Sunday Summary – Starting with ASL Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub) and first go with Fifth Corps (Strategy & Tactics/SPI) while getting Supercharged (@DietzFoundation) and Gundam modeling #wargame #boardgame #SDGundam

Wargames

This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!

Another game I got through a trade is Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). I obviously have the magazine version which is a very small package with 16-pages of rules (8 series, 8 exclusive), a single 22″x34″ map, and 200 counters. I’m experimenting with the game now but my early impressions are “Wow!”

Boardgames

My Kickstarter for Supercharged from the Deitz Foundation fulfilled and arrived. In the RockyMountainNavy Family Game Collection we have a few racing games. My earliest is Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1979) which has counters so worn they are almost white. We also have Formula De (Asmodee, 1997) which is good but a bit long as well as PitchCar (Ferti, 2003) which is a blast at family parties. Supercharged is stacking up to be a great addition to the collection.

Books

I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….

Models

Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!

RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….

Sunday Summary – Now You See Me…. @ADragoons @bigboardgaming @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @JimDietz1 @Bublublock #Wargame #Boardgame #TravellerRPG #Books

Although I have “appeared” a few times on the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at the Armchair Dragoons the past few seasons this past week was the first time I “appeared” on Kev’s Big Board Gaming Channel. As in I literally “appeared” on a live stream. Kev is a great host and it was a good time. I’m not sure what sort of impression I’m making on people as I’m just out to convey my love for the hobby. If you have a chance please drop by and take 45 minutes to watch and hopefully get some inspiration to play something.

Wargaming

My next “Reading to Wargame” series started with my comments on Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem book. Check back next week to see how it influenced my play of Mark Simonitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden from GMT Games.

This was a good week for wargame arrivals. Three new titles are in the RockyMountainNavy house and in various at various stages of learning:

As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.

Boardgaming

My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.

With North Korea making news this week I hope you all have read my comments on Daniel Bullock’s No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) that was published by the Armchair Dragoons. I think the whole world is wondering which Missile Test Event Card Kim Jong Un might play next.

Books

With the arrival of Kido Butai in the house I looked at my Midway collection of books. Not wanting to rehash my read of the 2005 Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully I instead picked up Dallas Woodbury Isom’s Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway also from 2007. Written in some ways as a counter to Shattered Sword, I ended up focusing on Appendix D which is the “rules” for a “war game” Isom uses in Chapter 10 of his book. Thoughts forthcoming.

Sunday Summary – Preorder & Kickstarter Update (@LederGames, @MultiManPub, @JimDietz1, @compassgamesllc)

Spring has arrived meaning those long, dark winter days are behind us and outdoor chores demand my attention. Spring is traditionally a slower gaming time in the RockyMountainNavy home as we all are more busy and “spring fever” sets in.

Kickstarter

In the past few months there has been something of a renaissance of wargames on Kickstarter. Since early February I tracked at least eight wargame(ish) titles that I was VERY tempted to pull the trigger on and purchase. Add to that a further seven boardgames and it is very easy to see that the first quarter of Kickstarter in 2021 could be very costly for me—as in nearly $900 in pledges assuming lowest levels of support and not factoring in any shipping! Alas, I ended up only backing one wargame/boardgame (Root: The Marauder Expansion from Leder Games) and even then I went in at a lesser level.

Incoming

As I write this post, I am tracking 26 items on my Preorder & Kickstarter Roll GeekList. With a bit of some luck, I might see three games deliver this week and another two within 30 days:

Looking a bit further ahead I might see as many as six additional titles in house by June. That should keep my gaming table busy enough!


Feature image Cherry Blossoms in DC taken Mar 16, 2021

History to #Wargame – Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (www.silvertailbooks.com, 2020)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (Silvertail Books, 2020)

Photo by RockyMountainNavy

I remember the Falklands War on TV. I was a student in middle school at the time and absolutely enamored with the weapons of the Cold War. Here was a “major power” taking on an upstart South American country. Even after nearly 40 years, it is good to see that more of the history of the Falklands War is coming out, in the most recent case in the form of the book Harrier 809 which details the life of 809 Naval Air Squadron which was formed after the war started.

There is lots of goodness in the pages of Harrier 809. My personal favorite parts include the story of how 809 Squadron stood up. It really is a good lesson in trying to put together a unit in a “come as you are” war; lessons that I hope the US Navy and Air Force don’t ever have to face (but in reality, it could very well be the reality). I also love the factoid that the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough built several 1:24 scale Airfix models of the Harrier to test new camouflage schemes. I use this to show my boys that their “little hobby” can actually make a real difference!

