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.
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!)
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.
…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.
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.
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.
As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. IIleaves the South China Sea “home waters” and moves to the Indian Ocean. China and the United States are still the two Global Powers, but now there are many more regional actors. The largest is, of course, India. For players that are US-centric (‘Merica!) the game might create a challenge because the “big kid” on this block is not the United States.
In no particular order, here are some thoughts on Indian Ocean Region that struck me during my Game of the Week experiences.
The counters for Indian Ocean Region are nice. They came shrink-wrapped which was a good thing because once the wrap came off the counters literally fell out of the sprue. They are so neatly cut I don’t think I need to corner-clip them. If this is the “new” standard from Compass Games I like it but beware—you need a plan to organize your counters before opening the shrink wrap because once opened the counters are falling randomly. Sorting will be from a random pile on the table not neatly out of the tree.
I do wish the colors of the counters in Indian Ocean Region had been a bit more distinct between nations. The camouflage pattern on the counters in this case actually works against them as various counters start “blending” into one another. In some wargaming forums, much has been made about several misprinted counters in Indian Ocean Region. My copy suffers from this problem where three USA ship counters are misprinted with the background for Oman. Truth be told, if I hadn’t seen the postings online I may have actually missed it because the USA-gray and Oman-blue-gray are very similar. It is indicative of quality control issues? Maybe…I believe the error crept in during the graphics layout where the challenge of differentiating so many similar colors inevitably led to a small oversight. Do the misprinted counters make the game unplayable? No. Do I wish Compass Games had caught the mistake before printing? Yes. Will I never buy another Compass Game? NO!
That’s a Big Ocean
Indian Ocean Region covers a vast area both geographically and physically with the game. With a map scale of 45 miles per hex and larger counters, there are three 22.5″x28″ mapsheets that, if laid out together, need a table over 5 feet wide. Alas, my normal gaming table is 3’x4′ which means I can easily get a one- or two-map game laid out but the full three-map scenarios require a different gaming space. I see some people talk about linking Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) maps together but that would take the dining room table or more.
Yes, I know I’m talking about a first-world wargamer problem, but for somebody like myself who has reached, uh, “agreements” with CINC-HOUSE* over table space this can make gaming difficult. It also drives some game purchase decisions. As much as I am interested in the new version of NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot! (Compass Games, forthcoming in 2021) I think I’ll keep my original edition with its single 22″x34″ map and pass on the enlarged version in the new Designer’s Signature Edition.
Where You Sit is Where You Fight
One of the core mechanisms in Indian Ocean Region is a regulated turn order. The game assumes five major factions can be in play. The default turn order in either a Political or Military Turn is 1) Asymmetric, 2) China, 3) Indo-Am, 4) Symmetric Bay States, and5) Symmetric Gulf States or ACIBG. There are two Global Powers of USA and China and three other smaller Regional Powers. It is the arrangement of those Global and Regional Powers that raises my PoliSci eyebrow. As defined in the rule book:
“Asymmetric includes nations that rely heavily on unconventional strategies and tactics, including terrorism….” (Iran, Pakistan, Qatar (?), Somalia, Yemen)
“China uses central control to guide action in ‘free’ markets.” – China, The String of Pearls
“Indo-Am represents the established free market/democratic world order.” (Bahrain, India, USA, Diego Garcia, Australia, Britain)
“Symmetric Bay states want Chinese investment, but are weary [wary?] of too much subordination to Beijing.” (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka)
“Symmetric Gulf States are free traders with a long history of western engagement.” (Djibouti, Oman, United Arab Emirates).
Setting aside for a moment the mixture of geographical and political divisions, the fixed political alignment of the factions in Indian Ocean Region shows some strange bedfellows that may not be a current, or maybe even accurate, reflection of reality. I especially question the inclusion of Qatar in the “terrorist” Asymmetric States but maybe that is just a quibble over definitions. Also, The String of Pearls rule makes huge assumptions as to the success of Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative in the region—assumptions that are yet to play out and might better be used as an “option” or “variant” rule to more fully explore its impact on the political and military actions of the powers.
