What Can We Learn From Combat Mission: Black Sea?

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by friend of the podcast, Savage, the man behind the War Takes twitter.)

Any casual student of military wargaming will know that the use of commercial wargames – whether off-the-shelf or specially modified – by militaries across the globe is nothing new. The United States and its allies use a variety of computer games with varying focuses and levels of detail for the purposes of training, professional military education, or even experimentation. Even then, not many games make the cut to be utilized by the military, and those that do usually end up being modified in some shape or form to meet the military’s specific requirements.

However, if there was ever a game that seemed to be ready for the military’s purposes right out of the box, with little or no tweaking required, it would be Combat Mission: Black Sea by Battlefront.com. The most modern entry – in terms of setting – in the Combat Mission series, CMBS revolves around an escalation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that leads to full-scale open war and the intervention of the United States – a scenario that is timely given the recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine that lead to a war scare.

I’ve played my fair share of wargames over the years – though I’m still a dilletante compared to many experts I know, and I certainly can’t say I’m any good at all of them. CMBS is one of those games that feels like it was made for the military first and then released to the public, not the other way around. I admittedly have never served a day in uniform, my role in national security being purely as a civilian. But CMBS certainly feels hard enough to be the real thing based on how badly I botched my first mission after completing the game’s basic training mode.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes CMBS realistic. Realistic isn’t even the right term to use. No computer wargame is ever going to be able to 100% realistically simulate the conditions of combat – nothing can match that. But what CMBS does do is simulate the conditions of combat in a way that feels believable to the player. It gets across the key elements of modern combined-arms warfare at the low-tactical level that is still very useful for training leaders or even for experimenting to contribute towards developing new approaches, methods, and capabilities.

What makes CMBS believable? I could write you a book rather than an article on that topic alone, but I can offer you a list of some highlights. For one, it demonstrates how fragile humans can be in high-intensity combat. So many video games – even some of the more serious wargames – tend to allow your soldiers to soak up a fair amount of punishment before their effectiveness suffers – let alone they die. In CMBS, it doesn’t take a lot for your soldiers to get stressed and lose cohesion or retreat. Aside from mental limits, your soldiers are just flesh and therefore are “squishier” than in many games. If you try to charge an infantry squad across open ground to attach a prepared defensive position, chances are they’ll not make it very far before they’re cut to ribbons – especially if the enemy has heavy weapons or vehicles their disposal.

That’s another factor that demonstrates CMBS usefulness is the way it treats heavier duty weapons. It treats them as the key to infantry combat that they are. Most of the time, it won’t be an infantryman’s personal weapon that will be dealing the most damage to the enemy; it’ll be heavy weapons like machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, missile launchers, and vehicle-based weapons like autocannons and tank canons. While many games certainly represent this as well, they still often tend to tone back the sheer destructive power of the heavy weapons in the name of balance and fairness. CMBS does no such thing, letting them reach their full destructive potential in how they can reduce things – both living and inanimate – to ruins in short order.

This is not to say that infantry is useless in CMBS, however. Far from it. And this is another way in which CMBS shows its utility as a military tool, in that it shows how important it is to use infantry in conjunction with heavy vehicles and weapons – despite being “squishy.” I found this out the hard way in the middle of a mission when I got too cocky after destroying a Russian tank platoon and pushed my own tank platoon out a little too far. What I got for my daring maneuver was the loss of one of my tanks to a guided anti-tank missile launched from a nearby house – something I would have been able to spot and either destroy or suppress if I had thought to move up one of my infantry squads through the houses parallel to my tanks as they advanced. Heavy weapons may be effective, but they are not invincible nor are they all seeing. CMBS drives home the importance of true combined arms warfare, making use of infantry, armor, and off-map artillery and air support to destroy your enemy. Favor one too much and neglect all the others and you’ll likely not have much success or you’ll buy it at great cost to your own forces.

The focus on combined arms warfare between peer or near-peer powers is another reason why CMBS is believable as a military tool. In an era where conventional wars between great powers are once again a possibility the United States and its allies find themselves having to prepare for, CMBS’ scenario revolving around a conventional war with Russia to help defend Ukraine is apt. The United States military now has an entire generation of officers who have spent their entire careers fighting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales. Now these same leaders have to learn to fight a completely different war to the one they’ve been fighting, with the military as a whole having to regear back to what its original focus was before 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. With its main setting being a war against a well-trained, well-equipped, near-peer adversary, CMBS definitely has a potential use in helping to teach both new leaders and veteran ones to appreciate the difficulties and consequences of fighting against another modern army as opposed to a lightly armed and equipped irregular force.

Combat Mission Shock Force 2, sister game to Black Sea, sees American forces fight irregular units in a hypothetical war in Syria.

Now, is CMBS perfect? Absolutely not. I know I keep asking myself why I can’t run it on its highest graphical settings without it chugging despite the fact that I have a 1080 GTX graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM, but that’s a different gripe. No wargame is perfect, whether it be CMBS, or one of the other games utilized by the U.S. military and allied forces – such as Virtual Battle Space or Command: Professional Edition (the government and military-only versions of ArmA and Command: Modern Operations respectively). This is just as well though, as wargames can’t solve all the military’s problems anyway – something that any wargaming expert will be quick to tell you and anyone who can listen. What wargames are meant to do more than anything else get their participants thinking about problems that they face in modern combat and how to deal with them, rather than give them clear and actionable paths to success.

