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“Marlborough as Military Commander," by David G. Chandler; Spellmount (September 1, 2003); ISBN-13: 978-1862271951
“He never fought a battle he did not win, nor besieged a town he did not take.” Attributed to Captain Robert Parker
“Marlborough as Military Commander,” by David Chandler, is, in spite of its title, a bit more than a detailed study of the many military campaigns of John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough. It is that, certainly; but it is also part biography, part period history, and part dissertation on the military customs and theories of Marlborough’s day. Without doubt, Chandler presents a carefully-crafted portrait of the British general, his contemporaries, and his troops, as well as a detailed chronicle of the many military campaigns against the French that took him — in the years, 1702 to 1712 — from the Low Countries to the Danube. However, he also describes Marlborough’s early life, his family, and his many other personal and romantic entanglements. In addition, Chandler looks both at the political landscape of England and at the Continent during the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, and at the successes and missteps of Marlborough, both as a general, and as a politician. Finally, the author examines the highly formalized “art of war” as it was understood and practiced in Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession: the era of interminable sieges and ponderous military maneuvers that preceded the rise of the first truly “modern” general, Frederick the Great.
John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, 1650 - 1722.
Oddly enough, if it had not been for the fact that I had recently finished David Chandler’s masterpiece, “The Campaigns of Napoleon,” it is unlikely that I would ever have read this book. The reason for this was simple: at the time that I accidentally stumbled onto Chandler’s chronicle of the extraordinary life (1650-1722) of the British soldier and statesman, I was already steeling myself to read Winston Churchill’s two volume opus: “Marlborough: His Life and Times.” However, when it came to Winston Churchill’s well-regarded historical biography, two factors had caused me to hesitate: first, try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to find an inexpensive “used” set of the Churchill volumes; second — and probably more to the point — Churchill’s paean to his gifted ancestor was a bit more than two thousand pages and over one million words in length. Thus, when I found an inexpensive and lightly-used copy of Chandler’s book, I grabbed it. Not only was it a bargain and authored by a scholar whose work I admired, Chandler’s single volume was also only a little over four hundred pages long. In retrospect, “Winnie’s” biography — at least, from the standpoint of detailed political and military scholarship — may have been the better choice. But, given my personal historical tastes, four hundred pages was really all the reading that I was probably ever going to invest, either in the First Duke of Marlborough, or in his historical era.
King James II of England
The preceding comments are not, by the way, intended to discourage prospective readers from examining either of these works. And for my own part, although I was a bit disappointed by the uncharacteristically thick, somewhat leaden prose of the Chandler book, I nonetheless found the subject quite fascinating; this, despite my own admittedly limited interest in the wide-spread, puerile bickering of European royals during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The main appeal of Chandler’s or anyone else’s book on Marlborough, I suppose, is that — once the off-putting mental image of the period costumes and elaborate wigs have been shunted aside — the underlying story of the political and military ascension of John Churchill from amongst the ranks of the minor English country gentry to a position of great influence both in England and on the Continent is actually quite compelling. And despite the many limitations imposed upon Marlborough by the martial practices of his times, by the changing politics of the English Court, and by his timid and often wavering allies, the military and political genius of the Duke clearly emerges in one campaign after another. Even more remarkable is that John Churchill did not really become a senior commander until he was more than fifty years old; in fact, he achieved his greatest military successes as a general during a time in his life when most of his contemporaries would have long since abandoned the rigors of the battlefield.
Unusual joint coronation of William of Orange and Mary as King and Queen of England.
Curiously, the passage of time has tended to obscure both Marlborough’s accomplishments and his place in seventeenth and eighteenth century European affairs. In fact, it is one of the great ironies of history that, even within the modern Anglo-sphere, John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, is only rarely accorded the recognition that his military record so richly deserves. Nowadays, most English-speaking people have heard something of the military exploits of Cromwell, Wellington, and Montgomery, but far fewer probably have any true idea of who Marlborough was or what he accomplished. Of course, Marlborough, himself, could be partially to blame for his own relative obscurity. I suspect that one reason for this lack of visibility may be the discomfort felt by subsequent English historians over Churchill’s utterly shabby betrayal of his generous patron, King James II, in favor of William and Mary, during the Glorious (and comparatively bloodless) Revolution of 1688. Marlborough’s display of raw ambition and naked venality was then, and still remains, hard to excuse, even for his most ardent admirers. Nonetheless, purely based on his many remarkable accomplishments, John Churchill merits better treatment. And his accomplishments really were, for his own or any other age, quite dazzling.
37th Foot at the Battle of Blenheim.
The arc of John Churchill’s military career was, given the age in which he lived, somewhat unusual. To begin with, although history clearly shows that Marlborough had been a shrewd and successful political actor for much of his adult life, he came surprisingly late to what would ultimately be his most important role: that of England’s (and the Grand Alliance’s) preeminent general. Partly, this was because he had had little opportunity to distinguish himself in the profession of arms until his middle years. In fact, John Churchill’s military talent did not show itself until his first real success at the Battle of Sedgemoor — when he was already thirty-five years old — against the Monmouth Rebellion. And his personal star really began its most rapid ascent only after his defection to the Protestant cause in 1688. This well-timed turning of his coat served the ambitious Churchill well. In little more than a year, the newly-titled Earl (the dukedom would come later) of Marlborough’s favor with England’s recently-invested joint monarchs and particularly with the newly-crowned king, William III — formerly William of Orange — led to Churchill’s appointment as supreme commander of the Grand Coalition forces that were arrayed against the armies of Louis XIV. And it was in the course of Marlborough’s many campaigns against the armies of France, during the War of the Spanish Succession, that the English general would finally win his place as one of history’s “great captains.”
