Threat Tuesday / #Wargame Wednesday / #RPG Thursday (a few days early) – Underground Missile Base to Weaponeer and Perfect Villains Lair

This week Iran unveiled on YouTube their ‘underground barrage missile base:”

As if one video isn’t enough inspiration here is a second (minus the vertical missiles). Obviously filmed pre-COVID. I really like the ones wearing sunglasses deep inside a tunnel!

One missile wonk on Twitter even made a helpful graphic:

For Threat Tuesday this is an interesting way way to deploy missiles. The US certainly learned the danger of storing a liquid-fuel missile in an underground silo forty years ago when a Titan-II ICBM blew up in Arkansas.

For Wargame Wednesday (a day early) this is an interesting target to weaponeer. In the wargame Persian Incursion from Clash of Arms/Admiralty Trilogy Group players can use the rules from Harpoon 4.X to strike underground bunkers. These look much deeper and more difficult. Shades of Star Wars here – deliver that torpedo into the shaft!

For you roleplaying game players looking for RPG Thursday (2 days early) this looks to be a perfect villain’s lair for use in your James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game (Victory Games, 1982) or any modern espionage RPG setting.


Feature image courtesy popularmechanics.com

#Wargame Wednesday / History to #Wargame – Bias discovered in Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolutiongames.us, 2018)

In a previous post I talked about the lack of historical background provided in Konigsberg, The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018). A comment on Twitter from Scott Mansfield (@scotts_table) on that post asked:

Interesting post. With what you know of the operation and with limited designer notes do you feel Stefan portrays the decisions of Konigsberg accurately or does it feel like his well developed mechanic (chit pull) is what comes through with the narrative taking backseat?

Hey Scott, thanks for the lead-in to this post!

Photo by RockyMountainNavy Gamer

After playing the game I still can’t tell if Konigsberg is an ‘accurate’ depiction of the battle portrayed. What I can tell you is that the game is very engaging. The engagement comes from the interaction of two game mechanics, the ‘well-developed’ chit-pull and 4.0 Command, as well as a challenge to my own biases. Let me explain.

Konigsberg uses that ‘well-developed’ chit-pull mechanic in the best possible way. This comes from how the chit-pull and the rules for Command interact. The interaction creates several factors that make play engaging:

  • Random: Every turn the Command Chits are drawn randomly from the cup (4.1.1 Command Chit Draws)
  • Limited: The Turn Track tells how many Command Chits can be drawn for each force (German, 2nd Belorussian (2BF) or 3rd BF); once this limit is reached NO MORE can be activated for that force (4.1.1)
  • Higher HQ: During the game, extra commands chits (2BR & 3BR for the Soviets or HGM for the Germans) enter the game awarding ‘bonus’ activations (4.1.2 & 4.1.3)
  • Independent Units: When a Command Chit is drawn, the player can activate all units under that command as well as independent combat units (2 for Soviets, three for Germans) that are within the Command Range of the HQ (4.2.1, 4.2.2, 4.2.3, & 4.2.4)

Accurate, but Game

Konigsberg is in effect a race game. One side (the Soviets) are trying to grab as many victory hexes as possible in a given amount of time. The other side (Germans) are trying to delay the Soviets as much as possible. The chit-pull mechanic and Command rules ensure that the players must be flexible in their planning, taking opportunities as they come. The Soviets must maneuver their HQs to keep the front moving. The Germans have to position their HQs to build a flexible defense in depth that not only slows down the Soviets but also maintains integrity as it inevitably collapses.

Is this accurate? From what (little) I have read yes. More importantly, it is engaging.

Revealing My Biases

For me, the lack of historical background in Konigberg forces me to look not only at the game mechanics more closely to divine what I am supposed to do, but the lack of historical ‘prejudice’ means I approach the game in a much more open-minded manner than I usually do. As I played Konigsberg I found myself paying much more attention to command, unit capabilities, and terrain. I came to realize that so often I use my historical knowledge as a form of bias in my decision making during play. I mean, we all ‘know’ it is folly to mount an airborne operation to seize key bridges across the Rhine, right? So why would we ever do it? In Konigsberg, my lack of historical understanding meant I didn’t know ‘what works’ (or didn’t) which forced me to fall back on my understanding of the strategy and doctrine of the time. It made me think about what I was doing.

Conclusion -or- Why to Play?

In my first play of Konigsberg the end Victory Conditions saw the Germans holding seven Victory Point Hexes. This is a Soviet Historical Victory. In a way this tells me that the game is ‘accurate’ in that it can recreate the historical condition. More important, however, I discovered through this play of Konigsberg that ‘knowing’ too much can actually be detrimental to my play experience. This play of Konigsberg taught me that the combination of game mechanics and the absence of my own bias still can deliver a very engaging game; engaging in that I thought my way thru this game more deeply than most games I recently played. In this case, the lack of historical background I lamented before actually delivered a better game.


