Now comes the time of the year that the days are longer and outdoor chores call, which means there is less time for gaming which in turn means a bit of a seasonal slow-down in this blog too. That said, in the coming weeks look for:
A new Wargame Library series
Some American Independence Day wargaming
A return of my 2022 #TTRPG Character Generation (CharGen) Challenge
Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s favorite student had her birthday this last month. We gifted her with Coconuts (Korea Boardgames Co., 2013). Coconuts is ranked #8 on the BoardGameGeek Children’s category and deservedly so. This is a fun dexterity game with an awesome toy factor. Miss A loved the game and we all had fun playing it with her.
We also gifted Miss A Smart Farmer (Smart Games) which is a one-player puzzle game. Now I get it; one-player puzzle games are considered “Outside the Scope of BGG”. Doesn’t mean these are not “games” and more importantly aren’t fun. Mrs. RMN has long favored Rush Hour (Think Fun) as the go-to puzzle game for youngsters, but admittedly getting girls to play with cars is sometimes “challenging.” In Smart Farmer you have to use the fences to separate the animals. What makes this game so appealing (yet again) is the toy factor; the animals are cute to look at and have some heft and a slightly rubberized texture when handled. So not only does the game look great, it feels great. Little Miss A is already working though the 60 challenges. Truth be told, we also learned that Miss A’s mother is working to keep up with her daughter as they are “racing” each other to see who can solve more puzzles in a day.
For what it’s worth, Youngest RMN played Police Escape Blockade(now available as SmartGames RoadBlock…but apparently only in Europe) when he came home after school in his early elementary years. While his older siblings worked on their homework, he would work on the next one or two puzzle challenges. When he finished all of them he just went back to the beginning and started all over again. This game was instrumental in helping him learn life-long skills like concentration, logical thinking, spatial awareness, and problem-solving. Yeah, we played many other boardgames but puzzle games like Police Escape Blockadewere very useful as after school fillers for the young ones.
Fire Mission; Grid 20….
After a long (postal) drought, it looks like some wargames and boardgame pre-orders are finally nearing delivery!
MBT: The Game of tank-to-tank combat on a tactical level in 1987 Germany is solidly part of the “Cold War goes hot” genre of wargames. Which means it comes close, but not quite all the way, to replicating ground combat in today’s Ukraine War. Although MBT may not be the most modern “fit” for today, it still is a great game at discovering lessons of armored combat.
Most of Russia’s tanks are well protected to the front. The frontal armour of the slope at the front of the hull, known as the glacis, typically combines high hardness steels with composites or materials like fibre glass that are known to be challenging for weapons like the RPG-7. The angle of the armour – 68 degrees – increases its line-of-sight thickness to 547 mm for some of the earliest T-72 designs – it may be more for others. The turret armour on Russian tanks is also relatively capable to the front of the tank. The ‘cheeks’ of the cast turret are hollow, allowing additional advanced armours to be inserted that significantly extend protection against some types of threat.
This is what MBT models best. Playing a game of MBT with its precise hit locations and penetration versus armor model is what the hardcore Grognard in me loves.
MBT is—by design—a wargame that recreates the (past potential) battlefields of Europe at the height of the Cold War. The game—again by design—is optimized to simulate those massed Soviet thrusts or defensive stands. In many ways MBT is built around the U.S. Air-Land Battle Doctrine and the competing Soviet Army of that day. Both focused on combined arms. From the past two months of fighting in the Ukraine, the reformed Russian Army, though equipped with more modern equipment, appears to have lost the ability to execute combined arms operations. While MBT has many of the rules that can be used to simulate the new war we see today, what it doesn’t simulate is the poor decisions in the Russian operational art of this war.
While stabilisation of the main armament has been improved and its recoil mechanisms balanced to reduce impact upon the vehicle during firing, most Russian tanks appear to lack the quality of stabilisation that most Western tanks carry.
A second element of this problem is the mission system fit of Russian tanks. The sights and fire control computers are generally less modern than their peers.
Russian designs are also very cramped, and few Western tank operators would want to operate a main battle tank with a crew of three – which is standard for all Soviet designs from the T-64 onwards.
The first two factors are generally reflected in MBT as stabilization and sights are taken into account in the combat model. The last point does not directly appear to be modeled, but may play a part in overall determination of Force Grade and Morale.
While MBT has a good detailed model of platform versus platform, what it doesn’t capture very well are all the human factors in battle. Some are here, like Grade or Morale or even Tank Fright, but at the end of the day the real human factor in MBT is the players. To recreate the war in the Ukraine would require MBT players to make decisions that they might not be inclined to make.
