#Wargame Wednesday – Alternate Stalingrad on the Mississippi with Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990)

Alternate History is a finicky genre of fiction. There are a few titles out there I like such as Fatherland by Robert Harris or SS-GB by Len Deighton. Wargames are a form of alternate history fiction in that the historical outcome of a battle is not always the result. In my collection, I have several 3WW and XTR Corp titles that went deep into an alternate history setting for their wargames. Tomorrow the World (3WW, 1989) by designer Ty Bomba was set in an alternate 1948 world where the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese won World War II and uneasily divided the world and especially the defeated United States (very Man in the High Castle-like). In addition to the strategic wargame Tomorrow the World, XTR Corp (publishers of Command Magazine then associated with 3WW) published several other magazine/folio games in the same setting. I have three of the games, Seven Seas to Victory (1992) which is naval combat around the Panama Canal in 1945 (US vs Nazi Germany), Black Gold (Texas Tea) (1990) recreating a 1948 offensive in the Middle East, and Mississippi Banzai (1990). Thanks to a random number generator, the operational-level Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on my gaming table recently.

Reverse Stalingrad on the Mississippi

Mississippi Banzai envisions the opening offensive of the 1948 war against Nazi Germany by the Imperial Japanese with a strike in the heartland of American. Imperial Japanese forces, attacking out of western Missouri and Iowa, try to surround the German 6th Army at St Louis and secure the strategic towns of Ft Madison and Burlington to the north as they need to eventually march on Chicago. Designer Ty Bomba and developer Chris Perello are very up front that they wanted to design a game with lots of maneuver. Although the Mark Simonitch map looks more like a desert than the wheat fields of the American Midwest, the game design achieves what the designer wanted—lots of maneuver across a relatively open map with low counter density. The combination of maneuver and “elastic combat” in Mississippi Banzai make this low-complexity game, darkly themed game a rather enjoyable thinking challenge.

St. Stalin-Louis-Grad?

Small Game – Big Battle

Mississippi Banzai is physically a small game. The actual “map” of the battlespace takes up 3/4 of the 22″x34″ map with the remaining area dedicated to various game tables and charts. There are 300 counters of which about 20% are markers—not combat units possibly appearing on the map.The 16-page rule book is actually only 11 pages (triple column) of rules and five pages of front/back matter, setting background, and Designer’s Notes. Rules are not very complex with very simple movement and combat. Supply effects are determined at time of movement and combat. All told Mississippi Banzai is a rather small, uncomplicated game.

The real treat in playing Mississippi Banzai is in that simple play. The game last at least 8 turns after which a random roll determines if Winter Rains end the Japanese offensive. The game will automatically end after Turn 12 so time is not really on the Japanese side. The Japanese player also has limited reinforcements as only once PER GAME the Japanese player may Petition the Emperor for more units.

The German player in Mississippi Banzai starts with a smaller force but has access to reinforcements every turn. Once per game, the German player can Appeal to the Fuhrer for extra reinforcements. The German player is going to need every reinforcement they can get because they start off with fewer forces on the board and must rush in new defenders to stem the Japanese offensive. This dance between a juggernaught with nothing behind it and a defender desperately rushing in new forces to stop the rolling giant is what makes Mississippi Banzai an interesting, challenging game.

The New World Order – How Retro

The rules of Mississippi Banzai are in many ways built upon basic, even classic wargame mechanisms:

