Archive for the 'Game design' Category

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!

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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.