Book Review: ‘The Pentagon’s Urban COIN Wargame (1966)’

It is well known that I’m a sucker for anything with COIN when it comes to games and books (and academic endeavours too) so when this book was released by John Curry’s History of Wargames Project clicky I ordered it straight away and similarly when I arrived I read it straight away…

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The book is a reprint for the archives of what is to all intents and purposes a megagame. The game that the Pentagon created was meant as a training tool to better understand urban insurgencies and to generate insights in those who may have to deal with them in the future.

The game has three sets of players: Government, insurgents and general population, the latter being split by socio- economic class. Initially the insurgents are hidden within the general population and are unknown to the Government, in a similar manner the Government has players hidden within the general population that are unknown to either the general population or the insurgents.

Play is split into 24hr long cycles with a day/night phase in which players have to do assigned task in certain parts of the city (such as go to work to get paid) or to keep up appearances if they are undercover. The game ends when certain victory conditions have been met; interestingly the general population can ‘win’ by increasing their personal wealth and backing the winning side on the final turn. The final turn not being announced in advance.

 

Being a serious military game there was a lot of record keeping built in. Players were expected to keep an accurate record of their locations visited within a turn, so it could be analysed later.

 

Although I’ve designed/ run a couple of games now and played/ controlled in many others I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert, but a few things do jump out at me. The insurgency is rather generic: given the era that the game came from it is assumed that the insurgencies is a communist one (the historical examples that are cited the majority are) or at least a war of national liberation that is using communist ideology to achieve that. Whilst more background would help player engagement and immersion with the setting and roleplaying opportunities it would also frame the responses of the government especially with how to approach ‘carrot’ rather than ‘stick’ responses to insurgent demands. It was interesting to see that there was a role for the press within the game; although this was referred to tangentially rather than explicitly.  The control forms seem like a lot of work to do and whilst they track the location of the player it doesn’t record the most important aspect: that of the social interactions of that player. It would be through such interactions that opinions would be formed and alliances made, especially for those players making up the general population.

 

One thing that really intrigued me was a comment in the introduction that a copy of these rules was found in Paddy Griffths’ own archive; for it was he who started megagaming as a recreational hobby (and then taken forward by Jim Wallman). Is the game the genesis of the modern hobby as we know it? Time and some more archive work may yet tell us….

I am tempted to try and get a game organised to try this out with a few players- I think 20 players would be a manageable number to recruit and test the game out properly.

 

Cheers,

 

Pete.

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Future plans… ideas brewing.

Now that a couple of weeks has past since my Case Blue ’42 megagame I have recovered and can start looking to future projects.

I’ve hada chance to look at the feedback from the game and, with one exception, it is all positive. That is really gratifying that so many people enjoyed the game. As for the less than glowing feedback I know what went wrong and how to fix it in the future. Either way it hasn’t put me off running more games. I’m not sure if I’ll do another big game next year by myself or as co-designer but I’d like to help in a supporting role to someone else; a few ideas have been mentioned that I’m looking forward to helping out with… watch this space. The year after I’m looking at developing a 1919 post WW1 German Freikorp  game with the nascent Wiemar republic struggling with both internal and external threats. I was rooting through a pile of books today looking for something else and found a few that will be useful for research purposes so have left them somewhere accesible (OK there are currently a trip hazard).

I was thinking that given all the resources that I have made up for Case Blue it would be a shame just to have them sat in a box for ages so I put my mind to thining what I could use them for. The feedback on the game said that the core mechanics are solid but just need a few rough edges rounding off, a second or third large scale run should do that. The obvious thing would be to use the maps to game Operation Uranus (the Soviet winter attack that encircled Stalingrad) and possibly let the Germans attempt to relieve Paulus and his troops stuck in Stalingrad.

The decision to be made would be should the game start with a roughly historical set- up or one extrapolated from the end of the megagame? Given that players on both sides were arguing over who exactly won it could be a controversial choice… Doing it has a half sized game with 20 or so players would be an easy enough proposition.

