Out of the box: A Ring of Hills

The first ‘new’ arrival of the New Year here in the swamp is the latest addition to LNL Publishing’s “Lock N Load” system, A Ring of Hills. I haven’t yet spent a ton of time with this one, but I have managed to poke around at it enough over the last week or so that I can offer up a few first impressions.

I’ve enjoyed playing the LNL game system since the release of the original “Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam” some years ago. It’s a bit more ‘cinematic’ than most squad-based tactical games, but it’s also comparitively lighter on rules and quicker to play. I placed my pre-order for Ring of Hills back in May, 2008 – so I’m quite pleased to see the thing finally land on the Big Table.

Map art comparison: Band of Heroes (top), A Ring of Hills

Map art comparison: Band of Heroes (top), A Ring of Hills

A brief caveat: A Ring of Hills (ROH) is NOT a complete game. It’s advertised as an ‘expansion pack’ for LNL: Band of Brothers and so it is. System markers and skill cards from Band of Brothers are required for play of ROH. The system ‘core’ bits in Forgotten Heroes (or Day of Heroes, for that matter) may also work, but since I own Band of Heroes I haven’t bothered to cross-check.

ROH takes the LNL system back into the territory I think it’s best suited to cover: ‘contemporary’ conflicts. Maybe it’s because the profusion of World War 2-era squad-based games invites too many comparisons or breeds too much familiarity, but to me the LNL system seems a better fit in the games set after 1945.  Nearly 30 years after the event the Falklands conflict is under-represented in board wargaming, and any game that competently addresses the topic automatically qualifies for a number of bonus points in my book.

The five geomorphic game boards are the same type of maps found in Band of Heroes – the notable exception being that each board has a central fold so that they fit in a standard sized game box. Graphically, the map art is a shade on the dark side – perhaps an effort to evoke the look and feel of the Falklands’ inhospitible quagmire of bogs, rocks and gorse. Something a little lighter might make terrain features easier to recognize, but with a few minutes’ study the dark tones don’t seem to inhibit play.

A Ring of Hills countersheet

A Ring of Hills countersheet

Counter artwork is quite good and easily readable. I always enjoy seeing how a game system presents a ‘new’ setting or theater of operations. The Falklands conflict has been a long standing pet topic for me, so I was especially keen to see the UK and Argentine orders of battle get the Lock N Load treatment.

Anti-tank guided missiles make their debut in this module, in the form of the Milan system that UK troops used to good effect against Argentine fortified positions. Fixed-wing air support also appears in both OOBs: Harrier for the UK and the Pucara turbo-prop for the Argentines. The man-portable Blowpipe air defense missile puts in an appearance. Some new armored vehicles are also included: Argentine AML-90s, British Scorpions and Scimitars. There’s also an Argentine warship, ARA Guerrico (a French-built Type A69 corvette).

Some modern-ish goodies in the OOB

Some modern-ish goodies in the OOB

The module includes 6 pages of exclusive rules. As a warning to the unprepared, one of the special rules is “British Marksmanship”, which allows British Parachute and Marine units to roll an eight-sided die (d8) for their attacks instead of the usual d6. No d8 is included in the module, so players need to scare one of those up on their own.

There are 12 scenarios in the box, and they cover a broad range of the ground actions fought during the campaign. Some of the scenarios are rather large and feature the major fights, but there are also smaller scenarios that deal with interesting, lesser-known engagements like Top Malo House and the Argentine landing on South Georgia Island (during which the aforementioned Argentine corvette can act as a magnet for British ‘Carl Gustav’ rockets).

Overall, it looks like a well-done package. It will hit the Big Table as soon as there’s an opening in the schedule.

Pounding dirt in the Falklands

“Where There Is Discord” obviously focuses on the naval and air activities of the British campaign in the South Atlantic, but the efforts of the men who eventually took and held the ground are not entirely over-looked. The game’s victory conditions are based on how many landing zones the player holds by the end of the game – but what happens ashore represents much more than simply securing a coastal enclave.

The game concludes after 28 turns – May 28 in ‘game time’. Anyone with passing knowledge of the campaign knows that the fighting on land was just getting started by that date (the battle for Goose Green stretched across May 28-29). So what’s going on with all of the onshore fireworks in WTID?

