Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Do wargames pursue a lost cause? Thoughts after reading Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2019)

In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:

This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.

Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15

While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).

Lost Cause Wargaming?

Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?

Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.

The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.

Mythbusting Narratives

Take for example a piece I wrote earlier this year in “History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices.” While reading books by David Glantz and Lawrence Christopher on the Battle of Kursk, I played Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front (GDW, 1993) and encountered a particular scenario:

According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”

Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.

Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices”

This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.

Critical Reassessment

Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.

Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.

#RPGThursday – Searching for My Personal/Tactical #TravellerRPG #Wargame

In a recent post I discussed my search for a #TravellerRPG wargame for use in ground combat. In the course of that posting, I talked about several different wargames and what I liked, or didn’t like, about them. Since I started down that rabbit hole, I decided to dig a bit further by taking a deeper look back at the original personal and vehicle combat systems for roleplaying games from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981). Along the way I discovered:

  • I didn’t remember as many things about early Traveller as I thought I did
  • There is more variety to the systems than I remember
  • Technology plays a much lesser mechanical role then I remember.

The Traveller Combat System

When I started my review, I immediately discovered there is not one single “Traveller Combat System” though, as you will see, there is a something called the Traveller Combat System. Indeed, between 1977 and 1981, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems. Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own game, are:

  • Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
  • Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
  • Mercenary, or the Abstract System found in Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, 1978 (Tactical?)
  • Snapshot, Classic Traveller Game 2, 1979 (Personal)
  • Azhanti High Lightning, Classic Traveller Game 3, 1980 (Personal)
  • Fifth Frontier War, Classic Traveller Game 4, 1981 (Strategic)
  • Invasion Earth, Classic Traveller Game 6, 1981 (Strategic)
  • Striker, Classic Traveller Game 7, 1981 (Tactical)

[Of note, Dark Nebula, Classic Traveller Game 5 (1980) is basically a reskinned Imperium and I don’t treat it as a separate game system.]

In this post I’m going to look at the five Personal/Tactical combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. A later post will look at the strategic systems. For now, let’s go back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby, and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).

Personal / Tactical Systems

The original Traveller

The Little Black Books (1977)

The original rules for the Traveller roleplaying game were laid out in the three Little Black Books first published by GDW in 1977. Book 1: Characters and Combat detailed the first iteration of what came to be known as the “Traveller Combat System.”*

The Traveller Combat System is a combat resolution model for personal combat or what many wargamers often refer to as “skirmish” scale. The system was designed to resolve combat actions between individuals or small groups (like a party of travellers). Each round of combat represented 15 seconds.

I term the Traveller Combat System “semi-abstracted.” The combat procedure in the Traveller Combat System is very simple and straightforward but lacks many usual wargame-like details. In every battle the players and referee step through a simple four-step process:

  • Determine surprise
  • Determine initial range
  • Determine escape/avoidance
  • Resolve combat wherein each character declares both a movement status and an attack.

The roll for surprise is subject to several modifiers. I was a bit surprised to see that three of the seven possible modifiers relate to military associated skills – which makes sense given the character generation rules that emphasize military experience. A further three modifiers relate to whether a vehicle is used and the size of the party. The last modifier is for Pouncer animals; very useful in wilderness encounters!

Terrain is a possible modifier for determining range. Encounter distances are broken down into five bands; Close (touching), Short (1-5m), Medium (pistol range, 6-50m), Long (rifle range, 51-250m), and Very Long (extreme range, 251-500m).

Rather than a square or hexagon-gridded map, the Traveller Combat System uses Range Bands. The rules recommend (and I clearly remember using) regular loose leaf lined paper. The number of lines away determines your range. Movement was by bands.

Combat in the Traveller Combat System is based on a simple “Roll 8+ on 2d6 to hit the target.” Die modifiers come in several flavors:

  • Melee Weapons require Strength with strong or weak characters gaining an advantageous or weakened blow modifier
  • Ranged Weapons require Dexterity, again with advantages for high Dexterity characters
  • Using the Weapons Matrix, cross reference the Attacker’s Weapon with the Defender’s Armor yields another DM
  • Using the Range Matrix, each different Attacker’s Weapon yields another DM; this is also where the damage (expressed in number of d6) is found.

Wounds in the Traveller Combat System are determined by different number of d6. The total of the first hit is applied to one personal characteristic and can be enough to render the character unconscious. After the first hit, the dice in subsequent attacks are spread out over the Strength-Dexterity-Endurance characteristics (i.e. if your attack scores 2d6 hits, the total of die #1 can be applied to one characteristic and the total of die #2 to another). When a single characteristic drops to zero the character is unconscious. When two are reduced the character is seriously wounded and if all three go to zero the character is killed. Bottom Line: The Traveller Combat System is DEADLY.

In keeping with the personal combat focus of the Traveller Combat System, the personal characteristics of strength, dexterity, and endurance are very important in combat. As already mentioned, strength and dexterity grant a bonus, or penalty, in combat. Endurance is essential in melee combat; every “blow” takes endurance. Once all your endurance is gone no more blows are possible until after a rest period.

Character skills also factor in the Traveller Combat System. Knowing how to use a weapon grants a bonus (with more skill granting a bigger bonus); untrained is a penalty. Expertise is also used to parry in brawling or blade combat.

One rule I did not remember in the Traveller Combat System is morale. Basically, when at least 20% of the party is unconscious or killed, you must start making morale throws. Failure means the party breaks and runs. I absolutely do not remember this rule; I think we ignored it because it took away player agency. Or maybe we just didn’t use it because the combat system is already deadly enough that we didn’t get into combat unless we were very sure of ourselves.

I also notice now that there is no vehicle combat rules in Book 1. A party can be in a vehicle at the start of combat, but there are no rules for fighting vehicle to vehicle.

Mercenary (1978)

In 1978, GDW published what nowadays we would call a splatbook for mercenary characters. Not only did Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary include expanded character generation rules, it also included new combat rules. Actually, it makes references to three different rules systems:

There are three means of resolving a mercenary mission: the standard Traveller adventure/combat system, the abstract system included later in this section, and a free-form system created by the referee. All three are discussed to a greater or lesser extent, but it should be born in mind that these are intended only as a general guide to the referee, not as a definitive miniatures rules set.

Book 4: Mercenary, “Battles”, p. 31

When introducing the Abstract System, the designers tell us, “The abstract mission resolution system is particularly valuable in resolving a mercenary mission involving large numbers of troops on one or both sides and in which player characters are not primary participants (serving as NCOs in an infantry battalion, for example).” It is telling that the Abstract System has no time or distance scale; it has all been abstracted out.

Combat resolution using the Abstract System in conducted in two broad parts: preparation and resolution. During preparation, the characteristics of the opposing forces is determined, to include the Mission, Tech Level, Size of the force, and Efficiency. This is accomplished through a series of die rolls. At this point the referee also needs to determine a preservation number for the force.

Once the two sides are prepared, the Abstract System moves to resolution. Once again, a series of die rolls determines the Element Engaged, the Encounter Type and then the actual Combat Resolution. Given the involvement of player characters, there is also a chance of Personal Casualties which is addressed at this point.

Although I call the Mercenary Abstract System a tactical-level battle system, the reality is a bit fuzzy. The size of the force and element engaged can range from a Fire Team nominally of four soldiers up to an entire Brigade of 1500 troops.

The Abstract System lives up to its name; it is highly abstracted to the point all the tables necessary for preparation and resolution are on one digest-sized page in Book 4. The combat results table is actually a Firing Matrix where the firing unit is cross-referenced with the Target Unit to get a die roll modifier (DM). At this point, the Tech Level difference of the two units is used as a +/- DM. Casualties are expressed in percentage of the force with personal casualties dependent upon how much of the force was put out of action. The battle continues in rounds until one side or the other reaches its preservation level and withdraws.

When it comes to vehicle combat, Mercenary is very silent on the issue. Like the Traveller Combat System, no vehicle combat rules are provided. The closest Book 4 comes is a discussion of military vehicles at different tech levels.

