Wargame Rank 487]

Another operational-level look at an air campaign. Makes one realize that the grunt work, like artillery spotting and photo-recce, are really important to air campaigns. Dogfights have a role but often in support of the others.

#10 – Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.578 / Unranked by BGG Wargames]

A solo wargame that plays out mechanically but, when looking back at what happened, tells a really dramatic story.

Honorable Mentions (all ranked by me at 7.75 or 7.5) but still ones I like:

It should be obvious that there are many air combat games I like, but just as obvious that tactical dogfighting is not my preference. Seven of my Top 10 Air Combat Games are not dogfight games but rather raids or operational-level simulation. Maybe that is the key; dogfighting games, which can be very technical (see Birds of Prey), tend to not catch my attention as much as sweeping campaign systems. This does not necessarily mean the games are bad. Rather, it probably reflects a change in my attitude towards gaming. When I first started in this hobby back in 1979, I think I was a simulationist. It is reflected in my favorite games of that time, Panzer and Star Fleet Battles. I thought that games needed to be technical (and full of chrome) to be “realistic.” These days, I think I seek more “design elegance” (however that is defined!) and desire playability with “just enough” realism.

Featured photo was taken this summer at the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA. As a docent there says, “The Smithsonian’s might be prettier, but ours fly!”