Cool #Wargame #FirstImpressions – The Mannerheim Line Campaign (Counterfact Magazine #12, ossgames.com, 2020)

ALL TOO OFTEN, MAGAZINE WARGAMES MISS MORE THAN THEY HIT. I think it’s the crunch of publication timelines where a game MUST get published even though it may lack the final ‘touch’ that can make the difference between a good game and a turkey. This past year, I took a chance and started buying Counterfact Magazine published by Jon Compton of One Small Step. Part of the reason was price (it was generally more affordable than so many other subscriptions) and the second was because Counterfact uses an “as ready” publication model meaning they try to get out four issues a year but that’s not a guarantee. Issue 12, with the feature game The Mannerheim Line Campaign designed by Ty Bomba arrived this week. The Mannerheim Line Campaign (MLC) describes itself as a “low-intermediate complexity two player historical wargame that’s also easily adaptable for solitaire play.” The marketing slug is right on target; MLC is in many ways a perfect Coronatine wargame – easy to learn, smaller footprint, and solo friendly.

Building the Line

The components for MLC are above average for what I expect from a magazine wargame. The map is a simple, yet gorgeous piece of art by Ilya Kudriashov. It certainly looks winter-like but still remains highly functional. It’s very easy to tell what hex is what. If I have one complaint it’s the orientation of the charts and tables along the short, east edge of the map. Given the players will likely sit across from each other north and south, the charts as printed are upside down to the players.

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Reading the rule book for MLC, I laughed a bit when I read, “After reading these rules at least once, carefully punch out the counters. Trimming off the “dog ears” from their corners with a fingernail clipper will facilitate easier handling and stacking during play and enhances their appearance.” Well, Mr. Bomba, you obviously had little faith in Jon Compton and Lisé Patterson who took care of Counters & Production. I don’t know who OSS uses for their die cut counters, but these both stayed in the sheet fine during shipment while at the same time almost effortlessly punched out. Further, instead of being attached to the sheet at the corners, these counters attach in the middle of the top or bottom edge and when they drop put the corners are crisp and there is only the slightest of nubs along the edge. Bottom line – NO corner rounding needed!

 

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The rule book for MLC is a 12-page insert in the magazine. The rules themselves actually only take up nine pages with one more for the cover and two for charts and tables. The charts and tables are actually not needed in the rule book as they are duplicated on the map sheet. To be honest, the layout of the rule book charts are a bit prettier than the map, but the map charts & tables match the color palette of the map.

The rule book for MLC could be a bit clearer. It’s not that the rules are necessarily confusing, but the long-winded wording in places is, well, long winded. There is some errata but nothing that appears to be a showstopper (though I still cannot find the rule that definitively says when to place Soviet Static Constabulary Units).

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Sniping the Game System

If there is a hallmark of the design from Mr. Bomba in MLC, it’s simplicity yet elegance. For example, the Turn Sequence at first looks very straight-forward, even ‘vanilla.” Every turn starts with the Soviet Player Turn which consists of a First Combat Phase, a First Movement Phase, and then a third phase which can be either a Second Combat OR a Second Movement Phase. The same turn structure applies to the Finnish player. That choice of a second combat or movement phase creates a very interesting turn dynamic. Additionally, Finnish reinforcements can enter during ANY movement phase, Soviet or Finnish. Now that makes for some really interesting decisions!

In keeping with the low-intermediate complexity, movement in MLC is straight forward with mechanized units having 12 movement factors and all other non-static units having eight (8). Combat is a straight odds system using an uncomplicated Combat Results Table with losses expressed in Steps. Different terrain gives column shifts on the CRT. There are some wrinkles in the combat model; Soviet artillery does not appear on the map but rather as Soviet Artillery Support Markers that can be used once per turn in either Combat Phase for the Soviet player. The Soviets can form Mobile Attack Groups that, depending on the roll of a die, may have double the firepower – or only half.