Beginning with the May 21 turn (this date historically chosen for the start of landing operations, “Operation Sutton”), Argentine ground combat units begin showing up to contest the San Carlos landing boxes. While this puts a lot of time pressure on the player, it’s obviously a kludge. Argentine land forces on the Falklands had absolutely no intention of trying to contest the landing zones in any way. They lacked both the initiative and, more importantly, the transport needed to move out of their defensive positions.

What you get in the last 8-10 turns of play is, simply, a game artiface created to force the player into choices about the risks of keeping naval and air assets operating in San Carlos during the greatest period of Argentine air activity. You can’t just dump your well-trained ground troops ashore and scuttle back to the relative safety of the Task Force. You have to keep warships, troops ships and landing ships at risk in the confines of San Carlos Water in order to give your ground forces the best chance of success.

Men of 40 Commando hoist the flag in Port Howard.

The warships provide both air defense (although limited) and naval gunfire support to the troops ashore. The unarmed troop and landing ships are needed to get troops ashore in the first place.

The game system forces the issue by deploying Argentine troops to threaten the success of the ground campaign. While a seriously contested landing was, in hindsight, a historical impossibility, no player in his right mind wants to face such a prospect when he can avoid it. So you’re pressured to begin landing troops as early as possible. This forces the Argentine units, when they arrive, into the much more risky “counter-attack” posture.

In a way, WTID compresses the entire campaign into its 28 turns. One of the Event cards, for example, gives you the option of staging a side operation in order to recapture South Georgia island. South Georgia was recaptured on April 25 – a week before the game starts – but there you have it. Also note that the game’s order of battle includes the Argentine Type 209 submarine Santa Fe, which was shot up by a helicopter and forced aground during the South Georgia operation.

So it’s no surprise that the ground fighting is squeezed into the 28 turns as well. When I first climbed into the game I’ll admit to a brief “WTF?” moment concerning the action ashore, but that was quickly overcome as I began to appreciate the designer’s attempt to capture the essence of the entire campaign in a time-limited game.

As the player, you get to skip a bit. There’s none of the famous ‘yomp’ across the island. You don’t have to wrestle with the supply problems triggered when most of the heavy lift helicopters were lost along with MV Atlantic Conveyor. You don’t even really have to ‘plan’ much in the way of a ground campaign.

But in order for the overall campaign to succeed, the Task Force has to do much more than simply put boots on the ground. They have to go all-out to support the Paras, Royal Marines and Guardsmen on the island or the entire effort is very likely to end in failure.

Destination: South Atlantic

Some weeks ago, I mentioned that I had added the game “Where There Is Discord” to my small array of solitaire wargames. I even managed a follow-up post concerning the 1982 conflict between the UK and Argentina in the South Atlantic.

D-Day at Omaha Beach is off into the Game Closet, and the Big Table has been cleared for action in the misty southern waters.

When I write “cleared”, I really mean it. WTID is a physically big game, with a large footprint on the tabletop. The two-piece hard-mounted game board is big enough on its own, but you also have to make space to keep almost all of the game components within easy reach at all times. And you’ve got to have room enough somewhere to make a copious number of die rolls without whanging the dice into all of the counters, markers and cards.

That’s not a knock on the game, mind you. WTID’s graphic design is very impressive. The rulebook is a bit blah-blah-blah, but all of the other components are very snappy indeed.

Also please note that I’m choosing to refer to it as a “game board”, rather than a map. The geographical illustration of the Argentine coastline serves simply as a base layer for all of the boxes where your cardboard forces deploy and where various markers and cards are laid out. “Movement” and “location” in WTID are both abstracted in the game’s mechanisms.

If you’re looking for a detailed historical simulation of the British Task Force’s actions in the Falklands, well, this ain’t it. As the designer, Dan Hodges, points out, such attempts are best left to detailed naval warfare sims like the Harpoon game system. Rather, Where There Is Discord is more what I would characterize as ‘historical impressionism’. As the player, you face a series of decisions and situations that are broadly analogous to those encountered by various historical actors during the brief conflict in the South Atlantic. The goal of the design, then, is to give some insights into the difficulties of conducting such a remote and politically-complex campaign.

Throughout the game, the player is cast in a number of different roles. Most often you are the Task Force commander, concerned with the campaign’s thorny military planning and execution. However, a large number of the cards in the angry little Events deck will force you into the perspective of a more distant political leader or diplomat. Do you accept a 24-hour ceasefire or hazard a decline in world opinion? Intercept a clandestine shipment of Exocets bound for Argentina at the risk of international outrage if your operation is uncovered?