  • Air Power is abstractly represented by air chits that are used for Air Superiority, Interdiction, or Ground Support Missions. Chits on Air Superiority missions cancel each other and excess missions cancel enemy Interdiction or Ground Support missions. Interdiction units are played at the end of the owning player’s turn and represent areas which require extra movement points to pass thru. Ground Support provides column shifts on the Combat Results Table (CRT).
  • Supply is simple trace checked at the start of a unit’s movement or at the time of combat.
  • Stacking is a 4-unit maximum.
  • There are no zones of control rules but units cannot enter hexes with enemy units unless they are mechanized and conducting a Mobile Assault.
  • The most interesting terrain is Major River/Bottom Land. To enter a Non-mech unit pays 2 MP but a mechanized unit has to pay 3 MP. The cost is the same whether one is crossing the river or not.
  • Mobile Assaults (MA) are Mississippi Banzai’s overrun attacks. During movement if a mechanized unit wants to enter an enemy-occupied hex it (always) costs 3x MP for the defender’s hex. MA cannot be combined with attacks (i.e. each stack conducts MA independently—no combining attacks.
  • Prepared Assaults (PA) are conducted in the Combat Phase. Both MA and PA in Mississippi Banzai use a simple CRT with results that I describe as “elastic combat.” Combat losses are described by a number or “E” for eliminated. Implementing “1,” “2,” or “3” results has a nice twist—the number is the steps lost OR the number of hexes the ENTIRE STACK must retreat. The owner chooses how to satisfy the loss/retreat. Thus, combat is “elastic” in that sometimes the units stay in place but other times they “bounce away.”
  • A Concentric Prepared Assault is when a single hex is attacked by stacks from up to three hexes and awards a column shift on the CRT.
  • The Japanese player can use the Banzai Attack which doubles the combat factors (on attack or defense) but comes with a mandatory step loss.
  • Fog of War, or the ability to examine enemy stacks, is an optional rule?
  • Artillery fires in barrages at the beginning of each combat phase. In the case where a hit is scored and there is more than one unit in the hex, “put all of them in a coffee mug and draw. The drawn unit is the one that takes a step loss.”

Chrome rules, such as they are, in Mississippi Banzai are few but uncomplicated. The Germans have the Maus super-heavy assault guns which are great in combat but ponderous to move. German Leaders grant bonus movement and column shifts in combat. There are special units like “Amerindian Japanese Puppet Troops” and the “Kwantung Siege Army” as well as “Kempeitai Suicide Commandos,” “FLAK,” and airdroppable units.

In this dark comedy version of a Cold War Gone Hot, Atomic Bombs are also a part of Mississippi Banzai. It’s an optional rule, but if you’re already playing this game why hold back? At the start of each game turn a roll is made to see if a bomb is available. If yes it MUST be used! There is a 1 in 6 chance of a dud. If the bomb explodes there are game effects that stay on the board even after the blast. Units wishing to move thru an Atomic Bomb blast hex have to roll on the Blast Entry Hex Chart to see if they even can.

Victory in Mississippi Banzai is very straight-forward. Control of three locations by the Japanese determines victory. Ft. Madison and Burlington are one point (and one hex) each while to get the single Victory Point for St. Louis all four hexes need be controlled.

A Fascist Lovefest?

There may be a few amongst you who are appalled by Mississippi Banzai and the theme. Not only does the game have the stereotypical white-on-black Nazi SS counters, but the most numerous American ally comes in the form of KKK Calvary. Even designer Ty Bomba back in 1990 obviously got some negative feedback which he addresses head-on in his Designer’s Notes [Note: Emphasis text as in original]:

This is a game, which if it were made into a film, would fall into the genre of “Black Comedy.” That is, it philosophic purpose is to examine some aspect of the audience’s worst fears, and using satire, irony and (most of all) exaggeration, make fun of them. To the anal-retentive among you I say, “Remember it is only a game.”

Viewing and enjoying a movie like Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe doesn’t make you an advocate of nuclear warfare. Likewise, playing Mississippi Banzai should not be taken as an indicator of pro-fascist leanings or a wish to revise the outcome of World War II. It is only a game.

From a more military science oriented perspective, I wanted to examine a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII).

