Friday, 12 July 2013

Suez ‘73 The IDF strikes back

It is the night of 15 October 1973, the clattering of the tanks of the 143rg Ugda of the Israeli Defence Force could be heard in the desert. Operation Stout-hearted Men has been launched. The tide of the Egyptian victories is about to be reversed.  Will you be able to cross the Suez Canal into Africa, destroy the SAM umbrella and trap the 3rd Egyptian Army while at the same time bloodying the 2nd Army further north?

The Game
Suez ’73 is an old game. It has been published in 1983 by GDW, Games Designer Workshop, the brainchild of Frank Chadwick. Several years ago a friend of mine offered me a copy for 5 Euros… having already plenty of games on the Yom Kippur war I did not get the thing… I was an idiot. Fast forward to the present, more than 10 years after that silly decision.  I have assigned a research project on the battle of Ismailia a side note in the whole Canal Crossing operation. I needed some good maps and order of battle information and I realized that Frank and his ‘Chief Researcher’ Joe Bermudez had experienced a lot of my same pain back in time, with the added advantage that they had plenty of time and Joe has much better contacts than me. I decided to secured a good condition punched copy from BGG… few days later (the seller happened to be located in UK) the game showed up in my Hall when I was back from the (South) Korean Embassy. Well now I will not have to regret my stupidity anymore.
Suez ’73 is not a simple game some will say even fiddly, but it is certainly a very interesting one. Inside the old fashion slim flat box you have a 22x28” map that is in my personal view quite attractive.  The hexes are large and the colours pleasant. It covers more or less the area between Faid and Ismailia on both side of the Canal. There are 500 counters, mainly battalions with some companies and informational markers. The counters are for the most part sporting NATO symbols with tanks and special vehicles represented by icons. On the front of the counters you have the unit type, name of the unit including formation affiliation, the strength in steps and the movement class. On the back of the counters there are the key values, 1 and 2 hexes antitank firepower, proficiency, conventional firepower and range,  assault bonus and armour value. Units take incremental losses represented by the use of numerical (not pollard as some people said around) markers.  

The table at start of scenario 1, you can see both map and counter graphics

There are two booklets, one for rules and notes, one for scenarios and a very detailed historical commentary. The booklets are black and white and they do not have illustration. The rules are clear, but they lack examples. Still after a careful reading and playing the first scenario they are not difficult to memorize.  They are interesting. Each turn is divided in a variable number of impulses. Each side has 10 movement points (MP) to allocate to the various impulses as they fit. So one side can have 10 1 MP impulses, and the other a single 10 MP one.  Night turns restrict you to only 5 MP (7 in the first night turn). Combat is firepower based and basically has 4 different incarnations. Conventional combat (against soft target and can include artillery support), antitank combat, assault and artillery barrage. Combat is resolved in steps, first barrage, then defensive fire against assaulting units, then mutual fire. You can also do opportunity fire during your enemy movement. Combat causes step losses that can, in part, be recovered by regrouping (mainly withdrawing) at the cost of disruption (temporarily lowering your proficiency). There are special rules for crossing the Suez Canal by various means (amphibious vehicles, mechanized rafts, and the monster Israeli roller bridge, yes a bridge rolling on wheels… I am not kidding). Artillery gets a pretty detailed treatment, with spotting observation, deployment, and counter-battery fire.

I told you it was not a joke. The roller bridge at the IDF armoured force museum at Latrun. Just a segment, the original was bigger and it had to be towed by tanks and other tanks were harnessed to the side to avoid segments going away.

