Archive for the 'Game design' Category

The March of Progress: final artwork

Showing off Klemens Franz‘ artwork and layout!

Rules and scenario booklets

Introductory scenario: hand of cards for Orange player

Age of Marlborough scenario cards

New style of boxes!

Boxes for The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress

From our soon-to-be-finished Kickstarter at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1031232934/the-ming-voyages-and-the-march-of-progress.

There are only 2 Tomatoes…

…and they are Jordi and Alvaro!

Although 2Tomatoes do sell a lot of The Walking Dead products, there is a lot more to it than zombies. 2Tomatoes is a relatively new Spanish publisher based in Barcelona. They have a good range of products, including Belfort, Yokohama and Root, amongst others, mostly localised for Spain and France. We were impressed by their ability to work successfully across companies in different countries with different cultures and to create their own products too.

Our first partnership with 2Tomatoes was for Tony’s excellent Guilds of London, back in 2016.

Cover of the Spanish version of Guilds of London

Then, as with our colleagues at Frosted Games, we embarked on the Pocket Campaigns series, starting with the 2nd Edition of The Cousins’ War. I must admit I didn’t know that the Wars of the Roses would be a popular topic outside the English-speaking world, but it has proved to be welcomed by both Spanish and German players. There is a possibility we may be looking at a French edition too, if we collectively decide to make a third edition.

Now we have embarked on the next phase of the Pocket Campaigns series together, with The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress. Our Kickstarter has funded within 42 hours of its start! This is mainly due to the expertise of Jordi and Alvaro, who have really shown us a thing or two about marketing (not one of SSG’s strong points).

 

2Tomatoes in their own words: “We met at uni and after having adventures more or less all over the world we founded the company with a simple goal in mind: make games that are different, that stand out. We’re very passionate about what we do and we only publish games that we love. It is a lot of work but we can live with the burden. Expect more from us soon…

“We fell in love with The Cousins’ War in the first game. Simple rules yet meaty decisions in a small box for 2 players. It’s not only a great game, but also an amazing product. When we tested The March of Progress & Ming Voyages some months ago we felt the same way. It was an easy decision to make to join SSG Pocket Campaigns series.”

Frosted Games with a cherry on top

As you’ll know from elsewhere in this blog, we at Surprised Stare Games have partnered with 2Tomatoes Games and Frosted Games for our latest presentations, The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress. We’ve had a long association with Matthias and his team. Our serious co-publishing history going back to Guilds of London in 2016, though I think we had some expansions in the inventive Advent Calendar that Frosted produced around that time. Besides their help in bringing our games to the German market, Matthias has also generously helped us, a small UK indie company with no paid staff, to navigate the intricacies of the German VAT system – for which I am personally very grateful!

In 2018, we co-published The Cousins’ War 2nd edition, also including 2Tomatoes, to form our Pocket Campaigns partnership.

CW_gameboard_back_picOnly

More recently, Frosted Games published the German version of:

our solo science fiction game, designed by Tony and illustrated by Alex Lee. But why are Frosted Games special? Well, in their own words:

“Frosted Games is meant to be just that: providing games, that are done to perfection. As you would finish a marvelous cake right up to the frosting. Frosted Games is a small publisher focusing on a select group of excellent games – as long as they are innovative or if their mechanisms are deeply intertwined with their theme. We publish historical highlights like Watergate or expert mindbenders like Cooper Island, but also localize exciting titles like Dawn of the Zeds, Lux Aeterna or Sidereal Confluence. Frosted Games‘ hallmark is excellence in games, both in gameplay as well as in execution.

We love the Surprised Stare Games designs because they combine what we stand for and love: innovative mechanisms wrapped in an enticing thematic coat of history. It is a great way to make history a fun thing and we even have a line for this in Germany called „Playing History“. The Pocket Campaigns are a great addition to this line and we are happy to partner with Alan and Tony.”

Their track record of excellence certainly bears out their aims.

Our Kickstarter campaign for the Pocket Campaigns games The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress went live today.

 

The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress Kickstarter is now live!

It’s the first Kickstarter we’ve done ourselves, so we’re a bit excited!

Here’s the link to the project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1031232934/the-ming-voyages-and-the-march-of-progress

Additionally, I’ve just updated the online rule books for the games, as an added bonus. These aren’t final layouts with artwork, but they’re very very nearly final text:

The March of Progress rules: http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MarchOfProgress/TMoP-Rulebook_ForKickstarter.pdf

The March of Progress scenarios: http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MarchOfProgress/TMoP-Scenarios_ForKickstarter.pdf

The Ming Voyages 2-player rules: http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/Ming/TheMingVoyages_2-playerRulebook_ForKickstarter.pdf

The Ming Voyages solo rules:

Click to access TheMingVoyages_SoloRulebook_ForKickstarter.pdf

Pocket Campaigns in a Can(nes)

SSG is not at The International Games Festival in Cannes in person, unfortunately. However, thanks to 2Tomatoes, our new games The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages are being advertised, so we’re there in spirit!

The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress at The International Games Festival at Cannes. Thanks to 2Tomatoes for being there. And to Bez for the picture.

Our Kickstarter for the games starts on Monday 24 February 2020 at 17:00 UK time.

 

The Ming Voyages: Treasure and Conquest for 2 players

The Ming Voyages is one of our new Pocket Campaigns games. It’s the closest to the first Pocket Campaign, The Cousins’ War. David J Mortimer and I designed it as a different take on the multi-use cards and separate dice-based battle system introduced in the earlier game.

The Ming Voyages box 3D

The Ming Voyages box 3D

The initial idea was that an asymmetric 2-player game would be very interesting, in contrast to simply drawing from the same deck and having identical starting positions. The Ming Emperor starts with 3 cards and draws 2 cards per round creating a hand of 5 cards. The Barbarain Overlord starts with 4 cards and draws none. Players swap hands when each one has played a single card. Then, rinse and repeat.

As in The Cousins’ War, a player can use a valid action in their opponent’s turn, and part of the game is to limit the efficacy of these extra reactions. For the Ming Emperor, the added complication is that only actions keyed to completed voyages – each voyage being numbered – can be used as reactions. For the Barbarian Overlord, the least powerful cards have no useable action at all (they can only be used for 1 Command Point on the Overlord’s own turn), and many reactions are positional, so may not always be available. This is balanced by a number of cards whose power for the Barbarians is increased when the Ming have completed 4 voyages.

Examples of cards from The Ming Voyages, near-final artwork

Examples of cards from The Ming Voyages, near-final artwork

This new system enables each player, particularly the Ming Emperor to seed the opponent’s hand with cards that might contain actions useful to the non-active player as reactions. The thematic background to this idea was that the Chinese, throughout their Imperial history and including during the Ming dynasty, used Imperial personnel, agents, traders, courtiers and ambassadors to penetrate into the ‘lands of the barbarians’ (basically, any non-Chinese was a barbarian). Besides the usual rounds of negotiations and trading relations, the Chinese had networks of spies and gift-giving officials, whose purpose was to discover the aims and intentions of potentially hostile peoples beyond their borders. Gifts of silk and other luxuries were bestowed on chieftains and rulers in order to bind them to the Chinese economy, and thereby ward off aggression; at least in theory. From these historical traits, we developed the notion that only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and they effectively choose within limits what cards the Barbarian Overlord receives. At the least they know what’s in the Barbarian Overlord’s hand. The Ming Emperor can take cards out of the stream of cards given to the Barbarian Overlord by playing cards into their reserve, or by timing the use of cards to minimise the Overlord’s ability to take advantage of actions during the Ming turn. The Barbarian Overlord can also do this, but to a more limited degree, because their hand is only what they’ve received from the Ming.

Although it might seem that the Barbarian Overlord is weaker, in fact, besides the obvious attack cards that enable them to invade and conquer Chinese Borderlands, they have many cards that can impact on the Ming’s ability to set sail on voyages by raiding for gold and by disrupting the ocean-going junks. In addition, only the Barbarian Overlord can use Command Points from their reserved cards to reinforce their normal CP actions. Where a normal CP action can produce an attack of 3 Horde pieces, this can be increased to a potentially devastating 6 Hordes using reinforcements.

The Ming Emperor can win a major and immediate victory by completing all 7 treasure voyages. But pressure from the Barbarians on the borders cannot be ignored, because the Barbarian Overlord can win a major and immediate victory by conquering all 5 Chinese Borderlands. If neither player can achieve their major victory, a minor victory is awarded from the number of voyages completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Ming Emperor) and the number of voyages not completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Barbarian Overlord). The Overlord wins a tie, so the Ming Emperor has to be resourceful.

Players operate the battle sub-system with our signature 3 dice each side to resolve invasions and defensive counter-attacks. Rather than bluffing, as in The Cousins’ War, in this version the attacker rolls their 3 dice first, and chooses whether to use reserved cards to re-roll. You can spend each CP on reserved cards for one re-roll of any number of your dice, the target being to get the best triple, double or single that you can muster. Then, once the attacker has finished, the defender rolls their dice similarly, and can also use reserved cards to re-roll. As in the earlier game, a better triple beats an inferior triple, a better double beats a double and a better single beats a single (ties are re-rolled); these result in the loser removing 1 Troop or Horde. However, triples beat doubles, and doubles beat singles – but these are Devastating Blows and the loser removes 2 pieces. Battles continue until only one side occupies the Borderland, so they can be bloody affairs. Of course, as in The Cousins’ War, the luck of the dice can play a part. This wouldn’t be war without a chance element, and you have to take into account in your tactics and strategy that you might unluckily lose or fortunately win.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for The Ming Voyages. If you’d like to know a bit more, Paul Grogan @ Gaming Rules! will be doing a live tutorial and playthrough of The Ming Voyages on Thursday 13 February at 2pm. Please feel free to join us!

The March of Progress: the basics

Here’s a little bit about the basics of The March of Progress, one of our new Pocket Campaigns series games.

The introductory scenario gives you the fundamentals of the mechanics of the game. It’s primarily abstract at this stage; the historical stuff comes in the other scenarios. Each player has a home country card, and between these cards is the neutral country. The maneouvre space is restricted to just these 3 spaces. You start with 1 army each, in your home country, and 2 armies in stock. The neutral country has no armies. Each of your armies is worth 1 combat strength, and your home country can generate 3 VPs whenever you score. The neutral country generates 2 VPs if you control it when you score.

Initial set-up for The March of Progress, Introductory Scenario

Initial set-up for The March of Progress, Introductory Scenario

You have 8 Action cards that enable you to move your armies, attack enemy armies in the same country, recruit new armies, fortify your armies – gaining 1 combat strength in defence -, increase your armies’ strength and finally, score VPs while also returning all your cards back to your hand. Each turn, you each play a card face down, simultaneously reveal the cards, then carry out the actions you’ve chosen in a standard order. Your played cards stay in your discard pile till you play your Score card, at which point you score VPs and get all your cards back into your hand. You can choose when you Score, but you cannot Score unless you have discarded at least 1 other card, so you can’t simply Score every turn.

A key feature of the strategy of The March of Progress is increasing your armies’ combat power. The Strength card enables you to add 1 permanently to all your armies. However, to do this you have to decrease the VP potential of a Country you control. This is a bit like devastating the countryside in order to gain military strength or resources. Ideally, you want to increase your military might by decreasing the VP potential of enemy or neutral countries, not your own, but to do that you’ll likely have to fight, or at least get into the neutral country before the enemy. But you also want to recruit extra armies, which can only happen in your home country, and you want to earn as many VPs as possible from your own and the neutral country, because you win by getting the most VPs. So, there are a lot of choices to make right from the start. Do you advance rapidly into the neutral country with a weak force in order to gain VPs or strength before the enemy arrives? Or do you stay put and recruit, or stay put and strengthen your armies before moving? You only have 1 Recruit card, so before you can recruit your third army, you’ll have to Score – is it worth scoring quickly, but possibly with less VPs, in order to get your third army into play soon? It’s also worth noting that the Strength card that increases the combat strength of your armies only comes into effect after the Attack actions – this reflects the time it takes to deploy new weapons and train with them. So, you might lose a battle with your existing weak army before your new power matures.

A game in progress. As the Blue player has the initiative, they will win the battle in the Neutral Country.

Owing to the multitude of choices that you and your opponent might make, reading your enemy can be a vital part of the game. If you know your enemy is cautious, maybe you can risk a score when they have the option to move, hoping that they will recruit or strengthen their armies, rather than moving into a country you control. But if your enemy is aggressive, maybe you can take advantage by fortifying your armies, and watching the enemy hurl themselves forlornly at your positions. You also need to pay attention to who has the initiative – this can enable you to force the enemy to move first, so you can react accordingly, or even help you to defeat your opponent before they can attack you.

These are the types of choices you’ll need to address in the introductory game. After that, the 4 historical scenarios provide glimpses of the new strategic imperatives from the 18th through to the mid-20th century.

If you’d like to learn more about The March of Progress, Paul Grogan will be running through the game on a live stream video at 4pm on Thursday 13th February. The video will be available online afterwards.

The March of Progress: Marching On!

Thanks to Klemens Franz’s hard work, we now have near-final artwork for The March of Progress, due for launch soon. It’s come a long way since the old days when it was called ‘Politics By Other Means’!

Here’s a picture of WW2 in the West in progress. It’s the biggest of the scenarios, a 2-parter in fact. The Germans start with stronger armies and a better ATTACK+1 card for Blitzkrieg, whereas the Allies can pay to play both their MOVE cards in the same turn, reflecting their potential for greater resources. The Germans have to win both halves to win the scenario, whereas the Allies ‘only’ have to occupy Berlin! The second half of the game introduces German V Weapons and Allied Air Power. This picture includes artwork prior to final layout, so it still has some rough edges – but I hope you get the general glory of it all.

Partly as a result of the development of this scenario, I’m beginning to wonder about the possibility of a World War 2 Total War Pocket Campaigns game!

The Ming Voyages: cards

Some of the cards from Surprised Stare Games’ coming-soon Pocket Campaigns game The Ming Voyages. Near-final artwork.

Size of the cards will be 105mm x 75mm, same as The Cousins’ War 2nd edition.

Artwork by Klemens Franz.

A couple of Pocket Campaigns

Coming soon…

Following on from our Wars of the Roses game “The Cousins’ War” by David J Mortimer, we are continuing our SSG Pocket Campaigns series of small box games with The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages.

The March of Progress (by yours truly) has an introductory scenario The Thirty Years War that sets out the core rules of the game. It uses a limited hand of 8 Action cards per side, ranging from Move to Attack to Recruit. Each player simultaneously chooses 1 card to play each turn, then reveals and carries out the Action. Cards stay discarded until the Score card is played; then, the player regains all played cards and scores VPs. The aim of The March of Progress is to control countries, in order to generate VPs during scoring. The winner is the player with most VPs at the end of the game, unsurprisingly.

There are a further 4 historical scenarios in the box, The Age of Marlborough, Vive l’Empereur, World War 1 in the West, World War 2 in the West. Each scenario changes the set-up and tweaks the rules to give a flavour of strategy in different time periods. The scenarios create a varied and challenging 2-player game with cards, a small number of armies, VP cubes and dice to indicate VP generation and army strength.

The Ming Voyages (by David J Mortimer and myself) is set in the era of the oceanic treasure fleet voyages led by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He. One player is the Ming Emperor trying to complete all 7 Treasure Voyages as well as protecting the Chinese Borderlands from invading barbarians. The other player controls the 3 disparate barbarian factions trying to settle on the Borderlands with China.