Soviet-era tank design, starting with the T-64 and continuing with the T-72, T-80 and T-90 families – albeit with some minor differences – introduced an automatic ammunition handling system which sits beneath the turret of the tank.
This is a problem for Soviet designs because the ammunition carousel sits in the hull, which is very well protected to the front by the glacis, but less well protected to the sides. If the side or roof of the tank can be penetrated, the projectile stands a chance of hitting the tank’s ammunition, causing it to ‘cook off’. This is where the charges and explosive projectiles catch fire – a fire which quickly spreads because of a lack of firewalls between the munitions. If enough of the ammunition catches fire and detonates, it will often result in an explosion that throws the turret a considerable distance and the death of the entire crew.
Suffice it to say that the damage model in MBT is built upon what today might be seen as a “charitable” view of Russian armored survivability against modern ATGMs.
Further, in MBT ATGMs (found in Advanced Game Rule 188.8.131.52) are of the 1980’s. What is missing in MBT are rules for modern top- attack ATGMs like the FGM-148 Javelin.
Command & Control
The third and final point is the need to consider of Russian tactics and doctrine, which typically emphasise combined arms operations with a view to creating opportunities for artillery and close air support to deliver overwhelming force onto an opponent. Mission command – the delegation of authority and creativity to the lowest levels – rarely features in Russian training. This means that armoured formations operating independently from their supporting arms are probably doing something that they are not trained to do.
I strongly believe that if you want to play MBT and really understand modern combat, you MUST use the rules for Grade (5.8), Command Range (184.108.40.206.2), and Command Span (7.43). These rules, along with Morale (and especially Optional Rule 7.1 Morale) are essential to getting past the simple “force-on-force” wargame that so many gamers seem to relish in. Of course, MBT does not have Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) in it either, but by using these rules you can get a bit closer to understanding the challenges the BTG commander has in combat. The more I think about it, the more I realize that MBT might actually be too granular a model to use to explore the effectiveness of a BTG in combat. Instead of a very tactical game like MBT it might be more useful to use a platoon-scale system, like Frank Chadwick’s Assault series from GDW in the 1980′s but updated for today. Maybe even a version of Less Than 60 Miles from Thin Red Line Games could be used…but I note that this game might be best used to depict only a single axis of advance and not the whole campaign. In case you haven’t noticed, Ukraine is a HUGE place!
Back to the Future
The demise of the tank has been talked about for almost 50 years now, especially in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Wars of the 1960’s and early 1970’s that were the first to feature mass use of ATGMs. So strong was the sentiment that it even crossed over into science fiction:
Tanks were born in the muck and wire of World War One. Less than sixty years later, there were many who believed that technology had made the behemoths as obsolete as horse cavalry. Individual infantrymen of 1970 carried missiles whose warheads burned through the armor of any tank. Slightly larger missiles ranged kilometers to blast with pinpoint accuracy vehicles costing a thousand times as much. Similar weaponry was mounted on helicopters which skimmed battlefields in the nape of the earth, protected by terrain irregularities. At the last instant the birds could pop up to rip tanks with their missiles. The future of armored vehicles looked bleak and brief.
“Supertanks,” Hammers’s Slammers, 1979
Of course, the answer in Hammer’s Slammers was the supertank. While I am saddened that similar combat vehicles are not on the near-horizon for us, I am confident that there will be a response. Probably not from Russia, but from someone. More importantly, along the path towards that new technology will very likely be a wargame. It might be similar to MBT, but depicting not the past but a bold new future.
In the podcast I mentioned that I have 20 items either in Kickstarter, on GMT Games P500, or on preorder (mostly with Compass Games). Already in the short time since we recorded (just days before posting) there has been movement on more than a few items:
Reality Shift (Academy Games) – Kickstarter December 2020 with estimated delivery May 2021 (11 months delay); per April 21, 2022 update the games are on ship expected to arrive New York on May 17, 2022 with fulfillment to start immediately thereafter
“OK… US & Canadian backers – unfortunately, there is a delay. I only found out yesterday night so this is fresh news but shipping is likely to be 6 weeks late. That would be early May for the games to ship, with an additional 2-3 weeks for Canadian deliveries on top of this. I will not make excuses for the responsible company – they’ve let me down. But I also won’t reveal them, as that would serve no purpose. Please accept my apologies for the delay.”
In the podcast I repeatedly mentioned that communications is the key to my happiness with a crowdfunding or pre-order campaign. Jim Dietz of The Dietz Foundation ran a most excellent Kickstarter campaign for Supercharged and 1979 Revolution in Iran. The major reason I am happy is that he always communicated—good or bad!
