The Korean War (Victory Games)
Playings; 2 campaigns (1 UN, 1 NKA win), several short scenarios, 12 hours.
Compared to S&T's Korean War and the admittedly later period Crisis Korea '95 the this is low unit density game. Much of the counter sheet is taken up with markers and replacement units. Good idea hunters should be impressed by the replacement unit system. Units are all much the same for a given nationality and type, most are 3 step but the use of the flip side to mark used status means that step losses cannot be represented by 1 or 2 counters. Instead there are generic replacement-1 and replacement-2 counters that are used to mark losses and are removed again if the original units build up. This saves a lot of counter searching when the umpteenth Division takes a step loss and the relevant replacement unit has to be found.
Playing Balkoski's The Korean War is similar to playing the same designer's Against The Reich. Both use the same system of sequencing movement and combat. Units are activated one at a time and each activated unit receives 3 activation points to be used in any combination of move and fight actions or to improve movement or combat at the expense of the other action. The Korean War is clearly a development of this system as the process is more complicated and consequently a little less smooth.
Against The Reich has already been reviewed in ZOCo so readers are presumed to be familiar with that game, if not they can cough up for the relevant back issue. Players no longer roll alternatively to see who will next activate a unit (with a random spread of who goes next) but players alternately roll on activation tables to yield 0 to 4 potential activations in a row. The 0 result will throw the opposition back into activation but any other result will guarantee activation of a number of units. Any number greater than 1 will allow units to be set up to support each other, this sort of action requires a degree of trust to the die or a previously passed opponent in Against The Reich. Units are further encouraged to support one another by allowing previously activated units to take part in attacks as long they are adjacent to the stack which the currently activated unit is attacking. There is no provision for activating stacks of units except that some counters are specified assets, these are stacked with combat units and act as part of the same unit but can be re-assigned between turns. Assets are usually armour formations. Any unit which has finished its 3 activations is flipped to a weaker side and cannot be activated again until both players have finished although they can still be useful in combat. A decent attacking ploy is to move up to the enemy with the intention of having more than 1 unit adjacent the end of the phase. At the beginning of the next set of activations 1 unit can attack at maximum ability (losing all power of movement) and be supported by all other adjacent units which will not count as activated. The defender duly dealt with, remaining units can exploit, in the event of failure another unit can be activated to attack at maximum effort. This cunning plan is hindered by units that move up finishing their activation at lower strength and being liable to counter-attacks. Dug in defenders can be hard to budge no matter how many units are brought up unless those defenders can be cut off from supply.
The degree and order of activations available are not random but supply based. In the initial 2 turns both sides use special columns to determine activations available and there is no worrying about supply units. Starting with game turn 3 both sides can place up to 3 supply depots with a combined depot value of 3. Each depot then rolls for its supply availability based on how far it is from port for the UN or what province it is in for the NKA. A considerable portion of the UN airforce will be used to reduce NKA supply rolls in provinces or to encourage the NKA to place depots in provinces with low air interdiction levels (which will tend to be less than conveniently near the front). The end result is of each player having 1 to 3 supply depots each rated from 1 to 3 and each having gained 1 to 3 supply points. The more points the better, depots can be moved and points can be saved (up to a maximum of 3) but only on depots which are not moved. For each depot 1 to 3 supply points can be spent each activation cycle and the total spent by each player is noted. The total number of supply points spent by each player will effect how many activations each die roll allows plus the player that has spent most points gets to roll for activation 1st, a considerable advantage. Also each depot is marked for the number of supply points that it has expended in that phase, rating depots for 1, 2 or 3 expenditure. The distance of a unit from a depot at the instant of combat and how many supply points that depot has spent will seriously affect the combat ability of units drawing supply from that depot. A depot that does not expend supply in the attempt to build up a surplus for future use will be of no combat benefit to nearby units. Depots are only likely to build up supply points during some form of uneasy truce probably around the 38th parallel.