Mississippi Banzai, Designer’s Notes

It seems to me that if Mr. Bomba wanted to use Mississippi Banzai to explore, “a situation wherein terrain was almost a non-factor (as in N. Africa in WWII), but where unit commitment was on par with the most savagely contested fronts imaginable (as in Russia in WWII)” he could very easily make a “Stalingrad on the Nile” or something to that effect. Yes, the thematic setting of Tomorrow the World makes for match ups that some may find very interesting but Mr. Bomba doesn’t mention that match up as a design driver.

Putting “History” Behind

At the end of the day I think I’ll just quietly pack away Mississippi Banzai and put both it an all my Tomorrow the World-related games on the shelf. If I want to study Stalingrad, or a Stalingrad-inspired situation, I’ll just get a Stalingrad game.

Which I don’t have in my collection.

Which I now have to find.

Sunday Summary – Now You See Me…. @ADragoons @bigboardgaming @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @JimDietz1 @Bublublock #Wargame #Boardgame #TravellerRPG #Books

Although I have “appeared” a few times on the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at the Armchair Dragoons the past few seasons this past week was the first time I “appeared” on Kev’s Big Board Gaming Channel. As in I literally “appeared” on a live stream. Kev is a great host and it was a good time. I’m not sure what sort of impression I’m making on people as I’m just out to convey my love for the hobby. If you have a chance please drop by and take 45 minutes to watch and hopefully get some inspiration to play something.

Wargaming

My next “Reading to Wargame” series started with my comments on Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem book. Check back next week to see how it influenced my play of Mark Simonitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden from GMT Games.

This was a good week for wargame arrivals. Three new titles are in the RockyMountainNavy house and in various at various stages of learning:

As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.

Boardgaming

My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.

With North Korea making news this week I hope you all have read my comments on Daniel Bullock’s No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) that was published by the Armchair Dragoons. I think the whole world is wondering which Missile Test Event Card Kim Jong Un might play next.

Books

With the arrival of Kido Butai in the house I looked at my Midway collection of books. Not wanting to rehash my read of the 2005 Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully I instead picked up Dallas Woodbury Isom’s Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway also from 2007. Written in some ways as a counter to Shattered Sword, I ended up focusing on Appendix D which is the “rules” for a “war game” Isom uses in Chapter 10 of his book. Thoughts forthcoming.

There’s a good game in here…somewhere. Thoughts on Yarmuk (Command Magazine / XTR Corp., 1997)

Yarmuk (XTR Corp., 1997) was the second game in Command Magazine Issue #45 (Oct 1997). The game recreates an epic battle in 636AD between Byzantine and Moslem armies. Yarmuk is a relatively simple game that decently captures its theme but suffers from unclear rules and lack of a “gimmick” mechanic to make it truly unique and memorable.

Spelling errors litter the rules of Yarmuk. Thankfully, the rules are short and fairly simple. In some ways Yarmuk is an early Command & Colors-style game with alternating formation activations, a very simple combat resolution system, and several possible special “events” playable each turn. After going through the rules and playing the game, these are the ones that stand out to me:

5.2.A.2. Parley Check. One in six chance of skipping a full day in the game (the battle is six days long). In my play through I rolled Parley on Day 1.

5.2.A.3. Sandstorm Check. One in six chance of a sandstorm for the day. Reduces combat effectiveness.

5.2.A.4. Duel of Champions. First day only. Good chrome that makes the game “feel” more thematic with little rules overhead.

5.3 The Sword of Allah. One of two “unique” game rules that reinforce theme. Twice each day, the Moslem player gets an extra Action Phase using Moslem cavalry. This is the only time Moslem cavalry can charge (9.8).

6.0 Zones of Control. Units must stop when entering an enemy ZoC. To leave an enemy ZoC is a morale check. Units starting the Combat Phase in an enemy ZoC MUST attack. Units retreating though the attacking units ZoC must make a morale check.

7.0 Stacking. What should be a simple rule is actually confused by the rules layout. Rule 7.1 Stacking Generally specifies that at the end of each phase only two units can be in a hex. However, in the second half of rule 7.2 Stacking Specifics (which is unfortunately found on the next page from the rule header) states that, “only the top units in a single hex may attack or be attacked in a single combat. The stacking order in a hex may be changed only by shifting an activated units during its movement phase….” I missed this part of the stacking rule in the first few days of my game and it totally changed the complexion of combat.

