Thursday, July 28, 2016

Carrier - Solomons Brawl

I've been playing lots of light wargames lately and although they're nice, I wanted to do something a bit meatier. So I've recently started to get back into Victory Games' Carrier after taking a long break from it.

After playing Scenario 4: Air Search Officer and finally getting a handle on carrier search operations, I decided to try out Scenario 5: Solomons Brawl. This is a surface-force only scenario set at night around Guadalcanal.

The Japanese have four combat forces (C1 and C3 start out as level 2 medium surface forces while C2 and C4 are reported as small surface forces). They are trying to get to Guadalcanal.

The scenario rules are a bit odd as it implies 2526 as the objective hex. However, a quick look on the map reveals an objective hex marked in 2527. I couldn't find anything in the errata about this so I'm probably just missing something - but I treated 2527 as the objective hex until I could find my error.

The 36,000 ton USS Washington (BB-56) was launched 1st June, 1940.
The Americans get three task forces for the scenario.

Task Force 64:
  • 2 BBs (BB S. Dakota, BB Washington)
  • 3 DDs; (DD Sims, Farenholt, and Sterett), 

Task Group 17.2:
  • 6 DDs; (Monssen, Walke, Perkins, Preston, MacDonagh, and Hamman) and 

Task Group 62.4:
  • 4 CAs: (CA Vincennes, N. Orleans, Minneapolis, San Francisco) 
  • 6 DDs: (DDs Mustin, Phelps, Grayson, Russel, Worden, and Selfridge)

The setup around Guadalcanal,

Turn 1:

We start with chit pulls for the Japanese in the first phase and get 3 blanks and combat force 1.

C1, a medium surface force, is sitting adjacent to US Task Group 62.4. We roll for Japanese intentions on the Close Reaction Table and the Japanese are up for a fight. They move into the same hex as the adjacent American ships and engage.

Japanese force C1 engages TG 62.4

A "Located" marker is placed on the C1 task force and we roll it up to level 4. It is a large CA group, with 3 CAs and 2 DDs. The CAs are paired up to shoot at 1 US CA each with a DD left over to shoot at one of the US CAs all by itself. The US has more ships and fires at each Japanese ship with two of its own.

The surface engagement is brutal for both sides. The USS Vincennes is sunk. The Japanese lose two destroyers and take 7 hits on one of their own CAs. Both sides have taken 13 total hits so we roll to see who retreats and it is the Japanese. According to the rules, they should go north towards a friendly task force.

CA-44 USS Vincennes is lost (as it was in real life during the Battle of Savo Island in Aug. 1942)

By the end of the phase, I have tucked in my forces around Guadalcanal a bit by moving TG 17.2 to the east.

The rest of the turn sees the Japanese slowly make their way towards their objective hex.

Turn 2:

The turn starts with a bang as I pull C2 and C3 in the first phase. C2 moves east to 2328. C3 rolls for close reaction and gets a modified roll of 7. The result is USOp and I decide that TF64 will not try to evade the incoming Japanese force.  Battlestations!

When C3 enters the hex and goes for the engagement, we raise the intel level from 2 to 4. We get a large CA force with 6 CA, 1 CL, and 2 DDs. So much for the small Japanese force that our level 2 intel predicted!

BB Washington and BB S. Dakota are engaged by 3 Japanese CA each.

Three CAs fire at BB S. Dakota but fail to score any hits. CA Furutaka, Aoba, and Tone inflict 7 total hits on the other battleship, BB Washington. With 18 hit capacity, it's not even heavily damaged.

The rest of the Japanese force fails to inflict any hits on my smaller ships. I lick my lips as my battleships prepare to fire back at the Japanese CAs. BB S. Dakota hits CA Furutaka for 6 hits but the rest of my task force does no damage to the Japanese. Disappointing!

As the US task force has taken 7 hits and the Japanese have taken 6, the US must retreat into hex 2526. Another battle without any real conclusion for either side, it seems.

In action phase 3, C4 rolls for close reaction and engages TG 17.2.

