Archive for March, 2011

Essence of a wargame – III

continuing with part III of a two-part series…

Paths Of Glory

Convincing portrayal of topic

Definitely. The cards and rules restrictions give huge amounts of colour in that they are all derived from historical circumstances, and they strongly encourage political background actions to reflect this.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

The game restricts players to only 6 card plays per quarter of a year. So only important operations and events can be carried out. The players don’t represent a specific role, but rather a collective command view from either an Allied or Central Powers perspective.  This permits greater co-operation between fronts than would have been possible, and perhaps an air of unreality or ‘gaminess’ in the play. Certainly believable actions are possible, particularly attritional offensives. It seems much less likely to get to some of the hoped-for results that high command had, so players can become insulated from the expectations of success that pervaded high commands at times. There is also the problem that the VPs on the Turkish and Italian fronts make these more important than they actually were. These aspects may be necessary to make PoG into a more interesting game, but they do represent a compromise.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

The game has had some criticism because of its draconic approach to supply lines. If armies are cut off, then they are destroyed at the end of the turn, and have no attack capability in the meantime. I don’t agree with this criticism, preferring to see this as a way enforcing a more realistic approach to continuous front warfare.

I particularly like the rules that stacks cannot both move and attack, but only one or the other, and that moving units cannot end stacked with other units designated to attack. These rules ensure that there is no blitzkrieg possibility, and deployment of vast bodies of troops is necessarily cumbersome.

Appropriate level of challenge

PoG has a steep learning curve. It has a whole list of exceptions to the normal rules, in order to include or preclude a-historical events. For example German armies cannot end movement in the Channel Ports early in the game. These exceptions get in the way of a clean game system, but they add historical flavour and make the flow of the game feel right. So I give PoG the benefit of the doubt in this department.

Play balance has also been criticised by some. The primary scenario has a historical set-up and the nature of the strategic choices give the CP less chance of victory in a long game. This can be corrected; for example in tournament play auctioning using VPs will often mean a player spends 2 or 3 VPs in order to play the Allies.

Next: SPI’s La Grande Armee,

Essence of a wargame – II

Being the second part of a mini-series (probably of 2) about what makes a great wargame.

In Part One I suggested 4 points that a great wargame needs to address:

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

Assessment of games against these criteria is difficult to do in an objective way. While it might be possible to create some form of rating system with defined levels that seems a bit of a heavy weight tool and a lot of work. Instead I’ve taken more of a comparative and qualitative approach, which is probably indefensible scientically – but then again, this is a blog, so what the heck!

Now it might be a good idea to look for some examples of games that meet these criteria. What follows is of course my view based on necessarily limited experience despite over 40 years of wargaming. Ahem. Let’s start by considering the three games I’ve mentioned already: Up Front, Paths of Glory and La Grande Armee.

Up Front

the first of three assessed on these criteria (suggesting this series might be 4 or 5 posts).

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is about WW2 infantry section combat. It has individual soldiers differentiated by their own characteristics for morale, and whether or not they have NCO rank. The focus on what happens to individual soldiers, and a high level of differentiation between weapons, including tanks and anti-tank guns, as well as a wide variety of scenarios and nationally characterised troops, make this a convincing portrayal in my view.  The use of individual cards rather than counters makes the troops feel more like real soldiers.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Player actions are centred on a group structure (from 2 to 4 groups). Although this may not reflect historical doctrine, it permits the player to make fire or movement decisions that feel like believable decisions in the context of the game, as it is important to weigh up tactical circumstances against the possibilities presented by cards in hand and the state of one’s own and the enemy’s troops.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Game mechanics for Up Front are designed to create short player turns with few decisions, so that action is fast and furious, interspersed with periods of inactivity, as players search for the right balance of cards for the next operation. In my view it is this aspect that portrays the ‘hurry up and wait’ nature of infantry operations.

Appropriate level of challenge

Up Front teaches the the game by gradually introducing more terrain and troop types as players progress through the rules. While this makes the rules difficult as a reference set, it improves the learning aspects. There is a mix of scenarios at all levels of complexity, and also a campaign system with points assigned to individual soldiers who can increase expertise through successes in scenarios. For those who want a tough challenge, try a parachute landing!

