Mike Force: A First Look

Mike Force is a solitaire game of Special Forces operations during the Vietnam War. If that sentence doesn’t get your heart racing then please put down the horse tranquilizers.

Joseph Miranda (designer of so many games, why even bother listing them here) is behind this effort. It was published in the current (MAY/JUNE 2018) issue of Modern War.

So what you get here is a game that focuses exclusively on the shadowy SOG portion of the conflict to the stubborn exclusion of any other element. It’s like the opposite of Nick Karp’s zoomed-out look at the conflict in his seminal 1984 game, “Vietnam 1965 – 1975”.

With the plethora of decent Vietnam War games already out there (Fire in the Lake, Vietnam Solitaire, Vietnam 1965 – 1975, etc.), you couldn’t be blamed for asking the question: Did this game need to be made?

And the answer I would give is “Yeah. Sure.”

Because this game is the war’s underbelly that you rarely get glimpses of anywhere else. And also because it shows you how small units could influence the course of the war.  Lots of other Vietnam games depict the large-scale use of US military power against small VC units in the field. In those games, you really are trying to hit a gnat with a sledgehammer as American infantry battalions conduct large-scale operations in an attempt to track down an elusive enemy that disappears into the jungle each and every time you try and pick a fight with them.

This game takes a very different approach to the war. Here, you command the agile strike forces of small but highly trained teams of men who track and kill the infiltrating NVA and VC as they come into South Vietnam.

Scenario 1: Early War setup of Mike Force

You’ll push around counters that represent six-man A-teams and you’ll curse and shout when they get overrun by a battalion of NVA. You’ll send in hatchet teams to conduct recon missions and cheer when you call in an airstrike and see a VC supply depot get wiped out. Or you’ll conduct PSYWAR operations and watch in frustration as the operation gets blown. You’ll recruit and lead Hmong villagers to take out targets as they come down the Ho Chi Minh trail.

All these tiny pressure points push the war in certain directions, affecting enemy morale and operations as they infiltrate South Vietnam and push towards free world strongholds such as Hue and Da Nang.

Mike Force really captures the feel of these small unit actions and how and why they fit in to the overall conflict. It also gives you an idea of how special operations were forced to operate within the framework of military planning at the time.

Gameplay

Each game is seven turns long and takes place on a map depicting the area of and around South Vietnam (this includes parts of Laos and North Vietnam). The various spaces on the map show different types of terrain and base areas. These spaces connect to each other to form infiltration routes that the communists use in order to eventually capture key cities in South Vietnam.

There are four scenarios included in the game, each of which takes place during a different stage of the war.

The game starts with random draws of communist unit that are placed face down by the players in the different communist bases. There are two types of communist units – mobile and static. Static units are quite often “soft” targets such as supply depots and motor pools or advisors. But you might run into some infantry there too. On the other hand, the mobile units are usually infantry and some of them are pretty well-equipped and can put up a hell of a fight.

My A-Team led by Cpt. Simon finds a Soviet adviser at Que Son.

Your units are varied. You get everything from SF camps to CIDG units to gunships and transport helicopters. You also get White Star teams that are airborne-capable, PSYWAR units, MACV SOG support units that include air support, etc. Basically, you get an entire toolkit of units to choose from and you can fight your war however you see fit. Be warned, however, that you need to spend Resource Points (RPs) to purchase these units. And pretty much the only way to get RPs is to rack up the body count and impress the guys back in Washington.

Anyway, you set up your units and each game turn follows the same pattern. You draw a random event from the cup and implement it. After that, you can recruit forces by spending RPs. Then you move your guys around the map and conduct recon missions. If you manage to succeed at a recon mission (by rolling against the concerned unit’s recon value rating), then you flip over the enemy unit to reveal what it is. Then you can react to it by sending in airstrikes or transporting units into the combat zone by helicopter.

After that, the combat phase begins and you line up all the revealed enemy units to face off against your own units in the same space. You roll for tactical initiative (against one unit’s recon value) to decide who rolls first in the attack phase. Results are implemented immediately so having tactical advantage lets you get the first shot in without having to worry about return fire.

After the winner is declared, you conduct the body count. Each enemy unit has a BCP (Body Count Point) on it. When you kill an enemy unit, you can choose to either increase your number of RPs by the same number of Body Count Points – or you can decrease the enemy infiltration points by the same number of BCPs. Conversely, losing friendly units means either decreasing RP or increasing IP.

The last half of each turn is given over to the communists. The phases are pretty much the same. You choose an Event from the cup. Then you roll a die and consult tables to determine both how many new units the communists can recruit (this largely depends on the communist infiltration level) and also what the general strategy of the communists will be for that turn (also depends on infiltration level). They might stop and lick their wounds, advance, or withdraw.

Enemy units will ultimately try and go for Da Nang. If they manage to capture it, the free world player automatically loses the game. But even if they don’t get it, they can also inflict some pretty bad VP losses by capturing other free world bases such as Hue or Khe San.

After communist movement is conducted, the free world player again can conduct reaction airstrikes and other missions against revealed communist units in the same space as friendly units.

Some thoughts:

Mike Force is a pretty easy game to learn. I was clear of the rulebook after my second playthrough. An average game will take anywhere between 1 and 2 hours, which hits my “sweet spot” for gaming these days. The rules are fairly simple and well-written and organized. I had no problem finding information I needed. The rulebook is 16 pages long. There are 30 sections, each of them with a few subpoints underneath. I found the rules quite intuitive after a very short time.

Joe Youst drew the map and it is beautiful. More importantly, it facilitates gameplay. There is plenty of space for the game’s units without having to resort to stacking them. The graphics and font captures the era and theme of the game quite well. The large size of the font makes it easy to read and quickly find information. Tables are included on the map, not in the rulebook or the magazine (thankfully).

The counters are nothing special but they’re functional and easy to read. The free world counters show recon value, combat value, and movement values underneath a NATO symbol. The communist counters show a single combat value along with its BCP. Infantry units get a NATO symbol. Other units get a nice silhouette.

For me, a good game is one that teaches me something new and presents me with lots of interesting choices.

Did I learn something? Yes. I learned about another aspect of warfare that’s often glossed over or ignored in wargames. Before I played Mike Force, I had no idea how unconventional forces played a role in Vietnam and how they were used. I came away from the game with a better appreciation for a.) how the definition of progress (body count) colored everything that happened in the war and how it was conducted and b.) the huge amounts of firepower that could be called down by just a few men in the right spot and how this ultimately influenced morale and the enemy’s ability to move men and material down various routes.

More importantly, I have a better understanding of why these units exist. They conduct very high-risk operations that require extensive training. The most important role these guys played in the war was to pinpoint enemy positions and serve as the eyes and ears of what was out there. To survive and do their jobs well, they need a hell of a lot of support. Without it, they are mostly sitting ducks. For this reason, you have to have a good sense of when to push an operation and when to hold back.

A Near Run Thing: The Battle for Hue is decided by air power as an NVA infantry regiment and a division attack

Were there interesting choices? Yes, in two ways:

First, there was the unit variety. As I mentioned above, there is a very wide variety of forces that you can purchase and they all do some things better than others. Some of them are fragile and finicky.

