Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hunt For Red October -- mainstreaming attempted

Wargamers sometime fantasize about their hobby gaining widespread acceptance. At the very least it would make opponents easier to find! It might also save a lot of explanation. Golfers, hunters, snowboarders, crocheters and birdwatchers don't have to explain their hobbies, after all.

If only the game companies would try, the thought goes, the great unwashed would discover this great hobby. Of course, the reality is that gaming is a fairly niche hobby and wargaming a very small niche within that niche. And the reality is that there have been some mainstreaming efforts.

20 years ago, for example, TSR, which had succeeded in mainstreaming role-playing games, took advantage of its marketing clout to provide wargaming for the masses. And here I mean "real" wargaming, not just war themed, but something rigorous enough in simulation authenticity to pass muster with grognards.

So Hunt For Red October appeared. While not burdened with esoteric wargame concepts and terms such as ZOCs, CRTs and Hexes, it clearly was a real attempt at simulating modern naval warfare.

But it also had a lot of features meant to appeal to folks who would never have been tempted by SPI fare. First off, even though TSR still held the SPI rights at this point, it was not styled an "SPI" game but was under the "TSR" name, much more widely known because of D&D.
The game was based on a blockbuster best-selling novel, Tom Clancy's The Hunt For Red October. While the game includes a scenario based on the novel, its scope was much wider than just a presentation of the book in game form or mere theming.
The featured a huge, flat box with the same art as the novel. It had a large mounted board and colorful units while not selling for a high price.
The game took advantage of TSRs extensive D&D-based distribution to appear in retail outlets. I bought my copy in the bookstore of my local mall.
And it was a pretty good game, too. It had a lavishly illustrated rulebook that explained the game well-enough for new players to pick up without difficulty.
The game was a success, by wargame standards. TSR followed up with at several other similar games, so sales seem to have been acceptable.
But the game didn't result in any particular mainstreaming. Wargaming is still, and seems destined to be, a hobby of very limited appeal, no matter how well-presented.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Test of Arms a review

Twenty Years ago GDW published Test of Arms, the second game (after Team Yankee) to use its First Battle modern tactical game system.
Although the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may obscure the fact for Americans, the reality is that the world as a whole is a much more peaceful place in the first decade of the 21st Century than it was in any decade of the 20th Century. The culminating years of the Cold War ended up being especially filled with small and large wars around the world. Of the 29 scenarios in Test of Arms depicting tactical battles from around the world, more than half took place in the dozen years before the publication of the game in 1988. This isn't a statistical analysis, of course, but it certainly illustrates that the designers had no shortage of material to choose from.
I wonder how many of those wars people even remember now. Sure, Vietnam, Korea, Iran-Iraq and the sundry Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani wars probably ring a bell for most. But I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people couldn't place Ogaden, Grenada or the Longa River.
There's all here, and more. There's no attempt at presenting a comprehensive treatment of the various conflicts from 1947-1987, but rather an illustrative sampling.
The First Battle system is basic, 1980s-style wargaming. Half-inch cardboard counter maneuver across a field of hexagons using their attack factors to fire using a range factor that is compared to a defense factor for a combat ratio. A six-sided die roll on a combat result table produces a result: Destroyed of damaged for vehicles, Destroyed or Pinned for troops. The main difference in game terms is that pinned troops can recover while damage is permanent.
There are special rules for the various supporting aspects of modern combat such as aircraft, artillery, poison gas, command and cohesion, smoke and fortifications.
Like many GDW games the rules are the weakest part of the design, with many concepts inadequately explained or in conflict. Players will need to be flexible.
They also shouldn't be too hung up on winning, because many, if not most, of the scenarios are not well balanced.
Still, the game is of interest for the window it provides to an age of conflict that may otherwise be forgotten. Despite the occasional inadequacy of the rules, the game is very playable and the vast majority of scenarios have the virtue of being short and small. Most scenarios take place on a single small map, the ones that don't only use two maps. The largest force on one side is generally only a battalion, which in game terms comprises about 30-60 counters, and often a side will only have a company of 10-20 pieces in play.
There is one irritating aspect of the game's presentation that deserves mention. In an apparent attempt to keep the game cheaper different units are printed on the opposite sides of the counters. While this succeeds in keeping the counter mix about half the size it would otherwise be, it makes organizing the game's unit counters nearly impossible. A couple of S&T magazine games took this shortcut as well. While understandable, if regrettable in a magazine game, I don't see much excuse for it in a boxed game.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ancients: minimalist design

I picked up a copy of Ancients in 1986 when it was still published privately by William Banks, based on a magazine review.
What appealed to me then is what I still like about the game: It manages to depict the most salient features of pre-gunpowder warfare accurately with a minimum of fuss.
While a simple game, it's not a simplistic one and by a careful selection of combat factors and a minimal amount of rules the game works as a simulation and a game.
These days most of the boardgame action is in the Commands & Colors: Ancients series, which provides a more colorful and enjoyable game, although not necessarily a more accurate simulation than Ancients.
The original game had just a dozen different types of units and those proved enough to cover all the bases. When 3W republished the game they added some naval units and rules and tweaked the land rules a bit, but made no substantive changes to the land game.
Banks released the design into the public realm a few years back so now anybody can make their own copy and it's still well-worth adding to anyone's collection.

I'd love to see a Deluxe edition of The Awful Green Things From Outer Space

The Awful Green Things From Outer Space has been in print, more or less continuously, for more than 20 years through something like seven different editions.

It's a fun, wacky little game that's never been wildly popular but has been steadily popular. It's the sort of game that folks haul out very so often and play again.

One thing that all seven editions have had in common is that none of them have been particularly nice. Many have been downright cheap. The artwork by Tom Wham is one of the main charms of the game and excuses the inexpensive components somewhat.

But a deluxe treatment of this game is really overdue. At least one fan has created his own block game version.

And if you look at the gallery in BGG you'll see a lot of handmade 3D verisions of the game.

These are great, but many of us don't have the time or tlanet to do somethin g like that, but would love to have a version, perhaps with plastic pieces. That would be a fine eiditon to have.

Raid on St. Nazaire 66th anniversary

Today is the 66th anniversary of the Raid on St. Nazaire by British commandos.
The raid was noteworthy for being seaborne, led by a former U.S. lend-lease destroyer, the HMS Campbelltown, modified for the raid to resemble a German craft. The main objective of the raid was to disable the Normandie dock, the only dry dock along the coast of France big enough to hold the German battleship Tirpitz. The hope was that eliminating the only facility that could repair the battleship would deter the Germans from sending it on an Atlantic raid.
Led by the explosive-laden Campbelltown, which was to ram the dock, a force of several hundred commandos aboard a bunch of light craft were also to do as much extra damage as they could. In 1987 Avalon Hill published the solitaire game Raid on St. Nazaire which depicts the raid, rather well, too.
I'm surprised that there aren't more solitaire wargames on raiding operations. One of the hardest aspects of warfare to capture in wargames is the factor of surprise. In real life battles can erupt that one side had no idea was coming. Naturally the players in a wargame inherently know something is up, so real surprise is hard to achieve and usually the designer has to resort to various restrictions imposed by the rules.
Likewise, one of the factors that raiders seek to exploit is the disorganized response of the surprised defenders. In fact, in a rear area it's quite likely that there is no overall commander or chain of command to oversee the battle, so the defenders don't even have the means to act in concert.
A solitaire game like Raid on St. Nazaire can build this in. The only "organized" side is the one represented by the player, who can apply his planning to direct the actions of his troops, subject to the usual restrictions of time, space and military realities. The game system can capture the disjointed, unorganized response by the defenders. While outnumbering the raiders, the defenders don't have the means to bring that advantage to bear in the short time the raiders will give them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Patton's Best -- personalizing war

Wargaming is a hobby. It's meant to be fun and educational It's not a profound investigation into the morality, effectiveness and politics of war, although it can give some insight in such study as well.

