#WargameWednesday #Retroplay CSR #Wargame – Wings (Yaquinto Publishing, 1981)

I have been working my way through my 2019 Wargame Challenge – The Charles S Roberts Awards with Wings (Yaquinto Publishing, 1981) being the latest to get played. This game was the 1981 CSR winner for “Best Twentieth Century Wargame,” and deservedly so! I am very fortunate that I still have my Yaquinto First Edition with John Hagen’s beautiful cover art

Wings is designed by the prolific S. Craig Taylor, Jr. whose previous air combat game designs included Air Force (Battleline, 1976) – a game enjoyed by the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself. By 1981, the Battleline games had been taken over by Avalon Hill and Mr. Taylor worked for Yaquinto. In the Designer’s Notes for Wings he comments:

I still take quite a bit of pride in the game system used in that series of games, but now, in 1981, that system is over five years old, and is no longer “state of the art” in wargame design. WINGS presents a new and improved  game system that, while being radically different in many ways, maintains the playability of the earlier game system while being far more accurate, adaptable, and flexible.

My impression of Wings is that the system is more an incremental evolution of the original plotted air combat system in Air Force and less a “radically different” game. I think that is why I was able to pick up the rules for this game quickly back in the day and am able to do the same even now.

Like many Yaquinto games of its day, the rule book for Wings used a landscape 9″x12″ booklet clocking in at 52-pages; a bit “heavy” for its day. However, there literally is five games in the rule book; the Basic Game, Advanced Game, Optional Rules, The Duel Game Rules, and The Mass Game Rules. Each one can be learned in smaller, more easily digestible chunks. Indeed, this is what Mr. Taylor recommends:

These rules may seem to be long and complex, but their bulk is deceptive. The rules need not be memorized, but should be carefully and thoroughly read. To jog the player’s memories, the most commonly used and needed information is given on the Game Cards, the Data Cards, and the Command Sheets for easy accessibility during play. In fact, players will discover that learning the game consists of learning relatively few procedures, and understanding what the information on the Game Cards, Data Cards, and Command Sheets means. The rules should be used as a reference for questions that arise during the actual play of the game, and a Table of Contents is included for ease of locating needed rules. The rules do not have to be learned in one sitting. Games can be and should be played using only the Basic Game Rules, until these are mastered and thoroughly understood. Then, learn the Advanced Game Rules, and play some games with those. The Optional Rules should be learned last, and selected Optional Rules introduced as the player’s mastery of the game increases. The Duel Game Rules should be tried only by players who have fully mastered the Basic and Advanced Games and the Optional Rules, and desire a game of great complexity and detail. If the players master each part of the rules before going into the next part, they will find that learning and mastering the rules will be much easier. There is no need for a new player to read further than to the end of the Basic Game Rules before proceeding to the scenarios to begin setting up the first game. (Emphasis in original)

This is excellent advice for any boardgamer or wargamer. Much like Alexander from The Players’ Aid recently talked about.²

For my game I used the Basic and Advanced Game Rules as well as the Optional Rules for Sighting (The Optional Rules, III. Sighting Rules). I set up according to Scenario TWO: “Dogfights” and used the Suggested Plane Charts on the Wings Set Up Card to pick two aircraft in a mid-1917 battle. Wanting to move away from the classic Western Front match-up, I instead looked for an Italian versus Austria-Hungary confrontation and ended up with a Italian HANRIOT HD.1 against an Oeffeg-ALBATROS D.III (mid 1917).

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Credit – Self

Mechanically, the game flows very well. One innovation introduced in Wings as compared to Air Force is the use of plotting by impulses. Instead of writing out a single plotted line, each turn is divided into impulses and the number of impulses plotted is equal to the aircraft speed. There is also an updated method of plotting for maneuvers which helps ensure the proper pre-maneuver costs are paid. Not shown in the photo above are the very small tokens for the plane counters that show aircraft bank status. Although a bit fiddly, showing the bank status directly on the board (rather than being kept only on the Command Sheet) helps get past some of the “tailing” issues that arise from the simultaneous movement.

Which leads into the only real negative  I have for Wings – the size factor. Aircraft counters are 5/8″ but the little tokens are really tiny. Additionally, the Data Cards are 2.75″x4.25″ with a really tiny font. Both get hard to handle or read.