At the time of the Falklands War I was big into playing Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1981). As much as I wanted to, the only real air combat games I owned at the time was Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1977) which was NOT a very good game to play around with too much. It would not be until 1987 that JD Webster and GDW published Air Superiority that was much better suited at depicting air combat during the Falklands (including rules for the famous VIFF -vectored in-flight- maneuvers).

Over time more games on the Falklands War came out. I own a few like the Harpoon 3rd Edition supplement Harpoon: South Atlantic War – Conflict in the Falklands/Malvinas, 1982 ‐ GDW first edition (1991) or the later Harpoon 4 version South Atlantic War: Battle for the Falklands – Scenarios for the 1982 South Atlantic Campaign ‐ Clash of Arms second edition (2002) that included a ground combat module for the Harpoon system. Not long after the actual war I acquired the Wargamer Magazine ‘zine game Port Stanley: Battle for the Falklands (3W, 1984) that I remember being disappointed in as it focused more on the ground combat over the glamorous air and grueling sea battles I so loved. (My perspective over time has changed as I have come to better appreciate the very challenging ground campaign).

More recently I acquired Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands (White Dog Games, 2017). Being a solo game it is much different than other games that look at the war. It also focuses at something between the operational and strategic levels of war with the air battles treated in a more abstract manner.

Over the years I have occasionally seen rumors and hints that Lee Brimmicombe-Wood might make a Falklands version of his raid game Downtown (GMT Games, 2004). As often as I hear the rumors they are crushed. I’ll admit, this would be an insta-buy for me!

One game that everybody points out as a really good take on the Falklands War is Where There is Discord: War in the South Atlantic (Fifth Column Games, 2009). I don’t own it, and given the market prices for the game -between $150-200- I don’t think I’m going to be acquiring that title anytime soon.

At the end of the day I feel the Falklands War is an under appreciated topic in wargames. There certainly is fertile ground for tactical Land/Sea/Air games with the interaction of the many weapons systems. I also feel that the operational level game, from the level of the Task Force Commander has not really been explored. As more recent scholarship has revealed, there was also much more going on at the strategic level than I think is generally understood. Harrier 809 has certainly whetted my appetite for playing some Falklands War scenarios – I’m just going to have to go a bit retro in my wargame selections to do so!

#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 3 – Task Force (SPI, 1981)

(Part 3 of my series of what I think makes a good modern naval wargame)

To help evaluate modern naval wargames I am comparing various games to the writings of Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.). Capt. Hughes recently died, which led me to reread his classic Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Second Edition)*. In chapter 7 of that edition, Hughes writes of The Great Trends & Constants:

  • Maneuver
  • Firepower & Counterforce
  • Scouting & Anti-Scouting
  • Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)

Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’

A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9

Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s

This post I will look at Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s (SPI, 1981). Task force is an interesting game in that it is depicts both the operational and tactical-levels of naval warfare at it was understood in the early 1980’s.

The box side of Task Force proclaims:

Task Force examines on an operational/tactical level a hypothetical naval confrontation between Soviet, NATO, and other forces in three major ocean-going routes of the world. Ships must search out enemy fleets and then attack them with missiles, gunnery, or, in the advanced game, aircraft.

IMG_0559Turning to the designer’s Notes hints at some explanation for how the game evolved but, frankly, it’s incomplete:

Task Force has a long and checkered history. Originally designed as a purely tactical naval game covering both the contemporary period and the Second World War, the game underwent several facelifts over the past two and a half years and, in fact, few elements present in the game as published are leftovers from the designer’s original ideas.

BLUF – Task Force: Naval Tactics and Operations in the 1980’s (SPI, 1981) is an operational game emphasizing Scouting & Anti-scouting combined with a tactical combat system emphasizing surface-to-surface missile Firepower and Counterforce.

Why Fight?

Nowhere in the Task Force rules does the designer explicitly state “why” the various hypothetical naval battles are taking place. To divine the designer’s viewpoint, one must interpret the Victory Conditions. Victory in Task Force comes from standard and special Victory Conditions. In all scenarios Victory Points are awarded for the elimination of enemy ships (standard). Scenarios may also have special Victory Points. Of the eleven included scenarios, five use the Standard Victory Conditions only. Five of the remaining six scenarios award special VP for the movement of freighters into specific megahexes. Thus, without explicitly stating so, designer/developer Joe Balkoski appears to at least recognize that sea control for the “safe delivery of goods or services ashore” is a vital mission of the navy.

Maneuver

“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177

“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179

“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.

Maneuver in Task Force takes place on two levels. At the operational-level, platforms maneuver across the operational map with few restrictions aside from weather for ships and aircraft and ocean depth for submarines. Given the scale of the game (both time and distance) ships don’t ‘dash about’ the map. On the tactical level, several combat types use the Tactical Display which is, quite literarily, the formation of the group when in combat. Interestingly, movement on the Tactical Display is limited to surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) in SSM Combat, submarines in Torpedo Combat, and aircraft when flying Strike Missions. Gunnery and Anti-submarine (ASW) Combat are abstracted and do not use the Tactical Display.

