It’s essential not to over-extrapolate from an incomplete dataset drawing on deeply selection-biased sources. However, it does suggest the technical advantages of Russian fighters (especially long-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles) are working in their favor.
Nonetheless, both sides’ aviation operations are geographically constrained by the robust ground-based air defenses of the other. On the balance, that means Russia’s air force can’t press its advantage into Ukrainian-defended airspace to claim air superiority. That allows Ukraine’s air force to continue flying and impose costs on a foe with a larger number of more advanced warplanes.
Part of the reason I flagged this article is that Tomcats and my air combat wargaming have long gone hand in hand. The first modern air combat wargame I owned was the TSR edition of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat (1983). The cover featured, of course, an F-14 Tomcat.
Not an air combat game, but in 1986 I picked up Target: Libya, a magazine game in Strategy & Tactics No. 109 based pretty much on the Tomcat cover only.
The second modern air combat wargame I acquired was Air Superiority from GDW in 1987 featuring…a Tomcat on the cover!
Even my favorite naval combat wargame, Harpoon, got into the Tomcat “game” with the cover of Harpoon: Battles of the Third World War – Modern Naval Warfare Scenarios from GDW in 1987.
My love affair with Tomcats was not limited to just wargames. One of the earliest Squadron/Signal Publications books to enter my collection was F-14 Tomcat in Action: Squadron/Signal Publications Aircraft No. 32 by Lou Drendel (1977).
Who can forget the incredible flying scene in the movie The Final Countdown (1980) where Tomcats and “Zeros” tangle!
In 1986 the designer of Harpoon, Larry Bond, was credited as co-author with Tom Clancy for his bestselling novel Red Storm Rising. Although we don’t “see” any Tomcats in the book, we read all about them, especially in the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” which we now know was plotted with the assistance of Harpoon.
In 1986 we also get the original Top Gun movie and all that Tomcat love…
The cover of what may be the best-ever coffee table aviation photo book by C.J. Heatley III (what a great aviator name) is The Cutting Edge (Charlottesville: Thomasson, Grant & Howell, 1986) and has…Tomcats.
My Osprey Publishing book collection even has a Tomcat entry with Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat: Osprey Combat Aircraft 49 by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop (2004). There is LOTS of good wargame scenario fodder in this book!
For this winter, I have a 1/144th scale plastic model from Trumpeter to build.
Part of my love affair for Tomcats also comes from my two cruises with Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass. Although he was not my squadron skipper, he was a legend in the Naval Aviation community that we all respected. His death in 2021 was as sad as it was unexpected.
While the Tomcat-cover wargames are not the only air combat games in my collection, they are the most memorable. Now that I think about it, the cover of Birds of Prey: Air Combat in the Jet Age (Ad Astra, 2008) features an F-15 Eagle. Maybe that cover, as much as the difficult rules, explains why I don’t enjoy BoP?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 onHarpoon 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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].
By the time 1986 rolled around, I had been a Traveller RPG player for seven years. Surprisingly, while the Traveller rules had moved on from (Classic) Traveller in the Little Black Books to The Traveller Book and MegaTraveller, I had not kept up. As a high school student who was into both roleplaying games and wargames, my budget couldn’t support constantly “buying up” into new rules systems (more honestly, I was big into the science fiction wargame Star Fleet Battles and spent the majority of my money there). However, when GDW released a “new” Traveller game called Traveller: 2300 I eagerly bought the base set and the boxed ship combat game, Star Cruiser.
…and I was confused.
Traveller: 2300 took place around the year 2300AD but the game was, well, very un-Traveller. The setting was based on the events started in Twilight: 2000 and were totally unrelated to the Third Imperium history found in Classic Traveller. This created much confusion for me and anger among others as many loyal Traveller-player accused GDW of deceit. Later, GDW would “clarify” this confusion by renaming this setting/rules set as simply 2300AD.
Traveller: 2300 billed itself right on the box cover as, “Playable Realism in Science Fiction Role-Playing.” Whereas Classic Traveller was (classic) space opera, Traveller: 2300 attempted to hue to a more realistic, or hard sci-fi, gaming experience. The result was a setting that tried to be more realistic, like the inclusion of a Near Stars map that was based on reality, and not a randomized die-driven star map generation system like that found in Traveller.
Fortunately, though Traveller: 2300 grew from the Twilight: 2000 setting, the former did not use the character generation or task resolution mechanisms of the later. At this time, GDW was moving towards a “house” rules system and eventually the rules for MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era,Twilight: 2000 2nd Ed., and 2300AD would share commonalities. For now, though, Traveller: 2300 led the change with a return to a relatively simple character generation system that again emphasized career paths.
[The Task Resolution System in Traveller: 2300 uses 1d10 against a difficulty: Simple 3+, Routine 7+, Difficult 11+, Formidable 15+, and Impossible 19+. Crucial Characteristics (Attribute/5) and Crucial Skills serve as positive die modifiers. For instance, to drive a vehicle evasively is Routine, Driver, Absolute (1 action in combat round) where the die roll required is 7+ and the relevant driver skill serves as a positive DM. I remember being really confused about Tasks as the Referee was encouraged to build a notecard set as different tasks were created. Are you telling me the game didn’t come with any tasks? It took me a bit but I eventually figured out how a Referee colud make a task on the fly—pick a difficulty, determine which skills or characteristics were assets, and chose a time interval.]
Unlike Twilight: 2000 with its extensive Character Generation Worksheet, Traveler: 2300 returned to a relatively simple process and a character sheet that could be on a 3×5 notecard if needed. The rules for Character Generation were found in the Player Manual and for the most part was reduced to a one-page checklist. In my box I found a home-made “player’s handbook” which included the checklist page and the two pages of the Skills List stapled together and folded in half—easy to stash in a notebook. The process is so well laid out for this character generation challenge I started by simply going down the checklist. Amazingly, I had to refer to the Player Manual only a few times, and if I was a regular player of Traveller: 2300 the few check-ups would probably be done once and not needed again.
I’m going to walk yo through the process of generating Leonard ‘Leo’ Storm, an American hailing from the normal-gravity frontier colony Ellis (Pick Nationality, Frontier/Core?, Homeworld, Homeworld Gravity). His basic body type is “Endomorph;” short and stocky they suffer less from the effects of extreme gravity and acceleration and often make good pilots.
