Monday, September 24, 2012

Gaming Bagration-Warsaw 1944

The combined Bagration-Warsaw wargame set up on my gaming table.  Many of the later game units have not been punched out of their countersheets yet.
Operation Bagration, as I have mentioned before, was one of the largest air-land military operations of World War Two. It was a complete triumph for the Soviet Union and the worst defeat the once-vaunted German Wehrmacht suffered through all of World War Two. The Germans lost roughly 400,000 men in about nine weeks of fighting. Army Group Center was destroyed as a cohesive fighting force. They also lost all of the Belorussian Region which it captured almost exactly three years earlier. After Bagration, the Russians were knocking of the door of the German Reich itself.

As long-time readers know, one of my primary hobbies is to wargame historical military situations. My blog is sprinkled with posts on wargaming. In recent weeks, much of my free time has again turned to this lifelong hobby, in this case gaming the great Soviet victory on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944.

I have been in a reading funk lately. I'm not able to rip through any book. I am rambling around in several books, a few pages here, a few there. Lately, my attention has been focused on a couple of new war games I got from a fairly new company out of France. Of course, the versions I got had English translations. The two games can be combined into one longer playing experience. The first game is entitled Operation Bagration. The second game is Target Warsaw 1944. The two games can be combined into one longer campaign experience. Together they cover the worst German defeat and its immediate aftermath: the Warsaw Uprising, the immense tank battles in eastern Poland late that summer, and the Soviet crossing of the Vistula River which ultimately served as the jump-off points for the 1945 capture of Berlin.

A closer view of the section of the game prior to the initial Soviet attack.  Note the Partisan units in the German rear area.
While the Bagration part of the game is an interesting blitzkrieg in reverse (the Soviets called it "deep battle") sort of game, the Warsaw part becomes more of an attritional slugfest. The Germans can attack here and there to stop Soviet penetrations, but the Red Army (unlike in 1941) is now mature and well-supported. It can use strategic movement to setup new penetrations turn after turn, though it must pause now and then to rebuild before the next push forward. The huge pocketing capability of Bagration, the wholesale killing of German divisions, is pretty much over in the Warsaw game, occurring only a comparatively smaller scale. It is more a game of attrition though the Reds can still go wherever they want, but deep breakthroughs are harder to come by.

The initial Soviet break-through.
Both games are of reasonably high quality in terms of presentation. The rules, however, could have used some tightening. Several key concepts about the game were never covered in the original French rules. My guess is that these seemed so "obvious" to the developers they neglected to convey them clearly. This confusion was ironed out by exchanging a series of emails with Jean-Phillippe, the French designer. Since then I have spent a great deal of free time playing the combined scenario of the two games.
The German forces directly on the fortified frontline are not allowed to move through Game Turns 1 and 2. Since the Soviets get to move each turn before the Germans that means the Soviets will end up able to move three times before the German frontline units can move. In games terms this results in encirclements very close to what happened historically. The Soviet side has a lot of artillery and air support to blast holes in the German line. Then they can ooze through the holes with their reserve units and place the German frontline out of supply.

When taking losses due to combat, the game system allows for the defender (only) to mitigate losses by retreating hexes instead. Playing as the German in the opening turns, I took as many retreats as possible in order to save as many units as I could. Retreat is allowed for front line units and they remain free to move thereafter. By carefully sequencing certain opening attacks, it is possible to make retreat costly for the Germans, however. By penetrating with armor units the Soviet cast a zone of control through which any German retreat also entails a step loss.

In the early turns the Germans are helpless to do anything more than launch very specific, isolated counterattacks, mostly to protect routes of retreat. Part of the fun of the game is to see how many German units can escape isolation by the Soviet advance. Meanwhile, the fun of playing the Soviet side is to see just how many Germans you can kill through encirclement and destruction.