While I am an anxious to get 2 Minutes to Midnight into my hands, Stuart Tonge’s explanation is perfectly acceptable and very welcome. It also shows that a bit of humility and honesty are extremely valuable in a relationship. While I wait for my game, I do so with great respect for the efforts Stuart is making.
Dunnigan, James F., How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare for the Post-Cold War Era, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1993 Third Edition. // Written by one of the Elders of Wargaming, this book supposedly provides much insight not into wargame design, but what topics Mr. Dunnigan thought was best suited for inclusion in a wargame about the post-Cold War era..
Dupuy, Colonel T.N., U.S. Army, Ret., The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, 1980 Third Edition. // Colonel Dupuy is in many ways the greatest evangelist of Operations Research, a field of military study closely related to but not the same as wargaming. I have Colonel Dupuy’s much later 1993 book Future Wars: The World’s Most Dangerous Flashpoints but inThe Evolution of Weapons he delivers a historical perspective.
Schelling, Thomas C., Arms and Influence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966. // My job has me going back to the roots of deterrence theory, which also conveniently fits with my interest in game theory and wargames.
Thorpe, George C., Pure Logistics, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986. // With the 2022 Russian invasion of the Ukraine the study of logistics is suddenly all-the-rage. Let’s see what was said 30 years ago…
No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate the changing national conscious.
The Earth is Weeping, p. 7
The Earth is Weeping is a book that tries to bring balance to the historical record of the American Indian Wars. Following the tragedy/massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, most Americas for the next 80 years viewed brave Indian fighters (cavalry) and courageous settlers as heroic. But in the 1970s that view changed as people began seeing whites as villainous conquerors, and the Indians as victims—thanks in no small part to Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cozzen contends Brown’s book made no attempt at historical balance. Peter Cozzens book The Earth is Weeping does not ignore injustices done to the Indians, but he insists we not ignore the white perspective, either.
In a similar manner to The Earth is Weeping, John Poniske’s game Plains Indian Wars (GMT Games, 2022) attempts to deliver a balanced view of the American Indian Wars. This balance comes in two flavors; game balance and historical balance. For the former the game excels but for the later it maybe shies away from the hard parts of history a bit too much, but maybe for the right reasons.
Long ago (and I mean LONG ago) GMT Games put Plains Indian Wars up on the P500. At the time I thought ordering it didn’t pull the trigger. The topic is not really of interest to me so I didn’t even pay attention to the publicity around it. That is, until I heard that the game system is a loose relative of Academy Games’ Birth of America-series. The Birth of America-series games (1754: Conquest,1775: Rebellion,1812: Invasion of Canada) and the closely related 878 Vikings are the favorite lite, family wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. Yes, even more popular than Commands & Colors, Hold the Line, or even Enemies of Rome. Once I discovered Plains Indian Wars shared some of that lineage, I HAD to have it.
[In a March 16 post on BGG, John Poniske states that, “[Plains Indian Wars] was originally designed for Academy – they turned it down.” That’s…sad for Academy Games.]
Part of what makes the Birth of America-series of games so appealing to me is game balance. In every game, you have asymmetric factions working together to deliver victory. Victory is usually based on area control. Admittedly, the combat part of the history in many Birth of America games is glossed over because casualties don’t really matter—the only judge of victory is who controls a particular area.
Factions On the Plains
In Plains Indian Wars there are seven “factions.” The Major Indian Factions are the Northern Plains Tribes (NPT) and the Southern Plains Tribes (SPT). The Major US Factions are the Cavalry and Settlers. The three “minor factions”—all controlled by the US player(s), are the Enemies of the NPT/SPT, Wagon Trains, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Every major faction has a deck of 15 cards (larger in size than those found in a Birth of America game), custom faction dice, and color-coded cubes. Minor factions have cubes but no cards, and only the Enemies faction has custom dice. The 34″x22″ mounted game board is a stylized map of the area (i.e. not totally geographically accurate) but well laid out and easy to use in the game.
Each turn of Plains Indian Wars consists of a series of random draws of a faction disk from a bag. This game mechanism, lifted directly from the Birth of America-series, is in great part what makes every game so engaging; you simply don’t know in what order the different factions will operate. Major Factions use their cards in a turn to take different actions. Some cards are Migration, Engagement, War Party, or an Event.
