Viewers of Twitter will have noticed that we have started a fresh Pint-Sized Campaign on Lard Island this week. Having completed our Jitra campaign in northern Malaya a few months ago and seeing Isurava on the the Kokoda Track fall to the Japanese just a few weeks ago, the casual observer may well have expected us to head to Buna and Gona next, or possibly Milne Bay or the Dutch East Indies. In fact we have fast-forwarded to 1944 and the attack on the island of Fumanchu.
Yes, Fumanchu. And no, you won’t find it in any history books. We have taken the decision to go off the historical path of truth and right for the simple reason that I am keen to test some rules mechanisms that will see aspects of numerous island hopping actions rolled into one. There are aspects of Pellau in there, of Tarawa and even Okinawa. The inspiration for the campaign structure was actually the battle for Angaur, part of what is now the country of Palau but which at the time was an island in the Japanese controlled South Seas Mandate. The problem for me is that Angaur was attacked and captured by the US 81st Infantry Division and, at present, I am more interested in playtesting the USMC.
When playtesting, whether it’s rules, scenarios or a supplementary handbook, what is key is that you can focus on the issues that need testing. The US infantry on Angaur are technically identical to the US infantry in Normandy. In fact they aren’t; impromptu fire teams did emerge and were used extensively in a manner reminiscent of what the Marines were doing, but essentially they were two Teams in one Squad and there’s nothing very novel in that which needs extensive testing. The Marines, on the other hand, were utilising their final and most advanced squad structure of the war by this time and that, with three fire teams, each sporting a shiny BAR, and that is certainly something new in Chain of Command and demands my attention. As a result, Fumanchu was born. It’s a silly name. I know; I like silly names, for many reasons rehearsed many times, so I shan’t bore you with them again.
So, in the spirit of playtesting, you may well ask what we have achieved thus far with the mythical Far East Handbook and where we are going forward. There is no hiding the fact that the Far East and Pacific Handbook for Chain of Command has been a long time coming. One gentleman in social media was rather upset earlier this year as he’d been “promised” the handbook a couple of years ago. Despite my being long enough in the tooth to never promise anything, he’s vaguely right and I can only apologise. However, the delay was not exactly wilful. Jungle Warfare is, if we are to treat it properly, an extremely complex discipline and quite unlike fighting in any other environment; it’s not just woods with attitude. In fact, the closest thing to it is the close nature of urban warfare but even that barely comes close to the stifling, suffocating claustrophobia of the jungle environment.
The Jungle is a place where foliage restricts movement. Where temperatures restrict movement. Where the lack of roads and steep mountainous terrain can restrict movement. Where the commander’s ability to communicate with his men is restricted and can halt movement. Where the enemy cannot be seen but may emerge only feet away at any moment. Indeed, every aspect of being in the jungle can seem to conspire against man’s ability to function. Collectively, when multiple factors come together in one situation, one wonders how it is possible to function at all. Each one of those factors is problematic in terms of game design. Combine them together and you have a truly problematic cocktail of issues which, if you simply add them up as a whole shopping list of negative effects can create a game which is utterly inert. And that is clearly not what we want.
In truth, jungle warfare is often best described by the Three “Fs”; frantic, frenetic and incredibly frightening. If we simply slow the game down at every step due to all of the apparent problems created by the environment, we are in danger of making the outcome the very opposite. So the whole thing needed a rethink, and sometimes thinking becomes counter-productive.
I had reached a point a couple of years ago, when COVID hit, where I’d been thinking about jungle warfare so much that I was going round circles. Unable to playtest in a group, I took the decision to put the whole thing on the back burner and walk away to do other things. My objective was, in fact, to walk so far away from it that I’d forget all the work I’d done to date and would then be able to come back with a fresh pair of eyes and begin the research again. And that’s what I have done.
At each step in the research process I have stopped so as to analyse precisely what the game design challenges are at each stage. I then attempted to overcome those and to produce the army lists for each ‘chapter’ of the handbook, with each phase of the process building on what had come before. Hong Kong 1941 was a nice easy start as there ain’t no jungle in Hong Kong, but there were some interesting units and extreme terrain, but it also gave me a good opportunity to consider the Japanese and their performance in a semi-pseudo-European environment and to analyse what their strengths were; what made them tick tactically. From there we went on through different theatres introducing the rubber plantations and patches of secondary jungle of Malaya before going to the completely green Hell of Papuan and New Guinea.
