New arrival: Serpents of the Seas

Sometimes the good stuff just rolls across the table in big waves. I can go a couple of months without so much as a new magazine coming into the swamp — then all hell breaks loose. A P500 shipment or two from GMT. A moment of weakness on Ebay or the CSW Marketplace. An unbeatable sale. A magazine game. All of it at once. SPLAT.

It’s inevitable I suppose when you’re as screwed up as I am. The gaming addiction must be fed on a fairly regular basis, or I start to take power tools and other implements to parts of the house that I probably shouldn’t go near. Yep. A wargame or two or three every now and then keeps me from taking my 12-pound demolition bar to the tile floor in the master bathroom.

So today I’m looking at another new arrival here at the Swamp Bunker. “Serpent of the Seas” from GMT Games takes their earlier “Flying Colors” age-of-sail system and scales things down to handle some of history’s smaller naval combats.

SoS features actions mostly drawn from the American Revolution and the War of 1812. So we’re looking at fairly small engagements – sometimes only ship-on-ship duels – involving ships that, at most, carry maybe 48 guns. Flying Colors was all about fleet-sized engagements fought with ships of the line, so “Serpents” is a considerable shift in perspective.

There are three maps in the box. Two are the familiar “fleet” maps (of which there are several in Flying Colors). The third is something new: A “duelling” map, intended for scenarios that include, at most, a couple of ships on each side. The play area is hexagonal and the map features a few handy tracks and other bits of info.

The ship counters in SoS are all the ‘small’ variety – none of the double-length ships of the line here. Frigates, sloops, gunboats, brigs — it’s all the small guys who were the real workhorses of the Age of Sail.

Serpents of the seas handles this shift in magnitude (which is a significant difference from Flying Colors) through the introduction of cards. The rules call them “Initiative Cards”, although the card backs are printed with the term “Maneuver Cards”.

Either way, the addition of the cards leads to a change in the sequence of play and appears to add considerable variability by changing how the initiative player is determined and by adding Events to the mix. I’ll have more on this when I get the game on the table. Right now I’ll just say that it appears to be a very interesting change to the way the Flying Colors system works.

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.

Paalam, Leyte Gulf

Reading around on the Avalanche Press web site over the weekend, I came across this bit of content discussing the almost-sold-out status of their monster game “Leyte Gulf”. That set my mind to wandering all around the topic of monster games. To wit:

Leyte Gulf's three operational maps

Leyte Gulf: 3 operational maps

While I’ve never considered myself a particularly huge fan of ‘monster’ games, I guess over the years I’ve owned my fair share of them. The fabled Big Table that dominates my home office/game room was, in fact, created nearly 30 years ago so that I would have a place to set up and play a couple of SPI’s best-known monsters: Terrible Swift Sword and Wellington’s Victory.

In truth, after the demise of SPI my attraction to monster games waned. I had the Big Table and (as an official Single, Successful Guy) I had more than enough space, but after SPI blew itself to bits the concept of the ‘big, dumb and fun’ monster game seemed to get lost to history.

Although the ranks of game publishers thinned through the late 80s and the 90s, there were still monster games to be had. But many of them were either too fiddly or simply too monster-y for my taste. Games like (the SPI editions) Wacht am Rhein and Highway to the Reich were physically big, but not all that complicated – especially in comparison to some of the monster-game systems that emerged after them. I’m not knocking complex game systems (hell, I used to play Air War), but the combination of big AND complex just never did it for me.

I guess from a design standpoint, I’m more of an ‘outcome’ guy than I am a ‘process’ guy. Even with a physically big game, I’d rather make a few decisions and see how they impact a game within three or four hours than spend a month of Saturdays  immersed in so much detail that I can’t even remember what I set out to do when I finally get to the end of a game turn.

That said, on occasion I am ‘in’ for more than just big and dumb monster gaming. I’ve always enjoyed The Gamers’ Operational Combat Series, for example. Ditto the East Front Series from GMT Games.

[Note: I generally consider that it takes more than two standard-sized maps to constitute a monster game. Two-mappers are just 'big games'. I suppose the number of counters in the game should have something to do with it as well, but to me the 'monster' status has more to do with a game's footprint.]

A number of the games in Avalanche Press’ ‘War at Sea’ series are in monster game territory. Leyte Gulf certainly qualifies with three full-size operational maps and (IIRC) ten sheets of counters. A number of other games in the series (both Second World War at Sea and Great War at Sea) also occupy a significant chunk of table with two (or more) full-sheet operational maps, plus the smaller ‘tactical’ map that is used by every game in the series.

I’ve got darned near all of them (including Leyte Gulf) because the game system is pretty close to ‘big and dumb’. I know some gamers beef about the rather simple buckets o’ dice tactical combat and for guys interested in the details of naval combat, they’ve got a point. But in my mind the focus of the series system is naval operations, so the abstract tactical stuff gets close enough for me. Anything more complicated and we’re back into month-of-Saturdays territory.

Map detail of the home islands

Map detail of the home islands

When I’m thinking about investing in a modern-day monster game – most are darned pricey – one of the big influences on my decision is the level of replayability. In the long run, monster ‘tactical’ games like many of those old SPI titles start to feel a bit limited. While they rarely play the same way twice, they are focused on a singular event with many of the interesting variables (forces, entry points, starting situation and usually reinforcements) pre-determined, or nearly so. Most are big enough that the variables they do address still create some options – but when a wargame has a price tag in the $100-plus range I’m looking for the most flexibility I can get.

Leyte Gulf certainly measures well against my replayability yardstick. The operational maps cover a vast swath of the Pacific and include most (although I’m sure not all) of the air and naval facilities that impact operations in the theater. The counter mix includes naval and air units where were (or could have been) available, but aren’t used in any of the games scenarios – so it accommodates a hefty ‘what if?’ do-your-own-scenario capability.

