Saturday 15 September 2012

Why I Do Not Wargame World War II

I have finished Phil Sabin’s book Simulating War, and a worthwhile book it is too. Not that I agree with some of it, but it is a good and interesting read. Professor Sabin’s specialities are a slightly odd mix of ancient warfare and world war two, and most of the simulations described relate to the latter. This got me thinking as to why I do not tend to wargame the modern period.

Another slightly odd thing which I encountered, on pages 185-6 of the book, is in the discussion of the Korsun Pocket game. Here, the outcome of the battle is discussed, and the suggestion made (presumably as an outcome of the simulation, I don’t think it is particularly clear) that the number of German and allied troops who escaped from the pocket was less than half of that claimed by German sources.

This is followed by a slightly, to me anyway, odd sentence: “This is a very telling corrective to any suspicion that wargamers are closet Nazi sympathisers, blind to the moral aspects of the conflicts they seek to model”.

This to me raises more questions than it claims to answer. Firstly, there is the issue of why wargaming Nazi forces in World War Two should even slightly make you a sympathiser. Without wishing to turn this post into yet another one on wargame ethics, I suppose the argument is something like:

Wargamers are more likely to sympathise with the armies they select to game with.

Some wargamers may be Nazi sympathisers.

Therefore, wargamers who choose to use WW2 German forces are more likely to be Nazi sympathisers.

I am not sure, here, that the conclusion follows from the premises, and even if it is a valid argument, it only shows a probability of a given wargamer being a closet Nazi sympathiser, not that every wargamer who games with WW2 Germans is one.

As I said, I am trying not to turn this into another ethics post, but I might come back to the point another time.

All that being said, I still do not wargame WW2, and not, I confess, am I particularly interested in doing so. In the interests of disclosure, I do (or did) have a few micro-tanks around somewhere, from the days when I was just starting up, but I think that their existence points up why I do not tend to game WW2.

The problem for me is this: the scale of World War 2 operations is vast, and the ranges were relatively vast as well. While the battles had considerable amounts of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical interest and so on, they are extremely difficult to reconstruct in a meaningful manner on the wargame table.

I saw, fairly recently, a demonstration game of the battle of Beda Fomm. I am sure I am about to show my ignorance here, but I think it was in the Western Desert in 1941 or thereabouts (I dare say someone will correct me if I am wrong). It was a very striking demonstration game, with excellent terrain, beautifully painted vehicles and troops, defensive trenches and barbed wire and so on.

So why did I not like it?

The scale was 15 mm (I think), and the result of this was that, as I recall, a bunch of British armoured cars were deployed hub to hub on the near side of the table. My problem here is that any such vehicle concentration in daylight hours would be asking for a bomb or an artillery stonk. In order to make the game playable, scale has to be sacrificed to table space.

And that, I think, is the key problem. You can either play a WW2 skirmish game or you can try a battle but with a battlefield table which is even more ridiculously skewed than usual. In my view, this makes WW2 figure wargames practically unplayable.  Even in a skirmish game, the ranges of the weapons are such that they reach across the table anyway.

Now, I am sure that there are many fine WW2 wargames out there, and I will get jumped upon by people giving me examples of such. I have, in fact, seen Crossfire, which seems to me to be about as good as it gets for WW2 skirmish level games (I mean 1:1 figure scale). However, it only works if there is a lot of terrain on the table for troops to hide in. Many, perhaps most, WW2 battles were held in such areas, but some were not and I fear that Crossfire might struggle with that (but then, so did the troops in real life). However, as I recall weapons have no range on the table and so one, at least of the problems is avoided, while compromising other things to make the game playable.

So, the reason that I do not play World War Two games is, therefore, nothing to do with the ethics and morality of representing the forces of an evil regime on the table. It is much more to do with the limitations of the possibilities of the wargame representation of the troops and, particularly, the weaponry, as well as the fact that battles were usually decided by the broad sweep of logistics and reinforcement rather than on the area depicted by the wargame table itself.

Finally, I do recall a number of amusing accounts of WW2 wargames by Charles Grant in his Table Top Teasers articles. His book ‘Battle’ is one of the best I recall on wargaming in general and WW2 in particular. I think, though, that it does go for a more ‘Hollywood’ style of wargame. One beach landing scenario he described had all the officers named after actors in the file The Longest Day and, as I recall, off table artillery and air strikes were not included. They may have been excellent games, but I am not sure whether they really count as World War Two any more…

To summarise, I do not play World War Two wargames. However, this is not because I fear being labelled a  Nazi sympathiser for painting the Afrika Corps, but because I really cannot see how, except in very limited circumstances, a interesting game can be played which has some relevance to reality.

