Part of the reason I flagged this article is that Tomcats and my air combat wargaming have long gone hand in hand. The first modern air combat wargame I owned was the TSR edition of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat (1983). The cover featured, of course, an F-14 Tomcat.
Not an air combat game, but in 1986 I picked up Target: Libya, a magazine game in Strategy & Tactics No. 109 based pretty much on the Tomcat cover only.
The second modern air combat wargame I acquired was Air Superiority from GDW in 1987 featuring…a Tomcat on the cover!
Even my favorite naval combat wargame, Harpoon, got into the Tomcat “game” with the cover of Harpoon: Battles of the Third World War – Modern Naval Warfare Scenarios from GDW in 1987.
My love affair with Tomcats was not limited to just wargames. One of the earliest Squadron/Signal Publications books to enter my collection was F-14 Tomcat in Action: Squadron/Signal Publications Aircraft No. 32 by Lou Drendel (1977).
Who can forget the incredible flying scene in the movie The Final Countdown (1980) where Tomcats and “Zeros” tangle!
In 1986 the designer of Harpoon, Larry Bond, was credited as co-author with Tom Clancy for his bestselling novel Red Storm Rising. Although we don’t “see” any Tomcats in the book, we read all about them, especially in the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” which we now know was plotted with the assistance of Harpoon.
In 1986 we also get the original Top Gun movie and all that Tomcat love…
The cover of what may be the best-ever coffee table aviation photo book by C.J. Heatley III (what a great aviator name) is The Cutting Edge (Charlottesville: Thomasson, Grant & Howell, 1986) and has…Tomcats.
My Osprey Publishing book collection even has a Tomcat entry with Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat: Osprey Combat Aircraft 49 by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop (2004). There is LOTS of good wargame scenario fodder in this book!
For this winter, I have a 1/144th scale plastic model from Trumpeter to build.
Part of my love affair for Tomcats also comes from my two cruises with Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass. Although he was not my squadron skipper, he was a legend in the Naval Aviation community that we all respected. His death in 2021 was as sad as it was unexpected.
While the Tomcat-cover wargames are not the only air combat games in my collection, they are the most memorable. Now that I think about it, the cover of Birds of Prey: Air Combat in the Jet Age (Ad Astra, 2008) features an F-15 Eagle. Maybe that cover, as much as the difficult rules, explains why I don’t enjoy BoP?
Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.
No (Air) Show?
One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.
Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:
The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.
Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:
While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.
So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?
“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”
Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.
First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.
If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.
Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example,Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based onHarpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.
For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.
Squadrons & Tracks
The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.
Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.
[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]
Missions, Point Salads, & Assets
More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”
An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”
Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.
Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.
Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…
(Another) Russian Way of War?
In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017).Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:
From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.
It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?
Mirror Image – Not?
Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.
Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.
That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:
Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis].Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.
It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:
Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.
Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?
Player Choice – Pass!
In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:
The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].
There are certain wargames in my collection that I just cannot get enough of. For these games I’m always looking for more to play with. This year three games got lots of new love. The candidates for my 2021 Wargame Expansion of the Year are:
Harpoon – The Expanded Critical Hit Tables are nice, but not necessary for play. The Naval SITREPs are always welcome content, but again missing them doesn’t mean game failure.
Tank Duel – The RMN Boys and myself like the Tank Duel system. It’s a very different game system that challenges the very defintion of a wargame. The North Africa expansion is very welcome, and one can never have enough tank “mats” to play with.
Wing Leader – One of my all-time favorite game systems. Legends adds depth and the Supremacy update keeps an already clean system that much tidier.
…and the winner is…
Tank Duel Expansion Nr. 1: North Africa. Not only does this expansion take the game into a new theater, it also cleans up the rules. This expansion, along with Tank Pack Nr. 1 ensures Tank Duel will be on the table often this coming year.
Thank to @Ardwulf for parting with this item. Ardie…you let your fear of Harpoon get the best of you here because this is NOT a complicated near-simulation like Harpoon purports to be….
