Sunday, 13 November 2016

Quick Looks: Next War Taiwan

If there is a series for hex and counter hipsters at the moment it is Next War games by Mitch Land and Gene Billingsley. Kev Sharp's been blogging it 1, 3MA have been talking about it 2, these drunken reprobates have been playing it 3, two of my friends have picked up Next War India Pakistan 4, one of whom as his first hex and counter game. When I first saw the GMT Next War series with Next War Korea a few years back, I passed on it because it was pricey and I thought future wars were boring. I thought these things because I was a fool. I'm not entirely sure why the series has become popular, as speculative future wars seems like a hard sell but the continued releases (now three soon four) and the quality of the product seem to have carried it into the wargamer consciousness if not the popular.
Initial Taiwanese deployment around Taichung, not as well defended as it first looked.


Next War Taiwan depicts an invasion of Taiwan by mainland China sometime in the near future. I say sometime because the game has no fluff text paragraphs, opting instead to insert a few choice quotes from diplomats here and there, stylish but if you want your background narrative to the internet with you.

The PRC have a lot of planes


This is an AIR,SEA LAND battle to use the unimaginative military jargon terms and it might be the only recent game of its kind. Mechanically the game has a quasi Igougo sequence of play with a clever initiative system driven by victory point acquisition that allows players to first send in their special forces, then fight for air superiority, then cruise missile and air strike, then move and attack with ground and naval units. All this is followed by a few book keeping phases, and in between the initiative player gets a few bonus moves/strikes. It all sounds very complex, and it sort of is in the advanced game at least.

Detection begets airstrikes on the PRC navy. Stealth fighters are good..

Most aspects of the game are fairly traditional and simple of themselves, special forces equate to assigning each token to a mission and rolling on a chart, air superiority combat is three rounds of dicing off on a CRT with modifiers, the land game is move and attack with column shifts and a ton of modifiers on the CRT. What makes the game especially interesting, where most of the complexity lies is in how all the different elements interact.

Perhaps you want to chopper in the 45th Chinese Airborne in the flat ground near Jhongli city with your four airborne transport points. Well unless you have used your special forces and cruise missiles to whittle down the Taiwanese air detection and SAM tracks you are probably just going to get shot down or aborted, unless you have dominated the sea and forced the allied navies out of the Taiwanese straights you wont be able to get supply to any ports you might capture and unless you have air superiority and escort fighters you might get intercepted. Then once you have landed you can consider the Tai army. Next War Taiwan forces you to think through your combined operations and spend your limited fighter jets, transport points and cruise missiles wisely. In this sense it is a fantastic operational game and a vivid picture of modern warfare.

Foggy camera over foggy battle, Taichung has fallen.


Being an invasion game Next War Taiwan offers early strategic choices followed by a developing narrative. Initially the Chinese have to choose an invasion site, or sites, and then hit as hard as they can hoping to secure a beach head, then a port (preferably a big one) and city hexes. In addition to this they need to consider whether snatching either the Penghu or Ryukyu islands is worth the victory points. The Taiwanese must cling on defending as many critical assets as they can whilst trying to exploit any Chinese weakness, most of all however they must hope help arrives sooner rather than later. When the international posture matrix allows, the US and perhaps Japan or even Vietnam may intervene. For the US it is largely a question of strategic push your luck. If they hold on at range until they are sure of air and naval supremacy there's a good chance the Chinese will have already forced a victory. The US can use their superior pilots at range for a while but sooner or alter they will have to go all in and try seize the Straits of Taiwan. I suspect many games will be decided on this dicey moment.


5 turns in, the PRC still have air superiority.



I've spent some ten hours with this game and it has been a really immersive fulfilling experience and for me, on this play, totally worth it despite a lot of flipping between the two rule books and frequent miscounting of combat factors. It educated me on the terrible effectiveness of SAM systems and the importance of special forces as a counter to them, its given me great stories on the fall of Taichung and the battle of the Straits but I've had to work for it. Not that the game bit by bit is complex but an inevitable consequence of detailed Air Sea Land battle is the whole is more sophisticated than the parts. If I was to play opposed, I'd be inclined to stick to the basic rules (which are actually fairly accessible) and almost certainly drop the advanced air rules. This is a good game, and a good series but it is juggling a lot of balls and keeping them all in the air is rather tricky.