The Ming Voyages has a similar approach to The Cousins’ War with multi-function cards for actions or command points. However, it’s asymmetric – only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and the 2 players swap hands at the end of each turn. This means the Emperor knows what’s in the Barbarian player’s hand. The Emperor wins automatically if he completes all 7 voyages. The Barbarian wins automatically if he occupies all the Chinese Borderlands. As in The Cousins’ War, players can exploit out-of-turn actions. Battles can occur in the Borderlands. Here, players use their 3 dice to roll for triples, doubles and singles that are better than their opponent’s rolls. Reserved cards can be used for re-rolls – but if you reserve a card, you don’t get the Action.

We’re currently working on the final artwork for both games. Here’s a sneak peak at The Ming Voyages board (work-in-progress).

Kingmaker: moves afoot!

I’ve been working on a proposed revision to the Kingmaker board using ‘regional’ movement. In this idea, noble pieces using non-road land movement simply move from 1 region to an adjacent region, rather than having to count up to 5 ‘squares’. In this way, players can avoid many of the difficulties and inconsistencies with the original Kingmaker map, and also the slightly counter-intuitive diagonal movement that is available in many places in the original board. Although there are some necessary compromises, the actual distancies moved are similar in the new mechanism compared with the old one.

When a noble piece lands in a new region, the player selects a specific area within the region for the piece to occupy. This enables a noble or stack of nobles to end up in a specific named location (town, city, castle), in the ‘open field’ or on the road network, ready to exploit road movement in a future move. For ease of play, and maybe a bit of historical realism, I don’t force nobles to decide immediately whether they are in a specific location, thereby avoiding potential random plague death; the decision about the noble’s precise whereabouts can be made when a potential hostile force enters the area. However, if your noble is sent to a location by a raid or revolt, then he should be in that location – so, if it’s a fortified town or city, the noble will be risking plague in this case.

We played the revised map last weekend at Eclectic Games, and it will have another outing or 2 at HandyCon this weekend. It was well received. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview. Bear in mind that this is a prototype version for playtesting purposes, based loosely on the old game board; it is not a newly created production version; that will only be commissioned once we have the prototype finalised.

In this map, the purple lines are ‘region’ boundaries, the white lines are area borders. Wooded areas are passable only on roads. I would also note that the current draft hasn’t been fully checked, so there may be the odd line missing or spelling mistake; it’s very much a work-in-progress. Also, many thanks to my wife Charlie for much sterling work on this board. Finally in addition, we’ve not yet addressed the heraldry and any geographical anomalies that fans of Kingmaker have identified.

Combined arms and command in hobby wargames – early thoughts

The following comments are a few early thoughts on combined arms and command in hobby games. I wrote a version of this brief note a while back; now I’ve finished reading Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918-1940 by Martin Samuels, I hope to add a bit more depth to these reflections. I wish I’d read that book before Pete Connew and I wrote the Mission Command Players Manual, because it has an excellent analysis of British and German doctrinal development prior to and in the early part of WW2. It would be interesting to take this forward into the late war period, when practice, on the German side at least, was severely restricted by a lack of experienced officers and men, and a lack of resources in comparison with the Allies. Much of our development of the Mission Command game was focused on how the armies used combined arms to try to deliver successful outcomes. My comments below cover combined arms in WW2 and Napoleonics, owing to my recent activities.

In practice in the real world, co-ordination of combined arms is difficult, and this should be reflected in a model that includes command and control as significant features. This is both a mechanics issue and a decision-making issue for a game-as-model. Mechanics simplified for playability can make co-ordination easier or too easy, or too predictable for players. For example, in a WW2 game, calling in artillery by rolling for availability at point of use is over-simplified. You know in advance the probability of success and can factor that into your planning. Alternatively, if you must put the request in in advance, it has to be co-ordinated in space and time, requiring player decisions and possibly player interactions.

Changing and issuing orders takes time. This is doubly so, if you are trying to co-ordinate more than one unit. Again, in a WW2 context, withdrawing under cover of smoke requires co-ordination of the smoke and the withdrawing unit, which is probably under pressure! Command elements need to communicate both up and down, and sometimes sideways. Commanders must be free to communicate, and inability to or restrictions on communications is part of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. Where mechanics in the game take away the human interaction element, they impoverish the environment’s friction. I’m suggesting that ‘rich friction’ is good in wargames!

It happened inadvertently in a game I played on Saturday. This was a General de Brigade 2nd edition game using the Katzbach 1813 scenario. Towards the end of the game the Prussian C-in-C changed the orders of a brigade to send it in a different direction – but the player moving it failed to implement the change and the brigade kept going on its previous trajectory. When this was discovered, the Prussians were allowed to rewind a turn and correct the move – in accordance with the changing orders mechanic. It would have been better to have retained the realistic friction generated naturally by the players.

More in some later blog posts.

(War)games as models

I’ve been having some game-as-model thoughts over the last few years of a more philosophical than perhaps practical nature. As a way of at least getting them out of my brain, and hopefully as a way of stimulating some discussion, I’ve started to post them here. Tell me what you think!

A played ‘game-as-model’ is an instance or instantiation of a model rather than the model itself. This echoes comments by Volko Ruhnke, who, like me only better, applies systems thinking to games design.

It’s useful to realise this when thinking about game-as-model. It means that there are variables specific to a particular instance of the game. You could think of this as a specific ‘run’ of a process. Individual players have their own unique understanding of their particular role in that game. They also have their own psychological states while playing, and these are likely to vary between different plays of the game. There might be specific scenario details, for example, relationships between terrain components, peculiarities of actual combat elements, and unique mechanisms for the scenario.

Each play of a miniatures game is a unique experience, with fewer similarities between plays than most board games, I think. There are (nearly) always variations in troop composition, and in layout – precisely where terrain is placed will be different – even if the same scenario is being played. In contrast, successive plays of a board game have greater commonalities through perhaps gridded layouts for movement and stricter rules interpretations – firmer rules if you will – especially when compared with an umpired figure game.

However, there may be some general lessons to draw in terms of the interaction of players with instances of the model. One of these lessons may be not to draw too many conclusions from one instance!

I hope to return to this topic in a later post.

Kingmaker: Raids, Revolts and other shenanigans

I don’t want to change the Kingmaker Event deck much at all, as so much of the flavour of the classic game comes from there. One of the basic mechanisms in the Event deck is to break up turtling stacks of nobles through raids and revolts that send powerful office-holders hither and yon. Part of the game is to be in a position to exploit this, either by picking off individual travellers, or by instigating a major engagement before a key noble can get back into position.

Offices can give a noble many more troops, the Marshal of England doubly so, in that he has 100 extra troops anywhere in the country, whereas others have only 50, with some having extras in restricted geographical locations. However, allocating the Marshal of England and the Bishop of Norwich to Mowbray for example isn’t a great idea. In the original game, this would be the cards for that allocation:

 

It’s not obvious to a new player why this might not be a good idea. A difficulty for new players is not knowing the details of who gets sent where by the Raids and Revolts in the Event deck. I think one way to help resolve this issue is to put more information on the Court deck cards to reference the Events that might occur. At the moment, I’ve put a simple number at bottom left in square brackets – this probably needs a better graphical and layout treatment, but it’s a start:


Although Mowbray in this example has 160 starting troops, there are 16 cards in the 90 card Event deck that move him involuntarily around the country. That’s slightly more than 1 in 6 times per Chance Phase. So, in a 4-player game, he’s likely to get moved approximately every other round (1 Chance Phase per player). This grossly reduces his effectiveness, and you need to take this into account when allocating the cards.

Hopefully, putting some of this information on the cards will help. I wonder whether increasing the information to ‘Events: 4/90’, ‘Events: 11/90’, ‘Events: 1/90’ might be better – at the expense of more clutter.

Kingmaker: Red-faced

Hmmm. The colours on the Events cards didn’t work. My print facilities failed to differentiate between the 2-1, 3-1 and 4-1. Now revised:

Not exactly pro graphics standard, but I hope good enough.

Playtests of Kingmaker upcoming: Sat 11 January at Eclectic Games in Reading; HandyCon 17-19 January.

Kingmaker: Events, dear boy, Events

I’ve been re-doing the Events Deck to make the lookup of odds easier for players to process. I’m using a bit of colour and a bit of layout amends. I’m still unsure whether to completely overhaul Events card wording (for clarity and consistency) – that sounds to me more like a final production process, so I may not. Also, I’m pondering the whys and wherefores of revising the Event content; I’m wary of that, because the ubiquitous Peasant Revolts, along with Marshal to Black Heath, are iconic.

However, there are 90 Event Deck cards – it takes a while to scan, prep, stick ‘em into InDesign and then add stuff and check! Here are a couple of examples:

Without InDesign and Photoshop (other s/w programmez are available) this would have been pretty much impossible. I now have an intimate knowledge of the makeup of Kingmaker cards. Apparently, left align wasn’t a thing in those days, and neither was consistency of positions on a card. Also, consistency of font size and CAPS was not pursued. Ah, well sans DTP, I guess it was very tricksy.

The ‘victory block’ will match up with the lookup table, currently much like the original in the Gibson’s rules, but with added colour and amended heading. This will be subject to proper design and layout by graphics experts – this is just my prototyping.

xref_combat2_sample

Continuing…

Airfix Battles: Juno Regina

I’ve been dreaming up some scenarios for Open Battles, our working title for the extension to Airfix Battles. These are mainly D-Day ones (or shortly thereafter), based on a mixed old and new set of Unit cards and rules.

Rather than getting carried away with the expensive acquisition of actual terrain models, I decided to playtest using map boards derived from artwork from the original game, plus some fairly lame extra pieces of terrain that I’ve created in Photoshop. This all makes it easier to focus on design and playtesting rather than the looks of the thing, so bear with me.

My current Juno Beach board represents a piece of Nan Green beach, assaulted by the Regina Rifle Regiment supported by 1st Hussars. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve not attempted to replicate the full intricacies of either the defences or the attacker’s plan – this would complicate the scenario immeasurably and might threaten to turn it into more of a simulation that we would expect or enjoy.

junoBoard

A Piece of Nan: Draft Juno Beach board

This board has a fairly narrow beach; the beach landing squares are water+sand, the beach proper is 1 square deep. Then, there is the sea wall, displayed here as a normal wall Edge Cover, but tracked vehicles cannot traverse Sea Walls. Note that the slipway “road” is blocked by a concrete block, also Sea Wall Edge Cover. On the grassy “promenade” are a couple of pillboxes, providing inter-locking fire to the front. Behind them is a line of single storey beach huts, then a beach-side road – I think this would now be Avenue de la Combattante, but presumably a different name in 1944!

Courseulles is fairly flat, but there is a slight rise as you move into the town, as you’d expect coming up from the sea front. The buildings are also more substantial. Therefore, I’ve allowed that this would enable firing from the village itself towards and into the beach area over the beach front properties. Though not something you’d normally call a “hill”, I’ve represented this slope as a Gentle Hill in Open Battles terminology. This will be common in our Normandy representations where a few metres of height would be of great importance. More houses continue beyond this rise.

In terms of defences, I’ve provided the Germans with a couple of pillboxes on the beach front and a bunker on the rise into town. The Germans will also be able to stick down some barbed wire. For a more flexible game, you could allow the Germans to place all their Static Defences wherever they liked – mine is a starting suggestion.

In this scenario, I wanted both players to get some experience of the new equipment in Open Battles. For the Germans, this is primarily the Static Defences, and they have very few actual troops: a couple of PaK 40 guns, an MG section and some Osttruppen. Therefore the German player’s actions will be mainly limited to selecting targets, rather than any game of maneouvre. However, the bunker has height advantage on the beach area, so troops in there get +1 range, which may be significant.

I’ve also given the Canadians (using the British Unit cards) fixed Units for this scenario. Sometimes, you just have to work with what you’ve got. In this case, they’re fairly officer-heavy with a Captain for their tanks and a Captain for their infantry. New men and equipment include a Preparatory Artillery Barrage – unlikely to destroy the fortifications, but you may pin the occupants – Engineers, a Sherman DD tank (hull down when in water!), a Churchill AVRE (with Petard Mortar firing AT8) and a Churchill Bridge Layer.

 

Intro to 6mm

Being my first major effort at portraying Mission Command: Normandy troops in 6mm scale.

I’ve started with Mission Command: Normandy’s Introductory Scenario, which pits a British Regimental Group against a German outpost. This blog post just covers the ad hoc British Regimental Group used in the scenario.

IntroScenario_British_6mm

The whole shebang

The Regimental Group consists of an infantry battalion (called a regiment in British terminology) with a tank battalion (ditto), plus supports of a couple of batteries of 25-pounders, one of them self-propelled. The infantry battalion has 3 rifle companies together with a large support company containing 3″ mortars and 6-pounder anti-tank guns, as well as a hefty chunk of universal carriers with machine guns. The tank battalion has 3 Sherman squadrons, each with a 17-pounder armed Firefly element, plus an HQ with a couple of elements of Stuarts for reconnaissance.

TankRegiment

This shows the tank regiment. Each model represents 2-5 real tanks – at full strength, the regiment is over 70 tanks strong. We don’t model the internal structure of the squadrons, so each is represented by 4 models. The Fireflies were distributed on a ratio of 1:3 to the squadrons for the Normandy campaign. Although these were often distributed to troops, we show this as a single Firefly for each squadron. These squadrons are NOT deployed for combat (except perhaps for use in Operations Totalise or Tractable, as these used very unsophisticated tank tactics).

artillery

British artillery

Artillery: Here we have a battery of towed 25-pounders and a battery of Sextons. Note that British field gun batteries at this time were of 8 guns (in contrast to the German’s 4-gun batteries), so each is represented by 2 models. Each has a forward observation officer, the towed battery FOO is transported in a universal carrier, the SP gun battery in a Sherman for protection – for simplicity, we represent the latter as an unarmed Sherman; technically, they were armed, but in any case they had only 1 tank, so this cannot be used as an extra free tank element.

AtGuns

Anti-tank

This is the anti-tank component of the support company, consisting of 2 elements of 6-pounders, plus a couple of PIAT elements. One slight problem with 6mm is that it can be difficult to tell at a glance the PIATs from the LMGs, particularly Brens. These elements would often be parcelled out to rifle companies, rather than centralised.

InfCompany

Infantry Company

The British infantry company is modelled with 7 elements. 2 of them are full-sized integrated infantry elements, represented by 5 figures, usually 1 with a Bren. Then we have 4 reduced size elements: an LMG element, a PIAT element, a 2″ mortar element, and command element; plus a jeep for transport. This construction gives the company a lot of resilience. Each full-sized element can take 5 casualties – 3 will result in replacing it with an LMG element, then each reduced size element can take 2 casualties. So the whole company can take 18 casualties (plus the jeep). It also has some flexibility, as it can move its PIAT element under cover of terrain to protect tank-threatened areas, while the 2″ mortar can give supporting fire to most company areas in the form of smoke or HE, though for decent fire support the company relies on the regiment’s 3″ mortars and the MGs on the universal carriers.