The Japanese force ends up consisting of 1 CL and 6 DDs. This seems like it should be a pretty even fight.

But it's not even close.

DD Yukikaze slams 6 hits into DD Hamman and sinks her. Kawakaze sends the Macdonough to the ocean floor. Kurushio sinks the Preston and Akizuki takes out Monssen. Four of the six US destroyers in Task Force 17.2 are sunk in exchange for 1 hit on the Yukikaze and 2 on the Kawakaze.

The US tries for revenge by sending TF 62.4 into hex 2427 and the Japanese gladly choose an engagement.

CA Maya hits CA San Francisco for 7 hits while the US only manages to sink the Kinugasa and damage CA Maya. The US task force must retreat to 2527 now. A Battle Exhaust 2 is placed on it so it cannot initiate combat.

During Phase 3, I move TG62.4 into the same hex as C1 and the Japanese choose to engage.

The Japanese pour on the fire and the Maya puts 7 hits into CA San Francisco. The American ships sink the Kinugasa and inflict another 2 hits on CA Maya.

TG62.4, having suffered more hits than the Japanese, retreats from the engagement to hex 2527.

In phase 4, I decide to send my big guns (TF64) into hex 2426 to try and make up for the losses. I am just hoping for something - anything to turn out in my favor by throwing ships at the Japanese and pleading for the best.

What I ended up doing was doubling down further on failure.

CA Kako, Chikuma, and Taka inflict 5 hits on BB S. Dakota (a scratch) but CA Tone, Furutaka, and Aoba really dish it out with 11 damage to BB Washington, sinking it. Oh, the humanity!

CL Nagara sinks DD Sterett with 2 hits of damage. Mutsuki and Ikazuchi mercifully miss their targets.

The Americans inflict a measly 3 hits on the Japanese force, scratching the paint on the Kako but finishing off the Furutaka.

Heavy cruiser Furutaka is sunk (in real life, she went down in October, 1942)

TF64 must now retreat as it has taken some serious losses.

At this point, I'm thinking the game is over. The Japanese have taken out all my major firepower and they still have plenty to spare. If I were a Star Wars admiral, Darth Vader would have certainly choked the hell out of me by now.

US naval forces retreat back towards Guadalcanal as the Japanese advance.

Turns 3 & 4:

As the US forces have grown from large surface forces to smaller forces, the Japanese basically ignore them as they steam straight ahead to Guadalcanal during turn 3. I pull back all my US forces towards 2527 in hopes of some final big resolution.

Two of my groups have Battle Exhaustion 2 and can't initiate combat so the Japanese just sort of saunter into 2527 and start planting their ships off the coast. They enter the hex but do not engage the American task forces. At one point, late in the third turn, TG17.2 manages to scare off C3 for a short while but it returns later in the fourth turn.

The game ends without any huge battle that I was hoping for. My task forces are disorganized, exhausted, and considerably reduced in size. The Japanese are largely intact except for a couple of CAs and DDs. They can afford to occupy their objective hex without any fear of opposition, which gives them a bonus to their VP count.

The Japanese have 13 VPs while the Americans have only 5 VPs. This is a substantial Japanese victory.

I really wonder what I could have done better here. It seems the real turning point of the gamewas either when TG17.2 lost four of its destroyers ships in one battle during turn 2 or when BB Washington was sunk in the next phase.


Considering how evenly-matched TG17.2 and C4 were on paper, things should have come out a bit better for me here but the game was probably still salvageable at this point even with the near destruction of a task force.

The real loss came when I put my two battleships in unnecessary danger in Turn 2 phase 4. Keeping those battleships afloat helped provide a significant deterrent to Japanese combat forces. Without those large ships, the Japanese can afford to ignore the US task forces and groups and waltz right down towards their objective. I believe this is where I really lost the game. I would like to try this scenario again with an eye to using my ships (especially the Task Force) as deterrents rather than rushing into combat with them.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interview with a Blogger: Aaron from Here's No Great Matter

One of my favorite gaming blogs is Here's No Great Matter, written by a good friend of mine named Aaron. Whereas I tend to focus on hex and counter moderns, Aaron has an eclectic taste that runs from ancients all the way up to present day.

