Often times, wargamers get caught up in the material of war. Comparisons of which tank or airplane or ship is better dominate the hobby. Wargames that are more simulationist reinforce this condition. The impact of war on the human condition is overlooked or even outright ignored. In the RockyMountainNavy weekly game night, the impact of morale was brought front and center and forced all of us to think about it deeply. To my surprise, the lesson came from the Panzer series from GMT Games; a game that I consider detail-oriented and a good game for comparing tanks. When the game was finished, the lessons learned had little to do with which tank was better and everything to do with the role of morale in combat.
The Youngest RMN Boy is getting into the machines of war. After diving deep into the aircraft of World War II and battleships of World War I he has turned his attention to armored vehicles of World War II. Last week, I introduced Panzer from GMT Games to the boys. This week he hounded me for a bigger, better battle.
Youngest RMN Boy recently purchased a copy of Osprey Publishing’s M26/M46 Pershing Tank 1943-53 at a used book store. He read with fascination the accounts of battle between Pershings and German tanks at the end of World War II. After playing Panzer he wanted to see for himself how the match-up could of gone. I created a home brew scenario where a German Elite platoon of 4x Tiger II tanks, supported by a Jadgtiger tank destroyer, had a meeting engagement with a US Veteran platoon of 5x M26 Pershing supported by a platoon of 3x M36 Jackson tank destroyers with a single ‘Easy 8’ Sherman. Although the Germans were outnumbered almost 2:1, their better morale and training actually gave them a slight edge in scenario points.
In order to expedite the game, I once again played as umpire. Youngest RMN took the Germans while Middle RMN led the Americans. Both boys are still learning tactics, so I was not surprised they both split their forces on set up. Once the shooting started, something very incredible happened.
In Panzer, the experience/morale level of the unit impacts several game mechanics. On Initiative Rolls, units that are Elite gain a +40 while Veterans gain only +20. The level also determines Command Range – the distance units can be apart and still share a common order – with Elite having a 2-hex range and Veteran only 1-hex. In AP Fire, the superior training of Elite units gains a greater positive shift in combat (translating to better chance of hit) as compared to Veteran units. Taken together, Youngest RMN Boys’s Elite Panzers were not only superior in firepower and protection, but with their better training should have gained the initiative (control of the battle) more often. The American tanks had the advantage of numbers and mobility (both in terms of raw speed as well as turret slew rates).
The battle actually devolved into two separate skirmishes. In the north, two Tiger II faced off against the 5x Pershings. In the south, two Tiger II and the Jagdtiger took on the 3x M36 and Easy 8.
First blood was drawn in the north where the Tiger II’s firing at ranges between 1600-2000m “brewed up” two M26’s. Even using better ammunition, the M26s were impotent against the German armor protection.
Another game mechanic in Panzer where morale/experience is represented is Bail Out. When tanks are hit, even with a non-penetrating/non-damaging shot, the crew must roll for Bail Out. In the case of a non-prentrating/no-damage AP hit, the crew will Bail Out on a percentile die roll of 10 or less. Elite units gain a +5 modifier, literally meaning there is only a 5% chance of an Elite unit bailing out.
At the end of the scenario, four M26 Pershings were knocked out along with two M36’s. The Jagdtiger and a single Tiger II were immobilized by Track Damage. But the most astounding result was that in three of the the five German tanks the crew bailed out from non-penetrating/non-damaging hits. Statistically speaking, this was an astounding outcome.
Youngest RMN Boy was greatly disappointed. He was even a bit angry at his brother. The Youngest RMN Boy plays other wargames where morale is important, like Command And Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games, 2017) with Routing units or Academy Games’s Birth of America-series with the Flee combat result. Even his favorite World War II tactical combat game, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Academy Games) has morale in there, though it is more “baked into ratings” than visible in a die roll like Panzer. I think what made him angry was that unlike Militia units in the American Revolution or early-war demoralized Soviet units where he expected the morale failure, he never could imagine that his Elite Panzers could be the same and simply run away.
That is perhaps the greatest lesson of Panzer; the greatest tank with the best guns and armor does not always translate into battlefield success.
I fear that in this age of push-button warfare and video games that the human factor in combat is ignored or forgotten. This is also why I play games, and wargames, with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I want them to know that war is not machine versus machine but human. I did not expect GMT Games and their wargame Panzer to be this vehicle of learning, but I am very happy that it is.
Featured image courtesy @RBMStudios on Twitter.