Snapshot (1979)

The next personal combat system in the Traveller universe is Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future. The title alone should tell you the focus here; combat between individuals within the closed confines of starships. The rules even go so far as to state they are not intended for outdoor encounters or ranges greater than 50-60 meters.

In order to make Snapshot work, GDW uses the same 15 second rounds but instead of the range bands in the Traveller Combat System they introduce a square grid. Each grid square is 1.5m, conveniently the same scale used to draw starship deck plans. With the introduction of grid squares, many other wargame-like rules are introduced. There now are stacking limits and facing considerations.

Instead of the move/attack action in the Traveller Combat System, in Snapshot each character is allotted a number of Action Points (AP) equal to the sum of their Endurance and Dexterity (with a minimum of six). Every action has a different AP cost. This is where one of my favorite wargame rules, The Expletive, is found.

“Frak you!”

Combat resolution in Snapshot is virtually identical to the Traveller Combat System except the separate Weapons and Range Matrix tables is collapse into one table. Wounding is the same with hits being applied against personal characteristics.

Snapshot, being focused on close encounters aboard ships, has no vehicle combat rules.

Azhanti High Lightning

Azhanti High Lightning (1980)

The next combat system GDW gives us for Traveller is Azhanti High Lightning (AHL). AHL is both a sourcebook on a class of ships and a new combat game. It is a further progression of the Traveller Combat System and Snapshot. Like Snapshot, each combat round in AHL is 15 seconds and each square is the same 1.5m.

The major evolution of the AHL system is that each turn now consists of multiple action phases instead of the single action phase in Snapshot. In the Decision Phase the player secretly determines what the “strategy” of the turn will be: cover fire, aim, or move. Like Snapshot, players have AP to spend, but unlike Snapshot where the AP is determined by the sum of characteristics in AHL each character has a flat 6 AP in each of the five action phases.

The second major evolution in AHL is the combat system. The Weapons Table divides range into Effective, Long, and Extreme ranges each with its own base to-hit number. In many ways this new Weapons Table “builds in” many previous die roll modifiers. However, once a hit is made the resolution system from that point forward totally changes from pervious versions.

In AHL, once a hit is made you check the damage table. This die roll is modified by the Penetration Value of the weapon and any cover or armor for the target. Instead of applying damage to characteristics, wounds are described as Light, Serious, or Death with unconsciousness also possible. A new Melee combat system is also introduced using Melee Ratings of combatants.

Rules for integrating AHL with Traveller are provided. The formula for a Melee Rating is given, as well as other special rules about Danger Space for weapons. Interestingly, no skills are used as modifiers in AHL; here skill is subsumed into a single weapons skill rating on a counter. Morale and leadership bonuses are generated using the Mercenary system.

Again, I was very surprised to discover that AHL has no vehicle combat rules.

Striker (1981)

Striker (1981)

To understand what Striker represents to Traveller players, I think it is worth quoting the introduction at length:

Striker is a set of rules for science fiction ground combat using 15mm miniature figures. each player will command a force ranging from a platoon to several companies, consisting of a few dozen to over a hundred men, plus artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The rules are intended to be easy for the beginning player to understand wile at the same time providing a comprehensive and detailed treatment of ground combat from the beginning of this century to the far future.

On important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership. For a more detailed discussion of this point, read Firefight, at the beginning of section II of this book.

The science fiction background of Striker is drawn from the universe of Traveller. All weapons and military technology described in Traveller (including Book 4, Mercenary) are included in Striker. These rules may be used in conjunction with Traveller or by themselves; no familiarity with Traveller is required.

In Striker, as in Traveller, technology is rated by tech levels; these rules cover weapons and equipment ranging from tech level 5 (about World War I) to tech level 15 (the level of Traveller’s Imperium). Present-day earth is about tech level 7.

Striker, Book 1: Basic Rules, “Introduction,” p. 4

Striker changed scales yet again, with each turn now representing 30 seconds and one millimeter on the table equaling 1 meter. Units are described principally by their morale (Recruit-Regular-Veteran-Elite) and an initiative rating. The sequence of play moved closer to a classic wargame with a Command Phase followed by First Player Movement – First Player Fire then Second Player Movement – Second Player Fire with a Panic Morale Check Phase at the end. As befits the core focus, command, communications, and morale all factor prominently in what a unit can, or cannot, do.

Instead of Action Points, units in Striker are assigned orders. The number of orders and how long it takes to communicate them are the heart of the command and communications rules. A single order can consist of three components: movement, fire, and a rally point. For example, an order might be, “Move to the crest of Hill 17, through the forest, at fastest speed. Fire at enemy units detected. Rally Point: Little Star crossroads.”

Fire combat in Striker is an evolution of the AHL system. Hits cause casualties (Light-Serious-Destroyed) like in AHL, but in Striker the impact to morale is also considered. Morale checks are made when proximate to an enemy, when taking casualties, or if a unit routed nearby (to avoid panic). Four different results of a failed morale check are possible: Suppressed, Fall Back, Forced Back, and Routed. Surrender is also possible.

I was absolutely dumbfounded to realize that it was not until the publication of Striker in 1981 that vehicle combat officially came to the Traveller RPG universe. The system is interesting; when shooting at a vehicle the firing player declares either a “high” (vs turret) or “low” (vs hull) shot. The angle of attack is also considered. After that the fire procedure is basically the same as any other combat in Striker.

[I went back and looked to see where vehicle combat may have had a start pre-Striker. I found the Judges Guild product Lazer Tank (1980) that has a very simple vehicle combat system but is unlike anything anywhere else in Traveller. I also identified vehicle rules in the Amber Zone article “Pursue and Destroy” from Issue 7 of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. This article, published in 1981 from Frank Chadwick, apparently still predates his Striker rules as it refers to using Mercenary and Azhanti High Lightning to resolve combat. A methodology for converting AHL wound levels to vehicle damage is provided. The first published adventure to feature the chance of vehicle combat is Adventure 7: Broadsword that was published in 1982 and recommends using Book 1, Mercenary, and Striker.]

Striker also includes sections describing Planetary Defenses (Book 2: Equipment, Rule 76: Planetary Defenses) as well as Rule 77: Jump Troops. Rule 79 is Integration with Mercenary while Rule 80 is Integration with Traveller. Both focus on skills or the impact of morale and changes necessary to move between different wound systems.

However, it is the Vehicle Design Sequence that truly sets Striker apart from its predecessors. This “game within a game” aimed squarely at Traveller “systems engineers” is the foundation of every vehicle design system used since in the Traveller universe. Here is a methodology to create a vehicle that is described in common game terms and comparable across multiple tech levels. Truly an astonishing achievement.

Which One Should I Use?

When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.

I love the Traveller Combat System. It is the most pure and simple, and probably the most supportive of good narrative play. The rules are super light and easy.

The Abstract System from Mercenary is good for “background” action. It can also be the primary system for resolving mercenary tickets if the players are running a mercenary company.

Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning are good at what their focus is; shipboard combat. Comparing them, Snapshot is more RPG-like whereas AHL is more “wargame-y.” What I mean here is Snapshot, with action points determined by characteristics, is closer to the RPG but Azhanti High Lightning is the more refined rules set.

Since forever, I always assumed that Striker was the miniatures rules set for the Traveller roleplaying game. Reading the introduction, Traveller does not get mentioned until paragraph three. Instead, what we actually have in our possession is a set of miniatures rules for 15mm figures suitable for playing out small scale/unit actions with a set of rules that allow one to simultaneously employ multiple levels of technology. As important a role technology plays, the true focus of the game is actually on Command and the ability of leaders to communicate and coordinate on the battlefield. This makes Striker the most “wargame-y” of the group. As I already mentioned, the vehicle design system is a truly foundational part of the Traveller universe. However, the focus on command and not characters makes Striker’s use in a Traveller campaign a bit questionable.

When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.

