#Wargame Wednesday: The next big “war game” on the block – Siege of Mantua by @amabelholland fm @Hollandspiele (2022)

The latest offering from publisher Hollandspiele, Siege of Mantua (Hollandspiele Hex #68), designed by Amabel Holland landed on my gaming table recently. At the risk of Jim “The Gascon” Owczarski declaring me a heretic, I note that Napoleonic wargames are not really my thing. Which in turn makes me wonder how did this title featuring a lesser-known campaign of Napoleon end up in front of me? The answer is part curiosity at the production and part reputation of the designer. I was not disappointed.

Designer Amabel Holland’s Siege of Mantua from Hollandspiele is an exciting marriage of new production techniques paired with simple game mechanics that delivers deep decision space.

RockyMountainNavy, July 2022

Mantu-wha?

Although the rule book for Siege of Mantua has some background material, I went in search of another explanation of the siege. One of the simpler ones I found was from Britannica:

Siege of Mantua, (June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”

After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Siege of Mantua”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 May. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Mantua. Accessed 2 July 2022.

Siege of Mantua takes as its starting point the third attempt to relieve the fortress in November 1796. Not that it really matters as the situation is presented in such an abstract manner the time of year is unimportant; the focus is on the general situation.

My my, what big BLOCKS you have…

In a roundabout way Siege of Mantua was birthed by a godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman. Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland relates how Herman’s children’s game for Hollandspiele, Ribbit, isn’t necessarily a hot seller. The result was a large collection of, ugh, large wooden blocks sitting around unused. As Amabel is prone to do, the pieces were nudged around and a new wargame design emerged. At this point, Steve Jones of Blue Panther, the printer for Hollandspiele (and other companies like White Dog Games) came forward with a method of printing directly onto blocks. If this process really worked, a major cost factor of block wargames—printing stickers—could be removed and perhaps more importantly that “player irritant” of having to apply stickers to blocks could be eliminated.

[In the past days I’ve handled the blocks in Siege of Mantua often in an attempt to see if the printing will rub off. Not that I’m trying to rub off the print, but I am very interested in how long it can last. Should I apply a clearcoat spray to help preserve it? Will it really last longer than stickers? So far, so good!]

So interesting did the new block production process for Siege of Mantua sound that my interest was piqued. Add to that the fact that Amabel Holland has, in my not-so-humble-opinion, an excellent track record in creating “interesting” wargames. My first Hollandspiele wargame was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele Hex #10, 2017). That game remains in my mind the best “logistics” wargame ever printed. The game mechanics of Supply Lines challenged me even back then to look at my personal defintion of a “wargame.” I mean, it has little wooden cubes and no hexes!

Speaking of wood, the blocks in Siege of Mantua are HUGE! These are not your panzer-pushing grandpappy’s Commands & Colors blocks; these are HEFTY 1.5″x1.5″ blocks. Flip the table and you’re going to be sanding gouges out of the wood floors from where these land.

But they really work for this game.

Siege of Mantua could be a small footprint game. The map is a generous 22″ x 34″ (by illustrator Ilya Kudriashov), maybe twice the size really needed. Maybe Amabel felt that the bigger blocks needed a bigger play area. At the end of the day the oversized component’s just work. Siege of Mantua may (barely) fit on that 3×3 card table to play, but any table you put it on will simply look gorgeous.

It’s a War GAME

While Siege of Mantua has incredible table presence thanks in no “small part” to the oversized blocks, what really struck me in play was how much “game” was in the design. Personally, I long have preferred to use the single word “wargame” when describing my hobby. To me, “wargames” are conflict recreations—not strictly modeling & simulation (M&S)—but paper recreations of war presented in a gamified fashion. I’ll freely admit that my preferred gaming tends to skew towards “realism” or “accuracy” or “less abstraction” but I never wanted to go all the way to M&S. Admittedly, there are some wargames that are highly abstracted that I love to play; though I have a hard time seeing a “war game” like Stratego as a wargame, I accept it is on the spectrum of wargaming.

In Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland assembles a grouping of game mechanism that individually are simple and even abstract. When put together, the resulting wargame is a very playable game that recreates the conflict in an easy to digest manner. While it certainly feels (looks?) more GAME than conflict, the call for strategy & tactics is right there in front of you.

Order of Battle

At first glance, the battle situation in Siege of Mantua seems very game-balanced. Both sides have ten blocks. The game starts with Mantua under siege by the French and the Austrians entering along two separate paths to relieve the garrison. The French have the advantage of interior lines.

A closer examination of the starting situation in Siege of Mantua reveals a far more challenging condition exists for the French. Three of the ten French blocks are Dummy blocks with no combat value; the rest of the force is Leader Napoleon and six combat blocks with 16 starting strength points. The Austrian force starts with two Leaders (one of which is under siege and cannot move unless the siege is lifted) and eight combat blocks with a total of 24 starting strength points.

Don’t tell the Austrians those are Dummy troops besieging them…(Photo by RMN)

Fog of War

In Siege of Mantua Amabel Holland takes full advantage of the fog of war game mechanics that blocks enable in wargames. This is the real strategic heart of the game as players move their forces about trying to gain a local advantage while deterring their opponent. You can see the block there, but what is it? Is it a Leader? What strength does it have? Could it even be a dummy? The fact the blocks are so big just adds to your frustration; I mean, its right there in front of you! Movement rules are relatively straightforward, but Special Moves interfere with your ability to track or guess what a particular block is or it’s strength.

Just Moving Down the Block…

Movement in Siege of Mantua is a point-to-point system. Doesn’t seem like anything special until you get to the rule for Communications. If your units can trace a path between them that is unblocked by enemy units they are In Communication. By the rules, in your Player Turn you can move one group of blocks from a single city to another city or point. But when groups of blocks are In Communication, you can move some, all or none of the blocks In Communication so long as every block only moves once.

