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Chinese Farm is a wargame about the 1973 battle fought near the Suez Canal between Egyptian and Israeli forces during the October War, a conflict also known as the Yom Kippur War. It was published in 1975 as part of the Modern Battles: Four Contemporary Conflicts package in the popular SPI QuadriGames series. These small "quads" were originally produced as a series of games which shared a common basic system. Each individual game within the package had its own separate booklet which contained special rules for that battle or campaign.

This flexible system allowed a player to move quickly between the other games in that series. In the QuadriGames playability took precedence over realism when simulating a conflict. These small games helped introduce many players to the hobby. They could also offer an entertaining play experience for Grognards taking a break from more complex games. A few of the “quads” achieved near-perfection because they were fun to play while also creating reasonably accurate military simulations.





This review will focus on the challenges faced by a wargame designer (in this example, the talented Howard Barasch) attempting to create a simulation of a contemporary battle or campaign almost immediately after the firing has stopped. The pattern of “contemporary conflict/rapid analysis/hastily published game” is a sequence of events that goes back to the early years of the hobby. In some cases a game would be published while the outcome of a conflict was still in doubt; the SPI classic Year of the Rat: Vietnam, 1972 depicted the Communist Easter Offensive in Vietnam and was featured in S&T magazine later that year! In fact, another game about the October War called Bar-Lev: The Yom-Kippur War of 1973 was rushed into production in 1974, the year before Chinese Farm and its companion game Golan appeared.

The entire game will be analyzed and evaluated, but three main elements of the design will be examined in depth:

-- Airpower
-- Combined Arms Doctrine
-- Historical Objectives & Victory Conditions

Since this is a vintage game I’ll offer younger Geeks a quick summary of the movement and combat rules. Units must stop when they enter an enemy zone of control (the six hexes adjacent to a unit) and units may not voluntarily leave an enemy ZOC. All adjacent formations must be attacked during a player’s turn but a talented commander will position his artillery formations (which can fire from several hexes away in Chinese Farm) to bombard adjacent units he doesn’t want to assault with infantry or tanks. The proper sequencing of attacks and retreats provides a delicate web of decisions. Great stuff.

Chinese Farm was no exception. It is a fun little design that offers a mildly entertaining play experience and it could be used as an introductory game for new players.





The map depicts the area along the Suez Canal from Ismailia to the southern end of the Great Bitter Lake at a scale of approximately one mile per hex. Each turn represents one day. As might be expected from a battlefield located in the Sinai, most of the landscape is desert or rough terrain. However, the mix of grove and town hexes along the canal gives the map a relatively pleasant appearance. Without knowing what sources were available to SPI in 1975 it is difficult for me to pass final judgment on the accuracy of the terrain features. The board doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to military maps I’ve seen, but every wargame about the 1973 campaign seems to interpret the battlefield differently.

The map measures 17” x 22” but it is, in my opinion, either a little too small or not configured properly for its size. One of the major Israeli objectives is a city located off the southern edge of the board. The rules require the Israeli player to exit units from that end of the board (often an indicator of a sadly truncated map) to score victory points. The western edge of the map is structured in a similar fashion, with the Israeli commander once again required to shuffle units off the playing surface. The northern edge of the board offers a secure flank for the Egyptian player with little regard for historical accuracy. In the hypothetical third scenario that offers the Egyptian commander more flexibility that player can even exit units from the map in this area! The Israeli flank is also impregnable, but the claustrophobic position reminds me of a punt kicked into the “coffin corner” in American football… the Israelis certainly have the pigskin, but there is very little running room.





I always liked the counters for this game. Redmond Simonsen was at his crisp, clean best. The units are mostly battalions, regiments, or brigades. Formations include tanks, mechanized units, infantry, towed artillery, self-propelled artillery, and rocket artillery. There are SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) launchers available to the Egyptian player in the more advanced scenarios with mobile units and fixed sites.

The extensive Designer’s Notes (always interesting reading) discuss the order of battle for both armies. Compiling accurate information about a contemporary conflict is often a challenge, particularly when the belligerents are attempting to protect classified information and “spin” the available information for propaganda purposes. I remember reading about some research SPI was doing on modern warfare. Information on Soviet armament was available from the US government but hard data on American equipment was frequently shrouded in mystery. An enterprising SPI staff member visited a shop that specialized in foreign books and found a volume from the USSR that included extensive information about US weapons!