RockyMountainNavy, Dec 2020

I also note that the vehicle combat rules found in the modern Cepheus Engine version of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game did not appear in the early years of the GDW era. The Striker -based rules were still in use through at least 1994 when Striker II: Miniatures Warfare in the Far Future was published as part of Traveller: The New Era. The modern rules for vehicle combat use the same “actions” approach of personal combat in Cepheus Engine where each crew member gets one significant and two minor actions in a combat round (six seconds of time). I’m not absolutely sure, but this mechanic may have first appeared in the Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition published in 2008.

JTAS 9

JTAS Journey

I also found it interesting to look at what happened to these games after publication. Looking through the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society (JTAS) brought some further enlightenment.

JTAS 2 (1979)

This issue contains a very interesting rebuttal to an article in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon. JTAS editor Loren K. Wiseman responds to criticism of Mercenary with the comment, “To criticize a set of rules or a game because it has omitted some vital aspect of its subject matter is one thing, but to downgrade rules because they do not cover something beyond their scope is a little like saying ‘Squad Leader is a fairly good game, but I would have liked to have more air-to-air combat in it.'”

JTAS 12 (1981)

This issue had two Striker-related articles; “Striker Errata” and “Strike it Rich” where author J. Andrew Keith talks about using Striker as a new combat system or as a valuable source book.

JTAS 14 (1982)

Articles include “Civilian Vehicles for Striker” and “Foxhound” by J.D Webster (later famous for his Fighting Wings series of air combat wargames). “Foxhound” is billed as a Striker variant but a close reading reveals this is really a system for fitting flying vehicles into the Traveller Combat System, especially since it uses the same range bands. That said, weapons fire uses Striker….

JTAS 16 (1983)

Contributor Michael Wharton serves up “Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems.” He focuses on converting the Striker damage levels to the point system of Traveller and adjusting Striker “to hit” at short ranges. During the course of the article, he hits on the major difference between Striker and the Traveller Combat System:

By its own admission, Striker is designed to deal with fairly large scale actions fought at moderate-to-long ranges. At the short ranges of many Traveller firefights, however, confined as they often are within starships or barrooms, the Striker hit determination tables become somewhat unrealistic. That an 8+ is required to hit a target only two meters away seems unlikely. Also, the difficulty of using long arms at very short range is not addressed.

“Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems,” JTAS 16, p. 43

JTAS 17 (1983)

Both feature articles in this issue are for ground-pounders (almost). “Air Strike: A Close Air Support Rules Module for Mercenary” by T. McInnes provides what I call a very loose set of rules for integrating air support into the Abstract System. The second article, “Hunting Bugs: Striker Meets Horde” by John Marshall explains how to use Striker when playing Double Adventure 5: The Chamax Plague/Horde. Hmm…

JTAS 21 (1984)

The feature article, “Striker Weapons Systems Analysis,” does not appear in the Table of Contents. Some useful design notes to consider here but nothing really in the way of combat rules mechanics.

JTAS 22 (1985)

Two feature articles are included. The first, “‘Til They Glow in the Dark: Nukes for Traveller/Striker Campaigns” seems out of place for the Traveller default setting when one considers the Imperial Rules of War that forbid the usage of nukes. I guess this article can support alternate Traveller universes. The second article, “Seastrike – Underwater Combat in Traveller” mixes Striker with the ship design system High Guard.

JTAS 23 (1985)

Whoops! Forgot to print the “Striker Expanded Nuclear Warheads List” in issue 22. Here it is!


*Interestingly, the Traveller Combat System was never called TCS. Within the Traveller rules system, TCS is the abbreviation for “Trillion Credit Squadron.”

Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

#Wargame Wednesday – Getting slammed by Mongoose Traveller’s Hammer’s Slammers vehicle combat for #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG

Having gone on something of a Traveller RPG kick of sorts, I recently dug into the vehicle combat rules for the game. Doing so brought back some good memories, as well as some bad ones.

Combatting Traveller

When it comes to the Traveller RPG, combat historically was divided into two formats; personal and large-scale. For starships, the “personal” scale is what is known as “Adventure Class Ships (ACS).” ACS ship combat was first spelled out in Book 2: Starships (GDW, 1977). Larger ships, called “Battle Class Ships (BCS)” were detailed in Book 5: High Guard (GDW, 1977, 1980). Likewise, for ground combat, the personal scale was found in Book 1: Characters and Combat (GDW, 1977) and the corresponding ‘mass combat’ rules were in Book 4: Mercenary (GDW, 1978) written by one Mr. Frank Chadwick. However, for ground combat the publisher of Traveller, Game Designers’ Workshop, took it a step further. They published a set of 15mm miniatures rules by Mr. Chadwick called Striker (GDW, 1981). I was unable to buy Striker back in the day, but I did have a small Judges Guild game expansion, Lazer Tank, that whetted my appetite for more.

Striker from GDW

Mr. Chadwick also designed the planetary invasion game Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1981) that I lusted over but didn’t actually own until this year. Suffice it to say that when I thought of combat in the Traveller RPG setting, I viewed it though a Frank Chadwick set of lenses.

Striker II (GDW, 1994)

Over the years I was able to acquire Striker II (GDW, 1994), part of the Traveller: The New Era edition of Traveller. Striker II was also designed by Frank Chadwick and part of his GDW ‘house’ series that used the same basic miniatures rules for World War I in Over the Top (GDW, 1990), World War II in Command Decision (GDW, 1986+), and the modern era in Combined Arms (GDW, 1988+). It also didn’t hurt that Traveller-adjacent RPG games like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1986) used another Frank Chadwick design for their ‘mass combat’ rules, in this case a combination wargame/roleplaying game supplement called Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1989).*

Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW)

Somewhere after Striker II, the vehicle combat rules for Traveller changed and Mr. Chadwick was forgotten. I first noticed this when I picked up the Mongoose Traveller edition of Book 1: Mercenary (Mongoose Publishing, 2008) and found a very abstract set of rules. Suffice it to say I found the “Battle System – Large Scale Conflict in Traveller” not to my liking. Further, it was obviously written by people that had NO IDEA about weapons. It was actually comical; in the first edition the furthest the heaviest support weapon (in this case a Tech Level 15 Meson Accelerator) could shoot was 1.5….kilometers. There were many reasons I came to dislike Mongoose Traveller, but as a wargamer this pathetic approach was a major reason for me to disengage from their product line.

It was actually comical; in the first edition the furthest the heaviest support weapon (in this case a Tech Level 15 Meson Accelerator) could shoot was 1.5….kilometers.

I fought. I resisted. This was the time I was finally, after all those years waiting, to get my hand on a copy of Striker. I vowed never to use the Mongoose Traveller, non-Chadwick approach. That is, until the 2009 release of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (Mongoose Publishing, 2009). I love David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of stories. I mean, this obviously was a real sci-fi combat game with Mr. Drake writing the Forward. I was sure that this was going to make Mongoose Traveller ‘mass combat’ awesome!

Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (2009)

Defanged by a Mongoose

I was severely disappointed in the Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers. Oh, I enjoy having the history and characters and equipment of Hammer’s Slammers translated into game terms. Combat was another matter, with two approaches used in the book, neither of which resonated with me.

“Chapter 9: Vehicle Combat” was an extension of the Mongoose Traveller personal combat rules. It introduced a new scale, “Vehicle Scale” into the game. This scale was supposed to be a bridge between the personal and starship scales. Vehicle combat also continued the “vehicle as a character” approach to game rules. Every turn, the player characters (PCs) or non-player characters (NPCs) got actions. The most important action was Attack which is a Skill Check. Let me show you an example of how it works:

Lieutenant Danny Pritchard with Gunner-Turrets 2 skill fires the 20cm Powergun of his M2A1 supertank against the side of a TR6BKU-1 Black Skorpion turretless tank killer. The range is 2km making this a Long Range shot (+0 DM). Pritchard’s tank is moving but less than half-speed (-1 DM) as he shoots. He rolls 10 on 2d6, modified to 11 (+2 Skill, -1 Moving) which is more than the 8+ required for a hit. The 20cm powergun rolls 20d6+20 Super Destructive damage. Super Destructive means the first 20 points of the target’s armor is obliterated; in this case the 132 points of side armor is reduced to 102. The 20cm powergun then scores 82 points of damage – which the 102 points of armor stops. The Black Skorpion has escaped destruction, this turn.

