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

Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.

No (Air) Show?

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.

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

Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:

  • The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
  • The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
  • VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.

Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:

While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.

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

So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?

“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”

Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.

First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.

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

If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.

Dogfights

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

Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based on Harpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.

Raids

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

For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.

Squadrons & Tracks

The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.

Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.

[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]

Missions, Point Salads, & Assets

More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”

An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”

Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.

Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.

Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…

(Another) Russian Way of War?

In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017). Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:

From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.

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

It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?

Mirror Image – Not?

Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.

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

Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.

That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:

Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis]. Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.

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

It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:

Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.

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

Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

Player Choice – Pass!

In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:

The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].

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

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

Prior planning?

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


Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

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#Wargame Wednesday – Drive on Kiev campaign from Wing Leader: Blitz 1939-1942 (Wing Leader Expansion Nr. 1 by @LeeBWood fm @gmtgames, 2018)

To start off a new year of wargaming I pulled out my favorite air combat wargame series, Wing Leader by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and published by GMT Games. I decided to do more than a one-off scenario and went back to the first campaign published, Drive on Kiev, in Wing Leader: Blitz, 1939-1942 – Wing Leader Expansion Nr. 1 (GMT Games, 2018). Drive on Kiev simulates the first three weeks of Operation Barbarossa and the operations of Fliegerkorps V. Each Campaign Game Turn represents three or four days. Each Campaign will result in at least six Raids with the Germans attacking and the possibility of up to four Soviet Raids if they choose to exercise the option.

As is well documented, the early days of Operation Barbarossa were very, very bad for the Red Air Force:

By the afternoon [22nd June] fresh masses of aircraft, summoned with desperate urgency from the flying fields of central Russia, began to appear over the battlefield, though “It was infanticide, they were floundering in tactically impossible formations.” By the time Stalin’s restrictions against sorties over German territory had been lifted, the Russian bomber force (which had largely escaped the first Luftwaffe strike, owning to its bases being farther from the frontier) took off obediently in accordance with an already outdated operational plan. Over 500 were shot down. On 23rd June, Lieutenant General Kopets, commander of the bomber group, committed suicide, and within a week General Rychagov, the commander of aviation on the northwestern front, was under sentence of death for “treasonable activity” (that is to say, having been defeated). In the first two days the Russians lost over 2,000 aircraft—a casualty rate without precedent. The (numerically) strongest air force in the world had been virtually eliminated in 48 hours.

Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 (New York: Quill, 1965), pp. 49-50

How can we play the Drive on Kiev campaign if one side isn’t even present? Further historical study tells us that the Red Air Force, though severely mauled, was not totally beaten. The Red Air Force did resist, and the Drive on Kiev campaign shows us an example of that resistance. That said, designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is actually up-front in telling players that while Drive on Kiev is framed in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa, his real goal is to teach about the challenges of sortie generation in an extended campaign:

Air forces tend to rot away during operations. When demand for air support is high, routine maintenance is deferred, eventually taking aircraft out of service. Accidents rise and become the largest source of losses, while battle casualties drain strength. Eventually, an air force can do no more than maintain a low level of activity and needs to be withdrawn and rebuilt. This campaign depicts how Fliegerkorps V, despite ideal operating conditions, exhausted itself during the invasion.

“Sortie Generation,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3

Mr. Brimmicombe-Wood doubles down on his depiction by bending history, especially as it pertains to Soviet planning:

In the game the Soviets get the ability to predict German activity and react accordingly. This is not historical. This is a handicap feature designed to allow the Soviet player to optimise his response to the Germans. The effect we wish to create is that of an increasingly exhausted German force facing a seemingly endless supply of Soviet flyers.