The Battle of Ramillies, May 12, 1706, the Duke of Marlborough defeats Louis XIV in Flanders during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Duke's military secretary, Colonel Brinfield is killed when assisting the Duke to remount during the battle.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that John Churchill's temperment and talents were peculiarly well-suited to his times; moreover, compared to the other military commanders of his era, Marlborough was almost unique. First, he was exceedingly frugal in battle with the lives of his soldiers; and because of this, his men repaid their general both with enthusiastic obedience and with fierce loyalty. Second, Marlborough was a master both of military administration and of the cumbersome logistics of his era: this meant that he could move his men and materiel with surprising speed against a typically slower, more lethargic enemy force, while still retaining the battlefield effectiveness and cohesion of his army. Third, Marlborough possessed the political acumen necessary, time and time again, to wring action from his Dutch allies who were otherwise plagued by indecision, parsimony, and timidity. And fourth, the First Duke of Marlborough had that rarest of military gifts: a comprehensive, confident, and flexible intellectual command of the various (and constantly changing) strategic, operational, and tactical elements necessary to bring each of his campaigns to a successful conclusion. As proof of this, it is only necessary to review his military record. In the course of his career, Marlborough fought ten major engagements including the battles of Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709); during the same period, Marlborough also conducted twenty-seven sieges. Remarkably, every one of these actions ended in victory for the forces under his command.
Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France.
As a military biography, “Marlborough as Military Commander” is, without doubt, an illuminating and useful work. Moreover, to help the reader get a visual sense of the book’s historical setting, the text is nicely illustrated with over thirty-three black and white plates from the period, and seventeen easy-to-read maps. That being said, I only wish that I could give this book an unreservedly enthusiastic “thumbs up.” Unfortunately, I cannot. Obviously, opinions on this can, and do, differ; moreover, honesty compels me to note that other reviews of this work have been much more positive than this one. Nonetheless, I hold to my own position. Admittedly, “Marlborough as Military Commander” is a reasonably good book; however, based on the author’s wonderfully-crafted “The Campaigns of Napoleon,” I really expected it to be better. What I mean by this is that, while Chandler’s study of the life and career of John Churchill is certainly a worthwhile effort, compared to the author’s other works, “Marlborough as Military Commander” comes across as an unexpectedly disappointing read. This is not to say that Chandler does not approach his subject with his usual rigorous scholarship and careful attention to primary sources, but only that his writing, in this particular instance, seems plodding and sometimes even turgid. Thus, although Chandler manages to pack a lot of interesting detail into four hundred pages of text, because of the crowded and occasionally awkward rhythm of his prose, “Marlborough as Military Commander” somehow seems a lot longer. Whether the source of this problem lies with the author or with his editor, I cannot say, but I do know that it is enough to dissuade me from giving this book more than a modestly favorable (three and a half stars) recommendation.
Recommended ReadingAdditional recommended reading.
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A Few Thoughts on Wargaming Conventions, Past and Present
A Little Convention HistoryBPA WBC Tournament Plaque
For those adult readers who are comparatively new to conflict simulations, the idea of wargaming conventions might seem a little quaint; nonetheless, the “back-story” of the WBC Convention is, I think, rather interesting. This year’s gaming marathon in Lancaster, for instance, actually traces its beginnings back two decades to the old ‘Avaloncon’ Conventions which were first inaugurated by TAHGC, in 1991. Ironically, had it not been for Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the rise of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), ‘Avaloncon’ and its successor, the WBC Convention, would probably never even have come into being. The reason for this is simple: the first Avaloncon Convention was, from its inception, intended to serve two different but related goals. First, it was seen by its primary architect, Don Greenwood, as a (somewhat risky) way to reinvigorate Avalon Hill’s sagging product sales; second, and probably just as importantly, Greenwood saw the new convention as a long overdue response to the vocal protests of those historical gamers (like myself) who were becoming increasingly dismayed by certain unfortunate but increasingly powerful new currents within the hobby. In the end, Avaloncon failed to salvage Avalon Hill’s long-term financial fortunes, but it did meet its second goal surprisingly well. Moreover, given the trends within the hobby at the close of the 80s, Don Greenwood’s brainchild probably arrived just in time. By 1991, popular interest in historical wargames was clearly waning; and not just because of the threat that computer games represented to the future of the traditional board game market, but also because of the mushrooming interest among hobby enthusiasts in a radically new type of immersive social game: the “role-playing” fantasy experience. The result of all this was that, by the time of Avaloncon I, a major schism had developed within the regular (non-computer oriented) gaming community: a split between players who considered themselves to be historical gamers, and those who described themselves as “role-playing” enthusiasts. And nowhere was this widening divide more evident than at two of the gaming hobby’s most important annual get-togethers, ‘Gen Con’ and ‘Origins’.
