Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.

Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):

War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)

The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.

On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level

As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:

Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)

There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.

Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:

This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).

All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)

I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).

So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:

…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)

Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.

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Rommel the Younger in Landships! (Clash of Arms Games, 1994)

The Game of the Week was Landships! Tactical Weapons Innovations 1914-1918 (Clash of Arms Games, 1994). My intent for Game of the Week is to set up and play a solo game to rediscover or further explore a particular wargame. This week turned out a little different.

To learn the basics of the game I set up the Fast Play scenario and started stepping through it. Not long into the first turn Youngest RMN Boy can up to the loft (where my small game table is) and sat down asking, “What’s this?”

I swept the German counters over to him, pushing the French on my side. Quickly explaining the basics of the rules, I invited him to play.

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Germans cross no-mans land and push past to the town (@Mountain_Navy)

The game took us two nights as we were just playing it in the short time after dinner and chores and bedtime routines. The French won the battle, barely, by Close Assaulting a lone German infantry platoon in the town and eliminating them on the last turn.

Youngest RMN Boy was slightly dejected as he thought he was going to last through the turn and win. I pointed out to him he did better than the historical situation.

“Really?”

“Yes, Rommel only made it to the woods,” I said as I pointed to the map.

“Rommel? I did better than Rommel!?”

I read to him the entire scenario description, including the title (“Rommel at the Argonne”) and the historical result.

“I did better than Rommel!” he exclaimed.

It was at this point I realized that he actually knows who Erwin Rommel is. I should of realized it as we had talked about him when we played Panzer and he had recently read an old copy of Ballantine Books’ Panzer Division: The Mailed Fist by John Macksey that we picked up at a used book store.

It was really awesome to see him connect to history. Making those connections is a major reason I played wargames for the past 40 years. Seeing him make those same connections assures me he will continue playing for the next 40.

Game of the Week for 25 Feb 2018 – Landships! Tactical Weapons Innovations 1914-1918 (Clash of Arms Games, 1993).

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Courtesy BGG

After my recent indulgences in the Panzer-series from GMT Games, I looked over my shelf for another Game of the Week. Going backwards in time, I pulled down Landships! from Clash of Arms Games (amazingly, new boxless copies can still be purchased). Just opening the box and getting ready to play has been a real education.

As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

As the stench and horror of World War I trench warfare increase, both sides seek the breakthrough weapon; immense barrages, air power, flamethrowers, even poison gas. All are tried and found wanting. At last the most awesome machine of all is made ready – the Landship!

Landships! Tactical Weapons Innovations 1914-1918 covers the Great War at its lowest level. The 420 playing pieces represent infantry platoons and cavalry squadrons, or a single tank or gun. Each turn is around 5 minutes and a hex on the eight geomorphic map sections is about 100 meters.

Easy to play rules with over 20 scenarios get you started right away. Trace the story of combat during the war; from the simple slaughters of 1914 to the sophisticated combined arms offensives of 1918.

Opening up the box, I was happy to find a long-forgotten Fast Start Rules and Scenario. This 4-page folio uses only the infantry rules and an abbreviated version of the artillery rules. The single-map scenario is “Rommel in the Argonne,” a June 1915 battle featuring Erwin Rommel. As the scenario description states, “There were no heavy weapons, vehicles, or aircraft in this engagement. This was an infantry attack, 1914 style and the queen of battle was the machine gun.” To show that the designer had a sense of humor, the Victory Conditions of a second scenario version using the Advanced Rules (the full rules, not the Fast Start ones) includes the line, “As before, but the French player can avoid future humiliations in 1940 by eliminating the FO [Forward Observer] unit (Rommel) in this version of the game.”

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Fast Start scenario (courtesy BGG)

The full rulebook (i.e. the Advanced Rules) is also interesting. Coming in at 24 pages, it really has three sections. The first part is the core rules. These are presented in 14 pages of three-column, small font (8 pt?) text. The second section is Optional Rules which run just over a page. The third section of seven pages includes Historical Commentary and Designer’s Notes. The historical commentary is quite extraordinary with inset tone-boxes for “Inside the Tank Environment”, “Tank Tactics”, “German Innovations”, “The Evolution of Artillery Tactics in the Great War”, and a timeline of “Notable Tank Actions 1916-18.”

The other thought that struck me as I looked over Landships! was how tanks were not the only featured technology in the 21 scenarios. Although tanks appear in several scenarios, other technological innovations like armored cars, poison gas, riverine flotillas, and aircraft are also covered.

Over the years, I forgot that the designer is Perry Moore and the maps were done by Rick Barber. In 1994 I did not appreciate them; today they have earned my deepest respect for their work.

In my Landships! box is also a copy of Infernal Machines: Landships! Expansion Game for 1915-1933 (and still available from Clash of Arms Games). I am not going to open it up this Game of the Week and instead focus on the core game. Maybe in the future?

 

 

The Lesson from Morale – or – Elite can be Defeat in @gmtgames #Panzer

Often times, wargamers get caught up in the material of war. Comparisons of which tank or airplane or ship is better dominate the hobby. Wargames that are more simulationist reinforce this condition. The impact of war on the human condition is overlooked or even outright ignored. In the RockyMountainNavy weekly game night, the impact of morale was brought front and center and forced all of us to think about it deeply. To my surprise, the lesson came from the Panzer series from GMT Games; a game that I consider detail-oriented and a good game for comparing tanks. When the game was finished, the lessons learned had little to do with which tank was better and everything to do with the role of morale in combat.

The Youngest RMN Boy is getting into the machines of war. After diving deep into the aircraft of World War II and battleships of World War I he has turned his attention to armored vehicles of World War II. Last week, I introduced Panzer from GMT Games to the boys. This week he hounded me for a bigger, better battle.

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Courtesy Opsrey

Youngest RMN Boy recently purchased a copy of Osprey Publishing’s M26/M46 Pershing Tank 1943-53 at a used book store. He read with fascination the accounts of battle between Pershings and German tanks at the end of World War II. After playing Panzer he wanted to see for himself how the match-up could of gone. I created a home brew scenario where a German Elite platoon of 4x Tiger II tanks, supported by a Jadgtiger tank destroyer, had a meeting engagement with a US Veteran platoon of 5x M26 Pershing supported by a platoon of 3x M36 Jackson tank destroyers with a single ‘Easy 8’ Sherman. Although the Germans were outnumbered almost 2:1, their better morale and training actually gave them a slight edge in scenario points.

In order to expedite the game, I once again played as umpire. Youngest RMN took the Germans while Middle RMN led the Americans. Both boys are still learning tactics, so I was not surprised they both split their forces on set up. Once the shooting started, something very incredible happened.

In Panzer, the experience/morale level of the unit impacts several game mechanics. On Initiative Rolls, units that are Elite gain a +40 while Veterans gain only +20. The level also determines Command Range – the distance units can be apart and still share a common order – with Elite having a 2-hex range and Veteran only 1-hex. In AP Fire, the superior training of Elite units gains a greater positive shift in combat (translating to better chance of hit) as compared to Veteran units. Taken together, Youngest RMN Boys’s Elite Panzers were not only superior in firepower and protection, but with their better training should have gained the initiative (control of the battle) more often. The American tanks had the advantage of numbers and mobility (both in terms of raw speed as well as turret slew rates).

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Tiger IIs in France (courtesy tanks-encyclopedia.com)

The battle actually devolved into two separate skirmishes. In the north, two Tiger II faced  off against the 5x Pershings. In the south, two Tiger II and the Jagdtiger took on the 3x M36 and Easy 8.

First blood was drawn in the north where the Tiger II’s firing at ranges between 1600-2000m “brewed up” two M26’s. Even using better ammunition, the M26s were impotent against the German armor protection.

Another game mechanic in Panzer where morale/experience is represented is Bail Out. When tanks are hit, even with a non-penetrating/non-damaging shot, the crew must roll for Bail Out. In the case of a non-prentrating/no-damage AP hit, the crew will Bail Out on a percentile die roll of 10 or less. Elite units gain a +5 modifier, literally meaning there is only a 5% chance of an Elite unit bailing out.

At the end of the scenario, four M26 Pershings were knocked out along with two M36’s. The Jagdtiger and a single Tiger II were immobilized by Track Damage. But the most astounding result was that in three of the the five German tanks the crew bailed out from non-penetrating/non-damaging hits. Statistically speaking, this was an astounding outcome.

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CoH (courtesy BGG)

Youngest RMN Boy was greatly disappointed. He was even a bit angry at his brother. The Youngest RMN Boy plays other wargames where morale is important, like Command And Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games, 2017) with Routing units or Academy Games’s Birth of America-series with the Flee combat result. Even his favorite World War II tactical combat game, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Academy Games)  has morale in there, though it is more “baked into ratings” than visible in a die roll like Panzer. I think what made him angry was that unlike Militia units in the American Revolution or early-war demoralized Soviet units where he expected the morale failure, he never could imagine that his Elite Panzers could be the same and simply run away.

