#Wargame #FirstImpressions – Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (@compassgamesllc, 2019)

BLUF – A mechanically simple wargame that builds a believable narrative of combat but is slowed by many rules.

I CAME OF AGE IN THE 1980s. At that time, I was heavily into naval wargaming and studying the latest weaponry so of course some of my favorite wargames were the Harpoon series by Larry Bond. I started out first with Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) but quickly moved on to Harpoon 3 from GDW (1987). I eventually joined the Navy (1989) just at the end of the Cold War; which is to say I joined a Navy in flux for although I fought in Gulf War I we still trained for the Cold War. Thus I found myself in the Vest-fjord of Norway in 1991 not long after the attempted coup in Moscow. The war I trained for, the Cold War at Sea, was ending and I (thankfully) never had a go at the Soviets.

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USS America (CV-66) operates in the Vest-fjord of Norway during Exercise NORTH STAR 91 (Cruise Book)

Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) allows wargamers to see what a “Cold War gone hot” might of been like. It focuses on NATO and the Atlantic, although the Mediterranean is also included:

Blue Water Navy covers the war at sea, air, close-ashore and low-earth orbit from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and West over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Cuba. The game models the full order of battle that could be expected in 1980’s wartime, from multi-regiment Soviet Tu-22 Backfire bombers to multiple US carrier groups. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)

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F-14 Tomcat from CVW-1 escorts a Russian bomber near USS America (CV-66) during Exercise NORTH STAR 91 (Cruise Book)

Blue Water Navy is large both in game scope and game contents. The two-piece 30″x45″ map uses areas spanning approx. 500nm to depict the battlespace from the Gulf of Mexico to the Kola Peninsula to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Over 700 counters represent groups of ships or aircraft (although to be fair about half are markers, not units) and each turn is 2 days. Play time is rated at 1-3 hours for shorter scenarios and 8-16 hours for a campaign.

To try and make this all work, the game uses a form of the Ops-Events card-driven mechanic:

The game is card driven, with each card providing points to move or trigger special events such as ‘KGB Assassinations’ and ‘Space Shuttle’. There is also a reaction mechanic where most cards can be used in the other player’s turn to perform a spoiling event such as ‘Raid Aborts’ and ‘Friendly Fire’. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)

To avoid the “God’s Eye” problem of wargaming, the rules feature robust detection rules:

The heart of the game is detection. Task Forces can only be attacked once detected. By contrast, land airbases can always be attacked. The race to detect opposing Task Forces begins as soon as they enter potential striking range…. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)

Here are some of my impressions after reading the Rules Booklet and playing the first short scenario, ‘The Boomer Bastion, 1983’:

Game Mechanics & Rules

Mechanically, Blue Water Navy is not very complex. The Operations Cards and possible Actions are fairly straight-forward. Movement is very simple; even detection is logical. There is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in Blue Water Navy; combat ‘strength’ is expressed in terms of d10 rolled, with a natural 10 being highly favorable and doubles often also having a favorable effect. Modifiers are few.

That said, combat in Blue Water Navy is very procedural and, although the core mechanic of rolling multiple d10 is the same, every combat type is handled differently (and even within warfare types, such as air, different engagements are not always handled the same way). The use of Player Aid Cards (PAC) is absolutely essential. When coupled with the detection and reaction rules and the interaction of weapons systems (such as SAMs vs missiles or aircraft) this dramatically slows the game down.

Blue Water Navy also lacks an index (though the PAC has rules references). This can make finding essential rules a chore. For instance, the shorter scenarios use a ‘smaller’ Ops Track with different rules found in an unnumbered section at the beginning of the Scenario Book.

Gameplay

Gameplay in Blue Water Navy feels very organic. There is a very natural (dare I say, realistic?) feel to the flow of combat. Battles in Blue Water Navy build a narrative. In my scenario play, a US nuclear fast attack submarine (SSN) entered the Soviet Bastion hunting for Boomers (SSBN) and was intercepted by a Soviet SSN which got a shot off but missed. Now alerted, a Soviet MPA aided in the search supported by a surface ASW group. Facing off against this threat, the US SSN eventually was lost, but not before it exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet surface ASW group. This in turn set the stage for another US SSN to get into the bastion and, with Soviet ASW forces attrited, it was able to sink a Boomer. Another US SSN faced off against a Soviet SSN but lost out to the Rocket Torpedoes of the Soviet Victor III SSN.

