The burden and rigour of battle – Part 7

Concluding Remarks

One of the good things about wargaming is the lack of real danger. Unfortunately for simulating war, it’s also a bad thing, because danger is a major determinant in how people react. In short, there can be a tendency to hurry in wargames, where caution would be the watchword in real life, because of the danger of hurrying. Reconnaissance and planning save lives, but wargamers (or at least hobby wargamers) want to “get on with it”, even to “get on with the game”, as if reconnaissance and planning aren’t vital parts of the event. Real danger focuses the mind. Direct personal risk of injury or death was present at all levels in World War Two, so I don’t believe that it’s a significant factor per se in the difficulties of battlegroup wargaming compared with higher or lower command levels. However, it does affect playing battlegroup wargames significantly.

I will use my wargaming experience with a tabletop miniatures wargame called Mission Command to illustrate some of my conclusions. Mission Command is a World War 2 simulation wargame that I’ve been designing and playing for over 10 years. It’s a co-design with fellow enthusiast Peter Connew. We design, develop and play scenarios with the Abbeywood Irregulars wargamers in Frome, Somerset, a group of ex-military bods and experienced amateur wargamers (it is an all-male group, unfortunately). As we state in the introduction to the wargame:

“Mission Command attempts to capture the essence of combat command from roughly company level to division level without the bloodshed, fear, death and destruction normally associated with actual warfare. The rules concentrate on helping players to learn more about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of a national army’s way of fighting during the Second World War using tabletop miniatures. The focus is primarily on tactical implementation within an overall operational context; games generally reflect up to a day or two of real combat involving up to a division or two on each side.”

In our Mission Command simulation wargames we often present tabletop situations with no visible enemies, so our players have a lot of experience of not being able to see things to shoot at, or that shoot at them. For this reason, we now have much more realistically cautious players, in planning, reconnaissance and in simulated combat. In place of “I’ve rolled to spot into that piece of terrain, so I know there’s nothing there”, we now have “I haven’t searched physically through that piece of terrain, so there might be something in it.” And in place of “That AT gun shot at my tank, therefore I can quickly knock it out before it gets more shots off”, we now have “that piece of hedgerow might contain an AT gun, so I’d better use smoke or suppressive fire.” However, this does raise the serious practical difficulties I’ve mentioned earlier, and it’s only with the use of information technology – specifically very easy digital photography and printing – that we’ve engineering a relatively slick method of handling this issue in a manual wargame without recourse to poorer proxy methods such as dummy units or rolling dice. Of course, the handling of this aspect is one of the advantages of computer wargaming.

Modelling the complexity of command and control at the battlegroup level is difficult, more difficult than at higher and lower levels of command. This level of command presents a set of complex, interlinked communications problems, so mechanical solutions like command points are tricky – rolling few PIPs on a d6 is a crude reflection of command problems, as is rolling a dice to see if you get artillery support. Sometimes the effect may work, but the impact of randomising away the issue is profound, if part of what we’re trying to do is to learn the nature of the problems. For example, with a randomising mechanic, it may be worth carrying out a “suicidal” attack, hoping that the opponent’s dice will fail; in the wargaming environment no harm done, but also no lessons learned. Somewhat worse, many wargaming systems will “work” using tactics that, history shows, would almost certainly fail if used in reality.

In Mission Command, we attempt to model the constraints on command and communications, by organising forces using realistic information about the command structures of different national armies, by imposing appropriate delays in the transmission of information and new orders, and by reflecting tactical circumstances. But, as our players know from our early play tests, communications systems are hard to model and still have a playable game.

Similarly, modelling the co-ordination of all the multitudinous different weapons systems available to the battlegroup commander is difficult, more difficult than at higher and lower levels of command. This is particularly so, because analysts and military historians are still discussing and revising our understanding of the nature of WW2 tactical combat at this command level.

In Mission Command, we decided that we had to condense or abstract out much of the detail, in order to retain a sense of the battlegroup scale aimed at, but without losing what we considered to be essential elements. For example, we believed it was important to retain relatively fine-grained definition of AT weapons, lest we lose the evidentially certain impact of more advanced weapons, such as the German 7.5cm L70 on the Panther, as compared with the 75mm L48 on the Panzer IV, while we also believed that it was not necessary to include fine detail of the armour on different areas of individual tanks; our armour classes run from 1 (worst) to 10 (best). We don’t include details of whereabouts any individual tank was hit, but we have retained the basic notion that it’s harder to destroy a tank from the front.

Credibility of the model is also important, in a very popular wargaming period where players can be incredibly knowledgeable. A specific problem for example was in relation to the effectiveness or otherwise of air attacks, particularly by rockets. Here we saw a direct clash between what we now know and what was thought at the time. After action operations analysis of rocket attacks, particularly during the destruction of forces in the Falaise Pocket and during the Ardennes counter-attack, demonstrated that, contrary to the claims at the time, a very small percentage of tanks was destroyed by such attacks. However, rocket-firing Typhoons are often a stalwart and highly effective air asset in World War Two wargames, and there is an expectation amongst players that they should be more effective against armour than they actually were. The situation is complicated by the tendency of inexperienced German tank crews late in the war to abandon their tanks in the face of this type of attack. For our Mission Command implementation, we have adjusted and re-adjusted values in our model, until we have a solution that maintains reasonable historical accuracy, but does not render the rocket-firing Typhoon ineffective. This satisfies the players and the designers, but it has meant balancing opposing viewpoints.

When wargaming at battlegroup level, we can present our players with highly complex situations that were very challenging even for the trained, experienced and supported commanders facing them in World War Two. By doing this through good quality wargames, designers can, I believe, provide a means for gaining insights into the nature of battlegroup level warfare in World War Two. These insights can be gained through all the processes of the game – design, research and development, play and post-action analysis. I’ve been struck by the willingness of players and umpires to engage seriously over long periods with these complexities, to try out ideas both historic and less so, providing more material to aid our understanding, often through failure, which is one of the best ways to learn.

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