Close-up of part of the initial Soveit break-through.  Notice the partisan unit near the center which blocks German strategic movement along railways.  Most German units in this photo are now out-of-supply.
An example of this is the German 501 Tiger Panzer Battalion. It will likely find itself trapped by the Soviet Tank and Cavalry Corps on initial penetration. It can barely outrun the Soviets the first couple of turns and ultimately it must fight its way out if it is to survive. Historically it failed to do so. In my first play the Tigers were lost on Turn 4.

"Chrome", or added little touches, are a part of any worthy wargame. Examples of Bagration-Warsaw chrome include the Nazi French Legion, Soviet Joseph Stalin Tank Regiments, and the official unique insignias of individual German divisions and Soviet corps. Soviet tank brigades containing British-built Matilda II tanks have the profile of those tanks on the counters. The Hungarian Army is represented with a few weak divisions. These small added touches give the game a great historic feel that is part of the aesthetic pleasure of war gaming for me.

Another nice piece of chrome are the Partisan units. They have no combat ability, nor do they even possess a zone of control beyond the hex in which they are sitting. They are placed by the Soviet player in the initial phase of each turn. They cannot be placed in a German zone of control nor in any city hex. Their sole purpose is to stop German strategic movement, at which point they are removed from play until the next turn. This neatly represents the effect of Partisans at delaying certain German reinforcements or other strategic movements without a great deal of overhead of rules for the player.

By controlling various operational markers or points, the game system reflects the problems of logistics and operational support abstractly. For example, whereas the Soviets start Bagration with as much as 8 artillery support markers and as many as 6 close air support markers, by mid-game at the start of the Warsaw portion the Soviets have over-extended their logistical abilities. Air units must now transfer to forward bases instead of flying combat missions, for example. This is not a direct game mechanic involving lots of rules to govern the game. Instead, the game simply reduces these capabilities. By the beginning of Warsaw, which is turn 11 of the combined game, the Soviets have only 3 artillery support markers and 1 close air support marker. Meanwhile, the total German artillery and air support capability rises from near nothing to as much a three of each in the late game. Naturally, this slows down the pace of the Soviet attack but it does so, once again, without a lot of heavy game rules.

Still, the Soviets are powerful. Their tank and cavalry corps can do a lot of damage and all of their units are supported by tank regiments and brigades that many German units do not have. This creates another neat game subtlety. Each combat where one side has any kind of armor unit and the other side has no armor at all receives a +1 to any die roll attacking or -1 to the defense. In this game system, it is the accumulation of die roll modifiers that leads to the greatest damage by an attacker. For the German this means localized counterattacks. For the Soviet it means that all their units on the map can receive this bonus if the player properly disperses all the tank brigades and regiments. The German, by contrast, have several Strumgeschutz units but not enough for everyone. The Soviet can always find units on the map where the player can hit German units that don't have tank support.

The attacker must always take their losses as step reductions to their units. The defender gets an option to either take losses and hold ground or to retreat and take fewer or no losses at all as the player chooses. The secret to insuring attacker success in destroying the enemy in game terms as in real life is to get behind the enemy and surround the units. In game terms if a unit has to retreat through an enemy zone of control it takes a required, additional reduction. In this sense only can the defender never run away but will definitely be destroyed.

Overall, this is a fun and somewhat elegant basic wargame system. It compares favorably with something on the order of the Standard Combat Series developed by Dean Essig. The rules could use some tightening here and there to make concepts clearer. It could also benefit from requiring the defender to take at least one step loss, such as when armor attacks a hex containing infantry only in clear terrain, or whenever the defender receives any result of 2 or more.

The beauty of a simple, workable game design is that it allows me to tweak it with my own rules and test their validity. That is part of the fun for me. At any rate, I plan to set the combined game up again soon. Now that I know the long-term consequences of certain decisions I made for both sides, I'd like to try a few different approaches for each side to see what happens next in this moment when it first became irrefutable that Hitler would lose this war.

Near the end of my first playing of the combined game.  The Soviets have driven the German forces back across the map and are threatening East Prussia and Warsaw.  Some German units are encircled at the top of the map.  The Warsaw Uprising marker is placed on Warsaw denoting that the Germans cannot use this urban center to trace line of supply.

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