Now close can a tabletop wargame get to simulating the reality of WWII infantry combat? This is an article I wrote for the wargaming press over a year ago, but as it never appeared in print, I'm going to self-publish... the joys of the tintaweb... just to stimulate some thoughts, comments are welcome (as ever, but keep it civil :-) ).
It is an old, and popular, subject amongst WW2 wargamers – how to get historical accuracy and realism in their games. Over the last year, the subject has come up in several conversations at conventions, discussing how close a tabletop wargame can get to (and should aspire to get to) the reality of WW2 combat (for the infantry soldier). This got me to thinking (and thus writing). About 12 years ago I wanted to branch out from my 20mm ‘tank-oriented’ wargames to focus on the detail of infantry fighting, and so I set about writing a 28mm WW2 skirmish game, in which each player would get a platoon of infantry to command and then some support to add to it. Over the past few years this has become the default setting for 28mm WW2 wargames and there have been a number of rules sets and miniatures to match (you know them). So, my interest peaked again by this popularity, I revisited what I had written 12 years ago, to see how I had approached the problems that playing WWII platoon-level games at 28mm throws up.
When I started I wanted my game (Platoon in Action was its working title), to deal only with harsh reality. I wanted a simulation, or as close as I could get to the real tactical problems of a platoon commander. I wanted the use of real tactics and counter-tactics and a game that rewarded the player who ‘did it right’ by using the training, as written in the handbooks. Here is what I found. This isn’t to say that this is a system for playing a WW2 infantry simulation, more (if it was a maths problem) this is showing some of the first ‘working-out’, the inner guts, the groundwork which could be used to then develop a rules system that perhaps got players closer to the goal of reality.
In writing this article I’ve tried to avoid making too many assumptions or conceits to what might be actually playable as a tabletop ‘game’, that is not the point of the exercise, I want to take the reality and turn it into something closer with miniatures. It’s not possible to do this completely so, by way of explanation, my first assumption is this – standard engagement ranges for infantry in Normandy were about 300 yards (still the standard for infantry training I believe). That said, if you were closer that 300 yards from the enemy you were ‘at close quarters’. 300 yards is an effective range for the standard issue bolt action rifles of the period. Of course, whether you can see 300 yards is another matter, but if you could, then you could effectively engage the enemy. A second assumption is that 28mm models are 1/56th in scale. This is actually a bit small (a 28mm tall model is then a bit short as about a 5’2” tall man). A 5’10” tall man, as represented by a 28mm tall model, is actually closer to 1/62nd scale, but most models are built to 1/56th (and all those now ‘over-sized’ vehicle models won’t feature in our infantry platoon-sized game anyway). The third assumption is that my default setting for examples etc will be the fighting in Normandy in 1944, and specifically the British infantryman, as that’s what I know best.
PROBLEM 1. Realistic ground scale and table size
So, the first problem we must deal with is a realistic ground scale and thus the table size. 300 yards (900 feet), our effective range baseline is (via the miracle of maths), 900/56 = 16.07, let’s say 16 feet then. 16 feet! The table needs to be at least 16 feet long to be able to represent 300 yards of effective range shooting at 1/56th scale. Think about that... how many people can really play on a 16’ table very often? And on the 16’ table, we will have just a platoon of men, no more that 20-30 or so models. So, here is the first point against simulation... you can’t get it on a tabletop, even for the effective range for small arms (let alone longer range exchanges with tank cannons or mortars etc). 300 yards for tank warfare is very, very close range (too close most tank crews would say). The tanks don’t often get that close, so we can safely ignore them, except maybe as an off-table main gun or machine gun fire from further back. So, no tank models will be needed in our model collection, boo!
So, let’s see if we can make this prospective simulation a bit more practical. Let say I can actually play on a 6 x 4 table, a default most wargames rules are written for, because most writers actually want gamers to play their rules sometime, rather than read them, snort and shelve the book forever as interesting but unplayable.
A 6’ by 4’ table creates, at 1/56th scale, 112 yards by 75 yards. That is very close range, you are already on top of the enemy. Fix bayonets, pull out grenades, etc, because you can see the whites of their eyes and this is going to be very messy. Close quarters combat is, in modern warfare, something of a rarity. Most troops never get this close to the enemy, mainly because they don’t have too. But, it does sometimes happen, so perhaps what we are really simulating here is a close assault, not an infantry fire fight (that must have already happened to get us this close). Second, the table area isn’t anywhere large enough for a full platoon to operate. It’s a quarter of the size of the table we need, so we can realistically have a section (or squad) on it. Our simulation might actually need to take place with just 8-12 models attacking.
