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Lessons of Volume: Writing Reflections

I’ve just finished my latest book for Lock ‘n Load Publishing: Space Infantry. The tentative subtitle for the book is “Outpost 13” but that may change according to the publisher’s desire. The story was based on something that was already written by another author and most of my job consisted of cleaning up the scenes, fleshing out the characters, and fixing the ending up a bit. Don’t get me wrong – those were huge tasks, but the basic building blocks were already there.

Like my books in the upcoming World at War ’85 series, this one was set in a universe based on the upcoming Space Infantry: Resurgence game. Not having had a copy of the game to work from, I was using images from the kickstarter to help with drawing out the details of the universe that the characters inhabited. In some cases, I could get pretty specific about stuff while in others, I was deliberately vague so as not to step on the toes of the designer. This made my job much tougher than I expected, but it’s a challenge that I was glad to have.

Space Infantry marks the fourth book of 2019 that I have produced. That seems to me like an insane amount of words and it does represent the major thrust of my daily productive life from late January of this year. It’s pretty hard to write this much stuff and tell these stories without learning a thing or two about writing, so I believe what I have gleaned from this experience is this above all:

Writing gets better the more you do it. It also gets easier.

In the early period of this year, I was struggling to pump out a thousand words per day as I hummed and hawed over my scenes and fiddled with words that ended up getting cut from the final version anyways. It was late April when I finally got my act together and started aiming for double that amount as my daily quota. Most of the time I got close – but not enough to satisfy my goals.

So here’s the other thing about writing stories: Planning scenes out ahead of time – even just a little – will help you immensely.

I know that seems obvious to many people, but believe me – when you’re a writer and you’re focused on word count and productivity, the temptation is real to just sit down at your computer each day and write stuff. These writers are known as “pantsers”, as in they write by the seat of their pants. Stephen King is this kind of writer – he mentions in his book “On Writing” that he doesn’t know where a story will take him as he writes.

I’m sure that works for some writers – I suspect though that their brains are just wired a bit differently and that some part of them just KNOWS where a story is going without having to sit down and put it all down on paper beforehand. It’s not that they are being disingenuous about not planning out their stories – it’s more that the productive side of their subconscious is more accessible than others and how the heck do you even begin to understand how that’s different from most people?

I have tried to write by the seat of my pants before and the results were mixed. The method of freestyle writing that produced Storm and Steel (my most successful book to date) was the same one which produced Task Force (a book that was rightly panned by most reviewers).

When I switched over to writing out and planning my scenes beforehand, the word count shot upward and so did the quality. “Insurgency” was the product of a long brainstorming session that, in my opinion, resulted in an interesting book with a satisfying ending and deeper characters. There are still lots of problem with “Insurgency”, but it’s one of the books I’m most proud of.

The fact that the rough draft of Space Infantry was already written before I got my hands on it helped to reinforce these lessons. Without having to worry about exactly where the story was headed, I basically painted inside the lines and helped straighten out the bigger issues. I am pretty sure Space Infantry will be a success – it certainly has a few things to think about and has a twist or two to spur the readers on to a huge climactic ending that sets things up for a sequel.

I think it’s a great story – one of the better books that I have written. Hopefully, it will have a positive reception and I can delve back into the setting and characters for a sequel.

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Team Yankee: Cuts Like a Knife

Behold! The thriving metropolis over which our battle is joined.

I’ve been working on my Team Yankee kit lately and slowly adding to the terrain and Order of Battle. As with most minis games, I find that the more you acquire stuff, the more interesting and varied your battles become. Having said that, there is always the real danger of getting hooked on expanding your army and terrain set until the garage is filled with stuff and your spouse is ready to file papers.

I’ve always had a problem with diving headlong into things and finding out too late that I’ve gotten myself in trouble. Despite being aware of that weakness, I now find myself the proud owner of a small and growing collection of Team Yankee vehicles and infantry.

So what to do about that?

Well, get them out and play a game with them, I suppose!

In this scenario, I’ve got a mixed NATO force of Americans and Canadians versus the Soviets in a really confined space. The centerpiece is a small house next to a highway

Here’s the lineup:

Soviets
3 x T-64
1 x Air Assault Company

NATO
2 x Canadian Lynx reconnaissance vehicles
1 x Canadian Mechanized Infantry Platoon
2 x M1 Abrams tanks

The NATO side has a 7 point advantage over the Russians here, so I’ve decided to bring in the NATO side piecemeal while allowing the Soviets to set up all their forces right off the bat.

I am rolling to randomly determine which of the Canadian units gets sent in on the first turn and it ends up that the infantry get that honor. A roll of “5” or “6” at the beginning of each turn brings in one of the other units.

Basic setup

A look at things from the Soviet side of the table.