In the digital age order of battle information on contemporary wars can be just a few clicks away, but even in 2012 new research is being conducted on the 1973 conflict… as the recent article on the subject by Frank Chadwick in Modern War magazine clearly demonstrates. Once again, I’m reluctant to criticize the designer’s OOB information from the 1970s and the errors that occurred. This is particularly true since the notes accompanying the game state that assumptions were made about both armies, particularly the Egyptian forces.

This might be a good time to mention the potentially sensitive subject of contemporary source material for the 1973 conflict. Israel had a strong cultural connection to the United States. Israeli sources were often available in English. With the Cold War in danger of turning hot Egypt had been supplied with sophisticated arms and military advisors from the Soviet Union. The oil embargo had been a painful economic blow to the American public; in the mid-1970s the Arabs had few friends in the United States. For these reasons (and other factors) coverage of the conflict tended to emphasize the Israeli perspective. Some of this is reflected in the game and we’ll discuss that later in the review.

Here is a passage from The Lessons of Modern War by Cordesman and Wagner:

The reporting on recent wars may be far more detailed than the reporting on past conflicts, but this reporting is filled with subjective judgments. This is true even when reports appear to be based on direct observation before or after the conflict. Far too often such reports do not hold up under careful examination. In other cases, key data are missing or cannot be verified. This is particularly true when the impressions of one side dominate reporting on the conflict or when some dramatic “lesson” captures public attention early in the conflict and shapes all following reports and analyses.

Pity the underpaid wargame designer laboring to satisfy the demands of persnickety Grognards while finishing his prototype before the publication deadline!





There are three scenarios included in the Chinese Farm rules folder. Scenario I might be called the basic game and it depicts the battle without Israeli airpower or Egyptian missile defenses. Scenario II is a longer, more sustained struggle which includes Israeli jets flying ground support missions and Egyptian SAM sites. Both of these scenarios feature a sweeping maneuver by Israeli forces as they attempt to seize a canal crossing and push to the edges of the board. While the Egyptian player is on the strategic defensive there will be an opportunity to launch numerous small counterattacks, especially after the Israelis advance beyond the canal and are met by a swarm of Egyptian reinforcements. Scenario III is a hypothetical battle and assumes the Egyptians conducted a more flexible defense. However, it will be demonstrated during the discussion of victory conditions that this scenario has little historical justification.

Like many titles published during the frantic SPI production cycle Chinese Farm seems to be slightly unfinished. There are no helpful counters available to represent Israeli ground support points. There are no markers for SAM sites disrupted by Israeli jets conducting suppression missions. Although the game has a complicated reinforcement schedule, there is no Turn Record Chart or any other method of recording the length of the game. A simple marker to indicate which Combat Results Table is available would also be useful. We’ll examine both of the CRTs used in Chinese Farm in the section covering Combined Arms Doctrine, so let’s get started on those three main topics I want to discuss.


Airpower

Israeli pilots had earned a reputation for superiority in air-to-air combat that was well deserved. Israeli aircraft had played a decisive role in the stunning victory during the Six-Day War in 1967. This performance had cemented modern airpower into position as one of the two main pillars of the Israeli Defense Force, along with the tank formations.

This is reflected in the advanced Scenario II rules covering Israeli ground support points. Jets can function -- as planned under accepted Israeli doctrine -- like flying artillery to support Israeli attacks and help Israeli formations under assault by Egyptian units. Ground support points can also be used to fly SAM suppression missions in an attempt to neutralize Egyptian missile launchers which can inflict a heavy toll on Israeli aircraft. The number of ground support points gradually increases during the scenario as aircraft are shifted from the Golan front to the Sinai. Up to eighteen ground support points are available in the last phase of the game; since they can be used both offensively and defensively 36 is the actual total per turn.

Much of this Israeli ground support capability appears to be exaggerated. Air force officers paid lip service to the concept but planned to conduct interdiction missions instead. Close air support was actually the last priority. Israel suffered from a lack of forward air controllers to direct airstrikes and a central command and control center had to be hastily improvised. Israeli pilots often flew “dry runs” over a target to insure that no friendly forces would be hit. Mobile enemy targets would frequently be gone by the time Israeli jets had been vectored for an attack.

