Coming to terms with EFDx #2: Sneak Attack
Writer Bio: Matt W
Matt Ward is, he tells us, 54, married with two children, living in Virginia and works in US healthcare finance, an arcane field at best. He swears that he went to college and graduate school but this being the Internet he might actually be 15 and living in a basement somewhere.
He protests that he is not technologically savvy so photographic proof must wait for another day (Shad's Note: likely photo has been included), and with photoshop we have to be concerned about such "proof" anyway.
His first game was the AH chestnut Afrika Korps, and now over 300 games later he has joined us as Matt W (cleverly hiding his real identity).
My daughter plays ice hockey, seriously. I mean that she really does play ice hockey and that it is a driving force in her life. As you can imagine, balance plays a huge part in the game. I have had knee operations so I can no longer experience the "joy" of trying to stay upright on skates but I remember the elation when I could stay vertical long enough to make it once around the rink. As I spend weekends with my teenaged daughter and she whirls about on the ice I consider again the joy of that feeling of balance.
I play wargames, a lot. I have played wargames since I was 13 and that was a long time ago (one of the endearing qualities of the Internet is you don't really know how old I am so that when I say I'm 54 you can only assume that I am telling the truth). My mother called them, "those games". My dad would ask me questions about who was fighting who and then tell me who won the war or the battle. Some of my friends learned how to play and some didn't. Regardless of whether they played or not they all thought I was a little weird. My wife still thinks I am.
I played most of the games solitaire and played the finish off of many of the counters. I currently own in excess of 300 games and or expansions from the inane (Kriegspiel from Avalon Hill) to the ridiculous (Final Edition World in Flames from Australian Design Group with all the chrome added) to the sublime (the La Battaille series from Clash of Arms).
I was an early convert to tactical combat through Panzerblitz. A group of us actually decided to pool our resources and try out some Barbarossa style campaign designing. We failed spectacularly but the fun was in the designing. Then we heard that Panzerblitz was passé, and that something called Squad Leader was the new Holy Grail, but when I saw the rulebook for the original Squad Leader and then heard that it wasn't complex enough so we had to move to Advanced Squad Leader I found my brake pedal. That also coincided with college, graduate school, marriage and then kids.
Years (lots of them) later, Avalanche Press ran the "Bulk Man Special" which included about 20 PG titles including Eastern Front, Road to Berlin, Afrika Korps, Desert Rats, Beyond Normandy, Guadalcanal and Battle of the Bulge. It was a really big box. Clearly there was a lot of interest amongst the faithful at AVP and I felt that it was probably smart to dive in big.
When it arrived I looked at the books and counters for a long while in order just to wallow in the experience (on a side note, Mike Bennighof wrote that the expansions can often be considered more along the lines of literature rather than games – I would tend to agree as I must have read White Eagles 30 times before I played a single scenario). If you look at my list of games you will see several that are still in the wallow phase (no scenarios played), some from that original purchase.
Once I started though I found BoardGameGeek and began loading my collection and logging a few plays. That's where I first found Shad – playing Kokoda Trail at the same time as I was. As I was working through entering the games and rating them, and looking at other ratings and comments I was stunned at the level of animus directed at PG from those who held that ATS or ASL were so much more real. Many of the comments were directed at the "lack of blood" (a very interesting misunderstanding of the reality of combat), the interminable lack of resolution of urban assault (how long did Frost's paras last at the north end of the Arnhem bridge, again?), and we heard ad nauseum that PG scenarios were undeveloped and terribly unbalanced as a result.
I immediately thought "What have I just invested in? If people really hate this series, have I made some horrible mistake?" I figured that the only way to find out was to play enough scenarios to really understand the system and its results. I expect to go back to the comments concerning "blood" and "lack of urban combat resolution" at a future time but this screed is all about balance.
One may know how to gain a victory, and know not how to use it.
~ Pedro Calderón de la Barca
What does balance in a wargame mean? Simply put a "balanced" wargame is one which gives both sides an equal chance to win. Fair enough, but what general would EVER keep his job engaging the enemy in a 50-50 proposition? What country would initiate a conflict with only a 50-50 chance of surviving? In essence, then, each "balanced" wargame is the result of some hideous mistake made by those in ultimate command. War has been littered with such mistakes but to seek them out for "balance" reasons seems odd. Yet, plenty of money has been spent (including by me) on exactly those types of simulations.
