#WargameWednesday – Battling the “office-al” bureaucracy with Gettysburg (@markherman54, @RBMStudio1, 2018) [mentions @role4initiative]

This week my “office-al” game was Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (C3i Magazine Nr. 32, 2018). I chose this game partially because of the small footprint (a single 11″x17″ mapsheet) and low counter density. I also chose the game because one of my coworkers is deep into the Battle of Gettysburg as he had several ancestors at the battle.

Seeing that this is a Wargame Wednesday entry you can tell my play of Gettysburg went quickly. The game itself ended in a Union victory. Going into the last turn things looked bleak for the Union but the return of two Blown corps helped stiffen the Union lines and (barely) preserve a win.

More importantly, I got to show off Gettysburg to my coworker. He is NOT a gamer by any measure of the imagination. I stepped him through some of the game mechanisms and he was interested enough to seek out his own copy. No, I didn’t lend him mine because he has a history of “holding onto” loaned books.

I guess this “office-al” gaming is getting serious; I now keep my set of 15 Opaque Dark Grey with Lt Blue Numbers dice from Role4Initiative in the office “just in case.”

#WargameWednesday – A bright game in THE DARK SUMMER: NORMANDY, 1944 by @tdraicer fm @gmtgames (2021)

Coming off my “Shelf of Shame” this week was The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944 by designer Ted Raicer and published by GMT Games (2021). The Dark Summer is the latest in Ted’s Dark Series from GMT Games following The Dark Valley: The East Front Campaign, 1941-45 (2013) and The Dark Sands: War in North Africa: 1940-42 (2018). The signature feature of the Dark Series is the use of the chit-pull mechanism for activation which not only introduces a manageable “fog of war” element into play but also makes this series of games very solo-friendly. In The Dark Summer, Mr. Raicer and GMT Games gives us a refined version of the Dark Series that delivers a very playable version of the Normandy Campaign focusing not on the “Battle of the Beaches” but instead on the breakout.

The Longest Day Reduced to a Round

When I see a game about World War II in Normandy, my mind first goes to the movie The Longest Day (1962). Indeed, I think for many wargamers the invasion of Normandy is almost always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a wargame set around D-Day.

The Dark Summer covers D-Day…and a whole lot more. In hindsight, given a game scale of 2.25 miles per hex and weekly (uh, sorry, “one quarter of a month”) turns it should be no surprise the critical invasion days are reduced to just a part of a turn. At first I felt a bit cheated; in The Dark Summer the landings on the beach are often reduced to a single die roll and then an advance inland. It felt so much different from the popular depiction of D-Day that at first I wondered if the landings were being trivialized. However, after playing the entire game (not only the first turn) I discovered that The Dark Summer doesn’t minimize the sacrifices of those who came ashore on D-Day; on the contrary, after play I see how game puts those invasion day efforts into context with the entire campaign. It took me a bit to see the obvious; The Dark Summer is not a game about the invasion of the Normandy beaches, but about the breakout.

Edgy Breakout

Whatever drama The Dark Summer lacks in regards to the invasion of the Normandy beaches, it makes up for in the race that follows. Players have 10 turns to either take back invaded beaches (Germans) or if the Allies to push out and “take the edges” of Cherbourg or Brittany or points to the east on the map. Cherbourg, which is not even on the map, is really the “make or break” victory condition. The Allies can virtually guarantee a win by seizing Cherbourg early but if they wait too long and don’t take the city by the end of turn 7 then it turns into a German Sudden-Death Victory. A close examination of the Victory Point Tables reveals a fundamental conflict—the Allies gain VP for capture of cities or exiting units whereas the Germans earn VP by eliminating certain Allied units and exiting others. The danger each side faces is that an all-out attempt to maximize VP could hand an automatic victory to the opponent. This make The Dark Summer a “race to the edges” of the map, but it must be a managed run that keeps (leaves?) some units behind to prevent automatically awarding victory to your opponent.

Good Chit-Pull

I have sung praises to the chit-pull mechanism before and The Dark Summer only reinforces my beliefs. I really enjoy the chit-pull mechanism for how it introduces a pleasant form of randomness into unit movement and combat as well as how it enables solo play. Even the special rules that basically “pre-scripts” the initial invasion round looks far more restrictive on the page than it actually plays out. Of the three Dark Series games I own, I feel The Dark Summer is the most thematically appropriate implementation of the chit-pull mechanism amongst the group.

Brightest of the Dark?

While the three games of the Dark Series share that common chit-pull mechanism, each is a very different game. I have described The Dark Valley as a “playable monster” game and the scope (the entire war in the Soviet Union) takes up far more table space and time than The Dark Summer. Likewise, The Dark Sands, which is more similar to The Dark Summer in that it covers a campaign (North Africa), also has some rules that mechanically make the game more challenging to play (I’m looking at the two-scales of maps here). In The Dark Summer I feel designer Ted Raicer has found a “sweet spot” for the application of his system.

What I enjoy most about The Dark Summer is the extreme playability of the game. Physically the game is relatively small with play on a single 22″x34″ map using less than 400 counters. The 24-page, double-column Rule Book really is only ~17 pages of rules, none of which are overly complex or illogical. Play time is listed as four hours and I found this estimate about right; indeed, my solo games actually played a bit faster. The Dark Summer naturally paces itself as “a bit rushed” in that both players feel the need to work quickly to try to get to their victory objectives before time expires. The combination of a smaller game, easy to digest rules, and a natural thematic “hurry up” makes The Dark Summer a complete—and highly enjoyable—game experience playable in an afternoon.

#Wargame Wednesday – My Wargame News Feeds

A post on Twitter aksed me where I get my wargame news from. I don’t have any real secrets to share; rather, I just try to bring some discipline to my social media.

Armchair Dragoons

My number 1 go-to place for news compiler is Brant and Armchair Dragoons. His regular #TuesdayNewsday columns are a great compilation of wargame-focused news.

Click for link

Twitter

Mountain_Navy on Twitter

My number 2 go-to place for wargame news is Twitter. I work hard to curate my wargame list to deliver news and wargame-related postings I want to see while eliminating much of that other, mostly negative, trash that constantly flames Twitter. Here I will share a secret, or at least some insight into how I (subjectively) curate content in Twitter.

I actually have four levels of list for Twitter. The first group is wargamers I follow. I want the content from these wargamers pushed to me automatically. The problem is there is good and great content out there and to both into my timeline clobbers it and makes separating the “wheat from chaff” difficult. So I curate.

A second group of wargamers I curate is kept on my Wargame list but NOT followed. This is a pull list…I have to make the decision and take the time during the day to look at this list. One can move between my following and wargame list pretty regularly; if I feel a user is straying away from wargaming content (like maybe being too involved with their favorite sports team) I unfollow but keep them on the wargame list for a while. If over time I see them getting “more wargame” they can always be put back on the follow list.

Every once in a while I review my followers to see if they need to go on my following or wargame list. I try to be generous; if you followed me and have a feed with at least some wargame content I will likely put you on the list at the very least. It’s also possible you might end up on another list of mine; I have History and Military Wonk and the like that one might find a home on. Minis and plastic modelers often end up on my Hobby list.

The third group of wargamers I curate are those I mute. Maybe you said something that annoyed me. You’re entitled to your opinion but I want to keep my feed free of content that I don’t enjoy—I don’t want to doomscroll. Sometimes these muted accounts show back up in my timeline as a muted feed when other wargamers like or retweet or quote them. That can kick off a round of reappraisal and, if I feel like it, a return to the list or following.

The fourth list of wargamers are accounts I block. There are a few out there. What they did to deserve being blocked is a very personal judgement. I’ll say I don’t use the block button lightly; it is far more likely I’ll simply mute the account for a while (a cooling off period for both of us). Honestly, most of the content I block is not necessarily from a wargamer but more often something they liked or retweeted that offended me. I am occasionally surprised by the wargamers who have blocked me. I usually don’t autoblock back…they have their reasons and I although I may not understand I respect them.

BoardGameGeek

I heavily use the subscription feature on BGG. I am subscribed to almost every game in my collection and many families—series if you will—of wargames too. I used to subscribe to companies but found it cluttered my feed too much. I also focus on some key wargame designers. I also follow a few guilds and some key geeklists.

You can view the Wargame Domain on BGG through the Dashboard. I personally find it “meh” in terms of content delivered and would much rather go through my subscriptions list.

CONSIMWORLD

I will say that the CONSIMWORLD News feed is a good compilation…just not always timely. Like BGG, I try to subscribe to the different wargames I own on CSW. Here I do subscribe to company feeds. I have a login to CSW-Social but I can’t figure out how to make it work for me in terms of content delivered.

