Mind the (Fulda) Gap: Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games)

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I was minding my own business, as one does, when I saw mention of a new operational-level wargame on the Fulda Gap, one of the pivotal postulated battles of a thankfully-hypothetical World War III: Less Than 60 Miles by Italy’s Thin Red Line Games. Having a definite predilection towards operational and strategic-level WWIII games, I hesitated for all of fifteen minutes before placing an order, despite not knowing much about the game.

Thanks to the magic of globalized supply chains, less than six days later I had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles in my hands.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

The game makes a rather striking initial impression, with a single map (98×55 cm) and six full sheets of 5/8″ counters, plus charts, event cards, dice, and two booklets. The counters have a satin finish to them, what Thin Red Line calls a “plasticized” finish. It’s not unpleasant, and I imagine it will help protect the counters from the ravages of wear. The sheets show good die cut registration, but the layout puts a fair bit of text on the info counters quite near the cuts. After trimming and rounding, the counters should still have all their information, but it looks to be a close run thing.

As for the map, I’m initially uncertain. It looks like Germany from above, no question, but with the riot of terrain types within each hex, my inner UX-critic cringes. The game comes with rules indicating which terrain is to be used in each instance—a unit’s movement mode determines whether it pays the higher or lower cost of terrain in a hex—but in an operational game, that much granularity in a five kilometer wide hex feels excessive.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

Though there are a ton of counters, only one and a half sheets are units; the rest of the counters support the game’s order and unit status system. One of the designers, Fabrizio Vianello, noted SPI’s Central Front series (a favorite of mine) and NATO Division Commander as inspirations, and the pedigree of the former shines through clearly in the ability to conduct combat as part of movement and in the attrition/friction system that depicts the gradual degradation of unit capabilities. Attrition markers, as well as move mode and order status counters go under the units, so at least you don’t have to remember which unit is under that welter of status markers.

Just at first glance, it all feels a bit unwieldy. I admire the attempt to track unit status in such depth, and the commitment to an order system, requiring time for order implementation and dissemination, deserves praise. It’s not an easy concept to model, and many games hand-wave command control. Even games that pride themselves on an “order system” like MMP’s Grand Tactical System and its close sibling, Compass Games’ Company Scale System, really just use a combination of a pool of order points and a command radius within which orders can be thrown. Whether manipulating all these counters works ergonomically on the table (as opposed to digitally via VASSAL) remains to be seen.

With its focus on command, Less Than 60 Miles relegates some other wargame mechanisms into the background. Supply is a simple trace used for attrition removal only; no combat supply, ammo, and fuel tracked here. Air power likewise lacks any discrete units, being relegated to points, but it use is tied into the order system, requiring planning to use rather than the point-and-bomb system of many games, even those with individual air unit counters.

On the surface, there’s a lot to like in Less Than 60 Miles. Designers Fabrizio Vianello and Marco Cimmino have a particular focus—the order/feedback loop of modern combat—and they’ve spared little effort in distilling their vision into game form. My ergonomic quibbles aside, there’s much to appreciate in this offering, and I look forward to trying it out.

Winter Offensive 2019 After Action Report

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Whatever fickle spirits guide the weather must have it out for Advanced Squad Leader, because it scarcely fails to threaten snow and rain whenever Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier ASL tournament, sets up shop in Bowie, Maryland, and this year proved no different. Perhaps the decision to hold this gaming gathering in January has something to do with the invariability of inclement weather, but no matter, for a brave (and record) crowd of 190 people attended this year’s Winter Offensive.

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing unveiled Red Factories, the long-awaited companion campaign module to Red Barricades, at the tourney, and the very large boxes were much in evidence all weekend long. The smaller scenarios from the module likewise saw a fair amount of play; even with the extra tables MMP brought to the enlarged convention space this year, there would have been scarcely enough room to set up the larger scenarios, for the combined Red Barricades/Red Factories maps take up a substantial amount of table real estate.

Winter Offensive 2019 in full swing

The tournament, the 28th running, also played host to a celebration of MMP’s twenty year anniversary as custodians of the Advanced Squad Leader series, complete with a cake replicating an ASL board. It’s remarkable to think that they have shepherded ASL for longer than Avalon Hill did at this point, and I for one consider the game series to be in exceptional hands. While core modules may occasionally go out of print, MMP faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the large and expensive core modules in print to satisfy new players while still producing new products for the players who already own two copies of everything. By and large, I think two decades of success shows they strike the balance appropriately.

