Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Harpoon: Captain's Edition - Hunter Killer

I decided to take a little break from Pacific War and get back to playing Harpoon: Captain's Edition. If you haven't heard much about Harpoon: Captain's Edition, feel free to check out my overview of this fun GDW release from 1990.  Browsing through the game's rulebook, I realized I hadn't yet played any of its scenarios that involve submarine warfare.  I've always loved the slow-paced tension of submarine versus surface ship duels ever since watching "Run Silent Run Deep" on late night TV as a kid.

Leafing through the scenario book, I finally found a match-up to whet my appetite. "Hunter Killer" is an exciting and tense scenario that pits a pack of Soviet submarines against a task force of American destroyers during a late-1980s World War III. The background story is that a US carrier group is due to pass between Iceland and Scotland in a few days. To secure its passage, the Americans send a hunter-killer formation of surface ships to the area in an effort to destroy any Soviet submarines lurking in the depths below.  NATO wins if it is able to sink two Soviet subs.  The Soviets must keep as many boats alive as possible.  If the Soviets can sink two NATO ships, it offsets the sinking of one of their subs.  The game lasts seven turns.

The Soviet Akula class submarine [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

NATO forces consist of two destroyers (one Arleigh-Burke class and one Spruance class) with two frigates (two OH Perry class).

NATO forces

The Soviets get three submarines - two Akula class subs and an Oscar.

Soviet forces

I also decided to use the Dummy cards for this scenario. I'm playing solitaire, which obviously complicates matters. I've decided that my initial ship movements for both sides will be blind. Although I know how the ships will be grouped together, I don't know which groups of ships belong to which counter on the board.  So I could be moving the Arleigh Burke or a NATO dummy counter - I will have no idea until I need to do something (i.e. attack or detect) with the counter that would require knowledge of the ship's composition. After I know what ships each task force counter actually represents, I'll roll dice to help decide where ships will go and what they will do. It is less than ideal but it helps to introduce some aspect of hidden information into the game, which is a big part of Harpoon: Captain's Edition.

Soviet setup with Task Forces D, A, C in red. NATO Task Forces (blue counters) will enter from the bottom of the map.

The Soviet player sets up first, placing his ships anywhere along the line of hexes from 0816 to 1419. These hexes lay between Iceland and northern Scotland.  One thing to note is that the Soviet side is unable to move its subs beyond two hexes of their starting hexes.  The Soviets put their boats into three separate task forces, Task Force D is placed in 0816, Task Force A is in 1118 and Task Force C is in 1419.  NATO has three task forces, TF-14, TF-5, and TF-12, which are set to enter from the bottom of the map edge on turn 1.

Turn 1

Harpoon:CE works by chit pull so we start yanking chits out of the cup.  Task Force 12 enters first at speed 3, followed by Task Force 14 at speed 2 and Task Force 5 at speed 1.  The NATO ships are coming up along the west side of the play area, near Iceland.  Whether or not this is a feint is hard to say. The task forces are close enough to mutually support one another if attacked.

NATO Task Forces enter the map.

Soviet Task Force D activates next and moves south to 0817. Rolling to check if TF-D is a dummy or not beforehand, I find out that it is actually a dummy.  The NATO side does not know this,however, and may send ships after it.  Hopefully, NATO will take the bait and leave some of its ships vulnerable to submarine attack.

Task Force A and C get a chance to turn and both move closer to the NATO ships, attempting to detect them and failing.

Soviet sub Task Forces move towards the NATO surface ships and attempt detection.

With the last chit pulled, turn 1 ends.

Turn 2

Things really heated up this turn. Task Force 12 ended up being rolled as a dummy when the NATO player went to see if it could make a detection attempt versus Soviet Task Force D. It went down to speed zero and stayed put, hoping to lure in Soviet Task Force D (which was, unknown to the NATO player, also a dummy marker).

Task Force C moved west one hex to 1218 at speed 1 while Task Force D (a dummy group) stayed put and reduced to speed zero. Next, I pulled the Task Force 14 chit and it succeeded at its attempt to detect Task Force D. It was revealed as a dummy and the task force chit was taken off the board. Task Force 14 then sped up to speed 2 and attempted a detection on Task Force A in hex 1019. It succeeded!

The enemy task force was identified as an Akula-class submarine and an Oscar. Task Force A also succeeded in detecting Task Force 14 so the Oscar launched its compliment of 12 SSMs at the NATO ships, which were identified as an Arleigh Burke destroyer and an OH Perry frigate. The Burke's long-range SAMs shot down 6 of the Soviet incoming missiles and the Perry's short range SAMs took out the rest. That is not good for the Soviets.

Soviet Oscar fires 12 SSMs at Task Force 14.