Seapower & the State meets the Fleet-series…sorta

When it comes to Cold War navy wargames, the standard against which all others are held, even today, is certainly the 1990s Fleet-series by Victory Games. When it comes to strategic World War III at sea, I also fondly recall Seapower & the State by designer Stephen Newberg at Simulation Canada (1982). In many ways, Blue Water Navy attempts to cover the scope of Seapower & the State using Fleet-like mechanics. Interestingly, Stephen Newberg is credited as an advisor to Blue Water Navy!

I rate Blue Water Navy a qualified success in depicting World War III at sea. Blue Water Navy has the strategic coverage of World War III at sea (operations planning & events, movement, detection) but it takes an extended time to play because combat delves deeply (too deeply?) into the operational-level of warfare. The rules are generally simple but no two combats are resolved in the same manner thus slowing play. I like the game and I want to get the other short scenarios to the table. Maybe in doing so I can build up a rules-familiarity to speed play. Only then would I dare to attempt a campaign game.


Feature image – Blue Water Navy box cover (credit – self)

 

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.

#WargameWednesday -The 80’s are calling and they want their 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) back!

AFTER basically taking April off from heavy gaming, I jumped back into my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge this week with the 1987 Winner for Best Modern Era Boardgame, 7th Fleet from Victory Games. In late 2018, Compass Games announced they would be reprinting the Fleet-series. This got me thinking….

I played 7th Fleet not that long ago so this play was a bit easier since the rules were not stale in my head. This time through I asked myself why this game should be reprinted. The best answer I came up with was, “Because it does operational-level naval combat from the 1980’s so well.” 7th Fleet, and indeed the entire Fleet-series, is an excellent snapshot of what naval combat in the 1980’s at the operational level was expected to be. This is not to say it is perfect; the Fleet-series was informed by the best publicly available information. I want to focus on three issues, sea-skimming missiles, cruise missiles, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) to help make my point.

The sea-skimming missile shot to fame (no pun intended) in the 1982 Falklands War with the Exocet anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). As a sea-skimmer it was harder to engage because it usually flew below most weapons engagement envelopes.

In the Fleet-series, “sea-skimmers” like Exocet get their own call out in the rules and prevent the defending Area Anti-Air value from being multiplied when in defense. It is interesting to me that the only missile attribute that gets recognized is sea-skimmers. Other attributes, like speed or steep diving, were simply factored into the SSM Attack Value. This “boutique rule” (my term) makes the Fleet-series a reflection of its time. I wonder what the update is going to do; keep the sea-skimmer “exception” or go further? How should the Fleet-series handle supersonic and hypersonic ASCMs?

The other missile that gets recognized is Cruise Missiles. Rule 10.5 Cruise Missile Combat lays out the use of cruise missiles. In 7th Fleet, only the US Navy mounts cruise missiles so this is, in effect, a bonus US rule. Today, we understand that some of the very large Soviet missiles also had a land-attack capability. Another boutique rule; another limitation of the understanding from the 1980s, and another challenge to the designers and developer’s looking at a reprint.

In the Fleet-series , during the Strategic Detection Segment of the Strategic Cycle, Reconnaissance air units in an air zone can locate an enemy surface unit (or stack) or attempt to place a Strategic Detection marker on a submarine. In other words, all detection is from tactical, organic assets. The role of space-based ISR is ignored. Not that it was unknown; even the CIA took note of a Jack Anderson column in the Washington Post in February 1985 that talked about Soviet threat satellites.

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To be clear, I am absolutely NOT accusing designer Joe Balkoski or Victory Games of ignoring the role of space-based ISR. Even though Jack Anderson got a scoop in 1985 the contribution of space-based sensors to ship tracking was actually highly classified at the time. For the designers to not include them in the game is understandable, and another example of how the Fleet-series is a product of its day.