The Regimental Group can easily be run by 3 players: a C-in-C in command of the artillery and maybe support company, while 2 players handle the infantry and tank regiments. A single player can run the whole thing – I’ve done this several times when teaching the game; take it relatively slowly with suitable umpire suggestions, and it works well, especially with wargamers already experienced at other systems. The important point to put across during the game is the command, control and communications situation; the tanks and infantry cannot communicate easily with each other once the action has started, and their lines of command do not link below the regimental group HQ.

Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.

AmericanSetup2

American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.

DSC_0220

Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.

PoundingLeSault

Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.

DSC_0232

Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.

DSC_0236

Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).

DSC_0237

The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).

DSC_0242

Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.

FinalAdvance

Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 5

Blowing Hot and Cold

A key concept in Mission Command is that of a hot situation or a cold situation. Our reasoning is that when it gets “up close and personal”, troops react differently. There’s a strong tendency to keep down, to remain out of sight as much as possible, and generally to avoid being targeted. So, this leads to some changes in actions that troops can take.

A situation is defined as “hot”, if there’s a visible enemy within 25cm or you are shot at within 25cm. This is 500 metres on the ground, so danger is imminent. In some circumstances, you can be shot at within 25cm without being able to see the firing element sufficiently to return fire – you know that they’re “over there”, but cannot pinpoint the fire. You’re still hot. If 1 element in the group is hot, the whole group is hot. Otherwise, the situation is cold.

To understand what this means in practice, it helps to know what you can do with the elements under your control. An element has 2 actions in a turn, unless it’s suppressed, in which case it gets only 1 action. The main actions are things like Move, Shoot and Communicate, and there’s also a bunch of specialist actions like Hedgerow Gapping, Overrun, Demolitions and so on. There are some important restrictions on when an action can be carried out. For example, a Shoot action is only a first action. This means that it’s Shoot then Move, if you want to do both in 1 turn. In this case, the firing element will take a -2 modifier on the firing, representing the reduced time spent shooting because it’s also moving in the time period. So, it’s best to do some forward planning with your elements. Moving in 1 turn, then setting up in Overwatch in the next turn, will enable your forces to immediately engage an enemy group with fire when it comes into view, for example, by moving or by firing itself and thereby revealing its position.

In a cold situation, an element can Move Twice (capital M, capital T) as 1 action. This means it moves up to 2 times its normal movement rate in 1 action. It can then do another Move Twice action as its second action, resulting in it moving 4 times its normal movement rate in 1 turn. An infantry element has a normal movement rate of 5cm (100 metres on the ground), so in a cold situation it can move up to 20cm or 400 metres. This enables us to overcome a common wargame difficulty that troops are fixed to a single, usually relatively low “combat movement rate” regardless of the actual circumstances. As a contrast, in a hot situation, our infantry element cannot do Move Twice actions, but only Move Once actions. It could therefore move up to 10cm or 200 metres in a single turn (2 Move Once actions), half the rate when it’s cold. But doing 2 Move actions in a single turn counts as moving fast, which makes the element more vulnerable to fire, so a more cautious movement is to do a single Move Once action in the turn. Furthermore, if the element has been shot at and suppressed – a relatively common occurrence – it only has 1 action anyway, so can only carry out 1 Move Once action, for 5cm or 100 metres in 1 turn.

Communication is a vital part of Mission Command, and is carried out through Communicate actions. It’s worth noting here that, with only 2 actions, an element cannot Shoot, Move and Communicate in the same turn – you have to choose. In a cold situation, Communicate can be a first action, a second action, or conceivably both. An element receiving a new order as its first action can then start to do it as its second action. However, in a hot situation, troops are more keen on staying alive than communicating, so Communicate can only be the last action of the 2 actions allowed for the element. So, it’s slower to change orders, report back or share information when bullets are flying round your head. This includes Forward Observation Officers in particular, as it can slow down calling in artillery support.

We give numerous examples of hot and cold situations in the Reference Manual and in the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement.

p25_tanksSmoke

A bit of a hot situation

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 4

21 into 6 Won’t Go

hh:mm, 6 June 1944

The evening for the Germans has been unpleasant. Although our weather experts had suggested that the invasion was possible during 5 and 6 June, the weather hasn’t been particularly good, so we hadn’t really anticipated it. Some of our troops had even been on exercises overnight, with blank ammunition. The waiting was expected to continue, and everyone has been enjoying the Normandy butter, cheese, ‘crème freche’ and cider.

05:30 variant: From soon after midnight, local commanders received reports that paratroopers were dropping and gliders were landing in the area of operations. All units were alerted, and local resistance ‘in situ’ was ordered. Very soon the first prisoners were taken. Interrogation has revealed that the British 6th Airborne Division jumped during the night in order to take the bridges over the Orne at Ranville intact. In addition, paratroops have been reported from near Bayeux through to the Seine estuary, with many obviously targeting bridges across the Dives. It’s not yet clear whether this is a raid or the start of the invasion.

It is now 05:30. General Feuchtinger (CO 21st Panzer Division) has been in Paris for a few days and has not yet returned. Unfortunately the Division’s chief of staff is also away, so the Division’s overall leadership has not yet got a grip on the situation. Fortunately Rommel at Heeres Gruppe B HQ has acted quickly, has placed the 22 Panzer Regiment commander (Oberst Oppeln-Bronikowski) in temporary command and given direct instructions to the more junior staff at post. Rommel himself is expected at Divisional HQ in St Pierre sur Dives shortly. Combat formations of 21 Panzer Division have set up all round defensive positions during the night, and have started local counter-attacks. Our standing orders are to go into action immediately in the event of an airborne landing, using all available local forces, and including the whole division. In the absence of Feuchtinger, Rommel, via 7th Armee, has attached the Division to 84th Korps (General der Artillerie Erich Marcks) and ordered it to attack the airborne troops in its area, including in particular those around the Orne bridges to the north and those threatening Caen and the Dives bridges.

10:00 variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

Fortunately, Rommel had managed to persuade Hitler that a face-to-face conference initially planned for early June should wait, so the German high command has been able to get some grip on the situation. Unfortunately, communication with Heeres Gruppe B during the night has been disrupted, and orders for a night attack had not been given. So 21st Panzer Division had set up a defensive front during the night and early hours of the morning, while the coastal division (716) has been subjected to extreme assault. General Feuchtinger has been in Paris for a few days, but has returned immediately on receipt of news of the attack. He has received orders from Rommel to organise an attack by the entire Division against the easternmost beaches and the airborne forces to the north. It is now 10:00.

Historical variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

“Gradually we were becoming filled with anger. The clearance for an immediate night attack, so as to take advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come… The hours passed. We had set up a defensive front where we had been condemned to inactivity… But clearance was strictly denied… If Rommel had been with us instead of in Germany, he would have disregarded all orders and taken action… Finally, [we’ve been ordered] to attack at once, with the whole division, east of the Orne…” [from Panzer Commander, The Memoirs or Colonel Hans Von Luck]

But now new orders have come from 7th Armee: “The bulk of the 21st Panzer Division will attack the enemy forces that have landed west of the Orne; only elements of von Luck’s combat group will attack the bridgehead east of the Orne.”

It is now 16:20 (!) and the attack starts.

Frankreich, Rommel bei 21. Pz.Div.

Rommel inspects the 21st Panzer Division

The purpose of this scenario, or rather set of scenarios, is to give some insight into the tactical situation facing the 21st Panzer Division and British 6th Airborne Division on 6 June 1944. As there is more coherent information about what happened on the eastern side of the Orne around Ranville than the western side around Bénouville, I’ve focused most of the action on the Ranville side. With up to 4 players per team, we recommend that the forces should consist of around a Brigade or so; roughly 2 to 4 battalions plus supports. Historically, Von Luck’s kampfgruppe (east side of the river) consisted of:

  • 4th Company, Panzerregiment 22 (Kortenhaus’ outfit, which is one reason his book covers this in some detail; see Notes from the Front 3)
  • 2nd Battalion, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • 9th and 10th companies
  • 3rd Company, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • Assault Gun Battalion 200
  • Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21 (though this didn’t arrive till after midnight, so can effectively be discounted)
  • Elements of 716th Infantry Division

The British had 5th Parachute Brigade. On the eastern side of the Orne, this consisted of 12th and 13th Parachute Regiments, plus D Company, 2nd Battalion, the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, who had taken the bridges in the night. Plus supports. This, again, provides a solid set of forces for up to 4 players. With more players, it’s relatively easy to add in a small force on the western side of the bridges; 7th Para Regiment for the British and some companies from 192nd Panzergrenadiers, including their 8th heavy company for the Germans.

Both parachute battalions were comparatively weak early on, but later in the day they got stronger as more paras rallied to the drop zone. Therefore, it’s important to increase the parachute battalions’ starting strengths when playing later variants. For example, 3rd Company of 13th Regiment was dropped wildly astray, so this unit can either be omitted entirely or included as a fairly random late reinforcement.

One of the important things to bear in mind in this set of scenarios is that the British forces here are by no means the lightly-armed troops surrounded by masses of Panzers that legend would have us believe. Supporting forces included a strong battery of AT guns landed by glider that we represent by 3 6-pounder models and 1 17-pounder model. The paras also have access later in the day to 3 25-pounder batteries of the 76th Field Artillery from 3rd Infantry Division, as well as 6″ and 4″ naval gun support from HMS Mauritius. The naval guns are the equivalent of 4 medium artillery models and 2 field artillery models. So, from mid-morning at the latest, 5th Parachute Brigade will be able to use as much artillery firepower as the whole of 21st Panzer Division’s complement. However, in the earliest time variant, this firepower will not be available at the start.

HMS_Mauritius_firing

HMS Mauritius firing

Both the inaccurate drops of the paras and the disparate left behind elements of 716th Division can be modelled by the use of pre-written Event Cards. These can be pre-programmed as timed “injects” into the scenario, or used through the umpires judgement to spice things up. A further fun event that we’ve used is the intervention of the German navy, as depicted in this photo (in contrast to the one above).

GermanNavyInAction

German gunboat on the Caen Canal – 6 June 1944

Details of 21 into 6 Won’t Go are on our website.

Mission Command: Normandy – Update on production

The Reference Manual is now being printed! Copies should be here in less than a week. A second proof of the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement is due shortly, then I’ll press the button on that one as well. I needed a second proof because I’ve made a few last-minute additions I’d like to check on paper.

The lead times have always impressed me (I’m easily impressed!) about producing wargames rules, rather than my more usual board games. With the wargames books, once the layout is done, I can have copies here from Lulu within a week (sometimes quicker), whereas making board games – wooden pieces, much cardboard, cards, rulebook, and so on – can take up to 10 weeks from a UK or Europe manufacturer, not to mention further flung factories. Even a small card game can take 4 weeks, though a print-on-demand outfit can be quicker.

What do you get in our Mission Command: Normandy package? The Reference Manual and the players’ supplement are full-colour inside and out A4 paperback books. In addition, we have lots of support materials – scenarios, chits, area fire templates and play aids – available for free download from our website (http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/).

The Reference Manual is 128 pages long, aimed at umpires, those running or organising games and keen players. In addition to the sections you’d expect about the rules (sequence of play, actions, command, terrain, movement, shooting, spotting, morale and air), it has a section on how to umpire the game, including how to write your own scenarios. It has extensive tables at the back for reference, plus some sample unit organisations. The umpires section has an introductory scenario for umpires to use as an introduction to new players.

Playing Mission Command: Normandy is the supplement for players. It’s 80 pages long and is aimed at introducing the game, but without overwhelming players with the technicalities. It’s focused very much on getting inside the game quickly and easily. However, it’s not absolutely essential to read or own the book to play the game – it’s a helping hand. The introductory scenario in the Reference Manual is repeated here, but naturally only the material for players is included, and there’s a wealth of information about how to get started. The book also has sections on how to fight using the three main national forces in Normandy, the British and Commonwealth, US and German armies. We’ve focused on differences between these armies and how they’re reflected in the command, control and communications setup. The final part of the book is a fairly extensive example of combat, for which we’re also producing a video.

All this means that we’ll be ready for Salute in just over 3 weeks time! Now, where’s that scenario I’m writing…

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 3

21st Panzer Division, neu

An early part of my research into Normandy ’44 for the game was to look at 21st Panzer Division. As the closest Panzer division to the beaches, I figured it was a reasonable place to start, especially in the light of the controversies  – or discussion points at the very least – about the division’s D-day counter-attack. I thought it might be an idea to present a multi-variant “what-if” set of scenarios looking at this. It also meant I could indulge in getting hold of models of some of those French conversion vehicles produced by Major Becker’s workshop; the U304(f) half-tracks, Hotchkiss tank chassis with PaK 40, the 10.5 and 15 cm guns on Lorraines, and so on. This mini-project was assisted greatly by the publication of Werner Kortenhaus’ history of the division, initially in German and later in English. This source gives authoritative details of the strength and deployment of the division, so could form the basis of the scenario from the German point of view. There are, of course, loads of books in English on the British, Canadian, French and Polish units.

21PzDiv-PzGr-125-1-1Ko-3

Most of a “gepanzert” Panzergrenadier company

Representing these units for 6 June 1944 in Mission Command: Normandy isn’t particularly difficult, though some care is needed in regard to some of the French converted vehicles and the tanks of II/Panzerregiment 22. At this point the division was pretty much wholly up to strength; there’s even a 1 June strength return to refer to. A Panzergrenadier company looks like this in our command card structure:

  • Coherent infantry element with command
  • 2x coherent infantry elements
  • HMG element
  • 4x U304(f) half-track elements
  • U304(f) half-track element with 3.7cm gun
  • U304(f) half-track element with 8cm mortar (with support element for dismount)

The “coherent” elements each have small arms, LMG and Panzerfaust capability and can fire 2 of these 3 weapon systems each turn. Most U304s had a forward-firing LMG mounted on it and a further pintle-mounted one on the back, and this multiplies up the number of MGs in the company considerably. Also, these French conversions (the original vehicles were unarmoured, the German ones are armoured) count as small vehicles, so they’re slightly harder to spot. Theoretically the vehicles can give supporting fire. However, that’s a dangerous practice, because they are very vulnerable. They have only Armour Class 1 (the weakest class) and can be knocked out by almost any AT weapon that hits; even an HMG has a 50% chance up to 300 metres away. The LMGs on the half-tracks were often used to supplement the AA defence of the battalion, which consisted of 3 2cm FlaK 38 mounted on half-tracks. The 3.7cm gun model (at the back in the picture above) represents the platoon leaders’ vehicles. I suspect the 3.7cm gun wasn’t used much at this stage of the war. The mortar could be used from the vehicles, or the element can dismount and use it conventionally.

21PzDiv-PzGr-125-1-1Ko-5

Close-up of the U304(f), converted French Unic P107

The full Panzergrenadier Battalion has 3 of these companies, plus a 4th heavy company with PaK 40 guns on Somua half-tracks, plus the U304s with FlaK 38. Unusually, the first battalion of each of 125th and 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiments was “gepanzert”, the other 2 battalions were lorried. The Regiments also have a 9th company with 15cm guns on the Lorraine tractor and a 10th company with “Reihenwerfer” (20 French mortar tubes on the Somua half-track). The other artillery pieces of the division are mainly 10.5cm field guns on the Lorraine tractor, with a smattering of horse-drawn (!) 122mm Russian guns.

