Summer Reading

For this summer, I’m happy to be reading some books from some of my favorite authors. Jim Butcher is great and I am reading Fool Moon from the Dresden Files. Very nice atmosphere and way to take a fresh approach on the pulp noir genre. I also have my sights set on Colder Than Hell by Joseph Owen, an excellent true story about a company commander in the Korean War. Finally, I’ve been reading a book called Creech Blue about Bill Creech’s influence on modern air war strategy in the 1980s. Not as dry as I expected and downright fascinating how one man can make so many positive changes in such a short time.

Enemy Lines – The Revenge Story

So if you read Enemy Lines, you’ll notice there’s a little loose thread at the end of the book that I have left dangling. Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, but there’s a certain someone that has something coming to them. If you’re wondering how that plays out, have no fear. I’m writing that short story right now and I’ll be including it as a free download in the coming weeks.

As for my other works in the series, summer has been busy and I have slowed my pace of writing down a bit. But I have something very nice planned for the next book and I’ll be dropping hints about it in some upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Nord Kapp: How it All Played Out

Quick post today. The scenario depicted in my latest book, “Storm Scarred Banner” was based off a game created in 1983 by legendary designer Charles T. Kamps. For a look at how the game played out, you can read my blog post here over on my game blog. One thing I wish I had talked more about in the book was how the weather influences fighting just as it did in the game. Enjoy!

A Man and a Plan: General Bernard Rogers and FOFA

Since my last book, “Storm Scarred Banner” was released a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been busy with a game design project. Although I can’t say too much about it at this point, I can tell you that it looks at the large-scale events in the book series from a broad top-down perspective.  To that end,  I’ve been conducting research and deepening my knowledge of the wider issues of a Third World War fought in the 1980s.

One of the more interesting ideas I didn’t know about until yesterday was that of FOFA or “Follow On Forces Attack”.

In the 1980s, NATO was trying to figure out the best way to stop the Soviets from succeeding with a conventional war in Europe. Knowing that Soviet doctrine relied on the echelon system, where successive waves of troops would be thrown into battle time and time again, the new NATO strategy came to be that of hitting these successive waves from the air as they came up to their staging areas behind the front.

General Bernard Rogers, who was SACEUR throughout most of the 1980s, was a major proponent of this concept. General Rogers, a force of nature in military circles back then, was  concerned with the overwhelming advantage in numbers of men and tanks that sat behind the Iron Curtain. Despite NATO’s unquestionable technological superiority, Rogers seemed concerned that it was not enough to deter or stop the Warsaw Pact from gaining the upper hand in a conventional fight.

Despite falling out of favor with Washington and forced to resign over comments related to the withdrawal of Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe, Rogers’ FOFA concept was held in esteem by many military thinkers at the time. To read more about FOFA and how it would have been put into practice, check out this study project paper from the US Army War College in 1990. Very interesting reading.

Storm Scarred Banner Released!

A week ago, I uploaded my latest book, “A Storm Scarred Banner” to the Amazon Kindle Store. Since then it has taken off along with the rest of the books in the “Tales of World War III: 1985” series.

The title comes from the lyrics to the Norwegian national anthem, from the line:

“Rugged, storm-scarred o’er the ocean. With her thousand homes”

I thought that was quite stirring and lovely. The effect is almost visceral and the story of how the country was forged through battle and peace was appropriate for a novel of this sort. The banner, of course, refers to the red banner of the Soviet Union and the Red Banner Fleet.

I think this is one of my better works in the series because it looks a little more closely at the soldier’s lot in a war. There are no superheroes in this book – just men trying their best to survive in their current situation.

Inside The Soviet Army

One of the best aspects of writing a book like this is expanding my own knowledge and understanding of how the Soviet and NATO military doctrines worked, from the divisional level to the level of the individual soldier. I tried to touch upon this in the first book of the “Tales of World War III” series with three short stories that looked at such a conflict from different scales. The reviews I read of the book showed that some people “got” what I was trying to do and some people didn’t, which is fine too.