My own WO 2019 experience included far more ASL than I normally play at these events, with two ASL scenarios and one Starter Kit session with a player relatively new to the game. Plus copious amounts of Euro gaming to boot. And maybe a little beer.
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Table for One: Alert Force (Close Simulations) Review

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Most wargames slot the player into a particular job, a particular role: supreme commander, divisional general, platoon leader, even quartermaster. Alert Force, a 1983 “microgame” offering from Wayne Close and his publishing company, Close Simulations, provides gamers the quite unique opportunity to play as a member of the United States Air Force’s Security Police, the alert force guarding the flight line and the nuclear-armed alert bombers parked in readiness thereupon. Opposing the Security Police on this fictionalized depiction of a Strategic Air Command base, the other player takes the role of undifferentiated Terrorists, seeking to destroy the bombers, hamper operations, and even purloin a nuclear device if possible.

On the surface, Alert Force comes in as a simple man-to-man tactical combat game, with a tiny footprint, a thin sheaf of rules, and a quick play time, but some nuances in both scenario design and rules chrome make for a deeper presentation than the meager box might suggest. While not a groundbreaking game in any particular way, Alert Force nevertheless repays its brief time on the table with streamlined gameplay and an interesting, if obscure, premise. Indeed, you might just have to own a game company in order to get a game on this topic published.

Overview

Alert Force
Close Simulations, 1983
Designed by Wayne Close

Alert Force Cover Detail

Alert Force comes in a small cardboard tuck box, measuring slightly more than 4″ x 7″, fitting it squarely in the Microgame size range that was quite popular in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Two sheets of half-inch die cut counters are included, totaling 112 counters. A matte-printed tri-fold map (12″ x 14″), plastic storage bag, and thin saddle-stapled rulebook round out the package.

The counters represent armed individuals not with figures but with icons of the weapon type they carry: machine pistol, assault rifle, or machine gun; additional weapons, such as satchel charges and light anti-tank weapons, have their own counters, as do vehicles and the unarmed aircraft crews. Numbers on the counters indicate defense value and movement points; attack strengths are a function of the weapon type and range, and are listed on a side table.

The artwork is serviceable, clearly conveying needed information though without much in the way of flourish. Informational counters likewise show either unadorned words (damaged, incapacitated) or drawings of effects (craters, flames). Only a few colors are used (two shades of red and green), but again, while not fancy, they get the job done. The game comes entirely from the hand of Wayne Close, who, in addition to design, is credited with cover art, rulebook art, and map and counter graphics.

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Table for One: Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/S&T) After-Action Report

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Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/Strategy & Tactics 194, 1999)
Scenario One: The First Attack, July, 1941 After-Action Report

Overview

The first of three scenarios in Decision Games’ Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, titled The First Attack, July, 1941, covers the initial German movement by the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions from their positions near Petsamo (modern-day Pechenga) towards Soviet defensive positions held by border guard units and the 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions along the Titovka River. The scenario lasts for twenty-four turns of indeterminate length, but each turn is probably less than a day, most likely twelve hours.

Murmansk 1941, German approach to the Titovka River

Victory in the scenario depends on occupation of two key locations—Titovka and Ura Guba, each worth 10 VP each to the side to last control it—with the Soviets earning an additional 10 VP if the Germans do not manage to cross the Litsa River. The Soviets earn a further 3 VP for each German step reduced, with the Germans earning a single VP for Soviet step reductions and 2 VP for eliminating a Soviet HQ unit.

Two optional rules were used for this playthrough: Formation Effectiveness, which shows the ebb and flow of divisional effectiveness as it engages in combat (usually through die roll modifiers to combat); and Auto-Victory, granting all combats at an odds ratio of 7:1 or better with an automatic elimination of the defender’s units with no losses to the attacker. Both optional rules favor the Germans, and they were used for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Initial Thoughts

Right off the bat, the Soviets hold a 20 VP advantage by controlling the two victory locations. To make matters worse for the German player, even a twenty-four turn scenario provides hardly near enough time to reach the furthest objective, Ura Guba, which sits a full fifty-one hexes from the German start lines. Certainly it’s feasible in theory; at a top speed of twelve hexes per turn, a German bicycle battalion could get there in five turns flat. But there’s the little matter of two Soviet divisions lined up along the length of the road to contend with…

With stacking limited to two units per hex in most cases, the single road threatens to jam up far too quickly for both German divisions, so my thought was to start one German division further south to draw Soviet forces towards them, hopefully thinning out the road defenses a bit. By threatening a Litsa crossing (worth 10 VP denied to the Soviets), they might allow the other division to attack a thinner defense.