Another asymmetrical game mechanism carried over from the Birth of America-series in Plains Indian Wars is the custom faction dice. Dice come with one of three faces; Blank (retreat), Treaty (end of combat), and Weapon (hit). Each factions dice are not the same; the US Cavalry has 3x Weapon, 1x Treaty, and 2x Blank making it deadly in combat. The NPT/SPT/Enemies dice are 3x Blank, 1x Treaty, and 2x Weapon making them rather balanced. Settlers, on the other hand, have 4x Blank, 1x Treaty, and only a single Weapon making them disadvantaged in combat.
The end result of the asymmetric factions in Plains Indian Wars is actually a very mechanically balanced game. The key to victory for each player is to use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Although Plains Indian Wars is categorized as a “wargame” on BoardGameGeek, the real “war” in the game is for territory. The US Player(s) gain points for completing the Railroad, exiting Wagon Trains across the board, and for controlling NPT/SPT areas. The Indian Player(s) gain points for stopping the joining of the Railroad, eliminating George Armstrong Custer on the turn he enters, eliminating Wagon Train cubes, eliminating Cavalry cubes, and controlling NPT/SPT and Enemies regions. They also lose points if the US Player controls more Enemies regions than they do. All of which in play means the US Player is constantly trying to expand the areas they control while the Indian Player is trying push back the Settlers and impede the flow of Wagon Trains.
Similar to how the different factions in Plains Indian Wars are mechanically balanced in play, the game strives to depict a similar historical balance. There is no “absolute struggle between good and evil” as neither side is necessarily “good” or obviously “evil.” Event cards in particular call-out some situations that are significant and not necessarily to be crowed about. Game play tends to emphasize the broad strategy of the day (the ends) but it also tends to gloss over how that was done (the means) which in many cases carried intense racial undertones. In several discussion threads about Plains Indian Wars on BoardGameGeek, designer John Poniske has mentioned some design decisions that are ahistorical but were made in the name of game balance. Which is to say that even the designer recognizes that Plains Indian Wars is an imperfect view of the American Indian Wars.
This brings me back to Academy Games’ decision to not publish Plains Indian Wars. I don’t know why that decision was made and hope it was for financial reasons vice any “commentary” on the historical aspects of this game. One criticism of the Birth of America-series is that the Native American factions don’t have much agency and tend to be used as pawns of major factions (not rue in 1812, but I can see the argument in 1775). In Plains Indian Wars the Northern Plains Tribes and Southern Plains Tribes are elevated to major factions and certainly have “agency” in the game. Plains Indian Wars could of brought “balance” to the Academy Games catalog, but I digress.
Does that really matter? A part of me says Plains Indian Wars is fine the way it is. The game presents those broad strokes of history in a very friendly, lite-wargame manner. On the other hand, the historian in me cringes a bit because there is so much to be said…
…and maybe that’s why the game is the way it is.
If one digs deep into the myths and misconceptions of the American Indian Wars they will quickly enter into a highly controversial discussion. Plains Indian Wars is a “top-level” view of that discussion, perhaps best used not to learn the details of the most controversial issues, but to trigger a desire to further explore those outside of the game. The game does not attempt to explain the many myths of history, but instead “exposes” them for the players. This is far from a condemnation of Plains Indian Wars for like the Birth of America-series before it there is only so much that can (should?) be communicated in a historical family-lite wargame. The historical balance in Plains Indian Wars is not simply a balance between factions, but a balance in the presentation of history.
Plains Indian Wars can be played by one, two, three, or even four players. Personally, I think the game shines best as a two-player game where your “thinking” opponent presents the greatest challenge. The solo variants are useful for exploring the various factions, and the three-or four player versions are in some ways even more family friendly. But to me, the best balance between game play and historical flavor is found in the two-player version.
Plains Indian Wars is a welcome addition to the shelf of “family” wargames. Not only is Plains Indian Wars a good game, it also “teaches without preaches” and challenges your mind to explore further.
Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.
No (Air) Show?
One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.
Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:
The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.
Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:
While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.
So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?
“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”
Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.
First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.
If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.
Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example,Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based onHarpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.
For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.
Squadrons & Tracks
The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.
Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.
[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]
Missions, Point Salads, & Assets
More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”
An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”
Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.
Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.
Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…
(Another) Russian Way of War?
In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017).Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:
From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.
It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?
Mirror Image – Not?
Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.
Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.
That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:
Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis].Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.
It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:
Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.
Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?
Player Choice – Pass!
In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:
The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. As a wargamer, I often look at these military events as though it is a wargame on my table, complete with maps and units. I try to discern relationships between actual combat activities and how those might be depicted by various game mechanisms. So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts.