Company Websites

Where available, I’m signed up for newsletters or whatever news feed many wargamer companies push from their websites. I use a separate wargame email account so Mrs RMN doesn’t have to sort through my wargamer mailings to get to the important family emails.

Kickstarter

A newsfeed I see more useful these days is Kickstarter. Over time I have backed more projects or favorited others. When content producers post updates I get the news. It’s pleasantly surprising how much info is conveyed in this manner. Actually, there is at least one wargame company I love that is terrible at updating their website but great at publicizing themselves via Kickstarter. I’ll take what I can get…

Podcasts

I have a curated list of wargame/boardgame podcasts that I subscribe to, but I only listen during my commute which means I don’t often go back to check the links or otherwise explore any news they relate. Of course, if there is one podcast you listen to it should be Mentioned in Dispatches. That is, if you can occasionally suffer my ramblings…

WordPress Reader

This blog is hosted through WordPress which does have a Reader feature. It’s there and I subscribe to some fellow gaming blogs but I find the selection rather sparse and marginally (very marginally) useful for wargame product news (better Mr. Train?).

YouTube

I subscribe to several wargame/boardgame related feeds. I actually don’t get many chances to watch videos; it just isn’t a priority source of entertainment, much less information, for me. I know that some game companies regularly use a weekly video feed to deliver news and updates…I’ll let Brant spend the time watching and pick out the best and compile it for me.

FaceBook

Nope. Just nope.

What about you?

If you are a follower of mine and don’t see yourself on a list please don’t be offended. Like I said, I review my settings every once in a while. In recent months I actually made some effort to reduce my social media time and focus on other activities which means I don’t always get around to reviewing. Also, don’t take it personally if you move between lists. Above all else be understanding; don’t be that one gamer who DM’d me after I unfollowed them and ranted about how I hurt their feelings. If you’re that fragile and view your world through the lens of Twitter likes and followers, well, you just might have some issues—and not being on my wargame list is probably the least of them.

#WargameWednesday – An intelligence #wargame ahead of its time? My impressions of Bodyguard-Overlord by John Prados from Spearhead Games, 1994 (inspired by @Hethwill_Khan and @6xW_a)

In the course of a recent Twitter exchange with Hethwill Wargames, I mentioned John Prados’ Bodyguard-Overlord (Spearhead Games, 1994) as a good wargame of intelligence activities, even it I feel it is maligned. Fellow Twitter wargamer Nicola asked me to expand on my thought, which I am always happy to do for a wargame…even if it isn’t. Confused? Read on…

Intelligence, Deception, and Preparations

The introduction of Bodyguard-Overlord is quite clear at what it is trying to do:

Bodyguard-Overlord is a simulation of intelligence, deception, and preparations preceding the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and their effect on the subsequent course of military operations. This necessary prelude to the Northwest Europe campaign of 1944-1945 made a great difference in the outcome of that massive enterprise.

The emphasis in this simulation is upon the often-ignored “fog of war,” the tendency for information to get mixed-up in the heat of the campaign, while other aspects of the game remain as simple as possible. As a result, this game is much less complex than many board wargames, and quite possible suitable for play by new players.

Rule Book 1.0 Introduction, p.2

Do you see “combat” listed as a design goal of Bodyguard-Overlord? No, you don’t because, while combat is part of the design, it is not the goal of this “wargame.” More than anything else, I feel this distinction is the root cause of why some Grognards dislike Bodyguard-Overlord—it’s not enough “wargame” for them. So if Bodyguard-Overlord is not a “combat wargame,” what it it?

Bodyguard-Overlord box back. Are you sure this is a wargame because I don’t see hexes….

The Designer’s Notes by John Prados in Bodyguard-Overlord provide more insight into what the designer’s goal for this game was. I’m going to be quoting Mr. Prados at length here because his word describe his own game the best:

From the history of the 1944-1945 Campaign in Northwest Europe and the accounts of the Normandy invasion Operation Overlord, it was clear to me that Germany’s best chance of defeating the invasion lay in anticipating where and when it might come. Conversely, it was apparent that a key Allied activity had to be “misleading” the Germans (or as we would say now “perception management”) regarding invasion preparations and objectives. It was also clear the design would have to include spies, code-breaking, aerial reconnaissance, and the European Resistance movements. These elements were present in my thoughts from the very first discussions. The intent was to portray the intelligence activity surrounding the invasion and deployment preparations on both sides, either to support the invasion or to counter it.

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

In addition to modeling intelligence activities, Mr. Prados made a conscious decision in Bodyguard-Overlord to NOT model complex combat mechanisms:

A parallel intention was to make the game simple enough to be playable by a novice gamer, and playable to completion in one sitting. This meant making an effort not to encumber the game (or the gamer) with excessively-detailed subsystems. In particular, given our focus on intelligence play, it meant resisting the temptation to insert complex combat mechanics.

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Spymaster Generals

I’ve Got a Secret…

I feel the truth is that Bodyguard-Overlord is a very non-traditional wargame that was ahead of its time. There is a vital pregame segment called the Strategic Planning and Deployment Phase that is very non-traditional it its approach. In this phase, units are set up, mostly in holding areas for the Allies but on the mapboard for the Germans (a reflection of advantages in Allied reconnaissance). While that first part sounds much like any wargame set up, what followers certainly is not. After set up, the Allied Player plans their invasion by secretly noting four items:

  • Invasion Date
  • Invasion Site
  • Partisan Trigger Signal
  • Invasion Warning Signal

As pointed out in the rule book, “These pre-game choices provide a major focus for intelligence operations in the game” (p. 4)

The next step in the Invasion Planning Schedule of Bodyguard-Overlord is the creation of a chit pool of 40 chits followed by Allied placement of units in the North Africa and Great Britain Holding Boxes. This includes many dummy units. Partisans are also placed on the continent.

“A second important aspect of the design is the mechanism, however tenuous, by which the German player may discover the actual invasion target. In this regard, the game benefits from the realities of conducting an enterprise as ambitious as the Normandy invasion, an endeavor so enormous that its planning required a target area and date selected long in advance. Thus, the Allied player must choose his invasion site and time and note them before play begins. Without forcing the player to plan the actual execution of the invasion project, this mechanism creates a secret which can then be the focus of intelligence activities. The tension between preserving the secret of the invasion while marshaling the forces to conduct it recreates the dilemma faced by the Allies in 1944, while the desperate desire to unlock that secret confronts the German player.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard-Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Wargame Plus

Play of Bodyguard-Overlord now proceeds to monthly game turns. Starting with the Allies, each player executes a Deployment Segment, Movement Segment, Combat Segment, Intelligence & Sabotage Segment, and a Broadcast Segment. While the first three are likely very familiar to wargamers, the latter two are what makes Bodyguard-Overlord unique.

Bodyguard-Overlord mapboard…NO HEXES!

In the Intelligence and Sabotage Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord turn, players draw an Intelligence Card and carry out the action. Players then draw one or several intelligence chits from the Eyes Only cup. This draw is key for the rules of populating the Eyes Only cup direct placing matching chits for the Invasion Date and Invasion Site; if the German player draws these two matching chits they “know” the secret information. Conversely, if the Allied player draws this information, they effectively “deny” it to the Germans. In this segment players also Scout (examine hidden units) and Sabotage.

Intelligence Cards in Bodyguard-Overlord…where’s the stats for Tiger tanks?

The Broadcast Segment of a Bodyguard-Overlord game turn simulates diplomatic, propaganda, and communications. Every turn the Allies must broadcast one of 15 phrases with one being the Partisan Trigger Signal and the second the Invasion Warning Signal. If the German player draws one of the phrases and it is broadcast, the German player may initiate unlimited attacks against Partisan units immediately.

Broadcast phrases in Bodyguard-Overlord…no “You sank my battleship!”

Victory in Europe

Once the Allied player announces the First Invasion in Bodyguard-Overlord, the Allied player has two turns to reach their victory condition. Although this might seem I short think it fits well with the game design goals—if the Allies have succeeded in deceiving the Germans then the invasion should come in areas the Germans are not as ready to defend thus making Allied victory easier. Conversely, if the Germans have pierced Bodyguard, then they are more likely to be in the right place at the right time to deny the Allied victory. The Basic Victory Conditions involve occupation of a certain number of areas depending on the invasion site. Taken as a whole this means a game of Bodyguard-Overlord doesn’t drag on and move its focus from intelligence to combat.

Intelligence Coup

All this is not to say Bodyguard-Overlord is a perfect game. One common criticism is that several of the Intelligence Cards are too powerful. These complaints likely center on the Intelligence Coup action.

