Saturday, 11 October 2014

Breaking the Chains, A voyage in the South China Seas



Introduction

 

 

South China Sea, unspecified date (probably around 2017), a surface action group is reading its surface to surface missiles while closing on its target… but before reaching the assigned firing position a group of fighter bombers approach from low level… then a combat air patrol from a nearby carrier intervenes…

Well this could be a description of one of the engagements in the relatively recent Breaking the Chains, designed by John Gorkowski and published by Compass games.  I suspect that Joe Balkoski’s Fleet Series has a lot of fans in the gaming community. Despite its complexity and sophistication (platform dependency? luck?)  contemporary naval warfare is an interesting subject for wargames. From easy games like Modern Naval Battles to extremely complex ones as Harpoon it has brought on the market several interesting product. After a hiatus, probably a reflection of a lack of decent opponents for the US Navy, the rise of the People Liberation’s Army Navy had also brought some new games on the market dealing with possible confrontation between China and various coalitions.
Last January saw the appearance of the subject of today ramblings, Breaking The Chains, BtC for short.  BtC covers an hypothetical conflict between China and some of its allies and the First Island Chains coalition opposing it. It covers warfare in the air, land, sea… (put the Marine Hymn on the player please!).

Components

Once you opens the box you find a map, a rules booklet, counters, and 4 player aids (two copies of two different sheets) and two six sided dice. Standard fare I would say. The graphic artist for this game was Mark Mahaffey, in my not so humble (there is anything humble about me?) opinion a very talented professional in our hobby. Counters represents ships, air groups, land units and some assorted marker. The map, using hexes, stretches from Singapore in the south (hello Stephanie, Yanni, Vanessa!) to Shanghai (Same for Stephanie Wu, Connie, etc, etc…) and Kyushu in the north. To the east we have the Hawaii islands and ot the west the Burmese border…  quite a big geographical scope. Naval units represents a single Carrier, a group of two large destroyers, and four  or six 6 smaller vessels (frigates, corvettes, FACs and so on).  Air units are represented at wing/group level.  Ground units range from battalions to divisions. The keener readers will have, at this point, realized that the game is closer to the Strike series (Gulf and Aegean) than to the Fleet one, anyway this is not a bad point per se.  Time scale is one day per turn. There are three scenarios (one training, one “medium”, one campaign) and three others have been made available by the author online through boardgamegeek:




The in-box scenario covers a small confrontation between China on one side and US and Vietnam on the other; an invasion of Taiwan (the Republic of China) by China (the People’s Republic of China, yes sounds like a civil war and it is scary when  you have friends in both militaries), the full attempt of China to break its chain. The three bonus scenario have a Sino-Philippine war, and two variations of a war between China and Japan for control over the Senkaku Island group (or Dayou if you wish).
The sequence of play is quite interesting. While ground operations use a one day cycle (one action per unit per turn), naval and air operations use four hours cycles, six per turns. Different realms use different tempo of operation. Nothing to object for now, the only drawback is that in a full campaign (30 days) you will have 180 operations cycles, each composed by a variable number of engagements (ok it is not compulsory to do everything in every single cycle).
Movement is quite a standard fare but combat is not. Everything (air, sea, land) uses the same mechanics, the strike concept. You roll two dice, add your relevant strike factor, subtract step losses, in some cases, you add specific modifiers and you need to beat a target number (air defence number or a given number for ground units and submarines). It is simple but you have to roll quite a lot of dice during a game, especially considering that detection had been integrated into combat with an “evasion” roll before the ordnance flies (or fall). Well considering that the rules are indeed freely available online I will not dwell more on them. Just grab them and have a look!


 But before I move on allow me to tell you that the game covers cruise missiles and even special forces (or spies, commandos, saboteurs, hackers…) in a quite interesting way.

Naval Warfare in the XXI Century? Uhm, maybe…

Start of the campaign you can see the giant stacks and the whole load of markers. you also see the game turn track I found on BGG that replaces the poor one on the map.

 


Several gamers all around the world, me included, were hoping that BtC would have been a sort of new version of Victory Games Fleet Series, at least the gamers who cannot read Japanese.  As I already said  Breaking the Chains is a completely different game. While it covers in large part a naval conflict it is not a naval game, I would define it a triphibious game, ok let’s says Combined Operations game… it looks less weird. It is more a distant cousin of Gulf Strike as already mentioned.  This is not a bad thing in itself. Trying to cover all three forms of modern warfare it’s a complex endeavor.  I think Breaking the Chains succeeds in part in doing it, but it has also some glaring flaws. I will anticipated my conclusions… while BtC is not a bad game it is not an exceptional one. The flaws I saw are, for me, extremely serious and spans several areas, too many to be honest to give a really positive review. Yet, despite what some have said on net  the game is playable and also engaging, but between it and a session of the Fleet or Strike series I will go for the latter two.  