Next time : Paths of Glory,

Last tank to Rossoszyca

Rossoszyca is a village in the administrative district of Gmina Warta, within Sieradz County,Łódź Voivodeship, in central Poland. It lies approximately 11 kilometres (7 mi) east of Warta, 12 km (7 mi) north of Sieradz, and 49 km (30 mi) west of the regional capital Łódź. The village has a population of 570. [Wikipedia]

Poland, of course, was the key country

(quote: W. Averell Harriman)

Abbey Wood Irregulars met on Saturday 5 March and transported themselves back to August 1944 into a fictional offensive by the German Army against the Soviet forces in Poland. Jerry (German CinC), J, Mike and Stephen led a German Corps consisting of 14 Panzer Division and 30 Infantry Division against Colin (Soviet CinC), Ed, Steve, Richard and James with a Soviet Tank Corps. Pete and myself were umpires, Pete having been the main organiser, responsible for most of the scenario and troop organisation with me doing a little to help, plus running intelligence briefings for Jerry and Colin. Thank goodness Jerry was running the Jerries and not the Russians – it saved a lot of confusion.

This 15mm miniatures wargame was one of our series using a revised version of the Wargames Research Group 1973 rules for the period 1925 to 1950.

Cover of original WGRG rules

Our changes to the rules have been fairly radical, starting with the game scale: we play 1mm = 2m ground scale, with 1 infantry figure = 10 men, 1 vehicle figure = from 3 to 5 actual vehicles. This means that we can play large scale battles in 15mm, as long as we have access to a large hall, which we do at the re-furbished Bennett Centre, St John the Baptist Church Hall, Frome. We’ve streamlined the rule set a little to make it quicker to play, but in the main have adhered to its design principles, stressing command, control, communications and different tactical doctrine. These are all reflected very well in the rules, such that German and Russian methods are very different, with the Germans able to operate flexible ‘mission command’ kampfgruppen created from diverse formations, while the Russians tend towards greater centralisation and are less able to react to local circumstances, their disadvantages usually off-set by superior numbers – though not today.

I covered the couple of innovations for this game in my previous blog post. Basically, we have a new method of basing infantry companies, representing company capability, rather than company structures, and we ran a series of one-on-one games across 40 grid squares, rather than one massive table. Another shift is that we play bounds as either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’. The latter are 15 minute turns when troops are relatively distant from each other, so to speed up play movement is x5 and firing x2. This represents a period of relative calm when the two sides are not closely engaged (mostly outside 500m) and reserves can be brought up quickly. Hot turns are normal turns, 5 minutes long and with normal movement and firing.

For our engagement in Poland we used about 16 6′ x 2’6″ tables. Ten of them were set out in pairs to form five 6’x5′ playing areas, leaving the remaining six for the CinCs to use for miniatures plus command, control, communications and, at times, intelligence. The CinCs were separated by a self-standing partition, so they couldn’t see into each others’ command area, and so they could pin maps up. Did I mention we had a lot of space?

Preliminary skirmishing

Before we went head-to-head on Saturday, there was a bit of argy-bargy in the form of planning and reconnaissance from both sides. The terrain in the battle area was mainly fairly flat, occasionally rolling plains, with some significant woods, sparse small towns and villages, even sparser roads, and a series of streams on the western end, leading into a lake. The German positions were off the south map edge, the Russians anywhere desired on map. The overall strategic position was that the German forces formed the southern pincer of a two-pronged attack that aimed to meet roughly at the top of the map to cut off Russian forces off-map to the west. The Russians aimed to stop this pincer using their on-map forces plus potentially reinforcements from the east, but not from the west.

West part of map
West part of map
East part of the map
East part of the map

The German commander initially planned to launch a broad front attack from A1 to A4, leading off with infantry to clear the towns, villages and woods, then sweeping forward with the panzers later on. Looking back on it, the umpires should probably have presumed that both sides would use standard recce doctrine; but in our wisdom we decided to let the CinCs do it themselves. This led to some relatively ad hoc recce by the Germans, who kept the Luftwaffe under wraps and were not keen on using vehicles – they wanted to see but not be seen or heard. Eventually at D-Day-1 the Germans carried out some more serious ground recce, and we presumed a reasonable degree of air too – or the attack would have been in the dark. By this means the Germans found out that the Russians were deployed in some depth, but not dug in, as the Tank Corps had only arrived a few days previously and there hadn’t been time for much construction work. The Russians also discovered more or less what they were up against, but were not aware of the extra battalion of Tigers attached to 14 Pz, nor of the extra infantry (a PzGren battalion and fleshing out of 30 Div) the Germans had to beef up their attack.

