Trouble in the Workers’ Paradise

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.

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Short Take on the Bulge

What the wargaming world really needs is another game on the Battle of the Bulge.

Over the last half-century of commercial wargame production, the Nazis’ winter offensive into the Ardennes has been the subject of enough games to fill an entire closet. But somebody’s always out to design a better mousetrap, thus the continuing need for Bulge games.

I’ve got my fair share of Bulge-oid games, and I’ve bought, played and sold off an even fairer share. The Bulge-centric portion of my game collection includes older titles like SPI’s Ardennes quad, newer stuff like the recent 2nd Edition of GMT’s Ardennes ’44 and modules for tactical game systems like ATS Darkest December. Because no old wargamer can ever have enough Bulge games, during my recent binge of “off brand” game purchases I decided to pick up a copy of “Battles of the Bulge: Celles”, published by Revolution Games. Continue reading

Wurzburg Pentomic

After nattering on like a raving lunatic about fallout shelters, nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union, in all fairness I now need to provide a look at the game that set the Wayback Machine in motion.

“Wurzburg Pentomic” is one of two games published in Strategy & Tactics magazine issue 263. The other issue game is “Kabul ’79″. The games share the Cold War Battles series rules — but play quite a bit differently due to an extensive array of game-specific special rules.

Of the four games published to date in the Cold War Battles series, Wurzburg Pentomic is the only one based on a hypothetical battle. The basic premise is a Soviet invasion of West Germany some time in the 1950s.

The time period in which the game is set is a central element of the design. Folks old enough to remember SPI’s “Modern Battles” quad games will no doubt recall the original “Wurzburg”, a folio-sized game that covered a hypothetical Soviet-NATO battle in the late 1970s. Wurzburg Pentomic is set about 20-25 years earlier, during the US Army’s period of reorganization along what was then called the “Pentomic” division structure.

Under the Pentomic structure, each US division was organized into five battlegroups. Each battlegroup was theoretically self-supporting, which gave it the ability to operate fairly independently. This allowed the division’s combat elements to disperse more widely in what was expected to be a battlefield environment dominated by the threat of tactical nuclear weapons. The division kept some powerful artillery support under central control, but otherwise the battlegroups were equipped to fight with decentralized command and logistics.

Enough doctrine. On to the game.

Wurzburg Pentomic (“W-P” from here on out) is basically a folio-sized production. The two games in Cold War Battles 2 share a single, standard-sized map sheet. The maps are wedged onto the sheet along with some charts and tables, so neither map is symmetrical.  Each game also gets exactly one-half of the standard sheet of half-inch counters.

There are a lot of positives to the game, so I’m going to get the bad news out of the way first. A couple of things in the package definitely aggravate me.

The map arrangement is a head-scratcher. A game-turn track and both CRTs (Mobile and Assault) are printed on the sheet. As a result, the game maps wrap around the gadgetry, leaving game-play areas with oddball sections and geographical enclaves defended by stalwart box borders and lines of type.

I’m a firm believer in leaving charts and tables off of game maps entirely. Maybe a turn track or other tracks/boxes that can be squared off with the map. But wrenching around the playing area to accommodate the CRTs is less than ideal — especially considering that the CRTs will usually be useless (as in “upside down”) for one of the players. Far better to print the tables on a separate sheet and square off the maps to avoid the “thick forest defended by typography” syndrome.

I realize printing CRTs on-map probably saves a page of the rulebook, but the “upside down” problem alone always justifies planning for at least one stand-alone sheet of play aids. Just for a tease, one of the CRTs is reprinted in the rules anyway because the on-map version is screwed up.

The next aggravation is as much a question as it is a complaint: Who ate crayons and puked on the countersheet?

Technicolor Commies and multi-hued Forces of Freedom.

Technicolor Commies and multi-hued Forces of Freedom.

