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A CASE STUDY OF CASE YELLOW

THE FALL OF FRANCE IN THE OPERATIONAL ART OF WAR I

Originally Published January 23, 2000

By Jim Werbaneth

There is a long history of tactical computer games that allow players to design their own battles. SSI's Wargame Construction Set and Steel Panthers series are the most important, and the longest-lasting DOS games in many gamers' libraries. The same company also published a Battles of Napoleon game that, though largely forgotten ten years after its introduction, was very well-regarded in its time. At the same time, the Australian firm SSG published its Battlefront and Decisive Battles of the American Civil War series which, like the first Wargame Construction Set, could also cover operational and strategic-level situations.

Yet warfare at this level has always been secondary to tactical battles when it comes to giving gamers the tools to develop their own scenarios. That is, until 1998, when TalonSoft published The Operational Art of War Volume I, covering the years 1939 to 1955. This was followed the next year with a second volume, on conflicts from 1955 to 2000. Both are the work of Norm Koger, one of computer gaming's most important designers, whose long career with SSI began with 1988's Stellar Crusade.

Volume I contains fifteen scenarios, drawn mainly from World War II, but also addressing the decisive period of the Israeli War of Independence, and another presenting the entire Korean War. Two others are hypothetical wars between the Western Allies and the Soviets in 1945 and 1955. Then Battle Pack I, a supplement that also upgrades the game to an improved version, adds sixteen more scenarios.

The France 40 scenario in the original scenario set serves as a good bellwether for the rest of the game. The campaign of spring 1940 was the quintessential blitzkrieg, and with the defeat of France, the most successful. What the German Empire could not do in four years of the Great War, Nazi Germany did in a scant six weeks.

Furthermore, it is of the right scale to which to judge the game. Case Yellow is much bigger than the Arracourt scenario, a German-American tank battle on the lowest end of the game's scale, and smaller and shorter than the Barbarossa scenario in Battle Pack I. In addition, the contending armies are much different in character, which makes it easier to see if the software treats them differently enough, or as bodies that differ mainly in strength.

Ultimately, The Operational Art of War Volume I shows off some impressive strengths of its own in the blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, the same campaign demonstrates some weaknesses as well

FIRST GLANCES

Probably the first part of the scenario that a gamer will notice is the map. As are most in the game, it is attractive, and gives a fairly accurate view of the theater. Boardgames can do better; Victory in the West (GMT) is the absolute best on the Western Front in 1940, and Blitzkrieg 1940 (XTR/Command Issue 42-----March 1997), on the same scale, likewise has more detail and unique terrain types than The Operational Art of War Volume I. On the other hand, the computer game has infinitely more detail and subtlety than the venerable France 1940 (Avalon Hill), a game that has not held up well with the years.

The computer game map has its share of anomalies. For example, Strasbourg begins the game under German control. Additionally, and even more striking, so do the border cities of Switzerland. One can actually have the Wehrmacht pass through Zurich and Basel on its way to the front.

The Maginot Line in the France 40 scenario is altogether weak. It is no better than a long line of entrenchments, with no hint of the pillboxes and artillery positions that lured the French into their famously misplaced faith. The Operational Art of War Volume I portrays it as fairly laughable, a truly excessive view of the line's nature.

The game begins with the invasions already under way. There are already substantial German airlanding troops on the ground at Rotterdam and south of The Hague, with more on the Albert Canal. The handles the destruction of the great Belgian fortress at Eban Emael by showing it as having already occurred. The Germans in the north thus have a largely open route to Liege and beyond.

Likewise, there are no Belgian units in the Ardennes, as the game apparently treats the forces historically deployed there as irrelevant. This leaves open an even more critical route, the one through the forest to the Meuse. The German panzers can always make it all the way in their first turn, and still have the movement points left to attack.

THE HUMAN FACTOR

The system to The Operational Art of War Volume I is more complicated than the rather light burdens on the players would indicate, which is a tribute to the game and its designer. Strength and losses are abstracted into the normal combat factors, but this is founded on a far more detailed treatment that measures in terms of squads and individual heavy weapons, vehicles and aircraft. This basis is very reminiscent of the system used in two earlier operational-level computer games by Norm Koger, Red Lightning and Conflict: Middle East (both SSI), although these lack the more easily referenced combat factors and even more generalized "health" measurements of the newer game.

It further has the capacity for a much looser sequence of play in place of the old move-fight paradigm. A player can move some of his units, declare some attacks, then go back to movement, with the possibility of another cluster of combats. This process can continue as long as the human player has a sufficient percentage of his whole force's movement points remaining.

This gives the game a more fluid, less constrained and "gamey" rhythm than its predecessors do. It also gives players the chance to use two diametrically opposite, historical methods of attack. The first, favored by the Germans for much of the war, was for the panzers to break the enemy line, then exploit, with the infantry following behind to mop up. The other was more typical of the Americans, as in the Normandy breakout, though the Germans used it in the Battle of the Bulge as well. In it, the infantry would force the breach, and the armor following on as exploitation forces. The Operational Art of War Volume I gives the human player leave to try both.