The importance of the process
I have done my job of researching this conflict in the past (and even recently). I think that the game is really effective in representing the situation, the strength and weaknesses of the two armies, and, even more importantly, the chaos of the situation. Well how it succeeds?
I think it succeeds very well, in a way that a lower complexity and more abstract would never have been able to do. Probably its nuanced and detailed approach to modelling the combat and movement dynamic is the key of the success. The battle for the Chinese farm was bloody. Ariel Sharon’s tank battalions sustained awful losses in tanks both do infantry antitank weapons (Sagger missiles and RPG-7) and Egyptian tanks. Even Adan’s tanks in daylight fared no better. In contrast in the preceding battles during the 14th October Egyptian offensive, or in the subsequent engagement by Adan’s division against the  25th Egyptian Armoured Brigade or the sweep on the ‘Aida Plains’ (if you enjoy Verdi like me you will not miss the reference, and at least one IDF battalion commander did the same, humming the Glory to Egypt march in the battalion net while charging) very pretty much one sided affairs with superior Israeli tank gunnery and command and control carrying the day and causing disproportionate losses. Why that was the case in history and how the game solves this apparent problem, considering the game is also portraying both the destruction of the 25th Armoured Brigade and the battle in the Aida Plains?
The different results were due to the interplay between the different systems. The main advantages of tanks are good optics, long range guns, and mobility. These elements play very well in daytime (or at night if you have night vision devices, a thing the IDF did not have) at long range, especially against other tanks, essentially big bulky targets. Firing against infantry is different. While theoretically you can just lobby High Explosive (HE) shells at the poor infantry from more or less the same range of your Armour Piercing (AP) rounds in practice you first have to spot the bad guys. Humans are small targets, if they are in prepared defensive positions with trenches they are almost invisible. The first signal they are there is when they fired at you. If you give the infantry a lot of antitank devices, like guided missiles, RPG-7 and antitank guns (yes they were still used at the time) the moment they fire at you you get casualties. Add to that concealed tanks and you have a tank commander nightmare. Casualties will mount on both sides very quickly.
Israely doctrine at the time was extremely focused on the tank. Mechanized infantry and artillery were just appendage to the all conquering tank. Israeli tanks had been surprised by the effectiveness of Egyptian infantry during the first week of the war and asked for more infantry and artillery. Yet in such a short time frame (the war was 9 days old when the battle fo the Chinese Farm started) adding to the order of battle was impossible. The IDF had to fight with what it had.  This ensured that while they still dominated the open engagement they were suffering when they had to root out the Egyptian infantry. They had to use scarce artillery to suppress the enemy anti-tank weapons and then charge with scarce infantry and available tanks to take the ground sustaining losses.
How you tell the people this was happening while they are playing the game? Well, the ‘less is better’ horde will simply tell you that you will need to lower the IDF tank numbers to represent they vulnerability to close range combat. And how you have the same tank dominating the Egyptian tanks in the open? If you reduce the Egyptian tank factors how they will be able to work well in defence? Well ‘less is crap’. As much abstraction can be useful, abstraction is not an end (and here is where me and Professor Phil are often banging our heads and readying our gladii).  Suez ’73 do it in a very sensible way explaining you the process. Of course this requires more time and more rules, but the end results is much more satisfying that simpler games on the same topic.  With the different combat systems used in the game (conventional, antitank, assault, and barrage) you see why the battle turned the way it did. You can get rid of enemy tanks quite easily with your own tanks, you cannot do the same with infantry. You have to get close and they will shoot back at you. You can use artillery, but you need to have it available. The Egyptian have a lot, the Israeli not so much. Infantry is valuable as an assault weapons, but it is vulnerable in the open. By highlighting these factors in an explicit and direct manner the game succeeds in telling the player something about the battle. Sharon’s decision to concentrate on the Akavish road rather than Tirtur until more forces were available and his reluctance to attack Missouri Ridge made sense. As it made sense the importance placed on the Tirtur road by the IDF command (it is the only way to move the roller bridge to the canal and without the roller bridge any bridgehead is vulnerable.
Of course the decision to present so much detail has a price, yet, considering the relative size of the game it is not a steep price and certainly a price I am willing to pay. 

Criticism of the critics
I think the game is pretty good, I have not found any real problem except for the constant need to flip counters to read the combat values but after a while you start to remember them. Yet I found two criticisms on web-grognard (back from the past) that I think have to be addressed. One of them hints at a game problem, namely that the Israeli player can just sit back and take 1MP impulse to pound the Egyptians into oblivion. Well, I think the person who asked that had never played the game. Combat is simultaneous, both sides get pounded If you stick too much in contact  you will end bruised.  The second is a matter of time. You need to take some bigger movement chunk to get across the canal and time is not a luxury for the Israeli player. Yo need at least a 2MP impulse everyime you need to cross the Canal. Also you need to move quite a lot to get your victory point.
The second criticism is that somehow you need to limit the combat segments because you are producing too many casualties. Well, again this is based on the idea that you willingly stick on combat for 10 impulses. The game gave you plenty of way to reduce losses and avoid combat. Players often tend to push their troops to limits reasonable commander do not reach. There is also the usual question of what these losses represents, just killed/wounded or also demoralization?
Well I think that these two criticisms are spurious to the game and show the usual tendency of players to change rules disregarding designer intentions.

