Tag Archives: history

Fishbreath Plays: The History of Narrative RPGs

But first, a report Fishbreath the Web Lackey: there are some problems with the VPS on which Many Words runs, one of the symptoms of which is intermittent kernel panics on heavy network traffic. Not a great problem for a web server to be having, right? We are, by which I mean I am, working on it. If you notice any instability, blame the kernel grognards. And now, we return you to Fishbreath the Correspondent for today’s article.

You may know us primarily as defense affairs nerds, gun nerds, and occasionally video game nerds, but really, we’re multirole nerds. Full spectrum nerds. Joint nerds. So, on those grounds, and on the grounds that parvusimperator hasn’t scheduled anything for today and therefore has no basis for complaint, herein I will briefly review Masks: A New Generation, a tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games (n.b. affiliate link).

Except I’m now about a thousand words into this post and haven’t made it to actually reviewing the game, so we’ll make it a two-parter instead.

Masks belongs to the narrative game genre. To understand what that means, we’ll have to take a little trip through the history of the hobby, and of the tradition that narrative games are distancing themselves from. That’s what we’ll do this time out.

The year is 1974. For some time now, miniatures wargames have been popular. Some enterprising nerds asked themselves, how can we raise the stakes? First among these nerds was Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons1. The answer was simple: what if, instead of controlling a small army of guys with very little detail, you controlled instead a single guy with lots of detail?

D&D was the first tabletop roleplaying game. It was played very differently then than it is now: the older you go in the D&D tradition, the more lethal fighting is, and the less there is to do outside of what is today referred to as the loot treadmill2. There are islands of civilization. You venture outside those islands into a vast, dark sea of uncaring wildnerness filled with vicious monsters, whack the monsters until they yield their stashes of loot, and return to civilization to sell it all, enjoy your wealth, and prepare for another trip. Many of the early D&D adventures don’t make very much sense outside of this framework.

By being first, D&D cemented its place at the center of the RPG ecosystem. Settings grew more varied and left more room for intrigue, the degree of combat-centeredness in the rules ebbed and flowed (and ebbed and flowed), and modern live-play podcasts and web video series pushed the storytelling aspects of tabletop roleplaying to center stage3, but at its core, D&D’s DNA never changed. It’s a miniatures wargame4 with a dash of improvisational theater.

The two aspects, however, don’t always play well together. Oral storytelling has a rhythm to it which is easy to interrupt. Questions like, “How much taller can I make myself with Disguise Self?” or “Am I able to cast Teleport from here, or do I need to be in a teleportation circle?” slow you down at the least desirable time: moments of high drama. If that’s bad, combat is worse. Effectively, it’s a second mode of play, where the roleplaying largely cuts out and the focus switches to fight tactics5.

That’s the tradition narrative games aim to break away from. If D&D and its family tree are miniatures wargames with improv theater shoehorned in, why not write games as improv theater with rules shoehorned in?

Narrative games are in vogue at the moment, but they aren’t a recent trend. Apocalypse World, one of the major English-language trend-setters, was released in 2010. Ryuutama, a Japanese storytelling RPG with many of the genre’s common features (gamemasters with intentionally limited power, for one), came out in 2007. You can even make an argument that old versions of Paranoia belong more nearly to the narrative tradition than to the classic RPG tradition6.

So, what’s the difference? Narrative games are, not to put too fine a point on it, all about narration. Apocalypse World and its rules engine Powered by the Apocalypse are the archetypal examples. On your character sheet is a list of moves. These moves have fictional triggers. When (and only when) the ongoing narration matches the trigger, the move happens7.

Other features you might find include a collaborative worldbuilding process, a ‘session zero’ plan which involves building up the party and its history, and gamemaster moves which limit (or at least indicate the intended boundaries of) GM power.

What’s the upshot? Less staring at character sheets trying to figure out what to do next, more storytelling; less mode-switching to rules-heavy contexts, more natural interplay between story and rules.

