Monday, April 21, 2008

TCS: Semper Fi! review

Semper Fi! comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 10

Published: 1997

Designer: Lee Forester

TCS Overview

Repeated from earlier reviews. If already familiar with TCS skip this part.

Now published by Multi-Man Publishing, the TCS is one of The Gamers founding lines of series wargames that use a common set of standard rules to allow players to explore many different battles without having to learn a new set of rules every time.

In TCS the ground scale is 125 meters per hex, time is 20 minutes per daylight turn and units are platoons of troops, weapons sections and individual vehicles, so it’s about halfway between the ASL/Squad Leader squad-based systems and the traditional PanzerBlitz/First Battle platoon-oriented systems typically seen in tactical 20th Century wargames. Unlike most of its peers, TCS games always depict specific historical incidents on the actual terrain. There are no “geomorphic” representative maps or generic counters.Distinctively, the TCS system is much less concerned with the characteristics of the hardware used than the typical tactical wargame. Offensively, units either fire area-effect weapons such as small arms and high explosives or with weapons with a point effect such as anti-tank guns. Similarly, they are either area targets such as soldiers or point targets such as a vehicle, or occasionally both. If armed, the unit has a range and if made up of troops a morale rating. If it’s a vehicle or gun it has a defense rating based on its armor.

Platoons have five “steps” while weapons units have one or two. Vehicles represent individual machines and are either hit (mission kill) or not.

As one would expect there are rules covering special conditions, tactics and needs such as smoke, fortifications and various terrain effects, but the basic structure is very straightforward and, compared to other tactical wargames, uncomplicated. This aspect of the game is deliberately kept simple.

The real heart of the game system is the command control rules, which mimics the kind of staff planning that goes into conducting actual military operations at this scale. Players actually draw up their battle plans in schematic form on “op sheets” specifying exactly how they plan to conduct their attack or defense using specific units in specific ways. Once the plan is drawn up it waits while sufficient “weighted turns” accumulate in order to put it into effect. How much time passes will depend on factors such the complexity of the plan, how many different units are involved, the nature of the mission and the overall quality of the unit’s staff work and a die roll. A simple movement plan involving no contact with the enemy by a single company under a highly trained staff might take just a turn or two before coming into effect. On the other hand, a complex, multi-battalion deliberate assault by a poorly-staffed army like the Soviets may never actually happen.

This is a fascinating and unique system that creates a very different pacing from what’s usually seen. Long stretches of time tend to pass with relatively little going on interspersed with periods of intense action. It much more closely resembles the pacing of actual military operations than most tactical wargames.

On the other hand, this is also the system’s biggest weakness. It is wholly unsuited for competitive playing styles. It relies absolutely on the players making good faith effort to act within the spirit of the rules. It relies on them faithfully executing plans that no longer make tactical sense because ground facts have changed since the plan was drawn up. It requires players who will not attempt to wring every possible “legal” advantage the rules might allow but instead try act as the real-life commanders would have. It’s pointless for players whose first consideration is winning to play this. This is a game system for people interested in the journey, NOT the destination.

It can be played solitaire fairly easily by drawing up alternative plans for both sides and then dicing among those for the actual plans being used.

Series designer Dean Essig firmly insisted that no game in the series would be made obsolete by any rules changes. All updates to the system are required to be backwards compatible and therefore every game (Except the modern Force Eagle's war) can (and should) be played with the latest edition of the rules, currently 3.1.

Semper Fi! specifics:

Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1

17th-18th Aug., 1950; 18th-20th Nov., 1950; 28th Nov.- 1st Dec. 1950 Korea
Four small maps
Unit symbols: AFV, weapons and troops are all are full color icons.

Opposing Sides:United States: Elements of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade and elements of the 1st Marine Division
Communist: Elements of the 4th and 6th Divisions, North Korean People's Army and elements of the 58th, 59th and 80th Divisions of the Chinese Volunteer Army.
Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: From less than 1 to up to about 15 or so.
Playing time: From one hour for the smallest to about 20 hours.

In the earliest TCS games there were usually a half-dozen "training" scenarios that depicted small company/battalion-sized firefights that allowed the players to learn aspects of the game system before they tackled the full-blown regular scenarios, but that handy tool was abandoned as the series went on. Most of the games did make sure to include one or two smaller scenarios among their number, but for the most part the trend was towards larger and more involved battles.

Semper Fi! was apparently conceived as a way to introduce new players to the TCS system by concentrating on smaller fights. In some cases one or both sides have just a company or battalion's worth of troops and even the largest scenario would be no more than medium sized in the typical system game.

Unlike other games in the series, Semper Fi! does not depict one continuous action, but instead a series of separate battles, so there's no overall campaign game. Some of the battles were, however, linked and there is a chance for a mini-campaign game linking some scenarios.

Semper Fi! is the only TCS game to date (aside from Force Eagles War, which is considered part of a separate series) to take place outside World War II and related conflicts, but tactically the Korean War was very much a World War II-era conflict. Nearly all the weapons and tactics were the same as World War II and nearly every leader above the company level in both armies would have had extensive World War II experience.