[A Disclaimer for all the rabid GMT Games Fanboys – I frame my thoughts below in terms of Mitchell Land’s Next War series of modern conflict wargames from GMT Games. You are going to see me comment on (question?) some of the designer’s decisions below. I assure you I have the highest regard and respect for Mitchell and my comments are in no way intended to denigrate his game design. To the contrary, I hope you join me in recognizing how incredibly useful a tool the Next War series of wargames are and take my comments in the spirit in which they are intended, i.e. to improve the wargame experience for designers, developers and, most importantly, players.]
Time: As I start writing this post on 26 February it means we are still in Turn 1 of the war if using Mitchell Land’s Next War series of wargames from GMT Games. My plan is to publish this post on Wednesday, 02 March, or the end of “Turn 2.” While I think the popular perception at the moment is that Russia is becoming bogged down, from a wargame perspective it’s still—literally and figuratively—the opening moves.
Air Defenses: The Russian invasion supposedly started with massive ballistic and cruise missile attacks to destroy the Ukrainian air defense network. Judging from the continued combat operations by Ukrainian fixed-wing fighters and SAM systems, the Russian claims are made dubious. So often in modern wargames when addressing suppression of integrated air defense systems (IADS) the assumption is that the counter-IADS effort will look like what the U.S. did in the Gulf War or Yugoslavia. The major difference I perceive is that the counter-IADS effort in the Gulf War was against an IADS that was relatively “fixed” and immobile whereas it appears the Ukrainian IADS was alerted and “mobile.” Does this mean modern wargame designers need to revisit their assumptions of how the air campaign in a wargame is handled?
Civilian Resistance/Clearing Operations: Standard Series rule 8.4.1 Clearing Operations is used when units advance after combat into enemy-controlled Installation, City, or Urban hexes. A randomly draw Clearing Marker is placed in the hex, and to remove the player makes a d10 die roll that, after appropriate modifiers, must be equal-to-or-greater-than the Clearing Number (ranging from 3-6). While the extensive use of Molotov Cocktails in Ukrainian cities may be worthy of a Game Specific or Special Scenario Rule, regardless of how they are depicted we should recognize that, operating Mechanized or Armored units in urban areas has always has been—and continues to be—exceedingly difficult and it is easy to underestimate the game impacts of that lesson.
Cyber Warfare: While it is easy to see the effects of cyber operations against government infrastructure in both Russia and Ukraine, the effects of cyber on the battlefield is harder to discern. Next War Series Supplement #1 includes Cyber Warfare Rules. These rules detail the use of cyber in battle and its effects on detection and strike/combat actions. It is a bit of a puzzle why we are not seeing the reflections of cyber or Electronic Warfare activities on the battlefield. As Jane’s Defense reported, “However, despite the significant utility that these systems offer, a senior US defence official told reporters during a briefing that they “don’t believe that the Russians have employed the full scope of their electronic warfare capabilities and it’s not clear exactly why.” Maybe they are too afraid to confront Elon Musk…
Efficiency Ratings: Efficiency Ratings are described in Standard Series rule 2.3.3 as a, “unit’s morale, training, doctrine, cohesion, and ancillary weapons systems.” Some military wonks are making the observation that the Russian new concept of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) may not be working as the small staff might be finding themselves overstretched at coordinating supporting fires and logistics. Further, the large scale use units composed mostly of conscripts may also factor into the assumptions behind the ER of a unit. Even professional wargames tend to make the Russians 10-feet tall at times…
Fog of War: The open source community is heavily involved in tracking the war on social media.The entire build-up of forces was watched by think tanks and the media, and the invasion itself is being live-tweeted. Many on social media have called for being “cagey” about posting on Ukrainian forces while being very open about Russian forces. This social media impact on the Fog of War can be simulated by allowing the Ukrainian player to freely examine Russian stacks using Standard Series rule 8.1.2 Examining Enemy Stacks while the Russian player is subject to the limits of optional rule 13.2 Fog of War and can only see the top unit of a stack and cannot further inspect their opponent’s stacks.
Missiles: Advanced Game rule 26.0 Theater Weapons covers the use of cruise and ballistic missiles. Strike results are found on the Advanced Strike table. Some of the Die Roll Modifiers (DRM) that we might need to revisit are:
-1 Russian Rocket Artillery (seen as precise but not used to overwhelming effect?)
+1 non-US Cruise Missile Strike (Russian cruise missiles seem to be precise but again the damage effect is questionable)
+3 vs. Enemy AAA Track (does this appropriately account or the mobility of the AAA defenders?)
