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 184.108.40.206) 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 (220.127.116.11.2), 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.
Many classic definitions of a wargame include some sort of a map. It’s not a hard and fast requirement these day with different game mechanisms, like the “tableau” wargame Tank Duel: Enemy in Crosshairs by Mike Bertucelli from GMT Games (2020). As I follow the War in Ukraine, the wargamer in me wonders about how I could depict parts of the battle. To do so I will need a map. So I started looking at the different ones out there.
Before I get into the Ukraine war maps, let’s review some wargame map basics. First, not all wargame maps are the same (duh!). Broadly speaking, I group wargame maps into several categories:
Map Board: The mapboard uses a mapping coordinate system like a real map (Ranger, Omega Games)
Hex Map: A hexgrid (or alternatively a square grid) is laid over the mapboard to regulate movement and combat (Advanced Squad Leader, Multi-Man Publishing)
Area Map: The map is divided into areas (Victory in the Pacific, Avalon Hill)
Point-to-Point Map: The map is a series of connected points or areas (Waterloo, Avalon Hill)
So, which style of map is useful for a wargame of the War in the Ukraine?
Mapping the Ukraine War
Many of the maps I see on social media are broad overviews of the fighting. As such, they tend to be small-scale (large area) with varying degrees of detail. If anything, most seem to be using an area map approach.
The UK MoD map is a broad overview of the fighting with likely lines of advance shown. It also uses what I call “creeping red areas” to show the area the Russian Army supposedly controls. The detail provided on Russian forces is extremely broad.
The official French map is a little different and focuses on the area the Russian Forces have occupied since the beginning of the war, but forces are excluded.
The open source intelligence (OSINT) community on social media is also tracking the war. @war_mapper delivers maps that show the pre-war occupied areas and the areas occupied since the start of the war. Interestingly, the illustrator doesn’t only use filled in areas, but shows a combination of “lines of advance” and “occupied areas” in a kind of combination area and point-to-point map.
Still others try to capture the seemingly different war going on in the Ukraine. @Nrg8000 produces two maps, one of which focuses on routes the Russian Army has advanced on using a very point-to-point map approach.
The second map from @Nrg8000 is a carefully labeled map showing the “furthest extent of Russian troop movements.” This wording seems to out of the way to not ascribe control of an area to the Russian forces.
Others try to capture the offensive/defensive thrusts and helpfully bring in some data from beyond the Ukrainian border.
Think tanks also are following the war. The daily map from the Institute for the Study of War is one of the more comprehensive. From a wargaming perspective, at least some force are annotated on the map. It also uses two concepts for area control; assessed versus claimed. The ISW has also been very open about how they are mapping the conflict.
If you have served in the military you very likely have heard of the Common Operating Picture, or COP. Twitter user Jomini of the West (@JominiW) produces a daily map that is the closest to a COP I have seen out there. From a pure conflict wargamer perspective this one might be the most “familiar” given the force laydowns depicted.
Zones of Control
Before we go further into maps I think it’s important to talk about another wargame concept that is highly relevant to a discussion of maps.One of the oldest concepts in wargames are Zones of Control (ZoC). In many classic wargame rules, a unit projects a ZoC into the six hexes around it. This usually represents recon and screening elements as well as organic artillery or other fires the unit posses that makes movement through the area around, but not occupied by the center of mass for the unit, become challenged.
In the Ukraine War, the ZoC concept may not be an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. While there is most assuredly some form of Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) or a Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA), if there is one thing the Ukraine War has shown is that the Ukrainian forces excel at striking into Russian rear areas. In wargame terms, Ukrainian forces often operate (quite freely) within the ZoC of Russian Army units. So how do you depict this in a wargame? It’s almost as though you need a hex map for the FLOT, an area map for the operational scale, and a point-to-point map for the supply and reinforcement phases.
The War in the Ukraine highlights to wargamers the challenge of what to map.
Hex Map: PRO: Good for depictions of weapon interactions. CON: At smaller scale (larger area) a greater degree of abstraction is required. The easiest map to integrate with ZoC.
Area Map: PRO: Can cover larger area. CON: Greater degree of abstraction; individual units cannot depict a ZoC.
Point-to-Point Map: PRO: Excellent for portraying lines of communications and key hubs. CON: Almost no integration with ZoC and unable to show “off-road” movement between points.
Tactical Battles: Tactical battles tend to focus on the interaction of weapon systems and as such are large-scale (small area). Are you recreating a tactical ambush? Then a hex map may be appropriate.
Operations: Operational-level wargames tend to focus on the interactions of larger units and different domains of battle. Some wargames, like Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games, very successfully use a hex map. If one choses to use a hex map then the map scale becomes very important. The Next War series uses a scale of 7.5 miles per hex. This would make a map of all of the Ukraine almost 100 hexes wide! In this case an area map might be more appropriate.
