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Subject: [Lonely Meeple Reviews] The Chosin Few: Cold Dice in a Frozen Hell rss

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Tracy Baker
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Note: Victory Point Games sent me a free copy of this for review, so I am totally in their pocket and you can’t trust a word I say.

“The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north. We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.” -Army Lieutenant General (then a Major General) Edward Almond



The Chosin Reservoir campaign during the Korean War is a often remembered as a story about men (particularly US Marines) surviving against all odds while completely surrounded and outnumbered in some of the most hostile terrain and weather imaginable. That summary leaves out much of the context that made this battle so fascinating, because it is also a story about an arrogant Army General (Edward Almond) entering a series of situations where he was completely out of his depth and used blind reckless aggression to cover for his incompetence to make bad situations worse. Fortunately for all involved, Almond was countered by a pragmatic Marine General (Oliver Prince Smith) engaging in something akin to insubordination that spared thousands of men the cruel fate that cost the lives of nearly half of their brothers in arms. Some historians argue that if the UN forces had been completely destroyed at the Chosin Reservoir that it would have given General MacArthur the case he needed to gain authorization to proceed with his plan to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea and China. Those are the highest of high stakes.

In a talk entitled “How O.P. Smith Saved 15,000 Marines,” historian Thomas Ricks discusses the four decisions Smith made leading up to the battle that changed everything:



If you don’t feel like watching an hour-long video right now, here’s a summary:

1 Smith consolidated his regiments instead of spreading them out as ordered to. Almond was infamous for splitting up his forces and having them gobble up as much terrain as possible while leaving them exposed and unsupported. Smith refused to do that and moved slowly and deliberately to maintain the cohesiveness of his division.

2 Smith would not budge until two airstrips were created south of the Chosin Reservoir, over Almond’s protests. Smith knew these would be needed to bring in supplies and reinforcements and to evacuate casualties. When discussing this with Almond, Almond famously replied “What casualties?”

3 Smith insisted on establishing three supply depots along the road south of the reservoir and putting troops there to defend them. The terrain around the reservoir was nightmarish and that terrible road was the only way out if the UN forces needed to retreat. Smith wanted to ensure that it would remain open and ready with supplies should that happen.

4 Instead of moving his division north up the west side of the Chosin Reservoir as ordered (and as the Chinese were baiting him to do), Smith created a strongpoint at the south end of the reservoir at a crucial junction of the two roads splitting to the east and west of it. He then gave the order to hold the junction at all costs.

Almond, under pressure from his friend and superior General Douglas MacArthur to press north to the Yalu, was furious with Smith and accused him of being overly cautious. He was convinced (as the quote that kicked off this review indicates) that there was no resistance in their path worth worrying about. What he didn’t know, but the Marines were quickly becoming aware of, was that more than 100,000 Chinese troops had quietly crossed the border into North Korea with orders to surround and utterly annihilate the approximately 30,000 UN troops at the reservoir.

This is situation at the beginning of the game. The Marine and Army units are deployed at the junction where Smith established his strongpoint, and hordes of Chinese troops concealed in the surrounding mountains are ready to spring their trap.

Playing the Game

“The country around the Chosin Reservoir in winter was never intended for military operations. Even Genghis Khan wouldn’t tackle it.” -Marine General (then a Major General) Oliver P. Smith



The most striking thing about The Chosin Few relative to other games that simulate the battle is its elegant simplicity. The rule book is little more than a pamphlet with a handful of rules and a lot of examples of play. There are very few pieces to manage, and the entire game takes up such little space it could easily be played (sideways) on an airplane tray table.

The game is divided into three phases, each tasking you with taking and holding certain objectives. The 1st Marine Division and the 7th Army Division are your only two units, represented by standees on a nicely-illustrated topographical map of the Chosin Reservoir and its surroundings. Movement on the map is point-to-point on a line representing the road north from the port city of Hungnam and the split it made to the east and west of the reservoir from the junction that Smith had deemed all-important.

