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
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Monday, March 10 2008

Historical Accuracy in Games: an Example

I just got back from the HMGS East Cold Wars convention in Lancaster, PA, and I am preparing for my Alma Mater's "CollegeCon" alumni weekend and boardgaming event next weekend.  I'll have a longer post up after both conventions are finished.  I hope to have a post on Aria episode 8 up this week as well, unless episode 9 is translated in which case all bets are off.

Quick example of historical accuracy in wargaming:  I played three rounds of Flames of War in the 1500 point mid-war (1942-43) tournament with my American Rifle Company and finished a solid 2-1 with 13 points.   Each round, I deployed a three tank platoon of standard US Army M4 Sherman tanks, for a total of nine tanks fielded.  Seven of my nine tanks were destroyed.  I lost one to a combination of point blank artillery fire followed by an infantry assault.  I lost two to 75mm fire from Panzer IV tanks, which is a suitably historical face-off for the Sherman (there's a little historical glitch in that particular scenario, but that's for later).  I lost four to self propelled 15cm assault guns, three to Sturmpanzer IV Brummbars and one to a STuIG33 (kind of a beta-release Brummbar).  The Germans built almost 1500 early model Panzer IV ausf G tanks with long 75mm guns.  The Germans built around 300 Brummbars, and only 24 STuIG33s, almost all of both of which were used for city fighting on the Eastern front until late in the war and therefore the US army of 1942-43 really didn't need weapons designed for fighting them.  I also probably wasn't alone in cursing the Brummbars, as it seemed almost every German army had a pair of the damnable things.  Why?  Because the rules and the tournament itself make the Brummbar worth more in game terms than it was worth historically.

In game terms, the Brummbar's front armor is impenetrable to Sherman fire, and for that matter to gunfire from just about any mid-war medium tank (despite the claims of the occasional evil German players, the Panther is not a medium tank, I don't care what the history books say.)  It takes a lucky shot from an American tank destroyer like an M10 to kill the damned thing.  The side armor is penetrable, but is rated the same in game terms as the front armor of an early Panzer IV G.  The main gun packs a wallop.  A hit on a Sherman kills it instantly, and it is rated as having better armor penetration than the aforementioned M10 tank destroyer against heavy tanks (it is packing a 15cm howitzer designed to reduce a fortified building to rubble).  The Brummbar's cost when putting together an army list is 85% of the cost of an early Panzer IV G, less than half the cost of a Panther, and less than a third the cost of a Tiger 1E.  The Brummbar's weaknesses are simple:  the gun is fixed forward rather than turreted, it's slow and prone to getting stuck,  the size of the gun reduces its rate of fire, and it's got a very limited range.  The fixed forward gun is rarely a hindrance in Flames of War rules, as mobility is such that tanks can generally turn on a dime.  The rate of fire is more of an issue under Flames of War rules as the ROF for the Brummbar is so low it imposes accuracy penalties for movement.  (The StuIG33 has less armor than the Brummbar, so it is, barely, killable with a front shot from a Sherman.)  General game ranges for the main gun of most medium tanks are 32", which is significant with a 4 foot by 6 foot table.  The Brummbar's range is a pitiful 16", meaning that if you do have a tank destroyer you can sit well out of its range and pound away with impunity until you get lucky.  Given the severe range limitation on the Brummbar, it's a little cheesy but not enough to justify the numbers deployed in the tournament.

That's where the tournament administration guys came in to the picture.  I have the privilege of gaming against them on a weekly basis and they're great players and really fun opponents.  Part of the fun is setting up memorable games, and the one thing memorable that the tournament administration guys have control over is the detail of the battlefield.  And they go all out, from the shores of Tunisia to the snow-covered Russian steppes, from Sicilian airfields (the infamous yet beautiful 'Dulles Airport' board) to Stalingrad in miniature.  Each and every board is packed with detail.  The problem is that that detail tends to be between your troops and the enemy.  You can be admiring the scenery one minute and cursing it the next when you realize that it's blocking you from taking your shot.  And that is why weapon range is not as important as the game designers intended.  Most battlefields are such that experienced players can keep their Brummbars from taking more than one or two shots before they're close enough to fire, and that's rarely enough shots to get a lucky penetration.  Simply put, the tournament battlefields are such that points spent on long range direct fire are not as valuable as the game designers intended.

One of the good things about computer games is that game designers often can rebalance unit cost / performance repeatedly with each new patch to deal with unbalanced abilities that players uncover over time.  The game environment is such that the battlefields are designed by the same designers that balance the forces, meaning the possible field balance is known ahead of time.

My army gave as good as it got.  We destroyed three Brummbars, one with a flank Sherman shot, three Panzer IV Gs, and two StuIG33s.  We American players also can't complain about broken units, as we've got another unit worth significantly more in game terms than in history, my beloved M5 Stuart. 

And I earlier mentioned that there was some ahistorical irony in the Panzer IVs I destroyed?  They were crewed by Romanian crews in an army based on the Romanian units which accompanied the Germans into Russia.  What they were doing fighting the US army is anyone's guess.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 13 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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