I was able to pull off an excellent local trade to land a copy of Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander: Pacific from GMT Games this week. It only cost me my 1984 copy of Ranger from Omega Games. This is my first foray into the Combat Commander series of tactical infantry games from GMT. As there were several snow days in my local area I had the opportunity to do a sort of “deep dive” into the game and get multiple plays in. My major discovery is that Combat Commander: Pacific may be built on many “new-age” mechanics but it is thematically highly realistic. Those thoughts will be the subject of a later posting.
In 1982, the Falklands War occurred at an important time in my wargaming career. I was in high school so “aware” enough to follow the geopolitics and I had friends with common wargame interests for playing game like Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983). So it was very interesting this week to read The Falklands Wargame which is an unclassified, publicly released study prepared in 1986 for the Strategy, Concepts, and Plans Directorate of the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency. What really caught my attention is the study lead was none other than CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.) who wrote the foundational naval text Fleet Tactics and was greatly admired by the designers of the Harpoon series of naval wargames available these days from Admiralty Trilogy Group. It’s a very interesting document which has made me think of many of my Falklands wargames, especially those using the Harpoon series of rules. So of course, more thoughts to follow!
Got No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) to the gaming table several times this week. I played the solitaire module provided in the rules. Mechanically it works fine, though the hard part for me is now trying to get those mechanics to do what I need them to do. Component wise, well, this title is a bit of a miss. The red game board is good looking but all the red counters and markers get lost on it making it very hard to see the game state. More detailed thoughts are coming in the future.
<soapbox on> A shout out to Compass Games is also in order. There was a minor production issue with my copy of No Motherland Without but it was quickly resolved by Compass Games. Awesome customer service. And no, I didn’t mention it before because I was giving John and company a fair chance to resolve the issue which they did to my utmost satisfaction so I will commend, not condemn Compass publicly and share with you a positive story not an undeserved negative one. </soapbox off>
The Pratzen, Austerlitz 1805by Peter Perla from Canvas Temple Publishing will fund later today. As this posts I have less than 20 hours to resist temptation. Yeah, Napoleonics is not my thing but I absolutely respect Dr. Perla, love CTP productions, & would need a bigger gaming table.
With the arrival of new games and my “Falklands Excursion” this week the reading for My Kursk Kampaign was put on hold this week. As I resume my reading I am through the events of July 12, 1943 and the Battle of Prokharovka so now turn to the aftermath and follow-on actions – which means The Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, by Trevor Bender from RBM Studios should land on the gaming table again.
I have always loved naval wargaming. I mean, just look at my Twitter handle -@Mountain_Navy. My favorite rule sets, The Admiralty Trilogy series from The Admiralty Trilogy Group, tend to be more “simulations” than “games.” However, there are two games in my collection that I don’t give enough love to. Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle (and companion Battleship) are playable games that model an important aspect of naval warfare in their era. The games may be lighter, but the insights they deliver are deep. What they do need though is a graphical refresh.
This is a classic hex & counter wargame, with a four-part paper map (nice ocean color) and 420 very small 1/2″ counters. The counters are choke-full of information – too much information for my older grognard eyes to see. The rulebook is written in a bullet/subbullet-style – not that bad to read but there are no rule numbers nor index. The voice used also seems to assume the player has a familiarity with wargames and even states, “these games are necessarily complex.” Although the rulebook is 46 pages the actual rules are covered in about 22 pages and of those five are Optional Rules.
The Sequence of Play is a very straight-forward series of Phases; Weather – Plotting (Optional) – Movement – Combat – Command. The most interesting parts of the game are the combat model and Fleet Fatigue and Fleet Demoralization rules.
In the Designer’s Notes Mr. Newberg lays out the core concept he is trying to model, the Immune Zone:
To me the key to this period of battleship development was the meeting of armor and long range gunfire in the concept of the Immune Zone. This zone is roughly represented in these games by the medium range defense value. The idea is that there is a range combination for each armor suite against each possible attacking gun type where the deck armor will defeat a shell that is plunging while the side armor will defeat a shell on a flatter trajectory. Of course, this means that this range is going to vary for the target ship with each different gun and shell type fired at it. This idea, and representing it without a ton of mathematics to resolve each firing and defending combination, is the heart of this design. The solution is not perfect; nothing is, but it works out well a vast majority of the time.