IMG_0561Firepower

“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175

“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206

“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207

“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.

Ships and submarines in Task Force are rated in combat by ASW, Anti-Air (AA)Gunnery/Torpedo, and SSM Value. The ASW or AA Value may have an asterisk representing Area coverage; that is, an ability to reach some distance beyond the same or adjacent arc on the Tactical Display. Indeed, the Tactical Display (TD) is the heart of the tactical-level game of Task Force.

The SSM Value on ships is a bit more complicated but that is expected as SSM Combat is the heart of the tactical battle game. As rule 16.12 explains:

An SSM Value consists of a letter followed by a number. The letter is the type of SSM carried (see 16.13) and the number is its Simultaneous Launch Capability (SLC) – that is, the maximum number of SSMs that may be fired by the ship in a single  SSM Combat action.

SSMs in turn are given a rating of Range and Accuracy. Aircraft are very similar to SSMs in that for Strike Missions they can use Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASM) or bombs. I find it interesting to see the designer’s interpretation of Strike Missions notes in 24.55:

a. Air-to-Surface Missile (ASM): This type of attack is safer, but less accurate than bombing (24.56).

b. Bombing: This type of attack is more dangerous than ASM’s, but also more accurate (24.57).

Optional rules in Task Force include Mid-Course Guidance for SSMs and Long-Range ASM Attacks as well as Rocket-Assisted Projectiles for Gunnery Combat and the special Tomahawk SSM. I’ll also call your attention to the fact there are no rules for nuclear munitions in Task Force.

Counterforce

“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175

“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.

“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186

Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192

Counterforce in Task Force comes down to three forms:

  • Formation (location on Tactical Display)
  • Jamming
  • Defensive Firepower

The first element of Counterforce is the formation a group is in when attacked. The first step in resolving combat on the Tactical Display is for the defender to deploy their force onto the display. In SSM Combat the attacker then declares their Wave Plan. Aircraft on Strike Mission enter the TD similar to SSMs. Even submarines using Torpedo Combat start at the edge of the TD. As the attackers move through the TD they are confronted by various defenders.

At this point the second layer of Counterforce comes into play. This second layer is a combination of Combat Air Patrol (CAP), AA fire, and Jamming. Defenders are limited to engaging threats in a single Arc (thus the importance of the formation setup) although Area weapons can be used in adjacent Arcs. If an attacker makes it thru the second layer of defense a final layer, or close defense, can be called upon.

All ships have a Jamming Value. In SSM Combat, a ship can attempt to jam SSMs which can eliminate missiles before they attack. For Strike Missions, aircraft can use jamming offensively to improve their attack chances while ships use jamming to improve their defense. Jamming even gets an optional rule for the US Navy in the form of the Design-to-Price Electronic Warfare System (DPEWS) which is called out as the “SOQ-132.” In reality, this systems would enter service as the SLQ-132.

Scouting

“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175

“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193

“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212

Whereas the Tactical Display is the heart of the tactical game of Task Force, Scouting and Anti-Scouting is the heart of the operational-level game. I am glad to see designer Joe Balkoski in his Notes actually channeling CAPT Hughes:

A confrontation between two opposing forces on the seas resolves around the salient feature of military intelligence; he who first obtains information concerning the accurate composition and whereabouts of the enemy while concealing his own presence will probably win the battle. The US Navy dictum, “shoot first – shoot enough,” is certainly a theme that is understood in the Task Force game system.

However, this policy is far easier to fulfill in theory than in actual practice. In the truly vast expanses of an ocean, an individual ship is utterly minuscule. Especially in the present day, very few ships have the capability to perform very many functions and, as a result, locating and tracking them is extremely difficult. Furthermore, closing the range to attack them is even harder. Of course, this severely limited intelligence is multiplied tenfold when dealing with enemy submarines sailing far beneath the waves.

…Thus, Task Force is a game of limited intelligence between players, simulating short, sharp engagements with relatively few ships over vast geographic distances…. Players will always have at least some idea where enemy forces are at the start of a scenario. Their true task is to attempt to pinpoint these locations more specifically and attack – all while remaining undetected themselves. Tactically, the most important considerations that will face the players during each Game-Turn are the modes in which each of their task forces and subrons will operate. Essentially, the start of each scenario will see opposing groups stalking each other like clumsy boxers. During this period, it will be far more important to know roughly where the enemy is rather than immediately pinpointing him and recognizing his exact force structure. Thus, task forces will operate in EMCON mode – preventing the revelation of their own positions through emissions detection, but permitting the employment of helicopters for visual searching, as well as allowing the use of passive detection against enemy subrons. Similarly, at the start of each scenario, subrons will usually operate in deep mode. Although their movement will be restricted and their weapons useless, such subrons will be difficult to detect and yet will still remain a highly potent passive search platform.

