RockyMountainNavy, 11 Jan 2021 I decided to set out and play the …Thinking the UNTHINKABLE when playing Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 from Multi-Man Publishing
Wargames & Boardgames
I am really looking forward to getting the last few games mailed in 2020 to the gaming table. That is, once they arrive. Kudos to the US Postal Service for the 18th century service! I mean, my C3i Magazine Nr 34 with designer Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk is ‘only’ on day nine of the 2-8 days expected delivery with a present status of “In Transit” but unlocated. Then there is my Buffalo Wings 2 – The Deluxe Reprint (Against the Odds, 2020). The good folks at ATO, recognizing the mailing mess, sent all the packages by 2-day Priority Mail but the USPS was so helpful they let it sit for the first THREE days at the initial mailing point with a status of “Shipment Received, Package Acceptance Pending.” I know; First World Gamer problems and all those that ship international ain’t impressed!
Without new games I went to the shelves and pulled out an old game that I recently acquired but had not played. Harpoon Captain’s Edition bills itself as, “fast, simple, and fun to play.” Six hours and 16 (!) scenarios later…well, you’ll have to wait a few weeks and see what I thought.
By the way, playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition 16 times now “officially” makes this game the most-played wargame in my collection since I started (sorta) keeping records in 2017. HCE is just ahead of Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 14 plays), Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 12 plays), Root (Leder Games, 11 plays), Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 11 plays), and Tri-Pack: Battles of the American Revolution (GMT Games, 10 plays).
I was happy to see the Compass Games Kickstarter campaign for No Motherland Without by designer Daniel Bullock successfully fund this week. I have had my copy on preorder with Compass Games since October 2019. I backed the original Kickstarter and was disappointed to see it cancelled in May 2018 but am very happy Dan ended up with Compass Games so we can get a copy of what looks to be a very interesting game!
This coming week I continue my Traveller RPG wargame series with a look at the strategic wargames of the Traveller RPG in “#Wargame Wednesday – Searching for My Strategic #TravellerRPG Wargame.”
Regardless of the mail challenges, not all my gaming has been lost. My roleplaying game hobby has reenergized in 2021. To start off the year I went ahead and jumped on the Bundle of Holding offering for The Expanse Roleplaying Game and the Modern AGE materials from Green Ronin. My thoughts on The Expanse Roleplaying Game are coming in this week’s #RPGThursday so stay tuned.
I also picked up the latest The Clement Sector offering from Independence Games, Wendy’s Guide to the Fleets of Earth Sector, Volume 2. That’s not the Rochinante from The Expanse on the cover but in some ways it’s close….
This week’s upcoming “#RockyReads for #Wargame” is China as a Twenty Century Naval Power by Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt from Naval Institute Press (2020).
Look for my thoughts on The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020) and War by Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) in the coming weeks.
Coming Soon to Armchair Dragoons
Pending the Regimental Commander’s final approval, my thoughts on Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi Man Publishing, 2020) will be posted soon to the Armchair Dragoons website. This title was my 2020 Wargame of the Year Runner-Up so you know I like it – read the Armchair Dragoons article to see why! While you’re at it, check out the ACD Digital Convention 15-17 January (that’s next week for you non-military date sorta folks).
It’s the end of the year so it’s that time for the inevitable “of the Year” lists. Although I play boardgames and wargames, I am a wargamer at heart. Since Christmas 1979 when I got my first wargame, the holidays and wargaming have been forever linked in my heart.
To be eligible for this category, the item must be a wargame as I define it. It must also have been released in the 2020 calendar year AND IN MY POSSESSION as of Dec 31, 2020. I know for a fact that at least one wargame I have on pre-order has a 2020 publication date but, since I don’t have it in hand it’s not eligible for this list. For a near-complete listing of all the wargames I acquired in 2020 (including many titles not eligible for this annual list) please see my GeekList 2020 RockyMountainNavy Gaming Acquisitions and look for entries labeled “WARGAME”
Candidates (in alphabetical order):
- Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies, Compass Games
- Battle of Rhode Island (Battles of the American Revolution, Vol IX), GMT Games
- Brief Border Wars, Compass Games
- Dawn of Empire: The Spanish American Naval War in the Atlantic, 1898, Compass Games
- French and Indian War 1757-1759, Worthington Publishing
- Fury at Midway, Revolution Games
- Harpoon V, Admiralty Trilogy Games
- Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989, Multi Man Publishing
- Philadelphia 1777, Worthington Publishing
- The Shores of Tripoli (Kickstarter Edition), Fort Circle Games
- Undaunted: North Africa, Osprey Games
- Waterloo Campaign 1815, RBM Publishing
- White Eagle Defiant, Hollandspiele
I am happy that I took in a very strong slate of games this year. Each of them have something going for them that makes them a worthy candidate.
