I have not played many games set in the Korean War but I recently saw a great looking game by Paul Rohrbaugh called Victory in Hell: The First Battle of the Naktong River, August 5-19, 1950 from High Flying Dice Games and decided to get the inside details of the design. So, I reached out to Paul and he was more than willing to share.

“There will be no more retreating, withdrawal, readjustment of line or whatever you call it. There are no lines behind which we can retreat. This is not going to be a Dunkirk or Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would result in one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight to the end. We must fight as a team. If some of us die, we will die fighting together.  US General Walton Bulldog Walker, July 31, 1950.

Grant: What historical event does Victory in Hell cover and why did you want to design a game around it?

Paul: The game is on the first battle of the Naktong River, August 5-19, 1950. This battle was probably the closest the North Koreans came to breaking the “Pusan Perimeter” and conquering all of Korea. My only uncle on my father’s side, Howard Rohrbaugh, served in the Korean War and it was through him I first learned about the war. Games are my preferred way of teaching and inspiring others about history, and I hope this one continues with that personal tradition.

Grant: What does the name imply about the battle and how does it represent the outcome?

Paul: This was very much a hellish battle for all involved. The North Koreans had suffered tremendous losses in their all-out offensive that started the war, and they were under great pressure to launch this “final” offensive to win the war. The US forces were also badly weakened with many of their ranks being filled by South Koreans hurriedly rushed to the front and/or intermingled with the US units to hold the line. As General Walton “Bulldog” Walker explained on July 31st, there was no more room to retreat and all of his forces were to hold the line here or die together trying.

Grant: What was the historical result of the battle?

Paul: Historically the North Koreans were held back and the US/ROK forces were able to counter-attack and clear the North Koreans from the east bank of the Naktong River.

Grant: What elements from the battle and from the Korean War did you feel were important to model? How did you do that in the design?

Paul: The game had to include the initial North Korean attack, and US/ROK counter-offensive to allow both players the opportunities of attacking and defending. I choose to use the card draw design as it is easy to teach/learn, captures well the chaos of battle without a lot of scripted rules, and is very interactive but fun to play solitaire as well as with an opponent. I settled on the game’s scale to keep the game’s “footprint” small and playing time to around 2 hours. I’m finding that many gamers increasingly don’t want to play lengthy, complicated games, and like ones they can play either solo or with an opponent in a time period that does not consume an entire day, afternoon or evening.

Grant: What is the scale of the game?

Paul: Regiments/Brigades for infantry units, Companies for armor, third of a mile across for a map hex and a turn represents a day’s time.

Grant: What units comprise each side? Where did you find the OOB?

Paul: There are several online sites that describe the battle, but the two print sources I used and listed in the game’s bibliography were most useful. The US has units from the US 2nd, 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, 2nd Armored Battalion, and the Marine’s 2nd Provisional Brigade.The North Koreans are from their 4th Infantry Division supported by the 2nd Battalion of the 105th Tank Regiment.

Grant: What were a few resources you consulted on the design?

The Korean War Max HastingsPaul: Here are the sources used as listed in the game’s bibliography.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. New York: Touchstone Books, 1987.
Zaloga, Steven J. T-34-85 vs. M26 Pershing. London:Osprey Publications, 2010.

Grant: How does activation work? Why do you feel the cards are a good tool for this key part of the design?

Paul: Players use a card deck, removing all of the “face” (Jack, Queen and King) cards. The red cards (diamonds and hearts) are used by the Communist/NK player while the black cards (clubs and spades) are used by the US/ROK player. Each player also has a Joker card in their deck. Like the child’s game of “War” players draw a card from their decks and the player with the highest numbered card wins the activation and can perform three (odd numbered winning card) or two (if even) actions. Actions range from allowing an activated unit to a) move, b) attack, c) entrench, d) rally or calling in artillery strikes (air strikes as well for the US/ROK player). In the case of tie card draws the player that did not activate in the previous activation cycle wins. When the first Joker card is drawn a random event check is triggered. When the second Joker is drawn the turn immediately ends.

Grant: Can we get a look at the map? Who is the artist and what challenges does the terrain represent for both the communist and Allied player?

Paul: Tim Allen is the graphic artist for the game and I think he did a splendid job. The map artwork has to portray 3 levels of terrain, as well as portraying the battlefield in an easy to understand/use and attractive manner. Again, I could not be more pleased.

Grant: Is there anything special about the initial setup of the game?

Paul: I think many US/ROK players will gasp when they see their back is literally up against the wall as all units set up in very close proximity to the east map edge, and the line is very thin to prevent the NK from exiting from that map edge for victory points and imposing US/ROK morale loss penalties.

Grant: What is the main differences between artillery support combat and air support combat?

Paul: Substantively they are resolved the same manner as assault combats by ground units, by expending an activation to call these in, up to the number available as determined by a DR check made at the start of each turn. However, targeted units cannot retreat from artillery and air strikes, so they have to take step losses if already pinned. These can be rather powerful, but as they are limited, have to be used wisely. The NK player only gets air support via Random Event, so those are rare and not to be counted upon.

Victory in Hell Counters

Grant: What does this distinction represent from the history?

Paul: Artillery and air support were quite powerful, but neither side had a lot of these weapons and ammunition stores available here (and of course the NK aircraft were being destroyed in the air and ground at an alarming rate by this point in the war).

Grant: How does combat work?

Paul: Players roll a six sided die, modify it for terrain, target unit status (normal or pinned) and the attacking unit’s attack factor. If the modified DR result is less than or equal to the target unit’s defense factor the attack was ineffective. If the DR is greater the target unit is pinned. If the target unit is already pinned it must retreat or is reduced (eliminated if it cannot retreat or already reduced).

Grant: What happens during an Entrench Activation? What advantages and limitations does this action have?

Paul: Instead of performing another type of Activation a unit can entrench. This effectively increases its defense factor by 1, making it harder to inflict an adverse combat result upon it via assaults, air or artillery strikes.

Grant: How does Morale work in the design? Why is this an important element that needed to be included?

Paul: Military formations at this scale of the game do not fight to the last man.The Morale rule and levels model what is happening to the armies here. When losses in casualties and geographic objectives (east map edge hexes, hilltops, NK supply sources) mount then one side’s morale will decline and the other’s rise. At some point one side’s morale may collapse ushering in an early end of the game and complete, total victory for the opponent.

Grant: What happens during Refit? What effects does this have?

Paul: Again, both sides were fighting here at the ends of very strained logistical “tails”. The refit turns represent “time outs” and pauses in the all-out fighting while units regroup, resupply and rush replacements in men and material to the front. The timing of the refit turns is determined by a die roll, so neither player will know for certain when or how often they will occur. The NK player can elect to delay a Refit turn, but that comes with a morale penalty for doing so (decisions, decisions…).

Grant: What differed between Allied and Communist Refit?

Paul: Unlike the NK player, the US/ROK player receives reinforcements during the game, but only during Refit turns. The US/ROK player also has an adverse DR modifier for air support, as it is assumed the aircraft are being diverted to other missions (such as off-map interdiction or direct support elsewhere along the Pusan Perimeter). Otherwise Refit turns are the same, with both getting players receiving beneficial DR modifiers for rally check DRs.

Grant: How is the game won?

Paul: Either player can win an automatic victory by reducing their opponent’s morale level to zero. Failing that, a player wins by accumulating more victory points (VP) than their opponent by the end of the last turn. VP are awarded for eliminating enemy units, taking objectives (hills, supply sources) or for the NK player only, exiting units off of the east map edge (where those units are assumed to be wreaking all sorts of carnage and mayhem in the UN’s rear area and approaches to the port of Pusan).

Grant: What variant rules are included and how do they effect the games complexity and playability?

Paul: There are variant rules for armor unit facing that can produce “flank shots” for an attacker, opportunity fire against enemy units that move from one hex adjacent to friendly unit(s) to another, and Communist infiltration movement. These add a bit more historical detail to the game, but are not that complex or add much to the playing time. I imagine most gamers will be using all of them once they’ve learned the game.

Grant: What does the design excel at?

Paul: I’d say ease of play, the highly interactive nature of the card draw activation system, and the rather extensive “decision tree” for such a small and simple game. All said, I think it models the history well and has a high replay aspect.

Grant: What has been the response of playtesters?

Paul: They really liked it! My wife, Lisa, who helped a lot really likes the card draw design.

Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?

Paul: I’m working now on a game about the 1929 Sino-Soviet War fought in Manchuria. This conflict in many ways marks what was coming with World War II, and is little known. Others I’m working on are on the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam, the 1975 Fall of Saigon, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and developing other games by Roberto Chiavini and Perry Moore. We just started play testing on a game the 1968 Battle of Lang Vei, the Bay of Pigs Invasion (game as well as article), and Operation Jubilee. I’m doing my best to avoid boredom during retirement!

Thanks for your time in discussing this game with us Paul. I am newer to wargames focused on the Korean War and this one looks right up my alley and I hope to learn lots about the conflict.

If you are interested in Victory in Hell: The First Battle of the Naktong River, August 5-19, 1950 you can order a copy for $11.95 from the High Flying Dice website at the following link: http://www.hfdgames.com/vih.html

-Grant