Unlike many other solo wargame systems, The Solo Expansion using a series of cards for the enemy AI. Academy Games describes the Athena AI this way:
A player will be able to play Awakening the Bear against a highly reactive game AI. This AI is based on the most modern Emergent Behavior and Agent Based Logic programming systems. AI units are not individually programmed like in past solo games. Instead, each situation is evaluated and the best course of action using available AI resources and unit assets is implemented. This is a radical and groundbreaking implementation of advanced computer programming by Academy Games for their Conflict of Heroes series. Players will be surprised by the AI strategy and actions that emerge as a result of the player’s own battle tactics. This may force even veteran players to hone and adapt their own playing styles in order to overcome the AI.
The Athena AI cards determine the passage of time in a scenario and then present a series of Priority and Tactical Orders. On the AI turn, the solo player draws a card, moves time if appropriate, then works down the list of orders finding the first one that can be executed and does so. If necessary, another card is drawn for the necessary Spent Check of the AI unit acting. On the players turn, the cards are used for a Spent Check at the end of an Action to see if the unit remains Fresh.
Although very simple in concept, the orders on the Athena AI cards sometime require careful consideration. If one plays this game irregularly then this constant relearning curve may slow play. Personally, I found the examples in the rule book most helpful and after a few slow cards the terminology ‘clicked’ and play proceeded rapidly.
Playing with the Athena AI makes for a very different Conflict of Heroes experience. For my game I played ‘Solo Mission 3 – Hunting Chernov” where I led elements of the German 4th Panzer Division against the Soviet 141st Reinforced Tank Brigade on October 1, 1941. This is a large CoH scenario using four maps. Scattered across the map are 21 wrecks from the Wrecks & Destruction expansion and 16 Rumored Enemy. Those Rumored Enemy (RE) is what makes the solo game so fun; as the solo player you see the RE on the board. They move and maybe even attack. When they do attack (or are attacked) they can be revealed (real piece drawn from the Rumored Enemy Cup).
The “Hunting Chernov” scenario also adds a nice element of personalization. One of the Soviet KV1 tanks represents the Soviet Commander. Not only does is this tank worth more Victory Points – and an auto scenario end condition if destroyed – it also directly changes the AI. Once Chernov is revealed, the scenario directs the player to remove Order Cards 1-12 (of 1-43) and replace them with Order Cards 44-55. The result is a more aggressive Soviet AI!
In my game, the Soviet AI got the best of my forces. It didn’t really help that some of the first RE revealed turned out to be both KV1s and a T-35. The heavier, and now more aggressive, Soviet tanks made short work of the best German tanks, a Panzer III Ausf.E and Panzer 38t. The T-35 was lost but the remaining pair of short-barrel Panzer IV Ausf.E and trio of Panzer II Ausf.F couldn’t carry the fight.
Many people rave about the ‘Bots in the GMT Games COIN series of games. Personally, I find them interesting if not a bit boring. In play they feel too logical. I don’t have this same feeling with the Athena AI. Although one must logically work through an Orders Card, the resultant action feels more naturally emergent rather than simply logical. This creates a very challenging game. That may be the Athena AI’s greatest achievement; creating a logical game system that delivers a dynamic input to the game state.
For Storms of Steel the scenario was “Mission 9 – July 10, 1943: Black Knights of the Steppe.” This is part of the Battle of Prokhorovka and features elements of the German Panzer Division LAH confronting armored elements of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Corps. Germans forces include one Tiger Ie heavy tank with Veteran Cards “Iron Will” (Ignore 1x Hit marker for 1x Command Action Point-CAP) and “Combat Hardened” (reroll 1d6 for 1x CAP). The Soviets set up 2x KV1 tanks hidden at the start of the scenario. The Soviets have Veteran Cards “Motivated Leader” (reduce Rally number by 2 for 1x CAP) and “Concealed” (remain hidden when attacking for 1x CAP as long as a 1 is not rolled).
This Storms of Steel scenario was played using the Third Edition rules. For those unfamiliar with the legacy of Conflict of Heroes series, the Third Edition created some controversy with the introduction of the Spent Die. In previous editions, units were allocated Action Points (AP) which – once used – resulted in a unit flipping from Fresh to Spent. A turn usually ends when both player’s units are Spent or both take consecutive Pass Actions. In Third Edition, rather than tracking each units AP, players execute an Action and then roll a special Spent Die. If the number rolled is greater than the AP cost, the unit remains Fresh; otherwise it becomes Spent.
A major criticism of the Spent Die is that it is too much luck and can lead to some incredibly unrealistic situations. In my game it looked like this was happening when two German SdKfz 251 halftracks loaded with Panzer Grenadiers raced across the board seemingly at will. Indeed, it really looked bad as even the Tiger I was able to move up quickly bypassing the hidden Soviet KV1s without the opportunity for the Soviets to shoot.
But then the battle took a very different turn.
