Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Victory at Midway review

Victory at Midway is a low-complexity hex-and-counter wargame covering the pivotal 1942 naval battle.

It was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 14. The 10-page rule book lays out what became the signature approach of designer Ben Knight -- simple mechanics that capture the key elements of a historical situation, with just enough chrome to add some flavor.

Each turn represents 3-3 1/2 hours and each hex is 100 miles. The large unit counters represent single ships or small groups of ships. The 1/2-inch counters represent air units of 6-12 aircraft or land units of company (US) or battalion (Japanese) strength. Filling out the counter mix are various informational counters.

Like many carrier battle games, Victory at Midway uses a "double-blind" system where each player has his own map and searches for his opponent by calling out search hexes, similar to the game "Battleship" or the classic Avalon Hill game "Midway."

Players secretly move their units on their own map, conduct searches, and then secretly assign air strikes. Both sides reveal their strikes and resolve them. After that any surface combat, bombardment or invasion combat is resolved.

The combat system is likewise straightforward, with units rated for their fire strength against air or surface units. Each step fires by rolling a 10-sided die and comparing the result to its strength. Each roll equal to or less than that strength scores a hit. For example, the deadly Japanese Zero fighters are rated a "7" so they have a 70 percent chance of causing a hit in air-to-air combat, while the obsolete Buffalo fighters flown by the Marines at Midway are a mere "3." All combat (air-to-air, air-to-ground, ship-to-ship, ground combat, etc.) is handled the same way.

The third factor on most counters is a movement factor (naval) or range (air). Like most Knight designs these are suprisingly low, with nearly all naval units rated "1." Some are rated "1/2" or even "1/3" meaning they move every second or third turn. Likewise nearly all the aircraft have a range of just "2" with the most notable exception being Midway's B-17's with a range of "6." In a Ben Knight design maneuvering is a multi-turn concept.

The game components are the usual XTR standard. The map naturally is mostly a blue expanse of sea, with a handful of items. One corner of the map is shaded to indicate it is covered by a huge fog bank at the beginning of the game.

Japanse units show overhead views of aircraft or side views of warships on red counters with yellow print. American naval units are on blue counters with yellow print, Marine and Army Air Corps units are olive green. For both sides the one-step side of the counter is a lighter shade of the base color.

Victory is determined by victory points. Most are scored by getting hits on enemy units (carrier hits are worth 5VP, each air unit step just 1/2VP) but occupying Midway is worth 11 VP.

Set up is less than five minutes and it should be possible to play the full 25-turn game twice in an evening.

There are a handful of optional rules that add little complexity and should always be used.

There are solitaire rules that pit the player as the USN against the historical Japanese plan, which was rather inflexible.

Recommendations: (Yes) For wargamers. A nice simple wargame depicting a fascinating battle.

(No) For collectors. Nothing special.

(Yes) For Eurogamers. While component quality is not up to current standards the game is light on intricate details and has straightforward rules that may make it accessible for nonwargamers who want to try one out.

History of wargaming 1975-1990

Author's note: This article orginally appeared in Strategy & Tactics No. 136 in July 1990

THE HISTORY OF WARGAMING 1975-1990

(Jim Dunnigan's) Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned by my predecessor, Tyrone Bomba. I told the author, a newspaper journalist from Massachusetts, to go ahead and gave him the phone numbers of several people I knew so he could dig out whatever additional information he needed. My only input was some names and dates. This was how I handled the assignment for the 1975 History of Wargaming article by (Stephen B. Patrick). Deja vu all over again. Well, not exactly. I’m looking forward to the 2005 installment.

by Seth Owen

“...while still very much a special interest within the broader area of leisure time activity, simulation gaming is exhibiting a growth and diversity that can only be inter­preted as a positive sign for the future.”

—Stephen B. Patrick, S& T #53 (Nov/Dec 1975)

A decade and a half after the history of wargaming was last ex­amined in these pages a lot of things have changed. SPI has ceased to be the leading firm in the hobby—now it’s merely a trademark owned by a company few had heard of in 1975. Rand Game Associates, Taurus Games and Jagdpan­ther Magazine, which altogether rated two pages of ink in 1975 are now nearly forgotten, joining Conflict magazine in “...the dustbin of history”— or at best dusty wargame shelves.

Some things look much the same. There is still an Avalon Hill Game Company, PANZERBLITZ is stili in print—and a certain James F. Dunni­gan edits a magazine-with-a-game-in-it-called Strategy & Tactics.

The hot news in 1975, according to Patrick’s S&T 53 article, was the “new life in Baltimore” as Avalon Hill emerged from a period of stagnation by publishing eight wargarnes in 1974, followed by four more in 1975. AH also opened a new phase in hobby history by sponsoring the first national wargames convention ORIGINS, in Baltimore.

But the real news was being made on what were, in 1975, the fringes of the wargaming hobby, as a new genre of game began to catch on. These were known as Fantasy Role Playing Games, and the first example was a supplement to a set of miniatures rules. A minor wargame publisher, known as Tactical Studies Rules, in 1974 published a supplement to its mediocre CHAINMAIL medieval miniatures rules. That supplement was the fantasy role playing rules called DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

The popularity of the fantasy role-playing games was phenomenal. By 1979 author Jon Freeman was calling it “the tail that (threatens) to wag the wargaming dog.”

Role playing games hit a responsive chord that traditional board and miniature wargames never did. Within the first few years more people were playing D&D alone than ever played all other wargames put together. The role players, or “adventure garners” as they preferred to be called, outgrew their wargaming roots and formed their own hobby, complete with magazines and national conventions.

Hard on the heels of the conceptual breakthrough represented by role playing was the technological breakthrough represented by the microchip.

As affordable small computers became available in the late 1970s, garners began to experiment with their potential. Preventing explosive growth like that of RPG’s were the plethora of incompatible operating systems and the inexperience of the designer/programmers.

Neither would last long.

Both computer games and role playing games appealed to the edu­cated young males that formed the backbone of the wargaming hobby. While no data exists to show that these new types of gaming were choking the growth of board wargaming, that growth did stop around the same time that role playing games and computer games became available.

In 1975 these trends lay in the future, of course and their impact could not be foreseen.


A GOLDEN AGE, 1 976-80

While the potential of computers remained unfulfilled, and wargamers regarded the growing ranks of role players with a mixture of amusement and disdain, the hobby mainstream was vigorous and innovative.

The leading force in the hobby during the late 70s continued to be Simulations Publications Inc. Through S&T magazine SPI reached over 35,000 gamers every two months. In addition to subscribers, pass around of issues brought an estimated additional 60,000 garners in contact with the magazine and its games.

The late seventies were the era of the so-called “monster game.” Talked about for years —as early as S&T 11 (Jan 68) there is talk about a division level wargame of the eastern front campaign called STALINGRAD II — the publication of Game Designers’ DRANG NACH OSTEN in 1973 opened the floodgates.

GDW may have been first, but SPI soon took the lead. Massive WAR IN THE EAST soon led to WAR IN THE WEST, then WAR N EUROPE. Classic subjects such as Gettysburg (TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD), Waterloo (WELLINGTON’S VICTORY) and the Bulge (WACHT AM REIN) all got
growth pills.

While not the last monster game, the genre reached a psychological, and physical, peak with the legendary CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA in 1979.

While SPI poured out titles, large and small, Avalon Hill sought growth through acquisitions. AH bought the rights to DIPLOMACY, 3M games and Sports IIllustrated Games in 1976, Aladdin in 1977 and Battleline in 1979.

Taking the hint from TSR’s huge success, GDW carved out a niche for itself with the science fiction role playing game TRAVELER. The financial success of TRAVELER propelled GDW out of the third world of game pub­lishers. It wasn’t a giant like SPI, AH or TSR, but it wasn’t small either.

For Avalon Hill the most significant game was undoubtedly SQUAD LEADER in 1977. The company reinforced success by issuing gamettes such as CROSS of IRON and CRESCENDO of DOOM. The game seemed to take on a life of its own. Many players dove into the rules with an intensity heretofore seen only in RPG circles. Many played nothing else but SQUAD LEADER.

As the decade drew toward a dose several other companies seemed only one big hit away from breaking out of the pack. Simulations Canada, Yaquinto Publications, Inc. and Operational Studies Group were leading the “third world” of small publishers specializing in historical subjects. A few other firms such as Metagaming and Task Force Games, while empha­sizing sd-fl, also dabbled in historical topics.

Soon after Patrick’s article in S&T 53 appeared, Conflict magazine folded. The field was not abandoned to house organs, however. In 1976 Fire & Movement appeared. The hobby was large enough to support a magazine that was about the hobby itself, as distinct from the history be­hind the games or the virtues of a single company’s product line.

F&M set as its task the reviewing of the flood of new games coming out. It seemed that the bad old days of one-game-a year were gone forever. Even AH started pumping out titles. Avalon Hill averaged five new wargames per year from 1975-80.

