Like I said, I’m going to play some of these scenarios while reading the appropriate sections from the book The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East, by Chaim Herzog. I’ve just finished the section on the Sinai Campaign and am wrapping up a pair of operational scenarios dealing with that same front. One is in The Operational Art of War (TOAW) and one in Modern Campaigns – Mideast ’67 (ME67) .
The TOAW scenario Sinai 1967 focuses on creating a single-player experience for an Israeli player who must reproduce the lightning campaign through the Sinai desert from the Six Day War. It’s a scenario that’s interesting because of its limitations. The ME67 scenario, Gaza and Beyond, is even more limited but it far more traditional in its design. First to TOAW .
Sinai 1967 has a nicely developed designer-notes package with historical background, instructions, and design philosophy. I’ll try not to simply repeat that information here. Essentially, the idea is to ask the player to repeat Sinai campaign, conquering the entire peninsula in a mere six days. The war opens with a theater-wide airstrike that hands Israel nearly complete domination of the air and, with that executed, the scenario opens. In addition to air superiority, Israel has an opening shock bonus to simulate the surprise of their attack and the confusion of the Egyptian forces.
The scenario is built around the key locations seized by Israel and the resultant shock and confusion this caused in the Egyptian command. If the player takes the historic junctions by the morning of the second day, Egyptian field marshal Mohamed Abdel Hakim Amer will panic and attempt to withdraw the Egyptian forces from the Sinai. If not, the player must fight an alt-history battle where the Egyptian forces contest the Sinai and recover from their initial panic.
Looking at the above screenshot, taken in the morning on June 6th, I am a bit behind schedule. Historically, the Israeli’s had taken Rafah on the 5th and by the morning of the 6th were ready to launch into Al Arish. My forces were still undertaking mop-up operations at dawn in the Rafah vicinity, meaning I had no hope of capturing Al Arish on the historic time table. However, take a look at these dispositions, because I think they will look familiar later on.
This is what creates the depth for this scenario. There are essentially two sets of deadlines. The first is to capture enough in the first day of the war to achieve the requisite “shock and awe.” Depending on whether you have, you then have one of two end games. In one, you pursue a fleeing Egyptian Army towards the Suez Canal, attempting to reproduce the second half of the Israeli campaign. In the second, Egypt has decided to stand and fight, and you see how effective you are against that tactic.
As I write this, I am attempting to get a win under that second set of conditions. What I’m finding is Israel is heavily weighted towards the north. While I am pressing forward there, I am taking a pounding in the south, where Egypt is refusing to turn tail and run. I’m also running against that perennial opponent in TOAW, the supply system. Supply is a critical component of the TOAW modeling and, by the end of the second day, my supplies very much depleted in my combat forces. Resupply is done through the system and is controllable only indirectly, through maintaining ownership of hexes between units and their supply sources. To make a long story short, I’m not sure that I can get my units resupplied in time to be effective in a six day war. Nor am I sure whether my resupply problems accurately reflect the constraints on the Israeli command. Nonetheless, this is a recreation of this campaign that illuminates the historical factors.
ME67 is, at the same time, both a more interesting and a less interesting take on this battle. We see a scale that is still at that operational level, although a slightly finer grain than TOAW. You may recall a discussion on scope and scale when we fought over this very same ground back in 1956. I had been pleased with the explicit treatment of day/night cycles before. While it remains a clear discriminator, I wasn’t as excited about it this time. Is it too much detail to have me engage in a night turn without asking me to explicitly manage how I disengage and then reengage the at dawn? This case makes me wonder if it isn’t better abstracted away?
Another obvious difference is in the graphical interface and the feedback it provides. ME67 abstracts each unit as a primary weapon. See for example the above screenshot (clicking should display full scale), where the 82nd Tank Battalion is represented as 52 Centurion tanks. Compare and contrast that with TOAW. In Sinai 1967, the 82nd is represented as two different counters and details not only the tanks, but the halftracks, armored cars, infantry, and mortars allocated to the formation. The key advantage for ME67 is that the “tank” representation is very visual. As I watch my vehicles fall by the wayside, I’m getting some immediate feedback on the health of my force. TOAW‘s accounting is more detailed (see, particularly, the Loss Report screenshot further up), but it is considerably less visceral. Whether one is a more accurate simulation than the other depends on your thoughts about the relative merits of Tiller’s algorithms versus Kroger’s.
My play was inhibited by a lack of familiarity with the Tiller UI system. It always takes me a few scenarios to remember how the little icons interact with the UI. Worse are the functions that aren’t tied to the little icons. For example, it was Turn 5 before I remembered how to turn on the map labels (and experience I found illuminating enough to include as its own screenshot, left). I continue to have trouble with “on foot” versus “travel mode.” Are they meant to be used separately? I decided to focus entirely on “travel” mode (an icon that looks to me like some sort of Wiccan pentagram), but even then I have considerable trouble remembering to bring units in and out of the mode as I would consider appropriate.
For all of my little blunders, I managed to bring my forces near the last two objectives (just outside of el Arish) on the final turn, having captured the major objectives further to the East. This is very, very similar to the third screenshot from TOAW, above, but (once I get over the non-American date style) exactly one full day behind schedule. Even still, this earned me a major victory.
That brings me to my biggest complaint here. For all that the game/scenario is getting right, in the end it leaves the impression of simply an implementation of one particular battle in the Tiller engine. Whereas TOAW sets the play some specific goals – meeting the historical timetables to gain historical advantages, ME67 lacks that unique feeling. It’s not that its bad. It has the right units, the right map, and a pretty effective scope/scale. But the gameplay style involving the surround of the enemy hex followed by multi-turn attrition of the defending unit – this seems more than a bit out of place in the lightning war that was that of the Six Days.
The human mind is designed to create patterns, even when those perceived patterns don’t really exists. When the world seems to descend into chaos, we will inevitably try to correlate signs that what we are seeing is part of a greater picture – perhaps the end of all things. Just as the coronavirus being coincident with earthquakes awakens us to the likelihood of some form of divine intervention, so it would have seemed, when the chaos of the Vietnam War was spreading to the streets of American and Europe, that a new war in Israel signaled the coming of the Apocalypse. In truth, we were simply seeing flare-ups in the Cold War that were possibility inevitable and mostly unrelated. Small consolation for a public mood already stretching towards a breaking point.
To get my mind thinking about the other side of the world, I decided it was time to do some reading on the subject. When I was creating my Israeli Independence timeline, and while I was trying to find descriptive information on the battles during the Suez Crisis, I encountered frequent references to The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East by former Israeli President Chaim Herzog. At the end of that endevor, I decided to order Herzog’s book. Instead of reading it when it came, I began reading instead The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command and left my thoughts about the Arab-Israeli wars behind me. It’s time I pick that book up.
Herzog starts shortly before the British withdrawal. As such, I was treated to a written refresher of my earlier exercise. In some ways it was just a rerun, although I get a chance to look at things a little differently. Most notably, it surprises me how a loosely-organized citizen militia was able to take on multiple, established nation states and win. In many cases, a couple of dozen armed settlers held their own against regular forces. Herzog also highlights how the earliest attempts at operations by the Israelis were hampered by a lack of professional army discipline. Several times an attack failed because of an inability to coordinate the different pieces of the attack, an operational-planning capability that only came with experience.
As Herzog moves on to the Suez Crisis, he illustrates something that I struggled with when looking at the wargame depiction of this conflict. As I said at the time, it is nearly impossible to reproduce the historical results in a wargame. Israel’s defeat of fortified Egyptian positions was often the result of brilliant tactical maneuvering and “doing the impossible” on top of the factors that can modeled in games. Reading Herzog, I’m also impressed (again) with the difference in motivation between the two sides. For Israel, their struggle was for their very existence – both as a nation and (in the minds of many) personally. For the Arab nations, although many hated Israel and the Jews, they were still conscripted armies under the direction of authoritarian governments. One can imagine that the difference in will was a major factor in the lopsided Israeli victories.
As before, I plan to cycle through a handful of games and scenarios and link it all together with a master post. Herzog begins his 1967 war with the Sinai Campaign, and that also seems like a good starting point for me.
Not event the hardest of the hard-core games that I play can really be called “simulations” of the events they portray. They’re all vague approximations of a reality that, one hopes, provide enough insight into some facet of reality so as to provoke deeper thought on the subject matter.
The physical, boardgame world is set in even more stark relief. The influence of the “euro game” design philosophy has pushed designs toward a simpler, abstract game play. At the same time, the importance of theme has risen, even if this seems at odds with a simplified, elegant gameplay. See, for example, the board game 13 Days. Despite being thickly layered with the historical Cuban Missile Crisis event, going as far as including a history lesson in the manual, the playing of the game has virtually no link to the history. The decisions, the abstractions, and the victory conditions cannot be be connected, even tenuously, to the confrontation over nuclear missiles in Cuba.
13 Days is a bit of an outlier when it comes to military themed games, I think. Wargamers tend to lean towards the serious side. Contrast with a genre I’ll call “family games,” however, where simplicity and shallow theme-inspired chrome might be expected. For this audience, the emphasis must be on an easy-to-learn, easy-to-play structure rather than some deeper meaning connected to some obscure event from the past. Carcassonne has a nifty medieval feel to it, but tile and meeple placing tell me absolutely nothing about feudal France and its economy.
Last weekend, I played a game with the family where I felt the way the theme was implemented challenges this idea of being tacked on. It’s not a simulation or in any meaningful way a realistic game. Yet, I find the theme to be unexpectedly absorbing. The game is Thebes, a board game from 2007 (yet still available today). It is a 2-4 player game (better with more) that puts each player in the role of an archeologist, vying for knowledge and glory at the turn of the 20th century.
The game is compressed into a 3-year time span, although obviously that has no connection to the archeology of the time except to anchor it during a revolution in archeological technique. A century before, Europe had rediscovered the wonders of ancient Egypt when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Syria. The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone began nurturing a new understanding of ancient Egyptian culture. As the 19th century drew to an end, a systematic and scientific study of ancient sites began to capture the public’s imagination – in both good and bad ways.
The pop-culture depiction of Egyptology is perhaps best expressed in supernatural films such as The Mummy (take your pick which year, as long as it isn’t 2017) or Stargate. Grand expeditions issue forth from the universities of Europe to discover lost treasures of the ancient world. Archeologists compete with each other for the glory of presenting the best discoveries back in at home. A bit cartoonish, I suppose, but Thebes captures the spirit of it without going too Indiana Jones on us.
The game starts out with all player-archeologists in Warsaw. From there, they must travel throughout Europe obtaining “knowledge” about one of five locations of artifacts. The knowledge is in the form of cards and the cost of purchasing them is one of the nifty mechanics of this game.
Every action in the game takes time. Traveling between cities costs you a week for each move. Collecting cards costs you something proportional to the worth of that card. Digging for treasures at an ancient location also takes time. With each week you “spend”, you advance a token around a 52-week time track. Player order is then determined by one’s position on the track. Whoever is furthest behind is the next one to go. That means, if all the other players are far enough ahead of me, I might get to take multiple turns in a row before I catch up with the rest of the players. It is a nice way to manage time and variable event durations in a turn-based game.
Once you have acquired some minimal knowledge about an ancient civilization (Egypt, Crete, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Greece are represented), you can travel to that location and dig. Digging combines your accumulated knowledge with however much time you are willing to invest to specify how many tokens you can blindly draw from a bag. The key to this is that some tokens are blank. When you dig a site, some of what you get will be valuable treasures. Sometimes you obtain knowledge that will be applicable to other sites. Sometimes you just get dirt. When you’ve finished your dig, you get to keep the good stuff but the “dirt” goes back into the bag.
This creates a tug-of-war game play where you have to decide whether to invest for the future and when to just grab points. Early on in the game, you lack of knowledge means you won’t be able to draw many tokens out of those bags. However, each draw has a decent percentage of being valuable. By the end of the game, your accumulated knowledge nets you plenty of draws, but they are likely to be worthless. All that dirt is still in the bag, but most of the treasures are already claimed.
It is a nice representation (avoiding the word simulation) of the gold rush mentality portrayed in pop archeology. If you are the first to unearth a lost city, you’ve got a good chance of stumbling across wonderful treasures with nothing more than luck and a bit of gumption. By the time everyone and their brother has excavated the known sites, you still might get lucky and dig up something good, but it will take time and preparation.
Each artifact is worth some number of points towards victory, tallied at the end of three years. In addition, you can score points by putting on exhibitions of the pieces that you have previously acquired. You can also rack up victory points by attending conferences throughout Europe. Digging would seem the best way to score, but you require licensing from the modern government, so the number of expeditions are limited. The exhibits and conferences remind you that this isn’t just a treasure hunt – archeologists are and were more interested in the knowledge to be gained than the “stuff” they did up.
Combine all of this with some colorful, attractive components (although I could wish for full-sized cards) and, at least for me, it genuinely stimulates the imagination to dreams of dusty libraries and desert digs. That it can do so under an hour and in a format that is palatable even to players in elementary school would seem like a plus.
I’m still only at the beginning of The Legends of Eisenwald, but there is a form of quest that has been repeated a number of times. The player is introduced to three competing factions and tasked with achieving unity between the three. At some point, the game suggests there are three possibilities.
- Convince two of them to join forces against the third;
- Choose one of them, and help that one defeat the other two; or
- Help one grow so powerful that the other two will set aside their difference to defeat him.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (link is probably paywalled) was titled How Obama Nudged Arab Leaders Toward Israel. In their write-up, the authors describe how Obama’s mishandling of the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear weapons program caused Arab leaders (Egypt, Jordan, and to form closer ties to Israel.