The Russians were deployed in several main groupings from Okun Mahr to Szadek, Rossosyzca to Warja and occupied the woods around both Szadek and Rossosyzca, with a forward (forlorn hope?) of a tank battalion and a part of a motorised brigade north of Sieradz, but not in the town. It turned out that owing to a confusion about the map scale the Russians had deployed their artillery out of range of the German deployment area, so they couldn’t do early counter-battery fire. They also distributed their artillery across the front, rather than the normal Russian practice of concentrating it. On the other hand, the Germans concentrated theirs, so there was rather a cross-over of doctrine; the Germans had centralised artillery and a large scale infantry attack, while the Russians had local artillery support with a mobile defence.

Achtung Panzer!

Remember that saying that no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy? Well, the German plan didn’t survive first encounter with the other German players. Ditching the idea of leading with the infantry, the Germans revised their plan and sensibly led off with 14 Panzer. Their initial pre-game deployment meant they were restricted to A1 – A4, which was possibly not the best tank country. However, it turned out that the potentially awkward watery bits were only about 6″ deep and no real impediment to tanks. The Germans started with a 3 hour artillery barrage (again more characteristically Russian than German) on Sieradz, Rossosyzca and environs. Relatively little damage was done, though the Russians lost some mortars, AT guns and quite a few American trucks.

The game structure was intended to permit sweeping tactical moves, encounter engagements, rearguard actions and set piece battles, and so it turned out. The umpires initially planned for up to 4 rounds of 90 minute to 2 hour engagements, with maybe 15 minutes break between each, for players to report back to CinCs and for them to log losses, decide on routes of advance and where to direct reserves, and for the umpires to set up new terrain. We expected to have each pair of combatants fighting on one table in one round, then, if one player had crossed the table, we’d give the winning forces an advantage on the next table, dependent on the amount of time taken to achieve the victory. The next round would then follow with ground gained immediately by the previously victorious side, so getting a time advantage too.

In reality we ended up with 3 formal rounds, but also a number of rolling advances across several tables during single rounds, as small Russian delaying forces were either dealt with or avoided by the German panzer thrusts, keen to get forward as fast as possible. This worked quite well, even though it meant we had to set up new tables rapidly in response to direction changes from the lead German commanders. It also meant, I think, that Russian command control was stretched to react to many different potential threats; fortunately Colin was well organised, or it could have gone very badly wrong. For the final round, we even had a situation at C3 and C4 where two German attacks were going in alongside each other separated by a wood, so we pushed the tables together, in case they interacted. In fact the woods meant that these were treated as separate battles by the commanders.

As umpires we tried to remain flexible in our approach and to go with the flow of how the players wanted the game to develop. It would have been a mistake to stick to an inflexible approach of 4 defined rounds, especially as the rules permitted a lot of up the line and back again communication with CinCs. It was slightly unfortunate that we were 2 players short, because I would have preferred the CinCs to be sat only at their command posts, relying on reports from their sub-commanders prior to making decisions, but we had to get them involved in actual direct fighting, which had the effect of unrealistically shortening the lines of communications. I suspect this was to the slight advantage of the Russians, who were thereby able to react more quickly perhaps than they should have been. Hey ho, slightly reduced fog of war, I guess.

Looking from west to east, the Germans starting in A1 made rapid advances against relatively small forces from A1 through B1 and to C1, using the Tiger Battalion and a battalion of Panzer IVs supported by motorised infantry and recce following up from Sieradz area. The Germans starting in A2 got stopped cold north of Sieradz by a strong showing from Richard with a handful of T34s and some supporting infantry. Richard held his position all day without losing a tank, and dealing out quite a bit of damage to the Germans, despite pretty lousy shooting dice from his tanks most of the time. The Germans were slightly nonplussed by the lack of any Russians at all in the town, which they’d flattened with the late night artillery barrage. They also lost several vehicles including a Stug III to mines on the roads (a typical dirty trick from Colin!). However, to be fair to the Germans, Pz Grenadiers went round to both left and right of the Russian positions and swept on to support the main attack towards the lake. By the end of the day, the Germans had about a couple of companies in the north of Sieradz with AT guns, but they’d lost all but one of their Assault Guns in the Stug Battalion to T34s, as well as a number of vehicles to air attack. However, these Soviets were in a precarious position owing to what was happening to left and right.