The undisputed champions of profusion were the folks at SPI. The 1980 catalog listed 196 games! Eight years before, the 1972 catalog listed only 30. Taking into account the games that had gone out of print, SPI aver­aged about 27 new games each year through the late 70s.

SHAKING OUT, 1981-84

As the new decade opened, Patrick’s predictions of wide popularity and continued growth seemed destined to be fulfilled. But before the decade was half over some of the biggest names in the hobby would be out and the survivors struggling to stay solvent.

Grabbing a lot of attention in 1980 was Dallas-based Yaquinto. The firm specialized in splashy graphics and innovative, if poorly organized, rules. Yaquinto assured itself a distinctive look with its line of “album” games. These tended to be simpler designs aimed at the more casual gamer. One of these attempted to cash in on the popularity of the then-popular TV show “Dallas.”

Among the harbingers of the future were the creation, by Avalon Hill, of a computer game publishing sister company and the appearance in 1977 of a new magazine-with-a-game-in-it in England, The Wargamer.

Despite the vigorous appearance of hobby giant SPI, serious problems were beginning to undermine the financial health of the company. All but a few hobby insiders were stunned by the news, early in 1982, that fantasy game superpower TSR had just bought SPI.

The full story of SPI’s demise is still obscured by the reluctance of many of the principals to talk about what went wrong, and why.

The underlying problem was apparently a sharp drop in the cash flow. It seems that SPI’s finances depended on continued growth. Besides publishing over 200 game titles in the seventies, SPI had boosted the circu­lation of S&T from about 1500 in 1970 to over 36,000 in 1980. The rocket-like growth of the mid-seventies slowed dramatically towards the end of the decade.

In 1979, SPI’s lease on their offices and warehouse in New York were up and they had to decide to go for larger space, the same amount of space or to even shrink. They went for smaller space for offices in New York and the same amount of space for a warehouse across the river in New Jersey. Pulling off this reorganization took a lot of time, and money. Coupled with all the other problems that came with the huge growth of the 1970’s, a sudden downturn in the retail market in 1979-80 put the company in a cash crunch.

SPI president Jim Dunnigan, his partner Redmond Simonsen and other senior staffers reached an impasse over which direction SPI should go, and disagreed over some business decisions. There were disagree­ments on how to solve the problems, which eventually resulted in the resignation of SPI president Jim Dunnigan in October, 1980. Accounts differ over how much acrimony was involved, but the result was that Simonsen and Brad Hessel were in charge. Before Dunnigan left, it was agreed that S&T’s founder and former editor Christopher Wagner would come back and take over as president of SPI.

Whether it was because of earlier errors by Dunnigan, new mistakes by Wagner, or market forces beyond anyone’s control, a disastrous 1981 Christmas season brought SPI finances to a crisis. Wagner began looking for help. His most noticeable move was to obtain an infusion of $300,000 from a venture capital firm. It was not enough. In the eighteen months after Dunnigan left, SPI lost over a million dollars.

TSR loaned SPI a substantial amount of money to keep operating, with SPI’s trademarks and inventory used as collateral. Meanwhile, Avalon Hill and SPI negotiated over the terms of a possible buy out. Apparently an agreement was almost reached, (leading one hobby newsletter to errone­ously headline “AH buys SPI!”) but at the last minute the deal fell through.

Instead, it was TSR that held the cards. When the AH-SPI deal didn’t happen TSR foreclosed on the loan, bringing it ownership of nearly every­thing of value SPI had. In May of 1982, SPI ceased to exist.

Avalon Hill did not go away empty handed. Just about the entire SPI design team deserted the sinking ship and signed on to a new sister company for AH called Victory Games.

The sudden (in the hobbyists’ eyes) downfall of SPI stunned the hobby. The way TSR took over SPI’s assets caused bitterness and bad feel­ings that S&T was never able to overcome.

For a number of years S&T had offered subscribers lifetime subscriptions to the magazine. The most loyal and committed readers forked over hundreds of dollars for a guaranteed lifetime supply of magazines and games. When TSR took over, the company took the position it was under no legal obligation to honor those lifetime subscriptions.

While the policy may have been correct on legal grounds, it was a disaster for marketing and public relations. Many of the lifetime subscribe­rs were opinion leaders in their gaming circles. Certainly they were the most committed fans. They felt betrayed. TSR had long been viewed with widespread distrust throughout the hobby because of wrangling over con­vention scheduling and questions about its commitment to historical gaming. By abandoning the lifetime subbers TSR dumped S&T’s most zealous fans. The magazine went into a subscription free fall that wouldn’t bottom out until the last part of the decade (from 36,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 1990).

Contributing to the decline were cutbacks in the frequency of issues containing games and a decline in quality for the few that were published.

In the general hobby-wide retrenchment following the death of SPI both OSG (in 1982) and Yaquinto (in 1983) folded.

Two new magazines attempted to bridge the increasing fragmenta­tion of the hobby by including articles running the gamut from wargaming to role playing. The first of these was Adventure Gaming, which resembled some of the fantasy game magazines in layout and approach, although it tried some wargarne coverage. The second was Gameplay, which tried a more mass market look and appeal. It had a very balanced presentation of role playing, wargaming, miniatures and general interest games. Both foundered on the rock of parochialism. It turned out that very few garners were interested in more than one type of game.

Some were interested in only a single game, (SL fanatics had On All Fronts, D&D and The Dragon) or one genre (Miniatures players had The Courier) or even one period within a genre (Ancients players had Slingshot).

Few garners had the wide gaming interests assumed by the maga­zines. None were satisfied with the scant coverage their favorite type of game received.

As the board game hobby staggered along, adjusting to the loss of SPI and reduced sales in general, the computer gaming hobby began to sort itself out as several manufacturer’s systems became standard, the power of the machines increased and the designer/programmers learned to take advantage of that power. By 1984 computer game reviews and ads were taking up a significant portion of hobby magazines.

Stepping into the void left by S&T’s decline was World Wide Wargames’ (3W) The Wargamer. Originally somewhat amateurish, the magazine began to improve graphically, though the quality of games was still spotty. General disaffection with Strategy & Tactics caused many garners to turn to The Wargamer, which began to challenge S&T’s status as the hobby’s premier magazine


RESHUFFLING THE DECK, 1985-89

Like a game of musical chairs, the middle years of wargaming’s third decade are a confusing tale of trades, acquisitions and newcomers.

Perhaps the most significant of the latter was the self- proclaimed “SPI of the West” in sleepy Cambria, California. By late 1986, TSR was looking for a buyer for the rapidly sinking S&T. While the quality of S&T re­bounded somewhat in 1986, it was not enough to save S&T in the face of a vigorous challenge from 3W’s The Wargamer. After 3W moved its opera­tions from England to California, the magazine began a frenzied publica­tion schedule that reached a monthly pace by 1986. The games not only increased in quantity, they also increased in quality, surprisingly.

TSR then sold S&T to 3W, retaining the SPI trademark for use on wargames. This finally cut S&T off from the name that made it big. 3W’s acquisition of S&T set off a chain reaction of mergers, trades and spin-offs among hobby periodicals. By the time the dust had settled in 1988, 3W had S&T, while a reborn Wargamer (Volume 2) ended up with independent publisher, and former editor Christopher Cummins. Cummins later also took over F&M.

3W was not the only potential buyer for S&T. Jeff Tibbetts, publisher of the irregular wargame review magazine (and former GDW house organ) The Grenadier and sci-fi oriented Battle Technology, came out with Counter­attack. This was another magazine-with-a-game-in-it. Unfortunately, either finances or commitment were in short supply, as the “bi-monthly” maga­zine struggled to maintain an annual frequency of publication.

As if to prove that it couldn’t be done, in 1985 another general interest game magazine called Game News lasted for fourteen issues before it went the way of the dodo.

Computer gaming continued to grow as more gamers discovered computers and more computer owners discovered computer wargames. The more powerful machines and sophisticated programs were beginning to exploit the potential of computers.

Historical documentation started to appear in game manuals, adding a new dimension besides spiffy computer graphics.

TSR attempted to capitalize on the SPI trademark by reissuing ver­sions of some old SPI favorites such a TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD and SNIPER, along with some new games in the old tradition such as REBEL SABERS. These games were well received in the hobby, but compared to the huge sales TSR was accustomed to with its D&D related products (by now including mass market paperbacks, toys, computer games and even a Saturday morning cartoon show), the wargames were a poor return on the investment. TSR turned to a new strategy of easier-to-play wargames that could appeal to the casual gamer. The first of these was ONSLAUGHT, but the more important was THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.

Also plunging into the historical wargame market was Milton Bradley, with its “Gamemaster” series. Using plastic pieces and top notch production, these games made it onto the shelves of the major toy chains. The MB foray was not ~ destined to last. While best-sellers by wargame hobby standards, they weren’t another MONOPOLY or CLUE.

