Next War: Korea has received its fair share of cyber-ink in play reports on both CSW and BGG lately. I’ve tinkered around with the game off and on since its release. I used to be quite keen on keeping up with the military situation on the Korean peninsula, but my attention to the subject lapsed about 10 years ago. I’m probably still not back up to speed entirely — but, hey, that won’t stop me from forming an opinion about the game.
Up front, I think it’s an interesting design and a tense play. But with that said, I think the game makes certain assumptions (which is what games have to do, so I don’t mean that negatively) that limits its usefulness as a tool for predicting the course of any near-future conflict. It’s a snapshot of one specific course the conflict could take, which I suppose is about the best a fairly standard board wargame can accomplish.
Once you get past the standard game rules, NW:K becomes a very complex beast. In and of itself, complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in this instance I think the complexity is focused in the wrong direction. The various rules layers of the game system drill ever deeper into the mechanical complexities of modern warfare — something that I’ll call for the moment “operational complexity”. It focuses on the interplay between various warfighting systems in particular. By layering on rules, the player can conduct the operational air campaign, for instance, or gain a more detailed look at the utility of the US deep battlefield doctrine.
Unfortunately, such complexities are too frequently based on “details” that are themselves conjecture — system capabilities and effects based on hypotheticals generated by the “Last War”, which (adding to the conjecture) was a war that was never fought. But the problem isn’t that the game addresses the hypothetical effects; instead, it’s that the game presents them rather invariably and the player merely chooses whether to include the more advanced rules or not.
I think both the game play and simulation value of NW:K would have been enormously enhanced if the design had focused less on operational complexity and more on situational complexity.
By “situational complexity” I mean a focus less on how things work and more on whether or not they’ll work at all.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The standard game’s starter scenario is the initial DPRK attack and drive on Seoul. I’ve played it through a couple of times and it’s a close run thing, even though the dead pile stacks up quickly with destroyed ROK combat units. And therein lies the problem. In order for the DPRK to even come close to winning the scenario, the game MUST posit a perfect storm of events that fall in favor of the DPRK. To wit:
- DPRK gets a ‘surprise’ combat shift on turn 1.
- DPRK typically generates a hefty number of air support combat shifts on turn 1.
- DPRK light infantry units are tactical supermen.
- DPRK tunneling produces predictably large local combat superiorities on turn 1.
- DPRK frontline combat units consistently get the game’s highest effectiveness rating of ’6′.
And those are just the most obvious. If any one of the five above conditions doesn’t exist, there’s only a very slim chance that the DPRK can get anywhere near contesting a single hex of Seoul in the scenario’s short time span. In order to make a competitive situation, the game basically assumes the Allies are for some reason unprepared and the DPRK forces align exactly with the capabilities attributed by their own poorly Photoshopped propaganda.
In professional military circles, addressing the numerous hypotheticals of future conflict is one of the primary purposes of wargaming. Note that many times in the past, professional military wargames have successfully predicted the events of future conflicts — the problem more typically has been professional military leadership failing to acknowledge and react to those predictions.
So I’ll argue that NW:K would be a more useful and relevant wargame if more of its complexity was focused on injecting variable capabilities into the situation — situational complexity, as it were.
What if the ROK and US air forces slap aside the DPRK air effort, as the US and its allied air forces have slapped aside other under-maintained and under-trained third-world air forces in the recent past? Or what if DPRK special operations forces manage to hamstring Allied land-based air operations to a greater degree than imagined? What if ROK forces have detected a number of DPRK tunnels and successfully deploy counter-measures against them, destroying or significantly damaging/delaying the DPRK units involved? To me, those are all variables worth studying in cardboard.
Granted, addressing certain variables — like C3I — would probably make game play an impossible slog for the DPRK. Consider that the apparent invasion plan requires coordinating the movement of at least 27 or 28 divisions, numerous supporting light formations, special operations forces, non-divisional artillery support and air power. Consider also that the only military in the world that has serving officers with actual combat experience in corps-level operations coordinated with thousands of daily air sorties is the United States.