The Big Game

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 3

This post was to have been about the Poor Bloody Infantry and our re-writing of the infantry rules. But in the interests of getting the story in the right order – and it is supposed to be a diary, after all – I’m going to make a quick diversion to the Eastern Front, and our Big Games.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the Abbeywood Irregulars play in a large church hall. It’s a fabulous building in the centre of Frome, called the Bennett Centre – named for William James Early Bennett, the Vicar of Frome Selwood, who built a new Infant School on the site in the 1850s; later it became Frome St John the Baptist Church Hall, and we’re priveleged to name the current vicar as a vital member of our AWI group. For those interested in the history of this wonderfully re-furbished location, see: http://bennettcentre.org.uk/ – visitors are also welcomed. Part of the re-furbishment has been to remove the terrible post-war false ceilings and ‘modernisation’, so that now the building’s main hall shows off its rafters, ceiling and arched windows, up to the bell tower on the roof, as you can see from this picture.

BennettCentre

The Bennett Centre (circa 1850)

The hall is airy and well lit by daylight, and new, but traditional, lantern-style lights are suspended from the roof to supplement when needed. There’s even a large stone fireplace. Most importantly the hall is large enough for a multitude of wargamers. AWI is host to one of the South West DBM tournaments (every October), and we can readily fit in 6 lots of 6ft x 5ft tables, with plenty of space to move around. In Mission Command terms, that means a Big Game can be 30km x 25km if necessary.

For June 2010 we mounted an Eastern Front game based on a Russian attack on the cut-off Germans in the Courland Peninsula in January 1945. For this game we had the better part of a Russian Tank Corps versus 14th Panzer Division, albeit the Germans at roughly 50% strength. The Russians were hoping to push the Germans back and over a river, so we needed some depth to the position. We used 5 large tables, with a 2:3 split so players could reach the troops in the middle (see picture), but they had to remember that the gap didn’t represent any real distance so an element on one side of the gap could move straight onto the other side.

Courland

Courland tables

The Germans were intended to have a team of 4 (C-in-C, chief of staff plus 2 tactical ops), though on the day we had to adjust to only 3, as I recall. This left them properly stretched (possibly stressed!), which gave a realistic tension. The Russians had a team of C-in-C plus 4, commensurate with their larger numbers of troops. We didn’t permit C-in-Cs to directly move elements on the table, but only to work via their tactical commanders. Therefore they were able to, and wanted to, concentrate solely on the overall operation, especially on how effective (or otherwise) their artillery attacks were, and to gather and react to information coming back from the table. We gave them sufficiently colourful briefings, suggesting to the Russian tactical commmanders that “You must adhere to your orders. High Command takes a dim view of officers with excessive initiative, and you’ve seen many examples of the unfortunate results. Getting shot by the Germans may result in a pension for your wife and family, getting shot by your own side certainly won’t.”

The Russians were able to put in a textbook attack: a large, well thought out artillery fire plan, infantry and supporting infantry over the bridges rapidly, consolidation of gains against desperate German counter-attacks; then a pause as the artillery had to be moved up and a new fire plan arranged. On the other side, the Germans attempted a classic mobile defence with a relatively thin front line. Unfortunately for them the speed of the Russian tank attack caught them a little flat footed, particularly a poorly placed 8.8cm battery that was outflanked and overrun (the commander didn’t survive to explain his error). Their tank counter-attack was a little too late, and the Russians were able to take them on on relatively equal terms. Defence of the built-up area was, nevertheless, excellent, so although the Russians could claim to have penetrated the position, they were likely to be threatened by flanking forces from the town, so couldn’t claim a decisive victory.

In game and scenario design terms, this was a useful play test, because it showed that Russian and German units were handled differently, in accordance with the command and communications structures described in the materials. For example the Germans had more flexible but less powerful artillery, a Russian set piece could steam-roller ahead behind its bombardment, and German mobile and flexible defence was difficult to co-ordinate but could be very successful when they made excellent use of cover and the timing worked. We were encouraged that one of our Russian players, who was completely new to the game, was still able to pick it up and command a tank brigade successfully. The scenario was a tank-heavy game (so perhaps more traditional in WW2 wargaming terms), and it worked well.

Skipping lightly over our Western Desert game in November 2010 (of which more perhaps another time), our next major Eastern Front game built on the Courland experience. We decided to try a full-blown multiple table game to represent a major German attack on a Russian Tank Corps over a sizeable area. This was to be a breakthrough attempt by the Germans using a Panzer Division and an Infantry Division, so we needed to enable penetration and large scale sweeping manoeuvre. We set up the game as a series of match-ups on separate tables, initially one player versus one player, with the C-in-Cs carrying out the overall direction as in the previous game. Each one-on-one table was in effect a separate game linked over time to its neighbours. Each simultaneous match was intended to last up to two hours, then be adjudicated, at which point tied games would be re-matched (in effect continued), losing forces would retire to the rear or move left / right (if able) onto friendly tables, and winners could advance or stay where they were. It’s probably worth quoting our Basic Assumptions:

1. No diagonal movement across conflict tables (winning troops have options of Advance, Stand, Move Left, Move Right).

2. Tied games require either Rematch (assuming one or other side requires that), Stand with no “hostile” intent, Withdraw or Move – Left or Right. [Each CinC elects without knowledge of the other].