Reserves are important to the defense. Tactical reserves react to enemy assaults in adjacent hexes, and can move in to beef up the defense, or try to hold the line when the original defenders have retreated. Local reserves react to attacks within a radius defined by their remaining movement allowances.

Airpower too is handled in a matter that calls to mind the earlier Koger games. Air units are assigned three basic missions; air superiority, combat support, and interdiction. Unlike Conflict: Middle East, range does matter, which makes sense when one considers that France and the Benelux countries constitute a larger area than Israel and its environs. For example, a unit allocated to combat support affects ground combats within its combat range at half strength. Interdiction takes on a greater role than in the earlier games, not just impeding resupply, but attacking enemy forces on the move.

There are still strike missions against specific hexes, as in the older titles. Unlike combat support missions, they attack at full strength, but affect only the target hex. These are valuable for preemptive strikes on enemy air forces at the start of the game, making the skies safer for the other missions. In the France 40 scenario, the German should do this liberally on the first turn; in the Netherlands, one strike by a single bomber unit normally wipes out the Dutch air force in short order.

The tasks of a German player are, at least superficially, simple. They have to conquer the Low Countries as soon as possible, by occupying The Hague and Bruxelles (Brussels). The Netherlands is fairly easy, as its weak army is as easily overwhelmed by the Wehrmacht as its air force is destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Even more dangerous, substantial German airlanding forces begin in Rotterdam and adjacent to The Hague. The Dutch capital is highly vulnerable to an early-game attack by the these troops.

This is ahistorical. In the actual invasion, the initial airborne landings around The Hague were a shambles, with enemy flak batteries left intact, scattered drops, and a delayed assembly. They were hence unable to seize the Dutch airfields, as planned. Then when the airlanding troops' transports arrived, they had to find anyplace to land, and thus had to put down on beaches, roads, and any other piece of firm, level ground. Together, the German fallsch´rmjageren and luftlande soldiers lacked the ability to hold the airfields against enemy counterattacks when they finally took them. Thus, in real history the troops that set up next to The Hague were fortunate to survive as military units, and so attacking into the enemy capital was out of the question. In actual fact, the Netherlands fell when the 9th Panzer Division met the paratroopers at Dordrecht and motored into Rotterdam.

Bruxelles takes longer. The forces directed it are predominately infantry, and getting there is more of a slogging match than a coup de main. The prize is definitely worth the effort, as the surrender of Belgium invariably renders the French and British armies there vulnerable to being surrounded and defeated. Likewise, a human player on the Allied side should pay attention to keeping the Belgian capital in his own hands as long as possible. Furthermore, this should be accomplished as much as possible by the Belgians themselves, so that the French and British do not become inordinately endangered.

The third and most crucial German objective is to penetrate into the French heartland with his mechanized forces. It is essential that he maintain the momentum in order to cut off Allied forces, particularly the overextended ones, and seize French cities and their victory points. Moreover, rampaging panzers are, as historically, the best means of either reaching the Channel coast and inducing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF], and capturing Paris, thus forcing an armistice with France. That is the ultimate victory in the scenario.

As historically, the best route is through the Ardennes to the Meuse, and across around Sedan and Dinant. From there they should, and can, break out to the west and south, and never stop.

The Allied goals toward the panzers are to frustrate them at every pass. Their progress has to be impeded as much as possible, especially if they cannot be totally stopped, which is often the case. An Allied player should also be aware of opportunities to cut off the German spearheads, and counterattack. Historically, the Anglo-French counterattacks against the panzers were few and generally uncoordinated. The British move at Arras was frightening at the time to Erwin Rommel and his 7th Panzer Division, as the main antitank guns could not penetrate the armor of the Matilda infantry tanks. Only 88mm anti-aircraft guns, depressed to flat trajectory, could knock them out. But as much promise as the Arras counterattack might have showed at the time to its opponents, it suffered from bad coordination, and did not use all the tanks and troops available.

An Allied player has to do better than this. He should attack in maximum possible strength, and preferably from as many directions as possible. As do many boardgames in Command magazine, The Operational Art of War Volume I rewards concentric attacks as coming against the defenders' flanks and rear. There is no explicit facing in either; instead, concentric attacks serve the same purpose. Since panzers are the most dangerous and usually decisive units in the game, and therefore the Allied player should attack them with as many advantages as possible.

Fundamentally, an Allied human has to change the character of the campaign to his terms. When Case Yellow is working for the Germans, the conflict is one of movement. When the Allies are winning, the comparing is one of attrition, with movement slowed or halted. A static front on the model of World War I is the ideal for the Allied side, and this is the ideal toward which a player should aim. As an ideal, it is seldom totally attainable, but it is a most worthy goal.

MACHINE INTELLIGENCE

The artificial intelligence to The Operational Art of War Volume I is, on one level, pretty good. It manages the system's salient aspects well, specifically the air game and defensive reserves. The software is also adept at establishing the pace for its side within the game turn, alternating movement and combat to good effect. A gamer might learn how to play the German side better by watching the AI execute the first few turns of the blitzkrieg. The artificial intelligence contains the worst weaknesses of the game as well, and they are apparent when the computer plays the Allies.

The AI is overly aggressive on the Allied side. The historical strategy was for the Maginot Line and its fortress troops to act as a shield on the Allied right, while the armies on the left executed the "Dyle Plan." It was fundamentally one of forward defense, by which the French and BEF would march into Belgium and assume defensive positions on the River Dyle. The Germans, of course, countered this by drawing the Allies' main force forward toward the infantry armies in Belgium, then sending the bulk of the panzers and mechanized infantry through the Ardennes, and out through the weak gap on the middle Meuse.

The problem is that the AI plays the Allies with the same aggressiveness as the Germans. The Anglo-French armies do not know how to stop their advance, and would keep going to Berlin if not stopped by human-directed Germans. This is not the worst shortcoming, as it keeps the German player honest, and he cannot leave his frontiers completely unguarded.

However, the Allied AI makes some crucial and glaring mistakes on the way. Units rush into gaps blindly, and in maximum numbers. This creates dangerous salients that can be cut off and reduced by the Germans with relative ease. The Allied tendency to squeeze as many advancing troops into as small a space as possible leads to some weird situations. One sees a half dozen French divisions passing through a narrow corridor into Antwerpen (Antwerp), on their way to a Netherlands that is either a patently lost cause, or already surrendered. A relatively easy German effort against the corridor cuts off their supplies, and permits them to be contained and neutralized by the troops coming south through Holland.

Furthermore, the Allied artificial intelligence does not have the sense to pull out these salients when their situation becomes most questionable. They know just one direction; forward to Germany.

There are two other problems connected with this inordinate aggressiveness. The BEF's headlong rush into Belgium disperses its strength. For example, the faster armored brigades do not hang back with the infantry they were historically intended to support, but run at maximum speed, and end up working with the Belgians. Also, as the German threats spread with the panzers, so the BEF scatters to meet them. A division here, a division there, and soon the British Expeditionary Force is dispersed from Picardy to the Scheldt. This runs directly counter to Britain's need to keep its continental together in a coherent whole.

Second, the troops in the Maginot Line are just as aggressive as their compatriots to the north. It is shocking to see fortress regiments leaving the relative safety of their positions, albeit understated for defensibility, to close with healthy German divisions across the border. It makes sense neither in terms of history nor sound, game-context strategy. The Maginot Line is not an impenetrable barrier on the best of days in The Operational Art of War Volume I, but this turns it into more of speed bump than a shield.

One can argue too that the AI's play of the Allies is more idealized than realistic. In the real Case Yellow, the Allied command was paralyzed by the swiftness of the German advance, and the Wehrmacht's ability to dictate the character and pace of the conflict. In the France 40 scenario, they react with much more alacrity. On the good side, it addresses play balance; an Allied AI that acted just as its historical counterparts did would present a human playing the Germans with a steady stream of easy victories.

There is one more error that the AI makes whether playing Allied or German. Headquarters under its control tend to act too much like combat units. Instead of hanging back behind the infantry and armor, they often rush up to the battleline and try to hold ground alone. One might expect an historical HQ to do this on an emergency basis, but in France 40 it is too close to routine.

CONCLUSIONS

The Operational Art of War Volume I is a logical outgrowth of Norm Koger's earlier operational-level games for SSI. The underlying philosophy and simulation methods are developed from his earlier works, and the many PC gamers whose formative years were spent with Red Lightning and its progeny will feel right at home.

The game was designed as a construction kit for operational-level warfare. It has some sophisticated tools, including an editor for making very attractive maps, a large database of weapons, and an event editor that provides players with the ability to simulate important off-map events, political developments, weather and variable reinforcements.

The scenarios included in it further collectively represent a major value for computer gamers. Each scenario is the equivalent of a new game of the Red Lightning family, with massive improvements in graphics, platform (Windows 95/98 is infinitely better than DOS), and general simulation technique. Considering that the "Silver Edition" containing both the game and the first battle pack can be had for about forty dollars, The Operational Art of War Volume I is a better value than the larger but generally obsolescent game sets in SSI's Definitive Wargame Collection releases.

For all the praise that The Operational Art of War Volume I earns, there are still shortcomings, and they are centered in the artificial intelligence. This becomes clear when the France 40 scenario serves as a laboratory. An AI system adept at the details of the game has room for improvement when it comes to executing strategy against Case Yellow.

In the long run however, it belongs in any strategy gamer's collection. The faults are, for the most part, outweighed by the game's assets. Moreover, exhibits potential. TalonSoft is the best computer wargame company for making upgrades and patches available, not just as cosmetic improvements and bug fixes, but as real, substantial enhancements. Hopefully, The Operational Art of War Volume I will benefit greatly from this consistent commitment. In addition, there is a new edition of the game, freshly developed to use the improved engine from The Operational Art of War Volume II. This promises to be a must-buy for computer wargamers when it appears. Even so, in the here and now, Volume I is an impressive achievement. As long as gamers understand the presence and perhaps inevitability of the imperfections, it is one to be played.