I think wargame designers and players will learn much from the war in the Ukraine, and challenges for how one depicts the conflict will be a part of professional and hobby wargaming for a while to come. Alas, I wish the pre-war wargaming had better and prepared all (except the Russians) for the conflict upon us. Then again, it certainly appears that the Ukrainians prepared for this war a whole lot better than the Russians did…
The ongoing Russian invasion of the Ukraine is certainly making wargamers—professional and hobby—rethink some fundamental assumptions of the Russian threat. This reassessment is also spilling over into game design.
There is maybe no better stimulant for discussion than the 40 mile (64 km) long military convoy road jam of Russian forces north of Kyiv. How does a game designer depict that 64 km long military convoy road jam in a commercial hobby wargame? More generally, do commercial wargames capture the apparent state of supply for the Russian Army as we are seeing in the Ukraine war?
Food for Thought
Supply rules in wargames often get a bum rap. Take for instance the infamous pasta rule. In designer Richard Berg’s The Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979), the Italian forces have to account for extra water rations for their soldiers to boil pasta. If the pasta points aren’t properly managed, Italian troops may desert, reflecting the inability to feed hungry soldiers in the field. Alas, it’s a rule not based on reality, but many wargamers know the rule and some derive a perception of supply rules from it.
For thought, I’m going to first review some “typical” supply rules in Cold War/Modern operational-scale wargames and then muse on how they do, or do not, reflect the situation we are seeing on the ground.
Most of these wargames, such as RAND’s Baltic study, focus on fait accompli, an attack by the Russian government aimed at seizing terrain — then quickly digging in. This creates a dilemma for NATO: launch a costly counter-attack and risk heavy casualties and possibly a nuclear crisis or accept a Russian fait accompli and undermine faith in the credibility of the alliance. Some analysts have argued that these seizures are much more likely to be small in size, limited to one or two towns. While that scenario should, of course, be studied, the concern about the feasibility of a fait accompli in the form of a major invasion still stands (my emphasis).
While the Russian army definitely has the combat power to achieve these scenarios, does Russia have the logistics force structure to support these operations? The short answer is not in the timelines envisioned by Western wargames. In an initial offensive — depending on the fighting involved — Russian forces might reach early objectives, but logistics would impose requirements for operational pauses. As a result, a large land grab is unrealistic as a fait accompli. The Russian army has the combat power to capture the objectives envisioned in a fait accompli scenario, but it does not have the logistic forces to do it in a single push without a logistical pause to reset its sustainment infrastructure (my emphasis again).
“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
Vershinin points out that the Russian military supply network is composed of railheads and trucks:
The reason Russia is unique in having railroad brigades is that logistically, Russian forces are tied to railroad from factory to army depot and to combined arms army and, where possible, to the division/brigade level. No other European nation uses railroads to the extent that the Russian army does. Part of the reason is that Russia is so vast — over 6,000 miles from one end to the other. The rub is that Russian railroads are a wider gauge than the rest of Europe…Rail traffic moving across borders usually stops to cross-load cargo or uses adjustable railroad carriages and switches engines (which cannot adjust). In times of war, it is highly unlikely that the Russian army would capture enough Western train engines to support their army, forcing them to rely on trucks. This means that Russian army rail sustainment capability ends at the borders of the former Soviet Union. Trying to resupply the Russian army beyond the Russian gauge rail network would force them to rely mostly on their truck force until railroad troops could reconfigure/repair the railroad or build a new one.
“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
Those trucks are an Achilles heel. To illustrate, Vershinin uses simple “beer math” (which I can fully support!):
Russia’s truck logistic support, which would be crucial in an invasion of Eastern Europe, is limited by the number of trucks and range of operations. It is possible to calculate how far trucks can operate using simple beer math. Assuming the existing road network can support 45 mph speeds, a single truck can make three trips a day at up to a 45-mile range: One hours to load, one hour to drive to the supported unit, one hours to unload, and another hour to return to base. Repeating this cycle three times equals 12 hours total. The rest of the day is dedicated to truck maintenance, meals, refueling, weapons cleaning, and sleeping. Increase the distance to 90 miles [145 km], and the truck can make two trips daily. At 180 miles [290 km], the same truck is down to one trip a day. These assumptions won’t work in rough terrain or where there is limited/damaged infrastructure. If an army has just enough trucks to sustain itself at a 45-mile distance, then at 90 miles, the throughput will be 33 percent lower. At 180 miles, it will be down by 66 percent. The further you push from supply dumps, the fewer supplies you can replace in a single day.
“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
With that broad overview of Russian Army logistics, let’s look at a few commercial wargames and how they depict supply.
Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom, designer Eric Harvey, Modern War Magazine Issue #45 (Jan-Feb 2020), Decision Games, 2020 | Scale: Units Corps/Division/Brigade, 58 kilometers (km)/ hex, 1 turn = ~2 days
Rule 7.0 SUPPLY uses a very typical wargame approach; “During each friendly Supply Phase, the owning player must demonstrate a path of contiguous hexes (regardless of terrain types) from his land units to a friendly city (3.0).” The path can be “of any length” and cannot cross prohibited terrain nor a hex with an enemy unit nor through an enemy zone of control (ZOC) unless that hex is occupied by a friendly unit.
Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989, designer Carl Fung, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020 | Scale: Divisions/Brigades, 24 km/hex, 1 turn = 3 days
Game Series rule 1..2d Supply states:
Given the short time-frame of the game, the multiple means of transportation, and the abundance of pre-positioned logistical sites as well as civilian stocks of food, medical supplies, and fuel, do not use the SCS [Standard Combat Series] Supply rules.
Iron Curtain Game Series rule 1.2d
Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, designer Mitchell Land, GMT Games, 2019 | Scale: Units Division/Brigade-Regiment/Battalion, 12 km/hex, 1 turn = 3.5 days
In the Next War series, rule 13.1 Supply is an optional Standard Series Game rule. The approach used is very basic; certain hexes are Supply Sources (13.1.2) and in order for units to be in supply they must able to trace a Line of Communication (13.1.3). Units that are Out of Supply (13.1.5) have their Attack and Movement ratings halved and their Efficiency Rating reduced. They also are not eligible for Elite Reaction or Exploitation Movement. In the Advanced Game rules, 19.0 Supply introduces a somewhat more complex set of rules, the most important of which are 19.1 Supply Sources with their range limitations and 19.4 Supply Depots and MSUs (Mobile Supply Units). Specifically, the four possible supply sources and ranges are:
Mobile Supply Unit (MSU) – 4 Movement Points (MPs)
Beachhead – 4 MPs
Urban hex (in friendly country) – 6 MPs
Supply Depot – 8MPs
Less Than 60 Miles, designer Fabrizio Vianello, Thin Red Line Games, 2019 | Scale: Units Division/Brigade/Battalion, 5 km/hex, 1 turn = 3 hours
In Less Than 60 Miles, units accumulate Attrition Points as they fight. Rule 30 Supply specifies that in order to remove Attrition Points the unit, “must be able to trace a valid Supply Line.” Per rule 30.1 Tracing Supply Lines a Supply Line is formed from two segments; 1) From a Supply Source (Major or Minor Road on friendly map edge) to a Supply Hub of the Top HQ traced along only roads and of any length and, 2) From a Supply Hub to unit with a maximum length of 6 hexes for NATO and 4 hexes for Warsaw Pact. Of note, Supply Hubs are assigned to a Top HQ and limited in number by the scenario. Supply Hubs must be placed within the Command Range of a friendly HQ. The usual restrictions from terrain or enemy units also apply, with the additional proviso that the instant a Supply Hub is adjacent to an enemy unit, it is removed.
Out of Supply
The highly visible supply problems as Russian forces advance in the Ukraine are not well captured in Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom. Even that horrendous traffic jam is “only” 1 hex. The scale of Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom also may be too high to capture the role of trucks. However, one unknown that might explain the supply problems is the presence of Ukrainian units somewhere along that supply route that may be exerting a zone of control and therefore cutting the supply line.
Iron Curtain likewise fails to explain the current situation as it simply handwaves the entire supply issue based on prepositioned stocks which is certainly not applicable to the current fight. The role of trucks for the final leg of delivery to units is seemingly totally absent from the Iron Curtain supply model.
Both Next War and Less Than 60 Miles use a similar two-level approach to modeling supply in their game. Both depict the need to move supply forward along with attacking forces. Importantly, both have restrictions on the distance for the “final mile” of supply delivery.
In the case of Next War, the supply sources being pushed furthest forward are Mobile Supply Units (MSUs) with their 4 MPs. MSUs appear to represent the trucks pushing forward. Practically speaking, along a Primary Road this gives them a range of 96 km. Being forced to use a Secondary Road or Flat terrain reduces this reach to 48 km and if the terrain is Rough it drops to 12 km—a single hex. The big traffic jam, at 64 km in length, is within what a single MSU should be able to support.
In Less Than 60 Miles, the Soviets are limited to a 20 km range for supply from a Supply Hub. If we think of the trucks as the “reach” of the Supply Hub this model outwardly appears to be consistent with what we observe in action. However, even if we give the modern Russian Army the benefit of the doubt and allow them to use the larger NATO range for the reach of supply, it still is only a 30 km “reach.” In game terms, the Supply Hub for this convoy is at the end of the jam…64 km or (optimistically) twice the supply range.