You can spend 5 RP on a PSYWAR operation that can either get blown in the very next turn or ends up turning things around for you. You can try to recruit Laotians into the White Star program and end up with a potent force to work with – or you can end up with nothing. You can ask for MACV support and not be given the kind that you really needed. Yes, luck is a central part of it. But so is the ability to play the hand that you are dealt. I can see how some players might not enjoy that though.

Another interesting choice is the agony of whether to increase RP or decrease IP when conducting Body Counts. In my first game, I chose to decrease the Infiltration level and managed to keep it to a “Medium” level. However, I didn’t have any points to recruit new guys so I ended up getting hammered by the enemy and losing what little forces I had. After that, my choices for hitting the NVA were extremely limited as I watched them pour into Hue. It was only through some last minute air and gunship intervention that I managed to save it from being overrun.

MBT: The Gap

“The Gap” is scenario 3 from Jim Day’s popular MBT (second edition, GMT, 2015).

The Soviet 8th Guards Army are pouring over the border into West Germany along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact. The 79th Guards Tank Division is given the honor of advancing first into the Fulda Gap, where it meets elements of the US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), the Blackhorse Regiment. The cav’s mission – delay the Soviet forces while the rest of the US forces move up towards the border.

In this scenario, the US gets an under-strength Armored Cav Troop. That means we have an M1IP tank platoon (the IP model was basically a slightly upgraded M1 Abrams in terms of armor and electronics) and two pairs of M3 Bradleys along with an M106 for indirect fire support. We also get four recon infantry sections armed with little more than LAWs to deal with the oncoming onslaught of Soviet armor.

The Soviets get a ton of tanks and fighting vehicles. They have an entire reinforced tank company with which to take on the US cavalry. This means four platoons of T-80BV tanks, three platoons of BMP-2s filled with infantry that have RPG-22s (and in one case, a Saxhorn ATGM launcher). They also have three self-propelled artillery guns and a couple of engineer squads riding around in a pair of BTR-70s. They get a BRM-1 reconnaissance vehicle too. That is a heck of a lot of firepower.

The major US advantages lie with the American concealment and prepared fighting positions. Two vehicles may set up in a hull down position while four units can use hidden unit markers (I am playing solo so I didn’t use these). The US player also gets a bonus when searching for hull down positions and a +20 to initiative rolls each turn.

The main objective of the Soviets is to get off the left edge of the map board. The Americans obviously want to prevent this from happening.

Here’s how it went:

Initial US Setup (ignore the errant KO marker)

We’ve got map board 1 above map board 3 here with a village or town on either side of the maps. The game starts up with the US set up and the Soviets off board. From turn 1, the Soviets get their tanks moving while the rest of the company (BMPs etc.) comes on board on turn 3.

One of the great things about the US M3 and infantry cav units is that they are recon units and therefore get their own unique command counters. No need to be within the command span of the US company HQ.

I set my units up with the idea of basically funneling the Soviets through the middle of the map and into the kill zone set up by my M1 tanks. To this effect, I put infantry up on the top of the southern hill in the woods hex under full cover. The M3s are set up on the east side of the hill. I am hoping to hit out at the Soviets as they come on the board and then pull them back over the hill as soon as possible.

To the north of them, I put infantry beside the road to ambush any hapless Soviet tanks that try to dash west along it. To the north of them, set up in Hull Down positions, are two M3 Bradleys. To the west, set up in and around the crops (the crops give automatic partial hull down cover) are my M1 tank platoon.

Further west in the village is an infantry squad and the company HQ tank along with the M106 artillery and an M3 Bradley with a TOW launcher to fire from extreme range.

Infantry and M3 Bradleys set up on and near hill in SE corner of map. 
NE of map: A pair of Bradleys and infantry near the road set up on overwatch.
M1 Tank platoon set up in NW corner of map with CHQ and arty in village

Turn 1:

End of Turn 1

During Turn 1, the Soviet tanks come on board, taking eye-watering losses to long-range ATGM fire from the Bradleys. Three tanks are knocked out by the Bradleys on the hill on the northeast section of the map. A Bradley way back on the western edge takes out another T-80. The pair of M3s to the south miss both their shots with the second one actually incurring a weapons malfunction!

Turn 2:

End Turn 2

By the end of turn 2, the Soviets have lost another pair of T-80s. However, the lead platoon is nearly halfway across the map and has managed a kill on an M1. The M3 Bradleys down near the southeast of the map are in deep trouble. One is killed while the other is in full reverse trying to get away from a pair of tanks rumbling towards it. As you can probably guess, the surviving M3 is the one with the weapons malfunction.

Turn 3:

Turn 3

The Soviets try to use a kind of bounding overwatch to move their remaining tanks forward. A pair of T-80s is pursuing the M3 Bradley to the south, getting dangerously close to being out of the command span (the scenario rules say the Russian command span is 8 but I used 10 here). At this point, it hits me that this is probably a bad idea. The T-80s both fire and somehow both miss their prey.

The BMPs come on board and head west out of the little town nearest their map edge. Due to the trees to the north, the M3 Bradleys cannot get an LOS on them even though they are on top of a large hill.

Turn 4:

The M1s are engaged with a Soviet tank platoon near the center of the board so the Soviet commander decides to just skirt around the southern hill and send the rest of his guys west while the Americans deal with the tanks. This seems like a pretty reasonable tactic at this point. There isn’t really anything that can hurt them that much, right?

Turn 5:

The remaining pair of T-80s manage to both score kills on two M1 tanks at point blank range before being cut down by the Company HQ tank and the M3 Bradley in the town. A pair of T-80s races out of command span and tries to get into firing position near the town while the BMPs make a run across the hill and try to dash off the map.

Unfortunately for the Soviets, the M3’s weapons malfunction is repaired now and it starts killing BMPs. The pair of M3 Bradleys on the northern hill come down and try to get in position to score some kills on the swarm of BMPs as they make their escape. The infantry start to open fire on the nearest BMPs as they roll into sight.

Turn 6:

More devastation occurs as the infantry up on the southern hill start firing off LAWs at the escaping BMPs, scoring a pair of hits. The M3 on the hill pours in GP fire on a Russian squad that has bailed out of its damaged vehicle. Meanwhile, the CHQ and the M3 in the town manage to easily dispatch the T-80s that were attempting to provide cover fire. The swarm of BMPs has been whittled down to a little over two platoons.

The BTR-70s near the center of the map start firing at the M3 Bradleys at close range, causing a bail out result on one. The other is unscratched.

Turn 7:

A BMP manages to kill off the American M3 Bradley in the town to the north. Both CHQs fire at each other at point blank range and miss. The US artillery fire combined with the infantry GP fire and the M3 Bradley on the southern hill massacre two squads worth of Soviet troops, eliminating one and reducing two others.

On Turn 8, the rest of the BMPs and the Soviet CHQ race off the map edge, leaving behind the BTR-70s and (oops!) the 2S1 artillery as well. I have totally forgotten about them and concede them as lost to the enemy by the end of the scenario.

