Ukraine 2023: Fort Leavenworth’s Tactical Game of the Ukraine War


Having played the game a number of times with various
audiences, I would say it demonstrated hobby wargamers were routinely better
than military professionals in terms of tactics at the company level battle.

The rules were written at Fort Leavenworth, one of the homes
of the American Army. First written in 2020 for a US v Russian battle in
eastern Europe, the hit probabilities were considerably edited in the light of
watching lots of YouTube videos about the actual Ukraine War in 2022. Russian
units were downgraded considerably in the light of actual war.

The rules were for a 6mm scale Russian coy in a hasty attack
against a standard Ukrainian ad hoc platoon in a hasty defensive position. The
game system is ‘you go, I go’ turn sequence, but with overwatch fire. Roll to
hit, roll to save in cover. The key innovation, apart from using actual combat
data, was if either side moved off its plan, they pause and roll a dice to see
if they can change the plan. If not, they just roll again next turn. This means
good pre-game orders are crucial and sometimes the battle just stops as the
Russians encounter an unexpected obstacle. The Russian advances stops for a
random amount of time as the commanders consult and make a new plan. All very

The Russian company had 10 BMPs, 4 tanks, a ZSU, a truck
with military police and another with a section of engineers. The Russian
method of organising everything into battalion tactical groups means every sub
formation has a bit of the support troops. NATO trained armies just allocate
support as needed. Although the Russians had practically unlimited fire support,
it had to be all pre-planned like something out of WWI.

The first problem was the professional wargamers largely did
not know what the Russian tactics from the Cold War actually were. They have
focussed on real world COIN for 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, so were a bit
perplexed. The second problem was the professional wargamers largely did not
know how to manage an ad-hoc Ukrainian platoon, so were unclear what to do with
just 2 tanks, 2 BMPs, 1 dismounted saggar, some infantry, a couple of trucks
plus some random obstacles (trees cut down). They had no drones, no mines, no
wire, and artillery support availability was random depending on mobile phone
reception. Hobby wargamers are quite used to operating with whatever toys come
out of the box and improvise.

The result of the battle was the same in every game. The
Russians took lots of casualties, but advanced 5 km over 2 to 3 hours, and the
Ukrainians lost stuff during the fighting withdrawal. Most wargamers are too
aggressive running a fighting retreat; in real war, a fighting retreat consists
of a few ambushes, then a hasty withdrawal to the next position. Keeping the
unit in being is a critical part of the defensive mission. 

The actual war has demonstrated that analysts underestimated
the importance of morale. Tank combat is using a crew served weapon system. To
win the battle requires a tank to position itself in harms way, observe, locate
the enemy, prioritise, aim and fire. The longer a tank takes to do this the
more chance it stands of getting a first-round kill, but the downside is the
longer a tank takes to do this, the more chance of the enemy getting the first
shot in. After firing, it takes a few moments after the dust, shock, flash and
smoke to re-aim and fire a 2nd and subsequent rounds. Staying put
and firing again increases the chances of obtaining a kill, but firing
increases the chance of the enemy identifying you as an active threat and
sending a missile towards you. Therefore, effective tank combat requires high
morale for the crew to put themselves at risk in order to kill the enemy.
Ukrainians tanks in these rules fire twice as often as Russian tanks, as the
Ukrainians were more willing to take risks to fire effectively.

I commenced by saying hobby wargamers were better than
military professionals at tactics, but this does not mean one could drop a
hobby wargamer into commanding a troop of tanks in combat. Leadership in war is
not just about tactics, but includes leadership, morale in the face of death,
actually making the tank move and shoot, etc. Tactics are only a part of the
professional warrior’s job description. However, based on the sample of people
who have played my modern wargames over several decades, it suggests that
professional warriors need to spend more time on the tactics of warfighting.
This includes a deep understanding of how the Russians currently fight. Of
course, how you fit that into the new British Army’s social calendar and ethos
is an interesting topic of conversation.

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Autor: John Curry Editor History of Wargaming Project / History of Wargaming Project