Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Finding the Most Secret and Confidential in a Sea of Glory (@USNIBooks @gmtgames)

When reading about the naval war at sea during the Napoleonic Wars one cannot avoid coming across the name Nelson. Horatio Nelson by far the most famous naval commander in the Royal Navy, if not in the world in those days. What was the secret of his success? Many have written about his style of leadership, but author Steven E. Maffeo, a former US Navy intelligence officer, writes in Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) about the role intelligence played in not only Nelson’s success, but of the Royal Navy writ large in those days.

Shhh….

In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.

Sorta.

In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:

Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281

Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson

The wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (designer Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) is an operational level wargame focused on the war at sea in the pivotal year of 1805. Reading the ad copy for the game hints at the role of intelligence in the game:

1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men. 

The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.

1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy

After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.

Most Secret and Confidential in wargame format

Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”

From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.

1805: Sea of Glory is played on a map around the size of Admiral Nelson’s sea desk. Sword is for cosplayers only….

Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.

The British player is not allowed to examine the Napoleon objectives, nor the Allied player the Pitt objectives. Each player may examine his own objectives at any time. These Objectives remain in place throughout the game unless scored by the Allied player, in which case the marker is moved to the Allied VP box. The Allied player is not allowed to look at Pitt Objectives he has scored until the end of the game.

21.3 REVEALING OBJECTIVES

For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.

Fleet blocks represent a group of ships, and have no limit to the number of ships and admirals they may contain, but must always contain at least one ship while not in port. If a fleet is without any ships while not in a port due to weather or combat, it is removed from the map for later use, and any admiral with that block is removed from play.

7.1 FLEETS

After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.

Players may “Count Masts” to determine the approximate number and type of enemy vessels in a port or in an Inshore enemy force under the following circumstances….

13.5 COUNTING MASTS

For each fleet or frigate that searches, the controlling player indicates which block is searching, then rolls two dice and adds or subtracts any applicable modifiers from the Search Attempt and Seasonal Modifiers tables. On a modified roll of 7 or lower, the result is “No Contact.” On a modified roll of 8 or higher, the result is “Spotted.”

14.0 SEARCH ATTEMPTS

At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:

It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.

C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
My Hornblower collection inherited from my father—well-read by both of us

Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:

Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 288

Sunday Summary – How’d it get to be so busy? #wargame #boardgame @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @stuarttonge @Zmangames_ @Gamelyn_Games @Funforge

Wow…no entries on this blog since last Sunday. Tangible proof that the post-COVID recovery is in full swing. Where I live all the COVID mask restrictions were (finally) lifted yesterday by the state dictatorship. Well, except for schools because the dictatorship has already crippled their learning in the past year so why stop now? I guess in future years gamers will look back on the Year of COVID as “happy times” with plenty of gaming. On a personal level, I’ve been back to work full time for a couple of months now and it’s cutting into my gaming time!

Huzzah!

Wargames/Books

I finished reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Stephen Maffeo, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) and pulled 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) out for some comparisons. I’ve got John Gorkowski’s Indian Ocean Region – South China Sea: Vol. II (Compass Games, 2020) ready for a deeper dive now that I’ve finished reading Eliot Ackerman and Admiral Jame Stavridis’ 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (New York: Penguin Press, 2021).

This week was also my birthday. The family really knows what I like, hence the arrival of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics (GMT Games) and Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command (Kent Masterson Brown, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021). This all-but-ensures my Fourth of July Gettysburg Memorial Wargame will be Eric Lee Smith’s Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). Oh yes, and a new power drill to replace my old light duty one that wasn’t up to the demands of Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s “Honey Do” list!

Boardgames

I worked on my first impressions piece of Stuart Tonge’s 2 Minutes to Midnight from his new Plague Island Games label (coming to Kickstarter next month). Spoiler Alert – It’s a big game that some might feel is unnecessary given the powerhouse Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, now in 8th printing) but it deserves a serious look as it builds a very compelling narrative in play.

I had an opportunity to pick up Space Empires 4x by Jim Krohn and GMT Games (2017 Third Edition). At the same time the seller had several smaller games he was looking to unload so a deal was struck. These are lighter games that I thought might be suitable for the family (or vacation travel) gaming table. Thus arrived:

I spent the past week looking through and learning each of the smaller games. Star Wars: Destiny will be turned over to the RockyMountainNavy boys as I know it’s not my thing but they are “modern” Star Wars fans so they can enjoy the characters. Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are actually quite similar cooperative tower defense-like games and either will make for a good family game night title—though I think the look of Samurai Spirit is more appealing. Tiny Epic Kingdoms will compete with Tiny Epic Galaxies (Gamelyn, 2015) which is already in the collection. Sylvion is actually more of a solo game and as such it will land on my table occasionally; if it has a drawback it’s because it’s more eurogame-like and therefore not my personally preferred gaming genre given it’s obvious preference for mechanism over theme (but the theme—what there is of it—is cute). Space Empires 4x is in the “wargame to play” pile…just behind Indian Ocean Region and Stalingrad ’42.

Sunday Summary – Summer Heat Wave of #Wargames, #Boardgames, and #Books

Not only is the heat arriving in waves, but so are the games!

Wargames

Boardgames

2 Minutes to Midnight: Fight the Cold War. USA vs Soviet Union – 1949-1991. A Strategic Historical Game (Preview Copy) (Stuart Tonge, Plague Island Games, 2021) – Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy. Plan is to share thought s around the kickoff of the Kickstarter campaign in mid-late June! Stay tuned!

2 Minutes to Midnight Preview Copy

Books

Am reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson by Steven E. Maffeo (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) and sitting down with the wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009). I am working to make this a “#Wargame to History” (or is it “History to #Wargame?”) or “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” entry.

Puzzles

No, not puzzles, but actual jigsaw puzzles. As I type this I just got my shipping notice for my Academy Games historical puzzles. More relaxing summer fun!

Sunday Summary – A Supercharged week of #boardgames, birthday #wargames, and restocking the #book library with @FoundationDietz, @MiniMartTalk, @gmtgames, @compassgamesllc, @USNIBooks

Boardgames

Played multiple solo sessions of the card-driven auto racing game Supercharged: Racing in the Golden Age of Cars (Mike Clifford & Mike Siggins, Dietz Foundation, 2021). Loved my solo plays, and then Circuit de Rocky went all family for a weekend race. Much mayhem ensued! Supercharged will likely make it into the summer lakeside vacation bag as it’s small, rules-light, relatively short to play, and lots of FUN! By the way, please look at The Dietz Foundation and their mission; like them I personally (and professionally) fully support gaming and education. Whether it’s boardgames or RPGs in a classroom or homeschool, or a “professional” wargame for business or government, we all have stories of how games and education mix together for the better.

Supercharged at start

Wargames & Books

Happy Birthday to Me – Thanks to Miniatures Market for remembering my birthday and sending a coupon. I decided to use it before it expires and it was enough to cover tax and shipping for Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia June – December 1942 (GMT Games, 2019). This will be my second game in Mark Simonitch’s ZoC-Bond series to accompany Holland ’44: Operation Market Garden (GMT Games, 2017) in the wargame library.

This week, Compass Games charged for Indian Ocean Region: South China Seas Vol. II (designer John Gorkowski) so delivery should be getting close. Coincidentally, I’m reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis which makes for a nice tie-in.

Useful Fiction?

Here is the dust jacket copy of 2034. Looks like the authors are trying to mix Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (1998) with August Cole & P.W. Singer’s Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (2015):

On March 12, 2034, US Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt is on the bridge of her flagship, the guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones, conducting a routine freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea when her ship detects an unflagged trawler in clear distress, smoke billowing from its bridge. On that same day, US Marine aviator Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell is flying an F35E Lightning over the Strait of Hormuz, testing a new stealth technology as he flirts with Iranian airspace. By the end of that day, Wedge will be an Iranian prisoner, and Sarah Hunt’s destroyer will lie at the bottom of the sea, sunk by the Chinese Navy. Iran and China have clearly coordinated their moves, which involve the use of powerful new forms of cyber weaponry that render US ships and planes defenseless. In a single day, America’s faith in its military’s strategic pre-eminence is in tatters. A new, terrifying era is at hand.

So begins a disturbingly plausible work of speculative fiction, co-authored by an award-winning novelist and decorated Marine veteran and the former commander of NATO, a legendary admiral who has spent much of his career strategically out maneuvering America’s most tenacious adversaries. Written with a powerful blend of geopolitical sophistication and literary, human empathy, 2034 takes us inside the minds of a global cast of characters–Americans, Chinese, Iranians, Russians, Indians–as a series of arrogant miscalculations on all sides leads the world into an intensifying international storm. In the end, China and the United States will have paid a staggering cost, one that forever alters the global balance of power.