The major limiting factor, I suppose, is that by the time-frame covered by Leyte Gulf the Japanese were on an irrversible path toward defeat. By the end of any scenario I can imagine, the Japanese player isn’t going to feel he’s just won the war. But the Japanese are still dangerous, possess some effective land-based airpower and have some very dangerous surface units that can inflict painful losses on their opponents. It’s no cake-walk for the USN – especially since most Japanese players tend to be a bit more circumspect than their historical counterparts.

Out of the box: Arctic Convoy

Now that my eyes have thawed out and thoroughly recovered from looking at the frigid photo of USS Staten Island, I can pass along a bit of info about one of my wargaming new arrivals.

“Arctic Convoy”, the latest release in the Second World War at Sea series from Avalanche Press, covers the Allied convoy runs (and a few other operations) in very far northern waters during the first half of World War II. By way of a “what’s in the box” report, the folks at APL have packed a lot of gaming goodness into their now-standard one-inch game box.

Lots packed into Arctic Convoy's box.

Lots packed into Arctic Convoy's box

There are two operational maps that cover a broad swath of some of the wost places to sail on the entire Earth. A standard series tactical map, along with a number of airbase and carrier basing cards round out the tabletop decorations. There are 210 ‘long’ ship counters and 340 square counters, a series rule book, a game-specific rule and scenario book, a booklet of ship logs and a couple of play-aid cards.

So much for the Red Banner Northern Fleet

So much for the Red Banner Northern Fleet

When joined, the operational maps have quite a bit of overlap so that they take up a total playing surface that’s about two feet deep by four-and-a-half feet across. The western map features Scapa Flow in the southwestern corner and covers an area north through Iceland to the coast of Greenland. The geographical area covered then stretches eastward to include the Norwegian coast, Svalbard, Murmansk and Archangel’sk. The eastern-most portion of the map stretches to the Soviet minor port of Dikson in the north-eastern corner – a port generally usable only in high summer or with the aid of ice-breakers.

Just looking at the map makes me cold

Just looking at the map makes me cold

The game-specific book features six tactical scenarios, 20 operational scenarios and quite a few special rules. Some of the special rules, like mine warfare, have appeared in other games in the series. Many of them, though, are included to help model the inhospitable sea and weather conditions of the Arctic. There are rules for determining which turns are daylight and which are night in various latitudes, rules for pack ice, rules for snow conditions and rules for additional engineering failures induced by the harsh conditions – just to name a few.

It may appear daunting at first to a series newcomer, but the additional rules weight really isn’t that great. I haven’t played the thing yet so I can’t say for sure, but the rules look like they paint a properly grim picture of the conditions faced by navies (and aircraft) operating in the Arctic.

Some of the Kreigsmarine's warships

Some of the Kreigsmarine's ships

There weren’t a lot of marquee surface engagements fought in the theater, which accounts for the dearth of tactical scenarios. The most interesting-looking are both historical encounters, however. Tac scenario three covers the sinking of HMS Edinburgh, a Royal Navy cruiser that was carrying five tons of Soviet gold to the United States (the gold was salvaged from the wreck some 40 years later, by the way). Scenario six features the Battle of North Cape, wherein the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst ran afoul of HMS Duke of York.

The operational scenarios, as you might expect, largely feature convoys trying to get Lend-Lease cargos through to the Soviet Union. All but a couple of them are historical and they cover periods of both Allied successes and failures. Being essentially ‘campaign’ scenarios, they typically run long – anywhere from around 72 turns (12 days) to 120 turns (20 days).

More details on this interesting title to come.

Distraction 1: East of Suez

To kick off this little ‘interruption’ thread – in which I will chronicle my holiday-season game-buying madness – I’ll note that my little order from Bunker Hill Games arrived yesterday.

In response to the owner’s “help me stay in business” posting, I ordered a couple of APL game supplements. Stuff I’ve been putting off because while interesting, they weren’t eating in a hole in my brain. But since John at Bunker Hill has always done an excellent job by me over the years, I thought I should kick in a little something, even if I didn’t want to spring for a ‘boxed’ title.

So I got both PG: Arctic Front Deluxe and SWWAS: East of Suez. I cracked into the naval book last night as I sat grumping about the rain-soaked World Series baseball game (which should never have started in that crummy weather, BTW).

East of Suez is a very nice supplement with two half-sheets of counters – mostly British, but some Dutch, Japanese and various others mixed in. The first thing about it that hit me, though, was that it seems a lot of effort for something that’s actually kind of dopey. By that I mean none of the scenarios in the book are playable unless you own SWWAS: Leyte Gulf.

I don’t know what sales of Leyte have been, but I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t print more supplements than they did monster games. I imagine a number of guys don’t care – they just want to fondle the counters and see the stats – but at the very least it had to be something of a trap for retailers. I couldn’t help but notice that Bunker Hill (he posts stock levels in his item details) had 43 of the damned supplements in stock. I’ll bet he hasn’t sold that many copies of Leyte, and I notice he has just 1 copy of the monster in stock (at $175).

Count me as one of the zany bunch who bought Leyte Gulf (at some or another terrific discount during one of APL’s big sales). So for me, nearly everything in the supplement is playable (except anything requiring Strike South, which I don’t have).

Anyway, it reads like a supplement that the boss wanted to print (as opposed to one that marketing wanted to sell). Some very nice historical articles, including probably the most extensive discussion of the Dutch navy that I think I’ve ever seen in a wargame. A number of large-ish operational scenarios that span a range from ‘really happened’ to ‘almost happened’ to ‘Churchill’s wet dreams’.