Those Panzer Grenadier units that raced forward raced right into the jaws of four Soviet T-34 tanks arriving as reinforcements. Now unable to exit the board (1x VP per unit) they instead tried to seize the two Control Markers in the village (each worth 1x VP). Of course, they had raced so far ahead of their tanks they needed to fall back and await support. But as the Germans tanks moved up, they were caught in a deadly crossfire from hidden KV1s and Churchill Mk III’s. Even so, the veteran Tiger I was able to remain undamaged using it’s “Iron Will.” As it moved forward to confront the four T-34’s and support the Grenadiers, the last KV1 broke cover and positioned for a rear shot. To hit required a roll of 10 or greater on 2d6 – the roll was 10. The Hit Marker drawn was DESTROYED. No problem for the Tiger, right? After all, it has that “Iron Will.” But to use that Veteran Card requires 1x CAP and this was the end of the turn and the Germans had no CAP left. No CAP, no “Iron Will.” One dead Tiger and no chance for a German victory in the scenario.
Price of Honor is actually the oldest Conflict of Heroes title in my collection. Technically an expansion to Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear 1st Edition (Academy Games, 2008) it is compatible with the Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear 2nd Edition (2012). Here I decided to try the game using the Third Edition rules. The scenario chosen was “Firefight 2: Cavalry Charge! Polish Cavalry Attack at Krojanty – Sept 1, 1939.” Here elements of the Polish 18th Uhlans Regiment ambush a column of the German 76th Motorized Infantry Regiment. The Poles must inflict maximum damage and try to seize and hold critical junctions before the German armored car detachment arrives which will easily overwhelm the cavalry.
The special rule in this Price of Honor scenario is Horse (Cavalry) Units. Not only do horses receive a movement bonus in certain terrain, but they also possess advantages in Close Combat (CC) when mounted. Much like history, the Uhlans emerged from the forest and charged the dismounted German Rifle units. In the first two turns the Germans were routed. The Uhlans then struck out for the other two crossroads. The first one was guarded by a German Light Machine Gun (LMG) in a building that proved unbeatable and would hold until the end. Both sides raced towards the final crossroads with the German foot soldiers just barely arriving before the mounted Polish cavalry. The Uhlans dismounted and attacked through the woods, eventually ejecting the Germans. By now the German SdKfz 231 armored car detachment arrived and was moving towards the last Control Marker. A Soviet Anti-Tank Rifle (AT Rifle) worked its way to the flank of the German armored cars and took a shot, pinning it down. Through the use of Battle Cards and CAP, the AT Rifle was able to quickly take another shot and scored another hit, brewing up the armored cars. Polish victory!
After playing both these games I am much more comfortable with the Third Edition rules and really like them. I believe the criticism of the Spent Die is unwarranted. If you want a more “realistic” ruleset then maybe those Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits should be your thing. But if you are like me and enjoy a good “believable” battle with incredible narrative moments, then Conflict of Heroes is perfectly suitable – and satisfying!
Grant over on The Players Aid blog laid out his 15 Influential Wargames from the Decade 2010-2019. In the posting Grant asked for others to give their list. Although I have been a wargaming grognard since 1979 in the early 2010’s I was focused more on role playing games. That is, until 2016 when I turned back into hobby gaming and wargaming in particular. So yes, my list is a bit unbalanced and definitely favors the later-half of the decade. Here is my list of ‘influential’ games arranged by date of publication along with an explanation of why the title influences me.
For the longest time I considered myself near-exclusively a naval wargamer. I’m not sure why, but in early 2017 I picked up a copy of Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Second Edition). I think at the time I was looking for a good tactical WWII game to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I am glad I did, as along the way I also discovered the excellent Firefight Generator and Solo Expansion, and eventually other titles to include the latest Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (2019) where I have a small credit in the rulebook. This game, like no other, awakened me to the ‘new look’ of wargames and the positive influence the Eurogame segment of the hobby market can have on wargaming.
In 2017 I attended the CONNECTIONS Wargaming Conference. There I met a fine gentleman, Uwe Eickert, of Academy Games. As we talked about his Conflict of Heroes series (I even helped him demo a few games) I mentioned my boys and our search for good family wargames. Uwe strongly recommended his Birth of America series, especially 1775 Rebellion. So I ordered it and the RMN Boys and myself sat down to play this lite-wargame – and we haven’t looked back since. We now own all the Birth of America and Birth of Europe series. 878 Vikings is one game the oldest (least gamer) RMN Boy will play with us. Most influential because it shows that there are much, much better ‘family-wargames’ than Risk. As an added bonus, I am working with one of my youngest boy’s high school teachers to bring this game into his classroom.
After attending CONNECTIONS 2017, I tried to become a bit of a wargaming advocate at my job. So I looked at more ‘serious’ wargames. One of the hot topics of the day is the Baltics and Russia. I looked for wargames that could build understanding of the issues, especially if it comes to open conflict. Sitting on my shelf from long ago was were several GMT Games ‘Crisis’ series titles, Crisis: Korea 1995 and Crisis: Sinai 1973. I had heard about updated versions but had been reluctant to seek them out. Now I went searching and found a wargame that is a master-level study into the military situation. This game influenced me because it shows that a commercial wargame can be used for ‘serious’ purposes.