Everything in 2034 is an imaginative extrapolation from present-day facts on the ground combined with the authors’ years working at the highest and most classified levels of national security. Sometimes it takes a brilliant work of fiction to illuminate the most dire of warnings: 2034 is all too close at hand, and this cautionary tale presents the reader a dark yet possible future that we must do all we can to avoid.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War, dust jacket

Speaking of books, the rest of my U.S. Naval Institute Press “Clear the Decks” sale books arrived. It looks like I will be able to get at least a few History to #Wargame or Rocky Reads for #Wargame postings (along with associated wargame plays) out of this group.

New Naval Institute Press arrivals

History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

For tabletop wargamers, a popular game series in the past decade is GMT Games’ Counter Insurgency (COIN) Series. Starting in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss – COIN Vol I , the system now (nearly) encompasses 14 volumes spanning conflicts from the past, present, and even future. I personally own two titles, Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – COIN Vol. V and Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 – COIN Vol. VII with two more on order (Brian Train’s China War: 1937-1941 – COIN Vol. XII and J. Carmichael’s Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Revolts – COIN Vol XIII). All of which means I have limited familiarity with the COIN system as a player and am far, far from being a COIN designer.

That said….

I recently read an article by Robert Neff called “Rebels At the Gate” in the May 1, 2021 edition of The Korean Times Online. The article discusses events from 1894 on the Korean peninsula focusing on a peasant rebellion that took place amidst the Sino-Japanese War. This passage in particular got me thinking about a possible game design:

The rebels ― identified as the Donghaks ― claimed to number several millions and had sworn to the death that they would rid the country of the foreign vermin. They didn’t in 1893 and, according to Sallie, they didn’t on September 15, 1894:

As a result of the threat, the “doors and windows were barred and the gates guarded by the legation soldiers but the night passed quietly and the excitement has entirely abated.”

However, the abatement was short lived. A few days later, Alice (Sallie’s sister who resided with the Sill family in Seoul), insisted she did not worry about the Chinese and Japanese soldiers rather “the danger now [in Seoul] is from the [Donghaks], Koreans who hate all foreigners and try to exterminate them whenever they can ― so a guard will be kept during the winter at least and perhaps longer.” A few days later she reported the rebels had advanced to a point about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. She insisted she was not worried and expressed the greatest confidence in the American marines guarding the legation in Seoul. 

The attack on Seoul never materialized. However, for the next couple of years, the regions outside Seoul were almost in a constant state of unrest.

Robert Neff, “Rebels at the Gate,” Korea TImes, May 1, 2021

It turns out that 1894 was an important year in Korean history. The book Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Michael Shin, Editor, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2014) devotes an entire map titled, “The Year 1894: Gabo Peasants’ War, Sino-Japanese War” to this one year which shows not only significant battles but also the many peasant uprisings.

Korean History in Maps, p. 108

After reading Robert Neff’s article and looking at the 1894 map, the thought, “This really could be a COIN game” crossed my mind. Certainly, the historical events of 1894 are ripe for narrative exploration using the lens of a COIN game. One of the most powerful aspects of the COIN game system is the system’s ability to depict the interactions of multiple, often asymmetrically powered factions. In this case there are four factions:

  • Tonghak (aka Donghan) – “…the growing Christianity, the declining village economy, and certain government mismanagement led to the development of the strong anti-government and anti-foreign sentiments of the conservative Confucian literati as well as those of the Tonghak believers. The Tonghak had been seeking the legitimacy of their religion, exoneration of Ch’oe Che-u, the founder of the Tonghak sect, who was executed in 1864, and the prevention of the spread of foreign religion. At the same time, they were antagonized by illegal taxes which the local officials collected from the peasants.”1
  • Joseon (Korean Government) – “When the Tonghak Uprising became an open rebellion, the weak Korean government asked for Chinese help. Meanwhile, a truce was reached between the Tonghak rebels and the government…[which] issued a twelve-point reform program.”2
  • China – “The Chinese government whose aim was to strengthen its control over Korea sent an army of 3,000 soldiers and a naval force to Korea, violating the agreement which it had signed with the Japanese in April 1885.”3
  • Japan – “Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that it now had legitimate cause to fight a war with China, and the time was right. Consequently, it sent an army of 8,000 troops and a naval force to Korea.”4
  • Missionaries/Diplomats/Westerners – I don’t see these as a separate faction, but rather events or “terrain” that factions must be wary of.

These faction snippets can help define victory conditions, as well as thinking about the various Commands and Special Activities of each faction. At this point, my limited familiarity with COIN hinders me to design further but once I get another few games in house as examples I might be better suited to explore a possible design.