Amerika Bomber is the only dedicated solo game on the list. I usually shy away from solitaire games as they often are “too procedural” but the theme of Amerika Bomber keeps this title enjoyable.
The Battle of Rhode Island is another strong entry in the Battles of the American Revolution series from GMT. I like the war engine in this series and enjoy the heck out of the scenarios.
Brief Border Wars brings back the classic “quad” packaging with four games using the same basic war engine but with each having its own identity.
Dawn of Empire : The Spanish American Naval War in the Atlantic, 1898 shows the classic War at Sea/Victory in the Pacific war engine can still be leveraged and new challenges created.
French & Indian War 1757-1759 is a very pleasurable block wargame that is simple to learn and thematic enough to keep it interesting yet playable in a short evening.
Fury at Midway is a bit of a hidden gem testing several competing theories of what actually happened at Midway. Hint: It doesn’t end well for the Americans as often as one would expect given “history.”
Harpoon V is the return of the “serious” wargame.
Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 is a ‘managable monster’ with lots of replay potential in a relatively small package.
Philadelphia 1777 is another block game using Worthington’s proven war engine but this time depicting a kind of “tower defense” campaign.
The Shores of Tripoli is the Kickstarter remake of a solid game now given a very professional look.
Undaunted: North Africa shows once again that wargames can use non-traditional mechanics; who woulda thunk that Deck Building can make a good wargame?
Waterloo Campaign, 1815 shows that you don’t need a monster game to depict one of histories greatest battles.
White Eagle Defiant takes the Brave Little Belgium war engine to the next level yet still is easy to learn and fairly quick to play.
…and the winner is…
With such a strong field of contenders I actually picked a Runner-Up and a Winner.
My runner-up Wargame of the Year for 2020 is Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 from Multi-Man Publishing. This game might be the most ‘old school’ or the closest to a classic hex & counter game of all the candidates this year but that is actually a major reason why it places so high. It’s not that I dislike the ‘new age’ mechanics in some of the new games; rather, Iron Curtain, an entry in the Standard Combat Series, showed me the joy of a ‘manageable monster’ wargame. Iron Curtain is multiple games in one with different eras and options for the Soviets or NATO to be that attacker. Add to that the Run Up to War pre-game and you have package that is easy to learn (uses the Standard Combat System) yet it will never serve up the same game twice no matter how often its played. I also really appreciate that it is fits on a moderate-sized table and yet it still can be both set up and played in just a few hours.
However, as somebody once said, “There can be only one.” My Wargame of the Year for 2020 is The Shores of Tripoli from Fort Circle Games. Yes, I know it is the professional publication of a print-‘n-play title that predates 2020 but designer Kevin Bertram’s attention to detail and hard work has taken this little gem of a game to another level. From the moment you look at the box (awesome) to laying out all the components on the table (luxurious) you can see his attention to detail. Gameplay has, dare I say, improved over the original PnP with the benefit of more development and playtesting. The Shores of Tripoli is almost as polar opposite of a wargame design from my runner-up, Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 by MMP that you can get. That is a great part of it’s strength in my mind; The Shores of Tripoli is an excellent example of the “new wave” of designers and wargames titles that aren’t afraid to break from “convention” and assemble a set of mechanics into an interesting, challenging, and dare I say very “playable” wargame.
Games Played & Times Played
- Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Standard Combat Series, MultiMan Publishing, 2020)
- Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016)
- Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018)
- Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)
- Nations at War: White Star Rising (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2010)
- Nations at War: White Star Rising – Airborne (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2012)
- Nations at War: White Star Rising – Operation Cobra (Lock ‘n Load Publishing, 2012)
- Here to Slay: Warriors & Druid Expansion (Unstable Games, 2020)
- Moonrakers (IV Games, 2020)
- Cortex Prime: Game Handbook (Fandom Inc., 2020)
- Hell’s Paradise (A Clement Sector adventure from Independence Games, 2018)
New Preorder Games
- Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds, Rowland White, Silvertail Books, 2020
- The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel, Jeffrey Lewis PhD, Mariner Books, 2018
- The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Brad Roberts, Stanford Security Studies, 2016
- “Would U.S. Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and the Sources of Nuclear Restraint”, International Security, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Fall 2018)
- “The Question: Why Would China Not Invade Taiwan Now?”, Military Review Sept-Oct 2020
- “Russian New Generation Warfare: Deterring and Winning the Tactical Fight”, Military Review Sept-Oct 2020
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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!