All of which makes 7th Fleet and its sister-games in the Fleet-series so wonderful. To get a good taste of what people popularly thought the Cold War at Sea would look like one either read Tom Clancy or played a Fleet-series game. The game rules capture the essence of naval combat in the 1980s with few boutique rules or rules exceptions. I am fortunate enough to own the entire Fleet-series so I have little pressure to acquire any reprints. I am interested in seeing what is done with the reprints and, if there is enough differences, may look to invest.


Feature image BoardGameGeek

 

#boardgames versus #seriousgames – or – Hey, @StrongholdGames, #Aftershock is not just a name

Update 08 Feb: Rex & @StrongholdGames have reached an agreement.


This post is a call to action to Stronghold Games to right a wrong, and it all has to do with a name.

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Courtesy Stronghold Games

As I write this post, Stronghold Games is running a Kickstarter campaign for a game from Alan R. Moon  & Bobby West named Aftershock – Deluxe Edition. In the game…

The world has been hit with mega earthquakes. The worst destruction has devastated the San Francisco Bay area. It is a time of rebuilding to restore this area to its former glory.

In Aftershock, players will spend money to acquire planning cards, which are used to increase population, build bridges, and determine where aftershocks occur. Spend money wisely to acquire aftershocks that will allow you to move people into and out of the demolished areas. Planning and careful negotiation are essential in order to maintain your population and score your best-planned cities and bridges.

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Courtesy PAXSIMS

The problem is a game named “Aftershock” previously existed on the market. AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, is the brainchild of @RexBrynen of PAXSIMS. Most boardgamers and wargamers have probably not heard of PAXSIMS or Rex or AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game because Rex and PAXSIMS are part of the “serious games” portion of our hobby. That is, the niche of our hobby that uses games for education or analysis.

Since 2015, Rex has been selling AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game which…

…explores the interagency cooperation needed to address a complex humanitarian crisis. Although designed for four players, it can be played with fewer (even solitaire) or more (with players grouped into four teams).

The game is set in the fictional country of “Carana,” but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. At the start of the game a powerful earthquake has just struck Carana’s capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Government of Carana, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel, together with much-needed relief supplies.

Time is of the essence! How many can you save?

AFTERSHOCK is a tense, fast-paced, and immersive game that players will find both unique and informative. Based on real-world events and challenges, it is also used in the professional training and education of aid workers, military personnel, and others involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

AFTERSHOCK has been used to teach students at the Pennsylvania State University and medical students in Germany. AFTERSHOCK is an example of a serious game; that is, a game that can be used for analysis or education.

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AFTERSHOCK game in progress at 9th Mission Support Command, US Army Reserve (courtesy BGG.com)

Using wargames as a “serious game” is nothing new. One famous example goes back to the first Gulf War when, in the immediate hours after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Pentagon put Mark Herman under contract to run Gulf Strike (Victory Games, 1983) and play out the US response. Whether you realize it or not, some game companies like Academy Games support military education and training. In this case, Academy’s new Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon game uses game mechanics adapted from a US Marine Corps “Fallujah game.” GMT Games are used by the Marine Corps War College.

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Marine Corps War College Next War Event – April 8-9, 2019
For the second year in a row, The Marine Corps War College is going to be using GMT Games as the basis for a spring event. This April 8-9, they are going to run a two day global wargame using the Next War Series.  Mitchell Land is going to be on-hand to help run the exercise, which involves three simultaneous fights in Taiwan, North Korea, and Poland. Here’s a pic of one of the Marine War College’s teaching games using Mark Herman’s Pericles (courtesy GMT Games)
Think tanks use gaming, like this CNA Talks podcast from CNA.org explains. Serious games cross over into the video gaming world; there is a pro version of CMANO for government organizations to use. Elsewhere, another form of serious games called megagames – massively multiplayer boardgames games – are used for student orientation at the University of Chicago or to entertain (and teach) about disasters.

So why does all this matter?

