Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Age Old Wargaming Questions as they relate to Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

The latest entry in the tactical wargamer's PC library, if he is interested in 20th Century ground warfare, is most likely Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. A demo is available at this link for those not yet familiar with the game. The various Wikipedia entries describe the history of the game, and you can find find some screenshots at videogamegeek. Anyone who has followed the game series since the first title can't help but be a student of the various changes - not just in feature sets, but in game design philosophies that have driven the publishers. Certainly, they have been the subject of much discussion, both on the official forums and elsewhere.


It is sometimes useful to take a step back and define meanings of words and phrases that come up in conversation. As one spends more time navigating sites devoted to wargames - and even that word can be a loaded one, as not everyone agrees that Combat Mission, in its current form, represents their idea of a "wargame" in something other than a strict dictionary definition - one finds many of the same themes being repeated.

What is more interesting is to find out that those same conversations and words have been repeated for decades now. All fields of human endeavour often show a proclivity to repeat patterns of behaviour, and it seems that wargame design - and I'll use the term "wargame" because I believe it still applies to Combat Mission - is one of them.

My case in point is an article I recently uncovered in an issue of Campaign Magazine from 1978.

Simulation vs. Gamesmanship

In an article in Issue 87 of Campaign, Len Kanterman and Doug Bonforte had this to say:
Campaign Number 87
...Dr. J.E. Pournelle touched on one of the controversies facing game designers (in a recent article): simulation versus gamesmanship, otherwise known as Realism versus Playability. This was a big subject several years back...Since then, the philosophy of simulation has been largely adopted in game designs, due primarily to the phenomenal rise of Jim Dunnigan's Strategy & Tactics organization...Unfortunately, S&T's attempt to present historical information through its games has resulted in games that are difficult to play and not very enjoyable. While not all S&T games are difficult...even (the less difficult ones) lack something. This "something" is harder to put your finger on, but can be called for lack of a better word, flavor. S&T games lack the excitement, drama, and challenge the old Avalon Hill games had. Their rules may duplicate the mode of warfare at the time, but don't capture the "feeling" of the historical era.
Without a doubt, this article could not be mistaken for anything but an opinion piece. I've no idea if the opinion of the authors was widely shared or not. It does draw parallels to conversations currently taking place in the CM communities.

For the record, the official stance of the publisher was stated on release in this forum announcement (emphasis below in original):
Before you, our favorite Refresh Monkeys™, get your little paws on the Demo, I wanted to say a few words about the pending release of the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

What we're about to release is a GAME. It is something to be played with and enjoyed, hopefully for longer than the time to download/install Yes, it's also a serious simulation, but that's merely a means of providing a more enjoyable gaming environment. After all, if this wasn't about having fun then how many of us would be interested in it?

It is also important to remember that we're not releasing "the perfect wargame", or even "the perfect game". There are no such things, therefore by definition there will be issues to raise here on this Forum. It's important to keep this in mind as we start in with the discussions that dissect and reduce a massive game down to a few bits and pieces for a particular topic of discussion. It's all too easy to get so wrapped up with the minutia and have that detract from enjoying the fullness of what the game has to offer. In all cases let's remember to keep criticism constructive, respectful, and within reason. It's important because that sort of feedback opens the door to improvements, while the opposite is harmful.
The announcement reads as an interesting mix of rededication to the original Battlefront Manifesto and almost an appeal for mercy. The orginal manifesto is still available from an internet archive. The quote from it below is from April 2001.1 
Our strategy is twofold. First, we outflank the Retail distribution problem with technology: the Internet. It’s cheap, totally within our control, and is without the artificial pressures of The Industry. We can do this because we don’t have to to sell hundreds of thousands of units each and every 6 months just to stay in business. Therefore, we don’t have to produce games that appeal to the lowest common denominator. is about enjoyable, intelligent gaming, not Hollywood budgets, hype, and mass-market insanity. The only limit is the interest of all you wargamers out there, and we’re one of the few companies who think your interest matters!
The complementary half of the plan is community building. We want to become a haven where wargamers come to discover and discuss games, military history, favorite strategies, feedback, you name it. It will also be a place - perhaps the only place - on the internet or anywhere else where you can buy first-rate wargames that haven’t “sold out” and become watered-down, thin gruel for the twitch crowd. 
Relationships with "Gamers"

