Part of the reason I flagged this article is that Tomcats and my air combat wargaming have long gone hand in hand. The first modern air combat wargame I owned was the TSR edition of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat (1983). The cover featured, of course, an F-14 Tomcat.
Not an air combat game, but in 1986 I picked up Target: Libya, a magazine game in Strategy & Tactics No. 109 based pretty much on the Tomcat cover only.
The second modern air combat wargame I acquired was Air Superiority from GDW in 1987 featuring…a Tomcat on the cover!
Even my favorite naval combat wargame, Harpoon, got into the Tomcat “game” with the cover of Harpoon: Battles of the Third World War – Modern Naval Warfare Scenarios from GDW in 1987.
My love affair with Tomcats was not limited to just wargames. One of the earliest Squadron/Signal Publications books to enter my collection was F-14 Tomcat in Action: Squadron/Signal Publications Aircraft No. 32 by Lou Drendel (1977).
Who can forget the incredible flying scene in the movie The Final Countdown (1980) where Tomcats and “Zeros” tangle!
In 1986 the designer of Harpoon, Larry Bond, was credited as co-author with Tom Clancy for his bestselling novel Red Storm Rising. Although we don’t “see” any Tomcats in the book, we read all about them, especially in the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” which we now know was plotted with the assistance of Harpoon.
In 1986 we also get the original Top Gun movie and all that Tomcat love…
The cover of what may be the best-ever coffee table aviation photo book by C.J. Heatley III (what a great aviator name) is The Cutting Edge (Charlottesville: Thomasson, Grant & Howell, 1986) and has…Tomcats.
My Osprey Publishing book collection even has a Tomcat entry with Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat: Osprey Combat Aircraft 49 by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop (2004). There is LOTS of good wargame scenario fodder in this book!
For this winter, I have a 1/144th scale plastic model from Trumpeter to build.
Part of my love affair for Tomcats also comes from my two cruises with Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass. Although he was not my squadron skipper, he was a legend in the Naval Aviation community that we all respected. His death in 2021 was as sad as it was unexpected.
While the Tomcat-cover wargames are not the only air combat games in my collection, they are the most memorable. Now that I think about it, the cover of Birds of Prey: Air Combat in the Jet Age (Ad Astra, 2008) features an F-15 Eagle. Maybe that cover, as much as the difficult rules, explains why I don’t enjoy BoP?
The virtual China wargame simulation is sponsored by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC). NPEC commissioned Mark Herman, a nationally renowned wargame designer, to create and organize the war simulation. The wargame is designed for Congressional and U.S. government staff.
The objective of this war simulation is to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.
The scenario’s purpose is not to predict the future but to create a ‘credible ’situation to enable the team discussion and decisions around U.S. policy responses to PRC aggression against Taiwan and Japan. Teams were asked to not fight the game scenario, as this was the given design. The time of this scenario was held in May of 2021, post-U.S. inauguration. There was no comment on the composition of the U.S. government and all that mattered was the U.S. policy trajectory over the last decade. Again, participants as a team were asked to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.
Within the game, China was presumed to be expansionistic and poised for its most aggressive phase against Taiwan and potentially Japan. From China’s perspective its expansionist trajectory has: (1) Ignored World Court ruling on the South China Sea; tepid U.S. response, (2) origin of current Pandemic; took no responsibility and paid no price, (3) broke Hong Kong autonomy promises (One State, Two Systems); tepid World response, and (4) in pursuit of its desire to reunify Taiwan into the PRC. The next steps, per the stated agenda, were to re-establish Party control over Taiwan.
NPEC October 2020 China Wargame
The website has many of the pre-game briefing materials as well as turn notes and the final report posted. There are also videos of the Initial Brief and the War Simulation Explanation delivered by Mark himself.
Mr. Herman’s professional wargame is one of several I’ve seen in the public over the past few years regarding Taiwan, includingThe Poison Frog Strategy: Preventing a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwanese Islands done by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in 2021 that more recently appeared on NBC News Meet the Press (the public-facing final report is available here). Admittedly, while the two wargames cover the same topic (“Taiwan”) and both physically appear very similar (hexes and counters), they truly are two different games. They are also not “wargames” in the sense that they emphasize conflict, but instead focus on creating discussion of policy issues. The additional fact that Mark’s game was run virtually versus the in-person Meet the Press event also leads to two very different games. Regardless, the NPEC materials on Mr. Herman’s wargame can serve as an example for others who look for how one might approach a policy wargame. In the case of Mr. Herman’s NPEC wargame, we get a peek at how a “professional” wargamer does a “professional” wargame.
Judging from the NPEC “War and Diplomatic Simulations” page, Mr. Herman—listed as a member of the NPEC Team—appears to be quite busy designing professional wargames even today. In the olden days, there were examples of wargame publishers picking up a wargame done for a government customer and publishing a “commercial” version. In effect, this is the story of Littoral Commander. Could we see a Mark Herman modern China wargame on the shelves of our FLGS in the future?
Although the rule book for Siege of Mantua has some background material, I went in search of another explanation of the siege. One of the simpler ones I found was from Britannica:
Siege of Mantua, (June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”
After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.
Siege of Mantua takes as its starting point the third attempt to relieve the fortress in November 1796. Not that it really matters as the situation is presented in such an abstract manner the time of year is unimportant; the focus is on the general situation.