Turn 1:

We start off rolling initiative. The Canadians get a 4 while the Russians get a 5. The Canuck player rolls a “6” at the start of the turn and it appears the Lynx vehicles will be coming on board earlier than expected.

The Canadian infantry moves up to the center of the table and takes cover near the old house. Small arms fire erupts as the GPMG rakes across the line of advancing Russian infantry. Aware that there are tanks in the area, Carl Gustav anti-tank launchers and M72s are at the ready.

The mortar team fires smoke to the front in a bid to block advancing fire. The Lynx vehicles let loose with the .50 cal MGs and decimate the Soviets, who lose two rifle teams.

The Soviet infantry takes its punishment in stride and moves up to challenge the oncoming NATO infantry. They grab whatever cover is available and fire back.

The T-64s move up on the Canadian flank – a big risk considering they are near assault range – and open fire. The Canucks start taking casualties almost immediately. The mortar team is completely wiped out.

BOOM! The T-64s attack.

At the end of Turn 1, we can see the fun the beleagured Canadians are having:

Turn 2: The Canadian player rolls a “3” and our remaining M1 Abrams platoon stays off the board this turn.

First off, the Can. mechanized platoon gets into position, shifting its anti-tank weapons to the flank to deal with the onslaught of Soviet armor. A squad of men pour into the house and start firing down on the infantry from the second floor.

Carl Gustav teams get into firing position.

“I see it. Straight ahead! Taking a shot!”

Our GPMG team, now with an ROF of 5, starts to rip into the Soviet infantry. The Lynx takes out the Soviet commander and an AK-74 team.

The Russians, undeterred by the losses, start firing back. Two RPG-7 teams run out from behind cover and fire at the Lynx vehicles from close range. Both rockets tear into the thinly armored vehicles.

The T-64s start to pour fire into the Canadians, who are pinned down and unable to do much with the intense return fire slicing into the air all around them. The platoon leader is killed. Things look grim for the Canucks.

A look at things from the T-64 perspectives.

Turn 3: Mercifully, the Canadian player rolls a “5” for his reserve roll and the M1 Abrams may now enter the board. Shots taken at the thinner side armor slice through one of the T-64s.

Meanwhile two Canadian AT teams move around the corner and open fire.

BOOM! BOOM!

Both shots score a kill. The T-64 platoon is wiped out.

The Soviet infantry stages a desperate last-ditch assault against the remnants of the Canadian infantry in the house. The early stage of the melee is marked by Soviet success. Two Canadian squads are wiped out.

But the counterattack by the remaining NATO squad succeeds and the attacking Soviets are whittled down until none remain. A pair of Soviet infantry units watch helplessly from the flank and decide that enough is enough. The game ends in a marginal NATO victory.

End game positions.
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Team Yankee: Autobahn Defense


Since I’m enjoying Team Yankee so much, I thought I’d write up a quick post so you can enjoy some nice pictures of my awful model assembly and painting skills and see how this game plays.  In this scenario, I’ve designed a quick defensive battle between two small forces. Here we have the Soviets with:

3 x T-64 tank company

1 x Soviet Motorized Infantry Rifle Platoon

versus:

2 x M1 Abrams tanks

2 x Canadian Lynx Recce armored vehicles

The NATO side sets up first with the objective located at behind the group of trees located near the roadside. The Soviets will enter their tanks on turn 1. The infantry are reserves and must be rolled for each turn to see when they enter the game.

Turn 1 – Soviets

We roll for reserves and get a lousy “1”. The infantry will not be coming on the table. The Russians send their three tanks on the east side of the playing area at tactical speed and in echelon left formation. Only one of the T-64s has a valid LOS to the Abrams tanks.

Rear view from the Soviet tank platoon towards NATO positions.

The T-64’s shot hits the closest M1, but bounces off the front turret armor.

Turn 1 – NATO

I definitely want to keep the Canadians hidden from the Soviet tanks, so I send out my Abrams to flank the Soviet approach.

M1 Abrams movement

Both Abrams fire. One shot hits and glances off the turret armor of the T-64. A Bail-out result is achieved.

Turn 2 – Soviets

We roll for reserves and get a “5”. Wow! Much to the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet infantry comes on board and heads straight toward the nearby American tanks. The Russian tanks try to drive clear around the enemy flank on the other side.

T-64s about to fire on American Abrams tanks. Soviet infantry closing in for the assault.

The Russian tanks all manage to miss or for the shots to be ineffective.  It is up to the Russian infantry to complete a successful assault.

Both Abrams throw out a ton of defensive fire but only manage to take out one team of infantry. The rest of the platoon surrounds the American tank. Two of the RPG teams manage a hit on the side skirts but the Chobham armor keeps the Abrams alive. Only a lucky charge by a Soviet infantry team manages to kill off the tank.