Coups in Bodyguard-Overlord can ruin your (invasion) day…

As you can see, an Intelligence Coup in Bodyguard-Overlord often reveals an absolutely vital element of Allied plans. While some might see this as overpowered and creating too swingy a game, I feel they are narratively quite appropriate. If the German player gets that lucky break, Bodyguard has broken down and the Allied player must now try to make the best of things. This doesn’t necessarily mean the invasion will not happen (an auto win for the German player) but it may not meet its objectives as quickly as the victory conditions (politicians? public?) demand. I don’t see this as a mark of a poor design; rather, I see it as a recognition of the hard realities of Bodyguard.

Wargame…or Strategy Game?

While Bodyguard-Overlord has its roots in a “traditional” wargame, the game design also breaks from many “classic” wargame standards. From map areas (not hexes) to cards to a chit pool, not to mention the entire non-combat intelligence play segment, when put together makes this game mechanically very distant from wargames like Enemy at the Gates (Dean Essig, The Gamers) which won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best World War II Board Game in 1994. In this respect, Bodyguard-Overlord may have been ahead of its time. In 1994, the use of non-classic wargame mechanics was still relatively new. For example, Mark Herman’s We the People (Avalon Hill, 1993), the first Card Driven Game (CDG), was just a year old.

A more recent strategy boardgame that does much the same as Bodyguard-Overlord is The Fog of War by Geoff Engelstein and published by Stronghold Games in 2016. Fog of War is described as, “World War II without units but with planning and intelligence.” In other words, it gets at the same core design goals as John Prados did nearly 30 years ago but in a very non-traditional wargame manner.

I wonder if Bodyguard-Overlord was printed today if the reception to the game would be different than it was 30 years ago. I feel that gamers, and especially wargamers, are more receptive today to “non-traditional” wargames than they were 30 years ago. Here I include myself; in 2017 when I rated Bodyguard-Overlord on BGG my rating of 6 came with the comment, “Focus on espionage, intelligence and deception is both its strength and weakness. Much better as an add-on like module to other games.” In 2017 I had very recently re-engaged with the wargame hobby and was bringing myself up to date from my limited (immature?) 1979-1999 baseline of knowledge. In light my current understanding of this game, I think I was misguided as I saw Bodyguard-Overlord back then as an expansion module, not an entire game. As a module it may be a 6—but as a game? I should rerate the game at least a 7, placing it just above, not below, my 6.56 game rating average.

“Moreover, this game creates for the first time, a coherent set of mechanics to incorporate campaign-level intelligence play into a traditional wargame environment.”

Designer’s Notes, Bodyguard Overlord Study Folder, p. 6

Bodyguard-Overlord is an “intelligence wargame” that was ahead of its time. While maybe not as refined as more “modern” strategy wargames, it still has much to say about campaign-level intelligence activities. One just has to embrace the message and not try to pigeonhole the design into something it isn’t.


RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Bonding clearly with stress free shifts determined to breakthrough narratives in Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (@gmtgames, 2019)

This past week I played Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June- December 1942 as my Game of the Week. Stalingrad ’42 is a wargame designed by Mark Simonitch and published by GMT Games in 2019. It is part of Mark’s ZoC Bond Series of wargames, named in part to their unique version of Zone of Control (ZoC) rules so often used in wargames. Due to time challenges I was only able to play the eight-turn, one month Fall Blau scenario. Along the way I discovered much more about Mark’s ZoC Bond system and wargame narratives.

Bond, ZoC Bond

The unique game mechanism in Stalingrad ’42 is the ZoC Bond. In addition to the classic ZoC (all six hexes surrounding a Combat Unit) that has the usual game effects of affecting movement, those same Combat Units can also form ZoC Bonds:

7.1 How to form a ZOC Bond

Any Combat Unit in Good Order can form a ZOC Bond….When two such units (or stacks) are two hexes apart (with one vacant intervening hex) they create a bond between them that no enemy unit may enter or cross. Due to the pattern of a hex grid there are two types of ZOC Bonds—Hex Bonds and Hexside Bonds.

Stalingrad ’42, Rules of Play

ZoC Bonds have tremendous game effects in Stalingrad ’42. Units may not enter or cross a bond during movement, if forced to retreat across a bond the unit is eliminated, attacking units cannot Advance After Combat across a bond, nor can supply ever be traced into or across a bond. Thus, it is important for both players to pay close attention to where bonds exist, or don’t, and plan accordingly.

Weather, or Not

Like one would expect in a game on the Russian front, weather can have a huge impact on movement in Stalingrad ’42. However, the rules specify that the weather is automatically Clear on Turn 1-16 (late June through late August) (see rule 3.0 A. Weather Phase). This means that Minor Rivers can be crossed at no extra cost. In turn, this means that in the Fall Blau scenario Major Rivers are the primary obstacles to movement.

Interestingly, in Stalingrad ’42 all Minor River Hexsides don’t cost extra movement to cross (unless Rain) but they ALWAYS double a defender’s Defense Factors. Minor River Hexsides also halve an attackers Attack Factors if all the attackers are attacking across a Minor River Hexside while also not allowing a Tank Shift (see below).

20-40 EZ

I was surprised to see Stalingrad ’42 impose a limit of 20 Defense Factors or 40 Attack Factors in a given combat (see 8.5 Maximum Attack and Defense Factors). The designer admits in the “Design Notes” within the Play Book that, “This will be the most controversial part of the design.” Mark goes on to explain:

Some players don’t like caps, but I find them very helpful for stress-free gaming. I don’t like it when players (or myself) spend an extensive amount of time trying to find those extra few factors to increase the odds by one more column. It’s not what wargaming should be about. And there is more comfort in knowing that 7 factors in a hex will guarantee that your opponent cannot get 10-1 odds against it, and placing two 3-5-3 rifle divisions in a Stalingrad city hex is enough to prevent the Axis player getting 5-1 odds against it.

Play Book, “Design Notes,” p. 17-18

Yes, it’s controversial in my mind. Maybe Mark and I have very different definitions of “stress?” Personally, I see the hunting around for a few extra factors not stress, but a part of the game. I would argue that not imposing a limit actually encourages one to pay more careful attention to movement and organization of your force as it moves into combat. Many times I enjoy the “analysis paralysis” in a wargame, more so when its coming from an opponent who is struggling against your plan.

Tanks for the Shift

One of the most powerful combat modifiers in Stalingrad ’42 is the Tank Shift (see rule 9.2 Tank Shifts). If one or more “black dot” Tank Units participate in a combat, the owner shifts an entire column on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Elite Tank Units (“red dot”) get a 2-column shift! There are a few exceptions to the rule, but generally the game effect of this rule is that tanks act much like they historically did by bolstering the offense or defense simply by their presence. I like it!

Mark tells us that in playtesting Stalingrad ’42 the German mechanized units were too weak to reach Stalingrad. Adding extra combat strength made them too strong in cities and mountains. So instead, “I gave them an additional tank shift (the red dot)” (Play Book, p. 17). I am happy to see a simple solution to what appears was thorny problem to Mark.

Determined Defense

One of my favorite rules in Holland ’44, and found again here in Stalingrad ’42, is Determined Defense. This rule allows defenders an attempt to cancel retreat results. In Stalingrad ’42, rule 11.1.2 Not One Step Back! goes hand-in-hand with Determined Defense. This simple bit of flavor helps create a narratively dramatic first few turns as only Soviet NKVD units have access to a Determined Defense in the Fall Blau scenario (at least until Turn 8).

My Breakthrough Breakthrough

Earlier this year when playing Heights of Courage (MultiMan Publishing, 20XX), I talked about Overrun Combat and how it took me a while to truly understand the implications of even that “basic” rule. The Stalingrad ’42 counterpart to that learning experience is rule 15.0 Breakthrough Combat. This rule builds upon rule 14.0 Advance After Combat but with a twist:

Any Regular Combat that achieves an Advance After Combat of 2-4 hexes allows units that participated in that attack to conduct Breakthrough Combat. Breakthrough Combat allows units to attack during their Advance After Combat.

15.1 [Breakthrough Combat] In General

Much like Overrun and Exploitation Combat in Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series, in Stalingrad ’42 the rules for 12.0 Retreats, 14.0 Advance After Combat, and 15.0 Breakthrough Combat combine to create a powerful effect that deliver a very “blitzkrieg” feeling in play. Indeed, in a scenario like Fall Blau where the German player has little time (8 turns) to try and grab 8 Victory Points there is great “motivation” to not slowly grind against a defense but to find a weak point, breakthrough, and rapidly exploit the opening. On the other side, the Soviet player needs to cut off those racing German units and counterattacking by striking deep at supply lines is a viable strategy as opposed to a straight-up fight.

Bring a Mask?

I want to also call out a rule found in the Campaign Game, for Stalingrad ’42—rule 34.0 Maskirovka. This rule allows the Soviet player to secretly place Reserve Armies arriving on Turn 21 of the 36-turn Campaign Game. This rule is obviously not usable in a two-handed solo game, but when playing a live opponent the implications are huge in exchange for limited rules overhead.