My my, what big BLOCKS you have…
In a roundabout way Siege of Mantua was birthed by a godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman. Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland relates how Herman’s children’s game for Hollandspiele, Ribbit, isn’t necessarily a hot seller. The result was a large collection of, ugh, large wooden blocks sitting around unused. As Amabel is prone to do, the pieces were nudged around and a new wargame design emerged. At this point, Steve Jones of Blue Panther, the printer for Hollandspiele (and other companies like White Dog Games) came forward with a method of printing directly onto blocks. If this process really worked, a major cost factor of block wargames—printing stickers—could be removed and perhaps more importantly that “player irritant” of having to apply stickers to blocks could be eliminated.
[In the past days I’ve handled the blocks in Siege of Mantua often in an attempt to see if the printing will rub off. Not that I’m trying to rub off the print, but I am very interested in how long it can last. Should I apply a clearcoat spray to help preserve it? Will it really last longer than stickers? So far, so good!]
So interesting did the new block production process for Siege of Mantua sound that my interest was piqued. Add to that the fact that Amabel Holland has, in my not-so-humble-opinion, an excellent track record in creating “interesting” wargames. My first Hollandspiele wargame was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele Hex #10, 2017). That game remains in my mind the best “logistics” wargame ever printed. The game mechanics of Supply Lines challenged me even back then to look at my personal defintion of a “wargame.” I mean, it has little wooden cubes and no hexes!
Speaking of wood, the blocks in Siege of Mantua are HUGE! These are not your panzer-pushing grandpappy’s Commands & Colors blocks; these are HEFTY 1.5″x1.5″ blocks. Flip the table and you’re going to be sanding gouges out of the wood floors from where these land.
But they really work for this game.
Siege of Mantua could be a small footprint game. The map is a generous 22″ x 34″ (by illustrator Ilya Kudriashov), maybe twice the size really needed. Maybe Amabel felt that the bigger blocks needed a bigger play area. At the end of the day the oversized component’s just work. Siege of Mantua may (barely) fit on that 3×3 card table to play, but any table you put it on will simply look gorgeous.
It’s a War GAME
While Siege of Mantua has incredible table presence thanks in no “small part” to the oversized blocks, what really struck me in play was how much “game” was in the design. Personally, I long have preferred to use the single word “wargame” when describing my hobby. To me, “wargames” are conflict recreations—not strictly modeling & simulation (M&S)—but paper recreations of war presented in a gamified fashion. I’ll freely admit that my preferred gaming tends to skew towards “realism” or “accuracy” or “less abstraction” but I never wanted to go all the way to M&S. Admittedly, there are some wargames that are highly abstracted that I love to play; though I have a hard time seeing a “war game” like Stratego as a wargame, I accept it is on the spectrum of wargaming.
In Siege of Mantua designer Amabel Holland assembles a grouping of game mechanism that individually are simple and even abstract. When put together, the resulting wargame is a very playable game that recreates the conflict in an easy to digest manner. While it certainly feels (looks?) more GAME than conflict, the call for strategy & tactics is right there in front of you.
Order of Battle
At first glance, the battle situation in Siege of Mantua seems very game-balanced. Both sides have ten blocks. The game starts with Mantua under siege by the French and the Austrians entering along two separate paths to relieve the garrison. The French have the advantage of interior lines.
A closer examination of the starting situation in Siege of Mantua reveals a far more challenging condition exists for the French. Three of the ten French blocks are Dummy blocks with no combat value; the rest of the force is Leader Napoleon and six combat blocks with 16 starting strength points. The Austrian force starts with two Leaders (one of which is under siege and cannot move unless the siege is lifted) and eight combat blocks with a total of 24 starting strength points.
Fog of War
In Siege of Mantua Amabel Holland takes full advantage of the fog of war game mechanics that blocks enable in wargames. This is the real strategic heart of the game as players move their forces about trying to gain a local advantage while deterring their opponent. You can see the block there, but what is it? Is it a Leader? What strength does it have? Could it even be a dummy? The fact the blocks are so big just adds to your frustration; I mean, its right there in front of you! Movement rules are relatively straightforward, but Special Moves interfere with your ability to track or guess what a particular block is or it’s strength.
Just Moving Down the Block…
Movement in Siege of Mantua is a point-to-point system. Doesn’t seem like anything special until you get to the rule for Communications. If your units can trace a path between them that is unblocked by enemy units they are In Communication. By the rules, in your Player Turn you can move one group of blocks from a single city to another city or point. But when groups of blocks are In Communication, you can move some, all or none of the blocks In Communication so long as every block only moves once.
Now the pursuit in Siege of Mantua becomes a subtle game of blocks and feints. A strategic move can cut Communications and prevent a rush forward. Split commands require twice as long to move as each grouping must move on separate turns. Napoleon starts with the advantage of interior lines but the Austrians need to collapse his defenses and cut his Communications while trying to maintain (and even create) their own
As befits a wargame, the mechanics of battles is also an essential element of Siege of Mantua. I am deeply impressed in how Amabel has represented combat in a simple abstract fashion. It starts first with your Unit Pool which is composed of a collection of 16 units split over four (4) levels. The beginning pool is 4x Level 1, 6x Level 2, 4x Level 3 and 2x Level 4. The higher the level the better the unit’s Morale Value (MV) or its ability to stand in combat.
When forces meet in Siege of Mantua, players take turns revealing their blocks. When a unit block is revealed, the current strength is the number of units drawn from the pool. Both players takes turn revealing blocks then secretly drawing and allocating units to the battlefield. I love the challenge this gives players; you might have big strength locks but you might end up drawing mostly low-level units from the pool. Is that lone unit in the Right Flank a high MV or a weakling?