[Usually 4d6-4 for a range of 0-20; Characteristic divided by 5 often used as an asset (+DM) to task resolution.]
Size – 12 / Strength – 12 (Normal G, 11 in High-G, 10 in Low or Zero-G) / Dexterity – 13 (Normal G, 14 in High-G, 12 in Low G, and 11 in Zero-G) / Endurance – 14
Characters gain a number of Background Skills equal to Education/2. There is a separate list of Frontier and Core background skills to chose from. Of note, skills are usually purchased at a rate of Skill Level/2 (round up).
Leo decides to enter the Scouts which is an Exploratory Career. This gives him a set of Initial Training Skills. Leo faces his first “Turning Point” at five years.
[Unlike Classic Traveller’s set four-year terms, Traveller: 2000 uses the concept of a Turning Point to determine “term” length. A Turning Point comes a number of years based on a d10 die roll. In the case of Leo, his first Turning Point was five years. When a Turning Point is reached, characters gain skill points equal to the number of years that can be used to purchase new skills. Each career defines Primary and Related Skills; Primary Skills are purchased at 1/2 point per skill level, Related Skills at double-cost, and purchasing an unrelated skill will cost triple. At every Turning Point an Easy, Determination Task Roll must also be passed to continue on. In the case of Leo, he must roll 3+ on 1d6 with a +2DM based on his Determination attribute. Leo’s first Turning Point was after five years and he continued on to a second Turning Point after another 8 years. At this point I could roll to continue on but decided to stop and finalize the character.]
[Rated on a scale of 0-10; crucial skills often used as a +DM on Task Resolution]
Consciousness – 2 / Life Level – 4 (see the Errata sheet correcting a major error in the Player Manual!)
Mass – 126 kg / Encumbrance – 48 kg / Throw Range – 96 m / Coolness Under Fire – 5
Native Language – English (no secondary language)
Leonard ‘Leo’ Storm was always itching to get off the frontier world of Ellis. He always thought there was much more out there in the Black. After being a Scout for 13 years, Leo isn’t so sure about his dreams. Life in the Scouts devolved into boredom as they just pushed the end of the American Arm and kept coming up empty. Leo has decided to leave the Scouts and go free-lance for the large Corporations. Last time out near the end of the Arm he heard rumors of “beasts from beyond” but laughed it off as soon as the next round of beers arrived. Funny thing is, he keeps hearing that rumor over and over again…
Even having not picked up Traveller: 2300 in many years, the process for character generation was fast, as in I made this character in around 20 minutes even with a few references to the Player and Referee Manuals. After the last few games, like James Bond 007, FASA Star Trek, and Twilight: 2000 that all seemed to be trending toward more complicated character generation processes, Traveller: 2300 was (relatively) a return to simplicity.
I have always loved starships. Of course, starships are a major element of the Traveller roleplaying game and a part of the game I instantly fell in love with. I especially liked how using Book 2 you could design our own ships. Back in my early days of playing Traveller, I didn’t not really understand that Book 2 is designed for smaller Adventure-class ships, but when Book 5 High Guard came out I instantly realized that this was the book for big battlewagons. This was the book that would allow me to create a Battlestar Galactica or an Imperial Star Destroyer in my Traveller adventures. It’s no wonder that my copy of Book 5 is probably the most beaten up of any book in my collection; I loved it and played it that much.
“…construction of very large vessels…”
While High Guard gave me rules for creating naval characters, let’s not kid ourselves; the primary draw of the book always has been the ship design rules for very large ships. High Guard talks about ships up to one million tons (p. 20). The design sequence itself is very simple. Even today, I am impressed at just how simple the sequence is to follow. Best of all, one could do it on a worksheet (provided in the book) or a 5″x8″ notecard (I found a 3″x5″ a bit too crowded). While a calculator is certainly handy, a piece of scrap paper for solving a few equations was really all that is needed.
When I was playing Traveller in the early 1980’s, the two main sci-fi pop culture influences I had were Star Wars (the real Stars Wars, not that Episode 4 crap…Han shot first!) and Star Trek. Actually, my Star Trek influence was through Star Fleet Battles, a licensed derivative wargame based on the Franz Josef technical manual for Star Trek. In practice, this meant in those early days the main influence on my Traveller gaming was that starship were either Star Wars or Star Trek-derived.
Which was actually a bit boring.
It took me a few years, but after a while I really came to understand—and respect—how High Guard shows technological progression and differences in design. The Star Wars universe is actually very simple; hyperdrive, turbolasers, and torpedoes. Star Fleet Battles was a bit more creative with Warp Drive and Phasers or Disruptors and Photon or Plasma Torpedoes. Traveller, and especially the High Guard book, had a much wider variety of weapons. At first everything I designed was Tech Level-15 but after a while I started paying attention to the technology level limits. I started to see the real difference between a TL-15 starship and a TL-8 system boat. This also made me start thinking about different fleet doctrines and how that influences ship design.
High Guard gave me a simple model that I could use to see how different technology levels lead to different design choices which in turn feed into development of doctrine. Such an evolution is almost totally absent in Star Wars—all the tech is similar and fleet doctrine, what little we actually see in the movies, is driven by cinematic needs and not based on any sort of rational choice. In Star Fleet Battles there was a bit more, and at least the different weapons made for some tactical choices that should of led to fleet doctrines. However, even in the early days of Star Fleet Battles ships were “different” between empires but were “balanced” for the game. While the later Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron would introduce a “balance”—the same budget—High Guard kept the focus on technology levels. In many ways the lessons I was learning in Traveller High Guard were applicable to other wargames like Harpoon (ATG) or MBT (GMT Games)—as well as real life (like why is the US M1A1 Abrams tank so superior to a Soviet T-64?)
Take for example two different planets in my B’rron Subsector. World DA-4 in the Dr’ke Arm has UWP A373CCA-9 . This means it can build starships up to Tech Level 9. In what may be the most under-appreciated rule in all of High Guard, the Computer Models table gives us a ship building size limit. This table tells us that in order to build a ship 10,000 tons or larger, you need a Model/4 computer—which is Tech Level A (10). At TL9 that Model/3 computer can build ships up to size “J” at 9,000 tons (technically up to 9,999 tons). Compare this to the capital of the Bradii Reach which is UWP A72AA98-F. At TL-F (15) they have computers that allows then to build ships larger than 1,000,000 tons!
