Friday, July 28, 2017

Gaming The Fall of the Third Reich

This is the start of the game as set up on my gaming table.
The same at-start situation as it appears in the VASSAL computer module of the game.  Wargame tools like VASSAL, Cyberboard, and ADC allow the player to tinker with and play games on the PC.  This speeds setup, allows for multiple games to be played at the same time, and, in my case, allows me to setup "monster" sized games larger than the space of my gaming table allows.
Off and on since April I have been playing Fall of the Third Reich (FOTR), a new wargame release by Compass Games. The demise of Nazi Germany has always been a special interest of mine in terms of history and I have explored it before with games like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and End of the Iron Dream.  FOTR is a Ted Raicer design. I have enjoyed Ted's games for many years, most recently The Dark Valley, a strategic East Front game.  I have acknowledged my affinity for the history and simulation of the Eastern Front previously.

FOTR begins in July 1943 with the failed German offensive at Kursk and the Allied invasion of Sicily. The game emphasizes better than most the gradual strategic degrading of the German ability to wage war both in terms of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and in terms of the overall diminishing quality of German troops.  Conversely, it also shows the erupting prowess of the massive Soviet army as well as the complexity of Allied decision-making as to where and when to invade Hitler's European empire after their success in North Africa.
The at-start situation around Kursk as set up on my gaming table.

The same set up as seen in the VASSAL module.
Historically, the Soviets (Stalin in particular) were sharply critical of the US-Commonwealth efforts (or lack thereof, from their perspective) to invade Europe and take some of the pressure off of Soviet forces.  FOTR shows from the beginning why the Reds had this attitude.  The Soviets have 59 armies poised against 45 mostly variable strength German corps augmented by some stronger panzer divisions. On the western Allied side of the ledger there is nothing.  Not a single US-Commonwealth unit begins the game on the map. 

The Germans have many possible invasion routes to take into account, however.  There 11 other German units devoted to the defense of France, for example.  A few more are scattered through the Mediterranean and the Balkans.  It is one of the strengths of this game that it affords the player a great opportunity to consider the options for invasion. Historically, the Allies chose Sicily and then Italy.  But an invasion of Greece is also a possibility - as is forgetting the Mediterranean entirely and concentrating on an early invasion of France.

There are pluses and minuses to each possibility and this game represents the strategic variations (and consequences) very well.  In my play, however, I chose to take the historic route and invade Sicily.  Even with that operation the Allies only place four divisions on the map with some support units; minuscule compared with the vast forces slugging it out in the East (which is why Stalin was so displeased that a more major effort in France was delayed for another year).  Still, it's a start and invading Sicily has a couple of rapid advantages.

The Allied invasion of Sicily on my gaming table.
The same situation in VASSAL.  Note that the Beach Head Markers enable the Allied troops to conduct invasions as well as supply those troops in the early stages of an invasion.  Prior to game turn six these markers can supply 2 corps each as well as the supporting paratroop units.  Also note that the US and Commonwealth troops cannot stack or attack together except in the case of supporting paratroop units.  In this case the US 81st Airborne is needed to support the British invasion of Syracuse.

First of all, the fall of Sicily is a fairly easy operation and it triggers knocking Italy out of the war.  In game terms this means that all the Italian units are immediately removed from the map, which leaves the Balkans and southern France almost completely unguarded.  Additionally, when Italy surrenders, Yugoslavia receives three more partisan "armies" that can further destabilize the region and threaten the strategically important city of Belgrade.   All of this has the added impact of forcing Germany's scarce and weakened resources to cover Italy and the Balkans (along with weaker pro-Axis armies in Hungary and Bulgaria), taking those units away from fighting against Russia and garrisoning France.   This is one of the best games I have played that fully represents the complex situation in the Balkans and the Mediterranean.

