Piss with the Dick you Got

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The 9th Company
Kajaki: The True Story (Kilo Two Bravo) 2006
Hyena Road 2010

Last night, I took in another foreign production about the war(s) in Afghanistan. This was my third over the last few months.

From the standpoint of an American, we tend to view our wars as American affairs. We also expect our war movies to be American affairs. It can be a little surprising to see a variation on these themes, but from a perspective outside our borders. But of course, the Afghanistan mission is an international one, with plenty of unique stories of soldiers from around the world. And well before American’s involvement, the Russians (Soviet Union) had their own experience in that country.

The three films I watched, I happen to watch in chronological order. All three are based on real events, although all three of course dramatize the story to at least some extent.

The first of the three is a Russian film called The 9th Company. It appear to attempt, at least in part, to tell an under-told story of veterans of that now distant war. Of the three films, this seems to be taking the most liberties with regard to actual events. However, it is not just a bit of patriotic propaganda. It is critical of the Soviet Army and of its mission in Afghanistan, and by extension, critical of the current Russian government. Nevertheless, it received not only a pass through any censorship, but seems to have used government funding in its production.

The film’s structure is one familiar to American audiences. We begin with a mix of recruits in a boot camp for an elite paratrooper unit. We follow them to a deployment in Afghanistan in the waning days of the Soviet involvement in that nation. During the withdrawal, the soldiers become isolated and attacked by Mujaheddin.

The film was very popular in Russia, and the story and production values are sufficient for it to hold it’s own among American offerings, assuming one watches foreign language films in the first place.

The second of the two, released in the U.S. as Kilo Two Bravo, tells the story of an incident that earned Corporal Mark Wright, posthumously, the George Cross for bravery. Of the three, it is the most true to the events as they happened. It is also not a combat movie, in the way the other two are; the story involves a unit of British soldiers who become trapped in an unmapped minefield.

Once again, it is a good film by any measure. It also provides a non-American view on the Afghan situation. In particular, the heroes of the day can be honored outside of patriotism that would accompany (for me) a similarly-conceived U.S. film.

Being a British film, it highlighted one unique aspect of viewing foreign films. In, for example, a Russian language movie, the language is not much of a barrier as I’m relying on the subtitles. In a U.K. film, there are none because it is in my own, native language. Sort of. Watching this film, I struggled to follow the dialog through the accents. In turn, it made it a little difficult to follow the different units – who was positioned where. It didn’t help that the unit designated Kilo Two Bravo remained “offscreen” throughout the film. I kept waiting for when they would show up.

Following the accents was not a problem for the third film, the one that I have just finished, Hyena Road. This provides a dramatic account of the construction of a road through Taliban controlled territory in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan.The construction of the road is real, as is the deployment of Canadian soldiers (whose accents render them indistinguishable from Americans) to provide defense for that construction.

Those accents, however, are one of the details that move this film from the docudrama realm into historical fiction. The soldiers portrayed in the film were members of the Royal 22nd Regiment, of called the Van Doos. That nickname is an anglicization of the unit’s designation in french, le Vingt-deuxième. It is a french-speaking unit, meaning the generic “North American” accents of the actors may have sounded too “American” for Canadian views.The acting was done primarily by Canadian actors, however, so it is “authentic” in that regard. The individuals portrayed are likely all fictional, although the name of the commanding general in the film, Rileman, is probably an anagram of the Canadian commander Brigadier General Milner.

I thought the film was excellent, primary for it’s portrayal of some of the details of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan. Despite some complaints among critics about the story, I also found that compelling. It is also a demonstration that a big budget isn’t necessary to create an immersive, realistic war movie. Not to say the story doesn’t dramatize the situation. It does. But it is a film based in the real world, not in a world of Hollywoodized gun play.

A lower-budget (~$12.5 million Canadian) film has to make decisions on how to portray the story within their financial restrictions. The hazard is that “small world” problem I like to write about. By focusing on the actions of a single squad, a few officers, and the command posts, the sense of the wider operation can be easily portrayed without having to fill the screen with a multitude of actors.

All three of these films, and particularly the last, deserve a wider viewing than they (almost certainly) got. I don’t know what the viability of films released outside of the Hollywood machine really is, but I hope there is room for innovation from the smaller-budget, non-American side of this industry.

Referenced:

The 9th Company

Kilo Two Bravo

Hyena Road

Superbad

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This month, the 1980s series of Superman movies are being removed from Netflix. So I decided to re-watch the original 1978 Superman picture (with Christopher Reeve), something I haven’t done in 20 years.

It does not hold up well.

It was made during the heyday of model based special effects, and they just look poorly done when viewed with expectations based on today’s CGI. Heck, they look poorly done compared to, say, the Star Wars effects of a year earlier. Watching, some of the action scenes, I get the impression that they tried to make up for poor staging and bad effects with dramatic music. At least the flying effects aren’t that terrible – the ad campaign when the movie came out said, “You’ll believe a man can fly!”Not really, but it isn’t as cringe-inducing as some of the other effects.

But that dramatic music! It is a memorable score. Even without watching it, I’m sure I could have hummed my way through John Williams’ Superman theme, as well as some of the other themes from the film.

Effects aside, it is also extremely slow. Long, pensive shots of Marlon Brando giving ponderous speeches. Or just looking grim. I happened to pause the film at about 42 minutes in and… nothing has happened yet! It’s all been setup. I’m no filmmaker, but it seems I could condense everything up to that point (he’s just about to enter his newly-build Fortress of Solitude)  into about 10 minutes using Jor-El to narrate the setup, leaving an extra half hour for plot development and/or action.

Sometimes experiences from one’s childhood should really be left there. This may have been one of them.

I also happened to notice, during the opening credits, that the story and screenplay were written by Mario Puzo. I had no idea.

Unfortunately, Godfather this is not.

Blame it on the Bull

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This is a series of posts on the Suez Crisis. See here for the first regular post in the series, here for the previous post, and here to go back to the master index.

I take on the Independence period using three different games, in historical order.

