It was all going wrong. The platoon had advanced towards the small farmhouse at the foot of the rise, hampered by the dense bocage which was strewn across the Norman countryside. As the lead section advanced through the small orchard a hail of bullets had torn through the branches of the apple trees and sent men diving for cover among the gnarled trunks and boughs heavy with unripe fruit. The corporal could see that two men were down, dead most likely, yet in that moment of terror he found himself unable to respond.
Then RSM Bishop lumbered up. When he first heard the sound of shots Bishop’s response was instant. “Get that bloody Vickers set up and put fire into that outbuilding. Smith, get your section along that hedge I’m going forward”. Pushing his way through the gap in the bocage Bishop ran forward to join the men in the orchard. He could see the Corporal lying flat out, useless article, it was his job now to make things happen.
Where moments before there had been panic the arrival of the RSM saw order restored. The remnants of the lead section were now putting fire into the small farm building as from their rear the second section were supporting them. Moments later the firefight was over, the Germans slipping away in the face of an outflanking manoeuvre by the third British section.
What we have just seen was a small sample from the game of I Ain’t Been Shot Mum we played on Tuesday evening, indeed the action described spanned just three turns. The scenario saw the British attempting to advance their force up a winding Norman lane enclosed by thick hedgerows in order to take Ferme Belle Mont on top of the ridge ahead. Their plan involved first capturing the Du Pre farm at the foot of the hill and then using that as a jumping off point for the attack on the main German position. To achieve this they had a company of infantry, three platoons each of three sections, one platoon of three Vickers machine guns and a troop of three Cromwell tanks. The British had one of their platoons mounted in Universal carriers.
The German defenders were high quality troops, veteran regulars, made up of two platoons of three squads, one platoon of three MG42s, one Pak 40 anti-tank gun and one panzerschreck team. Each German infantry squad had two panzerfaust 30s.
The Germans decided to place their main defence line on the ridge, using the high ground to dominate the valley, but with an outpost line further forward. It was their hope to break up the cohesion of the British advance before it pushed too far into their positions.
The British began the game with four Blinds on the table. To the left of the road being an infantry platoon under RSM Bishop and the company’s two 2” mortars. On the road itself was a dummy Blind. To the right of the road the Blind was the Vickers platoon and on their right was another Dummy Blind. Their plan was sensibly pretty simple. The two dummy Blinds were effectively small recce forces which were going to advance in the hope of triggering off a reaction from the Germans before the armour entered the table. The Vickers platoon was under orders to set up once it reached the first hedge in order to provide a base of fire to cover the attack (the British were very worried that the main farmhouse at Du Pre farm was occupied, it wasn’t) whilst the first platoon was to advance and capture the outbuilding by the small orchard.
A quick interlude here. For the uninitiated the Blinds in IABSM (and other Lardy games) are a quick and easy way to model hidden movement without resorting to maps scribbled on scraps of paper. The Blind represents a unit of up to platoon size. Your opponent can see that you have something on the table but he doesn’t know what it is. To add a touch of uncertainty we also have dummy Blinds. These are essentially blanks which confuse the enemy, however they do have the capability to spot so we treat them as small reconnaissance units. Once they are spotted by the enemy they are dispersed and the Blind removed from the table. The use of Blinds can become a bit of an art form in its own right. By sending your Blinds forward early you can hope to trigger a response from the enemy, foiling an ambush or similar, or by keeping them back you can tie his troops down in a certain area by insinuating a threat that is yet to emerge. What makes this doubly interesting is that any terrain that offers cover is also treated as a Blind, so that a defender can remain hidden until the last moment, whilst the attacker has to consider every house, every wood or hedge a possible hiding place for his enemy.
The game opened up with the British first platoon advancing according to plan on the left. The first section crossed the bocage and advanced through the orchard and it was then that the German squad in the farmhouse opened fire.
I am always interested to hear the feedback whenever I talk about Friction in games. One of the most oft heard criticisms that you get from people who don’t like this aspect of our games is that the system is too chaotic. My response to that is that war is essentially chaotic, but it is the duty of the commanders, both junior and senior, to stamp their authority on that and create order, or at least as much order as they can in order to achieve their objective. That may be an uncomfortable truth, but truth it still remains. To my way of thinking you have two basic choices when designing a wargame, you can ignore friction, in which case you are effectively abandoning the any pretence of modelling the reality of warfare, or you can accept it and attempt to incorporate it into your game. What you should not do, I would suggest, is create a game which is entirely chaotic as that is equally unrepresentative of war. You need mechanisms that allow the gamer to attempt to replicate the actions of a real commander in his struggle to overcome friction and chaos. Let’s look at how we achieve this.
