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Subject: "Ralph Vickers" REVIEW & 'Critique' rss

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Robert Wesley
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From the "grognard.com" site LINK there: http://www.grognard.com/zines/ph/p1003.txt
and 'posted' HERE as well "just in case":

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The Russo-Japanese War: Tsushima/Port Arthur

Reviewed by Ralph Vickers

Game Designers' Workshop had a good idea when they embarked upon a simulation of the war between Russia and Japan in Korea Manchuria during 1904-05. There are very few, if any, games that treat both aspects of a land-sea campaign in equal detail. Usually the sea war is dealt with abstractly, such as in Seelowe - the hypothetical invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany - where the British Home Fleet is distilled down to capricious weather. To combine sea and land campaigns is apparently a difficult feat. Anyway, GDW tackled it and ended up with two games.

There is Tsushima, the sea campaign with the land war abstracted; and Port Arthur, the land battles with abstract handling of sea supply and communications. Both these games can be combined (and purchased at a reduced price) under the title The Russo-Japanese War. So far so good. Usually GDW publishes very good games (Crimea is excellent) with badly written rules and playtested even more carelessly. Have they maintained their standards this time? Well, let's see:

Tsushima is a better game than ''CA'', SPl's answer to the crying need for a good 20th century naval simulation. Whereas ''CA " was simply two fleets slugging it out somewhere in outer space, Tsushima is played on a real map and the object of it all (in the best scenarios) is to convoy merchant ships from Japan to Korea to supply the abstract troops. When opposing fleets meet in a map hex they search for each other and if successful they are transfered to a Battle Board consisting of 12 columns. In other words, this game is played on both strategic and tactical levels. But once you have lined up the fleets on their respective columns of the Battle Board the differences between Tsushima and "CA'' dwindle to insignificance.

Movement on the Battle Board is sequential, firing is simultaneous; most ships have two salvos per go, some have three - a nice rule SPI overlooked. To fire, you count the intervening columns to the target, subtract the number of columns from the ship's gun factor, then subtract from this total the target's armour class; now you roll two dice and add this result to the resulting previous total, then consult the Combat Results Gunfire chart under the appropriate Target Size. You do this for each firing ship .

Also there are restrictions on who can fire at whom. This rule is based, or perhaps better said justified, on the following rule: "The nuances of naval warfare of the period severely restricted individual freedom of action on the part of the ship captains. Initially, all ships in a division will fire on the ships in the enemy division opposite them in parallel column, lead ship in a division firing on the lead ship in the enemy division, second ship firing on the second ship, and so on."

The rule continues: "When more than one ship attacks the same target, each ship subtracts two from its combat die roll... This may well result in ineffective fires (sic) from *excess ships* (my emphasis) and it is permissible for excess ships to withhold their fires (sic) in such cases."

So it's futile to be crafty in your strategic play. Even if you do manage to pounce on an inferior enemy fleet, the combat rules will pretty well level both sides out. To doubly ensure there's no "unfair" play GDW adds this rule: "the number of divisions firing on an enemy column may not exceed the number of enemy divisions by more than three. All other excess ships may not fire."

I call these rules arbitrary and unrealistic. They reduce combat in Tsushima to a craps shoot. Whenever I see rules of this type, they evoke a mental picture of a distraught designer throwing up his hands in defeat, then scribbling down a couple of rules to patch up his game, muttering ''This will have to do". Well, it won't do. Wargamers put up with this sort of thing in the early days, but not any more.

These combat rules are infantile and un-historic. I checked out GDW's assertion that captains of the era mindlessly confined their fire to their opposite number while the crews of excess ships stood by buffing their nails. He said that it was a partial truth that over the years had gained an aura of fact by being bandied about.

Now before GDW hurls some other expert at me, I want to reserve the right to confine the argument to this war.

During the Russo-Japanese War, there was only one major naval engagement fought on the high seas - the Battle of Tsushima. It was fought in May, 1905, between the Japs and the Russian Baltic fleet of 32 fighting ships which had just arrived on the scene. In the early afternoon of May 27th the Russian Fleet was in two parallel columns, one column lead by the fleet flagship, the Souvaroff, and the other column headed by the Osslyablia.

