Archive Page 2

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…

Photoshoot 2

The photoshoot was successful! Many thanks to Neil and Pete. I now have over 200 images to fiddle with. In fact, thanks in advance are due to Charlie, who will be doing the fiddling :).

Our photos will be designed to illustrate the mechanics of the game. Looking at other rules I find it a bit surprising that there’s a tendency towards pretty diorama style photos that don’t really show the workings of the game, rather than illustrating how a more normal wargame might look. I suspect that’s because people like Osprey have a different focus; though Osprey does some nice drawn diagrams for their’s.

The “after” shot of the Panzer IV breitkeil is:

Distance overlay to be added. I prefer this because it’s more active and less like a diagram than the previous one.

 

Photo-shoot

I’ll shortly be setting out across country from Warboys, Cambs, to Frome, Somerset, for a couple of wargame-related matters. Tomorrow (Saturday 6 January) we have the Abbeywood Irregulars monthly game – an American Civil War battle run by Jer. Recently, I’ve been restricting my outings to Frome to Mission Command games and occasionally Napoleonics, largely because it’s a bit of a trek, and also I’ve been focusing on design rather than playing. However…

On Sunday we have a photo-shoot for Mission Command, courtesy of Neil, for the photographic expertise, and Pete, for the miniatures and layouts. This is the first time I’ve really got involved in photographic illustration for a game. The idea is that the illustrations in Mission Command’s Reference Manual and Players Manual will be a combination of Vicki’s half-page illustrations for each section (more of that another day) and photos of examples of how to play – plus some generic pleasing action shots. I’ve done a few piccies with the iPhone of the kind of thing that I think we want, but our team should be able to come up with a professional “look and feel” for the production version.

Our beta version of Mission Command: Normandy (release date – April 2018, at Salute) will have black and white inside. However, we’ll have some samples of colour and a full colour cover. Final version will be colour throughout.

Here’s an example of my iPhone version (NOT the final version) of a photo showing a company of Panzer IVs in an inverted wedge. Hopefully I’ll be able to show an “after” shot for contrast!

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The burden and rigour of battle – Part 2

Why might the modelling of combat at higher or lower levels be less problematic?

At higher levels (corps, army, army group, theatre), the focus of command was on the operational and the strategic. Decisions were vital at this level, but people in the higher commands relied on their subordinates at division and below to report on the situation on the ground and to carry out the nitty-gritty implementation of plans and variations on them. So, higher command decisions during a battle were dependent on the flow of tactical information to answer questions about how battalions, brigades and divisions were doing, and to provide information about the enemy. There was inevitably a loss of the granular detail of combat events in the transmission of information upwards, if nothing else to prevent overwhelming the senior commanders and their staffs with information, and thereby paralysing decision-making.

Reflecting this flow of information upwards in wargames at operational and strategic level means modelling through abstraction, typically through providing fewer unit representations (for example, counters in board wargames, elements, stands or blocks in wargaming with miniatures, unit graphics in computer wargames), and using numerical values to represent combat effectiveness, rather than delving into the characteristics of weapons or even of weapon types. In addition, time scales in game for operational and strategic level models are usually longer – a day, a week, a month – skating over detailed tactical events. These abstractions reduce the complexity of the combat aspects of an operational and strategic model, even if other elements, such as political context, logistics and strategic deployments, might make the overall strategic model more complex. Combat doctrine and the details of the organisation and utilisation of units below division level are generally not included, though they might be reflected in tweaks to the numbers. Examples of WW2 hobby wargames at this level include: World in Flames, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, Axis & Allies, World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin, War in the East.

At a lower level – section, platoon, company – combat events were important for purely tactical outcomes, and there was only rarely operational or strategic impacts from the result of any single action. For the soldiers concerned, this was the sharp end of their personal experience, so I wouldn’t belittle its importance to them as individuals and small groups. However, in terms of the wider picture of combat outcomes and their impact on the results of operational and strategic engagements, decisions at the battlegroup level were vastly more significant. It is noteworthy that reading first-hand accounts from frontline soldiers who were not commanders at battalion or higher level, reveals little about the impact of small scale tactical engagements in the wider context of an operational or strategic action.

The complexity and type of wargames at the tactical level varies from the introductory (for a recent example, see Airfix Battles) to the highly detailed (for example Advanced Squad Leader) to the innovative (for example Up Front, Fighting Formations). The details of combat at the individual level are relatively easy to come by through the vast array of memoirs and first-hand accounts published and popularised. In addition, there is the canon of secondary sources to read and popular films to see. When we talk about World War 2 wargaming, this is very much the typical experience for players, and there are well-worn design mechanics, as well as significant innovation, in this aspect of the topic, with a lot of variation in the accuracy of the models, many preferring a good thematic feel and a high level of playability over realistic modelling of tactics. What might be referred to as “Hollywood wargaming” is the mainstay of tactical World War 2 commercial wargames design in board wargames, miniatures wargames and computer-based wargames.

There is a flood of examples of popular hobby board wargames at this level, including: Panzer Blitz, Advanced Squad Leader, Combat Commander, Memoir ’44, Tide of Iron, Conflict of Heroes and many more. Popular World War 2 miniatures wargaming rules include Flames of War, CrossFire, Bolt Action and many more.

There is also a small number of simulation wargames, rather than only thematic offerings. One example is Phil Sabin’s simulation game Block Busting, which models an attack by a reinforced infantry company in an urban area with the intention “to reflect more directly the key variation within the urban environment, namely the difference between the buildings, on one hand, and the open spaces…on the other.” This game is a variant of Professor Sabin’s game Fire and Movement. An important point about Block Busting is that it was designed with a specific purpose in mind, namely to model the problem of infantry combat in urban areas in World War 2, whereas the game systems of the earlier examples tend to be more generically about what could be termed “skirmish level” combat, often using unit sizes of 1 vehicle and a handful of men.

To follow, some examples from Normandy…

Achtung! Spitfeuer! Air combat in Open Battles

Open Battles update: Nick and I had a good session over the hols. We’ve focused on the basics at the moment. This is all about how to retain the essence of Airfix Battles within the context of a new Open Battles system without squares. We’re keeping the Unit cards, Command cards and the fundamentals of the combat system, so that the new game will be recognisably similar to AB – components will be compatible. But you’ll be able to use whatever WW2 miniatures and terrain you happen to have, or wish to acquire for the new game.

We are retaining the numerical movement points and ranges. These then convert into an appropriate distance on the tabletop depending on the scale of your minis. Typically, this would be 1 movement point or 1 range equals 4″ for 1/72 scale or 15mm scale figures. There’s a bunch of “how to…” things that we’ve drafted, which I’ll go into in a later post.

Open Battles will include Air Movement and Air Combat, and we’re looking for your comments on our current work. I’ve stuck a file called OpenBattlesAirCombat.pdf here, plus some aircraft unit cards here. Any comments would be very welcome!

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 1

As I’ve been developing Mission Command over the past 10 years or so, I like to believe that I’ve learnt something about wargames design, particularly in the field of WW2 land combat. There are probably some wider lessons learnt more generally, but I thought I’d focus a bit on some thoughts about modelling battlegroup tactics. Wolfgang Schneider has a relevant quote in his book Panzer Tactics: “The technical literature includes countless competent presentations at the level of operational / strategic command (army and higher). That also holds true at the tactical / operational level of army corps and division. Totally underrepresented are factually correct descriptions of the level of command that bears the actual burden and rigor [sic] of the battle, that of the regiment – generally, the brigade in modern usage and the battalion.

In World War 2, the level of command from battalion through regiment or brigade up to division was the level at which combat decisions and outcomes occurred that translated into decisive operational and strategic results. It was the foundation of, and implementation method for, operational and strategic decision-making interventions by the higher command levels. I have called this ‘battlegroup level’, as it encompasses formations variously called ‘kampfgruppen’, ‘combat commands’ or ‘battlegroups’, varying in size from a few companies up to whole divisions, and usually containing troops with a combination of different weapons systems.

I argue that designing wargames to model with reasonable accuracy the principal elements that impact decision-making with respect to combat at this battlegroup level is very challenging. It is perhaps more challenging than at higher, operational and strategic, command levels or lower intrinsically tactical command levels. Why this is so, requires some explanation, and may help to provide an insight into World War 2 combat and the modelling of it in this context. My approach is primarily using board wargames and miniatures wargames, rather than computer-based models. However, some of the general insights should also apply to computer-based models.

More to follow…

Unfinished Wargames – A New Hope

New Year’s Resolution: I will attempt to post here every day about some aspect of my wargame designing and / or experience. Posts may be short but hopefully of interest!

As a short stocktake, the wargames I’m currently working on are:

  • Mission Command – my big WW2 simulation miniatures game. C0-design with Pete Connew.
  • Open Battles – follow-up of Airfix Battles. Co-design with Nick Fallon.
  • The March of Progress – micro-game inspired by Clausewitz’ On War.

I have an article about wargame design that I’m working on at the moment. Over the next few days, I’ll post a bit about that to give me a few head start posts.

Dolphin Adventures: setup

Better pic, showing setup! Fish will be smaller and blue. Tokens smaller too. Shoals will be a cluster of fish.

setup

Dolphin Adventures: new prototype

With Gary Hampson and Charlie Paull, new prototype for our Dolphin Adventures game. Now stream-lined & spruced up. Best version yet!

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Politics By Other Means: new card designs

Conference of Wargamers is coming up next weekend. I’m planning to run a session with Politics By Other Means, my micro-game based loosely on Clausewitz’ On War.

I played it at the last CoW, but now it’s had a face-lift. New iconisation of the cards will, I hope, make the play a bit slicker. It will at least require less reading, which is a good thing.

3.5aProductShot

Politics By Other Means: now with icons!

Mission Command: Pleskau / Pskov, June ‘44

The Eastern Front. For the Soviet Army, it was a long way and a costly way to retreat, and now it’s a long way and a costly way to push forward to Germany. But after Kursk it’s just a matter of time and blood. For the German Army, the endless steppe is no longer the front, now it’s back nearly to the Baltic States and Poland, trading space for time, so that the Army can be re-built.

Though we were a tad short of players, Pete and I decided to push on with the full version of our Pleskau game from 2012, with the 2 of us playing as well as umpiring. So we ended up with roughly 3 v 2 for most of the game; somewhat pressured, but we all coped fairly well. This was our first outing to the Eastern Front for a while, and also the first with the relatively settled beta version of the Mission Command rules. For the Soviets, it looked like an interesting proposition, I think, using battalion-sized groups with hardly any radios, instead of company-sized groups with lots of radios, as in Normandy. For the Germans, a chance to hole up in heavy stone buildings, cover your ears and hope!

This account is largely from a German point of view, as that’s what I was playing. Apologies if I am at all unfair to the Soviets! No doubt their propaganda will give a different version of events.

Terrain

The town consists of primarily stone buildings in a rough equilateral triangle about 5km per side with one side running north-south and the triangle pointing towards the east. A river runs through the town, entering at the NW corner and flowing mainly south, forming an effective barrier about a kilometre from the western edge of the town. The only easy routes across the river are a road bridge in the middle of the town and a rail bridge in the south. A tributary with a couple of bridges meanders from east to west, joining the river in the northern poorer part of town. The main road to Riga also cuts the town in two from east to west about a kilometre south of the stream. The railway runs from NE to SW, with a few smaller lines branching at the edges of the town.

RussianAerialSketchMost of the town’s buildings are one or two storey stone town houses. The northern area beyond the stream has poorer quality, smaller buildings. There is a large imposing tractor factory in the south part of town beside some railway sidings and close to the rail bridge. Similar very sturdy buildings are on the west bank by the road bridge, but these are not so high. The centre of town also has a few tall municipal buildings that stretch along much of the main road. There are also two tall churches, one facing the road bridge, the other across the stream to the north.

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Outside town to the east lie some areas of higher ground, one of which is wooded. To the north, east and south the region is mainly open ground and scrub with few buildings. To the NW some buildings continue to run alongside the river. A few buildings continue beyond the western edge of the town proper, and there is some high ground a couple of kilometres to the west.

The town itself has many small streets and several quite large open areas, including a tree-lined boulevard that runs NE to SW through the centre.

The map’s slightly misleading, in that we shrank the size to about 7 km wide (North to South) and 4.5 km deep (East to the river). This had the effect of enabling the Germans to concentrate a bit more, but for the Soviets to do so too and have less far to travel.

German Commander in Chief, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment, Major Walter Meindl

Strategic situation and orders

The date is sometime during early June 1944. Your battalion has been moved to Pleskau (Pskov in Russian) on the north of the Eastern Front (the “Panther Line”) to help to stem a Russian offensive that may (eventually) threaten Riga. Pleskau is an important rail junction and also, with its position near the southern shores of a series of lakes, prevents the German lines being outflanked from the north. However, the weight of the offensive cannot be stopped by your battalion, and your orders are to conduct a delaying action, by carrying out a ‘delaying defence’. See your sketch map.

Your delaying action is a temporary measure, designed to inflict high losses on the enemy and to conserve friendly forces. You have freedom of initiative to act according to local circumstances – for example, limited counter-attacks are permitted, as are feints, deceptions, and so on. Your primary requirement is to conduct a delaying defence for as long as possible (at least a whole day), while enabling extraction of your forces across the river to the west at the end of the action. Timing of withdrawals is a matter for your decision. Night-time withdrawal of men can be achieved via bridges and boats – the latter are pre-positioned for that purpose. Note that this means you should NOT destroy the bridges over the river.

You do not have active supporting units on the eastern side of the river. All supporting units of the Division have been withdrawn behind the river. Once your troops have crossed to the western side of the river, they will be secure from further attack except from troops to your immediate front.

Your forces consist of a full strength German Parachute Battalion, plus some supports. All your Fallschirmjäger elements are elite. All your other elements are veterans. You have complete confidence in your troops and officers.

Your reconnaissance suggests that the opposition has a full Russian Tank Corps. Each of 3 Tank Brigades has about 8 tank models (representing 30 or so actual tanks), plus supporting assault troops. Artillery barrels tend to be extensive, but inflexibly used. You will also realise that, even though it’s called a Tank Corps, that doesn’t mean it’s short of PBI.

The enemy has complete air control – you have no air assets, though you do have some flak to knock the enemy aircraft down with.

Any of your elements and / or vehicles can be in concealed positions. This means that they will not be spotted till they fire, and even then, only if the enemy is close enough.

Each of your company commanders may indicate ONE building or part-building (of size to be occupied by one standard element plus one supporting gun if desired) as a ‘bunker’, which has received specific reinforcement attentions from engineers. Bunkers will have all round fire and will count as strong structures (fortified) against attacks; for example, Soviet field guns with normal indirect fire would need a 20 to cause a casualty to a defending element in firing position.

You can win some sort of victory for the German side by hanging on to any areas to the east of the river at the end of the game.

Russian Tank Corps commander:General-Major Belaborodov, 32nd Tank Corps

Strategic situation and orders

The date is sometime during early June 1944. Your Tank Corps is the spearhead of a Russian offensive that intends to open the way to Riga. In front of your forces is Pskov on the north of the Front against the Fascists. Pskov is an important rail junction, and if we take it we may (eventually) threaten Riga. Unfortunately we cannot flank it to the north, because of its position near the southern shores of a series of lakes, while the river that runs through it is unfordable, and the only bridges are in the town. The enemy has occupied the town with elements of a parachute regiment. You’ve cleared forward positions occupied by regular Wehrmacht infantry, but you expect the parachute infantry to be more of a problem.

Your mission is to take the town as quickly as possible, so that the momentum of the offensive can be maintained. You are an experienced commander, and Stavka is happy to let you get on with it. Losses are not of any particular concern, though you do appreciate that your more experienced troops are valuable for future operations. Your primary requirement is speed. The faster your success, the more pressure it will put on the Germans and the better the momentum of the follow-up.