Before 2017, an aerial combat wargame to me was a super-tactical study of aircraft, weapons, and maneuver. The most extreme version was Birds of Prey (Ad Astra, 2008) with it’s infamous ‘nomograph.’ I had all-but-given-up on air combat games until I discovered the Wing Leader series. But was this really air combat? I mean, the map is like a side-scroll video game? The first time I played the level of abstraction in combat resolution was jarring. But as I kept playing I discovered that Wing Leader, perhaps better than any other air combat game, really captures ‘why’ the war in the air takes place. Units have missions they must accomplish, and those missions are actually the focus of this game, not the minutia of flap settings or Pk of a missile hit. Influential because it shows me that model abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when done right like it is here.
As I returned to wargaming in 2016-2017, I kept hearing about this thing called the COIN-series. I looked at a few titles but was not quite ready to go ‘full-waro’* so I backed off. At the same time, having moved to the East Coast, I was much more interested in the American Revolution. By late 2017 I was becoming more ‘waro-friendly’ so when I had a chance to purchase Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection I took it. I’m really glad I did. LoD is influential because it taught me that a wargame can be political and a real tool of learning. I understand that LoD is the designer’s ‘view’ of the American Revolution but I enjoy experimenting within that vision and seeing what I can learn.
Prior to my wargaming renaissance, I acquired Memoir ’44 for the RockyMountainNavy Boys. We also had Battlelore and in an effort to entice the oldest RMN Boy (an ancient history lover) into gaming had given him Commands & Colors: Ancients. That is to say, Commands & Colors was not new to the RMN House. As part of my American Revolution kick I picked up Commands & Colors Tricorne thinking I would try to get the RMN Boys to play this version. Instead, I fell in love with the game. Influential because it showed me that with just a few simple rules tweaks a highly thematic, yet ‘authentic’, gaming experience is possible even with a simple game engine.
Remember I said I was a naval wargamer? Notice the lack of naval wargames on this list? That’s because I found few that could match my experiences with the Victory Games Fleet-series of the 1980’s. That is, until I played South China Sea. All the more interesting because it started out as a ‘professional’ wargame designed for a DoD customer. Not a perfect game, but influential because it shows me it is possible to look at modern warfare at sea by focusing less on the hardware and more on the processes of naval warfare as well as being an example of a professional-gone-commercial wargame.
At CONNECTIONS 2017, Uwe Eickert sat on a panel and recommended to all the DoD persons in the room that if they want logistics in a wargame they need to look at Hollandspiele’s Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 game. I found the game online and ordered it (from a very strange little company using a Print-on-Demand publishing model..WTF?). When it arrived and I put it on the table and played I was blown away. First, it has ‘cubes,’ not armies or dudes. Second, it really teaches why certain locations were crucial for the American Revolution. Third, it’s challenging and just darn fun to play. Influential because this was the first game I recognized as a ‘waro’, and the first of many quirky Hollandspiele titles that I enjoy.
Solo wargames are very procedural, right? So procedural they are nothing more than a puzzle to be solved, right. Not Pavlov’s House. I was blown away by the strategy and story that comes thru every play of this game. This is a solo game that makes you want to play because it’s the strategy that counts, not the procedure. Influential because I showed me what a solo game can be as well as how a game that screams ‘Euro’ is actually a wargame.
As the decade came to a close, I had all-but-given up on naval wargaming. When I first saw Blue Water Navy I had thoughts of one of my favorite strategic WW3 at Sea games, Seapower & the State (Simulations Canada, 1982). The play length of BWN, 1-16 hours, kinda put me off at first as I prefer shorter games. As I read more I became more intrigued so I finally purchased it. Now it sits on this list as an influential game because it shows me how abstraction and non-traditional wargame mechanics (cards?) can be used to craft a game that literally plays out like a Tom Clancy or Larry Bond novel.
I have been a grognard since 1979. Why do I need a simple wargame that doesn’t even use hexes? I mean, this game uses a chit-pull mechanic (good for solo play) and point-to-point movement. In a game this simple there can’t be much depth, right? Hey, where is the CRT? Speak about a small war…. Influential because this game shows that simplicity can be a very high art. Brave Little Belgium is my go-to quick intro wargame for hobby boardgamers.
This one is very personal. My Middle Boy is on the autism spectrum and when his younger brother started an evening program once a week the Middle one was a bit lost without his companion. So I looked around for a wargame we could play in a sort of ‘filler-wargame’ mode – short and simple on a weeknight. And play we did; ten times in 2019. He beat me seven times. Influential because this game – sometimes derided as a simplified ‘Command & Colors wannabe’ – connected me closer to my Middle Boy than any game before.