So what does TL-9 allow you to do?
Size: >10,000 tons
Power Plant is 3% Ship’s Tonnage per number
Hull Armor is most expensive where space is computed at 4+4a (where a is desired armor factor)
Major Weapons: B-Factor Particle accelerator (at 5,000 tons)
The starship combat section of High Guard has always interested me. Some people absolutely hate it because, they say, it is too abstract a model. I’ll admit I struggle with it at times, but back in the day this simple combat model allowed us to play out gigantic battles on the lunch room table with nothing but our ships on 3×5 notecards and some dice.
I am fully aware of the controversial Eurisko that uses the High Guard ship construction rules along with the adventure Trillion Credit Squadron. I’ll save my commentary on that for later. For now, I will only say that back in the early 1980’s as a middle and high-schooler those controversies were way above my level—we were game players not computer programmers…and we couldn’t go to a national tournament anyway!
While some other critics of the High Guard starship combat model complain it is not “cinematic,” I contend what High Guard always has done well is highlight the design differences between ships. In other words, the High Guard starship combat system compliments the starship design system. The starship design system asks architects to make design decisions, but the impact of those decisions are not seen until the ships get tested in combat.
In High Guard, no matter what weapon is fired the “relative computer size” is very important. This makes designing a ship more than simply finding the right computer to fit the Jump Drive. The emphasis on computers in High Guard actually helped me understand the Book 2 ships computer rules better. By the mid-1980s the microcomputer revolution was well underway, and many people focused on how “ridiculous” the space needed for ship’s computers in Book 2 (and later Book 5 High Guard) was. High Guard helped me to understand those “CPU” rules in Book 2 and how a better computer gave ships the capability to not only run more programs, but better ones. The computer rules in High Guard and the relative computer rating in combat were abstractions of Book 2, but that abstraction gave me a better understanding of the more finite model. It goes a long way towards explaining why the canonical System Defense Boat (SDB) found in Supplement 7 Traders and Gunboats has a Model/5fib computer. That computer often means the SDB has a significant to-hit advantage over most commercial—and pirate—vessels and often can stand toe-to-toe with larger warships.
In many ways the different tech levels in High Guard presaged the different “generations” of weapons we have today. The difference between a 5th Generation fighter like the F-35 and a Cold War MiG-23 is night and day, like the difference between a TL11 ship and one of equal tonnage built at TL15 in High Guard.
The High Guard space combat system makes extensive use of the Agility rating of ship. The concept of Agility in High Guard has always been one of the hardest concepts to grasp about the entire game. I mean, we all know that tiny snub fighters can run circles around giant Star Destroyers, eh? In High Guard the explanation of Agility is buried in the ship design section under Energy Points:
Agility: Energy points remaining after weapons, screens, and computers have been installed may be applied toward the ship’s agility rating. Divide the remaining energy points by .01M; the result is the number of agility points a ship has. Drop all fractional points. Agility is the ability of a ship to make violent maneuvers and take evasive action while engaging hostile targets. A ship’s agility rating may never exceed it maneuver rating. For each power plant hit received in combat (cumulative) the ship’s agility rating is reduced by one.
High Guard, p. 28
This definition has always been confusing to me. In Traveller, a ship moves (non-FTL) using a maneuver drive. So how can a Maneuver-1 ship have higher “agility” than a Maneuver-6 ship, especially when agility is tied to violent and evasive maneuvers?
Regardless of what Agility is, a target’s Agility rating is a negative DM on the to-hit roll. The more you can “jink” the better chance you have of not getting hit. It is also important to note that the Pilot skill also adds to Agility in the same way Ship’s Tactics add to computer size.
Size (and Shape) Matter
Two other design choices in High Guard have importance; size and configuration. Smaller ships are harder to hit, and different configurations matter when it comes to the biggest and baddest of the major weapons, Meson Guns. I welcomed those who wanted to build a huge Imperial Star Destroyer; that USP Code 1 Needle/Wedge was a better target for Meson Guns, unlike the ungainly USP Code 7 Dispersed Structure that was the hardest to score damage against.
Attack – Defend
Every weapon in High Guard has advantages and disadvantages. While to-hit is affected by range, computer size, agility, and target size, once a hit is achieved the defenses must be penetrated. The penetration tables also show which defenses are relevant. Every weapon in High Guard has a corresponding defense:
Attacking Missiles are defended against by Sandcasters or Beams as well as Repulsors and Nuclear Dampers
Attacking Beam weapons are defended against by Sandcasters
Meson Guns must defeat Meson Screens and deal with different configurations
Particle Accelerators must deal with armor.
Armor is perhaps the most interesting defense because it actually affects most weapons, but it not factored into combat until damage determination. Damage comes in three forms; Surface Explosion, Radiation, and Interior Explosion. Different weapons roll on different tables:
Energy Weapons, Lasers, and non-Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion only
Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
Particle Weapons roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
Meson Guns toll Radiation and Internal Explosion.
Armor is a positive DM (better for defender) on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (except for Meson Guns). A nuclear missile gets a -6 DM on the Surface Explosion table. Pulse Lasers also get a -2 DM on that same table.
There are two rules in High Guard that go a long way towards making this combat system more “friendly” for large ships. Any ship firing with a “battery” factor of 9 or less gains a +6 DM on the damage tables—in practice this means smaller ships tend to “chip away” at their opponents and don’t get critical hits. Conversely, the heaviest combatants with major spinal mount weapons gain extra damage rolls with bigger guns. The canonical Plankwell-class dreadnought in Supplement 9 Fighting Ships mounting a factor-T Meson Gun will get 17 damage rolls on BOTH the Radiation and Interior Explosion damage tables if it hits and penetrates!
Look again at the Arm of Justice I designed above. What can we expect about the ship in combat?
