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. 

1 comment:

  1. We were just discussing this game the other day. Now I'll have to play it. Thanks, Arrigo!