Masks in particular does a few things very well. It also illustrates some of the shortcomings of narrative games better than I could describe them. I’ll cover both topics next time.


  1. Trademarked ampersand intentionally left out. 
  2. This image isn’t a perfect fit, but eventually you get to the point where the world itself trembles before you. 
  3. To the point that it’s entirely feasible to play a long and satisfying campaign of Dungeons and Dragons without encountering either dungeons or dragons. 
  4. Whose complexity has varied over the years. You could probably play a fighter-rogue-wizard party in 5e solo. It would be much more difficult in 4e, and you probably wouldn’t even make it past character creation in 3.5. 
  5. Don’t read this to mean that I think crunch or tactical combat are bad. In fact, I enjoy them for what they are, and my own game system, RPJ, uses moderately crunchy rules and combat. 
  6. It’s easy to miss this with Paranoia 2e, because it predates the modern narrative trend by three decades and therefore doesn’t use the same language, but it fits on several counts. Super-simple combat rules which the game more or less encourages you to ignore? Check. A focus on ruling consistently and fairly, within the constraints of the setting where the gamemaster is mostly playing an insane computer, rather than in perfect alignment with a Most Holy Rulebook? Check. (Put another way, it fails gracefully.) Ingenious use of in-character incentives to drive player behavior? Check. (Attempting to rules-lawyer out of character is taken as some expression of treason in-character, and traitors deserve the same treatment as mutants and commies.) It’s not a perfect match, but it’s closer to a modern narrative game than it is to D&D in a lot of ways, 20-sided dice notwithstanding. 
  7. There are variations on the theme. Blades in the Dark, another very popular entry in the genre, gives players a list of broad action ratings (Consort, Prowl, Skirmish…) rather than moves (‘engage a dangerous threat’, ‘assess the situation’…), and gives players more agency both in choosing which action rating they’d like to use and in shaping scenes to make a given action rating fit. 

Pegasus-class Fast Attack Hydrofoil

Back in the 70s, the US Navy was serious about a hi-lo mix of surface combatants. The Lo end was going to be filled by the Pegasus-class. These were intended for use in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, basically a small, near-shore counter to Soviet fast attack craft.

Enter the Pegasus-class. These were small (about 250 ton) hydrofoils. Being hydrofoils, they have wings on struts that lift the hull out of the water at speed, significantly reducing drag. As a result, the Pegasuses could make over 48 knots in calm seas, and over 40 knots in rough seas. Power was an LM2500 gas turbine when foilborne, and a pair of diesels when hullborne. This was fantastic in the 1970s, and is still impressive today.

Armament consisted of the ubiquitous 76mm Oto Melara gun, plus two quad harpoon launchers in the US Navy versions. The proposed versions for the German Navy had a pair of quad Exocet launchers.

Changing priorities saw Italy cancel their order, the US Navy drastically reduce their order, and then the Germans cancel their order. The remaining Pegasuses had a happy and successful life in coastal jobs, including running down drug smugglers.

So what do we think? Speed is fun. I think the concept has merit in the fast attack space, but it would be a pain to deploy without good forward basing. There was also a mothership proposed to assist in deployments but that was also cancelled. Overall though, while tricky to deploy for the US Navy, they’ve got a lot of merit for allies looking for relatively low cost punch.

On Sailless Submarines

Per the WWRW report this week, the Chinese have made a sailless submarine prototype. This is not a new idea; the United States, the Soviet Union, and France have kicked this idea around in the past. Let’s look into why one might want to delete the sail, and what tradeoffs that brings.

Why would one want to delete a sail? That’s simple: speed. US Navy sub designers reckoned that deleting the sail (and the drag from it) would gain you about 1.5 knots of speed, all other things being equal. It also removes the problem of inducing a snap roll tendency in turns.