As you can guess, the Soviets lost badly in this one, with the US VPs reaching nearly double what was required for a win (something around 740, I think? – I was too numbed to count).

I had fun with this scenario. It’s really tense and although it may look like a cakewalk for the Soviets just by sheer numbers, it’s really easy to make a bad decision and lose quickly. Up until about turn 4, it looked like the Soviets would just cakewalk through the whole thing.

However, the Americans managed to cause enough problems to effectively hinder the Russians forces as they rushed towards the map edge. I would like to try this scenario again, this time using the Russian artillery more wisely and focusing my firepower just a bit more before rushing forward.

Gulf Strike: How do you solve a problem like Saudi Arabia?

In this article, I’m referring to Scenario 1 of Gulf Strike where the Iranians are thundering down through the Saudi Peninsula with the help of their Soviet buddies, trying to close off American access to the Persian Gulf before the US can rush in carrier groups and Marines and air and endless amounts of supplies for their beleaguered buddies of the Gulf Council States.

So you’re playing Iran and turn one has gone fairly smoothly. You’ve had Kuwait all to yourself to beat the hell out of and now it’s conquered and turn two starts. The Gulf Council States immediately declare war on you. With budding optimism, you push your first armored unit south from Kuwait City on its long march towards Riyadh.

If this next step of the takeover plan of the Middle East is not thought through carefully enough, you’ll be thinking to yourself by turn 3 or 4: “Wow, this is going to be tougher than I thought!”

By turn 6 or 7, that will change to: “You stupid stupid idiot. Why did you decide to invade Saudi Arabia? This is not at all worth it.”

And you’d be right. Because Saudi Arabia is mostly just desert and there is nothing – absolutely nothing to conquer for the first zillion miles south of Kuwait. That means that you’ll have to rely on long supply lines to feed and gas up your army. Not only will you have to worry about where to place the supply depots, you’ll have to worry about protecting them.

It’s a long way to Riyadh! It’s a long way to go! – Basra to Riyadh with very little in between

It only takes a vintage enemy fighter bomber with a Bombardment value of “1” to run an interdiction mission on your supply lines, thereby either knocking your units out of supply or delaying your ground forces’ arrival until you plug the gaps in air defenses to deal with those pesky incoming planes.

A smart ally player will know how to frustrate your drive south again and again with this. If he’s really lucky, he’ll be able to throw a unit in behind your front lines to really tear things up.

After only a single play of this scenario, you’ll understand why Saddam stopped at Kuwait in 1990. A drive down the peninsula probably sounded cool but the logistics would have been a huge challenge for a modern army.

So the first thing you need to heed here is the air war. You need to knock the hell out of the enemy’s air capabilities from the start. Your ground forces can handle themselves without the need for close air support. Let your AH-1 Cobra helicopters handle that job. From the very start of the game, you need to aggressively obtain control the skies. Every F-4 and F-5 has to be committed to this single task because even one plane can ruin your plans for a swift victory in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi AWACS should be the first thing to take down. It’s the most potent unit in the game for the US player’s side this early on. Airbases in Kuwait can be used to strike at Riyadh while Khark Island and Bushehr hit at the airbases on the east coast and in Qatar. and Bahrain. F-5 air escorts with F-4 bombing missions would probably work best here in the early stages. Once the interceptors are either shot down or have run out of sorties, send whatever you can in to hit those airbases.

The second thing is that you have to be really comfortable with the supply rules. In case it’s been a while since you played this beast, supply depots work as relay stations between supply sources (cities in the case of Iran) and units. To be considered in supply, a unit must be within a certain distance of it (for the sake of supply determination, this means the unit is treated as a hypothetical armor unit in Movement to Contact formation with an MPA of 20).

Across clear terrain, which dominates most of northern Saudi Arabia, that’s 3 MP per hex so that’s a measly 6 hexes you can advance. If you’re lucky enough to have a road to travel on, it’s only 2 MP per hex, giving you a marginally better 10 hex supply radius. Oh boy. Riyadh is 22 hexes away from Kuwait City.

If you have managed to plunk down a supply depot in Kuwait City after taking over its airbase and placing an interceptor in there to protect your supply depot, your armor unit can only get a bit down the road into SA before it runs out of supply. As you can see, our example tank unit runs out of supply before it reaches anywhere near any airbases.

The Saudis can – and should, if they are capable – put up a measly Lightning aircraft with a “1” bombardment rating, hit the hex to the north of the armor division and boom – we are now 22 MPs from our supply source and out of supply.

The effects of this out of supply state for the unit are as follows:

1. combat strength halved
2. cannot declare combat
3. cannot be repaired
4. it suffers a hit during the End Stage

Not good!

So even if you decide to just plunk down three quick supply depots and try to push on anyways, you’ll face a problem. Those rough hexes near Riyadh are prime defensive real estate and it won’t be easy to push those Saudi defenders back without hitting their flank!

With three supply depots stretched to the limit of their 20 MP allowance, you could manage a single front against Riyadh but it will probably cost you time – something the Iranian player doesn’t have in this scenario.

Do you attack Riyadh from two prongs –  the north and the east? Well, guess what? You’re going to need more supply depots to do that. That means more planning and more precise coordination of truck movement. You’ll need to get your transport aircraft in on the act too. But then with more supply depots comes the need to further spread your defenses around to protect them.

To make matters even worse, you’ll have the US Special Forces conducting raids on your supply depots by turn seven. I typically use my SF guys exclusively for supply depot raids and destroying valuable truck units. With only three anti-air units, the Iranians can’t protect everywhere at once from paradrops. I think this is the time limit for Iran at this point. If Riyadh is still in the Allied possession at this time, it’s basically game over for the Iranians.

The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is basically a.) ruthlessly committing my air force to achieving air supremacy early on in the first turns of the game and b.) setting up redundant supply depots in the chain so that if one depot is destroyed or interdicted, another can take care of it. Four supply depots are probably the minimum. Six are likely the ideal – but it takes a lot of planning to shuttle your trucks back and forth to the right places. C-130 transport aircraft help in this matter a little too – they can land in a clear hex and unload without needing a friendly airfield.

If your air supremacy bid fails or you want to remain cautious during your drive down the peninsula, you could also set your depots 18 MP apart and keep your units tethered at 18 MP from the nearest supply depot. It’s enough to make one interdiction mission useless though it will cost about one extra turn of delay for your units.

Invading Saudi Arabia is a huge risk and requires a lot of thoughtful planning for how to deal with the small details of a task that appears deceptively simple. I find that these crucial few turns after Kuwait’s defeat is usually where this first scenario is won or lost.

Wing Leader Victories: Stalingrad Airlift

Wing Leader Victories 1940 – 1942 is a really fun air combat game. I got it last year as an impulse buy during a time when I had a million other things going on in my life. As a result, it slid right into my collection like a stealth plane, its presence barely detectable among all the other clutter of my busy days and frantic nights.

During a self-imposed lull in my life when I should have been hard at work at something or other, I spied it on my shelf. I pulled it out and wondered how on earth I had failed to be enticed by the box cover’s lovely artwork featuring a P-40 Warhawk screaming down through the shattered skies.