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)
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).
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.
Recently on Twitter, the following tweet was reupped for comments:
Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.
I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:
Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy ·Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.
Complexity as Realism…or Not?
First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)
Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).
“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.
Or so I thought.
Wargames as Insight
Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)
My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:
- Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
- Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
- Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
- Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
- Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer
I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:
Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)
Games, Not Simulations
Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.
MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:
Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.
Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.
I still play the more complex games, but my approach to them has changed. While I still use them to explore conflict, I also try to enjoy it. My attitude these days is one of wanting to game a conflict, not simulate it. I think many designers and publishers get this. This is why the new Harpoon V from Admiralty Trilogy Games is more player-friendly. It’s why Buffalo Wings 2 (Against the Odds) is having a successful Kickstarter. And yes, it’s why even Advanced Squad Leader is still a money-maker for Multi-Man Publishing (especially when one looks at the face-to-face tournament play aspect).
All of which is to say I play wargames for the fun of learning and making interesting decisions. They don’t teach me history, but they offer a pathway to further insight.
“All game, no history.” Not true for me.
Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek.
ONE OF THE FIRST WARGAMES I PLAYED OH-SO-LONG AGO WAS AIR ASSAULT ON CRETE/INVASION OF MALTA (Avalon Hill, 1977). Since then, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this battle. So when I saw Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) put Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (2017) on sale I jumped at it. Besides the theme appealing to me, so did the price. As of today the game sells for $172 (!); I bought it on sale for $40!!! So…a bit of a danger sign there. Why would a company sell a game at over 75% off? Is there a problem with the game?
After spending over a week of evenings learning and playing the game, I am torn. In some ways Operation Mercury is perfect for me, but it also presents problems. I really like the fact Operation Mercury is a chit-pull game but I have problems with it being a monster game and chatty rules.
My first Grand Tactical Series (GTS)
Before this sale, the only MMP game I owned was a single title from The Gamers, Dean Essig’s predecessor company. Operation Mercury is therefore my introduction to the Grand Tactical Series (GTS). As the MMP ad copy puts it:
The Grand Tactical Series (GTS) recaptures battles on a grand scale with the color and atmosphere that the great campaigns deserve. Updating Victory Games’ popular, playable and accurate Panzer Command system, the series is also created with exquisite historical detail and a game system that allows the players to see the great “Whys” and “What Ifs” as the campaigns unfold.
The back of the box tell us the game scale is Company/Platoon at 500 meters per hex and each turn representing about two hours. That’s fine until you realize Operation Mercury is trying to recreate the entire campaign of multiple divisions fighting at the company level across most of the island of Crete:
OPERATION MERCURY maintains the same level of detail and scale as other Grand Tactical Series (GTS) games. Players command divisions and maneuver company-sized units to fight one of the most desperate battles of the war. Using the GTS 2.0 rules, OPERATION MERCURY offers two players or teams a wide range of scenarios ranging from a single small map with a few units on each side to the full battle including up to two German divisions and several Commonwealth and Greek brigades. OPERATION MERCURY covers all the major airdrops and fighting across the island from Heraklion in the east, through Rethymnon, and from Maleme to Suda Bay then south to the Askifou Plain, scene of the last major fight during the withdrawal.
wargame conflict simulation
To fight those divisions and brigades, Operation Mercury is in many ways a monster game. The game box ships with 5x 22″x34″, 2x 17″x22″, and 2x 8.5″x11″ maps. It also comes with 8x countersheets (1568 5/8″ counters). Simply put, I don’t have tabletop space to play the full campaign game. Fortunately, there are 14 scenarios (including a Learning Scenario) of which eight require two maps or less.