Computer: A Model/3fib is the best computer available at TL-9…but is disadvantaged against a higher tech opponent sporting a better computer
Agility: Agility 0 confers no advantage in Initiative or combat
Size: Size J is right in the sweet spot of combat with no modifiers
Particle Accelerator: The PA Bays are not affected by range, but they are less than factor-9 and must deal with armor on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (two damage rolls per hit) which leads to many “chipping” hits
Laser Turrets: The small factor makes these offensively all but ineffective against anything but undefended targets; best to save these for use as defense
Sandcaster Turrets: Not much defense but at least a little to make it harder for lower-tech opponents to penetrate
Armor: An armor factor of 9 makes this one a tough nut to crack and offsets the nuclear missile DM-6 on the Surface Explosion damage table.
Frank Chadwick. It’s a name I usually associate with wargame design, but as I look at my early roleplaying games it’s a name I also repeatedly see. Mr. Chadwick is credited as “Game Designer” for Traveller Book 4: Mercenary (GDW, 1978) and in Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982). In 1984 he designed another game, Twilight: 2000 1st Ed. (GDW). My familiarity with the name built up expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. When I first saw Twilight: 2000 (T2K) I thought it was the coolest military roleplaying game ever. Here was a roleplaying game set in today, and you could play Army soldiers. It also seemed very, well, real. Everyday we lived with the knowledge that the Cold War could go hot anytime. In 1983, we all had watched the TV movie The Day Afterwhich made everybody (even President Reagan) think about what happens after the bombs. In the summer of 1984, just a few months before T2K released, the blockbuster movie was Red Dawn. Growing up in Colorado, that movie hit very close to home and we all sat around the lunch room talking about how we were all Wolverines. With T2K we did more than talk, we adventured in that unthinkable-yet-right-in-front-of-us world.
What I remember of the first few sessions of T2K was…pain. Here I was, a long-time Traveller RPG player (5-year veteran at this point) and seeing a product from GDW I expected another simple character generation process. What I got was…lots of math. I mean, I could generate a character for Traveller on a 3×5 notecard. Most others games I played up to this point used a pretty simple character sheet; the most complicated one was James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983) but for a character sheet that looked complex generating that character was actually pretty straight-forward. In T2K, however, you need to use a Character Generation Worksheet that you then transferred to a Character Record Sheet. Furthermore, you really did need a calculator to generate a character. This was not something you could easily do in the lunchroom between sandwich bites with a few photocopied pages from a Little Black Book.
Back to Yesterday – T2K Today
Coming back to 1st Edition T2K after all these years, I have to say the Play Manual is actually pretty good. I literally was able to pick up the Character Generation Worksheet, open the Play Manual, and start making a character with almost no pre-reading.
To generate a character in T2K, you start with Basic Attributes. Using classic d6, you roll 4d6-4 for each. I had totally forgotten the Favor/Slight choices where you can chose to Favor an attribute (add to roll) while slighting another (subtracting from roll). After your Basic Attributes are rolled, well, then the math starts. Of the first 21 steps of the worksheet, a die roll is called for in only seven; the rest are calculated (and even in the ones where there is a die roll it usually acts as a randomizer in a formula).
Looking at what goes into a character in T2K, it also becomes obvious this is a very combat-oriented game. In some ways I can see a legacy from Traveller Book 4 Mercenary and Behind Enemy Lines, but T2K elevates it to another level. Hit Capacity, Throw Range, Coolness Under Fire are what concerns you the most along with combat skills. The skills in T2K read like an Army training manual, if you can understand all the acronyms. When T2K says your characters are all in the military, they mean it. As a matter of fact, I can’t see any way to generate a simple civilian. In later years, as I was in the military, we would sometimes try to “model ourselves” in T2K. Amazingly, we could get pretty close; at least, to the self we wanted to be!
Grant Worth, SSgt, US Army
Basic Attributes (4d6-4)
Agility (Favored) 12+2=14
Stature (Slighted) 11-7-3=4
Total = 61
Strength STR[=FIT+STA/2] = 9
Head [=CON] = 11
Chest [=STR+CON+STA] = 24
All Others [=CON+STA] = 15
Throw Range [=2xSTR] = 18
Weight [=(4xSTA)+40] = 56
Load [=(2xSTR)+CON] = 29
Military Experience Bonus [=(120-TOT)/7] = 8
Time (Months) In Combat [=(MEB)D6] = d6=6 = 48
Rads [=(MEB)D6] = d6=3 = 24
Coolness Under Fire [=10-D6-(Time/10)] = 10-4-2 = 4
Age [=(Time/12)+EDU+8+(N)D6] where N is from Table 1 = 4+8+8+(1)6 = 26
Army & Nationality: US Army, USA
Native Language: English
Rank Number [=(TIME/10)+Nd6 from Table 2] = 2+3 = 5
Body Combat Damage [=(STR+STA)x(BC/200] Look up table gives “2+D6”
Base Hit Numbers (Close / Med / Long)
Equipment Purchase Allowance 24,000
Grant actually joined the US Army just before the bombs fell. Since then, he has watched the world crumble around him. Originally an M3 Bradley Cavalry Scout, few tracked vehicles remain in service and Grant has moved on to up-gunned trucks. Whenever somebody calls them”technicals” Grant just smiles because he know that, technically, bullets don’t care about trucks or tracks. While Grant has a fair bit of “technical” knowledge about computers and electronics, more and more of those systems are failing and he finds the bit he knows about farming and scrounging are far more valuable skills.
In T2K it’s easy to make a military character, but sometimes hard to play that character in an adventure. While many people (including myself) see T2K as a combat roleplaying game, if you pay attention to the setting you will find it’s very much like Army life—long hours of boredom punctuated by a few moments of sheer terror. If one plays close to the setting, one will be spending most of their time foraging for food and goods rather than fighting. In many ways, T2K is a giant survival game.
Feature image: Stylized “urban warfare” by Terranozoid
This Wargame Wednesday entry is courtesy of @TheGascon who sent me down this rabbit hole from Twitter by simply asking me which Hammer’s Slammers rules I prefer. In my typical way, the answer is not simple and to understand my thinking we need to look at several decades of wargaming history. Come along as I dig into a bit of my gaming past (and present) to show you my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming evolution from the early 1980’s to today.