Divided Ground

Arab Israeli Wars

The Operational Art of War 3

The Horns

The first of the games is Divided Ground, which has a scenario created for the Nebi Daniel Convoy. On March 27th, 1948, a convoy made the trip from Jerusalem to the besieged village of Kfar Etzion bringing reinforcements as well as 120 tons of supplies, equipment and ammunition. The trip was made with only slight delay and without incident. However, preparations for the return trip resulted in a delay that allowed Arab irregulars to set an ambush along the return.

The prime culprit in the delay has been cited as one Zimri, a prized stud bull being sent to Jerusalem for safe-keeping during the fighting. Zimri, apparently, was very reluctant to climb aboard his designated transport, factoring into the several-hours delay. Less often mentioned was the difficulties in loading the fuselage of a damaged Piper Cub aboard a truck, which to me sounds even harder than getting a bull loaded.

Whomever is ultimately to blame, the result was disastrous for the convoy. Outside of Bethlehem, an ambush was set

kfaretzion

The convoy departs for the return trip to Jerusalem from Kfar Etzion.

This game, and this level provides an excellent simulation for the conflict. The fighting, especially before the Israel’s declaration of independence, was primarly asdfas of small unit actions, often between irregulars. I don’t know how accurately this scenario depicts, or intended to depict, the battle in question. It may be that it is simply meant to represent an ambush of a convoy heading toward Jerusalem.

The real engagement was a disaster for the Israelis. The convoy was isolated and trapped along the roadside where, they were eventually extracted by British forces, but at the cost of the loss of all their equipment and weapons.

In game, I won a “Major Victory,” finding myself in control of the ambush site and the end of the scenario. Given that the scenario length is a little more than a hour, this is not entirely inconsistent with the historical outcome. Likely, simply maintaining control of the battlefield would have ultimately ended the same, regardless of any temporary shifting of the tide. Given my final situation, a breakout through to Jerusalem may or may not have been possible, subject to the difficulties of modeling small-unit action outside of a hour or so scenario. Unfortunately, but as is to be expected from games of this era, the credit for the victory may be due the enemy AI. Towards the end of the battle, I was occasionally able to observe Arab units headed back down the road toward Kfar Etzion, perhaps drooling over the juicy victory location shown in the above screenshot. Should they have concentrated their full resources on isolating my convoy, they may well have scored a victory, either in points for from a practical standpoint by pinning me down.

Relief for Jerusalem

I have just taken Mount Zion and I’m preparing to breach the walls of the old city.

There is also a scenario that covers, perhaps a little abstractly, the events during the night of May 18-19, when a mixed group of Israeli militia attempted to relieve the besieged Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in advance of Arab reinforcements in the form of the British-led Arab Legion. Again, it is a nice level of gaming to cover this kind of battle. The individual soldier level, such as in a game like Squad Battles, would fail to cover enough of this battle to give a good feel, without further abstracting the scope.

Should one have an itch for any pre-Declaration gaming, or as above, similarly-sized engagements during the 1948 War, a game that models the tactical scale makes a lot of sense.

Keep It Simple, No Bull

Which brings me to another game, intended to model the war from the highest level. The game is called Arab Israeli Wars, and it is simply a set of rules published (for free) on the Warp Spawn Games website*. I came across the game in Google while searching for tactical-level scenarios for the 1948 War, which this game is not.

Arab Israeli Wars is a solitaire game, and has no provision for two-player. As I said, the game is a strategic-level model of the war, where the player fights as the Israelis from start to finished. It is highly abstracted. Or maybe to put it another way, it is a simple mechanic with “Arab Israeli” chrome laid upon it. These things don’t always work, but in the case I really think it does.

The game is designed to be played with cards, although the rules could be applied to a map-and-counter format as well. In fact, I prefer to think of that way, and will describe it as such, although not necessarily consistently. In the design, each player has a “deck” of unit cards, which are deployed among three “fronts.” One might also imagine that the units are represented by unit counters, and played upon a map. In addition, there is a deck of “event” cards, which drive the historical flavor of the game by randomly conveying advantage to one side of the other.

Combat in the game is deterministic. The winner is determined simply by comparing the total force strength (after bonuses) for opposing units, within the front in question. That is not to say this is a “diceless” game. Some amount of random selection, such as which unit to eliminate in combat, is still used and, of course, drawing cards from a shuffled deck means the game is heavily determined by luck.

Play is by turns. In each turn, the Arab units are drawn an placed into one of three fronts. It is the “chrome” that makes this game far more interesting that it’s simple mechanic, and with unit placement that chrome starts to become evident. Placement is determined by unit nationality. The Syrian and Lebanese units are placed into the Northern Front, near Galilee. Jordanian, Iraqi, and  Palestinian forces are deployed to the Central Front, in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Egyptian, Saudi, and Moslem Brotherhood forces deploy on the Southern Front (the Negev). Some generic forces, such as armor, artillery, or air, are deployed to a random front.

Next, the event for the turn is drawn. The different events have different advantages, which may mean extra units, one-time extra (or less strength for existing units, as well as some others.

Finally, Israeli units are drawn which are freely placed. In addition, one or more units (depending on several factors) are moved between fronts. Again, the historical connection to this simple mechanic is notable. Israel fought with, essentially, the advantage of interior lines. Essentially beset on all sides, they were able to redeploy forces between major areas of operation during the war to gain a local advantage. Their enemy, by contrast, were independent nationalities, meaning cooperation between fronts was greatly reduced (if not impossible).

Again, combat, once all units are place, consists of totally all forces (each unit type has a single force number) for each front, and comparing. The side with the highest value wins, and removes one enemy unit (at random) and gains one increment of territory. Each front has six territorial steps. The Israeli player loses by losing all six steps in any of the three fronts. He wins by winning battles on all three fronts two turns in a row, or by simply holding out until the Arab unit “deck” is depleted.