Focusing on the year 1894 also seems to make sense as that one year had a good ebb and flow of events. Broadly speaking, the year went though at least three distinct phases.

  • Gabo Peasant War Begins: Starting in January the first peasant uprisings in the South broke out. These uprisings spread into a full rebellion and by May troops from China and Japan arrived. At this point there was turmoil within the Korean government with palace intrigue in Seoul as a deposed king tried to place his son on the throne.
  • Sino-Japanese War Begins: By July, the Chinese and Japanese enter into open conflict. While the two outside powers fight, another peasant uprising begins which unites the Japanese and Daewongun Koreans (an alliance which eventually falters thanks to coup planning by the Daewongun). Interestingly, the Korean government fights alongside the Japanese against the rebels even as they try to implement reforms (carrot and stick approach?).
  • War Moves On/Peasant Rebellion Collapses: By November, the Chinese-Japanese fighting moves into Qing China and the peasant army is defeated with it’s main leader, Jeon Bongjin, captured. He was executed on April 24, 1895 just days after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the Sino-Japanese War and the tributary relationship between the Joseon and Qing dynasties.
Korean History in Maps, p. 109

Like I said, I’m no COIN game designer but this is a very interesting topic—and a great thought exercise.


Feature image from The History of Korea by Han Woo-Keun (Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing, 1970)

Footnotes:

1-4. Nahm, Andrew C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Seoul: Hollym, 1993, p. 158-162.

#Wargame Wednesday: 2020 Golden Geek Awards -or- you can’t be disappointed when you have no expectations

We all “know” the Golden Geek Awards sponsored by BoardGameGeek are a popularity contest. Although I recognize it as such, I still follow along, if for no other reason than to try to understand why certain games are popular. The 2020 winners represent a mixed bag for me.

I am very happy to see that David Thompson and Undaunted: North Africa (Osprey Games) won the Best 2-Player Game category. To see a “wargame” gain this wide an acceptance is happiness for this Grognard of 40+ years. On the other hand, I ruefully shake my head at the winners in the Wargame category. At the risk of reigniting the never-ending debate on “What is a wargame” I‘ll just make the observation that the defintion of a strategy conflict game seems very loosely applied here.

Don’t get me wrong; I am very happy to see Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle (GMT Games) win. After all, it’s the #18-ranked War Game, the #417-ranked Strategy Game, and ranked #842 overall on BGG. A well-deserved kudos is also owed again to David Thompson for Undaunted: North Africa (#91 War/#1130 Overall) as the Runner-Up along with Mark Herman and Geoff Englestein’s Versailles 1919 (GMT Games) which is #247 in War/#1251 Strategy/#3008 Overall.. Each game is a good design and obviously very popular. My personal favorite in this category, The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games) is actually not that far behind, ranked #271 in War and #3223 Overall. The real difference appears to be the number of owners of each game with Imperial Struggle most assuredly benefiting from the Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, now in 8th Printing) legacy as well as the production power of a larger wargame publisher in GMT Games. These factors combine to get this title onto many BGG user’s gaming tables. All three games (four if you count The Shores of Tripoli) are in many ways “cross-over” games that are ideal for what Harold Buchanan calls Convert wargamers.

While some Grognards may be tempted to dismiss the Golden Geeks, I hope instead that everybody recognizes that the hobby boardgame space for wargames is alive and well. Let’s get past the tired old “what is a wargame” arguments and simply focus on good games that we can all share together.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The secret behind the #wargame Wing Leader (@gmtgames) found in The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by @CalumDouglas1 (Tempest Books, 2020)

Somewhere in the last year I can across a recommendation to not miss the book The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum E. Douglas (Tempest Books, 2020). Fortunately, I landed a copy of this coffee table size (and weight) book and I don’ regret it for a moment. Not only has is shown me more of the technology behind fighter engines in World War II, it also has shown me how those very same engine designs influence Formula One racing engines of today. It also has given me a deeper understanding of various air combat wargames, and in particular designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series from GMT Games.