When I think of Hammer’s Slammers stories and wargames, the final battle in the novel Rolling Hot immediately comes to mind. Here, a severely understrength Task Force Ranson consisting at this point of a single hovertank and a handful of combat cars faces a (slightly) understrength local armored battalion. To me, a Hammer’s Slammers wargame needs to be able to recreate this battle—not necessarily the exact outcome but definitely the situation. Here is that situation as laid out so dramatically in the book:
Blue Three’s sensors had greater range and precision by an order of magnitude than those crammed into the combat cars, but the cars could process the data passed to them by the larger vehicle. The sidebar on Ranson’s multi-function display listed call signs, isolated in cross-talk overheard by the superb electronics of the tank pretending to be in Kawana while it waited on Chin Peng Rise north of the tiny hamlet.
There were twenty-five individual call signs. The AI broke them down as three companies consisting of three platoons—but no more than four tanks in any platoon (five would have been full strength). Some platoons were postulated from a single call sign.
Not all the Yokel tanks would indulge in the loose chatter that laid them out for Task Force Ranson like a roast for the carving; but most of them would, most of them were surely identified. The red cross-hatching that overlay the relief map in the main field of the display was the AI’s best estimate thus far of the the armored battalion’s disposition.
Blue Three was the frame of the trap and the bait within it; but the five combat cars of the west and east elements were the spring-loaded jaws that would snap the rat’s neck.
And this rat, Yokel or Consie, was lying. It was clear that the leading elements of First of the 4th were already deploying onto the southern slope of Sugar Knob, half a kilometer from the store and shanties of Kawana rather than ten kays their commander claimed.
In the next few seconds, the commander of the armored battalion would decide whether he wanted to meet allied mercenaries—or light the fuse that would certainly detonate in a battle more destructive than any citizen of Prosperity could imagine. He was being tested….
The two sharp green beads of Lieutenant Cooter’s element settled into position.
She heard a whisper in the southern sky. Incoming.
Rolling Hot, Chapter 12
Now let’s look back on the history of my Hammer’s Slammers wargames, or at least those titles I use to play out Hammer’s Slammers battles, and see how they did.
I discovered David Drakes Hammer’s Slammers paperback book not long after it was published, likely around 1980 or the year after it entered print. This was around the same time I discovered the (now) Classic Traveller role playing game from Game Designers’ Workshop. In early 1980 I found the three Little Black Books in my first FLGS, Fascination Corner, in south Denver. I’m not sure which came first, Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary or Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, but the two books are forever linked in my mind.
From a wargaming perspective, Mercenary is an interesting collection of rules. There are actually three rules for combat resolution given in the book: The Traveller Combat System taken from LBB Book 1: Characters and Combat, the Abstract System which is just like the name says, and a Free-Form System which is undefined. As much as I seem to remember differently the truth is that looking back at the Tech Level advancements in Mercenary they don’t even discuss hovertanks. At Tech Level 9 military vehicles transition from track-laying/wheeled to grav—ground effect is never discussed. Back then I passed on buying Striker, a set of 15mm miniatures rules, that also had the Classic Traveller vehicle design system. If I had Striker I “think” I would have tried to design the Regiment. Regardless, the lack of Striker meant I used the Abstract System in Mercenary but never truly had a force specifically-built based on the Slammers’ universe.
The closest I came to a wargame with hovertanks in these early days actual was Steve Jackson’s Ogre/G.E.V. microgames from Metagaming. I say “close” because, like Mercenary, Hammer’s Slammers was inspiration for play but not closely simulated on the tabletop. Another set of Metagaming titles, Helltank and Helltank Destroyer, actually came a bit closer but, like Ogre/G.E.V., were just not quite Hammer-like to be honestly called a Hammer’s Slammers wargame.
The first “proper” Hammer’s Slammers wargame I owned was the namesake Hammer’s Slammers from Mayfair Games published in 1984. I am sure I got this one not long after it was published. Described by some as “PanzerBlitz in Spaaaace” this simple wargame with it’s interlocking modular map and asymmetric array of forces gives one a taste of the Hammer’s Slammers universe. Looking back on the game nearly 40 years later I still see a great simple wargame that, when played by savvy players and with attention to scenario design, is not always a walkover for The Regiment like some BoardGameGeek comments imply. Although published before Rolling Hot, this Hammer’s Slammers wargame can be used to recreate the signature battle if one is wiling to design the light tanks of the First of the 4th.
For a while it looked like my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming was going dark. In the 1990’s I was getting my military career started and science-fiction games fell to the wayside as I focused more on “modern” simulations. That said, three games did enter my collection that I (longingly) yearned to use for a Hammer’s Slammers game. Although Striker II by Frank Chadwick entered my collection, once again I lacked the Traveller: The New Era vehicle design system book so I could not design Regiment vehicles.
It was during this same period that two other rule sets entered my collection, both from Ground Zero Games in the U.K. Dirtside II and Stargrunt II, designed by Jon Tuffley and others, challenged my thinking about what wargame rules could be. Up until this point in my wargaming life, Frank Chadwick and Game Designers’ Workshop defined miniatures gaming for me. In particular, I viewed Frank’s Command Decision (World War II) and Combined Arms (Modern) rules, which Striker II was built upon, as the pinnacle of miniatures rules. I respected (prided?) the “realism” in the rules and how these games were almost hex & counter wargames on a miniatures tabletop. On the other hand, Dirtside II and Stargrunt II challenged my viewpoint by giving me a set of miniatures rules that were easy to learn and used “design for effect” instead of “realism.” I also had never thought to use anything other than a d6, d10, or d100 in a wargame. Now, instead of looking up which exact weapon was used on a table in the back of a book, I was rolling a d4, d8, or maybe even a d12 Quality Die for units. It totally changed my thinking as to what a set of wargame rules could be. The vehicle design rules in Dirtside II also gave me a chance to design a hovertank, something I had not been able to do up to this point with other rule sets. In particular Dirtside II, with its vehicle design system, made recreating the Rolling Hot battle quite easy.
The early 2000’s was a bad time for my wargaming hobby. Many issues conspired against me and the result was a lack of personal emphasis on wargaming. Instead, I leaned more into role playing games since, generally speaking, it took less space (and money) to buy a book than to buy a wagame. During this time, I rediscovered my passion for Traveller RPG with Mongoose Traveller (MgT). I loved MgT (at least the first edition) because it was basically an updated take on Classic Traveller. Starting with the core rules in 2008, the MgT line immediately added Book 1: Mercenary. Then there was a very exciting development….