9.1 Combat Generally. Combat is a simple affair. The difference of attacking units to defending units yields a column used on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Or it should be, but again the rules as written get in the way:

  • “…undisrupted units…may attack. Any such unit starting its combat phase in an enemy ZOC must attack.” (Units in enemy ZOC must attack, or may they?)
  • “A single unit may attack up to six adjacent defending units.” (One unit, six attacks?)
  • “Up to six units may attack a single hex.” (Surrounded unit)
  • “Each attacking unit may participate in only one combat per combat phase.” (So one unit – one attack, not up to six attacks as above?)
  • “A single defending unit may be attacked only once per combat phase….” (What about a single defending unit with two enemy units in its ZoC? Attack by only one? Or both? Per above both must, or may?)

I think the intent of the rules is that each unit can only attack (or be attacked) once per combat phase. I think this is the rule, but as written it is difficult to determine what the rules actually say.

9.3 Retreat. Requires very careful reading. A retreating unit that is forced to retreat into a ZoC of a non-attacking unit is fine, but if it retreats into the ZoC of the attacking unit it must make a morale check and, if it fails, disrupts of routs and must continue to retreat until reaches a hex not within ANY enemy ZoC.

10.0 Supreme Effort. The second unique game mechanic. Each formation has a Supreme Effort (SE) chit that can be played for extra combat power. Well, each formation should have a chit except for a printing error on the counters which has the back side of one formations SE chit on a combat unit. To offset the power of SE, using SE can lead to backlash (10.3 SE Backlash) which is a negative combat effect and risks morale.

At first glance, Yarmuk appears to be a game with simple rules and just enough theme. The sad reality is that confusing rules get in the way of enjoying the thematic elements. Furthermore, Yarmuk has a very Command & Colors feel to it. I cannot find a Yarmuk scenario for C&C so maybe making one is worth it. Doing so is more likely to result in a positive game experience because trying to sort through the Command Magazine/XTR Corp. version of Yarmuk is probably more effort than it’s worth.

Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com. By the way, the setup shown is wrong because, according to 3.0 Setup, “Each leader must be stacked with any unit under his command.”  None of the leaders visible are stacked with a unit but in a separate hex. Appears I’m not the only one confused by the rules….

 

Britain’s Finest Hour? Maybe, but not this wargames. Thoughts on Operation Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? (Command Magazine/XTR Corp., Issue 45/October 1997)

I don’t envy wargame magazine publishers. It can’t be easy to consistently meet a production schedule of both magazine content and wargame. Even when using a “tried and true” system I am sure that there is lots of development work needed. To often the delivered product is just not-quite-ready for primetime.

Such is the case with Operation Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? (Command Magazine/XTR Corp., Issue 45/October 1997). The theme of the game interests me; a hypothetical German invasion of England starting in September 1940. I recently pulled the game off the shelf to play. Rather than give it something like a full review, I am going to note my reactions or thoughts on various aspects of the game.

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Set up and Ready to Play

Components: The game has a very small footprint using an 11″ x 34″ fold-out map. There are 172 counters for units and markers. The rulebook is a short 16-pages in double-column layout. There is also a single page Turn Record Sheet in way-too-small print and with no way to mark off items. Already I can see the state-of-the-art for wargame presentation has come along way since 1997. Today this would likely be a nice cardstock play aid with plenty of graphical hints suitable for photocopy or even maybe dry-erase ready.

Game Length: In the Introduction, it does does say “OSL takes from four to six hours and is suitable for solitaire play.” The game is so small surely this can’t be true? Later, in 4.0 How to Win, I read that the “winner is determined on or before the end of Game Turn 80.” Eighty turns! This means that every turn needs to be no more than 4 1/2 minutes long.

