A Modern Simulation #Wargame – Harpoon V (admiraltytrilogy.com, 2020)

How many wargames do you know get a mention in a major mainstream publication, like Forbes? In August of 2020, the ‘new’ Harpoon V naval miniatures wargame from Admiralty Trilogy Games got just such an article. So what makes Harpoon V so special?

Way back in 1982 I was a wee middle schooler who had started wargaming just a few years before. The major titles in my collection were the Panzer/88/Armor series by James Day from Yaquinto Publishing and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). That same year, the United Kingdom and Argentina fought the Falklands War. The extensive media coverage fascinated me to no end, and not long after I found a copy of a miniatures wargame called Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) and its supplement Resolution 502. What immediately struck me about Harpoon II was that the game was more a simulation than, well, a game.

One of the greatest news magazine covers ever….

The next year I read the book Hunt for Red October by author Tom Clancy. I immediately started to recreate the scenes of Red October in Harpoon II. In 1986 I read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and again was struck by the bug to recreate the scenes using Harpoon. Just a year later, Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1987) hit the shelves and I eagerly bought the base game and all the expansions. I continued to follow (reinvesting every time) when the title shifted to Clash of Arms as they published Harpoon 4 (1997). So it should come as no surprise that I am once again investing in the latest version, Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020).

My Harpoon Collection (original image courtesy Admiralty Trilogy Games)

What keeps me coming back? Well, the Harpoon series is less a game and more a simulation. Look at how the current publisher describes Harpoon V:

Harpoon is the flagship of the Admiralty Trilogy Group’s games. First published in 1980, it has undergone several major revisions, with the last, Harpoon 4.1, being printed in the late 1990s. Although the system has remained fairly stable, naval technology has continued advancing, and there have been further developments in the game systems as more information has been acquired. It is planned plan to issue a new edition, Harpoon 5, sometime in the near future consolidating this knowledge and standardizing Harpoon with the other products.

The era of modern naval combat began on October 21, 1967 when Egyptian missile boats launched four Soviet made Styx surface-to-surface missiles and sank the Israeli destroyer Elath at a range of 13.5 nautical miles. The face of naval warfare changed forever!

Harpoon 5 handles all aspects of modern maritime combat: surface, sub-surface, and air. Harpoon 5 is a system of detailed but comprehensible rules covering the many facets of modern naval actions. Consistent rating systems and evaluations of the capabilities of modern naval vessels, aircraft, submarines, and helicopters make it possible to achieve realistic results when simulating known situations, by extension Harpoon 5 also achieves realistic results with hypothetical scenarios.

Harpoon 5 can answer questions like:

Are carriers powerhouses or sitting ducks?
Can transatlantic convoys survive in a modern wartime environment?
In the cat-and-mouse games between US and Russian submarines, which is better?

As much as Harpoon V is a simulation, I have to give kudos to the design team to trying to make the game more ‘playable’ without losing ‘realism.’ The key to this balance is in the ratings system of platforms, weapons, and equipment that takes into account different technological eras. A simple “Generation’ rating for many weapons and combat systems (such as radars) accounts for how ‘smart’ they are. Thus, one can see the difference between a 500 lbs. bomb as it transforms from a ‘dumb’ unguided bomb in Vietnam to a laser-guided version in the Gulf War to a ‘smart’ GPS-guided munition of today. Or how it is much easier to spoof a Former Soviet Union air search radar on an exported missile boat in the 1980’s than it is to detect a modern Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) surface search radar.

Critics of the Harpoon series often cry the game is unplayable. Well, I challenge them to consider if they are judging the series as a war game or a simulation wargame. I argue that Harpoon, being more a simulation, by necessity uses a more complex model that requires more player manipulation. Many time in wargames, the model is simplified or heavily abstracted in the name of playability. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the ‘abstraction’ is done purposefully. The Harpoon series, because it leans more heavily into the simulation than gaming aspects of the design, can seem chart-heavy. I agree with many critics who say the game can be made more ‘playable’ if in a computer version, much like Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO). That said, I like the player manipulation of the model, even if it costs me some playability. Besides, I don’t have an awesome gaming computer to run all the great graphics of those other games; indeed, my MacBook struggles even when running Table Top Simulator! That’s OK; I use the many nice counters from my Clash of Arms Harpoon 4. More recently, I have looked at investing in Paper Forge printable standees like their Modern US Navy Cruisers set.

CMANO – Quite honestly it’s computerized Harpoon

I will also admit that I look at Harpoon V as more a ‘professional’ wargame than a recreational one. No, I do not work in a DoD wargaming organization but even I use Harpoon for what-if exploration of current issues. As a matter of fact, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms, 2010) is literally air strike Harpoon with a political game bolted on. That is the power of Harpoon!

Harpoon – without ships but lots of strike aircraft and geopolitics

Then there is the investment. The base rules are available from wargamevault.com for $20. However, to really play one needs to buy the data annexes. The first four, America’s Navy, Russia’s Navy, American’s Aircraft, and Russia’s Aircraft are available in pdf form for $16…each. That collection is great for replaying the Cold War but, let’s face it, the real match-up most modern naval gamers want to play out today is the US versus China. So, ATG, when is that data annex going to be available?