The folks from the US Army Command & General Staff College at CONNECTIONS 2019 had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles on their table and were singing praises of the game. I was fortunate enough to be able to trade for the game later on BGG. What I discovered was a wargame built around John Boyd’s OODA Loop. At the same time I was reading A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Putting the two of them together was like lightening in a bottle. This is a heavy, serious game that is also playable and enjoyable. Influential for no other reason than it shows me that OODA applies far beyond the cockpit; indeed, I need to look at OODA for many more games.
Brian Train is a designer that often looks at lesser or different wars and always brings forth an interesting perspective in his games. He calls this game, ‘a militarized Eurogame.’ He’s right; this title is the full embodiment of a waro game. I often argue with myself if this is even a wargame; after all, you can play solo, head-to-head, teams, or cooperative. Hobby boardgame or wargame? Influential for that very reason as it represents to me the full arrival of the ‘waro’ to the hobby gaming market.
Like Nights of Fire, this can’t really be a wargame. It has no board, no dice, and no CRT. Instead it has ‘tableaus’ for tanks and (lots of) cards! You can also play up to eight players. There is no player elimination – tanks respawn! What on earth is this? Influential because it challenges all my traditional views of a wargame only to deliver some of the best wargaming experiences I have ever had at the gaming table.
There are many more games from 2010-2019 that influenced me. Games with the chit-pull mechanic are now my favorite to solo with, but I didn’t put one on the list. Maybe I should of….
Hmm…I see it’s also hard to pin down one particular publisher that particularly influences me. In this list of 15 games we have:
4x GMT Games
3x Compass Games
2x Academy Games
1x Mighty Boards Games
1x Thin Red Line Games
1x Worthington Publishing
Not a bad spread!
*’Waro’ – A combination of ‘wargame’ and ‘Eurogame. To me it is a wargame that incorporates Eurogame like look/components or mechanics vice a traditional hex & counter wargame.
September was a very slow gaming month. As a matter of fact, my 11 plays is the least amount of gaming since April this year and a four-way tie for the second-fewest monthly plays since I started seriously recording my plays in August 2017. I can’t really complain though; the few plays I got were very special.
The most interesting game is that “Unpublished Prototype” listed above. This is a game by a fellow gamer that I met at CONNECTIONS 2019. The game is in a very rough state but I have a copy for the next few weeks and will be working my way through it. Don’t know if the game will ever see publication but still I feel I am doing something for the greater hobby community.
Looking at my Preorder and Kickstarter line up, I have significantly trimmed down the collection. At the beginning of the month this list was up to 26 games. Between canceling orders and deliveries I am down to 13, of which eight (8!) may deliver by year’s end. I admit it; I had a touch of FoMO* and it took Mrs. RockyMountainNavy to cure me of it. I have an antidote on hand – my 2019 Challenges still await completion!
With the summer doldrums almost ended and the seasons turning, the RockyMountainNavy family will move indoors a bit more. Later this fall, Mrs. RMN will be on travel for a few weeks meaning I will just have to get games to the table to keep me from going crazy.
So, so long Summer, hello Fall, and bring on the dice!
* FoMO – Fear of Missing Out; an uncontrollable urge to buy as many new games as possible (or even not possible) for fear of “missing out” on the gameplay.
Several scenarios in Storms of Steel support four players. Each side (Soviet or German) is divided into two forces. We can just as easily play these scenarios 3-player by giving both forces to one player.
Thus, it was last week that I found myself partnered with my Youngest as we split the Soviet forces. Middle RMN Boy took the Germans. The scenario generally worked. One reason we like the Conflict of Heroes system is the little down time. Take an Action – next player!
Next time though, we are going to need a player aide. Since initiative can change, it would be helpful for us to have some sort of track that shows the present order, where we are in that order, and if a force has Passed. Easy to make – will have to work on a prototype and get it ready for next time. that’s because there will be a next time to play Storms of Steel!
SUMMER IS NOT THE BEST TIME for boardgames or wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. There are so many outdoor activities to be had and family events on the weekend that games get pushed to the back burner. So it was for August in the RockyMountainNavy home. I recorded a measly 13 plays of 9 different games…my worst month in almost two years of recording plays.
The best family night game was a long overdue session of 1812: Invasion of Canada (Academy Games, 2012). With the beginning of the school year and a return to a somewhat normal cycle of weekend family games I am sure that the many Birth of America / Birth of Europe-series titles will land on the table regularly.
On a recommendation at CONNECTIONS 2019 I picked up Cowboy Bebop: Boardgame Boogie (Jasco Games, 2019). I haven’t written up my thought yet but (spoiler alert…again) this tune is a bit flat to me.
I attended CONNECTIONS 2019, the professional wargaming conference in mid-August. I have yet to compose all my thoughts but I did get to see a bit of wargame history with Upton’s US Infantry Tactical Apparatus.
Looking ahead, designer John Gorkowski was kind enough to send me an e-kit to playtest with for the next game in South China Sea-series from Compass Games. Indian Ocean Region is already available for preorder and this is my chance to try and influence the game and make it better for everyone.