21PzDiv-125-1-advancing

Panzergrenadier Regiment advancing; Reihenwerfer and 15cm guns on Lorraine tractors at the back

The tanks of Panzerregiment 22 are quite interesting. While initially the division wasn’t allowed to have German equipment, hence the French conversions, by June 1944 the division had been strengthened by replacing obsolete French tanks with Panzer IVs (not Panthers and Tigers as Allied intelligence surmised). Incidentally, the reconnaissance battalion was equipped, I think entirely, with German vehicles, probably because there were no suitable or reliable French equivalents. The 1 June strength return suggests that the whole of the 1st battalion of Panzerregiment 22 was equipped with Panzer IVHs, while the 2nd battalion still had only about 40% Panzer IVs, the rest being a mix of Somua S35 and Hotchkiss H38 vehicles. On the other hand, there are references to the rest of 2nd battalion having Panzer IVs “in June”, so I like to think that a couple of companies of Panzer IVs were rushed to the regiment at Falaise still in their factory paint jobs! There seems no evidence that the French tanks of the division were used in anger, which must have been a relief to the crews.

Our representation of Panzerregiment 22 would be as follows (roughly 4 real vehicles to each model):

Regiment HQ: Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)

1st Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)
  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Companies: 4 Panzer IVH

2nd Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 (command)
  • 5th: 2 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 6th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Hotchkiss H38, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 7th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 8th: 2 Panzer IVE (with short 7.5cm gun)

Or, replace the Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 with a Panzer III and all obsolete tanks with Panzer IVH; for the 6 June scenarios, paint them with the dark yellow factory paint only and no camouflage, presuming the crews had no time to paint them up properly.

More about the scenario next time.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 2

Scales

One of the first questions I hear from fellow wargamers is often “What scale (of miniatures) is it for?”

As a member of the “cardboard chits are fine” school of wargaming, I’m not offended by the use of unpainted figures on the tabletop, or the use of a block of wood with “Sherman” scribbled on it for a tank . I’m not really concerned about over-sized or under-sized models, or whether a piece of cloth can adequately stand in for a cornfield. So, as you might suspect, the design of Mission Command is not focused on a particular scale of figures. Instead, it’s basing that is important; not absolutely vital, but important.

We use 50mm frontage bases for full-size infantry elements, and around half that for reduced-size support elements. This means you can use troops from various other popular game systems. The full-size infantry elements have 5 or 6 figures, the reduced-size support elements 2 or 3; these are just for ease of recognition, so you could use other numbers of figures on the bases. With a 1 millimetre to 2 metre ground scale, this gives us an infantry element of 25 to 50 men a frontage of about 100 metres. A closed up company group could have a frontage of, say, 200 metres on the ground, while it could be extended, with up to 5cm gaps between elements to maintain communications, to about 500 metres, and even more with fixed line communications. The important thing is that players can readily see what the stuff represents. Similarly with vehicles. Frontage for vehicle models, each model representing 2 to 5 real vehicles, is 25mm to 30mm. Depth of bases isn’t critical.

Main Attack

The fairly minimalist approach to visuals

We don’t track time accurately. This is quite deliberate, because we were conscious of that “hurry up and wait” feeling expressed by many in combat; not much happens for a long time, then it all happens at once. So, a round (1 turn per side) is a variable length anywhere between 2 or 3 minutes up to a quarter of an hour. If the scenario requires people to know about durations, we use an average of 10 minutes per round. Interestingly, this gives us real time and game time at about the same pace in a moderately sized game with experienced players.

How to model infantry organisation was a bit of a challenge. We wanted to show different weapon types, so that decisions on where to deploy troops was important, but we didn’t want to overload players with micro-management. Our compromise was to make a “group” of elements of company size the smallest unit that would normally receive orders. This meant we didn’t need to model organisational structures below company level (platoons, and so on), but we could show the firepower capabilities of a company, together with its resilience. In addition, players can quickly “do the same thing” with all the elements in a company for speed of play. We have the full-size infantry elements with small arms and integrated LMG firepower (together sometimes with anti-tank, such as bazookas), and the reduced-size with only 1 weapon type, LMG, HMG, PIAT, flamethrower and so on. The larger element has the ability to absorb 3 casualties, then be replaced by a reduced-size element. These smaller “support” elements can only absorb 2 casualties. This means that in total a company group can absorb between 15 and 20 casualties. In contrast, a tank squadron would be about 4 models, each 1 representing 2 to 5 real vehicles. But each hit destroys a model, so armoured vehicle elements have a lot of firepower and manoeuvrability but little resilience, so they can’t really hold ground.

Gun elements are similar to tanks, 2 to 5 real ones per model, usually with separate vehicle tows represented by vulnerable vehicle models. Aircraft too are the same numerical scale as tanks (2 to 5 per model), but pretty much any physical scale will do – they’re up in the air after all.

In essence, the purpose of the figures and models is simply to represent the real thing, such that a participant can recognise what they are (though a German tank can always be represented by a Tiger till it can be seen close-up!). The game is not prescriptive about cosmetics, though we do try to make it look good for exhibition games.

A tanker's eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

One of my favourite pictures. A tanker’s eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

Oh all right… we normally use 15mm figures, because that’s what our main Frome group of players generally wants to use for WW2. However, I also recommend using 6mm figures, because its much cheaper.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 1

The full colour, final published release version of Mission Command: Normandy will be launched on 6th April 2019 at Salute in the London Excel centre. It’s been many years a-coming; my archives go back to 2007, and our first game approximating to Mission Command took place on 5th April 2008. In recognition of this very long gestation period and the release of the final Reference Manual and Playing Mission Command: Normandy players’ guide, I’m writing a few blog posts to describe the game.

Mission Command: Normandy Reference Manual cover

Reference Manual cover

In short, Mission Command is a system for umpired World War 2 tactical and operational level simulation-style wargames using miniatures. It’s designed by myself and my brother-in-arms Peter Connew. Pete leads the Abbeywood Irregulars, a now Frome-based wargamers group. Both of us have been playing and designing wargames for several decades in a variety of periods. Although we’ve played the Mission Command system across several theatres – mainly late war Normandy and Eastern Front, but also dabbling in the North African theatre with our late friend Stephen Welford – when we decided to publish something, we focused on Normandy 1944. This was largely because we’d played more games in this theatre than any other, and we had ready access to figures and interest from our compatriots in the Abbeywood Irregulars.

Part of our reason for starting and finishing this project was that we (and our fellow Frome-ish wargamers) were dissatisfied with the then-existing WW2 miniatures rules back around 2007. This is, I hope, reflected in our stated Mission Command approach, which:

  • captures the essence of tactical and operational combat command from roughly company level to division level without real warfare’s bloodshed, fear, death and destruction
  • models the differences in how different armies fight
  • reflects World War Two practice of tactical and operational command, control and communications.

Looking back at a designer diary I wrote back in 2015: “We favoured gritty realism over slick presentation, and historical authenticity over ‘hollywood wargaming’. We weren’t afraid of weighty tomes (for Napoleonics, our favoured rules were General de Brigade), nor did we shy away from excessive versioning or as some might put it, correcting, of published rule sets (DBM with slips of amendments stuck in was favoured over the more professionally presented Field of Glory).” So, we were prepared to go for more of a simulation approach than most modern wargames, while still retaining the idea of a “fun, but serious” experience.

The Mission Command system is not a “professional wargame”. It’s not been designed with the education and training of military people in mind, nor for the purposes of analysis, and therefore it lacks explicit evaluation and debriefing sections. The game system can, I believe, be readily adapted through scenario design to more educational or analytical purposes, and we do try to “offer a safe, vicarious reflection of some of the situational and decision dynamics associated with armed conflict” (Professor Phil Sabin, Connections UK, 2013). We hope that our umpires and players might learn something, as well as participating in an enjoyable and challenging wargame.

Mission Command addresses a problematic command level for wargames, namely between battalion and division. So, it doesn’t have only a small number of troops, as in a skirmish game, and neither does it go up the scale sufficiently to abstract out the difficulties of different troop types and their interplay. Quite the opposite: we attempt to take on the difficulties of command, control and communications (as well as the mechanics of moving the troops around and shooting at things) at the level where there is immense articulation of units, and where local tactical success might be converted into operational achievement. Regarding the complexity of this task, we worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something that we fear can happen with wargames that over-simplify combat at this level for reasons of playability. On the other hand, we naturally wanted a playable game, so we’ve simplified things where necessary in an attempt to keep the baby in the bath, while reducing the water to manageable levels. Ahem.

In terms of playing Mission Command: Normandy, it’s all about scenarios. While the Reference Manual gives the umpires or other game organisers guidance on setting up and running the game, and the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement describes the game for players, the experience of a specific game lies in the historical or pseudo-historical scenarios designed for it. Some of these are available on the Mission Command website, and others will be designed by other groups. Our hope is that the processes of designing, playing and reflecting on these scenarios will lead participants to a greater understanding of combat in World War 2.

Oh, and if you’re at Salute in April, do drop by and have a chat; we’re at GC15 for our demo game, and TC16 for our trade stand.

PBI US!

At last, I’ve completed the painting of a 15mm regular US Rifle Battalion (1944), in time for our 10 November Frome Mission Command: Normandy game. Pete’s making the other pertinent miniatures: most of a light armoured Division Combat Command. Scale: 1 figure is 5 to 10 men, 1 vehicle/gun/heavy weapon is 2 to 5 real ones.

For those that care, the figures in the figures below are mainly from the Plastic Soldier Company, with a smattering of Peter Pig (57mm gun and crew, most officers) with transports purchased from Mr Ebay. PSCs are Late War US Infantry 1944-45 – I quite enjoyed putting together and painting these – plus US Infantry Heavy Weapons – not so much. I found the latter very fiddly, sometimes seemingly unnecessarily, and some of the weapons are over-sized. But I would stress that the Late War US box is great. The Peter Pig stuff is good, but again the gun itself is over-sized, with a barrel nearly long enough to be a 17-pdr.

Figure 1 – US Rifle Company attacking

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Figure 2 – Close up

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Figure 3 – HQ with some heavy weapons

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Figure 4 – US Rifle Company configured for AT wtih 57mm gun attached. In Mission Command: Normandy, you can supply one of your Rifle Companies with all the spare bazookas held at Battalion (making 4 elements, one’s unfortunately out of shot); the downside is you have to crew them with your own riflemen, so small arms fire is significantly reduced. But that’s a lot of bazookas!

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Figure 5 – the Full Bradley (well, it’s not a Monty, is it?).

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Open Battles Solo Mode: GI Joe versus the Romans

This post is about testing the solo rules in Open Battles with aircraft, using the 2-player version of the scenario I designed for the first anniversary of the Airfix Battles Appreciation Facebook group: GI Joe versus the Romans. Open Battles is our working title for the new game under development by Nick Fallon and I (for Modiphius) as a follow-up to Airfix Battles.

The historical background in brief is that on 15 July 1944 the hard-fought, intense battle for St Lo had not yet been won by the Americans of General Bradley’s 1st Army. XIXth Corps had attempted to outflank Hill 122 to the north-east of St Lo for several days, but stubborn German defence had blunted his lead divisions. Therefore, he called upon the recently-arrived 35th Division to carry out a more direct attack. Approaches to Hill 122 were covered by the villages of Emilie and Les Romains. The scenario represents part of the attack of the Nebraskan National Guard 134th Regiment on the hard-core survivors of the German 352nd Division, the same division that had opposed the Americans at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

I opted for the US in this game, as I’d already played (and lost) as the Germans. For the 2-player and solo versions we use only about half of the battlefield, so that we can limit each Force to 19 Stars apiece.

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Initial German set-up

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German troops. The Captain’s Air Defence Controller attachment is, as you can see, a very new card. He allows the player to buy a Field Fortification in any scenario without needing a Unit tab.

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US set-up. The half-track contains my Engineers led by a trusty Lieutenant. I also have off-table Spitfire and Thunderbolt. Also, my Captain has a Forward Air Controller who can call in air strikes anywhere in line of sight.

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My US troops. I have a preparatory air bombardment – this represents a few Marauders helping out before we go in.

Preparatory bombing: I chose to bomb the known field fortifications, hoping to pin the 88. But not particularly effective, caused a couple of German losses and pinned the PaK40.

My first card is Rolling Thunder, so I launched an immediate air raid on the PaK40 to clear the way down the left flank. Rolling Thunder permits 2 vehicles to Move then Fire, so it’s perfect for a couple of planes. I can target the PaK in the Field Fortifications only because I have the FAC attached to the Captain in LoS of the enemy square; normally aircraft cannot spot things in cover. The A-OK 88 starts the scenario ready to fire, so it opened up on the Spitfire. Brilliant flying from the pilot meant he avoided all 3 potential hits from the gun, completed his strafing run and caused a casualty on the PaK. The Thunderbolt following up decided to strafe and finished off the crew (terrible cover save rolling from the Germans, because they do get +1 on their cover saves in the trenches there).
However, on the very next turn the 88 fired again at the Spitfire (using its normal Order), scored 3 hits again, and this time the pilot’s luck ran out and he was shot down.

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Honours even?

End of Round 1: With the PaK knocked out, both US Infantry Squads have moved up ready to assault down the left flank. German fire has been intense and both have lost men and are pinned.

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End of Round 1: First US attack. Note the barbed wire – these “model” pieces are actually extraordinarily sharp! Handle with care because they’re very realistic!

Calamity in Round 2: My assault got under way, and eventually we pinned the dug-in Grenadiers #5 in front of us by using all our firepower including the half-track; the enemy was also down to 3 men. Then disaster! My engineers were hit by an artillery strike and forced to retreat; my plan had been to get them to clear the barbed wire so Squad 11 could get through. Then the 3 German Grenadiers rallied and charged my pinned squad 8, forcing them back as well. It’s not looking good.

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First attack beaten off. It was so hairy there that my Captain had to engage directly and beat off the Grenadiers himself.

Situation stabilised a bit. US troops regrouped. Another Thunderbolt strike failed, and the plane was damaged . But we eliminated the German Grenadier Unit #5 as well as the PaK, and caused casualties on their other Grenadier Unit (#4). However, that German Unit in the multi-storey building is tough – extra dug-in, plus it has height advantage, so better range than us and can fire over the hedges without them blocking LoS. We suffered a lot from flanking fire.

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Getting ready for another assault.

Round 5: Thunderbolt’s last attack . Coupled with the loss of another squad that retreated off the board in the face of MG fire, it was nearly over for the good guys. I was hit hard by the Engineers’ failure to rally for 3 Rounds – they were supposed to be the mainstay of my attack!

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Got to dig deep now! Squad 11 is about to retreat off-table.

Sudden change of fortune in Round 6: Our attacking Engineers, having eventually been persuaded to get back over the hedge, were immediately pinned in the open again, this time by the enemy’s command team consisting of their Captain and an Air Defence Controller (with just a pistol)! Fortunately, this was a very temporary setback. An Artillery Strike on the pinned German Grenadiers holding us up in the centre of the battlefield caused them to rout, so the flank fire was neutralised. At the same time our engineers rallied straight away (!) and shot down the German commander and his side-kick. This meant we just needed half-a-Star to demoralise them, and this was achievable by taking the empty Field Fortification. So, it looks like the US may have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat!

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German command team is killed.

Final position: Technically, the game ends when the halftrack enters the field fortification square. I’ve adjusted the duration of the game by changing the victory conditions to – Game ends when all Forces of one side are demoralised; so, in a 2-player game, demoralisation of one side automatically means the other side wins. However, you can always play for the final denouement of taking the Pillbox. In this example, the Engineers have AT(6) + 1 for the Mechanised Assault + 1 for the flank attack. They manage to just about knock it out in this example. It’s quite possible that this will take more than one go, so it’s best to be prepared .

