Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.
I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:
Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy ·
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.
Complexity as Realism…or Not?
First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)
Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).
“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.
Or so I thought.
Wargames as Insight
Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)
My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:
Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer
I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:
Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)
Games, Not Simulations
Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.
MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:
Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.
Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.
Tactical tank combat games have a special place in my wargaming heart. Indeed, the first wargame I ever played was Jim Day’s Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979). In many ways, that game set my expectations of a wargame for most of the rest of my life. I believed that a wargame neededmust have a hex map, combat results tables (CRT), dice-rolling, and detailed rules. At the same time, I fell into a very detailed, simulationist portion of the wargame hobby that focused on tactical warfare. Panzer or MBT or Squad Leader for ground combat, the Admiralty Trilogy (Command at Sea or Harpoon) for naval combat, JD Websters Fighting Wings (Actung: Spitfire or Speed of Heat) for air combat. I even took it to the science-fiction realm going all-in on the original Star Fleet Battles-series of games.
Over the years, my fetish for detailed simulations weakened, and in the mid-2010s when I really discovered hobby boardgaming with the family my wargaming perspectives also changed. I needed to find wargames that I could play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys in an evening. I needed wargames that were more than manual modeling & simulation designs. I needed games that would engage them with the history; building a narrative of history through play. This led me to waros, or “wargame-Eurogames.”
Which brings me back to Tank Duel Enemy in the Crosshairs. The GMT Games pages describes the game as follows:
Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs is a card-based game for 1 to 8 players that depicts tank-to-tank warfare on the Eastern Front of World War II in the early to mid 1940s. It attempts to convey the claustrophobia and urgency that tank crews experienced in this bitter conflict, utilizing a simple Action system to keep the action moving at a rapid pace. Players will issue commands with the use of Battle Cards and attempt to score Victory Points by claiming Objectives and eliminating their opponent’s tanks and crew.
The tank board will be used to keep track of information regarding the status of a tank and its crew. Types of condition could include, tank on fire, damage tracks, immobilized and damage to the gun.
Each player will be managing a hand of cards. With these cards the player will be able to take actions.
There is so much here that doesn’t meet my classic (stale?) wargame definition; 1-8 players? Simple Action system? A tank board? Hand of cards?
But it works. I mean, it really works!
A typical Tank Duel game will see four tanks (or more!) in a fight. There is no mapboard but only an abstract range from battlefield center. Lateral movement is through flanking cards. Terrain is also depicted by cards. The battle lasts only long enough to cycle through the deck several times. Best of all, if a tank is destroyed a new one replaces it next turn.
There are still several echos of my tactical tank games here. Panzer players will feel comfortable with the combat tables. But all that detail gets hidden by a set of very innovative Battle Cards. Many will claim that this has been done before in Up Front (Avalon Hill, 1983) and several other games since. That may be true, but in today’s hyper-competitive publishing market it is actually rare to find wargames that totally dispense with the mapboard or dice.
However, it’s not the “non-traditional” mechanics that make Tank Duel a game I enjoy. Few wargames have ever generated a narrative during play like I get playing Tank Duel. As I look over my hand of cards, I try to put together a plan. I try to dash up the hill (Move) so I can get into an overwatch position to shoot (Fire) only to be mired by my opponent playing a Mud card (Terrain) which allows him to flank me (Flank card). As my crew tries to unbog the tank my turret is hammered, killing my Commander and breaking the morale of the crew. As my tank brews up I reset my Tank Board to bring my next tank into the battle, swearing at the loss of my fellow soldiers and looking to avenge their deaths. The more I played, the more I came to realize that what I enjoyed was not the details of the battle (Hey, my 8.8cm gun penetrated your turret from 400 yards!) but the visceral tension of the combat (I have to close the range…I am going to play two move cards to close the range and go hull down to be ready to shoot after that…unless my opponent plays a mud card and bogs me down in something I cannot see!). The real tension of Tank Duel is not the details of the combat, it’s in the making of a combat story.
A combat story without hex & counter or dice or complicated rules but abstracted using a tableau and innovative cards.
Biggest Surprise – Really surprised that 20% of all my gaming has been Quarriors! or Scythe.