Now the pursuit in Siege of Mantua becomes a subtle game of blocks and feints. A strategic move can cut Communications and prevent a rush forward. Split commands require twice as long to move as each grouping must move on separate turns. Napoleon starts with the advantage of interior lines but the Austrians need to collapse his defenses and cut his Communications while trying to maintain (and even create) their own

An easy march to Mantua… (Photo by RMN)

Battling Blocks

As befits a wargame, the mechanics of battles is also an essential element of Siege of Mantua. I am deeply impressed in how Amabel has represented combat in a simple abstract fashion. It starts first with your Unit Pool which is composed of a collection of 16 units split over four (4) levels. The beginning pool is 4x Level 1, 6x Level 2, 4x Level 3 and 2x Level 4. The higher the level the better the unit’s Morale Value (MV) or its ability to stand in combat.

When forces meet in Siege of Mantua, players take turns revealing their blocks. When a unit block is revealed, the current strength is the number of units drawn from the pool. Both players takes turn revealing blocks then secretly drawing and allocating units to the battlefield. I love the challenge this gives players; you might have big strength locks but you might end up drawing mostly low-level units from the pool. Is that lone unit in the Right Flank a high MV or a weakling?

Leaders play an important role in Siege of Mantua. Like so many other rules, the implementation is simple—if you have a Leader in combat you get five (5) Commands; if you don’t you only get three (3). Those Commands are used to order units to move or fight.

The combat rules themselves in Siege of Mantua are highly abstracted. Sorry, Jim, you won’t find infantry or artillery or cavalry, just “units.” Combat is accomplished by simply rolling 2d6 for each lane and adding the number of units attacking. The combat result is compared to the MV of the lead unit. If the combat result is greater than the MV of the unit, it is Broken and set aside. The combat result is then compared to the next unit and the process repeated until a unit with an MV equal-to-or-greater-than the combat result is revealed which ends the attack. If the attack is a Flank Attack, the combat result is compared to ALL defending units simultaneously and results assessed.

If a unit rolls doubles in combat in Siege of Mantua the attack is Repulsed with the lead ATTACKING unit Broken. There are a few exceptions, notably a Level 4 unit cannot be Broken (which you will see shortly is very important) and the rule that Flank Attacks cannot be Repulsed.

Battles in Siege of Mantua consist of a number of Battle Turns, the number of which are randomly rolled at the beginning of a battle. When the designated number of Battle Turns have been played, players have the option to Retreat. In a Retreat one retreating block must lose a single strength step. That is, unless you want to “Double the Stakes.”

Doubling in Siege of Mantua consists of passing the Doubling Cube to an opponent. Accepting the cube means the battle will continue, but the losses will be doubled. The doubling can happen multiple times for 2, 4, 8, or even 16, 32, or 64(!) losses. How’s that for push your luck?

When a battle in Siege of Mantua ends another simple, yet deeply important, rules kicks in. For every block (unit and Leader) on the winning side that took part in the battle a single surviving unit can be upgraded; that is, promoted to the next Level. Units on the winning side that were Broken in battle are degraded—losing a Level. Broken units on the losing side are similarly degraded before being placed back into the pool. Thus, to fight and win improves your forces for the next battle. Fight and lose and a downward slide begins…

End Game

While a game of Siege of Mantua is composed of turns, the end game does not automatically occur after a set number of turns but rather when your opponent has five or fewer blocks remaining at the end of YOUR player turn (regardless of how many block YOU have left). Like some Amabel Holland designs there is a risk that the game becomes a stand-off,; stuck in a seemingly perpetual loop. In my experience these sorts of situations usually occur when somebody(s) are not properly following Amabel’s rules. With the cat-n-mouse movement, Leaders in combat and adjusting force pools or the Doubling Die a stand-off never really happens and, if it does, it can be broken by a rigorous reading, processing, and enforcement of the rules.

Looks Simple, But Really Deep

As you hopefully can see, Siege of Mantua not only takes advantage of those big blocks to bring out the cat-and-mouse aspect of maneuvering forces, but also the decisions one makes in battles become very important. Are you willing to win that battle, no matter the cost? Winning means the chance to field an even stronger army next battle, but losing means your forces degrade. What are YOU going to do.

At the end of the day, Siege of Mantua delivers a highly visually appealing wargame that uses a collection of simple, individually abstract game mechanics that come together to seriously challenge players to make hard decisions in an imperfect information environment. In the past, I’ve used the phrase “simple complexity” to describe games that I feel are excellent examples of simple game mechanisms that, when combined in an innovative manner, create deep decision space for players. Siege of Mantua is the latest addition to the pantheon of “Simple Complexity” wargames in my collection, it just so happens that this particular title is also beautiful on the gaming table .


Feature image by self

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Air War: Ukraine from a wargame perspective

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.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

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.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

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.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

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.

Dogfights

Looking at my personal collection of Cold War/modern or near-future wargames, I have a wide variety of titles like J.D Webster’s modern Air Power combat games (Air Superiority/Air Strike, GDW 1986/1987 and Speed of Heat, Clash of Arms Games, 1992) or Gary “Mo” Morgan’s Flight Leader (Avalon Hill, 1986) and even the incredibly detailed Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008). What all of these air combat wargames have in common is a very granular scale with a focus on individual aircraft. Indeed, these air combat wargames are focused just like VKS operations in Syria since 2015—great for dogfighting individual or small numbers of aircraft but less applicable to integrated 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 on Harpoon 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.

