#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

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

October 2020 #Wargame #Boardgame #RPG #Books Month in Review

Games Played & Times Played

Note that Here to Slay included the Warriors & Druids Expansion

Games Acquired

  1. Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Standard Combat Series, MultiMan Publishing, 2020)
  2. Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016)
  3. Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018)
  4. Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)
  5. Nations at War: White Star Rising (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)
  6. Nations at War: White Star Rising – Airborne (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2012)
  7. Nations at War: White Star Rising – Operation Cobra (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2012)
  8. Here to Slay: Warriors & Druid Expansion (Unstable Games, 2020)
  9. Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020)
  10. Cortex Prime: Game Handbook (Fandom Inc., 2020)
  11. Hell’s Paradise (A Clement Sector adventure from Independence Games, 2018)

New Preorder Games

Key Reading

Blog Activity

#Wargame Wednesday: Save Me! Nations at War: White Star Rising (@LnLPub, 2010)

“Your turn.”

“Let me reach into my magic bag here and see what I get. Oh, will’ya look at that?”

“Yeah for me.”

“OK, first I roll for morale. I need a 7 or less. (Dice rolling). Heh heh.”

“You just got lucky.”

“Well, now I’m going to move like a hellcat through these woods, stopping at the edge and attack at point-blank range. So….I get to roll 3d6 and any 4 or more is a hit, agreed?”

“Short range is -1, but moving is +1, right? So they cancel out. OK.”

“Alright (dice rolling). Well, look at that! Three hits!”

“Lucky….but I still get my saving roll. Lets see…Mr. Tiger defends with 3d6 and any 4 or better blocks a hit. Good odds….(dice rolling)….Well, frak.”

“Oh, darn your bad luck – nothing. So my three hits get through. Lets see, first disrupts, second is step 1, third is step 2. You’re dead!”

“Well blast. And here I always thought Tigers were powerful.”

This (somewhat) dramatized exchange was not taken from a roleplaying game session. It describes an actual engagement between an American M18 Hellcat tank destroyer and a German Tiger I tank in the wargame Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock ‘n Load Publishing (2010). What I hope stands out to you is that very non-classical, no odd-based combat resolution system. Indeed, the combat mechanics of Nations at War: White Star Rising is what sets the game apart to me.

Another Tactical WWII Game?

I recently acquired Nations at War: White Star Rising (hereafter NAW:WSR) in a trade. The copy I got is a ‘players copy’ in relatively good shape. A previous owner took it upon themselves to clip most of the corners on most of the counters. I traded more out of curiosity than to get another tactical World War II game; one of my favorite wargames (of all eras or types of conflict) is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) and I was sure this would not replace that game in my pantheon of wargame heroes. That said, the Nations at War series struck me with a bit of a PanzerBlitz-vibe and I thought it would be good as a simpler, quicker-playing wargame for weekday nights against my battle buddy RockyMountainNavy T.

A Systematic View

I admit it; I am a bit of a game mechanics freak. I love playing wargames to not only explore the history of the situation, but to also explore how different designers approach an issue. When I got NAW:WSR to the table I quickly discovered that the initial PanzerBlitz-vibe I got was purely from scale and looks. As I explored the gameplay in NAW:WSR I discovered a very different approach to depicting conflict in World War II. The system integration of Chit-Pull, Command & Morale, and a different Combat model make NAW:WSR a unique game that captures the essence of the fight in a very streamlined set of rules

Well, Chit

Each turn in NAW:WSR is very straight-forward; Pull a Formation Marker from the cup and execute actions with that formation. Once two End of Turn chits are drawn, the turn ends and play proceeds to the next turn. Yes, NAW:WSR uses that favored mechanic of mine – chit pull. This makes the game both very-solo friendly but also introduces some ‘friction’ into play since players can never be sure just when they are going to activate.

Command & Morale

The second element of the design of NAW:WSR that I really enjoy is the simple command rules. Each formation has at least one Headquarters that is rated for Leadership, Command Range, and Morale. When the formation is activated all units check to see if they are in command range; if yes they activate normally. However, if a subordinate unit is NOT in command range, they need to pass a Morale Check (each hex rolls equal to or less than the Morale Level) in order to activate normally. If the unit fails the Morale Check, an Out of Command marker is placed on the unit that limits what it can do during the turn. This simple mechanic nicely captures the essence of the C2 problems forces on the battlefield faced – again using a relatively simple mechanic that plays quickly without bogging down the turn.

Combat Saves

As you can see from the narrative at the beginning of this post, combat in NAW:WSR is somewhat different than many wargames. Although this title has been available since 2010, this was the first time I can personally recall seeing this sort of system used in a wargame I own. But does it work?