PROBLEM 2. Terrain
So, what terrain are we going to need for our game. To get an example of a 6’ x 4’ table I took a walk up the local country lane and measured out an area roughly 112 yards by 75. My brief afternoon stroll complete, I drew a sketch map of what I had found - and bear in mind I chose an area of ‘dense’ and interesting terrain here, perhaps recreating an action as the section moved up the lane into a village and it encountered the defending enemy at close quarters. I didn’t just stand in the middle of a cow field, in which case the 6’x4’ table could quite reasonably and realistic have no terrain at all, just be a flat green rectangle of grass. But who wants to play on that table when the enemy have accurate machine guns? I’d want to play on something slightly more interesting and challenging, and assume most players do to, so here it is.
As I want this to be accurate, I then used Google Earth to show the real thing.
That is just the 6’ x 4’, for our section’s close assault. But that wasn’t actually the game we set out to create. The original platoon action, at effective range, is on our big 16’ table (again its only 6’ wide, because we have to able to reach the models to be able to play at all).
This is the same area of Derbyshire country lane again (standing in for rural Normandy to save on travel costs), but this time for a 16’ table, and again, chosen for interest, not just two adjacent fields split by a hedge.
And again here it is on Google Earth, to show accurately what we are recreating. Those farms are less that 300 yards apart (I walked it), easily within rifle shot (but they can’t actually see each other due to all the trees). The hedges are big, easily over 10 feet tall and full of trees (quite Norman), there are also a ditches between them and the lane, which are about half full of murky drainage water, so I’m not getting into them to test depth - but if the Germans were trying to shoot me, I’d be in up to my ears without a pause. Still, on a big table, that’s not really much in the way of terrain either, except north of the lane, where the ground is dense with overgrown bushes, ferns and in places very swampy underfoot, being slightly lower lying than the surrounding fields. It seems to be waste ground, not used for anything (except fly tipping - grr).
OK, so we have our possible tabletops, small for a section at close quarters or large for a whole platoon at more standard ranges.
PROBLEM 3. The timescale
So, this is a platoon action, we have a ground scale, but how long will the game last? As a base line let’s look first at say, 1 minute turns. It might not be that 1 minute works well, but it’ll give an idea of what could and couldn’t work. We might need to be longer or shorter. But, at just one minute turns, these fire fights are going to be very long games to get to 20 minutes of action. Not playable in an evening. You’ll be at it for two days to play an hour of actual fighting.
As far as I can see, there are basically two main actions to consider along with the timescale; movement (i.e. how far can people really move in that time) and secondly firing, i.e. how many shots can they fire in the time. I’ll deal with shooting first, because it’s more interesting, and it’s going to be the beating heart of the rules in the end – the actual combat.
PROBLEM 4. Rates of Fire, Ranges and Ammunition
Let’s look at the standard infantry weapon first (in this case the excellent Enfield Mk4) to get an idea of how much shooting could possibly be done. I think a well trained regular soldier could, rapid firing, empty his 10 round magazine in 15 seconds. They might not be the best aimed shots, but they will be putting some lead down range. The infantryman then has to reload of course, not a swift business in 1944, but let’s say another 15 seconds. So, flat out, that’s 20 rounds and two reloads in our 1 minute turn. So we have a baseline for bolt-action rifle fire at 20 rounds a minute. For the sake of developing the rules, let’s say that allows me to roll 1 dice in the game. This might change, but the number of dice rolled will give us an easier comparison in rates of fire.
Compare this to a submachine gun’s rate of fire (and they are going to feature prominently on the 6’ x 4’ table, because everything is easily within SMG effective range of roughly 100 yards). The British Sten’s 300 rounds per minute cyclic rate of fire empties its 30 round magazine in just 6 seconds. Then it has a far swifter reload than the rifle. Let’s say 4 magazine a minute with reloads (flat out, and it doesn’t jam due to overheating – which mostly likely it would, but we are just looking at raw data here, that sort of ‘advanced stuff’ like jamming comes later in development). So, if 20 rounds was 1 dice, 120 SMG rounds is then 6 dice. OK. If in the simulation a rifle gets 1 dice, SMGs get 6 dice. I can buy that.