The components are nice with plenty of reference charts for easy play. It has a nicely organized rulebook and there are plenty of scenarios covering a wide swatch of air combat that characterized the early days of World War II.

The game is easy to learn, plays very smoothly, and has a clean uncluttered look to it. The scenarios are diverse in terms of size and aircraft mix and there are over 23 of them in the scenario book –  so you can pick and choose among them according to your particular taste and available time.

I had a blast playing the smaller scenarios and was able to sit down and complete the smaller ones in a half hour after I had the rules down. The first two scenarios are basically training scenarios that feature American pilots in China and fighting off small bomber raids by Japanese forces. They were fun and I enjoyed them but I was more intrigued by the prospect of pitting seasoned German Luftwaffe pilots against the men and women of the ragtag Red Army Air Force.

I didn’t have to wait long to find an opportunity to do just that.

Stalingrad Airlift is the third scenario in the scenario book.  It is November 1942 and the German player is trying to get a pair of He-111 transport flights safely to the edge of the map so they can drop relief supplies to the encircled Sixth Army. At this point, the Luftwaffe is quickly wearing out and has few planes to spare for escort duties. The Soviets, however, are just getting geared up and are happy to throw lots of inexperienced pilots into the air to try and take down the Germans.

The setup is very simple. We have a dense layer of cloud at altitude 3. The German transports start off at least five squares away from each other at altitude 1. The German BF-109F flight is on escort duty and is placed at altitude 3 just behind the first wave of transports.

Setup

The Soviets go for a simple setup and put one Yak-1 squadron a few spaces ahead and 1 altitude level above the first flight and the other flight a few spaces behind the second flight.

On the first turn, the Yaks tally the He-111s. The German pilots, however, completely miss the incoming enemy aircraft and fail to tally them until they are right on top of the planes in their care! Rolling for reaction, the German pilots react successfully and dive to altitude 2. They engage the incoming Yaks before they get the chance to shoot up the lead He-111s.

The other Yak squadron races to catch up with the rear He-111s. Next turn, they should be able to dive down on top of them.

The combat between the lead Yaks and the German escort is uneventful. Neither side manages to inflict a loss on the other. However, during the Cohesion phase, I rolled a “3” for the Germans, causing a disruption. The German flight is broken despite its Veteran status and immediately heads for home starting on the next turn. The lead Yak squadron fares little better, earning a disruption but managing to stay in the fight for now.

On the next turn, the rear Yak squadron finally intercepts the lagging He-111 flight and scores a kill. Neither side is disrupted, however.

The lead Yaks turn around in their square and fly above the lead He-111 flight, ready to swoop down on it next turn.

On turn 3, the rear Yaks again hit their target. This time, I rolled an 11 for their attack, inflicting three hits. All three hits incur a loss. Having suffered the max number of losses, the rear He-111 flight is completely destroyed and the marker is removed from play.

They lead Yaks jump down on the He-111s in front, finally getting their chance now that the German escorts have run off. The Soviets fail to shoot down any of the bombers but the Germans do manage to inflict a single loss on the Yak squadron. The Soviets go on to fail their Cohesion roll and end up with a Broken flight.

There is no chance of the rear Yaks intercepting the only remaining He-111 flight before it leaves the table. With the other Yak squadron returning to base, the Germans manage to get one flight off the board, earning 6 VPs. They score an additional 1 VP for shooting down a Yak for a total of 7 VPs for the German player.

Wing Display at the end of the game

The Soviets have completely destroyed one entire flight, however, and get 8 VPs for their four He-111 kills.

We subtract the Soviet total from the German total for a grand total of -1 VPs. The Soviets have won handily in this test of arms. I think the key to victory for the Soviets was the rear Yak squadron with its great luck in downing an entire flight of He-111s. I was surprised to see the German escort flight break so fast. It usually lasts much longer than one turn and almost always manages to maul one of the Soviet squadrons. This is a tough scenario for the German player though as their escorts are spread very thin here.

At a Glance: Bitskrieg

Bitskrieg, published by Hollandspiele Games, is an adorable game of tank warfare for you and your little guy or gal to enjoy. Designed by father and son team, Scott and Miles Muldoon, this introductory wargame is aimed squarely at the dad or mom crowd who want to have fun bonding over something a little more complex than making “pew pew” sounds with plastic army guys.

As the father of a two-year-old boy, I have been looking for something like this for when my son gets older. It’s a nice soft landing into the world of wargames with nary a CRT or a die modifier in sight. At the same time, there is enough to tickle your brain and make you really think about what you’re doing. Luck plays a big part of it but so does strategy.

So let’s take a look at the components!

Yep! That green plastic thing is the map.

Bitskrieg has a full-color six-page rulebook with clear explanations and example illustrations. The rules are extremely straightforward and written in plain English. I was up and playing almost immediately after punching out the counters. The organization of the rules is good with a step-by-step description of how to move and shoot your tanks at the other guy’s tanks.

There are even advanced and optional rules here that deal with varying terrain, flank armor, reserves, and much more. These are all concepts you would find in a more advanced wargame on the same subject. So as your child gets older, you can shake things up a bit and introduce some more nuanced tactics into your gameplay to make things more interesting.

There are 37 counters, twelve of which are tank counters for each side (red and blue). Each side has four kinds of tanks: Tank destroyers, Heavy tanks, Medium tanks, and Light tanks. The counters have delightful little drawings of each tank – the kind of art that you drew when you were in grade 5. It rules! Each tank counter has two sides – a ready side and a finished side.

The counter sheet

When you want to take an action with a tank, it has to be on its ready side. When a tank is finished with its action, you flip it to the finished side. The font is fun and easy to read. The ready side has three values on it – speed rating, fire rating, and armor rating. The finished side has only an armor rating.

There are terrain counters here too. The terrain counters show buildings, woods, and water. Very simple drawings fit the theme of the game quite nicely. Artist Wil Alambre did a terrific job.

Each side gets two flag counters and a rebuild counter, which I’ll get to later.

The mapboard is really interesting and I wish more games used this kind of innovative thinking. It’s an 8×8 grid on a piece of thick cardboard that could probably withstand greasy fingers and maybe even a coke spill if you are lucky. In each grid space, there are die results. At the beginning of each game, the players take turn rolling two six-sided dice and they place the die in the grid space that matches that the die result.

How does this thing play?

Setup

The game plays, as you would expect, simply and quickly, with little to no need to consult the rulebook past the first few minutes.

Basically, each side secretly picks five tanks. Each tank has its advantage and disadvantage. Heavy tanks move slow but are hard to kill and get two dice on their attack. Light tanks move fast but don’t last very long. Tank destroyers are deadly but have a limited cone of fire.

The players take turns maneuvering or firing with a tank. If a tank gets destroyed, the player may opt to use one of his two rebuilds to put the tank back into play. Victory is achieved when the winner manages to capture both the other player’s flags. Combat is simple enough. You count the range to the other tank, roll a die to hit and then roll again versus the target tank’s armor to kill it.

You can use your turn to “refresh” your finished tanks and get them back into battle or you can use the rebuild option to get destroyed tanks back on board.