As the scenario progresses, more and more specific intelligence concerning the enemy will become a necessity. Locations will have to become exact, tracking more constant, and knowledge of enemy force structure more clear. Only with such information can an attack become effective and devastating to the enemy. Numerous limited attacks against undefined enemy forces will never be as effective as one gigantic, all-or-nothing strike against a recognizable and desirable target.

Hunting down the enemy in this fashion will usually only be possible through active search or – less frequently – intensive helicopter search. Active searches are effective but highly dangerous – they automatically reveal the position of the searching force, indicating that it will most likely be pounced upon by any enemy force in the vicinity that survive a friendly surface-to-surface missile, torpedo, or gunnery attack.

Task Force uses a double-blind map to create a ‘limited intelligence’ game. Both players have identical maps but are not allowed to view their opponent’s board. Ships that compose a group are never placed directly on a map – they go on each player’s Group Display.

IMG_0562Before a unit can search, players must decide on a Mode. For Task Forces the choice is to operate in normal or EMCON mode. A subron must operate either shallow or deep. The choice made has a significant impact on Scouting and Anti-Scouting.

Whether it is Active/Active ASW or Helicopter/Helicopter ASW or Task Force/Subron Passive all Search Actions are resolved in a somewhat similar manner. The searcher declares a megahex to be searched and a Search Value. The searching player then rolls a single die in view of both players and can declare aloud a modification based on the Surveillance Level. The player being searched applies secret modifiers based on the type of search, Mode or even EW equipment. The modified result is translated into a Search Report of Precise, Accurate, Approximate, or False. Of course, the searching player does not know what the quality of the report is!

Satellites, spying, and code-breaking are represented in the abstracted Surveillance Level. The Surveillance Level is set by the scenario. Other abstracted concepts include Long-Range Patrol Missions and Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS).

Once a Task Force or subron is found, it doesn’t automatically stay that way. Groups that were had Precise or Accurate Search Reports are tracked. However, at the conclusion of the next Movement action, the tracked group is announced and the track removed. Thus, it is important for the tracking player to note where the units were last located and plan their next search accordingly.

Anti-Scouting

“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175

“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197

“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197

The concept of Anti-Scouting in Task Force is illustrated through through the Mode. Depending on the Mode chosen (normal or EMCON / shallow or deep), groups are either automatically detected by their emissions or have secret modifiers on the search.

C2

“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.

If there is one area in Task Force that I think the designer missed it is Command & Control. C2 in Task Force takes two forms; group organization and personal. Group organization is very straight forward and nothing special. On the other hand, Task Force makes Leaders available to players. Leaders have a Command Value which modifies the die roll used to determine the number of actions available to a group. Rear Admirals have a Command Value of 2, Commodores 1, and Captains 0. In effect, Command Value represents staff planning, although I note that it is based purely on the command level of the staff and not any other factor. More interestingly, there is an optional rule for Commanders who possess a Command Value of negative 1. What does Joe Balkowski have against navy commanders?

C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)

“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176

C2CM in Task Force appears in only a single rule; Command-Control Loss. This Random Event results in a loss of actions available to a single group.

Final Verdict

The combination of a double-blind map and the search rules makes the operational-level game of Task Force one of the better representations of Scouting & Anti-Scouting I have found in a modern naval wargame. This from a design that was originally a pure tactical naval game. But what does the designer say the game was trying to achieve? Again, the Notes provide some insight:

Thus, Task Force should simply be regarded as information – illustrated not with words, but with counters, maps, and hexes.  This information is accurate (hopefully) and presented in a manner such that even the layman with little knowledge of maritime affairs can understand what navies are, what they are intended to do, and how they might go about doing it. Therefore, Task Force is basically meant to be an enjoyable game for passing leisure hours, while at the same time assessing a very real and very dangerous – although little understood – situation in the contemporary world.

From this perspective, Task Force absolutely hits the nail on the head.


* The book is now in a Third Edition which I need to order the next time it’s on sale.

#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 1 – Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975)

OVER ON BGG there is a thread asking for recommendations of a modern naval warfare wargame. This got me thinking, just what do I consider a ‘good’ modern naval warfare game? As a hobby gamer, I certainly have my opinions but what about my professional wargamer side?

