#Wargame Wednesday – Air/Naval Combat in Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames, 1990)

THE NEXT GAME ON MY 2019 CSR CHALLENGE is Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990). This game won the Charles S Roberts Award in 1990 for Best World War II Wargame. I played Operation Shoestring in the past year so it was a bit fresh in my mind. For this play I decided to focus more attention to the Air/Naval Phase.

As a long-time naval wargamer, I have always been interested in naval combat. Most of my games are at the tactical- or operational-levels of warfare. I really enjoy ship-vs-ship combat and seeing how different weapon systems and platforms work out against each other. However, Operation Shoestring takes a very different approach.

In Operation Shoestring the Air/Naval Phase is part of the Strategic Interphase which you execute only on odd-numbered game turns. Given the time scale (one turn per week for the naval interphase) this seems very abstracted and high-level. Surely, one cannot reduce naval combat to something that happens “occasionally?” However, if one looks at the rules you discover that the focus of the Air/Naval Phase in Operation Shoestring is not combat, but supply. The Air/Naval Phase is where players deliver supplies or troops to the island. Deliver too few troops and one can’t go on the offensive (or sustain a defense). Deliver too few supplies and your attacks (and defense) suffers.

That’s Design for Effect. I love it.My biases initially blinded me to the game effects. Reading through the rules I looked closely at 18.6 Surface-to-Surface Combat. The naval battles around Guadalcanal featured some of the most intense surface warfare actions of the entire war. Operations Shoestring surely was going to give due credit, right? But, instead of finding a rich, detailed naval combat system I found ruthless simplicity. The naval grognard in me revolted at seeing the deadly Japanese Long-Lance torpedo reduced to a single -1 DM. Or American radar advantage being shown as as a +1 DM. What heresy is this?

I soon discovered that the most important naval units in Operation Shoestring are actually Transports. During the Air/Naval Phase players must decide if Transports are used to transport companies (reinforcements) from off-map, supply points, or on-map transportation. Of the three, supply points are arguably the most important. The rule book explains why:

Supply played a critical role in the battle for Guadalcanal. The Americans were initially landed with barely half of their supply of munitions, rations, and medical supplies. For nearly a month, Marines who enjoyed a tactically superior situation languished in a “siege mentality” because basic supplies were low. The Japanese were also plagued with all kinds of supply problems. Their medical situation was so bad more soldiers died from disease and infection than from battle wounds. Unlike many games, this game does not require the players to trace lines of supplies. Rather, both sides must fight naval battles in attempts to keep the troops on the islands in supply. This is very important. If a player’s supply level decreases to “no supply” for more than two turns, his chances for victory are remote.

16.0 Supply

I now see the reason behind the simplified naval model. Operation Shoestring does not attempt to faithfully recreate the operational or tactical naval battles around Guadalcanal but it tries to recreate the effect of those battles. In this case, the effect is the impact of naval battles on supply and troop movement.

Air-Naval combat in Operation Shoestring is an example of where “less is better.” By keeping a focus on the effect of air-naval combat, the impact of player decisions is more connected to the game and the story it communicates. In the case of Operation Shoestring, the importance of supply comes through not with the “traditional” lines-of-supply traces, but from the effects of naval battles.

Design for Effect. Simple complexity. Elegance.

Game of the Week – or – Visiting Neptune’s Inferno with Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

For most of the campaign, Guadalcanal was a contest of equals, perhaps the only major battle in the Pacific where the United States and Japan fought from positions of parity. Its outcome was often in doubt. – James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, Prologue.

pic360048From the perspective of game mechanics, Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988) can be a real chore. This solitaire game leverages a heavy workload on the player to not only make decisions for their own side, but also to run the opposing AI. However, once you make it past the initial (steep?) learning curve, the game opens up a narrative battle experience unlike so many others.

In a way it is unfair to call Tokyo Express a historical game. Yes, there are scenarios that replicate the starting conditions of many battles, but the real power of Tokyo Express is how it make the unknown a part of the game and forces the player to deal with it. What may be the two most important rules in Tokyo Express are not what many grognards would think. Rule 6.0 Detection and 7.0 Japanese Hidden Forces are the parts of the game that make the narrative come alive.