Although the counter density in MLC is rather low, ‘sticky Zone of Control” rules help capture the slower mobility of the combatants. In MLC once a unit enters a ZoC they must stop. Further, if a unit wants to leave a ZoC, the first hex moved into cannot be an enemy ZoC (hence the ‘stickiness’). This sticky ZoC ensures that units cannot just blow past an enemy unit, especially if defenders help each other by maintaining interlocking ZoCs. Simple rule – dramatic (and proper) game effect.

Soviet Supply in MLC is another easy to use, but highly impactful, rule. Soviet units have to maintain a supply line; if they don’t they lose half their movement and half their combat strength.

Victory in MLC is of four flavors; Soviet Major, Soviet Substantive, Soviet Minor, and Finnish Sudden Death. A Soviet Major (or Soviet Sudden Death) occurs the instant the Soviet player controls both hexes of Viipuri and can trace a proper supply line using roads back to a supply source. A Soviet Substantive victory occurs if the Soviets reach certain map edge hexes. Interestingly, at this point the Soviet player can forsake the Substantive victory and declare they will keep going but if that choice is made the Substantive and Minor victories are no longer available – it’s a Soviet Major victory or nothing! A Soviet Minor victory occurs if the Soviet player occupies all six Finnish towns and has at least one unit adjacent to Viipuri. This was the historical end condition.

Putting it on the line

For myself, MLC came in the afternoon mail. I read the rules in about an hour then set up the game. I played solo after dinner with the six turn campaign taking a bit under two hours. For a low-intermediate complexity game the strategic challenges and choices were very interesting. The Finnish player has a great static defensive line that the Soviets have to break thru, and once they do the Finnish mobile units have to use their ‘sticky ZoCs” to slow the Soviets down. Facing the Soviets in a straight-up battle is bound to lead to attrition and loss of units. The Finnish player needs to decide when and where units are going to be sacrificed (better yet, where units have the best chance of lasting the longest before they are sacrificed). The Soviet player must constantly try to get rid of the Finnish “gum” that is slowing them down and bring sufficient combat power to bear to keep the offensive going – all in only six turns.

No, really. I Read it for the Articles….

I probably should mention here that this issue of Counterfact Magazine that includes MLC has several related articles. The feature article, “The Mannerheim Line Campaign, 1939-1940” is written by Ty Bomba and tries to stir up some controversy when discussing the world reaction to the war:

The global reaction was shock at the weakness displayed by the Red Army. Western newspapers were filled with caricatures of the top Soviet leaders along with analyses of the USSR’s lack of readiness for war. The first and loudest reports of the poor Soviet performance in Finland came from newspapers funded by Stalin. From there, the general belief soon arose and persisted among Western military men, analysts, historians and politicians the Red Army had demonstrated in Finland a lack of capacity t wage war at that time. Stalin was content with creating that impression in order that the West’s focus move from his aggressions back to Hitler.

Looked at more dispassionately from our vantage point in this century, however, we can see the Red Army’s performance in the Winter War didn’t demonstrate weakness. Rather, it exhibited tremendous strength.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if MLC delivers that lesson.

The second article in the magazine is a closer look at the “T-28: Stalin’s First Super Tank.” The article draws exclusively from Russian sources making it an interesting look at the monster T-28 from the Russian viewpoint.

Two other major articles, one about cyber warfare (ho-hum) and “The Surcouf: France’s World War II Super-Sub” round out the issue. There is also a two-page article with many statistical graphics on “The Evolution of the Red Army, 1930-1940.” I appreciate that most of the articles are related to the feature game.

Final Thoughts

The Mannerheim Line Campaign lives up to its advertisement – it’s a good low-intermediate complexity game that allows one to explore the Winter War in a short evening. Building on classic wargame mechanics, Mr. Bomba has assembled an easy-to-learn game with many interesting decision points and just enough chrome to be evocative of the campaign depicted. All topped off by beautiful components that make the game feel far more luxurious than the price paid.

Too Bad it’s the Last

I read on BoardGameGeek (though I can’t find the posting right now) that this is the last physical issue of Counterfact Magazine. Whether that means OSS is moving to a print & play model I don’t know. I know that more than a few people grumbled over the years at the quality of some of the Counterfact games. The Mannerheim Line Campaign is a great example of what a magazine wargame can (should?) be. I guess if Counterfact is going to go out on top, this was a good way to do it!

