Tom vs Bruce: Wargame: Airland Battle

Tom: So Czechoslovakia is going for a friendly drive in Oppdal, which is in Sweden. Don’t ask me why. There’s a whole campaign in Airland Battle that explains all that stuff. Suffice to say this is a period piece about the 80s. It’s still the Cold War and my hearty Czech troops are fulfilling their obligation to some sort of Warsaw Pact thing. The 80s were very confusing to a lot of people. I mean, seriously, you should see my high school yearbook.

Bruce: I’ve played a lot of NATO vs. Warsaw Pact games in my time. I mean, aside from fighting the real thing in Europe back under President Muffley. But I don’t like to talk about that, and neither does Tom, given the small fact of whose side ended up winning. Still, it’s instructive to look at the underlying reasons for the conflicts posited in all these simulations of things that hadn’t yet happened. In GDW’s Third World War, “Europe was an armed camp.” In Victory Games’ NATO, the reason was XYZ. In SPI’s The Next War, I’m not sure anyone really knew. The game took a hundred freaking hours to set up. Then there was that whole interlocking set of games — Fifth Corps, Hof Gap, BAOR — that seemed to suggest that the reason that a war started at all was that you could fit all the maps together and make one game out of it so heck why not just fight a huge battle? Mechwar ’77, Red Star/White Star, even the tactical Assault series had a reason for fighting. But my favorite was a game called Berlin ’85. The box cover laid it out for you: “A 35,000 man garrison of West Berlin police and NATO forces stands in a city ringed by 60,000 Warsaw Pact troops. The Third World War is about to begin.” The cover pic was a defiant statement of the zeitgeist: You wanna bring it all the way to America? How about this Chieftain tank with 120mm of rifled badness? Spetznaz this you piece of…

Erm, sorry. That’s just how we thought about things in those days. Before we won, I mean. But it gives you an idea of the back-against-the-wall determination I’m bringing to this game.

But just like it was back in those days, you can say that our Tom Chick is a man of the people, but he is also a man, if you follow. And if you don’t follow, I mean that he is also a degenerate, atheistic Commie, as well as a cheating Southern sumbitch.

Tom: Bruce is right about one of those six epithets. I’ll let ya’ll readers figure out which one.

Bruce: I wouldn’t take Tom’s disclaimers here at face value. At the height of the Cold War, I remember a movie in which someone made the assertion that, “It’s Czechoslovakia — it’s like going to Wisconsin.” This is the kind of flippant Hollywood attitude typical of people who feel the Prague Spring wasn’t as bad as Rachel Carson made it out to be.

All seriousness aside, Wargames: Battles on Land, Air, and Sea is a pretty great game. It does have one drawback, though, and that’s the fact that it’s a real-time strategy game. In the history of Tom vs. Bruce, I believe I have defeated Tom twice at real-time strategy games: Medieval: Total War and Star Wars: Empire at War. On the upside, that means that I’m better at games that have both “War” and a colon in the title. On the downside, it’s still two to what? Fifty?

Tom: Oppdal is a map along a river running north/south, with Bruce’s West Germans entering from the south and my Czechs entering from the north. The conquest points are oddly arranged. We’ll earn the most deployment points for new units by grabbing a line of conquest points that hug the west bank, peppered with buildings and copses. But there are also conquest points worth fewer points set back from the east bank behind a veritable maze of hills. These conquest points are entrances for reinforcements onto the map, which can cross the river at one of several bridges to reach the fighting on the west bank.

Bruce: Like just about every game that Tom and I play, Tom has already dug down to the fossiliferous shale stratum of the underlying strategy layers, while I’m still trying to figure out how to zoom in the camera. Fortunately, with a game like Wargame: AirLand Battle, every word is something that I already know a lot about from the standpoint of historical accuracy.

