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?