The Black Skorpion fires back (assume an average crew with Gunner 2). At Long Range the 22cm coilgun has a -1 DM. The 2d6 To Hit roll is 7, modified to 8 with the total +1 DM – barely a hit! The 22cm coilgun scores 14d6 MegaAP damage. The damage total rolled is 49. The MegaAP means that the coilgun ignores armor points equal to 4x the number of dice rolled – in this case 14×4 or 56 points of armor. However, the front of the M2A1 is a whopping 175 points.

Laughing, Pritchard halts his hovertank and lines up another shot. Hit on the side again, the Black Skorpion loses another 20 points of armor, leaving it with 82. The Slammer’s powergun scores 92 damage, of which 10 penetrate and convert to 3x Single hits. Rolling for hit location yields Weapon (1st Hit = No Effect) – Sensors (First Hit = -1 to all future sensor checks) – Hull (31 remaining).

In the example above I hope you can see that Pritchard’s tank is proof against the deadly “tank killer.” It’s also going to take another hit, or two or three more, to finally destroy the Black Skorpion. It all seems very undramatic. I even tried to recreate the epic final battle from Rolling Hot where Task Force Ransom takes on 35 Consie light tanks. I couldn’t. That’s because the major problem with the vehicle combat in Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers is that it doesn’t get the attack vs armor right.

It all seems very undramatic.

“Chapter 10: Conflict,” starts off by saying, “The aim of the rules is not to precisely simulate a conflict but to give the Referee a framework for designing adventures.” There is certainly enough in this chapter to create battle situations, but the section “Resolving the War” seems to me like it is an adjudication system for, well, resolving the war! Except this time the resolution is highly impersonal with leaders and factions and DMs for successful missions. This is a campaign game system not a combat resolution model.

Cepheus Engine Rebirth?

After the debacle of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers I went in search of other rule sets for use in my Traveller campaigns. I experimented with both Dirtside II (1993) and Stargrunt II (1996) from Ground Zero Games. I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing (2011). I really like Dirtside II as it has a vehicle design system like in Striker but it just feels a bit off when in play.

Tomorrow’s War (Ambush Alley/Osprey Publishing)

Following the legal wars over Mongoose Traveller, I fully embraced the Cepheus Engine edition of Traveller. I especially enjoy The Clement Sector setting from John Watts at Independence Games. So far, Cepheus Engine has not published a mass combat set of rules, instead preferring to stay focused on the personal or vehicle combat scale of conflict. Further, no Cepheus Engine publisher has released a set of mass combat or “Battle Scale” rules like those found in the Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary or Mongoose Traveller Book 1: Mercenary.

What do I want? I want a good, clean set of large scale combat rules that use skills and vehicles created in Cepheus Engine. I want an updated Chadwick; maybe a relook at Striker with modern publishing sensibilities and approaches to game mechanics. Sure, some will say, “It’s an RPG, focus on the CHARACTERS!” Well, if you pay attention to what Mr. Chadwick told us in Striker several decades ago it will:

One important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership.

Striker: Rule Book 1 – Basic Rules, Introduction, p. 4

*To be clear, Last Battle: Twilight 2000 was designed by Tim Ryan but used Frank Chadwick’s First Battle system.

Hard Core #Wargame? Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983)

WITH ALL THE CORONATINE TIME AVAILABLE, I HAVE BEEN REACHING DEEP INTO MY WARGAME COLLECTION TO REPLAY OLDER TITLES. This week I put Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983) on the table. According to the box back:

Assault is a tactical level game of armor and infantry combat in the near future. Each hex of the two geomorphic maps covers 250 meters of actual terrain and each turn represents only a few minutes. Each counter represents a section or platoon-sized unit. The unit counters allow representation of everything from company meeting engagements to a full regiment/brigade assault. The rules cover all aspects of modern equipment, but stress flexibility, initiative, and command control.

Indeed, Command Control is really the heart of this Frank Chadwick design. As Mr. Chadwick writes in the eight-page briefing that thoughtfully accompanies the game:

Command Control: The command control system is designed to present the players with the capabilities or limitations that attend the different command control systems in use without bogging them down in the minutiae of detailed staff work. The use of operations points is, admittedly, an abstraction, particularly when TOC planning is used, but one that seems to work fairly well. The accumulation of operations points through TOC planning represents more than just a few staff officers looking at maps and thinking things over; it also represents collating and analyzing intelligence data and disseminating it to line units, briefing line unit commanders on expected enemy resistance and possible alternate courses of action, and in general, a variety of staff functions that will enable a unit to respond more quickly when the shooting actually starts. [Comment – Nobody ever claimed Frank wrote in short sentences.]

One of my favorite wargames of 2019 was Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019). Less Than 60 Miles takes the concept of John Boyd’s OODA-Loop and makes it the center of the game. To do anything takes command and time. As I read the US Doctrine portion of the US Briefing in Assault, I was struck by these words from Mr. Chadwick written in the early 1980’s:

Given the more centralized command functions in the Soviet Army and the reliance on rehearsed battle drill, it was surmised that the decision/action cycle in Soviet units must, by necessity, be longer than in western units. An operation would cycle through one phase and, toward the end of it, start a new phase. If US units could break into that decision-making cycle at a critical point, limited command assets on the Soviet side would become overloaded and the operation would break down. It is around the concept of breaking into that decision/action cycle that US doctrine finally evolved.

Basically put, Assault is a very (then) contemporary attempt to portray the OODA-Loop on the battlefields of Europe. Personally, I think Mr. Chadwick’s design is a good one as it certainly meets his own design goal:

One advantage of the command control system in the game is that it enabled me to avoid writing straightjacket rules for the Soviet player to reflect correct doctrine. Given the relative number of HQ and TOC units available, Soviet doctrine comes naturally. Soviet units tend to move in formation in the attack. They will stay in column (march formation) as long as possible, switching to line only at the last minute to carry out an attack. All of these practices make sense for the Soviet player in game terms.

After I played my scenario I made the mistake of going to BGG and looking at the forums. Of the 39 threads there is one, just one, review. That review, written in 2011 is titled, “Assault: Only for the truly Hard Core.”

I made the mistake of reading it.

First, I’m not really sure what a ‘Hard Core’ wargamer is. Is is somebody who plays Advanced Squad Leader? Or maybe Star Fleet Battles? Is it someone who loves a game even though the rules are so complicated it’s seemingly impossible to play? Or does ‘Hard Core’ mean anybody who plays anything more complicated than, say, PanzerBlitz which this reviewer mentions more than once?

Maybe the reviewer was talking about the rules? Then again, maybe not. Assault comes with a 16-page double-column rule book. There are 24 major rule headings. Of the 24 rules (25 if you count the Introduction) two are Optional. To me, the rules come across as easy-to-read and understand and the game mechanics are not too onerous. So how could this be a game for only the “Hard Core?”

Specifically, the reviewer makes the claim, “The command and control rules are arduous and time consuming….This kind of bookkeeping was for the truly hardcore and you don’t see it in successful titles these days.”

A deeper reading of the review tells me that the reviewer actually didn’t like the game interfaces. The reviewer plainly tells us it’s not how the game is played, but how the game is presented that makes it difficult for him:

  • “…in Assault, one unit looks pretty much like another unit and those tiny unit IDs are tough to read. It is a major chore to keep track of your units under these circumstances, and significant amounts of game time are spent peering under your stacks and squinting at unit IDs.”
  • “…it takes more than a few minutes just to sort out our forces and get ready to set up. Then each player has some bookkeeping to do, filling out copies of the Command and Morale record for each HQ and TOC, and all of the units under their control.”