Well I have painted a pretty poor picture. This time I will start with  negative parts first because I think they are, sadly,  the elements that stands out in the game. 

First of all I think the game as gone too far with abstractions. Abstractions are important, but Breaking the Chains bring them a bit to the extreme for my tastes. When modern destroyers have the size of a treaty cruisers (but cost proportionally much more)  the idea of having big ships like the Japanese Kongos and the American Burkes cobbled together in anonymous counters is not my cup of tea. Furthermore the groupings do not reflect actual capabilities. Capabilities of the ships are another problem. Not every Burke destroyer is equipped with Harpoon in real life (the Flight IIA has no anti-ship missile capability at all) but in the game they are all the same. The Russian built Sovremenny are not area air defence destroyers. They have their own  SAM missiles but they  are not AEGIS ships; they are not Burkes, Ticos, or Kongos.  The fact they have and Area Air Defence capability in the game is a joke and made you thinking about what counters represents, real platforms, or capabilities. Despite names and silhouettes one wonders if the level of detail here is indeed higher than, for example, Red Dragon Rising. There are several debatable assumptions in the naval rating. Answering my earlier doubts, I  do not feel the ship counters in the game reflect actual platform but rather abstract capabilities.  

But these pales compared to the giant ax the designer has wielded on the air units. Again we end up with some abstractions that are difficult to justify. Air units are named and have a type picture… but then are more or less generic. I am not debating the assumption that almost every US aircraft will be an F-35 and every Chinese plane a J-31 (well the F-35 could be a bad joke) but, if you have generic  air points that represents fighters, bombers, MPA, helicopters, reconnaissance, everything  why bother to put a misleading image and designation on it? Furthermore if the little buggers are abstract big groups of planes the way they evaporate (and with  four hours operations cycles and a potentially extreme combat system they could evaporate quickly)  do not sounds right. Especially because if I can accept that the single seat thing will be shot down in numbers (but again the last high intensity air war we had show us that with decent air forces attrition rates are much lower).

Further problems arose from a cursory look at the order of battles of the various countries.  Thailand is a textbook case. Here the designer seems to not have done his homework at all… the Harrier are still in service in his fantasyland. Never mind they were scrapped. F5F are better planes than F-16… the new big buy of the Royal Thai Air Force, the Swedish Gripen, is not even portrayed.  China gets its H-6 bombers… little test what are the H-6? The answer… Chinese Badgers! But B-52 are nowhere to be seen, like B-2 or B-1… Well the long range capability of these assets has to be represented somewhere… like you have c-130 but not C-17s…

The Japanese Self Defence Forces is a joke. The author says that the bulk is tied up fighting the North Koreans and China northern fleet… baloney! Well now I have lost my patience with unsupported assumptions.  Real world reminder: The northern fleet is the smallest of the three fleets of the PLAN, the Norks have no real navy, the Republic of Korea Navy is supposed to hang around for a reason. Yet they are tying up the bulk of the Maritime Self Defence force and all Japan fighters.  Without revealing any military secret the bulk of the Escort Flotillas of the JMSDF are supposed to be used against China not North Korea.  

Considering the order of battle date are free and open sources BtC here makes a series of idiotic mistakes… or… simply the game counters are not telling what the designer want us to hear. They are abstracts grouping of planes thus what is pictured on the counters has no relevance. Fair enough, but… why bother with units names?

Talking of weird decisions… Malaysia…  it seems the designers had forgot a thing called Five Power Defence Arrangements (FDPA). It is a treaty involving the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. If mainland part of Malaysia is attacked the other guys have to come.  It is still valid. Well if Malaysia get involved on the Chinese side it would be unpractical… especially considering there are permanent posting of UK and Australian personnel there plus a Royal Navy ship always on station and two UK battalions in Brunei (usually one Gurkha and one regular light infantry role) … Malaysia is also a member of the Commonwealth… 
I feel the political rules governing Malaysia are more a play-balance device that a reflection of reality.  Again another area where the games seems to have taken shortcuts with real world.

Another strong issue I have is ground combat. It is another awfully poor implantation. First I think that at this level odds are better than to hit rolls. Second a battalion is not one third of a division. There are problems of relative size with the ground units. The idea that a MEU has more or less  the same chance to gut one third of an enemy  division that an armoured division is again baloney. I like the Marines, but we are out of scale here. Highly out of scale I add. Then you have divisions that are only 3 steps. Now I do not think that a Chinese full divisions is just 50% more resilient that a USMC regiment. Let’s pull some punches… based on my personal experience of USMC and PLA officers I would say a Chinese division has to be more effective and more resilient than a US Marine one.   I will not even start on the lack of characterization of the Stryker brigades or other mechanized forces.
Talking of combat… missiles… well the ships in the game carry tomahawk only for one launch… but SSM forever… This is a problem, a serious one. A ship usually carry a limited number of anti-ship missiles, around eight. These missiles, except in rare cases, are fired in salvoes. If you have ever played Harpoon of the fleet series with the supply rules you have seen your harpoon dwindling quickly.  Soviet designed ship, or Chinese ones, are the same. The Sovremenny fires one their 8 missiles in a salvo and scoot. John Gorkowsky has addressed ammo depletion in an optional rule, but I think the fix is wrong and do not address the problem (plus gives more supplies to the US ships without any factual basis). Logistic is not part of a game that is supposed to cover one month of naval war...