Like me, Aaron is an ex-pat who has settled down in Japan. Sadly, we live too far from each other to meet up and game but we have played out some Sixth Fleet by email before and had great fun. Besides blogging, he somehow manages to have a full-time job and be a dad too. The guy has lots of energy and talent.

Aaron demonstrates his war face for the camera.

One of my favorite posts from Aaron's blog is the tale of trying to track down two parcels of games after returning from a vacation and...well, you'll just have to read it yourself. The story is so funny and so quintessentially Japanese that I became an immediate subscriber to Aaron's blog after reading it.

I wrote a small blurb about Aaron's blog (and several others) years ago in an article titled "The Blogs of War"for Line of Fire issue 12. Since then, I always wanted to do his blog more justice by giving it the attention it deserves with a good interview. So without further delay, here's my chat with Aaron about Here's No Great Matter:

HaH: Can you give me a little background about "Here's No Great Matter"?  Why did you start it and how has it changed over time?

HNGM: First off, thank you for sending these questions my way, Brad. I enjoy your posts and attitude to the hobby so it's a real pleasure to be approached for comment.

I started the blog back in 2010 as a sort of wargaming diary. I like to record the games I play and it's easier to document them online than it is to document them in a notebook. Since I mostly game with miniatures, I also hoped that the need to post photographs would force me to improve my painting skills and increase the painting output. I've had mixed results!

How has the blog changed? I don't go back and re-read old posts very much, but I suppose you develop different interests and have periods when you are 'on' and periods when you are 'off'. I'm probably a little less focused on game reports than I used to be. There are only so many times you can re-fight Cannae before you run out of new and interesting things to say.

HaH: I've noticed you like to play lots of ancients. What in particular attracts you to that genre?

HNGM: I love the ancient texts: Caesar, Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian, Tacitus and so on. The people and events are fascinating, and the social and political issues the ancients were faced with are similar to the kinds of things that we are faced with today. There also happen to be some very good games on the ancient period: Pax Romana, Commands & Colors: Ancients and Lost Battles, for starters. The era lends itself well to solo play, and the effect of massed 15mm ancient armies on the table is satisfying. There is also, through the Society of Ancients, the opportunity to write articles on things of interest, which is a good way to keep the old writing/researching/blathering-about-obscure-topics hand in.

Aaron has some very cool Command & Colors AARs on his blog.

HaH: Tell me about a game you love and a game you love to hate and why. 

HNGM: I have an abiding passion for A Victory Lost, by Tetsuya Nakamura. It's on Operation Saturn and von Manstein's backhand blow, and it's the tensest thing I've ever found in a two-player wargame. It's brilliant for play-by-email, and is one of those "I can't sleep because I keep going over my last move in my head trying to reassure myself I haven't made a mistake" types of games. I love to hate chess. As a kid I fancied myself a chess player but the reality is I'm crap. I'll occasionally have a few drinks and play online, either doing really well and feeling inordinately pleased, or else losing embarrassingly badly and getting extremely annoyed with myself. A legacy of playing against my old man is that I am always very polite when losing. I may be seething and contemplating throwing something against the wall because of a mistake I've made but I'll always finish with a bright and cheerful 'good game'..

von Manstein's 'Backhand blow' in A Victory Lost

HaH:What would your 3 main pieces of advice be for anyone who is looking to get into miniature wargaming as a hobby?

HNGM:Try and find a fellow player somewhere nearby. Collect armies because you like them, not because they are on special. Take the time to learn a few games very well, and make sure at least one of them works well solo.

HaH: What are the big differences/challenges/good points of being a gamer in Japan?

HNGM:I've only started gaming seriously since I've been here, so I can't compare to back home. The biggest thing has been having the disposable income to afford games and figures. You can buy board wargames locally through yahoo auctions, but if you want to play historical miniatures you have to buy from overseas, so it can get a bit pricey. Luckily, I got into it when shipping was still relatively reasonable, the yen was quite strong, and the kids were young. I picked up a lot of my figures years ago and have enough to keep me going for a while. Another point is that Japan is a country that embraces hobbies of all kinds and has the population to support manufacturers, so paint, brushes, varnish and everything else you need is produced locally, which over here means the quality is high, the cost is fairly low, and the availability is excellent.