Before you can open fire, you must see the target. That is the crux of 6.0 Detection. Be it visually or by radar, the importance of detecting the enemy first is a core game mechanic in Tokyo Express. When taken in combination with 7.0 Hidden Japanese Forces, the game creates it own unique narrative of battle ensuring that no two games are ever alike. The Design Note for 7.0 actually frames the entire game and brings the drama of the battle to the forefront:

The game begins with you patrolling Ironbottom Sound, looking for the Japanese who are somewhere off in the darkness. The Japanese appear initially as blips on your long-range search radar. Hidden forces represent anything your radar operator thinks might be a Japanese force. Sometimes it will indeed be warships; other times it will just be a “radar ghost.” You find out by detecting it.

In Tokyo Express, game designer Jon Southard captures the most important elements of the naval battle around Guadalcanal. In his Design Notes he makes no excuses for the difficulty of the game. In some ways Mr. Southard was ahead of his time when he designed Tokyo Express to be an “experience” and not a “simulation.” He especially makes no excuse for the difficulty of winning:

In your initial encounters with Tokyo Express, you will, I hope, feel some of the frustration and awe the American admirals did. The objective throughout the design process was to give you their bridge-eye view. You may be defeated at first, but you should find your own solutions, as the US admirals finally did.

8575701By making its core design feature “find your own solutions,” Tokyo Express takes what many wargames do, challenging players to find a path to victory, and elevates it to the highest levels of the hobby. It is a testimony to the power of his design that 30 years after its initial publication the title is worthy of a reprint. Pairing this game with James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam Books, 2011) allows one to not only read the history, but then take the same human drama Hornfischer relates and make it come alive.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

Why Navies Fight – #PacificFuryGuadalcanal1942 (Revolution Games, 2016)

One of the smaller games I got last year was Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal 1942 from Revolution Games. After my first play thru I took issue with the historical accuracy of the game but generally liked it. This past weekend I pulled the game out again and ran thru the campaign again. This time I payed more attention to the rules. After this second play thru, I see a lot more depth in the game and like this particular design a lot more!

Pacific Fury simulates the naval battles off Guadalcanal in late 1942. Each turn is a month, and each player must allocate his forces to up to seven Operations each month. Once Operations are allocated, the forces can only enter in that order. But operations can be more than just a Sortie to enter the board; to move and fight also takes Operations. Every Operation is a choice – enter more forces or execute an action with a deployed force. This is one layer of depth that makes Pacific Fury an interesting game; the timing of forces entering and (usually combat) actions. How long do you allow for the carriers to clear the area? Will that bombardment mission disrupt Henderson Field and allow a follow-on landing? Do I have a strong enough force to hold Ironbottom Sound? what about the Tokyo Express?

Another layer of depth – and one I misplayed my first play thru – is Hits and Sunk ships. The combat system is very simple – for each “firing” unit roll d6; if the number is less than or equal to the Combat Factor THAT NUMBER OF HITS is scored. Hits are then apportioned by the attacker with the number of hits allocated to each target compared to the Defense Factor. There are two possible results: Sunk (removed from game) or Hit (moved to Turn Record Track to return later).

The practical impact of this game mechanic to strategy is very important – although sinking ships is good to simply “damage” the ships might be more effective. The Japanese player can return ships two turns later meaning a ship damaged in Turn 3 will not return before Turn 4. In contrast, American ships with better damage control and closer repair facilities return the next turn. Thus, like the real battle it portrays, Pacific Fury becomes a furious battle of attrition.

Another design decision in Pacific Fury that makes it very interesting is the victory conditions. There is only one way to win this game; control Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This may seem like blasphemy to a naval gamer – many of whom only think in terms of sunk ships – but it actually reflects the reality of the battles fought from August to November 1942.

As I recognize how these game mechanics reflect aspects of the campaign often overlooked (or glossed over) in other games both my respect and enjoyment of Pacific Fury has increased. In my most recent campaign play the result was a draw. Actual losses on both sides were small; the Japanese lost Zuikaku, Shokaku, Ryujo, Nagato, and Nachi while the Americans lost Saratoga, Wasp, South Dakota, North Carolina, San Francisco, and Chicago.

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End of Game Condition

The Americans were actually a bit lucky that they were able to even get the draw. On Turn 3 (October 1942) the Japanese had retaken Henderson Field but at a cost a many damaged ships – ships now effectively “out of the game.” In the Event Phase of Turn 4, the Americans rolled IJN Overestimated which returned a “destroyed” carrier to the battle (incidentally, a carrier originally destroyed in the Event Phase of Turn 2 when the Japanese rolled three (!) Torpedo Hits and elected to sink that carrier). With the Hornet back, the Americans were able to use airpower to destroy the Japanese force patrolling Ironbottom Sound and get a bombardment force in to disrupt Henderson Field just in time for an amphibious force to land in the very last Operation of the game.

