#WargameWednesday – An intelligence #wargame ahead of its time? My impressions of Bodyguard-Overlord by John Prados from Spearhead Games, 1994 (inspired by @Hethwill_Khan and @6xW_a)

In the course of a recent Twitter exchange with Hethwill Wargames, I mentioned John Prados’ Bodyguard-Overlord (Spearhead Games, 1994) as a good wargame of intelligence activities, even it I feel it is maligned. Fellow Twitter wargamer Nicola asked me to expand on my thought, which I am always happy to do for a wargame…even if it isn’t. Confused? Read on…

Intelligence, Deception, and Preparations

The introduction of Bodyguard-Overlord is quite clear at what it is trying to do:

Bodyguard-Overlord is a simulation of intelligence, deception, and preparations preceding the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and their effect on the subsequent course of military operations. This necessary prelude to the Northwest Europe campaign of 1944-1945 made a great difference in the outcome of that massive enterprise.

The emphasis in this simulation is upon the often-ignored “fog of war,” the tendency for information to get mixed-up in the heat of the campaign, while other aspects of the game remain as simple as possible. As a result, this game is much less complex than many board wargames, and quite possible suitable for play by new players.

Rule Book 1.0 Introduction, p.2

Do you see “combat” listed as a design goal of Bodyguard-Overlord? No, you don’t because, while combat is part of the design, it is not the goal of this “wargame.” More than anything else, I feel this distinction is the root cause of why some Grognards dislike Bodyguard-Overlord—it’s not enough “wargame” for them. So if Bodyguard-Overlord is not a “combat wargame,” what it it?

Bodyguard-Overlord box back. Are you sure this is a wargame because I don’t see hexes….

The Designer’s Notes by John Prados in Bodyguard-Overlord provide more insight into what the designer’s goal for this game was. I’m going to be quoting Mr. Prados at length here because his word describe his own game the best:

From the history of the 1944-1945 Campaign in Northwest Europe and the accounts of the Normandy invasion Operation Overlord, it was clear to me that Germany’s best chance of defeating the invasion lay in anticipating where and when it might come. Conversely, it was apparent that a key Allied activity had to be “misleading” the Germans (or as we would say now “perception management”) regarding invasion preparations and objectives. It was also clear the design would have to include spies, code-breaking, aerial reconnaissance, and the European Resistance movements. These elements were present in my thoughts from the very first discussions. The intent was to portray the intelligence activity surrounding the invasion and deployment preparations on both sides, either to support the invasion or to counter it.

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

In addition to modeling intelligence activities, Mr. Prados made a conscious decision in Bodyguard-Overlord to NOT model complex combat mechanisms:

A parallel intention was to make the game simple enough to be playable by a novice gamer, and playable to completion in one sitting. This meant making an effort not to encumber the game (or the gamer) with excessively-detailed subsystems. In particular, given our focus on intelligence play, it meant resisting the temptation to insert complex combat mechanics.

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Spymaster Generals

I’ve Got a Secret…

I feel the truth is that Bodyguard-Overlord is a very non-traditional wargame that was ahead of its time. There is a vital pregame segment called the Strategic Planning and Deployment Phase that is very non-traditional it its approach. In this phase, units are set up, mostly in holding areas for the Allies but on the mapboard for the Germans (a reflection of advantages in Allied reconnaissance). While that first part sounds much like any wargame set up, what followers certainly is not. After set up, the Allied Player plans their invasion by secretly noting four items:

  • Invasion Date
  • Invasion Site
  • Partisan Trigger Signal
  • Invasion Warning Signal

As pointed out in the rule book, “These pre-game choices provide a major focus for intelligence operations in the game” (p. 4)

The next step in the Invasion Planning Schedule of Bodyguard-Overlord is the creation of a chit pool of 40 chits followed by Allied placement of units in the North Africa and Great Britain Holding Boxes. This includes many dummy units. Partisans are also placed on the continent.

“A second important aspect of the design is the mechanism, however tenuous, by which the German player may discover the actual invasion target. In this regard, the game benefits from the realities of conducting an enterprise as ambitious as the Normandy invasion, an endeavor so enormous that its planning required a target area and date selected long in advance. Thus, the Allied player must choose his invasion site and time and note them before play begins. Without forcing the player to plan the actual execution of the invasion project, this mechanism creates a secret which can then be the focus of intelligence activities. The tension between preserving the secret of the invasion while marshaling the forces to conduct it recreates the dilemma faced by the Allies in 1944, while the desperate desire to unlock that secret confronts the German player.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard-Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Wargame Plus

Play of Bodyguard-Overlord now proceeds to monthly game turns. Starting with the Allies, each player executes a Deployment Segment, Movement Segment, Combat Segment, Intelligence & Sabotage Segment, and a Broadcast Segment. While the first three are likely very familiar to wargamers, the latter two are what makes Bodyguard-Overlord unique.