As mentioned before, the return to school means a return to a more regular schedule of gaming. I also still have several games in my 2019 CSR, Origins, and GameGeek Challenges to complete before the end of the year.
I can’t show you the heft to the box but suffice it to say it is more substantial than I expected. This is due to the many good boards and plentiful counter-stock used throughout the game.
The mapboards took a long time to produce. Uwe posted a video a while back detailing lots of their production challenges. I am glad to see them overcoming these issues.
Beyond the long production time, the game rules are not without controversy. the major change to the rules in 3rd Edition is the Spent Die Check.
The refrain I hear most often is something to the effect that players “hate the die” and they much prefer the expenditure of Action Points found in the 2nd Edition rules. All I will say is try the 3rd Edition rules; it doesn’t play any slower and statistically the results are not really any different. Sure, with a streak of good luck a unit can maybe go on for a bit. However, a unit is not very likely to go on too long given rules 2.5 Making Spent Check and 2.6 Stress where units add a +1 Stress Penalty to its Action Cost if took any Action in a previous player’s turn (and passed its Spent Check).
The second game is one I have on Kickstarter. Agents of Mayhem Pride of Babylon. Although it doesn’t look like a wargame, I hear it is based on a Battle of Fallujah game that Academy did for the USMC. Out in about a month?
THE 2003 ORIGINS AWARD FOR BEST HISTORIC BOARD GAME went to Attack! (Eagle Games). Sometime in the late 2000-oughts I bought this game in the hopes that I could use it as an introductory wargame for the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I don’t really know why I did this since I already owned Axis & Allies (in my case, the 1987 Milton Bradley edition). Attack! and Axis & Allies are very similar so having A&A be good enough. I recently pulled Attack! out as part of my 2019 Origins Challenge. After all these year I can say that Attack! is the superior game to A&A, even without the expansion.
As I replayed the game I discovered that while I have focused on heavier wargames, the RockyMountainNavy Boys regularly pull Attack! out to play. They tell me its because of the free-style set-up. Whereas A&A tries to recreate a historical WWII starting in 1942, Attack! is set in the World War II era but is not tied to history. In many ways it is a sandbox WWII game.
Just because the game is cut loose of history does not mean that it is not historical. The same combined-arms so powerful in A&A is also a necessity in Attack!. Here also is a simple economic system using a set-building mechanic. Nothing too complex but enough to make one concerned about managing their hand of cards.
Over the years I occasionally considered purchasing the expansion. Every time I end up not making the purchase. For this reminiscence I thought about it once again, and once again I am passing on the opportunity. Although I am sure the expansion with expanded naval rules and economics is not bad, for me it’s not necessary. The core Attack! has its niche in my collection as a lite, introductory wargame. If we want something more we have other games that satisfy the need. So we keep it simple, with simple Attack!.
I HAVE BEEN WARGAMING SINCE 1979 but I have to admit that the Eastern Front of World War II is not really my thing. I have a few Eastern Front wargames, but most of my historical games are actually naval or air combat. If I have a World War II land combat game it probably is the Western Desert or the Western Front. This is a bit surprising since my very first wargame ever was Jim Day’s Panzer (First Edition) from Yaquinto publishing in 1979.
To better prepare myself for the game I turned to my in-house library to do a bit of some research. My library was almost as bare as my game shelf! I had the 1978 printing of the 1956 Panzer Battles by Maj. Gen F.W.Von Mellenthin (1). I also had The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 by Lloyd Clark (2). As luck would have it, I saw an advertisement for a brand new book by Christopher A . Lawrence of The Dupuy Institute titled The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, the Largest Clash of Armor in History (3).
The battle of Prokhorovka was not the largest tank battle on a single day in history. It did not mark the death ride of Germany’s panzer forces, nor was it (as is also the case for Operation Citadel in general) a battle that potentially decided the fate of the entire war on the Eastern Front. Undoubtedly, though, it was a very significant engagement and, for the Soviet 5thGuards Tank Army, a disaster. The myths surrounding the battle largely stem from General Rotmistrov’s need to justify to Stalin his 5thGuards Tank Army’s heavy losses. Soviet armoured losses were indeed very severe while German armoured losses were negligible in the extreme. Thanks to excellent post-soviet era research by Niklas Zetterling & Anders Frankson, Karl-Heinz Frieser, Roman Töppeland, and Valeriy Zamulin amongst others (which are based on official reports, losses and testimonies) this is now beyond dispute.
For wargamers, the Battle of Prokharovka took place in such a small area it should also be easily gamable:
The chief protagonists of the Battle of Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps and the German SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, fought over a battlefront of no more than 3km between the river Psel and the Storozhevoye Woods.
Three kilometers in Panzer is only 30 hexes (100m/hex). A play area 30 hexes wide by maybe 60-90 hexes long could cover the entire battle!
Putting all this together, I figured I had a collection of good source material to study and get in the right mindset for playing games of Panzer or Storms of Steel. That is, until I really dug into the readings and discovered “the myth of Prokhorovka.” Getting to the “truth” is challenging and makes recreating the battle in wargames even more difficult.