Raids

One series of wargames that certainly allows players to “plan, brief, and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundred of assets in a high-threat air environment” is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s “Raid” series of wargames that started with Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) and was followed by Elusive Victory (Terry Simo, GMT Games, 2009) and Red Storm (Douglas Bush, GMT Games, 2019). These games are excellent for planning and coordinating “modern” large strike packages (i.e. “air raids”) in high-air defense threat environments. The “scale” in these wargames is minutes and flights of aircraft. If they have a drawback in this discussion, it is they are almost strictly focused on the air combat domain and only indirectly show the impact of air operations on ground forces.

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.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

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.

Justin Bronk, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force,” RUSI.org, 28 Feb 2022

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.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

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.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

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?

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

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].

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Not planned for…that’s hard to believe. It’s not even true if Anonymous is to be believed and the Russian military had at least 30 days to plan for an invasion.

Prior planning?

It’s as if the Russian VKS has simply chosen to “pass” on their turn…


Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

2021 #Wargame of the Year – or – Indian Ocean Empire at Sunrise Samurai versus North Africa Dark Summer Atlantic Chase with @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @hollandspiele @MultimanPub

As regular readers likely know, I am, always have been, and will very likely forever be a Grognard. My first real “game” was a wargame—Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing—found under the Christmas tree in 1979. Over forty years later I still play wargames.

In 2021, I acquired 35 wargames and a further nine expansions. If the year had a theme, one might call it my ‘Retro’ year with the addition of “older” wargames like Charles S. Roberts’ TACTICS II from Avalon Hill (1973 edition) or The Battle of the Bulge from Avalon Hill in 1965 or Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge from Rand Games Associated in 1975 to my collection. The 1980’s also got some love with Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (SPI, 1980) and Drive on Frankfurt (Pacific Rim Publishing, 1987) as well as or The Hunt for Red October (TSR, 1988).

That said, I took in six titles this year that were published in 2021 and thus are candidates for my 2021 Wargame of the Year:

Atlantic Chase (Jeremy White, GMT Games) – Atlantic Chase is a very different wargame—in some ways too different for me. As much as I am a naval wargamer (look at my nickname!) this one didn’t click with me. At heart it’s a game of trajectories and time much more than locations. There are many out there who sing praises to the rule book but I found the 10-episode tutorial a bit much. (Status Update – SOLD!)

Atlantic Chase from GMT Games

Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games) – The latest installment in the Commands & Colors system. I keep thinking that C&C will reach the point that there can be “nothing new under the sun” but Samurai (pleasantly) surprised me. Controversial in some respects, some folks didn’t like the “magic” found on some of the cards. Personally, I found it highly thematic (magic is often used to describe something that is unknown or not understood) and the Honor & Fortune system just builds upon the themes of the game that much more.

Command & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games)

The Dark Summer (GMT Games) – The Dark Summer is the latest installment in Ted Raicer’s Dark Series from GMT Games. I love the Dark Series as they use the chit-pull game mechanism that is very solo-friendly. In some ways The Dark Summer is the perfect balance between The Dark Valley (GMT Games, 2018) which is a mini-monster and The Dark Sands (GMT Games, 2018) which can be challenging to play given the two different map scales.

The Dark Summer (GMT Games)

Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (John Gorkowski, Compass Games) – Indian Ocean Region is the second installment in the modern operational-level war-at-sea series that in many ways is the spiritual successor to the Fleet- Series from the 1980’s. While I always loved the “Battle Game” of SCS/IOR, the political card game was less exciting, though I must admit it has grown on me with this version.

Indian Ocean Region (Compass Games)

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele) – Another John Gorkowski title. Like so many Hollandspiele games this one can be a bit quirky. The telescoping scale of the game delivers an interesting view of the conflict.

Empire at Sunrise (Hollandspiele)

North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 (Multi-Man Publishing) – Released late in the year, this one barely makes the list. I’ve yet to explore this title too deeply but the Standard Combat Series version of the very popular Operational Combat Series (OCS) DAK looks to be yet another “playable monster” game.

North Africa (Multi-Man Publishing)

…and the winner is…

Empire at Sunrise.

Empire at Sunrise was released so early in the year it’s easy to forget. Also, not coming from from the larger GMT Games but tiny Hollandspiele it tends to get drowned out in the marketing and social media “talk.” Empire deserves attention because that telescopic scale takes what could be three separate games and relates them to one another to make a coherent story. It’s an interesting game design on an under-appreciated historical topic. While Hollandspiele may not deliver the production quality of a larger publisher, the games are perfectly functional and do what they are supposed to do; enable gaming, exploration, and learning.


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#SundaySummary – Turkey Day 2021 with @ADragoons @hexsides @hollandspiele @HuzzahHobbies #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG @USNIBooks @compassgamesllc @Toadkillerdog @gmtgames

Happy Thanksgiving!

The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.

Wargaming

I took some down time this week to work on a First Impressions piece on The Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill, 1965). If I get the photos together you’ll see that later this week. I also was inspired by D-Day at Omaha Beach from Decision Games (Fourth Printing, 2020) to look at wargame maps and data. I need to work up some photos and run it by Brant at Armchair Dragoons to see if it meets his standards. Finally, I owe designer Brad Smith a deep apology since I volunteered to playtest Warsaw Pact Air Commander (coming in the future from Hollandspiele) but am very delinquent in sending him anything. I made an effort this week to change that.

Boardgaming

Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.

Role Playing Games

I messed around a bit with Cepheus Deluxe, the latest version of Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing and the modern take on the Traveller RPG.

Books

A long-forgotten backorder from Naval Institute Press arrived this week. Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat argues that naval concepts are often diluted or lost when too much jointness is introduced. It also talks about the use of Operations Research, which I see as adjacent to wargaming. I need to finish this book and then use it to consider wargames like John Gorkowski’s South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region from Compass Games as well as the naval modules for any of Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games.

