Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Korean War: Scenario 1 - North Korea Invades

Victory Games' The Korean War is an excellent operational-level game based on the first year of the Korean conflict that began in June of 1950.  I've been enjoying this game immensely lately and I have even shelved some of my newer incoming games to keep playing this one.   There's a huge campaign in the game that allows you to play through the first year of the war and the number of bells and whistles that it features are impressive (global tension, rules of engagement, use of nuclear weapons, to name a few).  But before you get into the big show, there are four or five basic scenarios that ease you into the game and introduce the basic elements.  The first of these basic scenarios features the first four months of the war when the North Koreans were pushing the South Koreans back and the UN held on by a thread thanks largely to the defensive perimeter near Pusan.

This basic scenario only last four turns (one month = one turn) but there are two action phases in each turn beyond the first one.  In an action phase, your guys do the tough job of moving, fighting, advancing, retreating, etc.  Both sides go back and forth rolling for operations points, which allow you to do stuff with your units.  When both sides pass (or when the North Korean player passes and the UN player rolls poorly on the operations table), the turn ends.  So although there are only four turns here, there's quite a lot going on.  Victory is awarded to the North Koreans for capturing a certain amount of South Korean cities while the UN/ROK's objective is just merely to hold on to as much ground as they can while the US and its allies start to get reinforcements over to them.

Here's how things went in one of my most recent plays.

A look at the map by the end of turn 1.
The North Korean player rolled a "9" and started off with four activations right off the bat.  The main objective here was to hit the ROK regiments closest to the 38th parallel and also to prevent the other ROK regiments from moving together and amalgamating into divisions on the next turn.

Starting off with an attack along the east coast by one lonely North Korean division against an ROK regiment sitting near the border,  I went with some NK air support and an intensive attack for a total +3 bonus on the attack roll and smashed the ROK regiment then advanced into the enemy hex. Down the road to the south, there were two ROK regiments waiting but with no action points left, there wasn't much I could do about it.

The rest of my efforts were centered around the units near Seoul.  A total of 3 ROK regiments were clogging the roads northeast of the capital and these needed to be swept away before making the big push down the rest of the Korean peninsula.  A pair of NK divisions worked in tandem to smash the south's regiments and the road to Seoul was clear by the end of the turn.

Northwest of Seoul, along the coast, another NK regiment slammed face first into an ROK regiment and marched straight down the road to the gates of the city.  Things were looking particularly grim for the South Koreans at this point, with the capital poised to fall in the next turn barring some sort of miracle.  North Korea's operations had finished and play passed over to the UN/ROK at this point.

The area around the 38th parallel at the end of turn 1.  North Korean divisions breach the area around the border.

Pulling back troops from Seoul seemed out of the question.  There were still several unactivated North Korean units and they would speed down the coast without anyone to stop them.  The only thing left to do was find out what could be reinforced to stem the flow of enemy troops.  I could either send a unit east towards the coast in hopes of amalgamating with the two ROK units sitting along the road or I could start sending guys up towards Seoul.  With only one North Korean division threatening the eastern seaboard and four North Korean divisions on the outskirts of Seoul, it seemed better to protect the capital.  I sent one ROK regiment from Wongju up towards the city.  Four measly regiments now stood in its desperate defense.

Outskirts of Seoul: End Turn 1
Play went back to the North Koreans and they attacked one ROK remaining regiment near the border to the northwest of Seoul and, with the help of air support, completely eliminated it before heading down the coast to hit the capital next turn.  With the frontline ROK units nearest  the border destroyed and the way to Seoul clear, I was primarily concerned with keeping the ROK player from moving any more of his units for the rest of the turn.  With the end of the North Korean operations impulse, play returned to the ROK player.

The ROK player rolled a "2" for operations and got nothing.  No one could move so play went back to the North Koreans and they decided to pass, hoping to end the turn early before the ROK could further adjust its defenses.

The next roll for the ROK was a measly "3" and this meant the end of the action phase for turn 1.

The end result of turn 1 was that the North Koreans managed to clear out the border defenses near the 38th parallel and get to the outskirts of Seoul.  However, the need to end the turn before the ROK could take defensive actions meant that most of the North Koreans sitting further to the north didn't move.  This might make the North Koreans' job much harder since their reserves are sitting so far back now.  On the other hand, the ROK is bound to have a much harder time holding on to key locations.  The key concerns for the ROK player next turn are whether or not to try and amalgamate forces in and around Seoul in an attempt to delay the North Koreans (not likely to be effective anyway, since there are four divisions they're facing here) or to focus on just getting the guys in the south up towards the bridges and cities in hopes of providing some kind of delay - no matter how feeble the defense might be.  With luck and enough action points, it should be possible to start entrenching some units further down the peninsula.  Let's see how things work out.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Victory Games' The Korean War: A Short Review

I recently got hold of VG's The Korean War (1986) and I can honestly say that I'm blown away by the quality of this game.  I'm not sure I've ever played a game where the rules were so intuitive and yet so perfectly tailored to model the kind of conflict that the Korean War really was.