So why not just invade France in 1943 instead? Well, first of all that does nothing to boot Italy and its Balkans garrison troops out of the war.  These units stay and fight.  Secondly, the invasion mechanics in the game require the placement of Beach Head Markers to designate any US or Commonwealth invasion hex.  All such troops are located in either the Mediterranean or the England Holding Box, a reserve for units not yet in play. When the game starts there are no Beach Head Markers in the England Box.  Certainly, these can be transferred from the Mediterranean to England during the appropriate phase of the game turn and this would allow for an invasion of France the next turn.  But, importantly, once a game marker or combat unit is transferred to England it can never be transferred back to the Mediterranean. The game only allows a one-way exchange.  Allied reinforcements must be sent to the Mediterranean with their initial placement if they wish to fight in that theater.

There is an additional Allied Beach Head Marker that arrives later in the game that would allow for an invasion in the Mediterranean (southern France historically) but it will not have the punch that the two markers can supply at the beginning of the game.  Ted Racier does an excellent job of allowing the Allied player to decide which route to take, but each choice comes with consequences.  In brief, the prudent thing is to use the additional invasion capability already in place against Italy, knock it out of the war, and then transfer the Beach Head Markers to England for a 1944 invasion of France.

Meanwhile, in the East the war is going full-tilt. The game reflects the magnitude of the Eastern Front compared to operations in the West.  It is a bloody slug-fest.  The German's launch their last offensive at Kursk, which has very little chance of succeeding.  I replayed this little portion of the first turn over and over to get the game's combat mechanics down.  The best I was ever able to do was knock out twice as many Soviet units as German ones.  But that isn't nearly enough.  During their phase of Turn One the Soviets begin a series of attacks up and down the line, except for in along the Ukraine. 

The game system fixes the number of replacements such that Germany gets a decent amount  in 1943 but they are still not enough to cover all their needs.  Gradually, the number of losses far exceeds the replacements and the once-vaunted Wehrmacht is forced to defend long stretches of the front lines with fewer, weaker troops.  The combat results in the game are such that it benefits the Soviets to attack at even "bad" odds of, say, 1-2. They will lose a lot of units this way but, each time, they also kill a German unit or two.  Over the course of the game this adds up, with the Soviets able to replace most of their losses and the Germans eventually unable to replace theirs.

This is due to two factors.  First, as just mentioned, low-odds attacks can still cause casualties upon the defender.  You do enough of them (ie. all along the eastern front and in conjunction with better odds attacks for offensive breakthroughs) you will kill off bunches of Germans. Secondly, the Allied Strategic Bombing campaign comes into play.  The game simulates bombing against German factories, oil refineries, strategic transportation, and carpet bombing to blow holes in a staunch German defensive line.  Each of these has a different effect on the Germans.

The success of factory bombing directly impacts the number of replacements the German will receive each turn.  Hitting oil refineries lessens Germany's command and control capabilities, making movement in combat more difficult (see below). Transit bombing cuts down on the vital German ability to transfer units from one sector of the game map to another, thereby limiting their ability to effectively react as the situation changes in the East, the Mediterranean, and the West.

The German Luftwaffe is available to defend against the Allied bombing efforts.  It also has the ability to assist with combat support, adding attack or defense factors to improve odds of combat success. This can be a very effective weapon in German counterattacks or in the critical defense of key positions.  There are only three Luftwaffe counters in play, however.  So resources are naturally limited.  At the beginning of the game, all three air counters are available. One must always be placed in the “defense of the Reich” box. The other two can be used for support in any of the given theaters of the game - East, West, Mediterranean, or the Balkans.  As the game plays on, however, the Germans will lose Luftwaffe units in defense against Allied bombing.  They can rebuild these lost units but they are very expensive and the needs for replacement must be weighed against replacing losses of panzers and infantry.  In my own play, I did not replace any of the Luftwaffe units until they were all eliminated and even then I only rebuilt one of them for the "general defense" of the Reich.  Combat support by air is one of the first things the German player will lose as the game ventures into 1944.  Again, this is completely in sync with what happened historically.

