Challenges of Insurgent Warfare for Crossfire

My Portuguese Colonial War project has stalled. I’ve got the forces for both insurgents and Portuguese security forces. I’ve got palms for jungle. I should be ready to game but instead I’ve stalled.

My problem is figuring out how to wargame the the common Combat Missions in the Portuguese Colonial War when using Crossfire. Combat missions of a insurgency are different to conventional warfare such as World War II. So, as a step forward I thought I’d jot down my thoughts about these challenges. I’m not trying to solve those problems just articulate them clearly. These problems are probably present in other game systems but the initiative system, with the potential for infinite movement and repeated firing, makes some of these problems more acute in Crossfire.

Although I’ll focus on the Portuguese Colonial War these observations are also relevant for partizan warfare in WW2.

The Challenges

As I see it there are five challenges posed by the combat missions of an insurgency, when wargaming using Crossfire:

  • Mission involves too few men
  • Attackers don’t have to attack
  • Bombshell – defenders that don’t defend
  • Dull games usually because they are one sided
  • Insurgencies are ugly

The answer to some of these challenges may be to just not game those missions / situations. Focus instead on those that make a good game, particularly a good Crossfire game.

Anyway, here are the challenges in detail . . .

Mission involves too few men

Standard Crossfire has a squad of 9-12 men as the basic manoeuvre unit and a player has a company (about 120 men) or more. A company is a lot in an insurgency. So I have gone to a nominally 1:1 figure scale for Fogo Cruzado and my standard force is a combat group i.e. a platoon of about 30 men.

Mob-166 Danial is off to do some serious damage to a Portuguese railway track
Mob-166 Danial is off to do some serious damage to a Portuguese railway track

Even so many insurgent missions often involved only a handful of men. For example a sabotage mission might involve a guy with a sledge hammer. These are the combat missions are that are typically “small”:

  • Sabotage operations
  • Kidnap children
  • Kill collaborators
  • Exemplary exploit

Crossfire isn’t good at forces with only a handful of men. The Portuguese defender might have a fair number of troops on table but the insurgents would only have, say, one stand of troops. You could make lots of special rules to enable the single insurgent stand to thread its way carefully amongst the distracted Portuguese but then the game would stop being Crossfire.

Attackers don’t attack

Crossfire is good in situations where the attackers attack and the defenders defend. However, for many missions of an insurgency, “attackers” don’t necessarily attack vigorously. They might harass rather than press home an assault. For example, insurgents in the Portuguese Colonial War often harassed Portuguese camps. A typical incident was 10-15 minutes of direct fire from cover or indirect fire from a distance, sometime repeated. The attackers could have a range of weapons including small arms, mortars, recoilless rifles, heavy bazookas and later grads – in other words, as good as it gets for an insurgent force. However the attackers are not really interested in attacking. Attacking in the sense of an all out assault. The purpose was to reduce morale, tie up troops, and perhaps knock off an officer or two. Really they just want to remind the defenders that they are in hostile territory and encourage them to go home.

Portuguese Convoy
Portuguese Convoy

Ambushes on convoys are another mission where insurgent attackers are not necessarily interested in pressing home the attack. The “ambush” might just be some mines with a guy to watch what happens. Even if the mines were backed by a group of insurgents, during the Portuguese Colonial War the insurgents were often content with quick bursts of gunfire known as a flagellation (flagelação). This fire often didn’t inflict casualties but it did delay the target convoy as the convoy guards secured the area.

Crossfire would not be so good simulating these incidents. You could create special rules to cover these incidents but I’m still sure they would be very interesting games. Admittedly this is also probably true for other game systems.

Perhaps harassing attacks are just bad subjects of a wargaming scenario.

Bombshell – defenders that don’t defend

Insurgent “defenders” don’t necessarily feel obliged to defend their ground. Defenders might “win” by running away to protect the lives of valuable cadres rather than defend territory with no intrinsic value. In Africa this tactic acquired the name “bombshell”. When hard pressed an insurgent group could bombshell and the members of the group would head for the bush individually and then make for a predetermined rendezvous point. Groups could bombshell when their own attack went wrong, when ambushed on patrol, or even when “defending” their camp. They would only stand to fight if forced to or if they thought they had an advantage.

Even without a “bombshell” special rule running away is really easy in Crossfire. The insurgents just use their next available movement action to retreat away from the enemy and then keep moving until they leave the board. The means, more or less, the Portuguese might only get one shot before the insurgents quit the table.

There is a work-around to the bombshell challenge and wargamers will probably latch onto the historical tactic to prevent bombshelling, i.e blocking groups. The Portuguese learnt to use airlifted intervention units (e.g. commandos, paratroopers, etc) as blocking units. But elite troops were not always available so the troops that did the initial contact might also provide a blocking unit – if they had sufficient men to spare. This is probably a do-able scenario in Crossfire.

Dull games usually because they are one sided

Several of the missions are dull unless opposed: Sit in Camp, Convoy, Patrol, Sabotage, Mine laying. In some game systems it would take some time to play these out and for the moving player to discover there were no opponents. The unlimited movement aspect of Crossfire means the game will be over in a couple of minutes. “Laid my mine. I’m out of here! Did I win?”.

Even opposed games can be dull for one or both players. Those players that are not involved will find the game rather boring. And being the victim of somebody else’s aggression, without the chance to retaliate, is definitely dull. Ambush is an example of a mission that could be dull for the victim of the ambush. In Crossfire heavy weapons with good fields of fire, using group fire, firing at troops in the open, will be lethal. So a well placed ambush in Crossfire is going to wreck havoc on the unsuspecting enemy, possibly wiping out the approaching force in a single initiative because of the option to repeat fire. And if they don’t massacre the victim then the ambusher can just run way (see “bombshell” above). Game over. Not very interesting.

(Worth pointing out that such devastating firepower doesn’t marry up with the historical record of the Portuguese Colonial War. Ambushes in an insurgency should be effective but not devastating.)

Insurgencies are ugly

Not so much a comment about Crossfire as about insurgencies in general. They are ugly. Kidnapping children to turn them into child soldiers. Executing village elders that don’t actively support the revolution. The authorities dealing summarily with suspected terrorists. Herding hundreds of civilians for days on end and letting half of them die from starvation. Mining roads where civilian trucks are the most common vehicles. Bombing “insurgent camps” that are really just civilian villages. All more or less sensible missions for revolutionary cadres and/or the Portuguese security forces, but a little unsavoury for me and I suspect these types of mission will also challenge the sensibilities of many wargamers in the west.

4 thoughts on “Challenges of Insurgent Warfare for Crossfire”

  1. Steve, we game the recent Vietnam war which was an insurgent war and have run into many of the problems which you relate in your post. We have many of the problems in Spades due to the application of major force by the United States forces upon the Nationalist Liberation Front forces when an engagement occurred. It is a challenge to recreate the war on a small scale. We do the gaming via computer using Roll20, a VTT (virtual table top) software program that is free to users and I have reproduced all of the necessary counters and vehicles. GreT fun and challenging. Thanks for the excellent post.

  2. I’m also a Vietnam gamer so have thought about similar issues. As wargames tend to be an all-out clash between 2 approximately equal opponents, that’s very difficult to combine with a realistic COIN scenario. In addition, I’ve found double hidden movement (where both sides are substantially hidden from each other) almost impossible to run, even with an umpire.

    One quite successful way I’ve found to handle it is to put all players on one side, the umpire controls an unknown number of insurgents and the players are effectively competing against each other. In a mission to sweep and clear then the players have to decide whether to assume minimal opponents and rush forward to collect terrain markers for points, or to play it slow and safe. Of course, in Crossfire, that would also mean deciding which approach to take for passing initiative with multiple players.

  3. I have thought long and hard on these issues too. It may be a combination of factors which need to be employed when gaming insurgency actions, including:
    – a narrative perhaps along matrix lines
    – both combatants and non-combatants should be present on the gaming area and their reactions should be determined by random selection
    – some key performance indicators to determine success or failure of mission.

    Perhaps also that one “mistake” by the “good” guys wipes out their chances of victory no matter what the combat outcome is.

    All in all, though, the individual battles should be in the context of a longer term campaign where the outcomes are rolled forward as public relations points, positive or negative. Simulation of economics, politics and resources would need to be included too.

    My mind always achieves stasis round about now.


    • It is tricky. I’ve collated a few thoughts and suggestions from a variety of folks which I’ll post soon.


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