Saturday, March 29 2008

Casualties in Miniature

There's a fascinating discussion at Twenty Sided about micromanagement in Real Time Strategy gaming, always a pet peeve of mine.  But Shamus, in his posts, brings up something more interesting.

I think the strategy parts are unfulfilling because I never feel like I’m doing well. No matter how carefully I guide my units, I always leave the battlefield with the impression that I oversaw the wasting of potential. I spent so much effort carefully crafting this army of badasses, and half of them perish because they are too stupid to fight in a sensible manner and I’m too busy to tell them how to do it right.

This is, to some degree, the problem that keeps nagging at the back of my brain when playing any game involving combat.  I can't help but feel that I took way too many casualties.  I don't like throwing troops away, especially to no end, but the games tend to require successful players to sustain casualties, often massive amounts of casualties to sustain victory.

Let's take Flames of War as a more realistic example.  The game attempts to enhance realism by placing on the table enough miniatures to accurately represent the real number of combat troops in a real-world unit.  A World War II US Army rifle squad is 12 troops, so I should have 12 miniature figures on the table, and I do.  For game purposes, two to five figures are mounted together and treated as a single entity for game play, but I can see 12 little helmets in my squad.  A rifle platoon has 41 troops, compared to a real world list strength of 46.  The reinforced US Rifle company I fielded on Friday night has 226 troops and five armored vehicles, roughly comparable to the 198 troops in the real world US Army rifle company, circa 1942.  My company has some battalion and higher level support elements, and the force on the table in the game doesn't have its full compliment of rear area support troops, but the general idea still holds.

The game on Friday was relatively light, as games go.  My troops spent most of the battle sheltered in foxholes, and my tanks faced almost no serious threat from the early-model German and Italian tanks.   I lost two 57mm AT guns and their four man crews (eight soldiers), the platoon command for my weapons platoon and the crew for a 60mm mortar (six soldiers), half a platoon of infantry that faced the brunt of the German assault (six bases with four soldiers each for 24 soldiers), and one M4 Sherman tank lost to a flank hit from an Italian tank (crew of five).  I sustained a total of 43 pretend casualties.  The game doesn't differentiate between the actual results that take units out of combat, so those casualties could be dead, wounded, or otherwise out of action;  the difference is unimportant in game terms.  Still, that's one sixth of my force out of action.

And that's a relatively easy battle.  It's not unusual for my all three of rifle platoons to be more than half casualties by the end of the game.  In my March 10th entry, I described having lost more than three quarters of my tanks in a series of games.  On the one hand, it's just a game.  On the other hand, I can't help but feel I'm a lousy commander for losing so much of my forces.

In part, that's because the meeting of equal forces is a relatively rare thing in war.  The whole idea behind being a great strategist is that you meet the enemy with a stronger force to begin with, while the mechanics of the game require that both sides be comparable.  Fairness is what you want in a game, not in a real battle.

The other problem may be that I'm looking at it across the gulf of decades of the changing nature of warfare.  The real battles, especially the ones where the enemy picked the field of battle and had the stronger force (Kasserine Pass, the Ardennes, etc.) seem unbelievably bloody to someone in a world where 4,000 killed [UPDATED Was originally "casualties" - my unfortunate mistake, see comments] in five years in a force of 100,000 is viewed as unsustainable.  The idea that the Soviet Union lost an average of more than 10,000 people per day spread across the entire second world war is completely incomprehensible to me.

Posted by: Civilis at 03: 15 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
Post contains 734 words, total size 4 kb.

1 Well, first off, we haven't suffered 4,000 casualties in five years, we've suffered more like 40,000-44,000.  Keep in mind that 'body count' fixation is on deaths, not woundings & the like.  This post-WWII fixation on battle deaths - because hey, we don't lose as many wounded men in the hospitals these days, and the days of more men dying of disease than battle are long, long gone - has kind of distorted the way we look at modern-day warfare.

Weirdly enough, the recent trend towards heavier armor & infantry armor has driven the fatality-to-wounds ratio from the age-old four-to-one up to ten to one or eleven to one.  It also means that incidents which would have killed soldiers in the old days leaves them alive, but in much worse shape than would have been survivable back then.  They're seeing a lot more serious brain damage, especially.

And yes, losses of half the battle participants in a victorious engagement sounds about right in the WWII context.  When you see casualty reports from that era, keep in mind that unless there was a serious breakthrough event and any sort of deep penetration attack, the casualties will be overwhelmingly concentrated in the maneuver elements - infantry, anti-tank gunners, tankers, pilots and aircrew, recon, etc.  Relatively few casualties will be encountered in the artillery and support battalions, unless something goes wildly wrong.  And even then, they're more likely to get captured than wounded or killed.  Unless Peiper's about, I suppose...

Most active infantry regiments saw hideous casualty rates - over 100% in the lifetime of the unit, and 200%-300% seems to have been common.  And even there, the losses tended to come from the actual sharp-edge platoons over the weapons squads and mortar platoon guys.

Posted by: Mitch H. at Apr 04 13 20 (jwKxK)

2 Thanks for the correction, Mitch.  4,000 killed, not 4,000 casualties.

Posted by: Civilis at Apr 04 15 04 (huKGY)

3 I normally try to be very specific about what I say, because I'm an engineer and programmer by education and that's the way I think.  Still, I'm human, which is why I make mistakes like the one above.

A co-worker of mine has a nephew that was one of those seriously wounded that got lost in my attempt to write a coherent argument above.  It's something that's always in mind when I think about these issues, and it makes my inadvertent slip-up so much more painful.

Posted by: Civilis at Apr 04 22 46 (HPu36)

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