Leaders play an important role in Siege of Mantua. Like so many other rules, the implementation is simple—if you have a Leader in combat you get five (5) Commands; if you don’t you only get three (3). Those Commands are used to order units to move or fight.
The combat rules themselves in Siege of Mantua are highly abstracted. Sorry, Jim, you won’t find infantry or artillery or cavalry, just “units.” Combat is accomplished by simply rolling 2d6 for each lane and adding the number of units attacking. The combat result is compared to the MV of the lead unit. If the combat result is greater than the MV of the unit, it is Broken and set aside. The combat result is then compared to the next unit and the process repeated until a unit with an MV equal-to-or-greater-than the combat result is revealed which ends the attack. If the attack is a Flank Attack, the combat result is compared to ALL defending units simultaneously and results assessed.
If a unit rolls doubles in combat in Siege of Mantua the attack is Repulsed with the lead ATTACKING unit Broken. There are a few exceptions, notably a Level 4 unit cannot be Broken (which you will see shortly is very important) and the rule that Flank Attacks cannot be Repulsed.
Battles in Siege of Mantua consist of a number of Battle Turns, the number of which are randomly rolled at the beginning of a battle. When the designated number of Battle Turns have been played, players have the option to Retreat. In a Retreat one retreating block must lose a single strength step. That is, unless you want to “Double the Stakes.”
Doubling in Siege of Mantua consists of passing the Doubling Cube to an opponent. Accepting the cube means the battle will continue, but the losses will be doubled. The doubling can happen multiple times for 2, 4, 8, or even 16, 32, or 64(!) losses. How’s that for push your luck?
When a battle in Siege of Mantua ends another simple, yet deeply important, rules kicks in. For every block (unit and Leader) on the winning side that took part in the battle a single surviving unit can be upgraded; that is, promoted to the next Level. Units on the winning side that were Broken in battle are degraded—losing a Level. Broken units on the losing side are similarly degraded before being placed back into the pool. Thus, to fight and win improves your forces for the next battle. Fight and lose and a downward slide begins…
While a game of Siege of Mantua is composed of turns, the end game does not automatically occur after a set number of turns but rather when your opponent has five or fewer blocks remaining at the end of YOUR player turn (regardless of how many block YOU have left). Like some Amabel Holland designs there is a risk that the game becomes a stand-off,; stuck in a seemingly perpetual loop. In my experience these sorts of situations usually occur when somebody(s) are not properly following Amabel’s rules. With the cat-n-mouse movement, Leaders in combat and adjusting force pools or the Doubling Die a stand-off never really happens and, if it does, it can be broken by a rigorous reading, processing, and enforcement of the rules.
Looks Simple, But Really Deep
As you hopefully can see, Siege of Mantua not only takes advantage of those big blocks to bring out the cat-and-mouse aspect of maneuvering forces, but also the decisions one makes in battles become very important. Are you willing to win that battle, no matter the cost? Winning means the chance to field an even stronger army next battle, but losing means your forces degrade. What are YOU going to do.
At the end of the day, Siege of Mantua delivers a highly visually appealing wargame that uses a collection of simple, individually abstract game mechanics that come together to seriously challenge players to make hard decisions in an imperfect information environment. In the past, I’ve used the phrase “simple complexity” to describe games that I feel are excellent examples of simple game mechanisms that, when combined in an innovative manner, create deep decision space for players. Siege of Mantua is the latest addition to the pantheon of “Simple Complexity” wargames in my collection, it just so happens that this particular title is also beautiful on the gaming table .
As a general rule I tend to not like solitaire games, in no small part because the “AI” or “bot” or whatever is running the “other side” in the game is often represented using very procedural rules. It is that very “procedural” part of a solitaire game design that makes me feel like I don’t have agency in the game. In this respect, Don’t Tread on Me (DToM)by R. Ben Madison at White Dog Games is not that different from the many other (often vanilla-playing) solitaire games out there.
Except it isn’t vanilla, but a fine wine.
Maybe it’s the perspective. In DToM you the player take on the role of the British side. Your job is to defeat those “Damn Yankees” (whoops, wrong war!) and keep the colonies in the Empire. You face the challenge of putting down the insurgency in the colonies, much like the United States would have to deal with the Viet Cong in Vietnam two centuries later.
(Colonies) of Siege
Don’t Tread on Meis built around a game system that is commonly called States of Siege. Truth be told, States of Siege is probably better thought of as a genre of games rather than a set of rules since each game in the “series” has its own variation of the rules.
This is where DToM is very procedural. The various steps in a turn should must be executed in a very procedural manner to avoid “breaking” the AI. This is usually where I chafe at a solitaire game; the game system often makes me feel like a human component manipulator and not a gaming player given agency in decisions. Solitaire games also tend to be “predicable” in that the set procedures often force one to adhere to a well-known (or easily recognizable) historical/game flow.
This is where DToM shines; for within the seemingly rigid procedures there are plenty of decision points to give the player agency. Lest one become too comfortable with the flow of a turn, there is a chance some random event or a major/minor campaign will break out. As a player you can plan for such eventualities, but you never really control the emerging, often chaotic, situation. This is where one must have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to an ever-changing situation—albeit one rigidly played out. Although DToM tends to follow a “known” historical flow of events, the actual arrival of the event or how much of a change it makes to the game state (i.e. history) is driven by player decisions.
