I will always be one of the first to proclaim that wargames are great educational tools. For myself, wargames have taught me so much about warfare through history. Part of the reason Mrs. RockyMountainNavy approves of the RMN Boys and myself buying and playing wargames is that they often learn something. The first way I ofter learn from a game it to read the historical background or designers notes. Unfortunately, in this day of increasing production costs (born out of player demand for higher quality components) and internet access, I see some companies moving away from including these in a rule book. I say it is unfortunate because when historical commentary, designers notes, and a game come together it can be a magical learning experience.
Take for instance Counter-Attack: The Battle of Arras, 1940 (Take Aim Designs/Revolution Games, 2018). The publisher’s blurb for this design by Michael Rinella states:
“A critical moment came just as my forces reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras on 21 May. For a short time it was feared the panzer divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them. None of the french counter-attacks carried the threat of this one.” – Von Rundstedt, Commander German Army Group “A”.
COUNTER-ATTACK: THE BATTLE OF ARRAS, 1940 is a two-player game simulating the British and French attack on mobile German elements near Arras, France, on May 21, 1940.
That is the extent of the “historical background” provided in the rule book (actually, the Von Rundstedt quote is on the website and not in the rulebook).
I admit I bought the game on the strength of it being a Michael Rinella design. I admit I bought it because the price point for a folio game from Revolution Games is attractive. I admit I like the game even without more historical background included.
Understanding more about the battle greatly enhances the gameplay experience. When I found historical context in the rule book lacking, I dove into my book collection. There were a few pages in Len Deighton’s Blitzkrieg (Ballantine Books, 1979, 1980) that were very helpful but the level of detail was far above that represented in the game. I was starting to get a basic understanding of the battle, but without something a bit deeper the game was going to move to my “play it once in a long while” shelf. Other books mentioned the Battle of Arras, but again at a very high-level of discussion (often the battle is mentioned in passing).
[Many of you are shouting, “Just google it, man!” Well, if you trust Google and wikipedia then you deserve what you get.]
This past week I was in the base Exchange and passed the magazine rack. There in front was WWII History Presents: World War II Tank Battles (Sovereign Media, Spring 2019). One of the articles is Armored Strike at Arras ( or Rommel’s Panzer Strike at Arras on the cover) by Christopher Miskimon. This article almost looks like it was written with the game in front of the author. The units are the same, the locations identical. I literally was able to set up the game and move the units according to the article to see how the battle flowed.
As great as it was being able to see how the battle flowed, more importantly the article generated a greater understanding into why the battle occurred the way it did. When I first set up the map I was confused; the Germans are to the south and west of the British/French forces. Weren’t the Germans attacking from the east? Why does rule 8.3.2 Area Operational Sectors limit the Germans to operating south of the Scarpe River? Miskimon describes the overall situation:
The Panzer divisions had raced ahead, threatening to cut off Allied units and destroy them piecemeal. At the same time, the distance they had gone from their supply created an opportunity the Allies could exploit if they could move quickly enough. Success would result in the panzer units being cut off from their fuel and supply sources. The tables would be turned. A dire situation turned into a last minute victory, perhaps one big enough to turn the tide of the campaign and allow them time to consolidate and strike back. (Miskimon, p. 20)
Historically, the British battle plan was thus:
The plan of action called for the columns to move in parallel. The two columns would descend Vimy Ridge [Area 29] and move south towards Arras [Area 25], passing the town to the west. Afterward, the British would turn left and move south of Arras before forming a new line oriented toward the east. The distance for the Left Column was 18 miles. Since the Right Column would have to make its left turn farther out, it would cover 21 miles in total. The entire British force would have its right flank covered by a French armored unit, the 3rd Division Legere Mechanique. (Miskimon, p. 22)
The Germans situation called for bold action:
The German XV Panzer Corps was situated in the path of the British columns. The 7th Panzer Division under Generalmajor Erwin Rommel had a mission to isolate Arras from the west. For this purpose, it would be heading west and north into the oncoming British. Once west of Arras, the division was to seize crossings over the Scarpe River, a tributary of the Scheldt River. The 5th Panzer Division was assigned to protect the 7ths right flank through supporting attacks. The inexperienced SS-Totenkopf Division was deployed to the left flank of the 7th Panzer Division. (Miskimon, p. 22)
With these three paragraphs I already have learned so much more about the Battle of Arras that I can now play the game with meaning beyond simply looking at the Victory Conditions.
Still missing here are designer’s notes. I fully agree with designer Volko Runke who states, ” Every model of history is built to purpose.” Understanding the designers “purpose” creates better understanding of the game design. A combination of historical background and design purpose makes game far more enjoyable for me.
Counter-Attack: The Battle of Arras, 1940 will not be moving to the lesser-played shelf, at least for a bit. In struggling to learn the game, I actually was playing using Optional Rule 18.1 Historical Setup. Now that I understand the strategic/operational situation of the battle, I feel ready to use standard rule 5.3 Unit Setup with its more free-form setup.
As much as I like this game, I wish it had included just a bit more, because a little knowledge makes a huge difference in enjoyment! I hope game designers and publishers realize this and make it a point to include both historical background and designers notes.