I absolutely believe in the value of serious games and strongly support what Rex is using AFTERSHOCK for. Rex does not sell this game for his own profit; all profits from the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game are donated to the World Food Programme and other United Nations humanitarian agencies.

Stronghold Games apparently did not exercise even the most simple “due diligence” before Kickstarting their Aftershock. A simple query of BoardGameGeek would of immediately returned AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. Maybe they were relying on Alan R. Moon (of Ticket to Ride-fame) and Bobby West to do that part for them, but even if so that is no excuse.

So what can Stronghold do? I am concerned that Stronghold is not taking this situation seriously. (no pun intended). In the comments on a recent PAXSIMS post, Rex related that, “We’ve reached out to them to express our concern (especially since ours raises funds for actual humanitarian relief) but so far the response has merely been “sometimes different games have similar names.”

That’s inexcusable. This is not Gettysburg or Panzer Something.

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Courtesy @ellalovesbg

Now, I like Stronghold Games. Terraforming Mars is an “evergreen” title for #boardgamenight in the RockyMountainNavy house. AuZtralia was my boardgame of the year for 2018. I religiously listen to their Board Games Insider podcast every week. I understand Stronghold Games needs to make a buck but Stephen Buonocore, you’re better than this.

One suggestion made on the BGG forums is for Stronghold to find some way to acknowledge the PAXSIMS predecessor. This approach was graciously endorsed by Rex. I also believe this is a respectable way ahead. It is approach that shows support to both hobby gaming and serious gaming.

Stronghold Games, you are a gaming industry leader. Show us that you truly deserve to be.


UPDATE LATE 3 Feb

Now blocked on Twitter by @StrongholdGames.

Feature image courtesy PAXSIMS.

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

Humming Along with Battle Hymn Vol 1 – Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (@compassgamesllc, 2018)

A new game arrived this week. Battle Hymn Vol 1 – Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). The game spent a very short time on my preorder list and now is hitting the table. Both Battle Hymn and a previous game of the week, Thunder at the Crossroads (second edition) (The Gamers, 1993), are brigade-level combat games in the American Civil War. Both titles include the iconic Battle of Gettysburg allowing in some fashion a straight-up comparison.

Thunder at the Crossroad

Battle Hymn Vol 1

Complexity

Medium

Medium

Playing Time

18 hrs plus

45 min – 8 hrs

Solitaire Suitability

Medium

High

Unit Scale

Brigades

Brigades

Turn Length

30 minutes

60-90 minutes

Hex Scale

200 yards

300 yards

Maps

2x 22’x34”

2x 39”x25”

Counters

560

528

Rules

Series/Game

Series/Game

In simple terms, the games look virtually identical. Whereas Thunder at the Crossroads uses it’s Command System as its distinctive game mechanic, Battle Hymn uses a chit-pull system and an “innovative” combat system to distinguish itself. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

Battle Hymn is a new brigade-level game system that simulates the chaos of the America Civil War using a simple activation system combined with a detailed combat system. The system’s designer, Eric Lee Smith, originated the “chit-pull” activation system in his game “Panzer Command” and later used it in “Across Five Aprils,” Battle Hymn’s forerunner, both published by Victory Games. Units are organized by command, usually divisions, and activate for movement when the command’s activation market is picked from the cup. The system uses traditional mechanics for movement, with units differentiated by type, but adds a level of detail to combat that feels almost miniatures like. In fact, the system is designed for easy conversion to miniatures. When one side has the initiative they decide when their combat phase occurs, without it, you don’t know when it will happen.

In my first read-thru of the rules it appears to me that although both Thunder at the Crossroads and Battle Hymn are rated “Medium” complexity, Battle Hymn is a much simpler game than Thunder at the Crossroads.

Command System: This is the heart of Thunder at the Crossroads. In Battle Hymn there is no need for written orders. More “realism” in Thunder at the Crossroads at the cost of more complexity.

Movement: Units in Battle Hymn don’t change formation or extend lines or the like as found in Thunder in the Crossroads. Again, more “realism” in Thunder at the Crossroads but again, an increased cost in complexity.