Combat does require the use of tables but with a little familiarity it can be resolved quickly. Basically, the firer cross-references the number of bursts with the range on the GUNNERY TABLES along with a few modifiers to generate a Hit Table Number that is rolled against on the HIT TABLES. The resulting damage is crossed off the Command Sheet and the impact assessed.

And it all works. Fairly quickly. Realistic feeling yet playable.

Wings is a very good game and I can see why some folks use the rules even these days for miniatures. Indeed, the rise of Wings of Glory (Ares Games) gives Wings grognards like myself a chance to bring out the rules again usinf the pre-painted miniatures. Wings was a winner in 1981 – and it is still a winner today.

Post Script

Attentive readers will note that the Basic Game, Advanced Game, Optional Rules, and Duel Game are only four. So where did the fifth game go?

The fifth game in Wings is The Mass Game. This game is really different from the others being literally a separate game:

These rules have little to do with the other sections of this rulebook, and other rules do not apply unless specifically stated to do so. Dice rolls are handled as explained earlier, and only the Point Values, Notes, and Mass Game Information sections of the Data Cards are used. The Mass Game is intended to provide an abstract game – a simple and fun set of rules that enables players to easily and quickly handle large numbers of planes. Two, or more, players can participate, with each player controlling six to twenty-four individual planes.

I remember playing a Mass Game back in the day with many planes. I remember it as fun. I probably need to try it again….

As though five games was not enough, the Designer’s Notes talk about a “sixth” game:

A second game (as yet untitled) to supplement WINGS is planned for release in 1982 or 1983. This game will contain an additional fifty Data Cards and their accompanying Plane units, additional Optional Rules and Scenarios, and a complete “Strategic Game” that can be played independently, or used to generate tactical games using the Wings rules. Together, the two games should present the most complete and detailed look at World War I in the air ever presented in game form.

I never saw that game. I don’t think it ever got printed.

Too bad.


¹ At the time I drafted this post Mr. Hagen was not credited in BoardGameGeek with this box cover. Correction submitted!

² For another really good perspective on reading rules watch this video from Alexander over at The Players’ Aid


Feature image BoardGameGeek.com

 

#Wargame #Retroplay – The Ironclads (Excalibre Games,1993)

The next game in my 2019 Charles S. Roberts Wargame Challenge is The Ironclads. This game, by designer John Fuseler, was originally published by Yaquinto in 1979. Long ago I owned a copy of the Yaquinto edition, and equally long ago I made a terrible mistake and traded it away. In the years since, I picked up the newer (as in 1993 vintage) Excalibre Games Second Edition. Among The Ironclads fans, the Excalibre Games edition is heavily criticized. The two biggest criticisms are the use of side-view ship counters (instead of the classic top-down view) and the horrendous font selection in the rule book. I am not going to argue a counterpoint; I strongly agree that the criticism is fair and richly deserved. However, I will argue that even after all these years the core game engine of The Ironclads delivers an awesome American Civil War naval wargaming experience.

Some of the game mechanics used in The Ironclads shows it’s retro-wargame heritage. Preparing to play takes a while because for each ship the player must create a Log Sheet which requires a (somewhat) tedious transfer of information from Data Cards to the Log. A modern solution would be a file with print-on-demand logsheets. Indeed, the files pages for The Ironclads on BoardGameGeek includes just such a file!

The Ironclads uses Plotted Movement which is certainly not a game mechanic in vogue these days. However, in The Ironclads it works given the smaller speeds and impact of river currents on the ships. Gunfire Combat requires the use of multiple tables (Gun Hit Probability Table, Position of Hit on Vessel Table, Section of Vessel Hit Table, and Hit Damage Table). This sounds complicated and time-consuming but I found that if I rolled five d6 (2x black, green, white, and red) at once I streamlined the entire process. The 2x black d6 determined a hit, the green plus white gave me the location (Position & Section) and the red determined damage. Roll them all at once and go!

I will admit that Ramming Combat is a bit complicated as it requires the use of four different combat tables and some math. Thankfully, I find that ramming occurs only occasionally in my games so the rule is called upon infrequently. I would make reorganizing the combat tables as a whole a priority effort in any updated edition.

As I relearned the game, I was surprised by just how much “game” the Basic Game covers. The Advanced Rules are few and very easy to add to the game with little real increase in complexity. 