In the late 1980’s I was, in many ways, a hard-core wargamer. I relished playing complex wargames. I was a Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) fanatic and when the then-new Star Fleet Battles Captain’s Edition Basic Set released in 1900 I grabbed it up. For air combat games I enjoyed the Fighting Wings series from JD Webster, in particular his modern Air Superiority title from GDW in 1987. For naval combat I was all about Harpoon. I started out with the Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II in 1983 and in 1987 jumped to the new GDW edition informally called Harpoon III but more simply known as Harpoon.
In 1989 I finished college and joined the US Navy. Between training, something called DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, and a few years stationed overseas my first few years of the 1990’s were taken up by concerns other than wargaming. So the truth to the matter is I missed Harpoon Captain’s Edition when it was first released in 1990.
By the mid-1990’s the Soviet Union had fallen and was already a fading memory. I vaguely remember browsing through a game store (Compleat Strategist in Virginia?) and looking at Harpoon Captain’s Edition: Exciting Modern Naval Battle Game. To be honest, a wargame about the Cold War Gone Hot in the North Atlantic at that time seemed so quaint. Furthermore, the game didn’t even look like Harpoon. I mean, the box art looked like the Harpoon series but when the cover also says “Easy to Learn – Fun to Play” and “Start Playing in 30 Minutes,” well, that was just NOT the realHarpoon I wanted to play!
Welcome to the arena of modern naval combat! In this game you will become a naval commander, in charge of guided-missile ships, nuclear submarines, and jet aircraft. While warfare between naval vessels and aircraft can be a complicated and technical business, the critical tactical decisions are made by captains and admirals who do not generally study a radar or sonar display themselves. They receive the distilled results of all the technical, data-gathering assets at their disposal and make decisions accordingly.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition provides a clear and concise description of modern naval warfare. The game places you int he same position as a ship’s captain or the admiral commanding a task force. Many details have been kept out of the game to allow the players to concentrate on command decisions, but the overall capabilities of various sensors and weapon systems are still presented accurately.
To make it easy to learn the rules, they are broken up into separate sections. Each section begins with a description of one aspect of modern naval warfare. Section one covers surface naval vessels; section two covers detection of enemy vessels; section three deals with submarines; an sections four and five add aircraft to the game. In each section, specific rules are presented that translate that aspect of warfare into game terms. After several rules have been presented, you will be directed to play a scenario which uses and illustrates those rules.
The scenarios themselves are all contained in the Captain’s Briefing. Each scenario lists all the information necessary for play, such as forces available to each side and starting positions. The Captain’s Briefing also includes discussions of various modern weapon systems and a number of advanced rules.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Rule Book p. 1
The above is pulled from the beginning of the rule book and pretty much tell you everything about the game. Harpoon Captain’s Edition is a relatively low complexity wargame that’s supposed to be simple to learn and fun to play. It’s also supposed to teach, as designer Larry Bond tells us:
The Captain’s Edition of Harpoon is supposed to be fast, simple, fun to play, and it is all of those things. But it also includes all the fundamental principles of modern naval warfare, so as you play, you can learn a great deal about how ships, subs and aircraft fight today.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Designer’s Notes
So how well does Harpoon Captain’s Edition actually live up to what Mr. Bond claims?
A Training Aid for Education?
Harpoon Captain’s Edition packs alot into what is actually a relatively small package. The 17″x22″ map covers the G-I-UK Gap and nearby seas using 1″ hexes. There are 300 counters though most are markers and will not regularly be used on the map. The rules and briefing books are each 16 pages. All the ships and aircraft appear on 54 cards. Each player is also given a card for keeping track of bases and a combat reference chart to keep behind a screen so the other player cannot see your allocations. There is a roster pad to keep track of hits and ammo expenditure. There are also ten little plastic aircraft that don’t look like any kind of maritime patrol aircraft active in the US or Soviet inventory (but they were probably cheap to put in the box). In many ways this wargame looks like a training aid packaged for a ship’s wardroom.
The programmed learning approach uses 15 scenarios:
Scenarios 1 & 2 use Surface Ships and Surface to Surface Missiles
Scenario 3 adds Naval Gunfire
Scenario 4 adds Detection
Scenario 5 adds Dummy Units
Scenarios 6/7/8 adds Submarines
Scenarios 9/10/11/12 adds Patrol Aircraft
Scenarios 13/14/15 adds Tactical Aircraft
The first few scenarios play very fast…20 minutes or less in some cases. The later, more complex scenarios going on for as long as 21 turns (7 days), can take up to 2 hours to play. I actually played through all 15 scenarios (plus one Advanced Scenario) in a dual-hatted solo mode in about six hours of actual play time.
