During my brief absence, I spent a lot of my free time reading David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, his final book and an outstanding history of the early stages of the Korean War. Inspired by that work, I recently started re-playing one of my favorite scenarios from the original Operational Art of War: Korea 50-51. I have been playing this scenario since 1998, often against my friend CJ who typically runs the Communist side.

But playing the scenario concurrently with reading this book, I've realized both how rigged the scenario is in favor of historical fidelity (reproducing roughly what happened in real-life) and yet how little the scenario actually resembles the reality. I'm not totally sure how I feel about all this yet, but it's been interesting to reflect on some of the ways this scenario seems a little broken, and how I'm not sure anyone could really fix it.

By the end of August, 1950, the U.S. Army was desperately holding the line around the southern port city of Pusan, using the Naktong river as its main line of defense. The North Koreans were damned close to breaking through and taking the city, but the truth is that once the Americans got behind that river, and the Koreans ended up in the mountains around the town of Taegu to the north, the game was pretty well ended. Even so, the Koreans came very close to wiping out the American forces and taking the whole peninsula.

In the game, it is almost impossible to produce this result. I'm not sure anyone could take Pusan playing as the North Koreans, but what's striking is how slim a chance the North Koreans have at even matching their historical success. The reason is that important, undeniable historical factors cannot be modeled in the TOAW system, or any wargame system with which I am familiar.

The North Korean army came so close to success because the first American units in Korea were under-prepared, and their commanders had no regard for an army of "Asiatics". The belief was basically, "Those little bastards will turn tail at the first sight of our boys." I think you could find similar words spoken on the eve of just about every colossal military mistake. What games can't model, however, is what that kind of mindset will mean on the battlefield.

The earliest U.S. reinforcement to the peninsula was an infantry division, and not a very good one. But the situation was made infinitely worse when the division commander scattered his command across the entire front, rather than picking a spot to defend with his entire force. So what happened was isolated battalions and regiments found themselves in the paths of entire North Korean divisions, with no time to dig in or prepare a defense. The result was a route, and that division was basically eliminated as an effective force for the time being.

In the game, however, that will never happen. In the first place, a wargame doesn't have the same built-in assumptions that sometimes blind officers and men. Nobody looking at counters on a hexagonal grid is going to view the situation through a racial lens. The numbers are all that matter, and so a North Korean unit with an attack strength of 9 doesn't get esimtated down to a 4 because the gamer thinks Asians can't fight. Yet history is full of exactly those types of assumptions.

Furthermore, the game discourages the type of penny-packet disposition of forces that nearly lost the Americans the war in July and August. Any wargame has a basic scale at which it operates. Each individual unit is a regiment, for instance, and every hexagon represents five kilometers. The game also imparts bonuses to units that stick together. So you have six regiments from the U.S. 2nd Infantry, and a headquarters unit. If you keep them together, they get bonuses from the headquarters when it comes to supply and readiness (reflecting the value gained in having the administrative heart and command brain near the units doing the fighting).

Now the gamer can break these constraints. Each unit can be divided, so your regiment can be broken into two or three battalions. Furthermore, you can fling your troops far afield from your HQ. But the game punishes you for doing these things, and it quickly becomes hard-wired in the gamer's mind that you keep your units intact and under close command. You especially don't divide units, because the scale of the scenario itself dissuades you from doing that. You don't bust up a regiment into battalions, when you have entire divisions roaming the battlefield.

Maybe that's just good military sense, and commanders who do things differently in real life are just fools. But I'm not so sure. Commanders are routinely subject to pressure that the gamer is not. A player has to hold territory and defeat the enemy, period. In real life, there are questions of politics and career to be considered. Too many officers are pressured into unwise decisions because it's not just about winning, but winning quickly and reassuring political masters.

One final point. A very basic principle of command is that you can trade space for time, which is why a player in this scenario would keep his units together, and pick a good place to make a stand. Then he'd wait. In the real situation, the front was a mess, nobody knew where the hell the North Koreans actually were or exactly how many of them were present, and there were about three front lines that needed to be stabilized. You also had MacArthur in Tokyo, who didn't take the North Koreans seriously and who crushed dissent.

All this made a situation that led to American forces being frittered away piecemeal, and nearly handed the North Koreans the war. Non-material, non-military matters had a greater influence on the early stages of American involvement than the purely tactical problems that a game can model.

What I think wargames need is some kind of "career-mode" where you start making decisions with an eye to politics and public relations, because that's why a lot of the big decisions, and big mistakes, happen the way they do.

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Comment by Joe Steadman on October 2, 2008 at 10:42am
Can't you tweak the set-up to simulate the historical set up and put into place a few house rules to prevent the 100 foot general from using his god like powers to do things the historical general didn't do?
Comment by Smitty on September 24, 2008 at 8:01pm
T.R.'s book is a hard to put down - personally he's difficult to deal with but I digress....
Comment by Rob Zacny on September 24, 2008 at 7:21pm
Haven't read either one myself, but I find myself enjoying this one. Of course, I'm a fan of Halberstam's work.

This is my first book on the Korean War and I think it's a decent introduction to the subject. In his acknowledgments, I believe Halberstam identified both of those as indispensable works. I'll definitely be checking Blair's out, at the very least.
Comment by Smitty on September 24, 2008 at 7:13pm
I found that book to be underwhelming - prefer Blair's book or T.R. Fehrerbacher's book (sp),

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