DToM also reminds the players that they are the British Empire and those “rabble rousers” are beneath them. Designer R. Ben Madison never misses a chance to tear down the Founding Fathers; George Washington is an inept General, Thomas Jefferson is a fleeing coward, and Sam Adams is a “spin doctor.”
Which is why playing DToM and winning—or losing—is so satisfying. To win is to overcome history when it was stacked against you. To lose is to be defeated by those colonist so beneath your station.
In more than one place R. Ben Madison draws a comparison in Don’t Tread on Me between the U.S involvement in Vietnam with the British counter-insurgency in North America. Maybe that is a good comparison, though I personally feel it simplifies (dare I say, “white washes”) much of the history of the later conflict. By framing Don’t Tread on Me in terms of a very unpopular and divisive war a player starts play with a real sense that this is different.
Like most solitaire games to win is actually a challenge. Sometimes the loss can be blamed on a game system that is so rigid and procedural that one glitch in execution radically alters the game and makes victory a mechanical impossibility. Yes, that can happen in Don’t Tread on Me but the procedures are rather straight-forward and it immediately becomes obvious in play that victory or defeat will depend on the player decision, not the bot.
I played two games of Don’t Tread on Me for my June lead-up to American Independence Day. Both times I lost, the second game by a narrow margin. If nothing else Don’t Tread on Me shows just how much the American Revolution was a “near-run thing.”
The Dragon and The Hermit Kingdom is a two player game that covers the hypothetical simulation of a second Korean War that could occur in the very near future. This game is a precursor to The Dragon that Engulfed the Sun (Modern War #42). It simulates the war that would have occurred on the Korean peninsula just prior to that game’s setting. The Dragon that Engulfed the Sun assumes that a Chinese victory had already occurred in Korea. This game, however, simulates the entirety of that preceding conflict, beginning with a supposed North Korean invasion of South Korea.
Game Overview, BGG
Magazine game with typical single map, low density (single sheet of counters) and rules based on an ongoing series.
A different take on a “Third Party Intervention” scenario for a next Korean War; instead of the PRC entering to prevent the Combined Forces player from going too far north, postulates the PRC enters on the side of North Korea from the beginning of a conflict.
Order of Battle like a very typical “modern day” next Korean War game but with lots (and I mean lots) of airpower for both sides. Oh yeah, and the PLA/PLAAF/PLAN/PLASF too…
The PRC has fewer Cyberwar units than the West? That’s being very charitable…
Missiles and airpower become overwhelmingly important in “shaping” the battlefield.
If PRC intervenes in a Korean conflict, any reinforcement to the Peninsula will have to get past PLA anti-access/area denial (A2AD) systems. This is somewhat portrayed in the game (plenty of PLASF missile units).
What’s the Game’s Message?
If the Chinese intervene invade with the North Koreans it’s not going to be the ground forces the Combined Forces need worry about; it’s the airpower and A2/AD capabilities the PLASF brings that will shape the battlefields on the Peninsula. Oh yeah, and there is not much the Combined Forces will be able to do about it either…
Feature image courtesy wuxinghongqi.blogspot.com
Glossary: A2AD = anti-access/area denial; PLA = People’s Liberation Army; PLAAF = People’s Liberation Army Air Force; PLAN = People’s Liberation Army Navy; PLASF = People’s Liberation Army Strategic Force; PRC = People’s Republic of China
MBT: The Game of tank-to-tank combat on a tactical level in 1987 Germany is solidly part of the “Cold War goes hot” genre of wargames. Which means it comes close, but not quite all the way, to replicating ground combat in today’s Ukraine War. Although MBT may not be the most modern “fit” for today, it still is a great game at discovering lessons of armored combat.
Most of Russia’s tanks are well protected to the front. The frontal armour of the slope at the front of the hull, known as the glacis, typically combines high hardness steels with composites or materials like fibre glass that are known to be challenging for weapons like the RPG-7. The angle of the armour – 68 degrees – increases its line-of-sight thickness to 547 mm for some of the earliest T-72 designs – it may be more for others. The turret armour on Russian tanks is also relatively capable to the front of the tank. The ‘cheeks’ of the cast turret are hollow, allowing additional advanced armours to be inserted that significantly extend protection against some types of threat.
This is what MBT models best. Playing a game of MBT with its precise hit locations and penetration versus armor model is what the hardcore Grognard in me loves.
MBT is—by design—a wargame that recreates the (past potential) battlefields of Europe at the height of the Cold War. The game—again by design—is optimized to simulate those massed Soviet thrusts or defensive stands. In many ways MBT is built around the U.S. Air-Land Battle Doctrine and the competing Soviet Army of that day. Both focused on combined arms. From the past two months of fighting in the Ukraine, the reformed Russian Army, though equipped with more modern equipment, appears to have lost the ability to execute combined arms operations. While MBT has many of the rules that can be used to simulate the new war we see today, what it doesn’t simulate is the poor decisions in the Russian operational art of this war.
While stabilisation of the main armament has been improved and its recoil mechanisms balanced to reduce impact upon the vehicle during firing, most Russian tanks appear to lack the quality of stabilisation that most Western tanks carry.
A second element of this problem is the mission system fit of Russian tanks. The sights and fire control computers are generally less modern than their peers.
Russian designs are also very cramped, and few Western tank operators would want to operate a main battle tank with a crew of three – which is standard for all Soviet designs from the T-64 onwards.
The first two factors are generally reflected in MBT as stabilization and sights are taken into account in the combat model. The last point does not directly appear to be modeled, but may play a part in overall determination of Force Grade and Morale.
