Third War Lebanon/Next War: Lebanon, a case study in game development

The print-and-play version of Third Lebanon War, BTR Games

 

Game development is one of those things you recognize when you see it. Yet, absence of development is a portmanteau upon which a reviewer might hang any sort of criticism without going into too much depth. I’ve always found this unsatisfying, even though I’ve made the same criticism myself. This is a case study of Third Lebanon War (3LW), which became Next War Lebanon (NWL) upon publication by Decision Games. I tried to tease out a useful definition in the hope of moving discussion about development in the wargaming community toward better publication practice.

I first played designer Brian Train’s 3LW in advance of receiving NWL. The former is the designer’s edition, informed only by his own playtesting whereas the latter was the version DG brought to market, benefitting from the attentions of an in-house playtest and the effort of developer Eric Harvey. I’ve appreciated Train’s irregular warfare designs since 2007 when, in preparation of a presentation on French influences on US counterinsurgency, I came across his rather sober game Algeria, which was welcome compliment to my reading.

Over subsequent posts, I’ll try to set out the differences in game play between 3LW and NWL, set out the changes made over development, and come to a conclusion about the relation of each to the conflict they model.

Two Depictions of Military Geography of Southern Lebanon

Schematic of military geography in 3LW and the older Lebanon ’82. The same area is depicted with the summary effect for combat in similar sectors. What a difference a basic assumption can make!

 

I’ve been working rather hard on an article about game development, particularly magazine game development, for a good while now, taking Brian Train’s Third Lebanon War and Decision Games’s Next War: Lebanon as an occasion.  I won’t belabor you with a quote before I’ve rendered my work a little more coherent. The above image compares 3LW to a third, much more traditional hex-and-counter game. The article is meant to be an appeal to improve games criticism  such that the coherence of the geographies (and many other aspects) are more seriously treated analysed. I suppose the public for this is rather small–and even within that tiny arena this would probably be considered pedantic. But the geographer and cartographer in me can’t be kept down.

I’m also working just about as hard on a chapter for Chris Engle’s upcoming book on matrix games. Both of these are going to take me into January before revisions are finished. I’ll get back to posting on FTGU design soon thereafter. Remember to drop me a message if you’re going to be in North Texas over the holiday season. I’ll be travelling with an FTGU counterset. Watch this space.

Dice for Specific Purposes

March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.
March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.

When I return to Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box (9RHiaB), sometime in Spring of 2017, I want to keep in mind dice for specific purposes (DSPs?). The example above is taken from Joseph Miranda’s Trajan: Ancient Wars. I made it from an 18mm blank wooden die and sharpie markers. TAW, like so many of Decision Games’s offerings is an ergonomic nightmare. The layout looks more like a rough draft. When tables arise in play it is always a jolly ol’ fox hunt.

A player:

  1. Declares a march after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Checks the terrain table;
  3. Rolls a d6;
  4. Hunts for the movement table (on a bi-fold where the theme is vaguely logistical);
  5. Finds the result line;
  6. Consults the code;
  7. Looks back to the map;
  8. Moves.

My die above seems complex. In practice, using it increases the enjoyment of the game. The two terrestrial modes of movement are in black. The two amphibious ones are in green (river) because rivers are green and blue (sea) because this is the Mediterranean we’re playing in and the Med is always blue. Yeah, you still have to look up the effects, but the die rewards you for memorizing them by increasing enjoyment of the game. Learning the effects makes you a better player, too. Don’t be the kind of player who has to look up to a chart and then look up to a definition and then to the rulebook; everybody just tolerates that guy.

A high-speed player of TAW:

  1. Declares he is marching after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Rolls the die;
  3. Moves.

Not only does this save five steps, the player barely takes his eyes off the game. Go listen to chess grandmasters hash out championship conditions sometime if you think visual ergonomics is a minor factor. Fortunately, wargamers are more agreeable pedants. Mostly. The ones I know love to constantly teach each other the game. Game calculations are performed in an incantatory murmur as a courtesy to their opponents and because they like to get things right. If this isn’t the case for you, either you play with brigands or wargames aren’t for you.

The gaming public whines for dice to be included in games. The gaming public, such as it is, needs to cowboy up and make simple components that increase enjoyment of the game. Dice like mine increase concision in rulebooks and player aids. They cut down on copyediting churn and lower errors. Part of good design is doing everything you can to increase your game’s enjoyment — words I’m certain to eat down the line. But I believe them right now. I’m not alone in this. Naw, naw. Command and Colors anyone? Anything by Fantasy flight? And these guys get it in a big way.

