Home on the Range – Firepower in Chain of Command
Judging by the emails we have had on the subject, one of the real hot potatoes in WWII skirmish wargaming at the moment would seem to be the issue of weapon ranges. There would appear to be two camps: one which favours an abbreviated range for the sake of playability; the other which prefers realistic weapon ranges which cover the whole tabletop. So, where do we stand on this?
Firstly let me say that the idea of limiting weapons to firing at effective ranges is certainly a mechanism which has a place in rule design. It is time-consuming and rather silly to allow a battalion of infantry in the Napoleonic wars to fire its muskets at 400 yards when the chances are that in reality you’d get one round out of several hundred actually hitting the target. Far better, in that situation, to limit the firing range to a distance where fire becomes effective enough to have a significant effect. The question then, is at what range does infantry fire become worthwhile modelling, and how does that fit into our game.
This will largely be governed by the hoary old chestnut of ground scale. It may be very fashionable to abandon such issues as ground-scale and time-scale, although I am not sure why. Only by knowing what distances we are working with on the tabletop and what period of time each “turn” is meant to represent can the designer attempt to approximate what is actually possible in reality.
When designing Chain of Command we wanted to create a game which would work visually with 15mm, 20mm and 28mm figures when using inches and with 6mm and 10mm when using centimetres. We hit on the ground scale of 12” on the tabletop being 40 yards in reality. This actually makes a 15mm man 6’ high when using inches, and a 6mm man 6’ high when using centimetres, so very close to 1:1 scale, but still looks absolutely great with larger 28mm and 20mm figures in inches and 10mm.
So, if we focus on the inches option, out 6’ by 4’ wargames table is 240 yards by 160 yards, that’s just under 8 acres or four football pitches if you prefer. This maximum dimension of 240 yards is well within the effective range of any rifle or machine gun, and whilst some national battle drills suggested holding fire until the enemy were close – the British preferred a killing ground of 100 to 150 yards – others were encouraged to open fire at longer ranges. The Germans considered 800 yards to be effective range for the MG34 and MG42 and their riflemen would join in a fire fight at under 400 yards.
Now, there is a school of thought which suggests that if we allow our men to fire across the whole length of the table a stalemate will ensue with both sides bogged down at extreme range. It’s a seductive argument, but one which, I feel, ignores a couple of key factors. Firstly, many of us tend to use something called TERRAIN on our table. This breaks lines of sight and as a consequence tends to mean that weapons ranges are governed more by the old adage of “If I can see it, I can hit it”. The second factor being ignored, and I think this is more salient, is that if you are by chance on a battlefield which is pretty flat and open – say a particularly flat slice of desert (which weren’t THAT flat anyway) or a flat bit of Holland – then surely you are facing precisely the same problem that a subaltern commanding a platoon would have faced in reality. There is your problem, now solve it! Is this really the sort of reality that we wish to avoid? If so we may as well play Risk and forget tactical level skirmishes altogether.
But let’s not do that. Let’s stick with our flat bit of ground. This is the perfect opportunity to try some fire and movement. Put down fire with your LMG, drop smoke if you have it, advance your men by rushes, make the most of what cover is available. Because that is how men in that situation really did it. Will it work? Who knows, but I can assure you that when it does, and you have seen fire and movement in action, it’s a great connection with the reality of warfare.
Let’s take another example. I wrote a piece for Miniature Wargames in the current, August, edition which presented a scenario for Chain of Command but, as I said in the piece, will fit other rules which do the same job. I had an email from “Disgruntled of Basingstoke” who was very upset that he couldn’t play the game with his preferred set of rule. The scenario he said “doesn’t work”.
That was an interesting one, as the scenario was taken directly from a British Army 1944 Battle Drill manual. The game that played out was the solution presented by the rules as the text book way to drive off the beastly Hun from his woodland lair. On further discussion, it turned out that his 2” mortar did not have the range to put down smoke where it was needed, the section acting as the base of fire was too far away to do so, the Bren gun in a covering oblique position did not have the range to do its job. Ultimately, to get the scenario to work Disgruntled would have needed to shrink his table to about 24” square. Not the most attractive solution with 28mm figures.
All of which rather convinced me that abbreviating ranges for the sake of “playability” (whatever that is meant to mean) had the direct result of making real life tactics unworkable. For me that removal of reality from a game does more to remove “playability” than anything else. Yes, by having weapon ranges which can cover the whole table the rules are obliging me to seek covered avenues of approach. They are obliging me to consider the best fire and movement techniques that I can use. They are encouraging me to establish a base of fire and then manoeuvre off that. Why would the scouts at the top of this piece be advancing cautiously if they knew they were out of weapon range? In short, the rules are presenting me with an experience which is a plausible reflection of warfare, and as such the decisions I, as platoon commander, am faced with making are very close to what my real-life equivalent was faced with. And surely that is what WWII tactical level wargaming should be about.
So, if you’ve not guessed by now, we do firmly favour realistic weapons ranges as these provide the best possible representation of what the real soldiers on the ground had to face. Only when the real effect of firepower is modelled are we then obliged to look for tactics which can overcome that, and these, unsurprisingly, lead us to use the real tactics of the period.
Whilst posting my comments above I seem to have been writing at the same time as a gentleman in Sweden who blogs under the name of Anatoli. His piece is longer then my thoughts above, but I do feel it is worth reading in tandem. I do wonder if, at last, wargamers are reaching a point where generic 1980s rule models dressed up as anything the corporate end of the hobby wants them to be are going out of favour? I doubt it, but it is good to see opinions expressed so eloquently and thoughtfully. You can read them here: http://anatolisgameroom.blogspot.se/2013/08/historical-wargaming-and-realistic.html