In 2009, Mongoose Publishing printed a sourcebook for MgT titled Hammer’s Slammers. The book showed much promise as it was written with the support of David Drake himself. This book, featuring extensive background, showed me just how disconnected I had become from the Slammers universe and helped reenergize my interest in the series. As a wargame, however, the Mongoose Publishing Hammer’s Slammers was grossly lacking.
A decade ago I wrote on this blog my thoughts of the MgT Hammer’s Slammers. Alas, the years have not changed my thinking:
The Verdict: Let’s be clear about a bias first; I love the Hammer’s Slammers series of books and stories. More than anything else David Drake has defined for me what I think of when I hear the term “military science-fiction.”
This book is a true labor of love and worth the price for the background alone. Finally, in one place you have the entire history of the Slammers together; all the people and places, event and equipment. But how does it translate as an RPG?
Unfortunately, I feel that Mongoose fails to live up to the expectations here. Especially the boast on the back cover that claims, “With all vehicles created using the Traveller Vehicle Creation System, this book is guaranteed to be fully compatible with every other Traveller book, allowing you to mix and match supplements as you desire!”
So in no particular order, here are some thoughts on the book:
– What is up with the cover soldier? The outfit is nothing like I imagine a Hammer’s Slammers trooper to be like; blinking lights and the like and doesn’t even match the armor depicted on page 120 which is that used by the Slammers
– A “Mercenary Roster” is provided on page 21 comparing notable mercenary units; each is assigned a rating but ratings are never explained (ahh, on page 180 when making a Mercenary Contract the quality of a unit is used for a DM; quality similar to but not shown the same way as the ratings on page 21)
– Joining the Slammers can be direct or through The Connections Rule from the Core Book; you can also join the Slammers after finishing a military career as per the Core Rulebook or other supplement
– Who did the maps? They are HORRIBLE—gridded squares with cartoonish graphics don’t fit this high tech military setting; easily the worst part of the book
– The characters are great but again the kit doesn’t match what is provided elsewhere
– Errors abound when cross-referencing items; is the Protection for Light Ceramic Combat Shell (or is is called Clamshell, Light) 10 or 12?
– Tank Powerguns are really powerful; like they should be in this setting
– It is impossible to make any of the supertanks using the Vehicle Creation System found in Supplement 6: Military Vehicles; so much for “guaranteed to be fully compatible”
– Vehicle Combat introduces new range and hit systems; one should backfit this to the Core Rules
In sum, Hammer’s Slammers provides great background but it is not seamless in its integration with existing Traveller books and supplements. Putting them together can be done in places (character generation) but not in others (vehicle creation).
From a wargaming perspective, the combat system in MgT Hammer’s Slammers built upon the core combat rules in MgT. That is, they retained the focus on “vehicles as characters” and a very tactical (skirmish?) level of combat. One could conceivably roleplay a member of the Regiment but to fight took much more effort and much interpolation in the rules. At the end of the day, MgT was a near-total failure as a rules set for Hammer’s Slammers-style combat. From the perspective of Rolling Hot, MgT Hammer’s Slammers could certainly recreate the personalities but, even though all the equipment was there, recreating the battle in a playable manner was near-impossible.
At nearly the same time Mongoose Publishing was giving us Hammer’s Slammers for Mongoose Traveller, another British publisher was also working with David Drake to give us a set of miniatures wargame rules very tightly focused on the Hammerverse. The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook, written by John Lambshead & John Treadaway, provided background, vehicle design and technical specifications, as well as, “an easy play gaming system.” The many shared graphics between the Handbook and MgT Hammer’s Slammers shows how closely linked the two products are. Which makes me wonder—why didn’t Mongoose use the Handbook and its combat system like GDW did with Frank Chadwick’s Striker 30 years earlier?
In 2010, John Treadaway and John Lambshead published the ultimate version of the Handbook. Now called Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, what started as a 50-page, digest-sized softcover Handbook grew into a hardcover, full-color 203 page book that proclaimed to be the “Ultimate, all-in-one rules system for tabletop gaming plus technical specifications, vehicle designs, timeline & background materials for the Slammers Universe.”
Like Dirtside II/Stargrunt II published two decades earlier, both the Handbook and The Crucible are tabletop miniatures rules that emphasize “design effect” over strict “realism.” As the introduction to the combat rules state:
These rules allow wargamers to re-fight the battles of the Slammers Armoured Regiment on a one to one scale, i.e. where one model equals one vehicle or one infantryman. Turning modern armoured warfare into a game, of necessity, involves a great deal of compromise. Thus the aim has been to recreate the spirit of the fast moving armoured engagements so brilliantly described by David Drake and so emphasis here is put on command and training rather than technology. Also, a simple ‘clean’ game system is employed so that the game flows quickly; infantry warfare in particular is abstracted. The rules focus on recreating an armoured skirmish game, as opposed to an infantry skirmish game with a few vehicles in support.
“Fighting with the Slammers: Introduction,” Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, p. 106
Finally, over twenty years after Rolling Hot was published, there is a set of wargame rules that can be used to faithfully recreate the battle situation. Resolving that battle also won’t break your sanity.
Although Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible is certainly the final word in my collection on a wargame for the Slammerverse, it did not enter my collection until very recently. In the meantime, I experimented with another set of rules. Between the time I was battling with MgT Hammer’s Slammers and now, I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing. I had high hopes for Tomorrow’s War as it was based on the (somewhat) acclaimed Force on Force rules. Alas, Tomorrow’s War took exactly the opposite design approach from The Crucible. Unlike The Crucible which focuses on armored combat (very Slammer-like), Tomorrow’s War focuses on infantry combat first with a set of vehicular rules that feel are very “bolted on.” To be fair, all the elements of a good Hammer’s Slammers battle are in the rules, but the infantry-first focus leaves certain elements—like vehicular combat—lacking. One can recreate Rolling Hot using Tomorrow’s War but it doesn’t play out as smoothly as The Handbook or The Crucible allows.
At the end of the day, this Grognard is very comfortable stating that Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible really is the “ultimate” set of wargame rules. I like the rules enough that I am looking to invest in a line of 6mm miniatures to use for tabletop battles. Better yet, if @TheGascon makes a Tabletop Simulator (TTS) module for The Crucible, it may be enough for me to overstress my old laptop and play online….