The Verdict:
Well, I regret to not have bought this for 5 euros longtime ago. I like the game very much. I know there will be people that will yell that is to complex, too fiddly, the map is paper, the counters are drab… well who cares? I have made my idea on complexity quite clear in the past. Simplicity in itself is not an end. If we push our search for simplicity too much we will lose not only important game decisions but the ability to understand processes and not only effects. (I am sorry Professor, but I will rather play this or White Death than your Fire and Manoeuvre for example). Yes different types of combat (actually four: conventional, antitank, barrage, and assault) could appear too many, but at this scale it is important to show the difference on how the system operate. It is also important to show the different factor. Often you cannot have everything boiled down to a single number like in Hell’s Gate. Abstraction has it cost, usually quite steep. Sometime showing the process is at least as important as showing the effect. I really appreciate that the game shows the difference between the various method of attacks and the difference between different combat arms. I also like how the game captures the chaotic nature of the historical situation. It is also incredibly fun to play.

Into the night, the IDF and the Egyptians are enmeshed around the Chinese Farm

Sunday, 7 July 2013

New Arrivals, both Italy and London.

Well I have got some money from a research project, this means that I can spend some on games and miniatures while complaining I will not have summer holiday and while I am finishing my thesis (breaking news: I passed the VIVA with corrections, I am on track to be a doctor). Also some old pre-orders have showed up at home. 

Well first of all I will tell you about the giant games that are waiting for me in Italy…

The most exciting arrival is certainly War of The Suns, Leonard To Magnus Opus on the War of Resistance and the Civil War. I have only been able to see the pictures of the game and reading the rules, but my mother told me it is at home. Well the rules are intriguing at least, the map beautiful and the counters… well I am not overly impressed on what I have seen online. They are not as nice as the ones Mark Mahaffey did. Ground units and marker are ok (still the ground units look a bit uninspired) air units are uninspiring, leader are awful. Well Mister Idiot on CSW yelled so much he got his ugly counters… it is a shame. Well there have been some hints that maybe we will get decent leaders. We will see. I am really eager to see it in the cardboard, my opinion on the counters could change, at least the one on ground forces and planes. I really want my hero Bill Slim pictured and also General Li Sun Jen.

After that Panzergrenadier: Kursk South Flank is finally there. I pre-ordered the game when… well before I started by London’s adventure. I like Kursk and I like the Panzergrenadier series. I am eager to try it. I was hoping to have it before the end of the Christmas season or at least for Easter, but the Italian Mail messed up.
The other game is Open Fire from Victory Games. I like tank, I like solitaire games and the description of the game I have dug out are quite good. The game is about commanding a small formation of US tanks during the North Western Europe Campaign.  The game systems handles the germans and you can also get reinforcements and supports (Pershing tank, Tank Destroyer and the like).  I am looking forward to it.

Here in the suddenly sunny London I have recently accumulated some magazine games.
Defeat into Victory by Paul Rhorbaugh published by ATO Magazine (issue 36)
Forlorn Hopes again by Paul  and again from ATO Magazine.
Decision Iraq and Somali Pirates by Joe Miranda and published both in Modern War.
In Country by Joe again and published in Strategy and Tactics.

Defeat into Victory is not a great game so far. The magazine is quite good (ok there is the usual column by Ed Heinsmann that is frankly based on poor research and a lot of political gibberish, anyway I have already been used to it and just skip it except if I need some example of awful historical writings for my students), the game is… well… not what I expected. There are some problems here and there and I do not like the first half of it (Mutaguchi’s offensive), still when you roll forward with Slim big drive the game is much more effective.  

Forlorn Hopes… I got it Friday, I have already both Chennault First Fight and Operation Cartwheel and they are (after some problem on my part of scale and immersion) quite good so I am quite confident I will enjoy it. I am undecided if I will do a full review here or for Battles Magazine, in any case be ready for an un-boxing post.  

