History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 2 Before Citadel

Introduction

As I discuss in a previous post, Trevor Bender’s wargame Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 found in C3i Magazine Nr. 34 (RBM Studios, 2020) is a bit of a misnamed game. While I expected the game to be focused on the actual Battle of Kursk, popularly cited as taking place from July 5 to August 23, 1943, I instead found a game about the summer and fall 1943 campaign season on the center and south portions of the Eastern Front. Now that I learned the mechanics of playing the Battle for Kursk I figure it’s time to start really exploring the Battle of Kursk. To do so I decided to mix both reading history and playing wargames together.

This History to Wargame series focuses on two books, The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and The Battle of Prokhorovka by Christopher Lawrence (Stackpole Books, 2019). The feature wargame is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020).

Lead Up to Citadel (March – June 1943)

Glantz

The Glantz book is an excellent overview of the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to the Battle of Kursk. Indeed, the Battle for Kursk wargame closely mirrors Glantz’s discussion of the lead up to the battle in terms of the units discussed and the area focused upon. Having the Battle for Kursk game map out while reading Glantz helps immensely with understanding the geography.

One part that caught my attention for a possible “what if” was the plans for Operations Habicht and Panther (Glantz, p. 25) which were intended as follow-on attacks from Citadel. But “what if” one reversed the plan? What if the Germans launched Habicht/Panther in May 1943 (Turn C) before the Soviet fortifications in that area are complete with orders to seize Kuyansk and cut the rail line from the south into the Kursk salient?

Shown using Battle for Kursk (RBM Studios, 2020)

At several points in the lead up to the battle, Glantz discusses the “correlation of forces.” He first discusses this on page 65 and again when he shows a German Staff Estimate on page 75. Now I wonder if I need to bounce these figures off another Lawrence book, War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) which makes extensive use of data from the Kursk campaign.

Lawrence

One aspect of the lead up to Operation Citadel that Lawrence emphasizes is the political aspects of the offensive, especially Hitler’s concern about his allies. Lawrence asserts that the need to prop up Italy was an important distraction. Now I better understand one of the alternate starting scenarios in WW2 Deluxe: European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018) which has the “Citadel and Avalanche (Summer 1943)” start scenario. These two offensives were not only linked temporally but politically as well.

Lawrence also goes much deeper than Glantz into the discussion of the different tanks and how tank production by the Germans in many ways drove the start date of Citadel. For all the different tanks discussed it is interesting to see how few actual tanks were in a given unit. It is also interesting to see all the different models that were thrown into battle at Kursk. The tank vs. tank battles are certainly played up in the wargames Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) but Lawrence reminds us that there were many other tanks on the battlefield, including more than a few designed for infantry support.

A possible “what if” scenario that jumped out at me from Lawrence’s preparations was an idea rejected at the June 27 pre-battle commander’s conference. At that meeting Hitler, “rejected a recent memo from Army Group Center to evacuate the Orel bulge so as to create an operational reserve. He also again rejected the idea of a “backhand” strike. He decided it would be better to seize the initiative and attack” (Lawrence, 29). This could be recreated in Battle for Kursk by having the Germans chose a “Reposition” or maybe a “Deploy” Posture on Turn D and evacuating the Orel bulge by realigning forces along the 1800 hex column. This would shorten the front lines in this area from 7 hexes to four hexes. More importantly, the four Infantry Corps and four Panzer Corps within the Orel bulge would take over the new line (4x Infantry Corps?) leaving four Panzer Corps to become that “operational reserve.” It might still be possible to launch Citadel on Turn 1 and not lose the initiative to the Soviets. [In Battle for Kursk if the Germans do not attack by Turn 1 they “lose the initiative” to the Soviets as the German bonus VP marker on Kursk turns Soviet and is placed in Kiev.]