If I were back home in New Zealand I would probably still be playing music and social sports and would not have got into wargaming at all.

HaH: How has this hobby changed your life?

HNGM: I wouldn't say it's changed my life, but it gives me something to do in the evenings, and I've met a few good people I wouldn't have met otherwise.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Hunt for Red October - Arctic Patrol

The first scenario from The Hunt for Red October pits two NATO submarines against three Soviet subs. In this tense battle beneath the waves during the early days of World War III, which side will come out ahead?

The objective is to sink as many enemy subs as possible and also to get your subs within five spaces of the enemy base.  In this case, the NATO base is Iceland while the Soviet base is Kola. To flesh things out a bit, both sides get ASW aircraft. NATO has a P-3 stationed in Iceland while the Russkies get two IL-38s in Kola.

Soviet ASW planes stationed in Kola

The Soviets are first to set up their subs within three spaces of Kola.  NATO then places their own subs within three spaces of Iceland. The Soviets can place up to 2 subs in one space. NATO can place only one in each space.

Despite the two subs per space allowance, the Russians place their subs alone in the deep water spaces just off the coast of Norway in the Norwegian Sea. NATO opts for coverage and places each sub three spaces apart just to the north of Iceland.

Soviet and NATO player set up. Soviet subs are to the right. NATO subs are on the left.

The classes of the three Soviet subs are: Alfa, Victor, and Tango. The two NATO subs are a US Navy Los Angeles-class attack sub and a British Trafalgar-class SSN.

Los Angeles class attack sub reporting for duty. Detection rating 6. Attack rating 4.
We start off with 2 detection markers for each side. The Soviets roll a d6 to determine additional DMs while the NATO player gets to roll a d10. We get a 6 for the Russians (total of 8 DMs) and a 9 for NATO (a whopping 11 DMs). This gives NATO the initiative.  The NATO player lets the Soviets move first.

The Soviets move their subs cautiously towards Iceland, avoiding areas with NATO subs.

Soviet subs move towards Iceland.

The NATO player decides to move both of his submarines into the nearest space with a Soviet sub. The Soviet player gets to choose whether or not to play a detection marker and declines. By doing this, he is hoping to stay hidden until the Battle step when he can bring in his ASW aircraft to help out. In the Aircraft Movement Phase, both players bring their ASW aircraft into the same spot.

Aircraft Movement Phase - Turn 1

Both sides play 3 detection markers since each unit in the space is allowed to play one detection marker.

NATO and Soviets both play 3 detection markers.

The Tango sub is detected while both NATO subs are undetected. All units move to the Battle Board to resolve combat.

All units are placed on the Battle Board

Because both NATO subs are undetected, they roll a d6 instead of d10 for their attack die. At the end of the step, the subs will become detected and whoever is in the Attack Second box can attack. I'm still learning the system a bit and make a bad decision by putting the Tango in the Attack First box. Oh well.

It doesn't matter anyways. The Tango will not survive the firt round of attacks. Both NATO subs roll equal to or under their attack ratings of 4 and the Tango is sunk. Submarines are sunk after only one hit in this game.

NATO subs score hits on the Tango submarine
Turn 2:

All unused detection markers for both sides are tossed out and 2 new ones are assigned to both sides. We reroll again for initiative and NATO gets 9 DMs while the Soviets get 3. If there were more units in this scenario, this would probably be a really big deal as one side would have to think carefully about when to play these markers. However, it's not enough to really change much in this scenario.

Rolls and DMs for both sides. NATO - blue, Russians - red.

