#Wargame Wednesday – Air War: Ukraine from a wargame perspective

Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.

No (Air) Show?

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:

  • The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
  • The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
  • VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.

Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:

While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?

“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”

Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.

First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.

Dogfights

Looking at my personal collection of Cold War/modern or near-future wargames, I have a wide variety of titles like J.D Webster’s modern Air Power combat games (Air Superiority/Air Strike, GDW 1986/1987 and Speed of Heat, Clash of Arms Games, 1992) or Gary “Mo” Morgan’s Flight Leader (Avalon Hill, 1986) and even the incredibly detailed Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008). What all of these air combat wargames have in common is a very granular scale with a focus on individual aircraft. Indeed, these air combat wargames are focused just like VKS operations in Syria since 2015—great for dogfighting individual or small numbers of aircraft but less applicable to integrated complex air operations.

Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based on Harpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.

Raids

One series of wargames that certainly allows players to “plan, brief, and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundred of assets in a high-threat air environment” is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s “Raid” series of wargames that started with Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) and was followed by Elusive Victory (Terry Simo, GMT Games, 2009) and Red Storm (Douglas Bush, GMT Games, 2019). These games are excellent for planning and coordinating “modern” large strike packages (i.e. “air raids”) in high-air defense threat environments. The “scale” in these wargames is minutes and flights of aircraft. If they have a drawback in this discussion, it is they are almost strictly focused on the air combat domain and only indirectly show the impact of air operations on ground forces.

For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.

Squadrons & Tracks

The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.

Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.

[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]

Missions, Point Salads, & Assets

More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”

An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”

Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.

Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.

Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…

(Another) Russian Way of War?

In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017). Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:

From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?

Mirror Image – Not?

Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.

Justin Bronk, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force,” RUSI.org, 28 Feb 2022

Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.

That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:

Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis]. Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:

Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

Player Choice – Pass!

In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:

The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Not planned for…that’s hard to believe. It’s not even true if Anonymous is to be believed and the Russian military had at least 30 days to plan for an invasion.

Prior planning?

It’s as if the Russian VKS has simply chosen to “pass” on their turn…


Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Reflections on Dark Blue Defection: An unofficial expansion of NATO solo scenarios for Red Storm fm @gmtgame

If there is one constant in wargaming it’s that players just have to tinker with a game. From homebrew rules to different scenarios, whatever came in the box just never seems sufficient. Players of Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 by designer Douglas Bush from GMT Games (2019) are no different. Like many others, Howard James Rigg created new material for the game, in this case a set of NATO solo scenarios. But unlike many others Howard was given explicit permission by GMT Games LLC to publish an unofficial expansion, “as an at cost product in which no profit will be made.” Thus, we have Dark Blue Defection: Unofficial NATO Solo Scenarios.

“…explicit permission…”

The only loser in this entire situation is Howard James Rigg. Dark Blue Defection is a superior product produced to the highest quality standards that delivers deeply engaging, interesting, and most important fun set of scenarios. The fact Howard is not allowed to make a profit off this excellent work is shameful for if somebody deserves a reward for making a worthy effort one need look no further than Dark Blue Defection for some prime justification.

Kick the tires…

Dark Blue Defection is a zip-locked set of play aids. Ownership of Red Storm is required. As the Dark Blue Defection introduction states:

The main objective of this expansion is to provide a solo only experience in which each scenario can be set up and played to conclusion in one evening. The scenarios require no planning. The forces involved are pre-set to allow speed of play.

Dark Blue Defection, Introduction, p. 2

Out of the bag, the first impression of Dark Blue Defection is QUALITY. The rulebook is formatted to look like a regular GMT game. The player aid cards are all printed on glossy, heavy cardstock. I constantly had to remind myself that this is a fan-made product. Now look, I love me the Roger McGowan, RBM Studios products in C3i Magazine but Dark Blue Defection gives Roger’s excellent products a real run-for-your-money. Seriously; it’s that nicely produced.

Few rules, lotsa scenarios…

Dark Blue Defection has ten scenarios. Each is designed to be played in sequence as the difficulty ramps up with each scenario. Dark Blue Defection depends heavily on the Bot System in Red Storm, in particular rule 33.2 Full Solitaire Rules. The player in Dark Blue Defection plays as NATO and the Warsaw Pact player is controlled by the Bot System.

