My first post about the Cold War is about making the transition from WWII wargaming, where there is a multitude of treatment for most every part of the war, to the Cold War where, well, there isn’t. The post going to be divided into two parts, because the two games I kick of the Cold War with are not really related, except by starting date.
The Operational Art of War, Volume III
The greatest battle of the Cold War is the one that never happened.
While the Cold War ultimately touched nearly every corner of the globe and involved some decidedly “hot” fighting, preparations were for the massive showdown between West and East in Germany. Initial confrontations of the era took place across borders created by the position of troops at the end of the Second World War.
No border was more important than the division between the Western and Soviet occupied zones in Germany. Initially, the powers agreed that the goal was to prevent Germany from ever again amassing the power to start a World War. The unity of effort began to dissolve when the West saw that their policies were driving the population to Communism. While the original plan was a political reunification of Germany, it was clear that the West and the Soviets had very different concepts of what that unified Germany would look like. As tensions rose and the border between the occupations zones became the border between the world’s two great ideologies, a political reunification became impossible and a military unification seemed more and more likely.
For the next forty years, the powers prepared for battle between the Soviet Union and the West in Germany. Preparations for that battle determined the outcome of conflicts elsewhere in the globe, and vice versa. While wargames can be, and of course are, made about the various proxy wars, police actions, and revolutions that took place in lieu of that battle, the armchair commander will always long to command the full power of NATO or the Warsaw Pact in virtual battle.
My first game is a an Operational Art of War scenario that puts this battle into perhaps its earliest possible spot in the timeline. What if, as the U.S. and Soviet Russia squeezed the remnants of Nazi Germany between them, the ideological conflict between East and West turned immediately hot?
The Scenario is Patton 45, a scenario which shipped with the original “The Operational Art of War: Volume I” in 1998 (and was subtitled “Patton’s Nightmare” in that version), was designed by Doug Bevard to model a Soviet Offensive against Patton’s 3rd Army in Czechoslovakia.
The Scenario starts with the very real tension which mounted in the final weeks of World War II as both the Soviets and the West attempted to control territory before the Germany’s surrender.The final major offensive of the war took place in Czechoslovakia, as the Soviets sought to force the surrender of Germany Army Group Center and seize Prague. While the Americans had agreed on a demarcation line between U.S. and Soviet operations, the Czech army itself rose up against the Germans and threatened the possibility that they would defeat the Germans, possibly with American assistance. For the Germans themselves, there were many that were fighting their way Westward, preferring to surrender to the U.S. rather than the Soviets. Stalin forced a rapid attack, at significant human cost to the Soviet army, to insure that that post-war Prague was in Soviet hands.
The Scenario is based on negotiations taking place before the final creation of German Occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. According the the scenario notes, when the a British negotiator suggested that the rebuilding of liberated Czechoslovakia should take place under the oversight of the West. In response, the Soviet negotiators not only rejected a loss of influence in Czechoslovakia, but demanded control over Southern Germany as well. While this discussion, apparently, never went any further the scenario hypotheses and alternate reality where the Soviets insisted on their position and, when further rebuked by the West, launch an offensive against the unprepared American army to physically occupy the ground.
The Operational Art of War is a game that I will certainly be coming back to. Originally released in 1998, it is currently being modified for a “Version 4” release. The current version is TOAW 3, which was released in 2006.
At the time in game out, it was a major game release, with top billing at many of the retailers of its day. Going from my own memory of my impressions at the time, I recall three unique features.
- It was a system capable of simulating virtually any battle from the World War I era to current events and beyond. The game released with scenarios spanning this range, but the system was also open to user-developed scenarios covering any battle or timeframe of interest. (I’m not sure if there is a definitive user-made scenario count, but I expect it is in the range of 1000 or higher)
- The focus was on simulating the Operational aspects of battles. Perhaps novel at the time (although fairly common today) was the emphasis on things like supply, as opposed to simply movement and combat.
- The combat factors were derived from the ground up, by modelling the individual units, weapons, and vehicles. This was intended to give a level of fidelity, particularly when modeling hypothetical scenarios, that simply assigning relative combat factors might not. In this, it still retains its novelty.
There are a lot of factors with this gaming system and the scenarios I’d like to discuss. How suitable is the hex-and-counter model for maneuver, when tactical factors are not present? (Compare, for instance, to games which use area movement). But for this post, my main focus is going to be on the difficulty of modelling a hypothetical situation like this. One where not only did the battle never take place, but where it didn’t take place was on ground which has not seen a modern battle.
While we are all familiar with the “high ground” of Gettysburg, the bridges leading to Arnhem, and the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy. But some stretch of terrain on the border of the Czech Republic and Germany doesn’t have that infamy. When modelling a battle that actually took place, there was a house, a church tower, a farm, an Orchard, or a series of bridges and the game just has to call these images to your mind. But what if it has to create that key crossroad out of whole cloth? It’s an intriguing proposition if it works, but also very difficult to pull off.
When playing the scenario, I based my plan on the assumption that the Soviet Army was a force that had spent itself defeating the Germans. This may or may not have been common knowledge at the time, but I suspect Patton would have made a similar assumption. I initially gave ground before each enemy attack until I had sufficient reinforcements available to make a stand.
The technique was extraordinarily effective. Whether it was in the design of the scenario, or just an artifact of playing against the computer*, I don’t know. I ended up with an overwhelming victory, which usually isn’t the case for me when playing TOAW.
Not that it bothers me. Giving the opponent a good walloping can make for a satisfying experience. In fact, given the choice between an nearly-impossible-to-win scenario and a cake-walk, I’d probably prefer the latter.
However, the experience did fall flat for me. I suspect the problem with the scenario design was, as I alluded to above, one of no familiar features to provide the hook. The chrome. Not knowing my Czech geography, the map largely was a set of random features. Woods, roads, rivers, and towns were all represented, but provided no structure; no story.
The scale of the units also adds to the “generic” feel of the gameplay. The counters represent the regimental-scale subunits of a division. As the screenshot shows, I’m about to complete my encirclement of one of the last Soviet pockets, leading with the reserve combat command (CCR) of the 11th Armored Division. That unit has a mix of medium M4 and light M24 tanks, and a whole lot of halftracks. How well do these match up against the Soviet T34s? Who knows? Who cares? While all these factors are included in the combat calculations, in actual gameplay the details take a back seat to just getting units (any units) into position and winning through weight of numbers.
Yes, it “matters” that my division is split up across the map, in that the combat factors are slightly degraded. But the loss of turns to try to reorganize would be a lot more costly than just absorbing that loss of efficiency. And this is realistic. It was not uncommon that battles were fought with whatever mix of units were available, independent of actual command structure. I’ll also guess that more than one attack ended up being spearheaded by the “reserve” command, when circumstances made that expedient.
My point is that when all this can be ignored, it will be ignored. Then the only difference between this battle, a battle in Normandy, or the Bulge or near Kursk, becomes different coloring on the units. I come away from the game, a little smug in the knowledge that George and I kicked some commie butt. But I gained no knowledge about how American Armor might have faced off against the great Guards Tank Armies of the USSR. Or how pitting Patton against Zukov might have actually played out.
At this point, I’m going to blame the scenario. It is a rather vanilla design, as far as the capabilities of the TOAW engine goes. There were no triggered political, weather or historical events (except some color commentary about goings-on elsewhere in the world.) I suspect the key to designing a scenario of this type is to put in a good amount of these kinds of extras to help drive a narrative.
Let’s see what happens the next time the U.S. meets the Soviets on a hypothetical Cold War battlefield.
*Computer opponents in single player games are notoriously bad on the attack. I suspect the winning strategy for the Soviet side would be to take advantage of the initial superiority to defeat the waves of U.S. reinforcements piecemeal.