Fall Blau – The Narrative

I was able to play the Fall Blau scenario for Stalingrad ’42 as part of my Game of the Week series. Fall Blau is the first scenario covering eight turns and using only Map A (roughly Voronehz to Rostov). To win, the Axis player must have at least 8 VP in any Victory Determination Phase. The Soviets win if the Axis player fails.

As much as I was looking for a quick blitzkrieg, the reality of terrain, especially the Minor River Hexsides and Fortified Hexes, made movement and combat on the first turns slower than I expected. I also thought the Special Rule limiting Axis Combat Units to Tactical Movement (2 hexes) only would have a slowing effect but given so many units “start in contact” the impact was less than I expected.

What actually surprised me the most about my play of Stalingrad ’42 was the seeming lack of combat. I first noticed this in the Example of Play in the Play Book but thought that was an artificial by-product of the need to build and EoP and not a true reflection of the game. As I played, I found that although the front was long and many units were present, on each turn there seemed to be focus areas with relatively few units in action on both sides. At first I thought, “Hey, this is hardly an offensive with all these little raids going on.” As the game progressed more units were gradually sucked into battles but, on the whole, it still felt like the actual number of units fighting was small. This didn’t feel like a Russia Campaign game to me at all.

Feeling like the game was becoming boring, I started to think about the narrative that Stalingrad ’42 was delivering. I kept playing and thinking and, gradually, came to realize that my expectation of this wargame was incorrect. I went into playing Stalingrad ’42 and the Fall Blau scenario expecting a sweeping grand offensive with Panzers advancing from North to South across the steppes of Mother Russia. Instead I had a few units fighting, and many more just sitting there. It was then I realized that the narrative Stalingrad ’42 delivers is focused much differently than I expected. At this scale (Brigades, 10 miles per hex, 4-day turns) the fighting depicted in Stalingrad ’42 is not ALL the fighting, just the “most important.” I had to tell myself that although two units may be facing off against each other and no dice are rolled, that doesn’t mean they are “doing nothing.”

Once I made the mental shift that Stalingrad ’42 was showing me the “critical” parts of the battle the entire game sped up in my mind. Whereas before I felt that the game was ponderous and slow with little action, the simple shift in my mental attitude led to a dramatic shift in my enjoyment of the game. Instead of focusing on the “do-nothings” I focused instead on the “action.” The game immediately became much more interesting.

It was at this point the major game mechanics also snapped together into a story. Visualizing the ZoC Bonds became essential in planning both offensive and defensive actions. Rivers became “phase lines” or “defensive lines.” Instead of hunting around for all the combat power possible it became sufficient to get “just enough” to make the effort. Mechanized units with their Tank Shifts became vital on offense or defense, and it became a real game to decide when a Determined Defense was needed or when it was time to turn that Advance After Combat into a Breakthrough. Through the lens of these decisions, a narrative of the battle emerged in play.

Such is the power of narratives in wargames. The story a wargame tells in actually very important to my enjoyment of the game. Too often I feel I get caught up in the mechanics of a game and lose the story. That’s when a game can become too procedural—and boring. This is why I very often personally fail to connect with many Eurogames; the prioritization of game mechanics over theme often means to me that I execute game mechanics but with no motivation beyond optimizing a game engine. I place my workers there to collect something I need, not to raid the enemy. It makes the game boring to me because I start to feel like I’m solving a puzzle, not playing a strategy.

On the whole, I think wargames get shortchanged when it comes to narrative. I mean, many people expect a wargame to tell a story, but so often that story is just an alternate retelling of history. What I think many people miss is a possible narrative about not only how history can change, but why. Not every wargame can do this, but I think more can then we give credit to.

Stalingrad ’42 taught me that putting Panzers on the wide open steppes of Russia and letting them run was not as simple as it sounds. Although the Eastern Front was long and many units fought there, it really was action in key areas with a rather select set of units that made the difference.

I really need to get the other scenarios of Stalingrad ’42 to the table. Problem is it never happens soon enough.

#Wargame Wednesday – Looking sharp with Commands & Colors Napoleonics 3rd Edition, 4th Printing (@gmtgames, 2019)

The RockyMountainNavy family loves the Commands & Colors family of lite wargames. I say “lite” in reference to the rules because these games, often coming with many wooden blocks, are anything but “light” on the shelf! The RockyMountainNavy Boys play the heck out of their copy of Memoir’44 (Days of Wonder, 2004) and over the years we have added several other games in the family to the collection. The latest arrival, a present on my birthday from the RMN Boys, is Commands & Colors Napoleonics, 3rd Edition, 4th Printing, from GMT Games (2019).

Commands & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games, 2019)

Wargame Block

Commands & Colors Napoleonics (C&CN) is a block version of the game (as compared to the little plastic minis of Memoir’44). The game ships with nearly 400 wooden blocks of three sizes and three different colors. Most any Commands & Colors owner has a story about how long it takes to put stickers on all those blocks. What I’ll tell you is that it is very therapeutic; there is a certain calm that comes over you when working through the stickers and watching your armies form in front of you. In many ways it’s not all that different a feeling than corner-clipping counters—repetitive, even a bit tedious, but extremely satisfying in the outcome. In some ways stickering-up wood blocks in Commands & Colors helps me relate to miniatures wargamers who spend all that time basing and painting figures for their army.

Sticker Day for C&CN

War Engine the Napoleon Way

Commands & Colors Napoleonics builds upon the long-proven war engine of the Commands & Colors family of wargames. All Commands & Colors games share a common baseline set of rules. Using a set of Command cards, players first play a Command card, then Order units, Move those units, conduct Combat, and then Draw a new Command card. Units themselves often are just a few types and the rules for movement and combat of each is easy to remember (or easily referenced on a single player aid card). This baseline set of rules is easy to learn and follow and helps make the game just as easy to teach or learn for beginners and Grognards alike.

Like every Commands & Colors game, Commands & Colors Napoleonics also uses special “flavor” rules to recreate battles of this period. In the case of C&CN the rules are 6.0 NAPOLEONIC TACTICS AND ACTIONS which introduces “Cavalry Retire and Reform,” “Infantry Square,” and Combined Arms Combat.” These rules, covered in a little over 3.5 pages of well-illustrated rules, work hand-in-hand with the colors of blocks, the images on units, and text of the Command Cards to make this C&C game “feel” Napoleonic.

Levee En Mass (Market)

If I have a quibble with Commands & Colors Napoleonics it is the components. Not the wood blocks—I had only a few useless blocks included—but in the quality of the terrain tiles and cards. The hexagonal terrain tiles seem a bit thin to me; they are perfectly functional but just seem thin. Same goes for the (few) cardboard chits in the game—thin. More importantly, the cards also seem thin to me. I occasionally sleeve my cards, but usually only when I feel they need to be protected and I question their durability. This is one of those times. I also am not a fan of the dice included. Not only did I have to sticker them myself, but they seem too large and heavy. I own a dice tray and use it when necessary but generally avoid doing so as it adds another component that demands real estate on the table which is not always available. For myself, a fully laid out game of C&CN takes up the entire 3″x4″ gaming table in the loft; I simply don’t have room for a large dice tower or tray.

Napoleon’s True Colors

Quibbles over components aside, I will admit that Commands & Colors Napoleonics looks beautiful on the gaming table. There is real beauty in seeing lines of blue French soldiers squaring off against red-coated British. The highly visual element of C&CN is a great part of the charm of the entire series—the game simply looks good, is easy to learn, plays with just enough theme, and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.

Wellesley’s view at Rolica. Easy to see at least one line unit certainly needs to redress itself!

First Play – Battle of Rolica, Aug 17, 1808

Battle of Rolica (French First Position) at Set Up

In my Battle of Rolica, Wellesley got off to a slow start with only his left flank advancing (all the Command Cards initially were for the left!). However, aggressive action by a lone French Hussars (Light Cavalry) unit forced the British infantry into squares that slowed the advance buying time for French infantry to arrive. In a series of devastating melee actions the British infantry collapsed. Wellesley was furious because his leader on that flank, Fergusson, hung back behind the lines and therefore was unable to rally the infantry to stand. Even a desperate charge by British Dragoons (Heavy Cavalry) to seize the initiative was repulsed when the French Foot Artillery got a First Strike (battle first when attacked) and used canister at point-blank range to mow down the hapless riders. Apparently unable to get a courier through with orders (again, no Command Cards for that flank), Wellesley watched his left flank disintegrate with only a lone Foot Artillery unit left to halt any French advance (bolstered by Fergusson—finally).