For Avalon Hill, the eighties saw continued retrenchment, but the comuany’s course was remarkably stable, despite the ferment in the hobby and rumors about AH’s finances. AH seemed determined to weather the hard times by building on the success of ASL and simpler games as PLA­TOON and a new GETTYSBURG.

AH’s sister company, Victory Games, kept putting out a steady num­ber of impressive “SPI-style” games. But slowly the old SPI staff left for other jobs, however, and in 1990 Victory would close up shop in New York and move to Baltimore.

There was a general push towards simpler games, as the hobby began to recognize that its demographics were changing. While S&T reader polls in the 1970s had found that only one in twenty readers were 35 or older, by 1990 the ‘average’ age of the readership was over 35. It was clear younger people were not getting into the hobby in large numbers.

Hobby pundits began to worry about its future. Without new players joining the hobby, it would, necessarily decline. Fewer garners would mean fewer games.

Many blamed the high complexity of games and said simpler games were needed. Introductory games such as GDW’s BATTLE FOR MOSCOW and AH’s PLATOON were designed. The simpler games also service an­other audience, for the single college student of the seventies had given way to the busy married breadwinner of the eighties. This cut into playing time.

Another symptom of the Yuppification of the hobby was the popularity of solitaire games. Most computer games were primarily solitaire, of course, but game design attempts in the 70s to produce an acceptable manual solitaire game failed (WOLF PACK, FALL OF ROME).

In 1983, the design barrier was broken by two titles. The first, VG’s AMBUSH, used a paragraph book to solve the problem of an intelligent opponent. This concept was borrowed from fantasy gaming. Around the same time AH used multiple charts and die rolls to create variety and interest in B-17. Both games were successful and followed by other titles using similar concepts.

Creating a brief stir in the hobby were “double-blind” games. The concept was nearly as old as board wargaming itself — Midway used it in 1964 — but its application to land campaigns seemed to promise new levels of realism. The few bold experiments ended in failure. Gamers found out they had too LITFLE information, and the games foundered on cumbersome mechanics.


POISED AT A CROSSROADS? 1990-?

“I don’t see them around in stores any more.”
— Stephen B. Patrick, Interview, Mar. 1990

Perhaps the most significant hobby event of 1989 had nothing to do with the hobby itself. The collapse of European communism and the appar­ent end of the cold war raised interesting questions for the hobby’s future. While future history games didn’t appear until 1972 (RED STAR/WHITE STAR), in a larger sense boardgaming is a creature of the cold war. The first wargame (in the 1950s) was designed by a young reserve officer who thought he might have to go fight Communists. The generation that plays the games is the baby boom generation that grew up in the aftermath of the greatest war in history and the nuclear bomb.

Rodger MacGowan wonders whether “It was the clear perception of danger, feeling that maybe it’s inevitable that there be a war between the US and Soviet Union that created the interest in wargames.”

That world is disappearing into the history books. The children of the 90s will probably not understand why the children of the fifties thought war and history were fascinating.

Is the hobby doomed to join the hula hoop and Mah Jong as curiosities of another age?

Rejecting the notion that there should be a “malaise” in the hobby is feisty Command magazine, founded by former S&T editor Ty Bomba and two associates. The appearance of Command gives the hobby three maga­zines-with-games-in them for the first time, though one of them may be down for the count (Counterattack).

Meanwhile, over at S&T, Jim Dunnigan has returned as editor. Dunni­gan was, more than any other single individual, responsible for the growth of the hobby in the seventies and started off his new tenure as editor by proclaiming the need to “re-invent the wargame for the 90s.”

Computer games are becoming more sophisticated, affordable and common. The histoncity of many are approaching boardgame standards.

The hobby may be at a crossroads. It may continue its decline. It may experience a rebirth, or it may simply evolve.

Just as computer chess programs have not made traditional chess sets obsolete, the computer wargarne will not make all manual wargames obso­lete. The most resilient will be the simpler games (AFRIKA CORPS), games with fun game mechanics (MODERN NAVAL BATTLES) and socially interactive games (DIPLOMACY).

The games most likely to face the fate of the dinosaurs are those using detailed mechanics to simulate an event. Only a few garners enjoy the computations required. Computer games will win over the rest, as soon as serious gamers are satisfied they do as good a job at simulating history as better board games do.

As the last decade of the century begins, it is hard to be as optimistic about the hobby as Steve Patrick was in 1975. It’s clear that the study of war, and playing games about it, will never replace Monday Night Football.

But Patrick’s 1990 observation is not completely true, either. Wargames CAN be found in every mall. Is a wargame truly defined by card­board and hexagons? If not, computer games can be seen for what they are: just another technique for modeling what can never really be simulated, the business of, as H.G. Wells called it, “Great War.”

Bibliography

Rodger MacCowan, Interview, Mar 1990.
Patrick, Stephen B. Patrick, “The History of Wargaming Update”, Strat­egy & Tactics magazine, #53 (Nov/Dec 75).
Patrick, Stephen B., telephone interview, March 1990.

Freeman, Jon, The Playboy Winner’s Cuide to Board Games, Playboy Press, 1979.
_______ Avalon Hill Silver Jubilee Booklet.
Allen, Thomas B., War Games, McGraw Hill Book Co, New York, 1987.

Perla, Peter P. The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institue Press, Annapolis, MD, 1990.
Freeman, Jon, The Complete Book of Wargames, Fireside Press, New York, 1980.
Palmer, Nicholas, The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming, Hippo­crene Books, New York, 1977:
Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook, William Morrow and Col., New York, 1980.

Various issues of the following magazines:
The Wargamer
Command
Counterattack
The Courier
Game play
The Kommandeur
The Avalon Hill General
Strategy & Tactics
Fire & Movement
Game News
Little Wars

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Quarto! quandary

Quarto! leaves me in a bit of a quandary because I think I like the game better than I should.

I ought not to like it much because it's really not much of a game, when you come right down to it. It's basically a more elaborate tic-tac-toe.

It's much more challenging than the little X and O game, but it's principles are the same. The 4 by 4 grid, of course, add a little to the possibilities. Instead of just 8 winning lines there are 10. But the real difference is that it's not just X and O but a line of four pieces sharing one of eight characteristics: dark or light, solid or hollow, tall or short, square or round. It's all very clever, mostly because figuring out the possible combinations in the mid game are too hard for human brains, but it should be solvable. Perhaps it already is.

Certainly it's easy enough to set up a drawn position, which indicates to me that a draw must be the likely outcome if both players play properly, just as it is in tic-tac-toe.

The first few moves are meaningless. One piece is as good as another.

And the end game, once the last few pieces are left, should be solvable by attentive human play.

The middle game, which sets up the win for one side or the other, is beyond human computation, so both players are basically forced to try to trick the other player into an unwise move. But, assuming both players are careful, this effort should fail and an inevitable draw set up.

Still, I find myself playing the game often enough. It's a very "shallow" game -- as shallow as Go is "deep." But it plays quickly and it can be amusing enough because of blunders. Usually you spot your blunder as soon as you place your piece and realize you boxed yourself in.

And it looks nice. The game could be played with paper and pencil ( filled-open, red-black, circle-square, thick line-thin line would do) but the hefty and handsome wooden pieces provide a pleasing tactile sensation that add to the game's appeal.

Yeah, it's not much of a game, but it's enough fun to be a staple part of my game collection.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Artillery and the 20th Century Wargame

This article was first published in Strategy & Tactics magazine No. 135, summer 1990

Only minor typos have been corrected.

Since the article was written things have changed somewhat. Most obviously, the portion about “World War III” has been overtaken by events as the Cold War ended, although most of the world’s militaries are still divided between those operating under the Soviet-style tactical system and those operating using Western techniques.

Also, since this article was first published there has been much more attention paid to the proper role of artillery in tactical-level wargames and many of the article’s criticisms are less valid now. It’s possible that this article played some role in that development, as at least one detailed computer wargame cites this article as a source in its reference list. In any case, most tactical wargames today do a much better job recognizing the way artillery really works than the games extent in the 1980s.


Enthroning the King:
Artillery and the Twentieth Century Wargame


By Seth Owen

Most 20th Century games give artil­lery fire cursory treatment. Games that account for every millimeter of armor thickness settle for generic rules that treat everybody’s artillery the same, and no­body’s correctly.

As an artilleryman this bugs me. Why should the treadheads and grunts have all the fun? My mission is to fix this.

At the turn of the century artillery tactics were much the same as they had been for the last few centuries. Horse drawn batteries would gallop to positions selected by the battery commander and open direct fire on the enemy. The individual gunner selected his particular target. He estimated range, laid the gun on the target and selected the round to fire.

Sometimes the battery commander would designate a target to mass the fire of his battery. On rare occasions a general would mass many guns into Grand Battery. Often this was a battle winning tactic. It was very diffi­cult to form and control these grand batteries. It required a lot of time and favorable terrain to do it at all.

