What if World War III Broke Out in Europe? It’s the greatest war that never happened. What if the Cold War had turned hot, and the Warsaw Pact had invaded Western Europe?
By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO had become a formidable force, with a new generation of equipment like the M-1 Abrams tank and M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, as well as new doctrine such as the U.S. Army’s Air-Land Battle. But in the 1970s and early 1980s, the situation was more dangerous, with older equipment – M60 tanks and M113 armored personnel carriers – potentially facing off against Soviet T-80 tanks and BMP-1 troop carriers.
Combat Mission: Cold War
Combat Mission: Cold War, from developer Battlefront, is a computer wargame that simulates World War III in Europe at the tactical level. Combat Mission belongs to that class of wargames preferred by players who are willing to accept complexity in return for realism: with a 128-page manual, it’s not for the faint-hearted, though the game is quite playable once you spend some time with it.
But the game is good enough that a sister version—Combat Mission Professional—is specifically designed to be used by real soldiers for training and experimentation; part of a growing trend toward using commercial hobby games for military education. Spend some time with the Combat Mission series—which includes games set in World War II as well as post-1945 conflicts—and you’ll see why the real military finds these games useful.
It’s certainly not because of the visuals: to say the game is graphically retro is an understatement: the blocky 3-D tanks and trees are functional enough—you can tell an M-60 tank from a T-62—but the game almost looks like a time warp to 2003.
If what appeals to you is the eye candy of games like Call of Duty, look elsewhere. If you want to understand how and why battles might have been fought during the later Cold War—or even today— CM: Cold War is your ticket.
Turning the Cold War hot
CM: Cold War consists of battalion-sized battles, as well as campaigns where you command a force through a series of battles, in Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The opposing forces comprise individual tanks and vehicles, as well as infantry fire teams and support weapons. The arena of combat is a 3-D section of terrain where you can zoom down to eye level, or hover above for a god-like view.
CM: Cold War can be described as less about controlling troops and more about managing chaos. The game can be played in continuous real-time, or in turn-based mode where the action pauses every minute for the player to issue orders. Rather than a system where players alternate turns like chess, Combat Mission is a We-Go system where you or your opponent (human or computer) issue orders and then simultaneously execute them.
There are more than a dozen possible commands to issue, including move or fire orders, as well as others that are a bit more advanced like targeting a specific arc of fire, instructing vehicles to assume a hull-down position, popping smoke, or calling in artillery. Giving orders is straightforward: for example, setting movement means clicking on the destination or a series of waypoints, while you can always click on the map to determine whether your troops have line-of-sight—and whether the enemy has LOS on you.
Perhaps a little too real for some
An easy way to judge whether a game is meant to be a serious simulation of warfare is the inclusion of rules for command and control. In most war-themed games, troops obediently carry out orders like robots, which is neither realistic nor desirable in real armies. In Combat Mission, a player’s force has a chain of command, with units in contact with their immediate HQs, which in turn must connect with successively higher HQs. If the chain is broken, then units are considered isolated: this disrupts passing spotting reports, so just because one unit can see an enemy tank doesn’t mean other units can. Broken command links also make it more difficult to call artillery and airstrikes, and units out of command are more likely to break under fire.
Most important is that units in Combat Mission have a mind of their own. They’ll obey your orders…up to a point. It’s worth quoting the game manual here:
“There are many situations – usually under heavy enemy fire – in which soldiers may simply refuse to execute a Command you have given them, or may replace it with what they consider more suitable. For example, you may give a unit a Fast Move Command only to see it changed instantly to a Slow Move Command because the soldiers feel hugging the ground is the better way to stay alive. Units with or without orders will also usually initiate evasive action on their own in the face of extreme danger – for infantry this may including crawling to cover, for vehicles it could mean popping smoke, rotating to face the threat and retreating away from threats. This can happen if you ordered it or not, if you want it or not, as the unit is simply concerned about its own survival at that moment.”
The practical effect is that the best-laid plans go awry. An American platoon being overrun by a company of Soviet T-72 tanks is going to retreat. A Soviet company disrupted by American fire is going to take cover, even if you order them to advance. This is frustrating for armchair generals who aspire to omnipotence, but it’s also the chaos that’s been over every battlefield from Cannae to Omaha Beach.
For those who are interested in the effects of modern weapons, you can experiment with what range an M60 should engage a T-62, or why it’s a good idea to keep hills or trees between your tanks and enemy anti-tank guided missiles. But Combat Mission: Cold War teaches that what matters most isn’t devising clever plans, but rather, how you cope when your plans go wrong.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in The National Interest, 1945, Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.