Sunday, February 28, 2016

NATO: The Next War - Strategic Surprise Scenario

1983 was a pretty scary year. Reagan made his famous  "Evil Empire" speech. Andropov was in the Kremlin and the Soviet rhetoric and alarm was just as palpable. Nuclear war was on everyone's minds as the Americans deployed Pershing II missiles to Europe (in response to Soviet SS-20 missiles) and "The Day After" aired on American television. The Soviets shot down Korean airliner 007, further inflaming international tension. Years later, we would learn just how close we came to the end with "Able Archer '83" as well as the false detection of American missile launches by Soviet missile commanders. It felt like things were coming to a head.

It was fitting that NATO: The Next War in Europe from Victory Games was published that year. Designers Bruce S. Maxwell and Richard J.Trup attempted to build a game based on three scenarios of an East-West conflict in 1980s Europe. At the time, it must have seemed that all of them were plausible, considering the international atmosphere at the time.

VG's NATO: The Next War in Europe

The Plan

I just finished playing my first game of NATO: The Next War in Europe and it was fantastic. It felt like it captured all the important elements of a 1980s ground war in Central Europe without too much detail but with just enough cool decisions.

I'm pretty poor at planning Warsaw Pact strategy in these kinds of games, so I'm going to base the Soviet strategy on this map from Dr. Graham Turbiville's 1976 article, "Invasion in Europe: A Scenario".

In this AAR, I'm going to do something different. I'm not going to go through the game analyzing every move in detail or narrating my decisions as a player. I just want to tell the story that came about from my most recent game. It's no Red Storm Rising or Red Army but it is very much the kind of story that was going through my brain while I played this game.

Scenario:  Strategic Surprise

The Warsaw Pact catches NATO fully unaware of its intentions to invade Western Europe. In a "Red Storm Rising" scenario, the Russians have pulled off a successful maskirovka and hidden their movements of troops and supplies until right up to the invasion day. NATO scrambles to respond but it is caught badly out of position and must do the best with what it already has on the table.

Turn 1:

On Turn 1, the special scenario rules state that the Soviets cannot enter West Germany. There is only a WP Reinforcement and Movement phase on this turn. NATO cannot move at all. I snuggle my Soviet units in East Germany right up to the border with West Germany. The 20th Guards surround West Berlin and prepare to pound on it at the beginning of the next turn when the attack will be unleashed upon an unsuspecting foe while the Iron Curtain is closed tight to conceal my intentions.

Three airborne divisions and a special forces airmobile brigade arrive in Rostock, ready to infiltrate NATO's rear positions in turn 2.

Turn 2

The morning started like any other Saturday. Dawn brought with it the usual promise of a warm early spring morning. The residents of the sleepy city of Bielefeld, West Germany stirred awake and the slow steady rhythm of daily life began once again. Newspapers were delivered. Dogs were walked. Children flicked on their televisions and absorbed a steady stream of advertisements masquerading as entertainment. Shortly after 7:15 a.m., the explosions heard near the base to the south of the city were a signal to the residents of Belefeld that daily life would never be the same again.

Soviet paratroopers land outside Odense and Esbjerge in Denmark and seize control of the city's administrative offices and local television and radio stations. Residents are told to stay indoors and the army is told to stand down. Prime Minister Poul Schlüter appears on national television a short while later. He announces a state of national emergency and makes vague reference to a European crisis. He orders the armed forces to stand down and informs the citizenry that an interim government will take over until the crisis passes.

Confusion and panic spread across western Europe as rumors of a surprise Soviet invasion of West Germany are heard. No one seems to know what is going on or why. Just two months ago, the United States had reached an historic agreement with the Soviets to drastically reduce their stockpiles of intermediate nuclear forces. It makes no sense.

Soviet airborne and airmobile invade Denmark
Soviet special forces raid reforger sites near Bielefeld.

A massive tide of T-72 tanks and BMPs race west across the inter-German border. NATO border troops attempt to delay the oncoming flood of men and machines as best as they can but it is hopeless. To maximize the shock and chaos, the Soviets use electronic jamming to deny their enemy any communications. Whatever token NATO resistance manages to pop up is quickly overwhelmed with massive artillery strikes.  

The 2nd Guards Tank Army sweeps towards the outskirts of Hamburg and enters the eastern part of the city after inflicting heavy losses on elements of the Bundeswehr's I Corps 6th Panzergrenadier Division. Further south, the 3rd Shock Army has slammed into the British 1st Armored Division east of Bremen. The Brits are far from their HQ and badly out of position.  The commander of the 3rd Shock Army is so confident that he splits his forces, with two divisions hitting NATO forces south of the Elbe River and the rest of his forces attacking the West German 1st Mechanized Division in Hannover.

The 1st Guards Tank Division ambles across the central border route en masse. There is little more than a lonely 2nd Mechanized Division from West German III Corps to keep it from racing all the way to the Ruhr. 