Designed by Joseph Balkoski (who also designed several games in VG's Fleet series along with many other games), The Korean War lets you play out the first year of the conflict from June 1950 through May 1951.  There are four basic scenarios that take you carefully through the different stages of the war and these generally run four or five turns (one turn is one month in game time).  The rules are introduced in a really gradual way and although they aren't that complex, it does take a little while to get used to the various phases and patterns of each game turn.

After you've got all that down, there's a full campaign game with all the bells and whistles.  The campaign incorporates rules for everything from UN commitment levels to global tension.  If you're not careful as the UN player, you can spark World War III (upon which the game ends and the UN player automatically loses).  Also, your decisions can also result in Chinese intervention, just like in real life, and you can watch your close victory turn into a bitter stalemate as your troops get pushed back towards the 38th parallel.  On the other hand, if you don't push things enough, you face the real possibility of the North Koreans overrunning the south and ending up with the entire peninsula under the control of deranged fat guys with bad haircuts having the run of the place for the next half century or more.  There are lots of intriguing choices and circumstances can easily push the UN commander to gamble with risky decisions that may either pay off or end up in total disaster.

The UN fends off the North Korean army as it approaches Pusan.

In terms of the real meat of the game, there are lots of interesting decisions to make and all of them feel vital.  For one, combat strength is partly based on how far your units are from their supply depots so you have to think carefully about how much of your limited resources you want to commit on a given push.  Reinforcements come in each turn and you can either get them on the board right away (in Pusan) or you can delay entry and try out an amphibious landing (much like the famous Incheon landing) to try and cut off North Korean supplies and really let the UN guys go at them.  You also get air units each turn and you have to decide whether you want to put them on interdiction or close air support missions and this kind of decision can drastically alter the game.

The game mechanics are really interesting too.  There are two action phases in a turn and each of these has an operations impulse where the fighting and movement take place on the board.  Each side goes back and forth taking turns rolling for their available operation points (this is based on supply) and then performing actions with their units.  You can spend your action points on a units to make them do various things: attack, move, etc.  Units get 3 action points and the player can decide to spend all 3 points to make a really big attack with a unit (getting a big modifier on their attack roll) or perform a strategic move (giving them 12 movement points).  You can also spend your action points on a unit to make it do a mixture of things, such as a normal move (1 action point, 4 MPs), normal attack (1 action point, no bonus modifiers), and then move again (1 action point, 4 MPs).  There are lots of intermediate options too such as an 8 MP move and then a normal attack.

The UN rushes in reinforcements: October 1950

Combat is a treat and flows easily.  Air and armor are treated as assets for units and works alongside combat units to provide enhanced attacks.  Inactive units that are adjacent to enemy units that are being attacked by an active unit also participate in the attack without any penalty.  Finally, instead of having a million different modifiers for different terrain, you're rolling on a CRT that simply has two columns: attacks vs units in clear terrain or non-clear terrain.  I can't tell you how much time that saves and how that keeps the game flowing smoothly when calculating and determining combat results.  It keeps the game going and prevents things from bogging down.  I noticed this was a key element for me as I usually get bored of games very quickly with lots of different CRTs and terrain modifiers but I never once felt that way when playing this game.

The components are quite nice for a board game produced in 1986.  The map is wonderfully illustrated and it's easy to make out all the key terrain types, roads, railroads, and towns in the game.  There are two large maps.  One map depicts the area around the 38th parallel down towards the tip of South Korea while the northern map encompasses all of North Korea and bits of the area around the border with China past the Yalu River.  There are boxes on the map board that cover all the mechanics of play (initiative, operation tracks, action points, reinforcement boxes) and a separate air chart that allows you figure out where you'll be assigning your air units in the various provinces of Korea on interdiction missions.  A small booklet with player aids gives you all the charts and tables you need to reference in a very nicely laid out and easy to read form of presentation.  It's clear that whoever made this thing had the player in mind rather than the layout artist.

So all of these things come together to produce a real winner of a game and even if you aren't particularly interested in the Korean conflict, I think this game will please most gamers.  As a wargamer with modern tastes, the Korean War was not something I was particularly interested in as I believed it lacked the epic scale of World War II and the "rock 'n roll" flavor of the Vietnam War.  I have to say that this game has converted me.  There's so much flavor that's represented in this game that allows you to see how really desperate the situation became for everyone involved at various points during the war and how key decisions formed and shaped the outcome of the entire conflict.  I can't recommend this game enough.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The End of World War Three

Slowly but surely, I got halfway through a recent game of GDW's The Third World War:  Battle for Germany to see things bog down into a stalemate by the beginning of turn 5.  NATO's defense was sub-par due to its lack of depth and inability to cut through the Soviet breakthrough in the middle of the board.

The Soviets, on the other hand, were unable to follow up their early successes with further breakthroughs and by the time, they got within spitting distance of the Rhine, the front line had bogged down as a motley collection of heavily disrupted units were unable to make the final push.

In the early game, the Soviets had an overwhelming success by clearing NATO units in the center of the board and following up with successful second echelon attacks.  NATO air superiority in the subsequent turns managed to blunt the Warsaw Pact's attacks as they reached further into Germany and began to push through a few lonely divisions into Belgium.

