Designing Infantry Attacks
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I have a friend who is a real, honest-to-goodness brain surgeon. He's also a wargamer, in love with a tactical game put out by a different publisher. Or at least he was until he discovered the Second World War at Sea series — did I mention that brain surgeons are really, really smart? Anyway, some years ago he convinced me to try playing his beloved game; I'm not sure why I gave in but there I was, setting up the Soviets for some battle taking place in the streets of Stalingrad against Paul Davis' Germans.
Someone sent me some internet postings the other day, proclaiming that scenarios from this particular game are playtested for years and years and thus are far superior to those that we publish. And that made me remember that particular evening.
In that squad-level game, machine guns and other support weapons have their own pieces. My best machine gun piece had a little 1 in a square; this meant that if you rolled a 1 on the blue die when you fired it, you could fire again. How often? I asked. Any number of times, as long as you roll a 1 on the blue die came the reply. I put the machine gun and a crew for it in the tallest building on my side of the set-up line, where it overlooked all of Paul's Germans, and I put my best leader there, too, since good leaders can modify machine-gun fire.
I should mention here that I don't consider myself a particularly good wargamer, but I do have a way with the dice for good or ill. Playing a completely different game recently (strategic Napoleonic), I rolled a 1 ten times in a row, a 2, and then four more 1's. Unfortunately, in that game you want to roll 6's. Somehow I managed to avoid defeat, and came back to exterminate the combined British-Prussian-Spanish army by rolling three 6's and one 5 in the last battle.
So anyway, we set up our troops and play began. The Germans fired a few rounds and then charged into the street. That particular game system's not all that interactive, so next came "defensive fire." You can shoot at anyone, whether they moved or fired or not. First I used the machine gun in the tower to wipe out everyone in the street, four or five shots, each time rolling a 1 on the blue die.
"Can I still fire?
"Can I switch targets?"
So hex by hex, I fired the machine gun at all the other Germans. I forgot to make rat-a-tat-tat sounds. This time the Germans didn't get wiped out right away, since they were in buildings that offered some protection (a modifier to the dice-roll result), but they did have to check their morale. Some of them failed this and became "broken." So I shot at them again. Because I was still rolling a 1 on the blue die. Every time. I think there was some kind of die-roll to see if the machine gun overheated and blew up but I rolled a 1 on those, too. Paul pulled his hat lower and lower down his forehead as his troops melted away — because after breaking a second time, a squad or leader in that game runs away and is removed from play.
Finally I stopped rolling the dice — because every German squad and leader had been picked up and tossed in the box. Only their abandoned weapons showed where they once had stood. Not a single other Soviet piece had moved or fired. Game over. By my count I rolled a 1 thirty-two straight times. I should admit that "my count" seems to rise every time I recount this tale, and that no one else remembers the evening quite the same way as I do.
That experience would probably lead one or two unhinged, unwashed and/or asocial gamers to rush to the internet to declare the game "broken" or "lacking playtesting" on every discussion site they could find. It means nothing of the sort: no game design based on luck-dependent elements can possibly account for a one in 7,958,661,110,000,000,000,000,000 occurrence (7.9 octillion? That can't be right.).
I've been remembering that game experience while looking over Doug McNair's development work on Infantry Attacks, our new game series of World War One-era tactical combat. The game rules are derived from those of Panzer Grenadier, our tried-and-tested series of World War II tactical combat.
There's a lot that remains the same and some that's very, very different. And then there are differences caused by the units and situations, not so much by the rules (this part pleases me the most, that it shows rather than tells — it's always a good thing when a wargame doesn't require a special rule to spackle over the model's flaws). A good bit of that grows out of a difference in unit scale: most units are infantry companies and cavalry squadrons.
The larger units move more slowly, with a movement factor 2 for most foot soldiers as opposed to 3 for most infantry in Panzer Grenadier. The troops march at the same pace as their sons will in 1939, but it's harder to maneuver the bigger unit. You can put two of them in a hex, plus one machine gun detachment, but the penalties when a hex filled to the maximum is hit by enemy artillery fire are even worse than in Panzer Grenadier. Machine guns are also deadlier in a target-rich environment like that.