You have no worries about either flank or rear. There is no possibility of any major German counter-attack, because other units are protecting these spots. Local counter-attacks are a possibility (they always are with the Germans). You have access to more troops if needed, so you’re not going to run out, and you’re quite aware that reinforcements will probably be necessary. Your star will rise quicker, the quicker you can complete the mission.

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Your forces consist of a full strength Tank Corps (see attached command cards). Each player on your team represents a Brigade Commander. The Motorised Infantry Brigade is the one formation which you have issues with, they are little better than raw conscripts at present having only just replaced the previous brigade which was decimated earlier in the month. This brigade needs to be used carefully. You have the option of further reinforcements if needed.

In addition, you have air control – the Luftwaffe hasn’t been seen in the area for weeks. You have been allocated a couple of air raids (dive bombers: 4 models), because Stavka has allocated most air power further south. Before the game starts, you must choose a time and target for these air raids which cannot be altered or stopped.

Air reconnaissance shows that the enemy has parachute infantry dug in inside the town and support units beyond the river to the west. Enemy strength is unknown. Ground recce has discovered that elements of the 326th infantry division occupied forward screening positions to the east of the town, and that men of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment are certainly in the town itself. German Kampfgruppe organisation means that you could be facing a mixed force.

You can win some sort of victory for the Russian side by taking and holding as much as possible (preferably all) areas to the east of the river by the end of the game.

The Battle

Prep on the German side was somewhat frenetic, as I was on my own for the planning stage, before I was reinforced by Mike. For planning purposes, and for showing hidden positions and hidden movement, we had A2 colour printouts of the sketch maps.

With only very limited man-power, I was forced to stretch the companies quite a bit. I put 5th company all the way from the bridge roughly at 010020 across to the strong points down the road from 012011 to 005014. 6th company was holding the tractor factory (there’s always a tractor factory) and all the way over to 5th company positions, but with some forward LMG outposts on table F. 7th company was behind the other two in reserve and holding the main river crossings.

I put a couple of StuGs with 5th company to give the Soviets pause if they came steaming down either main road, but the remaining AT (2 more StuGs and the PaK40) were positioned to cover the main river bridges directly. I didn’t want to lose too much useful AT stuff in the outskirts, because that would just give easy targets for the Soviet heavy guns.

I chose to place our precious 8.8cm FlaK off-map, and not in an AT role. The problem with the AT role was that they would have been very difficult to conceal, and unable to use their range advantage, so we would have lost them pretty quickly. No doubt we would have knocked out some tanks, but unfortunately the Soviets can afford tank losses, or else they wouldn’t be attacking a town with a Tank Corps! So the 8.8s were in FlaK role – they were Luftwaffe after all.

We had bunkers at 008016 (on the corner of two main roads), 008009 and 003019 (by the joining of the 2 waterways). Knowing the heavy weight of Soviet artillery, we placed most troops in the strongest buildings, in the basements where they were to a large extent protected, and where we had decent ambush positions. Otherwise, we were relying on ambushes from panzerfausts, StuGs and even our rather pathetic recoilless guns.

We had anti-tank roadblocks on the main thoroughfares, 1 extensive minefield in an open strip in the middle of town, and also a very well booby-trapped block of houses that we figured they might use as cover against our strong points.

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The Soviets came in using several prongs. 1 brigade was to try to push across the bridge at 010020 down the road, another (motorised with heavy tank support) frontally due west and a third via the factory, but flanking it to the south. Recce preceded the last prong down the railway line and round the southern side of the large wooded area. Early on, artillery pounded various buildings, but to little effect, as we were either not there (we’d not manned the outskirts) or were in strong buildings. In Mission Command, we cater for light, medium and strong buildings, with 3 height levels, in addition to full blown fortifications. The main structures in Pleskau were strong stone structures (industrial, primarily), so they might lose a top storey, but troops in basements would be relatively hard to get rid of, especially as our troops were all elite paratroops. I had half-expected a couple of hours of massive bombardment from the Soviets prior to their sending in the attacks, but their guns were restricted to brief preliminaries, and some smoke, while their troops advanced to contact.

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The attack across the bridge at 010020 was rather effectively blunted by Mike’s very smart idea to blow the bridge immediately after their first couple of elements crossed it. The Germans had specific engineer assets for this task, nicely pre-positioned with covering fire from 5th company and StuGs to hit the cut off troops. For much of the rest of the game this attacking brigade was getting up engineers to repair the bridge, while pushing on with infantry – this wasn’t the main river, so we settled that the terrain across the now defunct bridge counted as ‘difficult’ for infantry. A heavy weight of artillery fire came down on the built-up areas close to the bridge over the next hour or so, with the result that we did lose most of our 2 models worth of StuGs eventually – in reality, these were likely to have been immobilised or damaged by falling masonry and such like, rather than destroyed outright, but in wargame terms they counted as KOed. Since we had 5th company’s bunker behind this position, but not embroiled, the Germans felt reasonably content with this sector.

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In the centre, the Soviet motorised brigade smacked into our booby-trapped area and lost very significant casualties; I think they had orders to keep going regardless. When they sorted themselves out and flowed round the danger area, our forward troops were able to keep them back by forcing them to take morale checks that they were very likely to fail because of prior losses.

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Support for this prong of the Soviets came from their heavy tank battalion (KVs), which was a big problem for the paratroops, as we didn’t have much that could stop them till they got close to the bridges. Eventually the Soviets here did get a reasonable foothold in the town, but they weren’t able to move forward on the bridges past the 6th company bunker. To be fair, the motorised brigade was made up of green troops, so this attack was always going to more of a pinning affair than a penetration. It certainly made sure that part of 6th company was pinned. Later in the day, I suspect that the heavy tank brigade would have approached the northern main river bridge. We had a couple of surprises up our sleeves, including some more StuGs concealed at the bridge. Although the ambushing recoilless guns were going to be a surprise, I suspect they were not going to be effective in stopping the KVs, so we would have been very reliant on the StuGs.

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The southern prong attack towards and round the tractor factory was more successful for the Soviets. A couple of Soviet air strikes on the factory turned out well for the Germans – the FlaK shot down several aircraft (2 models) and the bombs themselves were mostly ineffective. That’s one of the few times we’ve had successful FlaK defence. Lesson: don’t always use 8.8cm FlaK for anti-tank – they’re pretty good FlaK guns! That aside, the German forces in the factory were woefully inadequate to defend such a large area. We repelled the initial couple of attacks, but supporting fire from tanks, bren carriers and lots of infantry caused casualties on the defenders, and in the end we had almost nothing left, the remaining paratroops surrendering to the final assault. A mortar team held out in the middle of the factory for a while, but I figure that it too would have surrendered on the approach of the attacking battalions.

As the Soviet tanks came round the factory to head for the bridge, our StuG position held them up. Owing to the range, the Soviets couldn’t discover exactly where the firing was coming from, so they had to lose a small number of vehicles to find out which built-up area concealed the StuGs. Their recce troops were very useful here, and of course their tank numbers told.

Shortly after this a tank battalion and supporting truck-borne infantry dashed for, and across, the bridge! We had insufficient blocks on the edge of the table (I plead shortage of time!) to outright prevent this. However, covering fire from the concealed PaK40 knocked out almost all the Soviet tanks, and their motorised infantry also lost their lead vehicles. By the end of the session the Soviet infantry were only precariously holding a couple of buildings on the western bank. Mind you, achieving this forward position was quite an accomplishment (though technically not a Soviet objective!), so credit to those guys. Almost the whole of our 7th company was defending this area, so my suspicion is that the Soviets would have been pushed back.

The final German success of the day was to knock out some Soviet mortars using the 8.8cm guns in counter-battery role. So, even though the Soviets did manage to reach the river, it was, I feel, a well-contested affair by both sides.

Some conclusions

We’ve kept a note of the outcome of this engagement, so that we can continue with a post-Pleskau Soviet breakthrough later in the year. I think the Germans did quite a bit better this time around than in our 2012 version of the game, though we had a different setup and much better developed rules in 2017, so perhaps not entirely comparable. The Germans didn’t suffer huge casualties this time, but there was an inevitable attrition owing to Soviet artillery fire. This felt about right (to me at least). The Soviets suffered rather more casualties, as expected, in all areas, but then again, they had the material advantage, and were in a position to spend it for ground gained.

I would have preferred longer to plan and more players to help. For defensive positions, I think we’ll need to supply some parts of the plan in advance, so that the defenders aren’t overly taxed, particularly as we usually have fewer players on the defensive team than the attacking one.

Players should be encouraged not to hurry. I think the Soviets could have carried out a more concentrated fire plan for a longer period, and could have attacked more slowly, more methodically and with less risk – but still this would have been quite fast, but not break-neck speed. Re-organisation of attacking troops takes time, and you can, in fact, realistically take that time.  Positioning of specialist assets, such as engineers, needs a lot of thought, especially if there might be bridges to repair or mines / booby-traps to remove.

I got the impression that the Soviet Tank Corps was a different kettle of fish to our more usual Normandy forces. However, I’d like to invite comments from our Soviet players on that. Certainly the motorised brigade looked very different, with lots of elements but a need to keep them close together, so vulnerable.

For the future, A2 printouts of the actual table layouts would be far superior to our sketch maps, and would have speeded up our interpretation of where everything was, but this requires access to a printer on the day. Not impossible, but would need organising. It’s important to keep track of where hidden elements are located, so a closer approximation to the real layout would be advised.

Bearing in mind the relatively small number of players that we had, I think it went well, and there were no particular difficulties with the game mechanics.

Airfix Tanks

A little bit of prep for Airfix Battles happened over the hols.  Only a little, but the objective is to get a whole set of figures and minis in Airfix for use in Airfix Battles.

airfix_tanks

Politics By Other Means – a Serious Game for Education?

I’m off to the Glasgow School of Art in mid-week for a Workshop on History & Games. The Workshop has the stated main goal “to give a state-of-the-art picture of Serious Games in Education, in particular in the learning domain of history, and to identify further opportunities of using digital or analogue games as a teaching tool in this domain, but also more widely.”

Although Politics By Other Means wasn’t specifically designed as a Serious Game in Education (and neither was Mission Command, the WW2 miniatures rules mentioned elsewhere in this blog), I wonder if it could be. Previously I said about the game, that it “would attempt to show the tendency to extremes that Clausewitz mentions, and that [it] might also introduce variants to show the limitations of more realistic warfare, such as 18th century so-called “limited” war, Napoleonic wars, even WW1 and WW2″. The current design does a lot of that, I think, though I’m having a bit of trouble with the WW2 variant.

There are two key issues for me with creating a Serious Game in Education. One is the extent, if any, of the compromises within the design that might need to be made to fulfil its educational purposes, and the other is how to wrap any information supporting the educational purposes around it. I am not a teacher.

The first issue is a vital one to me as a game designer. My original design for the Basic Game of Politics By Other Means had a potentially very abstract aim for the players. You won by having the most VPs at the end of the game, but “The game ends when both players agree to end the game.” My purpose in this original version was to get players to engage with the relationship between the end of a war and “winning” a war, particularly by looking at a typical end-state of the game. For example I have occasionally had games with this version, where a peace agreement was suggested on the basis that, although one side had more VPs, the other side had possession of the neutral country, and therefore both sides could claim some form of ‘win’. Or a draw might be offered and accepted, if both sides were under significant doubt about victory. Importantly, in the vast majority of games the end-state was very obvious devastation of each country (usually down to 0 VP-generating capacity) and very powerful armies (usually the ‘winner’ would have army strength increased from the starting 1 up to 5 or 6).

This notion of a messy end condition might work well in a philosophy or war studies class, so might be appropriate for an educational version, but isn’t so great when in a conventional gaming context, where two players are simply playing a “filler” wargame. Therefore, the current version of the Basic Game has more classical, readily understood end game and victory conditions: “The game ends at the end of any turn that both players agree to end the game, or when one player has gained 21 VPs. The winner is the player with most VPs.” The players’ aim in this version is to get the most VPs of the pool of 40 VPs available, so it avoids the messiness about the meaning of winning. The design gains by having a clear cut aim and outcome, which I consider quite important for a “filler” wargame, but loses the potential for discussion about what the aim and outcome might represent, when applied to the real world.

The second issue about the educational wrapping is critical, if I decide to make more progress with the game as a Serious Game in Education. This also applies to an extent with Mission Command. What do I need to put in the “educational wrapper”, and how do I wrap it?

I confess I haven’t got any ready answers yet. I’m open to suggestions and hoping to learn a lot at Thursday’s workshop!

Politics By Other Means – Variants

Continuing on from my previous two posts about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I omitted to put in a piccy of the Basic Game setup for the edification of potential readers, so here it is.
SetupBasic2
The Basic Game is abstract. It’s all about getting the drop on your opponent, so you can either take their Home Country or ensure you can get more than half the available VPs – although there is the philosophical side to the game too. Once you’ve played the Basic Game, the idea is that you experiment with variants, either by tweaking the rules yourself, or by cracking on with a pre-set variant, as follows.

18th Century so-called Limited War

Here we provide 2 neutral provinces with VPs varying between 1 and 3, representing possible targets for positional warfare. You can’t reduce your Home Country’s VPs dice to less than 2 (king’s tended not to want to devastate their own countries). You can’t score VPs for your home country, if you have no armies there when an enemy army is also there. The intention here is to force players to defend their core logistical area. As it’s limited war, the game ends when the first player reaches 13 points, compared with effectively 25 in the Basic Game. It’s possible in this variant to play a delaying and obstructing game, focusing on scoring points, rather than committing to battles.

Napoleonic Wars

Representing the French conscription and war footing, Blue starts with 2 armies in France, strength of 2 and home country of only 2, as it has already suffered from previous invasions. The Allies (Orange) don’t have their ATK+1 card, representing their lack of tactical flair, but can buy it for later with VPs. However, they have 2 armies in the neutral country, presumably Belgium and / or German states – but these are weaker than the French. Occupation of the capital ends the game, and the French have the early advantage, which may slip away.

World War 1 in the West

Getting to grips with trench warfare and potential stalemate is the objective here. In this variant, you can’t move past an enemy fortified army, so it’s possible to have a war of manoeuvre only until both realise the importance of fortification. The defender can discard a movement card to add 1 to their combat strength – representing reserves moving up to block threatened breakthroughs. In battle only one army is destroyed per engagement. While this looks like less casualties, in fact the dynamic means that armies have to be quickly re-cycled back into the meat grinder. If you score and pull your action cards back to hand without having attacked, you lose a VP – there’s an expectation on both sides that you have to attack the enemy to win. Finally there are game end conditions for a negotiated peace (by agreement), a peace as a result of revolutionary collapse (no VPs), and a peace from military defeat and exhaustion (all VPs claimed, most wins).

World War 2 in the West

This final variant for now hasn’t yet been played, and I’m not yet certain how many of the changes should be in it. Various changes reflect blitzkrieg, the forward defensive of the Allies into Belgium, German initiative, and the gradual increasing strength of the Allies. Using VPs as resources for increasing army strength represents industrial and manpower strength.

Conclusions so far

It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve learned that a surprising amount can be accomplished by very small tweaks. I think this shows the framework is robust (at least according to me, and play testing seems to bear it out). I’m hoping that this will be a fun game to play, as well as providing some insights for those that have a more academic perspective.

Mission Command: The Joy of Research

I’ve been reading shed-loads of books and articles about Normandy ’44 over the past few months, as I stumble forward (and occasionally back) with the design and development of Mission Command: Normandy beta version. Sometimes a little snippet of “new” information comes to light that seems to have been overlooked by many a professional historian (or, indeed, gamer). My latest read is Ben Kite’s 2014 book “Stout Hearts, The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944”, now available in weighty paperback from Helion & Co.

For best credibility of scenarios in historical games like Mission Command: Normandy, it’s important to do careful research, lest you get held to account by, shall we say, “gamers who have great attention to detail”. I’ve been researching and playing a set of scenario variants for the 6th Airborne Division’s actions north of Caen for some while. One thing that’s struck me is the amount of firepower available to our paras. Apart from the naval gunfire support from a cruiser and a destroyer for each parachute brigade, they had 9x 6 pounder and 2x 17 pounder AT guns.