Seriously. There are two sides in this game: Soviets and NATO. But the combat units are printed in about a dozen distinctly different colors. They’re not muted variations of the same basic colors, either. Each ‘command’ (usually a division) gets a nice, bright color all of its own. NATO units are variously drab green, forest green, light blue, dark blue, gray and tan. Soviet units are white on red, black on red, orange, yellow,  white and black.

Ugh. It’s not the first time Decision has used a Crayola color scheme on game counters. Sadly, I doubt it will be the last. Are things like ‘formation stripes’ along the counter bottoms or ‘formation colors’ in the unit symbol boxes such advanced graphic concepts? Somebody loan them a Pantone color chart, too. Good heavens.

It’s a double-aggravation because in general this is a pretty good game. The map artwork is fine. But the color scheme for the counters is simply wretched. I mean, really. Orange?

Those production faux pas aside, I found a lot of game-play value in W-P. The ‘series’ rules are an adaptation of the old Modern Battles system. Zones of control are semi-rigid. Once a unit is in a ZOC, it can only leave via combat result or by expending half of its movement allowance to withdraw. Combat against all enemy units that project ZOC into a friendly-occupied hex is mandatory — although artillery barrage and/or air points may be used to ‘soak off’ some mandated attacks.

Combat is based on differential and the attacker usually chooses which of two CRTs to use: Assault (bloody) or Mobile (lots of retreats). Soviet combat strengths — attack strengths especially – are generally higher owing to their preponderence of armor. The designer, Joe Miranda, also notes that Soviet regimental-level artillery assets have been factored into the combat strengths, as those guns were intended to engage in near direct-fire support.

In the orders of battle, the US has more independent artillery units. Particularly useful are the Pentomic artillery battalions, which can split the fire of their ’5′ strength points onto as many as 5 different target hexes. Pentomic artillery is very handy for firing ‘soak off’ barrages so the US player can more effectively concentrate ‘normal’ attacks against his opponent. It’s also worth noting that as the game progresses into the later turns (9 total game turns), the US gains an increasing advantage in the amount of air support it receives.

The two US Pentomic-organized infantry divisions in the game — 3rd ID and 8th ID — gain additional advantages if/when the nuclear weapon optional rules come into play. Their constituent combat units are more resistant to damage from atomic attacks and they have a smaller chance of being affected by some of the game’s nuclear-related random events. The numerous US ‘leg’ infantry battalions can also take advantage of airmobile movement when helicopter transport is available.

Another interesting special rule in play is that units of different commands aren’t allowed to stack together. Elements of the ‘higher command’ formations — V Corps for the US, 8th Guards Army for the Soviets — are the only exceptions.

Each side starts with one or two commands on the map; everything else enters play through random reinforcement dice rolls. The US starts with 3rd Infantry Division and 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment on the map. The Soviets lead off with the 79th Tank Division. The entry of everything else is in the hands of cruel fate.

Because of the random reinforcement mechanism, W-P has a nice degree of replayability built in. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in play between a game where, say, the US 3rd Armored Division enters on Turn 2 and a game where it enters on Turn 6.

Out of the box: Bataan!

When the Second World War abruptly arrived on the doorstep of the United States’ possessions in the Pacific, the American military was prepared with a strategic plan that outlined how the war would be fought.

Part of the plan called for our forces in the Philippines, under the command of Douglas MacArthur, to act as a breakwater against the Japanese onslaught while the bulk of our Pacific might mobilized and fought its way to their relief. According to the plan, within six months the Japanese fleet would be crippled and the sea lanes to the Philippines would be open, allowing it to become an unsinkable base for the final operations against Japan.

In the Bataan box

In the Bataan box

In the real world, that plan went into the toilet when the opening Japanese gambit against Pearl Harbor seriously crippled the US Pacific Fleet. The garrison of the Philippines found itself at the end of a severed supply line, with no logical hope of relief in anything that approximated the original six-month time line.