One last note about attrition rates; stuff in this game blows up rather quickly. You could cripple your air force and navy quite quickly.  Well last time a top tier integrated air defence was put against a top tier air force (December 1972 if you remember) the attrition rates, while high, were not close to the ones I have experienced in BtC. I do not think you can have a whole fighter wing destroyed in a four hours cycle. 

Well once you endure all the suspicious abstractions and assumption made by the designer and some glaring errors… you end up discovering that the game is quite well done in its bare bones but then you realize that the problems have not ended.  if the engine is, at the end of the day, well though, interesting, exciting to play, and also offering insight the game runs in another series of problems, namely that is literally a crammed game with poor ergonomics. Playing it is indeed a chore. The map area is too small for the activity (and on half of the map you have very little activity). There are a lot of markers, but they are back-printed without any real logic making the search of the right marker often a nightmare.  Then you have the unit themselves. The backs of the ground units are useless thus requiring you to use step loss marker further cramming counters in crowded hexes. The back of that air and naval units are full of information (all the combat numbers) so you are flipping them constantly.  To alleviate stacking there is an inset map of the area around Taiwan, but it is too small anyway. If the entire Taiwan straits are two hexes wide, and the whole island 5 hexes… these hexes have to be very, very big. This is not the case.  

The counters themselves are another problem. They are drab, not ugly, but drab. If air units have wing designation (without any meaning of course!)  furthermore, instead of relying on NATO standard unit size marker Mark has used Greek letters for the size. Delta is a three step unit, omega one step. I get the meanings, delta, third letter, Omega… doom only one step, but I fear it is an innovation for the sake of innovation.  Well I will says something very bad here. I think no one has ever play-tested the campaign scenario on the physical product, only on Vassal… well I bought a physical game thus I pretend that the entire thing is tested with final component. Designers all over the world… please stop to think Vassal is a substitute to physical playtest. It is an useful tool, it can be used, but cannot replace real physical play-testing. You ask our mon ey for board games not computer ones. Also… stop of giving us giant counters if we have to cram everything in small hexes. Half inch counters would have gone a great deal forward in reducing congestion. End of rant(s).  

A light somewhere?

Is this implementation hopeless? I think not, at least not completely. The map’s problem cannot be solved except with asking Compass to do two sheets map. The counters… well the counters are less a problem than I initially thought. For one side, despite the criticism to Mark’s art in the end they are growing on me. I do not like them like other productions, but certainly the style is not as bad as some have hinted. Otherwise on boardgamegeek a kind soul has put at disposal of the community a series of new counters. While I am not sure that they are nicer than Mark Mahaffey’s ones (as earlier said I am not against the graphic style, but against the way information are presented)  but have all the values on the front side (they are single sided counters). This is a huge improvement. Even if I do not like the graphics (the ground unit icons are often wrong) they are much better to use. They also provide you with names ships and that is nicer than the class names in the originals.  This solves one of the problem, less time spent flipping counters.

The other problems (namely the extremely high tempo of operations and the problems in ammunition supplies) could, partly, be solved reducing the number of action cycle from six to three per turn and increasing the movement allowance to two hexes. This will address two problems: it will reduce the game length considerably (but also harmonizing a bit more naval and ground operations) and reduce the number of engagements (and die rolls). In the campaign scenario this will be much welcome. The downside of this proposal (and I have to test it more) is that it could reduce losses (but at the moment I think losses are incurred at a completely unbelievable rate).

Other tweaks are also possible like removing Thailand Harriers and rebalancing some units. Some more small scenarios would also be welcome. Even if reducing operational tempo in the campaign could go a long way to make it shorter to play it is still a an extreme chore to play. Smaller slices of the battle could have been presented as individual scenarios. I hope John will read this and will provide more scenarios, not just depicting different conflicts, but “events” in the campaign game, for example an USN relief of Taiwan, a PLAN attack on the shipping lines east of the Philippines and so on.

Breaking the Chains has indeed some interesting concepts. I like the way John has tried to seamlessly integrate the three dimension of modern warfare, I cannot say it is a perfect way, but it works in certain perverse way, namely if you ignore any attempts at detail on the game counters.