1 http://bigboardgaming.com/next-war-india-pakistan-nwip-lose-nukes-1/
2 https://www.idlethumbs.net/3ma/episodes/modern-warfare
3 https://boardgamegeek.com/guild/1660
4 https://twitter.com/ConsimsSheffied/status/752133901909458944

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Chosin Few, a Post Mortem

Pete and I ran our megagame on the Chosin campaign this weekend and things went well for the most part. Here are some post-mortem thoughts

 - we lost about 30% of our bookings in the week running up to the game. From our experiences across Pennine Megagames this year, this seams to be about par for the course. There is a good reason that many Megagames have reserve lists, unfortunately the Chosin Reservoir campaign in North Korea was not quite a big enough draw to warrant a reserve list.

- The game itself ran pretty smoothly, relatively simple mechanics, good game materials and a very experienced control team facilitated this.

- Having fewer players actually benefited the game, the UN players lost all but one of their executive officers (XOs) meaning that it was one player per Marine regimental team. This actually helped as the game was streamlined enough that two players were not really required to write 3 sets of orders. The Chinese Commissars had a bit more latitude but even this was a weakness in the game. With this experience I would say that one player can easily handle a dozen or so units or 3-5 orders a turn if the system is easily understood. Only in games where players are restricted from talking to each other or some players are required to go to a main map are multi-person teams really necessary at this level.


- The combat system worked. We took the OPCOM system by Jim Wallman and modified it heavily for this game. I had two main worries; first, that it would be either too deadly or not deadly enough, or second that it would be too complex for control to resolve in time. The both sides suffered somewhere in the region of 50-70% casualties. The Chinese suffered more (and in terms of actual men, a lot more) but given that the historical casualty ratio was in the region of 15-25 to 1 this felt reasonable. Neither side ran out of men at 1pm and both sides were able to have a major impact on the game. That being said it could have been improved, the Chinese divisions did loose their potency a little fast for my liking, whilst the UN could still hit quite hard late on due to their air support. Control did an incredible job turning out turn 1 through 9s orders within the 15 minutes allotted. Late on we did over run by 5 minutes on a few turns, but this wasn't an issue as the game had some time to spare at the end. If I were to run a bigger game with more units, or try and reduce the number of control the system would need further simplification, but around 20 order sheets for 6 control was workable in 15 minutes.

- things I would improve:

  • I tried to keep a company level game fairly abstract on the map. This benefited the UN a little as they were able to dig in a little easier than they were historically. I kept things simple for control by only allowing digging in (read take defensive position) anywhere which wasn't at the bottom of a valley/road/pass. In reality the Marines were able to heavily defend certain key hills and points. I did consider covering the map in strong point markers but decided against it as I didn't have the terrain mapping to find all such locations, perhaps I could have given different zones a defense rating or something that would have been a halfway house.
  • The Chinese briefings were probably a little light. In part this is due to a lack of sources, but I could have given out more game pertinent information. For the Chinese there is a race against the weather as their troops are heavily attritioned from frost bite. Whilst the players historical counter parts did not anticipate this, keeping the players in the dark here added a bit of confusion. As such many Chinese divisions waited a little to long before launching really heavy attacks. As such they had already lost 10-30% of their strength already and had less impact than expected. There is always a difficult dilemma for the megagame designer on how much information to give the players. Too much and it becomes a calculated boardgame rather than an immersive experience, too little and it becomes a guessing game that can feel rather random and unfair.
  • The mini map could have covered Wonsan. Once we put Hamhung on the main map it was always likely that the Chinese would try and take it, so we made a second smaller map zoomed in on Hamhung for city fighting. This worked really well and the Chinese 58th battled the US 3rd Infantry around the city. But given the close proximity of Wonsan I could have added it to this map and potentially even had a battle over the UN beachhead/port.
  • One Chinese Commissar suggested that he should have a spy network, given the allegiance of North Koreans to the communist cause. This was an excellent idea, it gave the PLA an intel capability to rival the UN air recon and created a great interactive side game. Pete drew up lists of informants and rated them for reliability, loyalty eagerness etc and had them submit conflicting reports to the Chinese. We both agree that this added a lot to the game and would considered adding something like it in future games.
  • As already stated, I would have each bottom level command team ran by one player and either increase the number of teams or have the support players have other problems to solve in addition to assisting in planning.

