Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


Endnotes

  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

My CSR #Wargame Challenge for 2019

This is the time of the year that many in the boardgame community start their “challenges” for the coming year. The classic is the 10 x 10 – pick 10 different games and play each ten times during the year. As a wargamer, I sort of like that thought but want something more applicable to my niche of the hobby.

The other night I was messing around with the Advanced Search function of BoardGameGeek and sorting my collection in different ways. For some reason I noticed certain games of mine are Charles S. Roberts Award winners. This drew my attention because wargamers know that Mr. Roberts is the father of modern wargaming:

Charles S. Roberts…invented the modern wargame industry virtually single-handedly. As a designer and original owner-operator of Avalon Hill, he was responsible for the creation of the first modern wargame, including many of the developments, such as the Combat Results Table (CRT), which were later to become commonplace. (grognard.com)

According to Wikipedia, the Charles S. Roberts Awards are:

The Charles S. Roberts Awards (or CSR Awards) was an annual award for excellence in the historical wargaming hobby. It was named in honor of Charles S. Roberts the “Father of Wargaming” who founded Avalon Hill. The award was informally called a “Charlie” and officially called a “Charles S. Roberts Award”….Created at the first Origins Game Convention in 1975….The last year the awards were given was 2012.

After sorting my game collection, I discovered I own 20 CSR Awards winners. The challenge I am giving myself is to play all 20 games at least once by the end of calendar year 2019.

CSRAward
Courtesy consimgames.com

My 2019 CSR Challenge games are:

  1. Squad Leader – 1977 Best Tactical Game
  2. Victory in the Pacific – 1977 Best Strategic Game
  3. Mayday – 1978 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  4. The Ironclads – 1979 Best Initial Release Wargame
  5. Azhanti High Lightning – 1980 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  6. Wings – 1981 Best Twentieth Century Game
  7. Car Wars – 1981 Best Science-Fiction Board Game
  8. Ironbottom Sound – 1981 Best Initial Release Wargame
  9. Illuminati – 1982 Best Science-Fiction Board Game*
  10. World in Flames – 1985 Best Twentieth Century Game
  11. 7th Fleet – 1987 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  12. Tokyo Express – 1988 Best World War II Boardgame
  13. Tac Air – 1988 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  14. Operation Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign – 1990 Best World War II Board Game
  15. For the People – 1998 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  16. Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 1990 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  17. Crisis: Korea 1995 – 1993 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  18. Paths of Glory – 1999 Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  19. Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 – 2004 Best Modern Era Boardgame
  20. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear – 2008 Best World War II Boardgame

A nice perk of making my own challenge is that I get to make the rules. For instance, since I don’t always own the edition that won substituting a later edition or version that I own is acceptable. For instance, I own Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition) – that is a legal substitute.

I will keep this blog and a GeekList over on BoardGameGeek updated with my progress throughout the year.

So, what is your 2019 Wargame Challenge? 


*  Yes, I know Illuminati is NOT a wargame, but it is the only non-wargame CSR winner on my list. Besides, the RockyMountainNavy Boys may like it, so it stays!

Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek. Afrika Korps was a 1964 design by Charles S. Roberts.

The holiday season is upon us – Limited November gaming but still lots of joy.

November was a VERY slow gaming month. Lots of moving parts conspired to reduce the number of games played this past month. The RockyMountainNavy tribe missed two (2!) weekends of game nights. This is the first time since August 2016 that we missed  more than one week at a time. It also doesn’t help that the Youngest RMN Boy started Indoor Track season which digs into my weeknight game time. It also doesn’t help that my gaming space has been overtaken by the gift wrap station….

So how did the month look?

IMG_0092

According to BGStats, I played 18 games in November. Once again, the way BGG Stats tracks plays is off as I actually played 16 games and two expansions. The multi-game play was Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016) using both the Prelude and new Colonies expansion.

box-heroThe game of the month was definitely AuZtralia (Stronghold Games). All my plays to date are solo play as this game has yet to reach the RMN Game Night table. My initial impression was a bit weak, but as time has passed the game has grown on me more. I really want to get this one to Game Night and see what the RMN Boys say!

pic360048My Grognard Game of the Month was Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). It was a real treat to play it again after so many years. A solid design with alot to teach about what a real solitaire wargame can be.

