This is part of 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 are 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 find 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.
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.
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. Using such a strategy, the computer version might make it 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 AI 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
Battlefield size: 8km x 4km
Game length: 1 hour 30 minutes
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
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 (owing to the smaller scale). Here 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.
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 focused 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.
The blue highlighted in green is the lead company of AMX-13s. The black squares to my NW are the enemy that I dispatched, while losing two of my own (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, rather than giving 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.
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 looks 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 modeling 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.
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 modeling 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.
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 to the 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 using the editing tools of Command Ops 2 to recreate the situation. For 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 and this is a method that 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 based terrain. I decided to forgo it for this iteration, and used instead a user-created map for the battle of El Guettar.
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.
Engaged. Once again, the AI has clumped up their armor, this time at a choke point behind a 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. Take a look the table near the top of this article. Granted the map was oversized for this battle, but 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 requires taking into account the 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 in 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 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 type of battle 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.