#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

2021 #Wargame of the Year – or – Indian Ocean Empire at Sunrise Samurai versus North Africa Dark Summer Atlantic Chase with @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @hollandspiele @MultimanPub

As regular readers likely know, I am, always have been, and will very likely forever be a Grognard. My first real “game” was a wargame—Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing—found under the Christmas tree in 1979. Over forty years later I still play wargames.

In 2021, I acquired 35 wargames and a further nine expansions. If the year had a theme, one might call it my ‘Retro’ year with the addition of “older” wargames like Charles S. Roberts’ TACTICS II from Avalon Hill (1973 edition) or The Battle of the Bulge from Avalon Hill in 1965 or Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge from Rand Games Associated in 1975 to my collection. The 1980’s also got some love with Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (SPI, 1980) and Drive on Frankfurt (Pacific Rim Publishing, 1987) as well as or The Hunt for Red October (TSR, 1988).

That said, I took in six titles this year that were published in 2021 and thus are candidates for my 2021 Wargame of the Year:

Atlantic Chase (Jeremy White, GMT Games) – Atlantic Chase is a very different wargame—in some ways too different for me. As much as I am a naval wargamer (look at my nickname!) this one didn’t click with me. At heart it’s a game of trajectories and time much more than locations. There are many out there who sing praises to the rule book but I found the 10-episode tutorial a bit much. (Status Update – SOLD!)

Atlantic Chase from GMT Games

Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games) – The latest installment in the Commands & Colors system. I keep thinking that C&C will reach the point that there can be “nothing new under the sun” but Samurai (pleasantly) surprised me. Controversial in some respects, some folks didn’t like the “magic” found on some of the cards. Personally, I found it highly thematic (magic is often used to describe something that is unknown or not understood) and the Honor & Fortune system just builds upon the themes of the game that much more.

Command & Colors: Samurai Battles (GMT Games)

The Dark Summer (GMT Games) – The Dark Summer is the latest installment in Ted Raicer’s Dark Series from GMT Games. I love the Dark Series as they use the chit-pull game mechanism that is very solo-friendly. In some ways The Dark Summer is the perfect balance between The Dark Valley (GMT Games, 2018) which is a mini-monster and The Dark Sands (GMT Games, 2018) which can be challenging to play given the two different map scales.

The Dark Summer (GMT Games)

Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (John Gorkowski, Compass Games) – Indian Ocean Region is the second installment in the modern operational-level war-at-sea series that in many ways is the spiritual successor to the Fleet- Series from the 1980’s. While I always loved the “Battle Game” of SCS/IOR, the political card game was less exciting, though I must admit it has grown on me with this version.

Indian Ocean Region (Compass Games)

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele) – Another John Gorkowski title. Like so many Hollandspiele games this one can be a bit quirky. The telescoping scale of the game delivers an interesting view of the conflict.

Empire at Sunrise (Hollandspiele)

North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 (Multi-Man Publishing) – Released late in the year, this one barely makes the list. I’ve yet to explore this title too deeply but the Standard Combat Series version of the very popular Operational Combat Series (OCS) DAK looks to be yet another “playable monster” game.

North Africa (Multi-Man Publishing)

…and the winner is…

Empire at Sunrise.

Empire at Sunrise was released so early in the year it’s easy to forget. Also, not coming from from the larger GMT Games but tiny Hollandspiele it tends to get drowned out in the marketing and social media “talk.” Empire deserves attention because that telescopic scale takes what could be three separate games and relates them to one another to make a coherent story. It’s an interesting game design on an under-appreciated historical topic. While Hollandspiele may not deliver the production quality of a larger publisher, the games are perfectly functional and do what they are supposed to do; enable gaming, exploration, and learning.


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

Sunday Summary – Go with the flow of #wargames & #boardgames? Finding Foundation and running blades in LA with @FreeLeaguePub // @FoundationDietz @stuarttonge @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub #roleplayinggames

Shipping woes…slowly ending?

Slowly, ever so slowly, it looks like the flow of wargame and boardgame pre-orders is starting to move again. Let’s review what I know about my incoming games.