My battle used Scenario 2: Ossabaw Sound, Georgia, June 17, 1863. This battle features CSS Atlanta‘s run down a river against two Union ironclads; USS Weehawken and USS Nahant (both Passaic-class Monitors). This is an interesting battle if for no other reason then the match up of guns. For the Rebs the best guns on Atlanta are 7″ Brooke Rifles which are best against the Union monitors when within 7 hexes (~700 yds). On the Union side both monitors have 11″ and 15″ Dahlgren guns in a turret which should easily penetrate Atlanta – when within 4 hexes (~400 yds). The Dahlgren guns can also only fire every other turn. Atlanta must run down river (avoiding shoals) and try to inflict maximum damage to at least one monitor and either make a run across the last stretch of open water board to escape or return upriver to her starting position.

Historically, the real battle was not much of a contest:

At the crack of dawn on 16 [sic] June 1863, after toiling along the shallow waters of the narrow and winding reaches of the river and losing several days, the first because of running aground, then again because a boiler’s valve had to be replaced, the Atlanta advanced into Warsaw Sound and was immediately sighted by the Federals.

[U.S. Navy Captain John] Rodgers steered to attack with both his ironclads. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Atlanta grounded and heeled enough to make it impossible to use her guns. The Weehawken, followed by the Nahant, closed to within three hundred yards and began to pound the inert, immobile ship with their huge 15-inch and 11-inch Dahlgrens. It was no longer a battle: it was target practice that would fast become an execution. (Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy, Naval Institute Press, 1996; p. 215)

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The capture of CSS Atlanta (at left) by USS Weehawken, in Wassaw Sound, Georgia, 17 June 1863 (americancivilwar.com)

My battle ran a bit different. Atlanta and Weehawken first met in the river. Atlanta was a bit speedier with the current pushing her along while Weehawken was slowed moving against the current. Both ships were also restricted in their maneuvers by the need to avoid active shoals and only got a few shots off at each other before it became a stern chase for Weehawken. Atlanta then had to get past Nahant which had fewer shoals to worry about and was able to close the range. Both Atlanta and Nahant took damage. 

At this point Atlanta should have simply escaped but, when reading a bit about Atlanta’s captain, William H. Webb, I noted this description of the man: “…he lacked not bravery but good sense.” (Luraghi, p. 215). So Atlanta did not flee but continued to fight.

The rest of the battle consisted of Atlanta trying to fight from within her “immunity zone”; at ranges between 500-700 yards where her Brooke Rifles could damage the monitors while staying outside of the most dangerous range of the Dahlgrens. At this range her armor was proof against at least the 11″ Dahlgrens. On the other side, although Weehawken and Nahant could only fire each gun every other turn they had the advantage of numbers and boxed Atlanta in. Atlanta found herself being ground down and by the time she had sufficiently damaged Nahant to partially meet her victory condition she was in turn also crippled. Atlanta tried to exit the board (the second part of her victory criteria) but was run down by Weehawken and pounded into a sinking condition for a Union victory.

Even as I write this post-action report I am amazed by the narrative of battle The Ironclads builds. Mechanically the game flows quickly even with plotted movement and multi-roll combat resolution. With a bit of some organization the different tables that must be referenced and those multiple die rolls can be found and resolved quickly. In replaying The Ironclads after so many years I discovered not a complicated simulation of naval warfare in the American Civil War, but a very playable wargame that enables players to build a vivid narrative experience of those battles.

 

 

#Retroplay #Wargame – StarSoldier: Tactical Warfare in the 25th Century (SPI, 1977)

StarSoldier is one of the oldest and personally lowest rated wargames in my game collection. It is a science fiction wargame of man-to-man/alien/robot/xenophobe skirmish combat in the far future. My copy of StarSoldier is in an SPI flat folio that I traded a friend for when we were heavy into the playing the (Classic) Traveller RPG. Although BoardGameGeek shows it as a 6.2 rating, many years ago I rated it a 5 (Mediocre – Take it or leave it). This past weekend I pulled it off the shelf and played the Basic Game. I now need to revise my opinion.

The rules for StarSolider are covered in 20 pages of triple-column type. The Basic Game, rules 1.0 thru 13.0, cover a bit over eight (8) pages. The other 12 pages include eight (8) pages of Standard Game rules and scenarios with the balance being rules for linking StarSoldier to StarForce and Designer’s/Developer’s Notes and charts.

After playing StarSoldier for the first time in nearly 30 years I have a new appreciation for the design. In part this is because I have become a bit of a “wargame design engineer” and analyze the game mechanics. Tis is important because by modern publishing standards StarSoldier is very plain. The muted color palette for the unimaginative map and counters screams mediocrity.  However, the mediocre presentation distracts from a rather elegant set of game mechanics.