The many counters in Operation Mercury also presented me with a problem (literally) right out of the box. It became very clear early on that I would have to organize all the counters if I was to ever find what I need. That’s because Operation Mercury hews much closer to the ‘conflict simulation’ school of wargaming. Of the 1586 counters, about half are markers and half are units. Units are not generic; each has an individual identifier. When setting up a scenario one needs particular units. I spent a lot of time hunting the unpunched countersheets for “1. Geb.Pi 95” (only to discover that the front of the counter is misprinted as “3. Geb.Pi 95.”). Most importantly, this hunting made me realize that before I punch any counters I need an organization scheme unless I want to spend hours (and I do mean hours) hunting for the particular counters needed in a scenario.
I was very surprised when I opened the Grand Tactical Series rule book. My going-in impression of MMP was built around the mythology of Advanced Squad Leader and the SPI-approach to rules (everything – subbullets and all – numbered). So image my surprise when I opened the rule book to face ‘chatty’ rules. As found in A note about the rules:
There are two sets of rules. The one you are reading now is repetitive and written in a chatty style. It is repetitive because we have duplicated many rules throughout the sections, so you don’t have to flip through the rule book to find the one place where a rule appears. We hope the chatty style makes it easier to read. The tradeoff is longer rules. For those who prefer concise rules (or who find the chatty style irritating), we have included a set of short rules and also tried to put as much useful information as possible on the charts and tables. Experienced gamers should be able to start playing with the short rules and charts and tables. We hop there are no discrepancies between the rules, but this rulebook governs should there be.
First, I dislike chatty. The rules are supposed to communicate how to operate a model; procedures that are best explained procedurally. Second, I find it very hard to find rules in this rule book. Give me an index! The glossary is close but still, an index, please! Finally, the ‘short rules’ is apparently an eight-page Grand Tactical Series 2.0 Rules Summary that is mostly flow charts and again has no cross-references.
What about the rules themselves? Well, there are parts I like and dislike.
Random Chit Activation
LIKE…BUT. I have written before about my new-found love of chit-pull games, especially for solo play. This puts Operation Mercury right in my wheelhouse. That said, learning the rules for activations was not possible in the ‘short rules’ meaning I had to divine them from the chatty.
HUH? It took me a moment to wrap my head around the concept that a Leg unit using Regular movement pays 2 MP for a Clear hex and 1MP if in Column. A change from the usual (expected?) 1MP/Half-MP model. Once it clicked it clicked but it was unexpected and jarring at first.
DISLIKE. This is where the chatty-rules totally fails me. When the designer sees fit to provide a one or two-page flow chart in the Rules Summary I become wary. At first I depended on the ‘experienced gamer’ claim and tried to play from the flow charts. FAIL! So I then had to go find the rules in the rule book (after all, they are the authoritative version, right?). I eventually figured it out but it was not that easy.
Learning the Fire Combat rules also uncovered some of the underlying game model to me. In particular, the use of color fire ratings to show the different combat doctrines. As noted here:
Historical note: In contrast to the Germans, Allied infantry companies relied more on Fire Rating and less on shock. In particular, Allied methods depended on an almost indiscriminate use of firepower, featuring the light mortar, which stressed quantity more than quality. The Purple Fire Rating reflects this style of fighting. These units use Direct Fire and hence may attempt Opportunity Fire. They cannot use Indirect Fire like regular (green Fire Rating) mortars do and so their fire does not cause Barrage markers to be placed.
As I look over the counters, I can’t help but notice colors other than purple and green. Indeed, many units in Operation Mercury have white or pink. It took me a while to figure out the color is the Weapon Class and directly tied to the Combat Results Table. At the end of the day I figured it out but for something that was explicitly called out in a historical note the full story got buried deep in the rules.
I also have a hard time understanding why there are so many die rolls during combat in Operation Mercury. In a typical direct fire combat event the following arrangement of rolls is very likely:
- Assaulter Bravery Check
- Defender Opportunity Fire
- Troop Quality Check
- Combat die roll
- Defender Direct Fire (x2)
- Combat die roll
- Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
- Combat die roll
- (If this was first round of fire a second round is possible)
- Defender Direct Fire (x2)
- Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
That’s as many as 11 die rolls to resolve a ‘single’ combat. And I’m going to fight how many companies in that division? How many die rolls are possible every turn? I don’t understand why so many die rolls are necessary. When your model requires this much effort from me I really want to understand why. Without understanding the rationale I have a hard time accepting this level of effort from me.