At least two games I have on Kickstarter are moving forward and reported being a step closer to delivery. 1979: Revolution in Iran (Kickstarter) is supposed to arrive to Jim Dietz at Dietz Foundation for in early October for immediate turnaround to fulfillment. 2 Minutes to Midnight (Kickstarter) by designer Stuart Tonge opened the pledge manager this week. However, not all is coming up totally roses—AuZtralia Revenge of the Old Ones and TaZmania! (Kickstarter) reported that production started but they will miss the planned November delivery due to the draconian (my description) lockdowns in New Zealand.

I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.

I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).

My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.

Boardgame Profits

The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”

Foundation and Role Playing Games

I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:

I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.

From Foundation to Blade Runner

What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.

Free League put up a website which gives a few details about the new Bladerunner RPG. From a game mechanism perspective it appears that Free League’s Year Zero Engine will be used like it was in ALIEN: The RPG but with some new wrinkles:

The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.

Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game

Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.

Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown, Chapel Hill: @UNC_Press, 2021 (mentions @RBMStudio1 @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @markherman54)

As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.

Author Kent Masterson Brown, in his new book Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command shows us General George Gordon Meade in a new light that takes on many of his detractors. The criticism started quickly after the Battle of Gettysburg, led by none other than President Lincoln himself. As Brown tells us:

Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.

“Epilogue”, p. 371

In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.

Book to Wargame…Almost

When I first picked up Meade at Gettysburg I had every intention of playing one of the two Gettysburg wargames I have in my collection. The most recent title is Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (RBM Studios, 2018) which appeared in C3i Magazine Nr. 32. The second game in my collection is Eric Lee Smith’s Battle Hymn Volume 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). However, as I read the book, I discovered that neither game is really “the big picture” of the operational campaign as it developed. For that I probably need to get Roads to Gettysburg II: Lee Strikes North from Compass Games (2018) but the price tag of $194 is a bit rich for me. So instead of playing a wargame and commenting how the book relates to it, I’m instead going to talk about how several places in the book made me think about how we play wargames and what they sometimes get right, but more often get wrong.

Maps

In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).

The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.

What Meade never had—a detailed map and clear disposition of forces (Courtesy BGG User Brian @kasch18)

There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.

What Year Did You Graduate West Point?

Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).

Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:

To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.

“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102

One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.

The Tactical General

The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.

“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228

While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.

Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.

Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:

The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.

C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11

In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?

[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]

In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?

Let’s Play Operation!

Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.

I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.

But what if….

What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:

Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.

“Epilogue”, p. 375

As a wargamer, how good can you do?

#Wargame Wednesday – Standard has advantages in Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (@MultiManPub, 2020)

For a few weeks a single wargame, Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (Jeremy White, GMT Games, 2020) occupied both my time and gaming table. Although I ended up enjoying playing the game, the time needed to learn the rules (10 tutorial episodes) was a bit much. When I moved onto the next game in my “to play” list, Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (Ray Weiss, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) it was a totally different gaming experience, and frankly, more enjoyable.

Rostov ’41 is another edition in the Standard Combat Series of wargames from Multi-Man Publishing (MMP). MMP advertises the SCS as follows:

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.

MMP Website

Rostov ’41 and the SCS are exactly the type of game I was hoping to use to “Rev My Gaming Engine.” In this case, the “standard” in SCS is the main draw. Opening up Rostov ’41, I first pulled out the eight-page Series Rules, v 1.8 and gave them a quick skim to remind myself of the fundamentals of the game. I then pulled out the eight-page Rostov ’41 Special Rules and read them a bit more closely. New series rules really only cover three pages with the balance of the Special Rules given over to scenarios and charts. In the case of Rostov ’41, important ‘changes” from the Series Rules are a modified Sequence of Play (1.1) and Barrages (1.6).

Quick Start

Unlike Atlantic Chase, which took me multiple hours (spread over multiple days) to learn before play, Rostov ’41 was on my gaming table literally within an hour of opening the box. It’s at this point that I usually slow down; study the setup, make cautious moves at first as I not only rediscover the game system, but also explore the strategy and tactics needed to reach victory in the particular scenario.

Rostov ’41 box back

The box back of Rostov ’41 is actually a very accurate description of game play. I don’t usually associate “wild gameplay” with a SCS title but with this game it’s quite appropriate. The warning on the back of the box is also easy to ignore…at the player’s own peril:

The German player must use his limited and overstretched forces to pull off a brilliant coup. Playing it safe won’t cut it; speed is all important. With a lot of skill and a bit of luck, Rostov will be yours. Then you’ll have to pay the piper.