Hammer’s Slammers works referenced:
“But Loyal to His Own” (c) 1975 by David Drake. Originally published in Galaxy, November 1974
“Supertanks” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“Night March” (c) 1997 by David Drake. Originally published in The Tank Lords
“Hangman” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“The Tank Lords” (c) 1986 by David Drake. Originally published in Far Frontiers, Vol. 6
“Caught in the Crossfire” (c) 1978 by David Drake, Originally published in Chrysalis 2
“Standing Down” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
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.
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).
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.
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.
Thank to @Ardwulf for parting with this item. Ardie…you let your fear of Harpoon get the best of you here because this is NOT a complicated near-simulation like Harpoon purports to be….
In the late 1980’s I was, in many ways, a hard-core wargamer. I relished playing complex wargames. I was a Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) fanatic and when the then-new Star Fleet Battles Captain’s Edition Basic Set released in 1900 I grabbed it up. For air combat games I enjoyed the Fighting Wings series from JD Webster, in particular his modern Air Superiority title from GDW in 1987. For naval combat I was all about Harpoon. I started out with the Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II in 1983 and in 1987 jumped to the new GDW edition informally called Harpoon III but more simply known as Harpoon.
In 1989 I finished college and joined the US Navy. Between training, something called DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, and a few years stationed overseas my first few years of the 1990’s were taken up by concerns other than wargaming. So the truth to the matter is I missed Harpoon Captain’s Edition when it was first released in 1990.
By the mid-1990’s the Soviet Union had fallen and was already a fading memory. I vaguely remember browsing through a game store (Compleat Strategist in Virginia?) and looking at Harpoon Captain’s Edition: Exciting Modern Naval Battle Game. To be honest, a wargame about the Cold War Gone Hot in the North Atlantic at that time seemed so quaint. Furthermore, the game didn’t even look like Harpoon. I mean, the box art looked like the Harpoon series but when the cover also says “Easy to Learn – Fun to Play” and “Start Playing in 30 Minutes,” well, that was just NOT the realHarpoon I wanted to play!
Welcome to the arena of modern naval combat! In this game you will become a naval commander, in charge of guided-missile ships, nuclear submarines, and jet aircraft. While warfare between naval vessels and aircraft can be a complicated and technical business, the critical tactical decisions are made by captains and admirals who do not generally study a radar or sonar display themselves. They receive the distilled results of all the technical, data-gathering assets at their disposal and make decisions accordingly.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition provides a clear and concise description of modern naval warfare. The game places you int he same position as a ship’s captain or the admiral commanding a task force. Many details have been kept out of the game to allow the players to concentrate on command decisions, but the overall capabilities of various sensors and weapon systems are still presented accurately.
To make it easy to learn the rules, they are broken up into separate sections. Each section begins with a description of one aspect of modern naval warfare. Section one covers surface naval vessels; section two covers detection of enemy vessels; section three deals with submarines; an sections four and five add aircraft to the game. In each section, specific rules are presented that translate that aspect of warfare into game terms. After several rules have been presented, you will be directed to play a scenario which uses and illustrates those rules.
The scenarios themselves are all contained in the Captain’s Briefing. Each scenario lists all the information necessary for play, such as forces available to each side and starting positions. The Captain’s Briefing also includes discussions of various modern weapon systems and a number of advanced rules.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Rule Book p. 1
The above is pulled from the beginning of the rule book and pretty much tell you everything about the game. Harpoon Captain’s Edition is a relatively low complexity wargame that’s supposed to be simple to learn and fun to play. It’s also supposed to teach, as designer Larry Bond tells us:
The Captain’s Edition of Harpoon is supposed to be fast, simple, fun to play, and it is all of those things. But it also includes all the fundamental principles of modern naval warfare, so as you play, you can learn a great deal about how ships, subs and aircraft fight today.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Designer’s Notes
So how well does Harpoon Captain’s Edition actually live up to what Mr. Bond claims?
A Training Aid for Education?
Harpoon Captain’s Edition packs alot into what is actually a relatively small package. The 17″x22″ map covers the G-I-UK Gap and nearby seas using 1″ hexes. There are 300 counters though most are markers and will not regularly be used on the map. The rules and briefing books are each 16 pages. All the ships and aircraft appear on 54 cards. Each player is also given a card for keeping track of bases and a combat reference chart to keep behind a screen so the other player cannot see your allocations. There is a roster pad to keep track of hits and ammo expenditure. There are also ten little plastic aircraft that don’t look like any kind of maritime patrol aircraft active in the US or Soviet inventory (but they were probably cheap to put in the box). In many ways this wargame looks like a training aid packaged for a ship’s wardroom.
The programmed learning approach uses 15 scenarios:
Scenarios 1 & 2 use Surface Ships and Surface to Surface Missiles
Scenario 3 adds Naval Gunfire
Scenario 4 adds Detection
Scenario 5 adds Dummy Units
Scenarios 6/7/8 adds Submarines
Scenarios 9/10/11/12 adds Patrol Aircraft
Scenarios 13/14/15 adds Tactical Aircraft
The first few scenarios play very fast…20 minutes or less in some cases. The later, more complex scenarios going on for as long as 21 turns (7 days), can take up to 2 hours to play. I actually played through all 15 scenarios (plus one Advanced Scenario) in a dual-hatted solo mode in about six hours of actual play time.
Each turn is very simple in execution. Players begin by assigning their ships or submarines to Task Forces. Each Task Force moves when their movement chit is drawn during the turn. At that point, the player decides on a speed and radar status. While moving, Task Forces can be attacked (if detected).
In surface to surface missile (SSM) combat, defenders use long range SAMs, short range SAMS, and point defense weapons to defend in layers. The game mechanics emphasize the need to “rollback” defenses; indeed, the whole idea of “Rollback” is given a major sidebar discussion on page 7.
Submarines are treated much like surface ships except of course you use Sonar to detect them and ASW to attack. Submarines can attack using SSM or torpedoes.
Patrol aircraft remain on the map continuously but move when their chit is pulled. They are most useful for detection though they also have an attack capability.