One factor that appears unaccounted for by most any wargame supply rule is traffic jams. One would like to think this number is “baked into” the game mechanism, but the more I look at the different game mechanism the less confident I am in making such an assertion. Granted, almost every one of the wargames referenced here has rules for refugees clogging roads, but units clogging roads is part of the stacking rules in any wargame. Then again, those stacking rules are often for combat units and do not look at combat service or logistics. That may not be a good assumption to make. Take a look at imagery from the road jam again.
Do you see the triple-wide column of vehicles occupying the road edge-to-edge in places? Just where are the supply vehicles supposed to travel? One lane down, same one lane back? The unit in this photo has blocked their own supply units. Even if the road is within the range of the Supply Hub or MSU, the road is for all practical purposes impassable.
BTG sustainment was typically ad hoc and conducted over large distances. Replacement personnel, equipment and parts were primarily drawn from the already reduced units that remained in garrison, which could be more than 500 kilometers away from the BTG’s field site. This allows the brigade to surge replacements to the BTG, but it is not conducive to long-term regular sustainment. Consumable supplies arrived at depots from the Western Military District Headquarters (two echelons above brigade, similar to a U.S. corps headquarters) and were then delivered directly to the BTG deputy commander for distribution…BTGs rapidly deploy from garrison by rail. However, for field logistics, the BTG requires a road and bridge network because its light trucks do not have the same mobility characteristics as its combat vehicles. Paramilitary proxies distribute supplies using private vehicles of varying (limited) mobility.
“ “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” Armor, Spring 2017, p. 12
There are also logistical and maintenance issues, although the use of the Armata common chassis will mitigate some of them. One reform that has not been successful is the abolition of some logistics and maintenance units in favor of private contractors. Russia is currently trying to rebuild some of its organic logistics and maintenance units that were disbanded, but the process is slow going. BTGs are not immune to the logistical problems that still plague the Russian military, and BTG commanders still complain about them.
The Russian Way of War, p. 38
What do the BTG commanders specifically complain about? CONTRACTORS! As David Axe explains in an article for Forbes:
Capacity isn’t the only problem. A decade ago, the Kremlin overhauled the military’s logistical system to hand over more responsibility to a state-run commercial firm, Oboronservis. The rationale was that the military, depending as it does on short-term conscript manpower, couldn’t reliably cultivate the expertise combat logistics requires.
Today Oboronservis’s contractors are sprinkled throughout the MTO [Material-Technical Support] brigades and their subordinate units. There could be friction.
“The critical point for the MTO during its support for combat operations is precisely this: the extent to which the military structures and civilian agencies can be integrated in order to meet deadlines and avoid unnecessary delays,” Roger McDermott wrote in a 2013 study for the Swedish defense department.
“The civilian institutions are also now private, profit-making entities and not institutions driven by state planning considerations. As such, they expect to have a contractual relationship with the [defense ministry] and to make a profit, and the efficiency needed by business will collide with the demand for effectiveness required by the military.”
“This civil-military mix has no serious track record in the Russian armed forces, and is naturally the main area that will be exposed to severe testing during combat operations,” McDermott wrote.
The cited paragraph from The Russian Way of War also has the following, very interesting footnote: “One factor complicating the matter is that contract troops are funneled into the combat arms, leaving combat support and combat service support roles filled by conscripts.”
Missing Depots or Hubs?
Going back to Vershinin, he argues that the Russian Army will be hard-pressed to sustain combat operations beyond 90 miles (145 km) from the Russian border without a major logistical halt:
The Russian army will be hard-pressed to conduct a ground offensive of more than 90 miles [145 km] beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union without a logistics pause. For NATO, it means it can worry less about a major Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Poland and a greater focus on exploiting Russian logistic challenges by drawing Russian forces further away from their supply depots and targeting chokepoints in the Russian logistic infrastructure and logistic force in general…The Russian government has built armed forces highly capable of fighting on home soil or near its frontier and striking deep with long-range fires. However, they are not capable of a sustained ground offensive far beyond Russian railroads without a major logistical halt or a massive mobilization of reserves.
There are some reports that the Ukrainians blew up the rail crossings along their border in the early days of the Russian attack. Assuming those reports are true, in wargame terms the railheads for Russian supply terminate at the national border. Any movement of logistics beyond this point requires the use of those trucks.
A logistics halt is necessary to move supply sources forward. Essentially, combat operations must halt while supply is built up at a range that can support further activities. In Less Than 60 Miles, a headquarters unit has a finite number of Command Points representing the ability for the staff to plan and execute orders. A logistics halt allows them to “spend” Command Points on organizing logistics., but at the cost of being able to perform very few—if any—other activities like say, oh, I don’t know, combat.