So, does this make me a better gamer than you? NO! I am just gaming in my own way and enjoying it. I’m not looking to compare myself to others but rather share with all of you the joy gaming has brought to myself and my family. It’s not important if you play one game a month or 100; the important part is to enjoy the hobby!
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
I got seriously into gaming in 1979 when I was in middle school and discovered Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing. In the years prior to that my parents had a few games around but we barely played them. The titles I recall are Monopoly, Clue, Othello, and Waterworks in addition to Chinese Checkers. The only games I really remember playing are Chinese Checkers and Othello.
From 1979 until the early 2000’s I was a pure wargamer. I also dabbled in roleplaying games but wargames were my real hobby. It was not until the RockyMountainNavy Kids grew up a bit that I tried some family games like Gulo Gulo (still a favorite).
In 2016 my hobby took on a new direction with the real discovery of hobby boardgames. At the recommendation of Uwe Eickert of Academy Games I picked up Scythe – and discovered a whole new world of gaming. In 2017 and 2018 I went overboard with rediscovered wargaming and boardgaming. Too far overboard – at the start of 2019 Mrs. RockyMountainNavy asked that I look hard at my gaming budget and think about some restraint.
So in 2019 I have tried to restrain myself. In doing so, I have thought about my game buying habits in 2017 and 2018. I continuously told myself that I was not a member of the Cult of the New or susceptible to the Fear of Missing Out.
Wrong. Not only was I a CotN member, but I was fully infected with FoMO.
In 2019 I initiated a series of gaming challenges (CSR, Origins, Golden Geek) that have forced me (willingly) to explore older games in my collection. I have found some bad ones, but many good ones. It has been a great reminder that I have good games in my collection and they deserve some love.
In 2019 I have tried to find my roots. As I look across the boardgaming world I find fewer and fewer titles that appeal to me. If there is one area that I am really interested in, it’s hybrid games like Root (wargame or strategy game?) or several Hollandspiele titles like the Supply Lines of the American Revolution series.
Another part of the hobby I am less-than-satisfied with is Kickstarter. I respect companies that use Kickstarter to bring games to print that would otherwise never see the light of day. But more and more I see companies using Kickstarter as a glorified pre-order system. I understand that many companies like the fact that the risk is moved from them to the consumer. They may like it but I am not as appreciative. What I see in many cases is that I am advancing the company a loan – without interest.
Now, I don’t necessarily define “interest” as money. A Kickstarter campaign that offers exclusives or stretch goals that area only available to backers is one form. But more and more I see companies not offering stretch goals or campaign exclusives – what you get in the campaign is what you can buy at retail.
I also dislike the risk that I am assuming in the enjoyment of the game. Kickstarter demands you pledge to support a game based upon only a few known, and many unknown, factors. Maybe that designer has a history of good games but I am sure there are a few turkeys in there. That company has its own history too. But what about the game? How does the game really play? This forces a dependency on hobby content providers at a time when “critical” reviews are fewer and fewer. Nobody watches a 30 minute video review of a 2 hour movie; why should we be forced to watch a lengthy video for a game? No.
So I have returned to being a wargamer first and a boardgamer second. I have several good titles in my collection. Scythewill remain. Terraforming Mars(minus several expansions) will stay in the rotation. Firefly: The Board Game will get played but Star Wars: Outer Rim is likely a pass. I’m going to finish up my challenges for the year.
Late Saturday Youngest RockyMountainNavy and I played a scenario from Panzer Expansion #4: France 1940(GMT Games, 2018). It has been a while since we played Panzerso we went for a simpler scenario and chose the all-tank Scenario 35 Tank Battle at Crehen, Pt. 1: Crehen, Belgium, 12 May 1940. The battle pits a French Light Armored Company (Mixed) with 5x S-35 tanks clashing with a German Light Panzer Company (Mixed) with 3x PzIVD attached. For victory, control of a town and hilltop are needed.
