Game of the Week for April 02, 2018 – Thunder at the Crossroads 2nd Edition (The Gamers, 1993)

After the RockyMountainNavy trip to Gettysburg last week, it seems fitting that the Game of the Week be on that same topic. Thunder at the Crossroads 2nd Edition (The Gamers, 1993) is the only non-strategic Civil War battle game in my collection (the others being the broadly disliked The Civil War from Fresno Gaming Assoc. 1991 and the very popular For the People from GMT Games, 1998). Thunder at the Crossroads is a solid 7.7 on BoardGameGeek.com and has favorable reviews. It is not without its detractions, the main one being the required play time. BGG.com lists playing time as 360 minutes, though the back of the box states, “18 Hours Plus.”

This game is part of The Gamers’ Civil War Brigade (CWB) Series. As such, the rules are presented in two rulebooks; the Series Rules and Game Rules. The Game Rules are in a 20 page booklet but only the first four pages are “rules” with the rest being scenarios and notes.

The Series Rules are interesting. In the Introduction, the designers claim the games are, “accurate, readily playable portrayals of specific American Civil War battles at the tactical brigade level.” They go on to state,

The intent of this series is to focus on the command aspects of Civil War combat by having players use a game command system that mimics actual events. The game forces interact with each other in ways that simulate the functions of those they represent.

This focus on command becomes clearer when one realized that 10.0 Command and Control covers five pages of the Series Rules. This is a major portion of the rules, especially when one realizes that the “rules” are communicated in 24 pages with the balance of the 32 page rulebook being Designer’s Notes and several Optional rules and related essays.

All of which makes the reading 2.0 Beginner’s Note a bit confusing. Here the designer recommends,

Avoid the Command Rules as you learn this system, only using “command radius” to keep things in order. Once you understand the basic structure, include the rest of the command systems in your next session. All games in this series can be played without the command rules, so, if you do not find them to your taste, feel free to play without them.

I sense some cognitive dissonance here; the “focus” of the game is on the “command aspects” but it “can be played without the command rules.” OK…?

Another rule I had a hard time wrapping my head around at first was 6.5 Fire Levels. Infantry and cavalry units are rated using lettered fire levels. The rest of the game is fairly straight forward with a Turn Sequence (8.0) that is probably very familiar to may grognards:

  • First Player Turn
    • Command Phase
    • Movement & Close Combat Phase
    • Fire Combat Phase
    • Rally Phase
  • Second Player Turn
    • (Repeat above)
  • Game End Turn Phase

If there is one rule I like it is the Play Tip that appears in 20.0 Fire Combat. Recognizing that the fire combat rules require a series of die rolls the recommendation made is,

…place the following combination of dice into a dice roller: two large red dice, one smaller red die, one yellow die, one black die (white dots) and one white die (black dots). (The actual dice and colors used is up to you, but the above is a working example). Using the above dice, they will be read as follows. The two large red dice are for the main combat table. The smaller red die rounds any 1/2 results. The yellow die is for the Straggler Table. The remaining two dice are for the Morale Table with the black die the tens digit and the white die the ones. Use only the results from the dice which are needed according to the Fire Table result – in other words, if the Fire Table result is no effect, ignore all the other dice. This system speeds up play drastically – although it might sound cumbersome at first.

What the rulebook lacks is strong graphics. The three-column layout gets detailed and although there are several examples of play all are mostly textual – graphics are very limited. The Rules Summary Sheet lacks numerical rules references making it a short, but not-very-helpful compilation of rules. Some tables appear in the Charts & Tables but others (like the Movement Table) are directly on the map sheets. In 1993, the same year this game was published, designer Dean Essig was inducted into the Charles S. Robert Hall of Fame. That same year he won the James F. Dunnigan Award for Playability & Design. Granted, this award was for his 1993 title Afrika: The Northern Africa Campaign, 1940-1942 (1st Edition) which, judging from the photos on bgg.com, doesn’t visually appear much different from Thunder at the Crossroads. I guess this was the “state of excellence” at the time….

There are 11 scenarios provided, covering single days (like Scenario 1: The First Day) to smaller actions (like Scenario 5: Little Round Top) to the entire battle (Scenario 10: The Historical Battle of Gettysburg). There is actually a twelfth scenario which uses 6.12 Variable Arrival Charts to allow an Army Commander to “better implement his plans.” For my Game of the Week, I think I will use the shortest scenario, Little Round Top, which is only 9 turns. I also think I will use the Beginner’s Notes recommendation and only use the “command radius” rules. At least this first time….

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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.

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!

Dull Claws in Game of the Week – Talon 2nd Printing (@GMTGames, 2017).

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Courtesy GMT Games

The current Game of the Week is Talon 2nd Printing (GMT Games, 2017). This game is highly rated on BoardGameGeek scoring a solid 7.7 with nearly 400 ratings. It is also ranked as the 167th War game on the site. For myself, I find Talon mechanically strong but the lack of deep theme makes it less interesting for me to play. In other words, the lack of a strong theme in Talon fails to draw me deeper into the game.

All things considered, I can see that I have become pickier over the years when it comes to space battle games. I first started out with Star Fleet Battles. Beyond the fact it is closely related to the Star Trek IP, the real “theme” in SFB is taken from the ever-famous quote from the series, “Scotty, I need more power!” In SFB everything is about Energy Allocation. This theme carries over to the new generation game, Federation Commander.

Over the years, I tried other tactical starship combat games. I like Full Thrust (Jon Tuffley at Ground Zero Games) which is a generic set of rules. To be honest, I actually like two implementations of Full Thrust, those being the the version in The Earthforce Sourcebook for The Babylon Project RPG, and Power Projection: Fleet, a set of rules set in the Traveller RPG universe. Both of these I like because the game rules implement a version of the given setting that seems thematically appropriate. I also have played around with Starmada: The Admiralty Edition, another generic set of rules that one can use to make their own setting. I find the included setting boring, and have never found a another setting that grabbed my attention. The RockyMountainNavy Boys and I play the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game but I see it as an (expensive) manual video game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

From a game mechanics standpoint, Talon corrects many issues I have with older games. It does not implement vector movement (though I happen to love vector-movement games) and instead goes for a more cinematic approach. It still has power considerations, but the use of the Power Curve makes it much easier to manage and avoids “accountants in space.” But as much as I love the game, I just cannot get into the setting. Ships move no more than a speed of 6 each turn, and combat is at ranges of 4 hexes or less. I just don’t get that grandiose feeling of giant starship battles in space. In part this may also be driven by the limited counter mix out of the box. The scenarios themselves also seem wrong, with major battles defending the Earth having only six units per side – a factor driven by the few counters included. When putting it all together I get a sense of cognitive dissonance; a game that works so well mechanically just seems wrong thematically.

GMT Games is offering Talon 1000on their P500 program. The draw for me is that it will include over 130 new ships. Given a greater fleet size, or at least a wider variety of ships, maybe the game will be more “thematically correct.” The danger, I fear, is that adding too many more ships will take the great mechanics of the game and overload it. This forces me to turn to the scenarios, and with 1000 new scenarios I would hope to find some interesting ones in there.

Talon, my Game of the Week, once again shows me how much I have changed as a gamer. I find it hard to enjoy a mechanically complex game like Star Fleet Battles, but need a good theme to keep my interest. Talon shows promise, but it has yet to meet its full potential.