War (Gaming) – What Is It Good For? Learnin’ History!
In my last blog I talked about history-based games that are NOT focused on war.
In this blog – part two in a series about history-based games – I”m going to embrace
my inner (armchair) general and present an excellent example of “war gaming as an interactive history lesson” using the example of the recent Operation Overlord Global (Digital) Campaign organized by What Would Patton Do? (WWPD), an independent website focused on Battlefront Limited’s 15mm WWII tabletop miniatures skirmish game called Flames of War.
Operation Overlord Campaign – Overview
WWPD launched their Operation Overlord Global (Digital) Campaign on June 30th. 880 players in more than 50 countries played games over a 5-week period, producing 480 battle reports (batreps) that determined the outcome of the campaign when it ended on August 5.
The campaign was a historical, “crowd-sourced,” game-based simulation of the World War II Allied “D-Day” invasion of German-occupied France (code named Operation Overlord), launched against the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944
There are MANY sources of information about D-Day and the Normandy invasion, including popular media treatments like Saving Private Ryan. One source with a military history bent that I enthusiastically recommend is the multimedia website: The Normandy Campaign – The Advance Inland.
If you want to see what a game of Flames of War is like, watch the 7.5 minute narrated, time-lapse video battle report embedded below. It is from Ouchies Batreps which produces the best videos of FoW games I’ve seen.
If you don”t have 7.5 minutes to spare I’ve posted some still photos to give you a feel for the game.
Players from all over the world played Flames of War games that represented battles in specific sectors of Normandy. Players chose sectors from an online, interactive, “live” campaign map. A sector could not be attacked unless the attacking side had secured an adjacent sector. In the campaign, when one side or the other achieved an undisclosed target number of victory points in a particular sector, that sector was marked with a symbol denoting that it either had been “secured” by the advancing Allies (symbol = white star) or “successfully defended” by the German (Axis) forces occupying France (symbol = German cross).
The goal of the Allied players was to take the sectors containing three strategically important cities: Caen, St. Lo and Cherbourg. These cities are indicated on the screen shot of the map, below, by large blacked-in circles with German Crosses in them. Historically, Caen and St. Lo were positioned at the edge of “difficult-to-fight-in” bocage country, so all three cities were key strategic points from which an Allied armored breakout into the more open areas of France could be staged and launched. Cherbourg was a port city which could provide the docking facilities from which the Allies could unload the masses of men and material they had available to use to overwhelm the resource-limited Germans.
My Campaign Participation
The numbered yellow “explosions” on the map show the sectors in which I played games and logged the results into the campaign scoring system.
Full disclosure: I played for the German side in 4 out of the 5 campaign games I played and was highly invested in a German campaign victory.
Lining Up the Campaign with the Historical Timeline
During the campaign, players fought far fewer battles during the work week and then tons were fought on the weekends. As a result, it probably makes sense to http://ippp.org/ think of the campaign as having a ratio of “1 campaign day-to-1.5 historical days” in calendar terms. Using this as a “temporal translation rate,” the campaign can be said to have covered the historical period from June 6 (D-Day) – July 26, 1944. This is roughly the same amount of time that it actually took the Allies to take control of all the territory depicted on the Campaign Map, so this makes a good basis for comparing the gaming simulation to reality.
History vs. Simulation
So how do the two events – gaming simulation and actual history – compare?
My own single (long) paragraph recap of the military history of the actual Normandy invasion goes something like this:
As a result of their poor-quality military intelligence apparatus, the Germans were fooled into believing an Allied invasion of France was aimed at landing at Calais. However, being uncertain even of that, the Germans were forced to thinly defend most of the northern coast of France with whatever military assets they had available given the large demands on the Eastern Front. Allied air superiority prevented the Germans from being able to mass their armored forces. So, when the Allies crossed the English Channel on June 6 with 150,000 soldiers (an advantage of anywhere from 5-1 to 15-1 depending on estimates of German defensive strength) there was no way for the Germans to prevent them from establishing a beachhead, though doing so cost the Allies heavily in terms of casualties. Without armored forces positioned to launch counter attacks, the best defenses the Germans were able to mount were in the urban close combat environments of the cities. Caen, for example, held out much longer than the British had expected. Meanwhile, the Americans quickly cut off the Cotentin Peninsula from the mainland and from reinforcements, which helped them take Cherbourg much more quickly than the British at Caen. However the Germans damaged the port facilities at Cherbourg to the extent that they were of no strategic use to the Allies for a considerable period of
time. Allied air superiority permitted massive bombing in the open countryside around St Lo, facilitating the American capture of that city followed by a massive armored breakout south and east from that position. By July 28th, ALL of the territory represented on the OOC map – as well as the three key cities – were in Allied hands. As the American Battle Monuments Commission puts it, by July 25, “the Battle for Normandy had ended and the Battle for France had begun.”