The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw many significant improvements in the guns, such as recoil mechanisms, mod­em shells and better powder charges. Even so, tactics remained the same.

World War I

By the opening days of World War I it was clear that the old method of direct fire was now suicidal. In previous centuries counterbattery fire was only marginally effec­tive. Many generals, Wellington comes to mind, prohibited their gunners from engaging in it, considering it a waste of ammunition.

The new rapid-fire guns, high explosive shells and improved propellants could devas­tate an opposing battery in minutes. If you could be seen you could, you would, be killed.

To survive, batteries were forced to take cover. They hid behind terrain such as hills, woods or towns, so enemy batteries could not take them under direct fire.

The problem now was how to fire the guns at targets they could no longer see. Dur­ing the black powder era howitzers and mor­tars had sometimes engaged in “observed fire.” The battery commander or another officer would climb a nearby prominence. From it he would observe the fall of shell and give firing commands to the howitzer or mortar crew. This was a slow process, more art than science, normally restricted to static warfare.

At first these techniques were adapted for all field artillery. Field artillery officers who were to observe the targets moved away from the battery and took a position affording the best view. A First World War British artillery officer described the process:

“The position of the battery and target are ascertained upon a map, and by means of it the range and direction of the target from the battery are obtained. A calculation based upon this information is made, and a certain elevation and direction given to the guns. A round is then fired, and then the position of the point where it falls relative to the target noted by the observation officer, who gives a correction based upon their error.”

“Another round is . fired … and a fresh correction made … this process continues until the rounds are falling at, or very dose to the target.”

Each battery had its own observation post (OP). If enemy fire forced the OP to move or knocked it out, the same officer noted. “The battery is out of action until he has established himself somewhere else

The troops comprising the Observation Post (OP) had carefully worked out proce­dures to calculate the firing data. OPs were normally located on prominent terrain behind the trench line. With this system it was very difficult to mass the fires of more than one unit on a particular target To adjust the fires of other units besides his own battery, the observer had to know where they were and compute data for them. This was a time con­suming process. The alternative was to give the map position of the target to the battery commander and let hint fire unobserved rounds.

Given enough time any army could mass hundreds of guns. The build up for a major offensive would see scores of battalions mov­ing into position and registering on their tar­gets. As a result, surprise was impossible.

When the attack began, complicated pre­arranged fire plans were implemented. Roll­ing barrages, box barrages and other tech­niques were employed to saturate the target area. In theory the infantry would follow up the destruction caused by the artillery and seize the objectives from the stunned enemy.

The main drawback of this system was inflexibility. If an unexpected strongpoint showed up, there was no way to call fire on it. If the infantry got held up for any reason, they found their barrages walking away from them. The enemy soldiers would get enough time to recover and stop the attack in its tracks.

One enterprising British artillery officer sought to find a technique more responsive to the needs of the infantry. He found, “unob­served shooting is very dull, and often, I fear, very ineffective.” He established special par­ties of observers and wiremen to man forward OPs in no-mans land.

This officer, LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) Neil Fraser-Tytler, later wrote, “As our for­ward positions enable us to haunt the front line, do all this wiping out of nests of Huns hidden in shell holes, we have been relieved of the ordinary routine of harassing fire by day and by night.”

All fire missions went through the OP. If a higher artillery headquarters, such as battal­ion, located a target they would send the coor­dinates to the OP. The observation officer should locate it on his map. If he could not see the target from his position, he would take a compass bearing from his position, compute his firing commands and send them to the guns. There was no way to tell if the fire was accurate or not.

This was the state of the art at the end of World War I. Every nation used the same basic system.

Between The World Wars


For most armies, between the wars the most significant development was the field radio. This allowed the forward observer much more tactical freedom. It allowed him to call for fire in mobile situations as well as static. In one country, the United States, a far more revolutionary development was occur­ring that would transform modem fire sup­port.

In 1929, one of the gunnery instructors at the U.S. Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill came across LTC Fraser-Tytler’s book in the school’s library. Reading about his at­tempt to solve the problem of supporting the infantry inspired the Gunnery Department to try to improve on his methods.

In 1930, Major Canoe Brewer, head of the Gunnery Department, began development of the firing chart. Using this chart an officer plotted the target using the ADJUSTED loca­tion achieved by the adjusting battery. The reinforcing batteries would fire on this ad­justed location, which accounted for weather and some other nonstandard conditions. The plotters amid use any gridded sheet, an im­portant advantage in time when gridded maps were hard to come by.

By 1934, further experimentation had al­lowed improvements in technical fire control that coped with most of the conditions that could be accounted for. The early Fire Direc­tion Center (FDC) operated at battalion level The S3, two officers to compute the firing data, a draftsman to prepare the firing chart, and a clerk make up the FDC. Battalion handled observed fires, and unobserved fires were handled at battery level using overlays from higher headquarters.

A lull in developments followed while the new procedures were tried out by units in the field. One of these units was the 77th Field Artillery in Marfa, Texas. Its commander, LTC H.L.C. Jones, experimented further by decen­tralizing observed fire computations to the battery and having battalion FDC take care of unobserved fires. He added three officers to the FDC to compute data for each battery.

In 1939, LTC Jones was reassigned to Fort Sill as head of the Gunnery Department. He further improved Fire Direction methods in

the few short years of peace remaining. Gun­nery instructor Captain Abbot H. Burns in­vented a very significant instrument known as the Graphical Firing Table (GVI) around this time.

Up until now, computation of firing data required computers (men, not machines) to leaf through books containing various factors and values and manually determine the solu­tion. The GFT was a form of slide rule that let the computer read the solution directly. Be­sides speeding up the process, it simplified it enough to allow enlisted personnel to replace the officers ~ computers.

The mature FDC, ~ developed just be­fore the war, consisted of~ a Horizontal Con­trol Operator (HCO), who determined the range and direction to the target; the Vertical Control Operator (VCO), who determined the difference in elevation and angle between the battery and target and two computers, who used the data from the HCO and VCO to compute the firing data for the guns.

Reviewing the various major armies in the Second Wodd War, we find some signifi­cant differences.

Japan

In the defense, Japanese artillery would deploy far forward as possible. Battalion would establish at least three OPs, one for each battery.

The primary method of communication was wire. Five ‘walkie-talkie’ type radios were available in the battalion to equip some forward observers.

Liaison between artillery units and sup­ported infantry was poor. The artillery repre­sentative at the infantry headquarters was usually just an NCO at battalion level and a junior officer at Regiment. Many infantry commanders were reluctant to ask for artillery support, feeling that the infantry could take care of things by itself.

On Leyte, which saw the largest-scale maneuver warfare between American and Japanese forces, guns were used singly, in pairs, and only in rare instances, as batteries. Fires were not massed. Only one instance was recorded of an ~tual adjustment being made and followed by a concentration of fire.

Defensively, they made excellent use of camouflage and concealment, even to the point of accepting very restricted arcs of fire. Guns were found in huts with only a hole to shoot out of.

Japanese batteries started the war four guns strong, but by 1945 most units not in Manchuria, or Japan itself, had only three guns per battery.

Soviet Union

Soviet techniques were at about the same level as the Japanese. Unlike them, the Soviets always made sure there were plenty of guns available.

Supporting an armored operation, a So­viet artillery regiment would attach liaison officers to the tank unit. These officers would act as ordinary tank commanders until they met resistance that the tanks needed fire sup­port to overcome.

“The method for calling for fire and cor­rection is normal; by using a map previously encoded, the observer constantly pinpoints his position. On discovering a definite target he transmits by radio the nearest reference point and the relation of the target to it, at the same time indicating the type of concentration re­quired.”

The Soviets massed artillery in the old fashioned way, by physically massing the pieces to cover the desired sector. Battery commanders observed for their own units in routine operations. For mobile operations, liaison officers with special channels of com­munication would support the tanks.

Britain

British regiments of 24 guns were di­vided into three batteries of eight guns each. Each battery was further divided into two troops, with four guns per troop. The troop was the basic unit to fire.

“Each troop set up a troop CP (Com­mand Post). The Fire Direction system con­sisted of two plane tables with grid sheets, one for each troop, steel rulers and protractors and a map on a map board. The CPO (Command Post Officer) looked around, located the gun firing the first shells on his map, and had NCOs plot the necessary coordinates on grid-sheets and plot the location of one troop on each sheet. Massing of fire was . . . accom­plished by plotting the final data of the troop adjusting, transferring to the other sheet, and measuring the necessary ‘switch’ or deflection shift and range for the other troop.”

The troop commander had a light, radio equipped, truck. This enabled him to act as an FO. The source quoted above mentions that this truck was due to be replaced by a light tank in armored artillery units. For the cam­paign in France the light tank was used.