The sources I’ve used for these books include games, magazines, and books. My current favorite book on this topic is Victor Suvarov’s “Inside the Soviet Army”, published in 1982. Suvarov was a high ranking armor officer in the Soviet army for many years and brought his extensive knowledge and experience to bear in this book.

Some of the interesting finds in this book include the routine bullying and harassment that new recruits faced from the conscripts who were more senior to them – not in rank but relative to how close they were to finishing their two-year service period. I had never read anything about this in the popular fiction about this time period so I decided to incorporate it into my newest book.

One of the main characters, Yuri Semenovich, is a conscript who has just been assigned to the 45th Motorized Rifle Division. His platoon is infested with severe bullying from the other more senior men around him. Terrorized by a gang of thugs, he decides to ride out the abuse as best as he can until the war is over. This decision has a series of consequences that transform the young Yuri over the course of one week. It become apparent that Yuri’s enemies are not only NATO troops but also the men who serve with him.

How will Yuri deal with being caught between the two of them?

Nord Kapp – Morality in War

The story I’m currently writing in the series explores a couple of different themes. The major theme here is courage. For the characters involved, courage comes in many forms and this short work tries to explore moral courage especially. As the chaos of war is brought into the characters’ lives, they are thrust into situations that test their moral fiber to stand up for what is right. Not so easy to do in the midst of a world war.

I chose this theme because I realized the best war movies out there tend to address this component. In particular, the movies Platoon and Casualties of War are about moral courage. Apocalypse Now seems to dismiss the possibility of morality in an inherently immoral act of war but I would disagree with this notion. Certainly, there are enough examples of people doing the “right thing” even in the most terrible situations.

Rest assured, the story also tries to show how such a conflict might actually have happened. I’m currently researching equipment and training for the forces involved. Also, I’m wargaming the situation out with a wargame called Nord Kapp, published in 1983 by SPI. It’s a fascinating look at what a conventional modern conflict in the Arctic Circle might have looked like. You can follow it on my wargaming blog, Hexsides & Hand Grenades.

Nord Kapp – The Battle for Norway

So my upcoming freebie is the next entry in the Tales of World War III: 1985 series. Although I have just started to write it, I am falling in love with the setting.

You may ask yourself, “Why Norway? Why focus on such a sideshow to the bigger Central European war?”

Part of the answer for that is contained within the question. If the Soviets had invaded Western Europe in the 1980s, Scandinavia would have been a huge part of determining how things went for them. Controlling this region would have allowed them to strike far beyond the range of Eastern Europe’s airbases. From here, they could have also based their naval units and submarines to move through the GIUK gap.

Despite the importance of this region for a Third World War, there isn’t much fiction dedicated to it. I suppose the major focus was on Germany during that time and people liked to imagine Soviet tanks pouring over the inter-German border and heading straight down the Fulda Gap. But culturally and geographically, Scandinavia is a unique setting for modern warfare. Any study of the Finnish-Soviet war yields some amazing accounts of fighting in the snow and cold of the Arctic Circle. It’s for this reason that I’m writing a novel that would finally give this region the spotlight. More on this later.

Harpoon: Captain’s Edition – Hunter Killer

I decided to take a little break from Pacific War and get back to playing Harpoon: Captain’s Edition. If you haven’t heard much about Harpoon: Captain’s Edition, feel free to check out my overview of this fun GDW release from 1990.  Browsing through the game’s rulebook, I realized I hadn’t yet played any of its scenarios that involve submarine warfare.  I’ve always loved the slow-paced tension of submarine versus surface ship duels ever since watching “Run Silent Run Deep” on late night TV as a kid.

Leafing through the scenario book, I finally found a match-up to whet my appetite. “Hunter Killer” is an exciting and tense scenario that pits a pack of Soviet submarines against a task force of American destroyers during a late-1980s World War III. The background story is that a US carrier group is due to pass between Iceland and Scotland in a few days. To secure its passage, the Americans send a hunter-killer formation of surface ships to the area in an effort to destroy any Soviet submarines lurking in the depths below.  NATO wins if it is able to sink two Soviet subs.  The Soviets must keep as many boats alive as possible.  If the Soviets can sink two NATO ships, it offsets the sinking of one of their subs.  The game lasts seven turns.