I agree that the tiny unit IDs in Assault are hard to read. The reviewer is right; different graphical approaches (colors, bands, etc.) would make distinguishing units easier. I also find it humorous that even in 2011, like today in 2020, people forget (ignore? are unaware?) what state-of-the-art publishing was in the 1980’s. I don’t think the folks at GDW purposely avoided making counters easier to distinguish; I’m just not sure they had the capability to print them.

Getting set up for a game of Assault can be challenging, especially if the counters are not organized. For Assault I tend to be a hyper-organizer with each battalion separated into their own baggie or compartment. If you don’t take this basic step then yes, set up time can become very extended.

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I will disagree on the bookkeeping for Assault. In my game the US side had five HQ. To determine Operations/Planning Points was five quick die rolls. Morale depends on the number of steps in a company; four or fewer steps is morale 8. five through 8 steps is morale 10, nine or more steps morale 12. Easy. The Soviet side with fewer HQs overall is just as easy (if not easier).

I will go a step further than the reviewer and add that turning units over when in March formation slows game play in Assault. I would much rather have seen the use of an information marker placed atop the unit or stack. As it was, the game already came with two sheets (480 counters) so maybe a third was cost-prohibitive.

But what about the Command Control rules themselves? What the reviewer intends as a criticism of Assault comes across as more of a strength to me:

Operations Points are one of the central element of the Assault command and control system. As a concept it is pretty simple, certain actions take command points to perform. Run out of points and you can’t take those actions. Not bad so far, eh? As long as you are careful with your units, plan ahead, and don’t try to do everything at once, things should go smoothly enough. But not every HQ/TOC has the same number of command points available, so some units (and by units, in this case, I mean Companies and Battalions) will be more effective than others.

“As long as you are careful with your units, plan ahead, and don’t try to do everything at once….some units…will be more effective than others.” That is the design effect of the Command Control rules and that is why Assault is a very interesting game.

The Assault scenario I played was Scenario 1: Probe. Here a US screening and blocking force is covering a gap between major units. One very nice element of these scenarios is multiple force levels available which makes for always different match ups. In my battle a US armored battalion with a cross-attached mechanized infantry company defended against a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion supported by a reconnaissance company, an attached battery of artillery, and eventually a tank battalion. The Soviets have 18 turns (1.5 hours) to cross the map (16 km). This is harder than it seems given that the first two Soviet HQ do not enter the map until Turns 5 and 7. If the Americans can get in amongst the Soviets early they can disrupt them and dramatically slow their advance across the map. On the other hand, the longer the Soviets can keep in March Formation and get across the map the closer they will be to victory. The entire battle hinges on the Command Control rules.

 

The reviewer sums up the game review with these comments:

This is a difficult game, no doubt, the learning curve is steep. This is a game that you plan to play all afternoon or evening, 2-4 hours from pulling out the box to packing it up again – even for a small scenario. But once you’ve played it a few times, and gotten past the fact that not only are you the battalion commander but also every squad leader, cannon cocker, and tank commander wondering which shell to load for the next shot, you will have a much better understanding of what it takes to get an armored battalion into the fight, in near contemporary conditions. This is a good game, but I don’t expect to see its like again.

Let me break this down:

  • “…the learning curve is steep.” Is it the rules or the game interface that is difficult? Sure, clumsy interfaces make for a difficult game but are you telling me that a small font makes a game for hard core only?
  • “This is a game you play all afternoon or evening, 2-4 hours….” The back of the box states, “2-4 hours per scenario.” If one is organized set up will go faster….
  • “…gotten past the fact that not only are you the battalion commander but….” Yes, there are choices in the game, but also realize that Rule 22 Ammunition Supply is an Optional rule. I remember playing this game in the 1980s using Note Cards. I also remember when we felt so smart using erasable markers on sheet protectors. Today a simple spreadsheet program suffices, and if I had some coding skills I don’t think an app would be too hard either.
  • “…you will have a much better understanding….” Is that not the point of this game; indeed, of most any wargame? I also believe a better understanding does not equate to ‘having it easy.’
  • “…but I don’t expect to see the likes of it again.” Welcome to 2020 and games like Less Than 60 Miles or 1985: Under an Iron Sky (Thin Red Line games, 2018) or even something like World at War 85: Storming the Gap (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2019). World War III in the 1980’s is back in vogue.

As much as I disagree with the reviewer, I will thank them for making me think about why a game works for me or not. To start with, we both obviously have a very different opinion as to what a ‘hard core’ wargame is. I also now more fully realize the impact game interfaces have even in the classic hex & counter wargame media. Overall, for me all those reviewer comments do not make Assault a game for the ‘Hard Core.’ That said, the reviewer is right in that game component interface could be better – but that alone does not make the game unapproachable for the non ‘hard core.’

#Retro #TravellerRPG #Wargame #AAR – Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981)

BLUF – Game mechanics are deceptively simple but through play one discovers it’s not necessarily combat that is important but executing an invasion plan that requires proper logistical planning and bringing the right forces to bear at the right time and place versus a stubborn defense that must know when to ‘hide’ and fight another day.

NOW THAT I ACQUIRED A GRAIL WARGAME IN THE TRAVELLER RPG UNIVERSE, it was time to play it. Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (GDW, 1981) takes place in the Third Imperium setting of the Classic Traveller RPG. The game depicts the invasion of Earth (Sol) by the Third Imperium in the year 1002 (the 55th or 56th Century compared to today). Interestingly, Invasion: Earth (IE) is a ‘historical’ game in the Traveller RPG line as the invasion takes place just over 100 years in the past of the default setting (years 1105-1107).

Physically, Invasion: Earth is a small game more suited to a folio than a box. The map is small, 16″x21″, which covers not only Sol but also holding boxes for different space locations as well as the terrain key. The game includes 480 counters although half are game markers leaving only 240 pieces for actual combatants. Yes, the counters are small – 1/2″ sized – and challenging to this grognard’s eyes. This is a game where a magnifying glass and tweezers to move stacks is required!

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The rule book is just as small – 16 pages – and I previously talked about what I like about it. Although Invasion: Earth is both a space battle and ground combat game, a scenario will see mostly ground combat. As I played my first game of Invasion: Earth I discovered the game proceeded in noticeable ‘phases’ where the players face different challenges and are forced to make sometimes painful decisions.

Phase I – The Space Battle

The Imperial player starts in the Out-System Box and has to ‘jump’ into the Sol System. The arrival area is known as Deep Space. Since the Solomani ships cannot ‘jump’ the Out-System Box effectively serves as the ‘off-map’ assembly area for the Imperial player. The Solomani player cannot set up in Deep Space but instead is limited to Far Orbit (which includes Luna) and Close Orbit – the only orbit which interfaces with the planet. In Phase I the Imperial player has to push aside the Solomani space forces to get to Close Orbit and land troops on the planet.

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Invasion begins….

The problem is those pesky Solomani ships and boats. All ships and boats (non-FTL capable ships) have three ratings – Attack Factor / Bombardment Factor / Defense Factor. However, using the right ship/boat in the right space combat is important. In combat against starships you use the Attack Factor. Combat against boats and ground units use the Bombardment Factor. Each has its own Combat Resolution Table (CRT) where losses are expressed in ‘hits’ or Defense Factors that must be eliminated. This means the first decision the Imperial player faces is how to divide his force to attack defending ships and boats because each squadron can only attack one or the other. Space Combat continues until one side is eliminated or disengages. Ships that disengage move the the Deep Space box where they go into ‘hiding.’ Additionally, if there are no Imperial ships in Close Orbit, those pesky System Defense Boats (SDB) can hide in the ocean. Hidden units have advantages later during the actual Invasion and Occupation phases of the game.

Phase II – Advance Base

For the Imperial player, movement to/from the Out-System can only happen once a turn. This means to bring reinforcements from the Out-System effectively takes two turns. However, if the Imperial player lands a Base on Luna, it becomes an advanced staging area. The challenge for the Imperial player is balancing a need to invade Sol and consolidate forces on Luna. Sounds easy until you take into account Transport.

