#Wargame Wednesday – Air War: Ukraine from a wargame perspective

Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.

No (Air) Show?

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:

  • The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
  • The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
  • VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.

Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:

While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?

“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”

Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.

First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.

Dogfights

Looking at my personal collection of Cold War/modern or near-future wargames, I have a wide variety of titles like J.D Webster’s modern Air Power combat games (Air Superiority/Air Strike, GDW 1986/1987 and Speed of Heat, Clash of Arms Games, 1992) or Gary “Mo” Morgan’s Flight Leader (Avalon Hill, 1986) and even the incredibly detailed Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008). What all of these air combat wargames have in common is a very granular scale with a focus on individual aircraft. Indeed, these air combat wargames are focused just like VKS operations in Syria since 2015—great for dogfighting individual or small numbers of aircraft but less applicable to integrated complex air operations.

Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based on Harpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.

Raids

One series of wargames that certainly allows players to “plan, brief, and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundred of assets in a high-threat air environment” is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s “Raid” series of wargames that started with Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) and was followed by Elusive Victory (Terry Simo, GMT Games, 2009) and Red Storm (Douglas Bush, GMT Games, 2019). These games are excellent for planning and coordinating “modern” large strike packages (i.e. “air raids”) in high-air defense threat environments. The “scale” in these wargames is minutes and flights of aircraft. If they have a drawback in this discussion, it is they are almost strictly focused on the air combat domain and only indirectly show the impact of air operations on ground forces.

For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.

Squadrons & Tracks

The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.

Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.

[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]

Missions, Point Salads, & Assets

More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”

An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”

Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.

Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.

Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…

(Another) Russian Way of War?

In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017). Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:

From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?

Mirror Image – Not?

Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.

Justin Bronk, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force,” RUSI.org, 28 Feb 2022

Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.

That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:

Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis]. Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:

Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

Player Choice – Pass!

In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:

The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Not planned for…that’s hard to believe. It’s not even true if Anonymous is to be believed and the Russian military had at least 30 days to plan for an invasion.

Prior planning?

It’s as if the Russian VKS has simply chosen to “pass” on their turn…


Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Sunday Summary – Chasing rules in Atlantic Chase (@gmtgames, 2020) while waiting to don General’s stars in Rostov ’41 (@MultiManPub, 2020) #wargame #boardgame

Wargame

New arrivals this week include Jeremy White’s Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942, Intercept Vol. 1 (GMT Games, 2020). This game has generated alot of buzz, for the most part because of the very different approach Jerry took to writing the rule book and tutorial. Some people are out there talking about the second coming of sliced bread. I’m not convinced.

The second new game arrival this week was Ray Weiss’ Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). This is a Standard Combat Series game. I have come to expect that a SCS game has a “gimmick” or some special rule to highlight the battle or campaign depicted. However, in my first look through the rules I don’t see any obvious special rules. This might be a case where the scenario and order of battle are the “gimmick.” A deeper look will have to wait until after I get through Atlantic Chase.

With Compass Games announcing that Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot – Designer’s Signature Edition is coming in May and after I did a deep dive of Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps (SPI, 1980) (forthcoming from Armchair Dragoons, right Brant?) I took another look at Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). I looked at it from the perspective of the doctrine of the time(s). That sent me down a rabbit hole excursion into “Correlation of Forces and Means.” Thoughts forthcoming.

Boardgame

I broke down this week and purchased the digital version of Root (Dire Wolf Digital). I’m working my way through the tutorials but so far it’s very entertaining.

Gaming Outlook

Return to work full time is taking away game time so I have to rearrange my schedule. More short evening gaming sessions with maybe a single longer weekend occasion.

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.

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Aside from the cover not visually stunning (Courtesy BGG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.