Thursday, 20 March 2014

Central Command: Superpower Confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz, a Review

Are games really ‘surpassed’? 

Recently I was browsing BGG for several reasons and my eye was caught by the comments of someone on an old Strategy&Tactics game, Central Command. The poster (the usual representative of the low forms of human life that write on that website…) claimed that: ‘Not a bad effort, but surpassed by 3W's Light Division.’ Oh well, it is not something new, a lot of people comment that game A is surpassed by game B. but it is really the case or we are prisoners of a sort of cult of the new? I own both games and that prompted me to bring Central Command back on the games’ table.

Central Command:  Duelling for the strait of Hormuz
If you are thinking about invading Iran to protect the flow of Oil to the west this is a game you can be interested in, yet this is not the game you expect. Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, this is a game published in 1984 when the cold war was still raging and the bad guys spoke Russians and drove T-72s, BMPs, and T-62s,  ok maybe these things have not changed… anyway Central Command:  Superpower Confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz is a 1984 game published by Strategy and Tactics, at the time under the aegis of TSR and designed by the renowned modern warfare designer Charles T. Kamps.  It is an old game, but, nevertheless it contains some very interesting concepts that are worth to explore even today. 
The map
The rather nice counters
The setting of Central Command is clearly the cold war. In the three scenarios provided the soviets are invading Iran and trying to close the Persian Gulf to western shipping. The US Central Command has to stop them. The game is very conventionally looking. You got one standard hex map a sheet of NATO style counters, charts, table, everything else you need.  The map cover the northern (Iranian  side) of the strait of Hormuz, with the city of Bandar Abbas, its airfields and ports, and the surrounding areas. The rules are quite short just a few pages. They are reasonably clear, but, alas, there are some minor points of contention. The game itself is based on the system previously published in a well received game covering a hypothetical Soviet assault on northern Norway, Nordkapp (oh well, I own it, I need to review it too soon!).  The package will not have the cultists of the new rejoicing, but it is pleasant to the eye. I like the map and the air units, the latter graced by little and well done icon representing the aircrafts. 

The sequence of play is quite conventional in its appearance. It is a Igo-yugo (Initiative Player- Reactive Player) sequence at its heart where every unit can move. There are no command rules restricting your movements.  There is some sort or reaction involved with air and helicopter units but the sequence of play is rigid. Anyway the sequence is standard.

  • ·         You decide the mode of your units
  • ·         You enter your reinforcements
  • ·         The opponent has  is offensive air phase and you can intercept
  • ·         Supply is adjudicated
  • ·         You move you units
  • ·         You do your  combat support air operations and the enemy reacts intercepting your units and providing  his own close air support
  • ·         The US decides if and where to deploy his battleship unit
  • ·         Your helicopters move and enemy helicopter reacts
  • ·         Combat
Tuna Boats!

As you see the sequence is quite conventional but there are indeed some twists. The first thing that is worth to mention is unit modes. The unit in the game are backprinted, but instead of having two steps you have two modes. Infantry units can be in their mobile mode or entrenched. Entrenched units trade their movement allowance for an increase in defence factors. Even if entrenched they can attack, but they will have to switch in mobile mode if they advance after combat (quite reasonable). Mechanized units have also two modes, combat and high speed. In high speed mode the unit move faster, but its combat capability is reduced.  Also worth to mention is the fact that, even if the units are mainly battalions (US and some Soviets), regiments (the bulk of the soviets), and a smattering of platoons and companies, there are transport units and carried units. This is quite unusual for a game at this scale (24 hours’ turns, decidedly operational in map and unit scale).  It is unusual to see a Soviet Motor Rifle Regiment represented by its infantry component and its BMPs ot BTRs transports in different counters, but Central Command does this.  As much as it is unusual the thing provides some sound benefits. The first benefits is in the treatment of US Marine units. You have a limited amount of Amphibious Tractor Companies (the Tuna Boats… the LTVP7) that can be allocated to Marine battalions to mechanize them. It reflects standard procedure seen in Desert Storm and even in Iraqi Freedom. It allows you to use the Bronegruppa tactics developed in Afghanistan by the Soviet Army where the mechanized vehicles were used as flanking and enveloping elements in local attacks. It also allows you to leave your mechanized transport when you do not need them. When the infantry is transported the two units counts as one, when the infantry leaves the tracks or wheel you have two independent units. You can combine and recombine the units without restrictions.