The Russian player must conserve his forces as the German rapier expends its energy. While the capture of Rostov requires a lot of skill and some luck on the German part, don’t begin to think your job is easy. Derailing that German drive can easily consume precious forces needed for your main effort: turning the tables on the Germans and taking back great swaths of the Motherland.

Rostov ’41, Box Back

Deep Gaming

I usually play the full scenario for new games but in this case I decided to take a graduated approach to my Rostov ’41 play. Scenario 2.2 “Fritz on the Mius” is the initial German assault and covers turns 1-4 of the campaign game. Scenario 2.3 “Fritz Grabs Rostov” starts mid-game covering turns 7-14 while scenario 2.4 “Soviet Counterpunch” is the Soviet counteroffensive on game turns 11-14. Taking this approach allowed me to explore each segment of the battle separately. Most helpfully, this approach allowed me to learn what both sides need to accomplish in the larger campaign.

Playing Rostov ’41 this way took me a few days but still far fewer than I devoted to Atlantic Chase. By the time I ended my exploration of Rostov ’41 I found myself very satisfied. The main difference in playing Rostov ’41 and Atlantic Chase was that my familiarity and understanding of the SCS system allowed me to “fight the battle” and not “fight the game.” What I mean here is that in Rostov ’41 I was able to study the campaign and the history whereas in Atlantic Chase I am still learning the system making game play more about “manipulating the levers” vice “fighting the battle.” As I am a wargamer that enjoys studying the history of a battle I derive far more enjoyment from the later.

Finding the Right Gear to Maximize Revolutions

Playing Rostov ’41 helps me to reaffirm my “Rev My Game Engine” approach to playing wargames. Looking at my current preorder list, of the 28 games I’m waiting for, seven are truly “unique” to me. All the others are either expansions or derivative designs from ones known to me (with admittedly varied levels of familiarity). Although I look forward to exploring new and different game designs, I also realize that I personally need to take the new in moderation. This is also why I have mad respect for content creators like Grant & Alexander (or is it Alexander & Grant?) from The Players’ Aid or Kev at The Big Board Gaming because they seem to always be taking in the new. How do they enjoy what they’ve got?

Sunday Summary – Puzzling over 1979-2034 Rostov Submarine Barns (#wargame #boardgame #books @MultiManPub @HABA_usa @FoundationDietz @Bublublock @compassgamesllc @DanThurot @USNIBooks @Academy_Games)

Wargames

A very pleasant week of wargaming. I got Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (Ray Weiss, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) to the gaming table for multiple plays. I really enjoy the Standard Combat Series and this title was truly a Rev to My Gaming Engine. Deeper thoughts will come in this weeks “#Wargame Wednesday” posting. I also pulled Steve Peek’s Submarine (Avalon Hill, 2nd Edition 1981) off the shelf to support a “Rocky Read for #Wargame” entry on The Enemy Below (Cdr D.A. Rayner, Henry Holt & Co., 1957) that will post later this week.

Boardgames

The Kickstarter campaign for 1979: Revolution in Iran (Dan Bullock, Dietz Foundation) successfully funded this week. This is the second game in what I (very informally) call the Axis of Evil Strategy Game Series. The first game, No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2020) was the subject of a very nice Space-Biff column this week.

Miss A brought her birthday present game, Barnyard Bunch (HABA, 2019) to the house this week when she came for her tutoring with Mrs. RMN. This is a very kid-friendly cooperative game that was really fun to play together with her and Mrs. RMN. The goal of the game is to keep the animals from running away. Every turn, a player rolls the die to see what animals advance (depends on color of die face), or retreats one space (the Farmer), or which is taken all the way back to the barn by the Dog. Then, you draw a card that will advance an animal, lure an animal back one space with food, or show the Farmer (choose one animal back one space) or Dog (one animal back to barn). Not much strategy needed as the game is played cooperatively with all players participating in the choice of animals moved by the Farmer or Dog. Given Miss A is 7-years old we thought that maybe the game is actually too simple for her. However, we were later told she took the game to a friends house and taught it to her friend. So…it was an obvious good choice by Mrs. RMN, right?

Puzzles

No, not puzzle games, but real honest-to-goodness jigsaw puzzles. Got notice this week that two historical puzzles I ordered through Academy Games arrived at the warehouse. For the RockyMountainNavy Boys summer enjoyment they will get to work on these 700mm x 500mm, 1000-piece puzzles featuring cover art from Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and 878: Vikings. As I look at the pledge page I see very few puzzles ordered. I know we are coming out of COVID lockdowns but, hey, let’s show some love here!