Gen Con had been started by Gary Gygax and friends in 1968, and Origins had been launched — ironically, with substantial support from TAHGC — seven years later, in 1975. For those who are unfamiliar with gaming’s early history, this pair of hobby gatherings almost immediately became two of the biggest (in terms of total attendance) annual gaming conventions in the United States, and they remain so to this day. [For example, attendance at Origins currently averages about 15,000 paying visitors per year, and Gen Con annually draws a whopping 27,000 attendees.] However, as these conventions continued to grow during the 1970s and 80s, and as new events were added to their respective schedules, they both gradually morphed from traditional wargaming conventions into showcases for computer-based simulations, “miniatures” and “role playing” games. This had the inevitable effect of pushing regular historical games, and their actual play at these convention venues, more and more into the background. Needless-to-say, for those of us with a preference for traditional conflict simulations, this change in emphasis was not greeted with enthusiasm. On the contrary, it seemed to represent, as one of my long-time gaming friends observed: “the triumph of TSR and Gygax and Arneson’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (1974) over Avalon Hill, SPI and our favorite traditional wargames.” At the time, it appeared that he was absolutely correct, and that, in this struggle between fantasy geeks and history geeks for the future of what was rapidly becoming a relatively narrow hobby niche, the fantasy geeks were clearly winning; at least at Gen Con and Origins. Clearly, traditional wargamers had reached a point where they were ready for a “back to the basics” type of convention; one in which the emphasis was not on vendors, but on players; and a convention in which the attendees did not look like a group of contestants from “Let’s Make A Deal” intermixed with a mob of sword-wielding refugees from a “Star Trek” convention. Instead, what the hobby grognards like me and my friends wanted, more than anything else, was a convention that focused exclusively on old-fashioned conflict simulations and, just as importantly, on a convention that emphasized lots of tournament action. In the end, it fell to Don Greenwood and Avalon Hill to give it to us.
Mark Guttfreund attended the first Avaloncon, and here plays Bert Schoose, Afrika Korps, at WBC 2008
The very first Avaloncon was held in the summer of 1991, at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. There were only about 500 attendees, and 91 of them were there to play ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER (1985). I was there too, but I had made the trek from Arizona to Pennsylvania to Game Master (GM) and compete in the inaugural AFRIKA KORPS (1964) tournament. My memories of that first convention are, even after the passage of two decades, still amazingly vivid. I remember, for example, that the rooms were small and a little drab, and that the motel’s staff — never having hosted a horde of noticeably-eccentric wargamers before — looked perpetually harried and nonplussed. I also remember that the bar was small and dark and seldom busy, and that the main gaming area got so warm during the day that the doors and windows had to be opened to get a little air circulation into the long, surprisingly noisy room. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the daily migrations by bands of hungry gamers to and from the nearby MacDonald’s restaurant. I can’t be sure, but based on my own consumption of fast food during my first stay in Camp Hill, I’m pretty sure that the always bustling “Golden Arches” turned in a record-breaking weekend of sales receipts. And I remember the many players that I first met at Avaloncon I; a number of whom became then, and are still my friends, today. Finally, I should note that, despite the fact that I had recently won the Avalon Hill AFRIKA KORPS Postal Tournament, I went down to ignominious defeat in my very first tournament match of the same game at Camp Hill. In fact, I didn’t even come close to winning a tournament plaque at this particular convention. Nonetheless, although this first Avaloncon was only about three days long, it was well-run (certainly better than the all-around fiasco that was Origins I) and reasonably well-attended. So, in spite of a few minor disappointments, I personally felt that the new convention had been well worth the trip, and as I packed up at the end of my stay in Camp Hill, I was already eagerly looking forward to Avaloncon II.
Avalon Hill continued to put on Avaloncon every year through 1998. Unfortunately, the struggling game publisher finally succumbed to its many financial woes and passed from the scene shortly after the last convention, which by this time had moved to Hunt Valley, Maryland. Enter the Boardgame Players Association and Don Greenwood. Unwilling to see his creation fade away, the tireless (and stubborn) Greenwood set to work to organize a seamless transition from the last Avaloncon in 1998, to the first WBC Convention in 1999. The change-over went off without a hitch, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the World Boardgaming Championships offer nine continuous days of tournament and open gaming in over 100 different titles and, in spite of the current economic downturn, the convention still manages to draw approximately 2,000 dedicated players from all over the world. Don Greenwood’s brainchild has gotten bigger as more activities and events have been added to the convention schedule during the last twenty years, but the WBC’s emphasis on competitive play has not changed. For this reason, it is still, in my opinion, the best all-around wargaming convention put on by anybody, anywhere.
ConclusionIn the end, of course, my opinion is not the one that counts; in point of fact, virtually every player will have his own preferences when it comes to what makes for an enjoyable tournament convention. Therefore, to help my readers decide for themselves whether the WBC Convention is right for them, a link has been provided for those who would like to learn more about the Boardgame Players Association or about the World Boardgaming Championships Convention. Information about virtually aspect of this year’s WBC Convention — from advice on travel arrangements, to help with finding economical lodging, to a detailed calendar of convention events, and even to recommendations for fun family activities in the Lancaster area — can all be found by visiting the BPA website.
ONE , TWO and THREE) aimed at helping prospective convention attendees prepare for their first trip to BPA’s annual wargaming marathon in Lancaster. So, for any readers who are relatively recent visitors to this blog and who are also seriously contemplating making the trek to rural Pennsylvania this year, I invite you to revisit those old posts for advice on how to make your trip as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. And for any of my readers who do make the trip this year, I can confidently predict that, whether you follow any of my advice or not, you will still have a fabulous time.
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I have returned.
In view of the fact that it has been over ten days since my last post, I thought that I would offer a brief explanation for my uncharacteristic silence; and no, I didn’t opt to take a brief break from blogging. Nor have I been on vacation. Instead, the reason for my recent halt in publishing is much more mundane: my computer crashed (thanks again, Microsoft!) and it has taken a week-and-a-half to get “Explorer” back up and running properly.