Both sides have 2 subs left each so the odds are evened up a bit. NATO lets the Soviets go again. The Soviets move into the Los Angeles' hex. The NATO player declines to play a detection marker and play passes over to NATO. The NATO player brings the Trafalgar into the same space. The Soviets decline to play a DM and again the ASW aircraft are brought to bear. The Soviets have more units in the space (2 ASW aircraft and 2 subs) so they get to play 4 detection markers. NATO has only three units there (the P3 Orion and the two NATO subs) so they play their maximum three DMs.

Both Soviet subs are detected. The NATO player has a bit of an advantage because the Soviets get a -2 detection rating when trying to detect NATO subs so they need to roll a 2 or less to detect. One of the IL38s manages a roll of 2 and the Trafalgar is detected. 

Sub battle brewing - Soviets play 4 detection markers and NATO plays 3.

On the Battle Board, I decide that the Soviets will just go for a shot at the Trafalgar instead of hoping to survive past the first attack round and shooting at the Los Angeles so I place the Soviet units in the Attack First box again.

The NATO subs attack first. The Trafalgar rolls on a d10 since it is detected but the Los Angeles rolls a d6 since it is undetected. The Trafalgar goes for the Alfa and misses but the Los Angeles hits the Victor.

Trafalgar rolls over its attack rating while Los Angeles scores a hit.
The Victor is sunk but it still gets to attack before it goes down. Both Soviet subs roll a d10 to hit the Trafalgar.  The Alfa rolls a 4 and the Victor rolls a 2. Both shots hit and the Trafalgar is sunk. The second hit is overkill but that's okay with me.

Both detected Soviet subs manage a hit on the Trafalgar.
Now the surviving boats are placed back on the board and we go to Turn 3.

Tense! The end of Turn 2.
Turn 3:

Both sides roll for DMs as usual and roll '1's. Both sides have 3 DMs for the turn. Since the DM numbers are equal, the Soviets have initiative. No one moves or plays detection markers. We go straight to Aircraft Movement. The same old thing happens this turn - the ASW aircraft move into the space. This turn, NATO can play 2 DMs while the Soviets place 3 DMs.

The P3 detects the Soviet Alfa class submarine and the Soviets fail to detect the American sub at all. We move to the Battle Board. The NATO player places his sub on the Attack First space while the Soviet player, hoping for the best, puts the Alfa in the Attack Second space. The NATO player need only roll a 4 or less on either of two dice to sink the Alfa and win the game.

Nope! The NATO player rolls a '7' (on a d10)  for the P3 Orion and a '6' (on a d6) for the Los Angeles submarine. The Alfa survives the initial heat and fires back at the now detected American submarine.

We roll a '1' and the Los Angeles class sub is sunk!

Soviet Alfa-class sub fires back at Los Angeles class submarine
At the end of the turn, the Soviets had the only submarine on the board and were declared the winner with 7 VPs (2 enemy subs sunk x 2 VP + 3 VP for sub within 5 spaces of enemy airbase) while NATO had 4 VPs (2 enemy subs sunk x 2 VP).

The Alfa class submarine slips away under the cold waves of the Norwegian Sea.

This was a really fun first scenario and well-aimed at teaching the basics of movement, detection, and combat. As I mentioned in my first impressions, this is really a game of knowing when to play your detection markers. It is extremely light but has a very solid theme and enough uncertainty built into the system that you're always guessing and hoping for the best. It ain't exactly 2nd Fleet by a longshot but if you are looking for a nice beer and pretzels game or a dad and son/daughter game, this might do the trick.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Hunt for Red October - First Impressions

In 1988, TSR published "The Hunt for Red October", a boardgame based on Tom Clancy's 1984 debut novel of the same name.

The Hunt for Red October boardgame from TSR (1988)

The book was a tense thriller set in the late Cold War period. It focused on a Soviet submarine captain's attempts to defect to the United States. Clancy clearly showed a talent for explaining the complex topic of submarine detection and warfare in layman's terms without condescending to the reader.

The book that started it all.