Along the southern front, the 8th Guards Army heads straight into the Fulda Gap, licking its lips as it will be the first Soviet army to fight the Americans in this war. The 79th Guards Tank Division and the 39th Guards Mechanized Division get into a brawl with the US VII Corps' 3 Mech Division. 

The Czechoslovakians join in on the fun, piling two armies at their southern border. Their aim is to help pin down the West German divisions in the area so the Soviet 8th Guards can focus on the Americans.

Most alarmingly, everyone seems to have lost contact with West Berlin. The city has gone completely "dark" and no news seems to be coming in or out of it. Sporadic transmissions from radio nets indicate that the American and British sectors have been quickly overrun. There are reports that the French make a stand in their sector but their radio net goes dark the next day too. 

Turn 3

Once the initial shock of invasion wore off, the West German reservists mobilized to help defend their country from Soviet attack. As quick as their activation may have been in light of the circumstances, the pace of NATO's response still seemed glacial. By now, Hamburg was under complete control of the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army.  A small NATO contingent (US  III Corps, 2/A Mech. Brigade, British 1st Armored Division and the West German I Corps 1st Mechanized Division) were trying to fend off the Soviet advance near Bremerhaven. Even if the NATO units could somehow hold the city, the Poles were right behind the Soviets - fresh-faced and eager to join the fight.

Things looked even more hopeless in Holland. Soviet marines had landed in The Hague and the Dutch PM declared the country as a neutral in the conflict. Before a news blackout had been declared, several news agencies reported about more Reforger sites being sabotaged by elite Spetsnaz troops. The Russians seemed to be everywhere all at once and the psychological impact of these sudden strikes had sown fear and mistrust among the West German civilians and military. The police in West Germany and France quietly began conducting mass arrests of known leftist activists and union leaders, which only further inflamed the paranoia.

As media blackouts spread, gossip and rumor became the only way to share information. Oddly enough, everyone's greatest fear - that the war would go nuclear - was barely mentioned. Everyone from Bonn to Burbank just quickly and quietly began to prepare a shelter for their family.

The 1st Guards Tank Army was almost halfway to the Ruhr. Soviet military doctrine had been predicated on a fast advance through enemy territory - but none of the commanders could believe just how fast they were moving. Supply trucks from East Germany were having a hard time keeping up with the advance and if it had not been for their constant need to gas up the tanks, the 1GTA would have been at the Rhine already. The old-timers back home still talked bitterly about the surprise of 1941. Now the Soviet commanders were giving the West Germans a long-awaited taste of their own medicine in this reverse Barbarossa more than forty years later.

On the southern flank, the 8th Guards Army was pushing back against the US VII Corps and was nearing the town of Wurzburg. An American mechanized brigade held the town but three Soviet divisions would soon come crashing down on it. The US V Corps had not yet made its move but the gap left between the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army was big enough for the Americans to dash through into East Germany and cut off Pact supplies. Soviet planes ran interdiction on the roads to prevent this and so far it seemed to have worked.

Turn 4

Minden, West Germany - The commander of British I Corps stared at the map and swore quietly to himself. For the last two days, he had been in charge of organizing West German reservists, Belgian regulars, and his own armored divisions to form a defensive line just east of Dortmund. High command had ordered him to scrape together as many troops as possible to face off against the oncoming Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army and the 3rd Shock Army. What he had ended up with was totally inadequate but it would have to do. The men dug in and waited.

The Soviets had not been shy about landing more airborne troops into Reforger sites, which meant the loss or delay of NATO reinforcements. The US V Corps was supposed to be hitting at the left flank of the 1GTA and so far it had made a couple of small counterattacks but it was not enough to stem the tide. Air assets were also supposed to turn the war in NATO's favor but most of their planes had been lost on the first day from surprise air attacks and Spetsnaz raids. Much to the tankers' displeasure, NATO air had been slow coming back online and direct support was rare, if available at all. It had been explained to the men that most NATO air assets were being used for deep raids or suppression of HQ support. It was hard to feel happy about that when Hinds roamed the battlefield virtually at will, picking off tanks and men with relative ease.

The commander of the 3rd Shock Army had his own problems.  He had been ordered to divert several divisions from the advance west to help take care of a British armored division south of Bremen. Even though the 1st Guards Tank Army was more than capable of managing the situation, his so-called superiors back in Moscow had placed all their bets on a full sweep of the northern flank.

The Poles were to help the 3rd Shock Army dislodge a small but determined group of Bundeswehr from Hannover. Fighting with the Poles was a mixed bunch - they were steely and determined but so damned stubborn. No sooner had he given orders for them to encircle the city before the attack than he heard radio reports that they were already advancing into the city.