“Soviet Planning,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3

Does knowing that the Drive on Kiev campaign in Wing Leader: Blitz is not strictly historical make it less interesting to play? I have to say no. Understanding that the German side is playing a game of attrition against a determined Soviet opposition actually makes the game very interesting and drives home the importance of campaign decisions regarding choosing targets and allocating for attack and defense. One could argue that the game is more interesting under these “artificial” conditions than in would be otherwise. While the operational situation may have some artificiality, at the tactical level the game shines with set up and scenario campaign special rules:

  • Only the Germans have a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) net (advantage Germans on defense)
  • Only the Germans have radios (advantage Germans)
  • German fighters use loose doctrine; Soviet fighters use Rigid (advantage Germans)
  • German fighters have tactical flexibility (advantage Germans)
  • To reflect Soviet desperation they have a Determination modifier in Cohesion Rolls (advantage Soviets)
  • Soviets can use ramming attacks—Taran (advantage Soviets?)
  • German fighters can use “Hunting from Cloud” (advantage Germans).

While tactically it may appear that the Germans have many advantages, the scenario set up also creates many Soviet challenges that, if a player is able to face and overcome, can create a very enjoyable experience. Facing those challenges and figuring out how to win (or at least how to lose the least) is the real charm of Wing Leader. Many aerial combat games tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” of a dogfight, but Wing Leader approaches each battle at something more akin to a grand tactical perspective. Campaign Games like Drive on Kiev take that viewpoint up a level into operational planning. Taken together, it is yet another example of the versatility of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s design and another reason Wing Leader is one of my favorite wargames.

Courtesy GMT Games

Feature image: Soviet AF Polikarpov I 16 red 39 lies abandoned after a forced landing on a Russian field.

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#SundaySummary – Holiday organizing the @Mountain_Navy #wargame and #boardgame collection and resetting Foundation (@LeeBWood @gmtgames @Hobiecat18 @MultiManPub @BlueOrangeGames #Foundation #TravellerRPG)

Not much actual gaming this week but plenty of organization.

Wargame

I recently acquired designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 2nd Edition Upgrade Kit (GMT Games, 2021) and spent part of the week integrating the new components.

I also recently acquired Mike Bertucelli’s Tank Duel Expansion Nr. 1: North Africa and Tank Duel: Tank Pack #1 (both GMT Games, 2021) and spent some time integrating the new components and reviewing the rules. I played one solo game to help relearn the system. It’s still a great game!

Finally, I spent the week integrating the components of Jim Day’s Panzer: Game Expansion Set, Nr 1 – The Shape of Battle on the Eastern Front 1943-45 (GMT Games, Second Printing 2021) into my set. I now own all the published GMT Games Panzer series and am very eagerly awaiting Panzer: North Africa (currently on P500 and has “Made the Cut”).

After getting an older credit card straightened out my preorder for the Standard Combat Series game North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 from Multi-Man Publishing should be shipping this week. Merry Christmas to me!

Boardgame

Bruno Cathalla’s Kingdomino: Origins (Blue Orange Games, 2021) continues to be a great family hit. Several more plays and we all relish the simple new strategy challenges of the different game modes.

Role Playing Games

Unlike my wargames and boardgames, I’m kinda poor at tracking my RPG collection. So this week I worked on organizing what I took in this year.

Television

I finished watching the Apple TV series Foundation this week. Yes, I know Season 1 ended a few weeks ago but I needed to reset my approach to the show. I initially started watching the series expecting a story close to the books. When that wasn’t there I was a bit confused and, frankly, unaccepting. So I laid off watching for a few weeks and recalibrated my thinking. I decided I was going to watch Foundation “as-is” and try to set all my preconceived notions aside. It also helped that with all the episodes out now I could binge-watch the season. Much better this go around…am looking forward to Season 2. While I still think Foundation and the Traveller Role Playing Game are closely related, I am glad to see the Genetic Dynasty from Foundation which is very different from Traveller’s Third Imperium.

Sunday #Wargame #Boardgame Summary – Falling behind yet catching up with @gmtgames @LeeBWood @ADragoons @stuarttonge @compassgamesllc

Game of the Week / Wargames

SO…MY GAME OF THE WEEK plan totally fell apart this week. I was supposed to have Jim Krohn’s Space Empires 4X (GMT Games, 2017 Third Printing) on the table but was overcome by events like a busted hot water heater. So Space Empires will slide into the schedule later.

