Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy – Seeing the Game Through Contemporary Field Manuals
Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. PC Game After Action Report Using World War II Army Field Manuals. Publisher & Developer: Battlefront.com. $55
Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy (CMBN) is a rich tactical wargame, an anachronism unto itself. Its meticulous blend of historical accuracy, sophisticated artificial intelligence, and outstanding mechanical integrity contribute to a rare experience where returning to primary historical documents is more rewarding than any strategy guide.
The words “real-time strategy” drip from the lips of some experienced grognards like a poison, heavy with a sense of missed opportunity and of perceived laziness. In the early nineties PC games took a turn away from the stately automation of classic historical pen-and-paper wargames. StarCraft was the poster child for this new genre, an abstraction of mixed unit combat smeared atop a blinged-out game of rock, paper, scissors. To move units across the map players “lassoed” them with neon boxes and picked a destination with the left mouse. To fire on a target they merely right-clicked. The frantic pace appealed to many gamers, but they were quite the opposite of the careful examination of period combat some were looking for.
While CMBN is reportedly built from the ground up to be a real time strategy game, and while it allows players to “lasso and go,” it only truly shines when it is played in its proprietary ‘WeGo’ format. Here players are tasked with issuing commands to their units during a pause in the action, taking as long as they like to give orders of great detail including turns, facings, pauses, and adjustable fields of fire. Then players hit the play button to witness their orders carried out in a minute of movie-like action.
But units don’t just blithely plod along toward the enemy lines. They are governed by their own sophisticated intelligence, a proprietary “TacAI” that tells them what their real-life counterparts would have done in a similar situation. But where the game’s simulation is, necessarily, lacking is in formations, unit cohesion, and directed fire. These three concepts are where the game is really played, where the challenge lies. CMBN is not a game about building up resources and throwing them against the front line. It is a game about planning, maneuver, and communication.
However, Battlefront.com’s own nearly 200-page manual is itself almost completely devoid of a careful examination of these topics. What is a player to do?
Ibiblio.com is billed as “The Public’s Library and Digital Archive”. Among many publicly available documents is a huge collection of digital versions of the period Field Manuals studied by U.S. soldiers and officers as they trained for deployment in World War II. For such a complex simulation as CMBN I have found no other resource quite like FM 7-10, the Infantry Field Manual: Rifle Company, Rifle Regiment, June 2 1942.
Most scenarios in CMBN begin the same way, with a deployment zone filled, cheek-by-jowl, with infantry and mechanized units. A Company will be intermingled with B Company, C Company may be mostly intact, but all three may potentially be entirely across the map from Regimental command. Graphic 1 shows an unfortunate situation where, among a sea of G.I.’s, this unit is out of command from both its section and its company, indicated by the red crosses in the lower left. If you were to begin the game like this, to push your units forward from this starting position, they would almost immediately break lines of communication. The result would be a meandering advance, entirely without the carefully coordinated concentration of fire and timing that fire and maneuver warfare requires.
Graphic 1 – Click to view larger image.
CMBN models period communication in great detail. The TacAI will rely on various forms of communication in order of ability, starting first with radio contact if available, then moving to verbal contact, and finally visual contact. Units outside of visual contact with their command will sluggishly respond to player’s orders, if at all. Battlefront.com’s manual blissfully explains this, but only FM 7-10 explains how to assemble a company and move it through the battlespace as a cohesive fighting unit. (graphic 2)
“12. Approach March By Day. –a. In daylight the approach march must be made in formations which provide protection against artillery fire, attack by ground forces, and air attack; which permit maximum utilization of the terrain for concealment and cover and for protection against attack by armored forces; and which enable the company commander to maintain control of his company. Consequently, platoons will be separated laterally, or in depth, or both.” (FM 7-10 page 15)
Utilizing this didactic instruction you can quickly tease apart the pile of soldiers and assemble a fighting force fit for advance. (graphic 3) Moving clockwise from upper left, see that a group of scouts from 1st Platoon hugs the treeline, another peers over a gap in the fence in the middle of the image, and a third peers through heavy bocage in the upper right. 3rd Platoon maintains the right side of the formation proper (both on bended knee and prone), and is supported by a light mortar in the lower right of the image (shown deployed for easy identification). In the center, highlighted yellow, the flag of the L Company command unit is visible just below the command unit for the heavy weapons group, itself providing support with a pair of light machine guns in the center of the formation. The retinue is rounded out with a second mortar team in the lower left supporting 2nd platoon on the far left, shown prone.