Feature image “Knock out German tank, 1945″ courtesy WWII in Color (yes, I know it’s B&W).

#Wargame Wednesday: Save Me! Nations at War: White Star Rising (@LnLPub, 2010)

“Your turn.”

“Let me reach into my magic bag here and see what I get. Oh, will’ya look at that?”

“Yeah for me.”

“OK, first I roll for morale. I need a 7 or less. (Dice rolling). Heh heh.”

“You just got lucky.”

“Well, now I’m going to move like a hellcat through these woods, stopping at the edge and attack at point-blank range. So….I get to roll 3d6 and any 4 or more is a hit, agreed?”

“Short range is -1, but moving is +1, right? So they cancel out. OK.”

“Alright (dice rolling). Well, look at that! Three hits!”

“Lucky….but I still get my saving roll. Lets see…Mr. Tiger defends with 3d6 and any 4 or better blocks a hit. Good odds….(dice rolling)….Well, frak.”

“Oh, darn your bad luck – nothing. So my three hits get through. Lets see, first disrupts, second is step 1, third is step 2. You’re dead!”

“Well blast. And here I always thought Tigers were powerful.”

This (somewhat) dramatized exchange was not taken from a roleplaying game session. It describes an actual engagement between an American M18 Hellcat tank destroyer and a German Tiger I tank in the wargame Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock ‘n Load Publishing (2010). What I hope stands out to you is that very non-classical, no odd-based combat resolution system. Indeed, the combat mechanics of Nations at War: White Star Rising is what sets the game apart to me.

Another Tactical WWII Game?

I recently acquired Nations at War: White Star Rising (hereafter NAW:WSR) in a trade. The copy I got is a ‘players copy’ in relatively good shape. A previous owner took it upon themselves to clip most of the corners on most of the counters. I traded more out of curiosity than to get another tactical World War II game; one of my favorite wargames (of all eras or types of conflict) is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) and I was sure this would not replace that game in my pantheon of wargame heroes. That said, the Nations at War series struck me with a bit of a PanzerBlitz-vibe and I thought it would be good as a simpler, quicker-playing wargame for weekday nights against my battle buddy RockyMountainNavy T.

A Systematic View

I admit it; I am a bit of a game mechanics freak. I love playing wargames to not only explore the history of the situation, but to also explore how different designers approach an issue. When I got NAW:WSR to the table I quickly discovered that the initial PanzerBlitz-vibe I got was purely from scale and looks. As I explored the gameplay in NAW:WSR I discovered a very different approach to depicting conflict in World War II. The system integration of Chit-Pull, Command & Morale, and a different Combat model make NAW:WSR a unique game that captures the essence of the fight in a very streamlined set of rules

Well, Chit

Each turn in NAW:WSR is very straight-forward; Pull a Formation Marker from the cup and execute actions with that formation. Once two End of Turn chits are drawn, the turn ends and play proceeds to the next turn. Yes, NAW:WSR uses that favored mechanic of mine – chit pull. This makes the game both very-solo friendly but also introduces some ‘friction’ into play since players can never be sure just when they are going to activate.

Command & Morale

The second element of the design of NAW:WSR that I really enjoy is the simple command rules. Each formation has at least one Headquarters that is rated for Leadership, Command Range, and Morale. When the formation is activated all units check to see if they are in command range; if yes they activate normally. However, if a subordinate unit is NOT in command range, they need to pass a Morale Check (each hex rolls equal to or less than the Morale Level) in order to activate normally. If the unit fails the Morale Check, an Out of Command marker is placed on the unit that limits what it can do during the turn. This simple mechanic nicely captures the essence of the C2 problems forces on the battlefield faced – again using a relatively simple mechanic that plays quickly without bogging down the turn.

Combat Saves

As you can see from the narrative at the beginning of this post, combat in NAW:WSR is somewhat different than many wargames. Although this title has been available since 2010, this was the first time I can personally recall seeing this sort of system used in a wargame I own. But does it work?

NAW:WSR is a platoon-level wargame which places it in an interesting area on the spectrum of conflict simulations. Platoon-level games are simultaneously detailed and abstracted. The detail is often found in the order of battle for at the platoon-level you can easily depict the many elements of the combined arms fight. Thus, you don’t get just a Sherman tank, you can get an M4A1 or an M4A3E8 (aka “Easy 8”). To tactical gaming purist out there, those are two very different beasts!

The problem is that the detailed order of battle in turn demands a way to differentiate units in terms of their capabilities. Traditionally, hex & chit wargames use the classic Attack-Defense-Movement triumvirate of ratings to describe units. This simplification sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the detailed order of battle because unless you get more detailed the abstraction of triumvirate often fails to differentiate between units. The lack of differences can be made worse by the use of a traditional Combat Resolution Table (CRT) that strictly compares odds. A greater part of this issue is the classic use of 2d6 for games which limits the range of results and can be very sensitive to modifiers if not used carefully.