Turn 2 – NATO

The remaining Abrams pulls back toward the objective and fires on the nearest T-64. The Lynx recce vehicles come out of hiding and lay down a thick stream of .50 cal and 7.62mm fire at the approaching Russian horde.

The Lynx vehicles manage to take out two Russian RPG-7 squads while the Abrams manages a kill on the T-64.

We’re in big trouble!
BOOOM!

Turn 3 – Soviets

It is do or die now for both sides. The Soviets commit totally by sending their two tanks straight toward the objective while firing at the sole remaining Abrams tank. The Soviet infantry races across the road towards the Lynx vehicles.

Unfortunately, for the Americans, the Abrams is hit and destroyed by tank fire. The two Lynx vehicles manage to whittle down the assaulting infantry force to nearly half its size before being overwhelmed by RPG and grenade fire.

The result is a total loss for the NATO forces.

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Progress Update – Army of Two

Halfway through writing “Army of Two” for Lock’n Load Publishing. This book has gone from being a fluffy action piece to becoming a linchpin of the series. The novel features most of the characters from First Strike and follows up their story as the war rages on around them. I’ve had to make a very minor tweak to Keith Tracton’s storyline as written in the scenario books, but it’s worth it for the payoff in the end.

Keith is a very smart fellow, so it follows that he does a lot of smart world-building. One of the things that gave me the freedom to plant these little adventures in his world was the fact that he was vague enough with the timeline in the scenario book. Because of this, I’m able to stretch the timing of events around so that they are both plausible and can fit in with the other books in the series.

While I’m enjoying the writing of Army of Two (I would say it’s my best book so far), I think it will be time to take a little break from the series after this. I’ll be changing up genres to write “Space Infantry”, which will be a welcome break from World War III 1985. I usually find that time away from a book series lets story ideas germinate and mature in my mind. After SI is published, I’ll slowly but surely return to World at War.

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Enemy Lines – Army of Two Progress

I am currently going through several of my older books and retooling them for Lock ‘n Load Publishing as part of the World at War ’85 universe. I’m quite proud that my newer and older fiction is being published by LnLP. Some of the older books are being changed to adapt to the WaW universe as created by Keith Tracton while others add bits to it and flesh it out. Some of the changes in the newer books are small while others are wholesale overhauls. Enemy Lines (which will be republished as “Army of Two” is one of the latter.

When I first wrote “Enemy Lines”, my idea was to recreate the feel of a Hollywood action movie from the ’80s. There was an attempt to entertain while at the same time pay homage to the era in which these books were set. The reason was simple enough – I grew up during this time and was fed a steady diet of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone action flicks just like all the other kids. Enemy Lines was written for pure fun.

When I re-read the book, I noticed several ways that the plotlines and characters of First Strike could be adapted to Enemy Lines and it hit me that I would write a kind of sequel to the final battle that takes place in First Strike to sort of explore what happens to various characters in the book. I also managed to draw a thread into Insurgency/Ghost Insurgency that I won’t delve into here.

The new version of Enemy Lines (Army of Two) is a major overhaul that draws on the story of the WaW ’85 universe so far and it also hints at some of the stories coming down the road. In many ways, it’s become a lynchpin of several books in the series. Recurring characters are starting to “grow” within the series and the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes in the war is being more fully explored within the pages of this book.

I’ll write another update once the final draft is submitted, but so far I am very pleased with the progress of Army of Two and I hope fans will enjoy it.

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On The Way

Over the last several months, I’ve been extremely busy writing new material for Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Helmed by David Heath, LnLP is a wargame company that has been around for more than ten years. They are the license holders for the upcoming World at War ’85 series, which is designed by Keith Tracton.

Back in January, David got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to write something for the World at War ’85 universe that Keith had created and I was more than happy to oblige. The result is the upcoming book, Storming the Gap: First Strike.

Based on the first three scenarios in the first module of the game “Storming the Gap“, the action takes place in a world very similar to the one I created with my own books though of course there were some key differences about the origins of the war and the events that followed.

Keith was extremely helpful and patient in working with me to help devise three stories that took place during the early days of the war in Fulda Gap. The result is one of my strongest efforts yet. With the support of a publishing company behind my work, the production values are way better than with my earlier books. The work benefits enormously from a professional team that includes illustrators, voice actors, and editors.

Storming the Gap: First Strike will be available as an e-book, paperback, and an audiobook.

Speaking of which, you can check out an audiobook sample here.

I am extremely proud of the result and the book is set to be released very soon. Keep your eyes out on the Lock ‘n Load Publishing facebook page for more information.

Team Yankee – Counterattack at Ludermund

One of the battles in my newest book, “First Strike” features a battle between elements of an American task force facing off against a Soviet counterattack near Ludermund. Without giving too much away, the US sends three combat teams to reclaim two bridges just north of Fulda City, near the towns of Hemmen and Ludermund. One element of the task force deals with a Soviet counterattack to try and retake Ludermund. This battle, using Team Yankee rules and miniatures, is loosely based on the story.