Ms Higgins made a short appearance in the game as she interviewed the unflappable Oliver P Smith around turn 9.




- In general the players seem really engaged. Interesting strategies were played out, gambits were taken and great stories generated. There didn't seem to be much of a lull in the game and everyone seemed happy at the pub afterwards.

Monday, 26 September 2016

6th Fleet: A quick look


I might be a Balkowski fan boi. There are things he does in his designs that just seem to work for me. I like good tables printed on the map, that are loaded with possibility, I like irregular turn sequences that don't use chit pulls, and I like the way he front loads his games with tense challenging decisions. He creates those smokey room nail brighter moments. 


In 6th fleet this is done with your airforce. At the start of each three turn day you have to decide how many planes to allocate to strategic air missions and to which air zones they will be sent. Both players do this in secret. It is a mental game of chicken, as you need those fighters for CAP (combat air patrol) over your carriers and airbases but you also want to clear the Black Sea so your recon planes don't get downed by MIGs, but your opponent only has limited interceptors too, what will he or she do?


It's a game about guessing and gambling and then watching the dice roll as a T16 bombers attempt to knock out the Nimtz. This game is a good Sandy Woodward simulator, how cautious should I be?


If you are looking for a spec for this game, its about middle weight in rules, with several scenarios that can be played within 3 hours. The advanced game will take a bit of grokking but I found the regular rules easy enough to process. You get a ton of 80s mil tech hardware to play with. Weirdly, Russian subs seem to be a bit weak compared with USN, but other than that its great.

The Chosin Few, a Mega-game


Pete and I (of https://spprojectblog.wordpress.com/) are putting on a Megagame in Leeds UK next month! 15th October at the Swathmore centre. So I haven't been posting much recently, busy with that, busy with work etc. Hope to post more soon though.




It is a double blind game, written to be accessible for non-military types whilst still having the depth for more experienced wargamers. 





Already we've learned a few lessons from prepping this game. Coming up with the idea, the design, the map and rules is all a lot easier than actually putting the game on. We are attracting a good number of players right now, but a month back we were really struggling. It seems the market for wargames is quite small compared with diplomacy/risk style games unfortunately, even if there is more game beneath the hood. 



Sunday, 10 July 2016

COIN DOWN

A run down of the COIN games I have played

COIN (COunter INsurgency) is a series of games that GMT started publishing back in 2012 with Volko Runke's Andean Abyss. The first four games all focused on modern insurgency wars but in the past year the series has branched out into Republican Rome and the American Revolution.

I've played a fair bit of COIN at this stage and thought a run down of my experiences with the series so far might be informative.

First off, what of the series as a whole? Which one is should you buy? How hard are they to play? And other profound questions...


The two foreign factions make good use of their domestic allies.

The main strength of the series is their ability to naturally bring out the murky alliances and the shifting nature of factional relationships in these conflicts. Each game has four factions, usually one represents the government, one or two armed insurgents, one criminal syndicate or trade based faction, and sometimes one or more foreign military powers.


Each player has an objective that is diametrically opposed to at least one of the other players. Perhaps their faction needs to win the hearts and minds of the populace, perhaps they need military control of a region, or perhaps they just need to make as much money as possible from exporting drugs.


Coupled with this each faction usually has a natural ally, the NATO forces that prop up the government, or the leftist guerrillas that distract the authorities from the cartels operations. It might seem like a straight team game, and the Vietnam game Fire in the Lake can appear that way at moments, but there can only be one winner. As such these are games of negotiation where the Karzai is seeking the support western forces one turn and striking a deal with the warlords the next. The changing player order, the ability to short change another player out a proper turn, the event cards and the limited set of actions each player can perform all feed these plots.


Their biggest weakness is probably their tendency to generate false endings. COIN can be viewed as four factions playing tug of war over a tea towel with victory is only counted when special 'coup' cards are drawn. Whilst no one knows exactly when this will happen usually one player will drag the leader back from the brink just before it counts. Whilst thematic this can lead to games going on a bit and sometimes be anti-climatic.