NAW:WSR takes a different approach to differentiating units by using five descriptive ratings:

  • AP Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • HE Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • Assault Factor rated by Assault Factor-To Hit#
  • Armor Value rated by Armor Value-Save#
  • Movement Factor

Taken together, these ratings can be used to describe a finer grade of differences between combat systems without becoming too detailed. One can capture which weapons reached further than others; the combination of Firepower and To Hit# gets to now only who throws more ordnance downrange, but how likely it is to do something if it hits. Then there is the Armor Value and Save# which not only describes how much armor there is but how likely it is to actually do something.

It’s easy to see that the designer of NAW:WSR tried to avoid an odds-based Combat Resolution Table (CRT). To attack, the player selects the appropriate Firepower ensuring that the target is in Range (Extended and Reduced Range is possible) and then rolls a number of d6 equal to that Firepower. Every die that is equal to or greater than the To Hit# scores a Hit. If the target is a ‘soft target’ (non-armored) they roll a number of defensive d6 equal to the terrain defense bonus. For every defender die that rolls five (5) or greater one hit is ignored. In a similar fashion, ‘hard targets’ (armored vehicles) roll a number of defending d6 equal to the Armor Value plus the terrain defense bonus. Each defense die that rolls equal to or greater than the Save Number offsets one hit.

This is how you get a US M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer (AP Firepower 6-3-4) attacking a German Tiger I (Armor Value 3-4) at range 1. The Hellcat has a Special Scenario Rule (SSR) that allows it to move up to three movement points and still shoot but at a penalty of +1 on the To Hit#. During the turn in question, Kamfgruppe Beck (the Tiger I formation) had already activated and the Tiger I moved resulting in an Ops Complete marker being placed on the unit. When the 507 PIR formation was activated (the M18 being cross attached) the Hellcat player recognized that since the Tiger I was Ops Complete it was not eligible for Opportunity Fire. Using the SSR the M18 moved through a hex of woods and pulled up one hex from the Tiger I. The M18 then took the shot at range 1 (Reduced Range) which is -1 on the To Hit#. The Hellcat here rolled 3d6…and each was a 4 or greater scoring three Hits. The Tiger I attempted to save itself and rolled 3d6 (Armor Value) but got no additional defense bonus die because it was in open terrain. None of the three die rolled were equal to or greater than 4 meaning all three Hits scored. This was enough to outright destroy the Tiger I. That was by far the best outcome for the Hellcat because if the roles were reversed it is doubtful the Hellcat would survive. The Tiger I would attack at 7-3-3 whereas the Hellcat defends at 1-6. At Reduced Range that AP Firepower becomes 7-3-2 meaning any of the 3d6 rolled that come up at 2 or more is a hit. The poor Hellcat would get a defense bonus die for being in the woods but even so that’s only 2d6 rolled…and each needs to be a 6 to offset a hit!

All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Save Number works. Even in a wargame. When it comes right down to it, the combat model in NAW:WSR is not really all that different than the traditional odds-based CRT, it just uses a different randomizer model to deliver similar odds. The real difference is that the NAW:WSR model “operates faster” because there is little need to “math it out;” instead you simply pick up dice and roll comparing to a number on the counter.

What’s Old is New Again

Nations at War: White Star Rising will get to the table against my battle buddy. The relatively small footprint and quick-playing nature of the game along with just enough ‘detail’ helps to create an immersive, narrative gameplay experience. The different mechanics are just that, different.

#Wargame Wednesday – Go Ohio Blue! (?) -or- It ain’t your daddy’s Harpoon (admiraltytrilogy.com) navy anymore

You might of heard the story about a young LTJG Larry Bond in 1976 who wanted to make a different training aid for his wardroom. Fast forward 40 years and we have Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group) in commercial release. One would think that, given it’s provenance, Harpoon would be in widespread use in the US Navy. Alas, no. However, the US Navy does use wargames, and I don’t mean the video kind.

In the July 2020 issue of Naval History magazine, CDR Thomas Dixon who recently completed a tour as Executive Officer (Blue Crew) aboard USS Ohio (SSGN-726) relates a wargame played in the wardroom “designed to stress the critical thinking and innovation among the officers.” He describes the game as this:

First, the executive officer develops a scenario appropriate to the submarine’s upcoming operations, including the nations involved, the geographic location of the game, orders-of-battle, and victory criteria. The two senior department heads are assigned as leaders of the Blue (United States and allies) and Red (opposition) forces….The executive officer then informs the Blue and Red leaders of the game’s specific geographic location, assigns the Blue and Red teams their orders-of-battle, and explains the campaign objectives and victory criteria.

