Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cold War Wargaming - Theremin Thursdays

It has been a while since I got to write about Gaming and Music. Today's topic is the Cold War. Specifically, the Soviet Union, and military actions in the cold war.

First, as a great library of song titles from the Cold War, I could do no better than the list already at the "In the 80s" website. They list just about everything, and give a brief description about what makes the song a Cold Wars song.

For my musical contribution today, however, I would like to point to a great little piece from the movie "The Hunt for Red October". The movie, by the way, is an excellent Cold War tale, based on the terrific novel by Tom Clancey. In brief it is about a Submarine Captain (Captain Marko Ramius, the Vilnius Schoolmaster) in the Soviet Navy that wants to defect, and the CIA analyst (hero Jack Ryan) who figures it out, and then has to convince the US/NATO side to allow the Soviet Captain the leeway to try it. Good stuff, very tense, and lots of background material about the political and military situation of the cold war. The fact that the Soviet Captain is played by Sean Connery.

The musical piece, from the soundtrack of the movie, is "The Hymn of the Red October", which is track 5 on the soundtrack.

The soundtrack is credited to Basil Poledouris (a favorite here at Gaming with Chuck HQ).  He was mentioned, prominently, in an earlier Theremin Thursdays article, for his fine work on the Conan the Barbarian movie.

The song "Hymn of the Red October" was made up for the movie, but it certainly sounds like a lot of Soviet martial music.  A lot of that music is very, very good - for military music.  Readers take notice: my admiration of the music, in no way extends to admiration for any of the horrors and atrocities committed during the Soviet era.  Much of the history of that state fascinates, but it also detests.

Another example of some fine (real world) Soviet era military music is the song "Invincible and Legendary - Glory to the Soviet Army" - here is a link to a version that I think is by the Red Army Choir.

For anyone interested, there is a LOT of music from the former Soviet Union, as well as pop music from both sides of the Iron Curtain, that detail the mood and feelings of the Cold War. One that I have to mention, because I was such a fan at the time, is from the German performer Gabriele Susanne Kerner, performed in the group called Nena.

There was a strong anti-military and anti-cold war, and even anti-NATO (and anti-US) movement in central Europe in the 80s. Politically one of the chief proponents was the Greens Party in West Germany (Sonstige Politische Vereinigung, Die GrĂ¼nen).  They are even mentioned as setting the stage for the events in the cold war movie, "Red Dawn".  In that setting - with an environmentalist party appealing to the young, and also an anti war movement - songs like 99 luftballons were popular.  Here is a link to the song. (by the way, Nena did an English version of the song.  It doesn't work as well, in my opinion).

I recall at the time this came out, I was a college student at Christopher Newport College, in Newport News Virginia.  I was also a very active gamer at Campaign Headquarters in Hampton, Virginia (later moved to Newport News).  At the time, one of my chief interests was Cold War land actions.  This included a lot of the regional conflicts between super-power backed client states.  This included some of the brush wars in Africa; potential regional power conflicts, like India vs. Pakistan; and of course all the Middle East conflicts featuring Israel vs. a cast of thousands.  All of these had implications for the Cold War, and I think my fascination with the military and political situation was my response to the horrible situation of being 2 minutes from midnight on the Nuclear clock.  It was an interesting time.

As far as wargaming goes, I was playing with several different miniatures rule sets, mainly home brew and the games for Modern conflict from Wargames Research Group.  In 1988, however, Tabletop Games released Challenger II - and that became our favorite rules to play.  Looking back, they are overly fiddly and detailed, at least by the fashions of today, and they have a overly complex and long turn sequence.  But at the time we loved it.  All of us were fascinated with everything and anything about the military situation of the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, so we were steeped deep in technical details, doctrine details, reports of regional conflicts, and specs on new equipment that was spotted and reported on in Jane's Defense Weekly.  Because of that, we THRIVED on the detail of the game.