Combat: Battle Hymn claims the innovative combat system “elevates realism” and is “based on recent historical research and the best practices used in miniatures games.” I will need to play more to judge for myself but from a simple game mechanics-perspective the combat system in Battle Hymn is much more intuitive to me. I was constantly stumbling during play of Thunder at the Crossroads with the A, AB, B, etc. Firepower levels.

I also have to say the map for Battle Hymn is one of the most gorgeous maps I have ever seen in a wargame. Done in “period style” it is extremely pretty. I am very tempted to reach out to Compass Games and see if they will sell one unfolded and shipped in a roll container so I can frame it and hang it on the wall of my gaming room.

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Gettysburg Map (courtesy Compass Games)

I also like the scenarios in Battle Hymn. Ranging from 45 minutes to 8 hours I think I will be able to play the shorter ones first to learn the game system and then go for the longer engagements/campaigns:

  • Gettysburg
    • Pickett’s Charge – 3 turns, 45 minutes
    • The Best Three Hours (Devil’s Den) – 3 turns, 1 hour
    • The Accidental Battle (Day One) – 11 turns, 3 hours
    • Longstreet’s March (Day Two) – 9 turns, 3 hours
    • The Tide Turns (Day Three) – 7 turns, 3 hours
    • The Battle of Gettysburg (campaign) – 31 turns, 8 hours
  • Pea Ridge
    • The Surprise Attack (Day One) – 9 turns, 2 hours
    • Missouri Redeemed! (Day Two) – 5 turns, 1.5 hours
    • The Battle of Pea Ridge (campaign) – 15 turns, 5 hours

I am very happy that I pulled the trigger and stepped out of my gaming comfort zone to purchase Battle Hymn. To be honest, it was actually very easy given the videos @PastorJoelT posts on Twitter. Thanks Joel!

Featured image courtesy Compass Games.

The Old South China Sea – 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) Game of the Week for 26 Mar 2018

Continuing my South China Sea gaming theme….

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Courtesy BGG.com

In the mid-1980s the Cold War was still hot and wargames reflected it. In the realm of modern naval combat, the series that stood above all others was the Fleet-series from Victory Games. Designer Joseph M. Balkowski created an operational-level game that captured many aspects of modern naval combat in a detailed, yet playable, game. The third game in the series, 7th Fleet: Modern Naval Combat in the Far East, covered my Game of the Week theme –  the South China Sea. As I reviewed the rules for 7th Fleet I was struck by how much I remember; and how much I have forgotten. It is in the forgotten parts that I am rediscovering the awesomeness of the game design and how simple design choices make for awesome game rules.

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Basic Game Rules

Having not played 7th Fleet in a long time, I decided to focus my Game of the Week on the Basic Game at first, and if time permits to look at the Advanced Game. At first glance, the 64-page rule book looks daunting. Upon closer inspection, one discovers that the first seven pages are introductory materials with the rules starting on page 8. 3.0 Sequence of Play is presented on one page (page 8) and covers the entire ruleset; Basic and Advanced as well as Optional rules. The Basic Game Rules themselves are only 18 pages with a further 13 pages given over to nine Basic Game Scenarios.

The Basic Game Rules start on page 9 and jump straight into the heart of the game, rule 4.0 The Action Phase. Here is the first place my memory of the game was (pleasantly) refreshed. In particular, I had forgotten the nuances of 4.3 Limitations on Activation and 4.4 What Activated Units Can Do. I had forgotten that Surface Units when activated use a combination of move/attack with one move and up to two attacks…but the attacks can only be before or after the move and not in-between. Submarines can activate using a combination of move and a single attack, and Air Units are the only platform that attacks during their move. These simple activation distinctions between units capture so much of the different capabilities of platforms and immediately show me the simple genius behind much of the game design.