Railroad Hobbyist & Monster Truck Enthusiast To Wargamer
In wargame terms, how would you go about modeling the railheads and trucks of the Russian Army logistics networks? In the simplest of terms, the Russian supply source ends at the edge of Russia (the railheads). Any logistics movement beyond this point is accomplished by trucks with a limited range. Terrain has a tremendous impact on the ability to deliver supplies to a BTG with light trucks being restricted to better roads. When both combat units and logistics must use those same roads, movement and convoy routing becomes a vital necessity.
But what about contractors? How do you “rate” a civilian unit contracted to provide services on the battlefield? What about those combat service units manned by conscripts? Is this an example of why troop quality ratings are important in a wargame?
If the Russian Army is going to move a supply source forward (Mobile Supply Units?) that takes time where combat operations by units are not permitted (logistics halt). All of this requires good staff planning by the BTG which it may not be capable of.
That sounds like that’s a good topic for next time.
The only loser in this entire situation is Howard James Rigg. Dark Blue Defection is a superior product produced to the highest quality standards that delivers deeply engaging, interesting, and most important fun set of scenarios. The fact Howard is not allowed to make a profit off this excellent work is shameful for if somebody deserves a reward for making a worthy effort one need look no further than Dark Blue Defection for some prime justification.
Kick the tires…
Dark Blue Defection is a zip-locked set of play aids. Ownership of Red Storm is required. As the Dark Blue Defection introduction states:
The main objective of this expansion is to provide a solo only experience in which each scenario can be set up and played to conclusion in one evening. The scenarios require no planning. The forces involved are pre-set to allow speed of play.
Dark Blue Defection, Introduction, p. 2
Out of the bag, the first impression of Dark Blue Defection is QUALITY. The rulebook is formatted to look like a regular GMT game. The player aid cards are all printed on glossy, heavy cardstock. I constantly had to remind myself that this is a fan-made product. Now look, I love me the Roger McGowan, RBM Studios products in C3i Magazine but Dark Blue Defection gives Roger’s excellent products a real run-for-your-money. Seriously; it’s that nicely produced.
Dark Blue Defection has ten scenarios. Each is designed to be played in sequence as the difficulty ramps up with each scenario. Dark Blue Defection depends heavily on the Bot System in Red Storm, in particular rule 33.2 Full Solitaire Rules. The player in Dark Blue Defection plays as NATO and the Warsaw Pact player is controlled by the Bot System.
Each scenario of Dark Blue Defection has three player aids: a Scenario Setup Card, a Planning Map, and one (or more) Flight Log Sheet. Like I already mentioned, all of the Dark Blue Defection player aids are printed on heavy, glossy cardstock; this will survive your gaming table spills better than the base game! Other gaming material, especially the map and counters, come from Red Storm.
The Scenario Set Up card details your forces. The Planning Map does much of your planning for you. The Flight Log Sheet is pre-filled and makes getting started in each scenario that much faster. This is important because in these “air raid” wargames like Red Storm and predecessors Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) or Elusive Victory (GMT Games, 2009) planning the raid is important—but also time consuming. The Designers Notes in Dark Blue Defection comment:
One thing that struck me about the game [Red Storm] system was the amount of time it takes to get to the table. The planning aspect adds a lot of depth to the game but also a significant amount of time to each scenario before even setting a counter on the table. This set my mind in motion. I would love some Red Storm solo scenarios that I could pick out [of] the box, pre-planned with flight logs populated, a planning map and a scenario setup sheet that I could quickly place my counters onto prior to setting up and then get a whole game in one evening.
Designer Notes, p. 22
…and light the fires!
Scenarios in Dark Blue Defection start simple. Mission 1: Red Dawn has the player defending with two flights of fighters against a Soviet strike package with close escort. As the campaign advances, air defenses and ground units are introduced as well as more advanced combat situations.
Playing a scenario of Dark Blue Defection is arguably easier than regular Red Storm. The rules for solo player found on Player Aid Card 5 (PAC5) in Red Storm are used and each scenario lays out the exceptions to the baseline. The Designer Notes comment, “How much would I need to change the current bot system to make it work? The answer was not much at all.” Dark Blue Defection is not a replacement for learning the rules to Red Storm, but the increasing difficulty levels of the scenarios make “getting back in the cockpit” of Red Storm that much easier.
The story behind Dark Blue Defection
One aspect of Dark Blue Defection that really sets this game apart and makes the whole package special is the story. Sure, Dark Blue Defection is a series of linked scenarios that form a campaign, but Howard James Rigg goes a step beyond just connecting the scenarios in terms of the combat shown, there is also a story thread throughout the campaign. At first I kinda ignored the story, but very quickly I found myself becoming invested in the characters as each scenario was played. In many ways it is the story behind Dark Blue Defection that brings out the most compelling aspects of the game; while each scenario has victory conditions one quickly finds themselves wondering not so much who won, but how the story progresses.