German Schwerpunkt: frontages and objective

German Schwerpunkt: frontages and objective

In A3 and A4 the German Recce, Panther and Pz IV battalions were storming forward against light Russian forces, who were retiring on their main positions around Rossosyzca and Szadek. The Germans made quite good use of smoke in response to taking fire – though it would have been better perhaps to put down pre-emptive smoke screens as part of a fire plan. It’s a curious fact that wargamers only seem to remember smoke reactively; perhaps because they’re not actually going to be shot at in reality. Also most German artillery fire was in response to local conditions, whereas most Russians was pre-planned, so that aspect of doctrine went well. It’s very difficult to get players to do artillery fire plans when short staffed – there’s no time.

By the time the Germans had penetrated across B3, B4, B5, the Russian artillery was becoming effective. They had some well chosen pre-registered barrage lines which upset the Germans considerably. In addition a regiment of Katyusha rocket launchers is a major event, even to Panthers and this caused a lot of pain to J’s advance, because they had a very well-sited forward observer. Fortunately for the Germans J detached a Panther company, covered by smoke, and in possibly the best tactical manoeuvre of the game this company was able to engage and destroy the Katyushas in the open, despite the covering support of a swarm of T34s, who were outranged by the Panthers. This bit of the action showed the very real danger of a German break through – it can devastate enemy artillery, and in fact this action might have been even more decisive if it had been the whole Panther battalion instead of one company – but they had other fish to fry.

While the Russians had been pushed back on their main position in the east around Szadek, on the western flank the position was dire. This main German armoured thrust pushed due north from A1, then round the east of the lake, sweeping away the small Russian defence force. They then discovered that, except for some artillery that had to make a break away from the area to survive, there was nothing barring them from the north. The Russians had not reacted quickly to the threat on this flank and were unable to get significant forces there in time to prevent the German link-up with the northern pincer, despite the existence of unengaged Russian armour (including KVs) far to the east. This was before the final round of the game, and with the backup of German infantry from the Sieradz area, it was clear that the Germans had achieved at least a tactical victory.

If the Russians could pull something out of the bag around Rossosyzca, then they might be able to reinforce their positions north of Sieradz and choke off the break through. On the other hand the Germans were rampaging towards Rossosyzca from the south and south-east with two battalions of armour, about 4 battalions of motorised infantry, a battalion of assault guns and an armoured recce battalion. Against them were a brigade of T34s, a motorised infantry brigade plus all of the Soviet self-propelled artillery. A major punch-up ensued.

While the German infantry and assault guns approached the Russian infantry positions in C3, the biggest tank engagement was happening to their left in C4. Colin had cleverly lined the edge of the wood with dummy tanks that were duly engaged by the Panthers, who were then engaged by successive AT gun positions as the Panthers came into effective range. The Soviets had hoped to squeeze the Germans by attacking simultaneously from the north with T34s and SU122s, but German smoke screened the north attack successfully. At this stage the Germans had the advantage in numbers and range, though the SU122s were remarkably effective in an antitank role, and the Panthers’ guns were not as effective as they might have been. I think the Germans should have manoeuvred by companies to flank the SUs to take advantage of the Panther turret, while the SUs would have had to move to keep them in arc.

Saving the day for the Soviets another two battalions of T34s arrived, having motored from off-map to the east through Sieradz to join their comrades. Choosing to throw these in as quickly as possible, again the tanks were not manoeuvred, but came up alongside their buddies, barely able to flank the Panthers. It would have been more audacious to swing them round to the south to cut off the Germans. By the end of the armoured engagement honours were even, with only half a dozen vehicles left on each side. The Russians were perhaps the more grateful, as stopping the Germans here meant that the Germans were unable to convert their victory into an outright strategic one, as the Russian Tank Corps still had plenty of fight left, and the right hand German armoured attack had been blunted. Panther, Panther, Burning Bright was an alternative title to this post!

So the Germans achieved a tactical victory on the day, but the Russians could take some comfort from the fact that they would have been able to fight on and the German breakthrough might perhaps be threatened in the days to come.

The Aftermath

The game designers’ main objective had been to try out our new infantry rules and the experiment of the ‘chequerboard’ style of play. The former hadn’t caused any particular difficulties, though further play testing would be required because there had been relatively little infantry fighting. It was nice to see that there was no gung ho charging into contact with infantry mounted in vehicles, which we’ve seen and seen punished in earlier games!

Chequerboard play was very well received; everyone seemed to enjoy it, and it meant that virtually everyone was busy from start to finish. There was also a much better sense of movement and a mobile tank battle than in a more conventional single table game. Here, I think we got a sense of the ranges of things rather better; that heavy artillery needs to be used effectively from distance, but that troops also need good support from mortars and lighter artillery pieces with a shorter communication distance to react to local circumstances – for smoke especially. Germans leading from the front can advance very fast, as their doctrine permits a lot of initiative to local commanders, whereas the Russians are much more conscious of senior commanders making decisions.