Like everything else, it’s not without its tradeoffs. Clearly, we still need masts and some way for the crew to enter and leave the submarine. We also are going to need some sort of conning tower facility to steer the sub when it’s surfaced. Prior designs tend to accomplish the first by folding masts and periscopes down into a fairing, and having a retractable conning tower for steering and crew access, retracting again into a fairing. That fairing will add some drag back. Bureau of Ships actually figured that a fairing capable of handling all of the relevant systems would be about as draggy as a well-designed, small sail.

Having a sail allows the submarine to be a bit deeper at periscope depth, which helps with stability in rougher sea states. The sail itself is also an aid to stability, and means that the rear fins don’t have to be as large.

The US Navy actually gave serious consideration to the sailless concept twice, going as far as to make some models of the concept when designing what would become the Los Angeles-class. However, this ran into opposition from Hyman Rickover, who wanted fast submarines now, and did not want to do a bunch of hullform comparisons when he could simply design aroudn a larger reactor and call it a day. Rickover managed to kill the concept, and the Los Angeles boats all had a traditional (albeit small) sail.

On Split Squads

One of the things that has always confused me is why the US Army mechanized infantry platoon features split squads. It features four Bradleys and dismounts organized into three squads of nine men each. Since each Bradley holds six or seven dismounts, this means squads have to be split to be reconstituted later. While this matches light infantry practice, it always stuck me as needlessly complicated.

It wasn’t always this way. Originally, the Bradley and its six dismounts were considered as a “squad”, with the Bradley acting as a big, tracked, fire support unit. There were problems with the execution. The first was the question of squad leader. There is always the question of whether or not the squad leader should lead the dismount team or act as vehicle commander. The US Army said, BOTH! As a result, the Bradley commander would dismount along with everyone in the back. But this would lead to a suboptimal arrangement with the gunner having to perform double duty as the vehicle commander. So one of the dismount members would be cross-trained as vehicle commander, and he would climb up and take the place of the Squad Leader as vehicle commander.

That’s needlessly complicated, and for once the Army agreed. They decided that while they were in there revising the platoon org chart, they would work for more homogeneity. The Bradley Platoon of four Bradleys got rethought into two pairs. This mirrored U.S. Army thinking in the tank platoon, where four tanks were thought of as operating as two pairs of tanks. Each Bradley pair would get a squad of nine men to account for. Given that early Bradleys had six seats for dismounts, the Army split them into a fireteam of four per Bradley, and one of the two Bradleys in each pair got a (dismount) squad leader. Now, Bradley vehicle commanders could be just vehicle commanders, dismount squad leaders could be just dismount squad leaders, a dismounted squad could perform fire and maneuver on its own, and the dismounted squad was identical to the light infantry squad. The US Army has tended to like the idea that each infantry squad can be capable of fire and maneuver by itself. This also left six empty seats per platoon, which was sufficient for the platoon commander, XO, and any attached extras like radiotelephone operator or medic.

The next step to get us to today happened with revisions to the Bradley itself. A desire for more protection and the realization that the firing ports were useless led to them being plated over as part of the changes for the M2A2 version. Since the troops no longer needed to shoot out of gunports, the seats could be rearranged into more conventional benches along the sides of the vehicle, and the designers were able to squeeze in one more dismount, for a capacity of seven. Applying these to the previous organization chart meant that there were now ten empty seats, or room enough for another squad. This brings us to the platoon of four Bradleys and three dismount squads of nine men each that we know today. The careful reader will note that there is now no longer space for much of a command group or attached extras, but that’s something that the Army has not been bothered by.

Personally, I don’t like it. I’d much prefer to take the original concept of six (or seven) man dismount element and Bradley fighting vehicle as the squad, and skip the place-switching. That’s a lot simpler, removes the requirement of fireteams to “form up” to become squads, and would still allow for a bit of fire and maneuver on its own if we relax the desire to always have four-man fireteams. Australia is going exactly this way in their latest reorganization. I would also point out that while homogeneity is nice, different sorts of units have tended towards different organizations. No one is trying to organize a heavy weapons squad or platoon like the regular rifle squad or platoon over in light infantry-land.

