Saturday 25 May 2024

Littoral Commander - First Impressions

Littoral Commander is a modern to futuristic (more on this later) era wargame, focused on a potential conflict between US Marine (USMC) and Chinese People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) forces in the Indo-Pacific region (Taiwan, Malaca Straits, South China Seas...) The game is published by The Dietz Foundation a non-for-profit organization in the field of education.

Although in appearance LC may look like a traditional, mainstream hex and counter wargame, this is far from real. To understand what's behind the game, you should first know Sebastian Bae, the lead designer, and read his CV. He is a former US Marine Sergeant with one tour of duty in Iraq. However, most of his professional career (in the Army and outside) was in researching, designing, and teaching educational wargames. He is currently teaching at Georgetown University on wargames design.

Littoral Commander is a byproduct (with a commercial focus) of Fleet Marine Force, a professional training tool designed by Sebastian Bae to train junior Marine officers and NCOs. This explains some quite singular game features and mechanics, unusual for many traditional wargamers.  

Returning to the game, players will lead one or more combined-arms task forces of the USMC and the PLAN. At the beginning of the post, I mentioned the game covers a modern to futuristic era, meaning that to comply with the different mission objectives, players have a wide array of weapons systems and capabilities to choose from, many of which are just based on emerging technologies (like cyberwarfare, drones,  etc) not yet fully implemented in the actual military tactics. 

This enables players not just to think in terms of actual tactics, but also to consider the changes in behavior driven by the introduction of future weapons and capabilities based on these current emerging technologies. Furthermore, you may design and test your own technological scenarios by creating new cards describing the capacities brought on the battlefield.    

The game design combines traditional hex-counter mechanics and cards (called Joint Capability Cards or JCC)  representing "the support of available from higher command and adjacent forces" as described in the rulebook.

Examples of Joint Capability Cards (JCC)

The sequence of play is simple, comprising three phases: action, initiative check, and victory check. However, in the first turn of the game, there are two additional phases called planning and deployment, in which each side:

  • Will formulate the strategy;
  • Will decide the composition of the respective task forces (selecting the JCCs aligned with the strategy decided and the scenario's victory conditions);
  • And will deploy the units on the map. 
Note that many scenarios may also include special planning phases intersected in some specific turns, in which players can acquire additional cards, allowing corrections based on the actual battlefield conditions after a few turns.  

I have played three games so far, but it's clear now that planning and deployment are the two most important phases when playing Littoral Commander. Each side (USMC and PLAN) has over 100 cards available to build their hand, costing between 1 and 5 points each. A typical initial points allocation is 15 points, plus receiving 8 points in subsequent turns (twice per game at most). 

The cards have color codes representing different capabilities:

  • Red for fire enhancements
  • Green to improve the maneuvering capabilities of units
  • Purple relates to interception capabilities
  • Blue focused on information initiatives 
  • Yellow related to Command, Control, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Recon ("C5ISR")

A warning: there are never enough points to cover all possible tactical options with cards; you must decide your strategy and then consider the best combination of cards to achieve your objectives. That takes a lot of time: my suggestion is agreeing on the scenario with your opponent a few days in advance, studying your options at home, and then starting the actual game.   

At the start of a game, the side with the initiative is set by the scenario's special rules. The side with the initiative activates one task force to conduct actions, then passes the action to the enemy side (who will activate one task force in turn), passes to the other player, and so on until all task forces have been activated.

In each activation, players usually have three action points (in some scenarios maybe 4 or 5) to conduct "core actions" with an activated task force: move/combat; move/conceal; move/resupply; or play a JCC.  Some JCCs can be attached to the combat units and will play together with that unit's activation: for example, you can have a drone attached to a unit; in its activation that unit may use the drone to reveal an enemy unit and then move to initiate combat (or make a long-range shot) 

LC's taxonomy of units includes infantry and lightly armored platoons; long-range strike (artillery/missiles) platoons; units with missile interception capabilities; supply/logistic units; and naval units. When attached, the JCCs are useful to enhance some of the intrinsic capabilities of these units (for example, providing additional fire/interception range or special ammo); and to add assets to the unit (armored vehicles, drones, artillery, etc).

Example of unit cards: the black squares represent the number of hits
while the red, purple, blue and green represent the total amount of supply for each type of ammo

Three important aspects of the game are worth commenting: 

  • You can only attack what you see: units are concealed at the start, and you should plan your actions to reveal the units and strike. But you should also be aware that by firing, you also reveal your unit and therefore would be subject to retribution by the opposing player in the subsequent activation. During the planning phase, players will have the option to choose JCCs that enhance the recon capabilities of the task forces (unmanned vehicles, special forces inserted behind the enemy lines, air recon assets, etc)
  • Ammunition supply is limited ... and the temptation to saturate with fire a hex when an enemy unit is revealed is high. This constraint forces players to decide when is the right moment to strike a decisive blow, by expending a substantial portion of the ammo stock. In this game, logistic platoons (and some JCCS) play a key role in resupplying units but are also extremely vulnerable, becoming a primary target to get first identified and then destroyed.  
  • Cyberwarfare is a critical modern battlefield's fourth dimension at the tactical level: jamming and interfering with the enemy's digital networks can significantly degrade its fighting and defensive capabilities, providing a tactical edge to your own forces. This is well covered through a wide array of JCCs, ranging from intel scoops gained in social media to massive, well-organized, and sophisticated cyber-attacks.    

In a nutshell, this is the game. The rules for conducting actions (move, fire, etc) are pretty simple, which does not mean the game is simple. Littoral Commander's beauty lies in the complexity of deciding your task force and its capabilities. Replayability is almost infinite in this sense, as you can try many different ways to overcome the challenges posed by each scenario.

Littoral Commander has a very active community of players on social media and is extremely friendly with newcomers (as I personally have experienced). Sebastian Bae is personally involved in supporting players through Twitter, BGG, and a dedicated Discord-based group of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society.

Map screenshot from Vassal. Hex colors indicate move points and combat modifiers  

Littoral Commander boasts a highly active community of players on social media and is exceptionally welcoming to newcomers, as I have personally experienced. Sebastian Bae is actively involved in supporting players through TwitterBGG, and a dedicated Discord group managed by the Georgetown University Wargaming Society.

Finally, it is worth noting a new game is already in the testing phase, this time set in the freezing waters of the Baltic Sea (Littoral Commander Baltic). This will not be an add-on module but a fully complete game. The release is expected in late 2024 or early 2025. 




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