Another option for using the components could be do stage something of a prequel: Karkhov in May 1942. Most of the units could do duty there but I would need a new map. It has a lot to offer in that it saw a large and argueably overambitious Soviet attack that caught the Germans unaware that resulted in some very large tank battles. The Germans did rally and inflict a heavy defeat on the Soviets but would it go that way in a re- run. I should dig out the excellent David Glantz book I’ve got on the battle and have a think.

Given that none of the players or units got onto the Stalingrad map in Case Blue ’42 I thought of a nice way to use the map. I’ll develop a Stalingrad urban combat game to take round the local wargames shows to drum up some interest in Pennine Megagames and what we do.

Moving away from megagaming I’ve some other plans too: a VBCW game set within Huddersfield with all the players nominally on the same side but with hidden agenda; this will probably end up being  a RPG/ commitee/ map game mash up. I’ve written up a scenario for a multiplayer game of 5core: Brigade Commander that I’d like to try, nothing too big- probably 7 players or so. We’ve all collected so much stuff in a short period of time it would be nice to see it all being used at once. I’d like to run a Vietnam campaign at a skirmish level based on actions against the Ho Chi Minh trail, be nice if I could integrate low level air and ground gaming in that one.

I cat sat for friends of mine last weekend (seven rescue cats, some with health issues, and a snake) and they very generously got me some Necromunda figures as a thank you so that will be a project for the next few weeks. I hope that I enjoy the new version as much as I did the original. I bought some GW Chaos Cultists to have a practice with so I can get back into the swing of painting that stule of figures again. I’ve had a hankering for doing some sci fi gaming recently so the Van Saar figures scratch that itch nicely. I’ll mix them in with some of the nice Copplestone sculpts that are still available from Moonbase and North Star that I’ve long coveted.

Well, that turned out to be a longer post than expected guess I had more ideas than I thought. Best get cracking.

 

Cheers,

 

Pete.

 

Case Blue ’42: the megagame. The Aftermath.

This past Saturday saw the first run of the Case Blue ’42: The Drive to Stalingrad megagame that Matt and I have been working on for so long. I’ve decided to write down my thought on the game before I’ve looked at much of the feedback so it won’t influence me.

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The game was a multi-layered exploration of the first few months of the German offensive in 1942 to try to take the oil fields of Southern Russia that ended in bloody failure in the streets of Stalingrad. Attendees took on a variety of roles: operational players gamed at the map- either moving counters around (representing divisions/ corps) of battling out the air war on four 6 foot by 9 foot maps of the area. Above them in the command hierarchy were the senior generals who they reported too, they were ensconced in a separate room and had to rely mainly of their Chief of Staffs for reports. The high command team had to deal with the whims and vagaries of the two dictatorial leaders that were ran Germany and the USSR, they were to buy the supplies and units they felt they needed to prosecute their campaign. Additionally, there was a propaganda officer on each side that was reporting on what was going on within the game to give their side certain bonuses.

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The game started with a very busy north-western map as the Germans attack was launched into the Soviet defensive lines, the Germans mad slow progress on this map especially in the most northerly portion, some Soviet units held out right until the end of the game. In the south the drive towards Rostov progressed a little better with less Soviet defenders to contend with. Given how busy the map was I stood back for a lot of the day and let the more than capable map control players deal with things as too many voices would just have confused matter. As such I just answered the few queries that came up and kept on top of the rest of the game.

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The Germans managed to break out onto the north- eastern map and push towards Stalingrad, often this drive saw the various Axis Allied nations in the van (I even heard of one player being surprised at how well their Italians were doing- a country that has always suffered in the historiography of WW2). At one stage there was nothing but a solitary Soviet mechanised corps in Stalingrad whilst it was being menaced by a Panzer division; this didn’t last as reinforcements were rushed up to hold the line. As a result, the Germans never got into Stalingrad* but they didn’t really try as their plan was to use it as a diversion and to keep the Soviet’s attention there whilst they pushed south.