While MBT has a good detailed model of platform versus platform, what it doesn’t capture very well are all the human factors in battle. Some are here, like Grade or Morale or even Tank Fright, but at the end of the day the real human factor in MBT is the players. To recreate the war in the Ukraine would require MBT players to make decisions that they might not be inclined to make.
Soviet-era tank design, starting with the T-64 and continuing with the T-72, T-80 and T-90 families – albeit with some minor differences – introduced an automatic ammunition handling system which sits beneath the turret of the tank.
This is a problem for Soviet designs because the ammunition carousel sits in the hull, which is very well protected to the front by the glacis, but less well protected to the sides. If the side or roof of the tank can be penetrated, the projectile stands a chance of hitting the tank’s ammunition, causing it to ‘cook off’. This is where the charges and explosive projectiles catch fire – a fire which quickly spreads because of a lack of firewalls between the munitions. If enough of the ammunition catches fire and detonates, it will often result in an explosion that throws the turret a considerable distance and the death of the entire crew.
Suffice it to say that the damage model in MBT is built upon what today might be seen as a “charitable” view of Russian armored survivability against modern ATGMs.
Further, in MBT ATGMs (found in Advanced Game Rule 188.8.131.52) are of the 1980’s. What is missing in MBT are rules for modern top- attack ATGMs like the FGM-148 Javelin.
Command & Control
The third and final point is the need to consider of Russian tactics and doctrine, which typically emphasise combined arms operations with a view to creating opportunities for artillery and close air support to deliver overwhelming force onto an opponent. Mission command – the delegation of authority and creativity to the lowest levels – rarely features in Russian training. This means that armoured formations operating independently from their supporting arms are probably doing something that they are not trained to do.
I strongly believe that if you want to play MBT and really understand modern combat, you MUST use the rules for Grade (5.8), Command Range (184.108.40.206.2), and Command Span (7.43). These rules, along with Morale (and especially Optional Rule 7.1 Morale) are essential to getting past the simple “force-on-force” wargame that so many gamers seem to relish in. Of course, MBT does not have Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) in it either, but by using these rules you can get a bit closer to understanding the challenges the BTG commander has in combat. The more I think about it, the more I realize that MBT might actually be too granular a model to use to explore the effectiveness of a BTG in combat. Instead of a very tactical game like MBT it might be more useful to use a platoon-scale system, like Frank Chadwick’s Assault series from GDW in the 1980′s but updated for today. Maybe even a version of Less Than 60 Miles from Thin Red Line Games could be used…but I note that this game might be best used to depict only a single axis of advance and not the whole campaign. In case you haven’t noticed, Ukraine is a HUGE place!
Back to the Future
The demise of the tank has been talked about for almost 50 years now, especially in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Wars of the 1960’s and early 1970’s that were the first to feature mass use of ATGMs. So strong was the sentiment that it even crossed over into science fiction:
Tanks were born in the muck and wire of World War One. Less than sixty years later, there were many who believed that technology had made the behemoths as obsolete as horse cavalry. Individual infantrymen of 1970 carried missiles whose warheads burned through the armor of any tank. Slightly larger missiles ranged kilometers to blast with pinpoint accuracy vehicles costing a thousand times as much. Similar weaponry was mounted on helicopters which skimmed battlefields in the nape of the earth, protected by terrain irregularities. At the last instant the birds could pop up to rip tanks with their missiles. The future of armored vehicles looked bleak and brief.
“Supertanks,” Hammers’s Slammers, 1979
Of course, the answer in Hammer’s Slammers was the supertank. While I am saddened that similar combat vehicles are not on the near-horizon for us, I am confident that there will be a response. Probably not from Russia, but from someone. More importantly, along the path towards that new technology will very likely be a wargame. It might be similar to MBT, but depicting not the past but a bold new future.
There are reports floating around the internet making the interesting claim that a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was operating in the area the night the RFN Moskva was sunk. The implication is that the U.S. Navy P-8 fed targeting data to the Ukrainian Navy Neptune coastal defense anti-ship missile battery and therefore contributed to the sinking of the cruiser.
On April 13th, a P-8 Poseidon with a hex code of AE681B was spotted leaving the U.S. Airbase at Sigonella in Sicily, Italy, and was then detected over the Mediterranean at 1:32 pm local Kyiv time.
FlightRadar24 data then showed the P-8 flying over the Balkans and Bulgaria, after which it flew over the Romanian coast in the Black Sea in the afternoon. The last known position of the aircraft was Valea Nucarilor, Romania which is about 12 miles from the Ukrainian border, at 3:27 pm, about 100 miles from the location where the Moskva was found after allegedly being hit.
It had begun descending from an altitude of around 29,000 feet down to 11,900 feet just before dropping off FlightRadar24 tracking and disappearing.
It disappeared for about 2 hours and 56 minutes before appearing again at 6:23 pm, where it was seen flying towards the Black Sea coast above Casimcea in Romania, around 37 miles from the position it had been before it disappeared.
It is standard procedure for an aircraft to turn off its transponder or the device that broadcasts its location before entering any kind of conflict zone.
Around 19 minutes later the aircraft disappeared from the radar once again and then reappeared after 42 minutes near Abrud, in Romania at 7:24 pm. After that, it traveled back to Sigonella.
The Moskva was first reported to have been hit at 8:42 pm after a Facebook post that came from a Ukrainian who had links to the military, and then at 10:31 pm, the Ukrainian governor of Odesa confirmed that a strike had been carried out on the vessel.