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Aside from the cover not visually stunning (Courtesy BGG)

Now, the game mechanics in StarSoldier are not perfect. I think what originally turned me off to StarSoldier was tracking and plotting the expenditure of Task Points. Each StarSoldier has a Task Point Allowance that can be spent each turn to accomplish various tasks. Task Points are tracked on the Task Point Track Marker while each turn the expenditure is plotted. This dual tracking/expenditure system is inelegant to say the least.

That said, the real elegance of the game system is its ability to distinguish between various species. Each species is rated by a Task Point Allowance (combat ability), Efficiency Rating (experience), and Recovery Rate (recovery from injury/shock, etc).

The second part of the design elegance is those Efficiency Ratings. In combat, the Fire Combat Attack Strength is the firing soldier’s Efficiency Rating multiplied by the number of Task Points expended. Combat is not a matter of odds differential but a comparison of attack strength versus a defense strength with loses expressed in Task Points. Hits reduce the number of Task Points available and, if the TPA ever reached zero, the combatant is killed. The Recovery Rating is literally the speed that lost Task Points are recovered.

Thus, it is easy to see the differences in various species. In a nod to many classic sci-fi tropes, in the Standard Game the Humans have a TPA of 9, Efficiency Rating of 2, and a Recovery Rate of 3 whereas the Xenophobe has a TPA of 9 with Efficiency and Recovery Ratings of 1. This matchup is the classic “smart” Human versus a more numerous, but less sophisticated alien threat.

I also really enjoy how StarSoldier can be used to play out many of those classic sci-fi tropes. I mean, what other game has a rule titled, “Protecting Settlers from the Local Fauna.”  There is no better setup than this:

It is rare for StarSoldiers to be seriously challenged by non-sentient organisms other than, perhaps, cold viruses-but on Delta Paconis II, Humans ran into the Dinkblog**, a carnivorous four-legged creature possessing the ability to teleport itself. Unfortunately, it quickly acquired a taste for Humans, and troops had to be called in to cope with the creatures.

The game mechanics in StarSoldier are actually mechanically streamlined while being appropriate and evocative of the theme of the game. Executing the mechanics is relatively fast in smaller battles but in larger games the need to track the number of Task Points and plot each individual soldiers actions does bog down play. This makes StarSoldier best suited to small actions.

With all these thoughts in mind, I am raising my BGG rating for this game to a 6 (OK- Will play if in the mood). I am also going to rate the Game Weight as a 2Medium Light. Although the game is rated at 120 minutes play on BGG, in a smaller scenario the play time can be much shorter.

** – Dinkblog is a nod to the Blinkdog found in Dungeons & Dragons.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

Latest #Grogpiphany – Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (@gmtgames, 1990) #Wargame #Retroplay

img_2594My plays this week of Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990) gave me my latest Gropiphany. In replaying the game after many years I discovered a real gem. The back-of-the-box claims in this case correct; an innovative combat resolution mechanic integrated with a naval and air game combined with just the right amount of chrome rules makes for a very thematic and replayable game. Bottom Line – Operation Shoestring models the battles in an innovative, and fun playing, fashion providing great insight into the campaign.

Presentation

Operation Shoestring was published near the beginning of the GMT Games era. The components are not exciting but functional; a paper 22″x34″ map and 600 counters (a bit thin for my taste). The rule book is 24 pages, double column, with few illustrations. The player aid cards are dead simple. The box itself is the GMT standard 2″ deep; which is 1″ more than is needed even with an enclosed die! There is also this LAST MINUTE ERRATA AND NOTE (p. 18) that I find quite humorous and shows that GMT was still learning the ropes of publishing wargames:

You’ll note that we put the Victory Point Track in a really DUMB place. That’s right — on the Japanese Hidden Movement Chart!! So how’s the American ever going to know what the score is? Sorry, this is a definite screw-up, but the cards area already printed, so do this: photocopy or cut the Victory Point Track from the Japanese Hidden Movement Chart and place it where BOTH players can use it!

The box art is recycled Rodger B. MacGowan art. I first this saw this art on Beachhead (Yaquinto, 1980). It is one of my favorites! I don’t mind the recycled usage of this great art; for me the art of Rodger MacGowan is synonymous with wargames.