Bradley Advanced Survivability Test Bed

We’ve known that crew survivability can be enhanced by isolating crew from the ammo, and providing blow-out panels to direct any cook-offs away from the crew. These features are usually designed in from the beginning, as in the M1 Abrams or T-14. Let’s look at a test bed designed to add these features after the fact.

The M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle carry an awful lot of ammunition, and aren’t super well protected. US Army studies indicated that an infantry carrier like the Bradley was likely to be targeted by anything on the battlefield, including the antitank weapons that it really wasn’t designed to resist. While explosive reactive armor could be added to supplement existing armor, this wouldn’t do very much against APFSDS rounds.

The Bradley Advanced Survivability Test Bed (ASTB) implemented a pretty extensive redesign of stowage. Most of the TOW missiles were moved to hull stowage racks outside of the crew compartment, with three missiles in an external compartment in addition to the two in the launcher. Two more were stored low on the floor of the crew compartment, although these could be replaced with Dragon missiles that were of more use to the dismounts. This limited amount of stowage in the crew compartment was intended to allow the vehicle to fight if the external stowage was not immediately accessible. Reserve 25mm ammunition was compartmentalized, with blow-off panels and separation for the rounds provided in the compartments. As a result, reserve ammunition capacity was reduced from 600 rounds in a regular M2 to 588 rounds in the ASTB.

Fuel was also mostly moved to large, external tanks at the back of the vehicle to prevent fires in the crew compartment. A 30 gallon “get home” reserve tank was provided internally.

The ASTB was also fitted with spall liners, additional applique armor, and protection for the sights. These features would get rolled into production models of the Bradley after live-fire testing of several models, including the ASTB, in 1987.

As for the rest of the features, I do not know why more were not adopted.

On the BMP

Let’s talk about the BMP, specifically the BMP-1 and BMP-2. The BMP-1 was pretty revolutionary when it first appeared, and was extremely influential. Interestingly, the design requirements go back to the early 1960s, when Soviet Doctrine came to embrace tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. This led to a desire for a vehicle that would be highly mobile and allow infantry to fight from inside in order to minimize exposure to the expected hostile battlefield environment. By 1967, Soviet interest in heavy use of tactical nuclear and chemical weapons had waned, but the design requirements were set (go figure).

The BMP-1 used the powertrain from the PT-76, came with amphibious capability, and provided NBC protection for the crew of three plus the eight dismountable infantry inside. The infantry were provided with NBC-sealed firing ports for their Kalashnikov assault rifles and machine guns, and had roof hatches to operate weapons with a backblast, like RPGs. These ports were arranged four per side and two aft. The turret of the BMP-1 had a 73mm smoothbore gun that fired the same projectiles as the standard infantry recoilless rifle, a coaxial machine gun, and a rail for Malyutka ATGMs. The turret distributed some platoon/company level support weapons down to the carrier vehicle. This turret was a one-man affair, as Soviet doctrine of the time had the commander dismount with the rest of the infantry in the back to lead them.

The BMP-1 had a number of notable shortcomings. The lack of armor is one, and the small size meant that any hit would strike important, flammable things. The commander-outside-the-turret arrangement made fire control difficult, and forced the gunner to work as an ersatz vehicle commander when the squad dismounted. Wartime experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur war was decidedly mixed. The Egyptians were satisfied with their BMP-1s, which were used to support missile-equipped antitank infantry teams. The Syrians used their BMP-1s in head-on attacks that left them to be smashed by Israeli antitank guns.

The effectiveness and widespread use of antitank missiles in the Yom Kippur War was also a problem, since even the most rudimentary missiles outranged the 73mm gun on the BMP-1. A quick response to suppress an antitank missile team (and screw up their command-guidance concentration) would also be hindered by the separation of commander and gunner. Hence, the BMP-2 received a two-man turret with a 30mm gun that had a much more reasonable trajectory.

