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WWII "Realism": Some Thoughts on Simulation in WWII Wargames Rules

The recent popularity of rules sets such as Bolt Action and Flames of War (FOW) have re-ignited a long-running discussion about what realism is in WWII wargames. Neither Bolt Action nor FOW claim to be detailed simulations, but other rules sets are intended to give a more realistic representation of WWII warfare, or at least touted as doing so. I'm not sure that they actually do. I have been playing a lot of WWII wargames recently, and I have had some excellent games with rules that I enjoy, which on the surface present a more "realistic" picture of WWII combat than Bolt Action or FOW: Chain of Command (CoC) and Kampfgruppe Commander II. This article is not going to look at any specific rules sets to judge their degree of realism, but rather will consider what WWII wargames are simulating - what role are they asking players to assume while playing?

For a long time "realism" in WWII war games seemed to be all about technical specifics - armor thickness and angle, penetration, etc. While these things are definitely part of the simulation aspects of armored warfare, they seem to have clouded discussion of the issues. A minute focus on technical details alone will never provide us with a good simulation of warfare, as it misses too many other important factors. As a community we seem to have moved beyond the idea that technical details alone suffice - today, the emphasis seems to be on command control.

In playing both Kampfgruppe Commander II and Chain of Command, one aspect of the games which I very much enjoyed, and one which other players seem to also, is the way in which players are forced to make decisions which do not allow full utilization of every asset in their command. The two systems have very different mechanisms for realizing this effect, but it is markedly similar in both games. But is it realistic? On the surface, it seems to be - commanders have to make decisions about where to focus during battle, and these games make players do exactly that.

When we ask "Is it realistic?" about any set of rules, we need to define what we mean by "realistic," and there is probably no single definition which will make everyone happy. However, I will take a stab at a working definition: a "realistic" wargame is one where the players are asked to assume the role of historical commanders in such a way that the decisions they make in playing the game, and the issues which concern them, are appropriate to the role in which they are being cast.

The generals commanding divisions should not be concerned with whether a tank platoon is presenting its flank to an enemy anti-tank position; a company commander should not be creating fire plans for corps-level artillery bombardments. A realistic game should state what level of command it is simulating, and then allow players to get a sense of what it might have been like for their real-life counterparts.

In Kampfgruppe Commander II, the units of maneuver are companies, made up of a small number of bases (usually 3 or 4) which presumably represent platoons or the equivalent. This makes it similar to other popular grand tactical rules sets such as Spearhead. Each side will field one or a small number of battalions, placing players in the role of commanders at that level.

In Chain of Command, the entire force on the table is a company, along with supporting assets. This places it at the same level as Bolt Action - you may have larger multi-player games, but the entire force is typically somewhere between a reenforced platoon and a company. Having an entire battalion on the table would be a very large game indeed. Individual units of maneuver are squads/sections, or, in the case of armor, individual vehicles.

So we now have to ask the question: "What were the issues and concerns historically for the officers who commanded battalions in WWII? What about companies? Platoons?" I do not claim to have the complete answers to these questions, but sometimes wargames rules seem to simultaneously place players at multiple levels of command without rhyme or reason. This may be fun, but it is not realistic.

I find this question to be of great interest because many years ago I started playing the Canadian Wargames Group's Canadians in Europe, where players command entire divisions at the operational level. I very much liked the rules, and ended up basing a computer-assisted system on them, known today as Active Armor WWII. The level of the game appealed to me as something different - you got to play whole battles, not just small actions. Many games promise on the cover blurb that you can "be Rommel" and then put you in command of a company. This game actually let you be Rommel! (OK - Rommel did command a company in the Alpenkorps, but if I remember right that was in the First World War...) This meant that you worried about higher-level formations (battalions) and logistics a lot, as well as making strategic and grand-tactical plans. Tactical combat was the purview of lower-level commanders. Battles could span days, and as a player you needed to think in those terms. This wargame was realistic according to my definition above.

When designers create rules systems, they have to decide what aspects of combat will be the focus of play, which aspects will be abstracted, and which will be left out. Some critical aspects such as ammunition and fuel supply often fall into the latter categories, being either heavily abstracted or left out altogether. This may be appropriate for a game where a player is asked to command a platoon - you either had the supplies or you didn't, and there wouldn't be a lot you could do about it. For a player commanding at the battalion level or above, this would be less true - allocating available supplies would become an important aspect of command.

Game designers may use the excuse that logistics is boring, or that the record-keeping slows play too much. Fair enough, but when these aspects are downplayed, they will render the game less realistic.

Some games make more subtle errors when it comes to realism: the level of tactics players are concerning themselves with. During the era when everything in WWII games seemed to be about the technical details of guns and armor, company commanders occupied themselves with aiming each individual shot, and this was trumpeted as a triumph of "realism." Wrong! That's a matter for the gunners and commanders of individual tanks. The same type of error can be made in more contemporary rules sets as well. If the game has modifiers for making flank shots on vehicles, and is asking players to make decisions about the orientation of individual vehicles on the table, then they are forcing an aspect of tactics into the equation which would be of paramount importance to a platoon commander, but which would be beneath the notice of a company commander. It's not that the company commander wouldn't care - it's that he couldn't directly control the positioning of vehicles. Games such as Spearhead confound these things: commanders who are at the battalion level are effectively positioning individual vehicles, and getting it wrong can have drastic consequences in game terms. This is inherently unrealistic. It would be more realistic to abstract the issue such that it was out of the player's direct control, even though that might feel "less realistic."

Don't get me wrong - I am not saying that Spearhead isn't a fun game. I have played it and enjoy it (although it is not my favorite WWII game system, either). I am just saying that in this particular it is unrealistic, confounding the roles of platoon, company, and battalion commanders. Players like it because it is fun to play, even if you are wearing multiple hats at the same time in simulation terms. Being fun to play, however, is different than being realistic. There is always a balance, but as historical wargamers we should recognize it for what it is.

I can imagine that some designers would argue that they are choosing to mix-and-match the levels of command, so that players get a "realistic" experience simultaneously at different levels of command. Hmmmm. This sounds suspiciously like bullshit to me. I appreciate that you are designing a fun game, but don't pretend it is a realistic simulation - last time I checked, in reality we were still restricted to being only a single person at a time (most of us, anyway...). The truth is likely that said designers didn't even think about the issue.

These types of inherent failure in realism are actually incredibly hard to design out of a game. When we step back and look again at the command-and-control features of Chain of Command and Kampfgruppe Commander II, we start to explore some of the difficulties. In CoC, the entire game starts out with a "patrol phase," which is a highly abstracted mechanism in which commanders perform an initial scouting of the area. It is a lot of fun and it is important, as it can have dire implications for the rest of the game. Is it realistic? Would a platoon or company commander worry about where his patrols are going? The mechanism does not have players running the patrols themselves as such - there are no spotting rolls or activity by individual figures. It is just using tokens to suggest where patrols are sent and then allowing players to understand the proximity to the enemy, without any details on what the enemy forces are. This seems realistic to me. A platoon commander ordered to patrol an area would issue orders to specific groups of men under his command to go to certain areas and report what they find. A company commander especially would not be privy to the detailed aspects of patrol, but would be interested in the location of enemy forces, which would then become the focus of further effort. I buy it, even though the designers have chosen to make it very abstract.

I have less experience with Kampfgruppe Commander, but it has one notable feature which stands out. The turn sequence is set up such that actions taken early in the turn will prevent actions being taken later in the turn (although you can do some of each, within limits). It is the idea of "overwatch" you find in many games, but taken further. I like the mechanism, and have heard other gamers remark that they like it too. This strikes me also as being actually more realistic than systems where if you miss making an action early in the turn, the opportunity (and time) is just gone. That's not how reality works - actions in combat take time, but it isn't contra-dancing: I can do X instead of Y - I don't lose the opportunity. Despite fancy turn sequences, it is all supposed to be happening simultaneously. A commander would know that ordering a sub-unit to do something will occupy that unit's time, and have to take that into account.

Despite this, I can see that in both cases an argument could be made that these things are not terribly realistic. The CoC patrol phase is maybe too abstract and gamey; the Kampfgruppe Commander mechanism perhaps places too much in the hands of players who are supposed to be commanding at a grand-tactical level, making them micro-managers. At the end of the day, it is, of course, a matter of taste. We can't expect to all agree on what goes on inside the heads of the commanders whose shoes we are wearing for a few hours of game time. And the last thing we want, as wargamers, is to have a really genuine experience, with all the stress and terror that combat involves; it is, after all, just a game. But I still believe that designers should think about these things, and whether they really produce rules which are realistic, or whether they are just fun to play.

And it isn't just rules writers who have to think about realism, either: do we, as players, want realistic games? I like taking flank shots, even if I'm commanding a battalion! How much simulation do we want? I want my weapons and movement and related things to be realistic, yes, but what am I doing it for? Every gamer will have a different answer, maybe, and different rules are good for different types of games, but it does at least give one pause for thought.

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