LOG-ing in #Wargames

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

 Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps), 1980

WAY BACK LAST MONTH was CONNECTIONS 2019. I have been really busy since with little time to write up many thoughts, but I will take this opportunity to make amends here.

On Day 1 of CONNECTIONS 2019, I attended a seminar given by CAPT George F . Nafzinger, USN (Retired), on Logistics; the Red Headed Stepchild of Wargaming. I went into the seminar sorta expecting a discussion of how to wargame logistics, but unfortunately walked away hearing a siren’s cry on why logistics needs to be considered. I happen to be in the camp of wargamers that accepts (welcomes?) logistics rules in my games, when done right. Even if the seminar was a great missed opportunity by CAPT Nafzinger, it was still a good occasion for me to think about what I like, or don’t like, when it comes to logistics in wargames.

In wargames, probably the most famous supply rule ever is the Pasta Rule in The Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979) by legendary (and now sadly passed) designer Richard Berg:

[52.6] The Italian Pasta Rule

One of the biggest mistakes the Italians made during the entire Desert Campaign was to provide their troops with a diet which was composed, in large part, of spaghetti and macaroni. Aside from providing insufficient protein (this wasn’t Buitoni Brand) pasta has one serious drawback in the desert: you need water to cook it! Therefore, each Italian battalion,when it receives its Stores, must receive an additional 1 point of water when stores are distributed. Any battalion-sized unit that does not receive their Pasta Point (one water point) may not voluntarily exceed their CPA that turn. Furthermore, Italian battalions not receiving their Pasta Point that have a Cohesion Level of -10 or worse immediately become Disorganized, as if they had reached -26. As soon as such units get their Pasta Point,they regain the original cohesion level(i.e., the level they had before they disintegrated.)

This rule is always given as an example of the excessive chrome in a wargame. I agree; it’s taking supply rules to the excess. The real trick to me is to have realistic rules that don’t slow down gameplay. In the 1980’s and into the 90’s, many wargames that I played had log sheets. Indeed, some of my favorite games like the Fleet-series of the Great War at Sea/Second World War at Sea-series games tracked fuel or weapons expenditures. This approach was good but time-consuming and at times tedious. If one wasn’t keeping a log the rules ofter called for tracing a legal Line of Supply (LoS) at the start and/or end of movement or when conducting an attack. No LoS = No Move/Attack.

Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004)

Starting somewhere in the 2000’s, I noticed a change in how supply was treated in several of my games. I think it was in Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi (GMT Games, 2004) that I first recognized the concept of “roll for expenditure.” Instead of tracking each individual round expended, aircraft in combat roll against a number that will exhaust their ammo. This sped up play because, instead of tracking on a logsheet, a simple die roll was made. It also made for some interesting situations; a flight could exhaust their anti-air missiles on round 1 or go a few; you just didn’t know. A similar rule is found in the Wing Leader-series where aircraft roll as part of each attack to see if they can attack again.

Courtesy GMT Games

In more recent years, I have come to really appreciate the approach designer Ted Raicer took in several of his games like The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). Here, supply is only checked when the Supply Chit is pulled. This makes for some great opportunities; early in a turn (less chance of the Supply Chit coming out) one can be aggressive, cutting away from supply points if they dare. In the mid-turn, as the chance of the Supply Chit appearing increases, one is less daring and naturally tidies up their lines. If it is late-turn, moves often become ones of consolidation as the players wait for the inevitable draw. These logistics rule organically enforce supply but in way that makes it more a flow of the battle.

Courtesy Hollandspiele

Of course, the ultimate supply or logistics wargame to me is the Supply Lines of the American Revolution-series by Tom Russell at Hollandspiele. In these games, supply is the game up front; it’s not a supporting arm. Playing these games may be the best map exercise on the American Revolution a wargamer (or military historian) can get as you immediately are shown why a certain route, or city is important to your campaign.

Not all games can be like Supply Lines, nor should they be. Supply rules are essential to get the fullest understanding of a battle or campaign. The real trick is is to use a mechanic that can be applied quickly and with as little administrative burden as possible. I personally enjoy a game where I don’t have to keep small tick-marks on a logsheet. I really like how designers are using a chit-pull mechanic in conjunction with their supply rules. How about you? What supply rules do you like (or dislike)?


Feature image: The Campaign for North Africa; courtesy War is Boring.

The Pope is Dead – or – a #wargame Grognard has made his final muster. Richard H Berg (1943-2019)

THE WARGAMING WORLD HAS LOST A GIANT OF A MAN. But even from beyond the grave, he still manages to teach me something.