It’s often assumed that the AT guns, particularly the 17 pounders carried by Hamilcar gliders, were not available when the main para drop arrived early in the morning, because the principal glider landing was famously at 21:00 in the evening of D-Day. Hence the particular danger of the potential counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division during D-Day.

Ben Kite mentions this in his book: “Sergeant ‘Jock’ Simpson was a second pilot on a Hamilcar which landed on Phase three [the 21:00 landing] of operation TONGA with a 17-pounder anti-tank gun..”. However, a reading of Ben Kite’s quote from Sergeant Simpson shows that he landed with the Phase one gliders in the early morning: “A short time after midnight we rolled down the runway and took off…”. As the crossing by towed glider was only a tad more than 2 hours, it’s clear that Sergeant Simpson was not going to land at 21:00, but round about 03:30.  Moreover, it’s recorded in 5 Para Brigade’s diary that 4 Airlanding AT battery, including attached 17 pounders, arrived safely (as ordered) about 03:30, confirming  its operational orders.  So, assuming it might take a couple of hours to deploy the guns, from around 05:30 in the morning of 6 June, 5 Para Brigade had 11 AT guns, including 17 pounders capable of dealing with Panthers and Tigers, more or less ready for action.  Our Mission Command scenario variants take this into account.

This information is nowadays happily available online, but this type of potential error does show the importance of double-checking the evidence.

Airfix Battles: A sneak peak at Operation Cobra

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, has now hit the shops.  If you’ve not yet seen it, have a look here: https://www.modiphius.net/collections/airfix-battles.

The basic game has 10 scenarios, many of which are geared to teaching you how to play the game.  We thought it would be a great idea to present a whole campaign of scenarios to test out our more advanced players – enter Operation Cobra, the US offensive at the end of the Normandy Campaign that resulted in the (almost) encirclement of the German’s 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army.

The Operation Cobra Airfix Battles campaign is made up of 10 linked scenarios.  At the end of each scenario the winner earns Cobra Campaign Points (CCPs).  Most points wins at the end of the campaign.  However, you’re unlikely to play all 10 scenarios, because the outcome of a scenario presents some choices about which one to play next.  Some of the scenarios are not necessarily balanced, but rather they might favour one side or the other – or your style of play may suit you to one type of scenario, but not another.  So, if you think the next scenario is maybe a bit too demanding for your side, you may be able to opt to skip it, and move to a more palatable option.  In this way the path through the campaign can be different each time.

We’ve also introduced a few new bits and pieces for building your forces, setting up the scenarios and ending them.  Typically the Germans during Operation Cobra were scrabbling to keep up with the movement and materiel of the US advance.  To reflect the German losses, in most scenarios German squads will start with less than their full complement, but they’ll still cost the normal stars to buy.  Your Grenadiers may have only 7 or 8 men, instead of the normal 10.  Sometimes the German tanks are not fully repaired, so may have to start the game with 1 pip less on their Hit Dice, while at the end “The Last Throw of the Dice”, German tanks cost an extra star each to purchase.  In compensation, and because they’re on the defensive, the Germans frequently get to place terrain where they want it to be, so their relatively smaller force sometimes has the advantage of the ground.

As Operation Cobra was an offensive of rapid manoeuvre, both sides will face having to split their troops.  In Scenario 3, “Armoured Breakthrough”, the US side has a main and a flanking force and tries to take an on-road objective worth a large number of points.  In this scenario the Germans don’t have any tanks, so their problem is how to shift infantry around to block a flank attack, while also parrying a frontal force.  In Scenario 5, “Encircled!”, the Germans attempt to break out or rescue a trapped force by running the gauntlet of the attacking Americans.

We’ve included a lot of variation in the scenario designs.  The number of troops ranges from 10 Stars to 25, and many scenarios use both maps, so you’ll have a lot of ground to fight over.  We’ve also provided some very different end game and victory conditions.  For example, in Scenario 2, “Opening Attacks”, the Americans can choose to end the battle at the end of any round, thereby allowing them to limit their loss, take a quick victory, or go for broke by staying in the fight.  On the other hand, Scenario 4, “Panzer Counter-attack” is a do or die that only ends when one side has been destroyed, routed or withdrawn.

Scenario 10: Allied Briefing – “That’s it, boys, the Krauts are beaten. I doubt they have a single tank left in the whole of France! It should all be plain sailing from here on.”  Or the Axis Briefing – “General, you may demand all you want, but I cannot make tanks appear out of thin air! The whole division is destroyed! What’s that? An order from Berlin? Then I suppose we have no choice…”  Your chance to fight the enemy in Operation Cobra!

Politics By Other Means – having a CoW

Continuing on from my previous post about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I’m now into the play testing phase of the game. I’ve probably played it between 20 and 30 times with opponents varying from highly experienced professional wargamers at the Conference of Wargamers to novice gamers at Heffers’ game evenings in Cambridge. As far as I can tell (and sometimes less experienced play testers are not necessarily frank!), everyone who’s played it has enjoyed it. The thinky players have thought hard, and the romantically brash ones have dived in where angels fear to tread. I’ve also received a fabulous number of suggestions for refinement, additions, improvements and, occasionally, re-design. This is usually the case with game designing, until the very end stage, when I hope it’s ‘pretty perfect’. I’m trying to resist the siren calls of extra action cards, more countries, and more complexity.

I’ve not yet blind tested it, nor have I done much simple watching of others playing it. I’ve been concerned to get a firm foundation before launching it free of my own intervention. That’s the next step.

The current version of the game has a Basic Game with 4 additional scenarios: 18th century limited war, Napoleonic Wars, WW1 in the West and WW2 in the West, but more of that later. The Basic Game has solidified around 8 Action cards: Move 1 army, Move 2 armies, Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1 (with discard), (increase) Army Strength, Score+Retrieve action cards. There’s a Home Country card for each (Orange and Blue) player and a Neutral country card. 2 other cards are quite important – a Play Aid that shows the order of the actions, and an Initiative card (orange one side, blue the other).

The order of the actions is vital, and it’s common for new players to need to learn by experience, rather than to just read it. The order is: Move, Build, Attack, (increase) Strength, Score/Retrieve. There are a few important implications here. Attack comes after Move, so your opponent might move away before your attack, and, because armies don’t block, enemies *could* move away from your own armies in the Neutral Country straight into your Home Country. Build is before Attack, so a defending army can dig in and gain +1 just before you attack. However, increasing Army Strength – you reduce by 1 the VPs of a country card you control, in order to increase the strength of all your armies by 1 permanently – comes *after* Attack. This represents the idea that it requires significant sacrifice to ‘level up’ your armies with better equipment, training, etc. So using that card won’t help you this turn. One advantage both players have is that discards are all open – I didn’t want this to be a memory game. Even though there are only 8 action cards each, I figured it’s no hardship to just leave them all open, so both players will know what their opponent can potentially do each turn.

Initiative turns out to be pretty important too. The basic rule is: if both players Move, or both players Attack, then the player with the Initiative does it first, and the initiative then switches to the other player. So, if we both attack and only have one country card occupied by opposing armies, then only one attack will actually happen, and the other will fizzle. If I have the initiative, then I might be able to guarantee to win an offensive battle, but I must still get the timing right (tactics) using Move and Attack actions.

I played about half-a-dozen games at the Conference of Wargamers (http://www.wargamedevelopments.org/) early in July 2016. I hadn’t advertised it as a session before the conference, because PBOM is a shortish game and didn’t seem to warrant a whole session. Besides, I was doing two others (Mission Command and Airfix Battles, since you ask). Arriving Friday eve, I stuck a sign-up sheet up on the notice board for later in the evening, after our usual ‘warm-up’ plenary game. What I *should* have done was just plonked myself at a table in the main entrance area, but what I *did* do was to pick an empty room and add that venue to the sheet. I was then obliged to play in The Board Room – not, as you might expect, a central location, but a heavily concealed one, only entered through another room and via a narrow ill-lit staircase cunningly marked “No Entry”. I made the very last bit up. Not unsurpringly, only Nick and I made it, although I had, I think, 4 sign-ups. I played a few more games later in the conference using the less organised method.

So with just the select 2 of us, Nick and I played the Basic Game. The initial explanation only takes a few minutes, then you’re in the action. I’ve found that there are different styles that new players have. Nick proved to be “moderately cautious”. His opening gambit was to fortify his starting army, build another and only then advance into the Neutral Country, while I scored some VPs. Having a mind on defence is, I would think, a sensible approach. It did mean I was able to nip into the Neutral Country before he could capitalise on it, and increase my army strength using the Neutral VPs. We had a good, lengthy and thinky session. Owing to relative inexperience, Nick made a couple of small errors that allowed me to capitalise on Army Strength for an eventual win by virtue of gaining more than 50% of the available VPs. However, it was a fine tussle, and I think we illustrated the tensions inherent in the design – you need to keep a watch on the relative strengths of both sides in the field, while plotting how to maximise your future potential strength, while also ensuring that you don’t concede too much of the VP pool, while also looking at what actions you and your opponent can do each turn.

The game can be varied by very small rule changes. The original form had unlimited VPs, an end game “whenever both players agree to finish” and victory to the player with most VPs at that point. The purpose of this was to show the Clausewitzian tendency of war to go to extremes. Generally what happens is that countries are devastated in order to maximise army strengths, and it’s rare to end the game with more than 1 VP potential remaining. With no limit to VPs, the accumulation of VPs during the main part of the game becomes irrelevant – as long as I can generate some VPs at the end and my opponent can’t, then I win. So the focus here is simply on getting the drop on your opponent by devastating as much of the country cards as possible, to increase your Army Strength more than your opponent can. This can get quite philosophical. One player might propose to stop (presumably when they’re ahead in VPs), when it looks likely that the opponent is on the ropes. This might result in a perception of a ‘marginal’ victory, though the game doesn’t recognise such a result. On the other hand, one player might just refuse to give up, even when the situation looks completely hopeless – I view this as a bit like the Paris Commune period of the Franco-Prussian War, or perhaps a never-say-die guerrilla struggle. This approach lends itself to the use of the game as a teaching tool perhaps, and I suspect I’ll include it somehow. However, the Basic Game is more accessible with a fixed number of VPs, which introduces the extra concern of watching the VP pool.

Next post on this: variants

Politics By Other Means – a microgame project

I’ve always had a bit of a problem designing microgames.  It’s not something I’m particularly good at, because I’m always wanting to put more details into a design, often to its detriment.  I seem to be unsatisfied with ‘small is beautiful’.

For example, way way back, when Imagine magazine was published in the ’80s, I designed an abstract game called ‘Mindmeld’ (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/99970/mindmeld).  It was a bit like a microgame, in that it was a complete game published in a magazine and had a strong, simple central idea for a solo game.  With only limited pieces and a small hex board, you had to prevent ‘enemy’ pieces of 3 sizes from moving from the edge of the board to the centre.  It was designed on a ‘rule of 3’ principle.  Small, medium and large enemy pieces moved 3, 2 or 1 hexes.  The player had pieces that could ‘meld’ to form small, medium or large stacks.  To defeat a small enemy piece required 1 friendly piece to move adjacent to it.  To defeat a medium sized one, you needed 2 pieces with at least one of those a stack of 2, and to defeat a large piece, you needed 3 friendly pieces moved adjacent requiring at least a large stack, a medium stack and a single piece.  However, friendly stacked pieces also had more limited moves, 3, 2 or 1 dependent on the size of the stack.  Enemy pieces had simple programmed movement, and the difficulty level was increased by stepping up the number of enemy pieces that started each round.

Tony Boydell and I took another look at it, when we started up Surprised Stare Games, and it quickly spiralled into a larger edifice with a re-theme into a circus game, cards were added, then over the years we considered adding more circus animals to ‘flesh it out’.  It crept up to full-blown board game size.  It definitely lost its microgame footprint.

A few weeks back, I was re-reading Clausewitz’s On War (as one does, when researching wargames stuff!).  Having reached only Chapter 2, as I recall, I had a flash of inspiration – what about a microgame based on On War that would attempt to show the tendency to extremes that Clausewitz mentions, and that might also introduce variants to show the limitations of more realistic warfare, such as 18th century so-called “limited” war, Napoleonic wars, even WW1 and WW2?  Central features of the game would be very constrained strategic space – a card for each home country and a neutral country, so only 3 areas – and very constrained choices – a handful of action cards to build and move armies, and a typical ‘get back all the action cards’ card to collect up your used cards.  I sketched out some notes in one of my many A5 game design notebooks – I usually start either at the front of a notebook or the back, thereby limiting each book to 2 new or newish game ideas, and I tend to fill a few pages with scrawled notes, mind maps and diagrams, in a very unfinished, stream-of-consciousness manner.

At this stage, I wasn’t sure this was in any sense original, or yet interesting.  I considered it a small design exercise to see if I could come up with a microgame, while most of my design time was taken up with Airfix Battles (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/188825/airfix-battles), Mission Command http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/index.htm) and Dolphin Adventures (a family game project).

I wrote out some cards by hand and played a few times solo.  The advantage of microgames is that they’re small, so hand writing the cards wasn’t particularly time consuming.  I played around with the number of cards required, whether any action cards needed to be repeated, and with the nature of the 3 country cards.  The first version’s sequence of play was simply ‘each player secretly selects a single action card, then simultaneously reveal and enact them’.  Actions were: Move, Build, (increase) Army Strength, Score VPs, and Return cards.  Each player had only 3 armies.  The Army Strength card enabled the player to decrease the VP value of a country in order to increase the strength of all their armies by 1 (starting STR was 1).  Final array of 8 action cards turned out to be Move 1, Move 2 (2 armies, not 1 army twice), Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1, Army Strength, Score+return cards.

I also experimented with 1 or 2 actions per round.  It nicely turned out that only 1 was necessary.

So the final orientation of the game gave a good set of decisions: you need to deprive yourself of VP value in order to increase the STR of your armies.  But there’s only 1 of those cards, so while you’re doing that, your opponent may sneak into the Neutral country and score.  And also can reduce the Neutral country’s VP value to increase STR.  I introduced specific Attack cards, as the first version had auto-combat.  This turned out to be very neat: do I Attack and run the risk that my opponent will have moved out, so I waste the card?  Also I put in the Attack +1, where the +1 requires you to discard a card from hand.  Combat was basically bloody – if you have more strength, you wipe out the enemy for no loss; if strengths are equal, everyone dies.

The tension seemed to give a nice Clausewitzian dynamic.  You need to devastate your home country and the neutral if possible, in order to increase your strength.  In fact, sometimes you’ll want to throw everything away in order to gain the edge to win.

I’ll write another post or two about this thingy, showing how it developed further.

The Day After D-Day: part 2

Last post focused on the narrative, this post will focus more on what we learned, in particular, tweaks required in the Mission Command: Normandy documents.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following my Mission Command posts, we’ve not yet reached the final version of the game.  All sessions so far have been play tests, resulting in various tweaks or more far-reaching changes.  I’m hopeful that we’re nearing the end of that particular road, and we’ll have a stable beta version later this year.  This session threw up a small number of points.

Artillery control boards worked very well.  Jerry ran them for the Germans, John for the Canadians.  From their notations and looking over their shoulders during play, the boards helped to ensure that time delays for comms and for prep were appropriately handled.  John’s thought was to make sure that the C-in-C was centrally involved and received communications, so he ran the artillery himself.  This was particularly necessary for the Canadians, who had 6 batteries each, plus 3x 3” mortar batteries.  While we didn’t make inclusion of company level mortars compulsory, we’re coming round to that view, especially with a view to controlling the type of ammunition, and possibly a bit more delay when tubes are not ‘on call’.