The Empire…will be back

Next up was “supposed” to be Wing Leader: Legends (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2021) but that will be preempted for a new trade arrival. It might be hard to believe that, given I have been a wargamer since the late 1970’s, that I never owned TACTICS II by the great Charles S. Roberts himself from the first (and as far as I am concerned the only) The Avalon Hill Game Company. I got a very good condition 1973 edition and I am anxious to go through it and learn as much as possible from this iconic wargame. Look for an Unboxing Day entry over at Armchair Dragoons on July 15 and a forthcoming Wargame Wednesday entry.

It took 40 years for this to arrive….

Speaking about throwbacks to old wargames, GMT Games announced this week that Jim Day’s next entry in the Panzer (Second Edition) series, Panzer: North Africa, has “made the cut” in their P500 program. Longtime readers might recall that Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) was my very first wargame. I eagerly bought up the entire original series; Panzer, ’88’ and Armor, and they still own a prominent spot on my gaming shelves. I am glad that after 40 years a “new” edition of ’88’ is coming.

Courtesy GMT Games

Boardgames

Congratulations to Stuart Tonge and the successful Kickstarter funding of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Full Disclosure – I am a backer and even wrote an article that was used in the campaign. Although this is the first title from Stuart’s Plague Island Games I feel he is getting good help/advice from industry and is on track for a successful fulfillment. That said, one hopes that the current shipping container shortage and record rates don’t trip Stuart, or any game publisher, up too much. Of course, the sooner Stuart is done with 2 Minutes to Midnight the sooner he gets back to Blue Water Navy: The Pacific for Compass Games and now on preorder….

Kickstarter funded

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

Sunday #Wargame #Boardgame #Book Summary – One day to 2 Minutes to Midnight (@stuarttonge) while Napoleonics from @gmtgames kicks off the summer Game of the Week series (mentions of @compassgamesllc @Academy_Games @UNC_Press)

Boardgames

Countdown to Midnight

A reminder that the Kickstarter campaign for 2 Minutes to Midnight by Stuart Tonge and his new company Plague Island Games starts tomorrow! Read my comments here and then please look at the campaign. I’ve said it before that “cubes as influence” games are not really my thing but I really enjoyed the thematic elements of 2 Minutes to Midnight—it’s good enough to overcome my bias. I think many of you will find the game interesting and worth the investment!

Wargames

New Arrivals

Several GMT Games P500 preorders arrived this week. Going into the “To Play” pile is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (Wing Leader Expansion Nr 4). Also arriving is Ted Raicer’s The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944.

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.”


History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 1 Introduction

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?)
Sticker Day for Commands & Colors Napoloenics

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:

Looking (Further) Ahead

I need to work off some of the excess in the “To Play” group because more games are scheduled to arrive over the summer. If all goes well, I’ll be adding Panzer Expansion Nr 1 (which will complete my collection), Tank Duel (Expansion #1: North Africa and Tank Pack #1), and Wing Leader: Supremacy (Second Edition Upgrade Kit), all from GMT Games, in the next 60 days or so. There is also a (theoretical) chance that Reality Shift from Academy Games might arrive but Uwe and Gunter making a delivery date is rare.

Books

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.

Plastic Models

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!

Foodie Watch

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….

Roasted Wild Mushroom and Swiss Burger (Roasted Portobello Mushrooms, Jarlsberg Swiss, 15-year Aged Balsamic, Truffle Aioli)

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The secret behind the #wargame Wing Leader (@gmtgames) found in The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by @CalumDouglas1 (Tempest Books, 2020)

Somewhere in the last year I can across a recommendation to not miss the book The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum E. Douglas (Tempest Books, 2020). Fortunately, I landed a copy of this coffee table size (and weight) book and I don’ regret it for a moment. Not only has is shown me more of the technology behind fighter engines in World War II, it also has shown me how those very same engine designs influence Formula One racing engines of today. It also has given me a deeper understanding of various air combat wargames, and in particular designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series from GMT Games.