This was a very close game. I’d taken 8 Stars of losses, the Germans 9.5 by the end. For a proper assessment of balance, we’d need to play it a few more times.

The Solo Rules seem to be working fine. Important points to remember when reading the Enemy Behaviour table: aircraft are Vehicles! If the enemy is in a good position, don’t override that by interpreting the Enemy Behaviour table in your favour – for example, an enemy Unit in Cover won’t Move as a result of a Default Order if moving doesn’t improve its position or enable it to Fire.

One important point is to add a Default Order clause as the 1st clause of the current version: If the enemy has an unprepared AA gun, carry out an Air Defence Order to prepare it. For aircraft, I’m introducing a method within the AI for enemy planes – but not yet shared with my co-designer Nick Fallon, so I’m keeping it up my sleeve for now.

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Final denouement: a very close finish, the US just squeaked it.

Connections UK 2018

On Wednesday 5 September I nipped down to my alma mater, King’s College London, for probably the best professional wargaming conference in the world, Connections UK. Within the over 200 delegates from across the globe were some of the finest wargames designers you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, this year I could only attend the one day, rather than the whole 3 day conference, but there was a splendid packed programme (and also good nosh too).

There were excellent presentations from Professor Phil Sabin on Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design, and from Brian Train on Game design as a form of journalism. The former covered some of the material in the good professor’s book Simulating War. “Operationalise the dilemmas for players” was a phrase that stuck in my mind. Brian’s perspective was a new one for me, and I’d really like to review my thoughts on it once the transcript / audio has appeared. Matt Caffrey, who introduced the first plenary, mentioned a couple of new books to look out for: his own “On Wargaming” and a forthcoming book “Successful Professional Wargames” from John Curry’s History of Wargaming project.

The second plenary was on Wargame development, rather than design or implementation, and was a very welcome part of the programme. This is one of those areas where we could get into a bit more detail about the nuts and bolts, whereas I have felt that previous conferences had more of a focus on selling wargames to potential professional users than on advancing the craft. Dave Manley had an interesting presentation on nesting 3 games within the topic of conflict in the High North (the Arctic). It highlighted the difficulty of nesting, in that the implementation of a follow-on game can be perceived as very dependent on outcomes from the first game. Much of the development here is how to get credible traction with the follow-ups without predetermining too much – or in short, fudging it. Players need agency and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to have it. Volko Ruhnke gave a stimulating talk on model calibration, a central point being related to a systems thinking approach: calibration is the process of making your game outcomes interesting for the purpose of your game, as opposed to being accurate (true to reality). He involved his audience in a striking interactive session modelling the spread of an epidemic disease in less than 10 minutes including explanation. This involved a couple of simple rules: (1) If you are touched on the shoulder once, you must touch 3 others on the shoulder (you’re infected); but (2) if you are touched twice, you sit down (you’re dead). The point was that we could easily tweak the design to give interesting results about how to prevent spread or to experiment with different lethalities. This approach to calibration has direct impact on my own designs, and it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the game when wrestling with development problems as a result of testing – for my own Mission Command: Normandy game, I’m focusing now much more on the player perceptions of command, control and communications rather than on mechanics, because the purpose of the game is to show differences in those areas.

The Games Fair is a central part of Connections. This year, there were about 20 games on offer during the afternoon and evening sessions. These ranged from the historical Western Approaches Tactical Unit Wargame, based on the exercise used during 1942-5 to help to train naval officers, through a modern naval wargame used in the education of postgrad naval architecture and marine engineering students, to Phil Sabin’s excellent brand of WW2 dogfighting, as well as the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset and the Strike! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame, both already used by the UK military.

I played Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers game, a cunning asymmetric abstract game with a squared board. The COIN player uses relatively few pieces on the squares, and the Guerrilla player has relatively large numbers of pieces played on the nodes. The COIN player takes in a fashion much like draughts, whereas the Guerrilla has to surround the COIN pieces. My interest was in its simplicity and how it was aligned to its purpose – showing the different approaches of each side; particularly in the light of my own abstract conventional historical strategy micro-game The March of Progress. As it happens, my own game has a couple of asymmetric scenarios, and it’s great to see how the world’s master designer at this type of game works his magic.

The key note address was by Volko Ruhnke on “Wargames and Systems Thinking” – so that’s 2 of my primary interests in 1 session! I won’t attempt to cover Volko’s address here in detail – however, I commend it to you for reading/listening, if and when it’s available on the internet. One of his main points was that wargames start out as mental models in the head of the designer. They’re simplified in accordance with their purpose. When you produce a wargame (in other words, when it’s out of your head), it’s then an external model subject to use and critique by others. This is a good thing. When we have many external models, we can synthesise them in order to get closer to reality. Many perspectives and many types of modeling media will get us closer to reality, as the different types have different strengths and weaknesses. So, implications for defence (and in my view for a discussion of history too) are to use a mix of models, a mix of people and to involve model users (consumers of models, if you will) in model building. It was a very stimulating talk.

Apart from the sessions themselves, an absolutely key component of the conference is chatting with leading experts in the field. I’m very grateful to so many fellow conference goers for putting up with my comments and also for engaging in constructive discussions.

The aim of Connections UK is “To advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.” From my viewpoint, as a hobby gamer and commercial designer, it’s a highly successful conference, enabling the linking of professional wargamers and designers with those who wargame as a hobby and those of us involved in design for a variety of purposes. Though I’m not a “professional wargamer”, I’m keen that my designs might pass on some historical lessons to other wargamers. Connections UK gives a great many useful perspectives, and I hope to keep on going back to Kings.

It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Air Today, Done Tomorrow

Update on the Open Battles draft

Open Battles rules drafting continues apace. I’ve written up the resolutions to the air rules – now a bit simpler, I hope, so more fitting for the Airfix Battles oeuvre. I’m also quite pleased with my little icon for air Units: BlackPlane, though it will probably need to be re-drawn better, so it’s iconic at smaller size. Nothing says WW2 aircraft like a Spit!

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, didn’t have aircraft. We’re adding them in to Open Battles, but keeping it simple, because it will remain a basically on-the-ground game. I’ve shown 2 or 3 draft Unit cards on the Official Airfix Battles Facebook group, so folks can get a preview of how we see the aircraft operating in the game.

SpitfireIX ME109G

The basic anatomy of the aircraft rules is that each Unit is 1 plane, and they start off-table at their airfields. You use a Vehicle Move Action to bring a plane on, which changes its status from “Ready for Take-off” to “Engaged”. You can place the plane model anywhere convenient on the tabletop, because they don’t obey the same movement rules as ground troops. To carry out an attack, play a Vehicle Fire Action – then put your aircraft next to the target (no extra Move Action required) and shoot, using air to ground or air to air as appropriate. Most of the late war aircraft have AT and MG as well as AA weapon types. Rockets and bombs are commensurately better AT, as you’d expect.

Once you’ve carried out a ground attack, you turn the Unit card to show RETURN TO BASE, and it automatically goes away in Clean-up (no further Order needed). Turn the Unit card again to show REFUELLING, so your planes effectively skip the next Round and then can come back.

These cards are not yet final. We’re currently thinking that the “basic” late war fighter, like the Spitfire IX, should be 2 Stars, rather than 1, so that early war planes can be just a single Star, and obviously less effective. Perhaps MG(8) is a bit too much as well, so this might get dialled down a tad. The Me109 Ace would then be 3 Stars.

You’ll need Commanders with Air Unit tabs, so we’re developing these as both Officer Pilots and ground-based air controllers with Forward Air Controllers too.

We’ve also covered anti-aircraft fire. After wrestling a little with the balance of guns like the 88, we decided that AA guns can fire usually fire in 2 ways. First, they can shoot like normal Gun Units, using an Order with a Fire Action. For an 88 on the tabletop, that means you can target any aircraft over the battlefield, owing to its range – smaller AA guns are more limited, but we cannot miss out the 88! Second, you can use an ability called “Defensive Interrupt Fire”. This allows you to shoot at an attacking aircraft before resolving the aircraft’s attack. However, we didn’t want this to be a way for the 88 to shoot down everything that moves as a kind of permanent Interrupt Fire, so you have to prepare the Defensive Interrupt Fire by carrying out a Basic Order that places any Command card from your hand under the AA Unit card – a bit like a glorified Stay Frosty. Then your AA Gun is ready to shoot at aircraft carrying out a Fire Action, but you’ll only get 1 shot of this prepped fire before you have to prep it again. If you can inflict 2 hits on the aircraft, it has to take a Morale Check, and a fail result makes it return to base even though it might not be destroyed. This gives us, subject to more playtesting, a balanced set of Units, I think.

Reflecting the use of MGs against aircraft, we’ve given a blanket AA(1) versus aircraft attacking your square or an adjacent one to all Units with MG weapon types. Again, these Units will have to prep the Defensive Interrupt Fire, so that’s something to look out for if you’re playing against an opponent with aircraft. There will undoubtedly be some 50 cals around in future! Some vehicles might explicitly NOT get this, for example if they’ve only got a Hull MG; that will be on the new Unit cards.

Aircraft don’t follow exactly the same rules as ground troops for Morale results. The Morale Checks are the same, but if they fail, they can’t be Pinned or Retreat or Rout, they simply change to RETURN TO BASE and if they’ve not yet done their mission, they lose it.

Aircraft are likely to be very useful in your Force. However, you’ll need some skill to make them highly effective. For example, you can only see troops in the Open from the air, so you may well need spotters on the ground to help via Attachments and other Units with the Forward Air Controller ability. The enemy might have their own Fighters to keep yours away, so dog-fights can happen in the skies above the battlefield.

Any comments from AB players are very much welcomed!

The March of Progress (was Politics By Other Means): ACW scenario

My 2-player micro-game on strategic aspects of war has changed its name from Politics By Other Means, adjudged too esoteric, to “The March of Progress” (new title courtesy of Charlie, my wife).

In addition, I’m now extending it with another scenario, so that we have a better progression – there was a gap for most of the 19th century. Now we have 18th century Limited War to Napoleonic, then American Civil War (the new one), through World War 1 and finally to World War 2. As there is an Introductory Scenario too, that’s 6 scenarios, which I think is plenty for a micro-game.

Each scenario has various tweaks to make the strategy appropriate to the period. The new ACW one will probably be tweaked so that players start with Economic Points rather than VPs and lose them when they get their cards back by playing the Score card. The Confederacy can start with fewer Economic Points, so they want a quick war (ending by taking Washington quickly), while the Union want a longer affair so their economic muscle can take effect. That’s the overall concept; much work to do on bringing this scenario to fruition.

In the meantime the Napoleonic scenario has been tested a lot more, and is very nearly finalised. Napoleon now gets an extra attack point for each French army he’s using to attack with, in addition to the normal +1 for using the Attack +1 card.

Recent play-testing has suggested that, in order to avoid stalling (a slight problem for a couple of scenarios in certain circumstances) players should earn an automatic single VP when playing their Score card. This appears to be a very elegant solution! As ever, subject to playtesting.

USA soldiers painted

First batch of US soldiers painted. These are 15mm Plastic Soldier Company figures to be used in our Mission Command: Normandy game. I expect to have at least a battalion of regular US infantry done by our November 2018 game.

Speaking of which, we’ve not yet designed the scenario, but I’m keen to do something in Operation Cobra – envelopment and escape.

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Don’t put tanks into built-up areas!

What wargamers know – 1

This is the first  a post in series that I plan to do when I can’t think of anything else!

WW2: Don’t put tanks into built-up areas!

Because they’re vulnerable to hand-held infantry AT weapons, right?
Except, all armies did it during WW2, even late war when bazookas, PIATs and Panzerfausts abounded.

VB

Some possible reasons, in no particular order:

  • The tank crew cannot see what’s in the built-up area, so it’s quite possibly empty. If we don’t take it now, the enemy will occupy it, and then we’ll have to assault it later at much greater cost in lives and effort.
  • In any case, orders are to take the built-up area, and we’ve outstripped our infantry support, so we have no choice.
  • The tank crew are experienced and it’s worked before.
  • Infantry are scared by tanks, so often panic and flee (even if they have AT weapons).
  • Our infantry need close support from direct fire heavy weapons in built-up areas. Tanks are good at that. Especially if artillery is re-deploying forwards, so unavailable.
  • We accept the risk and the opportunity.
  • For the Germans in Normandy: it worked against the Russians, so it should work here.
  • For the British in Normandy: We need to keep infantry casualties down, so we’ll use armour.
  • For the US in Normandy: If we lose some Shermans, we’ve got plenty more. Besides, bocage is just as bad, if not worse.

Caen at Last? Mission Command: Normandy at Abbeywood

On Saturday we gathered together again for our regular Abbeywood Irregulars June Mission Command: Normandy game at the Bennett Centre in Frome, Somerset. Owing to unforeseen (and wholly understandable) circumstances, we were light a couple of players, so we didn’t make as much progress as we all intended. However, there were very complementary comments at the end, so, thank you to our Canadians – Mat, Jon and Pete (stepping up to the plate as artillery controller) – and to John, Lloyd and Richard – our Germans. Additional thanks to Neil who took time out from a busy day elsewhere to take some piccies.

I’d decided to experiment with a highly asymmetric scenario to see how Mission Command rules (and players) coped with the extreme stresses of the fighting around Caen in early July. The idea was to see how a thin line with mobile tactical “fire-fighting” panzers might work. Rather than starting at the beginning of an operation, I picked a final push at the end of a day’s fighting. I chose a  nearly but not quite historical setting of 8 July 1944 (Operation Charnwood) when the Canadians of their 3rd Division were trying to force a way into northern Caen via the well-pounded ground around Authie and Buron. Opposition was provided by their most common foe, 12 SS Panzer Division.

By this date the Germans were over-stretched everywhere, and most senior commanders knew that collapse was only a matter of time. Front line forces were ridiculously thin, occasionally down to just some pioneers, scanty recce troops acting as infantry and even security forces acting as the sole reserve in some sectors. 12 SS Panzer Division tank strength was down to less than half a battalion, and without their Panzerjager battalion (still training in Germany) significant numbers of tanks had to be used in the anti-tank role. 12 SS was due to pull out as soon as possible and relocate elsewhere, conceding all the ground they’d been fighting over for the last month in order to shorten the line. However, the withdrawal was supposed to be under the cover of night; without darkness it’ll be a rout and the rest of the troops to the flanks will be overrun, losing their weapons and equipment. The scenario starts early in the evening; the Germans must keep a toe-hold till nightfall, using their scanty mobile strike force to keep the Canadians at bay.

GermanKampfgruppeCropped

Surely enough to hold a 3 kilometre front? Just to show that you can play Mission Command with relatively small numbers.

It was not easy for the Canadians either. Although they had most of 7 Canadian Brigade, plus nearly 2 battalions of tanks, 2 full regiments of field artillery and 2 squadrons of Typhoons, they were up against a highly motivated opponent on ground the Germans were completely familiar with, dug deep into their bunkers, with many alternative positions, fully prepared defensive fire plans, and covered approaches for counter-attacking tanks, not to mention anti-tank mines and wire. Even though the fighting earlier in the day had broken into the main line of resistance (taking both Authie and Buron – or at least the ruined remains of them), the Canadians hadn’t broken clean through. And 7 Brigade’s orders were to follow up by moving through Caen to take the bridges over the Orne.