The natural reaction of players, of course, will be to spread their troops out to avoid those effects. But that's not always going to be much help, either. In both of the upcoming games (August 1914 and Fall of Empires) most of the artillery firing in support of the infantry is fairly lightweight: 76.2mm for the Russians, 76.5mm for the Austrians and 77mm for the Germans. In the Gold Club special game The Chihuahua Incident, the Mexicans have very good French-made 75mm guns and the Americans the not-so-good 3-inch M1902. None of those weapons has anything like the throw-weight of the standard 105mm howitzer of the World War II German and American armies.
And this is 1914, not 1944. No one can "call in" massive artillery barrages to break up enemy assaults: players have to write down simple artillery fire mission plans at the start of a scenario. There are no radios and few telephones — the only way most front-line commanders are communicating with the artillery is by handing a scribbled note to Mel Gibson and telling him to "run like the wind." Defenders can get some help from artillery units on the board firing over open sights, but the big batteries are going to blaze away at pre-designated target hexes whether anyone's actually there or not. And if they fire too often, there's a chance that they'll run out of ammunition. That concept shows up in some Panzer Grenadier scenarios as a special rule, but in Infantry Attacks it's standard in most games.
Direct fire is also much weaker than in Panzer Grenadier: rifle companies are just that, 150 to 220 guys with rifles. No machine guns or light mortars to bolster their firepower. Machine gun units are slightly weaker than their equivalents in the World War II game, which makes them relatively much more powerful in 1914. However, they're also harder to move. Machine gun units have limbered and unlimbered sides just like artillery, and have a very hard time keeping up with advancing infantry. You can slow down to wait for them, and hope one of those planned barrages doesn't "walk" over you while you're piddling around, or march on without them.
With those lower direct-fire numbers and lightweight artillery fire, enemy positions are going to have to be taken the hard way: by assault. And that means you'll need to stack your infantry companies two per hex as they come at the enemy, and brave his defensive fire as best you can. Once you're there, you can declare your assault to be with "cold steel" — your troops are fixing bayonets and seeking out the enemy hand-to-hand. Casualties for both attacker and defender rise dramatically, but it does give an attacker with a numerical advantage a chance to clear enemy positions.
Doug and his crew removed one of my prized innovations: a "skirmish order" mode into which you could put your infantry, which made enemies stop when approaching them. It probably was a fairly stupid idea and the game plays much better without it. They did keep my other beloved addition: each cavalry unit has a matching dismounted piece. Cavalry can get off their high horse, so to speak, and fight on the ground just like everyone else.
Leaders retain pretty much the same function as in Panzer Grenadier: troops will not move toward the enemy unless a leader directs them to do so, usually by uttering the words that would yield tens of thousands of young captains and lieutenants a hero's grave in 1914: "Follow me!" All leaders are officers, but not all officers are leaders. As in the earlier game, some armies have better leadership than others — leader pieces represent those key individuals who make a difference on the battlefield, and not just anyone bearing little bits of metal on his shoulders and a certificate from king, emperor or president. There are two flavors of leader, infantry and cavalry, and neither can assist troops from the other branch.
The tables are pretty much the same as those in Panzer Grenadier: we wanted to hold to the same model as closely as possible, and show the differences in the units. We also wanted players of the older game to be able to grasp this one as quickly as possible, but I can see already that we're going to have to work triple-overtime to impress on players that the two rules sets are not interchangeable. The rules are very similar, but they are not the same; for just one example, opportunity fire (shooting at someone you see move during their movement) is far more limited, with only machine guns getting to fire twice.
Doug had some outstanding help with the rules from a number of testers, starting with John Stafford, designer of our modern-era tactical game series debuting next year. I'm going to leave my name on the Infantry Attacks credits as series designer because, well, I own the company and I get to exalt my ego that way when I feel like it. But it's not the rules set I wrote, more like the rules set I wish I'd written.
You can't fire the same machine gun unit 32 times in a row, and I don't think you can wipe out the enemy in a single turn with the right sequence of die-rolls in any of the scenarios. I'm sure we'll hear about some odd results once the game goes from having been played by a handful to several thousand players. The game languished in its development stage far too long, for reasons of business rather than game play, and while that bothers me greatly I'm very pleased with the game that resulted.
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