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Courtesy  goodreads.com

Pacific Fury reminds me that it is not enough to just “learn the rules” but it is also important to step back and understand the “why” of a game mechanic or rule. Usually these are hinted at in Designer’s Notes but in Pacific Fury such notes are lacking probably because the original game was published in Japanese. So in this case I had do do a bit of (enjoyable) discovery on my own. I am glad I pulled this game out again as I have deepened my understanding of not just the game but of the entire naval campaign for Guadalcanal. Pacific Fury is actually great compliment to what has to be one of the best books on the subject, James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno. Enough so that I need to stop typing away here and resume my reread of that book….

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

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Courtesy Baen.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WargameWednesday – Not Conflicted Anymore about #ConflictofHeroes

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Earlier this year I got Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal 1942 – The Pacific (Academy Games, 2016). I wrote out my First Impressions where I was impressed with the game mechanics but unsure about how the game came together.

In early August I was fortunate to attend CONNECTIONS 17 and met the designer of Conflict of Heroes, Uwe ('Oova') Eickert. In the evening "game labs," I actually sat down with Uwe and he walked me and others through the Conflict of Heroes system using Awakening the Bear (2nd Edition).

I'm absolutely sold – on several levels.

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From the GAMEPLAY perspective the Active/Spent Units, Action Points/Command Action Points, and Command/Bonus/Action Card mechanics make for quick play. In the rules I can see the influence of Nicholas Warcholak, in charge of Editing and Game Development for Academy Games. The Academy Games website lays out the Warcholak Guide to keep game rules streamlined:

  1. Is the rule necessary to simulate the TYPICAL (over 10% of the time) conditions and outcomes on the battlefield? If YES, keep. If NO, go to 2.
  2. Does the rule require significant mental resources to remember to play? (Significant is defined as needing to remember more than 2 facts.) If YES, dump. If NO, go to 3.
  3. Does the rule add to the fun of the game? Does it produce outcomes that add significant replayability, oh-no moments, gotcha momments, or simulation pay-off outside the general flow of the game? If YES, keep. If NO, dump.

Conflict of Heroes implements the Warcholak Guide in spades! The rules, in combination with the graphical presentation, means the game can be taught almost without referencing the rule book.

From a HISTORICAL SIMULATION level of play, Uwe opened my eyes to the deep amount of historical detail baked into the game. For instance, the number of Action Points necessary for a unit to shoot is often a reflection of leadership and command & control. Unlike other games which use many 'rules by exception' to implement the intended effect, Conflict of Heroes "bakes" the rules into a few key factors. For example, when a unit is activated it gets 7 Action Points (AP). Both German and Russian infantry use 1 AP to move, but it takes a Russian infantry unit 4 AP to fire whereas a typical German infantry unit only needs 3 AP to shoot. Thus, A Russian unit will only be able to fire once per activation unless they call upon Command Action Points (CAP – representing higher HQ and prior planning). A German infantry unit can fire twice without calling upon CAPs. This subtle one-factor difference brings out so much of the command & control issues facing the combatants without needlessly complex rules.

fullsizeoutput_242This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys (even the oldest) play Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! – Russia 1941-42 (2nd Edition). We played Firefight 2 with four commanders (two per side). IT WAS A BLAST. The rules were easy for me to teach (and the boys to learn) so we got into PLAY right away. All the RMN Boys are now Conflict of Heroes fans (dare I say the youngest is a FANatic?).

I have also purchased the Firefight Generatorand the Solo Expansion. I saw Uwe demo the Solo Expansion with its 'Athena AI' at CONNECTIONS 17 and I have to say I am VERY INTERESTED.

The Eastern Front Solo Expansion is the highly anticipated rule set that has been in development for over 3 years! A player will be able to play Awakening the Bear against a highly reactive game AI. This AI is based on the most modern Emergent Behavior and Agent Based Logic programming systems. AI units are not individually programmed like in past solo games. Instead, each situation is evaluated and the best course of action using available AI resources and unit assets is implemented. This is a radical and groundbreaking implementation of advanced computer programming by Academy Games for their Conflict of Heroes series. Players will be surprised by the AI strategy and actions that emerge as a result of the player's own battle tactics. This may force even veteran players to hone and adapt their own playing styles in order to overcome the AI. (From the Academy Games website)

Honestly, I found many solo game engines quite cumbersome; or very formulamatic (see Tokyo Express from Victory Games, 1988). The Athena AI, implemented using cards in the Conflict of Heroes system, looks to create a "living opponent" again without a burdensome rules overhead.

