Monday, December 6, 2010
Revolution Under Siege - Review - The Birth of Deep Battle During the Post-Bolshevik Revolution Years
During the chaos of post-World War I, the young Bolshevik revolution had the fight of its life. Against the White Army, against the Polish Empire, against Western Allies expeditionary forces and against Japan. This conflict, where almost everybody ganged up against the Bolsheviks is loosely consolidated in the pages of history as the Russian Civil War. This was a war that had not too much in common with World War I. For starters, this was a war fought exclusively over the political existence of the Bolsheviks. In addition, the Red Army was small and had to spread itself thin over an expansive territory. Furthermore, logistics were bad, communications were worse and military leadership was frequently atrocious. Yet this was the dawn of the so-called Soviet operational art that succeeded in pushing the German Army back to Berlin in World War II. How could an Army that barely made it through a war of chaotic strategic deployments and re-deployments become a leader in the development of operational art? The answer lies in the military history of the Russian Civil War and Revolution Under Siege is an educational tour de force to understand why the conflict was fought like it was.
Revolution Under Siege is the second AGEOD game designed by an independent team. This time, the group is from France and named SEP Reds.
If you are a veteran AGEOD games' player, Revolution Under Siege bears no surprises on how it works. This is a WEGO turn based war game focused in the strategic and operational levels of warfare (although the term and concept of "operations" was coined a bit later after the timeline of this game).
The game plays in a map that spans from eastern Poland to Vladivostok.There are "out of map" boxes that represent areas crossed by the Transiberian railway. This map is divided in regions that have specific terrain features (woods, hills, clear, mountains, etc) that affect movement, supply and combat. Transport infrastructure is also an attribute of each region and should not be ignored in this war of continuous maneuver. Regions with cities, depots and towns are very important for providing supplies to the weary soldiers that pass through them. Among cities, there are some that are considered strategic and others that are considered objectives. Holding military presence on those cities accumulate victory points that added up over the duration of the scenario will decide the winner.
The player can choose among the following playable factions: the Red Army, the Polish Army, the Armed Forces of South Russia or the forces loyal to Admiral Kolchak's dictatorship in Siberia. Commanders, fronts, armies, corps and brigades are represented by clickeable markers. New and particular to this game, the smallest unit available for the Red Army are divisions and brigades. But every unit is composed of so called "elements" (companies, battalions and regiments), even when the player can't split them. The order of battle of each faction is rich in detail and makes you wish for a Wiki resource on the particulars of each formation. Each unit has attributes including (but not limited to) strength, movement speed, ammo, supplies, morale and cohesion. Following the tradition of other AGEOD games, commanders have their own special strengths and weaknesses, like offensive or defensive and organizational capabilities.
Movement orders for units are issued by a drag and drop procedure that immediately renders on the map both the path and the duration in days that the maneuver will take. Units can be given offensive, defensive or neutral stances. Each stance has a choice of options. For example you can order a unit to move in an offensive stance towards an enemy-held region with the option of stopping the offense after a single round of combat.
Once the player has issued all orders, he clicks on a button and the action begins with all the units (own and enemy's) moving according to their orders. If two opposing units are present in the same region and their stance and capabilities guarantee combat, the game engine opens a circular display showing the progress of the battle. Although command during tactical combat is by design out of reach for the player, the savvy armchair commander will recognize that he can put terrain and troops composition at his advantage. For example, if commanding partisans the player can take advantage of woods and mountains because partisans are computed during battle as fast movers that (in contrast to line infantry) can achieve maximum frontage in those types of terrain. The action continues for 15 days of simulated time and after that the player is put back in charge of the show.
Revolution Under Siege is a pleasure to play and I am savoring every minute with it. I am a confessed fan of AGEOD, but also a pessimist at the core so I think I can do a good job telling you the good, the bad and the ugly of this game.