In my opinion, the huge piles of Israeli airstrike markers that a savvy player will create to speed play are not an accurate representation of the heroic but often fruitless efforts of the Israeli pilots. How much of this information was available in 1973? It seems likely that Israel would put a positive spin on the performance of these pilots… the Egyptians certainly pumped up the fighting ability of their special forces and other units.

Egyptian missile sites played a crucial role in the conflict. While the Israeli pilots gradually learned to avoid approaching SAMs the required descent to lower altitudes exposed the jets to deadly antiaircraft fire. The scoring method used by the designer to simulate the inevitable loss of Israeli aircraft by awarding the Egyptian player victory points is quite good.

However, the fiddly method used to allocate SAM points has a negative effect on the play experience. The awkward hex counting (at ranges of up to 25 spaces) and counter flipping (launches must be recorded in some fashion) plus the seemingly random die rolls on the table were a turn-off for me. I understand what the designer was trying to do because the SAM rules not only reflect the historical situation but they also give the Egyptian player something to keep him busy. This is an old wargame design trick… when one commander has a largely passive role at one stage of the game assign that player a small task to perform. I approve of the concept, but the system is just not fun.


Combined Arms Doctrine

Both armies discussed combined arms doctrine before the war but neither side was prepared for effective combined arms operations. Some of this is reflected in the game with a few simple but effective rules.

Israel built its military machine around airpower and armored formations. There was a shortage of artillery. While the parachute formations were superb, regular Israeli infantry formations were not given adequate training in combined arms maneuvers. The army was also in the process of switching from WWII-era halftracks to modern M113 armored personnel carriers.

In the Egyptian military tanks, infantry, and artillery seldom trained together. Like their Soviet mentors, the Egyptians emphasized heavily choreographed attack plans but had limited tactical flexibility. This system was adequate for set-piece assaults like the hugely successful Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal at the beginning of the war. During fluid operations like the Egyptian thrust at the Sinai passes or the response to the Israeli breakthrough this rigid command structure was a severe handicap. Egyptian artillery used massed barrage fire and had little ability to rapidly shift targets.

As I mentioned, a few simple rules give the players a flavor of the historical situation. Egyptian artillery operates under targeting restrictions. Only Israeli infantry units can cross the canal without a bridge… although even that rule appears to be too generous with 20/20 hindsight into the difficulties Israel had during the initial crossing near Deversoir. Restrictions are placed on Egypt’s ability to conduct a sustained offensive. The Israelis are indeed short of artillery. Egyptian reserves are slow to be released. All good stuff.

However, there is no combined arms “chrome” to add texture to the play experience. Chinese Farm uses two combat results tables. The more fluid “mobile” CRT features retreats with few losses. The “active” CRT includes a number of bloody exchange results and more eliminated units. It would be a simple matter to give the player a choice of CRTs (more decisions to make is always a plus) if the attacking force includes infantry, armor, and artillery.

There are interesting tactical wrinkles for both players. A single Israeli airpower marker can be used to prevent Egyptian artillery units from conducting FPF (Final Protective Fire) missions which aid defending Egyptian forces without massing aircraft points in a risky SAM-magnet close air support effort. Egyptian artillery units can remain on the east bank of the canal (where they score victory points) and blast away at Israeli formations which have already crossed. BTW, if it could be left up to me I would say that Egyptian artillery units can’t move and fire in the same turn; this would be a better reflection of their capabilities. The Israeli jeep reconnaissance unit is the perfect formation to send on a rampage behind Egyptian lines to overrun SAM launching sites. Fun, fun, fun.


Historical Objectives & Victory Conditions

The victory conditions for the Egyptian player are a mix of accurate analysis and misguided conclusions. Sadat planned to cross the Suez Canal, seize a slice of territory, park under his newly developed missile umbrella, and inflict heavy losses on the enemy during the inevitable Israeli counterattack. With the exception of the hasty push forward to the passes in a failed attempt to divert Israeli resources from Syria, he stuck to that strategy. The rules for the historical Chinese Farm scenarios reflect Sadat’s desire to maintain formations on the east side of the Suez Canal and inflict losses on the Israelis. Excellent. However, Sadat stubbornly resisted all requests from his generals to shift major forces back to the west side of the canal even after the Israeli breakthrough. I think the rules should reflect this more strongly than the simple restriction on crossing the Ismailia bridge until a few turns have elapsed.

(Speaking of bridges… where are all of the temporary canal bridges built by the Egyptians? Or did the designer “factor those out” to reflect Sadat’s no withdrawal strategy? Interesting!)