This lead us to another main point, movement. As much movement is conventional in its outlook the movement costs table forces you to take some hard decisions. You have to different costs one for the Dry and another for the  Wet season. You decide the season by die roll at the start of the scenario. Well during the Wet season vehicular movement is a nightmare outside the road network. Several areas are the same during the dry seasons. Even if your tracked vehicles usually can negotiate bad terrain reasonably well, the wheeled vehicles (trucks towing guns, BTRs, LAV, Jeeps and Hummers) are almost useless outside the roads. The personnel/carrier idea allows to represent this in a simple but effective manner, often you will realize that marching is better than riding in areas without road networks. That remind me of an old interwar article by a certain George C. Patton while he was pointing that mechanized warfare is much better in areas where it can exploit an extensive road network.  

Yet the infantry is not as powerful as these lines could suggest. Infantry units are soft units, mechanized units are hard. In combat in the open hard units are advantaged by the use of column shifts. This means that even if the infantry can move quickly even on open ground, mechanized formations still have some advantages in combat. One of these is the ability of hard units to overrun soft units in the open. Differently from the current standards overruns simply allow the moving  unit to run over the defender and appear at the back. Yet having locking zone of control that inhibit retreats this simple tactic guarantee to block the retreat path of the enemy. The combat result table is what you expect from a 1984 game. Retreats, eliminations, exchanges. Here the dreaded exchange results is somewhat mitigated by the ability of losing carrier or personnel units, the fact that it is not overly common, and that you have a decent number of units. There are no step losses or disruption. The combat is less bloody than today games, but the use of overrun and helicopters made encirclement easy if you really want to do.

Helicopters are an interesting take. They are represented in company or battalion strength, you have transport and attack helos.  Transport helicopters are further divided in light, medium, and heavy. You have also the hybrid attack/transport soviet models (Hind A and Hip) represented by transport units with high combat values. I know the Hind A (Mil Mi 24A) and the Hip (Mil Mi 8) are not really attack helicopter like the Cobra or the Apache, but  their mission was to transport the attack units and provide immediate fire support   (as they graphically do in the movie ‘The 9th Company’).
From the 9th Rota, but it could be Hormuz

Charles Kamps decision to model them as transport helos with combat capability is thus eminently reasonable.  We are talking of helicopters how they work in the game? First you have two mode, standard and reaction. In reaction mode they move in the enemy half of the turn. They can also move transported units with them. This means that reactive helicopters can both reinforce a combat or withdraw from it.  Helicopter units exert ZOC and thus they can block retreat. They have a big radius and they do not pay movement costs, finally they can move between ZOC even if they can be subject to air defence fire.  They are quite powerful, the big drawback is that they can suffer losses in an Exchange result and, quite puzzling at first, that ground units can attack them. This last bit is probably the most unrealistic part of the helicopter treatment. Instead of having two elements, the ground ‘base’ and the helicopters themselves the game joined them in a single counter. As usual in design you have trade off, in this case you save counters and rules, but you have to accept a loss in accuracy. If you take the helicopter operations to the letter it is as every time you move them also their entire ground support echelon leave the airfield and deploys.  In my repeated plays in the years I realized that this is not the big problem you think. History as demonstrated that helicopter units are indeed fragile. The machines themselves suffers quite a lot of attrition both by  enemy action and simply flying operations. sometime after intensive short period of operations whole units need to stood down. The net effect of the helicopter rules does just that. It has also the added benefit to force them to commit helicopter to specific areas rather than having the same assets performing at unrealistic tempo. Flexibility is well reproduced by having soviet units in battalion size and US attack helicopters in company size. 

The last area that I want to comment upon is the air system. Taken at face value is quite puzzling. The US player can commit two units per mission, the soviet player three.  When opposing enemy air units occupy the same hex you have air to air combat. You sum the air combat factors, roll a d6 per side and compare the two totals (factors + roll). Higher total wins. The winner then rolls two dice per air unit losing it on a 12, the loser do the same but loses units on 2 and 12. The loss on a 12 is also used for antiaircraft fire. If you are doing CAS your CAS value is added to your units, if it is a ground strike you sum the interdiction factors of the attacking planes and use them to do a conventional odd based attack on the ground units (but only DE, defender eliminated, results are used), and if you are doing interdiction you double the interdiction value and that number of enemy combat factors will not be able to trace supply through the hex. At first the air combat system was driving me crazy. It looked silly. But it is not silly as it appears. Every unit is a whole squadron. Squadrons does not disappear in 24 hours, at least not now and not if they are based outside the battle areas.  What the system gives you is a slow attritional approach that sooner or later will tell you that the squadron is not more combat capable. Losing air battles means you double your chances of losses. There is also a nice touch. Soviet units are weaker, but stack three per hex instead of two. This means that they will have (assuming maximum stacking) more chances to suffer casualties. 

