#BookLook – Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, by James F. Dunnigan, 2000

When studying the history of the wargame hobby, one inevitably will run into the name James F. Dunnigan. His first published game was Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967). His company, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was THE wargame company of the 1970’s and 80’s. He started Strategy & Tactics magazine which continues to publish to this day. He is, in many ways, a father to the wargame hobby.

Although I am a longtime hobby grognard, I also have some links to professional wargaming in the Department of Defense. In the lead-up to CONNECTIONS 2018 this year I decided to study up a bit. In particular, I wanted to focus on the definition of a wargame. What better place to look than at a book written by James Dunnigan, the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000).

I was surprised at my reaction after reading this book. A giant of the hobby, who I had set up on a pedestal, does not deserve to be there.

The Wargames Handbook is a real mixed bag and I actually find it hard to categorize. It is part professional design guide, part memoir, part contemporary history, and part…useless. The copy I have in hand is the Third Edition published in 2000. The first edition appeared in 1980 with a second edition in 1993 before it went out of print in 1998.

The Wargames Handbook consists of nine chapters with End Note and Appendix. After reading the book I see the content as broadly divided into three categories:

  • Designing Wargames
  • History of Wargames
  • Computer Wargames

Of these three categories, the one of least interest to me was computer wargames. Dunnigan comes across as more than a bit bitter at the rise of computer gaming, and computer wargames in particular. He goes to great pains using figures and statistics to show the impact of computer wargames. For a tabletop, manual wargaming like myself his “contemporary history” accounts come across more as whines. The worst part has to be the multi-page GENIE replay of a computer wargame. If Dunnigan had a point here, it was lost in a wall of uninteresting computer printout.

The history of wargames parts are interesting but have since been done in much more detail elsewhere. Other histories also show a bit less bias and are more comprehensive than that presented here. It looks like Dunnigan wrote what he knew best, that is, his personal experiences and survey results. Granted, that experience is vast and in the golden age of wargames (1970’s and 80’s) he was right in the middle of the hobby, but he was not the only one.

The professional portion of the book is the designing wargames parts. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s heavy on what to do, but kind of light on how to do it.”

It would seem like Chapter 1 – What is a Wargame? would be a good place to find a definition of a wargame. Alas, this chapter is mostly devoted to a description of his wargame The Drive on Metz. Actually, the chapter is not just a description of the game, it is game play laid side-by-side with history. The closest Dunnigan gets to defining a wargame is the first three paragraphs. However, he fails to give us any sort of concise definition:

  • “A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past.”
  • “A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science.”
  • “Basically, it’s glorified chess.”
  • “If you’ve never encountered a wargame before, it’s easiest to just think of it as chess with a more complicated playing board and amore complex way of moving your pieces and taking your opponents.”
  • “A wargame usually combines a map, playing pieces representing historical personages or military units and s set of rules telling you what you can or cannot do  with them.”
  • “To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic.”

Chapter 2 – How to Play is the heart of the wargame design advice. That is, if one wants to design a classic hex-&-counter wargame. Also contained in this chapter (indeed, the bulk of the chapter) is a listing of The Technical Terms Used in Wargaming. Alas, “wargame” or a variant does not appear in this listing!

Chapter 3 – Why Play the Games (and how to get the most out of it) is mostly a survey of historical periods and opportunities for wargaming. To me, the most interesting sections were the last two. In Fantasy & Science Fiction Games, Dunnigan points out that,

Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as was as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects (p. 142)

As a longtime naval grognard, I found the last section, Special Problems of Air and Naval Games, to be more than mildly interesting. I was a bit surprised that Dunnigan sounds like he gave up on designing air and naval games because, as he puts it, they “can be most interesting and illuminating when conducted on the individual…level” (p. 145). Dunnigan capitulates designing aerial and naval games to exclusively the realm of computers. I think the truth is a bit deeper here, and maybe hits a little to close for Mr. Dunnigans ego.

IMG_0309Within my game collection I have five James Dunnigan-designed games. The one aerial game, Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1973) is not highly rated. Setting Jutland aside the other naval game I have, Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975) plays like a land combat game at sea; i.e. totally unrealistic. Given the many wonderful air and naval games across the years, I have to wonder if Mr. Dunnigan was too fixated on hex-&-counter that he was unable to find the design spark to make a great air or naval game.