Admiral Togo appeared on the Russian starboard leading the main Japanese battle group of six battleships followed by six armoured cruisers. Togo set an eastward course to "cross the T" to the Russians. At the same time light divisions of the Japanese Navy swarmed in from the South to attack the Russian rear. The Russians opened fire at about 9,000 yards.

Here is how the distinguished naval historian, Jaques Mordal, describes the opening round of the battle in his book 25 Centuries of Sea Warfare: "Togo waited until within 6,000 yards and then his ships *concentrated their fire* (my emphasis) on the flagships of the two leading divisions, the Souvaroff and the Osslyablia."

The Osslyablia was soon ablaze and sinking. The Japanese "then turned their guns on the Alexandre III, though still not neglecting the Souvaroff."

In other words, the opposing fleets did not sail in parallel columns, did not mindlessly confine their fire to their opposite numbers and there were no "excess" ships.

Apparently there is no solution. The best minds in the business (SPI and GDW) have both tried to develop a realistic naval combat simulation and they both settled for essentially the same system. Maybe they should draw a veil over this area of war gaming and forget it.

It's a pity because Tsushima has many elements of a good game. It is a better game than ''CA''. The strategic movement phases are fun, there are interesting rules about morale, repairing damaged ships, secondary weapons, spotting, town raids, mines - but all too soon you've got to (groan) shift your chits to the Battle Board.

This game I can only recommend to players who like to tinker with rules or those who are confident they can devise for themselves a better combat system.

All this raises a question of just how far a designer can bend history and still claim his game is a simulation. We'll discuss this later but meanwhile keep the point in mind.

When we turn to Port Arthur we are immediately in more trouble, even if we are supplied with the slender and shy errata.

Let's start with Strategic Movement. This is a system of linked boxes to regulate the flow of troop reinforcements and supplies of both sides. For instance, the Russians have a box for European Russia where the bulk of their forces begin. Each turn they can move 20 combat points from Europe to the Irkusk box, then next turn on to the Harbin box and finally on the next turn enter the map. Meanwhile other troops are working their way up from Vladivostock. It's a good system that graphically portrays the progress of the reinforcements. (Unfortunately GDW botched it up by forgetting to specify if supply markers cost combat points to be transported. I'm afraid many players will assume that if supply markers are "manufactured free" they are also transported free but I doubt this was GDW's intention).

But the Japanese player, whose movements from Japan to the Fusan and/or Cis-Yalu Korea boxes are governed by whether or not at the moment Japan controls the seas, will be puzzled if he happens to know that Fusan is located on the southern tip of Korea. He will be puzzled because the system of links prohibits Japanese troops from moving from Fusan (in southern Korea) to the Yalu River (in northern Korea) except by another sea journey, subject to Russian intervention, to Cis-Yalu.

Maybe this was the designers' intention but if it was I would have appreciated an explan- ation. After all, they gave us a peek at the mindless naval battle doctrine of the period to justify their combat system in Tsushima. So why not also justify why the Japanese army, which was prepared to fight its way on foot across the wastes of Manchuria, was unable (according to the game) to travel overland through relatively friendly territory from Fusan to the Yalu?

Even GDW seems to be confused. Under movement they say "...Japanese strategic movement between Japan and Fusan, Cis-Yalu Korea and Invasion Ports is by sea and may be affected by Russian control of the Seas (see the Naval Campaign Rule)". The Naval Campaign Rule says: "Russian control of the seas prohibits direct transfer of Japanese units between Japan and Cis-Yalu Korea and between Cis-Yalu Korea and Invasion Ports." Fusan isn't mentioned. So it's left hazy and unresolved just what the designers intended. I mean, if Fusan wasn't a viable port to the mainland, why bother to move any troops there at all? The only explanation I can see is that the designers forgot to link Fusan to the map.

By itself, this is a minor point but when we try to take the next step in playing the game the point gains more importance. Most gamers will probably assume there is no overland route between Fusan and the Yalu, a reasonable assumption in light of the meagre evidence. But if they do, and they are also trying to play this game "correctly" and as a historical simulation, then there is one chance in three that the Japanese won't get a single soldier to the Yalu before June.

