#Wargame Wednesday – Rolling Hot like a Tanklord in different Hammer’s Slammers games featuring #TravellerRPG and Game Designers’ Workshop, Metagaming, @mayfairgames, @MongoosePub, & www.hammers-slammers.com – all for @TheGascon

Thank Gascon

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.

Incoming—@TheGascon turns the BlogZ Hot

Rolling Hot

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.


Rolling Hot, (c) 1986 by David Drake

Rolling Hot

“But Loyal to His Own”

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.


Classic Traveller Role Playing Game (i.e. “The Little Black Books”), (c) 1977 Game Designers’ Workshop

The Little Black Books of Classic Traveller

Book 4: Mercenary, (c) 1978 Game Designers’ Workshop

Striker, designed by Frank Chadwick, (c) 1981 Game Designers’ Workshop

Ogre, designed by Steve Jackson, (c) 1977 Metagaming

G.E.V., designed by Steve Jackson, (c) 1978 Metagaming

Helltank, designed by Phillip S. Kosnett, (c) 1981 Metagaming

Helltank Destroyer, designed by Phillip S. Kosnett, (c) 1982 Metagaming


“Supertanks”

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.


Hammers Slammer’s, designed by Jim Griffin, H. N. Voss, Neil Zimmerer, (c) 1984 Mayfair Games

Mayfair Games Hammer’s SlammersPanzerBlitz in Spaaaace?

“Night March”

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.


Striker II, designed by Frank Chadwick, (c) 1993 Game Designers’ Workshop

Dirtside II, designed by Jon Tuffley & Mike Elliot, (c) 1993 Ground Zero Games

Dirtside II from Ground Zero Games

Stargrunt II, designed by Jon Tuffley, Mike Elliot, and Steve Bease, (c) 1996 Ground Zero Games


“Hangman”

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).

“Got Your Powergun?” Feb 11, 2011

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.


Book 1: Mercenary, (c) 2008 Mongoose Publishing

Hammer’s Slammers, (c) 2009 Mongoose Publishing

Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers

“The Tank Lords”

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.


Hammer’s Slammers Handbook, (c) 2004 Pireme Publishing Ltd.

Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, (c) 2010 Pireme Publishing Ltd.

The Ultimate—Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible

“Caught in the Crossfire”

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.


Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition), designed by Shawn Carpenter, Robby Carpenter, (c) 2011 Osprey Publishing

Tomorrow’s War = Infantry First

“Standing Down”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Cause Wargaming?

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

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

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

Mythbusting Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Reassessment

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

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

#Wargame Wednesday – Harpoon Captain’s Edition (GDW, 1990) – Entertaining, Educating, and Training?

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 real Harpoon I wanted to play!

Battle Stations!

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.

START HERE

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.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition – Out of the Box

Basic Game

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).

Advanced…Not Really

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.

Dance of the Vampires courtesy ATG

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.

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

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

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

The Traveller Combat System

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

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

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

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

Personal / Tactical Systems

The original Traveller

The Little Black Books (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercenary (1978)

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

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

Book 4: Mercenary, “Battles”, p. 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snapshot (1979)

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

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

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

“Frak you!”

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

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

Azhanti High Lightning

Azhanti High Lightning (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Striker (1981)

Striker (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which One Should I Use?

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

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

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

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

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

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

RockyMountainNavy, Dec 2020

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

JTAS 9

JTAS Journey

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

JTAS 2 (1979)

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

JTAS 12 (1981)

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

JTAS 14 (1982)

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

JTAS 16 (1983)

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

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

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

JTAS 17 (1983)

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

JTAS 21 (1984)

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

JTAS 22 (1985)

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

JTAS 23 (1985)

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


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

Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

It’s the most wonderful #boardgame #wargame #books #models time of the year thanks to the RMN Family, @Ardwulf, and @fortcircle

Christmas 2020. The year the Grinch brought COVID to the world. In the RockyMountainNavy home we actually had a good year in great part because our family bonds are strong (and stayed strong regardless of how much the Governor of Virginia tried to keep us down). Gaming played an important part in keeping the RockyMountainNavy family going this year as you will see in a series of posts coming before the end of the year. Christmas 2020 also brought several “new” games and other hobby items to my collection.

From the RMN Boys

Iron Curtain: A Cold War Card Game (Jolly Roger Games, 2017). The RMN Boys went to the FLGS just after Thanksgiving and dived into the 70% off sales tables. This is one of the items they found for me.

Car Wars: The Card Game (Steve Jackson Games, 2015 edition). Another 70% off sale item. The BGG ratings are kinda low but hey, who doesn’t like a little mayhem and destruction?

FLGS 70% Off Sale? Don’t Matter!

The RMN Boys also surprised me with a plastic model this year. Their “excuse” is that they know I prefer to build 1/144th scale these days so this one will “fit” with my collection. I love my Boys!

Bandai Millenium Falcon 1/144th scale

From @Ardwulf

Well, not really a gift from him but purchased off of him. Kudos to the USPS for “only” taking 14 days to ship this 3-5 days delivery.