Chapter 4 – Designing Manual Games is more design advice, though again through the lens of The Drive on Metz game. In this chapter Dunnigan presents the complete rules of the game – as though reading a set of rules is enough to teach you how to write one of your own! I wonder how many game designers would agree with the opening sentence where Dunnigan states, “Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it’s actually easier” (p. 146).

I’m going to skip comment on chapters five thru seven (covering computer wargames and the history of wargames) and chapter nine (Wargames at War) because I already commented in general above. I do want to look closer at Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games because I am disappointed at the blatant biases Dunnigan shows here.

In Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games, Dunnigan starts out with a pithy comment, “Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated” (p. 300). He goes on to use market research and surveys from his time at SPI and Strategy & Tactics to study the wargamer demographic. Not surprisingly, he finds that the demographic is older (and getting older) and overwhelmingly male. He whines at how RPGs stole wargamers away and in doing so raises his nose in elitism over young gamers:

When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargames. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and much larger numbers of students were able to participate. Many of the wargames became gamesters, the one participant in in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids can’t really hack it. (p. 301)

Dunnigan goes on to discuss complexity in wargames, and in doing so doubles-down on the elitist gamer image:

“Wargames have always been arcane, but now publisher are putting out “simple” games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it” (p. 303).

This elitist attitude was first apparent in the Introduction where Dunnigan discusses “mushware.” As he writes:

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without the benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population come equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers couldn’t avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail….We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware. (p. xix-xxi)

My feeling after reading this book, and especially chapter eight and the discussion of mushware, is not inspiration but sadness. I am a bit sad that one of the giants of the hobby is not the great inspiration I had always envisioned. Instead, I now see Jim Dunnigan as a wargame designer that possessed a narrow ability to design historical land warfare wargames using classic hex-&-counter mechanics. I also see him as viewing himself as a member of an exclusive group – a group that is unwilling to share a hobby with RPG and computer wargames and collectible card games. Interestingly, I don’t recall reading anything about Magic: The Gathering in this book – amazing given how MTG was responsible for RPG and boardgame near-extinction in the 1990s. 

Fortunately, Dunnigan’s elitist attitude runs counter to the predominate mood of the boardgame hobby today. Indeed, in the very year the third edition of the Wargames Handbook was published, a “simple” wargame entered the hobby. Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) is regarded as the first of the Command and Colors System that in many ways revolutionized the wargame hobby with a “simple” wargame that broke many of the hex-&-counter design rules that SPI (and Dunnigan) clung to. I don’t find it surprising that the RockyMountainNavy game collection includes four Command and Colors games; nearly as many games as Jim Dunnigan designs owned.

This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I visited The Games Tavern in Chantilly, Virginia. We went in to look at tank models because the youngest RMN Boy likes to build armor. The weekend gaming was in full swing:

We were approached by many people who offered game and model advice and comment. We were invited to look at demos and displays and personal collections. My youngest was the center of attention because, I can tell, the hobby wants to bring young blood in, not keep it out. The incredible number of games – even wargames –  being published these days from designers that maybe had no wargame background proves that using mushware to design games is as useful as believing that midichlorians are part of the Force.

I recognize the Wargames Handbook is a snapshot in time as seen by the author. I am very glad that we have come far as a hobby in the intervening years.

Featured image courtesy goodreads.com

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Strategy & Tactics Quarterly Issue #1 (Spring 2018 Premier Issue) – Caesar: Veni – Vidi – Vici

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Courtesy Strategy & Tactics Press

In my experience, wargaming magazines have been a hit-or-miss affair. Many times the magazines are nothing more than “house rags” – publications devoted to a single publisher and focused exclusively (or near-exclusively) on their games. The old Avalon Hill The General was much like this, as was C3i Ops from GMT Games (now RBM Studio).

And then there were the wargame magazines. Publications like Strategy & Tactics. Magazines with games in them! Taking about those games will be another post for today I want to focus on the newest S&T publication, a brand new magazine called Strategy & Tactics Quarterly.

