Game of the Week – or – Visiting Neptune’s Inferno with Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988)

For most of the campaign, Guadalcanal was a contest of equals, perhaps the only major battle in the Pacific where the United States and Japan fought from positions of parity. Its outcome was often in doubt. – James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, Prologue.

pic360048From the perspective of game mechanics, Tokyo Express: The Guadalcanal Naval Campaign, 1942 (Victory Games, 1988) can be a real chore. This solitaire game leverages a heavy workload on the player to not only make decisions for their own side, but also to run the opposing AI. However, once you make it past the initial (steep?) learning curve, the game opens up a narrative battle experience unlike so many others.

In a way it is unfair to call Tokyo Express a historical game. Yes, there are scenarios that replicate the starting conditions of many battles, but the real power of Tokyo Express is how it make the unknown a part of the game and forces the player to deal with it. What may be the two most important rules in Tokyo Express are not what many grognards would think. Rule 6.0 Detection and 7.0 Japanese Hidden Forces are the parts of the game that make the narrative come alive.

Before you can open fire, you must see the target. That is the crux of 6.0 Detection. Be it visually or by radar, the importance of detecting the enemy first is a core game mechanic in Tokyo Express. When taken in combination with 7.0 Hidden Japanese Forces, the game creates it own unique narrative of battle ensuring that no two games are ever alike. The Design Note for 7.0 actually frames the entire game and brings the drama of the battle to the forefront:

The game begins with you patrolling Ironbottom Sound, looking for the Japanese who are somewhere off in the darkness. The Japanese appear initially as blips on your long-range search radar. Hidden forces represent anything your radar operator thinks might be a Japanese force. Sometimes it will indeed be warships; other times it will just be a “radar ghost.” You find out by detecting it.

In Tokyo Express, game designer Jon Southard captures the most important elements of the naval battle around Guadalcanal. In his Design Notes he makes no excuses for the difficulty of the game. In some ways Mr. Southard was ahead of his time when he designed Tokyo Express to be an “experience” and not a “simulation.” He especially makes no excuse for the difficulty of winning:

In your initial encounters with Tokyo Express, you will, I hope, feel some of the frustration and awe the American admirals did. The objective throughout the design process was to give you their bridge-eye view. You may be defeated at first, but you should find your own solutions, as the US admirals finally did.

8575701By making its core design feature “find your own solutions,” Tokyo Express takes what many wargames do, challenging players to find a path to victory, and elevates it to the highest levels of the hobby. It is a testimony to the power of his design that 30 years after its initial publication the title is worthy of a reprint. Pairing this game with James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam Books, 2011) allows one to not only read the history, but then take the same human drama Hornfischer relates and make it come alive.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

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Relooking at an older Train (war)game

I AM ASHAMED. Ashamed to admit that I have only one game by designer Brian Train in my collection. Mr. Train is a very prolific designer, having published games and/or historical articles with BTR Games, Compass Games, Decision Games, Fiery Dragon Productions, Flying Pig Games, GMT Games, Hollandspiele, Lock n’ Load, Microgame Design Group, Modern Combat Studies Group, Nestorgames, One Small Step Games, Schutze Games, Simulations Workshop, Strategy Gaming Society, Steambubble Graphics, Tiny Battle Publishing and XTR Corp. He often focuses on irregular warfare, “pol-mil” games, and asymmetric games (his webpage is here). I recently played a Brian Train game and was very impressed by the narrative it created.

The one Brian Train game I have in my collection is Reichswehr & Freikorps: If the Red Army Invaded Germany, 1920 (Strategy & Tactics 273, Mar-Apr 2012, Decision Games).  When I first got this game in 2012 I didn’t like it. This weekend, I pulled it off the shelf, set it up, and played. I was curious to see if I had missed something.

In 2012 I was very much a simulationist wargamer; that is, a wargamer deeply focused on the hardware. Hence my love for games like the Admiralty Trilogy-series from Admiralty Trilogy Games, the Panzer-series from GMT Games, or the Fighting Wings-series from J.D. WebsterRWFK is none of that. RWFK is, “a low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that would’ve resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Red Army in the summer of 1920.”

