I Ain’t Been Shot Mum – What’s the Point?
I had and email the other day from a gentleman in Ohio who has just bought I Ain’t Been Shot Mum having been playing another particularly popular WWII Miniatures Game for some time. He chose IABSM as he was looking for a set of rules which didn’t treat Germans as uber-troopers, and consequently was seeking a system with a bit more balance. He raised a really interesting question and I hope he won’t mind if I answer it here so that a wider audience can benefit.
The good news for our friend in Buckeye State is that IABSM are written with no particular bias towards any one nation, indeed whilst better troops will undoubtedly have an edge over poorer quality ones it is just that, and edge, rather than the type of overwhelming “force multiplier” (to use a Dupuy’ism’) that is often applied to German troops. Long time Lardies will hopefully recall the Danzig Bleibt Deutsche street clearing scenario which we ran at Salute in 2006 which demonstrated that far from relying on sledgehammer tactics the Soviets could be quite sophisticated and in fact their ability to develop new and effective tactics on the hoof was something that had first been seen in the Winter War with Finland when they literally stopped the war for several weeks and retrained their forces to cope with the demands of breaching the Mannerheim line.
On the other side of the coin, I Ain’t Been Shot Mum is firmly in the camp of being a scenario driven rule system rather than a points based competition game. For many gamers this approach fits the bill entirely, however I can fully understand that the gentleman in question, concerned as he is about the imbalance he felt was in his old rule set, is keen to strike a balance with IABSM.
In truth my feeling towards points systems has always been pretty clear. I feel that not only do they NOT create balanced games, they create an illusion of doing so which is even more misleading. A gamer seeking to create a scenario which provides both parties an equal chance of winning will have to sit down for a few minutes to think about how the game plays out, and then allocate forces according to what he feels will be fair. Of course I am not talking here about forces which are “equal”, although in an encounter battle this could be the case, but forces which give an equal chance of victory. So, for example, if my Company of infantry supported by a platoon of tanks is attacking a well entrenched enemy it may well be that the defender has little more than a platoon of troops with a couple of anti-tank guns.
Conversely a points system will lull the gamer into a false sense of fair play. Rather than think about the balance of the game it is far easier to just throw together 500, 1000, 1500, 2000 points (whatever system one is using) and say “Hey, that’s fair!”. No, it isn’t, and it cannot be so unless you are actually matching your forces so as to almost mirror each other. And that’s called Chess.
Yes, if you field my company of regular, well trained troops against your company of regular, well trained troops on a tabletop where the two halves mirror each other then sure, you can argue that the points system gives you balance. But, frankly, that sounds like a VERY dull game, and you could have balanced that scenario up with no recourse to a point system anyway! The problem with a points system comes when you introduce forces which are imbalanced, which sadly is precisely what the point system is designed to avoid.
Imagine I field a platoon of anti-tank guns. These are weapons designed to kill tanks. Yes, sure, some of them can fire H.E. at your infantry, but in truth they aren’t very good at it, or at least they shouldn’t be if the rules are reflecting reality. If you field a platoon of tanks my AT guns are a worthwhile investment in terms of points, if you don’t field any tanks and just stick to infantry then I would have been much better off going for a MG platoon. However, if I’d gone for the MG platoon and you’d fielded tanks I’d be in trouble. The truth is that this is a circle you just can’t square.
The same can be said for armoured cars or light tanks. I was talking to a friend the other day who had played a Spanish Civil War game where an FT17 tank had dominated the table because nobody else had any armour. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is King. If I spend x number of points on a platoon of armoured cars and you field all infantry then my little tin cans become the masters of the tabletop, with all the menace of a King Tiger. But if you field just one tank then I may as well not have bothered.
This, of course, does not even take into consideration the effect of the environment on combat. Were I commanding a company of German infantry on the Russian steppes and the enemy sent a couple of platoons of tanks against me I would be extremely concerned as I’d have almost no way of countering him once he had spotted my positions (were I using rules where everything was deployed on the table, with no opportunity to hide troops as yet unseen this would be even worse), as he could just stand off and obliterate my position with H.E. Yes, with IABSM I may well spring a bit of an ambush, use my panzerfausts to take out a couple of tanks, but after that initial shock the game balance would shift to favour my Soviet foe. But put my infantry company into the ruins of a German city, where vision is restricted and there are some rat-runs where infantry can evade tanks, then the boot is on the other foot. Without supporting infantry the Soviet tanks are the mice to my cats. Yet how many point systems take this into account?
To a large degree the way weapons technology has developed, with one invention leading to a development of a foil or counter-weapon, has led to a situation where warfare resembled the child’s game “rock, paper scissors”. Indeed you can use “tank, anti-tank mine, Engineer” in the same way. The tank will kill the engineer, the mine will kill the tank, the engineer will kill the AT mine. Of course warfare is far more multi-facetted than this simple model, however unlike some sci-fi games where one super-dooper walker can be the ultimate war machine, reality isn’t like that. Every arm of service, every type of platoon, has its own role which it excels at, but they will be equally unsuitable for other roles, and this is where points systems, for 20th century conflict onwards at least, MUST fail. You can only allocate a points value to a rock if you know your opponent has scissors, if he has nothing but paper your rock is worthless.
So how do you balance up your force with IABSM? There is no easy, glib answer I am afraid, it’s a bit like choosing your favourite sweet, you just have to suck it and see. In the rear of the rule book there are four scenarios which we recommend that any player new to the rules runs through. They have been designed to provide a simple, easy entree to the rules, with the first scenario being just infantry and then adding a bit more to the mix each time until you’re fielding an “all arms” force. My recommendation would be to use those scenarios to learn not just the rules, but also how your forces shape up. By the end of the first game you’ll get an idea of how your Soviet infantry company shapes up against German defenders. The national characteristics cards do give each force its own personality and reflect its strengths and in some cases weaknesses, and what balance you want to strike in your games can be influenced by experience as you play through the first couple of scenarios and as you gain a greater understanding of what the national characteristic cards do for your forces. You’ll also find that the scenario generator in the rules is designed to allow you to produce balanced scenarios without recourse to a points system, and equally importantly scenarios which are not the all too common wargaming “encounter” battle which in reality was a rarity.
It’s an old article from an old special, but why not take a look at this late war scenario from the Eastern Front in 1945 to see how the Soviets can operate when they put their mind to it. Far from a human wave, the tactics used there were developed around using a mixed team of infantry, tanks, assault guns and guns to clear each street. This represented a coherent and cogent solution to the problems of fighting in a built up area. Download it here:Danzig scenario