Your Marine and Army units are ordered at the beginning of the game to secure and hold points to the north of it on both the east and west sides of the reservoir. The card with that objective also tells you where to set up the staging areas that enemies appear in at the beginning of each turn.

Activity Cards

“We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” -USMC Lieutenant General (then a Colonel) Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller



Enemy forces are represented by blue, red, purple, and black cubes that are placed in a draw bag or other opaque container. At the beginning of each turn you flip a card over from the top of a deck of Activity Cards and go through the following steps:

1 Draw three random enemy cubes and place them in the three staging areas listed on the Activity Card.

2 Move all cubes of the first color indicated on the card one space according to the arrows printed on the map. Then move all cubes of the second color indicated on the card one space according to the arrows printed on the map. (Sometimes both colors are the same, so those cubes move two spaces.)

3 For each cube that would move onto a space occupied by the Marine or Army Division standee, that unit must roll a single six-sided die and check the result against the unit’s current strength value. If the result is equal to or higher than the unit’s strength the cube is pushed back to the space it came from. If the result is lower than the unit’s strength value the unit loses one strength point and the cube is pushed back to the space it came from.

4 The player takes Actions by expending Action Points, up to the number of points printed on the card (these vary from 3 to 5 points). Unused Action Points do not carry over to future turns.

As you work your way through the Activity Card deck the board gradually and relentlessly fills up with enemy cubes, and you never know which cubes will activate or how far they will move.

Strength points are a bit counterintuitive because lower numbers are better, so Strength values actually rise as units take damage. The Marine division begins with a Strength of 3, meaning they shrug off initial attacks 67% of the time. The Army division begins with a Strength of 4, lowering their odds to 50-50. As units take damage they can get all the way down to a Strength of 6, and if they get hit after that they are destroyed and you lose the game. Note that there is no allowance for sacrificing one division to save the other one. As soon as one of your two units is destroyed the game ends in a loss.



Interestingly, you can only truly win the game if you successfully complete all of the Objectives listed on all of the Objective cards. However, the design leaves it up to you to decide if you want to shoot for something akin to a stalemate by only achieving the Objective printed on the third Objective Card (which is getting both of your units to the southernmost space on the map before one of them is destroyed). In that case you don’t win but you don’t lose, either, mirroring the historical outcome.

At the beginning of the game ten Activity Cards are randomly discarded, and an End Of Order Card is mixed into the bottom cards of the remaining deck. You work your way through the deck until the End Of Order Card is drawn and triggers the end of the stage so you can move to the next of the three Order Cards, which commands you to move both of your units back to their original starting position at the junction and hold it. Then the Order Deck is reset, five cards are discarded from it randomly, and the End Of Order Card is mixed back into the bottom five cards of the remaining deck. The enemy staging areas are also shifted so more cubes will begin entering the map from the west side of the map instead of the north side. When you work your way through all of those cards until uncovering the End Of Order Card the final stage is triggered and your units are ordered to make haste to the southernmost space for extraction. Once again the Order Deck is reset and the End Of Order Card is mixed into the bottom five cards, but this time no cards are discarded at the beginning of the stage. You must fight through all of them to survive, with incoming enemy cubes appearing from new staging areas on the southwest and southeast of the map.

If you fail any objectives you face a penalty at the beginning of the next round in that you must randomly remove five Activity Cards from the deck for the remainder of the game. This means you’ll have less time to achieve your next objective before turning up the End Of Order card, and if you remove cards from that game that give you four or five Action Points it can really hurt you.



Actions

“When it paid to be aggressive, Ned was aggressive. When it paid to be cautious, Ned was aggressive.” -Maury Holden, G-3 of the Second Division, on General Almond

The meat of the game is how you allocate your limited Action Points each turn, as there are never enough to give you any breathing room. There are only three Actions to choose among:

1 Attack: You can spend one Action Point to attack any cube in any space adjacent to a Division standee, rolling a single six-sided die and comparing the result to the unit’s current Strength. If you roll the Strength value or higher that cube is destroyed and returned to the draw pool, and if you roll lower than that nothing happens other than you wasted a precious Action Point.