It’s okay to laugh.

So the very basic terrain I’m using is a mixture of the 2D cardboard houses and concrete walls provided with the Hammerfall starter set. The top of the photo is east and the bottom is west. The starter scenario uses a similar setup but I’ve modified it a bit to make it slightly more interesting. The first was to use the seam between the tatami mats running through the middle of the picture as a road.

The Soviet objective in the middle of the picture is right in the middle of the town – the Soviets are attempting to recapture it. The little piece of dark material in the lower left is rough-going terrain and the lighter colored pieces are rocky hills.

The left boundary of the battle is marked by the American objective marker and the right one is marked by the seam of the tatami mats.

The Americans start at the western edge of the layout. The tatami seam here represents the Fulda River. It is impassible to both sides.

Looking west toward US position.

The Soviets have three T-64 tanks and they set up to the east of the town. The Americans and Soviets roll a d6 for initiative and the Americans win. One of the Abrams tanks actually has LOS on the Soviets to start with but the enemy is just beyond the 1 meter range of the Abrams’ 105mm gun. The Americans close the distance with a tactical move toward the nearest house, hoping to find some concealment and blast the Soviets as they move in. The Soviet commander obliges, bringing his tanks straight west. One of them catches a glimpse of an Abrams and fires but the shot goes wide of the mark.

US on the left. Soviets on the right.

Things start to happen very quickly from here. The Americans push into the town and start firing at the encroaching enemy tanks.

The Abrams manage three hits on the enemy tanks. Despite that, the 105mm rounds cannot penetrate the hull front of the T-64s. The Soviet player needs a 3 or greater to remain unscathed and all three rolls are enough to shake off the incoming rounds.

“In Mother Russia, tank drives YOU!”

The Soviet commander decides to move two of his tanks up into cover while one of them remains stationary and provides covering fire.

T-64 tanks move behind cover of building.

The Soviet tank at the rear misses. The Americans decide to push it, seeing the opportunity.

US tanks move in and start shooting.

The Abrams pop up right behind both Soviet advance tanks. One of them fires and manages a hit that kills the nearest T-74. The other Abrams goes for a close range shot against the Soviet tank that was providing covering fire. Unfortunately, both rolls miss. Sigh.

BOOM! BOOM! Both American tanks are nailed by the two remaining Soviets. Game over.

Conclusion:

Wow! Promise me son, not to do the things I’ve done. Get behind cover if you can. The Americans had an unlucky break at the end, but they basically deserved what they got. Instead of using their mobility to get behind cover and shoot and scoot, they went straight for the enemy and wrapped up in a kill zone. There wasn’t too much cover in this setup but the buildings were definitely enough to try out some honest-to-god tactics that would have increased their chances by a whole lot. Let’s try that one again with a smarter approach.

Update:

So I tried this again and even threw a Soviet Air Assault Company into the town to even up the points a little for the Soviets (even though they didn’t need it last time).

The result this time was an American win, thanks to better use of cover and cross-country dashes to force the enemy into splitting up their forces a bit. The Americans did take some potshots from the infantry as they came into town and an RPG-18 round managed to disable one of the Abrams. The other Abrams avenged its death, taking out all three T-64s to garner a US win.

Abrams taken out by an RPG-18 hit near Ludermund.
The aftermath: Our lone Abrams manages three Soviet tank kills for a win.

Team Yankee – Hammerfall



Team Yankee from Battlefront Games of New Zealand is a World War III miniatures game set in the same world as the novel published in 1985 by Harold Coyle. The series offers players the chance to battle out the fate of West Germany between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces on a dinner table.

Of course, like Warhammer 40K and the like, there’s always the aspect of assembling and painting your chosen army, so the game becomes a hobby in itself. If you have the time and the $$$ to spend on that sort of thing, you’re in luck – the game’s Hammerfall starter kit will get you hopelessly addicted to help ease you into the world of Team Yankee, or as my friends call it, “Plastic Crack Cocaine” for middle-aged guys. I’m joking of course – I have no friends.

Rules

For those who aren’t well acquainted with the rules set, the game is played in an IGOUGO format. One player moves his units, then shoots, and finally assaults. Then the opposing player does the same.

Movement is pretty straightforward. You can conduct two types of movement with your units – tactical and dash. Units that conduct tactical movement can fire in the firing phase. Those that are dashing can move a greater distance but cannot fire. Distance is measured along the tabletop with a standard tape measure.

In the Shooting Step, the active player calls out targets and rolls a number of six-sided die equal to their unit’s ROF. Hits are achieved on the target if the rolls are equal to or greater than the target’s “To Hit” number. This can be modified by things like concealment or being within command range of your own unit. In an interesting twist, the opposing player can attempt to “shift” the hit die to a nearby target within enemy LOS as if the firing unit had mistaken their target.

