The Chosin Few
Though the brief historical notes do acknowledge that it was a UN force, the battle as presented in VPG's The Chosin Few is totally an American one, albeit historically two British regiments and troops from the British Marine Commandos were involved as well. Their failure to be included is purely a result of the nature of the game/simulation and the game's design.
Perhaps because of this, VPG have cast the battle in their solitaire siege series of games. However, this is no Rorke's Drift. Ultimately, it was a battle of survival by holding out long enough until allowed to attempt to breakout and head towards what historically was an evacuation by sea of those who did survive.
When given the opportunity to review this treatment of the battle, I was delighted. From the old days of GDW's Yalu to its glossy remake by Compass Games, then via the Inchon landings first seen in a Simulations Canada design and a later magazine game issue, the Korean War has held an interest for me, though I never ventured into the larger productions that encompassed the whole war. Added to that was the recent appearance last year in Strategy & Tactics of Korean Battles designed by BrianTrain, which featured three battles, including the battle of Chosin. That was my first reason to seize the chance to review The Chosin Few, the second my great enjoyment of Victory Point Games, particularly the Napoleonic 20 series.
I had no knowledge of how VPG had handled this conflict, but, from the size of the box, my guess had been at much the same level as the Napoleonic series I favoured. On seeing, however, that it was part of the Siege Series, I immediately knew that I was likely to be in for something rather different. I wasn't wrong.
The series ranges from very specific geographical battles [A Blood Red Banner takes us to the Alamo, while Zulus On The Ramparts is VPG's classic presentation of Rorke's Drift ] to very broad-brush treatments of strategic situations [Soviet Dawn gives us The Russian Revolution]. The Chosin Few is certainly geographically nearer their game on the Alamo or Rorke's Drift and, though the scale has moved from the micro-tactical to the operational, the overall picture still has a strong physical element.
In brief, the game contents are a four piece jig-map that fits together very well, 25 cards, 25 small wooden cubes, 11 laser-cut counters and two standees and a 12 page rule book. Being part of the gold series these all come in a sturdy "pizza" box with a very attractive slip-cover. So, let's cast a closer look over these items.
The folio size map [11" x 17"] is a very striking relief map of the area in which the conflict took place. Its steely grey colour and many rugged mountain reliefs well convey the bleak, inhospitable landscape in the depths of a brutal winter. On very close inspection, you can also see a wealth of place names.
Superimposed on the map is a highly abstract system of location boxes to govern movement and combat, linked by a series of white or coloured arrows. The beige ones are potential areas where the initial enemy forces will appear and the white ones are the confines within which the American units can move, once set up. Ah... the units! The Chinese are represented by the 20 cubes and the American X Corps and the 1st Marine Division are the two oblong standees. As you can see, a very high degree of simplification, which is certainly one aspect that may draw criticism.
Also on the map are three boxes: the top one holds the three Order cards, while of the two below, the left one contains the face down Activity Deck and the right one is the discard pile for the Activity Deck. Above the Discard Pile are two columns to track the current strength of the Marines and the Army.
So, how does this game play out. First of all the three Order cards are stacked on top of each other. These provide the basic sequential narrative. Each is like a mini-scenario that has to be completed successfully in order to win the game.
The three titles are Almond's Instructions, Advance In Another Direction and Breakout. Not surprisingly, these originally meant nothing to me, except that I knew that eventually the UN troops did manage to breakout. Doing my research into the history did add to the feel of the game and I wish that more of that history could have been incorporated into the brief notes in the rule book. It hides the feud between generals Almond and Smith, the orders of the one that would lead to the disastrous situation and the actions of the other that would mean that some element of those soldiers did extricate themselves and survive. On a totally different scale, how it reminded me of The Charge of The Light Brigade!
Almond's Instructions refers to General Almond who gave the orders for the troops [elements of X Corps and the 1st Marine Division] to move north to the area of the Chosin Reservoir - in game map terms to move from Location C to Locations A1 and B1, Advance In Another Direction begins the attempt to extricate themselves from the potentially murderous encirclement - your two units have to move back to Location C!! Finally, Breakout means to move both units from Location C to Location D4.
So, here is the first Order card with which the game begins.
Like all three Order cards it contains a title, a starting date, the objective to be achieved, where to place the six Lines of Departure discs [to be discussed later], a pre-scenario action and the consequences of failing the scenario.
A typical mini-scenario then follows along these lines. The End of Orders card is shuffled into the bottom six cards of the Activity deck. Each Activity card is then turned up one at a time and executed until the End of Orders card is reached. If at that point you've met the goal of the current Order card, move on to the next Order Card.
Using the details from the first Order card, below is the initial set up at the very beginning of the game. The six circular discs are the Lines of Departure, numbered 1 to 6 where the Chinese forces will randomly arrive and there in the centre are the two American armies.
Next you turn over the top Activity card on the Draw pile.
The Marines have one column on the board running from 3 - 6 and the Army has the other column from 4 - 6, with a neat little marker to show current strength. If you roll equal to or higher than the current strength you are successful and your unit suffers no penalty, but if you roll less than the current strength then you take a hit and the marker moves up to the next highest number. If your strength marker is on 6, any roll other than 6 is obviously a hit and you move your marker into the last box of all which contains the word Lose and that is exactly what it means. For you the battle is over - you've just lost the game !
Finally, the Player Actions tells you how many points you can spend in your own section of the turn. 1 point allows you to attempt to eliminate a cube in an adjacent location, 2 points allows you to move one army into an adjacent location and 3 points allows you regain one point of strength for an army. Perhaps, the single most important detail follows: for each Action point that you do not use, you can take an Aircraft marker that you can use in the next turn. You only ever have the use of three aircraft markers and the ability to gain and use one or more will probably be the key to success or failure. Of the three possible uses of an aircraft marker, Interdiction is by far the most important and probably the one you will choose to use most, as it stops all cubes moving from or into a location where it is placed.
When you look at the simplicity of what you are actually doing, how easy it all sounds. What a small distance it is in game turns between those locations. Yet how well nigh impossible it is to achieve those goals. Victory conditions demand that neither of your two units is totally wiped out and that you achieve the goals of all three Order Cards.
You can continue on to complete the game if you fail either of the goals on the first two Order Cards. You don't lose [haha], but neither do you win. A draw? In historical terms, failing Breakout, the third and final Order Card undoubtedly means that all your troops are either dead or prisoners. I'm not quite sure what failing the earlier Order cards means, but achieving the final Order card means - I guess - some survived, but very, very few. In game terms, as far as my experience goes, it means blimey, I can't believe I've been so successful!
Why? Because normally I die and die and die and .... [how did you know?] DIE. This is one tough solitaire game to win. BUT! Is it enjoyable? Is it a good game? Is it a good simulation of the battle of Chosin?
To take the last first. No, I don't think it is a simulation, except in the very broadest terms. Those 20 cubes really don't feel like anything resembling soldiers, but they do keep coming and coming and you desperately want to hold them back and eliminate some of them. Two stand-up markers don't look much like your troops, but you really come to care for them and every hit they take and can you get them out of this trap becomes a life and death matter. But, in simulation terms that's it. Nearly, everything I learned came from reading outside the game.
Is it a good game? That depends on how much control you like to have. Nearly everything is randomly generated and so luck plays a huge part. Which colour of cubes you draw combined with what colour of cubes move is probably the crucial factor in whether you win or lose. Added to that is the luck of the dice when rolling in combat during enemy movement and finally the luck of how many action points you get to work with in your part of the turn.
Is it enjoyable? Yes, yes, yes. Every turn of the card is waited with bated breath - especially which coloured cubes will move this turn - blue, great I'm safe there are no blue cubes near me or they're under one of my Interdiction markers - purple, oh no [I could say something stronger], I've got 3 purple all able to move into my location. Hurray I've fought them all off with very low dice rolls or I'm dying far too quickly, because I'm rolling high.
I'm going to make it - argh, the next card is the End of Orders card and one of my armies is one location from where it needs to be - I've lost again.
But it plays quickly. An hour tops for the whole game easily covers it and often 30-40 minutes is more likely. That's fortunate, because it is one of those games where you lose and immediately want to have just one more go. I just hope you like losing a lot.