So opens the newest game out of the box here in the Swamp Bunker: “Bataan”, a Vance von Borries design published by Compass Games.  Bataan was originally on offer from GMT Games in their P500, but for reasons I don’t recall the game was withdrawn and moved over to Compass.  When the game first listed on P500 I tagged it, so it wasn’t much of a leap to follow along and order it from the new publisher.

It’s the first game I’ve gotten from Compass Games, and I think they’ve produced a very nice package. While the rulebook itself isn’t printed in color, the box is awash in full-color play aid cards that are covered with charts, tables, the SOP, Events and scenario setup charts. The rulebook contains an extended example of play that could have benefitted from some full-color illustrations — but ‘text only’ play examples are better explainers than no examples at all, so I’m not going to gripe beyond a brief mention.

Bataan countersheet detail

Bataan countersheet detail

There are two sheets of counters in the box, along with a small sticker sheet to correct some minor counter errata. The color palette and counter artwork are what I’d call ‘wargame regular’; nothing terribly inspiring but attractive enough and certainly functional. I will note, however, that while the ‘units’ themselves are fine and dandy, the game markers are extremely bland. As can be seen in the countersheet detail image some of the markers are, in fact, simply words printed on a white counter. Blech. What’s up with that? Does Compass pay their artists by the counter?

It’s not exactly a federal case, I know, but it does seem it will ‘plain down’ the look of the game when those yawn-ish white markers hit the table on top of what are otherwise nice-looking counters.

Not that I’m agitating for psychedelic marker artwork, mind you. There’s enough of that going on already. The psychedelic stuff they saved for the map.

And the map goes all jungle-y on us

And the map goes all jungle-y on us

The artwork is always a challenge on maps that include jungle terrain, isn’t it? It becomes even more of a challenge when the jungle mixes in with rough, swamps, mountains, trails, roads and fortifications. And the map for Bataan has all of that and then some. All things considered, I think Compass has done a very creditable job pulling together the Bataan map.

Due to lighting conditions and my own digital incompetence, the detail image doesn’t really do the map justice. The bright green terrain is indeed bright green – which is a bit psychedelic next to everything else – but the hexsides are much more clearly defined than they appear in the photo and it looks like the whole thing works pretty well.

Mind you, I haven’t played the game yet so I don’t know if there are any terrain ‘issues’ or other artwork-wonkiness in actual practice. But after a look at the total package from the 10,000-foot view I’m pretty anxious to get it on the Big Table and get started.

Deceptive challenges

For a seemingly straightforward game, The Caucasus Campaign can present both players with some very difficult challenges. It’s one of those games that looks fairly “normal” at first blush, but ends up something of a bear to understand.

Veteran gamers will likely discover that part of their challenge is working through TCC’s disarming familiarity. Both the game system and the situation will tempt them to think “I’ve seen this before. I know what to do.”

Anyone who thinks that is probably in for a rough ride.

The Soviet player has the wider margin of error – but only just. In general, the Soviets’ rag-tag starting forces have to run like hell and try to husband as much strength as possible to defend the vital (and rugged) southern reaches of the map. Trying to stage any kind of substantial early-game fight in open terrain will only lead to disaster.

Because they lack the mobility of the Axis, a frightening number of Soviet units are going to bite the dust no matter what. A major key to Soviet play is to admit this up front and then try to turn those sacrifices into as much of a delay as possible. If they leave too much in front of the Axis grinder, they may not have enough strength left to defend the vital mountain passes. If they try to save too much – or choose to delay in the wrong locations – they may find their efforts simply knocked aside and a large portion of their strength threatened with encirclement.

It’s less of a pell-mell retreat than some Soviet players may realize.  They also have to be sensitive to the Axis player’s style of play and take advantage of any opportunity presented for additional trouble-making. Delaying the fall of a critical location along the lines of communication to the south by even one turn (or maybe even by one movement impulse) can seriously unhinge the Axis timetable.