Here’s a picture of the discipline die [!] I made and the table it demolishes:

Discipline Table TAW
Column two. Black is “Imperator” because black is bad ass. Blue is veteran because blue is the color of US infantry. Green is green because it is green. Red is the color of rabble. Red underscored is Conan with red nails and veins in his teeth. Everyone needs a system and that is mine.

Splendor vs Elegance

I think the following falls within one standard deviation of reality. What about you?

Jim Krohn’s lucid designer notes from the first game in the series are tonic against the rules creep one finds in other tactical systems which, considering historical realities, do not hesitate to color outside previously established lines. ASL and ATS invent new systems for new situations; they do not address these needs in terms of existing rules opting for a maximalist approach. They take a stab at splendor at the cost of adding distinct procedures, rather than taking an exacting look at previous rules and grinding out some elegance. Elegant rules are brief. They are also easy to internalize. Consider, for example, the ease with which a contemporary “no lookup” system like BoB or LnL conduct infantry fire with respect to ASL, ATS, Panzer, TCS, et al. Enough about that. The base game, Band of Brothers, sensibly avoids the complexities of separate locations within a hex.

One of the AOs in From the Ground Up features an important fire lane that the Germans identified and exploited, impacting the subsequent battle in a decisive fashion. They did so with machine guns placed at elevation in buildings. My cartography is accurate enough to show the same fire lane, but no such line of fire could exist at the base elevation. BoB doesn’t accommodate upper levels, wisely foregoing the rules bloat in-hex locations entail. The historical record even bears out this choice — I’ve seen little US tactical doctrine of the era that supports exploitation of upper levels at assault ranges. (Even though there is plenty of documentation of doing so in tactical practice.) Additionally, the historical record of the battle in question includes an explicit order to avoid using buildings for defense to limit post-combat damage claims by civilians.

Most Second World War tactical designs still echo John Hill’s Stalingrad. From what I’ve read of tactical doctrine and combat reports, in a fluid battle (not Stalingrad) it was rare that a squad would place itself in an upper level if area security was not secured. Weapons companies often set up in good supporting positions, but this is usually well outside danger close range for artillery (~500 yards), mostly outside of BoB’s scale. It was Squad Leader (SL), in its first scenario that encouraged the multi-locational aspect of hexes. The first SL scenario actually proposes a quantum state for units in buildings: they may both fire and be fired upon as if occupying upper and lower levels simultaneously. The interchangeability won’t work for a protracted battle. Here’s what I came up with:

Upstairs
An MG WT (only) may count the base elevation of its line of sight as including that of the building for infantry fire attacks (only) if another squad, unrevealed decoy, or WT accompanies it in the same hex. Place the MG WT on top of the two-unit stack to signify that it is upstairs. So long as the MG WT has a squad beneath it to ensure area security, the MG WT may now fire as if were at an elevation equal to the base elevation plus the obstacle elevation. Signify an MG WT is downstairs by placing it underneath an accompanying squad. MG WTs without an accompanying squad may not benefit from being upstairs. Melee against the hex is conducted normally.

upstairs_example_blog
The upstairs MG in M12 may fire on A as its level (base elevation 16 + obstacle height 2 = 18) is superior to the intervening garden hexes; the squad on the bottom level may not trace LOS across two garden hexes. The MG (level 18) is superior to the intervening elevation 16 hex in M11 to fire on B, although fire would still be modified for the bocage; the squad may not see it at all, as it does not enjoy superior elevation to all intervening hexes. Similarly, the squad may not fire on C as the same hex cannot be seen over. However, the bocage, (level 17; elevation 14 + 3 obstacle height) creates two blind hexes behind it, one of which is cancelled because it is a hexside obstacle. The MG could fire into N8 with the bocage modification but N7 is a blind hex.

There is a bit of a problem with this that I’ll address in a subsequent post. Perhaps live playtesting will tease it out.

 

Scenario Design, Armored Feint, finis

So, after another play through I added a 2nd line MG42 team to the German setup pool, mostly because it was a very likely historical deployment. I’ve played through this three times now and I don’t see anything else obvious to take care of. Slowly, I’m learning not to overwork scenario designs, as different playstyles are essential for new perspectives.

I’ve tried full, medium, and minimal initial draws for the Germans. Each present different challenges for the US force. There is some advantage in feeding the fight as it develops and choosing the lane for your reinforcements. But, heck, it’s possible I’m overlooking something.

Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.
Beginning, Turn 5, third test. Weak initial draw. GER runs a tank down US right, but too late. On GER right, reduced paratroop squad menaces a PzF shot. Germans ahead by 3VP.