Each turn is very simple in execution. Players begin by assigning their ships or submarines to Task Forces. Each Task Force moves when their movement chit is drawn during the turn. At that point, the player decides on a speed and radar status. While moving, Task Forces can be attacked (if detected).
In surface to surface missile (SSM) combat, defenders use long range SAMs, short range SAMS, and point defense weapons to defend in layers. The game mechanics emphasize the need to “rollback” defenses; indeed, the whole idea of “Rollback” is given a major sidebar discussion on page 7.
Submarines are treated much like surface ships except of course you use Sonar to detect them and ASW to attack. Submarines can attack using SSM or torpedoes.
Patrol aircraft remain on the map continuously but move when their chit is pulled. They are most useful for detection though they also have an attack capability.
Tactical aircraft are weapons that are fired when needed; they do not have a movement chit. Tactical aircraft do have a radius (or range) from their base. When attacked, aircraft may be aborted or even shot down by defenses. Unlike ships or submarines, aircraft have no ammo limits. Fighters can also be assigned different missions like Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which acts as a “fourth layer” of defense. However, if not enough fighters are available they might only be able to act as Deck Launched Interceptors which still attack but at the same time as the long range SAMs.
Combat factors represent the number of d6 rolled. The simple Game Reference Chart tells you the results.
Fast, Simple, Fun
Here is how my first combat in Scenario 3 played out. A US Task Force consisting of a single Arleigh Burke destroyer and two O.H. Perry frigates each screening a single merchant ship had to travel from Scotland to Keflavik, Iceland. Opposing their transit is a Soviet Task Force consisting of a single Sovremennyy destroyer and two Krivak-class frigates. The US Task Force moves under EMCON (EMissions CONtrol – radars off). To avoid being struck at range the Soviets also move in EMCON. The result is both task forces meet in the same hex (60 miles across) just off the Faroe Islands.
The Soviets move first and enter the same hex as the American Task Force. The visual search needs a 1-2 to detect the Americans…and they do. The Soviets initiate the attack with 8 factors of SSM from the Sovremennyy allocating 4 SSM to each merchant.
Long Range SAM Fire: The US Arleigh Burke defends the entire Task Force with 10 factors of Long Range SAM. That’s 10d6 with 1-3 a miss, 4-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The roll is below average with only 4 hits…4 SSM (2 against each merchant) continue inbound.
Short Range SAM Fire: Each OH Perry has a single SSM they can use to defend themselves or the ship they are screening. The first Perry misses, the second downs a single inbound SSM.
Point Defense: Although all the US warships have point defense weapons, they can only be used to defend their own ship and not another.
Merchant Attack 1: Two Soviet SSM attack; each rolls 1d6 with 1-2 Miss, 3-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The rolls are 3 and 6 – three hits which sinks the merchant.
Merchant Attack 2: A single SSM attacks. A roll of 6 (!) is a double hit which cripples the merchant; at 2/3 damage the merchant is reduced to a speed of 1 (sitting duck).
The Advanced Rules in Harpoon Captain’s Edition are actually very few. Each adds a bit of chrome but with minimal rules overhead. The real gem of the Harpoon Captain’s Edition design is the Advanced Scenarios. In an advance scenario, players randomly draw a Mission Chit that assigns them one of nine missions. Each Mission provides some background, the objective for the player, and a “mission budget” to buy forces. Each “asset point” can buy one flight of four aircraft or purchase ships based on their hull value (usually 1-2 points). Some ships are High-Cost (like the Kirov or Arleigh Burke classes which costs double. Here was the first random match up I played:
NATO Mission 6 – “Major surface forces will be entering the North Sea soon to conduct operations against Severomorsk. Your mission is to prepare the way by engaging and destroying enemy naval and aviation assets. Objective: Destroy at least six asset points worth of enemy forces, and destroy at least two more enemy asset points that you lose yourself. In addition, prevent the Soviets from achieving their objective. Force: 25 points.”