ArtConBd_Canadian

A well-used Artillery Control Board

There were a couple of “umpire glitches” that I find it worth recording, so it doesn’t happen again.  Smoke was used a lot in this scenario (our slogan “smoke is your friend” seems to be working!).  I was allowing smoke to lift at the end of a whole turn, which, when you think on’t, gives one side quite a big advantage.  Our mechanics actually have each smoke screen lifting at the end of either *turn* (even friendly, odd enemy), so that neither side knows exactly when it will lift.  Much more equitable, especially on a calm, still day.  Secondly I foolishly allowed German counter-battery fire at a rather long range; it’s quite possible this was beyond the range of the German field artillery, so let’s just say this was a battery of mediums.

It’s probably worth noting the effect of our spotting rules, which rely on distance and circumstances, rather than dice rolls.  The Puma armoured cars pre-positioned in light woods near Bretteville were able to see advancing infantry at 500m, whereas the Pumas themselves were only visible at 250m (halted in partially obscuring terrain) – of course, when they fired they were visible to all and sundry.  It’s worth remembering this kind of thing for effective recce.

The most major point that arose, I think, was illustrated by Si’s panzer force versus the Canadian Regina Rifles.  The panzers had skilfully advanced under cover of some light woods to the west of Putot and were confronted by a company of the Regina Rifles retiring from attacking the village, having just been beaten off by the German recce troops there.  As the panzers had just moved up, the tanks couldn’t fire in that bound, even though they were very close to the enemy infantry.  The Canadian infantry fell back in their bound.  While the tanks could then have fired and advanced, there was a little mix up with movement and spotting ranges, I think, and the opportunity was missed or handled incorrectly.

It seems reasonable to assume that in this type of situation, the tanks would conduct some form of overrun attack (getting in amongst or even through the infantry), but current rules don’t permit any friendly element to move onto or through an enemy element.  We don’t have a different mechanic for melee or overrun, largely because at very short ranges the normal firing is very bloody.  Reaction tests with close up enemy AFVs (within 100m) are taken at -3, and a Retreat result within 100m of enemy AFVs is surrender instead, so it seemed OK on the surface.  However, infantry will normally get to move (possibly using both their action) before their reaction check, so they may well move out of sight, or at least out of the 100m range for the “100m of enemy AFV” modifier.  Even if they fail a reaction test, they may simply retire and continue to block AFV movement.  So this doesn’t quite work.

We have had many discussions about overrun mechanics now, including at our meal on Saturday evening after the game, when toothpicks were taking the place of infantry and tanks.  Our current position is perhaps best illustrated by a couple of illustrations:

Pic7

Overrun!

This example shows a Panzer IV company overrunning some retiring British, much like our failed op during the game. Here the Panzers are carrying out the proposed new “overrun” special action that enables them to move through infantry in the open, then fire at them with MGs.  It’s the rough equivalent of a Move Once action followed by a restricted Shoot action (only MGs and only at the overrun element).  The overrun also suppresses the target element and any infantry element behind that might have to be displaced.  The Panzers have to survive any opportunity fire from overwatching elements – in this case a PIAT team shoots up the left hand tanks.  After this, the Brits have an unenviable reaction test at lots of minuses (that’s -1 for each of 5 suppressed elements, -2 for the element lost (3 casualties), -3 for being shot at by AFVs within 300m (changed from 100m to make it more effective), for a total of -10, though they do get +1 for knocking out the vehicles).  In Mission Command you roll a d10, then make adjustments.  6 is Obey Orders, 1 is Halt / move to cover, 0 or less is bad.  So the British are going to be in a bad way.

IMG_1917

Ultimate overrun?

This one is even worse for the British.  Here the overrunning force is a mixed group of panzergrenadiers and tanks, utilizing the German joint activation capability. Direct area fire has further suppressed the bottom British element.  In this case the PIATs were not on overwatch, so the Germans don’t take fire.  The British reaction test is further reduced by enemy infantry advancing within 100m, so Retreat or Rout immediately followed by surrender is the likely result.  A couple of useful tactical notes: always back up your infantry line with proper depth, including AT guns, to hinder this type of tactic; also, in attack, you can use smoke behind the target line to attempt to isolate it – co-ordination of planning and implementation is essential though.

Finally, we had another breakthrough on the hidden units front.  For this game I provided large printed maps of the playing area, upon which teams were encouraged to place the HQ elements of units not yet visible to the enemy – the HQ representing the forward position of the company.  This mechanism (with the printouts oriented the same way as the playing tables) worked very very well to indicate the position of hidden units without having to show every single element.  As long as you have a spare table for each side, this mechanism is less cumbersome than using dummy markers, and more efficient and accurate than scribbling on small maps.

The Day After D-Day: part 1

On 7 May 2016 the Abbeywood Irregulars gathered for our monthly Big Battle – Mission Command: Normandy, The Day After D-Day. For those not in the know, Mission Command: Normandy is a set of World War Two wargaming rules for use with miniatures.  What we try to do is:

  • Capture the essence of tactical and operational combat command from roughly company level to army corps level without real warfare’s bloodshed, fear, death and destruction.
  • Model the differences in how different armies fight.
  • Reflect WW2 practice of tactical and operational command, control and communications.

This scenario pits the advancing Canadian 7th Brigade, 3rd Division, with supports against a hasty attack by elements of Panzer Lehr.  It’s a pseudo-historical scenario, presuming that Panzer Lehr was further forward than it was in reality.  It is designed to challenge both sides with roughly equal forces (though the Canadians have more artillery and the Germans more tanks), and a similar operational and tactical situation to that experienced by Canadian 9th Brigade and 12 SS Panzer Division further east.  This situation has been displaced west, so that players cannot know exactly what will transpire by reading the history books.

The idea on both sides is that their forces are part of broader advances covering their flanks.  The purpose of structuring the scenario in this way was to limit the inevitable nervousness about edge-of-table flanks, which in this game were not compromised.  An additional restriction (unknown to the players) was ‘no air power or naval guns’, simply to limit our attention with literally no overheads.

PlayingArea

PlayingAreaCropped

Playing area looking north to south, with Putot front right, Bretteville front left, and the main Bayeux – Caen railway line bisecting the table.  Above this picture is a larger shot of our hall, the Bennett Centre, Frome.

The area consists of mainly flat fields with occasional villages, woods and hedges.  The terrain in front of us is cut by the main railway line from Bayeux to Caen.  All built-up areas have some 2-storey town houses.  Hedges are all normal hedges not bocage.  Owing to standing corn, and bumps and lumps in the fields, visibility along the flat open terrain is a maximum of 1,000m.  However, from ridges, buildings or trees, you’ll be able to see out to normal distances.  All wooded areas are open woods.  Roads are metalled and are supplemented by tracks that aren’t indicated specifically.  Open ground counts as firm and level.  The playing area is about 3km wide by 3.5 long.

Canadians

CanadianHQ

Canadian 7th Brigade HQ, showing its command card. Non-combat troops not listed.

The orders for the Canadians are roughly historical. 7th Brigade is to continue to carry out its D-Day orders to establish a ‘fortress’ defensive zone around Putot-en-Bessin and Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse, linking up with 9th Brigade on the left and British 50th Division on the right.  Contact was made with 50th Division at Creully yesterday evening, and 50th Division will be moving forward in parallel to 7th Brigade.  Supports are in the form of AT guns, most of which will be coming up over the next 48 hours, and artillery, 2 regiments of field guns being already available.

The Canadians were led by John, a highly experienced player, with Richard, Mat, Pete (resiling from umpiring this time), Toby and Alex.  Both our teams this day were slightly larger than expected, which meant we went with the full regimental / brigade groups, rather than toning it down.  We usually estimate that a team of 3 or 4 can handle a brigade group, but it’s a squeeze, so more is better, especially as most units on both sides were at full strength with a fair few supports.  The Canadians had 3 infantry regiments (note: regiments = battalions) with half a battalion of tanks, supported by  12 and 13 RCA Field Artillery Regiments with M7 Priests (105mm howitzers), plus a battery of Achilles SP anti-tank.

Canadian General Synopsis

3rd Canadian Division has successfully landed on Juno Beach and penetrated inland about 4 kilometres to a line stretching from Creully in the west to Anguerny in the east.  8th Brigade is to the left (east).  According to the Allies overall plan, the division’s fresh 9th Brigade will pass through 8th Brigade and advance to its ‘fortress position’ in and around Carpiquet.  In concert with this, 7th Brigade (Canadian team’s forces) will advance to its ‘fortress position’ in and around Putot-en-Bessin and Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse to the west of Carpiquet.  The object of the Division’s defensive plan is to prevent the enemy exploiting the open ground to the west and east of the Mue valley, the Mue being a stream that runs south to north, spilling into the sea at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which the Canadian’s own 7th Brigade took yesterday.  9th Brigade will advance today to their position almost due west of Caen, so as to defend the east of the Mue valley, while 7th brigade will advance in line with them to defend the west of the Mue valley.  When in position, the German panzer attack will break on the Canadian’s overwhelming anti-tank and artillery fire power, supported by mobile armoured forces, while strong infantry holds the covering line.

To the right is the British 50th Infantry Division.  The Canadians met up with elements of their 69th Brigade at about 18:00 on D-Day at Creully.  To the left is 9th Brigade, who will be advancing up the other side of the Mue.  Behind are the rest of the artillery and anti-tank supports landed or due to land and come up from the beaches over the next couple of days.

Germans

GermanHQ

Some Germans, Kampfgruppe HQ at top.  M3s substituting for some (unused) Engineer vehicles in the foreground. Note the Pumas and 2nd Ko 130 Recce, deployed prior to game start.

The Germans have a combined force of roughly half a panzer division in size (perhaps slightly smaller) – bearing in mind that Panzer Lehr was missing its Panther battalion and a battalion of field artillery.  The idea is that this force forms the right-hand side of an attack by the whole division, coupled with 12 SS to the right.  So the kampfgruppe’s left is secured by the attack of the other half of the division, and the right by 12 SS. The Germans’ orders are to advance quickly, find gaps in the Allied deployment and penetrate as rapidly as possible northwards towards the coast with armoured forces.  Infantry are to secure the gaps, to mask resistance initially and then to mop up.  The whole corps (Panzer Lehr, 12 SS and 21 Panzer) is being committed, and every unit will have to show flexibility in supporting the most favourable opportunities.

The German team has almost the whole of 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment (2 battalions with almost all of their transport and support vehicles intact), half of 2nd Battalion, 130 Panzer Regiment (46 Panzer IVs – represented by about a dozen models), 2 companies of the 130 Aufklarungs Battalion, a company of 130 Panzerjager, a battalion of Field Artillery (3 batteries), and a flak Battalion.

German Current Situation

D-Day has happened.  The Allies have a lodgement on the coast and a shallow bridgehead.  Little detail is known, except that Americans have established themselves to the west, threatening to cut off the Cotentin peninsula, while British and Canadians have landed north of Bayeux and Caen.  Most of the German coastal defence forces have been wiped out in the overwhelming air, naval and artillery bombardments, and there has been significant disruption to command caused by paratroopers all over the immediate rear areas of the Atlantic Wall in Normandy.  Immediate counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division to the north of Caen has not been entirely successful, but that Division has created the basis of a new line of resistance north of Caen.  The original main line of resistance from the Cotentin to the Orne has effectively been destroyed and overrun, with only some pockets surviving, and the Germans had to put in hasty reinforcements in dribs and drabs from Brittany and even a battalion or two from 15th Army.

Even though the Atlantic Wall has not proven tough enough to stop the Allies cold, Rommel’s primary Army Group B reserves are, except for 21st Panzer Division, intact and in position.  It was fortunate that Rommel was able to persuade OKW and Hitler to move the Panzer Lehr Division forward before the Allies could launch their invasion, so that it can now join with 12 SS Panzer Division in an armoured Corps attack.  Both Divisions have reached their assembly areas between Bayeux and Caen in good time to counter-attack this morning (7 June), utilising the open ground on both sides of the Mue valley, as previously wargamed.  The overall intention is to strike north hard and fast, so as to reach the sea, then to exploit as the situation suggests to east or west.

Plans

Canadians

A classic 2-up 1-back advance with a gap in the centre for the Shermans of the Hussars of Ontario to use and exploit as they came up (they were delayed, so not available at game start).  The Canadian objectives were Bretteville and Putot, with (I’m guessing) permission to push on to give more depth if opportunities arose.  Finally the Canadian Scottish were to push through behind the Hussars of Ontario and move on Le Chateau and Le Mesnil-Patry.  Support from their massive artillery was to be provided at each stage.

Germans

Focused on getting tanks and supporting infantry rapidly down the left flank through Putot, primarily using all the tanks (2 companies) and 1st battalion of the panzergrenadiers, with the 2nd battalion supporting from the centre between Le Chateau and the railway farm.  This rapid advance was possible because Panzer Lehr 130 had a couple of companies of recce at the railway line at game start.  These were able to scout forward rapidly and report back.

What happened

The engagement began at 07:00 with the German recce already at the railway line in the hope of seeing the direction of the Allied movement.  The Canadians started with heavy smoke screens to shield the advance of the Regina Rifles on the right towards Putot and the Royal Winnipegs on the left towards Bretteville.  The Germans put down a brief barrage on Bretteville and Putot, covering the advance of their recce, in case either of those villages had been occupied.

RoyalWinnipegsDeployed

Royal Winnipegs 2-up. Rest are behind the carriers and cannot be seen yet. Smoke has lifted and they’re going into overwatch.  3rd company will deploy through the front 2 companies into Bretteville (or attack it if occupied).

German 2nd company 130 recce (infantry in Sdkfz 250s) pushed into Putot to have a look-see, initially only seeing a smoke screen.  Similarly the Pumas of 1st company, only seeing smoke, took up a position in light woods near Bretteville.  The lifting smoke revealed leading companies of both Canadian battalions (Royal Winnipegs 2-up, Regina Rifles 3-up).  Each German recce company left single elements to cover the withdrawal of their main body.  HE from the Puma damaged the 6 pounders of the Winnipeg’s Support Company, but the armoured cars were rapidly dealt with.  Spotting: Pumas hidden in the woods were able to spot the advancing infantry and AT guns, while remaining unseen themselves, *but* of course as soon as they fired, they could be seen and picked off by the 17 pounders of the supporting Achilles (would have been tempting for the Pumas to simply Fire-then-Move, and reverse out of trouble, I’m thinking).

PumasEngaged

Puma rearguard engages the 6 pounders with HE.  Canadians placed smoke in front of Bretteville, but the Germans are cannily in the woods, and Bretteville is unoccupied.

The Royal Winnipegs used classic fire-and-movement by companies – one on overwatch while the others advanced – and were well supported by properly cautious Achilles SP guns.  Caution was definitely important in this scenario.  Almost the entire ground was flat with occasional open woods and villages, so cover was at a premium.  Standing crops meant that spotting from flat ground to flat ground was a maximum of 1,000 metres, so no long-range sparring here.  With most AT weapons being long 75mm guns, pretty much any hit was a kill – there being only Panzer IVs and Shermans, no Panthers and Tigers.  Despite not having much opposition to start with, the Royal Winnipeg advance to Bretteville seemed very much by-the-book, resulting in complete success and little loss (a 6 pounder, a carrier and only very light casualties, if I recall correctly).  There was some Puma activity, a little artillery fire, but nothing too troubling.

The Regina Rifles, having suffered heavily on D-Day, also suffered today in front of Putot.  Their leading company was beaten off by 2nd / 130 Recce, then subsequently struck by the leading tanks of 130 Panzer Regiment.  Reinforced and rallied, the battalion eventually forced its way into Putot, thanks to its 6 pounder battery, supporting field artillery, and the late-arriving Shermans, who were able to knock out the Panzer IVs.  Smoke played a big part in this action (as did a rules glitch that we’re looking at now).

ReginaRiflesBeatenOff.jpg

Regina Rifles rightmost company beaten off by recce rearguard in the woods in front of Putot.  Red pawns are casualties, purple are suppressions.  The Canadians suffered several Cease Fire and Retire results here, but no Retreat or Rout; they proved to be tough.  Note the smoke, which unfortunately has prevented supporting fire from the centre company.