Checking Line of Sight is a What You See is What You Get affair with players getting down to their unit level and trying to gauge what their unit can see. Units with more than half their base behind some form of terrain are concealed and therefore harder to hit. Anything less than that is not concealed.

The effect of hits are determined by, yep, you guessed it – rolling six-sided dice. If the sum of the opponent’s Armor Value plus the die roll is greater than the Anti-Armor value of the firing unit, the active player need only roll his weapon’s Firepower number or greater to destroy his target. Otherwise, the result is a Bail Out and the affected unit must make a Remount check at the start of its turn to get back in the game.

The game is fast-playing, especially with such a small number of units, but it is fun. The lack of opportunity fire rules creates some weird situations sometimes where tanks are driving into close range of enemies then opening fire. I found the rules very simple and easy to learn and if you’ve ever played MBT, you’ll likely agree. In fact, I think you could easily use MBT’s rules here if you can adjust the scale properly. I’ll have to try it and see how it works out.

Although the Team Yankee rules set is based on the popular World War II minis game, Flames of War, this game has a few notable rule changes.

The biggest difference this time around is the hardware – in FoW, moving and shooting with your tanks was done at a considerable penalty to RoF. In the 1980s world of advanced gun stabilizers and laser rangefinders, there really isn’t a benefit to sitting still and shooting with your tanks. For this reason, Team Yankee is much more a game focused on movement and outflanking your opponent.


Hammerfall

There’s a lot more to what I have described above but these are the basic concepts you need to know in order to play the base game starter set, named Hammerfall.

This box set includes two M1 Abrams tanks and three T-64 tanks. You need to assemble them and, if your heart desires, paint them up. There’s a smattering of terrain included in the box – flat cardboard houses, concrete dividers, and hedgerows. These don’t look amazing on your table but they do allow you to play the three scenarios included in the game’s “Start Here” book.

The Team Yankee rulebook is included with the set. It’s in full color with nice illustrations and photos but at my age, I found it a little hard to read the small print and opted for the hardcover version at a larger size.

I was a little disappointed that decals were not included for the plastic models (or at least they weren’t in the box I received).

Assembly

Assembling the tanks was very easy – even for a klutz like me. There are extra pieces included if you want to do up some variants such a mineplows or if you would rather build IPM1 tanks instead of the classic M1 Abrams. You can also choose to go with closed hatches or have a commander poking out of an open hatch of your tanks.

As a side note, I had a hard time gluing the M1 side skirts on and I’m not sure if that’s because of my inexperience or if other people had the same issue. Once or twice, they’ve come off on me during a game and I’ve had to glue them on again.

The T-64s went together very smoothly and I found out here that it’s best to take an “assembly line” approach to your tank building rather than making one model at a time. It’s much quicker to do it this way and you can quickly apply any lessons (or mistakes) you might have learned from assembling your first tanks.

Painting

Because I don’t have a hobby shop near where I live, I resorted to buying the Team Yankee paint set directly from the Battlefront store. I don’t have a lot of time to mix and match my paints to find the right color so having the paints ready to go was really nice. I only have the Soviet paint set at this point so I’ll talk about that.

The paints are quite thick and you might need to use a thinner, especially for your basecoats. I tried the thicker basecoat and had a few smears but they worked out with a second layer and some touch-ups here and there. The tank surface details really came alive with a wash of Ordnance Shade and I was pleasantly surprised at the results.

Finally, I dry brushed Soviet Green on the tank to finish it up and the result was much better than I expected. The last time I built a model kit was back in the 1980s so I really had no idea what I was doing here and I am pleased with how the tanks came out. Well – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Overall

I really like the quality of the Team Yankee products. It seems Battlefront has really committed to pleasing their customers with a wide range of armies and units along with full-color rulebooks and guides for helping people assemble and paint their models. The demo videos I watched on the website were invaluable for understanding the flow of the game. I find some of the prices on things like terrain to be a bit too high, even though they do look nice and seem to be well-built. The rules isn’t particularly deep but it looks beautiful on a table and it does give you a feel of platoon-level modern combat. As I said before, I’d love to try this with the MBT rules to see how it works.

Fortress

This might be hard to believe – but I am not a weeb. I don’t watch anime and I don’t think Japan is the greatest country to have ever existed on the planet. There are lots of problems here. Big ones too. But I like it just fine as a place to live and work. It’s a nice place with lots of good food and people. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m going to necessarily weeb out a little bit in this continuing look at Tsukuda Hobby’s wargaming output in the 1980s.

As I mentioned in my look at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tsukuda had started off producing wargames in 1981 with their science fiction line then soon branched out into historical wargames and then beginner level games aimed at casual players.