Command and control is also nicely simulated in FOTR game play for the German and Soviet sides. For the US-Commonwealth units it is more a matter of logistics than anything else.  The game has a straightforward, realistic way of handling the difficulties of Allied troops getting enough supplies to be effective in the West (more on this in a moment).  On the German and Russian side it is not so much a question of logistics as command control of what units can do.  For example, the German and Soviet sides operate under certain restrictions of movement and capability.  For the most part, they cannot retreat when they are adjacent to enemy units.  But, if the units are within range of a command marker then they are allowed greater freedom to withdraw or even mount a counterattack. 

The Soviet side depends upon control of specific cities in order to use their command markers.  At the start of the game they do not control a city in the Ukraine and therefore, cannot attack there. Instead, they must first capture Kharkov in order to project control into that region of the map.  This mimics history.  The Soviets launched a major offensive against Kharkov but some bad rolls of the dice and a stubborn German defense prevented the fall of that city until Turn Three in the game.  After that the thin German line in the Ukraine was suddenly in danger of being overwhelmed. The Germans had to use a command marker to disengage the forces in favor of better defensive terrain.  In the north, a Soviet attack out of Leningrad met with immediate success and the Germans had holes throughout their front line with limited command ability to conduct prudent withdrawals and mount effective counterattacks; although in 1943 the German panzers are still a potent force for giving opponents a bloody nose.

Simultaneously, the Allies invaded Italy on Turn Two and started moving up "the boot."  The Italians dissolved when Sicily fell and the Germans were left alone defending against a possible invasion in the Balkans, protecting Italy, and staving off the Russian juggernaut.  The US-Commonwealth landed more troops with multiple objectives, not the least of which was the capture of the strategic air base at Foggia - which triggers the availability of the US 15th Air Force.  This amps up the strategic bombing efforts (which is yet another reason to take the historic route and invade Italy).

Here is the situation in Italy and the Balkans at the beginning of Game Turn 6.  The Germans have stubbornly held Rome but the front line is greatly elongated and weak in some points.  Note the SHAEF Marker at Naples, a large port facility which can throw supply 5x the normal range.  This means the SHAEF "3" can project supply out up to 15 hexes from the port.  Meanwhile in Yugoslavia, the four partisan armies are threatening Belgrade and other areas.
While in my play the Germans managed to hang on to Rome through the beginning of 1944, they lost a large chunk of Italy along the eastern half of the Italian peninsula.  This made the front longer than it was historically, which required a few more Germans to defend the lines when they might be better deployed in the swirling mess of the eastern front.  But, it also poses an issue for the Allies. Rome is a victory point city and by denying it to the Allies the Germans manage to place a greater sense of urgency on the Allies as Rome is one of the cities they must capture in order to win the game. The Soviets preformed basically as expected, capturing all victory point cities in the east except for Minsk and Tallinn.

The Allied units are fairly brittle in this game. While most German units can handle two-step losses before they are eliminated (the flip side is of reduced strength), the Soviet units have only one step.  The western Allied units have two-steps but their flip side usually offers no offensive capability, only defensive strength.  This gives the Germans every reason to counterattack as much as possible since the allies will have to use replacement points with every casualty in order to regain their offensive capability.

Meanwhile, neither side can completely forget the situation in Yugoslavia.  Albeit small in the grand scheme of things, this is one of my favorite aspects of FOTR because it depicts operations largely ignored in wargaming.  The guerrilla warfare in Yugoslavia pinned down several German divisions charged with anti-partisan actions when they could have been more gainfully employed on other fronts. The possibility of the fall of Belgrade is motivation for both sides to stay attentive here.  In game terms, when the Italians surrender that triggers 3 additional Yugoslavian "armies" to reinforce the one that starts on the map.  These four units are sufficient to wreak havoc on this part of the map, mounting periodic threats that simply won't allow the Germans to move their precious infantry and mountain troops to Italy or Russia.  So aggressive play by the Allied or Soviet player is another dimension of the game.