Example of Play
I realize that making an Example of Play is difficult. I know it takes time and careful planning as a good EoP will showcase game mechanisms in a way that teaches and reinforces. I am happy to see an extensive Example of Play in IOR—I am disappointed that it is taken from the previous game, South China Sea. Yes, the EoP explains core game mechanics, but by not basing it on the game in front of the reader a major learning opportunity is lost. Reading an EoP can only deliver so much understanding; if I am able to set up the EoP and push the counters around like in the example the combination of reading, seeing, and even feeling (the “tactile”) reinforces and accelerates learning.
Those Bi-Polar Days Are Over
Scoring in Indian Ocean Region is along a Victory Point Track that has the Indo-Am faction at one end and China at the other. In between sit the three other factions. I’m not sure what the score really tells me. The two “extreme” winners, China and the Indo-Am, are obvious, but why is a score of 14 points (just shy of China) an Asymmetric States (aka “Terrorist”) win? I feel that the score track needs a third dimension to capture the nuance of the regional powers and how they influence, but don’t necessarily “win” against the Global Powers. Then again, if your viewpoint is that the China-USA “competition” is a new Cold War, then this scoring viewpoint fits.
Full Steam Ahead
In the end, I find that Indian Ocean Region does what I expected it to do—deliver a fun, medium-low complexity gaming experience of modern naval warfare. The political alignment using the rules as written may be a bit wonky but there is nothing that says one cannot shift Regional Powers amongst the factions. It is especially interesting to split the Indians away from the Indo-Am faction and see how they might act if more “independent.” Indeed, it is the set up (or playing out) of the political game that creates the best opportunity for experimentation. Once battle is joined, the operational/tactical rules flow nicely and again deliver just enough flavor to make it interesting while not overwhelming one with too many details.
Next Generation SCSX
I don’t know what the future of the South China Sea series of wargames is but Indian Ocean Region shows how the design can be exported to other areas. I hope that John Gorkowski and Compass Games can do a Mediterranean or Black Sea or Baltic edition in the future. Both require the entry of a new Global Power—Russia. I can imagine a very interesting Baltic design with the USA and Russia as Global Powers and Old NATO and New NATO/Aspiring factions and even Neutrals. Such a game alsos need more land-based units that reach out into the littoral areas.
* CINC-HOUSE = “Commander in Chief – House.” If you don’t understand who occupies this position you are sorely out of touch with reality.
I am very interested in getting Wing Leader: Legends to the table as it includes the “Decision Over Kursk” campaign system. Some readers may recall several “My Kursk Kampaign” postings from earlier this spring where I dove in-depth into that battle. At the time I wanted to explore the air war more:
As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”
Although you can’t see it in the photo of The Dark Summer, I am, frankly, a bit surprised the game shipped in a 1.5″ deep box. One can interpret this as a sign that the game is smaller, and with a single 22″x34″ map and two countersheets that appears true. I guess I thought a Normandy campaign game just “has to be” big but this one-mapper is already challenging my preconceptions.
Game of the Week
Now that I’m back to a pretty regular work schedule (office is basically 100% reconstituted) I need to work on getting back to a “regular” gaming schedule. Thus, I will be starting a “Game of the Week” approach to play. Basically, the Game of the Week approach gives me seven days to unbox, learn, play, and consider a game. I have a rough idea of how a week might progress:
Sunday – Unbox new game, start rules learning/review
Monday – Rules learning/review, set up first play
Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – Play
Friday – (Skip Day)
Saturday – Considerations/Clean up (Family Game Night?)
I have a backlog of games on the “To Play” shelf that I need to get to over the next few weeks of summer before getting to Wing Leader: Legends and The Dark Summer: I’m trying to play games in the order of their arrival:
While playing games I also am also committed to reading more. When possible, I like to mix a book with the Game of the Week but that’s not always possible as I have other books on the “To Read” pile. I finished up Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021) and it will be the subject of this coming week’s “Rocky Reads for Wargame” column. I am pretty sure that 2034: A Novel of the Next War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis will likely be read in conjunction with Indian Ocean Region when it is up for Game of the Week.
One of my favorite online sources for plastic models closed due to bankruptcy late in 2020. Thanks to a new owner, www. squadron.com is back. The reopening has not been the smoothest, but they are trying to work out the kinks. Given how few good plastic model retailers there are online I hope they make it!
The RockyMountainNavy family tried a new-to-us restaurant this week. The Capital Burger bills itself as purveyors of “luxe” burgers. They use a proprietary blend of beef to make their burgers; I never imagined it could make a difference—but it does. Their Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts are my new favorite and a great replacement for french fries. Oh yeah, it all pairs well with a good ale….