I played this game solitaire after a very long day and I found it easy, fun, and tense. Red player’s tanks were getting blown to pieces by blue’s tank destroyers and heavy tanks but red just kept on coming. Out of rebuilds and with only three tanks on the board, red made one final push and managed to get a light tank on both blue’s flags. Incredibly, blue’s heavy tank, though only one space away from the red’s flag-capturing tank, rolled a pair of ones and failed to score a kill. The game ended in a red victory. GO RED!

Red wins the day!

If you are a parent and are looking to introduce your child into wargaming – or heck, if you are just looking for a bit of light fun, Bitskrieg is the game you’re looking for. I think you could probably enjoy this with any casual gamer, not just kids. The art and mapboard have a simple charm that brings you right back to those grade five days when you drew tank wars in the margins of your class notebook. Take that, Mrs. Sweetland!

At a Glance: Agricola

Agricola from Hollandspiele Games is a solitaire design from Tom Russell released in 2016 from the fledgling company run by Tom and Mary. I’ve never played a Hollandspiele Game before so I was really excited to get my hands on this one.

Agricola lets the player take on the role of the famed Roman general and governor of Brittania in the first century AD. You’re faced with the tough job of making friends and outwitting your enemies. The problem is that you’re never quite sure who is in which camp until certain points in the game. Sometimes you think you’re making all the right moves and you end up with a knife planted firmly in your back. In addition to your own decisions, the game uses a really neat chit-pull mechanic to help determine how things play out. 
Add to all this is the fact that you’re under pressure from Rome to achieve great things while you’re up in Brittania. The empire is crumbling fast and Rome is desperately trying to buttress their defenses by getting as much as they can from their far-flung territories. If you don’t perform well, expect to be replaced rather quickly. 
Let’s take a look at this bad boy:
Game Box – Front
You get a pretty sturdy box with a nice cover. Lots of information on the side of the box. This thing is for 1 player, duration of 90 minutes, high solitaire suitability, and medium weight. Hey, what’s this? The art is by Ania Ziolkowska and Gonzalo Santacruz! They add a nice layer of cool to this thing.
Inside the box…
The rulebook is 12 pages and has nice bold font throughout. It’s full color with corrections from the previous ruleset in red. The final page is a Player’s Aid. 
There is a full-color map sheet of Britain, neatly organized with game turn, VP, and legion actions tracks. The other full-color sheet is used to track Force Pool, Dead Pool and Legion holding boxes.
There is one countersheet in here with 88 counters. These are nice thick quality counters. Two rows of the counters had fallen out of their sheet during transit to Japan and they were in perfect condition when I opened the box.
A few of the counters from Agricola
The game counters are clear and colorful with essential information (attack, defense ratings, etc.) easy to read at a glance. I am very happy to report that the colors are very distinct, which is a welcome relief as a color-blind person who has been struggling mightily with Central America’s terrain color system for the last two weeks. 
Finally, you have an eight-sided die included in the game, used to resolve combat. Its probably because of my D&D roots that I love games that use unconventional die.

So how does this thing play?
There are four cups from which you pull chits in Agricola. Three cups represents friendly, unfriendly, and hostile tribes. The fourth one is a battle cup.
With each turn, you take Legion Actions. This might mean moving legions to a tribal box, suppressing dissent, garrisoning units, peacekeeping, battle, or passing the turn. You can also use your leaders to  help reorganize a legion or negotiate with tribal units. Depending on what you do, this influences the movement of chits among the various cups. For example, you might need to move two friendly chits to the unfriendly cup. In this fashion, you know you’re likely making someone unhappy but you’re not exactly sure who and how much. You won’t know until the next phase.

After each legion action, hostile tribes react to what you have done. You pull chits from the hostile cup and match them to their tribal box. Depending on what’s in that tribe’s box, the unit could be eliminated outright or you might end up with a dead garrison. Tribal leaders could be drawn from the cup, resulting in a warming of relations (to just “unfriendly” instead of hostile). Your legions might get ambushed or face set-piece battles. You might also have tribes going to war with each other. What a headache!

Battle is resolved very quickly with a Deployment phase then an Attack and Defense Round. This goes on until one side is eliminated. Attack and Defense are resolved by rolling the die and adding the result to your unit’s attack or defense factor (depending on what you are doing). If it’s greater than the enemy’s relevant factor, you eliminate the enemy unit.
You can then promote and reorganize your units. The number of chits in the cups is adjusted (you move chits from cup to cup blindly) according to how your legions and auxillaries fared in the battle. 
There is a housekeeping phase that allows the enemy to raid your settlements and steal from your treasury. Tribes can be paid off with public works to play nice. You get new soldiers and auxillaries. And then you check your VPs.  Each turn has a VP threshold that you must meet. In addition to other triggers, one of the things I like here is that if you don’t make a certain number of VPs per turn, the game ends in defeat.
To win the game, you collect VPs by enhancing settlements, having regions without tribal units, having an empty hostile chit cup, and generally bringing peace and prosperity to Brittania. 
Agricola looks fun and interesting with some cool mechanics. I especially like the fog of war aspect of the game. You have a general impression of how things are going over with the tribes but you’re always on your toes. What’s more, you never really know when you’re going to face an all-out rebellion. The Battle of Mons Groupius, once triggered, brings all thirteen enemy battle units on to the board for a big showdown with your legions. If you win, it eliminates a big chunk of hostile tribal units and you can rest easy for a turn or two. If you lose, the game is over. Lots of tension and high stakes in this game. Definitely worth checking out!

NATO Air Commander – Designer’s Thoughts

I spent a lot of time this year in what one might generously term “interesting circumstances”.

One of the outcomes of that was a game I had in the back of my mind for years.

NATO Air Commander is the first game I have ever designed and I’m particularly humbled by the show of early support from playtesters and wargamers. Tom and Mary Russell, the heads of Hollandspiele Games, were particularly supportive and I am especially grateful for that.

Just like the title says, this is a solitaire game that is supposed to put the player in the shoes of an Allied Air Commander during a hypothetical World War III set around 1987.

To that end, the decisions you make in this game are big theater decisions and the scale of the game works on the level of flights of aircraft. Each turn, you’re creating and assembling raids and assigning missions to air units, hoping to influence the ground war – over which you have limited control.

The game came out of a desire to see more depth in the air portion of the wargames that I was playing. Quite often in traditional wargames, air units are relegated to bombing the hell out of an enemy counter during a separate air phase and shifting the CRT to the right one or two columns during ground combat. This game is coming at the issue from another angle where you have some deeper decisions over how your air units fit into the overall warplan.

During the early part of the summer, I read a few books that directed the development of the game. The first was Dr. Albert Price’s Air Battle Central Europe. This helped me think about the missions that different aircraft would perform and how they would work together in the “big picture” air war. Another book was Col. James Silfe’s Creech Blue. This book talks about how NATO tactical air was utterly transformed in the post-Vietnam era. That brought me around to reading about General Bernard Rogers, who was NATO’s supreme commander during the 1980s. That pulled me towards the importance of hitting at follow-on-forces since General Rogers thought this would be an intrinsic part of winning any World War III scenario in Central Europe. This paper delves nicely into the topic.