French right flank – British advance evaporates

As Wellesley watched his left flank disappear, he took some solace in watching his Portuguese allies on the right finally advance. They actually made it parallel to the French main line before a foray by two French line infantry units struck out. Again, the Gods of War (and Luck?) smiled on the French who drove the Portuguese back to their starting positions. As night feel, Delaborde held the field, but Wellesley had a strong center that might make the next days battle interesting.

Delaborde looks on as his infantry drives the Portuguese back on his far left, but Wellesley is in a strong position in front of him….

At this point the battle ended with the French having gained the requisite five Victory Banners to win. My Battle of Rolica was a classic Commands & Colors game with Wellesley never seemingly having the right “cards in his hand” and being frustrated commanding his forces. Delaborde started out with a “poor hand” but was able to order units at just the right moment to arrest any British advances. His right flank far exceeded all expectations and seemingly couldn’t be stopped. Along the way I got to play all the new Napoleonic-era rules of Cavalry Retire and Reform, Infantry Squares, and Combined Arms. It felt grand and epic like one imagines a Napoleonic battle to be.

I’ve already gone ahead and placed P500 orders on GMT Games for what else is in production for Commands & Colors Napoleonics. I will be checking my favorite FLGS and online retailers to see if I can get some expansions at a fair price.

#Wargame Wednesday – Battle of Quatre Bras, June 16, 2021?

Today is the 206th anniversary of the Battle of Quatre Bras, so it is fitting that my Game of the Week on the table right now is Commands & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games, 2019). I played the Quatre Bras scenario and boy, did it live up my expectations.

First, this is a grand battle with a full compliment of troops deployed on both sides. One needs nine (9) Victory Banners to win which means this scenario is also one of the longer ones published in the game.

Ney looks on at Quatre Bras in Commands & Colors Napoleonics

My play of Commands & Color Napoleonics featured several moments that make a wargame memorable. Like early in the battle when the French right led by Bachelu pushed ahead but ran headlong into British rifle troops under Picton. The hazards of leading from the front were clearly demonstrated here with Bachelu falling in nearly the first volley of the battle.

(In Commands & Colors Napoleonics, when a unit with a leader is attacked and a hit is scored a second roll is required to determine a Leader Casualty. The roll requires “crossed sabers” on two dice—a 1-in-36 chance. Guess what happened here….)

Bachelu falls in battle….

Neither Ney or Wellington seemed able to get their center moving and the battle switched from left to right and back again. The French took the low hills on the right only to be thrown off, and on the left the British allied troops surged ahead. It took Kellerman and his French cuiarassier’s to push them back, and once they got started even infantry in squares seemed unable to stop them. By the end of the day Ney had ejected Wellington from the battlefield and was close to securing the crossroads.

Ney pushes Wellington from Quatre Bras

As big as this Commands & Colors Napoleonics scenario was it still played in less than 90 minutes. Next, on to Waterloo!


Feature image courtesy britishbattles.com.

#Wargame Wednesday – Chasing the elusive in Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 by designer Jeremy (Jerry) White from GMT Games (2020) is an interesting beast. The game has generated buzz within wargaming circles, in no small part because of the very different design and approach taken in writing the rules and tutorial for the game. Reading some comments, one might be tempted to believe that Atlantic Chase is akin to the second coming of sliced bread. To me, when evaluating any game it is important to separate the package and the game system. While the package of Atlantic Fleet is in many ways innovative and could be an example of the future for wargame rules writing, the system itself has one major feature (hidden information in the open) that it executes extremely well but otherwise it is actually a quite narrowly focused wargame.

USPS Broke Their Back Delivering Your Box Today….

My very first impression of Atlantic Chase was “wow, that’s a big game.” It formed from simply carrying and opening the box. GMT Games warned us that this would be a heavy box with a 4.0 lbs. shipping weight and they weren’t kidding! When one opens the 3″ deep box you are immediately faced with a very tightly boxed set of components. As one starts unpacking you find:

  • Rule Book (64 pages)
  • Tutorial book (56 pages)
  • Advanced Battle Rules (24 pages)
  • Solitaire Scenarios (15x over 72 pages)
  • Two-Player Scenarios (9x Operational, 12x Mini, and a Campaign Game over 60 pages)
  • Inset Maps (2)
  • Player Aids (x5)
  • Task Force Displays (x2)
  • 1.5 Sheets of Counters
  • Mounted 22″x34″ Game Board
  • Wooden Bits and Dice
  • GMT Box Insert

At the time of writing this post, Atlantic Chase retails for $69 on the GMT Games website. That’s a very reasonable price for all the components one gets in the box.

Of Gucci Interrogatives – Rules and Tutorial

Opening up the Rule Book for Atlantic Chase one immediately sees that it is different. This is not just another wargame with the classic SPI format of rules (1.0 / 1.1 / 1.11 / etc.). Instead of those classic wargame rule walls of text, Atlantic Chase uses a very hobby boardgame, graphics-heavy approach to the rules with extensive use of color, illustrations, and symbology. In most cases, the rules are laid out with step-by-step examples following. It is a very “Gucci”-looking set of rules printed on glossy paper.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is also written in a very different manner which I call “Interrogative Rules.” Every rule starts off with a question such as, “How do we play?” or “Can the Target TF be a Station?” This is a much friendlier approach to teaching rules than a wall of text. That said, though the layout of the rules seems quite intuitive and the question-answer approach is friendly enough the rules as written are complex. I ran several examples of rules text through different readability checkers and all came back with at least college-level or expert reading levels required. For comparison, I ran some text from the Learn to Play guide from Root (Leder Games). That text, written in a very boardgame conversational style, scored “fairly easy to read” and Grade 8.

The Rule Book for Atlantic Chase is divided into six broad sections – Introduction, Concepts, Actions, Common Modifiers, Common Results, Battle, and Optional Rules. Of the sections, Concepts and Actions are by far the most important and learning how to execute game Concepts through game Actions is the heart of the Atlantic Chase game design.

Although each broad section in Atlantic Chase is a logical follow-on to the previous one, the 64-page Rule Book actually just lays out the rules and doesn’t “teach” you how to play the game. For that you need the 56-page Tutorial book. The designer even tells us that the Tutorial book is where the learning is at for both “Newbie” or “Salty Grognard:”

NEWBIE If you are entirely new to wargaming you should start with the Tutorial book. The player aid will also help untangle the knot of Atlantic Chase.

SALTY GROGNARD If you are an experienced wargamer but new to Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory system and its implications may prove elusive at first. The episodes in the Tutorial book are miniature scenarios intended to explain not only the rules of play but also how you use those rules to achieve operational objectives. Each episode is also rendered in entirety as an illustrated example of play (which is why it is so long). Start there.

Rule Book, Atlantic Chase, Introduction, p. 1

So I did what the designer recommended and laid out Atlantic Chase starting with the Tutorial scenarios. There are 10 “mini-scenarios” presented. For each scenario the player is directed to read certain pages of the Rule Book. In many ways, in Atlantic Chase designer Jerry White is using a version of the classic “programmed learning” approach to wargames. The major difference in this 2020 version of programmed learning is that GMT Games spreads the “rules” and “tutorial” over 120 pages and two books with liberal use of those “Gucci” graphics..

For instance, in Atlantic Chase tutorial scenario “T1: Old Chums,” the player is directed to, read pages 14-16, 19, 20 (Ignore Intel Limit), 25, 35, and 36. Not stated, this equates to the rules for:

  • Station and Trajectory
  • Time Lapse
  • Action Sequence
  • Pass

In effect, each scenario (sorry, episode in the Tutorial book) of Atlantic Chase introduces a combination of Concepts and Actions. Only after finishing all 10 tutorial episodes did I see the Episode Index on the last page of the Tutorial book that highlighted the key Action rule introduced in each episode. I wish Jerry had put this index up front and added in the key Concepts used in episode order as it helped me to internalize the Actions introduced (albeit after the fact and after I rearranged it).

The net result of this very hands-on programmed approach in Atlantic Chase of playing each of the ten episodes (the last one being a “culmination” episode bringing all the previous Concepts/Actions together) means that learning the game takes some real time. While some of the early episodes are quick and easy, as you get to later episodes (and especially the culmination episode) each takes more time. For a “Salty Grognard” like me the 10 episodes of reading, playing, and internalizing the Concepts/Actions took several hours to complete; for a Newbie there is likely even more time required. So be warned—learning Atlantic Chase is not something that happens in a single sitting.

One also needs to be organized when playing Atlantic Chase. It’s not there are too many counters, but all those fiddly little matchstick Trajectory Markers need to be organized. Here I wish GMT Games had “banded” the sticks because when you have sticks for four different tan Task Forces and each are marked on one side only with none, one, two, or three bands its’s not something you casually have in a pile on the side of the board. You need to have them sorted and ready to grab or put away. The same goes for the various different counters used as some (Active TF, Coordinating TF, Intel) are put on and taken off the board often.