“What?”, you say. “Formula One and WWII engines are related?” Yes, and in the most interesting ways as author Calum E. Douglas explains in The Secret Horsepower Race:

Today’s engines are now bearing the fruit of the work done during the Second World War, sometimes through a ‘second discovery’, sometimes through an old idea being rekindled. All Formula One motor-racing engines have the axial swirl throttle which started as a radial design in France and was designed by Daimler and then Mikulin in axial form. It is now normal practice for Grand Prix engines to run at over 130OC coolant temperature, for exactly the same reasons as Professor Messerschmitt complained so bitterly to Milch in 1942, and the water-cooled exhaust valve-guides of the Jumo 213 are to be found in the design of many Formula One Teams.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

In The Secret Horsepower Race there is an image on page 425 that shows a German Jumo 213 J connecting rod in a 1945 sketch just above a sketch of a “modern” racing engine connecting rod. Just how similar the two look is very striking and brings home the lesson of just how “advanced” the fighter engines of World War II actually are.

Connecting Rod from 1945 to “Modern”

The Secret Horsepower Race is certainly a more technical read than I normally undertake. After all, I’m a History major, not an engineer! That said, Mr. Douglas spins a fascinating tale that, though full of technical detail, also has enough history and espionage that it really entertains. I found myself drawn in and slowing to carefully read the account.

Book to Wargame

As I read The Secret Horsepower Race I found myself thinking of several air combat wargames I’ve played. In the late 1970’s when I started playing wargames, I acquired copies of designer S. Craig Taylor’s Air Force and Dauntless (Battleline, 1976/1977). These were my first introduction to the world of air combat wargames. If there is one rule I remember from those games it’s that inline engines were more vulnerable to damage than radial engines. In the 1990’s I moved to J.D. Webster’s excellent Fighting Wings series of games where engine power was a key factor in helping one “maintain energy” while in air combat (I highly recommend the latest version of Buffalo Wings from ATO Press). In the late 2010’s it was Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and his Wing Leader series from GMT Games that caught my interest.

The Wing Leader series uses a very different air combat wargame design, most noticeable from it’s side-view of battle. It is also, perhaps, the design most closely based on the secrets of The Secret Horsepower Race:

Speed. The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Manoeuvrability turned out to be less important than power and speed. The pre-war biplane fighter advocates lost that argument, though in the right conditions these aircraft proved to be a handful. The division of aircraft into 50 mph bands is crude, but works to define generational improvements. As the war dragged on, leaps in performance tended to be in increments of 25 mph or more.

Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Wing Leader: Aircraft Data Card Creation, v2.2

Book to Life

Although I read The Secret Horsepower Race to learn more about aviation history, I was pleasantly surprised by the connection to Formula One racing. It also taught me more of the engineering history and mathematical basis behind the designs of several wargames. More importantly, Calum E. Douglas teaches some real life lessons that go beyond history and wargame and are most applicable to my wannabe engineer youngest. To quote Mr. Douglas’ conclusion at length:

The blood, sweat, and tears which went into making a basic engine such as the Merlin into a war winner is not manifested in some magic gadget, but is concealed in hundreds of thousands of hours spent on fundamentals of engineering; making new drawings; machining parts with precision; organising the manufacturing in such a way that parts are of high quality and are checked properly; rigorous testing; chasing faults down as soon as they emerge; and all the time pushing incrementally forward.

That is how real high-performance engine projects are conducted, and those who were not there, or who have not done it themselves, can never understand the strain a designer faces watching an engine they have been responsible for start for the first time. In this moment their entire reputation stands fragile – a failure can mean disaster and the expense of tremendous sums of money and time. The engine designer is pleased when the engine runs and does its job.

This small pleasure is not enough, as those who devote their careers to engines know just how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach that ostensibly simple plateau. Even one tolerance written incorrectly on a drawing, one missed particle of dirt during assembly, or a simple decimal point being out of place in a calculation can spell ruin.

That these engineers were able to make hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art engines at all during the chaos of total war is a demonstration of the indelible lesson that success depends on focused effort and above all a deep level of mathematical understanding mated to pragmatic organisational thinking. Engineers today who see the power which was wielded with only a slide-rule and pencil and adapt the same mindset to use their computers instead of being used by them, will achieve spectacular success.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

#Wargame Wednesday – Chasing the elusive in Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 by designer Jeremy (Jerry) White from GMT Games (2020) is an interesting beast. The game has generated buzz within wargaming circles, in no small part because of the very different design and approach taken in writing the rules and tutorial for the game. Reading some comments, one might be tempted to believe that Atlantic Chase is akin to the second coming of sliced bread. To me, when evaluating any game it is important to separate the package and the game system. While the package of Atlantic Fleet is in many ways innovative and could be an example of the future for wargame rules writing, the system itself has one major feature (hidden information in the open) that it executes extremely well but otherwise it is actually a quite narrowly focused wargame.