Victory at Midway (Command Magazine, 1992). Supposedly similar to Seven Seas to Victory (XTR, 1992) by the same designer which I already own. The copy is showing age with yellowed edges but I’ll store it in a ziplock magazine bag to slow down further aging. That is, when I’m not playing it! Will be interesting to compare this to this year’s Revolution Games release of Fury at Midway.

Victory at Midway (Command Magazine, 1992)

Harpoon: Captain’s Edition (GDW, 1990). I have played Harpoon since the 1983 Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II. I remember passing up this version in the 1990’s because it “looked too simplistic.” I have long regretted that decision so I jumped at the chance to add this title to my Harpoon collection. The box is a “players copy” on the outside but (near) pristine on the inside.

Harpoon: Captain’s Edition (1990)

Harpoon III (GDW) / Harpoon 4 (Clash of Arms). Included also was a copy of Harpoon III with more than a few sourcebooks as well as Harpoon 4 with the 1997 Harpoon Naval Review and two other modules. I already own these but having secondary copies on hand is not a bad thing. The counters alone are worth it.

Second copies for my Harpoon collection….

From Fort Circle Games

The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games, 2020). Again, not a true gift but still a nice present to get this Kickstarter fulfillment before the end of 2020. I have the original PnP version and like it so much that backing the Kickstarter campaign for a “professional” copy was a real no-brainer.

The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games, 2020)

From Me

OK, a bit of a cheat here. I took advantage of a US Naval Institute book sale to get two new books to read. I really am looking forward to digging into The Craft of Wargaming for, ah, “professional” reasons.

Some “professional” reading

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

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

Combatting Traveller

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

Striker from GDW

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

Striker II (GDW, 1994)

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

Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW)

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

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

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

Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (2009)

Defanged by a Mongoose

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all seems very undramatic.

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

Cepheus Engine Rebirth?

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

Tomorrow’s War (Ambush Alley/Osprey Publishing)

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

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

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

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

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

#RPG Thursday – The “History” of Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1984) -or- What plausible are YOU looking for?

Twilight: 2000 is one of my oldest, most beloved roleplaying systems in my collection. I still have my original boxed First Edition (1984). I also bought both the complete collections for Twilight: 2000 v1 and Twilight: 2000 v2 on the CD-ROM several years ago from Far Future Enterprises. I took a look at Twilight: 2013 or what some refer to as Twilight: 2000 v3 using the Reflex System in the late 2010’s but didn’t buy into it. Most recently I considered the Free League Kickstarter campaign for a new Twilight: 2000 but didn’t buy into it. What I love about Twilight: 2000 (T2K) is that it is a modern military roleplaying game.

In the past few days I came across this video from the Complex Game Apologist on YouTube and watched.

Now, generally I like CGA mostly because he talks about the Traveller RPG. I say ‘generally’ because he focuses more on the recent versions of Traveller (especially Mongoose Traveller 2.0). I don’t always agree with him but I often give him the benefit of the doubt.

Not this time.

I’m going to try to ignore the obvious problem of having a self-named millennial (note the right spelling) in a BLM t-shirt tell me about what it was like growing up in the Cold War. Instead I will focus on what I think CGA misses – Twilight: 2000 is a ‘plausible’ concept for a modern military roleplaying game; the timeline serves the purpose of getting to that concept, any historical accuracy or ‘plausibility’ of the setting is secondary to the need to get at that core concept.

The core of CGA’s argument is found starting at the 19:57 minute mark in this 27:48 minute video. Here is my transcription of his words:

The game is married to this version of a four year war. We can see the troops really entrench, bond with each other. We can see see millions of Americans kidnapped or “drafted” [air quotes used] off the street to fight in Central Europe. And to my eyes in the year 2020 it feels like it wants that more than it wants to be plausible. At least I need a reason why the war goes on that long.

In 2006 Far Future Enterprises published for free online the Player’s Guide to Twilight: 2000 (version 1.0). I think an extensive quote from that document is key to understanding what the designer’s wanted the game to be.

Serious role-playing games are built around drama, and there is no situation more dramatic than that of a soldier in wartime, so you might think the military is a natural setting for role- playing. However, RPGs work best in anarchic situations— where the player characters are their own bosses— and, in the army, discipline and coordinated group action are the keys to success. To get around this, the most successful military RPGs have settings where small groups can act with a large degree of autonomy, on commando raids, during guerilla warfare, or (most popular of all) after civilization has broken down due to holocaust or invasion.

What I think CGA misses is that the setting of T2K is actually very similar to many classic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. The initial T2K setting in effect is medieval Europe except instead of wandering knights you have a band of US military personnel trying to escape home. This is where I think CGA runs off the rails in his video. CGA clearly wants a Twilight: 2000 that he defines as “more plausible.” so he redefines the alternate history scenario. What I think CGA misses is that the T2K setting is NOT designed to be ‘realistic’, it simply serves as a vehicle to get us to a dramatic modern military setting for a roleplaying game.

Here is the concept for T2K as presented in the Players Guide:

Five years ago, the nations of the world began their war for global supremacy.

