Saturday, April 30, 2016

Delta Force - The Roleplaying Game

Try to imagine what things were like thirty years ago. America had only recently been through the Iran hostage crisis (and the failed rescue attempt). The Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed in 1983 with horrific loss of life (305 fatalities). American medical students were taken hostage on the island of Grenada in the same year. The Achille Lauro and TWA Flight 847 were hijacked in 1985 and in April of '86, three people (2 of whom were US servicemen) were killed in a bombing that would later be traced back to Libyan agents who were likely acting under the direct orders of Libyan intelligence or perhaps even Ghaddafi himself. 

Even though the horrors of terrorism were not to hit directly upon the homeland until a full 15 years later, it seemed back then that Americans abroad were ripe targets for terrorists of every sort. One could argue that the bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986 (Operation El Dorado Canyon) was as much a response to America's frustration with international terrorism over the course of the decade as it was a specific retaliatory strike for the Berlin Discotheque bombing. 

Popular culture at the time reflected growing anxiety about this threat and countless movies of the time featured a plot where Americans exacted revenge upon terrorists for their misdeeds. Chuck Norris was a Hollywood favorite at the time to star in these kinds of movies and he appeared in two train-wrecks that I absolutely love - Invasion USA (1985) and The Delta Force (1986). In light of the renewed patriotism of the Reagan era, it's no surprise that these movies were big hits with audiences and this in turn helped create a subgenre of action movies that revolved around highly trained badasses that would take down a swath of tangos on the screen before even having to reload.

This theme also found its way into roleplaying games during the 1980s. In 1986, a small company called Task Force Games released "Delta Force: America Strikes Back!" and suddenly we had a game that you could play based on headlines from the same day as your gaming group gathered together. Opening the book up, it was clear from the very first paragraphs that this game was going to be about one thing and one thing only - kicking terrorist ass!

"The world is at war. It is a war waged by a new and vicious breed of barbarian - a global war directed against innocent civilians, backed by governments and cynical instrumentalities dedicated to the overthrow of democracy...For years the west has been helpless before this bloody-handed foe - the international terrorist...At last America has the capability to strike back hard...Now America has...Delta Force!"

And that was pretty much the tone you get throughout the rest of the game's rulesbook, which is just fine because anyone who bought this thing was buying it for one reason - they wanted to kick terrorist ass together with their friends. And you know what? Delta Force delivered that in spades while still delivering a pretty decent set of rules and referee resources to flesh out the gaming world and get your group started on its epic journey to ass kicking-dom. 

The rulebook took you through character creation where you rolled up 4 primary characteristics (strength, agility, dexterity, intelligence) and 4 secondary characteristics (training, endurance, experience, reason, and stamina). You chose your skills based on your character background in a way that's a bit like Twilight:2000-lite. Some skills are "Native Skills", which are skills that you get before you joined the military. 

The rest of your skills are chosen based on which branch of the military you joined and which anti-terrorism force your character is a member of. Skills are purchased at varying costs and you purchase them one "level" at a time.  Some skills are related to others (e.g. Climbing is related to Mountain Climbing) and allow you to purchase those related skills at lower point price to reflect this. For its time, this was a clever system that allowed you to quickly create characters and choose skill packages with a character concept already in mind. 

One thing that always really bugged me about this game was that you pretty much were forced into picking a Delta Force background because it gave you all sorts of additional skill packages and points. If you wanted to play any other anti-terrorist forces member, including GSG-9 or Navy SEALs, you had far fewer skill points. Luckily, you could easily fix this with some homebrew character creation rules.

Delta Force had some light "wargamey" elements to it too. Movement was broken down into Strategic and Tactical type movement with a host of modifiers and multipliers depending on terrain, weather, and other factors. Sighting was also dealt with in a manner that was more complex than most roleplaying games. Combat is an uncomplicated affair that is broken into tactical rounds, which each player can use to perform one or more actions. There's some room for more than the usual "aim at bad guy and shoot" tactics as the system allows for Suppression Fire. Weapons also have a penetration factor (PEN) and cover effectiveness is dealt with by comparing PEN, armor value, and range. The rules also deal neatly with things like demolitions, hand-to-hand-combat, and morale in a way that is easy and quick to resolve.