In the end, it didn't really matter anyway. Hannover was taken but with higher than necessary casualties. The Poles had done most of the fighting and dying in the city streets. Meanwhile, the 3rd Shock Army commander waited only to hear the first few positive reports from the Polish commanders before immediately declaring them in charge of the situation and advancing his own divisions southwest. The Poles were left to mop up and enjoy their victory. For the 3rd Shock Army commander, the real prize lay west of here. The cities of the Ruhr were lightly defended and just over 130 miles away. The 1st Guards Tank Army was already on the move towards Bonn but the commander of the 3rd Shock Army would be damned if his men wouldn't get there first instead. He could practically see the Order of Lenin medal being pinned on his chest.

Turn 5

Much of the fighting in the southwest had stalled out. The Americans had made a few attacks along the 8th Guards right flank but they were disorganized and haphazard. The US VII Corps was facing serious supply problems and their commanders in Frankfurt had not ventured out of the city and into the field. Although the mighty 8th Guards Army had not much made progress in its journey south, the nearby NATO units had failed to overcome their own inertia.  The West Germans were faster to respond by sending their units up from Munich towards the East German border.

The Czechs, however, had swarmed around their flanks and the Soviets surprised everyone yet again by sending an airborne division to seize the unprotected cities behind the German lines. Divisions that were mobilized towards the front soon found themselves turning back to their hometowns in order to fight these small groups of Russian troops. The idea of "heading to the front" had become a bad joke to most West German reservists as they received a constant stream of orders sending them back and forth - sometimes at the same time.

The lead divisions of the 2nd Guards Tank Army were now across the Elbe River. The meager NATO defense of Bremen crumbled quickly in the face of overwhelming numbers. NATO tactical airpower had finally made its first impressive appearance, knocking out an entire Soviet tank division and badly mauling a mechanized infantry division.  Once the West Germans and British were routed from this area, the way lay open all the way to Antwerp and the war was as good as over.  The men of the 2nd Guards Tank Army had seen nothing but quick advances the last several days and victory seemed well within their grasp.

Morale was high among the Pact forces and although the generals had turned a blind eye to the rabid looting of West German stores and homes in the first few days, they had begun to crack down on it. The men's initial surprise and delight at the quality and abundance of western goods had started to become a dangerous infatuation that the political officers were unable to counter with the usual arguments about western decadence and exploitation. It was difficult to buy into the superiority of the moral high road when you were wearing a shiny new Rolex. In any case, the political and military leaders of the Soviet Union were keenly aware that history was watching now and the reputation of the victors should remain unscuffed. To make a point of it, a few of the worst offenders without any political connection were pulled off the line this morning and shot as an example.

Turn 6

The keys had been turned only a few seconds ago and the computers would take care of the rest. Moments later, the Pershing II missile arced into the bright blue sky towards its target in northern Germany. A few minutes later, an entire Soviet tank division from the 2nd Guards Tank Army was simply gone - wiped off the map as if it never existed. The same scene was replayed across a wide front as two of the 3rd Shock Army's divisions were erased from existence. The Czechs paid the most with the loss of four entire divisions. NATO commanders hoped this would make them think very hard about the cost of supporting their Soviet ally in this war.

Western politicians made several warnings over the past few days that this would happen but the Soviets refused to listen. With the collapse of NATO defenses imminent, commanders on the ground were given full authority to release battlefield nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, the world changed forever as the first nuclear warhead exploded in anger since August 1945.

Despite the news blackout, it was impossible to hide the fact that nuclear weapons had been used. Western politicians go on television to keep the fragile bonds of society from ripping apart in panic and mayhem. Ronald and Nancy Reagan invite their fellow Americans to pray together with them for peace in a special broadcast during prime time.  That same night, martial law is declared in almost every American city and strict curfews are put in place. As soon as stores open the next morning, their shelves are emptied in mere minutes as panicked efforts are made to stock up for the coming apocalypse. There are shootouts in some stores as people kill each other over a can of tuna. By early afternoon, most supermarkets in America are on a rationing system.

The world waits for the end to come in a hail of missiles. The Soviets later admit to staring long and hard down into the abyss of nuclear holocaust and eventually dismissing it. The Warsaw Pact military leaders, seeing victory still well within their reach, decide on a policy of "proportional response". The Soviet strategic nuclear missiles stay in their silos...for now.

Turn 7

Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles found most of their targets - more or less. Using satellite information and decoded radio signals to locate them, a series of low-yield airbursts destroyed four points worth of fixed nuclear launch sites and two points of active mobile nuclear launchers. If NATO was planning to win the war with nuclear weapons alone, it would need to think again.

Warsaw Pact orders sent towards the front urged the men to stay inside NBC-shielded vehicles and commanders were to disperse their division as much as possible. The Soviet leadership in Moscow was uncharacteristically sympathetic towards the Czechs, hoping to keep their alliance held together with promises of a greater share in the spoils of victory.

