One of the most stressful things I have ever done is spend 6 hours as second in command of a 20-person allied command structure with each 8 in-game hours as a strict 30 real minute turn.
It was also amazing. Absolutely, mind-bogglingly amazing.
I was at the 2nd Scottish Megagame. A megagame is a massive (40+ players), immersive, free-form version of a board game. There has been an explosion of interest in megagames after Shut Up And Sit Down filmed themselves playing Watch the Skies late last year. Clubs have sprung up across Britain and the original London megagame club recently ran a 300-player version of Watch the Skies.
The game we played was Operation Goodwood, a simulation of a WW2 battle in which British armour attacked near Caen, in an attempt to destroy German armour, capture the Bourguébus Ridge and ideally break out of Normandy completely. It was hosted at the fantastic facilities of Common Ground Games in Stirling, a gaming shop and huge playing space complete with cafe.
Three of us bought tickets, expecting to be placed in charge of a division. Instead we found ourselves placed in charge of the entire 20-person allied team!
We quickly swotted up on the historical battle, watching the British Army war study of the battle. The rules were very clear not to make plans before the day itself, so we discussed the broad possibilities and challenges but avoided coming up with anything.
On the day itself, the planning phase started without much fanfare, and confusion reigned. Nelson, our gallant commander, brought some order to the situation by drawing a large green arrow on his map, indicating that the British armour should all charge to the west of a tall railway embankment running down the middle of the map, while the Canadian infantry took Caen and the large British 3rd infantry division spread out across our large Eastern flank.
This was because in the real battle, the British armoured divisions advanced unsupported into the middle of villages that were thick with anti-tank weapons, and were shot to pieces. Instead, Nelson wanted to send the bulk of our force to one flank, get onto the ridge, and roll up the German defences from one side.
In the event, the first day went badly off-plan. With about ten minutes of the 2 hour planning session left, Nelson was informed that his plan was at high risk of causing traffic congestion. Together with the commander of the entire armoured corps, Douglas, he quickly devised a new plan where the Guards Armoured would advance east of the embankment, while the 7th Armoured advanced to the west.
Air HQ were caught by surprise by the deadline, and had ordered a mass bombing, but more diffuse than intended, and had failed to issue any recon or air support orders for the morning turn.
The one thing that went right on the first morning was the Canadian assault. They captured most of Caen and were looking good. Unfortunately, all of the armour found itself caught in traffic jams and did little more than cross the Odone. The 3rd infantry had issued a prepare rather than an attack order, which was not our intention. Apparently they told me about this – I have no memory of it, but they’re probably right.
It’s hard to convey the stress and the amount of information you have to process while playing the game. All sorts of things were being forgotten, missed, or miscommunicated. This was not helped by a general shortage of intelligence officers, including none in HQ at all. In retrospect we should have promoted someone, but at the time we didn’t want to take people away from the friends they had come with. I took on the intel role alongside my COO duties, while Nelson stepped into quite a bit of operations-level work.
On the second day, some things improved. The Canadians were largely bogged down in Caen, but the 3rd Infantry managed to engage the enemy, albeit far farther back than we had originally hoped. The 7th Armoured, West of the embankment, was able to attack South, engaging a unit of self-propelled guns, and the other two armoured divisions began to fight their way forward. Our air support became increasingly well-organised, and cooperation between units improved.
At this point we thought the battle was going very badly for us, as we had barely advanced at all. We would late discover that the Germans had placed everything they had in a shallow but extremely dense defence.
On the third day, things got a bit weird.
There was a big success when the 11th Armoured, in a brilliant change to the original plan by their corps commander, broke out to the East, with 3rd Infantry plugging the gap behind them. This attack was eventually halted by fresh panzers.
There was another, as the Guards Armoured broke through East of the Embankment.
There was yet another, as the 7th Armoured and the RAF destroyed massive amounts of enemy armour just South of Caen.
But then… there was Caen… the Canadians, heros of the battle so far, were caught off guard by an SS panzer division appearing in Caen – on the Allied side of the river! At that point, having no idea how deep our armoured divisions had punched, seeing a surprise panzer division on our flank, I was absolutely convinced we had lost the game badly.
The Canadians counterattacked brilliantly, destroying 4 squadrons of Panzers in intense street fighting and bizarrely advancing three brigades onto the ridge, turning the German West flank.. The 7th Armoured, sadly misinformed that they were surrounded, held when they could have attacked. The Guards and the 11th Armoured fell just short of the ridge.
Then, as historically, the battle was halted by torrential rain.
It was only when the German commander spoke that I realised that while it felt like we were taking a beating, it felt that way to the Germans too. Their wide-flanking panzers were in the wrong place to stop our breakthrough either side of the embankment, and unable to take Caen back. But for the rain…
In the final analysis, we did about as well as the British did historically. We destroyed up to twice as many tanks as they did, and probably lost fewer, but just like them we only barely reached the ridge’s edge before the rains began.
Before the game, I thought that it would be about not strategy, but logistics. The most amazing thing was that the game was really about people. People (all of us) made mistakes. People would say they understood an order, but later you would find that they understood it differently to you. Some people preferred to present good news over bad. Some people got bogged down in local fights without heed to the overall plan and had to be urged back onto the attack.
I shouted at people and ordered people about and panicked and punched the air and forgot things and ran headlong about the place trying to work out what the hell was going on. It was exhilarating, brilliant, and utterly exhausting.
I’ll definitely be back for the next one.