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.

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