In my experience, the Axis assault is truly balanced on a razor’s edge. They have to cover a lot of territory quickly and inflict maximum pain on the Soviets in the process. Understanding how to take advantage of the positive CRT shifts their forces can generate is absolutely crucial to Axis success. When winter arrives later in the game, trying to do anything in the neighborhood of the mountain passes – move, fight, even supply – is going to become a very difficult process.

But the Axis faces an additional challenge in that they can’t simply ignore the Soviet eastern coastal enclaves. Some of their strength has to be diverted from the ‘main’ thrust to tackle some tough fighting along the Black Sea. Taman must be dealt with early in the game. Novorossiysk also needs to be ‘corked’ in order to threaten the flank of the Soviet defense.

Axis players no doubt will understand that time is not on their side. What they may not grasp is that this is an understatement. Fighting around the mountain passes is going to be brutal, bloody and (most importantly) time-consuming. If the Axis is not generating a significant threat in the south on or near the historical timeline, they’re going to face an improbable road to victory.

Note, however, that staying ‘on schedule’ is going to be an uncomfortable experience at best. Those high-quality, mobile German divisions are going to take a beating, and the Axis player is going to be hard-pressed to keep them going with replacements – especially before “Hitler Takes Command” kicks in on Turn 7.

Ah, yes. “Hitler Takes Command”.  When this event kicks in and doubles the Axis replacement rate, the Soviet player will take little comfort in the knowledge that he has achieved one of the strategic goals of his campaign: The diversion of Axis resources from the fighting around Stalingrad. It’s an event that’s ‘hard wired’ into the game’s structure – so it can’t even be counted as a moral victory for the battered Red Army – but it does help to put the campaign into a broader, historical perspective. The real trick for the Soviets is to not surrender the OTHER strategic objective of the campaign, the rich oilfields south of the Caucasus.

So, in the final analysis is the game balanced? In a nutshell,  I think so. Axis players certainly face a steeper learning curve in that they must both play the aggressor and see beyond the game’s deceptively familiar opening situation. Methodical players seeking large encirclements or players who don’t grasp the need to trade some casualties for speed of advance are in for some rough handling in the second half of the game.

The Soviet player’s position is not at all as simple as it may first seem, either. The initial deployment of the Red Army is universally weak, but not all of those understrength divisions can be considered cannon fodder. Some of them have to be saved in order to jump-start the buildup the Soviets will need to defend the most important victory locations later in the game.

The Soviet player also needs to avoid the temptation to treat his tank brigades lightly. In fact, the Soviets should take great care to protect these rare assets. While they aren’t exactly powerful combat units, they are one of the rare items the Soviets have that they can use to cancel Axis armor shifts on the CRT. They should only be exposed to the risks of combat when their armor shift is needed in a critical battle.

All things considered, the Caucasus Campaign is a very clean, clever and enjoyable game. I think perhaps that Ukraine ’43 still ranks as my personal favorite Mark Simonitch design, but TCC has quickly climbed into a very close second place.

A little test in the Caucasus

In GMT’s The Caucasus Campaign, I think it’s pretty clear that the Axis player faces a very tough task. The burden of playing the aggressor  is on the Axis, and they have to reach some very difficult objectives in order to win the game. Also, as often happens in East Front games, time is not on their side.

Are the game’s victory conditions balanced? Without a sampling of several score games played by experienced players to draw upon, that’s difficult to say. Early reports I’ve read from numerous playings (and my own first few plays) ended in more Soviet victories than Axis wins. But does that indicate a problem with play balance, or does it simply mean that the Axis player faces a higher learning curve?

In ferreting out the game’s balance, one issue to address is whether or not the various game mechanisms favor one side or the other – and whether or not the game system allows or inhibits historical outcomes.

In plainer English, what I mean is this: If you follow the rules, is it possible for you to play a game that broadly follows the historical model? I use the term “broadly” here because we are, after all, talking about a game – and from time to time a game has to abstract a few things. Still, it should be possible to closely approximate things like historical rates of advance or loss rates regardless of abstractions.