I’ve played through a number of games, and the design seems pretty well balanced. It feels like there is a slight advantage to the Arab player (perhaps necessary to keep a solitaire game interesting), but games do go either way. I strongly suspect the design was borrowed and modified from another game, perhaps an ancients or medieval tactical game. There are references in the rules to “flanks,” as well as unit attributes not used within the game. I haven’t tried to search to find the “parent” rules, but I’d gamble on them being out there. Assuming I’m right, this probably accounts for a play balance that seems just about right.

There is a huge amount of luck involved, but the design relates it back to historical events. For example, the key event for an Israeli victory is often one of the two U.N Truces. In game terms, that halts battles for one turn and gives the Israeli two extra units. It may well be that the timing of the ceasefires, along with Israel’s ability to rearm during that lull, were the key to Israel’s ultimate victory in the war.

Of course, it does take a little imagination to relate the simple mechanics back to a historical “simulation.” But is that a bad thing? Does a simple game like this give enough combination of flavor and challenge to satisfy, or would more detail make a better game? Take a look at the Victory Point Games release Israeli Independence**. In many ways, a very similar construction with tracks for territorial gains and an event deck to drive the game. But it amps up the complexity a bit. There are five tracks instead of three. Israeli combat is now event driven, rather than unit driven, and there is just a bit more variability to it. I don’t know that it is any more historic, however. Events determine whether Arabs (automatic) or Israelis (by die roll) advance, rather than a building of units. The result is that turns are more independent than in Arab Israeli Wars, which again could be good or bad. If indeed, adding more simply adds complexity

I also wonder if this basic framework provides a “generic” way of simulating wars at the modern level. For example, if we go back to Korea, we find a war that might benefit from similar treatment. The linear map and triggered events could probably easily describe the battle, as well as the turn-by-turn adding of fighting units to the game. I’ve notice a growing use of linear representation for strategic-level warfare. Israeli Independence was the first game a of Victory Point Games States of Siege Series, which has grown substantially in production value and sophistication. I was also recently looking at Churchill, which uses multiple linear fronts to represent the combat portion of the game, which deals with the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Which is to say, conceptually this must be a mechanic that works in wargames, and I’m sure I’ll be back with it. Getting back to the game at hand, it certainly provides a way to cover this conflict. To actually address the breadth of this conflict over its entire length would probably take a far, far more complicated gaming system.

Baffle them with Bull

So what about the more traditional approach? One of the original Operation Art of War scenarios covers Israel’s October offensives in the 1948 war. These took place after the pair of UN cease fires, allowing the Israeli army to reorganize and rearm. When the conflict resumed again, Israel not only had the initiative, but the fighting was moving more towards conventional warfare forces and operations.

Nevertheless, at least to my uneducated eye, the game system has to take substantial liberties to squeeze this war into the Operational Art of War box.

The scenario, itself, is not a terrible one. The scale is 5 km hexes, which is the same as the Czechoslovakia and Fulda Gap scenarios played earlier. The unit scale, counter-intuitively, is larger. Each counter is a brigade rather than a company. This probably makes sense. This was not a war of maneuver, and reducing the counter-count probably helps with that. Turns are 1 turn per day. The scale is such that the entirety of Israel is covered on the map, and the uniqueness of the terrain and geography are clearly portrayed.

Israel 48t1

My IDF forces capture Jerusalem’s old city and Gaza, while pushing the Egyptians south. I think, historically, that brigade (Givati) just to the right of the map’s center may have been directed south as well.

Even with the major offensives of October, operations were still conducted dancing around various cease fires and truces. The game will naturally play out as a more conventional operation, with a fairly consistent pace of attack and maneuver through the scenario’s 31 day duration. In fact, several of the “fronts” had operations limited to a couple of days or, in the case of Operation Yekev south of Jerusalem, a single day.

As I say, it’s not a terrible scenario. It is probably a little more enjoyable to play than those NATO versus Warsaw Pact scenarios, due both to the unit scale and the more interesting locality. It also is yet another interesting demonstration of the versatility of TOAW covering the ad hoc order -of-battle of this war. But as a simulation of the conflict, I think it does demonstrate that more isn’t necessarily better.

Return to the master post or go on to the next article.

*I’ve just got to say, because it has to be said. That black text on Cyan background absolutely fries my eyeballs. This site has wonderful information but it is almost literally painful to look at. After a week or two of suffering, I finally broke down and made a Greasemonkey script to get rid of it. Much better now.

**Note, I don’t have this game and have never played it. However, the rule book is freely available from the publishers website to allow a comparison simply on the rules themselves.

Timeline Mania

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This is a series of posts on the Suez Crisis. See here for the first regular post in the series, here for the previous post, and here to go back to the master index.

The Timelines

I’ve had them linked on this website for a while, but it seems a good time to discuss them in detail. (They’re on the sidebar to the left of this post.)

Cut to the Chase

If you’re following the links to get to the actual timelines, you probably don’t want to read through the entire article, so here are the four products of this exercise.

A reminder that the content of these timelines are not my work. This a reorganization of the material with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War timeline at Balagan.info.

  1. From the British Capture of Jerusalem to the end of WWII.
  2. From the Creation of Jordan to the Declaration of the Independent State of Israel.
  3. From the Declaration to the June, 1948 UN truce.
  4. A Timeline of Timelines to navigate between #1 and the Cold War timeline.

Shortly after I started posting about games, history, and the history of my games, it occurred to me that some of this information would best represented via a timeline. WordPress organizes posts mostly in the reverse order that they are written, meaning that a reader who isn’t following along in real time encounters things backwards. Even if they’re inclined to follow along in reverse order, there’s no guarantee I’m going to write all the topical posts at the same time. Where posts will naturally be organized into historical events, it seemed to me like there should be an easy way to represent them.

My first stop was to see what was available as a WordPress plugin. I did find a few offerings with some mixed results, but in the process discovered a very interesting piece of software. Knight Lab at Northwestern University has developed a script to display easily-configurable, multi-media timelines.

