New tanks on an old battlefield!
Ukrainian developer Graviteam's widely-acclaimed wargames have entered their third generation with the arrival of Mius Front, but my introduction has come only lately, and with their second-generation series - Graviteam Tactics - Operation Star (GT:OS). Why the wait? Well, I've tried a few PC wargames over the years, namely the original versions of Combat Mission and Theatre of War, and I haven't been massively impressed. Which may seem strange, given that I've been dabbling in wargames for many years - I still have my 1/300 models and terrain for NATO -v- WARPAC, last seen in action circa 1990. Below, Scotia Micro Models T-72As lead BMP-2s as they move up behind smokescreens, before shaking out into line for an attack on an enemy-held ridgeline. Overhead, home-made MiG-27s help keep NATO heads down.
I played solo, using concepts aired in the Wargames Research Group's Programmed Wargames Scenarios, but with my own method of drawing playing cards to determine the presence and types of enemy units as my force advanced. Rules were WRG's 1950-1985 set, but adapted to use the more realistic concepts in their 1988 rules for the 1925-50 period (preferred over the 'rival' Challenger rules, with their rather complex move sequence). I also dabbled in a game based on home-made rules for 1/76 scale models - which again, I still have. I much referred the larger battles possible in 1/300 scale, though it's interesting to see that, even in the computer age, wargaming with miniatures, and fairly big ones at that, is enjoying something of a revival with the Bolt Action system from Warlord Games.
When PCs arrived, my preference was very much for tanksims over wargames, starting with SSI's Panzer Commander...
...then moving on to Novalogic's Armored Fist 2 and Microprose's M1 Tank Platoon II...
I didn't much like Combat Mission Beyond Overlord or, more recently, Theatre of War because to me, they simulated wargaming rather than war. Let me explain myself, here: tactical-level wargames - I have no interest in the strategic variety - cast you in the role of your side's commander. But they seem usually to make you play like a miniature wargamer, with far too much ability - or worse, need - to micromanage, to control individual vehicles or even soldiers.
If - as is normally the case, in a post WW1 tactical scenario - you are wargaming the role of a company commander, your 'pieces' should be you platoons, not your individual tanks; if a battalion commander, your pieces are your companies, not your platoons. PC-based wargames seemed to me to lack suitable AI to play the role of your subordinate commanders, and therefore, as I said, simulated wargaming, rather than war, by encouraging - or requiring - micromanagement.
To me, this was also true, in their own way, of many rules for miniature wargames. The set which broke this mold in my eyes was the aforementioned WRG WW2-era set. These made your platoons, not individual vehicles, the pieces whose moves and tactics you, the player, directed. I make no apology for quoting some telling lines from Phil Barker's introduction.
'In the hope that players are tired of the traditional fascination with minor and often irrelevant differences in tank armour and penetration, we emphasise tactics, terrain and control. This does not mean that the technical content is inaccurate, but that differences in performance not substantiated by careful research or that are insignificant compared with random factors have been given only the attention they deserve...We pay much attention to troop psychology, to what is possible to and with the men who control the weapons, and how these men can be effectively commanded. Real battles are not fought by nicely-painted model tanks, but by men who are tired, frightened, dirty and often cold and hungry. These rules are set in the real world of rain and mud, dust and mirage.'
That's the way to do it!
For me, the Graviteam wargames seem to stand out in the genre much as did these WRG rules in their day, and for much the same underlying reason - that they aim to simulate war, rather than simulate wargaming.
This is a recent discovery, and was made, not with GT:OS, but with SABOW, Steel Armor - Blaze of War. I tried the GT:OS demo a year or more ago, but it featured a little skirmish in near darkness, which, I decided, made it hardly worth making the effort to get to grips with the complex interface. It was SABOW that helped me learn this interface, because its rather excellent tanksim element is embedded in the same sort of wargame. So when BundleStars very recently renewed its amazing deal for GT:OS - £4.45 Sterling for the original game plus 8 DLCs - I decided it was time to take the plunge. Or should that be, 'pull the trigger'?
This being a mission report rather than a review, there should be a mission, right? So here it comes. It's nothing elaborate, or even terribly challenging but it is somewhat unusual, because it mixes and matches different GT:OS elements. This is possible because the game developed from its WW2 Eastern Front roots - sadly not towards the Western Front, but post-war. So my GT:OS bundle includes the following, on top of the basic game and a pack of high-resolution textures:
- Krasnaya Polyana 1943
- Shilovo 1942
- Volokonovka 1942
- Sokolovo 1943
- Shield of the Prophet (Iran-v-USSR in Afghanistan, complete with Chieftains, yay!)
- Op Hooper (Angola)
- Zhalanashkol (USSR-v-China)
While each of these has one or more 'operations' or small campaigns, which are excellent in their own right if SABOW's are anything to go by, the GT:OS Battle Editor allows you to generate fights on any of the included maps, using any of the included side's weapons. You can't have KV-1s on the same side as M60s, but you can take one of the Soviet maps and set up a fight between post-war Soviet and Western troops and tanks. Which is what this mission is about.