#Wargame head-to-head – Victory in the #PacificTide (@compassgamesllc, 2018)

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Compass Games

With a winter storm forecast for Saturday, it was a good day to stay in and play some wargames. The latest arrival in my collection is Pacific Tide: The United States versus Japan, 1941-45 (Compass Games, 2018). This game, by designer Gregory M. Smith, is a “compact. strategic-level game covering the struggle betweent he United States (including some Commonwealth forces) and Japan in World War II.” The game “features a card-based combat/build system.” The game can also be played solo using a “personality-driven solitaire bot system.”

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Avalon Hill

Besides playing Pacific Tide, I also worked on my 2019 Charles S Roberts Wargame Challenge. As luck would have it, the next game in my queue was Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977). VITP is a strategic simulation of the naval war in the Pacific starting with the Pearl Harbor attack and going into 1945. Thus, both Pacific Tide and VITP cover a nearly identical gamespace and therefore gave me a good opportunity to not only explore Pacific Tide but to think about how far the wargaming hobby has come since 1977.

Both VITP and Pacific Tide are nearly identical in their degree of complexity and how they portray the war and combatants:

VITP

Pacific Tide

Complexity

2 out of 10

3 out of 10

Time Scale

2 turns/year

Yearly Turns

Map Scale

Area

Area

Units

Individual carriers or ships, air groups, infantry

Individual carriers or ships, army-level infantry, air groups

Average Play Time

5h

2-4h

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Sample Map (Compass Games)

Pacific Tide needs less table space than VITP. The 17″x22″ map and 5/8″ counters for Pacific Tide are make for a smaller footprint than the 22″x28″ map and 1″ counters in VITP. Further, the large reinforcements entry cards in VITP are absent in Pacific Tide. I have said before that I think VITP could use a graphical refresh. If that ever happens, I hope they look at Pacific Tide and the nice artwork by Ilya Kudriashov for inspiration.

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Sample Cards (Compass Games)

What really sets Pacific Tide apart from other wargames like VITP is the use of the card-based combat/build system. It really is a card-driven game. During each yearly turn in Pacific Tide players play cards back and forth to Move and/or Attack in order to Control areas. At the end of the year players Repair fleets under certain conditions, get new cards for the coming year, and earn Build Points. The Build Points are used to purchase previous year cards and place those cards into the deck for the coming year. In effect, there is a bit of a deck building mechanic in Pacific Tide.

The rules in both games are remarkably similar in volume. My 1981 2nd Edition rule book for VITP is eight pages long. The actual rules are on six, triple-column pages. The Pacific Tide Rules of Play is a 16-page booklet but the actual rules are covered on the first 12 pages. The Pacific Tide rules are written in a very conversational style (not the every-paragraph VITP formal 1. / 1.1 / 1.1.1 pattern) which is both a blessing and a curse. In the boardgame segment of the gaming hobby there is a definite trend for a more conversational tone of rules. However, for wargames (outside of some waros) I don’t think it really works. To me, wargame rules are more structured by nature and cross-referencing is often necessary making a more formal layout (and tone) necessary.

In the case of Pacific Tide, the writing of the rules is sometimes wonky. For instance,

“INF and Guerrilla units never roll dice against Fleets, CVs, or air units. They only attack other ground units.”

This seems backwards to me. I understand rules better when they state the positive portion first and the negative/exception second. Thus, the above rule would read,

“INF and Guerrilla only attack other ground units. They never roll dice against Fleets, CVs, or air units. Exception – See AA FIRE.”

In Pacific Tide, each combat factor rolls one or two d6 roll each. There are only a few other modifiers like naval gunfire support adding a die in infantry combat. Hits are scored on a roll of 4-6 with a 6 giving damage priority to CV units if present. One hit will destroy a CV or Air but two hits are needed to destroy a Fleet. Infantry are usually one hit per point unless they are Entrenched when the first hit is negated. This combat mechanic is not that different from VITP where units roll a number of d6 equal to their Airstrike or Gunnery Factor with hits on a 6 (unless they have the Attack Bonus which adds +1 to the die roll). Each hit then rolls a d6 for the amount of damage inflicted. In effect, combat losses in Pacific Tide occurs more often but each hit is less swingy than VITP.