Learning Atlantic Chase – More Space and Time Than Expected

The Chase in Atlantic Chase

In the Design Notes to Atlantic Chase, Jerry White relates that when he first approached GMT with the game, the question most often asked was, “Is this a U-Boat game?” His response, “This is a Sink the Bismarck game!”, only earned him the response, “So, there’s gonna be U-Boats?” Which is sad in a way because once Jerry said “Sink the Bismarck” then people should have known this is a game of surface combatants searching the wide open oceans for one another. U-Boats had a part, much like carrier and land-based air did, but at it’s heart Atlantic Chase, like the entire Sink the Bismarck event, is a chase. That chase is the focus of the game system; it’s telling that in the 64-page Rule Book the Battle rules take only eight (8) pages.

Hidden Information in the Open (aka ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’)

When designing Atlantic Chase, Jerry White, like so many designers before him, faced the problem of hidden information. How does one player “hide” from another player on a mapboard placed in front of them. More concerning, how does one “hide” information from oneself in a solitaire game? In the classic Avalon Hill second edition of Jack Greene’s Bismarck (Avalon Hill, 1978) the players use separate map plots and a modified “A4 – Hit; Hey, you sunk my battleship!” search methodology (calling out coordinates) but the best experience is to use a third-party (referee) that adjudicates search plans and handles sightings. Alas, that methodology will not work in a solo game. Instead, Jerry White uses a Trajectory—the core concept of Atlantic Chase:

The core concept of the game is the Trajectory.

What is a “Trajectory?”

A ship or group of ships operating together, called a Task Force in this game, can be represented as a line, called a Trajectory. It can also be represented more conventionally as a point, in this game called a “Station.” As a Trajectory, a Task Force is not in one place on the Operations Map, it is somewhere along a line, and that line represents information you and your opponent have about the Task Force’s location.

“Core Concept,” Rule Book – Atlantic Chase, p. 3

In Atlantic Chase, the Trajectory is used to present hidden information in the open. As a matter of fact, in Atlantic Chase the players have no other hidden information as even Task Force Displays are visible. Through game Actions, players manipulate a Trajectory to either move a Task Force (maybe a convoy) across the board while the other player/side tries to “reduce the uncertainty” and transform a Trajectory into a Station that they can Engage in Battle.

A British Task Force of 2x CA (upper right), currently a Station (brown cylinder NE of Scapa Flow), lies in wait for the German Slow Convoy (lower right) that is traveling from Narvik to Wilhemshaven somewhere along the white Trajectory….

Once you get your head wrapped around the notion that your Task Force is somewhere along your Trajectory, and recognize that your goal is to either “advance” your Trajectory or “narrow down” your opponent’s, then the genius of the Atlantic Chase design will come through.

But the Bismarck is So Much Better!

But be warned—Atlantic Chase is an operational-level of wargame of Task Forces searching for or evading one another. The real truth is Atlantic Chase is more an “information game” than a “battle game.” Sure, you can, and sometimes will, fight battles but more importantly you are trying to “narrow down” and locate and track an enemy Task Force. This is not a tactical battle game even if one adds the chrome Advanced Battle Rules. Atlantic Chase is firmly a “design for effect” wargame as it places abstraction over simulation. Coming from a guy like me, a lover of Admiralty Trilogy games which are far less abstract, one might think I would hold this out as a negative of Atlantic Chase. In this case the opposite is true; I find the battle rules in Atlantic Chase just about right and am even wary of using the Advanced Battle Rules because they are maybe a bit too much extra chrome (and added time) that distract from the core game design concept – that information game found in the Trajectory.

An Experience Game

I usually don’t pay attention to comments posted about a game on BoardGameGeek but this comment, by “pilotofficerprune” (aka wargame designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood of Wing Leader) caught my attention because it says what was nagging me about Atlantic Chase:

An intriguing semi-abstract design on cruiser operations in the North Sea and Atlantic. It’s novel and the tutorials are necessary to understand the game. With dice playing a major role it generates strong narratives, but essentially this is an ‘experience game’ that gives a flavour of the subject matter but is low on decision points and ludicity. Catnip to me, but players who like balance and frequent decision-making will be disappointed.

pilotofficerprune, Atlantic Chase rating on BGG

What we have in Atlantic Chase is a wargame with a very nice looking (“Gucci”) and innovative package using a novel approach to rules layout. Although many will point to the tutorials and talk about the “new way of teaching a game” the reality is that it is a modernized version of programmed learning—and it takes alot of time to learn. The game system of Atlantic Chase is the most interesting part of the design in that designer Jerry White has found a very innovative way of keeping hidden information in the open. Atlantic Chase is certainly a game that many Newbies or Salty Grognards should experience, but don’t go into it looking for something much deeper. Atlantic Chase is, at heart, an information game but little more; wargamers looking for deeper decisions may be disappointed once they get past being dazzled by the Gucci packaging.

At the end of the day, I’d tell a wargamer that they absolutely should experience Atlantic Chase. Experience it for the incredible graphical approach to wargame rules. Experience it for the modern programmed learning approach. Experience it to discover a game system that keeps hidden information in the open. Once learned (which will take a while) game play will very likely be a great experience—as long as you don’t look for too deep a game.

#Wargame Wednesday – Harpoon Captain’s Edition (GDW, 1990) – Entertaining, Educating, and Training?

Thank to @Ardwulf for parting with this item. Ardie…you let your fear of Harpoon get the best of you here because this is NOT a complicated near-simulation like Harpoon purports to be….

In the late 1980’s I was, in many ways, a hard-core wargamer. I relished playing complex wargames. I was a Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) fanatic and when the then-new Star Fleet Battles Captain’s Edition Basic Set released in 1900 I grabbed it up. For air combat games I enjoyed the Fighting Wings series from JD Webster, in particular his modern Air Superiority title from GDW in 1987. For naval combat I was all about Harpoon. I started out with the Adventure Games edition of Harpoon II in 1983 and in 1987 jumped to the new GDW edition informally called Harpoon III but more simply known as Harpoon.

In 1989 I finished college and joined the US Navy. Between training, something called DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, and a few years stationed overseas my first few years of the 1990’s were taken up by concerns other than wargaming. So the truth to the matter is I missed Harpoon Captain’s Edition when it was first released in 1990.

By the mid-1990’s the Soviet Union had fallen and was already a fading memory. I vaguely remember browsing through a game store (Compleat Strategist in Virginia?) and looking at Harpoon Captain’s Edition: Exciting Modern Naval Battle Game. To be honest, a wargame about the Cold War Gone Hot in the North Atlantic at that time seemed so quaint. Furthermore, the game didn’t even look like Harpoon. I mean, the box art looked like the Harpoon series but when the cover also says “Easy to Learn – Fun to Play” and “Start Playing in 30 Minutes,” well, that was just NOT the real Harpoon I wanted to play!

Battle Stations!

Welcome to the arena of modern naval combat! In this game you will become a naval commander, in charge of guided-missile ships, nuclear submarines, and jet aircraft. While warfare between naval vessels and aircraft can be a complicated and technical business, the critical tactical decisions are made by captains and admirals who do not generally study a radar or sonar display themselves. They receive the distilled results of all the technical, data-gathering assets at their disposal and make decisions accordingly.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition provides a clear and concise description of modern naval warfare. The game places you int he same position as a ship’s captain or the admiral commanding a task force. Many details have been kept out of the game to allow the players to concentrate on command decisions, but the overall capabilities of various sensors and weapon systems are still presented accurately.

START HERE

To make it easy to learn the rules, they are broken up into separate sections. Each section begins with a description of one aspect of modern naval warfare. Section one covers surface naval vessels; section two covers detection of enemy vessels; section three deals with submarines; an sections four and five add aircraft to the game. In each section, specific rules are presented that translate that aspect of warfare into game terms. After several rules have been presented, you will be directed to play a scenario which uses and illustrates those rules.

The scenarios themselves are all contained in the Captain’s Briefing. Each scenario lists all the information necessary for play, such as forces available to each side and starting positions. The Captain’s Briefing also includes discussions of various modern weapon systems and a number of advanced rules.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Rule Book p. 1

The above is pulled from the beginning of the rule book and pretty much tell you everything about the game. Harpoon Captain’s Edition is a relatively low complexity wargame that’s supposed to be simple to learn and fun to play. It’s also supposed to teach, as designer Larry Bond tells us:

The Captain’s Edition of Harpoon is supposed to be fast, simple, fun to play, and it is all of those things. But it also includes all the fundamental principles of modern naval warfare, so as you play, you can learn a great deal about how ships, subs and aircraft fight today.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition, Designer’s Notes

So how well does Harpoon Captain’s Edition actually live up to what Mr. Bond claims?

A Training Aid for Education?