Commanding the Red Army is a feast for the player prone to play the underdog. There you are, in charge of an Army that can barely cover the most obvious enemy approach routes. With rare exceptions, your officer corps is easily overwhelmed with the command and control of anything bigger than a division. Promoting generals has to be seriously thought, as you don't want to bypass a senior and useless old fart general for a more capable raising star and get the national morale down to the floor (the Reds were an authoritarian regime but very conscious about the proletariat being in the brink of ... ahem ... another revolution). You spread your forces thin and you get wacked. You concentrate your forces somewhere and ... Bam! The enemy chooses an axis of attack hundreds of kilometers away from your awesome army's bivouac. Some of your more capable formations become firefighters travelling by train from one corner of the country to the other, just to cope with the latest fire. That off course if you are lucky that some enemy Cossack detachment hasn't cut your railroad somewhere.
Commanding the "Whites" is not a lesser challenge. The quality of the troops and officer corps is slightly better. But now you are squeezed in a smaller territory and your resources are scarce. As opposed to the Reds, there is no no-man's-land expanse. If the Reds come kicking, you better have your door closed because you now live in a one-room house. The Whites in the south sport some excellent Cossack units that are almost crack quality. Use them wisely, though, as they are good getting into places but useless holding them.
Commanding the Polish Army gives you the opportunity to taste the flavor of a more conventional force. With plenty of supplies and equipment, good troop replenishment pools and a cadre of good commanders, the Polish Army was not one you would want to mess with at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. All of the above fades out as soon as you step into the vastness of Belarus or the Ukraine. While playing as the Poles, you get that feeling of your forces being diluted at every operational maneuver. Mother Russia is big, and it will doom an army or two without firing a single shot.
AGEOD's game engine performs quite well simulating operations in this conflict. There are quirks, off course. The biggest offender is the 15 day turn length. Two weeks without getting a hold on a formation of the Continental Army (AGEOD's Birth of America) was likely realistic and worked great. Now in the 20th century, with troops being more mobile and enjoying (to a certain extent) better communications, you feel like the game engine hasn't kept up with the times. That is not to say that egregious C3 blunders occurred during the real war (Stalin at Lvov anyone?). Second, even when the game engine has accommodated for the greater ranges of artillery and machine guns, I found no evidence indicating that the calculations of the tactical battles resolution have been adapted for the more fluid back and forth of the 20th century battle-lines. The game engine battle resolution doesn't take into account different tactical doctrines either: a typical Red Army division during the Civil War would usually be split in 3 depleted brigades covering a relatively wide sector, each brigade arriving into battle as a weaker but well rounded force. The current battle resolution system is like a blender where all forces are thrown into an abstraction that may be valid for the times of line and attack column formations, but not for other ages of warfare. Third, I couldn't find a sorted list of generals like the ones in other AGEOD games. In a game like Revolution Under Siege, where commanders are so crucial to glue together your forces, plans and country, I sorely miss that list.
Revolution Under Siege showcases all the ingredients that were used for the Soviet recipe of operational art. First, the realization that for a country with not enough troops to cover a long frontier, it will be impossible to assemble a single strategic offensive with the majority of the Red Army. A single strategic offensive in the form of a battle of annihilation was replaced by successive offensives carefully choreographed as to impact the enemy the most. That choreography was born out of necessity and is in essence operational art. "Eshelonaia voina", the use of troops in the offensive as they arrived from distant points via the railroad gave the Red Army military theorists the food of thought for what later will become an almost religious belief in the echeloning of troops. Concentrating troops at the point of the offensive was just the beginning, the issue of how to use them in battle was vital. There the Red Army realized that the attack and penetration of enemy defenses was no small feat. The penchant for "shock armies" that would deliver a narrow cut and a deep penetration of the enemy front would become a staple of the Red Army during World War II. The sore experience of a long, treacherous and thin front line of the Russian Civil War convinced the Red Army that preferably no segment would be left untouched and that if no "shock" troops were available in a front, the regulars would have at least to cooperate to the offensive with a penetration and shallow envelopment. The years following the Russian Civil War were ripe with military thought. Frunze, Tukhachevsky, Shaposhnikov, Kamenev, Triandafillov, you name it. No military doctrine comes from a vacuum. It all comes from campaign experiences. Revolution Under Siege is a premier display of all the issues that shaped modern Soviet military thought.