The fight around Putot was the main battleground of the day.  The Germans had committed all their tanks and almost the whole of the 1st battalion, 901st Panzergrenadiers here.

OverviewOfAttackOnReginas

Overview of the German attack on the Regina Rifles.  Note the Panzer IVs on the right – there’s a company of infantry behind, but not visible to the Canadians yet.  The vehicles crossing the railway line and heading south are the withdrawing recce.  The vehicles on the left are from another company of 1st battalion, 901st. German vehicle by the tree at the top is dropping off a FOO, who stayed up the trees in that wood, giving the Germans a view beyond the northern table edge.

There was some confusion in the attack, and it was not quite clear to the 2nd echelon of 1st battalion exactly where they should be committed.  By the time they’d shaken themselves out to the right of Putot, the tardy Shermans had arrived, and a tank duel around the railway line behind and around Putot ensued.  PIATs from the Regina Rifles also joined in.  The Germans came off badly, as the Shermans refused to over-stretch themselves – Jagdpanzers in ambush behind the railway farm languished with no targets, and eventually came forward into the general attack, only to be knocked out by 17 pounders (Achilles and / or Fireflys).  The German 1st battalion 2nd echelon unwisely moved forward into the open killing ground at much the same time, and the Germans ended the game with only a handful of operational tanks, while the Canadians still had more than half of theirs remaining.

2Co_1_130Pz.jpg

2nd Company, 1/130 Panzers support 1st Company. Just after this movement, most were destroyed by Canadian Shermans and 6 pounders.

UnhealthyForTanks

Burning tanks.  Mostly German, but this pic shows that the 1st Company 130 on the right got past Putot (in fact there’s another wreck further forward to the right as well).  If they’d been able to overrun the Canadian infantry … (of which more later).  Note many casualties flagged up, mostly from artillery – see white and orange 105mm template in the background.

In the centre, 2nd battalion, 901st Panzergrenadiers were unable to develop their attack, in the face of withering 105mm fire directed from Bretteville.  The grenadiers pushed through the shells, but were halted before they could reach the village.  Many vehicles were destroyed, and by the end of the day the Germans here were effectively stopped and forced back towards the cover of Norrey.  Canadian occupation of Bretteville gave them a fairly clear view from the buildings right across the German deployments behind Putot, and their artillery made this very uncomfortable.  On the other hand, a German FOO, concealed in the woods to the north of Le Chateau was making life unpleasant for the Canadians advancing between Bretteville and Putot.

WinnipegsInBretteville

Winnipegs in Bretteville.  Lead units have already pushed on.  This is a great pic of the Achilles that supported the Winnipegs. Shermans (Fireflies with the longer barrels) in the background are winning their tank duel.

Towards the end of the game the German artillery switched from direct support of the German attack to counter-battery fire.  During the day the Canadian field artillery batteries were intent on deploying to their proper firing positions, so they had to move up while keeping guns on call.  The Germans were fortunate to catch a couple of batteries of the Royal Canadian Artillery during a period of heavy supporting fire, which enabled the German counter-battery fire to score some damage on temporarily stationary Priests.  The counter-battery operation did have the disadvantage of denying the Germans artillery support for the last 30 minutes or so of the game.

SmokeCoversNervousShermans.jpg

Smoke covers nervous Shermans facing the remains of 1st Company, 130 Panzers. PIATs of the Regina Rifles helped to finish off the last few, despite German artillery pounding the crossroads.  Note lots of blue overwatch markers – it’s important to be ready!

The final game positions, by about 09:15 to 09:30 saw the German panzergrenadiers deployed in the hedges and woods to west of Putot, resisting the attacks of the Regina Rifles infantry, but with no effective answer to the extensive Canadian artillery.  Hanging on was the best they could hope for here.  The Royal Winnipegs were pushing on towards Norrey behind their artillery barrages, but it was relatively slow progress, and German infantry guns were keeping them in check.  The Germans could hope to hold Norrey, Le Chateau and le Mesnil-Patry, but their attack had certainly been stopped.

NearlyTheEnd

Nearly the end.  Putot has been taken by the Regina Rifles, but the German landser are resisting just to the west.  The Hussars of Ontario have a commanding position in the centre, and it’s difficult to see how they’ll be shifted.  Most of the jagdpanzers in Normandy are currently burning at the top right centre by the railway farm.  Note the command cards in the strip of table to the top left.  We encourage players to put them right in front, because they have relevant lookups for moving and firing on them.

Arty Control

WW2 – it’s an artillery war. And in that light, I’ve been addressing Mission Command’s methods for enabling players to control artillery. Forward Observation Officers, or others, who want to call in shoots of artillery batteries have to communicate (in other words “do a Communicate action”) to make it happen. The time delay between request and shells in the air depends on the efficiency of that communication, and in Mission Command we’ve previously handled it by messages with a delay in turns run by players, umpires or both, often relying on memory and the accuracy of individuals. As you might imagine, this has resulted in muddle, even with our one-message-box-per-turn experiment in our last game.

Now I’ve decided to try a lesson from the Euro game book – a ‘player board’. We have a simple artillery control board for the commander of the artillery. It lists the batteries down the side and the turns along the top, so that a very brief order can be written straight into a cell. Each battery has a wooden cube on the left hand side of the board to indicate whether the battery is Moving, Preparing or Ready/Firing; and these must be carried out in that sequence.

Arty_4

In this example 12th Field Regiment (Self Propelled 105mm guns, known as Priests) started the game On Call to the FOO of 11th Battery. It’s now Turn 3, so the turn at the top of the board is circled. 11th Battery has been directed to fire at 026040 with 11th and 16th batteries. This order will have come in, and been written on the board, on Turn 2 at the latest, as artillery cannot fire on the turn the order is received (in Mission Command, a Shoot action is always the first action of the two actions an element does). The shoot is planned for 2 turns duration, then the two batteries will prepare for fire elsewhere. 43rd Battery has been ordered to prepare to bombard the same target. Bombarding is the most intensive, highest rate of fire and takes 2 turns to prepare. When the other two batteries Prep on Turn 5, 43rd will bombard the same target. Meanwhile the medium guns of 5th Battery, 15th Regiment have been carrying out a rolling barrage close by.

If desired, you can also control battalion mortars through the control board, as shown. Mortars don’t need a turn to prepare, so the player has crossed out the Prep box for the mortars.

The current status cubes give a quick overview of what’s happening now, and they also remind you that you have to Prep after Moving the battery.

My plan is to use this for our game on 7 May to see if it works ‘live’.

Testing times in Normandy

On Thursday Pete and I had a quick play test of the proposed new group activation rules for Mission Command (see the previous post).  We each had about half a battalion of infantry with supporting tanks, AT, and artillery.  We played fairly slowly to make sure we had the mechanics of communications and control correct.  Even so, we managed 9 turns in an hour and a half of play, which is roughly game time = real time, so good pacing.

The Germans (Pete) had the first bound and advanced rapidly to the cover of a wood in the centre of the area of operations.

GermanAdvance

First Panzergrenadier company is in the woods, second panzergrenadier company is forming a single group with the Panzerjager on the German right (our left), while the Panzer IV company (with HQ company in the rear) takes up a wedge formation by a hedge for partial concealment.  Note the tank formation – owing to the 1 model = 3-5 vehicles scale, the front 5 models represent a standard wedge formation, albeit they are too closed up; an artillery strike would possibly kill more than one model if they’re this close together.  Width of the this tank wedge is rather less than 200m; better if it was 250m, and it could easily be double the depth for ease of later deployment.  Panzergrenadier vehicles are also very vulnerable here, but then again, it does mean they were able to move up quickly.

The British advanced from the other side of the table, using the right hand side.

BritishAdvance

I also used a wedge, and mine also are rather too close together!  The infantry are two companies with some depth.  Note that an infantry element in a company group has to be within 100m of another group element chaining to the command element, in order to be in command.  As this was a play test, I deployed from a random part of the base line, when I should have gone for the cover of the ridge (top left).

The Germans develop their position. The tanks halt and go into overwatch (they can’t see anything for the moment).  On the German left, the FOO with 1st company prepares to call in artillery on the village.  On the right the jagdpanzers initially form up across the ridge with 2nd company infantry, but as they see Shermans advancing just under 1000m away, they take up hull down positions at right angles to the infantry instead.  Unfortunately for my Shermans, I can’t see them, as they’re partially obscured by the ridge – if only I’d had some scouting Stuarts!

Jagdpanzers!

I made the mistake of leading my tank squadron with the command vehicle (which was a very stupid mistake!).  As I came round the right side of the village, I spotted the enemy tanks at under 500m (fortunately they weren’t yet in overwatch).  My command vehicle was forced to use its second action to reverse back out of sight.  Unfortunately this meant that the commander couldn’t use a communicate action to inform or re-deploy the squadron quickly, nor to inform the overall commander straight away.  We’d also not seen the jagdpanzers on the ridge, and soon lost several tanks (the rear smoking turret being my sole Firefly model).  Then the artillery came down on where the German FOO thought my tanks were going to be, but of course they’d backed off.

You can just see the little blue marker between the right hand Sherman and my bottom infantry element.  This marks that this infantry element was separated last turn, as the infantry advanced into the Sherman company’s area splitting the infantry company.  Fortunately we were able to regroup the company quickly with no particularly bad effects, as the company was not closely engaged.

The action continues.  British artillery puts in a smoke screen against the flanking jagdpanzers, though it comes down a bit too far to the left and I have to supplement it with the company’s 2″ mortars.

My second (left) company had nearly reached the village, but mortar fire from the 2nd panzergrenadier company hit and destroyed the 2″ mortar element.  This element had been linking to the company HQ in the rear, and the separated forward elements failed a reaction test and fell back.  The leaderless Shermans meanwhile have tried to rally back to the second company HQ, but lost more tanks, this time to the Panzer IVs at just over 1000m.  The few remaining Shermans call it a day, because it’s just too open to deploy here.

SmokeButTooLate
Meanwhile the German FOO moves the German 10.5cm artillery barrage forward in 100m steps, and my 1st company manages to advance through towards the woods, taking some casualties from the artillery.  These are veterans, so they don’t give up easily.

At last my infantry have closed up to engage the enemy in the woods.  The German FOO drops the artillery back onto them, so it’s not going well for the Brits.  Finally the tanks move forward, and it’s beginning to look like my 1st company will be overrun (though I do have a PIAT element in the right place).

German strength isn’t going to be broken this day, so we call the game at this point.  I never brought on my 17pdr battery, because I needed to possess some cover to put it in.

Denouement

I’m very happy with this play test.  It shows that a relatively clumsy British advance without good co-ordination and reconnaissance has very little chance against a well co-ordinated opposition.  In fact, the Germans would have won (on this showing) without any tanks at all.  The key was to take up good positions and not get carried away.  Pete, quite correctly, spent a lot of time sitting on his hands, on the grounds of “don’t interfere when the enemy is making a mistake”!

The joint group activation wasn’t crucial, but could easily have helped the Germans if I’d attacked on the left.  Also the disadvantage of mixing up companies came out in the delay to 1st company and slight confusion in my 2nd company area when the Shermans fell back.

Thanks for the game, Pete!

 

 

The Day After D-Day

Not a zombie game, but a new scenario for Mission Command, to be played on 7 May 2016 at Frome, Somerset.  It will be a psuedo-historical affair, so that reading up on the history won’t be relevant.  Set around Caen it pits the Canadians against the Germans.

Since the Canadians have more or less the same lack of doctrine as the British in this period, it’s an opportunity to see how British and Commonwealth forces and Germans fight differently, and of course, how that’s reflected in the game.  The basic smallest ‘unit of command’ in Mission Command is the company-sized group, and we describe command and control via orders of battle that specify which company-sized groups are within which battalions, etc, going up the hierarchies to brigade and division.  Generally each company has its own command card with details of the elements in it, plus their capabilities.  Where units are within kampfgruppen, combat commands or regimental groups, these are specified in the command cards, and players have these in front of them as they play.  Control on the table-as-battlefield is exercised through the activation of each group, one after the other.  So, for example, a battalion of infantry may have an HQ company and 3 or 4 rifle companies, represented by 4 or 5 groups, each successively carrying out its actions during a side’s bound (or turn).

A new restriction that we’re testing is to limit company operations, so that random or convenient mixing of groups has bad effects. If a player moves one company into a position occupied by another company, some elements in the line are effectively put out of command, because their normal voice and runner communications are disrupted by the new unit.  Once the offending company has gone, the company in line will have to spend actions to re-establish the normal communications between the rifle elements and their command element.  Of course if these companies should be attacked while this confusion is on-going, bad stuff may well happen.  What we want players to do, is to keep their companies organised and separated, as they would have been in reality, so as to avoid confusion.

Doctrine and experience affect these command and control issues.  The advantage the Germans had was their more integrated combined arms training and experience within their panzer divisions in particular.  So German kampfgruppen can arrange for 2 groups to work together with no penalty, typically panzergrenadier and tank or assault gun companies.  Also these jointly activated companies take reaction tests (morale checks) together, ignoring the worst result.  This reflects the advantage of fighting alongside familiar partners.

British and Commonwealth troops learned these practices very much later, so do not gain these advantages.  I suspect, and hope, that the need to keep the companies organised and separated should focus the minds of our players on maintaining battalion and brigade-scale overviews of the fighting, rather than the minutiae of each element.

We’re also testing out a new method for handling artillery, involving simple planning sheets.  Previously we’ve tried to get players to remember things and scribble notes, but using artillery requires some planning and integration with the rest of the combat – particularly for the Canadians, who’ll typically have more resources than the Germans.  We’re testing a planning sheet that  lists the batteries, which FOO they’re allocated to, and their planned fire by turn (if any).  This is a bit like a simple Eurogame player board (yes, with black cubes!) for the artillery commander to use.

Although these developments look like added complexity, I think they’ll make the game management (by umpires and players) more streamlined.  Speaking of streamlining, we’re amending armour classes, so that each vehicle element has one AC only – side armour is simply front armour -1.  This reduces the need to look things up in tables and fits in better with our scale (1 vehicle equals 3 to 5).

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be finishing off all the briefings, command cards, etc for the scenario.  It’s definitely flesh on the bones time!

Airfix Battles @ Frome

Saturday 2 January saw a group of Abbeywood Irregular wargamers enjoying the open fire, the mulled wine and the mince pies at our first start-of-the-month session at the Bennett Centre in Frome, Somerset. Many thanks to Pete for laying on the vittals. Not a Big Game session, but a collection of Small Games was the tune, owing to the season.

Saga was played, as was some DBM / DBMM / DBA as a precursor to a campaign to be joined later this year. But for me it was an opportunity to play test Airfix Battles with some more unsuspecting gamers, even though it involved a 3.5 hour trek each way!

We managed 3 AB games during the day, focusing more on the intro scenarios, though I did push the boat out on a complex one with Pete and Colin at the end. Honours were more or less even amongst the opponents, which at least suggested we had balanced scenarios – a good sign. More importantly the game was well received and enjoyed. There was plenty of cheering and anguished cries as a result of the vagaries of dice rolls! But also some nicely executed coups of tactical finesse too. One of the best was an On The Double race by a sole surviving German officer onto the unoccupied objective in the final turn, only for an artillery strike to lay him low at the last moment.

Our final scenario involved 3 Shermans and a couple of US squads attempting to resist some German panzergrenadiers and Panzer IVs. The Panzergrenadiers special ability enables them to Move immediately after disembarking from their transport, typically to dive into cover. Sure enough, they grabbed one end of the village before the Yanks could say ‘coca-cola and French fries’. However, this did lay the panzergrenadiers open to concentrated fire, and though they bravely resisted for a while, in the end they were pushed out. Meanwhile a US squad carried out a Rapid Advance to the flank of one of the Panzer IVs – surely a dangerous move, as they’re armed with a couple of bazookas, as well as rifles. But no, despite maintaining a constant fire for 4 turns, and hitting several times, no penetrating hits were scored – questions will be asked in Congress about the quality of US ammo! Some days things never go right, and the US forces were beaten by the narrowest of margins, in a battle that was bloody for both sides’ infantry, but strangely not for the tanks, only one Sherman KOed.