The Myth of Prokhorovka
The World Almanac Book of World War II describes the Battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 this way:
In the Battle of Kursk the Fourth Panzer Army, led by the II SS Panzer Corps, makes one final effort in the direction of Prokhorovka but cannot break through the fresh Soviet forces. Army group South is now being threatened near Taganrog and Stalino, and in the north of the salient a Soviet counter-offensive begins toward Orel even as Kluge orders Model to withdraw some of his panzers to meet such a threat. At the end of the day Hitler orders that the battle be discontinued. The new Soviet attack involves troops of the West and Bryansk Fronts in two thrusts west from Novosil and the south between Kozelsk and Sukhinichi.
In this battle the Germans have conceded the strategic initiative to the Soviets for good. The shortage of manpower has compelled them to attack on a limited front and to commit almost all of their tank force to one effort. The Soviet losses in the battle so far have probably been greater than the German’s but they can afford it. The Luftwaffe losses have been severe and its dominance is now over. The Germans must also send troops to Italy but Hitler still forbids his Generals to make necessary withdrawals.
The World Almanac Book of World War II (New York: World Almanac Publications, 1981), 218.
You see, even today, 75 years after the battle, we actually don’t know that much. Von Mellenthin doesn’t even mention Prokhorovka; indeed, reading Panzer Battles one might even think there was little fighting at all on July 12, 1943. Overall, he definitely doesn’t see Kursk as any sort of glorious event:
By the evening of 14 July it was obvious that the time table of the German attack had been completely upset. At the very beginning of the offensive, the piercing of the forward Russian lines, deeply and heavily mined as they were, had proven much more difficult than we anticipated. The terrific Russian counterattacks, with masses of men and material ruthlessly thrown in, were also an unpleasant surprise. German casualties had not been light, while our tanks losses were staggering. The Panthers did not come up to expectations; they were easily set ablaze, the oil and gasoline feeding systems were inadequately protected, and the crews were insufficiently trained. Of the eighty Panthers available when the battle was joined only a few were left on 14 July. The S.S. Panzer Corps was no better off, while on the southern flank the Ninth Army had never penetrated more than seven miles and was now at a complete standstill. Fourth Panzer Army had indeed reached a depth of twelve miles, but there were another sixty miles to cover before we could join hands with Model.
Panzer Battles, 276-277.
Maybe more recent scholarship, like Lloyd Clark, would shed more light on the battle. The Battle of the Tanks is written at a much more tactical, even personal, level. It certainly portrays the huge scale of the battle:
In front of him were 294 fighting machines of the II SS Panzer Corps and 616 of his own tanks. On that day, just over half of Rotmistrov’s tanks were T-34s and most of the remainder were T-70s.
The Battle of the Tanks, 344.
Clark goes on to show how Soviet perceptions of German armor superiority drove their tactics:
Soviet tactics continued to emphasize the need to close with the enemy’s armor as quickly as possible for fear of the Germans’ powerful 88mm guns smashing them at long range. Rotmistrov was adamant that ‘successful struggle with [Tigers and Ferdinands] is possible only in circumstances of close-in combat”, and by exploiting the T-34’s greater maneuverability and by flanking fire against the [weaker] side armor of the Germans’ machines. Tigers were capable of disabling a T-34 at a range of over 4000 yards, but the Soviets seem to have massively overestimated the number that were available to Hausser. The reality was that II SS Panzer Corps had 15 – Totenkopf had 10, LAH had four and Das Reich just one. There were no Ferdinands or Panthers on the Prokhorovka battlefield.
The Battle of the Tanks, 346.
Clark points out that nobody can agree on the numbers of tanks destroyed:
The Soviets had suffered heavy losses in the successful attempt to defend Prokhorovka, and he [Vatutuin] still had to achieve his aim of forcing Hoth back and regaining lost territory. Stalin was particularly concerned at reports, subsequently proved erroneous, of the 5th Guards Tank Army losing around 650 tanks on that day for the total loss of a mere 17 German armored fighting vehicles.
The Clash of Tanks, 370-371.
Having started down this rabbit-hole of history, I asked myself, “So just how many tanks were destroyed? For that answer I turned first to Christopher Lawrence.
The Dupuy Institute approach
Christopher Lawrence is the President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute is best known for their Tactical, Numerical, Deterministic Model (TNDM):
The Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM) is an empirically based combat model with a database derived from historical research. It was developed by Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy, (USA, Ret.), from his concept, the Quantified Judgement Method of Analysis (QJMA), as presented in his two books, Numbers, Predictions and War (1979) and Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (1987). The QJMA has two elements:
1. Determination of quantified combat outcome trends based upon modern historical combat experience in more than 200 examples of 20th Century combat, mostly World War II and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, and
2. Extrapolation of historical trends to contemporary and future combat on the basis of developments and changes in firepower and mobility technology.
