#Wargame Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) – Modernizing Harpoon 4 (Clash of Arms/Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2006+)

WHEN IT COMES TO TACTICAL MODERN NAVAL WARGAMING there is only one game for me: Harpoon. I started with Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1984) and their awesome module Resolution 502 covering the Falklands War. I kept playing Harpoon even when it changed publishers to Game Designers Workshop (GDW) with Harpoon 3rd Edition (1987). I followed along when Clash of Arms picked it up for Harpoon 4 (1996). These days the game is published – electronic version only – by Admiralty Trilogy Games. I recently pulled out Harpoon 4 as part of my 2019 Origins Challenge. Harpoon 4 won the 1996 Origins Award for Best Modern-Day Board Game.

I find that surprising because, 1) Harpoon 4 is a set of miniatures rules – not a board game, and 2) the Harpoon series has many more vocal detractors than advocates.

Harpoon has never had a board. From the beginning it was designed for miniatures. The Clash of Arms version came with counters that one could put down on a board but that alone doesn’t make it a board game.

The Harpoon series also has many detractors. I have heard Harpoon described as “ASL for the sea.” There is a bit of some truth there as one of the issues in Harpoon has long been that speed of plays dramatically slows as the most important actions occur. I believe this occurs because for the longest time the designers of Harpoon saw the product more as a “simulation” than a “game.” Thus, realism took precedent over playability. However, that balance is in the process of changing.

I think the real impetuous for change came when Clash of Arms published Persian Incursion in 2010. PI used Harpoon 4 as its base game engine:

Persian Incursion explores the political and military effects of an Israeli military campaign against Iran. It uses rules adapted from Harpoon 4 to resolve the military action. But its goal is to look beyond the military action by modeling the political and intelligence actions and consequences of a potential political conflict by including a card-based diplomatic/political component to the game.

Players spend Political, Intelligence and Military Points to influence allies or enemies, purchase reinforcements, execute military strikes or shape their own domestic opinion. Players choose variable starting conditions that shape scenarios, while random strategic events influence play in unexpected ways.

That said, PI took a long time to play, mostly because it took a long time to plan. Once play started, the speed of combat resolution was slow even with streamlined air-to-air combat or bombing rules changes.

Looking at the ATG presentation at Cold Wars 2010 one can see the level of detail that went into the game. But even though PI streamlined air-to-air combat, it still was not enough.

ATG is now in the process of updating Harpoon 4 to what they are calling Harpoon 4.2 (4.1 being an incremental update published in 2001). Two presentations, one at Historicon 2018 and another at Cold Wars 2019 lays out their plan.

Going beyond a simple edit and update, the ATG team wants to incorporate many new understandings of naval warfare they have uncovered. Some of these are the result of declassification of Cold War records, others are original research. The part I am most interested in is when they say, “Virtually every section of the rules will be modified, re-written to improve playability while retaining the fidelity of the earlier versions of Harpoon.”


As much as I love Harpoon (I rate Harpoon 4 8.25 on BGG – # 17 or in the top 3% of my collection of 700+ games and expansions) even I will admit it can use a playability scrub. I hope the focus on playability delivers a playable game that simulates modern naval warfare, not a ponderous simulation that purports to be a game.

Can’t wait!

Admiralty Trilogy – A Willing Foe and Sea Room

Threat Tuesday – J-20 First Flight and Combat Thoughts

So just what do we call the new Chinese stealthy fighter?  Conventional nomenclature calls for it to be named J-XX, the XX being a yet-to-be-identified number.  Many in the West have taken to calling it the J-20.

Just as interesting is the aircraft nickname.  It appears Chinese bloggers may have been the first to tag the aircraft with the nickname “Black Eagle.”  A black eagle is a Asian bird of prey; certainly fitting for a cutting-edge Chinese fighter.  However, I cannot help but laugh that some American bloggers have taken to referring to the plane as the “Chengdu Chicken.”