By then either (a) the Russians will have sealed off the three Japanese entry hexes onto the board (if this is possible - the rules don't say) or, (b) so many Russians will be pouring into Manchuria (and soon, if not already, freed of their Command Paralysis) that the Japs would be well advised to call the war off.

The explanation of all this is found on the Turn Record Chart. One track is divided into 12 months; the second track has two boxes, one for each of 1904 and 1905. A simple, neat system. However, nowhere in the rules does it specify how many turns this game runs. Even the duration of the war is not mentioned with any more precision than "1904 and 1905". One must plausibly assume that the war began in January 1904 and ended in December of the following year.

To start, the Japanese player rolls a die which determines if the Japanese surprise naval attack on Port Arthur was a success. (Actually it was barely a mild success. The Russians soon repaired their damaged ships). A roll of one to 4 means it was; a roll of 5 or 6 means the attack failed and Russia controls the seas during February, March and April. In which case the Japanese player can console himself that at least he can move a fairly strong contingent of 30 combat points to Cis-Yalu Korea during the January turn.

But wait a minute. This is where the question of historical simulation looms up. The war didn't start until February. (Japan broke off negotiations with Russia on February 6th, staged their surprise attack on February 8th and declared war on February 10th). In other words, this game is designed to begin one month too soon.

Well, does it matter?

It would matter if all wargames were as cavalier with the facts as this one. (Maybe they are?) Then the people who snicker at us gullible saps "playing history" would be more than justified.

The question of historical accuracy instantly divides wargamers into one vociferous camp, the nitpickers (as an example see Michael McGuire's article on SSN and Sixth Fleet in Fire & Movement No. 3, where he picks an awful lot of nits) and the others, the silent majority. With a wry grin I place myself among the silent ones. After all, I didn't complain in my Tsushima review that I couldn't find a ship chit for the Osslyablia (although I found one named Oslabia) .

As far as I know no one has ever done a survey to determine just what the silent majority wants in respect to verisimilitude. If we voted for conscientious historical accuracy it would create problems for some designers. There would be no more scribbling down patchy rules. They would have to think.

For instance, look at the Russo-Japanese War from the point of view of a designer. There would be little naval activity, although the Russians might have given the Japanese a stiff fight and occasionally controlled the seas. Shortly after the surprise attack the commander of Port Arthur was replaced by Admiral Makaroff, the most capable officer in the Russian navy. He was a bewhiskered giant with a flair for leading men. He vigorously re-organized the fleet, stepped up training, personally led a couple of successful preliminary forays - but six weeks after his arrival he was blown up by a mine. After that, the Russian navy stayed strictly on the defensive.

But we wargamers naturally demand drama and conflict in our games . Who would play Tsushima if the Russians timidly stayed in port?

Where do you draw the line? Do you start the land war in January, February or in May when the first major battle on the Yalu was actually fought (and in which the Russians were soundly trounced)? And how do you judge the Command Paralysis rule that keeps the Russians strung out along the Manchurian railway unable to take the initiative, even to reinforce their own border? Apparently this is necessary for game balance but it's never-the-less arbitrary and unrealistic.

I'm not advocating any answers - that's for the majority to decide. Personally, though, I would be quite satisfied if publishers just offered us really good hypothetical games (more or less like Strategy-1, Blitzkrieg, Starship Trooper) and instead of pocketing the money they save on research, spend it on better rules and playtesting.

But if a game is offered as a simulation, then I feel there are minimum ethical standards to be met. And the publisher should include in the kit a brief, accurate account of the historical facts so we can consider the game in its real context and measure our performance against the actual events.

In this game, for instance, we should be told that Port Arthur surrendered on January 2nd, 1905, that Mukden fell the following March and that the war ended on the 5th September (not the 31st December).

If we ignore all this rubble and plunge on we find a competently produced game but with out the innovations - and sometimes inspirations - that GDW usually offers us.