In developing the TNDM as a refinement of an earlier model based upon the QJMA, Col. Dupuy had the collaborative assistance of Dr. James G. Taylor (noted author of works concerning modern Lanchester-type models) in developing a new differential equation attrition methodology based on historical data. By a mathematical process akin to that of the Lanchester Equations, the TNDM attrition methodology provides results consistent with those which occurred in historical engagements. By being historically based, the methodology is more scientifically justified than any methodology not consistent with historical experience.
What this means is that Christopher Lawrence’s The Battle of Prokharovka is data-heavy. The main battle is covered in “Chapter Nine: The Tank Fields at Prokhorovka, 12 July 1943.” Even then, Lawrence warns us that the data can be suspect:
The XLVIII Panzer Corps with its chief of Staff, Colonel von Mellenthin, having been an officer of the general staff, had good detailed records throughout its operations, including useful daily summaries of the action. The record-keeping of the SS Panzer Corps, on the other hand, suffered when the fighting got intense. While they kept good status reports, their daily reports of activity almost seemed to disappear when the fighting got toughest. As a result, on the day of greatest drama, the record keeping for one of the major players almost disappeared.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, 306.
What we can see is that the battle of 12 July 1943 near Prokhorovka was maybe the most interesting of the war, and ripe for wargaming. Lawrence describes (and editorializes about) the engagement this way:
Perhaps the strangest attack the Soviets conducted this day was done by the XVIII Tank Corps. This attack required the two leading Soviet tank brigades [each with about 40 tanks – half T-34 and half T-70] to move along the Psel River to the southwest. The 170th Tank Brigade ended up attacking the Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz, which constricted its attack area, effectively attacking uphill towards height 252.2. Meanwhile, the 181st Tank Brigade continued to push southwest down the Psel into the area between the two SS divisions. These attacks could also be fired upon by Totenkopf’s forces on the other side of the Psel. The attack was essentially through a shallow valley flanked by enemy forces. It was a scenario reminiscent of the famous British charge of the light brigade from the Crimean War, and with similar results.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, 315-316.
So what were the losses? According to Lawrence, the Soviet XVIII Tank Corps lost 45 T-34s, 25 T-70s, and 11 Churchills on 12 July. The XXIX Tank Corps, thrown into the fray in the same area later in the day lost 105 T-34s, 42 T-70s, 9 SU-122s, and 3 SU-76s (4). The defending Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division lost maybe 19 tanks (5).
Seeing is Believing
Ben Wheatley thinks he has the answer, and it’s the Luftwaffe:
However, by using previously neglected archival sources it has still been possible to make a significant research breakthrough and provide the first visual confirmation of the fate of the 5thGuards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps. Significantly the article includes the first published photographs of the notorious anti-tank ditch (in which the 29th Tank Corps’ 31st & 32nd Tank Brigades were largely destroyed) whilst still in German hands – masses of Soviet tank wrecks being clearly visible. For a battle which was wrapped in myth for so many years this is particularly important. Without this final visual evidence the above mentioned authors’ battle narratives, if not their statistical findings, was still open to debate. This is no longer the case.
Therefore the location of one of the most famous battles of the Second World War was able to be photographed by the Luftwaffe in a single shot. Specifically and importantly photographs are available from 14 and 16 July when the battlefield was still in German hands (the Germans chose to withdraw from the area on 17 July). The battlefield remained largely unaltered from 12 July. As a result these photographs depict the Soviet armoured disaster (the entire 5th Guards Tank Army lost around 235 fighting vehicles written off) with absolute clarity. The large number of destroyed Soviet tanks of the 29th Tank Corps visible in and around the anti-tank ditch is astonishing. There are also important photographs from 7 August, which although three weeks later, further highlight the scale of the Soviet disaster. Comparisons made between the July and the August photographs are highly revealing. Destroyed tanks visible in both July and August indicate that they were in all probability lost on 12 July. We know this as in the main attack sectors from 13 July, the Soviets went onto the defensive as a result of the extremely heavy losses they sustained the previous day. Equally the Germans, having recaptured their forward positions on 12 July, were content to await developments on their flanks before resuming the advance. These factors are of real importance. As a result the front lines of 16 July were virtually identical to those of 12 July. German tank losses were minuscule by comparison, with just five battle tanks ultimately being written off (including the four Pz IVs close to Hill 252.2). All other damaged tanks were located in secure firing positions (i.e. behind the line of the anti-tank ditch) and were recovered before 16 July and later repaired.
Based on photographic analysis, Wheatley believes the German losses were very slight:
As a direct consequence of the fighting on 12 July the Leibstandarte division lost just five tanks. No German tanks were reported as ‘write-off’s on the 12 July. However, five tanks that were left immobilized on the battlefield could not subsequently be recovered because of enemy fire; so the write-off figures had to be adjusted later. Four of the five tanks in question were Pz IVs belonging to Ribbentrop’s 6th Company, 1st SS Panzer Regiment, the other was the Tiger belonging to the panzer regiment’s heavy panzer company. No StuG assault guns or Marder tank destroyers were reported as being lost on 12 July.