In Harpoon 5, detection takes place in the Detection Phase of the Tactical Turn Sequence (2.3.3). Assuming the P-8 was using it’s surface search radar in the active mode after descending to 11,900 ft (3,627 m or Medium Altitude), taking the Radar Line of Sight table (part of rule 5.2.8 Radar Line of Sight) we cross-reference a P-8 flying at Medium Altitude and a Medium-size surface target to get a detection range of 170 nm; Moskva was very likely detected by the P-8 (and Moskva very likely also detected the P-8 in return).
The implication in the story is that the P-8 passed targeting data. In Harpoon 5, data is passed during the Detection Phase when players, “exchange visual, radar, sonar, Electronic Support (ES), data links, and other sensor information.” Once Moskva was detected, the P-8 would have to pass a fire control solution (see 6.3 Fire Control Solutions) to the Neptune battery to enable an attack. Per rule 6.3.1 Fire Control Solution Quality, there are four levels of quality; Good, Fair, Poor, and No Attack. Building a fire control solution is a combination of time (longer time in contact the better), contact speed, the generation (age) of the Combat System (aircraft are always a modifier of 0), and the generation of the weapon being used in the strike. Equally important is the Tactical Data Link being used to “pass” the solution. Given the amount of time the P-8 allegedly spent near Moskva—hours—the quality of the fire control solution would very likely be the best possible—Good.
In Harpoon 5, like in real life, how does the P-8 get that Good fire control solution to the Neptune battery? Did it use a Real Time or Near Real Time tactical data link? Although there are plenty of reports the U.S. is sharing intelligence with Ukraine*, there is no clear evidence that tactical data links are being used. A more plausible scenario is that U.S. and NATO intelligence is being collated and passed to Kyiv. At best, and assuming the P-8 was directly in contact with Ukrainian forces (a big assumption), we have to go to rule 6.3.10 Sharing Contact Information Without TDLs which states:
Contact data can be manually shared by radio (voice or teletype) or even cell phones, however, the process is slow, with a higher risk of errors, and has little tactical use other than reporting the presence of a contact in the area.
Even if the fire control solution was passed in real (or near) time to the Ukrainians, it was good at ~6:23 pm when the P-8 reappeared in the flight tracking application. This was maybe as long as two hours before Moskva was struck. There is no way in Harpoon 5 to keep a “good” fire control solution when not in contact. After two hours, the fire control solution from the P-8 by-the-rules was of No Attack quality.
If the Ukrainian Neptune battery commander in Harpoon 5 had only the general information (“No Attack” quality fire control solution) provided by the P-8, the commander is forced to use a Bearing Only Launch (BOL) following rule 6.3.6 of the same name. BOL attacks in turn are executed using rule 8.4.2 Bearing Only Launch (BOL) Attacks. The commander must pick a launch azimuth and a range for the seeker head to activate and start looking. The fire control solution quality is automatically Poor (interestingly, an improvement over the No Attack starting condition). As in any surface missile attack, when the seeker head opens the player must make a Placement Roll (6.3.8 Rolling for Weapon Placement) to see if the seeker finds its intended target. The chances of an anti-ship cruise missile using a BOL and finding its intended target when the seeker activates is 30%.
How could the Neptune battery commander improve his odds using the rules in Harpoon 5? It’s quite possible he used his organic sensors. The Neptune ASCM is part of a weapons complex that includes the missile, the launcher, command and control, and sensors. The sensor intended for the Neptune system is called Mineral-U. The Mineral-U is an interesting system, known in Harpoon 5 as a Targeting Radar (SS-T):
Targeting radars (SS-T) are a type of surface-search radar used by the Soviet Union/Russia. They not only function as a surface search radar optimized to use the surface duct to extend their range over the horizon, but can serve as extremely precise ES [Electronic Support] sensors….They can use the radar duct to extend their range.
5.2.4 Shipboard Radar Types
Although one could argue about the lack of Russian air superiority, the Neptune battery commander might not want to “go active” and try to get an Active RF [Radio Frequency] fire control solution. To radiate the Mineral-U radar is to invite an attack. Alternatively, it is possible to work towards a Passive RF fire control solution using rule 6.3.2 Radio-Frequency (RF) Fire Control Solution. To achieve a Good solution for the Neptune means tracking Moskva for at least 15 minutes (5 Tactical Turns); a risk but one well worth it? With a Good quality fire control solution the Placement Roll is 90%—a vast improvement over the 30% chance with a BOL Poor quality solution.
This little exploration using Harpoon 5 shows us that, while it is technically possible the P-8 “tracked” Moskva, even if that data was somehow passed to the Ukrainians it was more likely used for (at best) general situational awareness and not for targeting. To achieve the greatest chance for success, the Ukrainian Neptune battery commander more likely used organic sensors to Find, Fix, Track, and Target Moskva to enable the Neptune missiles to Engage. Harpoon 5 gives us a tool to Assess strike success.
Ukrainian forces have used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials tell NBC News.
As Russia launched its invasion, the U.S. gave Ukrainian forces detailed intelligence about exactly when and where Russian missiles and bombs were intended to strike, prompting Ukraine to move air defenses and aircraft out of harm’s way, current and former U.S. officials told NBC News.
That near real-time intelligence-sharing also paved the way for Ukraine to shoot down a Russian transport plane carrying hundreds of troops in the early days of the war, the officials say, helping repel a Russian assault on a key airport near Kyiv.
“There has been a lot of real-time intelligence shared in terms of things that could be used for specific targeting of Russian forces,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the situation. The information includes commercial satellite images “but also a lot of other intelligence about, for example, where certain types of Russian units are active.”