When reading about naval warfare, one surely will run across the name of Capt. Wayne Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.). Capt. Hughes recently died, which led me to reread his classic Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Second Edition)*. In chapter 7 of that edition, Hughes writes of The Great Trends & Constants:

  • Maneuver
  • Firepower & Counterforce
  • Scouting & Anti-Scouting
  • Command & Control (C2) and C2 Countermeasures (C2CM)

Capt. Hughes also writes on ‘What a Navy is for.’

A navy’s purposes deal with the movement and delivery of goods and services at sea; in contrast, an army’s purpose is to purchase and possess real estate. Thus a navy is in the links business, while the army is in the nodes business. Seen that way, a navy performs one or more of four functions and no others: At sea, it (1) assures that our own goods and services are safe, and (2) that an enemy’s are not. From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy. – Hughes, p. 9

BLUF – Sixth Fleet uses a very land-centric view of warfare and attempts to apply it to modern war at sea with very strange results.

Sixth Fleet: US/Soviet Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean in the 1970’s was published by SPI in 1975. Designed by Jim Dunnigan and David B. Isby, the introduction proclaims:

Sixth Fleet is a simulation of operational naval warfare in the Mediterranean based on a hypothetical war between the Soviet Union and the NATO Alliance during the late 1970’s. The game counters (or playing pieces) represent individual ships or groups of ships or aircraft whose actual counterparts exist in the Soviet and NATO navies as constituted at the present time. All of the essential elements of a potential contemporary naval war in the Mediterranean are depicted, including the latest aircraft and ultrasophisticated surface and submarine naval vessels. The Sixth Fleet scenarios, each of which is a complete and separate game, simulate various periods in the war in which the initially inferior Soviet Mediterranean Squadron is reinforced from the Black Sea and attempts to seize control of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and disrupt the vital communication lanes between Europe and the Middle East.

In terms of scale, Sixth Fleet is an operational-level wargame with counters representing single capital ships or groups of lesser ships. Aircraft are considered 12-ship squadrons. Each hex is 45.4nm across and each turn represents 8 hours of time.

As the Game Notes state, “Sixth Fleet is an interesting study of a modern military situation done in a very abstract way.” Yeah, no kidding!

Why Fight?

Victory (found in 13.0 Victory Conditions) in Sixth Fleet comes from a combination of two factors. First, players score VP for destruction of enemy units; “For each Enemy unit destroyed, the opposing player receives a number of Victory Points equal to the Electronic Countermeasure Value of the destroyed unit.” The Soviets also receive bonus victory points (13.1 Soviet Bonus Victory Points) if they achieve any of three additional conditions:

  1. ‘The Soviet Player receives ten (10) bonus Victory Points if there are no NATO units (of any type) in the Aegean Sea area at the end of the game.’
  2. ‘The Soviet Player receives fifteen (15) bonus Victory Points if at the end of the game it is impossible for the NATO Player to trace a line of communications from any coastal hex in Israel leading off the western mapedge.’
  3. ‘If the Soviet Player has received bonus points for fulfilling the [second] objective given in case 13.12, he receives fifteen (15) additional bonus Victory Points if at the end of the game there are no NATO units east of the Eastern Mediterranean Boundary Line indicated on the map.’

As one will discover upon further reading, destruction of ships in Sixth Fleet is not a given making the fulfillment (or avoidance of) Soviet objectives the primary focus of the game.

Maneuver

“Through maneuver the elements of a force attain positions over time.” – Hughes, p. 177

“Maneuver is tactical speed and agility” – Hughes, p. 179

“The fundamental tactical position is no longer defined by the geometric relationship of the opposing formations, but by an operational element: the early detection of the enemy.” Guiseppe Fioravanzo as quoted in Hughes, p. 179.

Maneuver in Sixth Fleet is very simple and straight-forward. Ships and submarines are given a movement allowance which is the number of hexes it can move in a turn. Aircraft have a range allowance.

There are no formations per se. That said, the Stacking rules allow a player to stack units in a hex in any order, but when attacked the combat is resolved in the order in which the units are stacked. Aircraft are allowed to perform a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over airbases or carriers.

Although the seas are often thought of as featureless of terrain, Restricted Water (i.e. littorals) cost additional movement points to enter.

In Sixth Fleet all ships possess a Zone of Control (ZoC). Ships can enter, but not move thru, an enemy ZoC. Ships must immediately stop upon entering an enemy ZoC. The presence of an enemy ZoC in a friendly hex forces combat. The major exception to this rule is that if a unit does not possess a combat value in that warfare area (Air / Surface / Subsurface) then no ZoC exists against units of that type. The concept of ZoC is very important to achieving the second Soviet bonus objective, leading to what the designers in the Game Notes call, “a solid front.”