Bodyguard-Overlord mapboard…NO HEXES!

In the Intelligence and Sabotage Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord turn, players draw an Intelligence Card and carry out the action. Players then draw one or several intelligence chits from the Eyes Only cup. This draw is key for the rules of populating the Eyes Only cup direct placing matching chits for the Invasion Date and Invasion Site; if the German player draws these two matching chits they “know” the secret information. Conversely, if the Allied player draws this information, they effectively “deny” it to the Germans. In this segment players also Scout (examine hidden units) and Sabotage.

Intelligence Cards in Bodyguard-Overlord…where’s the stats for Tiger tanks?

The Broadcast Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord game turn simulates diplomatic, propaganda, and communications. Every turn the Allies must broadcast one of 15 phrases with one being the Partisan Trigger Signal and the second the Invasion Warning Signal. If the German player draws one of the phrases and it is broadcast, the German player may initiate unlimited attacks against Partisan units immediately.

Broadcast phrases in Bodyguard-Overlord…no “You sank my battleship!”

Victory in Europe

Once the Allied player announces the First Invasion in Bodyguard-Overlord, the Allied player has two turns to reach their victory condition. Although this might seem I short think it fits well with the game design goals—if the Allies have succeeded in deceiving the Germans then the invasion should come in areas the Germans are not as ready to defend thus making Allied victory easier. Conversely, if the Germans have pierced Bodyguard, then they are more likely to be in the right place at the right time to deny the Allied victory. The Basic Victory Conditions involve occupation of a certain number of areas depending on the invasion site. Taken as a whole this means a game of Bodyguard-Overlord doesn’t drag on and move its focus from intelligence to combat.

Intelligence Coup

All this is not to say Bodyguard-Overlord is a perfect game. One common criticism is that several of the Intelligence Cards are too powerful. These complaints likely center on the Intelligence Coup action.

Coups in Bodyguard-Overlord can ruin your (invasion) day…

As you can see, an Intelligence Coup in Bodyguard-Overlord often reveals an absolutely vital element of Allied plans. While some might see this as overpowered and creating too swingy a game, I feel they are narratively quite appropriate. If the German player gets that lucky break, Bodyguard has broken down and the Allied player must now try to make the best of things. This doesn’t necessarily mean the invasion will not happen (an auto win for the German player) but it may not meet its objectives as quickly as the victory conditions (politicians? public?) demand. I don’t see this as a mark of a poor design; rather, I see it as a recognition of the hard realities of Bodyguard.

Wargame…or Strategy Game?

While Bodyguard-Overlord has its roots in a “traditional” wargame, the game design also breaks from many “classic” wargame standards. From map areas (not hexes) to cards to a chit pool, not to mention the entire non-combat intelligence play segment, when put together makes this game mechanically very distant from wargames like Enemy at the Gates (Dean Essig, The Gamers) which won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best World War II Board Game in 1994. In this respect, Bodyguard-Overlord may have been ahead of its time. In 1994, the use of non-classic wargame mechanics was still relatively new. For example, Mark Herman’s We the People (Avalon Hill, 1993), the first Card Driven Game (CDG), was just a year old.

A more recent strategy boardgame that does much the same as Bodyguard-Overlord is The Fog of War by Geoff Engelstein and published by Stronghold Games in 2016. Fog of War is described as, “World War II without units but with planning and intelligence.” In other words, it gets at the same core design goals as John Prados did nearly 30 years ago but in a very non-traditional wargame manner.

I wonder if Bodyguard-Overlord was printed today if the reception to the game would be different than it was 30 years ago. I feel that gamers, and especially wargamers, are more receptive today to “non-traditional” wargames than they were 30 years ago. Here I include myself; in 2017 when I rated Bodyguard-Overlord on BGG my rating of 6 came with the comment, “Focus on espionage, intelligence and deception is both its strength and weakness. Much better as an add-on like module to other games.” In 2017 I had very recently re-engaged with the wargame hobby and was bringing myself up to date from my limited (immature?) 1979-1999 baseline of knowledge. In light my current understanding of this game, I think I was misguided as I saw Bodyguard-Overlord back then as an expansion module, not an entire game. As a module it may be a 6—but as a game? I should rerate the game at least a 7, placing it just above, not below, my 6.56 game rating average.

