The Immense Pleasure Of Huge War Games

“Quantity has a quality all its own,” said Josef Stalin, as he relentlessly flung waves of Soviet tanks and troops against Hitler’s elite but outnumbered panzers. Comrade Stalin might not have believed in a deity, but even a Communist warlord would surely have agreed with Napoleon’s dictum that God is on the side of the bigger battalions.

Is bigger really better? The Red Army thought so, though the Titanic’s passengers could be forgiven for scepticism. The question of bigness has also vexed computer gaming; there are plenty of gamers who are intimidated by a full-sized campaign of Civilization V. Yet it is wargaming where bigness really most rears its oversized head. Perhaps it’s the epic scale and life-and-death issues of war that invite big games. Or, maybe it’s simple megalomania.

Just as a touch of rogue gunman lurks in every first-person-shooter fan, there is an irresistible urge in wargamers to control vast armies.

I should know. I spent years playing “monster” paper wargames like World in Flames, the kind of games that cover an entire living room, have thousands of little cardboard pieces to that double as cat toys and make wives and girlfriends shake their heads in disbelief. Naturally, I gravitated toward the handful of monster computer wargames out there. Probably the two best known are War in the East and War in the Pacific.

How big are these games? Let’s start with length. War in the East simulates the epic 1941-45 German-Soviet conflict in weekly turns — some 224 to be exact. But that’s wargame-lite compared to War in the Pacific, which covers the nearly four years of the US-Japanese conflict in daily — yes, one-day — turns (nearly 1400 of them).

Then there is scale. War in the East is divisional level, which means commanding about 200 German or 300 Soviet divisions, plus hordes of support units (artillery, rocket, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, engineer, flamethrower tanks, etcetera), aircraft squadrons, and even individually-rated army and corps commanders that you can appoint or fire. In War in the Pacific, you give orders to every single warship, merchant vessel, regiment and aircraft squadron that fought in the Pacific War. War in the Pacific also tracks consumption and transportation of supplies — by the tonne!

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. WITP ships move in task forces, so you don’t have to skipper every USS Rustbucket. WITE uses a clever mechanic where all the artillery and other support units don’t appear on the map but instead are assigned to headquarters, where depending on the skill of the HQ commander, they are automatically dispatched to assist subordinate formations in combat. The Germans have fewer units but better commanders than the Soviets, so they will get more mileage out of their troops.

But big is still big, and so is a 382-page manual that doubles as a weightlifting accessory. I won’t delve into the game systems, except that they cover lots of historical factors, such as command and control, logistics and weather, plus all sorts of war esoterica such as brutal effects on the Russian winter on the German armies, or defective American submarine torpedoes in the early days of the Pacific War. Despite slightly creaky interfaces and graphics, both games are surprisingly playable, or as playable as large games can be. But WITE players can easily spend three hours conducting a single turn, while the Japanese player in WITP an spend a whole day planning the initial Japanese onslaught.

A few “grognards” (hardcore wargamers) may be drooling over this, but the other 99.9 per cent of gamerdom will have one word in their lips: Why? Why in God’s name would anybody subject themselves to this when they could play a quick shooter deathmatch, or a fast-paced RTS strategy game?

The answer is that historical games are like tools. Scissors are simple, but sometimes you need a chainsaw. There are some aspects of history that only become apparent in a big game.

Why couldn’t the Germans capture Moscow and defeat Russia in 1941? Try this in War in the East, as your panzers clank to a halt on empty fuel tanks because their supply lines are too long and you’ll know why great commanders like Rommel or Patton had to walk that exquisitely painful knife-edge of timing between relentlessly advancing before the enemy has a chance to regroup and the need to regroup and resupply their own troops.

[imgclear] Why couldn’t the mighty American fleet just sail all the way to Tokyo and hammer Japan? Try that in War in the Pacific, and watch what happens when empty fuel tanks leave your fleets wallowing like sitting ducks in the Sea of Japan, because your supply convoys were sunk by Japanese planes sortieing from all those island bases that you bypassed between Tokyo and Pearl Harbor.

You begin to perceive why the US advanced slowly across the Pacific, capturing one island, slowly building up airfield and supply dumps and then using it as a springboard to capture the next island. Suddenly you understand the constraints that admirals like Nimitz and Yamamoto had to work under and why so many ostensibly brilliant plans founder on the hard rocks of logistics. It’s that priceless “Aha!” moment that makes wargaming worthwhile.

Of course, bigness doesn’t always mean betterness. One complaint about these monsters is that you’re stepping into the shoes of a supreme commander, yet you are simultaneously micromanaging tasks that would done by a junior officer in real life. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. But like different magnifications of reading glasses, there is always a trade-off between distance and depth.

We live in an era where we are constantly promised something for nothing, whether it’s junk food that won’t make you fat, or politicians that say you will get more while paying less. This falsity applies no less to historical games. It is not that big games are good and small games bad. It’s really a question of what is sacrificed. A strategy game that can be completed in an evening is a game that is missing some essential detail that explains why history turned out the way it did. Whether this omission is significant is up to you. But understand what you are missing.

It’s not that the world needs a lot of monster wargames. There are only a few, and they demand much from the players. But if you have a love or curiosity of history, and if you have the patience and stamina to play them, monster games offer much in return.

Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for Training & Simulation Journal at Defense News

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