So I don't think it's inappropriate that wargaming concentrates on the more intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying aspects of military combat. Wargaming focuses on generals and strategy. It highlights honor, bravery and cleverness. It explores technology and tactics. It's about matching wits with wily opponents.

Wargaming pays relatively little attention to the death, suffering and tragedy that is such a large part of real-life war. There's nothing wrong with that.

In his groundbreaking Little Wars, H.G. Wells said:

"How much better is this amiable miniature then the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster -- and so smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence."

So wargaming need make no apology for concentrating on the more attractive elements of military contests while de-emphasizing the ugly.

But there's also some value in being gently reminded that real war has real costs to actual human beings. We can be lectured thus, but the lesson derives more impact from being lived.

One interesting, if little-remarked aspect of solitaire games such as Patton's Best, B-17 and Ambush!, games that focus on the fates of individual soldiers is that they can remind us that those little cardboard counters, wooden blocks or plastic soldiers we maneuver represent real lives that were lived and lost once.

I think that, being a solitaire game, Patton's Best emphasizes that loss more than even a similarly focused two-player game such as Up Front!, Shell Shock! or Ace of Aces. As soon as you introduce a live opponent, the game's focus switches to the competitive aspect and the soldier's fates become secondary to the need to win. Even if you lose a character you have developed some affection for, it's in the cause of something bigger -- victory! In that sense the individual soldier is not all that different than the more faceless counter, block or generic figure in the larger scale wargames.

But with a solitaire wargame you're struggling against the "system." You're trying to defeat a faceless, soulless enemy. In that way it's actually rather more like actual modern combat than anything else. In modern war one rarely sees the enemy at all, let alone as an individual opponent.

Under these conditions I think losing your own guys in a game like Patton's Best, (or B-17 and Ambush) is more emotionally affecting than otherwise. Even if you "win" against the system, it's a somewhat empty-feeling if you lost ace gunner Bob "Deadeye" Smith that's been with M4 Sherman "Battle Baby" since the breakout at Avranches in July.

It's a small thing, really, almost trivial. But it does pull those who chose to reflect on it back from getting too carried away with the more glamorous aspects of military conflict.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

From In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

Gary Gygax tribute at MIT

A very neat tribute to Gygax at MIT:

MIT's Strategic Games Society was where I had my first exposure to D&D back in the 70s.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Onslaught Review

After it absorbed SPI the role-playing game pioneering firm of TSR made a brief foray into the hex-and-counter wargame market. Besides continuing to publish Strategy & tactics magazine and many SPI-style board wargames, it also tried its hand at a more Avalon Hill-style approach, with larger counters, mounted board and the traditional "flat box" style packaging.
Onslaught was published in 1987 and took advantage of TSR's extensive RPG distribution network to appear in a number on mass-market venues. I bought my copy at a WaldenBooks in a mall, for example.
The box art implies that Onslaught was envisioned as the first in a possible line of wargames because it was billed as "An SPI Lightning Simulation Game," which implies that there would be others.
It's an interesting commentary on the state of the wargaming hobby circa 1987 that a "four-hour wargame" would be termed a "lightning" game.
The game itself is fairly conventional hex-and-counter fare in most regards, with a CRT, combat factor-movement factor cardboard units with NATO-style symbols and zones of control.
The most distinctive aspect of the design is its use of an "action"-based turn sequence instead of the more typical movement phase-combat phase player turn sequence used in most wargames.
Instead the players alternate expending supply points to activate stacks of units which execute attacks or movement. The Allies have by far the greater number of these supply points, which gives them the initiative and is responsible for their greater combat power. The combat factors of units on both sides are approximately the same, although the Allied units are generally a bit faster than comparable German units.
As befits a game that's meant to be "low" complexity and appear in mass-market retailers, Onslaught avoids a lot of the complicating details seen in most similar wargames. For example, there are no unit designations and all units of the same type have the same strength. All allied armor divisions are the same, for example, with no attempt to make a distinction between U.S. and British OB or between the "heavy" regimental U.S. armored divisions (2nd and 3rd AD) and the "light" combat command armored divisions (all the rest).
The game still manages to include rules for supply, armor breakthroughs, paratroops, terrain modifiers and a Bulge-style German counteroffensive, so it's still clearly a "real" wargame.
The game didn't attar ct a wide following at the time, perhaps being too much for the mass market and too little for the style preferred by the "hard core" wargamers of the time.
It's worth rediscovering though, as it probably fits the tenor of these times better. The graphic presentation was superior by 1987 standards and still acceptable by today's standards. The four-hour playing time is a little long by current practice but still easy to fit into today's busy schedules. The large counters are also pretty easy on older eyes and easier for fumble fingers like mine to handle.

Tac Air personal reflections

For a long time I thought my only "wartime" service would end up being my active duty stint in the mid-1980s in West Germany during the Cold War, so Tac Air always held a special place in my collection. It was the one wargame that included a unit I served in. Or at least it was until 2003 and Iraq, but that's another story.

My unit was the 1st Battalion, 80th Field Artillery, a Lance-missile equipped artillery unit. In the game it looks like this:

The counter depicts the trailer-mounted configuration of the missile, which was almost never used. The missile couldn't be safely towed any distance while mounted this way. Normally the missile was carried on a specially modified tracked vehicle based on the M113 APC chassis.
Still, the game is correct to depict the counter as a wheeled unit because the vast majority of the battalion's vehicles were and there was no mobility advantage conferred by the tracked launcher because all its necessary supporting vehicles were wheeled.

We weren't allowed to take photos for security reasons during my time in Germany, but this photo taken at Fort Sill at the Artillery Museum in 2003 shows what the Lance launcher/transporter looked like in firing mode:

The game simplifies things somewhat by making the unit one counter because in reality the launchers operated individually spread over a wide area. Still, tracking individual vehicles is well outside the scope of the game.

Tac Air was very unusual in explicitly depicting a wide variety of supporting units in addition to the usual tank and infantry maneuver battalions usually seen in this level wargame.

That wasn't by accident, of course, because the game was designed by an Air Force officer and meant to show the interaction between air power and land combat.

When wargamers think of airpower they typically think of a few extra factors of close air support being tossed in to up the odds for their combats. While close air support is an Air Force mission, it's not particularly popular with them and for good reason. It's usually not an effective way to use airpower.

Frontline units are already doing their best to conceal themselves from nearby enemy ground units with time and opportunity to shoot at them. Those same efforts make it even harder for jets swooshing by at several hundred miles per hour to see and engage those units. In addition, those troops are usually in armored vehicles or foxholes and well-dispersed, severely reducing the effectiveness of whatever aerial weapons do get sent their way.

