Amateurs study tactics and professionals study logistics, goes the old saying. Or put another way, what's the biggest difference between the U.S. Army and a ragtag militia in the Congo? Our troops get fed. For all the disparagement of Fobbits and REMFs, when the food and the paychecks disappear, the army of Be All You Can Be degenerates into the army of Loot All You Can Loot.
Great commanders realise this. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. Blood n' Guts Patton said that "an officer who doesn't know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless." Rommel has gone down in history as a brilliant general, but his superiors in the German high command were less than impressed with his abilities, not least because the Desert Fox could be the Desert Fool when it came to sending his panzers further than his supply trucks could catch up. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell didn't make that mistake: they spent six months building up U.S. forces and supplies for Desert Storm, and smashed Saddam Hussein's armies in 100 hours.
But logistics are to gaming what broccoli is to a five-year-old. We want to fight battles, not count biscuits. That's why logistics is so often a parody in games. For example, in Slitherine's Panzer Corps, units can pause for a turn and fully restock fuel and ammo via the Supply Fairy that drops howitzer shells to deserving boys and girls. I won't even bother with first-person-shooters, except to note that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should be extremely concerned about the number of boxes of ammunition that always seem to be laying about.
Ancient and medieval armies often depended on foraging, which meant operating in regions and seasons where and when they could harvest or loot food. 18th and 19th Century armies depended on wagons and later railroads, which restricted how far they could operate from the nearest depot (past a certain distance, the horses pulling a wagon will consume more fodder then they can transport). The invention of the internal combustion engine freed armies to become mechanised greyhounds instead of foot-borne tortoises, but an army cut off from fuel and food — as with the Germans at Stalingrad — might be helpless to save itself.
The problem is that games tend to conflate logistics with economics. Thus the Civilization series attempts to constrain the size of armies by requiring gold and food to support them. Yet those humongous stacks of tanks in Civ 4 traverse the landscape with nary a concern about supply lines. Logistics is an operational issue. It's not just having enough gasoline, but making sure that it reaches the troops who need it. Logistics don't guarantee victory; many a well-supplied army has lost. On the other hand, Caesar, Napoleon and Patton couldn't manoeuvre their armies at will no matter how great their skill or the weakness of their opponents. Within two months of D-Day, the Allied armies could have driven to Berlin and overthrown Hitler in the fall of 1944 — if it wasn't for the fact that they couldn't ship enough supplies into the French ports that the Germans had thoroughly demolished, and they didn't have enough trucks to bring up gas to Patton's tanks. For all the vastness of the Earth's surface, you will notice that there are certain places — Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the plains of northern France, Belgium and Germany — that have been constantly fought over. Because while the poor, footsore grunt can climb over mountains and swim across rivers, supply trucks cannot.
Paper wargames have long addressed this issue, usually by requiring units to trace a supply path, free of enemy forces, back to a supply source. There are a few hard-core historical computer wargames that also do this. War in the East, for example, penalizes units the further they are from a friendly rail line. The Operational Art of War III encourages pulling units out of the line so they can build up supply stockpiles.
This is not a plea for games to count MREs and boots. Track supplies? I can't even balance a checkbook. Yet without some kind of supply mechanism, history becomes meaningless, no matter how much realism the box-cover blurbs promise.
So next time you see a game that promises to put you into a general's shoes, check if it has supply rules. They may not be as fun as dropping bombs, but mastering them can be much more satisfying.
Top pic: KUWAIT - DECEMBER 9: U.S. Army Pfc Marshall Kemper from Cocoa Beach, Florida eats breakfast on a M1A1 Abram tank December 9, 2002 near the Iraqi border in Kuwait. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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