Books

With the arrival of summer I decided to order “a few” more books for those lazy evening reads. I started off with Naval Institute Press (where I am a member) and ordered several from the Fall 2021 catalog. Stupid me, I failed to realize two of the books are “coming later this year” so I only got one book from this order in hand (Norman Friedman’s Network-Centric Warfare, 2009). I also ended up ordering seven more books from the “Clear the Decks” sale section—still awaiting delivery of those. I then ordered two titles from Amazon which is how 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman with Admiral Jim Stavridis, USN (Ret.) and The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of World War Two by Malcolm Gladwell arrived on my bookshelf. Of the two, 2034 is very likely to feature in a near-future (no pun intended) posting of “Rocky Reads for #Wargame” since Compass Games is scheduled to release John Gorkowski’s Indian Ocean Region in the South China Sea series of wargames this month.

Sunday Summary – Chasing rules in Atlantic Chase (@gmtgames, 2020) while waiting to don General’s stars in Rostov ’41 (@MultiManPub, 2020) #wargame #boardgame

Wargame

New arrivals this week include Jeremy White’s Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942, Intercept Vol. 1 (GMT Games, 2020). This game has generated alot of buzz, for the most part because of the very different approach Jerry took to writing the rule book and tutorial. Some people are out there talking about the second coming of sliced bread. I’m not convinced.

The second new game arrival this week was Ray Weiss’ Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). This is a Standard Combat Series game. I have come to expect that a SCS game has a “gimmick” or some special rule to highlight the battle or campaign depicted. However, in my first look through the rules I don’t see any obvious special rules. This might be a case where the scenario and order of battle are the “gimmick.” A deeper look will have to wait until after I get through Atlantic Chase.

With Compass Games announcing that Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot – Designer’s Signature Edition is coming in May and after I did a deep dive of Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps (SPI, 1980) (forthcoming from Armchair Dragoons, right Brant?) I took another look at Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). I looked at it from the perspective of the doctrine of the time(s). That sent me down a rabbit hole excursion into “Correlation of Forces and Means.” Thoughts forthcoming.

Boardgame

I broke down this week and purchased the digital version of Root (Dire Wolf Digital). I’m working my way through the tutorials but so far it’s very entertaining.

Gaming Outlook

Return to work full time is taking away game time so I have to rearrange my schedule. More short evening gaming sessions with maybe a single longer weekend occasion.

#Wargame Wednesday – 40 Years Later A Grognard’s First Foray Into Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub, 2004+)

Welcome to the exciting world of Advanced Squad Leader. ASL is a detailed wargaming system that can simulate any company level ground action from World War II. The playing pieces represent squads, half-squads, leaders, crews, guns, and vehicles from every major and minor combatant of World War II. The battlefields are represented by geomorphic mapboards upon which the counters are maneuvered. Starter Kits provide the new player with an easy method for becoming familiar with the basics of the ASL system using entry-level scenarios, counters boards, and rules.

Introduction, Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1

Thus reads the introduction to the rulebook for ASL Starter Kit #1 (ASLSK1) from Multi-Man Publishing. Although I have played wargames for over 40 years now, I have not played any iteration of Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) in all that time. Last year, I listened to the “Unraveling Complexity” episode of the Ludology podcast (Nr. 238) where the hosts took the seemingly obligatory swipe at the legendary rules complexity of ASL. In my blog thoughts on the episode I responded to the hosts and challenged them to get an ASL Starter Kit and try it for themselves before they throw around disparaging remarks so casually. When Multi-Man Publishing announced that ASL Starter Kit #1 was back in stock I jumped at the chance to get it for myself because it’s a hollow challenge if I haven’t actually done it myself. What follows are my thoughts on the game written from the perspective of a Grognard experiencing the game for the first time. Along the way I am going to try to also keep in mind what this game might be like for a new wargamer experiencing it for the first time.

SPOILER ALERT – It’s a GAME, not a simulation, but it does come with a tech manual.

What You Get

Multi-Man Publishing is very upfront about what Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 is and isn’t. New players and Grognards alike need to pay attention for ASKSK1 is “a complete game the introduces players to the ASL Infantry rules.” In other words, the rules for artillery and vehicles are not here (you need to buy SK2-Guns and SK3-Tanks for those).