The rules come in a box set with a Companion Book that gives a surprisingly large number of weapons and stats (about 21 pages worth) for players to choose from. There are also several pages dealing with terrorist groups that existed around that time, which would have been a goldmine for any referee back in the pre-Internet days.  Weapons, vehicle, and equipment are state-of-the-art for the 1980s and there are specific rules listed for many of them. Because of this (and obviously the whole setting and time period and overall world situation, of course) the game has really not aged well. When I do run Delta Force these days, which is rare, I have to set the scenarios exactly where they originally belong in the mid-1980s - or the game falls apart pretty quickly. 

The real gem of the box set is the Scenarios book, which is 32 pages and has 3 really good scenarios, one of which is heavily based on the events surrounding the hijacking of TWA 847. The scenarios get straight to the meat of the matter - they provide a briefing, a map of the target area, and usually give the referee a few optional curveballs to throw at the players if things get too easy. 

Three more products were released for the Delta Force RPG. The Delta Force Companion was a great resource for players and GMs alike because it allowed you to flesh out the game beyond the scenario level and actually give your players the chance to do some roleplaying with their characters if you wanted it. Stats like Perception, Appearance, Speech, and Attitude helped to make your PCs a little more than just killbots mindlessly going through each adventure. There were also large-scale combat rules so you could run some big battles if you wanted.

A section on diplomacy and working with governments is in there and this was supposed to open up adventures a bit and deal with how various governments would deal with terrorist attacks and how open they would be to having American forces like Delta Force on their soil. One scenario in the book actually takes place in Vienna and the characters must convince the government to allow Delta Force to participate in an assault to rescue hostages. This is a pretty solid companion book at 100 pages and shows an attempt to develop the system into something a bit more complex than just "go here, kill terrorists, get medal".

The next Delta Force book is a huge 52-page adventure, Terror at Sea, where the players must rescue hostages aboard a hijacked cruise ship. Terror at Sea is almost certainly inspired and very loosely based on the events surrounding the Achille Lauro hijacking in October, 1985.  The incident is actually mentioned on page 3 of the adventure book. The amount of detail in the book is impressive. It provides extensive maps of the cruise liner, insertion options (players can choose to HALO on the boat, SCUBA dive and climb up the sides, use a helicopter, etc.).  There are lots of options for the referee to adjust the difficulty of the adventure. You could decide, for instance, that the terrorists have hidden explosives with remote detonators aboard the ship.

Finally, we have, as far as I'm concerned, the real jewel in the crown of the Delta Force RPG - Desert Sun.  This is a 60-page adventure that sends the players' characters on a mission to destroy Libya's nuclear weapons program and destroy its nuclear weapons stockpile. This mission is so emblematic of the fears of the 1980s and so prescient as to unintentionally foreshadow the fears of a nascent WMD program in another country many years after this adventure was published. The adventure is so thorough that it provides several options for alternate adventure hooks if you don't like the nuclear weapons background.  This thing is so '80s, you can almost hear the strains of Van Halen's "Jump" playing softly in the background when you crack it open.

Despite all that, this is a game that I have recently played and enjoyed - in an unironic fashion. I put on my old referee hat and, with four old buddies of mine, went through the first scenario of the main rulebook together.  In my next blog post, I'll go over how things went and you can draw your own conclusions about whether this thing is still worth playing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

One Battle, Two Tanks, Three Systems: Design, Complexity and Outcomes

A while back, I wrote a post about Phoenix Command, detailing a squad-level firefight and talking a little bit about how the rules were extremely detailed. A good friend of mine mentioned in a comment that for all its complexity, the system was actually no more realistic than simpler rules systems.

I suspect that's probably right and it got me thinking about writing a blog post that shows the results of three combat systems and looking at how they work across the same battle. Just to make things interesting, I'll be using armoured vehicles and just looking at how things go in a fictional battle between an M1 Abrams and a T-72. Because I want to look a bit at how vehicle movement influences combat, I'll have the tanks start off at 500 meters distance from each other traversing an open field.

My main interest in doing this is to answer a few questions such as: How are these games different or similar in terms of mechanics (meaning what factors influence timing, accuracy of fire, penetration, and damage)? Do the games with added rule complexity "feel" more realistic and does the end result have a more meaningful or interesting impact on the game versus simpler designs? I'm not trying to start a debate about tanks.

