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.

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.

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.

“Insurgent” Now Available

I’m proud to announce that “Insurgent“, the latest entry in the World War III: 1985 series has just been released.

As with all my other books, it’s available on Amazon in e-book format.

The book is about two Vietnam veterans who are sent to assist an insurgency in East Germany during the opening days of World War III.

 

Along with the insurgent leader, Major Werner Brandt, the team faces numerous challenges as they attempt to hit a the Soviet garrison near Leipzig. It’s a book about war, friendship, and hard choices.

Here’s the synopsis for your reading pleasure:

May, 1985: The Warsaw Pact invades West Germany. World War III has begun. Two Vietnam veterans are sent on a secret mission to East Germany to help train and advise an insurgency aimed at the very heart of the Soviet military forces stationed in the country. 

The chaos of war provides the perfect conditions for a rogue East German major and his soldiers to strike at the Russians as they pour men and material towards the front lines. Though they are on the same side, the three men become embroiled in a conflict not only with the enemy but also among themselves. 

During the Vietnam War, Joe Ricci and Ned Littlejohn trained and lead Hmong fighters against the North Vietnamese Army. When the Third World War breaks out fifteen years later, they are assigned to work with Major Werner Brandt and his shadowy cell of insurgents. Their objective is to break the Soviet occupation force. 

Consumed with hatred for the Russians, Brandt’s lust for revenge threatens to unravel the entire operation. Ricci, on the other hand, struggles to keep the nearby civilians safe from harm in the middle of a war zone. The two men are set on a collision course as they fight for their countries – and their souls.

Storm and Steel – Now Available!

Storm and Steel has just been released in the Amazon Kindle store. This is the latest entry in the “Tales of World War III: 1985” series and perhaps one of my favorite so far.

It’s got just the right mix of realism and action to entertain the reader. It also fills in a missing spot in the series by looking at war from the perspective of the West Germans.

So often, Cold War Hot fiction focuses on the Americans (“Team Yankee”) or the British (“Chieftain”). I thought it was time to consider how the West Germans would have felt watching their homeland being invaded and fighting for their homes and families.

The action this time is focused tightly on a tank company commander. Here’s a brief synopsis of the plot:

May 1985: A panzer company commander faces his first harrowing day of war versus the Warsaw Pact. Against the relentless onslaught of Russian and Czechoslovakian divisions pouring into West Germany, Captain Kurt Mohr and his tank crews wage a desperate battle to delay the enemy advance. As a brand new company commander, he must also prove his metal to the men who serve under him. Amid the breakneck speed of mechanized warfare, Mohr battles his own self-doubt and fear in order to quickly adapt to the fast-paced battlefield environment.

Fighting in Lower Bavaria also poses unique challenges to his command abilities as the close-in nature of the terrain forces him to deal with threats at point blank range. As the conflict’s first day progresses, the brutal reality of war hits home. With the future of their nation at stake, Mohr and his men become the storm and steel that avenge the countrymen whose lives they are sworn to protect.

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!

Happy New Year!

 

Late last month, I made all the books from 2017 available in a single volume. At first, I was honestly tempted to stop writing the series at this point and just put the offering there for anyone who wanted to read and enjoy the series. Looking back over the books I had written was invigorating! Some of them worked out well while a couple of them fizzle out. However, there was enough good material and enough lessons learned to keep me going with the series in the new year.

Today, I began work on the next installment of the series. The next book will feature a look at Operation Gladio. This was reportedly a covert NATO operation to have a stay-behind force to conduct guerrilla operations in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe. Although little is really known about Gladio, there have been enough hair-raising headlines to offer a good fiction-writer some ideas for a story set in the Tales of World War III: 1985 series. I’m enjoying the developing characters and dilemmas that the characters face in the story and – not to worry – there are some fun action sequences to satisfy readers who want a thrilling read. I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the book throughout the month. Thanks for reading.

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.

Battle for Berlin ’85 Released!

The Battle for Berlin: 1985I have just published The Battle for Berlin: 1985, my newest entry in the Tales of World War III: 1985 series. I am very proud of this work and I think it represents my best effort so far.

The book is about a Special Deployment Commando team in West Berlin during an invasion of the city by the Warsaw Pact forces. It deals with the personalities involved in the small elite unit as it learns to fight a losing battle against a numerically superior force.

During the course of the first day’s fighting, the members of the team experience first-hand the trauma and shock of modern warfare, watching and taking part in the destruction of their hometown with nowhere to retreat.

There is intrigue, betrayal, and military action all wrapped up in this one story as the desperate battle for West Berlin is waged on the first day of World War III.

Go and grab your copy here and let me know what you think.