The contents of ASLSK1 are very nice for a starter package. The game ships in a bookshelf-size 1.5” deep box. Two geomorphic mapboards each 8”x22” can be laid out in numerous variations to form your playing surface. There are also 280 counters that are probably a bit smaller for the Eurogame boardgame crowd (being only 1/2” in size) and, like so many cardboard chits for wargames, do not have come with those nicely rounded corners! Six scenarios each with a setup card are also included. Rules come in a 12-page rulebook. Oh yeah, and two d6 dice!

ASLSK1 Contents

Cost

A very appealing factor of ASLSK1 is the price. Retailing at a mere $28 this game comes in at the low end of cost compared to many wargames and even for many boardgames. The cost is certainly enticing and makes the initial buying decision that much easier. This low cost of entry is very good for new gamers because the “risk cost” factor is relatively low. That said, the next two Starter Kits which cover artillery and vehicles cost $33 and $40 respectively. Alas, when one gets to SK4-PTO which covers the Pacific Theater the cost jumps to $65! For a “starter kit!” One popular meme in wargame circles is that ASL is as much a lifestyle as it is a game. Well, if one “invests” $168 for just “starter kits” then yes, one should also expect that jumping fully into the ASL family will be expensive.

The Effect of Complexity

One barrier to entry for new players of ASL is the game’s reputation—ASL is stuck with the moniker that it is more simulation than game. Even the Ludology crew explained away the complexity of ASL by dismissively calling it a “simulation.” If you listen closely to what they say you will discover that, using their terms, ASL actually is a game with a high degree of Rules/Mechanism Complexity. The complexity and difficulty of learning ASL is legendary and woe be the one who asks to learn to play ASL for they are assuredly going to give up, right?

Notice the ASL rulebook….

The truth, though many gamers new and old might not want to hear it, is a bit more complicated and as usual the legend is not supported by reality. Well, not all of it.

Here I will draw upon the writings of J.R Tracy in his essay “Design for Effect: The ‘Common Language’ of Advanced Squad Leader” found in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016). To quote Tracy at length:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly 30 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 for complexity and comprehensiveness, while its players 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 rich rewarding game, offering dramatic cinematic narrative as well as an intense competitive experience.

J.R Tracy, Zones of Control, p. 113

As Tracy points out, calling ASL a simulation doesn’t withstand even cursory examination:

A player enjoys tremendous information advantage over his World War II-commander counterpart, with a complete grasp of the enemy’s composition and objectives in most cases, as well as an exact knowledge of the positions and readiness of his own forces. Many elements of command and control are either abstracted or missing altogether; the morale state of discrete infantry squads varies, for instance, but the cohesion of the overall formation is little affected by losses. Infantry might halt or even run from the fight under enemy fire, but tanks move implacable forward, their crews unshakably committed until their vehicles are immobilized or destroyed. Offboard artillery, representing supporting batteries, is handled via a process both cumbersome and complex (even by the standards of the game!).

Zones of Control, p. 115

Tracy points out that designer John Hill’s goal was not a simulation, but a game “full of snap decisions made under stress” (p.115). He goes on to write:

All this adds up to a very interactive combined arms puzzle. While the C3I aspect of ASL is sketchy to nonexistent, the basic parts fit together the way they’re supposed to, and without proper coordination of the various pieces it all falls apart very quickly. Flexibility and a knack for improvisation are vital; combat is resolved via die roll, and though a given outcome may be likely it is by no means certain. The occasional extreme die roll often highlights the narrative but need not define success or failure—that depends on reaction and adaptability of the players. Adversity provides the stress, and whether a competitor thrives under that pressure determines whether he overcomes or succumbs.

Zones of Control, p. 115-116

ASLSK1 attempts to limit Rules/Mechanism Complexity by focusing solely on rules for Infantry combat. As a “starter kit” one expects that the rules presented are either a streamlined version or just a portion of the main rules set. ASLSK1 takes the later approach by presenting just the rules necessary for infantry-only fights (i.e. squad-carried support weapons only—no artillery or vehicles). This choice means that while the breadth of the ASL rules presented are truncated, the depth of the rules are not compromised on. In effect, ASLSK1 is a “bite” of the larger rules set that introduces only enough of the game system necessary to facilitate play. This “bite-size” ASL is an excellent marketing approach for enticing new gamers in. It also can entice Grognards like me because one gets to experience, or taste, the game system before deciding on further investment in the product line.