Shown using Battle for Kursk (RBM Studios, 2020)

Battle for Kursk – Alternate Preparations

I decided to play out an alternate start for Battle for Kursk. German High Headquarters ordered Operation Habicht/Panther starting on April 12 (Turn B) while at the same time ordering the evacuation of the Orel bulge. The weather is non-randomized (uses Mud turns as printed on Turn Track).

Why Turn B when I talked Turn C above? First off, the Soviet Fortifications in this area were expected to be completed on Turn C so rather than have the Germans attack into the fortifications the offense jumped-off a turn earlier. Of course, Turn C was historically Mud; maybe I should of used random weather?

Operations Habicht/Panther

FAILURE – Although 1st and 4th Panzer Army were able to cross the Donets, progress was immediately stymied by a stubborn Soviet defense. The Soviets strengthened the Southwest Front to limit further German penetrations. The rasputitsa (Mud on Turn C) brought the offensive to a complete halt.

Orel Bulge

DISASTER – German 2nd Panzer Army realigned allowing the 9th Army to go into operational reserve. By mid-July (Turn 2) the Soviets had strengthened the West and Bryansk Fronts which broke through the German lines at Bryansk and eventually led to the collapse of the northern part of Army Group Center and the capture of Smolensk (VP). The commitment of the new German operational reserve (9th Army) to the defense of Gomel (VP) provided an opportunity for the Soviets to remove the Belgograd salient in August into September (Turns 3-5) by retaking Belgograd, Kharkov (VP), and Sumy from Army Group South.

Endgame

Army Group Center proved unable to hold Vitebsk (VP) in the north. The German 9th Army attempted to defend Gomel (VP) but was ground down and the city lost. 4th Panzer Army was beaten up withdrawing from the Belgograd salient and rendered combat ineffective. The 1st Panzer Army and 6th Army withdrew in fair order across the Dnieper. Final score = +5 German Operational Victory.

Missed the Backhand

In my post-game AAR, it dawned on me that, acting as the staff of Army Group Center, I had totally failed my von Manstein-check and employed my operational reserve in a very poor way. Rather than taking inspiration from General von Manstein and looking for a chance to use the German operational reserve to deliver a ‘backhand blow’ and cut off the deep penetration advances of the Soviet, I instead committed them to a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, defensive stand in front of Gomel.

Next Time – Part 3 Tactical Choices


Feature image “Manstein with tanks” courtesy weaponsandwarfare.com

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 1 Introduction

As I discussed in a previous post, Trevor Bender’s wargame Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 found in C3i Magazine Nr. 34 (RBM Studios, 2020) is a bit of a misnamed game. While I expected the game to be focused on the actual Battle of Kursk, popularly cited as taking place from July 5 to August 23, 1943, I instead found a game about the entire summer and fall 1943 campaign season on the Eastern Front focused on the area covered by German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Now that I learned the mechanics of playing the Battle for Kursk wargame I figure it’s time to start really digging into the history of the Battle of Kursk. To do so, I decided to mix both reading history and playing wargames together.

Books

For My Kursk Kampaign I am primarily reading two books. The first is The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (University of Kansas Press, 1999). This 472-page volume provides an excellent moderately-deep look at the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to and through the battle.

The Battle of Kursk

The second book I am using is The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Clash at Kursk, The Largest Clash of Armor in History by Christopher A. Lawrence of The Dupuy Institute (Stackpole Books abridged edition, 2019). This 639-page(!) volume is a very in-depth look at the actual battle around Kursk with a deep focus on the events of July 9-13 around Prokhorovka. Actually, The Battle of Prokhorovka laser-focuses on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps from July 9-18. In terms of the Battle for Kursk wargame, this is just two (!) counters.