Three turns to Maikop and Krasnodar

Three turns to Maikop and Krasnodar

I call it a “Minsk Test”. A good friend of mine enjoys playing, in particular, operational/strategic level games on the opening of the war in the East. In order to avoid wasting time on game systems that don’t “work” for him – and to save money – he has a fairly straightforward test that he applies to any game that covers the opening of Operation Barbarossa: Can the Germans capture Minsk in a week? If not, heave-ho over the side it goes.

It’s an interesting test in that it seems fairly simple. But in reality it’s a complex, subjective test of a number of important factors: Not just game systems like movement and combat, but also things like time scale, map scale and the modeling of operational fluidity.

Mind you, the test isn’t whether or not the Germans can ALWAYS capture Minsk in a week. Consistency isn’t the question, especially if you consider the historical result of the Germans reaching Minsk on June 28 to be among ‘best case’ results. The test is whether or not the game system allows for it to happen at all.

If a game flunks the Minsk Test, does that mean it’s crap? Not necessarily. Such tests are quite subjective.  But it can be a very valuable tool for assessing the suitability of a game’s systems and scale for the event it’s trying to model. Obviously, the ‘original’ Minsk Test puts games with a turn ‘scale’ of longer than one week on shaky ground – but as long as the game can keep up with history, it can still pass the test.

[In the interests of full disclosure I'll note that my friend and I both believe a turn scale of 7-10 days is the most appropriate for big, East Front games. For quite some time my personal favorite in the Big East Front genre has been the Six Angles version of Mazahiro Yamazaki's "War for the Motherland", which features a sliding time scale that depends on the time year. The 'Americanized' version of the game, MMP's "Red Star Rising", is pretty good, too.]

So. Is there a Minsk Test that can be used to assess the way things work in The Caucasus Campaign? In a nutshell, yes.

In fact, there are two Minsk Tests. Either one will do. Historically, 1st Panzer Army captured Maikop on August 9 (Turn 3) while 17th Army took control of the Kuban crossings at Krasnodar on August 14 (Turn 3 again). 

Objectives nearer the start line don’t give a true measure of the system. You don’t have to be too sharp an Axis player, I think, to take Salsk on the first turn, for example. Can the Axis capture both Krasnodar and Maikop by Turn 3? Yes. But it’s better than that: If the Axis player wants to win the game, he NEEDS to have both objectives in hand by the end of turn 3.

Get a patrol on Mt. Elbrus by August 25, win a prize.

Get a patrol on Mt. Elbrus by August 25, win a prize.

And that takes us full circle back to the issue of the Axis player’s learning curve.

Put simply, one of the important lessons to learn is that those powerful German mechanized divisions are NOT going to arrive at either Krasnodar or Maikop in the company of a neat, supportive line of happy and well-ordered infantry divisions. In order to achieve the early-game must-have objectives he needs for a shot at winning, an Axis player will have to put his mechanized units at some risk and race full-throttle for key points.

Of course, this means that the Axis is highly likely to lose a number of valuable mech steps that will take some time to replace. But the Axis really has only two choices here: 1) Go balls-out and hopefully reach critical deep locations with some under-strength divisions before the Soviets can build up their forces or 2) Reach those critical deep locations with lighter losses, but 1 or 2 turns after the Soviets have enough of a defense in place to kill all but a longshot chance of the Axis winning the game.

A second important lesson for the Axis player to learn: In the critical early phase through Turn 4, FEAR can slow you down more than the Soviet Army.  Most players familiar with any sort of East Front game fear step losses when they play as the Germans, and they especially fear panzer/mech step losses. As the man said: “And so it goes…” Managing fear and balancing risks is key to Axis success in this game.

Historically, the Germans made impressive territorial gains in the opening stages of their Caucasus Campaign. But recall that their forces were fairly threadbare by the time Hitler stuck his nose into things (and started shifting more resources into the theater). The Axis paid a high price for their territorial gains in the Caucasus. Any Axis player in The Caucasus Campaign will likely have the pleasure of the same (cardboard) experience.