2 Minutes to Midnight: Fight the Cold War. USA vs Soviet Union – 1949-1991. A Strategic Historical Game (Preview Copy) (Stuart Tonge, Plague Island Games, 2021) – Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy. Plan is to share thought s around the kickoff of the Kickstarter campaign in mid-late June! Stay tuned!
Am reading Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson by Steven E. Maffeo (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) and sitting down with the wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009). I am working to make this a “#Wargame to History” (or is it “History to #Wargame?”) or “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” entry.
Like the title says, didn’t get much gaming in this week as I return to basically full-time in the office. After a year of semi-telework it’s a bit of a shock to the system but, honestly, I love to be back at the grind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific, Compass Games, 2017
BLUF – South China Sea may be the best representation of modern missile combat at sea but suffers from a questionable political game and needs to be updated to keep pace with rapidly changing political, technological, and military developments.
The scenarios in South China Sea do not particularly focus on a reason for the conflict or what role naval forces really have, but instead seemingly make the assumption that that conflict between the USA and PRC is coming. Play in South China Sea consists of a series of 1-6 Political Turns (3-7 weeks of time) during which Armed Conflict may break out. If Armed Conflict occurs, the game transitions to Military Turns (defined as ‘several hours’ each).
It is possible that the Political Turns end without triggering Armed Conflict (see 4.47). The most important outcome of the Political Turns is the alignment (via Military Cooperation) of Regional Powers (The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam).
[The alignment system immediately shows the fragility of designing a modern game. In almost every scenario, the rules have Malaysia aligning with the PRC, Vietnam aligning with the US, and the Philippines rolling a die to cast their fate. The usual spread on the die is 1-3 aligns with US, 4-5 stays neutral, and on a 6 aligns with the PRC. I have to wonder what the spread should be given current issues with the Duterte administration….]
Victory in South China Sea is a combination of the outcome of the Political Turns and the battles fought in the Military Turns. VP moves during Political Turns, and once battles start the standard Victory Points for Military Events focuses on destruction of enemy units or, in the case of the US, control of the Spratly Islands:
-1 For each ‘at-start’ PRC Spratly Islet hex controlled by US forces
-1 If the PRC fires the first strike
-1 For each PRC air, non-CV naval, or ground unit destroyed
-3 For each PRC CV destroyed
+5 For each US CVN destroyed
+1 If the US fires the first strike
+1 For each US air, non-CVN naval, or ground unit destroyed
[The final VP score is translated to a Regional Power Victory or Global Power Victory. Again, the design shows some fragility given the ever-changing geopolitical situation in the South China Sea and ASEAN.]
Few scenarios have modified VP but in general the standard numbers are used. For a game that starts with a very strategic, political view of the conflict the final victory determination (and the bulk of the scoring?) is very much focused on destruction of the enemy. There is little strategic insight to be gained from a play of South China Sea but if you are more operational or tactically-focused the interplay of the various units may yield more insights.
“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 South China Sea is abstract in the Political Turns (some units may be placed on the map but generally the map is unused) and very simple in the Military Turns. There are few considerations. For instance, in the Air Movement Phase, aircraft can move up to double their Combat Radius but units that do so are marked Spent and cannot make another strike in the turn. As always there is an exception; in this case rule 5.551 Mid-Air Refueling which can be used once per game by each side. In the Sea Movement Phase it is very straight-forward with the only exception being submarines which can spend extra movement at the risk of Cavitation or chose to not move at all and increase their Stealth score (see Scouting/Anti-Scouting below).
Like most of sea movement, there is a strong interaction with the Scouting/Anti-Scouting elements of the design. The most important element of movement is actually 6.25 Intervention. Basically, ships that enter the Illumination Radius of a unit can be stopped. The Design Note on p. 15 under 6.25 is the best explanation:
The intervention mechanism does not represent actually stopping the other guy’s ships, rather it accounts for the stationary (non-phasing) side’s ability to respond to enemy movement. Without it, the simple I-go-You-go turn sequence would enable the currently moving player to literally ride circles around the enemy. With it, each side suffers a very realistic uncertainty about how far they can push before provoking a response. This rule allows for full moves (to speed play) when opposing units are far apart, but it curtails movement as units close range and more interaction becomes necessary.
“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.