It’s a complex mix of decisions which, fortuitously, lead every game in a different direction. Many solitaire games risk falling into some sort of broad script. WTID seems to avoid that through a combination of numerous operational variables and difficult ‘higher level’ decision points.

The sequence of play has more steps than does the assembly of a nuclear weapon, but at its core the game is not complex. Most detection and combat actions succeed – simply – on a die roll of ’1′, with the variable being the die type used for the activity. The game includes d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 – plus some actions that require a sum of 2d6. A few activities require a d10 roll against a set target number. Anti-air combat uses the dice a bit differently, but that’s not complicated either.

I will, however, offer the opinion that in creating the game’s statistical model the designer either had a stroke of genius or a moment of insanity.

Personally, I enjoy games that model systems like radar, sonar and missile weaponry with something less than their ‘proving ground’ efficiency. Things go FUBAR in this game a lot. Most detection attempts and most attacks fail miserably. There’s a lot of tension and anticipation in the buildup, the launch officer pushes the button and … the fire control computer starts singing “Daisy”. Welcome to the age of remote-control warfare, circa 1982.

A bloody miracle

One of the great joys of wargame geekery is mutli-tasking. Reading a book about the Falklands War, for example, while simultaneously playing “D-Day at Omaha Beach.”

I intially read “The Battle for the Falklands” by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins quite a number of years ago. As I ramp up to  play the new solitaire game “Where There Is Discord”, I’m taking the opportunity to read it again in order to brush up on my history.

Progressing through the excellent narrative, I am reminded of how ill-suited the Royal Navy was for the task then at hand in the South Atlantic. As British financial resources dwindled following World War II, the RN shrank tremendously in size. By 1982 it was still one of the world’s few navies capable of remote power projection – but only just barely.

Cold War influences led the fleet into a focus on just two threats: Soviet submarines and the new generation of Soviet high-flying, hyper-sonic diving anti-ship missiles. Consequently, most ships were configured for either anti-submarine warfare or area defense against fast, high-altitude targets.

To this day I haven’t figured out why British naval design took the direction it did in the late 70s. Some classes carried single turret-mounted 4.5-inch rapid-firing guns (mostly to provide naval gunfire support), but many British ships of the era were entirely armed with missiles (some of dubious capability) and ASW weapons.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

HMS Arrow renders aid to the burning HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982 following an Exocet missile strike.

None of the ships in the task force carried a close-in weapons system like the US Phalanx. This meant their only defense against sea-skimming missiles like the Exocet was radar counter-measures – typically “RBOC”, or Rapid-Blooming Outboard Chaff. Each ship carried only enough chaff charges for seven complete defensive patterns before resupply – and in order to use the launchers, the incoming threat had to be detected in a timely manner to begin with.

All of the ships were armed with some form of autocannon – 20mm or 40mm – for close air defense, but the systems were all eyeball-directed and totally inadequate for combat in the jet age. There were also very few guns (just two 20mm guns on the ‘top of the line’ Type 42 destroyers, for example) on each ship. During the extremely close-ranged air defense battle fought during the landings at San Carlos Water, all of the RN ships improvised additional defense by jury-rigging the fit of as many general-purpose machineguns as they could scrounge.

Obviously, they were primarily designed with land-based NATO air superiority in mind. And one task force officer explained their vulnerability to sea-skimming missiles very simply: “The Russians don’t have Exocet”.

It appears another case of the famous “our bloody ships don’t seem to be working today” episodes the Royal Navy was prone to suffer in the 20th century. Beatty’s battlecruisers at Jutland, HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales. It’s worth noting that they indeed learned their lessons – after the Falklands their Batch 3 production of both the Type 42 Destroyer and Type 22 Frigate featured an installation of a CIWS automated gun system – either the European-produced Goalkeeper or Phalanx.

I was also interested to read about the oddball limitations of their missile systems. Most systems couldn’t discriminate or track  multiple targets, for example. And none of the British ships had communications or data-linking in place that allowed for ships to cooperate in air defense – each ship was on its own in identifying and engaging air targets.

For comparison purposes, by 1982 the US Navy had been deploying data-linked radar systems on air defense ships for several years. USS Ticonderoga, the first of the very powerful ‘Aegis’ cruisers, was commissioned in 1981.