The way it is designed, it is meant to be inserted into a webpage or blog post. However, WordPress doesn’t support that. With some editing of the page code one might get around the limitations, but I’m currently using the free version of WordPress, so that was also out of the question. In the end, I liked the look of it and decided to simply link to a full page display of the time line (again, over there to the left.)

You may have noticed that I’ve started progressing through the Cold War and explored a number of games covering the late 40s and early 50s. When I got to the Arab-Israeli War of 1956 and the Suez Crisis, I found myself searching on line for games that covered this period. In doing so, I stumbled across some rather intriguing websites cover the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

My first accidental find was a game, which I talk about in my next post. As you’ll see, that discovery drew me into the 1947-1948 timeframe and so I dug around to look at other wargamers’ take on the that period. I quickly found a set of posts dealing with that war, and particularly dealing with it from the wargamer’s point of view. It is a different perspective. If nothing else, the information is organized by what we wargamers like to see; locations, dates, and orders of battle. The author, clearly, meant it all as a start for developing some Arab-Israeli War scenarios, so it isn’t a comprehensive reference. It emphasizes in formation that might lead to development of wargame scenarios. Among  his information is a timeline for for the period, starting during the First World War and continuing through to the first Truce in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

This timeline presentation was very useful to me. As I’ve said before, for the uninitiated, it is difficult to makes sense of all the different personalities and organizations in that war. Up until the forming of the Israeli Defence Force, combatants were a range of different militia groups with a rather convoluted lineage going back decades. Throw that on top of a minimal understanding of time and place, and it becomes almost impossible for me to follow who is fighting whom and when.

So as I was looking at his timeline, it occurred to me “Wouldn’t it be neat if I had this visualized in the Timeline tool I’ve been using for Wargames.” It seemed to me it would be an easy thing to whip together, even it if was only for my own personal amusement. The Knight Lab system uses a spreadsheet* to create the configuration and it should be just a matter of copy-pasting the information from the existing format into the desired format, relying on the tool to do the plotting.

Of course, like anything computer related, it never seems to be as easy as you would think it would be. It ended up being a good bit of effort. First of all, it did make the information much easier to digest which meant just the exercise of reformatting the data helped me understand the nature of what was there. For example, the original author seemed to only get so far with his project, as the original timeline goes only through the beginning of the first Truce of the war (June 1948). It also became apparent that there were different levels of granularity. Outside of the 1947 and 1948 conflicts, events are spaced out over the decades. But during combat operations, there are multiple sets of events going on simultaneously. It is not uncommon to have multiple events per day taking place in different locations, with the timeline bouncing back and forth between operations for many days in a row. As it turns out, plotting events like this on a timeline presents somewhat poorly and so the result remains difficult to read and digest.

The first thing I did, which incidentally addressed this point, was to split up the timeline progression at the end of the Second World War. I did not want a new timeline to overlap the existing timeline I’ve been working on for the Cold War. The Israel timeline itself hit a lull during the Second World War as the world’s focus on defeating the Nazi’s seemed to allow the Arabs and Jews to defer their differences in Palestine. I actually added a couple of extra references at the end of the new timeline, where flashback events from my games from the 1950s took us into the 1940s.

I also created a split at the Israeli Declaration of Independence itself. Before the full-scale Arab invasion, even once the fighting began in earnest in late 1947, was between small groups of irregulars, and largely involving Arab harassment of the convoys that the Israelis used to supply their more remote outposts. The distinct differences in operations made this a natural dividing point.

Issues remained, however, with depicting the multi-front nature of the fighting, event when focused on the short time periods. To help resolve the problem, I made use of one of their other tools. The Story Map tool allows a similar layout of slide to be integrated with a map (or, for that matter, any graphic) if the information to be displayed is more geographical than chronological. The best use of this tool is probably something like the example, where the combination of time and distance is fairly linear. Less useful are examples where the “story” has you bouncing around the map, as just so happens with these these battles.

Nonetheless, I think it does improve the presentation to break up, as I have, the timeline into five distinct sectors, whose timelines are handled separately.

  1. Northern Galilee, and the fighting around Safed
  2. The fighting within and near Jerusalem, separate from;
  3. The battles for control of the Jerusalem Corridor, the supply route from Tel Aviv.
  4. The Syrian attack on the Kinarot Valley, also called the Triangle, and
  5. The Southern Sector, or the isolated settlements in Negev.

Perhaps the most significant event of the war was the pair of truces arrange in mid-1948. Although both sides used the lull to reorganize and rearm, Israel gained particular advantage from the ability to create a national army and purchase modern armaments.It is at this event that the timeline at Balagan.info stops, and so do I with my graphical conversion. While I may be tempted to begin mixing in information from other sources, I’m no longer simply re-presenting that work, which broaches some ethical boundaries.

When the fighting resumed in October, the military advantage had shifted to the Israeli’s where it mostly remained until the signing of separate armistice agreements in 1949. I found a timeline through that period, including Israel’s October offensives, which, interestingly enough, also cites Balagan.info as a source.

So there it is. The whole project can be viewed starting with the timeline in 1917, and following the links to get to the additional details. Hopefully this helps with your understanding of the 1948 Arab Israeli War and, by extension, the wars in that region that followed. It has for me.

Return to the master post or go on to the next article.

*As one option. Data can be compiled into a spreadsheet, which then is run through the script hosted on the university website. You can also create the data structures and/or host the script locally, depending on how you want to organize the data.

Divide and Conquer

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This second in a series of posts covers the history of Divided Ground. (No, don’t buy it from Amazon*, I’m just linking for for illustrative purposes.) The previous post in the series is here, and click here to go back to the master post.

Thirty-five or so years ago, we were at the crest of a wave of military boardgames from the likes of Avalon Hill and SPI. We were also entering the era of the personal computer. For players of these games, we expected that nirvana was right around the corner. First, the computer could provide us with opponents**, rather than forcing us to draft our girlfriends or younger brothers. Second, as the rules of board war games got more and more complex to simulate all the details of the wars they modeled, we saw the computer as a handy bookkeeper. No longer would we have to cross reference results across 5 different tables. Just select attack and let the machine work it all out.