I am not the wargamer I was in 2012. Indeed, I am not the gamer I was in 2012. These days I play many boardgames (non-wargames) as well as wargames. One consequence of playing a wider variety of games is that I have grown to appreciate game mechanics like I never did before. An appreciation of mechanics has, in turn, allowed me to see many more games as “narratives” that teach me much as I explore them.

When I first looked at RWFK in 2012, the “low-complexity” and abstractions made in the game (Railhead Markers? With no railroads?) turned me off.  Playing it this weekend I discovered a game that is a actually a tense race-against-the-clock with a neat mechanic to model decreasing Red Army effectiveness. The game neatly creates a narrative of a large, cumbersome Red Army trying to suppress the smaller, more agile German forces before time runs out.

Looking at the map, the first thing one sees is a big map apparently with low counter density. The map is 17×24 hexes for 176 counters of which only around 125 are actually units. I can still remember in 2012 being fixated on the stacking rule which allows the Germans to stack up to seven (7) divisions in each hex (8.4 German Stacking Limit). The Red Army gets to stack all units from the same army in a hex (8.5 Red Army Stacking Limit). I seem to remember my 2012 game as a series of large stacks blowing across the map and the war quickly ending with the Red Army capturing Berlin. I put the game away and rated it a mere 5.5 (little better than Mediocre – Take It or Leave It) on BoardGameGeek.

In 2018, I now see I did not give enough consideration to rules 4.0 HOW TO WIN & RED ARMY MORALE, 5.0 THE TURN SEQUENCE, and 7.0 SUPPLY & GERMAN RAILROAD MOVEMENT.

As 4.1 On to Berlin states, “The Red Army player is generally on the offensive during the game, attempting to run a campaign that will, ideally, culminate with his force’s entry into Berlin.” This ties neatly with 4.4 Winning & Losing on Victory Points which states, “In general, the player who has managed to accumulate the greatest number of victory points…is declared the winner.” Rules 4.2 City & Town Hex Control and 4.3 Red Army Southern Front Reinforcements both describe how VP are gained and lost. These rules are very straight-forward and very much what my simulationist grognard mind expects.

The rule I didn’t give enough consideration to before is 4.7 Red Army Morale. This rules is actually a “core mechanic” of the game – maybe even the most important rule. Red Army Morale (RAM) can be High, normal, or Low. When the RAM is High, all combats (offensive & defensive) gain a one-column shift in the Red Army favor. Movement factors are also increased. Conversely, when the RAM is Low, all combats suffer a one-column shift against the Red Army, and movement factors are decreased. If the RAM ever drops below zero, the Red Army is said to have “collapsed” and the German player automatically wins (4.8 Ram Collapse).

RAM is automatically reduced by 2 at the beginning of every turn. RAM is gained or lost based on the capture of Towns & Cities, as well as from the arrival or defeat of various Red Army formations. In order to maintain effectiveness, the Red Army player must go on the offensive and stay there. If the German player can stymie his actions, the Red Army will quickly lose morale and combat effectiveness. This is a neat built-in timer to pressure the Red Army player to act. In effect, RAM acts as the “game clock” in a manner possibly more effective than the Turn Record Track.

Rule 5.2 Game Turns & Player Turn Procedures is the second leg of the core mechanic. After the 5.4 Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase conducted by both players, the game proceeds to II. Red Army Player Turn. Using a chit-pull, different Red Army Fronts are activated to conduct a Reinforcement & Movement Phase followed by a Combat Phase. At any point during a Reinforcement & Movement Phase or Combat Phase, the German player can interrupt the Red Army player and conduct his own Railroad Movement, Regular Movement, or Combat Phase. The German player only gets one of each phase in every Red Army turn so the challenge is to decide when (and in what order) the phases should be played. This mechanic neatly shows a superior German command & control ability as well as avoids an IGO-UGO turn sequence. It makes the chit-pull agonizing for the Red Army (I really need to get the Southwest Front moving!) while forcing the German player to carefully determine when is the best time in the Red Army turn to interrupt and take his action (Gotta go now before they move away!).