1. Fire Team

For a game that is supposed to represent WW3 in Central Europe in the late 80s, it is surprising to find that there are no T-72s here for the Russians in the counter mix. Instead, we have T-80s and T-62s for our MBTs. I'm going to use a T-62 versus an M1A1 Abrams tank in this situation.

Since we're looking at a turn-based combat system here, it's not as easy to represent a situation where the tanks are moving and shooting at each other simultaneously. To make up for this, we'll be playing a bit fast and loose with section 6.6 of the rules for Moving Fire and Opportunity Fire.

The tanks spot each other from 6 hexes distance. The T-62 is moving towards the M-1 tank, which was also moving in the previous impulse. The American player declares Opp Fire and plunks down his command points to activate the M1A1.

The M1A1 will be using its HV of 16 as the type of main gun ammunition. We compare this HV value of 16 to the T-62's front armor value vs. HV, which is 8.

We consult the HV differential table of 8 to see which row of the kill table to use and find that we are using the bottom-most row.  The range is 0-7 hexes so we are using the left-most column of the kill-table, which means we will kill the T-62 on a roll of "9" or less on a d10 roll.

However, to reflect the idea that the American tank is moving, I'll be assessing a 2-column shift penalty to the right for the M1A1 tank (it would be 3 columns but we are using the advanced rule for Superior Fire Control - 18.1).  This means the Abrams kills the T-62 on a "7" or less die roll.

We roll a 6 and the T-62 is destroyed. If we had rolled over a 7, the M1A1 would have missed and there would have been no effect.

Just for fun, we'll see what happens if the T-62 gets off a last split-second round at the M1A1.

The T-62 has an HV value of 14 while the M1A1 has an HV front armor value of 12. The differential is 2 and that means we are rolling on the 4th row of the kill table. At 6-7 hexes of range, we are rolling on the 2nd column from the left on the kill table. This gets shifted over three columns for moving fire. The kill number is 3 or less.  We roll a 9 and the T-62 misses the M1A1.

Result: M1 destroys T-62 tank. T-62 misses M1.
Time taken to determine result: less than 10 minutes
Table lookups: 3 (Column Shift table, Range table, Kill table)
Number of relevant pages of rules: 2 pages

2. Twilight: 2000 (ver 2.2)

Okay, I'm cheating here a bit by using a roleplaying combat system but it fits neatly in the middle of the complexity range between Fire Team and Phoenix Command.

We need to have crew skill ratings. I will make all crew members completely average with attributes of 5 and skill levels of 5 dealing with their respective position in the tank (ie. drivers of both tanks get Ground Vehicle: Tracked at 5 and have an Agility of 5, etc.).

Twilight: 2000 uses combat turns that are five seconds long. Characters have an initiative number that determines the order and number of actions they can take. Characters with high initiative ratings may be able to do more than one action in a turn but generally, most will only be able to perform one action. I am working with averages here so I'll set all character initiatives to 3 in this battle.

Here we go:

The M1 and T-72 are driving towards each other from 500 meters away.  They are both moving on-road at 35 meters per turn, which is their safe combat movement speed.

It is initiative step 3. Both tank gunners spend the turn aiming. Five seconds pass. Initiative step 2 comes up. Both gunners fire at each others' tank.  Since both gunners have the same initiative number, the shots are simultaneous.  The M1 has a weapon stabilization rating of "Good", so it could actually be going up to twice its safe combat movement speed (70 meters per turn) and still conduct aimed fire if the gunner wished. The T-72 has a stabilization rating of "Basic" so it can only conduct aimed fire at the safe combat movement speed (35 meters per turn).

Let's check the M1's shot first. We look up the T-72's size rating, which is 1 (this is because it takes up a single grid-square of 10 meters).  There is no hit modifier due to vehicle size.

Next, we check the Fire Control stat for the M1 and it is rated +2. That means we can ignore 2 non-range difficulty modifiers to this shot. Great, that means we can ignore the usual +1 difficulty increase for the T-72's speed.

Now we roll to hit.  After the first turn, the tanks were 430 meters apart from each other. That puts us at short range, rated an Average skill shot.   For the M1 gunner, we will be rolling for a hit on a 16 or less with a d20. We get a 5 and the APFSDS round slams into the T-72 tank.

Before we do damage, let's do the same for the T-72 tank.  It has only a +1 for fire control but in this situation it doesn't really negatively impact the to-hit rating.  Again, we are rolling for a 5 or less on a d20 to hit.  We get a 4 and the APFSDS round hits the M1.  Both tanks are hit simultaneously. Michael Bay would be proud.