As games began to develop, they often disappointed. Getting a computer to do everything we wanted it to was a lot harder than it seemed like it would be. Still, our dreams seemed just a few iterations away.

As an Avalon Hill guy, my list of games were:

  • Tactical – Advanced Squad Leader
  • Grand Tactical – PanzerBlitz/ Panzer Leader
  • Operational – Oddly, I had no go-to WWII board game. The Operational game I owned was Waterloo.
  • Strategic – The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich
  • Honorable Mention – Submarine (I always thought this would have been the easiest to convert)

The Operational game, for me, was solved early on. The amazing Chris Crawford created Eastern Front in 1981, and provided an early example of getting it right.

Perhaps supporting my theory, and perhaps showing us the way of the future, Silent Service was released in 1985. It was not, however, a “board game simulator“, reproducing the hex-and-counter movement of Submarine. Instead, you are put inside the submarine, using the gauges, maps, and periscope as your interface. Much of the wargaming world would take decades to learn the lessons about what works better and worse on the computer screen.

In the other areas, direct conversions of the games themselves proved to be elusive. Avalon Hill’s Third Reich (1992) conversion was largely a disappointment, and the in-the-works Squad Leader development never seemed to materialize. However, as we progressed through the 1990s, computer games which were actually capably of replacing those board games began to appear on the market.

Everyone’s list is going to be a little different, but for me this was how it happened.

In 1992, High Command fulfilled the promise of the Third Reich that the official game never could. Yes, it lacked all the nuances in the rules that made the original board game what it was, but it was playable and it was fun.

The floodgates seemed to open after games began releasing on Windows. Programming for games started to be less an exercise in trying to get more speed, memory and graphics out a system and more reliant on a common base structure. Perhaps it was just that the machines were more capable, or perhaps because this freed developers to write games instead of graphics optimization, but the games that starting coming out then still can look passable on the modern desktop***.

In 1996, Close Combat finally brought the tactical WWII game to the PC in a way that satisfied the hard-core wargamer’s thirst for realism. We’ll not argue on how Advance Squad Leader may have fallen short of realism all along, but Close Combat brought the right pieces together. Although for me, it was Combat Mission (1999) that changed landscape, and finally provided the long sought-after experience. See the Submarine/Silent Services comments above.

For PanzerBlitz, we were given our fix in 1997 when East Front was released by Talonsoft as the final installment in their Battleground series. Interestingly, while Battleground while Battleground was mostly Civil War and Napoleonic War scenarios, it was book-ended by two World War II games. East Front fulfilled the PanzerBlitz niche by providing the toolkit for grand-tactical level combat on the Eastern Front. But Battleground 1 was a Battle of the Bulge game (1995). Amazingly, the look and feel of the latest in John Tiller’s game at that scale, Panzer Battles: Battles of Normandy, would be very familiar to the purchasers of Battleground: Bulge-Ardennes.

pc-64903-21458504330

normandy3

The latest game looks a little nicer and is higher resolution. But what if I really liked that old 3D terrain and in-game video?

Battleground 11: East Front was followed by the titles West Front (1998), East Front II (1999), and Rising Sun (2000) to round out the World War II experience of Panzer Leader, PanzerBlitz and beyond to the Pacific under the heading the “Campaign Series.” In 2001, the Arab-Israeli Wars equivalent was added as the final iteration of this set of releases.

Quite forgotten, until I started looking at the release dates, was Battleground 10. Battleground 10 was a Middle East game, but one I don’t remember anything about when it came out. Searching finds precious little on it, so I wonder if my experience is not typical.

I myself bought Divided Ground, perhaps as a part of a Campaign Series package with all four games. This was considered to be the Ugly Duckling of the series. It had considerably less innovations then the releases that preceded it, and had complaints about bugs that, unlike East and West Front, seemed never to be fixed.

All this reminiscing, and I never got around to actually playing the game. I suppose you’ll have to wait until my next installment for that.

But, still, the saga continues.

In late 2015, the same “ground” was covered by a Matrix Game release, Campaign Series: Middle East. Looking very much like Divided Ground II, it actually is based on a different evolution of the engine. To get there, we have to go back again, this time to 2007. Matrix aquired the Talonsoft rights and released the World War II games as the John Tiller’s Campaign Series product. This product is supported and upgraded to be compatible with current Operating Systems, as well as additional content and improved performance. It can still be bought, new, for probably significantly more than I paid for my Talonsoft CDs when I picked them up. Part of the plan was to, at some point, bring the Divided Ground code up to date in a similar manner. The decision was made, instead, to completely re-implement the Divided Ground concept within the current version of the World War II engine, and release it as a new product.

For me, this proves to be an armored combat simulation too far. The new Matrix Game has the advantage that it is new and under active support. It also appears to have quickly developed a fan base for mods and scenarios. (One interesting mod allows the use of Arab-Israeli War counters as game icons). But at its core, it is based on the Talonsoft series and still looks like a 20-year-old gaming engine. Compare Europa Universalis with EU IV – that’s what I’d expect for a “new” version of a 15-year-old game, worth full price.

And still the tale goes on.

John Tiller’s took his gaming system first to HPS and then to his own John Tiller Software. What he did not take is the 250 km scale hexes. He has scaled up, to 1 km hexes, and down to 40m hexes (with unit sizes of individual vehicles), but has taken neither system into the Arab Israeli conflict. While at HPS, he also created the Modern Campaigns/Panzer Campaigns engine (1 mile hexes) as an operational wargame. This system is used to cover the Arab Israeli Wars. In fact, the Tiller product line includes a tablet version of the game. More on this to come.

Return the master post or go on to the next article.

*I’m not trying to tell you what to do. But Divided Ground is abandoned software that nevertheless requires full price on Amazon. Furthermore, it is unlikely that it going to work on your computer. I was unable to install, perhaps because it was 64-bit machine and the installer software can’t handle that. It also may not work with Window 7 or 10.

