This is the first post of several to discuss the first of the Operational Scale System (OSS) games from Adam Starkweather, Ross Mortell, and Compass Games. I’ll begin with a high level overview of the game, discuss the issues with the game as published, as well as why I think this game is worth playing.
Adam Starkweather is a designer who got his first break in the hobby by bringing games from international markets to US publishers, starting with amazing titles like Fire In The Sky and A Victory Lost. He made his mark in design with The Devil’s Cauldron, a monster game on the northern portion of Market-Garden, using his Grand Tactical System, based on the old Panzer Command chit pull system. He has also recently begun two new systems, Company Scale System, which is a bit finer grain than GTS, but intended to be cleaner on the table as well as more streamlined play. I’ve dipped my toe into that one, but that’s not the series we’re looking at right now.
OSS is an attempt to create a fast playing, low counter density monster war-game at the operational level, where I’m assuming the definition is three or more maps and a solid weekend or more to play. These games tend to be on the sloppy side, largely because it’s so hard to get play testers to go through the whole thing, scenarios to campaign game. I’m pretty sure The Greatest Day did not have the campaign game play tested more than once, if that. OSS is supposed to be played to completion, with a more parseable board and situation. OCS, by comparison, tends to focus in on fairly intense but localized battles after buildup and maneuver, while OSS seems to blend the elements together in a more elegant fashion. I should say that I own pretty much all of the OCS games, but having to make change down to the quarter (token) level for supply strikes me as more bookkeeping exercise than game.
Where OSS seems to get it’s pedigree from is very different. There are no chits to drive activation, players choose what goes when. You definitely need to be concerned with logistical elements, such as armor, artillery, and air support, as well as offensive tempo. In a lot of ways, it reminds me quite a bit of Unconditional Surrender’s activation system, where combat becomes a function of movement much of the time. That said, it’s all pretty baked into the system rather than requiring a lot of bookkeeping and fiddling with counters.
Also unlike the chit pull games, this is a marker poor environment. Part of that is that units are only differentiated by their nationality, which largely affects command, replacements and a few special rules. The main statuses of units will be if they are spent or fresh (there’s the area-impulse system influence), how disrupted they are, and if they have limitations on the amount of support they can rely on. There aren’t even numbers on the counters other than a generic ID, and they are all of the same type.
OK, now I’m just sounding crazy.
Also, not a lot of units. The game starts out with a whopping eight Republic of Korea units on the map, and two HQs. North starts with half again as much. There are two whole aircraft in play for the first turn. Let me remind you that this game takes up three standard maps. Yes, it’s a war on a peninsula and the road/rail net is pretty freaking useful over most of it, but this is about an eighth of what a “lite” OCS game scenario starts out with. As such, it is very easy to see the board situation, what you need to accomplish, and how you are going to get there.
As for rules complexity, there are really only three systems: supply/infrastructure, which will dictate offensive tempo, air operations that will look a *lot* like they did in Balkowski’s Victory Games Fleet series, with some going on strategic missions that will last multiple turns while others are on tactical missions that they may be able to extend with some luck. Finally there is the land system, which is based on an HQ activation system that ties in elegantly with the supply system to create a *lot* of interesting decisions.
All of that said, this game more or less landed on the hobby DOA. A big part of the problem was a rulebook that wasn’t checked carefully enough before it went out the door, and the result was that some sections used older rules. That said, compared to CSS, which had at least one major rules section redone shortly after release, this game doesn’t have nearly as much that’s changed early on, probably because the focus has been on the rulebooks getting reissued.
And there we have perhaps the biggest problem, and it’s a problem with more than this game series: Adam tends to write a ruleset, put it in the wild, and then rejigger it down the road. I am the first to say that these changes are for the good, but at the same time these sorts of changes need to be incorporated into the living rules documents in a reasonably timely fashion. Saipan, the first game for CSS, has been out for a while. In fact, three more games in the system have come out, all with rules that reflect the large changes to the system, but because the series rules and the specific rules are in the same volume (marked clearly, but still interleaved), it is an enormous pain to try to learn with the correct rules.