The Soviet Akula class submarine [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

NATO forces consist of two destroyers (one Arleigh-Burke class and one Spruance class) with two frigates (two OH Perry class).

NATO forces

The Soviets get three submarines – two Akula class subs and an Oscar.

Soviet forces

I also decided to use the Dummy cards for this scenario. I’m playing solitaire, which obviously complicates matters. I’ve decided that my initial ship movements for both sides will be blind. Although I know how the ships will be grouped together, I don’t know which groups of ships belong to which counter on the board.  So I could be moving the Arleigh Burke or a NATO dummy counter – I will have no idea until I need to do something (i.e. attack or detect) with the counter that would require knowledge of the ship’s composition. After I know what ships each task force counter actually represents, I’ll roll dice to help decide where ships will go and what they will do. It is less than ideal but it helps to introduce some aspect of hidden information into the game, which is a big part of Harpoon: Captain’s Edition.

Soviet setup with Task Forces D, A, C in red. NATO Task Forces (blue counters) will enter from the bottom of the map.

The Soviet player sets up first, placing his ships anywhere along the line of hexes from 0816 to 1419. These hexes lay between Iceland and northern Scotland.  One thing to note is that the Soviet side is unable to move its subs beyond two hexes of their starting hexes.  The Soviets put their boats into three separate task forces, Task Force D is placed in 0816, Task Force A is in 1118 and Task Force C is in 1419.  NATO has three task forces, TF-14, TF-5, and TF-12, which are set to enter from the bottom of the map edge on turn 1.

Turn 1

Harpoon:CE works by chit pull so we start yanking chits out of the cup.  Task Force 12 enters first at speed 3, followed by Task Force 14 at speed 2 and Task Force 5 at speed 1.  The NATO ships are coming up along the west side of the play area, near Iceland.  Whether or not this is a feint is hard to say. The task forces are close enough to mutually support one another if attacked.

NATO Task Forces enter the map.

Soviet Task Force D activates next and moves south to 0817. Rolling to check if TF-D is a dummy or not beforehand, I find out that it is actually a dummy.  The NATO side does not know this,however, and may send ships after it.  Hopefully, NATO will take the bait and leave some of its ships vulnerable to submarine attack.

Task Force A and C get a chance to turn and both move closer to the NATO ships, attempting to detect them and failing.

Soviet sub Task Forces move towards the NATO surface ships and attempt detection.

With the last chit pulled, turn 1 ends.

Turn 2

Things really heated up this turn. Task Force 12 ended up being rolled as a dummy when the NATO player went to see if it could make a detection attempt versus Soviet Task Force D. It went down to speed zero and stayed put, hoping to lure in Soviet Task Force D (which was, unknown to the NATO player, also a dummy marker).

Task Force C moved west one hex to 1218 at speed 1 while Task Force D (a dummy group) stayed put and reduced to speed zero. Next, I pulled the Task Force 14 chit and it succeeded at its attempt to detect Task Force D. It was revealed as a dummy and the task force chit was taken off the board. Task Force 14 then sped up to speed 2 and attempted a detection on Task Force A in hex 1019. It succeeded!

The enemy task force was identified as an Akula-class submarine and an Oscar. Task Force A also succeeded in detecting Task Force 14 so the Oscar launched its compliment of 12 SSMs at the NATO ships, which were identified as an Arleigh Burke destroyer and an OH Perry frigate. The Burke’s long-range SAMs shot down 6 of the Soviet incoming missiles and the Perry’s short range SAMs took out the rest. That is not good for the Soviets.

Soviet Oscar fires 12 SSMs at Task Force 14.

The Burke and Perry swaggered north into the hex with the Soviet subs and commenced aggressive ASW, scoring 2 hits on the Akula sub (which could take a maximum of 3 hits before sinking).