Our play started slowly as we had to relearn the rules. Although the scenario is designed for use with the Basic Game, we used the Advanced Game Spotting and AP Fire rules. Not using the Command Span rules made a difference as Youngest RMN Boy, playing the French, split his forces and fought towards both objectives. As the Germans have better mobility, I was able to reach the victory objectives first and seize then. After that, it became a slogging match as both sides traded ineffective fire. The battle ended in a French victory as Youngest RMN Boy was able take the hilltop and destroy enough panzers to achieve the needed victory point margin.
After the game, Youngest RMN Boy stated that he had a new appreciation of French tanks. Although slow and poorly armed, the French have comparatively good armor against the German tanks of the day. He started reading up on the French SOMUA S-35 using the excellent Tanks-Encyclopedia site. In the course of doing so, we were able to talk about why the French historically were defeated in the battle and how the use of various Special Conditions in the scenario could bring our play closer to reality. In particular, Without Radio Sets (7.4), Command Span (7.52), and Tank Crew Size Rules (7.57) can be used to show the massive command and control advantage the Germans had over the French.
In the course of reading about the S-35, Youngest RMN Boy ran across a name, Colonel De Gaulle of the 4th DCR (4th Armored Division). This gave me an opportunity to ask him if he recognized the name. He didn’t, but after a short time googling about he discovered who Charles De Gaulle was. He was highly intrigued that another major figure of history has ties to a wargame he enjoys. We looked through the Playbook and discovered Scenario 42 De Gaulle’s First Action: Montcornet, 17 May 1940. Maybe next game….
Feature image SOMUA S-35 from tanks-encyclopedia.com
I have been playing Panzerby James M. Day since the Yaquinto Publishing first edition in 1979. As a matter of fact, Panzerwas my first wargame ever (nothing like jumping straight into the deep end!). Through the years I followed the development of the Panzer and the sister modern version, MBT, but it was not until GMT Games brought out Panzer (Second Edition) that I upgraded my collection. The latest expansion to drop is Panzer Expansion #4: France 1940. In addition to covering the Invasion of France in 1940, the game also includes a new set of rules for Panzer players that have a hard time finding face-to-face opponents or are tired of always trying to outsmart their alter-ego.
Surprisingly, GMT Games apparently didn’t really play up this angle of the new expansion. One has to look deep within the publishers description on the game page to barely find mention of solitaire rules:
The two solitaire scenarios utilize a game driven AI system for French forces in The 6th Panzer is Delayed and the German forces in Billote’s Charge.
In stark contrast to that short blurb, Panzer Expansion #4actually includes a very robust set of solitaire rules. As in 15 pages worth (in a Playbook of 68 pages). The Solitaire System is credited to Fernando Solo Ramos, a long time Panzerfan and the man responsible for the best Panzer wargame support site on the internet, The Panzer Pusher.
Fernando explains the intent of the Solitaire Rules in section 10.1 Introduction:
The Panzer Solitaire Rules are intended to offer the solo Panzer player a guideline to enjoy the game, fixing the two aforementioned problems of solitaire play; enemy unit placement and enemy intentions. The Panzer Solitaire Rules use Hidden Unit rules to manage the player’s knowledge about the exact location of the enemy units. The player only knows the most probable locations of the enemy, and only when an enemy unit actually appears on the map does the player know the exact number and type of those enemy units. In addition, several tables handle the behavior of the enemy, determining their commands and their actions, all without compromising the standard Panzer rules.
Mr. Ramos has very thoughtfully provided many designer’s notes inline to the rules text. These comments help explain some of the rules and are essential to getting the original grok of the rules. Concepts like Enemy Main Unit and Most Dangerous Friendly Unit seem complex at first, but after reading the designer’s intent then stepping through the rule it (sorta) all comes together. The back cover of the Playbook is the complete Panzer Solitaire Tables. [I really wish this had been separate Play Aid because it gets constantly referenced in executing the Solitaire Rules.]
Although the designer claims the Solitaire Rules work “without compromising the standard Panzerrules” the harsh reality is that one needs a better-than-average familiarity with the standard rules to make full sense of the new design. After having read and reread the rules several times already, I think I am ready to try the first solitaire scenario, The 6th Panzer is Delayed: Monthermé, France, 15 May 1940. In this scenario, the AI controls a reinforced French Anti-Tank Battery against a Light Tank Company and mixed Infantry Company of Kampfgruppe Raus. This is a simple “cross the defended map” scenario. Using the Solitaire Rules will be interesting.