The primary means of communication was the radio, wire being reserved as a secon­dary means of communication, or used in static situations.

Germany

Each German battery had two types of observation posts. Forward 01’s manned by FOs and the ordinary kind manned by the ob­servation officer and battery commander.

The regular OPs Were connected by wire to the battalion CP and to the gun position. The FOs used radios.

A fire mission would start with a call from the FO to the battalion. The battalion CP would select a battery to fire, and the order would go to the OP. At the OP or at the gun position, depending upon the location of the computation group, they would compute fir­ing commands.

This system allowed for firing all the guns of the battalion on the same target. It was not true massing of fire, as each battery still computed its own data, resulting in prob­able scattering of the fire.

In practice, most missions were handled by a single battery. In four incidents reported on the eastern front, the FO fired one battery in three cases and a battalion in the other. In the case of the battalion fire, however, the bat­talion had nine hours to plan its fire.

United States

The 1932 edition of “Elementary Tactics”, a basic text of the Field Artillery School, gave these two examples of how a battalion com­mander exercised Fire Direction:

“The battalion commander identifies a target ... points it out to one of his staff and directs him personally to go to a battery commander at the battery observation post, point out the target ... and fire upon the target.”

“A battalion commander receives a mes­sage from infantry in his front that there is a machine gun at a certain location designated from the map by coordinates. He telephones a battery commander, gives him the coordinates and directs him to fire upon it.”

By 1942, the same text described battal­ion control of fire in these words:

“Fire by a single battery does not always give the density required ... For a heavy vol­ume of fire, more than one battery must fire Si­multaneously on the same target. The battal­ion commander must be able to put fire on the most appropriate target, at the most oppor­tune time, with the highest degree of surprise and demoralizing intensity. He must be able to maneuver the fire of his batteries ...“

With either common survey control or a common registered point, the entire division artillery could fire on a single target after ad­justment by a single battery.

While American artillery units could still establish the battery 01’s common to the other powers, most calls for fire came from FOs attached to the infantry and armored battal­ions. Armored artillery battalions had Sher­man tanks for use by their FOs.

American divisions employed the mass­ing of Fire whenever the situation was suit­able. Fire missions needing more than a bat­talion in effect Went to the Division Artillery headquarters which would coordinate the additional firing units. Besides the four bat­talions organic to the division, any reinforcing corps artillery could join in.

An example of how this artillery could be used is the attack of LTC Creighton Abram’s 37th Tank battalion, CCR, 4th Ar­mored division on the town of Assenois, 26 December, 1944. This town was only four kilometers from the perimeter of Bastogne and contained the last German strongpoint pre­venting a breakthrough.

LTC Abrams radioed back to his S3 and said, ‘this is it’. A few minutes later CPT Cook, Liaison Officer from the 94th FA Bn to CCR, received a radio message back at the CCR CP ...from Abrams telling him to have all artillery prepared to fire on Assenois on call. Cook radioed division artillery to have them make arrangements for the 22nd and 253nd to prepare to fire. The 94th was already registered on the target and firing data was transmitted to Div Arty. The artillery plan was for the three light battalions to fire 10 volleys with the 155 Battery to fire on the center of the town ... During a short but intense shoot on Assenois approximately 360 rounds of 105 and 60 rounds of 155 were fired.

In the Pacific, as early as the Guadalcanal campaign, American commanders were saying “The essential soundness of the teachings of the Field Artillery School, especially the technique of the Fire Direction Centers, was proved ... Prompt and unexpected mass fires of one or more battalions . . . were highly effective in destroying stubborn enemy resistance...

Post-war developments make modern guns many times more lethal than their Sec­ond World War ancestors.

The application of these developments has resulted in two very different schools of thought about the use of artillery. As in so many things, there is a Soviet way and an American way.

Soviet

Soviet calls for fire usually start from the Command Observation Post (COP). Located at the COP is the battery commander. The COP is normally in a specially designed artil­lery command and reconnaissance vehicle
(ACRV). In offensive operations extra Forward Observation Posts (FOPs) are formed, and recon personnel form additional OPs.

Calls for fire go to the battalion FDC, which sends the mission to the battery(s) se­lected to fire. The battery FDC, battalion FDC and the COP compute firing data. Whoever computes it first sends the data to the guns, the others acting as checkers.

They are beginning to field electronic fire direction computers at battalion level, but computations at battery FDCs and COPs are stifi done manually.

Most artillery fire in both the offensive and defensive is preplanned. Only a portion, maybe as much as one third, of the available artillery is available for on-call fire missions.

The Soviets do not hesitate to use direct fire, considering it several times more effec­tive than indirect fire.

The normal unit to fire is the battalion, although less commonly a battery may fire on a small target.

Theoretically all officers are trained to call for fire. In practice, only ACRVs, battalion commanders and recon personnel do.

U.S. Army


In 1951 the Field Artillery School developed rotating firing boards that allowed the FDC to adjust fire onto a target without knowing the location of the observer. If the observer could give direction to the target, FDC could now easily compute the adjustments necessary.

All modern American FDCs have com­puterized fire direction1 equipment. This al­lows them to compute separate firing data for each gun. In the past, firing data was nor­mally computed from center of battery to cen­ter of target. The shells fell on the target in whatever pattern the guns happened to be in the battery location. It was possible, but VERY time consuming (outside the bounds of any wargame scenario), to compute firing data manually for each gun to the target.

American computers now allow rapid computation of data from each gun to a de­sired location. Normally the guns will fire a “converged sheaf”, all the shells aimed for the same spot on the ground. The computer can also space the aim points evenly throughout an area target, or along a linear target, such as a road or river.

Mechanized forces have digital commu­nication. An observer with a Digital Message Device (DMD) can punch up his call for fire on a hand held keyboard. When finished he can transmit it in a short (1-2 second) digital burst to the artillery battalion computer. This com­puter will select a unit to fire and specify ammunition type and quantity. Battalion per­sonnel will quickly review it and then send it digitally to the battery computer. The battery computer will automatically compute firing data for each gun. battery personnel will re­view it and then send it digitally to the guns where a screen displays the data. The guns set their scales accordingly and fire.

The system can be set up to operate fully automatically. In effect, the observer can talk directly to the guns. And rounds can be on the way within seconds of the call for fire.

In theory, anybody can call for fire. Most often it is a Fire Support Team (FIST), maneu­ver commander, or platoon leader.

The FIST usually rides in a modified Ml13 called a FIST-V. which looks exactly like an Improved TOW Vehicle (ITV). There is one FIST per company. In addition, Infantry units have two man enlisted FO parties with each platoon.

FISTs have lasers that can locate targets with extreme accuracy. They can also use these lasers to guide in Copperhead and Air Force laser guided bombs directly onto a target.

American firing batteries are divided into two 4-gun platoons~-each with its own FDC. A battalion has three batteries. This is remarkably like the WWII organization of a British field artillery regiment. Like the regiment, the American battalion has 24 guns.

The accuracy that can be achieved by modern American artillery means that fewer rounds can be used to accomplish the same mission. Against a very lucrative or large target, an observer could still mass as many guns as are in range, but normally he will only ask for what he needs.

The number of tubes and rounds to fire can be precisely tailored to match the target.

The King of Battle and Wargames

It is important to understand the tech­niques used by First World War artillerymen, because they should be considered the norm for the Second World War, unless good infor­mation shows otherwise.

For the mobile phases of WW I, rules should allow for only direct fire or indirect fire from a masked position that has an OP within voice distance of the firing line.

In more settled conditions, when there has been time to lay wire, the OP could locate itself on any prominent terrain feature. Each OP should observe for only one battery, though a battery could have more than one OP. Because wire has to be laid between the OP and the battery the OPs can’t relocate, if fire knocks out On OP that battery is unable to fire until It establishes a new OP.

In special situations an observer might spot for the other batteries of his battalion. This would be a slow process, useless against anything other than fixed positions. Other­wise limit indirect fire missions to one battery for adjusted fire.

In a deliberate attack, any number of guns can participate, firing on a planned unchange­able schedule. Because this fire would be from registered positions, it would be reasonably accurate.

Unobserved fires were subject to large errors. Few of the ballistic conditions that af­fected the flight of the projectile were ac­counted for in firing calculations.

Moat wargamers are aware that superior small unit leadership and equipment gave World War II era German tankers and infan­tryman consistent advantage in firefights. Yet American units usually held their own. What made lip the difference was fire support.

Any American observer could request an amazing amount of fire. At the minimum, he could count on his battalion, If the target was good enough, or the situation desperate enough, he could call in a whole Division Ar­tillery (Div├árty) or more. This fire would ar­rive quickly, usually within 15 minutes, and accurately.

In an ordinary tactical situation, Ameri­can infantry FOs should be able to call for as much artillery as they want. They won’t al­ways get it, of course. The artillery battalion will analyze the request, considering how much ammunition is available, the nature of the target, what other missions are going on, etc. They will decide how much to shoot.