Israeli commanders were obsessed with what one scholar brilliantly described as “the albatross of decisive victory” because the 1967 war had given them a false impression of the Egyptian soldier. In the first days of the Yom Kippur War the Israelis expected their armor to crush the Egyptians and were shocked to find tough infantrymen armed with modern antitank weapons standing firm on the defensive. Always reluctant to incur heavy casualties, the Israeli generals conducted a bold offensive designed to substitute speed and tactical flexibility for a frontal assault. The victory conditions do a fine job of reflecting this, or at least as far as the game’s format will allow. As I mentioned earlier, the small map prevents both players from truly experience the sweeping maneuvers on the opposite bank of the canal after the Israelis forced a crossing. Exiting the map and keeping score with some abstract VP tally just isn’t the same thing.

In this area the designer has little or no wiggle room. Sadat’s overtures after the UN cease fire clearly indicated what his victory conditions had been, and the much-publicized verbal skirmishes between the Israeli commanders clearly revealed their thoughts. I’d probably grade this section of the rules a C+ as Professor Belli.

Frankly, I didn’t think Scenario III and its hypothetical Egyptian shift north, south, east, and west deserved any attention. Please excuse me for being selfish. I think Anwar Sadat would approve of my decision, if he were here today.





Wargames depicting contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, and other crisis locations are currently on the market or in the final stages of production. Craftsmen working in the 21st century have resources at their fingertips that Howard Barasch and other designers toiling in the 1970s could only dream about. From what I’ve seen, today’s games offer more detail but still contain a large dose of subjective analysis… and sometimes a lack of analysis.

These topics can be controversial, as the recent BGG firestorm about a prototype which portrays the recent fighting in Gaza demonstrates. I don’t remember any emotional turmoil when Chinese Farm or other games about the Arab-Israeli wars hit the marketplace. It was a simpler time with fewer people relentlessly pushing an agenda. Additional games about the October War have been published since this title appeared in 1975, but SPI’s early version will have a sentimental place in my personal wargame saga.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy article.
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As always, excellent.

I dug out my quads this weekend (thinking of trading out Blue and Gray I and II) and fiddled around with the Crusader game.

Not only can you jump inside Quads with great ease, but all the WW2 and later quads use almost exactly the same rules.

The typical adds are the Assault CRT along with the standard retreat/mobile one, and the introduction of infiltration for mech units (Modern Battles IIRC) or Japanese troops in the Island War Quad.

----------------

Looking at these old games, one thing that you do not see is a mech phase - in the North Africa Quad you would thingk you would need it.

But then you do the CRT and find you sort of do have a mech phase; it just is not coordinated - a 4 hex adavance in the clear is like spending 8 MPs and you ignore ZOCs doing it.

You do advance movement on a per incident basis, so it is not a coordinated Mech Phase - one can justify this "uncoordinated mech phase" as more 'realistic'.

The SPI Quad games have great artillery rules - why DG messed that up with a support points mechanism in the re-released folios is beyond me.

=====================

slight diversion on the new DG Quads (I have a review comparison in the works between SPI Arnhem and DG Arnhem)

Imagine this - you take all the artillery points from all the units you get in a quad and turn it into support points without units - you basically take an artillery unit, turn into a matching chit of X strength points, remove it from the map and then have the ability to support any combat at any point on the map from a cup of chits you randomly draw from. There are no limits on placement, so artillery has basically become capable of either infinite range or unlimited MPs.

They also add a mech movement phase; it is basically the Island War Quad infiltration rules rewritten in the worst possible way.

and the list goes on....

Best I can say about the new DG Arnhem game is the map - it was removed and placed in my quad box.

============================
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Kim Meints
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Chinese Farm like all the Mod Quad I games have a special place in my heart still after all these years.

Great write up as always Pete!
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Nice write up, Pete. Thank you.
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Brian Train
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Excellent write-up Pete, thank you.

Bill, I agree with your comments on the Quads and it's obvious that DG is trying to bring that kind of quick-to-get-into fun back to the table with the Folio games (though at almost 20 bucks each - on the other hand in 1975 SPI sold the original MB Quad for $12 and you could buy separate titles for $4 each, so that means about 4.7% inflation compounded annually to reach that quintuple price point by now, I guess that's reasonable?).