Soviet Mission 8 – “The war is going against the Soviet Union, and morale is sagging. An important and visible victory is required to boost the morale of troops in all theaters. Objective: Destroy the runway at Leuchars airfield or sink either the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz or [battleship] Iowa. Force: 30 points.”
An Entertaining, Educating, Training War Engine
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is definitely FAST to play. Some of the programmed scenarios are actually too fast. The real “test” of the design is the advanced scenarios that pit mission vs. mission. If the players both draw “large” missions the game will likely go the full two-hour advertised length. More realistically, the potential asymmetric match-up can lead to an “early” win. That’s not a negative for the game can be easily reset for another match!
While I initially shied away from Harpoon Captain’s Edition because I though the rules were too SIMPLE, what I discovered is actually a wargame of modern naval warfare in a design distilled into its essence. For designer’s who built their reputation on the accuracy of datasets and “realism” in how they interact, this distilled version of Harpoon is actually quite refreshing. Playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition also drove me back to rereading Dance of the Vampires (GDW) which details the scenarios designer Larry Bond and author Tom Clancy used in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel in 1985. I can’t help but feel some of the simplifications Bond talks about in Dance of the Vampires made their way into Harpoon Captain’s Edition.
Quite simply put, Harpoon Captain’s Edition is FUN to play. The game also teaches without preaching. Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about modern naval warfare tactics, I found myself applying them almost without thinking because it was the “natural” choice to make in the game. Sure, I need to sink the merchants, but first I’ll rollback some defenders before saturating the defenses with a massive SSM strike. That is, after I use my Patrol Aircraft to detect which task force is real and which is a dummy. All while avoiding the dreaded Tomcat fighters and delivering a massive Backfire bomber raid.
Harpoon Captain’s Edition is “fast, simple, fun to play” just like Mr. Bond said. That’s because it is a well-designed War Engine of modern naval warfare. The programmed training teaches you the engine in easy to bite bits. After you learn, the real challenge comes from taking on different missions, never being sure what your opponent’s mission is. That’s 81 possible mission sets but a near-infinite set of possible scenarios since each side gets to buy their forces. Even though some asymmetric match-ups are possible, the emphasis on tactics over the reputation of a weapon system leads to a balanced game. In the 16 games I played (split-personality solo) the net result was 8 American wins and 8 Soviet wins.
The combination of entertaining play and education actually places Harpoon Captain’s Edition in an interesting space of the wargame hobby. As Colonels Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks and fellow author Fred Cameron tell us in The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020), wargames come in four basic types; Entertainment, Educational, Training, and Analytic. Harpoon Captain’s Edition appears to be derived from a Training game for the US Navy designed to Educate about the fundamentals of modern naval warfare that GDW was able to send to the commercial wargame market for Entertainment. The fact that it can be used to Train or Entertain while still Educating is an impressive bit of wargame design.
Given my recent readings on the modern Chinese Navy, I have to wonder if there is potential for an updated, 21st century version Harpoon Captain’s Edition but using the PLA Navy instead of the Soviets. After all, the fundamentals of naval warfare are constant, even if technology is challenging how some of them are applied.
It took me 30 years to get my copy of Harpoon Captain’s Edition. I’m very happy because I discovered that it is far from the quaint design I expected.
A very thorough analysis of the present capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). This is perhaps the best single-source compilation of open source analysis on the PLA Navy presently available. Persuasively argues that the PLA Navy is a “blue-water” navy – today. Analytical breakdown offers many opportunities for wargaming.
Not your father’s PLAN
How often do we hear about “China rising?” If you subscribe to that school of thought then you are in for a surprise if you read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications by Michael A. McDevitt, RADM, US Navy (Ret.). In this very recent (late 2020) publication from Naval Institute Press, RADM McDevitt argues that fifteen years of anti-piracy patrols has already made the PLA Navy the second most-capable naval power in the world. He further argues that the PLA Navy is well on track to be a true “world class navy” but 2035, a deadline set by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Rear Admiral McDevitt starts out with a discussion of where China’s maritime power ambitions come from. The sources he uses are nothing special; everything is publicly available (although some needed to be translated). This is good grist for wargame designers; understanding what China wants to do on the high seas supports good scenario design.
