Towards a WW2 grand tactical game system

My 1943 WW2 collection of 20mm miniatures, vehicles and aircraft has absorbed a lot of my creative energy. It is a project I started in the 1970s while still at university, but abandoned as I moved to a professional career, inhabiting bedsits. When I eventually returned to hobby activities, I took up with 15mm Napoleonics to the exclusion of all else. And then a few years ago I found some of my old models (and plastic figures) in the loft, and decided to revive the project. It was a sort of homage to my teenage self.

My focus is on British and German forces – who were then engaged in the Mediterranean theatre, starting in Tunisia, and moving on to Sicily and Italy proper. I like this rather neglected period because both sides’ armour was quite well matched (apart from the odd Tiger tank), and the panzerfaust and panzerschrek infantry antitank weapons had not come into use (British PIATs did make their appearance in the later part of the period, though, and the Americans had their bazookas). This gives it a different dynamic to the popular 1944 period, with the Allies struggling to cope with Panther and Tiger tanks in their Shermans, with deadly infantry weapons potentially lurking in every bush. I was not drawn to the Western Desert battles either, as these were too dominated by tanks, and I like a bit more terrain.

But I am left with a problem: what rules to use? Back in 1978 I was using WRG rules, which were quite advanced for their time – but the world had moved on. They took no account of troop quality, for example. I still use them as a reference work, though, for things like weapon ranges and spotting distances. These rules used one-to-one scaling, with 1mm to 1m ground scale. The writers recommended the use of 1/300 models, but you could get an interesting game with 20mm ones. The nearest equivalent in scope these days would be the Battlegroup system. I did use these once at the club, but they weren’t very popular with my fellow gamers. I moved on to Iron Cross, which worked for a while, but I soon became dissatisfied.

In fact it was clear that I am looking for more than one system. A one-to-one skirmish system, centred on infantry, with a low ground scale, not far off 1/72. I have two promising candidates for this: Chain of Command, and Disposable Heroes. Then, getting whole companies on the table top, there could be O-Group or Battlefront WW2. These aren’t ideal for 20mm, but can be made to work. My current lack of a club or regular gaming opponents, alas, means that I haven’t tried any of these systems out yet. While I think about how to solve that problem, I have a clear wish to go for something bigger-scale again, that I can use for historical scenarios. Initially I am focusing on a Tunisia battle: Hunt’s Gap (or Ksar Mesouar), fought over three days at the end of February 1943. A decent scenario can be made out of each of these days – or they can be strung together as a campaign. I have been interested in this battle, where a British force held off Germans equipped with Tigers, since the old days, when it featured in an old Bellona booklet by Terence Wise on the Tunisia campaign.

There is an obvious candidate for this level of game: Rapid Fire!. This is an old school system often played with 20mm models, but with each vehicle representing abut half a dozen real ones, and each infantryman about 10 real ones, organised into companies. We tried these out in a game at my club, when I was still in London. They produced an entertaining enough game, but I really didn’t like them. The first problem was that they suffered from the move and fire issue, common in old-school rules. In this it is easy to move your forces forward, fire at the enemy and destroy them before they can fire back, unless those enemy had reserved their fire in the previous move; this creates a sort of forward ambush jeopardy that feels wholly unrealistic (incidentally my old WRG rules avoided this with a Fire then Move mechanic). Still this was not as bad as another popular system, A Fistful of TOWs, and I could probably live with it. The bigger problem is that it is an out-and-out bath-tubbing system. That means that although each vehicle may represent half a dozen, for game-play purposes it is just one. Once hit, it is usually totally destroyed. There are even rules for the crew baling out. You should really expect units of this size to sustain various levels of damage before being destroyed – and baled out crews have no role. These are really skirmish rules but scaled so that you can bring in big bits of kit onto the table that would normally be well to rear (which is exactly what I want to do). It simply does not feel like a clash between brigades of troops.

What I wanted was something with more of a board game feel. The closest system I have found for this is Sam Mustafa’s Rommel. This is played on a square grid, at 1km per square. But this is too high scale for what I want, abstracting away a lot of the items of kit I want on the table – such as antitank guns, headquarters elements, and so on. This is a system that can be scaled up successfully, but not scaled down. In any case it does not adapt well to the sort of terrain that my 1943 battles where fought in, where rough ground and steep slopes played an important role, with high ground being of critical importance for observation, even at the grand tactical level. And things took longer to unfold, with battles often taking days. (It would not be too hard to bring these terrain factors in with a house rules, it should be said – and one day I may well try this).

Still, what I have taken from Rommel is that, like a board game, a grid is a good idea. Apart from simplifying many of the game mechanics, it makes handling artillery and concealment easier, by giving clear definition to locations. That leads to the choice of squares or hexes. Squares are how the human brain organises space – especially if we think of the grids on the maps in use in this era. That is why it makes sense for Rommel to use them. But natural features are easier to fit onto a hex grid. I’ve seen great-looking hex-gridded board games. And since the natural terrain is such a dominant part of the battles I want to recreate, it makes sense to use these.

My next step was to look for board games to use as a basis for my game. I had seen an article in a magazine where somebody had had successfully done this (albeit for 10mm miniatures in a Cold War setting). I asked for pointers from fellow gamers at my old London club on the Facebook forum. They pointed me to several games, of which the most relevant seemed to be the ancient Avalon Hill Panzer Leader, and a rather more recent Nations at War system. But I quickly ran into a serious design problem, relating to the models I want to use. With 20mm models a hex of anything less than 6 inches (150mm) point to point (or 130mm side to side) is going to be too cramped. I need to be able to fit two or three units into a hex comfortably, and four at a pinch, with maybe some terrain items too. On a reasonably sized table each hex needs to represent about 400m across. In these board games it is more like 250m per hex. You can stack counters, so board game hexes can be quite small. I have to have a lot fewer hexes on the table than the typical board game, even with a much bigger playing area. Starting from scratch you would use much smaller models. With 6mm models you could go down to two inches, or three with more breathing space.

These are 6in hexes (corner to corner) with some of my 20mm models. Three tanks a single hex could entail spillover into neighbouring hexes. The hexes can’t be any smaller.

From a gaming perspective, big hexes are perfectly viable – this is what Rommel achieves after all. But this has a profound effect on game mechanics. Still, there is much to be learnt from these board games. But it does look as if I will have to build the system pretty much from scratch.

What then should the design priorities be? The first point of departure from most WW2 systems is that these battles are not primarily encounters between rival tanks. Even Tigers have a tough time when not seriously opposed by other tanks. Success comes from combining armour, artillery and infantry. Allied artillery was often decisive – and yet it is often a bit of an afterthought in games systems. One thing a player has to do is to prioritise artillery targets carefully. And spotting is critical – with vantage points taking on a special significance, with visibility on the level often very limited.

But there is a reason that tank battles dominate wargames: it makes for a dramatic game – “cinematic” is a word people often use. Not all warfare makes a great game. WWI Western Front battles are very absorbing subjects for historical study, but, apart from the early drama of 1914, they are very hard to make into good wargames. “What’s the point of it?” one friend asked me of one friends’ WWI system. There can be a lot of hard slog in the 1943 battles that I am studying (in contrast to those being fought at the same time in Russia in much more open ground). There have to be important tactical choices, and plenty of jeopardy and swinging fortunes. I’m not quite sure how to get this. But 1944 Normandy battles are enduringly popular amongst wargamers – and that faces many of the same challenges. So it should be possible!

I love writing wargames rules. But it’s a slog. It could be a while before I’m ready with this!

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