The Battle of Prokhorovka

My plan it to read both books together but alternate between them by dividing the reading by different periods of the battle. For each section I will also look at wargames to support my learning:

  1. Preparations – Glantz chpts. 1-3 followed by Lawrence chpts. 1-2
  2. The Battle
    • “German Assault” (~July 5-9) – Glantz chpts. 4 / Lawrence chpts. 3-7
    • “Stopping the Blitzkreig” (~July 10-15) – Glantz chpts. 5-6 / Lawrence chpts. 8-13
  3. The Aftermath – Glantz chpts. 7-8 / Lawrence chpts. 14-16

Wargames

Campaign

As already mentioned, the primary wargame I will use to go along with my reading is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk, The Tigers are Burning, 1943. This game geographically covers the Eastern Front from Velike Luki (hex 1200) in the North to Taganrog (hex 2724) on the Sea of Azov. Historically, this was the front of German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Units are Corps for the Germans (approx. 25,000 troops) and Armies for the Soviets (approx. 40,000 troops). Each turn is approximately 2-4 weeks of time but is flexible to represent operational tempo and weather. The four preliminary turns (Turns A-D) each cover about a month starting on March 18 (Turn A), April 12 (Turn B), May 3 (Turn C), and June 12 (Turn D). “Regular” turns begin on Turn 1 (July 5) and play through Turn 8 (Nov 3). The most important mechanic in Battle for Kursk is the Posture Selection Segment. The Posture chosen by a player determines the amount of Replacement Points, mobility, and ability to engage in combat for that turn.

The Battle for Kursk – Set Up

My goal is to actually play Battle for Kursk at various points during my readings to try out several “what ifs” or simply better explore the situation as it existed historically. Decisions made in the game may be limited based on what I read.

Battles

To a lesser degree I also plan on incorporating two tactical wargames into my reading. The first is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2018). The second tactical wargame I will try to use is Panzer, 2nd Printing from GMT Games (2012). I fear my use of Panzer may be limited as I wait for the only expansion module I lack – Panzer Expansion #1: The Shape of Battle – The Eastern Front, 2nd Printing (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) to deliver.

Now that I look at it, the scale of Storms of Steel and Panzer may be too finite. Individual tanks and squads of infantry at 100m per hex may be good for looking at a particular small engagement but too much for this exploration. As I look around my gaming shelves, I also see Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (GDW, 1992) which is platoon-level units and 250m per hex. This First Battle series title may just be playable enough to make it to the table as part of this exploration.

While I may be tempted to play out a tactical battle, more realistically I think my focus will be more on an evaluation of published scenarios as compared to the history I am reading. It may also delve a bit into the equipment and parse how certain vehicles are depicted in the different games.

Air War?

As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”

Vasilevsky or Vasilevskii?

A note on terminology. The Russian transliterations used by Glantz, Lawrence, and the various wargame designers are different from one another. To the greatest extent possible, I will use the transliteration in the text I am discussing at that moment but will fall back on those found in Glantz when necessary.

Next Time – Part 2 Before Citadel


Feature image “Walter Model with General lieutenant (later General der Infanterie) Friedrich Schulz” courtesy dedefense.blogspot.com

#Wargame Wednesday – Battle for Kursk (@RBMStudio1, 2020) – Bigger on the Inside

When I saw the advertisement for C3i Magazine (Issue Nr. 34) and the feature game of Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 the first thought that came to my mind is the Battle of Prokhorvka. I recalled the words of David Glantz and Jonathan House in their seminal work The Battle of Kursk (University Press of Kansas, 1999):

The mythology has accepted the German framework and defintion of the battle and maintains that it took place from 5-23 July 1943….This myth argues that Kursk was a battle of tank against tank, that Kursk was the famous battle of Prokhorovka and little else, that the tank clash at Prokhorovka was the greatest tank battle in history and Prokhorovka was the field where Germany’s wartime fate was determined.

Glantz & House, The Battle of Kursk, p. xii
Courtesy goodreads.com

So imagine my surprise upon spreading out the contents of the Battle for Kursk and discovering a map that covers almost the entire Eastern Front in 1943. Imagine my surprise in finding a wargame where each turn is 2-4 weeks, meaning the entire “Battle for Kursk” is only two turns of 12 in this game. Where are the Tiger tanks? What is this abomination?