Set Up: Easy for the British. If it has a hex on the unit place it there. It it has a two-digit turn of entry place it in the Misc. Holding Box. All other units to the Reinforcements Available Box. Similar ease for the Germans.

Command Points: Players must use Command Points (CP) to activate their units. Per 6.7 German CP Limits the Germans automatically have two (2) CP each turn and can “earn” up to four more for a total of six per turn (see 6.6 German CP Awards). The British on the other hand roll a die per 6.8 British CP Awards. By the way, the British CP Awards Chart is in the rulebook and not on the map. On certain turns the CP can be affected by 6.9 RAF/RN Surge. If a surge is chosen, then the effect is rolled on the RAF/RN Surge Effects Table (again only in the rulebook). Regardless of the surge effect, the CP awarded via the die roll on the British CP Awards Chart is reduced by one. HOWEVER, Rule 6.11 First Week British Flatfootedness is in effect for Turns 1 through 4 which reduces the British CP die roll by one. All this decision space is presented on Turn 1 of the game; it took far longer than the expected 4 1/2 minutes for the turn just to figure out these rules interactions and determine the British CP.

Reinforcements: Arrive on the map using CP. With so few CP available and with CP also used to activate a unit already on the map it certainly appears the game will be “static.” Maybe that small map is not inappropriate?

Movement: Terrain effects are very limited and generally impact combat, not movement.  +1 for ease of play.

Combat: There is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in OSL. Units roll against an Anti-Armor or Anti-Infantry Rating. Using a d10, if the number rolled is less than or equal to the rating it is a hit and the target unit loses a step. There are rules for Artillery (13.5 Artillery) and Retreat (13.6 Retreat). Modifiers to combat are given in 14.2 Terrain, 14.3 Supply, 14.4 German Ground Attack Support Aircraft, and 14.5 German Super-Heavy Artillery in France. The later rule may be the most useless as the Super-Heavy Artillery can only fire up to four hexes from their on-map site. The range covers exactly six hexes of Britain. Could this be the definition of a useless chrome rule?

Gameplay Experience: I spent about 30 minutes setting up the game and reviewing the rulebook. I then played for about 2 hours. It was a slog. Early turns took much longer than the 4 1/2 minutes needed (the first turn was over 10 minutes) and, although later turns moved faster as more of the rules “clicked,” I still only made it out to just past Turn 15. At this point I was looking at 4.4 Winning which has a method of ending the game early (based on a die roll) if at the end of any turn the German VP is 46 or greater. Personally, I hate a wargame mechanic that artificially ends a game based on a chancy die roll like this. But in OSL the game seems so endless this “early out” mechanic is most welcome!

Cost: OSL has a cover price of $29.95. This converts from 1997 dollars to just under $47 today. Pricey…not sure it is really worth it absent a full play aid overhaul and tighter game development.

Tone: I have very mixed feeling about the editorial tone in the rulebook. The writers try to be welcoming to new and veteran gamers alike. There are Beginners Notes and Old Hands Notes as well as Design Notes and Historical Notes thrown in throughout the rulebook. In many ways the writing seems condescending to new gamers. If one was to follow the writer’s advice, then most Markers (rule 2.9) and rules 8.0 Replacements, 9.0 Supply, good portions of 13.0 Combat and 14.0 Fire Modifiers as well as all of 15.0 Optional Rules are not used. I question what game is left without these sections; simpler maybe but interesting? Probably not.

Bottom Line: Operations Sea Lion: Britain’s Finest Hour? is in many ways a classic hex-and-counter wargame. Classic in most game mechanics and certainly in presentation. Combat is “innovative” in that it doesn’t use a CRT and Command Points limit the amount of “boom & zoom” across the map. But at 80 turns this game is TOOO LOOOONNGGG. If the mechanics could be tweaked to make this game absolutely no more than 3 hours it might match thematic appeal to game mechanics.

Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com.