#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…


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

Today’s War – Some thoughts on The Ukraine War using the Next War series of #wargame by @toadkillerdog fm @gmtgames

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. As a wargamer, I often look at these military events as though it is a wargame on my table, complete with maps and units. I try to discern relationships between actual combat activities and how those might be depicted by various game mechanisms. So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts.

[A Disclaimer for all the rabid GMT Games Fanboys – I frame my thoughts below in terms of Mitchell Land’s Next War series of modern conflict wargames from GMT Games. You are going to see me comment on (question?) some of the designer’s decisions below. I assure you I have the highest regard and respect for Mitchell and my comments are in no way intended to denigrate his game design. To the contrary, I hope you join me in recognizing how incredibly useful a tool the Next War series of wargames are and take my comments in the spirit in which they are intended, i.e. to improve the wargame experience for designers, developers and, most importantly, players.]

gmtgames.com

Time: As I start writing this post on 26 February it means we are still in Turn 1 of the war if using Mitchell Land’s Next War series of wargames from GMT Games. My plan is to publish this post on Wednesday, 02 March, or the end of “Turn 2.” While I think the popular perception at the moment is that Russia is becoming bogged down, from a wargame perspective it’s still—literally and figuratively—the opening moves.

“End of Turn 1” courtesy @DefenceHQ on Twitter
“Turn 2” courtesy @DefenceHQ on Twitter

Air Defenses: The Russian invasion supposedly started with massive ballistic and cruise missile attacks to destroy the Ukrainian air defense network. Judging from the continued combat operations by Ukrainian fixed-wing fighters and SAM systems, the Russian claims are made dubious. So often in modern wargames when addressing suppression of integrated air defense systems (IADS) the assumption is that the counter-IADS effort will look like what the U.S. did in the Gulf War or Yugoslavia. The major difference I perceive is that the counter-IADS effort in the Gulf War was against an IADS that was relatively “fixed” and immobile whereas it appears the Ukrainian IADS was alerted and “mobile.” Does this mean modern wargame designers need to revisit their assumptions of how the air campaign in a wargame is handled?

Civilian Resistance/Clearing Operations: Standard Series rule 8.4.1 Clearing Operations is used when units advance after combat into enemy-controlled Installation, City, or Urban hexes. A randomly draw Clearing Marker is placed in the hex, and to remove the player makes a d10 die roll that, after appropriate modifiers, must be equal-to-or-greater-than the Clearing Number (ranging from 3-6). While the extensive use of Molotov Cocktails in Ukrainian cities may be worthy of a Game Specific or Special Scenario Rule, regardless of how they are depicted we should recognize that, operating Mechanized or Armored units in urban areas has always has been—and continues to be—exceedingly difficult and it is easy to underestimate the game impacts of that lesson.

Cyber Warfare: While it is easy to see the effects of cyber operations against government infrastructure in both Russia and Ukraine, the effects of cyber on the battlefield is harder to discern. Next War Series Supplement #1 includes Cyber Warfare Rules. These rules detail the use of cyber in battle and its effects on detection and strike/combat actions. It is a bit of a puzzle why we are not seeing the reflections of cyber or Electronic Warfare activities on the battlefield. As Jane’s Defense reported, “However, despite the significant utility that these systems offer, a senior US defence official told reporters during a briefing that they “don’t believe that the Russians have employed the full scope of their electronic warfare capabilities and it’s not clear exactly why.” Maybe they are too afraid to confront Elon Musk…

Efficiency Ratings: Efficiency Ratings are described in Standard Series rule 2.3.3 as a, “unit’s morale, training, doctrine, cohesion, and ancillary weapons systems.” Some military wonks are making the observation that the Russian new concept of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) may not be working as the small staff might be finding themselves overstretched at coordinating supporting fires and logistics. Further, the large scale use units composed mostly of conscripts may also factor into the assumptions behind the ER of a unit. Even professional wargames tend to make the Russians 10-feet tall at times…

Fog of War: The open source community is heavily involved in tracking the war on social media.The entire build-up of forces was watched by think tanks and the media, and the invasion itself is being live-tweeted. Many on social media have called for being “cagey” about posting on Ukrainian forces while being very open about Russian forces. This social media impact on the Fog of War can be simulated by allowing the Ukrainian player to freely examine Russian stacks using Standard Series rule 8.1.2 Examining Enemy Stacks while the Russian player is subject to the limits of optional rule 13.2 Fog of War and can only see the top unit of a stack and cannot further inspect their opponent’s stacks.