Hello Baby!  Task Force 14 enters into hex 1018 and begins ASW operations.

Task Force A subs went next and moved in for torpedo shots at the Burke and Perry ships. The Akula and Oscar got abysmal rolls but managed a single hit on the Burke and another hit on the Perry frigate, sinking it.The Burke-class destroyer got another chance to conduct ASW and sunk the Akula.

NATO Task Force 5 activated next and entered into the same hex where the damaged Burke and the Oscar submarine were fighting it out. The Spruance and Perry-class ships conducted additional ASW on the Oscar and managed an incredible 3 hits thanks to some excellent rolls. The Oscar was still barely alive, however, and if its chit got pulled next turn, it could manage to fight NATO to a draw.

Task Force 5 joins up with Task Force 14 and pours the hurt on an Oscar-class submarine.

Turn 3

The Burke, Spruance, and Perry formed into a single mighty sub-killing task force at the start of the turn and resumed pounding the Oscar. Task Force 5’s chit got pulled right at the start of the turn. The Soviets just could not get a break. The Burke rolled 5 dice on its ASW and scored a single hit on the Oscar submarine, which sent it to the cold depths of the ocean floor.

Task Force C managed an activation but was unable to move any further as per scenario rules. With no SSMs to fire at the NATO ships, the game was over at this point. The US player had achieved two Soviet sub kills and simply meandered away from the battle area, leaving the Soviets fuming. We chalk up a nice win for NATO.

Newly combined NATO task force wanders away while Akula in TF-C sits by in impotent rage mode.

Conclusion:

If I had to play this one again, I would have the Soviet subs hang back a bit at the beginning to make detecting them as hard as possible for NATO. Because they were moving during Turn 1, they were easier to detect and the hunter-killer groups had a real heyday finding and destroying them, especially after the dummy task force was found out.  I also might have grouped those Soviet task forces a little tighter so they could help each other out.  It was very frustrating to see Task Force C stuck uselessly near its starting hex at the end of the scenario.

I know you shouldn’t blame luck too much but the NATO rolls were pretty amazing throughout the game while the Soviets had some rough luck, especially with their torpedo attack on the Burke. Finally, I should have pulled the Soviet subs back after their attacks on Task Force 14.  Keeping them in the fight and just hoping to get a chit pull for a nice free torpedo attack was silly and cost me the game.

I found this scenario to be well balanced and quite tense!  I didn’t know if the dummy cards would work as a solitaire player but they were fine and added a lot to the tension.  I’d like to try this game with the air components next and see how they fit into the game.

I should note that this scenario played out very quickly and fluidly.  Aside from a few glances at the rulebook to find hit tables and detection modifiers, it was easy to play the whole thing through from setup to conclusion in less than thirty minutes.  It is a small scenario but so far, I’m finding that the game does what is promised on the box cover.  It is a fast-paced and very simple game of modern naval combat.

The Best of 2014

Well, looking back at 2014 (over 60 articles), it seems that this blog saw a lot more action than 2013 (36 articles all told).  It probably had something to do with finally being finished with a degree and having more free time this year but I would also say that I got a bit deeper with my gaming experiences too.  Up until this year, I’d kept the gaming scale down to short (a few hours of play time) platoon/company level (Lock ‘n Load, World at War, etc.) games with brief forays into brigade-level (Dawn’s Early Light) affairs.  With my purchase of Victory Games’ The Korean War in early summer, that all changed for me.

The Korean War was really a turning point in my own gaming experience.  It was the first really large-scale operational game that I had ever played and which covered an entire year of a war.  I wasn’t sure how I would make the jump to this scale and scope and I was concerned that it would be too complicated.  Fortunately, the learning scenarios in the game were terrific and the number of interesting decisions (just enough to make the game cool, not so many to be overwhelming) really drew me in.  From there, it was a no-brainer that I had to finally sit down and play Gulf Strike, another VG game that was operational, although a bit more complex.  From that point, it was all downhill to Vietnam: 1965 to 1975, where I finally reached my Waterloo after a year of game time and called it quits (I still intend to return to it some day).