I tried to provide a smorgasbord of missions that would allow you to attack the enemy in your own way and to formulate your own air strategy. You can certainly just shove all your air units to the front and hammer at the enemy with close air support. It may not be enough to turn the tide though. The Warsaw Pact is a huge beast and you’ll find yourself scattered thin in any such attempt.

Or you can go for enemy headquarters and try to stifle overall command and control ability, which will slowly influence how the game plays out from turn to turn. This is done by letting the player remove cards from the game. It takes time for that to work though – and as the NATO player you don’t have much of it.

You can also decide to spend your time and resources hitting at the enemy’s defenses and trying to gain air supremacy. The only problem is that you’ll have to take precious resources away from performing CAS missions at the front or hitting at enemy reinforcements that are rolling to the front. All the while, you’ll be getting screamed at by ground commanders to hit back at the enemy pushing through in their sector.

I wanted the game to provide the player with tough decisions and live with their consequences. I also wanted the feeling of frustration at succeeding in the air war but it still just might not be enough to win things on the ground. I’m not sure I have that right yet and I am hoping the playtesters’ comments will help me guide things in the right direction for that.

I also wanted NATO Air Commander to be a simple and fast-playing game. An ideal playing time would be an hour or so. This is because I’m a really busy guy with not a lot of spare time. I am worried that games of this type tend to get bloated (and some are bloated in amazing ways, mind you).

I learned some very important things with this first design. The first is that WOW – designing a game is definitely not an easy task. I thought NAC would be simple to design because I was trying to make it simple to play. After my first couple of solo playtests with my first version of the rules, I had an inkling of just how hard it was going to be. I revised and tinkered with the rules for months and each time I thought I had things right, something else would pop up that brought me back to the drawing board. When people talk about “unfinished games”, they are really talking about every game.

The second thing I learned is that game design requires a certain amount of faith and a considerable amount of hubris. Making estimations of real-world unit capabilities was one of the toughest things I had ever done. Coming up with a formula for values was nearly impossible. At first, I counted hardpoints on air units, then the issue of range came up, then electronic warfare capabilities, pilot training, etc. There is a tendency to try and take so much into account that the formulas start to break down at some point.

The answer was to simplify. I looked at what other games around that time had done, read about the primary roles of each air unit in real life and the weapons they could carry, and then made some modifications from there. Much of it is guesswork and that’s okay because we’re talking about a conflict that never actually happened. There’s some liberty in that but I know I’ll have people who are unhappy with the A-10’s ground rating of “7” or whatever. I can live with that.

Hopefully though, the game will be enjoyable more than anything else. If it brings a smile to someone’s face, it will have done it’s job.

Ranger – Anti-Personnel Ambush

It is 0145 and the Ranger platoon commander has been woken up and assigned a mission against the godless communists invading Puerto Oro from the north. All I’d wanted was a mission…and for my sins, they gave me one.

It was “anti-personnel ambush” just south of a small village that no one cared about enough to even give it a goddamn name. It didn’t matter. We’d be out there wasting PSRF guerillas and that was alright with me. Three weeks in this shithole and I’d barely seen anything more dangerous than the skanks down at the local watering hole.

By 0300, I’d gotten the briefing and planned out my next move. The platoon was to be inserted by UH-60s to the west of the objective. We’d move out in a zigzag fashion to get to the objective release point two kilometers away.

If we weren’t blown away by an enemy ambush ourselves, we would get to the Objective Rally Point, send in the rear and flank security teams and then position the assault and support teams just off the road in the bushes. The security teams had their AT4s to deal with any technicals. I made sure as hell to assign Javelins to the support teams just in case we ran into any enemy tanks.

There was no guarantee of enemy contact but S2 said the trail was heavily traveled by PSRF guerrillas. We had until 0200 to kill some bad guys on the road. After that, time was up and we were to go to our PZ about four klicks to the north.

The major concern wasn’t so much the ambush. It was the trails we’d have to cross getting from the LZ to our objective and the objective to the PZ. There were three trail crossings we would need to undertake – two of them along the same damn trail. If there was a good chance of something going wrong, it would be right there. I made damn sure the platoon rehearsed the danger crossings before we boarded the Blackhawks.

Planned route from insertion (left) to ORP and OBJECTIVE then north to PZ.

We inserted into the clearing by 1100 with no problems at all. Travel from there to the objective was pretty easy. The jungle was light in most places. Hell, the first trail we needed to cross over was empty of traffic. It seemed like someone was looking out for us.

We arrived at the Objective Rally Point and I conducted the leader’s recon with a small element. The ambush site offered plenty of cover and concealment for the assault and support teams. By 1430, we were ready to go. The claymores were planted. The avenues of fire were staked out. The security and assault teams were all in place. We just needed some poor fuckers to shoot at.

At around 1600, the right flank security team heard a deep rumble of approaching engines and alerted me that some bad guys were likely coming. An understatement. We had no less than TEN T-55 tanks heading down the road towards our position. Werner asked me what we should do. “What the hell do you think? Keep everyone’s goddamn heads down and hope they don’t see us!” PSRF guerrillas, my ass. These were regular army from all the way north in Costa Verde. A nice A-10 strike would have made short work of them but we were danger close. I jotted the info down and would report it when we got back.

The tanks passed by without noticing us. With a pair of Javelins, we might have taken out a couple but the rest would have ground us into a thin paste.  We would wait until something a little more reasonable came along.

The platoon arrives at the Objective.  Objective Release Point reached at 1415

After forty-five minutes of waiting, we got what we wanted. A single truck with three peasant guerrillas in the back drove lazily down the road. Nothing great but it would have to do. I started the ambush off with a Javelin from the support team. That was all that was needed. All the bad guys were crispy dead. The truck was reduced to a heap of burning metal and ash on the side of the road. I sent my assault team out to check the bodies but there wasn’t much left to find. It was time to get the hell out of there.

The sun had just set and we were crossing a trail for the second time. Things had been pretty quiet since the ambush. While we were about to go over the road, a truck came barreling down towards our position and stopped right in front. About five guys in the back started shooting at us. Big mistake. The second Javelin was put to good use and nuked the hell out of the enemy technical. So far the score was pretty lopsided. Us: 8 Them: 0. Send more commies. Please.

A truck full of guys we nuked just before crossing the trail on our way towards the PZ.

The terrain was very rough as we went north towards the PZ. We found a swamp that wasn’t on the map and spent thirty minutes walking through the waist-high muck before we finally got out of it. Our last trail crossing was uneventful, which was almost disappointing considering how much ass we had already kicked in this sector already.

Halfway between the trail and the PZ, the shit hit the industrial ceiling fan.

Artillery poured down on us like a drunk pissing on a sidewalk. We took cover but Barese was killed immediately. I ordered the patrol to disengage by bounds (dumb move – we should have used the clock method). While getting out of there, three men from Charlie Squad – Stephenson, Arata, and Keith- were seriously wounded. After thirty minutes, the patrol was more or less back to normal. No one gets left behind in the jungle on my watch – I sent two squads back to retrieve the wounded and dead.