As a result of the test we’ve tightened up the wording on 3 or 4 Command cards, and we’re looking at a final tweak or two on the Assault rules. Assaulting permits a rapid elimination of Units with poor morale, but woe betides you if you try it against a prepared enemy. Vehicles can overrun infantry by using Assault, but you’ve the risk of KO by their AT weapons.

We’re now finalising the precise details of how to engage soft skinned vehicle targets. In earlier versions we gave them Hit Dice like armoured vehicles but with no need for penetration rolls. Our discussions currently centre on what weapons should be able to engage them, and how to make this consistent and simple, bearing in mind that these have to relate to Towed Guns, which are also soft skinned targets.

Our Frome session was very successful, and everyone had a fun time with the new game. Can’t wait to get the final “real” set now!

Helion & Co – a quick plus plus on customer service

Many thanks to Helion & Co for their great customer service!

Helion & Co Ltd is a military history book publisher here in the UK. I approached them on Friday about whether I could reproduce a map from their book “The Combat History of the 21. Panzer Division” for one of our Mission Command scenarios. Not only did I receive permission on the Saturday morning, but also today I received high quality images to use. So within 1 working day of the request, I have all the material I need!

A huge thank you to Helion (www.helion.co.uk)!

The relevant image now forms part of the “21 into 6 won’t go?” scenario at http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand.

Mission Command: Scenario 1 – 21 into 6 won’t go?

At long last, I’ve produced the first “proper” scenario for Mission Command.  This is now an addition to the Introductory teaching scenario in the Umpire’s Manual.

This first scenario is one of a set called “21 into 6 Won’t Go?”.  The set presents some “what if?” situations on D-Day 6 June 1944 in the area around the bridge over the Orne canal that came to be known as Pegasus Bridge. The Abbeywood Irregulars wargaming group has played variations of this several times over the last few years, taking advantage of the relatively easy availability of British paratroops (thanks to Pete) and 21st Panzer Division vehicles (thanks to yours truly), supplemented by the many extras in the collections of our players. I like to think we’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with timings and sizes of the opposing forces, and no doubt we’ll continue to experiment in the future.

Historically the British 6th Airborne Division’s role was to protect the left flank of the invasion beaches. Specially trained elite British glider troops captured the Orne canal bridge and the Orne river bridge via a coup de main (Operation Deadstick). The major part of the division landed by parachute or glider to the east and south of Caen as well as at the crossings over the River Dives further to the east. The main opposition to the 6th Airborne was from elements of the German 716th Infantry Division, a relatively weak “static” division, and the 21st Panzer Division, both of which were not concentrated and were hampered by a combination of parachute landings over a wide area, German command confusion, Allied air supremacy, Allied naval gunfire and determined fighting by 6th Airborne. The Germans were sufficiently disrupted – partly through enemy action and partly through their own failings – that they didn’t carry out a large scale counter-attack until late in the afternoon. Although part of the counter-attacking forces reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer at about 19:00, the main armoured components of 21st Panzer Division attacking to the west of the Orne were beaten off by the 3rd British Division, and the German troops at the coast were withdrawn when further British airborne landed in the late evening. 6th Airborne was reinforced by commandos and by elements of 3rd Division, and the Germans were never to see the sea again.

What if the German 21st Panzer Division had launched a major attack on the British 6th Airborne Division during the morning of 6 June? This was after all the expectation not only of the British high command but also of many of the senior officers of 21st Panzer Division at the time.

The first scenario, now available for download at http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand, suggests that a Kampfgruppe of 21st Panzer Division was able to attack at 10:00 on 6 June. The sequence of events as a result of the airborne landings shows that the Division was formally alerted at about 02:00 and that most elements, including its tanks, were ready to move by 04:00. An examination of the pre-invasion deployment of 21st Panzer Division and its routes of march suggest that a 10:00 start time for an attack towards the Ranville area would have been very reasonable – if anything, rather late. The first scenario is restricted to the area to the east of the Orne, so that the size of the forces on each side and the area of battle can be handled by relatively small teams of players. The second scenario is intended to cover both sides of the Orne, and includes larger forces on both sides, together with British reinforcements from the invasion beaches. The third and final scenario suggests that the German concentration was very rapid, so that an attack can happen very early in the morning before the invasion itself has started.

Researching this particular scenario has been a fascinating exercise. The major source for 21 Panzer Division (“neu” as the re-built division was known) is Werner Kortenhaus’ book “The Combat History of the 21 Panzer Division”, initially available only in German.  Having acquired this excellent publication a few years back and made use of my limited knowledge of German, I made a reasonable (with a dictionary!) stab at the historical reality, as far as one can go, and reinforced by other less detailed sources. Then the book was translated and published in English by Helion & Co, so reference became a lot easier!  Herr Kortenhaus was in 4th Kompanie of the 21st’s Panzer regiment during the invasion and supplemented his own personal recollections by collecting unpublished accounts from other survivors.  Exact details of equipment and numbers of soldiers are, of course, impossible, despite the publication in the book of the 1 June 1944 monthly strength report. Interestingly there are some differences between the monthly report and the equipment inventory for 5 June also published in this volume.  For a wargame designer this is a bit of a relief, because it means that many of the potential factual errors in the listings that we use in our scenarios are at least defensible.

One specific detail of 21 Panzer’s equipment is the situation regarding French tanks in its second tank battalion.  About half of the battalion is listed as Somua S35 and Hotchkiss conversions.  However, I’ve not found evidence of them being used in combat (if anyone out there has evidence, please let me know).  Kortenhaus, being in the first battalion, may not have known, and he suggests that second battalion was in the process of converting entirely to Panzer IVH.  I rather like the idea that a couple of companies of II Abeilung Panzer Regiment 22 had Panzer IVHs straight from the factory with no camouflage paint and untrained crew – truly green!

Of course a major point of interest in 21st Panzer division is its reliance on Major Becker’s French vehicle conversions. This scenario allows you to deploy the Unic P107 (f) half-track and the assault guns made from old Hotchkiss tank chassis, as well as SP artillery mounted on the Lorraine Schlepper.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that this “fully mobile” Panzer division had a battalion of horse-drawn guns.

On the British side we engaged in extensive research on the composition and orders for 6 Airborne Division.  Much of this material is available on the web from the excellent Paradata website (http://www.paradata.org.uk/). This huge body of information enabled us to confirm what landed when, and in particular that 5 Brigade had a strong battery of AT guns from 03:30 onwards, including 17 pounders.  One of the advantages the paras had was the availability of heavy weapons, certainly unexpected by the Germans. Support included not only the AT guns to add extra punch to the usual PIAT, but also a dedicated battery of 25 pounders from 3rd British Infantry Division (with the rest of the regiment in extremis), and importantly the dedicated support of significant naval gun assets.  This is by no means to denigrate the performance of 5 Brigade, which accomplished its tasks on the day (pretty much the only brigade to achieve all its D-Day objectives, I think).  It helps to explain why 21 Panzer Division had such a hard time against the supposedly “lightly-armed” paras.

We hope that this set of scenarios will shed some light on why events unfolded as they did, and some understanding of what might have happened if the actors had made different, and still very reasonable, decisions.

Airfix Battles – oldie models, new games

Though Mission Command has been taking up a lot of my 2015, what with launch of the alpha version, another little project was offered to me by that kind Mr Birch at Modiphius Entertainment. Airfix Battles!

Airfix! Certainly a name to conjure with for those of us of a certain age. Like most wargamers of my vintage, I was brought up on those 1/72 and 1/76 scale figures and models. I’m not ashamed to say that I still have a few trays of Airfix Napoleonic Line Infantry that I can use alongside the more conventional lead stuff acquired over the years. It was only at my last house move that I decided to ditch a swathe of 40+ year old Airfix plastic – huge numbers of ACW and Napoleonic soldiers consigned to a skip :(. But enough of reminiscences.

Nick Fallon and Chris Birch asked me to give them a hand with ‘One War’ as Airfix Battles was initially labelled. My credentials were mostly as a WW2 buff – I’d introduced them to Mission Command earlier, so I wasn’t an entirely unknown quantity – so I was brought in to help out with historical details in the first instance. I found the project very interesting and a great contrast with Mission Command. The latter has focused very much on detailed simulation, whereas Airfix Battles is all about playability. Yes, theme has to be accurate and the ‘feel’ of the game is vital. However, the Airfix Battles Introductory Set has to do what it says on the tin – introduce newbies to the wargaming hobby, specifically WW2 land battles, while also appeal to the, ahem, older fan. Players have to be up and having fun within minutes.

After a few weeks of tinkering and developing, I was honoured to be asked to co-design the system with Nick and Chris. How could I refuse?

To be entirely fair the Airfix Battles system had been at least sketched out by the time I got involved. It’s a D6 system based on squared maps with only 1 Unit – primarily infantry and vehicles – allowed per square. Movement and shooting are configured on the basis of squares, where a more complex board wargame might use hexes, and a tabletop game would use tape measures. It uses Unit cards to describe the troops themselves. In the first set these cover stuff you’d see in a late war Normandy game – Shermans, Panzer IVs, basic infantry squads, MG sections, snipers and the like.

Players take actions with their troops by playing Command Cards from a limited hand. Actions are what you would expect – primarily about moving and firing – but we have interesting and fun combinations with additions to movement points and variations to firing, so that the unexpected can easily crop up and challenge the unprepared. IMHO the system does a good job of representing ‘fire and movement’. Keeping the enemies’ heads down really pays, especially if you’re aiming to assault a dug in squad!

Airfix Battles has preconfigured small scenarios to teach the rules gradually. More experienced players can dive into larger fare and design their own forces, as each Unit has a points value dependent on its weapons, abilities, and importantly its ‘War Dice value’, a number that must be rolled to succeed when the Unit fires or rallies. You can play with a single player on each side, or with 2 or more players per side taking team decisions. There’s also a solo play mechanism.

The Intro Set will come with counters for those who don’t already have Airfix models. But it’s really time to break out the old Airfix collection, base up those WW2 infantry, re-paint those Panzer IVs, and declare ‘Panzer Marsch!’

Mission Command at Frome, Somerset, 7 Nov 15: a brief write-up

Well, that was fun! Thanks to all the participants. As usual, we had a good turnout, 12 of us – 6 German players, 4 British, and Pete and I umpiring. The group included a fair smattering of players new to Mission Command, but now they’re proper vets!

We started just before 10:00 with a brief briefing from yours truly. This was intended to give an overview of the terrain and the game mechanics. We played on 2 tables with a nice split in the middle that allowed everyone to get at the troops easily. In this scenario it was relatively easy, because it split naturally between the Orne Canal and the Orne River. For the very knowledgeable that comment confirms the location, we were at and around Pegasus Bridge on 6 June 1944.

The East Side
East Side

The West Side
West Side

By about 10:30 we were into the planning phase. This is an important component of Mission Command (and any significant wargame, I feel). Both sides had a moderately extensive written background sheet, but hadn’t been given material in advance. This was deliberate, because we wanted to put some time pressure on. So the longer their planning, the more time the other side had to prepare!

The British paratroops are basically defending the bridge area on both sides of the waterways, with D Coy, Ox & Bucks, in reserve after their heroics of taking the bridges. The rest of 5 Brigade have arrived, but the game starts at 05:30 before they’ve had long to prep the positions. The British team established the locations of their elements, we then photoed them and removed them, so that the Germans couldn’t see them at all, till spotted. This mechanism worked really well – the British commanders could easily refer to their smart phone pictures to see exact locations and inform the Germans when they were spotted.

The scenario assumes that, contrary to history, 21 Pz Div has moved out very quickly and a sizable Kampfgruppe (reinforced panzergrenadier battalion, half a tank battalion, plus lots of heavy weapons, supports and artillery) has been assembled to attack northwards, primarily on the East side of the waterways. This is before there is a clear indication of the invasion, using standing orders to attack airborne troops vigorously.

The Germans quickly identified the bridges as their ‘schwerpunkt’ and indicated a focused infantry attack on Le Bas de Ranville, with the tanks swinging wide to the right bypassing Ranville to attack the bridges from the East and North East. The infantry advance was covered by a smoke screen from the German artillery Regiment. The artillery was later switched to a general On Call stance in response to FOO requests.

On the West Side the Germans pushed through the open woods close to the canal, but unfortunately led with their vehicles. These were engaged by concealed PIAT teams and several were lost. There seemed an undue concentration on using the gunboat on the canal as a recce vehicle – it was of very limited effectiveness, only having a 3.7cm gun, and it did find some British positions, coming under fire from most of a company at one point. On the West Side the opponents became rather bogged down, but it seemed like the German artillery pressure would eventually tell.

The German Navy is beaten off!

German Navy

The German infantry attack was pushed in, but only after the smoke screen had lifted, exposing the attackers to considerable mortar and small arms fire. Again the Germans led with their vehicles, losing a high proportion of them by the end of our game. The infantry, with 3 lines of one company each fairly closed up, were repulsed several times. German artillery was the main killer of the British defenders of Le Bas de Ranville – the paras morale was high, but firepower eventually routed the company out of its position with high losses. The German advance here was also put under intense pressure by naval gunfire (leading the German commander to inform Rommel that it seemed likely a prelude to the real invasion).

German infantry attacks despite heavy losses.

German infantry attack despite heavy losses

On the right flank the German panzers moved out in two fairly closely arranged lines and attempted to push round Herouvillette. Just after they’d passed the village they were engaged by PIATs from the hedgerows and also by longish range AT fire from both 6 pdr and 17 pdr guns. The lead company was wiped out in fairly short order, largely because the Germans were relatively slow to use their own firepower in response. The AT guns were knocked out by artillery (bravely staying put rather than bugging out?!), so the remaining tanks were able to continue ‘on mission’. The PIATs were very effective at close quarters, “PIAT Pete” making something of a name for himself, and a likely posthumous VC.

Panzer, marsch!

Panzer, marsch!

By the end the situation was still very much in the balance. The British were desperately trying to redeploy their remaining 6 pdr to the east bridge (having moved it over to the West Side), having very little to resist 2nd Kompanie, 22 Panzer Regiment. It seemed likely that the Germans would also eventually penetrate to the bridge to the West of Ranville – I suspect the paras would have had to counter-attack here to stabilise the position.

I’d said at the start that we should take it slowly, but I’d anticipated rather more progress. We called the game at around 16:30 (real time) having played 10 turns. With the planning phase this meant the game ended at about 08:00 in game time – not as much as I’d hoped. However, we did gain a great deal from the play test, including further insight and testing of new methods for communications mechanics (particularly for calling in artillery), clarification of how to fight at night and in smoke and some additional points of detail.

Researching Mission Command

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 5

Wow! Rather a long gap between Retrospectives 4 and 5. Very sorry for the hiatus between June and September. Hopefully the remaining Retrospectives will follow on a bit quicker. In my defence, I’ve been working away at another couple of projects – a Euro board game called ‘Dolphin Adventures’ and an introductory board wargame, possibly the subject of a different post at a later date.

This post is a little bit of an interlude from describing how we developed the mechanics and implemented our approach, to talk about research. As there are a lot of very knowledgeable WW2 buffs in and around wargaming, we figured that it was important to do extensive research, so that we have defensible positions for the decisions we’ve made. We’re keen to make the game based on reality, but on the other hand, it cannot be so complex in its reflection of reality that it becomes less than attractive to play. So, as in all simulation games, we’ve made some compromises, and electing to present an umpired game, we do rely to an extent on the unknown umpire to use judgement to keep the game flowing, rather than to stick rigidly to the letter of the rules.