WWPD’s Summary of Simulation Results
So how did the “simulated history” of WWPD”s OOC unfold by comparison? Here”s WWPD”s Steve MacLaughlan”s summary:
“World history has been changed forever! The Axis have secured a victory in Normandy. The Allies were thwarted at the final hurdle – Cherbourg and St-Lo proved just too much for the Allied forces. While the Allies had made good ground throughout the countryside, controlling a large portion of Normandy, the towns of St-Lo and Cherbourg – vital to the Allied supply routes – were heavily fortified by experienced German troops used to fighting in urban environments at Stalingrad. These fortified cities proved too much for the already battered and bloodied Allies.
The most fought-over zone was Le Molay Littry with 33 battles (and was held by the axis in the end). The most “conquered” Allied zone was Carentan with a disparity of 35 victory points in the Allies’ favor. The most “defended” zone was St. Lo with a disparity of 54 victory points in favor of the Axis.
(NOTE: For reference, FoW games are determined by a spread of 7 victory points, with a lopsided “blowout” being 6-1 in favor of the winner and an “almost draw” being 4-3 in favor of the winner. So a 35 point difference would require a minimum of 7 “blowouts” on the Allied side while a 54 point difference would require a minimum of almost 11 “blowouts” on the German side, all else being equal.)
Overall the Allies had slightly more victory points than the Axis, but the difference was slight. The bulk of the Allies” surplus in Victory Points was achieved on the beaches, where the Allies largely dominated. Thereafter the Germans fought hard.”
Steve Bean Games’ Comparative Analysis
I”ve created two maps that compare the Allies” historical progress to their progress in the campaign: June 28, 1944:
The dark blue line shows where the Allies were historically, while the green line shows their progress by the same date in the game simulation. In terms of square miles of territory, and key cities there’s not much difference with one exception – in the campaign the Allies have already taken Caen and are thus “ahead of the game” (no pun intended) – since German control over Caen in the real Battle for Normandy wasn’t completely ended until August 1944
The other juxtaposed map depicts the final campaign result compared to the historical progress of July 25, 1944:
The green cross-hatched area depicting Allied progress shows that the game players have again taken control of about the same amount of territory as the Allies had historically. As with the actual event, the Allies have cut off the Cotentin Peninsula. But here we begin to see deviations from history in the Allies” disfavor- the Allies are only just beginning to assault the key cities St. Lo and Cherbourg. Without these key campaign objectives the Allied players lost the campaign game.
Why History Did NOT Repeat
So what accounts for the difference in the gaming simulation versus historical events? In my analysis I see four key factors:
We (the German players) enjoyed a fiction of force parity – Though the WWPD designers avoided giving specifics to prevent players from “gaming the system,” it was announced at the start of the campaign that different VP totals were required for the Allies to control a sector vs the Axis. These different requirements would reflect the force differential present during the historical invasion and create the same “war of attrition” for the Germans as the one they were forced to fight in reality. Factors such as numbers of soldiers and weapons, air superiority and differences in supply would come into play in the form of a comparative strategic advantage granted to the Allies.
However, with individual battles determining VPs and FoW games typically played with sides of equal strength, the OOC Germans possessed a level of force parity they never had historically as they attempted to defend the entire coast of northern France against an invasion at a landing site they couldn’t reliably predict.
The OOC Allies were denied their “air game” – By the time of the real Normandy invasion, the Allies had established near-absolute air superiority. Bombers and fighter-bombers flew with nigh on impunity, disrupting German supply lines, severely hampering troop movement and inflicting significant casualties and destruction of equipment on any large unit formations caught out on maneuver during daytime.
In the campaign game, while Allied air superiority may have been factored into the VP target numbers, it did not exist in the individual battles that determined the actual number of points each side accumulated.
The truth is, air power is not very tactically influential in FoW. Flames of War games typically depict engagements at a ground scale in which air strikes are severely limited by the close proximity of friendly troops. Furthermore, the FoW rules put significant limits on how much air power a player can bring to the game and also make ground-based anti-aircraft weapons (AAA) devilishly effective at driving off ground attack aircraft. In fact, between “waving off” potential air strikes that are too close to friendly troops, the chance of failing to successfully target the enemy and the effectiveness of AAA, a player who purchases aircraft as part of his or her force has a good chance of it having almost no effect
on the outcome of a game. By contrast, if a player (presumably German) brings ground-based AAA as a counter to air support and his or her opponent has no air support, those points are not wasted – unlike the points spent on ineffective aircraft – because those weapons are still reliably effective against infantry and lightly armored vehicles.
A design that de-emphasizes combat aircraft is appropriate to a game that puts the focus on land combat, but in the campaign it meant that Allied players who spent “build points” on aircraft were probably putting their side of the campaign at a competitive disadvantage – the opposite of the historical reality.