It is not unreasonable to take the developer/publisher at their word, and examine Combat Mission in its intended guise, as a game, though Battlefront splits the difference by their own words and tells us it is "also" a "serious simulation." Conversations, going back decades now, have popularly put the two notions in opposition to each other. But most telling in the pre-release announcement above was the plea for mercy - perhaps not so much a plea, as an announcement within an announcement that conversations about the direction of future changes would take a different tone. Which seems to be at odds with that original manifesto.

It matters, because there are some gamers who believe this interaction between gamer and publisher is crucial. Again from the article in 1978:

To revitalize wargaming out of the simulation doldrums it is presently in, game designing must be made a more dynamic proposal. As anyone who's ever tried designing a game knows, it's never really finished. There are always a few more "finishing touches" that can be added. Instead of being limited to the designers and a few playtesters, this process should be opened up to all gamers. If designers explain how games were designed, players can begin treating rules as something less than gospel truth. The player is now a passive partner in game design. He can only accept what is offered to him, and he has no real foundation for correcting what he doesn't like.
These words were written with respect to hex and cardboard games, but they are obviously applicable to hard-coded computer games. No one would doubt there is more to be done with Battlefront's CMX2 game engine. No one would suggest the engine itself should be literally "opened up to all gamers" to tinker with, but certainly a deeper understanding of how and why things work - beyond the purely mechanical of the game code - would be helpful.

 One commentator on battlefront's approach to "explain(ing) how (their) games were designed" had this to say:

Wargame rules can be arbitrary, but you get them written down in English and in paper, and quite often accompanied by a rationale under the title "Designer Notes". This approach to documenting the game might not appeal (to) the casual reader, but it's quite informative. BFC appeal to our intuition with 1:1 modeling and lush 3d graphics, but both the representation on the screen and the modeling are at odds with it.
Battlefront has been adamant, and with good reason, that involving the audience in things like adding free content will never happen. The rationale for not publishing more detailed "designer's notes" is less clear, but apparently is not confined to any one company, or wargaming medium, since it has been a topic of discussion for decades now. They might prevent these kinds of posts:

The best example is the stepped degradation of optics and fire control. There seem to be 4 or 5 standard steps that no matter where it hits, it gets reduced one step. There may be some reality to that with back up sights and such, but I had a Leopard 2 hit on the rear deck that ended up dropping optics down a level. I have no idea what that means or how it happens.
Similar questions continue in the Normandy title, as evidenced by this thread, which includes this comment:
Sub-system damage never made any sense to me in CMSF or this game. There are some indications it is hit-point based, but it never makes enough sense for me to work it out.
After three days of discussion, the publisher has not provided a response, or directed respondents to an FAQ.

Gamer and Designer as Equals

Kanterman and Bonforte ended their article by suggesting that "If players and designers begin interacting as equals, the hobby will take on a totally new dimension." It's an interesting proposition, though on the face ot if one would need to clarify before declaring it still valid, with respect to computer games. As pointed out in the post referenced above, expecting fanbases to directly contribute computer code is probably not workable. In many ways, fan contribution does happen already, inasmuch as games like Combat Mission depend on volunteer scenario designers and beta testers to populate their releases. As someone with direct experience working on several beta teams on various tactical wargame projects, both board and computer based, I can personally attest that there is a certain amount of input (dependent on the personalities involved) that testers may have on the actual design of the game, via feedback to the developers during the research stage.

