My “office-al” #boardgame play of NO MOTHERLAND WITHOUT: NORTH KOREA IN CRISIS AND WAR by @Bublublock fm @compassgamesllc

Recently, I tested the tolerance of my bosses and took my copy of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War by designer Dan Bullock from Compass Games to the office. My job is tangentially related to the game topic, so I figured I could come up with a good cover story to explain why I had it laid out on my desk. During the week I played the solitaire scenario during my lunch times. By the end of the week the game was finished and I had rediscovered the interesting insights No Motherland Without delivers while also showing my office the power of “serious gaming.”

No Motherland Without contents (courtesy Armchair Dragoons)

No Motherland Without…another player

While No Motherland Without is technically a two-player game with one side playing North Korea and the other the West, designer Dan Bullock also includes a solitaire scenario. Here, the player plays the North Korean regime and the “solo bot” plays the West. Technically, I’m not sure you can actually call it a “bot” as the solitaire scenario rules lay out some exceptions and a decision flowchart for how to execute the West card play. Fortunately, the rules changes for the solitaire version are not too numerous and are both easy to learn and implement. All told my play of a complete 7-turn solitaire game took about two hours of lunch times.

The solitaire decision flowchart in No Motherland Without very clearly focuses the West on three priorities; place Outages to hinder infrastructure building, placement and movement of Defector Routes and Defectors, and Investment of Action Points for future use. It is a good guide to strategy for West players.

In my solo game of No Motherland Without the single most important event was not a Missile Test (though there were two—both successful) but the event “Thailand Tightens Its Borders.” This card is an Enduring Event meaning it goes on the three-card track and stays in play until three other Enduring Events are played and it gets “pushed” into the discard pile. The game effect is the removal the Defector Routes in Thailand and a prohibition for the West to use Activities to rebuild the route. This forces defectors to use the route through Mongolia which, although shorter than the Thailand route, has a 2-in-3 chance of the defector dying in the desert. In my game “Thailand Tightens Its Borders” came out early in the fifth turn and didn’t get pushed off the Enduring Events track until the last turn. This meant all defector attempts in turns 5-7 had to use the risky Mongolia route (in the last turn by rule all defectors must use the Mongolia route). By the end of the game a majority of the Final Turn (Kim Jong Un-era) generation was dead. Although the West had supported many defectors, through the Enduring Event card North Korea was able to gain favorable treatment from Thailand and it was enough to stem the flow of defectors—and the accumulation of Victory Points–to ensure a North Korean victory even without a final successful Missile Test to raise Prestige.

Scoring the Infrastructure…in People

Last March I wrote an article for Armchair Dragoons where I discussed the “humanity” of No Motherland Without. In that article I explored the dichotomy of building infrastructure and defectors in the game. I concluded by saying:

If one had any thoughts that No Motherland Without may provide some background as to why Korea has been an intractable problem for as long as it has this game offers no real policy insight. That said, No Motherland Without sets itself apart by showing the interrelation of many historical events from a very human perspective as the plight of defectors is prominently showcased. It’s an important perspective, just not very mainstream.

After my recent solo play of No Motherland Without I reconsidered my statement. The core conflict of the game, North Korea building infrastructure versus the West supporting defectors, is a policy statement. While North Korea gets plenty of worldwide attention for its missile and nuclear programs, it still must build a society for its people. On the other side, though support for defectors is usually the realm of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than governments, it still can be a government policy (like is was in South Korea for a long time). This last year-plus of COVID, with it’s closed borders, has limited the flow of defectors. At the same time, North Korea, like many other countries, is trying to build better infrastructure for its populace (look at all the apartment building projects). Although they seemingly are disconnected now, once borders reopen we will see how “happy” the North Korean people are if Kim Jong Un can complete all those buildings, or if they will become his 21st century Ryugyong Hotel that sat unfinished for decades.

Serious Gaming

During the week my play of No Motherland Without got some attention in the office. At one end of the response spectrum, and by far the largest in number, were those who scoffed at somebody “playing a game” at the office. I responded to these folks by pointing out the history lessons in the game and the interesting perspective of the designer. Generally they seemed to accept my points, but often visibly remained doubtful. This group was also the ones to most often try to compare No Motherland Without to Risk or Monopoly (sigh).