Another Basic Game rule that has subtle nuance that I had forgotten is 6.0 Stacking. The rule specifies a “limit of 12 surface combat units per hex.” Surface ships in the game are divided into two broad categories; Surface Combat Units and Non-Combat Surface Units (See 2.3 Playing Pieces – Summary of Counter Types). Thus, I could have a convoy of any number of amphibious assault or tankers or oilers in a hex as long as I have an escort of no more than 12 surface combat units (CV, CG, CL, DD, FF, BB, Corvette CO or Patrol Combatant PC). I remember games from long ago where I always had my convoys of no more than 12 ships (escorts and convoy together) smashed because they had never had enough escorts. Now I know why!

Rule 7.0 Strategic Air Missions is pretty much like I remember it. I always loved the challenge that came with planning Strategic Air Missions because any aircraft assigned to these missions is committed for the entire day (3-turn sequence). I really like 7.4 Tactical Coordination Missions but I think I used to play it wrong by keeping aircraft on these missions all day instead of returning them to base after they provide a bonus in combat (i.e. they can be used to support a single combat resolution).

As a fan of the F-14 Tomcat, I have always loved 8.0 Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and especially the AEW and CAP bonus. I had forgotten rule 8.3 CAP and SSM Combat where a CAP under certain conditions can contribute to defense against SSM attack. The rule specifies that a CAP mission with an EW air unit or a US F14 INT unit can aid, but I wonder if this rule should be reconsidered for aircraft like the Soviet S27 or M25 INT given that we now understand much more about “look down-shoot down” capabilities?

Some critics of wargames point to the “perfect knowledge” of the game board as a drawback. Rule 9.0 Detection creates a game mechanic to limits what can be done with that perfect knowledge. I forgot was the subtle differences between Strategic Detection and Local Detection and how surface ships are pretty much automatically detected once within range whereas players must still attempt to detect submarines. This little nuance is a simple game mechanism that goes a long way towards portraying different platform capabilities – detailed yet playable.

10.0 Combat has so many little flavor pieces that add depth to the simple combat model without bogging it down with too much chrome. Item likes 10.4 Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Combat where the defender can position his units in his defending stack but the attacker then rolls to see which half of the stack is attacked; imperfect targeting! I had also totally forgotten 10.9 Close Defense Hex Combat…don’t go too near an enemy coast!

The scenario that would make the most sense to play for my Game of the Week is 13.3 Scenario 3: Battle of the South China Sea. I am hesitant to jump into this one given the complexity is rated as “High” and the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy does not make an appearance in the scenario. Indeed, China is treated in a very interesting manner in this game. 2.3 Playing Pieces specifies that the Allied Player (i.e. the US player) controls counters from Taiwan…and China! I have to remind myself that 7th Fleet was published in the mid-1980s…before the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

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PLAN of Long Ago….

Looking at how the Chinese Navy is presented in 7th Fleet is a stark reminder of just how far the PLAN has come. It is a real shame that the Fleet-series has not been updated over the years. The game mechanics are solid and the design choices made by Mr. Balkowski give us a playable, yet detailed, version of naval combat that still can find application in the 21st century – 30 years past the Cold War.

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PLAN of Today-ish (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015)

Featured image “Full page magazine ad from S&T No. 117” courtesy BoardGameGeek.com.

#Wargame #FirstImpressions – #SouthChinaSea (@compassgamesllc)

South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017) is a conflicted game. Conflicted in that it can’t quite decide just what game it wants to be. In turn, this makes my feelings for the game just as conflicted.

Let me be clear up front – I generally like South China Sea but wish it was better. I honestly have little room to complain as I was a marginal participant in the open playtest designer John Gorkowski ran. I did a pass through the original rules draft and provided comments to John. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay involved. So in a sense I had my chance to influence the game before publication and failed. I should be happy with what the product is; and like I said I generally am. That said, I still have conflicts!

South China Sea (hereafter SCS) is a combination of two games played out in Political Turns and Military Turns. Political Turns represent 3-7 weeks of international action. If (when?) conflict erupts, the game transitions to Military Turns representing several hours of combat operations.

This is SCS‘s first conflict; is it a political or military game? Political Turns are played using a deck of cards. Some cards are playable only by Global Powers (US and China) while others can only be played by the Regional Powers (Malaysia, Vietnam, The Philippines). Card play moves the Victory Point Track which starts at 10VP. Moving down the track (minus VP) is good for the US, while moving up the track (positive VP) is good for China. So for the US to win they have to have less VP. [Forgive me for being an American, but having less VP seems counterintuitive to me.]