Many favourable comments have been received, and I present a few of those in conclusion.

“I thought the game worked very well. And gave that extra strategic edge that some of the other single table games seem to lack. Maybe a map with pins in to represent unit locations, on the day? So that the CinC can have a better idea where the troops have moved to? I think we lost a Motor Rifle Bt, because it was forgotten about! I found on all of my tables that we played almost constantly in hot moves. When a cold turn was being played, we did it in single turn steps with a short pause from J to let me ‘react’ to his movements. With the table so much smaller than normal the extra speed gained from the cold moves was almost null and void!”

“The only Inf I used died/surrendered rather quickly. The only thing that I feel might need some amendments is the morale rules. I had a company = a tank/AT gun. And in the end, I never really had to take any moral tests! It did seem a little off as my AT guns were down to 60% effectives, in the regiment. And carried on fighting. At the time I was happy to carry on brewing up Panthers but it should possibly be looked at for the next game!” [We’ve noted this for a rules revision – morale in this set was by company, regardless of what ‘company’ actually meant.]

“Everyone picked it up really quickly, certainly made things a lot swifter, & the potential bonus on the next table was a big incentive to not hang around. There’s still a few issues of communication to be ironed out. Air cover as I found out – was a must…”

“The length of cold turns could be sorted out by a roll on an average dice, air power was always a threat unless fog-bound.”

“Regarding Cold Bounds: Maybe there could be a Cold variable for say 3 x Normal movement for a Lorried/Motorised/Tank/Assault Gun Battalion under Mortar or Arty fire? Not going to move as fast as a normal Cold bound, but the intensity of plunging shells, means they could leg it as long as they don’t fire(pedal-to-the-metal, don’t-look-back-type-thing).”

Damn – I forgot to take pix, so this is a very text-heavy post! More pictures next time. [If anyone took any on Saturday, please let me have copies, and I’ll add some in!]

WW2 miniatures – WGRG 1973 revised and revisited again

All preps now done for our next Wargames Research Group 1973 revised ruleset outing. This is the sixth game in our regular-ish series, running at 2 per year.

For tomorrow’s game, we’re attempting a historically based, but not actually historical, situation, set in Poland in 1944. The Germans are counter-attacking against a Russian armoured force. Both sides have considerable trimmings – can’t give away too much as the blog has ears!

There are two main differences in the format of this game that make it more than usually interesting. It is our first attempt to run the new infantry rules we’ve been developing. These are intended to speed up infantry combat, to represent the Command/Control, Firepower (capability) and Morale (resilience) effects of a company – not individual figures or individual stands. We’re modelling company level capability not actual structures, which, for a corps level game, is rather too much detail. We’ve focused in on the fact that a company basically has rifle power, LMG power, AT, mortar and other specialist functions, plus command. It’s the distribution and tactical use of these systems that gives each nationality its different doctrine in the use of infantry. Our design of infantry elements is intended to represent this company level capability and doctrine, rather than platoon or squad organisation. So, for example, late war German infantry have a predominance of infantry support weapons and less riflemen, whereas the Russians have large concentrations of rifles, but fewer LMGs and supports. This means that German firepower can be maintained even if extensive casualties are taken, whereas an equivalent Russian unit will tend to fade – of course the Russians will just stick another unit in! In addition the German infantry have very flexible heavy weapon support down to company level, whereas the Russians have separate battalions for support, requiring much more command effort.

The second innovation, developed by Pete, is to run the Corps level game via a series of separate one-on-one encounters between individual sub-commanders, while the C-in-Cs simply carry out the overall direction, in terms of grand tactical movement, reserve placement, and so on. Only the sub-commanders get to move the figures around. We will play up to 4 rounds of 90 minutes to 2 hours during the day. Rapid victory on one table can mean you get an advantage on the next table if following up. Also there’s the opportunity for long-range weapons to fire from one table across to another (some guns and howitzers have ranges of 4 km or more, and our tables are 2.5 km x 4km). We reckon to have up to 6 games running in a round (though more likely 4), so we may get 16 to 20 individual encounters.

We’ve had considerable pre-game action in terms of reconnaissance, and things are shaping up for an epic encounter. And at the very least we will have tested out this method.