A second smaller group of coworkers was able to look past the “game” of No Motherland Without and see the learning value. Some of these folks would casually flip through the cards and then look at the historical notes. While they learned, several were quick to point out that the randomness of the cards meant events could occur out of historical order, thereby making the game “incorrect.” To that criticism I responded by pointing out it was not the specific events but the situation in many cases that the cards capture, and while the events may happen “out of order” they still capture the essence of the flow of history vice a specific timeline. This group had a few gamers amongst its members, but it quickly became apparent that their preferred gaming was online and not very complex; indeed, more than one marveled at the “obvious” complexity of No Motherland Without.

One last, very small, group of my coworkers understood what No Motherland Without was trying to communicate. For one of them, when I explained the core conflict of infrastructure versus defectors you could see the “eureka” moment as they blinked and said, “Of course!.” With these few I had very serious conversations as to how an Event Card could be played or how the different Activities paid for in Action Points could be spent. One coworker wanted to take the game to their office to play and show their coworkers the insights from the game. Another who is well connected to several NGOs and the North Korean defector community really was interested in the game, although they pointed out that the ability to only play North Korea in the solo game may be “upsetting” to some. This small group was able to see the “serious gaming” potential of No Motherland Without as the designer’s core message is shown through game play.

Next – A Revolutionary Game…of waiting

Overall, I feel my “office-al” gaming was a success. I was planning to take designer Dan Bullock’s latest game, 1979: Revolution in Iran (The Dietz Foundation, 2021), into the office next and play that one. Belatedly I realized it does not have a solo mode! During the Kickstarter campaign Dan was asked about a solo module stretch goal to which he responded:

No Motherland Without features a solitaire scenario in addition to the two-player game. The solitaire scenario only allows you to play the role of the DPRK, but the West opponent is easy to control and challenging. Unfortunately, the event card draft makes 1979 difficult to adapt a solo bot. I tested a short solo scenario leading up to the Islamic Revolution, but ultimately scrapped it because it didn’t feel robust enough.

BGG Forum “Solo Request”

So, Dan, do y’all think you could share that scenario and let us see how it works? Maybe somebody out there can make it work better, or develop something else that does. Please? I need another title to play during lunch in the office…

1979: Revolution in Iran (The Dietz Foundation, 2021)

The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of any government or private agency or employer.

Sunday Summary – Local #wargame players make for great gaming medicine with @Decisiongames @compassgamesllc @gmtgames

Wargames

Out of the blue, this week a fellow local wargamer reached out and offered two games for sale. Thus, I now am the proud owner of two very near-mint copies of designer John Butterfield’s solitaire wargames D-Day at Omaha Beach (Decision Games, 4th Printing 2020) and Enemy Action: Ardennes (Compass Games, 2015). Both games are highly rated on BoardGameGeek coming in at Geek Ratings of 8.27 and 8.6 respectively. Indeed, D-Day at Omaha Beach is the #4 War Game on BGG with Enemy Action Ardennes coming in at #29 (which makes no sense given their ratings…but it’s BGG so who really knows how their ratings work?). Solitaire games are not my usual thing but I always liked the original RAF by Butterfield for West End Games back in 1986 so he has long been on my “approved” designer list.

COVID and Gaming

These two titles are the 46th and 47th gaming items to enter my collection this year. Looking at where each was “sourced” from the majority (20 of 47 or 42.5%) are Retail Purchases. The next major acquisition source is by Trade/Local Purchase with 17 of 47 (36%) Even if I combine Kickstarters and Pre-Orders together, I only get 9 of 47 (19%). When I did my “By the Numbers” year in review of 2020 I didn’t track acquisition source so I don’t have hard data for comparison. What I do know is that I have 24 items on Preorder/Kickstarter and maybe nine might already be delivered if there were no shipping delays from COVID. The bottom line is that COVID is altering my game purchase patterns with a greater focus on retail and local purchase/trade, usually of older titles. The dearth of Kickstarter/PreOrder delivery of new games is likely affecting those who suffer from Cult of the New by giving them withdrawal symptoms!