Red Storm Solo BOT System

Each scenario of Dark Blue Defection has three player aids: a Scenario Setup Card, a Planning Map, and one (or more) Flight Log Sheet. Like I already mentioned, all of the Dark Blue Defection player aids are printed on heavy, glossy cardstock; this will survive your gaming table spills better than the base game! Other gaming material, especially the map and counters, come from Red Storm.

Scenario 1 Player Aids

The Scenario Set Up card details your forces. The Planning Map does much of your planning for you. The Flight Log Sheet is pre-filled and makes getting started in each scenario that much faster. This is important because in these “air raid” wargames like Red Storm and predecessors Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) or Elusive Victory (GMT Games, 2009) planning the raid is important—but also time consuming. The Designers Notes in Dark Blue Defection comment:

One thing that struck me about the game [Red Storm] system was the amount of time it takes to get to the table. The planning aspect adds a lot of depth to the game but also a significant amount of time to each scenario before even setting a counter on the table. This set my mind in motion. I would love some Red Storm solo scenarios that I could pick out [of] the box, pre-planned with flight logs populated, a planning map and a scenario setup sheet that I could quickly place my counters onto prior to setting up and then get a whole game in one evening.

Designer Notes, p. 22

…and light the fires!

Scenarios in Dark Blue Defection start simple. Mission 1: Red Dawn has the player defending with two flights of fighters against a Soviet strike package with close escort. As the campaign advances, air defenses and ground units are introduced as well as more advanced combat situations.

Playing a scenario of Dark Blue Defection is arguably easier than regular Red Storm. The rules for solo player found on Player Aid Card 5 (PAC5) in Red Storm are used and each scenario lays out the exceptions to the baseline. The Designer Notes comment, “How much would I need to change the current bot system to make it work? The answer was not much at all.” Dark Blue Defection is not a replacement for learning the rules to Red Storm, but the increasing difficulty levels of the scenarios make “getting back in the cockpit” of Red Storm that much easier.

The story behind Dark Blue Defection

One aspect of Dark Blue Defection that really sets this game apart and makes the whole package special is the story. Sure, Dark Blue Defection is a series of linked scenarios that form a campaign, but Howard James Rigg goes a step beyond just connecting the scenarios in terms of the combat shown, there is also a story thread throughout the campaign. At first I kinda ignored the story, but very quickly I found myself becoming invested in the characters as each scenario was played. In many ways it is the story behind Dark Blue Defection that brings out the most compelling aspects of the game; while each scenario has victory conditions one quickly finds themselves wondering not so much who won, but how the story progresses.

Order…for Battle

At the time I write this post, Dark Blue Defection is only available through Second Chance Games in the UK. For us American cousins across the pond this means we finally get a taste of what our European wargaming brethren experience in terms of currency conversion and international shipping. If you are a fan of Red Storm, or even if you are on the fence about the game and are still considering a purchase, Dark Blue Defection should be the no-brainer deal-maker for you.

I’ll also add that when you order Dark Blue Defection you also get access to a free expansion, The Four Horsemen, which includes another two scenarios. Unlike Dark Blue Defection where the scenarios are planned to be shorter, The Four Horsemen goes big:

For these scenarios I wanted to do the opposite of my previous scenario designs in Dark Blue Defection and create large scale solo scenarios for players already familiar with the system using the tweaks to the bot system I implemented in the last scenario pack and still have each scenario entirely pre-planned for the Player.

The Four Horsemen, Designers Notes, p. 11
Apocalypse…then? (Image courtesy @Ninja7x on BGG)

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.

History to #Wargame – Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (www.silvertailbooks.com, 2020)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (Silvertail Books, 2020)

Photo by RockyMountainNavy

I remember the Falklands War on TV. I was a student in middle school at the time and absolutely enamored with the weapons of the Cold War. Here was a “major power” taking on an upstart South American country. Even after nearly 40 years, it is good to see that more of the history of the Falklands War is coming out, in the most recent case in the form of the book Harrier 809 which details the life of 809 Naval Air Squadron which was formed after the war started.