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HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDIn the winter of 1915, the German General Staff, headed by General Erich von Falkenhayn, hit upon a diabolical and utterly ruthless plan to defeat France and end the bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The German Army would attack a strategically unimportant section of the Allied line with the goal of capturing the ancient French fortress of Verdun. The fortress itself had no military significance, but the sacred monument that it protected had enormous symbolic importance both to French history and to French honor. Inside Verdun was housed the tomb of the Emperor Charlemagne. To allow this national shrine to fall into German hands, General Falkenhayn knew, would be unthinkable to the French High Command; to allow it, once lost, to remain under German control would be unendurable for the French people and their leaders. Thus, at Verdun, the German General Staff had decided to break the French army through a battle the only goal of which was pure attrition.
General Erich von Falkenhayn
Originally, the German plan was to launch the offensive on 11-12 February, 1916. Fortunately for the French, the weather unexpectedly turned bad and, after some deliberation, the offensive was postponed until weather conditions improved. This postponement probably saved Verdun from German capture. Aware of the large-scale German buildup, the French High Command rushed reinforcements to the Verdun sector. They arrived just in time; on 21 February, the Germans at last began their offensive with a devastating nine hour artillery bombardment of the French positions in front of and around Verdun. This storm of steel and high explosive fell on an area less than ten kilometers square. And this bombardment — the largest ever up to this point in the war — was only a portent of the ferocity and unbelievable carnage that was to come. The fight for Verdun would become a soldier’s nightmare: a meat-grinder of a battle that would cause over 700,000 French and German casualties and would continue, almost without a halt, from 21 February to 19 December, 1916. Verdun would not fall to the Germans, but the battle to save the sacred city would, just as General Falkenhayn had predicted, come heartbreakingly close to destroying the French Army’s will to continue to fight.
Battle of Verdun
One of the most novel features of THE FIRST WORLD WAR is the use of the concept of ‘National Morale’. This is probably my favorite aspect of the game platform. National Morale affects play in two important ways: tactically, by conferring a combat (die roll modifier) advantage to the side with the higher morale; and strategically, by serving as a Resource Point multiplier for the different belligerents during the quarterly ‘strategic turn’ production phase of the game. Interestingly, the various belligerents begin the game with different National Morale ratings (ranging from 3 to 0), and these ratings can ONLY GO DOWN as the game progresses. For example, Germany starts the 1914 Scenario with a National Morale rating of 3; however, as soon as Germany accrues 300 demoralization points (typically as a result of combat losses), its National Morale is reduced to 2; if the Kaiser loses another 300 demoralization points, Germany’s National Morale is reduced again down to 1, and so on. This means that the steady attrition (for all participants) that inevitably results from the game’s combat system gradually erodes the war-making capability of the various belligerents as the game progresses. The beauty of this ingenious little design feature is its broad applicability; hence, I am surprised that it did not make its appearance in other titles. [As a momentary aside: when I first examined this game, I couldn’t help but ponder what effect the use of National Morale might have had on WAR IN THE EAST (1974, 1976). I never got around to actually retrofitting this design feature to the older title; nonetheless, I can’t help but feel, even today, that it would have been a better design solution than Dunnigan’s use of multiple CRTs to reflect the changes in German and Russian combat effectiveness, as the war dragged on. Who knows, I may yet try it out?]
German trenchline, WWI
Combat between opposing units in THE FIRST WORLD WAR occurs at the discretion of the phasing player and is resolved using an odds-differential Combat Results Table (CRT). The attrition-based combat results — shades of Dunnigan’s 1914 — usually require both sides to take step losses and are represented numerically (for example 2/1) on the CRT. Combat losses are important for two reasons: first, they deplete the combat power of the affected units; second, strength point losses are recorded (on a 1 for 1 basis) on the affected country’s National Demoralization Track. Thus, combat tends to penalize offensive operations because the attacker must always take his losses in steps (strength points). In the case of a supplied defender, however, his unit losses can be taken either by eliminating the stipulated number of steps or by retreating a like number of hexes, or even by mixing together some combination of the two. There is, however, an important exception to this rule: when the point loss required by the CRT exceeds a belligerent’s National Morale level, then the affected unit must retreat at least one hex. Other combat rules are more familiar. For example, terrain effects are, in the main, conventional and relatively straightforward. The combat effects of various types of terrain are typically represented as Die Roll Modifiers (DRMs) and thus, are easy for players to keep track of and use. As might be expected, trenches and fortifications represent a special case: these improved positions confer a powerful combat advantage on the defender and — until the arrival of the German Stosstruppen and Allied tanks — players will find that entrenched units are well-nigh impossible to dislodge.
Destroyed, French city, WWI.