Ben Wheatley (2019) A visual examination of the battle of Prokhorovka, Journal of Intelligence History, 18:2, 115-163, DOI: 10.1080/16161262.2019.1606545 (6)
Wheatley admits that Soviet losses are so numerous that he can’t rely on the photos alone and must rely on other research:
The Soviet losses are slightly harder to detail precisely but all reliable accounts of the battle indicate that well in excess of 200 Soviet tanks were written-off. Frieser using Russian archival material reaches the figure of around 235 vehicles as write-offs for 12 July….The Russian historian Valeriy Zamulin comes to the conclusion, that at least 207 of Rotmistrov’s fighting vehicles were ‘burned’ on that day. As the Germans had succeeded in pushing back the Soviet attacking forces to their starting positions, the battlefield was in the Germans hands. On the evening of 12 July, damaged Soviet tanks were totally destroyed by special squads. It was only on 17 July, when the II SS Panzer Korps was withdrawn from the front, that the approaching Soviet troops were able to see the extent of the debacle that had taken place. Thus, the first reliable report of losses also bears that date. It is a statement of fighting vehicles lost from 12 to 16 July, signed by the chief of staff of 5th Guards Tank Army, according to which the army had written off 222 T-34s. 89 T-70s, 12 Churchill Tanks and 11 assault guns for a total of 334 tanks and assault guns. However, almost all those losses must have occurred on 12 July, since immediately afterwards the hard-hit 5th Guards Tank Army was largely withdrawn and, as is also evident from the German reports, took hardly any further part in the fighting.
Ben Wheatley (2019)
Mr. Wheatley rightly gives himself praise for his work:
In conclusion, given our knowledge of the relative losses incurred by both sides and the locations of the tanks on the battlefield, it is clear that the photographic evidence contained in this article support Frieser’s description of the battle – i.e. that the Soviets suffered a major defeat and incurred vast numbers of written off tanks in the process. The location of the mass destruction of the 29th Tank Corps armour is clear to see with 32nd & 31st Tank Brigades demise in (or near to) the anti-tank ditch and 25th Tank Brigade’s defeat between the railway embankment, Stalinsk state farm and the Storozhevoye Woods also being clearly visible in the photographs provided. Regarding the halting of 18th Tank Corps – we can see from the photographs available to us that the Soviet attempt to outflank the Leibstandarte was also met with a major defeat. The demise of the 170th & 181st Tank Brigades is clearly highlighted behind the left flank of the anti-tank ditch and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment’s position. The defeat of 181st Tank Brigade’s subsequent effort to advance up from the ribbon village of Andreyevka is also depicted. The fact that only four Tiger tanks repelled both of these armoured advances is testament to the tanks’ prowess at that stage of the war.
This article has therefore verified the demise of the majority of the attacking components of the 5th Guards Tank Army during the battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943. As has been shown above, the level of detailed information now available to us means it is entirely possible that individual lost German tanks can be located on the battlefield photographs amongst the mass of Soviet tank losses. It is remarkable that the historiography of the battle has evolved so radically over the last 20–30 years from an era when it was believed the Germans had suffered a major war-defining defeat with the loss of as many as 400 tanks (including 70 Tigers), to one that recognizes (with respect) that a Soviet catastrophe took place and that this catastrophe can be visually verified. If the myth of Prokhorovka is still given any credence around the world then the photographs contained in this article will surely bring this myth to an end.
Ben Wheatley (2019)
On to Gaming Prokhorovka
As a wargamer, I can see few battles as interesting as Prokhorovka. The fact that four Tiger tanks held off two entire Soviet tank brigades is incredibly dramatic and certainly deserves a scenario. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the wealth of available scenarios is lacking.
Why are there so few scenarios? Is it that the “myth of Prokhorovka” scares designers away? Since everyone “knows” the battle was at first a crushing German defeat, then a Soviet disaster, does it get passed over because it “lacks excitement?” That’s too bad. Rarely do wargamers get a chance to portray a single battlefield and array a large set of forces. Nor do many games contain the high drama of four heavy tanks holding off two entire tank brigades. That’s a game!
(1) Von Mellenthin, Maj. Gen. F.W. Panzer Battles (New York: Ballantine, 1956), First Ballantine Books Edition, Fourth Printing, 1978.
(2) Clark, Lloyd. The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 (New York: Grove Press, 2011).
(3) Lawrence, Christopher A. The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, the Largest Clash of Armor in History (Guilford: Stackpole Books abridged edition 2019).
(4) ibid, 342.
(5) ibid, 346.
(6) Ben Wheatley (2019) A visual examination of the battle of Prokhorovka, Journal of Intelligence History, 18:2, 115-163, DOI: 10.1080/16161262.2019.1606545
Feature image from Wheatley, Figure 2. GX-3734-SK-61 16 July – Battlefield of 29th Tank Corps