Repetitive? Yes. Confusing? Yes.
There are some rules that just plain bug me. Take for instance that Bravery Check to start an Assault combat action:
29.13. Bravery Check
When a unit has to performs an Assault each Assaulting Unit must pass a Troop Quality Check as its Bravery Check. If a Unit fails its Bravery Check, the Unit does not perform the Assault. A Command Point cannot be used to pass a Bravery Check. Note thet [sic] a Bravery Check is performed like a Troop Quality Check but is not the same thing regarding the rules. A Bravery Check will always fail on a roll of 9.
So, same but different? Let’s look at a Troop Quality Check:
29.47. Troop Quality Check
A test a Unit must pass before it can do various things such as Rally when not in command or Opportunity Fire. To make a Troop Quality Check, you roll a die for the Unit. The Unit passes if the die roll is equal to or less than its Troop Quality Rating (as modified by any applicable modifiers). A nine always fails and a zero always succeeds. A Unit may be able to spend a Command Point instead of rolling a die to pass a Troop Quality check, but a player may not do both (roll, and then spend a Command Point).
No mention of the Bravery Check. To find that mention one must look to the next glossary entry:
29.48. Troop Quality Rating
The measure of a Unit’s morale, supply and training….A Command Point may not be spent to pass the Troop Quality Check required for a Bravery Check, Opportunity Fire and Engineer Actions.
Why the needless terminology of Bravery Check? Just call it a Troop Quality Check without the ability to spend a Command Point!
[OK, yes. The use of the term Bravery is certainly more dramatic, but I don’t think too many people are playing Operation Mercury as a ‘narrative’ game.]
A working-class wargame
More so than most any game I acquired in the past few years, Operation Mercury really makes me work to learn it. Although I consider myself an experienced gamer, it appears my definition and MMP’s do not align. After stumbling through the Learning Scenario using the Rules Summary, I went back and started with reading the full rule book. Then I reset the Learning Scenario and tried again. Only after becoming proficient at the Learning Scenario did I attempt Scenario 1. The investment to learn Operation Mercury was easily the most I have spent in at least the last two years.
This in turn also makes me work harder to explain my thoughts on Operation Mercury here. I want to like the game, but at the same time the overhead from executing the rules is onerous at times. Given the designations of units, it is essential from the beginning that player have a plan for organizing counters or many long hours (yes, hours) will be spent setting up a scenario – and I for one do not welcome that sort of stress coming from simply opening the box.
A monster, or two, in little bites
Then there are the scenarios for Operation Mercury. The Exclusive Rules have 14 scenarios including the Learning Scenario. Fortunately, most can be played on one or two maps. But in doing so yet another organizational need was exposed. Of the 14 scenarios, most use the Campaign Counters but the first four are battalion-level scenarios (vice the campaign Regiment/Brigade) that use a different set of counters. In practice this means the first four scenarios are the same, but different, games as compared to campaign scenarios. So confusing!
A lifestyle game
To me, Operation Mercury and the Grand Tactical Series is not so much a
wargame conflict simulation as it is a gaming lifestyle. If you are buying a MMP GTS game for anything near retail it is big investment of money. The game physically requires a big investment in space. You must be willing to invest time to organize, time to learn rules, time to set up, and time to play. These investments in many ways outweigh even the not-insignificant monetary cost of the game.
Yet somehow in the end it comes together and works. For the most part. If you have the space and time and patience to play Operation Mercury you should. It took a great deal of effort but I eventually figured the game out. The game mechanics really are not hard and the flow charts help once you understand them. The scenarios present many interesting challenges and decisions. Operation Mercury truly is a grand view of the battle.
I am glad I purchased Operation Mercury as I can explore a bit of MMP’s GTS line up. In the end though, Operation Mercury taught me that GTS is not my thing; the Standard Combat Series is much more suitable to me these days.
THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT USING A STANDARD SET OF RULES IN A SERIES. One advantage is moving from game to game in the series is easier because the learning curve is reduced. A disadvantage often is the game starts feeling too generic and loses the essence of each different conflict. My recent look at Brief Border Wars (Compass Games, 2020) showed me how a good set of series rules can work with just a few exclusive rules to make different, interesting games. Recently, I took advantage of a sale by Multi-Man Publishing and picked up a few different games. Amongst the acquisitions were two games in their Standard Combat Series. I was able to get one of them, Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (MMP, 2016) to the table quickly. I am happy to discover that while the game is ‘standard,’ it also is very unique. More importantly, Panzer Battles teaches us about command and control in warfare; lessons learned over 75 years ago but still applicable today.