USPS Broke Their Back Delivering Your Box Today….

My very first impression of Atlantic Chase was “wow, that’s a big game.” It formed from simply carrying and opening the box. GMT Games warned us that this would be a heavy box with a 4.0 lbs. shipping weight and they weren’t kidding! When one opens the 3″ deep box you are immediately faced with a very tightly boxed set of components. As one starts unpacking you find:

  • Rule Book (64 pages)
  • Tutorial book (56 pages)
  • Advanced Battle Rules (24 pages)
  • Solitaire Scenarios (15x over 72 pages)
  • Two-Player Scenarios (9x Operational, 12x Mini, and a Campaign Game over 60 pages)
  • Inset Maps (2)
  • Player Aids (x5)
  • Task Force Displays (x2)
  • 1.5 Sheets of Counters
  • Mounted 22″x34″ Game Board
  • Wooden Bits and Dice
  • GMT Box Insert

At the time of writing this post, Atlantic Chase retails for $69 on the GMT Games website. That’s a very reasonable price for all the components one gets in the box.

Of Gucci Interrogatives – Rules and Tutorial

Opening up the Rule Book for Atlantic Chase one immediately sees that it is different. This is not just another wargame with the classic SPI format of rules (1.0 / 1.1 / 1.11 / etc.). Instead of those classic wargame rule walls of text, Atlantic Chase uses a very hobby boardgame, graphics-heavy approach to the rules with extensive use of color, illustrations, and symbology. In most cases, the rules are laid out with step-by-step examples following. It is a very “Gucci”-looking set of rules printed on glossy paper.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is also written in a very different manner which I call “Interrogative Rules.” Every rule starts off with a question such as, “How do we play?” or “Can the Target TF be a Station?” This is a much friendlier approach to teaching rules than a wall of text. That said, though the layout of the rules seems quite intuitive and the question-answer approach is friendly enough the rules as written are complex. I ran several examples of rules text through different readability checkers and all came back with at least college-level or expert reading levels required. For comparison, I ran some text from the Learn to Play guide from Root (Leder Games). That text, written in a very boardgame conversational style, scored “fairly easy to read” and Grade 8.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is divided into six broad sections – Introduction, Concepts, Actions, Common Modifiers, Common Results, Battle, and Optional Rules. Of the sections, Concepts and Actions are by far the most important and learning how to execute game Concepts through game Actions is the heart of the Atlantic Chase game design.

Although each broad section in Atlantic Chase is a logical follow-on to the previous one, the 64-page Rule Book actually just lays out the rules and doesn’t “teach” you how to play the game. For that you need the 56-page Tutorial book. The designer even tells us that the Tutorial book is where the learning is at for both “Newbie” or “Salty Grognard:”

NEWBIE If you are entirely new to wargaming you should start with the Tutorial book. The player aid will also help untangle the knot of Atlantic Chase.

SALTY GROGNARD If you are an experienced wargamer but new to Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory system and its implications may prove elusive at first. The episodes in the Tutorial book are miniature scenarios intended to explain not only the rules of play but also how you use those rules to achieve operational objectives. Each episode is also rendered in entirety as an illustrated example of play (which is why it is so long). Start there.

Rule Book, Atlantic Chase, Introduction, p. 1

So I did what the designer recommended and laid out Atlantic Chase starting with the Tutorial scenarios. There are 10 “mini-scenarios” presented. For each scenario the player is directed to read certain pages of the Rule Book. In many ways, in Atlantic Chase designer Jerry White is using a version of the classic “programmed learning” approach to wargames. The major difference in this 2020 version of programmed learning is that GMT Games spreads the “rules” and “tutorial” over 120 pages and two books with liberal use of those “Gucci” graphics..

For instance, in Atlantic Chase tutorial scenario “T1: Old Chums,” the player is directed to, read pages 14-16, 19, 20 (Ignore Intel Limit), 25, 35, and 36. Not stated, this equates to the rules for:

  • Station and Trajectory
  • Time Lapse
  • Action Sequence
  • Pass

In effect, each scenario (sorry, episode in the Tutorial book) of Atlantic Chase introduces a combination of Concepts and Actions. Only after finishing all 10 tutorial episodes did I see the Episode Index on the last page of the Tutorial book that highlighted the key Action rule introduced in each episode. I wish Jerry had put this index up front and added in the key Concepts used in episode order as it helped me to internalize the Actions introduced (albeit after the fact and after I rearranged it).