Don’t kid yourself, though: Wargame: AirLand Battle isn’t historically accurate, at least not in how it plays. One of the biggest problems with simulating a tactical NATO/Warsaw Pact conflict was properly portraying what was known as “Soviet Battle Drill,” a set of stereotyped maneuvers which were used in response to various set situations and thus allowed large numbers of poorly trained troops to function with orders coming from far up the command chain. GDW’s Assault series captured this particularly well: it didn’t cost many command points to execute certain large-unit maneuvers, but if you tried to start ordering individual units around, the whole system became paralyzed as junior officers had to micromanage troops which had no experience with autonomy. If you think this is just something that Western analysts made up to make themselves feel better, look up the First Chechen War.

That’s ok, though. No one wants to struggle through a game where tons of Soviet Bloc units are limited to simple sets of orders and blunder around while much better trained NATO armies take potshots at them. The satisfaction in Wargame comes from the interplay of many historically accurate systems which fit together in a way that drips verisimilitude. And you can crank up that verisimilitude even more if you use them in historically accurate combinations.

Tom: For all Bruce’s Cold War smartypants wargaming experience, I suspect my Starcraft experience is going to serve me better in this game. But first, we make our own factions! My Czech Mech Deck — yes, that’s what it’s called — is built using Airland Battle’s new system of making armies. Or “deck building”, if you’re into all this new-fangled card-based fancy-pants gameplay. When you set up which units you’re going to use in a battle, if you apply restrictions to yourself, you earn bonuses. By limiting myself to Czech units, I unlock special “protoype” units and more slots for my deck. By specifying that they’re part of a mechanized battlegroup, my non-armored vehicles start with a veterancy boost. And by further limiting them to units from before 1975, I nearly double the number of units available over the course of the match. The end result is a Cold War zerg deck, consisting mostly of crappy units, but lots and lots and lots of them. As the game goes on, I’m able to cram the map full of infantry lying in wait, backed by BRDMs sporting Malyutka anti-tank missiles, with MiG-21s standing by to fend off enemy aircraft. It’s not sexy, but it can be effective and it’s capable of soaking up a lot of casualties without running out of reinforcements and without feeding the other guy too many points.

Bruce: It’s funny that Tom talks about his Malyutka (“small”) anti-tank missiles. It’s just like Tom to brag about his undersized armament.

Tom: Going lowbrow is no substitute for actually playing RTSs, but it can be a valuable first step!

Bruce: I grabbed my copy of David Isby’s “Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army” off the shelf and blew the dust off the top. Published in 1981 (London: Jane’s Publishing Co.), it’s the perfect guide to the weapons of this game’s period. There is a separate section on Soviet anti-tank weapons, and covers both first- and second-generation Soviet ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). The Malyutka is actually the AT-3 Sagger, a first-generation Soviet ATGM. And right on page 151, there is a section on “Countermeasures.”

Soviet first-generation ATGMs are vulnerable to countermeasures. Many of the countermeasures developed by the Israelis during the 1973 War have been adapted and improved by the US, British and other NATO armies.

Yeah, right? Adapted and improved by the good ol’ US of A! Let’s see what we need to do here.

The Israelis discovered that the best countermeasure against Saggers was to destroy or suppress them using combined-arms tactics. They increased their use of artillery against suitcase Sagger gunners, who were without cover. Reorganised to meet the Sagger threat, Israeli armour units now had an even mix of tanks and armoured personnel carriers mounting at least three machine guns. They would advance in a checkerboard formation, tanks and APCs alternating. If heavy ATGM or RPG fire was encountered, the APCs would lead the advance, spraying suppressive machine gun fire while the tanks supported them with high explosive or blinded the enemy with smoke or white phosphorus. If the advance was halted, the infantry would dismount and clear the Saggers out.

Advancing Israeli armour in the later stages of the 1973 War also used the “Sagger watch” technique now adopted by NATO. Each tank and APC would search a key point of terrain where a Sagger might be located. When a Sagger was spotted in flight, the watching vehicle would give a warning to whoever appeared to be the target and would immediately fire in the direction of the Sagger launch, hoping to disturb the gunner’s concentration, make him lose control of the missile and obscure his vision with the dust raised by firing. Meanwhile, the target would take evasive action. Forces advancing against suspected ATGM positions can also use “bounding overwatch,” with half of the force moving while the other half remains in overwatch position, their weapons trained on likely enemy positions.

