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There were any number of triggers that could have started World War III, but didn’t.

In the mid-1950s, Western Germany was released from its occupation by the Western Powers, became an independent country (from the East), and joined NATO. The Korean War threatened to escalate beyond the borders of that peninsula. Throughout Soviet occupied Eastern Europe, independence movements hoped for Western intervention that might help them in facing down the Soviets.

Of course, Western leaders were well aware of the risks. While working to check Soviet aggressions, they still tried to tread softly so as not to launch a Third World War, probably nuclear, just when the world was struggling to recover from World War II.

The flashpoint of any confrontation between the two superpowers was between East and West Germany. Having crushed the Germans in their “Patriotic War”, the Russians believed that they had earned German spoils of war. They also believed that, were the promise of a democratically-driven reunification of Germany honored, they could win the political game and install a Socialist government in a combined East/West German vote.

Throughout the duration of the Cold War, the parameters of armed conflict remained the same. The forces of the Warsaw Pact had the advantage in numbers, but not in time. If the Soviets did not win World War III in a quick strike, they would be drawn into (at best) a conflict of attrition with little to gain at the end of it. The United States would be able to shift forces to Europe to bring the conflict back into balance, and in the long run, would bring to bear its massive industrial capacity that supplied the Soviets in the second world. If truly threatened, the West might respond with its nuclear capability.

Given the numerical superiority of the Soviet ground forces, the location and nature of the initial battles also remained constant. The West would have been foolish to assault a numerically superior force, so one imagines the opening of the war with NATO on defense. The heavily mechanized forces of the Soviet Union would need suitable terrain if they were to rapidly advance across Germany. Two likely avenues of advance presented themselves, the flat areas in Northern Germany (North German Plain) and the area of woods and farmlands near Frankfurt, called the Fulda Gap.

Fulda Gap

I start, as I so often do, with a TOAW scenario. In this case, the Fulda 55 scenario that shipped, again, as part of the original TOAW package.

At first glance, the scenario is pretty much a reprise of the Patton 45 scenario that I wrote about earlier. The size and scale are identical; 5km hexes and 1 turn per day. While the location, obviously, has moved, the terrain itself is similar; farm and forest land broken up by some cities and rivers. But at this scale, it’s mostly a large, rectangular map with scattered terrain features. The similarities should probably not surprise – both scenarios were designed by the same person, Doug Brevard.

As war breaks out, the Soviets easily dominate the skies and are on the attack with a huge force superiority. Playing, once again, as the U.S. (NATO has U.S. and West German forces, the latter using U.S. equipment), the play seems to be to strategically give ground while waiting for reinforcements. For the player who is really into the “study” of a hypothetical battle between Fulda and Frankfurt, the fine details of the terrain may add to the experience, but as a one-off the difference between Germany and Czechoslovakia are not game-changing. The “flavor” is the possession, by both sides, of both chemical and nuclear weapons and the possibility that the “high command” will bring those into play. Of course, given that, to the modern mind, any use of weapons of mass destruction is a loss for mankind, this too doesn’t seem a huge factor.

Playing through, the result was much as I expected. The game play was very much a repeat of the Patton 45 result.This time, the position of the rivers made my strategy work a little smoother. I blew all the bridges, defended the river crossing, and waited for reinforcements to arrive. At that point, I had air superiority and was able to isolated and eliminate the enemy.


The tide is about to turn

I’ve said it before, I’ve nothing against an easy scenario. But also as I talked about before, it was the lack of unique features that made this one fall flat. At this scale and time frame, I don’t see much game play difference substituting M46s for Panzer Vs.

Regarding that air superiority, I did throw together a IL-2 scenario and, even accounting for my own incompetence behind the stick, I don’t see how the Western forces could gain air superiority fielding F89s and F94s against MiG 19s.


Again, a present-day map of the area depicted in the scenario show the landscape has a little more character than what you might get from the game.

Tank Tactics

Also, as before, it’s the Steel Panthers scenarios that provide the fun.