As a rule of thumb, the battalion would rather fire all twelve guns at a target once, than fire four guns three times. The Division Artil­lery would rather fire three battalions at the target once than see one of its battalions fire at the same target three times.

In this way, American artillery got much the same psychological effect using cannons, as the Germans and Soviets did using rockets.

For the American armored battalion, ev­ery company of tanks should have an extra Sherman with an F0 in it. He will have access to 1-3 batteries immediately.

As for the Other guys;

Japanese fire support should be anemic. An occasional round or two may show up, but fhe best level they usually got was harassment.

In unusual cases a full battery (3 guns) may fire, almost never a full battalion (9 guns). As one contemporary Japanese observer put it, “Fires of the batteries are massed on a single target area by informing battery commanders of the coordinates of the area, give each battery a sector of the area and then have them fire.” World War I techniques!

In mobile warfare, allow some indirect fire capability on a case by case basis. The source quoted above mentions two batteries being concentrated to destroy an enemy posi­tion. Allow fire by more than one battery on an observed target sometimes, It’s apparent that it was set up by special coordination, rather than being a normal procedure, though.

British observers can fire four or eight guns on a target freely, after adjustment. The first troop’s fire should be accurate, but the second troop should still be subject to some drift, as the method indicated above still does not account for many conditions that affect the accuracy of the fire.

Massing the fire of units larger than the troop should still be difficult, confined mostly to planned fire.

German radio equipped FOs should be able to call in at least one battery on a target rapidly. The rest of the battalion would be able to fire on lucrative targets. Accurate fire would be possible if the FO adjusted each battery onto the target. Unadjusted fire was subject to large errors.

Besides the FOs, artillery OPs would ex­ist on prominent terrain features. Wire con­nected these OPs to battalion CPs and firing batteries, so they would generally only exist in defensive operations or near the start line of an Offensive.

Massed fires are very common in static or preplanned situations. In mobile situations there will normally only be a battalion avail­able. With enough time several battalions ~ould fire on the same target, with varying degrees of accuracy.

And for World War Ill

Most rules do a decent job of dealing with American artillery techniques. The flexi­bility actually makes it easy. Anybody with a radio can be allowed to call for fire. An un­trained observer’s initial rounds will probably be well off the mark and take a while to adjust. A trained observer is closer and quicker. A FIST with a DMD and laser can skip the ad­justment phase and just call in a Fire for Effect right on top of the target most of the time.

The fire for effect should arrive in multiples of four guns, based on the size of the target. Computers will select the numbers based on the nature of the target and the numbers available. Against a large, important target the whole battalion (24 guns) plus one or more reinforcing battalions (24 more, each) could fire.

Soviet fire will normally be a full 18 gun battalion strong, called in by an OP of some sort. They will still need to adjust fire for good accuracy.

Let’s put artillery in its proper role. When it lands in the right place at the right time, nothing is more devastating. The twen­tieth century artilleryman’s quest has been for more efficient ways to put artillery fire where the ground commander needs, when he needs it.

SUMMER 1990 #135

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Line in the Sand on the mark

There are a lot of reasons to play wargames, but one of them is to get some insight into real-world events.
When I think of a game that's a real "study" of history I usually think of some deeply researched and detailed simulation such as Harpoon 4, The Longest Day or perhaps the Tactical Combat Series games I've been reviewing recently.

But sometimes you don't need a lot of hardware-oriented detail to make a pertinent point with a wargame. A good of example of that is a Line in the Sand, TSR's game about the then-looming Gulf War in 1991. It's clearly no detailed military simulation. Yet despite all the fighting the region's seen over the last 60+ years the conflicts there have very little to do with military tactics or strategy. The Middle East is all about the politics.
Militarily there's no real contest at all between the "West" (U.S., Israeli and European) forces and the forces of the Islamic states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Unlike the combat between great powers in the first half of the 20th century which generally pitted roughly comparable military organizations, fighting in the Middle East has been characterized by an enormous gulf in effectiveness -- the kind more usually seen in colonial warfare. So long as a wargame reflects that vast gulf in effectiveness, the details are unimportant.

A Line in the Sand does have a military game, based on the same system used in Red Storm Rising, but it really comes into its own in the Diplomatic Game where players secretly select goals and conduct diplomatic gestures to affect world opinion and the mood of the "Arab Street." Its an amazingly sophisticated design , especially considering it was designed and published on a tight deadline dictated by fast-moving current events.

While there are some mistakes and typos betraying the haste of the production, the design itself works rather well.

It's not "fair" but it is interesting and it's authentic. Every side doesn't have an equal chance of winning, but any body could win, depending on how cleverly they play.

And despite the passage of more than 17 years, the game still feels very current. Iraq may be occupied, but the Iraqi "player" is clearly not out of the "game," just as A Line in the Sand reflects. Nearly every other Gulf War and Iraq War wargame really missed the point of the conflict, which would NOT be decided on some desert battlefield, but in the political arena.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Attack Sub rundown of vessels

Just a quick rundown of the vessels included in the game with some comments.

SUBMARINES:
Argentina
Salta and San Luis (German Type 209 class SS)
These show up in just one scenario (13D Falklands) where they are dueling with the British SSN Swiftsure. The Argentine subs are hard to detect with a detection value of 7 and two "no attack" boxes on the contact level track. They are dangerous offensively, with a +3 attack value, but may have trouble detecting targets with a senor value of just 2. A single hit always sinks them.

USSR

Shtorm (Kilo class SS)
Appears in Scenario 13G Turning the Tide as part of a wolfpack attacking a convoy. Hard to detect and track, with a detection value of 7 and two "no attack" boxes. Only takes one hit to sink. Offensively has a 3 sensor but just a +2 attack, making it mediocre in game terms.
Molniya (November class SSN)
Appears in Scenario 13B Search and Destroy where it's really little more than a target. The worst sub in the box, with a detection value of 5 making it as easy to find as a surface ship, a sensor value of 1 making it nearly deaf and an attack value of +2 if it manage somehow to detect something. Can possibly survive a hit with two boxes each in its sensor and attack value tracks.
Admiral Lapshin and Kotov (Victor I class SSNs)
Both appear in scenario 13F Mounting the Threat as reinforcements. Not as bad as the Molniya, but still not very good submarines. They have a detection value of 6 and only have a sensor value of 2, putting them at a disadvantage against the NATO subs. The +2 attack value is mediocre. Like most subs they have two boxes in the sensor and attack tracks, making some, but not most, hits survivable.
Ivan Rogov and Skvortsov (Victor III class SSN)
Much better subs than the older Victors, with detection values of 7 and sensor values of 3, making them competitive with NATO subs. Offensive potential is still relatively low, with a +2 attack value.These appear in several scenarios. The Skvortsov is in Scenarios 13A (Sub Duel); 13B (Search & Destroy); 13C (Breakout); 13K Flattop; 13L Wolfpack and 13M Convoy Screen. Her sister, the Ivan Rogov is in all the same scenarios except for 13B, and also appears in Scenario 13H (Boomer).
Dekabrist and Grif (Alfa class SSN)These are about equal to the Victor I boats, except their high speed means Close/Open Range cards played by them can only be cancelled by a random number draw of 4 or more. The Dekabrist appears in Scenario 13C, the Grif in 13M and both in 13L.
Sura and Donets (Charlie II class SSGN)
These subs are optimized for attacking surface ships, with a +3 attack value. Unfortunately they are also easy to detect (a 5) and have poor sensors (a 2) reducing their chances of actually pulling off a shot. They don't have much chance of hurting any attack subs, either, with just a +1 attack against subs. Both appear in 13G where they have a nice juicy convoy to attack. In both 13C and 13M one of the subs appears, and in each case its main contribution to victory is to successfully exit.
Bolshaya Neva and Yenisey (Oscar II SSGN)
Much more dangerous ships than the Charlies. While still easy to find, with a detection value of 5, they have a decent sensor value of 3 and an antisurface attack of +4 which gives a high probability of success. They're also tougher than the typical sub, with 3 boxes per value track. Both subs are part of the force stalking the USS Kennedy in Scenario 13K (Flattop) and the Yenisey also appears as one of the subs trying to exit in scenario 13M (Convoy Screen).
Zarnitsa (Typhoon class SSBN)This sub appears only in scenario 13H (Boomer) where it is the target. It is hard to detect, with a value of 7, and can easily turn the tables on an attacking SSN with a sensor value of 3 and attack value of +2. It's tougher to sink than usual for a sub, with three boxes on the value tracks.
Oppokov (Improved Typhoon class SSBN)
This is essentially a "Hunt for Red October" style scenario, where the Oppokov is being hunted by Soviet surface ships in scenario 13E (Rebel Without a Cause). It's the same as the Zarnista except for one more "no attack" box on the contact level track, making it very tough for the Soviet surface forces, which are neither numerous nor high-quality.