Every unit is South China Sea is rated for combat in four warfare areas. Where applicable, each area is rated in terms of a Weapon System Score and if necessary a Weapon System Range (in hexes). All Naval, Aircraft, and Ground units are rated for:
G – Gun Strikes (Note – see Ground unit below)
U – Anti-Submarine
A/S – Anti-Surface
A/G – Anti-Ground
Naval units also can have a T- Torpedo rating. Aircraft units can add an Air-to-Air rating. Ground units have Combined Arms (CA) in place of the G-factor of Naval and Aircraft units.
Strikes in SCS are executed in a strict Air/Sea Engagement Sequence. The order of Strikes is predetermined with attacks executed in descending order of the attackers Stealth factor or by order of the particular Weapon System Factor:
Anti-Air Strikes (Air-to-Air vs Aircraft) / Stealth Order
Torpedo Strikes by Submarines (Submarine T vs ships or subs) / Stealth Order
Anti-Ship Strikes (AS vs ships) / Stealth Order
Anti-Submarine Strikes (U vs subs) / In U order
Gun Strikes (G vs ships, Air or Naval Bases) / In G order
Torpedo Strikes by Surface Units (Ship T vs ships or subs) / In T order
Anti-Ground Strikes (AG vs Ground Units, Air Bases, or Fort) / In AG order
Combined Arms Strikes (CA vs Ground Units or Fort) / By CA order within Artillery then Defender then Attacker.
The obvious advantage goes units with higher Stealth or Weapon System Score get to strike first, with the results of that strike immediately implemented, regardless of being the attacker or defender. This is very different from many naval wargames where the attacker often gets to strike first or where combat results are applied simultaneously.
“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
Counterforce in South China Sea takes three forms, Stealth, Steps and the Defense Score.
Stealth in effect represent the ‘Information Warfare’ elements of cyber and EW as many Strikes are resolved in Stealth order conferring an advantage to units with a greater score. Stealth not only effects the chances of successfully evading a Strike, but also where in the Strike order the unit acts – a better Stealth score is highly advantageous.
Steps represent both hits and a breakdown of units. A player can use Consolidation or Breakdown on two-step (only) units to combine, or break up, those units.
The Defense Score comes in two flavors; Missile Defense and ‘intrinsic.’ Some units have an Area Missile Defense (AMD) value that can protect other friendly units:
AMD scores represent area defense systems built around phased array radar such as those carried by US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers and the People’s Liberation Army Navy Lu Yang III destroyers. AMD provides very accurate, supersonic interceptor missiles (and maybe one day lasers or rail gun projectiles) to shoot down incoming missiles tens of miles away. The very simplified anti-aircraft fire of AMD accounts for its ability to down enemy planes without having to get lost in details about which stand-off weapon was fired from where by each aircraft. Design Note, p. 13
[Again, this relatively recent design is already showing its age. What about attacks using hypersonic weapons? Should the MD or AMD score be reduced, and if so, by how much?]
“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
In South China Sea, Scouting is accounted for in rule 5.4 Situational Awareness: Illumination, Evasion, and Hiding, rule 6.25 Intervention, rule 6.41 Focus, and rule 6.42 Evasion. SCS starts with a major assumption about detection as found in the Design Note for rule 5.4:
The modern air-sea-land battle space is awash in electromagnetic radiation that has enhanced detection capabilities and made stealth paramount to survival. Drones with modern detection technology ensure that units will have situational awareness well beyond the limits of old fashioned ship based radar even after satellites are knocked out. These rules account for this new dynamic.
[Ah…but don’t those drones also rely on satellites for control and communications? What if those satellites are gone?]
Rule 5.41 directly addresses the Gods-Eye issue:
Although players can see all their pieces on the map, those pieces have varying degrees of awareness of each other. Illumination is the key to awareness. Evasion describes how pieces escape detection. Hiding is avoiding illumination altogether.
Rule 5.44 allows for ‘hidden’ units. Basically, a hidden unit is not on the map and, “…do not assert control, do not illuminate, cannot intervene, cannot strike, cannot provide their AMD to friendly units, etc. Nor can they be targeted for strikes.”
As noted under Maneuver above, the non-phasing player can use rule 6.25 Intervention to ‘stop’ the phasing player’s movement. This in turn allows a player to Focus (rule 6.41) on a hex in order to strike it. Using a F2T2EA (Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess) construct, the default map condition is ‘Find-Fix’ and Focus is ‘Track-Target.’ If the targeted units fail to evade (rule 6.42 Evasion) they are attacked.