A deck of cards is a simple tool and probably the most appropriate for me to use given my adherence to the principles of warfare as outlined by von Clausewitz. In fact the great man must have guessed what I would do as he very kindly said “in the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards”. It is perfectly reasonable to see the results created by dealing cards one at a time from a deck as chaotic, they come out in no particular order and pretty much a different order every time. If we were to simply assign one card to each platoon and then deal them out each turn in order to vary the order in which units were activated that would create a pretty basic system which provided for a bit of variety within each turn, every unit would be activated in the turn, but the order would vary. In order to reflect the fact that some commanders were better or worse than average you could add some wild cards to the deck. A gifted commander card could be included to allow one of your better commanders to take his turn earlier in the sequence when that card is drawn, essentially jumping the queue, which means that he is more likely to get activated earlier in the turn than an average bloke as he has two cards in the deck he can use. Similarly if one of your commanders is a complete incompetent then adding a hesitant commander card which stops him moving if his card is drawn after this in any turn is a simple mechanism for representing inertia in one of your subordinates. Indeed this is pretty much the basis of the turn sequence in our Napoleonic battle set Le Feu Sacré, with each Brigade commander and above getting their own card in the deck. In a game with a turn representing fifteen minutes this system means that all your commanders (with the possible exception of the worst buffoon) are going to do something in that period of time, you just don’t know precisely in what order you or your opponent is going to be activated, thereby reflecting the ebb and flow of initiative in a battle.
Of course in a game where a turn represents a much shorter period of time things can get a bit grittier. Men in battle are not automatons. They can, and do, perform heroic deeds, but those moments of incredible bravery are not the norm. Indeed that is why we award medals to such heroes, to mark them out as extraordinary. In the face of the enemy most men are inclined to hit the dirt and (maybe) fire rather than storm in with gusto and élan. It takes leadership to animate a force and impose a conclusion to even the smallest of firefights.
This potential for inertia should be, to my mind at least, as much part of our games as the heroism that we laud. In order to achieve this we add a card to the deck which ends the turn when dealt. In IABSM we call this the Tea Break card, in other rules the name differs, Tiffin, Snifter, Outspan, Time Out and so on, but the function remains the same. At the start of each turn you shuffle the deck and deal the cards out one at a time to dictate the order in which your units are activated. In IABSM each card represents a platoon sized unit so that force will operate in a coherent manner whenever its card is dealt. When the Tea Break card is dealt the turn ends, which means that on average 50% of your forces will not be activated in a turn. In some turns all of the forces could be activated, in some turns none. Now that, I hear you cry, is chaos, and I’d agree. That is pretty much an accurate representation of warfare with no commanders; nobody would be working to a plan with any coherency, nobody would be leading the man in a concerted fashion. Pretty much anarchy. What we need to do then is to add our commanders as it is their job to overcome chaos, to overcome friction and drive on their force in a manner that allows them to achieve their military objective. This is where we introduce order to a chaotic setting. Let’s see what effect that has.
This is pretty simple stuff. If a unit has one card in the deck it will likely be activated once in each two turns. If we add a second card to represent its commander this will double the chance of the unit being activated in each turn. The more leaders a force has the more animated and tactically capable it will be. So you can see that if you want a job done well attaching a good commander to a unit is important. Of course commanders vary in quality and in the new version of IABSM some will be able to activate the whole platoon, whereas others may only be able to influence one or two sections, so choosing the right man for the job will be an important part of your planning; just like real life.
In the example we opened this piece with the British platoon were in trouble, their lead section pinned down under fire from the Germans squad in the farm building. Fortunately for them the Regimental Sergeant Major was to hand. On his card RSM “Basher” Bishop had three Command Initiatives to use. With the first he activated the Vickers team and they moved to set up their machine gun to provide supporting fire. With his second Initiative he activated the second section which was lining the bocage; they immediately put fire into the outbuilding killing one German defender and inflicting a couple of points of shock (which is essentially an automatic morale system). On his third Initiative he moved forward to join the lead section in the orchard. The turn ended at that point as the Tea Break card was drawn, setting us up for an interesting next turn.
If the German platoon card was dealt first RSM Bishop could be in trouble, however with him in place he had tipped the scales in favour of the British platoon. They had their own card in the deck and his card, whereas the Germans were without a leader so they had only their own platoon card. In the event it was Bishop’s card that was dealt. He again has three command initiatives to use. He rallied the lead section, removing one point of shock, and got them to fire with his second initiative (adding +3 to their dice roll as their firing was being directed by a Status 3 leader), and with his third initiative he called back to the third British section to get them to manoeuvre round on the German flank. Losing another man dead and in the face of the flanking manoeuvre the German squad had had enough, they abandoned the outbuilding falling back towards their main line of defence. RSM Bishop had used his influence to overcome the friction of the battlefield and utilise fire and movement tactics to defeat an enemy.
Will RSM Bishop always be so successful? No. In truth he had the run of the cards in this situation, he had indeed stacked the deck in his favour by his presence with the platoon, but even so the Germans had a chance of beating the odds and getting to fire first. However I feel that this is a reflection of the realities of combat that stacks up well with first-hand accounts of battle and with the principles outlined by Clausewitz. War is full of unquantifiables and uncertainties, the best you can achieve is to attempt to influence the odds in your favour, but you can never have absolute certainty.
Does the system stop you doing everything you want all of the time? Yes, of course it does, that is precisely what it is designed to do. You are representing the company commander, and whilst you may know what you want Number 2 platoon to do you cannot rely on them acting like robots and fulfilling their objective like clockwork. Does it stop you having a plan of action? One comments on TMP only this week said that “it is truly hard to, say, coordinate an attack without being thoughtful, lucky, and opportunistic”. I would entirely disagree. However, what it does do is make complex plans more likely to fail than simple ones. Let’s look at our game on Tuesday again to test this.
The British commander sent forward his Vickers platoon to provide a base of fire for the attack on the farmhouse. Did he know precisely when they would be set up and ready? No, but he had a damned good idea that it would be within the first two or three turns, and they were. That allowed him time to start his first platoon off to take the outbuilding next to the orchard. Again he could not precisely say when this unit would take the outbuilding, but he had a pretty good idea that it would be within the first half a dozen turns, and they did. The Vickers then put down covering fire and the platoon advanced to take the farmhouse (which was empty as it happened). Did the commander know precisely how long this would take? No, but again he could be as sure of it happening within a reasonable time frame as he was that night followed day. Could he then consolidate his gains and shape up for the second phase of his plan; the attack up the hill? Of course, he just could not be sure of the first phase would take five or ten minutes. Did this mean he had to be “thoughtful lucky and opportunistic”? Well, hopefully he was thoughtful in putting together a plan, but lucky and opportunistic? I really cannot see that at all. All that is removed by adding the friction provided by the card deck is the element of absolute certainty on timings. Just like real life.
With each turn representing between 30 and 60 seconds it is not unreasonable for us to see units pausing briefly. Why they do so would not be known to the company commander, maybe the Lieutenant thought he saw movement in the hedgerow ahead, maybe Sergeant Potts fell down a rabbit hole, maybe they were checking the path for mines. What the company commander CAN do, if the platoon is dragging its heels too much, is get his backside across to tell them to get a move on. And funnily enough they will.
At the heart of this is not a desire to stop players working to a plan, indeed I hope it is clear from our game that the British were entirely capable of working to a plan. In fact our objective is to present the players with a realistic situation where they have to consider their plans within the constraints of what is realistically possible rather than having absolute certainty. As Clausewitz reminds us, “The good General must know friction in order to overcome it and not expect a standard of achievement in his operation which this very friction makes impossible”
For those that are interested, the British attack took place after a pretty ineffective initial bombardment of the area. The Vickers platoon was set up within a couple of minutes according to plan, and within five minutes first platoon had taken Du Pré farm, thanks to RSM Bishop, according to plan. The tanks now came forward, according to plan. At that point they came under fire from a battery of 105mm German guns which were firing from a position off-table but very nicely controlled by a German Forward Observer in Belle Mont farm who walked the barrage along the road to stonk the British platoon who had been advancing up the road according to plan. These were forced to shelter in the roadside ditch. What was more they obliged the carrier platoon to retire back down the road and shook up the tanks who were already feeling pretty unsure after a Panzerschreck team popped up. They missed, narrowly, but it was enough to persuade the troop commander “Squiffy” Baldwin that he really didn’t want to be here. This view of the world was confirmed when the lead Cromwell turned the corner on the approach to Belle Mont and was hit by a 75mm shell from the Pak 40. The tank suffered some engine damage, but that was enough to persuade the crew that it was time to abandon ship, thereby blocking the road. This combined with the German artillery fire was sufficient to see Captain Roger Roughshaft pull back to the farm in the valley and begin to consolidate his limited gains there. What the British didn’t know (or the Germans for that matter) was that the German artillery had just received order to withdraw, so the worst of their suffering was already over. The Germans lost five men dead with eight walking wounded. The British lost eight dead with a dozen wounded and one tank bailed out. Both sides has stuck to their plans, neither side had been particularly lucky nor opportunistic.
Of course, had the British planned to have their three platoons advance abreast strung out across the table, and expected them to all arrive at point X at the same time it is highly likely that they would not have stuck to that plan with a card driven system. However it is very likely that they would all have arrived within five minutes of each other. To appreciate and understand what is and is not achievable by the men under his command must surely be the first lesson any real commander should learn. By introducing friction into our games and allowing our miniature commanders to overcome it we go some way to learning that same lesson ourselves.
Note: This was the first display of IABSM3 to the team, the original is the best part of ten years old now and we have added some interesting mechanisms which increase the importance of key leaders, the Big Men of the battlefield, and streamline some of the other mechanisms to make a sleeker game that remains true to the core concepts of the original.
Its been a year since Chain of Command was published and what an exciting 12 months it’s been. We’ve certainly had a great time playing our games as well as getting forces assembled for the Spanish Civil war and modern variants. Of course, Chain of Command is a “platoon plus” sized game and like all