Friday, February 15, 2008

Going Downtown

I've been a wargame fan since I was 10 and discovered my brother's copy of the original "Anzio" (AH's take on the invasion of Italy in WW2) in the basement. Since that time my collection has grown (and grown) although I find that about 30% of the games I purchase ever get played. That's a pretty miserable ratio, although to be fair many of these games were bought 15 years ago when I did not have wargaming partners and the web was not the going concern it is today. I still tend to stick with the shorter and easier games, up until now because of space/time issues.

Now that I have a dedicated gaming space in the house, I'm making a concerted effort to learn some of these games that I've bought but done little other than punch and sort the counters. Aside from Vance Von Borries Invasion: Sicily (which is a predecessor to both Roads to Leningrad and Kasserine), the game that has been kind of a surprise is Downtown, a game about the bombing campaign of North Vietnam.

To be honest, this was sort of a "look, an expansion!" buy after C3i put out a couple of articles on the game. I was also interested in The Burning Blue, which covers a similar topic (albeit a much different era, although only separated by 25 years) and shares the same designer. What finally pushed this over the top, though, was Chris Brooks wanting to learn the game. We've had three sessions, using the progression recommended in the playbook to learn the game gradually, and it's been a hoot. I can vouch for the recommended "programmed instruction" style of learning, as looking at the extended example of play on Brinncomb-Woods' website was an exercise in "huh?" two months ago. Last night, as I reread it, the light bulbs were going on rather nicely.

Chris and I are prepping for our first "real" scenario, which takes place late in 1967 at the end of the initial Rolling Thunder campaign. Unlike most of the other scenarios we've played so far, this one has several targets that the DNV has to guard and a variety of aircraft that could be involved (USAF or USN). It is also the first time that we've seen nearly this many flights - As the US player,I filled up an entire sheet of flights, about 12, and didn't have room for the post-raid recon! I didn't look closely at what Chris would have for defenses other than he finally gets to fly something other than a MiG-17 (he graduates to the 21), plus a lot of SAM, AAA, and Fire Can ground defenses.

A typical US Raid will consist of several elements going in. First is the jamming flights, which you can fly onto the board or leave offboard if you are worried they'll be attacked. These are intended to make it more difficult for the SAMs and Fire Cans (radar guided AAA) to lock on. On their heels come the Iron Hand missions, which are geared to go after the various ground defenses. In one sense they are most effective when they bomb the actual sites, but they are also very effective in using Anti-Radiation Missiles that lock onto anything using radar, forcing those sites to shut down or risk getting hit.

Next in is the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which are on the lookout for MiGs. The game has a rather elegant way of simulating detection - it is much more difficult to engage another aircraft unless they have been detected, and the North Vietnamese have a bit of an advantage as it's their home turf. Fortunately, by this point in the war the US has improved their own detection capabilities, so the CAP should have an easier time locating and forcing the MiGs into combat before they can go after the strike force, which carries the bombs but also has it's own CAP should the Mig CAP miss a couple of flights. The strike force can also go after AAA and SAMs in the area of the target, making it safer for other flights to drop their payloads. Finally, photo recon has to go in and verify that the target was indeed hit and damaged, and the Strike Force CAP may stick around and guard this final flight.

All in all, a lot going on compared to what we've done so far. Figuring out exactly how to gear up all of these aircraft is a bit of a challenge, as the information is a bit scattered here and there. Some units will have different loadouts depending upon which task they have, and all of that information is listed on the data sheets rather than in the playbook or rulebook. It took me about an hour to figure it all out, but I think got it all down. Still, I'm pretty sure that I'll have at least one flight that is mis-laden somewhere. The good news is that once you figure it out, it's a pretty smooth process and actually kind of fun in it's own way. Like most games with this sort of theme, it's as much about the pre-planning as the actual raid itself, although to be honest there are very few choices to be made other than the route itself. I may look into writing software to help generate this data to speed the process, at least for the US. The DRV forces have to make a *lot* more choices in this regard, and the outcome of the raid has more to do with how well the DRV defenses are set up than how the US loads it's planes as much of that is dictated by the service flying the raid and doctrine.

There are a couple of other people interested in learning this game in our group, and I'd be happy to teach it in the near future. There is some potential for multiplayer, especially if you have multiple raids being conducted simultaneously. It would be easy for the DRV players to simply break up the map according to region and let each conduct the battle as they saw fit, with the initiative pull system being decided by whichever player was granted higher rank. This may even come out at Sunriver, although I'm not sure that all four players are all that interested.

I'll report more after we play out this raid in the next week or so.


Mike said...

I'm also interested in this one, as well as Burning Blue, and bought copies of both. Perhaps for for WBC-W?

HazMatt said...

This one interests me as well. I'm planning on being at Sunriver, so maybe we'll get a chance.

Eric said...

I'm more interested in Burning Blue than Downtown, but I'd be happy to play either at Sunriver.

Maybe we should rename Sunriver Bombfest '08?

Dismal Numbers said...

30%? Don't feel guilty, it is a classic case of wargamer guilt. I think of it was buying a book. Just seeing the units, rules, and the maps can tell you a lot about a time in history. Most books tell you what happened, wargames can tell you why and what could have happened. Burning Blue interests me and so does Downtown. Thanks for the post!

Dismal Numbers said...

I mean as buying a book, not was...

Dug said...

When I said "Sunriver" I meant "WBC-West". The Sunriver Retreat is more for general gaming, whereas WBC-West is about wargames specfically.

As for wargamer guilt, while I know what you mean I think that in my case it has much more to do with acquisitiveness and hoarding than history (although history is a very interesting subject to me). Example: I really want to get my hands on Barbarossa: Army Group Central, currently going for over $300 on eBay, primarily because I have the AGN and AGS titles. I have opened up the maps *maybe* once, and the rules remain unread (as do any ancillary materials). I did clip the counters, though, which may be my favorite thing about wargames.

I find that I get much more out of a wargame in terms of interest in the history if I actually play the damned game instead of just having it on my shelf. There are exceptions, but in general the play is the thing. Downtown in an excellent example, as it is one thing to read the extra materials, another to actually run a mission and discover the limitations or capabilities of technology over time as well as understand what was truly a different war than any that had been fought before.

Regardless, I'm enjoying bringing some of these games out and playing them, despite the fact that I will never, ever catch up. They keep putting out new games, the bastards. On the plus side, were I to find a regular gaming opponent out here who is also retired, I may actually do it. But that would mean playing ASL... ;-)