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.

tsatcgif3

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.

co22

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.

From the Top

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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.

Returning, finally, to where I meant to begin this whole exercise, the actual Israeli attack on the Sinai which turned the Suez Crisis into the 1956 Arab-Israeli War.

I’ll start, once again, with the Operational Art of War scenario covering the event.

Order of Magnitude

The Arab-Israeli Wars

Hex side: 250 meters
Turn length: 6 minutes
Unit: Platoon

TOAW: Middle East ’56

Hex side: 2.5 km
Turn length: 6 hours
Unit: Battalion (occasional company)

The first thing that hits me with this scenario is that map size. It is huge. Comparing to the size of the 1948 Independence War scenario, the  hex scale is twice as fine, and the maneuver units are the next level down. Instead of 1 day turns, the turn length is six hours. This is an order of magnitude or more over an Arab-Israeli Wars (the board game) scenario, and sets up the game to last roughly as long as the actual, 9 day, war.

Several deviations from reality are made to improve the game play. As the design notes for the scenario indicate, in the actual attack, the Egyptians had orders to fall back to the Suez Canal. Like this would tend to trivialize a game at this scale. Instead, for this scenario, the Egyptians are set to “garrison mode.” They will hold their ground, but they will attempt coordinated counter-attacks. This simulates the damaged command and control without having them simply withdraw.

The next deviation is that, at least in my play-through, the British and French demurred shortly after I began my attack. This is mentioned in the design notes as a possibility and I have not looked into the triggers for this event, to see how likely it is and what it depends on. This also ramps up the difficulty, as, after some initial air attacks, the Israeli’s are on their own. The Israeli plans for the operation recognized this as a possibility, and still foresaw victory, even under these conditions.

In this case, the scale of the scenario helps to convey the sense of fighting in the desert. There are vast spaces with not-much-of-anything between towns, between units. There aren’t really fronts, as much as units racing through the desert at meeting each other. The less-that-one-day turns do bother me somewhat, because the game doesn’t account for day/night combat or the required down time. I suppose one should consider the turns to be not 6 hours, but each day divided into four fighting segments.

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Situation near Bir Gifgafa on November 4th. I’m several days behind schedule for the battle there, and short a tank battalion. All of my 7th Armor Shermans – ALL OF THEM – got stuck in the sand back near Abu Ageila, and will sit out the remainder of this war.

As you can read, in my above caption, I am a tad frustrated with some of the hex movement. This isn’t the first game where it has happened, but it is happening repeatedly here. I am getting units stuck in hex locations; they can move into the hex (maybe advancing after an attack?), but cannot move out again. The result is a perfectly functional unit removed from the battle, with no particular warning or recourse. I also took a big hit in victory points for straying too close to the “no go” line, where the British and French ostensibly could play a neutral role in “protecting” Egypt. In the end, this dropped me a victory level and resulted in some very unsatisfying end game text. Note, I didn’t cross the line. Frankly, if there is going to be proverbial “line in the sand,” one shouldn’t be penalized for going up to it without going over.

Mechanics of the game aside, I’m not sure this is the right scale for this war (or war for this scale). The fight (ahistorical French/British action aside) was probably never in doubt at the military level. The grand strategy, the politics (as I’ve said before) are the real story here, but as for the fighting, the battles were at particular engagements where the odds temporarily favored the Egyptians before Israel reinforced. While there is some value in seeing this play out at the theatre level, I think it was the individual fights that would hold the gamer’s interest for this war.

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

Like A Stone Wall

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A quick update on my previous post.

I played through the next Confederate scenario in Scourge of War: Gettysburg. This one supposes that Stonewall Jackson has survived his wounds at Chancellorsville and is available to command the whole of Second Corps in the afternoon of July 1st at Gettysburg.

The presence of Stonewall Jackson, per se, is not significant to the game play. However, it allows interesting way to introduce the important what-if.  What if the South could have coordinated her attacks on the first day of Gettysburg? What if the field would have been under a unified, and competent commander and the Corp weren’t divided between Ewell and A.P. Hill? Did Ewell fail to to take Cemetery Hill as a result of military reasons, or simply because he did not have what it took to lead?

