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Posted on Jun 13, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Chasing Victory In Worthington Games ‘Holdfast: Korea 1950-51. Board Game Review

Chasing Victory In Worthington Games ‘Holdfast: Korea 1950-51. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Holdfast: Korea 1950-51. Publisher: Worthington Games. Designer: Sean Chick. Price $64.99 (Sale price $20.00)

Passed inspection: Map gives an excellent overview of the geography of the Korean Conflict. Block game brings the fog of war and limits intelligence of opposing forces.

Failed basic: Automatic victory conditions for each side are very difficult to achieve.  

“Man, I’m telling you, I got a bad feeling about this drop”

  • Private Frost, Aliens

Private Frost’s words echoed in my head as I prepared to start my fourth game of Holdfast: Korea 1950-51. It was about this point that I felt that the victory conditions in the game were bait designed to lure each player into overextending their forces to set up an inevitable disaster. The question in my mind was – if I know that the victory conditions are bait, should I try a different strategy, instead of biting on that same old hook again?

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In early 2020 I was casting about for some new boardgames to keep me occupied during the pandemic lockdown. Worthington Publishing was still selling games and even better was running a sale on many of their board games. One of the title’s I purchased was Holdfast: Korea 1950-51.

The Holdfast series of games are relatively uncomplicated wargames that combine wooden block units with a hexagonal grid overlaying the theater of operations. In the case of Holdfast: Korea, this was the Korean peninsula from the southern tip of Pusan to the northern border with the People’s Republic of China.

The game is a fairly standard offering from Worthington. A cardboard box shipped in a cardboard sleeve. Both the box and the sleeve are relatively lightweight cardboard. When combined, you get a reasonably rigid package. It’s not as hefty or durable as the boxes you’d get from GMT or Compass Games, but it’s a serviceable box.

Opening the box, we find the following items:

  • Two (2) map sheets
  • Rules booklet
  • Wooden blocks
  • Unit and marker sticker labels
  • Five (5) six-sided dice

The map sheets are a good, small scale representation of the Korean peninsula. Major landform features such as mountains and river are depicted along with the key elements of the built environment – cities, ports, villages and mostly critically – railroads. The graphics are rendered in a colorful, attractive and easy to read format. If there’s one thing people might have an issue with it’s the orientation of the map. As laid out, the map appears ‘sideways’ with west at the top and north at the right side. Personally, I like how it challenges the conventional standard of north being at the top of the page. The change in orientation forces players to engage with the landscape from a new perspective.

The rules are a soft bound, saddle-stitched booklet. Examples and charts are printed in color. It’s a fairly standard rule book for a war game, but the organization could have been better executed as I had to hunt for some items that were not grouped together.

The wooden blocks and unit stickers are the heart of the game. You have to apply the stickers to the blocks before you can play.  The rules give you good direction on how to do this and the stickers include a duplicate set of labels in case one gets torn or lost.  While there were seven extra blue UN blocks in the game, there were no spare red communist blocks included. So, don’t lose any of the red blocks!

Setting up the game is easy. You have some flexibility as the UN player in where you put your most resilient units. The North Koreans have the same flexibility, but since all your units are the same strength, it doesn’t really matter which specific hex a unit starts in (unless you want to replicate a historical set up with the correct unit in the right place).

The game is an IGO/UGO model, in which the communist player goes first, followed by the UN player. In the case of Holdfast: Korea, turns are approximately two weeks long. In each player’s phase, resource points are expended to rebuild units, move units and initiate a battle. During the player’s phase, they have a lot of flexibility regarding the order in which they resolve movement and combat. Since it’s done by individual unit, you can move some units, attack and then exploit with other units, maybe attacking again. 

Within a battle, both players can elect to augment their ground forces. For the North Korea player this means allocating your armor support. The Soviet Union provided the North with a large number of T-34/85 tanks. In 1950, it was still one of the best tanks available and more than a match for what the United Nations initially deployed to Korea.

The North Korean armor is a powerful resource, but it’s a finite resource. Use it wisely, as once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Also, it’s very easy to forget that the NKA has airpower support on turn 1 as there is no status block to remind you.

For the UN player, you’ll be allocating your own air support, plus naval gunfire support along the coast and eventually armor support. It’s a nice method for capturing the massive amount of supporting assets available to the UN player, while still showing the effective limits on that support.

Driving the pace of game play are the victory conditions. To achieve an automatic victory, each side needs to control all the victory cities on the map. The challenge here is that it’s very difficult to capture them all within the context of the game. For example, in order for the North Koreans to achieve that automatic victory, they need control of all the cities – including Pusan. This appears to be by design, as the road leading to Pusan drives the narrative and builds a sense of history into the game. But like the historical example, being able to actually capture Pusan is a very difficult task. The NKA player needs a lot of things to go right and nothing to go wrong. Otherwise, you’ll end up recreating the historical campaign as you watch your army get cut off and disintegrate as it flees back to North Korea.

The UN player faces the same challenge. A serious drive north to capture all the North Korean victory point cities is likely to trigger Chinese intervention and send nine massive field armies surging south across the Yalu river. Again, just like the historical campaign.

If the North Korean player chooses to take the bait and strive for an automatic victory, they need to have a clear plan, stick to the plan and understand that at some point, when the dread friction of war rears it’s head, they may need to abandon that plan or face disaster. Or just commit to the plan knowing that your game will likely be an automatic victory, or a slow and painful loss. 

As the game is designed, the UN player possesses an incredibly powerful tool in the form of naval assault. The game allows the UN player to conduct one amphibious assault each game turn. This is the tool used to recreate the famous ‘Inchon’ landing that turned the tide of the conflict. It also creates an incredibly over-stated effect. As written, conducting an amphibious assault every game turn seems to be a no-brainer. The risk of failure (especially with the US Marines) is extremely low. Using the rules of the game, the Inchon landings seem like a forgone conclusion instead of the daring gamble as it’s so often portrayed. You don’t need to misdirect your opponent, just sail up and give the order ‘away all boats!’. Unless you run into a Chinese field army, you are unlikely to lose. It still makes sense to land at Inchon. The way the map is structured rewards the UN player for landing at Inchon as neighboring Seoul is a key logistics and rail hub. Succeed their and you’ll duplicate MacArthur’s historical success and cut off the North Koreans.

So, Inchon is not going to be a fluke. But the game takes out any agonizing over where to land as there are no additional tactical risks for striking ports that are further and further north along either coastline, except potentially triggering Chinese intervention. The lack of consequences and additional risk seems a bit unrealistic.

Lt. Col. Donald W. Boose Jr. posits in ‘Over the Beach’ (Combat Studies Institute Press, Ft. Leavenworth, 2008) that US amphibious capabilities were fully engaged in the early months of 1951 doing things other than supporting additional full-fledged amphibious landings. A good argument can be made that the UN amphibious capability in the game needs to be limited to being available only in clear weather, to once per turn (which is the current rule) and then not available again until a full game turn as elapsed. That knocks it back to once a month and not during the harsh weather encompassing the winter season. Adding those restrictions would make the amphib rules track better with the historical effects and keep the game grounded in the likely.

It’s hard to believe that the UN had the ability to execute a division-sized opposed landing basically every two weeks, regardless of the weather. Some opinions are that the amphibious assault rules break the game. My perception is that it certainly bends the game. Much of this ‘bendiness’ can be dealt with through house rules that limit conducting a naval assault to game turns with clear weather.

If you want to wage a detailed air war, this is not the game you are looking for. The air war is present in the game only to extent it influences ground operations. It boils down to deciding where to focus your tactical support during the game turn. Sure, after initially being initially caught on the back foot, the US/UN forces brought their airpower to bear and seized control of the skies. The period of time that the game covers represents an era of United Nations aerial supremacy and that is reflected in how there’s no sense of the NKA being able to counter the UN air support. If you want a detailed air war, you won’t find MiG Alley in this game as the MiG’s don’t really appear in force until around April 1950, near the end of the game. While there are optional rules for using UN airpower to go after North Korean logistics, it’s an either/or choice that seems to gloss over the use of B-29’s at the strategic level to hammer North Korea’s infrastructure.

Beyond the air war and amphibious landings, you’ll have to wrap your head around the way that movement and combat work in this game. Derived from the system used in Holdfast: Russia, it’s really a different experience than you’d find in a traditional hex and counter game. Combat inflicts step losses, but there’s no process for a defender to be driven back in retreat or have a unit’s combat effectiveness degraded by losses. Units retain their full combat potential until the last strength point is eliminated. It’s different from other block games, including Worthington’s own Civil War series games like ‘Pemberton versus Grant’. The argument appears to be that a division can absorb a lot of losses, while still retaining it’s core combat power based around it’s artillery and supporting arms. It’s a model of divisional robustness that reminds me of Ty Bomba’s comments on divisional staying power in ‘Putin Strikes’.

 While you are wrapping your head around things, there a key consideration to remember.  While it flies in the face of conventional assumption, the rules states that when moving into a hex you generally only pay the single highest cost for the hex. This is critical as it makes all the different between moving one hex in a zone of control, or potentially two hexes. The rules do state this, but the way the text is laid out it’s easy to overlook. The example of movement clearly shows you pay the highest movement point cost, it’s easy to see how the rule and example could imply rail movement is zero cost. The play aids posted to Board Game Geek do show that rail movement costs a minimum of one point per hex.

While Holdfast: Korea does offer a fast playing game that captures the flavor of the conflict’s first year, there were some things that didn’t taste quite right. First off, the set up does not require a sense of history in terms of unit placement and strength. Historical purists may find this generic approach a little off-putting 

Also, the supply rules are very short and simple. This is generally a good thing as you won’t spend a lot of time sweating the logistics angle of the game.  But the supply rules are almost too generic – you can trace a supply line through three hexes regardless of terrain. Three mountain hexes with rivers on the hex sides or just three clear hexes. Same effect. It must make for some really bitter in-game logistics officers that would be tasked with moving supplies over those mountain supply lines. Since you are tracing to a friendly controlled rail line it’s not going to be a huge deal. The peninsula is not that wide, but those three hexes do constrain your choices at key points in the game. So simple rules, but generally effective results.

Additionally, the replacement rules are simple, generous and maybe too short. I’d like to see a clarification on if a player can place a replacement unit directly into a city or village not occupied by a friendly unit that is in an enemy zone of control. (I ruled that as a ‘no can do’ as the enemy ZOC blocks a supply line from being traced and the city/village has to be able to trace a supply.)  Another thing that felt a little off is the ability to shovel massive amounts of strength points into a gutted unit. This seems overly optimistic. For example, if the US First Cavalry Division has lost three of it’s four strength points, no problem – just spend 3 RP and boom – it’s back to full strength.

The replacement process didn’t feel like it captured the experience of the US 24th and 25th divisions in the July-August time frame. Those units were stretched to the limit on the Pusan perimeter. I didn’t feel like the experience of ‘Task Force Smith’ could be replicated. Maybe it is below the scope of the game, or it’s an artifact of forcing the Korean conflict into the mold of the Holdfast game engine.

I get that this is how replacements are depicted in the Holdfast engine. As the player, your expending your resources to rebuild this unit. Sometimes you need to do this while it’s still on the line. And expending your resources on replacements means that you won’t be using those resources for other tasks. It’s a way of showing the opportunity cost of allocating your resources. But given the limits on naval movement for reinforcements, the ability to add unlimited strength points to units already in theater seems very generous for the UN player.  Granted it cuts both ways as the NKA player benefits from the ability to rebuild his units in the same manner.

The way that the  Republic of Korea Army is depicted in Holdfast: Korea raised some questions. Overall, the game depicts the ROK units as the poor cousin to the US divisions committed to the conflict. It’s well documented that the ROK troops were overwhelmed in the early months of the war, but in the game, they never seem to get better across the nine months. This translates into the feeling that in the initial turns of the game, the ROK seems too effective. Even with two combat dice, on turn one they seem to be punching above their weight class compared to their resistance to the historical invasion. No one doubt’s the fighting spirit of the Korean solider, and unit effectiveness is tough to properly gauge. If you really think it’s off, a house rule could be to halve the ROK combat dice on turn 1 to show the lack of preparedness and training in place at the time. It’s a question of balancing how much damage the NKA might take on turn 1, versus future game turns.

An important feature in board gaming is the suitability of a game for solitaire play. Holdfast: Korea is designed as a two-player game. The game does not include rules for automating one side – commonly referred to as a ‘bot’.  Given that restriction it is possible to play this as a solitaire game with that one person playing both sides.

I’d like to think that the blocks still add a degree of the ‘fog of war’ to the game, so when swapping from seat to seat you may forget the details of each side’s specific deployments. But with the relatively few blocks on each side, it’s unlike to cause any operational surprises.  The experience can still provide a compelling game, but the primary unpredictable events that you will experience will be the outcome inherent in any single battle.

At this point, you might be thinking I’m not a fan of the game. That’s totally not the perception with which I want to leave you. At the end of the day, I’m left with a generally positive view of the game. Granted that view is tempered with the call outs you just read. But on the plus side, Holdfast: Korea provides a solid, high-level overview of the first year of the Korean War. The game captures the back and forth nature of the campaign and represents the key events including the initial invasion, the Inchon landing and Chinese intervention. Check, check and check. It’s also a relatively quick playing game, allowing you to get through a game in a single afternoon or evening.

The supply rules created a logistics system that helps shape the offensive/defensive strategies for both side in a way that felt organic to the conflict and not imposed by the fiat of special rules. At the same time, you won’t have to spend a lot of time on the logistics aspects of the game. That’s a good thing!

The victory conditions are designed to generate historical play, but without constraining players into replicating their historical counterparts’ behavior. If you want to ‘take the bait’ and go for a decisive knockout blow, you can do so. But, for example, if the North Korean player wants to assume a less aggressive stance and plan for a long game, there are no adverse repercussions, other than allowing the UN player more breathing room. So a big plus right there for allowing players to explore alternative strategies.

From the perspective of a return on the investment, the current sale price of the game makes this an attractive option. If I had purchased the game at its full retail price, I would be feeling like I had paid for a strip steak dinner and gotten meatloaf instead. Don’t get me wrong, I like meatloaf, but for $65.00. I would have expected a more immersive and detailed experience from my game. But for the $20.00 spent on it, I felt like Holdfast: Korea delivered a solid bang for the buck.

Armchair General Score: 87 %

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Holdfast Korea game box
Chinese Intervention comes early
Its better to be lucky than good
The view from the south
Holdfast Korea inner box

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