Compounding German difficulties, the Combat Results Table threatens to harm the attacker almost as much as the defender, with the attacker susceptible to mandatory step losses on the higher odds columns. Throw in the doubling of losses when as few as six full strength units (attack and defense) participate in a combat and, in conjunction with the far greater VP the Soviets gain for German step losses, it’s a hard row to hoe indeed.

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Table for One: Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/S&T) Review

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When it comes to wargaming topics, I have a definite soft spot for the obscure and undergamed. Sure, I own a few Bulge and D-Day treatments, and more than my share of games on the Western Front of World War One, but I have a hard time passing up conflict simulations covering battles that have been mostly overlooked by the hobby. Games on these subjects often benefit from being terra incognita for designers, freeing them from worrying about how some other designer has worked out the orders of battle or the terrain problems, and frequently one sees innovative mechanics as a result.

Sometimes, though, battles go underrepresented in the gaming sphere for a reason—there’s just not a lot of game there. At first glance, such is the case for Mike Benninghof’s Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, from Decision Games. The German attempt to seize the vital Soviet port of Murmansk stands as a potentially war-changing offensive; cutting off that crucial supply lifeline in 1941 would have had significant repercussions for the long war to follow. And yet, the battle itself, at least on the evidence presented in this design, offers up no such momentous cataclysm. The Germans came, the Germans couldn’t conquer, the Germans left, in life as in the game.

Overview

Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941
Decision Games, 1999
Strategy & Tactics 194
Designed by Mike Benninghof

Murmansk 1941, Cover Detail

Murmansk 1941 appeared as the issue game in Strategy & Tactics 194 (November/December 1998; published in 1999), with a sheet of 140 die-cut half-inch counters and a single 22″ x 34″ map on matte paper. The first in designer Mike Benninghof’s three-part Forgotten Axis series, this game covers the attempts by the German 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions to take the Arctic port of Murmansk, defended by the Soviet 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions. The later games in the series cover actions in Finland and Romania.
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Table for One: NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele) Review

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In the variety show that is wargaming, purpose-built solitaire wargames are the plate spinners—sideshow acts compared to the notional stars of the show, the multi-player, face-to-face games. It’s not that these solo games lack flair or substance; indeed, there’s virtuosity on offer, but in almost all cases, the skills and decisions required in these games differ wildly from those called upon in traditional hex and chit wargames. The entertainment in playing a purpose-built solitaire wargame, as in watching a plate spinner, derives from wondering when it will all come crashing down; failure is the expected end point, success a function of failing less badly.

It’s this heavy focus on risk abatement as the primary game decision space that has long caused me to shy away from solitaire wargames, which tend toward rather tedious, process-driven affairs. The player’s decisions revolve around a few choices that add up to little more than different die roll modifiers for the next run through the chart-heavy sequence of play. Fighting a system with the odds stacked against you frankly feels like work.

But subject matter often overcomes hesitation with wargames, and when I heard that Hollandspiele had NATO Air Commander, a solitaire World War III air game, in the works, I knew I had to check it out, even though I am, as is perhaps now obvious, averse to the process-laden solitaire genre. Getting to command wings of A-10s and Alpha Jets against echelons of Warsaw Pact forces? I’m so very there.

Overview

NATO Air Commander: Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III
Hollandspiele, 2018
Designed by Brad Smith

NATO Air Commander, Hollandspiele, 2018

NATO Air Commander follows what appears to be the standard Hollandspiele format, with a small-scale box (11.5″ x 9″), 22″ x 17″ matte map, a sheet of absurdly thick die-cut, double-sided 9/16″ counters, and in this case a deck of cards. Hollandspiele uses a print-on-demand process for components other than the cards, and while the saddle-stapled rulebook pages might be a bit thin, the colors on the map are crisp and the counters show no registration issues at all.
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