Harpoon Captain’s Edition packs alot into what is actually a relatively small package. The 17″x22″ map covers the G-I-UK Gap and nearby seas using 1″ hexes. There are 300 counters though most are markers and will not regularly be used on the map. The rules and briefing books are each 16 pages. All the ships and aircraft appear on 54 cards. Each player is also given a card for keeping track of bases and a combat reference chart to keep behind a screen so the other player cannot see your allocations. There is a roster pad to keep track of hits and ammo expenditure. There are also ten little plastic aircraft that don’t look like any kind of maritime patrol aircraft active in the US or Soviet inventory (but they were probably cheap to put in the box). In many ways this wargame looks like a training aid packaged for a ship’s wardroom.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition – Out of the Box

Basic Game

The programmed learning approach uses 15 scenarios:

  • Scenarios 1 & 2 use Surface Ships and Surface to Surface Missiles
  • Scenario 3 adds Naval Gunfire
  • Scenario 4 adds Detection
  • Scenario 5 adds Dummy Units
  • Scenarios 6/7/8 adds Submarines
  • Scenarios 9/10/11/12 adds Patrol Aircraft
  • Scenarios 13/14/15 adds Tactical Aircraft

The first few scenarios play very fast…20 minutes or less in some cases. The later, more complex scenarios going on for as long as 21 turns (7 days), can take up to 2 hours to play. I actually played through all 15 scenarios (plus one Advanced Scenario) in a dual-hatted solo mode in about six hours of actual play time.

Each turn is very simple in execution. Players begin by assigning their ships or submarines to Task Forces. Each Task Force moves when their movement chit is drawn during the turn. At that point, the player decides on a speed and radar status. While moving, Task Forces can be attacked (if detected).

In surface to surface missile (SSM) combat, defenders use long range SAMs, short range SAMS, and point defense weapons to defend in layers. The game mechanics emphasize the need to “rollback” defenses; indeed, the whole idea of “Rollback” is given a major sidebar discussion on page 7.

Submarines are treated much like surface ships except of course you use Sonar to detect them and ASW to attack. Submarines can attack using SSM or torpedoes.

Patrol aircraft remain on the map continuously but move when their chit is pulled. They are most useful for detection though they also have an attack capability.

Tactical aircraft are weapons that are fired when needed; they do not have a movement chit. Tactical aircraft do have a radius (or range) from their base. When attacked, aircraft may be aborted or even shot down by defenses. Unlike ships or submarines, aircraft have no ammo limits. Fighters can also be assigned different missions like Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which acts as a “fourth layer” of defense. However, if not enough fighters are available they might only be able to act as Deck Launched Interceptors which still attack but at the same time as the long range SAMs.

Combat factors represent the number of d6 rolled. The simple Game Reference Chart tells you the results.

Fast, Simple, Fun

Here is how my first combat in Scenario 3 played out. A US Task Force consisting of a single Arleigh Burke destroyer and two O.H. Perry frigates each screening a single merchant ship had to travel from Scotland to Keflavik, Iceland. Opposing their transit is a Soviet Task Force consisting of a single Sovremennyy destroyer and two Krivak-class frigates. The US Task Force moves under EMCON (EMissions CONtrol – radars off). To avoid being struck at range the Soviets also move in EMCON. The result is both task forces meet in the same hex (60 miles across) just off the Faroe Islands.

The Soviets move first and enter the same hex as the American Task Force. The visual search needs a 1-2 to detect the Americans…and they do. The Soviets initiate the attack with 8 factors of SSM from the Sovremennyy allocating 4 SSM to each merchant.

  • Long Range SAM Fire: The US Arleigh Burke defends the entire Task Force with 10 factors of Long Range SAM. That’s 10d6 with 1-3 a miss, 4-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The roll is below average with only 4 hits…4 SSM (2 against each merchant) continue inbound.
  • Short Range SAM Fire: Each OH Perry has a single SSM they can use to defend themselves or the ship they are screening. The first Perry misses, the second downs a single inbound SSM.
  • Point Defense: Although all the US warships have point defense weapons, they can only be used to defend their own ship and not another.
  • Merchant Attack 1: Two Soviet SSM attack; each rolls 1d6 with 1-2 Miss, 3-5 a single hit, and 6 a double hit. The rolls are 3 and 6 – three hits which sinks the merchant.
  • Merchant Attack 2: A single SSM attacks. A roll of 6 (!) is a double hit which cripples the merchant; at 2/3 damage the merchant is reduced to a speed of 1 (sitting duck).

Advanced…Not Really

The Advanced Rules in Harpoon Captain’s Edition are actually very few. Each adds a bit of chrome but with minimal rules overhead. The real gem of the Harpoon Captain’s Edition design is the Advanced Scenarios. In an advance scenario, players randomly draw a Mission Chit that assigns them one of nine missions. Each Mission provides some background, the objective for the player, and a “mission budget” to buy forces. Each “asset point” can buy one flight of four aircraft or purchase ships based on their hull value (usually 1-2 points). Some ships are High-Cost (like the Kirov or Arleigh Burke classes which costs double. Here was the first random match up I played:

  • NATO Mission 6 – “Major surface forces will be entering the North Sea soon to conduct operations against Severomorsk. Your mission is to prepare the way by engaging and destroying enemy naval and aviation assets. Objective: Destroy at least six asset points worth of enemy forces, and destroy at least two more enemy asset points that you lose yourself. In addition, prevent the Soviets from achieving their objective. Force: 25 points.”
  • Soviet Mission 8 – “The war is going against the Soviet Union, and morale is sagging. An important and visible victory is required to boost the morale of troops in all theaters. Objective: Destroy the runway at Leuchars airfield or sink either the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz or [battleship] Iowa. Force: 30 points.”

An Entertaining, Educating, Training War Engine

Harpoon Captain’s Edition is definitely FAST to play. Some of the programmed scenarios are actually too fast. The real “test” of the design is the advanced scenarios that pit mission vs. mission. If the players both draw “large” missions the game will likely go the full two-hour advertised length. More realistically, the potential asymmetric match-up can lead to an “early” win. That’s not a negative for the game can be easily reset for another match!

While I initially shied away from Harpoon Captain’s Edition because I though the rules were too SIMPLE, what I discovered is actually a wargame of modern naval warfare in a design distilled into its essence. For designer’s who built their reputation on the accuracy of datasets and “realism” in how they interact, this distilled version of Harpoon is actually quite refreshing. Playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition also drove me back to rereading Dance of the Vampires (GDW) which details the scenarios designer Larry Bond and author Tom Clancy used in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising novel in 1985. I can’t help but feel some of the simplifications Bond talks about in Dance of the Vampires made their way into Harpoon Captain’s Edition.

Dance of the Vampires courtesy ATG

Quite simply put, Harpoon Captain’s Edition is FUN to play. The game also teaches without preaching. Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about modern naval warfare tactics, I found myself applying them almost without thinking because it was the “natural” choice to make in the game. Sure, I need to sink the merchants, but first I’ll rollback some defenders before saturating the defenses with a massive SSM strike. That is, after I use my Patrol Aircraft to detect which task force is real and which is a dummy. All while avoiding the dreaded Tomcat fighters and delivering a massive Backfire bomber raid.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition is “fast, simple, fun to play” just like Mr. Bond said. That’s because it is a well-designed War Engine of modern naval warfare. The programmed training teaches you the engine in easy to bite bits. After you learn, the real challenge comes from taking on different missions, never being sure what your opponent’s mission is. That’s 81 possible mission sets but a near-infinite set of possible scenarios since each side gets to buy their forces. Even though some asymmetric match-ups are possible, the emphasis on tactics over the reputation of a weapon system leads to a balanced game. In the 16 games I played (split-personality solo) the net result was 8 American wins and 8 Soviet wins.

The combination of entertaining play and education actually places Harpoon Captain’s Edition in an interesting space of the wargame hobby. As Colonels Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks and fellow author Fred Cameron tell us in The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020), wargames come in four basic types; Entertainment, Educational, Training, and Analytic. Harpoon Captain’s Edition appears to be derived from a Training game for the US Navy designed to Educate about the fundamentals of modern naval warfare that GDW was able to send to the commercial wargame market for Entertainment. The fact that it can be used to Train or Entertain while still Educating is an impressive bit of wargame design.

Given my recent readings on the modern Chinese Navy, I have to wonder if there is potential for an updated, 21st century version Harpoon Captain’s Edition but using the PLA Navy instead of the Soviets. After all, the fundamentals of naval warfare are constant, even if technology is challenging how some of them are applied.

It took me 30 years to get my copy of Harpoon Captain’s Edition. I’m very happy because I discovered that it is far from the quaint design I expected.