Dixon, T. T. (2020). Introduce Wargaming to Wardrooms. Naval History, 82–83.

Dixon goes on to explain why a wargame is needed in the wardroom:

First, it focuses wardroom training on the capabilities of U.S. and regional partner orders-of-battle against those of the rival nations. Second, it focuses study on U.S. and rival national objectives and doctrine. Finally, the wardroom learns what defines victory for each side and contemplates how their specific platform fits into achieving victory in a major campaign.

Dixon, T. T. (2020). Introduce Wargaming to Wardrooms. Naval History, 82–83.

Actual game execution is simple. To be honest, this sounds more like a structured tabletop exercise (TTX) than a wargame. Materials used appears quite minimal.

The required materials…consist of an appropriate chart of the region, several game pieces, and notepads with pens. The game is conducted in approximately eight hours (one training day) and consists of several turns. At the start, all Blue and Red land-based, surface, and aviation assets are placed on the chart in the locations chosen by each team. This assumes that both forces had time to position units in strategically appropriate locations, realizing hostilities were about to commence. The locations of undersea assets are known only to friendly team members, and notes with those locations are shown to the commanding officer and executive officer.

Dixon, T. T. (2020). Introduce Wargaming to Wardrooms. Naval History, 82–83.

The Commanding and Executive Officer are the judges. I wonder what sort of adjudication aids are available or if this is just a “that’s about right” sort of resolution system.

The first turn commences hostilities. Both teams confer among themselves and determine their movements and actions for the turn, and this consists of everything each team desires to accomplish for that turn….These moves are written down by each team and when they are concluded are shown to the commanding officer and executive officer. Using this method, both teams execute maneuvers simultaneously. The commanding officer and executive officer then adjudicate any action that would take place-for example, the success of an air raid, undersea combat if two submarines cross paths, or the extent of damage from a missile attack. Once adjudication is complete, the second turn commences and is adjudicated.

The game concludes when victory objectives are reached by one of the sides….The commanding officer and executive officer decide which team is closer to the preestablished victory criteria.

Dixon, T. T. (2020). Introduce Wargaming to Wardrooms. Naval History, 82–83.

This sounds like a very free-form type of game that focuses more on the decisions that must be made vice operating gadgets like wargames Harpoon or Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations bring to the table (or video screen). I hope that organizations like the Center for Naval Analysis in Arlington, VA are assisting in this effort by providing basic materials (especially guides to adjudication) and scenario development. I also hope this effort is not just done at the initiative of the CO and XO; it needs to be part of a broader initiative like the UK Fight Club (@UKFightClub1 on Twitter) that has the great motto “Think-Fight-Learn-Repeat.”


Feature image: PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (Oct. 22, 2007) – USS Ohio (SSGN 726) arrives at Naval Station Pearl Harbor to take on supplies before continuing on their maiden deployment to the Western Pacific following their recent guided-missile overhaul. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Luciano Marano

#Wargame Wednesday – History to Wargame – Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777 (revolutiongames.us, 2012)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Washington’s Crossing

“A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove” – George Washington

The cost of it to George Washington himself was greater than anyone knew except members of his family. Twenty years after the event, when Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon, his stepson remembered that in the night, “he would frequently, when sitting with his family, appear absent; his lips would move, his hand be raised, and he would evidently seem under the influence of thoughts which had nothing to do with the quiet scene around him.” To the end of his life, George Washington continued to relive the desperate struggle of the dark days in 1776, and the crossing of the Delaware. – David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, p. 362.

Bibliography

Fischer, David Hackett; Washington’s Crossing, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas Tucker PhD; George Washington’s Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle the Decided the Fate of America, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.

Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777 (Campaigns of the American Revolution Volume 1), designed by Roger Miller (Revolution Games, 2012).


#Wargame Wednesday – History to Wargame – Undaunted: North Africa (@OspreyGames, 2020)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Undaunted: North Africa

“Who Dares, Wins”

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Photo by RockyMountainNavy

It was nearly a week before the German High Command in the Western Desert became aware that the notorious British soldier, whom their radio referred to as “the Phantom Major” because of his persistent night raids behind their lines, had at last fallen into their hands.

It was enough of an event for Field-Marshal Rommel to write in his diary: “During January, a number of our A.A. gunners succeeded in surprising a British column…in Tunisia and captured the commander of the 1st S.A.S. Regiment, Lieut.-Col. David Stirling. Insufficiently guarded, he managed to escape and made his way back to some Arabs, to whom he offered a reward if they would bring him back to the British lines. But his bid must have been too small, for the Arabs, with their usual eye to business, offered him to us for eleven pounds of tea–a bargain which we soon clinched. Thus the British lost the very able and adaptable commander of the desert group which had caused us more damage than any other British unit of equal strength.”¹ (V. Cowles, 1)

Bibliography

Cowles, Virginia, Who Dares, Wins: The Story of the Phantom Major – David Stirling and His Desert Command, New York: Ballantine Books, 1958.