By far the most interesting (maybe even unbelievable) element of maneuver in Sixth Fleet is the concept of Retreat. The Combat Results Table (CRT) is bloodless; the loser is not destroyed or damaged but must retreat a hex. The Game Notes attempt to explain why:

The bloodless Combat Results Table does make the situation abstract since it is a commonly held belief  that if your ship receives a hit these days its all over. Here the designer felt that the ship’s captain would realize when he was outmatched and rather than stay and die he would concede a little bit of ocean.

Ships can be eliminated in Sixth Fleet (indeed, players accumulate victory points for destroying enemy units) but that destruction only occurs if retreat is impossible. The designers seem to think that ensuring a retreat is not a foregone conclusion, especially if you use terrain:

While playing Sixth Fleet it will be useful to remember that it is almost impossible to insure a retreat in your combat phase. The best tactic is to place a force of friendly units in such a position that any enemy units adjacent to it during their Combat Phase cannot get a zero differential against it and must therefore retreat. This is most easily accomplished in restricted waters due to the doubling effect it has on the Defense Strength. 15.0 Game Notes

Firepower

“Firepower is the capacity to destroy an enemy’s ability to apply force.” Hughes, p. 175

“At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.” – Hughes, p. 206

“Another recurring tendency, perhaps common enough to be called a constant, is to overestimate the effectiveness of weapons before a war.” -Hughes, p. 207

“In modern battle, ships and aircraft will be lost at an agonizing rate. but we observe no trend toward greater destructiveness; we see a continuation of naval combat’s decisive and destructive nature. – Hughes, p. 208.

All units in Sixth Fleet are rated for combat in three areas; Anti-Air, Anti-Surface, and Anti-Submarine. All ships have a combat range of one hex (45.4nm). I have to wonder what sources were available in 1975 as the range of the US Harpoon missile in the early 1980s was publicly proclaimed as 60nm (2 hexes?) and the new SS-N-12 missile on the Soviet Kiev-class carrier was seen as 250nm (5-6 hexes?).

The Retreat rules also have an interesting interaction with Firepower. Since ships in Sixth Fleet are not destroyed by firepower but by an inability to retreat just what ‘firepower’ is being portrayed?  The Game Notes seem to indicate a ship’s captain will retreat when he “realizes” the hopeless situation. Although there may be an element of truth to that concept, I think reality will need to see ordnance flying downrange and hitting to make that happen.

Counterforce

“Counterforce is the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower.” – Hughes, p. 175

“While the success of defense against firepower has waxed and waned and at present is on the wane, the importance of diluting or destroying enemy offensive firepower continues.” – Hughes, p. 208.

“The prominent trend in defense is away from survivability through armor, compartmentation, bulk, and damage control. and toward cover, deception, and dispersion.” – Hughes, p. 186

Important to understanding these discussions is the way a fleet tactician looks at defensive force. Defensive systems collectively act like a filter (not a wall, or Maginot Line) that extracts a certain number of incoming aircraft or missiles. As it is able, a hull absorbs hits and allows a warship to conduct curtailed offensive operations.” – Hughes, p. 192

Sixth Fleet uses two factors to express defense, or the counterforce that Hughes describes. First, ships have a Defense Strength. This single factor is used in defense regardless of the attack type. There is no distinction between air defense or surface defense or ASW defense – one factor covers it all. This is the survivability and defensive filter Hughes describes.

All units in Sixth Fleet also possess an Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) value. In many ways, this factor is the most important of all the values for a unit. The Game Notes comment, “The designer saw the situation as being a battle of the little black boxes. Thus, he placed a very heavy emphasis on the ECM of various units involved.” The ECM value of a unit is a combination of defensive filter and, “cover, deception, and dispersion.”

Terrain also plays a role in Counterforce. As mentioned in Firepower above, units in Restricted Waters double their Defense Strength.

Scouting

“Scouts deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, movements, vulnerabilities, strengths, and, in the best of worlds, intentions.” – Hughes, p. 175

“The goal is scouting is to help get weapons within range and aim them.” -Hughes, p. 193

“It seems pedestrian to say that scouting has always been an important constant of war. Perhaps the way to put it is this: winners have outscouted the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting. At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapons range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” – Hughes, p. 212

Sixth Fleet uses a ‘Gods Eye’ wargame model. All units are on the same shared map for both players to see. There are no rules (even optional) for hidden units. The rules are silent on whether a player can examine an enemy stack of units though I think it would be fair to it can only be done if the stack is within a ZoC.

In effect, Sixth Fleet is silent on Scouting. All units are assumed detected, tracked, and targeted (if within a ZoC).

