Monday, June 23, 2008

When Dragons Fight -- a review

When Dragons Fight has the sad distinction of being the issue game in the final issue of Command Magazine, No. 54, dated November 2000.

Command Magazine had a very good run, more than half a hundred issues over more than 10 years, which made it by far the longest-lived and most successful wargame-in-a-magazine project outside of Strategy & Tactics, which originated to concept.

Command was born out of a failed attempt by former S&T editor Ty Bomba and his associates to buy S&T. Having lined up financial backing but failed to secure the deal, Bomba went ahead anyway with his own vision of what an S&T-like magazine ought to look like. Bomba is a strong personality and such people often provoke strong reactions and Bomba and his feisty magazine were always a bit controversial.

Still, having some serious competition was good for both magazines and, ironically, Bomba is back at S&T these days. Command's demise came as somewhat of a surprise, not least, apparently to Bomba. That last issue contains, for example, the first part of a planned two-part article about Custer's Last Stand.

It wasn't a complete surprise, however, because the magazine had been limping along like a badly holed and listing battleship for the better part of three years. Cash flow problems, the bane of all small businesses, crippled operations around Issue No. 49. In addition, that issue was a disaster as the planned historical wargame wasn't ready and a chess variant presented instead. Subscriber reaction was very negative, and the problem was compounded by the ensuing erratice schedule which never really allowed a recovery.

There's also a very real question whether the wargame hobby can really support two S&T-style magazines, but Command did last long enough to suggest that it could -- at least the 1990s hobby could.

When Dragons Fight was an appropriate game to end the run with. Like the very first issue's game -- Blitzkrieg '41 -- WDF is a Bomba design. As such it features "brutal, manly combat" in high hex-and-counter wargame style. Units are rated for combat strength in attack and defense, have movement allowances and a basic IGO-HUGO turn sequence. Bomba disliked the complications of zones of control rules and they rarely appear in his designs, so WDF has none.

The situation is an interesting one, proposing to see what might happen if the People's Republic of China were to try to seize Taiwan by invasion. Most analysts foresee a more naval-air campaign instead, but if the Chinese decided on a direct approach it might look like this.

The Chinese, in the Command traditional white-on-red color scheme, are a fairly conventional-appearing force based around infantry divisions that have four steps of strength and tank divisions with six steps. The main limitation for the Chinese is that their limited transportation means can only bring in one division per turn (day) except for the initial invasion lift of two.

They do have a full supporting cast of special forces type troops, including two naval infantry brigades, two airborne brigades, eight airmobile regiments and one artillery division. If they can seize an airport they can also quickly bring in five two-step light infantry divisions.

Bomba has a weakness for weapon weirdness, here indulged with a counter representing fire support from a battery of "Super guns" of the type designed by the late Gerad Bull.

The white-on-dark blue Taiwan forces are very different. They have seven weak reserve infantry divisions and two somewhat stronger Marine divisions that are only leg-mobile and therefore nearly static. Their main hope rests with 28 two-step Combined Arms Brigades supported by three airmobile brigades. All these units are speedy, but the Taiwanese generally are weak in staying power.

Finally both sides have access to air support, which varies from 1-3 units per turn, but both sides never have air support on the same turn. This is, perhaps, the single biggest wild card in the game and a run of bad or good fortune with the air support can be critical. The Chinese are guaranteed the full 3-units of air power on the invasion turn and if they manage to capture the fortified Taiwanese air base Chien An No. 3 they get a permanent award of three while the Taiwanese air force is gone for good.

Like most invasion games, the outcome of the initial invasion is critical. With air support, the super gun and use of human waves the Chinese can almost guarantee a landing. If they fail they lose and you simple start over. Keeping the beachhead safe is the first order of business, so it's probably not wise to land in the thickest part of the Taiwanese defenses. Losing the beachhead means defeat. The difficulty for the Taiwanese is that the island is too big for the army to cover every possible landing zone in strength. In addition, the game opens with a Chinese cruise missile barrage that as a 33% chance of inflicting a step loss on each Taiwan unit. This barrage comes after the Chinese setup, so it can't be counted on to clear the way for a landing, but it does mean that about a third of the potential Taiwanese strength is negated.

By the way, this provides a handy balancing mechanic for the game between players of different experience. Adjusting the damage +1 or -1 depending on the relative experience of the Taiwanese will make the game more or less challenging without changing its nature. Considering the actual effectiveness of such a cruise missile strike is unknowable, there's ample justification for making the change as it suits the players anyway.

The overall course of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played Bomba designs, with a step-loss result odds-based CRT, optional move/fight or fight/move sequencing for either player turn (except the first one) and minimal supply rules.

The game can last up to 14 turns as the Chinese seek to capture 16 victory points worth of cities and "large towns." City hexes are worth three VPs each, while towns are worth one. The distribution of settlements around Taiwan mean that the capture of any substantial portion of the island will be enough for Chinese victory.

Play goes fast enough that players should be able to play a match, switching sides, in a long evening. There shouldn't be much time wasted with looking up rules or computing combat results as everything is familiar wargame standard stuff. Units will be heading to the dead pile in satisfying numbers.

How realistic the game might be is hard to gauge, of course. As a hypothetical war too much is unknown and unknowable to get too dogmatic about things and the game does assume two big, but debatable things. First, that the Chinese will try to take the island by brute force. Second, that the U.S. Navy will not intervene for those critical 14 days.

The new S&T game Red Dragon Rising may be have a better take on the likely course of a China war, but it's mostly a naval-air game. For a look at the ground fighting WDF seems like it's at least plausible.


  1. Bomba didn't like the complexity of ZOC rules? Holy cow! Given the "divide your combat factors based on how many hexes they were away from HQs" in Blitz '41, I find that fact highly amusing. ZOC rules seem to me to be one of the easier parts of a wargame to explain!

    BTW, the most recent issue of S&T, interestingly (and probably not coincidentally) has a War at Sea-ish (more strategic) look at a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but that can be a very small part of the game as the map runs from Japan down to the Philippines and points east. It's a Bruce Costello design, but Bomba was the developer and it shows. No ZOCS! ;-)

  2. He had less aversion to other complexities, it's true.