Sunday, May 8, 2016

2/Worcestershire at Gheluvelt

I think that the late 19th and early 20th Centuries are a particularly interesting period of warfare. Then, as now, rapid technological changes drove development of weapons systems that were far more effective than those of the past - but too often the thinking of the officers tasked with using those weapons was mired in the past. Frequently such thinking led to horrendous casualties and, by 1915, a stalemated war of attrition in the trenches that wouldn't be resolved until the invention of new tactics and new weapons like tanks.

2/Worcestershire preparing to advance from Polygon Woods toward Gheluvelt, near Ypres - 31 October 1914

At other times though, generals who had grasped the implications of the new technologies on operations and strategy were able to pull off stunning successes. Von Moltke and the Prussians in 1870, through their understanding of how to use rail, their employment of the first effective Generals Staff, and the overwhelming use of modern artillery crushed an utterly unprepared and ineffectual French army during the Franco-Prussian War.

Supported by guns the British companies emerge from cover and begin rushing across the open fields
It's a fascinating period containing conflicts that are little studied or played by wargamers today: the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Anglo-Zulu War, The Boer Wars, The Spanish-American War, The Sino-Japanese Wars, The Boxer Rebellion, The Russo-Japanese War, The Balkan Wars, and finally, World War I. It is a period when rapid industrialization, emerging global communications, and expanding populations run headlong into hidebound imperial thinking, rigid class structures, and a drive toward colonization and domination or less developed portions of the world. 

The advancing Worcestershires begin to take casualties. German troops are becoming visible in and around the village of Linde.
Fortunately for wargamers interested in this period, there are more and more games becoming available. I'm going to explore some of these games over the next few weeks - as long as my interest in the period persists and my energy for playing allows! By far, the most common conflict available to game is WWI, but games covering many of the other conflicts I mentioned above can be found these days.

By 14:20 the Worcestershires have penetrated the outskirts of the villages of Linde and Tuinwijk. Vicious firefight erupt and the British and German troops fight house-to-house. 
A great starting point for anyone interested in this period, particularly the WWI end of things, is John Tiller Software's Squad Battles: First World War. This game captures the challenges of WWI squad level combat across the length of the war, from the maneuver battles of 1914 through trench warfare and into the infiltration tactics and early armored warfare of 1917-1918. Fights on both the Western and Eastern Fronts are included in the scenario mix, with actions as small as single battalion firefights up to multiple regiment assaults. The game also includes a really well developed set of scenarios covering the Gallipoli invasion and fighting, something fairly rare to find in a wargame.

Twenty minutes later the Worcestershires have pressed into the villages and taken a few key points. Another company has made it through the woods and is in position to assault the Gheluvelt Chateau. Despite inflicting some serious casualties on the Germans, the attack is bogging down and time is running out.
First World War is a meticulously researched game. Like many of the Tiller games, it isn't the more graphically attractive but it is tolerable - more so than most of the older, un-modded Squad Battles games. The games mechanisms will be familiar to anyone who has played any of the other games in the series. The changes to fit the system to WWI aren't hard to grasp, though being successful as a WWI commander requires some different thinking than a later period game!

2/Worcestershire manages to take Linde and Tuinwijk by virtue of fierce fighting, and secures one of the chateau outbuildings, but is unable to capture the chateau itself. 
First World War is one of those games that does a nice job of providing a game that creates a narrative with the same feeling I get when I read about the historical actions in books or online. The mechanics are not difficult to understand, even for a first-time player. The nature of WWI combat, however, means that winning, particularly as the attacker is never easy. 

Early war scenarios feel almost like American Civil War combat, albeit with much more effective and longer ranged rifle and artillery fire. Early in the war you can (and will often want to) advance quickly with formed units of troops supported by field guns. While being caught in the open by heavy artillery can have disastrous consequences for a squad, units can, under the right circumstances, pull off a charge and assault against an enemy position without becoming completely wrecked.

The game finishes with a respectable draw result; not bad for my first attempt at the game in over a year. Actual casualties in the historic assault were over three times this for the British, although they took their objectives and threw back the Germans.
Later war scenarios add the weapons that made WWI such a brutal killing ground: gas, wire, trenches, machine guns, rolling barrages, mortars, aircraft, and tanks. Despite this, none of the scenarios represent the pointless, static, war of attrition that turns so many gamers off about WWI. Sure, a poorly conceived and executed late war attack is going to be bloody and lose you the game, but there's never the sense that it's futile to try.

Because Squad Battles First World War is a tactical, squad-level game, I think it's a good introduction to computer wargames on the subject. The game includes several smaller and shorter length scenarios covering engagements lasting just a couple of hours. As a tactical game, players don't have to worry too much about logistics or larger operational concerns. The game is a good way to begin to understand the fundamentals and challenges of warfare of this period before trying to tackle something more complicated or larger in scope.