Shelf of Shame

With the new game arrivals my Shelf of Shame also continues to grow, adding an additional incentive NOT to purchase more games. Yeah, I’m one of those who WANT to play my games, not just admire the boxes on the shelf. I’m really falling far behind and need to get back to a Game of the Week approach to gaming. Alas, Real LifeTM continues to interrupt. My Shelf of Shame, in order from oldest to newest arrivals, is presently occupied by:

That list might grow soonish. When I picked up these two games, the seller “mentioned” he has Combat Commander: Europe and Combat Commander: Mediterranean as well as several Battle Packs (all from GMT Games) he is thinking of unloading, but only as a complete set. I already have Combat Commander: Pacific so this is very tempting….

Game of the Week – or – Talking a’Bot Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

img_2594A few weeks back I looked at Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Revolution Games, 2015) as my Game of the Week. In keeping with the Guadalcanal theme, and noting that the anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal is this week, I pulled another Guadalcanal title off my shelf. Sitting on my game shelves unplayed for many years was Tokyo Express – The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign: 1942 (Victory Games, 1988). Thirty years later I am happy to report that Tokyo Express is my latest grogpiphany. I enjoyed playing it so much I decided to deep dive into the game as my Game of the Week. Most importantly, Tokyo Express got me thinking about opponent AI and Bots in wargames.

What makes Tokyo Express unique is that it is a solitaire game. From the publisher’s blurb:

Tokyo Express is a solitaire and two-player simulation of the night naval battles off Guadalcanal. In the solitaire version, you command the US fleet, awaiting the emergence of the Tokyo Express from the darkness. You group your ships into formations, assigning them orders, and select the targets to attack with torpedoes and guns. Simple mechanisms control Japanese maneuvers and target assignments in a realistic manner. You never know when combat will occur until the explosion of torpedo salvos signals the presence of Japanese forces who detected you first and made their surprise attacks. The two-player version modifies the solitaire game and pits players against each other in an exciting recreation of World War II naval combat. Tokyo Express is graduated in complexity to help you learn the rules as you play.

When Tokyo Express was released in 1988 it garnered critical and fan praise by wining the 1988 Charles R. Roberts Award for Best WWII Board Game. I purchased the game new in 1988 but never really got the chance to play it as that was near the end of my college days and I didn’t have a wargaming group. Being a solitaire game should have made playing it easy but I only got the game to the table a few times before packing it away.

One gripe I often have with solitaire games is that the game mechanics often require learning above and beyond other games. This is in part because the solo player must not only execute their own actions, but that of the opponent too. In more modern games, the opponent is sometimes run by a Bot usually found on a player aid card. The more “intelligent” the Bot, the more difficult the Bot is to execute.

When I first reopened the box for Tokyo Express I was a bit startled by the rules. There are TWO Rules Booklets; a 24-page Basic Game Book and a 64-page (!) Standard Game Book. In addition to the rules booklets, there is a somewhat cryptic Battle Movement Display and 10 double-sided Charts and Tables Cards. I had totally forgotten about the 120 Gunnery Cards too! Of the 676 chits in the game, only 156 are Ship Counters while the remaining 520 are Information Markers. Looking at the array of contents, especially those two large Rules Booklets, made me doubt the back-of-the-box Complexity rating of Medium-Low to High. Based on rules alone and all those information markers, Tokyo Express looks to be a daunting beast to play!

Even after reading the Basic Game Book, I began to doubt my motivation for playing the game after all these years. However, after setting up the 3.9 Basic Scenario and pushing cardboard around I began to understand the simplicity of the game mechanics. The true core mechanic is Battle Movement and the Battle Movement Display. This is the heart of the “opponent AI” and the closest counterpart to a modern Bot in Tokyo Express. The Standard Game introduces more advanced rules but Mission Movement and Battle Movement remain the heart of the AI.

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The heart of the AI – The Battle Movement Display for Tokyo Express

I think the reason some people claim the opponent AI in Tokyo Express is difficult is that it is hard to see the flow of the AI/Bot. The front of Card #8 has the Standard Sequence of Play Track with boxes for tracking which segment is happening but there is no rules cross-reference. I see in the forums that noted designer Jack Greene of Quarterdeck Games is planning on republishing Tokyo Express. One part that certainly could use an update is the graphic representation of the flow of the Bot.

Having played the Basic Game a few times I next turned to the Standard Game. That was a whole other beast….

(To be continued)

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek