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Clint Eastwood can do the hero film. Tom Hanks can play the hero.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Sully pulls it all together.

The circumstances of the mid-winter water landing on the Hudson river with all 155 passengers and crew surviving is something that I, and probably anyone from their late 20s onward, remembers very well. While watching the movie, a friend remarked that it seemed much more recent than the 8+ years that have now passed.

The drama of the movie (and it is a drama, not a documentary) is to show the struggle that the pilot went through to convince investigators (and himself) what he knows in his gut to be true; that he made the only possible decision.

The lead investigator has said that the movie mischaracterizes the tone and actions of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation to unfairly suggest “government incompetence.”

It is Clint Eastwood, after all.

Good Ground

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I continue with my read of The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.

Where I am now, the author has delved into the details of the first day of the battle. The level of detail is fantastic – far more than previous Civil War books that I’ve read. The author describes where each brigade is deployed and, perhaps even better, is not at all stingy with the maps showing the changing positions. Furthermore, where there is a difference of opinion about what exactly happens, he compares and contrasts the written orders and reports from the officers in question to get at the truth.

These details paint a different picture of this phase of the battle than what I’ve pictured in my mind. The classic portrayal of Day 1 is that the two armies blunder into each other, and it merely becomes a race to see which force comes forward first. Ultimately, the Confederates achieve the weight of numbers and capture the day’s battleground and the town of Gettysburg, but timely arrival of Union forces slows the advance enough to set the stage for Day 2. While this description isn’t inaccurate, it is obviously simplified.

The author is explicit in saying that both armies were moving somewhat blindly, and did not know when or where they would encounter the enemy. Further, he gives further detail about the cavalry mismatch, which he credits as much to Buford’s superior command skills as to simply the number of horse. Having held McPherson’s Ridge long enough for Reynolds to deploy, Buford then moves his troopers to the flanks. Importantly, he provides information about the arrival of Ewell’s corp from the North and North East, preventing the Union army from being surprised and flanked. He points out that, absent Stuart, Lee still had cavalry; he simply lacked the superior cavalry commanders that were riding with Stuart, and might have provided a counter to Buford’s skill.

Lee’s orders anticipated the battle extremely well. In the film, Gettysburg, Lee attributes it to divine providence. The fact that multiple orders positioned the corps just so before the battle suggest that, in fact, it was Lee’s own planning that nearly won the first day. Meade, per the book, is credited with two major achievements. First, despite having only just taken over command of the Army of the Potomac, he very successfully moves the entire force north, to be ready for the Gettysburg battle. This was far from a given, logistics being what they were. Secondly, his decision to delegate the command of the entire “left wing,” consisting of the Union corps arriving at Gettysburg on July 1st, to Reynolds may well have saved the day. Meade was too remote to command the army himself, but allowing multiple Corp commanders, possibly operating independently, might well have been disastrous. Meade anticipated the possibility ahead of time, and Reynolds presence on the battlefield, short-lived though it may have been, was probably decisive.

Reynold’s credit was earned by getting the initial infantry into the battle and forcing the Confederates to stop and fight, rather than just move into defensive positions around Gettysburg. His brigade commanders were also admired for their tactical prowess, being able to orient their regiments to handle multiple attacks from different directions, sometimes changing facing to intercept sequential attacks. By contrast, the Confederates seem to have squandered their positional advantage. The initial meeting put some very strong rebel units in a great position to displace the Union infantry through the afternoon of July 1st, but the brilliant brigade-level leadership seemed to be lacking on their side. While the Confederates did gain ground throughout the day, it was done at a high cost in manpower. Perhaps the reason was overconfidence. The lack of respect the South had for their opponents, and the fact that they had the cream of their own army available, meant that they forwent strategy and simply assaulted the Union positions directly.

Once Reynolds was killed, the higher end of the Union chain of command receives much criticism for their handling of the afternoon and evening of the 1st. General Howard did manage to position both his headquarters and reserves on Cemetery Hill, meaning when the Union line fell back that evening, they retreated into a strong position that ultimately won them the battle. However, the author wonders whether that retreat itself could have been avoided. He criticisms the Union commanders for slavishly defending Reynold’s initial defensive line on McPherson’s Ridge, when retreating back towards Gettysburg, to Seminary Ridge positions and to Stephen’s Run, just north of the town, would have resulted in a defense that would have held Gettysburg itself through that first night. By defending too far forward, and upon ground that was easily flanked (much like I’m doing in the screenshot below), the Union army ended up forced to rapidly retreat through the town to the south, rather than contest that better defensive terrain.

At the end of the day (I suppose literally and figuratively), the author discusses a few of the “what ifs” that are often applied to the Confederates on Gettysburg’s first day. He points out that these are mostly directed at Gen. Ewell. The reason, he explains, is that Gen. Hill was in contact with Lee during much of the day, so to criticize Hill is to criticize Lee, and that just isn’t done. Ewell, on the other hand, takes much fire for not having seized Culp’s Hill and, perhaps, Cemetery Hill in the last few moments of July 1st. His analysis is that, for the most part, the decisions of those Southern commanders were reasonable given the situation before them at the time. He finds it unlikely that there was really that much of a missed opportunity, as for example, is alleged in the Gettysburg movie.

They don’t write ’em like that anymore

In my previous Gettysburg post, I speculated about comparisons between the old Civil War Generals 2 game from Sierra and the in-progress versions of Ultimate General: Civil War. Based on some on-line chatter, I indicated that the old game might well be worth playing yet, but that it didn’t run on modern systems. I hadn’t tried it myself, but that was what I read.

It occurred to me that I wanted to see what would happen if I installed that old CD, and so I tried. It didn’t run (on Windows 7), and complained about a Windows dll that is no longer part of the operating system. It turns out that downloading that dll and getting it in the right place in the system’s folder was all that it took to get it to run. While some of the online instructions were quite extensive, a lot of it seemed to be to get the “NO CD” hack to run, not that game itself. Since I’m OK with running from my original CD, changing that one file was all I needed to do.

I loaded up the Gettysburg scenario and played through the first day as the Union. The graphics are way, way out of date and a tad glitchy, but in some ways the design still shines through. The brigade-level depiction of the battle, along with the simplicity of the model, makes the management of even a large battle fairly painless. There are only two formations, column and line, and units (except artillery) can only attack the adjacent hex. Morale and casualties are managed on a per-person level by the computer, but the play interacts only with a single “rest” function. Corp commanders have their “headquarters” represented on the field (although I’d have to dig out a manual to remember how the affect the other units). Division and lower commanders are included as part of one of their brigades (see the units with the yellow starts, below). There is no facing, or phasing, or similar details for the player to get bogged down with.

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Finding my soldiers outnumbering the attacking Confederates, I decided to hit them in their right flank. Turns out, it was premature. Oddly enough, my Generals seem to know right where the enemy is going to come from even before they appear.

While everything is obviously simplified, it nonetheless produces plausible results. It does so in battles that are played in a reasonable amount of time. Remember, also, this is the tactical component of a game that allows the player to go through the entire war. So the simplicity allows that interaction. They player’s higher level decisions may change battle locations or participants, or may change the weaponry available to units, as some examples.

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One of my fondest memories of this game is the night turns. Everyone pitches tents and sets campfires as soothing music plays in the background. Doles’ boys need the rest.

As for my own experience, my retreat through Gettysburg took a little longer than the real one did, and longer than I expected. As night falls upon me, I still have a number of units north of the town, who seem (by these graphics at least) to be inclined to camp out where they stand. As you might see by the mini-map, fresh corps are streaming into the battle, but I plan to take a little bit of an ahistorical risk here. Figuring Lee will do the same, I’m going to have my boys settle in for the night where they are, and then rush in to take up defensive positions in the morning. I’m thinking the more realistic strategy would be to shore up my defenses with night-movement, if necessary.

We’ll see what happens.

Replaying this game after so many years is still a positive experience. I doubt I’d pay good money for the experience, though. Maybe a couple buck on GOG, but no more. What if the graphic glitches were fixed up? What if the graphics could be modernized? Is there still a place for a very simple hex/turn based Civil War game? Or, if you are going to take it that far, would you want to go whole hog and wind up with something more like Ultimate General?

Cold War, Reggae Style

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I continue to toy with the Tropico 3 scenarios, and I’ve yet to crack open Tropico 4.

The latest scenario is based, very loosely, on Jamaica and its independence moves in the late 1950s and final decolonization in 1962. The key, says the scenario description, is to move away from the agricultural and raw materials markets that were controlled by Great Britain and develop a self-sufficient industrial economy. All the while, as is the key to the game, I try to stay in the right place in the middle of the Cold War politics going on around me.

Of course, as the victory conditions point out, my real goal is to stay in office through the duration of the game until 1980.

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Trade has picked up and I have plenty of money. Now, if I can just get those construction workers to actually build something.

As the years advance into the 1960s, more of the game’s “color” becomes evident. Through radio broadcasts, I witness the Cuban missile crisis taking place nearby, as well as the crisis in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps because I’m getting a little better with the game, the Superpower interplay was also more evident this time around. Having secured an independence of sorts from the United Kingdom, I began courting the Soviets through my local Communist party. Although at one point I became a little too closely aligned with the Russians, I managed to shift the balance by allowing development by some U.S. -connected corporations.

I didn’t manage to anger either superpower sufficiently that they sent warships to my seas, nor did I need to align with either one for protection. I triggered (for the first time) a military conflict with a neighbor, but quickly dispatched them with some U.S. military support.

One might speculate about how many smaller countries have attempted to play such a political game, feigning alignment with communism or capitalism with absolutely know fundamental belief in the system, other than the aid and support that it will bring. Is it a reflection of the real world, or just a clever gameplay element.

Moving on to that Dominican Republic crisis, and a scenario that imagines the assassination of Trujillo took place some years earlier, triggering the installation of a communist-aligned government. As Soviet military aid begins building up on the island, the U.S. government decides it must rely on military force. The result far more detail of what it might look like when that U.S. fleet shows up in the harbor.

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Time to send that Soviet equipment to the bottom of the Caribbean, where it belongs. Orange is Dominican ships and air, with the orange square in the lower left being the target of my operation.

This scenario has the player in the drivers seat. We are working with a carrier (plus escorts), a destroyer and a sub. Our task is to use a carrier strike to eliminate the Soviet equipment from our backyard. The primary goal is the airfield where Russian Migs and bombers are stationed. In addition to whatever advantages we have in force, we also have the element of surprise. We can initiate our attack at our leisure with little-to-no expectation that our presence will provoke a first response from the enemy. In the screen shot above, I’ve located what appears to be all of the enemy forces and am positioning my initial strike. I’ve also noticed that the Dominicans are out buzzing my ships and aircraft in waves, so I’d like to hit them when they’re at the end of their fuel.

This scenario has a lot going for it, and satisfies many of my earlier complaints. First of all, the what to do is pretty obvious. No need to spend days hunting for enemies that may or may not be there. Second is the operation from the position of strength. I have the numbers and decent assets, so I don’t feel that I need to solve a complex puzzle to avoid slaughter. Of course, even with all my advantages, I got creamed in the first play-through.

The scenario, at this point, also solved another complaint I’d had about CMANO scenarios. When I lost and lost big, it was glaringly obvious what I’d done wrong. And at the risk of ruining the scenario for my readers, I’ll tell you what I did. I ignored the third dimension, altitude. I left the altitude settings for all my aircraft at the default assuming, I guess, that the game could deal with it. Thus, all my bombing attacks were from high-altitude while the enemy delivered their bombs rocketing in a sea level, both evading radar and being impossible to intercept by that 36,000 ft patrol. Being so obvious what I did wrong, it became pretty easy to tweak my gameplay and vastly improve my performance in a restart.

That’s the way I like it. Uh huh.

The Invasion of the North: Opening Moves

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I’ve written several posts on the Gettysburg Campaign. The first is a combined book/movie/game review around The Killer Angels. I followed that up with some more thoughts on the Scourge of War command/AI system. This is the third I’ve written on the subject, discussing to tangentially-related topics. First the larger campaign in the context of a book and gaming. Second, a discussion of the level of necessary modeling for a proper Civil War battle game.

I expect a series of thoughts as I work my way through the rest of the book…

Having begun contemplating the Battle of Gettysburg, I got my dander up (as Harry Heth may or may not have said). I started in on the book The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. This is a sizeable book that addresses not only the battle itself, but the bigger picture leading up to the battle.

The book starts out, while not explicitly, with a debunking of some of the foundation of the Killer Angels. With the printing of this particular version being 20 years ago, I looked at it as a sort of counter-revisionist history. At some point, however, I actually looked at the front matter and the original date of this work is 1968, meaning it preceded that novel by almost a decade. Clearly the influence of Longstreet’s writing had a hold on the popular conscientious before the Killer Angels.

In particular, Professor Edwin Coddington (the author) questions the idea that Longstreet had agreed with Lee on structuring the campaign around the defensive, and that the Battle of Gettysburg was entered into against his long-standing advice. The evidence, in Coddington’s view, suggests that this view of the Campaign was conceived by Longstreet after the campaign and perhaps after the war. Correspondence from before Gettysburg show Longstreet as an enthusiastic supporter of Lee’s plans for taking the army north. There is no evidence that such support came with conditions, such as the agreement to seek a defensive strategy once in enemy territory.

Another stark contrast between the book/film and Coddington’s research is the scene where Lee realizes that they need to turn to fight the approaching Union army. In the movie, unable to read the map, he asks “What town in this?” The answer is Gettysburg. By contrast, Lee in fact expected the battle in the North to take place near Chambersburg, York, or Gettysburg. Gettysburg may have been his preference. While moving North, he deliberately telegraphed his positions with the intent of drawing the Union army towards him. When he realized he had succeeded, he deliberately and leisurely positioned his forces around Gettysburg with the intent of fighting a battle much like the first day at Gettysburg turned out.

Furthermore, the days and weeks leading to Gettysburg were far from a peaceful march from Virginia to Pennsylvania. Various actions occurred all along the route, ranging from the cavalry battles at Brandy Station and near the passes to the overwhelming victory of Ewell and Early’s assault and capture of Winchester. The book also highlights the importance (and impotence) of Darius Couch’s Pennsylvania militia, as the defending force in Pennsylvania up until the arrival of the Army of the Potomac.

Looking at what I’ve previously thought of as simply a march north in in new light, I decided to break out my old copy of AgeOD’s American Civil War. This was a follow-on to the extremely well-regarded Birth of America, a game which covered the operational level of the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War. AACW, as it is often abbreviated, expanded on the engine and further added the management of the wartime economy making it a game of vastly greater scope and scale. Many thought this made the resulting game too complicated, losing the charm that made its predecessor so successful.

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“We did not want the fight but the fight is here!” Longstreet moves his Corp into Gettysburg in the opening turn.

Disappointingly, given my goals, I found that the Gettysburg scenario starts at the end of June with both armies situated just outside of the town. For the battle itself, it seems that, while there might be a few choices for the player, the outcome is going to be largely depended on the roll of the virtual dice.

Devil’s Details and the Brigade

I also continued to work my way through the Ultimate General campaign, and have warmed to it the more I play. My original impressions were that it was a little on the simple side.  Perhaps it is better thought of as more of a complex RTS than a simplified wargame. Specifically, I did comment on the unit size; the basic maneuver unit being brigades rather than the more commonplace regiments. My other first impression was that the game was very difficult. In several plays, I lost every time.

Since that first writing, I’ve played all the way through the campaign from both sides. My result was that, as Confederates, I suffered the historical loss. As the Union, my first two days were victories (again historical), but on July 3rd I was taken by surprise by a Confederate envelopment. Pickett’s command actually hit me from the rear, and the enemy used my distraction to push me off Cemetery Ridge.

The play got me thinking about the level of abstraction, and what is appropriate. Appropriateness, of course, is relative. Does that mean ever more realism and accuracy of the simulation? Does it mean more fun to play? How important is accessibility? For the target of this particular game, the ability to pick up the mechanics quickly and to be able to complete a game within a 20-30 minutes is probably at a premium. When going in this direction, how much and what kind of abstraction will retain a good simulation of command, even if the details don’t appear to be simulated?

The original Avalon Hill Gettysburg game came out in 1958, and was one of the first of the modern wargames. To the eyes of today’s game player, it was fairly primitive and the package does not come together well, but its fair to say that all games that followed owe a debt to the design. The game was played on a square grid, over a fairly attractive map using counters representing Divisions. The rules were rewritten and the components re-released several times by Avalon Hill, culminating in much more modern-looking 1977 version using hexes and traditional counters. Still, the maneuver unit is at the Division level. Avalon Hill had a 1993 release, Roads to Gettysburg, again with primarily Division level unit markers, however this was meant to capture (as I started off with at the beginning of the article) the larger campaign.

The most modern, and probably most regarded board game treatment of this battle is The Guns of Gettysburg. It is a hex-less (and square-less), card-less, and dice-less treatment of the Gettysburg battle. It is part of a series of games taking place in this era (Napoleonic and American Civil War) that uses wooden blocks and nodal maps to represent the combat style of the time. I don’t mean to get into a discussion of the game itself except to note that, again, the maneuver unit is somewhere between the division and the brigade (multiple units per division but not necessarily one per brigade).

The point of all this is that, when it comes to boardgame representations a huge battle like Gettysburg, breaking the units down into brigades would be considered a “serious” treatment. Within that context, the Ultimate General design make not seem quite so simple. I’m further influenced by looking ahead at the next in the series, Ultimate General: Civil War. I don’t have this game; it’s a Steam Early Access game, which seems like paying for the privilege of being a beta tester. However, I can see from discussion, screenshots, and design notes some of the direction that game is headed. It also has me considering Ultimate General: Gettysburg to be more of a testing-the-waters for the fuller vision of the new game.

From what I can tell, Ultimate General: Civil War will, in fact, take the simulation down to the regiment level. The comparison I would make, rather that to the Sid Meier game, is to Sierra’s Civil War Generals 2. That game, which I still might be playing today if it worked easily on current operating systems, provided the battles of the Civil War linked together in campaigns. At the campaign level, management decisions were made about supplies, weapons, and manpower as well as high level strategic options. Those decisions then influenced the order and details of the tactical battles.  It was a very engaging game that consumed a lot of my time back when it was new. This may be the direction that this series is trying to go.

Reading Steam comments about the early access for Ultimate General: Civil War highlight some existing problems, that hopefully will be ironed out in due time. Most of the comments seem to be about the campaign system, and how well previous results are factored into the next battle. Based on my playing of Ultimate General: Gettysburg, if I had one request it would be better modelling of supply. It isn’t so obvious with infantry; when infantry units engage, they gradually become depleted through a combination of morale, physical losses, and (perhaps) ammunition. However, a battery of cannon can, if out of range of enemy units, fire on the enemy positions indefinitely.

While the standard for computer wargames tends to be at the Regiment, rather than Brigade level, I took a peek at Battleground 2: Gettysburg to remind myself of that design. Although the second of the John Tiller/Talonsoft series, it was the first of the “Age of Rifles” games. It also used the Brigade as the unit for the “stands” (it mimicked the look of the table top wargame, although played on hexes).

In the HPS iteration of the the Tiller Civil War engine, he reimplemented Gettysburg battle at a much finer level of detail as well as capping it with an operational level “decision” interface that guides the tactical level battles. While there are a dozen Civil War titles for the PC, only eleven are available on the tablet (and that includes one demo game, not related to one of the battles). Perhaps because Gettysburg was one of the first, if not the first, conversion to the new engine, it is not on the tablet.

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This is most certainly not Gettysburg. It is a tutorial scenario, but one that vaguely corresponds to Buford’s July 1st Gettysburg defense.

For some further compare and contrast, I did take a look at the demo app on the tablet. For continuity sake, one of the tutorial scenarios involves a cavalry unit (under Buford) defending a ridge against attacking Confederate infantry. It certainly sounds pretty Gettysburg-like.

The Tiller offerings are thought of as at the serious end of the military simulation spectrum, which is why I think it makes an interesting compare and contrast. As I said, the unit size (regiment) matches where the Ultimate General: Civil War appears to be headed. But just look at that row of buttons across the top. Surely, with all those options and all that you do every turn, it must be a much deeper game? What “serious” options are left out of the more accessible version of the Battle?

The turn-based versus continuous time is one obvious difference. It certainly changes the way one tends manage their game. In a turn based game, a player often feels the need to consider each move carefully, whereas in a real time game you’re forced to move your focus away from some parts of the battle as you focus on others. In theory though, when a RTS is pausable, there is opportunity for equal amounts of deliberation. Further, continuous time (or at least a simultaneous execution of turns) eliminates some gaminess surrounding the order in which you make your moves. Point being, I don’t automatically consider one style or the other as superior.

Several of those interface buttons along the top have to do with facing, which is also modeled in Ultimate General, and with their cooler interface. What isn’t in the Ultimate General interface is the change from column to line, or the limbering/unlimbering of artillery. Ultimate General does this “automatically” when you make a move. For short moves, cannons are pushed forward into their new position. For long moves, cannons are hitched to their horse teams and infantry forms into a column. When playing the various tiller games, I often find that the formation is more something to be forgotten (especially in more modern settings where there is column/deployed and mounted/foot) rather than a fun addition to gameplay. The question with letting the computer do it is, is everything modeled correctly?

Similarly, the choices for targeting units in the turn based game do not necessarily add to the experience. In Ultimate General, the player can direct fire, but the default is that units choose their own targets. This actually makes more sense in terms of realism. From the battlefield commanders standpoint, units are apt to fire on the units that they feel are most threatening to them, not the most important targets from command point of view. Granted, the automatic resolution of “opportunity fire” makes the two systems, again in theory, pretty similar, the real time version (to me) feels more natural. Finally, they both have options to enter melee combat, and are thus pretty equivalent on that level.

There are other details that the Tiller version probably models better, and certainly models more explicitly. I do think that the Ultimate General system is not targeting the same level of fidelity, and so a one-to-one comparison isn’t necessarily fair. My point, however, is that something like Ultimate General could easily challenge the something like the Tiller games, if taken in that direction.

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Savages?

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Lesley Stahl: Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite–
Lesley Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?
Benjamin Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being.
Lesley Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though.
Benjamin Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.
Lesley Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act?
Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.

Command Failures

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This wraps up 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.

My final exercise in the exploration of the Suez Crisis was to be a scenario in CMANO imagining an escalation of the Egypt situation into a global conflict between the superpowers, not an entirely implausible scenario given the events.

The actual scenario, titled Caribbean Clinch, is a user-made scenario that is one of the archetypes of CMANO situations. The player is given a mixed range of assets with which he is expected to locate and dispatch a mix of enemy surface and subsurface vessels. I’m pretty sure I’ve played a similar setup before. Moving the scenario to different frames allows exploration of the technology available at that time.

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No wheat evident amongst the chaff.

My complaint here is a variation of one I’ve made before. I lost the scenario, having failed to find any of the enemy units. The situation is that the Carribean Basin has a number of commercial vessels which I ended up chasing (often having to re-identify the same ones), and I never located any hostile vessels. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps I was supposed to use more active radar searches than I did? Perhaps my search patterns were poorly conceived?

The point is – I don’t know. For the advanced CMANO gamer, the answer is probably obvious.

In working on my previous article, I was reading about why the disparity between the historical results and the playing experience in the Steel Panthers scenario. Someone suggested that the last thing a scenario builder wants to hear, having put a lot of time into creating a masterpiece of a scenario, is that it is too easy and not worth playing.

By contrast, I play for insight into the historical conditions of the situation represented. If, historically, my side had an overwhelming win, I want to see that happen (or at least have that potential, assuming I do the historically right thing). It is frustrating for me, a casual gamer, to completely fail in the mission and, in doing so, also completely fail to have learned anything about the situation, equipment, or tactics.

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Having not found satisfaction with my Suez Canal -related scenario, I return to the unfinished business of my Strategic Air Command scenarios of the same timeframe.

To compare and contrast; this scenario also, for me at least, is fiendishly difficult. In that earlier article, I discussed the problems of trying to operate B-47s against the evolved Soviet threat, and those problems are evident hear as well. It was a failure of doctrine to keep pace with technology. Unlike that other scenario, at the scale here I don’t think it is appropriate to “pilot” planes using the CMANO interface, so I have to assume there is another, more operational, solution.

But by contrast, the situation portrayed in the user-made scenario Peeling the Onion is both fascinating and unique. So much that even a complete failure is a learning experience. As the player, you are the commander of the “Reflex” operations in Morocco, as well as the supporting air wings in the States. With mid-air refueling, the bases in Morocco allow the bombing of Soviet targets with the B-47s. Furthermore, these jet bombers were expected to fly higher and faster than the Soviet defenses were capable of achieving, and thus can strike their targets without the necessity of escort fighters or other support. Thus, the game even in complete loss is instructional allowing the player to imagine how a commander at that time might have been taken completely by surprise by the latest in Russian technology.

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In this scenario, you are commanding American nuclear bomber bases in Morocco, for striking the Soviet Union from the South. The red area is someone else’s business. For now, there is still peace, but I send a few planes on forward alert just to be cautious.

What makes the difference is that the impossible situation here is one, potentially, faced by a commander in this place and time. The doctrine and forces assumed that the U.S. nuclear strike was invulnerable to defense. By the late 50s, this was no longer the case. So if the commander got the go to launch, what was he to do? He had no counter to the Soviet air defenses, which (perhaps unbeknownst to him) had become effective.

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War! With the outbreak of hostilities, I launch my first strike with everything I’ve got. It will prove to be insufficient.

As with the previous scenarios in the era, I have to wonder if the capabilities of the Soviet forces aren’t a bit on the optimistic side. <Spoiler Alert – from here I talk scenario details> In my initial strike, using all the bombers that I had stationed in Morocco, the Russians had no problem shooting down every one of my bombers. The Yak 25 fighter moves faster and flies higher than my B-47s, so all I can hope for is a lucky tail gunner shot. Since I’m also outnumbered, I probably need half-a-dozen lucky tail gunner shots in a row to get the bomb through.

I also ran into some frustrating interface issues. At the point I realized none of my guys were getting out alive, it seemed pointless to worry about refueling issues. Yes I had insufficient refueling planes in the theater but, after all my bombers were shot down, I had unused refueling planes. Point being, once a bombing run began, I wanted it completed, whether or not the pilots thinks he could get his plane home again. At one point, I even had a bomber get pretty close to the target, at which point he turned around and began heading for a refueling station. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to override that behavior (although I know I’ve crashed planes in previous scenarios by accidentally running them out of fuel). It was really upsetting to, several times, finally get the bomber headed in the right direction to then, once again, have it turn around and head for a tanker rendezvous. Finally, I had to give up at let him egress, at which point he was promptly shot down by the planes he had just avoided on the inbound leg. My sole consolation was that I didn’t really believe he was going to make to the target anyway.

One more learning experience. The frustration of being unable to get through the Soviet defenses does provoke emotional reactions. Eventually, I did manage to light off 10 megatons near a Ukrainian city, and boy did that feel good. All of this without context; the scenario deliberately gives no background for the war or the green light to bomb. The Russians goal is only to prevent me from wiping out all their cities, whereas mine is to maximize innocent body count – and yet I feel personally offended when they prevent me from doing so. It makes you think about what happens, psychologically, in a real war.

Same Sand, Different Day

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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.

While Bir Gifgafa seems to be the most modeled battle of the Suez Conflict, it isn’t necessarily the best. Several other battles present more interesting fodder for wargaming.

New Battle, New Game

Taking a look at a new gaming system, I tried John Tiller‘s Modern Campaigns, the Middle East ’67 product. This is one of the products that carried over the HPS Sims days, but with a twist; it has also been released for tablets and that is the version that I got.

The mobile versions of these games are not a straight port. In this example, ME ’67 for the PC offers 37 scenarios whereas the mobile version offers 17. Also, the PC version comes with editing tools, whereas the tablet would seem to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get situation. However, the mobile versions are considerably lower priced to make up for it – $39.95 versus $2.99.

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Armor to the rescue at Abu Agheila.

The engine is somewhere between the grand tactical games of the previous article and the full war. In fact, it is within the smaller scale of what is done with The Operational Art of War. By comparison with the TOAW scenario on the same subject, it is about twice the granularity.  Here hexes represent one mile (as compared to 2.5 km) and the time scale is 3 hour turns (as compared to 6); although such a comparison is less clear when you factor in TOAW‘s split turns. Unit sizes are generally the same (infantry in battalions), although ME ’67 appears more likely to have the occasional smaller scale units. I also noticed, in the options, the ability to split units (also an option in TOAW). I’ve never used it in playing either game, but in just a quick try, the TOAW units can be split (arbitrarily, not by company) whereas that doesn’t seem to be an option for the identical units in ME ’67.

Comparing and contrasting, ME ’67 is a more focused product, and it has some details to show for it. For example, the day/night cycle that I complained about in the TOAW version is now included. Two turns per 24 hours (at least in the scenarios I’ve tried so far) are night turns, which are distinguished by reduced visibility and no air support. The details of combat are more obvious in the reporting (the number of men/vehicle kills are highlighted with every attack), whereas TOAW is tracking squads, but I’d be surprised if the under-the-hood accounting is all that different. Also in both all units except artillery have an attack range of 1 hex. Finally, more in line with the grand-tactical games, ME ’67 makes the distinction between ranged fire and assault by deliberately conducting Divided Ground-style assaults.

One of the complaints I have about the Tiller games is that they tend to be fairly confined scenarios. Movement rates are small enough relative to the duration of the scenarios that your path to victory from the initial setup is rather focused. It is likely an AI thing: if a player could collect up all his troops and swing them around to the rear of the enemy position for an a-historical attack, the AI would probably react very wrongly to it. It also seems that often the “challenge” of the scenario is imposed by the turn limit. In the scenario shown above, this latter wasn’t the case.  I had enough time to do what I needed to do. The first observation applies though; there aren’t a lot of options outside of the historical battle – as Israeli, I split my forces and attack using both of the roads headed into the pass.

As a product, it does handle the 1956 war just a tad better than the TOAW version. I’m not sure that is does it $39.95 better. In fact, one of the attractions of this game is that it is on the tablet, and it is a break from the mouse-heavy play of everything else I have. That said, the touch-screen interface is a little quirky. Movement is a press-down until a unit is selected, at which point you can (by continuing to press) create a movement path. It is easy to do it wrong, and that can be annoying. Otherwise, it makes a pretty decent “casual” mobile game.

Last comment is that this is Middle East ’67. Although there are three scenarios for the 1956 conflict, the bulk of the scenarios are for later wars, and so I do plan to be coming back to this one.

Testing 1-2-3

Given the lopsided loss for the Command Ops scenario based on this war, I decided to run a test. Rather than mix the results of terrain, attack/defense, and unit capabilities all at once, I wanted to see a straight-up comparison of the unit capabilities, Israel versus Egypt.

I created a test map, with a large flat area so that line-of-sight would not be an issue. The forces (armor only, no resupply) deployed with the player assuming control near sun-up. Both sides have an objective at the center of the map, so that each side must move towards engagement and duke it out.

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The map is mostly flat, though I added some hills and canyons for aesthetic purposes. My armor moved towards the objective (that white square with the blue arrow) in column, and met the enemy coming the other way.

Daylight and lack of terrain features meant that that I had knowlege of the locaton of the approaching enemy force throughout. About 2500 meters, my units began engaging. This was outside of the effective range of the Egyptians, and they did not return fire. This is much more in line with what I’d expect than my previous version of the scenario.

I also noticed another interesting and, to me, unexpected feature of the game. Once the shooting starts, that disrupts the line of sight and intelligence about the enemy. The black-outline to the southwest of the lead enemy unit is showing that I previously spotted a unit there, but its current location is unknown. Of the scope of this screenshot, the entire tail of the enemy column was lost once the shooting started, even though it was well within range of sight before.

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I am continuing to engage the enemy outside of their effective range. To gain further advantage, I’m disengaging part of my line to extend to my left. The red mark is the games representation of my friendly fire.

As I am able to bring my tanks into range, the battle continues as I would expect from playing the other games on the Bir Gifgafa encounter. As a note, I did not try to tweak the parameters to achieve my results. The Soviet data are from the Germany scenario I played earlier and the Israeli guns are using data for the German 75, upon which the French design was based.

I do appear to have flummoxed the AI. In the above screenshot, while I have deployed my units outside of the enemies range in a line, he appears to have trouble coming out of column and, even after several hours and many losses, has yet to close to his own engagement range. But that wasn’t what I am testing. I just want to see if the Israeli range advantage comes through in the modelling, and it does seem to.

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I feel the need to press the attack, so I’m ordering my units to close the distance. This increases the damage I’m doing to the enemy (yellow crosses = destroyed Egyptian units), but I’m now taking return fire and own-side losses.

By mid-afternoon, perceiving I have the advantage, I begin to push forward to seize the objective and eliminate the enemy. Once again, I do see the expected behavior. Once I get into the 1500m range, the return fire from the Egyptians becomes effective.

One major difference in this scenario is the speed of the encounter. Whereas all the other models of this battle keep it within an hour or two, we see in this screenshot has it at about 2PM, having been engaged since 10AM. Obviously, there is nothing implausible about a slower pace. If the commanders do not push the engagement, things may well move slowly. In the end, the Egyptian commander surrendered to me right around sunset. And by surrender, I would assume the game means “conceded victory” by withdrawing, as opposed to turning over all his arms and men.

Riffing on Rafah

Another battle that has treatments from multiple games is the taking of the fortress at Rafah in the Gaza strip.

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A 1956 U.S. Army map from just before the war shows Rafah, the 1948 Armistice Line, and the surrounding territory.

In the north, the opening move for the Israelis was seizing the fortress at Rafah. This separated the remaining Gaza forces from Egypt, allowing Israel both to strike West into the Sinai, and to isolate and destroy the remaining forces in Gaza. The fortress complex was defended by the 5th Infantry Brigade, a mix of Egyptian and Palestinian forces.

Although the initial phases of the operation were deep in the Sinai, arguably the entire raison d’être for the invasion was the occupation and pacification of the Gaza strip. Although, in the event, this battle was a complete Israeli victory (less than 10 casualties), it was nevertheless a critical battle in achieving Israeli success.

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The battle for Rafah as portrayed in Divided Ground. The 2D view shows the full scope of the battle, with the Israeli’s striking simultaneously from 3 directions.

Divided Ground has this scenario, and it provides an excellent fit for this engine.

Without buying some more books on the subject, I have only hints at the actual timeline of the battle. It appears that the battle started during the night before, as Israeli engineering units infiltrated the enemy lines and cleared the mine fields. The main attack came after daybreak, and consisted of a rapid, mechanized assault on the Egyptian fortifications.

Comparing and contrasting two versions of this scenario is an illuminating exercise. The Divided Ground scenario (a modified version* of the default scenario, again by  Alan R. Arvold) is at the upper end of what is appropriate for this engine. The game duration is about 2 hours, beyond which simulating logistics becomes important in a scenario.

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The killers awoke before dawn. The sun has yet to come up, and already my assault has made a hole in the Egyptian position.

The ME ’67 scenario runs eight turns, the two nights bookmarking the actual day of the battle. Approaching the Egyptian positions and even the initial assaults occur during the night turn, while the bulk of the fighting takes place throughout the day.

So which of these two takes comes closest to getting it right? And by right, do I mean which is more historical? More fun? More instructive?

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I think many grand-tactical scale war games create scenarios “representative” of battles, rather than trying to nail down the details. Was the battle really fought in a two hour period, start to finish? I doubt it. But the pace of the actual assault may well have been that a two-hour time limit is appropriate.

Examining the two scenarios side-by-side, you can see they model the situation very similarly. The finer grain of the Divided Ground version allows for some additional details. For example, there is an armored car unit, represented as two “stands”, on the board. In the ME ’67 game, these perhaps wouldn’t show up as a separate company in the order of battle.

Divided Ground is more fun, and probably a better all-around way to deal with an engagement like this. While the length of the battle more more accurately captured at the operational level, the pace of the battle is probably not. Slowly moving armor through the Rafah fortresses does not strike me as how the battle should be portrayed. This should be an example of using mobile warfare to defeat fixed fortifications, and that doesn’t simulate well as rolls comparing attack and defense values. Furthermore, the much of the fun comes from the different equipment. Israel, unable to get her hands on state-of-the-art Western hardware, mixed and matched to create some unique weaponry. Doesn’t the player want to get hands on this equipment, actually interacting with range and firepower and lethality?

Of course, Divided Ground itself is quite an abstraction. Although I’m moving 3D tanks around the “board,” these are all representative of small units. Each “turn” I get two “shots” from my tank against the enemy, but that represents what? How many of my, say, 5 tanks are engaging with how many rounds? It may be a “better” way to play this battle, but is it in any way optimal?

As an aside, I do notice that I was completely unable to reproduce the historical result of minimal Israeli casualties. I lost a bunch of men and equipment in the approach, including having trucks destroyed with infantry on board. In the ME ’67 version, by contrast, claiming all the victory locations with minimal losses pretty much is necessary for victory.

Playing this in Divided Ground does make me wonder whether I should be buying the revamp, Campaign Series Middle East. After fighting through at turn against, not just the enemy, but software oddities and operating system glitches (one turn I watched an Arab truck just go back and forth between two hexes, until in ran out of movement) the improvements in the newer version start to look really appealing. However, as some of the online reviews pointed out, basically a modded up version of a 20-year-old game. As was said, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find for under $10 on Steam, and may or may not wait for the sale even at that price. For $39.99?

Mini Me

To get involved with each vehicle and each shot of the main gun, a player needs to break out Steel Panthers.

The size of the Rafah battle, as portrayed in the previous two engines, exceeds what is appropriate for WinSPMBT. Instead, a scenario explores an engagement that occurred immediately after the victory at Rafah.  As the defenses at Rafah began to come apart, Moshe Dayan sent the light tanks (AMX-13s) along the coast to take al-Arish. At roughly the right edge of the the U.S. military map, above, the Israelis ran into prepared Egyptian defenses.

The resulting WinSPMBT scenario looks something like Rafah in miniature. The defensive positions are smaller and the attackers are fewer, and their aren’t 3+ axes of attack to manage.

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Rushing the wire. I replayed this scenario half a dozen times, trying to figure out how to get close to the historical outcome.

Nevertheless, the shot-by-shot version of this fight gets a bit tedious, compared to the higher level simulations. It doesn’t help that I find this scenario (called “Road to el-Arish”) very difficult to play. Completely uncharacteristically for me, I tried the scenario something like six times in a row in an attempt to figure it out. Without success, I might add. What gets me is that, not only did Moshe Dayan crack this nut, again winning the battle with minimal losses, but the player is expected to get an overwhelming victory as well – the instructions say anything less than a 2:1 Israeli point victory should be considered a loss.

Since I don’t know what exactly the answer is, I can only speculate. But I think managing the line-of-sight from potential enemy positions is probably a key, and is something that isn’t easy when it to the ancient UI of WinSPMBT.

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

*I’m actually not entirely sure which version of the scenario I’m playing, the stock or the revised one. See the notes (albeit for a new version than the Divided Ground one) for differences between the two.

Not Looking for a New England

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I take my children to the library, where they seem far more interested in the toys and games than they are in the books. That leaves me with a half-an-hour to an hour of waiting for them to tire of much the same toys we have at home. Fortunately, the nearby young-adult section has a bunch of history books. Being geared for teens, I can manage to make it through one in a couple of sessions at the library. Also, being a lighter read, when the inevitable fisticuffs start between the children, it is easy to stop and start reading without losing concentration.

This week I pulled Flames over New England: The story of King Philip’s War, 1675-1676 from the shelf. Although I know I knew it once, perhaps in high school, I had to read the book to remember that King Philip is actually an Indian chief, not a Spanish King. It is the history of the point where the Algonquin (the language group of the various tribes of New England) people decided they’d taken enough of the English colonist’s shit, and were to take no more.

So far, I’ve only read the first Chapter, which is the background for the War, not the war itself. I’m enjoying the way the book is written. It relies heavily on original source material, and includes quotes, but (keeping in mind the teenage reader) is written in a smoother prose than a more scholarly book might be. The footnotes and context for the quotes are lacking, so a little faith is required in the author’s mix of present day narrative and contemporary views. The serious historian would not be amused, but for a quick read it fits the bill.

New England at that time consisted of four chartered colonies; Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Their rise from barely-viable outpost to self-sufficient colonies on a trajectory to independence took place within the lifetime of the founders, and is an amazing story. The book raises to prominence the issue of land rights relative to the rights of the Indian tribes. For example, while the founder of Rhode Island had serious religious conflicts with the Puritans, he was actually banished from the Massachusetts Colony for dispute over Indian land rights. He believed that the Indians themselves had the rightful title to their land, and that grants by the King were irrelevant. The author does add that, while the colonists believed in their own racial superiority and the right of their King to grant them the Indian’s land, by-and-large they were fairly compensated for the land which they transferred to the colonies during this period (although the author wonders if they fully grasped the concept of land ownership).

Also an interesting point: Did you know that the name of this state remains The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations? It is abbreviated for convenience, but that designation has never changed.

Finally, the book highlighted the legal restrictions placed on the Indians. They were forbidden by law from “modern” technologies. I found the described the original Connecticut Gun Control laws.

And they [the Indians] had not been permitted to buy or own firearms until 1665 – a permission that was withdrawn whenever the colonists feared there was a danger of an uprising.

Elsewhere the author describes the prosecution of an Indian for discharging a firearm on a Sunday.

It’s not about the guns; it’s about the control.

Miracles on Okinawa

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I’m normally a fan of Mel Gibson’s movies. And Hacksaw Ridge is, while a bit formulaic, still largely successful as an example of the war-hero genre that has served Mr. Gibson well.

The real miracle in this film is not the real-life miracle; the survival under artillery fire of Medal-of-Honor recipient Desmond Doss while he rescued 75 wounded from behind enemy lines. To me, it is how those men fought on, through day and night, and never ran out of ammunition. In particular the “Sargent” character, played by Vince Vaughn, fights off the Japanese with his MP3 (aka Grease Gun), never running low on ammo. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall a single reload from anyone. I did notice a 1911 lock back at some point and that, sadly, resulted in its user’s quick death.

The incidents of firearms silliness are legion, but only one made me quite literally wince in pain. “Teach,” the well-read-soldier archetype, charges from his trench firing a Browning M1919 from a loose, off-hand stance, gripping the barrel to direct his fire. For you non-gun geeks, the M1919 is a tripod-mounted, belt-fed machine gun firing 30-06. The Spielberg/Hanks mini-series The Pacific actually used the consequences of grabbing a medium machine gun by the barrel as a plot point (hint, Medal of Honor winner John Basilone wrecks his hands in the process).

Looking at the overall story, part of the difficulty in making sense of the action is my “small world” problem. The battle in which Doss earned his Medal of Honor occurred over the course three weeks. In the film, it is three days. And while the commanding colonel says that “several battalions” were lost in the fighting, we focus on the action of a particular company, which is represented by roughly a platoon-sized group of men. If one imagines the battlefield solely as portrayed on screen, much of the subsequent action becomes impossible.

All that aside, Doss’ son has praised the movie for its fidelity to Doss’ story, and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt in this respect. I also like Vince Vaughn as an actor, so again, I try not to be completely negative on this production. It has its moments, but there are movies these days that are working hard to get the technical details right, and I think Mel could have risen to this occasion.

One other thing struck me while watching the portrayals of combat; the hyper-realism that is popular in war movies these days. I predict that a few years from now, this is going to be what gives today’s movies that “dated” look from the two-thousand-teens.

Bir Gifgafa

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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.

In the last post I complained that, although the TOAW scenario gives a good overall picture of the encounters in the 1956 war, it does not convey the “feeling” of this fighting, and which would require gaming at a finer level.

Back near the beginning of this series, I dug out my Arab Israeli Wars (the board game) and set up scenario B-1. Apparently, I’m not alone as there a many games that look at that battle, several of them having been directly inspired by the Avalon Hill scenario. The board game is not designed for solitaire play, and this scenario in particular does not lend itself for playing without an opponent. Nevertheless, when I set it up and fiddled around with it for a little bit, it immediate began to look like an Israeli victory.

Being scenario B-as-in-Basic #1, you would think you’d find it a simple, well balanced scenario suitable for new players learning the game. It does not appear to be this; my impressions of the scenario finds it extremely tilted toward the Israelis. See this thread at Board Game Geek for a bit of discussion on the scenario. I suppose it may have another purpose. A section of the design notes begins with a story of an October, 1973 battle where 5 Israeli tanks are sent to engage 40 Syrian T-55s. After 45 minutes (a typical scenario length in this type of game), half of the Syrian tanks were destroyed and the remaining retreated, without a single Israeli loss. One wonders if part of the purpose of B-1 is simply to demonstrate the massive superiority of Israeli armored doctrine, even when “the numbers” suggest an advantage to the other side.

Divided Attention

The first computer version I played was for Divided Ground. As I mentioned in my previous look at Arab Israeli War scenario conversions, these scenarios contain extensive design notes. In those design notes, the author makes a comment that the purpose of his conversions are to implement the board game scenarios. If a player wants good Divided Ground scenarios, either versus the computer or to compete with an opponent, he says they should look to the scenarios supplied with the game. This conversion may be a good example of what he is talking about.

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A turkey shoot. Despite the “light tank” designation, the superior gun (and doctrine) of the AMX-13 makes short work of the Egyptian T-34/85s.

The victory conditions, rewarding destruction of the enemy and the success or failure of traversing the board within the allotted time, are reproduced faithfully. But a problem in this conversion seems to be that the computer opponent doesn’t really understand them.

Assuming that the scenario is, in fact, winnable as the Arabs, the key would be to use terrain to ambush the approaching Israeli’s once they are in range. In fact, it should be an advantage of the computer version that it might be possible for Arab units to remain hidden (via the fog of war feature) until they are close enough to neutralize the range advantage of the Israelis. Instead, the Arab player seemed to bunch up his units, leaving them in place to be destroyed at leisure from a distance. Even more glaring, the Arab player dealt with the exit conditions by stacking his units on the exit hexes, making them easy targets once good firing positions were determined.

As Inspired By

Scale Up/Scale Down

Divided Ground

Battlefield size: 8km x 4km
Turn length: 1 hour 30 minutes
Unit: Platoon

Steel Panthers: MBT

Battlefield size: 5km x 2.5 km
Game length: 30-45 minutes
Unit: Single vehicle

The Star and the Crescent

Battlefield size: 28km x 19km
Game length: 2 hours
Unit: Single vehicle

 Command Ops 2

Battlefield size*: 40km x 12km
Game length: ~12 hours
Unit: Platoon

Moving on to the Steel Panthers version, we again encounter a scenario “inspired by” the Avalon Hill scenario, rather than being actually based off of it. The mix of tanks are about right, but there are far fewer (owning to the smaller scale). There terrain doesn’t have the same feel. While the sand and rocky hills are still there, it doesn’t have the “hexside” ridges of the board game.

The inspiration does take one odd form. The map layout is with North to the left and a fairly narrow playing space West-to-East. On the top (that is, West) edge of the map is the Suez Canal, not used in the game. You might recall that the original scenario uses the Suez Canal mapboard to add extra playing space, but the canal features themselves are not playable. The battle took place quite a ways distant from the canal, and it is only in this scenario because the board game must create all of the battles using the same four mapboards.

One other oddity. The battalion commander has a jeep at his disposal. For some reason, when moved, the jeep makes horse noises. Fortunately for my sanity, the jeep got stuck in the sand within the first few minutes of play.

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The scenario said to play from the Egyptian side. Maybe I should have paid attention.

The scenario played out much as the Divided Ground. Kills were made at long range with very little own-losses. In a similar way, the enemy bunched up around a couple of victory locations, where they were subsequently destroyed.

I Want to Love You, But…

The 2005 release from Shrapnel Games, The Star and The Crescent promises to be what we’re all looking for here. While primarily focuses on later wars, it too has a Bir Gifgafa scenario for 1956. Immediately on start, we notice the increased use of realism in this version. Instead of randomly-generated desert or a reproduction of “Board D,” the scenario is played using a Soviet contour map of the battlefield. Unfortunately, it is a 1980s Soviet map of the battlefield so, for example, it has a airfield that didn’t exist in 1956. A hint of things to come.

The Star and the Crescent itself the fifth game released on that engine, which started with BCT: Brigade Combat Team or BCT:Commander (depending on the version) from 1998. While I didn’t collect ’em all, as they say, I do have several versions of this system. This game system is the one that finally drove me over the edge regarding left-handed mouse issues in gaming. Much of the Shrapnel line has long insisted on making the mouse buttons non-configurable. In this series it was particularly galling to me because the interface is so mouse-click intensive.

Amazingly, there is a particular combination of installations and patches that solves the problem. My computer has both The Star and the Crescent and Air Assault Task Force, installed together and both patched up to the latest post-release versions. Running with both, and then launching the TSatC executable (with the current patch) presents a native windows interface. Launching from the AATF executable presents a custom GUI that defiantly eschews integration with Windows. The mouse buttons are locked, as is the screen resolution. Several times in the past I’ve gotten stuck on that interface, unwilling to try to learn the actual game. Fortunately, this time around, I stumbled upon the workaround.

But once the game starts running, we find other problems. It is not a pretty game, by anyone’s definition. But that’s OK. Pretty isn’t necessarily what we’re after. The game was sold as a hard-core sim for hard-core wargamers, so it must be judged as such. The problem is, again, the user interface. At start, all units are halted and without orders. Trying to assign those order tumbles one into a nightmare-like cycle where orders are given, wait, no they weren’t, try again. There, got it. Nope. Try again.

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The blue highlighted in green is the lead company of AMX-13s. The black squares to my NW are the enemy that I dispatched, with two lost vehicles (gray squares). The blue squares back up the road to the NE are so far behind because of trouble getting orders. Note the ghost-of-the-future airfield to my South.

Suddenly one vehicle out the unit starts moving… but not the rest. Oops, wrong click try again.

I suppose I should be spending more time with the written manual. But every time I read the manual, the prose regales me with how easy and intuitive the user interface is, not gives me the secret to overcoming its hurdles.

Ultimately, once all the units have the right orders – the desired formation, a path plotted in roughly the right direction, and not halted, subsequent orders become a little easier. It is simpler to modify existing orders than it is to create new ones.

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A section from a 1959 US Military map of the Sinai hints at what we are up against. “Very Sharply Undulating” terrain. Another section, closer to the battlefield, describes “Sand Dunes “30 to 45 meters high.”

The simulation certainly does seem to be well done. Modeling look to be at the level of individual shots from individual vehicles. The control, however, can be per vehicle or at the higher-level commands using formations. The friendly UI isn’t at the level where units can take their own initiative, but the game is best played giving orders at the company level and leaving the computer to execute them. The modeling of the map seems to be well done also. The terrain modelling appears to be at a finer detail than most games at this scale, leaving a battlefield peppered with undulations and providing complex fields of fire to navigate.

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Pretty much done. The red Xs are killed enemies and the blue Xs are killed friendlies. My units (the blue armor symbol) are headed towards the end of that objective arrow.

Results were similar to the other three versions of this battle. The Israeli armor dominated the battlefield, dispatching the enemy with minimal friendly losses. Engagement distances were closer than the previous versions, something I attribute to the finer-grained modelling of the terrain. I do also notice the max-range for all tank guns is set at 1600, shorter than in the other games and closer than some of the kills in Steel Panthers.

In digging through the statistics, I came across another issue I have with the scenario. The scenario puts a 90mm gun on the AMX-13. This is an upgrade that the French were rolling out in the 1950s, but if the Israelis had any at the time of the Suez Conflict, it was only one or two. All the information I’ve seen says the light tanks of the 7th Armor Brigade mounted the 75mm gun, sharing it with the M50 Super Shermans.

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But wait, there’s more! Just as I was headed into the endzone, one more company of enemy armor appeared. Shouldn’t be an issue.

One big plus I’ll give this system. Once I killed a couple of the tanks in the above screen shot, the game ended. As the program described, it had now become impossible for the enemy to achieve its objectives. It saves the player from the unpleasantness of having to run out the clock on a scenario he knows is over.

The single 1956 scenario in this package may not represent the gaming system’s best face, so I’ll give The Star and the Crescent/Air Assault Task Force another look in the future.

Roll Your Own

The final look at this battle was created using the editing tools of Command Ops 2 to recreate the situation. For of an engine of its complexity, the scenario tools are surprisingly simple to work with. The game’s creator says his intention was that you could produce an interesting scenario in minutes, allowing you (for example) to imagine what a hypothetical meeting engagement between two arbitrary forces would look like. The details can be increased from there. There is a huge latitude for control of the AI (enemy and friendly) by setting the victory locations, which is vastly simpler than the scripted AI of other products. Under pressure from the users, everything in the engine is editable, allowing us to move from the WWII, Western Front setting to 1956 Egypt.

The most difficult part of the game to create fresh are the maps. Getting them right takes some time and effort. When I first started with some map creation, I was having trouble getting a non-Northern Europe base terrain. I decided to forgo it for this iteration, and used instead a user-created map for the battle of El Guettar.

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Adding vehicles for the Arab Israeli War was fairly straightforward.

This was by far and away the best interface experience for playing this battle. I set the unit size for the battle to correspond to the board game/Divided Ground. Commands can be given at any level from that unit on up, including simply commanding the entire force. The typical game length for Command Ops tends to be pretty long. The larger forces and multiple objectives require several distinct planning/execution phases and, at least for me, it takes quite some time to play through. However, a small scenario like this plays out very quickly.

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Engaged. Once again, the AI has clumped up their armor, this time at a choke point behind an Tunisian crossing. Judicious use of victory point location placement is what drives the AI in this game.

The battle went mostly as I’d expect. It ended up being a significant loss (although as I was haphazard assigning victory points, calculations of win and loss are probably not meaningful). The kill ratio was somewhat lopsided in favor of the Egyptians, and the Israelis failed to take the bridge. I’m left with a few conclusions about the use of this engine for post-WWII scenarios.

  • It is well suited to this time and place. The use of post-WWII equipment was not a stretch for the engine. However, this scenario does show where the limits of this system might be found.

The map seems to be on the larger size for a typical Command Ops battle,  which as I’ve said tend to be multi-day affairs. Granted the map was oversized for this battle, but in the table near the top of this article we can see that this size battlefield is more like the multiple-hour versions of the battle rather than a multiple-days version (which would pretty much cover the whole war). While this might be the size of an area for an extended operation for a airborne assault force, using primarily foot movement, against a fortified defense, things are different when it comes to more modern mobile warfare.

As mobile warfare, including helicopters, continues to advance and modeling improvements in communication and sensors in the 1960s and beyond, I foresee hitting big holes in what Command Ops can portray. And yet, there may continue to be a niche. Cold War era conflicts like the Iran-Iraq War also were also throwbacks to World War II weapons and technologies, so the engine might be a match for some other, later battles.

  • While creating the map may be the hardest part of the process, it may also be the most important when in comes to immersion and the fun factor. In this version of the scenario, failure to take the crossing seems almost meaningless. In the real battle, there was no bridge and there was no river. The opportunity for the player to connect with the historical circumstance is difficult unless the battlefield itself is actually recreated.
  • Clearly the advantage is Israeli gunnery and tactics is not property modeled. I used data for the German 75mm tank projectile, which does slightly outperform the Soviet guns. But clearly it wasn’t enough. A good bit of tweaking is almost certainly in order here.

Hopefully I’ll find the wherewithal to work some more with this concept before I’m done. With a little bit of work, I think I could see much better results. Furthermore, the 1956 Arab-Israeli War in general is even more suited to Command Ops than this particular scenario. The use of paradrops to seize objectives, which then are rescued by mechanized forces, is very much the scenario this series was originally designed to play.

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

*Regarding Battlefield Size and Duration. Since I set this up myself, it isn’t really representative. The map I used is much bigger that shown, but the roughly 40km x 12km rectangle is where all of the fighting will take place. Likewise the battle would never last for 12 hours of fighting. But I needed to set start and end times, so I just gave it most of the day.