The Battle of Midtskogen, 1940
Onside Review by Nick Luft
Recently I attended a “Boardgame Designers Masterclass” hosted by James Wallis. He said at the end of the session that if he wanted us to take away one lesson it was this: if and when you are inspired to design a game, make it immediately. Don’t fret about pretty counters and cards. Get a prototype made and play it and test it. Then you will know it the idea has got something or not. Do it now!
So with that piece of advice in mind I designed a game on Saturday morning and played at CLWG on Saturday afternoon.
My inspiration for the game came after watching a film “The King’s Choice” – currently available on BBC iPlayer. The next morning as I sat at my laptop mulling over the film. I did a bit of research – via Wikipedia – and found this article about the Battle of Midstkogen and immediately thought of a game.
15 Minute Decision Games
About a year ago I started developing an idea for short club games. These games would focus the player’s minds on one difficult, but crucial decision. This style of game requires a very simple setup, ideally a verbal brief, a hand-drawn map, or a photocopy, some dice and a few counters.
I wanted to put these games on at CLWG during the quiet times at a meeting: for example when we are waiting for other players to turn up, or when one of the parallel sessions has finished and is waiting for the other to end. And that they should be played out in 15 minutes.
I have planned several “15 minute decision games”, and only put one on – “Remember, Kill Chain“.
The Battle of Midtskogen
My inspiration for Midtskogen game fitted perfectly with my 15 Minute Decision Game format. The battle lasted a couple of hours, it involved only 200 men in total, it was crucial and just a few decisions to take.
In my research I found this excellent map – which I suspect is taken from a Norwegian history of the Norwegian resistance against the German invasion of Norway, April 1940.
Aim of the Game
I wanted to put the player into the shoes of the Norwegian commander. The commander was inexperienced and had never been in combat. The situation was desperate and the time scales tight. Very little planning time would be available to the commander.
As the Game Controller I would represent a senior Norwegian Army officer. I would issue a verbal briefing, layout a map and hand over the game tokens and then ask “any questions” and then disappear off down the road in my staff car.
The King had left Oslo on the 9th April, the same day that the Germans attempted take Oslo and capture him and his Cabinet. He had met the Cabinet and some of the Norwegian Parliament in Hamar that afternoon but had received news that the Nazis was on the road trying to capture him. So he and his household and the Cabinet left in haste.
Colonel Otto Ruge, The Inspector General of the Norwegian Infantry, gathered a group of soldiers and armed citizens and ordered them to setup two roadblocks to ensure that the King and his Cabinet could escape the pursuing Nazis.
In the film a lot is made of the King passing through the troops setting up the roadblock and how this impressed the men with the importance of their mission. The viewer is impressed by the young age of the soldiers and their utter lack of experience.
Making the Game
I hand wrote some notes from the Wikipedia site which gave me commanders names, orbat, weapons etc. This was to be used in my verbal briefing. I then traced the map off my laptop screen on a sheet of lined A5 notepad, I used some teacher’s coloured biros to colour in the map to go over my pencil lines. I dug out my bags of counters, pawns and dice and then dropped it all in a bag and left for the train to the meeting.
On the train I hastily wrote some rules to govern the firefight. Historically the firefight was very ineffectual, with only 5 Germans being killed and no Norwegians killed, a few being wounded – this out of a total of about 250 individuals engaged. My rules were mostly to check if the Norwegians would open fire before they were ordered to or before any trigger event. I also wrote rules to test what green troops would do under fire – which is mostly going to cover or ground and firing back ineffectively. If the Norwegians stayed too long the heavier German fire cover a German advance, probably a flank attack, and would drive the Norwegians away.
How the game went (Part 1)
I got two volunteers: Terry (playing the regular Norwegian Major left behind in command), and Andy Hadley, playing the local bigwig, a farmer, and sport’s organiser, who was leading the local armed farmers and hunters.
After a quick discussion they came up with a plan and started to organise the road block. They used a farm tractor to drag farm machinery, hay, old fence posts etc onto the bridge and poured petrol all over it (two red counters). As they did this the armed citizens (green pawns) sloped off into the woods to form a rough firing line and scouts. The regular soldiers (yellow pawns) used felled trees and wood to make revetements dug into the snow for their two machine guns (black pawns) protected by two sections of the Norwegian Guards (red pawns). So they were all nicely placed to be about 100 metres from the road block and to have a good killing zone just before it.
They then found that all the traffic on the road – there were a lot of refugees in cars on the road that day – were caught before the road block and eventually had to abandon their cars and move on foot. This eventually formed a 100 metre line (white counters) of abandoned cars before the road block. This is exactly what happened in the real event. This meant that the actual killing zone that had been neatly ranged-in and cleared, was littered with abandoned cars and the Germans would have to debus near to the bend in the road probably out of sight. And as the roadblock was a petrol soaked heap of rubbish there was no way to move it.
In a final thought Terry also decided to place a pile of petrol soaked hay behind his troops (the single red counter). This was to be his signal for the retreat when lit.