Retro Procurement: Carrier On Wayward Son

Back in the early 90s, Brazil was looking to get a carrier. And supposedly, they were offered one of the Forrestals but turned it down in favor of the smaller, cheaper Foch. Well, we’ll take that deal, Uncle Sam. So, let’s go buy a Forrestal or two and wholeheartedly embrace naval aviation, power projection, and all those good things. This will let us develop some serious force projection capability, and provide lessons for future posts procurement projects.

The carriers themselves are early fleet carrier designs, but are still quite useful. There’s not any upgrades we’d want to apply; the biggest issue is one of placement of the portside elevator, which isn’t easily fixable. The issue was corrected on the later Kitty Hawk class, and if Uncle Sam is willing to sell us some of those instead, we’d oblige. Otherwise, the Forrestals will do. They have Sea Sparrows and Phalanxes and that is all the close-in defense that they need.

Carriers are useless without an air wing, so what would we put in our new flattops? The Forrestals are big enough to carry just about anything we might want that is carrier-capable, unlike the earlier Midways. We’ll start our air wing off in the Danger Zone: two fighter squadrons of Grumman Tomcats, each with twelve of the big planes. The latest model is the F-14D, with glass cockpit, APG-71 radar, and most importantly, GE F110-400 engines instead of the awful TF30s.

Next, we’ll take two light attack squadrons, each with 12 A-7E Corsair IIs. This offsets the cost of the Tomcats mentioned earlier, especially since the US Navy had mostly replaced their A-7s with Hornets by this point. While we could also use Hornets here, the greater range of the Corsair IIs makes them our preferred choice. Our attack aircraft load continues with a “Medium Attack” squadron of 10 A-6E Intruders, plus four KA-6D Intruder tankers. The Intruder is a great attack aircraft, capable of hauling a large bombload over a good distance. Having a tanker variant is also useful for long-range strikes so as to be less dependent on land-based tankers. While I could relax the desired tankers, the US Navy’s retirement of the A-6 Intruder fleet in the 90s means that I’d go for both at the ‘used aircraft’ discount. Intruders would be also useful operating from land bases.

For antisubmarine operations, we’ll add a squadron of 10 S-3B Vikings and another of six SH-60Fs. Pretty typical.

AEW&C is super important, since that gives us radar higher up and allows us to separate the radar signature from the carrier location. For that, the only real option is the E-2C Hawkeye. We’ll take a half dozen of those. We’ll also want some electronic warfare support, so we’ll add four EA-6B Prowlers for electronic attack.

And that about covers our air wing, give or take a couple C-2 Greyhounds for resupply. But those as often as not are at a shore base.

Re-evaluating leaders of the Civil War

It’s still Tuesday, so we haven’t missed a day.

Having finished Foote’s Civil War magnum opus, I find my opinion of some Civil War figures changing. Let’s take a look at how. I’ve noted changes of opinion in an upward direction with a plus sign, of downward direction with a minus sign, and no change (where some commentary is required to justify the choice) with an o.

Lincoln: +

Honest Abe, even in his own day, has (had) about him a sort of mythic status. The epithet ‘The Great Emancipator’ came about during Lincoln’s life. That’s the sort of thing that can go to a man’s head.

And yet it never did for Lincoln. Foote portrays him as an extremely human figure, warm to his family, fond of bad jokes, and distressed by the human cost of the war. He comes across as a genuinely good man, and one entirely equal to the task thrust upon him, no matter what his critics at the time said.

He only gets one plus because I had a high opinion of him before.

Jeff Davis: —

Ol’ Jeff Davis was not equal to the task before him.