The second chapter, “Getting Started: Learning How to Operate Abroad” contains the core argument in the book. McDevitt shows how fifteen years of overseas anti-piracy patrols has directly contributed to the development of a highly professional and capable blue-water navy. For wargame designers this is a challenge; so often wargames looking at the PLA Navy seem to dig into the whole “China rising” meme and don’t acknowledge (or refuse to acknowledge) that the Chinese Navy is not “coming soon” but “already here” and far removed from a second-rate coastal defense force that couldn’t even deal with Vietnam.
The next several chapters are probably the best for wargame and scenario design. RADM McDevitt addresses area denial, anti-access and a Taiwan campaign, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean in turn. In each section he discusses the what the PLA Navy is charged with accomplishing and the doctrine and equipment they developed to meet the challenge. His discussion of equipment is particularly helpful for wargame designers as each piece of kit is evaluated against what its mission is. This evaluation is far more helpful than just comparing it to the US Navy. The breakdown by area also can be useful for scenario design, and if one puts it all together a larger campaign view is possible.
Recommendation 3: The United States should consider the merits and risks of adopting a position on the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, persuade other countries to support this position, and develop diplomatic strategies as well as military contingency plans based on these positions (emphasis mine).
Recommendation 4: The United States should conduct a policy review of its responses to Chinese aggression against occupied or unoccupied features in the South China Sea. While the details of military actions should be classified, the United States should make it clear that treaty obligations would be invoked by aggression, and could under certain circumstances result in military intervention (again, emphasis mine).
Recommendation 6: Planning associated with US military options in support of the TRA [Taiwan Relations Act] recognize the requirement for a rapid expansion of consultative and cooperative mechanisms with Taipei.
Imperial overreach is not as farfetched as one might assume, despite China’s impressive wealth creation over past decades. As a classic land-sea power, which faces the seas and shares contiguous borders with its neighbors, Beijing must always stay alert to threats in the continental and maritime domains. This inescapable two-front challenge imposes perpetual opportunity costs: every yuan spent on one area is one fewer yuan available for the other flank and vice versa. The trade-offs between its landward and seaward commitments could impose built-in limits on China’s global plans.
Toshi Yoshihara, “China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited”
Up-to-date capability assessment mixed with analysis of doctrine and mission.
Read it now because the PLA Navy is growing so fast the data will be outdated sooner than later.
“Chapter Six – The PLA Navy and the South China Sea” is perfect update material for South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017). The same can be said for “Chapter Seven – The PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean” and the forthcoming release of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (Compass Games, 2021).
A 21st Century VitP?
As I read China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, I appreciated how RADM McDevitt broke down the problem geographically. At the same time, it made me realize that many (all?) modern naval wargames take that same approach. We have wargames on the invasion of Taiwan and confrontation in the South China Sea or Indian Ocean. We also have wargames that can deliver a very fine tactical simulation of a modern conflict. What is lacking (in the commercial hobby wargame space, at least) is a wargame that shows the entire campaign. What I’m thinking about here is something like a Victory in the Pacific-type of overview. Although McDevitt breaks the PLA Navy problem down into discrete geographic areas they are all interrelated: the flow of shipping in the Indian Ocean must travel through the South China Sea to get to the mainland. I can think of no commercial wargame that looks at rolling back the PLA Navy across the globe, or even across the Pacific. Just what is the Plan ORANGE wargame for the 21st century?
McDevitt, Michael A., China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020.
Feature image: 200818-N-KF697-3150 PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2020) Royal Brunei Navy Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel KDB Darulehsan (OPV 07), Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Winnipeg (FFH 338), Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73) and Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Manawanui (A09) maneuver during a division tactics (DIVTACS) exercise during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). Ten nations, 22 ships, one submarine, and more than 5,300 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from August 17 to 31 at sea around the Hawaiian Islands. RIMPAC is a biennial exercise designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships, critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The exercise is a unique training platform designed to enhance interoperability and strategic maritime partnerships. RIMPAC 2020 is the 27th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Isaak Martinez)
Christmas 2020. The year the Grinch brought COVID to the world. In the RockyMountainNavy home we actually had a good year in great part because our family bonds are strong (and stayed strong regardless of how much the Governor of Virginia tried to keep us down). Gaming played an important part in keeping the RockyMountainNavy family going this year as you will see in a series of posts coming before the end of the year. Christmas 2020 also brought several “new” games and other hobby items to my collection.