Undaunted: North Africa, designed by David Thompson & Trevor Benjamin, published by Osprey Games, 2020.


¹ Rommel’s account of Stirling’s recapture is not accurate.

Feature image: “‘R’ Patrol Chevrolet WB radio truck; the rod antenna can be seen on the right. The man at the rear is manning a Boys anti-tank rifle.” Courtesy military.wikia.com

#Wargame Wednesday – History to Wargame – Plan Orange (@RBMStudio1, 2015)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Plan Orange

The Great Pacific War

34F28D7F-310E-413B-81A7-77E04C11AE24
Photo by RockyMountainNavy

Plan Orange was the U.S. Navy’s contingency plan in the event of war with Japan. First developed following the First World War, when Japan was identified as the most likely naval opponent in a future war, the plan assumed that Japan would quickly seize control of most of the Philippines. The U.S. Navy would then launch a counteroffensive across the Mandates in the central Pacific with the goal of relieving Manila and blockading Japan. The plan was continually updated to reflect shifting alliances, improvements in naval technology, and the relative strengths of the fleets. (The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia)

Bibliography

Bywater, Hector C., The Great Pacific War: A History of the Japanese-American Campaign of 1931-1933, Bedford: Applewood Books, original copyright 1925.

Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War 1932-1935, designed by Mark Herman, published by C3i Magazine Nr. 29, 2015.

Miller, Edward S., War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991.


Feature image: “Two Vought O2U Corsairs of Marine Corps Scouting Squadron 14 (VS-14M) fly past USS Saratoga (CV-3) while preparing to land on board, circa 1930.” Courtesy navy.mil.

#WargameWednesday – Using Captain Hughes’ Fleet Tactics to consider a modern naval #wargame: Part 2 – Warship Commander (Enola Games, 1979)

(Second installment in my series of “What is a ‘good’ modern naval wargame?”)

Everybody loves a good fight, and in the late 1970s if you wanted to game out a ‘modern’ tactical fight at sea one set of rules available was Warship Commander: 1967-1987 Present Day Tactical Naval Combat (Enola Games, 1979). More properly, this is a set of minatures rules (1:3000 scale recommended) than a boardgame. But is Warship Commander a good set of rules for ‘modern’ naval combat? My answer is variable; if you are looking for a ‘realistic’ depiction of tactical naval combat – at least as it was understood in the unclassified world – then Warship Commander is a very good game. However, if you are looking for a streamlined, playable wargame that plays briskly then this is NOT the game you want.

Is it a Range Dependent Model?

Far below is the summary of what Captain Hughes’ A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat is. Warship Commander certainly has all the 12 elements of the model. The real question for me is not, ‘Does it satisfy the model,’ as much as it is, ‘HOW does it satisfy the model?”

The short answer is, ‘it’s complicated.”

  • Complicated because the product is more simulation than game
  • Complicated because the rules are dense and complex
  • Complicated because the game is a product of its time – caught at the start of a digital revolution in publishing, a revolution in digital weaponry, and a revolution in ‘open source’ public awareness of military weaponry.

Simulation or Game?

Here is how designer Ken Smigelski describes Warship Commander in the Introduction:

Warship Commander is a set of rules for recreating present day naval actions using military miniatures or cardboard counters. The rules can be used with military miniatures of any scale, although we recommend the new 1:3000 scale models. The game is designed to be played by two players or teams. Regardless of the number of players, Warship Commander is a thoroughly playable, highly detailed, and exceptionally realistic game.

Well, I’m going to give him the ‘highly detailed’ and ‘exceptionally realistic’ but I will argue about playable. Ken continues:

Warship Commander is the culmination of three years of research into the weapons, tactics, and battle damage of World War II as well as in depth research into present day naval weapons and tactics. It is a highly detailed and unique game, and is unlike any other naval game ever produced. Most of the game’s mechanics will be unfamiliar to the veteran naval wargamer as they are to the novice.

Luckily, the designer gives us a bit of insight into his sources used. What strikes me the most about the sources listed are these two (cited as they appear):

  • Seatag: A Sea Control Tactical Analysis Game (Naval War College)
  • An Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Game, Croyle (Naval War College)

So…the designer (or folks helping the designer – none are credited) were familiar with tactical naval games from the Naval War College. Looking at Warship Commander in this light, it is no stretch-of-the-imagination to see this game as a commercial version of the rules used by the Naval War College. Maybe not an outright copy, but heavily influenced at least? It certainly appears the legacy of the rules come from the simulations of the Naval War College. Indeed, looking at the introduction the designer makes the point that this to play the game well, an understanding of modern naval warfare is a prerequisite:

We recommend that all players read this section before reading the rules, as it will provide the information needed to thoroughly understand the rules. In order to play Warship Commander well, a player will need to throughly understand modern naval warfare, not just memorize a series of rules.

