Sunday Summary – Starting with ASL Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub) and first go with Fifth Corps (Strategy & Tactics/SPI) while getting Supercharged (@DietzFoundation) and Gundam modeling #wargame #boardgame #SDGundam

Wargames

This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!

Another game I got through a trade is Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). I obviously have the magazine version which is a very small package with 16-pages of rules (8 series, 8 exclusive), a single 22″x34″ map, and 200 counters. I’m experimenting with the game now but my early impressions are “Wow!”

Boardgames

My Kickstarter for Supercharged from the Deitz Foundation fulfilled and arrived. In the RockyMountainNavy Family Game Collection we have a few racing games. My earliest is Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1979) which has counters so worn they are almost white. We also have Formula De (Asmodee, 1997) which is good but a bit long as well as PitchCar (Ferti, 2003) which is a blast at family parties. Supercharged is stacking up to be a great addition to the collection.

Books

I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….

Models

Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!

RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….

#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 1 – Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975)

OVER ON BGG there is a thread asking for recommendations of a modern naval warfare wargame. This got me thinking, just what do I consider a ‘good’ modern naval warfare game? As a hobby gamer, I certainly have my opinions but what about my professional wargamer side?

When reading about naval warfare, one surely will run across the name of Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.). Capt. Hughes recently died, which led me to reread his classic Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Second Edition)*. In chapter 7 of that edition, Hughes writes of The Great Trends & Constants:

  • Maneuver
  • Firepower & Counterforce
  • Scouting & Anti-Scouting
  • Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)

Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’

A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9

BLUF – Sixth Fleet uses a very land-centric view of warfare and attempts to apply it to modern war at sea with very strange results.

Sixth Fleet: US/Soviet Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean in the 1970’s was published by SPI in 1975. Designed by Jim Dunnigan and David B. Isby, the introduction proclaims:

Sixth Fleet is a simulation of operational naval warfare in the Mediterranean based on a hypothetical war between the Soviet Union and the NATO Alliance during the late 1970’s. The game counters (or playing pieces) represent individual ships or groups of ships or aircraft whose actual counterparts exist in the Soviet and NATO navies as constituted at the present time. All of the essential elements of a potential contemporary naval war in the Mediterranean are depicted, including the latest aircraft and ultrasophisticated surface and submarine naval vessels. The Sixth Fleet scenarios, each of which is a complete and separate game, simulate various periods in the war in which the initially inferior Soviet Mediterranean Squadron is reinforced from the Black Sea and attempts to seize control of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and disrupt the vital communication lanes between Europe and the Middle East.

In terms of scale, Sixth Fleet is an operational-level wargame with counters representing single capital ships or groups of lesser ships. Aircraft are considered 12-ship squadrons. Each hex is 45.4nm across and each turn represents 8 hours of time.

As the Game Notes state, “Sixth Fleet is an interesting study of a modern military situation done in a very abstract way.” Yeah, no kidding!

Why Fight?

Victory (found in 13.0 Victory Conditions) in Sixth Fleet comes from a combination of two factors. First, players score VP for destruction of enemy units; “For each Enemy unit destroyed, the opposing player receives a number of Victory Points equal to the Electronic Countermeasure Value of the destroyed unit.” The Soviets also receive bonus victory points (13.1 Soviet Bonus Victory Points) if they achieve any of three additional conditions:

  1. ‘The Soviet Player receives ten (10) bonus Victory Points if there are no NATO units (of any type) in the Aegean Sea area at the end of the game.’
  2. ‘The Soviet Player receives fifteen (15) bonus Victory Points if at the end of the game it is impossible for the NATO Player to trace a line of communications from any coastal hex in Israel leading off the western mapedge.’
  3. ‘If the Soviet Player has received bonus points for fulfilling the [second] objective given in case 13.12, he receives fifteen (15) additional bonus Victory Points if at the end of the game there are no NATO units east of the Eastern Mediterranean Boundary Line indicated on the map.’

As one will discover upon further reading, destruction of ships in Sixth Fleet is not a given making the fulfillment (or avoidance of) Soviet objectives the primary focus of the game.

Maneuver

“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177

“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179

“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.

Maneuver in Sixth Fleet is very simple and straight-forward. Ships and submarines are given a movement allowance which is the number of hexes it can move in a turn. Aircraft have a range allowance.