The Bren gun gets a similar amount of dice to the SMG, with similar cyclic rate of fire and magazine capacity, it can just fire further more accurately. It gets 6 dice too.
So far so good for the Brits, but here comes the rub. On the other side of the table, the German player’s platoon gets their MG-34 (or even worse MG-42), and in his platoon gets not just 1 of them, but 3, and in some cases, justifiably 6. The MG-34s cyclic rate of fire of 900 rounds per minute, with a 100 round belt (which has to be reloaded too of course) results in a stripped belt every 6.6 seconds, then a reload. So let’s say a quick reload doubles that firing time. By my maths, roughly 400 rounds are actually fired each minute. Again, if the rifle is 1 dice for 20 rounds, on the same scale, the MG-34 is 20 dice! And the Germans get 3! And an MG-42’s higher rate of fire will be more dice again (27 dice actually).
So, we have another issue, the power of the German machine guns. They will dominate the board, that 16 foot table with (accurately) little terrain is a killing field for MGs easily within their effective range. The British (or whoever else) are going to get pummelled by machine gun bullets. So badly pummelled it might not be worth even playing this game. OK, but it is simulated realism we are after (not a good game)... so that being the case, we must live with the results, and our British player must too (I suggest after one game he’ll never want to play again though).
We haven’t yet considered ammunition supply, which might be a big saving factor here, because we have only looked at absolute maximum rates of fire, the very top of the scale. Ammunition of course severely limits that. A standard British rifleman has 60 rounds of .303 rifle ammo, or a full magazine and 5 reloads in his bandolier. He can keep up the above rate of fire for just 3 1 minute turns before his out. He can fire less of course, but we are down at 1 dice rolled already. Double it 2 dice, so he can include a more cautious, ammo preserving rate of fire at 1 dice a turn, and we’ll have to double all the other weapons too!
The NCO with his Sten is in bigger trouble for ammo that his fellow riflemen. Firing flat-out with his 6 magazines, the NCO can fire for just 1.5 turns before his out. So that might be (6 dice per turn multiplied by 1.5) for a maximum of just 9 dice rolled per game. If we then double it as for rifle, then we get a maximum of 18 dice to roll per game, at a maximum of 12 dice rolled in any one turn (still with me?).
The Bren gunner, given he also has a loader with the big ammo bag, can fire for a bit longer, and we will have to include rules for all those British riflemen with the extra Bren magazines dropping them off too, but, with no extra aid from his section but his loader, the Bren gunner can fire flat out at 30 dice for the game, again at a maximum of 12 dice per turn.
I’ll assume the German MG-34 team will be carrying (between the 3 of them) 500 or 600 rounds of ammunition as standard. That translates at the larger scale as 30 dice per game. At the smaller scale to better accommodate the rifleman’s firepower (which is what the game should really be using as its baseline, given he’s the ‘standard’ soldier), that is 60 dice per game at a maximum of 40 dice in any one turn. Notably, at these numbers, everybody is going to run out of ammo very fast.
PROBLEM 5. Movement Distances
How far can you run in one minute? That’s you as a 20 year old aerobically fit young man, not a slightly overweight 40-something as per the author. It’s quite along way.
First, let’s work out the maximum possible distance. A flat out sprint covers 100 metres, 110 yards, in 15 roughly seconds (if you’re aren’t Usain Bolt). That’s 440 yards a turn. Now actually most people can’t sprint for more than about 200 yards, because of the lactic acid builds up so rapidly in muscles, which becomes too painful, so the sprinter has to slow down a bit (its why the 400 metres is such a gruelling running race over the 200 metres in atheletics). Also, our soldiers have heavy kit to carry. So, even with that taken into account, 300 yards isn’t unreasonable as a maximum movement distance for running in a minute long turn. That’s the full 16’ table, of 192”. OK, obstacles and terrain are going to effect that, but hey, for accuracy and realism it is possible (and sometimes highly desirable) to just sprint around the battlefield.
