Smolensk 41 Gold and why I hope you will reconsider JTS games

Storming the Land Bridge is a 40 turn scenario detailing the fighting around Vitebsk.  There are 250 objective points on the map and a major victory can only be achieved by netting 3200 points, which means that if you are playing as the Germans, you will need to bag and destroy a good amount Soviet forces without sacrificing your units to do so.
I have a sweet spot for John Tiller games.  Regardless of the series, a great deal of work always goes into the historical research, map creation and scenario design. A friend of mine likes to say the historical notes each title includes are often worth the price of the game itself and I tend to agree.

I also know that many people in various forums these days think the titles are outdated because: 1) the AI isn't very good, 2) they all seem to have the same user interface and 3) the graphics aren't up to par for current gaming, which is why the new Gold versions of the Panzer Campaigns titles (with new graphics and a new user interface), and the other work that the Wargame Design Studio is doing to upgrade another series is particularly timely.
The German strength dialogue details how many men, vehicles and guns you have per unit.  You can drill down to the company level.  
The screens in this post are all from the Gold Version of Smolensk 1941 which is the kind of free-wheeling dog fight that I want out of my WW2 Eastern Front titles.  I used to think the meat grinder scenarios were more interesting (see all of my Command Ops work for Stalingrad scenarios) but now I have come to realize that I prefer EF maneuver warfare with genuine command choices whether they are on a tactical or operational level.

My current gaming preference has led me to reconsider some of the early Panzer Campaigns titles like Smolensk and Moscow 42, both of which I am now beginning to look at and play for the first time.

Coincidentally, I learned about this Vitebsk scenario within the Smolensk game from JC at Real and Simulated Wars after he posted a blog about his failure to properly utilize 7th Panzer and that got me thinking about "AI" and scenario design in general.

These days, we expect our AI opponent to be able to surprise us and to challenge us and I would argue no game really achieves this with any regularity.    Most wargames are meant to be played against a human opponent and the AI is meant to perform basic army upkeep functions and basic attacks.  If we keep losing in Ultimate General (a game where the AI is often described as very challenging) against the AI Confederates, maybe it isn't the AI beating us, maybe it is the design of the scenario and hand you are dealt at the start. BTW, I love Ultimate General.

Which brings me back to John Tiller games and my hope that you will reconsider them (if you doubt them), especially after the updating work that is being done by WDS and JTS to the Panzer Campaigns and ACW series.

There are scenarios in every JTS game that are genuinely hard to solo.  Whether you are trying to hold back the GE 6th Army as it advances into the Don River basin or whether you are trying to probe your way across the Dvina river, without sacrificing your Panzers to well-placed Soviet defenders; achieving a 3200 point "Major Victory" on a map with 250 objective points is going to be a challenge.  That means you need to: do it on the cheap, (which takes time that you might not have), have a plan to gather intelligence and then precisely apply your force. I would argue that Napoleon would have a hard time doing that and so will you if you give Panzer Campaigns Smolensk or some of the other PzC titles a try.

All of this is to say, that I am thoroughly pleased with where John Tiller and WDS games are going and I think you will be too.

This is the reinforcement dialogue.  You can see the timed arrived of every German unit on the map and plan accordingly. The German force consists of three Panzer divisions and one motorized division.  As this is 1941, most of the units are fully established and very high quality troops.  Corps assets are going to deploy in the center of the map opposite Vitebsk and Bogushevsk.

20 Pz Div recon elements make first contact with the forward line of the Soviet defense.  In the following turn I uncovered a belt of mines in front of the Soviet defense.

Using the shading option for "visible hexes" is a great way to make sense of LOS issues and anticipate ambushes.  Here a recon element dashes kilometers ahead of a Panzer regiment as I try to fix the retreating Soviet defense and avoid a tank killing ambush.

This is a maximum range view of my artillery batteries.  I check this after each turn of movement to make certain I am supporting my forward elements.

Advance recon movement in between Vitebsk and Bogushevsk.

At the beginning of each turn a command report is released updating you on the state of your units, incoming reinforcements and out of command headquarters units for the upcoming turn.  I used to casually pay attention to these, but now I quite like the condensed status report.

Using recon units in Smolensk is a real pleasure.  Here a Panzer regiment follows a forward recon unit within 4 kilometers of the Bogushevsk objective.  In some of the less open PzC titles, recon units are cannon fodder in my experience.  With Smolensk they are making a big difference.

My recon unit retires to resupply.  Supply is a factor in Panzer Campaigns titles which I quite like.