Tactical aircraft are weapons that are fired when needed; they do not have a movement chit. Tactical aircraft do have a radius (or range) from their base. When attacked, aircraft may be aborted or even shot down by defenses. Unlike ships or submarines, aircraft have no ammo limits. Fighters can also be assigned different missions like Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which acts as a “fourth layer” of defense. However, if not enough fighters are available they might only be able to act as Deck Launched Interceptors which still attack but at the same time as the long range SAMs.
Combat factors represent the number of d6 rolled. The simple Game Reference Chart tells you the results.
Fast, Simple, Fun
Here is how my first combat in Scenario 3 played out. A US Task Force consisting of a single Arleigh Burke destroyer and two O.H. Perry frigates each screening a single merchant ship had to travel from Scotland to Keflavik, Iceland. Opposing their transit is a Soviet Task Force consisting of a single Sovremennyy destroyer and two Krivak-class frigates. The US Task Force moves under EMCON (EMissions CONtrol – radars off). To avoid being struck at range the Soviets also move in EMCON. The result is both task forces meet in the same hex (60 miles across) just off the Faroe Islands.
The Soviets move first and enter the same hex as the American Task Force. The visual search needs a 1-2 to detect the Americans…and they do. The Soviets initiate the attack with 8 factors of SSM from the Sovremennyy allocating 4 SSM to each merchant.
Long Range SAM Fire: The US Arleigh Burke defends the entire Task Force with 10 factors of Long Range SAM. That’s 10d6 with 1-3 a miss, 4-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The roll is below average with only 4 hits…4 SSM (2 against each merchant) continue inbound.
Short Range SAM Fire: Each OH Perry has a single SSM they can use to defend themselves or the ship they are screening. The first Perry misses, the second downs a single inbound SSM.
Point Defense: Although all the US warships have point defense weapons, they can only be used to defend their own ship and not another.
Merchant Attack 1: Two Soviet SSM attack; each rolls 1d6 with 1-2 Miss, 3-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The rolls are 3 and 6 – three hits which sinks the merchant.
Merchant Attack 2: A single SSM attacks. A roll of 6 (!) is a double hit which cripples the merchant; at 2/3 damage the merchant is reduced to a speed of 1 (sitting duck).
The Advanced Rules in Harpoon Captain’s Edition are actually very few. Each adds a bit of chrome but with minimal rules overhead. The real gem of the Harpoon Captain’s Edition design is the Advanced Scenarios. In an advance scenario, players randomly draw a Mission Chit that assigns them one of nine missions. Each Mission provides some background, the objective for the player, and a “mission budget” to buy forces. Each “asset point” can buy one flight of four aircraft or purchase ships based on their hull value (usually 1-2 points). Some ships are High-Cost (like the Kirov or Arleigh Burke classes which costs double. Here was the first random match up I played:
NATO Mission 6 – “Major surface forces will be entering the North Sea soon to conduct operations against Severomorsk. Your mission is to prepare the way by engaging and destroying enemy naval and aviation assets. Objective: Destroy at least six asset points worth of enemy forces, and destroy at least two more enemy asset points that you lose yourself. In addition, prevent the Soviets from achieving their objective. Force: 25 points.”
Soviet Mission 8 – “The war is going against the Soviet Union, and morale is sagging. An important and visible victory is required to boost the morale of troops in all theaters. Objective: Destroy the runway at Leuchars airfield or sink either the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz or [battleship] Iowa. Force: 30 points.”
An Entertaining, Educating, Training War Engine
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is definitely FAST to play. Some of the programmed scenarios are actually too fast. The real “test” of the design is the advanced scenarios that pit mission vs. mission. If the players both draw “large” missions the game will likely go the full two-hour advertised length. More realistically, the potential asymmetric match-up can lead to an “early” win. That’s not a negative for the game can be easily reset for another match!
While I initially shied away from Harpoon Captain’s Edition because I though the rules were too SIMPLE, what I discovered is actually a wargame of modern naval warfare in a design distilled into its essence. For designer’s who built their reputation on the accuracy of datasets and “realism” in how they interact, this distilled version of Harpoon is actually quite refreshing. Playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition also drove me back to rereading Dance of the Vampires (GDW) which details the scenarios designer Larry Bond and author Tom Clancy used in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel in 1985. I can’t help but feel some of the simplifications Bond talks about in Dance of the Vampires made their way into Harpoon Captain’s Edition.
Quite simply put, Harpoon Captain’s Edition is FUN to play. The game also teaches without preaching. Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about modern naval warfare tactics, I found myself applying them almost without thinking because it was the “natural” choice to make in the game. Sure, I need to sink the merchants, but first I’ll rollback some defenders before saturating the defenses with a massive SSM strike. That is, after I use my Patrol Aircraft to detect which task force is real and which is a dummy. All while avoiding the dreaded Tomcat fighters and delivering a massive Backfire bomber raid.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is “fast, simple, fun to play” just like Mr. Bond said. That’s because it is a well-designed War Engine of modern naval warfare. The programmed training teaches you the engine in easy to bite bits. After you learn, the real challenge comes from taking on different missions, never being sure what your opponent’s mission is. That’s 81 possible mission sets but a near-infinite set of possible scenarios since each side gets to buy their forces. Even though some asymmetric match-ups are possible, the emphasis on tactics over the reputation of a weapon system leads to a balanced game. In the 16 games I played (split-personality solo) the net result was 8 American wins and 8 Soviet wins.
The combination of entertaining play and education actually places Harpoon Captain’s Edition in an interesting space of the wargame hobby. As Colonels Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks and fellow author Fred Cameron tell us in The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020), wargames come in four basic types; Entertainment, Educational, Training, and Analytic. Harpoon Captain’s Edition appears to be derived from a Training game for the US Navy designed to Educate about the fundamentals of modern naval warfare that GDW was able to send to the commercial wargame market for Entertainment. The fact that it can be used to Train or Entertain while still Educating is an impressive bit of wargame design.
Given my recent readings on the modern Chinese Navy, I have to wonder if there is potential for an updated, 21st century version Harpoon Captain’s Edition but using the PLA Navy instead of the Soviets. After all, the fundamentals of naval warfare are constant, even if technology is challenging how some of them are applied.
It took me 30 years to get my copy of Harpoon Captain’s Edition. I’m very happy because I discovered that it is far from the quaint design I expected.
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 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 initial range
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.”