APFSDS vs. T-72:

The penetration (PEN) value of the APFSDS round at 430 meters from a 105mm gun is 100 +2d6, for a final penetration value of 110. We roll for hit location and get a hull front hit on the T-72 and compare the penetration value of the round to the armor rating of the target in the hit location. The T-72 has a hull front rating of 100.

110 > 100 so the round penetrates the T-72 and we get to roll a minor damage result on a table. We roll a 1 on a 1d6 and a random crewmember is wounded. The driver takes 1d6 hits of 1d6 damage each. We get a 5 for our first roll. The five rolls result in 21 points of damage, including two hits to the head for double damage.  The driver is seriously wounded and the T-72 stops in its tracks.

Since the tank armor has been penetrated, we have to roll to check if the crew bails out. We do this by rolling 1d6 and comparing the result to each crewmembers' Initiative rating. If the die result is over the rating, the crewmember bails. We get 3 for the commander, who is okay, and a 5 for the gunner, who decides enough is enough and gets out of the tank.

APFSDS vs. M1 Abrams:

The PEN of a APFSDS round from a 125mm gun is 100 + 2d6 (we get a 10 for a 110 total) at short range. We roll for hit location on a d6 and get a 1. The M1 Abrams is hit in the hull front.  The M1 has a hull front armor value of 160 so the T-72's round does nothing but scratch the paint up.

Result: T-72's round fails to penetrate M1 hull front. T-72 crew injured/abandons tank.
Time taken to determine result: 15 minutes
Table lookups: 5 (vehicle card, firing chart, vehicle hit location, vehicle damage resolution, human hit location)
Number of relevant pages of rules: ~11 pages

3. Phoenix Command - Mechanized Combat System

This is a big step up from well, pretty much anything, in terms of rules detail. For each tank, we have four pages of stats and charts. Compared to Twilight:2000's nice friendly half-page vehicle card, this thing looks like a Russian novel.

In this system, we have 8 second turns broken up into four 2-second phases. Distance and speed are measured in mechanized hexes that are 20 yards each, compared to Twilight:2000's 10 meter square grid.  To be fair to PC, it has a set of basic rules -- but we're going with the full bells and whistles here and using the advanced rules to resolve this battle.  We'll also be using an M1A1 and the T-72M1 in this battle, as these are listed in the vehicle compendium at the back of the book.

As per our Twilight:2000 battle, the vehicles are starting out moving at a distance of 500 meters (547 yards or about 27.5 hexes away from each other).

For movement, we need to first determine the gradient or slope that the tanks are traversing as well as the kind of surface upon which they are traveling. For the sake of ease, we'll say that both tanks are approaching each other at 0 degree slope traveling on hard ground.

The M1A1 moves 6.5 hexes (130 yards) per turn while the T-72M1 travels 8.6 hexes (172 yards). At the end of our 8 second turn, the tanks will be 12.4 hexes (248 yards or 226 meters) away from each other. The M1A1 has a 1 per cent chance each turn of stalling over this kind of ground.  We roll a 23 and it does not stall. The T-72 tank has no chance of stalling so we don't need to roll for it.

The gunners in each tank will spend 4 phases (the entire turn) aiming. We look up the aim time modifiers for each tank on their status sheet. The M1A1 gunner gets a +14 to his ALM while the T-72M1 gunner gets a +8 modifier.

To find out our hit chances,we start off by determining the total of all modifiers that result from time spent aiming, environmental conditions, range, and crew skill.  This is called the ALM Sum.

Range 12: ALM -1
Crew Skill - Line: ALM +10
Aim Time 4: ALM +14
ALM Sum: 23

Range 12: ALM-1
Crew Skill - Line: ALM +10
Aim Time 4: +8
ALM Sum: 17

The movement of each tank will affect the chances to hit. We need to determine the modifiers here by doing a few quick calculations.

To determine the effect on the accuracy of firing at the moving T-72M1, we consult table 5C and cross reference the type of ammunition being used (APFSDS) with the speed of the target in mph or hexes. We get a modifier of 0. This is added to the M1A1's Moving Target Accuracy Modifier (back to the status sheet) and we get a +12.  This final number is called the Moving Target Stability Index.