Missiles: Advanced Game rule 26.0 Theater Weapons covers the use of cruise and ballistic missiles. Strike results are found on the Advanced Strike table. Some of the Die Roll Modifiers (DRM) that we might need to revisit are:

  • -1 Russian Rocket Artillery (seen as precise but not used to overwhelming effect?)
  • +1 non-US Cruise Missile Strike (Russian cruise missiles seem to be precise but again the damage effect is questionable)
  • +3 vs. Enemy AAA Track (does this appropriately account or the mobility of the AAA defenders?)
Uh…not so sure about “all” of them…

Refugees: In the Next War series of wargames refugees are usually handled via a Game Specific Rule or if you have Next War Series Supplement #2 in rule 11.0. The general assumption behind the rule is that the country being invaded will have its road network clogged on early turns by hordes of internally displaced persons (IDPs, aka “refugees”) which reduce mobility for combat units, especially if they are trying to use those same roads. While there certainly has been refugee movement in Ukraine, we have not seen many reports about how this has hampered movement of military forces. Indeed, the images of the peaceful stand of locals against the movement of invading Russian troops is far more common. Maybe what is needed is a Game Specific Rule where the invader must roll to pass through a hex with a populated location smaller than a city. The result is the number of additional movement points required representing the slow-down and doubling-back required. The attacker may also be allowed to bypass the penalty, but in doing so gains a social media “atrocity” ala the Atrocities rule (“But push your men too hard, and they might commit atrocities that will rally world opinion against you”) from Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019).

Stay Behind Forces: Next War Advanced Game rule 20.0 Special Operations Forces covers the operations of SOF behind enemy lines. In the early days of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there appear to be more than a few “groups” of Ukrainian forces that are operating behind the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) and executing missions against logistical units. Some of these forces are actually not “regular army” units, and in many ways could be considered insurgents. Next War Series Supplement #2 includes a new module, Next War: Insurgency, that can be used to represent an insurgency that occurs AFTER the end of major combat operations. I think what we are seeing in Ukraine today is melding of these two wargame mechanisms of “special forces” operating behind enemy lines and “insurgents” or local armed resistance that are operating even before the end of major combat operations.

Supply Lines: Even on “Turn 1” of the Russian invasion of Ukraine there are numerous stories about fuel shortages plaguing Russian forces. In the Next War series, rule 13.1 Supply is an optional Standard Series Game rule. The approach used is very basic; certain hexes are Supply Sources (13.1.2) and in order for units to be in supply they must able to trace a Line of Communication (13.1.3). Units that are Out of Supply (13.1.5) have their Attack and Movement ratings halved and their ER reduced. They also are not eligible for Elite Reaction or Exploitation Movement. In the Advanced Game rules, 19.0 Supply introduces a somewhat more complex set of rules, the most important (and relevant to todays conflict) of which are 19.1 Supply Sources with their range limitations and 19.4 Supply Depots and MSUs (Mobile Supply Units). The later, those MSUs, are what is being “attacked” by the stay behind forces and local civilian resistance. I feel that one way to portray the “supply wars” in today’s conflict is to allow the Ukrainian player to use the Standard Game supply rule (13.1) while the Russian player must use the Advanced Game Rule 19.0.

Nuclear War: While the conflict in Ukraine is certainly conventional, reports that Putin raised the alert status of his nuclear forces are troublesome. To me it invokes in some ways memories of Able Archer ’83 where the Soviets were convinced that the US and NATO were ready for a decapitating nuclear first strike. How much I had hoped those days were behind us…

Courtesy nsarchive.gwu.edu

Casualty Markers: There are no casualty markers in the Next War series. When military units suffer casualties one simple flips or removes a counter. Very simple. Very clinical. One part of war that so many wargames fail to capture is the human cost of conflict, especially amongst the non-combatants. To some the clinical detachment that comes with wargames where units have no face, no cry of anguish, no bloody entrails, is the very problem with wargames. I for one made my peace with wargames years ago when I read the words of Sir Basil L. Hart:

 If you wish for peace, understand war.

Basil Liddell Hart, Strategy (1967)

I study war not to make war but to help understand and (hopefully) prevent it. I hate war, especially the incredible toll war takes on humanity. Remember that for most of us war is on the tablet, smartphone, or gaming table. For too many it’s a harsh reality. Remember them, and seek peace for their sake.


Feature image courtesy dreamstime.com

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

#SundaySummary – Turkey Day 2021 with @ADragoons @hexsides @hollandspiele @HuzzahHobbies #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG @USNIBooks @compassgamesllc @Toadkillerdog @gmtgames

Happy Thanksgiving!

The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.

Wargaming

I took some down time this week to work on a First Impressions piece on The Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill, 1965). If I get the photos together you’ll see that later this week. I also was inspired by D-Day at Omaha Beach from Decision Games (Fourth Printing, 2020) to look at wargame maps and data. I need to work up some photos and run it by Brant at Armchair Dragoons to see if it meets his standards. Finally, I owe designer Brad Smith a deep apology since I volunteered to playtest Warsaw Pact Air Commander (coming in the future from Hollandspiele) but am very delinquent in sending him anything. I made an effort this week to change that.

Boardgaming

Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.

Role Playing Games

I messed around a bit with Cepheus Deluxe, the latest version of Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing and the modern take on the Traveller RPG.

Books

A long-forgotten backorder from Naval Institute Press arrived this week. Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat argues that naval concepts are often diluted or lost when too much jointness is introduced. It also talks about the use of Operations Research, which I see as adjacent to wargaming. I need to finish this book and then use it to consider wargames like John Gorkowski’s South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region from Compass Games as well as the naval modules for any of Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Mad Narratives and FICINT with @gmtgames @Toadkillerdog @ArmyMadSci @JerryHendrixII @august_cole @peterwsinger

Wargaming China

If you are a professional wargamer and you are not paying attention to the work of the U.S. Army Futures Command Mad Scientist Laboratory you are sadly behind the times. To help you stay abreast of happenings I call your attention to a recent article from Ian Sullivan, Special Advisor for Analysis and ISR at the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Army Training and Doctrine Command. Mr. Sullivan can often also be found writing for GMT Insider with features like his recent “We’re Moving Through Kashmir: Playing Next War: India-Pakistan or “All Along the Demilitarized Zone – Playing Next War: Koreaseries of articles.

In the Mad Scientist Lab article, “337. “No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan,” Sullivan uses designer Mitchell Land’s Next War: Taiwan (GMT Games, 2014 – to be updated in a forthcoming 2nd Printing) to explore just such an event, for good reason:

In November 2020, I wrote a previous post arguing that wargaming can help us visualize what the threat can be.  It can help us imagine it and provide context to our thinking about it.  It can help us check our assumptions, and perhaps even offer thoughts and ideas that we would never have considered.  It will not tell us the future, or lay out with certainty what will happen.  But it can offer us an opportunity to prevent a failure of imagination of the kind warned against in the 9/11 Commission Report.  By imagining the threat, we may be in a position to make better decisions during moments of crisis.  This time, I’m using a copy of GMT Games “Next War: Taiwan” to help visualize what such a fight could entail.

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Sullivan’s article appeared in the same week as strategist and retired US. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote his thoughts on the “Davidson Window,” and his interpretation of testimony from out-going Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral Phil Davison. Admiral Davidson observed that China might try to reintegrate Taiwan “in the next six years.” Sullivan uses a narrative built from playing Next War: Taiwan to tell us a very important story:

In an effort to guard against the failure of imagination, I will add a narrative to help explain what happened in the game.  Rudyard Kipling once said that if “history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  Narrative writing is a powerful, and by spinning it around the bones of a game, I hope to help imagine what a fight could be.  Tom Clancy and Larry Bond used this method in their novel Red Storm Risingwhere they crafted a narrative around the results of a series of scenarios they played of the wargame Harpoon.  My effort here, however, is intended to be more in the spirit of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, originally published in 1978, and intended to help NATO leaders imagine what a fight with the Warsaw Pact could look like.

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Sullivan’s narrative, written as a Report to Congress after a Chinese victory, is actually a great example of “Fictional Intelligence,” or FICINT. Unfortunately, the creators of FICINT, P.W. Singer and August Cole, might disagree.

FICINT

In another recent Mad Scientist Laboratory episode of their podcast, Convergence, guests P.W. Singer and August Cole, co-authors of Ghost Fleet and the leading example of Useful Fiction (or as Cole and Singer like to call it, Fictional Intelligence – FICINT), talked about what FICINT is:

In today’s podcast, Messrs. Singer and Cole discuss the power of fictional intelligence; the importance of storytelling, narrative, and verisimilitude in crafting tales of future possibilities that resonate and inform; and the significance of imagination.  The following bullet points highlight key insights from our discussion:

FicInt, also known as fictional intelligence or ‘useful fiction,’ combines extensive research and futures forecasting with worldbuilding and narrative, one of the oldest forms of communication. The finished product involves an engaging and plausible storyline to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.

FicInt has four “rules of the real” that separate it from science fiction:  research must be embedded in the story (usually via footnotes); the story must take place in a real-world setting; the story must involve real world people; and the timeline must be realistic. Using these rules, any white paper, report, or executive summary can be distilled into its key themes and drafted into narrative.

FicInt is also distinguished from science fiction via its engagement with the policy community. Fictional intelligence strives to react and be useful to the policy community, and thus engages with policy experts before, during, and after its development. This engagement may involve commissioned stories, workshops on how to create FicInt, or briefings on the end product.

The goal of FicInt is often to expose and prevent a possible future, rather than predict it. By creating plausible storylines, the security industry can adapt and develop programs and technologies to create an alternate future that prepares for the situations exposed by FicInt.

The value of narrative, compared to non-fiction research, can be found in three elements:

Understanding:  Narrative effectively packages information the way our brains are designed to absorb it, creating lasting messages.

Action:  By connecting information to our emotions, narrative is more likely to promote action.

Connection:  People are driven to share narratives, leading the audience of FicInt to become part of its marketing. This virality contributes to the creation of a network of people with increased understanding of potential futures.

Establishing FicInt credibility involves connection with target audiences and the real-world people featured in the narratives and responding to their feedback. This process ensures the end story is as accurate and plausible as possible.

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I was surprised they didn’t mention it in their podcast interview, but Cole and Singer see wargames as very distinct from FICINT. In a post where I discussed narratives and wargaming (“#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives” 25 Nov 2020) I dug into some of Cole and Singer’s thoughts on FICINT and wargaming based on a journal article they wrote. To summarize, I think Cole and Singer confuse “simulations” and “war games” and thus do not give proper credit to the narrative power of wargames. I hope that Ian Sullivan’s article above shows the weakness of their position and lets us rightly focus on the narrative power of wargaming.


Feature image courtesy cdn.newsapi.com.au

#Coronapocalypse #Wargame Month-in-Review (March 15 – April 15, 2020)

HERE IN THE COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA the DECLARATION OF A STATE OF EMERGENCY DUE TO NOVEL CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) was issued on March 12, 2020. For me the real Coronapocalypse started on March 15, the day before I started my new job. The onboarding was surreal; rushed to get people out soonest, walking into a deserted office, then being told to go home and telework when I don’t even have an office account. Although the teleworking eventually worked out, I still found myself at home more than expected. Looking to fill my time, gaming has been a part of my therapy to avoid going stir-crazy.

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In the first 30 days of my Coronapocalypse, I played 19 different games a total of 38 times. Looking at the list, I think many will be surprised to see Elena of Avalor: Flight of the Jaquins (Wonder Forge, 2017) as one of the top-played games. This of course is because we were helping our friends with taking care of their kids while they were working. Fortunately, it is not a bad game – for kids – and was an unexpected discovery (especially given that we purchased our copy for less than $5).

I am very happy that I got in multiple plays of Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games, 2019). Getting time to do multiple plays allowed me to get deeper into the design and enjoyment. The same can be said about Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2017) which had the bonus of being a dedicated solitaire design that was perfect for Coronapocalypse gaming. This multi-play approach also enabled me to rediscover Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra, 2018), a game which I had under-appreciated.

Given I am stuck working at home, I tried to find ways to mix my wargaming into “professional training.” So it came to be that Next War: Korea 2nd Editions (GMT Games, 2019) landed on the table. I also ordered a copy of the game poster from C3i Ops Center for my new office but, alas, the California shutdown stopped it from being sent just after the label was created.

As disruptive as the Coronapocalypse is, here in the RockyMountainNavy home we tried to keep some semblance of order. This included our Saturday Boardgaming Night with Azul: Summer Pavilion (Next Move Games, 2019), 878 Vikings (Academy Games, 2017), Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017), and Firefly: The Game (Gale Force Nine, 2013).

This month I also explored a few more solitaire gaming titles in my collection. I continue to insist that AuZtralia (Stronghold Games, 2018) is one of the best ‘waro’ games out there. I also got Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands, 1982 (White Dog Games, 2017) to the table right around the time the historical conflict started. Late in the month, my copy of Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (Compass Games, 2020) arrived. First impressions will be forthcoming.

Coronapocalypse also gave me the chance to play more one-on-one with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. RockyMountainNavy T continued his punishing win streak by besting me, again, in two plays of Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 2019).

The game of the month was actually the last one I played. I pulled Patchwork (Mayfair Games, 2014) out to play with one of Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s students. The box was still on the table later that night and I asked Mrs. RMN if she wanted to play. She said yes. You have to understand that Mrs. RMN is a strong advocate of gaming but she rarely plays herself. So we set up an played. She beat me handily (I actually had a negative score). I hope this is a harbinger of future gaming, especially with a title like Azul: Summer Pavilion.

How has your Coronapocalypse lock-down gaming gone?


Feature image courtesy laughingsquid.com

#Coronapocalypse #wargame #boardgame Update – or – #StayHome & #SupportLocalBusinesses

In my local area social distancing has been in force for about a week now.

Schools are closed thru mid-April.

Mass transit is “essential travel only.”

Office is teleworking to maximize social distancing.

The nature of my job does not lend itself well to social distancing as in-person ‘collaboration’ is a vital part of the business. The nature of our product is not also conducive to working from home. So my coworkers and I have to make do.

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Courtesy GMT Games

Luckily for me, gaming crosses both work and family. The past week I conducted ‘deep analysis’ of a conflict simulation involving the Korean Peninsula. Here I used Next War: Korea 2nd Ed (GMT Games, 2019) along with Next War: Series Supplement #1 (although I didn’t use the Cyber Warfare rules) and Next War: Series Supplement #2 to go in depth. I played two scenarios; a Standard Scenario to familiarize myself with the basics of the Next War game system and an Advanced Scenario to go more in depth. I didn’t really keep up on Victory Conditions as I mostly used the game to explore the order-of-battle and relative combat potential of the major combatants. I noted some professional qualms with a few rules; I will dig into those deeper at a later time. All in all a good ‘deep dive’ into the military situation on the Korean Peninsula. I also ordered a Next War: Korea poster from C3i Ops Center. I’m not sure it will arrive anytime soon as it looks like I just missed getting it shipped before the Coronavirus shutdown order in California started.

6HSa418vRrKP6Dyy%qokEgOn a more personal note, RockyMountainNavy T and I restarted our playthrough of all the scenarios in Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 2019). We played two scenarios; Little Round Top and Chickamauga. This time RockyMountainNavy T took the Confederates while I took the Union. Didn’t matter; he still soundly trounced me at Little Round Top (0-7) and although I did better at Chickamauga (3-7) he continued his unbeaten streak. The game mechanics in the Hold the Line series definitely seem to favor the defender – in each game he has not only tenaciously defended his lines but also rolled quite well for Bonus Action Points and when attacking or making a Morale Roll. Myself on the other hand….

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Courtesy Worthington

One evening, the oldest Boy, Big A, joined us for a rare 4-player session of Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017). [EoR is on sale for $37.50…a real steal for a great family lite-waro] If there was one negative it was that Big A is not aware of our usual no cellphones at the table rule. He rarely plays a boardgame with us so rather than make it an issue I let it slide. After the game the other RMN Boys mentioned how distracted he was, missing changes in the game state and not thinking much about his moves. No wonder he placed last. We agreed that family boardgames are supposed to be for family togetherness and cellphones just distract.

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Courtesy Next Move Games

I ordered Azul: Summer Pavilion (Next Move Games, 2019) from Miniatures Market for a family-friendly abstract boardgame. Mrs. RMN is occasionally helping take care of a few kids when their parents have to work. One of them, a fifth grader named Miss Courtney, is anxious to play boardgames. She is an only child but really enjoys sitting down at a table to play games. I think can tell she really craves the social interaction. She is also a great artist so a game like Azul should capture her imagination (much like Kingdomino from Blue Orange Games has already).

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Courtesy Folded Space

I also tried to help local retailers a bit this week. I visited our FLGS, Huzzah Hobbies, and picked up the Terraforming Mars: Folded Space Insert v2 (Folded Space, 2019). The RMN Boys also used the trip to stock up on paints and other supplies for their plastic model building hobby (looks like they have LOTS of time to work off a few projects – as I should too). I encourage everyone to do what you can for small local businesses during this challenging situation. For ourselves, when getting to-go food we are bypassing the chains and making a dedicated effort to use local Mom & Pop restaurants instead. Not only is the food better but you can also see how much they really appreciate your business. Further, the entire community will be better if they are around in the future!

RockyMountainNavy’s influential #wargame from the 2010’s (h/t to @playersaidblog for the idea)

Grant over on The Players Aid blog laid out his 15 Influential Wargames from the Decade 2010-2019. In the posting Grant asked for others to give their list. Although I have been a wargaming grognard since 1979 in the early 2010’s I was focused more on role playing games. That is, until 2016 when I turned back into hobby gaming and wargaming in particular. So yes, my list is a bit unbalanced and definitely favors the later-half of the decade. Here is my list of ‘influential’ games arranged by date of publication along with an explanation of why the title influences me.

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (second edition) – Academy Games, 2012

pic1236709_mdFor the longest time I considered myself near-exclusively a naval wargamer. I’m not sure why, but in early 2017 I picked up a copy of Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Second Edition). I think at the time I was looking for a good tactical WWII game to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I am glad I did, as along the way I also discovered the excellent Firefight Generator and Solo Expansion, and eventually other titles to include the latest Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (2019) where I have a small credit in the rulebook. This game, like no other, awakened me to the ‘new look’ of wargames and the positive influence the Eurogame segment of the hobby market can have on wargaming.

1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution – Academy Games, 2013

1775-header-v3In 2017 I attended the CONNECTIONS Wargaming Conference. There I met a fine gentleman, Uwe Eickert, of Academy Games. As we talked about his Conflict of Heroes series (I even helped him demo a few games) I mentioned my boys and our search for good family wargames. Uwe strongly recommended his Birth of America series, especially 1775 Rebellion. So I ordered it and the RMN Boys and myself sat down to play this lite-wargame – and we haven’t looked back since. We now own all the Birth of America and Birth of Europe series. 878 Vikings is one game the oldest (least gamer) RMN Boy will play with us. Most influential because it shows that there are much, much better ‘family-wargames’ than Risk. As an added bonus, I am working with one of my youngest boy’s high school teachers to bring this game into his classroom.

Next War: Poland  – GMT Games, 2015

569After attending CONNECTIONS 2017, I tried to become a bit of a wargaming advocate at my job. So I looked at more ‘serious’ wargames. One of the hot topics of the day is the Baltics and Russia. I looked for wargames that could build understanding of the issues, especially if it comes to open conflict. Sitting on my shelf from long ago was were several GMT Games ‘Crisis’ series titles, Crisis: Korea 1995 and Crisis: Sinai 1973. I had heard about updated versions but had been reluctant to seek them out. Now I went searching and found a wargame that is a master-level study into the military situation. This game influenced me because it shows that a commercial wargame can be used for ‘serious’ purposes.

Wing Leader: Victories, 1940 – 1942 – GMT Games, 2015

pic2569281Before 2017, an aerial combat wargame to me was a super-tactical study of aircraft, weapons, and maneuver. The most extreme version was Birds of Prey (Ad Astra, 2008) with it’s infamous ‘nomograph.’ I had all-but-given-up on air combat games until I discovered the Wing Leader series. But was this really air combat? I mean, the map is like a side-scroll video game? The first time I played the level of abstraction in combat resolution was jarring. But as I kept playing I discovered that Wing Leader, perhaps better than any other air combat game, really captures ‘why’ the war in the air takes place. Units have missions they must accomplish, and those missions are actually the focus of this game, not the minutia of flap settings or Pk of a missile hit. Influential because it shows me that model abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when done right like it is here.

Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – GMT Games, 2016

582As I returned to wargaming in 2016-2017, I kept hearing about this thing called the COIN-series. I looked at a few titles but was not quite ready to go ‘full-waro’* so I backed off. At the same time, having moved to the East Coast, I was much more interested in the American Revolution. By late 2017 I was becoming more ‘waro-friendly’ so when I had a chance to purchase Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection I took it. I’m really glad I did. LoD is influential because it taught me that a wargame can be political and a real tool of learning. I understand that LoD is the designer’s ‘view’ of the American Revolution but I enjoy experimenting within that vision and seeing what I can learn.

Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution – Compass Games, 2017

cctri_ar_lgPrior to my wargaming renaissance, I acquired Memoir ’44 for the RockyMountainNavy Boys. We also had Battlelore and in an effort to entice the oldest RMN Boy (an ancient history lover) into gaming had given him Commands & Colors: Ancients. That is to say, Commands & Colors was not new to the RMN House. As part of my American Revolution kick I picked up Commands & Colors Tricorne thinking I would try to get the RMN Boys to play this version. Instead, I fell in love with the game. Influential because it showed me that with just a few simple rules tweaks a highly thematic, yet ‘authentic’, gaming experience is possible even with a simple game engine.

South China Sea – Compass Games, 2017

scs-cover-for-web_1Remember I said I was a naval wargamer? Notice the lack of naval wargames on this list? That’s because I found few that could match my experiences with the Victory Games Fleet-series of the 1980’s. That is, until I played South China Sea. All the more interesting because it started out as a ‘professional’ wargame designed for a DoD customer. Not a perfect game, but influential because it shows me it is possible to look at modern warfare at sea by focusing less on the hardware and more on the processes of naval warfare as well as being an example of a professional-gone-commercial wargame.

Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 – Hollandspiele, 2017

slar_wb_largeAt CONNECTIONS 2017, Uwe Eickert sat on a panel and recommended to all the DoD persons in the room that if they want logistics in a wargame they need to look at Hollandspiele’s Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 game. I found the game online and ordered it (from a very strange little company using a Print-on-Demand publishing model..WTF?). When it arrived and I put it on the table and played I was blown away. First, it has ‘cubes,’ not armies or dudes. Second, it really teaches why certain locations were crucial for the American Revolution. Third, it’s challenging and just darn fun to play. Influential because this was the first game I recognized as a ‘waro’, and the first of many quirky Hollandspiele titles that I enjoy.

Pavlov’s House – DVG, 2018

pic5126590Solo wargames are very procedural, right? So procedural they are nothing more than a puzzle to be solved, right. Not Pavlov’s House. I was blown away by the strategy and story that comes thru every play of this game. This is a solo game that makes you want to play because it’s the strategy that counts, not the procedure. Influential because I showed me what a solo game can be as well as how a game that screams ‘Euro’ is actually a wargame.

Blue Water Navy – Compass Games, 2019

TYt4vmWiRnWl0MUjqKCZUwAs the decade came to a close, I had all-but-given up on naval wargaming. When I first saw Blue Water Navy I had thoughts of one of my favorite strategic WW3 at Sea games, Seapower & the State (Simulations Canada, 1982). The play length of BWN, 1-16 hours, kinda put me off at first as I prefer shorter games. As I read more I became more intrigued so I finally purchased it. Now it sits on this list as an influential game because it shows me how abstraction and non-traditional wargame mechanics (cards?) can be used to craft a game that literally plays out like a Tom Clancy or Larry Bond novel. 

Brave Little Belgium – Hollandspiele, 2019

5SEI37l%T5yLJJc7vRLX2wI have been a grognard since 1979. Why do I need a simple wargame that doesn’t even use hexes? I mean, this game uses a chit-pull mechanic (good for solo play) and point-to-point movement. In a game this simple there can’t be much depth, right? Hey, where is the CRT? Speak about a small war…. Influential because this game shows that simplicity can be a very high art. Brave Little Belgium is my go-to quick intro wargame for hobby boardgamers. 

Hold the Line: The American Civil War – Worthington Publishing, 2019

6HSa418vRrKP6Dyy%qokEgThis one is very personal. My Middle Boy is on the autism spectrum and when his younger brother started an evening program once a week the Middle one was a bit lost without his companion. So I looked around for a wargame we could play in a sort of ‘filler-wargame’ mode – short and simple on a weeknight. And play we did; ten times in 2019. He beat me seven times. Influential because this game – sometimes derided as a simplified ‘Command & Colors wannabe’ – connected me closer to my Middle Boy than any game before.

Less Than 60 Miles – Thin Red Line Games, 2019

Gi47YGXvSuiIL8pOfxkb3gThe folks from the US Army Command & General Staff College at CONNECTIONS 2019 had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles on their table and were singing praises of the game. I was fortunate enough to be able to trade for the game later on BGG. What I discovered was a wargame built around John Boyd’s OODA Loop. At the same time I was reading A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Putting the two of them together was like lightening in a bottle. This is a heavy, serious game that is also playable and enjoyable. Influential for no other reason than it shows me that OODA applies far beyond the cockpit; indeed, I need to look at OODA for many more games.

Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest – Might Boards Games, 2019Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest – Might Boards Games, 2019

nof_packshotBrian Train is a designer that often looks at lesser or different wars and always brings forth an interesting perspective in his games. He calls this game, ‘a militarized Eurogame.’ He’s right; this title is the full embodiment of a waro game. I often argue with myself if this is even a wargame; after all, you can play solo, head-to-head, teams, or cooperative. Hobby boardgame or wargame? Influential for that very reason as it represents to me the full arrival of the ‘waro’ to the hobby gaming market.