That is perhaps the greatest lesson of Panzer; the greatest tank with the best guns and armor does not always translate into battlefield success.

I fear that in this age of push-button warfare and video games that the human factor in combat is ignored or forgotten. This is also why I play games, and wargames, with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I want them to know that war is not machine versus machine but human. I did not expect GMT Games and their wargame Panzer to be this vehicle of learning, but I am very happy that it is.

Featured image courtesy @RBMStudios on Twitter.

Pounding Panthers with Panzer (Second Edition, @gmtgames, 2012)

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Courtesy BGG

The very first wargame I ever owned was James M. Day’s Panzer published by Yaquinto in 1979. My friends and I played the h*ll out this game, and the companion ’88’ and Armor. Looking back, I am amazed that these were my gateway games into the wargaming hobby. They definitely are not for the faint of heart as the rules are very fiddly. Today I introduced the updated Panzer Second Edition (GMT Games, 2012) to the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I am happy to say the updated Second Edition is a fine game too.

We played the Basic Game version of Scenario 2 The Village: Poland, late 1944. The RMN Boys took the Soviets and entered from the river edge of the map. I was the Germans and entered behind a small series of hills on an adjacent edge.

Given the two Boys, the Soviet force was divided between them. Little RMN took his part of the force (which included three T-34/85 and a SU-85 and SU-100 tank destroyer) and immediately turned to fight the advancing Germans. Meanwhile, the rest of the Soviet force (seven T-34/85’s) dashed for the village. The Germans were able to top the hills and shoot down at the exposed medium tanks and tank destroyers, eliminating all six tanks for a loss of a single Panzer IVH destroyed and a Panther damaged.

The other Soviet force buried themselves in the village but the relentless German drive eventually evicted them. A few more Germans tanks were lost, but the rest of the Soviet force was destroyed.

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The Soviets hold the village for now, but 4x Panthers backed up by a StuG IIIG will make short work of them soon….

The Basic Game in Panzer focuses on the Sequence of Play and utilizes a simplified damage resolution system. Most importantly, armor has only two factors, frontal (forward hemisphere) and rear (back hemisphere). In this simple matchup, the frontal armor of the Panther was impervious to all the Soviets guns beyond a range of 4 hexes (400 meters). The Youngest RMN Boy expressed extreme displeasure with this condition – he had read that one way to beat the Panther (or Tiger tanks) was hit it from the side or behind. In the Basic Game this is hard to do because the “frontal” armor covers the forward 180-degree hemisphere – there is just no “side” armor unless you are behind the tank! This led us to a discussion of the Advanced Game with a much more detailed hit location and armor penetration model. Both RMN Boys expressed a desire for a rematch using the Advanced Game rules because the Basic Game just “doesn’t feel right.” Youngest RMN Boy also commented that Panzer helps him understand World of Tanks better where a Panther is Tier 7 but the T-34/85 is a Tier 6.

Overall, I have to rate the RMN Boys first reaction to Panzer (Second Edition) as “guarded interest.” They didn’t dislike the game, but they immediately compared it to Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Second Edition, Academy Games, 2012) which they have played often. They agreed with me that CoH: AtB is more a “game” and less a “simulation” whereas the Basic Game of Panzer is too much game in what should be more a simulation (meaning the Advanced Game is the “gamed simulation” Panzer should be).

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Courtesy Academy Games

The RMN Boys want to play Panzer again as they (especially Youngest RMN Boy) want to get into some of the details and experience what they have only read about in Osprey Books and the like. That said, they are also looking forward to the delivery of the new edition of Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! 1943 – Kursk to see how the tank battles version of that series plays out.

Panzer was my gateway game 39 years ago. It is good to see that 39 years later the game still ignites the imagination and promotes learning. The game has stood the test of time well, and I expect it to continue to do so into the future.

Featured image courtesy Roger MacGowan (@RBMStudio1 on Twitter)

#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 – Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal First Impressions

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Courtesy BGG

Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 from Academy Games is a 2016 Golden Geek Award Best Wargame Nominee. After reading some of the buzz and looking at comments on BoardGameGeek, I picked this one up in the hope that I could eventually play this with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I like using wargames to teach a bit about what the situation or combat experience was like. In CoH:G what I found was a game of war that challenges many of my perceptions of what I see as a wargame.