Central Command came with three scenarios. The introductory one depicts an US delaying Action in defence of supply lines after the initial assault have played off. The two others are variations of the same theme. Moscow has decided to close the straits and the US Central Command has to prevent this. The first variation has some Iranian garrison on the map and the two player staging (in random initiative order) an airborne drop to seize a beachhead and then reinforcing it. The second variation postulates a Soviet successful coup (shadows of Kabul) in Iran and allow them to already deploy on the map and defend against the US reaction. The latter variation favour the soviet Player. His reinforcements are coming faster and he starts the game with the a full airborne division (mechanized, Soviet style) already deployed.

I hope this has explained my take on the system. I think that, despite 30 years of age it was sound and is still worth to play. But how it stacks against history? Well, there is no history, because we are simulating a counterfactual even, but there are realities we know.  The whole premise of the game now sounds farfetched but in 1984 was real. A whole theatre command had been created to respond to such an eventuality. As much some pundits, including some of my department’s professor could have argued conventional war was not possible the scenario was not as farfetched as… Russia annexing Crimea?  I think that in this respect the game is also sound. But how Central Command represents the realities of the day? Well here we have some problems, but also some really good gems. I will start from the strengths of the game. The US OoB is accurate, it also show a period in the US Armed Forces history when projection capabilities were minimal. In Central Command the 1st Marine Division is very slow to deploy. The amphibious capability is incredibly slow to appear (you can deploy a single Amphibious Brigade only after 15 days), and the bulk of the division is coming through Maritime Prepositioned Equipment and air transport. This means that your most powerful asset is also the weakest link of your deployment chain.  The two light divisions are again well portrayed. You can slowly drop the 82nd (again no chance of a divisional drop) but the division is more or less pure infantry. The 101st is better, but is also slow to deploy. 1984 was before the quick rise in fast deployment capabilities. As side note the situation is quite similar to the current one. US capabilities are well modelled. 

The real weakness of Central Command is in its modeling of the soviet capabilities. While the ground forces and helicopters feel right, the air units are quite surprising. Mig 29 and Su 27 are represented as good ground attack planes. The Mig 27 is a good multi-role aircraft. Well you can say what you want, but in 1984 Mig 29 and Su 27 were more or less drawings in the Military Power review. We did not know a lot on them and Charles Kamps speculated. The Mig 27 was a bit overrated (we did not realize that the duck nose housed only a laser designator and a telemeter and not a full air intercept radar). In that regard Central Command is not accurate.   But this is just a small weakness. It is the problem when you tackle contemporary subject drawing from incomplete sources. In the end you end up making a fool of yourself. Are these inaccuracies detrimental to the game?

I would say no. The planes were still marginal players in the Soviet arsenal and the overall impact of air force operations is still here. Furthermore Central Command gave us insight not only on the situation itself, but also on the way  the US perceived the potential threat in 1984. It also provides some useful observation on the limit of combined operations when your power projection capability is more or less marginal. Yes, the Central Command was able to quickly put limited units on the ground across the globe, but once landed they were vulnerable to an enemy that was maybe weaker and less technologically advanced, but closer to its supply bases. The game does also a wonderful job to portray the main weakness of modern mechanized warfare, namely  its dependence on the road network. In Central Command you are road bound. Even worse you depend on a limited number of road choke points to keep your forces supplied. The detailed interdiction system forces you to consider not only the overall effects of supplies, but how to organize your supply lines on the ground.  Having your spearhead not depending on single choke points allows you to limit the effectiveness of enemy air interdiction. Yet the area is channeling you along few roads. The dilemma the soviet player faces is interesting.  Usually the Soviets are more road bound and, if the Americans can get rid of the soviet paratroopers quickly, are attacking. They need to move quickly along major roads, but they are also in need to avoid being strangled by interdiction. 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The British Army is getting ready to deploy to Kiev...

in my 15mm World...

Well, the recent news have prompted my devious mind to look again at the prospect of a little Russian bashing... at the same time it happened I was painting my 15mm Contemporary UK troops... not a lot, just a Tank troop, and a mechanized infantry platoon, but anyway for my current funding this is a quite impressive force. I had some bits before, and, taking advantage of the latest QRF sale I decided to finish the force. Here are the pictures of the tracks... I have also the infantry but forgot to take the shots... when I come back from visit some friends I will do it (by the way the proof my life is a mess, to go out for dinner with a friend I have to take a plane).