Using air units as artillery can be useful on occasion, but the Army's generally found it more useful to use actual artillery for the work of close support. It's more accurate, responsive and effective. When a little air support is needed, the Army can call on its own rotary-wing aerial force of attack helicopters. Compared to air force jets these are also more accurate, responsive and effective, although they are also vulnerable.

Where airpower shines is when it moves behind the lines and attacks the softer targets such as supply dumps, trucks, headquarters, artillery, EW facilities and the like. In order to give the air units something to attack these need to be on the map. To justify having them on the map, they needed to have work to do, and so Tac Air ends up being a rather comprehensive depiction of the entire spectrum of mid-1980s warfare. There are rules giving artillery, headquarters, EW, trucks, etc. stuff to do. Neat.

So the 1st Bn, 80th FA is in the game primarily to be a target, but it can get the chance to shoot to some small effect. There was a conventional warhead available for the missile, but the unit's primary task was to launch nuclear-tipped missiles, a task it can perform in the game. The game places strict limits on the number of nukes available, far below what was actually on hand. But the limits are not unreasonable given the political realities and the fact that setting off more than a few would change the entire character of the war and probably make the frontline fight shown in the game moot.

During Reforger 1984 the 1st-80th was part of the Blue Forces. This was as interesting exercise because it pitted the M-60/M113- equipped Blue Army against an Orange force that included the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Mechanized Infantry, which had been the first brigade in Europe completely equipped with the new M-1 Abrams tank and M-2/3 Bradley fighting vehicles. I got a front-seat preview of what Saddam's army would face a few years later in Desert Storm. The Orange army literally kicked our Blue butts so thoroughly that the exercise had to be halted -- twice. In one day our battalion (which was rather obviously not normally a frontline unit) was overrun several times and ended up retreating 60 kilometers!

I also got a mouse's eye view of what being an Air Force target was like. I'll always remember the moment I looked up to see a direct, head-on view of a West German F-104 on a dive-bombing run on my platoon in a logistics staging are. Had it been an actual war, my 2nd Lieutenant's combat career would have come to an ignominous end amid the ignition of my own funeral pyre. The Lance was a solid-fuel ballistic missile that was powered by mixing two substances in the combustion chamber that created a controlled explosion (not burn) creating tremendous thrust. But one 20-mm aircraft cannon shell piercing the missile would create a very uncontrolled explosion that would have blasted the entire log site. We represented a very "soft" target indeed.

Tac Air was published in 1987 and appears to be current as of 1986, my last year with the 1-80 FA, so it definitely covered the time I could have seen combat. As folks old enough will remember, this was the very end of the Cold War and many of us were very afraid that the Soviet regime would not go quietly. It's huge a tribute to leaders on both sides and to good fortune that the walls fell down in peace, not war. Certainly we wouldn't have bet that way in 1986.

Tac Air is a great reminder of the tragedy that was averted.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Team Yankee

Novelty games are somewhat unusual in wargame circles, but an example of the type is GDW's Team Yankee which was published in 1987.

The game was timed to coincide with the appearance of Harold Coyle's novel of the same name narrating the adventures of a company team led by a Capt. Bannon during the first month of fighting during a Soviet invasion of West Germany circa 1987.

Unlike Tom Clancy's epic-scale novels from around the same time, Coyle's story was very much focused on the point of view of one character and events directly affecting him and his men, with minimal attention to the larger picture or outside events.

Likewise, Team Yankee, the game, is ruthlessly focused on Bannon's war, with just the first, introductory, scenario not explicitly linked to a fight from the book. The other seven scenarios are very faithful reproductions of firefights from various pages of the book, complete with page references.

The game includes most of the elements one might expect to see in a mid-1980s tactical armor wargame such as hexes, ranged fire, attack and defense factors, movement and combat phases, and an odds-based CRT.

Unlike many similar games Team Yankee didn't attempt to cover all the bases, contenting itself with sticking to the novel. It was, however, the inaugural game in GDW's "First Battle" series which eventually became GDW's standard for 20th Century tactical armored combat, replacing its more complicated Assault series games. Team Yankee's rulebook included illustrations of sample counters for many NATO and Warsaw Pact vesicles and weapons that didn't appear in the game.

Because the game hews so closely to the novel, however, it may now be of very limited interest to most wargamers. The novel was set during a very limited time frame for the U.S. Army, the middle of its transformation from the M-60/M-113 force of the 60s, 70s and 80s to the M-1/M-2/M-3 AirLand Battle force of the 90s and 21st Century. In the novel/game the tanks and cavalry scout vehicles have upgraded to the M-1/M-3 but the infantry is still riding around in M-113s. Even in 1987 this was becoming rare.

There was also a doctrinal shift under way. The term "team" in "Team Yankee" reflected the common doctrinal practice of cross-attaching tank and mech infantry units. Tank and mech battalions would trade one or two companies to form mixed battalion-sized "task forces." This task forces would likewise exchange tank and mech platoons between some of their companies to create mixed "teams." In the novel Bannon commands a tank company cross-attached into a mech battalion. One of his platoons is exchanged for a mech platoon creating the "tank heavy" Team Yankee (two tank platoons, one mech) and the "mech heavy" Team Bravo (two mech, one tank). The other two mech companies remain pure as Charley and Delta companies.

This entire practice was largely driven by the inadequacies of the M-113-equipped infantry and as the M-2 Bradley came online this started to fall into disuse because Bradley-equipped units were powerful enough to stand on their own. By the 1991 Gulf War it was already becoming common for tank and mech battalions to fight as complete units without cross-attaching.
As an aside, combining the two has come back into vogue in a more formal sense, with the new Combined Arms Battalions having two companies of each.

All-in-all the game succeeds in its goal of bringing the novel to life as a wargame, although with some notable flaws. First among those are the sloppy rules. For a game obviously meant to appeal to military enthusiasts who might not have wargame experience it leaves a lot of holes and prompted me to write a two-page letter with rules questions. For example, the game doesn't explicitly say whether a line of sight that passes exactly along a hexside shared between a blocking and non-blocking hex is blocked or not. There isn't a consensus in wargame rules on this, so even prior wargame experience doesn't help. (The answer was it is blocked).
This sort of sloppiness was endemic to GDW rules, but a serious flaw for a game that appeared in mass-market bookstores.

For players today the game is more of a curiosity than anything else -- a novelty game. If you're interested in the general topic of World War III NATO v. WP armored combat there are any number of better games on the topic. Better First Battle titles include Test of Arms and Sands of War. As the entire genre of World War III novels and games has fallen into obscurity with the end of the Cold War both Team Yankee the game and the novel it's based on have become artifacts of a bygone era.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mission: Grenada -- 25 years after invasion

It was a quarter-century ago that a coup in the tiny West Indian island nation of Grenada gave the Reagan administration a chance for a sure military victory that removed a long-time irritant and at the same time helped provide a public relations counterweight to what was one of the biggest disasters of the Reagan era, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that same October week.
There's only been one professionally published game on the campaign and its unlikely there will be another one, considering that there was never much chance of a contest between the world's strongest superpower and one of the world's smallest independent states. Most of the interest in the affair over the years has turned on its diplomatic significance. Militarily it's been eclipsed by the much bigger operations that followed in Panama, the First Gulf War and the Afghan/Iraq wars.
At the time, however, it seemed like a big deal as it was the first test of the revitalized U.S. military under Reagan and it revealed some flaws in training and joint operations that were remedied in large part in time for the later operations.