The overall map situation at the beginning of Turn 6.  As you can see, the Soviets have made solid advances in the East and the German line is near the breaking point, without any reserves.
By mid-1944, the inability of the Germans to replace units manifests exponentially due the greater numbers being killed and the strategic bombing of factories.  It is also high-time for the US-Commonwealth invasion of France, the threat of which has been tying down a lot of German units since the start of the game.  The situation in France is interesting.  The Germans have built the so-called Atlantic Wall along to coast. This serves to somewhat limit the Allied invasion choices. But, more importantly, the forts prevent the Allied forces from using various ports along the French coast for supply purposes.  They must attack and take each fort, which is time consuming and potentially bloody. 

D-Day in game terms.  The Beach Head Markers have now been transferred from the Mediterranean to England and they can now support 3 corps each.  The respective invasion groups are supported by two airborne divisions each and there is a Mulberry Marker available which will thrown allied supply 3x. When combined next turn with a SHAEF "4" marker it will extend the supply range from the beach out 12 hexes, effectively taking the allies to the German border.  This is not far enough to enter Germany itself, however.  To do that the Allied player must capture another port closer to Germany.  Antwerp is another large European port on the right edge of this screen shot.  The "x5" marked on the map means it can throw supply 5 times the SHAEF marker number, which is plenty to invade the Reich proper.  Also of interest are the Allied FUSAG markers.  These represent the active misdirection conducted by the Allied forces regarding a possible second, larger invasion - creating the impression that, wherever the Allies invade, it is a decoy to the "main" invasion.  That is what happened historically.  German units placed under the FUSAG Markers cannot move until an Allied unit moves within two hexes of them. They are essentially frozen in place, preventing them from reinforcing the invasion area.   
Now is a good time to talk about supply as simulated in FOTR.  As I mentioned, whereas command and control is a major consideration on the German and Soviet side of the equation, the US-Commonwealth have no such issues. Instead their operations are limited more by supply considerations due to the fact that they do not possess sources of supply or industry on continental Europe.  Every bullet or gallon of gas or ration of food must be shipped to Italy or France or wherever.  This necessitates port cities or, in a special case, the construction of an artificial port.

Not every coastal hex in the game can invaded. There are nine possible invasion hexes in France. As with the Kursk operation in the East, I replayed the invasion of France multiple times, testing all variations.  The Atlantic Wall comes into play either directly or indirectly in almost all of them. The Germans can move units to the possible invasion zones and make things more difficult for the Allied forces. But a couple of things work in the Allied favor.  First, the Beach Head Markers support 3 allied corps each in 1944 whereas only 2 were supported in 1943 (another reason to delay the invasion of France).  They also get special combat bonuses when invading under the range of Allied air power and augmented by paratroop divisions, which really can make the difference between a successful invasion and a bloody, almost failed one.

In the end I chose once again to play historically and invade in Normandy.  The Beach Head Markers have a very limited supply range, although they can be augmented by special Allied SHAEF markers which sort of function like command and control markers do for the Germans and the Soviets.  The placement of the one and only Mulberry Marker projects supply across France to the edge of the German border.  This makes the Atlantic Wall somewhat superfluous.  Most of the fortified port cities can be by-passed (as they were historically).

Once landed on Normandy, it usually only takes a couple of terms to drive the Germans back toward their fortified line on the German border.  But the Allies need to capture a second port (Antwerp is the best case) in order to project supply further into the Reich for attacking Germany proper. Meanwhile, in the East the thinned out German line can no longer withstand a concentrated Soviet onslaught.  The Germans basically attempt to withdraw to defensible positions, inflicting an occasional punch in the Russian nose which stings but is irrelevant to the overall momentum of the East.  The Soviets are literally unstoppable by this time, as they can afford to replace the large casualties the Germans inflict upon them whereas the German line just gets increasingly thinner, the ability to replace troops is diminished by the persistent allied bombing of factories.

FOTR is a fun strategic overview of the last half of World War Two in Europe.  It is well-made, has a lot of interesting game mechanics that accurately reflect the dynamic historical situation, and it is a relatively quick play, allowing for multiple run-throughs and what-if explorations.  It is an entertaining way for me to pass hours of summer heat comfortably indoors this year.

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