MMP describes their Standard Combat Series (SCS) as this:
The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games. Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation: rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.
With that description in mind I really didn’t have the highest of expectations. I mean, a game that can be played by both experienced and beginner players is a wide range of abilities. Consider too that MMP is the home of Advanced Squad Leader, anything but an uncomplicated game!
When one opens the box, the first impression is a very simple game. In the case of Panzer Battles you get two 22″x34″ mapsheets, one countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, one Series rule book and one game-specific rule book. Oh yeah – two dice.
The Series rule book is eight (8) pages, with page 8 being totally devoted to Designer’s Notes. For longtime Grognards there is nothing special, unique, or unexpected here. The SCS is bog-standard hex & counter wargame. The Series rules have 13 major sections:
- Sequence of Play
- Zones of Control (ZOCs)
- Overrun Combat
- Step Losses
- Advance After Combat
- Hex Control
When you get to the game-specific rule book (12 pages) you start to discover the non-standard of the SCS. In the case of Panzer Battles, designer Dean Essig wanted to capture what made the mobile defensive warfare of the German 11th Panzer Division so special. In Panzer Battles, he showcases the battles fought by 11th Panzer along the Chir River in December, 1942 when they acted as a ‘fire brigade’ against Soviet advances (for details on the battles see here). Basically stated, you have a heavily outnumbered, predominantly infantry force defending with armor in support against a numerically superior, yet doctrinally rigid, mechanized attacker.
Panzer Battles, the wargame, appears to draw it’s title from Panzer Battles, the book, written by Maj. Gen F.W. von Mellenthin (University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). The book even appears to be the origin of the “fire brigade’ phrase. In the 1970’s when the US Army was developing their Air-Land Battle Doctrine, the mobile defensive warfare of General Balck and the 11th Panzer were studied for its application to NATO defense. In 2020 a similar defensive need exists in Poland, Taiwan, or Korea, making the study and understanding of the Chir River battles important even today. It is also relevant to the modern day study of Mission Command, a phrase often used (not always correctly) to describe the command and control philosophy of General Balck – Auftragstaktik.
In order to showcase the Auftragstaktik command and control approach that underpinned 11th Panzer’s actions, Mr. Essig choses to introduce one of my favorite gaming mechanisms, the chit-pull mechanic, into the game. In Panzer Battles, the 11th Panzer Division usually has multiple chits in their draw cup, meaning the force will activate more often. There are a few other game-specific rules (like 1.7 Disorganized Units or 1.10 Barrages) that also capture essential elements of mobile warfare but it is rule 1.8 Activations that is the heart of Panzer Battles.
The end result in Panzer Battles is a wargame that delivers what it promises. The chit-pull activation system shows how the different command and control approach of the 11th Panzer enables it to be that ‘fire brigade’ that rapidly moves about the battlefield to (hopefully) be at the right place at the right time to face the Soviet offensive. It is an excellent case study of Auftragstaktik.
Panzer Battles is not without it’s drawbacks. In my case the quibbles are minor and center on those small counters. As a graying Grognard, I am challenged to see and handle small 1/2″ counters. Even my wargame tweezers don’t always help. One good part is with only 280 counters, rounding the corners (at 2mm radius) doesn’t take forever! Also, at two maps Panzer Battles has a bigger footprint (44″x34″) than I expected, especially in a game with only 280 counters (speak about low counter density….).
Further, while Panzer Battles illustrates the advantage of Auftragstaktik, it does not give the players insight into how to achieve it. In game terms, the chit-pull mechanic clearly illustrates the impact of Auftragstaktik but not how to create it – it’s ‘baked into’ the chits and simply handed the players.
Overall though, I am impressed with Panzer Battles and look forward to more SCS games. I already own Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013). In that game the ‘gimmick” is an ability chose a ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ optempo. I will keep my eyes open for other MMP sales; the regular price of Panzer Battles is presently $48 – in my opinion a little bit steep, but probably fair in today’s economy, for what you get.
Now, about the Grand Tactical Series game Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) and the houseful of maps and counters….
Feature image courtesy Multi-Man Publishing