Different space units have different transport capacities. Ground units have different strength based on their size. Generally speaking, an army is 5C (500), a corps 1C (100), a division 20, a brigade 10, and a regiment 5. Bases (supply points for the Imperial player) are the equivalent of 1C. Different ships can transport different ground units; an Assault Carrier (AR) can carry 6C, a Battle Squadron (BR) carries 20, and a Cruiser Squadron (CR) carries 5. Each ground unit must be carried by a single naval unit – there is no combining 4x CR to carry that 20-Factor division. So the Imperial player has to figure out the logistics game of what ground unit is carried by what squadron. This challenge is not only present in this Advance Base Phase but throughout the game. It becomes even more challenging after Turn 2 when two of the four AR in the game are withdrawn.

Phase III – Invasion!

The invasion of Sol can take place in parallel with the consolidation of an advance base; indeed, the Imperial player is almost forced to execute these two in tandem given the need to achieve victory in the least amount of time. In Invasion: Earth there is little differentiation between ground units but the few differences there are make a big difference.

When landing, eligible defenders roll on the Surface Bombardment Table to see what percentage of the landing attackers are destroyed. The defender totals their Bombardment Factors and rolls single d6 on the column that is closest to, but not more than, that value. The roll is modified by two qualities of the attacker – Tech Level and unit  type.

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Tech Level (TL) is a key concept in the Traveller RPG setting. The higher the TL the more advanced the unit is. TL is one of the most important factors in combat (more on that later) but in an orbital assault units of a lower TL have a -1 DM to the defenders attack roll, meaning they are likely to suffer MORE casualties. Unit type also plays an important roll. Performing an orbital assault with a unit other than a Jump Troop or Marine is a -3 DM (!). The last thing an attacker from orbit wants to do is land a low-tech, non-Jump or Marine unit against a determined enemy! This means the Imperial player should try to lead the orbital assault with those (few) Jump or Marine troops – assuming they are available and loaded properly on the lead wave.

Phase IV – Occupation

Assuming the Imperial player is able to land troops, in order to win they must control, through occupation, all but 10 Urban hexes on Sol. Control of an Urban hex is through Garrisons. To Garrison a hex it must be either occupied solely by an Imperial unit or within the Zone of Control (ZoC) of an proper Imperial unit and NOT in the ZoC of a Solomani unit. In practice this means the Imperial player will have to slog through many Solomani defenders. To do so will require a thorough understanding of Supply, what makes units different from one another, and Replacements.

Supply for the Solomani player is easy – any Urban or Starport hex is a source of Supply. The Imperial player on the other hand must bring their own supply with them in the form of Bases – that cost 1C to transport – meaning only the (few) AR can deliver them to the surface. Bases also make great targets for the Solomani player. Units that start the turn out of supply may not attack and can defend with half their current value.

At first glance, the ground combat system looks rather like a Lanchester Attrition Model that Trevor Dupuy would be proud of. Combat is a simple odds roll with results expressed in Percentage Loss. The stacking rules allow up to 1000 factors (!!!) in a single hex. So why would one want to play this uninteresting attrition game?

Well, because of the few unit types and Tech Level.

There might not be many different ground units in the game, but the few differences are very important:

  • Army, Corps, and Planetary Defense units ONLY extend a ZoC
  • Armor units have their strength doubled in attack or defense
  • Elite units have their strength doubled (this can stack with the Armor bonus)
  • Tech Level differences are COLUMN SHIFTS on the CRT
  • Mercenaries with over 50% losses have their attack strength halved (they are in it only for the money)
  • Commando units ignore enemy units and ZoC during movement and are always in Supply making them the ultimate infiltrators
  • Guerrilla units are attacked with a +3 DM when hiding.

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An Imperial TL14 Elite GravArmor Division takes on a Solomani TL11 Infantry Corps. 1:5 odds? Not so fast….

In keeping with a core tenet of the Traveller RPG the greater the TL difference the more the hurt! Assume a TL14 Imperial Elite Tank Division (20-14) is attacking a defending TL11 Solomani Infantry Corps (1C-11) as shown above.

  • Imperial attack 20×2 (Armor) x2 (Elite) = 80 vs 100 (1:1.5 SHIFTED UP 3 columns to 2:1) – 8 in 11 chance of 10-70% losses
  • Solomani defend 100 vs 80 (1:1 SHIFTED DOWN 3 columns to 1:3) – 3 in 11 chance of 10-20% losses.

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At the end of each calendar quarter, a special turn is executed. This is where both sides can receive Replacements in the form of Replacement Points (RP).

  • Solomani – Accumulate 1x RP for each ungarrisoned Urban hex on the map (there are 61 Urban hexes at the start)
  • Imperial – RP comes in the form of a Wave of 100 RP.

Each RP can rebuild a single ground unit combat factor. It takes 100 RP for the Imperial player to build a Base. The Imperial player can also use a Wave to replace any three eliminated naval units. The Solomani player can start to rebuild an SDB unit at a Starport for no RP but it will not be completed until the next quarter’s special turn (assuming it was not destroyed by being overrun or bombarded). There are additional rules for Emergency Replacements which can be called upon outside of the special turns but are not as plentiful.

End State – Victory

Victory in Invasion: Earth is not based on playing a set number of turns. Instead, in each end of quarter special turn Victory is checked. The Imperial player always has the option of abandoning the invasion which awards the Solomani player a Major Victory. If not, play continues every quarter until the Solomani have 10 or fewer Urban hexes ungarrisoned by the Imperial player. At this point, the Imperial player is awarded 10 VP. Modifiers are then applied:

  • -1 VP for each quarter of the invasion
  • -1 for each Replacement Wave taken by the Imperial player
  • +1 if all Solomani surface units eliminated
  • +1 if all Solomani naval units eliminated.

The Level of Victory Table is then consulted:

  • VP 7+ > Imperial Decisive Victory
  • VP 4-6 > Imperial Major Victory
  • VP 1-3 > Imperial Marginal Victory
  • VP 0 or -1 > Draw
  • VP -2 or -3 > Solomani Marginal Victory
  • VP -4 or less > Solomani Major Victory

In order to win, the Imperial player must be both quick AND efficient with their resources; making as much as they can with the assets they have on hand. The Solomani player benefits from a long, drawn out war of attrition and hiding some units to prevent their destruction (a Fleet-in-Being?).

In my game, the Imperial player did not achieve the Standard Victory (10 VP) until the fifth quarter of play (-5 VP). The Imperial player also took 3x Wave of RP (-3 VP). Not all Solomani ground forces were eliminated and there was a lone Solomani CR that hid in Deep Space the entire game . This was enough for an Imperial Marginal Victory – and boy did it feel marginal!

AAR – or – After Action Reaction

Invasion: Earth turns out to not be the game I was expecting. Looking at the box and the first pass through the rules thought I saw a somewhat staid game with a very old-fashioned combat model that didn’t look like a vision of the future but rather a rehash of the past. Instead, what IE delivers is a master-class lesson on opposed landings and shows a vision of the future where timeless lessons of amphibious landings are applied to orbital assaults. The rules drive the players to carefully husbanding their resources and allocating forces with thought. Indeed, I had not expected a game that appears this simple to be this deep in the decisions it forces upon players.

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I note that Invasion: Earth was published in 1981, a year before the 1982 Falklands War where the Royal Navy and British ground forces were challenged to figure out how to carefully load troops and logistics on few amphibious ships and execute an amphibious landing far away from their bases. The British also faced a narrow timeline for action being called upon to invade and retake the islands before the winter.* Invasion: Earth and the Falklands War are eerily similar, and even more eery when one considers IE came before the Falklands War. Then again, maybe designers Marc Miller and Frank Chadwick were just expressing age-old, never-changing lessons of amphibious warfare in this paper time machine.

If so they did a very good job.