Ukrainian forces have used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials tell NBC News.
While the phrase “real-time intelligence” is liberally sprinkled throughout the article, and some of the reporting implies extremely timely exchange of intelligence, the association of the P-8 and the Moskva sinking is not discussed. The fact remains that even if the P-8 passed target-quality intelligence “in real-time,” the data was “aged” by at least two hours before any Neptune strike. The Harpoon 5 -derived situation still stands as a very plausible explanation of the likely events at the time of the sinking.
Have you heard of Force Design 2030? It’s the new warfighting concept for the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently it’s become quite controversial. What I find interesting is the prominence wargaming is getting in the arguments for and against the concept.
One of the commandant’s first priority tasks was to identify risks associated with this design. The task sparked an immediate series of wargames, which I oversaw, to examine the divestments. Based on this risk assessment, the commandant decided to proceed in some areas while deferring trade-off decisions in others, pending more analysis.
Wargames…as risk assessment. A solid reminder that wargames don’t (can’t?) predict the future, but are useful to help identify areas of concern (i.e. “risk”).
In an article in Politico, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper appeals, “What we want to see is these changes are based on thorough study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.” Yet there were reams of reports on wargames, experiments, and studies on potential investment decisions and warfighting concepts that informed Berger’s decisions.
Wargames…as one tool in the Commandant’s kitbag to help inform decisions (not make them).
There is, however, a legitimate critique of the commandant’s approach: He handed the force development enterprise a single course of action, which dominated the analysis and wargaming in a way that left little room for a consideration of alternatives.
In the military planning process, the step for wargaming is preceded by COA (Courses of Action) development. At the very least there needs to be at least two COA identified; Most Likely and Most Dangerous. This apparently did not happen.
Having wargamed many of the ideas that contributed to stand-in forces, my view is they are, without a doubt, applicable to crisis response scenarios and will do better than the legacy force under most circumstances.
An opinion, but again one informed by wargaming.
Force Design 2030 drops the active component infantry from 24 to 21 battalions and the size of each battalion from 896 to between 733 and around 800, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. As such, in the most extreme case, the Marine Corps drops active component infantry from 21,504 to 15,393 — a 29 percent overall reduction. However, based on experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps is likely going to settle around 800 per battalion, a 22 percent reduction in total infantry
Experimentation in the Warfighting Lab, aka “wargaming,” used again to inform a decision.
What is a concern is that Force Design 2030 envisions infantry that are both commando-like in their employment and episodically become the core of new littoral combat teams focused on sea denial. Given the National Defense Strategy, the idea of a littoral combat team contributing to a joint maritime campaign has merit. There are many joint, Navy, and Marine Corps wargames from the past several years that support this. But multi-tasking the infantry, by design, to be both commandos and littoral combat teams may undercut their ability to effectively do either. There are alternative configurations that avoid this stress to the force. The service’s World War II-era coastal defense battalions serve as precedent for this. According to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in the ongoing refinements to the infantry battalion and the Marine littoral regiment, such an alternative approach is in consideration.
It’s good to see wargaming being used to inform decisions, as well as some acknowledgement that although they were handed a single COA, there are still alternatives emerging form the process. Marines and wargaming have a bit of a controversial history, with then Maj Gen Van Riper right in the middle of it (look up Millennium Challenge 2002).
Prediction is a much tougher subject. In recent weeks I can’t even tell you how many “experts” have popped up on social media claiming expertise on tank warfare in the Ukraine based on a high score in World of Tanks. Putting those clowns aside, there are some commercial hobby players who don’t want to even touch wargames about the future and only want to play historical conflict simulations. Others look at modern/near-future games as not that different from science fiction. With the recent sinking of the RFN Moskva, I think we can at least see that some game models can be “validated.” Beyond that, I think hobby wargames can be useful in providing insight into the future. The real challenge is not in designing a wargame that looks at the future and “gets it right,” but understanding the various biases and assumptions underpinning the game and models. Before one can draw conclusions, one must understand the model.
No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate the changing national conscious.
The Earth is Weeping, p. 7
The Earth is Weeping is a book that tries to bring balance to the historical record of the American Indian Wars. Following the tragedy/massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, most Americas for the next 80 years viewed brave Indian fighters (cavalry) and courageous settlers as heroic. But in the 1970s that view changed as people began seeing whites as villainous conquerors, and the Indians as victims—thanks in no small part to Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cozzen contends Brown’s book made no attempt at historical balance. Peter Cozzens book The Earth is Weeping does not ignore injustices done to the Indians, but he insists we not ignore the white perspective, either.
In a similar manner to The Earth is Weeping, John Poniske’s game Plains Indian Wars (GMT Games, 2022) attempts to deliver a balanced view of the American Indian Wars. This balance comes in two flavors; game balance and historical balance. For the former the game excels but for the later it maybe shies away from the hard parts of history a bit too much, but maybe for the right reasons.
Long ago (and I mean LONG ago) GMT Games put Plains Indian Wars up on the P500. At the time I thought ordering it didn’t pull the trigger. The topic is not really of interest to me so I didn’t even pay attention to the publicity around it. That is, until I heard that the game system is a loose relative of Academy Games’ Birth of America-series. The Birth of America-series games (1754: Conquest,1775: Rebellion,1812: Invasion of Canada) and the closely related 878 Vikings are the favorite lite, family wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. Yes, even more popular than Commands & Colors, Hold the Line, or even Enemies of Rome. Once I discovered Plains Indian Wars shared some of that lineage, I HAD to have it.