Refugees: In the Next War series of wargames refugees are usually handled via a Game Specific Rule or if you have Next War Series Supplement #2 in rule 11.0. The general assumption behind the rule is that the country being invaded will have its road network clogged on early turns by hordes of internally displaced persons (IDPs, aka “refugees”) which reduce mobility for combat units, especially if they are trying to use those same roads. While there certainly has been refugee movement in Ukraine, we have not seen many reports about how this has hampered movement of military forces. Indeed, the images of the peaceful stand of locals against the movement of invading Russian troops is far more common. Maybe what is needed is a Game Specific Rule where the invader must roll to pass through a hex with a populated location smaller than a city. The result is the number of additional movement points required representing the slow-down and doubling-back required. The attacker may also be allowed to bypass the penalty, but in doing so gains a social media “atrocity” ala the Atrocities rule (“But push your men too hard, and they might commit atrocities that will rally world opinion against you”) from Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019).
Stay Behind Forces: Next War Advanced Game rule 20.0 Special Operations Forces covers the operations of SOF behind enemy lines. In the early days of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there appear to be more than a few “groups” of Ukrainian forces that are operating behind the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) and executing missions against logistical units. Some of these forces are actually not “regular army” units, and in many ways could be considered insurgents. Next War Series Supplement #2 includes a new module, Next War: Insurgency, that can be used to represent an insurgency that occurs AFTER the end of major combat operations. I think what we are seeing in Ukraine today is melding of these two wargame mechanisms of “special forces” operating behind enemy lines and “insurgents” or local armed resistance that are operating even before the end of major combat operations.
Supply Lines: Even on “Turn 1” of the Russian invasion of Ukraine there are numerous stories about fuel shortages plaguing Russian forces. In the Next War series, rule 13.1 Supply is an optional Standard Series Game rule. The approach used is very basic; certain hexes are Supply Sources (13.1.2) and in order for units to be in supply they must able to trace a Line of Communication (13.1.3). Units that are Out of Supply (13.1.5) have their Attack and Movement ratings halved and their ER reduced. They also are not eligible for Elite Reaction or Exploitation Movement. In the Advanced Game rules, 19.0 Supply introduces a somewhat more complex set of rules, the most important (and relevant to todays conflict) of which are 19.1 Supply Sources with their range limitations and 19.4 Supply Depots and MSUs (Mobile Supply Units). The later, those MSUs, are what is being “attacked” by the stay behind forces and local civilian resistance. I feel that one way to portray the “supply wars” in today’s conflict is to allow the Ukrainian player to use the Standard Game supply rule (13.1) while the Russian player must use the Advanced Game Rule 19.0.
Casualty Markers: There are no casualty markers in the Next War series. When military units suffer casualties one simple flips or removes a counter. Very simple. Very clinical. One part of war that so many wargames fail to capture is the human cost of conflict, especially amongst the non-combatants. To some the clinical detachment that comes with wargames where units have no face, no cry of anguish, no bloody entrails, is the very problem with wargames. I for one made my peace with wargames years ago when I read the words of Sir Basil L. Hart:
I study war not to make war but to help understand and (hopefully) prevent it. I hate war, especially the incredible toll war takes on humanity. Remember that for most of us war is on the tablet, smartphone, or gaming table. For too many it’s a harsh reality. Remember them, and seek peace for their sake.
The only loser in this entire situation is Howard James Rigg. Dark Blue Defection is a superior product produced to the highest quality standards that delivers deeply engaging, interesting, and most important fun set of scenarios. The fact Howard is not allowed to make a profit off this excellent work is shameful for if somebody deserves a reward for making a worthy effort one need look no further than Dark Blue Defection for some prime justification.
Kick the tires…
Dark Blue Defection is a zip-locked set of play aids. Ownership of Red Storm is required. As the Dark Blue Defection introduction states:
The main objective of this expansion is to provide a solo only experience in which each scenario can be set up and played to conclusion in one evening. The scenarios require no planning. The forces involved are pre-set to allow speed of play.
Dark Blue Defection, Introduction, p. 2
Out of the bag, the first impression of Dark Blue Defection is QUALITY. The rulebook is formatted to look like a regular GMT game. The player aid cards are all printed on glossy, heavy cardstock. I constantly had to remind myself that this is a fan-made product. Now look, I love me the Roger McGowan, RBM Studios products in C3i Magazine but Dark Blue Defection gives Roger’s excellent products a real run-for-your-money. Seriously; it’s that nicely produced.
Dark Blue Defection has ten scenarios. Each is designed to be played in sequence as the difficulty ramps up with each scenario. Dark Blue Defection depends heavily on the Bot System in Red Storm, in particular rule 33.2 Full Solitaire Rules. The player in Dark Blue Defection plays as NATO and the Warsaw Pact player is controlled by the Bot System.