Think about those conflicts (battles, wars, etc.) which have been gamed to death, Barbarossa, Market-Garden, Gettysburg, the entire ETO of WWII, the desert war, Shiloh, Waterloo, you get my drift… When thought about rationally, Hitler, Montgomery, Lee, Hitler and Mussolini, Mussolini, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Napoleon, respectively all made terrible mistakes in order to create the "balanced" situation. Importantly, every single one of the aggressors lost these "balanced" situations. In EACH case it can be seen that, if survival was the desired strategic result something other than the offensive chosen would have had a better result (no, this is MY article and I get to say things like that, if you want to say that Barbarossa could have or should have been won by the Nazis simply write your own article!). I have left Kursk out of the discussion until we get BOTH flanks in print…
Successful assaults make for dull gaming (e.g. Cobra, the Atlanta campaign, strategic PTO games starting in 1943, Anvil-Dragoon, the 1806 campaign in Prussia, etc.). Typically the victory conditions of such games have to be jury rigged to provide for suspense, usually by forcing some time constraint. Yet the situations are examples of correct military planning.
Balance results from a failure of military intelligence. An attack should only be risked when a preponderance of force is available and certain ("Gen'l Lee, I think those Yankee guns have left the ridge…") and it leads to a conclusion ("We beat them Yankees today on this here Chickamauga Creek, now what?"). I don't think that it would be much "fun" to play the Iraqi Republican Guard in a game on the conventional assault in the Iraq War, primarily because it was not a balanced situation. Yet there is much to learn in playing such a game.
I don't find my fun with PG just in the well balanced scenarios (and they do exist, usually you can tell by reading the introductions – which are pieces of prose worth a careful read – and the comment "which they didn't expect" is hiding in there) but also in those with a clearly overmatched force since that is how most battles were fought. There is much to learn about how much force is enough and what factors represent force multipliers (see Fronte Russo #8). I am now able to look at a scenario and tell whether I expect a tough fight or a walk over, at least most of the time.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.
~ W. C. Fields
Let's face it. If you are playing for "fun" then no one will pick the Soviets in Eastern Front Deluxe #2: Sneak Attack. They got clobbered in real life and they get clobbered in the scenario and that's just how it is (by the way, if you are the person who had the Soviets win once in the 10 plays of that scenario, HOW?). Yet there is much to learn in each PG scenario. There are no real "throw away" scenarios just failures to learn the lessons inherent in them.
When you get right down to it, balance in a wargame, as opposed to balance in a fighting situation, depends on the victory conditions. Carefully thought out victory conditions can create a balance which is not inherent in the conflict. Reading the developer's notes to the scenarios posted on the AVP website has been instructive in how they are developed. Yet the thought remains that PG scenarios are underdeveloped and that is why there is insufficient balance. I say hogwash (I don't really say it but it looks good here). The gamer's victory is ultimately outperforming history and history is given in each scenario conclusion.
I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.
~ Jonathan Winters
I recently played a scenario titled "Dismal Failure" and my assault was ultimately just as dismal and failed as in reality from a strategic sense, however, I was able to outperform the reality as the German commander. Did this result in a German victory per the scenario victory conditions? No, but the play was fascinating and the results ahistorical. Frankly, the Germans can't win this one barring something stunningly weird occurring but the Americans have a tough time repeating history. The game results will fall between a German victory and the historical result most times. The attack was still a "dismal failure" but not quite as dismal as in reality. It gave me a good feeling that perhaps I would not have been quite so willing to waste my men's lives as those who managed the actual assault.
Cleverness is not wisdom.
Any gamer claiming a victory because the victory conditions say he won when his forces are mangled beyond repair and he has one unit clinging desperately to a position that would change the victory to a loss in the next 15 minutes and there is no way his unit will hold, is being dishonest. Yes, I have won games in that fashion and claimed bragging rights because of it but it is intellectually dishonest at best. Bob Coggins described this situation beautifully in the Player's Notes to The Struggle of Nations, Avalon Hill, 1982, a Kevin Zucker Napoleonic campaign game:
Last and perhaps least, a word on the victory conditions. They are difficult and for the French Player, perhaps impossible to meet. More often than not something less than victory is achieved by one Player and something less than defeat by the other. The lack of a (defined) victory or defeat, however, will not conceal from the players who has won and lost the game. Only the most intransigent of players will fail to recognize a defeat.
I don't know about you but the last thing that I want to be is "intransigent" because I'd have to explain it to people over and over again. Vocabularies just aren't what they used to be.
PG works because it simulates the reality. "Playing" PG is fun because it can provide a tense, close fought situation but often provides lessons in reality by presenting the unbalanced situations that truly did dominate the battlefields. Remember that every time your attack results in a "balanced" scenario either you as a commander have failed, some intelligence officer failed or, as most often happens, the dice were against you.
Happy learning everyone!
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