Fortress is the second game ever released by Tsukuda Hobby. Designed by Atsutoshi Okada, the game is based on several key battles that take place in the original Mobile Suit: Gundam animation series that came out in 1979.

I could go in-depth here about the series and the events that this game attempts to emulate…but it gets tedious to hear unless you’re already a fan of the show. You might as well sit someone down and try to summarize the last five or six seasons of Game of Thrones. The point being – if they were really interested enough to hear it all, they would have watched it themselves already.

Gundam statue in Tokyo Plaza

Suffice it to say that Mobile Suit Gundam is a story about a war between Earth (the Feds) and her breakaway colonies (Zeon). The story’s protagonist is a young man who fights for the Earth forces. He pilots one of the only remaining mobile suits that use a new technology called Gundam, which is kind of a self-learning artificial intelligence. Over the course of 43 episodes, the tale becomes an epic story of duty, friendship, betrayal, love, loss, and BIG HONKIN’ ROBOTS FIGHTING IN SPACE!

Watching the original series forty years later, the whole thing is clunky and hard to follow with lots of dead ends and even some sloppy animation here and there. But if you can forgive that, it’s still a good show. It’s hard to overestimate the impact it had on Japanese culture and entertainment at the time and I would even go so far to say it had the equivalent impact that Star Wars did in the United States. There was nothing like it on television when Gundam came out. Nothing had even come close.

The huge fandom that grew up around Gundam in the early 1980s was a boon to Japanese game companies. Not only did Tsukuda Hobby cash in on it but so did Bandai, which published Game for Adult: Mobile Suit Gundam in 1982. While the latter company’s Gundam-related wargame output petered out after a few games, Tsukuda took a different approach and leaned hard on the franchise and kept pumping out Gundam games.

Within a year of publishing its first Gundam-related game (Jabro, which was about ground combat in the Gundam universe), the company had released three new Gundam-related wargames. These were “Fortress“, “New Type“, and “White Base” while also publishing other sci-fi related games such as the aforementioned Star Trek along with three games based on the Star Wars movie franchise (“Death Star“, “Hoth“, and “Endor“). Keep in mind that the games division was just one of the many toy and hobby-related departments of Tsukuda. At the same time, they were releasing model kits, figurines, along with books and posters. It was a very prolific period in the company’s history.

There were missteps along the way, of course. Star Trek II was a bit of a mess, with its split-personality approach to the subject matter and a rulebook with some pretty basic errors. The fact that Tsukuda stopped publishing Star Trek games entirely afterwards hints at the game’s disappointing reception over here.

So how does Fortress hold up?

Well, Fortress is everything that Star Trek II was not. This is a simple space-fighting game with a clean rulebook and a devotion to the Gundam source material. Where Star Trek II had us filling out logs and calculating energy consumption, Fortress presents beer and pretzels quality fun that doesn’t require much brainpower to learn and play. There are a few puzzling aspects of the game (stacking rules in space, for example) but it’s all in service of creating a fast playable version that simulates the events of the show’s final episodes where huge space battles between the Feds and Zeon take place as the war draws to its conclusion.

The Battle for S-Field. Separatist Grey (Zeon) defend against an onslaught of blue (Feds).

The game comes with four mounted maps, two of which feature halves of a space fortress much like the one featured in the TV series. The components are, well, what you would expect from a game made in 1981. Having said that, they are cleanly designed with accurate silhouettes that show their animated counterparts in the series. Each unit has four factors – movement, defense, mobile suit attack, and ship-to-ship attack.

There are two kinds of combat in the game – long-distance (ships or suits firing at other ships or suits in a different hex) and close combat (same hex units engaged in combat). In long-range combat, you just look at the unit type you are trying to attack (suit or ship?) then calculate the distance from the firing unit to the target. The number of hexes is deducted from the unit’s attack total and then compared to the defense value of the target. This is then determined as a ratio and a six-sided die is rolled before consulting a CRT, which is fairly bloody.

Rolls of 6 will usually eliminate an enemy unit at anything greater than a 1:1 ratio. Even at the unfavorable attacker ratios, the chances are good that an enemy unit will be rendered temporarily useless with a “confused” or “panicked” result. Ships or suits that are confused or panicked will grant the attacker a +1 or +2 die roll bonus when targeted.

Blue:s ships on the right stand off against Zeon mobile suits on the left while close combat confusion occurs.

Close combat is pretty much the same except mobile suits will have their values doubled against ships, which makes them devastating in any encounter. A separate CRT is used for close combat. This is even bloodier than long range combat. It is very common to have entire stacks eliminated in a single turn, especially if you know how to use your units to ratchet up the combat ratio or gain column shifts. Column shifts take place when attacking or defending with elite units or student units. New Type units offer the most column shifts (up to 3) and can tear through the enemy like hellfire when set loose on the battlefield.