“What?”, you say. “Formula One and WWII engines are related?” Yes, and in the most interesting ways as author Calum E. Douglas explains in The Secret Horsepower Race:

Today’s engines are now bearing the fruit of the work done during the Second World War, sometimes through a ‘second discovery’, sometimes through an old idea being rekindled. All Formula One motor-racing engines have the axial swirl throttle which started as a radial design in France and was designed by Daimler and then Mikulin in axial form. It is now normal practice for Grand Prix engines to run at over 130OC coolant temperature, for exactly the same reasons as Professor Messerschmitt complained so bitterly to Milch in 1942, and the water-cooled exhaust valve-guides of the Jumo 213 are to be found in the design of many Formula One Teams.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

In The Secret Horsepower Race there is an image on page 425 that shows a German Jumo 213 J connecting rod in a 1945 sketch just above a sketch of a “modern” racing engine connecting rod. Just how similar the two look is very striking and brings home the lesson of just how “advanced” the fighter engines of World War II actually are.

Connecting Rod from 1945 to “Modern”

The Secret Horsepower Race is certainly a more technical read than I normally undertake. After all, I’m a History major, not an engineer! That said, Mr. Douglas spins a fascinating tale that, though full of technical detail, also has enough history and espionage that it really entertains. I found myself drawn in and slowing to carefully read the account.

Book to Wargame

As I read The Secret Horsepower Race I found myself thinking of several air combat wargames I’ve played. In the late 1970’s when I started playing wargames, I acquired copies of designer S. Craig Taylor’s Air Force and Dauntless (Battleline, 1976/1977). These were my first introduction to the world of air combat wargames. If there is one rule I remember from those games it’s that inline engines were more vulnerable to damage than radial engines. In the 1990’s I moved to J.D. Webster’s excellent Fighting Wings series of games where engine power was a key factor in helping one “maintain energy” while in air combat (I highly recommend the latest version of Buffalo Wings from ATO Press). In the late 2010’s it was Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and his Wing Leader series from GMT Games that caught my interest.

The Wing Leader series uses a very different air combat wargame design, most noticeable from it’s side-view of battle. It is also, perhaps, the design most closely based on the secrets of The Secret Horsepower Race:

Speed. The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Manoeuvrability turned out to be less important than power and speed. The pre-war biplane fighter advocates lost that argument, though in the right conditions these aircraft proved to be a handful. The division of aircraft into 50 mph bands is crude, but works to define generational improvements. As the war dragged on, leaps in performance tended to be in increments of 25 mph or more.

Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Wing Leader: Aircraft Data Card Creation, v2.2

Book to Life

Although I read The Secret Horsepower Race to learn more about aviation history, I was pleasantly surprised by the connection to Formula One racing. It also taught me more of the engineering history and mathematical basis behind the designs of several wargames. More importantly, Calum E. Douglas teaches some real life lessons that go beyond history and wargame and are most applicable to my wannabe engineer youngest. To quote Mr. Douglas’ conclusion at length:

The blood, sweat, and tears which went into making a basic engine such as the Merlin into a war winner is not manifested in some magic gadget, but is concealed in hundreds of thousands of hours spent on fundamentals of engineering; making new drawings; machining parts with precision; organising the manufacturing in such a way that parts are of high quality and are checked properly; rigorous testing; chasing faults down as soon as they emerge; and all the time pushing incrementally forward.

That is how real high-performance engine projects are conducted, and those who were not there, or who have not done it themselves, can never understand the strain a designer faces watching an engine they have been responsible for start for the first time. In this moment their entire reputation stands fragile – a failure can mean disaster and the expense of tremendous sums of money and time. The engine designer is pleased when the engine runs and does its job.

This small pleasure is not enough, as those who devote their careers to engines know just how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach that ostensibly simple plateau. Even one tolerance written incorrectly on a drawing, one missed particle of dirt during assembly, or a simple decimal point being out of place in a calculation can spell ruin.

That these engineers were able to make hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art engines at all during the chaos of total war is a demonstration of the indelible lesson that success depends on focused effort and above all a deep level of mathematical understanding mated to pragmatic organisational thinking. Engineers today who see the power which was wielded with only a slide-rule and pencil and adapt the same mindset to use their computers instead of being used by them, will achieve spectacular success.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

Sunday Summary – Too busy to play but NEVER too busy to dream about new #wargame & #boardgame arrivals @FoundationDietz @msiggins @HABA_usa @compassgamesllc @gmtgames @Academy_Games @LeeBWood @Hobiecat18 @SchilMil @Bublublock

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.