Let’s look at the other end of the scale, and assume the slowest move is a crawl (and mostly that is how troops actually move under fire at these sorts of ranges). I tested it, you can steadily crawl about 30 yards in 1 minute. That translates as about 20” on the tabletop. So movement rates will be anywhere from 20” to 192”. We could maybe cut the turn down to 30 seconds of action, and get half those distances, but that would also affect our earlier weapon rates of fire calculations. The rifle is currently 1, so that’s now half a dice. Let’s put it back up to 1 dice as I don’t know if you can get half a dice (maybe a D3 instead of a D6 if that’s the dice we opt for in the end). Again, alternatively, if the new rifle baseline is doubled to 1 dice again, then we have to double all the other weapons. To keep the same ratio, SMGs and Brens now fire 12 dice. The MG-34 a mere 40 dice per 30 second turn!
Of course, all this movement assumes models aren’t doing anything else, but it helps sets the minimum and maximum limits. Obviously, movement is going to be affected by a lot of other factors but, for accuracy, it has to be in the game - the possibility to just run across flat ground for a whole turn.
PROBLEM 6. Forces
So far, I’ve been working on the basic concept that this a game with one platoon a-side, but 1 platoon in attack against 1 platoon in defence isn’t going to get far. Doctrine would dictate that the attacker should have a 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 advantage. So, we could cut the defender’s forces down, so our one platoon is actually attacking an enemy section or squad (or maybe a reinforced section or squad). So, our 16’ table has 30 models attacking, and maybe just 10 defending.
For a hobby about collecting toy soldiers, 10 men doesn’t seem much to get your teeth into either (but is cheap). Also, one end of that huge board has got nothing on it but a few lurking riflemen and an MG team. There isn’t going to be much in the way of decisive movement from them during the game. They are just going to dig-in to their best cover and sit tight whilst the attacker struggles into that overwhelming MG fire. All very historically accurate I think.
War ‘games' need movement to tell a story, static games don’t play well and don’t have much of a narrative. I’ve always found it’s not too interesting to play a static defender, because you just wait, wait, then shoot like mad, why do anything else?. Movement and manoeuvre create a wargame’s story and the drama of a tabletop battle. Our simulation won’t have much in the way of movement, at least from the defender (he won’t have much too move).
So, what does the above ‘working-out’ tell me? It tells me that an accurate simulation, at its most basic, in such details as weapon’s ranges, rates of fire and movement distances, isn’t very well suited to tabletop gaming. This is before we have got into the very tricky area of morale and the ‘will to fight’ which, as a simulation, aren’t going to easily recreate a soldier’s emotional and mental state.
It also tells me a 28mm wargame played on a 6’ x 4’ table, claiming anything like accuracy, is a simple fallacy. Now, if I saw the game being played with a platoon of models on a 16’ long table with sparse terrain, the claim might have some validity, or if a game was just a section or squad of men on a 6’x4’, again with sparse terrain, it might be representative of something more akin to a close assault. I would suggest that there is almost nobody who wants to play (more than once) a game that involves his British platoon, 16’ from the enemy down the table, pinned down by machine gun fire, with little or no cover to advance through, no scope for manoeuvre and simply trading fire in a very uneven fire fight until they run out of ammo. (This could be fixed of course with rules for resupply, but bear in mind the timescale, waiting 15 minutes for runners with more ammo – which is quite prompt, might be 15 turns of doing very little!). Dull, dull, dull - but very accurate.
And beyond that, what might a gamer hope to learn or get out of such a simulation? That those German machine guns mean you can’t move... or that it’s best to simply get into a ditch, keep your head down and wait for some mortar fire to zero in and force the enemy to pull back from it before advancing again. In which case, in the end, your simulation of WWII infantry combat comes about bringing down your supporting fire... and your collected and painted models do very little on the tabletop. It’s not an enticing prospect... probably very accurate, but crucially for me (and most), not that much fun more than once.
Obviously, rules and what they try to recreate are a very subjective matter. Gamers look for different things from their rules, but I’d guess they do have one thing in common, they expect their hobby to entertain them when they get all the boards, terrain and models out. I believe a simulation, enticing though it might seem at first glance, won’t be. Not if it still retains anything close to what it claims to recreate.
For me, wargames rules need to be a broader study of war, not an attempt to recreate the detail of a soldier’s lived experience of combat.
‘It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior’s life.’
– Telamon of Arcadia