Well, look at that! Bestseller on Wargame Vault (image captured Sep 26, 2020)

#Wargame #Retroplay – Beachhead (Yaquinto Publishing, 1980)

My not-so-lazy Sunday was capped off by a solo play attempt of Beachhead: A Game of Island Invasions in the South Pacific 1942-1944 from Yaquinto Publishing in 1980. Beachhead came packaged in what Yaquinto called their “Album Game'” format; the game “box” was basically a dual LP record cover. Very thin – so thin you couldn’t store the counters in the sleeves of the “box” without warping the board! Beachhead was designed by Michael  S. Matheny with a gorgeous cover by Roger B. MacGowan (@RBMStudio1 on Twitter). As I replayed this game I discovered it is not the game I remember; in some ways it is better, in other ways not.

Small footprint – a 3’x3′ table will do!

As I reread the rules before play, several items jumped out at me. The first concerns serious gaming. Production of Beachhead was led by J. Stephen Peek, formerly of Battleline and obviously a serious gamer. So serious he didn’t call Beachhead a wargame but a “simulation”:


002 – BEACHHEAD As a Simulation

BEACHHEAD is a small unit level simulation of combat on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War.

I pulled Beachhead out because I wanted to play a solitaire game. However, I quickly discovered that there is actually a fairly large degree of hidden information making this game not-so-solo-friendly.

4. All Japanese units are placed on the game board and are turned upside down. (102 PREPARING TO PLAY THE GAME-D-4)

2. Flip over all units that will move this Turn. (202 Basic Game Sequence of Play, STEP B.2.)

4. Return the moved units to the Face up [sic] position. (SoP, STEP C.4)

The next rule that was different than I remember is Sighting. The mapboard has many jungle hexes so as I read the rules I expected to see a rule about jungle blocking line of sight. Instead, I got this:

3. Hexes containing trees do not individually block the line of sight. Though the trees may be up to 25-40 feet in height, there are very few of them in each hex and so so not present a problem in sighting. They will present obstacles to combat. However, if the line of sight passes through three Tree hexes the line of sight is blocked. (205 SIGHTING-B-1-3)

This “terrain as combat obstacles” theme is also applied to buildings:

4. Hexes containing buildings do not block line of sight. There are very few buildings per hex and so do not present a problem for sighting. They will still present obstacles to combat. (205-B-4)

I did remember what made Japanese machine guns so deadly – Fire Lanes:

  1. Only Japanese Machine Gun, Infiltration Machine Guns, and Emplacement units have a ‘Fire Lane’ and are called Fire Lane units.
  2. The base of the Fire Lane is the numbered edge of the playing piece.
  3. The Fire Lane extends ten hexes through the hexside to which the numbered edge of the playing piece is facing.
  4. ….
  5. ….
  6. Any American unit that attempts to cross this ten hex line is immediately fired on by the Fire Lane unit. (This means that the American player will be attacked during the movement portion of his Movement Phase…. (205-F)

Another rule I missed many years ago is Aircraft Spotters (207 COMBAT-C). This rule allows one to use Airstrike units as spotters. A simple way to give the American player a complex choice; bombard or spot?

One rule I did remember and still enjoy is how Preliminary Bombardment is implemented in the game. This is another challenging choice; delay the arrival of landing craft to bombard and risk running out of time or land against more defenders? While rereading the rules, I discovered a little wrinkle that I had missed years before and it comes from the fact the Japanese player’s units are face down (hidden) from the American player:

4. In a normal Firing procedure the Firing player consults the Combat Results Table to determine the effects of fire. In Preliminary Bombardment the Japanese player consuls the Combat Results Table. The American player still rolls the dice, but is not allowed to know the odds column being used. (207 COMBATJ. Preliminary Bombardment)

+VL5G3uHRRuvZp8VK9UhrAVictory Conditions (210 VICTORY CONDITIONS) are based on points differential. I really like the flavor text. It ties neatly back to the introduction where there is an emphasis placed on YOU. As the introduction states, “You are, in fact, on the BEACHHEAD.”

In the OPTIONAL RULES there are several items of “chrome” that I remember and really like such as:

  • Randomly rolling to see what size naval guns are bombarding (303 BOMBARDMENT TYPE)
  • Randomly determining what payload airstrike have (304 AIRSTRIKES)
  • The Duke arrives as SGT. Stryker! (308 SGT. STRYKER)

Near the end of the rules in the HINTS ON PLAY there is a section on GAME ABSTRACTIONS. It directly addresses concerns over the game’s realism. It is interesting to read the designer’s perspective that Beachhead is essentially a game of points with units representing those points. It is a useful perspective that conflict simulations/wargames sometime forget.

They knew…all the way back in 1980

Given the hidden information needed to play, my solo Beachhead game sort fizzled out. These days, this game is ripe for an implementation using blocks instead of face down counters.

More importantly, the rules of Beachhead, in a mere 16 pages, show a great degree of design elegance and certainly capture – and communicate – the theme of the game. The game is a great reminder that good things sometime do arrive in small packages. For some reason, this game, with its mechanical elegance and smaller footprint reminds me of many Hollandspiele games. That’s a good thing because it means there is at least one publisher is delivering elegant, smaller games to this very niche hobby market.

Now, to get the RockyMountainNavy Boys to play….