One Move Behind – The Problem with Mechanized Warfare

Last week’s Three Moves Ahead was probably the most enjoyable one I’ve done in awhile, in part because it gave me a rare opportunity to get into a really detailed, nuts-and-bolts conversation about wargames and how they model certain aspects of warfare. The catalyst for this discussion was Achtung Panzer, but we ended up going in a lot of different directions, and there were a lot of discussion points that we didn’t quite hit.

Anyway, one subject we touched on but didn’t really address is the problems that arise when wargames attempt to model mechanized warfare. My feeling is that, generally, wargames flub mechanized warfare, and I don’t know whether this is a failure of game design or a problem of the subject making for lousy game design.

When I talk about mechanized warfare, I’m not talking about tanks, nor am I talking about infantry being driven to the front aboard trucks. I am talking  about the kind of combat that occurs when you have all these elements present in the combat zone at once.

It’s different from combined arms tactics. Classically, combined-arms meant employing artillery or ranged units, infantry, and cavalry in conjunction with one another. The “arms” were distinct from one another. Wargames don’t have much trouble translating these tactics into a rock-paper-scissors formula. Cavalry can devastate unprotected artillery, but get torn to pieces by prepared infantry. Infantry can slug it out with other infantry, but are vulnerable to artillery and cavalry assaults against unprotected flanks. These are straightforward combinations, and readily lend themselves to game mechanics.

In World War II, it all starts getting very blurry. The most powerful artillery is no longer physically present on the battlefield: fire missions are called in to distant batteries and there is nothing you can do about it. Cavalry have vanished, but now you have tanks that can move rapidly… but hit more like field artillery, and are impervious to most weapons.

Field artillery is now represented by the mortar and the antitank gun. But the mortar lacks the clear-cut advantages that the field artillery or archers of earlier eras enjoyed. The AT gun exists to kill armored vehicles, but has a multitude of serious vulnerabilities. It is worthless against infantry and exceedingly vulnerable to tanks, as it can’t move and tanks can engage it at range.

Infantry still fight like infantry, but can sometimes move like cavalry aboard vehicles. They are only useful against armor in specific cases: ambushes, forest fighting, and street fighting. But in any kind of open country, they don’t stand a chance against tanks and assault guns.

See what I mean about things getting blurry? Also, consider this: from the close of the 17th century to the end of the 19th, the type of combined arms warfare I described above remained largely unchanged on the battlefield. Technology and developments in military thought may have revolutionized how armies were raised and moved, but the battlefield was still a place of field artillery, cavalry, and infantry. Western nations spent over two centuries fighting roughly similar sorts of battles.

World War I overturned that order, and left more questions than answers at its close. In the space of 20 years, the great powers had to figure out what lessons they were taking away from the Great War, and then put them into practice. As it turned out, the Germans were about the only people who drew the right conclusions. The French put too much faith in fixed defenses but, more importantly, they never realized that armor could be employed as a separate arm rather than as a support weapon. The Soviet Army, and its doctrine, were devastated by the purges. With the exception of tank design, they spent the entire war playing catch-up to the Germans. The American tank program never came close matching the Germans on the battlefield. The Sherman delivered victory through its numbers and its reliability, neither of which are as important in a wargame scenario as they are on the strategic level.

If you accurately model all this stuff, is the end result a satisfying game? It’s one thing to model fighting in hedgerows and streets, where the terrain itself kind of acts to balance all the units, but when the maps open up a bit and units can see for hundreds of meters… suddenly tanks start to look a little daunting.

It’s not that there aren’t countermeasures. Tanks are incredibly vulnerable to other tanks and antitank guns, for instance. But that’s a problem right there: once these units engage one another, the kills will happen very quickly. Especially since most anti-tank weapons were designed to blow through whatever armor was protecting the target.

Which means that all too often, either through mismanagement or bad luck, somebody ends up with the last armored units on the battlefield, and the other guy has nothing to do but hope his infantry can somehow ambush the damned things. If you have a 25 turn wargame scenario where you have to take an objective, and you have lost all your armor by turn 10 and your opponent still has a tank or two left, you are almost certainly screwed. The enemy tanks can just sit on the objective, and you have no choice but to march into their machine guns and cannon, hoping for a fluke.

Realistic? Probably. Once an armored assault loses its armor, there isn’t much assaulting that can still happen. But it makes for a lousy gameplay experience. If you’re playing a game that lets you select your units, then, it usually pays to stack up on the armor. If the game forces you to make do with whatever a scenario grants each side, then you inevitably end up with no-win situations.