I think the most important thing I’ve learned this year is to just keep putting things on the table and see what sticks despite the intimidation factor of any given game due to complexity, length of time required for play, or just the size of the map.  By playing these “larger” games, I also got a new appreciation of my smaller-scale games and how nice it was to have something that could be played in a single evening session without the need for book-keeping or notes.  To say my gaming habits and preferences have changed radically is not really true – but it would be fair to say that they’re becoming more diverse…even though I still haven’t brought myself to step outside the confines of modern conflict.  Maybe I’ll try that next year and see how it goes.

Since it’s the end of the year then, I guess it’s fashionable to make lists.  So here (in somewhat hierarchical order from good to great) are what I consider my top 5 articles from this year followed by a brief reason why they’re on there:

5.  Twilight: 2000 – The Last Battle:  A Review

I don’t write many reviews but when I do, I try to be detached.  Not this one.  I had a long personal history with the roleplaying game, Twilight:2000, and I was cutting it no slack here as I played through it and found some ridiculous and hilarious results during the course of the game.  Was I disappointed?  Yeah, man.  This was my teenage years at stake.  After getting slightly inebriated, however, the game took me right back to the late 1980s, surrounded by high school friends on a Friday night while eating pizza and complaining about how bad the last episode of Miami Vice sucked.  It was a bit like watching the movie Starship Troopers, where all you could think about for the first thirty minutes was how bad the movie was – only to realize in the last half that something wonderful is happening.

4.  Vietnam: 1965 to 1975

I tried…I really tried here.  I dove into this campaign at a really busy time in my life.  Work was exploding and I had conferences to attend overseas along with a big side project that was getting off the ground.  Still, this thing sat in my game room for weeks on end as I scurried back and forth reading the rulebook on the couch and then going into the game room and moving a piece or two.  Still, I sort of somehow got to the point where I could see the decisions I had made piling up and this beautiful epic narrative start to unfold before my eyes.  You don’t really play Victory Games’ Vietnam…you experience it.

3.  Gulf Strike:  The Invasion of Kuwait

Gulf Strike was one of those games that sat in my gaming closet for about a year before I dared to bring it out on the table.  I’d read about.  I’d scanned and skimmed the rulebook.  I stared at the box.  Finally, I just went with it, trusting Mark Herman not to lead me astray.  He did not and I found GS to be one of the best games I’ve ever played.  I loved the reaction system and the way that detection works along with the overall scenario design.  It doesn’t drag on and on.  Decisions are made and the rules are fluid enough to handle whatever you want to do without getting bogged down in minutiae.  It took a while to get the system down in my head but once you get it, you can start to appreciate the beauty of it.

2. World at War:  Counterattack

I need to give a shout-out here to Mark Walker, who brought a narrative to his World at War games through “The Untold Stories” and then took things a bit further with the dual campaigns of “Counterattack”.  There’s a real mystery unfolding in the pages of Counterattack and some very solid scenario design.  I always felt CA never really got the love it deserved and that’s too bad.  The WaW system had some new life breathed into it and Counterattack helped to keep things fresh and interesting for people who had been following the series from the start.

1.  The Korean War:  North Korea Invades

This was the year I fell in love with Victory Games and operational-level gaming and big campaigns.  This was the game that started it all.  I can’t say enough good things about The Korean War.  It was based on a conflict I really knew nothing about and hadn’t really been that interested in before playing this game.  The rules are easy to understand and the decisions are really interesting.  The combat and movement system are like nothing I had ever seen before and the idea of activations, world tension levels, intervention, and commitment are handled so nicely that it’s a real joy to play – even for someone relatively new to wargames.  If you haven’t checked this game out, I really recommend doing so.  I think you’ll find it’s well worth the trouble of tracking down an older copy.  I would put it on my shortlist of things to bring if stranded on a desert island.

Thanks very much for reading and I hope you have a great holiday and prosperous new year!

All the best in the new year.