Artillery hitting us after crossing the final trail. Everything goes to hell at 2215 and doesn’t get sorted out until an hour later.

We still had plenty of time for exfiltration so we took our time getting to the PZ. After a two-hour wait, the Blackhawks arrived and pulled us out of there at 0300. The three guys got sent to a field hospital to get patched up just enough that they could fly ’em home by the afternoon.

The battalion commander was chuffed to hear that the ambush went off without a hitch. The photos and reports of the T-55s in the area were a big surprise for everyone. Things could have gone better but there’s not much you can do when you’re getting hit with mortars by surprise attack. Someone must have followed us or seen us on the way back. It was my first time under enemy mortar fire and, I’ll admit, it was damn scary. Scarier than the trucks and even scarier than seeing all the tanks in the road back at the ambush site. Not having someone around to shoot back at makes it all the more frightening.

Mission Score: 

100 points for successful ambush
-5 for 1 KIA Ranger
-9 for 3 Severely Wounded Rangers
-10 for crossing danger area within 2 klicks of objective
-10 for not securing the far side of the objective before performing search of enemies post-ambush
Total: 66 Points
Result: Victory

Berlin ’85 – The Setup

I’ve spent some time with Berlin ‘85 over the past couple of weeks now. I find it to be a bloody game with a peculiar agony awaiting both players who venture down its path. If you have already played the game, you will understand exactly what I mean. For those, who haven’t tried it, you’ll get an idea when you read the full playthrough report.

I wanted to get something out there for B85 since I’ve been getting lots of people asking and posting and commenting about it. So here’s the Setup and some notes about the game and why I’ve made certain decisions.

The NATO player sets up first. For this scenario:

The West German police (the blue units) set up on Supply Hexes anywhere in West Berlin and on any airfield control hexes.

The Americans set up in the American sector (duh!) two hexes from any barracks hexes. The French and British do the same in their sectors.

But before we do all that, let’s look at the lay of the land, my son.

We have one natural barrier running north-south into the British sector. A minor river running east-west in the American sector. And nothing in the French sector. The rest is just ugly city fighting.

There really aren’t any clear ways of saying this but you’re generally screwed from the outset. The question is…just how long will it take until we’re not only generally but completely screwed? For good measure, the city starts off completely surrounded by East German and Soviet forces so there will be no breakthroughs or brilliant counterattacks here.

Couple of general guidelines:

Setting up in Urban or Industrial areas is good. These give the most favorable combat column shifts for the defender (4 and 3 respectively).

Setting up in a POL site is extremely bad. It doesn’t take much artillery firepower to completely wipe out these hexes and cause a firestorm that kills everything within it. Most notably, firestorms can spread to other adjacent POL hexes so just being around these things is bad.

Barracks and Air Control Towers are worth two surrender points versus the normal one point for other victory hexes. These are worth keeping a unit in even though it’s gonna be targeted like crazy and will probably not last long at all.

Autobahn hexes should be protected or at least have a unit close enough to project a ZOC into in order to stop the WP from zooming around the city at will.

Then when you finish doing that, check out all those U-bahn hexes you forgot to cover with guys. Move some of your counters to make up for that and see that now you don’t have enough guys guarding the bridges. Now adjust your counters again a bit and see that there aren’t enough guys protecting key victory points. Now adjust your counters yet again and realize that you don’t have enough guys covering the autobahn hexes.

Now sigh and hold your head in your hands. The Warsaw Pact will get through and your little outpost will fall. There are too many holes in the dike. Too many bad guys coming at you all at once.

West Berlin Police

The best I can do is set up my West Berlin police units in the heart of Berlin where they gain the greatest combat shifts and where they can protect the U-bahn from being used as a Warsaw Pact merry-go-round. I also set up a few on the outskirts to serve as speed bumps for vital crossing points for ferries.

West Berlin Police Setup


US Garrison

Now it’s time for the rest of the NATO units to set up. First, we’ll set up the US units.

I try to space out the mechanized infantry units evenly enough. I set them behind the bridge crossings near the heart of the city, hoping this sends the WP further west on its attack. Of course the coverage isn’t perfect but there was an attempt.

Artillery goes way back to hex 2136 and I shore up my bridge defenses with a couple of MP and Engineer units. Tempelhof is too lightly defended. I know it. But that city center will hold for quite some time before it crumbles…hopefully.

US Army Setup

British Garrison
Now it’s the Brits turn to set up in their sector. I think the biggest question for the British garrison is whether or not to try and defend Gatow. It would require a ton of resources to try and hold while at the same time leaving so many other areas of the city without coverage. 
I elect to abandon it for the most part, except for one token unit to divert a few WP units from their rush towards the city center.
Most of the Berlin Brigade sets up west of the river, hoping to block the attackers long enough to get help from somewhere – anywhere – in a timely manner. The artillery sets up dangerously close to the river bank on the east side. The hope is to wage a fighting withdrawal across the river and draw east towards downtown.
British Setup

French Garrison

Then we at last come to the French sector. Woo boy. The French have no real natural barriers against the WP. The barracks are set too far north and there simply aren’t enough French soldiers to adequately defend the sector. 

The best I can do is set up some kind of awkward defense based around Foch Barracks and try to keep the WP attacking from the north at bay for a turn or two. The major routes to the city center are blocked off by ZOCs but this is absolutely a weak point from a numbers and terrain perspective.
French setup. 40 Mech is in Foch Barracks.
Well, that’s my unhappy setup for the NATO forces in this scenario. Let’s hope they manage to hold.
For the Warsaw Pact troops, the decisions are much easier.

1st East German
No-brainer here. We have prescribed hexes for setup to the southeast of the city. Obviously, these units will be rushing towards the US sector and trying to clear resistance on the outskirts of the city.
1 East German Setup
14th Guards Mechanized Division

Sets up within a certain number of hexes of the southern edge. These guys go straight up the middle and try to cut off the defenders to the east and link up with whatever remains of the 1st East German division after it cuts its teeth on the American defenders to the west.
14th Guards Mechanized Division
19th Soviet Mechanized Division
Set up to the west of the city. These guys are aimed at the British. Do we split them up and take Gatow or go headlong into the British defenders. I want those VPs so I’m gonna send three guys down to take Gatow airfield. I’ll keep one regiment in reserve with the rocket artillery placed to support either front. I’m not expecting anything amazing from these guys until the French are taken care of to the north and I can get in behind the Brits with the 6th Guards Mechanized Division.
19 Soviet Mechanized Division
Soviet 6th Guards Mechanized Division
These guys set up to the north. I put three units west of the river and the rest of them to the east. The main body will advance directly south and destroy the French. The smaller group of units will advance south and wreak havoc in the rear area of the British Sector. Hopefully they can even take out an artillery unit or two to ease the passage of the 19th Sov. Mech Division.
6 Guards Mechanized Division setup
34th Artillery Division

These guys are set up in East Germany or East Berlin within a certain number of hexes from the map edge. I have no solid plans for these guys other than to move them towards the city center and use for incidental support for whatever they can hit out and reach. The East Berlin police are useful for protecting these units so I’ll set them up in East Berlin.
34th Artillery Division sets up in East Berlin
East Berlin Police
I like to use these guys to protect the 34th Artillery division. Just place them in East Berlin and block off any ZOCs in the unlikely case that NATO tries anything foolish. 
East Berlin police setup
Conclusion:

And that’s it for setup!
Here’s the final look at things for the overall picture so you can see how badly the NATO garrison is hosed. 
Some gamers don’t like to play games like this where the conclusion if foregone before play begins but I think some pretty creative games have come out that deal with this kind of situation. For example, I really enjoyed the victory and loss conditions in Phase Line Smash. I thought they were a terrific way of handling a superior force beating the crap out of a smaller one. I also liked how Unconditional Surrender handled the inevitability of Germany’s defeat in its game. So for all my defeatist talk throughout this blog post, I am actually really pumped to try Berlin ’85. 
Next up! Turn One – The Battle Begins!