If that is the goal, then CMBS clearly could be useful in that regard. It’s no surprise to me that the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began using one of the Combat Mission games – along with several other popular commercial wargames – for research and experimentation. CMBS certainly has the right elements to make it a useful tool in a larger toolbox of games and software to approach pressing questions about the nature of warfighting going into the future. Whether is experimenting, or training or even retraining leaders on the nature of high-intensity combat, CMBS definitely is robust enough to be considered an aid for dealing with the thorny questions of conflict in the modern day and near future.

For more of Savage’s thoughts, be sure to follow him on his main twitter here.

Combat Mission Fight Club: How Digital Wargaming is Going Pro

Fight Club! Those two words generally evoke images of men fighting in basements, edgy tautologies about society, and the reminder to not talk about Fight Club. However, to us in the Wargaming world, there is a different Fight Club, this one uses games as a training tool, specifically for British Army small-to-mid unit tactics.

Joe and I were fortunate to be invited to a virtual Fight Club briefing a few weeks ago, where the Fight Club team pitched the concept of using games (specifically Combat Mission: Shock Force 2) to other British Army professionals. There were a couple other gaming journalists present, as well as some Slitherine devs, but overall the presentation was geared more towards military folks, not us gaming types. Regardless, it was a rewarding experience in that we got a peek into how CMSF2 could be used as a training tool for a modern, professional army.

Combat Mission: Black Sea, the sister game to Shock Force 2.

PART ONE: WHY COMBAT MISSION SHOCK FORCE 2?

Combat Mission, for the uninitiated, is a realistic turn-based or real-time wargame, where players command units from squad (or in Brit-speak, “section”)-sized elements to a medium-sized regiment. Every soldier on the field is modeled in terms of their gear, line of sight, and morale, and bullet paths are modeled as well, making the game a great choice for modeling real conflicts, or as we see here, training for real conflicts.

Fight Club primarily uses a special, “Professional” edition of Combat Mission, this has miscellaneous extra bits and bobs to it that make it more fitting to the needs of a professional service. And fitting it is! While a unit will need to cover the costs of hardware to run the game (Combat Mission runs on potatoes plugged into a wall, so expensive hardware isn’t necessary), Fight Club offers units that sign up for the program a few free licenses for the game. This makes running a training of CMSF2 much more cost efficient than live exercises, which could involve, among other things, Real Ammo™, Real Guns™, Real Food™, etc. These costs can add up, and units do have a budget.

All of this to say that CMSF2 is pretty affordable, but it’s also extremely modular. The base game comes with plenty of realistic scenarios already and a robust custom scenario creator, but Fight Club provides member units with mods to better match the real participating units’ OOB, complete with mods to slap correct unit insignia on troops and vehicles for, as the organizers put it, “unit pride.” The map variety is also good in base CMSF2, but Fight Club has a special tool that lets them scan in actual maps they have for use in-game. Neat! Don’t suppose us gamers can ask for a Google Earth mapping tool, can we?

American troops prepare to assault a village in Shock Force 2.

PART TWO: HOW TO LEARN WARFIGHTING FROM VIDEO GAMES

Those mods of maps and units act as a training supplement along with the other forms of training exercises for the British Army, live exercises (with or without live-fire), as well as classroom sessions. According to Fight Club, one effective use of the Combat Mission license is to take a map of a training area, place it in the game, and run games with BLUFOR and REDFOR in Combat Mission prior to the live exercise, to highlight potential outcomes and scenarios that could arise in real training/combat.

As Combat Mission has various scales of mission sizes, Fight Club recommends junior leaders taking charge of near-equivalent sized elements to their real commands to get a feel for how they’d react to the situation in combat. Ideally, these leaders would filter order through game “Controllers”, who would be a staff member that’s familiar with the systems of the game and knows how to get units from A to B on the map. The game can be projected onto a screen for multiple troops to view and make suggestions on as the game runs.

There are a couple schools of thought in Fight Club on whether the game should be run in turn-based mode, where both controllers give commands and units execute orders in 60 second intervals, to give participants time to think and discuss possible tactics to take, or in real-time, to simulate the decision-making stress of combat. Both have their merits, and what makes the most sense for a training varies from unit-to-unit and training-to-training.

And though Combat Mission is a game and can act as somewhat of an icebreaker/ “fun” activity, it is treated as a full, serious part of the training cycle. Gamedays are precluded with briefings of the scenarios the units will be playing, complete with recce of the maps, like an actual, real life mission would require. After the conclusion of the match, there are also substantial debriefings that go through what went well, and what didn’t go well in the mission (they also noted that pointing out a player’s missteps by identifying them specifically is a bad idea, which is something any of us co-op gamers know too well). This allows the unit to learn from their digital experience in the same manner they might through training.

An IFV lays down cover fire in Shock Force 2.

COMBAT MISSION: THE FIGHTING MAN’S THINKING GAME

Fight Club impressed us with how they’ve integrated Combat Mission into their training routine, and the organizers were all very gung ho about how it had helped their units’ readiness; this definitely isn’t just a scam to let a bunch of folks play games on the clock. The team talked about future implementations of the game and future mods, with a nod toward a “Russia and Ukraine focus,” the talk occurring at the time of the Russian mobilizations a few weeks ago, the team on the ball for countering future potential opponents.

Joe and I both left remarking about how interesting it is to see something we play for fun used in an applicable manner, especially a digital game, which are so frequently dismissed as the realm of utter nerds… which, to be fair, we are. But, it’s clear that digital wargaming is taking its place next to tabletop wargaming as a valuable teaching tool not just for armchair generals, but for professional militaries as well. Consider us to be watching Fight Club with keen interest in the future, to see what other games- er, training materials, they have up their sleeves.

-Jack Trumbull