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Beachhead (Yaquinto, 1980)

Playability

At first look, Operation Shoestring appears to be classically daunting hex & counter wargame. The ‘wall-o-text’ rule book and several pages of charts and tables, along with multiple player aids and 600 counters makes the game look complex. The real gem of game design is in how all the game mechanics integrate together into a smooth system that covers two levels of war; an abstracted higher-operational level look at naval & air combat and a lower-operational level treatment of the ground war.

Mechanics

Operation Shoestring is in many ways two games in one. The main game actually is the ground combat on Guadalcanal played at the operational level of war with Company-size units fighting in 1-mile hexes over the course of 3-1/2 day turns. The second (and secondary) game is the Naval-Air game, played only on odd turns (weekly), that simulates the naval and air battles around the island. Operation Shoestring is part of the GMT Operational System which focuses on the interaction of the maneuver, bombardment, and assault combat systems. Units are rated for morale and efficiency which are just as important as formation strength in combat. This is the same system used by Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965. As the Designer’s Notes put it:

In order for players to use this combat system to best advantage, they will need to become proficient at utilizing all three types of combat. Knowing when, where, and how to declare combat is the key to doing this. The sequence of play forces the attacking player to make irrevocable combat declarations. Tis roughly simulates headquarters’ final attack orders which commit troops to combat. Manuever combats can force the enemy to retreat, become fatigued, and, depending on the terrain the enemy occupies, possibly lose troops. Assault combat will eliminate units, pure and simple, but can be very costly to the attacker as well. Bombardment combat represents the predatory bombardments which inevitably precede an attack. Ideally, all three types of combat should be brought against a defending hex.

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Ground Combat Results Tables

Maneuver and Assault Combat use different Combat Tables. Maneuver Combat is uses a classic combat odds ratio table. Only the Attacker fires. Combat results are expressed in terms of retreat, step-losses, and Fatigue. Assault Combat uses pure combat strength. However, unlike Maneuver Combat, the defender gets to fire first and there is a chance (based on the Efficiency of the involved units) for a second round of combat. Assault Combat results are all expressed as step-losses.

The second game is the Naval & Air game. Naval-Air play happens only on odd-numbered turns in the Strategic Interphase. The naval and air rules are abstracted to a degree, as explained in 18.0 Naval Units:

Although aircraft carriers and battleships were the largest and most fearsome weapons of the day, the Guadalcanal campaign had its share of cruiser battles and submarine attacks as well. Even the lowly DDs and Trasnports contributed mightily to the naval aspects of the campaign. We have chosen to represent all these types, some abstractly, to give players the “feel” for the challenges both sides faced at Guadalcanal. In essence, the “raison d’être” for both navies was to get troops and supplies to Guadalcanal. The essential strategy ws much more than “Let’s go sink the other guy’s ships.” Players who don’t recognize this and play accordingly will soon find themselves with armies that are dying on the vine on Guadalcanal.

The Air/Naval Phase is not played on the map but on separate Player Aid cards. The most important results of the Air/Naval Phase are the naval and air units “bombarding” Guadalcanal; that is, those available to provide bombardment or combat support during the next two Player Turns. Additionally, the number of Transports that make it though determine the supply status of the units on the island.

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Naval-Air Player Cards

I usually don’t like supply rules in my wargames, often because it can be an administrative burden that interferes with my enjoyment of the game. In Operation Shoestring, supply is a vital factor like in the historical campaign and to get the historic “feel” of the battles supply rules are needed. Fortunately, in Operation Shoestring the most burdensome aspects of supply are abstracted and the effects of no supply are concentrated on. Basically, during the Air/Naval Phase of the Strategic Interphase, both sides try to get supply to the island. Depending on the volume of supplies delivered, units are either in “Full Supply,” “Low Supply,” or “No Supply.” This supply state affects combat (16.3) and the die roll for Attrition and Disease (16.4).

The “chrome” rules in Operation Shoestring are not burdensome on the game. As with most Pacific War games, there is the obligatory Banzai Charge rule (14.3). The game is designed for hidden movement but can be played without it with little lose in flavor. Another rule that makes for great replayability is the variable Automatic Victory Conditions for longer games. Basically, each player draws a number of chits from his group of 10 Auto Victory Conditions. Depending upon the scenario, if the player achieves X number of the conditions, they win regardless of Victory Point totals!