This stuff is, like, gold! Try to shoot me now, Soviet pinkos! There are like four more paragraphs of protips, but I’ll just finish with this part:

Hull-down tanks can dodge ATGMs spotted in flight by simply reversing down the slope and letting it pass overhead. Even if there is no cover, a tank can still outmanoeuvre a first-generation ATGM. It is difficult for the gunner to correct for sudden, sharp moves by the target, and a turn to the right or left by the target in the last four or five seconds before impact cannot be compensated for, and the missile will go past. Tanks can also dodge these ATGMs by following an erratic, swerving path. None of these first-generation Soviet ATGMs has an autopilot, so the gunner’s natural tendency is to overcorrect while trying to keep the missile on target, and thus to lose control. US Army officers estimate that dodging techniques alone can reduce first-generation ATGM effectiveness by at least 50% and possibly by as much as 70%.

I immediately instruct my commanders to maintain a checkerboard formation, use bounding overwatch, and follow an erratic, swerving path while dodging in the last four or five seconds. I confidently expect my losses to Tom’s Malyutkas to drop to zero.

Tom: I love that Bruce dug that stuff up, because while he was buying that book and putting it on his shelf, I was probably playing Starcraft. You can bet the developers at Eugen are hip to the stuff Bruce dug up. When you play a match, you can see the morale state of individual units. As morale degrades — and suppressing fire often has the effect — first-generation ATGMs will be far less accurate.

I also love the way fog of war works in this game. You can see the entire map, but you can’t see a unit until one of your units sees it. And units seeing each other isn’t a matter of someone crossing a threshold into a unit’s visibility range. Airland Battle doesn’t simply say, “At 2500 meters, you see this unit. At 2501, you don’t”. It’s all based on the imprecise interplay among a unit’s optics stat and another unit’s size, the terrain it’s in, and whether it’s moving. If you play Airland Battle by just moving armies around, you’re going to stumble into a lot of battles. But if you play Airland Battle as a game about setting up recon to put eyes on enemy forces, you’re in a tense cat-and-mouse of who can see whom and whether they can see you back and how likely they are to come this way as opposed to that way and whether you should dig in here or move up a little to head him off earlier.

Shortly after the match starts, we have a pretty extensive cat-and-mouse going in the hills on the river’s east bank, but I mostly hang back, because I’m a little fearful about what Bruce might have lurking in here. So long as I hold one reinforcement point, I’m happy to focus the fighting on the west bank, where I’m dug into the most valuable territory. Given time, the balance should swing my way.

Bruce: Tom and I have each picked up a reinforcement point on the east bank. One thing about area-control objectives is that they tend to hyperfocus combat into those areas.

Tom: This is the OT-62 Vydra-1. It’s the thing my infantry ride around in. I could have put them in standard-issue military trucks, but I figure there’s no point saving a few lousy deployment points when my units are already so cheap. So my Czech soldiers ride in style, with a thin veneer of armor plating all around. Two points on the front and one point on the other three sides. Basically, enough to shrug off any .22 pistol rounds Bruce’s West Germans might bring to bear.

But what I really like about the Vydra is the 23mm cannon it sports. This heavy gun isn’t going to actually kill anything tougher than a station wagon, but it can make a loud noise against the side of an enemy tank, and maybe even rattle a helicopter pilot. As I mentioned above, suppression! You’ll see units in battle go from calm to worried to panicked. Each step of the way reduces their accuracy and increases their loading time. So if I’m going to have a bunch of cheap infantry, I want them backed by things that can help them shoot, no matter how ineffectual the shots are at getting kills.