Yooper said…
I picked up my first JTS title a month ago and I'm pretty impressed with the polish the WDS has added. The earlier Tiller titles were just a little too ugly. The Mius front demo sold me on it. I wish the games had a bit more automation and they could use some UI redesign, but overall they're solid for what they set out to do. Though at times the AI is frustrating as it gets needlessly encircled.
Chris said…
Hi Yooper. Some of the early period games have a command function where you can delegate orders to commanders. It makes the larger scenarios a little more playable. I wish the WW2 scenarios had it. I like Mius a lot.

asdovas said…
The main problem with the Panzer Campaigns is that the casualties in the game are very reduced in comparison to how it would be in reality. Especially it concerns what effect the tank fire will have, and it will be trifling on an infantry. It is easy to see it if we make a little scenario in the editor, where in the flat desert we will place about 10 tanks against 150 non-digged infantrymen without any antitank support in the next hex. And if we fire with the tanks or even make assault we will see that the infantry casualty will be absolutely insufficient, but in addition they sometimes can destroy a pair of tanks or even more. This is absolutely unrealistic, in the real life during a TWO-HOUR battle in the open terrain the tanks will rip them apart, an infantry without at-weapons is very defenceless, and tanks are created specially to break trough them. It the game this role of them is very poorly reflected.
Chris said…
Hi Asdovas. I agree. I do think the tables on casualties need adjusting. I have never looked at the files for this, but perhaps there is a way to edit the casualty rates.
Anonymous said…
I always find it kinda funny that you can see expected reinforcements. I'm trying to figure out who ever came up with that idea. I hated it in board games but then they have their limitations but in PC games?
You wanna replay the battle/operation exactly as it went in real life then what's the point of playing it ;)
My main gripe is there should be much more (easily achievable) realism. Did a general in IIWW opened his notebook and looked at the "expected reinforcements" coming in a 3 days time (X unit coming precisly on Y)? Actually they rarely did now if anything. They were told or promised but in reality it almost never came on time.

At this stage the randomization of objectives and situation (placement of units,strenght of forces, reinforcments etc.) can be programmed for a scenario (instead of making things "random" by creating numerous scenarios). Not easy but doable.

I play against myself in TOAW 4 "FITE2". Although I find it hard not to use my knowledge of "enemy plans" but on the other hand i find it much more challenging, also because of the size of the scenario, which kinda prevents you from countering your moves as one side when playing as the other (you are simply not able to manage).
I strongly recommend it to give a try playing against yourself. It can be surprisingly challenging and fun :)
Chris Ad
Chris said…
Good suggestion and I will try that. I also agree with you about reinforcements.
Anonymous said…
This whole Gold update is IMO a waste of time.
Sure, it looks nicer, but there are already mods for that.
But as long as there aren't any significant updates to the AI, we're back to the JTS series being MP only.

Saying that the AI "isn't very good" is the understatement of the decade.
It does okay as long as it doesn't have to do anything else than hold fixed positions.
But ask it to do anything that includes the slightest bit of maneuvering, and it's dead, plain and simple.
It has no concept of flank security, it refuses to pull out of dangerous situations, it will quite happily stand in clear terrain while Disrupted and let itself get shelled to death, and it has a penchant for stacking everything into one hex and then subsequently get surrounded with alarming regularity.
Try Normandy as the Allies, I guarantee you the AI will force-march the 21st Panzer right into the British line and stand there while you calmly surround the entire division.
The most bizarre example is a game I had recently in Fulda Gap '85 (13-01 Clash of Brothers scenario)
Basically, the AI is to hold a town and the bridge across the river. It has one Panzer division, and starts with a Panzer Grenadier regiment in the town, a Panzer regiment to the south guarding a secondary bridge, and a Panzer regiment to the north holding a hill that the main road goes across.
Player comes in with two East German Armored divisions. No need to attack the hill, there are no victory points up there so why bother digging Leopard tanks out of entrenched positions?
So that position gets screened with a Rifle regiment, and the rest of the East German force proceeds to murder the single PG regiment in the town.
Neither Panzer regiment even tried to move. Even when the last VP location fell to the East Germans, there was still an entire Panzer regiment on the hill, completely unengaged, which just sat there and did nothing. 300 grenadiers and 90 Leopard IIs who were apparently just enjoying the sunshine.
I fully agree that an AI can't possibly deliver the same challenge as a human player, but this is just stupid.

Don't get me wrong, I love the JTS games to death. I have pretty much all games from JTS/HPS, with a few exceptions due to disinterest in those battles.
And they are fantastic operational exercises, especially when it comes to the larger campaigns.
But either you do PBEM or you play yourself. There is simply no point in playing the AI.
Chris said…
I do think the AI is weak, but I also think some of the blame falls on the the scenario designer (I include myself in this category). Very often there is one AI script per scenario when multiple versions can be created. Smarter scripts could be employed but the designers aim for the historical version and forget the alternative attacks that might have been possible.
John said…
Playing the battles these games represent at the battalion level is absurd. The unit density makes them virtually unplayable.