The article from 1978 makes some interesting points that still apply, but I would suggest that they may have wanted to divide their attention between pre-release input and post-release input. A famous military artist once told me that his favourite come-back to "know it all" critics was to use the line "where were you when I needed you", i.e., before the project was completed and released to the public.


The "Realism vs. Playability" debate is not one I intended to enter into; merely comment that it has been ongoing for decades and will go on for as long as hobbyists enjoy wargames. Rather than be disappointed that this dichotomy can never be resolved, I think it may pay publishers - and gamers - dividends to look at successful models from the past to find strategies for communication. FAQ lists, Designer's Notes, and bilateral communication on design decisions seem like good models to adopt. Whether gamers and designers should be "equals", as suggested by Kanterman and Bonforte, in the design phase is still in my opinion open to debate.

My question(s) to you

Can a game designed by committee really be superior? Kanterman and Bonforte mention in their conclusion that a game author who "relates what his interpretation was based on" gives players a "guide to creating a better (game)." Battlefront has stated publicly that allowing free content additions to their games would be "competing with themselves." Is there a valid disincentive to publishing designer's notes?

1. Though the manifesto is referred to by Steve Grammont as having been published as early as 1998 in this post which references the current, 2008 version, which rewrites the 1998 version.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Buildings in Tactical Wargames

This subject seems to be coming up in various communities recently. One of the criticisms being levelled at Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy is that houses afford too little protection to infantry. In the Advanced Squad Leader world, the latest edition of their own journal devoted 12 entire pages to an article on "Key Building Defense."

Given the amount of discussion of the subject, you would conclude the topic is somewhat important; at first blush one might even ask: what's to conclude? Hiding behind a wall is safer than being out in the open - it's a non-starter.

Let's go back a bit, first.


Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Jebb of the Royal Engineers, pictured at right, made a modern and scientific study of military approaches to attacking and defending not just military fortifications, but also civilian dwellings, and published his findings in Aide Memoire to the Military Sciences in 1853. His approach to the subject was thoughtful and measured, but above all, indicated that buildings could be successfully defended by infantry given the proper circumstances, notably solid construction, commanding lines of sight/fields of fire, and a clear path of withdrawal, among others. In 1862, as the American Civil War was being fought, the same publication printed an article discussing the concepts of house-to-house fighting inside built-up areas. By 1914, engineers in the world's armies - for centuries, the practitioners of siege operations - were studying and practicing for siege operations in miniature. New weapons were perfected in the 1914-18 war, such as the flamethrower, and old weapons - such as the hand grenade - were modernized with new twists, such as the friction igniter.1

Modern house clearing

So even as early as the ACW, armies were thinking about not just attack/defence of isolated strongpoints in individual buildings, but also urban combat, where entire blocks of buildings might become fought over by infantry. Large cities did not become objects of attention in the First World War - mobile warfare advanced at too slow a pace even when the front broke loose of the trenches - but things were to change by the time of the Second World War.

Tactics for street-fighting in the 1939-45 war were developed in many ways reluctantly. Most armies considered major urban operations as undesirable due to the resources it would require to fight within a large urban centre, and cities were usually considered best bypassed. While the Germans did have their own tactical training in place for urban operations in 1939-40, their operations in places like Calais or Warsaw were the exceptions to the rule.

Even in open warfare, though, individual buildings still had to be dealt with. German training manuals emphasized deception:

Individual farms or other isolated buildings required rather different treatment, as described in Der Feuerkampf der Schutzenkompanie (1940). In this instance the best plan was for a squad to be placed in cover a few yards to the rear of the structure while the leader adopted an inconspicuous forward observation position...Once enemy troops came into view the rest of the squad could quickly be signalled up into defensive positions in and around the house. In this way the enemy would be fooled into thinking the building was undefended until it was too late, when their own men were exposed to fire at disadvantage.2

If there has been argument in the gaming communities about the advantages/disadvantages afforded by buildings, so too has there been in the "real world" on which our tactical wargames are based, at least if some of the reports of the 1st Special Service Force from the Anzio beachhead are any indication. In mid-April 1944, a "lessons learned" document emerged from their experiences, gleaned from every soldier in the Force:

One of the problems it dealt with was houses: whether to use them or not. One member of 3rd Regiment (1SSF) pointed to their value: "Houses are not death traps but give protection from artillery and mortar fire," he argued, "and patrols will not be surprised in them if they are properly out posted." Someone had a different opinion:

If your intention is to secure a house, you do not get in it. Place your fields of fire to cover it. Basically you were probably not given the mission of holding the house but of engaging the enemy in that vicinity. The house will likely attract the enemy. That is all value the house has to your operation 90% of the time.

And a third added this warning:

A patrol from a neighbouring infantry outfit, 13 strong, was sent out to an outpost, a house. Nothing happened for two night. They assumed that nothing would. They relaxed. All members of the patrol were taken PW. A subsequent patrol went to search for them, found all their weapons neatly stacked...The enemy patrol apparently was not even large enough to carry off the captured weapons. Never get in a house at night.3

If tactical wargames reflect the reality that they seek to portray, then it's incumbent on them to address the modelling of troops in buildings. Most games do this with a simple bonus to cover and concealment, often with two or more categories (light/heavy, wood/stone, etc.). The actual tactics for breaching the buildings are not often modelled in detail, for example, rooftop entry, "mouseholing" by use of demolition charge, etc. There are exceptions to this. Cityfight (SPI, 1979) was a purpose-designed look at contemporary urban operations in great detail. Likewise, Combat Mission: Shock Force (, 2007) attempted to give similar coverage to 21st Century urban warfare in a videogame treatment.

Wargaming Examples

The axioms that Colonel Jebb outlined as early as the 19th Century were sound, and can be applied to any wargame. The ASL Journal advises players defending buildings to protect flanks and ensure escape routes lest defenders become trapped inside buildings.4 Test scenarios set up in both Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord and Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy reveal the wisdom of this, and you can try this on your own. Put a German heavy MG crew in a building on a flat open piece of terrain. Put three U.S. squads 200-250 metres metres away at three widely divergent compass points. They can all be "out of command" from their headquarters. You can even have the U.S. headquarters charge headlong at the German MG just to have the rifle squads sight the MG and get the test started. What will invariably happen is that the machine gun team, surrounded, will be picked off by rifle fire and the U.S. rifle squads will suffer little, or no, losses.

However, in CM:AK, when the American rifle squads are put on line, and the German MG is able to benefit from the cover of the building, the expected results occur: the German MG team will remain intact - suffering no losses and firing until it runs out of ammunition. Even under concentrated rifle fire at ranges of 200-250 yards, rifle fire alone will not be enough to have an effect on the MG. On the other hand, the MG will be able to return fire on the infantry in the open and inflict casualties.

In CM:BN, the German MG team acts uniquely - the Tac AI will almost immediately pack up the machine gun, and retreat outside the building and set up in the lee of the house, highlighting a self-preservation rationale in the AI's decision making. Even when playing from the German side, the Tac AI will override the player's orders and exhibit this behaviour; just one minute into the test scenario, the German MG team, faced with three rifle squads to its front, will pack up its MG and race for the back door of the house in order to redeploy in the lee of the building.

The tempting conclusion here, absent solid data to back up the assertion, is that the building does not offer solid enough cover to the infantry inside. Observational data seem to confirm it - i.e. repeat tests show the infantry inside do suffer losses when exposed to rifle fire at the same ranges as in CM:AK. However, the Americans use rifle grenades with greater frequency in CM:BN, and their use, like that of all weapons, is less abstract.

What is "correct"?

None of which gets one closer to the "truth". The fact of the matter is that given the wide variance of actual practice in real world armies, and the lack of consistency in which success or failure was reported, we may never know what is "right" or "wrong" with regards to the modelling of same on the game board or in computer simulations, or indeed, if such a thing can exist. Timothy Harrison Place, who wrote of Military Training in the British Army, tells us that "The scarcity of evidence makes it impossible to gauge the progress of units towards achieving fluency in minor tactics."5 He writes of the training phase, but certainly such confusion must extend to the actual battle phase, for which relatively few detailed technical examinations at the section/squad and platoon level have circulated in the public consciousness.

All of which is frustrating for the tactical wargamer, who has to spend time - perhaps in "test-bed" scenarios such as the one above - trying to figure out what works, and what doesn't, rather than having the comfort of an easily accessible manual or rulebook that will outline in clear "how-to" terms what to do and what not to do. Then again, that, too, is historical. The major combatants of the Second World War dipped their toes into major urban combat only reluctantly, as we have noted, and developed their doctrine for house-to-house fighting as the war progressed only out of necessity, not desire, particularly after Stalingrad. The British began honing their methods as the threat of invasion loomed in 1940, and in fact their Home Guard were among the pioneers of development, and it was contacts with them that prepared the Canadian Army for the bitter test of Ortona in late 1943 on the Italian front.

Still; in 1977, there was some comfort for a Squad Leader player of having a nice firm kill stack ensconced in a solid +3 TEM stone building, especially with a solid -2 leader directing the action. One has to ask what those fellows in CM:BN are doing - skulking (this is a term used to describe the specific tactic in ASL of moving one hex in the phasing player's movement phase, to avoid being fired on in the enemy's defensive fire phase, then advancing back into the very same position in his advance phase again, an exploit of the game's unique multi-phase system) - or sulking?

My question to you

The traditional breakdown of building types has generally been two - SL/ASL has had wood/stone buildings; CM's various incarnations has generally had light/heavy buildings; Ambush! had light/heavy, etc. Is this enough? Should there be more distinctions for a Second World War era game set in Europe? Just one? Which game has gotten the modelling just right - and which game has gotten it disastrously wrong? The parallelograms from the Sniper! games by SPI have never been popular, visually, but in practice seemed to work okay.

1. Bull, Stephen World War II Street Fighting Tactics (Osprey Publishing Ltd, Botley, Oxford, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84603-291-2pp.3-4
2. Ibid, p.7
3. Joyce, Kenneth H. Snow Plough and the Jupiter Deception (The Story of the 1st Special Service Force and the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, 1942-1945) Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharines, ON, 2006 ISBN 1-55125-094-2
4. Pitcavage, Mark "The Last House on the Left: The Art of Key Building Defense in ASL" ASL Journal Issue Nine (Multi-Man Publishing, 2011) p. 47
5. Harrison Place, Timothy Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944: From Dunkirk to D-Day (Frank Cass, London, UK, 2000) ISBN 071468091-5 p.67

Tactical Wargamer's Journal 2

A brief post here, to announce the publication of Issue 2 of Tactical Wargamer's Journal.

Full four-page Index of subjects:
Index Link

Preview and order link:

Available in both print and electronic download form.

Link to all titles: Publisher's Spotlight

The issue is intended as a "gamer's guide" to the American effort in Normandy, with articles - as the preview suggests - on the campaign as a whole (operational overview), analysis of tactical wargame treatments of the American experience there, a guide to U.S. Army uniforms in Normandy for miniature and computer mod artists, a guide to the Sherman tank and its variants, plus extras such as a study of wargame treatments of the Battle of Singling (coincidentally featured this month in both the new Special Ops Issue 1 from Multi-Man Publishing as well as Armchair General magazine), a look at how real life battle procedure compares and contrasts to wargame mechanics, and a list of suggestions of how to write scenario briefings for board, miniature or computer games.

The issue is larger than issue 1, but unlike the premiere, is available in electronic form in addition to the standard print format, meaning you can view it on a computer screen, iPad or other device, or print it yourself at your convenience.