First, at this level, there is a unique feel to the time period. It is definitely different than World War II, matching Soviet and U.S. Technology of the 1950s. It is also not Korea. The Communists, here, have access not to surplus, but the best technology that they can field (arguably superior to what the U.S. is fielding). A very different feel than the numerically superior but technologically inferior Koreans and Chinese.

The most obvious to me was the vulnerability of armor to infantry at close range.


I think I messed up. I quickly advanced into this village to grab a good defensive position and, instead, ended up getting my armor into a knife fight with the Soviets. Just look at that mess.

In this scenario, I made what was probably a major mistake from the get go. It was a meeting engagement so I moved my (roughly a) company-sized mechanized infantry unit, with one platoon of tanks in the lead, into the village (pictured) to try to establish a good defensive position. I was a bit surprised by, and quickly suffered heavy losses from, the superior capabilities of the Soviet tanks and the effectiveness of the RPG teams. Having pretty much lost all my armor, I was forced on the defensive, where my own bazookas took out all the Soviet armor. The battle resulted in a draw.

As a note of comparative interest, the equipment is very different when comparing the TOAW scenario to the Steel Panthers scenario. Most obviously, the German mechanized infantry in TOAW are outfitted with M59 APCs and Saracen armored cars, not the halftracks and M8s of Steel Panthers.

It’s Medium, but is it happy?

One of the more innovative and intriguing games of the last decade is the Command Ops engine from Panther Games. The system made its debut in 2002 with Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem. The game, as indicated by the title, allowed the player to assume command of the British airborne forces (The Red Devils) in the fight to take and hold the Rhine bridge at Arnhem during operation Market Garden. The scale was operational, but much finer grained than the typical hex-and-counter operational game, although still not down in the well-trodden weeds of tactical combat simulation.

Amid much consternation, the game moved from Airborne Assault publisher Battlefront to Matrix Games where it was enhanced and re-released as Highway to the Reich (HTTR) in 2003. While purchasers of the original game were angered about having to rebuy the game they already owned, the new title was both improved and expanded. Playable forces now included American, British, and German ranging the entire length of the contested route and multiple river crossing that characterized that battle, and included both paratroop and armored forces.

Under the Matrix banner, Panther continued releasing follow-ons in the series. 2006 saw the availability of Conquest of the Aegean, looking at some neglected battles. In particular the game modeled the German airborne assault on Crete and conquest of Greece. In 2010, Panther returned to the tried and true, releasing Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge (BFTB). With the amount of improvements that had gone into the engine, they re-released their original two games as expansions to BFTB.

The system broke new ground with regards to AI, particularly for the player’s own side. Commands could be given at the highest level, leaving the AI to plan and execute using available forces. The game could be played either with such minimal, top-level interaction or commands could be issued at the company level (the individual icons) for a more traditional interaction. An innovative “fog of war” system, which allows the player no information about enemy units not spotted also added to the unique feel. Finally, rather than a hex-and-counter system, the game uses an extremely fine grid and clock to approximate continuous time and movement. With that, the units are represented by square icons, but their actual battlefield footprint is simulated.

Another notable feature of BTFB was that it was released with virtually every aspect of the game open to the user. Previous version had limitations which restricted modding or user-made scenarios to similar locations and/or forces as the released game. In BFTB, users could add any map, any set of forces, and any timeframe. The limitation of its modelling capability was only the scale and the scope of tactics within the game. User-made scenarios appeared across the spectrum of the War in Europe, notably adding modelling of the Eastern Front.

Livin’ in the 50s

One obvious route for expansion for user-mods is into the early years of the Cold War. The U.S./Russian or NATO/Warsaw Pact forces are largely upgraded versions of what used in the Second World War. Particularly as this game’s events, in both BFTB and HTTR, occur late in the war and, for the British and American forces, already represent end-of-war development. For the Soviet side, the Eastern Front mods have been created. It should be a fairly straightforward exercise to meld the two together, eliminate the Germans, and create a U.S. versus Russia, or some combination of their client forces.

As I said, the limitations on modding are that straying outside what the core engine can do means that the modelling could well fall apart. Obviously recreating recent battlefields would be a problem – helicopters, drones, and real-time satellite imagery weren’t part of the World War II battlefield. Another area, though, that has been a problem for the system is mechanized operations. The original game was designed for paratrooper battles and all three iterations focus on major airborne battles. Initially, this meant that neglecting the finer points of mounted infantry wasn’t an issue.

I’ll expound briefly. In a more traditional operational game, motorized or mechanized infantry can account for the transports simply as modifications to the movement factor (and maybe combat as well, depending on what’s modeled). No need to think in detail about the transition from mounted movement to deployed combat, except possibly to model the reduced effectiveness during transition. Where are all those trucks when the infantry is dug in and defending a position? Somewhere else in the hex, one would imagine. It isn’t that important. In a tactical game, the transports are included explicitly. You dismount your soldiers, and then actively must move the transports to where you want them. Want to use transports again? You’d have to move them back. But this series has a problem. The individual position of the troops are modeled, but not explicit. So where are those trucks? It became a very tricky simulation problem within the engine.

In any case, one would expect to be able to find battles worth modeling (either real or imagined) in the first-or-second post-WWII decades that are close enough in tactics to be doable.

While there was and continues to be expressions of interest in both Cold War Europe and the Korean War, concrete effort has been a bit thin on the the ground. The one exception is a BTFB scenario with mid-1950s “estabs” (the available order of battles for included forces) for both the U.S. and Soviets.

This is Belgium, not Germany

The scenario’s designer used the Onhaye map. In the context of the original Bulge game, this is a hypothetical scenario that imagines the Germans have advanced so far as to establish a bridgehead across the Meuse River, and the allies must push them back. In a 1955 scenario, one might imagine a similar struggle over river crossings taking place in Germany or Czechoslovakia. Similar battles happened in my TOAW game, above, although the Meuse is a considerably bigger obstacle than the Fulda.

Without digging into the details with the scenario editor, the point of this scenario seems to be roughly-equal forces fighting over the center of the map, with plenty of time to duke it out. The upgraded equipment isn’t terribly noticeable, although it probably shouldn’t be at this scale.

This is a game that really combines the big picture with the details. Terrain, timing, distance – these things are all critical. It’s not like the higher operational scale where the difference between a “clear hex” and a “rough hex” are the combat and movement factors. This makes it great for fighting specific historical battles where the significance of these features are known. Of course, a tactical level game could be the same way. The difference is, this game won’t tally up the score after 45 minutes. Being able to rest your troops over the day/night cycle, keeping appropriate reserves – these are the factors you need to be thinking about. An attack may be planned and executed over several days, if that’s what it takes to get all your forces into position and ready.


Defending the Meuse, or Fulda, or some River, in any case. It’s just after midnight, and the Russkies have squeezed into a gap in my lines with 15 T-54s. This is going to be a long, unpleasant night.

This is both a boon and a curse when trying to play a pure hypothetical engagement. Yes, the level of detail will let you look at true what ifs, with some sense that the emergent details have meaning. On the other hand, without an actual historical account to guide you, where do you start with a battle location. Game maps are on the order of a couple hundred square kilometers. But why would the U.S. forces decide to face off the Soviets in this particular map square?

The questions become important because, with the required detail of these maps, it is quite an investment to realistically model your selected battlefields. Conversely, with the modeled terrain being such an important factor, fighting on “generic” terrain is going to be less than satisfying.

Overall this level of play is a more satisfying experience than the next level up Operational Game (the Fulda 55 scenario in the first part of the article). I’m not sure I’ll want to dig too deeply into this mid 50s timeframe, but I may find another excuse to come back to this game and its editors. While the NATO/Warsaw Pact technology is probably quickly racing ahead of the engine’s bailiwick, there may be some scope going forward for the 2nd and 3rd world conflicts, such as the Middle East.

Continue on to Part 2 of 2 here.