To be honest, after reading the Solitaire Rules I am going into the first scenario play with a good deal of trepidation. I am worried because I feel I need a better familiarity with the standard rules before stepping into the solitaire version. Not that the solitaire rules are hard in concept, but there are so many rules interactions it worries me that I will miss something simple.
Although I have yet to play a full scenario, I cannot help but make comparisons between the Panzer Solitaire Rules and the card-based AI system in Conflict of Heroes: Eastern Front Solo Expansion (Academy Games). The Panzer approach is a traditional, table-driven design whereas the Eastern Front Solois very innovative card-driven design. Two radically different approaches to the same wargaming problem.
I really need to get the Panzer Solitaire Rules to the table sooner than later to judge for myself how well it works.
Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.
Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):
War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)
The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.
On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)
Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level
As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:
Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)
There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.
Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:
This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).
All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:
Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)
I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).
So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:
…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)
Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.
My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.
To learn the basics of the game I set up the Fast Play scenario and started stepping through it. Not long into the first turn Youngest RMN Boy can up to the loft (where my small game table is) and sat down asking, “What’s this?”
I swept the German counters over to him, pushing the French on my side. Quickly explaining the basics of the rules, I invited him to play.
The game took us two nights as we were just playing it in the short time after dinner and chores and bedtime routines. The French won the battle, barely, by Close Assaulting a lone German infantry platoon in the town and eliminating them on the last turn.
Youngest RMN Boy was slightly dejected as he thought he was going to last through the turn and win. I pointed out to him he did better than the historical situation.
“Yes, Rommel only made it to the woods,” I said as I pointed to the map.
“Rommel? I did better than Rommel!?”
I read to him the entire scenario description, including the title (“Rommel at the Argonne”) and the historical result.
It was really awesome to see him connect to history. Making those connections is a major reason I played wargames for the past 40 years. Seeing him make those same connections assures me he will continue playing for the next 40.
As the stench and horror of World War I trench warfare increase, both sides seek the breakthrough weapon; immense barrages, air power, flamethrowers, even poison gas. All are tried and found wanting. At last the most awesome machine of all is made ready – the Landship!
Landships! Tactical Weapons Innovations 1914-1918 covers the Great War at its lowest level. The 420 playing pieces represent infantry platoons and cavalry squadrons, or a single tank or gun. Each turn is around 5 minutes and a hex on the eight geomorphic map sections is about 100 meters.
Easy to play rules with over 20 scenarios get you started right away. Trace the story of combat during the war; from the simple slaughters of 1914 to the sophisticated combined arms offensives of 1918.
Opening up the box, I was happy to find a long-forgotten Fast Start Rules and Scenario. This 4-page folio uses only the infantry rules and an abbreviated version of the artillery rules. The single-map scenario is “Rommel in the Argonne,” a June 1915 battle featuring Erwin Rommel. As the scenario description states, “There were no heavy weapons, vehicles, or aircraft in this engagement. This was an infantry attack, 1914 style and the queen of battle was the machine gun.” To show that the designer had a sense of humor, the Victory Conditions of a second scenario version using the Advanced Rules (the full rules, not the Fast Start ones) includes the line, “As before, but the French player can avoid future humiliations in 1940 by eliminating the FO [Forward Observer] unit (Rommel) in this version of the game.”
The full rulebook (i.e. the Advanced Rules) is also interesting. Coming in at 24 pages, it really has three sections. The first part is the core rules. These are presented in 14 pages of three-column, small font (8 pt?) text. The second section is Optional Rules which run just over a page. The third section of seven pages includes Historical Commentary and Designer’s Notes. The historical commentary is quite extraordinary with inset tone-boxes for “Inside the Tank Environment”, “Tank Tactics”, “German Innovations”, “The Evolution of Artillery Tactics in the Great War”, and a timeline of “Notable Tank Actions 1916-18.”
The other thought that struck me as I looked over Landships! was how tanks were not the only featured technology in the 21 scenarios. Although tanks appear in several scenarios, other technological innovations like armored cars, poison gas, riverine flotillas, and aircraft are also covered.