One of my disappointments with ME67 and its treatment of the Six Day War was that I felt there was a mismatch between Tiller’s Modern Campaigns mechanics and the nature of this war. The Tiller algorithms lean towards a steady attrition in strength and morale and this seems to miss when portraying the rapid maneuver that characterized Israel’s successes during this fight. As a way to explore this potential gap, we might explore tactical-level representations of these same fights.
As before, the starting point for tactical warfare in the Levant seems to be the Avalon Hill The Arab Israeli Wars. I imagine that the extensive order-of-battle research done in the development of the board game is too valuable a resource to not use. Whatever the reason, the availability of computer scenarios seem to flow from that Avalon Hill Rule Book.
First on my plate is a Steel Panthers scenario which offers itself to be a version of the AH scenario A-4 Rafa. Or, as the scenario text says, it is “inspired” by the AH scenario. A-4 is intended to portray the rapid seizure of Egyptian strong points just across the international border where land meets sea. The setup uses three boards but, in an tA-I Wars twist, the boards aren’t actually connected. The Israelis (and Egypt’s main battle tank force) can move from board to board in a Westerly direction, but not directly. They require a transition turn to bridge the gap between boards.
The Steel Panthers version is different, it explicitly has two axes of attack for the Israeli advance, crossing the screen diagonally from upper right to lower left. My guess is it is an attempt to recreate the first day or two of the Israeli advance into the Sinai in miniature. I’ll not try to back up my speculation, but the Steel Panthers map looks more like the northeastern Sinai than it does the immediate vicinity of Rafah. Based on this observation, I’m going to assume this scenario neither reproduces the board game scenario nor does it accurately simulate details from the June 5th battle. So what does it do for us?
First of all, it shows us the beauty of Steel Panthers when it comes to armored combat in the desert. Sight lines routinely extend for a mile or two and the British 105mm L7 tank can make short work of even a concealed and protected enemy at these great distances. In doing so, it demonstrates the rapidity with which a small mountain of Egyptian armor can be dispatched. It also demonstrates one of the more frustrating aspects of desert warfare in Steel Panthers – the sand. I’m constantly getting stuck in the sand! It feels (I didn’t count) like I lost as much as a third of my armored fighting vehicles to sand-initiated mobility kills. Is this realistic? I have no idea, but if that much armor was really disabled during an attack by nothing more than sand, you’d think it would be notable.
Of course, it could be just bad playing on my part. This is always a distinct possibility. You can see on the screenshots, the terrain is made up of basic desert terrain and “soft sand” (especially below you can see the ripply graphic in some hexes). I tend to be a lot more focused on avoiding mines and vulnerable exposures, so I wasn’t paying close attention, but it would make sense that it is that soft sand that is doing me in. The own-side AI does not seem to consider “soft sand” as a obstacle when calculating your path. If so, game play might require being very deliberate when moving in the vicinity of this hidden tank killer. Maybe next time I can be more observant.
So that’s worth something, but fortunately it isn’t all. The Steel Panther scenario list contains another opportunity to compare and contrast different approaches in this battle. The 4th scenario in the MBT package is called Egyptian Armor — Six Day War (see screenshot above). Its the same battle as before, but played* from the Egyptian side. I was surprised to see a scenario designed to be played from the defense. Typically, an AI has trouble handling offensive maneuvers, even when that same AI is capable of reasonably mounting a static defense. Perhaps, in this case, this natural advantage is intended to be mitigated by the fact that the player takes the role of the underdog. We do all remember this was, historically, a lopsided Israeli victory, right?
Despite the differences, it is immediately apparent that I’m playing the other side of the same battle. I start out with a nice array of Soviet armor plus foot soldiers ready to engage the Israeli assault in the open. Much like when I was playing as Israel, there is some initial success as I catch the Israeli armor by surprise. In this scenario it is obvious, even more so than the first time around, that it is the Israeli air superiority that turns the tables. Once the Israeli jets start streaking through, they manage to kill everything they target. And once Israel gets rolling, their armor can maneuver freely and basically take out everything I’ve got. Even so, that only gets them about halfway there.
My second defensive line is at Rafah Junction (above), where I’m dug into prepared positions. Naturally, I’m not going to be maneuvering any of these units, so this part of the game is one of waiting until Israel comes in range. There are couple of things to note here. First of all, compare the layout of the map to the original. In particular, notice the mini-map if you can make it out. What you are looking at it a road leading from the international border southwest to Rafah Junction, after which it splits. If you compare this to any of the screenshots from my operational games, you’ll see this is a much more accurate representation. In the first of the two above screens, you’ll also see a black line on the north edge which, when shown in the main view, is not a road. This is the coastal railroad and it is in its historical place. If I had scrolled even further northward, you would have been able to see the Mediterranean Sea on the map. Second lesson from this scenario, and a unique less on at that, is that it demonstrates how the Israelis planned their attack, not along the expected route, but through the open desert. The bulk of my fixed positions in Rafah Junction will turn out to be nearly worthless as the Israeli tanks come at them from the side.
In the end, this scenario was a moderate victory for me giving me the pleasure of bucking history. Unfortunately, the credit goes more to the weakness of the AI than my own tactical prowess. After wiping out my first line, the Israeli’s AI could not quite pull together a coordinated attack within the time limit set by the scenario. By the end, I was still on the losing end of most fights, but the Israeli’s never made it to my defenses. It didn’t help that, once the Israeli Air Force knocked out all of my tanks, they began taking out their own. Clearly the AI isn’t quite up to this challenge. I will take the word of the scenario designer, though, and without trying to play it, assume that the AI would do even worse trying to run the Egyptians.
The best version of this battle came from an unexpected direction. I also pulled out Divided Ground: Middle East Conflict 1948-1973. Then I loaded that game’s recreation of said-same board game scenario A-4 Rafa. You might recall the series I wrote about earlier where the The Arab-Israeli Wars scenarios are recreated as accurately as possible by Alan R. Arvolds. In this case, I’ve made no attempt at setting up** the table-top game boards to compare – I’ll take it on faith that the reproduction is accurate. It sure looks right.
One surprising thing here, though, is that Divided Ground has very much the same feel as the WinSPMBT Egyptian Armor scenario. Surprising, for one, because this map (above) is not an attempt to reproduce the area around Rafah Junction – it’s reproducing Arab-Israeli Wars where all of the Middle East is created by four “geomorphic” boards. Nevertheless, I actually do feel that I’m playing the Israeli side of the Egyptian Armor scenario. Second surprise is that I can actually see the AI opponent doing something. In this case, it is retreating, which isn’t exactly “smart, aggressive AI,” but retreating is just what I did when I played the Egyptians. After knocking out some Israeli tanks during their initial advance, the smart move seems to fall back on a better defensive line. I wasn’t very successful with this in Steel Panthers, but the Divided Ground AI seems to be making a decent go of it.
One of the complaints about the scenarios in The Arab Israeli Wars is that they tend to all favor the Israeli player. I would have expected this to exasperated to twice over here. Beyond the original scenario balance, you also have the advantage of playing against a computer AI. Furthermore, it is a situation (including things like AI but also setup and unit mix) that was created for a different gaming platform (the board, the dice, and the odds tables) than how it is being implemented (Divided Ground). Instead, I found myself playing a pretty tough game. I try to advance semi-cautiously, but seem to be failing. It is difficult to cover the board rapidly enough to win and I know in my gut I am moving too slowly but, at the same time, as I venture forward, I’m losing a many a unit to ambushes and long-shot kills. To win (and lets ignore scoring in this calculation) the Israeli has got to traverse the whole map while achieving minimal losses – and that would seem to be quite the challenge.
Israel doesn’t have the massive air power that the Steel Panthers version featured and, unlike in Egyptian Armor, the Egyptians have fairly effective artillery. It’s a debate that is well outside the scope of this post, but there is a greater question of just how effective artillery is and/or was. In Divided Ground, or at least in this here scenario, the answer is that the artillery is pretty durned effect, possibly more so than in alternative engines. Finally, besides the TOAW Sinai scenario itself, this is the only version of this battle that really captures the required speed with which the player must slice across the battlefield. In this, I think it is uniquely (at least, in my trials so far) a key element of this fight and this campaign.
Divided Ground does some good stuff in terms of modeling. It’s use of 3D and sound, dated as it may be, somehow forms more of a connection that so many of the alternatives. It helps that someone has taken the time to convert every one of The Arab-Israeli Wars, making them available for solo play. The drawback is that I’m on an ancient computer (that I shouldn’t even be running anymore) fighting a decades-old user interface. I find myself,once again, wondering if I shouldn’t be springing for the reworked version of Divided Ground.
*That’s not quite right, now is it. In Steel Panthers, all scenarios can be played from either side or as a player-on-player game. Frequently the scenario designer makes a recommendation of how his creation will work best when played against the UI. In this case AIW: Rafa is intended to be played as Israel and Egyptian Armor by Egypt, so I’ll take the liberty as treating them as a playable only from that side.
**One thing I did do was download the Vassal module for the game. It is still quite a bit of work to set up a scenario in The Arab-Israeli Wars with Vassal because most of the scenarios are free set-up. Perhaps is some future post, however, I’ll being inspired to compare directly with the board game version knowing that I don’t have to protect it from dog, cat, and family members while I’m fiddling with my stacks of counters. I have to imagine I’d be a lot happy with Campaign Series: Middle East 1948-1985 installed on my “real” computer. But $40 for a 19-year-old expansion to the 1997 East Front? How does one justify such a thing?