Mission Command is primarily about command, control and communications. I describe it sometimes as a means of demonstrating that combined arms tactics – co-ordinating infantry, artillery, tanks, AT guns, other supporting weapons and air power – was fiendishly difficult. Pretty much any of the thousands of secondary source military history books show this, a good starting point being Antony Beevor’s best-selling books on Stalingrad, Berlin, D-Day, The Second World War as a whole, and his latest one, Ardennes 1944. John Keegan’s books are also excellent for an overview of the military aspects of the topic. This is just a small sample from an overwhelmingly long list.

For the type of detail that we need for Mission Command, we have to go to primary sources, for which the Internet is a godsend. When I was writing my first wargames rules back in the ’70s (not for publication, I hasten to add!), detailed source material was in very short supply, unless you had access to the British Library or university collections (which I did not at that stage). Now, a search online can pull up vast amounts of material, and it’s a problem of sorting the wheat from the chaff – information overload is a common problem. There are numerous collections, including the Bundesarchiv and the US War Department, as well as commercial, semi-professional and amateur sites with relevant materials. Various US organisations have published vast numbers of de-classified briefings on their own forces, and translations of German, Italian, Japanese and Soviet documents from WW2, which are invaluable. For example Lone Sentry and other websites have all the US Intelligence Bulletins, issued monthly from September 1942 to the end of the war. Combined Arms Research Digital Library has a whole collection of “obsolete” military manuals, and the US War Department makes much of this information freely available.

For how it’s supposed to be done, we consulted various descriptions of national doctrines, for instance the German “Truppenführung” of 1933/4, and the US Field Service Regulations for Operations. Fortunately many such documents are now published (in English) and readily available on the Internet. However, theory and practice varied considerably, so eye-witness accounts and good quality detailed narratives are essential for investigating what actually happened – or might have happened. Divisional histories now abound – simply look up your favourites on Amazon for a flavour – and can give some detail, though often lacking the precision in terms of units, numbers and outcomes that are needed for accurate modelling. Some of these are devoted to praising their subject and many are purely descriptive rather than analytical, so I’ve found that cross-referencing from several sources is essential. It’s helpful to have divisional accounts from both sides. For example, for some of our Normandy scenarios we’ve compared the History of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend (Meyer), the Combat History of the 21 Panzer Division (Kortenhaus), the accounts of 43rd Wessex, 51st Highland, 3rd Canadian, and so on, to give us multiple perspectives on the same combat actions.

For orders of battle, it’s tempting to go for easily available ‘official’ ones. However, while units might have been at their pristine best at the start of a campaign (though that’s debatable), once the fighting started, the formal orbats, numbers of men, and amounts and types of equipment were quickly reduced or varied. In addition, it’s important to remember that quoted strengths, particularly at division or higher levels, often included support troops in addition to combat troops, and in many cases the ‘tail’ outnumbered the fighting men. Written material was not necessarily accurate – even the legendarily bureaucratic German Army monthly reports were suspect late in the war – but sometimes that’s all the evidence available. An example of this classic issue that we encountered was how to establish the composition of a late war German Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion: there are several published ‘official’ orbats from 1943 through to the end of the war, but shortages of equipment, adequately trained men, and the simple fact that it took several months to change from an older pattern to the new one, meant that in many cases we’re using a best guess of its actual composition. Equipment lists would often state, for example ‘armoured car’, or perhaps ‘light armoured car’, because the precise type was not considered important. Non-standard divisions, like the 21st Panzer (neu), are even more difficult to pin down, owing to use of converted equipment from conquered countries, in this case mainly French. For this reason our scenarios may have listing that are quite different from “official” sources, as we’ve attempted to take into account likely attrition rates, and the statements of eye-witness combatants.

For the potentially controversial issue of the effectiveness of weapons, we’ve reviewed multiple sources, including other wargames as well as primary sources with judgements of combat effectiveness and documents with field test results. Our view was that we’d go with our assessment of the ‘inherent military probability’ of effectiveness, taking into account as much evidence as we could realistically review. Fortunately the scale of our game (a vehicle model = 3-5 vehicles; an infantry figure = about 10 men) means that we don’t look specifically at individual shots at individual vehicles or men, but rather at the effect of a bunch of shots on a bunch of vehicles or men. At this scale, a KO on a vehicle doesn’t mean that all the vehicles have been knocked out, but simply that that group of vehicles is rendered ineffective – probably one or two have been brewed up, the others perhaps damaged, or the crews have removed themselves from the action. Similarly casualties amongst infantry are split between killed, wounded and ‘had enough’.

However, in relation to tank and anti-tank guns, we still wanted to differentiate between types across the range of light, medium and heavy tanks, and across the whole war. We felt that the relatively coarse-grained approach of small, medium, large, very large guns (or similar) didn’t do justice to the variations from our research. There was a reason why guns were upgraded by increments sometimes within a single tank type, and that’s to do with their effectiveness in action. So we have a fairly large gun table – though it reduces a lot in any one scenario. In fact, there’s even more variation by type of ammunition used, but we shrank from that complexity – it’s far too complex to track the availability and selection of ammo type at our scale. In a couple of areas we would have liked to do that (specifically the 6 pounders in Normandy and later with discarding sabot ammunition, and the US use of Pozit fuses in late ’44), but we decided the additional complexity didn’t warrant it.

Using similar reasoning our armour table has armour values from 1 to 10 to give sufficient variation to take account of strengthening armour across various models of medium tank over several years (for example the Churchill or Panzer IV), and giving realistic values to weakly armoured half-tracked troop carriers, stretching up to heavy tanks, such as the Jagdtiger.

Our research into scenarios has also been very lengthy, though I’ve not yet been able to turn many of our play test versions into published ones – these will be following over the coming weeks. As I’ve mentioned, the divisional histories, especially those written by eye-witnesses are very valuable for reasonably accurate accounts of units involved, what happened where – corroborated against other evidence – and evidence of what combat was like. Some books written by military historians are strong on overall narrative of the ‘arrows on a map’ style, which don’t often cover actions at company, battalion or brigade level in enough detail for a coherent scenario. Some books can be very misleading (for example those by Stephen Ambrose), as they may be focusing on a good story, peddling a particular theory or simply repeating another person’s view without analysing it, instead of giving an account with evidence. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s story of German ‘tanks’ at Pegasus Bridge early on 6 June is entirely misleading, but has been followed in several accounts, and the exaggeration distorts the undoubted achievements of the forces taking the Orne bridges and those relieving the coup de main force there.

Perhaps the most important part of our research is that as the game design, development and production continues, we also continue to collect, read, absorb and analyse new material. The game will likely change as a result until the final production version, and even then, as is the case with many wargames, contact with many many more players will result in further information and perhaps more revisions.

Next stop, Ranville – planning session, August 2015

We had a good session at the Huntingdon District Wargames Club on Thursday last (13 August 2015).  It was mainly a planning game, based on a session I’d designed for the Conference of Wargamers in July (I’d had to skip that owing to illness).  The start of the scenario was 05:30 in the morning of 6 June 1944 in the HQ of Kampfgruppe von Luck (21st Panzer Division) just south of the 6th Airborne Division’s landing around Ranville and what later became known as Pegasus Bridge.  The fiction of the game was that 21st Panzer Division has got its act together and is committing an early morning attack by a reinforced battalion and half a battalion of tanks, with supports, against the relatively unprepared British.  Questions, discussion and non-definitive answers were around how, where and when to attack, what should be the fire plan for supporting the attack, and finally, what might be its impact given likely British responses.

Orders were to take the bridges and eliminate the paratroops incursion on the east side of the Orne all the way to the coast.  Other Kampfgruppe were dealing with the west side of the Orne, and the landings around the River Dives.

The final plan looked pretty strong, with Ranville as the schwerpunkt:

  • Prong A – Pz IV company, plus veteran Panzergrenadier company to attack Ranville from the south-west, with supporting direct fire assault guns.  Heavy Pzgren company to swing wider to the west past the direct approach to Ranville to stretch the defence, and be ready to support a direct assault on the bridges.
  • Prong B – Reinforced veteran Pz IV company, plus Panzergrenadier company to attack Ranville simultaneously from the south-east, with supporting direct fire assault guns.
  • Short concentrated bombardment of Ranville by 2 batteries of 15cm guns while the attack moves forward.
  • Supporting barrage of various hedge lines (likely British forward positions) by 10.5cm guns and mortars.
  • Once Ranville had fallen, 2 companies of panzergrenadiers to secure it and its flanks, while the first 2 companies launched an immediate assault across the bridges.

Ranville_Pic2

“Prong B” – closing in on Ranville from the SE

We didn’t have time to fight the full battle, but were able to deploy the troops and make some educated guesses about the potential results, as I’ve researched quite a bit about the historical deployments of both sides.  Interestingly both 6 Division HQ and 5 Brigade HQ were in or very close to Ranville, and would have been caught in the bombardment, while the British deployment of AT guns to the hedge lines might well have lost these essential defensive elements too.  Looking at the comparative strength of the two sides (bearing in mind that the paratroops were very under strength owing to relatively scattered drops), it seems highly probably that Ranville and then the bridges would have fallen within 2 to 3 hours of the 06:15 attack start time.

Ranville_Pic1

“Prong A” – closing in on Ranville from the SW. Note the artillery bombardment on Ranville itself, and 4th (schweres) Kompanie on the left ready to move on le Bas de Ranville to give support to an assault on the bridges.

I hope that we can fight the engagement through at another session!  This scenario will form one of the variants of the “21 into 6 won’t go” set of scenarios currently being written up.

PBI re-write

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 4

Although Pete and I were very happy with the experience of our Eastern Front Big Game, we were conscious that the infantry side hadn’t gone particularly well. That game had been focused on tanks (which WW2 gamer doesn’t like a tank-heavy game?). But we also knew that WW2 armies were based on the PBI, the Poor Bloody Infantry, and we’d more or less fudged the modelling of this side of the coin.

Our infantry had the same 1:3-5 ratio as the tanks, took a hit to kill, and were crudely represented as large bases or small support bases. They noticeably melted away under fire, so that unlike their historical counterparts they couldn’t hold positions very well, and they had no stamina in a fight. We also had the movement rates all wrong for our rather lengthier turns, so that the infantry could scarcely make it to the fight. The last thing players want is to spend all day moving up shed-loads of infantry bases to no apparent purpose.

Bullet points

Our basic assumptions for the new infantry rules were covered in a few statements. We wanted to represent the command, control, firepower and morale effects of a company, not individual figures or individual elements. Using individual figures and elements provided far too much detail and was terribly time consuming. Our game covered company up to division sized units, not smaller. Therefore we had no need to model the internal structure of companies, but only its capabilities and to show any differences in doctrine. So an element didn’t represent a platoon, but instead part of a company’s capability.

It was expected that a company (or in some armies, possibly Russian, a battalion) would be expected to remain close together, or at least in some way in direct communication, and would suffer casualties and morale effects together. The company was the smallest unit to which players might be expected to give separate orders (with some exceptions, such as designated support elements from higher up units). This had the added advantage that we didn’t have to track losses at individual figure or at element level; it could all be done by companies.

The scale of the problem

We standardised on 1 millimetre to 2 metres ground scale instead of our original 1 millimetre to 1 metre, which gave us more room to work with on a standard 6’x5′ table. We also adjusted the figure scale, so that 1 infantry figure was roughly 10 men, 1 vehicle model was roughly 3 to 5 real vehicles. These figure scales were very approximate and referred to combat capability rather than actual numbers – so we could happily claim slightly larger or slightly smaller companies without having to add more figures. An extra element would only be needed if capability increased. Our large infantry elements therefore had 100m frontage, using 50mm bases, while small elements had about half that. Depth was not so relevant, so we allowed pretty much any depth.

Modelling company capabilities

Constructing an infantry company was then a question of modelling that particular company’s capabilities. WW2 infantry companies varied considerably in terms of numbers men, of MGs, rifles and sub-machine guns, as well as portable AT weapons, such as AT rifles, and later, PIATs, bazookas and panzerfausts. We were designing a method to cover all the war and each nationality. There was also variation in their flexibility and resilience. To enable modelling of these characteristics, while giving players the means to use existing basing systems, we decided to limit the ‘essential basing’ to just full sized elements with 50mm frontage, with the option of 40mm + space, and small elements with 25 – 30mm frontage. Full sized or ‘basic’ infantry elements came in 4 main flavours:

  • Coherent elements – 6 figures of which 1 is a LMG gunner and another an AT weapon (both LMG and AT may be depicted as the team rather than single figure). Otherwise rifles.
  • Integrated elements – 5 figures of which 1 is a LMG gunner, and the rest rifles.
  • Assault elements – 4 figures with SMGs
  • Bare elements – 4 figures with rifles only

Any of these basic elements could also have a command function depicted by an officer figure.

Coherent and integrated elements could shoot twice, once with small arms and once with one of their specialist weapons. This gave the basic elements a lot of flexibility and a considerable firepower. Later in the development we gave assault elements the ability to fire their small arms twice to reflect their specific training and weapons.

Even later on we added an enhanced assault element type to represent MP44 armed German infantry, British Commandos and US Rangers. Enhanced assault elements can fire as assault elements at short range and as integrated elements at longer ranges to reflect the effect of automatic assault rifles and the wide variety of weapons acquired by commandos particularly (sometimes unofficially).

While a full sized infantry element might represent around 50 men, the small sized ones were designated support elements with specialist weapons, such as MGs, HMGs, mortars, AT weapons like bazookas, and also specialist command elements with no combat capability. In keeping with our vehicle scale, support elements represented 3 to 5 support weapons, so we modelled the infantry figures for these as 3 to 5 too, rather than the approximately 10 per figure for the full sized elements. So a small element might be about a dozen soldiers. Again we’re stressing capability not headcount.

BritParasCutWithBorder

Here we see a late war British Para company deployed for all round defence. It has two full sized assault elements plus 4 support elements – its company HQ, two LMG elements and a PIAT element. Frequently it would be reinforced by a second PIAT element attached from battalion HQ.

Casualties

The figures on the bases were purely illustrative, not definitive, because casualties were to be taken at company level. After multiple casualties were inflicted on a company, we chose to consolidate them down by removing elements from the company (owner’s choice) to show reducing capability. 3 casualties kills a full sized element, but it’s replaced by a small one from the specialists on the base. For example a coherent element could be replaced by an LMG element, an AT element or, if it had the command function, by a command element. A further 2 casualties kills a small element. In a final relatively recent tweak, we permit players to allocate 2 casualties to a full sized element, reducing its firepower to one rather than two shots per turn. This standardises the concept that 2 casualties has a perceptible effect – it will reduce the company’s capability.

This method of creating elements had two key capability effects that were vital to our infantry model. It gave them resilience in combat – no longer did we just kill off a unit if it took a casualty. And it tended to concentrate the support weapons as the company took losses, as happened historically. As the company numbers decline, the riflemen get fewer, but troops elect to keep the LMGs and AT weapons. It also gave players interesting choices; for example, do I keep the panzerfaust or the LMG? It also meant that players could use their already based figures simply by designating the meaning of the figures on the base – it’s not essential to use our configuration of figures, as long as the players know the type of element each base represents.

Architecture

Now we could construct companies, taking into account the period in the war, the nationality and its methods. A late war German infantry company ran out as 3 coherent elements, one with command, plus an HMG support. A late war British rifle company was 2 integrated elements, a command element, a PIAT, a 2″ mortar, an LMG, and some trucks for transport. These differences reflect the continued presence of the light mortar at company level in the British Army, while the Germans had mainly moved to 8cm mortars concentrated in heavy weapon companies. The Germans had more generalised training and more blanket use of the Panzerfaust than was typical of the PIAT in the British company, the PIAT being a notoriously temperamental weapon. A panzergrenadier company had an additional 8cm mortar element, plus a light AT gun and PaK 40, with appropriate extra MGs on half-tracks (if armoured), and trucks if not armoured.