Leaving aside the moral component of the war and any discussion of its secondary and tertiary reasons, Davis was simply not a great man. You couldn’t ask for a better parable: Lincoln, humble in the face of the many and varied slings and arrows thrown his way, led the Union successfully; Davis, uptight and concerned for his personal honor, never forgot a slight and drove away a number of capable subordinates over the course of the war.

Two minuses, because I went from a neutral opinion of him to a very negative one.

Grant: o

Grant goes up in my estimation in some ways and down in others.

The downsides first: Grant didn’t have very many battles where he wowed me with his tactical prowess. Once forces were engaged, he strikes me as a fairly conventional commander, buoyed by an unflappable confidence, good subordinates, and a willingness to improvise.

The upsides next: Grant was an excellent strategist, and very hard to discourage. In both the Vicksburg Campaign and the Overland Campaign, he parlayed repeated failure into ultimate success. On the Mississippi, he had the hardest of times getting below Vicksburg, kept trying, and eventually penned Pemberton in and stopped Johnston from getting there with reinforcements. North of Richmond, he correctly realized that his side had a natural supply line from the sea and a much larger army, and that Lee couldn’t abandon his capital. A few leftward sidles and a long siege later, and Grant had his victory.

Sherman: +++

Sherman is an interesting one, and the only man to get three pluses in this article.

Why? Because I think Sherman was probably the best Union commander of the war. He was an able battlefield leader, as he demonstrated under Grant, but he was also a superb strategist in his own right. The campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta features Sherman waltzing around Johnston, who found himself turned out of strong position after strong position. Sherman’s superpower was looking at a map, pondering for a bit, then deciding exactly where to march to make an enemy fortification useless.

Sherman gets three pluses instead of one or two because I’d previously thought of him as Grant’s shadow, when he might have been the better general in the final reckoning. I would have loved to see a Lee vs. Sherman campaign.

Lee: +

Lee had a superpower, too, in which he would say, out of nowhere, “I think those people will march to Location So-and-So,” and be one hundred percent spot-on correct, sometimes before the Union line officers even knew where they were going.

Lee has a bit of a mythical reputation already, but the fact that he was right so many times earns him a plus.

Beauregard: –

Beauregard was widely beloved and effective on the rare occasions he actually had some men to command, but spent so much of his time cooling his heels away from battle, planning insane long-shot schemes for Confederate victory, that I find his prominence in history is not commensurate to his prominence in fact.

Johnston (Joe): –

Given half a chance, Johnston would have retreated all the way to Tampa Bay.

Stuart (Jeb): –

Jeb Stuart loses a plus for abandoning Lee on the way to Gettysburg, and hence causing Gettysburg.

Lee might have lost some points for Gettysburg if he had his cavalry at hand, too.

Rosencrans: +

Rosencrans is my first pick against the spread, as it were. He was extremely slow to get moving, but I have a hard time arguing with his results. The Tullahoma Campaign, unlike many of the large-scale, multi-column plans in the war, went off pretty much without a hitch. Largely bloodless, it allowed for the capture of Chattanooga and enabled later victories on the road to Atlanta. Unlike Sherman’s campaign, Rosencrans conducted it against an enemy who had roughly equivalent forces, even if that enemy was Braxton Bragg.

Rosencrans did lose Chickamauga in rather embarrassing fashion, and bears a good deal of responsibility for it. Had he shown a bit more battlefield spine, he might have gone down in history as one of the Union’s best.

Burnside: +

Burnside knew the Army of the Potomac was a job above his competence, said so, and did his best not to lose the army after he was appointed over his own protests.

His plan for Fredericksburg was sound at heart, and in fact Burnside is in rarefied company as one of the few men to steal a march on Lee. He doesn’t get full marks for it, however, because ensuring you have adequate bridging material is part of your job as general.

Meade: ++

Meade was a workaday commander who was perfectly effective under Grant, and Grant had confidence enough in him to leave the Army of the Potomac under his control when Grant had other places to be.