Harpoon III (GDW) / Harpoon 4 (Clash of Arms). Included also was a copy of Harpoon III with more than a few sourcebooks as well as Harpoon 4 with the 1997 Harpoon Naval Review and two other modules. I already own these but having secondary copies on hand is not a bad thing. The counters alone are worth it.
From Fort Circle Games
The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games, 2020). Again, not a true gift but still a nice present to get this Kickstarter fulfillment before the end of 2020. I have the original PnP version and like it so much that backing the Kickstarter campaign for a “professional” copy was a real no-brainer.
OK, a bit of a cheat here. I took advantage of a US Naval Institute book sale to get two new books to read. I really am looking forward to digging into The Craft of Wargaming for, ah, “professional” reasons.
An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!
Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (Silvertail Books, 2020)
I remember the Falklands War on TV. I was a student in middle school at the time and absolutely enamored with the weapons of the Cold War. Here was a “major power” taking on an upstart South American country. Even after nearly 40 years, it is good to see that more of the history of the Falklands War is coming out, in the most recent case in the form of the book Harrier 809 which details the life of 809 Naval Air Squadron which was formed after the war started.
There is lots of goodness in the pages of Harrier 809. My personal favorite parts include the story of how 809 Squadron stood up. It really is a good lesson in trying to put together a unit in a “come as you are” war; lessons that I hope the US Navy and Air Force don’t ever have to face (but in reality, it could very well be the reality). I also love the factoid that the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough built several 1:24 scale Airfix models of the Harrier to test new camouflage schemes. I use this to show my boys that their “little hobby” can actually make a real difference!
Over the years I have occasionally seen rumors and hints that Lee Brimmicombe-Wood might make a Falklands version of his raid game Downtown (GMT Games, 2004). As often as I hear the rumors they are crushed. I’ll admit, this would be an insta-buy for me!
At the end of the day I feel the Falklands War is an under appreciated topic in wargames. There certainly is fertile ground for tactical Land/Sea/Air games with the interaction of the many weapons systems. I also feel that the operational level game, from the level of the Task Force Commander has not really been explored. As more recent scholarship has revealed, there was also much more going on at the strategic level than I think is generally understood. Harrier 809 has certainly whetted my appetite for playing some Falklands War scenarios – I’m just going to have to go a bit retro in my wargame selections to do so!
What keeps me coming back? Well, the Harpoon series is less a game and more a simulation. Look at how the current publisher describes Harpoon V:
Harpoon is the flagship of the Admiralty Trilogy Group’s games. First published in 1980, it has undergone several major revisions, with the last, Harpoon 4.1, being printed in the late 1990s. Although the system has remained fairly stable, naval technology has continued advancing, and there have been further developments in the game systems as more information has been acquired. It is planned plan to issue a new edition, Harpoon 5, sometime in the near future consolidating this knowledge and standardizing Harpoon with the other products.
The era of modern naval combat began on October 21, 1967 when Egyptian missile boats launched four Soviet made Styx surface-to-surface missiles and sank the Israeli destroyer Elath at a range of 13.5 nautical miles. The face of naval warfare changed forever!
Harpoon 5 handles all aspects of modern maritime combat: surface, sub-surface, and air. Harpoon 5 is a system of detailed but comprehensible rules covering the many facets of modern naval actions. Consistent rating systems and evaluations of the capabilities of modern naval vessels, aircraft, submarines, and helicopters make it possible to achieve realistic results when simulating known situations, by extension Harpoon 5 also achieves realistic results with hypothetical scenarios.
Harpoon 5 can answer questions like:
Are carriers powerhouses or sitting ducks? Can transatlantic convoys survive in a modern wartime environment? In the cat-and-mouse games between US and Russian submarines, which is better?
