The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. As a wargamer, I often look at these military events as though it is a wargame on my table, complete with maps and units. I try to discern relationships between actual combat activities and how those might be depicted by various game mechanisms. So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts.
[A Disclaimer for all the rabid GMT Games Fanboys – I frame my thoughts below in terms of Mitchell Land’s Next War series of modern conflict wargames from GMT Games. You are going to see me comment on (question?) some of the designer’s decisions below. I assure you I have the highest regard and respect for Mitchell and my comments are in no way intended to denigrate his game design. To the contrary, I hope you join me in recognizing how incredibly useful a tool the Next War series of wargames are and take my comments in the spirit in which they are intended, i.e. to improve the wargame experience for designers, developers and, most importantly, players.]
Time: As I start writing this post on 26 February it means we are still in Turn 1 of the war if using Mitchell Land’s Next War series of wargames from GMT Games. My plan is to publish this post on Wednesday, 02 March, or the end of “Turn 2.” While I think the popular perception at the moment is that Russia is becoming bogged down, from a wargame perspective it’s still—literally and figuratively—the opening moves.
Air Defenses: The Russian invasion supposedly started with massive ballistic and cruise missile attacks to destroy the Ukrainian air defense network. Judging from the continued combat operations by Ukrainian fixed-wing fighters and SAM systems, the Russian claims are made dubious. So often in modern wargames when addressing suppression of integrated air defense systems (IADS) the assumption is that the counter-IADS effort will look like what the U.S. did in the Gulf War or Yugoslavia. The major difference I perceive is that the counter-IADS effort in the Gulf War was against an IADS that was relatively “fixed” and immobile whereas it appears the Ukrainian IADS was alerted and “mobile.” Does this mean modern wargame designers need to revisit their assumptions of how the air campaign in a wargame is handled?
Civilian Resistance/Clearing Operations: Standard Series rule 8.4.1 Clearing Operations is used when units advance after combat into enemy-controlled Installation, City, or Urban hexes. A randomly draw Clearing Marker is placed in the hex, and to remove the player makes a d10 die roll that, after appropriate modifiers, must be equal-to-or-greater-than the Clearing Number (ranging from 3-6). While the extensive use of Molotov Cocktails in Ukrainian cities may be worthy of a Game Specific or Special Scenario Rule, regardless of how they are depicted we should recognize that, operating Mechanized or Armored units in urban areas has always has been—and continues to be—exceedingly difficult and it is easy to underestimate the game impacts of that lesson.
Cyber Warfare: While it is easy to see the effects of cyber operations against government infrastructure in both Russia and Ukraine, the effects of cyber on the battlefield is harder to discern. Next War Series Supplement #1 includes Cyber Warfare Rules. These rules detail the use of cyber in battle and its effects on detection and strike/combat actions. It is a bit of a puzzle why we are not seeing the reflections of cyber or Electronic Warfare activities on the battlefield. As Jane’s Defense reported, “However, despite the significant utility that these systems offer, a senior US defence official told reporters during a briefing that they “don’t believe that the Russians have employed the full scope of their electronic warfare capabilities and it’s not clear exactly why.” Maybe they are too afraid to confront Elon Musk…
Efficiency Ratings: Efficiency Ratings are described in Standard Series rule 2.3.3 as a, “unit’s morale, training, doctrine, cohesion, and ancillary weapons systems.” Some military wonks are making the observation that the Russian new concept of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) may not be working as the small staff might be finding themselves overstretched at coordinating supporting fires and logistics. Further, the large scale use units composed mostly of conscripts may also factor into the assumptions behind the ER of a unit. Even professional wargames tend to make the Russians 10-feet tall at times…
Fog of War: The open source community is heavily involved in tracking the war on social media.The entire build-up of forces was watched by think tanks and the media, and the invasion itself is being live-tweeted. Many on social media have called for being “cagey” about posting on Ukrainian forces while being very open about Russian forces. This social media impact on the Fog of War can be simulated by allowing the Ukrainian player to freely examine Russian stacks using Standard Series rule 8.1.2 Examining Enemy Stacks while the Russian player is subject to the limits of optional rule 13.2 Fog of War and can only see the top unit of a stack and cannot further inspect their opponent’s stacks.