Which to buy?

COIN games sell out pretty fast with most going out of stock in the UK within three months of arrival. GMT are pretty good at doing reprints but you are still looking at a two year wait, so the best advice is probably just to buy what is available.

From what I have seen, there isn't really a dud game, nor a true standout so given a choice buy the topic that appeals to you most. I believe that all the games in the series have had Volko in an advisory role, whilst this adds consistency it possibly reduces variety, as such unless you are real enthusiast I wouldn't own more than one. There are fewer differences between titles than there are in the CDG or block families of wargames.


Hard to play?

I often play them with boardgamers as opposed to wargamers and they are pretty easy to teach. Each game comes with a tutorial that helps you learn the system. The only downside is that some of the rules can read a little like computer code, a statement followed by lists of clauses and exceptions. Expect to have to put some effort in but you won't need a diploma.



COIN DOWN:

Andean Abyss - The first game in the series focuses on the Columbian Governments fight against the FARC, drug cartels and AUC guerillias. It plays in about 3-4 hours fairly consistently, possibly the best simulation of the series and presents the widest array of strategic options to the guerillia factions in my view. The main downside is that the Government and the FARC are clearly the two A side factions with more pieces and more things to do than either the AUC or the cartels. The later can still be fun to play but some might feel short changed.

photo courtesy of Lucas Brooks (AAC guild)


A Distant Plain - Mechanically this is almost identical to Andean Abyss, but there is more information to track and the introduction of the NATO military faction shakes things up a little. Western nations will not tolerate casualties so keeping them low becomes integral to victory for NATO. The main selling point is the familiarity of the conflict, in most other respects I slightly favour Andean Abyss, though this title does feel more even handed between its factions. Plays in 4-5 hours.


Cuba Libre - Not played this one, but I am told it is the shortest and simplest of the series.


Fire in the Lake - This entry has a different dynamic from its sister games. The players are split into two teams with the dilemma being that if they do not work together they will both lose but if they help their team mate too much they will hand the game over to them. Casting Vietnam as a four faction game has been somewhat controversial, whilst I am no expert on this conflict I felt the games namesake book made a reasonable case for this view. As military game this one is clearly the most interest and the least attritional. Each player has a very powerful one use only event card, like Tet, that can swing the game in their favour if used judiciously. This is my pick of the series, but there are some downsides. You lose the shifting alliances and negotiation that defines the series to an extent, equally there is a greater rules weight with the added military complexity. The short scenario runs around 3 hours, but the proper game is somewhere between 4-7.



Liberty or Death - Pass, not played, although my friend Simon liked it and I've been told its a great conversion of the system to the American revolution.


Falling Sky - I have only played this once and the game was cut short. We played 3 hours and saw one winter (coup) card which made this the slowest COIN game I have played by some margin. The game does a better job of converting a system designed for modern conflicts to the ancient world than I had expected. For instance, rather than using inactive 'hidden' troops as a way of infiltrating territories or avoiding combat they are used to determine whether one side can ambush another and receive a heavy advantage in combat. Combat itself is much easier to achieve, no longer must a player move in, sweep to expose hidden troops and then assault across three turns, as simple move attack will suffice.  This entry in the series also probably has one of the better faction spreads, the Belgae get their German Allies, the Arverni can employ scorched earth tactics, Caesar fulfills the foreign military role and the Aedui the trader faction.




Pax Pamir - Not a COIN game from GMT, but I am inclined to agree with Chris Farrell's notion that if you want COIN short and light this is it. The shifting alliances, area control and randomly drawn victory determination cards are all there, though make no mistake there are differences. This is a card game about building up a tableau and denying resources to your opponents. It plays in about 30-90 minutes but can be a rather unstable game with one side winning as if by mistake on the first 'coup' card.

Image courtesy of Cole Wehrle (game designer)




Monday, 4 July 2016

Megagame Mapping with Inkscape. Tutorial 1

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B39t62uIctG3SHVBQXZwZmc3Q3M/view?usp=sharing

I'm putting together some mapping tutorials for the Pennine Megagamers. Here a link to the first pdf.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Jena Campaign - Debrief - Lessons learned.


