Sunday, April 1, 2018

The problems with 'wargaming' history. (Particularly WWII.)

I had a good comment on my 'Ten Myths about the Phoney War' post from a Swedish respondent called DIREWOFLx75.

He makes some fair points, adn of course some that I disagree with. I think he is oversimplifying some things, but that's fair, he thinks the same of many of my points.

His arguable points include, for instance, the idea that a British 'intervention' might forcing Sweden and Norway into Germany's arms. (Not convincing I'm afraid... I note that the German invasion didn't automatically sweep Sweden into Britain's arms? Or into Germany's arms?)

But most of what he said was just interesting commentary that is worth reading.

However he did say that one of my points (about Russia staying on Germany's side for the rest of the war) could only be held by "an arch idiot who left his brain behind".

He justified that statement with the line: "Analyse it, war-game it, the conclusion is..."

Now I love a good war-game, and have played many versions of World War Two boardgames: from the stupendous Europa (so large scale, with so many pieces, that you need hundreds of hours to play a single front), to the more manageable World in Flames (where a game can take merely scores of hours, not hundreds...) Though I admit I haven't had time to play for years, so some of the following is possibly dated... but I digress.

All of them had the same problem. The rules pre-suppose certain outcomes, and force certain responses to make sure you can't avoid those outcomes.

In World War Two games the most obvious problem is that they force the sides to fit the way they actually worked out, regardless of the fact that far more realistic alternatives were in fact more likely.

For example:

1. Who would believe that Yugoslavia would voluntarily join the (currently losing) British team in 1941? Yet it happened.
2. That Hitler would attack his best ally and supply source - Russia -while still fighting on 2 other fronts in 1941? Yet it happened.
3. That Japan would suddenly attack the US in 1941? Yet it happened.
4. That Hitler would voluntarily declare war on the US two days later? Yet it happened.
5. That Italy would side with it's WW1 opponent Germany, to attack it's long term ally and protector Britain in 1940? Yet it happened. (With the same results for Italy as when Turkey had made the same poor choice a war earlier...)
6. That Brazil would decide to enter the war at all? Yet it happened.
7. That fascist Spain - in huge debt to Italy and Germany - would sit out the war? Yet it happened.

I could go on and on, but please note that all these unlikely things are built into the structure of every major World War Two game. The rules are written to force such things to happen 'correctly'.

Even the Days of Decision pre-game for World in Flames only allows minor things like Spain changing sides (if you can get the Republicans to win instead of the fascists). It never considers the infinitely more likely case of Italy NOT changing sides and remaining in the British camp. It never even considers the option of Japan joining Germany in conquering Russia (the plan when the Japanese army was dominant) INSTEAD of the much stupider Japanese attack on the United States (when the IJN was dominant).

I sometimes managed to talk some other players of these games into trialling more realistic scenarios. (I am being quite serious, the things that actually happened - Yugoslavia for instance - were hardly logical, let alone inevitable.)

Italy joining the allies against Germany was actually not only reasonable, but even very likely during the Finnish crises. (Mussolini had threatened war with Germany in 1934, and all Italy was incensed at Germany having a treaty with the hated Soviets in 1940. Italy was working hard to get military supplies to Finland, and Britain and France were seriously trying to engage het Italians. Talk of a deal between France and Italy to reclaim the old Baku oilfields that had been nationalised by the Soviets saw stocks in the old company's rising on the Paris Bourse. The American ambassador to Russia cabled that the Russians were desperate to get the Finns to negotiate to get troops down to the border with French Syria where a large French army was gathering. The German's were helping the Russians put mines in to defend Black Sea ports. The British and French despatched a large force of bombers to Syria to prepare to destroy the Baby oilfields... The Japanese army was showing interest in getting revenge for the only recently failed compaign in Mongolia against Russia... None of this is fantasy...I can go on extensively!).

The German/Soviet alliance of nasty dictators versus everyone else in Europe (possibly including Italy and Japan on the allied side) is actually very realistic.

Japan co-operating with Germany to squash Russia is far more realistic than wandering off to attack the US! (In fact Japan NOT co-operating with Germany to pressure the allied position in the Middle East in 1942 was not even unlikely, just plain dumb!)

These are just some of the things that you can easily war-game to see how it might have worked. And despite DIREWOLF's assumptions, Germany and Russia in 1940 were not a lay down Mozaire over Britain and France supported by... Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Rumania, Turkey and Japan (with the US still in the background).

That combination was in fact quite possible, and indeed, much more likely, than the eventual campaign that saw even Finland (Finland!) forced into the Axis camp against Russian aggression! (Finland was the allied hero of 1940, and the League of Nations expelled Russia and urged all nations to support Finland. Italy was one of the strongest supporters! Yet in 1945 one of the first actions of the UN was to accuse Finland of being the aggressor against Russia! Let's discuss inevitability?)

Unfortunately many gamers believe that the rules that force certain sides to develop in certain ways reflect political inevitability. Crap.

I have even had gamers insist that I follow the exact letter of the way the rules are set up, and only do what the rules let me do, with no discretion at all.

I found a fun way to screw such over-simplistic stupidities over. (Or I could 20 years ago... hopefully some changes have taken place since.)

If you ever want to test the stupidity of following the rules of a game that pretends everything can be fixed, then give World in Flames (say version 4 or 5) a go from the British players role.

Turn 1, rebase most British forces to Canada.

Turn 2 & 3, invade and conquer US.

Turn 4 & 5 rebase all British forces to bolster France before European spring.

Rest of war Britain only has to protect the 4 sea links to the US (and link up Australasia with India)  to beat the U-boats and have effectively unlimited US resources to share with it's allies. (Which can include Russia if you keep following the stupid rules? The allied supply route to Russia also becomes much easier to defend under this scenario.)

Even if France can't be saved (unlikely the way the rules are set up, unless a lucky coup in Yugoslavia and a couple of sacrificial air drops or invasions to undercut German factories are successful), Britain can still build a factory somewhere in the Commonwealth every turn for the rest of the game, and have the resources to use them. By the time Japan is supposed to enter the war in late 1941, you can have some real fun with the fact that there are not enough pieces in the British forces mix, and you have to co-op pieces from their new colony... the US... to continue playing. (In fact the best chance for the 'Axis' under this scenario is to have Japan attack Britain in 1940, which of course the rules are working to prevent...)

This utterly stupid and wildly unrealistic scenario nonetheless fits within the letter of the rules of the game.

I have played it that way a couple of times mostly to demonstrate the stupidity of playing purely by using rules written specifically to get a fairly unlikely historical outcome.

But it's bloody good fun if you like playing with history!

So when I "analyse it, war-game it, the conclusion is..." I find that the conclusion is far more affected by assumptions about how things must have worked - because people are assuming that such a route was inevitable... than is is by historical realities.

Dear DIREWOLF. Game it by all means... just check you're pre-assumptions at the door, and REALLY look at all the possibilities.

The deeper you go into what might have happened, the less what actually did happen will seem 'inevitable'.

And it can be really fun.

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