Random design lessons from the front: troop representation

It’s comparatively easy to put together a vaguely credible way of representing troops at low level for a WW2 wargame. For example, with Airfix Battles we did a 1:1 representation, so each infantry figure or tank model represents 1 infantry man or real tank. As John Salt has pointed out in an earlier comment on this blog, it is not “at all easy to find out how combat really works at the lowest tactical levels”. However, for Airfix Battles, we were aiming at “credible”, not a simulation, and our approach has been well received; there are some heartening comments on Bob Cordery’s blog here: https://wargamingmiscellanybackup.wordpress.com/category/airfix-battles/, and the Airfix Battles Appreciation Group on Facebook gives us a certain seal of approval.

Modelling stuff at a higher level – by which I mean tactical representation, not making and painting figures – has needed more work, especially if I’m trying to capture a bit of the command, control and communications aspects, while ending up with a playable wargame. Taking company level as an example, a primary difficulty is the extent of articulation in a WW2 infantry company. A company might be highly concentrated in one place or spread thin in defence; it might be focused on where to place its mortars and MGs to support a neighbouring unit, or it might be focusing on all-round defence with its rifle components. Some companies might provide components as attachments to other troops, and some might be acting on their own entirely. The platoon and section/squad structure enables these sublties to be implemented. Providing a single answer to this conundrum is problematic.

Some wargame rules get around this by allowing on-the-fly creation of groups. So, you have a “centre” for a specific command function, typically representing an officer, and all or a proportion of troops within a specified command range can be used. I’m not keen on this type of solution, because it gives the player much more flexibility than the commander on the spot would have had. It also concentrates the leadership function on one area, when leadership and the command of sub-components were dispersed via officers and NCOs. Perhaps it’s more playable, but that type of solution loses some of the essence of command and control for me.

Alternatively, you could implement a representation of the internal structure of the company – platoons, and so on. This has the merit of structural accuracy at the expense of greater complexity.


German infantry company deployed to attack

Our solution in Mission Command was to represent “the group” as the lowest sized unit that would be given orders, with a group in the Normandy incarnation of the game being a company or squadron – less flexible Soviets might have battalion groups. Even though our groups have multiple elements – with an element being the smallest separately movable item – the elements don’t model the internal company structure. Rather we’re modelling the combat capabilities of the whole company, and we try to reflect differences in the capabilities of groups from different armies in different periods of the war.


British infantry company deployed in defence

There are some implications for players, as you might imagine. It’s quite OK for a player handling a lot of groups to manage each company as a unit without paying unnecessary attention to the details of each element. This is particularly true with broad brush deployments. On the other hand, if you’re playing a small German kampfgruppe, where the positioning of heavy weapons is vital for defence, then you can and should focus on the individual elements and how they fit with the wider group – especially as you almost certainly haven’t got many of them. And you need enough players in your team to handle the size of your force efficiently.

Most importantly, the Mission Command framework allows us designers to focus our attention on the composition of groups within the scenario we’re designing. It’s quite rare that a force will have all its groups straight out of a standard table of organisation and equipment. Variation by scenario is vital to model that portion of reality we’ve put under the microscope. For example, a German panzergrenadier company may “normally” have 3 coherent elements (full sized elements with small arms, LMGs and panzerfausts), with a supporting HMG element and a 8cm mortar element, plus its transports, but it’s easy to vary this overall capability to a more realistic field strength. A 17SS group in Normandy would have integrated elements (just small arms and LMGs), because they weren’t issued with panzerfausts. For most scenarios a German panzergrenadier group might have only 2 coherent elements, or even only 1 with a separate command element and LMG support element, representing the normal coalescing of the infantry around their most effective weapons.

We have a lot of evidence from our games that this approach discourages micromanagement. Players (well, good players anyway) tend to focus on how the group relates to other groups at battalion level and above. There is also very much less tendency to intermingle companies, because that leads to realistic confusion, and elements that become separated from their group suffer bad morale effects. In addition, I’ve found it’s very easy to represent the particular effects of Normandy bocage terrain – simply, each element in bocage but not in a prepared position is immediately considered separated, with all the communications and morale effects that entails; this models well the sense of isolation and lack of support reported by all troops in the bocage, regardless of their company organisation.


2 Responses to “Random design lessons from the front: troop representation”

  1. 1 Pete S/ SP February 24, 2018 at 20:00

    I like your suggestion about the effects of bocage on command and control. Seems to tally with that I’ve read of the fighting in that sort of terrain.



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