Berlin ’85

For me, 2017 has been the year of the magazine game. Last month’s look at Nord Kapp from S&T Fall 1983 was a big hit. I thought it was an excellent game and it deserved a look back after all these years. I’ve been scooping up some other magazine games lately, some of which have been languishing on the shelves due to a lack of time. It has been a crazy summer so far and shows no signs of slowing as we move from the rainy season here in Japan towards the hot hot heat of tropical summer.

This month, I would like to drag another S&T favorite off the shelf and take a look at it. Here goes:

There we go – fresh from the March/April issue of Strategy & Tactics is Berlin ’85, a game that focuses on a Soviet invasion of West Berlin in a WW3 conflict set in 1985. It’s now I notice that so many people used that particular year for setting a WW3 conflict to happen. That includes General Sir John Hackett in his novels and Jim Dunnigan in this game. What’s especially ironic is that 1985 seems to be the year that the world turned away from the possibility of this conflict as Gorbachev rose to power and started working with Reagan. 
In any case, Berlin ’85 is the brainchild of Jim Dunnigan with bonus star power provided by Redmond A. Simonson for graphics. None other than Nick Karp, future designer of Vietnam 1965 – 1975 is the developmental assistant and he must have been in his early or mid-teens at the time considering that he was in his freshman college year in 1984 when he designed his VG masterpiece. So not even mentioning the other great people who helped develop this thing, there is a whole lot of talent in this one magazine game. 
So what is this thing?
Berlin ’85 is a modern day Alamo (I owe that beautiful and concise phrasing to a reader) situation that pits the West Berlin police force, the US, French, and British occupation forces against the might of the 20th Guards Army.  There is absolutely no doubt that the NATO player will lose this game. It’s simply a matter of how badly they will lose it. I really like games that involve managing loss although I know some gamers prefer more traditional fare where the fate of the conflict is in doubt.
The map shows West Berlin and its surrounding environs. We are zoomed out a little bit from a street view but we do get an idea of varying terrain such as urban, industrial, and suburban streets. Parks and canals are represented here. Major rivers such as the Spree are shown winding their way through West Berlin. The city’s major airports are here too including the Tempelhof, Gatow, and Tegel.
The Warsaw Pact player wins if they take over all the airports in the city as well as all the objective hexes in the city – or in the more likely case, if NATO surrenders before all that happens. But there(s a neat twist here. 
By destroying units and, in the case of the Warsaw Pact player, capturing objectives, a player gains surrender points. When the Warsaw Pact player has at least 6 more surrender points than NATO, it may offer the “Honors of War” once per turn. A roll on the Honors of War table may result in a NATO surrender, a turn being skipped due to a ceasefire, bonus combat shifts for one side or another, etc. It is a very interesting rule that keeps you guessing as to when the game will end and also spurs the Pact player to take as many objectives as possible without taking too many losses. At the same time, this encourages the NATO player to hit out at as many Warsaw Pact forces as possible.
Some other interesting rules reflect the possibility and consequences of severe damage to the city. When the total firepower of artillery into one particular hex is added up, the player rolls a die and the result may be a rubbled hex, which increases the defensive terrain modifier, changes movement point costs, etc. What’s really interesting is that if the artillery lands or scatters into a hex with POL storage units, a firestorm can result that eliminates any unit within the hex. The firestorm may also spread to other nearby hexes.
More interesting stuff comes in the form of untried units. Since most of the units on the board are well trained but totally inexperienced in combat (this is the opening day or two of WW3 here), their effectiveness in combat is unknown. For that reason, each unit has a face-up combat strength shown as “U”. This combat strength is only discovered by flipping over the marker when the unit enters combat. 

The U-Bahn is another neat little feature of this game and lets the player move units around by subway. This can be used to get around enemy ZOCs and also zips your units around a faster rate. As might be imagined, its a great tactic to use in order to pop up behind your enemy and surprise them or a nice way to get into the enemy’s rear and hit their supply lines. 
Airpower is handled nicely by the use of Ground Support Points. The Warsaw Pact has air superiority for most of the game but there are some turns where NATO has air superiority. It may also gain air superiority by rolling an 11 or 12 when checking for NATO reinforcements during a turn. Ground Support Points can be used much like artillery (it adds to either the barrage strength when attacking or friendly firepower when defending).  
There are also Warsaw Pact paratroops in the game, which can be used to drop on to hexes in West Berlin. These can also be flown onto a controlled airfield and brought directly into the fight. The Warsaw Pact player gets to choose how and when to bring these reinforcements into the game. The NATO player is never sure if they will get reinforced (they must roll on a reinforcement table to check each turn) and they must be airlanded. 
C-54 attempts landing at Tempelhof during the Berlin Blockade.
If all NATO airfields have been seized then no NATO reinforcements enter the game. And since the Warsaw Pact will absolutely gain control of those airfields at some point in the game, NATO is well and truly screwed from the start. Some people might not like this but I love fighting losing battles – just ask my wife.
If you’re still not crazy about this game, there are three scenarios here – which is incredible for a magazine game. The first scenario is Operation Unity, which is a straight-up brawl between the 20th Guards Army and the hapless defenders of Berlin. No spice is added here – you just set it up and let both sides go at it for however long you need. NATO is going to lose and lose badly here.
The second scenario, Operation Werewolf, hands the NATO player a little bit of help with a free setup for West Berlin police units (that also get a column shift during combat) and the 10th Jagerbrigade, a kind of special forces West German brigade that gets men set up inside the city just ahead of (and possibly during) the battle. NATO will still lose but it will probably take out a fair few Warsaw Pact units along the way down.
Operation Medicine Wheel is the craziest scenario here and looks like great fun. In this scenario, the NATO garrison decides to make a pre-emptive strike into East Berlin before the Soviets can muster an attack. They also decide to try and get as many units as possible into the East German countryside to conduct guerrilla warfare and play hell with the rail network feeding men and tanks to the front. Everything is helter skelter with random Ground Support Units, no reinforcements for either side, NATO surrender off the table, and the WP player starts with his forces unprepared and out of supply until he can make a successful Supply Priority roll starting with Game Turn 8. Wow!
I’ll be running through the first turn of a game to show how it works in my next upcoming post. Stay tuned for more Berlin ’85 fun.