As the Soviet player, I kept to one or two tenets for my overall strategy.  The first and foremost was to keep moving and the second was to reinforce success.  While the Pact was stymied by strong NATO defenses in the north near Bremen and Hamburg and down south near Munich and Frankfurt, it did keep a lot of NATO units busy in these sectors while the other Pact units funnelled right through the middle.   As NATO reinforcements and POMCUS units came online, however, they were able to stem the flow of Pact reinforcements coming through the initial breakthroughs.  Both sides quickly found that they had committed all their frontline units and reserves into a slogging match that went nowhere fast.

Warsaw Pact penetration into West Germany.
Nuclear artillery was used by both sides but to little effect.  The Pact focused their nukes on hitting at stubborn NATO units sitting inside of cities and comfortably defending themselves against Category G units with low proficiencies.  In the meantime, NATO nuclear artillery was used to some degree of success for getting surrounded units out of isolation and back towards a more defensible line.  On turn 4, the escalation level allowed for nuclear attacks by air units, which NATO probably could have used to better effect than the Soviets given the situation on the board.  I suspect NATO might have been able to roll back some Soviet gains in the next couple of turns but not enough to make a huge difference.  The die had already been cast by mid-game and it seemed that neither side had the ability to push back against their opponents.

With most of the Ruhr occupied by Soviets at this point, I couldn't imagine that either side would be happy with the way things turned out.  For the next game, I would need the Soviets to keep their second echelons well back during each first echelon attack phase instead of committing them all wholesale and hoping for the best.  NATO, on the other hand, would need to use their heavy divisions in a more intelligent way.  It doesn't pay to use them in rough wooded terrain where their attack factors are halved.

Great game!  The best thing about it is the initial forward movements by NATO basically help to determine where the Pact is going to get its first breakthrough.  If the WP is going to have a successful time of it, the breakthrough needs to be followed up by some very careful planning in subsequent turns.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Reds Smash Through

Playing "Third World War:  Battle for Germany" again these days after a break from it.  I'm really starting to enjoy how simple but elegant the system works and takes into account the different capabilities of both sides.  To further explain, the Warsaw Pact gets two movement and combat phases, both with a second echelon phase that allows follow-up units in the rear to take advantage of breakthroughs by first line units by advancing through the breach in the front lines.  Thinking more deeply about how to maximize my second echelon units, I managed to get quite a breakthrough happening in turn one as Soviets ended up making their way close to Dortmund.  Yikes!

End of Turn 1:  Third World War - The Battle for Germany

On the other hand, I'm starting to get the hang of NATO defense and counterattack.  The Pact player is trying to advance quickly, which means that there are going to be some vulnerabilities in their advance.  The NATO player needs to find those weaknesses and hit at them as hard as they can with the American units while using the other smaller and weaker NATO defenders to sit back and try to slow the Pact onslaught.

I've been playing the game all through this week, one or two segments per evening.  Finally after finishing turn one, I've tried some different things in this playthrough that have yielded some interesting results.  First off, NATO rolled horribly for initial movement.  The largest US divisions were stuck twiddling their thumbs way off to the west while the Soviets were poised to enter West Germany without an invitiation.

The Pact predictably won air superiority at the start of the turn and managed to cause some minimal damage to NATO airfields while putting a Canadian unit near the front out of supply (NATO used emergency supplies to reach the Canucks but had to deprive a French division near the France/West German border to do so).  NATO played it smart and did not try to contest air superiority for this turn (NATO will almost certainly get it next turn so why worry?).  Unfortunately, a number of F-15s were lost intercepting Russian strike missions but they gave as good as they got.

The Soviets used lots of air transport points (something I hadn't done in any previous games to any serious extent) and got several desant and para regiments to take Frankfurt and Mannheim (another airmobile raid on Dusseldorf ended in disaster for the Russians - oh well).  This really slowed the rear NATO units from advancing from western Germany and France towards the Fulda Gap. NATO had to spend one valuable turn eliminating these pesky units from their cities before launching a counterattack at the massive Soviet breakthrough in the middle of the board.  On the second NATO attack phase, air units played a pivotal role in helping the American and British divisions force a few key Soviet and Polish divisions on a retreat.  The tide is hardly stemmed, however, and things look particularly dire for the western forces as they attempt to staunch the bleeding.

Aircraft maintenance phase at the end of the turn was a boon for NATO as every single one of its air units was able to get back in the action for next turn.  The Soviets faired poorly, however, as only half the Warsaw Pact air force was able to recover.  My prediction is that NATO will be able to use its air power to better effect after gaining air superiority and they may be able to cut off the large Soviet force making its way steadily towards the Rhine.

I have to say that I really admire the way that the game handles aircraft by integrating the factors into ground combat attack odds.  It works really well without distracting from the game's main focus while at the same time accounting for how crucial the air war is for both sides.  I'm starting to gain an appreciation for why the game is so well-liked by the community.  It is indeed a classic in the true sense of the word.