Tank Duel – GMT Games, 2019

zGtfgQKQQ+SJpwWwL2RlAwLike Nights of Fire, this can’t really be a wargame. It has no board, no dice, and no CRT. Instead it has ‘tableaus’ for tanks and (lots of) cards! You can also play up to eight players. There is no player elimination – tanks respawn! What on earth is this? Influential because it challenges all my traditional views of a wargame only to deliver some of the best wargaming experiences I have ever had at the gaming table.

There are many more games from 2010-2019 that influenced me. Games with the chit-pull mechanic are now my favorite to solo with, but I didn’t put one on the list. Maybe I should of….

Hmm…I see it’s also hard to pin down one particular publisher that particularly influences me. In this list of 15 games we have:

  • 4x GMT Games
  • 3x Compass Games
  • 2x Academy Games
  • 2x Hollandspiele
  • 1x DVG
  • 1x Mighty Boards Games
  • 1x Thin Red Line Games
  • 1x Worthington Publishing

Not a bad spread!


*’Waro’ – A combination of ‘wargame’ and ‘Eurogame. To me it is a wargame that incorporates Eurogame like look/components or mechanics vice a traditional hex & counter wargame.

RockyMountainNavy’s 2020 #wargame & #boardgame challenges

IN 2019 I BIT OFF A BIT MORE GAMING THAN I COULD CHEW. I gave myself three gaming challenges for over 50 different games. That meant the challenge games took up half of my gaming for the year. For 2020, I am taking a different approach and using two themes as challenges. One theme is for boardgames; the other for wargames.

THEME 1 – SOLO

Going into late 2019 a Geeklist appeared titled, 2019 People’s Choice Top 200 Solo Games (200-1). Looking through this list, I discovered that I own an even dozen of these games! So my 2020 RockyMountainNavy Solo Boardgame Challenge is to play all 12 solo games I own by the end of the year.

THEME 2 – GMT Operational / Next War Family

For my wargame challenge, I chose to focus on the GMT Operational & Next War series of games. My 2020 Operational / Next War Series Challenge is to play all eight games and two expansions I own.

OPLAN 2020

To accomplish these challenges I am going to have to play at least one game from each list every month. The Operational / Next War Series are bigger games so that’s likely a full weekend of wargaming leaving three other weekends for the solo challenge (hmm…a good weeknight event) and other games. My goal is to not to take up too much of my gaming time with the challenges like I did in 2019. Instead, I will have more time to play games that I want to play (or the RockyMountainNavy Boys want to play).

What gaming challenges have you given yourself in 2020?


Feature image courtesy The Tank Museum

#Wargame Wednesday: Maybe you can teach Marines – or – Using Next War: Poland (@GMTGames, 2017) for Professional Military Education

Mitchell Land, designer of the Next War-series of modern wargames from GMT Games posted a piece on the Inside GMT Games Blog titled Semper Fi! – The Next War at Marine War College. In the blog he talks about using Next War: Poland (GMT Games, 2017) as a learning exercise at the Marine Corps War College. His experience using wargames in a military classroom tracks closely with mine and highlights the value of gaming as an educational tool.

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GMT Games

According to Mitchell, the key takeaways of the day for him were:

1. They’re playing Next War: Poland at the Marine War College. How freaking cool is that?

2. See #1. 🙂

3. The After Action Review was a fascinating insight into the warfighters’ minds. Sorry I can’t discuss it here, because, then I’d have to shoot you. Just kidding. They’re just like wargamers all over the world. They dissected some of the moves and discussed and considered options in terms of the operational and strategic imperatives driven by both the game and the real world.

4. I heard, distinctly, in terms of the game: “You’re not far off.” That warms the cockles of my heart (whatever those are).

5. The Advanced Game, as much as I love it, is not the right presentation for a learning experience. We switched to the Standard Game about half way through, which was interesting since there were bunch of Strike markers on the map not to mention the HQs. At the end of the day, though, the students improvised, adapted, and overcame (see what I did there?).

6. Overall impressions were favorable. The students could see the operational issues and anticipate and react accordingly.

7. Did you see #1?

Reactions #1, #2, and #7 are exactly why I play wargames; it’s freaking cool! Fun factor aside, I also play wargames for serious reasons. In keeping with #5 I have found that when teaching the best wargames are the most simple ones. As tempting as it it to “play with all the chrome” the reality is that the extra learning burden can obscure the real learning objective. I often find that when playing with non-wargamers, the basic rules often work fine and the scenario can be used to bring out concepts that need to be explored. In the case of military professionals, the students are often very knowledgeable about the subject but when able to visualize it on a map and physically move units (a tactile function) it creates a connection to the subject more powerful than reading it or seeing it passively on a screen.

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A matrix game (wargamingconnection.com)

The best wargames are not simulations, but abstracted models of real (or plausible) events. Although there are many commercial wargames available, sometimes it is best to make your own. As much as I want to call these games professional, they often don’t compare in physical quality to the hobby market segment of the gaming hobby. But that is not necessarily a bad thing; the focus of play need not be simulating the war, but highlighting in the wargame key factors or concepts upon which the battle may turn. Sometimes there is a commercial game that can be leveraged for this purpose; sometimes not.

