A few months back, I was contacted by the venerable Ty Bomba who informed me about his upcoming 2-pack of magazine wargames in World at War Magazine. The two games include Stalin’s First Victory: The 1929 Sino-Soviet War & The Battle of Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China, 1938. Both battles use many of the same rules and concepts, however for ease of play, the rules are separated into two distinct rule sets. The first set of rules cover Stalin’s First Victory and the second The Battle of Taierzhuang. Both games are low complexity two-player grand tactical games. I then sent Ty questions and I am bringing this interview to you now covering just Taierzhuang, even though World at War Magazine Issue #91 won’t hit newsstands until mid-2023.
Grant: What is your upcoming Battle of Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China about?
Ty: It covers the 16-day battle that took place in late March and early April 1938 in and around the railroad junction town of that name in China.
By the way, the phonetic pronunciation – with equal stress on all three syllables – is: “tay-air-zwong.”
Grant: What does the title mean in regard to the history?
Ty: This was the first Japanese attack since the start of the “China Incident” the year before in which one of their offensives was thwarted. Two Japanese divisions were ‘roughly handled’ here. One of them was temporarily surrounded and forced to abandon its heavy equipment in order to facilitate a breakout by its infantry.
Grant: What drew you to do a game on this part of WWII in China?
Ty: As with this issue’s other game, Stalin’s First Victory, this battle represents a relatively ‘unplowed field’ for wargame design. More generally, turning point battles, in which the previously victorious side in a war or campaign has its fortunes reversed, always makes for tense and enjoyable play.
Grant: What was the historical outcome of the battle?
Ty: The proximate outcome was the Japanese had to regroup and restart their 1938 offensive drive a few weeks later from another direction (which they did successfully, capturing Wuhan).
More importantly, however, were the long-range results. That is, when Soviet Generals. Grigori Zhukov and Vasily Chuikov got to China a few months later, as part of Stalin’s new advisory team to Chiang Kai-shek’s military, they arrived there soon after Hitler’s recall of the German advisors who had planned the Chinese defense of Taierzhuang. The Nationalist generals were still abuzz about the victory. The Soviets studied the tactics of the battle intensely, and that same duo used them successfully in Stalingrad four years later (while the Germans apparently forgot what they had taught).
Grant: What is your thesis and overall design goal?
Ty: The battle presents a well-balanced contest for both players, and the system I used allows for easy solitaire play.
Grant: What is important from the overall period and setting to model in the game?
Ty: In the historic situation, the Japanese on-scene commander knew reinforcements were fighting their way forward to join him; however, he did not know when they would arrive. Similarly, the Chinese on-scene commander knew there was an entire Nationalist army just off to the south, but he was not in control of its arrival. I therefore made both players’ reinforcements contingent on turn-by-turn die rolls in order to recreate that historic uncertainty. Depending on how that works out – with one side or the other getting early or late arrivals or with both getting them about the same time, etc. – you end up with wildly varying operational situations in which you have to operate.
Grant: What design parameters did you have for this magazine wargame?
Ty: A typical magazine game generally has one 34×22” mapsheet and one ‘full’ sheet of counters (meaning from 240 to 176, depending on size). Such games typically take three to six hours to play.
Here, though, we have two half-size games sharing the same issue. They can be played in about an hour or two. Taierzhuang has a total of 75 units of maneuver, while Stalin’s First Victory uses just 35. That makes for the kind of fast, high-energy, rapid-turnaround play characterized by such classics as Napoleon at Waterloo and the Blue & Gray Quad-games, etc.
I think it is good to have that kind of change-of-pace in one’s wargame play. It refreshes the spirit and brings back memories of other fun times you have had in the hobby.
At the same time, I also assure everyone these games, though mechanically simple, are anything but operationally simplistic. Both players will agonize over the general state of crisis in which they must command, and the dangerous choices they must constantly be making.
Grant: What is the scale and force structure of units used for this design?