Wargaming

Ended up doing a deep-dive of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Jim Dunnigan, Strategy & Tactics Nr.. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). There is alot of “professional” in this “hobby” title! I also had a real fun trip down memory lane with the accompanying magazine.

Boardgaming

Supercharged (Mike Siggins, Dietz Foundation, 2021) raced to the table. Also gifted (and taught) Dragons Breath: The Hatching (HABA, 2019).

Incoming!

It’s been awhile since I looked at my preorders. I presently am tracking 27 titles in my preorder GeekList. Here are some highlights:

Kickstarter

After complaining a few weeks back about the sheer number of Kickstarter campaigns and their costs I have not been doing a very good job controlling myself since. So far this month I added:

History to #Wargame – Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (www.silvertailbooks.com, 2020)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (Silvertail Books, 2020)

Photo by RockyMountainNavy

I remember the Falklands War on TV. I was a student in middle school at the time and absolutely enamored with the weapons of the Cold War. Here was a “major power” taking on an upstart South American country. Even after nearly 40 years, it is good to see that more of the history of the Falklands War is coming out, in the most recent case in the form of the book Harrier 809 which details the life of 809 Naval Air Squadron which was formed after the war started.

There is lots of goodness in the pages of Harrier 809. My personal favorite parts include the story of how 809 Squadron stood up. It really is a good lesson in trying to put together a unit in a “come as you are” war; lessons that I hope the US Navy and Air Force don’t ever have to face (but in reality, it could very well be the reality). I also love the factoid that the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough built several 1:24 scale Airfix models of the Harrier to test new camouflage schemes. I use this to show my boys that their “little hobby” can actually make a real difference!

At the time of the Falklands War I was big into playing Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1981). As much as I wanted to, the only real air combat games I owned at the time was Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1977) which was NOT a very good game to play around with too much. It would not be until 1987 that JD Webster and GDW published Air Superiority that was much better suited at depicting air combat during the Falklands (including rules for the famous VIFF -vectored in-flight- maneuvers).

Over time more games on the Falklands War came out. I own a few like the Harpoon 3rd Edition supplement Harpoon: South Atlantic War – Conflict in the Falklands/Malvinas, 1982 ‐ GDW first edition (1991) or the later Harpoon 4 version South Atlantic War: Battle for the Falklands – Scenarios for the 1982 South Atlantic Campaign ‐ Clash of Arms second edition (2002) that included a ground combat module for the Harpoon system. Not long after the actual war I acquired the Wargamer Magazine ‘zine game Port Stanley: Battle for the Falklands (3W, 1984) that I remember being disappointed in as it focused more on the ground combat over the glamorous air and grueling sea battles I so loved. (My perspective over time has changed as I have come to better appreciate the very challenging ground campaign).

More recently I acquired Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands (White Dog Games, 2017). Being a solo game it is much different than other games that look at the war. It also focuses at something between the operational and strategic levels of war with the air battles treated in a more abstract manner.

Over the years I have occasionally seen rumors and hints that Lee Brimmicombe-Wood might make a Falklands version of his raid game Downtown (GMT Games, 2004). As often as I hear the rumors they are crushed. I’ll admit, this would be an insta-buy for me!

One game that everybody points out as a really good take on the Falklands War is Where There is Discord: War in the South Atlantic (Fifth Column Games, 2009). I don’t own it, and given the market prices for the game -between $150-200- I don’t think I’m going to be acquiring that title anytime soon.

At the end of the day I feel the Falklands War is an under appreciated topic in wargames. There certainly is fertile ground for tactical Land/Sea/Air games with the interaction of the many weapons systems. I also feel that the operational level game, from the level of the Task Force Commander has not really been explored. As more recent scholarship has revealed, there was also much more going on at the strategic level than I think is generally understood. Harrier 809 has certainly whetted my appetite for playing some Falklands War scenarios – I’m just going to have to go a bit retro in my wargame selections to do so!