The rules were backed up by a series of publications from Tabletop Games that dealt with specifications on all the equipment from all the world's armies, as well as new and speculative equipment descriptions.  These came out in Army List books, Digests, and Supplements.  I still have some of these, they are incredible sources of detailed information.  The Army List books have all sorts of ORBAT information on the different formations of the different branches and deployment configurations of the world's military organizations.  The Digests (which describe equipment) gave detailed shopping lists of all the pertinent systems that are included on each vehicle platform, as well as information on the Infantry and Aircraft weapon systems in use.

There were times when we would dip back into the WRG rules, or play around with Homebrew rules. Of particular note were the many Warlords games ran by Dan Conley, using early precursors to his popular Quickfire rules. The Warlords games were set some time after the 4th world war, with local Warlords in the nuclear blasted wasteland assembling small armies of WW2 and Modern equipment, and going to battle with each other over ruined cities, military bases, and other sites of potential salvage value.  Lots of fun.

Fast forward to today.  As I mentioned, the older rules are definitely not in the style that many gamers prefer today.  One set of rules that really captures a modern feel - meaning that it is not too detailed, not too chart heavy, has an innovative and fun way to play and control turn sequencing and C2 (command and control), but gives a rewarding game with good results in spite of detail being abstracted away - is the set of rules called Cold War Commander.  They are by Peter Jones, and published by his company Specialist Military Publishing.

At the time of my writing this, I think that SMP are sold out of physical copies of the book, but you can order a PDF from them, or order a physical copy printed by Lulu. The rules are great, and are a real pleasure to play, and they are also self contained - they include everything you need to know in order to play conflicts from the 1950s on up through tomorrow - with loads and loads of army lists.  All of the regional conflicts that we watched and were interested in during the 60s, 70s, 80s, etc are all covered, as well as extensive coverage of all the "potential" participants in a WWIII scenario that could have happened during the Cold War.  A nice review of the rules, and contents, is on Youtube by TheTableTopGamer - a nice 19 year old wargamer from the UK.

I have several miniature armies for this era, that are usable with the Cold War Commander rules.  I try to collect them in pairs, so I have some Israeli and generic Arabs (that could be Syrians, Egyptians, etc).  For those conflicts I really favor 1967 and 1973.  I have some second and third tier NATO equipment, and an equivalent set of Warsaw Pact equipment.  This allows me to do fun things like Poland vs. Belgium in 1989, and so on.

The key feature of the game is that there is a dice and decision driven Command and Control structure.  Your army will feature a hierarchy of commanders of different elements, and each has a command value, representing a number from 2 to 12.  A very good commander would be rated a 9 or 10.  Players will identify a commander, roll 2d6, and if successful be able to issue orders to units under control of that commander.  Orders are basically move, or shoot, or move AND shoot. If you pass your test, then after your order is carried out, you can roll to do it again, but with a negative dice modifier.  When you first miss your dice test, then that commander is over for the turn.

There is a lot more to the rules, but for me that is the heart of the game.  It is very similar to the sister publications from SMP - Blitzkrieg Commander (covering WW2), and Future War Commander (covering a wide variety of Science Fiction settings).  The command and control rules in all of these are very similar to, and are rumored to be borrowed from (by Peter Jones, and with permission and blessing) the Warmaster series of Fantasy and Historical (Ancients and Medievals) rules by Rick Priestley.

Some of Rick's more recent efforts (such as Blackpowder for battles from 1700-1900; and others, such as Hail Caesar also from Warlord Games) have a modified version of the same structure.  In this modern version, you make one dice toss for your commander, and depending on how well it is passed, that determines (ahead of time) how many actions the command will have.  Very useful.  Takes out some of the guessworks,

So, all told, this is a very nice family of wargames.  In the words of the Vilnius Schoolmaster (Captain Marko Ramius), "Shplendid".

1 comment:

chuck said...

I just listened to the Hymn of the Red October again. Great music. I can picture my 1:300 scale little tanks rolling over model hills to victory!