The Book of Rules

The Ludology gang also talks about Component Complexity and here is where I think ASL is rightfully criticized, especially so when talking about the rulebook. The size of the full ASL rulebook is legendary with a rule for everything. Buying just the rulebook for ASL 2nd Edition will set you back between $44 and $96 for deadtree versions, and even $59.99 for the electronic softcopy!!

In a starter kit, I generally expect that the rulebook is formatted to ease learning the game. Alas, the ASLSK1 rulebook is not. The ASLSK1 rulebook is 12 triple-column pages of lots of text and few graphics. As a Grognard I know this page count is short compared to many games but to a new wargamer these wordy pages of ‘wall-o-text’ almost certainly look daunting. Thankfully there is color used but still, once you start reading, understanding the rules can be a real challenge.

Writing rulebooks is an art and ASLSK1 draws upon the traditional craftsmen at publishers Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970s and after for its format. The very formal 1.0 / 1.1 /  1.1.1 format in the ASLSK1 rulebook makes reading the rules very stiff and without a pleasant flow to the voice. This rules format is certainly good for adjudicating rules disputes (“See, 1.2.4 clearly states that a support weapon dropped and by itself does not ‘accidentally’ fire at a passing squad, you idiot!”) but is not so great for readability. Indeed, the rulebook for ASLSK1 is more akin to a technical manual than a book for reading pleasure. According to one assessment I ran some rules text through the readability index was 11.4—quite literally meaning you need be a high school graduate to understand the rules.

A great part of the challenge in reading the rules for ASLSK1 is the extensive use of acronyms. Section 2.0 Definitions take up the equivalent of one entire page of the rulebook. The fact the rest of the rules rely so heavily on acronyms means understanding this “second language” is an essential part of just learning the game.

ASLSK1 includes several examples of play that should help learning. However, the extensive use of acronyms forces one to interpret the examples on two levels—first one must decode the acronyms and then second translate the game terms into the actions in the example. For instance, look at this example of play:

During the American PFPh, one 7-4-7 in hex yN5 forms a multi-hex Fire Group with the 6-6-6 in hex O6 to fire at the German units in hex P5. The total firepower is 19 (6 FP for 6-6-6 in O6 is doubled for Point Blank Fire plus 7 FP from 7-4-7 in N5), and the attack occurs on the 16 column of the IFT. The DRMs include a +3 for the TEM of the stone building and a +1 for the orchard Hinderance for a total DRM of +4. The original DR is 6; after adding 4 the final DR is 10. Cross-referencing 10 on the 16 column of the IFT results in a Normal Morale Check (NMC). Thus, each unit in hex P5 undergoes a NMC. One 4-6-7 rolls an original 9 and the other rolls a 7; neither DR is modified. The 4-6-7 that rolled a 7 has a Pin counter placed on top since it rolled equal to its morale on a morale check. Finally, the American units have a Prep Fire counter placed on them.

“Prep Fire Phase Example (assuming German ELR of 3)”, ASLSK1 Rulebook, p. 5

Aside from the extensive use of acronyms, this section is difficult to understand in great part because of where it appears on the page. This example of play is placed above rule 3.2 Prep Fire Phase (PFPh) and Fire Attacks meaning it is very possible to read the example before the rules involved are introduced. It also doesn’t help that the rules for “ELR” in the title do not appear until the end of the rulebook a whole seven pages later. 

The net impact of the approach used to write the rulebook in ASLSK1 means that to learn the game one must either invest significant time ahead of play to learning the game or find an experienced player to teach you. To help learning to play, I strongly believe ASLSK1 could use a play book; that is, a dedicated second book that uses a highly narrative format to explain a game. Further, the play book should use a tutorial approach staring with setup and progressing through a play of the game. The tutorial should not be designed as a lesson in tactics, that is for players to discover on their own, but rather a comprehensive description of the different situations that players might commonly encounter in a game. One possibility is to use a two-column playbook with a narrative/mechanical explanation of the activity on one side with a facing “as the rules tell it” on the other. This could allow a player to both see how the game operates both narratively and “by the rules” while comparing them to each other.