United Kingdom

HMS Valiant (Valiant class SSN)
A good all-around boat, with detection value of 6, a sensor value of 4 and an attack value of +3. The Valiant attacks a Soviet convoy is Scenario 13F (Mounting the Threat) in its only appearance.
HMS Swiftsure (Swiftsure class SSN)
Basically a quieter Valiant, with a detection value of 7, which is fortunate, because it's facing two quiet opponents in the Salta and San Luis in Scenario 13D (Falklands)
HMS Trafalgar (Trafalgar class SSN)The best British boat, it is very hard to detect, with both a high detection value of 7 and an extra "no attack" box on the contact level track. Its 5 senso value means it will quickly achieve a firing solution and its +3 attack gives it a good chance of success when it does attack. This boat is a reinforcement in both of its scenario appearances: 13C (Breakout) and 13I (Sink the Moskva)

United States

USS Baltimore and USS Los Angeles (Los Angeles class SSN)
Dangerous boats, with a 5 sensor and +3 attack making them very potent offensively. They have to be careful, however, as the 6 detection value makes them vulnerable to the better Soviet ships. Both boats appear in 13A (Sub Duel), which is probably the most-played scenario. The LA is also in 13F, 13J and 13M
USS Annapolis and USS Asheville (Improved Los Angeles class SSN)
Much quieter than the earlier boats, with a detection value of 7 and the extra "no attack" box on the contact level. Both boats are stalking the Moskva in scenario 13I (Sink the Moskva). The Asheville is also in 13H (Boomer) and 13J (The Return Home).
USS Seawolf (Seawolf class SSN)
The most powerful sub in the game, with extremely potent offensive ability. It has a sensor value of 6, making most detection attampts close to a sure thing. It fires at a +4, and by special rule it's "swimout" torpedo firing are not subject to passive sonar detection. Defensively it's a 7 with two "no attack" boxes, which makes it as hard to attack as any ship in the game. In Scenario 13C it gets to face three Soviet boats alone, at first. In 13H it's the main nemesis for the Boomer, while in 13J it's the lead gunslinger against the Soviet capital ships.

SURFACE SHIPS

Nearly all surface ships have detection values of 5, which means they are easy to find. Mitigating that, in the game, is the fact that they share contact information, allowing powerful combined action against subs.

USSR

Kiev (Kiev class CVHG)
This powerful ship shows up in just one scenario 13J (The Return Home) where it's essentially a target. Sinking it or the Kirov, below, wins the game for the USA. Although it's a target, it's not a helpless one, and it will be playing a major role in its own defense. Its primary strength is the ability to launch up to four helicopters and keep them in the air with its good endurance number of 2. It's own sensor value of 2 is just passable and its attack value of +1 poor, so it will be relying on the helicopters for its offensive punch. It's a fairly tough ship to sink, with five boxes on the sensor/attack tracks.
Kirov (Kirov class BCGN)
The other target in 13J, The Kirov adds two more potential helicopters with an endurace of 3 and an attack value of +2 to the fleet defense. Being a little easier to sink, with just four hit boxes, it's the likely target of any attack.
Moskva (Moskva class CHG)
Also a target, this time in Scenario 13I (Sink the Moskva), the Moskva is much like the Kiev, except without any attack value of its own, which is a minimal difference, because the Kiev generally won't use its own attack value anyway.
Nikolayev and Tallin (Kara class CG)
Older Soviet escort cruisers, with the ability to launch one endurance-5 helo. Their sensor value is a minimal 1 and they have an attack value of +2. Both ships appear as escorts in 13J while only the Tallin escorts the Moskva in 13I. In neither scenario are the NATO subs likely to waste a shot on them. The Nikolayev may very well be a target in Scenario 13F, however, where it joins the Udaloy and two Victor I class boats in facing two NATO SSNs. If hit, the ship may survive, as it has three hit boxes.
Simferopol and Udaloy (Udaloy class DDG)
The best of the Russian escorts, with a 2 sensor, a 3-endurance helo and an attack value of +2. Both destroyers are part of the force hunting down the Oppokov in 13E, while the Udaloy is also in 13F and 13I.
Neukrotimyy and Revnostnyy (Krivak II FFG)
Small, helicopter-less escorts whose major value is adding another card to the Russian player's hand and a +2 attack platform. Their sensor value is a 1 and they are easy to sink, taking just two hits, although it's probable no one will bother to shoot at them. The Revnostnyy is also part of the force hunting the rengade Oppokov in 13E and appears as an escort with its sister ship in 13I. The Neukrotimyy is also in 13J.
Predanyy (Grisha II class FFL)
This would be the most pitiful surface ship in the game (Sensor 1, Attack +1, One hit to sink) except that it is the only ship that doesn't appear in any of the scenarios. As the game doesn't include any official design-your-own scenario rules, this ship probably doesn't get played much.

UK

HMS Invincible (Invincible class CVH)
The lead ship fighting off a Soviet wolfpack in Scenario 13L (Wolfpack) and the probable main target for the Russians, as sinking her gives them enough points to win instantly. With a mediocre sensor value of 2 and no attack value, the CVH's only real contribution is its three endurance-2 helicopters. It has four hit boxes, so there's a good chance the Russians will have to attack the ship at least twice.
HMS Sheffield (Boxer, Type 22 Batch 2 class DDG)
Its higher detection value of 6 is of little use in the one scenario it appears in (13L) because the Russians will be gunning for the carrier anyway. The ship doesn't add all that much to the task force with its meagre 1 sensor, anemic +1 attack and single endurance-5 helo. Its main value, as a matter of fact, is to beef up the hand size.
HMS Norfolk ( Duke, Type 23 FF)
A good, all-around escort, with a sensor value of 3 and antisub value of +2. It will be taking the lead in many attacks. It also contributes an endurance 3 helo to the task force in Scenario 13L, its only appearance.

US

USS John F. Kennedy (JFK class CV)Its the target carrier in Scenario 13K (Flattop) but certainly no pushover, able to put up as many as four endurance-2 helicopters. While it has no sensor or attack values of its own, the helos are a formidible force, as long as the weather holds. The toughest ship in the game, it has six boxes in each of its sensor and attack value tracks. While any ship can go down with a "sunk" result, it's probable that multiple successful attacks will be needed to sink the JFK.
USS Virginia ( Virginia class CGN)
In a game that doesn't include any air attacks, this air defense escort is basically just another target. Its sensor value of 2 is nothing special, while its +2 attack is mediocre. It has no helos. The cruiser appears in 13K, as part of the JFK CVBG, where it's not likely to get shot at. But it's also in 13B (Search and Destroy) where it's the main target.
USS Arleigh Burke (Arleigh Burke class DDG)
A good escort, except for the fact it doesn't have a helicopter. It has a better-than-average detection value of 6, a sensor value of 3 and an attack value of +3, making it one of the most dangerous surface combatants. It only appears in Scenario 13M, where it will be dueling with a large force of Soviet subs.
USS Semmes (Charles F. Adams class DDG)
This antique appears as part of the escort of the Invincible. Like the Sheffield, its main value is to increase the British hand size, as it has a lousy sensor value of 1 and a mediocre +2 attack value, with no helicopter.
USS John Rodgers (Spruance class DD)
Probably the best all-around US escort ship, it's quiet (detect 6) and well-eqipped (sensor 3) and carries an endurance-3 helicopter. Only its +2 attack value is disappointing. This workhorse shows up several times. It's in 13G (Turning the Tide); 13K (Flattop) and 13M (Convoy Screen). As a fairly large ship, it has three hit boxes, meaning it will probably survive at least one attack.
USS Simpson and USS Taylor (Oliver Hazard Perry class FFG)
These ships are the mainstay of the NATO escorts. The Simpson is the Virginia's best hope in Scenario 13B, as well as a key part of the escorts in 13G and 13K, along with its sister the Taylor. Quiet (detect 6), well sensored (value 3) and helicopter-equipped (endurance 3) they only have an attack value of +1, so the helo will probably take the lead offensively.
USS Bowen (Knox class FF)
This ship is similar to the Perry-class ships, except for a better attack +2 but less-reliable chopper (endurance 5). The Bowen accompanies the USS Arleigh Burke in Scenario 13M.

Various nations:

Transports. There are three in the game. All three are used in Scenario 13G and 13L. They are purely targets, with no combat values and they do not add to the hand size. Each has four hit boxes, so they will generally need to be hit twice to go down.

TCS: Bloody Ridge

Bloody Ridge comprehensive review

Tactical Combat Series No. 14

Published: 2005

Designer: Michael S. Smith

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.

Bloody Ridge specifics:

Tactical Combat Series Rules version 3.1

12th-14th September, 1942, Henderson Field, Guadalcanal

One small map

Unit symbols: Weapons and troops are all are full color icons. There are no AFV

Opposing Sides:

U.S.: Elements First Marine Division
Japan: Elements 124th Infantry Regt.