“…thoroughly playable, highly detailed, and exceptionally realistic….”

Warship Commander is a manual wargame. I don’t recall a calculator being called for but having some way to track all the modifiers when resolving a situation is essential. The game is also chart-heavy. Indeed, in the 68-page core book the introduction and background takes up the first eight pages, the rules to page 42, and the rest is tables and charts (~26 pages worth). Players need a deck of playing cards, decimal dice (d10) and d6 to resolve the various sub-routines.

I probably should mention at this point that Warship Commander is not all-encompassing when it comes to the various domains of naval warfare. Warship Commander has rules for:

  • Movement
  • Visual Sighting
  • Gunfire Against Ships
  • Damage
  • Damage Control
  • Communications & Data Link
  • Torpedoes
  • Electronic Warfare
  • Surface to Surface Missiles (SSMs)

Movement thru Torpedoes takes up about 14 pages. Electronic Warfare takes up the next eight pages and SSMs use the next 10. In effect, EW and SSMs take up over half the rules! If you want to add aircraft and submarines, you are going to need Sea Command: Present Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare (The Supplement to Warship Commander) from Enola Games in 1980.

Just how complicated is the game? I was going to add the SSM Attack Example from Sea Command (there is no comprehensive example provided in Warship Commander) but as I started typing I realized it looks to be around 3000 words long. That’s 3000 words (roughly double the size of this post) to resolve a single eight-Harpoon salvo against a Soviet Krivak-class destroyer fired from a range of 15 nm. If you actually get done reading the whole example (it’s over two double-column pages in the book) you easily understand the degree of complexity in the rules and why I, contrary to the designer’s claim, am loathe to agree that the game is ‘throughly playable.’

A Revolutionary Game?

As I wrote above, Warship Commander was published at at time of several revolutions in the wargaming industry. The first revolution was in publishing. Slick cover aside, Warship Commander has the look and feel of a desktop publishing product. The format is very simple with few graphics. An errata sheet in Sea Command looks like it was done on an IBM Selectric typewriter and mimeographed. I have to wonder how different the game rules would be if somebody used even an early generation personal computer and word processor. (Funny aside – My father was audited by the IRS in the mid-1980s because he claimed a ‘Personal Computer’ – PC – as a business expense. The IRS told he he couldn’t claim a ‘personal’ computer for a business – but an IBM one would be OK since it was made by International BUSINESS Machines.)

The second revolution, and one that Warship Commander really tries to capture, is the revolution in digital weaponry. The designer makes it clear how important ‘The Wizard’s War” is to Warship Commander:

Modern weapons rely on electronic sensors, and electronic warfare is perhaps the most important element of modern warfare. The side that controls the electromagnetic spectrum will be the side that will win the next war at sea. All navies constantly improve their radars and similar sensors to make them more resistant to electronic countermeasures, while also improving their own electronic countermeasure devices to make them more effective against opposing radars.

Later on in his modern naval warfare primer, he writes, “Modern warfare is electronic warfare” (emphasis in original). Those eight pages of EW rules are broken down into Radar, Passive Sensors, Electronic Countermeasures (ESM), and Electronic Counter-countermeasures (ECCM) going down to detailed techniques like Deception Jamming – false target generation or Jittered PRF. Communications and data links and surface-to-surface missiles get similar, albeit not as detailed, treatment.

67482The third revolution was more a societal revolution being the public’s access to information. In 1980, Alvin Toffler published his book The Third Wave which introduced many to the ‘information revolution.’ I can see how Warship Commander was riding the bow-wave of the information revolution, specifically in how it was taking advantage of many information sources. I recall being a middle school student and comparing the Ship Characteristics Table in Warship Commander to the latest issue of Jane’s at the public library (not my county library, but the Denver Public Library downtown – and yes, I was a geek). Bookstores started carrying military weapon compilations like Arco’s An Illustrated Guide to Modern Warships (1980) which I poured over, again with games like Warship Commander at my side. In just a few short years the ultimate military techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October, would be published. (I will get to the Hunt for Red October and Harpoon wargame link when I discuss that game). My point is Warship Commander came onto the scene at a time when the information available to the average gamer was exploding. As a result, the game could be judged by how ‘realistic’ is was, at least in terms of concept. Warship Commander holds up surprisingly well, and even showed some ability to ‘see’ into the future. What holds it back is the detailed rules, an issue that will be addressed by a later wargame.

Take Command?