Due to the absence of a play book or strong tutorial, and given the few examples of play, it seems to me the best way to learn to play ASLSK1 is to first peruse the rulebook to gain a basic familiarity with the rules then set up ASL Scenario S1 “Retaking Vierville” and simply walk thru the first few turns together with your opponent. Unlike many boardgames, one (preferably both) players need to read the rulebook ahead of time—this is not a game where you can just open up the rulebook and start playing immediately after unwrapping. During this first play refer to the rulebook liberally. Step thru a few turns very deliberately. Accept the fact your first game (or two) will not be competitive but for learning.

On the Table

I have to admit that ASLSK1 on the gaming table looks very nice. The small footprint of the game (often a single 8”x22” map) and low counter density in the scenarios take much of the intimidation factor quite literally “off the table.” These smaller looking games help invite new gamers in as the legendary difficulty of the rules look quite manageable when you have only a small handful of counters on the map. Even experienced gamers will enjoy the smaller scenarios that don’t take up an entire day (or more) of precious time.

Solo play

Game Story

When playing ASLSK1 I can hear a narrative developing out of the Sequence of Play:

  1. “Hey guys! Let’s go get them! (Rally Phase)
  2. “Cover me!” (Prep Fire Phase)
  3. “Move it!” (Movement Phase)
  4. “Where did THAT machine gun come from?” (Defensive Fire Phase)
  5. “Get ‘em over there!” (Advancing Fire Phase)
  6. “Come back, you maggots!” (Rout Phase)
  7. “Go go go!” (Advance Phase)
  8. “Bayonets!” (Close Combat Phase)

This eight-phase game turn is actually easy to start processing and understand once you start playing around with the rules. Even the Ludology hosts admit that they “heard” ASL is not that complex of a game once you learn it. I agree.

Snap to It!

As I played my games, I kept asking myself if ASLSK1 was delivering those “snap decisions” that designer John Hill wanted or was this truly a “slog” of a game with lots of chrome but little to show? I found my answer a bit mixed. Each turn starts off very procedurally with the Rally Phase and Prep Fire Phase. The Prep Fire Phase in particular lends itself more to pre-planning than snap decisions. However, after Prep Fire the next phases become full of more and more snap decisions. As the turn progresses and your plan inevitably “comes apart” it really does become an issue of who is more adaptable and manages the chaos more effectively.

One passage in the rules under 3.3.1 Defensive First Fire brought the whole “snap decision” design front-and-center for me:

Any time a unit or stack expends MF in the LOS of a Good Order DEFENDER unit, the DEFENDER has the option to temporarily halt movement while he fires at it in that location with as many attacks as he can bring to bear. The DEFENDER must first place a First Fire counter on top of any unit or SW that has fired and exhausted its ROF. Defensive First Fire must be resolved before the moving unit or stack leaves the intended target hex or expends another MF. The DEFENDER may not request that a moving unit or stack be returned to a previous position to undergo attack, however, the ATTACKER must give the DEFENDER ample opportunity to declare his fire before moving on, and must declare the end of that units’s movement before moving another unit. (My emphasis)

3.3.1 Defensive First Fire, ASLSK1 Rulebook

This is “snap decision” in action by the game design. As I first looked at the Sequence of Play I first saw ATTACKER and DEFENDER in an IGO-UGO pattern—I totally missed the real interactive nature of the design. It was though my plays of ASLSK1 that I discovered every turn is indeed full of “snap decisions” for both the Attacker and Defender. 

As I played and experienced turns of many snap decisions, I started asking myself if this is the real ASL experience. The back and forth turns of infantry combat in ASLSK1 are very enjoyable but I question if that same free-flow of snap decisions can be sustained by a game system that adds in artillery and vehicles and more and more special rules. My opinion here is that ASLSK1, and possibly SK2 & SK3, when played together may be pushing the “limit” of the snap decision game design. As more special rules (chrome) gets added onto the core design of the system I fear those snap decisions will be overcome by managing all the rule “exceptions.” Too much rules overhead is not very inviting and the thought of that challenge may be enough to scare new players away.

Are you Chitting Me?

ASLSK1 uses markers stacked on the board to show current unit status. This very typical wargame solution to manual tracking of status could drive new or potential players away. Some players may bristle with the constant adding/removal of status markers. Admittedly, the markers take away from the visual spectacle of the game and some players might lament losing sight of their counters under several administrative markers. In practice I found the numerous markers very helpful as they are the quickest way to note unit status. Offboarding this information to a player card would likely slow the game down as it introduces a different layer of complexity to the board and would force players to constantly reference back and forth between a unit on the board and data held in their tableau area. No thanks!