Here are the two vehicle units. They are really good models. I used the basic Challenger 2 with no armor add-on because units in the UK do not use the add ons as you can see in this  picture:


 Instead the Warriors have the side panels (but not the bar or wrap armor). Well these units have quickly been mobilized from UK and Germany bases and are moving to deploy to prevent the Russian aggression (of course this is only happening in my 15mm world) and there was no time to add the armor packages.

I like these two QRF offerings. The details are here:

As you can see from the images of the real thing:

 There were no particular issue in building and painting the Challenger or the Warriors. The only thing that worried me was the Rarden gun on the Warriors. In some of them it arrived really bent at the joint between the barrel and the supports. I was afraid it would have snapped, but in the end it was fine.

 I really like the detail on the side armor.

and, in a completely unrelated news these two things also popped up at home...
Teasers for my next project...

The march to Lorraine and Chain of Command

Sometime ago I posted a little teaser of an ongoing project, fall-winter US forces in 28mm for  Chain of Command. Well the project is going forward at a quite brisk pace. I have around two third of the infantry platoon done and a second medium tank built and painted. Thing to do include an Halftrack, the third infantry squad and some support weapons (mortar and MG). Then the US troops will be done (even if I am craving for an M10 Tank Destroyer). anyway here is the second Sherman.

This time we have a plain M4A3w(75). The A3 was quite common in North West Europe and the 75mm was (as the reader of the Lardy Specials probably already known...) the most common of the two guns until the spring of 1945.   Again an 1/48 Hobby Boss kit. building it had been easy (time consuming but easy) and painting it did not present any specific problem.

It is Classy Peg an M4A3 Sherman of Company C, 716th Tank Battalion, supporting the 25th Infantry Division on.... Luzon! Yes this is startling, but it also an hint that I have a second 28mm CoC project taking shape... anyway I hope you like this little nice tank.

Awful Dawn…

A review of the VPG/GMT solitaire disaster called Soviet Dawn

In January I received  my C3I issue 27. Beside some good contents and an a big boring piece on the next COIN game (well as much I like Volko and Mark, that one was a big hot air balloon that eat space)  there was also a little solitaire game called Soviet Dawn. It was a VPG product now published by GMT. I like solitaire games and I do not dislike the Russian Civil War (even if I do not like the Bolos). In the game you take the role of that murdering bastard of Lenin and his closest accomplices murdering your way to control the whole Russia against a plethora of people trying to stop you. The game is quite small: a deck of small cards, an handful of counters, a small map.  Well despite my aversion for the bolos I decide to give it a try to understand more about States of Siege, the solitaire games series from VPG that seems so popular. What follow is the result of my misguided attempts (I played it several times)  to make this endeavor worthy of my time…

The game is simple, actually simplistic but it is better I save the comments for later. The map is an image of European and transcaucasian Russia with some track placed over it. Each game turn has four phases. First you turn up the top card of the deck. Then you apply the event or event described, often moving enemy pieces and maybve getting some DRM here and there. Then you launch our actions, rolling against enemy unit to force it to withdraw or rolling on the political tracks to push it upward or rolling a die, to get a si and roll again on the Red Army table to get some special bonus. Then you do some special activity on the political front if mandated by the card and then rinse and repeat. 
This is the package, snake and ladders with pasted history

Well the game play is pretty straightforward, read the card, move the enemy fronts, decide how to spend your action points, do the eventual end turn political roll, rinse, repeat nothing complicated. You can complete a game in 40-45 minutes even less. But  what is the purpose? Your decisions are a bare minimum. You have on average two action per turn. If the good guys are advancing you spend them as offensives to force them back. If you have some breathing space you try to reform the Red Army and get the powerful bonuses that this activity grants you (if you are lucky and roll the initial 6). If you need you roll on the political index. But what this die rolling gives to you? In my opinion nothing. The history text on the card is just text, without any real connection to the game. Your activities appear to be random in the end. There is no shifting of resources, movement of elite formations, search for decent commanders. Yes you can argue that these are abstractions but this time the abstractions are ludicrous. It is not a simulation, it is not even a game. A lot of idiots… ahem BGG posters  (or Bolt Action and flames of War players it seems) live in a world where there is a dichotomy between a good simulation and a good game. Well ladies and gentlemen Soviet Dawn proves you can have a stupid game and a silly simulation in the same package.

One of the infamous cards.