Main Gun Combat is resolved using a two-step process. Ships first use Ranging Fire to try and find the range of the target. Once found, combat switches to Straddling Fire where hits and damage can happen. Both are resolved using a single d6. For Ranging Fire, a single d6 is rolled against the Current Fire Control Value – a simple assessment of the quality of the fire control system, and if the result is the range band to target or less the fire becomes Straddling Fire. Straddling Fire in turn uses a single d6 roll added to the firing unit’s gunfire strength. If the result is greater than target ship’s Defense Value at that range band, it is a hit. Damage is another single d6 roll on a damage table broken out by target type. Possible damage includes Fire Control, Gunnery, Movement, and Flooding. Certain hits call for another roll on the Explosion Table.
I found it easier to just roll a three-die set (Green-Black-Red) for each Straddling Fire; the green die is for the gunfire value additive and if that result gives a hit use the black die for damage and the red die if an explosion is called for.
In my retroplay scenario, I gamed Scenario XII: Action in the Indian Ocean (Hypothetical) where an Overseas Squadron of the German High Seas Fleet meets two French battleships in 1914.
A careful study of the counters amply demonstrates the Immune Zone concept the designer is looking to model. Although hard to see (unless I used my magnifying glass) the French battleships can shoot further (Short 1-6 hexes / Medium 7-19 / Long 20-25) than the Germans (Short 1-4 hexes / Medium 5-12 / Long 13-16). The French have a problem though firing at Medium range because the best they can muster is a gunfire value of 18-23 (17+d6) which will not penetrate the German Defense Value of 28. Indeed, the best range for the French would be to keep it at their Long range (20-25 hexes) with is totally beyond the range of the Germans guns yet will deliver a gunfire value of 7-12 against a defense value of only 5. Of course, it is also the range where it is hardest to convert Ranging Fire to Straddling Fire. In this scenario, the French are rated Below Average which gives them a negative modifier on the Ranging Table. At Long range they need to roll a 6 on a d6 to convert Ranging Fire to Straddling Fire.
The Germans on the other hand want to keep the French at Medium range, but since their guns are shorter range they need to close the distance. A good range for the Germans in this scenario is 7-12 hexes; Medium range that delivers a gunfire value of 23-28 against a French defense of 25 – a 50% chance of a damaging hit. All while being immune to French fire!
Taken together, the French need to stay beyond the German Immune Zone while the Germans need to dive into the French Immune Zone and get closer to be somewhat effective. This struggle of ranges and penetration is not forced upon the players by any rule but by an analysis of the values and probability and can be resolved in a short series of die rolls.
Two other rules I found interesting are actually Optional Rules and deal with morale. I cannot think of any other tactical naval combat game beyond Simulations Canada’s Line of Battleor Battleship that have morale rules. The first rule is Fleet Fatigue; that is, the number of turns the fleet fires or is fired upon before they lose effectiveness or even become demoralized. Fatigue can be recovered by not firing or being fired upon. If the fatigue level falls too far, the fleet is less effective and if it falls too far they must roll for Fleet Demoralization. Other conditions, like having 50% of the original battleships damaged or one-in-five battleships sunk may also trigger Fleet Demoralization. A demoralized fleet must withdraw by the most expeditious route. These simple rules capture not just morale but other factors such as training, readiness, and leadership in a very simple fashion. They also tend to make these games a bit more realistic and avoids many “fight to the death” situations.
At the end of the Designer’s Notes, Mr. Newberg states:
I find myself still, after a large number of years, particularly pleased with this pair of games. The design managed to display the core concepts cleanly, and leave the players able to concentrate on tactics , rather than process, and they have aged well. To my knowledge, they are still the only tactical board game representations of this scale to get the concepts to work out properly.
This is no small boast, but I have to admit Mr. Newberg delivered with Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle. If there is room for improvement, it is in presentation. The counters are too small and overloaded with information, the rulebook could probably be rewritten into a much more approachable style, and the play aid cards desperately need rework to be more graphically intuitive. These changes are all hallmarks of more modern games. Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle has the right heart (the Immune Zone concept) and game play is already streamlined; with a little graphical TLC this could be a great “modern” boardgame too!
As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.
Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger(Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Rangeris more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.
What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our TravellerRPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.
What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepowerare a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.