NAW:WSR is a platoon-level wargame which places it in an interesting area on the spectrum of conflict simulations. Platoon-level games are simultaneously detailed and abstracted. The detail is often found in the order of battle for at the platoon-level you can easily depict the many elements of the combined arms fight. Thus, you don’t get just a Sherman tank, you can get an M4A1 or an M4A3E8 (aka “Easy 8”). To tactical gaming purist out there, those are two very different beasts!

The problem is that the detailed order of battle in turn demands a way to differentiate units in terms of their capabilities. Traditionally, hex & chit wargames use the classic Attack-Defense-Movement triumvirate of ratings to describe units. This simplification sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the detailed order of battle because unless you get more detailed the abstraction of triumvirate often fails to differentiate between units. The lack of differences can be made worse by the use of a traditional Combat Resolution Table (CRT) that strictly compares odds. A greater part of this issue is the classic use of 2d6 for games which limits the range of results and can be very sensitive to modifiers if not used carefully.

NAW:WSR takes a different approach to differentiating units by using five descriptive ratings:

  • AP Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • HE Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • Assault Factor rated by Assault Factor-To Hit#
  • Armor Value rated by Armor Value-Save#
  • Movement Factor

Taken together, these ratings can be used to describe a finer grade of differences between combat systems without becoming too detailed. One can capture which weapons reached further than others; the combination of Firepower and To Hit# gets to now only who throws more ordnance downrange, but how likely it is to do something if it hits. Then there is the Armor Value and Save# which not only describes how much armor there is but how likely it is to actually do something.

It’s easy to see that the designer of NAW:WSR tried to avoid an odds-based Combat Resolution Table (CRT). To attack, the player selects the appropriate Firepower ensuring that the target is in Range (Extended and Reduced Range is possible) and then rolls a number of d6 equal to that Firepower. Every die that is equal to or greater than the To Hit# scores a Hit. If the target is a ‘soft target’ (non-armored) they roll a number of defensive d6 equal to the terrain defense bonus. For every defender die that rolls five (5) or greater one hit is ignored. In a similar fashion, ‘hard targets’ (armored vehicles) roll a number of defending d6 equal to the Armor Value plus the terrain defense bonus. Each defense die that rolls equal to or greater than the Save Number offsets one hit.

This is how you get a US M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer (AP Firepower 6-3-4) attacking a German Tiger I (Armor Value 3-4) at range 1. The Hellcat has a Special Scenario Rule (SSR) that allows it to move up to three movement points and still shoot but at a penalty of +1 on the To Hit#. During the turn in question, Kamfgruppe Beck (the Tiger I formation) had already activated and the Tiger I moved resulting in an Ops Complete marker being placed on the unit. When the 507 PIR formation was activated (the M18 being cross attached) the Hellcat player recognized that since the Tiger I was Ops Complete it was not eligible for Opportunity Fire. Using the SSR the M18 moved through a hex of woods and pulled up one hex from the Tiger I. The M18 then took the shot at range 1 (Reduced Range) which is -1 on the To Hit#. The Hellcat here rolled 3d6…and each was a 4 or greater scoring three Hits. The Tiger I attempted to save itself and rolled 3d6 (Armor Value) but got no additional defense bonus die because it was in open terrain. None of the three die rolled were equal to or greater than 4 meaning all three Hits scored. This was enough to outright destroy the Tiger I. That was by far the best outcome for the Hellcat because if the roles were reversed it is doubtful the Hellcat would survive. The Tiger I would attack at 7-3-3 whereas the Hellcat defends at 1-6. At Reduced Range that AP Firepower becomes 7-3-2 meaning any of the 3d6 rolled that come up at 2 or more is a hit. The poor Hellcat would get a defense bonus die for being in the woods but even so that’s only 2d6 rolled…and each needs to be a 6 to offset a hit!

All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Save Number works. Even in a wargame. When it comes right down to it, the combat model in NAW:WSR is not really all that different than the traditional odds-based CRT, it just uses a different randomizer model to deliver similar odds. The real difference is that the NAW:WSR model “operates faster” because there is little need to “math it out;” instead you simply pick up dice and roll comparing to a number on the counter.

What’s Old is New Again

Nations at War: White Star Rising will get to the table against my battle buddy. The relatively small footprint and quick-playing nature of the game along with just enough ‘detail’ helps to create an immersive, narrative gameplay experience. The different mechanics are just that, different.

#Wargame Wednesday – First light in Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (@LnLPub, 2010)

One of my new wargame “acquisitions” was a player’s copy of Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010) that I acquired via a trade. I say ‘players copy’ because the box is very beat up but the contents are (super) fine. Most importantly, it was a good trade because it brought an older game to my table that I had overlooked before. Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (hereafter CC:DEL) is a simple, quick-playing ‘Cold War Gone Hot” wargame that is easy to learn, easy to teach, and eminently playable. However, don’t expect a deep analysis of the battlefield – this is a coarse recreation of the situation in a game that focuses on playability over ‘realism.’