A small but determined group of West German reservists in Dusseldorf was the sole defending  unit on the east bank of the Rhine river.  British and Belgian units were on the west side, waiting for the Soviets to show up in Koln, Bonn, and Krefeld. They hoped to bog down the lead Soviet units in street-to-street fighting while NATO commanders and politicians reached a decision about capitulation or continuing the fight.

The 3rd Shock Army commander listened carefully to the casualty reports and slugged down another glass of vodka. The bottle he would use to celebrate upon arriving in the Ruhr clattered empty down at his feet. Four of his divisions had been utterly destroyed in nuclear fireballs. The nearby field hospitals were flooded with radiation victims, burnt and irradiated young men whose wounds would charitably be described as indescribable.  To make matters even worse, the Polish army that took Hannover only a few days ago was now advancing west of his own remaining units. The humiliation was complete. Moscow ordered the 3rd Shock back towards Hannover to lick its wounds.

The 20th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army slid into their positions next to the Rhine. The night attack on the West German reservists would begin with a special surprise. The men of the 6th Mechanized Division put on their masks and waited for the signal. Twenty minutes later, they arrived in the center of Dusseldorf only to find everyone and everything frozen dead in contorted masks of pain, most of them clutching at their throats in a vain effort to breathe.  The poison air was still very much around them and would last for weeks still. A few of the Soviet troops who had not put on their protective gear properly soon found out in the most unfortunate way after disembarking from their BMPs.

Down south, the scene was nearly repeated in a pitched battle between the 8th Guards Tank Army and two divisions from the US VII Corps.  The Americans and West Germans had been successfully holding the Czechs and Soviets from any advance by forming a flexible defensive line centered around the city of Nurnberg.  The Americans and West Germans were expecting the Soviets to use chemical weapons at some point but the full impact of fighting in NBC suits was hard to psychologically adapt to when it really happened. The Americans held their part of the line with heavy losses but two of the four West German divisions were completely wiped out as the Czechs and Soviets pummeled them with tanks and infantry.

While the 20th Guards Army took care of the West Germans in Dusseldorf, the 1st Guard Tank Division crossed over the Rhine. People in Moscow cheered at the news. The war, it seemed, was nearly over now.

Turn 8

Remnants of the US VII Corps pulled back towards Frankfurt and formed a new defensive line with French troops and West German Bundeswehr and reserve units. The news reached the men that the northern German plain had been cleared of Soviet troops. In truth, the 2nd Guards Tank and 3rd Shock Armies had mostly ceased to exist as of this morning but most of NATO's battlefield nuclear weapons had been destroyed by repeated Soviet targeting of fixed and mobile nuclear sites. The Soviets were reluctant to use their nuclear weapons on West German cities full of enemy troops. The Warsaw Pact was winning the war and they did not want to win a bunch of uninhabitable and irradiated land.

As the 20th Guards and 1st Guards Tank Armies crossed the Rhine together, the Belgian and British units retreated into Belgium and France. Much of the French army had been mobilized near the border area and had been digging in for at least a week. The French president warned the Soviets publicly of his resolve to use nuclear weapons on a far more liberal scale than his fellow NATO counterparts should the Russians decide to cross the French or Belgian border. With options dwindling now, the West German president unilaterally declared a cease fire and opened negotiations with the Soviets. His last act in office was to order NATO troops to leave the country within 24 hours and for the Bundeswehr to stand down.

Western leaders faced intense pressure from their civilian populations to end the war before it spiralled further out of control. The whole of human civilization walked along the edge of a knife. With West Germany acceded to the Soviet Union in return for some minor face-saving concessions, NATO quietly dissolved over the next several months while the rest of the world prepared to live with the fall of one superpower and the rise of another.

The first morning of peace came. It started like any other Saturday.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Phoenix Command - The Rescue Mission

Phoenix Command was a combat system for miniatures and roleplaying games (and whatever else you wanted) that was published in the 1980s.  This wasn't just any combat system.  Designed by NASA rocket scientists (I'm not even joking there), the system aimed for realism through an incredibly detailed rules set.

Combat was segmented into two second impulses and half-second phases so everything - and I mean everything had to be accounted for (even flicking your weapon from safety to auto needed to be done).  Weapon damage and penetration was based on detailed ballistics tests.  Damage to the human body was based on computer simulations.  The first time I played the game, it really took me almost an hour to go carefully through the tables and figure out the modifiers and then apply damage.  That was for a single shot!

Leading Edge Games, the publisher of Phoenix Command (and the Aliens and Living Steel RPGs) has long gone out of business. But a quick browse through many RPG forums will eventually reveal some form of discussion about the sheer insanity of the Phoenix Command system coupled with admiration that someone actually tried to seriously model realism as closely as they could by releasing an uncompromisingly complex rules set.