It was only when we took the leap and fully immersed our games in that completely unforgiving environment that I really began to understand jungle warfare in its most pure fashion. Only there, when we had to face tables that were quite literally nothing but a sea of green, was I obliged to stop dodging the issue of how tough jungle warfare was and that the jungle rules really started to hang together.
I was fortunate in this process to be aided in my journey by the extraordinarily patient mentor, Len Tracy. Len is based down in Australia and was, until recently, the commanding officer of the Australian Army’s jungle warfare school. His knowledge of his subject is, as one would expect, incomparable and invaluable. Only when I began reading about the jungles of Papua New Guinea and Borneo did I really begin to understand what Len was talking about. In my mind the jungles of Malaya and even Burma were unpleasant places best avoided as any sensible person would use the main roads on the cultivated plains. It was a very British viewpoint and pretty much precisely what the bulk of the British officers in Malaya and Burma began the war thinking. Of course, the Japanese thought differently, seeing the jungle not as an obstacle but and an opportunity. The Australians, hurled into the maelstrom of PNG in 1942, had to learn to operate in an environment where the only thing cultivated was a small native garden on a tiny plot half way up a mountain with climbs of a 1 in 1 gradient. It was a lesson they had to learn fast or be overwhelmed by their enemy. That experience was the beginning of the Australian Army’s journey to become the most experienced jungle warfare specialists in the world and those experience would be built upon in Malaya during the Emergency and again in Vietnam.
Of course, knowing what I wanted to achieve was rather different to actually achieving it. However, by sticking to the process of research, followed by an analysis of the issues that the research exposed and then creating the solution to each issue, I was then able to test those solutions by not just playing a game in each theatre, but by playing through a whole campaign. The old adage of 1% inspiration followed by 99% perspiration rings true in this situation. It is sadly the case that designing a rule to cover every very specific situation is actually quite simple but what often happens is that you create exceptions; “you normally do X, but in this situation do Y instead”. Or worse, “in this situation do X and then do Y as well”. I am sure others more erudite have a better name for this, but I call it “Third Roll Syndrome”. In Chain of Command you roll to hit and then you (or your opponent) rolls for the effect of those hits. It’s simple, it works, we all know the rolls we need so that makes it intuitive. What I cannot then do is add a third roll to that process. To do so takes a simple intuitive system and makes it feel…clunky.
So, the real challenge is designing something that sits comfortably within the existing structure of the rules and which, when applied, still feels like you are playing Chain of Command. Which sounds simple, but in the extreme environment that I have already described, where everything stacks up on the problematic side of the equation, that is not simple at all. And that’s why this has taken time. And is still taking time.
The games we have been playing the campaigns we have been running have been an incredible journey of discovery for me. Historical research has always been what drives our game design and it’s what I enjoy doing most in my rather weird and wacky job. I cannot “promise” exactly when the handbook will be ready, but I can say that we are well along on that journey. We are now out there showing the rules to a lot of people and they are loving what the game does and how it feels. Most importantly, it is very much Chain of Command and the challenges of the jungle sit on top of that rather than interfere with the core rules. Of course that stress testing process continues; we do have more campaigns to run before we are there. I’ll be returning to the Indian Army and their campaigns on the road to Mandalay next after Fumanchu is won or lost and whatever project I am immersed in will be wheeled out for you to see at shows and Lardy Games Days in the coming months.
For those who are waiting with baited breath for the Far East Handbook to emerge, I must beg your patience for a little longer. Of course it isn’t just the Far East; it’s the Pacific too, and China. The war in Burma in 1942 was very different to that in Arakan in 1943 and different again to the battles on the Indian frontier. The advance back into Burma could not be more different from the island hopping campaigns and the Philippines in 1941 and 42 was in complete contrast to MacArthur’s return in 1944. And then we are back to Papua, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and all those far away places in the Dutch East indies and corners of the British Empire, like Sarawak, Kiribati and the Gilbert Islands that no sane person has ever heard of. The lists are extensive and the required research behind them is vast. However, the good news is that we are getting there. So watch this space…