War Is Complex – But Your Wargame Doesn’t Have to Be

Four factors make CC:DEL stand out to me and really helps me enjoy the game. They are 1) Physical size, 2) Activation Numbers, 3) Combat, and 4) Asset Chits.

What immediately strikes me about CC:DEL is the small size of the game. The 22’x17″ mapsheet not only has the hexes of play, but also has needed tracks and other useful player information around the edge. There are ‘only’ 136 counters in the game that covers all the combat units, markers, and various Asset Chits used. The 16-page CC:DEL rule book is broken into 7.5 pages of rules, 5.5 pages of scenarios, and three other misc pages (covers & Notes). Taken together this makes CC:DEL a game that can easily fit on a small gaming table and get played even when time is short.

The Activation Number mechanic in CC:DEL ensures that each turn is a bit unpredictable and forces players to take advantage of fleeting opportunities, as well as plan a head a bit. Each turn consists of four couplets (pairs of impulses). The exception is Night turns where only a single couplet is played. At the start of each couplet, NATO and the Soviets each roll 1d6 to determine their Activation Number (AN). The AN not only determines who goes first, but also how many Movement Points the player will have as well as which units can activate. In order for a unit to activate, the AN must be equal to or GREATER than the unit’s Initiative Number. Immediately you can see the problem; a high AN results in some units not activating – but if they do they move further since AN+1=Movement Points. If a 6 is rolled players immediately consult the Botched Orders Table to see what few units will activate, or not. The AN mechanic ensures that players can never be sure about who is going first or even how far they might move.

I find the combat mechanics of CC:DEL incredibly simple yet able to produce ‘realistic’-feeling results. When attacking, the attacker rolls 2d6 and adds/subtracts a few mods (usually +/-1 for terrain or a special combat power) and then adds the Strength of the attacking units to get a hit number. The hit number is compared directly to the Protection Factor (PF) of the target; if the attack is greater than the PF then a Hit is scored. If the attack exceeds the PF by four or more points then TWO hits are scored. If, somehow, the attack exceeds the PF by eight points or more, then THREE hits are scored (this will outright destroy many units). Combat is so simple, and modifiers so few, that players should quickly be able to memorize the mods and accelerate play.

The final gameplay mechanic in CC:DEL that I really enjoy is the Asset Chits. Asset Chits control everything from combat support to reinforcements. This is how the designers show the effect of concentrated airpower (Airstrike) or artillery support (Artillery). It also controls the arrival of reinforcements. At set up and at various times during play (as called for in the scenario rules) Asset Chits are drawn and allocated. Again, the somewhat unpredictable nature of war comes to the forefront; the Soviet player KNOWS he will get the 2nd Guards Airborne at some time during the battle, but will it be Day One or Four? NATO knows some West German Territorials will arrive, but again, Day One or later? Asset Chits are an easy way to represent many combat support elements in a simple to use system that reflects embraces the friction and fog of war.

Edged Out by Production Quality

If CC:DEL suffers it is in the area of production quality. Overall the quality of the components is generally good, but it is not without issue. The rule book needed one more editing pass to catch several obvious errors. A second Player Aid card would have been welcomed. The color selection on the map is a bit too same-ish for this glasses-wearing Grognard.

The major issue I have with CC:DEL is the alignment of the counters. Simply put, the data is too close to the edge or, in the case of the Soviet counters, they are misaligned. I could probably live with these counters if they didn’t suffer from ‘tuft-edges’ – which makes me just want to counter clip them! I may try my 2mm-radius clipper but even then I worry about clipping some data off the NATO counters, and I am pretty sure I will only be able to clip three edges of the Soviet counters. is it worth it?

Data too close to the edges make clipping corners dangerous?

Much Less Than 60 Miles

The other wargame in my collection that is the closest comparison to CC:DEL is Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019). Both games cover roughly similar areas (although CC:DEL is placed near Eisenbach while LT60M covers the Fulda Gap) and at a similar level of unit breakdown (battalions for individual units). That is really where the comparisons end. CC:DEL is by far the simpler game in terms of mechanics, is far smaller on the table and will take far less time to play. That does not make it any worse or better than Less Than 60 Miles; they both cover conflict in the 1980s in Europe just at a different level of detail and with a different approach to playability. What CC:DEL ‘lacks’ in terms of details it makes up for in streamlined speed of play. If you want the in-depth look at how the Air-Land Battle Doctrine of the 1980s may have played out on the battlefields of Europe then you want to play Less Than 60 Miles. If you want a ‘taste’ of how the NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict could of seemed in a game that takes 2-hours or less than CC:DEL is much better suited.

A New Dawn

Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light came out 10 years ago. Apparently the game was republished in 2015 under the slightly different title Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light – Red Hammer. A part of me is curious to see what that game changes or improves from the original CC:DEL. But I am not in a real rush to find out; my players copy of CC:DEL will land on the table a few more times as I explore this small, quick-playing (and very playable) implementation of the Cold War Gone Hot on the plains of Germany.

Sep/Oct #Wargame #Boardgame Acquisitions featuring @gmtgames @hollandspiele @worth2004 @MultiManPub @LnLPub @Academy_Games @FFGames @UnstbleUnicrns @MoonrakersGame

In early September I wrote about how many games might be arriving into the RockyMountainNavy gaming collection given the reawakening of the publishing industry as they struggle to recover from COVID-19.

Boy, did I underestimate myself.

Turns out that between September 1 and October 15 I took delivery of 16 (!) items into my gaming collection. This includes:

  • 8 wargames (+3 expansions)
  • 3 boardgames (+1 expansion)
  • 1 accessory

I also diversified my acquisition chain. In addition to Kickstarter and publisher pre-order systems, I also used a local flea market, online digital, BGG trading, publisher direct sales, and (gasp) my FLGS!

Wargames

Washington’s Crossing (Revolution Games, 2012) – A not-so-complex look at the Trenton Campaign of 1776. My more detailed thoughts are here.

Flying Colors 3rd Edition Update Kit (GMT Games, 2020)(Expansion) So many Age of Sail games take a super-tactical view of ships that playing them can become unwieldy. Flying Colors takes a more ‘fleet commander” point of view; here you can be Nelson at Trafalgar, not Captain Hardy. The 3rd Edition Update Kit brings my older v1.5 up to date with the latest counters and rules, allowing me to set sail for new games in the future.

White Eagle Defiant: Poland 1939 (Hollandspiele, 2020) – The follow-on to the gateway wargame Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019). Don’t let the low complexity of the rules fool you; the game is full of impactful decisions. I have more thoughts here.

French and Indian War 1757-1759 (Worthington Games, 2020) – Another entry in my collection of Worthington block wargames. Simple rules but deep decisions. It’s been a long-time since I labeled a wargame a “waro” but this one crosses over between the wargame and boardgame crowds.

Harpoon V: Modern Tactical Naval Combat 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020) – More a simulation model than a game. I’ve played and owned Harpoon titles since the early 1980’s. Can’t help myself; I love it.

Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) – Another entry in the Standard Combat Series from MMP. I like the multiple eras of play and the ‘Road to War’ rules that deliver replayability in a (relatively) small package.

Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack in East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018)Acquired via trade. I like chit-pull games as they are good for solo play. I am also interested in this title because of the time period; I have played Operation Barbarossa to death and am interested in a late war perspective when the Soviets were on the offensive and it was the Germans rocked back on their heels.

Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)Acquired via trade. Got through a trade more on a whim than with any real thought. First look is a very simple ‘Cold War Gone Hot’ wargame. Realistically it has only seven pages of rules!

Nations at War: White Star Rising (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010) – I don’t really need another World War II tactical game system; I’m very happy with my Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games. Acquired through trade with no real big expectations. First impression is this platoon-level game is reminiscent of PanzerBlitz (Avalon Hill, 1970) but with chit-pull activation and command rules (both of which I really like). Maybe some interesting potential here, will have to see…. (Acquired at same time were two expansions: Nations at War: White Star Rising – Operation Cobra and Nations at War: White Star Rising – Airborne)

Boardgames

One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; worker placement games is not really my thing. However, I really do like One Small Step. Not only does the theme engage me but the team play version of worker placement makes it a good game night title for the RMN household.

Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) Acquired via flea market. I jumped at an opportunity to get this game via a local flea market at an excellent price. Thematically excellent but I still have doubts concerning gameplay. It does create a very good narrative though….

Here to Slay: Warrior and Druid Expansion (Unstable Games, 2020) (Expansion) Here to Slay is the #1 played game in the RMN home. The RMN Boys (and their friends) love it. The game is far from perfect; like many others I don’t feel it is anything like an RPG as it proclaims and it’s too easy to win with “six classes in your party” versus slaying three monsters. Maybe this new expansion will change that with a bit more focus on the warrior class. Maybe….

Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020)Fresh arrival. Bought because I keep looking for a decent Traveller RPG-type of boardgame or something that captures the same vibe as Firefly: The Game (Gale Force Nine, 2013). My other attempts to find these types of games, Scorpius Freighter (AEG, 2018) and Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019) were less-than-successful. This title just screams OPA in The Expanse. Playing it will have to wait as there is a backlog of games in front of it in the to-play queue (obvious from the above).

Accessories

Sirius Dice: Spades (Sirius Dice) – I picked these up sorta on a whim. They look and feel good. If I ever get back to playing RPGs they may come in handy.