Decision Iraq had been the big it. I bought it after some good posts from my friend Robert Leonhard (yes that Robert Leonhard… the Art of Maneuver…). The game is excellent. It is probably the bset take on Iraq I have seen. It is simple, effective and clear. Component wise it is good. The counter graphic is quite good and the map is functional if a bit bland. What I like is the way it is representing the ‘battle space’ of Iraq.  
I have been briefed on some professional wargames covering the same subject. Lot of stuff going in, lot of options, lot of players, lot of computer involved. Well Joe Miranda has been able to do it with a single map and no computer and yet, while it is not an process intensive game it show more or less what it matters. It is an abstract game, the units represent generic brigades (yes they have names but they are not the unit you use in traditional actions) with specific capabilities (airmobile, SOF, conventional). The core of the game is managing information war. I will have to write a good full fledged review of it very soon, probably for Battles so I can get some money for buying some new games…

Somali Pirates is similar and I want to play. In Country will not be played here, I do not have the space for the two maps (student studio room…) but it looks good, it uses the system of Winged Horse to cover the whole war. 

The last addition is Suez 73, obtained from BGG market place.  It show up Wednesday evening and not it has been finally clipped and put on the table. I got it to double-check some research material (well Frank Chadwick and Joe Bermudez… he Joe maybe are you reading this I am Mitchell’s Italian friends from King’s College!) . So far I really like the system and the scenarios. Being a 1981 games it also sports a very good graphic.

Well for today this is all, I did quite a lot of posting for a single day.

The China War, S&T 76

Well, considering I am still without paints and I am surrendered in my quest to get them back I will concentrate on playing and reviewing map based game for a while. I previously mentioned that I secured a copy of the old SPI China War and I have been able to play it several times.
China War is a game about an hypothetical Soviet Invasion of China in the late seventies early eighties. 

(Sadly my copy is not so nice, serviceable, but less shiny).

The game come with a traditional 22”x32” map representing the whole of China and neighbouring regions.  You have part of India, the whole Korean peninsula (without DMZ…), Japan, Taiwan, Laos and Vietnam… and Mongolia.  The map is nice and I like it. It shows basic geography, resources and production centres and has an interesting way to classify the population density. Each hex is rate by its density representing communities not sufficiently large to be  directly represented in the game.  I like this approach. There also the main railroads differentiated in double and single track. The map made you realizing a lot of thing on China, at least for 1970-1980 China. 

The counters are classical fare of the late seventies. They are not at the same level of the map.  Still they are functional. You have the PLA, the Soviets, The North Koreans, the Laotian, the Vietnamese and Taiwan. Units are roughly divided in three categories, tank divisions, motor rifle/mechanized units and the poor bloody infantry. There also soviet marines (naval infantry) and PRC and Soviet paratroopers.  Units range from division to Corps/Army (corps equivalent) and are rated for three characteristics: attack strength, defence strength, movement and quality. Usually minor countries have a single quality but PRC and Soviet units come in several quality.  The game has reduced strength units and you can break down and recombine PRC armies (quite important during the game). 

How it works?

The Game is quite conventional. You have the classical move-fight-exploit sequence and the ability to perform reserve movement (to reinforce battles or run away from them). There are some interesting special rules on nukes, airpower and supply. Victory is an interesting balance of capturing cities and resources, destroying Chinese units and preserving Russian forces bit in the sense of avoiding losses and to save supplies.  The latter is important. The Chinese player receives one Victory Point for each Soviet unit involved in a battle, attacking or defending. Two point for each unit tracing supplies through non Soviet Union desert hexes.  Well you start to realize that even if the Soviet are probably more powerful in term of troops, engaging them too much, especially in an attractive end run toward Beijing across Mongolia, is not useful in absence of tangible results. I think it capture really well the problems of such an undertaking. 

The game has a random event table with some interesting things (countries entering the war, NATO intervention, and so on). There are three scenario. The whole hypothetical Sino-Soviet War and two smaller ones. A Chinese invasion of Vietnam and a sudden strike from Taiwan while the PRC is busy dealing with the Soviets.  