To determine the effect on accuracy of firing from a moving M1A1, we consult Table 6 and cross-reference the terrain type, velocity of the shooter, and the range to target. The result is -19 and we add this to the Moving Shooter Accuracy Modifier, which is +20. The total Moving Shooter Stability Index is +1.

Next, we find the Ballistic Accuracy of the gun and round. The M1A1 gets a BA of 16 at this range with the APFSDS.

Now the smallest of the four values (ALM Sum, Moving Target Modifier Stability Index, Moving Shooter Modifier Stability Index, and Ballistic Accuracy) is added to the target size modifier and the total is used to determine the final Effective Accuracy Level (EAL), which determines the to-hit chance. So the smallest value is +1 (Moving Shooter Modifier Stability Index), which we add to the T-72's target size modifier (it is 0 degrees facing turret and hull), which is +18. The EAL is 19 and so the to-hit chance is 60%.  We roll a 37 on a percentile and the round hits.

Before we calculate the damage (if any) to the T-72, let's see what happens with the T-72's simultaneous shot.  It's already apparent from our previous tallies for the M1 that the biggest factor for hitting will be the Moving Shooter Modifier Stability Index so we'll only calculate it. This time we get -21 on Table 5C and add this to the T-72's modifier, which is +12, for a total of -9.

The M1A1 is a bigger target with a size of 19 so the total EAL is 10 and the chance to hit is 12%. We get a 52 and the T-72M1 misses its target.

Now to calculate the effects of the M1A1's shot:

First, we find out where the round hit. We get a 92 on the basic hit location table and the result reads Hull Face. We roll again on the advanced hit location table and find that the round strikes the Lower Glacis. The round has hit dead on, so there is no Glance Modifier to calculate. Effective penetration at this range with the APFSDS is 31H and the lower glacis has an Armor PF of 17H. The round penetrates the hull front armor and goes through to the fuel compartment.

We roll for explosion and fire chance and nothing happens. The round continues to penetrate into the ammunition compartment and again we roll on the explosion and fire table with no result. Finally, the round goes through into the engine/fuel compartment. There is no explosion but a roll of 03 on the fire table means that a fire has broken out in the T-72M1 and the crew has 4 phases (8 seconds) to abandon the vehicle. The round passes out the rear of the T-72M1, still with penetrative power left.

Result: T-72 shot misses M1A1. T-72 crew abandons tank.
Time taken to determine result: 1 hour
Table lookups: ~18 (too numerous to relate)
Number of relevant pages of rules: ~31 pages


Okay, we've looked at three different systems simulating pretty similar battles. It's fairly clear to see that all three systems favored the American MBT quite heavily. All three systems produced startlingly similar results. All of them took in pretty much the same factors (movement, firepower, weapon stabilization) to arrive at these conclusions. Although Fire Team didn't explicitly take crew quality into account, it is heavily implied in the designer's notes that this was "hard-factored" into unit abilities instead of put into a table or chart.

The main advantage of having a very complex rules system like Phoenix Command is that it is actually kind of interesting to see exactly what the M1's round is doing as it enters the tank and penetrates each system. Was it a realistic outcome? I have no idea. I thought it strange that the APFSDS went through the fuel and ammunition compartment without any result before starting a fire in the engine. But hey, I'm not a professional tanker so I dunno if that is likely or not. In any case, the payoff in detail for all that work didn't really seem worth it in the end as I crunched numbers and flipped back and forth through tables and rules.

Of course, the rules systems are all meant to work for different games and different gamers. Fire Team represents squad and platoon-level combat so it would be impossible to go into great depth or detail to represent combat on a detailed level like Phoenix Command. On the other hand, Twilight: 2000 is a roleplaying game that centers around characters and the players need to know what is happening to their guys on an individual level in combat. This level of detail is still pretty good for a roleplaying game although the system can get unwieldy if there is a large battle with tanks and infantry (which is why the Last Battle system was created).  On the other hand, I think I would get much more quickly overwhelmed with anything more than just two tanks moving and shooting at each other using the Phoenix Command system. That being said, I at least admire it for what it is trying to do and there are actually times when I crave that level of detail.