*For a good modern wargame on the Falklands War that is soloable, I recommend Mrs. Thatchers War from White Dog Games.

#TravellerRPG #retro #wargame – Remember the time we were invaded? Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981)

IN 1979 MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER WHEN I STARTED WARGAMING. At the same time, I discovered role playing games (RPGs), but my RPG of choice was NOT Dungeons & Dragons, but rather Traveller in the classic Little Black Books. Game Designers’ Workshop was the publisher of Traveller and many other wargames. Alas, for some reason (price?) I saw several Traveller-related wargames but didn’t buy them. Over the past 40 years I have tried to build out my collection and for a while had to satisfy myself with only PnP versions on the The Classic Traveller CDROM from farfuture.net.

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Classic Traveller in the Little Black Books. My copies are much more used….

GDW published seven boardgames for Classic Traveller. Over the years, two of those games, Fifth Frontier War and Invasion: Earth achieved ‘grail game’ status to me. I am lucky to own physical (boxed) copies of Imperium, Mayday, Snapshot, and Fifth Frontier War. This week I added the other grail game to my collection, Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981). The back of the box further adds to the title with, “A complete Adventure Game of science fiction from Game Designers’ Workshop.”

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Going through the box and rules is a real adventure and nostalgia trip for all the right reasons.

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Even the Comment Card is in there!

Component-wise, Invasion: Earth looks more like today’s print-on-demand products. There is nothing wrong with that; just by today’s standards it is not a ‘top line’ product like it was ‘in the day.’

Mechanically, the game is rated as Intermediate complexity. Maybe so in terms of 1981 games, but with the rules taking a paltry 12 double-column pages, one of which is the cover, another front matter, a third the Order of Battle, and a fourth the back cover with the Unit Identification Chart. The other 8 pages of actual rules are actually not very complex mechanically. Noted wargame designer Frank Chadwick is credited as a co-designer. I definitely see shades of Chadwick’s design here. It’s not his finest work, but by no means is Invasion: Earth a stinker either.

What I really love is what the other four pages of the rule book includes. Two pages are background on The Solomani Rim War. This is where lead designer Marc Miller, the father of Traveller, makes his major contribution. I think this game was the first place where the ‘details’ of the Solomani Rim War were discussed (Supplement 10: The Solomani Rim was not published until 1982). Like many wargames used to do, this ‘history’ helps bring the theme to life and makes playing the game seem to really mean something far beyond being an exercise in pushing chits across a map.

The last two pages are devoted to Traveller and helping Game Master’s fit the game into their adventures. There are seeds for Casual Adventures, Continuing Campaigns, and using the game as a Campaign Background. Then there is a section titled, “Other Uses.

It’s pure grognard heaven.

The Other Uses section explains how to use the rules from Invasion: Earth as the foundation for other planetary invasion campaigns. Rules are provided for other forms of mechanized forces or even foot soldiers beyond the default Grav Vehicles in this game. With these rules I can do what many Traveller players love; tinker with world-building (or in this case, wargame-design) as ‘Systems Engineers.’*

So how does it play? Well, does it really matter? I personally don’t like the percentage Casualty Markers and see them as clumsy. I wonder what a modern design approach could look like. Then again, I don’t. Invasion: Earth is a snapshot in time that even today, nearly 40 years later, should be savored in its original format. I play, and enjoy it, more for the nostalgia – and definitely for the adventure.

Life is good.


* In Marc Miller’s Traveller, commonly referred to as Traveller 4, Marc Miller discussed different types of Traveller players. One set he referred to as ‘Systems Engineers’ – those who want to “create custom equipment or information.”

 

CSR #Wargame Challenge Saturday – Azhanti High Lightning (GDW,1980) & Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games, 1981+)

It was a bit cold and windy outside this weekend so it was a good chance to work off another few games of my 2019 Charles S Roberts Wargame Challenge.

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Courtesy BGG.com

Up first was Azhanti High Lightning (GDW, 1980). I played using the VASSAL module since my copy is all electronic on the Far Future Enterprises Classic Traveller CD. AHL is a very “typical” GDW wargame of the 1980’s – heavy on rules and procedures. While billing itself as a game of close quarters combat aboard large spaceships (as compared to Snapshot (GDW, 1979) for small ships) I couldn’t help but think AHL is a fair model of indoor skirmish combat. There are rules here for doors and corners (no, not The Expanse Doors & Corners although….) as well as consoles and elevators and the like.  I mean, the deck plans for the AHL-class of ships are building style since the ship is a tail-sitter (again, ala The Expanse). A part of me wants to rename this Die Hard – The Boardgame.

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The Expanse Doors & Corners (courtesy IMDB.com)

A very good rule I had forgotten about was Morale. I should not be surprised since Frank Chadwick was involved in this game and his designs always seem to emphasize the importance of Morale.

Here are the two most important sections as I see it:

C. Procedure: Roll two dice. If the number rolled is equal to or less than the character’s modified morale value, the character passes the check. If it is greater than the character’s modified morale value the character fails the check. All positive leadership bonuses are added to the checking character’s morale value (not the dice roll), and all negative bonuses are subtracted from the checking character’s morale value.

A character with a leadership bonus (referred to as a leader) uses the bonus to modify the morale values of all friendly subordinates (all who check morale after that leader) within the leader’s line of sight, but only if the leader did check morale that step. A leader may not apply his or her bonus to his or her own morale checks.

If the leader passes all morale checks, that leader’s bonus is added to all subsequent morale checks of friendly subordinates; if the leader fails a morale check then that leader’s bonus is subtracted from all other morale checks of friendly subordinates. The effects of several leaders in the same area checking morale are cumulative.

For example, lntruder officer 3 (bonus of +2) and lntruder NCO 2 (bonus of +3) are leading an assault party across an area swept by covering fire. Officer 3 fails his or her morale check and thus NCO 2 checks morale with 2 subtracted from his or her morale rating. Assuming NCO 2 passes the check, all of the other members of the assault party check morale with a positive modifier of 1 (+3 from NCO 2 and -2 from 02 for a net modifier of +1).

The penalty for failing a morale check is harsh:

D. Effects of Failed Morale: Failure of an exposure to covering fire check causes the character to avoid exposing him or herself; any other movement (or allowable combat action) is permitted as long as the character does not enter a danger space of a covering fire. Failure of a moving adjacent check will cause the character to stop moving before coming adjacent. The character will stop with at least 3 APs left (if possible), and if 3 APs are left will execute a snap shot at the character to whom he or she was intending to move adjacent. Failure of a casualty or unexpected fire morale check will cause the character to panic and flee. Regardless of what was chosen for the character in the decision phase, the character must, in the action phase(s) immediately following the failed check, run away from the location of the enemy characters until he or she reaches a position of complete cover (referred to as cowering). The character will then remain there until he or she successfully makes a morale check. This morale check is made at the start of each decision phase. Any friendly leader who moves to the square containing the cowering character may apply his or her leadership bonus to that character’s morale value. In this case, it is not necessary for the leader to pass a morale check before applying the bonus to the cowering character. Note that any leader may carry out this function for any friendly cowering character. This is the only time that the leadership bonus of a lower-ranking character may be used to assist a higher-ranking character in making a morale check.


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1st Edition (SJ Games)

The second CSR game of the weekend was Car Wars. I have the original pocket box first edition from 1981 but for this game I pulled out my Fourth Edition, Third Printing from 2015.

I was surprised that the rule book for 4th Edition clocks in at 64 digest-size pages! In reality, the “game” itself is not that long as the rules for movement and combat are covered in 37 pages (18 pages if full-size) and the balance is mostly Characters (psuedo-RPG?) and Vehicle Design. I chose to concentrate on the simple game and created a three-way Amateur Night scenario featuring a stock Killer Kart ($3,848), a Stinger Option III ($3,989) and a Stinger Option IV w/spikedropper ($4,293). The game was fun but it does take work to use the Movement Chart with its five phases. I do not have the latest Sixth Edition but I wonder if Steve Jackson Games has leveraged any of the new approaches to graphical play aids like Jim Krohn did for Talon (GMT Games, 2016). Both Talon and Car Wars use “impulse” movement but the new graphical play aid in Talon makes the flow of the turn go much quicker.