As I had hinted before, I tried to play the game more in the way it appears to be intended. Although I did not actually engage the settings which restricts the camera view to the leader’s location, I tried to play as Jackson. Most of my commands were sent by courier, with the exception of instructions for adjacent units, where I used the direct interface.

The more I play the game this way, the more obvious it is that this is the right way to play this game. It introduces command delay and even the uncertainty that couriers will even get through with their message. It also introduces the real factor of friendly fog-of-war.  A commander doesn’t know what even his own side is doing, except through messages or actually riding forward. For an element the size of a Corp, there is no way he can be cognizant of what all of his men are doing, at least not in detail.

jackson

From just east of Gettysburg, Gen. Jackson observes his Corp swarming onto Cemetery Hill. Early has neglected to bring his artillery forward for support, and Jackson would like to see some placed here on this field.

The above screenshot was taken just before game-end, which was at 3PM. Because I did not take Cemetery Hill, I did not get the victory. Perhaps this answers the question as to whether the game “plays itself” when restricting one’s play to the commander. I think the answer is that, without direct intervention, the scenario will not be won within the time-frame allowed.

One little tidbit I miss. In the original Take Command, Jackson was represented with one arm in the air, and holding a lemon. Perhaps had he survived Chancellorsville, he would have toned down his eccentricities.

Personally, I’m still taking this as a victory for the Old South. While Cemetery Hill isn’t taken yet, there is still plenty of daylight left to secure the heights and put Lee’s army into an ideal defensive position for when the remainder of Meade’s forces come up over the next two days.

Now We’ll See How Professors Fight

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Periodically I like to re-read The Killer Angels.

In the time before Netflix, I also would frequently re-watch Gettysburg, the film based on Michael Shaara’s book, which because I happen to have it on DVD, was a choice when I didn’t have any rentals available.

The film Gettysburg was originally developed, over 25 years ago in 1991, as a mini-series for ABC. That network pulled backing when another Civil War-themed miniseries was a commercial flop. As the developer, Ted Turner then targeted the mini-series to his own, newly minted cable network, TNT. However, when he saw the near-finished project, he decided it was too big for television, and had it released to theaters.

Due to the running time, the theater release was limited and the box office take was modest (although it did turn a profit). The main problem was the running time of the film, clocking in at 254 minutes (growing to 271 minutes for the Director’s Cut), which required an intermission. If my recollection holds up (and who knows these days), it was then re-targeted back to TNT and the originally-proposed mini-series format. Cable channels, at the time, were rather a niche venue and again the “success” was modest.

Once released on DVD, the film finally came into its own. In the 24 years since theatrical release, it has become an all-time best seller. It’s popularity is for both its entertainment and its historical value, as it is now used as a classroom lesson augmentation. Still striking, to me, to this day is the use of the actual battlefield in the film. This was the first time that the U.S. National Park Service allowed filming at the Park. The battle scenes were reconstructed with reenactors and has been praised, except for the obviously well-fed soldiers, for their authenticity.

Similarly, the source book also took some time to come into its own. It won a Pulitzer prize in 1975, the year after its release, but it was not a commercial success. Appreciation for the book has built over the years, probably in no small measure due to the movie. For myself, I watched the movie first on TNT and only years later read the book when it was left at the take-a-book/leave-a-book library at work.

While re-reading the book, there are many passages that were reproduced religiously in the film. It is impossible to read and not see Tom Berenger, rather than James Longstreet, reciting some of the lines. In contrast, my minds eye cannot abide with Marty Sheen; I see only Robert E. Lee himself as I read. Naturally, the book has much more depth and is ultimately more satisfying than just another play through of the movie.

Game On

Also, to add to the experience, I decided to break out some Gettysburg games that I have.

While we are reminiscing, such a discussion would not be complete without considering Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, the 1997 portrayal of the battle. While hardly the first computer-game treatment, it offered a unique take on the battle and the design of this kind of game.

At the time, I had a couple of games addressing this battle, including Battleground Gettysburg (itself with reenactors) and Civil War Generals (2, I think). I didn’t pick up the Sid Meier games until years after release. It was in some sort of bargain offering that I got after I had played Austerlitz: Napoleon’s Greatest Victory, a later game based on the same engine. When I finally experienced these games I thought, this is what computer games should be about!

In the traditional hex-and-counter treatment, numbers and die rolls have to be used for the cohesion of units. As troops move quickly, or change facing, or perhaps move from column to line, one needs a numerical way to deal with the negative effects of that action (and how it diminishes over time). In Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, by contrast, you order a unit to move and deploy in the line, and then have to wait, watching, while the orders are executed. It made so much sense.

Unfortunately, even by the time I got the game, it was already looking a little long in the tooth.

Move Out Men, and Spritely!

Step into the breech a series initially known as Take Command. In 2004, partnering with the History Channel, a game called Take Command: Bull Run was released. It was a continuous-time strategy game covering, naturally, the First Battle of Bull Run with regimental-sized units. It was to be everything that SM: Gettysburg was and then some; more realism, more control. Plus, an Artificial Intelligence that could not only challenge the player, but also play cooperative with the player as a subordinate, a commander, or a fellow officer fighting on the players flanks. The game was followed up in 2006 with a 2nd game, this time covering the 2nd Bull Run.

From the get-go, the development was fraught with minor controversy. I recall extensive arguing about the use of 3D graphics versus sprites, the latter chosen by the developers but being seen by some as out-of-date for 2004. Another brouhaha erupted when the game’s forums devolved into an argument about copy protection, and the moderator threatened to ban anyone who argued against the technology. In the end, as the developer was working on a follow-up based on the Battle of Shiloh, the company fell apart amidst internal disputes.

Half of the team, however, rose again in the form of NorbsoftDev and a series called Scourge of War: Gettysburg. Given the previous episode, I hesitated to jump in with the new series but eventually was lured by a discount to pick up a game and an expansion.

When I first picked it up, I started in with the tutorials. Even though I had played both Take Command iterations, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the game system. Somehow, I didn’t get very far before I moved on to other games. Nevertheless, I recall being very impressed with the earlier series. I remember how it rewarded the use of realistic tactics – one of the first scenarios was only winnable by redeploying a regiment, unobserved, by using a depression. I also remember delegating an attack to an AI Stonewall Jackson and being blown away by his execution of it. AI Jackson split his forces, using part of his command to fix the union troops in front of him, then hit the flank with the remainder, to devastating effect.

So here’s where I started when I wanted to relive that first day at Gettysburg.

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Good ground: Col. Gamble has deployed his brigade.

Having been quite a while, I went back to the tutorials. Now I remember why I moved on from this game when I played it before. The tutorials are not quite what I’d expect. Yes, they introduce concepts slowly building to the whole scope of the game, but something seems off. Usually, I expect a tutorial to be pretty easy (if not foolproof) to get right, particularly if you follow directions to demonstrate the concept being covered. Here, I often have trouble accomplishing my goals. In the movement tutorial, I have to do a lot of extra fidgeting to triggered my “goal” and in the second one I just quit rather than wait for everything to trigger. In the battle scenarios, I got stuck fighting in the wrong place against a superior force, and no way (seemingly) to set things right (although I remember it going better when I played some years ago). In another, I was supposed to fight alongside an artillery battery, but I couldn’t find them.

Even taking screenshots has its glitches. It’s mercifully not as clear at the reduced resolution above, but all the screenshots have these 1 pixel blue dotted lines across them. This from an in-game screenshot system. What gives?

Finally, I gave up on the tutorials and went straight into the first scenario, Buford’s initial encounter with the Army of Northern Virginia. I wound up restarting the scenario 3 times (probably necessary because I hadn’t made it through all the tutorials). In my first game, as I tried to deploy the cavalry into dismounted defensive positions, they would mount back up and charge. On the second try, I wound up detaching all my units and commanding them directly, which made for a huge mess. I finally realized I was missing setting on the commanders which tells them whether to attack or defend – by default they are set to attack.

Although, by everything I’ve read, the system is improved over the previous iteration, it all seems harder to get right than I remember. Trying to get a brigade deployed in a defensive position at the crest of the hill seemed way too frustrating. I no sooner get everyone in the right place pointing the right direction when one unit starts wheeling around 90 degrees because an enemy is coming up. Then I realize another unit actually doesn’t have line-of-site over those crops. Add to that, an inordinate amount of time seems spent trying to figure out which way to the enemy! Switching between units always starts you facing the same direction as the unit you’ve navigated to. So as everyone gets turned this way and that, once the battle is started, you wind up in your unit view staring at an empty field. Is it because you’ve moved away from the action, or is the enemy closing in and just happens to be right behind you? The fact that the map shows camera position but not direction doesn’t help.

Additionally, I struggle with the command system to give higher level commands. While one can set positions, formations, and facing directly, there are also commands to, for example, tell units to advance or retreat. The user also has choices about whether to give commands to at the officer level, or to issue them to units (or subordinate officers) at a lower level. The problem is, I see inconsistent results. For example, if I wish to reposition an artillery battery forward, with direct sight of the current battleground, I can simply tell the commander where to go. However, I often come back to find that the unit hasn’t moved, or has moved very little. By contrast, if I go to each cannon and order it directly to limber and then, once read, give it an exact location to move to, I’ve seen far better results. I’ve also found artillery stacked up at fords, trying to figure out to cross. Most frustrating is the uncertainty; I’m never sure what is going to work.

Sid Jr.

I’ll come back to the Scourge of War experience, but before I do, I’ll take a look the other game.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg is the creation of Darthmod, the modder of the Total War series that had been doing major overhauls of those products for years. In 2014, the standalone product was released through Steam, and in many ways is a spiritual successor to the Sid Meier game.

The game is scaled up a level, as compared to either the Sid Meier version or the Scourge of War games. The lowest-level unit of maneuver is the brigade, rather than individual regiments. Aside from that, it brings back that old feeling. The art style is bright and colorful, and obviously meant to be more representational rather than realistic. The commands are both intuitive and aesthetic.

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Pettigrew’s Brigade is moved in to support Davis’ left flank at around 10:20 AM on the first day. Giving commands is as simple as drawing in the arrow.

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Another novel UI element. Selecting multiple units can be done by drawing a circle around them.

Graphics and interface wise, this really is a thing of beauty.

Purely from the wargaming perspective, however, it is a step in the other direction. The basis for this game was the Real Time Strategy genre, albeit the historical RTS world of Total War. The developer said his goal was to de-emphasize the dominant rock-paper-scissors mechanic of most RTSs and give more weight to factors like elevation, morale, and fatigue. Thus one expects an improvement on Total War. Compare that to the design philosophy of Scourge of War, however, where they are trying to factor in the effect of each musket, and it’s obvious this is more of a wargame-lite. That comes through in the gameplay. The pace is very rapid, and the strategy feels much more superficial.

I Could Feel Them Breaking

So getting away from the controls, and back to the overall feeling of the wargame, we find Scourge of War starts to show its quality.

standoff

My line of cavalry has completely broken and nothing stands between Rebel infantry and my artillery positions.

When I focus on experience of the game itself, something different emerges. In my third playthrough as Buford, most of the details were left to AI Gamble. Chaos ensued and eventually all my defensive lines were broken. In the screenshot above, we see the Confederates advancing on my artillery positions, with nothing to stop an overrun. AI Gamble has positioned the 8th Illinois across the road, but they are so exhausted that they won’t survive contact with the enemy. I was resigned to losing again.

But then an amazing thing happened. The Rebels did not advance.

Very much mirroring the actual battle, with each attack the Southern commanders assumed they had an easy victory. With each repulse, they pulled back, and reformed and reinforced to deal with the situation they encountered. Having been dealt heavy losses, and seeing my 8th Illinois waiting for them, they take the time to prepare to make a proper attack. Just like Gen. Heth, AI Heth does not know what he is facing, and he does not appreciate the weakness in my position.

relief

Just as the enemy has reformed and is prepared to sweep me from the ridge, help arrives in the form of the infantry of the 1st Division of the 1st Corps. In the nick of time.

The enemy only took another 5 minutes to prepare a coordinated attack, but it happened to be enough. As they formed their attack, friendly infantry was arriving to fill in my lines.

The result was a major victory, mirroring Buford’s own success on the field. Like the real situation, the result wasn’t pretty. Buford’s victory was not that he successfully defeated a superior enemy, but that he delayed the enemy just long enough for Reynold’s Corp to come up.

For a more direct comparison between the two games, I played the next hour of the battle from the Confederate side. With a slightly larger force, I had to rely on the AI command structure all the more. The battle is chaotic and often frustrating, but a good amount of that frustration reflects the reality of this battle.

For a quick explanation, the battle puts the player in the situation where he is advancing along the road in the face of retreating infantry/cavalry. I gave my commanders orders to attack along a broad front, but the terrain makes this difficult to follow. The road itself is narrow, and the surrounding ground is broken by woods, fences, creek-beds, and a large ditch created for a railroad that hasn’t been completed. It makes it very difficult to shift units from one side of the battle to the other.

Roughly midway through the game, I realize I’m in a sticky situation. On my right, Archer’s Brigade has advanced well ahead of my left flank, and is now engaging superior numbers in some open farmland. On my left, the defense has all but collapsed, but I have one regiment still, barely, holding a line in the face of two full brigades. I know that I need to get one of those brigades across the battlefield to reinforce my right, but to do that quickly enough, I need to use the road in front of me. I have enough force to knock aside that regiment and then blast through reinforcements, but how can I actually convince my AI subordinates to do it that way? I am forced to sit back and watch as the brigade slowly deploys, engages, and finally clears the road.

cannon

At long last, I’ve managed to reinforce Archer on the right with infantry and artillery.

After all of that, with my reinforcements moving forward, I find Archer’s Brigade in a fine mess, with Archer himself having been captured (I wonder if that was scripted in?). At this point, my right begins to do quite well for me, but on the left some Union reinforcements find me spread out and under-strength, and my problem of half-an-hour before has reversed itself.

In a more traditional wargame (and, in Ultimate General), it would be easy to see where reinforcements are needed, and plot a path to get them there. I suspect the frustration and confusion of this game comes a lot closer to the reality of Gettysburg where the lack of knowledge about what was going on around was a significant factor in the outcome of the battle.

Scourge of War, at its most difficult settings, has modes where the view is limited to that actually seen by the player’s commander and orders are sent, not by the UI, but only by courier. While I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to handle it, my initial experience says this is the way the game is meant to be played. The question, then, as with any of these games with competent friendly AI, does it get to a point where the game essentially plays itself and you’re left (much like a Lee or a Meade at the time) simply observing as the battle plays out without you?

By many objective measures, the Gettysburg Campaign, if not the battle itself, is seen as the turning point of the war. Pickett’s Charge, and its reaching of the Union lines at the Stone Wall, is described as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. This makes the battle ideal for considering the “what-ifs.” This explains the popularity of the movie, and the number of games focused on the battle. The Killer Angels exposed many amateur historians to the Longstreet versus Lee controversy, which I think is a major factor in its popularity.

To this day, I am not aware of any game, however, that explores the real question posed by the book (and the movie). What if Lee had taken Longstreet’s advice and disengaged at Gettysburg to seek a defensive position elsewhere? Would the South have won that battle? Would that have ended the war?

And why are we so fascinated with asking questions like these to which we can never know an answer?

Back to the Board

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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.

Before heading into the 1956 Arab Israeli War, I’ll return to the scenario I looked at earlier. As I mentioned a subsequent post, there are two games that have redone the old Avalon Hill Arab Israeli War scenarios as computer scenarios.

The Kalkiliah scenario, which I recently fiddled with on the board, has been recreated both for Divided Ground and for WinSPMBT.

Apples to Apples, Dust to Dust

First to the Divided Ground scenario. Player Alan R. Arvold recreated The Arab Israeli Wars board game scenarios in the computer version. Even more valuable, his work is accompanies by extensive design notes discussing the conversion.

Divided Ground scenario

Looking very different.

While I, myself, haven’t done a hex-by-hex myself, from his notes the designer made a significant effort to recreate the board designs from the original game. Nevertheless, my first thought on loading the Divided Ground scenario is how different the map looks represented as in the perspective 3D as opposed to the abstract symbols of the original game.

Arab Israeli Wars

Pretty much the same situation. Arab disposition is speculative, as the computer version has units hidden by fog-of-war.

The other difference is described in the design notes for this scenario. As I stated in my notes on the board game, the key to this scenario is the complexity of the victory condition rules. In a nutshell, the Israeli raid is initially attacks the town in superior numbers, facing a company of regular infantry and police (represented in Arab Israeli Wars by commando units and in Divided Ground by militia). They must quickly take the police fort near the village, and preferably do so before the Jordanians bring the remainder of their infantry, transported on vehicles, into the fray. Once the police fort is captured, the Israelis must withdraw without suffering losses. Should they fail to do so, a rescue for with armor is added, and the game length extended.

The Divided ground engine does not support the capture-and-withdraw victory condition, so (as is apparent in the first screenshot) the town and fortress hex are simply given standard victory point locations. Second, the conditional availability of the Israeli reinforcements cannot be programmed, so the scenario was created just to last for the long length, with the Israeli armor always being available.

The final difference is that the “Fort” counter in Arab Israeli wars does not have an equivalent in Divided Ground. The scenario was created with a “trench” representing the defensive position. As said about the board game, it is the fort and it’s particularly powerful defensive capabilities that makes this scenario what it is. Downgrading to just a minor defensive improvement leaves the capture of the fort, in my opinion, so easy as to negate the value of the scenario.

Assuming you are playing this scenario to replicate the board game feel, one might imagine enforcing the withdrawal condition voluntarily, and then ignoring the computer’s tally of victory points. Likewise, you would have to ignore the arrival of your reinforcements in any case where the prerequisites were not met.

In contrast, I played the scenario straight through by the computer rules. As expected, it is weighted overwhelmingly towards Israeli victory (whereas I think the original leans heavily towards the Arabs). I was able to capture the victory locations before the Jordanian reinforcements arrived, and then deployed my halftracks to defend the town from recapture. When my own reinforcements arrived, I used the to mop up the Jordanian forces almost to the man. Which was fun in its own way.

Without the super-defensive value of the fort, I’m not sure I see the point in trying to play by the other board scenario rules.

Just a Nod

Scale

The Arab-Israeli Wars

Hex side: 250 meters
Turn length: 6 minutes

Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank

Hex side: 50 meters
Turn length: 3 minutes

Recreating the toughness of the police fort is one thing that Steel Panthers was able to get right. Recreating the board game experience may not have been realistic, given the difference in scale. The turn length is roughly 2-3 times and the map board at least double* when going from Steel Panthers to Arab Israeli Wars. It may have been feasible to, for example, model only the first half of the original scenario: A reduced unit count would have to take the police fort within the first half-hour or so, eliminating much of the reinforcements and the withdrawal condition. However, that’s not what was done.

Steel Panthers

Israeli paratroopers converging on the town. That fort will be one tough nut to crack.

A quick glance at the Steel Panther’s scenario map indicates that, unlike the Divided Ground version, this was not an attempt to faithfully reproduce the Arab Israeli Wars map layout. More likely, it was based on the actual layout of the town and the surrounding terrain and roads.

1938 Qalqilya

Approximate size and location of the Steel Panthers game map, shown on a U.S. World War II -era map, with the bit that’s in the screenshot shown in black.

The construction of the scenario is that the full range of combatants are involved, but in the smaller time and space scale of Steel Panthers. The scenario starts with the Israeli paratroopers moving towards the town, but the Jordanian motorized units and then the Israeli armor are fairly quickly added to the mix.

Another interesting addition is that the Jordanians have a PzKpfw IV near the town (as an early reinforcement). Historically, the Jordanians did have some of these German WWII tanks, although not necessarily within 20 minutes of this particular fight.

The condensing of the scenario makes it, once again, a very close in fight; another knife fight. As with the original board game version, the Israeli’s have superiority once they get all their equipment into the fight. For what it’s worth, I ended clearing the town completely, but gained only a marginal victory. I made some clearly stupid moves; exposing some halftracks to enemy anti-armor fire in one case and moving into artillery fire in two others.

As I’ve said in many of previous comparisons, the Steel Panthers version tends to be the most “fun” of the options. For this battle, moving individual units and trying to seize an actual building representing the police fortress gives me the best experience playing this battle. The interpretation of the battle is probably the least realistic of the three options, but I’m not sure that any of these simulations is entirely accurate.

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

*While the hex scale is actually a factor of 5, the Steel Panthers scenarios often have a lot more hexes.

This Movie Kills Fascists

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I decided to take a break from chasing the Netflix movie purges, and instead catch one of the Amazon Prime offerings. I’ve had a movie on my watch-list for quite some time, but I was deterred from watching it by the bad cover art. The film is The Battle for Sevastopol, another Russian-made film, this one from 2015.

Fortunately, I had a friend recently watch the film who started a discussion about the use of snipers as a battlefield tactic, and the morality or the lack thereof. In order to participate in the discussion more intelligently, I promised to give the move a watch.

The film is the story of Ludmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper during the Second World War. It is a Russian-language film that seems to be mostly available in the U.S. through channels like Netflix and Amazon prime. I’ve not seen where it was released to a general audience in this country. While the box office returns in Russia were not huge, particularly by comparison to Hollywood movies, it did make many times more than what it cost and so was a commercial success.

Although a Russian-language film, it jarringly begins in English. The anchor for this story is the connection between Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt, and so Mrs. Roosevelt serves as a narrator. Some other notable American figures, such as Woody Guthrie (who wrote a song about Pavlichenko), also make an appearance. It’s an interesting choice for story telling from the Western perspective, essentially telling us the story that we already know. Except that this isn’t a movie for Western audiences; it was made for distribution in Russian and Ukraine.

It also does pretty well, considering the source, as a war/action movie. Obviously, it makes heavy use of CGI to keep the effects budget down. And that shows, but I was able to look past that. The budget limitations become obvious when comparing two scenes. One showing sniper training had more soldiers in it than another where an entrenched position is defended against a German attack. Again, I’m willing to suspend some disbelief as a nod to their cost constraints.

The style is extremely patriotic, which is probably a matter of course. Similar films from any country, celebrating the war actions of a national hero, are going to come through that way. It does seem to resurrect a Soviet cold war pro-warrior message that may or may not reflect the mentality of the time portrayed. A theme is that ever decent man (and a more than a few women) is eager to fight to defend the Soviet Union. Lack of enthusiasm is cowardice and thus contemptible. More believable would be some ambivalence from Ukrainians being drafted into the Soviet war effort, particularly before the viciousness of the German invaders became evident. It also makes me wonder how accurate these sentiments are in a post-Afghanistan Russia. Do modern times have patriotism tempered by that experience, and if so is this movie attempting a revival?

Again, this isn’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. In the U.S., recent movies have been working to undo the anti-war, anti-patriot sentiment that infused the culture after the Vietnam War. This could be seen in a similar light.

What is unique about this movie from a propaganda angle is it is a joint Russian/Ukrainian production. Pavlichenko was a Ukrainian, although she spent her final years in Russia. She is from western Ukraine and, the initial part of the movie and the initial fighting take place in the Odessa area, all outside of the current “separatists” regions. Sevastopol is now in the part of Ukraine, the Crimea, claimed by the Russians. Also consider both the timing of the release of this movie, as well as the timing of the production relative the war in Ukraine. I feel there is a message in there, but I’m just not sure what it is.

Also puzzling are some of the fudges made to the historical facts. Presumably, these were to advance the story, but I have trouble seeing how. Once again, it makes me think there must be some propaganda angle that I’m just not seeing. For example, in the film her father is a Soviet Army major and a hero of the Revolutionary War. In reality, he was a factory worker. Is this some kind of message about the Soviet patriotism of the fathers versus the modern patriotism of Greater Russia? Again, I don’t know.

In the end, it was a movie well worth a watch. Both from the historical standpoint, telling a story about a historical figure about which I was unaware, and from the entertainment standpoint, as a war move. It certainly highlights the pitfalls of choosing movies simply based on the cover art.