The third leg of game is the supply rules. 7.4 Tracing Supply Lines details what a supply line is with the most important factor being it cannot be longer than eight hexes in length. The supply line uses a mix of railhead supply sources and “ultimate” supply source hexes. The rule ties neatly with 5.4 The Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase in which each player can place one (and only one) railhead marker in any one city or town they control that does not presently have a marker. Units don’t want to fight when out of supply (OOS) because when they are OOS movement and combat factors are halved! (7.6 Effect of Being OOS).

The combined impact of these three core mechanics is that the Red Army MUST attack while the German player has more flexibility in his campaign. The Red Army is also in a race to win before they lose combat effectiveness as symbolized by their RAM. Finally, in order to stay on that offensive, the Red Army must build supply lines deep into enemy territory. To build supply lines takes time; time the Red Army has precious little of.

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Example of near mid-game situation

But what about those stacking rules? One certainly can have large stacks race around the board, but to do so means few VP gained (to offset automatically dropping RAM) and a tenuous supply line at best. Better to spread the armies out, take more cities and towns, and build a supply net to support troops forward. The stacking rule is actually not that important as the game model encourages players to act in other ways!

In the end, RWFK is a very narrative game. Can the Red Army overcome with more units (but generally lower quality and losing effectiness over time) a smaller but more flexible German Army? To really enjoy RWFK one must embrace the abstractions. In 2012 as a simulationist wargamer I was not ready to embrace the narrative. These days I am, and I enjoy the narrative of games. My previous rating on BGG was too low and a result of a lack of appreciation for the game model. Both the rating and myself have changed. I enjoyed RWFK this weekend, and am going to seek out more games by Mr. Train. Publishers of Mr. Train’s work need to be ready because I feel a few purchases are in order!

Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com.

#Wargame #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you enjoy using as is?

#RPGaDay August 16, 2017

pic536195_tI have a few candidates here; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Mindjammer (FATE Core 2nd Edition), Diaspora, and FFG Star Wars. There are two (mostly) common threads amongst all those games. They all use a more narrative game mechanic and they are (mostly) all licensed IP.

Of the two, the narrative game mechanics (Cortex, FATE 3.0 or FATE Core, FFG Narrative Dice) means the games easily focus on story (adventure?) with world-building details coming in a less-structured manner. 20120423b

Although many of these games use licensed IPs, don’t think that by using these “as is” I am a canon-rigid thinker. I enjoy using the game systems “as is”, but the world-building details and adventures are definitely NOT limited by canon.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

#RPGaDay August 14, 2017

pic514176#TravellerRPG, nee Cepheus Engine. No surprise if you have been following my #RPGaDay for 2017. But, not just any version or style of Traveller, but what Tales to Astound calls “Out-of-the-Box” Traveller. This version of Traveller depends on using Encounters as they were originally laid out in the 1977 Little Black Books – as tools for creating the setting, situation, and play. It wasn’t laid out for you in an adventure or campaign arc; the GM created it on-the-fly.

It’s true that such an approach is not exclusive to one game; indeed, I use this approach in my Edge of the Empire campaigns. More narrative-driven games, like FATE Core and FATE Accelerated actually use game mechanics to encourage this kind of on-the-fly creation. But no game does it as well as Classic Traveller does.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Describe a game experience that changed how you play

#RPGaDay August 13, 2017

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Courtesy quickmeme.com

When I first started GMing RPGs with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I looked at gaming with kids as a teaching tool. In one of our early sessions, when one kid (kiddingly) said he was going to backstab the other, I took control of their character and took the event out to its gruesome conclusion. All against their wishes. I took away all player agency and ran away in the wrong direction.

Total failure on my part.

I have come to recognize that RPGs are a valuable teaching tool, but learning comes best with a proper balance of player agency and GM fiat. This may be part of why I prefer systems that have a built-in narrative mechanic (like Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG) or are more narratively focused (like FATE Accelerated) or rules-lite (Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine RPGs – yes, I said rules-lite – look at the core mechanic!).

I have found that sharing the narrative is the most important part of learning. With a shared narrative, the RMN Boys are challenged to create more themselves. Game sessions become more me responding to their creativity than me prepping in advance and laying out the adventure. This often means the adventure goes places I never expected, but never does it go in a direction that isn’t enjoyed by all.