If you want a ‘realistic’ depiction of tactical naval combat – at least as it was understood in the semi-professional, unclassified wargaming world of the late 1970’s, then Warship Commander is a very good game. Be warned, however, that this is a complicated game that is high on detailed processes. Warship Commander delivers a ‘realistic’ simulation of modern naval warfare in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but as a game it is overly complex. Today, I see it useful both as a example of the information and understanding of its time and what an extremely detailed model can look like (but that I don’t really want to play).


A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat

Modern tactical naval warfare involves fighting a platform, be it a surface ship, submarine, or aircraft. Capt. Wayne Hughes uses A Range Dependent Model of Modern Naval Combat, “to help a tactician relate the scouting and weapon effectiveness of his force to that of the enemy so that the net deliverable striking power of the two sides may be compared. This model indicates the circumstances that govern which side will be able to attack effectively first” (Hughes, p. 293).

Paraphrasing Capt. Hughes, the model has 12 elements:

  1. Two forces
  2. Defensive power in soft and hard-kill defenses thought of as a filter that subtracts incoming weapons
  3. Neither side can deliver weapons or be fully ready to defend without scouting information
  4. Scouting information may come from active search or passive intercept
  5. The content of scouting information is expressed in terms of Detection,Tracking, and Targeting
  6. Scouting performance is a function of the electronic emission control of the active side
  7. Passive scouting performance is a function of enemy EMCON choices
  8. Net delivered firepower as a function of range reduces the defender’s offensive and defensive combat capability after an attack is delivered
  9. Each unit that is mobile may move and carry along its firepower potential
  10. Onboard sensor move; other sensors may be in motion or fixed with the battle outcome resting on information collected and denied before the first weapons are fired
  11. Once enough scouting information is thought to be in hand, an attack is ordered; mounting and delivering it takes time and an enemy attack may arrive before the order is executed, rendering it null, or the enemy’s attack may arrive too late, in which case bot sides suffer
  12. Surviving forces may reattack after accounting for damage from hits, aircraft lost, and missiles expended (Adopted from Hughes, p. 295-296).

#Wargame Wednesday – 2019 CSR Wargame Challenge – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 (25th Anniversary Edition, @gmtgames, 2016)

PLAYING SILVER BAYONET FOR MY 2019 CSR CHALLENGE is not really a challenge. I rate Silver Bayonet in the top 4% of all my games on BGG. The original 1990 version of Silver Bayonet won the CSR that year but in 2016 GMT Games reissued a revised 25th Anniversary Edition. I never played the 1990 version but really enjoy the new edition. I think it is rules like 7.0 Attack Coordination that really set this game apart.

One criticism often leveled at wargamers from outside the hobby niche is that wargames are too perfect in terms of information and the ability for a player/commander to control their units. The critics claim that rarely is it the case where a commander simply orders a unit and the unit receives the orders and executes flawlessly. In Silver Bayonet, designer’s Gene Billingsley and Mitchell Land introduce a bit of uncertainly through rule 7.0 Attack Coordination.

Rule 7.0 Attack Coordination is simple in its mechanics but very realistic in its impacts on combat. Basically, after all pre-combat actions, the Combat Resolution Phase begins by resolving Attack Coordination when attacks are coming from multiple hexes against a defender’s hex. There are a few times when coordination is automatic, but in most cases a d10 die roll will be made against an Efficiency Rating or Nominal Command Value; roll UNDER this coordination value (CV) and the attack is coordinated and all proceeds as normal. But, if the roll is not under the CV then how the combat develops depends on how much the CV was missed:

  • If the Attack Coordination roll is EQUAL to the CV, then the attack is Partially Coordinated with the biggest drawback being no Maneuver Combat Support Fire (air and artillery) allowed
  • If the Attack Coordination roll is GREATER than the CV by one (1), it is an Uncoordinated Attack which has the same penalties as the Partially Coordinated attack and more (unfavorable column shifts or die roll modifiers – DRMs – in combat)
  • The worst case is when the Attack Coordination roll is TWO OR MORE GREATER THAN the CV; in that case the Assault or Maneuver Combat is automatically changed to an Uncoordinated Frontal Assault where only one hex can be used to attack (with unfavorable DRMs) while the others stand idly by.

This simple rule helps recreate realistic combat situations. US only attacks by units in the same battalion are automatically coordinated (7.2.1) while Lt. Col. Hal Moore can automatically coordinate attacks between battalions (12.1.1). ARVN attacks with Col Truong are automatically coordinated, but without the Colonel the ARVN default to a Nominal Command Value of 5 meaning there is only a 40% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack. NVA units within command range of their HQ are probably going to do OK as most have an Efficiency Rating of 6 meaning there is a 50% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack. The worst is the PAVN with a Nominal Command Value of 3; meaning there is only a 20% chance of a Fully Coordinated Attack but a 60% chance of an Uncoordinated Frontal Assault.