I’ll also add that when you order Dark Blue Defection you also get access to a free expansion, The Four Horsemen, which includes another two scenarios. Unlike Dark Blue Defection where the scenarios are planned to be shorter, TheFour Horsemen goes big:
For these scenarios I wanted to do the opposite of my previous scenario designs in Dark Blue Defection and create large scale solo scenarios for players already familiar with the system using the tweaks to the bot system I implemented in the last scenario pack and still have each scenario entirely pre-planned for the Player.
I am a proud supporter of Sebastian’s game, and a real fan of The Dietz Foundation. While technical hurdles and an obstinate military bureaucracy during the funding campaign were hard enough for me to watch, what really frosted me was some of the Twitterati commentary. In particular, some folks “bemoaned” that Sebastian was literally doing “all” the marketing for the game and very directly implied that the publisher was not building any buzz for the game.
Yes, @SebastianBae pounded the Twitter-verse with tweets. So did Jim from the @FoundationDietz account. I also personally saw multiple tweets from not only Sebastian or Jim but others EVERY DAY. Granted, this was not a “traditional” big-name publisher campaign. The announcement of the game didn’t get teased in a monthly newsletter, then dropped a month later, and then have the occasional monthly update. Sebastian, as nice a guy as he is, didn’t get designer spotlight moments on BGG. No, this was a small campaign by a first-time designer using a small publisher. So, did it work?
Littoral Commander reached its funding goal in 13 days.
Even without the “correct” buzz the Twitterarti wanted.
In 1979, a hit movie of the year was James Bond 007 in Moonraker. For a sci-fi geek like myself, the battle in space was a definite highlight moment of the film. Silver-clad space suited Marines with thruster packs and chest-mounted lasers take on the bad guys high above the earth!
That same year, I spied a box in my FLGS, Fascination Corner. On the cover was another silver space-suited soldier with a thruster pack. It looked like they were being dropped over a domed city from a very Traveller roleplaying game-looking ship. Without even reading the back of the box I had to have this game—Marine: 2002.
Alas…I never got it.
Marine: 2002 – A Game of the First Lunar War is designed by Kerry Anderson and published by Yaquinto Publications in 1979. It is a tactical wargame that depicts combat actions on the surface of the moon. My copy is technically from the second printing in October 1980.
Physically, Marine: 2002 comes in 1.5-inch deep 14″x11″ flat box. I’m a bit surprised the box has lasted over 40 years because the cardstock used is on the lighter side. Inside the box comes a rulebook, player aids, a three-piece geomorphic map, counters, dice and a storage tray. Oh yeah, my copy also has a Yaquinto Publications sales flyer from 1982.
The rule book for Marine: 2002 is in the Yaquinto landscape format. It uses a modified case system like a good wargame should. The player aids are functional if not fancy. The counters are nice and colorful. When I opened my box the counter sheets were complete but warped. A few days under a stack of heavy books restored them to flat. The three geomorphic maps can be arranged in multiple ways to create a map that is square, long, staggered, or some combination of the others. The color is on the brownish-tan side; I kinda expected something a bit more gray. The storage tray has no cover, but the rule book recommends simply getting a piece of cardboard and using “cellophane” tape to attach it.
Sergeant Draper reporting for duty, sir!
Marine: 2002 is a squad-level tactical wargame. Each hex is .5km across and each counter represents a squad or team of 2-4 soldiers. Each vehicle or gun represents a single item. Each turn represents about 5 minutes of time. The sequence of play is simple and straightforward:
Step A: Movement Initiative Phase
Step B: Moving Player Phase
Units in F-mode (discussed below) conduct direct fire in this phase
Step C: Movement Alternation Phase (non-initiative player moves)
Step D: Indirect Fire Phase (Advanced Game only)
Step E: Direct Fire Phase
Step F: Direct Fire Morale Phase (Advanced Game Only)
Step G: Turn Adjustment Phase
There are two rules that set Marine: 2002 apart from other tactical combat wargames—mode and line of sight.
Take the high ground!
In Marine: 2002, units can select different movement modes which affect how far they travel and how well they fire in combat.
‘G’ or Ground-mode moves a maximum of 2 hexes on the surface of the moon; the slowest form of movement but has advantage of cover
‘N’ or Normal-mode moves a maximum of 4 hexes; trade-off between movement and cover
‘A’ or Air-mode (on the airless Moon?) moves a maximum of 10 hexes; most rapid but no cover
‘F’ or Fire-mode does not move; is considered in G-mode for cover but has advantage in fire combat.
“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!”