#Wargame Wednesday – First Impressions of Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (@Hollandspiele, 2021)

For the longest time I have been a naval wargamer. It goes back to my early days of wargaming with titles like Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967 though I own the 1974 Second Edition) and Flat Top (Battleline First Edition, 1977) as well as my Harpoon series of games from Admiralty Trilogy Games. So when I saw that Hollandspiele was publishing a game that covers the naval conflict in the Pacific at the start of World War I it was an auto-buy for me. Now that Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele, 2021) has landed on my gaming table what do I really think about it?

Spoiler Alert: I like it but the message is mixed….

The Telescoping Game

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (hereafter simply Empire at Sunrise) is designed by John Gorkowski and illustrated by Jose R. Faura. The ad copy for Empire at Sunrise claims it, “depicts the struggle for control of Pacific sea lanes during the opening months of World War I.”

Well, not exactly. I mean, “Yes, but….”

Although the naval struggles makes up a large portion of Empire at Sunrise, there is also the land battle around Tsingtao (all the placenames are drawn from the period). Thus, the game becomes one that is more about the downfall of the Pacific Empire of Imperial Germany as they struggle to defend their possessions in the Far East in the opening weeks of World War I than simply a “struggle for control of the Pacific sea lanes.”

To deliver this Pacific-wide view of the conflict, Empire at Sunrise uses three different “telescoping scales.” The game is played across three maps that depict, “the area around Tsingtao at six miles per hex, the fight over the Asian Pacific at 240 miles per hex, and the entire Pacific Ocean at 1440 miles per zone.” Game turns are weekly and the 19 game turns represent the time from August through December 1914. Both land and naval units are depicted.

Three Maps, Two Games?

At first glance, Empire at Sunrise looks like it is actually two games in one; a land combat game centered on Tsingtao played on the Kiautschou Insert – KI map and a second naval game played out on the Asia Pacific Map (APM) and Pacific Chart (PC). The three-map telescoping design of Empire at Sunrise creates two immediate design challenges: First is a mechanical challenge to ensure the game “flows” between the three maps and the second is to depict the impact of the wide ranging conflict that spans both land and sea yet connects them in a manner that creates a set of meaningful decision points for the players.

Mechanically, the solution to the flow between the maps is very simple with easy to understand movement rules and only minor changes to combat. The solution to the second challenge is just as simple – Victory Conditions.

Keep Your Eye on the Target

A close study of the Victory Conditions in Empire at Sunrise shows that it creates both tension and hard decisions for each player throughout the game. Victory Points (VP) are scored both during and at the end of the game. During game play, the Germans score VP for:

  • +3 if the Australian Troop Convoy is Delayed or Destroyed (but it doesn’t enter until Turn 12)
  • +1 per Allied (“Anglo-Japanese Alliance – AJA”) Land Unit step Eliminated
  • +1 per AJA Naval Unit Destroyed
  • +1 if the British call any or all of their Atlantic Units into play
  • +1 per successful Commerce Raid (limit one per Turn)
  • +1 for each step of Naval Units in PC Zone F11 (enroute to the Falklands)

At the end of the game the AJA score VP as follows:

  • -5 if they control Tsingtao
  • -3 if NeuPommern controlled
  • -2 if Samoa controlled
  • -1 for each of the German possessions at Ladrone, Lamotrek, Palau, Yap, Truk or Wolea controlled

If the VP score is negative the AJA wins otherwise Germany wins. The maximum score for the AJA is 16 points meaning if the German scores 16 VP or more they will automatically win.

Hopefully you can see the immediate conflict in objectives for each player in Empire at Sunrise. For Germany to win they need to try to maintain their possessions but if they can’t (and given their lack of Land Units they almost certainly can’t) then they need to resort to naval warfare to gain VP by sinking enemy ships while not getting sunk and raiding commerce while at the same time they are trying to escape. Also, the most “valuable” German possession is also the one furthest from where the naval squadrons need to go to get points. On the other hand, the AJA player needs to grab possessions but also avoid losing too many ships as they hunt down the German fleet units.

Put together, what may be the greatest challenge in Empire at Sunrise is for player to manage their time. The Germans need to hang onto possessions as long as possible and sell them dearly but avoid becoming bogged down or cut off from escape. They need to take advantage of the turns before the Japanese enter to score a reserve of VP. They need to get to Cape Horn on the eastern Pacific but it may be worthwhile to also be near Australia when the troop convoy sails. For the AJA player seizing the German Pacific possessions is easy but it takes time; time to move on the Pacific Chart and time to actually take a possession. At 19 turns Empire at Sunrise looks like a long game but once you start playing you quickly discover that time is precious and never enough. The game is full of tensions that forces players to tie their play of both the land and naval game together and not bi-furcate their efforts by weighing one too heavily at the expense of the other.

New Age of Warfare? Hardly….

The rules for Empire at Sunrise are what I describe as “simply complex.” The rules mechanically are easy to learn and simple to play but the strategy you need to execute with those rules is a whole other level of complexity.

Take for example Naval Movement in Empire at Sunrise. Naval Movement is different on the three maps but moving from one map to another follows a very simple set of rules. The most important aspect of Naval Movement is actually Naval Interception. Phasing Units (i.e. on your turn) need to be in the same hex on the APM or zone on the PC to intercept. However, when you are the non-Phasing Player you can try to intercept a moving group of enemy ships every time it enters a new hex or zone if you already have ships there. As simple as that sounds it creates a wonderful tension as it behooves the German player to “escape” from the APM where they risk intercept every hex into the larger PC where they chance intercept only once on during their opponent’s turn (unless they enter a zone with enemy ships during their own turn).