The Burke and Perry swaggered north into the hex with the Soviet subs and commenced aggressive ASW, scoring 2 hits on the Akula sub (which could take a maximum of 3 hits before sinking).

Hello Baby!  Task Force 14 enters into hex 1018 and begins ASW operations.

Task Force A subs went next and moved in for torpedo shots at the Burke and Perry ships. The Akula and Oscar got abysmal rolls but managed a single hit on the Burke and another hit on the Perry frigate, sinking it.The Burke-class destroyer got another chance to conduct ASW and sunk the Akula.

NATO Task Force 5 activated next and entered into the same hex where the damaged Burke and the Oscar submarine were fighting it out. The Spruance and Perry-class ships conducted additional ASW on the Oscar and managed an incredible 3 hits thanks to some excellent rolls. The Oscar was still barely alive, however, and if its chit got pulled next turn, it could manage to fight NATO to a draw.

Task Force 5 joins up with Task Force 14 and pours the hurt on an Oscar-class submarine.

Turn 3

The Burke, Spruance, and Perry formed into a single mighty sub-killing task force at the start of the turn and resumed pounding the Oscar. Task Force 5's chit got pulled right at the start of the turn. The Soviets just could not get a break. The Burke rolled 5 dice on its ASW and scored a single hit on the Oscar submarine, which sent it to the cold depths of the ocean floor.

Task Force C managed an activation but was unable to move any further as per scenario rules. With no SSMs to fire at the NATO ships, the game was over at this point. The US player had achieved two Soviet sub kills and simply meandered away from the battle area, leaving the Soviets fuming. We chalk up a nice win for NATO.

Newly combined NATO task force wanders away while Akula in TF-C sits by in impotent rage mode.


If I had to play this one again, I would have the Soviet subs hang back a bit at the beginning to make detecting them as hard as possible for NATO. Because they were moving during Turn 1, they were easier to detect and the hunter-killer groups had a real heyday finding and destroying them, especially after the dummy task force was found out.  I also might have grouped those Soviet task forces a little tighter so they could help each other out.  It was very frustrating to see Task Force C stuck uselessly near its starting hex at the end of the scenario.

I know you shouldn't blame luck too much but the NATO rolls were pretty amazing throughout the game while the Soviets had some rough luck, especially with their torpedo attack on the Burke. Finally, I should have pulled the Soviet subs back after their attacks on Task Force 14.  Keeping them in the fight and just hoping to get a chit pull for a nice free torpedo attack was silly and cost me the game.

I found this scenario to be well balanced and quite tense!  I didn't know if the dummy cards would work as a solitaire player but they were fine and added a lot to the tension.  I'd like to try this game with the air components next and see how they fit into the game.

I should note that this scenario played out very quickly and fluidly.  Aside from a few glances at the rulebook to find hit tables and detection modifiers, it was easy to play the whole thing through from setup to conclusion in less than thirty minutes.  It is a small scenario but so far, I'm finding that the game does what is promised on the box cover.  It is a fast-paced and very simple game of modern naval combat.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pacific War - The Battle of the Coral Sea

I recently bought a very used copy of "Pacific War" (Victory Games, 1985) designed by Mark Herman during the heyday of Victory Games.  I realized that I could have just waited for the impending reprint to be released but I'm an impatient man.  I don't often get a jones for monster WW2 Pacific games but when I do, I want my fix right away.

Anyway, I spent the first week of September going through the rules and playing a couple of the engagement scenarios just to get a feel for the game system.  Specifically, I muddled through the Pearl Harbor scenario and worked through the air strike rules. The rules seemed really dense at first but after I went through the examples carefully and took some notes, it all just clicked together at one point.  I had a similar experience with Gulf Strike too.

After I finished playing Pearl Harbor and reading through the rules and the detailed example of the Battle of the Coral Sea scenario, I felt confident enough to try the larger battle scenarios.  These are different from engagements because they generally have more units, take place over a longer time span, and give the player more interesting decisions to make.  So I went with the Battle of the Coral Sea scenario and here is what happened.  Just a note that I played the scenario on paper map with cardboard counters and I took photos but they were pretty bad. I've tried to recreate to the best of my ability what happened with Vassal and I've taken screenshots.  I took very extensive notes so I think this pretty accurate.

Objectives - There are three levels of victory for both sides - decisive, substantive, and tactical.  Japanese get decisive victory by capturing Guadalcanal and Port Morseby and sinking or crippling the Lexington or Yorktown.  The Americans get a decisive victory by keeping the Japanese from fulfilling their victory conditions and sinking a Japanese CV or CVL.

The Japanese plan was to use Task Force 4 (CVS K-Maru, two light cruisers, and a destroyer-transport) to land engineers in Guadalcanal while Task Force 3 (two cruisers, CVL Shoho, and an amphibious transport) sends its 144 infantry regiment and marines battalion to land in Port Morseby to take it from the Australian 30th Brigade. Task Force 1's job (CV Kuikaku and CV Shokaku  with a cruiser and DD) was to find the American carriers and sink them.