Every nine game turns, regular play is interrupted at which time a special (quarterly) ‘strategic turn’ is executed. The ‘strategic turn’ consists of four segments: the Political Stage; the Attrition Stage; the Naval Warfare Stage; and the Production Stage. It is during the strategic turn that Political events (for example, the entry of new belligerents into the war), seasonal Attrition, Naval operations (i.e., fleet actions), and Production occurs. Interestingly enough (or perversely, depending on the player’s biases), many of the players’ most important decisions are made during this phase of the game. This is, for example, the game segment during which fleets can sortie and, if these fleets are intercepted by the enemy at sea, naval actions can be fought. Most importantly, it is during the ‘strategic turn’ that new Resource Points (RPs) are accrued, distributed, and/or spent to construct or rebuild units. The role of Resource Points, as noted previously, is absolutely central to the operation of virtually every element in THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system. New Resource Points are produced by each National actor on the basis of two factors: the country’s National Morale and its Production Multiple. For example, at the beginning of the game, Germany has a National Morale of 3 and a Production Multiple of 50; therefore, at the start of its production phase, Germany would receive an infusion of 150 fresh RPs at its Supreme Headquarters Depot. In and of themselves, these Resource Points are immobile; to be used to supply offensive or defensive operations, Resource Points must be moved by rail (a maximum of thirty hexes per game turn) to appropriately-sited satellite depots positioned across the game map. Sticking with our previous example, Germany has about eighteen depots; so to move RPs from Central Germany to the various frontline depots requires a network of transit stations spaced no more than thirty hexes apart on connected friendly rail lines. For optimal combat effectiveness, Supply depots should be located within three movement points of the friendly units that they are supporting; supply paths longer than three movement points impose increasingly onerous DRM penalties on the affected units the farther away from the depot they are. This Depot/Supply system, in and of itself, is relatively easy both to manage and to keep track of. However, the baked-in limits on the belligerent’s rail capacities impose serious restrictions on the different players’ options. Again using Germany as our example, the German National rail capacity is limited to fifteen divisions per game turn; since one division is equivalent to six supply points for rail movement purposes, a maximum of only 90 supply points may be transported by rail during any one game turn. At the risk of “picking nits,” this appears, at first blush, to be a bit low. The timing and scale, for example, of the massive pre-war mobilization of German armies on the French frontier is virtually impossible to duplicate in THE FIRST WORLD WAR. Also, it seems beyond the German player’s reach both to match the rapid, large-scale transfer of troops from the Eastern to the Western Fronts, and, at the same time, to bring up the supplies necessary to launch a major offensive in the west, as the Germans historically did in 1918.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR offers five comparatively short yearly scenarios: 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918. All except for the 1914 Scenario begin with the winter strategic turn of the designated year and conclude with the autumn strategic turn of the same year. The 1914 Scenario, like the Campaign Game, starts on the August 2nd 1914 turn. The campaign game begins just like the 1914 Scenario, but continues all the way to the political stage of the 1918 autumn strategic turn.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONItalian alpine troops at work, WWI.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts, by different designers, to simulate the “War to End all Wars” in a reasonably historical, but manageable monster game format. WAR IN EUROPE MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR certainly falls into this category; unfortunately, it is also a major disappointment. The sad fact is that this game, as designed, is essentially unplayable. The reasons for the failure of THE FIRST WORLD WAR to work as either a game or as a simulation emerge almost as soon as players move beyond the first few game turns: the combat and production subroutines conspire to make any kind of significant offensive progress by the Central Powers virtually impossible. The depot system, because it reveals enemy supply build-ups as soon as they occur, completely eliminates any prospect of offensive surprise. Moreover, opportunities for genuine strategic and/or operational cleverness are, barring utter incompetence on the part of one side or another, pretty much nonexistent: the Entente forces, for example, need only to entrench in a double line and then sit patiently back as the Central Powers — obliged by the victory conditions to attack — gradually fritter their combat power and resource points away in costly, largely ineffective frontal assaults. And because offensive operations are almost always more costly to the attacker (in terms of demoralization points) than they are to the defender, there is rarely an incentive for the Entente player to counterpunch. This pretty much means that, in the game version of THE FIRST WORLD WAR, unlike the actual conflict, no rational Entente player is ever going to cripple his army, pile up demoralization points and risk lowering the National Morale of his forces by refighting the battles of Verdun, Ypres, and the Somme. Even the late game appearance of German Stosstruppen and Entente tanks — although these special units do negate the defensive effectiveness of trenches — do not seem to significantly affect the ultimate outcome of the war. Note: There is, admittedly, some disagreement about this last point: a few players argue that if the Central Powers go over to the strategic defensive in the west in 1914 and hoard their supply points by not attacking in France for most of the war, then the arrival of the Stosstruppen in 1918, along with their surfeit of Supply Points, should allow them just enough time to batter their way to Paris and a Central Powers’ victory before the end of the game. This Central Powers’ ‘wait until 1918’ offensive strategy, by the way, seems to attach itself to World War One games with monotonous regularity. In the case of MODULE 1, it may work, or it may not; but, in any case, a Central Powers’ game strategy based on standing pat in the west for 100 + game turns, even if it is successful, somehow seems like a prodigious waste of everyone’s time. Regrettably, a ‘prodigious waste of time’ is also a term that — after several personal attempts at actually playing this game — perfectly describes my own opinion of THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
Russian cavalry, WWI.
Although it might not seem obvious from my comments, I really wanted to like this game; thus, the most irksome aspect of all this is that the game’s most significant design flaws are not buried deep within THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system. Instead, these problems tend to surface surprisingly quickly during regular play: which is almost always a sign of a rushed, slipshod development process, and of little or no serious play-testing. What is even more personally frustrating in this particular instance, however, is that THE FIRST WORLD WAR was — in my opinion, at least — co-authored by one of SPI’s most creative in-house staffers, Frank Davis. Thus, despite the fact that the subject of World War I has stumped more than a few designers over the years, I ordered my copy of the game from SPI because I had every confidence that Davis would be able to pull it off. After all, Frank Davis had designed the wondefully-crafted WELLINGTON'S VICTORY (1976), and it had been Davis along with Ed Curran who had designed the truly excellent and very innovative, FREDERICK THE GREAT (1975). Sadly, in this I was wrong. There are a number of really interesting concepts (National Morale and the logistics subroutine, for example) contained in this design, but, unfortunately, they utterly fail to coalesce into an enjoyable or even a playable game.