Graphic 3 – click to view larger image.
L Company is advancing in depth, providing for a quick reaction to contact with the enemy to either support each other or to exploit a gap in the enemy’s defenses. In the middle of the force sits its heavy weapons complement, its field of fire open to the left and right ready to deploy and provide suppressing fire. In time you can similarly situate your other companies and place Regimental command among them. Mutual fire support, as well as clear communications, are maintained and duplicated in depth throughout the battalion formation.
You are ready to advance, and Battlefront.com’s TacAI ably moves units forward. At this point it is okay to “lasso and go” as individual models will hug the terrain, stop in or near cover as they are able, and maintain proper spacing. They will react to contact with the enemy realistically, but their inbuilt intelligence can only be useful if you know where to place them. Remember, you won’t be able to help them for a minute at a time!
The real fun begins when you eventually do make contact with the enemy. Fog of war is strictly maintained throughout CMBN. Soldiers have realistic “eyes and ears” capabilities, and can pinpoint muzzle flashes and the sound of movement. They do not, however, have prescience. Until full and proper identification can be made by multiple eyes-on enemy units will be marked on the map as contacts only. This requires a careful advance. If you overextend your units you run the risk of meeting a superior force head on, and unable to bring a timely rate of fire to bear. And unlike StarCraft you can’t just make more. Again, FM 7-10 comes to our aid. (graphic 4)
”(1.) Co A, having captured Hill T, has been directed to assist Co B in capturing Hill U. Assistance by direct fire is impracticable on account of intervening heavy woods. Co A therefore employs its support platoon to attack hostile position on Hill U in flank. Capt Co A arranges in advance for fire support from artillery, Co D, and Co B.
“(2) Co B, taking advantage of the woods on its right, captures Hill V. Co A is held up in front of Hill W. Co B employs its light machine guns to assist Co A and thereby assist its own advance by removing a possible threat to its own right flank.
“Co E has captured its final objective, Hill Z. Cos A and B are held up by machine-gun fire from the east nose of Hill Z. Co E employs the fire of its light machine guns and of part of its support platoon in order to assist the advance of Cos A and B.” (FM 7-10 page 43)
Like the tip books from early Sierra games, except without the vinegar infused markers, you have all you need in the pages of FM 7-10 to train yourself to leapfrog across the battlefield. Your units, complete with their TacAI training, behave like real soldiers on the WWII battlefield, and all you have to do is have the tools at your disposal to lead them.
FM 7-10 goes on at length over various situations: Night attack, attack in woods, of villages, and of a river line. Many pages are dedicated to setting up supply lines, and the successful implementation of ammo bearers (faithfully reproduced in CMBN as part of every heavy machine gun team) to support the assault. Attacking a fortified location, or raids across enemy lines. And it doesn’t stop there as additional period field manuals (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/FM/) are available on topics like heavy weapons (FM 7-15), armored tactics and technique (FM 17-10), tank platoons (FM 17-30), and scouting (FM 21-75).
CMBN is a brutally difficult game, but one that rewards dedication to the source materials. Its artifice is quirky, but the concepts buried within it are sound. If anything, the pace of play for CMBN requires such careful forethought because you the player are taking up the role of not merely a single battalion commander, but every leader of every unit below them. If anything, the amount of time and precision required to play a solid round of CMBN illuminates the individual initiative and intense training required of the citizen soldiers who fought and won WWII.
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs. His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois. This summer you can find him crouched over his newly built PC, or may have seen him prowling the vendor floor at GenCon in Indianapolis digging up new and exciting games to play and stories to write.