The net result of this very hands-on programmed approach in Atlantic Chase of playing each of the ten episodes (the last one being a “culmination” episode bringing all the previous Concepts/Actions together) means that learning the game takes some real time. While some of the early episodes are quick and easy, as you get to later episodes (and especially the culmination episode) each takes more time. For a “Salty Grognard” like me the 10 episodes of reading, playing, and internalizing the Concepts/Actions took several hours to complete; for a Newbie there is likely even more time required. So be warned—learning Atlantic Chase is not something that happens in a single sitting.

One also needs to be organized when playing Atlantic Chase. It’s not there are too many counters, but all those fiddly little matchstick Trajectory Markers need to be organized. Here I wish GMT Games had “banded” the sticks because when you have sticks for four different tan Task Forces and each are marked on one side only with none, one, two, or three bands its’s not something you casually have in a pile on the side of the board. You need to have them sorted and ready to grab or put away. The same goes for the various different counters used as some (Active TF, Coordinating TF, Intel) are put on and taken off the board often.

Learning Atlantic Chase – More Space and Time Than Expected

The Chase in Atlantic Chase

In the Design Notes to Atlantic Chase, Jerry White relates that when he first approached GMT with the game, the question most often asked was, “Is this a U-Boat game?” His response, “This is a Sink the Bismarck game!”, only earned him the response, “So, there’s gonna be U-Boats?” Which is sad in a way because once Jerry said “Sink the Bismarck” then people should have known this is a game of surface combatants searching the wide open oceans for one another. U-Boats had a part, much like carrier and land-based air did, but at it’s heart Atlantic Chase, like the entire Sink the Bismarck event, is a chase. That chase is the focus of the game system; it’s telling that in the 64-page Rule Book the Battle rules take only eight (8) pages.

Hidden Information in the Open (aka ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’)

When designing Atlantic Chase, Jerry White, like so many designers before him, faced the problem of hidden information. How does one player “hide” from another player on a mapboard placed in front of them. More concerning, how does one “hide” information from oneself in a solitaire game? In the classic Avalon Hill second edition of Jack Greene’s Bismarck (Avalon Hill, 1978) the players use separate map plots and a modified “A4 – Hit; Hey, you sunk my battleship!” search methodology (calling out coordinates) but the best experience is to use a third-party (referee) that adjudicates search plans and handles sightings. Alas, that methodology will not work in a solo game. Instead, Jerry White uses a Trajectory—the core concept of Atlantic Chase:

The core concept of the game is the Trajectory.

What is a “Trajectory?”

A ship or group of ships operating together, called a Task Force in this game, can be represented as a line, called a Trajectory. It can also be represented more conventionally as a point, in this game called a “Station.” As a Trajectory, a Task Force is not in one place on the Operations Map, it is somewhere along a line, and that line represents information you and your opponent have about the Task Force’s location.

“Core Concept,” Rule Book – Atlantic Chase, p. 3

In Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory is used to present hidden information in the open. As a matter of fact, in Atlantic Chase the players have no other hidden information as even Task Force Displays are visible. Through game Actions, players manipulate a Trajectory to either move a Task Force (maybe a convoy) across the board while the other player/side tries to “reduce the uncertainty” and transform a Trajectory into a Station that they can Engage in Battle.

A British Task Force of 2x CA (upper right), currently a Station (brown cylinder NE of Scapa Flow), lies in wait for the German Slow Convoy (lower right) that is traveling from Narvik to Wilhemshaven somewhere along the white Trajectory….

Once you get your head wrapped around the notion that your Task Force is somewhere along your Trajectory, and recognize that your goal is to either “advance” your Trajectory or “narrow down” your opponent’s, then the genius of the Atlantic Chase design will come through.

But the Bismarck is So Much Better!

But be warned—Atlantic Chase is an operational-level of wargame of Task Forces searching for or evading one another. The real truth is Atlantic Chase is more an “information game” than a “battle game.” Sure, you can, and sometimes will, fight battles but more importantly you are trying to “narrow down” and locate and track an enemy Task Force. This is not a tactical battle game even if one adds the chrome Advanced Battle Rules. Atlantic Chase is firmly a “design for effect” wargame as it places abstraction over simulation. Coming from a guy like me, a lover of Admiralty Trilogy games which are far less abstract, one might think I would hold this out as a negative of Atlantic Chase. In this case the opposite is true; I find the battle rules in Atlantic Chase just about right and am even wary of using the Advanced Battle Rules because they are maybe a bit too much extra chrome (and added time) that distract from the core game design concept – that information game found in the Trajectory.

