What is Reality?
This is the one hundredth blog post that we have published since founding Wargame Design Studio, so we needed a meaty topic to dive into!
I was struggling for an appropriate subject when this post was put up on a Facebook thread recently:
“You can play the full Panzer Campaign Series also here (editor: another game series) - but with much better Graphics and fewer military historical errors - John Tiller was a major game producer Unfortunately, but he relied on a team of military history amateurs - read only secondary anglo-saxonian literature without any insights in german and soviet sources”
“I mean military historical errors - for example deployments in Gary Grigsby Barbarossa scenarios - there are so many wrong positions and names for soviet ans also german troops. HPS Series is alo incorrect for the soviet deployment - for example wrong air groups in Stalingrad 42 or complety fantasy deployments in Smolensk 41. This guys read Osprey magazins - but nore more. I worked with a german book library of the most divisional histories wrote in the 60th to 70th years and have also entry to the army library and magazin of Freiburg - I am a real historian on the university and I am a hobby wargamer. And I speak and understand russian and can read the most of the standard literature from the soviet time frame and todays internet resources in russian language.”
All text is left as written, but please note the author is not a native English speaker.
These are pretty strong opinions and are counter to what has been mooted as one of the ‘strengths’ of JTS/WDS games - the research and historicity. So, who is right? And what are the factors considered when creating a title?
We covered a lot of what is involved in creating a game in a series of ten blog posts starting here: (So you want to design a Wargame), but it is interesting that the titles held up as examples are Smolensk ’41 and Stalingrad ’42. These were released in 1999 and 2006 respectively. Smolensk ’41 was actually the first game that John Tiller Software ever released and was created by Greg Smith, Jim Dunnam and John Tiller. I have no knowledge of the sources that were used but Mike Avanzini subsequently helped create the Smolensk ’41 expansion packs which included an extended map, revised order of battles and new scenarios at company level. I mention Mike as he is one of our resident order of battle expert and he has previously posted blog posts such as the following to explain his approach: (example Soviet Order of Battle). Please note, Mike has been using sources that have come direct from the Russian archives (when open) and we had even paid for our contacts in Russia to photograph records that were not available when we needed them. David Glantz’ (a very well-known Eastern Front scholar) Smolensk day by day atlas was the basis for much of the unit deployments in the later revision of the Smolensk scenarios.
The ’wrong air groups’ comment in Stalingrad ’42 is also a little perplexing as a review of both the German and Soviet air units confirm that the included air formations align with Christer Bergstrom’s Black Cross Red Star volume 3. This book was not even the source for the air units as it was only published in 2006 after the Stalingrad ’42 OOB was created. Possibly the writer was calling out the lack of fighter units, a type that is not included in Panzer Campaigns as air superiority is modelled abstractly. Usually, only bomber and recon aircraft types are physically available to a player.
The point here is twofold – we welcome commentary and queries regarding the accuracy of our work. Many times, natives of these conflict countries can help us to find sources not easily available to us foreigners. The second point is that research continues to unearth new information and debunk prior research. It would not be surprising that inaccuracies could be found in games that were published in 1999 and 2006 and research sourced before those dates. We have tried to update titles where possible to reflect new findings but that can become a lot of work. A final comment to our friendly poster. We are also adept at using Russian sources and research websites as evidenced in this particular article: KV-85 Tanks and Rabbit Holes and we are trying to look at as many sources as possible, including the material from Osprey!
Another example of revised work is Panzer Campaigns Scheldt ’44. This title was created by Mike Prucha and Dave Michas as a follow-on to their large expansion for Panzer Campaigns France ’40. This is the first title where we have included a game situation that had been published previously: Operation Market-Garden. The time elapsed between the original Panzer Campaigns Market-Garden ’44 (2003) and the large campaign scenario included in Scheldt ’44 (2020) was seventeen years. The included scenario in Scheldt ’44 was both larger in scope and more detailed, primarily due to the availability of more information and improved research sources. Changes in the game code also allowed us to include more features such as resistance fighters using the new irregular unit type that were not available in the original title. It was also important to include this new version to put the rest of the Scheldt campaign in perspective.
We have plans to revisit other published titles as evidenced by the recent call for play testers for Panzer Campaigns Japan ’45. This title ultimately was impacted as we decided to realign the recommended optional rules across the whole game series. This change skewed the balance of the scenarios and with the assistance of the testers who volunteered we will be updating many of that title’s scenarios. We have plans to look at other non-standard titles to see what can be done to improve them but that is dependent on the resources available and the community’s assistance in testing.
Another potential conflict with reality is ‘fun’. When Scheldt ’44 was released Julio ‘JC’ Cabrero over at Real and Simulated Wars was a little more critical in his review, concerned that ‘less playability can lead to a shortage of realism’. Essentially it is very hard to make some historical situations fun to play. Scheldt ‘44 is primarily fought in mud conditions with low quality troops on both sides and highlighted why very few games on this campaign had been done previously. We never want to shy away from doing ‘more difficult’ titles, but we need to make certain that there is sufficient ‘fun’ factor in each situation that players choose to play the scenario again. That’s not to say that is missing from this title, but we need to highlight that a player’s previous experience with the game series may not be as applicable when playing some of these ‘different to the norm’ scenarios.