Historical Flavor

We have found that the naval units are ABSOLUTELY the most important ones in the game. One look at the vicious supply and attrition/disease rules should convince any sane player to make a major effort at sea. When to make that big effort, and how long to sustain it, is each player’s choice. (Designer’s Notes)

If naval units are the most important units in the game, why is the naval-air game secondary to the ground? That’s because this game gets the relationship right; the naval and air forces are there to enable the ground units. By focusing on the ground units, the players experience the vital need to control the seas and air around the island to deliver supply and troops. Even a superficial reading of books like Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer which focuses on the sea battles or The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign by John B. Lundstrum that focuses on  the air campaign reveal that those battles were fought in support of the boots on the ground.

Support

Limited. There is a virtually inactive section on CONSIMWORLD forums devoted to Operation Shoestring, and the BGG forum sees no real real activity either. That’s too bad. A sister game, Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 got an updated reprint in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. Given a graphic overhaul, Operation Shoestring could be brought up to “modern” standards and make a great game.

Bottom Line

I first rated the game on BoardGameGeek 12 years ago. At the time, I rated it a 6.5 (6 = Ok – will play if in the mood) and really only remembered it for its Air-Sea-Land interaction. At the time, I was almost exclusively a naval wargamer and focused on that part of the game. Given this was not a “pure” naval game I knocked it’s rating and set it aside.

That was a mistake; a tragedy in many ways.

Operation Shoestring, though focusing on the ground combat with an abstracted naval-air system added on, captures the main themes of the campaign well. It is probably the most complete, and playable, operational-level of war depiction of the Guadalcanal campaign in wargaming. The desperate defensive battle on land, supported by naval forces attempting to deliver supply, with limited air power available to both sides, is represented fully. There is much to learn about the history of the battle from this game, and much insight to be gained as to the proper role of naval and air power in a campaign.

#Wargame Retroplay – Rockets Red Glare (Simulations Canada, 1981)

I HAVE BEEN PLAYING WARGAMES since 1979. In my early years, I really was more a tactical wargamer than playing operational or strategic-levels. I also was firmly rooted in  the World War II or Modern-eras with a healthy dose of science fiction games. So I am not sure when, or even how, I ended added Rockets Red Glare: An Operational & Strategic Study of the War of 1812 in North America to my collection. This Stephen Newberg design published by Simulations Canada in 1981 has sat on my gaming shelves for years unpunched and unplayed. This past week, while looking for a weekday evening game, I pulled this one off the shelf for no other particular reason and opened the rulebook.

My gawd…I have missed an incredible game.

Presentation

By today’s standards, the presentation of Rockets Red Glare is very underwhelming. It has a desktop publishing feel to it. The dark pink(?) rulebook is 12 pages (including cover) without page numbers. The rules are presented using the classic SPI rules structure (A / A1.0 / A1.1/ etc.). Although the page count is small, each page is a wall-o-text with few graphics. The baby-blueish map over a white background with tan or blue text is functional but won’t win any graphical awards. The map actually has three sections; the Strategic Map, the Operational Map, and various boxes and tables.

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This one is a boxed version…mine is just bagged (Courtesy BGG)

Playability

Rockets Red Glare is in many ways a classic hex & counter wargame. Two players, a very intricate Sequence of Play, cardboard chits, and dice rolling against a CRT (Combat Results Table). Rockets Red Glare is also two (nearly three) wargames in one.

Each turn represents one quarter of a year and starts with the first game using a Strategic Turn. Using a map of North America stretching from Boston to New Orleans, as well as the waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and off New England, the British and American players vie for dominance. Most importantly, the Strategic Turn features a Naval Phase for both players where the war at sea takes place. Although part of the Strategic Turn, these Naval Phases virtually count as a separate game unto themselves!

Following the Strategic Turn, play shifts to the second game in the Operational Turn which is played out on a map of the Great Lakes border area between the US and Canada. Here, in addition to the expected land combat, there can be naval operations on the Great Lakes.

Mechanics

Amazingly, playing the two levels of war in Rockets Red Glare is accomplished using a common set of counters and fairly unsophisticated rules. Three mechanics of the game jump out at me; the Naval Phase in the Strategic Turn, Land Unit movement, and Combat.