The game was published in 1985, less than two years after the event. While it does a good job with the U.S. order of battlee, which was extensively publicized at the time, the Cuban/Grenadian OB is seriously off the mark and so the game as printed is somewhat limited in its portrayal of the actual events. Within the game, however, are sufficient resources to reflect the actual match up.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bad. It's published in the "microgame" format pioneered by Metagaming and Steve Jackson games, although in this case the publisher is the designer, Wayne Close and his company, Close Simulations. As such the components are minimal: One die-cut countersheet, a map, a small rule book and a small cardboard box.

The best components are the counters, which abandon the usual NATO-style symbols for an imaginative mix of icons, unit insignia and silhouettes. The U.S. counters are black on dark green, and therefore hard to read in poor light, but otherwise a nice presentation. Besides unit designation and type the counters include attack and defense factors and something called "action points" which are a sort of souped-up movement factor.

Perhaps the worst component is the map. Most of the island was covered in dense tropical foliage, which Close chose to represent with dark green. On top of that is overlaid a road net and buildings in black, which is hard to read and makes the U.S. units too well camouflaged to see in anything other than excellent lighting. What's not in black is in red (namely contour lines, beaches and some key landmarks) is in red, and red on green is very hard on the eyes in any lighting condition.

In-between is the rulebook, which appears to have been produced with an early word-processing programming (it was 1985) instead of being typeset, which hurt readability a little, especially given the small type size.

The game system is variation on the action point system seen elsewhere where combat is a function of movement and action points are expended as part of the fighting. In every turn the U.S. player activates units and spends their action point allowance to move and fight, followed by the Cuban/Grenadian player. As a tactical game (units are mostly company-sized) the game system takes into account things like weapons ranges, combined arms, spotting and line of sight.

There are two scenarios included, one depicts the historical assault while the second assumes that the Rangers were used off-map to secure the island's second airport and so the main effort around the capital of St. George's fell to the U.S. Marines.

Both scenarios use the same Cuban/Grenadian OB, which would have represented the "best case" scenario for the defenders if the U.S. had invaded against a unified island well-supported by its Cuban patron.

The actual event, however, was considerably different. The bloody coup by the dour Marxist ideologue Bernard Coard against the popular and charismatic Prime Minister Maurice Bishop robbed the revolutionary government of all its significant public support. Bishop was a personal friend and protege of Cuban leader Fidel Castro who was very upset at Bishop's murder. While Cuban prestige required that the 800 Cuban construction (NOT combat) engineers defend themselves with their small arms if attacked, there was no attempt to coordinate defense plans with Coard's regime. One Cuban officer was sent to the island to take charge of the Cuban detachment, but that was the only reinforcement the island got before the invasion.
The Grenadian regime had been very unpopular with Reagan because of its closeness to Castro and the Grenadians had spent several years preparing for a U.S. invasion, mobilizing almost the entire able-bodied adult population, male and female, into a popular militia. Had the U.S. invaded against the Bishop-led government it would have been a tragically bloody affair. As it turned out, however, Bishop's murder (he and his top advisers were cut to pieces by machine guns in the prison courtyard) destroyed the morale of the popular forces and only a hundred or so reported for duty. They augmented the regular battalion.

That regular battalion, as it turned out, would provide the only organized resistance to the U.S. invasion. The major parts of the unit included a mechanized company, a motorized company, a heavy weapons company and an anti-aircraft battery. These Grenadian (NOT Cuban) troops would fight for most of the day against the larger U.S. invaders, killing 17 or 18 out of the 19 American KIAs in the battle, as well as shooting down a couple of helicopters.

In game terns the best way to represent the actual defenders is to put two 2-4-4 battalions on the hill overlooking the Point Salines airport (hex 0860/0807). These represent the Cuban construction troops.
Use one of the 2-3-21 mech companies, one 2-4-21 motorised company, the mortar unit and both anti-aircraft units to represent the Grenadian regular battalion (not Cubans). Mix the rest of the Grenadian units together and randomly draw three of them to represent the militia that decide to report for duty. This should be everything. In addition to the regular VP schedule award the Grenadian player 2VP for every turn that the U.S. has NOT scored VPs for achieving his major geographic objectives (Gov. General Evac; Point Salines; Med students evac).

Mission: Grenada is the only simulation of this interesting fight and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. With the OB adjustments noted it's also authentic to the actual battle. The Grenadian "Mouse" still won't be able to hold off the American Eagle in either version of the OB, but the revised version better shows how long the odds truly were. As it was, man-for-man, the tiny Grenadian army may very well have been the most dangerous forces faced by the U.S. since Vietnam.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Drive on Frankfurt

There were a few attempts over the years to imitate Strategy & Tactics and its wargame-in-every-issue format. One of those was Counterattack magazine, which had as its premier issue game Drive on Frankfurt, an interesting entry in the NATO v. Warsaw Pact World War III genre by Jon Southard, perhaps best known for his solitaire games Carrier and Tokyo Express.

The game is an operational level depiction of a potential Soviet attack through the Fulda gap toward the major West German city of Frankfurt-am-Main. Units are battalions and regiments, but operate as parts of brigades (NATO) or Divisions (Soviet) in an interactive turn sequence. Basically, players alternate activating formations, moving and fighting.

There are special rules for helicopters, electronic warfare and air strikes. There are rules for different artillery missions and different attack postures (hasty, deliberate and assault).

Perhaps the most interesting design twist is the game's handling of step reduction and losses. Units that take step losses have a chit drawn with new combat values. As an optional rule even some units that don't take a loss can get a new chit. Unlike most games where untried units may be of unknown strength, in this game it's units that have seen combat that may now be of unknown strength.

The most unfortunate aspect of the game is the graphic presentation of the map. Why the plain terrain is grey and cities are yellow is a mystery. It's not attractive and is no improvement functionally so there's no apparent reason for the off-beat color scheme.

Overall the game is a good presentation of that great 20th Century what-if, suppose the Cold War had ended with a bang instead of a whimper. The problem for contemporary gamers is how many of those might still be worth playing, otherwise the game is primarily just a historical artifact. Drive of Frankfurt falls into the artifact category. It's really only of interest as one theory about how such a war might have been fought, but it's otherwise not all that interesting a game. It's therefore of interest mostly to collectors.

For me there's a small additional interest because I was once stationed in Aschaffenburg, which is on the map, during the time frame of the game. My unit doesn't appear in this game, though, it's in Tac Air instead.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Remember the Maine: A review

It was 110 years ago this spring that the United States battled its way onto the World Stage with the "Splendid Little War" against Spain in 1898.
It was a one-sided affair, especially at sea. U.S. battle deaths were in the hundreds, so ships were lost. One particularly colorful character played a big role in the affair from start to finish and literally rode that fame into the White House (Teddy Roosevelt). The U.S. ended up with overseas colonies for the first time and Cuba won its Independence. The war also closed the last door on Spanish pretensions of great power status.
Usually such lopsided outcomes are hard to make a satisfactory wargame out of, but things aren't quite as grim on that score as they might appear, as shown by Remember the Maine!, the issue game in Strategy & Tactics magazine No. 108, July 1986.
In truth, the Spanish didn't make the most of their opportunities in the historical event. More energetic or imaginative leadership could have made the U.S. task much harder.
For example, while the American Navy was better than the Spanish fleet,it wasn't very large. Between the need to protect the invasion fleet, guard the U.S. coast and maintain a blockade of Cuba there were opportunities to catch portions of the American force at a disadvantage. Likewise, the American ground forces did not have a big edge in quality and no edge at all in numbers over the Spanish land forces. A less passive commander might have been able to take advantage of the ill-organized U.S. landings to score a major victory.
These opportunities are well reflected in Remember the Maine!, which is really three sub games in one.
The first subgame is the tactical naval game, which uses a very simple line-em-up-and-shoot system that works well because actual tactics of the time were fairly simple. Both navies lined up in a single battle line for fleet actions and blasted away. Ships are rated for the number of primary guns and secondary guns and their ability to take hits. This subgame includes two scenarios: The historical Battle of Santiago and a hypothetical fight between the U.S. Flying Squadron and Spanish Adm. Cervera's force.
The second is a straightforward set of hex-and-counter land combat rules with mechanics familiar to anyone who has played that sort of game. Both armies were mostly infantry, with cavalry uncommon and often dismounted and artillery scarce as well. The most noteworthy twist is that troops are rated in quality from A to C, with "A" being good troops like artillerymen, U.S. regulars, some Spanish regulars and the Rough Riders. "C" quality troops are mostly Spanish militia and Cuban guerrillas, with "B" being everybody else. C-rated troops don't have zones of control, but other units do, with the usual rules about units in ZOCs being required to attack. These rules also include two scenarios: The historical Battle for San Juan Hill and a hypothetical battle for Havana.
Pulling it all together are a set of campaign rules which cover things like raiders, amphibious invasions, naval searches, coaling, random events and hurricanes. While the Spanish still have a challenging time ahead of them, the situation is not hopeless as the Americans will find themselves stretched pretty thin covering all the possible Spanish options.
The naval battle scenarios will take just a few minutes to play and the land battles can be finished in an hour. Playing the entire campaign is easily doable in an evening. The game is detailed enough that players will feel like they've gotten a good sense of what was historically possible while not getting too mired down in details.
The errata is fairly minor and won't affect gameplay significantly.

RAF: No. 247 Squadron

One of the distinctive features of wargames compared to euros and family boardgames is that they often include features that are pointless or nearly so in game terms but appear because they had some real-life relevance.
One example of this is found in the solitaire wargame RAF about the Battle of Britain. Among all the squadrons of vital Spitfires, useful Hurricanes and not useless Blenheim's there's a lonely squadron equipped with the Gladiator, a biplane fighter.
It turns out No. 247 Squadron has a distinguished history:
but the Battle of Britain was not its finest hour. The Gladiator was simply too slow to catch the speedier German bombers and the squadron didn't get a "kill" until it was re-equipped with Hurricanes later, after the time period covered in the game.
In the game the Gladiators are, if anything, a tiny bit more useful than they were in real life. They can be used to cover low-threat areas outside of German fighter range with some small chance of success. Still, in game terms they are barely worth flying and can't be put into any heavy combat without actually hurting the British cause.
Historically the Gladiators were eventually assigned to night patrols, although also without success. The game does include night patrol rules, but only allows Blenheims to fly that mission. As a minor variant you might allow the Gladiators to perform night patrols as well, considering that they were assigned the mission is the actual event. As it's a solitaire game, you should have no problem getting your opponent to agree.
Although not all that useful in game terms, No. 247 Squadron was there. Its pilots were among those few who were owed so much by so many. So it's very appropriate that it should appear.

There's Only One Decision In Cosmic Wimpout

Cosmic Wimpout is a weird little push-your-luck dice game that's been around for more than a quarter century.
Like Pass the Pigs, the game basically revolves around rolling certain dice combos which score varying amounts of points, with an ever-present chance of rolling a combo that ends the player's turn with no points being scored at all.
Unlike Pass the Pigs, which uses charming little rubber pigs for "dice," Cosmic Wimpout does use cubes, although they are custom cubes with New Age-style symbols on them. Four of the dice are white and have symbols representing "2" "3" "4" and "6" on four sides and a "5" and "10" on the others. There's a fifth, black die, which replaces one of the symbols with a "Sun" which serves as a wild card.
When playing a push-the-luck dice game there's really just one decision to make: Do you stop and score what you have so far or go on in hopes of more. It's a great way to tease out your level of tolerance for risk.
Cosmic Wimpout adds a delicious twist to the mix, which is why it's a more intense game than Pass the Pigs. In Pass the Pigs you can always stop, so it's a pretty straightforward test of risk tolerance, complicated only by the fact that there's absolutely no way to compute any probabilities because the dice are odd-shaped little rubber pigs.
It's a little easier to get a handle on the odds in Cosmic Wimpout because it uses cubic dice, but it may not do you any good. That's because under some conditions you're forced to roll again, generally under conditions that have already netted you some pretty good scores.
Perversely. this makes the moments when you can stop even more precious and the decision more agonizing, which is why this very simple little game has managed to stay popular and build up a dedicated following.
(There are, on occasion, times you can make a minor choice, usually about whether or not to score the "Sun" or roll it again, but this limited choice doesn't change the nature of the game).
Most games are all about choices, Cosmic Wimpout is the rare game that's about just one.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Requirements for Empires In Arms AH left off the box

Among the epic wargaming experiences I've had, some of the very best were from taking part in a series of grand campaign games of Empires in Arms.
The entire grand sweep of the Napoleonic Wars is there for the taking in EIA. A would-be-Napoleon can literally change the map of Europe and create the Confederation of the Rhine, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw or the Kingdom of Westphalia.
Indeed, much more than the game actually published as War & Peace, Empires in Arms should have had that title because it's much more epic in scope.
But one might be fooled by the ordinary-sized bookcase box that the game came i. There's a small hint of what's in store on the back of the box, when it says the game can accommodate up to seven players and take up to 200 hours to play.
There are, in fact, a number of requirements left unsaid. (Or if not requirements, very strongly recommendations at least.)
First, you need to have someone in the playing group who has a lot of time on his hands and/or great dedication because someone has to play host to the game. This person will have to be present for every single game session.
That host needs to have a room that can be devoted to holding the game, all set up, for many months on end. (Having to set up and take down the game multiple times will sap everyone's enthusiasm and make it unlikely you'll see it through to the end.
That host can't have kids or cats, because no wargame can lie exposed to those two elemental forces for moths on end and survive.
That host should have no spouse, or a saintly one, because of the aforementioned requirements.

If you can find such a person, be sure to be extra generous with snacks,soda and beer. And a few flowers for the spouse would be in order as well.

