I Invaded Grenada in ‘The Operational Art of War IV’

Gamers have their pick of 20th century battles in TrickeySoft's 2017 sim

I Invaded Grenada in ‘The Operational Art of War IV’ I Invaded Grenada in ‘The Operational Art of War IV’
It was one of the most lopsided scenarios I could pick. It was 1983 and the military government of Hudson Austin had only a... I Invaded Grenada in ‘The Operational Art of War IV’

It was one of the most lopsided scenarios I could pick. It was 1983 and the military government of Hudson Austin had only a token force of Grenadian troops and Cuban advisers facing down my incoming force of U.S. Marines, Rangers, SEAL teams and a follow-on Caribbean peacekeeping contingent — all backed by the U.S. Air Force.

Within a few turns, it was over. The Rangers seized Port Salines and rescued the trapped American students — an important scenario objective. My Rangers and Marines contained the demoralized Grenadian army in the central hills and then overran them. From my perspective, the invasion simply involved moving square boxes around on a map.

This is The Operational Art of War IV — or TOAW IV — a computer game released in November 2017 by developer TrickeySoft, and a follow-up to Norm Koger’s 2006 cult predecessor. The series goes back to the 1990s.

TOAW IV is somewhat unusual because of its perspective. See, most war games exist on a spectrum of three “levels” — tactics, operations and strategy. Military theorists, thanks to a certain Prussian general who wrote very thick books in the 19th century, also conceptualize warfare along these levels.

Most war games are tactical games, like the Call of Duty or Combat Mission series, where the player is directly on the battlefield shooting at the enemy. The mission could be to take a building, steal the documents or clear a trench. Strategic games such as the Hearts of Iron series involving an entire country’s resources do not involve tactics at all beyond representing them as abstract values to be crunched automatically by the computer.

The operational level is in the middle. And because it’s in the middle, war games may partially include it. Hearts of Iron, for instance, includes strategy and operations.

Egypt and Israel face off at the beginning of the Six-Day War. TrickeySoft capture

The Operational Art of War IV purely concerns operations and at greater detail than perhaps any other. The player moves divisions, regiments and battalions represented by square icons on maps overlaid by hexagonal grids — like a board game — taking turns with the enemy. Terrain, weather and supply are all important factors in determining whether you can advance or bog down in mud and slime.

But what TOAW IV really offers is one of the most interesting simulations of this level of land warfare on the market — for two specific reasons.

Instead of focusing on a specific campaign or conflict, the TOAW series’ scale covers the 20th century generally, with the bulk of the scenarios taking place during the World Wars.

This means TOAW IV also includes obscure and undercovered conflicts including the the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the 1995 Russian invasion of Chechnya, the Yugoslav civil wars and hypothetical ones — such as World War III in Europe and a fictional 1962 American invasion of Cuba … with a slightly stronger Soviet presence on the island to even the odds a bit.

The Cuban and Soviet player won’t hold off the Americans completely, but a skilled player could bog the invaders down in the Sierra Maestra. When I invaded Grenada, the forces of Hudson Austin were not so lucky.

I’m not aware of many games with this kind of scope, but TOAW IV is hyper-focused on powering these operational-level scenarios. And the same basic military logic applies to land warfare in the 1960s as it does to the 1940s. Go too far back, such as into the 19th century, and the engine doesn’t model it correctly. Move ahead into the 21st century, and you’d be better off with a game like Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations, which can handle Russian Kalibr cruise missiles launched at Syria from the Caspian Sea.

But TOAW IV handles the 20th century well, for the most part.

The second reason TOAW IV is interesting is because of mechanics — the mechanics of time.

Battles are won and lost because of tempo and being able to control it. However, most war games where both sides take turns have a simplified and incoherent approach to modeling time.

Take a moment to imagine one of these generic war games. Take a player who, during his or her turn, sends a battalion to attack another. The computer then crunches the numbers and resolves the battle.

In this hypothetical example, say the player wins the battle, and the winning battalion automatically moves to occupy the space of the defeated enemy. The friendly battalion is now out of “points” and can no longer move or attack that turn. Also — each turn is the equivalent of one day.

Makes sense.

The Eastern Front during World War I. TrickeySoft capture

But let’s say the player then selects a second battalion, and moves or attacks — even into the now-vacated position or beyond it to put further pressure on the enemy. Rinse and repeat this process for every battalion in the player’s army until the turn is complete.

It’s hard to notice at first glance, but there’s a conceptual problem here.

How long did it take for the original battle to last? It could have — in reality — stretched into the afternoon or evening. But in the game, the second battalion still has its maximum “points” to spend moving and fighting after the first battle is complete.

The result is a situation where a battle could last most of the day, and then in the final three hours, a fresh unit exploits a gap and manages to conduct, say, 12 hours worth of driving time into enemy territory. Most operational-level games allow this, and it flat-out doesn’t make any sense.

TOAW IV‘s answer is complicated and takes a while to understand, but it makes for a better system.

Each turn is divided into 10 rounds. Order a battalion to expend 10 rounds worth of movement, and it can’t attack. Order a unit to attack, and a box appears with the expected duration of the fighting given the enemy’s strength — though the battle could take longer, depending on the enemy’s willingness to fight or eagerness to retreat.

And instead of resolving the battle immediately, TOAW IV allows the player to plan every battle during their turn in advance before resolving them all at once. Plan five rounds worth of fighting across the front and hit the “resolve” button, and you still have five rounds worth of moving and fighting remaining in your turn for all of those units.

This is the extremely simplified explanation — and I still haven’t fully grasped the mechanics. But going on a 12-hour drive in three hours isn’t possible in this game world. The Operational Art of War IV makes you plan your rounds wisely. Which is why I picked Grenada, with its minimal resistance, as my first scenario.

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