2 Move: You can spend two Action Points to move one of the Division standees to an adjacent road space as long as there are no enemy cubes there blocking its progress.

3 Recover: You can spend three Action Points to rally/reinforce a Division and move it one step higher on the Strength track.

Air Support

“The mail service has been excellent out here, and in my opinion this is all that the Air Force has accomplished during the war.” -USMC Lieutenant General (then-Colonel) Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller in a letter to his wife



If Actions represented the only player agency you have this game wouldn’t be worth its weight in wood pulp, but the design is spiced up considerably with Air Support tokens. There are three of them, and you obtain them at the end of the Player Action turn if you have Action Points left over on a one-for-one basis. You can then spend them to do one of three things:

1 Interdiction: This lets you place the Air Support token on any space that does not contain one of your units. No unit or cube can enter or leave that space until the next round. One token is removed from each space at the end of each round, but you can stack them to keep a space on continual lockdown.

2 DRM: You can spend a token before any dice roll to raise the final value of that roll by one.

3 Reroll: You can spend a token after any dice roll to roll it again.

It is notable that you only receive Air Support tokens after your turn ends based on unspent points. This means it is impossible to grab a token and then immediately use it for Interdiction, so you need to manage the tokens between game rounds to ensure you have enough to get that done.

Is it Worth Your Time?
I apply three main criteria when evaluating games:

Are the Decisions Interesting?
The choices you make in this game are both interesting and agonizing. There are never enough Action Points, and healing your units is both expensive and crucial, so often what you had planned to do during a turn goes out the window as you scramble to keep your units in fighting trim. It is always tempting to attack cubes surrounding your position, and survival depends on it. Here you often have an additional decision to make choosing what color to focus on. If you’ve already seen a lot of cards that move red cubes, for example, you might ignore them to focus on stuff that has a higher chance of being activated.

The really tough decisions, though, are deciding when to forego actions to scoop up Air Support tokens, and deciding how and when to use those tokens. This is the most brilliant aspect of the design as air support during the actual battle was vital to the eventual outcome and the UN forces would have been overwhelmed without it. Pilots flying close support were so aggressive and skilled that there are stories of men looking down from elevated positions at planes from the Marines and Navy flying below them. And in the meantime Air Force planes were dropping crucial supplies into and evacuating the wounded and dead from surrounded positions. Smith was prescient in his insistence on establishing the airfields south of the reservoir and they helped to salvage a seemingly unsalvageable situation.

In the game you feel naked and terrified by every dice roll when you don’t have Air Support tokens to help bail you out of a jam. And if you use them for the DRM or Reroll abilities during a turn and find yourself without any left to perform Interdiction duties, particularly from the middle of the game on, you feel doomed. Ignore them at your peril.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?
Since you are at the mercy of a series of single six-sided die rolls throughout the entire game the outcomes of the decisions you make often seem entirely out of your control. You can start a turn with all three Air Support tokens, pull a card that gives you five Action Points, and feel like you’re on top of the world, but just a few bad rolls can weaken your units to the point where recovery is virtually impossible. After spending several games learning the nuances of the player agency I was afforded and studying the Activity Cards I feel like I have a good grasp on the game, but even so no matter if I win or lose it always feels like it was due to good or ill luck.

If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated With the Design?
The Chosin Few is both a triumph and a letdown in this regard, depending on what you want from it. It does a tremendous job of putting you in the middle of an avalanche roaring towards you from all sides. It rewards you for keeping your units together since the strongest one absorbs hits when attacked. It simulates the qualitative advantage of the UN troops and the importance of UN air superiority. It asks you to complete historical objectives. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you the choice to ignore your objectives and settle for a stalemate that can help set your units up for a successful evacuation at the end of the game.

