Monday, January 14, 2008

Wargame Swarm Conjures Boardgaming Past

SOMETIMES, BEING A WARGAME FREAK pays off. The recent approach of five small Iranian vessels on a trio of American warships back on January 6 evoked a subsequent Times story about how a similar scenario had been tested in U.S. Navy wargames, with far more devastating results . . . and which reminded me of my boardgaming past.

In preparation for a Middle East conflict, the Navy ran a simulation in 2002 between a group of American warships (Blue) and the naval and ballistic forces of an opposing Gulf power (Red). Red Team's skipper, retired Marine General Paul Van Riper, deployed a notably unconventional strategy:
In the simulation, General Van Riper sent wave after wave of relatively inexpensive speedboats to charge at the costlier, more advanced fleet approaching the Persian Gulf. His force of small boats attacked with machine guns and rockets, reinforced with missiles launched from land and air. Some of the small boats were loaded with explosives to detonate alongside American warships in suicide attacks.
The result?
[T]he Blue Team . . . lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
The mighty Felix tells me that this scenario is written up in greater detail in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which has been on my reading list for some time. But the idea of multiple small Davids swarming a single Goliath resonates with a certain vintage of wargame geek.

Ogre was the first wargame Steve Jackson released at his new, eponymous company after he left Metagaming too many years ago. One player takes the side of an Ogre, a massive, soulless cybertank, sporting meters-thick armor and multiple weapons systems, rolling relentlessly across a nuke-scarred landscape toward a lonely command post. The other player must guard this post with an assortment of far smaller conventional and hovering tanks, missile units, and howitzers. Their numbers and mobility are a surprisingly close match for the Ogre, as they dart in and out of the cybertank's weapon range to knock out treads and guns and turn the Ogre into an immobile, disarmed hulk. With the right combination of units and a little luck from the gods of chance, the defender might just stand a chance of halting the beast.

It's too bad Blue Team didn't have at least one gamer geek of my generation in the room, else they might have had a chance against the Red hordes. We would've spotted that swarm shit a nautical mile away. I know people who would've met that threat with some sort of equally improvised counter-force and turned Red into fish food. Sadly, our kind is not welcome in the Pentagon. Their loss.

1 comment:

Felix said...

If the account in Blink is to be believed, the second day of that wargame was just a screw job on Van Riper. The 16 ships he sank the first day all just reappeared. Missile attacks were nullified by a new missile defense system (I'd be skeptical of any missile defense results the Pentagon produced that even were as good as a pitcher's batting average, yet this thing went 12 for 12). All the unrest in nearby allied countries that Van Riper had fomented with high-level assassinations just got quelled overnight. I swear you would have thought that Van Riper was wargaming against the New England Patriots.

I've been trying to recall more details of that massive Ogre match you and I were discussing on the phone the other day, and I'm coming up blank (I can never remember the important stuff...). I *think* I was playing defense, if only because I would have had a tough time passing up having that many Ogres under my command. Whichever way the match went, it was close, very close, to the tune of one or two hexes of that city complex going the other way would have swung the victory to the other guy. Good times. A computerized version of that game would be a level of awesome my brain can barely comprehend. Doesn't even have to be anything fancy and updated, just the original rules played out on a map that won't send things flying apart should one of us sneeze or drop a KitKat bar on it.