Whether or not Phoenix Command succeeds in its attempt to closely hew to realism is up for debate.  I do think it does a considerably better job of it than most RPG systems I've seen where characters seem to take an inordinate amount of damage from bullets (or swords or arrows or whatever) before being adversely affected in any way.  Getting shot in Phoenix Command commonly results in very fatal problems and even if your character doesn't die, there's a good chance they're going to be in shock and not real functional for the rest of the firefight.

I've played Phoenix Command for some time now and I can see why people are somewhat intimidated by the rules.  They are a bit hard to grasp at first - and there is a lot of referencing tables and flipping back and forth to find results.  Doing all of this for an entire evening in a face-to-face group game session would tax the patience of the most gentle gamer.  Luckily, I'm a solo gamer with lots of time on my hands and a basic familiarity of the system, so I could afford to sit down with the system and use it to model a small firefight scenario using my old Axis & Allies miniatures and a bit of ingenuity.

The Scenario:

It is the summer of 1998 and the former Soviet republic of Lateria is in a political crisis. Under the guise of restoring regional stability, Russia has decided to send in troops without invitation from the Laterian interim government.  The West has condemned the Russian action and tensions are running high as all sides attempt to find a diplomatic solution.  In the meantime, the Russians have seized a small military headquarters building near the Laterian capital, taking two local Laterian commanders prisoner.  The Laterian government is outraged at the military action and decides to send in a group of special forces to retake the building by force and rescue the prisoners.

There are only four Russians inside but they are well-armed and well-trained.  The Russian commander has a Makarov pistol but knows how to use it.  The two prisoners are unarmed (of course) and their hands are tied, left to sit in the conference room.  The Russians are prepared for an attack and are keeping watch on the two entrances - one is a single door on hinges while the other is a set of double doors.

The Fab Five - Laterian Special Forces ready to storm the military HQ

The Laterian Special Forces are all armed with AKMs and grenades.  Their skill rating is "Elite" so they can all use their weapons quite well.  They are wearing flak vests and kevlar helmets, which should protect them a little bit.

The Laterians split up into two fire teams, A and B.  Team A will go in the single door on one side of the building while Team B, consisting of 3 men, will try to pick the lock on the double doors on the other side.  They're hoping to surprise the Russians and hit hard.

Laterians get ready to assault the building.
The Raid:

The Laterian Team B has one man pick the lock (no breaching demolitions here - I guess this is all short notice) on the double doors.  The Russians make a roll for sound detection and make it.  One of the Russians in the hallway nearest the double doors goes into a kneeling position and assumes a firing stance.

One of the men from Team B pulls on the door too early and the man who picked the lock is standing exposed in the open.  The Russian in the hallway fires on full auto and hits the Laterian with 7 bullets.  Ouch!

Russian (left) fires on Laterian team B at door (right)

Laterian Team A has the door open already and starts ducking around the corner and firing at the Russian commander, who is firing back with a Makarov.

The two remaining Laterians from Team B start to return fire.  One of them fires at the Russian who has just shot their friend.  He brings up his AK-47, aims for a half second and fires.  At this range, he hits with his single shot and it hits his enemy in the mouth, instantly killing him.

Team A sends a man running into the building after exchanging a dozen shots with the Russian commander with no purchase.  As one member runs in, the Russian commander fires his Makarov, hitting the Laterian in the head.  Luckily, the kevlar helmet prevents the bullet from penetrating but the Laterian has a hell of a headache now and staggers to his right.  The other member of Team A moves in and hits the Russian commander in the left forearm.  Since the Russian is in a firing stance with his elbow bent and in front of his chest to support his firing arm, the bullet overpenetrates through the forearm and into the chest, resulting in a lung hit that kills him.

Two Russians remain.

Team B is outside the building still near the double doors and one of the Laterians puts his head around the corner to see what's in store.  As he ducks his head around to look, a nearby Russian fires at him on automatic fire but misses.  The Laterian reflexively ducks back around the corner.

One of the Laterian Special Forces preps a grenade while the other puts his rifle around the corner and fires blindly.  Automatic fire sprays close to the nearby Russian but fails to hit.  The grenade is prepped and the Laterian throws it around the corner.  It hits the wall and bounces off gently, next to the Russian, who tries to run but only makes it less than a yard before it explodes and kills him.

Team B has now entered the building and looking around for bad guys.  The single remaining Russian sees one of the Laterians with his back turned to him and fires but misses.  Both Laterians from Team A advance near a corner and start spraying fire at the Russian, who is hit by the blind fire and killed.