Battle For Moscow and what makes a good intro wargame

I once did a Geeklist for BoardGame Geek about made-for-the-purpose introductory wargames.
Then, as now, I questioned whether these efforts ever really recruited many wargamers to the hobby.
The problem is that most of them are kind of like boiled cabbage. They've been so thoroughly cooked that they end up not having much flavor.
Most wargamers don't get their start with some simple game, I believe. Indeed, some people get their start with wildly inappropriate fare for beginners like ASL, Terrible Swift Sword or Empire III. Now, I'll admit that jumping right into ASL without any help is probably more likely to discourage than encourage a new player, one also doesn't need to start with Strike Force One, especially if you have a patient teacher.
And, in truth, most wargamers seem to get into the hobby with a buddy or two. Sometimes that friends is already a wargamer. Sometimes they're not, but the buddies learn their first games together. The social support is critical. And it's even somewhat amusing to play a few times, each time developing more understanding as you figure out rules you played wrong, or overlooked or simply didn't understand.
I remember that when my best friend and I played Stalingrad back in the 1970s it was a great revelation when we discovered the benefits of a continuous line! In our first couple of games we had stacked both armies to the maximum of three units per "square." The result was rather more like a Napoleonic or even ancient battle as the two armies tried to outflank each other and cut off supply. This naturally worked against the Soviets, who had the smaller army. Then one of us -- I like to think it was me, but I can't be sure after so much time has passed -- discovered that covering the whole front with a thinner line made grand encirclements less likely and we started having a World War II-style front.
It seems all so obvious now, but there wasn't a lot of help yet. Little bands of players were discovering this strange new hobby in isolation for the most part. It was fun, though.
What we didn't have, though, was a game designed to be introductory. Most wargames of the time would be considered pretty simple by today's standards, but that doesn't take into account how unprecedented they were, so they were not all that simple to us.
Probably the single most important tactic for making a game accessible to new players is having copious and well-illustrated examples of play. The old SPI introductory wargame Napoleon at Waterloo included a letter from Jim Dunnigan explaining the hobby, but more importantly, the back of the letter had a bunch of examples of combat, invaluable to someone who's never seen a wargame before.
Battle for Moscow has simple rules and is available online for free. But the original free GDW edition included a couple of examples of play covering movement and combat.
One of the biggest flaws in most magazine issue games is the lack of play examples. This is especially unfortunate when the game introduces some novel design element.
One of the nice things about many of the new games lately is the attention being paid to including a lot of examples. In some cases the examples can take up as much space in the rule book as the actual rules. This, more than just simple rules, is the most important thing making a game accessible.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ASL and the urge for epics

One urge common to wargamers but rare among other board gaming flavors (although shared with RPGs) is to seek out and play the "epic," "campaign" or "monster" game. All three are just different manifestations of the same desire, I think, to capture the sweep and drama of a bigger-than-life gaming experience.
Warfare, by its very nature, lends itself to the grand sweep of things and its interrelated parts are well-suited to being linked. Even the otherwise-rather basic Commands and Colors system includes "Epic" and "Overlord" versions. Monster games requiring a half-dozen players achieve the links laterally.
But perhaps the most common way to create a campaign narrative is by linking a series of individual scenarios together into a longer metagame. The whole idea of "scenarios" is itself peculiar to wargames. I don't think there's anything like it in other boardgames.
The original Squad Leader included a way to build a campaign narrative including the opportunity for promoting a "personal leader" but there were many ways to link games even in ASL. The historical modules like Red Barricades and Kampfgruppe Peiper have obvious linkages, for example, but others are possible.
Myself and my regular ASL partners engaged in a giant metacampaign for the 50th anniversary of World War II playing the "official" Avalon Hill ASL scenarios in chronological order more or less on the 50th anniversaries of the actual fights. Like perhaps most such overly ambitious wargame projects it didn't reach completion (at least not yet) but it did reach fruition. We made it well in the summer of 1944 before life changes knocked the effort off schedule. Finishing the last year of the war is an ongoing, if very occasional, project to this day, even as the 60th anniversaries have now passed.
Still, we got some 200+ games played in some kind of order and had a good time doing so. There's a unique satisfaction to playing on the epic scale.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Junta: First Rebel's briefing on Junta troops

First Rebel’s Briefing On Junta Troops

Palace Guard: Four armed units that are always loyal and always available. With two shots each while in the Presidential Palace they can usually hold off a whole Army brigade, especially because it takes four coup phases for a brigade to reach the palace.

Police: Four armed units. These are inherently available to the Minister of Internal Security. These are subject to bribery, so they are occasionally co-opted. While deployed at the individual police stations they are dispersed but only two moves each from key locations. The difficulty is concentrating adequate force. On the other hand, if the Minister has seized the Chamber of Deputies then they are concentrated in one of the five key locations. They can also be deployed against Red units at the beginning of the coup. This is useful for blunting a coup’s starting forces or, if the Minister decides to support the coup, can create a police-led rabble that’s as strong as an army brigade. The Minister, therefore, is a useful recruit for the rebels or a dangerous and difficult to neutralize enemy.

Paratroops/air strikes: One armed unit and three one-shot air strikes. This is the air marshal’s inherent force. This is a very flexible force, although ill-suited to be the main rebel force. Instead it’s a strong supporting force. The three 6-die air strikes can decimate enemy forces anywhere on the map. The paratroops can swoop in on top of an undefended or lightly defended objective at the last minute, which can easily sway the overall result of the coup. As the paratroops aren’t subject to bribery this makes the air marshal useful to either side.

Army brigades: Six armed units inherent to each general. These are the main striking forces. No coup is likely to succeed without the support of at least one brigade. While powerful, the army brigades also have some key limitations. They can be bribed, so they are not entirely reliable. There are two event cards that can be played with the proper influence to neutralize one army brigade as long as they are played before the coup starts. Their other limitation is that they’re far from the key locations, using at least half the coup just to arrive at one of the key locations, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to seize them for the rebels.

Marines/gunboat: One armed unit and a gunboat. The weakest of the seven inherent forces. The admiral’s gunboat is a useful supporting unit for either side because it can fire anywhere, but unless it shoots every single coup phase its overall firepower during the coup is less than any other leader’s. The marines are much less useful than the paratroops because they have to land far from the action and still spend at least half the coup getting to an objective. Definitely just a supporting player no matter which side the admiral joins.

Helicopter Gunship: One armed unit. Probably the single most useful reinforcement, the helicopter is always loyal, only needs one card to play and provides a very flexible unit that can move twice a turn. The only real drawback it that it’s just a single unit and therefore vulnerable to loss unless teamed up with less-valuable friendly units. No blue units can be bribed, which makes them among the more reliable troops, if you can get the cards needed to bring them into play.

Christian Militia: Two armed units. These are very useful reinforcements to either side in a coup. They appear in a middle class neighborhood, placing the adjacent to most objectives and they’re not too hard to get in play as they have two prerequisite influence cards to chose from.

Home Defense League: Two armed units. While also providing two armed units, these are less useful than the militia because there’s only one available prerequisite card (so a specific pair of cards is required to bring these into play). They have to start in the suburbs, which puts them a little further from the action than the other blue units. If you have the cards, they can be useful to either side in support.

Bank Guard: Two armed units. The good news is that these two units start at the bank, which is one of the objectives, The bad news is that they can’t leave the bank, so they’re not a very flexible addition to the cause. Like most of the other blue units, these are difficult to bring into play because it requires the play of two specific cards – and influence followed by an event.

Student Mob: Three or four unarmed units. These appear in University City, which is in the heart of the action, next to no less than three objectives. As unarmed units, the mob is most useful when backing up armed units where they can soak up the losses. A farm strike can arm the mob, making them fully equal to other units in combat, but they are also subject to being bought off with the “Rabble” bride card. They can be summoned both with a general strike (one card play) or a student protest combined with either students, faculty or radicals influence (pairs), so they’re relatively easy to mobilize.

Rioters: Three to five unarmed units. These appear in one of the slums, which is less flexible than the students but still pretty close to at least one objective. They can also be mobilized with the general strike or with by the slum riot card combined with Radicals, Socialists, Peasants or Students, which is the largest array of card combos in the game. They can also be armed and/or bribed.