The supply situation is critical to how the early part of the game will play, more so than in what order units are activated. Both sides have effective free supply in turns 1 and 2, the NKA has most units and needs the supply for maximum attack ability. In turns 3 and 4 the number of UN units arriving starts to make up for the number of friendlies being lost. The ability of these units to hold on is based on how good supply is, a well supplied NKA will slice through a poorly supplied UN. As well as the campaign game The Korean War has shorter scenarios notably one covering the initial NKA advance and UN build up. It is worth spending some time on this because the NKA can eat through the UN in the early turns of a campaign game purely through good supply rules. To be fair there is little point having the UN arrive to save the ROK if there is no chance of that nation being overrun without UN help. Early games chalked up a lot of NKA victories until some experience was gained in running away and digging in. The NKA can win by capturing Pusan or by allowing the UN to hold Pusan but virtually no other ROK towns, in effect reducing the Pusan perimeter to a non-viable size. Early UN units arrive in Pusan and are rushed to the front piece-meal to try and hold some sort of front. There is the ability to launch an amphibious counter-stroke at designated hexes spread over the map but the NKA is aware of this and may leave units behind to defend important sites, this can weaken the centre enough to allow a thrust up the middle without having to mess about in boats. Naturally any thought of bold repostes is out unless the NKA advance can be stopped.
Having ensured some chance of stopping the NKA, the campaign system is a brave attempt to put political factors into the game, much like the political system in Arabian Nightmare Kuwait War. Political factors never bothered General MacArthur. The NKA begins the game ready for war and receives random replacements that should keep pace with losses. ROK units are useful for traffic control and stamping passports but not for fighting. A random chart will bring on decent ROK units in time but at a slower rate than the NKA. To win the UN will have to come ashore but that is completely up to the ROK player, the number of UN units brought on can be decided on turn by turn but they will arrive in a pre-arranged schedule. The number of re-enforcement's can be controlled but not their speed of arrival. The rules of aircraft engagement can be set to affect just what an be bombed and the level of USA call up (which affects how quickly dead USA units are re-built) can also be set. The big rider here is that the greater UN involvement will affect world tension. Each turn the UN rolls for world tension based on the amount of reinforcements scheduled and use of air power. Close regard to the tables will show just how many units can be brought in to guarantee that world tension will not escalate. It is also essential to keep all UN and ROK units South of the 38th to ensure political calm. For each rating of world tension above 0 (where it begins) the UN loses 5 victory points every turn, world tension is not going to go back down again, if it gets too high WW3 breaks out and everyone loses.
It is in the interest of the NKA to increase world tension, if the UN shows no sign of invading the north an invasion of Formosa can be declared by China. This reduces the number of Chinese units available should the Chinese intervene in Korea but does give some chance of an increase in world tension if the UN is otherwise playing it safely. The UN can still win a major victory without invading the north if the NKA is held and pushed back swiftly. An early invasion of Formosa could change this from a major to minor victory. If the UN decides to go north it needs to be done swiftly. Victory points are gained for each turn that a town is held so as much of the north has to taken as possible and held as long as possible. Hordes of screaming Chinese will appear with great speed so UN build up had better of been swift. The risks of world tension increase in this situation are high but being dice based there is slight chance of getting away with it. If the UN does not head north and both sides settle along the 38th it should be possible to work out points before the final game turn to decide the level of victory. The game length is based on the early mobile part of the Korean War not the later trench based period, it is quite possible for the game still to be in the balance to the end but there are no mechanisms to increase the number of game turns.
Players interested in merely winning as the UN will not be messing about in the north however there units and rules are available to have a go, take note that even the Russians can invade. Political tensions are naturally based on hindsight erring to the global war possibilities. The chance of the Chinese not invading should the UN head north are pretty slim, it could be argued that the Chines gave fair warning of their intentions if that was so even MacArthur would have noticed. A partial invasion of the north by ROK only units is allowed and this does reduce the risk of Chinese intervention but not significantly as there is a risk for each turn these units stay in the north.
I finally managed a playthrough of the advanced version of Victory Games' Korean War (one of my favourites). It brought home what an excellent piece of design this game is. Very different from just playing the scenarios. I think gamers are selling themselves short if they don't attempt to play the advanced or campaign scenarios of games in their collections. Take the time to play these versions you could be pleasantly surprised, there could be a hidden gem.