If Marine: 2002 has a “gimmick” rule—one that sets it apart from other wargames—it is the line of sight rules. In Marine: 2002, the movement mode of a unit is associated with a height above the ground and each has a different Horizon Line:
G-mode has a maximum horizon (horizon line) of 5 hexes
N-mode has a horizon line of 12 hexes
A-mode has a horizon line of 20 hexes
Units in F-mode are grounded with that same 5 hex horizon line as G-mode.
Horizon lines not only determine what you can see, but what you car fire at. When it comes to fire combat there are three weapons ranges; Short is 0-3 hexes, Medium is 4-10 hexes, and Long at 11 hexes to the maximum horizon.
On the bounce!
Mode and horizon combine in Marine: 2002 to become the primary factors in your tactics. Fire Mode is certainly best for attack, but with the loss of maneuvering. Air-mode is the fastest moving and can see the most, but your soldiers are the most vulnerable when using this mode.
Squad Leader in spaaaaace!
[I hate rating a wargame’s complexity because it is such a personally subjective matter. I’ve been playing wargames for 40 years and have learned rules ranging in complexity from Ogre to World in Flames. What is simple or complex for me might be second nature or totally incompressible to others.]
The rules for Marine: 2002 are pretty much what I expect from the era. While I reference Squad Leader in the header here, Marine: 2002 is not that complex a game when it comes to the rules. In more than a few ways, the tactical combat games from Yaquinto that I experienced skewed towards a kind of “minis on a hexmap, but with cardboard chits.” This means that physically manipulating the game was often the most complex part of play. For instance, in order to properly show what mode a squad counter is in, each player keeps a Mode Orientation marker on the board to show which way is “up.” Each counter has a different mode in each corner and to show which mode the unit is in the proper corner is oriented to the Mode Indicator. Good: No extra admin counter to stack. Bad: Making sure you turn the counters right according to the mode and your indicator. Marine: 2002 also offers the use of a range stick (center spine of the counter sheet) to measure range—its harder than simply counting hexes and another thing that can bump counters and make them “lose their mode.”. There are also more than a few tables to reference in play. Administrative tracking is done with a combination of off-board tracking sheets that are marked off in pen/pencil and on-map administrative markers. Step losses are tracked by replacing squad/team counters—each squad of four soldiers has four counters and as soldiers are lost the counter is replaced by the one reflecting current strength. The end result is that, while the rules for movement or combat or morale are not that complex, tracking the effects of those rules is cumbersome at times. Marine: 2002 is a very functional game, but—to use a very modern game design concept—it lacks “elegance” in how it’s implemented.
The First Lunar War
If there is one place where Marine: 2002 totally misses it’s the story it tells. I mean, look at that cover? What do you see? I see an exciting story. Fortunately, the rule book includes a note on the cover illustration:
COVER ILLUSTRATION: “The Descent into Hell.”
The Armored Shuttle, U.S.S. Werewolf ‘high jumps’ Howard’s Howlers (Alpha Company, 1st Special Battalion, United States Marine Corps) above the Soviet military installation in the Hell crater on the Deslandres Plain at the height of Operation Dante. Though virtually annihilated in the ensuing action, Alpha Company, whose mission was to merely draw fire of the powerful Soviet fixed batteries, successfully penetrated and neutralized the command dome, eliminating coordinated Soviet resistance in this pivotal lunar battle.
Of the 121 men in Alpha Company only 7 survived, including Col. William Howard the company commander.
Marine: 2002, p. 2
That passage right there is pretty much the extent of the “canon” of Marine: 2002. The rule book does briefly mention in the General Introduction the “First Russo-American Lunar War of 1998-2002.” The design notes, “Weapons in Space,” goes a long way towards making the claim on the box back come to life:
Marine: 2002 is a tactical level simulation of combat on or near the surface of the moon. The futuristic weapons used (neutron warheads, rocket shells, lasers and charged particle beams, and conventional shells) are playably duplicated with a system that faithfully shows their strengths and weaknesses. The game includes rules that cover ground and air movement for all units, combat with beamed weapons and a battlefield which is limited only by a horizon which varies with the current altitude of engaged units. Other rules easily account for communication and command control, morale, individual casualties, cumulative vehicle damage, orbiting weapons platforms and much more.