In the end, I suppose it comes down less to realism than to how you get your gaming fix. If you are a sucker for detail and challenging rules systems that try to account for everything, there is simply no better system than Phoenix Command. On the other hand, if you like your combat quick and greasy and with just enough bells and whistles, Fire Team lets you keep moving and focused on the overall tactical battle on the board rather than mired in the minutiae. For something in between, Twilight: 2000 managed to capture vehicle combat on an individual level that was tense and meaningful for the players and kept your game group entertained.  Take your pick but be careful about confusing added levels of detail with more realism.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Civil War: A Brief Recounting

I've just finished up my first play of The Civil War, playing a short 3-turn game to nail down some of the rules before embarking on a longer game at some point in the near future. What can I say? I really enjoyed this classic and I can see why people like it. It seems to hit just the right spot in terms of rules depth while at the same time beautifully capturing the width and scope of the conflict as it played out historically.

There is something inviting and epic about the map for The Civil War.

Since this was my first game, I really had no idea what I was doing with either side and my play was so astoundingly inept that I'm not sure it makes for great retelling.  For those still interested, I'll summarize the events rather than go into lurid detail:

I started off with the 1861 setup and decided to play three turns just to start learning the rules.

The Union went hard in the Trans-Mississippi and the West early in the game during turns 1 and 2. Lyon managed to push out the Confederates entirely from Missouri and even make some impressive gains down in Arkansas while the Southern generals looked on uselessly. The Union spent a good deal of turn 2 building up its forces along the border with Kentucky and preparing to move in as fast as possible to scoop up the victory points.

3-star General Lyon makes his way into Arkansas

Meanwhile, the Confederates had been using nearly all of the resources at their disposal in hopes of quickly ending the war by taking Washington, DC itself.

To that end, General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Army of Northern Virginia and marched across the Potomac in the second turn. The Union player suffered a defeat as the Confederates entered Maryland. In haste, the Northerners kept the Confederate army from attacking Washington itself by creating the Army of the Potomac with William Rosecrans as its commander.

A mere four SPs worth of Confederate soldiers led by General Pierre Beauregard stood at the gates of DC and remained completely unmolested by Irvin McDowell's men, who sheltered in the city during the summer months under the guise of "digging in". Infuriating.

Too late, the Union player pulled its commanders and men from Ohio back towards the east. The Union tried to cut off the supply of the Confederate Army outside of DC but having allotted the bulk of his command points to the Trans Mississippi region, there were simply not enough CPs left to get the job done.

By the end of turn 3, the Army of Northern Virginia had mauled Rosecrans' men. The Army of the Potomac had been demoralized and sent into retreat from the north of Washington. The only thing left to do was take on the bumbling McDowell in DC. As luck would have it though, the Union defenders clung to the city but at significant cost in SPs. With the game on the edge of decision, I couldn't resist carrying on for one more turn to see what would happen.

In turn 4, the Confederate player won initiative with an impressive 9 points of die differential. It was enough to call in reinforcements to the Army of Northern Virginia and press on with the attack on Washington, this time with a 2 to 1 advantage. The fighting in the capital was fierce and the city hotly contested but the Confederate player managed a victory and took the city.

I stopped playing at this point, satisfied with a resolution of sorts to my first game.  Had I continued, the Union player would have been in dire straits for the next several turns. All of the work in the West and Trans-Miss. would need to be halted and a good deal of effort expended to free the Northern capital from the grip of Confederate control.

Did that really happen? I kept looking for a rule that I had missed somewhere along the way but my only answer seemed to be that I had fumbled badly as the Union player by shoving so much men and CPs into other theatres and thereby imperilled Washington itself. Lesson learned.

The Yankees lose Washington, DC!

I think I now have enough of a handle on the rules to try the game again, focusing more on strategy rather than learning the rules. I might be wrong but the feel of this game was actually remarkably similar in some ways to Joe Balkoski's The Korean War. I felt at times that the handling of rail movement, supply and command priority, and the varying turn length worked in similar ways.   I'm not really sure what it is but there is something about this game that just makes me feel really comfortable.

The fun in The Civil War comes from outmaneuvering your opponent with smaller forces and choking off their supply lines. I felt that a more aggressive use of forces in the East by the Union commander could have resulted in a maneuver that could have cut off the supply of the Army of N. Virginia but this was a lesson that I learned way too late. It is insanely difficult to defeat an entire army in battle but it is very possible to use smaller forces to slice through its supply lines and make it vulnerable to the effects of demoralization and attrition.