My broader point is this: the lethality of units on the battlefield has increased exponentially since the end of the Age of Rifles, and greater lethality makes for worse gaming. Why have so few post-WW2 conflicts proved to be rich fodder for gaming? Because WW2 is the last war where units could meet one another on the battlefield and not immediately tear each other to pieces, and even toward the end of that war things are getting iffy. When you’ve got tanks firing shells that rarely miss and almost always penetrate the target, you’re dealing with the kind of one-hit kill situation that gamers hate in every genre. How important are maneuver and tactics when all that work can be undone by a tank or a gunner that sees you first?

  1. I think one other way in which tactical level wargames fall down in simulating mechanized warfare is that non-tank AFVs and trucks can’t be put to their proper use on the small scale. Trying to use a halftrack, armored car, or light tank as a scout, the role that they’d serve in the larger strategic view, is just asking for your AFV to be potted by a hidden AT gun – with said gun remaining hidden after the shot is taken.
    Likewise, trucks and halftracks tend to be useless, because the scale of the maps are too small to simulate them doing what they were designed for – ferrying infantry about.

    And then there’s the *other* combined arm, the air force. I’m curious how Achtung Panzer handles close air support, but in my experience control of air units in a wargame is either awkward (or even counter-productive, as in Combat Mission) or waaaaaay too precise. The effects of an air campaign would really only show on a strategic or operational level.

    As you suggest, what all this points to is that you can’t have an accurate simulation on the tactical level, so we really all should be playing strategic level wargames – but where’s the fun in that? I’d much rather be mildly frustrated watching individual tanks blow up than watch glorified Risk counters realistically grind against each other in the strategic view.

    • That’s another area where AP excels, actually. The maps are big enough that you really have to use your fast units for scouting, because you really do want to make contact with the enemy and the maps can hide several platoons from one another. Here’s an anecdote for you: I was holding a town from the Germans and with three rifle platoons, and they hit me with two mechanized platoons. I was dug in and concealed, and had an AT gun along each of the map’s two best lines of attack.

      The first German halftrack to enter the killzone got beautifully ambushed at the edge, and the squad inside it was killed within a couple moments. Another halftrack, scouting along the road, was ambushed a few minutes later. After a harder fight (it didn’t go so far into the killzone), it was destroyed along with its squad.

      Then the Germans brought everything. They knew roughly where my AT gun was, and they knew exactly where my infantry were dug in. So they shook out into a line just behind a ridge concealing them from my AT gun, then they swarmed over at once. I had so many targets, and so many infantry unloading at once, that my defenses were overwhelmed. My AT gun was forced to fire at range, against hafltracks that were moving at high speed. It ran out of ammo in just a few minutes. Then the Germans overran my entire northern line. They’d totally flushed me out using probes, and then used their main force to break through.

      As for close air support, that’s a mixed bag in AP. I have had airstrikes called in on my position that worked perfectly, sending my armor scattering in all directions while fighter bombers circled the area, bombing juicy targets and strafing the small change. On the other hand, if a CAS mission is called on the wrong sector, it’s totally wasted. The planes will hit an empty area for 10 minutes, then leave. Overall, better than most games I’ve seen modeling CAS, but still kind of frustrating.

  2. Wargames?

    You mind giving some examples? The closest comparison I’m drawing here is ArmA II and I’m still waiting until that game get’s patched to playability. Actually I’d like to know if you’ve played Advance Wars.

    • You aren’t familiar with the wargame genre? You should look into it, especially since tactical shooters aren’t as tactical as you want these days. The game I’ve been talking about here, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943, is a good pick. The problem is that the best wargames these days aren’t terribly novice-friendly. Fifteen or so years ago the barrier to entry was quite low. Now it’s kind of tough.

      Anyway, to give you a half-assed definition of the genre: it’s any game about armed conflict that is concerned with the tactical management of combat units, without reference to broader strategy. Generally you do not produce new units, you do not research upgrades or new weapons, and you do not determine the objectives.

      Now a tactical-level wargame like Achtung Panzer has you managing platoons of soldiers. The smallest unit you command is a tank or an infantry squad. Operational-level wargames might not let you command any units smaller than a battalion. If you’re genuinely interested in the genre and would like some suggestions, why don’t you name some conflicts that interest you?

      I haven’t played Advance Wars, btw. Someday I’ll play things that aren’t on PC, but not today.

  3. The main difference between “wargames” and strategy games like Advance Wars is that wargames strive for perfect realism – they don’t abstract anything. Whereas a strategy game might give a tank more hitpoints and damage resistance, a wargame will model the physics behind shell trajectories and armor penetration.

    Wargames are tough to get into if you’re a novice, but they’re immensely rewarding once you get over the curve.

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