Missiles: Advanced Game rule 26.0 Theater Weapons covers the use of cruise and ballistic missiles. Strike results are found on the Advanced Strike table. Some of the Die Roll Modifiers (DRM) that we might need to revisit are:
- -1 Russian Rocket Artillery (seen as precise but not used to overwhelming effect?)
- +1 non-US Cruise Missile Strike (Russian cruise missiles seem to be precise but again the damage effect is questionable)
- +3 vs. Enemy AAA Track (does this appropriately account or the mobility of the AAA defenders?)
Refugees: In the Next War series of wargames refugees are usually handled via a Game Specific Rule or if you have Next War Series Supplement #2 in rule 11.0. The general assumption behind the rule is that the country being invaded will have its road network clogged on early turns by hordes of internally displaced persons (IDPs, aka “refugees”) which reduce mobility for combat units, especially if they are trying to use those same roads. While there certainly has been refugee movement in Ukraine, we have not seen many reports about how this has hampered movement of military forces. Indeed, the images of the peaceful stand of locals against the movement of invading Russian troops is far more common. Maybe what is needed is a Game Specific Rule where the invader must roll to pass through a hex with a populated location smaller than a city. The result is the number of additional movement points required representing the slow-down and doubling-back required. The attacker may also be allowed to bypass the penalty, but in doing so gains a social media “atrocity” ala the Atrocities rule (“But push your men too hard, and they might commit atrocities that will rally world opinion against you”) from Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019).
Stay Behind Forces: Next War Advanced Game rule 20.0 Special Operations Forces covers the operations of SOF behind enemy lines. In the early days of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there appear to be more than a few “groups” of Ukrainian forces that are operating behind the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) and executing missions against logistical units. Some of these forces are actually not “regular army” units, and in many ways could be considered insurgents. Next War Series Supplement #2 includes a new module, Next War: Insurgency, that can be used to represent an insurgency that occurs AFTER the end of major combat operations. I think what we are seeing in Ukraine today is melding of these two wargame mechanisms of “special forces” operating behind enemy lines and “insurgents” or local armed resistance that are operating even before the end of major combat operations.
Supply Lines: Even on “Turn 1” of the Russian invasion of Ukraine there are numerous stories about fuel shortages plaguing Russian forces. In the Next War series, rule 13.1 Supply is an optional Standard Series Game rule. The approach used is very basic; certain hexes are Supply Sources (13.1.2) and in order for units to be in supply they must able to trace a Line of Communication (13.1.3). Units that are Out of Supply (13.1.5) have their Attack and Movement ratings halved and their ER reduced. They also are not eligible for Elite Reaction or Exploitation Movement. In the Advanced Game rules, 19.0 Supply introduces a somewhat more complex set of rules, the most important (and relevant to todays conflict) of which are 19.1 Supply Sources with their range limitations and 19.4 Supply Depots and MSUs (Mobile Supply Units). The later, those MSUs, are what is being “attacked” by the stay behind forces and local civilian resistance. I feel that one way to portray the “supply wars” in today’s conflict is to allow the Ukrainian player to use the Standard Game supply rule (13.1) while the Russian player must use the Advanced Game Rule 19.0.
Nuclear War: While the conflict in Ukraine is certainly conventional, reports that Putin raised the alert status of his nuclear forces are troublesome. To me it invokes in some ways memories of Able Archer ’83 where the Soviets were convinced that the US and NATO were ready for a decapitating nuclear first strike. How much I had hoped those days were behind us…
Casualty Markers: There are no casualty markers in the Next War series. When military units suffer casualties one simple flips or removes a counter. Very simple. Very clinical. One part of war that so many wargames fail to capture is the human cost of conflict, especially amongst the non-combatants. To some the clinical detachment that comes with wargames where units have no face, no cry of anguish, no bloody entrails, is the very problem with wargames. I for one made my peace with wargames years ago when I read the words of Sir Basil L. Hart:
I study war not to make war but to help understand and (hopefully) prevent it. I hate war, especially the incredible toll war takes on humanity. Remember that for most of us war is on the tablet, smartphone, or gaming table. For too many it’s a harsh reality. Remember them, and seek peace for their sake.
Feature image courtesy dreamstime.com