It was also Black Friday in the States with many sales. Actually, the entire month of November featured many sales, a few of which I took advantage of. That is how I welcomed Brian Train’s Finnish Civil War (Paper Wars, Compass Games 2017) to my collection.

pic23647501The biggest surprise of the month was the Kickstarter fulfillment of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games) after a delay of over two years. I will have many more thoughts on this game coming at you in the future. Actually, there are several Kickstarter and pre-order fulfillments coming that I did not expect as recently as two weeks ago. My preorder copy of Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games) is enroute, and Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk, 1943 (Academy Games) may be in hand before the end of the year! I will also likely add several more games to my order list as Hollandspiele is having their Hollandays sale starting the day this posts.

December will continue to be gaming challenge as we are busy and my gaming space is preempted. On the plus side, I earned a generous amount of vacation time and I plan on using it at the end of the year (after Christmas). I feel that the last week of December may see an explosion of gaming as I make up for lost time.

Here’s wishing all of you a Happy Holiday. May you spend it gaming with family and making memories for a lifetime.

 

Game of the Week – or – Visiting Neptune’s Inferno with Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

For most of the campaign, Guadalcanal was a contest of equals, perhaps the only major battle in the Pacific where the United States and Japan fought from positions of parity. Its outcome was often in doubt. – James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, Prologue.

pic360048From the perspective of game mechanics, Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988) can be a real chore. This solitaire game leverages a heavy workload on the player to not only make decisions for their own side, but also to run the opposing AI. However, once you make it past the initial (steep?) learning curve, the game opens up a narrative battle experience unlike so many others.

In a way it is unfair to call Tokyo Express a historical game. Yes, there are scenarios that replicate the starting conditions of many battles, but the real power of Tokyo Express is how it make the unknown a part of the game and forces the player to deal with it. What may be the two most important rules in Tokyo Express are not what many grognards would think. Rule 6.0 Detection and 7.0 Japanese Hidden Forces are the parts of the game that make the narrative come alive.

Before you can open fire, you must see the target. That is the crux of 6.0 Detection. Be it visually or by radar, the importance of detecting the enemy first is a core game mechanic in Tokyo Express. When taken in combination with 7.0 Hidden Japanese Forces, the game creates it own unique narrative of battle ensuring that no two games are ever alike. The Design Note for 7.0 actually frames the entire game and brings the drama of the battle to the forefront:

The game begins with you patrolling Ironbottom Sound, looking for the Japanese who are somewhere off in the darkness. The Japanese appear initially as blips on your long-range search radar. Hidden forces represent anything your radar operator thinks might be a Japanese force. Sometimes it will indeed be warships; other times it will just be a “radar ghost.” You find out by detecting it.

In Tokyo Express, game designer Jon Southard captures the most important elements of the naval battle around Guadalcanal. In his Design Notes he makes no excuses for the difficulty of the game. In some ways Mr. Southard was ahead of his time when he designed Tokyo Express to be an “experience” and not a “simulation.” He especially makes no excuse for the difficulty of winning:

In your initial encounters with Tokyo Express, you will, I hope, feel some of the frustration and awe the American admirals did. The objective throughout the design process was to give you their bridge-eye view. You may be defeated at first, but you should find your own solutions, as the US admirals finally did.

8575701By making its core design feature “find your own solutions,” Tokyo Express takes what many wargames do, challenging players to find a path to victory, and elevates it to the highest levels of the hobby. It is a testimony to the power of his design that 30 years after its initial publication the title is worthy of a reprint. Pairing this game with James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam Books, 2011) allows one to not only read the history, but then take the same human drama Hornfischer relates and make it come alive.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued)

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek