2011-05-25

The quest for armored supremacy

 I must admit, of all the recent articles I have read about wargame rules, a single opinion piece, although in two parts, stands out the most. I am referring naturally to a pair of posts on 3++ is the new black concerning vehicles, namely the original article by Kirby and its companion piece, together with all of the comments. I admit, having read both pieces in their entirety, I have decided to throw my own opinion behind one of the ideas tossed around both by Kirby himself and the people who left comments, with a twist. However, before briefly explaining my point of view on the problem of vehicle survivability - since it was the biggest point of controversy - allow me to recant an old story.

On February 11, 1943, the Kampfgruppe Sander Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion took part in a German counterattack on a collective farm west of Ssemernikovo, on the outskirts of Rostov. The Kolkhoz defenses proved to be harder than expected, and the Tigers spearheading the attack came under a withering fire from well dug in artillery, tank and self propelled anti tank gun positions. One of the Tigers afvancing on the farm was that of the acting platoon commander, Leutnant Zabel.

Soon after the attack began, his Tiger was hit for the first time by a 76,2 mm armor piercing shot that torn off the makeshift grider supporting the spare track on the lower glacis. All that the crew felt of that hit was a dull clang and a slight jolt. A short while later, a 45 mm shot hit the commander's cupola, shattering a vision slit's armored glass block. The shattered glass block affected forward vision, as its mount was distorted so the block could not be replaced. After a while, a second slug hit almost the same point, rectifying the situation - the block was torn off together with the mount, wounding the commander on the head in the process and leaving the slit unprotected. After the battle, two 45 mm hits and more than anti tank rifle pockmarks were found on the cupola alone.

The loader's hatch could not be closed due to earlier damage and was half-open during the fight, encouraging anti tank riflemen who tried their hand at it. More than a dozen pockmarks were found, some of them distorting the hinges. It took an iron crowbar to force it open after the battle. During the fight, the Tiger was ceaselessly aimed at by machine gunners. At one point, a well aimed burst ignited the smoke grenade dischargers on the turret. Smoke seeped through the various openings, nearly suffocating the crew and preventing any coordinated effort inside the tank.

Enemy fire intensified with the advance of the attack. Each hit was heard and felt by the crew. The hull was rocking from close detonations, acrid smoke was getting inside, yellow-orange flashes were seen and explosions heard. Then, another 76,2 mm shell struck the gun mantlet, snapping the gun brackets. The recoil cylinder started loosing oil. The barrel remained at full recoil. Other hits damaged the radio and the gear lever. Then a brief fire broke out in the engine compartment, after a shell hit from being, which tore off the exhaust shrouds. The automatic fire extinguisher quelled it immediately, without any need to stop the engine. At some point, two Red Army soldiers threw an explosive charge on top of the engine compartment. It detonated without any ill effects except for a dull explosion, a wave of heat felt by the crew, and some acrid smoke.

Despite destroying 6 tanks, 10 anti tank guns, several mortars, several anti tank rifles and numerous machine gun emplacements, the German attack faltered, and the scarred Tiger had to withdraw to lick its wounds. And there was a tongueful of licking to be done. The workshop company mechanics counted 227 anti tank rifle hits, 14 by light anti tank guns or 45 and 57 mm caliber and 11 by 76,2 mm heavy anti tank guns. The right side of the  running gear took most hits with severe damage to it. Many road wheels were shot through, even several rocker arms were holed, and the idler was torn off. Despite all the battle damage, the Tiger was still able to limp through 60 kilometers between the battlefield and the workshop company. Several welded joints failed, and the fuel tank sprung a leak from the jarring effect of the hits. The tracks were hit in several places with various caliber shells, but they not only did not fail, but did not even hinder the Tiger's maneuverability much, any more than the missing right side idler, that is.

The story I have allowed myself to quote from my copy of the third volume of a monumental monograph on the Tiger tank published by AJ Press, illustrates easily, just how durable a real tank is in battlefield condition. Granted, Tigers were counted amongst the hardest specimens of armored vehicles ever constructed, but the point is still made, in my opinion. In real life, tanks are conglomerates of machinery that are not easily to damage in a way that will hinder their operations easily. In order to really damage a tank, or any vehicle in a significant manner, not only its armor has to be damaged or penetrated, no, its insides must be subjected to weapon's destructive power. The real way to destroy an armored vehicle is to damage its internals sufficiently, or to cause critical failure of its components. Let us look, for instance, at the modus operandi of three most commonly used anti tank rounds. First, the venerable High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) shell uses a shaped jet of fire to burn through the armor and either damage the internals, or kill the crew. Second, the High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) round, as the name suggests, squashes against the armor, its explosion, causing the armor itself to rupture, slivers of metal breaking off and cutting through fuel lines and men alike. Third, the most commonly used today Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) shell pierces through the armor by means of sheer kinetic power... to do what? Kill the crewmen, and damage the internals. Armor, by virtue of the three examples, is a secondary problem as far as damaging tanks its concerned. Of course, it must be defeated, but the real source of a vehicle's destruction is the damage to its insides.

What does it mean as far as rules are concerned? Simple - the rules should reflect both the existence of armor, and the damage to vehicle subsystems, and do so in a way that will not be overly complicated and tedious to use during a game. That is why, in my opinion, vehicles should be treated in a similar way other units are. Namely, they should possess statistics for armor strength, resilience of internal components, and yes, you guessed it, structure points similar to wounds. Of course, the solution is simplistic, and in order to spice it up a bit, it could be mated with damage charts, representing the chance of a hit not only removing a structure point, but knocking out a vehicle subsystem, disarming, immobilizing or just jarring the crew inside bad enough to give them pause for a moment. Plus, for certain weapons - perhaps in a similar fashion instant death is resolved - critical damage charts should be ready, for all the situations a vehicle can be destroyed with a single shot. Yes, it is possible in real life - just ask American tankers about the inherent weakness of Soviet-designed tanks with autoloaders fed from magazines put directly beneath the turret ring.

The post obviously does not address vehicle mobility, or esoteric upgrades, such as external armor. It is beyond the scope of my today's rant, although it should be also taken into consideration wen designing, or redesigning, vehicle rules. Still, after reading quite a few rule sets, I believe their authors have decided to sacrifice realism in exchange for ease of balancing the rules, distorting the gameplay in the process. Yes, making realistic vehicles, in any way, will probably require a very different approach to all game rules, but I believe the end result would be closer to real life than any current approximations.

3 comments:

  1. Good article- tried to leave a comment, but apparently "must be at most 4096 characters" ! So I e-mailed you instead :)

    You've certainly sparked a few ideas!

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  2. Great post. I'm battling through writing my own vehicle rules for FireZone, and it's no easy feat. An example of the difficulty of gettin git right is 40k: Rogue Trader.
    Over the six years of the game it had three different sets of rules for vehicles, which were changed for 2nd ed!

    The balance between a vehicle being usable, unkillable, fun and not a second set of unique rules that slow down the game is a tricky one. I think a designer has to figure out what role they want vehicles to play in their game when they write the rules and adjust (in 40k they seem to be going for the 80s action movie feel: killy, but explode a lot).

    A useful link on the subject is the found on the <a href="http://www.military-sf.com/tanks.htm>tips for military sci-fi writers site</a>.

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