Saturday, December 8, 2012

Phase Line Smash: A Brief Look

Twenty years ago, GDW released "Phase Line Smash", an in-depth solitaire treatment of the US VII Corps involvement in the Gulf War during the 100-hour ground invasion.  Frank Chadwick designed a game that lovingly attempted to model part of the ground invasion, including rules for fratricide, weather, a multitude of terrain, breaching operations, and close air support.  The basic rulebook tops out at 53 pages.



David C. Nilsen argues in his detailed historical notes (which are actually more of a book) that the quick and largely painless victory in the desert of February 1991 was far from a foregone conclusion and that only painstaking planning helped to bring the superior technology and training of the Coalition forces to bear in a way that maximized their efficiency in battle and exploited the weaknesses of the Iraqi troops and equipment.  Phase Line Smash invites the solitaire player to take control of the VII Corps (along with the 1st UK Armored Division) and attempt to achieve a similar degree of success in its mission of destroying the Iraqi Republican Guard.


The game also features elements of XVIII Corps, whose job it was to enter Kuwait and liberate it.  Arab allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc., are included in the game but are not under player control.  As a result, if the Arabs allies run into trouble, the VII may find itself running to their rescue to the east or encountering an unexpected amount of resistance as it pushes up into Iraq and brushes against the border with Kuwait.  Advanced rules cover theater airstrikes, chemical weapons, and various historical options (an early invasion or the use of M901 TOW vehicles, which were historically left behind in Europe when VII Corps redeployed to Kuwait during Desert Shield).


The components of the game are pretty impressive for a game that was released two decades ago.  A lot of the elements of Phase Line Smash show a great deal of resources went into making a high quality product.  The map covers the VII Corps area of operations, just to the west of the Kuwait-Iraqi border and north up to the Ar Rumaylah and Basra. It's colorful with clearly delineated terrain and easy-to-see markings.



A rules summary with reference charts is included along with a sheet for holding individual counters should the hexes on the map get too crowded.



Again, for 1992, this is quite lovely stuff. The counters are full color, attractively illustrated, and easy to read.  All units on the Coalition side are represented with as much historical accuracy as possible.  Chadwick remarked about how difficult it was to identify where certain units of the Iraqi army were positioned and had to take the occasional educated guess when designing the game.  In order to save time in the planning stages, the Coalition military planners had to order their intel people to stop focusing on ID'ing Iraqi units and determine instead the size and capability of the enemy units.  As a result, the reference material which Chadwick used was inevitably short on some details of the Iraqi forces but with the amount of care he put into the game and the research involved, I can't imagine that he was too far off from the reality.






I'll be playing Phase Line Smash in the near future after grappling with its ruleset a bit more. The work demanded of the PLS player is no small amount and the rulebook warns that players should approach the game as one who attempts to learn a difficult musical piece, playing it over again and again until one gets it right.  I'm not sure I have that kind of patience, especially with so many other games on the shelf.  However, the sheer amount of impressive hard work that went into Phase Line Smash beckons me to at least give it a shot.


8 comments:

  1. David C. Nilsen, the developer, deserves a great deal of credit for the game and I think it was he who wrote the marvelous historical notes.

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    1. Thanks Eric! I've updated the post to reflect your correction. Much appreciated.

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    2. PLS is what was called, "light design, heavy develop." Frank gave me two pages of rules outline, two pages OB notes, and the map. He talked me through the outline to make sure I understood his intent, and I took it from there. Literally every word on and in that box was written by me, except for Frank's designer's notes. But, the original map and OB research, the concepts of the phase-less movement by chit pull, the scaling of the combat and movement values, the CRT and combat results, that was all Frank. Frank has remarked that I probably should be listed as co-designer, but in the classic design/develop division of labor, Frank came up with the basic model, mechanics, and research (designer), and I fleshed them out, refined them, playtested it, and wrote it all down (developer). We are both very proud of the result, although a lot of people didn't "get it" at the time. Some people seem to be afraid of reading or want a more mindless, easy-to-win solitaire game rather than an in-depth study. Too bad.

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    3. Hi David! Thanks so much for your comments and background behind the design and development of the game. PLS has stuck in my mind for the better part of a year as one of those games I so desperately want to get out on the table and play through. If I had to think of one word that sums up the game, I would say it's "uncompromising", and I mean that in a good way. Setting down a game of PLS on the table with the intention to play through with as few mistakes as possible is not a task to be taken lightly and I'm glad that the game was developed the way it was. Every time I start going through the rules and the first several turns, I always learn something new about the way the war was fought and what kinds of problems the Coalition commanders had to deal with and that's a definite feather in your cap. Thanks to you and Frank for doing it right.

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    4. Thank you, Brad! I want to modify one line I wrote above, as it sounds pejorative. I was thinking of remarks I had seen about "the size of the rule book scared me away," but I should better have said, "Some people didn't want to have to read that much before playing."

      Reviewers in more recent years have talked about how the rules are really not as difficult as they might appear, but are filled with examples and references to what the rules mean in real-world terms. I found in doing extensive playtesting that novice and experienced players alike would make (different sorts of) assumptions that caused the game to play "incorrectly," as a solitaire game does not have two players to correct each other in flawed interpretations. If the goal is to ensure that a non-computerized solitaire game plays correctly, the rules must anticipate and prevent potential misinterpretation that all players bring with them. The result is more information to impart, therefore longer rules. I decided that since PLS was intended as an in-depth study, detailed, immersive rules were appropriate for one making this commitment. The thing that I would say in retrospect is that this was unusual, and not what some buyers would expect. The rules would definitely benefit from an index, and perhaps some modifications to the GDW rules style to encompass this atypical immersive approach. From what I have seen, players who make the commitment to spend time with the game are pleased by the learning opportunities it provides, and that was the goal. It is definitely not a "kill a couple hours with something light," solo game, and we probably should have had stickers on it that said that. :-)

      "Uncompromising" is a good word, that's the way I approached it. I insisted on having the second booklet added for the historical notes (adding a couple bucks to the price), because having interviewed officers and soldiers from just about every US and UK unit on the map, been through their personal and unit papers, etc., I felt it would be criminal to not capture all of that while it was still fresh in my mind. I used to have the map set up permanently in my game room and would play it as often as I could. I feel a personal connection to the units, and there's always something new to try. I think the PLS system would have been great for a modern two-player game, and that would have allowed us to make the rules shorter!

      You're welcome, and thanks again for the nice review.

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    5. Those are some great insights into the game and I appreciate you coming around to comment, David. I hope you drop in again some time soon and hopefully I'll have a playthrough of the game posted here at some point! Thanks again!

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  2. I bought this on a strong recommendation...From Eric Walters.

    The rule book is daunting. No index, no cross referencing. Its a bitch. Sadly there are too many really good well written games out there to be played. Yet I shall keep in case in my dotage I become more patient!

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    1. It's on my "retirement shelf" too but I hope to give it at least one decent try before that happens.

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