And also, of course, I would have to buy a lot more books, which is where, I fear, we really do start to see Nazi apologists coming out. 


  1. A very interesting post and possibly the very reasons I can't seem to find a 'playable' WWII rule set.

  2. I think playable WWII is possible, but if it's historically accurate it would be so far from the Hollywood version of WWII we all grew up with that I doubt many would recognise it. Arguably the most important factors in WWII are supply and communication - one difficult to simulate on the table and the other tedious.
    I know of no commercial rules that bite the bullet and emphasise these aspects, but I suspect if they did, they wouldn't BE commercial. WWII players tend to like one kind of statistics and not another - they can quote the muzzle velocity of a German 75mm L70 but not how much bully beef, hardtack and tea you can get in a Bedford 3 tonner.

    WWII display games always fall into this category - they try to cram as many pretty vehicles on the table as possible. (Competition games are worse.) If it looked accurate, it would make a poor display.

    And I confess, I keep threatening to write a WWII set, but I might have to buy some micro armour, so that puts me off the idea.

    I do skirmish WWII in 20mm, and have Indian and Italian 'armies' - that's how far from Hollywood I am!

  3. I've always thought that WW2 games get into too much detail about ranges and angles, specific tanks and so on.

    I suspect that a good case could be made for just having 'heavy' and 'medium' and 'light' tanks, infantry and artillery.

    But my brief experience of WW2 gaming always left me thinking 'I need to buy loads of trucks to make this work'.

    Maybe some sort of logistics could be computerised, but even if I am a part time geek, I don't want a PC on my wargame table.

  4. Hi,

    I agree with you that most WWII games look ridiculuos - all those vehicles and guns crammed around and blazing away point-blank. I started to describe many different deviations from battlefield reality in WWII wargames, but the list went on and on and it finally hit me that it is probably pointless as you also know them well. So I will try to write about something different instead - again a solution used in our club.

    Firstly, I am very proud of it, altough my personal input into creating the system is close to none (maybe some polishing at the sidelines) and secondly, it seems to counter many of the problems usually encountered.

    The game level is aimed at divisional-size battlegroup at tabletop. The basic unit is a company of infantry or tanks and battery of guns. Small sub-units (anti-aircraft platoons and similar) are kept in mind, but not normally deployed. This is the tabletop tactical level.
    The main part is played on maps (topographical; usually 1:100000 of the scenario region if available or other but with similar geographical features). Time, orders and ammunition stock must be kept track of on paper. All units are marked on the map and all terrain features and distances are checked from there.

    Fight mechanics tends to be rather simple, with different fire tables for infantry, artillery and antitank fire. The results are based on moral factor. The more afflicting factors happen, the chance of being supressed rises. "Real" casaulties happen less often.

    One of main assumptions is that big-size results are often achieved by the limited number of those soldiers that overcome the natural tendency to seek cover under fire and wait for others to do the job. For instance, if an infantry battalion has 3 companies of 4 models each and it attacks, some will become suppressed by artillery or mortars, some by infantry fire, some because "real" casaulties occured etc. Finally we have the last 2-3 models (maybe platoons) which get to enemy tranches and fight at short range. If they succeed, the rest will recover and join them after some time. If they fail, the whole battalion retires and regroups (and will possibly attack again and again until successful or recalled).

    Conducting a divisional level assault will comprise of several tabletop actions similar to the one above. For example: a division of 3 regiments with supports has to dislodge opposition. The commander (a player) choses to attack points A and B at 6.00. A is attacked with short artillery barrage of 3 batteries (say, 1 point of ammo each) and two battalions, point B is attacked with 3 battalions and 3 ammo barrage. One regiment is held back in hope other attacks will attract enemy reserves. It is concentrated for attack at point C on order. I will not describe what the enemy does for simplification.