Each scenario of Dark Blue Defection has three player aids: a Scenario Setup Card, a Planning Map, and one (or more) Flight Log Sheet. Like I already mentioned, all of the Dark Blue Defection player aids are printed on heavy, glossy cardstock; this will survive your gaming table spills better than the base game! Other gaming material, especially the map and counters, come from Red Storm.
The Scenario Set Up card details your forces. The Planning Map does much of your planning for you. The Flight Log Sheet is pre-filled and makes getting started in each scenario that much faster. This is important because in these “air raid” wargames like Red Storm and predecessors Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) or Elusive Victory (GMT Games, 2009) planning the raid is important—but also time consuming. The Designers Notes in Dark Blue Defection comment:
One thing that struck me about the game [Red Storm] system was the amount of time it takes to get to the table. The planning aspect adds a lot of depth to the game but also a significant amount of time to each scenario before even setting a counter on the table. This set my mind in motion. I would love some Red Storm solo scenarios that I could pick out [of] the box, pre-planned with flight logs populated, a planning map and a scenario setup sheet that I could quickly place my counters onto prior to setting up and then get a whole game in one evening.
Designer Notes, p. 22
…and light the fires!
Scenarios in Dark Blue Defection start simple. Mission 1: Red Dawn has the player defending with two flights of fighters against a Soviet strike package with close escort. As the campaign advances, air defenses and ground units are introduced as well as more advanced combat situations.
Playing a scenario of Dark Blue Defection is arguably easier than regular Red Storm. The rules for solo player found on Player Aid Card 5 (PAC5) in Red Storm are used and each scenario lays out the exceptions to the baseline. The Designer Notes comment, “How much would I need to change the current bot system to make it work? The answer was not much at all.” Dark Blue Defection is not a replacement for learning the rules to Red Storm, but the increasing difficulty levels of the scenarios make “getting back in the cockpit” of Red Storm that much easier.
The story behind Dark Blue Defection
One aspect of Dark Blue Defection that really sets this game apart and makes the whole package special is the story. Sure, Dark Blue Defection is a series of linked scenarios that form a campaign, but Howard James Rigg goes a step beyond just connecting the scenarios in terms of the combat shown, there is also a story thread throughout the campaign. At first I kinda ignored the story, but very quickly I found myself becoming invested in the characters as each scenario was played. In many ways it is the story behind Dark Blue Defection that brings out the most compelling aspects of the game; while each scenario has victory conditions one quickly finds themselves wondering not so much who won, but how the story progresses.
I’ll also add that when you order Dark Blue Defection you also get access to a free expansion, The Four Horsemen, which includes another two scenarios. Unlike Dark Blue Defection where the scenarios are planned to be shorter, TheFour Horsemen goes big:
For these scenarios I wanted to do the opposite of my previous scenario designs in Dark Blue Defection and create large scale solo scenarios for players already familiar with the system using the tweaks to the bot system I implemented in the last scenario pack and still have each scenario entirely pre-planned for the Player.
As is well documented, the early days of Operation Barbarossa were very, very bad for the Red Air Force:
By the afternoon [22nd June] fresh masses of aircraft, summoned with desperate urgency from the flying fields of central Russia, began to appear over the battlefield, though “It was infanticide, they were floundering in tactically impossible formations.” By the time Stalin’s restrictions against sorties over German territory had been lifted, the Russian bomber force (which had largely escaped the first Luftwaffe strike, owning to its bases being farther from the frontier) took off obediently in accordance with an already outdated operational plan. Over 500 were shot down. On 23rd June, Lieutenant General Kopets, commander of the bomber group, committed suicide, and within a week General Rychagov, the commander of aviation on the northwestern front, was under sentence of death for “treasonable activity” (that is to say, having been defeated). In the first two days the Russians lost over 2,000 aircraft—a casualty rate without precedent. The (numerically) strongest air force in the world had been virtually eliminated in 48 hours.
Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 (New York: Quill, 1965), pp. 49-50
How can we play the Drive on Kiev campaign if one side isn’t even present? Further historical study tells us that the Red Air Force, though severely mauled, was not totally beaten. The Red Air Force did resist, and the Drive on Kiev campaign shows us an example of that resistance. That said, designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is actually up-front in telling players that while Drive on Kiev is framed in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa, his real goal is to teach about the challenges of sortie generation in an extended campaign:
Air forces tend to rot away during operations. When demand for air support is high, routine maintenance is deferred, eventually taking aircraft out of service. Accidents rise and become the largest source of losses, while battle casualties drain strength. Eventually, an air force can do no more than maintain a low level of activity and needs to be withdrawn and rebuilt. This campaign depicts how Fliegerkorps V, despite ideal operating conditions, exhausted itself during the invasion.