In other words, I’m strongly considering avoiding the first game in any new series Adam puts out because I find this sort of thing a real buzzkill for me. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but we are looking at intervals of half a year to more than a year before we get a rulebook that reflects the game as intended if we get it at all. I didn’t get into GTS until v2.0 was out, and even then the V1.1 rules came in the box with the changes in the exclusive rules book.
In Korea, we see how much this has damaged the reputation of the system, with many people not even considering opening the box until a useable ruleset is out there. Adam put up a PDF of a Word document that has the text, but without graphics again we have two documents needed where there should be on. I’m not even particularly sure that the new rules will help much, the meat of the game is not clearly discussed until section 9.2, a section on HQs, after 15 pages of rules that would have made some sense had we had this lovely sequence of an activation up front.
Fear nothing, Area 21 is here to help. Coming up will be a series of tutorials on the game, intended to get past the convoluted rules and into what is actually a very accessible, fast playing, and fun game. We’ll be playing the Invasion! scenario, the suggested learning scenario, that begins at the start of the war and ends with the Communists taking all of the ports (or after five turns if not). We won’t see a few things in this scenario (like invasions), but I’m not shooting for an exhaustive examination anyway. Since the scenario begins with the Communist activations, we will only look at the air subsystem as it applies to tactical missions to start. Also, the first turn is the only one in it’s month, so the very first turn won’t be too concerned with supply, but the rest of the game definitely will. That lets us focus on activations to begin, then gradually add in subsystems as we go.
Later I will play a bit of the Inchon scenario, also the Chinese Intervention so we can see the effects of these major events in the war. Note that neither may occur in a given game, but you might have nukes. Wow.
I guess I should also say why exactly this game is appealing to me. To start with, I am a bit of a size queen when it comes to games. I very rarely play monsters, but I have a lot of them. I also love games with enormous boxes (Ogre!). That said, I can tend to become overwhelmed at first when faced with what looks like a lot of stuff. I set up the first scenario in the old AH chestnut, The Longest Day, and immediately felt like I was looking at a game that had fallen out of the box. So a low counter density appeals to me. Even GTS, with the crazy congestion on Sword Beach in TGD, can see stacks of 20 counters once you get status markers involved. I’m a classically trained professional pianist, and I’m not touching those stacks without a major disaster (I tend to blow up the VASSAL maps and use those as auxiliary maps).
I’m also very interested in the Korean War right now. I recently cut off news media (because fuck) and started reading a lot more history, and started with The Coldest Winter. Boy, that MacArthur was a dick. I played at a dedication at a KW memorial a couple of years ago, and nearly left when I found out they were putting up a statue of MacArthur, the man who made the Korean War what it was. If it wasn’t for Inchon being a success, it would have been three and out for the dude. Also there may be an ASL module out for the war as well, and the upcoming Compass reprint/polish of the Victory Games title (which I own). Whole lot of Korea coming our way.
I’m a big fan of fog of war, which is hard to do when you are soloing a game, but here it works well thanks to the Cup of SNAFU, which is waiting to ruin everyone’s plans every time you roll for combat, as well as your units possibly getting better or worse on those same rolls. I love this part of ASL, although I always forget about those sniper checks, here I’m hopeful I can remember to pay attention long enough to cover those things. This kind of chaos makes every combat important, and discourages attacks for the heck of it (as does the logistics system).
Finally, I like the idea that the assumption was that the war would turn into a stalemate eventually, so the game doesn’t continue past the point where the front stabilized (and remains to this day). The flow will be an initial invasion by the North, a desperate defense by the South, the tide turning as the offensive tempo for the North wanes and effective UN troops being to arrive, the push to attain victory without pissing off the Chinese, and then of course pissing off the Chinese. Who were, admittedly, looking to get pissed off and even had their elbow cocked back to slug the UN inna face. And, hey, Chiang might even stop by! That external political/economic element is also fascinating, although it is very abstract in this game.
I hope you come along for the ride.