[In a March 16 post on BGG, John Poniske states that, “[Plains Indian Wars] was originally designed for Academy – they turned it down.” That’s…sad for Academy Games.]
Part of what makes the Birth of America-series of games so appealing to me is game balance. In every game, you have asymmetric factions working together to deliver victory. Victory is usually based on area control. Admittedly, the combat part of the history in many Birth of America games is glossed over because casualties don’t really matter—the only judge of victory is who controls a particular area.
Factions On the Plains
In Plains Indian Wars there are seven “factions.” The Major Indian Factions are the Northern Plains Tribes (NPT) and the Southern Plains Tribes (SPT). The Major US Factions are the Cavalry and Settlers. The three “minor factions”—all controlled by the US player(s), are the Enemies of the NPT/SPT, Wagon Trains, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Every major faction has a deck of 15 cards (larger in size than those found in a Birth of America game), custom faction dice, and color-coded cubes. Minor factions have cubes but no cards, and only the Enemies faction has custom dice. The 34″x22″ mounted game board is a stylized map of the area (i.e. not totally geographically accurate) but well laid out and easy to use in the game.
Each turn of Plains Indian Wars consists of a series of random draws of a faction disk from a bag. This game mechanism, lifted directly from the Birth of America-series, is in great part what makes every game so engaging; you simply don’t know in what order the different factions will operate. Major Factions use their cards in a turn to take different actions. Some cards are Migration, Engagement, War Party, or an Event.
Another asymmetrical game mechanism carried over from the Birth of America-series in Plains Indian Wars is the custom faction dice. Dice come with one of three faces; Blank (retreat), Treaty (end of combat), and Weapon (hit). Each factions dice are not the same; the US Cavalry has 3x Weapon, 1x Treaty, and 2x Blank making it deadly in combat. The NPT/SPT/Enemies dice are 3x Blank, 1x Treaty, and 2x Weapon making them rather balanced. Settlers, on the other hand, have 4x Blank, 1x Treaty, and only a single Weapon making them disadvantaged in combat.
The end result of the asymmetric factions in Plains Indian Wars is actually a very mechanically balanced game. The key to victory for each player is to use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Although Plains Indian Wars is categorized as a “wargame” on BoardGameGeek, the real “war” in the game is for territory. The US Player(s) gain points for completing the Railroad, exiting Wagon Trains across the board, and for controlling NPT/SPT areas. The Indian Player(s) gain points for stopping the joining of the Railroad, eliminating George Armstrong Custer on the turn he enters, eliminating Wagon Train cubes, eliminating Cavalry cubes, and controlling NPT/SPT and Enemies regions. They also lose points if the US Player controls more Enemies regions than they do. All of which in play means the US Player is constantly trying to expand the areas they control while the Indian Player is trying push back the Settlers and impede the flow of Wagon Trains.
Similar to how the different factions in Plains Indian Wars are mechanically balanced in play, the game strives to depict a similar historical balance. There is no “absolute struggle between good and evil” as neither side is necessarily “good” or obviously “evil.” Event cards in particular call-out some situations that are significant and not necessarily to be crowed about. Game play tends to emphasize the broad strategy of the day (the ends) but it also tends to gloss over how that was done (the means) which in many cases carried intense racial undertones. In several discussion threads about Plains Indian Wars on BoardGameGeek, designer John Poniske has mentioned some design decisions that are ahistorical but were made in the name of game balance. Which is to say that even the designer recognizes that Plains Indian Wars is an imperfect view of the American Indian Wars.
This brings me back to Academy Games’ decision to not publish Plains Indian Wars. I don’t know why that decision was made and hope it was for financial reasons vice any “commentary” on the historical aspects of this game. One criticism of the Birth of America-series is that the Native American factions don’t have much agency and tend to be used as pawns of major factions (not rue in 1812, but I can see the argument in 1775). In Plains Indian Wars the Northern Plains Tribes and Southern Plains Tribes are elevated to major factions and certainly have “agency” in the game. Plains Indian Wars could of brought “balance” to the Academy Games catalog, but I digress.
Does that really matter? A part of me says Plains Indian Wars is fine the way it is. The game presents those broad strokes of history in a very friendly, lite-wargame manner. On the other hand, the historian in me cringes a bit because there is so much to be said…
…and maybe that’s why the game is the way it is.
If one digs deep into the myths and misconceptions of the American Indian Wars they will quickly enter into a highly controversial discussion. Plains Indian Wars is a “top-level” view of that discussion, perhaps best used not to learn the details of the most controversial issues, but to trigger a desire to further explore those outside of the game. The game does not attempt to explain the many myths of history, but instead “exposes” them for the players. This is far from a condemnation of Plains Indian Wars for like the Birth of America-series before it there is only so much that can (should?) be communicated in a historical family-lite wargame. The historical balance in Plains Indian Wars is not simply a balance between factions, but a balance in the presentation of history.
Plains Indian Wars can be played by one, two, three, or even four players. Personally, I think the game shines best as a two-player game where your “thinking” opponent presents the greatest challenge. The solo variants are useful for exploring the various factions, and the three-or four player versions are in some ways even more family friendly. But to me, the best balance between game play and historical flavor is found in the two-player version.
Plains Indian Wars is a welcome addition to the shelf of “family” wargames. Not only is Plains Indian Wars a good game, it also “teaches without preaches” and challenges your mind to explore further.