I was a little disappointed that I didn't really get to use the naval rules although I did try an early amphibious landing with Union forces that got repelled. River transport and combat looks great and exciting and, from what the rules say, appears to be smoothly integrated in the game and make sense. An 8-turn game would undoubtedly give me a chance to really give this aspect of the game a shot.

I know that I got quite a few rules wrong this first time round but I think I gained a general sense of how the game flows and what players should be doing.  With more plays under my belt and much better rules-mastery, I can easily see a game like this becoming a favorite.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Starting A Civil War

"Here, in the dread tribunal of last resort, valor contended against valor. Here brave men struggled and died for the right as God gave them to see the right."
-Adlai E. Stevenson I
It's amazing to think about what came out of Victory Games in 1983. This small company full of talent managed to release no less than three games that would still be remembered as classics more than thirty years down the road. NATO: The Next War in Europe and Gulf Strike are fondly talked about even these days but the one game that many gamers speak of in tones of reverence is Eric Lee Smith's The Civil War.  This game was so ambitious in terms of scope and historical accuracy that it is still hard to find anything that matches up to it.

Eric Lee Smith's The Civil War (VG, 1983)

I haven't played any Civil War games before and I admittedly don't know much about the conflict itself. Wanting to learn more about the appeal of this era, I cleared my late evening schedule for the next month or so and put this game on the table late last week.  Last night, I started lumbering through the first turn, flipping through the rulebook and trying to make sense of it all. Here are my impressions so far.

1. The North starts off in far more trouble than I ever anticipated. There is a considerable Confederate force near Washington and the rail lines through West Virginia have been cut. The Union is going to need to clean up this mess before it can really start to make any serious headway down south. On the other hand, if the Union uses up all its energy on pushing back the Confederates, that would give them time to consolidate their hold in the West and Trans-Mississippi.  
2. Wow, the North has some really bad leaders to start off with. Butler is a disaster waiting to happen. Hopefully the Union player will win Initiative enough so that it can pick better Leaders at no cost and place them. Unfortunately, on the very first turn Pulse of turn one, I managed to pick Buell, who could only lead a Union army to sure defeat. Reluctantly, I placed him in St. Louis with 1SP. 
3. The Confederate Army is well-led but does not appear to have enough men to do the job. The push near Washington is a deadly gamble but it's near certain that the Union will defeat it eventually. Although there are some very competent officers in the West, it seems that border states like Kentucky and Missouri will inevitably fall to the Union in the early game. Is it better to put all my reinforcements in the East and hope to take Washington early or let that offensive fail and use my reinforcements elsewhere?
4. Naval power seems to be the key to the Union winning the game but how best to use it? No doubt, the Union can land men anywhere along the southern coast of the US and wreak havoc behind enemy lines if led by a competent leader. On the other hand, using river transport and ironclads to take over the Mississippi and thereby cut the Confederacy into two separate nations would severely hamper the South's economic and military capabilities. It seems that the Union has enough naval and manpower to do well with one of these strategies but not both.
5. There is so much to do and so little time to get it all done. The Command Point system forces you to really think about and prioritize what you want to accomplish in a single turn. Since the turn may end at any time, this means that you might not have the time to play it safe and slowly work your plans through to completion.  During the first turn and I could keenly feel the pressure to make a breakthrough here or there, going through with risky attacks in order to just find some kind of opening or weakness. I certainly feel that the Union should be succeeding but it keeps getting hamstrung by poor leadership. 
Although I am just at the very start of my current campaign, I already have a sense of why people like this game. The rules are very clear and they make sense. The breadth of the game attempts to deal with as many relevant historical factors as possible without getting weighted down in unnecessary historical detail. 
I love the game's approach to the different theaters of war. The action in each theater of the game has its own unique tempo set by geography, military importance, and supply challenges as well as the players' local and overall objectives. Glancing at the map, you can almost envision the epic grandeur of the war. You will make fruitless cavalry charges in the mountains and hills of Virginia. Your generals will vie for glory in the corn fields of Kentucky. Indian tribes will skirmish on the dusty lonesome Texas plain. As the Union leader, you will constantly fight against time while as the Confederate leader, you will contend with a near-constant lack of supplies. Really, what is there NOT to love about this game? 

I'm making slow progress on my playthrough of the game right now as I have just barely begun the 1861 campaign. I'll make a few progress reports along the way and let you know how my own adventure into this game is going. Until then, I'll leave you with one of my favorite monologues from one of my favorite movies about the Civil War: