Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Does Worthless Really Mean?

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

There have been many discussions regarding the “First To Fight” modules that started appearing on ebay in 2009. For those unfamiliar with them, they are a series of third party variants for ASL produced by Wild Bill Wilder, whose wargaming credits go back decades now, mostly as an unofficial scenario and variant designer for games such as Squad Leader, Steel Panthers, Combat Mission and others. The First to Fight products gained notoriety for both their quality (or apparent lack thereof) and their method of marketing which resulted in high auction prices.

The following email exchange has been typical of the discourse surrounding these products:
From: Pxxxxxx
Date: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 2:45 pm
Subject: The Tactical Wargamer Site Query/Feedback

Is Glory and grief available on the open market? How does one get them

Sent: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 4:58 PM

Hey there;
It's not on the open market. I would recommend contacting ebay user "firsttofight" through the ebay site. ebay rules say you can't make deals off the site, but I'm not sure how else you would arrange it; you might be able to set up a private auction or something. There is a review of the products at the Desperation Morale website in addition to the info on my site that you might want to read before making a decision on purchasing. Sorry I can't help more.

From: Pxxxxxxx
Sent: Thursday, October 14, 2009 7:17 AM

Thanks Mike, I did a little looking last night and read the reviews, Also saw the latest auction at 259USD What a rip off. Talk about taking advantage of people.

Is There Really Such A Thing As a Worthless Product?

We’ve all heard the same old maxims about “buyer beware” and I don’t think one needs to repeat them here. I do think, however, all the discussion of the value of the products has overlooked one basic premise – the notion that all products make up a part of a greater aggregate. My website and research has been focused on looking at tactical wargaming as an entity to itself, and from that perspective, each game, each scenario, each publisher, can be seen to have brought something unique to the history of the medium. I'm not yet willing to say that is true with Glory & Grief, but it would be unusual for a product to truly have contributed absolutely nothing or be one hundred percent valueless. Not impossible, but unusual. Sometimes, the value comes in unexpected ways.

I come by this belief from my experience in publishing. My first book, Canuck: Clothing and Equipping the Canadian Soldier, was an early attempt to catalogue Second World War uniforms and equipment. There are better and more comprehensive books on the market today and the book is reasonably crude by any standard. Yet I was gratified when meeting a well-known collector one day, whose personal holdings would put average museums to shame, when he admitted to me “I had no idea how the 1908 Pattern Large Pack straps actually attached to the back until I saw this picture in your book.” After hearing his comment, I went home to look through my other references, and by chance, I had been the only one to document this piece of information. I did not set out to document this info specifically, nor would I recommend buying the book just to obtain it, especially when a ten second conversation with another collector would obtain the same result; and yet, in his years of collecting, he had not been able to acquire this knowledge. Perhaps he simply had not tried very hard.

It was a small point, but I liken it to any kinds of wargaming products – games, magazines, variants, rules, scenarios, books – that make some attempt to introduce something new. A new rule, a new piece of research, a new counter, a new kind of mapboard, a new procedure. The worst written rules in the world might have the most innovative layout. This isn’t to encourage copyright theft from one another, but inspiration strikes in the most unlikely of places, and innovation feeds off of other innovation. These are intangibles.

I see other examples in the publishing world. Since the publication of my first book – mine was the first I am aware of to deal exclusively with Canadian Army uniforms and equipment in the Second World War – there have been many other publications to see print on the same subject. Most notably, French collector Jean Bouchery put together a larger, flashier, more comprehensive and without doubt more successful work than mine entitled The Canadian Soldier. At first blush, it was disheartening to see a book with a goldmine of good information tempered with many minor errors of fact. The most glaring was the color corrections, presumably by the publisher, or perhaps an error in the printing process, that shifted the color of the uniforms to an overpowering shade of green in an attempt to emphasize the contrasting quality of uniforms among Commonwealth combatants. Other pages had a variety of more minor miscues; a wrongly identified regiment or a typographical glitch or a mistranslation from the original French. And yet, every page also had much more value for a reader who did not have access to original uniforms, or source references, and in fact, the book could usefully take the place of several volumes already published, including my own. It was hard to know if my own reaction to the book was a legitimate criticism or mere sour grapes. And so I have stopped criticizing it, and look at it as I look at the First to Fight variants – as forming a part of an overall body of “literature” which is best judged as a body rather than on the merits of each constituent part. For in the final analysis, any true aficionado is most likely to acquire as many products within a niche as they can, so comparing one against the other is often wasted effort.

Who Is The Arbiter?

There can be no single arbiter of how useful a product is or what value it has; each person who acquires it or uses it can obviously only do that for themselves. The collector who buys a game and feels his collection is more complete as a result has gained more value than the player who finds a set of scenarios missing the victory conditions entirely due to a printers’ error.

It may be hard to believe, but there have been purchasers of the Vietnam ASL products that have expressed satisfaction with their products. Reaction from some others has been hostile, perhaps understandably so given the amount of money changing hands. The most difficult part of reading the public commentary has been seeing the bidders who do find value in these sets called “morons” or worse by knee-jerk reaction, particularly on public discussion forums where some of the “morons” are known to be active participants.

None of which is to suggest that honest reviews of any product are inappropriate, or unnecessary. One would believe that the main focus of most ASL purchasers would be to actually play the game. The review at Desperation Morale, referenced above, looked at the First to Fight products from that perspective. As long as reviewers make their perspective clear, and prospective purchasers know what their expectations are, there can be little problem. The access tactical wargamers have to sites like boardgamegeek or allow them to fine tune their research to meet their needs, be they players, collectors, designers in search of inspiration, or any other category in between.

My Final Word

More product on the market means a richer collective history to draw on; each scenario, rule, design element or physical component isn't just a plaything for today, but is part of the whole tapestry of the industry. No matter how much we may doubt the value of a handful of poorly photo-copied scenario cards and halfhearted "rules", of unplaytested scenarios and incomplete counters, who knows what inspiration might be wrought from them one day in the future? They now occupy a place in the pantheon for good or ill.

My Question To You

Can you honestly describe a product, in the realm of tactical-level wargaming, that was really so devoid of value as to be completely worthless? My pick would probably be Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, the insipid game for the PC that came and faded quickly, but if pressed, I am sure I could mention one or two positive aspects to it, for example the addition of 'back story' to each character, something not often done in games where it could have been usefully applied (such as M-1 Tank Platoon). I am not saying it was successfully done or even necessary in AHSL, but it did make the game unique in some tiny respect and might serve as inspiration for some future, much better, game.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

DIY and the Decline of Community Standards

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

The self-publishing revolution has had tremendous impacts on the wargaming “industry”, if one wants to refer to the hobby with that term. In 1997, the editor of The General noted the growing rise of Desk Top Publishers (DTP) and had the following to say:
So what if DTP games are skimming sales from a fixed layer of existing consumer demand? Is this so bad? ...This is where the issue of the traditional game company comes back to us front and center. The boardgame company doesn't simply print and ship a paper product. Production isn't really limited by a lack of designs. For the most part, the boardgame company is selling the “finish.” By that I don't mean chrome or unnecessary details, polish and packaging. I mean that the traditional boardgame company sells you a finished product which it believes cannot be affordably improved. It is selling the development work and the artistic and functional rendering of the design. God knows I could create an ASL scenario in less than an hour. Would it be publishable within the standards of the ASL gaming community? Absolutely not. The ASL players have come to expect their scenarios to meet certain criteria that revolve around historical accuracy, playability and competitive play balance (let's applaud MMP for all that they do to keep up the quality of ASL products).
For fans of the ASL game system, the third party publishers (as MMP was at the time the above was written) who were pushing out those ASL scenarios were seen as saviors, rescuing their favourite game system from oblivion. The point Tucker was making, however, was that large companies like Avalon Hill had the resources to do it all – playtest, design, research, yes, but also put the physical refinements into the finished product that desktop publishers could not. (Avalon Hill was also leagues ahead of other mainstream publishers in having its own printing services on-call, being a subsidiary of Monarch Avalon.) At the time he was writing (1997), dot-matrix and tractor-feed printers were still in common use, and storage of data was done on floppy discs. There was no widespread internet access to acquire images or research data.

The situation today is a trade-off; researchers can quickly glean information on obscure battles to create tactical scenarios for their favourite game, and even recreate reasonable facsimiles of the terrain using modern mapping tools like GoogleEarth. What has been surrendered, however, is a tangible decline in physical quality and a lowering of professional standards in such things as periodicals and graphic design elements of physical components of games. Classic graphic designers such as Rodger MacGowan and Redmond Simonsen, whose work was ubiquitous throughout the industry (at a time when that appellation truly applied), set high standards for others to maintain, and the inability of others to measure up was always made obvious by direct comparisons to the current state of the art.

The falling off of the current state of the art has been such a gradual process, perhaps the change has been imperceptible, or perhaps even it is something gamers are willing to accept in the understanding that a niche hobby is fighting a battle for existence against a growing number of other pastimes and distractions. Simply put, there are other battles to fight. It was not hard for a bookcase-style box stuffed with photo-realistic, hard-mounted geomorphic maps to compete for the hobby dollars of teenage boys in the 1970s, since their dads or uncles or granddads may very well have been Second World War veterans, the war was still immediate thanks to countless prime time TV depictions and comic book heroes still fighting the war, and the number of ways to refight the battles were few, with video games just a gleam in the eye of the guy about to invent “Pong.” Spending more money on quality wasn’t a hardship.

Today, however, editors and publishers have either forgotten how to put together products with elegance and sense of design, or lack the will to do so. A look at some contemporary products will illustrate what is meant.

Fire & Movement
This is a sample page from the latest issue of F&M magazine; this old industry standard began in 1976 under the stewardship of graphic design artist Rodger MacGowan, who has long since headed for greener pastures with GMT and his own magazine c3i. What may pass unnoticed to most stands out like a sore thumb to those in the know; note the tiny margins on the page (the printing goes almost the very edges of the paper), and the poor quality of the photos. Rare industry standards like The General came out on a fairly rigorous schedule and actually adhered to them; lesser lights like Grenadier tried to come out as regularly as possible but could at least be counted on to produce ‘x’ number of issues in the span of a year. Current magazines like Operations or F&M are unapologetic about being printed haphazardly, and the editors – who are not full time employees – cite real world concerns beyond their control as an excuse for missed deadlines – or no deadlines at all.


Operations Special Edition #2

After lauding the first SE in a previous article, I happily sent in my money to MMP for the second annual installment. What shortcomings I’ve found are no doubt forgivable by true fans; I personally don’t find them truly heinous, but they go to illustrate the kinds of deteriorating standards I am talking about across the hobby. Low-resolution graphics have been used in several images, with large pixelation in the translation to print – a very large problem in today’s desktop-to-doorstop publishing world.

My own publishing works have suffered as well in this regard so I can’t in good conscience scream too loudly about it. But other aspects of layout and design make the magazine seem like amateur-hour, certainly in comparison to older works, that we just know for a fact were done by more expensive and time consuming processes rather than cut-and-paste from easily transposed digital files.

Relative Worth

In short – it’s all too easy in this day and age to throw something together, publish it, and have others purchase it. With desktop publishing tools, print-on-demand services, online payment services, and direct-to-download marketing, you could theoretically decide to create a book at the breakfast table and have it in the hands of a paying audience that afternoon. But as Stuart Tucker might have asked – would it be any good?

Sometimes the community has no choice but to subsidize poorer physical quality; after decades of having hard-mounted mapboards as standard, ASL changed to thinner cardstock maps for its modules, for example. Many fans have applauded the decision as it permits easier storage of the maps in sheet protectors, and makes them more air-transportable for distance travel to far-off tournaments. Sometimes change is good. MMP, who took over ASL from Avalon Hill, no longer has access to on demand printing services and contracts out. They collate large print runs in-house, often with the help of local volunteers from the community, and have been known to worry publicly about warehouse space – a far cry from the glory years of AH who boasted at least two vibrant locations in Baltimore for playtesting (Read Street) and production (Harford Road). The quality of the maps has further been altered by the usage of computer-generated artwork rather than hand-painted art – there is no consensus on which is “better” but there is no denying that something unique has been lost.

Other times, the community does itself in. Using unique marketing on ebay and name recognition, Wild Bill Wilder racked up over $7000.00 in sales with his ASL variant modules in 2009. The physical quality varied from fair to poor. The counters were pre-cut (not die-cut) but sported good artwork and were probably the most attractive element of the modules. The scenario cards, oddly, did not feature the unique counter art (nor did they include vital information such as sniper activation number). The cover sheet of the module I purchased for review, Glory & Grief 2, had an obvious typo. The rules were poorly formatted, and the table of contents listed one method of pagination that was completely different from the actual pages, rendering it useless as a finding tool. There was no index. There were also no “Chapter H” notes explaining the vital statistics of the vehicle counters.

The artwork on the counters isn't so bad, but if you want to know the TO KILL numbers for an 82L RCL, your guess is as good as anyone's; this vital information wasn't included in the game's rules. Even "owndership" (sic) of the ASL Rulebook doesn't help out with that.

Where the community did itself no favours was in buying into the marketing plan – the items were offered up one at a time via online auction, while eager collectors routinely bid on the modules to prices well in excess of the cost of comparable products from other publishers; prices of over 300 dollars were not uncommon for modules that contained on average less than two dozen loosely-written pages of rules, fewer than ten scenarios (at least one based on a Hollywood movie rather than real life events), a couple hundred counters, and a pair of overlays.

Shouting to be Heard

There are, or course, small magazines that are matching and exceeding the established periodicals in terms of quality. The ASL community again yields examples; Le Franc Tireur comes most immediately to mind, having risen from an average fanzine to a first class magazine with world-class graphic design as well as cutting edge game variants. They released their first box-set ASL variant in 2009 and have promised more.
But without the hook of game pieces and mapboards, is there a “need” for periodicals? With the advent of the BBS and now blogs, internet forums and social networking, aren’t there enough ways to communicate online that paper communications are irrelevant? I would argue that here, too, community standards are easy to let slip. More is not always more. A site like can be an enormous tool for finding lists of raw data and in communicating with others, but the noise-to-signal ratio of a poorly moderated chat room or mailing list or message board can make such a venture seem not worth the effort in the end. For a game company or publisher especially, more time can actually be spent in fighting malicious messages by dissatisfied consumers than in working constructively on product. A magazine slows down the rate of conversation and puts the control back in the hands of the publisher. Sober second thought is allowed to dominate the proceedings, even if exchanges take place between opposing sides in a debate. Witness the discussion between Hal Hock and John Hill/Don Greenwood over the direction of tactical games in the pages of The General in 1977 after Squad Leader made its debut, and Hock defended his technocrat’s vision of Tobruk against the more fanciful but popular SL.

The administrators of’s forum – in particular, their Combat Mission games – have apparently tired so much of the “noise” that they have admitted to moderating in favour of “pro” postings only. It’s not that different than the editor of house organs of old picking and choosing with deliberation which letters they would print in their mail columns. Other forums, such as Matrix’s Panzer Command forum, have run the gamut from being over-run by disruptive posters with nothing constructive to add but mayhem, to becoming dead as doornails as ardor for the game cooled post-release and enthusiasts found little to talk about.

My Final Word

The Do-It-Yourself community has brought down standards in all areas; that third parties who publish scenarios for favourite tactical games may have their own lower standards is obvious, but if they are rushing the mainstream publishers into getting “more product” onto market to compete, standards across the board are dropped. Community discussion, once directed if not controlled by the publishers, is now firmly in the hands of the consumer, who can create Do It Yourself sounding boards for opinions – fair or not.

My Question to You

Can there really be no need at all for quality printed magazines on board, miniature or computer games any more? If the answer is yes, what does that say about us? If the answer is no, are we doing enough to create them?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Experiential Game Players

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

There is a need in certain quarters to categorize game players, whether it is to gather demographics for advertising, or to attempt to predict future sales, or to better enable fellow gamers to talk to one another. MOVES Magazine printed an article in 1975, breaking down board wargamers into the following:

  • The Military Establishment
  • The Military Historians
  • The Military Buffs
  • The Avengers
  • The Social Wargamers
  • The Mathematicians
  • The Supercompetitors
  • The Accidental Converts
  • The Shut-Ins
  • The Limited Interest Minority
  • The Wishful Thinkers
  • The Reluctant Gift-Receivers
  • The Elite Capitalists
  • The Reluctant Opponents

The categories, author Phil Kosnett admitted, overlapped. What he didn't admit in print was that the piece was probably meant as much as humorous filler as a serious attempt to define the wargaming community. As with all good humour, there was much truth in his descriptions. I recall turning a friend of the family into a Reluctant Opponent in a game of Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora during a stay at his home. I think most of my early Squad Leader opponents were probably Reluctant Opponents, come to think of it.1

Twenty-five years later, Curt Schilling described the Advanced Squad Leader community as "cliques", breaking them down as "Competitor. Simulator. Historian. Socializer. Many of you may have seen wargaming broken down like this before."2

Somewhere during the intervening quarter century, however, it became possible to introduce a new dynamic into the mix; that of the Experiential Wargamer. The introduction of tactical level wargames, first person shooters, and legitimate solitaire gaming all helped develop that new category.

Early Roots and Shameful Pursuits

The first board wargames were intended to portray operational level clashes where the gamer filled the role of a general in command of an army group, army or corps commander. Tactical-level games didn't arrive on the scene until later - though miniature players had been recreating low-level tactical battles for decades by the time PanzerBlitz hit the scene in 1970. The "dirty little secret" among wargamers, however, was that the majority of gamers had always played solo. SPI began surveying its customers in the late 1960s with reader feedback cards and found in excess of 50 percent of those surveyed played alone - before the invention of board wargames specifically designed for solo play. "In the 1990s, the number of games played solitaire exceeds sixty percent."3 SPI recognized this phenomenon early on; in the very first issue of their "house organ", MOVES Magazine, they published a "how to" article on maximizing solitaire play.4

As the focus of wargames decreased in scope, however, the ability to picture one's self in the role of the commanders increased. It became possible to become personally involved in the events on the game board. It had been possible to picture yourself as the generalissimo of the Red Army in Tactics II, of course, but it was still a somewhat abstract experience to push entire divisions from square to square.

You Command The Action

In 1977, Squad Leader not only put the player into the role of a company commander, in charge of 100 or so men engaged in desperate battle, but with a unique Campaign Game and a set of blank "leader" counters, permitted the player to lend his own name and personality to the proceedings. For the first time, the 1/2-inch cardboard square represented one person - the player - and his skill at arms would have repercussions not just in the current game, but in a series of games, with the ability to rise in rank and ability.

Playing for Experience

What the Squad Leader campaign game permitted was the creation of another category of "casual" game player - the Experiential Player. Like the other categories that have been created (and none of these are set in stone, as they are creations of convenience for the specific purposes of those that create them) they freely overlap. They can be the bane of the Serious Competitor who wants to play him, or the Stolid Historian who wants to debate him. He might even be highly sought after by the Crass Commercialist who wants to sell extra historical modules to him because he knows he can "hook" him based on new "flavours" alone.

What the Experiential Player could do was actually relive some of the excitement the ad copy on the back of the box promised, which proclaimed "YOU are the Squad Leader." The game became less a function of calculating the chance of a 2:1 odds attack with three regiments at Quatre Bras, and more about whether or not he had the guts to order his last five men into close combat against that tank around the next block. Imagination became part of the game. The following was recently posted in an ASL-themed blog, and illustrates the imaginative approach still taken to Squad Leader's offspring:

If there's one hallmark that makes a good wargame it's the narrative generated from the game. This is something you're just not going to get out of a Euro like Agricola or Puerto Rico or whatever. For example, take the case of the Cursed MMG.
Early in the game, around turn 2, the Russians who would have been manning a MMG...ran off after taking fire. They left a perfectly good support weapon lying around and in the next rally phase I rolled a SIX -- what the HELL?! Pick the damn thing up you scrubs!
I should have known then that the MMG was cursed. Slick with the blood of the Russian who last held it, the MMG was to be an albatross on the neck of every German squad who managed to pick it up... By game's end, its bad mojo extended into the full hex and even squads who didn't pick it up were gunned down...5

Rise of the Individual

While SPI recognized early on the proclivity to play games solitaire, it did not result in a great number of solitaire titles, and of those released, success has been mixed. Games like Iwo Jima and B-17: Queen of the Skies were mainly exercises in dice rolling. Tokyo Express received greater attention, and the title most germaine to this article, Ambush!, was perhaps the most successful, spawning several sequels, including three follow-ups, a companion game with sequel, a two-player version, and a tank-based variant as well as a number of third-party variants and scenarios. Ambush! was perhaps the most intense expression of the notion that players sat down with wargames solely for the Experience - that is to say, to engage their imagination and to indulge in escapism, rather than emphasis on the other often-cited historical, educational or competitive aspects to wargaming which had often been used to "legitimize" the hobby in the early days when escapism was really not possible given the limited physical components and interactivity of the games themselves. Not coincidentally, Ambush! was a man-to-man level game, with each game piece representing a single soldier, and the player was given free reign to name each member of his squad as he saw fit. Like the SL Campaign Game, each "character" had the opportunity to advance in skills, rank and ability over time as the player campaigned his squad through several missions.

The rise of role playing games in the early 1970s must surely have had an impact on legitimizing how wargamers approached the experience also. The first military themed RPG was published in 1979 - SPI once again led the way, with Commando - followed by almost a dozen other titles in the 1980s, none of which came anywhere close to the popularity of the fantasy or science fiction RPGs. But it may have been a simple matter of technology.

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released and began appearing on home computers; it popularized the First Person Shooter genre, had a tinge of history to it (there were "Nazis" in an underground cavern and the Horst Wesel song was accurate, if not slightly offensive to the sensitive), and there was no need to pull out cardboard pieces and paper maps. By 1997, Muzzle Velocity was offering something much more historical - accurate 3D models of historical equipment in camouflage paint jobs, first person tank crew and infantryman views, the ability to switch between the 3D world and a 2D map; not all that remarkable, given that M-1 Tank Platoon had done many of the same things in 1989, but with vector graphics and without the infantry. The games weren't about counting firepower factors, they were about being there on the battlefield and experiencing it. Just like role playing games, first person shooters and 3D battle games were letting wargamers set foot in other worlds.

 Knocked out Sherman tank in Muzzle Velocity (1997)

The focus on solitaire play and on individual achievement/campaign play would seem to have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the fantasy and role playing worlds. Real militaries emphasize teamwork and the necessity to work together to overcome obstacles. Basic training is an ordeal that takes weeks to accomplish. Divisions are commanded not by single commanders, but by staffs of officers trained in administration and logistics who wrestle with problems well beyond the ken of the uninitiated. The trend in military gaming is towards games such as Brothers in Arms which, while touting its "realism" because it occasionally asks the player to maneuver riflemen to a flanking position, still manages to ignore most of the realities of modern combat, specifically but not restricted to the complexities of command and control.

In actual fact, first person shooters are so unlike military practice, they are usually not considered "wargames"; but a new category has slipped in - "tactical shooters." These are man-to-man games set in the first person with a level of realism and fidelity superior to the "first person shooters." The differences are apparent; tactical shooters have no "health packs" or ability to magically heal, for one. Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault have been assigned to this category. They also claim to have actual restrictions on command and control, in both single- and multi-player mode. Kill ratios are way down in the tactical shooters, and just seeing the enemy is a real accomplishment - as it usually is in real life.

As the games increase in scale, to squad- and platoon- level, the level of abstraction also increases, to simulate command and control problems and various types of "friction." The Experiential Player becomes drawn out of the game, and makes decisions not just for one person, but represents in reality a syndicate of commanders. It's possible to lose one's self in the experience, but it doesn't become the entire point of the game. An example is the initial iteration of Combat Mission where watching the 3D "movie" is necessary to plan strategy each turn. Another is in ASL, where smaller "narratives" get naturally built around individual vignettes, as we saw illustrated above with the Russian MMG.

My Final Word

At the most basic level, every wargamer is an Experiential Player, given that the point of playing a game is to have fun or be entertained. The point of the article is to describe a player who plays for escapism above all else. Anyone who has fired up Panzer Commander just to maneuver the camera around one of the maps will relate to him. So will anyone who has used a map editor to recreate their own childhood neighbourhood.

My Question To You

Is it possible to sub-divide the Experiential Player class?

  1. Kosnett, Phil "What is a Wargamer?" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 19 Feb-Mar 1975)
  2. Schilling, Kurt "Can You Ever Be Sure? Historical Research and ASL" (ASL Journal 2)
  3. Dunnigan, James F. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition (Writers Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000) p.304 ISBN 0-595-15546-4
  4. Richardson, Jay "Solitaire Wargaming" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 1 Feb 1972)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Question of Battle Doctrine and National Mythology in the Second World War

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:
The first commercially successful tactical wargames rules were actually based on miniatures, and indeed, the first true tactical wargames were heavily influenced by, and even marketed to, miniatures players. Certainly comparisons to miniatures were rife in articles on PanzerBlitz, and not long after its publication, Strategy & Tactics published its own miniatures rules called T-34, now long forgotten. When Squad Leader hit the scene in 1977, advertising appealed directly to miniatures players by name.

There has been a resurgence in recent years in the popularity of miniatures systems, though one can safely say that the miniatures players never really went away. Popular systems have always been part of the wargaming scene, from the earliest efforts of men like Donald Grant who published “do it yourself” type books, to the publication of Tractics, to more sophisticated rules sets too numerous to mention in the 1970s and 80s, yet never have they occupied the mainstream popularity or commercial success of role playing fantasy titles such as Dungeons & Dragons or board games such as Advanced Squad Leader.

The miniaturists are making efforts at catching up commercially, with slick new products today like Flames of War or Axis and Allies; there is the use of “big industry names” in other cases, and in all, an attempt to win wide market appeal. I recently picked up a recent publication with the name Frank Chadwick attached to it, and was struck by the production values. (Chadwick’s name is well known in the annals of board wargaming.) The book – Honour of the Regiment - was an overview of a rules set for British Commonwealth forces in the Second World War, with detailed unit values and the usual bits of history and regimental trivia thrown into the mix, as part of the reboot of Command Decision/Test of Battle. What struck me, however, was Chadwick’s attempt to riff on an old myth:

A few years ago I was part of a symposium on offensive tactical doctrine of World War II. Each panel member had a single country for which they made a presentation - mine happened to be Germany. Once the four or five of us had all made our presentations, someone in the audience pointed out that there had been no panelist presentation for British offensive tactical doctrine. (This was, as you might imagine, in the United States.) The moderator was apologetic, but explained that he had been unable to find a panelist to give a position briefing on the British, but wondered if any of the panelists would now like to give an improvised talk. After we looked at each other for a few seconds, and it became clear that no one else was about to do so, I stood up and gave a short presentation on British Army Offensive Doctrine in World War II.

"We didn't have any," I said, and sat down. After the inevitable laughter, I stood up again and elaborated. (1)

It struck me as not particularly funny, not because I had heard it or jokes like it many times before (there was an old saw pasted up in my Reserve Army regiment’s orderly room for many years by an unattributed and probably apocryphal Red Army officer of the Cold War era who was reputed to have said “the problem with training to fight against Canadian Army doctrine is that the Canadian Army has no doctrine”) but because it was so patently untrue.

Commonwealth Doctrine – 1944

The term doctrine is simply defined as an established set of procedures to solving complex problems; in the military sense, it refers to a standard set of maneuvers, kinds of troops and weapons and the way in which they are employed as a default approach to a kind of operation.

In February 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, the commander of 2nd Canadian Corps, gave a detailed series of tactical notes to commanders preparing for the invasion of Europe, based on his battle experience in Italy as commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The notes are remarkable for their clarity and in describing so well the course of tactical battles to come in Normandy, the breakout across northern France and Belgium, the fighting in the Netherlands, the Rhineland, the Rhine crossings, and the final battles in Germany. (2)

  • For attacks on prepared positions, adequate reconnaissance was emphasized, with assaults to take place on a limited front with "all available" artillery so that "really heavy support may be given." A Commonwealth division of nine infantry battalions had three field regiments of 25-pounder guns (24 guns in each), while each infantry battalion had six 3-inch mortars of its own. The divisional support battalion had a company of 4.2-inch mortars. The corps artillery had additional fire support available in 4.5”, 5.5” and 7.2” gun regiments, and for large scale operations, tactical air support was available ranging from fighter-bombers to medium and even four-engine heavy bomber support. Naval gunfire was also used while in Normandy.
  • Initial objectives had to penetrate to beyond the normal range of German mortars, or else those mortars had to be dislodged by counter-battery fire (difficult to do owing to the ease with which they could be deployed in cover and concealment).
  • Consideration was to be given in large-scale operations as to when to move friendly artillery forward, and when to schedule friendly air power, possibly as a substitute.
  • Simonds also impressed on his commanders the value of friendly tanks and anti-tank guns being forward with the infantry, as well as the use of artillery against enemy tanks, directed by Forward Observation Officers of field artillery batteries travelling with the leading infantry.
  • Anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields were common and initial attacks were to be made by the infantry to secure gaps or breach obstacles

These tactical points were raised in reaction to German defensive battle doctrine, which stressed the following:

  • Forward positions were defended lightly, thinly held with small groups of men strong in automatic weapons.
  • Stronger infantry forces were held in reserve, ready to counter-attack where necessary.
  • Forward positions were strongly supported by mortars, usually located 3,000 to 4,000 yards to the rear, capable of firing ahead of or anywhere within the defended zone. The Germans pre-registered their own positions and immediately and heavily shelled and mortared them once they were known to be lost.
  • Tanks and self-propelled guns were held in reserve and when enemy infantry had broken into friendly positions, would move in and deliver direct fire at very close range.

While a Canadian assault, properly planned and supported, might easily break the crust of such a defensive set-up, the German policy of counter-attacking with fresh reserves and armour meant that the real battle was one of defeating the follow on forces, which would also include any mortars not over-run in the initial assault. For this reason, Simonds insisted that planning had to consider the German counter-attacks as a routine part of the initial battle.

Did It Work?

The drawback in practice was that the “set-piece” approach was often applied, in fact, piecemeal. Operations that should have been assigned to divisions were sometimes assigned to brigades. Such was the case in Operation WINDSOR in early July 1944, when four battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were ordered to assault Carpiquet and the adjacent airport. While the village fell – it was defended by just 50 fanatic SS men – the assault over open ground against the south hangars and control towers was stopped cold by automatic weapons fire and tanks. During Operation CHARNWOOD a few days later, the three divisions of British and Canadians again met stiff resistance, but managed to batter their way into Caen. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada did everything right at Buron during CHARNWOOD; they fought a textbook operation according to doctrine: (3)

  • They cleared the enemy mines before zero hour
  • They laid on an extensive opening barrage
  • They attacked with a squadron of tanks, as well as mine-clearing tanks and troops of M-10 tank-destroyers
  • Their reconnaissance included a prisoner taken only days before who provided intelligence of the identity of the defenders and the location of weapons, in addition to aerial reconnaissance and other patrol data; the battalion even built a scale model of the terrain to rehearse the operation on
  • The unit had occupied the ground opposite Buron for four weeks and was intimately familiar with the ground
     Canadian Army Intelligence Information Sheet dated 2 July 1944
    showing the HLI's deployment for the Buron Assault on 8 July.
Unfortunately, the Germans also fought according to their own doctrine, and the 3rd Battalion, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 held on to the village grimly. They held the forward edge of the town lightly, with automatic weapons sited in an anti-tank ditch. When they were finally cleared from the ditch and the leading edge of the village, their guns and mortars shelled Buron violently and kept it under constant attack so that the only vehicles able to enter and leave were jeeps and carriers to evacuate the wounded. Of the 15 Canadian tanks supporting the attack, 10 were knocked out. The only departure from doctrine was that no infantry counter-attack was delivered, but a company of Panther tanks did counter-attack after the village fell late in the afternoon, but was beaten back. Even then, some SS troops held out inside the village until the next day. The total cost to the HLI was 262 dead and wounded, of a full strength of about 800 (just under 500 of those being in the rifle companies).

 The village itself was heavily defended with tanks, artillery, mines, automatic weapons, and three rifle companies
supported by a heavy weapons company with machine guns and mortars.

Buron is an extreme case; the SS troops of the Hitler Youth Division had fought unusually fanatically – many refused to surrender, having been told they would be murdered if they did so (their division had been responsible for the murder of over 130 Canadian POWs immediately following D-Day, on the other hand, and so the advice was not entirely unwarranted), and many were teenagers with a high degree of motivation and political indoctrination. Reports of soldiers holding out even in the face of point-blank 75-mm tank fire were made after the battle. It was one of the costliest days for any Canadian battalion in Normandy, and the worst day of the HLI for the entire war. But the doctrine had worked; Buron had fallen, against the toughest of opponents.

 A tank of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment sits abandoned in Buron on 8 July. Buron
had previously been the scene of furious fighting a month earlier, on 7 June, as well, when the
3rd Canadian Division and 12th SS Panzer Division clashed on the day after D-Day.

In other cases, German technical superiority, especially in the case of armour, was overwhelming. In the words of historian Terry Copp:

In theory there was nothing wrong with Simonds' version of Allied battle experience but in practice the thinly armoured, undergunned Sherman tanks were seldom able to accompany the infantry onto the objective, and almost never able to stay to help meet the counterattacks. The self-propelled anti-tank guns stayed well to the rear and it usually took some time to get the towed six-pounder and seventeen-pounder anti-tank guns into position. All too often the infantry had only the artillery to (rely) upon, not only to "shoot" them onto the objective but also to break up the counterattacks with well-directed concentrations. More than one infantry company commander has described his role in North-West Europe as "escorting the artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO) across France." (4)

My Final Word

It is interesting that historians and especially casual observers have failed so utterly to understand what the doctrines of the various armies really were. The Blitzkrieg Myth has been persistent since the first Allied newspapermen wrote their first hysterical accounts in 1939 and the myth was perpetuated by post-war apologists seeking to explain away why a truly unprepared and in many ways mediocre German Army had gotten the best of larger Allied forces in Norway, then France, then North Africa. The operationally competent Red Army of 1944-45 is very often dismissed in popular culture as having had no abilities whatsoever beyond the artillery barrage and the human wave, and the British Commonwealth armies are generally maligned – as Chadwick did, if only in jest – for bumbling about and only fighting when it suited them, in “set-piece” battles, as if fighting a battle you were prepared to fight was somehow something to be ashamed of.

My Question To You

Is it not eminently sensible to fight only when you are prepared? Perhaps the only army more sensible than the British in that regard were the Italians who, when it was clear they were on the wrong end of the conflict, had the good sense to capitulate. Sadly, their divisions in Yugoslavia suffered terribly in the process, and many in mainland Italy fared no better. Why, though, do the Germans continue to get the lion’s share of “glory” – if that is what it is – for continuing to surrender the lives not only of millions of their soldiers and citizens, but to continue the suffering of their captives, their slave labourers, and their enemies, all to no apparent purpose – and be praised for their skill at arms while losing battle after battle, usually by mounting costly local counter-attacks both large and small?
  1. Chadwick, Frank The Honour of the Regiment: The British and Commonwealth Armies in the West in World War II, 1939-45 (Test of Battle Games, 2008)
  2. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds Directive, February 1944, attached to War Diary, 2nd Canadian Corps
  3. Snowie, Allan J. Bloody Buron (The Boston Mills Press, Erin, ON, 1984)
  4. Copp, Terry. The Brigade (Fortress Publications Inc., Stoney Creek, ON, 1992)