Initial Setup of Forces

The Operation Player Contact Phase started off the game and the Japanese naval units moved 4 hexes over the course of two days. The Allied player stopped the Japanese player at this point because Japanese Task Force 3 was detected rounding the cape near Port Moresby in hex 1328 (China Strait). The Allies hoped to intercept and sink it before the Japanese forces made a landing.

End of Operation Player Contact Phase

The Reaction Player Contact Phase commenced and the Americans moved their Task Force 2 (Kent and Northampton) from the port of Townsville north towards Port Moresby.  Task Force 1 (Lexington and Yorktown with 2 cruisers and a DD) moved from hex 0135 (way off at the very southern edge of the map) four hexes to the north on its long journey towards the battle area. The Allied player shuffled some of the air units around, moving the LRA from Townsville to Thursday Island in hex 1523.  This got the air unit much closer to the action near Port Moresby where it could hopefully detect some Japanese ships and steer the Allies limited air and naval assets to high value enemy targets.  With the American carriers still far off, there was no much left to do.

End of Reaction Player Contact Phase

On days 3 and 4 of the battle, American planes from Port Moresby managed to score a couple of hits on Lae airfield but it didn't do much.  Both sides failed to detect each others' naval units but the Australians and Americans knew full well that there was a Japanese task force steaming for Port Moresby.  Allied Task Force 2 steamed towards the coast of Port Moresby to try and protect it.

But they were not fast enough. The Japanese ships showed up during the Disadvantage Movement Phase and their marines and infantry stormed ashore.  The Japanese used air missions to try and break the defending Australian brigade in the hex but failed to shake them (roll equal to or under the troop quality rating, which is "5" in this case). Meanwhile, further south, Japanese Task Force 4 landed their engineers on Guadalcanal without a hitch.

Japanese troops land on Guadalcanal  (TF4) and assault Port Moresby (TF3)

The Japanese decided to use the darkness to their advantage and set the lighting phase to night for the next cycle.  They won advantage determination too.  Japanese bombardment of Port Moresby resulted in another troop quality check against the Aussies, which they passed again. It seemed the Port Moresby would not be so easily won.  In the ground combat phase, the Japanese player was rolling on the 7 column on the CRT due to the troop differential (half troop quality for amphibious invasions and a two column shift left due to the terrain).  The die roll came out a 4, which meant 2 losses for the attacker and 1 for the defender.  The Japanese assigned 1 hit each to their marines (eliminating them) and 144 regiment while the defending Aussies took one hit.  The battle for Port Moresby was far from over.  The Allied player slips his Task Force 2 off the coast of Port Moresby into the same hex as Japanese Task Force 3.   The marker moves to Day 6.

Start of day 6

The Battle Cycle lighting condition is Day A.M. and the Japanese win Advantage again, rolling a 9 versus the Allied roll of 4.  During the Japanese naval movement, they manage to detect Allied Task Force 2 and the Japanese carriers from Task Force 1 send two single-engine planes to hit it.  The Japanese air mission is detected as it enters the Port Moresby hex and an American fighter on CAP tries bravely to shoot it down.  Unfortunately, it is outclassed by the Zeros and the fighter unit is eliminated after suffering 2 step losses.  The Japanese air units take a single hit from flak but manage to inflict 2 hits on the Kent-class ship (HMAS Australia?) before returning to their carriers.

In the Naval Combat Phase, we have two Allied cruisers taking on an entire Japanese task force.  The CA Kent gets nailed by CA Furutoka's guns for 3 damage (1 critical) and is sunk while the Northampton holds its own and gets 2 hits back on CA Furutoka.

Brave little task force 2 takes on Japanese task force 3 off the coast of Port Moresby.

The Northampton manages another hit on the Furutoka in the next naval combat phase.  Although the Japanese cruiser is not sunk, the Americans have at least avenged the loss of the Kent-class ship.

HMAS Australia.  Kent-class heavy cruiser.

During the Bombardment phase, the Japanese CA Aoba performs bombardment on Port Moresby and hits, forcing yet another troop quality check on the Australians.  This time, however, the pressure is too much and the Australians break.  The Japanese now see a chance for taking the port.  The troop quality for the Japanese is 6 while the Australians are halved at 3.  There is a 2 column shift to the left on the CRT due to terrain.  The Japanese player rolls a disappointing 7 and the result comes out as 1 step loss for both the attacker and defender. The Japanese 144 regiment now has only 1 step left while the Australians have only 2 left.

Japanese heavy cruiser Aoba.