Strikers: Three to five unarmed units. These can only appear at the dockyards, which limits their flexibility considerably. As with the other red units, they can be bribed and/or armed. The general strike card brings them into play, as will a dock strike combined with labor union, radicals or socialists.

Demonstrators: Three to five unarmed units. These appear at one of the embassies, where no fighting can occur, but is, in each case, adjacent to an objective, Like other red units they can be bribed and/or armed, but unlike the other red units they are NOT summoned by the general strike. The only way to get them is by playing the demonstrators card with the radicals, conservatives or church influence card, so these are the least likely to appear.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rommel in the Desert: Making a difference

Every so often a game comes along that is not only a worthwhile past time but has an impact on the wider Hobby. Rommel in the Desert is one of those games because it helped a whole gaming subgenre (in this case block wargames) break out of the box public opinion had placed it.
Rommel in the Desert wasn't the first block game, or course. Quebec 1759 holds that honor. But Rommel in the Desert was the first block wargame to venture out of the black power era and move into the era of mechanized warfare. As any observer of wargames can see, to really hit the big time and Be Serious, a wargame has to have Panzers.
World War II is the single most popular era for wargames and nothing is more popular in World War II wargaming than tanks, particularly German ones.
Rommel in the Desert showed that a block wargame could handle mechanized warfare, combined armes battles, supply and logistics. Rommel in the Desert prepared the way for EastFront, Europe Engulfed and FAB: The Bulge, not to mention every other block game that explored different eras and scales of fighting such as Wizard Kings, Hammer of the Scots, Pacific Victory and Victory.
The game itself still holds up very well, despite the passage of nearly 25 years since the first edition. It was brought back most recently in a 2004 version. It's an intense game and very, very unforgiving of mistakes, making it a little hard for beginners to pick up, but between experienced players it's an excellent contest that also manages good fidelity to the history. That's all one can ask for in a good historical wargame.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Up Front, Quarter-century retrospective

Up Front appeared 25 years ago in 1983.
It's one of the most innovative wargames ever done and has a large and devoted following.
It ranks very highly in both the general ratings on BoardgameGeek (43) and the wargame-specific (49) rankings.
But for such a well-respected and popular game, it's had surprisingly little impact on the wargame hobby as a whole.
It's still played quite a bit, especially for a 25-year-old wargame, (6 playes reported this month on BGG) which is a testimony to how satisfying a game experience it is. Still, it's also clearly game from a different era.
The style these days is for games that ruthlessly concentrate on the key elements of the design and keep extraneous elements to a minimum.
Now historical wargames have some limits in this regard, because real-life is not very tidy and it's hard to focus on just some elements of war without making the game too bland.
Like many 1980s wargames the essential game structure in Up Front is not overly complicated and it's not too hard to teach the basics of the game to someone. But like many wargames from its era the rules are pretty dense. This is because, typically for wargames, about 90 percent of the rules are devoted to parts of the game that come up less than 10 percent of the time.
Despite the 80s-style game approach there's a lot of support for a reprint, although chances for that ever happening seem to be slim. Multi-man Publishing holds the rights to the game from Hasbro, but there's been little progress reported for years on a planned reprint. A straight reprint is out of the question as it seems almost certain that none of the original artwork survives.
Given that new artwork will be required, it makes sense to update the game and streamline the rules. This is apparently where the rub comes in, because the design effort to do that seems to have hit a stone wall. There's no reports that anyone is currently working on the project now.
Yet the fact that Up Front is stalled wouldn't necessarily stop anyone else from doing an Up Front-style game on the same or a different topic. The game is copyrighted but the idea is not.
The are many hex-and-counter wargames but different publishers. card-driven wargames are appearing left and right. Even the long exclusivity that Columbia Games enjoyed with block games has come to an end as other publishers come up with their own variations on the idea.
But with the lone exception of the vaguely similar Attack Sub, no one has tried to do another card-wargame with a system like Up Front. The closest have been the Lightning series and the Down in Flames series, although I think they're still pretty far removed.
Given that Up Front doesn't seem to be coming back, perhaps someone will make the effort now.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ace of Aces: Jet Eagles mystery planes

The World War I versions in the Ace of Aces series include short paragraphs introducing each plane (and famous aces, too) which is a boon to new players whose only exposure to aerial combat in the Great War might be Snoopy's Sopwith Camel doghouse.
This commendable feature wasn't carried on in the World War II version of Ace of Aces, Wingleader, although all the planes included are reasonably well-known and players presumably can research it themselves easily enough.
This largely true of the jet age game in the Ace of Aces series, Jet Eagles, which includes well-known aircraft for the most part.
There are, however, at least three aircraft in Jet Eagles which are truly obscure, and you'd have to be quite the aviation buff to recognize them off the top of your head.
One is called the SU-49 "Fullback" in the game, although as far as I can tell Jet Eagles is the only source that gives the aircraft that designation. It's better known as the SU-34 Fullback, an advanced fighter plane offered by the Sukhoi design bureau around the time the Soviet Union fell. It has only recently started to enter service in limited numbers. How close the actual plane is to the performance represented in the game is an open question.
The second is the F-29B, a design proposal from Grumman that was in competition for the next advanced air-to-air fighter for the U.S. Air Force that was ultimately won by the F-22. Unlike the F-22, which was emphasized stealth, the F-29B concentrated on performance, with advanced fly-by-wire technology used to control its unusual swept-forward wing design. It also never entered service.
The third plane isn't even a manned aircraft. The Rockwell HiMAT is a remote-controlled unmanned aircraft that was used as an experimental test platform. It was unarmed, unlike the version in the game, and never also never entered production.
The F-117A included in the game bears no resemblance to the actual F-117A, which was a light stealth bomber with no air-to-air weapons. The stats given in the game are closer to what the F-22 should have in game terms and probably it should be considered that aircraft instead.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ambush 25 years later

Ambush! was quite a breakthrough when it appeared. In the 1980s there developed a demand among wargamers for good solitaire play options. A lot of us were moving out of the high school and college environment where we had a lot of time and people to play with and into the working world and starting families, both of which cut into gaming opportunities.
Compared to other gamers, wargamers have always played a lot of games solitaire. Unlike most games, it can be rewarding to play a wargame by yourself because you're more interested in seeing how the historical battle could have developed or trying out different strategies to see how they might have affected the outcome. Indeed, most magazine wargames are played solitaire if they get played at all. It's the rare wargamer who has regular playing partners willing to try to keep up with six new magazine games a year along with all the other choices.
But playing a two-player wargame solitaire introduces problems of its own because of bias, misunderstood rules and the general schizo feeling involved in trying to play both sides in a competitive contest.
Players and designers wondered if there was a way to provide a solitaire wargaming challenge. It's not a coincidence that all this development in board wargaming happened in the 1980s, before the widespread availability of computer and video games. The dearth of titles similar to Ambush! since is probably because computer and video games can do this better than paper-based games.
Many games created a game system that the player could struggle against, such as B-17, RAF, Patton's Best and Mosby's Raiders.
Ambush took a different, story-telling approach, with it's paragraph based system. The player's movements across the map and other actions would trigger looking up specific paragraphs in a "paragraph book" which would describe events. Paragraphs would dictate how enemy soldiers acted, what scouting would see and the impact of various special events. Some would trigger "Condition" changes, which would bring entirely new sets of paragraphs into play.
The disadvantage of this approach was that it was a lot of work from the design point of view and it reduced playability somewhat. During repeated playings of the same mission players would necessarily learn what was possible, reducing the surprise effect.
That surprise effect is one the game's real strengths. Unlike most tactical wargames, where the players have an unrealistic level of knowledge about what the other side is bringing to the table, in Ambush! it's possible to be really surprised by developments. This makes it one of the more realistic tactical wargames ever, despite some "Hollywood" elements in the missions.
Times have changed and it's hard to imagine anything like Ambush! ever being published again, but it's still worth pulling out now and then. One advantage of advancing years is that it's easier to forget what you saw before and if you haven't played a mission in a decade or so it's like you never played it at all, trust me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

B-17: Military Chutes and Ladders

Now, don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed "playing" B-17 these past 25 years. But it's really a strange bird among wargames. Or even among solitaire wargames. Unlike some solitaire games it's not really a puzzle. And unlike most wargames, there aren't a lot of strategies available. Actually, there are hardly any decisions at all.

