Friday, January 9, 2009

Game review: Mukden

Mukden is one of two games in Command No. 37 (the other is The Moscow Option). The game is an operational level portrayal of the battle that was the climax of the land portion of the Russo-Japanese war. Unlike the naval portion of the war, the Japanese were unable to score a knockout blow, although they tended to win the battles.

This game uses a variation on the system first seen in Budapest '45. The salient features of this system is tracking losses on a unit roster and designer manipulation of the turn sequence to make a point about the relative quality of the contending armies. Typically in this game system every combat factor is a step and can be lost individually. The Japanese follow this pattern, but the Russian units are eliminated before they get down to their last combat factor. This puts them at a considerable disadvantage in the game's attritional combat system, where both sides tend to lose steps in every combat.

The turn sequence is unusual, in that both sides move before either has its combat phase. In addition, the Russian army group is divided into three numbered armies, each with its own movement phase. Simulating the command problems suffered in the historical event, when each army moves is determined by a die roll, making it difficult to plan. Adding an additional wrinkle, the Japanese units get to move in between each of the Russian movement phases, making it very hard for the Russians to maneuver safely in the presence of their enemies.

Combat is a multi-step process. The Japanese start with a bombardment phase (only they have some supporting artillery units) followed by a Russian defensive fire phase by the units being attacked. The effectiveness of bombardment and defensive fire depend on the number of firing factors, modified by terrain. From 0-3 steps can be lost by the attacker. The final step is a "melee" combat that is odds based, and also modified by terrain. The Japanese (but not the Russians) can also benefit by surrounding the defending units during this combat. In Melee both sides usually suffer step losses and the defender may be forced to retreat.The Russian combat phase is the same, except they don't have any bombarding artillery.

The general course of play is a steady pushing back of the Russian line by the Japanese. While the Japanese don't have a significant advantage in combat factors, they do have many more steps, and can therefore better afford the step losses. The Russians, handicapped by their command problems, will find it very hard to attack and unprofitable when they manage to set one up.

The Japanese can win by either capturing Mukden, getting a supplied unit into the Russian "withdrawal trigger line" (the historical result) which is located north of Mukden or by eliminating 78 steps of Russian troops (which is 50 percent of their army). The Russians win by avoiding the Japanese victory condition or by eliminating 115 steps of Japanese troops (out of 214 steps). A draw is only possible if both sides exceed their loss levels in the same turn.

Physically the game map is one of the better Beth Queman efforts, with pleasing graphics and functionality. The unit counters are large 5/8-inch style with NATO-style unit symbols and unit designations. The reverse side shows the general unit type (and Army for the Russians). As usual in this system, unit rosters are kept secret from the enemy player and the unit counters are kept face down unless in combat. The Japanese are the standard XTR white on red color scheme. The Russians are color coded by Army (1st Army blue, 2nd Army yellow and 3rd Army green). Several units start the game in the "General Reserve" and are colored grey. Each can be assigned to any of the three armies and has a new counter in the appropriate color to use once it is assigned. Assignments cannot be changed once made.

Turns represent 2-3 days, each hex is three miles and units are brigades and divisions.

The game lasts 8 turns. Set up should take about 15 minutes and the game is easily playable in one sitting.


(Yes) for Wargamers: An interesting game best played as a match so both sides get to attack.

(no) for Collectors: Nothing special

(no) for Eurogamers: Not too bad for a wargame, but the roster loss system is not the kind of game mechanic you'd like.

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