Tabletop Operational Wargame Inspired by Hell’s Gate

During my review of operational level wargames, Martin Rapier put me onto Philip Sabin’s game “Hell’s Gate” within the book “Simulating War” (Sabin, 2012). Hell’s Gate is an operational level board game focusing on the Korsun Pocket of 24 Jan – 16 Feb 1944. I wondered what this game system would might look like as a generic set of tabletop rules for operational level warfare on the Eastern Front. As an experiment, I drafted such a set of rules. Here is what I came up with. It is my work, I have for example completely replaced the combat system, but the link to Hell’s Gate is clear.


Game set up

The scenario will specify a game calendar, ground conditions, map / table, supply bases, order of battle, reinforcement schedule, and initiative. You’ll also need to find some markers to play the game.

Game calendar

The game calendar is the historical start date and the game duration in turns. Typically games have 6-10 game turns, each representing three days of fighting.

Example: The game starts 24 Jan 1944. The game lasts 8 game turns. [Implicitly this game lasts 24 days so ends on 16 Feb 1944.]

Ground conditions

The historical date of the game will indicate the season and hence the ground conditions. There are two types of ground conditions: easy and mud. Mud reduces movement and makes attacking harder for everybody. Depending on the time of year the ground conditions might change during the game.

Example: Ground conditions start easy. Chance of mud from game turn 3. Roll d6 at the beginning of each turn: ground conditions turn to mud on a score of 1-2.

Map / Table

The table is divided into a grid of hexes, or squares, or offset squares. For convenience each cell in the grid is called a hex/square. Each hex/square is 20km across from flat side to flat side. Assuming 10cm hex/squares that is a ground scale of 1:200,000; if the hex/squares are 15cm across then the ground scale is 1:133,333.

Each hex/square is open, difficult (woods, swamp, rough), urban (village, town, city), or impassable (mountain, sea, lake). Difficult terrain restrict movement and affect combat. Urban terrain just affects combat. Impassable terrain is, well, impassable. Place an appropriate terrain model in each hex/square to indicate the type of terrain for the whole hex/square. For example, put a single tree model in each woods hex/square. Similarly, put a single building in each urban hex/square.

Rivers run along the sides of hex/squares. Rivers restrict movement and affect combat.

The example map is for a modest sized game covering approximately 120 km x 120 km.

Balagan Operational Warfare Example Map

Balagan Operational Warfare Example Map

Supply Bases

Each side has 6-9 hex/squares on the table edge designated as supply bases. Lose them at your peril.

The example map has the supply bases shown as flags. You must also indicate which hex/squares on table are supply bases. You can use a supply dump model, truck, flag, or any other marker that suits you.

Order of battle

Each stand is a unit. Most units represent German divisions or Soviet corps. Small units are Soviet divisions or German regiments, brigades, reinforced battalions, or battle groups. These smaller units are assumed to occupy the same frontage as the larger units because they are used to man thinly held sections of the front.

Units are defined by branch of service and combat strength. Branch of service options are infantry, tank, mechanised, and cavalry. Tanks are good at attacking. Tanks, mechanised and cavalry can, if the conditions allow, move faster than infantry.

Combat strength largely depends on the number of men in the unit. Award one combat strength point per 5,000 men in the historical strength of the unit (actual rather than theoretical). Better motivated formations gain a bonus combat strength point; these particularly staunch units are marked as Elite although, aside from the combat strength bonus, there are no other game benefits. Soviet Corps will have a combat strength of 2 to 4 and Soviet Divisions a combat strength of 1 or 2. German divisions will usually have a combat strength of 2 or 3, and smaller units – whether a regiments, brigades, reinforced battalions, or battle groups – will have a combat strength of 1. A modest sized game will have about 55 combat strength points on each side, 110 in total. This equates to about half a million men in the battle.

The scenario will specify the starting hex/squares for the troops on table at the start of the game.

Stands can be any size; the only restriction is that a hex/square must be able to contain several units. A unit of infantry will be a single stand with several figures on it. The same is true of a cavalry unit. A tank or mechanised unit might be a single vehicle; the vehicle may or may not be actually based on a separate stand but is still considered a “stand” and a “unit” for game purposes. At smaller scales a mechanised unit might have both infantry and vehicles on the same stand.

Example: This is how I base my figures:

  • Infantry units are three 15mm figures on a 30x30mm stand.
  • Cavalry units are two mounted 15mm figures on a 30x30mm stand.
  • Tank units are individual 15mm tank or assault gun models.
  • Mechanised units are individual 15mm half-track or truck models.

Reinforcement schedule

The reinforcement schedule will state the game turns on which reinforcements arrive. Reinforcements cannot be delayed. Reinforcements can be new units or replacements. For new units the reinforcement schedule will list the turn of arrival, branch of service, Combat Strength, and the entry hex/square. Replacements just have a turn of arrival and Combat Strength.

Initiative

One side will have initiative for the duration of the game. That side gets to take their player turn first in every game turn.

Find some markers

The game uses markers of various kinds – go find some:

  • Combat Strength loss
  • Out-of-supply
  • Isolated
  • Retreated
  • Soviet / German control (or assume absence of a marker is German control)
  • Victory points
  • Turn

Game play

A game will run for a number of game turns each of two player turns. The side with initiative gets to take their player turn first in each game turn. A player is “active” in their player turn, otherwise “reactive”.

A player turn has six phases:

  1. Change Ground Conditions phase
  2. Supply phase
  3. Reinforcement phase
  4. Attack phase
  5. Movement phase
  6. Rally phase

Phase 1: Change Ground Conditions phase

If the scenario dictates a possible change in ground conditions, e.g. from easy to mud or vice versa, now is the time to roll for that.

Phase 2: Supply phase

The active player assesses the supply status of all friendly units as either in-supply or out-of-supply. A unit retains the same supply status until it checks again in the next friendly supply phase.

A unit is in-supply if any of these apply and out-of-supply if none apply:

  • the unit occupies a hex/square with a supply base
  • the unit occupies a hex/square that the scenario specifies as benefiting from airlifted supplies
  • the unit can trace a supply line to a friendly supply base

By default there is no limit to the length of a supply line however a scenario might impose a limit. A supply line can never enter:

  • Enemy occupied hex/squares
  • Vacant hex/squares containing an enemy Supply Base
  • Vacant hex/squares adjacent to an enemy occupied hex/square (an enemy zone of control)

The active player marks out-of-supply units as such. Out-of-supply units only move one hex/square per turn and suffer severe penalties in combat.

Phase 3: Reinforcement phase

On the turn of arrival, the active player places new units in their entry hex/square with full combat strength. If the entry hex/square is occupied by enemy, the new unit arrives in the nearest friendly supply base that is either vacant or friendly occupied. New units can attack and move on their first turn on table.

The active player uses replacement combat strength points to bring units that have suffered combat losses back up to full strength. Replacements can be used to refresh more than one depleted unit. Just add some or all of the replacement combat strength to the combat strength of the units being refreshed. No unit can use replacements to increase in size past its original combat strength.

Phase 4: Attack phase

The active player can attack with any forces adjacent to enemy. All attacks are voluntary. The attacks occur sequentially and each has these steps:

  • 4.1. choose the target of the attack
  • 4.2. choose the attacking units
  • 4.3. decide whether to all-out attack
  • 4.4. resolve the attack

The active player then repeats the attack process until they don’t want to attack any more.

Step 4.1: Target of the attack

An attack is against an enemy occupied hex/squares (the target). A particular hex/square can only be attacked once per Player Turn.

The strongest 1-3 defending units in the target hex/square contribute to the defence. At most three German units defend and at most two Soviet units can defend. However, units that retreated this Player Turn never contribute to defence.

Step 4.2: Attacking units

Any friendly troops adjacent to the target hex/square can potentially participate in the attack, even from different hex/squares. However, at most two friendly units from each hex/square can contribute to the attack on the target hex/square; any surplus units in the hex/square have to attack elsewhere. A particular unit may only attack once per Player Turn.

Step 4.3: Attack or All-out Attack

The active player can choose to conduct either a normal attack or an all-out attack. The benefit of an all-out attack is that the defenders lose two additional combat strength points. However, an all-out attack comes at a cost as the attacking force also loses two combat strength points.

Step 4.4: Resolve an attack

Note: I’m not keen on combat ratio tables so went with a completely different system to Sabin’s for my on-table version.

All troops fight with a modified combat strength. The modifiers are all multipliers either x 1/2, x 2, or x3. Round up after applying all modifiers e.g. a 1 Combat Strength Tank unit attacking an open hex/square across a river is 1 x 3 x 1/2 = 1 1/2 (round up) = 2.

Attacker Modifiers:
x 3 if Tank unit attacking a target hex/square with open terrain
x 2 if Tank unit attacking a target hex/square containing difficult or urban terrain
x 1/2 if attacking unit is attacking across a river
x 1/2 if attacking unit is out-of-supply

Defender Modifiers:
x 2 if unit is defending a target hex/square containining difficult or urban terrain
x 2 if mud ground conditions
x 1/2 if defending unit is out-of-supply

Roll 1d6 for each unit. A unit hits by rolling its modified Combat Strength or less. Units with a modified combat strength of six automatically score a hit and do not roll a die. Units with a modified combat strength above six automatically score a hit for each multiple of six and then roll a die for any remainder.

Compare the number of hits achieved by each side in the combat. If both sides achieve the same number of hits it was a draw, otherwise the side with the great number of hits wins the combat. There are two possible results from an attack: losses to combat strength and/or a retreat.

Result 4.4.1. Losses to Combat Strength

The difference between the attacking hits and the defending hits are the losses incurred, either on the attacking or defending units.

The losses are removed from the combat strength of units involved. The owning player chooses which units take losses. Units are destroyed when they reach a combat strength of zero. Before any units can be destroyed, all units on the side taking losses must be reduced to a combat strength of one.

In the event of an attacker loss, the attacking player removes the losses from the combat strength of units that directly participated in the attack.

With a defender loss, the defending player removes the losses from the combat strength of units in the target hex/square. Aside from retreated units, any unit in the target hex/square can absorb the losses, not just those that actively defended.

Crowded defenders, i.e. those with four or more units in the target hex/square, take an additional 2 losses.

Result 4.4.2. Retreat

The reactive player can sometimes reduce losses by retreating. If the number of combat losses exceeds the combat strength of all units of a defending force in the target hex/square are destroyed due to combat losses, there is no chance of retreat. A retreat is only possible when the combat strength of the defending units in the target hex/square equals or exceeds the number of combat losses. Retreat is voluntary. If the reactive player chooses to retreat, then defender losses are reduced by up to two combat strength points and all the remaining defending units retreat.

Retreating units move to one or more adjacent hex/squares of the reactive player’s choice. However, the retreat destination must be:

  1. A hex/square not adjacent to enemy or if there are none available …
  2. A hex/square adjacent to enemy and containing friendly units

Retreat destinations can never be:

  • A hex/square adjacent to enemy and vacant
  • An enemy supply base
  • Off table

If the retreating unit is already on a friendly supply base then it can only retreat to another friendly supply base.

Mark a unit that has retreated as “Retreated” until the end of the next friendly player turn. A retreated unit:

  • Cannot attack
  • Cannot move (neither voluntary move nor a subsequent retreat)
  • Cannot defend (does not contribute to Defence Strength; does not absorb losses)
  • Are destroyed if all other friendly units in the same target hex/square retreat and/or are destroyed

Phase 5: Movement phase

Most units, most of the time, only move one hex/square per turn. Movement is always to an adjacent hex/square that does not contain enemy. There is no limit to the number of friendly units in a single hex/square, although the physical dimensions of the units and hex/squares may impose a practical limit.

In-supply tanks, mechanised, and cavalry units can move two hex/squares depending on the weather and terrain. Tanks, mechanised, and cavalry units can only move two hex/squares in easy ground conditions (not mud). Tanks and mechanised can enter one difficult terrain hex/square and/or cross one river in their two hex/square movement, but cannot do this twice in a player turn. Cavalry can move two hex/squares irrespective of terrain.

Retreated units cannot move.

Phase 6: Rally phase

Remove “Retreated” markers from all friendly troops.


Victory

At the end of the game check who won. Each side gains victory points and side with the most victory points wins.

Victory points (VP):

  • +1 VP for each combat strength point loss imposed on the enemy (and not replaced)
  • +2 VP for each enemy supply base currently occupied by a friendly unit

References

Sabin, P. (2012). Hell’s Gate: The Korsun Pocket 1944. Simulating War: Studying conflict through simulation games, p. 187-193. Bloomsbury Academic.

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