While Bir Gifgafa seems to be the most modeled battle of the Suez Conflict, it isn’t necessarily the best from a player’s perspective. 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.
The engine is somewhere between the grand tactical games of the previous article and the full war. In fact, it is within the smaller end-of-the-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.
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.
Daylight and lack of terrain features meant that that I had knowledge of the location 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, the ongoing combat disrupts the line of sight and, correspondingly, 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. Off 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.
As I am able to bring my tanks into range, the battle continues as I would expect based my experience with the Bir Gifgafa encounter in other games. 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.
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.
In the north, the opening move for the Israelis in the 1956 war was to seize 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.
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.
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. The player slowly moving his 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 using dice rolls comparing attack and defense values. Furthermore, the much of the fun comes from the different equipment between the sides. 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 not just the enemy, but software oddities (one turn I watched an Arab truck just go back and forth between two hexes, until in ran out of movement) and operating system glitches, the improvements in the newer version start to look really appealing. However, as some of the online reviews pointed out, you are buying basically a modded up version of a 20-year-old game – in this case a 20-year-old game I’ve already paid for. As was said, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find for under $10 on Steam. Even at that price, it may be one of those games that you’d wait for the Steam sale. For $39.99?
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 there aren’t 3+ axes of attack to manage.
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.
*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 newer version than the Divided Ground one) for differences between the two.