There is lots of goodness in the pages of Harrier 809. My personal favorite parts include the story of how 809 Squadron stood up. It really is a good lesson in trying to put together a unit in a “come as you are” war; lessons that I hope the US Navy and Air Force don’t ever have to face (but in reality, it could very well be the reality). I also love the factoid that the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough built several 1:24 scale Airfix models of the Harrier to test new camouflage schemes. I use this to show my boys that their “little hobby” can actually make a real difference!

At the time of the Falklands War I was big into playing Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1981). As much as I wanted to, the only real air combat games I owned at the time was Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1977) which was NOT a very good game to play around with too much. It would not be until 1987 that JD Webster and GDW published Air Superiority that was much better suited at depicting air combat during the Falklands (including rules for the famous VIFF -vectored in-flight- maneuvers).

Over time more games on the Falklands War came out. I own a few like the Harpoon 3rd Edition supplement Harpoon: South Atlantic War – Conflict in the Falklands/Malvinas, 1982 ‐ GDW first edition (1991) or the later Harpoon 4 version South Atlantic War: Battle for the Falklands – Scenarios for the 1982 South Atlantic Campaign ‐ Clash of Arms second edition (2002) that included a ground combat module for the Harpoon system. Not long after the actual war I acquired the Wargamer Magazine ‘zine game Port Stanley: Battle for the Falklands (3W, 1984) that I remember being disappointed in as it focused more on the ground combat over the glamorous air and grueling sea battles I so loved. (My perspective over time has changed as I have come to better appreciate the very challenging ground campaign).

More recently I acquired Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands (White Dog Games, 2017). Being a solo game it is much different than other games that look at the war. It also focuses at something between the operational and strategic levels of war with the air battles treated in a more abstract manner.

Over the years I have occasionally seen rumors and hints that Lee Brimmicombe-Wood might make a Falklands version of his raid game Downtown (GMT Games, 2004). As often as I hear the rumors they are crushed. I’ll admit, this would be an insta-buy for me!

One game that everybody points out as a really good take on the Falklands War is Where There is Discord: War in the South Atlantic (Fifth Column Games, 2009). I don’t own it, and given the market prices for the game -between $150-200- I don’t think I’m going to be acquiring that title anytime soon.

At the end of the day I feel the Falklands War is an under appreciated topic in wargames. There certainly is fertile ground for tactical Land/Sea/Air games with the interaction of the many weapons systems. I also feel that the operational level game, from the level of the Task Force Commander has not really been explored. As more recent scholarship has revealed, there was also much more going on at the strategic level than I think is generally understood. Harrier 809 has certainly whetted my appetite for playing some Falklands War scenarios – I’m just going to have to go a bit retro in my wargame selections to do so!

Doing a little #coronapocalypse #wargame Morning Recon all by myself in Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (@gmtgames, 2019).

KDiDKYRhSZyzuc78FsjBeAIN A PAST LIFE AS A US NAVY SQUADRON INTEL OFFICER, I did more than a fair share of Mission Planning for airstrikes. That is part of the reason I love designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004). In 2019 the latest addition to the series, Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games) designed by Douglas Bush arrived after a not-to-long stint on the P500. This week, as I fight off the zombies-of-boredom of the Coronapocalype, I pulled Red Storm out and committed to a deeper learning experience.

First off, I must commend designer Douglas Bush and GMT for publishing such a high quality product. Not only do the game components look great, but the errata is quite small for such a ‘complex’ game. Part of this is surely the result of previous titles working out many of the kinks in the system design but Red Storm kicks the complexity of the simulation up a notch from the others so I expected more errata than exists. Kudos!

For my day of Red Storming, I decided to start at the beginning and use scenario RS1: Morning Recon. This is a solo introductory scenario where a flight of 2 SU-24MR have to Recon four targets. Victory is determined by the NATO player accomplishing four tasks. In the scenario as written, there is no actual combat (though the combat sequences are exercised). The scenario note is what made for my repeated plays:

Note: Player should try this scenario at least twice, once with the WP [Warsaw Pact] flight at Medium or High altitude (and faster speed) and once at Deck (lower speed, harder to detect). That will give a feel for the difference between “going high” and “going low” when trying to both get to a target and intercepting flights doing so. In addition, during the second playing of the scenario, players should let the NATO side attack the WP flight in order to further learn the combat rules.