There are no formations per se. That said, the Stacking rules allow a player to stack units in a hex in any order, but when attacked the combat is resolved in the order in which the units are stacked. Aircraft are allowed to perform a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over airbases or carriers.

Although the seas are often thought of as featureless of terrain, Restricted Water (i.e. littorals) cost additional movement points to enter.

In Sixth Fleet all ships possess a Zone of Control (ZoC). Ships can enter, but not move thru, an enemy ZoC. Ships must immediately stop upon entering an enemy ZoC. The presence of an enemy ZoC in a friendly hex forces combat. The major exception to this rule is that if a unit does not possess a combat value in that warfare area (Air / Surface / Subsurface) then no ZoC exists against units of that type. The concept of ZoC is very important to achieving the second Soviet bonus objective, leading to what the designers in the Game Notes call, “a solid front.”

By far the most interesting (maybe even unbelievable) element of maneuver in Sixth Fleet is the concept of Retreat. The Combat Results Table (CRT) is bloodless; the loser is not destroyed or damaged but must retreat a hex. The Game Notes attempt to explain why:

The bloodless Combat Results Table does make the situation abstract since it is a commonly held belief  that if your ship receives a hit these days its all over. Here the designer felt that the ship’s captain would realize when he was outmatched and rather than stay and die he would concede a little bit of ocean.

Ships can be eliminated in Sixth Fleet (indeed, players accumulate victory points for destroying enemy units) but that destruction only occurs if retreat is impossible. The designers seem to think that ensuring a retreat is not a foregone conclusion, especially if you use terrain:

While playing Sixth Fleet it will be useful to remember that it is almost impossible to insure a retreat in your combat phase. The best tactic is to place a force of friendly units in such a position that any enemy units adjacent to it during their Combat Phase cannot get a zero differential against it and must therefore retreat. This is most easily accomplished in restricted waters due to the doubling effect it has on the Defense Strength. 15.0 Game Notes

Firepower

“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175

“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206

“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207

“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.

All units in Sixth Fleet are rated for combat in three areas; Anti-Air, Anti-Surface, and Anti-Submarine. All ships have a combat range of one hex (45.4nm). I have to wonder what sources were available in 1975 as the range of the US Harpoon missile in the early 1980s was publicly proclaimed as 60nm (2 hexes?) and the new SS-N-12 missile on the Soviet Kiev-class carrier was seen as 250nm (5-6 hexes?).

The Retreat rules also have an interesting interaction with Firepower. Since ships in Sixth Fleet are not destroyed by firepower but by an inability to retreat just what ‘firepower’ is being portrayed?  The Game Notes seem to indicate a ship’s captain will retreat when he “realizes” the hopeless situation. Although there may be an element of truth to that concept, I think reality will need to see ordnance flying downrange and hitting to make that happen.

Counterforce

“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175

“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.

“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186

Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192

Sixth Fleet uses two factors to express defense, or the counterforce that Hughes describes. First, ships have a Defense Strength. This single factor is used in defense regardless of the attack type. There is no distinction between air defense or surface defense or ASW defense – one factor covers it all. This is the survivability and defensive filter Hughes describes.

All units in Sixth Fleet also possess an Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) value. In many ways, this factor is the most important of all the values for a unit. The Game Notes comment, “The designer saw the situation as being a battle of the little black boxes. Thus, he placed a very heavy emphasis on the ECM of various units involved.” The ECM value of a unit is a combination of defensive filter and, “cover, deception, and dispersion.”

Terrain also plays a role in Counterforce. As mentioned in Firepower above, units in Restricted Waters double their Defense Strength.

Scouting

“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175

“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193

“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212

Sixth Fleet uses a ‘Gods Eye’ wargame model. All units are on the same shared map for both players to see. There are no rules (even optional) for hidden units. The rules are silent on whether a player can examine an enemy stack of units though I think it would be fair to it can only be done if the stack is within a ZoC.

In effect, Sixth Fleet is silent on Scouting. All units are assumed detected, tracked, and targeted (if within a ZoC).

Anti-Scouting

“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175

“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197

“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197

The concept of Anti-Scouting is not apparent in Sixth Fleet except in a very narrow implementation. The ECM Value of a unit represents deception – making the enemy  think you’re  elsewhere – and evasion (ruining or delaying an attack). That said, the Anti-Scouting concept is really almost below the level depicted in the game.

C2

“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.