Naval Combat in Empire at Sunrise is also simple but not what many longtime naval Grognards may expect. Here ships are not rated simply for “weight of fire” like so many ships of the day were judged, but instead ships with longer ranged, heavier batteries get to fire first. Thus, the Japanese 3-10-7 (Firepower – Resilience – Movement) Kongo BC fires first and damage is assessed before the British 2-9-7 Good Hope CA can return fire. Combat itself is very simple – roll 2d6 and beat the target’s Resilience with each hit causing a step loss. If you score a hit and roll doubles while you’re at it that scores two hits and sinks the enemy ship outright.

[This event specifically lead to one of the more spectacular moments in my first game. While destroyers are below the level of detail depicted by naval units, designer John Gorkowski put the German S90 Destroyer in the game since it historically scored a luck torpedo kill on the Japanese coastal defense ship Takachiho. In my game, S90 was trying to break out of Tsingtao just as the fortress was falling but was intercepted by a British Task Force led by the British pre-dreadnought HMS Triumph. The S-90, rated 4*-7-8 (the * means torpedoes only against ships) took on the 2-9-6 Triumph and, being rated 4, fired first. In order to score a hit a 10, 11, or 12 on 2d6 was required. Sure enough, S90 rolled “double boxcars” and not only got a hit, but the lucky two hits that sunk Triumph outright. To add insult to injury, none of the other ships in the British Task Force proved capable of hitting the elusive S90 and it escaped to live another day. Speak about a real narrative moment!]

Commerce Raiding in Empire at Sunrise is another deliciously simple rule that has an outsized impact on a players strategy. The rule is very simple; at the end of movement if a German Naval Unit is south of the Tropic of Cancer it can roll to destroy commerce. Each ship rolls 2d6 and ADDS the number of movement points expended in the turn; if the result is 16 or greater than 1 VP is scored (limited to once per turn). Thus, it again behooves the AJA player to hunt down every German naval unit and don’t give away free points.

The land battles in Empire at Sunrise are just as simple. Counter density is very low so stacking rarely becomes an issue. There are no zone of control rules; to attack one just needs to be adjacent. Seeing as this was the era of defensive supremacy it should come as no surprise that the few rules for trenches or Fortifications heavily favor the defender. The Japanese player does have Siege Artillery which destroys trenches and Fortifications but it is slow moving and takes time to relocate. Thus, the “Battle of Tsingtao” plays out much like one expects a World War I battle should – slow and cumbersome with strong defenses being difficult to dislodge.

An Untold Story

The most educational aspect of Empire at Sunrise is admittedly what the designer does not include. Empire at Sunrise, like it’s name tells us, shows the huge contribution that Imperial Japan made towards the defeat of Imperial Germany. Try playing this game without the Japanese forces and see what happens. The designer makes no explicit statement about the affects of Japanese contribution after the war; the players are given the game’s title and then left to discover it for themselves outside the game. For me, a wargamer who has battled back and forth across the Pacific of the 1940’s (and occasionally the 1920’s or 30’s), the geography was familiar but the situation was much different.

In many ways, Empire at Sunrise is a a good “bookend” game to use to see the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy across the Pacific. Then place it against Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977) to see the other “bookend,” or downfall of the Imperial Japanese Empire across the Pacific. Together they make a good story.

#SundaySummary – Some new #wargame arrivals to play thanks to www.atomagazine.com, @RBMStudio1, & @Hollandspiele

Wargames & Boardgames

FINALLY, after waiting several weeks in some cases, the last of my 2020 shipments arrived. Buffalo Wings 2 – The Deluxe Reprint, a 2020 Kickstarter campaign by Against the Odds Magazine, arrived. It’s beautiful! Then C3i Magazine Nr. 34 from RBM Studios arrived with the feature game Battle for Kursk. Both these games were unboxed and rules deeply explored though the first true playthru’s are still pending.

As much as I keep talking about the feature game in C3i Magazine, it’s always good to remember that there is other gaming goodness in every issue. The latest issue is no exception as a solo folio game, Firebase Vietnam by Pascal Toupy is included and also needs to be explored.

Firebase Vietnam from RBM Studios

Of course, we all know that we don’t just get C3i Magazine “just for the game,” we read it too, right? The latest edition has the first of a new column by Harold Buchanan (Liberty or Death, Campaigns of 1777) called “Harold Buchanan’s Snakes and Ladders.” In this column he discusses wargamer archetypes. I have problems with his taxonomy and since he invited comments I am working on just a few. Look for them in the coming weeks!

My first “true” wargame of 2021 also arrived this week. Empire at Sunrise is a new Hollandspiele title designed by John Gorkowski. This look at the early days of World War I in the Pacific features three “nested” maps and telescoping scales. I enjoyed several of Mr. Gorkowski’s previous designs, especially South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) and even The Lost Provinces: The Thai Blitzkrieg in French Indo-China, Janauary 10-28, 1941, another Hollandspiele title of his published in 2018. I always enjoy the “experimentation” I get when playing Hollandspiele games and Empire at Sunrise looks to keep that fine tradition going.

Empire at Sunrise from Hollandspeile

Boardgaming this week was very slow as wargames dominated my gaming time. I did get to play a fun game of Dragomino (Blue Orange Games, 2020) with young Miss A. She’s 6 years old; almost 7, and sometimes is too anxious to see the best connections. A gentle “Are you sure?” comment near the beginning of the game is usually enough to get her to stop, relook at her tableau, and grin as she realizes she needs to slow down a bit and think to get a better score.

Books

While I keep plowing through the huge The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum Douglas I also took the time this week to revisit some of my older US Constitutional Law texts from college because of recent national events. Along the way I stumbled upon “The Case of the Smuggled Bombers” in Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution (Harper Row, First Perennial Library Edition, 1987) which discusses U.S. v. Curtis Wright Export Corp, et al., 299 US 304. In this Supreme Court case, the Curtis Wright Corporation in the 1930’s was selling warplanes to various South American countries (sometimes even to BOTH sides of the same conflict!). The US Government wanted to stop these arms sales but Curtis tried an end-around and was caught violating the Chaco Arms Embargo. Being a wargamer who thoroughly enjoys Wing Leader: Origins 1936-1942 from GMT Games (2020) the topic really interested me. Plus, I learned a bit more about some 1930’s aircraft!