I like how the tank-infantry coordination rule cleaned up. Its easier to remember and makes for some interesting maneuver problems. Was gratified to find the Turreted Vehicles rule I wrote didn’t require refining. I’d forgotten whether I’d reduced firepower for tanks which do not change their facing to target. A vehicle counter with a turret ring may engage targets to its sides and flanks without changing orientation but suffers -2 to its firepower. While I respect the logic of the basic game, new terrain in FTGU cries out for some nuance here. I think mine is an acceptable compromise. All the counters in the module are marked accordingly.

Now I leave it up to you. Comment here or email me should you be interested in testing this or other parts of the module. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a physical playtest kit, but one can be printed (complete with counters) at reasonable cost. However, I’ll be updating the VASSAL module in the next few days and, of course, it will be available for free.

Here’s the finished (for now) product.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design Part VIII

Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.
Turn 2, end. German has made a single initial unit draw with two more reinforcement draws. He is ahead by 7VP.

Hot washup after a few play throughs:

A. System Rule Change:

After a phase in which a vehicle moves or fires, no infantry or WT may move;

Will become:

Either tanks or infantry may move in the same player activation, but not both.

The original rule allows an unrealistic level of coordination. And I have evidence that 90ID did not undergo tank-infantry team training until the seizure of Gorges, just before their action at Sèves.

B. Scenario Changes

  1. The Mk IV, artillery mission, and elite infantry can only be drawn as reinforcements. A German player may opt to begin with no VP differential and have his complete force. Of course, this will mean less uncertainty for the US, who will only have to find a few real units and kill them to win. This may favor the German too strongly; this is a question for playtester.
  2. The US player gains 5 VP for each unoccupied building at the end of turn 5. This places a premium on pressuring the US flanks as well as making reinforcement draws potentially costly.
  3. German player must decide how many counters to draw before looking at any of them. While I like the granularity of looking at each as it’s drawn, I’m going to shelve the idea for another scenario. Germans are already sufficiently advantaged by the steep terrain and bocage.

C. Remaining Design/Balance Challenges
(Keeping in mind, on the historicity-balance spectrum, the former is more important to me.)

  1. The 105 artillery mission is potentially unbalancing, although its eventuality is somewhat ameliorated by having the players switch sides after turn 5. In Normandy, the Germans typically fired artillery in battalion, rather than battery missions to avoid the very good US counterbattery fire. I feel like I have to include at least its possibility, as this, and the advancing darkness, brought the US mission to a close. Additionally, it would be a relatively economical means to responding to a threat on a crossroads, which were likely preregistered. Very easy to imagine the German regimental commander (1050/77) dedicating a mission to disrupt a potential attack upon report of US armor.
  2. US forces. I’ve considered adding a fourth, first-line, reduced, US squad. My standard for FTGU’s cartography and rules is to try and get at least one standard deviation within history. The reason why I responded to BoB’s base design is that it seems to acknowledge that successful designs understand these limitations and doesn’t go chasing rabbits into a warren of special rules for special circumstances. Middleton is very explicit in his account that it was three teams of five men who attacked the crossroads. He specifies that it was the first sergeant who led the attack. It seems safe to assume that the 1SGT chose his men from the best remaining in the company, which was at least 30% understrength. Middleton is extremely detail oriented with a good memory, just like an excellent NCO. (Four years later, he can list exactly how much ammo he was carrying, certainly the product of a precisely calibrated order.) In short, it is easy to imagine he was one of the best soldiers in his company. Adding another maneuver element to counteract the increased difficulty of the terrain certainly seems within keeping to the one-deviation limit.

 

Armored Feint, Scenario Design, Part VII

capture
Turn 2 opens with a nice US play on the German right.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of this test, but I wanted to illustrate a few of the modifications I’ve made in the BoB base system for From the Ground Up.

Here, the US begins with his infantry movement. He makes his activation roll, takes a big risk, moving D4 past the dummy at G6 and H6. (Easy to do when you are soloing and you know they are dummies!) The German, hoping to withdraw yet again, holds fire. He then loses concealment due to being adjacent. Since all FTGU scenario assume use of the flank rules, the German is obliged to select an orientation, turning the unit to vertex 1 to cancel the eventual FP bonus the Assault firing US unit would otherwise enjoy. US fire causes a level of suppression. The German isn’t sweating this yet, as he plans to make a declared withdraw during his phase.