As a long-time naval wargamer, the war at sea has always interested me. Rockets Red Glare pits a small US Navy against the might of the Royal Navy. It portrays this war as a cat-n-mouse battle between individual US warships and Squadrons of the Royal Navy. The a US ship encounters a Royal Navy Squadron, a die roll is made against the squadron composition to determine what individual ships are actually met. This simple mechanic keeps the counter density low and adds a nice fog-of-war element to each battle. For instance, Squadron ‘E’ is rated as 3L, 3F, 1B. When encountered, the American player rolls a die against each category (Line, Frigate, Brig, or Troopship). If the die roll is equal to or less than the number, one of that class is encountered. Individual ships are picked from a set of face down counters meaning the actual ship may be the best, or the worst, or even a detached vessel (no encounter). Naval Combat uses the Strength Difference but each ship is rated A/B/C where A causes a column shift to the left (unfavorable) and C causes a shift to the right (favorable). A simple way to show a quality rating!

There is no movement factor on the Land Unit counters. In the Land Phase of the Strategic Turn, units instead have a number of movement points based the season. In the Operational Turn, each side has a maximum movement allowance based on the season. As easy as this is, it did bring up one of two gripes I have with the game.

As I already stated, in the Operational Turn, each side has a maximum movement allowance. As a unit (or sick of units) moves they draw down against this movement cap. The rules recommend using a piece of paper to keep track of MP expenditures for the turn. I created a simple player board track of 10 boxes using a 1x and 10x counter to cost down. Although the map is already full, I think a low-use map edge could of been set aside to support this important mechanic.

Land Combat uses a classic Combat Odds CRT. Like Naval Combat, Land Units are rated with A/B/C Class. As with Naval Combat, the Class provided a favorable or unfavorable column shift to the CRT. A very easy way to show troop quality. Additionally, on the Strategic Map, each hex has an Intrinsic Defense Strength. This mechanic again keeps the counter density low yet portrays the need to “battle” through certain areas.

The last mechanic I will discuss, and my second gripe with the game, is Victory Points and VP tracking. Rule D3.2X Victory Point Events is actually found on the map. There are nine events that generate victory points. Rule D3.1 Victory Points – General warns that, “Since the sums can be very high a calculator is useful….” THEY WEREN’T KIDDING. To determine the winner, the VP is reduced to ratio:

At the end of the scenario the player with the higher total compares his total with the lower total and produces a ratio. In all scenarios if the higher player has a victory point ratio of 1.5 to 1.0 or greater he is the winner of the game. If the ratio is less than 1.5 to 1.0 the game is considered a draw.

This has to be a mistake because, using the Rules as Written, the higher total will always win and there can be no draw. I think the intended rule may be a VP ratio equal to or greater than 1.5 is the winner and a ratio of 1.5 to 1.0 is a draw.

Historical Flavor

I am not heavy into 19th Century gaming outside of the American Civil War. The only other War of 1812 games I have is the lite wargame 1812: The Invasion of Canada from Academy Games and the unfortunately closely named Rocket’s Red Glare from Canadian Wargamer’s Group in 1994 which is more a set of miniatures rules. Rockets Red Glare does something that I have rarely experienced in a wargame; mix two levels of war (Strategic & Operational) as well as Land-Sea into a single functional gaming system. It certainly feels true to the themes of the war. The large Royal Navy against the small US frigates. The generally more experienced British operating at the end of supply against the numerous but less-experienced Americans. Indian allies for the British. It’s all here and can be experienced in a wargame of around 2 hours playing time.

Support

As an older game, there is not a lot of support available for this title. Compass Games published a new edition in 2013 as the issue game in Paper Wars 78 (Spring 2013) but it is out of stock. Even BGG has only errata for the second edition and nothing for the first.

Bottom Line

For wargamers this game is a relatively quick, easy to play, very insightful game of the War of 1812. The need to play the two levels of war and control both the land and sea campaigns makes this a very different game from many others. If for no other reason than to experience a game of this type, I recommend it to you.

For wargame designers, there is a lot to unpack here. I the last few months, I have heard the phrases “wargames are models” and “paper models” thrown around a lot. Rockets Red Glare is a paper model of the War of 1812 that successfully integrates Strategic and Operational levels of war as well as Land and Sea campaigns together. There is a lot that can be learned by today’s wargame designers from this Stephen Newberg classic.

#Wargame #Retroplay – Line of Battle (Second Edition, Omega Games, 2006)

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.