Battle of Jutland
Finally, given the several serious problems baked into MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system, I am hard-pressed to see who, besides a collector, might actually benefit from owning this title. All things being equal, most players with an interest in the First World War would, I think, be far better served if they were to pick up a copy of SPI’s folio game WORLD WAR 1(1975), Avalon Hill’s THE GUNS OF AUGUST (1981), GMT’s card-driven PATHS OF GLORY (1999), or Phalanx Games’ fast-playing THE FIRST WORLD WAR (2004). While none of these other games are perfect, they, nonetheless, offer players a much more enjoyable (and playable) treatment of the “Great War” than Frank Davis’ seriously-flawed THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
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Interestingly, although the modern U.S. Army traces its roots back to 1775 and the Revolutionary War, the Army was not officially established by the Colonial Congress of Confederation until June 14, 1784; moreover, the fledgling Republic was not legally empowered to maintain a ‘regular’, standing army until the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787.
The U.S. Army, like the country it serves, has undergone a number of profound changes since its founding 235 years ago. The size of the Army during the first years of the American Republic was small. For one thing, the new democracy had been founded by men who, for the most part, shared a deep mistrust of large standing armies and, not incidentally, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were formidable barriers to European meddling in the affairs of the New World, in any case. However, history inexorably marches on; not surprisingly, the world and the American Army’s role in that world have both changed dramatically since 1775. Today, the now all-volunteer U.S. Army totals nearly 550,000 officers and enlisted soldiers, of which almost 74,000 are female; furthermore, it is presently supported in its many far-flung and often remote outposts by the more than 240,000 civilian employees of the Department of the Army. One thing about the Army, however, has not changed: its many diverse, present-day missions are still difficult, often dangerous, and always critical to maintaining the security of the American people back home.
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First official flag of the United States.
June 14, 2010, marks a signal day in the history of our Republic: In Philadelphia, on 14 June, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that the American flag should display thirteen stars, thirteen stripes, and that its colors should be red (for strength and courage), white (for purity), and blue (for steadfastness, vigilance and justice). In the years following the American Revolution, a small but increasing number of communities began to commemorate the date of the resolution with locally-mounted ‘Flag Day’ ceremonies. However, it was not until 30 May, 1916, that President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14th officially to be ‘Flag Day’ throughout the United States. Finally, in 1949, 172 years after the Continental Congress first debated and approved its flag resolution, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed the Act of Congress that legally designated June 14th as ‘Flag Day’.
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COBRA: Patton’s 1944 Summer Offensive in France is an operational level (regiment/division) simulation — based on the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN (PGG) Game System — of the Allied breakout from the Normandy peninsula in the summer of 1944. This game was originally published as the insert game in S&T #65 (Nov-Dec, 1977). Shortly thereafter, COBRA was repackaged for regular retail sale in the traditional SPI plastic ‘flat pack'. When the Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) game company acquired SPI, the game was again reissued in 1984 — this time with fairly significant changes to the counter-mix and with the addition of a D-Day invasion map sheet — in a bookcase-style boxed format. Interestingly, this title was reprinted even more recently by the Japanese game company, Six Angles, in 2007. COBRA was designed by Brad E. Hessel and published in 1977 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).
HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDWaffen SS General Paul Hausser
On 24 July, 1944 (D + 48) the Allied armies in France, despite already suffering over 122,000 casualties, had still only managed to gain control of an area that invasion planners had originally expected would be in Allied hands by D + 5. However, all that changed when, on July 25th, the Allies launched “Operation Cobra:” a major offensive that, its architects hoped, would finally break the German defenses that still confined the Allies to the Normandy peninsula.
The offensive succeeded beyond its planners most optimistic expectations. On that date General Bradley’s American First Army smashed into Waffen SS General Paul Hausser’s Seventh Army which held the western flank of the German front near the town of St. Lo. After a violent Allied aerial bombardment and a short, sharp fight on the ground, Bradley’s forces broke through Hausser’s front and pushed south into the German rear. For the first time in the campaign, the Allies had gained freedom of maneuver; a crisis now confronted the German OKH: with the rupture in the German front rapidly widening, the survival of all of the German armies defending Normandy — Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s entire Army Group B — now hung in the balance.
The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part in the battle. The four-color, hexagonal-grid game map depicts the area of northwestern France — an area approximately 105 kilometers north to south, and 160 kilometers east to west — over which the historical campaign was fought. For purposes of scale, an individual map hex is equal to 3.2 kilometers from side to side.
COBRA is played in game turns, each of which represents three days of real time. A complete game is thirteen turns long and spans the critical early phases of the Allied breakout, from 16 July to 23 August, 1944. Each game turn is divided into a German and an Allied player turn. The game turn sequence for COBRA is roughly symmetrical, and proceeds as follows (the German player is always the first to act): German Weather Determination Phase; Replacement Phase; Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; and the Mechanized Movement Phase. Once the German player has completed his turn, the Allied player then conducts his own player turn in the following sequence: Allied Weather Determination Phase; Supply Phase; Replacement Phase; Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; and finally, the Mechanized Movement Phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.