I'm guessing the reason why DG went for the Support markers was to address a couple of game processes in the original designs: as games went on, the front line combat units would be chewed up, leaving only artillery units on one or both sides to finish off the fight. There was also the fiddliness of maneuvering and positioning artillery units so as to be able to cover the most ground, or stack them up to give a huge amount of support to an offensive - anyway, I thought that DG probably thought that with the markers, this would all come out in the wash and they could dispense with a level of detail they thought players wouldn't want anyway. Oh, and let's randomize the amount of firepower you might actually get - another wrinkle.

Agree with your comment about the needless mech movement phase; that's going back a step too far, to when almost every game SPI designed was another variation on the Kursk: Operation Zitadelle, 4 July 1943 or The Game of France, 1940: German Blitzkrieg in the West system.

Brian
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Pete Belli
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Thanks to everybody for the positive comments.

Wilhammer wrote:
...one thing that you do not see is a mech phase - in the North Africa Quad you would thingk you would need it.

But then you do the CRT and find you sort of do have a mech phase; it just is not coordinated - a 4 hex adavance in the clear is like spending 8 MPs and you ignore ZOCs doing it.

You do advance movement on a per incident basis, so it is not a coordinated Mech Phase - one can justify this "uncoordinated mech phase" as more 'realistic'.


Good points. I agree with your analysis, but I do have one gripe. When a unit suffers the rare "DE" result the attacker only advances one hex. A breakthrough is probably likely in that situation, so why can't the attacker exploit it? I seem to remember some official SPI rule change that allowed a lengthy advance, but I can't find it now.

Quote:
The SPI Quad games have great artillery rules...


So true. The tension of assigning those FPF missions and the skillful use of counterbattery fire enhanced the play experience.
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Quote:
When a unit suffers the rare "DE" result the attacker only advances one hex. A breakthrough is probably likely in that situation, so why can't the attacker exploit it? I seem to remember some official SPI rule change that allowed a lengthy advance, but I can't find it now.


The rare DE could be those situations where the plucky defender held out to the bitter end; the actions of the 110th dealing with 2nd Panzer comes to mind (Bloody 110) as one of many examples.

Often something designers write rules for today can be found hidden in these old games as CRT results.

Even some contemporary games have this - Bitter Woods (fourth edition).

What is missing perhaps is the wipe out early and then advance - the overrun does not exist in the Quads.

======================

So, I have all those rules in front of me, and here is another subtle difference:

Westwall Quad - if the retreat cannot be completed, the retreat path ends. Advances can only follow the retreat path.

North Africa - You can leave the Retreat Path and advance as far as the stated result even if the unit could not retreat that far.

Simple things like that change the games just enough to model two different theaters.

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Brian Train
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We like what you do Pete; you should be stroked for it.

Unfortunately I cannot recall any such rule change, but considering how hard it was to score a DE, there should be some kind of breakthrough result. I liked the two-CRTs idea that popped up in the Modern Battles II: Four Contemporary Conflicts quad, one more bloody than the other.

Artillery rules: A DG apologist would say that there is potentially just as much tension in their Support Marker system, without having to move or position all those artillery units (and also getting rid of Air Point systems and rules). But the rule of using the lower-valued markers first (8.1, which personally I ignore) and the limit of two per side per battle (which I do follow, since I thought it silly in the original Quad games to have potentially a motor rifle battalion with an attack factor of 1 backed up by 30 or 40 points of Barrage artillery) cut into that somewhat.

(I can't recall right now if any of the modern Folio games besides Showdown: The Coming Indo-Pakistani War have rules for nuclear weapons - think this is the only one that does, and it's an everybody's-dead mechanic instead of the more nuanced treatment in e.g. Bundeswehr). )

Brian
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Pete Belli
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As I mentioned in the review, the designer of Chinese Farm did a fine job of using the existing Quadrigame artillery rules to recreate the campaign. The shortage of Israeli artillery, the Egyptian targeting restrictions, and the ability of Israeli jets to interfere with FPF missions provide a quick and dirty solution. I still think a restriction on scoot-and-shoot moves for the Egyptians would be a good optional rule.

People who scoffed at the SPI quads might not have examined the method behind the simplicity.
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Ian Raine
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pete belli wrote:


People who scoffed at the SPI quads might not have examined the method behind the simplicity.


thumbsup

Thanks for a nice review Pete.
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