On the last Saturday of this past June I enjoyed one of the best learning experiences I have had in wargaming to put a positive spin on it. The day did not start well in character as General von Ruchel I arrived to the field 3 hours late having boarded the wrong train. When I arrived I discovered that my colleagues had spread our forces in a long thin line between the Fulda gap and Gera with no reserve.


Control's game map


The Jena campaign megagame, designed by Rupert Clamp was devised as a double blind map game. Each side of 10-15 players wrote orders for each division ordering it about a large map of central Germany. When battle was joined a divisional commander collected his regimental level counters and played a simple face to face tactical game.


A step up the chain of command it was the army commanders (generals) role to devise the overall strategy for then the divisional/corps commanders and their chiefs of staff teams to implement.


Or if you were on the Prussian team being a general consisted of arguing with your fellow generals. I made sure that all my fellow generals were abundantly clear on views on every aspect of the campaign.


For me this was a game of three arguments, two that I won and should have lost and one that I lost and should have won.

The field of battle


First because we had no reserve we could not counter Marshal Davout when he brushed Blucher aside north of the Fulda Gap. My friend Paul argued that he should  march after Davout and fight him once he tired, I argued that he would not catch the French (they had a higher movement rate) and that he would probably lose a one on one fight if he did catch him. Rather we should accept that Davout would reach Halle and cut our supplies in around 3 days and we should focus on trying to fight the pivotal battle against the rest of the french before that clock timed out.


What I didn't know was that Davout had essentially no moral left in his force as he had forced marched them day and night to reach his present position. In fact he never did reach Halle before the game ended despite the open road. If Paul had fought him, we might not have lost.


Team planning map


Second, convinced that the game should come down to a climatic battle, like all Napoleonic campaigns did I continually argued that we should concentrate our forces and strike at one point delivering a pivotal blow to the French. In some respects this was not a terrible view to take, Napoleons objective in every historical campaign was to defeat the enemy in detail in a major battle as this would allow him to end to the discussion as to who had supremacy over Europe.


However this was not in Pete's (the thief of Europe!) mind, rather he decided that the best approach for the French was to employ Fabian tactics in the centre whilst running two corps around either flank to try and seize Halle and Leipzig cutting us from our supplies. As such by arguing that we should concentrate in the centre and smash the French in a major battle I opened up our flanks. For a long time my divisional commander Simon and I had made a case for taking one of your divisions off the southern flank and moving it into the centre as a reserve. We got our way but in doing so we could no longer effectively defend the approaches to Leipzig.


The final argument revolved around how to finish the campaign. We had done pretty well in our field battles but the French had taken Leipzig and we would lose our communications with Halle soon. What to do. I argued that no Napolonic army ever surrender because it had lost supplies for a few days and that we should fight out of our encirclement towards Berlin. In the end the presiding view was that we should concentrate on Jena and await a French attack as this would be the most fun and fitting end to the game. Another idea was that we should push out towards Leipzig and try to retake it (which wasn't the worst idea in some respects but you really do need supply for a siege).

In the event Napoleon not being a fool simply ignored us and sat on our supplies and the game ended with the Prussians in a rather compromising position rather than with a head start on the road to Berlin.

My excellent divisional commanders, far more competent than I was

The game was a good lesson in assumptions for me. I had underestimated the effect of marching on moral and assumed that a pivotal battle was necessary. In the longer term it would have been, since armies did not tend to surrender on home territory for lack of the supplies, the worst case scenario was a disbandment and humiliating surrender. Whilst this might seem like a total victory Napoleon always tried to force a major battle so that he would not have to return the following year to re-establish his supremacy to the now reorganized opposition. In short we had done far better than our historical counter parts but we had not radically changed history.

My friend Pete (Napoleon) wrote up his thoughts on the game here; https://spprojectblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-jena-campaign-1806-at-huddersfield-napoleons-view/

Overall I was impressed with Rupert's design, it had the right tempo for a Napoelonic game and generally felt historical in play. The double blind aspects generated plenty of tension and control did an excellent job of feeding the right amount of intelligence out to the players. The only thing I would challenge was the notion that the loss of Halle and Leipzig being a victory condition. After all the Russians accepted the loss of Moscow and for a brief time the Austrians Vienna, the only nation to bottle at the loss of their key city was in fact the French.