“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
In South China Sea a unit can avoid Intervention and Focus by evading. Both uses of evasion utilize the same mechanic; roll 2d6 adding the evading units Stealth score and an amount equal to one-half the range to the nearest enemy unit. If the roll is greater than 11 the unit has successfully evaded. Note that units that evade remain in the targeted hex but do not participate in Strikes. They also cannot illuminate targets, cannot be targeted by Strikes, cannot be hit, and cannot use their AMD score to defend other friendly units.
“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.
For the most part, C2 in South China Sea is abstracted out of the game. All units are always commanded; there is no Information Warfare ‘strike’ in the game. 5.34 Stacking, 5.35 Air Basing, and 5.36 Naval Ports impose some restrictions on how combat units are organized.
That said, commanders will have to decide when a unit needs to evade (given the restrictions that come with that condition) and when a unit Strikes. Once a unit Strikes it is Spent and cannot participate in a later Strike in the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence (with AMD-capable defenders being a notable exception).
The Stealth score of a unit is used when sequencing strikes. Most Strikes are executed in the descending order of the Stealth score. The higher the Stealth score the earlier in the Strike Sequence one can operate.
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
Like C2, C2CM in South China Sea is heavily abstracted. The closest thing to a C2CM factor is the Stealth score which is used to avoid Intervention and Focus.
I really like how Stealth and Missile Defense are represented in South China Sea. I feel like this game (as presaged in Breaking the Chains) is the first ‘modern’ naval warfare game to get missile combat ‘right.’ That said, the game is not without its problems.
I also question the ‘rosy’ view of detection used in the game. With the recent creation of SPAAAACCCE FORRRRRCCE (!!!) the assumption that the space domain is automatically available is, well, a questionable assumption at best.
As with any modern game, it is hard to keep up with the times. One glaring omission I see in South China Sea is Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM). Even Breaking the Chains had a rule on the Chinese ASBM so I was very surprised to NOT see it here.
Although the Chinese seem to be calling Nanchang a ‘destroyer,’ it almost anywhere else it would be a cruiser. Here is a datasheet on the ship that accompanied the commissioning ceremony:
In South China Sea, designer John Gorkowski identifies this class of ships as ‘CG TYPE 55.’ Here is the counter for the ship in the game:
The Quick Reference Card in South China Sea tells us how to decode the counter. It is also useful as we can compare the CG TYPE 55 to the US Navy ‘CG TICONDEROGA.’ Fair warning here – I did not assist in the development of South China Sea so I actually do not have any ‘official’ insight into how the various factors were decided upon. What follows is my interpretation of the factors in South China Sea and how they relate to the announced capabilities of the Type 055 destroyer.
Let’s first start by looking across the bottom of the CG TYPE 55 counter. The first factor is Gun – rated a 2. The Type 055 has a single 130mm gun forward. The Ticonderoga has 2x Mk45 5″/45 caliber lightweight guns. Although the guns are somewhat similar there are no half-factors in SCS so 2 seems fair.
U (Underwater) – 2: Very similar to the US TICO-class, the Type 055 is credited with a bow-mounted High/Medium-frequency sonar and a towed Variable Depth Sonar (VDS) as well as two helicopters. While Ticonderoga’s have torpedo tubes, the Type 055 carries the ‘CJ-5″ ASW rocket/missile. The U rating of 2 seems fair.
A/S (Anti-Surface) – 4 Range 6. The Type 055 is credited with carrying the YJ-18 anti-ship missile. According to US government sources, the YJ-18 has a range of 290nm, or 6.4 hexes in South China Sea. Although the missile is subsonic, the warhead of between 140-300kg mass is delivered by a supersonic sprint vehicle. A lethality rating of4seems fair although I worry that it may be underrated as compared to the Harpoon (4 Range 5) used by the US Navy. Recommendation: CHANGE the A/S rating to 5 Range 6 (Optional).