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In the south Maikop fell to a Panzer Division unsabotaged, sadly bereft of air cover it was badly mauled by Soviet air power and forced out by a brave counterattacking Soviet division.  Grozny too fell intact to the Germans, and in one of those wonderful examples of megagames generating the kind of Clauswitzian friction that you read about, reinforcements in the form of 6 rifle divisions were tasked with ousting them they were deployed on the wrong part of the map due to miscommunication. As a result, the southerly railway line to Baku was cut. Some games might resort to using dice rolls of other mechanics to simulate the chance of orders going awry it can often be easily replicated by just adding more players into the equation. Like everygood megagame the players wanted a few extra turns to eithe cement their gains or really get the counter attack moving. The Germans had caputured the oil but their position was very precarious: who won you ask? Well I’ll let that question get settled in the FB discussions. Players seemed to really engage with the game by the end and were getting quite invested in it. The awarding of medals was a popular addition and being called upstairs to explain your lack of progress or other failings was taken in good humour. All in all what could have been a difficult game was approached in the right spirit by all concerned.

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Overall the game went well I think but there were a lot of little bits that didn’t go that great that I were my responsibility that I felt added together and impacted on the day. As such this self- criticism is not so much a call for sympathy but rather an aide- memoire for the future so I know what mistakes not to make (I know I’m a hard taskmaster on myself at times).

Firstly, the good: it was an absolute pleasure to work with Matt to develop the game. The bits that he brought to the game worked really well. The air game was simple enough to be resolved quickly but gave plenty of game for the player to enjoy. His idea for the high command game worked a treat too. The high command players had to negotiate with the ‘plumpired’ supreme leaders (Hitler and Stalin) and buy resources for future turns based upon how well they had followed their leaders’ orders in that turn, it was a great idea to quantify the abstract idea of political goodwill and support into a shopping list style system, due to the roleplaying skills of the plumpires this was not as artificial as it could have been. Also, if you want a rulebook writing that is easy for the beginner to follow Matt is your man.

Also, I can’t say enough good things about the control team, they handled the difficulties of the day really well and kept things moving, in what was at the start of the game, some sub-optimal conditions.

Matt’s Mum was along for the day with a selection of delicious homemade cakes that were for the players to eat as accompaniment with their cups of tea for a donation to charity: I’m please to say that together everyone raised £140 for McMillan Cancer support which is fantastic.

As for the not so good… there were a few errors in the game that were either conceptual failures in which I had not thought through the ideas behind and ramifications of the various components of the game. Given my only previous megagame that I had run was a closed map game for 25 players moving to a multi-layered 50 player game with my rule mechanics out in the open and as such not easily able to be changed or improvised like I was previously able to do with the previous game; a game which was essentially an old fashioned kriegsspiel, I mismanaged my time. The game was finished and ran OK but a few things were left vaguer than they should have been. For example, the rules for Partisans existed in my head but should have been available for players and control in paper form. Even if they weren’t given to the players in advance in the rulebook I should have still written them down. Other parts of the rulebook should have been proofread by myself better, fortunately the only potentially major typo was handled very well by improvisation by the map control team.

The counters could do with more work- specially to differentiate the two sides at a distance I feel. The map game was too slow or more accurately I severely underestimated how long it would take to play through the turns. The first turn ran twice as long as I had anticipated, in the future I could do more things to mitigate this: a pregame walk though, better examples to be made available before the game, better labelling of counters so players could identify those they were responsible for quicker. The cards that I added to the game to add flavour were too numerous, too many options can mean that turns take too long. I should have narrowed it down to a handful of key cards for each side. Also the integration of the air game, in terms of close air support and bombing might have been a little too powerful, something that should of come through with more playtesting.

What I was concerned with was that if the operational ground commanders to 4 hours to play 3 turns or 4 hours to play 2 turns they still got 4 hours of gaming in; the other parts of the game whose player’s activities were over quicker would be hanging around a fair bit. Again, the part that was my responsibility being something that impacted the high command negatively. As a result my errors the game fell behind my intended schedule as such Matt and I had to bring a few events forward so that they happened in the time left in the day. However by half past three when all four main maps were being played on and I saw all the players enagaged and having fun I did relax a bit and felt good about our creation.