Sep/Oct #Wargame #Boardgame Acquisitions featuring @gmtgames @hollandspiele @worth2004 @MultiManPub @LnLPub @Academy_Games @FFGames @UnstbleUnicrns @MoonrakersGame

In early September I wrote about how many games might be arriving into the RockyMountainNavy gaming collection given the reawakening of the publishing industry as they struggle to recover from COVID-19.

Boy, did I underestimate myself.

Turns out that between September 1 and October 15 I took delivery of 16 (!) items into my gaming collection. This includes:

  • 8 wargames (+3 expansions)
  • 3 boardgames (+1 expansion)
  • 1 accessory

I also diversified my acquisition chain. In addition to Kickstarter and publisher pre-order systems, I also used a local flea market, online digital, BGG trading, publisher direct sales, and (gasp) my FLGS!

Wargames

Washington’s Crossing (Revolution Games, 2012) – A not-so-complex look at the Trenton Campaign of 1776. My more detailed thoughts are here.

Flying Colors 3rd Edition Update Kit (GMT Games, 2020)(Expansion) So many Age of Sail games take a super-tactical view of ships that playing them can become unwieldy. Flying Colors takes a more ‘fleet commander” point of view; here you can be Nelson at Trafalgar, not Captain Hardy. The 3rd Edition Update Kit brings my older v1.5 up to date with the latest counters and rules, allowing me to set sail for new games in the future.

White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (Hollandspiele, 2020) – The follow-on to the gateway wargame Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019). Don’t let the low complexity of the rules fool you; the game is full of impactful decisions. I have more thoughts here.

French and Indian War 1757-1759 (Worthington Games, 2020) – Another entry in my collection of Worthington block wargames. Simple rules but deep decisions. It’s been a long-time since I labeled a wargame a “waro” but this one crosses over between the wargame and boardgame crowds.

Harpoon V: Modern Tactical Naval Combat 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020) – More a simulation model than a game. I’ve played and owned Harpoon titles since the early 1980’s. Can’t help myself; I love it.

Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) – Another entry in the Standard Combat Series from MMP. I like the multiple eras of play and the ‘Road to War’ rules that deliver replayability in a (relatively) small package.

Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack in East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018)Acquired via trade. I like chit-pull games as they are good for solo play. I am also interested in this title because of the time period; I have played Operation Barbarossa to death and am interested in a late war perspective when the Soviets were on the offensive and it was the Germans rocked back on their heels.

Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)Acquired via trade. Got through a trade more on a whim than with any real thought. First look is a very simple ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ wargame. Realistically it has only seven pages of rules!

Nations at War: White Star Rising (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010) – I don’t really need another World War II tactical game system; I’m very happy with my Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games. Acquired through trade with no real big expectations. First impression is this platoon-level game is reminiscent of PanzerBlitz (Avalon Hill, 1970) but with chit-pull activation and command rules (both of which I really like). Maybe some interesting potential here, will have to see…. (Acquired at same time were two expansions: Nations at War: White Star Rising – Operation Cobra and Nations at War: White Star Rising – Airborne)

Boardgames

One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; worker placement games is not really my thing. However, I really do like One Small Step. Not only does the theme engage me but the team play version of worker placement makes it a good game night title for the RMN household.

Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) Acquired via flea market. I jumped at an opportunity to get this game via a local flea market at an excellent price. Thematically excellent but I still have doubts concerning gameplay. It does create a very good narrative though….

Here to Slay: Warrior and Druid Expansion (Unstable Games, 2020) (Expansion) Here to Slay is the #1 played game in the RMN home. The RMN Boys (and their friends) love it. The game is far from perfect; like many others I don’t feel it is anything like an RPG as it proclaims and it’s too easy to win with “six classes in your party” versus slaying three monsters. Maybe this new expansion will change that with a bit more focus on the warrior class. Maybe….

Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020)Fresh arrival. Bought because I keep looking for a decent Traveller RPG-type of boardgame or something that captures the same vibe as Firefly: The Game (Gale Force Nine, 2013). My other attempts to find these types of games, Scorpius Freighter (AEG, 2018) and Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019) were less-than-successful. This title just screams OPA in The Expanse. Playing it will have to wait as there is a backlog of games in front of it in the to-play queue (obvious from the above).

Accessories

Sirius Dice: Spades (Sirius Dice) – I picked these up sorta on a whim. They look and feel good. If I ever get back to playing RPGs they may come in handy.

#Wargame AAR – Defiant Poland in White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (@hollandspiele, 2020)

This weekend I put White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (Hollandspiele, 2020) on the gaming table. As I wrote recently, White Eagle Defiant is the latest game from Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw based on their previous Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019). Both are billed as ‘gateway wargames’ but don’t let that put you off; White Eagle Defiant, like Brave Little Belgium before it, is another quick-play, easy-to-learn wargame that delivers an always tense situation full of challenging decisions.

In my campaign, the Germans started out on the backfoot. Army Group North (AGN), rather aggressively, directly attacked several Polish Forts (Torun, Modlin, and Lomza). All three attacks failed with heavy losses. These three (foolish?) attacks gutted AGN and severely weakened it for the entire campaign. Meanwhile, Army Group South (AGS) faced difficult terrain and advanced slowly against Katowicz and Krakow.