A/G (Anti-Ground) – 4 Range 10. The Type 055 is supposed to carry the CJ-10 cruise missile. Most sources give this missile a range of 1,500+ kilometers (809nm). In South China Sea-terms this would be a range of 17.7 hexes – well in excess of the 10 shown on the ship counter. The US Navy TLAM missile flies between 700-900nm – 15.5 to 20 hexes in SCS – but is only credited with a range of 12 (~2/3rds of max range?). Using that very rough rule, the CJ-10 could be range 12. As for lethality; the CJ-10 appears comparable to the Tomahawk so a lethality rating of 4 again appears reasonable. Recommendation: CHANGE ‘CG Type 55’ A/G rating to 4 Range 12.
Let us now turn to the combat factors on the upper right, Missile Defense and Torpedo. In South China Sea the CG TYPE 55 is given a Torpedo rating of 2. Yet, on the factsheet, no torpedo tubes appear. An oversight in the datasheet? Look for other sources….
The CG TYPE 55 is rated a 9 for Missile Defense. This is in part because of the 4-panel S-Band AESA multifunction radar with X-Band rotating AESA radars supporting the HHQ-9 anti-air missile. Note the color of the Missile Defense rating – black. In South China Sea, ships with a Missile Defense rating in RED, like US Navy Aegis-equipped ships, are capable of Area Missile Defense:
5.81 Units with MD scores printed in red have Area Missile Defense (AMD). AMD functions like MD (missile defense) but can also protect other friendly units while also threatening enemy air units in the same and adjacent hexes. Air units in air to air combat are the one exception; they are not protected by an AMD score.
5.82 Therefore, with the exception of air units in air to air combat, a targeted friendly unit can always cite the red AMD score of a friendly AMD-capable unit that is in the same or an adjacent hex and engaged in the current engagement. Any number of units can call on the same AMD any number of times.
These newer ships use modern combat management systems and air surveillance sensors, such as the Sea Eagle and Dragon Eye phased-array radars. These new units allow the PLAN surface force to operate outside shore-based air defense systems because one or two ships are equipped to provide air defense for the entire task group. (p. 70)
This makes a good case that the MD rating of the CG TYPE 55 should be a red AMD factor. As far as the lethality number? A factor of 9 seems a good place to start. Recommendation: CHANGE the MD factor to RED.
The numbers to the upper left of the counter are Move and Stealth. The Move factor is in line with what is expected of ships like this so we will leave that be. In South China Sea, Stealth is used to evade contact. When a unit enters the Illumination Range of a unit (5 hexes for a surface naval unit) the unit must stop and make an evasion roll (2d6 + Stealth). If the roll is greater than 11 the unit has evaded detection and can continue movement. In the case of the CG TYPE 55 a Stealth rating of 3 is very good, even better than the Stealth rating of 2 for US Arleigh Burke-class DDGs. Indeed, the much smaller Freedom-class has a Stealth factor of 3. Looking at the pictures of the Nanchang, there is some radar shaping but there are also some good radar-bouncing areas. To my (untrained) eye it looks more like an Arleigh Burke. Recommendation: CHANGE the Stealth rating of the CG TYPE 55 to 2.
There is one last ‘factor’ I want point out; the number of Steps for the CG TYPE 55. See those three boxes between the Move/Stealth and Missile Defense/Torpedo? The CG TYPE 55 is a three Step unit, more so than the CG TICONDEROGA with two-Steps. A multi-step unit is flipped on the first hit and destroyed when the number of hits equals the number of Steps. At full load a Ticonderoga weighs in at 9,600 tons, a bit smaller than the 13,000 full load tons of the Type 055 destroyer. Is that extra 30% worth an entire extra Step? Another consideration is the state of damage control training in the PLAN. When I see a Step in SCS I don’t just see how many ‘hit points’ the ship has but also how well the crew is trained to save the ship. The US Navy is amongst the best in the world and, to be frank, there are questions as to the real technical competence of the average PLAN sailor. My gut tells me that giving the CG TYPE 55 three Steps is too generous. Recommendation: CHANGE the number of Steps on the CG TYPE 55 to 2.
I want to be very clear that in making this ‘reassessment’ of the CG TYPE 55 in South China Sea I am categorically NOT saying the original version is flawed. Mr. Gorkowski, in taking on a modern subject like South China Sea, is at the mercy of publicly available information. Even in the few short years since South China Sea was first published, the information available has changed significantly. You can play a scenario with the out-of-the-box CG TYPE 55 or, if you want, look at my attempt to update. Whatever way you chose to play just make sure you are having fun while you do it!