Doing a little #coronapocalypse #wargame Morning Recon all by myself in Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (@gmtgames, 2019).

KDiDKYRhSZyzuc78FsjBeAIN A PAST LIFE AS A US NAVY SQUADRON INTEL OFFICER, I did more than a fair share of Mission Planning for airstrikes. That is part of the reason I love designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004). In 2019 the latest addition to the series, Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games) designed by Douglas Bush arrived after a not-to-long stint on the P500. This week, as I fight off the zombies-of-boredom of the Coronapocalype, I pulled Red Storm out and committed to a deeper learning experience.

First off, I must commend designer Douglas Bush and GMT for publishing such a high quality product. Not only do the game components look great, but the errata is quite small for such a ‘complex’ game. Part of this is surely the result of previous titles working out many of the kinks in the system design but Red Storm kicks the complexity of the simulation up a notch from the others so I expected more errata than exists. Kudos!

For my day of Red Storming, I decided to start at the beginning and use scenario RS1: Morning Recon. This is a solo introductory scenario where a flight of 2 SU-24MR have to Recon four targets. Victory is determined by the NATO player accomplishing four tasks. In the scenario as written, there is no actual combat (though the combat sequences are exercised). The scenario note is what made for my repeated plays:

Note: Player should try this scenario at least twice, once with the WP [Warsaw Pact] flight at Medium or High altitude (and faster speed) and once at Deck (lower speed, harder to detect). That will give a feel for the difference between “going high” and “going low” when trying to both get to a target and intercepting flights doing so. In addition, during the second playing of the scenario, players should let the NATO side attack the WP flight in order to further learn the combat rules.

Deciding to take the game one step further, I decided to play a fifth time, but in this case incorporating as much of Rule 33.2 Full Solitaire Rules as possible. To further mix it up, I used the Order of Battle Tables in the Appendices Book to randomly generate the forces. For NATO this meant rolling on the NATO QRA Flight / 2ATAF table for a result of “6-4” giving a flight of two Belgium F-16A. For the Warsaw Pact the roll randomly between the USSR and GDR [German Democratic Republic – East Germany] getting GDR than a “4” on the WP Special Missions / Tactical Recon table which launched a flight of two GDR MiG-21M. I decided to make this a “Combat allowed” version of RS1.

The resulting game was MUCH different than the regular Morning Recon scenarios. Not only were the fighters different but the lack of real BVR capability on the Belgium F-16A’s meant this was destined to be a knife fight. The GDR MiG-21M is armed with only an internal 23mm cannon so it really is in their best interests to avoid a fight.

I let the Bot run the GDR but gave it one input at start using a random die to chose between “going high” and “going low.” The random was “go high” so off we went. NATO was able to quickly gain a Detection on the flight but gaining a Visual Identification proved a bit more difficult as early Engagement rolls by me were whiffed. Amazingly, the simple Noise Jammer on the MiG-21M also slowed Full SAM Acquisition. However, the superior maneuverability and radar suite of the F-16A eventually prevailed and both MiG-21 were downed…although the second was just before it passed back over the inter-German border. All in all a very good fight!

844At present, an expansion for the game, Red Storm: Baltic Approaches is on the GMT Games P500 and at 485 pledges. I hope it comes “makes the cut” soon so I can get more Red Storm goodness to the table. Then again, I’m being greedy for there are 29 other scenarios in the base Red Storm and two campaigns (not to mention four Solo Scenario) to help me get through my coronapocalypse isolation before then.

So what?


Feature image: Three aircraft from the U.S. Air Force in Europe in flight on 6 April 1987 near Ramstein Air Base, Germany. These aircraft were part of a larger, 15-aircraft formation taking part in an aerial review for departing General Charles L. Donnelly Jr., commander in chief, U.S. Air Force Europe and commander, Allied Air Forces Central Europe. The visible aircraft are (front to back): McDonnell Douglas F-4G Phantom II (s/n 69-0237), 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II (s/n 81-0995), 510th TFS, 81st TFW, RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk (UK); McDonnell Douglas RF-4C-39-MC Phantom II (s/n 68-0583), 1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire (UK). Courtesy wikimedia.org.