The prisoners are rescued and the Laterians seem to have won this one, suffering one dead.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Odds & Ends - The Unusual or Funny in Games

While reading a rulebook, it's sometimes a welcome bit of relief when the designer pokes their head out for a moment to make some kind of remark or to include something in the game for fun. You start to catch a glimpse of the human being behind the game. I've always wanted to write a short blog post about the unusual or funny things in the rules or components of the games I own so here it is:

Aegean Strike - by Mark Herman

The final scenario of the game allows players to play a huge WW3 battle for control of both the Aegean Sea and the Middle East by putting together the maps for Gulf Strike and Aegean Strike. Before you do that, however, you should check the victory conditions for the scenario. It is completely unwinnable! I'm not sure if this was dark humor, pessimism, or realism coming through but it definitely got my attention:

"If the Warsaw Pact player wins any level of victory...he wins the whole game. However, in retaliation, the United States precipitates a nuclear war."

"If the US player wins any level of victory...he wins the whole game. However, in retaliation, the Soviet Union precipitates a nuclear war."

"Any other result causes the war to enter a stalemate phase. A die is rolled to determine the outcome; on a 1-5, the NATO player is the winner, and on a roll of 6-10, the Warsaw Pact player is the winner. In ether case, the losing player, in retaliation, precipitates a nuclear war."

"If a nuclear war is precipitated by either side, then no one wins."

Carrier - by Jon Southard

The last scenario in the rulebook is based on the 1980 movie, "The Final Countdown", where a Nimitz-class carrier goes back in time to 1941 just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In one of the worst cases of blue-balls in cinematic history, the Nimitz gets transported back to 1980 just after the carrier commander decides to go ahead and intercept the incoming Japanese strike force. In this scenario, however, that never happens and instead you get to use the Nimitz and its full complement of jet aircraft to fight World War II. What were the designer's justification for including this scenario in the game?

"We had discovered to our dismay that since the Japanese were so hard to beat in the standard game, our playtesters quickly became angry, frustrated, destructive, and homicidal. Faced with repeated death threats (and several pending lawsuits) we were in desperate need of a solution. After some serious contemplation (and several fifths of JD) we finally arrived at the answer. "

"What better way, we figured (especially considering the current state of the trade deficit) to let our players work out their frustrations than to allow crush the Japanese in a one-sided contest using the very latest in weapons technology built with imported silicon chips?"

The Speed of Heat - by JD Webster

For anyone who has tried to master the numerous and sometimes impenetrable rules for TSoH, it's always nice to see that the designer had a good sense of humor. In the first training scenario, you're introduced to your pilot instructor Major "Grit" Skywarden, who will send you to Kansas to fly rusty C-47s if you fail to score the requisite rating points while maneuvering your jet.  I struggled mightily with this scenario and gruff old Grit must have sent me to Kansas about 100 times before I finally got it right and passed to the next stage of training.

I groaned when I turned the page and read the following in the next mission briefing:

"By the way, the pilot of the banner aircraft, Col. "Buzz" Wiedhopper, happens to be "Grit's" brother-in-law. Major Skywarden has warned him about you so a poor showing here can still get your Sabre orders cancelled for a two-year staff posting in Guam as the billeting officer."

Freedom in the Galaxy - by John H. Butterfield

It may not be the most balanced game in the world but it sure is fun. Freedom in the Galaxy was a hot crazy mess of a game as much for what it tried to do than for what it actually did. In any case, you knew you were in for a ride the moment you browsed through the character cards and found:

Apparently, there were lots of little in-jokes within the game that poked fun at the SPI staff. There's a great thread on it with more detail here.

I've found a few neat little touches by the designer in some of my other games too. One that sticks in my mind is the Sal Vasta's inclusion of his parent's hometown, Graniti, in Sicily on the map in Unconditional Surrender!

I'm interested to hear any other unusual/weird/funny stuff that you've found in your game collection. Drop me a line in the comments to let me know.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Sixth Fleet - Operation Minotaur

Casus Belli is an old French wargaming magazine that was a pleasant mixture of articles and scenarios on many different games. In 1988, they published a scenario based on the idea of a war between France and Libya. It was called "Operation Minotaur".

I like this scenario because it fills a gap in the scenarios from the original Sixth Fleet core rules. With so many different nationalities included in the game's counter mix, it was practically begging for a scenario that didn't feature the US Navy. Although I love Sixth Fleet dearly, it was so totally focused on Cold War matchups that it felt like it was missing out on potential scenarios that featured local conflicts between powers in the region. This scenario helps to tilt back the balance a bit.

In "Operation Minotaur", we have a similar setup to what was featured in the "Libyan-American War" scenario but instead of the Americans this time, it is the French who are angry at Libya (3 guesses as to why). The name of the operation seems pretty clever as Libyan-backed terrorism is seen as the minotaur that kills innocent young men and women while the French are set up as Theseus, who will finally slay the monster. Maybe I'm reading too much into it though.

In any case, the Libyans must have done something real bad to anger the French because they have just dispatched a carrier (the R99 Foch) and its task force along with several submarines. The French objective is to bomb targets in Benghazi and Darnah. The more hits they can get on these two targets, the more VPs they score. Hitting Tripoli, for some reason, is worth zero VP. I have a feeling this was done for balance issues but maybe the scenario notes help explain the logic behind this.

Foch-ing Cool: The Clemenceau Class Foch (R99)

Although the Foch is an impressive piece of military equipment, it isn't rated quite the same as the Nimitz in this game. Indeed, while the Nimitz had a whopping 9 hit capacity, the Foch only has 5. Whereas the Nimitz carried a wide assortment of planes to do its business, the Foch has two squadrons of Super Étendards, an Alizé (an AEW version) and a squadron of F-8 interceptors. Still, this seems like more than enough to get the job done.

Les Super Duper Étendards in mid-flight

The Super Étendards fly at low altitude and high speed, so each time they get within range of Libyan CAP missions, the Libyan player must roll a "1" on a six-sided die to intercept. Another interesting special rule is that the Libyans might get advance intelligence of a French attack. Each time the French try to hit a base hex, the Libyan player rolls a six-sided die. On a "1" result, his CAP strength and base anti-air strength are increased. Another special rule states that the French get a +1 bonus to attack Libyan subs as they are noisy. The odds are very much stacked against the Libyans but it seems like the scenario designers were trying to go for some realism with these options.

The setup for the Libyans has a Mig-23 and an Su-20 each in Tripoli and Benghazi. There are two Libyan subs (Fateh and Albdr) starting off near the coast. Two PCS boats are in Tripoli and two are in Benghazi with a final one sitting in Darnah.

The game is 9 turns long. The Libyans score VPs by damaging or destroying the French forces. If they can damage the Foch, they score 20 VPs and if they destroy it, they get 100 VPs! The game goes to the side that can score the most VPs by the end.

I was warned that this scenario was a fairly one-sided affair for the French so I decided to try and see if I could finish the scenario without any French losses. On the other hand, I decided to play the Libyans as aggresively as possible. They will try to use their submarines to detect the French task force arriving in the area and then send a swarm of PCS ships to attack the French all at the same time. It is a big gamble but if it pays off, we might be able to sink the Foch!

Turn 1

Strat Air Allocation:

The French want to find at least one of those Libyan subs before they can detect or do any damage to their task force. They assign one Atlantique recon plane based in Nimes to scour the waters near Libya. The other Atlantique is assigned to Tactical Coordination in The Tyrrhenian Sea .

In the CAP phase, the Libyans put up a Mig-23 and Su-20 in Benghazi. They keep the MiG-23 and Su-20 off CAP in Tripoli. Hopefully, the subs can detect the incoming French and the Libyans can scramble their air force from Tripoli to hit their fleet as it comes south.

The French put the F-8 interceptors up on CAP with the Alizé over the Foch. There is only one F-8 squadron but having an AEW unit really helps to make interceptions more effective.

Both sides jostle for position this turn. The Libyans send their subs up on a course to intercept the French carrier task force when it passes west of Sicily. The French send their task force south and the two frigates are used to screen. The Libyans also send the Asawr and PCS1 north to 0722. With a 5 movement rating, they will be able to swoop in and attack once the Libyan subs detect the French surface forces.

End of Turn 1

Turn 2

The French started off the turn by activating their subs. They moved them on an intercept course with the Libyan subs, which were themselves on their way to set up a picket near Sicily.  The decision was whether or not to have the Rubis attack the Albdr but that would have left the French sub detected and in the midst of hostile waters alone.

The Libyans activated their subs and kept them moving. The Fateh moved to 0923 while the Albdr arrived in hex 1024.

The Libyans could do nothing with their air so they passed in the second action phase. The French activated surface ships and moved Task Force 1 to 1224, hugging the west Sicilian coastline and trying to stay out of Albdr's limited detection zone.

The French activated their air but there was no point to hitting Tripoli and Benghazi was just out of range. The Libyans decided to go for broke and activated their surface patrol boats in Darnah and Benghazi. PCS4 &5 stacked together and arrived in 1929 while PCS1 was in 0631 by the end of the turn. If only the French were foolish enough to hurry into the Central Mediterranean and be detected, the Libyan surface fleet could swarm them.

End of Turn 2

Turn 3

The French are frustrated at their inability to get their carriers moving south into striking range of Benghazi. It is time to hit the Libyan subs. All three French subs attack the Albdr but only the Daphné manages to damage it. The Libyans activate their own subs and attempt revenge by attacking the Daphné in return but fail to score any hits.

The French hope to detect the Libyan surface fleet in 0722 and attack next turn so they move into position in 1122 and stack together. Let's see if we can draw off the Libyans or destroy them.

The turn ends with the Libyans moving PCS3 from Darnah closer to the Task Force. It arrives in 0728 so now the Libyan boats are all within closing distance of the Foch and her escorts.  Although the real fighting has not yet begun, the tension is thick.

Sub battles just south of the French task force near Sicily. Turn 3.

Turn 4

Everything explodes in turn 4. In the strategic air allocation phase, the Libyans send their Su-20 in Tripoli up on a recon mission to find the French carrier task force and the two French frigates stacked together in 1122. Meanwhile, the French send up their Atlantique planes on recon missions in The Tyrrhenian Sea  and Central Mediterranean to detect the Libyan surface forces.

The Libyans can't penetrate the submarine screen around the French task force but they can definitely hurt the French elsewhere. PCS1 and Asawr move to 1022, adjacent to the French frigates, and launch their SSMs. They sink the Moulin and damage the Drogou. The Libyans gain 6 VP.

Well, so much for my plan to keep the French from getting through this ordeal without any casualties. Time for revenge.

The French activate their air units and start to erase the Libyan surface fleet. One Étendard destroys the Asawr and PCS1 in 1022 while the other takes out PCS4 & 5 in 0929. The French have 19 VP.

In the second action phase, the French get their submarines going and the Rubis sinks PCS3 in 0728 for 4 VP. The Agost sends Albdr to the bottom of the sea for 3 more VP.

As an encore, the French task force damages the Fateh and moves to 1027. From next turn, it will be able to launch air attacks against Benghazi.

In return, the Libyans decide to finish the job of taking out the French frigates. They send their MiG-23s from Tripoli out to bomb the Drogou and score a hit, sinking it.

Wow. What a turn. Everyone got hurt but the Libyans came out worse for wear. France has 26 VPs and the Libyans have 10. Libya is going to need some serious luck to try and recover from the near entire loss of their fleet.

End of Turn 4: The Libyan fleet is nearly destroyed.

Turn 5

And so it begins. The French start off the turn by sending off both squadrons of Super Étendards into Benghazi. The Libyans fail to intercept with their CAP and the French score 6 hits on the Libyan city. The French gain 10 VP.

The Libyan sub Fateh tries in vain to hit the Daphé and then moves east. It's all for nothing though because the Agost intercepts and sinks it shortly thereafter. The turn ends with the French moving their carrier task force east so the air units can hit Darnah.

Figuring that the CAP over Benghazi is largely useless, the MiG-23 and Su-20 are brought in for a landing during the CAP landing phase. Maybe they can score a lucky hit on the French task force next turn.

Super Étendards lash out at Benghazi for the first strikes.

Turn 6

The Libyans get their MiGs and Su-20s up in the air at the start of the turn and try for a hit on the Foch. However, the French F8s manage an intercept and score a hit on the incoming raid (taken on the Su-20s). The Libyan air units return to base.

French air units bomb Darnah successfully and score another 10 VP. Things look pretty bleak for the Libyans.

The Libyans mount a desperate air raid from Benghazi against the French carrier task force

Turn 7

The Libyans decide to shift back to CAP intercepts so no one is sent out on strategic air missions. The French are unrivalled at sea right now so the Atlantique recon pilots sit in Nimes and twiddle their thumbs.

France sends out one group of Étendards to hit Benghazi while the other hits Darnah. Libyan CAP cannot intercept them and the French collect another 12 VP this turn.

Turn 8

The French hit Benghazi and Darnah again. They now have 74 VP.

Turn 9

On the final turn, the French hit a minor snag when Libyan intelligence gets advance warning of their raid on Benghazi. Although CAP fails to intercept, the AAA value of the base hex is doubled. It still fails to score any hits on the French planes and they score 3 hits on the city. Darnah is hit again too.

The French total VP for the game is 82 while the Libyans have scored 10.

The Minotaur is dead. A look at the map at the end of the game.

Wow. I'm not sure the Libyans ever really had a chance. The ineffectiveness of the CAP, although probably realistic, might be causing some balance issues with his particular scenario. That being said, I did really enjoy the first part of the game where I was hoping for the French task force to make a misstep and get swarmed by the Libyan surface fleet. Task force 1 was bottled up near Sicily for nearly half the game, which is kind of impressive for the Libyans to pull off on its own.

Thinking back on it, I probably would have sent the Su-20 out on recon during the first turn Strat Air Allocation phase in order to detect the French carrier group. I could have then waited until the French got close enough to the Libyan coast to try and hit them all at once. The MiG-23 in Tripoli should have gone up on intercept to keep the French Atlantique planes from detecting any submarines. I think the Libyans can manage to do better than I did if they spread out their surface fleet as much as possible. Keep the French submarines chasing them while they close in and fire missiles every so often at the task force escorts. I would like to try this again with more "guerilla" style tactics employed by the Libyans. Here, I was trying to use swarm tactics but that doesn't really work if you aren't playing as the Soviets. In any case, I really enjoyed this scenario and I am sure that a crafty player can figure out how to get a hit off on the Foch somehow!

I want to say a big thank you to the good Docteur for kindly translating the scenario rules and sending them to me. Merci à vous!