He gets some extra credit for taking over the army in the midst of its pursuit of Lee toward Gettysburg, and reacting quickly enough to news of the developing battle to get his entire army on the field. Most generals looked bad facing Lee. Meade merely looked average.

Sheridan: –

Sheridan gets a lot of credit as one of the Union’s only reasonably competent cavalry commanders. I think he gets a bit too much. He never really faced a peer cavalry force and won, most of his great victories were won against weakened enemies. Against better opposition, his aggression might have gotten him into trouble.

J.B. Hood: +

Hood was an aggressive, competent commander hamstrung by the fact that his side was badly deficient in providing men and matériel. Had he been a Union general, I suspect he might have been one of Grant’s favorite corps commanders.

He wasn’t really cut out for command of an army, though, easily frustrated as he was; he needed a superior to draw rein now and then. After his well-planned first sortie from Atlanta met with failure due to bad luck and bad subordinates, he planned a bunch of less likely sorties. Later, on the road to Nashville, his attack against Franklin was an ill-considered disaster.

He’s the nega-Grant, in a sense—pretty good at tactics, not very good at all at strategy.

San Antonio-class BMD Ship

Ballistic Missile Defense is tricky. It requires lots of radar power and plenty of missiles. Right now, you can use your Aegis-equipped ships like the Arleigh Burke-class for the job. But those weren’t designed for the role, and the current state of the art SPY-6 radar is as big as you can fit on one. That is still not ideal for BMD work. Could we do better? Could we make a big air/missile defense ship, preferably on an existing, proven hull? Huntingon-Ingalls has some thoughts on the matter. They currently make the excellent San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, and think it would be a great candidate for conversion. Let’s look at their proposal.

The San Antonio-class is a large, modern ship for amphibious operations. They are 684 feet long, 105 feet wide, and displace 25,300 tons. They have a large helipad aft for operating MV-22s and have a well deck to launch and recover landing craft or amphibious vehicles like the LCAC. They’re currently in production too. At present, armament is limited to two RIM-116 launchers and two 30mm cannons. They also have provision for a 16-cell Mk 41 suite, but are not fitted with those at present.

HII’s proposed conversion ditches the well deck and and sports a redesigned superstructure capable of mounting four 25’x35′ (WxH) S-Band AESA arrays for better search and discrimination of ballistic missile targets. Four X-Band Arrays would be fitted above the S-Band arrays for tracking and fire control. The large hull of the San Antonios allows the BMD variant to carry no fewer than 288 Mk. 41 launch tubes.

The large hull of the San Antonios allows for plenty of extra power generation and cooling equipment, so that won’t be a problem. The large hull also allows for a higher radar mount without compromising stability. One currently noteworthy limitation is that the San Antonio-class LPDs are only capable of about 22 knots. For the role it’s designed for, that’s not a huge limitation, but they’d slow a task force down if included in one. And the number of tubes would make them tempting to include in a task force.

Finally, let’s talk cost. To the good is that the San Antonio-class production line is hot. An existing hull is no small savings. On the down side, a fancy Aegis-type suite plus big radar that isn’t going to be cheap, and I know of no appropriately-sized radar offhand that would do the job. Radar development isn’t cheap. Overall, I’d say it’s a good idea if you’re really dedicated to BMD, but without actual price numbers, I can’t really give it a great thumbs up/thumbs down. My gut is that it’s a bit too expensive for what it is, given current budget priorities.

Fishbreath Plays: Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun

The clunkily-named Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun is, at its core, a turn-based tactical wargame set on the battlefields of Asia during the Sengoku period, developed by Byzantine Games and published by Slitherine.

That sells it short, though.

The Sengoku period is a fascinating time in Japanese history, familiar to anyone who’s played a Total War game with ‘Shogun’ in the title. Competing daimyo fought for the title of shogun, de facto ruler of Japan. Usefully, at least for wargame designers, it was a century or so of near-constant war.

