This past Thursday, a group of the HAWKs took time off work, retirement, and/or daily activities to travel to western Maryland to a professional development event for the 114th Signal Battalion. This is the eighth such event that we have helped run. Each year gets more and more sophisticated. This year Sam Fuson orchestrated an event for 54 officers, NCOs, and civilian staff. We couldn’t think of a historical battle for which we had enough troops that would get 54 players into the action, so we hit on the idea of running the same battle six times. We still didn’t have enough troops, so we decided to run the same battle in six historical periods and make the technology differences and how those impacted tactics part of the learning objectives. I was pushing for Lake Trasimene (Romans vs. Carthaginians), but Sam suggested Quatre Bras. While the tactical situation is quite interesting, I was a little worried about some players sitting around for a couple of hours waiting for their troops to come onto the table. We set up a greatly accelerated arrival schedule for both sides. (Above is the stylized map we used for this event.)
We felt it was important to disguise the battle. We didn’t tell anyone this was based on Quatre Bras. We called it “Four Corners.” We did this, because one of the learning objectives was tactical problem solving. We felt that if the players knew the battle, they might research it and come into the game with pre-conceived notions and plans. Even for the Napoleonic version (game mastered by Dave Wood, USMA 1984, using Fate of Battle: Look, Sarge, No Charts: Napoleonic Wars), we substituted Austrians for the British to help disguise the battle.
Eric Schlegel ran “Four Corners” with Union troops substituted for the French and the Confederate troops substituted for the British. As Eric pointed out, with the accelerated reinforcement schedule, this was a very hard scenario for the attackers (the French in the original battle). For the Civil War version, we used A Union So Tested: Look, Sarge, No Charts: American Civil War.
Duncan Adams ran Four Corners as an early WWI battle with the French as the attackers and the Germans as the defenders. For this battle, Duncan used his mashup of Look, Sarge, No Charts: WWII and A Union So Tested.
Kurt Schlegel setting up his 73 Arab-Israeli War version of the scenario using Look, Sarge, No Charts: WWII. The large patch of woods on the table was converted to an orchard that didn’t slow movement as much as it did on the other tables. He also replaced the stream with the ditch you can see running down the middle of the table. The French at Quatre Bras were replaced by Syrians, with Israelis substituting for the British.
I floated from table to table, taking notes, providing some hints to the players, making sure that all the games were run consistently. As usual, the players generally caught onto the rules with little difficulty. Very few of the players had ever played war-games before — except for those who participated in these yearly events. There were a few who still needed hand holding by the end of the game, but by and large, they managed to become self supporting after a few turns.
Chris Palmer ran Four Corners as a battle during the War of the Roses using Bear Yourselves Valiantly: Look, Sarge, No Charts: Fantasy, Ancient, and Mediaeval.
Eric Schlegel and Ed Duffy ran the Civil War version of Four Corners with A Union So Tested.
In each scenario, there were five victory points. Victory went to the side that controlled 3 or more points by the end of the game. These victory points were represented by flags on the table that Sam made for all the tables. Initially four flags were in possession of the defender. One was placed in Quatre Bras, one was placed in the small woods near Quatre Bras just west of the north-south road. The third was placed on the small hill along the east-west road, just east of Quatre Bras. The fourth was placed on the large hill south of Quatre Bras. The fifth victory point was based on casualties; the side that lost the fewest bases during the battle was awarded the fifth point. Initially the four on-table flags were those of the defenders’ countries. When captured by the attackers, the flags were changed to that of the attackers’ countries. This provided a visual indication of how the battle was developing.
This was a pretty easy fight or the defenders, so the defenders’ commanders had pretty simple schemes of maneuver. Still, only about half of them planned for a reserve. Most just shoved reinforcements into the fight near where they arrived.
It was interesting to see how each of the attackers had somewhat different schemes of maneuver. In some cases their main effort was to push up the center where most of the victory points were placed on the map — but where the defender was strongest. In other cases, they planned to push through the large woods to accrue the benefits of cover and concealment. The slow movement through the woods — particularly in the earlier historical periods — made this a difficult maneuver to execute. In the WWI game, which had the least mobile forces, the attacker wanted to try a double envelopment around both flanks! Finally, some decided to move around their right where the enemy was weakest in an attempt to take Quatre Bras from behind.
One of the players shouted “Whoever designed this game should be shot!” half way through the event. He was expressing frustration at the fact that he could see the whole battlefield but his units couldn’t spot the enemy and didn’t always do what he wanted. I think by the end, he saw the realism of the game’s mechanics.
On the War of the Roses table, the attacking commander impressed us toward the end of the fight. His left was crumbling, but he decided to focus on the objective, Quatre Bras, and have the remnants of his left flank conduct a delaying action without reinforcements. He sent his reinforcements (mounted knights) up the center. Unfortunately his knights got bogged down pushing up the large hill (friction inflicted on him by the game’s activation mechanics), so he didn’t have the success he deserved. I’ve see a lot of long-time gamers make the mistakes of reinforcing failure or losing focus the objective. It was neat to see a professional military officer do it right.
I just retired from the Army after 28.5 years plus four years as a cadet. There are days when I miss the camaraderie of soldiers. These annual events are fun for me to be around soldiers, their friendly trash talk and banter, and their general attitudes.
Sam Fuson and Geoff Graff ran the WWII version of the battle with Look, Sarge, No Charts: WWII. The Germans took the role of the French at Quatre Bras, and the French took the role of the British.
The final scorecard: The attackers won 3:2 on the WWII and Arab-Israeli War tables. The attackers lost on all the other tables. I think the scenario, while still hard, was easier for attackers with modern maneuver capabilities. Despite Israeli air support, the Syrians maneuvered through the orchard. They captured the two flags on the hills south and east of town, had maneuvered north of Quatre Bras, and with more time might have taken the town from the Israelis.
From the standpoint of executing the event, we forgot that the VFW where we played has 8-foot long tables. The standard gaming table is only six feet across to allow easy access to move troops in the center of the table. We made the decision to use 8×10 tables and leave some “white space” on the sides. This made it very hard to reach troops in the center of the table — where most of the action was occurring. Next year, I think we should find a historical battle that we can play on a table five feet deep and 16 feet across. This will allow each reach to the center of the table and provide lots of lateral maneuver room.
After the battles were over, I conducted an after action review where I tried to tease out some lessons. We reviewed the principles of war (mass, objective, offensive, surprise, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, and simplicity) and how to apply them on the tabletop. I pointed out good and bad examples of many of these principles that I saw during the battles. I also tried to emphasize that the defender must still have a scheme of maneuver and cannot be just passive. Next year, I think we should find a battle in which the attacker has the advantage and the defender has to be aggressive to win.
Feedback from the participants was good. I think this was a very successful event. The HAWKs, including three new participants (Duncan, Kurt, and Geoff) had a good time. We must be doing something good, because they keep inviting us back!