“Sortie Generation,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Mr. Brimmicombe-Wood doubles down on his depiction by bending history, especially as it pertains to Soviet planning:
In the game the Soviets get the ability to predict German activity and react accordingly. This is not historical. This is a handicap feature designed to allow the Soviet player to optimise his response to the Germans. The effect we wish to create is that of an increasingly exhausted German force facing a seemingly endless supply of Soviet flyers.
“Soviet Planning,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Does knowing that the Drive on Kiev campaign in Wing Leader: Blitz is not strictly historical make it less interesting to play? I have to say no. Understanding that the German side is playing a game of attrition against a determined Soviet opposition actually makes the game very interesting and drives home the importance of campaign decisions regarding choosing targets and allocating for attack and defense. One could argue that the game is more interesting under these “artificial” conditions than in would be otherwise. While the operational situation may have some artificiality, at the tactical level the game shines with set up and scenario campaign special rules:
Only the Germans have a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) net (advantage Germans on defense)
Only the Germans have radios (advantage Germans)
German fighters use loose doctrine; Soviet fighters use Rigid (advantage Germans)
German fighters have tactical flexibility (advantage Germans)
To reflect Soviet desperation they have a Determination modifier in Cohesion Rolls (advantage Soviets)
Soviets can use ramming attacks—Taran (advantage Soviets?)
German fighters can use “Hunting from Cloud” (advantage Germans).
While tactically it may appear that the Germans have many advantages, the scenario set up also creates many Soviet challenges that, if a player is able to face and overcome, can create a very enjoyable experience. Facing those challenges and figuring out how to win (or at least how to lose the least) is the real charm of Wing Leader. Many aerial combat games tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” of a dogfight, but Wing Leader approaches each battle at something more akin to a grand tactical perspective. Campaign Games like Drive on Kiev take that viewpoint up a level into operational planning. Taken together, it is yet another example of the versatility of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s design and another reason Wing Leader is one of my favorite wargames.
With the holiday weekend giving the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself an increasingly rare occasion when we all don’t have work or school, I was (gladly) badgered into a game of Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs by designer Mike Bertucelli from GMT Games (2019). GMT Games also recently published Tank Duel: Expansion I – North Africa Expansion (2021) and Tank Pack #1 (2021). The release of these two titles was very welcome by RockyMountainNavy Jr. who was anxiously looking for the Crusader, a favorite tank of his. So we ginned up a simple 1942-ish battle in the North African desert with the RockyMountainNavy Boys on the British side each running a Crusader Mk.II A15 against myself running a PzKpfW III AUSf. J and PzKpfW III AUSf. H. Thank goodness the RMN Boys asked early in the day for Tank Duel because I had to review the rules and reset the Battle Deck from the Russian Front to North Africa. Not hard to do but it took time that I was glad I didn’t spend while the Boys impatiently waited across the table.
What I really enjoy about Tank Duel is the narrative it creates in your head. There is no map board; instead, each player a board for each tank in front of them. Range and facing is handled in a relative and abstract manner—you are at a certain range from the “center” of the battlefield and you can either face or flank other tanks. If you lose a tank that’s OK because a new one will spawn reinforce next turn. Tank Duel is really a team game where the winner is the side that scores the most VP before a set number of passes through the deck are completed. More importantly, Tank Duel creates a wargame story, not just a battle.
This game of Tank Duel was more of a slugfest. Whereas last time there was lots of moving about the battlefield, this go round we found ourselves hunkering down and trading shots from Hull Down positions with a bit of some movement to occasionally change the range. At the end of the the full game (the Game End was buried at the very end of the third reshuffle) the Germans had lost three tanks against a single British. Individual scoring was RMN Jr. first, RMN T second, and RMN Dad (myself) last—of course.
Playing with the new North Africa Expansion rules, with Sandstorms and Dust and Heat Haze and the like adds a degree of complexity that took some adjustment. I think what we need is large card or board to display all the weather impacts; referring to a card next to our board makes it too easy to forget or overlook a condition.
Every time I play Tank Duel I am reminded of the narrative power of this game. In no other tank battle game, even my beloved Panzer by Jim Day from GMT Games, do I feel this personally invested in every turn of a card. Tank Duel is a game that I need to be revisit more often. The core rules are actually simple and easy to learn; it’s the extra chrome like weather that needs to be experienced a few times to become more recognizable. It’s also time to play some of the set scenarios and add infantry and anti-tank guns to broaden our experience.