Being a wargamer, I am curious how to simulate the airplane in a combat scenario.  The recently published Clash of Arms game Persian Incursion has a simple yet demonstrative air combat system as well as the American F-22 and F/A-18 E/F as well as the Chinese J-10 and J-11A (Su-27 Flanker copy).  So let’s play a little what if….

In the game, if a J-10 tries to shoot down an F-22 it can use the PL-12 Active Radar Homing (ARH) or PL-8 Infrared Homing (IRH) missiles.  Although the PL-12 can usually engage a target in “BVR Zone 3” – ranging from 31-40nm, against a Stealthy target it cannot engage until it gets to “BVR Zone 2” (21-30nm) because it cannot see the target.  At this range, the game rates the PL-12 with a 15% chance of a hit.  If using a PL-8 IRH missile, an engagement must take place within the “Dogfight Zone” at a range of 10nm or less.  Here, the PL-8 is credited with a mere 2% chance of a hit.

On the other hand, an F-22 trying to shot down a J-10 can use its AIM-120C-7 ARH missiles at a range of 41-50nm with a 75% chance of a kill.  In a dogfight, the AIM-9M IRH can be used with a 50% chance.   In a F-22 vs J-10 dogfight, the F-22 has a tremendous advantage.

But if you must engage a stealthy target – like the J-20 – the AIM-120C-7 can engage no further out than 21-30nm or the same range a PL-12 can engage your stealthy F-22.

Now we don’t know what sensor suite is on the J-20.  It may not be that advanced, like  Airpower Australia points out:

The intended sensor suite remains unknown. China has yet to demonstrate an AESA radar, or an advanced indigenous Emitter Locating System (ELS). However, these could become available by the time this airframe enters production. Suitable Russian hardware is currently in late development and/or test.

The problem is the Chinese may be able to offset their poor airborne sensor with ground-based systems.  Again, from Airpower Australia:

In the Western world, most intellectual and development effort in air defence radar and missiles since 1991 has been concentrated into two discrete areas, specifically to provide TMD (Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence) capabilities at the upper end, and C-RAM (Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar) capabilities at the lower end. Capabilities to intercept and destroy high performance low observable aircraft and guided munitions have received little if any attention.

Conversely, Russia has since 1991 invested most of its intellectual and material effort in air defence radar and missile development into two very different areas. At the upper tier, counter-stealth radars exploiting VHF-band technology have been developed and some exported, while at the lower end, the focus has been firmly on providing C-PGM (Counter-PGM) capabilities to defeat Western smart munitions. China has followed the Russian lead in IADS capability development, with indigenous and imported Russian technology.

So there is a good chance that if the J-20 was to come out and fight, our air defenses may not know it is there until the Chinese missile hit.

Interpolating some of the data in Persian Incurison, an F/A-18E/F taking on a J-20 would get to trade shots at the same initial range, 21-30nm. The FA-18 would have something like a 20% chance of getting the J-20 (assuming the stealth is not quite as good as the F-22) whereas the J-20 has a 60-85% chance of getting the FA-18.

Hmm…wouldn’t want to be Hornet driver in that scenario….

Wargame Wednesday – Persian Incursion (Out of the Box)

Courtesy Clash of Arms

Just a few days before Christmas I got a game that I had bought for myself – Persian Incursion.  The game is touted as an Admiralty Trilogy Game though the rules are stand-alone.  You don’t need another game, like Harpoon 4, to play though if you have experience with that system you will certainly catch on to the combat game quicker.

I am still working my way through the game which is actually two games in one; a political game and a combat game.  Like the real world it works better if you plan out strike packages ahead of time and then have the plans “on-the-shelf” and ready to go.  That is the part I am working on right now.

For background on the situation and Isreali and Iranian forces see this briefing presented at Historicon 2010.

One aspect of the confrontation between Israel and Iran that is not covered in this game is Stuxnet.  For a very insightful analysis of what Stuxnet may have been and what it likely did to the Iranian nuclear program see this Institute for Science and International Security analysis.  Goes to show you that no matter how hard wargame designers try, reality has a nasty habit of ruining the best of planning and analysis.