Battle for Kursk at setup…where is Prokhorovka? (Photo by RMN)

This is Not the Battle You Are Looking For…

Above I talked about the German myth of Kursk. All too often we also ignore the Soviet myth that Glantz and House also discuss:

Yet the sheer drama of the battle juxtaposed against the limited quantities of exploited Soviet source materials has given rise to a certain mythology that has surrounded the battle….In doing so, it ignores the essential Soviet framework for Kursk, which placed the defensive battle in the Kursk salient within the proper context of the Soviets’ two-month-long Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation.

Glantz & House, The Battle of Kursk, p. xi-xii

Battle for Kursk is NOT about the tank battles around Kursk. As much as I was expecting it this is not a competitor with Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, 1943 – Kursk 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) or other tactical armored combat games on that topic. With each turn representing 2-4 weeks and the map covering the entire frontage of German Army Group Center and South, the battles around Kursk are just one part of a far larger campaign played out here. Battle for Kursk clearly and heavily leans into a “mythbusting” interpretation of the Battle of Kursk through the use of a relatively simple game design with a very interesting Posture mechanic to show the ebb and flow of not a battle but a huge campaign.

A “Family” Wargame

Battle for Kursk is the first volume in what Rodger MacGowan is calling the C3i Combined Arms Series. Designer Trevor Bender admits that Battle for Kursk uses very similar mechanics to Battle for Moscow (found as a free downloadable in C3i Magazine Issue Nr. 25, not 24 as listed in the Battle for Kursk rules) and Objective: Kiev (C3i Magazine Issue Nr. 26). I have seen Battle for Moscow before; indeed, the Victory Point Games or a print-n-play version is often trotted out at the CONNECTIONS professional wargaming conference as an example of a very easy-to-teach/learn wargame to get people started in the field of professional wargaming. The fact that Battle for Kursk is built upon the foundations of Battle for Moscow (which goes all the way back to a 1986 Frank Chadwick design at GDW) means the game has proven “chops.” That said, Battle for Kursk is a different game built using this proven foundation.

You Need to Work on Your Posture…

The majority of the game design in Battle for Kursk is in many ways a simple, classical approach to a wargame. Each player alternates executing their turn which is composed of four phases; Replacement, Armor & Rail Movement, Combat, and Movement. Replacement awards Infantry or Armor Replacement Points that can be used to replace step losses or rebuild units. Armor & Rail Movement allows armor units to move and Infantry to “strategically redeploy” if on a rail line. Combat uses a classic combat odds mechanic with no die roll modifiers but column shifts instead. Movement is for all units and references a simple Terrain Effects Chart.

The innovative enhancement that Battle for Kursk includes is an additional segment at the start of the Sequence of Play – the Posture Selection Segment. Here each player secretly choses their Posture for the turn. Possible choices are Pause, Reposition, Deploy, and Engage. Each posture in Battle for Kursk has advantages and limitations:

  • Pause – Delivers additional replacements but does not allow any form of movement or combat; you only execute your Replacement Phase.
  • Reposition – Delivers your replacements as listed and allows you to move; execute your Replacement and Movement phases only.
  • Deploy – Reduces the number of Armor Replacement Points but allows one to execute all phases of their turn except Combat.
  • Engage – Reduces both Infantry and Armor Replacement Points but allows one to execute ALL phases of their turn – Replacement, Armor & Rail Movement, Combat, and Movement.

There are limits here. In Battle for Kursk you can always choose any Posture lower than your current but you can only go up one step in Posture every turn unless you use an Offensive chit (see below). Also, if you get “caught” where your opponent declares Engage while you are in a Pause, you can use an Offensive chit to change to Reposition.

Another important mechanic in Battle for Kursk is the Offensive chits. In addition to their uses above to change Posture, these chits (each side only has three) can be “expended” for additional replacement points or used in combat to allow non-adjacent units of the same formation to participate in the fight. The rarity of the Offensive chits (they become non-expended according to a schedule on the Turn Track) makes every use an agonizing decision.