I had been a little concerned about whether the scenario was too unbalanced in favour of the Canadians. I need not have worried. It’s very difficult to fight an opponent who you can’t see till they shoot at you (and sometimes not even then), who is dug in and therefore difficult to suppress and who also can shoot-then-move-away (out of sight).

Highlights included

  • very good planning by both sides
  • some very adept manoeuvring by Panthers in particular
  • good mobility from the Germans, even their infantry (but Hitler wouldn’t have been pleased)
  • very good use of smoke by both sides
  • company movement by bounds from elements of the Canadians and very great determination to keep going despite discouraging casualties (good work by Mat in particular). Tanks eventually followed suit, as Jon learned the ropes – his pinning job was successful.
  • a couple of notable Typhoon strikes (Hummels knocked out by rockets, Panthers by dive-bombing)
  • Crocodiles smoking Germans out from bunkers (well, they got out just before they were to be roasted)
  • an in-depth knowledge of the rules by some players – Richard in particular (many thanks for the effort there!).

An overview of the Canadian attack, with bunker-busting Crocs. The Germans are still in the woods just behind the burning bunker, and behind the woods is the massively well constructed Ardenne Abbaye (in smoke), long-standing observation post of the Germans since 7 June. Eventually the Allies took it and used specialist demolitions to level it to the ground.Overview

By the end of our real-time afternoon, we’d run out of time for a definitive conclusion. It looked like the Canadians would make it to their objective, as the Germans had only a single Panther element and a Hummel element in the path of the main attack. But the Germans could argue that they might have managed to engineer a counter-thrust as light fell.

I’ll stick this scenario on the website later in the summer.

I’ll see if I can get some of Neil’s pictures soon!

21 into 6 Won’t Go – scenarios for Mission Command: Normandy

10:00, 6 June 1944
The evening for the Germans has been unpleasant. Although our weather experts had suggested that the invasion was possible during 5 and 6 June, the weather hasn’t been particularly good, so we hadn’t really anticipated it. Some of our troops had even been on exercises overnight. The waiting was expected to continue, and everyone has been enjoying the Normandy butter, cheese, ‘crème freche’ and cider.
Standing orders were that in the event of possible landings by Allied commando or airborne troops, our forces were to attack immediately and independently. We heard the roar of aircraft at about midnight – in fact rather lower than usual…

RommelInspects

21 into 6 Won’t Go is a series of scenarios for Mission Command: Normandy. The first one I’ve published envisages an attack by 21 Panzer Division on 6 Airborne Division at about 10:00 on 6 June, rather than in the late afternoon. Rommel didn’t go to visit Hitler or celebrate his wife’s birthday; the situation was too tense for that. Also, 21 Panzer Division’s standing orders were received and implemented by each part of the Division. This scenario pits a German Kampfgruppe against 5 Parachute Brigade in the area to the east of the canal and Orne bridges. There will be future variants for an even earlier attack, and for a later, more historical one.

A scenario pack can be downloaded from the bottom of the Mission Command page on our website.

Mission Command: Normandy – tech

One of the criticisms of some wargames, particularly some miniatures games, is the need for look-up tables. Poring through reams of tables can disrupt the flow of the game. However, with a relatively complex simulation game such as Mission Command: Normandy, we do need to differentiate between various weapon systems, as differences did have a profound effect on historical outcomes.

For ease of play, we provide a range of aids for download from our website. But more than that, we also supply a technical means to look up much of the information on your smart phone. Here’s an example of a Command Card:

21into6_Reverse_CommandCard_forBlog

It happens to be a German one for our scenario 21 into 6 Won’t Go. We wouldn’t expect people to remember the stats for the U304(f) variants here. There’s variants with LMG, with 3.7cm AT gun, 8cm Mortar and FlaK 38. If you don’t have the paper Reference Card for the U304(f) printed out, you can simply turn over the Command Card…

21into6_CommandCard_forBlog

… and use your smart phone camera or QR scanner app. Centre the title of the unit you want to look up in the camera, then slide across to the right, and you’ll find in your screen this information…

U304RefCard_forBlog

 

This is a scrollable PDF (2 pages only for each troop type) that gives standard information. Each scenario we publish has Command Cards showing the units involved on each combatant and Reference Cards with the relevant stats. You’re free to download this information, or to use it electronically direct from the website.

In the case of the U304(f), page 2 of the Reference Card shows:

U304RefCard_p2_forBlog

From this Reference Card information, it’s simple to see that, if your little half-track is behind a hedge some distance from that approaching enemy Sherman, you’re OK, because it won’t spot you unless you open fire. But you cannot seriously engage it from the front (it’s Armour Class 5), even if you have the platoon leader’s version with the anti-tank gun, so you’d better get out of there!

Salut, mes amis!

Last Saturday saw the regular gathering of friends (or, as it’s wargaming, enemies? Nah, we’re all friends here!) at the Salute exhibition in London’s Excel centre. This year, SSG Wargames and Abbeywood Irregulars teamed up to present Mission Command: Normandy, our WW2 miniatures simulation game that we’ve been concocting since 2017.

So, after more than 10 years of exertion, we have the beta version of our Reference Manual actually printed. I should point out that, although it’s labelled as a beta, it’s near-as-dammit final, just it has black and white inside rather than the full colour that I’m aiming for with next year’s 1st edition pack. The panoply of stuff isn’t just the Reference Manual though. We have on our website a draft of the Players’ Manual, scenario packs (many more to follow over the coming weeks), downloadable chits, area fire templates and Play Aids.

MC_CoverPainting

At Salute, we had a fulsome team consisting of myself, Pete Connew (co-author of Mission Command and all-round knowledgeable chap, as well as effectively head of the Abbeywood Irregulars wargaming group based in Frome, Somerset), Ed Gilhead (shipped over from Hamburg!), Lloyd Carey (an experienced player of MC and other wargames) and Neil Ford (photographer extraordinaire and also experienced wargamer). Having both a demo game table and a trade stand, we split into 2 parts: Neil and myself manning the selling bit, and Pete, Ed and Lloyd demoing.

We’d chosen to demo the famous Villers-Bocage battle of 13 June, which, as every skoolboy know, is Michael Wittmann’s Tiger attack on the 7th Armoured Division. Naturally, most wargamers at the show recognised it instantly from the terrain setup .

TerrainOverview
Terrain overview: Michael Wittmann’s Tiger (and rest of 2/101SS heavy tank company) at the top right; A Coy / 1 Rifle Brigade in half-tracks on the road down towards Villers-Bocage; A Sq / 4 County of London Yeomanry out of sight beyond the top of the pic.

OrdersGroup

British advance guard having a jolly orders group just before Wittmann attacks. Unfortunately, this meant the command elements were mostly separated from the troops, leading to, shall we say, “adverse morale effects”. Note that some tanks of A/4CLY are handily deployed blocking the road, and you can also just make out 1RB vehicles handily queuing up on the road further down.

Bang

Speaking of which … bang. 

DoomApproaching

Looking up the road from Villers-Bocage, doom is approaching. However, though 22nd Armoured Brigade did get beaten this day, the German attack on Villers-Bocage was not entirely successful, and several tanks were lost by both sides in the streets, including Tigers.

For our demonstration, we scripted Michael Wittmann’s attack and provided the option of a continuation for a proper game with more or less historical forces. The scenario is published here: http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/beta-files/Villers-Bocage.zip. It’s quite possible to play it without the script – the starting position suggests strongly what the Germans should do, but of course implementation always throws up its own challenges. It’s important to get the command, control and communications right, because, although the players have a bird’s eye view of what’s coming, the chaps on the ground do not, and our rules take this into account.

Our demo table was almost constantly occupied all day by 2 or 3 groups of discussions, all very positive. We were slightly less active on the trade stand – but the game sold well, considering its relatively niche position as a simulation game.

We also sold quite a few copies of Northampton 1460Graham Evans‘s excellent board game on that Wars of the Roses engagement. Proceeds to Northampton Battlefields Society.

I was particularly happy to meet up with several members of the Airfix Battles Facebook group for the first time in person. Also worth name-dropping Professor Phil Sabin, who stopped by for a chat. As a Kings War Studies alumnus, it’s always a pleasure to meet up with folks from my alma mater!

Neil took a few excellent photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/smudgypixels/albums/72157689939427650/with/41451973832/

Tony also gave a plug on his daily BGG blog: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/75844/irregular-expression

Mission Command: Normandy – mission accomplished!

MissionCommand

Random design lessons from the front: Contrasting views on flank attacks

During Operation Perch, after failing to push the Germans back from Tilly-sur-Seulles 7th Armoured Division attempted a “daring right hook” through a gap round the left flank of the Panzer Lehr Division. The change of direction of the attack took more than 24 hours and was characterised by a lack of knowledge about what was in front and to the flanks during the new attack. Hinde, the brigade commander, issued orders that the attack be made with all speed – this was transformed into “no time for reconnaissance”, so the advance guard of the brigade (A Company, 4th CLY, rather than the recce Stuarts) moved through Villers-Bocage to Point 213 without checking its flanks (in fact, pretty much not checking what was in Villers-Bocage either). During the engagement Hinde appeared at Villers-Bocage, but not Point 213, then went back to brigade HQ. The Divisional commander and Corps commander were nowhere near the action. Owing primarily to slow execution and lack of reconnaissance 22nd Armoured Brigade was ambushed by the Tigers of 101st Heavy Tank Battalion and after a couple of days was withdrawn from Villers-Bocage back more-or-less to its starting positions.

In contrast, Guderian’s narrative of part of his first action in the Polish campaign: “Messages from the 2nd (Motorised) Infantry Division stated that their attack on the Polish wire entanglements had bogged down. All three infantry regiments had made a frontal attack… I ordered that the regiment on the left be withdrawn during the night and moved to the right wing, from where it was to advance next day behind the 3rd Panzer Division and make an encircling movement in the direction of Tuchel… I decided…that I must visit this division the next morning… I placed myself at the head of the regiment… and led it personally as far as the crossing of the Kamionka  to the north of Gross-Klonia [about 15 miles beyond the Polish front]. The 2nd (Motorised) Infantry Division’s attack now began to make rapid progress.”

The contrast for me in these 2 narratives is striking. We have the most experienced British armoured division making an unsuccessful frontal attack, then, as ordered by Corps, changing their action to a flank attack through a known gap, but executing the attack slowly, badly and failing. The idea of the attack is characterised in accounts frequently as “daring”. Senior British commanders seem to have a very “hands off” approach to command. On the other hand, we have a German commander quite naturally and without fuss ordering one of his divisions to carry out a similar flanking manoeuvre, then personally making sure it’s carried out. The German units were all untested in battle at this stage, as was the commander.

3 aspects of this seem relevant and are borne out in some of our historical wargames: (1) Doctrine matters. (2) Reconnaissance matters. (3) Leadership matters.

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.

p9-infantry-deployed-c

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.

p10-infantry-in-defence

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.

Random design lessons from the front: figure scales

A couple of months before Salute may not be the time for this, but why do wargamers focus so much on how it all looks on the table? We’re as guilty as anyone else at our group in Frome, and it’s the same at the Huntingdonshire Wargamers too. Big miniatures, so the paint job looks good. Big scenery, so that it looks pretty. Notwithstanding that the scale of both is all wrong. 15mm figures with a typical wargame tabletop game are outlandishly large. For tanks, depths of the units are huge, even if the frontage is correct, because that’s how the models have to be. Houses and trees are gargantuan size. For Mission Command, we have a ground scale of 1mm:2m, so narrow roads are 60m wide and our narrow streams are like the Rhine in flood.

I’ve recently decided, on grounds of cost, to switch to 6mm for some of my Mission Command stuff (not Frome, because we’re committed to 15mm there). I’ve been surprised that the problem still exists here. The figures and models are better scaled, but the scenery is still massively oversized. 6mm roads are commonly 2 to 5cm in width. Just doing the maths: a popular brand has the narrowest road (called a “narrow dirt road”) with a width of 2cm plus a further 1cm of verges. The widest is the “medium [sic] metalled road” at 3.5cm plus 1 cm of verges. As 6mm is 1/300 scale, these translate to 6m carriageway for the narrow dirt road and a whopping 10.5m for the medium metalled road. Bearing in mind that modern lane widths are approximately 3.5m to 3.75m for major roads, making 7m to 7.5m for a standard 2-lane highway (an A road in the UK), these scaled versions are 50% to 100% too wide. Probably more in fact, because WW2 roads (and more so in earlier periods) were not as wide as modern highways. Just checking my own reality, the B1040 outside my house (a 2 lane medium metalled road) is less than 6m across – at a pinch this could be represented by a 2cm wide piece. But this is not a narrow dirt road.

Oversized terrain in 15mm. The road is supposed to be a narrow road, but the infantry element has a frontage of 100 metres. Also the men will have trouble getting into that church, which is far too small for these figures, though it is about 150 metres long (Notre Dame is 128m long for comparison).

Other scenery in 6mm is not much better from many manufacturers. One leading company I investigated advertised 6mm scenery, but the size was effectively correct for 15mm figures, not 6mm.

Why is this a design problem? In my view, it heavily distorts the wargamers’ perception of scale when playing the game. There’s a tendency to assume a tank model represents a single tank or a single figure represents a single soldier – even if we know, intellectually, that the model represents more than one thing (unless it’s a skirmish game with 1:1 representation). So, shooting at a tank model might “knock out” the tank; but it may represent more than 1 vehicle, so you haven’t actually KOed all those tanks. Similarly, eliminating an element doesn’t represent causing all those guys to be casualties – some may have been killed, some wounded, maybe some captured, but many will have run off, helped the wounded back to safety, got lost, and so on. In fact, looking at tank losses during large engagements – Goodwood springs to mind, as I’ve been delving extensively into Normandy campaign materials – it’s clear that a tank unit can be rendered entirely combat ineffective without having all its tanks destroyed. When 1 of our tank models in Mission Command, representing say 4 vehicles, is removed, this might mean that 1 tank was burnt out, another was seriously damaged (maybe requiring 3rd line workshop repairs out of theatre), another maybe was repairable within 24 hours, and another was pretty much fine, except the crew bailed out, or it made tracks away from the scene. In a later loss report, these might go down as 1 or 2 losses only, depending on how that army recorded such events.

That road on the tabletop also skews our perception of distance. The position in front of my troops can’t be very far, because this (overly wide) road my guys are on is only a foot or so away from it! But a foot may not be close at all – with Mission Command, a foot on the table represents about 600 metres on real ground, and in Normandy an advance of 600 metres could take 3 hours of intense fighting, or even more in the bocage.

For an appreciation of what our toy soldiers are doing, if we’re reflecting reality, we need to be aware of the distortions of scale that our “pretty modelling” portrays.

Rather better 6mm terrain. That single storey farm is about right against this Panzer IV.

Random design lessons from the front: air stuff in a land battle

If your focus is on the land battle, keep the air stuff simple! But on the other hand, do include it!

AirRaids

In our fictional Russian assault on Pleskau/Pskov in June ’44 (April 2017), a bunch of Sturmoviks attacked the inevitable Tractor Factory defended by the Germans. It was quickly apparent that actually using 8.8cm FlaK as AA guns was effective – but how many times do we see flak used entirely in AT role in wargames? In this situation, fields of fire for AT were restricted, so 88s in AT would have been very vulnerable (high silhouette and suchlike), but very good for AA, and later for counter-mortar fire.