In Sixth Fleet the player is the embodiment of C2. The process of C2 is in the Sequence of Play which has only two phases per player; a Combat Phase followed by a Movement Phase. With no Anti-Scouting there is no need to plan for it, nor is there a need to implement C2 countermeasures.

C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)

“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176

In Sixth Fleet there is no way to interfere with (or interrupt) a players Sequence of Play. Like Anti-Scouting, the concept of C2CM is not apparent in Sixth Fleet.

Final Verdict

Sixth Fleet is very land-centric view of modern naval warfare using very dated wargaming concepts. The idea that ships at sea exert interlocking Zones of Control to create ‘solid fronts’ and force an enemy ship to ‘retreat’ because the captain realizes he is outmatched is far too simplistic, even dare I say, incorrect view of naval warfare. Although Sixth Fleet captures some of the essence of Maneuver, Firepower, and Counterforce that Capt. Hughes describes, it falls far short if not outright ignores Scouting, Anti-Scouting, C2 and C2CM. Sixth Fleet also narrowly focuses on only two of four objectives of why a navy fights (“From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy.”). It appears to me that the designers were victims of their own biases as they tried to shoehorn land-warfare concepts on a naval wargame. 

It doesn’t work for me.


* The book is now in a Third Edition which I need to order the next time it’s on sale.

Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


Endnotes

  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

#Wargame Wednesday – Back to the future? TAC AIR (Avalon Hill, 1987)

THERE ARE SOME IN OUR HOBBY who insist that a wargame must be historical. From today’s perspective, a game about Air-Land Battles in Germany in the 1980’s is kinda historical. Or at least historically-plausible. Thankfully, the Cold War never went hot. So playing TAC AIR (Avalon Hill Game Company, 1987) is a blast into the coulda-been past. I recently played TAC AIR as part of my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge. TAC AIR won the CSR in 1987 for Best Modern Era Boardgame.

TAC AIR looks and plays in many ways like a military training aid. That’s because it basically was! Designer (and then-USAF Captain) Gary C. Morgan designed the game FEBA for the USAF Project Warrior. As Air Force Magazine put it in 1982:

For a couple of decades, Air Force people (and the institution) edged away from warfighting as a state of mind, and toward an eight-to-five, business, managerial mindset. Today’s Air Force leaders are determined to reverse that trend, and create a professional mission-oriented force. Project Warrior is the means of change….It is a new program whose goal is to create and maintain and environment for Air Force people to think and plan in warfighting terms….Under “education,” the Air Force is establishing a professional studies support program. It is composed of selected readings, discussion guides, wargaming resources, and other media to develop individual understanding of military strategy, tactics, and logistics, as well as a better appreciation of the role of airpower in the nation’s deterrent and defense policy.

Project Warrior, Air Force Magazine, August 1982

TAC AIR was published in a time when professional and recreational wargaming was at an intersection. Jim Dunnigan’s Firefight (1976) started life as a US Army project. In the 1980’s Avalon Hill was on a roll with Gary Morgan’s Flight Leader (1986) and then TAC AIR which both started in Project Warrior. (Philip Sabin, Simulating War, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

TAC AIR depicts the (then) “modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (TAC AIR, Designer’s Profile).

I played this game a few times back in the late 1980’s but seemingly remembered it as “too much Air Farce.” At the time I was really into modern naval combat (ala Harpoon) and was not as interested in ground combat in Europe. If I really wanted to play a modern Cold War ground combat game I would pull out Frank Chadwicks Assault (GDW, 1983).

That’s too bad because TAC AIR, while not perfect, makes learning about Air-Land Battle doctrine quite fun.

TAC AIR is really two games on one. The “Land” portion of the Air-Land Battle is a fairly standard ground combat game where ground units and helicopters move and fight once per turn. The “Air” portion of this game is where the real emphasis lies – not surprising given this was an Air Force training aid! Every turn in TAC AIR includes an Air Phase which consists of 10 identical Air Rounds. Attacks by air units and air defense fire happens during aircraft movement each Air Round. Here planes zoom around the board dodging air defenses and delivering strikes on ground units to disrupt them. A ground unit that accumulates four Disruption is eliminated.

TAC AIR is also interesting in what is included and what is not. In addition to the ground units and aircraft, there are special rules for Electronic Warfare (a vastly under-appreciated domain of modern warfare even today), the then-highly innovative Joint Air Attack Tactics mixing A-10 aircraft and Apache attack helos, as well as long-range ATGMs and standoff weapons. One aircraft you will not find in TAC AIR is the F-117 Nighthawk. I’m not surprised; Captain Morgan may not have even known about the program and even if he did it was still classified at the time. The F-117 was not “publicly unveiled” until 1988 – a year after TAC AIR was published.

I played Scenario One – “Covering Force” where elements of the US 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment screen against advancing elements of the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Division. Although the combat systems and platforms used were obviously from the mid-1980’s Cold War, I could not help but think about how different – or not – a similar battle in Poland might be today. Makes me wonder if anybody in the US Army or Air Force is looking at an updated version of TAC AIR for today’s military.

I also took note that one “Captain Matt Caffrey” is listed as contributing as a game developer. Today, Matt Caffrey Jr. (Colonel, USAFR, Ret.) is the author of On Wargaming from the US Naval War College published this year. Good to see the grognards of the hobby still contributing to the cause.


* FEBA – Forward Edge of the Battle Area (welcome to the world of military acronyms)

#BookLook – Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, by James F. Dunnigan, 2000

When studying the history of the wargame hobby, one inevitably will run into the name James F. Dunnigan. His first published game was Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967). His company, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was THE wargame company of the 1970’s and 80’s. He started Strategy & Tactics magazine which continues to publish to this day. He is, in many ways, a father to the wargame hobby.

Although I am a longtime hobby grognard, I also have some links to professional wargaming in the Department of Defense. In the lead-up to CONNECTIONS 2018 this year I decided to study up a bit. In particular, I wanted to focus on the definition of a wargame. What better place to look than at a book written by James Dunnigan, the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000).

I was surprised at my reaction after reading this book. A giant of the hobby, who I had set up on a pedestal, does not deserve to be there.

The Wargames Handbook is a real mixed bag and I actually find it hard to categorize. It is part professional design guide, part memoir, part contemporary history, and part…useless. The copy I have in hand is the Third Edition published in 2000. The first edition appeared in 1980 with a second edition in 1993 before it went out of print in 1998.

The Wargames Handbook consists of nine chapters with End Note and Appendix. After reading the book I see the content as broadly divided into three categories:

  • Designing Wargames
  • History of Wargames
  • Computer Wargames

Of these three categories, the one of least interest to me was computer wargames. Dunnigan comes across as more than a bit bitter at the rise of computer gaming, and computer wargames in particular. He goes to great pains using figures and statistics to show the impact of computer wargames. For a tabletop, manual wargaming like myself his “contemporary history” accounts come across more as whines. The worst part has to be the multi-page GENIE replay of a computer wargame. If Dunnigan had a point here, it was lost in a wall of uninteresting computer printout.

The history of wargames parts are interesting but have since been done in much more detail elsewhere. Other histories also show a bit less bias and are more comprehensive than that presented here. It looks like Dunnigan wrote what he knew best, that is, his personal experiences and survey results. Granted, that experience is vast and in the golden age of wargames (1970’s and 80’s) he was right in the middle of the hobby, but he was not the only one.

The professional portion of the book is the designing wargames parts. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s heavy on what to do, but kind of light on how to do it.”

It would seem like Chapter 1 – What is a Wargame? would be a good place to find a definition of a wargame. Alas, this chapter is mostly devoted to a description of his wargame The Drive on Metz. Actually, the chapter is not just a description of the game, it is game play laid side-by-side with history. The closest Dunnigan gets to defining a wargame is the first three paragraphs. However, he fails to give us any sort of concise definition:

  • “A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past.”
  • “A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science.”
  • “Basically, it’s glorified chess.”
  • “If you’ve never encountered a wargame before, it’s easiest to just think of it as chess with a more complicated playing board and amore complex way of moving your pieces and taking your opponents.”
  • “A wargame usually combines a map, playing pieces representing historical personages or military units and s set of rules telling you what you can or cannot do  with them.”
  • “To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic.”

Chapter 2 – How to Play is the heart of the wargame design advice. That is, if one wants to design a classic hex-&-counter wargame. Also contained in this chapter (indeed, the bulk of the chapter) is a listing of The Technical Terms Used in Wargaming. Alas, “wargame” or a variant does not appear in this listing!

Chapter 3 – Why Play the Games (and how to get the most out of it) is mostly a survey of historical periods and opportunities for wargaming. To me, the most interesting sections were the last two. In Fantasy & Science Fiction Games, Dunnigan points out that,

Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as was as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects (p. 142)

As a longtime naval grognard, I found the last section, Special Problems of Air and Naval Games, to be more than mildly interesting. I was a bit surprised that Dunnigan sounds like he gave up on designing air and naval games because, as he puts it, they “can be most interesting and illuminating when conducted on the individual…level” (p. 145). Dunnigan capitulates designing aerial and naval games to exclusively the realm of computers. I think the truth is a bit deeper here, and maybe hits a little to close for Mr. Dunnigans ego.

IMG_0309Within my game collection I have five James Dunnigan-designed games. The one aerial game, Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1973) is not highly rated. Setting Jutland aside the other naval game I have, Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975) plays like a land combat game at sea; i.e. totally unrealistic. Given the many wonderful air and naval games across the years, I have to wonder if Mr. Dunnigan was too fixated on hex-&-counter that he was unable to find the design spark to make a great air or naval game.

Chapter 4 – Designing Manual Games is more design advice, though again through the lens of The Drive on Metz game. In this chapter Dunnigan presents the complete rules of the game – as though reading a set of rules is enough to teach you how to write one of your own! I wonder how many game designers would agree with the opening sentence where Dunnigan states, “Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it’s actually easier” (p. 146).

I’m going to skip comment on chapters five thru seven (covering computer wargames and the history of wargames) and chapter nine (Wargames at War) because I already commented in general above. I do want to look closer at Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games because I am disappointed at the blatant biases Dunnigan shows here.

In Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games, Dunnigan starts out with a pithy comment, “Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated” (p. 300). He goes on to use market research and surveys from his time at SPI and Strategy & Tactics to study the wargamer demographic. Not surprisingly, he finds that the demographic is older (and getting older) and overwhelmingly male. He whines at how RPGs stole wargamers away and in doing so raises his nose in elitism over young gamers:

When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargames. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and much larger numbers of students were able to participate. Many of the wargames became gamesters, the one participant in in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids can’t really hack it. (p. 301)

Dunnigan goes on to discuss complexity in wargames, and in doing so doubles-down on the elitist gamer image:

“Wargames have always been arcane, but now publisher are putting out “simple” games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it” (p. 303).

This elitist attitude was first apparent in the Introduction where Dunnigan discusses “mushware.” As he writes:

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without the benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population come equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers couldn’t avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail….We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware. (p. xix-xxi)

My feeling after reading this book, and especially chapter eight and the discussion of mushware, is not inspiration but sadness. I am a bit sad that one of the giants of the hobby is not the great inspiration I had always envisioned. Instead, I now see Jim Dunnigan as a wargame designer that possessed a narrow ability to design historical land warfare wargames using classic hex-&-counter mechanics. I also see him as viewing himself as a member of an exclusive group – a group that is unwilling to share a hobby with RPG and computer wargames and collectible card games. Interestingly, I don’t recall reading anything about Magic: The Gathering in this book – amazing given how MTG was responsible for RPG and boardgame near-extinction in the 1990s. 

Fortunately, Dunnigan’s elitist attitude runs counter to the predominate mood of the boardgame hobby today. Indeed, in the very year the third edition of the Wargames Handbook was published, a “simple” wargame entered the hobby. Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) is regarded as the first of the Command and Colors System that in many ways revolutionized the wargame hobby with a “simple” wargame that broke many of the hex-&-counter design rules that SPI (and Dunnigan) clung to. I don’t find it surprising that the RockyMountainNavy game collection includes four Command and Colors games; nearly as many games as Jim Dunnigan designs owned.

This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I visited The Games Tavern in Chantilly, Virginia. We went in to look at tank models because the youngest RMN Boy likes to build armor. The weekend gaming was in full swing:

We were approached by many people who offered game and model advice and comment. We were invited to look at demos and displays and personal collections. My youngest was the center of attention because, I can tell, the hobby wants to bring young blood in, not keep it out. The incredible number of games – even wargames –  being published these days from designers that maybe had no wargame background proves that using mushware to design games is as useful as believing that midichlorians are part of the Force.

I recognize the Wargames Handbook is a snapshot in time as seen by the author. I am very glad that we have come far as a hobby in the intervening years.

Featured image courtesy goodreads.com

Game of the Week for April 02, 2018 – Thunder at the Crossroads 2nd Edition (The Gamers, 1993)

After the RockyMountainNavy trip to Gettysburg last week, it seems fitting that the Game of the Week be on that same topic. Thunder at the Crossroads 2nd Edition (The Gamers, 1993) is the only non-strategic Civil War battle game in my collection (the others being the broadly disliked The Civil War from Fresno Gaming Assoc. 1991 and the very popular For the People from GMT Games, 1998). Thunder at the Crossroads is a solid 7.7 on BoardGameGeek.com and has favorable reviews. It is not without its detractions, the main one being the required play time. BGG.com lists playing time as 360 minutes, though the back of the box states, “18 Hours Plus.”

This game is part of The Gamers’ Civil War Brigade (CWB) Series. As such, the rules are presented in two rulebooks; the Series Rules and Game Rules. The Game Rules are in a 20 page booklet but only the first four pages are “rules” with the rest being scenarios and notes.

The Series Rules are interesting. In the Introduction, the designers claim the games are, “accurate, readily playable portrayals of specific American Civil War battles at the tactical brigade level.” They go on to state,

The intent of this series is to focus on the command aspects of Civil War combat by having players use a game command system that mimics actual events. The game forces interact with each other in ways that simulate the functions of those they represent.

This focus on command becomes clearer when one realized that 10.0 Command and Control covers five pages of the Series Rules. This is a major portion of the rules, especially when one realizes that the “rules” are communicated in 24 pages with the balance of the 32 page rulebook being Designer’s Notes and several Optional rules and related essays.

All of which makes the reading 2.0 Beginner’s Note a bit confusing. Here the designer recommends,

Avoid the Command Rules as you learn this system, only using “command radius” to keep things in order. Once you understand the basic structure, include the rest of the command systems in your next session. All games in this series can be played without the command rules, so, if you do not find them to your taste, feel free to play without them.

I sense some cognitive dissonance here; the “focus” of the game is on the “command aspects” but it “can be played without the command rules.” OK…?

Another rule I had a hard time wrapping my head around at first was 6.5 Fire Levels. Infantry and cavalry units are rated using lettered fire levels. The rest of the game is fairly straight forward with a Turn Sequence (8.0) that is probably very familiar to may grognards:

  • First Player Turn
    • Command Phase
    • Movement & Close Combat Phase
    • Fire Combat Phase
    • Rally Phase
  • Second Player Turn
    • (Repeat above)
  • Game End Turn Phase

If there is one rule I like it is the Play Tip that appears in 20.0 Fire Combat. Recognizing that the fire combat rules require a series of die rolls the recommendation made is,

…place the following combination of dice into a dice roller: two large red dice, one smaller red die, one yellow die, one black die (white dots) and one white die (black dots). (The actual dice and colors used is up to you, but the above is a working example). Using the above dice, they will be read as follows. The two large red dice are for the main combat table. The smaller red die rounds any 1/2 results. The yellow die is for the Straggler Table. The remaining two dice are for the Morale Table with the black die the tens digit and the white die the ones. Use only the results from the dice which are needed according to the Fire Table result – in other words, if the Fire Table result is no effect, ignore all the other dice. This system speeds up play drastically – although it might sound cumbersome at first.

What the rulebook lacks is strong graphics. The three-column layout gets detailed and although there are several examples of play all are mostly textual – graphics are very limited. The Rules Summary Sheet lacks numerical rules references making it a short, but not-very-helpful compilation of rules. Some tables appear in the Charts & Tables but others (like the Movement Table) are directly on the map sheets. In 1993, the same year this game was published, designer Dean Essig was inducted into the Charles S. Robert Hall of Fame. That same year he won the James F. Dunnigan Award for Playability & Design. Granted, this award was for his 1993 title Afrika: The Northern Africa Campaign, 1940-1942 (1st Edition) which, judging from the photos on bgg.com, doesn’t visually appear much different from Thunder at the Crossroads. I guess this was the “state of excellence” at the time….

There are 11 scenarios provided, covering single days (like Scenario 1: The First Day) to smaller actions (like Scenario 5: Little Round Top) to the entire battle (Scenario 10: The Historical Battle of Gettysburg). There is actually a twelfth scenario which uses 6.12 Variable Arrival Charts to allow an Army Commander to “better implement his plans.” For my Game of the Week, I think I will use the shortest scenario, Little Round Top, which is only 9 turns. I also think I will use the Beginner’s Notes recommendation and only use the “command radius” rules. At least this first time….