One critical feature that separates the movement rules of COBRA — and the other titles in the PGG family of games — is the incorporation of a far more flexible type of ‘Overrun’ combat into the Initial Movement Phase of each game turn. Unlike earlier titles which also used Overrun combat as an integral part of their game systems, but required overwhelming odds for success; in COBRA, just like in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, Overruns do not require particularly large strength differentials to be effective. Even comparatively low-odds Overrun attacks are, with the right die-rolls, capable of clearing a path through an enemy line for the Overrunning and/or other phasing units to exploit. Only units with ‘Divisional Integrity’ — that is: all divisional component units are present in the same hex — may, so long as they meet all other requirements, conduct up to two Overrun attacks in any given Initial Movement Phase. U.S. mechanized infantry divisions are the one exception to this rule: these American divisions may only conduct one Overrun during any single Allied game turn. What this translates to is a game situation in which German and Allied units can potentially attack enemy positions during both the Initial Movement Phase and again during the Combat Phase. Mercifully, unlike in PGG, units in COBRA are not ‘disrupted’ as a result of a successful enemy Overrun; more importantly, neither side’s units are permitted to conduct Overruns during the Mechanized Movement Phase.
Falaise Escape Corridor Aftermath
The supply rules in COBRA, as the previous paragraph illustrates, impose very different restrictions on the combat operations of the two sides. However, general supply requirements for Allied and German units are very similar. German units are in supply if they are able to trace a supply path of any length, unblocked by enemy units or their ZOCs, to the eastern map edge. Allied units, to be in general supply, must be able to trace an unblocked supply line, of any length, to that part of the northern edge of the map that depicts the base of the Normandy peninsula. For both armies, movement supply is determined at the beginning of each movement phase, and combat supply, at the instant of combat. Supply effects are identical for both sides: unsupplied units are halved (fractions rounded up) for both movement and combat; ZOCs, however, are unaffected. Unsupplied units may not conduct Overruns, but may attack at reduced strength. Somewhat surprisingly, unsupplied Allied units are permitted to attack, but any such unsupplied attacks still require the expenditure of a supply point.
General Omar Bradley
In PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, uncertainty is baked into the turn-by-turn play of the game because of the presence of ‘untried’ Russian combat units. COBRA has no ‘untried’ units, but what it does have in their stead is a game feature almost as frustrating and unpredictable: that of Weather. And weather, in COBRA, plays a key role in determining the flow and tempo of the game. The way it works is relatively simple: At the beginning of each player turn, a die is rolled to determine the weather condition — Stormy, Overcast or Clear — for the balance of the phasing player’s turn. Interestingly, the possible outcome from each weather roll is directly influenced by that of the previous player turn. What this means, in a nutshell, is that, while dramatic turn-to-turn swings in the weather are always possible, actual weather conditions in the game will tend to either stay the same, or to change gradually from player turn to player turn. Weather and its effects are critically important to both players. Weather rolls significantly affect German movement capabilities, but, at the same time, they also control the availability of valuable Allied ‘Air Points’. For example, depending on whether the German player rolls Stormy, Overcast or Clear weather, the effect on German movement can range from ‘no effect’ (Stormy) down to a two-thirds reduction in available movement points (Clear). This means that weather conditions will directly impact the German player’s ability to maneuver his units to meet developing Allied threats as they arise. In the case of the Allied player, the type of weather rolled will determine whether the Allies have ‘0’ Air Points (Stormy), ‘3’ points (Overcast), or ‘6’ Air Points (Clear weather). And speaking of Air Points: the Allied commander can use his Air Points — one per attack — to shift his combat odds 1 column to the right. In addition, once per game, beginning on turn two, the Allied player may use 6 Air Points to conduct a ‘Carpet Bombing’ attack against any single German occupied hex. Such an attack may, for obvious reasons, only be conducted during a Clear weather turn, and the target hex cannot also be attacked by Allied ground units during the same game turn.
Field Marshall Gunther von Kluge
COBRA, as already noted, shares many common features with PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN; however, because of certain operational factors unique to the Normandy battlefield, it also incorporates a number of design elements that set it apart from its East Front predecessor. One of the more obvious of these differences can be found in the role played by headquarters counters. In PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, Russian headquarters units and their ‘Command Spans’ represent logistical and organizational centers that form a crucial link in the Russian player’s supply network. In COBRA, headquarters have no supply function; instead, they impart a combat bonus to any friendly attackers within the headquarters’ Command Span. German headquarters provide a bonus 1 column shift to any eligible units whether they are attacking or defending. In contrast, the single Allied headquarters in COBRA — that of Patton’s 3rd Army — can improve a single American (only) attack with a 2 column shift to the right, or, alternatively, can support two different American attacks, each with a favorable 1 column shift. Unlike German headquarters, however, “Old Blood and Guts” does not confer any defensive advantage to American units within his Command Span. Another interesting, if minor, twist to the COBRA combat rules has to do with the special role that German Tiger Tank Battalions play in the game. These units, when participating in an attack, shift the battle odds 1 column to the right. This bonus, it is important to note, only applies to attacks; Tiger Battalions have no effect on combat odds when defending.
Finally, as might be expected, both the Allies and Germans in COBRA periodically receive reinforcements; however, unlike PGG, the two sides also receive replacements. Replacements enter the game in the form of abstract Replacement Points, each of which represents one step; for a unit of either side to receive a Replacement Point (and be rebuilt one step), it must be in regular supply and three or more hexes from the nearest enemy unit. In addition, no unit may be rebuilt more than one step per game turn, however many steps it has actually lost. The Allies receive an unlimited number of Replacement Points during the Replacement Phase of each game turn; the Germans, on the other hand, only receive two infantry and one mechanized Replacement Point per game turn.