Though not recognized as one of the true "Grognard" wargame companies, Academy Games is truly on the cutting edge of game design. There are several other companies trying to do the same, but it remains to be seen if the wargame hobby as whole can keep up with the likes of Academy Games.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: MORE MORE MORE!

 

#WargameWednesday – Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal First Impressions

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Courtesy BGG

Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 from Academy Games is a 2016 Golden Geek Award Best Wargame Nominee. After reading some of the buzz and looking at comments on BoardGameGeek, I picked this one up in the hope that I could eventually play this with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I like using wargames to teach a bit about what the situation or combat experience was like. In CoH:G what I found was a game of war that challenges many of my perceptions of what I see as a wargame.

CoH:G bills itself as a combined-arms squad-level game. The focus is on the US Marines battles on Guadalcanal from just after the amphibious landing in August 1942 through the arrival of regular Army units in October 1942 (and playable as an expansion). This was my first challenge; I needed to get past my bias for armor over infantry (always a Panzer/88/Armor fan over Squad Leader).

My next challenge was the price; CoH:G retails for $80. Although I saw it in my FLGS I was reluctant to pull the trigger at that price point. Searching online, I found it for less and ordered.

Opening the box, I was stunned at the components. The high quality (huge) counters and mounted mapboard along with full-color glossy books and play-aids and even an organizing insert immediately made me realize that the asking price is actually not unreasonable.

The rulebook is 23 pages which includes many examples. This means that CoH:G is not a complex game. The rules are tied to scenarios (firefights) and use a building-block learning approach to teach players the game mechanics.

What makes CoH:G – and apparently all the Conflict of Heroes series games – interesting is the use of Action Points in Rounds and Turns. Players alternate activating units (or groups of units) and expend Unit or Command Action Points to move or fire. Thus, the classic IGO-UGO turn sequence is overturned. Both players remain engaged through out the entire turn.

Combat is very straight-forward; roll 2d6 and add the Attack Rating of the firing unit. If the AR exceeds the Defense Rating of the unit (modified for terrain) the unit is hit. For each hit a chit is drawn. The chits (about 20) cover everything from no damage to immediate KIA. Once a unit gets a second hit it is eliminated.

Conflict of Heroes also uses cards in play. Command cards, Bonus cards, and various Capability cards bring a bit of randomness and detail flavor to the game. I have written elsewhere about how my perception of Card Driven Games (CDG’s) has changed. CoH is not a CDG, but effectively uses card-driven elements as chrome.

A unique mechanic in CoH:G and not in any other CoH series game is Bushido Points. Bushido Points modify available Command Action Points (CAP) for the Japanese player. Bushido is gained/lost through certain actions. In order to gain Bushido Points (and add to the CAP pool) certain actions must be taken that may not make the most tactical sense, but are in keeping with the “spirit of Bushido.”

In concept the game is very simple; in play the layout is beautiful. I like it…sorta.

The game mechanics are very clean and although I was worried at the chits and markers used in play the board does not get cluttered with the markers. Like in MBT (Second Edition) or Panzer (Second Edition) the markers don’t get in the way. The hit chits actually create a great variety of damage results that make even getting hit interesting. The back-and-forth play keeps the battles moving and demands a players attention at all times.

I am not sure about the Bushido mechanic. I mean, I see what Bushido is supposed to do I’m just not sure I like how I as a player is hamstrung by Bushido. In CoH:G, Bushido is gained/lost for certain actions. Thus, in order to gain/maintain Bushido points (and not always be behind in Command Action Points) certain “sacrifices” must be made. In my several plays to date, the rules specify that Bushido is gained for loss of a Japanese unit is Close or Short range combat. So…to get Bushido the Japanese player has fight – and lose – at very close ranges. This supposedly simulates the Japanese affinity for close assaults.  The player need not make these sacrifices, but doing so gains Bushido points which in turn gives Command Action Points which in turns allows for greater tactical flexibility. The Bushido rues mechanically succeed in making the Japanese player act more is accordance how the Japanese historically acted – I’m just not totally accepting of this loss of “player agency.”

CoH:G is not without a few other challenges. Hexes are VERY hard to see (nee invisible) and with the given countermix (huge counters – but actually very few units) the variety of scenarios is limited.

CoH:G will probably get more plays in the RockyMountainNavy household. As the oldest RMN Boy was leaving, he walked past the board and was immediately taken in by the components. The game is easy enough to teach that I think even the youngest RMN Boy (13 years old) who’ll be able to easily play too.

In the end, I feel that CoH:G is a good game of war. I am a bit reluctant to call it a wargame in my book because the mechanics are so much different than what I usually expect. I am reluctant to totally embrace the Bushido mechanic – it feels like it is forcing me into certain actions. It will get played – it’s too visually stunning not to – but I will tread lightly on using this game to teach the RMN Boys too much of what island combat in the South Pacific was.

Mechanically I guess CoH:G is another step on my path to modernized wargames; I was late to the CDG mechanic, enjoy the COIN series from GMT, and now have exposure to CoH.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: Explore more; order Storms of Steel: Kursk 1942 (Second Edition) to see what they system is like for armor and without the Bushido mechanic.

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Courtesy BGG

 

May 2017 – My Geek Hobby Year-to-Date

Traditionally, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer for the RockyMountainNavy family. That is until we moved to the East Coast. Now school for the RMN Boys goes until mid-June. However, I still want to use this occasion to look back on my geek hobby year-to-date.

Wargaming

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Courtesy BGG.com

According to my BGG profile, I played 10 games in January, four in February, four more in March, none in April, and only two in May. For a year that I wanted to play more I certainly have dropped off! Summer may change as I have several new games inbound. Arriving tomorrow is Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 (Academy Games, 2016). I also may be getting closer to my Kickstarter delivery of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, ??) which after many delays (unwarranted and unacceptable in my opinion) finally opened the BackerKit this week. I also pledged for Worthington Publishing’s Mars Wars – but it cancelled. This month I pledged to support Compass Games’ new Richard Borg title Command & Colors: Tricorne – The American Revolution. To be honest, I am buying this title as much for myself as for the RMN Boys – which is both a blessing and a curse. I am certainly blessed in that I have boys who love gaming, but cursed in that they are not a hard grognard like their old man. The titles also reflect a change in my gaming interests as I struggle with the closure of many FLGS and the movement of my purchasing online or (shudder) to Kickstarter. I also have several games on P500 at GMT Games and hope to see that production schedule move forward this year.

Role Playing Games

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Courtesy RPGGeek

Whereas my grognard-fu has been weakening, my RPG play has been one of steady growth. Mostly this has revolved around the Cepheus Engine RPG system and products from Gypsy Knights Games and their The Clement Sector setting or products from Samardan Press, Zozer Games (especially their SOLO supplement), and Moon Toad Publishing. I have to tip my hat to these third party publishers which are doing so much to breathe life into my RPG adventures. For this summer, I also have a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games) campaign at-the-ready. Here too I have dipped deeper into Kickstarter and pledged support to Cam Banks’, Magic Vacuum Studio’s Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game.

Books

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Courtesy Amazon.com

I started off at Christmas with a good collection of books that I am whittling down at a much slower pace than I wish. This is not because I have ignored them; on the contrary, I am probably reading more than I did last year – just not reading off my list! Science fiction books have taken up much of my reading time. I have found myself lost in rereading the Charles E. Gannon’s Caine Riordan series from Baen Books. I also turned to Kickstarter again for content, this time in the form of Cirsova 2017 (Issues 5&6) and its short stories.

Plastic Models

I didn’t get time to build much but the RMN boys got many kits completed. We even found a YouTube channel that we love, Andy’s Hobby Headquarters. He not only shows great models, but the boys are studying his techniques for better building.

Education Support

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Courtesy goodreads.com

I also have to do the Dad-thing and boast a bit about my youngest RMN Boy. This past quarter he was studying World War II and had a project to complete. The project supposed the student had found items in the attic from grandparents accumulated during World War II. The student had to put together a scrapbook of a newspaper article relating a battle (writing assignment), a letter from a soldier/sailor to home describing another battle (writing assignment), a letter from home describing the home front (writing assignment), a letter from the mayor to a local boys club thanking them for supporting the war effort (another writing assignment), notes from Grandmother about key personalities (short biographies), and a propaganda poster (art assignment). We had fun doing this project as together the youngest RMN boy and I prowled my shelves for sources, watched movies and documentaries online, and even pulled out a few games to better visualize the battles. A very proud moment for this father as the New Media and my book and game collection came together to teach a young man history.


Feature image courtesy 365barrington.com