With all the above in mind we are trying to improve both our scenario testing methodology and focus on playability. We want to specifically ensure that each scenario is ‘fun’ to play where fun is both enjoyment or understanding the goal or challenge behind each scenario. We want to continue to improve items as mundane as the scenario briefing through to relevant objectives and victory conditions.
We want to keep bringing you the best researched, most historical titles we can, and we welcome all feedback, supportive or otherwise. It is also just as important that you want to play our titles for the sheer enjoyment of them and we will continue to make that a key focus.
It is exciting to have reached a century of blog posts, with everything going on, we expect to reach the next century very soon!
The problem for the last 10-15 years is the sheer quantity of 2WW primary source material freely available online, which is increasing daily. There are dozens of websites in English, Russian, German, and other languages which provide literally millions of pages of war diaries, after action reports, intelligence appraisals, POW interrogation transcripts, casualty evacuation records, unit message traffic, logistics and transportation records reports…. These are scanned documents, not someone’s interpretation, taken from NARA, BAMA and TsAMO. This requires some familiarity with each language, which is not as bad as it might seem, since military jargon is easy to learn and understand. Next, the problem is to know which specific documents out of millions contain the information needed. Only time, persistence and collaboration with others online will yield success.
Secondary sources tend to give a superficial and inaccurate picture simply because the author doesn’t invest the time and effort to perform extensive research at the ‘sharp end’. Instead they find readily available official OBs and field manuals, and assume this is all there is to it. They are also prone to accept earlier researchers’ work without question, most famously Western historians total acceptance of Russian accounts of the Battle of Kursk, which the Russians largely falsified (surprise, surprise).
It is all too common for wargamers to focus on trivial arguments over things like armor thickness vs penetration (as if all shots were fired at a perfect perpendicular angle in the horizontal and vertical planes) or exactly following official OBs (which were rarely adhered to) official doctrine (also rarely applied by the book) while ignoring the far more important issues of training and morale, C3I, equipment maintenance procedures, and logistics.
But the availability of these documents makes secondary sources open to question, and provides a clearer picture of actual combat.
I agree with David, an OOB is never complete. The best you can hope is to get a picture of the battlefield on a precise moment, generally by crossing the best sources. During a campaign, units move, disappear, are removed, are disbanded or sometimes merged, while others are created from scratch : what can be considered as accurate on monday becomes obsolete the day after… Furthermore, lots of unit archives were lost during retreats, existing archives can be located on various places, or even have never been explored by historians for some reason including access restrictions like in Russia.
It’s a simulation…it’s a game. By default war games are an abstraction. There is no 100% accurate war game. You have to deal with time and scale and make compromises and inferences. Some may find it strange considering WWII was in the scope of things not all that long ago, but our understanding of OOB’s and who was where, when is still changing! Even documentation from the time can be misleading and just plain wrong…from primary sources! Scholarship IMO has gotten a lot better in the last 30 years and a lot of resources that were hard or impossible to get at are now available due to the internet. Compromises in depth of research are also a necessity (if you wanted to you could hire multiple military historians from the represented countries, invest in a reference library the size of warehouse….but it would take 30 years and probably a couple million dollars…and you would go broke…). I think the HPS/JTS/WDS have done a very good job at balancing accuracy, playability and being able to actually produce games at a reasonable interval. Are there errors or pet units missing or in the wrong place or time, yes…there always is (and generally fixed or the idea/abstraction behind the “error” explained) and as time goes by and our understanding changes I am sure more will be found (and probably fixed!). The poster of that message was letting his ego take a bit of a lead and was also being a bit of a d*&# in his tone (sorry, it got under my skin…)
“It is also just as important that you want to play our titles for the sheer enjoyment of them and we will continue to make that a key focus.” In my opinion your statement above is crucial ! I stand to be corrected here, but doubtless a large number of your followers, myself included, play the games for the experience of them, the forces, the maps, the strategy or indeed tactics involved in playing them and most importantly “the sheer enjoyment of playing them” If a unit is misnamed, misplaced or even completely missing from a title, the overall impact upon the game will IMHO be minimal and in no way detract from the experience. Reality and historicity are hallmarks of JTS/WDS games within available resources and available information/date. If in pursuing reality and historicity we lose the “sheer enjoyment” element we will be lost. Keep doing what you do in the best traditions of John Tiller.
Thanks for the post.
I can concur with that. I was one of the scenario designers of France ’40, and I worked on the game for a long time before it was released in 2005. I could have spent 2 or 3 more years just researching for the French OOB which was my main focus.
I always wanted a bigger map to included the 2nd part of the campaign. And I am glad that when WDS decided to do a gold version of the game they extended the map.
I know we had to compromise a lot more back in the day than now as the game engine has evolved a lot and give more design freedom.
Please keep the good work.
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