Our AA rules are pretty straightforward. All air attacks come at the start of the turn, and have dive, low, medium or high altitude. 88s fire out to horizontal range of 150cm and all altitudes (not interested in high flying heavies!). As standard in Mission Command, roll d20 to hit, if hit then roll d20 for effect. Any aircraft not damaged or destroyed complete their mission. Ground attack uses the same templates as guns, but oriented portrait rather than landscape. Roll for deviation, which is riskier the higher up the aircraft. It’s area fire, so for anything with majority of base under the template roll a d20 for effect.

For simplicity we don’t differentiate between aircraft models, just fighter, fighter-bomber, dive bomber, medium bomber, heavy bomber (though really medium and heavies don’t show). A whole air attack rarely takes more than 5 minutes to do, but can be quite exciting and certainly adds a realistic tension, especially if the deviation is a bit wild; blue on blue *has* happened.

The only difficulty we’ve had is reconciling the feeling that Typhoons should be effective against tanks with the reality that they weren’t as effective as the pilots reported. We’ve settled on using values at the edge between player expectation and actual stats – bearing in mind that German tankers were often more scared of Typhoons than they needed to be, we’ve factored in the fact that some crews abandoned their tanks when under air attack, even if the tanks themselves survived.

Uncombined arms

Dateline: 1 Feb 2018. A Mission Command scenario to test a strong infantry attack against a (weak?) combined defence.

The scene was an area 75cm x 100cm, so quite small, merely 1.5km x 2km. The scenario was designed to take 2 – 3 hours with 1-2 German players versus 1-2 British players. In this game Pete was Brits, I was Germans.

terrain

British attacking from the north (bottom of pic). Mission: push in the German outpost in and around the village, so that the area can be used to assemble troops for a major attack on the main German position to the SW – the large slope in the top right leads to the main German position. The stream is fordable along its entire length, the orange patch is a small hill, and the woods are open to the south, but dense on a rocky outcropping to the north. There’s a sizeable patch of bocage before we reach the village.

It’s a couple of hours before dusk, and the Divisional commander wants this outpost cleared before nightfall. The Brits have an infantry battalion and (off-table) a couple of batteries of 25 pounders. British recce suggests the Germans have only a company, but probably with some limited supports, possibly including AFVs.

fire in the bocage.JPG

Fire in the bocage!

Rather inaccurate British artillery opened the engagement to cover the advance of the troops. It was quickly corrected by Forward Observation Officers and was moved forward to the crest over a couple of turns.

B_company.JPG

B Company advanced – rightmost 7 elements, with C Company to the left. Each of the 4 companies had 2x integrated (rifle+LMG) elements, a command element with jeep, plus light supports of PIAT, LMG and 2″ mortar. 2 companies have an additional PIAT element attached from Support Company. 3″ mortars are giving support with the artillery from off-map. 2″ mortars of each company are dishing out limited smoke.

D_company.JPG

D Company advanced on the other side of the stream. Half out of shot is a Sherman with the FOO for the off-map battery of Sextons.

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The full battalion en avant! Note the 6 pounders from Support Company deployed in the centre.

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On turn 3 German artillery picked on the 6 pounder position, having been easily spotted by Germans on the crest of the bocage ridge before the smoke and barrage intervened. It took a while for the transmission of orders to the battery of Wespes off table, and it was to an extent a lucky shot (1/3 chance of being on target using predicted fire). 1 6 pounder model destroyed, the other moved away.

B_company_continues_advancing.JPG

B Company (nearest) continued its advance protecting the left flank of C Company attacking directly into the bocage, C level with A Company on the right. Things were very murky in the bocage at this point, because the barrage reduced visibility by one state – partially obscuring terrain becomes obscuring, so it was very hard for the attackers to see what was in front.

However, the 3″ mortar fire in front of B Company wasn’t enough to prevent Germans not in the bocage from seeing them coming.

overrun1.jpg

A dug in StuG Zug used opportunity fire on the lead element of B Company, then overran it. Surprised, having taken a few casualties and with only relatively distant PIATs immediately available to deal with the assault guns, B Company reeled back, many of their riflemen being captured.

You can also see at the top of the picture that C Company were taking fire from panzergrenadiers around the ridge line in the bocage. The Germans were suffering greatly from the artillery, so the effect of their fire was keeping British heads down rather than causing casualties.

overrun_aftermath.JPG

The aftermath of the overrun was that the British left wing had gone. The remaining 6 pounders – still limbered up from the earlier move away from the Wespe fire – was hastily unlimbered, but (shoot then move!) the StuGs had the initiative and quickly shot them up. The StuG’s orders did not include a lone Zug attacking a battalion, so they disappeared back to their secondary position out of sight.bocage_cleared.JPG

Meanwhile A and C Companies’ fire and the supporting indirect fire had driven the German defenders out of the bocage with considerable losses. D Company were established on the undefended ridge on the far side of the stream, ready to push on towards the village from the north west.

This was the situation after 90 minutes of play and game time (the objective for Mission Command is that real time and game time should be about the same). With the StuGs somewhere around the ridges at the bottom of this picture, further Germans undoubtedly not yet discovered directly defending the village, and only 30 minutes of daylight left, it would be a tall order for the British to clear the village before nightfall. Unfortunately we had run out of time – our Thursday sessions are only 2 hours at the moment. I would have liked to have run the remaining bits, but real life can get in the way!

The purpose of this brief scenario was to investigate the difficulty of attacking a combined arms force without armoured support in the late war period. Although this was not a scientific approach and was only one game, I think it is an example of how a few AFVs in a defensive position can strengthen a numerically weakly held position, if the attackers have no armoured support themselves.

With only towed AT guns, rather than armoured tank destroyers or tanks, it’s difficult to co-ordinate against a potential limited counter-attack, while maintaining a decent pace to the attack. With 20-20 hindsight it might have been better for the British to deploy as follows:

  1. Set up the 6 pounders as 2 batteries, 1 on each flank, in overwatch, so they could deal with any armoured forays from the village, from either ridge or the bocage, then move them up to the slopes on each side when captured.
  2. Put PIATs and LMGs on overwatch during the advance, moving forward by bounds, rather than continuously. Then, if there’s a counter-attack or indeed German op fire, the British have an immediate response.

Having said that, it’s still difficult to co-ordinate, because the movement forward of the AT guns will require time, and that’s very limited in this scenario. The British have enough artillery and mortars to suppress the German infantry and thereby support their own infantry onto the position and through to the village. But the German armour changes the nature of the engagement completely. It’s no longer a classic fire and movement situation, but contains a more complex set of problems coordinating anti-tank weapons against armour as well.

Many thanks to Pete P for accepting the short straw of being the attacker!

 

Explosions!

Someone mentioned that the previous few blog posts have been a bit long and with no pictures. So here’s some explosions we’re going to be using in Mission Command…

Print

These will be used in the Area Fire templates that we’ll make available for download. We will include Mike and Uncle templates, but don’t expect to use them very often!

I’ve been working on the Reference Cards as well. Example here:

StugIIIG

Finally, some pictures to illustrate some aspects of playing.

p11-Inverted Wedge-c

A company of Panzer IVs in “breitkeil” (inverted wedge). Note the space this formation covers, roughly 500m x 500m. This enables the rear elements space to manoeuvre against a threat without the whole company being engaged simultaneously. Each model represents an inverted V formation of (usually) 4 tanks.

p10-infantry-in-defence

British infantry company in defence. It has 2 integrated infantry elements (large elements), a company HQ element (back from ruin) and 3 light supports, 1 LMG element (left), 1 PIAT element (in ruin) and 1 2” mortar element (centre). It occupies a frontage of 50cm (1km). It is entrenched in position, and each element would be connected by field telephone land lines, so all its elements can communicate. The left element (LMG) can give flanking fire to support the main central position. The 2” mortar can support the whole position, or retire if attacked. Ideally it would be supported by a further position to the rear!

p9-infantry-deployed-c

This German panzergrenadier company has 3 coherent infantry elements and 2 heavy support elements, 1 HMG and 1 8cm mortar. It physically occupies a frontage of 15cm (300m), but its small arms fire allows it to dominate a further 5cm (100m) each side, while its fire still remains effective out to 15cm (300m). There are many alternative formations, including echeloning elements back from either flank, attacking with 1 element leading, and deploying heavy weapons to either flank.

Credits: Vicki Dalton for the explosions; Neil Ford for the pix.

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.

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 6

Preconceptions

History, including military history, is partly about story-telling. A compelling narrative is important to making a point, and unfortunately this can lead to inaccuracies that look like compelling truths. Much popular experience of WW2 is gained from books, films and indeed popular wargames. Taking Hollywood films as an example, simple narratives are key. A classic example is the film The Longest Day. Here we see, at Omaha Beach, that frontal assault by bravely tenacious engineers, led by charismatic officers, wins the day against the odds, whereas in reality frontal assaults invariably failed, and almost all the strongpoints were taken by infiltration through flanking areas that were undefended or poorly defended, so that the strongpoints could be taken from flanks and rear. On other defended beaches, similar tactics worked, with the addition that close-in naval gunfire and direct fire from tanks, were able to carry out the essential suppression of the defenders. This is not to question the bravery of the assaulting infantrymen, who had a daunting task, but to note that the complexities of the combat situation can get overlooked in the need for a compelling narrative, and thereby the wrong lessons are drawn.

The popular wargaming audience is strongly influenced by the frontal assault narrative, which goes back through the First World War, and back to the era of the Napoleonic column attack. The WW2 Hollywood wargame needs there to be a good chance of success for the brave charge at the machine guns, and who can forget the famous Polish cavalry charge at the Panzers in 1939? For the simulation model, we need a better approach.

Fog of War

In reality, the WW2 battlefield could look extremely bare. Even in the midst of combat, often no enemy could be seen. There are many first-hand accounts that attest to the loneliness of the WW2 battlefield, the unseen enemy, even when the enemy was actually using heavy and noisy machinery up to 3 metres in height. A simple look at pictures of concealed infantry shows camouflaged positions could be nearly invisible, even very close up and in good weather. If we add a bit of mist, rain or even the shimmer of a heat haze, we have genuine fog of war. It seems a truism then, that hidden troops and hidden movement are essential parts of wargaming.

The fog of war caused by hidden troops and hidden movement is difficult to model in board wargaming, wargaming with maps and in miniatures wargaming. A popular solution within the miniatures and maps genres has been to use 3 sets of representations: one for each side and one master copy for the umpires. However, this is expensive in terms of time, resources and manpower. In many cases, and particularly in board wargaming, proxy solutions are used, such as dummy counters and hidden strengths. Proxy solutions can lead to ‘gamey’ problems, such as chasing shadows on the basis of limited evidence, rather than encouraging real life actions, such as effective reconnaissance. On the other hand, with umpires managing the fog, it is quite possible to arrive at realistically misplaced minefields and friendly fire incidents.

A particular issue that is difficult to replicate in a wargame is when a unit is shot at by troops it can’t see. In first-hand accounts from Normandy, this happened commonly, but only very rarely in many wargames. There is a spotting issue: the Normandy battlefield was often very bare, and even an enemy unit firing at you might not be seen. But in a wargame, we need to represent the troops somehow; there is a strong desire to put them on into play, although in reality they are “in play”, just not visible. Particularly in the miniatures world, there is a stress on the wargame as spectacle. Miniatures games have to look good to players and potential audience, at least in part because a visible, definitive narrative is perceived to be important. By contrast a more realistic simulation wargame may often leave the defenders hidden for most of the game, and only a small proportion of the enemy may be made visible to the other side at any time. In this circumstance there is much less spectacle, though there might be more understanding of the real situation modelled.

Next time… some conclusions.

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 5

Capabilities

Battlefield decision-making in World War 2 was based on the assessment of terrain and other physical circumstances, the perception of enemy capabilities and intentions, and those of friendly forces. Tactical planning was traditionally derived from these assessments. Natural terrain was highly varied, and could be supplemented by extensive man-made enhancements, including concealment measures, obstacles, field and permanent fortifications, flooding, smoke, mines and booby traps. Many of these circumstances demanded specialist attention, through engineers, for example, or assault troops, specifically trained for a mission. The full spectrum of weapon types on the World War 2 battlefield included small arms and light support weapons, heavy support weapons such as mortars and heavy machine guns, tank guns, anti-tank guns, artillery and various flavours of air power. These weapon types gave troops the capability to project fire effects at different targets more or less efficiently at different ranges, through direct fire observed by the firer, and indirect fire, either observed by specialist spotters, or fired from map co-ordinates or at known positions. Air power by the end of the war gave the capability to carpet bomb large “boxes” on the ground with an effect similar to tactical nuclear weapons though without the radiation.

At company level and below, it was likely that troops would use or meet at any one time, only a limited range from the spectrum of weapon types. An infantry company would not contain all these weapon systems, but only the sub-set designated for use by an infantry company, primarily small arms, light and a few heavy support weapons. It might encounter other weapon types through specific support assets for specific missions, for example from artillery or armoured vehicles.

At the local level many weapon types might not be considered relevant, and modelling at this level can be considered less complex than at battlegroup level for this reason. For example, Phil Sabin’s excellent simulation Fire and Movement covers a 1943-4 WW2 British infantry battalion attack (12 rifle platoons and a machine gun platoon) against 6 depleted German rifle platoons. Weapon systems depicted include only small arms (primarily rifles and light machine guns grouped together), specialist support machine guns and off-map 3” and 8cm mortars. There is also a brief initial artillery bombardment by the attackers. The limit to the types of weapon systems included in the simulation is understandable, as it is “a simple grand tactical simulation of an attack by a British infantry battalion”, and it is designed to model “the interdependence of fire and movement” (quotes from Phil Sabin’s book, Simulating War). In support of my argument here, Phil Sabin admits that “Attacks would usually be supported by divisional artillery and by attached tank platoons, but this would add significantly to the complexity of the system…”. In fact, I think that this simulation better illustrates the style of attack at infantry company scale than at battalion or higher levels. Though the introduction to the simulation states that it focuses “on the employment of Fire and Movement tactics to exploit and overcome the terrifying suppressive effects of modern firepower”, it deliberately does not include some significant weapon systems delivering those fire effects, explicitly to simplify the simulation.

Conversely at higher levels, the impact of different weapon systems has to be more abstracted in a model, because the wargame is likely to deal with the combat power of larger units, at divisional size or above. This combat power is usually represented by numerical values, and perhaps variation in movement capabilities for armoured units.

At battlegroup level, capabilities and encounters would often cover the full spectrum of weapon types, with the exception of aircraft, which were generally controlled in WW2 either by independent or semi-independent air forces or by commands at army or higher level. Decisions at battlegroup level were therefore based on this full spectrum of weapon types, and it was the interplay of the weapon types and the efficient use of their combined effects that had a direct impact on the combat effectiveness of both sides and therefore on combat outcomes. At this level, co-ordination of the people with the different weapons systems was vital for maximising combat effectiveness against identified opposing people with their weapons systems. It is how to model this co-ordination, or the lack of it, that forms a critical part of the difficulty of wargame modelling at the battlegroup level.