Three years ago, a massive nuclear exchange failed to give any side the decisive advantage they sought.

One year ago, the US Fifth Infantry Division launched a drive into enemy-held Poland, part of an offensive to knock the Soviets back to their homeland.

It failed. Now the Red Diamond is deep in enemy territory, reduced to small units without support, supply, or reinforcement. The war for Europe has turned into the war for survival.

Now what?

GDW presents a new concept in role-playing. World War III began five years ago. It’s still going on, but that’s the least of your problems. A few days ago, you were soldiers in the U.S. 5th Division. Now you’re just fighting to survive while the world falls apart around you.

Welcome to 2000 AD. Your equipment was brand new in 1995; now it’s wearing out. Gasoline is rare, so your vehicles run on alcohol you distill yourself. And 5th Division’s cavalry—when there was a 5th Division—rode horses. There’s not much government left in central Europe, just warlords, marauders, and free cities. Even the major powers are collapsing; some units, even whole divisions, are refusing orders and heading home.

Your division is gone, and you’re hundreds of kilometers inside enemy territory; fortunately, the Soviets aren’t in much better shape than you are.

Your job is to stay alive, find enough fuel and spare parts to keep moving, get home (wherever that is), and maybe even strike at the enemy.

The real trick in designing a role-playing game is to produce detailed, accurate effects with simple systems. That takes inspiration and a lot of work, and that’s what we did. Twilight: 2000’s comprehensive rules cover combat, skills, survival, encounters, and more with easy-to- use and flexible but well-defined systems.

I actually find it a bit sad that CGA is so hard-over on the need to redefine the alternate history in order to enjoy this game. Instead of embracing a plausible setting concept he seems intent on redefining the setting history to make that timeline ‘plausible’ to him. I feel that, in the end, his political blinders will prevent him from enjoying any version of Twilight: 2000. It’s not the setting that is the plausible focus but the potential drama derived from the concept of modern military roleplaying that makes Twilight: 2000 enjoyable. That is what made Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 1984 and that is what can make Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 2020.

Cold War Boomer, out!

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

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

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

Photo by RockyMountainNavy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronatine Comments – Random #Wargame & #Boardgame Shoutouts to @ADragoons, @Bublublock, & @tomandmary with mentions of @compassgamesllc, @StrongholdGames & @hollandspiele

Rule Books

DragoonsLogoHEADER-2-1RECENTLY, THE GENTLEMEN AT ARMCHAIRDRAGOONS WERE KIND ENOUGH TO POST A REVIEW I WROTE. My major knock on the game is that, “play is unfortunately marred by a rule book that makes learning the game harder than it should.”

In the case of Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) a better rule book has:

  • An index
  • Deeper numbering of paragraphs to ease cross-reference
  • Consistency in terms & language

A rule book needs to be governed by a style guide. I won’t tell you what to use, but when you don’t it’s really noticeable! There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is not a magical wargame rule book template that an aspiring (or well-established) designer can just download from the internet. What is needed is not a format as much as an attitude.

Complexity

IMG_0574In a Twitter reply to my Armchair Dragoons article, Dan Bullock (@Bublublock) said, “Every time I see BWN referred to as medium complexity, I feel marvelously stupid.” Indeed, an underlying theme of my post this week, Hard Core #Wargame? Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 (GDW, 1983) is complexity as how each individual sees it. In the case of Blue Water Navy a great deal of the complexity is learning complexity from the less-than-stellar written rules. In Assault for the mystery reviewer I talk about it appears mechanical complexity, i.e. using the game components, was far too complex for them. I feel a longer think-piece coming…but it’s not quite fully formed yet.

Name Games -or- BGG Don’t Fail Me Now!

Picked up on a small thread on BoardGameGeek about BGG renaming wargame titles. You know, like taking the last two games I discussed on my blog, Assault and Dawn of Empire, and making sure the database names are Assault – Tactical Combat in Europe: 1985 and Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War in the Atlantic, 1898. Personally it doesn’t bother me as I clearly see a subtitle as part of the title. Apparently I am too simple, because the BGG policy appears to not only incorporate subtitles, but also any box cover description. Taken to the extreme, games like Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games becomes either:

  • “Terraforming Mars: Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World” or
  • “Coming to Mars was a Big Step. Making it Habitable Will Give Us a New World: Terraforming Mars”.

Yes, leave it to the hobby boardgame community on BGG to make this an issue. Well, if this is the new policy I can’t wait to see the update for Supply Lines of the American Revolution – The Northern Theater, 1775-1777: being a Game of War, or Logistics & Deception; & a suitable & commendable past-time for gentlemen & ladies both; invented by Mr. Tom Russell, a Patriot born in these United States with cartographical embellishment by Ania B. Ziolkowska. I mean, it’s about time Tom and Mary Russell (@tomandmary) of Hollandspiele got recognition for this fine work!

SLAR_wB_1024x1024
Courtesy Hollandspiele


Feature image courtesy pinterest.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made the mistake of reading it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

61CB0606-F701-4892-B1FB-E94001222E58

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The reviewer sums up the game review with these comments:

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

Let me break this down:

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

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