In contrast, early war Russian companies would be primarily bare elements, and we represented their smallest ‘commanded group’ as the battalion rather than the company. Russian companies in the same battalion therefore had to stick relatively close together to avoid adverse morale effects, reflecting their lack of radios and the lower level of initiative of junior officers and NCOs. Late war British paratroopers (see picture above) became 2 assault elements, a command element, 2 LGM elements and a PIAT; nicely different from the standard British infantry and very different from the Germans.

Deploying a company for attack, you close up the main elements with little or no gaps and have a second line of supports. This gives historically realistic company frontages of 300 to 500 metres in attack, but enabled companies in defence to spread out to 750 to 1,000 metres while still maintaining command ranges. Of course with wired telephones and fixed positions defensive positions could be much wider.

InfantryDeployment

Infantry company deployment example

Next: Researching Mission Command

The Big Game

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 3

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

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

BennettCentre

The Bennett Centre (circa 1850)

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

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

Courland

Courland tables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s write our own rules!

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 2

Our experience of replaying WGRG 1973 in 2008 and ’09 was only moderately positive. Not because we didn’t respect the rules, but because we became convinced that the scales were wrong for our purposes. We were more interested in tactical / operational play over a larger combat area with game time of up to a day, rather than 30 second turns with a whole game running for 15 to 20 turns. The time scale, ground scale and figure scale meant that the rules were designed for skirmishes, rather than for full scale battles. We were feeling a bit cramped.

Scales

As an experiment, we decided to address the scale issues. We replaced 1 millimetre = 1 metre with 1 millimetre = 2 metres and radically reconsidered the length of a bound. I was already conscious that in many traditional wargames, troops ‘do stuff’ all the time, whereas actual combat tends to consist of “long periods of boredom where not much happens except fire from known positions at known positions, interspersed with intense, brief activity during which a great deal happens” (quoting from our 2009 draft rules). Movement rates in many games are determined by theoretical maximums or theoretical averages, or even rely on an element of randomisation through various dice rolls dependent on troop type. However, it struck me that movement rates and other activities that expose men to fire are often a function of how close the men are to the enemy. Up close and personal to enemies with small arms was bad news and tended to enforce restrictions on movement (‘keeping your head down’ was a good idea), and even at slightly longer ranges, say within range of direct fire from MGs or other support weapons, activities might be more circumspect than when the enemy was a long way off or using area fire, particularly indirect area fire. We introduced the idea of a variable length bound: 5 minutes for a ‘hot’ bound within 500m of known enemies, during which movement was at ‘normal’ rates; 15 minutes for a ‘warm’ bound, outside 500m range (potentially off-table), and no new direct fire within 500m, during which movement could be 5 times the normal rates; and 30 minutes for a ‘cold’ bound outside 1000m of known enemies, during which movement could be 10 times normal rates. Cold or warm bounds could suddenly become hot if the enemy used close up fire revealing themselves within 500m. We had the advantage that the umpires could keep track of the passage of time and control the type of bound in operation. At this stage we didn’t use the concept of opportunity fire in an opponent’s bound, but more simply would end the bound and start a new one if new short range fire changed the circumstances.

Bounds

There were many advantages to the new types of bound. Warm and cold bounds enabled very quick (in real time) sorting out of orders, requests and reports, whereas previously we’d been tied to very short turns, which bogged players down in detail even when the enemy was a long way off. This way, the attacking side could ‘go cold’ and carry out a lot of activity at the start of the game, until the enemy was encountered within 500m. This could even mean vehicles travelling several kilometres, or carrying out reconnaissance over large areas very quickly without players becoming bored. It also meant we avoided a problem in earlier games whereby infantry were only allowed to move 100m per turn, so could take an age to cover basically uncontested terrain (or even terrain behind their own lines). If the bound was cold, the foot-sloggers could slog along at 1km per bound; though of course they’d be vulnerable to ambush if they did that in areas that hadn’t been cleared of enemy. Here we had some naturally emerging friction. A player might want to move his troops fast, but if he did, there was a significantly increased risk of losses, so players would be very reluctant to do it, unless convinced there was no enemy around.

We also changed the number of men and vehicles represented by a single figure or model, settling on a ratio of 10 to 1 for most infantry, and between 3 and 5 to 1 for vehicles and heavy weapons. These ratios were by no means strict, so we didn’t envisage people counting up the figures and multiplying by 10. Infantry stands were approximately 6 figures, but could readily have just 4, with support weapons such as MGs or mortars separately depicted on smaller bases. Our elements used pretty much the same frontages as Flames of War, as these base types were readily available, with the main infantry base having a 50mm frontage – representing 100 metres.

Our next couple of play test games were very different. For June 2009 we decided that a D-Day game would be appropriate, while for October we scheduled a Western Desert game.

“Hold until relieved!”

I blithely asked Pete if he could supply any British paratroopers for D-Day – only 1 division was the answer! So we had almost the entire 6th Airborne Division available, complete with Tetrarch light tanks, 75mm pack howitzers and little red berets. And the piece de resistance: Horsa gliders. We decided that the whole division might make rather too big a game for a play test, so we opted for 5 Parachute Brigade and the area around the Orne bridges. Opposition was primarily elements of 21 Panzer division with minor supports from 716 Infantry Division. Unbeknown to the British, this was not to be a true-to-history scenario, but rather, a what if 21 Panzer Division had been committed earlier, as a whole division? The scenario focused on the eastern supporting German forces, while the main Divisional attack went in off-map to the west, which was perhaps a bit of a cop-out, but had the merit of a smaller area of operations.

Period maps are pretty easy to come by, so for added realism and immersion, we used the historical recce maps and a large aerial recce photo. In addition the British briefings for the “Hold until relieved” scenario were based on the historical briefing for the Brigade. The German briefing had the merit of simplicity, in that their objective was to take the Orne bridges in support of the main attack, and to secure the eastern flank of the division.

A further innovation was our introduction of Event Cards as a method of injecting semi-random happenings to enrich the scenario. These helped to cover things difficult to model through conventional mechanics, such as snipers, cut off sections of 716 Division, arrival of lost paras, and air support. There was even a German gunboat on the Caen Canal to contend with. I created a small pack of 13 event cards, and we drew about 1 per hour, so using perhaps half of them during the game. An advantage of this idea is that players can take actions that might mitigate against adverse events, for example, it’s worthwhile sweeping an area in detail, as you’ll likely prevent snipers or infiltrators from umpire-controlled event cards. This mechanism worked very well, and we’ve used it many times since.

EventCard

 

Event card example

As I recall, the Germans eventually overcame the stubborn paras after a tough fight. More importantly, the rules had worked, if a bit clunkily. I recall that the hot/warm/cold idea worked reasonably well, though it was a little complex to implement, because we hadn’t nailed down precisely enough all the conditions and implications of changing the type of bound. We put this down to unfamiliarity at the time, and the umpires smoothed out some of the rough edges. The infantry movement issue was partially resolved, particularly in the ‘move to contact’ part of the game, but bogging down and lack of sufficient player decisions cropped up when things got close up. Communications in relation to artillery strikes worked well, though new players didn’t quite understand the time lags imposed. We felt that even though the game was supposed to be umpired, the pressure on the umpires to move the game along was more than expected, and players tended to wait instead of helping the game to progress.

Sidi Rezegh

I felt that “Hold until relieved” had been inconclusive, and we needed a different test to prove the rules or to stimulate more development. Our next major game, based on part of Operation Crusader in November 1941 around Sidi Rezegh, was indeed a different test. We had to have more space for a desert game, we had less cover, more tanks and far more manouevre.

I was against the idea of PIP dice or other artificial fog of war mechanisms that tried to restrict the numbers of troops that could act in a given turn. These, in my opinion, seemed to rely on dice rolls as a proxy for friction, whereas I felt that friction should be built into the game system, or more properly should be an emergent property of it. Therefore, as I’ve noted earlier, we kept the idea that troops should be given orders and report what happens. I see that we’d implemented this to an extent via this briefing to the German commander in the desert:

“You have all your regimental/battalion commanders with you and therefore should brief them accordingly on their tasks etc (including order of march/attack, objectives etc).
How you go about your task is your decision…at this point you can talk directly to your commanders; once they return to their units then all messages will be by radio communications.
As CinC you have the option of operating independently or attaching yourself to a unit (this should be clearly stated /identified) at will.”

SidiRezegh

Sidi Rezegh umpires map

Our Sidi Rezegh game was especially interesting for me. The game was organised by Stephen Welford, who masterminded all our North African theatre games, so my original role was to help with umpiring. Best laid plans failed however, and our German commander couldn’t make it, so I took over the German C-in-C role a few days before the engagement.

Fortunately this isn’t a session report blog, because I can remember little about this game other than the design decisions that sprang from it. Both sides learned about the power of artillery, particularly as the main British assembly area came under massive indirect fire controlled by a well-concealed German Forward Observation Officer whom they never tracked down. We also learned how difficult it was to mount an infantry attack on a prepared position, as an attacking German regiment suffered heavy casualties due to the lifting of a smoke barrage too early. We also had a couple of swirling tank melees that gave the right feel of the desert fighting. And we capped it with a more or less historically accurate outcome: indecisive at the end of day 1!

A key design and organisation feature was how to handle ranges for spotting and firing. In the desert, you could have visibility over several kilometres, and effective direct fire range in the open could be over 2 kilometres, for example with a battery of 8.8 cm guns. As we have the advantage of a large church hall, we’re able to have a very extensive play area, and we decided that we could simply put out more tables if the fighting spread. For the 8.8 cm battery initial position far to the south, we used a separate card table, which we could move in towards the main playing area as it re-deployed. Direct fire at more than 3 kilometres was quite practical.

To help players with the game flow, we put the sequence of play on a poster on the wall, and we used a flipchart with numbered squares to act as a turn counter. This very much helped to give the players a good impression of the passage of time.

These two play tests convinced us of two things. First we definitely wanted to continue with this development, and second we were writing big chunks of changes to WGRG 1973. Sooner or later, we thought, we’d be writing our own rules.

Next: PBI re-write

A new problem and an old solution

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 1

The year was 2007, the place was Frome, Somerset, United Kingdom, the group: The Abbeywood Irregulars (AWI), and we had a problem. AWI was, and is, a very experienced bunch of wargamers – not yet oldies, but perhaps an emerging trend towards grey amongst some (myself included), and perhaps an air of tradition amongst others. We could, some of us, recount stories from the mists of time when Donald Featherstone was in his prime. In this blog series – a restrospective designer diary for Mission Command, Surprised Stare Games’ new World War Two miniatures rules – I will mostly avoid naming names (except for myself and Pete Connew, brother in arms), both to protect the innocent or guilty, and because I don’t have many authoritative notes, so I might blame or credit the wrong individual. I’ve also no idea how it’s going to pan out, so I ask your indulgence.

The problem was: we’d tried a fair few of the published WW2 miniatures rules and rejected all of them. None of them fitted the needs of our group of recalcitrant and fernickety players. 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). What to do?

Consideration fell to myself and Pete Connew, being the two players primarily organising our WW2 games. The first idea was to return to an old favourite – Phil Barker’s 1973 Wargames Research Group “Armour and Infantry, 1925 – 1950”.

cover1

A paper copy (how quaint!) was dug out from the archives. Our intention was to uprate the rules in the light of our own researches and ideas, and to cover perceived weaknesses, bearing in mind the progress in wargames rules over the past 35 years or so. This short, snappy process would result in a set of rules that our group would be happy to play with. We hoped.

Looking back at the earliest version of our partially upgraded WGRG rules, we retained 99% of Phil’s original, and gave it an outing in April 2008. The scenario was called “Advance to Contact”, and it was a historical one from Operation Goodwood, so already Normandy was uppermost in our minds.

“It is the closing stages of Operation Goodwood. Guards Armoured Division having fought through and occupied Cagny has ordered 1st Coldstream Armoured Battalion and 1st Welsh Guards Infantry Battalion to advance through the village of Frenouville to their final objective the Bourguebus ridge. A Canadian Battalion (Lord Strathcona’s Horse) is in reserve. Unknown to the Guards and blocking their path was Kampfgruppe Waldmuller of the 12th SS Panzer Division. Historically, once engaged the fighting lasted well into the late summer evening. One point of interest was the arrival during the fight of a kette of Luftwaffe Me110s armed with bombs.”

This last provided Pete, if I recall correctly, with an opportunity to put some aircraft models on the table, even though the air rules amounted to less than 200 words.

A significant addition to the organisation of the game was our first use of what became the ‘command cards’ of Mission Command. I decided that it would be easier for players if they had the order of battle broken down with relevant movement and fire data immediately available on cards. Each player would have the cards for the troops under their command, and it might save them from looking everything up in the various tables in the rules. I was aware that this wasn’t a radical innovation, as the idea has been used elsewhere, but it may not have been used before with WGRG 1973 rules.

EarlyCommandCard

The main rule changes were to permit German units to ignore some reaction test triggers, thereby making them a bit less liable to fall apart. We also considered, but didn’t fully implement, an idea that all reaction tests would be taken at company level. Apart from that, our approach was highly comparable to WGRG: we kept the IGO/UGO sequence of play for the stated reason in the WGRG rules – to speed up play and ‘capture something of the flavour of a fast moving tank battle’ without imposing strict written orders and simultaneous movement, or a more complex turn sequence. IGO/UGO has the merit of simplicity, a major factor we wanted to retain. On the other hand, we wanted players to give their troops orders, so we also kept the WGRG notion that command elements should be ‘given realistic orders couched in fairly general terms’. We’ve retained this concept throughout, with the more explicit idea that the main purpose of orders is simply to enable your plan to be carried out, not to restrict what players themselves can do. More on that later, I mustn’t get ahead of myself!

We also kept the now archaic term ‘bound’ to mean a player or side’s turn, and the rough time (30 seconds per bound) and distance (1mm = 1 metre) scales. We were less convinced by the one-to-one figure scale, so instead used 1 figure = 3 to 5 real men or vehicles.

Our philosophical approach was:

  • Use WGRG 1973 as a starting point.
    We expected to simply modify the WGRG 1973 rules to our taste – this was to change!
  • Umpire moderated, not player argued!
    We weren’t that interested in the points values for troops, having no intention to run tournament games, though I notice that I suggested we might put points on the cards, so that players had an idea of the relative values of groups. We weren’t interested either in excessive arguments between players about what could and could not happen. We kept to the no points values approach, but stopping the arguments proved harder. Player enjoyment within a historically realistic game was our objective, and our advantage was that both Pete and I (with the addition of Stephen Welford later) were happy to umpire rather than to play.
  • Use historical data where we could get it, and best guesses where we couldn’t.
    We were placing this at the simulation end of the wargame spectrum, but short of ‘professional wargaming’, even though some of our players were military or ex-military.
  • Play test and refine till happy.
    We had no particular time scale in mind. AWI has monthly meets, and we were happy to commit 2 or 3 sessions per year to large WW2 games. Finishing wasn’t a particularly important objective at the start – in fact, we didn’t have an idea what ‘finished’ would look like.

The briefing for the players in “Advance to Contact” was very brief, and we relied on our very large table to show the terrain, rather than having anything like sketch maps. However, my order of battle notes show a reasonable sized British brigade group of the Coldstream Guards (Shermans), Welsh Guards (infantry), a reserve battalion of Shermans, with appropriate artillery and anti-tank supports, versus a Kampfgruppe of 2 fairly weak panzergrenadier battalions, with a couple of companies of Panzer IVs and a couple of Tigers due to show up later. Outnumbered Germans was to be a feature of most of our late war games, as we would expect with a historical or pseudo-historical approach.

I can’t remember much about what happened in Kampfgruppe Waldmüller versus the Guards, except that the Welsh Guards infantry learned the hard way that a cavalry charge in Bren carriers wasn’t a good idea. And the ever recurring lesson that you shouldn’t forget to use smoke screens.

Next: Let’s write our own rules!