Combat losses are tallied by hit markers which means that units can often suffer adverse results yet still hold their ground - a far superior system to the "sudden death" of most simulations. Hit markers can be removed by the expenditure of supply markers. The supply rules are interesting. One supply marker fuels one attack. Best of all, supply markers are moved at the end of a player's turn, a rule that obliges us to think ahead. It is maddening, though, that GDW doesn't supply separate markers for hits and supply. They are identical - interchangeable, so you can imagine the confusion, when you've got a few stacks of five units,all with hits, sitting on hexes with supply markers. And there aren't nearly enough.

As usual, there are rule gaps which betray a paucity of playtesting. How many supply markers can stack?
Are they exempt from Command Paralysis?
Etc. And rule obscurities if we take literally the rule that allows units to move directly from one enemy Zone of Control to another, certain units during certain seasons can actually increase their movement allowance. Etc. For those really interested, see the game designer's answers to rule queries in Fire & Movement No 2.

This game can be played in a variety of ways, so it has a fairly long interest span. The Manchuria shown on the board is roughly the shape of a tall isosceles triangle laid on its side with the narrowest point on the Jap anese player's left. Port Arthur is situated there. At the top is Mukden and nearby the Harbin entry hex for Russian reinforcements. The railway runs straight from Port Arthur to Mukden. Japanese troops enter at lower right . Initially the 50 Russian combat points strung along the railway can move up and down the railway but nowhere else, unless the Japanese approach too close. There is also a weak force of Russian "border guards", but as there is nary a Russian supply marker on the map - and won't be until Turn 3 - the "guards" are just cannon fodder unable to attack. So if the Japanese reach the Yalu River early in the game they can make large incursions into Manchuria without losing a man. Then they have to decide whether to go for Mukden or Port Arthur.

An attractive strategy would be to go all-out for Mukden, seize the nearby Harbin entry hex - but it isn't stated whether or not this would stop Russian reinforcements and supplies.

If the Russians haven't heavily garrisoned the narrow Port Arthur tip, then a quick sea invasion here and a three-hex front to keep intruders out should enable the Japanese to storm Port Arthur at their leisure. Sea Invasions are subject, of course, to Russian control of the seas. It's a bit complicated to figure out but I calculate the Russians should gain control once in nine turns. This is enough to keep the Japanese wary, doesn't tilt the game wildly with luck (as in Seelowe) and at the same time is historically acceptable.

Assuming it costs combat points to strategically move supply markers, then Japanese planning must be shaped to counterbalance Russian strategy. This is what can make the game variable and interesting. If the Russians initially move off large quantities of supplies, the Japanese can probably expect the Russians to be aggressive. But if the Russian emphasis is on troops, then they are probably planning to heavily garrison their coasts to reduce the effectiveness of Japanese invasions. Either game plan seems viable.

If GDW had happened to ask me what I thought of this game before they published it, I would have looked at all that talent and said, "Well, the game's okay but you guys can do a lot better than this. Get back to the drawing board!"

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I started reading this then scrolled back to the top to make sure it was really a GROGnads post.
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bolter wrote:
I started reading this then scrolled back to the top to make sure it was really a GROGnads post.


He did not write the above review - he resurrected it.

I would like to see GROgnads review Scrabble or a Crossword Puzzle.
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Robert Wesley
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Yes, I had wearied of having someone, or ANYONE providing theirs about this, since there were NONE as of yet when I sought out and did locate this 'one'. Sure, it may seem "lazy" of 'moi' with such, but, I didn't want to await the 20th Anniversary of BGG until there was SOMETHING! Now, if ONLY them sorrier & "lazier-assed" individuals that did own this, would deign to provide theirs as well or instead - oh, what am I talking about?!? THOSE people were to be 'expected' on contributing the "time & efforts" BEYOND what were now available, and for what? Well, for one thing, then perhaps another varying, or corroborative account, and possibly insightful, as were the above that has presented much upon just such so far AND what else you GOT with this for the time being? I don't OWN the "Game" yet, so that was another factor on which I based for and about the matters, since I felt that maybe anybody, or somebody else might have been interested to FIND OUT upon this also. Who knew?
bolter wrote:
I started reading this then scrolled back to the top to make sure it was really a GROGnads post.
Wilhammer wrote:
He did not write the above review - he resurrected it.

I would like to see GROgnads review Scrabble or a Crossword Puzzle.
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