The US moves a squad out of E3, through the orchard and along the bocage. He is now in the German flank. The German would still rather withdraw as his shot (should he make his proficiency roll) would change his orientation. It goes without saying that there are also tanks nearby and it would be nice to get in a panzerfaust shot, however unlikely that may be. So the US moves adjacent and stops. Both sides now enjoy the bocage bonus, although they are adjacent. The US assault fire does not result in increased suppression but it does cause placement of a flanked marker, which in FTGU is the result of fire attacks from non-adjacent hexsides (side 2 and 6) conducted over consecutive impulses. The German, at this point, is stuck with a -1 morale for being flanked, counted against his yellow morale of 5. He has an 80% chance of being able to withdraw from this position (yellow morale 5; + 4 declared withdrawal; -1 flanked).

The tank in D6 flips to its nonmoving side, fires, increasing the German’s suppression level to red, thus halving his chances of making a successful withdrawal.

My draft rule for tank-infantry coordination prohibited vehicle and foot movement in the same phase. I backed off, opting instead obliging that a turn end upon vehicle activation. The rule needs a bit more testing. Honestly, I feel a bit bad about the ease with which this play came together and wonder if the more janky rhythm imposed by the original rule wouldn’t better serve. A situation where it wouldn’t be more advisable to move your infantry first is difficult to imagine. But so far, the running and gunning seems to square with Middleton’s account.

I’ll play through a few more turn before posting again. My instinct is that the Germans might want to spend a VP or two to make draws from the reinforcement pool in hopes of coming up with the Mark IV. I think, also, for historical reasons, I’m going to include an artillery battery in the pool.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design, Part VI

capture
End of Turn 1. US find a nice position to overwatch his advance all the way to an objective. It is also inadvertently in the field of fire of a PaK40.

Just a few days before, 712 tk bn’s S3 journal notes that “tank infantry coordination is totally different” meaning that it was lacking. Accordingly, the US cannot use armored advance, which is a module-specific rule based on JK’s halftrack rules. Bold play revealed a real unit and a dummy. The real unit was in the orchard (woods) now occupied by the Sherman on the left. He wisely held fire and bugged out (under the H concealment counter).

At the turn’s end, the US enjoys an excellent overwatch position, but is also exposed to the AT gun dug in on the road. Note that the gun was not revealed as it occupies concealing terrain (Norman Roads). Even if the brown ditch depiction weren’t present it would still enjoy a three-level height advantage. It would be nice if the US decided to commit to this corridor, maybe put a second tank into it. I’ve already decided it makes sense to swing the infantry behind that bocage to see what they can see while they enjoy overwatch fire from the tanks.

It is difficult to appreciate how much an effect bocage has on lateral fires until you are actually walking the terrain. With respect to the historical action, this axis of advance is more oblique to the ridge line and is thus steeper, making it much harder going for the infantry. The fields are also narrower. Which, as you can see above, works both ways so long as you have highly mobile supporting fires.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design, Part V

Initial draw. Playtest counters look pretty sharp, no? No? Okay.
Initial draw. Playtest counters look pretty sharp, no? No? Okay.
Forces

Middleton writes the dismounted element consisted of fifteen men. He also mentions (and draws) three tanks. 712 tk bn’s S3 journal confirms a detachment to 357IR. (They also mention the loss of two tracks on the previous day. Where this fire came from is not immediately evident.)

I decided to change the squads to all first-line and casualty reduce them to show the fragility of fire-team sized elements. As far as enemy forces are concerned, I only know that the attack initially took small arms fire and that the tanks withdrew under artillery (or mortar) fire. I know that 15FJR was active in the adjacent regiment’s sector, so it is unlikely that they would be committed to the line. I’ll include them as a possible reinforcement.

Another designer might look at Middleton’s writing and say “There isn’t a scenario here.” No WW2 game design I can think of has perfect (or even good) information about the orders of battle, much less positions. This goes especially for tactical level designs. You can only drill down so far. German records either do not exist or remain uncataloged.

Spreadsheet
Spreadsheet with quick and dirty scenario draft.
Time

I think this should be a short scenario. Barth’s account says the tanks withdrew under artillery fire whereas Middleton makes no mention of it, claiming they withdrew because it was dark. We know the attack started at around 1430. The sun sets quite late at 47 degrees north latitude in July, say around 2230. There’s no way the tanks would want to drive around during nautical twilight, so let’s say five hours. My rule of thumb for FTGU is that one turn represents anything from a few minutes to an hour. I want quick play and few units and, to ameliorate the random force draw, a replay with the players switching sides.