Marine: 2002, box back
After all that exciting build-up I was anxious to play the game. Then I got to the scenarios which are named:
SCENARIO ONE: BASIC GAME RULES
SCENARIO TWO: BASIC GAME RULES
SCENARIO THREE: BASIC GAME RULES
SCENARIO FOUR: ADVANCED GAME RULES
SCENARIO FIVE: (ADVANCED GAME RULES)
SCENARIO SIX (OPTIONAL RULES)
SCENARIO SEVEN (OPTIONAL RULES)
Each scenario consists of the same seven items of information:
Order of Battle
No “situation.” No “historical outcome.” No “meeting engagement” or “high-jump assault” or…anything that triggers a story. Granted, every scenario is playable, but there was a great opportunity missed here to tell a story. I don’t need a “historical” campaign, but may adding a bit of some “flavor” like “Scenario One: First Encounters – US Marines encounter a Soviet patrol at the confrontation line” would make playing this game that much more enjoyable. Sure, I can create that narrative in my head, but that is best done when designing my own scenarios (which the designer encourages) rather than left to the “first encounter” with the scenarios.
Shake off that lunar dust…
Marine: 2002, though of a dated—if not inelegantly manipulative—design, lacks a full story but is still an excellent game. It takes a bit of some patience and organization to play, but the emphasis on movement modes and horizon lines is easily understood and made central to the game experience. Maybe the challenge here is for me to mix my roleplaying game campaign building with Marine: 2002 and make my own history of the First Russo-American Lunar War. You know, something like For All Mankind.
As is well documented, the early days of Operation Barbarossa were very, very bad for the Red Air Force:
By the afternoon [22nd June] fresh masses of aircraft, summoned with desperate urgency from the flying fields of central Russia, began to appear over the battlefield, though “It was infanticide, they were floundering in tactically impossible formations.” By the time Stalin’s restrictions against sorties over German territory had been lifted, the Russian bomber force (which had largely escaped the first Luftwaffe strike, owning to its bases being farther from the frontier) took off obediently in accordance with an already outdated operational plan. Over 500 were shot down. On 23rd June, Lieutenant General Kopets, commander of the bomber group, committed suicide, and within a week General Rychagov, the commander of aviation on the northwestern front, was under sentence of death for “treasonable activity” (that is to say, having been defeated). In the first two days the Russians lost over 2,000 aircraft—a casualty rate without precedent. The (numerically) strongest air force in the world had been virtually eliminated in 48 hours.
Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 (New York: Quill, 1965), pp. 49-50
How can we play the Drive on Kiev campaign if one side isn’t even present? Further historical study tells us that the Red Air Force, though severely mauled, was not totally beaten. The Red Air Force did resist, and the Drive on Kiev campaign shows us an example of that resistance. That said, designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is actually up-front in telling players that while Drive on Kiev is framed in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa, his real goal is to teach about the challenges of sortie generation in an extended campaign:
Air forces tend to rot away during operations. When demand for air support is high, routine maintenance is deferred, eventually taking aircraft out of service. Accidents rise and become the largest source of losses, while battle casualties drain strength. Eventually, an air force can do no more than maintain a low level of activity and needs to be withdrawn and rebuilt. This campaign depicts how Fliegerkorps V, despite ideal operating conditions, exhausted itself during the invasion.
“Sortie Generation,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Mr. Brimmicombe-Wood doubles down on his depiction by bending history, especially as it pertains to Soviet planning:
In the game the Soviets get the ability to predict German activity and react accordingly. This is not historical. This is a handicap feature designed to allow the Soviet player to optimise his response to the Germans. The effect we wish to create is that of an increasingly exhausted German force facing a seemingly endless supply of Soviet flyers.
“Soviet Planning,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Does knowing that the Drive on Kiev campaign in Wing Leader: Blitz is not strictly historical make it less interesting to play? I have to say no. Understanding that the German side is playing a game of attrition against a determined Soviet opposition actually makes the game very interesting and drives home the importance of campaign decisions regarding choosing targets and allocating for attack and defense. One could argue that the game is more interesting under these “artificial” conditions than in would be otherwise. While the operational situation may have some artificiality, at the tactical level the game shines with set up and scenario campaign special rules:
Only the Germans have a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) net (advantage Germans on defense)
Only the Germans have radios (advantage Germans)
German fighters use loose doctrine; Soviet fighters use Rigid (advantage Germans)
German fighters have tactical flexibility (advantage Germans)
To reflect Soviet desperation they have a Determination modifier in Cohesion Rolls (advantage Soviets)
Soviets can use ramming attacks—Taran (advantage Soviets?)
German fighters can use “Hunting from Cloud” (advantage Germans).
While tactically it may appear that the Germans have many advantages, the scenario set up also creates many Soviet challenges that, if a player is able to face and overcome, can create a very enjoyable experience. Facing those challenges and figuring out how to win (or at least how to lose the least) is the real charm of Wing Leader. Many aerial combat games tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” of a dogfight, but Wing Leader approaches each battle at something more akin to a grand tactical perspective. Campaign Games like Drive on Kiev take that viewpoint up a level into operational planning. Taken together, it is yet another example of the versatility of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s design and another reason Wing Leader is one of my favorite wargames.