The game sequence is straightforward. Each turn consists of two “innings” where the lead-off player will move all his ships and suits. Then he attacks. The other player then gets a chance to attack. Then all damage is assigned. After that, the lead-off player changes and the sequence is repeated. Nothing to it.

There are four scenarios included in the game. These are all based on major battles that took place in the series and they are faithful in terms of the forces assigned to the battle and the objectives. The first scenario, “Battle of S-Field”, is the easiest and quickest to play. The final scenario is the real meat of the game, featuring the pivotal battle at “A Bao A Qu”. A scaled-down version of the battle is also presented here for players who don’t have the kind of time to play through it all.

There is a real authentic feel to the scenario construction here and several units (such as fighters) from the expanded universe make an appearance, which makes me wonder if there was some tight collaboration between the series writers and the designer. I really got the impression that the goal was tightly focused on creating a simple game that the fans of the series could pick up and play in an evening. In that regard, this design is a stunning success.

Units fight and move just like they do in the Gundam series. There is just enough depth and variety in the units to allow for good tactics to beat out the luck factor. For example, the Federation Public ships have beam disruptors that can be used to block beam weapons from firing through a hex. Long-range missiles can be used to hit out at vital targets as they approach. For the fortress defenders, there is the big question of whether to make a stand further away from the base without the help of its heavy cannons, or to give the attacking player the initiative and let him get closer before engaging.

Japanese rulebook with easy to follow examples and illustrations

I found the Japanese rulebook quite easy to follow and it included plenty of examples to illustrate key concepts (perhaps even a little over-explained in some cases, but that’s okay). I think it’s always a good thing if a non-native speaker can follow your rules without too many problems.

I enjoyed playing Fortress as someone who likes (but doesn’t love) Gundam. If you don’t know the series, you’ll have a hard time figuring out what all the fuss is about and what certain unit types do and why. There are so many simple wargames out there that use similar rules and follow more familiar themes so you would be better off avoiding this one. On the other hand, if you get even the slightest dollop of joy from thinking about BIG HONKIN ROBOTS FIGHTING IN SPACE then this is your game.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

KHAAAAAAN!

Tsukuda Hobby made their first real venture into wargaming in 1981 when the company acquired the license for Mobile Suit Gundam. At the time, the animated space opera was a huge hit in Japan. And no wonder! It’s about huge freakin’ robots fighting each other in space. How could you go wrong with a premise like that?!

pic from BGG. credit to Matt Boehland.

The success of the first two Gundam-based wargames, Jabro (which dealt with ground combat) and Fortress (which focused on space battles) spurred the company to venture further into their existing licenses and make games that dealt with other topics. Star Wars: Death Star and Star Trek: The Invasion of the Klingon Empire were published in 1982. I’m not sure if any of these games were good or not but they were successful enough to spur Tsukuda to keep releasing similar gaming products throughout the 1980s.

In fact, the company branched out its wargaming into three separate series. The first was an SF series that produced games based heavily on popular sci-fi licenses at the time. The second was a First Step series, which were usually tactical level wargames for kids or entry-level gamers that emphasized quick play and simple rules sets. The last one was the “NF series”, which were historical-based wargames that leaned heavily towards World War II in the Pacific and Europe.

Tsukuda Hobby – 1983 catalog

When Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in the theaters during the summer of 1982, it was a huge hit with moviegoers in the States, achieving the highest box office weekend of the year. The movie wouldn’t be released until late February of the next year in Japan (translation and distribution rights takes forever over here – not to mention ensuring that the movie’s release doesn’t eclipse any domestic releases). But Tsukuda must have sensed by then that the movie would be a hit over here too. So they purchased the rights to the movie and produced a game.

The game Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was published in 1983 and…uh…yeah. Thirty six years later, an unpunched copy is sitting on my desk and a couple of weeks of translation work have yielded an English rules set that sort of makes sense. A warning here that some of my complaints about the game may be due more to mistranslation but I think I got most of it spot on.

So what are the issues here?

The first is the bipolar focus of the game. The game has two “modes” of play: exploration or battlefield.

The Rulebook – energy management and movement sections

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Much of the rulebook is given over to the exploration mode. I’m not sure where this really happened in the movie but hey – it’s a Star Trek game and was the central focus of the TV series. So it sort of make sense but then again not really.

Both players move their ships around on a “Warp Map” and you manage your ship’s energy each turn. At the beginning of each turn, the ships under your command are allocated a base amount of energy derived from Warp Drive and Impulse Drive.

Then both players plot out their movement and then reveal their plotted courses. Just like using sensors and weaponry, movement consumes energy.

This plotting/movement phase continues until either both players have either run out of available energy or declare that they are finished their movement for the turn. At this point, ships in the same hex as a star system can then conduct conduct diplomacy (if you’re Federation) or intimidation (if you’re Klingon).

Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, the star system might ally with you, attack others ships or star systems, or even repair your damaged ships. You also might run into space storms or have an encounter from a random table listed at the back of the book.

At the end of the game, victory is determined mainly by how many star systems both sides have managed to either conquer or ally with.

Three mounted mapboards included in the game. 

The Balance of Terror

Battle scenarios deal with famous battles from the movies and TV shows. The first couple of scenarios are based on the famous unwinnable “Kobayashi Maru” exercise that Kirk had to cheat at in order to win during his academy days. One of the scenarios lets you play out the battle between Kirk and Khan at the end of the film.

The battle sequence of play is very similar to the exploration game with some key differences. Instead of using separate warp maps, the ships are placed on the same mapboard. Since we’re dealing with close-up knife fights between huge ships at slow speed, the ships only get energy from their Impulse Drives.

It’s interesting to note that the subsystems generate a small amount of available energy each turn and this can be tapped into during an emergency – at a price.

Movement and combat occur simultaneously and damage to ship locations takes effect at the end of each movement/combat phase so both ships can take each other out in a blaze of glory (“From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!”). Battles run pretty smoothly once you get the hang of it though the charts for hit locations and damage are scattered throughout several pages of charts (that are mercifully separated from the rulebook).

The Trouble with Tables

It’s worth stopping and noting at this point that there are five scenarios in the book and four of these are Battle scenarios. For some reason, the rulebook states that there are eight scenarios but that is a glaring error and not the only one I found. Anyway, here’s a big thing: if your game only has one scenario that deals with exploration, don’t dedicate over half the rules set to it. Find a single focus for your game and develop it.

There are also some weird choices made here. There are three ship types in the game – Heavy Cruisers, Cruisers, and Klingon Battle Cruisers. Each of these has detailed tables of components and energy usage that need to be consulted and written down in a log at the start of each game. The charts are all over the place so this takes a really long time (took me nearly two hours on my first play to fill out the Enterprise log).

With only three ships here, it would have been nice just to have a few pre-made logs to photocopy in order to facilitate play time. I understand that the intent may have been to provide room for expansions or for players to incorporate other ships from the Star Trek universe into the game. But the cost doesn’t seem to be worth the payoff of customization.

The rulebook itself also has some glaring errors, especially in the examples. The illustrated charts and consumption numbers don’t always match what’s in the actual tables. I also found a couple of mathematical errors involving simple sums, which only added to the confusion.

Who Mourns for Tsukuda?

All that being said, my first game of Star Trek went fairly smooth. After translating the rules for myself into English, I finally sat down and played out the Kobayashi Maru scenario. I’ll write about the specifics in a future post but I can say handily that the game did, in fact, feel like Star Trek.

Once you get the hang of managing your energy and understanding what to do with each chart, the game becomes a lot of fun and it felt pretty cool when my wounded Enterprise managed to take on a Klingon Battle Cruiser and manage a hit with a pair of proton torpedoes.

I can’t help sensing that this game was intended as part of a series of Star Trek games that Tsukuda was hoping to further develop in its lineup. As I mentioned above, this was the second game that dealt with the license. A few lines in the rulebook encourage players to build up scenarios for each other. There are tons of counters in the game, some of which aren’t really explained at all in the rulebook – were these meant to be part of a future expansion?

There is a wonderful potential to use the empty ship logs to play with and develop your own ships from the movie and TV universe, even though it’s not specifically stated. I found all this unexplained chrome to be a bit mysterious – as if something had gone on behind the scenes that basically doomed these aspirations from the start. As it is, Tsukuda never produced another Star Trek game ever again. Soon, it turned back to mostly Japanese-based TV shows and animation for its licenses.

It’s interesting that a company like Tsukuda never really got much attention by gamers in the west. Obviously, the language differences were mainly responsible for keeping Japan-based games from having their influence and designs drift back to their source of inspiration in the west. It might have also been the “hit and miss” quality of the products, which from my experience, can vary a great deal.

While I found Star Trek to be an enjoyable but messy game, I had an entirely different experience with Fortress, which was a simple but well-honed machine that did exactly what it was designed to do in terms of theme and entertainment value. On the other hand, I have also set up and stared at Leopard II, TH’s game of armored warfare in hypothetical World War III Europe, which was both unfinished and unplayable in its final form – but somehow managed to impress nonetheless merely on the scale of what was even attempted. (How do you possibly come to terms with a base game that comes with no less than THREE THOUSAND COUNTERS.)

Basically, you can never ever guess what you get from a Tsukuda Hobby game and I find that to be part of the charm and frustration of collecting them.

I’ll be talking a little more about Tsukuda Hobbies and other Japanese wargames in my future blog  posts. Stay tuned.