Bruce: Funny thing about the OT-62: it was a joint development project between the Czech and Polish governments, based on the Soviet BTR-50 tracked armored personnel carrier. They basically took the BTR-50, put a clock in it, and called it the OT-62. I’m pretty sure the Vydra is the amphibious version, though, because “vydra” means “otter” in Czech.

Tom: This is a lumber yard in the middle of the map, situated against a small forest. Here is where I dig in my initial group. It’s north of what looks like a chicken farm. A squad of Bruce’s Leopard tanks comes charging up the road from the chicken farm, and they open fire on my T-62s, which are the closest I’m going to get in my Czech Mech Deck to not having a crappy tank.

What I don’t realize until after the game, when I’m watching the replay and comparing stats, is that his Leopard tanks are comparable to the T-62. I had assumed that some Czech variant of a Russian tank couldn’t hold a candle to Helmut Kohl’s Steel Thunder. Which is what Bruce probably calls his deck. So I figure it’s dumb luck on my part that there’s a lot of firing without many casualties. Until the Tornado arrives.

Bruce: Helmut Kohl? Dude, think more like Helmut Schmidt. Willy Brandt, even. You know something about the Leopard, though? There was a competition to design what was known then as the Standardpanzer to replace the postwar American main battle tanks then in West German service. The winner of the prototype competition was the one submitted by Porsche. You know what else Porsche designed? The freaking Tiger tank. From Kursk to Karlsruhe, the two constants are big cats and Ferdinand Porsche.

I still remember the development of the Panavia Tornado. Panavia was an aerospace company formed by (West) Germany, Britain, and Italy in the late 60s and was one of those invented Euro-words like Depeche Mode that meant we can be just as good as well-known American products such as Talking Heads without costing so much or making us beholden to the United States military-industrial complex. (c.f. Airbus)

I pick up a Tornado for 150 mannschaftwerken (that’s German for money) and send it out to find any targets that might be tempting. I love the way AirLand Battle does airpower: you buy planes, give them targets, and then watch them come swooping over the battlefield, lining up their shots while anti-aircraft fire pours from below. Because you don’t have direct control over the paths the planes take, they are free to fly at plane-like velocities while you just tell them where to shoot. After that it’s up to the pilots. If things get too hot, you can have them bug out by hitting the “Evac” button conveniently positioned at the bottom of the screen. But don’t wait too long.

Tom: This is a BRDM. It’s a common Warsaw Pact vehicle. The vehicle itself isn’t terribly effective. What is terribly effective is the dozen or so Malyutka anti-tank missiles housed in those tubes on top. These things trundle in from the reinforcement point to the east, cheap and plentiful like a parade in Red Square. Some of them stop on a bridge across the river by the chicken farm to open fire on the Leopard tanks. They nail two of the tanks and Bruce pulls back the rest. It’s the 80s, when BRDMs ruled the battlefield. Who needs tanks?

Bruce: The problem with BRDMs is that they are oh-so-lightly armored. Tom’s little armored cars (that’s what they really are) turn out to be very vulnerable to pretty much any gunfire, because their oversized weapons only work on offense, not defense. They’re like those big guns mounted on the dune buggies in the Mad Max movies. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

Tom: Who knew Bruce Geryk had a Mad Max reference in him? I’m so proud! Now I’ve crammed the little forest next to the lumber yard with Praga AAA artillery and handheld Strela surface to air missiles. Yet that goddamn beautiful sexy Tornado keeps whizzing by without a care in the world. How is that fair?

Bruce: He’s whizzing by because the pilot doesn’t seem interested in getting close enough to actually shoot at anything. I don’t know if the folks at Eugen Systems are closet role-players, but I wonder if the less-experienced pilots spend more time flying around and less time actually shooting because they have a harder time lining up their shots. Just some speculation from the “I wonder how this actually works” department.