Anti-Scouting

“Antiscouts destroy, disrupt, or slow enemy scouts.” – Hughes, p. 175

“As the destructiveness and range of weapons grew, the means of surviving enemy attacks diminished and emphasis shifted to reducing the enemy’s scouting effectiveness.” – Hughes, p. 197

“Antiscouting by cover, deception, and evasion would now aim at limiting detection, tracking, or targeting.” – Hughes, p. 197

The concept of Anti-Scouting is not apparent in Sixth Fleet except in a very narrow implementation. The ECM Value of a unit represents deception – making the enemy  think you’re  elsewhere – and evasion (ruining or delaying an attack). That said, the Anti-Scouting concept is really almost below the level depicted in the game.

C2

“Command decides what is needed from forces and control transforms needs into action. These are processes. C2 systems are defined, perhaps a bit artificially, as the equipment and organizations by which the processes are performed.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A tactical commander uses C2 to allocate his forces for four activities: firepower delivery, counterforce delivery, scouting, and anti-scouting.” – Hughes, p. 176

“A modern tactical commander will expend relatively less of his energy on planning for and delivering firepower, and relatively more on planning and executing his scouting efforts and forestalling that of the enemy with antiscouting and C2 countermeasures.” – Hughes, p. 201-202.

In Sixth Fleet the player is the embodiment of C2. The process of C2 is in the Sequence of Play which has only two phases per player; a Combat Phase followed by a Movement Phase. With no Anti-Scouting there is no need to plan for it, nor is there a need to implement C2 countermeasures.

C2CM (Command & Control Countermeasures)

“Command and control countermeasures (C2CM) are steps to limit the enemy’s ability to decide (command) and disseminate decisions (control). – Hughes, p. 176

In Sixth Fleet there is no way to interfere with (or interrupt) a players Sequence of Play. Like Anti-Scouting, the concept of C2CM is not apparent in Sixth Fleet.

Final Verdict

Sixth Fleet is very land-centric view of modern naval warfare using very dated wargaming concepts. The idea that ships at sea exert interlocking Zones of Control to create ‘solid fronts’ and force an enemy ship to ‘retreat’ because the captain realizes he is outmatched is far too simplistic, even dare I say, incorrect view of naval warfare. Although Sixth Fleet captures some of the essence of Maneuver, Firepower, and Counterforce that Capt. Hughes describes, it falls far short if not outright ignores Scouting, Anti-Scouting, C2 and C2CM. Sixth Fleet also narrowly focuses on only two of four objectives of why a navy fights (“From the sea, it (3) guarantees safe delivery of goods and services ashore, and (4) prevents delivery ashore by an enemy navy.”). It appears to me that the designers were victims of their own biases as they tried to shoehorn land-warfare concepts on a naval wargame. 

It doesn’t work for me.


* The book is now in a Third Edition which I need to order the next time it’s on sale.

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.

#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.

pic27372
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.

#WargameWednesday Retrospective – My 1980’s Skirmish Wargames

As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.

Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger (Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Ranger is more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.

What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our Traveller RPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.

What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepower are a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.

#WargameWednesday #RPGThursday Retrospective – Commando: The Combat Adventure Game (1979)

Commando: The Combat Adventure Game was published by SPI in 1979. I didn’t buy this game; it came to me thru a trade with a friend sometime between 1980 and 1982. I was running our (Classic) Traveller RPG adventures and use both the 1978 [Little Black] Book 4: Mercenary and the 1979 green box, first edition of Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future for expanded combat. Given our group came from a wargaming background, we were looking for different combat rules. We avoided Striker (1981), likely because it was a set of miniatures rules and we couldn’t afford miniatures! At one point we tried to integrate Commando into our games. My copy has scribbles (like only middle schoolers can do) where weapons on tables were replaced with their Traveller versions. As I recall, this system integration effort didn’t get far mostly because Commando is a very rules-dense game with a very specific Sequence of Play. More importantly, the game is historically focused and us middle schoolers couldn’t wrap our heads around how to integrate the Fusion Gun, Man Portable-15 (FGMP-15) into the game. Far easier to just use Snapshot!

When preparing for this article, I was surprised to discover that Commando was the 1979 H.G. Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Winner. So is this a wargame or an RPG? Interestingly, the game has an entry both at BoardGameGeek and RPGGeek. The Historical Game is clearly a wargame. More specifically, it is a skirmish game of man-to-man battle. A 48-page rulebook uses the SPI classic Case System of numbered paragraphs. The other game of Commando is the role-playing game. This game is covered in a second 24-page rulebook. Here one finds the classic components of an RPG including gamemaster hints, character creation, and running a campaign.