The book not only spawned a boardgame, but also a computer game, as well as a movie starring the irrepressible Sean Connery as Captain Ramius and Alec Baldwin cast as the main protagonist, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Clancy went on to write dozens of novels and several non-fiction books dealing with the military before his death in 2013. All of that - the movies, games, and TV series - began with this one novel. So looking at this boardgame as one of the starting pieces of Tom Clancy's hugely successful career feels a bit odd. As a fan of the novel and the movie, I was always curious about how the boardgame fit into the overall Clancy legacy. Was it an early cash-in or was there some quality here that rubbed off from having the Tom Clancy name attached to it? I wasn't sure.

Connery as Ramius: "Shome thingsh in here don't react well to bulletsh."

The game comes with several high quality components for its time. There's a 29 page rulebook filled with examples of play, diagrams, and flavorful descriptions of various ships and aircraft of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact. The book has 8 scenarios ranging from short submarine duels to all-out battles of World War III with carriers, fighter planes, subs, and surface ships like frigates and destroyers. Of course, scenario 2 provides the players with the chance to recreate Captain Ramius' defection as depicted in the novel. One player plays the role of Ramius and secretly plots Red October's path while the other player uses the entire Soviet navy to try and track him down and prevent him from reaching the Americans.

The board is beautiful and features a map of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea between North America and Europe. The SOSUS lines are indicated on the map with NATO symbols. Shallow and deep waters are colored differently and airbases for both sides are clearly shown. In addition to the map, there aretwo task force boards (one for each player) so as to avoid crowding on the main playing surface. There is also a 'battle board' that allows players to place their units according to when they will attack (first or second) in the battle phase and where each piece falls in the composition of the task force (ASW, anti-air, etc.). I was surprised by how good these looked and how large they were. For its time, this game had some very nice components.

The pieces of the game include the naval and air units. The naval units are two-sided. On one side is the name and class of the ship with its detection and attack ratings. On the other is simply the NATO or Warsaw Pact symbol so as to keep the enemy player in the dark about what exactly is out there until successfully detecting the enemy. The game comes with two 10-sided die and two six-sided die.

Los Angeles class SSN ready for action.

Learning the game required a bit of head-scratching due to the poor rules organization. It's clear though that this was a good attempt at building a fun family game that tries to model the very basics of naval warfare. For those looking for anything more than beer and pretzels depth, this game will be a disappointment. Anyone who just likes the theme of the game and an afternoon of moving around cardboard submarines and ships is probably going to have a good time.

Each turn is broken down into 6 steps. First, both players roll initiative by determining how many detection markers they get beyond the basic allotment of two each. Detection markers are played at various times during the turn to try and detect the enemy's units. The NATO player gets d10 worth of detection markers while the poor Soviets get only d6 detection markers. Whoever has more detection markers has the initiative.

Soviets roll to get 3 detection markers compared to NATO's *gulp* 9.

After that, the player with initiative decides who will move their ships first. If a ship moves into the same space as an enemy ship, the enemy has the choice of whether or not to play a detection marker to try and detect the enemy unit. If the opposing player decides not to play a detection marker, the moving player can just keep moving. However, if he does play a detection marker, the moving player can then play his detection markers too. If one or both sides detect the other, naval battle may ensue. Players have to decide whether their units will attack first or second as there are different benefits and drawbacks for each choice.

The battle board - here's where you make those decisions you live to regret...

The air movement phase comes next. If you want to launch your ASW aircraft or conduct an air raid against an enemy force, this is your chance to get those aircraft on to the board. In the final step, the battle phase, the players get another chance to play detection markers and fight it out again if they so wish. As you can see, much of the game is spent moving, rolling dice, and playing detection markers.

All in! Aircraft and subs go for broke during the Combat step.

It's deceptively simple but somehow it ends up being more than just the sum of its parts. I'm not sure if its the branding or the optional rules that allow for a more nuanced game (these optional rules include SSM missile defense, anti-aircraft doctrine, decoy submarines, SAMs and jamming to name a few). Judging from the rulebook and the amount of effort that went into designing a simple but fun and playable game of modern naval combat, I don't get the impression that this was a weak cash-in but rather a nicely put together board game that was primarily aimed at the dad-son crowd much more than a serious simulation of sorts.