#Wargame Wednesday – Alternate Stalingrad on the Mississippi with Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990)

Alternate History is a finicky genre of fiction. There are a few titles out there I like such as Fatherland by Robert Harris or SS-GB by Len Deighton. Wargames are a form of alternate history fiction in that the historical outcome of a battle is not always the result. In my collection, I have several 3WW and XTR Corp titles that went deep into an alternate history setting for their wargames. Tomorrow the World (3WW, 1989) by designer Ty Bomba was set in an alternate 1948 world where the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese won World War II and uneasily divided the world and especially the defeated United States (very Man in the High Castle-like). In addition to the strategic wargame Tomorrow the World, XTR Corp (publishers of Command Magazine then associated with 3WW) published several other magazine/folio games in the same setting. I have three of the games, Seven Seas to Victory (1992) which is naval combat around the Panama Canal in 1945 (US vs Nazi Germany), Black Gold (Texas Tea) (1990) recreating a 1948 offensive in the Middle East, and Mississippi Banzai (1990). Thanks to a random number generator, the operational-level Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on my gaming table recently.

Reverse Stalingrad on the Mississippi

Mississippi Banzai envisions the opening offensive of the 1948 war against Nazi Germany by the Imperial Japanese with a strike in the heartland of American. Imperial Japanese forces, attacking out of western Missouri and Iowa, try to surround the German 6th Army at St Louis and secure the strategic towns of Ft Madison and Burlington to the north as they need to eventually march on Chicago. Designer Ty Bomba and developer Chris Perello are very up front that they wanted to design a game with lots of maneuver. Although the Mark Simonitch map looks more like a desert than the wheat fields of the American Midwest, the game design achieves what the designer wanted—lots of maneuver across a relatively open map with low counter density. The combination of maneuver and “elastic combat” in Mississippi Banzai make this low-complexity game, darkly themed game a rather enjoyable thinking challenge.

St. Stalin-Louis-Grad?

Small Game – Big Battle

Mississippi Banzai is physically a small game. The actual “map” of the battlespace takes up 3/4 of the 22″x34″ map with the remaining area dedicated to various game tables and charts. There are 300 counters of which about 20% are markers—not combat units possibly appearing on the map.The 16-page rule book is actually only 11 pages (triple column) of rules and five pages of front/back matter, setting background, and Designer’s Notes. Rules are not very complex with very simple movement and combat. Supply effects are determined at time of movement and combat. All told Mississippi Banzai is a rather small, uncomplicated game.

The real treat in playing Mississippi Banzai is in that simple play. The game last at least 8 turns after which a random roll determines if Winter Rains end the Japanese offensive. The game will automatically end after Turn 12 so time is not really on the Japanese side. The Japanese player also has limited reinforcements as only once PER GAME the Japanese player may Petition the Emperor for more units.

The German player in Mississippi Banzai starts with a smaller force but has access to reinforcements every turn. Once per game, the German player can Appeal to the Fuhrer for extra reinforcements. The German player is going to need every reinforcement they can get because they start off with fewer forces on the board and must rush in new defenders to stem the Japanese offensive. This dance between a juggernaught with nothing behind it and a defender desperately rushing in new forces to stop the rolling giant is what makes Mississippi Banzai an interesting, challenging game.

The New World Order – How Retro

The rules of Mississippi Banzai are in many ways built upon basic, even classic wargame mechanisms:

  • Air Power is abstractly represented by air chits that are used for Air Superiority, Interdiction, or Ground Support Missions. Chits on Air Superiority missions cancel each other and excess missions cancel enemy Interdiction or Ground Support missions. Interdiction units are played at the end of the owning player’s turn and represent areas which require extra movement points to pass thru. Ground Support provides column shifts on the Combat Results Table (CRT).
  • Supply is simple trace checked at the start of a unit’s movement or at the time of combat.
  • Stacking is a 4-unit maximum.
  • There are no zones of control rules but units cannot enter hexes with enemy units unless they are mechanized and conducting a Mobile Assault.
  • The most interesting terrain is Major River/Bottom Land. To enter a Non-mech unit pays 2 MP but a mechanized unit has to pay 3 MP. The cost is the same whether one is crossing the river or not.
  • Mobile Assaults (MA) are Mississippi Banzai’s overrun attacks. During movement if a mechanized unit wants to enter an enemy-occupied hex it (always) costs 3x MP for the defender’s hex. MA cannot be combined with attacks (i.e. each stack conducts MA independently—no combining attacks.
  • Prepared Assaults (PA) are conducted in the Combat Phase. Both MA and PA in Mississippi Banzai use a simple CRT with results that I describe as “elastic combat.” Combat losses are described by a number or “E” for eliminated. Implementing “1,” “2,” or “3” results has a nice twist—the number is the steps lost OR the number of hexes the ENTIRE STACK must retreat. The owner chooses how to satisfy the loss/retreat. Thus, combat is “elastic” in that sometimes the units stay in place but other times they “bounce away.”
  • A Concentric Prepared Assault is when a single hex is attacked by stacks from up to three hexes and awards a column shift on the CRT.
  • The Japanese player can use the Banzai Attack which doubles the combat factors (on attack or defense) but comes with a mandatory step loss.
  • Fog of War, or the ability to examine enemy stacks, is an optional rule?
  • Artillery fires in barrages at the beginning of each combat phase. In the case where a hit is scored and there is more than one unit in the hex, “put all of them in a coffee mug and draw. The drawn unit is the one that takes a step loss.”

Chrome rules, such as they are, in Mississippi Banzai are few but uncomplicated. The Germans have the Maus super-heavy assault guns which are great in combat but ponderous to move. German Leaders grant bonus movement and column shifts in combat. There are special units like “Amerindian Japanese Puppet Troops” and the “Kwantung Siege Army” as well as “Kempeitai Suicide Commandos,” “FLAK,” and airdroppable units.

In this dark comedy version of a Cold War Gone Hot, Atomic Bombs are also a part of Mississippi Banzai. It’s an optional rule, but if you’re already playing this game why hold back? At the start of each game turn a roll is made to see if a bomb is available. If yes it MUST be used! There is a 1 in 6 chance of a dud. If the bomb explodes there are game effects that stay on the board even after the blast. Units wishing to move thru an Atomic Bomb blast hex have to roll on the Blast Entry Hex Chart to see if they even can.

Victory in Mississippi Banzai is very straight-forward. Control of three locations by the Japanese determines victory. Ft. Madison and Burlington are one point (and one hex) each while to get the single Victory Point for St. Louis all four hexes need be controlled.

A Fascist Lovefest?

There may be a few amongst you who are appalled by Mississippi Banzai and the theme. Not only does the game have the stereotypical white-on-black Nazi SS counters, but the most numerous American ally comes in the form of KKK Calvary. Even designer Ty Bomba back in 1990 obviously got some negative feedback which he addresses head-on in his Designer’s Notes [Note: Emphasis text as in original]:

This is a game, which if it were made into a film, would fall into the genre of “Black Comedy.” That is, it philosophic purpose is to examine some aspect of the audience’s worst fears, and using satire, irony and (most of all) exaggeration, make fun of them. To the anal-retentive among you I say, “Remember it is only a game.”

Viewing and enjoying a movie like Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe doesn’t make you an advocate of nuclear warfare. Likewise, playing Mississippi Banzai should not be taken as an indicator of pro-fascist leanings or a wish to revise the outcome of World War II. It is only a game.

From a more military science oriented perspective, I wanted to examine a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII).

Mississippi Banzai, Designer’s Notes

It seems to me that if Mr. Bomba wanted to use Mississippi Banzai to explore, “a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII)” he could very easily make a “Stalingrad on the Nile” or something to that effect. Yes, the thematic setting of Tomorrow the World makes for match ups that some may find very interesting but Mr. Bomba doesn’t mention that match up as a design driver.

Putting “History” Behind

At the end of the day I think I’ll just quietly pack away Mississippi Banzai and put both it an all my Tomorrow the World-related games on the shelf. If I want to study Stalingrad, or a Stalingrad-inspired situation, I’ll just get a Stalingrad game.

Which I don’t have in my collection.

Which I now have to find.

Cool #Wargame #FirstImpressions – The Mannerheim Line Campaign (Counterfact Magazine #12, ossgames.com, 2020)

ALL TOO OFTEN, MAGAZINE WARGAMES MISS MORE THAN THEY HIT. I think it’s the crunch of publication timelines where a game MUST get published even though it may lack the final ‘touch’ that can make the difference between a good game and a turkey. This past year, I took a chance and started buying Counterfact Magazine published by Jon Compton of One Small Step. Part of the reason was price (it was generally more affordable than so many other subscriptions) and the second was because Counterfact uses an “as ready” publication model meaning they try to get out four issues a year but that’s not a guarantee. Issue 12, with the feature game The Mannerheim Line Campaign designed by Ty Bomba arrived this week. The Mannerheim Line Campaign (MLC) describes itself as a “low-intermediate complexity two player historical wargame that’s also easily adaptable for solitaire play.” The marketing slug is right on target; MLC is in many ways a perfect Coronatine wargame – easy to learn, smaller footprint, and solo friendly.

Building the Line

The components for MLC are above average for what I expect from a magazine wargame. The map is a simple, yet gorgeous piece of art by Ilya Kudriashov. It certainly looks winter-like but still remains highly functional. It’s very easy to tell what hex is what. If I have one complaint it’s the orientation of the charts and tables along the short, east edge of the map. Given the players will likely sit across from each other north and south, the charts as printed are upside down to the players.

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Reading the rule book for MLC, I laughed a bit when I read, “After reading these rules at least once, carefully punch out the counters. Trimming off the “dog ears” from their corners with a fingernail clipper will facilitate easier handling and stacking during play and enhances their appearance.” Well, Mr. Bomba, you obviously had little faith in Jon Compton and Lisé Patterson who took care of Counters & Production. I don’t know who OSS uses for their die cut counters, but these both stayed in the sheet fine during shipment while at the same time almost effortlessly punched out. Further, instead of being attached to the sheet at the corners, these counters attach in the middle of the top or bottom edge and when they drop put the corners are crisp and there is only the slightest of nubs along the edge. Bottom line – NO corner rounding needed!

 

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The rule book for MLC is a 12-page insert in the magazine. The rules themselves actually only take up nine pages with one more for the cover and two for charts and tables. The charts and tables are actually not needed in the rule book as they are duplicated on the map sheet. To be honest, the layout of the rule book charts are a bit prettier than the map, but the map charts & tables match the color palette of the map.

The rule book for MLC could be a bit clearer. It’s not that the rules are necessarily confusing, but the long-winded wording in places is, well, long winded. There is some errata but nothing that appears to be a showstopper (though I still cannot find the rule that definitively says when to place Soviet Static Constabulary Units).

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Sniping the Game System

If there is a hallmark of the design from Mr. Bomba in MLC, it’s simplicity yet elegance. For example, the Turn Sequence at first looks very straight-forward, even ‘vanilla.” Every turn starts with the Soviet Player Turn which consists of a First Combat Phase, a First Movement Phase, and then a third phase which can be either a Second Combat OR a Second Movement Phase. The same turn structure applies to the Finnish player. That choice of a second combat or movement phase creates a very interesting turn dynamic. Additionally, Finnish reinforcements can enter during ANY movement phase, Soviet or Finnish. Now that makes for some really interesting decisions!

In keeping with the low-intermediate complexity, movement in MLC is straight forward with mechanized units having 12 movement factors and all other non-static units having eight (8). Combat is a straight odds system using an uncomplicated Combat Results Table with losses expressed in Steps. Different terrain gives column shifts on the CRT. There are some wrinkles in the combat model; Soviet artillery does not appear on the map but rather as Soviet Artillery Support Markers that can be used once per turn in either Combat Phase for the Soviet player. The Soviets can form Mobile Attack Groups that, depending on the roll of a die, may have double the firepower – or only half.

Although the counter density in MLC is rather low, ‘sticky Zone of Control” rules help capture the slower mobility of the combatants. In MLC once a unit enters a ZoC they must stop. Further, if a unit wants to leave a ZoC, the first hex moved into cannot be an enemy ZoC (hence the ‘stickiness’). This sticky ZoC ensures that units cannot just blow past an enemy unit, especially if defenders help each other by maintaining interlocking ZoCs. Simple rule – dramatic (and proper) game effect.

Soviet Supply in MLC is another easy to use, but highly impactful, rule. Soviet units have to maintain a supply line; if they don’t they lose half their movement and half their combat strength.

Victory in MLC is of four flavors; Soviet Major, Soviet Substantive, Soviet Minor, and Finnish Sudden Death. A Soviet Major (or Soviet Sudden Death) occurs the instant the Soviet player controls both hexes of Viipuri and can trace a proper supply line using roads back to a supply source. A Soviet Substantive victory occurs if the Soviets reach certain map edge hexes. Interestingly, at this point the Soviet player can forsake the Substantive victory and declare they will keep going but if that choice is made the Substantive and Minor victories are no longer available – it’s a Soviet Major victory or nothing! A Soviet Minor victory occurs if the Soviet player occupies all six Finnish towns and has at least one unit adjacent to Viipuri. This was the historical end condition.

Putting it on the line

For myself, MLC came in the afternoon mail. I read the rules in about an hour then set up the game. I played solo after dinner with the six turn campaign taking a bit under two hours. For a low-intermediate complexity game the strategic challenges and choices were very interesting. The Finnish player has a great static defensive line that the Soviets have to break thru, and once they do the Finnish mobile units have to use their ‘sticky ZoCs” to slow the Soviets down. Facing the Soviets in a straight-up battle is bound to lead to attrition and loss of units. The Finnish player needs to decide when and where units are going to be sacrificed (better yet, where units have the best chance of lasting the longest before they are sacrificed). The Soviet player must constantly try to get rid of the Finnish “gum” that is slowing them down and bring sufficient combat power to bear to keep the offensive going – all in only six turns.

No, really. I Read it for the Articles….

I probably should mention here that this issue of Counterfact Magazine that includes MLC has several related articles. The feature article, “The Mannerheim Line Campaign, 1939-1940” is written by Ty Bomba and tries to stir up some controversy when discussing the world reaction to the war:

The global reaction was shock at the weakness displayed by the Red Army. Western newspapers were filled with caricatures of the top Soviet leaders along with analyses of the USSR’s lack of readiness for war. The first and loudest reports of the poor Soviet performance in Finland came from newspapers funded by Stalin. From there, the general belief soon arose and persisted among Western military men, analysts, historians and politicians the Red Army had demonstrated in Finland a lack of capacity t wage war at that time. Stalin was content with creating that impression in order that the West’s focus move from his aggressions back to Hitler.

Looked at more dispassionately from our vantage point in this century, however, we can see the Red Army’s performance in the Winter War didn’t demonstrate weakness. Rather, it exhibited tremendous strength.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if MLC delivers that lesson.

The second article in the magazine is a closer look at the “T-28: Stalin’s First Super Tank.” The article draws exclusively from Russian sources making it an interesting look at the monster T-28 from the Russian viewpoint.

Two other major articles, one about cyber warfare (ho-hum) and “The Surcouf: France’s World War II Super-Sub” round out the issue. There is also a two-page article with many statistical graphics on “The Evolution of the Red Army, 1930-1940.” I appreciate that most of the articles are related to the feature game.

Final Thoughts

The Mannerheim Line Campaign lives up to its advertisement – it’s a good low-intermediate complexity game that allows one to explore the Winter War in a short evening. Building on classic wargame mechanics, Mr. Bomba has assembled an easy-to-learn game with many interesting decision points and just enough chrome to be evocative of the campaign depicted. All topped off by beautiful components that make the game feel far more luxurious than the price paid.

Too Bad it’s the Last

I read on BoardGameGeek (though I can’t find the posting right now) that this is the last physical issue of Counterfact Magazine. Whether that means OSS is moving to a print & play model I don’t know. I know that more than a few people grumbled over the years at the quality of some of the Counterfact games. The Mannerheim Line Campaign is a great example of what a magazine wargame can (should?) be. I guess if Counterfact is going to go out on top, this was a good way to do it!

Wargame Wednesday – Reichswehr & Freikorps

S&T #273 Courtesy BGG

Strategy & Tactics magazine and games can be a hit-or-miss affair. The articles are generally well-written if not original (as in original conclusions though the topics may be more obscure). The games are usually limited in scope due to rules length, map size, and counter limits. They also are not necessarily cheap at $29.99 for the game edition (magazine + game). But I am a sucker for alternate history and a fan of Brian Train’s work. So when I saw that Train (master of asymmetric warfare simulations) had teamed with Ty Bomba (known for his alternate history games) I took the chance.

Reichswehr & Freikorps (RWFK) advertises itself as a “low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that likely would have resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Read Army late in the summer of 1920.” The Soviet player is invading Germany; the German player is defending his homeland.

S&T magazine games usually have a “gimmick” that each game tries to showcase. In this case, the gimmick is the Red Army Morale. With High Morale the Red Army can favorably shift combat odds and move further. Low Morale negatively shifts combat odds and reduces movement. Morale is gained by seizing towns and cities and holding them.

The Sequence of Play is also interesting. The Soviet player has two fronts but can only move one front at a time. The German player has no set sequence of play but rather can “interrupt” the Soviet players turn three times to conduct rail movement, regular movement, or combat.

After setting up the game, I was rather dubious as to the coming experience. The 22″x34″ map is overlaid with a 16×24 hex grid. Though there are 176 counters, nearly half are markers meaning there are only around 100 combat units of which 1/4 are reinforcements. Taken together with the stacking rules which allow the Germans to put seven divisions in a stack or the Soviets to have all the units of the same army together I ended up with a few stacks and many empty hexes.

The first few turns see a nearly unstoppable Red Army juggernaut rolling over the countryside to take towns and cities. It is not until a few turns in that one realizes the impact of supply lines on the Red Army advance. Though the Soviets may be able to seize many towns, they are only able to create one new railhead each turn. The effect here is to slow the Red Army advance. This in turn means a loss of Morale since morale is gained by taking towns and cities but lost every turn over time.

In the end, the game sets out to do what it was designed to do; the Red Army player must keep up an offensive while dealing with a slow supply chain and gradually reduced morale. To be victorious the Red Army needs to stay ahead of that inevitable decline in morale. Reichswehr & Freikorps delivers on this gimmick, though I don’t see to much replay value here.