As much as Harpoon V is a simulation, I have to give kudos to the design team to trying to make the game more ‘playable’ without losing ‘realism.’ The key to this balance is in the ratings system of platforms, weapons, and equipment that takes into account different technological eras. A simple “Generation’ rating for many weapons and combat systems (such as radars) accounts for how ‘smart’ they are. Thus, one can see the difference between a 500 lbs. bomb as it transforms from a ‘dumb’ unguided bomb in Vietnam to a laser-guided version in the Gulf War to a ‘smart’ GPS-guided munition of today. Or how it is much easier to spoof a Former Soviet Union air search radar on an exported missile boat in the 1980’s than it is to detect a modern Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) surface search radar.
Critics of the Harpoon series often cry the game is unplayable. Well, I challenge them to consider if they are judging the series as a war game or a simulation wargame. I argue that Harpoon, being more a simulation, by necessity uses a more complex model that requires more player manipulation. Many time in wargames, the model is simplified or heavily abstracted in the name of playability. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the ‘abstraction’ is done purposefully. The Harpoon series, because it leans more heavily into the simulation than gaming aspects of the design, can seem chart-heavy. I agree with many critics who say the game can be made more ‘playable’ if in a computer version, much like Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO). That said, I like the player manipulation of the model, even if it costs me some playability. Besides, I don’t have an awesome gaming computer to run all the great graphics of those other games; indeed, my MacBook struggles even when running Table Top Simulator! That’s OK; I use the many nice counters from my Clash of Arms Harpoon 4. More recently, I have looked at investing in Paper Forge printable standees like their Modern US Navy Cruisers set.
Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.
I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:
Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy ·
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.
Complexity as Realism…or Not?
First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)
Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).
“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.
Or so I thought.
Wargames as Insight
Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)
My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:
Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer
I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:
Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)
Games, Not Simulations
Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.
MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:
Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.
Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.
I find that surprising because, 1) Harpoon 4 is a set of miniatures rules – not a board game, and 2) the Harpoon series has many more vocal detractors than advocates.
Harpoon has never had a board. From the beginning it was designed for miniatures. The Clash of Arms version came with counters that one could put down on a board but that alone doesn’t make it a board game.
The Harpoon series also has many detractors. I have heard Harpoon described as “ASL for the sea.” There is a bit of some truth there as one of the issues in Harpoon has long been that speed of plays dramatically slows as the most important actions occur. I believe this occurs because for the longest time the designers of Harpoon saw the product more as a “simulation” than a “game.” Thus, realism took precedent over playability. However, that balance is in the process of changing.
Persian Incursion explores the political and military effects of an Israeli military campaign against Iran. It uses rules adapted from Harpoon 4 to resolve the military action. But its goal is to look beyond the military action by modeling the political and intelligence actions and consequences of a potential political conflict by including a card-based diplomatic/political component to the game.
Players spend Political, Intelligence and Military Points to influence allies or enemies, purchase reinforcements, execute military strikes or shape their own domestic opinion. Players choose variable starting conditions that shape scenarios, while random strategic events influence play in unexpected ways.
That said, PI took a long time to play, mostly because it took a long time to plan. Once play started, the speed of combat resolution was slow even with streamlined air-to-air combat or bombing rules changes.
Looking at the ATG presentation at Cold Wars 2010 one can see the level of detail that went into the game. But even though PI streamlined air-to-air combat, it still was not enough.
ATG is now in the process of updating Harpoon 4 to what they are calling Harpoon 4.2 (4.1 being an incremental update published in 2001). Two presentations, one at Historicon 2018 and another at Cold Wars 2019 lays out their plan.
Going beyond a simple edit and update, the ATG team wants to incorporate many new understandings of naval warfare they have uncovered. Some of these are the result of declassification of Cold War records, others are original research. The part I am most interested in is when they say, “Virtually every section of the rules will be modified, re-written to improve playability while retaining the fidelity of the earlier versions of Harpoon.”
As much as I love Harpoon (I rate Harpoon 48.25 on BGG – # 17 or in the top 3% of my collection of 700+ games and expansions) even I will admit it can use a playability scrub. I hope the focus on playability delivers a playable game that simulates modern naval warfare, not a ponderous simulation that purports to be a game.