Despite this, Semper Fi! does include more than the usual number of special rules.

The game continues listing the Infantry guns and ATGs as "Special B" targets that are usually area targets for most fire. Weapons units use the integral "nominal" trucks that have become the defacto system standard. On-Map artillery is modified somewhat and a new streamlined "assault combat routine is introduced.

There are special rules to take account of Korea-specific conditions such as Heat Exhaustion in one battle, the dedicated Marine air support in a couple of battles and the special morale characteristics of U.S. Marines in all the battles.

A number of smaller, specialized infantry units such as bazooka teams and headquarters squads appear.

The Communists, in contrast, have few special rules. Both North Korean and Chinese units have a morale benefit for night combat and a disadvantage in anti-tank combat. Communist mortars are off map and restricted in the amount of fire support they can provide due to ammo shortages and counter battery fire.
Chinese units "benefit" from political officers who can cancel a suppressed result at the cost of a step.

The Communists do benefit from a rule providing a special status of "hidden" available to units at set up that do not move. Distinct from the usual spotting rules, "hidden" units cannot be attacked until they get revealed by firing, moving or being adjacent to U.S. units. This rule is critical to the Communists to allow them to survive the U.S. firepower advantage. It prevents the Marines from simply sitting back and picking off Communist units with Corsairs or artillery barrages at leisure.

All the scenarios are short enough that players will probably only have a chance to execute their initial op sheet, although there's some chance the Marines might have a chance to draw up and implement a new op sheet occasionally.

Two scenarios take place on the Changallon Valley Map, a 20 by 27-hex battlefield of steep hills overlooking a very soggy rice-paddy filled valley. In the first scenario, which doesn't use the command rules, a few platoons of North Korean infantry ambush a Marine column with two infantry companies, battalion headquarters troops, a recon section in jeeps and a platoon of tanks with artillery and air support. In the second scenario one of the Marine companies fends off a night attack by a company of North Koreans. This scenario does use op sheets, but there will be just one per side and with just five turns no opportunity for a change.

Three scenarios take place on the 16 by 18-hex No-Name Ridge map, with features a rice-paddy encircled ridge with a few nearby hills. The first scenario covers a morning attack on the ridge, held by a reinforced battalion of North Korean infantry, by an understrength battalion of Marines. The second scenario continues the action with an afternoon attack by a second battalion of Marines while the third scenario covers the whole day's fighting. This third scenario provides the only opportunity for any tank-on-tank action in Semper Fi!, with a platoon of M-26 Pershing tanks possibly engaging some T-34/85s and/or Su-76s.

Three more scenarios cover the saga of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines as it defends "Fox Hill" on the 16 by 18-hex Fox Hill map. The first scenario depicts the first night's fighting, as Fox Company faced a two-company attack by Chicoms. Variants add more Chinese, change the weather or add artillery support. This is my favorite scenario in the game system for teaching because there are many tools available for adjusting the play balance. For example, the game can be played with up to two whole battalions of Chinese attacking during a snow storm to provide a real challenge for an experienced U.S. player against a novice. On the other hand, the veteran Chinese player can try to take the hill with just the original two companies of infantry while giving the novice U.S. a battery of 105 mm howitzers in support. The second scenario depicts the second night's attack on the weakened Fox Company, which does, however, have artillery support. Like the first night's attack the Chinese historically didn't come in full strength, with just two companies. A variant adds the balance of that battalion for a greater challenge. The third scenario links both night's attacks, while adding the possibility of a third night. This makes a nice little campaign game, playable in an evening.

The Hagaru map is the setting for the final five scenarios. At 30 by 35 hexes, this is the largest battlefield and the OB is also, by far, the most extensive. The scenarios cover several nights of fighting around the airfield at Hagaru. The terrain is mostly flat, snow-covered open ground, except for a steep hill overlooking the airfield and the flattened town of Hagaru. Each historical night's fighting is covered, as well as one hypothetical. The U.S. forces are an eclectic mix of Marine combat and support troops, Army units and even some British commandos. Although not depicted explicitly, many of the "American" units include large numbers of Korean draftees as well. In contrast to the hodge-podge of U.N. troops, the Chinese forces are numerous and homogeneous. Depending on the scenario, the Chinese attack with one to three regiments of infantry, each having 30 platoons of infantry, nine "weapons" (light mortar) sections and nine machine guns sections. The only support they have are some off-board mortar fire and, occasionally, a few infantry guns.

The scenarios on the Hagaru map are fairly big, but each covers just a single night's worth of fighting. As night turns are an hour each, instead of the usual 20 minutes and winter nights are long, they end up being no more than 11 turns long, so even these scenarios are relatively small by TCS standards and can probably be played to completion in an evening.

Compared to most games in the series, Semper Fi! had an unusual amount of errata, some of which definitely affects play and players should be sure to download it.

Semper Fi! is one of my favorites in the system. Getting together for one of the larger games can be difficult and usually they require multiple sitting to complete so someone needs to have the space to leave the game set up. Semper Fi1 scenarios, on the other hand, can always be played in a single evening, especially if players take the time to draw up their op sheets before hand.

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