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

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

No (Air) Show?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogfights

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

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

Raids

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

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

Squadrons & Tracks

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

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

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

Missions, Point Salads, & Assets

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

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

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

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

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

(Another) Russian Way of War?

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

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

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

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

Mirror Image – Not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

Player Choice – Pass!

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

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

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

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

Prior planning?

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


Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

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

2022 #TTRPG CharGen Challenge – Playing secret agent in James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983) #RPGThursday

In my early days of roleplaying games I studiously avoided Dungeons & Dragons. Although I had friends who played, I kept to science fiction RPGs like Traveller. As a wargamer I tried Behind Enemy Lines but it never caught on with my group. Come 1983 the wargaming world was upset with the collapse of Simulations Publications, Inc. and Avalon Hill and the rise of Victory Games. Seeing how Victory Games was the spiritual successor to Avalon Hill and SPI, I wholeheartedly supported them when they jumped into the roleplaying game space.

Besides, it was James Bond 007. Who didn’t want to play Mr. Bond?

[OK, OK, this was deep in the Roger Moore era…but still…]

In terms of game mechanisms, James Bond 007 was far, far removed from the simple roll 2d6 for 8+ in Traveller. Now the player had to deal with Primary Chance and Ease Factor and Quality Rating. At first my group bounced off hard from all the “mathing” required. However, very quickly the game grew on us. All that math was actually on the character sheet or the GM screen. It wasn’t hard; indeed, the resulting play it produced was rather cinematic.

Years later I deeply appreciate James Bond 007. The example of play is still amongst the best ever written. The Chase rules are brilliant. Secret agents were wargamers! Most importantly, it feels like Bond.

Working through this little character generation drill, I see some “aging” in the system. The skills, abilities, and fields of experience probably need to be updated a bit from the 1980’s. I know of “modern” systems derived from James Bond 007—I’ve tried at least one—but at the end of the day no espionage RPG can beat James Bond 007.


Characteristics are on a scale of 1-15 with 5 being the minimum for an Agent.

Lawrence Hone

Former reporter, now Rookie Agent

STR 7 / DEX 7 / WIL 10 / PER 10 / INT 5

Skills (Skill Level/Primary Chance): Charisma (8/18), Driving (8/16), Electronics (3/12), Fire Combat (6/14), Hand-to-Hand (5/12), Sixth Sense (5/14)

Abilities: Connoisseur, First Aid, Photography

Physical Aspects: Height 6’1″, Weight 185 lbs., Age: 30, Appearance: Good Looking, Fame Points: 15, Hero Points: 0, Speed=2, Hand-to-Hand Damage Class=A, Stamina=28 hours, Running/Swimming=25 minutes, Carrying: 101-150 lbs.

Fields of Experience: Computers, Political Science, Wargaming

Weaknesses: Fear of Spiders

Weapon: Walther PPK (Performance Modifier +1 / Shots per Round=2/ Damage Class=E/ Jam=99)

Lawrence grew up in a small town with traditional values. He always seemed to have a nose for news and went to college to be a journalist. After graduation he worked for a while but grew disillusioned with all the “fake news;” he wanted his politics to make a difference. While assigned to the Washington, D.C. news bureau Lawrence was recruited by The Company and has just completed his basic training. Now a Rookie Agent, Lawrence is anxious to get out there and face down his nations enemies. But is he really ready?


To give you a sense of how James Bond 007 works lets check out how Lawrence handles a little shoot out with a thug.Lawrence has turned a corner and come face-to-face with a thug carrying a Colt 45. Range is 30 feet (3 gridded squares in combat) making the shot CLOSE Range.

Starting Ease Factor=5. Lawrence is moving (-2 EF) but the close range gives EF +1. Performance Modifier is +1 EF for an adjusted Ease Factor of 5. Cross referencing Hone’s Primary Chance of 14 with Ease Factor 5 is 70. Die roll is 40 which on the Quality Results Table is “Acceptable 4.” Consulting the Wound Level Chart a Quality Rating 4 for Weapon Damage Class E says “LW” or light wound. The thug is stunned. However, the Walther PPK fires two shots per round. The second shot adds another -1 to the Ease Factor making it 4 with Primary Chance 14 giving 56. Die roll of 34 is a Quality Rating 4 (again) and another LW which becomes Medium Wound due to damage accumulation.

At this point I just know that some of you are going, “Wow, that’s too much math!” Part of the brilliance of the James Bond 007 game is that much of what you need is on the character sheet. It makes it faster to look it up and roll than to explain it!

James Bond 007...old school secret agent goodness!


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

#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.