The slow pace of the German advance meant that Victory Points were slow to accumulate. Turn 4 (Sep 11-16) was especially challenging because the four End Turn chits came out before either AGN or AGS activated. This forced two Blitzkrieg Breakdown rolls, both of which failed. In White Eagle Defiant if the Germans accumulate five (5) Blitzkrieg Breakdown it is an automatic defeat. In one turn they had moved 2/5 of the way to losing.

Turn 5 (Sep 17-20) is important because this is the first turn the Soviets can enter. Fortunately for the Poles, the Germans needed to have at least 6 VP to trigger Soviet Entry and they only had 5 VP at the start of the turn – no Soviet entry. The situation did not get any better for the Germans the next turn where they still had only 5 VP holding off the Red Horde for another few days (the Soviets did not enter until Turn 7 (Sep 25-28)).

The next major Victory Check is on Turn 8 (Sep 29-Oct 2). If the Germans have at least 9 VP they win an Automatic Victory. However, the Polish Central Army had held strong and the Germans had 8 VP going into the turn – no auto victory. On the next turn (Turn 9, Oct 3-6) if the Germans have 9+ VP the game ends in a draw. Instead of game end, the Poles actually Liberated several cities the Germans left open as they tried to mass forces for a push against Warszawa.

Turn 10 (Oct 7-10) was the last chance for the Germans. Going into the turn with 6 VP, they needed at least 9 VP to achieve a Draw. The Polish assumed risk as they occupied three cities with single units.

German Attacks in Turn 10 – Poznan (left), Lodz (center), and Krakow (bottom)

The first battle was at Krakow where the Polish Prusy Cavalry fought two reduced 14th Infantry. The subsequent Polish defeat was very bittersweet as the Prusy Cavalry had ranged as far north as Danzig (which it Liberated for a while) and then back south. If there was a heroic Polish unit the Prusy Cavalry was the one.

Prusy Cavalry defeated at Krakow

The Poles were also defeated at Poznan. This brought the German VP total to 8 – one point away from a Draw.

Poles defeated at Poznan

This meant the final battle was at Lodz. Here, the Polish Narew Infantry of the North Army had moved south to bolster the defenses. Unfortunately, they were facing two full strength Panzer units, the 10th and 14th of AGS. Further, the Germans supported this attack with their Ju87 Stuka (+1 to one combat). In this alternate history, this battle would likely be the source of many Blitzkrieg myths. The Panzer units, each rolling 2d6, both rolled ‘boxcars’ which by the rules counts as four hits total – far more than the two hits needed to destroy the luckless Polish infantry unit.

German Panzers with Stuka dive-bombers utterly destroy the last Polish defenders in Lodz

The common myth of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 is that the campaign was a total walk-over for the Germans. Wargamers know this is not true. I previously played the chit-pull Poland Defiant: The German Invasion, 1939 (Revolution Games, 2019) and learned much about the campaign from that game. White Eagle Defiant delivers similar lessons. In this game, like history, the Poles are likely to lose, but they can make the Germans pay a stiff price for their victory.

End of German Invasion – technically a Draw as Poland has most definitely been DEFIANT

Most importantly to gamers, White Eagle Defiant delivers a game that is easy to learn (12 page rule book), quick to play (even my extended game took less than 90 minutes) and is very challenging (Turns 6 and 7 were very good for the Poles, and it was very tight up to the final battle on the last turn). White Eagle Defiant will certainly find its way to the gaming table again!

#Wargame Wedges – Early Thoughts on White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (@Hollandspiele, 2020)

I was very pleasantly surprised to see Hollandspiele release Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw’s new White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 this month. This design team previously brought us Brave Little Belgium, the wargame Tom Vassal hates. Which is sad because Brave Little Belgium is a great gateway wargame that should appeal to both wargamers and boardgamers looking for a little ‘conflict simulation’ to round out their collection. As I read the rules and get ready for my first play of White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (Hollandspiele, 2020) I have a few thoughts:

  • A series?: White Eagle Defiant shares many game mechanics of Brave Little Belgium. This makes it very easy for me to learn as I pay more attention to what’s different (some) compared to having to learn an entirely new game system. That said, White Eagle Defiant like Brave Little Belgium are small games with a single 17″x22″ map, 88 counters, and an eight-page rulebook. The design team of Heilman and Shaw supported by Tom & Mary Russell at Hollandspiele continue to impress me with their powerful small-package wargames.
  • Blitzkrieg Atrocities: In Brave Little Belgium, once the end of turn chits are drawn the German player has the option of trying to push on anyway, but the cost was possibly gaining Atrocities. Too many Atrocities leads to defeat. I was not sure how this would be handled in White Eagle Defiant. I am quite happy with the solution; Blitzkrieg Breakdown which I think captures the penalties of the Germans pushing their forces too far too fast.
  • Shipping: Some folks after looking at the picture I posted to Twitter asked if my box was damaged in shipping. The answer is yes, but not to the point I am going to demand a new one. I see many folks who demand a game be delivered in ‘perfect’ condition. After all, we usually paid a good deal of coin to buy the game so it should be ‘right’ in arrival! Thanks to the USPS, my box arrived with one corner slightly (and I mean slightly) crushed. What did I do? I opened the game box and carefully pushed the box corner back. Then I placed a heavy book (which few people apparently own these days) into the corner of the box overnight. It’s fine. Honestly, it looks no different than many of my boxes look after spending a few months on, and off, the gaming shelves.

The back of the box on White Eagle Defiant states, “If Brave Little Belgium was your first wargame, White Eagle Defiant could be your second. It builds on the slick foundations of the original while introducing additional complexity and nuance, such as specialized unit types and pincer attacks.” This old Grognard is certainly looking forward to the game!

