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


  1. I think there's a kind of building missing in CM's and most tactical wargames - perhaps this is not the case with ASL. The "reinforced" or "fortified" building, with sandbags or whatever allowing troops inside to fire their weapons from covered positions. Infantry occupying a building become exposed when they have to peek out and engage the enemy. If a lot of fire is being directed at the house it's not too surprising that they eventually become supressed and overrun.

    Buildings shouldn't be "free" fortified positions.

  2. In CMX1 you could work around this by laying bunkers down, then overwriting them with buildings in the editor. I used to model "fortified buildings" in this way; the only problem was they were then "padlocked" and the scenario player had no way to move them once set. I thought it worked out ok and used them in my Little Stalingrad operation in CM:AK. In other words, I do agree that fortified buildings is one of the things that CM missed out on. Training manuals from the Second World War period and moving forward in time all make reference to shoring up buildings as time and material permit - good call.

  3. I really like the idea of having a "fortified" building class - this certainly was done.

    My experience in Beyond Normandy is that buildings' best defensive effects currently are that they break up line of sight and provide "hides" for defenders. Once the shooting starts buildings don't provide much protection, but that doesn't matter if hiding in building allows you to open up at a range where you entirely destroy your nearest advancing opponent in a couple of seconds and then can run out the back door before the house is destroyed.

  4. Range shouldn't be a problem in the bocage, dependent on the precise map and/or the scenario designer. Any scenario, really, in the new game engine is going to be fought at relatively close ranges. It will be interesting to see what the British module brings. CM:SF was interesting in that while the terrain was arid, so many scenarios seemed to be set in urban centres. It is a myth that the Germans relied on their long range weapons to stand off at range; the Russians certainly thought so before Stalingrad and perhaps it was true on the steppe, but there are sources that indicate that in Normandy, the German range of engagement for tanks was on average just 800 metres, and this includes in the open farmland to the south of Caen (much shorter in the bocage, naturally). Even with the advantage of weapons that could "reach out and touch someone" the Germans apparently preferred to hold fire and ensure effective ambushes as you suggest works in CM:BN. Intersting to note also the article on Key Building Defence that I refer to talks about the fighting withdrawal, which you also allude to, and the skills it takes to execute. In other words, I think you have identified a bit of tactical wisdom.