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He’s Fat, He’s Round, He’s Even Walked the Ground

Mortain HeaderFrench back from France where he’d been walking some of the 1944 battlefields, Fat Nick wanted to test drive the new version of I Ain’t Been Shot Mum that is due for release next month.  What better way to do it than by designing a scenario based on his battlefield walks.  The “Lord of the Pies” tells us more of his leap into he rules.

I’m into decision making. Mainly, I think, because I am so bad at it.  For me choosing a breakfast cereal from an aisle full of options is an uncomfortable experience.  Military history, especially the study of combat, is all about decision making in action. How do commanders wrestle over their options?  What is their decision making process?  Will they make the right decision?  Are they good generals? (and what cereal do they eat?).  As a wargamer, this fascination gives me a keen interest in how wargames rules influence the decision making of the player.  Wargaming is an abstract activity which simplifies a complex reality. But simplifying decision making is not an option.  For me, the most important feature of a good set of wargames rules is how they allow and encourage players’ decision making to take place based on the same influences that affected the real combatants when they were faced with the same conundrum.  In short, I want to see people making context relevant decisions about the tactical situation, in a decision making control system that simplifies the complex reality in which this occurs.

For a change this Tuesday I took over the reins and ran the game from the lofty heights of the umpire’s comfy chair more normally occupied by the ample posterior of Richard Clarke.  The action I had chosen was the combat at the roadblocks at l’Abbaye Blanche in Normandy which occurred in early August 1944 as part of the German Counteroffensive around Mortain.  The game principally involved an attack by elements of  2 SS Pz Division against a US anti-tank defensive position.  My motivation to fight this particular action came from walking the battleground during a recent rip to the Mortain area, so this game had lots of preparation and was planned in great detail.  The purpose of the playtest from my perspective was to see how the players’ decision making compared with the decisions made in 1944.  To allow this I needed three conditions to be satisfied. Firstly, I needed the terrain to replicate the battlefield as closely as possible. Secondly, I needed to ensure the forces available and standing orders matched those in place in 1944, and thirdly, and most importantly for this article, I needed a set of rules that would allow a historically accurate chain of events to unfold.

With the table set up to mirror the real battlefield as closely as I could, the orders of battle in place and players briefed, I had satisfied most of these conditions. But would the rules allow the game to develop in a manner that I judged to be historically accurate?  I was already satisfied that the existing version of IABSM was strong in this area.  The question was whether the changes made in the latest version added anything to the authenticity and whether this was apparent in the way players made their decisions and utilised their resources.

From the beginning players showed conformity to history that got us off to a good start.  Deployments were very similar to those seen in the actual battle and mental attitudes for defence or attack were evidenced in their plans.  This takes place before the rules are opened, and is dictated by players’ own choices based on their perception of the terrain.  But once the game was underway,  players became immersed.  They were concerned with initiative and co-ordination, were frustrated at the ‘empty battlefield’ and felt thwarted at times by the inertia that came with the friction of contact.  There was little discussion of irrelevant aspects. Tactics, and their ability to influence the actions of troops on the ground, became their prime concern.

The rules ran smoothly. Big Men utilised their new ‘level ratings’ easily enough; exercising command and control by spotting enemies, sighting guns, coordinating movement and steadying units under fire (removing ‘shock’).  The changes further heightened the emphasis these characters have on the command and control on the field, and players soon got to grips with them.  Inherent friction was challenging the plans of both sets of players and some visible familiar stresses were apparent (“Are you sure my card is in the pack?”), but these all served to create the experience within which decision making challenges were being faced with regularity:  Which road should I go down?  Where are the enemy?  When should I open up on that column? And just where the hell is third platoon?!

As an umpire the improvements to the way that Big Men work in IABSM3 provide a framework through which commanders focus on the relevant aspects of command and control. In modern decision making parlance the rules allowed Big Men to interact with their controlling player and together they can follow the classic OODA tactical decision making loop.  The loop is made up of four components:  Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act.  The idea of tactical superiority comes from getting inside your opponents loop.  Military doctrine suggests that if a commander can move round this loop faster than his opponent then he will retain the initiative and cope better with inherent friction – or, in wargaming terms, he is more likely to win.  In IABSM we might like to tweak this to SODA: (Spot, Orientate, Decide, Allocate points).  A level 4 Big Men is able to do more things in a turn that a Level 2 Big Man, thus you might argue that can go round the loop faster – doing more things – which helps him to maintain the initiative.  I know of no other rule set that allows this to be replicated so smoothly and with such realistic, tangible impacts on the outcome of the game in play.

The new game mechanics played out well, and players (and umpire – this was my first outing with the rules) were soon up to speed. The changes to Big Men allowed platoon commanders to focus on overall coordination whilst NCO’s kept everyone moving.  Tanks moved on transit orders,  AT gunners sweated on overwatch.  A platoon of SS Panzer Grenadiers ambushed by a US AT gun with supporting small arms suffered shock and casualties, but the local NCO rallied his men and led an aggressive manoeuvre to overpower the numerically inferior foe.  A few card turns later we had one of those classic moments of individual heroism that you can only see in IABSM when Sergeant Bat Guano sprinted out from the lines with a small group of GIs to get an up-ended 57mm AT gun back into action after small arms fire took out the driver of the towing jeep, forcing the vehicle to jack-knife across the highway.  Such episodes prove that added realism and fun can exist side by side.

As always, umpiring the game was a hugely rewarding activity.  In this game – an analysis of which will appear in the Christmas special – I was able to satisfy my curiosity about decision making.  The rules and the players combined seamlessly to allow an essential chain of events to unfold in a manner that actually lets us analyse the battle with an appreciative and historically plausible insight.

I’m looking forward to the next game.

Editor’s Note.  The image at the top of this piece is taken from a stunning painting depicting this action by Keith Rocco and I think encapsulates the drama, fear and heroism of the event superbly.  It also raises the interesting issue of military art inspiring the gamer.  Who couldn’t want to game this action after seeing this print?  Prints of Keith’s works are available internationally and would grace any study or hobby room. 

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3 Responses

  1. Mick Scales says:

    I really like the way this game sounds. Do you have a map to go with it or will that come out in the Special article?

    Many thanks, it was a great article to follow

    Mick

  2. Benito says:

    100% with Mick Scales comments. That’s the way of doing a battle report to really hook you!!

  3. Mark Reardon says:

    Loved reading your narrative as I wrote the first scholarly account of Mortain after interviewing 200 veterans who fought there.

    Best regards,

    Mark J. Reardon

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