Tom: From atop this little hill, inside the cover of a hedge, one of my forward recon units sees the command vehicle Bruce is using to control his reinforcement point on the east bank. The command vehicle is just a piddly little jeep, but it’s worth a lot of points to me. Do I dare drive down there and take it out? Of course not! That’s what my supercheap Aero Delfin is for.

This simple rugged training jet (hence the twin seats) was Czechoslovakia’s first homegrown aircraft, made for mass consumption by Eastern bloc countries. It’s not a proper combat aircraft, so please don’t actually shoot at it. But it can drop smoke on the battlefield and if you buy the deluxe version, which I have, it comes with eight rockets it can use for easy pickings. Like Bruce’s command vehicle. It takes all eight shots, but the Delphin finally nails the command vehicle and the pilot, Zitnik, is promoted to veteran.

Unfortunately, Bruce probably didn’t even notice I’d destroyed his command vehicle and knocked out his territory. I would have liked for him to know a mass produced training aircraft cost him 100 points.

Bruce: Where did that thing come from? Tom just knocked off my ILTIS KdoW, which is something I didn’t even know existed until it showed up in this game. I think the KdoW stands for “Komandowagen” and is made by Volkswagen, if you can believe this here Internet. I’m all for having a commando wagon, but it seems awfully easy to blow up – it looks like the one I found on the Internet is being used as a fire engine. Now I have to buy another one and send it to Objective Golf. If you think of it, that’s kind of a prescient coincidence.

Tom: Four Leopards appear at my entry point on the east bank. Which is fine by me, because I’ve got a steady stream of BRDMs coming in. They can fight Bruce on the east bank or the west bank. Either side of the river is fine by me. Unfortunately, Bruce’s tanks are crowding me. The beauty of the BRDMs’ Malyutka missiles is that they outrange the gun on the Leopard. Furthermore, the Leopard’s guns are more effective the more they close range. The math is turning against me. So I’m spending some points to call in my MiG-23s, which carry guided missiles perfect for picking off armored vehicles. Unfortunately, they only carry two. And since they seem to miss regularly, they’re spending a lot of time offmap rearming. My Czech Mech Deck isn’t exactly renowned for its airpower.

Bruce: ATGMs have their own mesmerizing animation, which leaves long smoke trails that veer back and forth as the gunners adjust their aim. It’s a fantastic effect, and uses graphics to highlight the difference in weapon systems so nicely that you would almost miss thinking about it as a game design element. But it absolutely is, and the range-versus-protection tradeoff you get with the joystick-guided missiles fits right in with the advice I got from David Isby in his textbook on fighting the Commies on their own turf. Watching the missiles drift towards your tanks is a great example of how Eugen Systems provide visual feedback on weapon differences while keeping things historically accurate. David Isby would be proud.

The reality of late ’70s/early 80s armored warfare seems to be that everything is vulnerable. Tom sends his BRDMs across the Paul Doumer Bridge to reinforce the west bank. Towards the middle of the map, there’s a hill we can call Porkchop Hill or Hamburger Hill depending on whether you prefer Korean War or Vietnam War references. In the rocky forest promontory on the north side I have a single Sphpanzer Luchs. It just has a 20mm cannon, which is really just a big machine gun – similar to what you’d find in a Messerschmitt 109. But it’s plenty big enough to blow up a bunch of BRDMs crossing the river into downtown Hanoi.

And then just like the USAF circa 1968, I call in some air support to strike Tom’s troops in the center of Objective Bravo.

All of a sudden, I’m in the lead.

Tom: Okay, I’ve about had it with these Tornadoes. My deck has three types of aircraft. The Aero Delfin for rocket strikes on vulnerable ground targets, the MiG-23 for missile strikes on armor, and the dart-shaped MiG-21s for when I really need to chase off pesky enemy airpower. These MiG-21s are armed with two short-range anti-air missiles called Molniyas and two medium-range anti-air missiles called Vympels. Let’s hunt some Tornadoes.