Posturing Play

The Battle for Kursk starts in March 1943. The first four turns, labeled Turns A-D, are in many ways the lead-up to the historical start of Operation Citadel. If the German player does not chose the Engage Posture on Turn 1 or any prior turn, a Strategic Objective marker which starts German-side up on Kursk and awards an extra Victory Point if that city is taken is instead flipped to its Soviet side and moved to Kiev to signify the loss of strategic initiative to the Soviets. This puts pressure on the German player to fight which is harder than it sounds for one quickly discovers that replacements don’t come fast enough or units are not in the right place and to get a better chance in combat means the use of Offensive chits which are so useful but in short supply. It becomes vitally important that both players control the ebb and flow of the battle by carefully managing their Posture selection.

Beyond the rules for Posture and the Offensive chits the rest of Battle for Kursk is kinda vanilla, but definitely the sweet kind. The game uses Zones of Control, has rules for Mud, and advance after combat. There are no specific supply rules, but at several points in a turn units may have to check to see if they are In Communication to allow an action (or prevent a column shift). Victory in Battle for Kursk is very straightforward; control of Victory Point cities, a bonus for inflicting more casualties, and that Strategic Objective marker.

Mr. Bender thoughtfully provides a Historical Posture table in his Designer’s Notes for Battle of Kursk. If you study the table, you discover the Germans only “Engaged” three turns between mid-March and early-November 1943. The Soviets “engaged” five turns which covers their historical offensives of Operation Kuznetsov (12 July -18 August), Operation Rumyantsev (3-23 August), and Operation Suvarov (7 August – 2 October). Historically speaking, half the game of Battle for Kursk has NO COMBAT.

“Historical Posture” Table from Battle for Kursk (RBM Studio, 2020)

You won’t miss it. That’s because in Battle for Kursk the Posture Selection Segment is the heart of the game. Knowing when to pause, when to ramp up, and when to fight becomes just as more important than actual combat. Combat is the culmination of your plans, not the heart of them. To be successful in combat you have to “set the conditions” and skillful management of your Posture is the key.

Clean Sweep

A few words on component quality of Battle for Kursk. “Clean design” comes to mind when I talk about the game mechanics, but when talking about the components I have just one word:

Incredible.

Charles Kibler’s 22″x34″ map is gorgeously simple. In additional to the map the side area has every table, chart, or track needed for play – for both players. The rule book shows the care and attention developer Harold Buchanan gave the game, and the Art Direction by Rodger MacGowan is evident on every page for the 16-page rule book which uses color in very useful ways, is nicely illustrated, but is also deceptive. Deceptive in that the rules for Battle For Kursk are very compact coming taking up 11 of the 16 pages with the balance being the cover and Designer’s Notes along with a 2-page interview of the designer.

Finally, a word about the countersheet in C3i Magazine Nr. 34. Traditionally, I am a counter-clipper. I cannot stand tufts on the corner of my counters or corners that have become undone/unglued as they are punched out of the sheet. When I opened my copy of C3i Magazine Nr. 34 all the counters were in the tree, but as I started punching them out I couldn’t help but notice how cleanly they fell. Of the 114 counters for Battle for Kursk, I find not one with tufts on the corners, and really only two have separated corners (my fault, as they were falling out so cleanly I was getting excited and tried to go faster which didn’t help). I played this game using the counters as they fell, a true exception for me in the hobby these days.

Sitting Up Straight…

I am looking forward to future titles in the C3i Combined Arms Series. I am interested in seeing the use of the Posture Selection and Offensive chits in other theaters. In the meantime though, I’m going to get Battle for Kursk to the table a few more times and explore not just the battles of Kursk and Prokhorovka, but the entire 1943 spring-summer campaign. Trevor Bender has given us a useful tool to explore some of the major what-ifs, like what might have happened if Operation Zitadel was launched in May instead of July.

The innovative of mechanics and focus on posture makes Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 worthy of attention. It’s well worth it if you sit up and take notice.