Wargame designer Richard H. Berg passed away on 26 July. Mr. Berg was an important member of the wargame community before even I got into gaming in 1979. Mr. Berg was a prolific game designer; a quick search of BGG reveals he is listed as a “designer” on nearly 200 titles.

As much as I knew about Mr. Berg, I actually own very few of his games. Maybe this is because he focused more on the ancient or medieval and middle ages periods. That said, he won early popularity for his American Civil War games; another time period I avoided in the 1980’s in favor or the modern era.

When I heard of Mr. Berg’s death one of the things I did was check my BGG collection to see what titles of his I own. I only own six.

My Richard Berg game collection

My most highly rated game from Mr. Berg is from a recent issue of C3i Magazine. The Battle of Wakefield: Yorkshire, England 30 December 1460 was my introduction to the Men in Iron-series of games. I liked it although this era is not my usual cup of tea.

A poorly rated game I own is Battle for North Africa: War in the Desert, 1940-1942 (GMT Games, 1996). Amazingly, the game is still for sale on the GMT website! Here is my comment about the game I wrote somewhere around 2006 when I first rated the game on BGG:

Covers the entire NA Campaign…but the rules are challenging. Must be a real Grognard and a Richard Berg fan to get through this one.

Rereading my comment, I asked myself if I was being unfair to Mr. Berg. So, with some trepidation, I pulled Battle of North Africa (BNA) out and took a look at it. Immediately, I was confused. Reading the back of the box the publisher’s blurb was nothing I remembered:

Battle for North Africa takes GMT’s Gameplayer Series into the modern era, allowing players to fight one of the hobby’s favorite campaigns with a totally new and fresh approach that emphasizes ease of play. The randomized features of the innovative Activation Marker system allow gamers to combine logistics, command and use of reserves into one, simple mechanic; one that still provides a maximum amount of uncertainty, tension and fun. The scale of BNA also allows players to recreate the sweeping maneuvers of the desert war with scenarios that can be played in one sitting or that cover the entire two years of fighting.

Battle for North Africa, back of the box

After reading the blurb I just had to look at the rulebook. All 20 pages of it. As I looked at it, I had a nagging feeling I had seen this before. So I pulled out Ted S. Raicer’s The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018), my “other” chit-pull mechanic North Africa Campaign wargame. The similarities are most striking:

  • Both use a chit-pull mechanic
  • Both have a unit scale of Battalion to Division
  • Ground scale in BNA is 8.5 miles per hex; TDS uses two map scales ranging from 4.5 to 9 miles per hex
  • Game turns in BNA are monthly; TDS turns are 1-2 months
  • Both games use the concept of assets to attach support to fighting formations.

The major rules difference between BNA and TDS is the concept of Resources in BNA. In BNA, Resource Points (RPs), “…cover a variety of actions: supply, construction, air support, refitting troops, anything that requires an influx and use of men and materiel” (9.1 Resource Points). In TDS logistics is abstracted into the chit system.

With my interest now totally piqued, I just had to play a scenario. The one-map Rommel Arrives scenario stood out because it, “…lasts 3 turns and can be finished in about 2-3 hours.” So I gave it a shot. My game of BNA ended up taking closer to 4.5 hours as I was learning the game system (the errata from BGG was also helpful). It was not too hard; my recent infatuation with chit-pull games in general, and TDS in particular put me ahead on the learning curve. Looking back to my original comment, what I discovered was:

  • “Covers the entire NA campaign….” Yes, it certainly can.
  • “…but the rules are challenging.” Uh…not really.
  • “Must be a real Grognard and Richard Berg fan to get through this one.” GMT made it clear in the introduction that, “…the emphasis is on accessibility and playability, with as much historical flavor as we can muster. Given choice between playability and historiticity, we have tended to err on the side of the former.”

So, does Battle for North Africa really deserve a 5.0 (Mediocre – Take it or leave it) rating from me. Certainly not.

The passing of Richard Berg, however sad, has brought joy to my life. I think Mr. Berg is smiling in heaven when he sees that his game from nearly 20 years ago can make someone think. Even one of his lesser titles, Battle for North Africa, still brings learning and wonderment to this little man.

That is the mark of a giant. RIP, Mr. Berg.