Bruce: It’s really a shame when you’re assessing your air superiority assets and find yourself counting on the MiG-21 Fishbed. If you want to sound like a total CIA intel jockey, ask people to give you NATO aircraft codenames like Fishbed or Flogger or Badger and then have you identify their type and propulsion. If the name starts with an “F” it’s a fighter, with a “B” it’s a bomber. Propeller-driven planes are one syllable, jets are two. “The Tu-95 Bear? Oh man, prop-driven bomber.” The NSA will probably offer you a job. Heck, they’re already listening to your game chat.

Tom: What the…? I’m bringing in a couple of T-62s and BRDMs to make sure Bruce doesn’t get back his reinforcement point on the east bank when suddenly they’re being fired on from some trees that should have been safe. What’s in there? What’s shooting? How did they get there? When did they get there? And perhaps most importantly, are they spotting for those damn Tornado strikes? Remember when I wrote that stuff about recon in this game? I’ve apparently been outreconned.

Bruce: The only retconning Tom will be doing will be after the game when he explains how he meant to lose all along.

A pretty long time ago, one of the great singers of our age asked, “what if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?” Well I can tell you he wouldn’t have moved a bunch of BRDMs into the woods in Sweden without having good recon. Those guys got jacked by a bunch of West German Leopards, just like it happens in the movies. Oh, sorry Ivan.

Tom: Fifteen minutes into the game, we’re inexplicably at a draw. We’ve each got about 1100 points, with the winner being the first player to earn 1500 points. Points, I remind you, are earned entirely by inflicting casualties. So who’s going to blink and risk an offensive? The map is evenly split with the important exception of sector Bravo, the most valuable sector on the map and the site of an extremely well-defended lumberyard. Since Bruce has fallen back, I’ve even moved up to the chicken farm. I’m considering advancing again to try to drive him out of the west bank entirely. But then I see some movement just beyond the chicken farm. Some West German vehicles are in the trees, flickering in and out of my sight as they move and stop! I call out all four of my MiG-23s and have them on stand-by, circling in the sky just behind my main force. At this point, if I can slap down a substantial group of tanks, I can easily reach the victory point threshold.

Bruce: I want it noted for the legal and historical record that Tom is officially in favor of driving me out of the West Bank.

I’m not coming out of cover, because when Ferdinand Porsche designed this iteration of his feline family, he didn’t put much armor on them. Leopards are a product of the idea that speed is superior to armor on the modern battlefield. That’s great in theory, but in practice it means that I’d rather try picking Tom off with aircraft (keeping my mouse right over the “Evac” button) than risk exposing a kitty.

Tom: Here comes something called a Starfighter. I tell my MiG-23s to bug out and bring up a procession of four MiG-21s with anti-air missiles. At this point, I just need to kill a few expensive units. If it’s a plane, that’s fine by me as well.

Bruce: I am totally out of planes that entered service after 1958. Interestingly, the Tornado project grew out of the decision in 1968 to replace the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. In a reversal of history, I have to resort to buying a fighter fifteen years out of date because the pre-built decks only have so many aircraft, and I have already bought all my Tornados.

Yet inexplicably, I am 20 points away from winning this game. Let me say that again to you in words that are quantitative and objective: I am twenty points away from beating Tom Chick for the third time ever in a real-time strategy game. The fact that it is a rigorously accurate version of what would have happened if the Russians had ever dared to try and forcibly take our freedom with their leaky-bottomed brrdums just adds to the anticipation.

Tom: Bruce has 1450 points. I have 1430, and years of RTS experience. At this point, a single meaningful kill can win the game for either of us. As I’m pushing up past the chicken farm and he’s rolling tanks to cut off my reinforcement point, he darts a Tornado in for a strike. My parade of four MiG-21s is on him like Vaclav Havel on a presidential election. The lead MiG gets the Tornado kill that ends the game.

Bruce: Aaarggh!! Nooooo!! I was twenty points away!! I WAS TWENTY POINTS AWAY!!

Bruce: 1480
Tom: 1590
Tom wins, although the game calls it a draw.