Whilst the maps Simon designed were fantastic I think I could have made a better decision as to where to split them. As you saw in my earlier post all maps were of the same size; had I done it differently I could have started the two German Army groups on different maps, something that would have greatly eased the congestion round the table.

The logistic game ran well, the players who were in charge of getting the supplies to the HQs did sterling work, however, given how busy the operational players were fighting battles the last part of getting supplies from HQs on the map to subordinate units did not go as smoothly.

The preplanning game needed more work too, I should have made more information available earlier to the high command team so that they could plan better, also more clearly stated intentions of what they could and couldn’t do as well as their role and what was expected of them would have improved their game immeasurably. Facebook isn’t a perfect platform to run a preplanning session on but it is the best of the available options I think.

Given that this was the first time that the game ran I should really be easier on myself; I had wanted to do a half/ quarter sized run through, but realised that would have taken nearly as much effort as running the full game, as I knew certain things regarding the integration of all the game elements would not become apparent until it was scaled up like that.

 

Still… there is plenty to think about for my next game and I’m sure it I’ll make it better than this one, I’ve learnt a lot from this experience.

 

I’ve a few medium sized gaming projects that I want to work on for myself over the coming months but I’ll be back to pondering my next megagame soon… I guess it is a case of watch this space,

 

Cheers,

 

Pete.

*Although the wonderful smaller Stalingrad map wasn’t used on the day I intend to develop a participation game based upon it to take round a few of the northern Game shows, again watch this space.

Case Blue 42: The maps.

The maps have arrived for Case Blue 🙂

They are fantastic- my friend Simon, his blog here , did a superb job, Matt and I have got him a very fine bottle of Scotch for his troubles.

They are also very big, after checking them to make sure they were correct (they were packaged rather oddly I had to take them outside to photograph as I don’t have enough room in my front room with out moving all the furniature around…

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Each of the 4 above maps are approx 6 foot by 8 foot.

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The Stalingrad area map is 6 foot by 4 foot.

Can’t wait to see them all laid out with the counters on on game day.

Cheers,

 

Pete.

A Shot Heard Around the Universe- the megagame.

A couple of weekends ago I was in Leeds for the most recent Pennine Megagame offering ‘A Shot Heard Around the Universe.’ This was an original offereing by Tim set in a universe of his own creation. Imagine a series of inhabited systems at the edge of a galaxy owned by a distant but powerful empire, the systems are feeling hard pressed due to increasing taxes and feel a little forgotten… the whiff of rebellion and secession is in the air.

Being a space game I decided to volunteer my services and provide some 3D props to the game. I thoughht if every team had a model planet it would not just add to the visual element of the day but a physical representation to identify with would help team immersion in the game.

The models were surprisingly simple to do. Once I found some polysterne balls (and one ping pong ball) of the right size I mounted them upon bamboo skewers and primed them with a tick coat of PVA. This was to give the balls a bit of rigidity and well as give the paint something to stick to. Expanded polystyrene can be difficult to get paint to adhere to at times.

I got a list of the descriptions of the planets from Tim and put the base colour and basic continents on with a brush. After that it wasa simple job to shade the planets by dabbing on various complimentary colours with a bit of sponge, blending it all together whilst wet. The final touch was bit of white sponged on those planets with seas to represents clouds. I didn’t go to excess here to keep the underlying detail.

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After another coat of PVA to seal them I made some stands for them with cut down pens and air drying clay.

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Once all set up on the large game map I thought they looked pretty good and added to the day.

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My role on the day of the game was being kept very busy running the espionage map on a side table. The board represented a mixture of physical and conceptual areas on each of the planets and the security agents moved around the nodal map conducting operations. It certainly through up some interesting situations in the game, the system worked fine but some of the values need reworking. One player did out manoeuvre the rest with skillful play- can’t remember the last time I had a player so successfully Machiavellian.

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Cheers,

 

Pete.