Deciding to take the game one step further, I decided to play a fifth time, but in this case incorporating as much of Rule 33.2 Full Solitaire Rules as possible. To further mix it up, I used the Order of Battle Tables in the Appendices Book to randomly generate the forces. For NATO this meant rolling on the NATO QRA Flight / 2ATAF table for a result of “6-4” giving a flight of two Belgium F-16A. For the Warsaw Pact the roll randomly between the USSR and GDR [German Democratic Republic – East Germany] getting GDR than a “4” on the WP Special Missions / Tactical Recon table which launched a flight of two GDR MiG-21M. I decided to make this a “Combat allowed” version of RS1.

The resulting game was MUCH different than the regular Morning Recon scenarios. Not only were the fighters different but the lack of real BVR capability on the Belgium F-16A’s meant this was destined to be a knife fight. The GDR MiG-21M is armed with only an internal 23mm cannon so it really is in their best interests to avoid a fight.

I let the Bot run the GDR but gave it one input at start using a random die to chose between “going high” and “going low.” The random was “go high” so off we went. NATO was able to quickly gain a Detection on the flight but gaining a Visual Identification proved a bit more difficult as early Engagement rolls by me were whiffed. Amazingly, the simple Noise Jammer on the MiG-21M also slowed Full SAM Acquisition. However, the superior maneuverability and radar suite of the F-16A eventually prevailed and both MiG-21 were downed…although the second was just before it passed back over the inter-German border. All in all a very good fight!

844At present, an expansion for the game, Red Storm: Baltic Approaches is on the GMT Games P500 and at 485 pledges. I hope it comes “makes the cut” soon so I can get more Red Storm goodness to the table. Then again, I’m being greedy for there are 29 other scenarios in the base Red Storm and two campaigns (not to mention four Solo Scenario) to help me get through my coronapocalypse isolation before then.

So what?


Feature image: Three aircraft from the U.S. Air Force in Europe in flight on 6 April 1987 near Ramstein Air Base, Germany. These aircraft were part of a larger, 15-aircraft formation taking part in an aerial review for departing General Charles L. Donnelly Jr., commander in chief, U.S. Air Force Europe and commander, Allied Air Forces Central Europe. The visible aircraft are (front to back): McDonnell Douglas F-4G Phantom II (s/n 69-0237), 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II (s/n 81-0995), 510th TFS, 81st TFW, RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk (UK); McDonnell Douglas RF-4C-39-MC Phantom II (s/n 68-0583), 1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire (UK). Courtesy wikimedia.org.

LOG-ing in #Wargames

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

 Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps), 1980

WAY BACK LAST MONTH was CONNECTIONS 2019. I have been really busy since with little time to write up many thoughts, but I will take this opportunity to make amends here.

On Day 1 of CONNECTIONS 2019, I attended a seminar given by CAPT George F . Nafzinger, USN (Retired), on Logistics; the Red Headed Stepchild of Wargaming. I went into the seminar sorta expecting a discussion of how to wargame logistics, but unfortunately walked away hearing a siren’s cry on why logistics needs to be considered. I happen to be in the camp of wargamers that accepts (welcomes?) logistics rules in my games, when done right. Even if the seminar was a great missed opportunity by CAPT Nafzinger, it was still a good occasion for me to think about what I like, or don’t like, when it comes to logistics in wargames.

In wargames, probably the most famous supply rule ever is the Pasta Rule in The Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979) by legendary (and now sadly passed) designer Richard Berg:

[52.6] The Italian Pasta Rule

One of the biggest mistakes the Italians made during the entire Desert Campaign was to provide their troops with a diet which was composed, in large part, of spaghetti and macaroni. Aside from providing insufficient protein (this wasn’t Buitoni Brand) pasta has one serious drawback in the desert: you need water to cook it! Therefore, each Italian battalion,when it receives its Stores, must receive an additional 1 point of water when stores are distributed. Any battalion-sized unit that does not receive their Pasta Point (one water point) may not voluntarily exceed their CPA that turn. Furthermore, Italian battalions not receiving their Pasta Point that have a Cohesion Level of -10 or worse immediately become Disorganized, as if they had reached -26. As soon as such units get their Pasta Point,they regain the original cohesion level(i.e., the level they had before they disintegrated.)