**Bad AI seems to shadow the computer wargame industry to this day. Interestingly, the PC has also solved this problem, just not the way we wanted it to. Modern gamers can find players any time, day or night, through Skype and through computer-assisted gaming tools like VASSAL.

***One interesting aside. While High Command can be downloaded and run on a Windows 10 machine, Divided Ground pukes at the site of the Windows 7 box on which I first tried to install it. I got it running on older XP, but it is ironic that many of these early Windows games used special tricks which limited their life much more than all the wildness of DOS games.

THE Arab-Israeli Wars

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Rommel’s out there somewhere, waiting for me.

You know, if I had my way, I’d send that genius son-of-a-bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter – a challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop at about twenty paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. Then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. And that battle would decide the outcome of the war.

– George C. Scott monologue in Patton.

I’ll start this period off with a game that gave me my start on this subject, back in the day.

For an indexing of articles in this set, see the master post.

My crossover from “family games” into serious wargames happened some time between middle school and high school. I had a friend in the neighborhood who was good for playing games. I recall many rounds of Monopoly and Risk, although we rarely read the rulebooks before doing so, so our versions of the games were a little off.

We liked the war-themed games of the time. Besides Risk, played a fair amount of Battleship. I also had been given a game for Christmas called Sub Search, which seemed so much cooler because the subs were underwater, and there was chrome in the form periscope and torpedo artwork. I had a game called Tank Command, which had little to do with commanding tanks except that there were little plastic tank models to be launched into the air when you were losing.

Perhaps a favorite of mine was one my friend owned called Dogfight. There was a little more too it than a Sub Search or a Tank Command. Like those, it also had the little plastic pieces and a very cool-looking WWI battlefield to fly over. But in addition, the combat between aircraft involved cards, which used various combat maneuvers, including attacks and barrel rolls. I was always begging my friend to take that one out.

And when I did, he would often say, “If you like this, you would like Richthofen’s War.

I don’t know if we every actually played his copy of Richthofen’s War. It seemed awfully complicated. Especially since, as I mentioned, we weren’t really into reading the rulebooks. So instead, we decided on a more entry-level foray into the genre, and picked up some of the Panzerblitz games.

I don’t recall if those were actually my first Avalon Hill games. In fact, I’m pretty sure I bought Luftwaffe and maybe Waterloo before I got into the Panzerblitz series. But I do remember getting for my birthday Panzerblitz when I was 13 or maybe 14.

Now, I don’t remember the exact order of everything. It may be that, even before we played any games, we decided we needed to have the other games in the series. I do remember that my friend purchased Panzer Leader and I got Arab-Israeli Wars.

What I do remember, vividly, was our first game of Arab-Isreali Wars. This game did look like it would be cool. It had helicopters, jet aircraft, and guided missiles. So we started out with scenario B-1, Bir Gifgafa, which had none of those thing, but had the advantage of being introductory.

Now first off, we didn’t understand the scenario setup cards*. In the game, the scenarios are specified with pictures of the counters to be used, and then a number is printed on them to indicate how many of that counter is in the scenario. We didn’t follow that last part. So for us, the scenario involved 3 Israeli “tanks” (I’m sure we didn’t understand that they were formations, not individual units) versus 2 Arab “tanks.”

To make matters even worse, we didn’t recognize the hex sides as obstacles to Line of Sight, only for their movement and combat roll modifiers. The ‘B’ board is desert terrain, containing only roads and the “sand dune” hex side feature. I think I imagined the battle being portrayed as very much like what is described by Patton in the movie line at the top of the article. Except, surely both Rommel and Patton would be maximizing their use of  concealment in the desert terrain.

In any case, we weren’t pleased with our wargaming result. Even as my understanding of the game mechanics developed, I never quite took to the game. I was perpetually jealous of his copy of Panzer Leader with it’s cool-looking urban terrain. We probably never played more than a handful of the games in this series. Instead, my time with both Panzerblitz and Arab-Israeli Wars was spent with the Designers Notes reading about the equipment and its modeling.

aiw1b

Bir Gifgaga scenario set up correctly, at a moment where opposing forces meet. This is already turning out poorly for Egypt.

The Panzerblitz series was subject to a lot of criticism, even at the time when I was buying and playing it. Today, it obviously tends to hold up very poorly against modern boardgame design. For The Arab-Israeli Wars in particular, the mechanics of combat have been heavily criticized for their disconnection from reality. Although, as one commenter posted in a review, while the individual combat results table rolls may not be very realistic, the game as a whole will often produce the right results.

Plan it Well

You may begin whenever you are ready, but plan it well. Do plan it well, I pray you, sir.

Martin Sheen (?!) as R.E. Lee in Gettysburg.

To help me reminisce, I got out my box and set up the scenario S-1, Kalkiliah, which depicts an Israeli paratrooper raid on a Jordanian police fort shortly before Operation Kadesh. This is not really a scenario that lends itself to the solitaire rules proposed for Panzerblitz, as those require playing against a passive defender. I poked through it as best I could.

Perhaps of note, my cat took a strong interest in the game. He loved the board, and when I starting setting out pieces, he knocked them around. I wonder if Avalon Hill considered the cat market in the promotion of the game?

First, I am reminded why we dreamed of computers taking over our wargames all those years ago. I’m remembering the mechanic of opportunity fire, while not really an issue in a solitaire non-game, it was really, really painful when playing against an actual opponent. Slowly watching the other player move, one hex by one hex, trying to decide whether to use that ability could slow play down to a torture. The Arab-Israeli Wars mechanic is nifty, but being able to turn it over to the computer for auto-resolution makes the game so much more enjoyable. Even on my own, the amount of table-lookup for resolving attacks is tremendous, and often distributed of four or so charts in two different books. Add to that if you are also checking up your opponents reading of the tables to keep him honest. Yes, it would probably take only a little familiarity to start to remember the various modifiers to the die rolls, but this is not conducive at all for pulling out the box for a quick game.