CoH:G bills itself as a combined-arms squad-level game. The focus is on the US Marines battles on Guadalcanal from just after the amphibious landing in August 1942 through the arrival of regular Army units in October 1942 (and playable as an expansion). This was my first challenge; I needed to get past my bias for armor over infantry (always a Panzer/88/Armor fan over Squad Leader).

My next challenge was the price; CoH:G retails for $80. Although I saw it in my FLGS I was reluctant to pull the trigger at that price point. Searching online, I found it for less and ordered.

Opening the box, I was stunned at the components. The high quality (huge) counters and mounted mapboard along with full-color glossy books and play-aids and even an organizing insert immediately made me realize that the asking price is actually not unreasonable.

The rulebook is 23 pages which includes many examples. This means that CoH:G is not a complex game. The rules are tied to scenarios (firefights) and use a building-block learning approach to teach players the game mechanics.

What makes CoH:G – and apparently all the Conflict of Heroes series games – interesting is the use of Action Points in Rounds and Turns. Players alternate activating units (or groups of units) and expend Unit or Command Action Points to move or fire. Thus, the classic IGO-UGO turn sequence is overturned. Both players remain engaged through out the entire turn.

Combat is very straight-forward; roll 2d6 and add the Attack Rating of the firing unit. If the AR exceeds the Defense Rating of the unit (modified for terrain) the unit is hit. For each hit a chit is drawn. The chits (about 20) cover everything from no damage to immediate KIA. Once a unit gets a second hit it is eliminated.

Conflict of Heroes also uses cards in play. Command cards, Bonus cards, and various Capability cards bring a bit of randomness and detail flavor to the game. I have written elsewhere about how my perception of Card Driven Games (CDG’s) has changed. CoH is not a CDG, but effectively uses card-driven elements as chrome.

A unique mechanic in CoH:G and not in any other CoH series game is Bushido Points. Bushido Points modify available Command Action Points (CAP) for the Japanese player. Bushido is gained/lost through certain actions. In order to gain Bushido Points (and add to the CAP pool) certain actions must be taken that may not make the most tactical sense, but are in keeping with the “spirit of Bushido.”

In concept the game is very simple; in play the layout is beautiful. I like it…sorta.

The game mechanics are very clean and although I was worried at the chits and markers used in play the board does not get cluttered with the markers. Like in MBT (Second Edition) or Panzer (Second Edition) the markers don’t get in the way. The hit chits actually create a great variety of damage results that make even getting hit interesting. The back-and-forth play keeps the battles moving and demands a players attention at all times.

I am not sure about the Bushido mechanic. I mean, I see what Bushido is supposed to do I’m just not sure I like how I as a player is hamstrung by Bushido. In CoH:G, Bushido is gained/lost for certain actions. Thus, in order to gain/maintain Bushido points (and not always be behind in Command Action Points) certain “sacrifices” must be made. In my several plays to date, the rules specify that Bushido is gained for loss of a Japanese unit is Close or Short range combat. So…to get Bushido the Japanese player has fight – and lose – at very close ranges. This supposedly simulates the Japanese affinity for close assaults.  The player need not make these sacrifices, but doing so gains Bushido points which in turn gives Command Action Points which in turns allows for greater tactical flexibility. The Bushido rues mechanically succeed in making the Japanese player act more is accordance how the Japanese historically acted – I’m just not totally accepting of this loss of “player agency.”

CoH:G is not without a few other challenges. Hexes are VERY hard to see (nee invisible) and with the given countermix (huge counters – but actually very few units) the variety of scenarios is limited.

CoH:G will probably get more plays in the RockyMountainNavy household. As the oldest RMN Boy was leaving, he walked past the board and was immediately taken in by the components. The game is easy enough to teach that I think even the youngest RMN Boy (13 years old) who’ll be able to easily play too.

In the end, I feel that CoH:G is a good game of war. I am a bit reluctant to call it a wargame in my book because the mechanics are so much different than what I usually expect. I am reluctant to totally embrace the Bushido mechanic – it feels like it is forcing me into certain actions. It will get played – it’s too visually stunning not to – but I will tread lightly on using this game to teach the RMN Boys too much of what island combat in the South Pacific was.

Mechanically I guess CoH:G is another step on my path to modernized wargames; I was late to the CDG mechanic, enjoy the COIN series from GMT, and now have exposure to CoH.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: Explore more; order Storms of Steel: Kursk 1942 (Second Edition) to see what they system is like for armor and without the Bushido mechanic.

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Courtesy BGG