The Allies spend their movement phase getting Task Force 1 shambling towards the battle area.  In the disadvantage air mission phase, they go for broke and send up a two engine bomber to strike the Japanese 144 unit.  Miraculously, it is undetected as it arrives in the Port Moresby hex and a lucky roll of 1 results in a Troop Quality check for the Japanese 144 regiment, which it fails due to the Japanese player rolling a 9.

US and Japanese carriers inch towards each other as US air unit strikes Japanese ground units in Port Moresby.

The day marker is moved to day 8 and the lighting condition is determined randomly.  We get a 3 and it is Day P.M.

For the first time in the game, the Allies win advantage for the turn and Task Force 1 is finally getting within striking range of the Japanese. However, the LRA units and spotters are not doing their jobs well and there is nothing found to hit.  In the Naval Combat Phase, the Northampton is still fighting alone against the entire Japanese Task Force 3 just off the coast of Port Moresby.  It gives no quarter, inflicting 1 hit on the Aoba before getting hit by a torpedo and then hit again by the Japanese guns.

During the Bombardment phase, the Aoba tries to bombard Port Moresby again.  This time, the Japanese player gets a 4, which would have been a hit on the Australians except for the fact that the Aoba has been damaged by the Northampton and had its bombardment value reduced.

During the ground combat phase, we are left with two broken units fighting each other. The result on the CRT is a 1:0 so the Japanese 144 regiment takes a final hit and is eliminated while the Australians are fine.  The Aussies make their rally roll and are back and ready for more.

In the Disadvantage Movement Phase,  Japanese Task Force 1 stays put as it is in striking range of the US carriers though they are undetected.  With the failure of the Japanese amphibious invasion, Task Force 3 withdraws from the coast of Port Moresby.

The Day marker is moved from 8 to 10.  The lighting marker moves clockwise along the track and we are at Dusk.  The Allies win advantage.

During the advantage movement phase, the Allies manage to detect Japanese Task Force 1 and see their chance to go up a victory level by possibly sinking one of the Japanese carriers.  Both air units from the Yorktown and Lexington scramble during the air mission phase and strike out at the Japanese TF only 3 hexes away.  The mission is uncoordinated.

The USS Yorktown.

The American planes are detected as they reach the Japanese carrier task force and they get intercepted by Japanese CAP.  A brutal battle in the air follows, with the Japanese thoroughly trashing the Americans.  They score 3 hits on the American air units, 2 of which are taken on one air unit (aborting it) while the remaining American air unit takes another hit.  Flak from the Japanese ships inflicts 1 more hit, which aborts the other plane.  Misery.  The only positive thing for the Americans is that they suffered no step losses during the dusk carrier landing procedure.

US carriers send 2 air units to hit the Japanese task force.

The Disadvantage Movement phase for the Japanese ends up with the American Task Force 1 detected so they send out their planes to hit at the Allied ships this time.  The mission is coordinated.

The Japanese planes are detected as they arrive in the same hex as the American carriers.  This time, the CAP results are reversed.  The US player takes 3 hits on CAP from the Japanese, which eliminates one of the American carrier air units completely.  The Japanese take 1 hit in the air battle.  They take another hit from the American flak on the way to their target (primary is Lexington, secondary is Yorktown).  Unfortunately, both attacks miss and the Japanese return to their carriers.  During the dusk landing procedure, the Japanese player rolls an 8 for one of the air units and takes 1 hit.  What a disaster.

The Japanese do the same.

The Day Marker moves from 10 to 12 and the Lighting condition is Night.  The Americans use the cover of night to retreat back towards Australia while the Japanese begin to withdraw from the battle.  Neither side has a decisive advantage in air or ships to take the other on and win while still having enough time to Deactivate.  There is no way to pit the remnants of these two forces against each other in a way that makes any sense within the general framework of the war.  Neither side managed to fulfill their victory conditions at even a tactical level so the result of the battle is a draw.

"Alright, we'll call it a draw."

Conclusion:  Wow!  What an incredible game.  It is a very tense affair with lots of units doing different things and somehow it all comes together and just makes good sense.  I love the built-in "time compression" of the Contact Phase that allows for several days to pass before slowing down the action in the Battle Cycle.  I found the search procedures a little difficult and tedious at first but by the end of the battle, it was second nature.

I found the struggle for Port Moresby to be very tense and I was interested in how it drew in all the different kinds of units and desperate attempts by both sides to change the course of the land battle.  I am interested to see what kind of changes that Mark Herman makes for the new edition of Pacific War because this seemed quite polished and intuitive even for a 30 year old game.  If you are interested at all in this period of history, I suggest giving it a try.

Although there are some huge campaigns that take hundreds of hours to play, there are also eight battle scenarios like this one that are very playable in a short amount of time and probably just as enjoyable.  One thing I would have to mention is that the counter information is extremely small. I hope this issue is addressed somehow in the reprint.  Anyway, great stuff!