#Wargame Wednesday – First Impressions of Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (@Hollandspiele, 2021)

For the longest time I have been a naval wargamer. It goes back to my early days of wargaming with titles like Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967 though I own the 1974 Second Edition) and Flat Top (Battleline First Edition, 1977) as well as my Harpoon series of games from Admiralty Trilogy Games. So when I saw that Hollandspiele was publishing a game that covers the naval conflict in the Pacific at the start of World War I it was an auto-buy for me. Now that Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele, 2021) has landed on my gaming table what do I really think about it?

Spoiler Alert: I like it but the message is mixed….

The Telescoping Game

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (hereafter simply Empire at Sunrise) is designed by John Gorkowski and illustrated by Jose R. Faura. The ad copy for Empire at Sunrise claims it, “depicts the struggle for control of Pacific sea lanes during the opening months of World War I.”

Well, not exactly. I mean, “Yes, but….”

Although the naval struggles makes up a large portion of Empire at Sunrise, there is also the land battle around Tsingtao (all the placenames are drawn from the period). Thus, the game becomes one that is more about the downfall of the Pacific Empire of Imperial Germany as they struggle to defend their possessions in the Far East in the opening weeks of World War I than simply a “struggle for control of the Pacific sea lanes.”

To deliver this Pacific-wide view of the conflict, Empire at Sunrise uses three different “telescoping scales.” The game is played across three maps that depict, “the area around Tsingtao at six miles per hex, the fight over the Asian Pacific at 240 miles per hex, and the entire Pacific Ocean at 1440 miles per zone.” Game turns are weekly and the 19 game turns represent the time from August through December 1914. Both land and naval units are depicted.

Three Maps, Two Games?

At first glance, Empire at Sunrise looks like it is actually two games in one; a land combat game centered on Tsingtao played on the Kiautschou Insert – KI map and a second naval game played out on the Asia Pacific Map (APM) and Pacific Chart (PC). The three-map telescoping design of Empire at Sunrise creates two immediate design challenges: First is a mechanical challenge to ensure the game “flows” between the three maps and the second is to depict the impact of the wide ranging conflict that spans both land and sea yet connects them in a manner that creates a set of meaningful decision points for the players.

Mechanically, the solution to the flow between the maps is very simple with easy to understand movement rules and only minor changes to combat. The solution to the second challenge is just as simple – Victory Conditions.

Keep Your Eye on the Target

A close study of the Victory Conditions in Empire at Sunrise shows that it creates both tension and hard decisions for each player throughout the game. Victory Points (VP) are scored both during and at the end of the game. During game play, the Germans score VP for:

  • +3 if the Australian Troop Convoy is Delayed or Destroyed (but it doesn’t enter until Turn 12)
  • +1 per Allied (“Anglo-Japanese Alliance – AJA”) Land Unit step Eliminated
  • +1 per AJA Naval Unit Destroyed
  • +1 if the British call any or all of their Atlantic Units into play
  • +1 per successful Commerce Raid (limit one per Turn)
  • +1 for each step of Naval Units in PC Zone F11 (enroute to the Falklands)

At the end of the game the AJA score VP as follows:

  • -5 if they control Tsingtao
  • -3 if NeuPommern controlled
  • -2 if Samoa controlled
  • -1 for each of the German possessions at Ladrone, Lamotrek, Palau, Yap, Truk or Wolea controlled

If the VP score is negative the AJA wins otherwise Germany wins. The maximum score for the AJA is 16 points meaning if the German scores 16 VP or more they will automatically win.

Hopefully you can see the immediate conflict in objectives for each player in Empire at Sunrise. For Germany to win they need to try to maintain their possessions but if they can’t (and given their lack of Land Units they almost certainly can’t) then they need to resort to naval warfare to gain VP by sinking enemy ships while not getting sunk and raiding commerce while at the same time they are trying to escape. Also, the most “valuable” German possession is also the one furthest from where the naval squadrons need to go to get points. On the other hand, the AJA player needs to grab possessions but also avoid losing too many ships as they hunt down the German fleet units.

Put together, what may be the greatest challenge in Empire at Sunrise is for player to manage their time. The Germans need to hang onto possessions as long as possible and sell them dearly but avoid becoming bogged down or cut off from escape. They need to take advantage of the turns before the Japanese enter to score a reserve of VP. They need to get to Cape Horn on the eastern Pacific but it may be worthwhile to also be near Australia when the troop convoy sails. For the AJA player seizing the German Pacific possessions is easy but it takes time; time to move on the Pacific Chart and time to actually take a possession. At 19 turns Empire at Sunrise looks like a long game but once you start playing you quickly discover that time is precious and never enough. The game is full of tensions that forces players to tie their play of both the land and naval game together and not bi-furcate their efforts by weighing one too heavily at the expense of the other.

New Age of Warfare? Hardly….

The rules for Empire at Sunrise are what I describe as “simply complex.” The rules mechanically are easy to learn and simple to play but the strategy you need to execute with those rules is a whole other level of complexity.

Take for example Naval Movement in Empire at Sunrise. Naval Movement is different on the three maps but moving from one map to another follows a very simple set of rules. The most important aspect of Naval Movement is actually Naval Interception. Phasing Units (i.e. on your turn) need to be in the same hex on the APM or zone on the PC to intercept. However, when you are the non-Phasing Player you can try to intercept a moving group of enemy ships every time it enters a new hex or zone if you already have ships there. As simple as that sounds it creates a wonderful tension as it behooves the German player to “escape” from the APM where they risk intercept every hex into the larger PC where they chance intercept only once on during their opponent’s turn (unless they enter a zone with enemy ships during their own turn).

Naval Combat in Empire at Sunrise is also simple but not what many longtime naval Grognards may expect. Here ships are not rated simply for “weight of fire” like so many ships of the day were judged, but instead ships with longer ranged, heavier batteries get to fire first. Thus, the Japanese 3-10-7 (Firepower – Resilience – Movement) Kongo BC fires first and damage is assessed before the British 2-9-7 Good Hope CA can return fire. Combat itself is very simple – roll 2d6 and beat the target’s Resilience with each hit causing a step loss. If you score a hit and roll doubles while you’re at it that scores two hits and sinks the enemy ship outright.

[This event specifically lead to one of the more spectacular moments in my first game. While destroyers are below the level of detail depicted by naval units, designer John Gorkowski put the German S90 Destroyer in the game since it historically scored a luck torpedo kill on the Japanese coastal defense ship Takachiho. In my game, S90 was trying to break out of Tsingtao just as the fortress was falling but was intercepted by a British Task Force led by the British pre-dreadnought HMS Triumph. The S-90, rated 4*-7-8 (the * means torpedoes only against ships) took on the 2-9-6 Triumph and, being rated 4, fired first. In order to score a hit a 10, 11, or 12 on 2d6 was required. Sure enough, S90 rolled “double boxcars” and not only got a hit, but the lucky two hits that sunk Triumph outright. To add insult to injury, none of the other ships in the British Task Force proved capable of hitting the elusive S90 and it escaped to live another day. Speak about a real narrative moment!]

Commerce Raiding in Empire at Sunrise is another deliciously simple rule that has an outsized impact on a players strategy. The rule is very simple; at the end of movement if a German Naval Unit is south of the Tropic of Cancer it can roll to destroy commerce. Each ship rolls 2d6 and ADDS the number of movement points expended in the turn; if the result is 16 or greater than 1 VP is scored (limited to once per turn). Thus, it again behooves the AJA player to hunt down every German naval unit and don’t give away free points.

The land battles in Empire at Sunrise are just as simple. Counter density is very low so stacking rarely becomes an issue. There are no zone of control rules; to attack one just needs to be adjacent. Seeing as this was the era of defensive supremacy it should come as no surprise that the few rules for trenches or Fortifications heavily favor the defender. The Japanese player does have Siege Artillery which destroys trenches and Fortifications but it is slow moving and takes time to relocate. Thus, the “Battle of Tsingtao” plays out much like one expects a World War I battle should – slow and cumbersome with strong defenses being difficult to dislodge.

An Untold Story

The most educational aspect of Empire at Sunrise is admittedly what the designer does not include. Empire at Sunrise, like it’s name tells us, shows the huge contribution that Imperial Japan made towards the defeat of Imperial Germany. Try playing this game without the Japanese forces and see what happens. The designer makes no explicit statement about the affects of Japanese contribution after the war; the players are given the game’s title and then left to discover it for themselves outside the game. For me, a wargamer who has battled back and forth across the Pacific of the 1940’s (and occasionally the 1920’s or 30’s), the geography was familiar but the situation was much different.

In many ways, Empire at Sunrise is a a good “bookend” game to use to see the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy across the Pacific. Then place it against Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977) to see the other “bookend,” or downfall of the Imperial Japanese Empire across the Pacific. Together they make a good story.