Starting positions for first test. Germans have made a lot of draws and have 3 VP from a starting total of 10.
Starting positions for first test. Germans have made a lot of draws and have 3 VP from a starting total of 10. Remember woods are as orchards and are trafficable by vehicles.
Victory Conditions

My supposition is that the US battalion commander wants to extract two companies in distress. The scenario represents a feint presumably designed to force the Germans to commit to committing reserves to protect a junction which they have been using to reinforce their efforts to envelop the beleaguered US companies. The German wants to continue the reduction of I and L companies unhindered, as well as preserve freedom of movement on the left flank. He needs to commit the smallest force necessary in order to impede the US’s attempted relief.

Historically, I’m not sure the US action achieved its mission. The German regimental commander seems to have been content to dare the US armor to advance into more closed terrain, opting instead to bring indirect fire to cover subsequent night operations. Also, on this date in the adjacent sector, US 712 tk bn was putting heavy pressure on another mission to relieve isolated infantry units and suffered accordingly.

In game terms, the German will make random draws from a pool composed of some clapped out squads, remnants of 77th Infantry, a light antitank gun, and a lot of decoys. Each draw will deduct from his starting VP total, to be determined. I want the first phase to be a ginger shell game, with points scored for enemy losses on both sides. This should result in a reconnaissance by fire all the way to the road.

Armored Feint, Scenario Design, Part IV

A little more on the situation 7-8 July. Companies I and L had become isolated on the reverse (n) slope behind Le Plessis. On 8 July, an attempt was organized to relieve them. The attack, however, was never made. Middleton is no help here, as he was just a private.

Writes COL Barth, CO 357IR:

“On 6 July at 0800 C Co. advanced, and by 0930 had crossed the blacktop road west of Beau Coudray. B Co. failed to advance and it was determined that the heavy losses during its repulse of the night before had left it disorganized. [n.b. Middleton describes this failed attack]. While reorganization was in progress orders were issued for the 3rd Bn. to advance south with I and L Cos abreast in the gap between a and C Cos. At this time the fact that A Co. had retired to the north from its previously reported position 200 yards northwest of the Bau Coudray crossroads was not known to me. As a result, when the two companies of the 3rd B. advance their left flank was exposed. This latter proved disastrous as it allowed the Germans to envelop the exposed (east) flank of the 3rd Bn. By 1100 c Co. had fought its way to the blacktop. K Co. was then attached to the 1st Bn. and A Co. to the 3rd Bn., and the 3rd Bn. ordered forward on the left of the 1st Bn.

“At 2315 C Co. was violently counterattacked by infantry and five tanks (estimated) and broke along with K Co. that was moving up on its left. The two companies became intermingled and were finally stopped and reorganized by Capt. Woodrow Allen [Woody Allen?!] about 300 yards north of the blacktop….

Here is the situation:

capture2
Map drawn by Ely superimposed on 1947 IGN aerial photo showing the initial advance, the German counterattack, and the nighttime repulse of C coy.

The next day, B coy is ordered to attack to relieve the pressure on I and L coys. I believe that Middleton’s account was of a feint preliminary to the rest of his company’s maneuver mounted to facilitate their effort to link up with I and L coys. Middleton explicitly mentions moving through C coy’s positions just up from the creek bottom. Here is COL Barth again:

“B Co.’s attack go under way at 0930 [n.b. Middleton is explicit about his attack taking place in the afternoon] and progressed to a point one hedgerow north of the town by 1130. [At this point, they must have been only about 150 yards away from I and L coy’s last reported positions.] It suffered heavy casualties and was continuously engaged for several hours. At 1450 it was attacked in the flank from the west, but with the assistance of tanks it held its ground. At 1545 a heavy artillery concentration fell in the position and the supporting tanks withdrew.”

Of note from a scenario design standpoint, the Germans have either already withdrawn 77th Infantry or 15FJR is acting as a fire brigade. I’m a little bit mystified as to which unit provided the armor present there, but I remember anecdotes mentioning Mark IVs (a tale of a bazooka kill on the central street of the village). I don’t want to belabor the research phase of this design any further. Most of my German unit information comes from Niklas Zetterling’s indispensable handlist, Normandy 1944.

COL Barth repeatedly refers to the road as “blacktop” but I think he was simply referring to the AMS map, which is agnostic on the subject. The high reflectance found in the 1947 aerial photo lead me to conclude this was a dirt road and I’ve depicted it as such. (It is nothing like the wide Argentan road found at St. Leonard in any case.)

So, the scenario will depict the actions of a small tank-infantry force making a feint on the La Stelle road junction. Unfortunately, the map dimensions oblige me to cheat on the actual terrain. I think a satisfying situation can be invented, nevertheless.