The engagement system, the heart of the naval-air interaction is extremely well thought. Read it in the rules (link already provided). It gives you an good idea on how integrated are the various element. you can have multiple attack vectors and also defender supports (having pickets makes sense).  also the sequence of the engagement is effective in bringing out the strenght and weaknesses of various weapons systems.

Another really good are is the recovery system for air units. Each units can fly one offensive (out of the hex) mission per cycle, and unlimited CAP over its hex. At the end of the cycle you try to recover (dice roll) the unit. It is nice but... well I  do not think the readiness rates are the same for everyone. some countries are quite poor in serviceability, and probably they can generate one sortie per airframe per day (well even the F-35 has this limit... due to stupid reasons but it is more a reflection of poor program management rather than training and ground crew proficiency). I would have liked to see different readiness ratio shown.

 

Conclusions

Here we are… the moment when I need to draw a line and make an informed judgement on the game. Well… this is extremely difficult. To a certain extent the game is indeed rubbish. It is a fantasy game that has some real nomenclature and icons slapped into it. It is also a game that do not shine for usability. The map is drab the player aids are not well designed (and probably the best one is fan made). On the other hand it is a good game with a good grasp (albeit with some critical limitations) on contemporary naval warfare. It is a Jekyll game it has two souls and they are at odds to each one. 
In the end the critical issue is the disconnection between the engine and the image provided by the game. As much I can understand abstraction the game seems to have a compulsion to hide abstraction behind pictures) and names. How come that fighter wing can hunt submarines? The answer is deceptively easy; they are not fighter wings but grouping of aircrafts.  But why bother with icons and designation if the thing has no bear on the game play and is not even providing you any real insight?  Earlier I said Breaking the Chains is somewhat related to Gulf Strike. Well, the concept could be, but the implementation is more related to a very abstract (but not bad) game as Red Dragon Rising. I will be evil now, it is like Philip Sabin has taken one of my favorite designs and applied his blandness… his abstractions and simplification as he calls them  to it. Yes I think his designs are bland and unexciting! I save only Lost Battles, but even this one has problems of blandness and lack of excitement. Then someone else has crammed everything in a map too small. 

The other issues are related to the components and they could be solved. The main problem with the game, the thing that made or break the game is the ability of the player to put on with the abstraction and the way they are presented in the game. I feel the game fails as a narrative device because there is only a vague connection between what you see on the map and what is supposed to happen in the game.  

If I have to recommend someone to buy it I will say no. Not at the current price. Not at the current level of production components. The game is in need to a major overhaul in the way information is presented. The designer has to decide if he wants to do an abstracted simulation of capabilities or a more granular one of platforms. At the moment the game is just a mess between two concepts that do not really live together well. It is a shame because the system stands on its own quite well it could be made more or less granular, but in the present form it is just a mess.  It now stands in an awkward position between Red Dragon Rising and Asian Fleet being none of them and, seemingly, having mixed the bad parts of these two systems. 

Said that it is quite interesting to play if you can get past the poor parts. But the poor parts are extremely poor and make your play a chore.  You feel like you have in your hands an unfinished product. I wonder if the finished components have ever been put together in physical form and the package tested before production. Again, you cannot play-test only by vassal, you need to get the product with finished art and physical components and try it.

Would I have pre-ordered it if I knew the finished results? Well as much I do not like to say it… no. I am sad because the bottom end is that Breaking the Chains is not a bad game. In reality it delivers some  good insights on the area (well if we forget the omission of the FPDA), but the combination of abstraction and poor ergonomics is not my cup of tea. I will keep it and continue to play but I it is not a game that, in this form, I will be eager to play, at least for the campaign. Some of the short scenarios… well they are extremely good, others not.
Before leaving you, my readers, I want to spend some last words. As bad this review may sound I am still in two minds about this game. I cannot condone its faults (both in the poor production values and in a level of abstraction I do not like) but I also appreciate some of its elements. The way the operations cycles work in the smaller scenario is engaging, at least until missiles starts to fly and you lose connections with your anonymous cardboard pieces. The way you plan an engagement is quite intriguing and I feel it reflects real world considerations. 

To a certain extent, with a better order of battle, two maps, named individual ships and a slower operational tempo Breaking the Chains could have been a excellent product without any changes in the system. I can put off with its constant die rolling if it is reduced and there is a stronger connections with real platforms. Certainly an enlarged playing surface would reduce if not remove over-congestion. 

I am sorry that this review that started in a completely different way ended like this, I really like the subject and I tried hard to find, but this game seems to break as a whole, rather than break the chains.
 



2 comments:

  1. Well I was hoping for a much better review, BtC is one of the few new naval games out and, it had so much promise... it is much better when I have games I like in their entirety or I utterly dislike (like Awful... ahem Soviet Dawn... bashing at it was perversely fun). Hopefully next one will be better.

    Arrigo

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