I am actually having a hard time figuring out how to determine victory in Pacific Tide. I am going to quote 2.0 Victory Conditions in total as well as the text on US card 24 THE ATOMIC BOMB so you can (hopefully) see what I mean.

2.0 VICTORY CONDITIONS

The US player wins if he controls all areas on the map, with the exception of Okinawa and Japan. The Japanese player wins if he prevents this.

2.1 Decisive Victory

The US player wins a decisive victory if he drops the Atomic Bomb. The Japanese player wins a decisive victory if he controls Okinawa and one of these 3 areas: Iwo Jima, the Philippines, or the Aleutians.

The Japanese player also wins an automatic decisive victory if he controls the following areas at the end of 1942:

  • All starting Japanese areas plus the Phillippines, Singaore, Borneo, the Aleutians, Wake, and Midway.

US Card 24 THE ATOMIC BOMB

If, after playing this card, the US player controls all starting areas except Japan, the game ends and the US Player wins a Decisive Victory. Otherwise determine victory normally.

If I’m reading this right then:

  1. The US wins a Decisive Victory if they drop the Atomic Bomb (2.1)
  2. US wins Decisive Victory if they drop the Atomic Bomb and controls all starting areas except Japan (US Card 24)
  3. US wins a normal victory if the game ends and US controls all areas on the map except Japan and Okinawa (2.0)
  4. Japan wins an Automatic Decisive Victory at end of 1942 if they control all staring Japanese areas plus the Philippines, Singapore, Borneo, the Aleutians, Wake, and Midway (2.1)
  5. Japan wins a Decisive Victory if at game end they control Okinawa plus one of three other areas (Iwo Jima, the Philippines, or the Aleutians) (2.1)
  6. Japan wins a normal victory if at game end they control Japan, Okinawa, and any are other than Iwo Jima, the Philippines, or the Aleutians (2.0)

Conditions 1 and 2 look almost the same but are not. So which is it? In condition 5, does Japan also have to control the Japanese starting area? It seems logical, but unlike the other conditions its not explicitly stated. So what is it? This confusing wording appears to be the result of the too easy-going conversational tone taken in the rules. Yet another example of where tighter wording could be helpful.

Overall, and contrary to the complexity ratings above, I feel that Pacific Tide is actually the less complex of the two games. This in part may be because Pacific Tide does not have the different Patrollers or Raiders movement nor the Day or Night Actions combat distinctions found in VITP. The use of cards and unnamed ships and fleets for reinforcements means Pacific Tide is a level of abstraction above VITP. For a fast-play, strategic look at World War II in the Pacific that abstraction is perfectly fine for me.

One note about the solitaire bot in Pacific Tide. The bot here is very simple and really guidelines on how to play cards based on a die roll-determined “personality” that can shift every turn. For wargamers more familiar with the various bots in the GMT Games COIN-series the Pacific Tide version will likely be a bit of a disappointment. Not that it doesn’t work; it’s just not very complicated. Yet another simplification that tries to make Pacific Tide more accessible in spite of the sweeping topic.

Pacific Tide is a relatively uncomplicated (rules-lite?) and fast-playing strategic wargame view of the Pacific War. The graphics and components help players immerse themselves in the game and convey the theme more than adequately. The card-driven mechanic introduces the right amount of fog-of-war and helps the game run like, but not identical to, history. The game is very enjoyable to play but the conversational tone of the rules book leads to some problems. Nothing a really good reformat and careful editing couldn’t take care of. I just wish that happened before the game was released.


Afterward

One may be better off comparing Pacific Tide to Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005). EotS is a card-driven, strategic hex & counter wargame of the Pacific War. Be warned though, EotS is rated 7 out of 9 in complexity and needs more like six hours of playtime to fight the whole war. I don’t own EotS so I cannot make a further comparison.