“Moreover, this game creates for the first time, a coherent set of mechanics to incorporate campaign-level intelligence play into a traditional wargame environment.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Bodyguard-Overlord is an “intelligence wargame” that was ahead of its time. While maybe not as refined as more “modern” strategy wargames, it still has much to say about campaign-level intelligence activities. One just has to embrace the message and not try to pigeonhole the design into something it isn’t.


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#WargameWednesday – Decision Games Air War Series

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Courtesy BGG

I recently was able to pick up three games in the Air War Series designed by Joseph Miranda and published by Decision Games. These are (in order of publication) Eagle Day: The Battle of Britain (2012), Cactus Air Force: Air War Over the Solomons (2012), and MiG Alley: Air War Over Korea 1951 (2015). The back cover of MiG Alley describes all three games in general:

The game uses the Air Wars series rules. Aircraft are rated according to type. Fuel consumption is factored into the plane types, so a player must manage the available forces to ensure enough combat power is ready when needed. Each player has a unique set of campaign cards generating movement, combat bonuses, historical events, and reinforcements. Playing the right card at the right time is crucial to winning.

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MiG Alley – Courtesy BGG

Each game is packaged in DGs Mini Game Series format. These introductory games come with an 11″x17″ map, 40 (small) die-cut counters, 18 (small) campaign cards, four-page series rules, and two-page scenario rules. Each game is of Very Low complexity and can be played in 1-2 hours.

The timescale is most realistic in Eagle Day (Days-Hours) but more abstracted in Cactus Air Force (Months-Hours(?)) and MiG Alley (Partial Months- Hours). Working past the non-sensical timescale, each turn consists of a Planning Phase (Days/Months/Part Months)  and Operations Phase (expressed in Hours). Each Planning Phase consists of Campaign Card draw (and occasionally play), Replacements, and Reinforcements. In the Operations Phase, players take turns using Campaign Cards, moving, fighting, and bombing.

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Courtesy BGG

Each game is a simple representation of an air campaign, a level of warfare notoriously difficult to game/simulate. In my collection, Eagle Day occupies a similar game space to John Butterfield’s solitaire RAF and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s The Burning Blue. Eagle Day, and the others, easily falls at the lowest end of the complexity spectrum – like the Mini Games series intends to do.

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Courtesy BGG

Of the three games, I think the abstractions in the Air War series make Eagle Day the weakest game. There is no game mechanic for scrambling aircraft meaning as the Intruder Player the German often can catch British fighters on the ground. In Cactus Air Force, the small unit count (limited by the 40-counter game limit) leads to a very balanced combat situation, and I don’t find the “desperate struggle” like that related in Lundstrom’s The First Team and the Guadalcanal  Campaign or Prados’ Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun. On the other hand, MiG Alley seems to evoke the right feeling of the air campaign with few North Korean and Chinese jets beating up on hapless lumbering B-29s while the new American jets – never in enough numbers – try to take over the bombing campaign.

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Cactus Air Force – Courtesy BGG

Each game is very affordable ($12.99 retail). This is both positive (affordable) and negative (limited components). Decision Games is also what I term these days a “classic” wargame publisher. The Mini Game Series are classic hex-n-counter wargames. The only real innovative feature beyond a “classic” wargame is the use of Campaign Cards to create scenario variability and fog-of-war.

 

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Courtesy wargamecenter

(Which makes me think just how great a candidate these games are for the simple “block” treatment. The game is already two-player, and most counters are double-sided with a generic “Based” on one side (representing the planes on the ground) and the actual aircraft on the other. If the board was enlarged and blocks used it would avoid the inevitable ‘gotta flip the counters to see what I really have there’ syndrome by allowing the counters to be stood on edge with the “Based” side facing the opponent while still allowing the owner to see the aircraft. When flying, the block is placed aircraft face-up. Of course, this would raise the price-point of the game but….)

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Courtesy BGG

As much as I sound negative, I actually am very happy I bought these games. The games will serve as good “filler” or introductory (teaching) games and are small enough to travel easily. If one desires simple, small, easy to learn and short to play classic wargames with just a few “innovations,” the Air War series of Mini Games from Decision Games are good candidates to put on your wish list.

 

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: BUY and PLAY for travel games but manage expectations.