Sengoku Jidai has a number of expansions which extend it well beyond Japan in the 16th century, to China and Korea in the same era, all the way back to Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries. With the exception of gunpowder, warfare in those eras was broadly similar, so I won’t make too much of the differences. (Also, my interest in the era mainly runs toward the Sengoku period, and that’s what I’ve played extensively, so I’ll stick with talking about it.)

Gameplay

I can’t find a solid source to confirm or deny that the battlefield rules in Sengoku Jidai are based on a tabletop wargaming system, but it feels like they could be. They’re clean and simple.

Movement is on a square grid. Combat is pretty mathy, but comes down to Points of Advantage which affect the result, and which are gained or lost based on many of your typical wargame conditions. (Think spears against horses, rough terrain and disorder, morale, and so on.) Turning units is hard, as is shifting them long distances; they’re fairly slow, and 45-degree turns are about as much as you can manage without running out of action points. Units outside of their generals’ command range are even less mobile, an unusual but sensible design choice. Rather than stack up more combat modifiers, generals simply yield a more flexible, better-coordinated force. Works for me.

When units get into melee combat, they usually stay there for a few turns, wearing each other down and slowly inflicting losses until someone breaks. Once units get into close combat, you lose control over them, and even if your unit routs its opponent, you may not get control back—units automatically pursue routers, and may charge enemies in their paths.

There are good tutorials, both in the sense of tutorial missions and in the sense of tutorial popups explaining events as they happen, and between those and the elegance of the rules, it’s easy to get to grips with the system and start with the generalship.

Finally, for the cost of entry, you get a random map generator, a random battle generator, some historical scenarios, and some dynamic campaigns (simple ones, but enough to contextualize battles). Even the base game gets you the Sengoku Jidai campaigns and the Imjin War, I believe. If you enjoy the gunpowder- and artillery-heavy armies of the latter, I’d recommend picking up the Mandate of Heaven DLC, too, which buys you expanded Chinese factions and four more dynamic campaigns.

Presentation

I don’t have a lot to say here. The sounds are competent but uninspired, though the music is pleasantly atmospheric. The unit graphics are little groups of men and horses, more in the vein of counters than anything else. The landscapes are quite pretty, to the extent that they can be given the square grid they have to fit, and have a whiff of Japanese landscape painting about them in color palette and design.

One notable trouble spot is the lack of anti-aliasing, which is a bother for a game featuring spearmen aplenty. Another is that units don’t shrink as you batter them. A 1500-man unit of yari ashigaru looks the same at full strength as it does after losing 600 men, the only difference being a more tattered flag. As far as I’m aware, there’s no game mechanic which requires easy knowledge of a unit’s original size, so I count this as a flaw.

Verisimilitude

If you’ve read any of my previous wargame reviews, you’ll probably remember that verisimilitude is just about my favorite word in this kind of article. The point of a wargame is not to simulate every arrow and every man down to the smallest wound. The point of a wargame is to evoke a sense of place.

So, what is evocative about Sengoku Jidai’s gameplay? What puts me in the mindset of a field commander in 16th-century Asia?

First: deployment is crucial. On the scale of a battlefield, infantry is slow. Even cavalry takes a while to get where you want it. If you deploy your main body poorly, you can easily lose a battle you should have won. If you deploy your main body well, taking advantage of the terrain and the strengths of your units, you can win battles you might otherwise have lost.

Second: loss of control is rapid. Once the lines crash together, the outcome is largely out of your hands, except insofar as you contribute to key points with flanking maneuvers. As the general in command of an army, your responsibility is to deploy your forces well and, on the approach, meet weak points in the enemy’s deployment with strength. That seems accurate to me.

Like all the best wargames, when I get into the groove, it doesn’t feel like a game, in spite of the tabletop feeling of the rules. I give it my recommendation.

Miscellaneous

It’s available on Steam, but doesn’t work with Steam Play/Proton/Wine on my Mint 19.1 system, and as far as I know, doesn’t have high-DPI support.