It's really more like an interactive movie or play. The player takes part, but mostly to execute lines provided by the script. Things happen to the plane and crew, but there's little they can do about it.

This is all very accurate, of course. While valiant and needing a lot of technical competence, the bomber crews of the 8th Air Force had no tactical decisions to make. Their courage was the steadfast bravery needed to stay in formation despite terror and distraction. It would be like creating a man-to-man game about Greek hoplites. Bravery was required, but tactically the overriding concern was to stay in formation.

For the B-17 crew it was much the same. The various gunners fired at the targets presented. The pilots maintained formation with the other planes. The bombardier manipulated the bombsight to drop the bombs at the proper moment. Everyone's duty required staying at their posts and doing their jobs. But almost all those jobs are simulated with die rolls with no real player input.

Like I said, I like the game and enjoy playing it, but on some level I have to admit it's much more like playing a game of Chutes and Ladders than, say, Memoir' 44, let alone being like Bitter Woods.

Samurai Blades - review

Samurai Blades is a 1984 game using the Cry Havoc system. Unlike it's Europe-based sister games (Cry Havoc, Siege and Outremer) it's a completely standalone product with one small exception. This isn't a surprise, as the game's theme is man-to-man combat in feudal Japan, which is a few centuries and many thousands of miles away from the medieval Euro-centric world of the other games.
Systemically, however, it's exactly the same. Betraying its mid-1980s wargame roots, the game uses the usual attack factor-defense factor-movement factor system so familiar to wargamers along with an odds-based combat result table for melee combat.
Missile combat is handled somewhat differently, with die rolls on a table based on the target type with modifiers for cover and range. There's only one type of missile weapon, the longbow, making that aspect of the game a little simpler than the others.
The turn sequence is also familiar for experienced wargamers. Archers fire, everybody moves, archers fire again and finally adjacent figures battle in melee.
Samurai Blades is more limited in scope than the other games of the series which have a fairly large number of available scenarios included in the published games. (All games in the series also have fan-generated material available).
Of the six scenarios included in the game, three involve unique sets of characters that aren't used in any other scenarios.
The other three could be called the "saga of pack 8" as all of them involve characters from the set called "pack 8" in the rules, sometimes alone and sometimes combined with other packs. One of the three "pack 8" scenarios also uses the Crossroads map from the original Cry Havoc game. Other than that you don't need any of the earlier games in order to play.
Compared to the other games the scenarios in Samurai Blade tend to be small to medium sized, using a dozen to two-dozen characters in total.
While a couple are fairly straightforward battle scenarios, some of the others are notable riffs on famous Japanese movies or stories including a scenario based on The Seven Samurai, one based on the Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior) and a ninja assassination scenario.
The physical presentation was superior for its time, with full-color artwork on the board and the character counters, although the counters and boards are thinner stock than many would prefer.
The rules were written in the informal British style which assumes everyone will make a good-faith effort to play within the spirit of the game and is therefore ill-suited for groups infested with rules lawyers.
Not every 24-year-old wargame holds up well, but Samurai Blades does better than most and it's well worth snagging a copy if you're interested in the topic.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Gulf Strike 25 years later

Gulf Strike is one of the more remarkable simulations to come out of Victory Games. It ended up coming far more true than nearly any other "what-if" game ever published.
When first published, in 1983, the game concentrated on the potential for a Soviet invasion of Iran and the reaction of the U.S. Rapid Deployment force.
No Soviet invasion of Iran ever came, but there was an Iraqi invasion of Iran, which resulted in a long and bloody war, as well as a low-level "Tanker War" in the Persian Gulf. These ended up being the topic of a 1988 second edition of Gulf Strike with a new scenario and more counters.
No sooner had that war ended than Saddam Hussein's legions invaded Kuwait. Avalon Hill/Victory Games rushed out another updated edition of Gulf Strike that added a new scenario covering the new war, more counters and more maps.
Finally, in The Avalon Hill General, literally has the first bombs started to fall, a final updated expansion with still more counters and a map were published.
I solitaired that "scenario" in real time and the game quite accurately predicted the fact that the Iraqis would be kicked out of Kuwait decisively.
The game itself is highly involved in the style of your typical hard-core simulation wargame. It involves multiple phases, a lot of procedures and quite a few die rolls and charts.
Each game turn, which represents two days of combat, starts with a "Strategic Stage." This quick phases involves resolving any political random events and adding reinforcements.
The second part of the turn is a "Unit Assignment Stage." During this part of the turn units are assigned various "modes" which can affect their ability to perform actions later in the turn. For example, air units can be assigned either "offensive" or "interception" mode.
There's a short Initiative Determination Stage" which determines who will be the "Initiative Player" for the balance of the turn.
There are then three "Action Stages." During the first two the initiative player moves units and conducts combat while the reaction player can make limited counter moves. In the third action stage the reaction player takes the lead and the initiative player reacts.
To say that the game and procedures are involved is to engage in considerable understatement. The game insert includes 28 examples and tables and other times. Each action stage comprises three phases, each with two or three "segments." Each land combat unit can be in one of seven different formations. There are eight different air missions that aircraft can be given. There are eight or nine
different ratings and values on a naval or air unit counter.
Command control and logistics constrain all operations, there are rules for the detection of targets and countermeasures. There are rules for mines, Patriot missiles, stealth aircraft and just about every imaginable other aspect of modern warfare.
It's really a pity that more so-called military experts and pundits who blithely urged military strikes against Iran recently didn't take the time to play through a game or two of Gulf Strike in order to develop a better appreciation for what was possible.
One reason I was very wary of seeing military action against Iran is because playing Gulf Strike had given me an appreciation for how difficult such a campaign could be. While I never tried playing a U.S. invasion of Iran, I have played out the old Soviet invasion of Iran, and their much larger army was still insufficient for a "cake walk" through Iran. It's a very large and rugged country and the logistics alone so daunting that it's obvious only a major military involvement could possibly succeed. An investment in military resources far beyond anything proposed or politically possible.
Unfortunately Victory Games and the old Avalon Hill is gone, otherwise we may have seen a further updated edition for the second war with Iraq and the potential war with Iran, but interested players can probably adjust the game with the counters and information already provided. The U.S. military forces committed to the latest war were substantially smaller than the forces in the earlier war. It would be an interesting exercise.