Taking the Normandy campaign as an example, both sides had difficulty getting to grips with the terrain, especially the bocage country. New units invariably went through a learning process. On the Allied side, units were either green, having arrived from the USA or been recruited and trained in the UK, or were from a very different theatre, primarily from North Africa, and experience there was of little help in Normandy. On the German side, experience was primarily from the Eastern Front against the Soviet Army, where space could be traded for time, and the nature of combat was quite different from the close terrain and restricted beachhead conditions of Normandy, coupled with overwhelming British and US air and artillery dominance. These conditions at variance from expectations led to a gap between the doctrine in the books, the training and past experience on the one hand, and actual practical application of combat capabilities in Normandy on the other. For the Allies there was an initial expectation that the Germans wouldn’t defend, or at least, wouldn’t be able to defend, right at the beachhead, so that a mobile armoured style of warfare could be adopted, where the Allies’ fully motorised forces, coupled with air power, would have the edge. When this expectation failed to materialise early in the campaign, the lack of a combined arms doctrine from the British and the lack of experience of the US troops, added to the complexity and confusion in the practical application of the various weapon systems. For the Germans, few of their troops had experience of fighting against the British and Americans – very few units had any experience from Italy, which would have been relevant, and commanders from that theatre were not used much in Normandy. They also failed to apply their own operational and strategic doctrine effectively, partly due to interference from Hitler and others in the high command. This background demonstrates the complexity of implementing combined arms combat methods at battlegroup level in Normandy, and there is no reason to believe that other theatres and time periods in WW2 were less complex. Modelling this level of complexity is problematic. If critical elements are over-simplified or abstracted, incorrect inferences might be drawn from the model.

Modelling the effect of the combinations of weapon systems is necessary at battlegroup level, if we are to achieve insights from the modelling. Effects required include the destruction of vulnerable enemy forces by artillery, air power, and direct fire from tanks and other armoured vehicles; the suppression of defences before and during attack by artillery and direct fire from heavy weapons, finding out where the enemy is and isn’t (reconnaissance, including combat reconnaissance), finding and exploitation of gaps (reconnaissance and armour for speed, infantry to follow up in vehicles or not, and to hold ground), concealment (engineers, and the skilled deployment of infantry and other troops), protection from and destruction of armoured attack (anti-tank guns, hand-held anti-tank weapons, medium and heavy artillery, naval guns), destruction of infantry attacks (artillery, other support weapons, such as machine guns, mortars), defence from air power (anti-aircraft guns), creation, maintenance and enhancement of defensive positions (infantry with supports, plus minefields and other obstacles). Omitting some of these weapon systems from the battlegroup level model may result in false conclusions.

For example, if we omit the use of relatively few, relatively static armoured vehicles in defensive situations from our model of late war combat, we might conclude that defensive positions can be fully compromised in depth by artillery bombardments closely followed by armoured attacks with infantry support and a sufficiency of heavy weapons for direct fire suppression. Examples from late in the Normandy campaign (Operations Totalise and Tractable) tend in that direction, and led to conclusions about the efficacy of attacks using armoured infantry fighting from within their vehicles. However, it is clear from German evidence that, wherever possible, their positions were supported with relatively few, relatively static armoured vehicles, because without these, their scanty infantry forces did crack, even though the combat power of the very small number of vehicles might seem insignificant.

Different weapons systems were often in different units for command and control purposes. So, co-ordination via inter-unit communication was essential, for without this, disaster could happen. Modelling this aspect of combat is also critical.

Some examples from the Normandy campaign may help to illustrate this importance. On 7 June 1944 Canadian 9th Brigade continued with its D-Day orders, despite the circumstances having changed for the following day. Their advance was a narrow one by an infantry battalion operating as an advanced guard lacking in close anti-tank gun and artillery support. Though there was a supporting tank regiment, they were late coming up, and operated relatively independently down flanking roads, but without rigorous cross-country reconnaissance or co-ordination with the infantry. Accounts of the advance guard’s fate suggest little direction from brigade or division down to battalion level, a rigid adherence to a pre-set plan and insufficient co-ordination between infantry, tanks and artillery. Anti-tank and other heavy weapons were left in positions far back, where they were unable to support forward units, and the battalion command had to rely primarily on its infantry assets, being unable to co-ordinate the other arms, owing to failures of communication (with the artillery) and control (with supporting heavy weapons). In addition brigade was not able, or was unwilling, to deploy supporting units in time to prevent the forward battalion from destruction in detail. The advance guard was badly mauled and forced back to its start line by a strong attack from elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division.

Such failures of co-ordination were by no means the privilege of Commonwealth forces. The very next day, 12th SS Panzer Division’s highly rated and experienced regimental commander, Kurt Meyer, carried out a hasty night attack with a Panther battalion against the Canadians. His infantry support was limited to a small number of reconnaissance troops, because he had failed to ensure support from 26th SS infantry regiment, in front of the main target of his attack. Unsupported tanks were able to enter the target village, but lost many vehicles to accurate Canadian tank fire on the un-reconnoitred approach, and from anti-tank guns and PIATs within the built-up area. The attack was beaten off with loss.

It is difficult to model these actions in wargames. Wargamers, even armchair hobbyists, are unlikely to plan operations of this nature, because they may have already read the histories. In the cold light of day, they can appreciate the risks of unsupported advances and hasty attacks. Their own experience of wargames often exceeds the combat experience of real-life commanders, but the conditions of their combats are less stressful and therefore perhaps less prone to error.

Real life commanders at battlegroup level usually had some training at this level and often some experience, although the start of a campaign or the opening of a new theatre would frequently result in on-the-job learning from a low base. In most armies, training usually involved the inculcation of national doctrine. However, hobby wargamers usually don’t have this training or experience, and often have little background in military history. In addition, real commanders had more or less extensive staffs to help with planning, communications, logistics, intelligence and a myriad of other vital functions. Again, wargamers usually lack these experts, so much of the supporting infrastructure to the commander has to be abstracted in a wargame.

A couple more linked elements help to explain the difficulties of the human aspects of battlegroup level modelling: preconceptions and the fog of war. I’ll address those briefly in my next post.

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 4

Command, control and communications difficulties

Information could flow from sections, platoons and companies to battalion or brigade fairly quickly, owing to proximity, so decisions on action could be fast, usually verbal, and these levels of command could exploit tactical success rapidly. From there, communications upward to division and onwards were often slower. Distances were greater, the volume of information was greater, as it was coming from many subordinate units, and there was more analysis of the significance of information by staff on the way up. High command needed an overview of the situation, rather than excessive detail, so that it could give orders at divisional and corps levels, and this usually meant waiting for the big picture to come into focus. So, intervention from high command hour-by-hour was not usually carried out, and a wargame at higher command level can avoid the clutter of immediate communications friction by having longer game turns and representation of only larger scale units.

Examples include, on the Allied side, the need to wait for clarity of outcomes of the initial assaults on D-Day before changing orders (Dempsey’s halt order is one example). On the German side, the whole question of tardy intervention at the level of corps and above was influenced by a perceived lack of good quality information at that level of command, and particularly by Allied deception measures. Battalion, regiment and division commanders found this extremely frustrating, because they sometimes had clear and urgent information that they were unable to impress upon higher commands.

Information flow at battlegroup level was extensive. It was up, down and sideways to the flanks. Representing these information flows and their impact on decision-making at battlegroup level in a wargame model is tricky. In reality, communications took time. Either a commander or runner went to a command post to make or receive a personal briefing, often resulting in changes or clarifications of orders in response. Alternatively, telephone (landline) or wireless contact had to be made. Time was spent encrypting and decrypting messages, or in rare cases risks were run with messages in clear, using forms of verbal coding, such as code names for locations and units. Communications upwards went through many levels of the organisational hierarchy, with each level adding or taking away (or distorting) the messages, and each step adding to the time taken between initial transmission and receipt, let alone decisions on action in response. While direct communications between flanking units could be carried out relatively quickly, for example via liaison officers appointed to the task, co-ordination of the actions of units in different battalions, regiments, brigades or divisions, often required messages first going up the hierarchy, then back down a different strand of it. For example on 7 June 9th Canadian Brigade’s advance guard was unable to communicate directly with its supporting artillery regiments, and was also unable to liaise with additional available units that were not directly attached to it, because routing communications through brigade, division, corps, then to the full artillery command and control hierarchy proved impossible to carry out. This type of situation led to common difficulties in the meshing of activities at the joins between different divisions, corps and armies, and the vulnerability of troops at these joins. The British breakthrough in Operation Bluecoat was caused by a “joins failure”.

In place of this necessarily imprecise and sometimes flawed communications network, wargaming can have the problem of the “bird’s eye view”, where all those involved can see much of the contextual information about the situation on the tabletop or the board without the necessity for formal communications at all. Instead of difficult communications and combinations, it is often readily obvious to wargamers what actions could and should be taken, and an informal chat – “out of game” as it were – can resolve these difficulties without the modeller’s knowledge.

Command and control of subordinate units in the field was usually exercised in a formal sense, with command instructions flowing down the hierarchy, even though discussions between levels of command could and did happen. Wargaming, particularly hobby wargaming, is less serious than the real business of war, and the authority of senior versus junior commanders can be diluted, or in some cases, dissolved by the “game”. It’s rare that sanctions – such as dismissal on the spot! – can be taken, even in cases of gross violations of command and control norms, as this type of intervention by senior commanders or umpires could be seen to violate the social aspects of wargaming, and could wreck the continuation of the exercise.

Even more, the changing intentions of a group of players as a team on the same side, may be continually moulded and clarified by informal commentary during the wargame, in circumstances where communication and the exercise of command and control in the field would have been impossible. It is certainly possible to address this issue by arranging for the separation of command teams, or individuals, though difficult in hobby wargames. In one of our wargaming groups, we have regularly attempted to remove commanders-in-chief from direct interaction with the tabletop, so that communications about the current situation can only be via player interactions and reporting, but this is difficult to enforce. This should be easier in a professional wargaming environment with trained military personnel.

As we would expect, command, control and communications in a face-to-face wargame may be easier than on the battlefield, yet a wargame should attempt to model the real life difficulties. Typical solutions to this problem in analogue miniatures wargames have used player initiative points (PIPs), or some other method of randomising the vagaries of command, control and communications. In short, a dice is rolled or a card drawn, and the result is the activation of more or less units, or a specific but not predetermined sequencing of activation. This can reflect the inability of all units to act all of the time, or in the “right” order. However, there are difficulties with these outcome-based design solutions, because, though the effect may be to make the activity or inactivity of combat units look more “realistic”, a randomised method leads inevitably to the gaming of the probabilities concerned – “I calculate only a 1 in 6 chance of failure”, for example – rather than addressing the genuine concerns of communications, which were about both predictable and unpredictable delays, and friction caused by known factors, as well as by random ones. For example, the exercise of command and control during intense combat was more difficult than well behind the lines. A response to a request for artillery support may be delayed because of conflicting demands, but this is rather different from “I failed to roll a 5 or 6”, and seems pernicious if, in fact, the artillery was a dedicated support asset, on-call and with no conflicting demands.

Next…Capabilities…

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 3

Continuing my battlegroup wargaming article, “The burden and rigour of battle” – for earlier ones in the series, see the sidebar.

Here are few illustrative examples of what I mean about the significance of combat outcomes at various levels, drawn from the history of the early part of the 1944 Normandy campaign.

The D-Day assault itself was planned at high level, and plans cascaded down to units at all levels of command prior to the assault. In terms of the fighting, it was the actions at company level and below generally that established troops on the beaches. At the initial assault stage the higher levels of command, including battlegroup level, were very much dependent on their smaller units carrying out their assigned tasks within a matter of hours and even minutes. However, I suggest that it was decisions by battalion and brigade commanders (particularly the latter) that led to exploitation with decisive effect during D-Day itself. Decisions on where to put reserves were taken at divisional level (for example 3rd Canadian Division on where to put their reserve brigade). Decisions on where to push battalions were often taken at brigade and even battalion level (for example manoeuvres on the day around Courseulles, Bernieres and inland). The timing and precise routes of commandos coming off Sword Beach moving inland were directed on the basis of leadership from officers, such as Lord Lovat. 3rd British Division, it has been argued, was hampered by the more cautious than expected approach from its battalion and brigade commanders, so it wasn’t able to follow its plan. However, it was decisions at this level that were critical. Reports that ‘enemy tanks were advancing from Caen’ were relayed back from the Staffordshire Yeomanry via 3rd British Division to 2nd British Army. The divisional commander “ordered a battalion of 9th British Brigade to hold at Perriers-le-Dan and ensure that the Sword bridgehead could not be rolled up from the west”. Despite the fact that the German attack was stopped, the reports of German tanks directly influenced Dempsey’s decision to issue the order to halt his 3 assault divisions in place at some time after 7pm, in case of further counter-attacks. Here we have an example of battlegroup level command decisions and reports directly affecting higher command decisions, at variance to the overall plan.

6th Airborne Division’s brigades and battalions were mustered by battalion as they landed on 6 June, and led off on their missions at the instigation of battalion commanders. Precise timing was decided by battalion COs (or other staff if COs were absent), using their judgement as to how long they could wait for assembly prior to moving off to their positions. It was also battalion and brigade commanders who made the decisions about the details of their deployments, within broad constraints of divisional and brigade plans, but necessarily adjusted to the real-life circumstances on the ground that were sometimes at variance with the plans. Similarly, when US battalions were landed at the wrong places on Utah Beach, it was commanders at battlegroup level that adjusted the deployments to meet reality.

A potential counter-argument might be Operation Deadstick, the taking of the bridges over the Orne and the Caen Canal, which was a company level action, and was decisive. But it’s worth noting that this was a tactical implementation of a coup de main within the context of the wider Operation Tonga (the airborne landings) and subsequent vital relief operation at battalion and brigade level by 7 Parachute Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade and commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade that converted the company level action into a firm left flank for 2nd Army. Battalion and brigade commanders made decisions on how to set up their defence within the context of the divisional plan, and brigade made decisions on how to manage reserves and switch manpower in the light of attacks.

The German side also provides illustrations of the importance of this level of command, and I’ll return to these examples in the context of wargaming later. 21st Panzer Division’s activities on D-Day were heavily constrained because, in the view of regimental commander Hans von Luck, vital decisions about movement were not taken; delays were imposed by paralysis from above. But, I would argue that there is a useful comparison between the relatively supine stance of 21st Panzer Division during the morning of 6 June, and the more pro-active command decisions by 12th SS Panzer Division. The latter’s assembly was accompanied by extensive reconnaissance and planning for deployment, whereas 21st Panzer Division’s reconnaissance battalion was almost its last unit to be deployed. Management of the 21st Panzer Division’s probes during the morning and early afternoon were handled entirely at regiment and battalion level, in the absence of coherent senior direction. So, actual combat decisions were taken at regiment and battalion – battlegroup – level, while more senior commanders were critically unable to impact the combat, and I would argue it was failures at battlegroup level that contributed to the Division’s relatively poor showing. The handling of the late afternoon and early evening counter-attack was by kampfgruppe commanders, even though the main force was initially accompanied by the corps commander. Each of 21st Panzer Division’s 3 kampfgruppe had from roughly a reinforced battalion to roughly regimental strength (brigade in British parlance). In response, British defence decisions by elements of 3rd British Division and supports, were taken at the same level. These included deployment on Periers ridge, movement of supports, the balance of infantry and tanks, and assessment of threat and risk.

Next… a bit more on command, control and communications difficulties…