Retroplaying an early waro – Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987)

Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987) is an ambitious game on an obscure topic. As designer Richard Berg writes in the accompanying article, The Dragon and the Cross: The Taiping Rebellion in China, 1850-1868:

Above all, the Taiping Rebellion was a massive and bloody conflict. Although fought for the most part with primitive (for that era) weapons – small-arms were mostly 18th-century muskets of dubious reliability, as well as swords and pikes, while small contingents of artillery often used cannon from the Ming dynasty, over 200 years before! – it was the most costly war in terms of human lives up to that time (and exceeded in history only by World War II). Approximately 30 million Chinese lost their lives (three times the casualty rate of WWI) and all of this sprang from the perceptive but unstable mind of a Hakka peasant, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan. (p.16)

Manchu simulates the war years of 1852-1868 where the Taiping Player tries to overthrow the Ch’ing (or Manchu) dynasty. the Manchu Player must overcome disinterest and eventually commit to fighting the uprising. (1.0 INTRODUCTION).

Presentation

If the topic of the game draws one in, the first look at the map will scare them away. The map colors are garish and a real turn-off. I realize that the graphic artist was striving to differentiate between provinces (important to many rules) and was likely working with a limited color print palette but, my goodness, it just doesn’t work!

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It’s…colorful

Another issue I have is the orientation of the map. Again, limits of printing presses likely drove the north-south orientation but the map ends up sitting strangely on my game table. The counters themselves are plain and simple, but the red ones don’t pop enough against the pink hexes and the blue ones don’t stand out against the blue rivers – important since most blue chits are junks that sit on the water!

The lower quarter of the map sheet is taken up by various gaming tables. This is in addition to many charts and tables in the rules on two facing pages. Although the map tables are laid out in a somewhat sensical manner, the rule book layout is crowded and very confusing. Both could use a good relook and fresh approach to presentation to make them more player-friendly.

Playability

Manchu is a slow-playing game, rated at 240 minutes (4 hours) on BoardGameGeek. The game in part plays slow because learning (and using) the rules is clumsy. The rules are written in a classic wargame format of numbered paragraphs. The net result of reading the rules is a very proceduralized view of a game turn with many references to tables and charts and rules look-ups. Again, the limitations of cost and the printer for a magazine game likely drove many graphic design decisions, but a few play aids (or even a Play Book like many modern games have) could probably enhance the learning experience and get the focus back on play, not rules.

Mechanics

Each turn in Manchu revolves around Operations (6.0 OPERATIONS) in which, “each player can move his troops, engage in combat, raise more troops, etc….” The heart of Operations is the Turn Continuation Table:

Before performing any Operation the player must consult the Turn Continuation Table (TCT) to determine if his Player Segment will continue, allowing him to perform the desired Operation, or if he must Pass control to the opposing player, or if his game-turn is finished (6.0 OPERATIONS, General Rule)

This cycle of Operations makes for interesting game turns. Both players must decide what needs to be done and try to sequence Operations to accomplish their goals before the game turn concludes. Combat is certainly an important Operation, but other Operations like “Raising Troops” are just as essential.

Another mechanic that is essential but adds complexity is the fact every combat unit has two ratings: Strength Points and Manpower Steps. This concept, important to combat and recruiting, is deeply buried in 11.0 COMBAT as rule [11.12]:

Strength points are the measure of a unit’s combat prowess regardless of the number of troops it may represent. For example, a 1 manpower step Mongolian cavalry units has a combat rating of 5 strength points, while a 1 manpower Chinese Banner unit has a strength point rating of 1.

Both Strength Points and Manpower Points are used differently:

“[11.13] A unit’s strength points are used solely to determine the odds/ratio between attacker and defender (see 11.31).”

“[11.14] A unit’s manpower steps are used to take losses. All combat are taken in manpower steps, not in strength points.”

The concepts of Manpower Points is closely tied to 14.0 RAISING TROOPS; so much so it makes me question why the concept is buried in the combat section. With time a good developer could reorganize the rules to make core concepts such as this one stand out in an appropriate place of the rules rather than being buried.

The rules for leaders (12.0 LEADERS) are perhaps the second-most important set of rules (right after Operations). Leaders are also an important part of the theme of the game; the Manchu start with inefficient Imperial Commissioners which are eventually supplanted by Provincial Army Commanders that in turn grow into quasi-warlords.

Historical Flavor

Getting past the poor presentation and the complexity of the rules, Manchu actually delivers a compelling game thesis. It captures the theme of an unwieldy central power slow to recognize a rising rebellion and then not having the ability to deal with that challenge as that government cedes power to warlords to carry the fight. Rules for “barbarians” (aka foreigners such as the British) are also included as well as Bandits. All make Manchu “feel” thematically correct.

Support

Virtually non-existent. There is an entry on BGG for errata but it is quite dated. Nobody has taken up the mantle of trying to redo player aids or the like. This is likely because many wargamers probably don’t see a “real” wargame here.