My second conflict with SCS is Armed Conflict, specifically how it happens. Certain cards call for a Roll for Armed Conflict which, if failed, moves the game to Military Turns. Now, I guess I can see how (few) cards affect the initial set-up, but it is few. I am not sure the balance between the Political Turns and Military Turns in really there; the Roll for Armed Conflict seems to be a rush to get the “forces to sea” and start the fight.

My third conflict with SCS is the Military Turns themselves. I am conflicted here because I actually really like the Military Turn Sequence and how it uses rules for Situational Awareness. Although units on the map are “spotted,” they must be Illuminated to be targeted. Evasion is how units escape Illumination, and Hiding is avoiding Illumination. These rules are a simple way to portray the battle to locate the other side. Combined with a very simple Strike mechanic (2d6 + Weapon System Score +/- Modifiers vs Defense Score or Missile Defense) combat is resolved quickly. The Air/Sea Engagement Sequence captures the order of Strikes with Stealth Rating vitally important as most Strikes are resolved in descending order of Stealth Rating. Thus, the Stealth Rating (3) F-35 fires first against the Stealth Rating (2) J-31. Simple mechanics makes for simple combat resolution while maintaining the feel of modern naval combat.

My fourth conflict in SCS are the game components, specifically the map and counters. The counters feel a bit “thin” for my taste and are graphically very crowded. Having all the information needed to play on the counter face is very helpful but I and not sure you want to risk any corner clippers with these! The map is more problematic. Look below:

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SCS Map

Although hard to see there are actually two map sheets. They do not butt against each other, but actually overlap by 5 hexes. Why? None of the scenarios are single mappers…so why the large overlap? Note also the littoral and sea hexes to the west of Myanmar. Why? Bangkok is not used in any scenario (Thailand is not a playable country) so is this for a future expansion? Another part that bothers me is the placement of the Guam and Okinawa Transit Tracks…on the northwest part of the map or away from where the US player is likely to sit (for it seems to me the logical seating would be PRC to the north, US to the south, Vietnam west, The Philippines to the northeast, and Malaysia to the southeast). Thus the Transit Tracks are about as far away from the US player as they could be. To my untrained eye it seems to me that west edge of the map could be five hexes closer and added to the east edge giving space to move the Transit Tracks to the same side of the map as the entry hexes.

Sample Game

I played a solo game to experiment with the rules and learn the game system. Although the Political Turns are not really soloable, in my effort to experiment with the system I played through a sample game assuming that:

  • China’s overarching goal was to assert sovereignty in the SCS
  • The US opposed China and wanted Freedom of Navigation
  • Malaysia generally supported the Chinese
  • Vietnam generally supported the US
  • The Philippines was focused inward (but leaned to the US)

After the cards were dealt I “played” out the first round. The Chinese led by publishing a negative Human Rights Report on the US but it didn’t shift world opinion. US companies in the meanwhile made a major Gas/Oil Find in the SCS and gained 2VP while avoiding armed conflict. Embassy Demonstrations in Malaysia were ignored, and a Humanitarian Disaster in Vietnam allowed the US to place one Arleigh Burke DDG near Cam Rahn Bay. The Philippines tried appeal for ASEAN Solidarity and when supported by Vietnam pushed the VP further to the US side. Of note, the VP Track starts at 10 VP with less VP good for the US and more VP favoring China. At the end of the first Political Turn the VP had moved 4VP towards the US (6VP on the track). In the Political Negotiation Phase, I simulated the give-n-take by trading cards since the Global Powers had cards they could not play and vice-versa for the Regional Powers.

In the second Political Turn the Chinese led off with a High Level Visit to Malaysia but again failed to move the Victory Track. The US played Economic Sanctions and, with the support of Vietnam and The Philippines, shifted the VP again (now at 5VP). Malaysia invited China for a Combined Military Exercise but it backfired and shifted world opinion further towards the US (VP track now at 4VP!). Not wanting to risk a conflict while things were going well for their patron, both Vietnam and The Philippines passed (discard). In the Political Negotiation Phase a few more cards were traded.