The main issue I have is that you have no control on your army. Yes you can decide against which track to roll (I refuse to call them areas, fronts, or any other term, the blandness of the system stops me to associate these things to any real concept) and if you want to employ some of your reserve offensive, but after that you have no control. Modifiers are given by the cards. The presence of these modifiers creates also another problem. Use them or lose them. Well, if I got a good general why I am forced to use him in a specific area? How I know that in the next turn I will not have his services again? Stockpiling troops and supplies for an offensive? Forget it. There is no way to plan in advance. You get a random number of actions and a fixed number of reserve actions. Everything else is outside your control span. Diplomacy? Politics? Force planning? Sorry kid, even if you are the murderous dictator you do not control anything in your country… 

Plain graphic, clean but uninspiring on the counters, ok Rodger did a good job on the period posters but this is all
Forget about military details. There are no armies to control. There are no resources to allocate. Decisions like concentrating the best units here, and fighting an holding action there are outside your grasp. Actually the game system does not even know what an holding action is. The enemy pieces will advance automatically. I know, you can said No the reserve offensive provides you some control... but what the heck are the reserve offensives? Central reserve forces? well if they are my central reserve why I cannot reconstitute it over time?

Soviet Dawn is the classical case of taking the design for effect to the point where it has no more relation with the process. Yes the front will stabilize, advance, retreat, but not for the right reason. Seriously, I understand that solitaire games need to have a strong random event and constraints on the player’s actions, but in that case these elements outweighs anything else.  I do not even understand how that game can be called a game. You are not playing, you are just rolling dices. Let’s stay away from the simulation part of wargaming, because here the designer had just skipped that lessons from the manual.

Of course this sense of disgust was not helped by the fact I was forcing to play the bolos. But it is not a problem of Soviet Dawn and its design’s decision to put me in Lenin’s filthy boots. The disgust stems from the system.  In the end the entire engine rest on the cards. Get good cards and you will win, get bad ones and you will lose. In States of Siege in general and in Soviet Dawn in particular the player is here just for a free ride. He is not really implementing any strategy or discovering a narrative, but simply doing almost robotic actions and rolling dices.  To a certain extent it reminds me of another thing that should never have appeared on this earth, Twilight Struggle. As vomit Struggle also Awful Dawn give you events with no relation with what is happening in your game world. Of course I admit that certain events does not depend from on map actions, but sometime the randomness of the events simply destroy any 

For someone like me that has spent the last 6 years hearing about how good are simple games at school this is just further evidence that I knew better than my teacher. Ok, maybe not, but certainly  Soviet Dawn is the clear example of what I do not like in a wargame.  Abstracting everything until it loses any kind of relationship with the subject matter. I know that a Luftwaffe Colonel uses games from this series for teaching purposes. I can understand why and how. Managing the chaotic part could be a challenge for a leadership class.  Having been told how the games are used also make me understanding the process, yet it  is natural to think that if a game from this series is considered an historical simulation maybe there was a strong reason why the Germans lost both world war… of course I respect Uwe and that was just a snide comment (more for the benefit of the Heer fanatics that plague the wargaming world). I understand the purpose of Uwe’s efforts and I will not speak ill of someone who once called me on my mobile telling me ‘It is the Luftwaffe!’ (actually the exact words were: ‘Hello, here is Colonel Heilmann from the Luftwaffe’ but the thrill was there…). Anyway the basic idea is that Soviet Dawn fail in every aspect. It fails to provide cause and effect relationships (except the: Germany lose WW1, German army disappear from the Civil War, the Reds are happy).  Simplicity is not an answer and removing detail will not produce better games by default. Yes simplicity is working, the game could produce plausible results at times, the playing time is short but… but the price for this is a plain game without any real insight on the period and whit history being just a placard pasted upon it. The plausible results reads more as an accident rather than a design. The majority of time you look at your victories or defeats and you cannot really understand what happened, how history had been reproduced or changed. It gives also a strong biased and doctored version of history. It also looks ugly. If my purpose is just to roll dice and playing on a ladder awf… ahem Soviet Dawn is the perfect game. If I play to learn something… well I will not play this excuse of a wargame.

Summing up while States of Siege maybe contain some good ideas the implementation of these ideas is so awkward and incompetent that you need to ask yourself how VPG can still be alive. As much people on BGG bash Avalanche Press and Decision Games Victory Point Games is a fine purveyor of trash. I will play Panzergrenadier or D-Day at Omaha Beach every day over this little shitty game. It is a disservice to the wargaming community. Hopefully sooner or later VPG games will disappear. That day the wargame community will score a victory.