Bottom Line

If one is able to look past a hideous game presentation and parse through a complex set of wargaming rules, one might discover that Manchu is a compelling game of a classic rebellion. The rebels (Taiping) start with almost nothing but rise up against the unwary Manchu. The real “battle” is in the ability of the Taiping Player to raise troops and conquer territory faster than the Manchu can respond. As the Taiping rebellion grows, the nature of the response changes from an unwieldy central power to more agile Provincial Army Commanders that eventually grow into warlords.

As a game I don’t think Manchu is a lost cause. The core of a good game is here but it could certainly use a more modern games approach that takes elements of Eurogaming and mixes it with a wargame – especially when it come to game presentation in the map and player aids. A reading of the Editorial by Keith Poulter in the accompanying Strategy & Tactics Issue 116 reveals that he recognized the need to improve their games:

However, as mentioned in another recent editorial, this is soon to change. Later this year, Ty Bomba will be joining us as our first full-time game developer. Paul Dangel has also recently taken on responsibility for the development of several games a year. By the middle of 1988 we shall have a core of half a dozen developers, all tried and tested, who will undertake our development work. During the course of the year we shall be working on further improvements in rules layout, though it will take until sometime in 1989  for this process to complete, as we work through the pipeline. (p. 6)

It would have been interesting to see if Manchu was any different if it was a year later and had a bit more development (and new art) given to it.

More recently, Designer Brian Train was interviewed on the Harold on Games podcast (episode 12) and hinted at a new COIN-series game tentatively titled Thunder Out of China. Although covering a later period of Chinese history it might be interesting to see  a COIN-like approach to the Taiping Rebellion if a redone Manchu is indeed beyond hope.

Featured image courtesy BGG.com.

#WargameWednesday – #TheBattleofWakefield (C3i Magazine Nr. 31)

The Battle of Wakefield, the insert game in C3i Magazine Nr. 31 (published by RBM Studios) recreates the War of the Roses battle of 30 December 1460 battle. Although this time period is not my preference for gaming, this Richard Berg-design is the near-perfect magazine wargame being easy to learn, fun to play, and interesting me further in the GMT Games Men of Iron-series.

My preferred time period for wargames is World War II, especially naval and tactical armored combat. Recently, I dipped into 18th century combat with the American Revolution Tri-Pack, again from GMT Games. The Battle of Wakefield is a step further back in time to the age of mounted knights and longbows. The complimentary articles in C3i Nr31 provide excellent commentary and educated me just enough to make we want to get the game to the table right away.

For a magazine wargame, The Battle of Wakefield hits all the items I feel are important. The map easily fits on my 3’x3′ sitting table with room to spare for the various tracking card and player aids. The counter-density is low (116 counters total) making the battle easy to solo and playtime a very manageable 2 hours for my learning game. The rulebook, all 12 pages of it, obviously traces its lineage to an established set of rules (i.e. the most egregious errata has already been corrected).

As a longtime grognard, I am interested in how wargames model battle. The Battle of Wakefield uses very interesting Activation & Continuity rules. A player can have multiple Battles (an organizational unit of a medieval army) and can activate one at a time. Once a Battle has been activated, if the player wants to “continue his ‘turn'” another Battle must roll for Continuity. There are mechanisms for Seizing Continuity using Seizure Opportunity or Seizure Negation. I enjoyed these rules that helped me to imagine the ever changing flow of battle without imposing an iconoclastic (and unimaginative) I-GO-U-GO or similar initiative mechanic.

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The Yorkist Army nearly surrounded as Wiltshire’s Battle comes up from behind (author’s photo)

The game is not perfect. I had (have?) a hard time wrapping my head around the difference between 12.0 Shock and 13.0 Charging & Counter-Charging. The note at the end of para 13.0 that states, “It helps to remember that Charge is just another form of shock that uses a different Combat Results Table” seems insufficient to explain why Shock and Charging & Counter-Charging both have 4-5 columns of rules! My rules confusion should not be seen as a showstopper to any potential buyers; I worked my way through the rules and after my first play I “think” I understand it. Again, I credit this to the roots of the game coming from an established rules system.

After my first play of The Battle of Wakefield, I want to try more scenarios in this era using these rules. When the game arrived I was not really interested in medieval combat but after playing this enjoyable game with it’s Activation & Continuity mechanics I want to try more. In this way, The Battle of Wakefield has succeeded; not only is it an entertaining game it has also driven me to search out more games in the Men of Iron-series.