The rules are quite easy to learn and (with the exception of the pesky terrain rule I will mention later) quite straightforward with no problems. There was a significant omission (stacking value) but there was a correction slip in the package and the previous owner already corrected on the map.

No ZoC?

The first thing that popped to my view for a 79’ game is the lack of ZoC. They are not here. Well with 126 kilometres per Hex and weekly turn it makes sense. It also creates  a quite fluid situation, but one that is softened by the reaction rules. After movement and before combat your opponent gets to move it mechanized  and 1st line troops. In the end it show the effect of ZoC at such a scale, mainly the ability to react to enemy moves. It also show of weak are unsupported dagger thrusts into the enemy territory.

Where are the planes? Or artillery for that matter?

One glaring absence is airpower. Actually anything called support. Well one thing at time. Only the Soviets have air points, not a lot, and they could be used only close to airbases. This means that they will be useful in the frontier battles, but then you will be out of air support. While it could look a bit harsh, considering, again, the distances it makes perfect sense. What makes less sense is the absence of any form of support. If you have some knowledge of the Soviet Army you know that the division were supposed to be supported by a panoply of artillery brigades, independent tank regiments, airmobile brigades, helicopter units. Well the usual army and front support. Yet in the game there are none. Chinese units get supports when they combine from divisions to form armies (with stronger attack and defence strength)  but the Soviets have none of that. I think it is an omission, but an omission that I quickly replaced considering the Nuke points more or less as additional support. It works and does not require additional counters plus, being these points a finite quantity, it allow to represent the attrition of these assets and the slowly deteriorating supply situation.


From a mechanical and component wise standpoint my main gripe is the lack of explicit garrison unit. Yes there is a rule for leaving behind garrison to occupy the populated hexes you take, but it requires you to note the garrisons, the more you advance south the more cumbersome it becomes.
I am also not overly satisfied with quality rating. In the game the Vietnamese have the best quality, followed by the Chinese (PRC) and the soviets. 1st line PRC troops are apparently better in quality than Category A Soviets.
Another problem is the awful terrain provision that an hex takes the worst terrain in it, even if it is only a tiny bit. It is the weakest point, but you can fix it quite quickly using the more standard approach of half or more hex covered by the dominant terrain.

How it plays:

Well I have played all scenarios several times except the Taiwanese invasion (well I have problems in seeing some of my best friends shooting each other even in paper format). I like it. The Invasion of Vietnam is an interesting exercise in frontal attacks and managing masses. Yet the big game is truly challenging. It is tightly balanced and it is an useful instrument to look at the possibilities of such and undertaking. The Soviets have plenty of avenues of approach, but they cannot make a main effort everywhere. Lack of units and supply troubles forces the Soviet player to prioritize on one or two avenue. Pressing toward Beijing could be interesting, but it will cost you victory point. Yet Beijing is in a quite interesting position and the control of Mongolia allows the Soviets to threaten it almost from the start (in a sort of shadow of 1937). Manchuria on the other hand gives you plenty of victory points and it is in an easy reach. It is also important to note that soviet attacks need to be overwhelming. Diluting efforts while forcing the PRC commander to spread out in the long run just make sure every effort is stopped by Chinese numbers and reasonable quality.


Well, I like the game. It is kinda… neat. The map is certainly pleasant to the eye and the counters are Spartan but nice. More importantly the system works. I like the balance between capturing large chunks of China and destroying the PLA on one side, and  collapsing the Soviet supply system on the other. There are several interesting tradeoffs. The system also work quite well giving you sufficient detail and speed of play. The three scenarios are balanced and quite fun to play.
On the other hand there are also some shortcomings. The Korea Peninsula and Japan are badly treated (the Whole KPA can go north but the South Koreans, the Japanese and the US forces are not present). I am also a bit puzzled by the quality ratings. The Vietnamese are the best and the 1st Line soviet units equals Chinese 2nd units. Well for the period in question this does not sounds right. The last minus point is the short scenario described. I surely doubt a sino-soviet war would have gone only for 8 weeks.  Of course these are easy fixes.


Surfing on CSW I have discovered Joe Miranda is working on a new version, with up to date forces and possible NATO intervention. If you have read my previous post you will realize how spot on it is for my purpose.