The OOC Germans were allowed to follow Rommel’s advice – Leading up to the real D-Day, the German Army High Command put Field Marshal Erwin Rommel – the famous “Desert Fox” of the North Africa campaign – in charge of organizing the defense of France against the expected Allied invasion. Rommel believed that the only chance the Germans had to defeat the invasion was to stop it at the beaches, using rapidly-deployed armored units in lightning-quick counter attacks that would prevent the Allied forces from ever establishing a beach head from which to deploy their superior quantities of men and material. Rommel knew that large armored formations could not be deployed en mass in the open because they would be destroyed by Allied air attacks, so he proposed dividing up larger units – such as armored divisions – into smaller units called Kampfgruppes (battle groups) and deploying them in positions where they would be protected from Allied aircraft but from which they could still launch effective counter attacks. The German High Command did not agree with Rommel”s analysis and chose to keep the armored divisions together and deploy them further inland where they would be safe from Allied sorties. These deployments meant that on D-Day, German armored units were not close enough to the coast to counter attack before the Allies had already begun to advance inland. What”s more, as these units moved toward the coast, many of them got shot up by enemy aircraft!
In the campaign, with no representation of air superiority and individual games being conducted with no prohibited build lists and force parity as the norm, the Germans had ample – one might even say “generous” – quantities of armored assets. In Flames of War, armored units – tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled armored artillery – are an especially strong element of the German arsenal. So this campaign deviated widely from history in the number of armored engagements the OOC Germans were able to conduct and the parity of forces in these engagements. In this way the OOC Germans were able to play to their strengths to an extent that the German military couldn’t come close to matching in the actual Normandy invasion.
The OOC Allies did not have the level of command and control or cooperation that the real Allies had – In the end, the campaign was extremely close. It appears that what actually cost the OOC Allies the game was them not moving quickly enough to use their initial gains to stage attacks on ALL of the key cities. They took Caen early then failed to move on St Lo and Cherbourg, even though according to WWPD organizer Steve MacLaughlan, they handing defeats to us Germans in battles spread across the outlying areas the entire time.
It’s clear from reading the online forum that some – if not many – Allied players simply did not understand that the city sectors were the objectives that were key to winning the campaign. Still other players – on both sides – simply chose their battles based on what miniatures and model terrain pieces they had available, or on which battle locations they were excited about re-enacting on their gaming tables.
It’s unclear from the limited data that WWPD has had time to present thus far whether the OOC Germans were any smarter about their choice of engagements. But the real Allies – while far from perfect in terms of strategy, tactics and international cooperation – definitely kept their eyes on the prizes in Normandy, putting intense effort into capturing Caen, St. Lo and Cherbourg – redoubling their efforts and trying new approaches any time an operation failed to move them closer to achieving these objectives.
In conclusion, the real D-Day beach landings followed by the successful break out of Allied mobile, armored forces from Normandy led to the encirclement and decimation of the German Army in France.The liberation of Paris was achieved by the end of August 1944 and the liberation of all of France from German occupation quickly followed.
Would the Campaign Result Changed the Course of the Actual War?
So what would follow from the defeat of the OOC Allies in the campaign”s simulated “alternate history?” WWPD posted the following on the campaign website: “Low on supplies and heavily crippled,
Looking just extra enforcer growth generic viagra
and similar coarse FAST it looser!
the Allied forces are being driven back to the sea in scenes seen only years before at Dunkirk. The Axis forces will continue to push the Allies back and will eventually launch Operation Sealion, the Axis invasion of England.”
As much as I enjoy the drama of the above statement, I don”t think it reflects a realistic picture of what would have followed from an Allied defeat in Normandy along the lines of the OOC..
My assessment is that even with the repulsion of the D-Day invasion, the Allies would still have had a large surplus of fight left in them. The Allies would still have had the advantages of air and naval superiority, vast reserves of soldiers, weapons and fuel as well as having knocked Italy out of the war and being in possession of that country as far north as Anzio. I think it”s likely that a failed D-Day invasion would have turned US and British attention toward an invasion of southern France – what Churchill called the “soft underbelly of the Axis” – such as the one the Allies launched from Italy in August 1944: Operation Dragoon.
By August 1944 Germany is losing the war on the Eastern Front despite conducting fighting withdrawals with such consummate skill that they deserve an eternal place in the annals of military achievement. Unless our “alternate history” includes an equally large Soviet defeat, I do not believe that Allied failure along the lines of the OOC leads anywhere near German victory in WWII. I think it”s more likely that the Allies enter central Europe via Italy, meeting the Soviets closer to what will later become the Eastern Block while France remains in German hands.
Does a united Soviet/US/UK offensive front in eastern/southeastern Europe mean Germany is defeated more rapidly than it was historically, or do ideological differences dissolve this alliance and ignite a second war, one between the Soviets Communists and the Western Capitalist powers, with Germany saved from destruction and dissolution by this new conflict?
What ever the case, I”m pretty confident that someone, somewhere has gamed that scenario and had a lot of fun playing it out and learning something about history in the process!