The winner of COBRA is determined by comparing the accumulated victory points of the two sides at the end of turn thirteen. Both players add to their points by completely destroying enemy units. In addition, the Allies gain victory points for exiting American mechanized units off the western map edge on or before game turn seven. The German player receives victory points both for exiting units off the eastern map edge, and/or for maintaining supplied (and either out of Allied ZOCs or disengageable) mechanized units on the map east of Falaise at game end.
The original SPI version of COBRA (the one profiled here) offers only the Historical Game; there are no alternative scenarios or optional rules. Later reissues of the game, however, beginning with the two-map TSR version, do include additional scenarios and game situations for players interested in additional gaming options.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONGeneral George S. Patton
The 1944 Allied campaign to liberate German-occupied France offers an extraordinarily rich vein of different possible topics for conflict simulations. The historical events surrounding the Battle for France — considering the numbers and types of units involved, and the generals commanding them — really encompass virtually everything that a game designer could want in the realm of World War II military operations. The 1944 Western Front narrative begins, of course, with the costly but successful D-Day landings. Very quickly, however, the arc of the story shifts from the early efforts to expand the initial invasion lodgments on the Normandy peninsula, to the later, even tougher Allied struggle to push through the difficult bocage terrain of the Norman country-side against a tenacious and determined German foe. Finally, after weeks of bloody fighting and near stalemate, the chronicle of the spring-summer 1944 campaign in France suddenly changes again with the armored breakout by Patton’s Third Army, and the ensuing Allied encirclement and destruction of nearly 160,000 German troops in a massive pocket near the town of Falaise.
U.S. Sherman tanks passing through St. Lo after the breakthrough.
Given the innate drama of the basic situation and the potential for sweeping, fast-paced action built into this clash of Allied and German mobile forces, it is not surprising that various designers have attempted to model different aspects of the Battle for France, beginning back in 1961 with Avalon Hill’s D-DAY. Not surprisingly, the scale and design quality of the different titles inspired by the Normandy campaign have varied widely. Some of the Normandy games — such as SPI’s ATLANTIC WALL (1978) or Avalon Hill's THE LONGEST DAY (1979) — have been very big, multi-map monsters, and some — like Avalon Hill’s Smithsonian edition of D-DAY (1991) — have been relatively small; some — like SPI’s BREAKOUT & PURSUIT (1972) — have been good, and others — such as Rand Game’s OMAHA BEACH (1974) — “not so much”. In short, when it comes to the Normandy campaign, different game titles seem to abound. Nonetheless, since its first appearance in 1977, COBRA: Patton’s 1944 Summer Offensive in France has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite treatments of this campaign. Brad Hessel’s design may not be the best overall simulation of the Allied breakout from the Normandy hedgerows, but it is still able to hold its own when matched against other, much newer titles. Moreover, it would appear that I am not alone in my opinion. A quick visit to http://boardgamegeek.com/ will show that COBRA currently enjoys a “Geek Rating” of 6.47; which, all things considered, is pretty impressive for a thirty-three year old game.
Of course, it goes without saying that players who like the PGG Game System will probably also like COBRA. However, even for those gamers who don’t particularly care for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, COBRA, I would argue, is probably still worth a serious look. The original version of COBRA may not offer a lot of different scenarios for players to try, but the game still presents a number of interesting and very thorny game problems for both the Allied and the German players to solve. Moreover, these problems seem to take a different shape every time the game is played. For example, Allied offensive operations, as was the case historically, are constrained by serious supply limitations. The Allied player would like to accumulate extra supply points for use during the middle and late game turns, but, with only thirteen turns to work with, time is short; so while he wants to save supply points, he also needs to keep steady pressure on the Germans right from the start. In addition, while the British and Canadian units will probably be attacking towards the south and east, the Americans will be trying to break out to the west so that at least some American mechanized regiments can exit the western map edge before the end of turn seven. The German commander, not surprisingly, has problems of his own. He wants to contain the Allies during the early game turns; however, once his line begins to crumble, he then needs to begin extricating his mobile forces from the path of the Allied juggernaut so that he can move as many mechanized units as possible off the eastern map edge before the last game turn. Balancing these conflicting goals, particularly in the face of uncertain weather, is what makes this a challenging and often frustrating game situation for both players.
One minor criticism of COBRA that does crop up periodically among certain players has to do with the game’s graphic presentation. This is a common but, I personally believe, unfair complaint that tends to attach itself to quite a few of the S&T magazine games. Certainly, the back-printed counters are visually unimpressive, but they are also, it should be noted, pretty typical of SPI counters during this era. The rules are extremely well done and post-publication errata are minimal. The main complaint seems to center on the four-color game map which, admittedly, is somewhat understated, color-wise. One wit even suggested that the COBRA game map reminded him of a square pizza. This criticism, I think, is a bit overdone. While it is true that the pastel hues of the map are not particularly eye-catching, they are also not nearly as off-putting as some other game maps — those of DARK DECEMBER (1979) and ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1971) come immediately to mind — that I have seen over the years. Moreover, the COBRA game map’s treatment of terrain is unambiguous, and — as is typical with most of Simonsen’s work — the charts and tables printed at the margins are uniformly clear and very nicely done.
Finally, although I personally think very highly of this title, COBRA is, nonetheless, probably not a good choice either for the absolute novice (simply too much detail), or for the ‘chess player’ type gamer who hates nasty surprises: those occasional unlucky weather rolls can really hurt! However, for anyone else who, for one reason or another, has never tried this game — whether they are a casual or an experienced player — I recommend it strongly. It may be old, but it has aged extremely well.
See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU
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