By Harvey Mossman
Publisher Compass Games Designer: John Gorkowski
The next military conflict will likely involve naval and air assets of the United States as it continues to play its role as protector of freedom of the seas yet, there is a dearth of recently designed modern Air/Naval combat games. Breaking the Chains by Compass Games tries to fill this gap as it examines contemporary events in the South China Sea as China asserts, what it believes is its destiny, to be a rising empire in the Pacific. It is not a complex game and, where it can, strives for simplicity in an otherwise complex conflict environment.
The game encompasses air, naval and land units likely to be involved in any future conflict in the South China Sea. Military assets from the United States, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Cambodia and Laos are all represented. Units are rated as to ship type (destroyer, frigate, aircraft carrier, Marine unit), ship class (Arleigh Burke, etc.), stealth value (how hard it is to detect) and missile defense (some have point defense while others have area defense) on the front side of the counter. Additionally a bar depicting whether they are deep sea combatants or littoral combatants (move slowly in deep water) is presented under unit silhouettes. Naval units have an antiship missile rating, gun rating, torpedo rating and antisubmarine warfare rating on the flip side of the counters. Air units have similar ratings that include anti-ground missiles. Ground units are only rated for their combined arms, value stealth value and movement value. In general, units can take 2 combat hits but but some (omega symbol) only take 1 and others (Delta symbol on the counter,) can take 3 hits.
Generally the information on the units is clearly depicted although the counter art is one of the weakest parts of the game. The silhouettes of the aircraft, naval vessels, missile launchers, etc. garishly blend into the background color scheme and are further obscured by the deep or littoral color bands. Definitely an artistic gaffe in an otherwise well presented game.
The game map is much more pleasing with the East China Sea and South China Sea clearly depicted in subdued tones with well-designed icons representing the various airbases, ports, island chains and landmasses. There is also an insert for Taiwan with enlarged hexes to avoid unit clutter when massive air, sea and land formations battle in confined spaces around this important island. The only complaint I have with the map is that the turn record track is printed on hexes in the lower right-hand corner as if it was thrown in as an afterthought. Nevertheless, graphically and functionally, the map is a very high quality.
The heart of the game is the general quarters cycle which is repeated 6 times during a given turn. After air and naval unit moves are completed, players resolve air/naval engagements. This consists of offensive units tracing strike paths through the hex grid to their primary target hex which must be “illuminated” by one of your on map units. Illumination ranges vary by unit type with submarines illuminating a 1 hex radius, surface naval units 3 hexes and air unit 6 hexes. The designer feels that, in the age of satellite reconnaissance, long-range drones and over the horizon radar, air and naval units will generally be detected and the main problem will be how to evade detection.
Defending units in the target focus hex successfully evade if the sum of 2 dice, stealth value and distance in hexes to the nearest enemy unit that is illuminating them exceeds 11. Units that evade cannot take any actions in the engagement but also cannot be targeted. If, after evasion, there is still a least one defending unit in the target hex that has not evaded, the attacker strikes by designating his participating units. The defender can bring in additional defending units from other than the target hexes as long as they have one participating attacking unit in its illumination radius. Air units can provide close air protection (CAP) or strike offensively within their operational radius. They trace a strike path to the target and if they fly over enemy units with an Area Missile-Defense value, they take anti aircraft fire damage if the enemy rolls doubles on 2 dice. Surviving offensive aircraft can be intercepted by enemy air units in which case air to air combat occurs. Finally air units can launch their strike.
Courtesy of Kevin Sharp
In fact the heart of the game is in Strike resolution which occurs in a strict sequence, airstrikes going first, same hex antisubmarine warfare strikes next, followed by Gun strikes and finally torpedo strikes. Strikes are universally resolved by summing the strike dice roll, the particular weapon systems value and any circumstance modifiers while subtracting accumulated step losses. A number of hits are scored on the enemy equal to the amount the strike value exceeds the defense value. Defending units with area missile defense may use their antimissile defense value for all units in their hex which makes Arleigh Burke destroyers extremely valuable assets.
Naval engagements alternate back and forth between players (an initiative die roll decides who goes first) until all have been resolved and then in the Administrative phase air units roll to recover and failing that, remain spent. Subsequently, ground movement and combat are resolved and then another general quarters cycle will begin if 6 have not yet been performed.
There are rules for Black Ops which include land attack cruise missile strikes against land-based air units, fortifications, naval units in port, SAM and SSM units but they usually are not decisive in the game. An interesting aspect is the use of Special Operation Forces Chits. These represent cyber-attacks, China’s Flying Dragon Special Operation Force, sabotage via Moles, public work stoppages, US Navy SEALs actions, underwater demolition assault units, paratroopers, antisatellite warfare, etc.
There is also a Political Phase allowing neutral nations to join one of the coalitions contingent on whether they have been attacked or certain countries have joined the coalition. The political rules are necessarily simplistic since they are not the focus of the game but it is nice that the designer chose to include them and it does add some uncertainty to the geopolitical situation.
In Collision Course, the first of the 3 scenarios provided, China tries to make a lightning grab for the Spratly Islands while Vietnam resists and waits for United States intervention. This makes a perfect learning scenario as only a limited number of units are utilized and fighting involves only a few naval task forces. In the Taiwan Contingency, scenario 2, the Chinese attack Taiwan. The first turn is a wild melee of strikes best played out on the Taiwan inset in the upper right corner of the map. Finally Scenario 3, China Breaks the Chains, almost all the units in the game are used, the full political rules are in effect and players can expect a plethora of engagements from multiple naval and carrier task forces.
Breaking The Chains is a noble effort from designer John Gorkowski to simulate the complexities of a modern air/naval/land campaign. His design choices almost always veer towards simplicity and ease of play rather than intricate representations of modern sensors and weapon systems found in other games such as Harpoon. He aims for broad strokes but to his credit, the combat model seems to resolve appropriately without any major outlying results. The game is more similar to the Fleet series from Victory Games and much less tactical than SPI’s venerable Task Force.
Yet, while I appreciate the need for simplicity, it makes the game fall somewhat flat for me. It’s not so much a flaw in the design as published which, as I have said above, seems to model probable outcomes well. Rather it’s my personal preference against a simulation whereby a vastly complex combat situation is resolved so simply and abstractly. The combat mechanics just lack the angst associated with watching heavily munitioned aircraft approach a task force ready to launch missiles, the trepidation as your multilayered air defenses engage subsonic and supersonic incoming projectiles and the nailbiting when a few “leakers” get through to be engaged by point defense air systems like SeaRam or Phalanx. Lost in the abstraction is much of the exhilaration as these shockingly rapid attacks resolve in apprehensive slow-motion culminating in the destruction of one of your major naval assets like an aircraft carrier. Here, it is all resolved by a simple, quick and often deadly die roll. Simple yes… Exciting, not so much.
Furthermore, lack of logistics rules allows planes and ships to fire off missiles ad infinitum without the need for replenishment. In the longer campaign scenarios this tends to result in far higher attrition rates than would normally be expected. For the most part, although improvements with vertical launching systems have allowed ships to carry more missiles, modern naval platforms are 1 or 2 shot platforms that become relatively impotent once their weapons are expended.
Another quibble I have is that, many of the units capabilities tend to lack nuanced differentiation. For example, the Chinese Lu Yang Type 52 DDG’s are the equal of the United States Arleigh Burke DDG’s yet Chinese naval proficiency and actual combat efficacy are historically lacking. Similarly, national differences in aircraft sortie rates are not well represented although once again, they are abstractly handled by the process of Recovery. Unfortunately, Recovery is the same for each nation. Training and combat experience as well as a naval heritage is nowhere represented.
Finally, one gets the feeling the abstractions and the quest for simplicity results in a “one size fits all ” approach to the various sensors and weapon systems. Although modern technology has improved to the point that gross differences in radars, sonar, and fire control are no longer gaping, there are still several superiorities that advantage one side more than the other. These differences may mean one nation strikes first before the other can react but, in this game, it boils down to a simple initiative die roll that is not modified by technological superiority, training or proficiency.
Mind you, I do not want to sound overly negative since my criticisms are more personal preference than design flaws. There is much to like in Breaking the Chains as it is a very approachable system depicting an extremely complex subject. For players who prefer a simpler depiction of modern air/naval campaigns compared to more complex games like Harpoon or Task Force, this may be for you. The designer has supported it well online and has provided some additional scenarios. Although it will not be the final word on this topic, the game does give some insight into the difficulties the United States and its allies will have facing off against China in any future conflict.