I took a photo of the setup, put the pieces away and said I would complete the next game with a player who had not watched it being setup.
I was tempted to run the game with Terry and Andy just watching their plan unfold and I was going to follow the German plan as it had unfolded. But I thought it would be more fun to get another player to play against it later on. Somewhat inspired by Andy Hadley’s 1759 game a few weeks ago.
How the game went (Part 2)
At the start of the Sunday session, we were waiting for some players to turn up and I asked Terry if I could run part 2 – The German side of the Hill – of the game. Tom was my volunteer Nazis, Hauptmann Eberhard Spiller, the Military Attache at the German embassy in Oslo. He was perhaps one of the most senior officers left in Oslo after the Heavy Cruiser Blücher was sunk trying to land elements of an Infantry Division. The only other German soldiers in Oslo had been landed by plane and parachute.
Tom’s game was a lot more hands on, with a lot more decisions to take. Terry was also watching and I got him to answer a couple of questions and roll the dice for the Norwegians. Terry’s plan was mostly static, with trigger orders as he knew he would not be able to control his dispersed units very well or manoeuvre under fire with such inexperienced soldiers.
Tom competently pointed out that chasing down the road with a few buses and cars and only 120 fallschirmjager was not a great idea as the Norwegians would soon organise a road block. But he gamely got into role as a devout Nazis attempting to win the biggest prize of the campaign – the capture of Haakon VII – and obtain Fuehrer’s notice.
So at about 02:00 on the 10th April, Tom’s well organised convoy shuddered to a halt around the bend, stopped by the line of abandoned cars. Tom deployed a fallschirmjager platoon to search the nearby village for francs-tireurs. He found women, children and old men and soon found a use for them trying to push the cars of the road. He then deployed two platoons of fallschirmjager one to either side of the road into the woods. The left flank soon ran into fire from the armed farmers and hunters and were soon in an ineffective firefight in the dark. He reinforced this platoon with his fourth and last platoon. The platoon on the right flank pressed through the wood and towards the river and as soon as they debouched from wood and crossed the frozen stream they came under fire from the guards. Both machine guns were frozen and didn’t work (historic occurrence). Tom then sent his first platoon from the village – minus a section to watch the civilians – to reinforce the right flank and there was soon a lot of firing on all the flanks. On the left flank the Norwegian armed civilians withdrew when outflanked by the reinforcing platoon.
Eventually the fallschirmjager platoons on either flank were pushing over the river, firing at the farm and the machine guns and in doing so, they set the barn on fire with the tracer rounds (historic occurrence) and this put the Norwegians at a great disadvantage as it both illuminated their position and made it hard for them to see into the darkness around them. At this point the Germans on the left flank had surrounded the farm with the machine gun in it and it looked grim for the occupants there.
At this point we halted the game and had a quick discussion. We all reckoned the Norwegians in the farm would surrender, though would the Nazis accept it, after all they had encountered only armed civilians thus far. The Norwegians in the wood on the right flank of the Germans would successfully withdraw to the next roadblock 1.5 km down the round and join the 30 men Terry had ordered there earlier in the day. The Germans could spend time pushing the cars off the road and removing the roadblocks, but their surprise and initiative had been blocked.
Tom did better than his counterparts, partly because the Norwegians did not post their men along the tree line on the German’s right flank and pour rifle fire into the fallschirmjager as they moved along the open snowy slopes around the roadblock. By moving through the woods, the Germans were able to winkle out the opposition and take advantage of the close range firing with their sub-machine guns and grenades. They probably inflicted more casualties this way but it would have taken a lot more time to do it.
From the Norwegian perspective they had held up the German advance for longer before they withdrew. They just lost more men captured and as casualties.
I think I need to work on the game format to make the game run faster without requiring heavy input from the umpire. I was mostly free kriegsspieling the combat. Free kriegsspieling does have its advantages as it is rapid and flexible but it does require the full intervention control and acceptance by the players, and sometimes discussions about rulings.
My initial intention was to run this as a consequences game. The Norwegians would make their plan and then I would run the German side using their historic disposition and known reactions. But I decided to run it as a game for the German player to play against the Norwegian player plan. To do this I had planned to have a back to back map format. I didn’t do this as I think it would have taken too much time and I was wanting a 15 minute game and such a style of game would slow the game down and reduce player involvement.
I think that the short game format has a niche place in CLWG meetings. I will now dig out from my folders the other 15 Minute Decision games I planned over the last few years.
Overall I think I now agree wholeheartedly with James’ lesson – if you get an idea, go straight to prototype and test it. You discover a lot more about the scenario and the game in doing this.
There’s an interesting idea about these sort of rapid defence/encounter type battles where you set both sides off planning at the same time, and then execute whichever plan gets made first, allowing a little for time and space. Making the player speed of decision an important factor. Like getting in the other side’s OODA loop (which you can in real life, but almost never in a turn based game).
That’s a good idea. It was not my intention to make it a race to get the plan made and executed first. But I think it is giving me an idea for another quick fire game. Thanks, James.