Even with all of this going for it, the game feels like it plays at too much of a remove. When reading about the battle what stands out the most are the stories of individual heroism and bravery. The Marine cooks grabbing their rifles and slaughtering hordes of Chinese troops pouring into their camps. The 233 Marines of Fox Company guarding a crucial pass as 10,000 Chinese troops attacked in waves. The UN troops of RCT-31 (later dubbed “Task Force Faith”) being virtually wiped out on the east side of the reservoir as they held their position and protected the 1st Marine Division’s right flank (it took more than General Smith to save 15,000 Marines during the battle). And all of this taking place in a bitter, frozen hell. The consolidation of units into the two standees coupled with the enormous scale of the map abstracts away much of the nuance that makes the narrative of what happened at the Chosin Reservoir so rich and sobering.

The Verdict

“Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” -Marine General (then a Major General) Oliver P. Smith



I am torn on this game. It is short and simple enough that it encourages multiple plays each session just to see if things will turn out differently. It also does a terrific job of evoking the asymmetry of the campaign and the desperation of trying to carry out impossible orders against impossible odds. I love the multiple and thematic uses of the Air Support tokens. I love the excruciating decisions that you must make spending the limited action points you receive each turn. I love the incorporation of a topographical relief map and the endless swarms of wooden cubes that stream across it.

Despite all of that, it still feels like something crucial is lacking that would have transformed this from a luck-driven pastime into a more compelling and rewarding game. It doesn’t help that most of the momentous decisions that prevented this action from becoming the biggest disaster in American military history are already baked into the design. The depots the Smith set up are already on the map. The junction that he told his troops to hold at all costs is established. The airstrips are abstracted away. The big decisions in this regard you do get to make during the game--deciding whether or not to forget about taking or holding assigned objectives--are interesting but not really choices at all because you cannot technically win the game if you defy your orders.

For my tastes the game errs too far on the side of abstraction. The reduction in the effectiveness of the Marine and Army units as they take damage, in particular, seems too coarse. If a unit takes a few unlucky hits it becomes both nearly useless and nearly dead. Reinforcing a unit requires so many action points that there is rarely anything left to try to remove enemy cubes, move, or obtain crucial Air Support tokens. Many of my games have involved me seeing how long my luck lasts before a swift, cruel death spiral is triggered by one bad roll. Endlessly rolling a single six-sided die also becomes tedious since that is the mechanism used to resolve all combats whether you’re attacking or defending.

I try my hardest to make sure I review games for what they are instead of what I want them to be, and from that perspective I can’t give The Chosin Few a blanket recommendation. I spend too much time thinking about how I would improve the design of this game when playing it to truly enjoy it. Would it work better if Strength values didn’t fall off so steeply as units absorb hits? Would a combat system using two six-sided dice work better and be more interesting? Is there a way to incorporate hand management instead of flipping one card and following a strict script each turn? Would a system where the divisions get better at defending but worse at attacking as they are overwhelmed help mirror what really happened during the battle? Would random events that help you out give the game more nuance and a better narrative? Would a sharper focus, such as on Fox Company or Task Force Faith, give this the visceral feel and narrative depth it needs to become more compelling?

It’s a shame I’ll never find out, as there seems to be a lot of potential here that wasn’t quite realized and the game is otherwise so great at modeling the battle it covers. I will certainly keep my eye out for future designs from Nathan Hansen as he does a lot with very little in this one. It just doesn’t have the staying power of other Victory Point Games that pack a lot of design into a little box such as Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp, In Magnificent Style, or the less complex games in the States of Siege series to earn a permanent place in my collection.

“We don’t call it the forgotten war, we call it the forgotten victory.” -Colonel Warren Wiedhahn, USMC (Ret.)
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Thank you for the review. I've been considering picking up this game, but haven't seen much info about it.
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Lang Jones
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Thanks for the thoughtful review. I often find the VPG solo designs repetitive, and it seems like this one falls into that group.

Too many SoS variations in their library for my taste.
 
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