    Than we go from the map to tabletop: two concurrent fights at 6.00 at A and B. Say, A was repelled by 7.00 and B was partially successful by 7.30 (got a foothold on some tactically important hill). Divisional commander has first information from A: we were repelled. He orders another attack AQAP with 3 battalions and more artillery support. Than he gets the information of B success and orders to press on sending a tank company in support. The enemy does not sit idily and counterattacks at B at 8.15. Third tabletop action. At 8.45 at A the attack is resumed. Fourth action. At 9.30 tanks are ready at B and attack. Fifth action.

    To be continued...


    And so it goes, punch after punch, until goals are achieved or resources used up. Artillery management is very important - one can expand all daily ammo units for one bombardment and make a big impact, but than what? You can expect (as in reality) enemy reaction at any moment and long range artillery is very efficient in repelling attacks. It happens quite often in our games that we end a day without using all daily stock of ammunition. It is usually better to have a reserve and not use it than have a need and no reserve.

    All in all, we get map planning (I think making the game closer to reality) and multiple tabletop actions - from small ones taking 5-10 minutes to big (divisional battlegroup of several regiments with support) lasting an hour or two. So we can use our beautiful models many times, although frequently for a short time and "the realism" is much better than in all those games where you have to put all your toys on table at once.

    There is one additional feature, which may be a dwonturn for many, but is an advantage for me. You do not need too many models, because you use only parts of all "map forces". E.g. fighting with an armoured division hardly requires more than half the tanks - some will be kept in reserve, some will be regrouping and not all will be present at any given place deployed as tabletop.

    Many nice infrequently met vehicles (those that appeared as squads, platoons etc. in larger units and were often further divided in real combat) may be presented in number of one or abandoned at all (just kept in mind). Personally I like it, because normally I would have to buy e.g. 3 models per division of some self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (because every regiment had one platoon). In our system it is hard to imagine they will ever meet in one place, so one is perfectly enough.

    I am sorry for the long description (a summary anyway), but so far I have found only one system (STONK by Jim Wallman) which has some similar features (e.g. game level, suppressing, logistics, communication, troop and vehicle types, role of an umpire) and basic assumptions (morale dominates over "superficial effects of technology"; 3C and logictics is vital). But it is still much different. Funny that both these systems were drawn up at similar time during middle eighties.

    As a final excuse for the above word flood, if anyone wants to try it, I may attempt to translate the rules for you.

    Thanks for reading,

  6. I won't argue your points against WW2, but similar concerns exists for ancients. Often with extremely overscale depth of units-- we assume, because 30 years of wargaming history has been based on half a sentence in a fragment of a play! I think at the end of the day, it's more what appeals to your personally, than any reasoned analysis of the period or the rules.

  7. Fair point, I think, but with modern games the scale thing does become much worse. A 2 lb gun in WW2 had an effective range of 1000 yards, which at a 6 mm figure scale is a scale 3000 mm.

    At least arrows and muskets do not have quite such a range (about 100 yards effective) so the distortion is an order of magnitude less.

    I think that my imagination gives up at that sort of distortion, and we need more abstract mechanisms as described by Adam.

    By the way, which fragment of which play?

    1. > By the way, which fragment of which play?

      That was just hyperbole.

    2. Ah, just wondered because, as I've written before some ancient rules do seem to have entombed bits of texts as "the truth" which, if you track it down and think about it, it really isn't.

  8. David,
    The range distortion on the table is an issue if we are thinking in terms of a single weapon: "My Tiger tank will fire at your Sherman." But that isn't how we play other periods, as a rule; range and effectiveness tends to be calculated for a unit as a whole. If your unit is a company or squadron, which has a required frontage just as in any other period, weapon range doesn't become such a problem. Sounds like that's how Adam's rules work - a company occupies a base representing, say, a 500 yd square and combat is down to the relative effectiveness of each type of unit against another - no different to any other period except the base represents a group of individuals who are more spread out than they would be in ancients or horse and musket.

    You can see I'm warming to the idea.......


  9. I think that you do have a point, but I do believe (and I don't play WW2 wargames, so don't really know what I'm talking about) that unit frontages could vary wildly depending on the situation, and on whether attack of defence is envisaged, and the sort of terrain, and so on.

    So while abstracting up from the single model is probably the only way to go, I'm not sure how much it might simplify things. I think Adam's model is for a high level of abstraction, but being able to drill down to company sized actions (but Adam can confirm or deny that if he likes!).

    And also, I'll believe that we're not dealing with a single model single tank set of rules when the tanks come more than one to a base...