It’s a simple rule. It helps explain how PAVN attacks so easily devolve into that classic, World War II Banzai charge. The rule creates realistic narratives that the players would avoid if they could…but they can’t.

Every time I play Silver Bayonet I find a new reason to respect the design. There are many ways to try and reflect command limits in wargames, and often the mechanics of the rules are cumbersome or feel artificial. Rule 7.0 Attack Coordination in Silver Bayonet is an elegant, simple solution to a complex modeling challenge of command in combat that is both mechanically smooth while retaining a realistic, natural feel.

#Wargame Wednesday – Back to the future? TAC AIR (Avalon Hill, 1987)

THERE ARE SOME IN OUR HOBBY who insist that a wargame must be historical. From today’s perspective, a game about Air-Land Battles in Germany in the 1980’s is kinda historical. Or at least historically-plausible. Thankfully, the Cold War never went hot. So playing TAC AIR (Avalon Hill Game Company, 1987) is a blast into the coulda-been past. I recently played TAC AIR as part of my 2019 Charles S Roberts Award Challenge. TAC AIR won the CSR in 1987 for Best Modern Era Boardgame.

TAC AIR looks and plays in many ways like a military training aid. That’s because it basically was! Designer (and then-USAF Captain) Gary C. Morgan designed the game FEBA for the USAF Project Warrior. As Air Force Magazine put it in 1982:

For a couple of decades, Air Force people (and the institution) edged away from warfighting as a state of mind, and toward an eight-to-five, business, managerial mindset. Today’s Air Force leaders are determined to reverse that trend, and create a professional mission-oriented force. Project Warrior is the means of change….It is a new program whose goal is to create and maintain and environment for Air Force people to think and plan in warfighting terms….Under “education,” the Air Force is establishing a professional studies support program. It is composed of selected readings, discussion guides, wargaming resources, and other media to develop individual understanding of military strategy, tactics, and logistics, as well as a better appreciation of the role of airpower in the nation’s deterrent and defense policy.

Project Warrior, Air Force Magazine, August 1982

TAC AIR was published in a time when professional and recreational wargaming was at an intersection. Jim Dunnigan’s Firefight (1976) started life as a US Army project. In the 1980’s Avalon Hill was on a roll with Gary Morgan’s Flight Leader (1986) and then TAC AIR which both started in Project Warrior. (Philip Sabin, Simulating War, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

TAC AIR depicts the (then) “modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (TAC AIR, Designer’s Profile).

I played this game a few times back in the late 1980’s but seemingly remembered it as “too much Air Farce.” At the time I was really into modern naval combat (ala Harpoon) and was not as interested in ground combat in Europe. If I really wanted to play a modern Cold War ground combat game I would pull out Frank Chadwicks Assault (GDW, 1983).

That’s too bad because TAC AIR, while not perfect, makes learning about Air-Land Battle doctrine quite fun.

TAC AIR is really two games on one. The “Land” portion of the Air-Land Battle is a fairly standard ground combat game where ground units and helicopters move and fight once per turn. The “Air” portion of this game is where the real emphasis lies – not surprising given this was an Air Force training aid! Every turn in TAC AIR includes an Air Phase which consists of 10 identical Air Rounds. Attacks by air units and air defense fire happens during aircraft movement each Air Round. Here planes zoom around the board dodging air defenses and delivering strikes on ground units to disrupt them. A ground unit that accumulates four Disruption is eliminated.

TAC AIR is also interesting in what is included and what is not. In addition to the ground units and aircraft, there are special rules for Electronic Warfare (a vastly under-appreciated domain of modern warfare even today), the then-highly innovative Joint Air Attack Tactics mixing A-10 aircraft and Apache attack helos, as well as long-range ATGMs and standoff weapons. One aircraft you will not find in TAC AIR is the F-117 Nighthawk. I’m not surprised; Captain Morgan may not have even known about the program and even if he did it was still classified at the time. The F-117 was not “publicly unveiled” until 1988 – a year after TAC AIR was published.

I played Scenario One – “Covering Force” where elements of the US 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment screen against advancing elements of the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Division. Although the combat systems and platforms used were obviously from the mid-1980’s Cold War, I could not help but think about how different – or not – a similar battle in Poland might be today. Makes me wonder if anybody in the US Army or Air Force is looking at an updated version of TAC AIR for today’s military.

I also took note that one “Captain Matt Caffrey” is listed as contributing as a game developer. Today, Matt Caffrey Jr. (Colonel, USAFR, Ret.) is the author of On Wargaming from the US Naval War College published this year. Good to see the grognards of the hobby still contributing to the cause.


* FEBA – Forward Edge of the Battle Area (welcome to the world of military acronyms)