Dr. Arrigo Velicogna, 27 February 2022
Dusty middle east city… check.
Published by Tiny Battles in 2020 Aden is Greg Porter’s (of Armageddon War fame) take on contemporary urban combat, inspired by, but not closely following, the events in war torn Yemen. Recently I finally got hold of its print-&-play version (thanks Mark!) and started to dabble with it. The first conclusion is… why I took so much time?
Anyway, let’s start from the beginning. Aden comes either in a ziplock or in zip file with one 11×17 map, two sheets of one inch counters and rules. The map is modelled on Aden with some licenses taken. It is workmanlike and certainly not awe inspiring. Is not a work of art, but it grows on you. It is basically a satellite image of Aden, with the hex grid superimposed. Terrain is identified based on shading or color coding of the hex borders. I am sure Shayne Logan would have done better, but David Prieto Gomez’s work is not too bad either. The counters are indeed definitely nice.
click images to enlarge
One thing that I have found during play is that the hexes become quickly crowded. I am considering printing a larger version of the map (joy of the electronic version). The counters remind me of Armageddon War (Doh!) but also of the old edition of World at War (before the new overproduced and underdeveloped monstrosity) but they are less crowded than the latter. Writing about counters, they are usually companies of tanks, APCs and footmen, with smaller support platoons with technical, ATGM, and mortars.
There are three sides in the game: the Government (modelled on the followers of ‘president’ Hadi), the Rebels, who can be see both as Houtis and the new Southern Transitional Council, and the Government allies with Saudi equipment… yet as Greg Porter said, the game is not an accurate depiction of the conflict, but rather inspired from it. It is more a simulation of ‘generic’ mid-intensity urban combat at grand tactical scale. In this it succeeds well. It also reflects our general lack of sources on the topic. For now military historians and commentators have refrained from diving into the Yemeni Civil War. British efforts back in the 1960s have received good coverage, like in Johnathan Walker’s “Aden Insurgency” and Nick Van der Bijil’s “British Military Operations in Aden and Radfan”, the former is an interesting reading and gives some background on the historical origins of the current situation. Yet the current conflict has been covered just by a single article in Modern War Magazine (issue 26). This no doubt due to dearth of reliable information available.
It is also worth noting that at this scale urban combat is not often tackled by game designers. We have plenty of squad-level and battalion level-games dealing with it, but few at company or even platoon level. And what we have, as Streets of Stalingrad, focus more on the 1939-45 period. Of course Stalingrad is probably the first thing in your mind when urban combat is discussed. The two closest game in term of unit scale are Into a Bear’s Trap, about the Battle of Grozny (Against the Odds Vol 3 #2), but there we have platoons, and John Anderson’s Battle For Fallujah. If you have never heard of the latter… well it was one of the games developed by Professor Sabin’s students1 in King’s College London. Despite the rather ill-considered decision of my former employers to take down all the material related to the Conflict Simulation module (and all the students’ games) this specific game is still available on BGG. Even Flying Pig Games/Tiny Battle Publishing other contemporary urban battles (Hue and Ramadi) are at a different scale. Not surprisingly the closest game to Aden is indeed Armageddon War despite the shift from platoons to companies. But let’s see the game into a little more detail.
The strength and weaknesses of different type of equipment and troops are well-rendered. You will soon be wary of sending unsupported tanks in dense urban terrain, be careful about maneuvering your militia in the open, and appreciate the value of APC and IFV. You also will learn how to use technicals the hard way… this means you will often lose it, but then you will discover their role. Also, you must deal with a very strict stacking approach, stacking is enforced at all times! Traffic jams are thus quite common. Also command and control, or, rather, the absence of it. Even in the scenarios where the Saudis (the ‘allies’) are involved, C3I is rudimentary. You can activate a single unit or stack, and only the scarce command units increase your options.
Even more intriguing is combat. Here Aden borrows heavily from its older brother, Armageddon War. It is not that combat is innovative or anything special, but the way it is implemented is. Basically, Greg Porter started from the pointy observation that in modern combat, once shooting starts the opponent will often simply pull back and disappear into cover. Once you fire your opponent has always the option to retreat and absorb losses by it… as long he can pull back in cover or get out of your range/line of sight. As for losses themselves they are handled in a quite effective way. The system models both temporary degradation of unit effectiveness and more permanent one. The former represents not just casualties and fear, but also the dwindling of ammunition. Each time an unit moves or fires it lose one level. These levels are called depleted and exhausted. They not only reduce the unit capabilities, but exhausted units cannot retreat, thus eliminating its ability to pull back from harm’s way. The same reduction in unit efficiency can be the result of enemy fire. An exhausted unit suffering losses loses a step (if two steps) or is destroyed. This model the latter form of degradation. Depletion and exhaustion can be recovered, step losses no, except for scenario special rules.
This means that unit can be rendered temporary ineffective very quickly even by their own actions. If they are under sustained enemy fire the degradation is even faster. Pushing your men and tanks too much is not really good idea. Conversely the way you suffer casualties depend a lot on the way you use your troops. If you want to hold ground under enemy fire, your unit will expend ammunition and expose themselves, reducing your effectiveness. If you prefer to save your troops, you have the simple option to fall back. This is not a new idea; it is the usual loss point translating in casualties or retreat based on the defender’s decision. Yet here is not as arbitrarily implemented as in other games (my worst candidate: Bautzen 1945 published by Vae Victis), because you need to have proper terrain to fall back. Simply running away in the open is not going to work, especially if the firer has long range weapons and good optics. This interaction aptly simulates strength and weaknesses of both units and terrain.
As a grand tactical game its approach to combat effects is quite unusual. While the dictum of modern combat ‘if you are seen you are killed’ holds true in the open, the peculiar terrain of the game makes it tempered by ‘if you fire at me I duck back’. This is something rarely seen in tactical or grand tactical games where usually firepower effectiveness is much more direct. Typical examples at this scale are both MMP Grand Tactical Series, and Compass CSS series (for both WW2 and the Cold War). In these systems there is no escape from enemy fire. Firepower either degrade or kill. In Aden, firepower does the same, but the target can always decide to literally duck back. This is indeed a reflection of the self-preservation instinct of the combatants, or the peculiar terrain involved (or both) and I am not so sure that it could be applied more generally, but here it works and makes the game produce reasonable results.
Incidentally few games attempt to model together unit exhaustion/depletion and losses. Fire and Maneuver by Phil Sabin does, but in an awkward, abstract, and clunky way. Greg Porter should be commended for the way he had integrated so many different factors in few mechanics without losing flavor and common sense.
Another element that makes Aden stand out from other games on urban battles is the (abysmal) quality of the troops involved on both sides. Even the Saudis with their fancy Abrams tanks are basically rubbish in this game. No one can really qualify as professional here. Coordination between troops is often a chimera. You must use your precious few command units to achieve it. Coupled with the fast, if temporary, deterioration of your troops conspires to make almost everything in the game a dicey affair. Even your powerful T-62 column can be rendered ineffective quite quickly. Forgot about lighting moves and coup de mains, of course you can do them, but more by luck than intention!
The scenarios are well-designed and cover a wide variety of situations all following the narrative of a missed coup and the consequential government reaction. More to the point, they allow the players to explore a variety of situations pertinent to urban combat, from seizing key points of a city in a show of force, to cordoning off the opponent, to escaping cordons… they are well balanced and offer competitive challenges to both sides. In Aden even having M1A2 Abrams is not a recipe for a sure victory.
Aden is a good simulation of its subject despite the stated intention of making it more general than a direct simulation of the Yemeni Civil Wars. It excels in showing the peculiarities of today urban combat at a rarely used scale.
Well Done Greg!
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