In the premier issue, the publisher has added the following note:

Welcome to the launch of a new magazine with a new format. This magazine is a stepping stone for military history magazine readers who are interested in going beyond stories to examine and understand the how and why of military history. We analyze the actual operations and maneuvers as well as alternative plans and possibilities. A Lessons Learned section summarizes how the topic and outcome influenced later events and why certain principles and techniques are still important today. Each in-depth issue focuses on one topic by a single author and includes over 20 detailed maps plus one large map poster. We also include an annotated bibliography for further reading as well as an overview of other media and games on the topic. – Christopher ‘Doc’ Cummins

The premier issue focuses on Julius Caesar. The issue author is Joseph Miranda, a longtime associate of Strategy & Tactics. Weighing in at a meaty 112 pages, the issue is divided into three major sections; I Caeser’s World, II Caesar Conquers, and III Caesar Triumphant.

Inside one finds lavish illustrations, images, the usual high-quality S&T maps. I especially like the addition of a timeline along many pages to help me track the many events as I read about them. The level of detail is not enough to make a wargame scenario, but it can provide deeper background to an existing game. The pull-out poster is double sided with one side being a map and the other a description of forces with lots of text. Makes it easy to decide which side to show when hanging….

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Poster Map for S&T Quarterly Issue #1 – Caesar

The writing is pretty good but I see nothing dramatically “revisionist” or “new” in the analysis. In some ways I am disappointed; a cursory look at the sources reveal very few “modern sources” – that is – unless Osprey Publishing books from the mid 2000’s counts as “recent.” Maybe this is not a real negative because the target audience is a more pedestrian reader. I know that the presentation draws my high school and early college boys to read the magazine. That is certainly one definition of success….

I am a bit disappointed that the only wargames mentioned are all S&T products, but I guess that is expected as this is an S&T publication.

According to the back of this issue, future topics include, “America in WWI, Battle of Stalingrad, World War III What-ifs, and the French Foreign Legion.” An interesting selection of topics; one standard (Stalingrad), one tied to a historical anniversary (100th Anniversary of WWI ending), one hypothetical (WWIII) and one narrow (French Foreign Legion). A print subscription is $44.99 for 1 year/4 issues or $79.99 for 2 years/8 issues. That’s a lot of value for $10-11 an issue (and a small savings off the $14.99 cover price). S&T Press also offers a digital option at $14.99 for 2 issues / $29.99 for 4 issues. I tried the digital subscription for S&T Magazine before and didn’t like it because it was too hard to read all those great maps!

In the end I will probably keep buying S&T Quarterly if for no other reason than breezy historical reading and sharing with the RMN Boys.

Why Navies Fight – #PacificFuryGuadalcanal1942 (Revolution Games, 2016)

One of the smaller games I got last year was Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal 1942 from Revolution Games. After my first play thru I took issue with the historical accuracy of the game but generally liked it. This past weekend I pulled the game out again and ran thru the campaign again. This time I payed more attention to the rules. After this second play thru, I see a lot more depth in the game and like this particular design a lot more!

Pacific Fury simulates the naval battles off Guadalcanal in late 1942. Each turn is a month, and each player must allocate his forces to up to seven Operations each month. Once Operations are allocated, the forces can only enter in that order. But operations can be more than just a Sortie to enter the board; to move and fight also takes Operations. Every Operation is a choice – enter more forces or execute an action with a deployed force. This is one layer of depth that makes Pacific Fury an interesting game; the timing of forces entering and (usually combat) actions. How long do you allow for the carriers to clear the area? Will that bombardment mission disrupt Henderson Field and allow a follow-on landing? Do I have a strong enough force to hold Ironbottom Sound? what about the Tokyo Express?

Another layer of depth – and one I misplayed my first play thru – is Hits and Sunk ships. The combat system is very simple – for each “firing” unit roll d6; if the number is less than or equal to the Combat Factor THAT NUMBER OF HITS is scored. Hits are then apportioned by the attacker with the number of hits allocated to each target compared to the Defense Factor. There are two possible results: Sunk (removed from game) or Hit (moved to Turn Record Track to return later).

The practical impact of this game mechanic to strategy is very important – although sinking ships is good to simply “damage” the ships might be more effective. The Japanese player can return ships two turns later meaning a ship damaged in Turn 3 will not return before Turn 4. In contrast, American ships with better damage control and closer repair facilities return the next turn. Thus, like the real battle it portrays, Pacific Fury becomes a furious battle of attrition.

Another design decision in Pacific Fury that makes it very interesting is the victory conditions. There is only one way to win this game; control Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This may seem like blasphemy to a naval gamer – many of whom only think in terms of sunk ships – but it actually reflects the reality of the battles fought from August to November 1942.

As I recognize how these game mechanics reflect aspects of the campaign often overlooked (or glossed over) in other games both my respect and enjoyment of Pacific Fury has increased. In my most recent campaign play the result was a draw. Actual losses on both sides were small; the Japanese lost Zuikaku, Shokaku, Ryujo, Nagato, and Nachi while the Americans lost Saratoga, Wasp, South Dakota, North Carolina, San Francisco, and Chicago.

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End of Game Condition

The Americans were actually a bit lucky that they were able to even get the draw. On Turn 3 (October 1942) the Japanese had retaken Henderson Field but at a cost a many damaged ships – ships now effectively “out of the game.” In the Event Phase of Turn 4, the Americans rolled IJN Overestimated which returned a “destroyed” carrier to the battle (incidentally, a carrier originally destroyed in the Event Phase of Turn 2 when the Japanese rolled three (!) Torpedo Hits and elected to sink that carrier). With the Hornet back, the Americans were able to use airpower to destroy the Japanese force patrolling Ironbottom Sound and get a bombardment force in to disrupt Henderson Field just in time for an amphibious force to land in the very last Operation of the game.

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Courtesy  goodreads.com

Pacific Fury reminds me that it is not enough to just “learn the rules” but it is also important to step back and understand the “why” of a game mechanic or rule. Usually these are hinted at in Designer’s Notes but in Pacific Fury such notes are lacking probably because the original game was published in Japanese. So in this case I had do do a bit of (enjoyable) discovery on my own. I am glad I pulled this game out again as I have deepened my understanding of not just the game but of the entire naval campaign for Guadalcanal. Pacific Fury is actually great compliment to what has to be one of the best books on the subject, James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno. Enough so that I need to stop typing away here and resume my reread of that book….

#SciFiFriday – Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick (@BaenBooks)

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Courtesy Baen.com

Military science fiction is often a hit-or-miss proposition to me, even more so with space combat which is often so “fantastical” that it becomes unbearable. But I am also a longtime fan of Frank Chadwick’s games (see his BoardGameGeek Ludography) and seeing how his latest book, Chain of Command, is being published by @BaenBooks (whose military science fiction I tolerate more so than other publishers) I gave it a try. It also didn’t hurt that I listened to the Bane Free Radio Hour (Episode 2017 09 29) where Mr. Chadwick discussed his book.

What really drew me to this book was Mr. Chadwick’s inspiration. As he writes in the Historical Note at the end of Chain of Command:

The inspiration for this novel grew from James D. Hornfischer’s stirring and detailed account of the naval campaign in the Solomon Islands (including Guadalcanal) in the second half of 1942–Neptune’s Inferno, but I never intended to shift the events of that campaign wholesale into deep space. A few incidents may be familiar to students of the historical battles, but my main interest was in how officers and sailors–as well as the admirals who lead them into battle with varying degrees of success–responded to a war which took them unaware and psychologically unprepared.

Mr. Chadwick goes on to list several books that further influenced the story. I was very happy to see Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea listed for I had thought nobody actually read these books anymore.

With all that in mind one could be forgiven for worrying that Chain of Command is just another “WW2 in space” story but I am happy to report that the book successfully overcomes that challenge. The science fiction technology tends a bit more towards the “hard science-fi” edge with just enough handwavium to explain away the science fiction. In many ways, the fantastical technology in the book traces its lineage to today’s technology which makes it all the more believable and relatable.

If military science fiction is your thing and you have even a passing interest in World War II naval combat, then Chain of Command could make a good addition to your reading list.

#RPGThursday – Reflections on The Klingons (FASA, 1983)

Star Trek Adventures, the latest RPG version of Star Trek, is currently (as of this posting) up for pre-order from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Beta playtest, and made comments herehere, here, and here. Truth be told, I never really warmed to the system, and after somehow being dropped then re-added to the playtest when I dropped again I didn’t make an issue of it and finish the playtest campaign.

A quick look at the products page for STA indicates that Modiphius is focusing on the Next Generation-era of Trek. I find this unfortunate; in the living playtest I choose the The Original Series-era because it is my personal favorite.

Why The Original Series? Well, first off, my Star Trek gateway was actually via the Star Fleet Battles wargame. My first Star Trek RPG was, coincidentally, Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game from FASA. Both of these games have a very different (non-canonical) take on the Star Trek universe. Of the two, I prefer to RPG in the FASA setting. That setting is embodied to me in one key supplement and one book.

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Personal Collection

The supplement is The Klingons (1st Edition, 1983) written by John M. Ford, Guy W. McLimore, Jr., Greg K Poehlein, and David F. Tepool. The Klingons supplement was published a year before Mr. Ford’s novel The Final Reflection (Star Trek Worlds Apart #1). The Final Reflection was the first “official” Star Trek novel to explain the Klingon Empire.

The early-mid 1980’s was an interesting time in the lore of Star Trek. The “canon” of the time consisted of The Original Series, The Animated Series, and the movies Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. So when it came time for FASA to produce their Klingon sourcebook, they had a real challenge. As the Introduction from The Klingons says:

In the process of presenting interesting stories featuring Klingons, the series gave us only a few tantalizing looks at the culture and history behind the individual characters. In The Savage Curtain we meet Kahless the Unforgettable, the ancient Klingon who created his race’s traditions of treachery and tyranny, but we learn virtually nothing else of Klingon history. Klingon technology is revealed in bits and pieces in the series, but Klingon social customs remain a mystery.

To further confuse matters, STAR TREK: The Motion Picture introduces us to an entirely different breed of Klingon – less human in appearance and demeanor with even greater savagery in battle. It is a brief glimpse to be sure, before three D-7M battlecruisers are obliterated by V’Ger, but it opens a whole new chapter in the Klingon saga.

So what was FASA’s solution to this problem? Call in an old friend; in this case John M. Ford, former roommate and then-author:

When we discovered we were working on parallel projects, we couldn’t resist collaboration of sorts. Thus, the research on the Klingon Empire for his upcoming novel The Final Reflection (from Pocket Books) became the basis for the background material for this expansion set….The research-sharing went both ways on the project, with background data on the STAR TREK universe in The Final Reflection sometimes based on data presented in STAR TREK: The Roleplaying Game. In this way, the STAR TREK universe inhabited by game players and the novel’s characters remain consistent, and support each other in richness of detail. Thus, what you hold in your hands is not just a game supplement, but is also background on the Klingon Empire. With its detail and background supported by both the game framework and a major piece of professional STAR TREK fiction, it can lay claim to being an “official” look at the universe.

Within The Klingons and The Final Reflection there is a lot to unpack. From “the perpetual game” of society that all play to the “naked stars,” (“If there are gods they do not help, and justice belongs to the strong: but know that all things done before the naked stars are remembered”). One must understand kuve – servitor (not slave) – as well as tharavul (labotomized Vulcans made into living computers). This Klingon society is deep with meaning – and adventuring opportunity.

As the Star Trek universe developed, and especially in the Next Generation-series, the depiction of the Klingons changed (although Memory Alpha states Ronald D. Moore, eventually a producer for ST:TNG, claims The Final Reflection did influence him). What  I see is that instead of the Ford Klingons like Captain Kreen we get Worf – Space Samauri. When I look at the two settings…I only really see one choice.

It would be easy to get into a canon war at this point, but I look back on – and game by – the advice given in the Designers Notes to Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game:

…in the long run it will be the fans who decide what is and what is not STAR TREK for their campaigns. Feel free to change even basic assumptions if it suits you. Don’t be offended if we state something as “fact” that does not fit with your personal image. Simply run your campaign to suit what STAR TREK means to you. It’s your campaign, and we are by no means the final arbiters on such matters.

So with that thought, I say “no thank you” to Star Trek Adventures and look forward to welcoming back an old adventuring friend.

Kai FASA. Kai Ford.

#BookFinder July 2017

IMG_1705This Fourth of July holiday weekend I found a few books to add to the reading list and collection.

The French-Indian War 1754-1760 and The American Revolution 1774-1783 are both from the Essential Histories-series by Osprey Publishing. The author of both books, Daniel Marston, appears to be a professor of Military Studies at the Australian War College. Thus, these books are not written from a US perspective. This is a good thing; I strongly believe that reading other views of US history is useful for learning more about ourselves. I found these two at McKay’s Used Books where Osprey items are a bit pricy but often in good condition.

Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: The Civil War is a very new book (May 2017) that I found for a mere $9.99 at Costco. Being sold so cheaply so soon after release could be a bad sign. The few reviews on goodreads.com are generally positive but I will reserve judgement until after I read this one.

I have a wargame pre-order in for the second edition of Academy Games Conflict of Heroes: Storm of Steel! – Kursk 1943. So when I found The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 at McKay’s I picked it up to help read-up on the battle in preparation for the game release later this year. It’s far more detailed than what is gamed in Storm of Steel! but it will also be useful for my other new game acquisition, Panzer: Game Expansion Set, Nr 2 – The Final Forces on the Eastern Front 1941-44 which expands Panzer (Second Edition) from GMT Games.

 

 

#WargameWednesday Retroactive – Hammer’s Slammers (Mayfair Games Inc., 1984)

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Courtesy BGG.com

After looking to create a Hammer’s Slammers hover tank in #CepheusEngine RPG last week, I decided to pull out my “real” Hammer’s Slammers wargame. I kinda remember playing this one several times when it first came out but it never reached the same status in my mind as the Yaquinto Panzer-88-Armor-series that my friends and I played so much. Much to my surprise, this simple game actually packages great depth of gameplay.

Hammer’s Slammers is a true hex-n-counter game using small counters, a thick modular mapboard, and a 2d6 Combat Results Table (CRT). There are four forces provided; Hammer’s Slammers (blue), another Mercenary Force (red), and two Conventional Armies (green and tan). Interestingly, there is no scale designated although units look to be platoon/battery organizations and each hex multiple (?) kilometers.

Hammer’s Slammers is taken straight from the first book. Hover Tanks, Combat Cars, Infantry on hover scooters, and Hover Self-Propelled Artillery. The “Red” Mercenary Force is the same plus optional Large/Small guns (for indirect or direct fire), Howitzers (indirect fire only), or a Self-Propelled Calliope (for Counter Paratrooper or Counter Artillery Fires). Slammers and Mercenary units generally pack more firepower, have better protection, and come with superior speed. Conventional Forces use Tracked Tanks, Armored Cars, Armored Personnel Carriers, Large/Small Guns, Howitzers, Tracked Self-Propelled Artillery, Wheeled Self-Propelled Calliopes, and towed Calliopes. This mix of units lets one recreate many of the battles found in the books where the technologically superior but numerically inferior Slammers fought against other mercenary or conventional units.

The main rulebook is 16 pages long, but the first nine are reprints of the “Interludes” found in the original Hammer’s Slammers book. This leaves seven pages of two-column text and tables for the rules. Every turn each player sequentially resolves their action in the order of Rally (Moving Player) – Paradrop & Counter Paradrop FireMove (Moving Player) – Ranged Combat (All Players – Indirect Artillery & Counter Artillery Fire – Direct Fire) – Close Assaults (All Players). Once all players have gone the next turn begins.

Units that are Disrupted in Combat can Rally. For this each force has a Morale Number that must be rolled above on 2d6. Many scenarios have a variable Morale Number based on increasing losses – the more units lost the harder it becomes to rally a unit. A simple mechanic that doesn’t get in the way of play but adds a nice layer of realism.

I don’t remember any paradrop operations in the original stories so Paradrop & Counter Paradrop Fire seems a bit out of place to me. It does allow a nice way to enter units onto the map quickly.

Movement is again very traditional with each hex having a movement cost to enter. Hover and Conventional units have separate movement charts reflecting the different mobility of hover versus tracked/wheeled. There is not much difference but there is enough to be evocative of the setting.

Ranged Combat is where the differences between forces really stands out beginning with Indirect Fire & Counter Artillery Fire. Indirect Fire attacks the defense factor of the hex, not the units. This makes indirect fire very dangerous because the 8-defense factor Hover Tank in the Clear hex actually has a defense factor of 2 against artillery. To offset this vulnerability, Hover Tanks and Calliopes have the Counter Artillery Fire (CAF) capability which allows each unit to cancel a single artillery barrage in range. Of course, this comes at a cost; units firing CAF cannot fire in the Direct Fire phase.

Direct Fire is very simple; compare Attack Factor to Defense Factor, convert to odds, roll on CRT. Stacked units can combine fire and attack other stacks or individual units. Firing out to twice your range cuts the Attack Factor in half. Terrain Modifiers add to the Defense Factor. Combat results are No Effect, Disrupted (no indirect or direct fire, half movement), Defender Eliminated, or Defender Eliminated with Rubble (adds to movement and defense). There is an optional rule for Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) which allows Mercenary and Slammer Hover Tanks to “jam” conventional units which means the target cannot combine their attack nor spot for an indirect fire unit.

Close Assault takes place when units are in the same hex. All undisrupted units get a positive column shift and infantry fights with doubled Attack Factors. Units in Close Assault cannot leave the hex until all enemy units are eliminated.

There are other rules for Fortresses and Gas Attacks but generally that is it. You can play one of the 14 scenarios or Design Your Own using the point-buy system provided.

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Slammers in Action

I played two scenarios. “Badger Hunt” is the introductory scenario that uses Conventional Forces only. I also played “Slammers” which is a three-way brawl with the Slammers squaring off against the Green Army (lots of long-range artillery and infantry with few mechanized) and the Tan Army (Mechanized and supported by a few Small Guns – no infantry). Each player has six turns to get as many points as possible (points are scored using the Design Your Own Scenario values). I used the Slammers with ECM to get as much high-tech effect as possible.

Hammer’s Slammers plays out much differently than I remember. I kinda remember the CPF and CAF rules and I don’t think I ever actually played with the ECM rules. I sorta remember the game as being very vanilla; simple and bland.

This time it was a much deeper experience. The low rules overhead meant the game could be played with minimal relearning. The differences in forces is just enough that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or best strategy. In the “Slammers” scenario, the Slammers start in the center and must determine how to deal with each force. I painfully learned that the Hover Tanks greatest asset is not its firepower but its CAF capability. The Hover Tanks ended up providing cover for the Combat Cars until they got close enough to dash in and deal with the guns. Of course, nipping at the flanks or blocking the direct route was that pesky tracked armor. This forced a decision; drop the CAF for Direct Fire or cover the force and let the lesser combat cars try to deal with the threat? For the Green or Tan Conventional Armies the key is combined arms and interlocking fields of fire. Artillery is in many ways still the King of the Battle.

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Courtesy BGG.com

As much as Mayfair’s Hammer’s Slammers game captures the flavor the of books, it best replicates battlefield force-on-force situations. There is one scenario, “Hangman,” where a Mercenary force takes on Militia and Buses. It’s a one-sided bloodbath. The game has no real ability to present an asymmetric combat situation. I have to admit the best game I have in my collection for that is actually Tomorrow’s War: Science Fiction Wargaming Rules (Ambush Alley Games/Osprey Publishing 2011). This is a skirmish game played at a much more granular scale than Hammer’s Slammers. In many ways, Tomorrow’s War is a direct competitor to my other HS game, The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook (Pireme Publishing Ltd, 2004) which is a set of miniatures skirmish rules published in the UK which still has its own website.

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Courtesy BGG.com

I also think back to the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook from Mongoose Publishing for their Mongoose Traveller (1st Edition) RPG. As I have written before that product was a real disaster.

So when I look at the Mayfair Hammer’s Slammers game today I actually see a real gem. The game is a close to an introductory-level game in terms of rules, but the variable forces and modular map make for endless play variations. As simple as the rules are, the designer has actually captured a good deal of the flavor of combat in the Hammerverse. The game also has a very small footprint; the “Slammers” scenario map was playable in an area literally 18’x24″. A 3’x3′ table is more than sufficient for even the largest scenarios!

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: MUST PLAY MORE!