Mitchell goes on to talk about the best parts of the day:

The best part was the wide ranging wrap up discussion which covered such ground as having the right kind of leader in place in an allied effort, a la Eisenhower, along with a brief deliberation of how Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton all seemed to end up in the right place after all. There was a fairly cogent analysis of how much of that was planning versus just plain dumb luck. Immediately following that “well it was political” argument, there was a review of what might have happened had Lincoln put Grant in command earlier rather than trying to delay his rise because he thought he was a potential political rival.

Naturally, of course, some of the discussion revolved quite a bit around Russian intentions and motivations vis a vis the Baltics as well as what might really happen if this new cold war got hot. Most importantly, we talked about how best to represent those motivations in a game format. Nugget of wisdom here: it call comes down to appropriately defining the victory conditions.

When using wargames for teaching, the most important, and arguably the most educational, part of the “game” is the After Action Review (AAR). This is where the players can reflect on what they experienced in the wargame and draw “lessons learned.” This is also where a good instructor and a strong lesson plan can make a difference. In a professional wargame I recently playtested the instructors first discussed basic military factors before playing the game. After the game, those same factors formed the outline of the discussion. It was very satisfying to see how quickly the players/students connected with the concepts introduced in the lecture and were immediately able to relate them to an event or situation that happened in game.

If you want to see what “serious games” are like (Spoiler Alert – they cover more than just wargames) then the best place to check out is Rex Brynen’s PAXSims. As the website says, PAXSims “is devoted to peace, conflict, humanitarian, and development simulations and serious games for education, training, and policy analysis.” For an example of how the UK Defence Forces are incorporating wargaming into military education, planning, decision-making, and analysis read the Defence Wargaming Handbook.

Read through them, and learn something today.


Feature image paxsims.wordpress.com

#Wargame Professional – Fighting Next War (@gmtgames) using Army Multi-Domain Operations

In Next War: Poland from GMT Games (2017) the players are challenged to fight a a near-future conflict in Eastern Europe. It asks,

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GMT Games

Can you, as the Russian player, enforce your will on the West and regain your former status in world affairs? Or will you, as SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) successfully use the assets at your disposal to blunt the Russian attack and save Poland?

In December 2018, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) publicly released their new warfare concept, Army Multi-Domain Operations in 2028The pamphlet…

…describes how the Army contributes to the Joint Force’s principal task as defined in the unclassified Summary of the National Defense Strategy: deter and defeat Chinese and Russian aggression in both competition and conflict. The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations concept proposes detailed solutions to the specific problems posed by the militaries of post-industrial, information-based states like China and Russia. Although this concept focuses on China and Russia, the ideas also apply to other threats. (p. vi)

The Boogeymen in this document is the Bear and Dragon:

The Chinese and Russian militaries are powerful, but they also have vulnerabilities that MDO seek to exploit. Both China and Russia are fielding mutually supporting systems designed to be effective against the well-understood patterns, posture, and capabilities of the current Joint Force. Altering Joint Force operational patterns and force posture will mitigate existing capacity and capability gaps and create opportunities to exploit Chinese and Russian operational shortfalls. The militaries of China and Russia have and will continue to have finite capacity of critical capabilities. The Joint Force’s demonstrated capability to destroy or defeat these critical capabilities would prevent China and Russia from accomplishing objectives in competition, succeeding in armed conflict, or effectively transitioning to consolidation operations. (p. 15)

As a wargamer, either a player or designer, there is alot of fodder within. Although I am sure many veteran players of Next War will think they know how to do better, an interesting challenge is to try and use Army Multi-Domain Operations (MNO) in the game. This might necessitate a few house rules or tweaks to adjust the game engine to support the concept of Penetrate, dis-integrate, and exploit.

Penetrate, dis-integrate, and exploit. In the event of armed conflict, Army forward presence and expeditionary forces enable the rapid defeat of aggression through a combination of calibrated force posture, multi-domain formations, and convergence to immediately contest an enemy attack in depth. Army long-range fires converge with joint multi-domain capabilities to penetrate and dis-integrate enemy anti-access and area denial systems to enable Joint Force freedom of strategic and operational maneuver. Within the theater, Army forces converge capabilities to optimize the employment of capabilities from across multiple domains against critical components of the enemy’s anti-access and area denial systems, specifically long-range air defense and fires systems. Convergence against the enemy’s long-range systems enables the initial penetration. This sets the conditions for a quick transition to joint air-ground operations in which maneuver enables strike and strike enables maneuver. MDO in the Close and Deep Areas combine fires, maneuver, and deception to dislocate the enemy defense by physically, virtually, and cognitively isolating its subordinate elements, thereby allowing friendly forces to achieve local superiority and favorable force ratios. Army forces, having penetrated and begun the dis-integration of the enemy’s anti-access and area denial systems, exploit vulnerable enemy units and systems to defeat enemy forces and achieve friendly campaign objectives. As part of the Joint Force, Army forces rapidly achieve given strategic objectives (win) and consolidate gains. (p. 25)

I am sure there have been many wargames using this concept, probably in classified settings. Publicly, we have seen the RAND study of wargaming the defense of the Baltics. But you don’t need a clearance to take a wargame, some warfare concepts, and mix the two together. Just call it “professional fun.”


Feature image courtesy army.mil