  10. Hi,

    As for ranges on the table, the problem is unsurmountable for WWII, I suppose, unless we play 2mm scale figures (which is not really my kind of play) or low level and "hard" terrain skirmish. So I think we have to stick to "this looks all right" criterion.

    Concerning our WWII rules, unit frontages are not fixed in any way - they should be historical if possible and this comes very naturally from the situation.

    I think Polemarch is right that we try to grasp the higher level of operations (division or sometimes corps), treating battalion or company levels as mere bricks in the wall. Yet, with some astonishment, I find this low level very amusing in play, maybe because I do not have to ponder about too many details. Simple mechanisms used would be a little boring and pointless considered as separate affairs, but as part of bigger picture they become interesting because they show me how things interconnect.

    When the system was played more often than now, many actions were abstracted without even playing them (after playing similar actions several times players knew that this particular action usually means that side A wins after 4 hours with moderate losses; so a single dice roll was made for better/worse than average and effects were put up from play experience and "historical" assessment of what should happen).

    We even had very nice mechanisms for playing large front battles (on maps only) where division was a single unit. When some interesting situation occured (usually at the point where armoured forces were engaged) we had put it on the table to resolve in details. Unfortunately this level was not played for a long time.


  11. Hi again,

    I will write a bit concerning bases and ranges in our system.

    We use a generalized area called "sector" in game mechanics, which is 250x250m of real ground. All ranges in the system are given in real ground meters and you can use any table scale you wish (we typically use 60cm/km for 1/72 scale but 100cm/km or more is perfect if you have table and arms long enough). For 1/285 scale we use 20cm per real kilometer and it plays well. With several 50x50cm tables we can play several acions at once (or one after another as described above) without having to shift terrain between actions.

    You can put as many infantry in the sector as you wish, but when over 6 "figures"* per sector are present, enemy fire is more effective and all suffer morale effects. If you have small number of soldiers in a sector, they are harder to hit, but they naturally deliver less fire upon the enemy.

    So this makes very natural limits - unless in special circumstances, you would not like to be hit harder than necessary, but being hard to hit makes your units vulnerable, because you can deliver little firepower upon the enemy. It is similar with AFVs, with additional restriction that you cannot use more than 3 "vehicles" to fire.

    *I use the term "figure" as a simplification, because we tend to deploy 1 figure as 25 "fighting rifles" which in average company (e.g. German or British) makes for ca.3-4 figures of "fighters" for a total of around double this number (150-200) in company. One "figure" may be perfectly replaced with "base" of any number of figures. It does not matter what the size of the base is as long as you manage to fit them in the sector. If they do not fit, it still does not matter under condition you can tell them aparat from other forces and know where they are. ;)

    I suppose this may seem complicated, but it is very easy when seen in play once.

    Best regards,

  12. WW2 brings a list of problems that simply don't feature in the other popular periods (Ancients or Horse and Musket).

    The empty battlefield is surely the biggest: to be seen is a quick route to being dead, but we cannot hide our beautifully painted toys from the thousand foot general opposite.

    Ranges: Artillery reaching 10 miles or more make it impractical to cram everything on the table.

    The plethora of weapons systems: Infantry, Armour, Armoured infantry, Artillery, Anti-Tank, Air support, Anti Air - and the need to develop factors so each one can fight against all of the others.

    The potential speed of advance by motorised troops, and speed of communication when the telephones and radios are working.

    It's a bewildering mass of information to represent on a tabletop.
    And that's before we begin to consider logistics.

    I believe WW2 is doable at the 2 extremes.
    Near Kriegspiel playing out Corps or armies fighting over map scaled terrain.
    Platoon sized infantry fights, with a very limited contribution from light mortars, medium machineguns and occasional armoured vehicles.

  13. Nicely written but as a lifelong 6mm WWII wargamer you can guess that I don't second your conclusions. I'm a bean counter and love the detail side of the wargame, albeit to the detriment of the ludic buzz. I get satisfaction from planning, preparing and organizing. The current 25mm gaming is popular for a reason but how it hurts to see the ridiculous figurines in absurd deployments. Nothing beats the visual recreation provided by a 6mm tabletop and if the weapon ranges are hard to accommodate, start with small skirmishes until you master the technique. Ground scale is not 1:1 and terrain is rarely flat and open.