To fill time on a rainy Saturday afternoon I pulled out Simulations Canada’s Line of Battle (Second Edition) designed by Stephen Newberg and published by Omega Games in 2006. This game is a revised and updated version of Line of Battle (First Edition) published by Simulations Canada in 1986. The game is a tactical simulation of naval combat between capital ships in the period of 1914-1924. Counters represent individual capital ships or groups of 3-8 escorts, each hex is 1,000 yds across, and each turn in six minutes of time.

Components

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.

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Yup, that’s a magnifying glass (not included)

Gameplay

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.

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The combatants – yeah, need a magnifying glass

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 Battle or 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!

 

Retroplay Retrospective – Air Force (Avalon Hill Battleline Edition, 1977)

Air Force is a very old school-style wargame that has, for the most part, aged well. This week it was my Game of the Week. It is actually a very simple game that can mechanically be reduced to “Spot-Plot-Scoot-Shoot.” The game strikes a good balance between realism and playability – with a welcome emphasis on the playability. This week I have come to appreciate how awesome this game still is even after 40 years.

Spot – Maybe the only real negative. The rules only account for lack of spotting at the start of a scenario. Outside of a night scenario, spotting is almost automatic. Add in the lack of initiative or movement advantage for tailing and it’s hard to see value of the spotting game mechanic. But does it matter? This is one area that playability was obviously emphasized over realism.

Plot – A very old school mechanic that I know many “modern” gamers cringe at. Although there may be mechanisms that could achieve similar design effects, the truth is that plotting is fast and simple; it plain works. Among the greatest criticisms of the pre-plot mechanics in Air Force is the fact the rules do not have any initiative or tailing considerations. This can lead to situations where your opponent surprises you by going one way when you were expecting (plotted for) another. At first I was appalled by the lack of any sort of tailing rules, but after playing am not so sure this is a real negative. Given the limitations the flight model creates (see below) the ability to (generally) predict your opponents moves exist.

Scoot – I am coming to admire the simplicity of the flight model in Air Force the more I play. Fighter pilots talk about “energy management” in combat. In Air Force, your aircraft’s energy is a combination of speed and altitude. You lose speed for maneuvers or climbing and you gain speed through engine power or diving. The speed of the aircraft is also important for maneuverability. Staying at Maneuver Speed makes for the most cost-efficient maneuvers. Going faster (Level Speed) or diving (Dive Speed) means maneuvers cost more.

Altitude becomes a very precious commodity in Air Force as it can be traded for speed (energy) and more maneuvers. In several of my play-thrus this week, I found myself clawing for an altitude advantage as it allows you to dive into the target and maybe gain an extra maneuver to line-up the shot. If you are beneath the target your options are much more limited unless you have powerful engines.

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Battleline ADC (Courtesy BGG.com)

The flight model defines how aircraft move, and a worthy opponent will pay attention to not only where the opponent is, but what altitude and at what Bank they are. These are key considerations for plotting and if one is paying attention it signals the limits of what the opponent can do. For example, an aircraft in a Right Bank is going to have hard time turning left! Using the FW-190A ADC above, if the aircraft starts in a Bank Right attitude at altitude 15.0 (15,000 feet), it will have to move 1 hex forward before it can Bank Left to Level attitude, then 1 hex again before it can Bank Left again to get to a Left Bank attitude for a left turn. Now it can turn left, but needs to move 3 hexes ahead before the turn happens. This maneuver needs a speed of 5, which is actually Level Speed which penalizes maneuvers, meaning each Bank needs 2 hexes and the turn 4 hexes (speed 8). The flight model actually limits the ability for an opponent to rapidly change direction in a single turn, making plotting against this aircraft more predictable – assuming one is paying attention!

Shoot – Combat is dead-simple…and resolved with a single d6. Modifiers move you across the table. Damage is simple.

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Fan-made plot sheet (Courtesy BGG.com)

Look-n-FeelAs I alluded to before, the look-n-feel of Air Force is very dated. The physical components are very plain and simple. The plot sheets are ergonomically horrible (too small) and the tables poorly laid out. I own the later Avalon Hill version of Air Force with its rainbow Aircraft Data Cards. It would be interesting to see Air Force redone today with modern graphics or player interfaces.

Over the past 40 years I have changed my view of wargames. I am constantly balancing my gaming interests between my simulationist and gamer sides. Air Force has been criticized as not being a realistic model of flight, but does that really matter? To me, it is “realistic enough” that I get a taste of what air combat is using a fun, playable flight model that considers a few key factors. The real bottom line is that the game is simple FUN; easy to set up, easy to teach, easy to play, and downright enjoyable!