Korean War: Chosin Reservoir
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I like to publish games that tell stories. And American military history has few stories as dramatic as the U.S. Marines’ epic retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during November 1950.
The debacle resulted from the sheer incompetence of X Corps commander Edward “Sic ’em Ned” Almond, one of the worst senior officers in American military history. United Nations forces had inflicted crushing defeats on the North Korean People’s Army and invaded North Korea itself. It appeared that the Americans and their allies might soon overrun all of the North, but Chinese leader Mao Zedong decided on forceful intervention to forestall any such conquest.
The 1st Marine Division, commanded by Oliver Smith, landed at Wonsan on the eastern coast of North Korea on 26 October, a day after South Korean troops clashed with Chinese forces for the first time. The Marines found Wonsan defended by a Chinese division, which they defeated and drove off. Almond pressed the Marines forward despite the obvious large-scale Chinese presence in North Korea, and spread out his command.
The Chinese struck a month later, hitting the Marines and nearby U.S. Army units with ten divisions of hardened veterans of the recently-concluded Chinese Civil War. The Marines fought off repeated attacks as they retreated back to Hungnam, losing 10,000 casualties while the Chinese lost 30,000 men themselves. Ned Almond – a personal friend of U.N. commander Douglas MacArthur - would be promoted to lieutenant general in February.
Just who (other than Ned Almond) won this battle is still disputed – the Marines were driven out of North Korea, but the Chinese failed to annihilate them and suffered enormously themselves. Chosin Reservoir would become one of the defining moments of the U.S. Marine Corps’ identity, a story of bravery and sacrifice.
That’s the story we tell in Korean War: Chosin Reservoir, a Panzer Grenadier expansion book featuring twenty scenarios by Jay Townsend. It also comes with 128 new pieces (most of them to introduce the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army to Panzer Grenadier). You’ll need Korean War: Counter Attack (and only Counter Attack) to play those scenarios.
The story opens with the early contacts between United Nations (South Korean and U.S. Army units) and Chinese forces. As the scenarios show, there’s plenty of warning that the Chinese have entered Korea. Even so, it comes as a shock when the Chinese make a series of mass night attacks on 27-28 November 1950. The Marines are tough, but so are the Chinese; the Marines have lots of support weapons and artillery, the Chinese have a great many very determined Chinese. The remnants of the North Korean People’s Army are still in the field, but it’s now the Chinese who provide the bulk of the Communist side’s combat power.
Both sides have to attack and defend, with the Chinese trying to overwhelm the Marines, or drive them away from their retreat route and the Marines fighting to break the encirclement (or keep it from even forming). The Marines fight with desperation, having to escape the impossible situation in which Ned Almond has placed them. Chinese morale is likewise sky-high; this is the first large-scale battle between the People’s Liberation Army and the West.
The 20 scenarios unfold over three chapters: the initial contacts, the heavy fighting around the reservoir, and the Marine withdrawal. As with other Panzer Grenadier games, we use the scenarios to help tell the story. Each chapter concludes with a battle game that links the scenarios together, so you can play them all for an overall result.
There are scenarios that pit waves of Chinese attackers against outnumbered Marine defenders, but that doesn’t tell the full story of the Chosin Reservoir campaign. The Chinese PVA was a veteran force with wily commanders who soon figured out how to negate United Nations advantages. Eight of the 20 scenarios take place in darkness, an extraordinarily high ratio for a Panzer Grenadier game (most battles in both World War II and the Korean War took place under the bright noonday sun).
The striking new pieces for the People’s Volunteer Army make up about two-thirds of the Chosin Reservoir sheet (86 of them). The PVA is an infantry force like none other in Panzer Grenadier: only perhaps the Luxembourgers have less in the way of support weapons. Balancing that a little, most of the PVA infantry wield submachine guns, for a little more firepower at the price of limited range.
Other than a small smattering of heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-tank rifles, that’s about it. The PVA does get a little artillery support, but never any help from the air. It’s a very different army than most of those seen before in Panzer Grenadier, a light infantry force very capable of making the best use of terrain, darkness and maneuver to cancel the United Nations advantages of firepower, firepower and firepower.
The Marines add a few more infantry and support weapons to those received in Counter Attack. Aiding the U.S. Marines are a couple of companies of British Royal Marines, who don’t have quite the firepower of their American cousins but are pretty tough themselves. The U.S. Army picks up a handful of additional pieces, and the ROK gets an artillery piece. Otherwise, the United Nations operates with the hand dealt in Korean War: Countr Attack.
Korean War: Chosin Reservoir brings our Korean War saga closer to the pattern I want to see in our Panzer Grenadier line: a tight focus on a single topic (a battle, campaign or perhaps a unit) rather than a shotgun approach of unrelated scenarios. The story-arc format, with chapters and battle games. Lots of history interwoven with the game content. The upcoming Playbook editions of Pusan Perimeter and Counter Attack, and the Battles for Seoul book, all follow this approach as well.
Chosin Reservoir just needs one other game for maps and pieces, Korean War; Counter Attack. It’s the sort of book we want to be publishing, a mix of history and game play that tells a dramatic story. You’re going to like it.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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