With these two games I have now worked played off six of 20 games in my CSR Challenge. In my other 2019 Challenges I still have to play 13 of 15 in my Golden Geek Challenge and 14 of 16 in my Origins Challenge. All that while playing new games too. Ah, the challenges of being a gamer….


Feature image – Azhanti High Lightning VASSAL module

#SciFiFriday – Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick (@BaenBooks)

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Courtesy Baen.com

Military science fiction is often a hit-or-miss proposition to me, even more so with space combat which is often so “fantastical” that it becomes unbearable. But I am also a longtime fan of Frank Chadwick’s games (see his BoardGameGeek Ludography) and seeing how his latest book, Chain of Command, is being published by @BaenBooks (whose military science fiction I tolerate more so than other publishers) I gave it a try. It also didn’t hurt that I listened to the Bane Free Radio Hour (Episode 2017 09 29) where Mr. Chadwick discussed his book.

What really drew me to this book was Mr. Chadwick’s inspiration. As he writes in the Historical Note at the end of Chain of Command:

The inspiration for this novel grew from James D. Hornfischer’s stirring and detailed account of the naval campaign in the Solomon Islands (including Guadalcanal) in the second half of 1942–Neptune’s Inferno, but I never intended to shift the events of that campaign wholesale into deep space. A few incidents may be familiar to students of the historical battles, but my main interest was in how officers and sailors–as well as the admirals who lead them into battle with varying degrees of success–responded to a war which took them unaware and psychologically unprepared.

Mr. Chadwick goes on to list several books that further influenced the story. I was very happy to see Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea listed for I had thought nobody actually read these books anymore.

With all that in mind one could be forgiven for worrying that Chain of Command is just another “WW2 in space” story but I am happy to report that the book successfully overcomes that challenge. The science fiction technology tends a bit more towards the “hard science-fi” edge with just enough handwavium to explain away the science fiction. In many ways, the fantastical technology in the book traces its lineage to today’s technology which makes it all the more believable and relatable.

If military science fiction is your thing and you have even a passing interest in World War II naval combat, then Chain of Command could make a good addition to your reading list.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984)

I came of age in the 1980’s right at the height of the Cold War. I went to high school in the era of Ronald Reagan, the Evil Empire, and Star Wars (as in the Strategic Defense Initiative). Like others of my time, we lived under the constant specter of nuclear war. I had read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, which told the tale of a near-future war in Europe. I also read Strieber and Kunetka’s War Day and the Journey Onward and watched the movie The Day After which both dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear war in America. I did’t know it at the time, but in 1983 the US and Soviet Union came very close to war (see Able Archer 83). So it was with great anticipation that I purchased Twilight:2000 (1st Ed), published by GDW in 1984. The player characters were soldiers, cut off in Europe at the end of a nuclear war, that must survive and maybe even get home.

Once again, I was surprised that T2K was the 1984 HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Co-Winner (along with Paranoia – next weeks retrospective). T2K was designed by Frank Chadwick, a prolific wargame and RPG designer and associate designer of Traveller. In 1984, he was the Charles S. Roberts Hall of Fame Award winner and inducted into the Origin Hall of Fame in 1985. I make this point because T2K is alot like Traveller; a simple Core Mechanic wrapped around a very thematic setting with a heavy emphasis on combat. There is little-to-no narrative play in the system. To me, this was a comfortable system. T2K was the first game where I experienced the GDW House System.

Character generation was a mix of rolled Attributes which, after a little math, led to Characteristics. Other important parts of the character included Coolness Under Fire. Service history was a life path-like process, although Skills were purchased. For me, this was a comfortable area; enough like Traveller to be familiar but different enough to be interesting.

The Core Mechanic was a simple percentile die (d100) roll against a skill level (or Attribute x5 if against an Attribute). There was a very simple difficulty system. A Difficult task took the Asset (Skill) /2 as the Target Number. An Average check was straight against the Asset where an Easy task was Asset x2 for the Target Number. There were provisions for Opposed Checks, as well as rules for Outstanding Success and Catastrophic Failure.

Fatigue also was a major component of the rules, a section that at the time I failed to realize was so important. Fatigue reduced Strength, Agility, Constitution and Intelligence. Too much fatigue and the character became semi-catatonic and slowed down, even reaching unconsciousness! To combat fatigue, sleep and rest were needed. Hand-in-hand with fatigue came the Upkeep rules, which we ignored back in the day but I now realize are some of the most important parts of the setting. Finding food, be it by foraging or hunting or fishing, was as important (if not more so) than tracking ammo or fuel consumption and maintaining vehicles or animals. These two rules, Fatigue and Upkeep, are actually the heart of the game showing the difficulty in surviving the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Combat used a simple three-step process: Did you hit? Where did you hit? How hard did you hit? Each Combat Turn consisted of actions. This is where the Coolness Under Fire came in. The character’s Coolness Under Fire rating determined how often the character hesitated in combat. More Cool, less hesitation. A simple, elegant mechanic that helped define veterans against combat novices.

Much like Behind Enemy Lines, T2K also used Encounter Tables to help drive the action. Of great interest to me at the time, Non-Player Character (NPC) motivations were determined by drawing from a deck of playing cards. Another simple, elegant way of randomizing (or describing) what drove an NPC to act.

What I Thought of It Then – Back in the day, T2K became the replacement game for Traveller in our group. We gobbled up the supplements, especially the Order of Battle books and weapons. This was because we were still wargamers at heart, and T2K is nearly a wargame. We also loved the story bites; they made the book come alive.

What I Think of It Now – T2K is more  wargame than an RPG. Like Behind Enemy Lines, I am not sure this game really deserves to be called an RPG, much less an RPG rules award winner. Eventually, T2K would get its own wargame, Last Battle: Twilight -2000. Indeed, of the 24-page Player Manual and 31-page Referee’s Manual, there is just one (1) page devoted to Referee Notes. The notes don’t give many referee hints.

There is one question this manual has not answered so far, but it will be one of the first questions your players ask, “what are we supposed to be doing?” The obvious, and correct, answer is, “Staying alive.” It is correct, but it isn’t enough. The players need a long-range goal as well, which gives them a reason for wanting to stay alive. This is one they will have to supply themselves, to some extent, but as the referee you have the responsibility to help them along.

T2K has almost no narrative play baked into the system. What little bit was there depended upon the referee, not the players. In the Play Manual Introduction, the Referee was expectations were defined as follows:

The purpose of the referee is to describe the world the players are traveling and adventuring in. The referee plays the role of the non-player characters (NPCs) encountered along the way and adjudicates all conflicts and battles. It is his responsibility to keep the game exciting for the players. The requires several special qualities.

First, the referee must be imaginative….

Second, the referee should have the ability to improvise….

Finally, the referee must have a sense of proportion….

A good referee should so structure the player’s adventures that they are always aware of being extremely close to danger and destruction….The assumption of the game is that players who exercise good judgement and cunning, and who make wise use of their personal strengths, can survive.

There was only a slight nod to the players in the Play Manual Introduction:

The players are the heart of Twilight: 2000. While the referee creates the world, it is the players who travel through it and, by their actions, ultimately change it. The course of the game is a description of the adventures of a band of men and women attempting to survive and perhaps strike a blow for their beliefs. The game will take on more interest if the players seriously attempt to make their characters “come alive.” When playing, they should keep in mind who their characters are and try to act accordingly.

At the time, our group didn’t really think about this because we saw our characters defined more by their equipment than by their motivations.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Twilight: 2000 (1st Ed.) Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2.5 (Does account for Difficulty)
  • Simulationist = 5 (A deadly game)
  • Narrativism = 1.5 (Outstanding Success/Catastrophic Failure and NPC motivations)