Dude, you lost my CRT! Combat with a twist in The Lost Provinces (@hollandspiele, 2018)

CAREFULLY-CURATED HISTORICAL GAMES. That’s Hollandspiele’s slogan found on the back of The Lost Provinces: The Thai Blitzkrieg in French Indo-China, January 10-28, 1941. I had my eye on this title for a while but just hadn’t pulled the trigger. That is, until I read “The Franco-Thai War (1940-1941)” on the weaponsandwarfare blog. What an interesting conflict! After reading the ad copy from Hollandspiele I was also interested in the simple, soloable, tradition-with-a-twist mechanics:

This obscure conflict is the subject of designer John Gorkowski’s The Lost Provinces. This is a simple, small, and soloable game that can be played in an evening with new wargamers and grognards alike. It often utilizes traditional mechanisms but with twists and nuances that make them fresh again. For example, combat strengths are compared, to arrive at odds ratios, but those ratios are expressed via a die roll modifier rather than a column on a CRT, which results in greater uncertainty about how a given battle might turn out.

Thanks to quick work by Blue Panther who prints for Hollandspiele I got my copy to the gaming table quickly.

Simple

Hollandspiele is dead right about The Lost Provinces being simple. An eight (8) page rule book, 11″x17″ map, 88 counters, and one Display Sheet along with two dice is about as straight-forward a package you can get. That said, the map by Jose Ramon Faura is simple but easily understandable. The counters by Tom Russell are very generic but functional.

Soloable

I play most of my games solo at least one, and often many times more. The Lost Provinces has no hidden information and if you are like me and play “two-handed solo” often enough you can play both sides fairly.

Tradition-with-a-Twist

The real gem of The Lost Provinces design is that use of traditional wargaming mechanisms but with a bit of a difference. I appreciate that designer John Gorkowski uses many traditional mechanisms but mixes up a few; not too many but enough to make the game go from vanilla to very interesting. The ones that impress me the most are Contact, Attack Preparation, and Land Combat.

Contact: Movement starts out very traditional in The Lost Provinces with different terrain of course costing more Movement Points (MP) to enter. But don’t look for Zones of Control because Mr. Gorkowski uses the concept of Contact instead. Contact (Rule 8.21) describes units that are adjacent to each other. Leaving Contact or moving to another Contact hex costs 1 MP. Contact is important because units must be in Contact before they can attack.

Attack Preparation: Technically part of the Movement Phase, units that are in Contact with the enemy may declare an intention to attack. This Attack Preparation requires the expenditure of 1 MP in addition to the normal MP required to enter a hex. This simple twist requires you to be more aware of when and where you want a battle to happen. In my first game I constantly found myself just one MP short of being able to attack forcing me to consider if I really wanted to move into Contact this turn or wait until the next turn. A simple change to a game mechanism with a deep impact on your choices/decisions in a turn.

Land Combat: Combat resolution in The Lost Provinces is dead-simple – roll 2d6 and determine losses. Well, almost that simple. In Land Combat there are three die modifiers; +1 for Air Superiority, +1 for Combined Arms, and +1 for the Odds. The Odds modifier is the most interesting. To determine the odds you do like many wargames do – you compare the attack strength against the defense strength and express the result as odds. For example, 4 attacking 2 is 2:1 odds. In The Lost Provinces, however, you don’t look for that odds column on a Combat Results Table. Instead, the odds translate to another die modifier. The die modifier is the sum of the attacker subtracted from the defender. Thus, 2:1 odds is 2-1=+1 die modifier. Now the player rolls 2d6, sums them and adds/subtracts any die modifiers. The final number is compared to the Land Combat Table to get the result. The use of die modifiers instead of column shifts makes for more dramatic shifts in combat results, but not so much that players feel they have no agency in the outcome.

Buried within this modified combat mechanism is where the little bit of chrome in The Lost Provinces game design resides. When it comes to Supply or Movement there is little difference between types of units, but in combat the type of unit and where the attack takes place becomes very important:

  • Units Out of Supply, whether attacking or defending, have their strength halved.
  • Armor units on the attack are doubled IF they attack into a hex that has no Jungle or Mountains.
  • Non-Artillery units attacking across rivers are halved.
  • Artillery units attacking a hex where the defender is not Dug-In are doubled.
  • Dug-In defenders are doubled.
  • Infantry in Mountain hexes are doubled on defense.

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Land Combat Table across the top of the Display Sheet

These six simple rules give combat decisions in The Lost Provinces much depth. Supply becomes important. Armor can be deadly if they catch the enemy in the open. Digging in for defense, especially behind a river, is powerful and hampers Artillery. Add to these decisions the geography of the battlefield which creates many natural funnels and you have a very dynamic combat situation.

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There are two other aspects of The Lost Provinces that are simple mechanically but add depth to the decisions. First is Air Superiority. Every turn, the Thai player can designate a hex (and the six adjacent to it) for Air Superiority. Attacks taking place under this umbrella gain a +1 DM for the Thai player. Once per game, and only once per game, the French player can use their air force to contest Air Superiority in ONE hex. This “one shot” decision is critical for the French player – your air force only gets to help you once so you better make it worthwhile.

As an old naval Grognard, I am also happy to see Naval Combat in The Lost Provinces. In keeping with the simple game design, Naval Combat is highly abstracted. Players line up their ships, roll 2d6 and add the Gunnery Score of the unit. If the modified die roll is greater than the Armor score of the target it’s a hit. The side suffering the greater number of hits returns to port. Control of the Gulf of Siam is worth 1 Victory Point at game end.

Carefully-Curated

I have to agree; the use of few traditional wargame mechanisms with a twist in The Lost Provinces takes what on the surface is a very simple game and makes decisions mean so much more. I haven’t used the phrase “simple elegance” in a while but I certainly need to  when talking about this design. John Gorkowski has taken what at it’s core is a very simple, straight-forward, no-nonsense wargame design and added just enough nuanced twists to make it very interesting. This carefully-curated design certainly deserves more table time.