Looking at the game today, The Designer’s Notes and Expansion Notes at the end of the role-playing game rules are true treasures. Note that in the late 70’s I was not a Dungeons & Dragons (Original or Basic/First Edition) player – I actually avoided D&D because I preferred science fiction over fantasy genres. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, these notes capture the dynamics of the competition between wargamers and the rising RPG community. There is so much goodness here and I hope the legacy SPI copyright holders can forgive me for some lengthy quotes.

First off, some choice lines from the Designer’s Notes written by Eric Goldberg in 1979:

Role-playing is perhaps the fastest growing genre within the wargaming hobby. Boosted by the phenomenal success of fantasy role-playing, the field is branching out from its roots into more conventional endeavors. There is no serious doubt that fantasy role-playing will continue to hold sway within the field, but there are many other possible applications of role-play. While fantasy does have some problems of its own (chief being the need to define magic numerically, which strips it of its mystery), designers of fantasy role-playing games can justify almost anything through magic.

One of the first design mechanics resolved was the use of the Miraculous Escape Matrix and the incorporation of a Character in a fire team. Because the Historical Game was already being used as the combat system (a choice which makes eminently good sense; Players appreciate a game being complete when received – generally not a custom observed by role-playing designers), the fatality rate of Characters was at a level unacceptable to the average Player. After all, a Player would have little incentive to build up and breathe life into his Character if he knew the odds had it that he would have to start all over again every five missions. There is no recourse to the fantasy role-playing solution – the last Man purported to be resurrected was a gentleman of Nazareth, but that was 2000 years ago, and it was understood He had considerable help from the man upstairs.

Character generation systems have proliferated in recent months, but basically represent two schools of thought. One holds Characters should be different, and this difference should be determined randomly (generally by dice). The logic behind this approach is that life isn’t fair in distributing physical and mental characteristics to you and me, and why should it be any different in a role-playing game? The illogic in the use of the system it that it clearly proved the better dice-roller is Homo Superior. The other approach is the all Characters are equal, which is usually resolved by a point assignment system – Characters may have “X” points assigned to their various characteristics in a particular fashion. Thus, Characters are molded to their players’ preferences. The argument for this system is obvious; free choice of character-type and all Characters are equal. In truth, the second claim is a sham; there is not one role-playing game on the market which will work equitably with a point assignment system. The general problem is that one or two characteristics are extremely important, and therefore, to be competitive, all Characters will be essentially similar.

Commando breaks a bit of new ground in role-playing games by the very nature of its subject, and also because of its design approach. The game will appeal to those who feel most comfortable with suspense fiction, and those who can easily make the transition from tactical game or role-playing games. There is certainly tremendous unmapped territory to be gone over in this field. Commando is nearly the groundbreaker.

Greg Costikyan contributed Expansion Notes (again from 1979):

…true role-playing games can be divided into two general categories (with some overlap between categories occurring); closed-system role-playing games and open-ended role-playing games. An open-ended role-playing game requires a Gamemaster to invent a world, construct adventures for the characters, and provide new rules as necessary to round out his world. The rules to an open-ended role-playing game are designed not so much to limit the Gamemaster, as to provide a flexible framework of rules to be amended as he desires, and which aid him in the construction and operation of a world.

A closed-system role-playing game, by contrast, may not even require a Gamemaster. The best example of this is En Garde! A closed-system role-playing game provides a set of rules that are closer to the rules of standard historical games in spirit than the the rules of open-ended role-playing games. The rules cover every eventuality that may arise in the course of play; they are a closed-system not requiring outside interference.

…the existence of a Gamemaster in Commando means that the game can be readily developed into an open-ended role-playing game with comparative ease. Doing so requires junking the scenario generation system, because an open-ended games must deal with the everyday life of the characters, as well as whatever combat actions they involve themselves in. (Thus, in a good fantasy role-playing world, the emphasis of the game is not on hack-and-slash monster fighting, but on development of characters and the world.)

…. In an open-ended game, anything (well, almost anything) is possible; the game is limited only by the flexible framework of the rules, and the imagination of the Gamemaster and Players….The appeal of even badly-written role-playing games lies in this potentially infinite variety; while one may be bored with a boardgame after the fifth playing, one will never be bored with an open-ended role-playing game (assuming a sufficiently imaginative Gamemaster).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, these notes actually captured much of what I was feeling in my early role-playing days. SPI was one of the powerhouses of wargames; as a true grognard if this was their perspective I needed to pay attention! With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, I can now see that my wargaming roots started me out as a closed-system aficionado. As I go though my retrospective of RPGs, its going to be interesting to see how my tastes evolved over time.

From an RPG-perspective, I give this game a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 5 (Combat system from Historical Game is rules-heavy)
  • Simulationist = 4 (There is a reason you create a Character and the Fireteam)
  • Narrativism = 1.5 (The Miraculous Escape Matrix necessitates a large suspension of reality)