I really wanted to fight with Chieftains, which are on Iran's side in the Shield of the Prophet DLC, and despite the Iranian markings, look great outside of the Afghan setting...
...but either I'm missing something important, or there's a bug, as I can't for the life of me get Chieftains to respond to orders. So they just sit there, looking and sounding great, but quite immobile. So instead, I set up a fight for the Iranian M60A1s. These have no such qualms!
Here's the setup screen, after a few clicks have plonked my chosen friends and foes onto the Eastern Front Sokolovo (winter) map. I have opted to use NATO-style unit symbols, as you can see.
In the blue corner, on the left, we have two tank-heavy Combat Teams (in British Army parlance), each with two platoons of M60s and a platoon of mechanised infantry in M113 APCs. There's also a separate company HQ element (which I forgot to add also to the northernmost team); this includes a mortar section, perhaps it is based on Iranian Army ToE's.
In the red corner, to the right, we have Chinese forces from the People's Liberation Army (from the Zalanashkol DLC), not using NATO symbols as I now see. This is a practice mission so the enemy is just an infantry company, with no heavy weapons, nothing more dangerous to my tanks than RPGs. The enemy is a company defended locality, with two platoons up (in front) and a third one in depth (behind), with company HQ nearby - a fairly standard deployment, giving both depth and a degree of all-round defense. It has taken just a minute or so's clicking to get this set up.
Next step, just as per SABOW, is another click to start the 'Unit Deployment' phase. This takes a little longer, because I take the time to adjust the initial settings to bring each platoon into close formation. Below, you can see the result. In each Combat Team, a four-tank platoon (blue diamonds) is either side of a mech inf platoon (blue 'pointy rectangles'), all facing east. The enemy is indicated only by the red PLA flags north and south of Animal Farm (somebody who built this map was maybe a fan of George Orwell, because the Soviets certainly were not). The conventional symbols on the map indicate things like the cover available at each spot you can place a unit. There is also a 3-D 'real world' view for this purpose, which is handy if you want to place units with more care (eg hull down or in cover, for defensive operations) but I'm not hanging around and am usually happy to use the map view, if I'm attacking.
The next step, when happy with deployment, is to click forward to the Unit Orders phase. The main difference is that from the same map, you get access to the full in-game set of command icons. This being a try-out rather than a deadly serious battle, I keep my orders simple. Each infantry platoon is ordered to attack frontally the nearest enemy position. On either flank of the attacking APCs, a tank platoon is to advance to a fire position short of the enemy positions (hopefully at no closer than extreme RPG range) from which they can shoot the infantry onto the objective. Wider angles between covering fire and assaulting troops would have been better but otherwise, it's all fairly conventional. The blue lines show the lines of advance for each platoon; you can set up dog-leg routes. This pic was taken just after I started the battle, hence the clock at the top is ticking.
I haven't yet worked out how to control indirect fire support, but I try to set the company HQ mortar section to hit the enemy localities, though I am not sure if it will work. I'm even more clueless as to whether I could have opted to have off-map artillery in a quick mission. But until I can control my organic supporting weapons, there's not much point. This will be mostly or wholly a direct fire job.
Below is the bird's eye view - drone's eye, these days - as my troops begin to move off. I hadn't ordered my troops to mount up - I wasn't sure if they would debus to make the final assault, and don't yet know how to make them do that. There's a choice of icons, but I just turn them off. From Youtube videos, a lot of people play with these turned on - or maybe it's just for their videos. I hate markers with a passion; I would simply not play a game that wouldn't let me turn them off. The currently-selected (M60) platoon is on the left, with the M113s and dismounts bottom centre and right.
Another thing people seem to do (again, maybe only for videos, but I have my doubts) is play GT:OS from an airborne, God's Eye view. Again, to me this is unrealistic and anathema, even if it is a convenient way of monitoring the battlefield. The pic below shows the view with the hated icons turned off and the camera lowered. Much better! Again, this is the southern company group; the right-flank M60 platoon can be seen moving up to support the mech infantry in the foreground.
At this point, I drop the camera to ground level and track over to the right-flank tank platoon. One day, I may have a go at making a little mod without Iranian markings (they are more conspicuous on the 113s) as I plan on doing a lot of simulated NATO -v- WARPAC stuff in GT:OS.
A single keystroke will, for as long as I need it, bring up the command interface or (as below) the location markers, which are useful for orientation.
For now, as my AFVs grind forward noisily through the snow, I'm content to use what time I have to watch my southern Combat Team advance. I've made my plan, given my orders, and now it's time to see how it pans out. Like real life, GT:OS plays out in real time - you can pause, speed up or slow down the action, but the only turns are in the operational level in GT:OS campaigns. This is a big plus for me.
I don't have too long to wait before the balloon goes up. Automatic weapons fire breaks out somewhere up ahead and left. I see red and green tracers cutting back and forth. A beeping sound, familiar from SABOW, tells me there's a message 'on the air', and I know that it must be a contact report. Which is exactly what it is. Lt. Kashani, on the left of the southern company group with his four M60s, is reporting in, confirming that the party has begun!
...to be continued!