Ty: The units of maneuver are battalions for the Japanese and regiments for the Chinese. The map is scaled at a quarter-mile (0.4 km) per hex.
Grant: What interesting challenges does the geography create for players?
Ty: Taierzhuang does not actually sit directly athwart the Japanese route of advance along the railroad. That is the path down which that player wants to head in order to get to the junction with the other railroad. Rather, the town is off to the flank of the railroad.
If the Japanese player is therefore willing to gamble the Chinese reinforcements will not reach the scene until late in the game, the best thing for him to do is mask it and push past it along the north-south railroad in order to reach the east-west railroad (and victory) as soon as possible. If, however, the Chinese reinforcements show up early enough – and there’s an equal chance they will – that will give him the strength to counterattack into the Japanese flank.
Alternatively, the Japanese player can hope his own reinforcements will show up quickly enough to allow him to immediately lunge into the town and take it – either all of it or enough of it to sufficiently neutralize its operational threat to his flank. If he gets in there, though, and gets bogged down – well, you will then see how this fight historically became the Chinese prototype for Stalingrad.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters?
Ty: The data presentation on them is standard, with historic types and organizational details in their top halves and attack/defense/movement capabilities quantified across their bottom halves. The Chinese are all ‘one-step’ units, while the Japanese have up to four steps each.
Grant: What are some unique units or divisions that are found in this game?
Ty: The Chinese have a regiment of 155mm Krupp field guns that they used historically for direct-fire inside the town. It is supremely powerful on the attack but, in turn, the Japanese player always makes it a priority target as soon as it shows up.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the OOB?
Ty: My sources for the game’s order of battle were as follows.
Co, Terence. “Storm Over Taierzhuang,” in Against the Odds magazine, Vol. VII, Nr. 1, April 2009, pp.4-14.
Lai, Benjamin. Combat – China, 1937-38: Chinese Soldier Versus Japanese Soldier. Hong Kong: Osprey, 2018.
Rodriguez, Robyn L. Journey to the East: The German Military Mission in China, 1927-1938. Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Department of History, 2011.
Grant: Were there any judgement calls you had to make to confirm this OOB to conform to your design goal?
Ty: When designing in the arena of World War II’s China front, you always want to keep in mind the general conclusion of the Japanese high command staff studies done at the time, as well as that of MacArthur’s headquarters after the war. That is, they both concluded the Japanese had a combat power advantage over the Chinese that varied from 9:1 to 10:1. That meant, in effect, one Japanese infantry battalion typically had the combat power of one Chinese division.
If you adhere to that when first assigning combat strengths, etc., you will be starting out ‘in the ballpark.’ Beyond that, of course, it comes down to adjusting what you see in playtesting to fall within the parameters of what happened historically.
Grant: It appears that the Chinese units have their combat factors hidden from the Japanese player. What does this represent from the history?
Ty: All the Chinese units – except for the regiment of 155s – are deployed face-down, with neither player knowing their attack or defense strengths until revealed in combat. That represents the fact that, at the start of this fight, neither commander knew in detail how the Chinese forces on-scene would perform. It also makes it more fun for solitaire play.
Grant: What is the turn sequence for the game?
Ty: The Turn Sequence is as follows:
- Chinese Player Turn
- Chinese Reinforcement Phase
- Chinese Movement or Combat Phase
- Chinese Combat or Movement Phase
Some particulars are as follows.
- On Game Turn 1 the Chinese Player Turn is skipped.
- The Japanese player picks whether his force will move and fight or fight and move; for the Chinese player that is determined by a die roll each turn.
- During the Japanese Logistics Check Phase, that player must (openly) check to see if his two HQ units are ‘in communications’ to a friendly map edge. If not, a cut off HQ loses its ability to use its ranged artillery that turn.
Grant: How does combat work?
Ty: Both this game and Stalin’s First Victory use the same CRT but with different column headings.
Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China Combat Results Table
|Differentials >||0 £||+1||+2||+3||+4||+5||+6||+7||+8||+9||³ 10|
|Die Roll > 1||1/0||1/1||1/1||1/1||1/2||0/2||0/2||0/2||0/2||0/2||0/2|
Differentials less than zero are resolved using the zero column and differentials greater than 10 are resolved using the 10 column.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Ty: Here is the entire “How To Win” section from the rules.
4.1 In General
The Japanese player begins the game generally on the offensive, fighting to win by capturing all of Taierzhuang or by controlling one or more hexes in the town center along with one or more hexes of the Long-Hai Railroad. The Chinese player may win defensively by preventing the Japanese player from achieving those goals, or he may win (counter-) offensively by eliminating during play, or having isolated at the end of play, either or both of the two Japanese headquarters units.
The victory conditions are intended to create a competitively interesting situation for both players, despite the advantage historic hindsight inescapably gives them have over their historic counterparts in command. That is, the Japanese had no idea they were advancing into a trap as they moved south; they were anticipating final Chinese collapse due to their victorious advance. At the same time, Chinese planning in regard to the details of their counteroffensive was anything but cogent or systematic, despite their German advisors’ attempts to make it so. None of the commander.
The victory conditions, combined with both sides’ uncertain reinforcement schedules, are intended to recreate, as much as possible, both sides’ outlooks and goals as they existed at the time. Different matches can take greatly divergent courses based on whether the Japanese get lucky in regard to their reinforcements arrival, or if the Chinese do so, of if those things work out more or less evenly.
4.2 Japanese Victory
There are two ways for the Japanese player to win the game, both are sudden death – that is, they end a game as soon as either one is achieved – and neither has precedence over the other.
- If, any time prior to the end of Game Turn 8, the Japanese player controls all hexes of Taierzhuang – both in the town center and the ones around that area’s periphery – play stops and he’s declared to have won.
- If, at the end of Game Turn 8, the Japanese player simultaneously controls one or more town center hexes in Taierzhuang and one or more hexes of the Long-Hai Railway – from 1318 to 2618, inclusive – he’s declared to have won.
4.3 Chinese Victory
There are three ways for the Chinese player to win the game, one is sudden death – that is, it ends a game as soon as it is achieved – whereas the other two are “semi-sudden death” in that it ends the game at the end of any complete game turn during which it was achieved and maintained to that turn’s end. Again, neither has precedence over the other.
- If, any time prior to the end of Game Turn 8, the Chinese player eliminates either one of the Japanese HQ units, play stops and he’s declared to have won.
- If, at the end of Game Turn 8, both Japanese HQ units are on the map but it is impossible for both of them to trace hex paths free of Chinese units and unnegated Chinese ZOC from their locations to any hexes on the north map edge – see 1.4 – the Chinese player has won the game at that time.
- If, at the end of Game Turn 6, the Japanese player has failed to take control of one or more town center hexes in Taierzhuang – even if just for an instant – play stops and the Chinese player has won the game at that time.
4.4 Drawn Games
If neither player wins based on any of the conditions given above by the end of Game Turn 8, that match has ended in a draw. That was the historic outcome as reckoned by these victory conditions.
Also note it is possible for the Japanese player to fulfill that side’s second victory condition while the Chinese player fulfills his side’s second victory condition. In that case that game has also ended in a draw.
Grant: Who has the greater challenge to reach victory?
Ty: Both players will be equally challenged but must go about reaching their victory conditions in different ways. Playtesting has shown that neither side seems to have an edge and good play can win out over numbers.
Grant: When does this issue of World at War get released?
Ty: About mid-year 2023.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Ty: Well, of course, I most love the whipsnake maneuver and savage combat action! The game is really hot and heavy and keeps the players engaged in the action throughout.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Ty: Much fun in game play combined with much learning about a largely unknown aspect of WWII.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Ty. I look forward to getting a look at this battle and seeing how it comes out based on the history of the conflict.
If you are interested in Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China, 1938 found in World at War Magazine #91 from Decision Games, you can pre-order a copy of the magazine for $49.99 from the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=WW91-Grant