3. Losing forces may retire directly to rear or move left/right onto friendly tables. [i.e. tables where friends either won last bound or were not contested.]

4. Reserves will march in formation designed for such at COLD bound rates if on tables which are not actively fighting.

5. Forces which motor thru’ a table as part of the attack (i.e. NOT as part of the Reserves) within 1 hour will be provided with a bonus positioning on their next table, those completing their movement across table within 90 minutes will receive a lesser bonus.

[Note: typical bonuses might be (and depend on map/terrain also) – 1 hr the swift force may start the next game up to 1000m in from the table edge assuming they wished to continue ahead. Also disruption to defenders positioning of troops – he may not position anything other than infantry within 1200m of the enemy’s table edge. 90 minutes – Start up to 500m from table edge but defenders may not position any element other than infantry within 1000m of enemy table edge, Defender’s tanks may not be dug in [?].

6. Umpires may, before table games commence advise a reduction in game time to 90 minutes (otherwise 2 hours as standard) – particularly in first round of games if position lightly held etc.

7. Artillery fire will be limited with Map fire being constrained to prominent features only. [Pre registered firing marks other than onto clear features will not be permitted].

8. We will try to get 4 games in. Might mean 5pm is not achievable.

As you may have noticed, there were some tentative parts to this. In the mixing of the ingredients and the cooking, the recipe worked pretty well though. Players were engrossed all day. Although the starting positions were one-on-one, after the first session we were flexible enough to modify our basic assumptions. One largish encounter continued into sessions 2 and 3, as the Germans pushed across a minefield into a village. The main German armoured attack overran the Russians, the remnants retreating to the east. Advancing virtually unopposed in session 2, the Germans were able to exploit rapidly along an undefended table, while part of the armour peeled off to the east. Players unused to this type of sweeping manoeuvre needed a bit of guidance from the umpires and some insistence from C-in-C – there is a tendency amongst some wargamers to simply head for the nearest enemy, rather than to exploit open spaces. The Russians stuck to their plan, which was to engage the Germans with a mobile defence, and to force the enemy to attack Russian blocking forces in terrain favourable to the defence. However, the Germans retained the initiative, because their breakthrough enabled them to pick their route of advance, and it became difficult for the Russians to co-ordinate, especially because their artillery and armour lacked the command and control flexibility of the Germans. The Germans were able to carry out the classic armoured finesse of hitting Russian artillery with direct fire, their Panthers destroying a regiment of Katyusha rockets while outranging T34s (with mainly 76mm, not 85mm guns). The system of separate tables enabled the Germans to recce ahead with fast-moving armoured cars to find the weak spots, while by-passing strongpoints.

By the end of the day, two main points emerged – (i) the Germans had broken through to the north and were going to be able to link up with an off-table pincer coming from that direction, thereby cutting off all Russian forces to the west. This thrust was to have been blocked by Russian reserve armour, but the speed of the advance and the failure of the Russians to recognise the German schwerpunkt quickly, meant that the reserves were 10km away and far too late to block. In terms of our game mechanics, this was an excellent result, because it demonstrated that the Big Game structure functioned as designed. We had a believable result, well within expected parameters (and the players agreed, which is always critical). And (ii) signifant German forces (half the armour, plus most of their motorised infantry) were engaged in a direct fight with the main force of the Russians. This larger engagement happened because the Germans needed to pin them, and the Russians wanted to bring on a major combat on their terms. Our scenario management permitted this through two expedients: pushing together the tables from two or three of our one-to-ones, and sychronising the time scales.

The latter point was a major learning experience for the umpires. Naturally, when we were operating across several separate tables, the time scales or flow of game turns varied, as players were slower or quicker. One table might be on turn 9, while an adjacent table was on turn 12. If the two tables came to interact, either firing from one to the other, or moving troops between tables, it was necessary to synchronise them, or players would be confused, particularly when looking at communication delays, for example for calling in artillery fire. Our method was initially to attempt to split the difference and adjust both tables. However, this method was not entirely practical, as it could create confusion on both tables. Pete and I decided during the game that the slickest method was to match the two tables using the table that had the most turns as the base line. The other table’s game turn indicator (sequentially numbered cards) was adjusted at the first point of interaction, and then both would operate as if they were a single table. All existing communication delays on the second table would be adjusted to the time scale of the first – a one-time adjustment that proved easy to operate. This mechanism worked because Mission Command doesn’t force any particular relationship between a game turn and elapsed time; our game turn lasts roughly 10 minutes but can happily be variable in length.

Our take-away from this scenario was that the Big Game concepts functioned well, as long as the umpires, and to an extent the C-in-Cs were flexible in reacting to changing circumstances. Some of the sub-games would continue through more than one session, others would last the prescribed 2 hours, but many would be shorter as recce forces or overmatching forces moved rapidly through the next table. While at the start of the day the sub-games would be one-on-one, later sessions could readily be two v one, or larger, as troops moved and operations developed. We didn’t want to force a rigid structure on the players, because that threatened to shake the believability of the overall game. Most operational decisions were taken by C-in-Cs between sessions (which was our initial thought), but we also found that a quick sub-game, say, one hour, might enable intervention during a neighbouring longer engagement, and this type of occurrence was not only acceptable, it was to be encouraged, because it helped C-in-Cs have an impact during a session and maintained the game flow. Without our flexible approach the game would suffer from a disjointed feel and leave some players with a poorer experience.
Next: PBI re-write

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