From the article:
From the perspective of Arab leaders, [the Obama] administration supported the wave of political Islamism that engulfed the region in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. It also threatened their regimes in unprecedented ways by abandoning Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and slowing military exports to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain under the pretext of democratization. Worse, the administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran that reintegrated the ayatollahs’ regime into the international community while unleashing a wave of destabilization throughout the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got the cold shoulder from Obama. This allowed him to use Israeli’s traditional role as an American insider to protest and push back against the administration’s missteps. In turn, this made him a natural leader among the other Middle Eastern states that, just as Israel, were harmed by the Obama policies.
The authors do not frame their piece as a criticism of Obama. It seems more to inform the readers of how the Arab-Israeli peace process has moved forward, while perhaps unwittingly, probably permanently. Reading it, I assume it is a cloaked criticism of Obama, but I could be wrong. Indeed, perhaps the former President out-thought us all. Perhaps he chose option number 3.
But seriously, it hardly seems like a prudent move to destabilize a region in order to goad the powers of that region to work towards peace, even if it turns out that is what has been achieved. The Wall Street Journal piece does not attempt to analyze whether the advance in Arab-Israeli relations outweighs the negatives (as summarized in the above quote).
It begs the question. Does this suggest that sometimes the United States is better off doing nothing? For decades, the U.S. has brought Arab and Israeli adversaries to our table in attempt to force them into agreements. In doing so, were we helping to define their adversarial relationship? I have to wonder if there was any way to achieve the positives of Obama’s result without the negative consequences, or does it really take a crisis before people (both leaders and the rest of us) are willing to rethink their entrenched positions?
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.
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.
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. Likely 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 Israelis 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 and meeting each other. The less-than-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.
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 interesting 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.
Rommel’s out there somewhere, waiting for me.
You know, if I had my way, I’d send that genius son-of-a-bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter – a challenge in two stanzas to meet me alone in the desert. Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We’d stop at about twenty paces. We’d get out, we’d shake hands. Then we’d button up and do battle, just the two of us. And that battle would decide the outcome of the war.
– George C. Scott monologue in Patton.
I’ll start this period off with a game that gave me my start on this subject, back in the day.
My crossover from “family games” into serious wargames happened some time between middle school and high school. I had a friend in the neighborhood who was good for playing games. I recall many rounds of Monopoly and Risk, although we rarely read the rulebooks before doing so, so our versions of the games were a little off.
We liked the war-themed games of the time. Besides Risk, we played a fair amount of Battleship. I also had been given a game for Christmas called Sub Search, which seemed so much cooler because the subs were underwater, and there was chrome in the form periscope and torpedo artwork. I had a game called Tank Command, which had little to do with commanding tanks except that there were little plastic tank models to be launched into the air when you were losing.
Perhaps the favorite of mine was one my friend owned called Dogfight. There was a little more to it than a Sub Search or a Tank Command. Like those, it also had the little plastic pieces and a very cool-looking WWI battlefield to fly over. But in addition, the combat between aircraft involved cards, which used various combat maneuvers, including attacks and barrel rolls. I was always begging my friend to take that one out.
And when I did, he would often say, “If you like this, you would like Richthofen’s War.”
I don’t know if we ever actually played his copy of Richthofen’s War. It seemed awfully complicated. Especially since, as I mentioned, we weren’t really into reading the rulebooks. So instead, we decided on a more entry-level foray into the genre, and picked up some of the Panzerblitz games.
I don’t recall if those were actually my first Avalon Hill games. In fact, I’m pretty sure I bought Luftwaffe and maybe Waterloo before I got into the Panzerblitz series. But I do remember getting for my birthday Panzerblitz when I was 13 or maybe 14.
Now, I don’t remember the exact order of everything. It may be that, even before we played any games, we decided we needed to have the other games in the series. I do remember that, on top of the Panzerblitz purchase, my friend purchased Panzer Leader and I got Arab-Israeli Wars.
What I vividly remember was our first game of Arab-Isreali Wars. This game sure as hell looked like it would be cool. It had helicopters, jet aircraft, and guided missiles. So we started out with scenario B-1, Bir Gifgafa, which had none of those thing, but had the advantage of being introductory.
Now first off, we didn’t understand the scenario setup cards*. In the game, the scenarios are specified with pictures of the counters to be used and a number is printed on them to indicate how many of that counter is in the scenario. We didn’t follow that last part. So for us, the scenario involved 3 Israeli “tanks” (I’m sure we didn’t understand that they were formations, not individual units) versus 2 Arab “tanks.”
To make matters even worse, we didn’t recognize the hex sides as obstacles to Line of Sight, only for their movement and combat roll modifiers. The ‘B’ board is desert terrain, containing only roads and the “sand dune” hex side feature. I think I imagined the battle being portrayed as very much like what is described by Patton in the movie line at the top of the article. Except, surely both Rommel and Patton would be maximizing their use of concealment in the desert terrain.
In any case, we weren’t pleased with our wargaming result. Even as my understanding of the game mechanics developed, I never quite took to the game. I was perpetually jealous of his copy of Panzer Leader with it’s cool-looking urban terrain. We probably never played more than a handful of the games in this series. Instead, my time with both Panzerblitz and Arab-Israeli Wars was spent with the Designers Notes reading about the equipment and its modeling.
The Panzerblitz series was subject to a lot of criticism, even at the time when I was buying and playing it. Today, it obviously tends to hold up very poorly against modern boardgame design. For The Arab-Israeli Wars in particular, the mechanics of combat have been heavily criticized for their disconnection from reality. Although, as one commenter posted in a review, while the individual combat results table rolls may not be very realistic, the game as a whole will often produce the right results.
Plan it Well
You may begin whenever you are ready, but plan it well. Do plan it well, I pray you, sir.
Martin Sheen (?!) as R.E. Lee in Gettysburg.
To help me reminisce, I got out my box and set up the scenario S-1, Kalkiliah, which depicts an Israeli paratrooper raid on a Jordanian police fort shortly before Operation Kadesh. This is not really a scenario that lends itself to the solitaire rules proposed for Panzerblitz, as those require playing against a passive defender. Still, I poked through it as best I could.
Perhaps of note, my cat took a strong interest in the game. He loved the board, and when I starting setting out pieces, he knocked them around. I wonder if Avalon Hill considered the cat market in the promotion of the game?
First, I am reminded why we dreamed of computers taking over our wargames all those years ago. I’m remembering the mechanic of opportunity fire, while not really an issue in a solitaire non-game, it was really, really painful when playing against an actual opponent. Slowly watching the other player move, one hex by one hex, trying to decide whether to use that ability could slow play down to a torture. The Arab-Israeli Wars mechanic is nifty, but being able to turn it over to the computer for auto-resolution makes the game so much more enjoyable. Even on my own, the amount of table-lookup for resolving attacks is tremendous, and often distributed over four or so charts in two different books. Add to that an equal amount of work if you are also checking up on your opponents reading of the tables to keep him honest. Yes, it would probably take only a little familiarity to start to remember the various modifiers to the die rolls, but this is not conducive, at all, for pulling out the box for a quick game.
Neither is the design of this scenario. It portrays the real-life goals of a quick raid and then a retreat before enemy reinforcements arrive, which is well enough. In game terms, this means victory for the Israelis can only come by rapidly seizing the fort and then withdrawing all attackers before the game ends. Losing only 2 units, or leaving 5 behind (or the combination 1 and 3) will negate the positive point value of taking the fort in the first place. There is a secondary set of victory conditions, where an Israeli armored column comes to the rescue, and Israel can pick up more points by eliminating the enemy, but that seems like an even tougher way to win. Bottom line, intense pre-planning seems the only way to play this scenario.
First off, the exit condition means you have to know exactly how many turns ahead of time you’ve got to start your retreat. Next, the key to rapid taking of the Jordanian fort is going to depend heavily on the terrain. You’ll need to know how close you can set up, how close you can deploy (I underutilized my halftracks in the initial deployment – I didn’t realize they were so tough), and the best way to overwhelm the defender. Naturally, the Arab player is going to have to do the same before picking a location for the fort and placing his defenders.
This is all fairly reasonable as an exercise in command, but probably not compatible with a one-off gaming night.
Nonetheless, the point of this exercise wasn’t to renew my interest in my old Avalon Hill board game collection, but to provide the context for some computer gaming. Just in time for this, Shrapnel/Camo Workshop has released a new version of WinSP:MBT. I’ll use that to compare the Kalkiliah similar scenarios designed for WinSP:MBT and Divided Ground.
*So the scenarios in Arab-Israeli Wars aren’t really cards, like they are in Panzerblitz. They are pages in the manual. But explaining all of this was going to disrupt my narrative, so I’ll just leave this like it is. I will say that the Panzerblitz cards indicate the number of units by a multiplier printed beneath the counter on the card (e.g. x3 for 3 Tigers), which may be a little clearer. In any case, it was obviously clearer to us at the time.