An Experience Game

I usually don’t pay attention to comments posted about a game on BoardGameGeek but this comment, by “pilotofficerprune” (aka wargame designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood of Wing Leader) caught my attention because it says what was nagging me about Atlantic Chase:

An intriguing semi-abstract design on cruiser operations in the North Sea and Atlantic. It’s novel and the tutorials are necessary to understand the game. With dice playing a major role it generates strong narratives, but essentially this is an ‘experience game’ that gives a flavour of the subject matter but is low on decision points and ludicity. Catnip to me, but players who like balance and frequent decision-making will be disappointed.

pilotofficerprune, Atlantic Chase rating on BGG

What we have in Atlantic Chase is a wargame with a very nice looking (“Gucci”) and innovative package using a novel approach to rules layout. Although many will point to the tutorials and talk about the “new way of teaching a game” the reality is that it is a modernized version of programmed learning—and it takes alot of time to learn. The game system of Atlantic Chase is the most interesting part of the design in that designer Jerry White has found a very innovative way of keeping hidden information in the open. Atlantic Chase is certainly a game that many Newbies or Salty Grognards should experience, but don’t go into it looking for something much deeper. Atlantic Chase is, at heart, an information game but little more; wargamers looking for deeper decisions may be disappointed once they get past being dazzled by the Gucci packaging.

At the end of the day, I’d tell a wargamer that they absolutely should experience Atlantic Chase. Experience it for the incredible graphical approach to wargame rules. Experience it for the modern programmed learning approach. Experience it to discover a game system that keeps hidden information in the open. Once learned (which will take a while) game play will very likely be a great experience—as long as you don’t look for too deep a game.

Sunday Summary – Chasing rules in Atlantic Chase (@gmtgames, 2020) while waiting to don General’s stars in Rostov ’41 (@MultiManPub, 2020) #wargame #boardgame

Wargame

New arrivals this week include Jeremy White’s Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942, Intercept Vol. 1 (GMT Games, 2020). This game has generated alot of buzz, for the most part because of the very different approach Jerry took to writing the rule book and tutorial. Some people are out there talking about the second coming of sliced bread. I’m not convinced.

The second new game arrival this week was Ray Weiss’ Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). This is a Standard Combat Series game. I have come to expect that a SCS game has a “gimmick” or some special rule to highlight the battle or campaign depicted. However, in my first look through the rules I don’t see any obvious special rules. This might be a case where the scenario and order of battle are the “gimmick.” A deeper look will have to wait until after I get through Atlantic Chase.

With Compass Games announcing that Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot – Designer’s Signature Edition is coming in May and after I did a deep dive of Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps (SPI, 1980) (forthcoming from Armchair Dragoons, right Brant?) I took another look at Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). I looked at it from the perspective of the doctrine of the time(s). That sent me down a rabbit hole excursion into “Correlation of Forces and Means.” Thoughts forthcoming.

Boardgame

I broke down this week and purchased the digital version of Root (Dire Wolf Digital). I’m working my way through the tutorials but so far it’s very entertaining.

Gaming Outlook

Return to work full time is taking away game time so I have to rearrange my schedule. More short evening gaming sessions with maybe a single longer weekend occasion.

Sunday Summary – Too busy to play but NEVER too busy to dream about new #wargame & #boardgame arrivals @FoundationDietz @msiggins @HABA_usa @compassgamesllc @gmtgames @Academy_Games @LeeBWood @Hobiecat18 @SchilMil @Bublublock

Like the title says, didn’t get much gaming in this week as I return to basically full-time in the office. After a year of semi-telework it’s a bit of a shock to the system but, honestly, I love to be back at the grind.

Wargaming

Ended up doing a deep-dive of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Jim Dunnigan, Strategy & Tactics Nr.. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). There is alot of “professional” in this “hobby” title! I also had a real fun trip down memory lane with the accompanying magazine.

Boardgaming

Supercharged (Mike Siggins, Dietz Foundation, 2021) raced to the table. Also gifted (and taught) Dragons Breath: The Hatching (HABA, 2019).

Incoming!

It’s been awhile since I looked at my preorders. I presently am tracking 27 titles in my preorder GeekList. Here are some highlights:

Kickstarter

After complaining a few weeks back about the sheer number of Kickstarter campaigns and their costs I have not been doing a very good job controlling myself since. So far this month I added: