Gettysburg and Gaming

This week we missed our weekly Family Game Night for maybe only the second time in over 18 months. The fatherly part of me feels a bit sad since I missed out on quality gaming time with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, but we more than made up for it in a short spring break trip to Gettysburg. The trip to Gettysburg National Military Park made me think of several games I have and consider how wargaming can help me teach the American Civil War to my family.

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Courtesy BGG.com

I last went to Gettysburg in the mid-1990s. I was attending a school in the military and we did a staff ride to Gettysburg. As I recall, we didn’t see any movie or the cyclorama and instead used the Army War College staff guide for moving about the battlefield. I sorta recall that I picked up my main Gettysburg wargame, Thunder at the Crossroads, 2nd Edition (The Gamers, 1993) in the gift shop. I remember because I had to explain to my classmates what a wargame was (sigh).

For the family this time we didn’t do our visit the military way, but the way the National Park Service recommends. For a very affordable $15 ($14 with military discount) one can get in to see the 20 minute movie A New Birth of Freedom (narrated by Morgan Freeman), the Cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge, and the museum before embarking on an auto tour of the battlefield. The movie is excellent, the cyclorama breathtaking, and the museum extremely educational. As much as I was looking forward to teaching the RMN Boys about the Battle of Gettysburg, it was Mrs. RMN who got the best education. Being a naturalized citizen fo the United States, she missed out on a great deal of history in the schools. Beyond the battlefield, the history that resonated with her the most was the divided nation, much like her original birth land of Korea. She studied closely the words of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Gettysburg Address. It was a good learning experience for all of us.

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Courtesy BGG.com

Looking at my gaming collection, I actually have on three American Civil War games. In addition to the previously mentioned Thunder at the Crossroads, I also have The Civil War (Fresno Gaming Assoc, 1991). This game rates a solid 2.8 on BGG.com and appears in geeklists like “The Worst Game in Your Collection” or “Worst. Game. Ever.” I rate it as a 5 (Mediocre – Take it or Leave it) though I don’t remember why I rated it this way.

 

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Courtesy BGG.com

The other American Civil War game in my collection is For the People (GMT Games, First Edition, 2000). This card-driven game (CDG) was one of my first forays into that game mechanic and, at the time, I found it wanting. Since then the CDG mechanic has grown on me and I have come to like it.

 

For a guy that is was so into tactical or operational-level wargames, I am surprised that I have only one Civil War game of that flavor in my collection. I guess I am a bit lucky that it is Thunder at the Crossroads given that there are many positive reviews of the game out there. I like hearing comments that it is long, but playable. It is also popular enough that there are even how-to videos posted out there. I strongly recommend Gilbert Collins’ review posted on Youtube.

More recently, I have been following Joel Toppen (@pastorJoelT on Twitter)and his replay of the new Compass Games title Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge. This one looks interesting enough I may just have to order it!

I aslo note that Worthington Publishing announced a new Kickstarter coming soon for new Hold the Line: American Civil War.

I like the Hold the Line system, and this one looks interesting. I guess my getting it will depend upon the price point. Worthington is going to be working a bit uphill here since I have an inherent distrust of Kickstarter.

I have also heard rumors that Academy Games is looking at a Gettysburg version of Conflict of Heroes. Take my money!

So although I missed out on game night, our family trip to Gettysburg helped all the family learn much more about a vital period of American history. In the long run, we will get more American Civil War games to the table.

Featured image: Pickett’s Charge Cyclorama courtesy NPS.gov.

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Playing in the Big League – or not – Little Navies in Game of the Week 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987)

My Game of the Week theme is South China Sea. Having looked at Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984) and now 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) I wanted to play out a South China Sea scenario. Looking for a bit of historical inspiration, I studied the Johnson Reef Skirmish (14 March 1988) which is right in the time period represented in 7th Fleet. I postulated the skirmish continues and grows into a bigger confrontation. I could take advantage of the PLAN counters in the game.

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The PLAN in 7th Fleet

This battle could play out on a small corner of the south map. This would save space and allow me to explore interaction of Air, Surface, and Submarine units in a low density environment.

But then I looked at the countermix, especially Vietnam. In 7th Fleet, Vietnam simply has no fleet! The Vietnamese People’s Air Force makes an appearance using older MiG-21 fighters. But the small Vietnamese fleet is nowhere to be found! This is because at the time the VPN had only lightly armed transports –  negligible forces by the standard of 7th Fleet. Indeed, the “smallest” unit in 7th Fleet appears to be flotilla of several small ships (like older destroyers or corvettes) or a patrol squadron of patrol ships/combatants. Lightly armed transports? Forget about it!

So I am back to the (scenario) drawing board and thinking about another scenario. Now I know I have to “up the scale.” Given that the PRC was getting friendlier with the US during this period, maybe try PLAN versus Soviet Union? At the time, the Udaloy and Sovremennyy-class destroyers were just entering the Soviet fleet. Let’s see…a Soviet Task Group (Udaloy, Sovremennyy, Dubna replenishment ship) enroute to a friendship port call in Vietnam gets sideways with the PLAN…including a newer Han-class SSN? Could the Soviets also have a submarine (Foxtrot or Tango?) shadowing them to help “delouse” from those pesky American submarines?

Hmmm….

The Old South China Sea – 7th Fleet (Victory Games, 1987) Game of the Week for 26 Mar 2018

Continuing my South China Sea gaming theme….

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Courtesy BGG.com

In the mid-1980s the Cold War was still hot and wargames reflected it. In the realm of modern naval combat, the series that stood above all others was the Fleet-series from Victory Games. Designer Joseph M. Balkowski created an operational-level game that captured many aspects of modern naval combat in a detailed, yet playable, game. The third game in the series, 7th Fleet: Modern Naval Combat in the Far East, covered my Game of the Week theme –  the South China Sea. As I reviewed the rules for 7th Fleet I was struck by how much I remember; and how much I have forgotten. It is in the forgotten parts that I am rediscovering the awesomeness of the game design and how simple design choices make for awesome game rules.

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Basic Game Rules

Having not played 7th Fleet in a long time, I decided to focus my Game of the Week on the Basic Game at first, and if time permits to look at the Advanced Game. At first glance, the 64-page rule book looks daunting. Upon closer inspection, one discovers that the first seven pages are introductory materials with the rules starting on page 8. 3.0 Sequence of Play is presented on one page (page 8) and covers the entire ruleset; Basic and Advanced as well as Optional rules. The Basic Game Rules themselves are only 18 pages with a further 13 pages given over to nine Basic Game Scenarios.

The Basic Game Rules start on page 9 and jump straight into the heart of the game, rule 4.0 The Action Phase. Here is the first place my memory of the game was (pleasantly) refreshed. In particular, I had forgotten the nuances of 4.3 Limitations on Activation and 4.4 What Activated Units Can Do. I had forgotten that Surface Units when activated use a combination of move/attack with one move and up to two attacks…but the attacks can only be before or after the move and not in-between. Submarines can activate using a combination of move and a single attack, and Air Units are the only platform that attacks during their move. These simple activation distinctions between units capture so much of the different capabilities of platforms and immediately show me the simple genius behind much of the game design.

Another Basic Game rule that has subtle nuance that I had forgotten is 6.0 Stacking. The rule specifies a “limit of 12 surface combat units per hex.” Surface ships in the game are divided into two broad categories; Surface Combat Units and Non-Combat Surface Units (See 2.3 Playing Pieces – Summary of Counter Types). Thus, I could have a convoy of any number of amphibious assault or tankers or oilers in a hex as long as I have an escort of no more than 12 surface combat units (CV, CG, CL, DD, FF, BB, Corvette CO or Patrol Combatant PC). I remember games from long ago where I always had my convoys of no more than 12 ships (escorts and convoy together) smashed because they had never had enough escorts. Now I know why!

Rule 7.0 Strategic Air Missions is pretty much like I remember it. I always loved the challenge that came with planning Strategic Air Missions because any aircraft assigned to these missions is committed for the entire day (3-turn sequence). I really like 7.4 Tactical Coordination Missions but I think I used to play it wrong by keeping aircraft on these missions all day instead of returning them to base after they provide a bonus in combat (i.e. they can be used to support a single combat resolution).

As a fan of the F-14 Tomcat, I have always loved 8.0 Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and especially the AEW and CAP bonus. I had forgotten rule 8.3 CAP and SSM Combat where a CAP under certain conditions can contribute to defense against SSM attack. The rule specifies that a CAP mission with an EW air unit or a US F14 INT unit can aid, but I wonder if this rule should be reconsidered for aircraft like the Soviet S27 or M25 INT given that we now understand much more about “look down-shoot down” capabilities?

Some critics of wargames point to the “perfect knowledge” of the game board as a drawback. Rule 9.0 Detection creates a game mechanic to limits what can be done with that perfect knowledge. I forgot was the subtle differences between Strategic Detection and Local Detection and how surface ships are pretty much automatically detected once within range whereas players must still attempt to detect submarines. This little nuance is a simple game mechanism that goes a long way towards portraying different platform capabilities – detailed yet playable.

10.0 Combat has so many little flavor pieces that add depth to the simple combat model without bogging it down with too much chrome. Item likes 10.4 Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Combat where the defender can position his units in his defending stack but the attacker then rolls to see which half of the stack is attacked; imperfect targeting! I had also totally forgotten 10.9 Close Defense Hex Combat…don’t go too near an enemy coast!

The scenario that would make the most sense to play for my Game of the Week is 13.3 Scenario 3: Battle of the South China Sea. I am hesitant to jump into this one given the complexity is rated as “High” and the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy does not make an appearance in the scenario. Indeed, China is treated in a very interesting manner in this game. 2.3 Playing Pieces specifies that the Allied Player (i.e. the US player) controls counters from Taiwan…and China! I have to remind myself that 7th Fleet was published in the mid-1980s…before the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

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PLAN of Long Ago….

Looking at how the Chinese Navy is presented in 7th Fleet is a stark reminder of just how far the PLAN has come. It is a real shame that the Fleet-series has not been updated over the years. The game mechanics are solid and the design choices made by Mr. Balkowski give us a playable, yet detailed, version of naval combat that still can find application in the 21st century – 30 years past the Cold War.

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PLAN of Today-ish (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015)

Featured image “Full page magazine ad from S&T No. 117” courtesy BoardGameGeek.com.

Old Lore – #BattleLore (Days of Wonder, 2006)

The RockyMountainNavy Family Game Night game this week was BattleLore (Days of Wonder, 2006). This is the first edition of the game and not the more recent Fantasy Flight Games second edition. Our game this week was generally good although I made a few errors during the evening. Playing BattleLore has rekindled my interest in the game and it deserves more table time.

In the RMN family, we usually end up playing a 3-player event. This makes it harder than it should to find a good game because many games are either 2-player or a multiple thereof (i.e. 4-players, etc.).  The Birth of America-series from Academy Games (1754 -Conquest: The French & Indian War, 1775 – Rebellion: The American Revolution, 1812: The Invasion of America) work well because they are 4-player games that also work at 2-players or – best for us – 3-players.

I own BattleLore: Epic BattleLore (DoW, 2007) that I thought would give me a scenario using the multiple boards that is suitable for 3-players. Using the extra board, it is possible to make a layout that is six-sectors wide that allows multiple commanders to play one side. But when I looked for an adventure (scenario) that used this map configuration there was none in the booklet. As the RMN Boys were already at the table and itching to play, I went ahead and laid out an adventure from the booklet that used a single army and an epic-scale 3-sector map. I asked the Boys to share command and they (reluctantly) agreed.

Wrong choice on my part.

Asking the Boys to “share” command of a single army spread over three sectors did not work. I thought about using a variation of the 4-player Reluctant Allies in Epic BattleLore but decided it would be unfair in a 3-player set-up. The Boys ended up bickering a fair bit (more than their usual friendly banter) and I could see the frustration growing in Middle RMN as his younger brother outright refused at times to work together. The Boys ended up winning, 7 banners to 5, but it was not a really fun game.

I apologized to Middle RMN about my choices going into the game and he was a good sport. I think he and I are OK but I don’t want to be his brother on the other side of a future battle because I sense there will be no mercy given!

All that said, the game night was not a total disaster. Having not played BattleLore in a long time (my last previously recorded play was in 2010!) and putting aside the command issues we enjoyed it. The addition of Lore and Creatures and the Goblin or Dwarf units – each with advantages and disadvantages – makes for an interesting game. The game is not without its challenges; soft sculpts and lack of good player aids detract a bit, but should not be showstoppers to enjoyment. I also think that the Boys are much more able to handle all that BattleLore brings to the table now that they are more experienced gamers. The last time we played Youngest RMN was a wee 6-years old and Middle RMN, my Austism Spectrum hero, was 12.

In addition to the core set and the previously mentioned Epic BattleLore expansion, I also own Call to Arms, the Dwarven Battalion Specialist Pack, and the Goblin Skirmishers Specialist Pack. Between all these expansions I “should” be able to come up with good adventures for 3-players, especially using the Call to Arms system. Although fantasy is not my go-to genre for gaming, I sense that BattleLore may actually fit many of our Family Game Night needs. BattleLore will find itself on the gaming table again, but not before I thoroughly reread the rules and make considered decisions on adventure design and balance.

Thoughts on Range in Battle Stations! (Simulations Canada, 1984)

My exploration of Battle Stations! for my Game of the Week continues. The game is a low-complexity simulation of modern naval warfare (at least as it was seen in the 1980s looking into the 1990s). As I played this week, I have come to like the “low-complexity” of the rules, but as a naval enthusiast I am questioning several of the design assumptions that contribute to that simplicity. In particular is the use of range in anti-air and anti-submarine combat.

Range is a central concept in the combat model of Battle Stations! Each turn (representing about five hours of time) is divided into movement and combat phases. The Joint Combat Phase is further broken down into a Targeting Resolution Segment and multiple Range Resolution Segments. In each Range Resolution Segment, the range counts down from A to D and AU (anti-submarine attacks).

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US Navy CG with AA value of 5, AS value of 5 at range C, AU value of 7, and EW value of 3

Ships have ratings for Anti-Air (AA), Anti-ship (AS) combat with a range (A-D), an anti-submarine value (AU), EW rating, VP value and movement (see image above).

For AS combat, Range Resolution Segments are directly tied to the range value on the counter. This is easy to understand and an easy way to represent the different range capabilities possessed by a given unit. However, range in AA combat is tied to ship type, not a particular range:

6.31 AA STRENGTH: AA strength is not tied to a hex range, rather to a unit type. In ‘A’ range resolution segments CV type units may participate against opposing aircraft up to 23 hexes away from the unit location while CH, BG, & CG type units may  participate against aircraft up to 8 hexes from the unit location. In addition, aircraft with AA strength may participate against opposing aircraft in the same hex while other unit types may not participate at all.  In ‘B’ range resolution segments CV, CH, BG, & CG type units may participate against opposing aircraft up to 8 hexes from the unit location while aircraft with AA strength may only participate against opposing aircraft in the same hex and other unit types may not participate at all. In ‘C’ & ‘D’ range resolution segments all units and aircraft with AA strength may participate against opposing aircraft in the same hex.

On one hand the AA range rule reflects the extended range of AA combat, but tying engagement ranges to a unit type is too much of a simplification for me, especially given the game designers showed they could portray AS range capability. The rule works for aircraft carriers (CV) – maybe too well as range 23 is 575nm from the carrier! I know the F-14 Tomcat with the AIM-54 Phoenix was a long-range hitter…but Battle Stations! may be a bit too generous! Even AA range ‘B’ for CG seems generous. In 1984 (the time this game was published) the first Ticonderoga-class cruisers were entering service with the US Navy. The combination of the Aegis combat system and SM-2 missile was state-of-the art for its day, but the SM-2 could only reach 90nm (~4 hexes) – far less than the 8 hexes allowed in Battle Stations! It was not until the introduction of the SM-2 Blk IV-ER in 1998 that an AA range of 200nm / 8 hexes was achieved.

The AA range rule also makes me question the design assumptions behind the AU Resolution Segment. All anti-submarine warfare is resolved within the same hex. This limitation seemingly ignores the range that ASW aircraft or helicopters could operate. Again, a rules simplification that reduces complexity but loses a chance to portray modern ASW combat at ranges beyond the classic WWII dropping of depth charges in the wake.

In 8.0 DESIGN NOTES, designer Stephen Newberg describes BATTLE STATIONS! as:

…a fairly easy but broadly reflective modern game at the tactical / operational level. We found a need for such a game ourselves, since sometimes it is nice to play out a fast battle rather than a long war.

I agree that Battle Stations! hits this mark, but then he goes on to say:

Since the idea was to produce an easy game we kept the details down, but the data base, with a large number of individual capability ratings for each unit, allowed us to keep the system reasonably accurate, even though it included complete air, surface, & submarine interactions….

In the final analysis, I have to agree that “reasonably accurate” is more than good enough for Battle Stations! Sure, if I was the designer I would make a few different design decisions, possibly at the cost of some additional complexity. I don’t think it would break the design, but make an improvement at the edges. But I am happy that Mr. Newberg was the designer and not me for although I question some of his decisions I still get to enjoy Battle Stations! 38 years after it was first published.

Scattered to the winds – Organizing Battle Stations for Game of the Week

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Note to self…placing a plastic compartmented game box on edge is NOT a good idea!

Really wanted to get Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984) to the table tonight for my Game of the Week but first I need to organize all the counters. Well, a good chance to really look at the game components.

Rulebook – Eight pages including the cover and back page which double as the box front and back. Rest is five pages of rules (double column) and one page player aid with tracks and Combat Results Table. Upon closer inspection, all the actual rules are in five columns of text the rest being scenarios (~three columns) and Designer’s Notes and Charts & Tables (~two columns).

Map – the 16’x24″ map is divided into four areas; The Northern Gap, The Eastern Mediterranean, The Southern Sea of Japan, and Open Waters. Each hex is 24 (nautical) miles across. So not a lot of maneuver given every game turn is about five hours (an interesting design choice…not your usual 4 or 6 or 8 or 12 hour turn).

Counters – Small (1/2″?) with lots of data crammed onto the little space. So little the ship class is not shown; one must cross-reference rule 9.1 UNIT ID NUMBERS TO CLASS LISTINGS to determine what each counter is.

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A Spruance-class “CG” and an un-targetted Kashin

By today’s standards a very DTP-like production job. But the real heart of the game is a simple combat model.

After movement in order to attack a ship must be targeted. This is a simple die roll (with just a few modifiers) against the Electronic Warfare (EW) rating of the target.

Different units can attack at different ranges, rated as A thru D and AU. Ships like aircraft carriers can attack at Range A (23 hexes) down to smaller ships or aircraft only able to attack the same hex (Range D). Ships are also given ratings for different types of attacks. These include Anti-Air (AA), Anti-Ship (AS), and Anti-Underwater (AU). Combat consists of multiple segments counting down the range. At each range, units compare attack strength to the EW rating – rolling the given die range results in a hit and destruction of the target. Combat is fast and deadly. That’s even without using rule 6.8 OPTIONAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

Rule 7.8 SEAPOWER & THE STATE INTERFACE points out that Battle Stations shares the same data base for units as the strategic game, making them easy to use together. I seem to recall reading many years back on CONSIMWorld that the designer does not have the formulas or other info to recreate the unit values. That’s a shame since the simplicity of Battle Stations could make it an interesting quick-play naval combat game of the modern era.

 

Game of the Week 19 March 2018 – South China Sea battles with Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984)

I want to get to my newer Compass Games South China Sea (2017) but before I do I am taking a step back in time to see what earlier operational-level modern naval combat games were like. This week I am taking a deep dive (no pun intended!) into Battle Stations: An Operational Game of Modern Seapower published by Simulations Canada in 1984. The South China Sea actually appears in this game as scenario 7.62!