Total number of battalion equivalents (the usual op sheet size) in play: Up to about 9 or so.

Playing time: Up to about 4 hours, according to the box.

Bloody Ridge is small for a TCS game, with a very narrow focus on the fighting for a small, if critical terrain feature -- a ridge overlooking Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. While involving just a few battalions on both sides, it was probably the critical moment in the campaign, as it was the closest that the Japanese ever got to actually capturing the airfield.

The single most dominant feature on the map is the thick jungle that covers most of it. Because jungle costs 3 movement points per hex to enter the Japanese will find they don't have a lot of time to putz around. Their infantry platoons will generally move just two hexes per turn. Here and there a trail exists and the open ridge allows faster, although more vulnerable movement. For the most part it's slogging through jungle, though. And that slog will quickly leave the Japanese support weapons behind, as the machine gun teams. mortar teams and infantry guns can all move just one hex per turn.

The Japanese don't have a lot of supporting weapons in any case, and no real artillery. A cruiser and three destroyers make a brief appearance at the beginning of the battle with a quick barrage, but otherwise its bullets, bayonet sand grenades doing the work. The Japanese are quality troops with morale of "2" for the most part, which would normally be enough to give them a big edge. And they have some special rules increasing their effectiveness in close combat as well. But they're up against U.S, Marines, who have their own special rules giving similar advantages. And the heart of the Marine defense is held by the elite Marine Raider Battalion, with help from the Parachute Battalion. They have morale levels of "1." The Marines also have the benefit of standing on the defense, so they can use their supporting arms more easily, including a few batteries of artillery and some air support, too.

The Japanese labor under a further disadvantage with the poor command prep level of "6." This means implementing any changes to plans will be a long and uncertain affair and makes op sheets with reserves or alternative routes nearly useless. In contrast the Marines generally have comamnd prep level of "4" which designates about average competence. Committing reserves or executing an alternative route is about a 50/50 shot with that rating. The Raider battalion has a command prep rating of "1" which is excellent and means that unit will be very flexible and can use reserves profusely.

All this shapes up as a close-range and bloody fight, hence the name "Bloody Ridge."

There are just four scenarios. The first is an 11-turn depiction of the attack the Japanese planned to carry out on the 12th, but failed to happen because of delays getting through the jungle. This has the weakest Marine defense, so it provides the best chance for Japanese victory. The second scenario extends that assault into the daylight hours.

The second scenario covers the actual fight, over 37 turns, on the 13th and 14th, while the final scenario is an 83-turn campaign game covering all three days.

Bloody Ridge is, by TCS standards, small and makes a good intro to the system. Its available from MMP.

Jutland: Duel of Dreadnoughts review



With a mere four pages of rules (and not full pages, at that) Jutland: Duel of the Dreadnoughts is undoubtedly the lightest historical wargame published in Command Magazine.

It was an early example of designer Ben Knight's minimalist approach to wargame design, with everything stripped out but the essence of the situation. In this hex-and-counter wargame depicting biggest naval battle of World War I all the usual details standard in naval wargames such as critical hits, turrets, detailed maneuvers and such are subsumed into a very simple game system concentrating on the characteristics of the FLEETS rather than the individual ships. This game is clearly about the forest, not the trees.

The game, which was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 8, covers the battle proper, starting with the initial contact between scouting cruisers at 1530 hours. The game scale is one nautical miles per hex and 12 minutes per turn. Units are divisions and squadrons of warships.

The 4-page rule book describes a game of low complexity by wargame standards. The map is a modular expanse of ocean hexes that have to be cut out into nine sections. The starting positions are printed on the map, helping this game have a short set-up time of less than five minutes.

There are 100 counters (another 100 counters that came with the magazine are variants for several other XTR games.) A division of capital ships, representing 2-4 vessels, is comprised of the counter representing the ships themselves, and associated targeting counters for the main and secondary batteries. Light ships are represented the same way except each step are strength represents 2-3 light cruisers or destroyers and they have only one targeting counter.

Ships are rated for speed, torpedoes and armor strength. The targeting counter lists a "caliber" (attack value) and range. The Imperial German ships are black counters with yellow print while the Royal Navy ships are a hard-on-the-eyes red on dark blue.

The game turn uses a straightforward IGO-HUGO sequence with players dicing for the initiative. The low roller launches torpedoes and then moves his ships, followed by the second player doing the same. There's a die roll for visibility (the trend is for it to decrease over the course of the game) and then both sides assign target counters to enemy ships. Once all the counters are placed combat is resolved.

The number of firing ships is cross-indexed with the range on a gunfire table to determine how many dice to roll and the hit number. For example, the four fast battleships of Battleship Division 5, firing at the German Battle Cruiser Division 1.1 at a range of 10 hexes would have their fire strength of four quartered for a total of one die to roll with a hit on a "1." The same battleships firing at a point-blank range of one-hex would roll four dice and hit on a 1-4. If hit, the "caliber" of the gun is compared to the armor value of the target. For the fast battleships the caliber is "11" and the BC 1.1 armor value is "8." The armor value is subtracted from the caliber and a die roll compared to the difference, in this case "3." If the die roll is equal or lower, then an enemy ship is sunk or disabled and marked off the roster.

Torpedoes work similarly.

And that's just about it.

Victory is based on losses with the British getting a bonus if the end of the game finds them closer to the south edge than the Germans. The exact end is uncertain as visibility tends to decrease as time foes on. The game ends when visibility drops to four hexes or on turn 24.

The game is easily playable in one sitting and should not take the two-four hours discussed in the designer's notes.

There is just one scenario.

Recommendations

(Conditional Yes) For Wargamers: A simple and playable wargame that allows a large and complex naval battle to be played quickly. On the other hand, it may suffer from being neither fish nor fowl. Players who prefer land games are unlikely to be won over while naval gamers may miss all the details they love.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(Conditional No) For Euro gamers: If you want to fiddle with a hex-and-counter wargame this may be the ticket, but the game play is still a little clunky compared to most German-style games.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Desert Storm review

Desert Storm: Mother of All Battles is the definitive hex-and-counter wargame on that lopsided, yet incomplete, campaign to Liberate Kuwait in 1991. (At least, no one has subsequently tried to depict the campaign.) It was the issue game in Command No. 13.

Systemically, it’s a variation on the Ty Bomba mechanized warfare system seen in games such as The Tigers are Burning and Blitzkrieg '41, building on common wargame conventions such as NATO-symbolized attack-defense-movement factor units with sequential movement and combat phases in alternating player turns. Each turn represents a day, each hex 12 kilometers and each unit is generally a brigade or division. The presentation is good, with a functional and attractive Mark Simonitch map covering Kuwait and the nearby regions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This game was the debut for the larger, 5/8-inch sized counters that graced many subsequent XTR titles. Easier the read and handle than the traditional ½-inch counters, the larger size also meant larger hexes on the map.

The 20-page rulebook hangs various rules on this common system to account for all the bells and whistles of state-of-the-art modern warfare. There is night combat, attack helicopters, supply, deliberate assault and artillery. Battles can be enhanced with engineers, close air support, artillery, attack helicopters, chemical warfare, etc. There are options for divisional integrity, amphibious warfare, naval gunfire support, airmobile tactics, etc., etc. and etc. some more.

So the coalition player, leading a formidable force whose order of battle is depicted in loving detail, has all the tools necessary for full-blown, full-scale mechanized warfare of the most advanced sort. Unfortunately (only in a game sense, of course, it was most fortunate in the actual event) the other side is not much of a challenge. The 12-turn standard scenario is a big “what-if” assuming the Iraqis were a reasonably well-led, competent, trained and motivated army that had an actual combat power resembling what its paper strength and combat experience implied.

As events proved, it had none of those attributes and the Historical scenario is a 4-turn solitaire rampage that the player loses if he manages to suffer even a single step loss.

The game includes some silly variants adding alternate universe Nazis, a Death Ray or Godzilla to the Iraqi army. Command No. 16 added some marginally more likely variants for Russian paratroopers, Iranian intervention and a Japanese contingent. Command No. 14 added the US 10th Mountain Division as an optional reinforcement.

Set up takes about 20 minutes with all unit starting locations printed on the counters. The game can easily be played to a conclusion in an evening,. Victory is based on victory points, with most being awarded for eliminating enemy units and some for territorial objectives.

Recommendations

(Yes) For Wargamers: Hey, it’s a playable, real wargame on the biggest mechanized battle since World War II.

(Yes) For Collectors: As probably the last serious wargame that will ever be published on the historical campaign (there were some other published during the actual run-up to the fighting) it has some collectible interest.

(No) For Euro gamers: As a hard-core hex-and-counter wargames it has a lot of detail and intricate mechanics and in the end, there is no “game” in the game, really. It’s a study.