Admin markers – necessary but a bit unsightly….

Starter or Finisher?

If you are a new wargamer I absolutely encourage you to try ASLSK1. You can’t beat the price and though learning will take a bit of some effort (and brain cells) the narrative experience that comes from play is very rewarding. Who knows; you may end up liking the game and go further down the ASL path of play life. Even if you chose to shy away from ASL, the fact that you have learned such a foundational game in the hobby means you will be more ready to explore other game systems. If you can learn and play ASL (even the Starter Kit version) there are few wargames you can’t learn and play!

If you are an experienced gamer and either never tried ASL (like me) or tried it long ago and was turned off by the complexity, ASLSK1 is an excellent low-cost, low-risk way to dip back into world of ASL. In a way, the starter kit family is akin to a “chose our own adventure” approach to wargmaing ASL—get the starter kits that interest you the most and learn the rules in a modular approach to mix and play as you like. You may find that ASLSK1 is a good “filler” game that can fill some time on a game day while waiting for all the gamers to arrive or to fill-in when your opponent gets that sudden-death victory and you have some time to kill.

Do I Finish What I Starter?

Now that I have ASLSK1 under my belt, where do I go from here? Personally, I am curious to see how artillery and vehicles fit into the game system so it is very likely that SK2 and SK3 will end up in my collection in the near future. Beyond that I am less sure. I can’t help but feel that the game system will get “overloaded” with “bloat” if one adds in too much of that “chrome” that ASL is infamous for. I genuinely enjoy the “snap decision” part of the game design and don’t want to lose that. A part of me wants to go back to a simpler time with my Avalon Hill 1980 fourth edition copy of Squad Leader and just play that title for it captures the snap decision elements in a game design that is not overloaded. 

Sunday Summary – Starting with ASL Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub) and first go with Fifth Corps (Strategy & Tactics/SPI) while getting Supercharged (@DietzFoundation) and Gundam modeling #wargame #boardgame #SDGundam

Wargames

This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!

Another game I got through a trade is Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). I obviously have the magazine version which is a very small package with 16-pages of rules (8 series, 8 exclusive), a single 22″x34″ map, and 200 counters. I’m experimenting with the game now but my early impressions are “Wow!”

Boardgames

My Kickstarter for Supercharged from the Deitz Foundation fulfilled and arrived. In the RockyMountainNavy Family Game Collection we have a few racing games. My earliest is Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1979) which has counters so worn they are almost white. We also have Formula De (Asmodee, 1997) which is good but a bit long as well as PitchCar (Ferti, 2003) which is a blast at family parties. Supercharged is stacking up to be a great addition to the collection.

Books

I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….

Models

Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!

RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….

Sunday Summary – Now You See Me…. @ADragoons @bigboardgaming @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @JimDietz1 @Bublublock #Wargame #Boardgame #TravellerRPG #Books

Although I have “appeared” a few times on the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at the Armchair Dragoons the past few seasons this past week was the first time I “appeared” on Kev’s Big Board Gaming Channel. As in I literally “appeared” on a live stream. Kev is a great host and it was a good time. I’m not sure what sort of impression I’m making on people as I’m just out to convey my love for the hobby. If you have a chance please drop by and take 45 minutes to watch and hopefully get some inspiration to play something.

Wargaming

My next “Reading to Wargame” series started with my comments on Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem book. Check back next week to see how it influenced my play of Mark Simonitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden from GMT Games.

This was a good week for wargame arrivals. Three new titles are in the RockyMountainNavy house and in various at various stages of learning:

As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.

Boardgaming

My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.

With North Korea making news this week I hope you all have read my comments on Daniel Bullock’s No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) that was published by the Armchair Dragoons. I think the whole world is wondering which Missile Test Event Card Kim Jong Un might play next.

Books

With the arrival of Kido Butai in the house I looked at my Midway collection of books. Not wanting to rehash my read of the 2005 Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully I instead picked up Dallas Woodbury Isom’s Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway also from 2007. Written in some ways as a counter to Shattered Sword, I ended up focusing on Appendix D which is the “rules” for a “war game” Isom uses in Chapter 10 of his book. Thoughts forthcoming.