Trying to get something back, the Chinese declared a major Gas/Oil Find and shifted 2VP in their favor while avoiding armed conflict. The US played a High Level Visit that fizzled (no change in VP) and Malaysia passed (discard) while trying to avoid igniting a conflict. The Vietnamese instigated a Embassy Demonstration outside the of the PRC consulate but again the world ignored. The Philippines then tried to buy arms (Arms Sales) from the US, which agreed, and moved the VP marker to 2VP. However, the roll for armed conflict failed and the game moved to Military Turns.

Of note, playing strictly by the RAW and with 5-players and factoring in Analysis Paralysis, this card play portion of the game might of been 45 minutes or more. That’s assuming 2-minutes per card play and the 10-minute Negotiation Phase at the end of each 5-card round. All this interaction placed exactly one unit on the map in my game.

The scenario being played was Scenario 1: Clash of the Flattops. This pits a US Carrier Strike Group (CVN with F-35s escorted by DDG and a Virginia SSN in loose company) versus two Chinese CV with J-31 and J-15 navalized fighters and escorts supported by a Song/Yuan SS. The scenario calls for six Military Turns.

Combat was…quick. By the end of the third Military Turn the Chinese strike against the US carrier group had failed and the Americans refused to enter the range of SSMs on Hainan. One Chinese CV and both naval fighter squadrons were destroyed at the cost of one Vietnamese fighter squadron. Seeing no way to win, I declared a cease-fire in the Military Negotiation Phase at the end of the third Military Turn. The total play time for the Military Turns was maybe 30 minutes.

Afterthoughts

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

As a longtime fan, collector, and player of Victory Games’ Fleet Series, it is inevitable that I compare SCS to the Fleet Series. SCS, with its simple Strike resolution mechanic and superior Air/Sea Engagement Sequence is a faster playing, more streamlined game than the Fleet Series that also seemingly better captures the feel of modern naval combat. But SCS – at least this first iteration – seems to lack the some of the depth that the Fleet Series has. I admit that more depth may mean more “chrome” on the game and more rules overhead and time to play. I think it may be worth it as the “bones” of SCS (Situational Awareness, Strike, and the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence) are strong.

Finally, there are two other (very) small quibbles I have with SCS. The first is the subtitle and the reference to “South Pacific.” I’m sorry – when I think of the South Pacific I think of it in terms of World War II and the South China Sea is NOT part of that definition. Second, there is this section of the publisher’s blurb,

Most important, SCS allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single turn, but includes a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” multi-hex moves to create a more dynamic, variable, and volatile environment.  This last adjustment allows quick moves at a distance, but prevents close-in ships from “jumping” through the beaten zone of modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), 290 nmi in some cases.

In all my time as a naval grognard and while on active duty as a naval officer I never heard the term “beaten zone” used with ASCMs. “Engagement Zone” maybe, but not beaten zone. In my mind I associate beaten zone with artillery and the Army. Maybe I’m behind the times….

#BtC Breaking the Chains Out of Box

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Courtesy bgg.com

Having been heavily focused on RPGs for a long while, I am trying this summer to get back into my wargaming groove. Always having a soft-spot in my heart for naval games, I recently acquired the 2013 Compass Games’ Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. Taken directly from today’s headlines, BtC explores the naval battles that could take place in the named area.

My favorite operational-level naval conflict series is the old Victory Games Fleet Series (starting with Sixth Fleet in 1985). The scale of both BtC and the Fleet Series is very similar (i.e. time and distance). The combat mechanic is updated and in many ways simplified in BtC with a near-exclusive focus on missiles.

The Fleet Series featured a very diverse selection of combatants whereas BtC is much more limited. There are also just a few scenarios included in BtC. In any given Fleet Series game one got a very large selection of scenarios or campaign games to play out.

I have read the BtC rulebook, and like the many detailed examples of play. Should help with the first run-thru of the game.