Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A military history of the Korean War through conflict simulations; part 1

They came from the North: 

The Korean War

Joe Balkoski's The Korean War is my first game on the topic, one of my first game in absolute and probably the best game on the subject with Korea: The Forgotten War coming as a close second. Dome people will undoubtedly complain that it is old and “obsolete”.  For me is still one of my favourite games. But stop with talking about the past and on to Seoul…

The Game:

The Korean war is a game about the first year (June 1950- May 1951) of the conflict. It covers the North Korean invasion, the UN Counteroffensive, the Chinese intervention and the final UN resurgence until the war entered it stalemated phase. It has 2 maps, one well laid out rules booklet including extensive historical notes and a very nice illustrated historical narrative, several tablesd and cards and two sheets of counters. 

The two map sheets are pleasant and detailed covering the entire peninsula. It is nice to persuse the map and realize how poorly developed Korea was in 1950 compared to today, it is also an interesting exercise on terrain reading.  

The counters are half inch, with NATO symbols for divisions and regiments and icons for aircraft, tank and  infantry battalions. The latter two called assets in the game. Icons are correct representing specific aircrafts and tank models. The Infantry units are mainly divisions with regimental breakdowns and the aforementioned infantry battalions.  

The game is based on several key concepts. The first one is “operations”. The player alternate in conducting operations that include a variable number of actions involved. Actions can be activating an unit, reorganizing, launching amphibious or parachute assaults or deploying the dreaded Chinese reinforcements.  Once division or a regiment is activated and has completed  its allotted maneuvers it become fatigued being less effective. Division and regiments can be reinforced with the use of assets.  A regiment can use one assets, a division three. This use of assets it is not only a very effective way to portray both the support role of armor in Korea but also the nature of the majority of “minor” UN contingents that needed to operate as part of larger formations. It has also the side effect to allow you to “customize” your formations. 

The Action that units are allowed to perform varies from different type of movement, three different type of combat and entrenchment . Every action has a different cost and you have only 3 point per formation. You can enchain different actions as far you do not expend all the action points. Units not activated can still help in combat. 

This system is further refined by a detailed supply system that influence both combat effectiveness (the less supply your units receive the less combat effective they are, and supply attenuation is also a function of distance from depots) and the ebb and flow of the war with supply spent to obtain initiative.  The system is not easy but not even overly complex. There are also several nuances in the supply system. Supply points are accumulated in depots, how far these depots are from  the main entry point for supplies has an important role in determining how many supply point are received. Also the supplies effectively reaching combat units decrease base on range from the depot. Now communist depots are less and less effective as they move south due to distance form supply centers and China and allied air actions. UN supply depots depend on main ports, Pusan and Wonsan being the best and then decreasing in capacity. Thus the more the front-line move away from supply centers the more you have to balance the trade offs. Leave your depots too close to the sources and too far away from the battle and your units will not receive sufficient supplies. Push you depots too forward and your depots will receive less and less supplies reducing your overall options. Every advance will reach a logistic collapse sooner or later recreating the realities of the campaign.  This system is one of the best I have ever seen in a game, striking the swept spot between complexity and realisms. 

Air operations are included, even is only on the UN side, the North Korean and Chinese actions being abstracted. You have basically two missions. Close air support to support your ground combat units and interdiction to stem the flow of communists supplies and their movement. Even there Joe Balkoski has made a lot of interesting trade offs. Air units are not generic. Every units represent a particular wing equipped with a specific aircraft. Some are better at interdiction, some at CAS some are doing well both missions. Also the province where you place unit on interdiction is important. Interdiction efforts far north are more effective against supply but less important to slow down KPA spearhead driving deep into South Korea.  Also as it will be discussed shortly, the most lucrative targets have a political cost. Sometimes you will have to do less than optimum allocation to respond to situation you are not controlling.  

Port mining, armored combat are also covered in simple but effective ways.

The game has 5 basic game scenarios covering specific moment of the “mobile phase2 of the war. The KPA blitz south, the UN counterattack, the Chinese intervention and the final UN push to recapture Seoul. There is also a whole campaign covering the entire first year. 

Pulling everything together: the Campaign

The campaign is where this game shines. The scenarios are very good, but the campaign is something exceptional.  It add a political and strategic dimension to the whole enterprises. Now the UN player has to decide his commitment and rules of engagement. High commitment has more reinforcements, looser rules of engagement allow you to be more effective at air interdiction both opening northern areas for air action and providing you a positive modifier at a certain point the UN player will be even authorized to employ nuclear weapons.  You have also to mobilize the US for war to increase your amphibious capacity and potentially mobilizing National Guard divisions. But looser ROE and higher commitment also increase world tension and you do not want to end with WW3 on your lap. You have to carefully balance your military operations. Again the player has to balance actions. While it is always possible to escalate escalation will generate delay in reinforcements  compared to an earlier aggressive commitment. Too much caution will allow the KPA to completely overrun South Korea or will not give you sufficient strength to stop the Chinese.  Too much aggressiveness will simply give you WW3 and a decisive defeat.
The communist side has decision too, he can try to get the Chinese involved or can try to distract the UN player invading Taiwan. Chinese, and even Soviet, intervention are not automatic. Situation on the ground influence their likelihood but there is never a certainty. So no one exactly knows when the Chinese are going to enter the war. 


So… I like the game. I have played it from 1989… I am still playing it. I like it, ok already said. It has a lot of punch for a middle sized package. It  is fast. Solo you can complete it in two or three evenings. It has also a great deal of history easily digested.
To close… it is pretty, informative, nail biting, exciting and, yes, jolly good fun. If you want to understand why the first year of the Korean war was fought in a certain way and why certain decision were made it is a powerful instrument.  The research has also held up to the standard provided by the recent two volumes written by Professor Alan Millet.
Again it is the best wargame on the first year of the war. Sadly it is out of print. But I have it.

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