Neither is the design of this scenario. It portrays the real life goals of a quick raid and then retreat before enemy reinforcements arrive, which is well enough. In game terms, this means victory for the Israeli’s can only come by quickly seizing the fort and then withdrawing all attackers before the game ends. Losing only 2 units, or leaving 5 behind (or the combination 1 and 3) will negate the positive point value of taking the fort in the first place. There is a secondary set of victory conditions, where an Israeli armored column comes to the rescue, and Israel can pick up more points by eliminating the enemy, but that seems like an even tougher way to win. Bottom line, intense pre-planning seems the only way to play this scenario.

First off, the exit condition means you have to know exactly how many turns ahead of time you’ve got to start your retreat. Next, the key to rapid taking of the Jordanian fort is going to depend heavily on the terrain. You’ll need to know how close you can set up, how close you can deploy (although I underutilized my halftracks in the initial, which I didn’t realize were so tough), and the best way to overwhelm the defender. Naturally, the Arab player is going to have to do the same before picking a location for the fort and placing his defenders.

This is all fairly reasonable as an exercise in command, but probably not compatible with a one-off gaming night.

Nonetheless, the point of this exercise wasn’t to renew my interest in my old Avalon Hill board game collect, but to provide the context for some computer gaming. Just in time for this, Shrapnel/Camo Workshop has released a new version of WinSP:MBT. I’ll use that to compare the Kalkiliah similar scenarios designed for WinSP:MBT and Divided Ground.

Return the master post or go on to the next article.

*So the scenarios in Arab-Israeli Wars aren’t really cards, like they are in Panzerblitz. They are pages in the manual. But explaining all of this was going to disrupt my narrative, so I’ll just leave this like it is. I will say that the Panzerblitz cards indicate the number of units by a multiplier printed beneath the counter on the card (e.g. x3 for 3 Tigers), which may be a little clearer. In any case, it was obviously clearer to us at the time.

Suez Canal

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The Suez Canal Crisis is a very interesting event, and more so the more more I look at it.

In the traditional wargame realm, it doesn’t really get a lot of love. It’s an asymmetric battle, making for a difficult player-versus-player match-up. It’s also in that time frame where the gamer is starting to itch for the modern weapons of the 60s, and we’re thrown back into basically a match-up of World War II equipment.

Both of these are pluses in the context of the History of Games. First, asymmetric warfare is a the norm, not the exception, for the post-World War II era, particularly in any conflict involving the major powers. So getting this right will serve us well over the next 50-60 (virtual) years of gaming.

Secondly, the lower-tech nature of this fight opens up the possibility of using World War II specific engines in this outside-the-box scenario. Specifically, this could fit well in the Command Ops system.

Also very intriguing is the nature of this fight in the global context. In many ways, the “game” here isn’t the maneuvering of fighting units across the desert. It is the use of a proxy war to intervene militarily in an economic dispute, at a time when the world is already looking particularly unstable. Watch the newsreel that I’ve linked in the timeline. Notice that the reporting on the Sinai and Suez situation is followed up by the possibility of a Eastern European nation breaking away from the Soviets. In fact, the lack of support for the Hungarian freedom fighters by the west is often blamed on the fact that it would be hypocritical at a time when the roles were reversed in Egypt.

To look at the proximate causes of the Suez Crisis, start with the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. In response to rioting in Cairo in late January 1952 as well as the dissatisfaction based on incompetence, corruption and submission to colonialism of the Egyptian Royalty, the Egyptian army ousted King Farouk in a coup d’état on July 23rd, 1952. On June 18th, 1953 the monarchy was abolished entirely, and Egypt became a Republic.

The new government was founded on Arab Nationalism and socialist reform, and found itself at odds with the policies of the region’s colonial powers, Britain and France. Britain due to the direct historic colonial ties with Britain and France due to a pan-Arab nationalism, and France’s war in Algeria. While the relationship between Britain and Egypt remained complex, it was likely the Bagdad Pact that sent those relations into an unrecoverable, downward spiral.

As tensions with Britain rose, Nasser also angered the United States. A growing reliance on Eastern Block weapons trade as well as the Egyptian recognition of Communist China caused Eisenhower’s government to play a game of international chicken. The U.S. withdrew their economic support for the Aswan Dam construction project, assuming that the Soviet Union was incapable (economically) of picking up the slack. Either the Soviets would fail to back their new Egyptian friends, forcing Nasser back into the fold, or they would attempt to fund the project, thereby crippling the Soviet economy. Either way the U.S. wins.

Except, Nasser’s response was the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Britain was taken by surprise. They had, in fact, negotiated a transfer of control of the canal to the Egyptian at the end of 1968. The seizure (on  July 30th, 1956) provoked enthusiasm for an immediate military response. As tempers cooled, however, the risk of getting on the wrong side of American and the U.N. caused them to search for alternatives.

The French also were eager for an immediate military response. In both France and England, Nasser was likened to a Hitler, whose aggression needed to be nipped in the bud. England, in particular, feared the damage that the Suez Canal could do their fighting power if it came under control of the Soviets.

Enter Israel.

Having gained independence less than a decade earlier, Israel was continuing to fight the Palestinians who saw Israeli rule as illegitimate. Even without a hot war, Palestinian fighters were supported with finances, arms and from Arab territory, such as the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. Cross-border raids were not uncommon as Israel attempted to neutralize this threat. Plans existed for larger incursions (for example, a complete occupation of Gaza) as well as for preventative strikes against anticipate war with their Arab neighbors.

For those of us of a certain age, Israel has always been the West’s great ally in the Middle East. In that context, the early history of Israeli independence appears baffling. It was the British, during the First World War, that advanced the idea of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. But by the Second World War, their enthusiasm had waned to the point that they seemed to be neutral mostly because they couldn’t entire go back on the position of the Balfour Declaration without losing face. Once the Israeli War for Independence started, England’s Arab client states, including British-backed armies, sided with the Arab Nationalists and the Palestinians. By 1956, England was once again fully behind Israel, but now the United States was the one to come to the aid of Egypt so as to peacefully end the war. The reasoning was that, were the war to escalate to a conflict between the superpowers, the U.S. would have been drawn in on the side of Israel. Even still, it is tough to tell the players without a program.

Back to the war at hand, the plan for Egypt and the Suez Canal consisted of Israel seeming to make another cross-border raid, and using the cover to launch a full-scale assault along with the occupation of Gaza and the Sinai. Britain and France, in on it all along, would feign outrage and threaten to intervene unless Israel and Egypt agreed to terms (which they knew would be unacceptable to Egypt). When “peacekeepers” from the UK and France landed in Egypt, Israel would halt short of the Suez Canal, as per-arranged. This would free UK and France to return the canal to British control

Although we can’t know for sure, it seems unlikely that Israel would have started this war without the backing, and urging, of England and France. That notwithstanding, Israel believed themselves capable of winning the war even without England and France and had planned for the eventuality. As it was, the plan came together and was a massive success militarily. So much so, that any other outcome (and thus the hope of a balanced, enjoyable wargaming scenario) seems unlikely.

The political fallout, in retrospect, seems equally predictable. Initially, support in England for the “peacekeeping” was high. However, things fell apart once the obviousness of the pretense became apparent. Even some strong supporters of military action against Egypt now found themselves opposed to situation at hand, having been left in the dark with the plans. The U.S. became very concerned about escalation with the Soviet Union, who now threatened to NATO allies, which would mean a global war between the superpowers.

So what is the “game” in all of this. Tactical and operational simulations of the battle, of course, can be played out, but is it really possible to ever “change the course of history?” Or does Israel always capture the Sinai eventually? Strategically, the geo-political situation consists of coordinating with the other major powers to back or foil the plan to retake the Suez Canal without starting World War III. But again, is it ever possible to accomplish anything except a temporary occupation of the Sinai by Israel? It may be telling that playing the Twilight Struggle Event Card docks the West 4 Influence Points, spread among Britain, France, and Israel. The only way to win is not to play.

But play we must, so I’ve broken this topic down into a series of posts.

  • For me, it all starts at Bir Gifgafa on the Sinai Peninsula, which was an old Avalon Hill Arab-Israeli War scenario representing the big armor clash of the 1956 war. It seems at the center of all wargaming surrounding the Suez Crisis. I start out by looking at that old board game.
  • As I was getting starting, I came across some interesting 1948 War of Independence information, so I’ll start with that. Even before I go there, however, Talonsoft’s old game Divided Ground tutorial scenarios are all based on 1948 battles, and so we will have a discussion about Divided Ground.
  • Next, we’ll head back, back in time to the 1948 Independence war that (quite literally) put Israel back on the map.
  • Returning to 1956, we’ll look first at the battle from the high level and some competing operational-level wargames. (TOAW, Tiller ME, and Command Ops 2.)
  • At this point, I’ll circle back around to the Arab-Israeli War scenarios from Avalon Hill, and the computer conversions of those scenarios. Both WinSP:MBT and Divided Ground have created some board game -inspired battles.
  • Finally, for our last stop on the tour, we’ll take a look at the possible escalation of the Suez Crisis beyond the region through a scenario built for CMANO.

For navigational purposes, here are the posts in order:

Post 1
Post 2
Post 3
Post 4
Post 5
Post 6
Post 7

Methods and Madness

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With my recent exposure to both Snowden and Red Army, I began to ask a question.

If Putin’s Russia was more-or-less not involved in “throwing the election,” what would be his best move right now? To make it look like he did decide the election, of course.

Yesterday, the Wall St. Journal’s most recent article (paywall) talks about the how the press and the left are trying to make the most of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. In fact, they’re not any closer (and perhaps less so) than U.S. policy and Democrat administrations working toward that policy.  Before the Crimea sanctions in 2014, the policy of the U.S. was engagement toward Russian and the development of business and economic ties. To suddenly find evidence of a “Manchurian Candidate” behind every business relationship is fantasy to the point of derangement.

Likewise, anyone with half a brain understood the reality of the relationship between Putin’s Russia and the United States. We all know that former agent Putin has rebuild the security service of his nation on the model of his old KGB. We all know that Russia Today mixes real news, alternative stories, conspiracy theories and outright misdirection in a way that has appealed, particularly, to a certain segment of Americans. Anyone who couldn’t see the hand of new KGB behind that wasn’t paying attention. We all know that Russian mobsters are particularly adept at cybercrime and suspect that the ties between those mobsters and their government are a tangled web.

So knowing all that, are the “revelations” about the involvement of Russia really a sign of the greatest election corruption in the history of Democracy? Or is it pretty much business as usual for Putin’s Russia? We mere mortals have no way of knowing what the U.S. CIA, NSA, and FBI have as evidence regarding Russian activities. From what I’ve read, it is in line with what Russian has done for years.

But speculate with me here for a moment. If it is not. If there is evidence of a “smoking gun” connecting the Russian government to specific information release that impacted the election, which is easier? To hack Democrat’s email servers and provide the information to the public in a way that is a deciding factor to an election? Or to manufacture evidence, after the fact, to make it appear that intent and direction existed where there really was none?

The accusations of foreign meddling in elections is a favorite of Putin’s. If anything, it’s the conspiracy theories which bear his signature.

I direct to a blog post by a Ukrainian citizen commenting on the involvement of Russia. His theory, which I like, is that whatever Putin may have done, the intent was not to throw the election. He, like everyone else, probably believe The Donald stood little to no chance. Instead, by feeding the anti-Hillary contingent during the election, he would weaken her administration by firing up the inevitable conservative opposition. Donald Trump as President may have actually been an even worse outcome, from Russia’s standpoint.

But now, his goal is still to embolden the opposition so as to weaken this administration. As before, he can do it by feeding this “Russian Stole the Election” mania of the left. Or, perhaps better yet, he can sit back and watch the American left try to destroy itself and everything else it can get its hands on.

As Napoleon was reported to have said to his Marshals, “When the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.”