Next War: Korea and Red Phoenix

I just finished reading Larry Bond’s classic 1989 military thriller, Red Phoenix.

What a great read! It’s an epic tale of a Second Korean War set during the late 1980s just at the tail end of the Cold War.

There’s plenty to enjoy – taut military action, intrigue, and a look at the political dynamics that such a war might have involved during that time.

In case you haven’t read it, Bond’s tale starts off with a growing crisis on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s ailing father-figure Kim Il-sung is in the twilight of his life. His son, the de facto leader of the regime, is hungry for a war of unification to make the old man happy before he croaks. Sensing vulnerability in the political turmoil of South Korea’s student demonstrations, Dear Leader decides to stir the pot with some fancy footwork by double-agents in high government positions.

Soon, the South Korean military is cracking down hard and shooting into crowds of unarmed protestors. This violence doesn’t sit well with Washington lawmakers, who see an opportunity to do a little political grandstanding by slapping the country with trade sanctions and a threatened military withdrawal. None of it matters.

As the turmoil in South Korea deepens, the American president announces a punitive withdrawal of all US military forces from the peninsula. Too late, he learns that he has been misled by his national security advisor. Left with no choice but to go ahead with the pullout, he asks the local American military commander to intentionally drag out the process.

The growing instability in South Korea leads to an attempted coup by the country’s senior military leaders, who are caught at the last minute and arrested. Thus begins a purge of the ROK military’s best and brightest officers. Soon the army is a mere husk of its former self.

M48 tanks of the South Korean military in the 1980s.

Seeing his chance, the North Korean leader puts into motion a plan called “Red Phoenix”. This is a military strategy aimed at defeating the South Koreans and uniting the country under the communist banner. The US and its South Korean ally are surprised by a massive attack on Christmas Day as the DPRK hurls its troops across the DMZ and over the Han River. The Soviets are only too happy to help feed the offensive with supplies and the latest military technology. As the US Army and the ROK retreat south, things begin to spiral out of control and the conflict threatens to become a much wider war.

I won’t spoil the ending here. I would rank this as one of my favorites – up there with Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October. I also enjoyed Bond’s Vortex, which is an underappreciated classic.

Red Phoenix put me in the mood to play Mitchell Land’s excellent debut in the Next War series, Next War: Korea. I got this game when it first came out and made a real mess of the rules while learning the Standard game. Since I finally had a bit of time, I returned to it with the determination to get things right.

Over the course of ten days, I played and replayed the game’s first Standard scenario, Seoul Train. Admittedly, I was pretty rusty with the rules and made many mistakes trying to get the system down. Reading Mr. Land’s AAR on Boardgamegeek helped immensely in getting the rules straight once and for all (though the part about Advance/Control checks should actually be replaced with Clearing markers to reflect the latest rules iteration).

While I was playing this scenario, I wondered a little at how it could be adapted to fit the situation in Larry Bond’s novel. I think you could create a variant based on the Seoul Train scenario. Basically, just keep everything the same with the following adjustments:

  • reduce the Efficiency rating of all ROK units by 1 to reflect the loss of morale and leadership before the start of the war
  • reduce the Efficiency rating of the US 2nd Division by 1 to reflect the loss in equipment due to the withdrawal of US forces
  • ROK 20/VII unit sets up in 3018 to reflect the fact that the S. Korea political leaders order several units up north near the DMZ so as to avoid another coup attempt. This unit cannot move for the duration of Turn 1.
  • No ROK units may move into or through an Urban hex during Turn 1.
  • At the start of Turn 1, roll a d10. If the result is even, remove ROK’s single Air Point for this turn to reflect the chaotic evacuation effort and the attacks at Gimpo International.
  • Map: Row 31xx and everything to the west of it are in play.
  • Tunnels: The DPRK gets only two tunnels instead of three for Turn 1. One of the tunnels is discovered at the beginning of the book.
  • Objectives: In the book, the DPRK’s strategy was to surround Seoul rather than capture it. To reflect this, the victory conditions are changed as follows: 1 VP for capturing each of the following: Gimpo, Goyang, Guri, Hanam. 1 VP for every 2 stacking points worth of units off the the south edge of the map (row xx22).
    • A major DPRK victory is achieved at 10 or more victory points. Anything else is an ROK victory.

I haven’t fine-tuned the above rules yet but I think this is a good starting point for a decent Red Phoenix scenario. Any feedback is much appreciated.

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