This rule is always given as an example of the excessive chrome in a wargame. I agree; it’s taking supply rules to the excess. The real trick to me is to have realistic rules that don’t slow down gameplay. In the 1980’s and into the 90’s, many wargames that I played had log sheets. Indeed, some of my favorite games like the Fleet-series of the Great War at Sea/Second World War at Sea-series games tracked fuel or weapons expenditures. This approach was good but time-consuming and at times tedious. If one wasn’t keeping a log the rules ofter called for tracing a legal Line of Supply (LoS) at the start and/or end of movement or when conducting an attack. No LoS = No Move/Attack.

Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004)

Starting somewhere in the 2000’s, I noticed a change in how supply was treated in several of my games. I think it was in Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi (GMT Games, 2004) that I first recognized the concept of “roll for expenditure.” Instead of tracking each individual round expended, aircraft in combat roll against a number that will exhaust their ammo. This sped up play because, instead of tracking on a logsheet, a simple die roll was made. It also made for some interesting situations; a flight could exhaust their anti-air missiles on round 1 or go a few; you just didn’t know. A similar rule is found in the Wing Leader-series where aircraft roll as part of each attack to see if they can attack again.

Courtesy GMT Games

In more recent years, I have come to really appreciate the approach designer Ted Raicer took in several of his games like The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). Here, supply is only checked when the Supply Chit is pulled. This makes for some great opportunities; early in a turn (less chance of the Supply Chit coming out) one can be aggressive, cutting away from supply points if they dare. In the mid-turn, as the chance of the Supply Chit appearing increases, one is less daring and naturally tidies up their lines. If it is late-turn, moves often become ones of consolidation as the players wait for the inevitable draw. These logistics rule organically enforce supply but in way that makes it more a flow of the battle.

Courtesy Hollandspiele

Of course, the ultimate supply or logistics wargame to me is the Supply Lines of the American Revolution-series by Tom Russell at Hollandspiele. In these games, supply is the game up front; it’s not a supporting arm. Playing these games may be the best map exercise on the American Revolution a wargamer (or military historian) can get as you immediately are shown why a certain route, or city is important to your campaign.

Not all games can be like Supply Lines, nor should they be. Supply rules are essential to get the fullest understanding of a battle or campaign. The real trick is is to use a mechanic that can be applied quickly and with as little administrative burden as possible. I personally enjoy a game where I don’t have to keep small tick-marks on a logsheet. I really like how designers are using a chit-pull mechanic in conjunction with their supply rules. How about you? What supply rules do you like (or dislike)?


Feature image: The Campaign for North Africa; courtesy War is Boring.

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.

#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!”

Wargame Wednesday – GPS in Modern Wargames

Recent reporting out of South Korea is talking about a new north Korean threat – GPS jammers. From Yonhap:

In a report submitted to the parliamentary committee on defense, the ministry said North Korea has been developing the new Global Positioning System (GPS) jammer with a range of more than 100 kilometers, among other devices for electronic warfare.

In many wargames, GPS jamming tends to either be ignored or dealt with under Electronic Warfare rules. This is too bad since the modern military’s dependence on GPS is so so heavy that the loss of this critical force enabler could make a difference. Tactical air games like Air Strike were designed in the days before GPS, and even operational level air warfare games like Downtown or Elusive Victory don’t reflect the impact of GPS on the battlefield. I am not a modern ground warfare player so I really can’t talk to how GPS is reflected in those games but how do you replicate the great “end-run” of the First Gulf War without GPS rules?

With the efforts China has put on anti-satellite technology since 2007 when they shot down their own satellite it may be interesting to see how the loss of GPS would influence a modern battlefield. Maybe a variant rule for Red Dragon Rising? Or how about a variant rule for Crisis: Korea 1995?